Some Thoughts on What I Like and Don’t Like in Fictional Romance

Generally, when writing all the reviews of asexual fiction I’ve been doing lately, I try to avoid reading reviews written by other people so that what I write reflects more purely what I think and feel about the story. I sometimes make exceptions (especially if I was on the fence about buying a story in the first place, and looked at reviews to make the final call). However, after I wrote this review of The Painted Crown, I decided to go to Goodreads and see what other people say.

It turns out, all of the other reviewers have very different opinions from mine. Now, that’s partially because this story was just released, and most of the people who would have read it this soon were probably already fans of Megan Derr’s writing. I, on the other hand, had never read anything by Megan Derr before, and I read this so quickly because a) I had pre-ordered it and b) I was excited about reading a 70,000+ word story about asexual characters. Over time, as more readers who are not fans of Megan Derr’s writing post reviews, the range of opinions may grow wider.

The comment which most struck me was this:

However, the slow burning love between them is very rewarding. I love how the tension between them drove me quite mad and I needed them to kiss so very, very bad.

As anyone who read my review knows, I found the ‘slow burning love’ the opposite of rewarding. And I cannot think of a single time I have ever “needed” fictional characters “to kiss so very, very bad” – not just in this novel, in *any* story.

So I was thinking about it. There are some fictional romances I have enjoyed a LOT, but I cannot think of a single example where I enjoyed watching characters develop romantic interest in each other. Sometimes, when characters are developing romantic interest in each other WHILE something really interesting is happening, it works for me, but it is due to the really interesting thing that is happening, not the ‘budding feelings’ of the characters.

The romance stories I do like are about characters who already *know* they have strong feelings for someone (even if they have not quite pinned down what those feelings are), and are trying to figure out what to do about those feelings. An example of a romance I like is Viola/Orsino from Twelfth Night, or What You Will. We never see Viola fall in love with Orsino, she simply declares (to the audience, not any other character in the play) at the end of Act I, Scene iv, that she wishes she could marry Orsino. Then, during the play, we watch her deal with those feelings. Also, I enjoy Viola/Oliva because that pairing is clearly doomed and inspires me to eat popcorn.

Oddly, I generally buy the ‘love at first sight’ trope. That may seem odd for an aromantic asexual like me, but the thing is, I sometimes have felt a strong personal connection to people as soon as I met them. It wasn’t a romantic connection, but it does not feel ridiculous to me that people could have a strong romantic connection to someone they’ve just met. And in practice, thinking about stories I like vs. stories I don’t like, I strongly prefer the “fall in love at first sight” trope than tales of “slow burning romance” – the “first sight” trope conveniently cuts out the part of romance stories which I am generally least interested in.

Maybe this is why I’ve never been able to finish reading Pride and Prejudice. I really don’t care whether Elizabeth continues to be prejudiced and Darcy continues to be proud.

Another kind of romance story I enjoy is where the protagonists have a relationship which would be interesting even if it were non-romantic. I can enjoy the interesting non-romantic relationship without needing it to be romantic at all, and if it turns romantic later in a way which fits the story, well, I can often continue to enjoy the ride (caveat: if it is going to turn into a romance, I’d like it to at least be heavily foreshadowed in advance – I don’t like getting 80% of the way through a story, thinking about how lovely it is that a woman and a man were able to work together without it being romantic, only for it to suddenly become romantic at the end). An example of this kind of romance story is – if you have been reading this blog for years, you can probably guess which example I am going to cite – Yang Guo and Xiaolongnü in Shēn Diāo Xiá Lǚ. They knew each other for years before they became lovers, but their relationship as teacher/student was interesting in it’s own right (and very abusive – at one point Xiaolongnü threatens to kill Yang Guo because she thinks that she is dying and does not want him to outlive her) and would have continued to be interesting even if their relationship had never become romantic.

Oh, and I also tend to enjoy trainwreck romances like Viola/Olivia mentioned above.

However, what most boggles me is the “I needed them to kiss so very, very bad” part. Why are people invested in whether characters who do not already have romantic feelings for each other develop romantic feelings for each other? I can understand being invested in whether two characters who are already in love with each other manage to have a happy romance – I can get invested in that too – but wanting people who don’t already have those feelings for each other to have a romance together? That does not compute for me.

Consider my experiences as an aromantic woman. I have never wanted to enter a romantic relationship. However, countless people have told me that I ought to have a romantic relationship, that it would make me happy, that it’s inevitable, blah blah blah. Therefore, I feel that telling any living person who they should have romantic feelings for is extremely rude, and even with fictional characters, I find it unpleasant. Just to be crystal clear: when dealing with fictional characters, rather than real living people, I do not think people who enjoy ‘shipping’ or whatever have to stop doing that. However, it is still something I do not enjoy.

So how does that tie back to my reaction to The Painted Crown? As always, I did not mind if the protagonists never had romantic feelings for each other indefinitely, therefore there was no ‘tension’ for me in that. Okay, I was invested in innocent children not getting hurt, however nobody objected to the marriage, and the protagonists did not seem to have any significant struggle with that, so that was boring.

That is not to say that such stories about people gradually falling in love with each other are bad or wrong or anything, it’s fine for the readers who do find it appealing. It is just something which is not appealing to me.

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“I Did Not Know” (fiction), Part 9: Melting Snow

"Hikosan Jingu Omotesando 01" by STA3816 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons. This is the set of stairs which goes up to one of the Hikosan shrines.

