Floating House in the Fleeting World

Short-listed Entry: Fiction Category

By: Kirsty Logan

The ‘Floating World’ culture of the 1600s was lived in brothels, tea houses, and kabuki theatres by geisha, sumo wrestlers, samurai, and prostitutes. In Japanese, ‘Floating World’ sounds the same as ‘Sorrowful World’, the earthly plane of death and rebirth from which Buddhists sought release. 

If we had lived in the floating world, we would have lived only for the present. Our pleasures would have been those of a bright sliver of moon, snatches of song caught on a warm breeze, the sweetness of plum wine sticking to our tongues. We would have diverted ourselves from mundane existence in such beautiful and impermanent joys. But 21st-century Japan is a fleeting world. We do not have time for such joys.

I had been in Tokyo for three weeks before I met you, and I did not partake of a single earthly pleasure. I did not go for all-you-can-drink nights in karaoke booths, or wander between the flowering cherry trees, or catch a train to the mountains to watch the stars appear with a beautiful stranger. Instead I stuck closely to the rules of my foreign exchange, working hard on conjugating my Japanese verbs and always arriving ten minutes early for class. I spent my evenings eating ramen from vending machines and watching subtitled anime with the other British exchange students.

Until one day, stuttering over a translation of Bashō, I saw you. You were sauntering down the wide leafy avenues of Sophia, your black fedora at just the right angle and a green apple half-eaten in one hand. You were looking up at the sky as you walked, so that the other students had to swerve their armfuls of books out of your way to avoid collision. But my bench was bolted to the ground, and I couldn’t avoid the crash of your knees. You scattered my books, showered me in laughing apologies, and offered me a fresh green apple from your backpack. I still think of you when I taste that sweet-sharpness of the first bite.

We spent the following months sprawled on the couch in my tiny Shinjuku flat, eating triangles of sticky rice and drinking sake from cardboard juice boxes. We watched the sunrise every day; sometimes by staying up late, sometimes by getting up early. In the moments before you fell asleep, you had a habit of scrunching up your nose and rubbing your feet together. I woke to your fingers stroking my hair.

You told me about your home in Finland: your parents’ cabin by the lake, and the way you would crack the thin surface ice in the winter and plunge head-first into the sun-warmed water in the summer. You told me about borštškeitto and glögi, and I dreamed of us drinking the cinnamon-spiced wine, mixed with raisins and almonds, while watching the snow fall onto the surface of the lake.

We talked about the floating world, and how we thought it meant heaven. We imagined building a home for ourselves: a secret room high above the fleeting world.

While we talked, we never stopped eating and drinking. I had brought two bottles of locally-made gin from my home in the English Midlands, and by the end of that month they were both empty. The bottles were one of my few links with home and I couldn’t bear to throw them away; instead they sat on top of my microwave, chinking together when the train passed by my window.

I knew, even then, that there was no place for us. I could not go home with you, to that land of ice and heavy metal music; you could not come home with me, to clouds and flat green fields. There was no home for us here: our Japanese exchange was only due to last six months, and it was too late to find peace in the fleeting world of Tokyo.

Over those final weeks we both passed our Japanese exams and began to pack our suitcases. I dropped my English gin bottles in the recycling bin, running away before I could hear them shatter. You talked of snug cabins and salt-cured salmon, and I could see the shards of ice already catching in your eyes. On our last night together, lost in familiar flesh, we missed the sunrise for the first time since we met.

The day I flew home, I crept out of bed before you woke. I could not stand to say goodbye. Instead I caught an early train to the airport, spending the spare hours drinking weak coffee and reading the first pages of all the paperbacks in the bookshop. I left my phone switched off in case you called. On the flight home, I watched the same film five times and still didn’t know what it was about.

Three weeks after I arrived home, I woke to the sound of envelopes slapping onto the doormat. One was sketched with snowflakes and covered in bright foreign stamps. I crouched on the bottom step in my pajamas and tore open the envelope; inside was a photocopy of a plane ticket from Finland to England, leaving in a week’s time. I ran up the stairs, losing a slipper on the way. I knew what I needed to do.

Now I am laying out England for you: the flat green squares and the grumbling buses and the big white telescope and the snorting horses and the low grey sky. I am making them ready for you. I am making a heaven for us, a place we can be still: a floating house in the fleeting world.

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