by Eva Sandoval
We're at our usual and Ben's ordering more sake and more chicken hearts and we're having one of our terrific fights – American English, highly evolved; British English, obsolete – when Isobel, who usually knows her place, blurts: “Paul. Will you come to Gion Matsuri with me?”
The blue cigarette smoke above our heads quivers. Ben, who'd been in mid-snarl, has dropped his chopsticks. I glance at his face; he's just as shocked as I am. And then I look at Isobel. Her eyes are wide. She's clutching her napkin. She looks beautiful.
Issue #114 soundtrack: Beat Radio "Lost in the World"
“No," I say.
“No.” I look at Ben again; his face, a stone wall. “Why do you even want to go? Japanese festivals are hell. And why me? Go with your boyfriend.”
“Ben won't go.”
“You're bloody right I won't,” says Ben. “You think I'm going to be one of those daft-looking foreigners at a matsuri? You're mental.”
“I told you,” says Isobel. “You don't have to dress up.”
“But you will,” he says. “Taking photos of everything like a tourist.”
“See?” Isobel turns her shoulders towards me. “Now will you please come? You know there's no one else...”
“Oh, just go,” says Ben. “She'll wear her little costume and I'll never have to hear about it again.”
Isobel stares down at her hands. They're long and white, and twisting apart her napkin into angry-looking shreds.
“Fine,” I say. “Okay.”
Isobel's hands stop shredding. I light another cigarette.
Ben and I polish off the sake, then we head back to our building – past the throbbing karaoke house, past the Shinto shrine hulking in the dark, and past the tree branches pregnant with shrieking cicadas. We stand in front of the two tin doors – Ben's apartment on the left, mine on the right.
“Good night, tosser,” Ben says. He's drunk, pointing at me. His other arm is looped around Isobel.
“Night, Ben,” I say.
Alone in my apartment, I think about it. I think about it. I think about it. I haven't been alone with Isobel in almost a year. We'd had great talks once, a million years ago. Talks and tea, good Lord, what did we even talk about: West Coast versus East Coast, expat life, our sad adolescence? Gion's in Kyoto – an hour away by train. And then there's the thing itself. The crowds. The shoving. Ben's right, Isobel will have to take pictures of every lantern and every loincloth-clad float hoister. And what about when she puts the camera down? I don't want to talk about Ben. I won't talk about Ben with her.
We were all great friends once. We explored Osaka together: the blue heron-winged Osaka castle, the neon cacophony of the Namba district, the giant red Dotonbori crab. Isobel had moved into Mansion Mona – as our foreigner-friendly apartment building was called – three weeks before Ben did. The first time I saw her she was taking out her trash. She was wearing a blue dress. She looked beautiful.
Isobel was brand new in Japan, like I'd been once, so I'd taken pity and treated her to drinks at the corner izakaya; the gastropub I'd visited every night since moving to the neighborhood. No sign, only a curtain to mark its existence. I like it, Isobel had said, shuffling off her shoes, oblivious to the stares raining down upon her. The staff was used to me – I spoke Japanese, I was fine – but tall, blonde Isobel was an oddity.
I showed her how to press the buzzer on the table when she wanted service. I taught her to say sumimasen when she wanted to say “excuse me." Isobel was from Oregon. She was just twenty-two.
She invited me to her apartment for tea, and after a few cups, we'd discovered that we'd both been teenage outcasts.
“What kind of freak were you?” she'd asked.
“Nerdy,” I'd said. “Puny. Irresistible to women. Can't you tell?”
“Shy and ugly. Can't you tell?”
She'd said her dream was to become a National Geographic photographer and she'd come to Japan for an “inspirational sabbatical”: What about you, Paul? I'd given her my standard line: I'm the one Democrat who made good on their promise to expatriate when Bush got re-elected.
“Paul,” she said. “We're going to be wonderful friends.”
That had been a million years ago.
