Original art by Kaori Nagata (website, instagram — and thanks!)


The ghosts and spirits of the everyday

It started at a kissaten in Yurakucho; an old coffeeshop with a long wooden counter and stools of faded red leather. Along the wall behind the counter were a collection of vintage cups and matching saucers, like a little ceramic art gallery.

The vintage speakers crackled with the Miles Davis Quintet. Outside, a lazy wind blew the last remains of autumn along an empty street. In the warmth of that kissaten, I watched an old man brew coffee behind the counter. The act felt like a ritual; one he knew well.

He poured the coffee into a cup and placed it before me. Afterward, he leaned back, lit a cigarette, and stared out the window, letting his thoughts drift to somewhere just out of reach.

That coffee had something of a floral aroma to it. The flavor made me think of lemons. It was like no cup of coffee I had ever tasted.

When I asked the old man about the blend, he said the exact mix was a secret, but the recipe had remained unchanged since the day his wife had found it.

The brew method too, he added, was just the way she liked it.

“Do you still brew for her?” I asked.

He shook his head. She’d passed away years ago when the faded red leather on those seats was still vibrant, and the speakers played Miles as clearly as if he were right there in the corner.

Everything had changed, he said. Everything except the coffee.

“Whenever I pour a cup,” the old man said, “I give a part of her away. When I grind the beans and brew, I see memories swirling in the coffee. Memories that fade with the steam as it rises.”

We sat in silence for a time, listening to the music and watching smoke waft up from a lone cigarette in the ashtray. I thought about that coffee — of the sweet memories in its scent, and the sad in its flavor.

In a word, the coffee was bittersweet.

My father spent the last half of his life in solitude. He did this by choice, but it meant he spent the hardest parts of it alone, in the quiet of a house filled with fading memories.

That house and my father grew old together. When I went home and looked at the place — at the peeling paint, the dust on the shelves, the doctor’s letters and pharmacy receipts piled on the kitchen table, the weeds in the garden — it was like a mirror to the man who lived there.

And time had not been particularly kind to either of them.

When I made the decision to tidy the house — a feeble attempt to clean away the mistakes of the past — I found a pair of gloves in the kitchen. They were for gardening; old and tattered, with the fingertips nearly worn away completely.

I took them to my father.

“I don’t know what these are for. Can I throw them away?”

“No, I need them,” he said. “I use them for the lemons.”

“The lemons?”

He nodded.

“For my cancer. I grate one every morning. If I don’t wear gloves, my hands get cold.”

The freezer, I discovered, was full of lemons.

The smell was like a strong perfume on an excited first date. The fruit filled the two shelves — some in plastic containers, others frosting over, and some stuck together in clumps.

I saw my father then, waking each morning and hobbling into the kitchen. I saw him put on a pair gloves, grate a single lemon, and eat it silently from a bowl, standing at the sink because sitting down at the table meant having to stand back up again.

I thought of the things we do to give ourselves another day; clinging to each moment before finding ourselves just a lingering cluster of memories, haunting a lonely house.

I wanted to talk to someone about that. For the longest time, I wanted to share that episode. Instead, the memory remained like an open wound, and made a home in the sight and smell of a simple yellow fruit; a symbol of my father’s desire to live a little longer.

And now, I can’t help but think of lemons as a home to his ghost.

“Do you mind if I add lemon?”

“No, not at all. Please,” I said.

I watched her squeeze the slice of lemon over a small plate of fried chicken.

It made me think of an old house and a tattered pair of gloves.

We sat in a smoke-filled teishoku restaurant in Shimokitazawa. We’d discovered the place three years ago when we first met, and it was once a regular go-to spot — sometimes for lunch, sometimes for dinner, but always together.

Our shared past was wrapped up in the furniture here, and woven into our favorite dishes. It was as much a part of the experience as the faded posters and the sounds of cooking and banter behind the counter.

We clinked beer mugs and talked — about before, and after, and what happens next — and I watched ghosts of nostalgia swirl and dance in the smoke above. The spirits enchanted; it felt like somehow we could still go back.

We ate, and laughed, and caught up. It was easy like old times, and comfortable like an old favorite sweater. It felt like the weeks before her train had left for Osaka, when a small glimmer of hope still illuminated a dark and cloudy tunnel to the future.

“Do you mind if I order another plate of chicken?”

“Sure,” I said. “It’s the best thing here.”

But it was also a dish haunted by ghosts whispering of a different time and place. The flavor made me think of a love and romance that was lost to me now; of memories that would never repeat, and feelings like faded photographs.

Later, at the station, we stood in silence by the ticket gates. Trains came and went, and we watched them for a time, sharing the warmth of old memories to keep from feeling the cold.

Eventually though, we said our goodbyes and shared a final hug.

“I’m sorry I can’t go to the wedding,” I said.

She shook her head.

“I’m just glad I could see you. Thank you.”

I felt a weight in her words, then — a strange feeling that this, too, was the birth of another ghost, destined to haunt us until we were old and grey, and grating lemons in lonely old houses.

I walked home with a mind full of coffee, lemons, and teishoku restaurants. I thought of the ghosts that follow me, and the ghosts that follow others, and the ghosts that we share. I thought of the hugs we sometimes crave from those ghosts, and the promises they make but can never really keep.

And I realized that we might all be haunted, in some way or another.

By the ghosts of our own design.

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Original art by Kaori Nagata (website, instagram — and thanks!)

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Thanks for reading!
 — Hengtee