The heart with a mind of its own.

(Be present.)

The mind with a heart of its own.

(It's past.)

The dream that is your waking life.

(Go there now.)

Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021

This part is real:
Even at this early hour, the streets were filled with people. I dreaded the unfamiliar station because I knew it would be a solid crush of salarymen and office ladies flowing like water into Tokyo. It was my day off, but I was also in a business suit—black skirt and blazer, black hose and heels. That was what I wore to work yesterday and what I left work in to go drinking last night. The young man beside me started out the evening in a brown suit—brown was the sophisticated color in Tokyo that season—but was now in jeans, a t-shirt and sneakers.
He walked me to the station against the tide of business suits and as we walked, he said in English, “I feel ashamed.”
I was startled by this admission and asked, “Ashamed? Why?”
He replied, “All people are going to work but me. I am not going to my job.”
I laughed. He was coming off a long haul of intense work overseas and had been rewarded by his company with a month-long holiday—meaning minimal duties—in Tokyo.
I replied, “You are on holiday. Your job is to relax.”
He smiled. “So, so,” he said. “My job is to relax. Now I am happy.”
At the station, he showed me where to buy a ticket—the ride isn’t covered by my travel pass from my company and I can’t find my own Japan Railway train pass in my bag—and walked with me to the correct gate. On a sign above us, I could see the familiar golden circle of the Tokyo Metro Ginza line and I did a quick mental calculation: Shimbashi to Asakusa and from Asakusa my usual train home to Higashi Mukojima.
Just outside the gate we said our goodbyes. Without thinking, I stepped forward and put my arms around him. He immediately stiffened, unyielding, straightening his back and arms so that he was barely touching me. It was like hugging a surfboard. I thought: This is not the same man I was in a clinch with an hour ago. I knew I would have to apologize later.
“Goodbye, Christina-san,” he said when I let go. He bowed very solemnly and I laughed and returned the bow, less solemnly.
“Goodbye, Kiyoshi.”
When I walked away, I didn’t look back. I trusted that he was still bowing when I went through the gate, bowing until I disappeared down the steps to the platform. That would only be polite.

In my head the story goes like this:
We are sitting at the table. Our oldest son Kiyoharu is eleven and is starting to develop a bit of skepticism towards our family situation. I know that despite his popularity at school, he faces some consequences because I am not Japanese. He has to try harder all the time because of it, but his father shrugs off my concerns about this. Our younger son Rensuke also faces some of the same consequences, but he is much more favored by others because he has a sunny, open disposition. I know I have babied Ren a bit too much and I have held the line a bit too unyieldingly with Kiyoharu, the way his father’s family does and the way I have long been instructed to do.
This morning, Kiyoharu has taken the stance that I am not really his mother—this is true—and though he is not openly defiant, he wonders how his mother, his real mother, would react to his request (denied, not by me) to go with his friends to on a hike on a day when he has promised his father that he would help us clean his grandparents’ house for the new year.
I don’t remind him of all the times he has said that he doesn’t remember his mother. Instead I say in English, “It’s true. I am not your mother, but I am doing my best.” Ren looks up from his book. I say again, “I am doing my best. And you are doing your best. And your father and brother are also doing their best.”
None of this appeases Kiyoharu, but he keeps his face carefully arranged. Even so long among Japanese, I still struggle to interpret facial expressions and I know that my own poker face is useless here. I know my son though and his expression is not neutral. This is confirmed when his father walks into the room and immediately asks, “What’s wrong?”
Kiyoharu waits for me to speak, so I answer, “He would like to go hiking with his friends.”
My husband pulls his neck back, shakes his head and says, not unkindly, “ Not possible. It is not possible.” This of course means no. I don’t disagree with the decision, but I am also not finished making a point about the boys’ mother.
I say to my husband, “I was going to tell them something about Fumie.”
“Eh?” This tack confuses him—him and the boys.
I never met Fumie. I dated Kiyoshi before he married her and only reappeared in his life after she had died. I only know his wife and their mother from her photograph on the butsudan, our altar. It is a professional photo of a dark haired, round-faced young woman. She was neither beautiful nor stylish, but there is a softness to her eyes, a sweetness to her expression. I know that she was kind and, well, not complicated from what I’ve managed to pry from my husband and his family, particularly his sister Tamae, who stopped only just very short of saying that she did not like Fumie. Even that much information took a long time to get out of anyone. When I pressed Kiyoshi further, I heard only a vague comment that she was inexperienced but not at what. We had been married for over a year before he let me see the photographs taken at his first wedding. He was handsome as always in his formal mon-tsuke kimono, hakama trousers, and haori coat. She was as beautiful and as blank a canvas as any bride in her pristine white shiromuku kimono and tall, round, white headwear. He had avoided answering my request to see more pictures of the wedding or the video taken during the reception. Then when I pushed a bit more he admitted that he was worried it would make me jealous. I insisted that I could never be jealous of a dead woman and finally he relented and showed me the video.
He was right. I was. jealous. I was not jealous of her, but I was jealous of this evidence of their happiness and the promise of a bright future together that had been denied to me. Even knowing how her story ended, I still felt like she had, however unknowingly, stolen some part of my own happiness.
I also know Fumie from a few offhand comments made by our neighbors. Mrs. Sanae told me that she was quiet, polite and innocent, all normally exemplary qualities in this place. She came from a good family in a nearby village and was chosen by Kiyoshi’s family because she seemed well-suited to life as a wife, mother, and—most importantly—daughter-in-law, an exacting position in a traditional family. I was a poor replacement for Fumie but replace her I did, two years after she died.
“What are you going to tell them?” my husband asks me.
“I was going to explain how she helps me.”
He looks at me steadily, his eyes meeting and holding mine. It is very direct, almost a warning. Then his gaze shifts to my mouth, looking for any movement, any clue. He is curious. I am used to this scrutiny by now. I try to keep my face as blank as possible, even knowing how hopeless this is.
“What do you say?” His way of asking what I mean.
“I talk to her every day,” I answer.
“Really?” Disbelief.
“Yes, really.” It’s true. I greet her each day and I address her every time her photo catches my eye. If there are others around, our conversations stay in my head. If we are alone, I address her out loud.
“What do you say?” He is asking for specifics now.
The boys are silent and perfectly still. They want their father and me, but mostly their father, to forget that they are in the room.
“I say, ‘Ohayo, Fumie-san,’ and ‘tadaima.’ Things like that.” My husband tilts his head very slightly and waits. “I say, ‘How are you, Fumie-san?’ And sometimes I ask for her help.”
“How does she answer?” Indulgent for the moment. Patient, always.
“I know you think I’m crazy, Kiyoshi,” I tell him.
“No, no,” he says. “Curious. I am only curious.”
“So before Kiyoharu started school, I asked Fumie-san to help me prepare.”
“What is her answer?” He asks, evenly.
The boys are barely breathing now, not even blinking.
“Do you remember? Mrs. Sanae, Ken-chan’s grandmother, and told me what I needed to do. Fumie-san heard me and sent her friend to explain everything to me.” Mrs. Sanae and her retired husband lived in the house next door. The day after we moved into the house, I had gone next door to introduce myself to her and to bring her the traditional neighborly gift. It was usually soap or a kitchen towel, but I had spurned that idea—a kitchen towel? Boring—and brought chocolates. Mrs Sanae surprised me by greeting me in English. Turns out she had gone to Chicago as a foreign exchange student. She had wanted to stay in America to attend university there after she graduated from high school, but her father got wind of an American boyfriend. That was the end of her time in America.
Mrs. Sanae turned out to be the self-appointed keeper of all the information in the neighborhood, the one who is always checking the mail when you drive up and sweeping the front step when you leave. I liked her. And even if I hadn’t liked her, I would have made it a habit to be very friendly to her anyway, greeting her at every opportunity, bringing back treats for her when we traveled. She seemed to think it a great source of amusement to suddenly have a foreign neighbor and I tried to use this to my advantage, tapping into her endless knowledge of how to navigate life in the small village. During our little chats, she took great delight in telling me all the gossip about people in the neighborhood. I was sure she gossiped about me, too—but I also knew that people would gossip about any foreigner in the vicinity, we were so scarce. Since I had no control over that, I didn’t much care. Better to let her gossip about what I apparently didn’t know about living in Japan rather than to have her learn anything true about me to tell others.
Kiyoshi relaxes. I can see from his indulgent expression that he thinks this is just more of my nonsense. I continue, “I think everything was okay after that and, remember? I brought home imagawa-yaki”—Fumie’s favorite—“the next day and gave some to Mrs. Sanae, too? That was to thank Fumie-san for sending Mrs. Sanae.”
Kiyoshi shakes his head slightly. He thinks the way I speak with Mrs. Sanae is more of my foolishness.
Ren breaks through the tension by asking “Can we get imagawa-yaki today?”
I look at Kiyoshi, his decision. “Tomorrow,” he says. “Today, we clean. Tonight, dinner with grandma and grandpa. Tomorrow you can have.”
I nod, adding buying the cakes to the running list of things to do that I keep in my head. I would have offered the boys an easier to obtain treat—“How about ice cream? Or curry rice for dinner?”—not because I don’t want to honor their mother who, let’s face it, they don’t remember anyway, but because they really don’t care as long as they get a treat. It will be an ordeal for me to buy the cakes. The only baker who sells them doesn’t like me or doesn’t like foreigners or both. Going to his bakery is an exhausting exercise in tight-lipped politeness on both our parts. He can say nothing because Kiyoshi’s family owns the building his bakery is in and I can say nothing because what would I say? No one speaks their mind in this place for good reason. Our detente has been going on ever since the first time I walked into his bakery and he scurried out from behind the counter into the back room and sent the clueless, flour-covered baker out to deal with me. Normally I am happy to go out of my way to avoid going back to the bakery, but now that is out of the question.
“How about breakfast?” I ask. I’ve made a big, weekend breakfast and we’ve just been waiting for Kiyoshi. The boys would be happy with cereal or pancakes, but my husband would shake his head in disapproval—too American, even for me—so when their father is home, they get rice, miso soup, tamagoyaki, sauteed greens, tsukemono from Kiyoshi’s mother, nori, and grilled fish. I love Japanese food but I can’t face a breakfast that size, so I have a bowl of yogurt and coffee.
“Only yogurt?” My husband asks. “Is that enough?”
“Maybe I will also have rice with natto,” I tease. He hates the smell of the fermented soybeans and every time I eat it mixed with hot rice and raw egg they do in the Kanto region, he wrinkles his nose with disgust. He is not from the Kanto region.

