We love how short stories give us a brief escape from the world’s chatter. Pour yourself a cup of coffee or tea, resist the urge to check IG, and enjoy this dose of contemplative fiction by screenwriter and Hinhin muse Charlene Sawit-Esguerra.
I felt the first raindrop on the tip of my nose. I had no umbrella, but luckily the narrow street was lined with cafes and small shops, and I managed to duck into a bookstore just before the rain started pelting down.
All the books lining the shelves were in Japanese. Browsing through them gave me the impression of being very young again, unable to read—the words still mysterious symbols on the page, making me guess, based on the cover or the illustrations, what a book might be about.
One book featured what appeared to be the work of a street photographer. The pictures were in black-and-white, snapped around New York in the 1960’s. One image was of a crowded subway train. I stared at the faces and wondered what these people had been thinking about when the camera captured that particular moment in time.
I wonder about the people I encounter in real life, too. The strangers I pass on the street, or stand in an elevator with. Or even the people I know. That’s the real mystery, the story you have to fill in with your imagination: what did it look like, that unpredictable undercurrent of thoughts and feelings inside each person?
To anyone who happened to be looking, I was just a girl in a bookshop, waiting out the rain. But inside, scattered musings were coming together in a certain pattern for the first time—like a messy house slowly being put into order.
After the rain stopped, I was back on the wet sidewalk, walking towards the direction of the subway station. I carried the book in a shopping bag, now wrapped in pale green paper and knotted green yarn, along with a blank-paged journal.
I was on my way to a party.
A friend, Midori, was celebrating her birthday. I hadn’t seen her in years. Her father once worked for a company in Manila, and her family lived next door to mine. She and I once spent whole days together: carpool trips to and from school, lunch in the cafeteria, passing notes during class, hanging out at each other’s houses. We discovered we had similar fears and frustrations, and this was a momentous thing—it had made the overwhelming seem manageable. When Midori learned her family was moving back to Tokyo, she burst into tears. She said that she’d miss it all, and how the people were warm, just like the weather.
There’s a Japanese myth about the gods tying an invisible red thread around the fingers of two people destined to fall in love. This magical thread keeps them connected—sometimes stretching to accommodate great distances, sometimes tangling, but never breaking, no matter how many years pass. Midori and I invented a similar story: between good friends, the thread was green.
You could say it was this green thread that had drawn me across the ocean, and was now pulling me through the streets of Tokyo.
It was a comforting thought—how some things remain unbroken, though many other things are.
I managed to find a seat on the subway train despite throngs of commuters. As I looked out the window at buildings, roads, bridges and rivers sliding past, images flitted across my mind, a kind of cross section of memories from the countless hours Midori and I had spent talking about what we liked and didn’t like, who we wanted to be when we grew up, what we’d do to put as much distance between us and the things that troubled us. We’d been so sure of ourselves. My childhood convictions have since been watered down, muddied by age and experience. But I’m hoping these will be the same things that bring back some of that old certainty again.
I want to be sure again—about what I like and don’t like. It sounds trivial, but I’ve realized it’s an essential part of a person’s peace of mind. For instance, it makes it simpler to say no: to people and situations that make you uncomfortable. To doing things you don’t even enjoy. And if I’m sure about what I like and don’t like, I won’t bother worrying: that I’m not doing as much as other people are, or whether what I do won’t be perceived as cool or interesting—like spending an evening at home instead of going out with friends. Like finding pleasure in solitude, or a quiet daily routine.
I’ve found that when I make the effort to be honest with myself, I save so much time.
It took me years, for example, to realize that I do not have to live someone else's dream. To tell myself: you don't have to accept a job, just because it comes with a title or a salary that will impress other people. Consider whether it's something you really want to do, because you'll have to devote a large chunk of your very finite life to actually doing it.
The train doors opened and closed at each stop, accompanied by an ebb and flow of a tide made up of people. At one point in the swell, I was surrounded by salarymen, each one clutching a briefcase in one hand and gripping a handle dangling from the ceiling with the other. Beside me, a young man in a navy blue suit began to snore, bowed head lolling side to side with the movement of the train.
