“He’s snoring. So, I mean, I’m pretty sure he’s still alive…” I confide, cloistered in my microscopic bathroom. “…but he won’t leave! Like, he will NOT wake up!”
On the other end of the line: static. Sam’s eyes roll. I can hear them.
I step back into my tiny Tokyo model apartment silently. There’s a man (mid-to-late twenties, pushing six foot five) sprawled out on my small bed, his tree trunk thighs tangled in my ivory sheets. His gargantuan feet hang lifelessly off the cliffside of my mattress. Everything about the dude is massive, so… he seemed like a good idea at the time.
“SAMUEL!” I snarl into the receiver.
“The casting van’s already on its way, babe.”
Just beyond the sleeping giant, my miniature balcony juts out over Shibuya Ward like it wants to jump. The streets beneath it are already bustling with quiet morning traffic, a near-soundless stampede of responsible Japanese citizens starting their days— ordering coffee and walking to work and cute stuff like that. I’m guzzling plum wine. I haven’t been sleeping much lately.
“I’m aware of that!” I whisper-snap. “I need you to HELP me!”
“What? How? Why can’t you just—”
Shit! I hang up before Sam can finish. So much for that bail out. Sam’s the only other fag I know in Japan this season (my only confidant and my only chance) and now I’m all on my own. I squeeze the plastic shell of my agency-provided flip phone until it cracks. Here we go! I tiptoe over to the giant, jostling him gently on the shoulder. Blackbirds nesting in the powerlines outside crow a sad song in unison.
“Heyyy…” I titter tentatively. “It’s um… the morning, and I was just wondering if you maybe had a… a job… or something like that… you should be getting to?”
“Iuhmtireeebuuhhurrr!” Giant roars and rolls over.
I rub my temples with my index fingers and scan the room for a focal point to calm me down. My gaze lands on a digital alarm clock. The van will be downstairs in ten minutes. MUST you keep fucking yourself sideways? my brain brays. The blackbirds are still squawking their stressful shame symphony, building to a screechy crescendo. I lock my eyes on the ceiling, suck on my teeth, and scream.
“GET! THE FUCK OUT!! OF MY BED!!!”
x x x
Winter in Tokyo is whimsical. January racks soft lines of snowfall all over the city. February anticipates scattered rainfall. My two-month contract is both a blur and a breeze. I bounce back and forth between bookings with alarming ease. The Japanese work ethic is so intense that nobody ever realizes I’m hungover, or still drunk. They assume I’m just as tired as they are.
I’m living on the eighth floor of an apartment building on Love Hotel Hill— a bunch of back-alley streets littered with sex shops and lusty pay-by-the-hour lodging. Life here vibrates vacantly. It pulses with passion. Strangers slip in and out of the hotel rooms below in a neon-lit rendezvous rotation at all hours of the night. Sometimes, when I’m chain smoking on the balcony and feeling like shit (which happens more often than I’d like to admit), I let go of a lit cigarette just to see if the ember will outlast the fall.
It rarely does.
My agent calls me into the office on a Wednesday morning for an impromptu meeting, says I’m bloated and urges me to watch what I eat. His English is choppy, but his message is clear. I flash him an enamel-free smile and resign myself to a diet of orange slices and packets of almonds. I purge both food groups fruitfully in that bite-sized bathroom of mine every time I binge.
Weight loss is a game I know how to win.
In the casting van, boys from London and New York talk about electro music and the ¥500 pocket pussies they’ve all scored from the sex shops. Sam and I sit together in the backseat, hiding from the straightness of it all. We swipe through Tinder on my iPhone and giggle like schoolgirls. Harmless fun, I think to myself as I drain my data, searching desperately for callous company.
“You are… how do you say… gay?” A photo assistant asks, but kind of says.
I nod. We’ve just wrapped a twelve-hour job and now we’re sitting across from each other at some ultra-luxe sushi situation on Omotesandō street that the crew practically had to drag me to. I’m picking at a slab of raw tuna with a pair of chopsticks, shuffling it around my plate to make it look like I’ve eaten— an anorexic magic trick. Photo assistant asks if the photographer sitting next to me is “my type,” and I pretend not to hear him.
