The Space Between Us and the Ground Below Us, or: Why I Traveled to Japan
“I was a gay boy, a black gay boy, in a place and time that seemingly eschewed everything I stood for.”
Most of my family lives in Florida, smack in the center of the state. My father grew up in this town by Lakeland. It’s got a stoplight and a church and a basketball court.
Before she passed, my grandmother’s mother talked about the white family she’d worked for. Remnants of chattel slavery litter the town. Lakeland was the first place I came into contact with poor white folks, and Lakeland was the first place I came into contact with generational poverty, and Lakeland was the first place I came into contact with the notion that sometimes people, black people especially, don’t leave a place because we simply cannot.
Most summers growing up, it’s where I spent the interludes between school. My cousins looked at me like I was an alien. They were mostly girls, mostly women. We joy-rode on dirt roads. We slept through day-long bible studies. I sat around while they made each other up, weaving and dyeing their hair, wrestling on the carpet, and when their mothers came in they’d give me a glance, but that’s all it was. I wasn’t a threat.
Sometimes a pack of boys wandered into town for church, and I’d be made to sit with them, and they’d ask about my cousins, and I’d clam the fuck up. Or sometimes I’d smile. Or sometimes I’d laugh. Sometimes I’d leave the church, walk around the building, and toss rocks until my palms started bleeding.
One day another cousin, a kid my age, found me sitting next to a globe in the back of the seminary. I told him about Texas and my pen pal abroad. We pointed to Australia. We pointed to Florida. We pointed to Japan, wondered how far we’d need to go to get there.
But how? said my cousin.
I asked if he was an idiot. A plane, I said.
No, he said, I mean how.
It took days before I realized what he meant. And that I was the fool.
We never brought it up again.
The parks around Tokyo are massive, glamorous. There’s Yoyogi Park. You’ve got Shinjuku Central. There’s Shiba Park and Mizumoto and Kaza Rinkai and Ueno Park, just beside Harajuku, a stone’s throw from the station; and then there are the shrines behind it, with their luminous entrances, and the towering trees and the wine barrels and pillars that are older than God. The path toward the shrine is choked with dirt and pebbles and sneakers, but it couldn’t be cleaner. The crowds shuffle in quiet waves.
When we’d landed the week before, our train to Tokyo was mostly packed with Germans and Koreans. The N’EX rail wove us through a carefully manicured countryside until we connected to Shinjuku Station, and then a local line to Akebonobashi. Before we reached our stop, I caught a skinny guy in cut-offs staring, and I nodded back at him. His expression didn’t change.
Moshi moshi, I said, and the guy grinned a bit. He said something in Japanese that I didn’t catch. When I shook my head, he said it three times faster. Neither of us knew what to do with each other. But it wasn’t an unpleasant feeling. We’d simply reached a comfortable impasse, a dilemma of translation.
In the months before, traveling around the American South for work, between Louisiana and South Carolina, I’d had who knows how many mistranslations and confusions—but all of them were loaded, seemingly on the edge of violence. One day a cop pulled me over for pausing an extra five seconds at a stop sign. And one day a white woman held the door for me, only to slam it right back in my face. One day a group of white guys spat on an Arab friend of mine at the bar, and before we could do much about it they told us that this was their land, back to the old rules. It felt like I’d stepped into a new country. Or, not a new country, but a clearer one. One that made its intentions more obviously known.
Now here I was across the Pacific, in a train moving at lightspeed, with a barrier so simple I didn’t even know what to do with it. I smiled at the guy, and he smiled back, and Dave grabbed my elbow because the doors were closing on our terminal.
On Sunday we walked from arch to arch at one of the shrines, clumped between packs of tourists and locals. Uniformed teens skipped behind stumbling families, and any number of couples posted up for selfies. One pair asked Dave and me to take their photo, and then another couple asked after that. And then another couple asked after that. When a fourth couple approached, I shook my head, but Dave took their phone, smiling and nodding.
When they walked away, he shook his head my way. Relax, he said. This might never happen again.
So I tried to relax. I thought of the upcoming festival. I thought of how you can spend your whole life wanting something, just to freeze up when you finally get it. On this island, I was an obvious outsider; I clearly didn’t belong. Every (heavenly) bowl of ramen burnt the hell out of my throat. But I could ask a cop for directions and I knew he wouldn’t blow me away.
That was more than enough.
A few days later, walking through Harajuku, we passed a square and a group of ’80s dancers jitterbugging around a radio. We’d spent that week volleying through Asakusa and Ikebukuro, jogging from station to station. Once, in the middle of a crowded rail, my shoulders started shaking, and then my knees, and then my toes. A few commuters glanced at me. This kid in a cap started staring. Dave gently kicked my shin, and then it stopped instantaneously.
