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  • Shona McCarthy

Paper Thin: Walls Can Be Romantic

(Having re-read this in July, 2020, I marvel at how quickly I got so attached to a young man I hardly knew. Nowadays I wouldn't so easily form attachments.)

I've always loved the traditional shoji walls and doors of traditional Japanese architecture. When others have regarded it, they have sometimes asked me about the stability of such things. I have seen that small holes in shoji screens can be replaced by cutting more of the special paper into a snowflake shape and then gluing it over. The special paper itself is fairly thick, so the need to do this is rare.

But there was an unforeseen consequence of such thin walls I never anticipated. I won't name the establishment where this happened since I don't want it to effect their business. But this is the story I have to tell.

(Image from Pexels, CC)

When I first saw Tsutsuji*, he was poking is head furtively through the front door of the hostel. I was sitting at an antique kotatsu table in the middle of the living room. I couldn't help but stare at him. I didn't expect to see anyone young and attractive staying where I was. Yet, there he was, striding about the hallways and stairways purposefully. At first I wondered if he was working there as some sort of maintenance guy. But then I saw him move some plastic bags around the room and brush his teeth at the communal sink.

He had an interesting way of carrying himself. He would sort or rock side to side slightly, like a little boulder making it's way down a hill. But he was tall and slender, with long thin legs, and a cute Peter Pan haircut. It had never occurred to me that a Japanese man might find a non-Japanese woman even remotely interesting. Yet he stopped and conversed with me at length. So long, in fact, that he had gone past the allotted time for drying his hair with the communal hair dryer. Given that I had been thinking about how old, fat and ugly I felt at that moment, having his attention was remarkably flattering.

I feel fairly certain he was interested in me, since when I asked him about why he was staying in the hostel, and what he was doing, he at first began to say that he was a 19 year old student. But then suddenly corrected himself to say he was a 23 year old businessman from Tokyo, looking as though he hoped I'd be more impressed. I'm not the sort to be concerned with such materialistic concepts. So I guess I didn't respond the way he expected.

You can imagine my amazement when I found that he was staying in the same floor as me! I was elated at the thought that each morning of my stay I might be able to see his sweet young face come out of his door, or go by me at breakfast. In short, I thought he was a super-duper cutie.

When he finally did go away to have his shower, I realised that I needed to go to the bathroom. But I feared that if I went out there, it might seem like I was trying to follow him to the showers, since both facilities were in the same external area. And even if he didn't assume that, he had only just met me, and I didn't want him to psychologically associate me with toilets. So I snuck out deftly, trying to make no sound. When I got out, he was still in the shower rooms. But then I heard one of the shower door opening! So, hoping I could move quickly enough that he wouldn't see me, I panicked and ran into one of the toilet stalls. I think he heard me and maybe even saw it was me. So, I was already feeling very embarrassed.

In Japan, most toilets will come with an array of different buttons. The most common of these is a button that you can press to emit ambient sounds, like a rushing river, or a dribbling tap. The idea is that nervous urinators won't need to worry that they will be heard. And while I am not usually so self-conscious, I really wanted Tsutsuji to like me. So I pressed a button I thought was the right one. Which caused the toilet to flush right on my butt. I believe I may have screamed at this point. So, in my growing shame, I continued to look for the correct button. Upon pressing another, I received a sudden blast of hot, urine scented air on my buttocks. Needless to say, I remained in that bathroom stall for some time till I felt the coast was clear.

Then I crept through the house and up to my room.

(Image from Pexels, CC)

But the unexpected effect of having such thin, shoji doors as our rooms had was that we could hear each other's movements constantly. To this moment, I have no idea what Tsutsuji felt. But for me, I couldn't help but constantly think about him while I was in my room: Did he hear me pass gas? Am I keeping him awake by turning over as I try to sleep? Am I waking him up each time I go to the bathroom?

It meant that all through the night, even when I was asleep, thoughts of considering his needs were occupying my subconscious. In a weird way, it compelled me to feel disproportionately strongly about him. I felt as though we were like a married couple, sharing a bed and having to consider each other's needs. Except there was a thin wall between us.

The next morning, things were dead silent in the house. So I supposed Tsutsuji had already left to go sightseeing. I finally allowed myself to pass the large amount of wind I had been holding in. Then I lay in bed, enjoying the warmth and turning potential tourist locations over in my mind. Sometime later, I heard him shift in his room. He had almost certainly heard me plarp.

I did attempt to ask him if he would like to spend more time with me before I left that place, hoping that he wouldn't discount me for my bowels. But I was unsuccessful.

In fact, when I asked Tsutsuji if he would spend some time with me, he began to reveal that he really was a 19 year old student on vacation from Yokohama. There is a particular way guys begin to smirk at me when they lie to me and get away with it. Or even when they are just being arrogant.

When cornered, Japanese men are predisposed to bury their rejections in excuses and tatemae, a Japanese concept where polite lies are considered more ethical than hurtful truths. So, Tsutsuji did not tell me he was disinterested. Instead, he told me he was going out with friends for the day. He smirked a little when I asked if he wanted me to come along. And he smirked a little more when I asked him if I would get to chat with him at all. He answered that he would see me that night. So, I stayed up very late, waiting, waiting for him to return at the time he usually did. He was out much later than was typical for him. It then occurred to me with some amount of terror that he may have simply packed up his things and returned early to Yokohama in order to avoid me. I knew from experience that shinkansen tickets are fairly flexible. Finally, at round 2am, I heard his feet creep up the wooden steps. Through the shoji door on my room I’m sure he saw that my light was still on and heard that I was typing feverishly at my computer. He wouldn't have known I was venting about him into a private journal. On the final morning of my stay, Tsutsuji greeted me cheerily as though nothing had happened the night before. I thought to myself, “I’m not going to see him again. So, I don’t need to put on my own tatemae, and smile as though nothing is wrong. I’m going to let him know that he hurt my feelings.” And so I gave him a Mona Lisa smile/frown as I greeted him joylessly in return. He was angered by this and didn’t hide it. He said goodbye to me a few more times as I was exiting with my giant suitcases. I lingered a little, wondering if I should try to plant a kiss on his cheek. (Why did I think this about someone who had lied to me and then smirked about it?!) I never saw him again.

For some reason, he continued to follow me on Instagram months after this. Until recently, when I looked and found evidence that he had either deleted his account or blocked me. Or changed the name of his account. I can’t tell which.

My point in saying all of this is that there is a strange kind of intimacy that can naturally emerge out of being able to hear someone sleep, night after night, in the room next to yours. I suggest that if you do find yourself being able to choose where you stay, to just be aware of this possibility. You need to act regardless of your housemates; decide that they won’t matter more to you than they should. Don't do what I did, and waste a week and a half of your trip feeling heart-broken over someone who really as nothing to do with your life.

*Name changed for privacy.

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