Another Story Post: "Vending Machine"

So, this little story/fictionalized recollection has been kicking around my hard drive for quite a while now. It was first written for a magazine that subsequently changed editorial focus after being bought out, and then I submitted it to a contest it wasn't all that suited for, so now I'm inclined to give it to the home for all the broken writerly toys of the world: the internet. Enjoy.

Vending Machine

I edged closer to where Masami sat, chucking an edamame skin into a bowl with what I hoped was casual panache as I scooted across the tatami. The afterparty tonight was in a place that tried for a retro, dark-wood-and-paper kind of charm, Tanizaki mystique slathered over the grimier realities of a twenty-four-hour bar catering to sweaty rockers prolonging their post-gig buzzes. Somebody’d already had to take one skinny bassist home; there had been blood coloring the half-digested yakisoba in the sink below his face when he’d been discovered leaning motionless with his eyes closed and his forehead cooling against the bathroom mirror. Soon the usual suspects would begin the half-joking humiliations that constituted bonding in this world, though sometimes it seemed more like bondage: out of the corner of my eye I could see Nobu conspiring with an ugly dude I didn't recognize, gesturing toward one of his favorite targets, a skinny, sweet guy with newly-dyed blue hair whom everyone called Dice, hot sauce in his hands and a dangerous glint in his eyes. Poor Dice, I thought, but only in passing; I had other things on my mind.

Masami was a drummer for a band called Suck Piggy, and he'd caught in my mind like a fishhook since the first moment I saw him, though I'd be hard-pressed to explain exactly why. He was slightly pudgy, with black-rimmed glasses and a rather misguided asymmetrical haircut, but somehow these things endeared when ordinarily they would have repelled. I'd jumped and sweated along with the boys (and one tough girl who bristled metal spikes from head to toe) up front all through their set in the tiny club. To be honest, though, their brand of cacophony and punky posturing had blended into the other bands playing tonight until it'd become like aural wallpaper, or like the chipping black walls of the club itself: just so much atmosphere setting off the guilty, exhilarating stab of lust that sometimes feels like the secret point of live music in the first place. He'd pounded at his drums, his faux-vintage Ramones shirt shading darker and darker as he sweated, and the uncomplicated smile on his face hadn't wavered even once. After the set, I'd congratulated him on his performance in order to have an excuse to touch him, thumping him on the back with an assumed air of masculine unity. He'd grinned up at me and said he had an English question.

Being a white boy in Japan means being treated like a vending machine that spits out English words and phrases instead of condoms or coffee in a can. But sometimes, like then, it allowed conversations to continue that would have otherwise died, and so I'd leaned into his curiosity as if into a warm shower. He was asking about the name of his band: someone had told him that it meant something dirty in America. I'd told him that it did, but that I'd thought that that was the point. He explained that the lead singer had had a dream about a pig who could suck anything into its snout, books and chairs and cats and people, and that he had woken up filled with a kind of affection for this “suck piggy” and named the band after it. If you go to America, it won't be a problem, I'd reassured him, and he'd grinned up at me again. Gotta go, see you later, and then I'd followed his back with my eyes as he wove through the crowd away from me, and, yes, they dipped to explore the seat of his retreating ripped jeans as I did. A vending machine needs to get paid, after all, even if it wasn't in coins.

I want to go away to America or England or Australia, Masami was telling me now, his eyes starry with alcohol and imagined foreign skies. I'd successfully maneuvered next to him, hoping he was too drunk to notice my thigh against his, or, better, that he did and didn’t mind. Kazu, the singer who had had the dream about the pig with the world-devouring snout, was down to his boxers. It seemed only a matter of time before his pubic hair would be set aflame by a giddy fellow rocker, just like always. I marveled at the waitress who slalomed through this naked mischief with a resolute smile and an ability to decipher the drink-blurred orders as they were shouted at her. As Kazu slid out of his boxers, he backed into her as they caught on his heel. He turned and they smiled and bowed at each other courteously, then went back to their respective activities. Likewise, I turned back to my conversation with Masami. He was talking about wanting to learn English.

How long did it take to learn Japanese? I want to learn English as well as you know Japanese. What should I do? I'm really bad at studying. I was never good at school, that’s why I failed the college tests. I always liked playing my drums, I just kept doing that. I love it. I love my band. But I want to leave Japan. I've never even been to Hokkaido. I want to tour all over the world. Have you been to England? Is it nice? What about Australia? That's closer. I heard their English is different. What does it sound like?

I kept nodding, showered in urgent, meandering questions and beery breath as Masami circled the need within himself as if it were a drain. I felt the enormity of my privilege like a suit of white fat muffling the nerves on my skin where we touched. Masami leaned his head against my shoulder and told me I was so nice to come to their shows and talk to him. His glasses clunked against my jaw and I straightened them absently, a gesture so intimate in its offhandedness it would never occur in America except between known boyfriends. Yet here, where the rules were both fundamentally the same yet so different in practice, guys lit each other's cigarettes, embraced, rode each other piggyback, stagedove naked, shared drinks, mimed fellatio, even kissed each other onstage, all the while bathed in the bonfire of their unassailable masculinity as their girlfriends watched with bemused smiles, leaning against walls holding drinks and waiting for the tomfoolery to be over. Sandra, the British woman who’d introduced me into this scene initially, toasted me from across the room, raising her umé-and-soda with a sly smile of sardonic congratulations. She had a tendency to complain about how none of the boys touched her like they touched me, forgetting that they did so precisely because it meant nothing, that my body was a safe zone because it was presumed innocent of meaning or complication. When one of these guys finally decided to touch her, it would be fraught and romantic and transcendent, nothing like when I was challenged to participate in an international dick-size competition over a few beers or when some dude stagedove sweat-slicked and shirtless into my arms because he knew I wouldn't let him fall. It was hard to remember that, though, as Masami nestled drunkenly further into the hollow of my collarbone.

