Monday, December 10, 2007

Blogspot Blues...
I just can't seem to get the hang of editing once my piece has been transferred into the Blogspot space. Any indents, bolds or italics are automatically removed. The italics and bolding I can fix. The indenting... it just won't let me. So, if you're reading this and have any insight, please drop me a line. The story below is the worst yet in terms of formatting. I haven't posted here in a while, so I'm not sure if the options have changed. I just can't format the quoted text to be indented properly.

The Insider

Jerry Jersey was sitting in his favourite neighbourhood café, flirting with his new favourite waitress. He did his best flirting by using colloquial Japanese. It was something he’d picked up when studying karate in downtown Osaka twenty years before. This style of Japanese was more guttural, harsher, less polite than everyday Japanese. Osakan Japanese came from the wrong side of the tracks. If James Dean had spoken Japanese, it would have been Osaka-ben, the language of Yakuza gangsters and television bad guys. Jerry Jersey had decided early on that it would be his jargon of choice when flirting with any particularly cute specimen of waitress. As far as he was concerned, it was his grasp of Osaka-ben that made the girls remember him. Never mind the fact that he was six foot five, had steel grey hair and wore traditional Japanese wooden geta on his size thirteen feet.

On this particular day, Jerry had his writing equipment spread out in front of him, managing to take up three of the café's tables. He had six pristine calligraphy brushes lined up to his right. To his left was the brush stand and small inkpot, still virgin, waiting for the black fluid to be added. In front of him he had spread out a white sheet of the finest silk-thread paper, purchased moments ago from Suzuki-san in the shop across the street. Suzuki-san, the ancient owner of the stationery shop, suffered from osteoporosis so severe it had her doubled over into an imperfect letter C. Looking through her shop’s plate glass window earlier, she had seen Jerry coming from almost five blocks away. Soon the sound of his wooden geta could be heard kicking up pebbles on the road. She had made her way upstairs where she and her husband had a small apartment, and added a quick dab of cream rouge on her cheeks and a swipe of red on her lips. She made her way carefully back downstairs and into the shop, and before Jerry had even walked in the door, Suzuki-san had chosen the finest silk-thread paper, rolled it up and had it wrapped and ready to go on the counter. A soft chime indicated his arrival through the sliding wooden door. Jerry crouched down when entering to avoid hitting his head on the doorframe.

Irraishaimase! Jersey-san, konnichiwa!” Her booming welcome made Jerry glow, and he bowed deeply towards the owner. He used his formal, polite Japanese with Suzuki-san; he never used Osaka-ben with the older ladies.
“Ah, Suzuki-san. You knew I was coming. You’re looking spry today. What have you been up to?” He bent over, matching Suzuki-san’s posture in order to see her face-to-face.
“Ah, Jersey-san. You know, it’s the same old thing. Aches, pains and a son who never calls…”
She shook her head, looking to the floor and shrugging her shoulders. She stole a peek at Jerry, her head still bobbing in resignation. He knew the look. She wanted something, and he was only too pleased to comply. He stretched out one of his long arms, wrapped it around her shoulders and pulled her in close. Suzuki-san melted into the crook of Jerry’s arm, and accepted his comforting pats on her shoulder with a long sigh.
“Suzuki-san, you should take a vacation. You get that husband of yours to fly you down to Okinawa. A bit of sunshine and some Okinawan sake are just what you need.”

He continued patting the shop owner’s shoulders, oblivious to the fact that he was the only person in Suzuki-san’s seventy-five years to have the honour of giving her such an informal, affectionate gesture. Whenever Jerry Jersey entered her small shop, she suspended reality for the moment, and imagined herself somewhere exotic, a place where everyone had the hands of giants and hair tinged gold and silver from a never-setting sun. That place was Gai-koku, “outside country”, the land where Jerry came from. But, Suzuki-san knew better than to ask Jerry about Gai-koku.

When she’d first met him, in the days when her back was a little straighter, her hair not so streaked with grey, and Jerry Jersey was a blonde, she’d asked what she thought was an innocent question in her faltering English remembered from grade school;
“Please tell me, what country come from? Where is home?”
It was the only time she had ever seen anger in his pale eyes. He had answered in perfectly polished Japanese;
“Pardon my rudeness, but please speak to me in Japanese. Japan is my home.”
There was an uncomfortable silence, but it lasted for only a few moments. It was broken by Jerry’s admiration of the horsehair calligraphy brushes behind the glass case in Suzuki-san’s front counter. That day, so long ago, he had purchased the most expensive brush in the shop, along with a tablet of creamy white rice paper. He returned monthly, chatting about calligraphy technique with Suzuki-san, always purchasing at least one or two items in the shop. Jerry Jersey was her best customer.

Today, as he continued to give her reassuring pats, Suzuki-san knew Jerry would be going next to Sakura Baba, the café across the street. He always claimed Sakura Baba had the best green tea in Seki, maybe in all of Japan. But Suzuki-san knew the real reason Jerry was a regular customer. Baba-san, her close friend and owner of the café, had a knack for hiring attractive waitresses. Jerry could sit in Sakura Baba for hours, his calligraphy brush never once invading the inkpot, chatting with Baba’s newest waitress in his best Osaka dialect, making her laugh and blush.

It was late afternoon, and after giving Suzuki-san his word that he would come by her shop tomorrow to show her his newest calligraphy brushwork, he made his way across the road, and walked into the empty café, settling comfortably into his favourite table. Jerry Jersey liked to sit close to the doorway of the kitchen. It was a spot where, if he was at just the right position, he could peek through the slit of the half-curtain that separated the cooking area from the café itself. It was back there that the waitresses and Baba-san would sit, sometimes catching quick puffs off of slim cigarettes before patting carefully at their hair and straightening their skirts to join the customers out front. He liked watching them while they were unaware and un-self-conscious. He liked too, to watch the change that would come over their faces when they stepped into the café from the kitchen. For Jerry, it was all about the eyes and the lips. There was the smile that he was sure Baba-san had taught them on their first day of the job, seeing as they all did it so well. It was a smile that said; “I’m genuinely happy to see you.” The waitress’ eyes also conveyed this with a warmth and sincerity that made Jerry Jersey weak in the knees. He never understood how, in all these years, each and every waitress at Sakura Baba managed to make him feel like he was the most important man in the world.

On this day, he hadn’t even begun to pull his calligraphy gear from Suzuki-san’s well-wrapped package when Sakura Baba’s newest waitress set a cup of green tea, a ceramic chopstick rest in the shape of a cherry blossom, and wooden chopsticks on the bamboo placemat in front of Jerry. She may have been new, but she already understood the routine. Jerry came to the café every day.

Before he had retired from the Seki Arts, Communication and Travel Council, Jerry could visit Sakura Baba only once or twice a week, and he had always been eager to try out the special of the day. It was back in those early days, dining with his supervisor Kobayashi-san, that a waitress-in-training had witnessed Jerry Jersey’s blue eyes flash in anger. Just as today, there was the incredible smile offered with the ceramic cup of green tea, which had been placed just so in front of him. The chopstick rest and chopsticks, however, were placed only in front of Kobyashi-san. A fork, knife and spoon were carefully arranged on Jerry’s bamboo placemat by the attentive waitress. The young woman then addressed Kobayashi-san, not acknowledging Jerry as she held up her order pad and pen.

“Have you and your guest decided on your meals?” She waited for Kobayashi-san to answer, but before he could say a word, Jerry stood up, his knees banging the underside of the table so hard that the Soya sauce bottle tipped on its side and started bleeding black liquid onto the white tablecloth. Baba-san had come running from the kitchen when she heard the commotion out front. The scene that greeted her in the café stopped her in her tracks. Jerry Jersey, all six feet five of him, stood with his hands on his hips glaring down at the waitress. Kobayashi-san was on the verge of standing up himself, but thought better of it when Jerry stopped looking at the waitress long enough to shoot him a look that clearly indicated; “Don’t move.” Kobayashi-san settled back into his seat. Jerry then spoke to the waitress who was staring intently at the floor.

“I am a customer. I have read the menu, and I know exactly what I would like. Please get your pen ready and take my order.”
His Japanese flowed smoothly, his stress and intonation perfect. The waitress, although shaken at the initial confrontation, regained her composure and wrote down Jerry Jersey’s order. She then asked Kobayashi-san for his choice, and bowed deeply to the men before going back to the kitchen. Baba-san followed her into the back, where a low and indiscernible exchange of words took place. A few moments later, the waitress came out from behind the half-curtain, and once more made her way to Jerry Jersey’s table. He was now sitting in his chair, both he and Kobayashi-san silent as they attempted to sop up the spilt Soya sauce with the hand towels they had been given earlier. Kobayashi-san noted to himself that the dark stain on the table had taken on a shape not too dissimilar to that of Italy, but thought that now would not be the best moment to point it out. The waitress was now at Jerry’s side, and was gently removing the silverware from the bamboo mat. In its place, she set down a chopstick holder and chopsticks, along with a fresh bottle of Soya sauce. She bowed once again, and moved swiftly back to the kitchen. Both men took a sip of their tea. The anger in Jerry’s eyes was gone now, and he was looking at the stain on the table. He pointed at it and looked at Koyayashi;
“Looks a lot like Italy, doesn’t it?” Kobayashi-san now felt it was okay to laugh, and the two of them resumed their previous conversation.

That had been many years and many waitresses before. Kobayashi-san was long gone, transferred years ago to the arts council in Fukuoka. Jerry, on the other hand, never left Seki, witnessing the rapid changes in the town, feeling the growing pains as much as the locals. Through it all, he could count on Sakura Baba, its strong green tea, and its beautiful waitresses to keep him occupied.