For our second date, we meet at Tokyo station and take the train to Yokohama. I don’t know what Yokohama has to offer that Tokyo doesn’t, but I am a bit of a snob about living in Tokyo. When we are together, I relax, letting him and the day decide where to take me. Right now, I am content to be on a train going anywhere and happy to be with him. It was early when we met but Kiyoshi comes from a nautical family so in his mind the day was half over. It is the better part of an hour to Yokohama so we have time to sit and chat in English. “Weather is good today, I think,” he says. “Low pressure but maybe no rain.”
“That’s good.” I find it charming that he always knows the weather, day or night, without realizing that it is part of his job to have this information at hand.
“Good, yes,”
In Yokohama, we get off the train at Sakuragicho station and he leads me very purposefully to Minato Mirai where the Nippon Maru, the ship we have come to see, is docked.
I have never been so close to any ship, much less been aboard one. I’m not so much afraid of boats as I am inexperienced and apprehensive. I don’t like the idea of nothing but deep water beneath my feet.
On the pier near the ship there is a little booth with a grumpy looking old man inside. He looks me over, disapprovingly. This is a familiar response from Japanese men of a certain age.
Kiyoshi says, “I will talk to him. Maybe get in for free.”
Before he can do this, I step up and pay for two admissions and take a brochure in English. I do it because I don’t like the way the man is looking at me and I don’t want to take anything for free from him. Kiyoshi asks me in English why I did this and I say simply, “It’s easier,” and he nods to me, nods to the man, and we go aboard.
Even with its sails furled, the ship is beautiful with its pristine white hull and four tall masts rising high above the deck. Everything I can see is immaculate, all of the work done to impossible Japanese standards. The English brochure says that the ship was built in the 1930s as a training ship, but I am skeptical. I suspect that this is may be a bit of post-war fiction that allowed the Japanese to keep the ship when all its other little destructive toys were wrenched out of its hands. Docked, the ship is a museum, but it isn’t always docked. Two-and-a-half years ago, Kiyoshi graduated from marine college and he and the other graduates sailed the ship around Japan, visiting all the major ports as they went. He knows this ship intimately.
He makes me laugh by plucking things from the exhibit to give me a closer look. (The other museum-goers don’t quite know what to make of this and several stop and stare, perhaps wondering if they should intervene. No one does, of course.) Kiyoshi takes a coconut husk brush from a display and, stooping, shows me how they are used to scrub the deck. In another part of the ship, he uncoils a thick rope and shows me how to coil it back up again. We move on and he shifts a velvet rope off to one side and to grab a harness from where they are hanging. He straps himself into it. One of the passersby goggles at this. Kiyoshi ignores him completely. Instead, he points up to one of the ship’s masts and the ropes that run to and from its apex.
“You cannot use the harness until you reach there,” he says, pointing at a place that seems dizzyingly high above our heads. I am afraid of heights. He explains that below that point, there is the danger of becoming tangled in the ropes. “Very scary,” he says.
I ask him what the scariest thing that happened to him on the ship was. He tells me that normally they avoid rainstorms at sea because the wind is unpredictable in a rainstorm. “The ship cannot be navigated easily in such a wind,” he says. Once, they could not avoid a storm and he and the others had to climb the masts to take down the sails. “We wore raincoats that catch the wind,” he says. “We were barefoot to climb. Boots are no good. The ropes are very slippery in the rain.” He points to the uppermost part of the mast. “I had to climb to there,” he says.
“No way.” I shake my head. I can’t imagine.
He laughs. “You would not be a good sailor.” He takes off the harness and replaces it in the display, repositioning the velvet rope.
He is comfortable on the ship, his life spent in and on the water. I come from a dry land,. Big sky and terrifying desert is how I always explain it to anyone who asks about my hometown. Kiyoshi laughed in disbelief when I told him I didn’t learn how to swim until I was twenty-seven years old. “When you are a child, there was no swimming pool in your school?” he asked. Further disbelief when I told him that the largest bodies of water I regularly encountered as a child were big puddles after infrequent but heavy summer rainstorms. It was only partly true. There were also narrow irrigation ditches crisscrossing my neighborhood and I could catch crawdads and watch the skinny-legged water skimmers ride the surface near the pipe outlets. Once a year, my father would want to go fishing and we would drive for hours to the nearest lake where he would drop a line baited with fluorescent colored fish eggs in the water and get drunk on shore.
“But where do the fish you eat come from from?” Kiyoshi’s sister asked the first time she met me and saw from the map I showed his family that my hometown was completely landlocked.
“There are lakes and river fish,” Kiyoshi explained to her. The answer seemed to satisfy his family, that the fish I ate came from those sources. Even people who eat fish from lakes and rivers might possibly be trusted. But the truth was that if I had fish three times a year growing up, that it was a lot of fish for me. When I did eat fish, I ate tuna from cans mixed with copious amounts of mayonnaise and chopped up dill pickles, spread on flabby white bread. And sometimes for dinner, there might be frozen fish sticks or, if my mother were really feeling inspired, a slim block of haddock fillets, frozen solid, and cooked in a pan with a stick of margarine and a lemon juice.squeezed from a plastic lemon with a screw on cap.
Small bodies of water don’t bother me too much. As long as I can see shore and touch the bottom, I’m fine. But the minute I can’t see shore and my feet don’t have anything but water beneath them, I start to fall apart a little bit. I’m okay here now though on this docked ship, safe with Kiyoshi.
We go below deck, following the red “ROUTE” signs posted on the walls. Kiyoshi points out where he and the other graduates slept, bunk beds crowding in on each side of the narrow room. Later, there will be stories about genial circle jerks, but now we file past the window that overlooks the engine room and the mess hall and the infirmary.
“So you were only twenty-one years old when you graduated?” I ask.
He nods, explains that he left school after the eighth grade to attend the marine college and lived on the small island where the school is located until he was twenty-one.
At twenty-one, what was I doing? Drinking mostly. I was also laboriously waitressing my way through a useless liberal arts associates’ degree from community college. It feels like less responsibility than he must have had, but I was living on my own then, too, holding down a full-time job and paying my own rent and tuition and had been since graduating from high school at sixteen. There was no family business, no family money for me to fall back on.
A decade separates us in age—I can’t focus on this fact without guilt washing over me—but we are evenly matched in some ways. He has lived and worked in Japan and around the world, held positions of tremendous responsibility, but he has always been very much under his family’s thumb, his future decided for him before he was born. And I have until coming to Japan, lived my life in one place, but I was responsible for myself and no decisions were made about my future until I made them.