On the other hand, no matter how much you love it, do not let yourself be swallowed by a job that is more work than one person can take. Of course, you have to make a living—but remember there are other things that deserve your time and your love: family. Friends. Health and sanity.
The train lurched to a stop, jolting the man beside me awake. He blinked, peering out the window to check which station it was, and seeming reassured, closed his eyes and went back to sleep.
I made my way out onto the platform before the doors slid shut. As the train rattled away, a rush of wind blew the hair into my eyes.
You won’t think of living a life for others to see, or for others to talk about.
You’ll just live. Like you did when you were very young.
I’m not there yet. But I’m working on it.
After asking for directions from the uniformed, white-gloved man inside the information booth, I exited the station and decided to the head to a nearby park.
I had an hour or two to spare, because I’d set off early, to give myself time in case I got lost, forgot something, or spilled a drink down my dress. I’m not the type that accomplishes things smoothly. There’s usually a hiccup, and a bit (or a lot) of awkwardness involved.
I used to beat myself up, quite mercilessly, whenever I made a mistake. You know how some people are oblivious to their flaws and can’t admit when they’ve done something wrong? I’m the opposite. I find flaws in myself others don’t even notice, and then I magnify these flaws in my mind. And when things go wrong, I tend to assume that it’s somehow my fault.
Lately, when I make a mistake, I try to treat myself as a friend would—to tell myself It’s okay, it happens instead of You idiot!
It’s difficult sometimes, to be kind to yourself. It takes practice.
There was a slight chill in the air as I made my way down a tree-lined path that cut through the park. But the sun was behind me, like a warm, friendly hand on the back of my neck.
I passed people reading alone on benches, and young families having picnics on the grass. I found myself involuntarily smiling at every dog—they all looked so pert and well-cared-for, trotting ahead of their owners on leashes, or peeking out of pet strollers and bike baskets.
I stopped to watch a young man in a faded pink jacket, busking under a gingko tree bright with yellow leaves. He sang a cheerful song while playing the guitar, harmonica, drums and various other instruments strapped to his body. It would have been comical if he hadn’t been so technically brilliant. The song reached a crescendo, then stopped; when he bowed, a good number of people and I broke out into spontaneous applause.
I fished around my coat pockets and tried to toss a fistful of spare change into the open guitar case by his feet—but I missed the mark. Coins bounced off the lid of the case and scattered in various directions, one even ricocheting to clang against one of the man’s cymbals with a reverberating sound. My face burned as I stooped to gather the coins among the fallen leaves, and I was even more embarrassed to see a few bystanders and the one man band himself crouching down to help me, his instruments tinkling and clattering as he moved. He smiled and said something to me in Japanese. When he saw I didn’t understand, he asked, in careful, somewhat bashful English, what my name was, and where I was from. After we’d deposited the last of the coins into the case, he said that since I had come from so far away, he would play me a song.
I appreciated this quiet kindness, this gesture to make me feel better. I stood, a bit self-conscious, watching him adjusting his instruments. Then he began to play a slow, soulful tune—the kind that quieted your mind and made you more aware of things, such as the way the sun shone through the yellow leaves, the breeze tickling the hair at your nape, the gratefulness that you were here, that you were alive. And I told myself that the song was more than worth the embarrassment.
I’ll admit it: I used to secretly want to be someone’s muse. To be the inspiration for a work of art would be wonderful. But these days, I also think: what would be even more wonderful is to be the one who creates the art. That way, the world doesn’t just see someone else’s idea of you. They’ll see you, because you’re the one telling the story.
If you’re honest, that is.
The boy and I bowed to each other when his song was over, amidst applause. He offered me his card with both hands. I was glad. It didn’t seem right to walk on without knowing his name. It was Hikaru.
The sky was turning orange when I decided to stop for a while (my shoes were new, and they pinched after a bit of walking). I bought a cone of soft serve ice cream and sat down to enjoy it on a bench at the edge of a playground.
I idly watched a young mother guiding a little girl, who looked no older than three, up a ladder made of rope. The girl, with much determination, made her way to the top where, red-cheeked with exertion, she found herself standing at the top of a slide. There she hesitated, despite her father’s gestures of encouragment for her to slide down.
