7 • LOST IN Familiar Territory
The sound of the shower was hypnotic. I listened to the water spraying loudly against the interior walls of the bathroom. The noise was constant, broken up only by the movements of a woman’s body amid the streams of water. The hypnosis was like the warm water in the shower. It streamed over me and seeped into infinitesimally small fissures in my head. My thoughts floated away from me as if on the evening tide. I thought about the woman in the shower and the steam that puffed from underneath the bathroom door like fog at a Motley Crew concert. I thought about the water streaming down her naked body. It navigated the topography of her curves with ease. The harsh bathroom light was glaring on her dark, wet skin. The image drifted away on the tide with the others. The thought of the ocean both calmed and terrified me, but it cleared my head.
This room was so familiar. It was sterile, devoid of character, and arranged with geometric precision. It was a model of efficiency, barely big enough to stretch your arms without spanning the very width of the space. Everything you could ever need was cleverly hidden away from sight in some kind of wall-mount or drawer or secret nook. The first night I ever spent in this country was in a room just like this one. I remembered the feeling of innocence that I had clung to that night. The anticipation of the new day was buzzing on my skin like a fluorescent light. I’d had a fresh start, a new beginning, and I wasn’t going to ruin it. I was going to do everything right. When I left the country five years later, my rearview mirror was cluttered by mistakes that were closer than they appeared. I had taken my new beginning and penned its ending with the ink of my many faults. How had it come to that? I still couldn’t put all the pieces together. It had something to do with losing myself. People had taken things from me. I was the victim of spiritual theft.
「You must be joking. You are the victim? Your capacity for self-deception amazes even me. You tell yourself that you can’t put all the pieces together. You tell yourself that you’re not responsible for the manner in which you concluded your affairs in this country. You can tell yourself many things, but you’ll never believe them. Your delusion runs only so deep. On the surface, your excuses are like a warm blanket, but underneath you are freezing. The truth is cold. You’d better bundle up.」
He was right. I couldn’t fool myself, not really. Her name had been in my mind and on my lips since I had stepped off the plane. Kaori. I had no idea what to say to her or how to find her. I hadn’t spoken to her in three years. I couldn’t. Not after…
The shower fell silent, followed by the sounds of wet feet squeaking across hard plastic. I stood up and tried to look busy. A few moments later, she emerged from the bathroom already dressed with her hair up in a towel. I looked up at her and feigned a smile. She saw through it immediately and gave me her “nice try” eyes. She walked to the vanity and stood in front of the mirror primping and perfecting. She seemed new to the world, like the water of the shower had washed off layers of weariness from 20-plus years of jumping from rock to rock. Not to mention, the 17 hours of stale recirculated air, styrofoam food, and insipid Hollywood movies trimmed of all intrigue. Maybe she also wanted to begin again. She beamed with excitement.
“Where do we start?” she asked with a bright adventurous smile that was identical to the one I had worn in the same situation eight years earlier.
“What do you want to see first?” I asked with my usual neutrality.
“I meant where do we start looking for your heart?”
“What? I don’t know. Don’t you want to sightsee a little before we embark on what is bound to be a fruitless existential quest?”
Her expression soured. “Wow. You even talk like a man without a heart. You have to…”
“This is a mistake. I don’t even know what I’m doing here,” I moaned sitting back on the 7,000 yen a night twin size mattress and crushing my hands against my face.
She set her hairbrush down on the vanity and sat next to me on the edge of the bed. Her hands gently pealed the wrestler’s grip from my face, which was flushed and misshapen. She stacked my hands flatly, left over right, and pressed them to my chest with her own. I sat up slightly and looked at her. Her expression said, “please.” She held her hands tightly against mine. The skin of her hands was warm and soft, but by contrast, it made the empty place inside my chest feel colder and deeper. I held back skepticism that was welling up in me and focused on her touch. If this was the last time I was ever to be touched by another person, I wouldn’t feel cheated.
“This is why we’re here,” she spoke in a whisper, her eyes transfixed. “Nothing else matters.”
“…” I opened my mouth to speak, but stopped myself. Her face was close to mine and her eyes were closed. Her lips were a mere breath away. This was the opportunity for our first kiss. Her eyelids twitched and bulged like she was dreaming. I could feel her breath on my cheek. It was warm and moist and smelled of toothpaste. Did she want me to kiss her? More importantly, did I want to kiss her?
