Lost in Japan
We were standing outside the station in a paved lot waiting for his grandmother. The station was a small wooden hut decorated with a map, schedule, and two thin turnstiles. I was watching the tracks for the train--and to avoid Sean’s gaze--when, from behind, a yellow bus hissed up the road and started making a three-point turn into the lot. We cleared some space and as the bus shifted into reverse, his grandmother came running down the street so fast we couldn’t see her legs swing. She arrived right when the bus driver opened the doors.
I sat in the back in an aisle seat. Before Sean sat, he pause and I was afraid he had caught on that I knew, but then sat placidly in the seat beside me. Although it wasn’t much space, I’d rather have an empty aisle than my backpack for a buffer during a sharp turn or bumpy patch that may graze us against each other. The ride was less than ten minutes. It followed the river past the middle school to a small development facing the river. There was a vegetable market and souvenir shop, vending machines selling ice cream and sodas, and, the main attraction, a small resort hotel.
From the lobby, I could tell that the hotel was deceptively larger than it had looked from the outside as though the curve of the mountain road had concealed another third. Sean’s grandmother consulted the women working the front desk. Sean sat languidly on one of the four sofas that were oddly square while I, pretending not to have seen Sean's gesture to join him, loitered about by the sun-bathed windows. It seemed impossible that five days prior I had gazed out upon a blizzard. The gravel-lined river seemed no further than the distance of a few planks nailed together to cross the dunes of a beach, though the river itself was blocked behind landscaped greenery. A red metal bridge lay in some distance that seemed as ancient as the mountains.
His grandmother came to collect us, holding three tickets. She spoke to Sean as we passed the desk into a hall lined with doors and entered one into the buffet. “Wow, look at all this food," Sean said, picking up a plate while his grandmother claimed a four-seat table in the corner by the window.
“This looks expensive,” I murmured, overwhelmed by the variety and generosity. “How much was this?” It felt like stealing to be unleashed upon all this food.
“Don’t worry about it,” Sean said as though he was the one who’d paid. “Just enjoy.” He gave a good-humored jab in my shoulder then he wandered off to stack his plate.
Not moving, I surveyed the counters: sushi, noodles, fruits, vegetables, all sorts of things I couldn’t name and felt morally reprehensible to eat. Had I woken up that morning fully rested and ignorant of Sean’s affections, then I might have been more eager to accept such a fine feast in the spirit of friendship’s perseverance, but now it felt more like a quid pro quo. I could not distinguish whether a proper interpretation of my acceptance of such a meal would be that I was again raising Sean's hopes to then be referenced as an example of me leading him on, or if it really was pure and simple hospitality. The latter of which, while well accustomed to living in the aloof rich uncle of America that is Virginia, had never sat well with me even among my other friends. Oftentimes, if Austin had ordered stickers from a show we both liked, he’d give me one as well citing a deal which, one time my curiosity besting me, I had learned to be false. Or, when the three of us went out for a meal once or twice a month, Julian would cite my lack of an allowance as proof I was poor--which was not true, my parents simply didn’t believe in them, especially since I was working a part-time--and footed the bill for the whole group. Even something as modest as a circumstantial acquaintance in one of my electives slipping me a filled-in worksheet felt wholly undeserved.
Yet there I was, standing before luxury, as other guests brushed by, modestly sneaking glances not so much because of my foreigner status than from my inactivity. Why the free gifts, the paid meals, the school tasks complete; why was I of all the weebs in the world granted this opportunity which I was ticking away with doubts and self-reproach; why did he have feelings for me? Should I ask?
I sat at the table across from his grandmother and I set my backpack in the seat beside me. She smiled and bowed at me, then rather sneakily inspected the spread I had chosen, small portions of everything. I had thought it was a lot, certainly more than she had grabbed herself, until Sean returned with two plates over-brimmed and double-layered. He almost sat beside me, but seeing my backpack, strolled over beside his grandmother. Both of us seated, his grandmother pulled a pair of the bamboo chopsticks set beside the condiments, broke them perfectly even, and took a bite of the sushi. “Oishii,” she said, nodding as she chewed. Sean and I both broke our chopsticks. Neither of us got an even split.
They chatted between bites, while I spent most of the meal time gazing at the red bridge unsure how to continue our relationship. I was bringing something up to my mouth when Sean said, “She says you’re really good at using chopsticks.”
It was a huge compliment coming from a native, especially considering that I had quickly searched how to use them the day before my in the corner of my eye, I saw puffing fumes drift up from the bridge. “Look,” I said, pointing, but she had a reproachful look, as though questioning how I could have such poor manners as to point. “Kore,” I said, recalling how I'd point and say this when ordering off a menu. “Kore!”
She still seemed confused but then Sean whispered to her and she leaned across the table. From the outside, it would have been a photographer’s dream. A bridge over a river. A green bright valley. A train chugging along, full steam. Their pure smiles of satisfied expectation, and even my own, reflected in the glass.
I felt a little guilty about how I’d behaved that morning. Maybe it didn't matter if he had feelings for me. We could still continue hanging out and go sightseeing or share a good meal together. There are still things that I want to do and I like going not as one but as two. Plus, a proper confession isn't doesn't come from some cryptic haiku. If he doesn't say it explicitly, then there's no point in getting up in arms about it.
The train crossed, too far to hear its whistle, but the silent passing was like a shooting star in the night sky. They stood up and grabbed their empty plates.
“Excited for the onsen?” Sean said as I was stacking a few napkins on my plate.
“What do you mean?” I asked, and then I knew exactly what he meant. “You mean, like, a bathhouse. Ha ha.” Sean nodded. "Ha ha. Ha ha ha ha." Okay, it matters. It matters a lot.