Afterwards, he asked what happened. I told him I didn’t know. And I didn’t—but I’d been thinking of how, days earlier, I’d been driving through our neighborhood in the States. I’d been thinking of black poverty, and the fence gates worn from rain. I’d been thinking of how, any minute, I’d blink, and I’d be back in Florida, kicking sand in the yard.
I tried explaining that to Dave. He squeezed my shoulder. I get you, he said, but warn me next time. I’ll start shaking, too.
The city’s plazas were our reprieve from the inner-center’s rush—and also they were free. They stood out like oases. Locals rolled through the grass with their dogs. Kids stood in awe of the show. Vendors hawked takoyaki in the stalls beside us.
Outside of the gaggle, I watched an older black guy take it all in.
Then he started watching me.
And then, apropos of nothing, he walked over and bumped my fist.
Nice, he said.
Hey, I said.
The black guy nodded a second time. He disappeared into the crowd.
When he stepped away, Dave smiled. Even here, he said.
Between Tokyo Station and Shinjuku Station, I’d already seen a few of us, even if they were only scattered sightings. But, for whatever reason, this guy opened the levies—I ran into four other black folks that day alone. Three were lone travelers. One woman had flowing blonde hair. One guy strolled in a group behind a pack of whiteboys, hands behind his head.
We shared silent nods. Sometimes we’d bump fists. Once, a lady squeezed my elbow, smiling with her eyes.
That’s amazing, said Dave, and I agreed that it was. Even on an island halfway across the world.
One night, stumbling between Shinjuku-Ni-chōme and Shinjuku Kabuki-Cho, in pursuit of a barbecue diner a local friend had been raving about, we passed a crowd of Nigerian men, one of the guys selling wares at the intersections, and a man asked me what I was here for. He stood in a group, donning sweatpants and a hoodie. They yelled at passersby, waving their leaflets.
You, he said, are obviously visiting.
You, I said, are one to talk.
It’s one of the mysteries of migration. Plenty of foreigners working for nightclubs cluster around the city’s red-light district. They’re mostly just trying to get by, hawking sneakers, or tossing night-club leaflets, but some work the district’s more dubious circuits, brandishing binders full of the escorts in the area’s clubs and stalls.
This guy asked me what I was looking for, what kind of woman. I told him I wasn’t. He blinked a few times. We hadn’t stopped walking, and I gestured at Dave, and the guy called me a traitor to his race. A traitor to Africa, he shouted. A waste to the motherland.
I started in on something in Spanish before Dave pulled me away.
Go back home, said the guy.
I thought about asking why he was there. This was kid shit. Junior high all over again. But I didn’t say a thing, and Dave kept tugging my arm. We walked until we’d finally reached our local line at the station.
You okay? said Dave.
I told him I was. Just tired.
Yeah, he said, shaking his head. Who would’ve known?
And he was right: Who would’ve?
Some people know where they should go, and some people are told. Some people are forced into situations. And sometimes, you just end up somewhere, and that’s where you stay.
One summer, years back, just before I started high school, sweltering in Lakeland, some cousins drove me to the fair in Orlando. When I asked what was there, one of them blinked at me.
Boys, she said.
Her sisters nodded in agreement.
And it clicked in my head that, for weeks on end, I was the youngest male in their town. I was the only male in their town.
It was a lot like the villages you read about that young men are constantly fleeing. There were no young folks to speak of. The ones hanging around were usually stuck. Most places in the American South are adept at aging black youth, but some places are more adept than others. Some are really fucking good at it.
I’d figured out how things worked in Florida. Some days we drove to the mall. Some days we drove to church. Some days we drove nowhere at all. My life in Houston was museums and libraries and pho, and parks on the weekend, and people-watching downtown. But every summer I spent in Lakeland reinforced a notion I was beginning to see: mobility was mostly skin-deep. I had this one cousin who wanted to be an astronaut, and another one who took deconstructed computers, and another who wanted to read the weather for WFLA. They’d each separated those realities from the lives that they lived. And I’d done it, too. I didn’t come out in Lakeland.
One month I showed up and it was common knowledge that I was gay. Except we didn’t use that word. It simply never came up. Life in Lakeland was one thing. Real life was another.
At least in Orlando there were boys. So we went to the fair. We rode the ferris wheel. Hit the bumper cars. We bought strawberry ice and cotton candy and, one by one, my cousins siphoned off with the men around them. I was left wandering around the grounds, from one set of gates to another. The crowds started waning. The staff began to dwindle.
