I couldn’t deny my aches and pains and eating disorder; after a while, it became too exhausting.
Months, years pass without using a level, but when you need one, you are grateful for it. I thought this to myself recently as I retrieved my combination square from the toolbox where it lies dormant. I go long stretches without thinking about it, but there was a time eleven years ago when I thought we’d be constant companions.
I was a year out of college, four years into an eating disorder I couldn’t kick. I distrusted my hunger, which was constant, so I lived in suspicion of my sensations. My body’s unruliness distressed me, the instability of my borders as my weight shrunk and swelled. What I hoped for most when I contemplated my future was bodily stasis, though I would have never admitted it. What a relief it must be, I thought, to have a body that never changes. I traced my contours constantly, tracked exactly where my skin ended and the air began. I found some ease in sleep, where I knew how to exist from one minute to the next, without temptation, like putting myself in a jar and screwing on the lid until morning. If I could have done that for weeks, months, years, I think I would have.
I’d had the vague expectation that I’d be a writer, because writing was how I felt known. But when I wrote now it was like walking in snow boots, the terrain muted and muddled. I feared feeling, so I couldn’t be honest, so I couldn’t write. Instead I decided to apply to the most obvious graduate program that might help me build a future, literally: architecture. I won’t go into my good reasons; I’ll just share that it seemed responsible—all that rigor, all that career path—and seductive in its promise that it would consume me. I longed to be consumed by anything but my appetites.
To bolster my application portfolio, but also to prove my seriousness to myself, I enrolled in a woodworking class, for which a combination square was “strongly recommended.” So I went to Adler’s, the nearest hardware store, and made a ten-dollar retail commitment to the person I was becoming.
What I hoped for most when I contemplated my future was bodily stasis, though I would have never admitted it.
A combination square is a hand tool used in woodworking, metalworking, and masonry. It helps you measure, level surfaces, and find forty-five- and ninety-degree angles. An American invention patented in 1879, it joins two previously existing instruments: the measuring stick, versions of which date back thousands of years before Christ, and the bubble level, which dates to the 1600s. Mine is a six-inch steel combination square, its bubble level filled with blue liquid and fitted snugly in a curvy black frame that slides square along the ruler. I prefer another name for the bubble level, the spirit level, so named because the tubes were filled with tinted alcohol; I like the image it conjures of a tiny yokai or poltergeist contained inside.
KSO, my initials, still reads in red sharpie at the base of the instrument where I wrote it at twenty-three, a mark of apparent possessiveness. I liked the certainty of the square in my hand, the simple magic of its level. I liked the woodshop, with its pine-dust smell, power tools, and culture of safety, which I found at turns sensual, thrilling, and reassuring. I liked to feel a plank of wood buck at the teeth of a table saw, to hold it firm against the table to make a clean cut. And for a few weeks I liked feeling new, like someone who could build shit and also go more than five days without falling into binging and despair.
I never completed the class. As usual I was seesawing between self-discipline and abandon, and abandon won. But even without a bench, my application convinced someone I was architect material. I packed my combination square and moved to Manhattan.
I can’t write that I kept the tool near and used it to build benches and models galore. The models I did make were lumpy-edged things, wonky castings and mummy-like forms in plaster, and I couldn’t have squared them if I’d tried. I spent the most time in software, which gave me none of the sensory feedback my brief foray in the woodshop had. Banging my brain against virtual space, I often forgot about my body entirely, and in this sense, I succeeded in losing myself in study.
You can’t cure yourself from one dissociation with another. And though I don’t blame grad school, it didn’t help. So many of us were not fully conscious—I certainly was not. I was perpetually on my fourth cup of coffee and my fourth hour of sleep. Even when I left studio long after midnight, though before most of my friends, the tunnel vision of my exhaustion made me feel like some creature burrowing into a lair. I’d stop at the 24-7 supermarket, go home laden with ice cream and cereal, open my laptop to resume work, and feel a long, expanding exhale of cold and sweet—coming to an hour later, cartons and boxes empty, a point behind my belly button vacuum-hard. Head clear now, and newly resolved, I’d leave my body again and, in this fail-safe way, I finished the drawing, the rendering, the model.
