IN A LANGUAGE ALL OUR OWN kate montgomery

I was moving upstream on the train platform to throw away trash —an empty bag of Hershey’s Kisses, some receipts—at the one trash can in all of Nakano and saw him walking towards me, on his phone.

He dressed exactly like every other working man in Tokyo, but I could always spot his shirts, his hair in a crowd. That his aesthetic was so unremarkable was didn’t in any way stop me from staring after him in the manner of a dumb, blindly loyal dog when he walked by in the office.

I walked very closely past him on my way to the garbage and prayed that he would that wouldn’t that he would look up.

He didn’t. I threw away my trash. Something possessed my feet to run after him even as my mouth was making itself clear that it had no intention of talking to him, obviously. My hands were undecided, and made movements of intent as if there were an actual reason for my sudden haste other than a compulsion to be seen by this person who was, by all accounts, completely strange and probably not worth the attention I spent on him.

If he were an investment, he would not be a sound one, and then I felt ashamed for assessing my affection in capitalist terms. Lately I had been preoccupied with the effect on love of living in a capitalist system, but at that moment I wasn’t thinking such stimulating thoughts as I nearly fell down the stairs in my effort to get past him.

As I rushed to walk ahead of him I nearly collided with four people and then nearly collided with him. He was transferring to another platform, and I quick-stepped towards the exit while my face tried to maintain a serene expression of vague distraction, like I had Places to Be.

I had nowhere to be. I walked past him and I exited and I went to the grocery store where I wandered, wondering what the point of buying tomato sauce could possibly be now.

I had become a mystery to myself, utterly.

I believe I used to think about things that felt important, multi-dimensional. At this period of my life, however, I was engaged not in artistic pursuits or thoughts about how to live well, but instead in trying to determine the answer to this question about this man in the train station, with the narrow waist and the long, white hands: did I want to sleep with him, or be him?

For six months, I was preoccupied with this question and eventually decided the answer was both and that I was capable of achieving neither. And this paradox, among other aspects of our relationship, tormented me acutely in the way that these things torment socially obtuse people in their early 20s.

My previous serious relationship had been with a woman I met online. We skipped a lot of the conventional steps that led to a romantic relationship, so when I was alone again I realized that I was missing a lot of information about how to be a person in the world in relation to others.

I knew how to be in a relationship, but I didn’t understand how to get into one. I didn’t know how to interpret subtle signals—or any signals—of interest. I didn’t know how to indicate my own interest. What I knew came from books and films, and my favorite film was a Polish-French movie about two women who look exactly alike, one of whom dies young while the other is pursued romantically by an asshole of the highest order.

Thinking about my favorite films and how I took them to be manuals on life, it’s a miracle I have managed to do anything.

Not knowing whether this man was interested in me, not knowing how say that I was in him, I approached him like an academic study, which was the one thing I did have experience in. I thought if I could become an expert in him, I could become closer to him.

I became a connoisseur of the mundane. His office shoes had small zippers on them, and so I knew the sound of how he walked. He wore heavy shoes, which looked fairly ridiculous considering how skinny he was, so his long, measured steps made heavy, measured sounds with a very faint jingle at the end because of the zipper.

I pointed this out to another coworker under what pretext I can’t remember, and she asked, laughing so hard she could barely say the words, if that was the sound that gave me life each day in the office.

I laughed, but thought, oh god how true, how embarrassing.

I collected these things: small sounds, the textures on his terrible grey shirts that he wore so well, the way he tapped his hands along to his iPod on the train. It all amounted to a mental compendium of useless knowledge about this man that I became an expert in tormenting myself with. I can only imagine the thoughts I could have had, the things I could have created, if I had focused my attention inwards and not on a man’s shoe zippers.

Here is another small thing: the sound of his mouth on a cigarette was like nothing else except the sound of his mouth on a cigarette. This was before, when we both smoked out on the balcony of our office. A lot of these small things come from the times we spent smoking together.

I only bought extremely cheap lighters or else stole them from other people and consequently could never actually light my own cigarette. He would reach as soon I sat down next to him, smooth like a man from a black and white movie. One time, I tried to wrestle an ashtray out of his hands that he insisted on holding for me outside of a restaurant even after he had finished smoking, so this is the kind of person he is.

