Part 1: Fall from Grace
A. moved to Tokyo in April 2008. Well, not to Tokyo—she moved into a rented house with her younger brother in her hometown in Tochigi Prefecture, commuting nearly two hours every day to her fashion design school in Shinjuku. She worked a part-time job during the day, then went to school in the evenings.
I moved up from Shizuoka in May, getting my own place in Saitama Prefecture, which is between Tochigi and Tokyo, acting as A.’s bus stop when she couldn’t make it all the way back home. This was how it had always been intended to work—but I wasn’t reacting to it as I’d hoped.
When we finally decided to make the move to Tokyo and leave our wonderful, system-kitchened, skylit, vaulted-ceilinged apartment in Shizuoka, A. had delivered an ultimatum: She would only be able to ask her parents to allow us to live together a second time if we were married.
In many ways, the ultimatum was a good thing. I’d already promised to come to a decision on the marriage issue by November. When it became apparent that the answer was likely to be negative, she'd voluntarily erased the deadline, and we’d been running on Zombie Time ever since.
When I’d asked A. to move in with me in the summer of 2004, we’d both acknowledged the difficulty of getting her parents’ support. But I’d never suspected how strongly she herself would be affected by the dim view of cohabitation in Japanese society. As time went on, however, it became clear that her inability to talk openly about how she was living was causing her a great deal of stress. Among other things, her company offered living assistance for single employees, and she was having difficulty explaining why she consistently refused to apply for it.
But more than anything else, A. just wanted to get married. It was hard-wired into her that Marriage = Completion. More and more, when our conversations didn’t fall into trivial ruts, they smashed into the unanswerable question, “Why aren’t we getting married?” I would prevaricate, knowing that as soon as I made a clear statement, confirming yet again that I still wasn’t ready, I’d have to spend a day and a half making gestures of reconciliation while A. sulked. All she wanted to hear was “yes.”
Why couldn’t I just say it? Part of me simply resisted her tactics. It felt like she was browbeating me, punishing me with days of tantrums until I came up with the right answer. I came to feel that “yes” wasn’t a step toward a happy future—it was giving in. Whenever I finally started to relax and think of marriage as a possibility, A. would broach the subject again, I’d get back on the defensive, and we’d be back at zero.
A part of me felt that she was trying to trap me. She never asked “Should we get married?” but “When are we getting married?” From the day we moved in together, in her mind there was no choice. Despite repeated explanations, she never truly understood how I felt until, in an attempt to bring a close to one of our many endless battles on the subject sometime in 2007, I used the expression “back-door marriage.” She looked it up. When she came back, she was finally able to explain what I had been feeling in her own words. But understanding just made her sadder.
I wanted to make her happy. But marriage isn’t a bouquet of flowers, a fancy dinner, or a nice set of earrings. It’s your entire life.
And sadly, beneath all my justifications lay the one truth I could never reveal: I just didn’t love A. as deeply as she loved me.
I wanted to. She was everything I could have asked for: Sweet, caring, attentive, conversational, unconventional, creative. She liked dark movies and indie rock. She’d never done anything wrong by me, except to want all of me.
I kept hedging because I wanted that spark, that deep sense of unquestioning satisfaction to fill me when I was with her. But it never came. And while I waited, I watched all her joy rot away. The potential of marrying me became her one source of happiness, but every day I didn’t marry her entrenched me as a deeper reminder of her despair.
So I told her we would have to live separately in Tokyo. I couldn’t move in with her if I was going to spend the rest of my life suspecting that I’d been strong-armed into something just for a housing arrangement.
I had hoped that I’d appreciate her more if we lived apart, but it didn’t work that way. In Tokyo, A. had long, stressful days, accentuated by sometimes-stormy life with her brother and separation from me for the first time in nearly four years. When she visited, she was enveloped in that same shroud of sorrow she’d worn in our last months in Shizuoka, and she no longer made any pretense of concealing it. Every time she came, I found myself wondering just how long it would take to calm her down today.
I finally realized that I was intentionally, subconsciously, setting myself over the precipice—building to the point where, even to someone who is desperately afraid of making anyone unhappy, it would become clear that every day we spent together was only prolonging our suffering.
One day at the end of August I went to visit her in Tochigi. She finished school late. Faced with an hour and a half to kill, I meandered back and forth between her house and the station several times before she arrived. I walked her to her house and stood on the landing. She invited me to come in. I told her I couldn’t. She understood. And we fell apart.
Part 2: The World Between
A. and I got together on Halloween, 2003. We moved into the same apartment in November, 2004. We broke up in the closing days of August, 2008.
Over the next three months, I spoke to A. on the phone nearly every day and saw her several times a week. Initially, the situation was worse. While previously I had felt like her personal therapist, now I was just a garbage can into which she dumped all her sorrows. While I knew that I was both the cause and the cure for her ailments, I could do nothing.
Of course, she calmed down over time. She even told me that she now understood how marriage had become her panacea.
As our visits gradually decreased in frequency, I took stock of my own situation. I didn’t know a soul in Tokyo. Everyone in my office was either married or a single female—and while the latter may seem promising, it should be noted that Japanese offices frown very heavily upon internal romantic relations. I tried signing up for aikido, iaido, and judo, but each attempt took weeks to initiate, and still nothing seemed to click.
With my thirtieth birthday looming on the horizon, I looked at my work and my life and found that I had nothing to show for a decade spent waiting for “something” to find me. With the deadline fast approaching, I realized that I hadn’t even started my assignment. I outlined my thoughts in an article, which was published as Japan, my Neverland.
I grabbed a Metropolis magazine—an English-language “Stuff To Do In Tokyo” mag that’s 70% ads—and scanned the groups section until I found something outdoorsy called Tokyo Gaijins. I laid down 10,000 yen ($100) to go on a group hike and found that the only other people willing to pony up that kind of cash were in the financial services industry. As it was November 2008, most of them were a little depressed, which I didn’t really mind—I’ve always considered the profession of moving other people’s money around a fundamental zero-sum in terms of its contribution to humanity.
After the hike, I met up with a few of the bankers over beer, setting in motion a most unusual chain of events. Walking into a random bar in a city of 12 million people, I encountered a guy I’d trained in Kyoto over a year before. He suggested going to a club called Pure. The bankers weren’t up to it, so I followed on my own, well aware that the last train was about to leave, and accepting that I would be locked in until morning.
It was weeks before my 30th birthday, and I was staying out at a club until dawn for the first time in my life. I have often felt that, since turning 30, I have been living my life as I was supposed to have done in my 20s.
Come 5:00, the place shut down, and I plonked myself onto a little stage while waiting for the doorway to clear up. A foreigner sat beside me and we engaged in the regular process of interrogation: land of origin, occupation, duration in Japan, etc., etc., etc. When I asked where in Canada he was from, he named a town in Ontario. When I asked where he went to school, he said Queen’s. Then I asked what he’d studied. He said engineering. We examined each other’s engineering rings disbelievingly: He was a mechie. I’d done the mech option in eng phys. I asked what year he’d graduated. He said 2001. Me too.
We’d been in the same classes, and our first conversation occurred a decade later in Japan.
We shared some gyūdon at 5:30 a.m., I caught a glorious view of Mt. Fuji on the early-morning train home, and I kept in touch with Mr. Mechie until he went back to complete his PhD in Switzerland in March this year.