“I married relatively late, when I was thirty-two. So I was still single when I got a phone call from Yoshiko. I was twenty-eight. Which makes it just over ten years ago now. In the meantime, I’d quit the company I was working for and had gone independent. My father lent me the capital, and I formed my own little company. I saw astronomical market growth potential for imported furniture, and I stepped right in. But, as with any start-up, nothing went smoothly at first. Delivery delays, depleted stock, warehouse charges piling up, the bank breathing down my neck - to be honest, I ran myself down and I nearly lost hope. It was probably the most difficult time in my life. And right in the middle of it she calls. I have no idea how she got my number. It was eight at night when the phone rang. I recognised her voice immediately. That’s something you never forget. I felt a tinge of nostalgia - you bet I did. It just felt so good to hear an old girlfriend’s voice at a time like that.”
He looked long and hard at the fireplace, as if remembering. The restaurant had filled to capacity. People were talking and laughing at every table, utensils clattering, glasses tinkling.
“I don’t know who her informants were, but she was up to date on everything about me. I mean everything. She knew that I was still single and had been based overseas, that I’d quit my company and struck out on my own. She knew it all. ‘You’ll come through it, you’re the can-do guy. Just have confidence,’ she told me.
I can’t tell you how happy it made me to hear such kind words. So then I asked about her. What sort of guy she’d married, whether they had kids, where they were living. Well, she didn’t have any children. Her husband was four years older than she, and worked in television. A director, she tells me. I say, 'Sounds like he keeps busy.’ 'He’s busy, all right, too busy to have kids,’ she says, then laughs.
They lived in Tokyo, in a condo near Shinagawa. I was living in Shiroganedai. Not exactly neighbours, but close enough. 'Strange how things work out, isn’t it?’ I say - you know, whatever. Well, we talked about all the usual things that former high-school sweethearts talk about under the circumstances. It felt a little strained and awkward, but nice over all. Like two old friends catching up on everything. We talked for what seemed like hours.
Then, when there was nothing more for either of us to say, this silence comes over the line. A real… how to put it? A really dense silence. The kind that invites all sorts of thoughts.” He was focusing on his hands, folded on the tablecloth; then he looked up to meet my eyes. “I should have hung up then and there. 'Thanks for calling, it’s been nice talking to you’ - click, end of story. You see what I’m saying?”
“That would have been the most realistic thing to do,” I agreed.
“But she stays on the line. She invites me to her place. Like, 'Why don’t you drop by? My husband’s away on business, and I’m bored all by myself.’ Well, I don’t know what to say, so I don’t say anything. So she doesn’t say anything. More silence. And then, do you know what she says? She says, 'You know, I still remember the promise I made to you.’”
“You know, I still remember the promise I made to you.” At first, he claimed, he hadn’t known what she was talking about - he’d never once considered it a real promise. But when it did come back to him he had to think that it was just a slip of the tongue, that she must have been confused.
No, she wasn’t confused. To her, a promise was a promise. For a moment, he lost sight of where all this was heading. What was the right thing to do? He looked around in desperation, but there were no walls around him, nothing to guide him any more. Of course he wanted to sleep with her, that went without saying. Since their break-up, he’d imagined sleeping with her plenty of times. Even when he was seeing other women, his thoughts had found their way to her in the dark. Though he’d never seen her naked, he knew her body from the feel of it under her clothes.
He knew how risky it would be to sleep with her at this stage. He didn’t want to go stirring up what he’d so calmly left behind in the shadows of his past. Intuition told him that this was not something he should do. But of course he couldn’t refuse. Why should he refuse? It was a perfect fairy tale, a wish granted only once in a lifetime. She lived nearby, and she wanted to fulfil a promise made in the forests of the distant past.
He closed his eyes and couldn’t say anything. He’d lost the power of speech.
“Hello?” she said. “You there?”
“I’ll come right over,” he said. “Can you tell me your address?”
“What would you have done?” he asked me.
I shook my head. I never know how to answer such questions. He laughed, and looked down at the coffee cup on the table.
“I went to her place. I knocked on her door. In a way, I was hoping that she wouldn’t be at home. But she was there all right, and as beautiful as ever. She poured us drinks, and we talked about the old days. We even listened to old records. Then what do you think happened?”
I had no idea. I told him I had no idea.
“When I was a kid, I read a children’s story.” He seemed to be addressing the far wall of the restaurant. “I forget the plot, but I still remember the last line. It went, 'And, when it was all over, the King and his courtiers roared with laughter.’ Kind of a strange way to end a story, wouldn’t you say?”
“I would,” I said.
“I wish I could remember what the story was about. God knows I’ve tried. All I remember is that crazy last line: 'And, when it was all over, the King and his courtiers roared with laughter.’ What the hell kind of story ends like that?”
By then we’d finished our coffee.
“We embraced,” he said, “but I didn’t sleep with her. She didn’t undress. We used our hands, just like old times. I thought it would be for the best. And she seemed to think so, too. We petted for a long, long time, without saying anything. What was there for us to say? That was the only way that we could really recognise each other after all those years. Back when we were in school, of course, it would have been different. Plain, ordinary, natural sex might have brought us to some kind of mutual understanding. And, just maybe, we could have been happy together. But we were long past that now. Those days were locked away, and no one could break the seal.”
He twirled his empty cup around on its saucer. He kept at it so long that the waiter came over to check on us. But that merely prompted him to return the cup to its original position and order another espresso.
“I stayed there maybe an hour, all told. Any more than that and I’d probably have gone out of my mind,” he said with a sly smile. “I said goodbye to her and left. She said goodbye, too, and this time it really was goodbye, once and for all. I knew it, and she knew it. The last I saw of her, she was standing in the doorway with her arms crossed. She looked as if she were about to say something, but she didn’t. I knew what she would have said, in any case. I was exhausted… hollowed out, empty. I walked around aimlessly, feeling as if I’d wasted my whole life. I wished I could go back to her place and just screw her, long and hard. But I couldn’t bring myself to, nor would it have made anything any better.”
He shook his head. He drank his second espresso.
“It embarrasses me to say this, but I went straight out and got myself a hooker. First time in my life. And very likely the last.”
I looked at my own coffee cup and thought about what a standoffish jerk I must have been in the old days. I wanted to let him in on what I was thinking, but I doubted that I’d be able to find the right words.
“Telling the story like this, I feel like I’m talking about someone else,” he said with a chuckle, then fell silent.
“'And, when it was all over, the King and his courtiers roared with laughter’,” he said, finally. “I always think of that sentence whenever I remember that time. Conditioned reflex, I guess. I don’t know what it is, but sadness seems to contain some strange little joke.”
As I said at the beginning, there isn’t much here that you could call a moral. Nonetheless, it’s the story of his life, and it’s the story of all our lives. Which is why I couldn’t laugh when I heard it and why I still can’t.