My Airbnb is a pile of rubble. I double-check the address and get the same answer. A passer-by asks me in clean English if I’m lost, and she eventually tells me, yes, this is the right address, but all I hear is: you’ve booked yourself a week’s stay in a pile of rubble.
My back aches and my legs ache and this sweet passer-by looks at me so innocently. Don’t panic, I tell myself, don’t panic. Except I’m accidentally speaking out loud and the stranger begins to copy me, mantra-like. She doesn’t realise she isn’t helping. It’s like trying to stop a car alarm by pounding on the door.
The passer-by escorts me down the street to a local kōban, where I show my confirmation slip to the policeman. He shakes his head. My guts turn to ice and the ice melts into the toes of my tights. While the policeman speaks his hat bobs up and down. He has a series of moles on his forehead that look like coffee stains. They hide beneath his matted-down hair, peek out, go into hiding again. I realise I haven’t understood a word he’s said.
When I step outside, the kind stranger has gone. I walk quickly, and then jog, towards where she was headed before she stopped to help me. I try to hold the image of her face in my mind but it’s underexposed. How old was she, even? It doesn’t matter. I feel incredibly alone. I feel it physically, a wave of fatigue that pulls all my muscles in the wrong direction. I’m out of breath, and the stranger is gone.
I stop outside a 7-Eleven. I sit on my suitcase, leaning against the wall of the store, and leech the free Wi-Fi. The first thing I do is shoot a message to Kaito. We weren’t going to catch up until tomorrow, but he’s the only person I know in Osaka. He was the one who suggested I try Airbnb, after all.
The apartment has disappeared from the site, which is no surprise. I cancel my trip before it can charge my card and I try to google the host on my booking receipt, but it’s the most generic Japanese name ever. I feel like an idiot.
Reflexively I open Gmail, even though I don’t really want to. At the top of the mountain is a new email from Alois. Subject: more photos. His wife is probably bcc’d, too. Hey sis, hope your trip is going good blah blah. Jimmi is two months old tomorrow, so thought I’d send you some new snaps, no reason, not trying to make you feel bad or anything. Look at him! Please gaze upon my child! Just do it already c’mon why haven’t you come to see him yet you’re so—
Blah blah. Mark as unread.
I don’t have the headspace for another crosscontinent passive-aggressive shit fight. I’m tired of apologising. I need to keep my mind busy. I go inside the 7-Eleven to grab some things but when I get to the counter I realise I’m out of cash, and I fumble and say sorry in English. I beg an ATM across the street. It yields. So, I’m not totally broke, not just yet.
I pull a scarf around me and sit outside again. I gorge on ¥80 custard buns. A family passes by and the little girl fixes her stare on me. I wonder if she’s jealous, or horrified. She waves. By the time I’ve decided to wave back, she’s gone.
Kaito’s flat is bigger than any I’ve stayed in so far. It’s still a studio apartment in Western terms, but you can stand between the bed and the fridge without touching either. Every inch of free wall space is pasted up with photographs – mostly his, I think, but also those from friends and strangers. Photos of places I doubt he’s ever been to. Above the bathroom door I find a photo I’d taken years ago, of the dingy flyscreen that covered an ex’s bedroom window. The sun behind it is indigo. Kaito sees me looking at it.
‘You still have mine up?’
‘Oh, of course.’ I’d lost it in one of the moves between houses. I smile and look away, but perhaps in the wrong order.
‘We can go there before you leave,’ he says. I try to remember the photo. Osaka Harbour at sunrise, or maybe sunset, long exposure, the yellow-blue lights of a train passing in the background.
I say sure, noncommittally, though I’m not certain he picks up on the subtlety. I shouldn’t judge – his English is light-years beyond my Japanese. It’s been close to a month and I’m still struggling to buy dinner without accidentally ordering a plate of meat.
When Kaito goes to use the bathroom, I start snooping. His kitchen is overly tidy, but the fridge understocked. There’s American basketball paraphernalia all over the window ledge, and a miniature toy hoop above the front door. I spy a spare futon in the closet. In the wardrobe, there are only men’s clothes, and I realise I don’t know if he’s still with that girl. What was her name? All I can recall is how she looked in the dusk, squatting awkwardly on an upturned crate. I liked her. She borrowed one of my pairs of swimmers when we all went to the beach, and then I never saw her again. I scan the walls for her face, but she’s nowhere to be found. Yumi? Yuki? Something like that. I was hoping she was still around. I hear the toilet flush.
I handle my phone as if I’m just wasting time, looking over travel photos. Kaito comes out and notices the plastic bag at my feet. It’s full of cans.
‘Do you want to use the fridge?’
‘Oh, yeah, no, it’s fine,’ I take out the cans of cocktail mix and line them up on what I think is the kitchen table, though it might be the nightstand. ‘I guess I got these as an early thank you. You’re a lifesaver, really.’