Hikosan Jingu Omotesando 01” by STA3816Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.
This is the set of stairs which goes up to one of the Hikosan shrines.

March 25, 2003

Ana was free the next day, so she took Myrna to Soeda, the town where her father grew up. None of her family still lived there, Ana explained to Myrna, so she took her to the best-known place in the township: Hikosan, a sacred mountain.

Myrna had already seen Shinto shrines in Kyoto, but this was different. First of all, it was on a rural mountain, not in a city. Second, there were a lot less people around.

The weather was good, so they decided to go on a hike around the mountain. As they were walking, Myrna asked herself, should she tell Ana about Sebastian?

Myrna knew that she had been different ever since Sebastian had done … what he did. She could not have imagined herself rushing off to the other side of the Pacific Ocean alone, camping alone, or sleeping in a train station before. She also knew she had not been emotionally reacting to things, both good and bad, the way she did before, and that she now had a persistent sense that, is she was not careful, she would be ambushed.

They walked through a cedar forest. Ana pointed out a cliff face which had water dripping from it. She said it was a sacred water source, and that they should drink from it.

When Myrna thought of the way Ana talked about how the survivors of the atomic bombings are hurt by the way other people use their stories, should could not help but think about Sandy in Beppu. Indeed, it was only after that, and after seeing Urakami, that what Ana said during her outburst in Mojiko began to make sense to Myrna.

Myrna felt viscerally that what Sandy did was wrong, and yet, to be entirely honest, part of why it stung her so is that she could not argue against Sandy’s logic, that `if she had not consented, then it was … she still wanted to stay away from the word ‘rape’, and yet now, there was a part of her which said that she no longer had permission to stay away from that word.

Ana pointed out a particularly old cedar tree, which was considered sacred.

From the story of the woman who was kicked out by her husband’s family, and also from Ana’s own story, Myrna understood there was a stigma to being the survivor of a horror. To be known as a survivor of the Kokura or Nagasaki bombing was to have everyone who learned that fact reduce you to that one tragedy, and to have them ignore what you were before, and what you were now.

This was something Myrna felt she could discuss with Ana, so she did.

“Yes,” said Ana. “And I even do it myself. What do I know about my grandmother? That she died a painful death and left my father an orphan? To me, she might as well just be that shot of her in Ghosts. What she liked, what her personality was like, anything. I don’t even know what she looked like before the bomb. Heck, I don’t even know her name. I get upset when people just reduce Kokura to the bombing, but I am sort of the same when it comes to my grandparents. My family doesn’t talk about them, so there’s not much I can do.”

Myrna was also aware that, if it became known that someone had been raped, then they would just be seen as a rape victim, and other things about them would be ignored. It would be a stain which blotted out everything else in other people’s eyes. Deep down, Myrna understood that because she knew that she herself saw rape victims that way. Was that why she was so resistant to calling it ‘rape’? Was she resisting being reduced to a ‘rape’ victim?

They reached the south peak, and looked at the view before them. Ana pointed out several notable mountains, including Aso-san, which Myrna had passed by three times on train. One time Myrna had even gotten off the train and taken the rope-way up.

Myrna knew it was a beautiful sight … and yet, once again, she felt that she was not responding emotionally to it. Or rather, she had emotionally responded to it, and then the response … stopped. She had thought that, after Nagasaki, she was feeling things again a bit more like she had before, but … maybe not? She felt that she had to perform an emotional response to the vista to fit with Ana’s enthusiasm.

As they (or rather, Ana) took in the landscape, Myrna went back to her thoughts. Kokura and Nagasaki were both more than atomic bomb victims, and she also was more than Sebastian’s victim. Just in the past few weeks, she seen many new places, made new friends, and survived a rainy island with vicious deer.

They went on to the middle peak, where the upper shrine was. Ana described all kinds of things about the shrine and the landscape. Myrna was satisfied with resting from all of the physical exertion.

After passing the north peak, they found that the trail was buried in wet snow.

“I thought it would be snow-free by now,” Ana said.

Neither Ana or Myrna had any experience with hiking through snow, and the fact that the trail was so steep did not help. Eventually, they ending up sliding rather than walking down the trail, gripping the chains as their clothes got covered with mud and the cold wetness reached their skins. The snow was slippery, and already being at ground level seemed safer than standing upright and risking a fall.

At first, Myrna had panicked when faced with the prospect of getting through the trail, but as she slid along, her body became numb. It occurred to her that this might be a metaphor for her life.

Eventually, the snow disappeared, and they were walking – cold, dirty, and wet – through a cedar forest once more.

As they moved on the stone path, Myrna asked herself – should she tell Ana about Sebastian, or not? Talking about these things was the proper thing for someone recovering from trauma to do. And Ana shared her story about her family – did Myrna owe her a sad story in return?

Myrna tried to imagine how Ana would react…

I did not know, Ana says. Now I feel even worse about what I said to you in Mojiko. A different Ana appears in Myrna’s mind, shouting “Sebastian is the worst! If I ever see him, I’ll make him pay for what he did to you!” A third Ana appears, and says “You think that is sexual assault? Ha! That was just a misunderstanding.” A fourth Ana appears, and says How dare you compare what Sebastian did to you to the Kokura bombing! Nobody died. Nobody even had to go to the hospital. You still have your family. You’re just a privileged, spoiled brat…. A fifth Ana appears, and says You are my friend, and always will be. I support you. And those magic words cure all of Myrna’s problems – she is just as she was emotionally before the relationship with Sebastian, she is no longer concerned about her economic situation when she returns to the United States, and she feels safe forever.

