Anything Within Reason

Of buying, selling, loving, and losing

I had a friend who worked at a nandemoya — a kind of buy anything, sell anything store — in the suburbs of Musashikoyama. It belonged to his parents. My friend said he fell into the job — he wasn’t much for study, and he wasn’t much for hard work, either. He said it was easier than university. Easier than job hunting. Easier than bothering with life in general. He said it gave him time to think.

The nandemoya was built into the first floor of a thin, two story-house, with a faded sign out front. His father sometimes talked wistfully of repairing or replacing it. By the entrance stood a line of old refrigerators and washing machines — faithful sentinels fading under the sun. Inside, the shop was a mess of rusting metal racks stacked with abandoned odds and ends — clothes, kitchen appliances, toys, furniture, old magazines, miscellaneous artwork.

Over summers we’d hang out, sitting in the shade of a nearby alley, talking and smoking until his mum or dad barked at us to get back behind the register. We grumbled, and shrugged, and wandered inside to a humid, cramped counter space. We shot the shit to a soundtrack of classic 60s J-Pop, with percussion by the five electric fans we’d point in our general direction.

“You know,” he said one day, lighting up a bent cigarette, “we buy anything, and we sell anything, but there are unspoken words in there.”

“Unspoken words?”

He nodded.

Within reason. Those are the words. We buy anything within reason. We sell anything within reason.”

I watched him take a drag of his cigarette. I hoped he might offer one my way. When he didn’t, I simply waited for him to continue.

“The other day, this guy came to the store with a garbage bag full of clothes. When I reached in there, they were all damp. It all smelled like sweat. I mean, that’s what it was. Sweaty clothes. It was just a bag of sweaty clothes.”

“That’s… that’s disgusting.”

“So I asked him, I said ‘Did you just bring us old sweaty clothes? Did you not think to wash these?’ And do you know what he said?”

“Tell me.”

“He said, ‘Is that like, standard procedure?’

“Jesus.”

“I know.” He shook his head. “I know.”

“So what did you do?”

“I sent him packing. Kicked him out of the store with his bag and told him I’d drag him down the street by his barcode hairstyle if he ever tried that again.”

It was hot, and stuffy, and something like purgatory, sitting at that counter surrounded by all the things people didn’t want anymore. But I kept coming for the stories — the ones that appalled, and shocked, and made me laugh like I might die. They were glimpses into other worlds and other lives — unbelievable and yet utterly real — that I could never have imagined.

I loved that there were people who tried to sell used batteries. People who tried to make a buck from their rubbish, and their uneaten, stale food. I loved that my friend and his family once ended up buying three cartons full of pastel-colored wigs, only to sell them within a week to an old woman who cosplayed her pet cats.

My friend liked to say, “We get a bit of everything here.”

I just never knew if he meant the business, or the customers.

It was on one of these hot summer days, as we shot the breeze and listened to the Pinky Chicks play Yoparatta Ojousan, that my friend told me about Mana.

“One day, this girl came in with a bag,” he said. “Inside was an expensive suit, and some men’s gear — a wallet, some shoes, a nice tie, that kind of thing. I looked at that stuff, and I looked at this girl, and I knew it didn’t belong to her or her family, you know?”

“Oh?”

“Well, if it was the family, then there would have been other stuff in there. A family thinks, ‘Well if we’re going to throw out dad’s suit, we may as well get rid of all this other crap, too.’ That’s how it works.”

“That makes sense.”

“But this girl was different. It was mugged gear. And I knew it. And she knew I knew it. It was nine in the morning, and she was trying to sell me a suit. She hadn’t even taken the guy’s I.D. out of his wallet. I should have just said no deal. That would have made the most sense. But she was just so pretty. So pretty. Just gorgeous. I was… I don’t know, lost in her eyes. Or whatever.”

“Or whatever, sure.”

I pictured some salaryman standing on a street corner in his underwear, trying to hail a taxi. I saw him riding the subway back home, wrapped in the remains of a cardboard box, fist clenched around a free ticket from a kindly station attendee. And then I saw him at a dining room table, still in his underwear and cardboard box, watching his wife drive off into the distance.

“So what’d you do?” I asked.

“I told her I’d buy the gear.”

I paused.

“You what?”

“Crazy, right?” He shook his head, laughed. “I know, I know. Really, I know. But I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t believe I was doing it. She couldn’t either. But, I don’t know, man. I guess… I guess I just wanted her to come back. I wanted to see her again. I didn’t know what else to do.”

“And did she? Did she come back?”

“She did. Of course she did. Who else was going to buy that stuff? She came selling the misplaced trust of whoever took her home that night, and I bought it. Wallets, jackets, phones, briefcases, shoes. Most of it belonged to businessmen, I figured.”

“You figured.”

“I put it together in fragments. She sometimes came wearing flashy one-piece dresses. Smelled vaguely of cheap champagne. Looked hungover. Hair done up but messy. I figured she probably did the snack bar rounds, playing hostess to bored businessmen, then screwing them over before the sun came up.”