There’s Grapefruit, Lemon, some kind of Melon, Blood Orange. Each can says STRONG in black capital letters. It occurs to me that I don’t know what he drinks, or if he even drinks, or if I should have bought chocolate instead, or if I could even pick him out in a crowded room, or a line-up.
‘Sorry, I should have asked what you like.’
‘No, no, this is good.’ He lingers for a moment, picks up the Lemon and nods, but I can tell it’s a fake nod, like the nod a doctor would give while listening to a hypochondriac. I take a can and wait for him to put the other two into the fridge. ‘You can sleep wherever you like, by the way. Let’s go to the roof,’ and he turns around, unlocks the front door, ascends. I follow.
I lean against a miserable-looking spa bath with a piece of canvas pulled over the top, grime making a home in the creases. The sky is unusually dark for the afternoon. He sips at the can like it’s a substitute for small talk. Small sips: sip sip. I sip, too. Even though I’ve been drinking these wherever I go, today the Grapefruit tastes tinny.
‘So,’ I say, without anything to follow up with. I pull the tab all the way off my can, like I used to do in high school when we were saving them all up for kids in some African country. I’m not sure what they were going to do with them.
‘So, how was work?’
Kaito scratches his fuzzy chin. When do boys stop growing? His hair is clipped neatly and his face looks remarkably different from when he visited Australia, and that was, what, two years ago? Three?
‘We’ve just started overhauling this new store in Namba Parks, so it’s very busy at the moment. I love it, though, so I don’t mind.’
‘Mmmm, yeah.’ I keep waiting for him to drop some clues about his job, but none arrive. He tells me he likes the taste of this drink, thank you, and I say that’s good, thank you too. I realise I’m drinking too quickly.
‘Which way’s Namba?’
He points across the roofs towards the shopping district. I move to the edge of the roof and look over the sprawl of train lines and high-rise apartment buildings.
‘It’s about 20, or maybe 30, minutes on foot.’
‘Do you know the famous running man sign?’
‘I think so,’ but I can’t conjure it in my mind. Kaito holds his arms above him, like he’s just won a race and the crowd is cheering him on. I laugh politely.
‘The running man – he’s in Namba,’ he says. Kaito looks around, as if the next thread of conversation is somewhere within sight, and he just has to find it. Eventually, he asks: ‘How is your younger brother?’
‘Only brother,’ I say. ‘And he’s fine. He just had a baby, actually.’
He asks if I want another drink and I slosh my can from side to side. It makes less of a noise than I want it to.
‘Okay. Well if you want anything let me know.’ He descends into the building again.
I try to trace a triangle in the air, between Kaito’s place, the nearest train station, and Namba. It’s a tic I picked up from a British backpacker in my first week. She kept on buying me drinks and had the arms of a gymnast and she told me: ‘Look, travelling alone, I’ve done it for years, but you don’t want to get lost in the wrong city, I’m not saying that Tokyo’s the wrong city, not saying the people in the street aren’t some of the nicest people you’ll ever find, but it’s just good for your head to know where you are, know where you’re going, know where you’re not’. She ended up disappearing into a crowd of tourists bee-lining to karaoke but she was right, I think.I’ve forgotten her name but she was right.
Kaito returns, wearing a sky blue jacket and holding a long-lensed SLR in his hands. He waves the camera at me and I remember standing in the old backyard in Melbourne, taking photos of him and his girlfriend, asking them to act natural, no, actually natural, stop laughing you two, fuck it, this’ll do. (The photo ended up racking up almost a thousand notes on Tumblr, so, small victories.)
I revert to my old position, leaning against the spa. I give Kaito a death stare because all of his photos are of hip young girls looking like they’ve just been fired from their Levi’s modelling contract. He takes a photo. He takes another but I’ve already got my middle finger raised. He laughs.
‘Where’s your gear?’
‘Back home,’ I say. ‘I know, I should have probably brought it all, but I’m just not … I was worried I was going to break it in transit.’ Before Jimmi’s birth, I told Alois and his wife that I’d take professional photos of the three of them when they got home from the hospital. A small gift, something personal. It never happened. I don’t know. I shrug emphatically. ‘There’s a garage sale rangefinder in my luggage, but I’ve barely touched it.’
I sip my Grapefruit. The can feels light. I watch Kaito carefully line up and take a few shots of the city around us. I check my phone. Around about now should be the golden hour, but the sky is still a little off: murky, more like copper.
I hold onto my empty can and listen to the traffic.
‘Hey, have you heard of this guy, Hikaru Hano?’ I try to pronounce the name like a local speaker. I sound like someone trying to imitate a local speaker. He shakes his head.
‘Friend of yours?’
‘Oh, no. He’s just an artist from …’ but I realise I don’t actually know. ‘Tokyo, maybe. It doesn’t matter. But his work keeps popping up in those hidden corners of galleries where you think it’s going to lead to a bathroom but it’s actually just a nook where there’s two paintings that hang opposite, like old Wild West guys staring each other down.’
