‘To My Girl on a Plane’ by Yiming Ma

6 June, 2016 4 comments

At dawn, before Tokyo’s first trains chugged off from nearby Nippori Station, you rolled over to my side of bed at our Airbnb and kissed me awake. “Don’t forget me,” you said. My eyes were still closed when I mumbled back. And just like that, you got up and left to catch your flight.

Did you ever think dear, that before you suggested travelling to this foreign country, we had dated for only six months? And half that time long distance–with me moving back to Toronto and now off to study in San Fran, while you stayed behind in London. But if you did dwell on that question, you proposed your idea anyway.

“What could go wrong?” you said.

I chose not to answer.

But then you were convincing. “Remember, I speak Japanese and lived there after college,” you said and when you touched my shoulder, I knew you were going to point to my obsession with ramen so the wheels in my head began turning before you could speak. Perhaps this could be research for the story I’m writing about love and ramen. Then I remembered that you also knew intimately about my story, for you had been its first reader. So when you suggested that ‘we travel to Kyushu to eat the real deal,’ you must have known that I could not have said no.

*

Today, while riding the Keihin-Tohoku express–because when you left, I had to move too and stay somewhere less expensive–I laid out my giant Samsonite suitcase flat across the train floor, squeezing it between my thighs. I did this because I wanted to read my Murakami in peace while sitting down. Then around Ueno Station, when I glanced up from my copy of ‘Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World’, afraid that I might miss my stop, I caught the eye of an elderly Japanese man. Presumably my suitcase had been taking up too much space, because he flashed me the dirtiest stare; his wrinkled eyes contorting with such malice that his scowl appeared to start from the top of his bald head down to his mouth’s arches. But I found myself smiling and the old man became confused that I had not become more upset.

Perhaps it was because I imagined that you were sitting in his place instead; thinking that had you been around, you would have told me off a long time ago.

“Why are you acting so American, inconveniencing everyone?” you’d have said, ignoring the Canadian passport in my pocket. Then, you would have made me stand squashed in that car, desperately restraining the wheels of my suitcase from rolling away every time the train accelerated–just so that I might take up a little less Japanese space.

So today, because you were travelling on a plane instead of with me on the train, I felt rather gleeful because you weren’t around to tell me off–and I felt as if I might have gotten away with one.

*

You probably got away with one too, last night.

When we finished our soak in the bathtub and I asked if you had any last words, you said, “No, let’s keep this more casual. I’ll see you on our next trip,” and then you hugged me and muttered a quick “Love you,” before turning to your side of bed. I echoed your words but when I heard them roll off your tongue, I couldn’t help but feel that they sounded a bit flat. But I didn’t say anything, because I recognized that even if you’d been telling me the truth about how you really felt about leaving, I don’t think I would have believed you anyway.

So I accepted that my question had been a trap, and there hadn’t been a point in asking it.

*

At my hotel in Yokohama, I dropped off my suitcase. Hungry, I searched my phone for somewhere to eat. There was a popular noodle bar a few blocks away known for shio ramen. Outside the restaurant, there was a long queue. I considered texting to check that you were safe, but I knew you would have been too cheap, or ‘sensible’ as you prefer, to pay for internet on the plane. So I stood and waited instead.

Twenty minutes later, I noticed that every other party was holding onto a ticket. Dang. I’d forgotten to order my ramen through the restaurant’s vending machine before standing in line. Just then, a Japanese server walked out of the noodle bar to usher us in.

“Irasshaimase!” the girl greeted us. She took the tickets one by one from customers until she reached me. Then, after waiting a half-second, she bowed deeply and extended her arms.

“Irasshaimase!” I repeated in my most enthusiastic Japanese voice. In that moment, I had forgotten that you had taught me that this meant ‘welcome to my place of business,’ so I feel silly now to have welcomed this girl into her own restaurant. But I hadn’t known what else to say.

“Gomen-nasai–I’m terribly sorry.” I squeezed my palms together and bowed too. “I forgot to order my ramen–can I buy a ticket now?”

The girl hesitated and after feeling some pity I imagine, she said, “Hai, dozo,” and walked me inside the restaurant. Face-to-face with the vending machine–made up of buttons labeled only in Japanese, each one referring to a different noodle bowl and its price–I decided to gamble and order the most expensive ramen (980 yen) rather than hold up the line. After watching the machine spit out my ticket, the girl bowed again and guided me to the wooden counter to wait.

