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Sunday, Oct. 26, 2008

Motel of Lost Companions

Keep a grip on what passes for reality as you check into this strangely normal fiction story for fall by Hillel Wright

It was a foolish argument . . . the worst kind of argument too, over food. And not even food exactly, but over salad dressing.

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She'd left his dinner on the table while she was out shopping for groceries. There was a bowl of yakisoba noodles and a plate of gyoza dumplings to heat up in the microwave. And there was a salad. Not a very fancy salad, just lettuce, tomato wedges, grated carrot, cucumber and slices of hard-boiled egg. The salad was in a medium-size bowl, an individual serving. Next to the salad was a small plastic pitcher of dressing. It looked and smelled like one of her homemade concoctions of olive oil, rice vinegar, garlic, diced tofu and a dollop of Caspian yogurt. It looked like a lot of dressing for one salad, but then again it might not have just been for a single serving.

It presented a classic avoidance-avoidance conflict: avoid her displeasure if he didn't eat everything she so painstakingly prepared for him; avoid her anger if he didn't leave her half the dressing.

So it was a foolish decision that led to the foolish argument.

He'd gone out to the library after dinner and then over to the International Center to use the free 30 minutes of Internet service available there. He could just check his e-mail and leave their home computer free for her to use when she got back from shopping. She liked to search for punk-music performances on YouTube or play violent video games like "Postal" or "Grand Theft Auto." She said they helped her to relax. She was, after all, old enough — at 34 — to be able to distinguish fantasy from reality. He didn't suspect she'd ever actually go on a shooting rampage in Yokohama or Tokyo. For one thing, where would she get a gun?

An ex-lead singer in an all-girl punk-rock band, she still had some contacts in the hardcore punk scene in Tokyo, but those people were artists, not gangsters, and in spite of their black leather jackets and Doc Marten boots, they were not part of the world of organized crime.

Joe Strummer might have easily bought a gun in Memphis, but Jun Togawa was highly unlikely to be able to get hold of one in Kawasaki. She was not, certainly, a potential serial-killer, but she was, against her own better judgment, a serious drinker, and when he came back home from the International Center, he found her, as he had expected, sitting at the computer with a half-empty glass on the shelf beside her, playing "Postal." He was slightly unhappy to realize that it was cheap sake she was drinking. She could handle beer all right; even shochu, but cheap sake made her a mean drunk. He decided to stay out of her way by taking a shower.

It was when he came out of the shower that the argument began. In reality, it was more a shower of abuse than an argument. It takes two voices to argue. He was merely stopped dead in his tracks, towel wrapped around his waist, reaching for Q-tips to dry the water in his ears when she began spouting her vicious stream of invective about the salad dressing.

Once she'd built up a head of steam, there was no more stopping her than there was stopping a bullet train at a station in the sticks. Defense, rationalization or arguments, he knew from long years of experience, were non-options. They would only stoke her angry fire into a raging fury. He tried an apology, which came out sounding feebler than he would have wished. She ignored it and continued venting her well-lubricated spleen.

He could see no choice but to flee. After hastily retreating to the bedroom, he dressed hurriedly, threw on a windbreaker over an old sweat shirt and headed down the stairs. She didn't pursue him. He sat down on the front step and laced up a pair of walking shoes. The night was cool and clear, it being 10 days after the vernal equinox. He knew that he was in for a long walk. It would take her an hour or two to chill out. When he returned she'd either be asleep — passed out more than likely — or back bleary-eyed at the computer watching music videos and slowly sobering up. She was volatile but pretty predictable.

It was a half-hour walk to the Tamagawa River, so that was an ideal destination. Once there he could walk along the bank on the dirt trails for an hour, letting the sounds of the water and the stillness of the starry sky calm his nerves. Then he could walk home and hopefully enter a quiet, if not completely harmonious house and go to bed. The residual emotional flak might carry over to the next day in the form of "the silent treatment," or it might dissipate and end in an apology — "gomen ne." He could never be sure. She wasn't that predictable.

So down to the river it was, winding his way through late-night alleys and empty shopping streets. A slight breeze stirred the cherry trees along the route, causing their last few fading blossoms to flutter down, dotting the black asphalt with flickers of pink. Past the shuttered shops he trudged, past the little yakitori bars with their red lanterns hanging outside, and past those more private and mysterious "snacks," with one or two customers nursing a cold beer or sake, and mama-sans silently topping up glasses of shochu for lone men staring into the clear liquid as if in search of meaning. Occasionally a burst of laughter came from the doorway of an izakaya as a gaggle of dark-suited office workers exited the bar & grill with a stumbling female colleague or two, and staggered out into the starlight.

The last 10 minutes of the walk took him through a quiet residential neighborhood, dark houses presiding over hushed streets, here and there a light in a window, now and then a cat disappearing behind an azalea hedge. Then the kaido, the two-lane blacktop he had to cross before reaching the river bank, a solitary traffic light casting a gratuitous glow of color into the dark of the night.

The road climbed slightly as it neared the kaido, and the view of the river was blocked by a steeper rise on the other side. About 100 meters north of the signal was a 24-hour convenience store, its fluorescent lighting giving out a ghostly luminescence. Another 50 meters or so further on came a flash of scarlet neon, advertising the presence of some apparently new building, which he'd never noticed before. This didn't surprise him — buildings came and went unceasingly in Tokyo. The convenience store hadn't been there six months ago.

The traffic light was red, the odd truck roared by and as he waited for the light to change he looked more closely at the new neon sign: MOTEL! Now that was strange. There weren't any motels in Japan. Most Japanese didn't even know the word. But new things appeared regularly on the Tokyo landscape and soon became commonplace and entrenched. Fifteen years ago, when he'd first arrived, there'd been no Starbucks and now they were everywhere, sometimes less than 100 meters apart, like the two near the west exit of Yokohama Station. He looked again to make sure it was an "M" he was seeing and not an "H." And then he saw two smaller signs: HEATED POOL. BAR.

The light turned to green and he instinctively took a step forward, but then he changed his mind. Although it made sense to build a motel beside a busy road, especially near a convenience store, it was still so alien that it warranted verification. So he turned left and walked along the kaido and turned into the parking area of the motel. It didn't seem to have a name, but if it was, as he suspected, Japan's first motel, it would probably be named later as rival motels were built and motel signs began to dot the urban nights like fireflies: HEATED POOL! BAR!

He found himself entering the bar, which was wide, spacious and very Western in appearance and decor, with lights and posters advertising Budweiser, Miller High Life and even Molson's Canadian.


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