This is how I graduated on time, with two awards.
When people ask about my degree, I say true things: how it taught me to look, to see shadow and light, to question, to value rest, how some friends I made there are forever. I leave out so much. I thought, or perhaps wanted, that this was what being in a challenging program meant, struggle and slog and sadism, a game in which the devotion to “design constraints” was rewarded with praise and status. I was intimate with constraints of my own making, including when and how I ate, and on my worst days, it was a relief to forget mine, to supplicate instead to someone else’s rules.
But then, seemingly overnight, my right scapula and hip became tight, then angry from so many hours on the computer, and the ache grew so loud I lost the tolerance to hunch over my screen for the spells I once had. I think it was this muscular ache that got to me in the end, waking me up to my body, which knew so much and whose pleasure I’d ignored so long.
I started stretching in studio, folding, unfolding, refolding to find some relief, and improvising yoga at home. I started baking too, a kind of prayer to inhale the caramel-sharp fragrance of sesame cake, my nose just inches from its shining dome, to sense its slight resistance under the knife, the fork, the bit of grit among the crumb beneath my teeth. I found softness here, and a carnality—that I’d groped at in my late-night binges—that I’d once known to be good.
Maybe cake and aches would have pushed me out of school, had I not become curious about the contemporary Japanese architects who had become popular around studio, like Sanaa, Sou Fujimoto, and Junya Ishigami. As a mixed Japanese American, my curiosity was, at first, crudely cultural—I’d learned to be suspicious of white people’s surface-level fascinations with Japanese aesthetics, and my initial interest was partly protective. But I found myself riveted by these designs, which seemed less building than threshold for activities, climates, and beings to slip against and make something new. In one house, roof and walls yielded to huge windows to the sky; in another, rooms were linked by an outdoor garden; in a workshop, narrow columns formed loose zones in an indoor forest. With hatchmarks and shading, I began to diagram ephemeral thresholds that I observed around the city, where environments could not be contained—where rain carries the earth into a room, apartment lights bear interiors outside, the sound of the street find the bed. Little attunements to where the edge of one thing bled into another.
I found softness here, and a carnality—that I’d groped at in my late-night binges—that I’d once known to be good.
Of course, I was still tuning in outside myself. Around this time, I joined three other students and our professor of Japanese architecture to collaborate on an outdoor multimedia installation with another design school in Japan. The site was Obuse, a small town in Nagano prefecture that was home to Hokusai, the artist best known for The Great Wave, in his later years. Of our American group, the Japanese students identified me as the only girl—an identity I had long ago received and never questioned—which meant I would join a few of the women in the performance part of the project. And so it happened that on our last afternoon, I found myself not working with the rest of the students but in a salon, where I had my hair curled and makeup done in a way I never would have asked for, and then a makeshift fitting room.
My obaachan had gifted me a kimono and obi when I was a child, so I had worn them before—but this was the first time I felt strapped inside, around my chest, my pelvis, my back forced straight, my legs held in shortened stride. I couldn’t sit cross-legged on the floor like I liked to, so for the rest of the afternoon and night, I stood. It wasn’t entirely uncomfortable; something in the restriction felt pacifying, like a boa’s grip. I think I was so used to pulling in my own edges, literally holding in my stomach and diaphragm, that in this external containment I found a kind of safety.
It was cold—October in a mountain town. My American classmates wore puffers and beanies while I stood bareheaded in my alien hair, the projection’s lights a blur, worrying if my chin was level enough, not why I cared. I’d arrived in Obuse wanting to connect as a Japanese American, as a person with Japanese family, and as an architecture student—all things I was—but I’d been sorted and bound, and I felt out of body and out of place.
The next morning, the four of us joined our professor for a final tour of the Hokusai Museum. A cliché now, it’s easy to miss what’s alive in the famous wave, its snarling energy hurtling toward release. I saw this energy everywhere in Hokusai’s work that day, and especially in his figure studies, sketches of sea creatures, birds, horses, raccoons, demons, yokai, ghosts, all feral and quivering. Recognizing something, I bought a book of his sketches in the gift shop. I wanted those beasts near.
