Wisps of early evening fog had begun to push in by the time Rachel parked her Volvo in the hotel parking lot. She switched off the ignition, leaned back in the seat, and sighed. A dark eyed woman with an almost pretty face, she checked her makeup in the rear view mirror and touched her hair with her hands. Her brown hair had been longer then; now she wore it short. Would he notice?
Since taking the university job at Irvine, she had driven to San Diego perhaps a half dozen times—but had set foot in the hotel just once. She possessed only a vague recollection of the restaurant where Kobayashi said he would meet her.
Rachel crossed the near empty parking area, the chill air from the ocean damp against her face. She glanced at a clutch of tourists disembarking from a sightseeing bus. They all seemed to be wearing white shoes. And, she thought, they all were old. She was getting old too—thirty-four. Would he notice the lines and serifs at the corners of her eyes? She shivered and drew her cardigan about her. Whether the thought of her age or the moistness off the water induced that reaction she did not know. Her mind years and miles away, like one entranced, Rachel stepped directly in front of a slow moving car, forcing the startled driver to brake. She hopped back. The man behind the wheel shook his head. She smiled apologetically and hurried toward the hotel.
The hotel exhibited a vaguely Spanish colonial style—at least it had a red tile roof. The main building seemed larger than it was owing to an atrium that soared four stories to a sky-lighted ceiling. In season, like swallows keeping their annual appointments up the coast, out-of-town visitors, including foreign ones, flocked to the hotel. Individual bungalows set along paths meandering through lawns and gardens were especially popular. But, now it was the off season, and the place seemed almost deserted.
An attendant, decked out in a gray, gold-trimmed hotel uniform, held open a glass door and welcomed her. Recollections of the outfits (top hats and epaulets) of hotel doormen she had encountered when she lived in Japan flickered in her mind. She lingered for a moment in the lobby next to a bubbling fountain surrounded by sparkling arrangements of daisies, hibiscus, and zinnias—reds, yellows, pinks—accented by a variety of greenery. She lifted her gaze to the terraced walkways that ranged round the atrium. Rooms opened off the terraces, and she could fleetingly spot guests coming and going above her.
She had arrived early. Rachel sought to assure herself it was not because of any eagerness to see him. It was simply that the traffic had been surprisingly light. But, she knew she was deceiving herself. She had long repressed the feelings, but they were always there. How could she not be anxious?
A few more tourists milled about in the lobby, apparently just back from an outing of some kind. A young Japanese couple, honeymooners she guessed, hovered at the front desk trying to make themselves understood in fractured English. Her Japanese still passable, Rachel considered offering to help, then thought better of it. She also considered browsing in one of the shops, but abandoned the notion. She wanted to be at the table when he arrived. She traversed the lobby, pausing only to consider a vendor’s day-end bargain roses. Then, taking a deep breath and squaring her shoulders, Rachel walked with determination down a short hall to the Trade Winds Restaurant.
The maitre d’, unctuousness sprung to life, greeted her at the entrance.
“I’m meeting someone,” she said. “I believe he has a reservation. His name is Kobayashi . . . Dr. Kensuke Kobayashi.”
The man made a show of scrutinizing his chart. “Yes, it’s right here. A nice corner table for two—with a view of the ocean.”
While a white-jacketed waiter guided her to the table, she glanced out the tall windows. Daylight was giving way to darkness, and the fog seemed to be thickening. On the bay she could just make out the silhouettes of a sailboat and a merchant ship being swallowed up in the murk.
“Would you perhaps like an aperitif?” the waiter asked.
“No, thank you,” Rachel said. “I’ll wait for my friend.”
There had been a time when she would have lighted a Winston while she waited, but that was, of course, no longer possible. In any case, she had quit smoking immediately after she returned to the United States—doctor’s orders. It had seemed in Japan that everyone smoked. She wondered if they still did. Kobayashi had smoked a pipe, a carry-over, he said from his university days. He had looked distinguished puffing on his pipe, so professorial. She recalled the tobacco closeness and smiled at the recollection, laved in the warm hues of nostalgia.
Rachel surveyed the large room. Customers occupied, at most, a half dozen tables; perhaps it was still too early for the dinner crowd. Those who were present sat close to the windows, hoping, she assumed, to savor a view of the sun setting over the Pacific. If so, they must have been disappointed; visibility barely extended to the water’s edge, the sun’s presence notified only by a coppery glare filtered through the fog. Save for the occasional clink of cutlery and the faint trickling and splashing of the atrium fountain, the high ceilinged room seemed silent, empty.
The waiter, a fiftyish man with slicked back, dark hair and a vaguely East European accent stationed himself nearby, ready, it seemed, to spring into action if she merely nodded. She looked at her watch; it was 6:30. She had fifteen minutes to wait. She beckoned to the waiter.
“Yes, madam. Perhaps some refreshment before dinner then?”
“Just mineral water,” she said.
“Very good.” He turned to leave.
