A Taste for Christmas Cake Chapter 1
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Note: ‘Christmas cake’ is a slang term in Japan referring to a woman over 25 and still unmarried. The idea is that, like Christmas cake leftover after Christmas day, a woman older than that has already passed her use-by date and is supposed to be no longer attractive.
Chapter 1: The Izakaya
“Everyone, here’s to another successful year for Eastport Corporation! Thank you for all your hard work. Kampai!”
I was bringing the foaming head of that long-awaited first jockey of Asahi Super Dry to my lips when my phone vibrated in my jacket pocket. Sighing, I replaced my beer on the table and started fumbling around for my phone.
“What’s the matter, Mi-chan?” asked my fellow executive Hideyuki sitting next to me. His dark eyes narrowed and his lips curled into a teasing smile. “Jealous boyfriend checking up on you?”
I glanced at the number. “Oh no,” I muttered. “It’s the office.”
“Oh, right, you’re on call tonight. That’s too bad.” Hideyuki returned to his beer as I got up and removed myself from the noise of the booth. It was our end-of-year party and I’d been looking forward to it for a long time. The party was much later than most other Japanese companies’, since we have a lot of foreigners at our office, and this year it happened to fall on Christmas eve. That had annoyed a few people, since Christmas Eve is usually a time for couples to enjoy a romantic date, but the executive had allowed people to bring partners to avoid any bad blood.
I’d come alone, of course. That moron Hideyuki had already forgotten that I was still recovering from a bad break up with my boyfriend of three years. It was the reason I was on call tonight: being single, I’d volunteered to do it.
Now I was regretting my selflessness. I took the call and talked to Naomi at front office. One of our foreign teachers had got himself into trouble.
“What is it this time?” I muttered. An incident late on Christmas Eve could be any number of things: an altercation over an unpaid bill at an izakaya or karaoke, an irate taxi driver with a vomit-stained cab or, worse still, a furious parent of a student found going out with one of our teachers. It was against our company policy, of course, but happened all the time regardless.
It wasn’t any of those things. The guy was just lost.
“He says he’s wandering around paddy fields at the moment,” Naomi told me. “I’ll send you his number.”
“Who is it?”
I recognised the name. I was surprised. He hadn’t shown up on my radar as someone who was likely to cause us trouble. Usually, those individuals outed themselves during orientation. This guy, well: he’d seemed extremely normal. A little shy, maybe, and with almost non-existent Japanese, but sensible enough.
“Where was the last place he recognised?”
Minami-Arakawa. I groaned. It was miles away, on the Toudama line. I’d take me forty minutes to get there. I’d have to find him pretty quickly after that or we’d miss the last train.
I thanked Naomi and hung up then rang the kid. He was extremely apologetic but I quickly cut him off and told him to stay put. I told him to access the map app on his smartphone and try and find out where he was. He called back telling me that everything was in kanji and he couldn’t read any of it.
I sighed. Of course it was. I told him to find the closest train station and make for it. The sign would have the name of the station in English characters on it. I was going to jump on a train and be with him soon.
He thanked me again and hung up. His voice had sounded fragile, like he was very upset, and slurred, as if he’d been drinking. I knew something must have happened to him. That sort of thing happens a lot on Christmas Eve. At least my fiancé - wait, no, my ex-fiancé - had had the good manners to break up with me last month.
I excused myself from the party with a rapid-fire set of bows and wished everyone a Merry Christmas. Then I slipped on my shoes at the entrance to the izakaya and ran for the station.
Things were going to be tight.
I was on a rapid when I felt my phone vibrate. I struggled to pull my phone out with my fellow commuters bunched around me like sardines. It was a message from the kid.
“I’m at Naka-Shimazawa.”
It was a small station, next to Minami-Arakawa. I got off the express and changed for a local at Musashi-Shimazawa. It was the next station after.
The train was pretty full, but not quite as full as the rapid had been. Apart from the omnipresent salary-men there were a few couples on their way back from dates. I ignored the hand-holding and the heads on shoulders and stared down at my phone.
