by Mark Kelleher
The bullet train from Nakano, where I live, to Suidobashi station takes roughly twenty minutes. Tokyo’s air is typically heat-heavy and through the clouded windows the faces of the commuters outside look blurred. It’s close to eight and darkness is coming softly down. Already the city’s spectral lights are illuminating the air. On rare clear evenings when the smog has briefly dispersed, the tallest skyscrapers look as though they are tilting in the dusky sky, ready at any moment to come tumbling down. Arching my head and slightly pressing my face to the glass, I see that their tops are presently invisible. I prefer it this way. The crammed carriage rattles as it speeds along. Businessmen, briefcases on their laps, pat their temples with folded handkerchiefs. Teenagers – among them, I notice with anxiety, one of my students – fiddle with phones. A couple of young lovers, tourists clearly, fidget and whisper nervously. It is clear that they are lost.
The train sighs into Suidobashi. Removing my compact, I inspect, as best as I can under the station’s dulled lighting, the underside of my jaw. It’s hard to be certain, but the concealer is, I think, still hiding the scar. I set my tongue off on a light lap that runs the length of my lips. The balm’s flavour – Eminently Kissable Grenadine! – is subtle.
Out on the street, I’m starting to become far more conscious of my body. I am eerily aware of feeling myself in myself, every fibre within aflame with the dread that precedes every uncertain and potentially great event. My black push-up with red lace trim, bought yesterday on a caffeinated impulse, is, I realise, partially exposed and cutting at my ribs. My dress is loose, petal-patterned. Walking to Dome Central, passing through the peculiarly soundless throngs, I can’t feel my feet inside my heels. My legs feel wobbly, possessed. In each passing window I try to glimpse sight of my hair. It has, I think, held. I walk on towards Kasuga.
At the entrance to the café, Mr. Miyamoto greets me with a bow and smiles. He is black-suited and wears an animal-caricature tie. He also appears to be the world’s happiest man.
“Isabelle, good to see, good to see,” he says, guiding me in by placing his hand on my lower back. “Almost ready, almost ready. Five.”
When I make my way through the door, I scan the room quickly. Most of the people in here are either too young or too old to be one of my students. Families crowd most of the tables. There are a few middle-aged men - sitting, waiting. Mr. Miyamoto shows me to my regular spot. I take the puffy inside seat, as always, and watch as he uses the wick of the candle on the opposing table to ignite the one on mine.
“You like a drink?” he asks.
“I’ll wait, thank you.”
“Sure, sure. Work good today?”
“Oh, yes,” I reply. “The usual. Busy, very busy.”
“You missing home?”
He has asked me this 3 times already this week. People here are like that. What strikes you initially as curiosity is, you later find, mere courtesy. If you’re an outsider in Japan, conversations with strangers always refer back to your otherness. It’s endearing.
“Yes,” I lie. “A little.”
He smiles and, with another little bow, walks off.
Ambient synth Muzak pipes through the speakers stationed in every corner of the room. The lighting reflects the colours of the streets outside - lime greens, cobalt blues, shades of purple that seem to pulse in their heaviness. The walls are adorned with framed cartoon images that diners can purchase. Much of the ceiling is taken up by an enormous thumbtacked half-Swedish/half-Finnish flag that droops slightly down.
When I look directly ahead of me, he’s there, sitting.
“Oh, hello,” I say. “Sorry – I didn’t notice you’d been brought to your seat.”
He’s looking like he always does: immaculately clean, pensive, sweetly slump-shouldered. I detect, I think, the faintest trace of a smile forming at his wide mouth.
“It’s nice to see you,” I continue. “It got me through the day knowing that I would.”
I reach out and squeeze the palm of his hand.
“You look beautiful,” he replies.
I squeeze his hand again and he repeats what he just said.
“You’re too sweet,” I say.
- Miyamoto comes to the table holding a tablet in the palm of his hand. In the other is a glowing stylus, which he twirls between his thumb and index finger.
- Miyamoto comes to the table once more and places a bowl of the house vegetarian option – a quiche named, weirdly, a Moomin Mama Plate - before me.
“Usual?” he asks, looking comically concerned.
I nod and he walks off.
He doesn’t say much and I like that. Looking at him now, straight into the gargantuan blue of his eyes, I know what’s expected of me. He’s here to listen. He, too, it is clear, has known and been altered by some sort of unspecifiable pain along the way. He doesn’t – and, I suspect, will never – let it, whatever it is, out. But that doesn’t matter. He is here entirely for me. His long bouts of silence, which summon some previously hidden part out of the depths of me, are patient, comforting, all that I need right now.
“I think I know what you want me to say.”
At this, he just smiles. His stare, imploring in its constancy, is clearly an affirmative. He wants – needs, perhaps - me to talk, to lead whatever is blossoming here.
