I always drank Redhook at What the Dickens?, and that Sunday began as no exception. Normally, I like my beer a little darker than a bitter but after a few years in Japan, I had found myself nostalgic for things I rarely enjoyed at home, and the izakayas in my new hometown of Ashikaga didn’t serve any beers from Seattle. Even Cuba Libre, with its airbrushed portrait of Che on the wall and its overburdened nachos, only had Budweiser from the Americas—and not even nostalgia could bring me to drink horse piss. So once a month, I’d take the express train into Tokyo and visit a museum or a new neighborhood, picking up a Starbucks soy latte on the way (at home, I avoided the mermaid: they burn their beans and I like coffee, not char), before heading into Ebisu, through the station shopping mall, and down an alley to the English-theme pub with the interrogative name.
That Sunday, as usual, I picked up a plate of chips and veg from the counter to go with my bottle and settled at a table near the stage after putting my name on the open mic list: poets, mostly expats—gaijin—met there every month to read. David was already there with his customary pint of Asahi. My leg brushed his as I settled on the bench.
“Oh yeah, keep that up, baby.”
I unbuttoned my flannel. “Careful, a girl might take you seriously.”
“Would that be a bad thing, Lindsay?”
I shrugged. “Isn’t that for you to say?”
“Sure. Why not? Hey, those chips look good. Excuse me for a sec.”
He headed back towards the bar just as Carol turned up and sat down across from me.
“I’m so glad to see someone else from Seattle,” I said.
“I figured you’d understand why I’m excited…about the game…” I pointed to the Seahawks logo on my T-shirt.
“The Super Bowl.”
“Oh, right. Is that tonight?”
I took a sip from my bottle. “Tomorrow our time. Aren’t you going to watch it?”
“As much as I know nothing about football, I’d love to watch to cheer on the home team. Unfortunately, I have to be at work tomorrow at 7.” She sighed and adjusted her thin white cardigan. “Berlitz is an unforgiving master.”
David returned with a hamburger and chips. “Aren’t you drinking?” he asked Carol.
“She has to work in the morning.”
“Doesn’t stop me.”
Carol reached across the table and fluffed David’s sandy hair. “I guess you have a stronger constitution than me.”
“First time for everything,” he said.
“Don’t you think it’s rude,” asked Carol, “to bring a patty of dead cow to a table of vegetarians?”
“You weren’t here when I sat down, so the vote was 50/50.”
“Would it have stopped you if she had been here?”
“No, I am kind of evil that way.”
I grabbed his elbow. “You’re not evil.”
He shrugged. “Everyone has their own opinion.”
“I mean it, you’re not…”
“OK,” said Carol, tugging at her silver tennis bracelet, “this has all just gotten too sincere for me. I think I am going to get a drink after all.” She looked from me to him and then back before getting up and heading for the bar. Fortunately, I didn’t feel the heat in my cheeks until she had turned her back to us.
“I think…I think she wanted you to buy her drink.”
“Not going to happen. Like I said: I’m…”
“You say evil, and I’m kicking you in the shins.”
“You don’t know the half of it.”
The open mic got going then. Carol and I both read in the first half. After I read, David asked to see my poems; he was always fascinated by my use of white space. At halftime, he offered to buy both of us drinks.
“Oh hell, why not?” asked Carol. “I’m drinking rum and Coke.”
“What about you?”
“Well, I’ve been drinking Redhook, but why don’t you surprise me?”
“You’re brave,” said Carol.
I flicked my ring finger through the flame of the candle on the table. “Do you think so?”
“Trusting David to choose anything for you.”
“You know, he isn’t really evil.”
“And it’s hard to screw up beer. Besides,” I looked at her then back down at the table, “as far I know, he has pretty good taste.”
“How much do you really know about him?”
I shook my head.
David came back with a rum and Coke and two Guinnesses. “This makes me feel like a real ladies’ man!”
I smiled. Carol threatened to hit him with her umbrella. As we clinked glasses, David said to me, “I know the saltwater changes it, but it’s still the good stuff.”
“How’d you know I like dark beer?”
“It just seemed to fit.”
The second half started, and the poetry wasn’t very good. David watched me flick my finger through the candle flame a few more times before picking up the candle itself and pouring some of the wax on my hand. I retaliated in kind. Then, he tried to pour some on Carol’s hand, but she pulled it away and turned her entire body away to focus on the reading. David and I continued with the remaining wax until the open mic came to an end and the night’s band began setting up.
“I can’t believe the mess the two of you made,” said Carol.
“Yeah, but it was fun,” said David, grinning.
“You two want another drink?” asked David.
“No,” said Carol, “I’ve got to make my train.”
“Oh that’s right. You probably need to run off too, right, Lindsay? Doesn’t your last train leave at way-too-early-o’-clock?”
I shook my head. “The Super Bowl starts at 9 tomorrow; I’m staying out overnight then hitting up a sports bar in Shinjuku to watch it.”
“Have a good night, you two.” Carol waved at us before leaving.
“So you want another Guinness?” asked David.
“It’s rare that I’d say no to that.”
We ended up having to drink our pints quickly as the evening’s band turned out to be too loud for conversation—or for us to continue being headache-free. When we reached the stairs back down to the alley, David said that we weren’t cool enough for the crowd either.
“Is that what counts as cool?” I asked.
“In Tokyo, for gaijin, yeah.”
“How would you know?”
He slapped his chest. “OK, that’s just cruel.”