I couldn’t deny my aches and pains and eating disorder; after a while, it became too exhausting. Something in me wanted out, and, as the saying goes, the only way out was through. It forced me through my body, even if at first I didn’t want to go there. It was an education that the person who bought the combination square eleven years ago had neither asked for nor predicted.
For years, each time I pulled the hand tool out to level something, I was reminded, briefly but bitterly, of that person, because I thought they had failed at reinvention. When I try to locate when that shifted, my mind casts back to a few years after I completed my architecture degree, after I’d moved to a crooked-floored apartment in Brooklyn. Friends said the apartment had character, which was a polite way to describe a place where I’d shimmed two of the kitchen table legs a full inch and a half, with aid from the combination square. One day I locked the slanted door and rode the subway uptown, where I was meeting some architect friends to check out a retrospective on the Japanese fashion designer Rei Kawakubo.
The show was called Art of the In-Between, a title so incredible that I’d forgotten it. At the time, my understanding of Kawakubo’s work was limited, and still is. I knew, of course, that her label, Comme Des Garçons, means like boys. I remember stopping in front of each garment as my friends commented mostly on the exhibition design, which was minimalist and restrained in contrast to the garments. These had no restraint at all: They’d blown past the contours of coat, pant, frock, which could not contain them. It was like the garments themselves were venturing beyond, seeking new territories. I am struggling to pinpoint when everything and everyone else fell away—if it was, as I want to say, the pastel-checked pieces from SS97 “Lumps and Bumps”—but I remember a kind of quickening. I felt wide awake and very jealous. Not of Kawakubo, although I was jealous of her, as I seem to always get when I am with art that says something I’ve struggled to say. I was jealous of the clothes. They were not male or female; they were beings—not clothes, but bodies as clothes.
They were dynamic, suggesting some kind of transformation at the outer threshold of the body. They did not, as some critics wrote, obscure the wearers’ forms; they translated their edges, radiated them, exported them—with defiance, or joy, or anger, or abandon, or rebellion. D. A. Miller calls Style “the utopia of those with almost no place to go.” These beings looked like what happens when some contained spirit, kept under pressure, seeks an out and finds its give. And now they were visible, though they refused to be clear.
I’ve wasted so much energy craving clarity—between Japanese and American, straight and gay, sick and recovered, woman and something else. But I know different now. Outskirt is all skirt; having no center, there is none to hold, just pleats and folds. This is what a threshold is—a constant rejection of fixedness, a perpetual both-and, switchiness as a place to go. I want to lay my claim on riding the fluid territories, the edges where one thing folds into the next. When I stood transfixed at Art of the In-Between, I still felt captive to and afraid of my appetites. But those lumps and bumps and bulbous sleeves and dripping bustles and asymmetry were the opposite of rules and restraint. They had no time for it, and I ate them up.
When I think about my appetites in my twenties—for rest, god, for rest, and of course for food, but also for sex and aesthetics—I realize I was not so much willingly denying them as willfully suppressing them. Among other things, I wanted my body, and by extension my life, to follow my will. If Kawakubo’s bodies follow their wills, it is because will and appetite have aligned. This transforms them.
Back into the toolbox the combination square goes, until another wobbly shelf enters my life. And it occurs to me, as I close the lid, the most obvious thing: This tool is overlap incarnate, two previously distinct things mashed together to form something more potent. It’s a tool that tells you where your gravity is, so you can expand without falling down. If I had looked harder at it at Adler’s, maybe I might have had this epiphany sooner—but of course, I had already decided what the square would teach me. It’s trite as metaphors go, but for ten dollars spread over the years, I’m okay with that.
Katie Okamoto's writing has appeared in Catapult, The Atlantic, Eater, TASTE, Metropolis, and BuzzFeed Reader, among other places. She participated in the 2020 Tin House Summer Workshop for non-fiction and memoir and is at work on a book. Formerly, Katie was the senior editor at Metropolis, the architecture and design magazine, in New York City. Find them at katieokamoto.com.