‘He takes photos of cowboys?’ His voice is unmodulated but I can only guess it’s a joke.
‘Hah, yeah. I mean, no, he seems to do these weird paintings – always square, always of a face. They might be self-portraits, I guess. In one he has a cat hanging over his shoulder, like a shawl.’ I remember the municipal gallery in Nagoya with the bad lighting, and the painting hidden in an otherwise empty alcove. ‘He’s, uh, just really weird and cool, I think. And he dates all his paintings far into the future.’
‘Sorry?’ he turns around from his camera.
‘All his paintings, he dates them in the lower-left corner, his initials and the date. Except the date is always … it’s about eighty to one hundred years from now, I think. Like, 2092. Or 2103. Stuff like that.’
‘Sounds like he wanted to live a long life,’ Kaito says.
I laugh, just a little.
‘Hikaru is a name that both men and women can have.’
‘Oh. Well, I haven’t been able to find this artist online anywhere. There is nothing on Google in English, and every gallery blurb I find is clipped and ambiguous.’
‘He wouldn’t be the first artist who wanted to avoid the limelight.’ He picks up a pebble, tosses it onto a nearby roof. He braces himself, camera on knee, and fires off a few shots as pigeons startle and fly away. ‘Let’s go eat. It’s getting dark.’
I offer to cook but he refuses, and I can’t really find a reason to discount his refusal. We get take-out from a curry place nearby. I don’t tell him that all I’ve been eating for the past couple weeks has been curry. The server has a wide smile. She talks slowly to me but I kind of like her anyway.
When we get back to the flat, I see Airbnb has finally responded to my messages. Apparently it’ll take up to a week for me to get my money back. I don’t tell Kaito, not just yet. There’s the email from Alois, still unread. Close app.
I ask Kaito for the futon.
‘Oh, yeah. I have one of those, somewhere around here. Just let me find it.’
It’s pissing down. The National Museum is shaped like the skeleton of a whale, except its bones are steel and there’s an extra fin that scrapes against the sky.
Kaito picks at the brochures at the front desk while I pay for our entry. It’s the least I can do. Under his jacket he’s wearing a basketball jersey that looks like he’s just fished it out of a river. The woman at a reception looks at him with suspicion. We cloak our gear, Kaito keeps his camera on hand.
The escalators take us below ground.
‘I don’t come here as often as I should,’ he says. ‘It’s nicer to visit with friends, I think.’
I nod, but I don’t agree with him.
The main exhibition is the retrospective of a French abstract impressionist. I get bored reading the English printout a paragraph in. He’s a bastard child who died before I was born. I wander past quickly and it looks like he mostly painted ears, or conch shells, or dissociated heads: imprecise subjects with a loose brush. Kaito slows down before each painting and scans them like he’s reading a poster. I pass the Otages and jump to the artist’s death. Sorry, Jean.
I look back into the exhibition and there’s Kaito, still in the formative years. I take another escalator down, always deeper down. It feels like I’m entering a cave system. On the bottom floor, I duck in and out of the permanent collection, which is separated by a maze of white panelling. It feels benign. It’s what I need right now. The ceilings are impossibly high and the floor is smooth and polished.
Three giant type-C prints occupy freestanding panels. They look like the kind of photos you’d put on screen for a couple seconds before the weather report. I know the style well. Someone told me my work was exactly like that – charity calendar photography. I should’ve told them to fuck off back to – I dunno, wherever they lived, I didn’t ask. But it’s not like they were wrong, really. There’s probably more money in it too.
Someone brushes my arm. I begin to apologise but it’s just Kaito, getting my attention. Where did he come from?
‘I think I found your guy,’ he gestures for me to follow.
The painting has been given a wide berth of white wall. As I approach it seems so unfamiliar: splashes of fluoro green that turn pale yellow when seen from front on. Before even taking in the whole, I instinctively search for the signature. 2133.
I quickly calculate. The painting is dated further into the future than any of the others.
I step backwards. It’s a face partially covered by a held up hand, but the face has an ear missing, an eye missing, and a piece of chin missing. The hair – is that hair? – is looking more like packed hay than ever before. Even though there’s literal pieces of this face cut off, revealing holes of inky, polluted sky, the subject appears content. Calm. Focused.
Kaito stands to one side of me. ‘It’s a very nice painting,’ he says diplomatically.
‘He’s changing. It’s the same face I saw in Tokyo and Nara and Nagoya. It’s the same frame, composition. But at different times. The man has changed. See?’ I point out the obvious, the openings in the man’s face. ‘He’s aging, and not gracefully. He’s practically decomposing.’
‘Okay. Sorry. I don’t think I understood you.’
‘Well, this is the most recent one – or, I mean the opposite, it's the farthest away from us. Date wise. It’s the last in sequence, so far, at least.’ I’m beginning to feel feverish.
