My hand is shaking. The tip of the needle wavers and doesn’t catch on the marked area. Supporting my right hand, which is holding the needle, with my other hand, I manage to press it into the marked part. The tip of it, cut horizontally like a surgical needle, sank into my flesh with a little biting sensation. Surprisingly soft. As that thought crossed my mind, I held down my lip with my left hand and pressed the needle into it. While I did, I remembered that I’d forgotten to put Vaseline on the tip of the needle. Going in slowly, I felt it juddering as the tip of the needle appeared on the reverse of my lip. As it began to pierce, I pushed it all the way through, taking care not to nick my tongue or gums. At the butt of the needle I had prepared the jewelry, hoping to do it all at once, but with just a little pressure the needle slipped clean out. I tried to insert the jewelry anyway; it got partway through but wouldn’t make it the last few millimeters. I tried turning my lip inside out but there was so much blood that I couldn’t tell where the hole terminated on the inside. I rubbed my finger inside my lip searching for the end of the piercing, but even with pressure on both sides of my lip it wouldn’t go all the way through the last little bit. No progress. I took out the jewelry, picked up the needle once again, and began to insert it into the hole I’d created before. The needle made its way through the hole I’d already made, but my flesh had started swelling, and the resistance was so much that I could barely get it through. Finally it pierced through again, and I went about installing the jewelry, careful not to pull the needle out this time. I finally got the circular barbell into my lip and put the ball on the screw end of the bar, when I realized that the barbell was a little too large for my lip; after staring in the mirror for a little bit I removed the ball. The moment I removed the barbell, having decided to go instead for the small, adjustable captive bead ring, blood began to pour from it with such force that it surprised me. While I was freaking out that this much blood could come from a little, 1.6 millimeter-diameter hole, the pain and swelling increased, and unable to put down the tissue, I couldn’t insert the other jewelry. ‘I fucked up,’ I thought; then I realized that was OK. My cheeks were flushed and hot with pain and stress; there was nothing to do but wait now for the blood to stop. Ceaselessly it kept flowing, and though I was pressing the tissue to it, I realized that there were drops of blood falling on the table, the floor, everywhere. The sight of my bloody latex gloves, the needle, the jewelry cruelly waiting there on a piece of kitchen roll – it all oddly calmed me. The reality that I had done something, that I had shed blood, was satisfying in its own way. I had only pleasant thoughts for my hands, now sticky with blood, and the interior of my mouth which tasted of blood, too.
Nearly ten minutes later, after the bleeding had stopped, I looked in the mirror; there was only a dot visible, like I’d had an injection, and the rest was so unchanged that it was hard to believe I had bled so much just before, but the wound on the inside of my lip was puffed up, like a mouth ulcer. I put my mouth to the untampered end of the needle and blew into it, and a slimy little piece of flesh flew out. ‘Needle’, in French, is ‘aiguille’. When I bought the needle I had looked it up online, and the word hadn’t really seemed to fit the image I had of a pin, but as a word for a needle that a hunk of flesh could come out of, ‘aiguille’ felt highly suitable. I wrapped the bit of flesh, the blood-covered tissues, the latex gloves, and the aiguille up in kitchen roll; pressing the soles of my feet as hard as I could into the cool floor to soothe the heat in my body, I threw it all in the bin.
Two hours after the bleeding, I got a message from Yumi: ‘Just finished eating at Panasia but do you wanna come here?’ Panasia was an Asian cafe-restaurant about five minutes’ walk from me, and it didn’t close during the day, so I often went there when I wanted to have a leisurely drink with my Japanese friends. I thought it over for a few minutes, before replying: ‘On my way.’ I had already drunk too much wine from the stress of putting in the piercing and the exhaustion from having fucked it up, so as I walked quickly under the wintry sky, I realized that I was going to get drunk. As I walked in the door of the restaurant, one of the Chinese waitstaff who I recognized pointed to Yumi, sitting at a table by the window.
‘Should we get a bottle? Or just fifty?’
‘Let’s go with fifty. I’ve been drinking already.’
After that brief exchange we ordered a 50cl bottle of rosé and chitchatted.
‘What’d you eat?’
‘Was it good?’
‘So-so. It was some kind of weird pho with spring rolls in it.’
‘Good way to ruin pho’s freshness.’
‘Have you eaten?’
‘No, but I don’t have any appetite either.’