Yes, I did. I wet my lips quietly and became over-aware of my breathing. It became heavy and deep, whistling slightly as I exhaled through my nose. Her hands were still pressing my own against my chest and I worried that she felt my heartbeat quicken. It had become almost erratic, despite the absence of its metaphysical counterpart. This was it. I closed my eyes and pursed my lips slightly as I slowly leaned in for an event that would surely shatter the space-time continuum.
I stopped. “I’m sorry,” I whispered, pulling my hands out from under hers. I waited for her response. If she concealed her intentions, I would be expected to play along in spite of the awkwardness that would inevitably follow. If she asked the reason for my hesitation, I would be forced to conceal my own intentions. Either way, I felt like a fool.
She sighed deeply and pulled her arms away from my chest. Her eyes opened slowly like garage doors. She looked away from me. Standing up, she said, “Don’t be sorry. Leave it to me to try to kiss a man without a heart.” A smile scaled the corners of her mouth again and she threw her towel over the desk chair. “I can wait.”
With this last statement, relief replaced foolishness and I stood up with an unexpected sense of hope. She finished putting her hair up and put on her brown leather jacket. I put on a charcoal grey pea coat and turned up the collar. We didn’t look like two people on a secret metaphysical mission. We looked more like newlyweds in the midst of a spat. When we were together, we weren’t too close and we weren’t too distant. I took the room key from the breaker slot by the door and ushered her out into the hallway. She topped off her outfit with a big pair of amber-colored sunglasses.
As we stepped out of the hotel, the familiar images of Japan chipped loose a landslide of memories like a pickax against a quarry rock face. They rained down without regard for chronology or relevance. There were far too many to sort through. Trips, first encounters, beautiful gardens, parties, mountains, culinary experiments gone horribly wrong, one night stands, chance opportunities, art museums, concerts, discoveries, love…
I decided to ignore them and take in the present. The mismatched architecture composed a skyline that looked like a family portrait of children adopted from late night charity infomercials. Armies of vending machines stood imposingly in perfect rows like the sentries of Buckingham Palace. They were so numerous; it was as if they had seized control of the city. People flooded the sidewalks with briefcases, shopping bags, backpacks, and strollers, nearly all of them either talking or typing on their cell phones. Middle-aged businessmen, elderly couples, and schoolgirls all donned headphones. What was life without a soundtrack? We dodged them as they rushed passed in both directions. Kids with bleached Bon-Jovi hair and combat boots squatted outside of convenience stores smoking cigarettes and reading comic books. Japanese mothers pushed their babies haplessly in front of them, conversing boisterously, Louis Vitton handbags in tote. People on bicycles, young and old, sped by in a series of near collisions. I felt like I had never left. The woman walking next to me, however, couldn’t have been more enthralled by the patchwork scene that unfolded in front of us. Osaka. It had its charms, but was ultimately one of my least favorite cities in Japan.
We ate lunch in a stylish café near the hotel. I ordered for us in my rusty Japanese. Everything on the menu became a question and her curiosity began to irritate me. I tried to remind myself that I had been the same in my first few months here. I was momentarily ashamed that I had regarded her excitement with such contempt. “Nothing else matters,” she had said to me in the hotel. Maybe she was right. I had to be whole again. Along with my heart, my passion, my sympathy, and my confidence were all missing in action.
After lunch, she was straight to business. “Should we start by retracing your steps?” she asked eagerly.
“Retracing my steps? I lived here for five years you know. That might be a little difficult,” I tried to muster as much hope as I could in my voice.
“Did you bring the pictures that I asked you for?”
“Yeah,” I said, swinging my shoulder bag around in front of me and producing a thick photo album. “Here.”
“This is a good place to start,” she said, nonchalantly thumbing through the pages of my past.
“I didn’t take pictures of every place I went and the order of the album is all wonky.” She looked up at me with a look that was bordering on despondent. “But…I suppose it’s worth a look.”
“Good. Let’s find a quiet place to get some tea or something and we can make an itinerary,” she said, shoving the photo album under her arm.
