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.