Myrna did not believe in this magic. And she was not going to tell Ana about Sebastian now.

Maybe, some day, Myrna would tell Ana after all. Or maybe she would never tell her. But Myrna felt that this was not the time.

***

THE END

As I said in the introduction, I am very interested in feedback.

I Did Not Know (fiction), Part 8: Return to Kokura

March 24, 2003

Myrna got off at Kokura station. She got on a tram heading to Ana’s neighborhood, which happened to pass by Kokura Castle and Kokura Peace Park. The tram was slow, and Myrna could not help but notice just how many foreign tourists there were in the park, and to some extent the train station, yet were to be found nowhere else in the city. Furthermore, the enclave of shops and restaurants around the peace park advertising in English seemed different from the rest of the city. It was really different from Urakami in Nagasaki.

Myrna found Ana at a café near her apartment. Ana waved at her, and Myrna went up to her, and they held each others hands.

“I am so happy to see you again,” Ana said. “The way we were when we last saw each other, it was…”

Myrna nodded.

“I have strong feelings about the atomic bombing and, ah, you stepped on them. I’m sorry that happened,” Ana said.

“I did not understand why you were reacting the way you did, but now, I think I might understand,” Myrna said.

Ana raised her eyebrows.

“I did go to Nagasaki, and you are right, there is a lot more to the city than the fact it was bombed,” Myrna said. “It’s weird to be back here, and see so many tourists around Kokura Peace Park, and only there. It was not like that in Nagasaki. It’s like they come here to be on the film set of The Ghosts of Kokura without listening to what is there.”

“That’s it!” Ana exclaimed. “Can I steal that line from you? The next time I have to explain this, I want to say ‘these tourists just want to be on the film set of The Ghosts of Kokura‘.”

“Go ahead,” Myrna replied.

“Now I feel worse for ah, what happened earlier,” Ana said.

“It’s alright,” Myrna said. “At that time, I did not get it, and I’m still not sure that I get it now, but I know that I hurt you. And I don’t think I would have got it if I hadn’t gone out and saw Kyushu for myself.”

Myrna described her travels to Ana, though she left out what happened at the onsen in Beppu.

“Wow, you went to Yakushima,” Ana said. “Lou has been telling me to go to Yakushima since forever. How is it?”

“Wet.”

Ana laughed.

After they returned to Ana’s apartment, and Ana started cooking dinner, she asked Myrna “Do you know why I have such strong feelings about the atomic bombing?”

“You live here,” Myrna replied.

“And why do I live here?”

“Your job?” Myrna asked.

“Yes, but why did I look for a job here when I already had one in Kumamoto?”

“I don’t know,” Myrna said. Then she remembered something. “You said something about speaking with a Kokura accent, like your father, so…”

The realization hit Myrna’s tongue like an anvil. Why did she not think of this before? Myrna had even met Ana’s father once, so she knew he probably was born some time around World War II, and if he was from Kokura, that meant…

“Your father … was he…”

“He was five years old. He was with his sister and grandparents in the countryside when the bomb fell. About a week later, his aunt took him back to Kokura to look for his parents. His father was already dead. They found his mother, and when he first saw her, he screamed and ran away. She died about a week later.”

Myrna said “I did not know.”

“I didn’t know either,” Ana said. “I remember, I was twelve, we were studying World War II in school, and so I talked to my father about the atomic bombings. That is when he told me, and he also told me that, years later, when he finally saw The Ghosts of Kokura, he saw his mother in one of the shots. To this day, my mother still does not know.

“I told my class about it, and then, for the rest of the year, I was teased with names like ‘atom girl’ and ‘Kokura ghost’. Classmates kept on suggesting that I check for symptoms of leukemia, even though I explained that my father was not even there when Kokura was bombed. The bullying, combined with coming to terms with what my father had experienced … it was hard. I decided that I was not going to tell people about it anymore. In high school, nobody knew. In college, nobody knew. I haven’t told anybody about it since middle school … except you.”

Dinner – miso noodle soup – was just about ready, and Myrna helped Ana put it onto the table.

“How are you now?” Myrna asked.

“Living in Kokura has been good for me,” Ana said. “I knew that Kokura was not just a tragedy, and as I’ve said to you before, that manga meant so much to me because it showed Kyushu without mentioning the atom bomb at all – ah, I guess I didn’t say that part to you – but living here, it’s really helped me feel that Kokura is okay. That it is okay to be from Kokura. And I’ve become closer to my father’s family. They’re my family. If you’re staying another few days, I can probably introduce you to them.”

“I’d like that,” Myrna said.

They ate dinner.

***

Preview of the last part of this story, “Melting Snow”

As they moved on the stone path, Myrna asked herself – should she tell Ana about Sebastian, or not? Talking about these things was the proper thing for someone recovering from trauma to do. And Ana shared her story about her family – did Myrna owe her a sad story in return?

Myrna tried to imagine how Ana would react…

To be continued…

I Did Not Know (fiction), Part 7: Urakami

March 21, 2003

Myrna was surprised by how empty the plaza was.

Sure, there were a few people walking about. One looked like another tourist, but the others might have just been local people going about their business. The adjacent neighborhood also seemed to be … very typical for Japan. The liveliest spot was where a flock of pigeons had gathered. As pigeons, there was utterly nothing remarkable about them. Nothing about their behavior indicated that they were a place which had been hit by a plutonium bomb.