It wasn’t long before the train pulled in at the station. Only a few people got off. Naka-Shimazawa was in the middle of nowhere. I scanned my pasmo card and came out of the station. He was standing there waiting for me.
He was scanning the faces of the people coming through the ticket gates and when he spotted me he smiled with a mixture of relief and embarrassment. He hurried over and bowed, badly, apologising for having dragged me out here.
I was annoyed but maintained my professional demeanour and told him not to concern himself about it. There was also the fact that his eyes were red. He’d been crying. Something sprung up in me then, a maternal, protective feeling, but also empathy. I knew what must have happened. Being broken up with is never fun. It doesn’t get any easier, either.
Even though he looked much younger, I knew from his profile that he was 21. When you’re that age, a break-up feels like the end of the world.
The concrete shuddered. A train was about to arrive.
“Come on,” I said. “That’s the last express back into the city.”
We hurried through the ticket gates and up the stairs. The platform was strangely deserted. The train approached. It was coming very fast.
The train flew straight past us and didn’t stop. I pushed away the black hair that had flown across my face. Why hadn’t it stopped?”
I went and checked the timetable, the boy following behind me. I read the numbers and symbols and then groaned. I’d misread the timetable. I’d thought there was one more express, but it was Saturday night. The additional express only ran during the week. I kicked myself for my incompetence.
The boy looked at me, a little fearfully I thought. I stopped muttering and sighed. He started to apologise again but I shook my head.
“No, it’s my fault. Look, let’s find a café or something to sit down at and I’ll ring up the office and see what we should do.”
He trailed behind me. There was no café near the station. I asked the guy locking up the ticket office and he told me there was a little family-run izakaya just down the street open til late.
“Let’s go,” I told the boy.
I spotted the little sign half-hidden between blooming camellia bushes. The chalk writing read ‘Mama-goko’. It was a cute name for an izakaya: “Playing at being mom,” like little kids do. It was a house that had been turned into a shop. Warm, buttery light welcomed us as I pushed the door open.
“Excuse us!” I said. “Are you still open?”
“Welcome!” came the cheery reply from behind the counter. It was an elderly mama-san. She was wiping the bench. “How many of you are there?”
I glanced back at the boy. He was staring at his feet. “Just the two,” I said. “Are you sure you’re still open?”
“Oh, yes,” said the lady. “Since it’s Christmas Eve a lot of my regulars have gone out to the city so it’s a bit quiet.” She smiled at the boy. “What a cute young man!”
The boy looked up, His face went red. So he could understand simple Japanese. I felt myself flush, too. It did seem a little strange, the two of use being together.
“We missed the last train,” I explained. “I’m... well, I’m his sempai, I guess you could say.” ‘Older colleague’ sounded strange in this situation, but it was the only word I could think of.
The mama-san turned to the boy and asked him what he did.
“Uh... English teacher,” he said in pretty passable Japanese.
She smiled. “I hope you’re enjoying our country. Booth or counter?”
We chose a booth. There was no one else there, but I wanted a little privacy and I was sure the boy did, too. The mama-san came and brought us two little dishes of hors d’oeuvres and placed napkins and chopsticks down before us.
“Are chopsticks okay?” she asked the boy in Japanese. He nodded. “So what would you both like?”
I remembered that icy glass of Asahi Super Dry and ordered that. The boy ordered the same. The mama-san raised her eyebrows.
“I’m sorry, but in Japan you have to be 21 to...”
“It’s okay,” I said. “He’s 21. He just looks underage.”
The mama-san smiled apologetically and went off to pour us our beers.
The boy stared down at the little dish, his chopsticks in his hand hovering over it.
“It’s pickled burdock-root,” I said. “It’s delicious.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m just... I’m just not really...” He turned away and brought a hand to his eyes.
I stared down at my own dish, suddenly intrigued by the pickled burdock-root. The mama-san returned and set our beers before us and then discretely vanished. She soon returned with a small packet of tissues which she placed on the table without a word.
The boy sniffed and rubbed at his eyes with the back of a hand. I took some tissues and handed them to him. He pushed them at his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “My girlfriend, she...”
