In Tokyo everyone knows which side of the road to walk on and no one looks lost. No one looks out of place. Everything is perfectly uniform in the day time, dark pants and crisp white shirts.
Every step looks as if it’s taken in tandem.
The next thing I notice is that everyone is staring at me. Their gazes aren’t fleeting, aren’t quick. They linger in the light and the dark. Old women stop walking to better observe me as I’m going past, whispering to their companions about how I look. Businessmen follow me as I get off the train, eyes as heavy as their hands.
Everyone is watching when my partner leaves me after three weeks. He kisses me goodbye when the train arrives and tries to linger, but everything here is like clockwork so I urge him to go. I leave before the train departs.
I return to my new apartment which is in the dodgy side of Ikebukuro. Each room is smaller than a bathroom and mine is no exception. There is a desk under the bed and little else. The air conditioner has to service two rooms, so there is a big hole in the wall for it to join me and my neighbour. When I roll over in bed I can see her through the hole and she looks at me for long moments before forcing a pillow into the gap. We never speak.
Most days when I go to work I get mistaken for a prostitute. I’m heading to the train station in a business suit the first time it happens. I’m wearing a blazer, stockings, calf length pencil skirt and a blouse buttoned so highly even my grandmother would approve. It happens anyway.
A man corners me at the lights and spits the Japanese word for money through teeth as black as his hair. I don’t know how to react so he keeps repeating himself while I feign a foreigner’s ignorance. I run across the road as soon as there’s a space between cars.
Ten hours later it happens again outside a convenience store. A bunch of young businessmen are standing around drinking from cans as they egg on their youngest to approach me. I quicken my stride, trying to avoid them, but alcohol makes even cowards brave so the man grabs my arm as I pass. I try to shake him off but his grip is surprisingly strong and before I’ve fully thought out my next move my body reacts on autopilot.
I punch him in the face. His hand opens and I sprint home without looking back. I can hear his co-workers laughing at him, my terror the punchline to a joke.
I want to become so small I can’t be seen. I want to shrink until there’s nothing left of me to touch.
I get so busy I forget to eat. That’s what I tell myself.
Sometimes I want to leave the house but anxiety paralyses me at the door. I’ve showered, dressed and put on my face but I still don’t want to leave. I don’t want to be seen.
I make a friend at work. He has the cubicle next to mine, and when I pause in conversation with my client I can hear his voice through our divider. He is English, words soft and surprisingly demure. When he introduces himself his eyes are sapphire bright against waxy skin and dark, curly hair. “Chris,” he says. Then follows it with a giggle, “How old do you think I am?”
He looks young, so I guess my own age. “23.”
He giggles again. “33 hon, you’re a decade out.”
Our friendship is fast, nothing then all at once. One day as we share black coffee between classes he tell me that for now he prefers male pronouns; it’s easier to navigate Japan when you’re as binary as possible, though he’s always wanted to be a girl. I cut my calories to 300 a day in my quest to disappear.
Some nights we lie awake in his bed, backs pressed tightly together. I pretend I don’t hear him crying. He pretends I’m not letting my body eat itself alive.
I’m resting my head on Chris’ shoulder and he’s laughing. It’s been three days since I’ve last eaten so the alcohol goes straight to my head. Everything is tingly and numb. Good.
He’s wearing one of my dresses and we’d spent hours on his make up. Painted his lips red, lined his eyes and stuffed feet into heels a size too small. He looks good. He looks right. I hadn’t realised how wrong the picture was until we fixed it.
We are sitting on a curb in the middle of Shibuya, illuminated by a sea of billboards and I can see the sweat gathering in the creases of his underarms and the hair we had forgotten to remove from his neck. He’s beautiful despite his imperfections, maybe even because of them. In a rare moment of clarity I wish I could extend myself the same kindness.
Some moments stretch, others fade. I’m losing time in inches.
I’m at work. I’m at home. I’m so tired I don’t notice anyone around me.
I faint on a subway platform while exiting a train. It’s raining. I’m wet. A distraught school girl asks me if I’m okay again and again. I reply to her in Japanese and relieved she leaves, but it takes me long moments to stand again.
Two men in a nightclub grab an arm each and pull me between them like I’m a game of tug of war. I wonder how much smaller I can get.
An ocean away my partner worries that I’m losing weight too quickly. I assure him the Japanese diet agrees with me. It doesn’t.
It hurts to go to sleep at night but it’s easy to convince myself that going to sleep hungry feels good. I wake one morning with my chest in pain and breath so faint I can feel my vision peeling away at the edges. I can’t move for hours, everything from crown to toes unresponsive, a modern day Sleeping Beauty. Years later I’ll learn I had a heart attack.
I still don’t believe I’m sick.
Every morning and night I count the rolls I have left to lose. The tendons I can see. The amount of coins I can fit in the hollows above my collarbones.
Chris worries. My partner worries.
I want to sleep. I want to be sicker. I want someone to pull me open and find something worthwhile.
I return to a new home and a partner who sees me as a stranger. For years I miss Tokyo, the neon lights and sea of people. I miss the intimacy of Chris pressed against me, the language, the feeling of shedding weight likes clothes, each moment bringing me closer to my dream of never being found.