Friday, 7 June 2013

Old Friends! New Adventures!

When the majority of your friends and associates are international, you get used to your life featuring a revolving cast of characters. Hell, just since I've been here I've already had a J-girl disappear into the ether of England, and who knows if we'll ever reconnect. Even back in Canada, outside of a small core of lifelong companions, the majority of the people with whom I dealt were from elsewhere; not only did I spend most of my time among the Japanese, who cycled in and out on a constant basis, but there was an endless stream of news like, India Club has a new president because the old one, whom we were close with, moved back home; those two are in a long-distance relationship now, wonder how long it'll last; this Chinese guy I know, maybe he'll be here next semester, maybe not.

Sometimes you get to see on Facebook how a group of Toukyou people who all met each other in Canada got together and had a party or something, but you just kind of nod, wistfully imagine the scene, and move on. For the most part, you tacitly acknowledge to yourself that your goodbye was probably the final goodbye. You learn to accept that length of time and depth of feeling don't always experience a direct relationship. So when one time at the airport (a place that contains more mixed emotions for me than anywhere else in the world), I bid a friend of mine 「さようなら」and he breezily came back with “See you again,” I thought it was a really cool thing to say, but it never occurred to me that I actually might.

Until he sent me a message out of nowhere.

“Rude Boy,” he said, in English – never a good way to approach me, but at least his English is better than my Japanese. “Remember me?”

Of goddamn course. People I used to hang out with on a daily basis don't usually just slip my mind.

“I'm thinking about hitchhiking down to Kyoto or Osaka next week. Do you have time to hang out?”

Osaka, I tell him. Let's do Osaka. For one thing, fuck Kyouto. I can tool around Kyouto whenever the hell I want. I need a reason to go to Oosaka, and I love having one. Plus, if we do it there, we can add a couple of other familiar faces to the proceedings.

We manage to wrangle two. The first is a tiny, quiet girl whom I mainly remember for rarely saying more than three words back-to-back. But she must have a couple years of university under her belt by now; that's always good for pulling people out of their shells, whether they want to stay there or not. Anyway she's very sweet and I'm looking forward to seeing her again.

The second, however, I'm a little more leery of. She's probably the sluttiest girl I know – except like, in a bad way though, and she always did have a thing for poking fun at my lack of luck in love. The fact that I actually had a pretty huge crush on her definitely didn't help my feelings of resentment over these comments. Thank God I have better taste now. The only thing she has going for her is that she's gyaru, which, admittedly, is a pretty huge plus. We had some fun times together, no doubt about that, but we had some very antagonistic ones as well. I've talked to her a handful of times since I've been here, mostly to have her call me “still shit at Japanese” for writing 「7-11」instead of 「セブンイレブン」、or tell me that we should hang out together in Ibaraki-shi, which I promptly did not do. Because I just know I'm not coming out of that feeling good about myself. This has all the potential for a full-blown encounter, so I make a few rules for myself:

  1. Don't start anything. If she plays nice, you play nice.
  2. Even if she does start anything, try not to react. It's not worth it.
  3. If you can't resist, respond with wit, not venom...and recognize the thin line between the two.
  4. The first one to get angry loses. (Don't worry. She's quick to anger. You're slow to it.)

Finally, of course, there was our MC. When I knew the man back in high school, he was a soccer nut, and later he studied at the University of Baltimore. He was never the type who would have hitchhiked anywhere, but I can see how he could have transformed into one. I picture him as some kind of road scholar now, The Communist Manifesto stored in the cavity of his acoustic guitar as he randomly travels Japan in search of thought-provoking conversation. I have a robust imagination.


Yokohama is exactly as he was the last time I saw him. He doesn't even appear to have aged a day. He looks like the guy from Sukima Switch. The one without the afro.

The last time I saw Hyougo, she was a 16-year-old girl; the person standing in front of me is a 21-year-old woman. She couldn't have undergone a heavier metamorphosis if she'd spent the intervening time in a chrysalis. I remember her wearing this sort of pseudo-emo all-black ensemble before, but now she's decked out in one of those sort of frumpy, yet somehow appealing look that less flashy Japanese girls sometimes do. Her face is completely different. I don't even recognize her. She's...she's kind of hot, now.

