Against Metaphor

BY LORA MASLENITSYNA

It’s Tuesday, 12:27AM. The palm trees bend over backward to let the wind sweep past their stalks. There is an ocean of rain seeping in from under the front door. Outside my window, a tree topples over onto its side. The wind weaves through its naked roots. While the wind howls and the rain pounds at my door, I crave the steam that emanates off a warm bowl. The fluidity of vapor, sweet as breath and just as quick to dart away, glazes over my intentions. The clouds’ furrowed brow hangs low enough for me to cover its face with my palms. I am a few sharp words and a stretched lapel away from condensation. I take in a shallow breath.

 

I’ve been in bed since 10:30PM, hoping that if I gave myself a wider window of opportunity to fall asleep, I’d be on my way to a slightly less bruised expectation of morning. Nevertheless, I’m still wide awake. Here in my dorm room in Tokyo, sleeplessness clings to me like a stray dog that followed me home off the street. I never asked for it, but for whatever reason, it took a liking to me. Now, it won’t leave my side. Whenever I try to fall asleep, it nudges its cold nose under the covers with me. I might as well feed it while it’s here. I throw off my blanket and pull on a pair of leggings and a sweatshirt. I head out to clear my head at the only place that’s still open in my residential nook of Shinjuku: the sento, or the bath house.

 

The sento glows with the kind of heat only a well-cared for home emanates. A television hung over a small table hums the NHK network. The sound of running water babbles through two noren-covered entrances. Before I enter the bath, I undress and head to the showers to wash myself. I pass an elderly woman on her way back to the changing rooms. She smiles and strides past me, wearing nothing but a towel wrapped around her head. So good, so far, I think to myself. At least the other women are still smiling, so I haven’t muddled the customary practices.

 

Unlike restaurants in Tokyo, where old men have turned adjacent counter seats to face me and watch me eat, all the other women in the sento are enjoying their own experience. The middle-aged woman to the left of me scrubs under her arms. Meanwhile, another girl I think I recognize from the university pushes her back up against the jets. I take care to properly clean my body, then step into the steaming water. While I settle in against the bar jutting out from the center of the pool, a woman painted with red imprints from apparently full elastic-supported clothing leans against the jets behind me. Her left hand holds on to the bar just centimeters away from my cheek. It stays there for the entire time I spend in the bath. I’ll take this proximity over an old man’s sustained stare any day.

 

I admit that I feel more comfortable sharing the bath with all of the other women, rather than bathing by myself. Taking a bath on my own never felt quite as satisfying as the physical relationship I share in the sento. This, of course, is not a new concept in Japan. Here, “skinship” (skin + kinship) is as much of a health benefit as the water of the baths, itself. In the United States, where I grew up, this idea attaches itself almost exclusively to the relationship between a mother and her newborn child. What about the relationship between myself and my own body? Haven’t I fought through enough beauty standards and patriarchal preferences? My existence is pluralistic. It’s time I respect myself by confronting my progressions.

 

In the bath, I look at the body of the woman next to me. Then, I look at mine. The same red elastic marks span across my chest. Her skin wrinkles in the same places that mine folds. Not a single woman in this place has perfectly groomed hair or a belly as flat as a board. Perhaps in a society where the distinctions between sex and gender could be less rigid, bodies would move comfortably and without unnecessary embarrassments. Since that is not the society we live in today, my choices limit to a space that makes concessions to appearances. Books and films and so the people I intertwine with tell me that my self separates from the shell of my body. Before I “blossomed into a young woman,” my naïve flesh longed to disengage. I discarded my body as a home. Placed into metaphor and kept at a distance from my self, my body metamorphoses. I call my body a “temple” or sometimes, a “dump,” compartmentalizing my flesh and mind. My self has no immediate reality. I do not ground into my own body. I’m sick and tired of binaries that restrict me. I want to clearly assess my form and movements.

 

I think about another phrase I hear and repeat just as often: “You are more than just a body.” In an effort to throw off objectification, I separate from my body. Where I step away from sexual objectification, I cast my body away entirely. I tell myself I am more, that the self is its own environment. This more elevates itself above my body. I objectify my own ecology. If I continue to treat my body like a shell, my self can never really be tangible. I will continue to let others act as sieves for my memory. I will hold my empathetic potential and emotional intelligence at a distance.

 

This storm reminds me that I am wild and undisciplined (like everyone else). I bark when I can speak. The mottled sounds fling out from underneath my nails and pores. I lunge when I can stand still. But, my wildness is not a weakness. It is content within the form of my body. This form guides me. Without my body, I could have no self. The storm is also a form, but I deceive myself with romance and drama by not centering myself within its context. To live in metaphor is to deceive myself. My body is not rain, nor wind. It is muscle and sweat. My stomach is not a tumultuous whirlpool of fear or anticipation. It is acid and tissue. My palms are not curtains. They are sinew and flesh. I align my back against the plane of honesty.

 

In the morning, I call my mama. She advises me to actively level myself during this storm. The drama of the wind and rain is almost too romantic to resist, but it is a deceiving setting. Mama warns me against seeking out any sweeping emotional declarations, tonight. She tells me that honesty rests at 2pm on a Thursday, mulling under a thin veil of sweat and the taste of coffee in the corners of lips.

 

So, I turn my face to the window and listen to the wind and rain. They are exactly what they appear to be. They are not the currents of romance and drama come to sweep me away. It would be wrong for me to project a larger symbolic meaning onto their being. If I can focus on hearing my own breath and feeling the curve of my spine, then I can hear the honesty that permeates this setting. I lay on my back with my palms against the floor. I never fall too deeply asleep. The small of my back gently planes in parallel to the carpet.

Lora Maslenitsyna studies Humanities at Soka University of America. Her writing has been published by Litro Magazine and The Commonline Journal, as well as other zines. Her translations have been featured by ODALISQUE Magazine.