Today Jerry was chattering away in Osaka-ben, the calligraphy brushes untouched, the ink poured but unused. The waitress, Sayaka, stood beside Jerry’s table, offering her brightest Sakura Baba smile and nodding intently at his story, when they walked in. Four of them. Three guys and a girl. They all looked strangely similar, each with a hooded blue sweatshirt, khaki trousers and black and white Converse sneakers. The tallest of the group, one of the guys, had blonde dreadlocks partly covered by a knitted black cap. He was holding court, the others following him into the café as he announced their presence, his vowels distinctively long and drawn-out Californian;
“What the fuck is a “Baba”? Is that like short for “Barbara”? His friends laughed as they scanned the café, free of customers save for Jerry Jersey sitting by the kitchen doorway. As soon as they had entered, Jerry grabbed one of his brushes and stared intently at the white paper in front of him. He ignored the four new arrivals as the waitress hurried over to show them a table. Sayaka had paused only momentarily when she saw the four new arrivals, her initial surprise almost not registering at all. She smiled at them and offered a greeting;

“Irraishaimaise! Hai, dozo.” She gestured towards a large table in the centre of the café. They followed, still laughing. She left for a moment to go into the kitchen when one of the guys spotted Jerry at the far table. Pointing at him with one hand, he used the other to punch the dreadlocked boy in the arm, motioning towards where Jerry was seated. Jerry still ignored them, dipping his brush into the pot of ink. He started brushing the paper in long, easy lines, pulling up at the end of each stroke with a flick of his wrist. The boy with the dreadlocks grabbed at the girl beside him, pushing her towards Jerry’s table;

“Go on Justine. You like the older, artsy types. He’s a regular Pablo Picasso right in the middle of bum-fuck Japan.”
Justine refused to be pushed, and backed into one of the boys, who in turn fell into the table behind him.
“Matt, you’re an asshole.” Matt righted himself and cuffed Justine on the back of the head;
“Christ, girl, you don’t know your own strength.” He grabbed one of the chairs and sat down, pulling Justine with him so that she was sitting on his lap. Sayaka came out from behind the kitchen curtain carrying a large tray with four cups of green tea. She stood at the table as the remaining two in the group sat down opposite Matt and Justine. She placed each cup gently in front of them. Matt grabbed for his cup, taking a long swig. He immediately spit out the contents, spraying tea all over Justine and the table in front of him;
“What the hell is this crap? That is not coffee!” He was sputtering, pushing Justine off his lap and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. The waitress stood on the side, unsure which direction to go. Matt looked right at her and pointed at the spilt tea on the table;

“Well, what the hell? It says “Barbara Café” on the sign outside. You call that shit coffee?” At this point, Baba-san came out of the kitchen. She looked over to Jerry Jersey. He hadn’t moved from his seat. He appeared to be frozen, his calligraphy brush hovering over the paper, mid-stroke, unmoving. Although his head appeared to be facing down to the lines he had already drawn, Baba-san was quite aware, from her angle, that Jerry’s eyes were in fact taking in the scene in the middle of the restaurant. Sayaka was attempting to wipe the mess from the table, and started speaking in broken English;
“I, I,… very sorry. I,… so sorry.”
She offered bows to each of them, still attempting to sop up the mess. And, grasping for more English, she attempted an explanation;
“Café” is only style. Café is style.” She put the emphasis on “style”, but with her pronunciation, it came out more like “Sty-u-ru”. Her explanation was met first with blank stares, and then giggles, first from Matt, followed soon by the three others. Justine was the first to respond;

“Yeah. Whatever. Just get us some coffees. Four creams, three sugars. Right?”
The waitress looked blankly from Justine and then to the others. Whatever the girl was saying to her was incomprehensible. She looked over to Baba-san who was rooted to her spot by the kitchen curtain. She was still looking at Jerry, who hadn’t budged. There was a momentary silence, broken only by the buzz of the electric clock hanging on the far wall. It was Matt who broke the lull.
“What the fuck does someone have to do to get a goddamned coffee around here?”

And that’s when Jerry Jersey had enough. When he lurched up from his seat, the table in front of him nearly toppled to its side. He caught the edge just before it tipped over completely, but wasn’t able to stop the inkpot from upending all over his silk-thread paper and the white tablecloth. There was black ink everywhere, on his hands, on his trousers, right on down to his traditional wooden geta on his size thirteen feet. He didn’t care. He pushed the table out of his way, and in three easy steps was standing in front of the group of four. He towered over them. They stared up at him, their mouths open, no sound coming out. And he let them have it. His face was crimson, appearing especially flushed against his shock of silver hair. When he spoke, the force of his words produced a spray felt by all four. His speech was short and succinct;
“You low-life mannerless scoundrels are the reason I hate foreigners. Go back to where you came from until you learn to speak properly and treat people with respect.”

When he finished speaking, the room was once again silent save for the clock-buzz, which was sounding even louder than it had before. It took about ten seconds, but then it happened. Matt pulled the hood of his sweatshirt up and over his capped head, the others following suit. Without a word, he stood up and, with Pied Piper efficiency, led his group out the door. It wasn’t until they were down the steps and across the street, standing in front of Suzuki-san’s stationery shop, that Justine finally spoke.
“What in the name of Christ was that old bastard saying? Could you understand a word of it?”
They shook their heads in disgust. Matt started walking again, the others still following. He pulled the hood off his head, the ends of his blonde dreadlocks popping out from under his cap. He was smiling.
“Yeah, they say those old ex-pats lose it after awhile. I’d say he’s well off his rocker. The Japs can have him for all I care.”
He linked arms with Justine, and the group continued walking towards a more familiar sight glowing in the distance; two golden, yellow arches, with writing underneath announcing, in English, that over 2 billion had been served. Matt let out a whoop, and they ran the distance to the beacon glowing in the night.

In Sakura Baba, Jerry Jersey was beaming. His new favourite waitress was in awe and couldn’t stop praising him. Baba-san had been busy wiping his wooden geta, now almost ink-free and drying on a sheet of paper on the floor of the kitchen. It was a special occasion, and all three sat together with steaming cups of green tea in front of them. Baba-san proposed a toast;
“To Jersey-san, our very own Osaka gangster. May he always protect Sakura Baba. Kanpai!!”
They clinked their cups of green tea, and took long, deep sips of the bitter drink. Sayaka was still staring at him, and finally spoke;
“Jersey-san? I know it’s not exactly ladylike, but will you teach me some of that Osaka dialect? It may come in handy someday.”
Jerry Jersey put his cup down, and lay his two hands on the table, palms down in front of him. He closed his eyes, and a serene smile came over his face. He didn’t move, save for a slight sway in his shoulders. Sayaka and Baba-san looked at each other, and then back at Jerry. Baba-san finally spoke;
“Jersey-san? Are you okay?”
A small tear had squeezed out of the corner of one of Jerry’s closed eyes. It was the perfect drop, pear-shaped, and it was making its way slowly down Jerry’s cheek, moving in and out of well-worn crevasses before settling on the corner of his smiling lips. He finally opened his eyes and wiped the small drop away with a brush of his thumb. Jerry looked into Sayaka’s eyes, stood, and offered a polite bow.
“I would be honoured to teach you Japanese. We shall begin tomorrow.”
He turned to Baba-san, offering a slightly deeper bow;
“Thank you for the delicious tea.”

The inkpot and brushes had been cleaned and packed away into the bag Suzuki-san had given him earlier that day. He tucked it under his arm, and walked towards the kitchen. Bending below the curtain, he reached for his wooden geta and slipped them on his feet. With two more slight bows, he made his way to the front door, slid it open, and let himself out. Baba-san and Sayaka stood side-by-side at the door, waving good-bye until Jerry Jersey was at the bottom step. He turned left and made his way home.

Suzuki-san, in her apartment above the stationery shop, was tucked safely in her futon beside her snoring husband. She could hear the wooden shoes hitting the pavement outside as Jerry walked by. She smiled and closed her eyes, falling asleep immediately. That night, Suzuki-san dreamt of a sun-drenched Okinawan beach, where she sat, sipping sweet sake with Jerry Jersey by her side.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

One Way To Tokyo

As she unwrapped the white pantyhose from the cardboard and plastic wrapper, Leah had to give her aching head a shake. White pantyhose. Size extra-small. “I can’t fucking believe this.” Pulling the hose out of the wrapper, she gave them quick little back and forth stretches, pulling the waistband away from the toes with the flourish of a polka-playing accordion player. “Come on, stretch!” As the elastic began to give, her arms reached out in wider and wider arcs until she couldn’t reach any further. Satisfied, she set them on the floor beside her and looked at the nurse’s uniform hanging on the hook in front of her. With a sigh, she pulled the white polyester one-piece off its wire hanger, causing the metal to clang against the mirror behind it.

Looking into the mirror, Leah could take in not only her nearly naked self, but the whole of the small space she was in as well. The empty sake bottles on the floor behind her were lined up neatly against the wall. The flimsy cloth “privacy” curtain in the doorway was embroidered with an ukiyo-e print she had seen many times before. The one with the Japanese courtesan being taken from behind by a warrior with an incredibly oversized penis. Eighteenth century Japanese porn. She took a closer look at the courtesan’s face, noticing how her eyes were squeezed tightly shut forming two downward crescent moons. Her bright red lips were pinched, creating a cherry pout. The warrior’s greased jet-black hair was pulled into a ponytail so tight his angular face was caught in a permanent grimace of pain. Or was it ecstasy?

The thought of ecstasy brought Leah out of her art appreciation mode and back to the change room. Her linen pants were in a rolled ball under the small wooden stool to her left. Bending down, she grabbed them and dug through the pockets, searching for the small wad of tissue she was certain Suzanne had passed her late last night after her shift was over. “You look like shit. Smarten up and take one of these before you start your shift.” She pulled out a yellow bottle and tapped out six or seven pills, and wrapped them in white tissue. Leah had been exhausted and was now questioning if Suzanne had in fact given her anything. She groped through both front pockets of the soft linen pants. Empty. “Shit.” The nurse’s uniform was still draped over her arm. She threw it to the floor and got down onto her knees, her hands scrambling past the sake bottles and over to her Louis Vuitton shoulder bag. Yuji had given her the bag three weeks ago, a “thank you” for time spent over dinner and drinks in Ginza.

The dinner. The dinner she couldn’t get out of her head. Raw fish so fresh it was still squirming on its bed of rice. Sake, chilled and fragrant. She sipped the drink in the traditional way, from a small square cedar box with a touch of salt on the side. Leah thought that if cherry blossom petals were edible, this is what they would taste like. There was cod roe, glistening orange and pearl in a nest of soft white grated radish, looking more like children’s glass marbles than something she could eat. It was edible art. Leah had been told by the other girls about this restaurant. She knew the meal would total more than she made in a week. She consumed the small fortune without guilt. She felt she’d earned it. She felt the same way about the Vuitton bag presented to her at the end of the meal as she was finishing off her green tea.

Yuji had excused himself and pushed his stool away from the sushi counter, presumably to go to the restroom. He came back moments later carrying a large box bearing the unmistakable LV insignia. “No more backpack style for Leah-chan. This is lady’s bag to suit Leah-chan’s lady style.” He looked pleased, leaning back, grinning. He took an extra deep draw on his cigarette before crossing his arms in front of his chest. He was watching, waiting for her reaction. She gave him what he wanted. Leah pulled the brown and gold leather bag from the box and held it up in front of her. “Yuji san, it’s gorgeous. Just perfect for me.” And with that, she began to transfer her backpack belongings into their posh new leather home.

Now, kneeling on the worn tatami floor of the makeshift change room, she had taken most of the contents out of her expensive bag and spread them out in front of her. She returned to digging through the remaining bits still hidden in zipped side pockets, past the plastic bottle of hairspray and the butane curling iron. Tobacco crumbs and lint caught under her fingernails as she dug even deeper into the folds of decadent Vuitton cloth. Leah was rewarded for her diligence. She found it. She unfolded the tissue, picking up one of the tablets and inspecting it more closely. Light pink, the size of an aspirin, a smiley face etched into its surface. She ripped off a small piece of tissue and wrapped the pill into it. She then tucked it safely in her bra. The remaining pills she placed back into the bag. Leah picked up the white pantyhose and nurse’s uniform from the floor and started getting dressed for work. She glanced again at the image of the courtesan, frozen forever in her erotic pose. As she pulled the nylons up and over her hips she shook her head and sighed. Yuji would be arriving soon.


