It is home, but not anymore – not really. I’m an intruder, an interrupter. One friend flies down from San Francisco to see me for the weekend. Another sneaks in a dinner and chat at the beginning of her workweek. I take up a former professor’s lunch hour. And my mom – well, she asks for a couple of days off to accompany me 120 miles south to see my sister. I appreciate it all, of course, more than I could ever express. But at the end of the day, this is their life, their world, while mine – improbably – awaits me in Tokyo.
I needed this trip for my soul. It had been fourteen months and four days since I left the United States, and other than a week-long sojourn to visit relatives in Hong Kong, I had spent the entirety of the time in the land of the rising sun. My patience was wearing thin. I missed the West, desperately. I scoured Tokyo for burrito joints, I cooked lasagna at home, I bought American flag shorts, and I even declared to strangers how amazing the U.S. was, unprompted.* On the verge of – if not quite a breakdown, then something close, I took a flight home.
*“What’s the second best country, huh? What’s second?” I was the quintessential obnoxious American.
The trip doesn’t cost much – only miles – and it doesn’t take long – thanks to tailwinds. I struggle to reconcile the ease of travel with the severe isolation I have felt over the course of the past year plus. It is surreal. The night before I left the U.S., I had a drink on a rooftop bar downtown with three of my closest friends; one took me to the airport immediately following. It still feels like yesterday. But before I know it, I walk past the perpetually grumpy customs agents and into the Los Angeles night, into the clusterfuck that is LAX. My life feels unpaused. Or perhaps, paused.
Freeways aside, the city feels a lot less congested than it used to. Compared to Tokyo, how could it not? I go to an antiques market in Santa Monica and am amazed. There are dozens of people there, at most hundreds – rather than the thousands upon thousands that would surely attend a similar event in the Far East. I wander, meander, linger, all without fear that I might be engulfed by a sea of humanity, by crowds four-, five-, six-deep. Meanwhile, public trash cans are everywhere. No need to sort, recycle, combust. I toss with glee, with abandon.
Little things underline the differences between where I was and where I am, where I live and where I visit. I wait in line outside a downtown club at 2 am (ultimately unsuccessfully), and a police cruiser circles a few times, ever-vigilant. Right, I tell myself. Because crime exists here. The homeless are everywhere, and not only that, but they dare to approach, ask for money outright. I have to tip at places again, hesitating at restaurants and bars to try and figure out what constitutes a fair percentage. And I drive, because it’s Los Angeles, and of course you do.
But it is at Target that it hits me. I stare, mindlessly, at the directory.
- “Can I help you?” A friendly employee.
- “I’m just looking.”
- “I can tell you where it is.” He offers with a smile.
- “I’m not sure what I’m looking for.”
- “Don’t know, huh?” He chuckles as he finishes my thought. “Give a shout if you need some help.”
That’s the exchange. No struggle, no awkwardness. As I walk away, I don’t cry, but I want to, and my heart swells with emotion. I don’t even know how to explain it. But in that moment, I am reminded that this exists. This, where I can feel like I belong, without any effort. A fucking Target in Pasadena, California.
I don’t do much with my trip. I eat at a bunch of places I wanted to eat. I watch a bunch of movies I wanted to watch. I see a bunch of people I wanted to see. It’s incredible in some ways. But it’s terrible in others. A close friend has set a wedding date. Another has been working at a new job for the past couple of months. My own sister got engaged. And I haven’t been there for any of it. Their lives have moved on. Life has moved on. And I’m stuck on the other side of the world.
By the end of the ten days, I’m ready. Like I said, I feel like an intruder, an interrupter. Truth is, I kind of am. My life awaits me in Tokyo. My job awaits me in Tokyo. I have bills to pay, sake festivals to attend, friends to play with, even a girl to see about (maybe). They’re there in Japan, waiting for me to unpause. I’m glad it’s not forever, of course. But for the next couple of years, for the moment at least, where I belong is not a Target in Pasadena, but Tokyo, Japan. Improbable as it may be.