Something Like Hope
It started with the barista at the coffeeshop near my office.
“Oh wow,” he said. “You’re the guy.”
“You’re the invisible guy. The one that was on TV.”
“Oh. Yeah, that’s me.”
“Wow. For real. I always thought it was like a trick or something.”
“Unfortunately not,” I said, and then, “hey look, I hate to be a pain, but can I just get my coffee and go?”
“Oh, right. Yeah, of course. Drip?”
The barista’s gaze flickered between the brewing coffee and the space where my face was supposed to be. I looked out the window and listened to the coffee drip slowly into a glass beaker.
“So,” he said, “what’s it like?”
“What’s what like?”
“You know, invisibility. What’s it like?”
“It’s… well, it’s pretty much as advertised.”
The barista poured the coffee into a paper cup and brought it to the counter. He glanced around at the otherwise empty coffeeshop, and leaned in close.
“So uh… have you had sex? You know, since it happened? The invisibility?”
“I mean, uh, because, that’s like, that’s the first thing I would want to do.”
We stood in silence for a time; the invisible man, the young barista, and the cup of coffee between us.
“Sorry, man,” he said finally, “I don’t mean to offend or anything.”
“No, no,” I said. “It’s fine. You’re good.”
I took my coffee and left. I thought about the last time I had sex.
It felt like a long time ago.
That day, I sat at my corner desk at work and stared at a spreadsheet. I thought about the drone of everyday life, and how the days slowly piled up like the unread books I kept meaning to get to but never did.
I looked outside at the gentle falling of the snow, and I thought about what I wanted from life. What I needed.
What was missing.
“I’m sorry,” the girl said. “I uh… I don’t do sex.”
“No, it’s fine,” I said. “I just uh, I saw the sign for the massage outside, and then the price, and well, you know…“
“Yeah, I know. It’s a bit misleading. Sorry.”
“No, no, it’s fine.”
I looked down at where my feet would be, and listened to the gentle electronic music wafting from a small speaker in the corner.
“It’s uh, it’s a bit awkward now isn’t it?” I said.
The girl pulled at the sleeves of her uniform.
“Well, we do other things, too,” she said.
“You know, other things.”
“I don’t… I’m sorry,” I said, “but I don’t do this often. Ever, actually. I haven’t done this before. You’ll have to be a little more clear.”
“Like, I could use my hands… if you want?”
“Oh. Ohhh. Other things.”
I walked out into the alleyway and opened my umbrella. I looked at the snow melting into the pavement, and the people in the distance criss-crossing through Shinjuku streets, oblivious and indifferent.
As I headed towards the station, I thought of soft, gentle hands and paid-for intimacy, and I wondered why I had thought they might hold the answer.
I wondered why I still did.
“You’re back,” she said.
“Well, I mean, uh…”
She gestured towards my body.
“Oh, right. Invisible. Yeah.”
“Do you want the same thing as last week?”
“You… do other things?”
The girl passed a small piece of paper with a few words and numbers scribbled on it. I looked at the prices and thought for a time.
“Uh, you can um… you can just do the same thing as last week,” I said. “That’s fine.”
“So, how’d it happen?” she said.
“You know, the invisible thing. How’d it happen?”
The girl sat on a small cushion in the corner of the room, and watched me dress.
“I don’t know, actually. I just woke up one day, and I was transparent. I called work and told them I couldn’t come in, and I went to the hospital, but they couldn’t find anything. I wasn’t in any pain, and it wasn’t a disease, so eventually they just let me go home. These days I go in for a check-up once a month.”
“What about work?”
“It didn’t change much. Nobody made a big fuss. I was already tucked away in a corner of the accounting department anyway, so they let me stay. Work is the same as always, it’s just now I’m invisible.”
“I saw you on the television,” she said. “When it first happened.”
“I still remember the first time I heard your voice,” she said. “It was gentle and soft, but there was something else, too. It was like…”
I stopped buttoning my shirt.
