by Maxine Webster

Editor's note: 'Tokyo' was the second piece published in our Morning Breath series in February 2016. The series also includes 'Astrology For God Fearers' by Lauren Schuhmacher, 'Luxury Tax,' and 'When Allergic Reactions Become A Part of the Enigmatic Relationship Fabric' by Paul Glader.

I was nineteen when I lived in Japan.  I was on a six month service trip living with eighteen other people in a tiny house on the outskirts of Tokyo, and somewhere between orientation and the last lunch of ramen noodles, I made a close friend.

We were both young with no real responsibilities; two people from opposite sides of the globe who bonded over a few similarities, but mostly over differences.  Him, the tropics; me, the north.  Him, music; me, tone deaf.  Him, sincere; me, sarcastic.

The mornings in Tokyo were freezing and our house didn’t have heating.  We ate the same breakfast every morning: a fried egg with two slices of white bread and apricot jam.

One night we borrowed bicycles from a neighbor and ventured off with no idea where we were going.  We rode under bridges and along small, man-made bodies of water, exploring the narrow, concrete maze that is Tokyo.  Several times I thought we were lost, only to realize he knew where we were.  At one point we had to walk the bikes up a steep hill; after he had made it to the top he turned around and, noticing I was struggling, walked halfway down, took the bike from me and walked it the rest of the way up, saying nothing.  I have no idea how he navigated a foreign city without a map.

We spent New Year’s Eve in a vacant subway station blasting LMFAO and displaying every stupid dance move we knew.  The only people we saw was a group of thirty Nepalese tourists who joined our dance party for one song.  I couldn’t label what we were, just that we were more than friends but not in a position to be dating. I constantly dreaded the end.

I applied to University while I was in Asia.  I had always dreamed of studying in New York, but the idea of living so far away from him was difficult.  In a moment of honesty, he admitted to me that he hoped I didn’t get in so I could move to his country instead. 

But I did get in.  And with the understanding that our lives were going in different places (literally and figuratively), I moved to New York shortly after returning from Japan.

There was a thrill in moving to the city.  That first month I made a handful of new friends, got a part-time job and adjusted to the ebb and flow of the city.  While I was proud of myself for flourishing in a brand new place, all I had to do was see a couple on the subway and heartbreak would come flooding back.  It angered me to think I had wasted time and energy and emotion on something that never materialized.  None of my successes seemed to matter at the end of the day.  I have never experienced a single year so equally characterized by thriving and pain.

Four years later, the friendship only exists in flashbacks, small lessons learned through heartache, infrequent Facebook messages, and the realization that everything I experience becomes a part of who I am.  Although there is little to show from that friendship other than what I carry from it, perhaps the weight of those things is a normal part of life.  And maybe the burden will be useful to me one day.

I received a message from him a few months ago.  Through a chance encounter, he recently met the only other person I know from his country.  They have since moved in together with a few other people.  I still don’t know what to make of it other than acknowledge that the world is impossibly small.

Despite the recent coincidence, I have no idea if I’ll ever see him again.  I’d like to see what four more years look like on him, but maybe seeing him would only wash up memories of loss.

Despite the rare, uncomfortable feeling of missing someone I only knew for a moment, I’m happy we were friends.  If our worlds met again, I hope I could convey to him the grace and kindness equal to what his friendship meant to me four years ago in Tokyo.

Thumbnail image by Sabrina Sanchez.