“How long did this go on for?”

“About three months, maybe. We never talked much. We said hello. Talked the weather. And then one day I was drunk and walking home, and I saw her there by the side of the road, kicking a vending machine and cursing it. And I laughed at her. I said, ‘Hey, I know you,’ and she said, ‘Fuck you,’ and I said, ‘You want to grab a drink?’

“No way.”

He laughed. Ayumi Ishida sang through tinny speakers. Bluelight Yokohama.

“She said yes, though. Can you believe it? Perhaps she was desperate. Lonely? Or I don’t know, maybe she was just hungry. We ended up at an izakaya, eating, drinking, talking, and laughing. She told me her name was Mana. She liked cats. She said her mum was sick, living in Nagasaki somewhere. We talked about living in crappy apartments and having crappy neighbors.”

“You just fell right into the trap, huh?”

“But it just… it didn’t feel like that. I felt like those three months of trading other people’s shit between us, we’d gotten to know each other on a level I can’t explain. That night, it felt like she was opening up. Cutting loose a little, maybe for the first time in who knows how long. It was like she was being herself, and not the girl in the snack bar, pouring drinks for customers.”

I nodded.

“That,” I said, “that’s usually the trap.”

He thought for a moment.

“Yeah, probably. Maybe? I don’t know. I guess I’m just an idiot,” he blew some smoke at the ceiling. “I guess it must have been easy for her. I paid for the meal, and we left. We stood out there in the empty street for a while. Smoked. I thought, ‘What the hell, right?’ and I asked her back to my place. I didn’t expect her to say yes.”

We watched the memories drift out into the open air like all that cigarette smoke. Watched them float up and dissipate into the cracks in the ceiling.

“I couldn’t believe it. I mean, I’m not pretty, or rich, or funny. I mean, I work at my parent’s house, you know? I’m hopeless. It’s my fate, probably.”

I nodded.

“But there we were, together, in my apartment. It was all messy, rubbish everywhere, and I wished I’d cleaned up. I put on some music, and we sat on the mattress — the only thing in the room to sit on. I wished I wasn’t so drunk. I knew it was stupid, but I wished things were more romantic. I didn’t like that it all seemed sleazy, dirty. Haphazard. So I held her, and we lay there a while. I kissed her, and then… well, you know.”

I did.

“Afterwards, I stared at the ceiling. I was exhausted, and spent, and broken and depressed. I couldn’t fathom it. A guy like me. You know? I started feeling sorry for myself. Started searching for a reason it all could have happened. I only found one thing. Drunk, lost, lonely — I just went ahead and asked.”

“Asked what?”

“I asked her, I said, ‘How much?’

I shut my eyes for a moment. Sighed. I wanted to believe he hadn’t just said that.

“Yeah,” he said. “I know, I know. Really, I know. And I know now that even if it were like that I never should have asked it then. So she slapped me. Hit me. She said, ‘What the fuck kind of a girl do you think I am?’ But I didn’t have an answer to that, either. I only knew her as a thief. I only knew that I loved her but I didn’t know why.”

“So… what happened?”

“A second round of sex. All of it mixed with alcohol, depression, and some self-loathing. We passed out at some point. I thought maybe she’d be there in the morning. Thought maybe I could set things straight. But she wasn’t. Of course she wasn’t. She’d taken my bike, and somehow fit my tiny bookshelf in the basket at the front — with all the books still in it — and a couple of anime figures she probably thought she could get some money for.”

“Old habits, I guess.”

“Yeah,” he said, taking out another cigarette. “And I knew that, too.”

We sat in silence some. We listened to the echo of the train-crossing in the distance, and the buzzing fans, and Yuzo Kayama singing Kimi to Itsumade mo.

“And for a while, for the next couple of weeks, I waited there like she was going to come in just like she did that first time, garbage bag in hand and all my stuff in it. For days I waited for that. And I knew it was stupid, and I knew it was never going to happen, but every time someone came in — every fucking time — I expected it to be her. And it never was.”

I didn’t know what to say. I stared at the fans, and listened to the mismatched music, and I thought about a particular kind of longing. The kind laced with regret.

“And you want to know the really stupid thing?” he said.

“Tell me.”

“If she had come in with all that stuff, and tried to sell my gear back to me, I know I would have bought it. I would have bought it, and I wouldn’t have said anything about it being mine.”

I thought about them, then: those unspoken words. I thought perhaps I saw them for a moment, floating around near the ceiling. Within reason.

And what better reason than love? I thought.

Or, what better excuse?

I watched him shake his head. Watched him try to shake off the love, and the loss, and the loneliness and longing. I thought about love, and how little I really understood it. About words, spoken or not, and how both eventually get you in trouble. We sat there amongst the wafting cigarette smoke and the racks of abandoned possessions, and we listened to Norihiko Hashida and the Shoebelts play Kaze.

And perhaps, I thought, love will always be something we’ll make exceptions for.

Within reason, or without.

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Fragments of the everyday in Tokyo, as written by Hengtee Lim.

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