What made her swipe right on his profile was the coil of rope. It wasn’t as if he’d posted a bondage picture. Or even one of himself dressed as Indiana Jones for Halloween. It was his second photo, the one that came after the half-shadowed profile he’d taken on the Rainbow Bridge at the Odaiba waterfront.
Just a neat quadruple circle of braided cord against a white background, the ends glazed with golden toggles. She’d gone through at least one hundred profiles in the month since she landed, and frankly, she’d been unimpressed. A lot of whiskey bottles. And goldfish. A few puppet photos. Aziz Ansari had warned of the Tokyo Tinder culture in his book about Modern Romance and she hadn’t believed him. Not until she’d seen it herself.
But now as she sat there at Tokyo’s Mandarin Oriental hotel bar, fussing with her skirt, a moment of doubt caused the hair on her neck to rise. What if he thought she was into S&M? What if – and she really hoped not – the coil of rope was pictograph slang for something dirty that happened at the love hotels advertised around the city?
Then again, she reminded herself, the worst this date could be was a bad story and frankly, she appreciated the lack of half-naked muscle photos in the profiles she’d found since she’d arrived.
“What are you drinking?”
A hint of a British accent, the type you’d hear from someone who went to the UWC. She turned slowly, building together khaki work slacks and a white oxford button-down, sleeves rolled, a jacket slung over his right arm. Black hair, spiked like a Japanese popstar and smoky dark eyes, skin so pale he looked almost vampiric.
“Norio?” she asked.
His eyebrows strung together. “I’m not familiar with it.”
She blushed at that. “No, sorry, I mean, I’m Lucia,” she said, offering a hand. “You’re Norio, right?”
He still hadn’t moved, a smile tucked into the corner of his mouth. “I won’t answer that until you answer my question first.”
Keep cool, she told herself. She was hardly ever nervous on a first date so what the hell was the matter with her?
“Cutty Sark,” she blurted out.
Again, his eyebrows curled together but he looked more amused than concerned. “Ironic to be drinking that at a hotel bar,” he said.
“Or did you mean cliché?” she asked.
His lips cracked into a smile, his teeth not all straight but for some reason, it made her feel relief and he sat down, sliding along the bar just far enough away from her that she’d have to lean in toward him to hear.
“It is a cliché in a country known for their whiskey,” he said, but it wasn’t a critique. Almost wistful. “That is terrible Scotch though. For all his writing, Murakami has bad taste in liquor.”
“I won’t argue with you but it’s been a dream of mine to have a tumbler of it at the sort of bar his characters would have gone to,” she said. She paused as he hailed the bartender.
Instead of switching to Japanese, he ordered two Cutty Sarks for them in English, neat.
“So was I right about your name?” she asked. “Or do you just go around inquiring about what people drink?”
“It probably isn’t the first time someone you didn’t know asked,” he replied.
Again, Lucia blushed.
“People call me Nori,” he said. He had a habit of looking straight at her, unblinking when he spoke, but instead of making her uncomfortable, warmth rushed down her spine.
The Cutty Sark arrived in precise two-finger height.
“How much Japanese do you know?” he asked.
“Not much,” she confessed. Only enough to get her around to coffee shops and bathrooms and her university. Not enough to hold a conversation.
“In Japanese, Norio means a man of principles. Of standing. So most people call me Nori, which means good son. It’s a bit of a joke, like I haven’t earned the full name yet, but I like it.”
He had a soft way of speaking, a gentle way of speaking.
“Do you have a Japanese name?” he asked.
“No,” she said, although that was only half-true. She’d adopted her grandmother’s at one point, secretly, when she was fourteen, and when she’d chosen to move away from San Francisco for school, she’d been determined to use it. But once she’d arrived, she’d felt like a stranger here. Just a foolish girl, thinking herself something that she wasn’t.
“Just Lucia,” she said.
And he nodded though she could tell he didn’t believe her, that his gaze seemed to cut straight through her skin. The first Cutty Sark turned into another. Which turned into a challenge of karaoke sometime in the future. And a discussion of the vending machine magic on city light streets. Which turned and skittered and bowed into things both frivolous and loaded and warm whispered about over terrible scotch.
As they left the bar close to 1 AM, the city buzzing and humming with the energy of late night caffeine junkies, she stopped him.
“Why the rope?” she asked.
The entire time, she’d thought about the neat coils, the golden toggles and tried to match it up to his smile. To the crease in his shirt. Tried to understand, what, if anything, it meant, or if it really meant nothing at all. That idea alone made her both desperate and strangely calm.
He stared at her, his jacket now over his shoulders, his hair wilting and lifting in the midnight wind.
“The two ends never meet. No matter how tightly you coil it round and round, they never become one. But they are still connected, always straining to be closer or farther but never apart.”
The Cutty Sark was warm on her eyes as he walked away and she could almost see it, the rope stretching between them, not quite coiled, but there.
Salena Casha’s work has appeared in over thirty publications. Her fiction has been included in Wigleaf’s Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her first three picture books are housed under the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt publishing umbrella. Visit her website at http://www.salenacasha.com.