We head for an udon shop and reminisce about the old days. Though Yokohama's goal in coming down was mainly to see me, specifically (since he'd seen most of the others more recently), in fact we are all veterans of the ESL Room at our old high school back in Canada, where they ryuugaku'd. There were others, but of course the Japan Group was pretty close-knit, and I got in on that. There were Canadians there too, a little group of us, and I made a couple of precious friendships that I am lucky enough to still have today. It was sort of a second home. We congregated there every lunch, every break, every day both before and after school. I spread my textbooks and other scholastic paraphernalia across the top of the TV. I got up extra-early so I wouldn't miss any happenings. They were momentous fucking times, as far as high school goes.

Yokohama and I took Art 12 together, too. One time at the end of class he presented me with my project, which he'd just straight-up done for me. I think I got like a B on it. I helped him puzzle through To Kill a Mockingbird, too. Hyougo and I TA'd a Grade 11 Japanese class together. We communicated, in our way, with her not really speaking any English and me managing to at least make myself halfway understood in Japanese.

We wander around Umeda with no particular goal in mind, settling on a bench in an atrium high above street level. A cool breeze takes the edge off the humidity. We relax and talk about nothing. It's like High School Days: Redux. Exactly the same sensation.

Unfortunately, Hyougo has to leave for work, but now that we've reconnected, we can probably hang out again anytime. Maybe. You know how these things work. Yokohama and I kill some time waiting for Ibaraki to get off her ass and come meet us, and we end up cruising through Joyopolis. We have to pass through the medal games part, and a couple of girls are standing out front, yelling things at passersby with microphones.

“Oosaka! Oosaka! Yay, Oosaka! Oosaka! Yay, Oosaka!”

Yokohama gets a kick out of that, since Hyougo and I have just spent the last few hours making fun of him for not being from Kansai. He thus decides that it would be a good idea to draw their attention to me. One asks me in English where I'm from, I respond in Japanese, and now I'm running my usual set. As a foreigner in Japan, you get asked the same questions so often you'd have a good chance of offering an appropriate answer without even listening (to be fair, this is by no means particular to Japan). I leave feeling pretty good, which is when I realise that they're probably there to pump people up, causing them to spend more money. Pretty clever actually. Ibaraki eventually makes her way to our vicinity, and Yokohama makes me answer the phone.

“Yes, hello, are you here?”
“Hello? Who is this? Is this Rude Boy?!”
“That's right, this is Rude Boy.”
“Holy shit, Rude Boy, your Japanese got better.”

When she comes in she looks ready to paint the walls in an explosion of excitement. Immediately she goes in for a hug and – ok, so this is a thing that is happening now. I had no idea she was so fond of me. She warns us that she thinks she has influenza, but she sure the hell doesn't look it. She embarks on a stream-of-consciousness conversation, as if trying to speak on every possible topic simultaneously. Yokohama and I can barely get a word in edgewise. I wonder if she even needs us there.

She hasn't changed a bit. No, not one bit.

She grabs and swipes at both of us, gets me to feel how hot her neck is, intentionally coughs in my face while laughing. Amazingly, she went to a joshikou, and she's going to a joshidai. Truly, she needs male attention like she needs oxygen, and she's gotten it, too, every day for the last twenty years. I wonder idly what her life's going to look like in another twenty. I'm starting to remember why I liked her in the first place. Not just because she's hot, although damn but is she, and gyaru to boot. But there's more. She's fun. She's loud. She's indomitable. She's got this boundless, directionless, irrational energy that somehow just oh god damn it it's happening again isn't it.

She's feeling lousy enough that she wants to go in and sit down somewhere. Where? “Here.” This is a cake shop. “I want to eat cake.” Uh, ok. But it looks expensive as piss. “Whatever, I'll treat you.” If you say so. It's a cafe type place with an Indian theme, but no Indian food. Ibaraki orders something that isn't cake. How long has it been, anyway? So Yokohama, you've been living in America? Seriously, Rude Boy, your Japanese got way better.

Then she starts with the bullying. She's held it in for a good twenty minutes but now she lets loose. Like I goddamn knew she would. She asks:

“So, are your numbers any less awful than the last time I saw you?”

And she brings me to my knees just like that. It's strange, I literally feel like I've been stabbed in the chest, straight through the ribs, just below my heart, and it's her that's holding the knife. Shock and pain echo down my stomach. She's asked basically the one question that I can't just shrug off, and she doesn't even know it. She's like a cat, torturing a mouse. It's just fun for her. She doesn't even know she's hurting anything. That makes it so much worse.