“You guys broke up?” I asked.
“Just happen tonight?”
“Yeah,” he said. “We were supposed to go out to Tokyo tonight but she told me we had to talk. We went to this café and she...”
“Don’t tell me,” I said. “She has tea-coloured hair, right?”
He blinked at me. “How do you...?”
“I’ve seen it a million times,” I said with a sigh. “Party girl, right? Meet her at the Hub or Gaspanic or somewhere like that?”
“Listen,” I said. I knew I was entering my preachy mode, but I wasn’t going to stop. “There are a lot of girls like that here in Japan. They’re not very serious about anything. They just like foreigners. That’s why they hang around in those English-pub chain-stores. Having a foreigner as a boyfriend is just a fashion accessory.”
His face fell. I was hitting some home truths. I knew I was being blunt, so I said, “But you were serious about the relationship, right?”
He stared down at his beer. His head gave the slightest of nods.
“I’m sorry.” I reached across and placed my hand on his. He looked up, surprised. “I can tell you were serious. Boys wear their hearts on their sleeves, don’t they?”
I realised I was leaving my hand on his for too long and took it away. I grabbed my beer. “Come on. Let’s forget our troubles for a while and have a drink or two. It’s Christmas Eve after all.”
He managed a weak smile and lifted his glass to mine.
“Kampai!” I cried.
“Kampai!” he repeated.
The beer was beyond delicious. The sip became a long drink and I lay back on the seat. “Ah!” The boy was sipping at his. “You like Japanese beer?” I asked him.
“Oh yes,” he said.
“Japanese girls too?”
He blushed and smiled. I was wondering if my teasing might go too far, but I was glad that I’d read him correctly. He had one of those earnest, open, naïve faces that just cry out to be teased. No wonder he’d been snatched up by that gal. He would have been putty in her hands. I knew that right now she was almost certainly having sex with his replacement.
Just like my fiancé was... with whoever it was that he.... Wait, no. My ex-fiancé.
I chased the image away with another long drink.
“Sooo,” I said. The silence between me and the boy had become awkward. “How are you enjoying teaching?”
We talked about his job. Eastport is a company that farms out foreigners with ESL training to universities to teach freshman and optional English courses. I’d been working for them for a few years now and seen a hundred kids like him pass through.
He replied that he was enjoying his job. Living in Japan was a bit difficult for someone who didn’t speak much Japanese, he told me, but everyone was very polite and helpful.
I nodded, taking another drink. Japanese people are definitely that on the outside, especially to people they don’t know. When they get to know you though, they’re some of the bluntest people you’ll ever meet. I told him as much.
He arched his eyebrows. “Really? But-”
“Well, just look at me,” I said. “Sitting here and giving you advice about women. Pretty obnoxious, right?”
He shook his head. The smile on his face this time was genuinely brighter than before. “No, it’s good advice,” he said. “I just wish I was smart enough to follow it.”
“Well, it’s not so much about smarts as wisdom,” I said. “When you’re as old as me you’ll be giving unwanted advice to people younger than you as well.”
“Oh, but you’re not old,” he said, taking a long drink of his beer and looking at me over it.
I ran his words over in my head. I’m fluent in English, but sometimes subtleties like irony or sarcasm can be lost on me. He’d sounded genuine.
“Oh, but I am old,” I said, and laughed. He frowned and I said, “Wait. How old do you think I am?”
His eyes went wide. No man, Japanese or foreigner, likes to be forced into the position of guessing a woman’s age.
I stared at him. My gaze left him in no doubt that I required an answer from him, and an honest one. I’d know if he was lying.
“Uh, 25 or 26?” he said at last.
I knitted my brows. The boy looked panicked. “I’m 33,” I said.
“What, really?” He looked about nervously. “Uh, I guess it’s just hard to judge Japanese people being a foreigner.” He glanced at me and managed a smile. “Women are sensitive about their age, aren’t they?”
I tried to hide the fact that I’d been flattered by his answer by saying, “Yeah. Especially ones my age.” I took a drink. “You know about Christmas cake, right?”