Momentarily I considered telling her how I’d fucked up the piercing and decided not to. My lip barely hurt anymore; only a pulsating heat remained.
I filled my glass up to the brim with rosé and said, ‘Cheers,’ gloomily. The Côtes de Province rosé here was not particularly good, though a glass or a decanter was not enough and a whole bottle was too much, so 50cl was the natural conclusion when the desire to drink something good was outweighed by the desire to get drunk. And in most cases, after I’d finished drinking it I’d regret not having ordered a whole bottle and wind up ordering another glass.
‘Wait, your piercing.’
I looked up, just about to be surprised that she could tell that this mark had been where I’d tried to pierce my lip, when I realized that her gaze was focused on my right ear.
‘Oh, my outer conch?’
‘You took it out?’
‘Yeah. It was giving me trouble so I took it out.’
‘Oh. You’re always having some kind of trouble.’
It was true. That one, the vertical industrial piercing I’d had done through my navel in the summer in a piercing studio in Japan, and the outer conch piercing I’d done myself after getting back to France made three in the latter half of this year alone that I’d had difficulties with after piercing and wound up removing. If I included my lip today, that was four fuck ups in a row.
‘Don’t overthink it,’ Yumi said, laughing. I looked at her left ear; the helix piercing I’d done on her in the summer just for the hell of it after we’d been drinking was doing fine. I’d been so drunk that I didn’t remember I’d done it, the first piercing I’d given to someone else in my life, until I saw the pictures on my phone the next day.
‘I’m moving back next summer.’
‘You already decided?’
I nodded, and Yumi said, ‘Really, wow, everybody’s leaving these days,’ sighing throughout. In the last few years we had watched so many Japanese friends who had lived in this quartier and had been in France for years go back home. Yumi had lived in France for over a decade and had even more friends than I did, plus she was a charming woman from Kansai so I didn’t imagine she would feel particularly sad about my return, but at the same time, for I also knew that for about the last three years we had been the closest Japanese friend to each other in this area. In autumn and winter we would gorge ourselves on raw oysters from the marché; in the spring we would take wine to the nearest park and have a picnic; and in the summer we would binge on beer and mojitos together.
‘Well, you always said you would, I guess.’
‘It’s not like going back home will resolve anything, but you know.’
‘Are you all right?’
‘With what?’ I laughed, and the inside of my lip, still swollen like an ulcer, hurt a little. For quite some time I had had to struggle, and with that came the doubt over whether doing so was really improving anything, like trying to fix a painting that’s gone wrong halfway through, or trying to tear through a terrible adhesion. I just wanted things to go back to how they were, and with the hope that things wouldn’t get even a millimeter more screwed up, that with my fumbling I could turn things back just that one millimeter, I’d decided to go home. But conversely, that didn’t mean that I hadn’t considered the possibility that this might screw things up even worse.
Young children have their clothing picked for them by their parents. Girls on the edge are reined in by their boyfriends. Expat workers get notified they’re being sent home by their company. I was not a young child or a girl or an expat worker and so I had no choice but to decide for myself, and that decision was not one derived from logic or empiricism, only on personal feelings and impulses not based on any existing grounds, and the guilt and fear that with each decision I may be heading further down the wrong path made me pale. I pierced myself as if it were proof that I have responsibility for my own mind, for my own body, and then I kept removing them afterward; even as I was struck by a sense of helplessness, I would not be able to breathe if I didn’t make a new decision.
‘Anyways, you remember the high-rise that Yoshioka used to live in?’
‘Oh, the one over that way?’
‘Yeah. Yesterday someone jumped off it apparently; I saw they’d closed off the entrance to pedestrians and they’d put up a tarp. Dunno whether it was an accident or suicide though.’
Only three or four months ago, less than two minutes’ walk away from that building, there’d been another jumper. Since I moved to France, I’d heard so many stories of people jumping off buildings. Yoshioka often threw house parties, so I was always going over there to hang out. The thought of someone smashing to the ground in front of a building I’d been to so many times didn’t so much fill me with the fear that I could have been involved or hit by them; it left me with the inescapable mental image of myself as the person who had been smashed.
‘You know, hearing about jumpers so regularly, doesn’t it kinda make you feel like eventually you’ll jump too?’
‘What a bad girl you are.’