This part is just a diversion:
We are together later that night. It is dark in his room and he is whispering something close in my ear. I don’t know the words, but I understand their meaning.
I have been too aggressive but at this moment it doesn’t matter. I have what I want. We are together and I have lost sight of the shore.
In awhile the frenetic moments will be over and everything will slowly become still again. Our breathing will slow and we will be completely enveloped in a comfortable silence.
The sleeping mat we are sharing would be almost too small for either of us alone. Laying side by side, we barely fit. He holds me very close to him for a long time.
Breaking the silence, he says, “You have two men you like equally. One is American. One is Japanese. Which would you go with?”
I consider.
Earlier on the train, we sat across from a tall, blonde woman in her 30s and her Japanese boyfriend. When they got on the train, I could feel Kiyoshi’s attention shift away from me to them. They ignored everyone around them, focusing only on one another. They gazed into each others’ eyes and held hands. Japanese couples will not do any of this in public.
I pretended not to notice them. Kiyoshi’s attention shifted back to me.
Now, laying in the dark beside him, I answer, “I would choose the Japanese.”
“Really?” Disbelief.
“I did not come to Japan to meet American men,” I say.
He shakes his head and replies, “That is just you, I think. You like adventure.”
I agree, “Maybe it is just me. But the woman we saw on the train earlier also had a Japanese boyfriend,” I reply.
“You noticed.”
I laugh. “Of course. She was very happy, don’t you think?”
He doesn’t answer.
I can’t say what I want to say—or at least I don’t say it. I don’t know the words in his language or in mine. I feel safe with him. I love the feeling of his arms around me. I never want that feeling to end. I don’t understand why it’s different with him than with any other man I’ve been with.
He finally replies, “Mmmm.” Noncommittal.
He is not just a bit of adventure to me and I don’t want to know that I am just a bit of adventure to him. I do not think then to ask him, “You have two women you like equally, one American, one Japanese. Which do you go with?” I did not want to know.

