Photos by Rommy Ghaly
I once took yoga classes with a wiry and winkingly intense instructor who, after each session, would have us repeat back a little mantra to him. “The universe made me,” we’d chorus, “The universe loves me.” Then, “Om.”
It was just something everyone said.
My parents fell in love in a parallel universe. They’re a bad match in this one, but in a long-gone subset of reality, they met, and it went well. I’ve hardly ever thought about that moment for them. It’s hard to really think about your parents before you were born. Pre-conception all that was there for you was an enervating anxiety about the immense precision required by random chance to beget you; dad wearing that teal vest that caught mom’s eye in the library when she sat next to the window and not in the common room because some person with odiously little relevance to you (and yet) happened to be in the common room, and something about that day made mom want to avoid talking to people, you know those days, you get them. It’s a big contraption where the ball drops and rolls down the tube that tips and hits the dominoes that fall and trip the wire that sparks the flint that sets the fire in the funny vintage pants you can’t believe your parents ever wore.
My parents met in Tokyo. There are places where you can nod at your roots, tangible and trusty and inextricably fused. Places where the language and landscape resonate, and you understand why the jokes are funny. Then there are neon signs reflected in windshields, wisps of vapor condensing from bowls of hot broth in a million tiny ramen joints, kismet, blossoms afloat on black water.
My parents got engaged in a parked car
and then immediately backed
into a lamp post.
My parents got to Tokyo via a narrative path I’ve already worn down; there’s mom, I say, who was a Croatian expat at school, sparkling promise, graceful, athletic and laughing in old photos. She had an oil heir fiancé who was jilted at the airport when, en route to catch a plane to Dubai, she cried “Stop the car, I can’t do this,” and turned around to dad. Dad, in this story, gets roguish glamour and a full head of RIP auburn hair; a trip across the Pacific from his small town to teach English, toast mochi and model. When they met, dad’s face was supersized among the exhilarating cacophony of blinking cosmopolitan space-age advertorial madness that is the universe of Tokyo billboards, part of the city’s seizuring fabric. My parents got engaged in a parked car and then immediately backed into a lamppost. The first five minutes of their relationship summarizes its totality.
I’ve never seen my parents in love.
On the rare occasions they’re in each other’s presence now, a thousand invisible electric fly swatters hover menacingly in the air. When they talk it’s like they’ve got clay masks on, every facial muscle a dry fissure cracking. My haziest memories display sadness run through with a dark eccentricity I couldn’t contextualize back then. Dependable adults stood out in the rain senselessly, disappearing and reappearing anxious hours later. It was the particular sense of normality I grew up with. I was four and barefoot, holding a magazine open to a picture of a man feeding a woman a strawberry, taking it to my parents and guilessly asking why they didn’t do that. My mom laughed and said to my dad, “she wants to know why we don’t do that.”
“You have to see it to believe it,” I was told about Tokyo’s anomalies: live fish swimming in gulpable beer, ferociously dependable public transport, luxury fruit sold in jewel boxes, grown specially with characters imposed on their skin by a sticker applied when green and removed when ripe.
I made the past a game to play
with passing landmarks
(flowering tree: “Stop the car, I can’t do this,”
roadside love hotel, “Stop the car”).
So I went to see it when I was 19. At some point during the cab ride from the airport into the city I passed through the point at which my mom turned her car around all those years ago, a spectral bubble of emotional upheaval left in her wake. I hadn’t realized I’d expected to intuitively pinpoint the exact spot until I couldn’t. I made the past a game to play with passing landmarks (flowering tree: “Stop the car, I can’t do this,” roadside love hotel, “Stop the car”).
My first night I sat atop the hotel roof watching red aircraft-signal lights blink atop the skyscrapers, strangely crustaceous in their languorous co-ordination, pre-empting collision. I ate all my childhood comfort foods, rice with Glico curry and udon topped with waving bonito flakes, but I placed my orders like a chump, gesturing and laughing an embarrassed apology for being such a tourist. I nibbled down Pocky sticks within what to me seemed to be a microcosm of everything unlikely: infinite little spectacles that would have been as familiar to my parents as pet names. There was the strict serenity of imperial gardens (all iris and lotus), ambrosial musk melons, smiley-faced traffic cones, dolls sold with unidentified white matter squirted across their blushing faces, kimono-clad women, cherry-blossom soft serve and boutiques of those beautiful, glass-encased glossy fruits, marked for greatness atop velvet cushions. I idly wondered, sentience notwithstanding, if somehow those apples felt it.
At a very old market I watched a man selling fermented pickles. He called attention to his wares with pendulous slow bellows, mournfully stretched syllables of a word I of course didn’t understand but have to assume was Japanese for “pickles.” It made me sad – not a lot of customers, the continual call, something morosely historic in the routine. Later, I read in a glossy food magazine that the pickles in that market were the world’s most highly regarded. A lush legacy of blue vinegared eggplant and red radish tumbled infinitely backwards through a cultural history I’d summarized as sympathetic, all that inflated intuition, as if the baritone vendor and I had shared something satisfying and I was allowed to decide what.
To say that I was walking around was less accurate than to say that I was riding the tide, a current swell of so much concentrated into a small space, a coral-reef bustle glitch-flickering and setting off chain reactions in every direction. Within teeming crowds I wandered through the fritzing city square that my dad’s flattened, billboard-scaled eyes surveyed before ever setting on me. I visited my mom’s high school, and the parks through which my parents romantically strolled.
I half-consciously kept an eye out for significant touchstones that pre-empted life as I know it, miniscule personal oracles, maybe some initials scared into a ginseng trunk and temporality at large, or a dinged lamppost. Serenely disconnected, I found temple grounds where, over years, nature had been encouraged to develop within a set of specifications objectively convoluted but pleasing nonetheless. Just my presence over the garden’s koi ponds attracted fleshy, gaping schools. Brimming at the surface, gumming the air, their demanding mouths were awestruck “o’s,” expectant even though I had no intention of giving them anything.