Deep Breathing

The train was hot and crowded with drunk people, some asleep, some awake, some stuck somewhere in between, all victims of another hot summer’s evening spent drink, no doubt in some cramped small corner somewhere that smelt of stale beer and vomit caked into the walls after years and years of the same rough cycle.

This was Tokyo as he had come to know it.  A sticky, sweaty, hastily slapped together swirl of lights, stress, and piss.  

The foreigner was standing in the nook where the seats met the wall, leaned back into it like he was trying to make himself as small as possible, the heat of so many others making it ever harder for him to breathe than usual.  Someone nearby smelled like rotten eggs (he had an ever-growing suspicion that it was the old dude passed out but a few feet away, the collar of his bleached white shirt yellowed with sweat and maybe something more) and it was making his head spin.

Two more stations.  Just two more stations.  You can do this.  His head was pounding something fierce.  Maybe he had just had one too many beers before catching the train home but no tipsy stupor had felt quite like this before.  Just don’t forget to keep breathing.

Somewhere a girl laughed a loud, unmistakably drunken laugh, ripping through the summer hush like a tiger claw.  She was happy, maybe even having the time of her life at least until the glow faded and the hangover was all she was left with.  Why can’t you just be more like her?

He was an angry drunk or at least so he’d been told, not like a volcano, volatile and confrontational, but like embers left forgotten at the end of a barbecue, smoldering and destructive in their own right.  So he didn’t drink, refused the invitation to a fault, which led to only more rage and stress in its own way, and the cycle continued.

Go to Tokyo, they had said.  You’ll like it there, the bright lights, the action, the feeling that anything could happen at any given time.  Go to Tokyo and become a big deal.

The car gave a quick lurch to the left and a few feet away a particularly red-faced corporate oyaji let his fingers slip from the overhead strap and stumbled backwards towards the door, only partially avoiding a collision with the exhausted high schooler behind him, stiff, engourged hand briefly rustling over the hem of her checkered skirt.  Intentional?  Possibly.  This was Japan, after all.  The girl gave a sharp yip then went back to the bright plasma screen of her phone as if nothing had happened at all.  The oyaji, for his part, hiccuped a soft excuse and turned away, he too reaching into his pocket for his own cell.  Or at least he hoped that was what the old man was doing.

I need to get out of here.

The train came to a halt.  He glanced out the window.  They still hadn’t reached the station.  He tried not to swear.

“The train has stopped due to a red light.  We sincerely apologize for this brief delay,” a nasally voice piped over the intercom in all too formal Japanese.  Even though his language skills were far from perfect, that formality, that embarrassingly insincere rigidity made him want to stick his hand through a paper door, like a ninja in one of those old black-and-white samurai movies they had made him sit through in college.

It’s okay. He forced the positive thought through his brain.  Just keep breathing.

Ever since he had moved to Tokyo, away from the countryside capital he had just begun to call home, everything annoyed him, made his life unbearable.  Sometimes, no, most of the time, it was all he could do to just keep going, to get from Point A in the morning to Point B at the end of the day.

“We will begin moving now.  Please be careful.  We deeply apologize for this grave inconvenience.”

Japan, he had come to find the hard way, was a land built on apologies and insincerities.  Keep the peace and, above all else, always take the blame.  Well, that’s a lie, he thought.  If you were really that sorry, you’d move before apologizing.

His eyes swept over the crowded car once more and, before he could pull them away to a safe direction, met others:  A shrunken old women, probably well into her nineties going off of how her bent back left her in a permanent slouch, who did not even bother to avert her suspicious gaze as their eyes came together )You and me both, lady.), a dolled-up gyaru, permed hair dyed an unnatural hue of “blond”, eyelashes extended to comical length like a wild giraffe on the savannah, next to her was an unmistakably hammered college student, puffy red face framed by a pair of gaudily expensive glasses.  Their eyes met, unfocused and dizzy, and the college kid tilted his head in a curious display of, what was it, solidarity.

The train lilted ever slightly to the left as it turned for an approach into the next station.  He inhaled a puff of stale, wet summer air and braced for what was next.  It’s okay.  Just one more station after this.  Just tough it out.

The car came to a stop and there was an eruption of action as dozens of drunk or otherwise incapacitated commuters made for the still shut double doors positioned every ten or so meters along the carbon sides of the train.  For these few seconds, and these few seconds only as repeated every time a train rolled into a station, the facade of rigid organization and streamlined functionality fell and was replaced by all-out anarchy, a fight for the door on both sides, salmon swimming both upstream and downstream at the same time, unburdened by care for the pulsating throng around them.  There was a primal beauty to the whole thing, primal beastiality in the guise of getting from Point A to Point B.