In my head, the story reels out like this:
Kiyoshi has left the shopping bags with the cleaning supplies from the hyaku-en shop in the genkan, the entryway to our small house. I would prefer to load them into the car again for the drive to his parents’ house but Kiyoshi has decided that we need the exercise and can walk.
“Isn’t cleaning exercise enough?” I ask him.
“Cleaning is not exercise,” he says.
“It is the way Japanese people do it,” I reply.
He shakes his head; Americans are lazy or I am lazy. Both are true. This is going to be a grueling afternoon for me.
“Walk. We will walk,” he says. “And no taxis. Ganbatte.”
“Gambatimas!” I say, feigning resignation, bowing. He smiles, shaking his head, his “ehhhh” almost a laugh. The boys laugh, too. They like when we tease each other.
It’s been a joke between us for a long time, since our earliest dates in Tokyo a decade ago, that I would rather pay for a taxi than walk even the shortest city block. It started when we went drinking at the end of the workday. We were both still in business dress, he, handsome in his his gray suit, and me in my customary black suit and heels. I had a pair of more sensible walking shoes in the office closet, but I had perversely not changed into them because the heels made my legs look better. I had suggested a taxi as soon as we hit the street and Kiyoshi had laughed at this display of my laziness. I had laughed, too, and played it like a joke, but thought: Let’s trade shoes then. You wear these heels and I’ll take those loafers. Then I’m fine with walking.
But I always agreed with him that we should walk and we always walked.
The boys don’t mind walking. They’ve already picked up the bags and marched out the door, ready to get going. I am left standing there holding sunscreen and their hats. Kiyoshi shakes his head again, leans out the door and calls the boys back Japanese. Our rule is English inside the house, Japanese outside. I consider the genkan to be inside but Kiyoshi considers the genkan to be outside. We usually go with what he thinks in small matters like this.
The boys march back in and stand in the entryway, still holding the bags, shifting impatiently from side to side as I quickly cover their faces, arms and hands with sunscreen and put their hats on.
“Shades?” I ask. Kiyo quickly shakes his head, no. His brother nods and I perch the sunglasses at the very end of his nose. He giggles and scrunches up his nose over and over, trying to get the glasses to wriggle upwards. Kiyo changes his mind. “Shades, please, mama.” I put the sunglasses at his forehead and he nods down and up vigorously, trying to get them to fall into the right place.
“Daddy, too,” Ren says, and I turn to Kiyoshi. “I already have,” he says, meaning he’s already put on sunscreen. He won’t wear sunglasses if he’s not on the boat and even then only rarely. A Japanese thing, I think. It makes people uncomfortable when you hide your eyes. I put his hat on his head. He hates it, thinks his head is too big for hats, but agrees to wear it because the boys are watching.
“Mommy, too,” Kiyo says. I put on my hat and sunglasses.
“Now we are ready,” Kiyoshi announces.
On the narrow road to Kiyoshi’s parents’ house, we are surprised when they drive by us. The boys see them and call out to them happily, “Ojiisan! Obaasan!” Ren turns to me and says, “Look, mama! Grandma and grandpa!” They are headed in the same direction we are, so they stop and greet us and a short conversation reveals that they have gone to restock their cleaning supplies. The boys show them our full bags. This is going to be an all day affair.
Kiyoshi’s younger sister Tamae is in the backseat. She does not look at us. Kiyoshi ignores her and the boys follow suit.