I wondered again why I was so stuck on him. Was it his seeming vulnerability, the softness of his outline amid the hard, smooth bodies of his bandmates and friends? I checked out the dragon tattoo that snaked down to disappear into the top of Kazu's ass as he bent with his back to us to pour beer into someone’s glass, part of a geisha parody his friends were finding generally hilarious. I remembered telling Masami at the last Suck Piggy gig I'd gone to that I dated boys; he hadn't seemed terribly shocked and had just nodded in reply. I suppose it just seemed to him like it went with the territory with this unfathomable foreigner, one more strange detail amid all the other ones, large and small, that constituted the differences between us. I'd wanted to continue the half-joking tone of our conversation, so I'd leaned over and lied that he needn't worry, that I was after someone else. He'd responded with a mock-offended look, asking, why not him? I'd told him he was number three; if I struck out with the other two, I'd give him a try. He'd smiled with a surprising lack of guile and clinked his beer against mine, then turned to rejoin his bandmates at the merch table.

And now he was stirring against my collarbone, pawing back up toward the surface of his drunken haze. Instead of the usual fireworks of burning pubic hair, it seemed that Nobu had convinced Dice that he should put Kazu's dick in his mouth. Kazu whooped and pumped the air with his fist in anticipation of Dice's humiliation. Dice resisted, but was smiling gamely in a way that said he was on the verge of just getting it over with, of attempting to climb up out of the ranks of the humiliated by burrowing just a little bit deeper into them. Nobu leaned back to watch. Masami struggled to sit up straighter, as this was rather far for things to go even in this crowd. Sandra was hiding her face behind her hand but peeking between her fingers. Dice kept leaning in then pulling back, making a series of hilarious faces, and then finally contact was made. Kazu pulled a cartoonish face of his own and pumped his hips exaggeratedly. Masami turned away, laughing, his face burrowing into my chest. My arm had found its way around his shoulder. Dice was clowning, spitting over and over into an ashtray, while Nobu hunched in hysterics.

Masami looked up at me. How did it work out with the top two? It took me a second to figure out what he meant, then remembered. His face was so close. I forced a laugh. Aw, I got shot down. I manufactured a rueful smile and he grinned back. It's all about you now. I felt a rush of lust course through me as I said this, but instead of propelling me, it gave me pause. Was I just responding to Masami's seeming receptivity, turned on more by my apparent power than by anything particular to him? I knew virtually nothing about him, and the reverse was true as well. What did it mean to cling to each other with false nonchalance, pretending to slouch drunkenly as we covertly rifled one another for comfort and belonging amid the frenetic machismo colliding around us? Was I just using him as a way to feel like I belonged in this scene I had no real right to call my own, a way to preserve the buoyant camaraderie that simultaneously welcomed and excluded me? And what was he using me for? I looked down at him and saw that he was still smiling drunkenly. There seemed to be no one else outside the circle formed by my right arm around his shoulder and his reaching across both our bodies to pour a bit of his beer into my mouth. I leaned forward, my jaw jutting toward the bottle, feeling ridiculous but glad for a reason to pull myself out of my thoughts.

And then the room exploded with laughter. I startled a little and beer ran down my chin. We both turned our heads to look back out at the room. Kazu was jumping, doubled over with his hands in his crotch, howling in pain. Nobu was laughing, but so was Dice, who was twiddling a bottle of hot sauce between his thumb and forefinger, pointing as his tormenter, now the tormentee, doused his nether regions with glassful after glassful of water. Masami and I gasped with laughter almost despite ourselves; the reversal was just too perfect, and unexpected.

Everyone’s attention was on Kazu and his sizzling dick. The waitress stepped around him with pointed politeness, a clutch of mugs clinking demurely from where they blossomed from her fists. I turned back toward Masami and clunked my jaw against his glasses again. I stopped thinking, and then my lips were against his. I stopped thinking, and then all that was left was softness doubling over on itself and connoting infinity. Maybe that was the trick; maybe it was just a matter of stopping my brain just long enough to disappear into the moments I wanted to curl up and stay in, then accepting that once I did so, they were over. Our lips parted and we blinked for a second at each other. And then Masami pulled back and took another swig of his beer. I looked back at the room and saw Kazu putting his clothes back on. Dice sipped his drink, still grimacing at his spice-lined lips, but his eyes glittered with mischief and triumph. Sandra eyed me ironically. Dice and Nobu shared a high-five. Masami asked me if I was going to the next Suck Piggy show two weeks from then in Osaka. I said sure. Our legs no longer touched, and my arm withdrew almost of its own accord from around his shoulder. Beer swilled around in my mouth as I wondered if I was sober enough not to crash into something as I rode my bike home. I decided I would probably be okay, and gathered my stuff to leave.