This scene was not what Leah had in mind when she boarded a plane to Japan nearly a year ago. Tokyo and Kyoto were only supposed to take up a week or so of her three-month “mental health” break from what she had begun referring to as “the hell that is my life.” She watched as friend after friend paired off to become a couple, a part of a “we” that seemed to elude Leah. At twenty-seven, she had never had a relationship that lasted longer than three months. She knew she had to get away for awhile when she started resenting some of her closest friends because they seemed to be moving forward, following some sort of innate compass that directed them to follow a path that led from being student to girlfriend to wife to mother. She used to pride herself on not fitting in, being the odd one out. Not anymore. With thirty on the horizon, and her best friend informing her that a baby was on the way, Leah pulled a suitcase out from under her bed and started throwing things in. Then she called a travel agency. And then she quit her job. She was as determined about detaching herself from the life she was leading as her friends were about their decision to settle into their own.

She’d kept in touch with Suzanne, her roommate in university through sporadic e-mails over the past few years. The last she’d heard, almost a year ago, she was in Tokyo, teaching English. When Leah wrote to her a week before leaving Vancouver, Suzanne had written back with her telephone number and an offer to meet her at the airport. Her brief note ended with; “Can’t wait to see you. Are you ready for some fun?” It may have been only two short sentences, but for Leah it was exactly what she needed to take away the uncertainty she was feeling about her decision to leave.

The Suzanne who met her at the airport was in no way similar to the Suzanne she had last seen at graduation six years ago. Gone were the ripped Levis, Birkenstock sandals and ever-present ponytail. This Suzanne standing at the arrivals gate oozed glamour. Her hair was golden, shoulder length, wavy. Her makeup wasn’t overdone, applied expertly to show off high-cut cheekbones and deep set blue eyes. When she leaned in to give Leah a hug, she smelled rich, all subtle Chanel and salon-scented hair. On the train ride into the city, Leah had to ask. “You look like a fashion model, Suzanne. How are you doing that on a teacher’s salary? Is the pay that good?” Suzanne laughed, but didn’t answer immediately. “When we get off the train, I’ll be able to explain it better.” Leah watched the scenery flash by as the train made its way to Tokyo Station. Neon lights, Statue of Liberty replicas and flashing signs were everywhere. It felt like riding down a never-ending Vegas avenue, kitsch everywhere she looked, an electric buzz hanging in the air. “Welcome to Wonderland, kiddo. Are you ready for that fun I mentioned?” Suzanne had linked her arm through hers and led her out of the crowded train, through the station maze and out onto the streets of Tokyo. Dusk was giving way to night, but there was no sky to be seen, no stars or moon to indicate time or place. Neon reds, whites and yellows had taken over the firmament and again, Leah thought of Las Vegas, city of no clocks. She wondered if Tokyo’s inhabitants were as oblivious to day and night as the dwellers of Vegas casinos.

Leaving the main roads, they made their way to Suzanne’s apartment, crisscrossing through roads so small they would be considered alleys back home. As Leah’s eyes adjusted to the sudden dark of the narrow streets, it appeared to her as if they had stepped back years in time from the scene they had just left behind. These roads were pitch black, illuminated here and there by the soft red glow of paper and bamboo lamps outside curtained doorways. The smell of barbecue chicken wafted out of metal grates in puffs of pale smoke, reminding Leah she hadn’t eaten since the tasteless pasta lunch on the airplane.

“Almost there, just down this road a bit.” Suzanne directed them down one last alley and stopped in front of the doorway of a wooden two-storey house. She opened the front sliding door with a flourish and gestured Leah to enter. “Welcome! Oh, and don’t forget to take your shoes off. There are house slippers right here.” They were standing in a small foyer totally taken over by all manner of women’s shoes. High heels, sling backs, glittery sandals. It looked like the remnants of a bargain basement shoe sale. She handed Leah a pair of worn cloth slippers that appeared to be made for a child. Suzanne laughed as she said; “One size fits all.”

The first room they stepped into had wall-to-wall mattresses on the floor. Suzanne pulled on a string hanging from a ceiling lamp. After a few hesitant flickers, the room was completely illuminated. The overhead fluorescent light created a stark contrast to the dimly lit foyer they had just stepped out of. “Just step over the bedding. We’ll go into the kitchen.” Leah hitched her backpack over her shoulders and was about to step over one mound of bedclothes when it suddenly moved. She jumped back, almost falling over another mountain of sheets and blankets. “Suzanne! Something's in here!” She pointed at the still moving lump in front of her. Suzanne came back, and with no hesitation, pulled back the top cover. A woman lay in a curled foetus position, sucking her thumb and moaning softly. She was wearing a schoolgirl blue and white sailor uniform, complete with cotton white knee socks and Hello Kitty hair clips. She appeared to be about twenty-five years old.

“ Jesus Christ. Joanne, get up! You’re not supposed to wear the costume out of the club. And you should be at the club. It’s almost eight.” Suzanne pulled the covers completely away from the mattress. This was met with even louder moans from the semi-conscious Joanne. “Just a few more minutes…” She rolled over onto her stomach and dug her face deeply into her pillow. Her schoolgirl uniform was now tangled up around her waist, revealing a lacy pink and white pair of Hello Kitty underpants to match the hair clips. “Joanne. Get. Up. Now.” Suzanne didn’t raise her voice to make her demand clear. Her words had an edge, a coolness that didn’t need volume to convey that she ought to be obeyed. Joanne rolled over, sat up for a moment, and then stood up straight, stretching her arms above her head and grazing the low ceiling with her fingertips. Yawning, she started to make her way towards the doorway. “Joanne, Mama-san will kill you if she sees you in costume outside the club. Change now and put Sailor Moon into a bag.” Joanne nodded and continued yawing as she left the room.

Suzanne turned towards Leah. “Come on. Don't mind her. Let's get you some food.” They walked down a short hallway, past a room where Leah caught sight of Joanne. She was wearing a lace push-up bra and still had on the Hello Kitty panties. She was standing in front of a mirror applying make-up. Leah knew Joanne could see her reflected in the mirror and was about to look away when Joanne spoke, brushing mascara onto her lashes as she did so. “You new? You taking Sherri's shifts?” Her flat vowels gave away her Boston upbringing. Leah wasn’t sure what to say. “Um, yeah, I guess I'm new. I just got off the plane a couple of hours ago.” Joanne nodded, putting down the mascara wand. “Well, when Sherri turns up, you’ll be out of a job. She's the best.” She picked up a blush brush, and ran it along her cheekbones, never taking her eyes off of Leah’s reflection. “Leah? Come in to the kitchen.” Suzanne’s voice carried down the hall, and Leah moved on, ending the short conversation with Joanne.

The fluorescent lighting in the kitchen was just as bright as in the front bedroom. It was hard on Leah’s jet-lagged senses. Since she’d walked off the plane, everything she’d encountered seemed a little off, out of kilter. Surreal. “Suzanne, you’re not really a teacher, are you?” Suzanne had her back turned to her, standing at the small gas stove and stirring something in a pot. “Well, can’t pull the wool over your eyes, eh?” She turned around, holding a bowl of rice and a smaller bowl of soup. “Here, eat this. I’ll explain.” And she proceeded to tell Leah her story. She’d arrived in Tokyo and had landed a teaching job at a small language school, Joyful Apple, right in the middle of the city. Her boss was nice enough, the pay reasonable. It just didn’t suit her image of what she thought Tokyo had to offer her. She wanted excitement, and dancing around with three year olds just wasn’t cutting it. She’d answered an ad on an Internet site looking for Western foreign women to “engage in conversation with established mature gentlemen in the comfort of a private club”. So she’d thought, what the hell, and gave it a shot on a Saturday night.

She quickly learned the real terminology after a few Saturdays spent in the private club called Seventh Heaven. It was a hostess bar, and the gentlemen were in fact middle-aged married businessmen who spent wads of cash on bourbon bottle-keeps and the opportunity to have a Western woman in a cheesy costume light their cigarette and stroke their egos. But it wasn’t the typical salaryman that intrigued Suzanne. They were boring. They paid their monthly membership fees to Mama-san, the owner, and it was those fees that paid all the hostess’s salaries. Not a huge wage by any stretch, but enough to get by and still buy a few nice things. The hostesses didn’t have to pay rent either. At any given time, six to eight women were living dorm style in the house Leah was sitting in now. None of that is what kept Suzanne in her signature maid’s costume. It was the one or two regulars she kept during the week, outside Seventh Heaven working hours, who kept her going.

As Leah’s jet-lagged brain tried to absorb the information Suzanne was giving her, she had a few questions, waiting for the right time to interject. She finally asked; “What’s the difference between a regular and just a normal customer in the club?” A regular, Joanne explained, made your income double, sometimes triple. That was the difference. A regular took you out for expensive meals before your shift started. A regular bought you fancy gifts. A regular paid Mama-san extra membership fees, ensuring you would be their exclusive hostess whenever they came to the club.

At this point, Joanne walked into the kitchen, her auburn hair no longer in pigtails but pinned into a simple bun. A classic orange and white Gucci print dress clung to her long frame. Why a man would want this beauty transformed into a Sailor Moon schoolgirl was beyond Leah. She was too tired to ask. Joanne glanced at Leah and then addressed Suzanne. “I’m going to need a little… assistance to get through tonight.” The glare Suzanne shot Joanne made it quite clear this wasn’t good timing. Suzanne stood up and went into a small room off the kitchen, gesturing Joanne to follow. Joanne shot a withering look towards Leah and went into the room behind Suzanne.

There was no door between the room and the kitchen, so even though they kept their voices low, Leah could still hear the exchange. She could distinguish the nasal Boston vowels in Joanne’s voice. “How could Mama-san replace Sherri so quickly? It’s been only a week. She’ll be back. Yuji’s her regular.” Suzanne responded in a low, even tone; “She’s not replacing Sherri. Now take this, but only take half. You obviously messed up yesterday if you were sleeping in so late today.” They came out of the room a few moments later. Suzanne kissed Joanne on the cheek and told her she’d see her later that evening at the club. Joanne picked up her handbag and left without saying goodbye.

Suzanne turned her attention back to Leah. “Are you weirded out by this? Should I have told you before you got here?” The whole scene had indeed caught her off guard. Suzanne’s transformation to chic city girl, the circus atmosphere in Tokyo, the dark alleys just beyond the mayhem, and of course, Joanne. Was her mundane Vancouver reality just a plane ride away or had she landed in another universe? There was really only one thing she could think of saying that would suit the moment; “Will you introduce me to Mama-san?”