Kaito reads the bumf on the placard below the painting. ‘It just says this was a gift from a private donor.’
‘Does it say when?’
‘It says the date has been,’ he pauses to translate. ‘It says date redacted.’
Kaito asks me to pose next to the painting. I try to look not too much like a tourist. I feel too much like a tourist. I want to melt into the walls, but I’m terrified someone would pick me for a foreign agent, a badly-lit spy whose been abandoned by her superiors, clueless, hopeless, broke. Kaito clicks the shutter.
‘You look good today,’ he says. I want to say: I know, fuck you, I know. It makes me feel coldly sober.
I stay with the painting while Kaito goes to wander. I say, ‘fuck you,’ under my breath, but it feels pathetic. What am I doing? I refocus on the head with the sections missing.
The face is glossy, like it’s been coated in oil and presented under studio lights. In Nagoya it was dull, like it’d spent a lifetime hiding beneath clouds. In Tokyo bruised, but soaked in sun.
No one comes between the painting and me. An American couple, baby boomers, poke at every work in the room around me, whispering to each other, look Darl’, this one reminds me of Venice, oooh, Wendy would like this one. But they walk right past the Hikaru Hano, right through me, not paying attention to either. The space empties out of visitors and it’s just the painting and me.
It feels diminishing, but I take a photo on my phone, just the one. A square inside another square.
I find Kaito by a video screen embedded into a table. It’s showing footage of a small sculptural man being towed around a village, being subjected to small acts of violence. The wooden man is thrown off a roof, set on fire, left to float in the ocean. I watch Kaito watching the video with some satisfaction. He keeps on smiling, retracting the smile, and smiling again. The wooden man is rolled around in a tub of glue and then hurled down a mountain. A stranger points at the ground. The wooden man is still alive – there he is, hiding beneath the table, his face a gleeful rictus. I suspect he is traumatised.
We walk back and forth in the gallery gift shop while waiting for the other to make the next decision. I pick up an On Kawara postcard and say okay, we’re going. The card is black with the date ‘10. OKT. 1994’ printed in white text. Near enough to Alois’ wife’s birthday for a gag.
In my luggage is a stack of postcards, probably a dozen all told. I started buying them without knowing who to send them to. They’re all still blank. I keep telling myself I’ll get them out of the way but to be honest, it’s likely I’ll just post them from Kansai Airport.
We pick up our jackets from the lockers and step into the rain outside.
Most days Kaito has to work, which suits me. I figured travelling alone would drive me crazy but it hasn't, not yet, I’m still holding myself together. It wasn’t like I was planning to come here alone. Alois and I had been talking about visiting Japan for years and when I finally got my severance I was like, hey, let’s actually do this thing, let’s do it, and he says to me: ‘I’ve got her pregnant and we’re keeping it.’
He always was showing me up.
I check out the community-run municipal museum, which is full of calligraphic prints that hang from ceiling to floor. A woman with a lanyard asks if I’m here to see my own work, or my family’s work, or friend’s, and she’s so sincere that I don’t have the heart to tell her I didn’t get my pen license until high school because all my Os looked like Qs and my Rs looked like amputees.
At the Ethnographic Museum, I move slowly. My audio guide whispers tender uncited facts into my ears. I don’t see another Hikaru Hano. I consult the photo on my phone several times a day. It’s a poor imitation but whenever I look at it my armpits go all sweaty and my ears start to tingle.
I eat cheaply, or not at all. In the evenings, I bring back vegetarian dumplings and packets of frozen broccoli from whichever 7-Eleven I happen to pass by. Kaito likes to ask me if I think Hano is just a studio of bored artists playing a prank on the public.
Kaito watches over my shoulder as I flounder about my socials. We watch a video of little Jimmi doing 2-month-old stuff – eating yoghurt, falling down and making sure everyone saw him fall down.
‘Does he look like your brother?’
‘No, not really. More like my sister-in-law, I guess. But he kinda just looks like a dumb baby.’ The video is five minutes long. I close it after three.
Dinner is edible. We sit on his bed with our backs against the wall, like kids at a sleepover. We’re watching a panel show. He translates the important stuff but none of it matters, not really. There’s been a political gaffe and everyone is responding in proportionately buffoonish ways. It’s nice, sometimes, to just not have to understand. I chew on my salty broccoli.
Kaito puts his head on my shoulder. I want to sigh but to do it psychically, I want him to get the message without me having to enounce it.
‘I need to take a piss,’ I say, getting up suddenly, no eye contact.
I pull the lid down on the toilet and sit down. I exhale into my hands. Fucking hell. There’s a big cheer on the TV in the other room.
I regain myself. I get out my phone and find Messenger, then Alois. I start typing. ‘Your kid is too cute. Cute video. Cute kid.’ I hit send. He’s offline.
