"It's a girl!"
- my friend Chris could not hide his surprise at the friend I brought to a party at his house.
At Christmas of 2000 I met Naoko at the Simple Simon Christmas party. I had in fact met her several times before in the bar, but never really talked to her at length. She was a clever,
attractive, very classy, well dressed and well spoken girl, and my first impression was that she was far too good for the likes of me, but she was also very polite, and always friendly and
conversational. The first few times we met were late at night in the bar, sometimes when I was the last customer there. She would usually arrive after 11PM, since she worked in an insurance
company and did a lot of overtime. She would always listen attentively to the conversations my self and the owner had, jumping in with comments and views of her own. On one such night, which
happened to be my birthday, I was sitting alone at the counter quietly enjoying a glass of single malt I had got as a present from Shimano. When she came in and was told the circumstances by the
owner, she bought me a beer so that I would not be celebrating alone. My expression must have betrayed the fact that I was suddenly struck by the fact that I WAS alone, since she later told me
that she regretted buying me that drink the moment it was put in front of me.
And so it was that any time we met, we would sit next to each other or maybe a few seats apart, making polite conversation with each other and with those around us, but never really taking the next step. That would change, though, after that Christmas party. When I arrived, the owner directed me towards an empty chair next to Naoko. The party atmosphere loosened up both our inhibitions, and we talked, drank, laughed and eventually kissed. Spurred on by copious amounts of alcohol and her apparent interest in me, I asked her for her email address and or phone number. She tried three times to write her email on the back of one of my business cards, but in all cases it was illegible and later turned out to be wrong. It was lucky then that I had given her my business card, as she contacted me the next day to ask for the phone number of the bar so she could inquire into the whereabouts of her mobile phone and scarf, which she had lost in the course of the evening, (along with, she joked, much of her recollection of events).
She left on a holiday to the middle east the day after that, so I was left on tender hooks until the next time we met, wondering if she would ever agree to see me again. I had had a similar, much less successful encounter at the Christmas party a few years before, but in that case the girl was apparently too embarrassed by her behaviour to ever return my calls. We met again at Simple Simon, as several of the regulars met to see out the year on the last night of business before the holiday break, and followed that with an excursion to a noodle shop. As a mutual friend drove us all home, I remember looking back through the rear window as we drove away from the spot where we dropped her off, wondering what kind of world she lived in down that dark road, what her house looked like, what kind of people her family were, what her father did for a living. I knew then, that I wanted to see more of her, and that this could become a serious relationship.
Seeing as I would hopefully be making regular contact with Naoko in the coming weeks and months, I decided to update my mobile phone. The one I had was old and almost useless, as the battery would die out after only a few seconds of making a call. My new model allowed me to join the millions of Japanese who could send mail from their phones. It had a problem though, in that it would not pick up any signal if it was cold. This meant that in the cold chill of January I would have to shove it inside my pants to warm it up before using it. That would definitely not look good on a date, I thought, and all those radio waves around my privates was definitely something I wanted to avoid, so I took it back to the shop to get it replaced, and was soon up and running normally.
Naoko went on another holiday in January. Having just quit her job, she was enjoying her freedom for a while before looking for another position. Because of that it was the end of January before we went on our first date, by which time we had met again a couple of times at Simple Simon and exchanged a few emails, one from an internet cafe in Jordan. Naoko picked me up in her car, and we went to a movie and for a short drive after that. All in all it went well. I enjoyed talking to her, she seemed relaxed and natural in my company, and all the signs were positive that this relationship could go somewhere. For the next few months we met up almost every weekend, going to movies, events in Tokyo and restaurants. Most of these dates would end with me walking her to her bicycle, or the taxi rank, outside the station, and wishing her a good night as she cycled off. On the third or fourth date she seemed to hesitate, and I was unsure whether or not this was the right time for a kiss. I put my finger to my own lips, pursed them and then transferred my fingers to her lips, in a form of indirect kiss. She half closed her eyes and leaned forward, so I kissed her directly on the lips. I bounced off the stars as I walked home that night.
She even suggested one Saturday that we go to a mixed onsen, and I was impressed with her forthrightness, albeit a little worried about how it would turn out. I was not afraid of being seen naked, and anyway she warned me to bring a swimsuit as they were required, but it turned out to be not mixed, so we had probably the most disappointing bath of our lives. She did get a laugh though from the reception attendant who, when asked if it really was a mixed bathing pool, had responded in the negative and then commiserated her with a "That's a shame, isn't it!" She also enjoyed the St. Patrick's Day parade, which is held in Omotesando district of Tokyo every March and encompasses every possible reason on earth to drink beer, some of it green.
When workmate Chris threw a house party, I decided it was time for Naoko to meet all my friends. Since I had always gone to such events alone, Chris was cautiously optimistic when I asked if I
could "bring a friend", and openly delighted when he met Naoko, exclaiming afterwards, while she was in the bathroom, "It's a girl!".
Two months into the relationship she asked if I was serious. The phrase used was "Tsukiatteiru ishiki aru?" which was tantamount to a proposal of a proposal of marriage. She had apparently been under pressure from her mother to get married for several years now, and was apparently dating me as a potential candidate for that role. She asked me in a very casual way as I walked her from the bar to the taxi rank outside the station, but it sobered me up to think that that was what she was thinking.
