"American girls are ... well, they're just girls, Ito," I explained. I looked at him funny and shook my head, shrugging hopelessly and stealing a lungful of smoke. Nearly every day, I spoke with him and we traded language like people traded stories. On Mondays, I'd ask him about Japanese words I could use to impress my new friends. On Tuesdays, I'd work with him and fix his English grammar. Wednesdays? We didn't talk much on Wednesdays.
By Friday, we'd tease each other with tongue twisters and challenge each other to spelling matches. How fast could I write a phrase in Japanese? How perfectly could he utter a sentence in English? We did this throughout the weeks and months, trading blows like amateur boxers evenly matched in their inexperience.
"But are American girls pretty?" he asked again.
"Of course," I explained. I took a drag from my cigarette, but held the smoke in my mouth. Smoking was bad for you, I knew. And I really should have quit it months ago. But here I was, standing under rare summer cherry blooms, staring at a Coffee Boss vending machine. Off to the right was the small, local bakery in full day's rush. The smell that poured from those vents was heavenly and it battled with the acrid bite of our smoke.
"Are Japanese girls pretty?" I asked, countering his question. That was how I returned most of his questions, the simple act of replacing America with Japan. Are Japanese girls pretty? Is Japanese food good? Do you like Japanese television? It was my way of explaining that our worlds weren't so different. Of course there were differences in life and style and culture, but things like people and good food and pretty girls weren't so different most of the time.
He shrugged his shoulders and smiled.
We stood next to each other, quietly smoking inches off our lives. Over our shoulders the chimes of Westminster echoed out across the town as the class period came to a close. I felt my anxiety tense for a brief moment. And then it vanished.
Right. No classes today. No classes ever again. At least for me.
I struggled with something to say. Part of me wanted to smoke in peace with Ito. The other wanted to apologize to him. To thank him. To ask him a dozen more questions. I stole a look, and his eyes were far off and tired. He had exams to grade, and extracurriculars to run. Was this really going to be the last time I saw my friend?
Weakly grasping at something to break the silence, I offered, "Kohi nomitai ka?" Do you want to drink some coffee? I nodded to the half-lit Coffee Boss machine in front of us, and loudly smacked the wad that was my wallet invitingly.
He blew a laugh full of smoke through his nose and nodded his head. "OK," he said.
Coffee probably wasn't good for my anxiety. Neither were the cigarettes. After the panic attack I'd had a month before and the trip to the hospital I'd undertaken, it seemed just about everything was out to kill me. Fatty foods made my arm spasm, tricking me into thinking I'd have a heart attack. Bland foods made me think of empty calories out to kill my already and once again widening waistband. Vegetables made me hungry and miserable. Sweets made my teeth hurt and my mouth sore. It probably wasn't anything in particular.
In fact, the more I thought about it, it was just the fact that I was going home. Leaving.
I pulled my wallet free and snapped the coin pouch open. I'd always been surprised how much physical money I'd used in Japan. In fact, when I'd thought about it, since stepping off the plane, I hadn't touched my credit card since. I'd always had to fish out sleek-feeling stacks of paper bills or gather up a satisfying handful of cold metal coins. I felt like some turn-of-the century merchant every time I bought something. It felt good, trading the physical for the physical. Whether it was food or fun, it had been refreshing, to say the least. A break from the plastic life I'd lived for so long in the States and the digital prison I'd allowed myself to be contained and defined by.
Only problem was, I'd spent or sent the last of my money home. Fumbled off through a bank transfer as I willed away what little wealth I had with a few button presses and a messy signature. It was off into the ether of foreign bank accounts and wireless transactions. Lost in the wireless, disconnected cage that I'd tried to so hard to escape over this last year.
For all intents and purposes, I was penniless. Broke. Utterly poor. I had one more meal in my all-too-small fridge in my all-too-small apartment. Tonight, I'd go to sleep in my all-too-small bed. Tomorrow, I'd take an all-too-small shower and duck under my all-too-small door for the last time.
I didn't even have enough money to buy Ito coffee, and he'd bought them for me countless times without more than a second thought. I'd always promised to pay him back, too. It was just another of the little things I'd forgotten. Things that had slipped my mind like the rainwater rushing beneath the grate just behind us.
I stood there, pretending to go through my wallet, but I felt my chest thump and my neck tense. Another panic attack? It was a brief, baseless worry. No, you idiot. You're sad. You're upset. You're regretting this. I let the cigarette burn down to the butt, feeling the painful bite of the burn on the knuckles that held it.
My eyes felt itchy, but no tears came. I was glad for that. I'd hate to cry in front of my friend on the last day. After he'd saved me during the winter, keeping me alive on deliveries of fruit and soup, when I was too sick to leave my home. Guiding me to the hidden sights of the town that I thought I'd thoroughly scoured for sights. He'd helped me figure out the hell that was rural train schedules when my usual train adjusted time tables early in the year.
He'd helped me more than I'd ever helped him and that thought alone crushed me. No, I couldn't cry. Not now. I could do that alone or on the plane. Instead, I cleared my dry, cottony throat and offered my empty wallet toward him.
"Zen zen arimasen," I spoke quietly. Sheepishly. I have nothing.
With his eyes full of clarity and understanding, he laughed again and shook his head. "Naru hodo," he said. "Daijobu." Ah, I understand. Don't worry about it. Before I could even speak, he fished out his wallet, stole a fat, golden coin from it and plunked it into the machine. His finger jabbed the button for his drink and then mine. We knew each others' orders — he drank straight black from the gold and red ones, and I sucked down the blue cafe latte cans like they were going out of style. Cold in summer, hot in winter — just another thing I'd miss.
