The conference was over. No need to say a word anymore at least for tonight, no need for smug jetset attitudes, no need to pretend, no need to convince anybody of anything.
Perhaps it wouldn't have been too bad after all, if they wouldn't have expected me to say something at every possible occasion. Business meetings, conference panels, dinner speeches. I was so tired of the formal phrases and embarrassed, low-key chuckling every time I failed yet another time to say the right words at the time, even in my own language.
There is no better way to find solitude than merging with a stream of busy people in a foreign country. As the faces that don't look like yours rush by in the cold, wet night, words of a language that you still don't quite understand are strangely soothing the pain.
The cab driver didn't want to drive me there. I had to walk the last stretch myself and, once there, I kept walking. But it becomes very cold in Tokyo at night, no matter what clothes you wear. When the drizzle started to freeze on my face, I had no choice but to enter a bar. I looked for the cheapest, least glitzy one. One, I hoped, where nobody would care who entered or left.
It was darker inside than I expected. Too many people, I thought, but at least it was warm. "Dozo, dozo" I kept mumbling when I made my way through the crowd. I don't mind speaking when it's dark and nobody can see my face.
The only free seat I could make out in the dark room full of smoke was at the bar. I would have preferred sitting somewhere alone in a corner where nobody would possibly think of trying to start a conversation with me.
The barkeeper shuffled sake bottles around, staring at me. Still mumbling repeating 'dozo', I sat down on the only free chair and pointed shyly to the sake bottles. The bar keeper nodded, and seconds later, hot sake burnt my throat. All in a sudden, I was very, very happy.
This is nice, I thought, nobody will want you to say anything in this joint. Perhaps I should just always stay in an exotic country, where nobody feels offended if you can't talk to them. They just look at you with curious eyes. A smile perhaps. And you can smile back. No need to worry about speaking words ever.
During my third bottle of sake, I raised my head, stretched out, and started looking around. Which perhaps was a mistake. Across the oval bar, in a cloud of cigarette smoke, somebody started yelling towards me, waving his arms, seemingly inviting me to the other side of the bar. I tried to smile politely. The man on the other side, a Japanese, said something to the barkeeper who promptly took away my half-empty bottle of sake and put it to a group of sake bottles at the other side of the bar.
Having no other choice, I got up from my chair reluctantly and worked my way through the crowd, towards the guy who had invited me. He was businessman, it seemed, and he looked familiar. But then, about everybody in Tokyo seems to be dressed like a businessman and I am not good in remembering faces, no matter if they come from the East or the West.
When I came closer, I saw an African man next to him, like him dressed in a fine business clothes. Even though he was hard to see in the darkness, he appeared to look happy and calm, smiling friendly at me.
"Remember me?" the Japanese shouted. He was cheerful but also a bit stressed out. I rubbed my chin. "Singapore, last month. That stupid meeting about the upgrade licenses." he added.
Suddenly I recognized him and I nodded politely.
"This is Mark, a good old friend from Chicago," the Japanese shouted and was tapping the shoulder of the African businessman.
"Sit down with us and relax!" the African said. "I think I saw you at the conference."
There was no chair to sit down, so I leaned at the bar, trying to figure out which of the bottles of sake was mine.
"What's your name? We never got introduced," the Japanese said. I didn't even try to answer. Not today. This had not been my best day. I fingered in my breast pocket for a business card and realized with a shock that I was out of them. Fortunately, I found a pen instead and, a bit relieved, offered to write my name on a used napkin on the bar.
"He has a problem speaking," the Japanese man said to the African, He talked far too loud for my taste. Turning back to me he continued without lowering his voice "I heard you trying to talk to someone at that meeting in Singapore, you know. Have a sake or two, that will cheer you up. It's all on me tonight, buddy!"
I emptied a bottle of sake that I guessed had been mine and gazed into the dense smoke hovering through the entire room. The African smiled without saying anything.
"I'm Jim, by the way" the Japanese said. "at least, that's what I like to call me. I'm so glad that this conference is over. Tomorrow. I'll be home. Home, sweet home Chicago!"
