Lost in Japan
The AC sent a shiver through our wet clothes. I took off my red jacket and tied it around my waist as explored. It was an open space, like an atrium. In the center was a display of various kinds of artwork. There was a watercolor of a local landscape with cherry blossoms in full pink beneath a grey sky. There was needlework of a woman in a kimono beginning to open her paper umbrella for the impending rain. A whole section was devoted to children’s drawings of the river. A siren would blare and the current would anthropomorphize into a giant monster and engulf the child. It was the thing of nightmares.
We began to leave opposite the way we came. The frontmost wall curved into a set of doors that enclosed a larger, spherical room. I tried to open them but they were locked.
“You know,” Sean began to say, staring at the door as though there was a window inside, like the doors of a classroom. “I used to play the violin here. In the summers.”
“What do you mean by play?”
“Like, perform. It’s an auditorium. They always did events. My dad would sign me up for stuff when we visited so he could focus on studying.” He then turned to me and smiled with a tinge of pride but mostly gladness. “Well, I guess I also asked him to.”
“That’s cool,” I said and had meant it, but much like his haikus I couldn’t think of much else to say.
I had thought the conversation would end there. We left the center and followed the road down the hill towards the Italian cafe, passing the town mascots engraved to a wall, then the daycare center--thankfully spared the embarrassment of a third encounter--and cut through a park sideroad ran through. Corroded yellow guardrails that looked like pipes lined the road and a big forty was painted on the street in that same color. Even though the sky was beginning to clear and the air was warm in the pockets of the sun, the lining trees made me put my jacket back on. The river ran beside us past the guardrail and the small bike trail and turned what would have been a grassy hill to mud. It could have easily been the spot of the watercolor had it been one month later. There, as though he had decided that those summers performing in the auditorium weren’t worth the happy smile, he said, “About the violin stuff, I didn’t mean it to come off as a brag or that I was showing off or anything.”
“Huh? What do you mean? I didn’t think you were bragging.”
“Oh,” he said as though I had lied. “ Good. It's just, because you’re here, like, I spent most summers here then hung out with you during the school year that, well, it felt like something that you should know. Since you’re here.”
“No, I’m glad you told me.” We passed some houses with potted plants and parked cars, a construction site with covered iron bars, and a wooden bus stop with a hot and cold vending machine. “I know you’re into the violin, I mean, you had to be to be that good. It was always impressive. I don’t think I would have been very good if we weren’t stand partners all the time. I guess it also explains why you liked that cafe. The music must’ve reminded you of playing.”
“I wonder which way it was,” he said as we stepped from the shade into the sun. “If I liked classical music because I played, or if I played because I liked the music.”
“Does it matter?”
“Hmm,” he said and seemed to give it a good deal of thought. “Not really.”
“Well, you’ll have to play when we go to your house.”
“I don’t know. I haven’t touched it in years.”
“Why not?” I asked tugging on his arm like a mother, just enough disappointment from the obvious loss of unpracticed potential and the steady realization that I was no better.
He shrugged. “I got bored of it, I guess.”
“What? Not as fun without me to keep you company?”
“Something like that.” I wasn’t sure if I should be flattered or annoyed he took my joke so seriously, so I let it drop.
The town proper greeted us with a turquoise building and passing cars, though we said goodbye and turned down a red road that hid blue trucks and piles of gravel. It would have felt like trespassing if the buildings were not so worn and likely abandoned, and if we did not soon pass the town hall which, in a Democratic society, whether visitor or voter, one could step along its petal-painted sidewalk.
A few buildings down from the city hall was a renovated freight container that had been painted a deep black, had been planted a fake lawn dotted with porcelain owls and lawn chairs, and had been converted into the Italian cafe. Some English words like pasta, pizza, and coffee were spray painted along the walls as though it were shipping those commodities instead of preparing them. It was charming in its commitment to the mild edginess of the blue-collared industrial style, perhaps more so than most since some motorcycles parked out front.
We entered and sat in black rattan chairs at a four-person table in the corner. There was a group of eight men at the long table beside us, though they were relatively quiet like they weren’t even there. Before we looked at the menus, Sean gasped in excitement. “Wow, look at all that cheese.” He grabbed a bottle of Kraft parmesan that was at the edge of the table.
“Dude, what? It’s an Italian place. Of course, it’s gonna have cheese.”
“Yeah, but, it’s usually so expensive. I’m surprised they can just set it on the table.”
We looked over the menu. It wasn’t the most authentically Italian place abroad, but it was certainly Italian-inspired, which begged the question of whether it was Italian or Japanese or a fusion. “Wow, they’ve got pizza, too? We should get some.”
“I don’t know. I’m eyeballing this pasta with mushrooms on it.”
“We can split one. I wanna try some of the pasta, too. Plus, I don’t think it’ll be as large as you’re expecting.”
Sean called for a waitress. We ordered one pizza, our respective pastas, and we both decided to try one of their advertised specialty matcha milkshakes. Considering all of the tea plants in the area, it would have been wrong not to. As we waited, a drawing of a princess prompted one of those heated arguments where emotions run wild more from the pleasure of anger than from any particular commitment to the thing argued about. I was defending Cinderella both as a film of the American cannon and as a character worthy of our admiration. Sean dismissed the whole project as pure sentimentalism and a not-so-great marker of the times.
“One night with the prince? I don’t know, man, but that seems so fast.”
“What, you don’t think someone can fall in love in one night? They sang a whole song about it. A good one, too!”
“I mean, I feel like that can be the start of love. Like a crush or something, but love, like true love. That takes some time.”
“Whatever, dude,” I said, "I believe it." I had to. Else, it seemed impossible that I would ever get the chance to experience it having gone through all of high school to that point unlucky. However, being older, I realize the folly in that line of thinking. Any substantial form of love takes time, action, and commitment
“Just because they sang a song, Alex, doesn’t mean--”
“What are you talking about, Sean? How can you say that? It’s like writing a haikyuu.”
“Oh,” he said, softly. “Yeah, I guess your right.” The debate came to an end.
The old men passed around a stack of papers. The waitress came by and cleared their plates and refilled their glasses of water. Soon, our food came with our milkshakes. The pizza was not the American size, though its quality surpassed many well-known pizza chains. Sean had ordered one with grape tomatoes, basil, and red onion. He held a slice steady and brought it towards his mouth. The tip dropped a little and got some on his chin.
“Here, let me get you a napkin.” I pulled a few out of the container and slid it across the table to his free hand. I grabbed a piece for myself, blowing on it to cool. It was good. It was cheesy greasy and everything that good pizza should be. The pasta surprised me. The sauce was like a carbonara except not as creamy and garnished with seaweed instead of peas. It was quite the meal, not to mention the milkshakes. The matcha’s flavor was present and earthy but well balanced with a sweetness not so overbearing that I couldn’t tell the difference between this drink and pure sugar. It was a meal well feasted.