Before Myrna was the statue of a man with his right arm pointed up and his left arm pointed outward. She was in Nagasaki Peace Park, in Urakami, the predominantly Christian neighborhood in northern Nagasaki which had been ground zero.

She walked out of the park, and within a few minutes, she was before St. Mary’s Cathedral. Before it were some statues and other remains of the old cathedral. But what caught Myrna’s eye was not so much the physical remains of the bombed cathedral, but the sign which advised tourists not to enter the cathedral unless invited, in order to reserve the space inside as a place for parishioners to worship. Myrna did not see many tourists around at all. However, when she thought about it for a moment, she realized that even if it only happened once a day that a tourist barged in to gawk at the inside of the reconstruction of the cathedral which had been near the epicenter of the Nagasaki atomic bombing, it would be very tiresome to the people who went to the cathedral to practice their religion.

This was already Myrna’s third day in Nagasaki, and she had learned a little about the history of Nagasaki’s Christians and its martyrs. She knew that, even if the bomb had never been dropped on Nagasaki, St. Mary’s Cathedral, which had been for a time the largest Catholic church in all of East Asia, would be a historic place.

She was staying with a friend of Lou’s, Hana Miura. Myrna had been a bit nervous about it, since it was her first time staying in the home of an actual Japanese person, but Lou taught her the essential etiquette. It helped that Hana was one of the most gentle people Myrna had ever met.

“You speak English well,” Myrna observed during her first evening in Nagasaki.

“No, I don’t speak English well,” Hana replied.

Myrna learned that Hana was originally from an island called ‘Okinoerabujima’, which was even further south than Yakushima, and that Lou had been an English teacher on Okinoerabujima for two years. Hana had not been formally one of Lou’s students, but they became language exchange partners, and they still tried to meet each other once a month.

Myrna spent her first day in Nagasaki getting to know Hana and settling in, and went with her at night to the top of Mt. Inasa. The second day Myrna went to Glover Garden and wandered around the historic neighborhoods around it. It reminded her of Mojiko a little, but it was bigger than Mojiko Retro, and had buildings with even stronger European influences. Of course, the signs pointed out subtle features which gave away that these buildings were not entirely European. She also spent some time in the afternoon at Nagasaki Harbor, where she passed by the Mitsubishi shipyard, and saw a massive ship under construction. It looked like a giant steel skeleton with constant blue flashes of electric torches.

Myrna walked from the cathedral back to the park. There were certainly less people here than in Glover Garden. Of course, a lot of the visitors at Glover Garden were Japanese, and Hana had mentioned that, when her family visited, they all went to Glover Garden, but they did not go to Urakami at all.

As Myrna walked around the park again, she found a memorial to the Korean forced laborers who died and suffered. The memorial was sponsored by the ‘Nagasaki Society for Korean Human Rights’, and included an apology to the Koreans for forcing them to work in Japan.

As Myrna passed by the Peace Museum, she asked herself, should she go in? After all, she had already seen the Peace Museum in Kokura.

She decided to go in. A lot of the exhibits were similar to the ones in the Kokura peace museum, but they had a different meaning for Myrna. When she first arrived in Kokura, she had only be familiar with it as the victim of the atomic bomb, so photos of the ruins seemed natural However, she had gotten to know Nagasaki a little, and could even recognize a few of its landmarks. Seeing Nagasaki in ruins … felt different.

There was also a special temporary exhibit dedicated to Ghosts of Kokura. Myrna had seen it long ago – after all, it was one of the most famous films of the 20th century. A lot of people say that the documentary was why the United Nations banned the use and development of nuclear weapons in 1948. However, Myrna did not know much of the background of Ghosts of Kokura.

The U.S. military had sent in film crews to Kokura and Nagasaki to documents the effects of the atomic bombs, as a part of their large-scale experiment in how nuclear weapons worked. The film footage was classified, and was intended only for military use However, one of the members of the film crew felt it was his moral duty to reveal the nature of the atomic bombings to the world, so he smuggled footage to the Society of Friends, who in turn passed the footage to the Canadian filmmaker, Pierre Lafleur, who made Ghosts of Kokura. Pierre Lafleur was not familiar with Japan and its culture, nor did he understand many of the medical and scientific details of what was happening in the footage, which is why the documentary has a number of mistakes. For example, the film claims that the bomb destroyed Kokura castle, whereas in fact, Kokura castle had burned down much earlier and had been merely a stone foundation at the time of the bombing.

The U.S. government, which occupied Japan immediately after the war, had imposed a censorship regime which limited how much Japanese people could learn about what happened in Kokura and Nagasaki. Ghosts of Kokura, of course, was banned in Japan, even as it was seen by millions of people around the world. Multiple people managed to smuggle the film into Japan, and as more and more Japanese people saw it, it inspired protests against the U.S. occupation. One of the smugglers had dubbed the film in Japanese, but rather than translating the film, they created their own commentary on the footage, which was very different from the original. This version was still the best-known version in Japan.

Myrna pondered the improbable circumstances which led to the documentary’s creation, and wondered, what if it had never been made? Would U.S. military leaders still have been prosecuted in an international war crimes trial? Would there still be nuclear weapons? Would Myrna even be here, or would civilization have been destroyed?