‘Hey, want to know something fucking stupid? I’ve been reading the ATMs wrong. When I get money out, you get a little receipt. Makes sense, right? But the receipts tell you your account balance from before you’ve taken out your money. I don’t know if it's a weird thing with this traveller card but like wtf?’ Send. ‘So I’ve been getting out money and thinking oh, I have blah blah amount left, but really I have 80 or 100 bucks less than that in reality. So confusing …’
I put my phone down. I flush the toilet, wash my hands, and look at my gawky face. There’s little red acne marks around my hairline. I wish I hadn’t forgotten that bag of toiletries and make-up back in Nagoya. It hasn’t done wonders for this whole thing, that’s for sure. Yet still: Kaito. I sigh loudly, but I think the TV is louder.
I pick up my phone. ‘Sorry for rambling. Probably just dumb gaijin problems. Jimmi is great.’ Send. ‘Promise I’ll come visit as soon as I get back,’ and I think I mean it, maybe. Maybe.
Then finally, ‘:)’, just to undercut myself.
I spend the rest of the night looking over the souvenirs and kitsch shit I’ve picked up. I listen to a podcast called ‘Where Are All The Bees Going?’ because it’s been sitting in my podcasting app for over a year and I just need to listen to a British boy with poor enunciation talk shit for an hour. I fall asleep on the futon with earbuds still in, my body turned towards the window.
When I wake in the morning, Kaito’s gone. I try to make myself tea but the milk’s gone off, too.
That evening, we’re out at a shoebox bar in Amerikamura with two of Kaito’s work friends. Kaito and Koji are waiting at the bar to buy more highballs, while I sit at a table with Emi. She’s been downing beers like a champ and I like her, she’s funny. She keeps asking inane questions about Australia. How often do Australians go to the movies? What do you eat for breakfast? For dinner? Is it true that all your animals have sex diseases?
But then she asks, are you and Kaito—? I shake my head and laugh, no, no, but she just says, ahh, okay. Like I haven’t convinced her. I wish I knew his girlfriend’s name – that girlfriend who visited Australia. I want to know where she is now. I want to ask after her. But Emi starts telling me about how nice Kaito is, what a good friend he’s been to look after me. How he’s usually so precious about other people staying in his home. My head goes all dizzy like after a bike accident, like waking from a long-haul flight. Like parts of my face are missing and the sky is trying to spill out from the gaps.
It’s strange, because Kaito didn’t make me book that precise Airbnb instead of some cheap hostel, but he did put me on the path that left me at an abandoned pit. And suddenly I’m sleeping on his futon.
‘It’s a bit hot in here,’ I say. ‘Isn’t it?’
Emi chews on a straw, and shrugs. ‘I think Australia is hotter than here,’ she puts on a thinking face. ‘It must be almost summer there now!’
‘Yeah, it must be. I need some air.’ I finish my drink, and pull my backpack on. ‘I’ll be right back.’
I half-fumble down the stairs. Across from the bar is a fried chicken take-out, that’s been pumping ‘90s hip-hop on a cycle all night. I can make out Snoop Dogg’s voice and I’m breathing out all wrong.
I don’t want to be here anymore.
There’s a knee jutting into my back when I wake. The knee is attached to a shiny leg, belonging to a tourist, an Australian, I remember, I think I remember. Her hair is sooty and her eyes pulse beneath her eyelids. I sit upright and thwack my forehead, oww. There’s a bunk above me. I look around at the other bunks in the room, some occupied, some unmade. No one stirs.
I clamber out of the bed, as quietly as possible for a gangly idiot who wears her hangovers like hand-me-downs, uncomfortably and with an exaggerated sense of indignity. On the floor I find my phone, now with a smashed screen and a dead battery. Great. My clothes feel stiff and I can smell myself. I step out onto the balcony. I’m only one storey up, but the streets below are unfamiliar. It’s properly sunny for the first time since I arrived in Osaka at Dōbutsuen-mae Station. I let the sunlight settle on my skin. I lean on the balustrade and close my eyes, and I listen. The rattling of train tracks, bicycles thvvvv-ing on the pebblepocked road. A cat, though when I open my eyes I can’t see it anywhere, so I close them again, pretending I’m the cat, drowsy and alive in the sun.
The girls. There were two of them, fresh out of uni, money to burn, or time to burn. Maybe one had the money and one had the time. They’d been waiting at the American chicken place when they saw me tumbling out of the bar, hyperventilating. They prescribed drumsticks, to go. When I mentioned the small town I hail from the shorter girl lit up and said hey, my cousin’s fiancé is from there, and she never said anything about it again. Then there were the bottles of stuff I couldn’t pronounce or afford. The stairs to the bunker beneath a shoe store, where we watched a rapper with seafoam hair hop around a stage. The only English words we could make out were DIRT and BOYS, which went together and at a great volume. I think he was a dirt boy. I think we were all dirt boys.