I toss back a glass of sake and promptly pour myself another. This is considered bad luck, but so are a lot of things. I pour another, and another, and then one more for safety. I down those three hastily. Photographer asks photo assistant to ask again, so I reach for my cigarettes and excuse myself from the table. Crewmembers remind me that I’m allowed to smoke inside the restaurant. I pretend not to hear them either.
Back on the streets, Tokyo’s twinkling like a tangle of fairy lights. I’m rifling through my backpack for a lighter. Photographer sneaks up behind me and beats me to the draw. He lights my cigarette with a wink, then rests his hand firmly on the small of my back. Arigato gozaimasu, I thank him quietly, wincing as his insolent grip falls lower… and lower…
“And then he grabbed my ass!” I rasp, recounting the story to Sam as we trudge toward Shibuya crossing. “…like, HARD!”
“Is that really a ‘first’ for you?” Sam laughs.
I slug him playfully on the shoulder. My backpack clatters on impact. It’s bulging with beer cans. I crack one open and link arms with Sam as we teeter into the intersection. Models drink for free in Roppongi, so we’re headed that way.
“I mean…” I chug. “It isn’t… but, still!”
The model clubs all have funny names like Lex and Jumanji. We flash our comp cards to the bartenders and the rest is history. Packs of preteen model girls from Moscow and Saint Petersburg clomp around the dance floors in high heels and high ponies—batting their lashes like they’ve got nothing to live for. They pour one out for their less fortunate looking homies back home whenever the DJ drops a beat.
It’s hard to tell Mother Russia’s angsty abortions apart. They’ve all got baby faces, skeleton arms, and the same low alcohol tolerance. Japanese salarymen in expensive suits lounge on the leather of their V.I.P. booths and watch these little rubbernecked cherubs with focus and intent. They wag their tongues like Pavlovian dogs, conditioned to the sound of an out-of-step clomp.
Sad to see, but like I said— the drinks are free.
x x x
A Swedish tech employee I matched with on Tinder begins stopping by the apartment on his way to work every morning I don’t have an early call time, and though these mornings are few and far between, we slip into a sort of routine. A Spanish exchange student I met on Grindr calls me every night his classes are canceled (which happens relatively often) and demands that I cancel my plans, too, so he can come over and fuck. This becomes a routine of its own. Suddenly, my bedroom is in direct competition with the Love Hotels beneath it for the most foot traffic.
Sometimes, I worry I’m winning.
Every other morning: my cold white sheets and the call of the blackbirds. An orange for breakfast, a trip to the bathroom, and a cigarette on the balcony before work. Every other night: the karaoke bars or the model clubs. A couple beers in the streets, some dizzying drinks on the dance floor, and a blackout before dawn.
“I want your eyes more dead…” an art director declares on set.
He’s confident in his English. I’m lying on my back on the cold tile floor of a photo studio in Harajuku, wearing a grotesquely gaudy Gucci getup and trying to get by. The sound system’s been blasting the same shitty house mix for the past six hours. My brain is buckling beneath the weight of another worst hangover.
“…and I want your mouth more sexy, more open.”
I clench my jaw and stand to my feet.
Sam texts back instantly when I tell him that I’ve just walked off set (You did WHAT?!) and I ignore his message while I scroll through my contact list to find the exchange student. I beg him to meet me on Love Hotel hill within the hour. He responds even faster than Sam did and reminds me that I am never, under ANY circumstances, allowed to text him first.
I shove my phone into my pocket and attempt to choke down a stress-sob. It’s caught in my throat like a rogue pill. Fellow passengers on the JR line observe my swallow struggle worriedly as we hurtle toward Shibuya station. When we arrive, it’s pissing rain. I don’t have an umbrella, so I make a mad dash for the nearest bar.
