I wrote this by dictation on my walk home from work late last night. Thought you might want to read it.
I teach English to senior citizens in the rural mountains of Japan. I teach a few nights a week, in various community centers. These are little buildings full of meeting rooms, tucked away between mountains, rice fields, and forests.
My Monday class takes place in a community center in a particularly impoverished part of town. Many years ago, when my senior students were children, the city thrived with the silk trade. As cheap fabrics from China undercut Japanese silks, the city fell to disrepair. The community center is a resilient little beacon in what’s otherwise a commercial ghost town. However, at night, when there aren’t many people present, they do everything in their power to conserve electricity and cut every possible cost. The attendant cuts power to a number of the breakers before he leaves, leaving power only to the few meeting rooms with scheduled events. This means the air conditioning doesn’t work in any of the common areas, and more importantly, the restrooms don’t have lights.
I spend about two and a half hours in that place every week, so having to pee became an inevitability. A few weeks ago, I took my first trip to the restroom. I could barely tell the men’s from the women’s, even though I guess it didn’t really matter since nobody else was inside and it was pitch black anyway.
The restroom was cut off from the outside world by a long burlap curtain with two kanji: 手洗. Very simply, “hand-washing.” I parted the curtain and stepped inside. I feel like the term “pitch black” is maybe too cliche, and definitely insufficient for this restroom. While the curtain was briefly open, I caught the glint of a mirror and the faucets, and what I think was the stall door. Once the curtain closed, I didn’t even have that. It was like being in a dark room, applying a blindfold, then closing your eyes.
I reached for my phone, to use its flashlight function for some guidance. It was gone. I must have left it in the classroom. I told myself I didn’t actually need light. I thought I knew where the urinals were. I could just feel around for a handle. I reached over to the wall, but I felt nothing. I put my hand where I saw the glint of the mirror. Nothing. Then to the faucets. Nothing. In my confusion, I reached back for the curtain. Again, there was nothing. I took a few steps, but everything was just as black, and I hit wall nor curtain nor urinal. I grabbed in every direction, but felt nothing at all. This wasn’t a big bathroom! If I laid down, I’d hit both edges. But somehow, I was able to take five, ten, fifteen steps in every direction, with no end in sight.
“Noriyuki!” I shouted. I hoped my favorite student could hear me. He was always such a good listener. I heard nothing.
No. I heard something. Running water. Soft, constant running water. Not like a faucet. Like a tiny waterfall. With little spatters and inconsistencies. So I ran toward it. Then I realized I wasn’t running toward it, because I couldn’t hear where it was coming from. Was it behind me? Was it to my left? Ahead? It wasn’t anywhere—it was everywhere. Soft. Subtle. But definitely there.
I started to run. I shouted for Noriyuki. I shouted for Emiko. I shouted for Fumiko. I shouted for Masaaki. I shouted and I ran. I shouted and I ran and I had to pee. I ran some more. There was no way I was inside the building anymore—the community center wasn’t that big to begin with. I ran for ten or fifteen minutes. It was impossible to tell. My class was supposed to start five minutes after I went to the restroom. I wondered why my students weren’t checking on me, why they couldn’t hear me.
Then my shouts became screams. I needed to be heard. I needed something, anything to acknowledge me. I wondered again about the walls, then I knelt down and felt the floor beneath my feet. Cold, wet tile. Old, cracked. The tile in the community center wasn’t in disrepair. It wasn’t perfect, but this was cracked like you see in photos of buildings that have been abandoned for decades, left for nature to overtake them.
I screamed and I ran some more. I didn’t know what to do. Time was passing, but I didn’t know how long. It felt like hours. I was trying to keep it together, but it got harder and harder with each passing minute. After some time, I peed on the floor. I didn’t know what else to do. I felt hungry. I skipped dinner, expecting to eat after class. It was well after class should have ended.
I ran until I couldn’t run anymore. Then, I fell to my knees. I fell and I sobbed. I wept openly. I was gone. I was no longer part of this world. I was going to starve here in this nothingness, in this restroom.
I cried for I don’t know how long. Maybe a half an hour. Maybe an hour. I cried until all my tears were gone. Then, once I sniffled and snorted that last bit of snot that says the crying’s over, I saw a crack of light before me.