She looked up at the ceiling for a moment, then shook her head.
“No, it’s nothing,” she said. “Will you come back next week?”
“I think so, yes.”
I thought about the girl on the train home; the masseuse with the gentle hands, and a voice like the slow change from summer to autumn. I thought about her touch, and the strange mix of nostalgia, regret, and intimacy it brought with it.
I stared outside at the passing buildings, and the lights in their windows, and the people inside of them.
And I thought that perhaps we were all invisible, in some way or another.
“Do you like it?” she asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t feel anything either way, really. Nothing much about my life has changed, when I think about it. It’s just a thing I have to deal with, like a pimple that won’t go away.”
“What does your family think? Were they worried when it happened?”
“Well, my father passed away when I was young,” I said. “And I don’t… I don’t really talk to my mother anymore.”
“What about your friends?”
“I don’t have any. Well, I guess have some. A few. Maybe. I just… I haven’t seen them in a long time.”
“You don’t get lonely?”
“I haven’t really thought about it.”
The girl tilted her head to the side.
“You’re funny,” she said.
“What, did I put my tie on crooked or something?”
She shook her head.
“I wonder if you were invisible before you were invisible,” she said.
I visited the massage parlor on Wednesdays, on the way home from work. Afterwards, I played pachinko, or read at a manga cafe, or sipped from a lonely cup of coffee before catching a late train home.
I started to look forward to seeing the girl with the gentle hands, and the questions she asked as I dressed to leave.
It was like an hour of paid friendship, preceded by a handjob.
I had mixed feelings about the relationship.
“Wait,” she said. “Are you serious?”
“Yes,” I said. “I love movies, but they’re an expensive hobby, you know? This way is just… it’s easier.”
“Have you ever been caught?”
“Not yet. If I’m careful, there’s no reason for anyone to expect anything. And as long as I don’t go on opening night, there’s always a free seat somewhere.”
“But don’t you get cold or anything like that?”
“Oh, yeah, sometimes,” I said, “and walking barefoot around a cinema is kind of disgusting, but the pay-off is great; it’s like having a life-time pass to the movies.”
“You just have to be naked to do it.”
“Yeah, which when you get used to, is fine.”
“If I was invisible, I think I would do something like that.”
“Yeah. I would find a house in the countryside owned by a rich old couple, and I’d live with them.”
I waited for her to continue.
“I think I would probably end up cleaning the house while they were gone. I think that would be like my rent payment, you know?”
“That’s kind of you.”
“And I’d make sure they have a pet; a dog would be nice. A cute little shiba, or a chihuahua; something I could play with when the old couple were out during the day.”
“And in the evening?”
“I’d find a quiet spot in the living room, and I’d watch them live.”
“You’d watch them live?”
“Yeah. I’d watch them talk about their day, and bicker and laugh, and eat dinner. I’d watch them get into their pajamas and watch television until one fell asleep, and then I’d sleep on the sofa when they went to bed.“
“That’s it? You’d do that every day?”
“You wouldn’t want something like that for yourself?”
The girl looked up at the ceiling for a time, and shook her head.
“No,” she said. “I don’t think so. I think if I could soak in that couple’s happiness each day, I wouldn’t need it for myself. I think watching them grow old together would be enough.”
“That… that actually sounds kind of nice,” I said. “You actually make haunting a person’s house and freeloading sound like a really generous, kind-hearted thing to do.”
“So will I see you next week?”
I thought a lot about the girl’s story over the next few days. I thought about it as I sat in front of a blank computer screen and watched the snow fall from my apartment window.
I thought about soaking in the happiness of others, and of taking nothing but a little sliver of joy from the life they led, and their happiness of being.
And I thought about a girl who didn’t need that in her own life, because she had long ago given up on the idea of ever having it.
Just like I had.
“What do you mean you don’t have a hobby,” she said. “Everybody has a hobby.”
“I… well, there is one thing, I guess.”
“What is it?”