“You’re a cutter.” My newest victim notices, wrestling for my wrist.
We’ve finally fled the bar by the station and made it back to my building. It’s either really late or super early. He’s tipsy and talking a bunch. I have to be on set again in an hour or so. We’re both soaking wet, staring at a scar so pink and pronounced, Hellen Keller herself could probably find it if she wanted to. That was ONE time, my belligerent brain bumbles, remembering a broken beer bottle.
“No I’m not!” I yelp, yanking my arm away.
When the elevator lands on the eighth floor, we exit it sloppily. I sway my histrionic hips in a coercive little circle as I lead my latest lover down the outlandish outdoor hallway. All around us, the city’s strobing and stacked. It throbs like a fever dream— electric, abstract. Neon signs blink at us like a museum of magic eyes.
“Clothes.” I command once we’re safely inside.
He undresses quickly, his silhouette shaky against the hazy glow of the hotels below. Every angle of him seems to have been chiseled by a Greek God— or at the very least, an ugly old Greek artist. Dreamy, I drool until I notice his forearms in a flicker of fluorescence. They’re utterly wrecked, basically cutting boards. Oh, puzzle pieces shift around in my head. Sucks to suck, I sort of think before I crash into bed.
“You’re breathtaking.” He tells me, breathing just fine.
“You have thirty minutes.”
x x x
February falls on top of me like a cartoon piano. I reek of champagne, come, and CK One. I navigate the narrow aisles of colorless convenience stores— konbinis, the Japanese call them— in the wee hours of morning, clutching cluttered carts. Soft stuff only! No more almonds, those hurt! Ooh, Rice cakes! my brain quivers and quakes while I hunt for binge foods. Shop owners stare me down skeptically.
Whenever I stumble into a pocket of available Wi-Fi (usually back at the apartment) my iMessage goes ballistic: A barrage of worried emails from the therapist I’m supposed to be checking in with weekly. An onslaught of selfies from random dudes back in LA and New York— pictures of them holding their dicks and jacking off and stupid shit like that. I have to put my phone on airplane mode just to shut it all out. What is WRONG with you? I lock eyes with me in the bathroom mirror.
And then we purge another pack of almonds.
A few drinks deep at another karaoke catastrophe, I trip over the feet of a male model from a different agency, land in his lap. He checks to see if I’m alright (German accent, or maybe just a gnarly chest cold) but he doesn’t ask me to move, so I stay there and grind against him lazily while a skinny girl from Stockholm belts out her best attempt at “Zombie” by The Cranberries. Some lyrics are missing, but I can still relate.
I’m too tanked to complain (or even care, really) when the Swedish tech guy fucks me off the edge of my sorry little bed a few hours later. Pain is something I’m rarely sober enough to recognize. The weight of him sends me crashing into a bottle of plum wine. Oof! I stay there, counting shards of green glass until he finishes. The plum puddle sinks into the carpet. The tech guy slips back into his work clothes.
A friend from LA calls on FaceTime, and I answer in a skanky stupor. I skip over the carpet stain and out onto the balcony. She glitches in and out of focus, asks how everything’s been. It’s noon in Los Angeles, but out here the sky’s as flat and purple as a week old bruise. Clouds rush across the wound like they’ve got somewhere else to be.
“It’s great!” I chirp excitedly. “I’m working every day and I—”
Then I realize that I’m crying. I try drying my eyes with the backs of my hands, but the tears won’t stop falling. Come on kid, keep it together! My friend seems concerned. Kris, holy shit! I wonder if she regrets calling. You CAN’T let them see you like this! I’m shaking so hard now— practically palsying— that my end of the line kind of looks like a found footage horror film.
“Are you okay?”
Another piano falls, but this time it’s me— or my lascivious loneliness, or my grab bag of mental instabilities and emotional shortcomings, or whatever.