He blinked at me. “Christmas cake?”
“Not the real cake,” I said, chuckling. “No. In Japan, when women get older than 25 people start calling you Christmas cake if you’re not married. Well,” I waved a hand in the air. “No one wants to eat Christmas cake after Christmas day, right? It’s the same with women. Nobody wants you after you’re 25.”
I nodded. “In Japan when you get to 25 you have a choice as a woman: either get married or buy an apartment.” I took a long drink then added, “I bought an apartment.”
“We don’t really care about that sort of thing,” said the boy. “I’ve known lots of guys that have gone out with older women. My girlfriend... uh, ex-girlfriend I mean. She was 23.”
“That so?” So 23 years old was an older woman for this guy. I guess that made me a grandma.
The mama-san used the lull in conversation to come and ask what food we wanted. I was feeling hungry and the boy said he was, too.
“You didn’t eat anything with your girlfriend earlier?”
“No, just a couple of drinks,” he said.
“Huh,” I muttered. “You’ll get sick that way.” I’ve never understood how foreigners can sit and drink on an empty stomach. It seems crazy to me. “You need to eat something.” I handed him the menu. It had pictures to go with the simple Japanese, so I thought he’d be okay with reading it.
He stared at it for a while and then handed it back to me, his eyes apologetic.
“Uh, I can’t seem to decide. Can... can you order for us?”
I blinked at him. No one had ever asked me to order for them before. I ran my eye over the menu and chose a few things I thought a foreigner might like: a selection of yakitori, fried chicken and a seafood salad. I ordered raw cabbage with miso paste dip and some battered oysters for myself.
“Just to start with,” I told the mama-san. “I’m pretty famished.”
She smiled and retreated out back.
“I ordered you a seafood salad,” I told the boy. “You look like you need the vitamins. You’re okay with raw fish, right?”
While we waited for our food, I asked him about himself. He was the usual type of kid we get as tutors: just finished an undergraduate degree and wondering what to do with their lives. He was also the shy, naïve type that seems to be attracted to Japan for some reason. He liked anime and manga and stuff like that. Odd that even the most normal-looking foreigners are often into otaku stuff.
“Look,” I said. “Try not to mention you like that sort of thing to girls, okay?”
He blinked at me. “Why’s that?”
“Well, usually the only kind of guys that have anime and manga as an interest are otaku. You know what the word means, right?”
He nodded. “Oh. Maybe that‘s why Rika didn’t like me talking about it.”
“My girl- uh, ex.” He grimaced and his eyes grew moist as if he was about to burst into tears.
I felt kind of bad that he was upset, but on the other hand, his vulnerability was... well, it was titillating. I guess I just have a little streak of sadism in me. A boy crying does strange things to me. I get worked up, wanting to comfort them but also tease them more. I usually keep it under control. I am kind of ashamed of it. I guess somewhere along the line the maternal centre of my brain and the reptilian, aggressive part got their lines crossed.
I smiled at him and reached over to touch his hand again, the nurturing ‘big sister’. His hand was really soft, slender, almost girlish in a way. I wondered what it would feel like caressing my body.
My face grew hot, the smile I directed at him a little too sultry, so I took my hand away. I should have said something mollifying then, some big-sisterly advice about forgetting all about the girl. Instead I didn’t want those teary eyes to go away.
“Figures,” I said. “What is it with girls called Rika?”
He looked across at me, his red eyes questioning.
“Well,” I said. “It’s just that I’ve never met a single nice Rika in my life.”
He closed his eyes, then. “She seemed nice. I thought she liked me,” he whispered. “I was just happy that I’d finally met someone who liked me.”
When he sobbed I knew I’d gone too far.
His eyes flashed open in surprise when I put my hand on his and stroked it. “Hey, there’s no need to cry. I guarantee she’s not crying over you. Don’t give her the satisfaction.”
He sniffed and nodded. He glanced across at me and I smiled my brightest, most nurturing smile at him. His face went pink and he managed a weak smile back and rubbed at his eyes.