Mama-san took care of all the bureaucratic details that would allow Leah to work for her, and within days of arriving, Leah became a nurse at Seventh Heaven. It all seemed so easy in the beginning. The men were like children, little boys who needed to be indulged after a tough day on the playground. She didn’t have a regular, so she’d would sit with up to seven different groups of men over the course of an evening. Each man had to have a bottle of bourbon kept at the bar. Each bottle cost thirty thousand yen. Converting to dollars, Leah couldn’t believe the close to three hundred dollar price tag for one bottle of booze. Each member also paid the equivalent of ten thousand dollars per year to have the privilege of carrying a Seventh Heaven membership card. That was basic. There were also gold cards for exclusive customers who received such perks as champagne on their birthday, or “two-girl service days”, when a man could have his pick of two costumed hostesses pouring drinks at his table. A gold card cost fifty thousand dollars a year. There was occasional talk of a platinum card, but none of the girls had ever seen one.

The routine rarely varied. The customer would arrive, and if the evening was slow, he could choose from the menu of hostesses available; “Nurse Leah”, “School Girl Joanne”, “Maid Suzanne” “Cheerleader Nadia”. Mama-san would always try to keep ten options on the list. But sometimes, a girl wouldn’t show up. And she would never return, swallowed up, it would seem, into the Tokyo nightlife. Anonymous. Gone. Her name would be whispered in the change room or back at the house for a while, but there were always others to replace her. And her name would be a vague memory of those girls who would stay on for a while longer.

The girls who had regulars would be reserved, off-limits for the time paid in advance. Time was indeed money, and at Seventh Heaven, regulars paid three hundred dollars an hour to have the privilege of reserving a hostess. These are the customers Mama-san adored, and she rewarded the girls who had regulars with small perks. They could come in later, leave earlier, and, if she were feeling particularly generous, even have a night “off”. The night off would be spent with the regular, just in another location. A fancy restaurant, a burlesque show. A hotel. The girls didn’t talk about that part. Leah tried to get Suzanne to open up about it after she had been hostessing for nearly four months.

“Where do you go with Yamada-san on Wednesday nights?” They were sitting at the kitchen table, under the fluorescent light. “Oh, dinner, sake bar… bloody expensive places.” Suzanne tried to change the subject. “Let’s go shopping tomorrow. New shoes. We need new shoes…” She stared off into the distance. Leah noticed the bags under Suzanne’s eyes, and the fact that she was using heavier makeup to conceal them. “Come on, Suzanne. I might have a regular soon. I need to know what to expect.” Suzanne lit a cigarette, blowing the match out with an exaggerated breath. “Look, you do what you’ve got to do. You’ll know when the time comes.” Discussion closed.

As month six closed in, so did the fatigue. Most evenings, by the time midnight rolled around and she’d already poured at least a thousand dollars worth of Seventh Heaven bourbon, she was exhausted. It seemed that as her novelty wore off, the men felt free to graduate from little boy curiosity to adolescent hands-on exploration of Leah’s nurse’s uniform. Light taps on her leg became full-on gropes of her thighs. What were once polite comments on “beautiful Leah-chan’s hair” gravitated towards “Leah-chan’s bosom is great” followed by lurching attempts at copping a quick feel. She became quite adept at dodging their hands, but it was getting increasingly difficult to maintain a smile. Mama-san took Leah aside one evening at close to one a.m. She may have been close to seventy years old, but she had the energy and quick reflexes of someone much younger. She could spot an empty bottle from across the bar, unscrew a new one and have it at the customer’s table before they were aware they had even finished off their first.

“Leah-chan. Smile is important. Only one a.m. Still three more hour. Smile a happy nurse smile.” Leah went back to her table, a fake grin pasted on her face, and braced herself for the rest of the evening.

Inside, she felt dread building in the form of acid bile in her stomach. Mama-san was waiting for her at the door that evening as she left. “Leah-chan. I talk to Suzanne-san about smile problem. She help you. Talk to her.” As Leah walked home through the pre-dawn Tokyo streets, a slow panic was creeping over her. After three months in Tokyo, she’d arranged for her apartment in Vancouver to be let go, the contents sold by the landlord for a somewhat inflated fee. She’d been spending money on clothes beyond her means, borrowing against future pay cheques to keep up with the other girls in the house. They all had regulars keeping them afloat and clothed in Gucci and Chanel. Mama-san kept her debt sheet up-to-date, and included a copy of it in Leah’s pay packet. In six months, Leah was three pay cheques behind in payments to Mama-san. By the time she arrived back at the house that early morning, she had worked herself into a full frenzy. Suzanne was waiting for her.

“Mama-san said you need a little help.” She sat her down at the kitchen table. She had a yellow prescription pill bottle set out in front of her. “This will get you through the night. Don’t take it until close to midnight, and only take half.” She put one of the pink tablets on the table, smiley face up, and cut it in two perfect halves using a razor box cutter. “This is two night’s worth right here. You can get another in two days.” And that was that. Suzanne went upstairs to her bedroom, and Leah went into the mattress room, stripped down to her underwear and fell into a dreamless sleep.

It wasn’t so long after she started taking her nightly half tablet that Yuji-san expressed an interest in the happy nurse. He started reserving a table for himself and Leah at least once a week, much to Mama-san’s delight. The hostesses thought Seventh Heaven had lost Yuji after Sherri took off. Nurse Sherri had been his favourite. It looked like Leah might be able to fill her nurse’s shoes. She could keep Yuji entertained for hours, refilling his drink, lighting his cigarette, and laughing hysterically at his attempts at jokes in English. Her pink tablet made it all so easy. And she was actually starting to see some income in her pay packet rather than a debit note. Yuji-san had arrived just in time.


After the nurse’s costume was zipped tightly over her breasts, the white panty hose adjusted and her nurse’s cap firmly in place, Leah bent down to pick up the white linen pants she had almost ripped apart when trying to find her tablet. She folded them and placed them on top of her Vuitton bag. She put the lot in her locker against the wall and secured it with the small padlock Suzanne had given her. “You never know when one of the girls might be a little down on her luck…” She always made sure to lock it up before starting her shift. It was only seven p.m., but Yuji had asked for an early reservation.

Leah was already contemplating the pill in her bra. She unzipped the top of her uniform, and fished out the rolled up tissue. She unwrapped it, surveyed the tablet for only a moment before popping it into her mouth. She zipped her uniform back up. Before lifting up the curtain to step out into the bar, she gave her courtesan one last smile. She offered the Japanese words of courage given to someone off to perform a difficult task; “Ganbatte ne”. She saw Yuji waiting for her at his reserved table and gave him an enthusiastic wave. He was the only customer in the bar. The other hostesses hadn’t arrived yet. Leah smiled, grabbed the bourbon bottle and two glasses, and made her way over to him. He looked pleased, but shook his head no when she went to pour him a drink. He had his car keys on the table. “We have reservation tonight. Famous place. Go now.” They waved to Mama-san and left the bar. Leah was still in her uniform.


It was Joanne who notified the police when Leah hadn’t returned to the mattress room for the third straight day. She’d been asking Mama-san why Leah wasn’t coming in, but Mama-san wouldn’t answer. She’d only shake her head and say; “No problem. No problem. Don’t talk about that. Upset other girl.” Joanne wanted to talk to Suzanne, but she had left on vacation in Thailand, promising souvenirs from the islands for the hostesses. The other girls in the house were too new or too self-absorbed to notice that Leah hadn’t been back for three days. When the police questioned Mama-san about Leah’s behaviour, she talked about the debts Leah had rung up, how she’d had a hard time keeping herself afloat. When her locker was pried open, and the six tablets of ecstasy were found in her bag, that ended the investigation for good. Leah, if she did return to Seventh Heaven, would be arrested. So much the better for her if she didn’t come back at all. Mama-san said Leah had made a bad reputation for the bar. It would take months to lose the stigma of a drug-taking hostess who skipped town.

When Suzanne returned from Thailand, Mama-san scolded her in front of all the other girls. For appearances sake, it seemed the right thing to do. “Leah-san recommended by you. Why you recommend such a girl?” Suzanne looked down at the floor, but could feel Joanne’s eyes staring at her. She wouldn’t look up until all the girls left the room and she was alone with Mama-san. Mama-san coughed gently as she lay a manila envelope on the bar counter. She walked silently past Suzanne, and gave her a nod and tacit smile. She continued walking and entered into the change room, pushing past the curtain in front of her. The warrior and the courtesan swayed momentarily in the breeze created by Mama-san’s entrance. And then they returned to their pose, the courtesan’s eyes still closed, the warrior’s face forever frozen in its pose of pain and ecstasy. Mama-san turned the lights off and returned to the front bar.

Suzanne and the manila envelope were gone. Mama-san knew she could count on Suzanne to be there promptly at eight that evening. They were, after all, one hostess down. Surveying the room one last time, she locked the door and walked out into the cool Tokyo dawn. She could get in a few hours sleep before getting down to the business of hiring another hostess. And then she remembered something. She clucked her tongue in disgust as the image of Leah leaving the bar came back to her. She realized was going to have to buy another nurse’s uniform. She shuffled down the street, shaking her head slowly back and forth as she did so.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Ennui and Forgetting to Breathe

Cassie was able to keep her secret for nearly a month. She didn’t tell anyone what she was up to. Not Sophie, her Canadian roommate. Not Joel, her American co-worker. And certainly not Yuriko, her boss at Joyful Apple Language School, the place where she taught English to Japanese kids every afternoon.

The first time she did it, Cassie sat alone in a private cubicle of Tokyo’s newest fad; the all-night Internet café. For only 300 yen per hour, customers could sit in fully private three-meter by three-meter rooms, complete with a cushiony overstuffed leather chair, computer desk, lemon-scented towelettes and a mini-bookcase crammed full of manga comics. Built into the computer table, where a pullout file drawer would normally be, was a mini-bar fridge, stocked full of juice, green tea, beer and crunchy seaweed snacks. On this particular Friday night Cassie gave the seaweed a miss, and decided on a beer. She inserted 230 yen into the slot on the desktop, and punched her selection, A7, onto the keypad built into the handle of the fridge. There was a soft clicking noise followed by three quick beeps. An automated female voice let her know her selection was ready. She opened the fridge door, slid open the plastic window in front of her Sapporo beer selection, and pulled the cold can from its slot. Another beer fell efficiently into the empty space. Closing the fridge, she pulled the metal tab open with a satisfying crack, and took the first sip. The taste was as satisfying to Cassie as water to a desert dweller. She closed her eyes and smiled.

Alone in a cubicle on the 11th floor of a nameless building in the middle of the world’s largest city, and not a person knew where she was. She felt invisible and she liked it. She took another sip of beer and settled into the comfort of the executive- sized leather chair. It dwarfed her, making her feel small. She liked that, too. Invisible, small. Two words that had not been used to describe her since she arrived in Tokyo almost three years ago. She leaned over to her left and pushed the power-on switch of the hard drive. Feeling around the perimeter of the flat-screened monitor in front of her, she found a hard plastic knob and gave it a snap. The screen came to life with a pale blue glow. The familiar “e” icon for Internet explorer was at the top right of the screen. Cassie immediately dragged her mouse across the pad and clicked on it. Her intention was to write a quick note to her mother and then surf some of the news sites to see what was going on in the world.