“No! I… I think I’m exhausted? Or dehydrated… probably? I work all day and I go out every night… and… there are these guys? These… these MEN! They keep coming over! And I… I keep letting them… or Idunno… inviting them, maybe? I don’t even LIKE them… I just… I don’t think I can be alone right now and I haven’t eaten anything… or kept anything down, I guess… in like three weeks and my bedroom is a TOTAL disaster… and… and…”
Every time I feel like I’ve finished, another admission of defeat slips from my pouty lips like a wave of vomit I’ve done nothing to induce. Blackbirds gather on their criss-crossed powerlines, shrieking louder and louder as the sun starts to rise. They’re taunting me. I’m sure of it.
“Kris, I think you need help.”
Back in the apartment, my digital alarm clock begins squealing like a techno banshee. Fuck’s sake! I’m supposed to shoot a cover this morning. My plans to purge have all flown out the window and taken perch beside the blackbirds. You did this to yourself, my brain bitches, and you did it on purpose. And I don’t even fight it. I know that I deserve this.
“I… I’ve gotta go.”
x x x
“It’s not that bad.” Sam says, but it totally is.
My ass is riddled with black and blue handprints, most of them Spanish. They sting to the touch. I tug the waistband of my jeans up over my razorblade hipbones. I’m pretending to worry about potential nude shoots, but those never really happen in Japan and my contract is up in less than a week… so I’m probably just crying for help.
“They hurt!” I seethe, seeking sympathy.
My brain goes all Good Will Hunting for a sec, forms a million mathematic equations in search of an explanation or an excuse. The calculations are contrived and confused. They leave me behind with some variables and body count I can’t seem (or refuse) to recognize. The numbers lead to nothing and nowhere.
“Okay!” I clap. “So! Do you remember…”
Sam’s listening with his eyes closed.
“…how much you hated the word ‘no’ when you were a kid?”
I can’t tell if I’m asking or shouting. Sweet Sam is nodding anyway, up and down like a junkie in paradise. There’s a weight in the room now, a remembrance of childhood. It sinks like a stone, or a heart, or my weight on a good day.
“Well, it’s like that.” I confess. “Except I think I get off on it.”
A few stormy nights later, I’m storming down a busy street. Another model-friend is throwing another model-farewell-party at another model-bar. Everyone’s saying drunken goodbyes now, partying and prepping to fly back to our respective countries as the season comes to a close. It’s been pouring rain and the city is ugly wet, basically bukake’d. I’m swimming through the crossing and my body is moving in that special way where it forgets it’s a body— forgets that it means shit.
My broken vessel takes cover beneath the awning of a konbini and attempts to light a cigarette. It fails, checks its phone: Five missed calls from the exchange student and a few voicemails informing me that another one of his classes has been canceled.
I close my eyes, then text my friends to tell them I’m not feeling well, which isn’t a total lie. I am sick! I dive back into the crossing. Like, all the time! Then, I make a beeline back to the apartment, bobbing and weaving between the low tilted umbrellas and glittery plastic raincoats of Japanese passers-by living happier lives.
“You look different.” Exchange student sighs.
I want to thank him, but I don’t.
Tokyo sobs as I unzip the fly of his jeans, drenching the balcony and all the clothes I hung out to dry on it earlier. Radiant raindrops in the dark. The Love Hotels below glow rainbow bright in the mist like they’re all remembering something in unison— a bad dream, maybe. Like they’re trying to forget, but the lights are always on.
And then he’s somewhere inside of me, each thrust rattling my ribcage like a bottle of pills. I’m somewhere outside of myself, thinking about lust— about my slutty white sheets and all the men who like to hide in them. Lust is a lobby, I decide as I drop to my knees. Everything about it is finite and fleeting, I outstretch my tongue like I’m trying to catch snowflakes. No one ever stays, I swallow, and then I watch him leave.
Locking the door behind him, I light a cigarette. My phone lights up, but I don’t check it. The Love Hotels downstairs are still remembering in the rain— their luminous lobbies making room for transient visitors like lungs do for smoke and air. Elevators rising and falling like heavy breath. Fluorescent lights pulsing like arteries.