I surveyed my surroundings. Shinsaibashi. I gestured for her to follow me and we ducked in and out of crowds, making our way to the intersection of two major streets. She fell behind as we crossed the street, gawking at Japanese billboards, Chanel and Gucci stores, and the oceans of fashion-zealous city dwellers that stole glances at the interracial foreign couple in the streets of Osaka. I walked back to where she had slowed to a crawl, took her by the hand, and dragged her the rest of the way across the street. We slipped down a narrow alley that opened on to a covered shopping street called a Shoutengai, passing dozens of small boutiques and salons. I had once commented to a friend that Japan had more hair salons and beauticians than the rest of the world combined. And, I honestly believed it. We came to a halt at two intersecting allies and I pointed to the shop on the corner.
“Starbucks?” She gave me another one of her distinct looks and filled in the blank with, “you’ve got to be fucking kidding me!”
“What? What’s wrong with Starbucks?”
“I didn’t travel 7,000 miles to take tea with Corporate America!”
“What. I like Starbucks. Anyway, we could spend hours wandering around looking for some quaint authentic Japanese teashop. Shinsaibashi isn’t exactly known for its rich cultural heritage. Or did you miss the Dolce & Gabbana?” I said, pointing at the store that began a solid city block of European fashion boutiques.
“Fine. Let’s go,” she replied in defeat.
She found a table and sat down, perusing the photo album as I ordered our drinks. I watched her flipping the pages and smiling intermittently while I waited. She didn’t look at the pictures as much as inhabit them. Her face periodically lit up and her fingers moved elegantly over the cellophane. I imagined her in the various scenes. I had looked at the photo album so many times that I had practically memorized every image in it. I flipped through the pages in my head and my lips hazarded a smirk. As my mind flipped to the back of the album, my smirk was crushed. The back pages held memories that I couldn’t face. Not yet. She would ask me about them, but I would have to keep them buried. They were deep in the abyss that hid my greatest shames and wounds with crushing darkness. Panic struck me and I felt frozen in place as I watched her, still browsing the middle pages of the album. Who is this, she would ask me pointing to the picture. Her name would well up behind my lips like a knot in a garden hose and I would try to swallow it down to the pit of my stomach, choking and heaving. The name would burst from my mouth and the memories would follow. I watched her more intently now. She had nearly reached the back pages. I had to do something. How could I have forgotten about those pictures? I had to…
“Gurande saizu kafe moka to toru saizu maccha furappuchino no
kyakusama!” squeaked the high-pitched voice of the tiny girl behind the counter. There was an obvious impatience in her voice and she stared directly at me. This had obviously not been her first attempt to get my attention. I had been too wrapped up in my panic to hear her earlier, and probably more polite, announcements.
“Hai…sumimasen…” I said in apology with my broken Japanese and a slight bow of the head. I quickly scooped up the drinks and weaved between other customers on my way to the table where she was sitting.
I set down the drinks and noticed that the photo album was closed, the back cover facing up. Had she seen the pictures and chosen to ignore them or had she simply skipped the back few pages? She shot me an awkward smile and picked up the plastic cup, playing with the straw. I sat down and waited for her to say something. The Café Mocha was hot, sweet, and heavy. It tasted great in contrast with the cold wind outside. I had to admit one thing about Corporate America; they were consistent.
“Beautiful pictures,” she said as she toyed with her neon green beverage. “What is this?”
“It’s a Maccha Frappuccino.”
“And what the hell is Maccha?”
“Powdered green tea. That’s about as Japanese as it gets at Starbucks,” I replied with a snort.
“Whatever,” she murmured, setting her cup back on the table. “I have no context for these pictures. Where did you live when you first came here?”
“A small town up in the mountains of Hyogo Prefecture. You wouldn’t have heard of it.”
“How long did you live there?”
“Two years and change.”
“Okay. Let’s start there. How long does it take to get there from Osaka?”
“Three hours, give or take.”
“Great,” she exclaimed, standing up and finally taking a sip of the bright green sludge in her cup. “Wow! That’s actually really good!”
She threw the rest of the drink into a nearby trashcan and shoved the photo album under her arm. Great. Another American tourist with no concept of how expensive things were in Japan. I sighed and stood, cup in hand and waiting for her to lead the way before realizing that she didn’t know where she was going. We left the coffee shop and made our way back to the hotel to collect our things and move on.