Caressing his hand was doing a far better job of distracting him from his broken heart than my words were. He kept stealing glances at me. He wanted to look me in the eye whenever I was talking to him, but looking at me was also making him nervous.
I finished my beer. It did nothing to cool me down. “Shall we order something else to drink?”
The boy nodded. Then his face fell, “Uh, actually I don’t l have much money on me at the...”
I chuckled. “I’m older than you, so it’s my treat. Japanese custom. So what would you like?”
“Um, can you decide for me?”
He was pretty indecisive. I took up the menu. “Well, let’s have some rice wine then. Mama-san!”
“Do you have Bishounen?”
“Of course,” she replied. “Just a moment.”
A few moments later the mama-san came out with two glasses in little wooden boxes.
The boy stared at the box in front of him.
“They’re pinewood,” I said. “They’re supposed to catch any sake that spills when it’s getting poured. They make the sake taste nicer, too.”
The mama-san lugged a huge bottle up and poured the golden liquid into the first glass. It quickly overflowed and the boy gasped.
“Don’t worry, that’s supposed to happen,” I told him.
The mama-san smiled and kept pouring until the sake filled the little box as well up to the rim, then did the same for my drink.
“Dai-saabisu,” I said. I glanced at the boy whose eyes were still wide from the spectacle. “It means ‘extra-generous’. Saabisu is from English but I don’t think ‘service’ really makes that much sense when you translate it.” I nodded to the mama-san. “Could you leave the bottle please?”
“Please enjoy it at your leisure,” she replied.
The boy glanced at me, unsure.
“Like I said, my treat. Merry Christmas and all that.”
He smiled shyly.
“Kampai!” I said, leaning down to drink from the glass while it still sat on the table. The boy watched me.
I wiped away the sake moustache and licked a finger. “It’s the only way you can drink the first bit without spilling it,” I said.
He did the same and licked his lips. “Wow. It’s really good!”
“You have to be careful, though,” I said. “Rice wine is pretty strong.”
After that we clicked our dripping glasses together in another toast. Soon after the mama-san arrived with our food. Everything proved delicious.
As expected, the boy had trouble using his chopsticks.
“Are you drunk already? I teased, amused as he made another abortive attempt to pick up a piece of fried chicken. “You really should pace yourself.”
“Oh, no, no,” he said. “I’m just not very good at using chopsticks.”
“Here,” I said, putting my own chopsticks back on my bowl and leaning across the table to take hold of his hands. “You’re holding them wrong.”
“I am?” He stared down at our hands as I repositioned the chopsticks.
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s the way little kids hold them.”
I soon took him through a practice run, my hand still on his. We picked up the chicken together and brought it over to his bowl.
“Just remember,” I said. “Your bowl is your base of operations. All the food from other dishes have to at least touch down on it before they go in your mouth. You can’t just shovel stuff straight out into your mouth like a barbarian.”
“Oh,” he said.
“Rika never taught you about this sort of thing?”
He shook his head. “We always went to Western places.”
“I see.” I helped him take the chicken off his dish and was lifting it part way to his mouth when I let go of his hand.
“You do it the rest of the way.” I told him. “You don’t want me feeding you, right?”
He didn’t reply. He was too busy wrestling with the chopsticks and trying to keep the chicken between the pointed ends. He managed somehow and got the morsel into his mouth.
“It’s good!” he exclaimed.
“Well, the struggle makes it taste better,” I said.
He put down the chopsticks and sighed. “You’re right.”
“What about?” I asked.
“Rika was only going out with me because I was a foreigner.”
“Hey, don’t worry about it,” I said. The nurturing side of me was winning and I regretted my earlier cruelty. I lifted the second half of a battered oyster to my mouth. “How long were you going out for?”
I pulled the chopsticks from my mouth. I chewed on the delicious morsel and swallowed. Three weeks. Tears after three weeks.
“Three weeks, huh.” I sighed. “You should try three years.”
“Excuse me?” He lifted his eyes from where he was struggling to catch a slice of raw salmon from the salad.
“Three years,” I said. I knew he didn’t really want to hear about my problems, but I was already talking so I kept going. “I was going out with my fiancé for three years when he broke up with me.”