He tossed mine to me, and it sailed through the air. Clumsily, I caught it and thanked him. We tapped our drinks together with a nervous laugh and a half-hearted "Kanpai." And then, we continued to do little more than stand and smoke and drink our heart-spasming, life-shortening vices.
A few girls from the school biked by, waving at us as they went, their dark hair blowing wildly in their self-propelled breeze beneath the flowering trees that lined the path. Some of the girls from the school club I'd lead, some of the girls from my classes I'd taught. I'd already forgotten their names, but I still knew their faces. One waved and shouted, "Jaa mata ashita!" Hey! See you tomorrow! I fixed what smile I could manage and waved back before looking to Ito with pain in my eyes and a lump in my throat. There really wasn't a tomorrow. There was only today.
And today was over. I realized with them biking by, that the bell hadn't been for the period to end — the school day was over. Half-days in summer, I slowly remembered. I was out of a job. I hadn't even worked that day, I'd just walked the three minutes to school from the air-conditioned comfort of my apartment to have one last round of cigarettes and coffee with Ito. And in doing so, I'd brought more sadness on me than I could have ever imagined. I'd traveled the country over the course of a year, made friends and saw many sights. Things that I was too unready and mostly afraid to leave behind.
Beautiful castles and temples beyond my imagination. Loud, ear-splintering nightclubs. Shinto ceremonies and Buddhist prayer rooms. The quiet rice fields of Minakuchi that hummed with toads and crickets late at night. The mountains that I'd stumbled up half-drunk, the trains that I'd dozed off in as Japan raced by. The turning seasons worn on each and every tree. It was in that moment I felt the enormity of those moments seize me, doing their best to pin my feet to the earth.
Don't leave, they said. You're not ready to go.
I'd never live another Japanese autumn, with the red nine-pointed leaves and that fog-drenched temple in the hills. The onsen and bakery that had been my favorite day in Japan. I'd never endure through another Japanese winter, or have to walk through the snow on the way home from work or dodge snowballs from the goofy students. I was a kid from California, and I'd been raised in mild weather and a sun-baked life, but I knew I'd miss the cold all the same. Not just the autumn or the winter, or the spring or summer. All of it, I realized.
The seasons and students and even the stars that studded the night sky above the rice fields late at night, all of them were being pulled away from me like two spinning galaxies cast adrift from one another.
This was the end of a dream. The ride was over. I'd have to wake up now.
And worst and most heart-destroying of all, I had no one to blame. I, and I alone had been the one to make this choice. I had signed my name to the paper, and proclaimed to the world that I'd had enough. I truly thought I had done it all, and I yearned to be back home, in a country where I could read the signs with ease or drive somewhere instead of taking a train.
Yet, I'd never accounted for the simplicity of things that I'd miss. I'd never loved the creaking, expensive trains of the Omi-Tetsudo, but now I'd miss their rustic charm. I'd always hated the awkwardness of trying to buy things in a language I felt I could barely speak, but now I knew I'd miss that daily risk. I'd always loathed the walks through the village and its confusing, winding streets that intermingled with rice paddies and farmland, but I knew that I would miss the wanderlust they'd so encouraged in me.
I couldn't even begin to think about the friends I'd made, those souls like me that had the foresight not to plant their name on the paper. Conversations in a jazz bar. Quiet, intimate talks at an ancient temple. Countless lunches and dinners. Hugs and goodbyes and hellos.
I'd miss them, too. Perhaps, most of all. The more I thought about it, the smaller my anxiety seemed in that moment. I'd let my heart explode everyday if it meant I could stay here. I'd battle my worries and fight my body if it meant I didn't have to leave. Failing that, couldn't I leave a part of myself here? Just enough to keep my soul tethered here — a bit of my heart or one of my eyes? Even just a couple of burnt fingers.
I sighed and shook my head, draining the rest of my drink and shoving my cigarette into the can, enjoying the finality of it and the closure of my thoughts. There was nothing more I could do here. My fate was writ in stone and locked in the stars. I'd be leaving it all behind, for better or for worse.
A few blossoms drifted from the trees above. The bakery vented sweet steam. A couple more students blazed by, caught up in the laughs of a youth that seemed as if it could never die. Bitterly, jealously, I watched smoke curl out of the mouth of the coffee can. Even my smoking habit — just another thing I'd have to leave behind.
I'd miss the sights.
But most of all, I'd miss the coffee and cigarettes with Ito.
First-place winner, Adult category
Tyler Dinneen, an aspiring author from Los Altos, has been writing for 10 years, but it was only within the last five that he began to pursue the craft seriously. Starting off as more of a hobby, Dinneen attributes his initial interest in writing to the "awesome teachers" from high school who encouraged him.
While he is particularly partial to science fiction, fantasy and semi-biographical works, his biggest inspiration comes from the desire to tell very relatable, human stories about topics that are often left out of everyday media, such as living with anxiety. This interest is ultimately what influenced "Coffee and Cigarettes," a true story that reflects upon the internal struggle he endured when it came time for him to leave the rural Japanese town he called home for eight months and the last moments spent with his friend and then-colleague, Ito. "I was dealing with lots of conflicting feelings and I wanted to pen a theme and idea around a very real moment that encapsulated the height of fear, questions, longing and anxiety I was feeling," Dinneen said, adding that his story actually began as a personal journal entry.
When he's not putting pen to paper, or fingertips to keyboard, Dinneen enjoys wrangling his two lovable dogs and indulging in sci-fi films, video games and listening to his collection of "eclectic" music.
Judge's comments on "Coffee and Cigarettes"
Coffee and Cigarettes captures perfectly the universal sentiment of missing a place and its people when it's time to leave. What was difficult about living in Japan for a Californian transforms into precious memories of friends, travels and simple things when told by a skillful writer.
This story contains 2549 words.
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