“Wait, I think I’ll have a glass of white wine.”
Rachel had avoided alcohol for a long time, but she experienced a sudden need. Waiting for her wine, she retrieved a crumpled handkerchief from her purse and dabbed at her palms, convinced they must be moist. In fact, they were quite dry.
Self-supporting, possessor of a Ph.D., and regularly in demand as a speaker, Rachel was a woman ordinarily very much in command of her emotions. Yet, she felt unable to cope with the mounting rush of anticipation. It had afflicted her ever since he called the previous day. Strands of memory pulled her back against the current of time. Almost six years had slipped away, but time was elastic and his voice, hesitant and accented, sounded the same as it had that first night in Tokyo.
“I am in California for a medical convention,” he said. “Are you free for dinner tomorrow?”
She had hesitated, and then said yes. Six years. Memories hurried back. Perhaps this time it would be different. Perhaps now it would be possible to…
“Your wine. A nice California Chardonnay.” The waiter’s voice sliced through her reverie. “Would you care for something else?”
“No. No thank you. This is fine.” She drained her glass almost immediately.
Rachel snapped open her purse, extracted her glasses (still reluctant to admit she needed them), and scanned the leather-bound menu. The damn thing was heavy and unwieldy, the entries aswirl with curlicues and squiggles—almost impossible to decipher. Unable to concentrate, she raised her eyes—and immediately forgot whatever it was she had just read. She examined the floral centerpiece. Artificial red-pink cherry blossoms in a ceramic vase, the arrangement struck her as faintly Japanese, but perhaps that notion simply manifested her disposition to consider it so. Twice more she confirmed the time.
Somewhere Rachel heard the melodic tinkling of a piano, but she could not tell if the sound was live or piped in. She felt as sad as the piano tunes, old standards—the sort of music the band had performed in the Club Starlight in Tokyo when she worked there as a hostess. The Club Starlight—how could she have been so naive? She had taken the job to further her dissertation research on women in contemporary Japanese society. It had only been for two months, but she had learned far more than she’d wanted—mostly about assertive and aggressive men. The Club Starlight was where she met Ken. Compared to the others, he’d seemed so intelligent and considerate. He’d told her later the constraints of Japanese society caused him to feel like the caged cricket he had kept as a boy and that she made him feel free for the first time in his life. And she had believed it. The ghosts of memories—happy and unhappy—pursued each other across her face.
She looked again at her watch and then toward the entrance. The honeymooners had resumed their struggle to communicate, this time with the maitre d’. Was this their first night? She imagined them in their room. Where did such thoughts come from? Ephemeral images of a Tokyo hotel room transited her mind, like will-o’-the-wisps. She could almost summon up the soft fragrance of the camellia pomade he used in his hair.
Peering over the top of her glasses, Rachel again looked toward the entrance and saw Kobayashi framed in the door. A tender look of happiness danced across her face, and then dissolved. Kobayashi was talking to an elegantly dressed Japanese woman. The woman looked into the restaurant, nodded, and walked away. Rachel was suddenly seized by the notion that her skirt and sweater made her look dowdy, schoolmarmish. She removed her glasses and slipped them back in her purse.
Trailing the waiter, Dr. Kensuke Kobayashi approached Rachel’s table. Tall for a Japanese man at six feet, he wore a dark gray suit and crisp white shirt, set off by a wine-colored foulard. Trimly bearded, his face was as serious as the last time they had met. In his right hand he carried a half dozen roses sheathed in plastic bearing the hotel logo.
“It’s been a long time,” he said in English. “It is good to see you again, Rachel.” He presented the flowers to her and bowed slightly. She looked at his hands and remembered them gliding across the keys of a piano in an ocean-side hotel. Now those hands, slender and sensitive, were the hands of a well-regarded surgeon. How natural the transition.
As the waiter seated the Japanese man, Rachel forced a smile. “Yes. A very long time.” Did he see that her own hands trembled when she placed the flowers on the table?
“Please bring us a bottle of Champagne,” Kobayashi said to the waiter. Then he looked at Rachel.
She discounted the few additional pounds and the bit of gray at the temple; he was more handsome than ever. She had often studied that face while he slept; she remembered every line, recalled every contour…
“It has been so long, Ken, so very long,” she said in halting Japanese. Then, in English, “I’m sorry I’ve forgotten my Japanese.”
“I am happy to see you, Rachel. Are you well?” His words came across as formal, almost scripted. Yet, she sought to convince herself she detected a tinge of affection.
She gazed into the fog washing against the window and did not answer immediately. “Yes, we…I…am well. Busy at the university. And you? Now a famous surgeon.”
Kobayashi caught her amended words; the I substituted for we, and questioned her with his eyes and a slight inclination of his head. But he simply said, “Some nice articles in the newspaper. That’s all. It’s really nothing. I have been quite fortunate.” Despite this modest response, conceit illuminated his face like a spotlight.
