The green doors of the metro-train slid open, and I entered the half-empty carriage. It’s not Tokyo busy here and, at this time of day, it’s way too early in the evening for the company men who’d be heading in the other direction anyway, into Sapporo’s suburbs. I took a seat, and as the train pulled away, studied the Nambuko Line diagram above the doors; five stops to go. I looked around the carriage and noticed two things: everyone seemed to have their heads down and eyes glued to their mobile, and as was the norm around here, I was the only obvious gaikokujin, foreigner, in the carriage.
I took out my mobile, flipped open its orange cover, navigated to the Jack’d social networking app and looked at Ryu’s profile, again. His loose-fitting collegiate sweatshirt, tanned skin, and dynamically moussed hair suggested he was active, a sportsman or swimmer. His relaxed smile oozed a post-exercise chilled-out-ness. The soft vibrations of the train coming through the floor and my seat felt in tune with my simmering excitement.
At the next stop, the tiny old lady opposite alighted and I took the opportunity to look at my reflection in the carriage window. Not bad; all that running around Tokyo three weeks before had taken off a couple of kilos. I looked and felt better for it. The empty grey hollowness that had hung around my eyes and cheekbones this last year had faded. The recently grown moustache added to a growing self-belief in my positive transformation. I looked down at my feet; it felt good to be wearing the red Gazelles. I wriggled my left big toe so that its tip pushed against the small hole in the soft leather upper. Thinking how Rowan’s big toe had, over time, rubbed, pushed and made the hole, I felt a thrill run up my inner thighs.
These Adidas classics in red suede had been the first thing I’d seen of him in the waiting room that day, and, if it had to be so, they would be the last. Even though I knew they were his only shoes, I hoped he understood. If he missed them, then he was sure to think of me one way or another. I’d left him my green New Balance 565s I’d been wearing that night and had only bought the week before. He’d said he liked them.
I didn’t take them because of a fetish or anything like that. It was about memory and myth making. I turned my left ankle so I could see the worn sole, almost no tread in places. I’d better make the most of wearing them out and about while I could. I looked back at the smoothed red suede and thought of the new layer of Japanese dust and dirt that would overlay the grimy archaeology of his Manchester. Rowan walked almost everywhere unless someone paid his bus fare or gave him a ride.
The train jolted a little. I looked back at my phone and scrolled through my message history with Ryu. All very laid back, the emphasis on cultural interaction, a chance to practice English with a native speaker, coffee somewhere. I’d taken care, no discussion of sex or what we were into, no false promises. I hadn’t readjusted to the changes that had been made to my body six months previously, not yet. But I still perved over his pic.
A pensioner boarded and, unusually for elderly Japanese people, sat next to me. I came out of Jack’d and posted a couple of tourist selfies of the Sapporo TV Tower on Facebook. I hoped Ryu would be talkative; I hadn’t talked to anyone except shop assistants or waiters for nearly three weeks. I felt a warm glow in my chest at the thought of making a friend in this city, in Japan.
A soft chime over the tannoy preceded the announcements in Japanese then English of Nakajima Koen – my stop. I pulled up a map of the district on my phone; no places that I recognised though I had walked through the park once before, from the other entrance. I wondered if he lived nearby?
The first thing I noticed when I exited the station was that the daylight was slipping away fast, the street lights easing on. The air was colder too, and the lit shops and cafes across the wide road looked warm and inviting. Early for this ‘coffee-date’, I paused near the entrance looking for a place to wait then headed to the edge of the small square near a sign showing a plan of the park. From there, I could see people coming out of the glass box entrance to the subway, and if he came that way, he would be able to see me, I was gaikokujin after all. It might be harder for me to recognise him with everyone wrapped up in their coats.
Every couple of minutes, the glass box of a station entrance pumped out a glut of people, and I scanned the men’s faces as they dispersed. I paid particular attention to guys checking their mobiles and loitering. Still, no one seemed to fit the bill. I thought for a moment that it was him in the autumnal brown puffer coat but I couldn’t see his face with the hood up and he didn’t so much as glance at me. Plus, with that black leather bag slung across his chest, that guy looked too much like an office worker anyway.