After Myrna left the museum, she felt it was her duty – to Nagasaki – to go inside the Peace Memorial. It was a solemn space. She walked slowly. She went into the media room – which was empty of other people – and listened to seven stories (she read the subtitles). She heard the story of a student who had been working as a tram operator when he felt a light so strong that it ‘shone through’ him. She heard the story of a woman who married after the war, and was kicked out of her husband’s family immediately when they found out that she survived the Nagasaki bombing. She heard the story of a Korean who had been forced to work in the Mitsubishi shipyard at the time of the bombing. She heard the story of a man who lost his wife and two young children to the bomb. She heard the story of a woman who said that, when she saw her daughter graduate from junior high school, she felt happy, yet happiness was very rare in her life as a survivor. She heard the story of a senior high school student who described the rings of death – the people in Urakami died first, and every week, the people in the ring around the previous week’s zone of death died. She heard the story of a Dutch veteran who was imprisoned in a POW camp in Nagasaki at the time of the bombing.

She then walked into the innermost space of the memorial, where a zone of silence was enforced. Engraved on the tall stones inside were the names of everyone who was known to have been killed by the bomb in Nagasaki.

Myrna submitted to the zone of silence, and let the space, the meaning behind it, and the stories wash into her.

After about ten minutes, she got up, and left the memorial. As she was in the plaza again, she saw the pigeons once more, and thought, if she did not know what this place represented, it would be an ordinary and unremarkable park. And something about that felt right. It felt right that, even after the horror of the bomb, there had been enough healing in Urakami that it could lose some remarkableness.

To be continued…

***

Preview of Part 8: Return to Kokura

After they returned to Ana’s apartment, and Ana started cooking dinner, she asked Myrna “Do you know why I have such strong feelings about the atomic bombing?”

“You live here,” Myrna replied.

“And why do I live here?”

“Your job?” Myrna asked.

“Yes, but why did I look for a job here when I already had one in Kumamoto?”

“I don’t know,” Myrna said. Then she remembered something. “You said something about speaking with a Kokura accent, like your father, so…”

The realization hit Myrna’s tongue like an anvil.

I Did Not Know (fiction), Part 6: Consumed

CONTENT NOTE: This part of the story contains direct references to sexual assault, as well as non-consexual physical contact and an example of a harmful way of talking to a victim about their assault. It is possible to skip this section, and still follow the rest of the story.

***

March 17th, 2003

“There is a question I ask every foreigner I meet,” Sandy said, as she soaked nude in the indoor bath which was sculpted to look like a natural pool among rocks. “Why did you come to Beppu?”

“Someone I know said that I should try the hot springs here, or at least this one,” Myrna, also naked, answered. She was soaking in the same bath.

“Your friend has good taste,” Sandy replied. “Does your friend live in Japan, or is she just a very savvy traveler.”

“She lives in Kagoshima.”

“Well, I don’t think you live in Japan.”

“Why not?”

“You’re not used to hot springs.”

“It’s that obvious?”

“Mmmmmm.”

When Myrna saw another non-Asian at the hot spring, she instantly gravitated towards her. Though this bath was, thankfully, not boiling hot like the one in Kagoshima, she still felt a bit uncomfortable with the Japanese hot spring experience, and she wanted someone who could help her out, point out the etiquette, or at least share the awkwardness with her.

“So what brought you to Japan?”

“I came to visit my friend.”

“The one in Kagoshima.”

“No, in Kokura.”

“So I take it you’re staying in Kokura tonight, not Beppu.”

“Ah, I’m planning to go back to Kagoshima.”

“But Kagoshima is so far away, and you would have to leave Beppu so soon!”

“My friend in Kokura … I’m not so comfortable with her now.”

“Oh, so you had a fight.” Before Myrna could deny this, Sandy continued by saying, “So you fell out with the friend you came all the way to Japan to see. You have another reason for being in Japan.”

“Well, of course there are other reasons to be in Japan…” Myrna replied.

“I sense it is a special reason,” Sandy said. She seemed a bit like a berry picker, judging with her eye which berries were yet unripe, and which ones were sweet, juicy, and ready for picking. “Does this reason have a boyfriend in it?”

Myrna did not respond.

“Ha, I am almost always right about this, there is a boyfriend. Does your friend in Kagoshima or Kokura know about him?”

“No.”

“Where is he in Japan?”

“He’s not in Japan.”

“So is he going to come here and get you?”

If this were a public street, Myrna would have walked away at this point. However, she was just too self-conscious in the middle of this hot spring, with Japanese people occupying all of the other baths in the room, to make a getaway.

“No.”

She sure hoped not. She had never consciously thought that Sebastian would follow her to Japan – she had been careful to set things up so that he would not even know she was in Japan. Of course, she had been careful in the first place because, on some subconscious level, she was scared that he would try to track her down.

At this point, Sandy got out of the bath. Myrna was relieved. She hope this was the end of this conversation.

Then Sandy said “You should get out of the bath. If you stay too long in one bath, it could be bad for you, especially since we were in the water above heart level.”

Myrna hesitantly got out of the bath. She saw Sandy exit the bathing area, so Myrna went towards a different door. She found herself at the outdoor bath, where only a couple of Japanese women were in the water. She decided to sit in a chair, which felt very awkward since she was naked, and there were Japanese people in the bath.

Myrna heard someone say “There you are.” She turned her head, and saw Sandy walk in.

“I thought you left,” Myrna said.

“Oh no, I just went out to drink some water.”

Sandy got into the bath. Myrna stayed in the chair.