I looked down at the grey socks on my invisible feet.
“Sometimes I want to write movies,” I said. “You know, like screenplays.”
“Oh, movies, yeah. That makes sense,” she said. “Have you ever written one?”
“No. Not yet.”
The girl tilted her head.
“So why dont you start?”
“I don’t… I don’t know, actually.”
“You’re weird,” she said. “You should just start. If you want to do it, and you think it’ll be fun, you should just try it out. See how it goes.”
“But I don’t know if I’ll be any good. I’ve never written a screenplay before. I love movies, but all I do is watch them. I’ve never studied film or anything.”
“Does it matter?”
The words echoed with surprising depth.
“Hm. I hadn’t thought of it like that before. I guess not,” I said. “I guess it doesn’t.”
“So you should just try. I mean, I make music all the time, and nobody ever listens to it. But that doesn’t stop me from making it, you know?”
“Wait,” I said. “You make music?”
That weekend, I sat in front of a blank computer screen again, watching the snow fall from my apartment window.
I imagined the life of a girl who spent her nights at a massage parlor, and her days playing the piano. I saw her making and recording music that nobody ever listened to, and I wondered what that music sounded like.
I started thinking about the stories lost down Shinjuku alleyways, weaving their way through buildings I would never visit, and acted out by people I would never meet.
And for the first time ever, I started to write.
“Can I ask you something?” I said.
“What is it?”
“How did you end up here?”
The girl stared at the ceiling for a time, as though somewhere in the paint hid the words for her thoughts.
“I came to Tokyo for university,” she said. “and I studied literature at Waseda for a year.”
“I got into debt,” she said. “A guy approached me on the street and told me his agency was looking for models. I thought I could make some money, and maybe feature in a magazine or something.”
“But I signed a contract I didn’t read properly. It said I had to pay them to promote me, but by the time I realized it was too late; I didn’t have that kind of money. So I ended up here, at their ‘other’ business.”
“And you can’t ask for help from home?”
The girl shook her head.
“I can’t,” she said. “I just… I can’t. They worked so hard just to get me here. I can’t.”
She looked at the ceiling again.
“They think I graduate next year,” she said.
“Yeah. They think I’ve started job hunting. They think I’ve had a few interviews, and that I go out in the suit they bought for me, and that I study in my free time. They think I work at Starbucks to help pay the rent.”
I listened to the music leaking from the speaker in the corner.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
The girl shook her head.
“Don’t be. It’s not your fault, and it’s not your problem. And besides, it’s not all bad. Nobody thinks anything of me here. I’m just a tool for a job. The customers come in, and they lie down, and then I give them a massage and they go home. Nobody sees me here. Nobody knows me, and nobody cares.”
“Like you’re invisible,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said. “Like I’m invisible.”
We fell into a long silence. I put on my shirt, and took my jacket from the coat hanger.
“Do you mind if I ask one more question?”
“How much is it? Your debt?”
That night, I wandered Shinjuku until I found a bar in a nondescript building I would never visit again. I sat at a small table by the window, and listened to the quiet scratch of a record player as I drowned my thoughts in whiskey and watched the amblers of the late night streets.
I wondered how many of them were looking for an escape, and I wondered how many had found one.
Eventually, through a haze of whiskey and old jazz, I thought about my own escape — my screenplay — and the girl who had given it to me; the girl with the gentle hands and a voice like the slow change from summer to autumn.
The invisible girl at the Shinjuku massage parlor.
She looked at the envelope.
“It’s money,” I said. “For your debt.”
She looked at me for a moment, then turned her eyes back to the envelope.
“But what if I was lying about all that stuff before? What if I made it all up?”
“Then I guess you still made enough money to not have to do this for a while.”
I saw a sea of unspoken thoughts in the air between us, and little fishes of disbelief swimming beneath its surface.