After a few minutes, I could feel the cold in my feet and legs. When the next lot of commuters appeared, I noticed Brown Puffer Coat was still there, on the other side of the small square, obviously waiting for someone too. He looked too slim to be Ryu and I looked elsewhere. The cold had worked its way through my thin coat, and I could feel the chill on my back. Stamping my feet on the ground to get warm, I checked my watch, he was fifteen minutes late already. I wasn’t sure I could stand it here for another fifteen. I felt a cushioned nudge against my shoulder, and I turned around. Brown Puffer Coat stood there; hood down now, I recognised his lazy smile.
‘Ryu?’ I said.
‘Yeah, hi Aaron.’
I stole another look at him. His hair was longer than in the photo and flopped over one eye, but essentially the profile photo didn’t seem to have lied too much.
‘I think I saw you before. When did you arrive?’ I said.
He smiled but ignored the question and turned toward the park:
‘Can we go for a walk?’
I hesitated and glanced into the park. The paths had little guide lights set into them and were also well lit from above. People were still walking that way, and I reminded myself that I’d walked through it once before in the daytime.
We walked casually along the ornamental lakeside as if on a Sunday afternoon stroll, while school-kids, housewives and female office workers hurried past us in either directio
‘Where have you come from, just now?’ I asked
‘From the library at Hokkaido University.’
Quite a walk from here but who could blame him for maybe seeking a bit of anonymity.
‘What do you study?’
‘Business Law.’ He smiled. ‘Yes, I’m going to be a company man.’
I nodded to myself at the thought of him in a tight blue suit.
After just a few minutes, the neon glare and automotive din of the city receded as we walked deeper into the park. At an intersection of several paths, Ryu pointed towards an unlit pathway and a small footbridge beyond. I remembered that these bridges crossed little waterways and also provided access to a small island. Soon after crossing the bridge, he stopped, and we sat down on a park bench, out of sight, but with a view back toward the Concert Hall.
‘Do you live near here?’ I asked.
‘Yes, quite near.’
He reached out and removed my cherry red woollen hat from my head and sniffed the inside. My eyes must have given away my surprise. Ryu gave me an extra slow smile.
‘Do you mind?’
‘No, it’s OK.’ I laughed.
He laughed too, and leaning in towards me, poked me firmly in the ribs with his finger. The poke reminded me of high school; clumsy and tentative, aggression mixed with desire, faking one thing but meaning another. I placed my open palm on his knee and closed my grip slowly around the bone and muscle. He slid his hand across onto my crotch, and I felt the soft pressure resting on my balls. I luxuriated in the moment then squirmed away.
‘You remember what I said on Jack’d yeah, about all that?’ I said.
‘Sure – that doesn’t bother me. I just thought you might like it.
‘Yeah, I did.’
He sniffed the air. ‘Something doesn’t smell right,’ he said.
‘What do you mean?’
He brought his face down toward my chest and sniffed the front of my coat. Embarrassed, I looked around: no one. Dropping to his knees, he pretended to tie his shoelaces while sniffing my leg. When his nose reached the turn-ups of my jeans, he tapped my foot.
‘There.’ he said.
‘Whose sneakers are those?’
I laughed. ‘They’re mine.’
He looked me in the eye, shook his head and tapped the red trainers again.
‘Well, I kind of borrowed them.’
‘Someone I know.’
He sprang back up onto the bench and poked me in the ribs once more.
I chuckled, my mouth closed. I started to wonder if he was the 25 he said he was.
‘Do you live near?’ I asked.
‘Yeah.’ he said, but he seemed disinterested, bored by this new direction.
‘With friends, family?’
‘I live alone.’
‘Yeah, I’m an orphan.’
I caught my breath and looked up. I couldn’t read any irony in his face. As I rapidly tried to process this disclosure, a Japanese guy who looked about my age walked past, clearly not wanting to make eye contact with either of us. Ryu stared ahead into the woods as he continued.
