They say that no one goes through life unscathed. But you know Ken Seeroi ain’t trying to hear that. I figured hey, move to a nice safe country with pretty girls and amazing food and just avoid that whole scathing thing altogether.
Well, you can’t say I didn’t try. But instead, I found myself smack in the middle of something I was totally unprepared to deal with.
I met Shun and Makiko one morning as I was standing in front of my apartment drinking coffee and wondering what the hell I was doing with my life, teaching English in Japan. I do that a lot. I mean, drink coffee and teach English, that is. It’s a really bad habit. But somebody’s got to educate all those kids. Anyway, when they came out of the apartment two doors down from me, they introduced themselves and we small-talked for a bit. Then they went off to go clam digging, but not before inviting me to dinner that Friday night.
If you live in Japan, you know just how rare this is. I was like, holy shit, actual Japanese friends. People go decades without ever speaking to their neighbors, and to be invited into someone’s home is nothing short of miraculous. I should also mention that it’s a lot more miraculous if you’re speaking Japanese. People are way more willing to invite you over if you represent a free English lesson. That’s a thirty-dollar value. But Shun and Makiko spoke zero English. God, I loved them.
Good Friends Make Good Neighbors
Soon we were hanging out a couple times a week. I’d go over to their apartment for curry and beer, they’d come to mine for shochu and this dried octopus I buy at the convenience store. Hey, it tastes better than it sounds, really. Once in a while Shun and I would go out together and hit a cheap izakaya and talk about the kind of things Japanese guys talk about when women aren’t around, like where you can buy Louis Vuitton bags that look just like the real thing for a fraction of the price. Girls can’t tell the difference, probably, and it’s such a deal. Shun and Makiko also had a two year-old daughter named Ai-chan, who used to scramble to high-five me every time we met. Unfortunately, Ai-chan also had a terminal case of snot emanating from her nostrils that seemed to coat her entire being, such that I was terrified of making any sort of physical contact with her.
Shun: “Ai-chan! It’s Ken! Say hi!”
Ai Chan: Not a word, but massive amounts of nose snot.
Shun: “Ai-chan! Give Ken a high five!”
Ken: “Eeeeuuw, yeaaaah. Small . . . touch. Okay, good job, Ai-chan. And look, Uncle Ken’s brought you a present! Your very own box of tissues! Here, give us a nice blow. Aw, Jesus, what’re they feeding you?”
This went on for a few months, to until I decided I ought to actually attempt cooking something in return for all the delicious food Makiko’d been making. I figured I’d invite them over the next time I ran into them. Only problem was, I didn’t see them for a good three weeks. It was a bit concerning. We’d been planning to go to karaoke together. I even had a new song I was planning to bust out.
The Bachelor Pad
The crazy thing about my last apartment is that I had no furniture. None. Like, once I had a small table, but it self-exploded one night. So I just sat on the floor with tall cans of beer and watched TV on the floor. It was okay. I have really low standards. And around midnight on a Saturday, just as I was wondering if it was worth crawling all the way to the fridge for another beer, the doorbell rang. I got up, put on pants, and there was Shun.
“Hey, how’s it going?” I said. “Haven’t seen you in a while!”
“Yeah,” he said as he stepped in and took off his shoes. I could see that something was was wrong.
“I’ll get you a beer,” I said. “What’s up?”
“You got the landlord’s phone number?”
“Yeah, somewhere in this pile of papers. Grab a seat.”
He sat on the floor with his beer. “Where’d your little table go?” he asked. Then, “You seen Makiko lately?”
“No, why?” I said. “I haven’t seen either of you in forever. The table, uh, had to take a little trip. To heaven.”
“I hope she’s not dead,” he said. He dialed the landlord. “He’s not answering,” he said.
“Well it’s after midnight. Dead? Why? Dude, Makiko’s not dead.”
So it turned out they’d had a fight a week ago, and Shun had packed his bags and left for his mother’s house. I was like, “Don’t you have a key?” and he looked thoughtful and said, “I was pissed so I gave it back to her.” Then apparently, little Ai-chan had been dropped off at her grandmother’s house three days ago and no one had heard from Makiko since.