“Look,” I said. “I don’t… I don’t have anything in my life. I mean, I have work, and I have my apartment, and once a week I have this massage thing, but when it comes down to it, I’m just this.” I waved my hands in the air. “I’m invisible. And even if I was visible — even if I was flesh and bone, and looked just like the rest of us — I’d still… I’d still be invisible.”
I put on my watch and glanced at the time.
“And I know this sounds stupid,” I said, “but I didn’t think I could write a screenplay. I didn’t think I could do it. But I can, and now I’m creating a little world filled with little characters who have little problems, and it’s making me a little happy. It’s like a little ball of warmth that waits for me when I get home, and sees me through each day.”
“That does sound stupid,” the girl said.
“So… just take the money, yeah?” I said. “Disappear for a while. I don’t have anything to use it for, and besides, you gave me an escape. And if I can do that for you — even momentarily — I’d like to.”
The girl looked at the envelope again.
“Thank you,” she said.
I spent the rest of the night at a bar, sipping whiskey and warming a cold heart by the fires of nearby conversation. I thought of gentle hands, and paid-for intimacy, and the feelings that had slowly developed around them.
And though I knew that life would go on, and I would go on with it, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of loss for a relationship that had never been, and the wisps of warm emotion that hovered around it like wandering spirits.
It was as though my life were a lonely river, and the girl at the massage parlor a thousand fireflies on a warm summer evening.
And now they were gone.
“What are you doing here?”
“I don’t have much time,” the girl said. She ushered me into a massage room and closed the door behind her.
“I didn’t know who else to tell,” she said. “I didn’t even know if you’d be here again. But I don’t know anyone else. I don’t have anyone else to talk to.”
“What’s wrong? What happened?”
“I tried to pay off my debt. I went to his office and I gave him the money you gave me.”
“The guy who runs this place. The owner.”
The girl shook her head.
“He said it wasn’t enough. He said I would have to keep working. I watched him there with the envelope in his hands, and I watched him open it and look at the money. When he looked at me afterwards, I felt sick. I knew then that I was never going to pay off my debt, because I was never meant to.”
She looked up for a moment, as though watching the memories play out upon the ceiling.
“I felt so stupid for thinking it could be easy. I felt embarrassed and humiliated. Broken. I’d spent the last year thinking that somewhere off in the distance was a freedom — my freedom — but it never really existed. It never had. I’d just been played like an idiot.”
“But what does that have to do with you coming back here?”
“I wanted to say goodbye to the old lady that manages this place. She was always good to me, and I owe her that much.”
“You have to say goodbye? I don’t understand.”
The girl looked at her hands.
“I hit him,” she said, “when I stood up to leave. I took the glass ashtray on his desk, and I hit him with it. And then I hit him again. And again, and again, and again, until he’d stopped moving and I was sat on the ground, heaving for air. Then I wiped my hands on his shirt, and I left.”
I pictured an office somewhere in Shinjuku, where there was a glass ashtray sticky with blood, and a body slumped into a chair behind a small desk.
“Is he… is he dead?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Does it matter?”
“I suppose not,” I said.
“I think they’re headed for my apartment now, but they’ll come here eventually, so like I said, I can’t stay long.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I have some last minute things to see to tomorrow, and then I’ll leave for Nagano the day after.”
“Fujimi,” she said. “My friend knows a place I can stay. It’s her grandparents’ house. She said she’s already called ahead and told them I’m a friend from university. They think I need some quiet space to write music for an album.”
“So you’re finally leaving then? Disappearing?”
“That’s good,” I said. “At least there’s that.”
I looked down at my feet.
“I… Can I see you off? Like, at the station?”
The girl shook her head.
“No. They know you’re a regular customer. They’ll probably send some people after you; first to harass and interrogate, and then to follow you. If you come to the station, you’ll lead them right to me. You stand out too much.”
“So I guess this is it, then,” I said.
The girl thought for a moment.
“Do you have a little time?” she said. “There’s something I want to show you.”
