Panic at the onsen

I had a long day — 16 hours of traveling and hiking — at Japan’s Oze National Park, split between Fukushima, Tochigi, Gunma, and Niigata Prefectures. Then I went to an onsen but, in this case, it was something more like a public bath.

It’s so hot. I can’t breathe. Is the thick steam making my lungs too heavy to expand or is this a panic attack?

I always take such short, slow breaths. I can’t gulp down air and puff like my father. It’s ’cause he never got his nose fixed, right? But I only have a nose… I can’t see my mouth. Ugh, that’s fine, it doesn’t matter. Stay quiet, don’t make waves, relax. Speaking of that, why don’t my muscles work? I can’t make waves. Don’t try though, it violates the bath etiquette. Are you supposed to sweat like this though? Neither air nor water should feel this thick. It’s smothering; I feel like I can’t feel, see or hear and… I don’t know, what is this? Is it a..?

Ugh, don’t be dramatic. It’s nothing but my usual anxious languor… just like… heated up.

I’m floating. Am I lighter than the water? No, that’s not how it works. I’m less dense than the water, or Archimedes’ Principle, or something, or the water’s extra dense with volcanic minerals, or something. Is that how it works? Stop, it doesn’t matter. Relax, don’t make waves. But heat makes things expand, and expansion makes things less dense right? Since I’m hot too, does that mean — am I losing density? How long have I been in here, anyway? I lost count, and I was counting. I thought I saw a clock, but I looked up again and it was gone. We were supposed to meet back in the lobby in half an hour though. But where am I now? Where did the clock go? None of this feels real.

The Nigerian sitting next to me, from the language learners’ salon, called me the expert and the dictionary, maybe a little snide. You don’t have to be right, just participate. But why participate if you don’t do it right? You misunderstand me. No, you misunderstand me. Well that was rude… let me explain first. What? Something about shared experiences, but I’m sharing, just always the wrong things, I guess. Why is he angry? Is he angry?  Ugh, I don’t care. Be quiet.

I can’t hear him anymore. The white steam is too loud. It sounds like I’ve submerged myself, but I haven’t, and ambient steam doesn’t make noise anyway. Is it the waterfall and the waves then? Am I making waves? Remember, etiquette, don’t move, don’t make waves, be quiet. Am I being too loud? No, that’s not right. I’m just a nose, and I’m not breathing, so I can’t be making noise. But if I’m not loud, why can’t I hear? Ugh, there’s too much blood in my ears. I can’t feel them, but I can hear them, pulsing. Is this a panic attack? No, don’t even think about it.

There’s proof that I’m not as clever as he says… I’m not a dictionary, I just use one faster than them. I’m the only one to jump to Google rather than guess around a conversation. The answer’s right there, two keywords away. Why guess? Why maybe it? If you don’t know, you don’t know. Participate, don’t be right. We’re speaking English though. I have a real lead there. Make conversation… quietly. Too quietly, he can’t hear me since I don’t have a mouth. Just as well too, I catch myself making mistakes in my own language. Something about the hike, but did I just skip the verb? That sentence made no sense. Ugh, but how should I know! I’m just peripheral vision, and a nose. I have no ears to hear myself, to check myself. Is this a panic attack? Oh my god no, shut up, I’m just hot… and bored. Just sitting here, god, why is this so boring!

Tsuwhat-? It’s too hot. I should get out now but — why don’t my muscles work? No, that would make waves. Be still, be quiet.

I’ve lost weight since I came to Japan. None of my jeans fit anymore, without a belt, but I always forget to wear one anyway. I was already too light in America, always riding that line between a healthy BMI and underweight. I’m probably down there now… I’m so sharp. My mom always used to complain about my elbows when I was young, but now my shoulders feel pokey too, above the water, because it was too hot under.

I’ve started counting calories up. If I feel under maybe 1800 by 10pm — feel the number, not the hunger, right? I’m never really hungry — I’ve started forcing down extra snacks: cups of yogurt and mixed nuts for the protein and these weird green vegetable crackers, 600 calories a pack. I don’t bother to read the nutrition information but they’re green and the percent values are bigger than a box of cookies and there are broccoli and carrots and spinach on the green wrappers. Green means healthy, right? Maybe. Oh, but food is so boring. It’s like eating water and gravel and air. It’s so boring. That’s why I forget to eat. It’s boring. It’s not a panic attack. I’m hot and bored and… hungry, I guess, by the numbers.

I must have lost too many calories on that hike. Oze Park was gorgeous! I made sure to eat a real dinner yesterday, since my landlady invites me every Friday to teach her son English. I remembered to buy a bunch of sandwiches too, and some onigiri, to fit in, not that I like them much. I didn’t eat my whole picnic lunch though; I tossed a couple onigiri back in my bag. I don’t mind if they’re crushed, I’ll eat them later if they haven’t spoiled, if I’ve remembered. I was full after 800 calories anyway (I know, because I checked the wrappers before I left): a few sandwiches and a rice ball. Will that make up the difference from the walking though? I had a much faster pace than the others, too. I kept getting ahead of them — bad etiquette. Did I use more energy? Hungry or exhausted? That’s not important now… it’s so hot. I’m light headed, wandering.