This part is true:
We have been out drinking, just the two of us, and I missed the last train from Ginza. Kiyoshi asked how I would get home.
“Oh,” I replied, “by taxi.” A taxi from Ginza to my neighborhood will cost about 5,000 yen—fifty bucks—which is fine. It wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last time I spent 5,000 yen that way.
Kiyoshi said, “You can stay in Shimbash’ at my place. I will make you dinner.”
It was an interesting offer, but I had recently become wary of interesting offers from men.
A couple of weeks before I met Kiyoshi my Australian coworker Will had asked if I wanted to come up to his place and watch some rugby. We had lived in the same building for three and a half months and he had never invited me up to his place. I wondered why he was asking me now, but figured that he had finally gotten to know me a little bit better from the days we spent working together and the nights we spent out drinking with others. It had been a long, lonely three and a half months and I assumed, somewhat hopefully, that “watch some rugby” was an Aussie euphemism for something more interesting. We agreed on a time to meet and I prepared accordingly. When I arrived at Will’s place at the appointed time, he invited me in and happily accepted my gift of a couple of cans of grapefruit chu-hi and a bag of seaweed and salt chips. Then much to my disappointment he switched on a rugby game and exclaimed, “Can you believe it? All I do is pay a little extra for a satellite dish and I can watch all the rugby I want!”
We sat at opposite ends of his small sofa and watched rugby. I had never seen a rugby game before and I didn’t know the teams or players or any of the rules. I feared that it might be like American football and that I was in for hours and hours of torture, complete with mindless commentary, plays and slow-motion replays, a halftime show, the whole nine yards. I was very happy to find out that rugby matches are mercifully short. By the time it was finished, just shy of two hours later, I was actually into the game a bit. The muscular players in shorts helped temper my disappointment. But it all came back at the end of the game when I looked over at Will to see that he was fast asleep, his head tilted against the back, snoring softly.
The whole experience had knocked my confidence enough that when Kiyoshi invited me to stay at his place in Shimbashi, the most I was expecting was dinner and a place to wait out the handful of hours until first train. Still, 5,000 yen was 5,000 yen, so I accepted.
On the walk to his place we stopped at a small, all-night grocery store and Kiyoshi bought pork belly and cabbage and a few other things to make nabe.
His apartment was in the center of Tokyo, close to where I worked in Ginza. It was the type that the Japanese call a “mansion”—not a mansion the way Americans define them, but rather a condominium-style apartment. (“Mansion” was the word real estate agents had adopted to convey a sense of luxury.) I had never been in an apartment in Japan besides my own and Will’s, which had the exact same layout mine had, just three floors higher.
We took the elevator to the third floor and Kiyoshi noted my surprise when he opened the door. From what I could see from the genkan, the place was four or five times larger than my tiny, expensive, one-room rental at the far eastern edge of the city.
“This is a big place,” I said.
“My grandfather’s,” he said, by way of explanation.
He had told me little about his grandfather. From what I gathered, he was quite elderly (though who knows really since Kiyoshi was only twenty-three and at twenty-three even fifty can seem quite elderly). He lived on an island and brought his boat to the company’s offices every day. In response to my asking what his grandfather did at the office, Kiyoshi had laughed. “Sleep,” he answered. “Mostly he sleeps.”
His grandfather had bought the apartment in the center of the city so that he had a place to stay when he came to Tokyo on business. Kiyoshi and his younger brother—“my two-years younger brother,” as he called him—had been sharing the apartment while his brother was at university and Kiyoshi was working in Tokyo. Because he was the oldest son Kiyoshi had the larger bedroom. His younger brother slept in a smaller room off the living room. Even with Kiyoshi gone most of the time, the younger brother did not try to muscle in on the larger room.
It was clear to me that two twenty-something bachelors had been sharing the place. That impression started at the genkan where I stepped out of my heels and left them amidst a jumble of sneakers and leather loafers, a couple of gym bags, a backpack, and a briefcase. Kiyoshi took my coat and hung it up next to one of his plain, brown suit jackets. I caught a glimpse of the label in the jacket. My entire wardrobe wasn’t worth what the suit cost.
Kiyoshi turned down my offer to help cook and instead he handed me a small glass of beer and left me in the living room, where I perched uneasily on a small, blue sofa. I looked around at the large television set and the game console which had been left out, the controllers in an untidy tangle of wires with games stacked around on the floor. There were collectible manga (or anime, maybe, I didn’t know) figures on the bookshelves. There was a guitar on a stand near the sofa.
The door to the brother’s room was open and through it I could see an unmade bed with rumpled clothes piled at one end and a desk stacked with books and papers. A laptop sat open in the center of the desk surrounded by several empty green tea bottles, the detritus of a twenty-year-old university student.
Kiyoshi was an efficient cook and we were soon seated on zabuton at his low dining table. He served hot rice into a small bowl and handed it to me. Only then did he think to ask, “Do you like nabe?”
My only experience with nabe had been in a restaurant with a handful of coworkers. Eight of us had squeezed around a table in a small, private room. A waitress in a kimono had brought in a large, squat earthenware pot—the nabe itself—and set it on a burner in the middle of the table. She went out and returned with a small jug filled with broth and a large flat basket piled high with uncooked sliced pork, chunks of tofu, slices of pale-fleshed fish, some type of large shellfish with rocky-looking shells, enoki and matsutake mushrooms, slices of large green onion, bits of cabbage, and a few other things I did not recognize. One of my Japanese coworkers, Jun, had arranged everything in the pot and poured in the broth. He turned on the burner and put the lid on the pot. While the food cooked, we all drank beer and chatted. Every few minutes, Jun would lift the lid and nudge a few things around gently with a pair of long cooking chopsticks. Sometimes he would skim the top of the broth. When Jun finally decided that the nabe was ready, he removed the lid and all eight of us ate from the same pot, dipping the things we fished out of the pot into small bowls of a thin, dark sauce. Everyone had concentrated on the food and conversation ceased until the nabe was nearly all gone. I remember being slightly drunk, marveling at the food and at my Japanese coworkers’ appreciative exclamations—“Oishii!” and “Umai!” and “m-mmm, m-mmm’s.” Over the next year, I would come to be very familiar with these words from sharing the breakroom table and restaurant meals.
Now I said to Kiyoshi, “Yes, I do like nabe. I ate nabe in Ginza one time.”
He nodded and watched me closely, as he often did.
“Itadakimasu,” I said. I picked up my chopsticks and dipped into the pot for a slice of pork. I dipped it into my bowl of sauce and ate it. “This is good,” I said.
Kiyoshi looked concerned. ”You don’t like it.” It was not a question.
“No, Kiyoshi, I like it. It’s good.”
He was unconvinced. “I can make something else,” he said. “I can make an omelette.” He started to stand up.
I was confused as to how we got to this point and thought that it might be because I had not made enough appreciative noises. “Oishii!” I said. “M-mmm.” I took a piece of a mushroom and ate it, again enthusiastically exclaiming, “Oishii!” It was embarrassing for me to make noise while I ate, but now I did. I thought it might help if I had more beer, so I did that too. “M-mm-mmm.”
Kiyoshi relaxed and began to eat.
We finished most of the small pot of food and I helped him clear the table and wash dishes. I was fairly drunk by then, so mostly I stood and watched him wash the dishes. He put the remaining food in a bowl and I offered to put it in the refrigerator. Accidentally opening the freezer door, I saw a box of Morinaga chocolate ice cream bars. I would have killed for one—sweets are my weakness—but I didn’t say anything and he, not realizing, didn’t offer.
After cleaning up, we were both at a loss as to what to do. I returned to the sofa and he sat next to me, but on the floor, leaning back against the sofa. I wondered if I should also sit on the floor, but decided that I didn’t want to. My apartment did not have a sofa to sit on, only a chair with no legs. If nothing else, I thought, at least I could enjoy sitting on a sofa for awhile.
Kiyoshi reached for his guitar and began to play, not in a show off, playing to me kind of way, but just playing. When he finished the song, I asked, “Where did you learn to play guitar?”
“On the ship,” he said. “On there I have time to practice.”
Ah. It was one of the things he had picked up to pass the time. He had revealed a few of these things to me on our dates, including a small repertoire of sleight-of-hand tricks using hundred yen and five-hundred yen coins. If we were out with others, he would sometimes catch my eye and without drawing anyone else’s attention to himself, would hold a coin at table level and while I watched, would make it disappear from one hand and then reappear in the other with a subdued version of a magician’s flourish.
Now he sat forward to put the guitar back on its stand. When he leaned back against the couch, I reached down and rested my hand on his shoulder. He jumped away from my touch, was on his feet in an instant.
“I’m sorry,” I said, immediately.
“No, no,” he said. “Daijobu. It’s okay.”
Be careful, one of my coworkers had warned me when I had asked her what daijobu meant. “Daijobu,” she had said, “means okay and it is often a lie.”
Kiyoshi and I were both flustered now, flushed from drink and embarrassment. How was this even worse than misinterpreting an innocent invitation to watch rugby?
I was drunk but some part of my brain was still coherent enough to begin planning an exit. How was I going to get home? There were no trains running in Tokyo at this hour so I would need to get a taxi. This was a quiet, out-of-the-way street and it was unlikely that I would be able to hail a taxi from here. Where would I need to go to find a taxi?
I stood up.
I thought I could I ask him to call me a taxi but quickly rejected that idea. I suddenly didn’t want to ask him for anything. If I could find the nearby station, I could wait out the hours there until first train.
“I’m sorry,” I said again. “I should go home.”
“Daijobu,” he repeated. Still a lie. “Christina-san, okay. It’s okay.”
It’s my turn now to say that it was okay. Could we each lie our way out of this? My humiliation was too big, the apartment suddenly too small. “It’s okay,” I said, “Can you show me where to find a taxi?”
“You should stay.” He didn’t touch me, didn’t get near me.
The same coworker who had told me that daijobu is often a lie had also told me to reject all first and all second offers in Japan.
“It’s okay,” I say. “I can find a taxi.” The idea of being lost in Tokyo in the middle of the night was not appealing, but I needed to get out of there. I had been in—and gotten out of—worse places before. There would be a koban somewhere and I could ask a policeman. Tokyo is a safer city than most and this was a swank area. I told myself that I would be fine.
“You should stay.” A second offer.
I smiled and shook my head, moving toward the genkan, my shoes, my coat, the door. I wondered how much bowing was going to take to extract myself from this situation.
“Please,” he says. “Only, I am surprised. Only surprise.”
I nod, trying to convey that everything is fine with me, too, my mistake and his rejection already forgotten. It was just an inevitable breach in etiquette or my poor manners. Just a simple misunderstanding.
He caught up to me in the genkan as I was putting on my shoes. It was there that he first kissed me. It was a strange kiss, with too little yielding by either of us, but it was more than before. I don’t exactly like it, but I was desperate for the contact.