We reached the street and headed for the station. “You headed home?”
“Yeah, but I transfer at Shinjuku; I’ll probably have a little time there. We could…”
He laughed and shrugged. “Figure it out when we get there?”
At the station, he had a pass but I had to buy a ticket. We reached the platform just in time to see a train leave.
“Well, there goes five minutes of our lives,” I said.
“At this time of night? More like ten.”
We moved down the platform and sat on a wooden bench. I asked him why he never read his work at the open mic; he, as usual, insisted that he only wanted to share work he was sure of. After a few minutes of silence, I asked him if he wanted to kiss me.
“Do you want to kiss me?” he asked back.
“No fair. I asked first.” He sighed, and I said I thought I heard the train—which turned out to be true. Once we were seated inside, he asked me what I planned to do that night.
“Maybe get another beer or two? But I guess I’ll spend most of the night in an Internet cafe.” I bumped his shoulder with mine. “You know, if someone else were staying out with me, and we split the cost, it wouldn’t be much more to get a room in a love hotel overnight.”
“Yeah, there are lots in Shinjuku.”
“So I hear.”
“Yeah, so do I. I mean, I’ve heard it too. I haven’t…”
“Are you going to kiss me?”
“There’s no one else in the car.”
“If you can’t kiss, then you can’t do more…”
I nodded and leaned in. His lips felt dry but warm. When I leaned back, he apologized for tasting like beer.
“I like it. Besides, don’t I taste the same?”
We ran out the back of Shinjuku station and paused by a row of vending machines. He bought a pack of cigarettes; I bought a can of Asahi Black.
“That’s not the low carb junk, is it?”
“Do I seem like the kind of girl who watches her weight?”
“No.” He lit a cigarette. “You’re voluptuous.”
“I mean it in a good way.”
“No…I know. It’s just…” So feminine? Something I’d say about Carol but not about me? How could I tell him? “It’s a lager.”
He cough-laughed. “So let’s go then. I’ve got about an hour before my last train if I’m going home tonight.”
I drank half the can in one gulp. “Are you going home tonight?”
“We’ll see. Let’s go.”
We hurried through the streets, and he remarked that I didn’t have any trouble keeping up. Still, I only had time to drink when he paused to light another cigarette. We passed by a Family Mart, and I told him to wait. I finished up the can and tossed it in a recycling bin.
“I can’t believe you can drink lager that fast.”
I shrugged. “Guess I’m just manlier than you are.”
As we continued through the alleys and side streets, I kept talking but faster, tumbling. My contract would end in March, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay for the next school year. I loved working in the elementary schools, but sometimes it didn’t feel like enough. “I need something more to keep me in Japan, you know, David?”
He paused under a streetlight. “I think we’ve found a love hotel.”
He pointed at a board on the wall with small lit-up pictures of rooms and two rates listed next to each.
“Do you want to…?”
“Aren’t we supposed to be able to press a button and get the key? That’s how it worked when I stayed in one in Nagasaki.”
“But this one doesn’t. I guess we go to the desk inside?”
“That’s weird for a love hotel. They’re not supposed to see you.”
“Right. Privacy for affairs. Maybe there’s an intercom.”
“I’m not sure my Japanese…”
“I need you to take the lead.”
I looked at the board, at the warm light coming through the open door, and back at David. I shook my head and walked on. Soon we turned back towards the station. The big clock gave us half an hour left before he had to leave. We took a few stairs, two at a time, to a broad walkway where fairy lights hung between bare, slender maples. A Japanese couple were photographing themselves with a cell phone.
“I guess this is romantic,” said David.
“Romantic? Should we be holding hands?”
He stuck his in the pockets of his coat. We continued along the promenade until we were standing over a still-busy street with only trash bags and the back doors of shops behind us.
“This,” I said. “This is more beautiful to me.”
“Then I guess it’s a good place for you to strip.”
“We’ve only got a little time before I have to take the train. Show me something. We can play.”
I pressed against him, my head against his chest. “OK, but kiss me first.” I looked up, and he did. I started to take off my flannel with my body still on his. Then I guided his hands to start lifting my T-shirt.
And then we heard a creaking. We ran back towards the fairy lights, glancing back to see that a young shop assistant was throwing out the trash. He glanced at us, shrugged, and ducked back inside.
David said he needed to catch his train. I nodded. “Kiss me one last time?” He nodded and leaned in. It only lasted a second before he headed back along the walkway, but the warmth spread through my whole body as I watched him go. I think he glanced over his shoulder once, but I can’t say for sure.
I spent an hour watching people and cars from a Starbucks several stories above the street. I finished my latte just as they began to close, and it only took a few minutes of wandering from there to find an Internet cafe with an overnight rate, free soft drinks, and a coin-operated tanning bed in the ladies’ room.
The next morning, I’d be one of the first to arrive at the sports bar where I’d watch the Seahawks lose a questionably officiated game while I drank three absolutely necessary Bloody Marys. On the way home, I picked up a few cans of Asahi Black at Family Mart to drink on the train. As I finished the last of them—still half an hour away from Ashikaga—I knew that I couldn’t stay.
Elizabeth Kate Switaj is the Chair of Liberal Arts at the College of the Marshall Islands and is the author of James Joyce’s Teaching Life and Methods (Palgrave, 2016). Her short stories have appeared in KROnline, Sundog Lit, and Per Contra. For more information visit https://www.elizabethkateswitaj.net.