「This is it. You’re returning to the scene of the crime. All of those people you left behind. Will they remember you? Fondly or bitterly? How easily you toss people aside when their usefulness runs out. Do you even remember their names? Their lives continued unabated while you were wrapping yourself in delusion after delusion. Welcome back to the real world.」
• • • • •
She slept on the rapid express from Osaka to Himeji, lulled by the chattering of wheels and rails and still suffering jet lag. Her peacefulness was pitted against my nervousness and the contrast was palpable. My knees were locked at tight right angles and I braced myself against every turn, as if inertia was the physical manifestation of my trepidation and by defying it, I would remain calm. It wasn’t working. She slept with her jacket bundled between the window and her head, breathing steadily. I wondered what she really thought of all this, the man without a heart, the culture shock, the journey that laid ahead of us, the unexpected invitation. What was she really doing here? Maybe she was searching for something too.
I thought of the people I had left behind in the wreckage of my former life. I had left them without so much as a “goodbye.” After everything they had done for me, I cast them from my mind as easily as pushing the delete key on a computer. Even I thought that was heartless; pun intended. I would start at Kameya, the local Izakaya. It was the town watering hole and a refuge for malcontents, drunkards, and the overworked. The owner, Harada-san, and I had become fast friends in my eighth month living in Japan. We shared a love of music, laughter, and all manner of juvenile perversions. He had always been able to cheer me up when I was in the worst of spirits. Everyone called him “Master,” a common title for shop owners in Japan. However, his title extended beyond the bar. He was something of a celebrity in the town and his past was a complete mystery. I had heard dozens of rumors when I was living in the town. Some said he was a former bookie and loan shark for the Yakuza operating out of Tottori. Others said he had worked as an amateur in the Japanese pornography industry in Osaka. Neither would have surprised me. There were many more theories circulating in the town, none of which he ever confirmed or denied. And so, his legend grew. He had single-handedly given me a social life during one of the loneliest times in my life, and he introduced me to her. Kaori. I would stay at his house when I was too drunk to stumble home. He invited me to family holidays, dinners, and town festivals. He kept me in the loop and looked out for me. And, I had helped him through the loss of his daughter. We had become brothers and I repaid his love with a knife in the back, replacing my friendship with a mere memory.
I wiped my wet eyes and shook her awake as we arrived in Himeji. I dragged her sleepy carcass along behind me while changing trains. I was surprised at how different the station looked. It had apparently undergone a series of renovations and now included a shopping center, a bookstore, and several convenience stores. It looked brand-new, save the temporary construction partitions that were hiding some of the ongoing work. After navigating the signs of the new station, I pushed her onto an escalator and we finally stepped on to the Kishin Line platform. I was surprised I remembered the name of the old train line. We waited for only 15 minutes and a train composed of two sparkling new silver cars pulled up to the boarding platform. The last time I had ridden on the Kishin Line, it had been in a single monstrous yellow diesel train car that had looked older than the rails on which it ran. My friends and I had always referred to it as “the bus.” We sat down in the sleek new train car with reversible seats and, again, the tension of the impending encounters gripped me.
She didn’t sleep. Her eyes were glued to the window during the entire trip, watching the rural surroundings shuffle past. We passed by bamboo groves, rice fields, tiny mountainside shrines, and ancient-looking wooden houses with ceramic tile roofs crowded by modern two-story duplexes and large out-of-place apartment buildings. Rural Japan was a funny place. The conflict between the traditional and the modern had been quelled by an uneasy truce sustained by convenience. The small mountain towns were populated by weary middle-aged family men seeking refuge from the incessant pressures of city life and a restless youth that despised the monotony of rustic Japan and dreamt of the bustle of Tokyo.
“Tsugi wa Sayō, Sayō desu…” screeched the high-pitched female voice of an automated announcement. It was a portent that sent chills through my body and stirred a cold feeling in my stomach. The message continued, but my rusty Japanese lost interest. I had heard all I needed to hear. We had arrived at the eleventh station. I took her by the hand and peeled her attention away from the scenery outside.
“This is us,” I said, standing up on nervous legs.
“Are you excited?” she asked with an enthusiastic smile that didn’t match her sleepy eyes.
“You could say that.”
