Karaoke Blues

It’s raining outside. November rain.  Rain that cuts through clothes, soaks with hints of freezing temperatures on the way.  I walk down the winding streets. A maze of houses and apartments with roads so small you pray a car doesn’t come around the corner, and pop in here, an unlikely dive.  It’s hard to find a good dive in Japan. Everything’s too clean, too expensive. Not like the States. In the States you can find a bar as dirty as the sole of your shoe, cheap beer served in a cheap glass.

Not this place though.  I thought it was a dive but it isn’t.  There’s one woman working the bar.  I think she’s the owner.  Otherwise it’s just men.  Men hunch over tables, the bar, over memories they can’t shake no matter how many times they stir the straw in their drinks. I’m drinking a Sapporo Ichiban.  It’s not number one though.  t’s far from that. The beer tastes like Bud Light.

It’s dark outside and inside the bar it’s not much lighter.  It feels like being in the center of a tree, removed. Not that I’ve been in the center of a tree, but this is how I imagine it to be. The rest of the world is far away, distant. Everything is solid here, wood, dark, and smells like sap. You could spend eternity in that tree, in the silence of grain and bark.

Red Japanese lanterns hang above the bar; paper-fine glowing with black symbols I can barely read.  In fact I don’t even know the name of the bar. I ducked beneath the cloth hanging above the door too fast.

People are buying me drinks. That’s the great thing about being an American in Japan.  You go someplace; start speaking Japanese, suddenly everyone’s your friend. They’re so happy you’re learning their language.

Then the door parts.  If this is a western, he’s the lone cowboy drifting in on a gritty breeze. His face is dark with a day of facial hair. His eyes sift through the faces and turned backs. His white shirt is unbuttoned at the top; the necktie hangs loose like a reprieve. But this isn’t a western, and he’ll never be a cowboy. With silent steps he sinks into the stool at the end of the bar. Words stay hidden in his mouth until one by one they rise out like smoke rings into the stuffy haze.

Sake, please.

The woman brings it, bows, says dozo.

Tired fingers twist, then pour. The sake slides over ice, tainting the pure solid water. With care he shakes the glass, a hand rocking a child to sleep.

Where is he?

He’s not in the bar. The bar vanished as soon as he sat down. Conversations swim around him, but they’re from the past. Swallowing the sake, his eyes close tight. Everything was supposed to be different. Like his dreams, the bottle of sake whittles to nothing as the bar takes shape around him.

That’s when he turns to me.

I’ve been married ten years; I work selling cars for Toyota. We spent our honeymoon in Hawaii.  Hawaii was beautiful.

Silent regrets stream past both of us. The missed chances, lost loves, distant friends. He tells me about his best friend who got moved to China, it’s been years since they visited. The Japanese dictionary in my head strives to sort out words, but the language barrier tumbles amid piercing eyes, and hushed tones.

I understand, I say.  It’s hard.

Yes. Who knew life would be so hard.

Oii, he yells, and the woman brings him the karaoke microphone. In a quiet, restrained voice he tells her the song number. Tropical scenes flash onto the screen above the bar. Smoke wreathes the lights. He knows the song by heart. Words full of sorrow flood the bar. The people stare into their glasses, or at the childish water tickling feet on a sandy shore, miles away past a pre-recorded sunset from the eighties. His voice is pure; it lilts and hangs, holding the very walls in place. The Japanese accent melts beneath the weight of practiced sounds, imitations of a culture and language which are not his own. His voice dances in time with the tempo, in transcends the spoken word, communicating with the hushed silhouettes of men drinking. Men, who are propped against tables, each other, propped against the crumbling visions that won’t stay in the past.  His eyes are shut to this scene though. He’s not reading the words off the screen. The words know him, as they know us all. Then music and screen fade. He pulls his hand across the grain of his jaw and sets the microphone down.We sit in silence. Or perhaps, the silence sits in us. Then his heavy hand pats my shoulder.

Hawaii, Hawaii was beautiful, he says, slipping back into the night.