The Bench

A cold Monday night, I was sitting on ‘the bench’. If I told you that I had seen two cats and three hedgehogs as of that point, you could probably tell how long I had been there. My body was cold to the bones and it never stopped shivering as the night got late… but still, I couldn’t leave the bench. You know, because this was the only time I could get some fresh air without those stares.

I heard a song from somewhere in the building in front of the bench. Maybe it was from one of the rear windows with the green LED light showing me the blur figures of people who were up late. The light looked like I could touch it if I reached my arm out towards it. I wanted to talk to them. It must be easy, like, just saying “hi” — so I was amazed by how far from me they looked when I was asked to self-isolate.

On the side of the building, there were spiral stairs. Every time somebody went up and down through them, the four windows gave off light like a supernova. Also, it was a full moon night. So it was hard for me to find stars, although a friend who loves night-walks passed by the bench and told me from a distance that it was a beautiful sky. Maybe he was high.

But even he went to bed when it was 4:00. And then there were no supernovae.

I was looking at clouds illuminated by the moon moving with the cold wind. I was thinking about hedgehogs. If I listened carefully, I may still hear the rustling sound of them trying to swim through the fallen leaves with their tiny hands…

When I didn’t know English well, I tried to describe a hedgehog to a friend and she said what I was describing was a turtle. But hedgehogs don’t have the shell to shut themselves in…  so on such a frozen night, do they have any choice but to curl up as much as they can?

Other than the swaying trees, a strange sound was coming from somewhere far away; probably a neighbor’s car making noise, but it was like screams from hell. I’ve heard such a sound in Hollywood. I was there for three months last winter and met people actually groaning in the streets, sinking down to their knees on the Walk of Fame Stars, while the other side of the street was holding events such as the world premiere of Frozen II.

“You ain’t no real, lame!

A man on the street yelled at people cosplaying Anna and Elsa. He was curling up in his sleeping bag, looked like he was cracking up. It was just before Christmas. I left behind the songs and lights, huddled up in the piercing wind, kept walking and stared down at the stars like David Bowie’s…

(credit: Moeko Yamada)

… The sound was too creepy, and my friend who was sitting two meters away from me had left the bench. We had been talking about the virus, asking when we will be allowed to go to the cafeteria again, when we will not have to sneak out in the middle of the night to get air. I mean, it’s been three days, when will our self-isolation end? I also said sorry to her.

When the pandemic hit us in late February, I learned her name as “the girl suspected to have Corona .” In the middle of March right after Trump declared a state of emergency, most students went back to their countries overnight. I don’t know how many times I was hugged, with the same phrase, “Good-bye, I’m leaving here for good in a few hours.” Soon the city went into lockdown, and the college became a ghost town. I became alone in K24, made a queen size bed, smelled the dusty heater, and felt the afternoon begin to warm in the empty kitchen. During those days, I never doubted the rumor and the lie about her, and I was one of those people who gave her the stare.

But in September, we became friends. Over the Fall, we drank enough përlinër bilsnër to fill Spok’s pool. We even stayed out on the last U-Bahn strike day until 3:00 and walked 100km after getting Döner. We felt we could go as far as we wanted. Even the garbage of Kottbusser Tor sparkled in the morning sun.

In reality, we ended up paying a lot for the taxi, got Coke instead of another bilsnër, cracked the bottle open and came back to HKH together… 

…We were on the bench again today. Drank bilsnër and talked about what would happen if you’re suspected of having Corona. The food box will be ignored and abandoned, and people won’t pick it up.

“You know it’s a crazy virus,” she told me, “but still, we can’t dehumanize each other. Because we are humans.”

I thought about my dad.

At the beginning of this year just before coming to Berlin, I returned home from the U.S. for the first time in the past four years. After such a long time away, all the pathways in Tokyo gave me the lightning as I stepped inside them. It was like the collision with the furnace and permafrost, which fills the void between neurons, between remembrance and reminiscence; they’re not synonyms, passed by the synapses. I used to know all the alleys in Tokyo; they were like a spread artery, where I spent my teenage years going round. I looked around where my old friends had gone and wondered how they were doing.

I went for a long stroll with my dad. We got to the park and walked to the old carousel where I used to play when I was a little. It was going round and round, making shadows look like flashbacks in the afternoon sun. We talked about things we hadn’t talked about for four years, and then we had a fight. After that, he started to talk honestly for the first time, like he talks to an old friend.

“I don’t understand,” he told me, “people are talking about Tokyo Olympics this summer, but I feel like ‘what’s that?’ I have no idea what it is. I’m not even sure about tomorrow.”

I sank to knees, swept the fallen leaves by hands, took a withered branch and carved a few words on the bone-dry ground: たたかれたら、みんな、痛い。

Everybody feels pain when a rock hits them, even if it’s one tiny piece.

* * *

One bright afternoon in April, I heard the news that the Tokyo 2020 Olympics were postponed, but it will be happening in 2021. I called my dad that night and told him that after all, nobody is sure what will happen in the future. If so, then, why are we so despaired… ?

* * *

In May, people had disappeared from the campus, but the weather was perfect. Every three times a day in the cafeteria, I met the same few people who decided to stay in Berlin for their own reasons. We ate together and talked every day. In the silent cafeteria garden, the yellow lawn was full of daylight remains; the flowers that fell from the tree were all over, day after day…

It felt endless, even though I knew that soon they would also disappear.

* * *

I came to BCB in the spring semester with 50 people on exchange. That means if they returned home because of Corona, I would never see them again. So I stayed and kept saying good-bye till the last friend left. It came in early July, on a rare chilly morning. We were waiting for the M1 together. When it came to the stop, we hugged, and he went in, but his suitcase got stuck in the door; I once tried to pull it, but pushed it. The door closed, and he left for Palestine.