Alas, Sandy just leaned on the edge of the pool, and looked up at Myrna. Myrna sat frozen there. Her instincts told her it was better to sit still than to try to flee and risk pursuit.

“So this boyfriend … you had a fight with him too, didn’t you. A big one.”

Myrna said nothing.

“He hurt you?”

Myrna said nothing.

“Did he make an asshole remark?”

Myrna said nothing.

“Did he step on one of your pet peeves?”

Myrna said nothing.

“Was he cheating on you?”

Myrna said nothing.

“My last boyfriend cheated on me,” Sandy said, a little sadly. “It made me wonder if I wasn’t good enough for him.”

Myrna did not respond to this at first. She did not have much empathy in her at the moment. However, she felt that, maybe, she should say something at this point, that perhaps saying something would make her less vulnerable that not speaking.”

“He did not cheat on me,” Myrna said.

“That’s good,” Sandy said.

Sandy did not say more. Oddly, now that Sandy had shut up, Myrna felt that she needed to say something more, if only to fill the silence.

“So … what are you doing in Beppu?”

“I’m a student at the university here.”

“Your Japanese must be really good.”

“Nah. My classes are in English. So anyway, what did you boyfriend do?”
“Ah, I’d rather talk about what I’ve seen in Japan…”

“Japan, pfff, I’ve seen Japan. I want to know what your boyfriend did to you.”

Myrna, weary of resistance, yielded. “I came home from work, I was tired, I lay down in bed, and he had sex with me.”

“That’s all?” asked Sandy, puzzled. Then, there was a shift in her eyes. “Did you consent to that?”

Myrna was quiet.

“Oh, I am so sorry.” Sandy got out of the bath, and hugged Myrna in her chair.

“I never said he raped me!” Myrna exclaimed, as she wriggled under Sandy’s hug. And there it was – the word she had been carefully avoiding, blurted out of her mouth.

Myrna became limp, and went back to that memory of what happened when she came home from work that day…

“That is so horrible. You were right to leave him. If he were here, I’d punch him in the face myself. Men like that make me so angry!””

Myrna was not really aware whether it was Sandy or Sebastian there.

Sandy got off Myrna. A moment later, Myrna became aware of her surroundings again, and ran out, nearly slipping on the wet floor. She felt unclean all over again, and she did not feel that this hot spring could do anything to purify her. She put her clothes on in a hurry, but not fast enough, for Sandy followed her and said “You really should talk about this with someone…”

Myrna did not sense genuine sympathy from Sandy. Rather, she got the sense that Sandy enjoyed be a spectator to drama – and right now, she was the drama that Sandy was enjoying. Look here, a real life sexual assault victim, and you don’t even have to pay for admission!

As Myrna made her way to the train station, she scared that Sandy was still following her. The train took far to long to come, for Myrna was in constant fear that Sandy – or even Sebastian – was going to catch up to her at any moment.

She spent the rest of the day on trains, not even getting off to buy food.

At night, she got off at a rural train station she had never heard of, and saw nobody in the station. She did find a telephone booth, and made a quick phone call to Lou, telling her that she was not coming back to Kagoshima that night. She then laid out the blankets which, thankfully, Lou had insisted she take with her, and found a place to lie down.

At first, she was scared of being alone in the station, of sleeping outside the formal rules of shelter for the first time. Then, as the desolation sank in, it calmed her down. She had claimed a space for herself, and no one, not even a deer, would take that from her tonight.

To be continued…

***

Preview of Part 7: Urakami

Myrna walked from the cathedral back to the park. There were certainly less people here than in Glover Garden. Of course, a lot of the visitors at Glover Garden were Japanese, and Hana had mentioned that, when her family visited, they all went to Glover Garden, but they did not go to Urakami at all.

As Myrna walked around the park again, she found a memorial to the Korean forced laborers who died and suffered. The memorial was sponsored by the ‘Nagasaki Society for Korean Human Rights’, and included an apology to the Koreans for forcing them to work in Japan.

As Myrna passed by the Peace Museum, she asked herself, should she go in? After all, she had already seen the Peace Museum in Kokura.

I Did Not Know (fiction), Part 5: Trains

Kagoshima, Japan.  Photo by Sara K.

Kagoshima, Japan. Photo by Sara K.

March 14, 2003

Myrna frantically looked at the timetable. She could not read Japanese, and the timetable was confusing, so she must have misread it. There must be another train heading back towards Kagoshima. It was only 8:30 pm.

Myrna looked at the station name. It was in fact ‘NISHI-OYAMA’. She had already been through here once before, but she figured she might as well get on and off at Japan’s southernmost train station.

Because it was dark, Myrna could not see the surroundings too well, but she was guessing that there was not much of a town around here.

It was not as cold as when she had first arrived in Japan, and she had plenty of warm clothing, but she still hoped that the train would come soon.

There had only been a few people on the train with her. As Myrna walked through the station, she found that one of the passengers – a middle-aged woman – was lying down amid blankets. Was she homeless?

Then again, Myrna was homeless, though she had never thought of it like that before. She certainly was no longer paying her share of the rent for the apartment, nor did she have any intention of returning. She had stashed her most important belongings either in her luggage or at a (former) co-worker’s home.

Myrna found a place to lie down in the station herself. At least she could rest while she was waiting for the train which kept on not coming…

***

March 7, 2003

Somehow, in the morning of her stay at Shiratani hut on Yakushima, she had ended up going with the couples while it was still dark to a barren rock (though it was not far from the hut, it was steep, and Myrna was asking herself why she was following these people). Because of this, however, she got to see the sunrise from the top of a ridge, and watch mountain ridges covered with forest appear beneath the light.