“I’m dead. Oh my god I’m dead. I fell and cracked my head on the tile and now I’m dead.” I thought to myself. I stared at the crack for a while. Then, I reached for it. As I touched the light, I felt the burlap curtain.
I yanked open the curtain and charged out. I was in the hallway. I was in the community center. The hallway lights were still on. I ran to my classroom. My students were sitting there, at their tables, chatting casually in Japanese. I looked around furiously. They looked at me, one asked me if I was okay. In retrospect, I should’ve congratulated her English. I looked at the clock. It was 7:28. Two minutes before class started. I was somehow only gone three minutes.
I spent the next week telling myself that I was clearly imagining things. But I was crazy. That I must’ve been too tired, too hungry, or distracted. So, the next Monday for a little long, I got to the community center, and I realized I had to pee.
I held the curtain open this time, I drew it to the side and held it there so the light would keep shining in. I realized I would have to release the curtain to use the urinal because it was too far away. So, I reached my foot over to the urinal and planted it there. I released the curtain and moved to stand before the urinal. The curtain closed. Everything went black. The urinal was not there. Nothing was there. I was gone again.
I ran, I screamed. This time, I wasn’t as afraid. I knew there would be an end. So, I didn’t let myself get discouraged. After a few minutes, I reached for my phone. I made a point of bringing it this time, not leaving it in the classroom. I felt it in my pocket, and I pulled it out, but it wouldn’t come on. It was hard, cold, dead in my hand.
At that point, I panicked. I screamed, I bagged. Like last time, I spent an hour, two hours, more. This time, the hunger was worse. This time, there didn’t seem to be an end in sight. So I sat, I sat and I waited. Eventually, the hunger and the tiredness overtook me. I fell asleep. I dreamed of the sound of the running water. I dreamed of the blackness. And I dreamed of nothingness. The only thing I could hear aside from the running water was my own voice telling myself I was trapped. That this time, there would be no curtain. This time, there would be no light.
I woke when I guess the next morning rolled around. I had no way to tell time. My stomach was growling, I was broken. I wonder how long a person had to starve before they stopped feeling the pain. I heard that you’re more likely to die of dehydration than hunger, that comes a lot quicker. I wondered how long that would take.
I just then, I gave in. I cried. I realized, it was the first time I’ve cried since coming in the second time. I cried openly, I cried until my eyes hurt, and my cheeks puffed out. I cried until my tear ducts dried up, and I could feel the dryness in my fingertips as all of the moisture fled my face.
Then, the crying stopped. I open my eyes, and there was the crack of light. I was back in the hallway. And it was 7:28.
Few weeks of past. I’ve kept teaching my classes. I’ve avoided the bathroom. This Monday, I decided to try it again. I had to know. I stepped in the bathroom, I closed my eyes, and I released the curtain.
Nothing happened. I could still see the light crack through. I tried it again, opening then releasing the curtain. I could still see the light. I opened it one more time, closed it, then forced to close with my hands. I could still see find traces of light coming through the burlap. I tried it again and again. I opened it, I closed it, I opened it, I closed it. Nothing.
I came home tonight, and my girlfriend told me with tears in her eyes that my cat had died. She apologized over and over, telling me that it got out because she wasn’t paying attention. My cat ran out, and was hit by a car. She was weeping. I should’ve been. I felt like I should’ve been. But I couldn’t. My cheeks swelled up, but the tears just wouldn’t happen.
Today, I got to work and found out that my contract for my day job would not be renewed. And it was devastating. My visa is up for renewal in two weeks. My employer kept telling me to hold off, that they would process an expedited visa once my contract renewal went through. But, financial difficulties. You know how it goes. With two weeks left, there’s no way I could job hunt, interview, and except the new position in time to get a new visa. I would have to leave Japan.
The worst part, I couldn’t cry. I wanted to. This place was everything to me. It change my life for the better in so many ways. And I wanted to stay forever. Sure, I could come back later. I can apply for other jobs, see what I can find. But that’s the thing, I can’t go somewhere else. I know that room is important. I’m afraid that without that room I’ll never be able to cry again.