In the car on the way back to Lakeland, my cousins regaled each other with stories, with stats and comparisons. The possibilities for the next week, and the week after that. They’d relocate. They’d swap jobs. They’d finally make the shift; they’d change their whole lives.
Then the car got deathly quiet. It stayed that way for the rest of the ride.
One morning Dave and I took a day-trip to Kyoto. After nearly three weeks in the country, the old capital was one of our last stops. We’d planned for the Fushimi Inari-Taisha, and it was the third shrine we’d visited, but the first one we found ourselves waiting in line for.
You climbed this tiny mountain to see it. Folks in kimonos and tank-tops loafed at the base. The sun gnawed at our necks, and whenever a breeze passed through the trees, we took a collective breath, mad thankful for tiny blessings.
I thought of Tetsu and the festival and the thirty-odd things I hadn’t done yet. I thought of the two nights I’d wasted, sick in Osaka, reeling from crab legs. I thought of the afternoon I’d spent in a tsukemen joint refreshing my phone for hours, as the country huddled over monitors of C-SPAN, reeling for the moment the government would take my healthcare away.
On our way to the mountaintop, a woman had stopped in the center of a crowded terminal to take my photo. I didn’t say anything about it. She flashed a peace sign afterwards.
We approached the steps winding the mountain. I grimaced the whole way up. About halfway to the summit, a pair of Thai guys joined us, loping up the stairs. When we neared the top, they stopped by a pillar to wash their hands. When they saw the two of us watching them, they showed us how to do that, too. We had no common language—they mimed the motions, rubbing at their faces, and smiled when we did it right.
We watched them take a pair of selfies. They could’ve been brothers, or they could’ve been partners, or they could’ve been friends, or they could’ve been strangers, but here the four of us were in this brief moment of time, trekking a monument older than anyone we knew.
When the breeze hit again, we all exhaled.
We followed them down the mountain, toward more pillars, but of course I got us lost. Dave and I ended up in some neighborhood. We wandered for an hour, refreshing our phones, and once we’d given up, collapsing in someone’s driveway, an older Japanese woman flagged us down from several blocks over.
You’re lost! she said.
We smiled because we were.
She asked if we spoke Japanese. She knew a little bit of English.
You’re lucky I found you, she said. She said we weren’t far, just a little turned around. She pointed us back towards the station. If you keep walking, you’ll be found.
Soon enough, we made it to the station and sprawled across the empty benches.
Go figure, said Dave.
Go figure, I said.
The last time I was in Lakeland, I stopped in this gas station with a cousin, and the attendant called me a faggot. He didn’t know me. He’d never seen me before. But my cousin tossed her gum on the counter, and she did not disagree.
In some places in the South, when you’re unfamiliar, you become an idea. An idea of a thing that’s been seen before, without much more nuance than that. And because there are no layers, it makes you strange, and a little hostile, and because you’re strange and hostile, you become all but dangerous.
At the time I’d nearly finished high school. All of us were changing. We had families and jobs, addictions and and hang-ups. I’d picked up sports, and I’d put them down, but mostly I read—mostly the same books over and over again. We’d lost our commonalities. We just had less to talk about.
But the one thing that could be talked about was the thing we had no words for.
Conversations ended around me. Family abruptly left the room when I walked in. One night, I’d dozed off in the living room when a group of the cousins passed through the room and spat on me.
He’s a faggot, they said.
I pretended to be asleep.
Even sleeps like a fag, they said. Fucking queer. No wonder he’s that way.
When I left the next morning, I didn’t say goodbye to anyone. Didn’t give a heads-up. I got in the car and I drove. Went ahead and committed the signs on the dirt road to memory, counting them one by one, forwards, and then backwards.
I thought of those last words: No wonder he’s that way.
And then, That’s just how they are.
And then, Fag.
It happens slowly, and then all at once. You wonder if that distance is anyone’s fault.
There was a night in Osaka, stumbling around a gay bar, when I decided to make the trek to an onsen. It was our last week in the country. In a few more days, we’d return to Tokyo. After that, we’d be back in the States, back to uncertainty and the edge of chaos.
Dave had begged off, calling it an early night, so I took the rail from Shin-Osaka to Nakazakichō Station. I’d been walking for a while when the neighborhood turned suburban, and I got it into my head that I was lost. But then I saw the sign, sitting just below eye level. An older gentleman ducked into it, glancing behind him. He was followed by a pair of young guys, giggling and stumbling, a little fucked up, and one of them pointed my way.
