I'm yukata-clad at one in the morning, surrounded by similarly-attired businessmen drinking vending-machine beer, reading dirty comic books and smoking like factories. We are watching an NHK program involving martial arts and ambulance drivers.

I am in a capsule hotel lounge in one of the seedier neighborhoods of Osaka where everything is pink and hearty. The hotel is one big salaryman slumber party, a five-story affair riddled with lounges, pachinko and game rooms. There are massage chairs and vending machines that sold everything from underwear to Cup Noodle. There is a sushi bar and a room staffed with masseuses around the clock.

Capsule hotels are lodging on the cheap for tomato-faced businessmen who missed the last train home. ¥2,500 buys a cushioned plastic pod that resembles a plus-size microwave. My microwave is equipped with TV, climate control, alarm, and a coin slot: ten minutes of dirty movies for a hundred yen. These berths are stacked in long, dim halls like warm morgues.

There's a bath on the first floor with robes, towels, toothbrushes, razors, hair dryers, Q-tips, potions, powders, and gels. There is a main tub which holds at least fifty, a cold tub, a sauna, and a tub with electrified panels that shocked me when I got close to the sides. This was apparently intentional. Supposedly it is some form of massage, but it was hard to tolerate for more than a few seconds.

Lively Christmas music blared on every floor, even in the bath. It took everything to the next level, that Christmas music did. I twitched spastically in the electrocuting tub while a light-rock version of "Ode To Joy" screamed from a speaker above me.

I needed a numbingly, punishingly, apocalyptically hot bath.

Today I saw Naoko for the first time in six years. Naoko and I were together for almost two years, and tried to make it work even when I went back home. Unsuccessfully, in the end. She visited me in Minneapolis, but by the end we both knew it wouldn't work anymore. We still email a few times a year, and write the occasional letter.

We met at Big Man, our old meeting place. I hadn't expected to be nervous but I was visibly shaking. Every possible scenario, imaginable or unimaginable, went through my mind. What if we had nothing to say to each other? What if she brought a boyfriend? What if she had gone bald? I wasn't even sure I would recognize her again. I stared hard at passing girls. One looked like Naoko might, if she had bad skin, greasy hair and a scowl. I blinked for a moment, alarmed, but she walked past.

I knew her the moment I saw her walking across Hankyu Station. I couldn't stop smiling. She stopped inches away, looking up at me, and I stared at her for a moment.

"Hisashi buri," she said. It's been a while.

It has indeed.

Naoko had been replaced by her cool, elegant twin sister. She carried herself more assuredly and her hair was longer, but her face was the same. Two little freckles over her right eye. Dimples. I couldn't stop looking at her at first. We walked slowly to the station, chatting easily.

We went to the Osaka Aquarium, where I saw animals I've never seen before: a whale shark, a sun fish, huge crabs. My favorites were the jellyfish, alien science experiments in cylindrical tanks: tentacles of pasta, conifer forests, lace. Naoko liked best any fish that was ugly, and tried to take pictures of them with her phone.

"C'mon, ugly," she would say with a grin. "Cheezu." But the ugly fish were wily and camera-shy, and neither of us got a decent picture.

We went to a coffee shop afterwards. There were a few moments of not unpleasant silence. Everything felt very natural, like six days had passed rather than six years. I was glad to see her again.

Then she picked up from where we left off: the plane ride from Minneapolis to Japan, six years ago.The plane had malfunctioned after an hour in the air and returned to Minneapolis. I had already gone home, so she spent three hours alone in the airport. I had known part of this story but didn't remember that the plane had actually taken off. I thought it had malfunctioned on the ground and she had returned to the terminal to find me already gone. For six years I felt guilty about leaving before the plane took off, but I had not, after all.

Naoko had missed her connection in Seattle and the airport put her up in a hotel. A weird man approached her in the airport and told her to come with him, but she ran away and spent the rest of the night in her room watching MTV.

"That must have been a rough night," I said.

"It wasn't great," she agreed. "But I have good memories of it, for some reason. It was like, 'I am living'."

" I know exactly what you mean."

We went to an Italian place for dinner. Naoko seemed darker than before, though it would be hard for me to say how. Older and wiser, perhaps; she's seen a few things that I will never know about. I resisted asking about the ring on the fourth finger of her right hand, which sometimes indicates the presence of a boyfriend. I didn't want to know. Her life no longer involves me , and I was surprised how difficult that realization was. I had somehow hoped she had been on pause since last we met, though of course she hasn't. I certainly haven't.

After dinner we walked to a deserted bar with vinyl booths and abundant cushions. It was about eleven and I was weary and bleak, bleary and weak . The previous night spent chatting with Mr. T had worn me down. I began to feel awkward. I was out of things to say, and the most uncomfortable songs kept playing one after another. I wanted to throw my hands up in exasperation when I heard the opening strains of "I'm In Love With My Ex." I swear someone was doing it deliberately.

Eventually I decided it was time I found a hotel. "I'd offer to let you sleep at my apartment tonight," Naoko said, "but I don't think it's going to work."

I didn't want to sleep at her apartment. It would have been weird, I told myself

We walked to Shinsaibashi station. My train was waiting at the platform so I didn't get a goodbye. I said, "I've got to get on," and she nodded. Then I got on the train and couldn't help but watch her from the window. She watched me too, but then looked away, watching something to her left.

As I dragged my obnoxious luggage through Umeda I passed the sushi restaurant where Naoko and I went on our third date. I had only eaten egg sushi, because I didn't like fish. I had forgotten this detail until Naoko reminded me of it earlier today. Now I stared into the window of this same sushi restaurant, remembering it clearly.

I grew grimmer when I realized that I had no idea if there were any vacancies in Umeda at midnight on a Friday. I didn't even know if I could find the capsule hotel again after eight years. But the hotel was exactly where I remembered. Some things never change.

No comments:

Post a Comment