The important thing, though, is this sound. It was the sound his mouth made right after he inhaled and then moved the cigarette away. It was like a small pop, which is not at all romantic and compelling, and yet.

Part of why it is so special is that I will never hear it again. Mainly this is because we have both quit smoking. It is also because we live in different countries and I will probably never see him again even though I think of him often.

When it came to anything in connection with him, I was a magpie, storing away the best and brightest things. Things that would be completely unnoticed in connection with anyone else took on the quality of the sacred, so that even now remembering these details feels not unlike the first step in a pilgrimage.

Now, I also think about it in connection with value defined as scarcity. Is this sound so precious because I will never hear it again? Because it could only be made by one person? If it were more mundane, more common, would I care? Is that not an inherently capitalist approach to love? Or is it in spite of the mundanity, because this mundane thing is being produced by this person at this moment, that it becomes valuable? What kind of love is that? What did I devote six months in the pursuit of, exactly?

The incident that is lodged between us like a pebble stuck in the grooves of a rubber shoe sole also took place on a train. It was between Waseda and Ochiai, somewhere, on the train home from work.

It was winter. I wore a black coat made of a nubbly fabric that often caught on things, and he wore a black coat made of the same kind of material as thermal blankets, and which I sort of hated. He wore it for exactly three months every year, regardless of the actual temperature outside. It wasn’t even warm, he said when I asked him, but he cared more about following his self-imposed rules for living than about physical discomfort.

Between Waseda and Ochiai I noticed that there were small brown seeds stuck to the right elbow of my coat. I couldn’t imagine where they had come from, I said, after exclaiming about their presence. Neither of us was particularly talkative, and we had fallen into a trough in the usual wave pattern of our conversations, having discussed work and the movie we had plans to see on Saturday. (The movie was, incidentally, the one about the identical Polish/French women.)

He asked if the place where I lived was particularly forested (obviously not, in central Tokyo), or if maybe I had somewhere with nature recently (obviously not, as we both spent 90% of our waking lives at the office). When I walked to work I often took pictures instead of looking where I was walking so maybe I had brushed against something. He called me a child in Japanese, and I told him to go to hell in English, and this was a normal coda to our conversations, which often became small fights about our diametrically opposed worldviews.

And then, he reached over and pulled the seeds off of my coat. There were about a dozen, and it took time. As he pulled each one off, he flicked it away somewhere, which would have struck me as very weird considering the strict anti-litter culture on Japanese trains had I not been staring at him pulling seeds off of my coat.

I have never given so much thought to the words that passed between us as to what he might have been trying to say with the seeds. Whatever it was, did I misread it? Had I read it differently, would anything have changed between us? Would everything? Could such a tender gesture ultimately have no meaning? Should I have tried harder to find out?

I had had half a thought of re-staging the event to get a better reading on the situation, but no matter how much I searched there were no bushes that grew that kind of seeds near my house. In fact, there were no bushes of any kind—just well-maintained camellias in walled off gardens and wildflowers that grew no higher than my knee.

All my wires felt crossed, the signs and signifiers pointing back at themselves. The meaning was in the sign, but I couldn’t read anything. I felt that the strange times we passed together must be aiming at some cohesive meaning. He made a riddle out of my own life, and solving it felt like trying to lick my own elbow.

If that doesn’t quite make sense, imagine feeling like that was still somehow the best way to describe your life.

I spent six months diligently refining skills that I am sure I will never be able to use again—that I don’t particularly want to use again. My internal compendium of his habits is more useless than at 1959 edition of an encyclopedia.

I think what I am feeling now, however, is gratitude. Even as I thought, why the hell can’t I expend this much effort in writing applications for film school, or editing shorts that I shot months ago, my investigatory approach to this other human being was not without value.

Even if the signs and signifiers in our (non-) relationship point back at themselves with no deeper meaning, they took up my life with an intriguing grace. They showed through negative space what was (and was not) worth spending so much time on. And there was a thrill, too, in the experience itself. I am thankful for those winter days and nights dyed in the deep red of infatuation and desire. I am thankful you pulled the seeds off my coat—each tiny one.