The train slowed to a silent stop in front of the tiny station and my chest surged with the rush of adrenaline. The doors clumsily jerked open and I stepped off the train and into my past. The station was exactly as I remembered it. I had been so consumed in my thoughts I hadn’t noticed that the sun was setting into a pale dusk. I looked at my watch. It was 4:11AM in Chicago. Kameya wasn’t far from the station. I remembered the first time I had gone there. I had been so terrified of entering the place that I spent the better part of an hour walking up and down the street in front of the small bar, working up my courage. There I was, still wet behind the ears and alone in a foreign country, desperately trying to immerse myself and become a part of the town. Each time I walked past the entrance, I would tell myself, “This is it. This time, I’m going in,” but I walked by again and again, intimidated by the shouts and boisterous laughter that poured from the crack of the door. When I finally stumbled in with a confused look on my face, the room fell silent and the spirited conversation was replaced with hushed exchanges. Master immediately emerged from behind the counter, put his arm around my shoulder, and ushered me to the bench in front of the bar. Our friendship flowered quickly.
As we walked passed the post office, the butcher shop, and the liquor store, I felt the familiar fear grow. I wondered if I would be able to enter on my first pass. Though, this time I wasn’t alone. We continued walking, passing Snack bars, a furniture store, and a Horumon Yaki-udon shop, which was the local delicacy. Shop owners were closing their stores for the night and workers were returning home after another long day. They passed us, many of them recognizing me and offering a timid bow and a smile. I bowed in return, but feared that the tension behind my smile conveyed the jovial bloodlust of a serial killer rather than amiability. We approached the small bar and I immediately recognized it, with its pitched tile roof hanging over the entrance like an awning. The roof was adorned with homemade pinwheels and colorful signs. The front of the shop was crowded with bizarrely oversized toys, knickknacks, and Christmas lights. All of the decorations were haphazardly arranged. The façade of the building looked as though it had been pieced together using sets from Pee-wee’s Playhouse. It stood out in the stretch of dull wooden shops and homes, nestled between a traditional style Japanese house and a bank. It looked like a flamingo trying to conceal itself among a murder of crows.
My heart was beating loudly like a kick drum and, despite the autumn chill in the air, my hands were sticky with sweat. I considered asking her to wait outside while I determined the manner of my reception, but the sun was setting quickly and the evening wind was picking up. I didn’t want to be cruel. Though, it seems I had a talent for it. I guided her to the entrance with my hand in the small of her back and stopped. I took a deep breath and exhaled through my mouth. I wiped my sweaty hands on the front of my jeans and shook my hands dry in the chilly air.
“This is it,” I thought out loud.
There was a small round window in the heavy red door. It was clouded with condensation, but I tried to make out the interior of the room. I could hear conversations in Japanese and laughter made rich with alcohol. I finally set my eyes on Master and, as if he could feel my eyes on him, he looked up to meet my gaze. I almost physically recoiled with surprise. He had seen me, but his expression remained blank. Maybe, through the fogged glass, he couldn’t make out my face. Or, maybe he had been nursing a hatred for me over the last three years and was preparing for what might become a heated encounter. Now, I had no choice. I had to go inside.
“These guys can be pretty grabby, not to mention, they’ve never had an American woman in this place before. So, watch yourself,” I warned her, resting my hand on the oversized red handle.
I took her by the hand and pulled the door open. An enormous cloud of cigarette smoke billowed out in front of us and chocked the crisp mountain air from our lungs. Master’s eyes lit up and his mouth fell agape. We shuffled across the threshold and let the door swing closed behind us. The conversations died around us and were replaced by abruptly sobered looks. The silence was broken by the smacking sound of an open hand connecting sharply with my ass.
“Matto-chan!” yelled a chorus of regulars, followed by a wave of smiling faces and further shouts of Japanese salutations.
Master stood up from behind the bar, towering over his customers. His face filled with wrinkles as a wide smile emerged in his expression. He rushed me in what I expected to be a tackle, but turned out to be a hug that nearly crushed the life out of me. I threw my arms around him and returned the distinctly non-Japanese gesture of affection. The smell of tobacco emanating from Master assaulted my sense and burned inside my nose. My eyes began to water slightly. Whether it was the emotional reunion or the reek of Master’s two-pack-a-day habit, I had no idea.