“When did that happen?” he asked.
“A week ago.”
“I’m sorry,” said the boy, frowning. He really did feel sorry for me, the adorable creature.
“Well,” I said. “It was my fault. I shouldn’t have let things go on like they did for so long.” The boy was still listening, so I kept talking. “I mean, I started to badger him about getting married. We’d been engaged for two years and it felt like things were going nowhere.”
“What was his name?”
I blinked. “Kazuo,” I said.
“Kazuo,” he murmured, still fishing at that slice of raw salmon with his chopsticks. “Figures. I’ve never met a single nice guy called Kazuo in my life.”
I stared at him, but his eyes were glued to the salmon. He finally snared it and held it up in triumph, grinning at me.
I felt my pulse quicken. I’d been in a tense state all night, even back at the end of year party. The rice wine had gone straight to my head and was making things worse. And now, with that tell-tale melty feeling below my waist, I knew I was going to do something stupid, something risky.
“Hey, you said you’re learning Japanese, right?” I said. “Let me give you a quick lesson then. Scoosh over a sec.”
I stood up and moved across to his seat. His eyes went wide with surprise but he quickly sat aside to make space for me. I leaned across him and pointed to the sake bottle. “You can read a few kanji, right? Can you read this? I know it’s in cursive, but it’s neat.”
“Well,” he said. I admired his willpower. My cleavage was right in front of him and his eyes didn’t once leave the bottle. “The first character means beautiful, right? Goat with big written underneath it.”
“You’re right, it is,” I said. You often forget what a character is made up of when you see the words every day of your life.
“And the second one I think means small.”
“Few, actually,” I said. “Sukunai. How about the last one? It’s easy.”
“It’s year,” he said.
“Well done!” I exclaimed. “So we read it bi-shou-nen.”
“Isn’t the first character -mi?”
“Well, sometimes,” I said. “Like in my first name. Mi-eko. But here’s it bi.”
”Oh.” He furrowed his brow.
“So have you guessed what the word means?”
“Haha,” I said. “That’s what makes Japanese so difficult. Shounen - few years - actually means ‘boy’ or ‘young man’.”
His eyes lit up. “Oh, like Shounen Jump.” It was a monthly manga magazine for boys.
“Yeah,” I said. The kid really was a bit of a geek, wasn’t he? “So altogether it means ‘beautiful young man’.”
“Oh,” said the kid.
“It’s a cute name for rice wine,” I said. Was he going pink again? “Whenever I order it I always imagine I’m at one of those host-clubs.”
He blinked. “A host club?”
“You’ve been to Kabukichou in Shinjuku, right? Did you see all those posters with the young guys on them?”
“What, those posters with the guys with long hair?” He drew his hands down from his head to his shoulders. “Kinda girly, like the talents from Johnny’s?”
“Yeah, they’re advertisements for host clubs. Basically, a middle-aged woman like me goes there and pays some money to have a beautiful young man serve her drinks and talk to her and show her attention and that sort of thing...”
“Oh,” said the boy. “I think I’ve heard of them.” He looked thoughtful and then took another drink. “H-have you ever been to one?”
I laughed out loud. ”What? Oh, no. Even if I had I wouldn’t admit it. It’s shameful.”
But wasn’t that more or less what I was doing now? I felt a sting of shame at what I was doing, but I knew I wasn’t going to stop. In half an hour, the attention I’d got from this kid had made me happier than I’d been in years.
I was thankful for him, then, calling me away from that party. In this kind of state I would have ended up taking someone home. I probably would have ended up with that moron Hideyuki. Well, it was his loss. Screw him and his warmed-over high-school heart-throb looks. Less than two weeks after I’d broken up from a three-year relationship and he was already well on the way to working me. Lingering at my desk at work, mock-shy glances during meetings, calling me Mi-chan...
And screw Kazuo as well. All those years wasted. So I was 33 now. I was still young, really. Look at this kid beside me. I knew the scent of my body, its closeness was doing things to him. He kept glancing at my cleavage: those push-up bras really do work wonders. Making young guys horny wasn’t exactly a challenge, I knew, but right now it was what I needed. I was still feeling bruised. I needed someone to look at me the way this kid was right now. His naivety and sensitivity delighted me.