I hear the door slide open behind me. The taller Australian girl steps out onto the balcony, and closes the door again. ‘Morning, drunko,’ she says, and squeezes my shoulder gently. I peek inside and my bunk buddy is still dozing. So this one was – I think it was Cathy. Or Charlie. Or Chloe?
‘Hey.’ My voice comes out all raspy. She yawns, and waves at a guy smoking on a balcony across from us. He bows his head walks back into his room. She scrunches up her face for a split second, before turning back to me and smiling widely. She begins teasing her hair into a ponytail. ‘How’s your arm feeling today, anyway?’
‘Fine?’ I inspect my limbs. There’s a dual bruise on the back of my left arm, vaguely shaped like those islands above Tasmania. As soon as I recognise the bruise I begin to feel the associated dull throb. ‘I think it’s fine.’
‘Don’t worry, I got you,’ she says, fishing in her pockets, and pops two aspirins into my palm. ‘Hey, you never showed me this place you got stuck at.’
I wait for her to fetch something from inside. I look at the chalky aspirin in my cupped hand and decide I’ll probably spew if I dry swallow. Wait, have I already spewed? I slip them in my back pocket. Ponytail returns with an iPad.
‘Just lemme connect this – alright.’ She thrusts it into my hands.
I input an approximate address and begin wandering along Street View, the same street that the stranger accompanied me through. Ponytail watches over my shoulder. There’s the kōban. There’s the apartment block I wish I’d booked into. And there it is – the place where the pit was.
Instead of an empty construction site, in the middle of the lot is an orange crab, the size of a car and held in the sky atop a thin pole. The crab has its pincers and legs spread wide, like it’s ready to defend itself. A security fence encloses the site on all sides, and all the signage is fuzzed out.
‘Um, that wasn’t there, for the record. It was nothing but an abandoned shithole.’
‘Fucking weird, hey,’ she shrugs. ‘I hate seafood. I almost ate octopus balls the other night.’
I scrutinise the maybe-not-so-abandoned site, and feel light-headed. I hand back the iPad.
‘I’m not being paranoid, am I? Who falls for stuff like this? Seriously.’
‘Nah, don’t say that. That guy who sent you there is a massive creep. Massive, massive creep,’ she picks at a tooth. ‘Weirdo fuckin’ creep.’
‘Mhmm.’ It’s not that the sun and the hangover and the distance have made me reassess the whole situation, but something catches between my brain and my throat. I don’t know. ‘Yeah. Creep.’
‘Where’d you say you met him again?’
‘Um, a photography message board. It’s been dead for years, though.’
A hubbub breaks out in the hostel room. A melange of European voices intermingle, it’s surprisingly unsexy. Ponytail sighs.
‘Every fucking morning.’ My bunkmate clambers out of bed, frazzled and perhaps even worse off than me. The bags underneath her eyes seem intent on seceding.
‘Hey newbie,’ she says, mousy and tired. The sight of the dense freckle patch splayed across her nose reconnects two synapses in my brain – Susie, that’s it, Susie from St Kilda. And when I’ve got Susie, the other name arrives, too. Susie and Charlie.
The Australians tell me how they’re heading to Tennōji Zoo. Susie bounces on her heels.
‘Oh, um,’ I rub my eye like there’s something stuck in there. ‘I don’t really do zoos. Vegetarian, and that.’ I don’t tell them how close Kaito’s place is to Tennōji. Susie pouts. I ask if they’re going to go to the municipal gallery since it’s in the same park as the zoo. Charlie turns to Susie.
‘Probably not, hey, not really our scene.’
The Scandinavian, the British and the Irish backpackers all head out in a group, like some joke I’ll never hear the punch line to.
I try turning on my phone again. Nada. ‘You guys wouldn’t have a Samsung charger by any chance, would you?’ They shake their heads.
While the girls shower, I make use of Charlie’s iPad. I log into LINE and scroll back through my messages. Apparently I told Kaito that I’d bumped into some friends from back home, sorry to disappear on you I’ll see you later sorry we had to rush out. There are two replies: ‘Where are you?’ and ‘Ok’. I leave it open for a while, sitting on the bunk. I watch my reflection in the sliding door. My hair is tangled and shimmery, or the glass is shimmery and my hair is tangled.
I swig from a bottle of water sitting in the fold of one of the Australian’s bags, swallowing the aspirins. I check if I’ve missed anything else. There’s a Facebook message from Alois.
‘Hey. Jimmi has been sick so we’re being careful at the moment. Taken time off work. Might have to head back to the hospital in the next few days if things don’t get better. Make sure you don’t bring any bad bugs back or anything. Hope you’re okay and look forward to having you back. Xx’
Last night, waiting in the doorway of the hip-hop show, I was talking to Charlie.
‘My little brother’s having a kid, too. Wild, isn’t it? You think they’re gonna be deadshits until they hit thirty but nup, they just find a girl and leapfrog you.’ She fidgeted with an unlit cigarette. ‘He’s a dickhead but I love him.