The myth on the outside was that Japanese people were always so nice, so welcoming, so afraid of burdening others with their rudeness but, as he found, that was far from the truth.  Deep down, everyone was a selfish asshole just the same as the next guy.  Someone shoved a wispy hand into his chest and the foreigner found himself stumbling back over the plastic divider behind him and onto the lap of an unsuspecting bystander, who could only muster a soft hiccup of surprise behind closed eyes, too tired or fed up to bother breaking the ruse of his fake slumber.

Tough it out.  One more station.  You can do it.

He apologized as he reached for leverage to pull himself back up, finding instead his unintended  landing spot’s shoulder.  Head spinning, dizzy with anxious bluster, by the time he had pulled himself back up, the exchange of exiters and enterers had ended, the cheap MIDI clip had chimed, the doors had shut, and the train was on the move once again, more crowded than before, so crowded in fact that he found his hip pressed hard against the wall on one side, his other side rubbing against the groin of a particularly frazzled salaryman trying very hard (and failing) to pretend he didn’t notice his temporary neighbor was a gaijin, himself being crowded by a couple already deep in the throes of what it was that couples did after an ill-advised few drinks too many.

“Japanese people are so reserved,” they had said to him.  “Americans have no self control when it comes to those sorts of things but Japanese people?  Jeez, it’s like the Victorian age over there.”  They had lied.  In the biggest city in the world, there was more than enough of anything for anyone.

Just breathe.  Breathe.  He repeated it like a mantra in his head over and over again.  One more station.  Just keep breathing.

It was so hot and only getting hotter.  Hot, pulsating like a banana left to rot in the sun, he found the wall of the train car to be unbearably uncomfortable. How much longer was it?  Everyone knew Tokyo train stations were purposely built way too close together in what surely had to have been some sort of money-grabbing scheme on the part of the train companies but this train had to have been going unnaturally slow.  How much longer?  His arm gave an involuntary (he hoped) twitch.  Why was it so hot?  It was too hot.  Why had he worn such thick clothes?  This shirt had to have been made for the winter.

Just keep breathing.  But his clothes were too heavy, it was impossible to breathe when his shirt was like an anvil hanging from his neck.  Breathe.

He tried, a wheezing, cracking gasp for air that hit his windpipe like a sports car slamming straight into a concrete wall.  The salaryman gave him an inquisitive glance.  He wanted to ask why.  Was it because he was a foreigner?  The Japanese always did like their weird foreigner stories.  That was it wasn’t it? Breathe. He was sweating something fierce now, his brow slick, eyes stinging from the salt.  Just keep breathing.

Life in Japan seemed like such a great idea at the time, a new world, a new start, a trail less traveled.  But coming here had to have been a mistake.  What was he doing here?  He didn’t belong here.  All the other passengers knew it.  He knew it.  His friends, few and far between, knew it. Don’t forget to breathe.  He was a foreigner and a fraud.

His head was spinning.  More and more people were staring.  Why were they staring?  Always with the staring.  He didn’t look like everyone else.  What was so wrong with that?  Keeping breathing.  The salaryman said something in broken English but the foreign invader couldn’t quite figure it out, no, didn’t want to figure it out.  I know Japanese.  Why would a foreigner know anything other than English?  Japanese was for Japanese people only.  He was a foreigner so they would never speak it to him.  Outsiders only knew English.

It came out all at once, his fist, a sweaty, shaky ball, slammed hard enough against the carbon, fake plaster wall of the car with enough force to leave an indentation.  Someone let loose an involuntary gasp of shock.  Gaijin, always so angry, interesting but not interesting enough to let come closer than an arm’s length. Why did they always have to stare and why was it so hard for him to breathe?

The automated doors slid open and relief flooded his suddenly guilt-ridden mind.  Get a grip, man.  Don’t forget to keep breathing.  The salaryman gave a deep sigh.

The foreigner stepped out into the unnaturally green-hued light of the train platform, greeted by the song of the summer cicadas.  The doors closed behind him and he collapsed into a heap on the impeccably cleaned tile floor.  How much longer could he keep this whole game up?

It repeated in the back of his skull, a dull drumming like those of a summer festival procession.  Just keep breathing.  Just keep breathing.  Just keep breathing.


Stephen Tetsu is a broke comedian living in Tokyo, Japan.  Sometimes, but thankfully not too often, he too punches walls.  Follow him on Twitter @STEPHEN_TETSU

One thought on “Deep Breathing

  1. Hopefully this is fiction and not how you actually feel! Please don’t stop breathing! Next time be one of the fake sleepers…

    I didn’t know rotten bananas pulsated ! Hahahaha

    Robert S. Fagerness

    Principal Engineer


    Office: 916-863-1785 x1

    Mobile: 916-296-5138

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