The African started laughing. "I don't understand you, Jim. Why don't you enjoy being here in Japan? That must be really exciting for you! It's your roots, after all, isn't it?"
"Roots?" Jim yelled. "I'm born in America, I am raised in America, I feel like an American. Did everybody hear that? Is everybody listening?"
He turned around in a circle, nearly losing his balance. The barkeeper looked at him, frowning. It was impossible to tell if he had understood what Jim had said or if he just disliked rowdy customers.
I tried to figure out how I could pay my bill discretely and how to leave without having to say anything to anybody.
"I don't understand you, Jim," the African said again, shaking his head, still laughing. "I LOVE Japan, I just love this country!" he added cheerfully.
Jim settled down for a moment, rummaging through his pockets in search of a pack of cigarettes. When he had found it, he lightened a cigarette with shaky hands.
"You don't understand how it feels to be a total, complete outcast, an underdog, a complete failure," Jim suddenly said, more to himself than to anyone else. I looked at him with surprise.
He put his arm around me; the sake had had some visible impact on him. I told myself to slow down after the next bottle.
"You know, I have an American accent," he mumbled. "In America I'm just myself, so what! - But here, everybody is friendly until the moment I open my mouth and say something. You know, my accent, it's worse than looking like a Chinese, or Euro, or whatever. See, nobody EXPECTS you to talk perfectly Japanese when you don't look like one. But what the heck, you can't understand that anyway."
"Listen, Jim," the African said. "Perhaps I know what you mean. I'm born in Chicago, too. Now, I was in Africa last year. Nobody really liked me there. To them, I was just an ignorant and arrogant American. What do you think? All they cared about was my money. And they were laughing at me because I don't understand a single word of Afrikaans or Kisuaheli. They were laughing at me, I tell you. So what, Jim? Have another bottle of sake!"
Jim had cooled down a bit. I looked around in the bar. Nobody took notice of us. Just some crazy foreigners lost in a shady back alley of Tokyo, talking to someone who looked like a Japanese but talked like an American.
"You know," Jim said, lowering his voice and head. "They treat me like a traitor. Yes. That's what I am to them. A traitor. I should never have come here. The moment I say a single word, I can feel the silence all around me. A deafening silence, you have no idea!"
We stayed silent while drinking another round of sake. A man wearing a Microsoft t-shirt approached us. 'Where do you want to go today?' it said on the t-shirt in bold, colorful letters.
"Geishas?" he asked, waving some torn photos in his hands, breaking the silence. For some strange reason, we all started to laugh at the same time. The man continued his tour through the bar without delay and without showing any reaction.
"So, where do you want to go tomorrow, Mark?" Jim asked.
"Back home, to Kyoto" he said with a smile; visibly happy.
Jim shook his head with disbelief. "That's the worst place to be for someone like you, I would think," he said to Mark.
"Not at all," Mark answered, suddenly serious. "You know, in Japan, I don't have to pretend there is no difference between me and the rest. And no one is pretending anything of that either. No lies, no bigotry, no bull. It's clear cut, no ambiguities, you know what I mean? It's all very clear and there is no doubt, no uncertainty. What I hate most in life is people saying there should be no bigotry and equal rights and that stuff and then you look, you know, what it really boils down to.."
He stopped speaking and sipped his sake. Jim nodded his head, took a deep breath and said "Anyway, I'll be on the plane tomorrow. And I'll be the happiest man in the world! Cheers, you guys!"
We started another round of sake. And because of or perhaps despite the strange place we were in, or the effect of too much sake, or just because it sometimes happens that way in life, all of us three felt like little, happy boys; too silly perhaps in a too serious world. And happy for no apparent reason other than the wish to be happy.
"Are you staying a couple of days?" Mark asked me. I squeezed out 'Yeah, two or three'.
"I was planning to go up the Fujijama tomorrow if the weather isn't too bad. Want to join me?" Mark said to me.
I nodded and smiled. Sometimes you just know when you found a friend. Without thinking too much about it.