This Train is Bound for Tomorrow
On a late-night train, there was a girl. I faintly recall a scarf, round cheeks and bangs long enough that they caught on her eyelashes. Her hands fluttered to the cadence of her voice. Her leg was warm against mine.
I don’t remember her name.
One of the senior girls from Osaka University’s karate club had approached me and a fellow exchange student after Friday practice, explaining in simple Japanese that she and her friends were going out for dinner, and would we like to join them? At two months, we were the freshest white belts. We fumbled through pre-practice greetings and stilted conversation in the changing rooms, slowly picking up on the rhythm of punches and kicks that marked warm-up period. The members had been patient, but distant – it was the first time they’d reached out outside of practice, and we took the chance eagerly.
Dinner was filled with half-understood questions and clumsy replies, mutual curiosity mowing away at any lingering awkwardness. By the time the December cold chased us into the last train home, we were conquering the space around us in an easy sprawl.
The only light were flashes. Passing houses and glowing signboards left shadows of blurred people. The bright interior of the train struck my brain. It became a place where time was irrelevant and place arbitrary.
I sunk into the heated seats like falling into the haze of sleep. A shoulder breached the invisible bubble I wore around me as the awkward foreigner.
“Tell me more about your experience in Osaka.”
My first impression of her in our glancing interactions was that she was shy. Sometimes she would make eye contact and then abort the mission. It seemed inevitable then, that our dinner conversation opened tentatively and small.
“What are you majoring in?” she asked. She handed me a pair of chopsticks. I nodded politely.
“Comparative Literature,” I replied, thankful I’d had this conversation many times. Her eyes widened in obvious question.
“I’m taking a class in modern Japanese literature.”
Recognising the olive branch for what it was, she peppered me for more details, filling in with yes and no questions so I could answer easier.
Oh, is the class interesting? Yes. Is the text in Japanese? No, no. Do you find Japanese writing different from what you’ve studied before? Very unique.
Hours later, we graduated to cosying up on the train.
“I heard Hong Kong is also a busy city.”
“It’s similar,” I shrugged. Hong Kong was home. Japan, however…
After having road tripped around various regions and lived in one place for an extended period, walking down the most innocuous of alleyways still called forth a general feeling of awe. I wasn’t sure it would ever go away. And I wasn’t sure I could parse through it, even if I wanted to.
“Osaka is fun. Relaxing. Feels more like a holiday than study.”
She leaned her head back against the train window and slanted her gaze at me, eyes soft as if I was a map of places she has never been. “Sounds nice.”
“Have you travelled much?” I asked.
“Does commuting substitute for aeroplane travel,” she wondered, “if it’s a few hours long?”
I tried to imagine waking up at five in the morning, drowsy and facing the prospect of a long day. Then, worn out from the three-hour karate practice, having to trudge home in the cold, heat and everything in between.
“One way or both ways?”
“A lot of people commute long hours.”
I’d probably fall asleep and end up lost. I didn’t say anything. Just shook my head in admiration.
We were nearing my stop when she spoke up again.
“I have a wish.” Her eyes darted away in close imitation of the girl in the changing rooms. Bashful. “If it’s possible – if! I really want to travel someday.”
While I struggled to find my Japanese tongue, she continued on fervently.
“Studying abroad like you, or even finding work in another country! That’d be so cool.”
She sighed. “I hope I’ll get the chance. But my English isn’t good.”
Anything I could say felt insufficient. In the end I mustered up a, “Fight-o!” and a fist pump. Flustered, I laughed. She laughed too. We laughed together and wished each other luck.
Her words stayed with me, past the small smile peeking through the closing train doors. In that moment, I felt as if we had breached closeness beyond spoken language. Wrapped in the warmth of her openness and honesty, the cold soothed the tumble of my thoughts.
My cheeks were brushed red by the wind and the heat of embarrassment. I had, in my privilege, always considered my perceived fortune as simply what is. The flying around, the isolated life I crafted for myself in countries abroad; I thought only of the daily struggle to learn a culture and to fit. The sweat and tears of my everyday reality had buried my curiosity. Where did I lose the desire to understand what is different? The friends that knock on my door too, have become insignificant.
Yet she wanted it all.
I wonder if she shared these dreams with the people in her life. But while dreams might be whispered, endings aren’t always discovered. I lost contact with her after. She didn’t have Facebook. I didn’t use LINE.
We had, in the blinding veil of morning, faded back into casual strangers.
Cover by Eutah Mizushima