‘My father died in a car crash when I was 16, my mother not long after from an illness. So I live alone, provided for by a trust fund until I’m 30.’
‘That sounds tough.’
‘I liked my father. Not long before my mother died in the hospital, I told her that I didn’t like her.’
I wrapped my arms around my chest and took a deep breath. I could feel the cold dampness of the man-made lake nearby. Ryu stood up and pointed towards a kind of glade into the wood containing an open-sided wooden polygon structure with a roof.
‘Let’s go over there, it’s quieter.’
It looked a bit like a bandstand but with some kind of wooden seating underneath. I held back and tried to reason with myself. The area was unlit and I didn’t remember this bit of the park. I didn’t know him, and he was a bit freaky to say the least, but I thought back to the Jack’d photo and his slow summer smile.
He led me along a winding path, and we soon arrived at the structure which covered a cross arrangement of high backed benches. Why had he brought me here? Surely it was too cold out for a fumble. We sat down, and I took in the landscaping. Little mounds like Neolithic tumuli lay within a glade ahead silver birches whose trunks shimmered in the twilight.
‘I thought we might be going for a coffee,’ I said.
‘I thought we were meeting for a chat. Here is good to talk, yeah?’
I nodded but also felt impatience and a cold sweat coming on.
‘Do you ever ask anyone back to your flat?’
He laughed and poked me in the ribs, again.
‘Naughty man. Yes. Anyway, where are you from?’
‘I told you, the UK.’
His face became more serious, and his eyes narrowed.
‘Yes, but that’s four places. England, Scotland Wales and Ireland.’
‘Yes, though it’s Northern Ireland not Ireland. I’m from England.’
He made a deep approving hum sound. ‘And your family, where are they from?’
‘England, way back in time, I think.’
I told my story about how both sides of the family had hardly moved more than 30 miles away from Birmingham for generations.
‘Mmm, indigenous. Where’s Birmingham?’
‘In the middle. Heart of England.’
Ryu let out a low, quiet groan.
‘So except for University, chatting and meeting guys in parks, what else do you do?’ I asked.
He looked up. ‘I collect.’
‘Oh yeah. What kind of stuff?’
‘Stuff in phials: dated, sourced, kept in the freezer.’
I laughed nervously. What a freak. I looked and listened for a sign of other people, anybody. Nothing except distant road traffic. I looked back at him and held open my palms.
‘I collect samples of urine from men from all over the world. I have some from a man in London, Cockney? But not from the centre, the Heart of England. That’s hot.’
‘Why?’ I asked?
Ryu gave me a confused look. ‘Why do you ask? It’s what I do.’
I tried not to stare at him as he continued.
‘I had to buy an extra freezer recently.’
I thought of all the times in the last year that I’d had to give urine samples at the hospital; sometimes into a receptacle designed to check for strength of flow and volume. He’d probably love that job
‘Is that what this meeting is? Have you brought a phial with you?’
He shook his head. ‘I collect under controlled conditions. I’m here just to chat.’
I could feel my breath shallowing and my heart jumping around in my chest, like those finches caught in nets as they flee the French winter. I put my hands between my thighs, hunched my shoulders and looked down at the ground. How to get out of this?
Just then I heard voices and laughing nearby. I sighed in relief, but as the loud voices came closer, they sounded like rowdy young guys. I heard the clink of bottles and then an exaggerated burp as three silhouettes came into view. Shit, I’m a gaikokujin in his thirties with a Japanese student in the depths of a park whose reputation I know nothing about. I looked across to Ryu. He sat upright, alert.