I finished off my ice cream (getting only a few drops on my dress—a victory) and reached into the shopping bag and drew out the journal. It had a teal cover, and blank pages. I wished I had remembered to buy a pen.
I was about eight years old when I started keeping a diary. I’ve carried on with it, in stops and starts, over the years. It’s helped preserve certain details in my mind, which time would have otherwise eroded, or glossed over.
I would have probably forgotten, for instance, how much of youth is a wilderness. How much confusion and trial and error it takes before you can make some sense of the things that happen to you, or the emotions you experience—sometimes in overwhelming waves—for the first time. Or how much time it takes just to begin to understand the people around you: what made them the way they were, and why some of them hurt you.
The little girl at the top of the slide, after much lip-chewing and clenching and unclenching of her tiny fists, finally sat down, mustered up her courage, and wooshed down the slide with a shriek of delight, into her father’s outstretched arms. Her mother cheered. Inwardly, so did I.
Sometimes I have these conversations in my head, with the child I hope to someday have (or is it my younger self I am talking to?). I say more or less the same things:
You know what you need to be happy? Not beauty, or intelligence, or talent, or even success. You just need to be at peace up here (I would tap a finger on the child’s forehead) and here (then I’d place my hand over the child’s heart).
I’ll do my best to help you out with that.
I’ll listen to you. I won’t dismiss what you feel or think as silly, or walk away when you tell me truths hard to hear.
I’ll understand you’re not me. You don’t have to like what I like, or do things exactly the way I would. You’ll have your own way. It won’t matter, as long as we respect each other.
I’ll try my best to be fair. Because I don’t want you to keep replaying something I said or did in your mind, trying to make sense of it, just to diminish the pain it caused you.
I’ll give you better things to remember: stories and songs. Kisses, warm embraces. Loving looks. Kind words. I’ll fill you up with these things, so there will be little room to carry along what could weigh you down. Because life is full of people who will try to unload their own baggage on you. And full of situations that can sink you, if you’re not careful.
If you travel light, you can go faster and farther.
The light in the sky was fading. I needed to get moving, if I didn’t want to be late. I gathered my things, got up from the bench, and started walking.
If I do something wrong, I won’t pretend it didn’t happen, or make excuses. I’ll say sorry.
I’ll be the grownup.
I’m not there yet, but I’m working on it.
I sighed, dusting the crumbs from my skirt and certain memories from my mind. Oh well, I thought. We've all been total dorks and assholes in the past, at one point or another. We've all done and said terrible, stupid things—but what can you do, it's done. You can't undo any of it, but you can make amends by trying your best to be a decent person in the present.
After exiting the park via an avenue lined with trees strung with fairylights, I walked a few city blocks luminous with electric billboards and signs, took one last detour in a tax free drugstore and browsed shelves packed with cosmetics and mysterious remedies (for anything from colds to indigestion to rough feet) under flourescent bulbs so bright they hurt the eyes, before arriving at a restaurant with windows that glowed with a warm, inviting light, like a thousand birthday candles.
The place was filled with people around my age. Just as I was beginning to feel shy, Midori spotted me through the window. She brightened and waved with both hands, then surprised the boy she was talking to by suddenly handing him her glass and dashing away.
She came running out the door to meet me. We collided, embraced, laughed. She was warm, like the weather back home.
Later, after the birthday song had been sung and everyone’s faces were flushed from a drink (or two or three), the boy Midori had been talking to, who had a nice smile, asked me how long I’d been in Tokyo.
Only a couple of days, I replied.
“What have you been doing so far?”
I considered this. I had traveled far and wide the past few days, inside my head. And I was not the same person I was before the journey. To anyone who happened to be looking, I was just a quiet girl in a green dress, holding a cold glass of water. It was impossible for them to see that I had decided, in the past few days, the kind of person I wanted to be.
But you never just say these things aloud. Most of the truest parts of ourselves stay invisible, though sometimes—at the right moment, and with the right person—a glimmer might be seen.
For now, I shrugged, smiled, and said:
“Just walking around. And thinking.”