The iPad rests on my lap, Messenger still open. The little green circle means Alois is online. What are the chances? It must be almost midday there. I imagine he’s watching Jimmi with one eye, making sure lunch doesn’t overheat with the other. There’s the video call button, right there. I’ve never pressed it. I watch the little green circle. It’s flat and green, which means go, go, go, go, go—
The circle turns grey.
In the glistening sun, the National Gallery looks well-preserved.
The woman at the desk is the same one from last time, and I wonder if she remembers me, if I’m memorable enough. If I am, she doesn’t give it away. I shell over entry and wince at my emptied-out coin purse. I head straight down, escalator after escalator, like an exploration vessel tossed into the depths of the sea.
I walk directly to the section that houses the Hikaru Hano. But something’s wrong. I spin around and all the works are exactly as they were, except where the Hano should be there’s nothing but a thin strip of white. I look to the left of where it should be and there’s the boring same whatever, to the right and there’s the boring whatever the American couple gawked at. The fluoro green face is not just missing but the space it existed in is missing too, like the white panelling has folded in on itself like paper.
I find an attendant, and say, excuse me but where did the Hikaru Hano painting go? It’s gone, it’s not there, it was there just the other day. And she looks back at me, puzzled, and I realise I’m blabbering in English.
She shakes her head, ‘Iie, iie.’
She follows me to the space where the painting should be and I point to it, and spell out, Hi Ka Ru Ha No. She shrugs and hands me an A4 sheet of paper. She points to the sheet where it states the details for the painting to the left and the painting to the right and there’s no gap between these two, not on paper and not on the wall. It’s evaporated. She smiles weakly and leaves me with the handout.
I’m at the bottom of the ocean and they forgot to give me oxygen. My face feels like straw, too dry, too brittle.
I stumble around until I find myself gagging over a bathroom sink. I’m wheezing, feeling the carbon dioxide physically expel from my body. Feeling my body compress and fold in on myself. I’m coming up too quickly, bent.
I get on a train and don’t get off. The only person who I know saw the painting was Kaito. I shift in my seat. It couldn’t just disappear. There must have been a mistake. I want to speak to Alois, but I want to babble. I want him to nod at the opportune moments, it’ll be okay, sis, you’ll be fine. Eventually I’ll have forgotten what I’m talking about in the first place. It’ll be okay, sis. You’ll be fine. Look, your nephew’s fine, too, he’s healthy and alive and he remembers your face, just from the photos I’ve shown him, isn’t that amazing?
I fall asleep on top of my backpack for I-don’t-know-how-long.
I disembark at the penultimate station in Osaka Bay. A Ferris wheel hangs over the scene, and signage points to an aquarium. I’m due to fly out in just under 24 hours, so I need to make sure I can afford to get to Kansai Airport. I walk over to the edge of the port, and sit underneath the wheel. I count families as they enter and exit the capsules. The sky begins to spit.
I turn my phone around in my hand. On the internal memory there’s a photo of the Hikaru Hano. That still exists, surely. But the cobweb smash pattern on the screen makes me nervous, and the charger is back with my luggage at Kaito’s. I’ve got my passport and my plane tickets in my backpack, as well as the camera that I’ve barely used, but that’s about it. The rain and wind pick up strength and speed. The concrete is slick beneath my feet. I walk until I find a FamilyMart, where I buy an emergency poncho on the cheap, and borrow someone’s umbrella from the rack by the front door. The wind comes off the bay in blusters. I let it push me around.
When it eventually subsides, I’m on the opposite side of the island. On a concrete step, overlooking the port. I sit down, knees up, and cover myself with the umbrella. Connecting the port island to the greater Osaka is a red, iron bridge. It looks like a sagging Golden Gate. So many of Japan’s urban landmarks are distorted versions of North American and European monuments. Every city I’ve visited has had an homage to the Eiffel Tower. Or is it just a coincidence that every television tower looks like that?
I sit there, letting the sky spittle onto my shoes.
Time passes too slowly. I take the camera out of my backpack. The film still has two-dozen shots remaining. I wind the film and set the range to ∞, raise the viewfinder to my eye. The thing with rangefinders – the thing with this old camera that was built in Japan in the ‘60s and shipped to Australia, where it remained in a man’s closet in Footscray until his widow gave it to me for a two-dollar coin – the thing is, you don’t always get what you see. The viewfinder and the lens aren’t looking at the same thing, not exactly. The image seen is not the image captured.
So there’s a little bit of – not faith, but something like it. Willingness to accept chance. The clouds are gloomy and pouring and I know the photo is probably going to turn out dull. I wait for a moment, for the right moment, and press the shutter close with my index finger.
I walk along the harbour for only another minute before I see the black and white sign: Contemporary Art Space Osaka. It directs me to what looks like an old warehouse – everything on this island is either an aquarium or a warehouse. I shake the rain off my umbrella and stumble inside.