The youths didn’t seem aware of us. They stopped atop one of the tumuli less than ten metres away. The thin one lit up a cigarette; the flame illuminated his smooth ratty face before he held out the lighter for his mates. In silence, holding our breath, we watched the three of them smoke, and the smell of nicotine quickly reached us. One of the other two took out his phone, and after a second or so we heard music playing from it. Some old R&B vocal group from the seventies or something, crooning ‘Could it be I’m falling in love with ya baby?’ The three of them started making co-ordinated moves together, slow hip swings with hands downturned, then spinning round in unison. They laughed, and one said something and took the phone from his friend. The music changed to something more recent, I knew it; Vitalic’s ‘Poison Lips’, that slow version from a surreal film they were involved in. I’d seen the clip on YouTube, something to do with the legend of Kasper Hauser. They started to make disjointed dance moves, out of sync with each other. We both watched in silence.
The chunkiest one with the deep voice split from the group and moonwalked over to one of the silver birches. He stopped and moved his feet further apart, I heard the rasp of a zip and then the sound of piss hitting the silver trunk. I strained my eyes to catch sight of his cock, but more than anything, turned on by the energetic flow, felt a deep ache in my balls. Next to me, Ryu groaned, and half rose from the bench. I nudged him in an attempt to quieten him. He seemed like a dog straining against the leash, but I wasn’t his owner, and I felt my fate was now in the hands of his fetish.
‘Shhh; what if they see us?’ I whispered.
‘So what?’ he shrugged.
The chunky guy stubbed out his cigarette on the tree trunk, zipped up and returned to the others. They made what seemed like jovial chit chat as they finished their cigarettes and threw the butts onto the ground. Then, passing really close by us, they left the glade. I wondered if they might have seen us and were talking about us. I listened out for word gaikokujin or the more derogatory gaijin, but I heard nothing that sounded like that. Ryu’s face showed no emotion as he took in long deep breaths through his nostrils. The moment they disappeared from sight, Ryu jumped up and bounded toward the tree that one of them had just doused.
He dropped to his hands and knees and began to lick the trunk. I thought to turn and leave, but I couldn’t remember the way back, and the guys’ voices in the distance seemed to pen me in. I walked toward Ryu, glancing over my shoulder, trying to block out any line of sight the guys might have to this freak on his knees. I stopped a couple of metres away and watched him with a detached fascination. After a minute or so, he began tearing at the grass around the tree stump and shovelling it into his mouth. How it had all got to this? I was just looking for a Japanese person on this trip that I could call a friend. When Ryu finished, he stood up and wiped his mouth. I could see a strong erection bulging in his jeans.
‘So you don’t just collect?’ I smiled.
Ryu panted as he spoke. ‘He had Ainu blood for sure. I wanted to reach it while it was still warm.’
I remembered the small, almost deserted museums of Ainu culture in Hakodate and downtown Sapporo. Their language virtually extinct, they were historically bear worshipping animalists who wore beautiful geometric cloaks made from tree bark with bold geometric designs, the men with wild facial hair.
‘How do you know he was Ainu?’
‘A hint in the face, and the hair. I bet he had really hairy legs.’
The words ‘assimilation’ and ‘annihilation’ came into my head; how Japan had colonised this territory less than 200 years ago, the Ainu language virtually extinct. I decided to keep my mouth shut. He brushed himself down, came over and poked me in the ribs more softly.
‘So do you want to come back, drink some tea, see the collection?’
I thought of my room back at the arts centre; the dark empty corridors, the sleeping bag, the novel I was editing, day in, day out. I thought of an apartment big enough for a second freezer, maybe in an open plan lounge diner, his orphan home, but a Japanese home nevertheless. My big toe felt itchy and I rubbed the red suede on my right foot over the hole in the other. I put my hands in my pockets and nodded.
Sam is a gay writer concerned with gay and queer relationships and responses to rural and urban landscapes. Living here and there around the UK, he is currently working on a collection of linked stories set in Sapporo and Tokyo. He’s also completing a Japanese Artbook with the artist Koji Tsukada. At some point in 2020 he hopes to return to editing his first novel, Falling Out. Sam has recently set up a blog and you can find him on Twitter. Under his non-writing name, Paul Bradley-Cong, he is Founder and Director of Out on the Page, a UK network of over 250 emerging LGBTQ+ writers which runs writing retreats across the UK as well as an online forum and writer directory. The project has recently won funding from Arts Council England for 2020.