My Australian friend Will, who lives in Osaka, may have the only unheated toilet seat in all Japan. I don’t know for sure, not having sat on every toilet in the country, but he’s definitely got the only unheated toilet seat I’ve seen or heard of, which is saying something.
That might sound like an insignificant detail. But after five months of heated toilets, sitting on one that’s not heated is a startling experience. When it’s an Arctic zone out there in the apartment, and you’re mentally and physically prepared for a nice, toasty seat to mitigate in some small fashion the effect of watching your breath freeze into solid form while you’re doing your business, it’s an unpleasant surprise to suddenly find yourself squatting on a horseshoe-shaped block of ice instead of an 85-degree ring of warm coziness. In fact, it’s just the sort of thing that can cause a stunned sphincter to shut up like a fist and refuse to cooperate, forcing you to go through the whole miserable ordeal again an hour later once everybody’s had a chance to calm down and recover from the initial shock.
Heated toilet seats are a fundamental part of existence in Japan, in much the same way that heated homes are fundamental in the U.S. Obviously, a comfortably warm toilet seat is no replacement for a comfortably warm apartment, but it’s something, and when it’s not there, you notice it.
Japan goes rather wild for toilets, actually. Many times you can find an electronic box about the size of a remote control, which in fact it is, next to them, bristling with buttons, dials, switches, and cryptic Japanese characters – the brain of the toilet, as it were, giving the user access to a vast and bewildering array of posterior-themed effects. Assuming you can master the controls, you can summon music to help you relax, a squirt of warm water up your backside – in jet, pulse, or spray form, directed at the specific nether region of your choice – a gentle blast of hot air, a deodorizing splash, massage options, and for all I know a nice pat down with baby powder, I wouldn’t be at all surprised. I try not to mess around with the control box; you never know what you’re gonna get. It’s just not worth the risk, in my opinion.
Contrast this with the other most common such appliance in this country, what natives delicately call the “Japanese-style” toilet. Here’s a fun experiment: approach anyone you know who’s been to Japan, and ask them what they think about the traditional Japanese-style toilet. Guy, girl, doesn’t matter. Watch their face and their body language as they compose their answer, and as you’re doing so imagine that you just asked them what they think about eating live cockroaches. You’ll find the real and imagined responses are indistinguishable. That’s because the hi-tech, space-age, Jetsons toilets are limited pretty much exclusively to private homes and big hotels and restaurants. Far and away the most common public toilet here is the Japanese-style variety, which uses a different technology, one dating from roughly the Pleistocene Era.
What I’m talking about is a narrow, rectangular porcelain hole in the floor. Sitting is not remotely an option, and don’t even think about kicking back with a magazine, because you’re going to need both hands for balance. The specific means by which any waste material relocates itself from its position inside your body to the bottom of this shallow dish on the floor two and a half feet away is entirely up to you, and you’re allowed to be as creative as you like, though you’ll have to do so without the use of handholds or any other kind of support.
When you’re finished with this adventure, you may or may not find that you share the stall with a roll of toilet paper, so it’s best to check in advance. These devices do flush, but the water emerges from one side of the bowl and drains out the other side, grudgingly dragging with it anything in the center than might happen to be lying about. It’s as humbling a bathroom experience as you’re likely to have outside of a camping trip.
But Will’s toilet is just a plain old, garden-variety western crapper, mounted in the floor uncomfortably close to the wall it faces, so that there’s only about 18 inches of maneuvering space between the two. When sitting down is called for, a person has to first drop his or her pants, then wedge himself into this space and make like a Hindi contortionist to end up on the seat itself. There’s the slow way, which requires the use of abdominal muscles evolution hasn’t yet provided human beings, and there’s the fast way, which basically involves falling backward. Hence the shock. As with the Japanese-style version, the nature of this process precludes reading material. Though who really wants to curl up with a book on an icebound toilet seat in a noxious, closet-sized room with the ambiance of a walk-in freezer? Color me uninterested.
Still, when you gotta go, you gotta go, and on this particular evening I was committed to going. In about two hours, I had something approximating a date, and rule number one with a date is Never Forget To Take a Dump Beforehand. Nothing takes the luster off a romantic evening like excusing yourself right after you’ve polished off a rack of ribs, a bowl of slaw, a pile of home fries, two ears of corn, and a heaping bowlful of ‘nilla pudding for a ten-minute trip to the little boys room, from which you return sweating. She’s no dummy. She knows there are only two things that could require ten full minutes in the bathroom, and neither one of them gets you into her apartment at the end of the night. The only real competition this rule has for the number-one spot is Never Forget Your Wallet, but the penalties for flouting either one of these commandments are bad enough that the difference between them is negligible.
During the early part of the previous Monday night – New Year’s Eve, as it turns out – Will and I had found ourselves at a bar in Osaka’s Umeda district called Captain Kangaroo. It’s a divey sort of smallish place with an antique shop’s with of generic Western bric-a-brac strewn over the walls – old movie posters, cowboy hats, neon signs for American beers, roadsigns, that sort of thing. The name was a mystery: there was nothing remotely maritime about the place, nor did it seem to have any visible Australian motif.
When I hear “Captain Kangaroo,” my mind snaps immediately to the long-running children’s television program on PBS from my youth. I wasn’t sure how I felt about watching the calendar tick over from 2007 to 2008 in a place I associated with Baby Duck, Mr. Moose, the sexually ambiguous Mr. Green Jeans, a bunch of sock puppets, and a grandfatherly figure whose only qualification for being a captain of anything was that he wore a red coat with great big pockets.
But Will had raved over an early-evening deal the place offered: a burger and a beer for ¥1,000. That’s a bargain, especially in the world’s eighth’s most expensive city. Captain Kangaroo is also apparently a favorite of Osaka’s non-native population, and the chance to speak English with someone other than Will on New Year’s Eve had a definite allure.
Five minutes later we were seated at the bar, bottles of beer in front of us, and burgers – real ones, I was assured – on the way. We were almost alone in the place. Sitting a seat over from me at the bar was a doughy, curly-haired man with a mouth of teeth that looked like a train wreck from which there’d been no survivors. He was dressed in jeans, penny loafers, and a tucked-in flannel shirt – the kind of person you’d expect to see using hand signals on a bicycle. He spent a few minutes glancing over at us and nuzzling his beer in a pensive way that made it clear he was working his way up to starting a conversation.
“Cheers, then,” he finally said.
We lifted our bottles. “Cheers.”
Will immediately leaned over toward me. “Kiwi,” he whispered.
“Twooooooo thousand eight,” the guy said after a moment, as if this were a profoundly insightful observation.
“Yup,” I said.
“Ten years I been in this country. Come here for a six-week job in 1997 to cut up cars fer a comp’ny what ships ‘em back to New Zealand.” Will elbowed me in the rips. “Just never left, y’know? Tell ya the truth, I never thought I’d be here this long. Still cuttin’ up cars, too. Funny how life works out, innit?”
“I suppose it is.”
“I like it good enough, though. Food’s alright, long’s ya like fish.” He took a sip. “Bloody hard to find a decent girl, though.”
“Mm,” I said.
“Gets a bit lonely sometimes, it does,” he said after a pause.
Please don’t do this to me, I thought.
“You married?” he asked.
“Nope,” I said. “So how ‘bout those Osaka Tigers? They win?” I had no idea what I was talking about. Was it even baseball season in Japan?
“Me either,” he mumbled into his beer.
“Twooooooo thousand eight,” I said.
“When I came out here ten years ago,” he went on, “all my mates back home said I was sure to come back home with a Japanese girl on my arm. ‘Wait and see,’ they told me. ‘They go bananas fer western fellas over there. Even the western lassies won’t be able to get enough of ya.’ Sounded pretty good at the time.” He paused for a sigh. “But it’s bloody hard, I tell ya. The lassies here are all crazy, is the problem.”
“Mm,” I said. Inside me, alarms were screaming, klaxons were sounding, and sirens were wailing.
“Maybe tonight, eh?” he sighed. “New Year’s Eve and all.”
I looked at Will. Either help me out here or kill me, my eyes pleaded, but do one or the other quickly.
Will took a sip of his beer and cleared his throat. “So there was this Australian fella walking down a country road in New Zealand one day,” he started. “He happens to glance over the fence and he sees a farmer goin’ at it with a sheep. The Aussie’s quite taken aback by this, of course, so he climbs the fence and walks over to the guy. Taps ‘im on the shoulder and says, ‘You know mate, back home, we shear those.’ The Kiwi looks around at him, panic in ‘is face, and says, ‘I’m not bloody shearing this with no one!’”
Will laughed, probably for longer than was strictly necessary, and our burgers arrived. He was right, it was a real burger, the first I’d seen in Japan. A little more on the rare side than I usually cared for, but I wasn’t complaining. “Seems like all the best Kiwi jokes are about sheep,” Will said, tucking in.
“Yeah,” the Kiwi said, taking a sip and staring straight ahead, “we’ve noticed.”
The majority of the rest of the evening is a slurry blur, but I vaguely recall meeting and toasting the new year with a fair proportion of the world’s industrialized nations. I especially remember a tall, attractive Swedish girl with skin so pale it glowed who declined to give me her e-mail address on account of the remote possibility that I might be a stalker. She’d been stalked before, she explained, and now she didn’t give her contact information to anyone but close friends.
“How do they become friends,” I’d replied, “if you won’t have any contact with them for fear they might be stalkers?”
“I wouldn’t be friends with a stalker,” she’d said, shaking her head in disbelief at my dimwittedness. “It is not safe. And it is very bad for the skin.”
Being forced to deny being a stalker to a glowing, brainless Swedish bombshell is not a position you want to find yourself in. In the morning, you feel cheap and debased. Better just to walk away.
At some point well into the evening, I looked around me to discover Will sitting at the bar and plumbing the esophagus of a young Japanese girl with his tongue. Next to him, the Kiwi was grappling with the girl’s unlucky friend, wrecked mouth agape, doing his best to kiss her while the girl flipped her head back and forth like someone trying to escape a spoonful of particularly nasty medicine. Next to me, an animated Italian man stood watching Will, shaking his head.
“She’s one hot piece of Japanese ass,” he said to me, eyes glued to the action. “She kiss everybody. American, Canadian, Italian, French, Australian, isa no matter. Every night, is somebody new. She like to kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss. But is impossible to get her into the bed, you know? I give your friend ten thousand yen if he get her into the bed!” He held up his wallet, as if to show me he was serious. “But I want to hear about it. She’s one hot piece of Japanese ass. But she’s a cold fish, that girl.”
Still later, long after midnight had come and gone, I found myself acting as a headrest for a pretty, slightly drunk blonde girl, at a table crowded with what was apparently Osaka’s entire Bulgarian community. Earlier the girl had told me her name was “Penka – like Lenka but with P.” Penka played piano at the Osaka Ritz Carlton in a duo called Fascination. Her playing partner, a cellist named Snezhana, sat on my immediate left, where she was engaged in what looked to me like the very last stages of foreplay with a fellow countryman named Bogomil, who’d seduced her an hour earlier by singing Bulgarian folk songs with his shirt unbuttoned to the navel.
“It’s coming, Stoyan, it’s coming, Stoyan, a great dark fog, a great dark fog,” he’d sung, chest thrown out, eyes glittering. “But it’s not, Stoyan, it’s not a great dark fog. It turns out to be a bolyar’s big wedding.”
Snezhana, no slouch in the chest department herself, had melted like butter. At the rate they were going, I half expected Bogomil at any moment to clear the table with a sweep of his arm, rip her blouse off and throw her upon it. Actually, I was rather looking forward to it.
Instead, a very drunk Penka had scribbled something illegible on a napkin, shoved it into my hand and staggered off into a taxi waiting outside the bar, dragging a reluctant Snezhana behind her. By this time Will had been abandoned by the Japanese girl, to the Italian’s great satisfaction, and so we also left, riding the early morning train home with hordes of sleepy Japanese families on their way to view the first sunrise of 2008, all of us with our chins on our chests, swaying together in the fluorescent glare of the New Year.
Will and I missed the sunrise, but not by much.
The next day while digging for lunch money in my pants pocket, I’d discovered the scrap of napkin, which I’d forgotten all about. Scrawled in a drooping hand with eyeliner, blotted with dregs of champagne, were the words, “Fascination. Italian restaurant @ Ritz Carlton 17:00-19:45 tomorrow.”
“A tourist,” the novelist Paul Bowels wrote, “is someone who thinks about going home the moment they arrive. Whereas a traveler might not come back at all.” I’ve always loved that line.
There are essentially four kinds of people who move to Japan. First are the Temporary Bohemians, the young and restless who come for what they think will be an adventurous resume-padding experience teaching English in an exotic land before safely returning to their homes after a year or so to pursue conventional lives, jobs, and families. Then there are the Escapists: those who end up here because they are fleeing something in their pasts – wives, girlfriends, responsibility, themselves, and this seems as good a place to hide from it all as any.
Closely related to Escapists are Malcontents, the desperate and unfulfilled who journeys are fueled by their quest for something, often the very things someone else is fleeing. Finally, there are the Attachments: those other halves who are here accompanying one of the other three kinds out of a sense of duty, obligation, or a legal contract to stay together no matter what until one of them dies.
Almost all non-native people in Japan fall into one or more of these categories. (Tourists are a different species. They share a lot of the same characteristics as the Temporary Bohemians, only less so. They also eat a lot better. Also, one category missing here that’s indigenous to much of the rest of the non-western world is the Vagabond. That’s because it’s way too expensive to be a Vagabond in Japan and it’s also impossible to find any decent weed.)
The one thing virtually all of these people seem to have in common is that they’re all emotionally challenged. By which I mean fucked up as football bats. Most foreigners in Japan are incapable of establishing, let alone holding down, a normal relationship with another person. Which is usually a big part of why they’re here in the first place. Normal, well-adjusted people in happy, healthy relationships do not drop their entire lives, put everything in storage, and travel to an expensive country on the other side of the planet where the language is no more comprehensible than the chittering of songbirds. No, normal people stay at home and get married and have babies and mortgages and commute to work and buy stuff and listen to the birds chitter from backyard decks in their half-acre, wooded lots in the suburbs.
This maybe seems like a sweeping generalization, and I’ll admit it’s based on a scientifically unrigorous sampling of targets. But I’ve met enough foreign men and women in Japan in five months to get a pretty good feeling for the basic psychology of the population. So, sure, I’m extrapolating. Be that as it may, this group is a mess. I’m just saying.
(Also, just so we’re clear, I don’t exclude myself from any of this. I’m here, too. I fit quite neatly into at least one of those categories, possibly several. Nobody’s yet accused me of being a guy who falls easily into relationships or of being normal and well-adjusted in any meaningful sense.)
This characterization applies to Attachments and Temporary Bohemians just as as it does to Escapists and Malcontents, for whom it’s rather obvious. Attachments, for example, are usually here not because they want to be but because they have to be, and it’s almost always a lopsided arrangement. One of the two has a job like a pressure-cooker that pays just enough to afford a tatami-covered shoebox in the city, while the other fills his or her time with television, sleeping late, sporadic Japanese lessons and over-attending a bonsai tree. This is not a recipe for contentment. But back at the beginning, somebody talked somebody into agreeing to this desperate situation, which is bound to breed resentment, setting off a self-perpetuating cycle of bitterness and accusation, eventually leading to an acrimonious split and separate trips home, where they’ll start the whole process over with someone else. Q.E.D.
Escapists and Malcontents are simply not people anyone is ever going to find sturdy dating material, outside of the occasional roll in the hay, which, given their nature, is guaranteed to come with its own unhappy baggage of penalties, miseries, and regrets. Their pasts are filled with legions of former lovers, spouses, and one-off sexual partners who, if they could, would probably warn you away from even being in the same room as them.
As for Temporary Bohemians, does this group’s woes really need explaining? These are kids in their early twenties – the 21-century’s version of post-pubescent teens. Most of them have the emotional maturity of bonobos and the work ethic of ground sloths. Many are nurturing an incipient alcohol dependency that will harry them well into their adult lives back home. In fact, most of them will end up as future Escapists and Malcontents. Temporary Bohemians can be fun people to hang out with, but you wouldn’t want one of them as a skydiving partner.
None of these unfortunate souls are inherently bad people; they’re just highly functioning basket cases. Even so, a lot of them probably belong in institutions, not teaching the youth of Japan.
Because that’s the other thing all these foreigners have in common: they’re all teachers. In half a year, I’ve met only one native English speaker here who doesn’t support himself by teaching English, and he’s living in a tent made of umbrellas under a bridge in Kyoto.
But this is exactly backwards. These people are not the ones Japanese parents want instructing their kids in anything – especially not in the communicative arts. Escapists, Malcontents, Temporary Bohemians and Attachments are by definition among the very worst communicators in the world. That’s why they’re here.
If you ask me, the Japanese government would be a lot better off simply turning away by default anyone interested in uprooting their lives and moving to a foreign land, and instead accepting only those people who are comfortably ensconced in adoring families and good-paying jobs in their native countries. They’d eliminate a lot of problems for themselves.
“So you want to be an English teacher in Japan, do you?”
“Not in a relationship, eh?”
“Are you willing to leave your friends, your family, your pets, your job, and everything else you’ve ever known and loved for an alien culture where you don’t speak the language and have never visited on the other side of the world?”
“Scram, freak. Next!”
Before I left the states, my friends had all joked, “You’ll come back married, just wait and see. Hah, hah!”, which I’ve since learned is pretty much what everyone everywhere jokes about when a friend moves to a foreign country for an indeterminate period of time. In my case, as in all such cases, what they really meant was probably, Maybe you’ll finally find somebody over there as screwed up as you are. Anything’s possible.
The shower in Will’s apartment is, ergonomically speaking, a close brother to the toilet. As with most Japanese houses, there’s no hot water heater per se. Instead, you light a gas fire to heat up a rusting iron cauldron of water whenever you wish to take a shower or do the dishes. Except that in Will’s case, doing the dishes requires boiling water in a pot on the range, as the hot water plumbing is exclusive to the shower, even though the shower and the kitchen sink are on opposite sides of the same wall, roughly two feet from each other. You might think that a practical plumber would have found it ideologically impossible not to connect the two when the place was being constructed, but if you did so you’d be misunderstanding both plumbers and Japanese people.
Also, when I say “shower,” I should clarify. There are surely western-syle showers in fancy hotels in the big cities. Those of us who live and work in this country, however, must make do with the typical Japanese-style bath, which isn’t quite as traumatizing as the toilet but still requires a lot of dexterity and mental focus. This involves switching on the hot water, waiting for it to reach a suitable temperature, then sitting on a plastic bucket on the floor next to the bathtub and scrubbing down with one hand while holding the shower head in the other.
Until Christmas, I hadn’t had a stand-up shower since I left America in August. But at Will’s apartment, I discovered that he’d cleverly tied the shower head to a protruding pipe on the wall with some nylon string. I was looking forward to my first upright shower in almost five months.
Before I could enjoy it, I knew I’d have to figure out how to turn on the hot water. Will had left that morning for a climb up a nearby mountain, and I was on my own. When he’d told me the previous evening that the procedure was “tricky,” I’d laughed, and replied that as an adult American male with several tens of thousands of dollars in outstanding student loan debt, I felt pretty confident I’d be able to figure out how to turn on the hot water. He’d looked at me without expression for a moment, then said, “I’ll write it down.”
The written instructions he’d left on the kitchen table were accompanied by a complex diagram of the ancient, cast-iron water-heating mechanism attached to his bathtub and its Byzantine array of knobs and levers. I looked at the note.
“First push down on 2 and turn it slightly anticlockwise to 10:00 position,” it read beneath the drawing. “Holding it down here, turn 4 anticlockwise. As it clicks, it ignites gas, which you can see the blue flame of through small window. Once this happens, lift 2 and turn it round to 8:00 position. Turn 1 to the right, (anticlockwise) and shower will start. Turn off gas! To do so: twist 2 back to 10:00 position, push it down, and turn it back to 6:00 12:00 position. Turn off water.”
At the bottom, he’d helpfully written, “DON’T BLOW YOURSELF UP!”
Maybe I shouldn’t have been so quick to laugh, after all, I thought. I found it especially troubling that there was no mention of what knob number 3 did. Probably prevent the thing from blowing up, I guessed. Also, how could turning a dial “anticlockwise” involve spinning it to the right? Did clocks in the southern hemisphere, like the story about water swirling down the drains there, go in a different direction? It was a mystery. I imagined that twisting it the wrong way, especially without the mitigating influence of knob 3, would turn Will’s apartment into a smoking crater.
I worked on the hot water heater for the better part of 30 minutes, spinning, clicking, and pushing down on knobs, experimenting with every number on the clock, surrounded by an increasingly suffocating cloud of kerosene vapor, prepared at any moment to be blown to smithereens. Despite the freezing temperature in the room, I was sweating like a horse. Call me crazy, but I’ve never been a big fan of working with open flames in close proximity to rusty containers of highly explosive natural gas products.
In this silent struggle of man against machine, the machine emerged victorious. I had to settle for a cold shower, which may have been the unhappiest of my adult life. I avoided hypothermia only by soaping up next to the toilet, which I suspect was having a good laugh, and dashing from the freezing room into the water just long enough for the sleet hurtling from the shower head to pummel the soap off my body, then dashing out again before I was seriously injured. For my first stand-up shower in five months, it left something to be desired.
When I’d left Fukui for Osaka the day before, there was snow on the ground from the previous night – our first snowfall of the season. The train had clattered through a succession of small coastal towns – Sabae, Takefu, Tsuruga, Omi Shiatsu – and as I rode south, the snow began drifting down again, a faint white silt settling over the last day of the year. The low mountains through which we traveled became frost-rimed, black-and-white inverses of themselves, like fuzzy, spotted daguerreotypes of a former time.
“Pass through the gateway of western Japan and marvel as ancient traditions and accents still punctuate the ultra-modern landscape! The Ritz-Carlton, Osaka is a place of elegant serenity and ease, yet is perfectly placed amidst the bustling activity of the city’s center. Inside, guests will find six beautifully appointed restaurants, bars and lounges offering a variety of culinary excellences and musical entertainments.”
I was a little concerned about showing up at the Ritz Carlton unannounced, even with a hand-written invitation. First of all, I wasn’t dressed properly for the Ritz. The janitor’s closet, maybe, but certainly not a nice hotel restaurant. Also, the note wasn’t, strictly speaking, an invitation. Nowhere did it say, “Come see me.” Maybe, after having spent the most boring New Year’s Eve of her life drooling down my shoulder, Penka had given me a list of all the places in Japan I was forbidden to visit the following evening. I was still stinging from the gut punch the day-glo Swede had delivered the previous night, and I didn’t want to be mistaken for a stalker. It was her workplace, after all. I didn’t know the first thing about the dating etiquette of Bulgarians. Though, after some thought, I decided that if I took Bogomil as my example, I had a lot of latitude.
Standing in the lobby, peering down a wide hallway, I spotted a maitre d’ stand at the far end beneath a sign that read Splendido: Fine Italian Restaurant. That was my destination, for better or worse. It struck me as a name better suited to a Vaudeville-era magician than a fine Italian restaurant. “Come marvel and be amazed at The Great Splendido! Behold in astonishment as he conjures all variety of illusionary excellences and magical entertainments. Wonder at his composure in the face of certain rejection. Gaze in awe at his mastery of ordinary bathroom appliances!”
Walking through the lobby, I passed by the big main bar. An aging, overweight, obviously American lounge singer leaned against a grand piano while her accompanyist oozed smarm from beneath Osaka’s most obvious hairpiece. “Feeeeeeeeeeeelingsuh,” she emoted, “nothing more than … feeeeeeeeeeeeeelingsuh.” It was almost too awful to be believed. I looked around the room for a camera crew, but no, this was the genuine item – the top billed act in the hotel’s biggest bar. It didn’t bode well for Fascination. With every moment that passed, I felt more and more like I was living an extended scene from Lost in Translation that had been cut from the final edit. If Bill Murray had suddenly ambled past me, I wouldn’t have blinked.
Continuing down the corridor, I heard the music before I was spotted, and it gave me hope. They weren’t at all bad. Snezhana, facing the room behind her cello, saw me first, and her eyes widened. She whispered something to Penka, who was somewhere out of view. I leaned through a doorway on her other side and caught her eye. She smiled, blushing, and mouthed, “Hi! Come in. Almost done.”
I sat down, feeling underdressed but suddenly not caring. She was lovely, dressed in a shoulderless black gown, taller than I remembered from the previous night. Every so often she glanced over at me and smiled.
She played wonderfully. I paid a king’s ransom for a glass of red wine, and it was superb, better even than I’d hoped for. I’d almost forgotten how good a glass of wine could be. The room was cozy and intimate, aglow with cheer, the music perfect. I liked this place. The Ritz was okay in my book. On reflection, I realized I’d judged the lounge singer in the lobby bar too harshly. What’s wrong with “Feelings,” I thought? Nothing. There was nothing at all wrong with them. If sometimes you got a little carried away with them, where was the harm in that? There are worse things in the world. People are emotional creatures, there’s no need to apologize for it. We’re flesh and blood and hormones and fire, and if some people were a little less adept at metabolizing that potent cocktail all the time, it didn’t mean they’re basket cases or “screwed up” or belong in institutions. It didn’t mean that they couldn’t have normal, human relationships.
I felt a sudden warm kinship with all the other foreigners in this strange, alien country. There was nothing wrong with us; on the contrary, there was something right with us. How many people had the courage to step out of the anesthetizing confines of the comfortable and the familiar and forge bright new lives for themselves in a wholly new environment? Our minor flaws and idiosyncracies were as nothing compared to the countless millions back home, herds of sedated, complaisant cattle being led slowly through cookie-cutter lives of quiet desperation to their unremarkable deaths. We were the ones who were truly alive! We’re not Malcontents. We’re Searchers and Seekers and Dreamers, by god. I drank the last of my wine and exulted in my quiet epiphany.
Once Fascination had wrapped things up, Penka went upstairs to change – she lived in the hotel, which I thought was pretty handy – and met me in the lobby a few minutes later. Did she care to have dinner somewhere? She did. Did she have a favorite restaurant nearby? She did. What was it? A Chinese place.
A Chinese place? Was she sure? She was quite sure. Penka, it turned out, didn’t eat fish. Or seafood of any kind, for that matter. Did she find eating in Japan difficult? She did. Oh, how she did.
“I hate this fucker country with all my bones in the body.”
Her English wasn’t great, but she tended to get her point across.
Penka preferred Chinese food to Japanese food, but in terms of everything else, she preferred anywhere else. Anywhere at all. A year earlier, she’d worked at a hotel in Oman, where she’d been required to wear a hijab and veil when she played. She longed for it.
In April, her contract with the Ritz would expire and she was planning on returning to the Middle East, this time to Qatar. “Language there is not so difficult as Japanese,” she told me. “Also, Qatar men are not so asshole.”
Outside the hotel, I became aware that, it being New Year’s Day, almost every retail establishment in the city was closed. How had I not noticed this before? Penka’s Chinese restaurant was shuttered, the street blank with darkened windows. The only place serving food that was open, it seemed, was Captain Kangaroo.
“They have a great burger-and-a-beer deal,” I said.
“I’m not so burger person. I have issues with the dark meat. Also the white meat.”
“I see,” I said. “Maybe they have a salad or something.”
“It’s not matter. I will have beer.”
It was warm inside. There was just one harried Japanese staffer tending bar and waiting on tables, and it looked like he was probably cooking, too. For some reason we sat at the same table where, less than 24 hours earlier, Bogomil had nearly conjugated with Snezhana under our chins. I think we were both a little uncomfortable with this, but neither of us wanted to suggest getting up and moving for no apparent reason, so we stayed.
Penka ordered a salad with a Caesar dressing, which she had to describe in minute detail to our sweating server. When it arrived an hour later with my burger, it looked like Ranch to me, but I said nothing. She asked for a fork instead of chopsticks. My burger was even less cooked than the one the previous evening had been. This one was practically losing blood pressure. But I wasn’t about to send it back and wait another hour. I figured it was nothing an extra squirt of Tabasco wouldn’t fix.
Thirty minutes and two beers later, I began to feel it was really quite warm. In fact, it was stifling. My stomach had begun to make loud and unsettling noises, which was odd, since I’d already eaten my entire burger and a plate of fries, plus what was left over of Penka’s salad. It had definitely been Ranch dressing.
Penka was speaking, but between the heat and the rising turmoil in my bowels, I was having difficulty concentrating on what she was saying.
“I’m very not good with relationship, you know? It is just me. Also, in April I will be go to Qatar for one year. I like you but I think it is not good idea to have relationship for two months until April. Do you see?”
Suddenly, I had an overwhelming need to get away from the table. It had nothing to do with what Penka was saying. My bowels had just yanked every available alarm and sent a code-red emergency message racing to my brain: RED ALERT! RED ALERT! EVACUATE NOW!! THIS IS A DEFCON 10, PRIORITY-ONE SITUATION! LET’S GO, PEOPLE! THIS IS NOT A DRILL!!
Exactly ten minutes later, I returned to the table, weak, pallid, and sweating. I took my seat quietly and gently. After a moment, Penka asked, “Is okay?”
“Yeah,” I said, trying to compose myself. “Everything’s fine. I just had to, uh, make a phone call.”
She looked sideways at my cellphone on the table, where it had lain since we arrived, but said nothing. We each took a sip of our beers. She looked at her watch.
“Maybe best for me to get back now,” she said. She reached for her purse.
Pull yourself together, man, I thought. You fucked up, but you can fix this! You’ve still got a dog in this fight. Remember: she lives in a hotel. What more do you need? Turn on the charm. Work some of that ol’ Sharbaugh magic!
“No, please,” I smiled to her, signaling for the check. “Let me. I wouldn’t dream of asking you to pay. Besides, it’d be my pleasure.”
I reached for my wallet. And the little bit of blood remaining in my face drained away completely.