It's always been different with Ben. But Ben is different: a miserable British bastard, a pathological firestarter. We heard him before we saw him, tugging his suitcases and bass into Mansion Mona with violent bangs that cut us off mid-sentence, shook the tea in our cups. He was red with fury and slick with sweat; long sideburns and big shoulders, like a prize fighter. Better looking than me? Taller, certainly. The welcome party sent Yanks – brilliant. You've come down to help, then, have you? See if you can work out a way to get this instrument inside this pathetic box they call a flat. Ben and I hadn't wasted any time: our first fight happened that night at the izakaya, over beer and fried octopus. Isobel's always called our fights “debates,” but that's too kind because Ben calls names and takes cheap shots. In Ben's world, Americans are stupid and arrogant, women are simple and weak, and I fall for it every. Single. Time.
Ben and I do have things in common, though: a hatred of sports, a love of indie rock. We both ditched corporate jobs to move to Japan and, as we discovered one night over too many beers, we both usually dated Japanese girls back home. So I was surprised when, while we were showering at the outdoor baths in Kobe, he'd said: I rather fancy Isobel.
“You do?” I'd said.
“Yes. You know, she's fit – tall, slim, nice eyes. You only see her every day, have you not noticed?”
I'd turned my faucet to cold, averting my eyes.
“Dude,” I'd said. “We're in Japan. The women love us 'cause we have big dicks and don't make them get up at six to pack their bento for work. Why else would guys like us come here? We could never get women this hot back home.”
“Speak for yourself,” he'd said, tightening his towel around his waist as we followed the stone path towards the steaming spring. “That's not why I came.”
“Bullshit,” I'd said. “That's why all men like us come here.”
“Men like you, maybe.”
I'd dropped my towel, tested the bubbling water with my toes and sunk inside. It had been cherry blossom season: snow-white petals drifting on the water's surface and stamps of wet footprints on the rocks. Isobel had begged to come with us but, you know, these things are done in same-sex pairs and she had no female friends, no one but us.
“You're a king here,” I'd said. “Why would you want to date one of your own?”
“She's not one of my own,” Ben had said. “She's one of yours. A Yank.”
“You speak the same language.”
“I beg your pardon, we do not.”
“She's a waste of time in Japan.”
“We shall see, little man,” he'd said.
And for a while, that had been that: Ben had gotten his first reprimand for insulting a student, I'd gotten the translating job at Nintendo, Isobel had dyed her hair brown to stop the stares on the train. For Valentine's Day she gave us each a box of Men's Pocky biscuit sticks and for White Day, I gave her a white teapot and packets of white tea. Ben gave her nothing. And yet, a couple of weeks later, he'd knocked on my door. As always, he'd seemed to fill the tiny space.
“Well,” he said. “Isobel and I are together.”
I continued reading my Japanese textbook.
“You might congratulate me. I'm well chuffed with it.”
“Congratulations,” I said.
I'd stayed inside my room that day, looking at the ceiling and drinking tea. Looking at the ceiling and drinking tea. Looking at the ceiling and drinking tea. Ben didn't know American girls like I did. But I knew Isobel: a silly weakling. As for Ben, he was tall and good-looking, okay, but he was a clueless prick. Isobel wasn't for Ben. And he wasn't for her.
That was months ago. Months of falling asleep with earbuds stuffed in my head and Ben still hasn't seen his mistake.
Ben has insisted I come with them to a Sayonara Party – some Australian guy who broke his contract just three months into the new school year. We're at Tin's Hall, a grimy foreigner bar I've never liked. Ben and Isobel's fellow teachers are pounding beer in the corner, and Isobel is talking to some students. She's laughing. She looks beautiful. I can see her from the bar, where I'm ordering beer for Ben and myself. Then Ben's next to me, nudging me with his fist.
“Listen,” he says. “You might think about the way you behave towards Isobel. She was rather hurt when you buggered off.”
“When?” I say.
“Yesterday, when she tried to talk with you about the matsuri.”
“I already said I'd go with her.”
“You were rude, mate.”
“Whatever,” I say. “It's not like you give a crap about her.”
“I've only renewed my teaching contract – do you think it's just so I can piss about with you?”
“Good,” I say. “Fine.”
Yes, fine. I'll talk to Isobel. I shrug away from Ben and push through the crowds of Japanese girls screaming along to the JPops on the sound system. Isobel is by the pool table, alone, holding a glass of plum wine.
“Having fun?” I say.