I dread returning to this story.
I dread returning to this story, but I do return. I always come back. Some parts are well-worn, shifting a bit as I go over them again and again. I think briefly of Kiyoshi as he was at twenty-two the day I met him, and at twenty-three when we started dating, then thirty and married to someone else, then forty and married to me. So much changed in that time—hair greyed, bellies thickened, thoughts shifted, and experience narrowed some opinions and widened others. But in my heart, he will always be the tall, handsome, young man I fell in love with.
I was teaching in a tiny English school in Ginza. My students were adults, most in their thirties and forties. The youngest was a cute, young, high school-aged girl with braces (unusual in Japan) and a Sanrio-branded soul who came in after school. She was whipsmart and fun and giggled her way through lessons. After her came a handful of older men and women who added English studies to a list of post-retirement activities that included golf, travel, and shopping. They were followed by a glut of businessmen and OL—“office ladies”—in their thirties and forties who came in looking haggard after a day of work.
One night after classes were finished, most of the students had left the school. Since it was the rare night that I had not been invited to go out drinking, I was planning to have dinner and go to the gym. Before that though I wanted to ransack a closet in one of the classrooms. Halloween was coming up and I had heard rumors of the school’s costume stash.
I walked into the classroom where the closet was and he was standing there, next to one of the desks, alone, waiting. He was standing alone in such a way that he did not appear to be uncomfortable standing alone, waiting. He was taller than I was, well over six feet tall, and much heavier. He was wearing a brown suit—brown was the elegant color in Japan that year—and had wavy hair cut very short.
I was taken aback—who was this person? Was he one of the new Japanese part-time English teachers I had been told would be starting soon?
I greeted him, “Hi, I’m Christina. What’s your name?” and held out my hand to shake. Shaking hands was one of the ways I separated and categorized the Japanese I met. Teachers and upper level students would readily shake hands—some seemed to desire as much contact with Westerners as they could get—but the lower level students weren’t as accustomed to meeting foreigners so they weren’t so sure about the hand shaking business. They would often hesitate and I could see the wheels turning as they tried to decide how or if they had to combine a bow with a handshake. Shaking hands was clearly not a practiced gesture nor, for many, a desirable one.
He did not hesitate to shake my hand but he was stiff, formal. I took it as a challenge. His reply to my question in English was smooth, without hesitation. In fact, I was the one who stumbled as he reeled out his full name quickly, putting his family name before his given name. Then at my confused look, he shortened it. “Kiyo,” he said. “I go by Kiyo in English.”
Even that much of his name was not familiar from the list of names I had heard at the meeting. So he was not one of the teachers. “What do you do, Kiyo?” I asked.
“Do?” He asked. “My job? You mean my job.”
“I am a trainee with a company in Tokyo.” It was a vague answer. A non-answer. Very Japanese. I leaned slightly closer to him and he moved slightly away from me, putting the desk between us.
“A trainee?” I pressed, “With what company?”
Again, he reeled out a Japanese name too quickly for me to catch. But even when he slowed it down and ran it by me again, it was nothing I recognized. Of course, many of our students worked for Japanese companies that I didn’t know, but some worked for big American or European corporations like Tiffany & Co. or Apple. I shook my head and said, “I don’t know it. What kind of business is it?”
“Shipping,” he replied. “Shipping company.” His reply was polite but unyielding. A very Japanese response.
I pressed further. “Do you like your job?”
“No, I don’t like,” he said evenly. An unusual admission, but not unheard of. Every once in a while I would hear a complaint about someone’s workplace and many people came to improve their English so they could change jobs.
I kept pressing, interested in how carefully he was refusing to yield, to offer any more information. “Why do you stay?”
“Can you change your job?”
He replied, “It is my father’s company. I am the oldest son.” Then he did yield, suddenly, startling me. “That stupid Japanese way of thinking.”
I leaned away and nodded, understanding. I started to ask another question, but his phone rang and he reached into his inner pocket for it and checked the caller ID. He had to answer the call so he made a chopping gesture with one hand, excusing himself and dismissing me.
I nodded and stepped away from him. I still had business in the closet.
There was a pile of costumes in there. I sorted through a few, but they were mostly pretty lame—some of them veering sharply but not unexpectedly into offensive cultural stereotypes—and they were so disheveled that I wouldn’t have worn any of them anyway. Finally at the bottom of the pile, I found a tall, black, peaked witches’ hat. I could combine that with my usual black business suit and it would make the perfect after-work costume.
My coworkers did not remark on the way I dressed, all in black, but the students sometimes if I knew that in Japan you would only wear all black to funerals. I had laughingly said that my class would be so difficult they would rather attend a funeral, but the joke fell flat. The truth was that I had read that finding my size was going to be an impossibility even in a city the size of Tokyo, so I had brought only black business clothes with me to Japan. I just wanted everything to match with everything else in my wardrobe.
When I emerged from the closet with my witch’s hat, Kiyoshi was talking to one of my coworkers. She was speaking to him in Japanese in her annoying, chirpy voice, too cutesy for a woman in her late forties. She was using very formal Japanese and had defaulted to the high pitch that women use when to speaking to those ranked above them. From the bit I caught and could understand of their conversation, she had been sent to gauge his level so that he could join the school.
I didn’t bother to interrupt them to say goodby.
I gathered my things and caught the train home. My gym membership, the cheapest they offered, did not allow me into the gym until 11:00 p.m.—they were open 24 hours but closed on Wednesdays—so I had time to have a single-girl dinner of popcorn and plain tofu before my workout. By the time I got home from the gym at one-thirty, I had forgotten all about the encounter with the shipping company trainee.
A couple of days later, the manager of the school came to me and asked, “Do you remember Kiyoshi? From tonight he will be your student.”
Kiyoshi? I could not remember any Kiyoshi but I tried to fake a bit of enthusiasm in an effort to convince my boss that I was so looking forward to any student that joined the school. “Oh, great!” I replied, as genki as I could manage. “That will be fun.” I had no idea who he was talking about—Kiyoshi?—but when I printed out my student lists, there was the name. He had signed up for my last class of the evening, a discussion group I taught of high level students. It was a good set up because it often progressed seamlessly into a more free-for-all discussion in the restaurant three floors above the school where we could share food and, more importantly, drink together.
At class time, no one named Kiyoshi showed up. About ten minutes into class, the door swung open and there he was, red faced. I thought, oh, right, this guy. He did not apologize for being late. He took an empty desk, making something of a production of it as he had to excuse himself to get past a couple of other students who had to move their briefcases and tote bags out of his way. Miffed at the rudeness of the interruption and at his being late, I had stopped the class when he came in. We all sat in silence until he was settled in his seat. Then I said, “We have a new student. Please stand up and introduce yourself.”
He stood up, looked around, said, “My name is Kiyo and I am drunk.” Then he sat down again.
It was hard to hold in my laughter. “Welcome, Kiyo.”
After class, he consented to come out and continue drinking with a few of the other students. He purposefully sat next to me in the restaurant and I took this as permission to continue prying into his life. He told me that he was twenty-two years old, which I knew from my student list. He had graduated from a marine college near Hiroshima two years ago. He studied to be a navigator because it was one of the courses they offered that would put him on the path to captaining his own ship. Every time he stopped to take a breath or a sip of his drink, I would ask another question, wondering how long he would let me go on digging. After graduating, he was sent to Sydney, Australia, for a year to study English. From there he moved to America to work for a company affiliated with his family’s company. He lived in New Jersey and went often into New York City. His English did not improve while living in America, he told me, because everyone in the company spoke Japanese.
He patiently bore every one of my questions. Then he said, “I have a question.” I nodded an okay as I took a drink of my gin-tonic. “What is your purpose in coming to Japan?” he asked.
Many students had asked me about this. The answer I gave was true and always the same. As a child I had lived in a city that was sister city to Sasebo. Some Japanese from Sasebo had once come to my elementary school to visit and a small assembly was held in their honor. I was fascinated by this small group of unfamiliar people who didn’t look like us or talk like us. They were so different from the big, brown, boisterous people that I came from. To commemorate their visit, my third grade teacher taught us about Japan. We learned a handful of Japanese words—kutsu, gohan, gyunyu, ocha. She showed us how to pick up things with hashi using paper wrapped chopsticks donated by a local Chinese restaurant. She sat us on the carpet in a circle—Japanese sat on the floor at home, she said—and she served us small candies that her son, a marine stationed in Okinawa, had sent her. And that was all it took. All my life, I had wanted to know more about Japan and to meet more Japanese.
He seemed skeptical. “If you had studied about, for example, Brazil, you would have gone there?” he asked.
“Yes, perhaps,” I answered.