We wandered through bustling crowds and busy streets, and walked winding narrow alleyways where the echoes of karaoke and restaurant conversation echoed against our footsteps.
We passed by bookstores and boutiques, and pubs and office buildings, until we found ourselves down a long flight of stairs that led to an old wooden door.
“Here,” she said. “This is the place. This is the bar I like.”
“Do you have a girlfriend?” she asked.
I sipped at my glass of whiskey and watched smoke drift gently towards the ceiling.
“No,” I said. “I haven’t had one since before this happened.”
“Well, I’m… I’m different, and weird. Girls don’t know what I look like, and many think I’m hiding something. On my last date, the girl wouldn’t touch me; she thought invisibility was contagious.”
“But you’ve been on dates?”
“A while ago, but not recently. Whenever I meet a girl who wants to get married and settle down, her mind wanders towards the future. She worries about wedding photos, family events, children; that kind of thing.”
“Well, what if they’re born invisible? What do we do then? How do you raise an invisible child?”
The girl stared at her glass.
“I hadn’t thought about that.”
I watched the bartender in the corner, looking over his record collection and thinking about what to play next. I liked his taste in music.
“Is that why you started coming to the parlor?” the girl asked. “Because of your trouble with dates?”
“Well, kind of,” I said, “but not really. I was… I was looking for something.”
“Looking for what?”
“I had this weird idea in my head that maybe sex was the answer. Like, maybe it would fix me.”
“Yeah. I met this barista at a cafe, and he asked me about it, and… I don’t know. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I couldn’t help wondering if that was what was missing from my life. Like, maybe that was what I needed… or something.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I… I don’t know why I just told you that.”
“No,” the girl said. “No, it’s just… I didn’t know it went so deep.”
“What do you mean?”
She shook her head and drank the last of her whiskey.
“Come on,” she said, “let’s get out of here.”
We walked snowy streets between Shinjuku and Shin-Okubo, drunk and swaying to the rhythms of passing traffic while we watched the last trains rumble along the tracks nearby. We stopped in front of a building with a neon sign that read, “Sleeping Beauty,” and the girl nodded.
“This will do,” she said.
“Wait,” I said, “is this a…?”
“Yes,” she said. “It’s a love hotel. Now can we please go inside before I freeze to death?”
I watched the girl disappear behind the long plastic curtains that hid the entrance. I thought of a lonely river and a thousand fireflies.
And as I looked up at the gentle falling of the snow, I thought about what I wanted from life. What I needed.
What was missing.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I uh… I can’t… I can’t do it.”
“No, it’s fine,” she said. “I just uh, I thought when I heard your story, that well, you know…“
“Yeah, I know. And I thought so, too. But… I’m sorry.”
“No, no, it’s fine.”
We laid down on either side of the king-size bed with its purple quilt cover and its small mountain of pillows. I held my hand up, and looked through it to the gaudy chandelier that hung from the ceiling.
“It’s uh, it’s a bit awkward now isn’t it?” I said.
I listened to the girl fidget beside me.
“Well, I can do other things, too,” she said.
“You know, other things.”
“No,” I said. “It’s fine. It’s not about that with you. Not anymore. And I don’t think it ever was about that. Not really.”
She turned to look at me, and the lines of my body outlined upon the bed.
“I used to think that if I died somewhere, it would be like disappearing,” I said. “Depending on how it happened, maybe nobody would ever find me; I’d just fade away. All that would be left is my apartment, my DVD collection, and a half-finished screenplay nobody would ever read.”
“That’s maybe the loneliest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“But then I realized that even if I wasn’t invisible, nothing would change. They’d find a body, but everything else would be the same. The same apartment, the same DVD collection, the same half-finished screenplay. And then me, fading away. Disappearing.”
“That’s the newest loneliest thing I’ve ever heard,” she said.
“But when I talked with you, I started to feel something different. It felt like a little part of myself imprinting on the world around me. And, I know it was your job, and it was just something you had to do to make money, but even then… it still helped. Just one day a week, for five or ten minutes, I felt like I was here. Like I was really here.”