“Yes,” she says. She's smiling and her cheeks are pink. “Even if it's a sad occasion.”
“Is it?” I say. “I thought you didn't have any friends at work.”
“Oh,” she says. “Well, I guess not. But goodbyes are always sad.”
“I bet I know why you don't have any friends.”
“Because you always say the wrong fucking thing.”
I go back to the bar. There's a Japanese girl next to the tap; so tiny even I tower over her. Her hair is dyed orangey-brown, sprayed into a stiff cascade of waves. She's wearing long fake eyelashes and a ruffly dress with Hello Kitty on the skirt.
“Good evening,” I say.
“Oh,” says the girl. “You speak Japanese very well.”
“Thank you very much,” I say. “I've been studying for ten years and I'm a video game translator for Nintendo.”
“Ehhhh?” she screams. “So cool!”
Her name is Ayako and she's a flight attendant. She likes going to gaijin bars because she likes meeting gaijin. The only thing she doesn't understand is why I'm so short.
“Gaijin,” she informs me, “should be taller.”
I take her home anyway. All four of us head back to Mansion Mona: Ben and Isobel on his bike, Ayako on the back of mine, the wind in my ears, her spicy perfume in my nostrils, the brine in my throat. When we kick into our building, Ben is giddy as a joke: Goodnight tosser. Goodnight, slapper! He pushes Isobel forward, and she disappears behind the door. I catch a slice of her profile, of her eyes, downcast since the bar, dark and hurt. I slam my own tin door shut. I rattle drawers. I push Ayako onto my futon and make sure her back thumps against the cardboard wall. And then we're going for it, having a good time.
Then it happens again. Or, rather, it doesn't happen.
“Ehhhh?” says Ayako. “I thought this didn't happen to gaijin.”
“I'm fine," I say. And we keep at it but still nothing and finally Ayako says, “I'm going home,” and she leaves. I hear the thumps coming from Ben's apartment now, and I'm alone, like always, listening to Isobel love Ben.
My sixth Japanese summer and it never gets any easier; so hot that I sleep naked, my back sticking to my sheets, the cords of my earbuds glued to my neck, and through the walls, Ben moans: Bloody Japanese summer. Bloody Japan.
During the day, our noses drip. At night, Ben and I drink in the dark outside empty shrines. He tries to firestart: “Do you ever miss being new,” he'll say. “Really new in Japan? Before you realized you'd never fit in.”
I sip my beer and watch the sweat bead at the edges of his sideburns, gathering into giant drops that trickle down his check. I could pin him flat against a tree to shut him up. But even Ben doesn't really care in weather like this.
Sometimes Isobel comes. Ben and I drink and talk; she takes photos of the bicycles on the sidewalk, the slash grins of the funerary lions. If she told Ben about the sayonara party, he doesn't seem to care.
One night, I invite a Nintendo co-worker to the izakaya. Yoshito's a console programmer who speaks little English.
“I love summer,” says Isobel in her painfully basic Japanese. “Matsuri are Japanese summer festivals, yes?” Yoshito smiles at her through the clouds of smoke.
“You are skillful, aren't you?” he says.
“Ehhhhhh! Slow, slow, I am learning, yes?” says Isobel. “I will take many pictures at the matsuri. I will wear my new yukata!”
“Wot's that?” says Ben in surly English.
“It's a summer kimono, yes?” Isobel pauses, and nudges my shoulder. “Paul-san is coming with me to Gion Matsuri, yes? We will have fun, yes?”
“Yes, yes,” I say, too startled to say anything else. Isobel beams into her plum wine.
“Lovely,” says Ben. “Bet yukatas are as much fun to take off as they are to put on.”
“Ben,” says Isobel, blushing. She looks beautiful. I grind out my cigarette and think about what an attention-hungry tramp she is.
Gion Matsuri day, a scorcher at 38 degrees. I soak three cotton furoshiki just mopping up the sweat on my brow. At six, I knock on Isobel's door. I'm wearing my own yukata. It's navy and gray. I bought it my second summer in Japan, when my fellow ESL teachers invited me to Kenka Matsuri. I changed schools and never heard from them again. I'd never worn the yukata again, either.
Ben pokes his head out the door.