“Who knows,” I shrug.

As a matter of fact, they have gotten slightly better, but I'm not about to discuss it with someone whose numbers are as enviable as hers.

“He's a playboy,” Yokohama interjects, perhaps reading my discomfort.
“Rude Boy, a playboy?!”
“Only in my heart. I'd be a playboy, if I could.”
“Hahahahaha, if you could.”
“Ibaraki, you should introduce Rude Boy to some girls at your school.”
“I don't think I have anybody who'd go for him. What kind of girls you into?”
“Lots. Gyaru, I guess.”
“Ah, like me!”

She cracks up.

“Impossible! No, of course not. Definitely, Japanese girls don't like guys like you. If you're not Japanese, you have to be either super-stylish, or, like, huge or something. You're just not good-looking enough. Like when you're around, do you hear like 'oh my god, foreigners are so cool!' You don't, right? You don't have any appeal.” I fucking know that already, Ibaraki. Stop talking about it.

“Marry me, then. Then I can immigrate.”
“Ah, sorry, there's no way I could have children with you.”
“That's ok, I don't want children.” And if I did I don't think I'd want a mother like you raising them.
“Go build up a ton more muscle and come back.”

My attraction to her is boiling into resentment, and hard. I try to make it stop, because holy shit. I'm the picture of emotional health, hey? She smokes, now. I'm not even surprised. Except that Mother Russia at least turns her head; Ibaraki blows it straight in my face, and laughs when I frown and lean away.

She tells me, later, that she wouldn't make fun of me if she didn't like me. I want to believe it, and do. Maybe she's just gaming me. If so, well played.

Ibaraki's condition continues to deteriorate over the course of the stop, and after a few phone calls she decides she's calling in sick to work and going straight home. We agree that she should probably do that sooner rather than later. She perks up enough to start walking, but she has me carry her bag. Ordinarily, I'd have shoved it back at her. A girl like that, you don't do what she wants. You push her away, she'll push harder; try to reel her in, and she'll back the fuck out. But if you let her know that she's got you by the balls, she'll squeeze just as hard as she goddamn wants and you'll never, ever see that roll into anything. Besides which, what the hell kind of Beta male shit is that anyway?

But I'm not trying to sleep with her (not because I wouldn't, mind you, but because I know it's not going to happen), and she really does look sick. I'm starting to get genuinely worried for her, so I suck it up and sling the thing over my shoulder. It's kind of fun, anyway, doing a favour like that for a woman, and probably there's something in that but holy shit I have absolutely no desire to explore it. I realise, in a flash of repressed montage, that I used to do this literally all the time for her – carry her bag, I mean. And I remember pretty well how that worked out. See, it's stuff like this that I'm talking about when I say that I used to be a different person. Within minutes she's got an arm entwined around one of ours each, barely able to support herself or walk in a straight line; we lurch dangerously into the paths of opposing foot traffic. If it were a few hours later everyone around us would assume she was drunk.

“Call your boyfriend,” Yokohama suggests.
“He doesn't have a car. I'm breaking up with him soon, anyway.”

She starts to feel even worse amid the sway of the crowded train. She takes hold of my sleeve and entrusts a significant portion of her weight to my safekeeping. “I'm sick. God, my head hurts. I think I'm going to throw up. My head's going to explode.” Finally she swoons forward and buries her head in my chest. I reach up and stroke her head.

“You're just being nice because you want me to marry you,” she mumbles.

When a bunch of people get off, an older lady clears some people away and tells us to sit together. I laugh. I'm carrying her bag, she's clinging to me, she's mentioning marriage, she's momentarily stopped verbally abusing me. The lady must think we're dating.

I can totally see us hatefucking. Not tomorrow, but at some point. You're all gonna say that's just wishful thinking. But there's a difference. I feel like I want to all the time; here I feel like we will. I will certainly let you know if this happens.

Yokohama and I wile away the last hour or so in the vicinity of Kyouto Eki. We find a small arcade and I kick his ass at Initial D. We stop in at a cafe and he treats me. Finally we just stand around waiting for his bus, debriefing on the day's events. I feel like I've been reminded why I came to this country in the first place, and why I want to stay. And I hate to admit it...but I kind of like these people better than my current group of friends. Is shared experience just that powerful?

“Let's meet up again,” he says.
“Definitely,” I reply. “Hopefully before another four years passes.”

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