The waiter reappeared, delivered the Champagne, and took their orders. She had no appetite, but acquiesced to Kobayashi’s suggestion they order the sautéed medallions of veal with artichoke hearts. He was, in some respects, so un-Japanese, she remembered. The first time they had gone to dinner in Tokyo, she had anticipated a traditional Japanese meal; instead he took her to a steak house. It was not out of deference to her being an American. He liked beef.
Kobayashi raised a glass of Champagne and said, “For many good memories, dear Rachel.” Her eyes moistened, but she did not cry. She touched her glass to his. “Yes, good memories.”
Still holding her glass, she said, “How long are you staying…perhaps you would have time to…?”
“Unfortunately, I must return to Japan tomorrow. Some surgery and some meetings at the university. It’s all a bit much.”
“I see. I was hoping you might have time to…”
He showed her a genial expression, but one signaling, sorry, that’s just the way it is.
For a time the conversation floated along tentative, indirect. Small talk, hollow words, interspersed with silences that towered above them like the palms lining the hotel drive.
Rachel tried to stifle her curiosity, her shadowed jealousy. Finally, however, she said, “I saw someone with you at the door. Is she your…”
“Wife? No, she is my assistant.”
“Is that all?” An uninvited sharpness touched her voice.
“Noriko is my assistant. Naturally we work closely together.”
“Is she staying with you in your hotel?”
“We are in the same hotel, of course. But…”
“I’m surprised she didn’t join us.”
“She didn’t think it would be appropriate. And she is confirming our travel arrangements for the trip back to Tokyo.”
“Is she your mistress?”
Kobayashi did not answer. Instead, he said, “Is there someone in your life now? You are an attractive woman.”
“Yes. There is someone in my life. Someone I care for very deeply.”
Kobayashi seemed disappointed at her answer. Still, he said, “That is good. Very good.”
“Not what you think,” Rachel said.
But, Kobayashi sought no clarification, no explanation of who that someone might be. Instead, he said, “I have often wondered what happened after…after Tokyo.”
“You mean after your mother called me a foreign whore?”
“But, dear Rachel…”
“You mean,” she added, “after your father threatened to have me attacked by gangsters if I ever tried to see you again?”
She had promised herself she would exercise self control, but the repressed feelings burst forth.
“I am sorry, Rachel. I hoped that business was all behind. You, perhaps more than anyone, understand Japan. You knew I could not defy my parents. I tried to explain it to you. But, you never answered my letters or my calls.”
He had, she supposed, manipulated her with the skill of a Bunraku puppet master. He had offered so much, taken so much. But, in the end, he had refused to challenge the strictures of his upbringing. In so doing, he had broken her heart.
“There would have been no point. It was over. You’d made that clear.” She paused. “Why did you want to see me tonight?”
“We once were…I just wanted to assure myself you were well,” Kobayashi said. “I hoped we could be friends.”
Elbows on the table, she leaned forward and said, “Is that what your assistant told you to say?
“Are you envious?” he asked.
As they talked, he continued to consume the food on his plate. Rachel’s own food remained untouched. It had been that way in Tokyo. They would quarrel, and she would be unable to eat a thing while he continued to eat with gusto. It was, she now concluded, a measure of the man.
“Perhaps. Perhaps not. Does it matter?” she said.
“I apologize if I have offended you…” Rachel detected not a modicum of sincerity.
“I hoped that this time it would turn out differently,” she said. “I intended to tell you that you have…”
Rachel left the sentence hanging in midair. She could see the assistant lingering just outside the door.
Kobayashi examined his Rolex. “I have an early flight in the morning.” He said it casually, like someone wrapping up a business meeting with a colleague. They had been together for no more than thirty or forty minutes.
The overwhelming nostalgia and sense of loss that had consumed her evaporated like mist under a hot sun. It had been so unwarranted. Nothing had changed. Nothing.
Kobayashi reached out to take her hand, but she pulled it back.
“Perhaps another time,” he said. A look of surprise shadowed his face.
Rachel smiled a wry smile. “Good bye, Doctor.” Today had eclipsed all the yesterdays.
Kobayashi rose stiffly, bowed, and walked directly to the door. He and Noriko disappeared into the lobby and were gone.
Later that evening, back in Irvine, Rachel activated the opener, watched the garage door go up, and eased the Volvo into its parking place. Once inside, she closed her eyes and leaned back in the seat, sunk in a stream of empty emotion. Could it ever have been otherwise? No, not likely. Two or three times, lips pressed together, she shook her head slowly from side to side. Her little girl had been asking again why no daddy lived with them. Rachel supposed she would have to try to explain to her soon. But not yet. Perhaps a little later. Yes, perhaps a little later.
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One thought on “It’s Been a Long Time by Lawrence F. Farrar”
An excellent story which captures pieces many of us identify with. The carefully worded narrative compressed a series of complex ideas into a very readable event. I enjoyed this in part because of the familiar location and the cross cultural nuance.