She was immediately sidetracked by a spam ad flashing on the screen. It was in Kanji so she couldn’t immediately understand the words. The pictures pretty much gave away the ad’s intent though. There were seven or eight different photos spread across the monitor, each one depicting a happy dating scene between a Japanese woman and a white male. One picture showed an ecstatic couple, doubled over laughing standing under a tree in a park. Another had a well-toned and tanned man throwing a Frisbee to a smiling bikini-clad beauty on the beach. Yet another had a classic sitting-in-front-of the-fireplace scene, both parties leaning in for an intimate toast with their glasses of red wine. Cassie rolled her eyes and was about to shut the window on the screen when she stopped mid-click. Something about the fireplace girl caught her eye. Leaning in closer, she realized the smiling woman on the screen looked a lot like her boss, Yuriko. Craning her head in for a closer look, she realized it wasn’t Yuriko, just someone who looked very much like her. It was while she sat there alone, thinking about her boss, when her plan began to develop.

In retrospect, she supposed there were a couple of factors that prompted her to investigate the site further. First and foremost, she was bored. She’d done all the newcomer to Japan stand-bys in her first year. She’d sung enough bad karaoke with Sophie, her roommate and her co-worker Joel to last a lifetime. There were really only so many times she could tolerate “New York New York” sung out-of-tune by red-faced Sinatra wannabe’s. As for shrine and temple viewing, in three years she’d been to more than one hundred of the sacred sites. They came in all shapes and sizes and levels of ostentation, welcoming her with bright red torii gates or granite replicas of snarling foxes. There had been the bold shrines, imposing and breathtaking on hills on top of cities. And there had been the shy temples; some tucked away so effectively down the twisting back alleys of villages with unpronounceable names that she’d never been able to find them again. In any case, the lure of the unknown temple had lost a bit of its luster over time. They didn’t charm her anymore.

So, she was bored. But on top of that, she was lonely, too. And she had felt this way for quite some time now. She wasn’t lonely for friendship or bonding with co-workers. She had that. Cassie was lonely for some good, solid, male companionship. A phone call the following day would be a nice touch, too. It just wasn’t happening, and she had come to the conclusion that for the remainder of her time in Japan, it would remain so. Japanese men didn’t seem to find her height and outspokenness attractive qualities in a romantic partner. She’d had exactly four dates with four different Japanese men. Three ended with a polite bow outside her apartment door. They had never called back. The fourth ended abruptly just inside her apartment door. She hadn’t even taken her shoes off when Tetsuya, her date for the evening, felt this would be an appropriate time to grab her breasts, double fisted, and hold on for dear life. She realized then that there were indeed assholes in every culture. So she called it a day when it came to dates with the locals. She’d be depressed for days wondering why they didn’t call back and it just wasn’t worth the hassle.

As for dates with foreign men, it wasn’t an option. They were great for conversations in pubs over a beer, but when Cassie felt there might be a chance for a bit more, the American, Brit or Canadian she was chatting with would make it quite clear he was in Japan not simply to sample the food. There was any number of single, young Japanese women hanging out in the foreign hot spots, eager to learn English and have a bit of fun with the gaijin men. Cassie couldn’t blame anyone for the way it worked. Shit, if she were a guy, she’s certain she’d be doing the same thing. It looked like lots of fun and it appeared to do wonders for the ego judging by the smiles and confidence of the men. But it didn’t help her cause much, and it left her high and dry in the area of romance.

So now, staring at the screen and all the happy couples, she decided that if she couldn’t beat them, and if she couldn’t join them, she could perhaps live vicariously through them. And her boss Yuriko was the ticket. In Cassie’s estimation, Yuriko was the female equivalent of the overworked salaryman. There was one vital difference though. A salaryman could loosen up after work with some sake and conversation, maybe even a clandestine dalliance or two. Not so for Yuriko. Married at twenty-two, divorced at thirty, in the eyes of many Japanese men she was damaged goods. Hell, in her own eyes she was damaged goods. So, she shut herself off to any kind of socializing outside the confines of the Joyful Apple Language School. Yuriko was the first to arrive at work, hours before any of the children would make an appearance for the first lessons at noon. She was the last to leave at night, locking doors and setting alarms on her own, long after Cassie and Joel had finished their last evening classes and had darted out the door. Joel would disappear immediately into the Tokyo nightlife and Cassie would often go back to her flat to hang out with her roommate, each rehashing their workday over a beer.

In any case, in the past three years, Yuriko had accepted exactly two of Cassie’s weekly “Let’s go out for a drink” invitations. And on both occasions, Yuriko talked about work, about the children in Joyful Apple’s conversation classes, and about the happiness of the mother’s whose kids were enrolled. Yuriko worried about all things work related and never once mentioned herself. Cassie tried. She tried at first to be unobtrusive, to gently coax some personal information out of her boss. Yuriko wasn’t having any of it. She had a talent that Cassie had noticed in many Japanese women; Yuriko could take any question directed her way, turn it inside out, lob it back and have Cassie unloading her own woes and life story for the rest of the evening. When Cassie would be back in her apartment, tucked into her futon and going over the events of the evening in her mind, she would realize that she had done all the talking and Yuriko had offered all the wordless nods of understanding.

There was something else that stood out on the rare evenings Yuriko came out; men, the foreign ones anyway, were smitten by her. On the two nights she had ventured out to the ex-pat pubs with Cassie, men had flocked around their small bistro table, attempting the kind of small talk typical to the venue; “So… have you ever been to England?” “So… are you studying English?” “So… can you recommend some tourist attractions?” Those were the nice ones. The assholes in these places could certainly be a lot more direct, assuming little to zero English on the part of the Japanese girl they were attempting to pick up. “So… are there any nice hotels in the neighbourhood?” “So… ever dated a foreigner?” “So, will I be taking you home tonight?” Some foreigners lost their luggage on the flight over to Japan. Others, Cassie decided early on, lost their common sense.

On their two nights out though, some pretty nice guys approached Yuriko. The jerks probably steered clear when their radar detected Cassie’s presence. They probably knew their inappropriate pick-up lines would be intercepted and thrown right back at them. But, the genuinely interested ones who did attempt conversation were completely shut out by Yuriko and sent packing almost immediately after their brief attempt at conversation. After each interruption, Yuriko would turn her focus back to Cassie, sometimes rolling her eyes.

Cassie finally had to say something; “Look Yuriko, pick a nice one and invite him over to the table. I don’t mind at all.” And she really didn’t. These nights out, in Cassie’s opinion, were for Yuriko to let her hair down and step outside her salaryman role. Cassie could go out with her friends any old time; a night out for Yuriko was an event. Why not go all out with a bit of male company? But Yuriko wasn’t having any of it. She would simply shrug and say; “No. I’ve been married. I’m divorced. I’m not interested.” She would then steer the conversation back to Cassie’s own love life or, more accurately, lack of one, and that would be that. Discussion over. Yuriko’s expertise in the art of redirection would prevail, and Cassie would continue talking about some dating fiasco in her past.

So, boredom and a need to interfere in Yuriko’s non-existent social life are what spurred Cassie on that first night in the Internet café. Scanning the screen in front of her, Cassie searched for the icon that would allow her to peruse the dating ad in more detail. She found what she was looking for in the lower left-hand corner of the ad, right beside the playful Frisbee playing couple on the beach. The word “English” was underlined, indicating it was a link. Clicking on it immediately brought a new page to the screen. Cassie smiled. Staring back at her was a page in English, necessary, she supposed, seeing as it was a site with a high number of romantically inclined English speakers.

The first page began with; “Who Are You…?” Listed under the title “Options”, Cassie was given choices regarding gender, nationality, language, and relationship preferences and asked to write a short letter of introduction. She clicked on the appropriate boxes for each. Female, Japanese, Japanese/English, Friendship. For the letter, she knew she would have to make it brief if she were to make it believable. Cassie imagined that if Yuriko were writing a letter in English on this site, she would be conscious of making English errors. She’d be cheerful but not too wordy. Cassie typed in her introduction:


I am 34 year-old Japanese woman in Tokyo. I enjoy many activity, but mostly travel and language exchanging with new people. I would greatly enjoy communication with Native English speakers to discuss interesting topic while eating in nice restaurant or lively pub environment. I could also assist with your Japanese! Sincere and honest reply only please.

Sincerely, TokyoLady

Cassie filled in the required personal information, and felt she’d guessed quite accurately when it came to Yuriko’s height and weight. She didn’t go into too much detail in the personality profile, but felt she was honest and in keeping with the spirit of Yuriko’s personality when she said she was “hard-working” and “not interested in foreigner man looking for quick fun”. Hopefully it would weed out the wankers looking for one-night stands. She then set up an inbox mail account in TokyoLady’s name, and sent the whole lot off with one quick click of the mouse.

Cassie smiled, content, but a little uncertain about what she had just done. She shut down the computer and left her private Internet world behind. She paid her 900 yen, not believing three hours had slipped by so quickly. She slipped into the elevator, punching in “G” for Ground floor and was whisked away from the Internet café in a quick downward lurch. Moments later she was back among the masses, shedding her anonymous status and once more letting her foreign face stand out in the crowd on her short walk home. She was still grinning as she let herself into her flat ten minutes later. For the first time in ages, Cassie slept soundly through the night.

Cassie started going to the 11th floor Internet café every evening after work. At the front desk, the same two teenagers with identically spiked Astroboy hair would greet her by name when she signed up for a room. “Ah Cassie-san! O genki desu ka?” They would smile and one would hand over the key that would unlock the door to her cubicle. Settling into the familiar comfort of her over-stuffed chair, she would begin the nightly ritual of sifting through anywhere from fifteen to fifty responses to TokyoLady’s profile. Ninety percent were usually the same old crap. The men who made it incredibly easy to press delete with their emails full of text message short forms, liberal use of exclamation points and insights into their desire; “U R gr8!!! – Im HOT 4 U TokyoLady!! Call Lou@080 5413 1719.” That left ten percent who had at least a few redeeming qualities. And of those, Cassie would choose just one, cutting and pasting his personal information from the screen and copying it into her own file she had labelled “Keepers”.

After two weeks, she knew she would actually have to respond to the fourteen keepers she had in the file if she were going to keep their interest. There was really only one, though, that grabbed her attention. She re-read his letter of introduction.

Dear TokyoLady,

I read your (brief) profile, and appreciated its simplicity. I am new to the “online” game, but have seen enough letters these past few weeks to come to the conclusion that most of the writers are quite adept at fiction! I’ll reply to brief and simple with brief and simple; Forty-four, Irish, Engineer, Divorced. I love Tokyo, but need a bit of downtime from the hustle and bustle. Perhaps we could exchange a few more letters? My name is David.

