By John Soltysiak
“Hugging you feels like home,” she said.
But I wasn’t sure I knew what home felt like.
Her tiny Japanese apartment seemed worlds away from the States. The radio spoke a language I could barely understand, and none of her books that were stacked next to us had any English in them. Everything in her room felt compact, and I wondered how she was able to fit it all into such a small area and keep it so tidy. Wrapped up tightly with each other on her thin sleeping mattress in the dark, I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt this at peace. I had escaped to teach English for a year overseas because I didn’t know what else to do after graduating from Colorado State. It was just by chance that I ended up in Okinawa, and I didn’t even know the island existed until I read about it in an email, asking if I wanted to teach there.
“If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be?” She asked. I knew what she wanted to hear. But I wasn’t interested in formalities. Nothing would come to mind. So I just sighed and stroked her shoulder a bit and looked up at the ishiganto talisman near her small bedroom window. The stone had “ishiganto” engraved into one of its sides written in kanji with each character stacked on top of one another. It was meant to repel evil spirits. The talismans had originated somewhere in China—making their way to her island during the 15th century. The locals had written the three kanji characters on the side of walls, plaques, even on small ornaments and placed them any place they wanted to keep safe.
I wondered if they worked.
Guys had been fawning over her earlier that night, the way I had seen it done time after time in salsa joints. As I smoked my cigarettes at the bar I took notice of the portraits hanging above the shelves of liquor. One of the pictures grabbed at me, it was a black and white portrait of an old man, his features rough with crisp folds in places that would only appear on a younger face full of expression. It looked barren with dead eyes and long mangled hair that no longer followed order. I wanted to know where he had gone.
The salsa music blared from the other side of the room near the dance floor. I ash’d my cigarette next to my empty beer glass and lit another. That’s when she took a seat next to me and ordered a couple of beers for her and the handsome gentleman in a suit on her other side. Why she was buying was beyond me, but I wasn’t interested enough to pay it any more attention. I just kept staring up at the picture. I had had enough to drink where I thought the old man might try to expel wisdom to my twenty-eight-year-old self. But he didn’t. I remember faintly hearing the gentlemen excusing himself for a moment, and I wondered which guy would come slithering his way over to her this time, but she closed herself off to such an approach by turning her back to that part of the open bar; by facing toward me.
I could feel her eyes scanning my body.
I had not dressed to impress that night—just a t-shirt and some long shorts on a hot and humid summer night. I had abandoned two of my drunk colleagues at a bar called Rehab, and wandered to this establishment further down the main strip of Kokusai street, spotting the large red sign with the white outline of a woman’s heel. It could have easily been mistaken for a strip club had I not known better.
“Why do you keep staring at picture?” she asked. I pretended to not hear her. I didn’t think she legitimately cared. And she could easily get attention from anyone else at that bar that night. I pulled out my wallet and took out some yen to buy another drink, but the bartender reached her first and set down two beer bottles sporting a mythological creature on the labels. They were supposed to bring about good luck. He then turned to ask what I wanted, but she curtly interrupted in Japanese and slid one of her beers over to me. The bartender nodded with a smirk and walked away.
“Why do you keep staring at picture?” She asked again. I turned my head. Her eyes deliberate, focused—not fishing for a line. I sighed and picked up the beer.
“Kanpai,” I said clinking her glass as both of us took a drink.
The gentleman in the suit had come back, and looked displeased to see her conversing with me. He tapped her on the shoulder and wedged between us muttering something in a low voice that I couldn’t pick up. I just took another sip and pretended to mind my own business. She turned and lightly grazed his arm to pacify him, then gave him a quick peck on the cheek. She let him leave with his dignity. He was smart enough to accept it, and disappeared back out into the mess on the dance floor.
“You owe me answer,” she said tapping the top of my hand.
“Nande? Why do you want to know so bad?” I adjusted my body toward her so that our knees were lightly touching.
I didn’t think I was worth a beer in this place, especially with my attire. I was the only American, and local women typically wouldn’t dance with anyone that didn’t look at least a little Asian here. Yet, she sat there in her pastel green dress, which complemented her large chest that guys had been ogling over every time I had seen her dancing on the weekend nights past.
“If you tell me why, I’ll tell you,” she pursed her lips as if she wasn’t certain I was going to take the bait, but as if the very moment depended on it. Her face was soft. She was younger than me, but no stranger to dancing or drinking at this place.
“I’m Jack,” I said reaching out my hand.
“Megumi,” she smiled, embracing it. “So why?”
I looked back down at my cigarette that was burning out. She followed my eyes and then glanced back up at my face.
“Well, if you really want to know, I just feel a connection to him. I mean—I’m not an art snob or anything. Hell, I don’t even know anything about sketch.”
“I don’t know, drawings that are in between being finished and unfinished.” I said pointing at the portrait of the old man.
“It doesn’t look finished?”
“It doesn’t look like it’s been meddled with for months. It looks like it was drawn in the moment, and left there. It’s not all overworked and fake like a magazine cover.”
She squinted her eyes, thinking about it and then she opened her mouth like she was about to say something but shut it and just nodded. “What kind of connection?”
“Um,” I scratched the back of my head, and set it back down on the edge of the bar. “I guess I just know how he feels.”
“How does he feel?” Her tone was off putting, like she had begun to interrogate me. I shrugged and took another drink. Megumi did the same, still waiting for my answer.
“I think he just feels like he’s done it all, that maybe there’s nothing else to explore. And even though he’s been through it, he can’t see where he fits into the grand scheme. He just has this gaze. His eyes—you can tell the artist chose to focus all of the attention on them. He’s just sort of… wandering.”