Despite my desire to come to Japan, I wouldn’t have accepted the job in any other city but Tokyo. I figured (rightly, as it turned out) that there would be more English speakers in Tokyo than anywhere else and so the city would be relatively easy to get around in. True, I had few problems navigating most of the city, but I struggled with other aspects of living in Japan. I had been in Tokyo for four months and had made no friends, not even among the group of people I trained with and who I had been encouraged to see as a ready-made support group. Most of my training group—men and women from all over America—had been sent to other parts of Japan.
Only a small group of us—myself and two other women—ended up in Tokyo. I shared a room with one of those women during training. Early one morning she stumbled into our room half-drunk, waking me. She had gone clubbing in Roppongi with some of the other trainees the night before and ended up going to a love hotel with a Japanese man she had picked up. She told me she had insulted the guy by insisting he go down on her—he refused—and that she passed out after that. She woke up to a ringing phone. It was the front desk of the love hotel calling to tell her it was time to get the hell out. Her wallet with her credit cards, identification, two thousand yen, and, she sobbed, the only picture she had of her parrot that had died the year before, were all gone. There was a thousand yen, about ten dollars, on the nightstand. She used the money to get the train back to the training house.
It was our day off and she insisted that I vacate the room so she could sleep off her hangover. She called me inconsiderate when I made noise while getting ready to do so. Later, she asked to borrow my stick deodorant and when I refused she waited until I left the room then rooted around in my suitcase to find and use it, leaving it on top of all my clothes. She quit during her first week on the job because she thought it was unfair that she got in trouble after she went out shoe shopping on her lunch hour and failed to come back to the school in time for her next class.
The other woman who had been posted to Tokyo was very young, gorgeous, and outrageously flirtatious. On her third day in Japan she was stopped by a police officer on her way back to the training house from the conbini. The officer suspected from her dress and demeanor that she was a prostitute and he was shocked to find out that she was an English teacher. She found the whole thing hilarious. The trainers advised her not to tell the prostitute story to the students who came on our last day of training to meet us. I thought: She will do very well in Japan. Hell, she would do well anywhere in the world. She ended up being sent to Ikebukuro and we never, ever spoke with one another after training was finished.
So much for that ready-made support group.
Trying to make friends, I went out drinking after work with many people (anyone who asked, really) but nothing took. I spent most of my time solo, traveling around Tokyo and other parts of Japan. Every once in awhile I would meet a student around my own age who had lived abroad. When that happened, I would an extend an invitation to them, saying that I would love to meet up and hear about their experiences. My direct approach scared off everyone off. A few of the bolder students might bring photographs or a memento from their travels to show me after class, but Kiyoshi was the only one who ever took me up on my offer to meet outside the school.
After he had attended a few lessons, I paired him up in class with a beautiful young woman. I loved pairing up students this way, mixing the salarymen with cute OLs just so that I could sit back and watch the awkward interactions. I listened in while Kiyoshi introduced himself to the young woman and I interrupted him when he said he was twenty-three. “Last week you said twenty-two,” I said.
“Oh, yes,” he replied, “My birthday is last week.”
I wished him a happy birthday. He nodded.
Even with a year added, he was so much younger than me that when we made plans to meet I didn’t think of it as a date. That was my first mistake. I showed up wearing no makeup, in jeans and boots, with my hair pulled back into a ponytail. That was my second mistake. We had arranged to meet in Ginza, in front of the school. He rode up on his bicycle ten minutes after our agreed upon time and he did not offer an excuse or apology for being late. I thought at the time that maybe he was speechless from disappointment at my appearance, but no, that wasn’t it.
In my mind it was just another Saturday, my day off, and I had things to do. I was going to meet this kid for coffee and hear more about his time in Sydney and New Jersey. Then I was going to go back to my neighborhood via the supermarket in the station in Ueno where they sold the breakfast cereal that I could not find in my little neighborhood grocery store. I would still have time after that to do some laundry and hit the gym.
Ginza was relatively quiet. Later, Chuo-dori would be closed to traffic and the whole neighborhood would be thick with shoppers, but it was early yet. I had noticed that true Tokyoites didn’t seem to like to get rolling until noon at the earliest.
Kiyoshi left his bike near some railings next to the school and we walked a couple of blocks to the large coffee shop in Ginza go-chome. I was familiar with the place from spending time there during my mid-afternoon breaks. Free of the school, I would get a coffee and pastry, carry it upstairs and sit at the counter that faced the second story window. It was a good spot to watch people on the street below. I had tried a few times to sit at a table downstairs, but when I did that, I became the thing to be watched. The scrutiny, however polite, was too much for me.
Kiyoshi and I ordered coffees at the counter and carried our trays to a small table near the entrance. I excused myself before I sat down. I went into the bathroom and took my hair out of the ponytail and brushed it out. At the bottom of my bag, I found a forgotten lipstick and a stubby eyeliner pencil. I applied both. I couldn’t do anything about the jeans and boots, so I settled on unbuttoning a couple of the top buttons of my shirt, enough to make things interesting.
When I returned to the table, he looked relieved. I was a girl after all.