The first time she had read the letter, Cassie’s stomach had clenched into a tight little ball. What she was doing became much less anonymous and a hell of a lot more real with that one line; My name is David. The release from boredom these past two weeks had been fun, but she hadn’t really been giving much thought to the actual people behind the letters. Or to Yuriko, for that matter. Sure, her ultimate goal was to have Yuriko meet a hand-selected man, but Cassie hadn’t planned much further than the initial letter-writing phase. She was beginning to realize that her boredom had not only made her more creative, it had also allowed her to put reality on hold momentarily. Easy to do, she supposed, when sitting alone in a lemon-scented cubical without anyone to bounce ideas off of. That’s what her roommate Sophie was for, but Sophie hadn’t been around for the past three weeks. She had nearly one month’s holiday time and was using it up, backpacker-style in Indonesia. As small beads of sweat began to form on Cassie’s upper lip, she was beginning to realize that Sophie was not just a good friend for boredom release, she was an anchor that held her back from doing silly things.

When the initial panic wore off, Cassie got to work. She rationalized, as she sipped on her beer and stared at the computer monitor, that everything would all eventually fall into place. And she began to type. She introduced Yuriko to David in more detail. The English wasn’t perfect, but Cassie didn’t go overboard with the grammatical shortcomings. She didn’t embellish Yuriko, she offered only what she knew. When she finished up, she quickly hit “send” and shutdown the computer. She didn’t want to think about it anymore.

Between work and her nightly trips to the Internet café, Cassie found that time, rather than dragging as it used to, was flying by at amazing speed. Sophie was back from Indonesia and getting impatient for a night out. The kids she was teaching appeared to be happy learning English. Rather than the usual dead-man-walking shuffle to the classroom, they ran, grabbing her hands and pushing her into the room. Their eyes lit up when she entered and they would shout out; “Cassie-sensei! Ge-mu! Ge-mu!” which meant they wanted her to set up the seats for another round of musical chairs. Cassie knew exactly why there was a spring in her step when she made her way to work. She was abundantly aware of why she would suddenly find herself in her Internet cubicle, lost in thought and unable to remember leaving work for the walk to her 11th floor sanctuary. She liked David. He had been sending letters daily, and she found each of them to be honest, straightforward and funny. It was becoming increasingly more difficult to maintain the Yuriko façade, and Cassie found herself injecting more and more of herself into each letter. And David kept responding.

It was when Cassie was packing up one night after work that her fantasy life came to a crashing halt. Yuriko peeked her head out of one of the classrooms. “Cassie-chan? Could I talk to you for moment?” Cassie looked up from where she was sitting at her lesson planning station. It was almost 8:30 p.m. Joel had slipped out the door moments before and she was planning on doing the same. Sophie was waiting for her at the flat, impatient for a night of catching up. When Cassie walked into the room and Yuriko shut the door behind her, she knew something was up.

Cassie sat in one of the desks but Yuriko remained standing at the front of the room. She finally spoke; “Why have you been staring at me? Why do you watch me?” Yuriko had a hurt look on her face. Her raised eyebrows and crossed arms were enough body language for Cassie to know her boss was not happy. And her question was a valid one. Cassie had been staring at her, catching what she had thought were unseen glances through classroom door windows, or quick peeks onto Yuriko’s desktop to pick up any clues of her hidden personality. She’d actually been quite proud of her detective technique, feeling a certain sense of accomplishment when she felt she had unraveled another secret in the Yuriko puzzle. A discarded movie stub in the trash indicated a fondness for French films. The daily cardboard coffee cups from Starbuck’s carried a scent of vanilla, which to Cassie meant a preference for sweet over bitter. In an even bolder move, Cassie had scanned the music on Yuriko’s iPod when she had left it out on the lunch counter one afternoon. George Harrison’s travelling-through-India phase was definitely in her top ten.

As Yuriko waited for an answer, Cassie was now very certain of one thing; she would make a lousy detective. For Yuriko to be this straightforward and direct meant that Cassie had most certainly crossed some sort of line, and now she was being held accountable. A superior detective would have had an out, a back-up plan for just such a confrontation. Cassie, however, was struck momentarily dumb. She looked up at Yuriko’s face, and decided to be honest. Well, somewhat honest. She wouldn’t go so far as to tell her what she had done, but she would tell Yuriko how she felt about her reluctance to socialize.

“Yuriko, you’re still young, you’re gorgeous and you’ve resigned yourself to a life that revolves around Joyful Apple Language School. I’ve been watching you because I want to set you up.”

Yuriko kept her crossed-arm stance, but her brows did soften somewhat. She moved closer to Cassie, pulled a chair out from one of the desks and sat beside her. “Cassie, work makes me happy. You’re confusing Cassie-chan’s needs with my needs. Time to stop. What makes you happy?” And Yuriko, as deft as always, deflected the issue at hand right back into Cassie’s court. Cassie had to think for only a moment. What made her happy? The happiest she had been in a long while had been in these past three weeks. What made her happy? Corresponding with David.

“Cassie-chan, when I divorced, I made decision for my life. Open school, use my English, working hard. I like it. No, to be honest, I love it. Now, stop spying on me!” She was smiling as she spoke, and she had pulled her chair closer to Cassie’s. Looking at Yuriko, Cassie could see why she was so attractive. It went beyond the dimples and the smile. She carried a simple honesty with her in her words and in her gestures. When the time was right, she wouldn’t need Cassie to create the perfect romance for her. She’d do just fine on her own. Yuriko gave her a pat on the back and stood up to leave. “Come on, go home now. I’ll lock doors.”

Cassie knew Sophie was probably getting impatient back at the apartment. She also knew she had to clean up the mess she had created. Somewhere in Tokyo, an Irishman named David thought he was forging a friendship with a lovely lady named Yuriko. Cassie had two choices; she could stop corresponding and simply shut down the account, or she could level with him. Yuriko’s words were still in her head; “What makes you happy?”

As she made her way to the Internet café, Cassie went over the various scenarios that could play out once she told David the truth. She did not imagine any positive outcome, except, she supposed, a certain sense of relief that her charade was over. On the 11th floor, her two smiling greeters handed her the key with their enthusiastic greetings; “Konnichiwa Cassie-san! O genki desu ka?” As she booted up the computer, she already had the short note to David composed in her head. Simple, contrite, honest. She signed it; “Regretfully yours, Cassie” and sent it before she had a chance for any second thoughts.

She managed, much to her own surprise, not to go anywhere near the Internet café for three full days. It was Sophie who convinced her to check the account. Sophie, actually, had been a lot more supportive than Cassie had imagined she would be. She called her a few uncomplimentary names, told her she needed to get lucky, and that was that. She was concerned about the moping about the flat, though. “Go on, go check the account. Get out of here.” She practically pushed Cassie out the door.

She made a ten-minute walk last thirty, taking in the sites around her. She stopped dead, and did a full three hundred and sixty degree turn. She was in the heart of the world’s largest city, and she could feel its pulse throbbing through her body. Closing her eyes, she let the beat continue, not seeing anything save for the afterglow of neon behind her closed lids. How had she managed to let boredom creep into her life? Why had she created a crazy drama around her boss, a woman who was comfortable enough in her own skin to do exactly what she wanted?

Cassie opened her eyes, and noticed two things; nobody on the sidewalk was paying attention to her, and she was standing almost face to face with a stone Buddha on a black lacquer pedestal. Temples could squeeze into the smallest spaces, and this one, though she had passed it countless times, had remained anonymous and unseen to her for three years. This small granite structure, with its incense burner and stone candle lantern, was wedged between a cell phone shop and a moveable stand with a vendor selling fried octopus. Cassie stepped closer to Buddha’s smiling face, almost nose to nose, and did something she hadn’t done in awhile. She took a deep, lung expanding breath, and let it out in one slow stream of air. It took her three years and an uncountable number of visits to temples all over Japan, and she was just now getting the message. Breathe in. Breathe out. Repeat.

Cassie turned away from Buddha and walked towards the café. She had no idea what would be waiting for her on the computer screen, but it didn’t seem to matter anymore. When the building came into site, she looked up and counted eleven floors. She could see the glow of the café’s neon sign, flashing its open twenty-four hour status. She stepped into the elevator. Yuriko’s voice was in her head again; “What makes you happy?” And Cassie accepted the moment for what it was; a mere instant in time that would never exist again. It was her choice what she would do with it. Her choice right now was to hit eleven on the keypad in front of her. Cassie took one more deep breath and let it out before the elevator doors slid shut and she was carried noiselessly up to the eleventh floor.


Sunday, April 22, 2007

Myopic Youth

I got in another fight with Yoichi today. He’s gone now and the apartment’s empty, silent. As he snapped his briefcase shut with a “This discussion’s through” finality, I knew I wouldn’t be seeing him again until two or three a.m. when he would be standing drunk in the entrance of our bedroom, wobbly. He would use his briefcase as a waving ballast to somehow give him the balance necessary to stay on his feet. But that scene will be acted out a long time from now. It’s 7:00 a.m. And I’m already spent. Ready to go back to bed. This morning’s blowout has exhausted me. I’m pushing thirty (“Still so young. Still my little baby,” says my Mom during our weekly long-distance phone fests). Pushing thirty. My mind and body beg to differ. I never imagined that I could ever feel so tired.

I scan the small space Yoichi and I co-habitate. Our living room window faces a slate-gray cement wall, the aparment block next to us. Natural light can’t make its way in, so I’ve compensated with potted plants and cut flowers to create a a certain softness in our perfectly square environment. We’ve been in this Tokyo 1st floor apartment going on three years now, which is a record for us. Before that it was two years in Yokohama. Before that it was two years in Osaka. And before that is was two years in Nagoya. The days I miss most. Yoichi’s job with its present prestigious title of “Senior Systems Business Analyst” for Toyota had its humble beginnings back in Nagoya, company headquarters. I was a student, a recent high school graduate, studying Japanese for a year in preparation for my first year of Asian Studies back in Canada. God we were young.

Yoichi was a lowly Toyota first-year intern back then, and I had caught his eye one night in a smoky izakaya. The izakaya were part of the reason Japan lured me to stay longer than my intended gap year before university. That, and Yoichi, of course. In any case, the best izakaya were tucked away down back alleys, their red paper lanterns guiding would-be customers from the glam of the mainstreet to the unknown of the dimly-lit back lanes. Charcoal smoke smelling of chicken and wood would be gusting out a metal grate and out onto the lane. The scent would waft up and down the alleys, taking passersby hostage with one quick whiff. When I entered into one of those places, I inevitably had to crouch down as I slid the wooden doors open, stooping over to enter the mini-door frame. Some izakaya had been built not long after the war, when people measuring anywhere near my height were certainly not the norm. Not so these days. I’m still a bit of a freak, a foreign woman at 5 foot 10, but I’ve recently seen more than a few schoolboys who can look me in the eye without having to stand on tiptoe. I call it “Big Mac” syndrome. God bless America.