On the one hand, Myrna had never seen anything like this in person, and she had to admit it was impressive. At the same time, she felt that she was not … as thrilled as she should be. It was beginning to dawn on her (well, it was also ‘dawning’ in a literal sense) that she was disconnected from her feelings in a way she had not been in the past.

She went down, and leisurely made her way (thankfully downhill!) through Shiratani Unsuikyo, this time actually looking around her. It was a lovely forest.

Having had enough of Yakushima, she got on an afternoon ferry back to Kagoshima.

***

Lou had been remarkably understanding about what happened to her tent. “It’s the second time a deer has ripped a piece out of this,” Lou explained. She pointed out the patch where a deer had previously damaged the tent on Miyajima.

Myrna spent another day in Kagoshima, not doing much. Yakushima had been more than enough adventure for her, but she did not like staying in the city either. So she went ahead, and bought a JR Kyushu pass, allowing her to ride all JR trains on Kyushu.

Her routine became taking trains all day, disembarking occasionally to buy food and walk around a little, and returning to Kagoshima every evening to take a shower and sleep at Lou Clarke’s.

“Really, all you do is ride trains all day?” Lou Clarke asked.

“It’s what I feel like doing.”

Lou looked like she was about to object, but then she relaxed and shrugged. “If riding trains is what you like, you came to the right country.”

Myrna felt more comfortable on moving trains than anywhere else. She did not feel as exposed on a train as she did on the street, and the trains kept on moving, which she liked. She felt uneasy with staying in the same place.

On top of that, during the many hours riding trains, Myrna found she could finally start to think about the issues in her life. Not too directly – there were things she was definitely not ready to confront – but she could reflect on some of the less scary parts.

Having figured out that Myrna had a thing for trains, Lou told her all kinds of things about Japanese trains. For example, Lou suggested that she visit Nishi-Ōyama, the southernmost train station in Japan.

***

At long last, after 9pm, the train heading towards Kagoshima arrived at Nishi-Ōyama. Before Myrna got on, she took one last look, and saw that the woman was still lying down there.

The next day, Myrna mentioned it to Lou.

“She might not be homeless,” Lou said. “It’s a bit early in the year, but Japan does have a tradition of sleeping outside.”

“Anywhere?”

“Not anywhere. But there are lots of places where people sleep, like train stations. A lot of Japanese people sleep outside when they are traveling during the warm months to save money.”

“So, if I were to just decide to stay at a train station for a night, it’s okay?”

“It’s best to ask the people working at the station. Some rural train stations don’t have anybody around at night, in which case I would guess it’s okay, or at least you would not be blamed. I’ve done nojuku a few times myself.”

“What’s nojuku?”

“That’s the Japanese word for sleeping outside. You’re planning on doing it?”

“What?” said Myrna. “No! I remember what happened when I tried camping!”

“Well, if you try it, you should definitely take at some blankets with you, and learn a little Japanese, enough to ask if it’s okay to sleep somewhere.”

***

During her long train rides, she thought to herself, she had been taught that being outside is dangerous, that she should be scared of strangers, that she would be safe at home with family, or with a boyfriend. However, she no longer really felt that such places were ‘safe’. She was even a bit uncomfortable at Lou Clarke’s place, and she was definitely uncomfortable with staying at Ana Teranishi’s place.

Though she still did not feel ready to try sleeping at train stations, she was acknowledging that a lot of the things she had taught had not worked out for her. Would sleeping at a train station really be any more dangerous than sleeping at the apartment she had shared with Sebastian?

To be continued…

***

Preview of Part 6: Consumed:

“Oh, so you had a fight.” Before Myrna could deny this, Sandy continued by saying, “So you fell out with the friend you came all the way to Japan to see. You have another reason for being in Japan.”

“Well, of course there are other reasons to be in Japan…” Myrna replied.

“I sense it is a special reason,” Sandy said. She seemed a bit like a berry picker, judging with her eye which berries were yet unripe, and which ones were sweet, juicy, and ready for picking. “Does this reason have a boyfriend in it?”

“I Did Not Know” (fiction), Part 4: A Space for Oneself

Deer near the entrance of Yakusugiland, Yakushima, Japan.  Photo by Sara K.

Deer near the entrance of Yakusugiland, Yakushima, Japan. Photo by Sara K.

March 6th, 2003

Myrna had done a careful yet awkward dance to pitch the tent in the rain without getting the inside wet, and failed. However, it was not too wet inside, and at least it did not soak all the way through into her sleeping bag. Thank goodness that the sleeping bag had been inside a waterproof bag!

As the sky grew darker, and the rain started falling harder, the interior of that tent was Myrna’s world. She hoped it would hold through the night.

She was anxious about the weather, the uncertainty of her shelter, the darkness, being a ten-minute walk away from the nearest fellow human, and the fact that she was on an island she had not even known existed until the day before. And even so, something inside felt more relaxed than she had been for a long time. How odd.

***

After spending her first night in Ana’s apartment, Ana took Myrna out to Dazaifu (yet another place featured in her beloved manga) to see the plum blossoms. The plum blossoms were beautiful. The blossom season is short, and it was a weekend, so the shrine was crowded … Myrna was not sure whether that made her more or less comfortable.