The boy finished his drink and stared at the glass. With me beside him he was finding it difficult to find new places to direct his eyes.
I took the bottle and freshened his drink. When I started to do the same to my own he protested.
“I should pour it for you,” he said.
“Oh no!” I said, mock-scandalised. “Then I really will feel like I’m at a host club.”
The boy was flustered but did a pretty good job pouring the drink, considered. It only just overflowed.
“Dai-dai-saabisu,” I joked. “It takes a bit of practice.” I brought the drink to my lips. “Delicious. I’ll finish this one off and you can try again.”
Drink followed drink. The kid got better at serving them. We were soon laughing and joking like old friends. Whoever invented alcohol should have got the Nobel Prize. I knew I’d regret drinking so many in the morning. You always end up tasting rice wine all the next day and every taste is a brutal reminder of how it’s your own fault your head is throbbing so much you want to throw yourself under a train.
I knew I’d probably regret a few more things as well. The mama-san was no doubt observing us discretely from the corner of her eye as she watched TV behind the counter. I knew my every movement was utterly transparent to everyone except the kid himself. He kept treating me with respect, deferring to my opinions on everything we were talking about: nuclear power, Japanese TV, the existence of aliens, whatever. I was still his superior, even if I was becoming increasingly incoherent and kept thrusting my boobs at him.
“...so yeah, Japanese people don’t really have an ego as such,” I said, warming to my subject: cultural differences between the East and West. “For us, it’s all just superego or id. Superego when we’re at work, id when we’re at play. Whereas you guys are always policing everything you do or think, even in private. I mean, that whole guilt thing. I understand feeling guilty if you’ve done something wrong, but why should you feel bad about something you might do? Or something you’re just fantasizing about doing?” I took a sip of my drink. “Haha. You can tell I’m a psychology dropout, right? No money in it. Everyone in this country just bottles everything up or hits the bottle.”
The kid swirled his drink around and laughed.
“You don’t have to laugh at my jokes just because I’m your sempai,” I said, serious.
“No,” he replied. “I... I was laughing because you’re right. We’re always overthinking everything we do. I think it’s a Christian thing. It’s probably why everyone is so screwed up.”
“Oh, please don’t take it as a criticism,” I said, placing a hand on his shoulder. “I think you’re far more psychologically healthy in other ways. For one thing, you’re not a bunch of passive-aggressive man-children like Japanese men.”
The kid said nothing and I realised my clumsy, misanthropic apology had just made him more uncomfortable. I finished my drink so that he’d have to repour it and hopefully get distracted from my boorishness while I composed myself.
It worked. “So you studied psychology at University?” he asked.
I took the drink up eagerly. “Uh-huh. It was my major along with English.”
He sighed. “It must be great to be fluent in two languages.”
“Well, I don’t know about fluent,” I said, flattered. “My English still stinks.”
“No, it’s excellent,” he said. “I’ve been studying Japanese for years and I still haven’t got any good.”
“You just need a Japanese girlfriend who isn’t obsessed with speaking English,” I said. I remembered what he’d said about Rika insisting on speaking English with him all the time, even though her English was borderline incomprehensible. “Your Japanese will be great in no time.”
The kid said nothing right away. I had my drink against my lips before I realised he was crying.
“Damn,” I said, pulling my drink from my lips and placing it back on the table, spilling it in the process. “Damn!” I grabbed a handful of napkins and dabbed at the spilt liquid. I wanted to dab at his eyes and comfort him but I knew that would be taking things too far, so I just kept dabbing, as if cleaning up the spilt sake would somehow absolve me of my thoughtless words. Instead I just ended up soaking the napkins and pushing the liquid around the table.
He was covering his face with a hand, scrunching his brows in pain. There was nothing else for it. I leaned across and slipped my arms around his shoulders. His body went stiff with surprise.
