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.



Patti Gage said...

Hi Sarah;
I'm home today; sick with a sore throat and a slight fever. And since I had some time on my hands, I decided to read your latest story. I loved it! I think you are really good at capturing real Japan. I'm currently reading a book by Haruki Murakami, and even though he is Japanese (but living in England) he does not always capture the essence of japan. For example, his Japanese character referred to a vacuum cleaner as a Hoover. Hoover is not Japanese. Anyway, I just wanted you to know that I enjoyed your story, and I really think you should try to publish them. I hope to see ya tomorrow. Cheers.Patti

azumarisan said...

Sequel please! Loved it!

Patti, i don't think Haruki Murakami tries to write the essence of Japan, i think he writes from Murakami-land, a place we'll never understand, that's why his writing is so interesting. :)