Anyway, this particular izakaya on this particular night nearly ten years ago had something more to offer me than the regular sweet sake swill and crispy chicken on sticks. It was packed with salarymen - Japan’s frontline business soldiers. I wasn’t fond of salarymen. From my pre-twenties perspective, their age could have ranged anywhere from mid-thirties to late sixties. In other words, old. Salarymen in an izakaya weren’t an unusual sight for a Friday night. The thing that struck me immediately was that these particular salarymen didn’t fit the profile of the common downtown, middle-aged office drone. Salarymen all had a code of behaviour and a uniform that set them apart, making them easy to spot in their endless sameness. The way I saw it, all salarymen sucked on Mild Seven Lights with such ferocity you’d think their life depended on it. They would pull in deep breaths of smoke, and then exhale in whistling gusts through nicotined teeth and flared nostrils. Salarymen absent-mindedly touched and retouched their thinning comb-overs while they talked, ensuring that the stinky signature salaryman brand hair tonic was keeping their remaining hair plastered firmly to dandruffed scalps. Salarymen were the ones who, even after spending twelve to fifteen hours in a pressed suit and starched white shirt, couldn’t find that little bit of inner rebel to loosen a perfectly aligned tie. As I scanned the izakaya that night from my vantage point at the front door, I could see that the particular breed of salaryman I had grown accustomed to had undergone some sort of Twilight Zone transformation. There wasn’t even a hint of hair tonic stink in the air. Not that night.

These guys sitting cross-legged on tatami mats at low-lying tables were, first and foremost, young. My entrance caused the mix of excited voices to come to a complete stop. The silence had caught me off-guard momentarily. Well, the silence and the fact that about fifteen men in their early twenties were staring at me.

There was a haze of cigarette smoke hanging over their heads in soft blue halos. Sure enough, they were wearing suits, but not in traditional salaryman style. Most of them had loosened their ties and unbuttoned their white shirts, some all the way down to their bellybuttons. One had his tie wrapped around his head and had wooden chopsticks stuck in at either side of his ears. The long pieces of wood stood straight up, like two alert antennae searching a frequency. He’s the one who broke the silence. “Oh! America-jin desu ka?” He was pointing at my chest, at right about the same spot that all his pals were focusing their attention. I crossed my arms and answered with some of the Japanese I’d picked up in nearly six months of study. “Chigau… Canada-jin desu.”

This set the room buzzing as they all cheered their enthusiasm for the Canadian arrival. The one who had mistaken me for an American continued; “Oh, Canada! Niagara! Beautiful!” He had pulled one of the chopsticks from his tie headband and was waving it in my general direction. “Come on, come on! Canada-jin, drinking!” I was still hesitating in front of the door, knowing that once I committed myself to joining this group of eager office workers, I would be setting myself up for an inevitable hang-over the next morning. I scanned the small room. The crimson faces smiling back at me and the twenty-odd litre-sized Asashi Super Dry bottles scattered on the large table were good indicators that these guys were quite serious in their get-drunk quest. I had learned from stories told to me that many Japanese lacked a certain enzyme that breaks down alcohol properly. After a few nights out on the town, I was able to recognize the ones who were most susceptible to this genetic quirk. The red-faced side effect certainly didn’t deter most young guys from drinking until they passed out cold, sometimes while still in the bar.

As I wavered between the common sense, go-back-to-your-dormitory-now choice that lingered just behind me, the enthusiasm of the drunken young pseudo-salarymen in front of me was proving to be more attractive. I knew, even in my limited night-life experience in Nagoya, that I would be treated like a Princess. I knew beer would be refilled in my glass after every sip. I knew an assortment of izakaya delicacies would be placed before me on perhaps a dozen or so miniature dishes. I knew each and every guy in there would push and shove at the others to get a chance to talk with me. And I knew that it was all part of a show that would leave me feeling a little empty (and headachy) in the morning. But, my ego needed stroking, even if it was in the most superficial of ways. So, I walked in, slipping off my shoes and stepping onto the tatami to a round of cheers from fifteen adoring young men. I was nineteen for Godsakes, was there really any other option?

As I stepped up and onto the tatami platform, one guy in particular was using his eyes quite effectively to gesture me to sit on the small cushion beside him. He appeared to be the least drunk of the bunch and seemed far more capable of suppressing his enthusiasm for me, the gaijin who had just crashed the party. As delicately as my size long legs would allow, I stepped up and over four or five sprawled young men who had made this part of the tatmami mats as cozy as their own living room. They leaned their backs against the wall, legs outstretched toward the table, some leaning on one elbow while sipping beer from extra small drinking glasses. Beer could be gulped in one quick sip which would bring immediate action from those close-by. Another litre bottle would be held up by a co-drinker and the foamy refill would be splashed into the glass. A drinker rarely refilled his own glass in this part of the world. I had learned of the custom in my first week in Japan, so this night, when I sat down and picked up my own mini-glass, I was well-prepared for the two or three bottles that were suddenly hovering by my side. I leaned in closer to the eye-gesturer, giving him the opportunity to pour my first glass.

He stopped pouring just as the foam was about to spill over the top. I was about to bring it to my lips when he spoke; “Wait! First a toast to the mystery Canadian… Kanpai!” Everyone raised their glasses high for the clinking of glasses. I did too, but I couldn’t stop staring at my new seatmate. What the hell? His English was not only perfect, he had a clipped, English accent. I took the mandatory first sip and placed the glass on the table top. It was immediately topped up by the guy with the tie around his head. “Go, drink, drink!” I smiled, but felt the need to focus on the English speaker beside me.

“Uh, your English is… well it’s really good.” He smiled, bowing his head slightly. As I watched him, something became clear. He liked me. And, I guess I was feeling more than a little intrigued by him myself. As the realization crept up on me, I could feel the beginnings of a slow-moving blush moving from my neck to my face. I grabbed for my glass and gulped the beer down in two quick swallows. Very ladylike, I’m sure. Tie-head refilled it. “Go Canada! Drink, drink!” He was beginning to annoy me.

“Never mind him. If you don’t want anymore, just put your hand over the glass like this.” His English accent was unnerving. He was the first bilingual Japanese I had met since arriving in Nagoya. I was becoming so accustomed to the Japanized version of English, it hadn’t crossed my mind that maybe the guy was indeed an Englishman. It all just seemed completely out of place in this back-alley beer and chicken joint. In retrospect, I guess he was just as out of place as I, a lone five-foot-ten Canadian teenager wandering in unannounced. As he leaned over to cover his own glass to demonstrate, Tie-head, still chatting with the guy on his right, continued to pour, oblivious to the hand covering the glass. The beer splashed everywhere, including over the tabletop and onto my lap. My newfound Henry Higgins jumped up with a “Baka!” expletive and reached for the box of tissues under the table. He practically emptied the box sopping up the beer on the table and laying several layers in the general vicinity of my lap. Tie-head remained oblivious, as did the rest of the crew. My Englishman, on the other hand, seemed to take on the embarrassment that should have rightly been Tie-head’s. “I’m so sorry. Are you uncomfortable? Do you want to leave?”

I laughed and told him I was fine. I wanted to stay. And could he please tell me his name? “Yoichi Imai. My friends call me Yo.” He reached out his hand and I took hold of it. He gave me a solid handshake, not the soft squeeze that someone accustomed to bowing generally offers a gaijin. I liked the feel of his hand. And I liked the way he looked me squarely in the eye. Quite simply, I liked him. And that’s how Yoichi Imai swept a Canadian teenager off her feet. A firm handshake, eye contact and perfectly formed James Bond vowels. I was hooked.

Yoichi was old-fashioned. He courted me. He would walk me to my school dormitory after our dates, never expecting or pressuring to be let in. He probably knew the dorm rules of the school better than I did. He knew everything better than I did. I learned that he had been born in Nagoya, and moved to England when he was three. His father was an engineer for Toyota, and taught courses every other year at University College London. Yoichi and his mom remained in England while his father moved back and forth every other year from Toyota headquarters in Nagoya. He called the set-up tanshinfunin, kind of like a long-term commuting father. To me, it sounded cold, unromantic. I declared I would never have such a life with whoever my husband would be. Husbands and wives stick together.

I felt I was studying hard but after close to a year, I still could only read about 300 or so kanji, the Chinese-based alphabet. Compared to the more than 2000 plus kanji a Japanese highschooler would know, I felt illiterate and depended on Yo for things that most ninteen year-olds took for granted; reading street signs, understanding the ingredients on a food package, even something as simple as reading a restaurant menu. And the more he helped, the less I studied. We created our own little Westernized bubble, speaking in English, going to foreign-run bars, unearthing hidden English repertory cinemas that most Nagoyans didn’t know about. No one else existed in our self-made world.

As my school year was coming to a close, we both started panicking. I felt I hadn’t learned enough, and I certainly didn’t want to say goodbye to Yoichi, or the special place we had created. He was entering into his second year at Toyota and couldn’t afford to take time off. It would have hurt his career. My student visa had run its course. It was time to for me to back to Canada. The countdown was on. It was suddenly two weeks before my departure when something quite unexpected happened. Yoichi proposed. And I said yes. I didn’t want the world we had created to disintigrate.

Could that have been almost a decade ago?

So here I am, surveying my first-floor Tokyo apartment this quiet spring morning, and the memory of that first meeting and our first months together seems like it belongs to another couple. The Yoichi who stormed out of the apartment moments ago, briefcase firmly in hand, is another man. And I suppose I’m a different person myself. Shit, I was still a kid when we were traipsing through Nagoya, chattering in English looking for the perfect scone shop.

There are no more scones. No more English films on lazy afternoons. There are certainly no more Friday nights in a back alley izakaya. Well, not together in any case. Yoichi still goes. Not just on Friday’s, either. I’ve ventured a couple of times to his favourite backalley haunt. He doesn’t know. I peeked through the small space in the sliding wooden door and I could see him. He wasn’t sitting on the tatami. He was on a barstool with other Toyota execs, leaning over sake cups, lost in conversation. He was in his starched white shirt and pressed pleated suit pants. I could see his Mild Seven Lights laying on the counter in front of him, another pack peeking out of his jacket pocket. And when he stood up to go to the toilet, I could see his tie was perfectly straight, held in place by his shiny Toyota ten-year pin.

My potted plants need watering, but, at the moment, there’s something else a little more pressing. I sigh as I make my way out to the kitchen to find the mop, the broom and the dust pan. I make my may to the front door and I survey the mess on the floor. The object of my fury and early morning tantrum is smashed to pieces on the floor. Shards of pale blue glass are all that remain. Nobody would be able to recognize what the bottle once held. The scent would give it away immediately, though. The unmistakable aroma of anti-dandruff hair tonic. I’ll be able to clean away the pieces of glass. That heavy smell will last awhile. Perhaps even a lifetime.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Summer Printclub Fun In Nara


I read a book in Ireland last summer called Tales From the Rearview Mirror. Each small chapter is a vignette from the taxi driver's point of view. Brian was saying the other night that it would be interesting to get the perspective of the passengers as well, so a new blog was born. Brian has created "Taxichat". How often do you travel from A to B in a taxi and in the matter of a couple of kilometers you've found out more about your taxi driver's life than you do of some people you've known for years? If you have an interesting story from one of your taxi rides, go to Brian's blog and share it with everyone. Go to this link and then go to the profile. Click on Taxi Driver Interviews.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Midlife Enlightenment

“What the hell am I doing here?” These were the first words that came to Kate’s mind when she queued up under the official looking sign labelled “Aliens”.