The reception desk is empty, so I leave my umbrella by the door. I take an information sheet and head in. The main room is full of projectors, hanging from the ceiling and propped up on crates. Covering the walls are slow pans of ice floes drifting apart, interviews with people indigenous to the Arctic and closeups of ice melting in fast-forward, like the corpse of a bird going to the maggots. The air feels chilled, but I think that just might be Osaka in November. I look around and I’m alone. I stand in front of a projector and there I am, a black silhouette overlooking a faraway scene.
The room is full of noise – no soundtrack, just the dull hum of boat engines ticking over, arctic wind, voices speaking but not being heard. The workers are speaking their native language, and the subtitles have been translated to Hiragana. I watch an Inuit man in a thick brown jacket steer a boat through the ice. He is explaining something, I think. A woman stands behind him, rugged up to the ears. She doesn’t speak at all.
I take out my rangefinder and set the distance to 3 metres, shutter speed to auto. Who needs to control these things, anyway? I photograph my silhouette overhanging the icy blue backdrop. I was here. Or: this was here, and so was I. I shuffle over to a smaller room, four white walls occupied by a metric ton of ochre dirt. The dirt is piled around a load-bearing bollard in the centre of the room, and the lighting is set up so as to provide a ring of white down-lights around the dirt, but no light on the actual mound. I retrieve the artist statement from my back pocket and it’s all in Japanese, sans the title of the work: PLYWOOD SAND. I take another look at the mound and, I guess it could be sand, I guess it could be ground down plywood. I guess it could be art. It feels like I’m being mocked but I don’t know by whom.
The dirt room connects onto a stubby hallway, which connects onto the bathroom. I apply a liberal amount of the fancy hand moisturiser to my dirtstreaked skin. I take off my poncho, and notice there are pockmarks around the collar. I brush out my hair. I drink from the tap.
I sit on the toilet with the intent of taking a piss, because why not, it’s here, and I’m here. Might as well. On the wall opposite me – touching distance, if I stood up, although it’d be a bit awkward – is an arrangement of postcards. Each postcard features an artwork or design, they’re from old exhibitions, I gather. But in the centre of this higgledy-piggledy collage is a face I’ve seen before, painted in daubed strokes. It’s a man’s face framed in a square of sunlight, fair-haired and fulsome. One eye is coming apart, splintering or melting like ice or fading away completely. It’s a Hikaru Hano and it exists.
I can barely wait till I’m done to grab the postcard from the wall. I bring it close to my eyes and – I gasp. The date, I think, if I’m reading this right, and I think I am, is 1999. Last century. My lifetime. I scrutinise the signature and it’s definitely a one and a nine, and a nine, and a nine.
‘Holy fuck.’ I say it to myself, to nobody, to myself. I flip the postcard and the back is blank.
I unzip my backpack and take out a postcard at random – one I bought in Nara, a touristy photograph of deer standing in the doorway of a temple. I fill the gap in the centre of the collage.
When I walk back through, there’s a woman at the front desk. I freeze up. I pretend to browse the promotional materials on a table near the gallery entrance.
The woman – she reminds me of someone. I look at her from the corner of my eye, and … who is she? There’s something about her. The way her face operates seems familiar. She bites her lip, stares at her computer. Click, click. I play with my umbrella, and she notices me.
‘Can I help you?’ she asks, a calming voice, clear English. That’s it. She reminds me of the stranger I bumped into on my first day in Osaka. The stranger who escorted me to the kōban, and who disappeared again. Whose face I forgot and whose name I never learned.
‘Maybe,’ I say. ‘I’m from Australia, and, on my first day here …’ and I lose myself there. Would she remember our interaction, if she’s even the right stranger? It’s a coin flip, and I’m out of change. ‘Sorry, sorry.’
‘It’s okay.’ Her smile is pancake-y. It’s what I need right now.
‘Have you ever heard of this artist?’ I place the postcard on the desk. I watch her face as she takes in the image, I want to know how she feels, her first impressions. Is it just my brain that gets twisted up? She scrutinises the card, flips it over. She tells me she hasn’t – they’ve never exhibited here, if that’s what I’m asking.
‘Oh.’ Well, that would make too much sense. ‘Thank you anyway. Actually,’ I say, turning back. ‘Do you know where I could get my hands on some postage stamps? To send overseas. Also could I borrow a pen?’
She gives me directions, back to the FamilyMart, and hands me a biro. She smiles. I nod and thank her.
I buy a single stamp, ¥70, and scribble on the back of the postcard while sitting on the curb. I walk against the wind until I find a red, square post box that’s just like every other post box I’ve seen over the past month. I drop the card in the slot.
Maybe it’s rash, but it’s done now. If my plane goes down or I disappear in mysterious circumstances, at least there’ll be a postcard with my name and address on it, and a man’s face on the reverse: decaying, swamped in light, but real. This all happened, I happened. This was real, and so was I.