‘Bad girl . . .’ I muttered in astonishment, as Yumi laughed and filled up my empty glass with rose. Come to think of it, I read the other week on Wikipedia that Gilles Deleuze had jumped to his death. I had just watched L’Abécédaire de Gilles Deleuze on DVD, and when I learned that after long-term illness he had drawn the curtain on his own life by jumping, I remembered something he said in that interview: ‘Si je n’étais pas un philosophe et que j’étais une femme, j’aurais voulu être une pleureuse. C’est un art (If I hadn’t been a philosopher and if I had been a woman, I would have wanted to be a wailer . . . The wailer is marvelous because her lamentations are an art.)’ I couldn’t tie the image of him speaking so calmly and authoritatively with the words ‘jumped to his death;’ bathed in the white glow of the screen with his Wikipedia page open on it, I imagined him hiding his face and lamenting, ‘Why do I even exist?’
When I went home that evening, I searched online for piercing jewelry and bought two each of segment rings, circular barbells, and labrets in different sizes. If I didn’t keep on doing something, doing what I believed in, I felt I might succumb to the window’s temptations. All the decisions I’d made up to this point were for the same reason. Dropping out of school, cutting myself, my eating disorder, all the drugs, my alcohol dependence, piercings, my writing, coming to France and leaving France, too, all of it was to keep myself away from the window. Without it all I would fall. Be smashed against the ground. I’d turn into mere pulp.
I stared in the mirror and scraped at the scab on my wound with my fingernail. A slight amount of blood welled up but did not drip. I saw in the mirror the large, three meters across, floor-to-ceiling built-in shelves. When I first came here they had been empty, and now they were crammed full of books and documents. So much stuff I’ll have to throw out, I thought. If I left out the window, I was sure I’d find a world I’d never seen before, one without windows. Or maybe, if there were no such world, it’d be better to live with a guard at the window who would stab me to death before I jumped.
Depression is depression, whether there’s a reason for it or not, and when there is a reason, if it’s a problem that can be resolved then you won’t get depressed, which is why there’s very little difference between being depressed for a reason and for no reason. My level of excitement now was utterly different than when Anne had asked me to go to lunch with her once before I went back to Japan and I’d felt my heart soar. In the week since we’d decided to meet at a new restaurant that had gotten good reviews, I’d become totally depressed. Leaving the house, riding the metro, smiling, talking, choosing what I wanted to eat, all of it had become difficult. The truth was, I was so depressed that I could only maintain any mental balance by laying in bed and staring into space, but I summoned my strength and walked to the Marais, arriving at the somewhat trendy restaurant we’d chosen, and put on a forced smile with the intention of just getting through this meal without a fuss and without the depression making my friend think badly of me.
‘How’s it going? Life with your bébé, I mean?’
‘Pretty settled, really. He sleeps through the night most times. He’s already over five kilos.’
‘Great. And how are you, Anne?’
‘Back to normal. I was on total rest before because of the threat of going into labor prematurely, so since I gave birth I feel like I’ve been set free.’
‘How is it having three now?’
‘The other two are pretty big now, so it’s not so bad. You should have another too, you know.’
I laughed grimly at her careless words. I couldn’t even cope with the depression right before me now; I couldn’t imagine managing the endless loop of feeding, changing, and putting to sleep a soft, tender body. I couldn’t believe now that I’d been able to care for a baby twice. I could only imagine that something had taken over within me then. Since my second turned five, I had felt a wall between me and babies and the people who had them. When I gave birth to a child and was doing all that grueling care I wasn’t the same person I was originally, and I couldn’t help but feel that as my children loosened their grip on me I was returning to my original self. The macho types of this world often talk about getting married and having kids as the path to adulthood, but I had reconfirmed that it was an illusion with my growing hatred of those macho morons. When I was in the thick of it, I had been simply responding to the reality in front of me; it was only a temporary transformation. I’d hated babies and young children since I was a child myself. That hatred was alleviated only while I gave birth and cared for my babies, but I still wasn’t great with babies and small children and sometimes simply seeing one pained me. Basically, I had not grown in any way since having children; in fact, I could only think that as an individual I had deteriorated. On some level I was frightened by the fact that Anne could so easily re-accept the role of ‘mother’ and make it her own. The menu du jour that I’d ordered consisted of an appetizer of rocket and sea bream carpaccio in a yuzu dressing and a main course of ris de veau with mushrooms simmered in cream. The restaurant’s website had a whole spiel introducing the playful-looking chef with heavily tattooed arms, but the interior of the restaurant and the food had a surprisingly chic feeling.