There were two other line-ups, one for “Japanese Nationals” and the other for “Alien Re-entry”. The one she chose seemed the most logical. She and the planeloads of other weary arrivals separated themselves from the Japanese and formed a somewhat orderly line under the sign flashing their new identity. Waiting to clear immigration, Kate looked around at her fellow aliens and something became abundantly clear. She was alone.

At 42, she found herself on a cusp. At a stretch, she could be considered a baby-boomer, while at the same time she straddled that other generation, named for a book and referred to as “X”. Kate preferred the latter, and she didn’t really mind the label. It made her feel like she belonged to something. And there were worse things than belonging to the slightly neurotic, intellectualized nomads called Gen X. She scanned the line for other like-minded travellers. Not a one in sight. There was a group of East Indian ladies with at least a half-dozen kids of various ages in tow. For having just flown from what Kate assumed must be Delhi or Mumbai to Tokyo, the kids were incredibly well behaved. Most were clinging to their Mothers’ saris, brown eyes wide, sucking their thumbs or twirling their hair.

There was an energetic group of seven or eight Filipinas, each helping the other adjust a purse strap or tame frizzy airplane hair as they chatted in what sounded like Spanish on speed. Kate couldn’t remember the name of the language they were speaking. She listened and watched some more, racking her brain for a name to attach to the words flowing so smoothly from their mouths. From the way they were grooming each other and re-applying lipstick, Kate thought they looked more like they were preparing for a nightclub rather than the immigration booth at the head of the line. They were happy, uninhibited. And then she remembered the name and said it aloud to herself with a sense of satisfaction; “Tagalog…” Forgetting place names, dates, book titles, was happening with more and more frequency lately and it rattled her when it did.

A bit further down, a group of men were eyeing the Filipinas, nudging each other and smirking. She knew what they were. GI’s on furlough. They were representatives of Uncle Sam’s finest military might. When she was in her late twenties, she had taken a leave of absence from her teaching position at an all-girls high school. These get-aways seemed to be a perk the Gen X’ers had over their baby-boomer predecessors. It was almost a given that time off is a part of seniority, and if not offered, it was time to move on. On this particular leave, she had spent almost a month in Thailand, one week of which she lay low in one of the seediest places she had ever seen - Khao San Road in Bangkok.

Right now, the baritone voices of the men drowned out the chatter of the Filipinas ahead of them, enough so that the women stopped their conversation dead to shoot the men withering glares over their shoulders. There was a quick exchange of Tagalog amongst themselves and fits of giggles as the women turned back to continue their previous discussion. The men, all in their early twenties, were silenced for a moment. The one closest to the Filipinas, stocky and so blonde he could have been Albino, broke the silence; “Dudes, they want it and they want it baaaad!” He grabbed his groin and swung his hips in the direction of the women. They ignored him, but his mates didn’t. He got a few slaps of encouragement as he continued swaying his hips to and fro. Kate had to look away. She didn’t want her own blondeness to include her in any way with these assholes.

She realized that these GI’s lining up for immigration could have been clones of the ones roaming those gritty Bangkok alleys she had been exploring in the early nineties. Kate wasn’t sure whether to think it ironic or sad that for US military men so much had remained the same over the years, from the haircuts to the cocky attitudes right on down to the generic light blue acid washed jeans. She decided right there that the only thing that distinguished these guys from their brothers before them was the location of the countries they were bombing. And even at that, it was only by a few hundred miles or so. She snuck another peek at them as they continued their attempt to get the Filipinas’ attention. She knew there were army bases in Okinawa, and Okinawa was at the opposite end of the country from where she would be living – Tokyo. At that, she smiled, and checked her progress in the line. Her attention was brought back to herself by a wave of loneliness as she looked from the front of the line all the way to the back.

Indian mamas, Filipina party girls, Army surplus wankers. She brought her eyes once more to the front of the line and started the scan yet again. Even if there were only one woman her own age, even if she were on the arm of a husband, a lover, a significant other, it didn’t matter. Kate just wanted to see one other middle-aged, female alien to validate her own decision to be here. Even as she scanned, she was consciously hating herself for needing the reinforcement. She looked at her stuffed backpack lying on its side at her feet. It had tipped over from the weight of its contents and looked slightly ridiculous, bulging at the seams, some of the contents spilling out the top. The Canadian flag sewn on years ago was frayed at the edges. She gave the bag a bit of shove with her foot and felt a sudden flash of resentment.

She thought back again to her stay in Thailand. Kate remembered watching the weathered hippies as they walked the beaches of one of the more secluded Thai islands she had visited almost fifteen years ago. Wearing their flowing long skirts and headbands, they would sit with the locals making jewellery from shells and weaving wristbands from hemp. Looking back, she had a pretty good idea of what was going through her mind at the time. It was surely nothing too harsh or overly malicious. Probably more of a tolerant pity accompanied by the words; “Grow up.”

These were the words going through her head now as she bent over to pick up the dead weight of the toppled-over backpack. This time they were in self-reproach. She repeated what she had said a few minutes earlier; “What the hell am I doing here?” The initial judgement she had passed on the GI’s she now directed back at herself. Had she changed at all in fifteen years?

She shuffled ahead as the line moved forward a few inches. She focused on the colourful headband on the traveller in front of her. Now was not the time to have a meltdown considering she was about to face immigration man and his magic rubber stamp. Self-pity and jet lag made for a bleak blend. Kate decided to drown out her thoughts and the voices around her with music. She used music the way some people consumed Prozac. It was her feel good drug, her escape hatch. She hit play on her i-pod, adjusted the earphones, and closed her eyes as the first few notes of Comfortably Numb carried her away from the gloom that had burrowed itself so deeply into her thoughts.


Passing through immigration had been a lot easier than she had predicted. The questions the official had asked her had been straightforward enough. “Why are you here?” Easy. She was offered a teaching position at a junior high school through a recruiting agency in Vancouver. She was on sabbatical from her own teaching position back home. “How long will you stay?” Again, simple. The agency had taken care of the paperwork, and she was guaranteed a one-year visa. “Will you have family members joining you?” Nope. Single, no dependants.

She did have a small stomach flutter when she had said she was single. In reality, she was divorced. Or, more exotically, she was a divorcee. Never mind that the marriage lasted exactly sixty-four days and took place in Vegas on her twenty-first birthday. She used to hide her divorced status for years. She had felt ashamed of her Las Vegas adventure with her high school sweetheart. After the age of thirty-five, however, she found the “D” word rolling off her lips more often when asked her marital status. By her mid-thirties, it seemed like a better club to belong to than the one labelled “single, never married.”

Final question; “Do you have an address in Japan?” She pulled out the slip of paper the agency had given her. It was neatly typed and included a map from downtown Tokyo to her final destination. Her street name had 18 letters. Kate tried to say it, but it was unpronounceable. She showed it to the man, he scanned it briefly, and stamped her passport with a swift flick of his wrist. “Next please…”. And she was in. She was, officially, an alien. Kate adjusted the weight of her backpack and made her way to the luggage carrousel and customs.


The agency had offered to pick her up the following day from Narita Airport. She was arriving on a National holiday and there was no one available to meet her. Kate could have stayed the night at the airport hotel, but she declined the offer, opting instead for the adventure of locating the apartment on her own. Standing in the middle of Shinjuku station, she was beginning to question the sanity of her decision. She had read about it. She had seen pictures of it. Photos and words had no way of conveying the madness surrounding her. She stood still and in awe as the humanity swarmed around her on all sides. She felt invisible as people jostled past her, stubbing their toes on her rollaway suitcase.

She had tried to navigate the station to get to the exit she needed, but the combination of sounds, sights and smells and the sheer volume of people were overwhelming. Kate imagined the sight from a bird’s eye-view. She wasn’t sure if the image that came to mind was from a nature program she had once seen or from a biology book she had once read, but all she could think of were ants. Hundreds of thousands of ants going about their daily business, never touching, never stopping. And here she was, all 5 feet 10 inches of her with bobbed blonde hair, creating a disruption in the natural order of the Shinjuku universe.

Unhooking her backpack, she set it on the floor. She laid her suitcase on its side, pushing the metal handle in as she did so. And then she sat down, cross-legged, in the middle of the busiest train station in the world. She adjusted her headphones, hit play, and let Pink Floyd reinvent what she was witnessing. Her body, her suitcase, her oversized backpack acted as miniature dams to the flow of people. And, just like water in a river, the people reacted accordingly. They redirected themselves around the intrusion, continuing on as if never interrupted. Kate smiled to herself. Many travellers to Japan found enlightenment sitting zazen with Buddhist monks in hidden Kyoto temples. She found it waiting for her on the concourse of Shinjuku Station at rush hour.

Kate was brought out of her reverie by the sight of the American GI’s from the airport. She could see them striding through the station, dodging commuters and laughing. But she couldn’t hear them. Their lips were moving, their hands motioning here and there, but it meant nothing without the words to match the gestures. They practically stepped on her as they made their way through the crowd. From their reaction, she assumed they were laughing at her. One stepped over her suitcase, leaned down and put his face close enough to hers that she could smell aftershave and French fries. Pink Floyd still filled her senses, but the GI’s voice managed to break through. She could feel the spray on her face as he yelled; “You’re a fucking freak!” Judging from the contortions overtaking the faces of his pals, he was a hit. They continued their way through the station, receding into the distance. If they had any more comments to add, she couldn’t hear them. And then she couldn’t see them. They were swallowed up by the masses and gone.

In the next moment, she felt a tap on her shoulder. She looked behind her to find a businessman staring down at her. It was difficult to judge his age. He could have been anywhere from thirty to fifty. He had on a smart blue suit and heavy black-rimmed eyeglasses. She removed her earphones. “Missus, are you fine? Are you English speaker?” His raised eyebrows and cocked head made Kate smile. He was truly concerned. She answered him as she brushed her pants down with her hands and stood up; “I’m good. Thanks.”

She hoped her smile was sincere and not overdone. She’d been reading up on cultural communication and she didn’t want to come across as a phony in her first meeting with a Japanese person. “Do you need an information for train?” He was gesturing toward the overhead subway map. It looked like a jumble of Crayola colours splashed on paper by a hyper six-year-old. Kate showed him her map, and he walked her directly to her platform. He even told some fellow passengers where she needed to get off. He left her with a bow and a smile as the train doors slid shut.

She was offered a seat by one of the passengers who had taken note of her stop. She declined the offer. She hitched her backpack securely on her shoulders, and placed her suitcase beside her. She was back on her feet again. She drank in the sights of the train and the people in it as it pulled out of Shinjuku Station to bring her to her new home. Quite possibly, she could belong here.