When my ramen came though, I noticed one major flaw–it didn’t include a hanjuku egg! And there were only two slices of chashu. Two slices! I looked around the counter and noticed a Japanese schoolboy in his blue uniform hunkering down on a nearly identical bowl, except that his contained twice as much pork!

How could this shop be so popular when its ramen didn’t even include a hanjuku egg? This was Japan for heaven’s sake, the birthplace and utopia of ramen.

But in the end, I can only point the finger at myself, because later I returned to that vending machine and saw two buttons with prices too low to correspond to any ramen (150 and 250 yen). I theorized that pressing either of them might have added that extra egg or char-siu helping to my noodles. If only you had been around, I would have known to do exactly that and maybe then, the ramen wouldn’t have tasted so flat.

Not that I am blaming you, of course dear.

From the beginning, you told me that you only had two weeks to travel; it was me who decided to stay longer in Japan without you.

*

Tired after ramen, I walked back to the hotel to nap. But I couldn’t sleep for the longest time. I thought of you sitting by yourself in your economy seat breathing in the plane’s stale air, and when I turned away to face my side of the bed, I could just feel the empty space behind my back where you used to sleep morph into some widening chasm, and suddenly all I could think about was how perfectly our bodies had fit together.

And by that, I don’t just mean that time when we rolled off our tatami to make love on the bamboo floor in our Kyoto homestay, or even last night after our soak, but rather every time when we lay cuddled in each other’s arms and pretended to be spoons; when you’d let your small body relax and settle into my chest until we fell into some dreamless sleep.

*

By the time I woke up, it was dark. Hungry again, I walked to the mall downstairs to pick up a bento box but the food court was already closed.

Opening up Google Maps on my phone, I discovered a famous tonkatsu joint nearby. But I couldn’t find my way. No matter how carefully I tracked myself on GPS, I couldn’t get there. Twice, it looked as if I were close, my blue dot venturing precipitously near that red destination marker on the map, but both times, I had to backtrack. Then abruptly, my phone froze and refused to restart.

Tired of my grumbling stomach, I made my way to Lawson’s. Inside the convenience store, I bought myself a loaf of your favorite chocolate bread and some seaweed salad–and called it dinner.

Yes, I will admit: you are probably better than me at navigating Google Maps.

But perhaps it’s only fair to suggest that my unconsciousness might have wanted me to get lost today. So that all this time while you flew, I might feel your presence–even if it manifested as a stream of inconveniences–and finally recognize your value now that you were gone.

I have been thinking all day about this: Should I have the right to be annoyed with you? Do I get permission to be upset because you abandoned me in this foreign country knowing full well that I lacked the skills to survive such as–well, speaking Japanese but maybe navigating IT too?

“How can you be so bad with technology?” you often joked while punching my shoulder tenderly over these last two weeks, “How are you going to survive in Silicon Valley?”

I laughed with you but in a way, I think we were both wondering the same thing–how I functioned at all when you were not around.

*

Back at the hotel, I unpacked my laptop. On the screen, I noticed a deep smudge, a fingerprint too small to be mine. For a while, I stared at the pattern that your finger must have made, pressed spirals looping round and round from the center, amused at how different your lines looked from my own.

And then I wiped the smudge away.

See, I didn’t really need your print there, dirtying my screen. Because after all, you’d already reminded me this morning with your kiss–to remember not to forget you.


Yiming Ma is writer from Toronto, Canada whose stories revolve around young love and his experiences as an expat travelling to over 30 countries in Africa, Europe and Asia over the past five years. Yiming has been published in Stanford Social Innovation Review. He is currently living in Ubud, Bali and will be attending Stanford University in the fall.

Photo by Yiming Ma

4 comments

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4 comments

Gavin 12 June, 2016 at 8:06 pm

I like it! Good luck, Yiming.

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Monocot 14 June, 2016 at 12:57 am

Very sweet and well-written! Looking forward to reading more of your work.

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Victoria 16 June, 2016 at 1:38 am

Really like the narrative and tasteful dialogue lines – well done!

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Misa 20 June, 2016 at 8:07 am

I love it how all the details, although indirectly, carves out your affection towards her. Very sweet.

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