He looked, and smelled, exactly as I remembered. He was unusually tall, especially in Japan. He ducked and dodged hanging decorations as he navigated the interior of the tiny bar. Despite his bad habits and lack of exercise, he was slim, which only made him look taller. He was gangly and long like a Japanese Abraham Lincoln. His face was long and always clean-shaven. His jet-black hair was short and untidy, but somehow always looked good. He had a long nose that was counterpointed by his small almond-shaped eyes. His ears stuck out like radar dishes from behind clumps of hair. His skin was dark and leathery and full of wrinkles. Whenever he smiled or frowned or concentrated his face became a landscape of ridges and valleys, pressed together from a lifetime of grand expressions. He donned his usual tight-fitting plain black T-shirt and black jeans, partially covered by his black kitchen apron. He was wearing black Crocs on his feet, which was something new. He used to wear a ratty pair of black Converse All-Stars. His hands were huge and full of calluses and dry skin, which he picked at compulsively when he was bored. He was Master; accept no substitutes.
“Matto-chan. Long time, no see, ne,” he muttered through his tight smile in his thick-accented country Japanese as he released his death grip on my torso.
“Master. I’m really sorry that I left without saying anything. I ran away from…” I hesitated and smiled, trying to play it off as rusty Japanese. “…from a lot of things. Kaori. She and I...we…I…”
“I know,” he interrupted with a hand on my shoulder. He obviously recognized my apprehension. “She came t’see me when ya took off. Let’s talk ‘bout it later, ne. Drink?”
“You have no idea, but first, there’s someone I want you to meet,” I said, pulling her to my side. “This is Tresa.”
“To-re-sa?” he repeated his own staggered interpretation.
“Right,” I confirmed.
“Hajimemashite,” greeted Tresa, stumbling over the words like they were a foul-tasting children’s medicine. It was a phrase she must’ve learned from a guidebook.
“Nice t’meet you,” Master replied.
Master ushered her politely to a seat at the bar where he could keep an eye on her. I was immediately accosted by the other bar patrons, shaking hands and punching each other affectionately. They all asked me what happened and where I had gone. I answered with vague blanket explanations, avoiding details that would stir more curiosity. My Japanese came back to me with ease.
“What’re you doin’ in Sayō?” Master questioned with a hint of suspicion.
“It’s difficult to explain,” I replied, too embarrassed and confused by the real explanation to divulge it so soon.
He set a tall glass of Shouchuu down in front of me. The ice bobbed slightly in the clear alcohol and beads of condensation slid down to the wooden coaster underneath. I had developed a taste for the strong Japanese alcohol during a period when my social life had been anchored at Kameya. My favorite kind was distilled from Japanese potatoes and had a subtle sweetness to it. Master knew my drink and how I liked it without so much as a word from me. He wiped his hands on the front of his black apron and gestured toward Tresa.
“What do you want?” I asked her nonchalantly, as if I had never left Japan.
“What does he have?” she replied, answering my question with a question. Such was her style.
“Mostly Japanese alcohol. He’s got beer and, probably, some whiskey.”
“Ask him what he would recommend.”
“Bad idea. Why don’t you let me order for you?”
“Okay. I trust you.”
Her reply struck me as odd. I trust you. Why? What could I have possibly done to earn her trust? We hardly knew each other. The strangeness of it congealed in my mind and occupied my thoughts for several minutes while I feigned the appearance of considering drink options.
“Master. Lemon Chuuhai, please.”
He nodded and went to work with a funny smile. Despite his ignorance of English, he obviously understood that I had advised her against letting him recommend a drink for her. He was gifted at reading body language, gestures, and facial expressions. So much so, that I imagined he was able to have meaningful conversations in complete silence.
The night progressed pleasantly. It really was like old times. I spent the evening drinking, laughing, and translating. As the night wore on, my Japanese grew steadily less intelligible. Surprisingly, no one in the bar had any trouble interpreting my intoxicated babble. They had spent a long time getting used to it and, evidently, three years had done little to atrophy their skills. Over the course of the evening, the other patrons stumbled out of the bar and returned home, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups. Almost every night I had spent at Kameya had progressed in a similar fashion. When, at last, it was only the three of us, Master turned off the Christmas lights and neon signs in front of the shop and turned down the music. He sat down on the bench next to me and reached over the counter to pour himself another drink.