‘The last time we had lunch together you seemed worried so I was concerned about you; are things better now?’
The last time we’d lunched together was about a year ago. I remembered that Anne had told me that she was pregnant, but I had little to no memory of what I’d talked about.
I’d let my real feelings slip out, but then I added with a shrug, ‘I’ve got so much to do before I leave France, though, so you know.’ There was no need for me to gloss things over, so why did I feel I had to pretend nothing was wrong like that? But spewing all my real, desperate feelings and my endless depression at Anne right now would be terrible for her and for me.
‘You never say what you really want to say.’
‘Me? I think I’m probably one of the most open and least two-faced Japanese people around.’
‘What do you mean?’ Anne shrugged, a look of surprise on her face. ‘Do you have anyone you can talk to about your feelings?’
‘I’m fine. I write it all in my novels.’
‘And that’s how you plan to keep living?’
‘It’s how I plan to die.’
Everyone grows to hate me. Eventually they’ll abandon me. I’m not sure how long I’ve had this conviction. To this day I’ve never been bullied or horribly backstabbed or abandoned by anyone. Despite that, maybe I have this conviction because I hate myself, because I long to abandon myself. Everyone in my life now is someone who likes me. Yet I feel violently ashamed of being alive. I have a shame that cannot be swept away or disproved. The sole conviction I have is that just being alive can only be some kind of harm. If I had a stronger sense of reason, would this even have happened? ‘Reasonable people don’t get depressed, it’s a disease for irrational people.’ That’s what an old boyfriend once told me. I scoffed at him at the time, called him a frog in the well who had never encountered a world that would make him lose his reason, but now I wonder. Why is it I’m always losing my rationality? How have I lived thirty-four years without it? My life was a series of wrong turns that forced me to keep falling.
‘Even when you’re back in Japan, you can always get in touch with me, you know.’
I nodded and said thank you with a beaming smile. Everyone was open to me. It had always been that way. Everyone told me that I could always open up to them about anything. But I’ve only ever been able to speak to this screen. All of me that lives in the real world is an ugly fiction.
Anne said she had some shopping to do, so we said goodbye at the metro station. As I was going down the stairs, I took out my phone. The only emails waiting for me were from estate agents in Japan, work-related, or junk. As I was being shaken along by the metro, it stopped at a station and I heard people yelling on the platform; I raised my head. It was an SNCF demo, apparently; people wearing SNCF jackets were loudly repeating some kind of slogan. Before I could hear what they were saying I put my earphones in. As I was listening to music at high volume, a notification from the messaging app Line came through with a loud pling.
‘I got a message from a male friend over forty (married) suddenly asking if I wanted to have sex with him. We’ve been friends for a decade and he’s not that kind of guy so I’m freaked out by this all of a sudden.’
I laughed instinctively and replied, ‘And you never slept with him before?’ Her reply came back almost immediately.
‘Never. When I replied to him jokingly like, ‘What’s all this about then?’ he said that he and the woman he’d been having an affair with had just broken up.’
I wondered if this man had just been dumped by his mistress and was now randomly contacting women he knows to tell them he wants to fuck them, and a feeling close to sympathy welled up within me.
‘I mean he’s got kids and everything, and he gets in touch with me to try to get rid of his loneliness because his mistress dumped him? So scummy.’
Her second message came through while I was typing my reply, and it made me stop in my tracks. I erased the message that I was in the middle of writing, typed, ‘I guess people who don’t feel comfortable at home or in society might inevitably turn their loneliness that direction,’ then obviously erased it. I typed, ‘Maybe there are some kinds of loneliness that can only be resolved by having a physical relationship with someone,’ then obviously erased that. I didn’t mean to take this man’s side, but all that came out were words to that effect, and the more I typed, the more I felt like I was exposing my own idiocy. As I was sliding my fingers over the liquid crystal again, a third message came in.
‘We were pretty close, I respected him, it’s just so . . .’
So she felt hurt by it. I realized then the shallowness of all the words I had typed. He may have been seeking help because he was suffering so much. Still, he had betrayed her feelings and her trust. Loneliness makes people crazy, and with loneliness as a shield, people hurt people. Nothing is more miserable. Why do people hurt and get hurt when all we want is a world without pain?
‘Might be better for both of you if you just block him now.’