Our relationship continued to grow. I enjoyed spending time with her more and more, and found her open to my ideas in a way I had never experienced with a Japanese girl before. I was also impressed by the way she wasn't afraid to speak her own mind as well, but could do so without appearing confrontational even if she was disagreeing with me. She was one of very few Japanese women with whom I could have a really relaxed and open conversation, without having to worry about saying the wrong thing, asking the wrong question or, most importantly, feigning interest and worrying if she was doing the same. More and more I began to think my bachelor days were drawing to an end.
April was her birthday, and I decided to go all out to make it a special day for her. She had mentioned before that she wanted to visit Russia, or at least try authentic Russian food, so I searched out a little Russian style restaurant in Shibuya and booked a table. I went looking for a present with absolutely no idea of what I wanted to get her, but as I was wandering around a jewellery store, a small gold necklace with a pendant in the shape of two hearts just leapt out at me from its showcase and I knew instantly that my search was over. Even to this day I think that was by far the most expensive present I have ever bought anyone, but I didn't blink at the price that day. We had a great dinner after which I gave her the necklace, together with a small card. She thanked me quietly, perhaps a little overcome by it. At the end of our train ride home I guided her to the taxi rank and kissed her good night. Many nights we would keep people waiting in the queue for taxies at that rank as I kissed her and wished her goodnight time and again, and that night was probably no exception, though I have no idea how long we were there. As I walked home I received an email on my phone from her thanking me for what she said was her best birthday ever, signing off with "I love you". That was the first time she had said that to me, and would not be the last.
While all this was going on, the rest of the world was of course continuing its business. At work, I had started on a new project where I didn't really have to do anything other than follow up on the communication between our company and a German company that was developing a product for us. They had developed a car navigation system that didn't use any maps, but used a single line of text on the display to show the road name, and a small dot matrix area to show an arrow to indicate the direction to take at the next intersection. This kind of system was selling well in Europe, and Pioneer wanted to add this technology to one of our audio systems. I travelled to Hamburg several times, to meet with the engineers from this company and found them, like most Germans I have met, to be exceedingly polite, but unlike most other Germans they were not very good at keeping their promises, which led to a few problems in my work.
My brother was interested in buying a house, and since I had a substantial amount saved up at this stage, I loaned him a few thousand pounds. It is a decision I have come to regret, since he soon found himself restructured and unable to pay me back on the schedule he had first intended, and I found it difficult to push him on the topic. On a lighter note, I had an encounter with a young South American man on the street one night, who asked me if I could recommend any good bars in town. When I suggested a few local "Izakaya" shops he appeared hesitant, and after a roundabout, embarrassed explanation he made it clear he was looking for what he euphemistically referred to as "Otoko no mise", or "shops for men". I didn't know if he wanted a hostess bar or a full blown sex shop, but I told him I didn't know of any and walked away smiling to myself.
Also soon after I started dating Naoko, my old friend Misao called me and asked if we could meet. I was a little hesitant to say yes for a moment, because even though I had never really had any romantic intentions towards her I was unsure if everybody else saw it that way, and worried that someone might see us together and tell Naoko that I was still with a supposed old flame. As it turned out, she wanted to tell me that she was leaving Kawagoe and moving to Osaka, so I never even got to tell her all about Naoko. I have never seen her since.
By June Naoko's parents were getting on her back. When her mother asked her what kind of a fellow she was dating, Naoko replied that I was not Japanese, and this set off a firestorm of questions about me; where I was from, and what my intentions were. When shown a photo of me she even complained that I wasn't a proper foreigner, as she had presumably been expecting a blond, blue eyed American. I don't think my beard and long ponytail helped the situation either. Naoko's mother was very old fashioned, and wanted her daughters to both be married off as soon as possible. Even though I made it clear that marriage was within the realm of possibility, Naoko and her mother banged heads on several occasions about what plans Naoko had for her future. It was in the course of these discussions that Naoko revealed that she had considered marriage once before, but had backed out when her fiancé had failed to stand up to his own parents when they expressed displeasure with his choice of Naoko. I think Naoko was a little afraid that her mother would scare me off, so before I met her mother, she arranged for me to meet her sister, who was a little older than her and had recently got married herself. Naoko probably wanted a little moral support herself, too. They were a lot alike, but the sister Tomomi appeared a little less serious about things than Naoko.
I could tell Naoko was under pressure, and she sometimes took it out on me for not being forthright in my opinions. I was keeping my opinions to myself, because in all honesty I wanted to tell the mother and father that they should let their daughter make her own decisions; and to tell Naoko that she was too old to be still relying on her parents, and if they didn't agree with her choice of boyfriend then she should choose them or me. I didn't tell her all this, of course, because I wasn't sure she would pick me, and because it was not my place to be telling them things like that, coming between Naoko and her parents. Even if Naoko did pick me and reject her parents, I would have won an empty victory. I knew that I had no family in the country, and that was not something I wanted to force on Naoko as well. My mother was still fighting her cancer, (she would re-enter hospital later that year) and somewhere deep inside I knew it would not be right to force her family apart, particularly because I could not offer her mine in return.
All of this was getting me a little depressed, but the news around that time that a mentally disturbed man had stabbed eight children at an elementary school in Osaka gave me a reminder of how insignificant my troubles really were. I decided to ride it out, and take the time to let Naoko's parents get used to the idea of us being together. We continued to date, and the situation remained hanging over us, but it only served to strengthen my resolve that we should be together, and we did enjoy our time together. I still had hope for the future.
The rest of the world, however, would soon see darker skies.
If you dropped in by accident, the story starts here;
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