After a while, he texted me that he’s spending his quarantine often on the rooftop. The night in his village is deep darkness, so he can see all the stars. I sometimes imagine that midnight sky.

* * *

I decided to wait until fall and stayed in my dorm for the whole summer. I was longing for a buddy, such as a goldfish. Instead, I got a pot of herbs that an Italian friend left and asked me to take care of. I watered it every day, went to Rewe, cooked meals like scrambled egg, and sometimes sat on the bench. I was surrounded by white walls, began to feel like I was sinking in a bottomless bowl. I lost my sense of time, memories became permutable, while the future became nostalgic. I remembered when I first got to the U.S., I was in the midst of Colorado, looking at the white walls of my dorm: #1625. That winter I started to speak English, and soon Trump became president.

“Let’s practice to pronounce, stare, stair, star… ”

When I started writing essays in the winter, my English teacher told me to avoid using the word ‘people.’ He said it can’t explain who they actually are, and I agree with him. Calling people ‘people’ is always easier than actually living life as one of them. It’s always painless to ascribe the collective ignorance to one word ‘people’ compared to facing the fact that you’re one of them. So I still try to not use the word people… unless I know who they are.

The teacher gave the class a copy of an example essay, that was the short story of why he became vegan. The title was ‘The Killer’. When he was a kid, he went fishing with his dad. In the silent New Jersey forest, he saw the small heart of the caught fish slowing down, finally stopping for good.

The teacher and I became good friends, and he told me about his old memory with his dad. It was about the long drive from New Jersey to Colorado, what his dad told him like an old friend, and how billboards on the road went by like flashbacks.

Before I left Colorado, I gave him my own translation of a page from Haruki Murakami’s first novel ‘Hear the Wind Sing.’ The scene I translated is about the tumulus of an ancient Japanese emperor, which is old enough to be a mountain and united with nature. It’s about small things underneath the tumulus, such as a cicada, a frog, a spider, summer grass, and the wind that embraces them all.

One day everything will fade away, even what we are, passed down from unrewarded souls. All goes back to nature, and only the wind blows. I know that’s ok, and he also knows it’s ok. That was our last conversation, and we said good-bye.

On the way to Hollywood from Colorado, I stopped the car at an unknown place on Route 66, somewhere in New Mexico or Arizona. I found one small pond from the top of the cliff, beyond the endless bone-dry rocky reservation. I imagined a long time ago, the Native American era. A strong wind flung dust in my eyes, and pieces of stone hit my body, but I couldn’t leave there for a while. I sometimes remember that cliff, the pond, and the wind that blows all over the ground.

* * *

I was waiting for the end of summer for L&T to start. It happened and I met freshman people, and learned that anything can be a vessel.

Indeed, anything is a vessel. I learned it as a lesson in my younger and more helpless years. When I was 18, I had my heart broken and ended up waking up on a stair-landing in Shinjuku. When I opened my eyes, I was looking at skyscrapers and its walls — so I understood that I passed out and fell down the stairs from the fifth floor of the bar to almost the ground floor. What I did first was to touch the back of my head. I was still drunk and thought I could have cracked my head. Luckily, I was fine.

Ever since, I decided to protect my head, no matter how much I drink. Though, it has been so difficult… many things have sunken in cracks, and I ignored, abandoned, and lost them all for the decade.

But I’m still alive. I’ve survived my life so far. So it’s not empty, yet.

* * *

It was 5:00, and the sky was getting light — in a few hours, this bench and the cafeteria I can see from here will be full of people, but I can’t be with anyone. I felt like I was a ghost. I wondered how my friends were doing. I thought about the new word ‘dehumanize.’ I didn’t know this word before she told me, I need to study English more — though I guess I know what it means. It’s about how much we can be mean to each other, as one tiny piece of the collective, ignorant, people…

That moment, I got this idea to write something in English and post it to Die Bärliner. It’s about small things such as a cat, a hedgehog, and a goldfish, for our meanness and love.

* * *

That evening, we received an email informing us that our self-isolation had ended, for now. I went outside without a mask and met friends at the cafeteria.

* * *

I’m sitting on the bench again today. I was just thinking about one old Hong Kong film I watched in the lecture hall the other day. It was all about violence, and how one poor skull got a hole at the end.

My friends are talking about whether humans are totally mathematical.

“Is that the kind of stuff that we don’t have free will?” I asked,

“It’s about: We’re not that simple…  2 + 2 = 4, but not 2 + 2 = 5.  But that’s not how it works in the end. We don’t work like that. Because we’re humans.”

She answered and passed me bilsnër. I took a sip and imagined a few months later. She’s graduating so soon will disappear, and I’d sit on the bench alone. It’ll feel like she is a ghost…

I never get used to imagining a friend next to me will go home to a faraway country. It’s just too unreal to imagine I will no longer be able to reach them. That feeling always makes me see my vision as a noir film screened in an eye-shaped window. That could be a bit sad, but nothing can help it, even if I shut my eyes as tightly as I see green light inside my eyelids… but I don’t care about that, because I’m living in the moment. That’s how I have protected my vessel from being cracked.

I don’t care if we are oranges or mathematical clockwork. So I’d stand on neither the side of the egg nor the high wall. The only thing I’d do is, if an egg is thrown at the wall, I’d catch the egg. I want to be the egg catcher at the wall. Because the only thing I’m sure of is that vessels crack. Even if one tiny piece hits them, it hurts, it bleeds. No matter how much you curl up, or swim fast. Because we’re humans.

But I love those vessels with cracks.

2 + 2 = 4, but not 2 + 2 = 5…So we have to stop this bullshit.

Moeko Yamada is a third year at BCB. She went to the U.S. from Japan five years ago and started learning English.

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