We went outside and looked at the door. “Maybe we could go in through the mailbox,” I said. I’m real MacGyver like that. “Only all my coat hangers are plastic.” “Doesn’t it smell kind of funny?” Shun asked. We sniffed at the exhaust fan. “I dunno,” I said, “maybe it’s garbage or something.” We went back into my place, then out to the balcony. He only lived two doors away. I stood up on my air-conditioning unit and looked around the partition. If you stepped onto the railing, you could hold onto the partition and swing around to the next apartment. Do that twice and you’d be there. I looked down four floors to the ground, and reflected on the small pile of beer cans I’d just drunk. It was really high. “Maybe we should call the cops,” I said and stepped down. Shun got onto the air conditioner and stood there for a moment. There was a soft, warm breeze. Then without a word, he stepped onto the railing and balanced there. I thought it’d looked dicey before, but when I saw him up there it was way worse. If he fell, he’d be dead for sure. “Freaking be careful,” I said. I say a lot of dumb stuff like that.
He twisted his body around the partition and dropped onto the next door neighbor’s porch, then began working his way onto his own balcony. It occurred to me that maybe the sliding glass door wouldn’t even be open.
“Can you get in?” I yelled.
“Hang on,” he said. “It’s dark. I think I see her.”
“Open the front door,” I said. “When you get in, open the front door!”
I went inside, then out my own front door. In about one second, the door to Shun’s place flew open and he fell out, screaming “She’s dead! She’s dead!” He dropped to the concrete as I caught him, saying “no, she can’t be. How’s that possible?” He was crying and shaking. “I thought she was asleep! She’s cold, she’s cold!” Holy shit, I thought. I held him in my arms and he wouldn’t stop crying, just wailing. I was like, what do I say in Japanese? What would I even say in English? I know Japanese stuff like “well, that’s too bad,” for when your bike gets a flat tire, or “I’m sorry to hear about your loss” for when your granny dies, but what do you say to a guy when his wife’s just committed suicide? I said nothing.
Shun was babbling and almost incoherent, and suddenly seemed to be all wet, and I wondered if it was tears, sweat, or he’d peed himself. “Call the police,” he said. I was shaking so badly I could hardly hold my phone.
“What’s the number?” I stammered. “The number, what’s the number?”
“119,” he said, which in Japanese sounds like ten-one-nine. I knew that. I started to dial.
“Where the hell’s the ten button?” I cried. “I can’t find the ten button!” I was shaking like mad. Then I thought maybe I’d made a mistake in my Japanese, so I tried to calm down and check my numbers. Shun and I are laying on the concrete, and he’s pale and wet and crying, and I’ve got my left arm tightly around him and a phone in my right hand and I’m counting, One, two, three, four, five . . . until I get to ten and I still can’t figure out where the hell the ten button is, so I start over again, One, two three . . .
“I don’t know how to dial the phone,” I said. I pressed it into his hand, and he managed to get it dialed and passed it back. A police dispatcher answered. Suddenly, I didn’t know what to say again.
“Hello,” I said. Then, “There’s a dead person!”
“What’s the person’s name?” she asked. I couldn’t remember, so I told her who I was. “What’s your location?” she said. I couldn’t remember.
“Japan,” I said.
Japanese Emergency Response
Shun and I were still laying there when the paramedics ran up the stairs, followed shortly by the police. Soon there was a swarm of stretchers, oxygen masks, medical bags and police of every sort.
You know, unless you live near a row of bars, which I didn’t, Japan’s really quiet at night. I could only imagine what the neighbors were thinking, with all the sirens and police and ambulance crews. A policeman squatted down beside us and started asking questions. This went on for about ten minutes, and I knew a solid hundred people in the neighboring apartments could hear every word. A lot of the questions were personal, and for the first time it occurred to me that this was a criminal investigation. I thought, shouldn’t this be happening at the police station? Instead, we were just collapsed in a heap on the concrete. I was a mess. Shun was a disaster.
Finally I said, let’s at least take this into my apartment. The policeman said nothing, but kept asking questions for another twenty minutes. Other cops came by and asked things. She’d been holding her phone and texting someone when she died. Who was that person? Where’d she gotten the pills she took? The ambulance crew went in and out and the medical examiner arrived to take away the body. I suggested moving into my apartment again and finally the suggestion took. We’d been outside for nearly an hour, in a crumpled pile on the concrete.