We first met on the second Monday of last month. As is often the case, my class at the university had stretched beyond the designated hour. The students, most of them the privileged and pampered children of Tokyo’s elite, were having difficulty comprehending past tenses. The sky had gone a terrible grey and a violent wind was ripping through the campus. Not wanting to return home to the claustrophobia of my apartment and a long, lonely night of Skyping, I instead took a cab to Dome Central. Passing the café, he caught my eye. Sitting opposite a young, spectacled woman at one of the window booths, he looked immensely and irreversibly forlorn. There had been some form of an argument, clearly, and they were sitting in silence. Her eyes were fixed firmly on the bowl from which she slowly ate. His were lustreless and stared vacantly into the dead space beyond her. I stood and watched as she finished and without saying a word or offering a gesture left the money for the bill and walked away.
When you’re living thousands of miles from home, you force yourself to do things that you normally wouldn’t do. Existence takes on a previously unfelt edge. In a strange place, you inherit a distinct form of vulnerability that renders you both afraid of and entirely open to any new experiences. In short, you step out into the world. That evening, I forced my way into his life. I introduced myself briefly and upon shaking his hand he said that it was nice to meet me. It was evident he wished to listen. The stillness of his disposition was, at first, alarming. Had his relationship just been terminated? Something in that scene that I observed from the window suggested loss. I haven’t told him about what I saw and he has yet to mention it. I do know, however, that stillness is just a fundamental part of who he is, what makes him so…different. He played no games and produced no tricks. He sat patiently as I reeled off, for the first time since arriving here, my concealed agonies. My mother’s collapsed business and subsequent descent into herself. Matt’s perpetual apathy. Too many marriages, too many babies being born. Ineffectual pills and too few thrills and a country that forever felt alien to me. I left, I told him, because the ground on which I had been standing had been trying to swallow me. He smiled sadly. He offered no consolations and didn’t try to alight the moment with some throwaway pop-psych sentiment. He quietly let me reveal myself.
“No,” I say to him now. “I know you’re curious, but I haven’t told anyone about you yet. Right now…let’s just be as we are. We’re in our own bubble and I like that.”
“Usual for you,” he says with a light laugh. “Enjoy.”
“Mr. Miyamoto,” I call after him as he walks away. “Could we have a bottle of wine please? Red. Any kind will do.”
“Of course, of course.”
“Two?” he asks, looking slightly puzzled.
He nods and walks away even more rapidly than usual.
“I wonder what’s up with that guy. Nobody can smile that much and not be hiding something,” I say. “And what’s with that tie? For the kids, maybe. Either way, it makes him look sinister, don’t you think? I’m sure we’ll see him on the news one day. ”
He smiles in agreement. I reach out for his left hand. It is soft to hold and as I caress along its contours something close to quiet ecstasy stirs inside me. I try not to think about it. I try, as best as I can, to just submit to the moment. He lets his hand rest casually in mine. I have spoken very little to him about my discomfort with intimacy, but somehow, miraculously, he intuitively seems to know. It as though there is a level of human understanding contained within him that guides with perfection how he behaves, how he empathises, how we accepts, with the simplicity of a smile, everything.
“Tell me something,” I ask him. “Just say whatever is on your mind. It can be anything – literally - as long as it’s the thought that is in your head right now.”
He pauses for a moment. The request turns him oddly steely-eyed.
“You’re not supposed to think about it” I say, squeezing his hand in encouragement.
“It’s nice to meet you,” he replies. His eyes return to mine again. This warms me. I am not the compliment-seeking type, but it’s always good to hear good things.
“Hey – it’s nice to meet you too. The nicest thing there is, in fact. It just seems to, I don’t know, solve everything. If that makes sense.”
I realise saying this is about as close to saying “I love you” as you can get without actually saying it. And looking at the way he’s looking at me now, that forlornness creeping slightly back into his smile, I sense that he realises this also.
“Sorry,” I say. “Probably sounded a bit heavy there. I didn’t mean for it to. What I meant was that, sitting here with you, just sitting here and talking to you, about everything, it makes me forget. Forget in a good way.”
He looks at me searchingly. Something deep within my chest starts to feel nauseated. For a moment all I can hear is the Muzak.
“I’ll try to explain that. What I mean is, I like to forget things. The bad, the good, it doesn’t really matter. My brain is wired funny. Beyond extremely vague details, I haven’t stored too many memories in my head. Like, I can remember the first guy I kissed but not where it was. I have a scar on my jaw that you cannot see. It happened in first or second grade. I was accidentally hit by a softball bat. I can’t remember what time of the year it was. Or even, now that I think about it, who actually accidentally hit me. More stuff, too. The names of ex-friends parents. Most birthdays and Christmases. My grandfather’s last words to me. Those type of things. They’ve all been blocked out.”