The inside of the small bar was almost exactly as I had remembered it. He had added a small Tatami room for dining on one side and expanded the kitchen area. He later explained that the remodeling was done in the aftermath of a terrible flood that had destroyed the shop and much of the town. 20 people had died in the disaster, two of whose bodies were never found. Some of my former students were among the victims, a reality that made the guilt of my leaving somehow worse; as if I could have done anything to stop a flood. The town had nearly been wiped off the map. It was hard for me to picture my beloved Sayō in ruin. With prefectural aid and a great deal of generosity from the surrounding villages, the town had been rebuilt exactly as it was, stone for stone. Despite their many eccentricities, the Japanese were the most genuinely altruistic people I had ever known. All of the bar patrons and their families had donated their time and resources to rebuild the small Izakaya. The rest of the interior was the same, the dim lights, the disco ball, a random assortment of adult toys, and the smell of cigarettes and Yaki-tori. It was decorated with an assortment of posters, memorabilia, musical instruments, graffiti, lights, clothing, and liquor bottles. It had always reminded me of the eclectically decorated college bars back home. Once, I had hinted to Master that I knew how to play the guitar. He quickly balanced himself on a chair to take one down from the wall over the door and in the process, shattered two black-light bulbs and knocked a wooden Noh theater mask from its mount. We both laughed uncontrollably at the senseless destruction and, as it turned out, the guitar had been missing four strings anyway. The memory brought a smile to my face and I was reminded of my current circumstances.
Her head was resting face down in her arms on the top of the counter. Neither Master nor I could tell if she had passed out drunk or was just sleeping. I hazarded a few experimental pokes, which elicited no response. Then, Master shook her shoulders with slightly more vigor. Again, there was no reaction. We exchanged a knowing smile and said in unison, “drunk.”
We carried her to a room above the bar, braving the steep wooden stairs that ascended to the rest of his home. He laid out a futon on the Tatami mats and we gently set her down. An awkward moment of silence passed between us, both of us wearing devilish grins. We were obviously sharing the same thought. Should we undress her? He snickered and shook his head, throwing a blanket over her still clothed body.
Back downstairs, he brewed a pot of coffee and whipped up two bowls of his famous Ramen noodles. I craved nothing more when I was drunk. It was better than Irish Coddle. We quickly slurped down the steaming noodles and patted our bellies with an unintended sense of accomplishment. We were silent for a time, sipping our coffee and slowly blinking our heavy eyes.
“Why did you leave?” he broke the silence with the blunt question. Though, I would have more accurately described the question as “sharp.”
“You should have come talk to me,” he spoke wearing a half-scowl. His Japanese had lost its thick rural-hardened twang and settled into standard big-city eloquence. This had always happened when we had serious conversations. It seemed that he had to make a conscious effort to speak the local country vernacular, but when more serious matters occupied his mind, he slipped back into his natural dialect. He sounded precise and educated. It added mystery to his legend.
“I know. I know. I’m sorry. You have no idea how hard it was to leave without saying anything to you. But, I knew that you would have convinced me to do the right thing, like you always did. And, that was something I just couldn’t do. After everything you went through with your daughter, I couldn’t bring myself to tell you what I had to do,” I said in rushed phrases that stumbled out of my mouth like a landslide. It was as if I couldn’t explain myself fast enough.
“My daughter?” he asked with a puzzled look on his face.
“Yeah. I didn’t want to renew old wounds.”
The same bemused expression crossed his face again, slightly more apparent than before. “What happened between you and Kaori?”
I swallowed hard. She didn’t tell him. Oh shit! What had I done? Now, I had a choice. I could lie and use his ignorance of my deeds to rekindle our friendship or I could tell him the truth and risk everything.
「A choice? Only a degenerate like you would consider this a choice. You have to tell him the truth. You couldn’t do it before and now you have a second chance to get things right. You aren’t seriously considering wasting that chance. What will you become if you do this? Decisions like this one are what got you into this in the first place. Don’t you see?」
I tried to sit up under the weight of my intoxication and looked him in the eyes. The weight was not just the alcohol. Some thick, encompassing emotion seemed to settle over me like a heavy quilt. It had been temporarily lifted by the preceding amusements of the evening, but now it fell back on me with a renewed and unshakable presence. I felt I would vomit. I clenched my fists and spoke clearly.
“She was pregnant.”
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish