Conspicuous But Invisible

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Excerpt from my book, BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY.

I scour the alleys and one-lane streets of the entertainment quarter of Takadanobaba for love hotels but still don’t know what to look for. Instead, I find a normal hotel, not an international one with exorbitant rates, but a business hotel for the underlings of Japan Inc. I recognize it by the HOTEL in its name.

It’s modern and impeccable. One of the counter clerks even speaks some English. The rate is reasonable, and when I book a room for tonight, he accepts my foreigner Visa card. But for reasons I can’t figure out, he doesn’t give me a key.

I’m elated, having accomplished something on my own. I’ll spend the night with Izumi. The logistics are in place. Planning triumphs over spontaneity. It’s a gamble. She might say no. She might say she has her period or a sore throat or that she needs to go home. But hey.

We meet in front of the school and head into the entertainment quarter. A myriad of lights, signs, and red lanterns lend splendor to buildings that are grungy during the day. Bowing touts encourage salarymen to enter. Bowing girls hand out tissue packs imprinted with phone numbers. Men and women rove in groups. Izumi translates some menus posted outside, and at one of them she says, “Shall we?”

When we walk in, the four chefs toiling in the open kitchen stop what they’re doing and yell a greeting. We sit down at the counter that surrounds the kitchen on three sides. People are in their twenties and thirties. She translates the menu, item by item, four pages, from beginning to end. “Hmm,” she says, or “Looks good,” or “I’d love that.”

We eventually pick three items for our initial order, but the chef doesn’t glimpse at me when he takes the order from her, nor does he glimpse at me when he situates the dishes in front of us. I’ve become invisible.

She pours sake into my glass.

“Thanks.”

“Your turn.”

“To do what?”

“We pour each other.”

She holds her glass with the fingertips of both hands. I pour. We say kampai, chink glasses. I’ve only had hot sake before and don’t remember it too fondly. But this is chilled. It’s dry, complex, with lingering nuances. It’s delicious.

I study the way she controls her chopsticks: inside chopstick between thumb and ring finger, outside chopstick between thumb, index, and middle finger.

“It’s needlessly complicated,” I say.

“That’s how we do.”

“Why do you also use your ring finger?”

“It’s easier.”

It’s the hardest part. You have to contort it up at an odd angle and press it forcefully against the inside chopstick. But the people around us are all holding their chopsticks the same complicated way.

She orders one or two dishes at a time, and we share. Each is a pleasure, but sake renders the Japanese way of chopsticks increasingly arduous. They keep rolling off my fingers, food keeps dropping from them, one of them pops out of my hand and falls to the floor—and she has to ask the chef for another set. Conspicuous is what comes to mind, and yet, the chef still manages not to notice me when he puts the fresh chopsticks in front of me.

My ring finger is cramping. She massages it. I pour the last drops of sake. She cuddles against my side.

“I’ve reserved a hotel room,” I say.

Her head sinks on my shoulder. It means yes.

Outside, we take in the glow, the people. Static electricity of anticipation. I’m aching for her body, and this time, the logistics are in place. I’ve planned and prepared for it. I’ve been looking forward to it for so long. She clings to my arm. She doesn’t seem eager, but she doesn’t hesitate. Then she hesitates.

“I have to call my mother.”

“About what?”

“I need to let her know.”

“Isn’t it a little late?”

She calls from a pay phone, the briefest of phone calls.

“What did you tell her?”

“That I’m not coming home tonight.”

“That’s all you said?”

“I said, ‘I’m staying with a friend. And Chika-chan’s apartment is in central Tokyo, so it’s more practical at this hour.’”

“Who is Chika-chan?”

“A girlfriend.”

“You lied to your mother? At your age?”

“I didn’t lie,” she laughs. “Both sentences are true. You’re the friend I’m staying with. And Chika-chan does live in central Tokyo. If my mother wants to combine the two into one meaning, it’s her interpretation and not what I said.”

“And she didn’t ask any questions?”

“No, why should she? She doesn’t want to ply.”

Ply? I’ve had too much sake to sort through her Ls and Rs. By now, I’m buying every word like a used car—as is, with all its faults and defects and without warranty, expressed or implied, of whatever kind. “But why not tell her you’re staying with me?”

“My parents are traditional. I need to follow the rules.”

Ha! I knew that. The rules. But I want some precision. “They told you that spending the night in a hotel with a gaijin is against the rules?”

She looks at me blankly.

“Did they tell you what any of the rules are?”

“Of course not.”

“Why not?”

“It’s not necessary.”

“So how do you know what the rules are?”

“Everyone knows.”

Excerpt from my book, BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY.

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