I looked up at the chandelier again. I thought of fish swimming in a sea of cluttered thought.
And then I felt a little hand trace a path to my own, and place in it an earphone.
“Here,” the girl said. “Listen to this.”
For a time, there was nothing. And then, a lonely piano, singing a quiet song of joy upon a field of solitude and sadness. It felt like being in a wood cabin and staring out at snow; it was like huddling inside a blanket, and feeling the cold seep in from under the windows.
“This is beautiful,” I said. “It’s gentle and soft, but there’s something else, too. It’s like…”
“It’s like a part of it is missing. Like a part of it is gone. I don’t know how else to describe it.”
The girl stared up at the chandelier.
“I wrote this the day I saw you on the television,” she said.
“At the time, your voice sounded like I felt,” she said. “It sounded like I feel.“
“Sounded?” I said. “What about now?”
The girl shook her head.
“It’s different now.”
I waited for her to continue but nothing came, so we laid there together, sharing earphones and listening to a lonely piano play a lonely melody, over and over, and over and over, until we drifted into sleep.
In the morning, she was gone.
I went to a coffee shop and watched the world wake up. I took notes for scenes that would never be written, and walked in and out of bookstores like I was looking for something but didn’t know what.
In the afternoon, I passed by the massage parlor, where a man in a tracksuit pushed me around and asked me where the girl was, then cursed at me and told me to fuck off, then followed me home.
Later, I noticed a car in the street by my apartment, and a man inside of it watching my window. The car remained there over the course of the evening, and was still there when I turned the lights off to try and sleep.
That night, I thought of a girl heading to a new home in the snowy countryside of Nagano Prefecture. I thought of what it might feel like to discover that for the first time, and what sort of music she might make to express those feelings.
And as I watched the sun rise over a man sleeping in a car in the street by my apartment, I thought about my screenplay, and how it still didn’t have an ending I was happy with.
“Wait,” she said. “Wait. Where are you?”
“I’m right here,” I said.
“What? Wait. No way.”
We stood near the doors of the express train. I watched her eyes grow wide as she stared at a few snow flakes melting against my naked body.
“It’s just like going to the movies,” I said, “except it’s freezing and I can’t feel my fingers or toes anymore.”
“You’re an idiot.”
“It was the only way I could get here without them knowing.”
“But how did you know what car I’d be on? And what time I was leaving?”
“I didn’t,” I said, “so I came in time for the first train and I waited. And I crossed my fingers and hoped you had a reserved seat on the Super Azusa.”
“Good guess,” she said.
I watched a few passersby stare at the girl talking to herself on the platform at Shinjuku station.
“I just… I just wanted to say goodbye.”
“I’m sorry,” the girl said, looking down at her gloved hands. “I really screwed things up.”
“No. You helped me find something. I don’t know what, but I can feel it. And whatever it is, I owe it to you.”
The girl thought for a moment, then rummaged through her rucksack.
“Here,” she said. “I want you to have this.”
She held out a small black object and a pair of earphones.
“When I first heard your voice,” she said, “I thought about how lonely you sounded, and I wrote a song about it. But you don’t sound like that anymore.”
She looked at the mp3 player now floating in the air, resting in my hands.
“You sound like this,” she said.
She took off a glove and reached up towards my face. I felt the warmth of her hand search its shape, and her fingers settle on my lips, before she replaced them with a short kiss.
“Goodbye,” she said.
I watched the train pull away into the cold morning air, and when it had disappeared into the distance, I walked to the station exit and out into the street; just a pair of earphones and a small mp3 player floating through the city.
I listened to a lonely piano sing a quiet song of joy, like the slow change from summer to autumn. And in the notes that comprised its melody, I felt the hint of something nostalgic, like the tiny sliver of a feeling I’d forgotten a long, long time ago.
It was something like hope.
(Takagi Masakatsu — Tamame)