When we got inside, it occurred to me I had a different problem. My place was a holy mess. There were dishes in the sink and little stacks of garbage and empty beer cans, and everywhere were enormous piles of laundry. Hey, I was planning to do everything on Sunday. Soon a dozen police were cycling in and out asking every possible question of Shun and me. What time did Shun arrive? Why didn’t he have a key? How long had she been depressed? Was there infidelity? How had he broken in to the apartment? How many beers had we had? This went on for hours, sitting on my floor.
Somewhere around four a.m. things got a bit stranger. Makiko’s parents showed up. Shun broke down when he saw them and with tears streaming down his face got on his hands and knees and bent his head to the ground, apologizing over and over. Her parents were crying. I was crying. The policeman was sitting there with his notebook and he was crying. I started madly stuffing laundry into the closet and put on some tea. I looked in my cabinet and all I could find was one tea cup, a plastic McDonald’s glass, three wine glasses, and a Rirakuma coffee mug, so that’s how everyone got their tea. Hey, I live by myself, what can I say?
Then Makiko’s other children showed up. Other children? Apparently she’d been married before and had two children, aged seven and twelve. They were bawling, having been woken in the middle of the night to the news that their mother had killed herself. I gave them wineglasses full of tea. Shun’s mother showed up. I gave her a beer mug full of tea.
Sometime after dawn, everyone left, except Shun, who asked if he could stay. We unfolded the futon and passed out. When I woke up a couple hours later, he was gone.
The Morning After
I stepped out on the porch. Christ, it was a beautiful day. This is where I’d met them a few months ago, and now Makiko was dead. I felt like hell. I decided to go for a run to clear my head. I went in and changed into a t-shirt and these short red running shorts, then went outside and laced up my shoes. The night before there’d been an emergency room’s worth of medical devices on the porch, along with every type of police and medical personnel you’d ever imagined. Now it was all gone, except for a small flyer for a pizza place laying in front of the apartment where they used to live.
It was so strange. They’d cleaned everything up, except for this one ad for a pizza joint. I picked it up. I couldn’t believe they’d never live there again. My friends were gone. For some strange reason, I tried the door handle and it turned. I opened the door.
Surprise party! Everyone was in the apartment! Hello! they all happily shouted at once, and Shun jumped up and ran to me. Come in, come in, he said. Holy Christ. I closed the door. Shun opened the door and grabbed me by the arm. Everyone’s waiting for you, he said. Everyone was in black suits. I looked down and all I could see were my bare legs and these tiny running shorts. I went in and everyone was smiling–have some food! Want something to drink? I was still holding the flyer for the pizza place, since I didn’t have any pockets in my shorts. I looked down again and to my shock, there was Makiko, laying dead on a futon in the middle of the room. Shouldn’t the coroner have taken her away? Why the hell was she still there? She did not look very good.
“We’re putting make-up on her now,” said Makiko’s mother. I’d never noticed how many earrings Makiko had before.
“That’s, uh, good,” I said. Again, I had no idea what to say.
Somehow, they’d run out in the early hours of the morning and already gotten a glossy 8×12 framed portrait of Makiko and laid it by her head, then whipped up a bowl of her favorite meat stew and placed it beside here, along with a bowl of rice. It wasn’t even ten a.m. yet. A pair of chopsticks were sticking straight up from the rice.
“Come and sit beside her,” said Shun. That was about the last thing I wanted to do, but as I had no choice, I knelt beside her dead body with my running shorts and pizza flyer and looked at her and her family, and wanted to cry. But since no one else was, I didn’t. The whole thing was already weird enough. Everyone thanked me incessantly for the use of my apartment the previous night. After half an hour I made my goodbyes. I couldn’t figure what else to do, so I went for a run by the river. Such a beautiful, sunny day.
Makiko’s body lay there for another two days until they finally carried her away surrounded by flowers. Shun said he didn’t sleep the entire time. He was wracked with guilt. He started cutting his arms with razor blades. He must have had a hundred cuts all up and down them.
Then on the third day they started cleaning the place out. They threw away everything, and I mean everything. Makiko’s parents came by and gave me a case of beer. Shun gave me their microwave and a bunch of dishes, including some tea cups. I figured those would come in handy. It took them exactly two days to throw out all the furniture, appliances, and traces of their life, and then clean the place. After it was done, I went into the apartment and it looked like nothing had ever happened. All that was left was an enormous pile of trash in front of the building. No sentimentality, no mementos. They bagged up all of Makiko’s clothes and possessions and laid them among the trash. And then it was like she’d never existed.