I know that if I look up now a lot - probably too much - will be revealed through his expression. So I don’t look at him. Instead, I look down at my plate. The quiche, untouched, is already drying out. Its tip is positioned so that it looks as though the open-armed hippopotamus caricature emblazoned on the plate is about to break off a piece.
“That’s a lot, I know,” I continue. “But please, hear me out. I like to forget about things, all of those things, because they’re gone. There cannot be any good in what is gone. I know, I know – you’ll say that that’s such a dreary outlook, that from the past we’ll learn what can make the future better. And, trust me, I get that. I just have a very serious issue with what is not there anymore. You’ll see my apartment sometime, I’m sure. And you’ll notice something. No photographs. I can’t go there because I literally cannot go there. And you, simply by being you, help me with that. You secure me in the present. Okay?”
I look up, finally, and know from how he’s sitting there, contentedly slouched, that everything is and ultimately will be okay.
A petrified looking waitress comes to the table. It is, I assume, her first day, although I’m nearly certain I have seen her before. For a flashing moment I am struck with the fear that it is Sally, a struggling and somewhat withdrawn student of mine, but this woman in front of us is clearly older than her. She places the bottle of wine and the two glasses on the table. She is noticeably shaky and is also, it seems, close to weeping.
“Is everything all right?” I ask.
She raises her hand to confirm that she is and walks off without looking at us.
“Everyone, deep down, is a little broken in some way,” I say to him.
I pour our drinks and propose a toast.
“Here’s to everything being presently all right. To more nights like this. To more conversations. And to more of us.”
I clink my glass off his and take in some of the wine.
For a few peaceful minutes, we sit with ease in our shared silence. This is something I never had with Matt – a mutual ability to reside quietly in each other’s presence. There was always a need, I now realise, to talk endlessly – to fill every empty moment with chatter. The problem, of course, is that everything has a limit. Everything can run dry. There is always a chance that a day will come when two people just run out of things to say. But, looking across from me right now, I don’t see that day coming with him. He knows as well as I do that a lot can be said by simply saying nothing at all. We smile at one another. Something deep is being transmitted. Something that goes beyond the limitations of language. There is an inherent rhythm and logic to our connectedness.
“This is so nice,” I finally say, squirming inside for disrupting our tranquil moment. “To just sit here, to just be, is so nice. It’s like the answer to a lifetime of cravings.”
I wonder, with that last statement, if I have gone too far again. But he continues to smile. I take both of his hands in mine and squeeze them firmly.
“It’s nice to meet you,” he says. “You look beautiful.”
“I know, honey. It’s always nice. You’re always nice. And always will be.”
At the door, Mr. Miyamoto is hugging the waitress who is now visibly upset.
“Poor girl,” I say. “Never easy losing a job. She’s young enough though, right? And clearly this wasn’t the right place for her.”
I watch her leave and as she passes the window directly to the side of our booth, she looks in before looking quickly away again.
“Did you see that?” I ask him.
He nods slightly, puzzled like I am at the look of sheer panic that was on her face.
“Oh well. She’ll get over it,” I say.
- Miyamoto returns to our table and removes my plate.
- Miyamoto, who has clearly been listening in, steps towards us. I hand him cash and my loyalty card.
“I’m sorry,” I say to him with a laugh. “Good conversation can kill an appetite.”
“It’s okay,” he replies. “Really, it’s okay. But, Isabelle, it is nearly time. More people come. More busy. You understand?”
I do understand. In a moment, I am going to be left sitting here alone, which will be my cue to leave. I’m not certain about their arrangement, as he hasn’t said much, but when it gets busy, as it often does as this time of the night, Mr. Miyamoto leads him away from the table. It is possible, I suppose, that he helps out in the kitchen, portering.
“Oh yes. Of course. Now?” I ask.
“Okay, just give us one moment,” I ask.
He nods and stands a few feet from the table.
“You’re always rushing off like this,” I say, semi-seriously. “But I understand.
I reach out and run my hand along his, squeezing it ever so slightly.
He interrupts me and says with that wide smile, “You look beautiful.”
I look straight into his eyes and easily see the sincerity, the warmth in his look, the clearly evolving love he has for me. It is the perfect note on which to end the night.
“Tomorrow, yes,” I reply.
“Okay, Isabelle. Safe home.”
And with that, he takes him away.
I stand and make my way to the door. It has become busier. Children run around, chasing, screaming. Even as I step outside, the din is audible. As I make my way past its windows, I look back into the café. I spot Mr. Miyamoto introducing him to a young girl. His daughter, perhaps. The girl looks at him in wide-eyed wonder and smiles. I do too. He has that effect on people. He makes them smile.