There was still a distinct tension between Ana and Myrna. Ana set up for Myrna to stay with her friend Lou Clarke in Kagoshima, and Myrna was happy to leave.

The train to Kagoshima was the first non-high-speed train Myrna had taken in Japan (well, except for the local trains to Mojiko and Dazaifu, but they were just suburban lines). Myrna had been fond of trains since a very young age, but somehow, the high-speed train had not felt like a real train to her.

The train ride to Kagoshima was not particularly exciting (well, aside from seeing a volcanic eruption, but Myrna soon learned that it was nothing remarkable by Kyushu standards). On the contrary Myrna felt calmer on board than she had felt in weeks.

Lou Clarke originally came from Jamaica. When Myrna arrived at the train station in Kagoshima, Lou gave her a very warm welcome.

Myrna spent her first day in Kagoshima at Sakurajima. She also went to one of the public baths, but as soon as her toe dipped the water she found that it was painfully hot, and she turned right back around to the dressing room.

Lou strongly urged Myrna to visit some of the islands of Kagoshima prefecture. Myrna was resistant at first – she was not inclined to go alone on a ferry to some place where people probably did not speak English – but Lou kept on talking about island after island, and showed off photos from her albums. Lou said that, at a minimum, Myrna should go to Yakushima, which was only 1-2 hours away from Kagoshima by boat, and Lou offered to lend Myrna her tent and sleeping bag, as well prepare a detailed English-language itinerary explaining how to get around the island.

Myrna took up Lou’s offer mainly because she was still running. She came to Japan in the first place was to run away from her … problem, and even here, though she was in unfamiliar territory and was not at all the kind of person who would go exploring a foreign country alone, she also felt an urge to keep on running away. Going to an unknown island definitely felt like running away.

***

Myrna somehow got through her first night on the island without getting wet. This was undone as soon as a giant gash was suddenly torn out of her tent in the morning, and a bunch of water splashed inside. She shrieked.

After a few minutes, Myrna stopped being completely freaked out, and worked up the courage to see what had happened. She looked out the new hole in her tent, and saw, about a hundred meters away, a deer crewing on the ripped-out portion of her tent.

Myrna did not even want to think about how she was going to explain this to Lou.

Thankfully, Lou had given her a plan B, which Myrna initially did not want, but now, the prospect of perhaps having a dry place to sleep tonight made her reconsider.

Myrna packed the ruined tent, returned to the main road, got a bus to the town on the east side of the island, and then transferred to a bus going to Yakusugiland. It finally stopped raining, though there was still fog in the air. The young man who sold the tickets was kind enough to accept her pack and hold onto it.

Myrna was afraid that she would not be strong enough for the hike, but it turned out to be not bad at all. The ancient trees reminded her of the old growth sequoia and redwood forests she had visited as a child.

Then something leaped in front and startled her. It turned out to be another deer. Myrna shrieked again.

Myrna picked up her pack, took the bus back to that eastern town, transferred to a bus heading back north to the major town where she had gotten off the ferry (and where she went camping), and then took the last bus heading to Shiratani Unsuikyo.

Like Yakusugiland, Shiratani Unsuikyo was a little park for tourists to see some of the tall, ancient trees, as well as experience the forest of Yakushima without too much strenuous effort. Apparently, it had also been an inspiration for the movie Princess Mononoke, which Myrna had seen at the college anime club.

This time, Myrna did not try to enjoy herself – she needed to get to shelter before sundown.

Lou said it would only take an hour to hike from the bus stop to Shiratani hut. Well, it was an uphill hike, and even though Myrna was moving as fast as she could, it took her more than an hour and a half. It felt like a much longer time to her, especially since she was in constant fear of being assailed by deer.

Inside the shelter, there were other people.

There was a group of young Japanese men, a group of older Japanese men, as well as a few couples (Myrna assumed they were boyfriends and girlfriends). Myrna knew the hut was free and did not require reservation but … even so, she felt anxious about simply walking into such a space. The fact that they were all staring at her did not help.

There were three rooms with bunks, and Myrna ended up in the once with the couples. No hope of privacy tonight. Myrna did not even bother changing clothes, since her clothes were just about the driest fabrics she had with her at the moment. Her sleeping bag was even more damp than when she had crawled out that morning.

One of the Japanese women pulled out a dry blanket, and put it on Myrna’s bunk.

Myrna knew it was a gesture of kindness, and she was going to use that blanket because she needed all the help she could get to stay warm, but it still bothered her. It was the fact that the Japanese woman had put it in her space – Myrna already thought of the bunk as being her space without permission.

Myrna then realized why, in spite of everything, she had felt relaxed in the tent. For the first time in a long time, she had been able to sleep in a space which was truly hers. Even with the rain threatening to come it, even though it was ultimately violated by a deer, it had still been her space. It was not a hostel dorm, it was not Ana or Lou’s apartment, it was not with family, and it most certainly not the apartment she had shared with Sebastian.

Tonight, she would be dry, but it would not be her own space.

To be continued…

***

Sneak preview of Part 5: Trains

There had only been a few people on the train with her. As Myrna walked through the station, she found that one of the passengers – a middle-aged woman – was lying down amid blankets. Was she homeless?

Then again, Myrna was homeless, though she had never thought of it like that before. She certainly was no longer paying her share of the rent for the apartment, nor did she have any intention of returning. She had stashed her most important belongings either in her luggage or at a (former) co-worker’s home.

Myrna found a place to lie down in the station herself. At least she could rest while she was waiting for the train which kept on not coming…