I didn’t want to give the impression of brushing her off, so I added an emoji with a shocked expression and pressed send. Just then I realized that I’d arrived at the station nearest to my house, so I hurriedly stood up.
‘I can’t just block him out of nowhere like that.’
I saw the notification on my phone as it vibrated. Whatever she said now, she might end up sleeping with him. The man will be relieved of his loneliness, and it will be planted in her. Not knowing what to reply with, I threw my phone in my bag. When I got out of the ticket gate, a homeless man sitting on the ground with a bottle in one hand pointed at me and grinned, shouting, ‘Ça pute!’ I heard him clearly over the loud music pouring through my earphones. As I climbed the stairs back up to above ground, passing by without making eye contact and suppressing the muscles in my face, I heard him scream, ‘Ça pute!’ behind me. Things like that which so startled me when I first came to France now had little effect on me. If I glared at him, tutted at him, or gave him the middle finger, it would only make him rejoice. Passing by without taking notice was the safest and most effective thing I could do. And if I did that I would forget it in a minute. When I reached the top of the stairs, I remembered something I’d seen a few weeks earlier.
Late one night, after I’d been drinking at a friend’s house, while I was on my way home with a friend who lived nearby, I realized that the man on the ground in front of us wasn’t a beggar but was in fact a real homeless person, which did weigh on my mind a little but I didn’t particularly feel like giving him money and I was about to just pass by, when he held his hands out like a plate toward a couple who were coming from the other direction. That second, I was about to raise my voice. The woman rubbed the cigarette she was smoking out in his hands. The man immediately pulled his hands back and started shouting abuse at her. The young couple, just as immediately, responded to his cursing with cursing of their own. Even after they all stopped yelling, the homeless man stared at the couple as they walked off. I turned around to look at him as we walked off; my friend was shocked, too, and said that was too much. As long as I live I don’t want to hurt anyone. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, either. That’s what I thought. All the harassment and abuse in the streets, slanderous words, the torrents of abuse online, it’s all unbearable. Just the sound of knives, guns, acid, cigarettes, words, tearing through someone’s skin, through someone’s heart makes me feel like I’m going crazy.
That desire not to hurt someone did hurt someone again, and it hurts me, too. New wounds open over old wounds, and just being alive means this painful, tough, hurtful situation will continue for far too long. When did we lose salvation, oasis, a place where we can collapse with exhaustion?
I pulled out my suitcase, packed in fifteen minutes, and booked an Uber. Before I went back to Japan for good, I was going back temporarily to search for a property in Tokyo. At the end, while trying to respond as much as possible to my friends who were inviting me to such-and-such or to eat this-and-that, I was going through some galleys early so that I wouldn’t be working on them when I was moving, and I didn’t sleep for about two days. I had two deadlines extended until the start of the week, and I was so anxious that I thought my body and soul might burst. I couldn’t afford to think about anything. With nothing to do except face what was standing right in front of me, I wanted to collapse but I felt like I’d been thrown into a pit of knives, with sharp edges all around me and nowhere safe to fall; I got into the Uber, still staring at the galley. As I was looking things up on my phone, my drowsiness and reduction in thinking ability made my thoughts start to jump around. What I believed in yesterday I couldn’t today. What I thought was the world yesterday, today I couldn’t even touch its outline. The world, me, people are impermanent, and what I thought was right yesterday seemed wrong today; what I thought was good yesterday seemed bad today. No matter how firmly I thought I was standing, my feet began to shift little by little. I didn’t feel I had a strong enough footing to let me focus, to determine right and wrong, good and bad. The fact that I had to live in this world like this was so scary it brought me to tears. The Uber driver got stuck in an awful traffic jam; he said, as a preamble, that he had to make a call if that was all right with me, and as he called the hospital that he was supposed to go to today to change his appointment, our eyes met in the rearview mirror and when I shrugged, he shrugged too and grimaced. Soon I’ll be living in Japan. But I don’t know where still. Décoller from here, stripping everything from my body, to take myself somewhere I don’t know what my neighbors will be like or what kind of environment I’ll be putting myself in. This is an escape from hell, a journey to a new hell, and though I still don’t know how I’ve survived this far, I have now to continue living on until I am exhausted.
Photograph © Jo Naylor
These essays are taken from Hitomi Kanehara’s collection Paris Desert, Tokyo Mirage.
They are part of our 20 for 2020 series, featuring twenty timely and exciting new works from the Japanese published here at Granta.com. Find out more about the project here.