God I’m so ashamed. Why am I not a vegan already? Etiquette. Yeah, I’ll try your chicken. Yeah, it’s good. Yeah, no, I’m fine, I don’t need more. Spices, Nigerian-style? I mean, I didn’t bother to taste them, but I’m sure they’re great. Yeah, their great. But isn’t it Ramadan though? Aren’t you supposed to be fasting? There are exceptions for travelers, but does a day-trip leisure hike count as traveling? Ugh, I don’t really care. Don’t pry into other people’s faith. That’s etiquette. But god food is boring. It’s just not worth the effort. Pack it all up.

My little gift towel is too wet to dry. But I followed the rules; I didn’t put it in the water! So why is it wet? I’ll use my shirt then, and hide the rest under my jacket. Long sleeves and fleece in summer, am I insane? No, I need it: I’m so thin. The breeze always gives me a chill. Back in the lobby, with the front door open ajar, and I’m already shivering. Ugh, hold still. Don’t make waves. It was so hot before… where’d these goose bumps come from? It must be ‘cause I’m still too wet, inside and on top. Zip up the jacket, don’t let the water splotches on my shirt show. I’m not sure what to do about my hair though… oh at least it’s short enough to dry in the air. Even if I shiver. I don’t care. I needed to get out of there.

Huh, what? Sorry, I missed that, but a second later, there’s a jolt. Is this a panic attack? No, listen. What did he say? Something about atama, atsui… head, heat? Do I know him? Was he in my hiking group? He doesn’t have his hat on anymore, so I can’t remember. I was just peripheral vision. What? Hai, yeah, yes. Nod and smile, but those never look right. People always ask if I’m worried. Do I grimace? How should I know, the muscles in my face don’t work and I can’t see myself! I’m just a nose. I grimace, I know, but I don’t feel it. There’s no feeling behind it. No, I promise, I’m not nervous. I’m… bored. Don’t say that though — etiquette. But what’s the point of this? Why is he making waves? Wasn’t I just fine just sitting, being quiet?

Sitting? Existing? What’s worse than existing? Who has time for that? And for 500 yen? There’s so much else you could do with 500 yen, like saving. And so much else you could do with half an hour, like sleeping — wouldn’t you prefer a nap? You don’t have to think about a nap. You don’t have to pay for a nap. You don’t even have a nose, or peripheral vision for the rest, in a nap. And if you make any noise, you would never know it.

Ugh, why are they smoking? Aren’t they already wisps, from the heat? I thought the lighter air outside would be good for me. Where am I though? Has it been half an hour? Where do I wait? Not here, I can’t breathe, with all this smoke around. They said to wait in the lobby. Go back there. Sit down.

Are you okay? What? Every sound still seems distant. And I didn’t even see them coming up. Yeah, okay, fine, no — heiki… desu. It was hot… deshita. No, that’s not right, remember Japanese 101? It was “katta.” Do you feel tired after hot spring?- [sic], but ignore it. Yeah, it was so hot, and… boring. Taikutsu? Tsumaranai? I don’t think those words work. Etiquette. Just don’t say it. I’m… yeah, just tired. Don’t say that either though. Maybe it’s rude to the host. But what was the question again, even? Forget it, OK, OK, daijoubu da. Tanoshikatta. It was fun, it was fine. So will you believe me?

“You finish early!” Ughhh, then “shy,” in English too. I hate that word. It makes me so angry. I’m not shy, you just expect too much from me. And why should anyone expect anything from anyone? Can’t they see how pointless this all is, how boring it is? Sitting in a bath? Oh my god, don’t make me laugh. I could sit anywhere, and do so without any ritual to steal my nonexpectation. In a dry place, I could even read a book. Don’t you understand? I wasn’t quiet until you called it! Why should I be shy, except because someone else expected it? I was just myself, or maybe nothing at all, and fine that way, sitting there. Hazukashii, shizuka da ne. You know I can understand you, right? Ugh, just pretend not to… back to the book.

What? They laugh. Someone’s watching me. I’m not quiet, you see, I’m concentrating. Shuuchuu, I learned that last week, I remembered that. Look, I’m writing. No, not an email, in my notebook. Yeah, on my phone. Huh? You can’t hear my voice? Why? You can see it on me right here, and hear it on the screen. No, right, they can’t read English and I still don’t have a mouth. Ughhh I’m bored though, and I’m making them uncomfortable, and I’m hot again, in the sun-sat car, out of the breeze, sweating under my jacket, humid Japan, waiting for the Nigerians. They were late past the half-hour deadline and they walk so slowly. They must have enjoyed the onsen and the company. But I was so early, and walked too fast. Bad etiquette, to get ahead. Ohhh gosh, and we still have dinner next. No, it’s fine. Just sit and wait. I won’t use energy if I just sit and wait.

Is this a panic attack? No, I’ve cooled down. Yeah, if I’m just sitting here, there’s no stress, right? How can you be stressed, anxious doing nothing? None of this matters; I’m just bored. Don’t say that though, that’s rude. I’m tired, or better yet, sleepy. Yeah, I’d sleep, if I could. But not in the car. I’ll just quiet down and read on my phone again. Sit still and focus on the book.

“Your nose is red.” Oh my god shut up, I know: I didn’t use enough sunscreen. And you got away without using any! And I’m not just a nose.

Could you do it again? Non-committal, but never say no. The hike? Yeah, I guess. But please, not another onsen.

God it was boring.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s