“What's all this, then?” he says. “You and Isobel playing dress-up? Cor, what a lovely pair.”
“Is she ready?” I say.
“Yes,” he says. “Finally. You'd think you could just put one of these bloody things on, wouldn't you? Turns out you have to fold them like origami. Well, come in.”
Isobel keeps her apartment homey and neat; immaculately swept tatami mats, pink flowers on the windowsill, and her own photographs on the tissue-thin walls. I've always liked it; always felt like I was entering a real home instead of a halfway house any time I set foot inside. Ben's on the bed, grinning at me. And there, by the window, is Isobel, all bound up in a pink yukata. Her yukata is printed with blue-and-white flowers, and her obi is red, wrapped tightly around her waist to form a stiff bow at her back. Her dyed brown hair is too short to be put up, but she's swept it to the side like an anime heroine and fastened a red flower behind her ear. She looks beautiful.
“Paul!” she says. “You look amazing!”
“Gorgeous, isn't he?” sneers Ben.
Isobel and I walk to the train station – she, clip-clopping in her wooden geta and me, shuffling in straw sandals. Sweat streaks down our temples. Isobel has a small plastic fan, the promotional kind they give out in train stations. She fans it my way. The gusts of air are cool on my neck. Each step sends a breeze up my yukata.
Kyoto is alive; mobs in yukata stamping the streets. The drums alone could make you sick, not to mention the heat. On the train, Isobel gleefully snapped photos of other foreigners who'd dressed up, and now she's positively bursting with energy.
“Look,” she says. Look at the ghost-faced geisha on the corner! Look at the Yorkie dressed in a kimono! Look at the kiosks selling grilled squid on a stick! Grilled sweet potatoes! Cotton candy! Isobel takes photos as the takoyaki cooks pour octopus batter into their honeycombed griddles, then as they turn the fritters over with tongs to form golden balls, then as they scoop the takoyaki into a styrofoam carton.
We walk through Old Gion. Isobel takes photos of the bonsai lining the cobblestone streets, of the tall wooden houses with their tiled roofs ruffled like feathers.
“Thank you for being cool about the photos,” she says. “Ben flips when I take too many.”
“It's fine,” I say. The falling sun has begun to streak the sky with pink. In the distance: the deep beats of the taiko drums.
It's nine-thirty and Isobel's camera battery is dead. It died just as the first float with its glowing lanterns began to bob through the crowds. We're at an izakaya now near Kyoto Station – spacious, unlike our regular. When the drinks come, Isobel sucks her plum first as she always does, then lays the pip delicately at the side of her glass. I was the one who'd introduced her to plum wine that first night, a million years ago. It's all she's drunk since.
“Well," I say. "Too bad."
"Yes," Isobel says. She pauses. She stares down at her drink. "Bloody hell."
“Careful now, West Coast,” I say.
“Sorry. Ben's fault,” says Isobel. “But it goes both ways, you know? Today he called me 'dude.'”
Dude. Ben. I want to laugh. But I won't talk about Ben with her.
“Well, hear something enough,” I say. “Take you for instance. Your Japanese is improving, I think.”
“Do you think so?” she says. "Oh, it's so good to hear that from a lifer like you.”
A “lifer” is what they call foreigners who come to Japan and never leave. People wonder about lifers, especially if they don't have a good excuse to stay, like a Japanese wife and kid. It's a stupid word. I hate it.
“I'm not a lifer,” I say. “I'm just here for now.”
“Yes,” murmurs Isobel. “But Bush has been out of office for six months.”
“Who said I like Obama?” I light another cigarette. “Hope kills.”
“Well, I love Japan,” says Isobel. “But I can't imagine staying as long as you. My family was so upset when I decided to stay another year. Doesn't your family miss you?”
“No,” I say.
“My mother cried,” she says. “I wanted to run right home.”
“Well, why don't you?”
Isobel frowns. The flower behind her ear droops.
“Paul,” she says. “Do you think Ben loves me?”
“No,” I say.
Isobel shakes the ice in her glass. “You don't?”
“Does he love anything?”
“Well, you,” she says. “You're his best friend. He told me.”
“Ben doesn't love me,” I say.