“Shh,” I said, hugging him to me and patting his back. “I’m sorry. Look, I’m a bit drunk. I’m always saying stupid stuff when I’m drunk.”
His body slowly relaxed in my arms. “No, you’re not... it’s okay,” he whispered. He took his hand from his eyes and looked at me, his eyes glistening.
The moment grew awkward. I either had to kiss him now or stop hugging him. I stopped hugging him.
That bitch Rika. I hated her more than anything. No one had ever cried tears over me like this. I wanted to cradle his head in my hands, wipe those tears away with my thumbs. Instead I offered him a napkin.
“I’m sorry I’m such a mess,” he said. He took the napkin and stared at it, blinking his red eyes.
I’d handed him one I’d soaked up the spilled sake with.
“Oh shit.” I searched for more napkins. They were all dripping with sake.
The kid burst out laughing. I stared at him and then joined in too.
“I think we should get out of here,” I said. It was late and we were probably outstaying our welcome. I looked to the mama-san and made the ‘writing-the-bill’ gesture that meant we were ready to go.
She brought us the bill with a smile and more tissues.
I took out my credit card. The kid started to protest and I placed a finger against his lips. I left him sitting at the table and wiping his eyes with the tissues while I settled the bill at the counter.
As the mama-san applied my card to one of those old manual receipt-printers, I leaned across the counter.
“Uhh, I was wondering if there were any, uh, hotels nearby?”
The mama-san looked up at me. I’d expected censure or at least that silent, polite disapproval that older people are able to pull off so effortlessly, but instead I saw a glint of amusement in her eyes.
“I’ll draw you a map,” she said.
As we left the little izakaya the mama-san bowed to us with a cheery “Please be careful!” before taking in the little sign and closing the door. Halfway down the street, while I was still blinking at the map she’d drawn on the back of a napkin, the street became dark. She’d switched off the lights.
We really were in the middle of nowhere.
“Is there really a hotel around here?” asked the kid.
I took out my phone for the extra light. “Well, not exactly.” I raised my phone to his face and he blinked at the sudden brightness. “You know about love hotels, right?”
His mouth opened in surprise. “A love hotel?”
He obviously knew what I was talking about. “You’re never really that far away from one while you’re in Japan,” I said. “You ever stay at one?”
He shook his head.
Well, he did have an apartment, after all.
“You don’t have them in your country, do you?”
“No,” he said.
“So where do you go if you want to make love to your girlfriend and you don’t have an apartment all to yourself?”
He was taken aback by my question. “Well, uh... usually, we just kind of do it there anyway.”
I was scandalised. “Even when other people can hear everything?”
“Uh... I guess you just try and keep things down. Also, flatmates usually make themselves scarce if they know you, uh...”
“What if you’re still living at home with your parents?”
“Well, you usually just wait until they’re out.”
My ignorance and surprise was all an act. This was a carbon copy of a conversation I’d had with young foreign colleagues numerous times. In Japan, love hotels are a necessity. Houses are simply too small, and walls too thin, for discrete love-making given the Japanese love for privacy. But I just had to use the opportunity to tease the kid mercilessly. Even in the dark I could tell he was blushing - his stuttering voice told me all I needed to know.
The thought of his discomfort made my blood run fast and hot.
We soon found the love hotel. They’re not designed to be easily missed, after all. The glary lipstick-pink neon of the hotel’s sign beckoned to us at the end of a darkened suburban street identical to every other.
“Hotel Starry Heart,” the kid read out as we got closer. The words were surrounded by a red heart and flanked by a set of blinking yellow stars.
I sighed. “Embarrassing, I know. You don’t know how ashamed I was when I’d learned enough English to realise how bad Japanese English really is.”
“I think it’s a cute name,” he said. “But is it really okay for us to stay at a, uh...”
I stopped and smirked at him. “Worried something might happen?”
His face turned to a mask of shock. “No-o, I just...”
“Well,” I said. “They’re still just normal hotels, beneath all the gimmicky theme-rooms and silly names. And right now it’s either stay at one or sleep in a paddy field.”
The kid nodded, defeated, and followed close behind as I led him inside the hotel.
To be continued