She pursed her lips and looked up at the sketch and then back at me.
“You want it, then?” she said uncertain.
“No,” I winced tapping my cigarette on its tray. “I don’t want it.”
“Why not, you just said you liked it.”
“I never said I liked it, I said I connect with it. It’s different.”
“Just because I identify and admire something doesn’t mean it’s meant for me. I just understand it.”
“So you don’t like it?”
“I don’t like the way it makes me feel. It’s well drawn like all of the other work,” I said pointing at the gallery.
She thrummed her fingers on the bar like she was growing impatient, but I could tell she was just digesting what I was saying. “You’re not him yet, you know?”
I shrugged and moved my knees away from hers—starting to lose interest in being psychoanalyzed. She didn’t like it, and slid a little closer to me from her chair. We spoke for another two hours at the bar about art and her work as a nurse, where she declined dances from men who would try and cut into our conversation. Each time, she was polite and quick to dispel them. It was almost closing time when she asked:
“Don’t you want to know why?”
“Know why what?”
“Why I asked you about the picture,” she said.
“Sure,” I felt the weight of my beer bottle and decided to polish it off.
“I drew him,”
“Hah!” I coughed a bit.
“I’m serious, I drew. It’s all my work.”
“You’re very talented,” I looked back up at the old man, it was the only picture I was interested in. “Who is he then?”
“Arigato,” she smiled taking a drink from her beer nervously. “Do you—would you like to see more?”
“But they’re not here…” And I understood the rest.
The ishiganto stone on her shelf was barely visible in the faint moonlight through her window, but it had been placed there for a reason. It was said that spirits would travel in a straight path, so if the road forked, the spirit wouldn’t change course, and in this case it would run through her window. Okinawa was riddled with roads that would twist and turn. You never ended up where you thought you might. Seeing the wards were normal, and they fit in with the island’s haunted history after the war. They were said to be tribute to a man named Ishiganto, who stood up to evil once.
I took my eyes off of the stone and watched as she gave a long stretch, arching her back so her breasts perked up under her loose fitting tank top. The walls of the apartment were plastered with portraits she had drawn. People of all ages and ethnicities, people she’s never met before. I didn’t understand what I was doing there, how it had gotten to this point, or where it was going to go. I didn’t care.
“If I could go anywhere, it would be in space—like Mars. Even if I had to say goodbye, I’d do,” she said.
“Because no one’s ever been,” she said resting on my shoulder. “But at same time, there’s so much I want to do here, I don’t think I could leave right now… not yet.”
I remember dreaming once that I was in outer space. It was terrifying. I was the sole organism on a tiny planet in some unknown galaxy. No one knew I was there and all I knew was that I was stranded on the rock, but it was better than floating helplessly through cold darkness with nothing to hold onto. It’s how I felt as I gripped onto her sultry body. I was holding onto uncertainty, but somehow it felt okay.
“Oh… but your pictures aren’t of space. So I’m not sure it grabs you as much as you think it does.”
“I’m not sure you want it as bad as you say, it’s not your art. You aren’t making it out of mashed potatoes,” I said.
She gripped onto the collar of my v-neck and pulled it toward her cheek like a blanket. “Mashed potatoes,” she laughed. “What are you talking about?”
“If you could meet anyone in the world, who would it be? I mean, alive or dead doesn’t matter,” she asked. “You don’t want to answer? That’s fine.”
“No, I just haven’t thought about it before. They’re heavy questions. I don’t know who.” You would think being halfway around the world would give me some sort of perspective, but it hadn’t.
“Maybe you would benefit from thinking more,” she said snuggling closer to me and sniffing my shirt. “I like how you smell,” I stroked her hair and smiled while she kissed my neck. It reminded me of when I enlisted in the military fresh out of high school. I remembered staying with my girlfriend on leave—counting down the minutes before I had to board my flight and disappear. It was a motion we had done many times over my four-year enlistment and each visit only made it more dreadful to leave again. At age twenty-two we never knew for certain when I’d be home. I never knew if she’d still be waiting, and she didn’t know if I would be shipped back in a box. But to hold onto everything you wanted and cared for—knowing it was going to be stripped away from you in the morning by life—maybe that was home.
My girlfriend would sleep, but I’d fight the drowsiness because I didn’t want to lose the moment. I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold her forever. I didn’t want to let that go. Her. But that was a long time ago, and feelings like that didn’t come around that often for me anymore. It wasn’t that I was numb. I had just ridden that roller coaster too many times. I knew how long the anticipation of the climb would be, where the turns came, and how swiftly the plunges would take your breath away.
“Holding you feels right,” I told her. And it did, even if I had to get ready to teach a class in a few hours. I wrapped my arms around her a little tighter, knowing somewhere in the back of my mind that the collision of our worlds was by accident—we weren’t heading in the same direction.
“I like how you hold me,” she said softly. I liked that she wasn’t a cold calculator like so many other women from my past—Megumi was driven by something else that radiated her warmth toward the world. The same fire that had been extinguished inside of me in a time I no longer cared to remember. I could tell I had only just landed on the surface of her being, there was still so much more to explore. But I wasn’t interested in rediscovering the past in the present.
“I’d meet Ishiganto,” I said as she froze for a moment and then looked up at me, pressing her lips against my temple. I wondered what she meant by I feel like home when she barely knew me. Maybe we were two wandering souls who understood each other on some dark frequency, and what we were both searching for couldn’t be found in the present with each other. Maybe home dwelled somewhere in my past and somewhere in her future.
Maybe I had just imagined Ishiganto whispering to me in that moment: Disappear