We were both too tall to sit facing each other at the tiny table without our knees touching, so we awkwardly angled ourselves away from the table and each other. The conversation was strained. What had been so smooth over late night drinks in dark restaurants did not survive exposure to morning light. His ease with English seemed to drain out of him and what little Japanese I could speak embarrassed everyone, but most of all me. He responded to my questions with perfunctory answers. He would not make eye contact. The coffee was served in dainty porcelain cups and saucers and his hands were shaking so much that the cup clattered against the saucer each time he lifted it up or put it down.
The tiny cups of coffee were shockingly expensive but I wasn’t so upset because their size meant that we would soon be finished. I would be able to make my escape. It wasn’t long before the conversation died out completely. We sat in silence over the empty cups for a long time, both of us looking around the room. Finally I just stood up and asked, “Are you ready to go?”
“Oh. Yes,” he said, standing. “Yes.”
We paused in the doorway, dodging people who were coming in. Before I could say my goodbyes, he asked, “What would you like to do now?”
The question caught me off guard, but it didn’t take even a second to decide that I wanted to see where he and the day were going to take me.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “Anything is fine.”
He took me to to Shibuya.
Since coming to Tokyo, I had often gone to Shibuya. My favorite thing to do was to go early in the morning and walk along the calm, cool, tree-lined Aoyama-dori in Omotesando, the street that led to the beautifully wild Meiji shrine. It was an expensive street filled with shops selling luxury goods just like in Ginza, but it was less formal. The new-money shoppers in Omotesando were younger and hipper than the old-money shoppers of Ginza, but they were more relaxed. This was my view of Shibuya.
Kiyoshi had a different view. Instead of heading to Omotesando, we went to Harajuku.
I had been to Harajuku, of course. There was no avoiding it. Near the station were young women who hung out on the street all day dressed in Lolita fashion, frilly pink and white dresses with stiff petticoats and pinafores, white stockings and lace-edged ankle socks, teetering on platform Mary janes, looking like baby prostitutes on their way to Easter Sunday services. A short distance away was Yoyogi park. Every weekend, a group of twenty-something men gathered just outside the park. They dressed up like 50s American greasers in blue jeans, windbreakers or leather jackets and pointy toes boots. They combed their hair into duck’s ass styles with elaborate pompadours. They spent all day dancing to rock-a-billy music, blasting old school American rock’n’rollers like Jerry Lewis, Chuck Barry, Bill Haley and the Comets. If you smiled at them, they used it as excuse to practice their curled lip Elvis sneers in return. Inside the park, I had run into jugglers, buskers, and on one early summer afternoon, I spotted a man gamboling among the trees dressed only in a skintight pink bodysuit, pink Zorro mask, and an enormous flowered hat perched on his head.
On this day in Harajuku, we bypassed the Lolita girls and Elvis wannabes and instead Kiyoshi led me to Takeshita-dori, another famous shopping district, but younger and trendier still than either Ometesando or Ginza. Even though it was still early in the day, the street was already awash with teenagers and twenty-somethings sauntering in and out of shops filled with edgy accessories and fashionable clothes. Here and there were stands that sold crepes or ice cream of doner kabob.
Down one street, we stopped to examine a display of red pleather bondage gear that spilled out of a shop onto the sidewalk. “What do you think?” I asked Kiyoshi. “Is this your style?”
He was noncommittal. “I think this is a famous shop,” was all he said.
We didn’t go in that time. Instead we walked. We walked and walked, taking in more and more of the scene. Finally he asked if I wanted lunch. I checked the time on my phone. We had been walking around Shibuya for almost three hours.
He chose a crowded pizza place where we could sit down for awhile. We took a table near the window and he ordered a pizza for us—something with corn and a fried egg on top—then watched me carefully as I ordered a drink from the waitress in Japanese. He did not seem impressed.
While we waited for our pizza, he asked me if I had ever been to England. I had not. He told me he had gone there the year before. He asked if I wanted to see pictures of his trip and of course I said yes. He pulled out his phone. In most of the snapshots he showed me, he and his friends were posed with the famous white cliffs behind them. “Is this Dover?” I asked. He was impressed that I recognized it.
I pointed to the young woman who was beside him in almost every photo. “Is this your girlfriend?” I asked.
“Ah, yes,” he answered. “My before girlfriend. What can I say?”
“Yes, yes. My ex-girlfriend.”
I pointed to an elderly couple that happened to be standing a few meters away from him and his ex-girlfriend. “Are these your parents?” I jokingly asked.
He looked startled. “Aru?”
I pointed to the frumpy, white-haired woman who was digging in her large handbag for something. “Is this your mother?” I said, laughing.
He caught on. “Yes, yes,” he said, “my mother.”
“She’s cute.”
That got a laugh from him. “Oh, thank you,” he replied.
We shared the pizza, the first I had eaten in Japan (it was my turn to not be impressed, but I did not say so) and I turned down dessert. I was desperate for another coffee, but they did not serve any. Outside the restaurant, he still showed no inclination to end our time together and I had decided to say nothing, to wait to see when and how he would manage to extract himself from whatever this was.
We continued to walk the streets of Shibuya. I spotted a Don Quijote, the biggest discount store in Tokyo. “Oh! Can we go in there?” I asked.
“You want to go into Donki?” He wasn’t sure if I was joking.
My coworkers had told me that I might find a costume for the school’s upcoming party. “I want to look at Halloween costumes,” I said.
Inside it was screamingly loud and jammed with people. There was an entire section devoted to Halloween and I looked at the costumes—slutty policewoman, slutty pirate wench, slutty mermaid—all cheap, throwaway types. He drew my attention to one of the men’s costumes, a hanging plastic bag filled with a fake leather vest and chaps and skintight booty shorts. “Do you know this?” he asked. I did not. He explained that this was from a comedian’s gay character and was much beloved in Japan. Nearby we found a display of toys for children, stuffed dolls in leather

retreat or surrender

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