In the onsen, the mood was polite. I stuffed my shoes in a locker, took a cold-water bath before dipping into the sauna. There’s a sort of forced intimacy to nakedness, one that flies in the face of every American locker room or communal space—but here, everyone mostly kept to themselves, glancing up to catch their footing from time to time. The crowd trended towards older men, dudes blasting towards their forties, but every now and again a group of twenty-somethings stumbled through.
Once I’d settled into the sauna, an older guy wandered over and snatched my towel. I met eyes with another group of men who’d been watching him. I shrugged. They shrugged. We sank a little deeper into the water.
A tiny din of Wynton Marsalis—this live cut of “Bourbon Street Parade,” splitting through the silence from out of nowhere—played at sudden intervals. The building was four floors, with a room for sleeping above. The bottom floor was locked; you needed a key from the front desk to get in. That part of the building was for the guys who came to fuck, or be fucked, and the rest was for the men who’d simply come to lounge and watch the news. Some of them read. Some of them smoked.
Slapping past the lockers, I made my way into what looked like a sitting room. Another guy, around my age, lounged at the table in a towel. He flipped through comics, smoking a cigarette, and after a few laps in front of the window, I walked in the room and sat.
The guy looked up once to acknowledge me. Then he slid a carton of cigarettes across the table. I took one, and he smiled. I slid the carton back.
Arigato, I said, and he said, You’re welcome.
You’re American, he said, after a while. I almost studied in America.
What stopped you? I asked.
Your president, he said. But maybe one day. When things settle down.
If things settle down, I said, and the guy laughed, waving at his smoke.
They’ll settle, he said. Maybe not all the way. But they will.
We’ll see, I said, and then I started to say something else, but that’s when the doors slid open behind us. A white guy stood in the doorway, wincing through the smoke. He clutched at his towel. He cocked his head at the two of us. He was about thirty-something, and he started to open his mouth, but he shut it and frowned and close the door instead.
I looked at the guy across from me.
See? he said.
He lit another cigarette and laughed.
Our last night in Tokyo came after a long morning. We took the Shinkansen from Osaka. Got lost on our way to the Bnb. After pledging not to sleep through any of it, I got off the train groggy, sore about the fact that I’d done so little, and that there’d been so much to do. We’d missed Mt. Fuji. We’d missed so many shrines. We’d missed the Shinjuku Eisu festival, the one thing I’d come to do.
But once we’d scaled the stairs of our station, Dave shook his head, smiling, and I grimaced until I saw what he saw: impossibly, out of nowhere, a couple hundred young people in formation, donning brightly colored wares. Their streamers bared above them. Their expressions drifted between exuberance and deathly seriousness. Dave mouthed, The festival, and then I shook my head. Even after everything.
Taiko drums boomed behind us. The crowd beside us made room for us and our luggage.
In the weeks that followed, when the trip came up in conversation, there would always be a moment when the listener asked, What were you doing there? Weren’t you worried about the barriers? Didn’t it feel a little strange to you?
And they always meant well. And they were always white. And what they meant, invariably, was: How could you imagine yourself somewhere we couldn’t imagine you?
But here is a thought: Imagine you’re queer. Or you’re brown. You’re a religious minority. You are all of these things at once. You live in a place where no one else is any of these things.
Then you live in a place where you know one or two more, but none of these people want anything to do with you.
Then you live in a place where you’ve met many like you, and all different, too.
Now you’re told you matter.
Now you’re told you don’t.
Imagine that what they don’t tell you, what you have to find out, is that you’re the person you are, whether you’re here or there—but that person’s worth is invalidated by history. Legally, culturally, financially, they’re treated like monsters.
Wow, our listener would say, without fail. I didn’t even know Japan was like that.
And then I’d smile when I really should’ve cried, because I wasn’t talking about Japan. I was talking about home. I was talking about the space between us, and the ground below us.
But all that came later. Now, on our last night in Japan, we stood sandwiched between two groups stretching before their performances. A young lady, no older than sixteen, stepped between them to give the cue, and then the group began to chant, banging their drums, pirouetting on the concrete.
Here was something worth seeing. We were going back home. There are so many different ways of living, and most of them are mysteries. But it was worth fighting so others could see it, too. It was worth trying.
And when the crowd made its way toward us, they raised their hands, and we raised ours, too, jubilant, shining.
Bryan Washington is the author of Lot, with fiction and essays appearing in the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, BuzzFeed, Vulture, The Paris Review, Boston Review, Tin House, One Story, Bon Appétit, MUNCHIES, American Short Fiction, GQ, FADER, The Awl, Hazlitt, and Catapult. He’s the recipient of an O. Henry Award, and he lives in Houston.