“You're wrong,” she says. “He does love you. And me.”
“You would think that,” I say. “Christ, Isobel. Have some respect for yourself.”
She blinks, but says nothing. I press the button to call the waiter. He comes.
“Another plum wine and another draft beer, please,” I say.
She's drunk. I'm almost drunk. Just three beers, three plum wines; ridiculous. Maybe we're dehydrated, tired from all the shoving, from all the crowds. Isobel's giggling, and then she's serious. Giggling, then serious.
“We should go." I say again. “We're going to miss Last Train.”
“We can't miss Last Train,” she says again. “We'll have to stay in a Love Hotel and Ben will be jealous.”
“We could stay in the Western-themed one near Gion,” I say. "They have a mechanical bull. I want to ride a mechanical bull.”
“Noo-o-o. I want to stay in the Anne of Green Gables one. I want to ride Gilbert Blythe.”
“Who? Man, you're fucked up.”
“Yes,” agrees Isobel. “I'm fucked up.” She puts her hands over her eyes and laughs. Then she slaps them flat on the table.
“Paul,” she says. “I'm having so much fun.”
I can't remember the last time I saw her smile so wide. Maybe that afternoon in Nara when the baby deer nuzzled her hand.
“Good,” I say. “Matsuri are fun.”
“That's not what I meant,” she says. “Tonight. It's like when I first came to Japan. When you and I were friends.”
“We're friends,” I say.
“No, we're not,” she says. She puts her hands to her face again, and when she takes them away, her eyes are full of tears.
“Paul,” she says. “Did I do something wrong?”
Her voice is tiny; heartbreaking. I never expected her to come out and ask me. I've never thought about what I'd say if she did. I feel the warm glow of too many beers fade to the cold flush of shame.
“You're drunk," I say. "Let's go home.”
“You never look at me,” she says. “You only talk to him. What did I do? Why do you hate me?”
“Everything's fine,” I say. “You're imagining things.”
She blinks back the tears hanging to her lower lids.
“I guess you're right," she says.
“There you go,” I say. “C'mon. Let's get out of here.” I hold out my hand. She doesn't take it, so I pull her by the shoulders until she slides out of the booth. I keep my hand on the obi bow at her back.
We make Last Train; crammed with all the matsuri-goers heading back to Osaka. She slouches in her seat, wearing her pink yukata and her pink foreign face; a Barbie doll in a sea of Japanese wood carvings. I wonder if she'll slump to the side, like a drunken businessman, but she stays upright.
“Ben does love me,” she says suddenly. “I know he does.”
“I didn't say anything.”
"You were thinking it."
The train lurches to our stop. And then we walk back to our building, past the temple hulking in the dark, past the throbbing karaoke house, past the cicadas wailing in the branches. Ben will unwrap her, I think. He will unwind her obi like a top, and then he'll reach inside. Some day, he'll break her. He'll go back to England; she'll go back to Oregon. I'll still be here in Japan. Alone.
“Good night, Paul,” she says. “Thank you for coming with me to Gion Matsuri.”
“Good night, Isobel,” I say. And then she goes back to her shit and I go back to mine.
Eva Sandoval is an American writer living in Italy. Her fiction has appeared in Gris-Gris, Connotation Press, fwriction: review, and Trinity College Dublin's 2010 creative writing anthology, "Leave Us Some Unreality." Her food and travel writing has been published by National Geographic Intelligent Travel, CNN Travel, Fodor's Travel Guides, and Huffington Post Travel. Eva holds a BA in Literature from New York University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin.
Hae Jin Park is a Brooklyn-based freelance artist who earned her B.F.A. in Illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design. Recently her work was featured on seven imp blog. For more, visit the artist at haejinart.com
Beat Radio is Brian Sendrowitz, who has making hazy, literate, heartfelt pop songs under this moniker since 2005. He lives in Bellmore, New York, with his wife and four sons. Beat Radio’s current lineup features Paul Reardon Rovira on drums and Dan Bills on bass. The band just released their 5th full-length LP, Take it Forever, available digitally at Bandcamp. You can also pre-order limited edition vinyl via Awkward For Life Records and listen on Spotify. For more, visit the band at beatradio.org.