[Fiction] ‘Tourists’ — Mark Halpern

Step aboard the bullet train’s sumptuous Green Car. Soon you’ll arrive to the refinement and grace of Kyoto, and the tranquility of its ancient temples and shrines
– The Internet

Hope was an afterthought. It is Nozomi, the literal translation, that alone appears as his daughter’s name on his ex-wife’s family register. A pale blue-green official copy lies among the files populating the cardboard boxes aligned in Henry’s storage room, everything kept crisp by two built-in dehumidifiers. It was he who’d stipulated Nozomi, despite his Japanese language skills then being even more meagre than now. Nozomi is what the fastest bullet trains are called, and what Henry was riding as Hope emerged into the world. He hadn’t made it back to Tokyo in time.

Now Hope had returned. “It’s clean, modern and convenient,” she said to Kenji, who kept sniffing around, unaware he’d become redundant, a summer-vacation leftover. “But it’s a dormitory for female career staff. I can’t bring men in.” Untrue. Tokyo-Mitsubeni Bank owned the building, but Hope’s apartment, much like Hope, was self-contained. “I’ve got work early tomorrow. Bye.” Hope Nozomi Breitelberg extended a thirsty arm toward her chrome Delonghi espresso maker.

Independence. After fourteen constricting post-divorce years with Mom and four more with Aunt Miriam, commuting via the New Haven Line to Columbia, where she’d studied linguistics and economics. It was time to engage with her parents as a grown-up. And, geographically speaking, the apartment was neutral territory. Forty minutes away stood the house where her mother now lived alone. Another house—equidistant, equiopulent—accommodated Henry and his new wife, Yumi, who, though three years older than Hope, seemed younger in all material respects.

Henry remembered flying up the stairs to the delivery room. Twenty-minute-old Hope clutched his index finger with her teeny fist, and he knew that he’d never again be truly alone. Seconds later she released her grip. Active involvement with each other was thereafter unnecessary.

Father and daughter. Each had been molded by a privileged existence—isn’t life unfair? “Just three, and reading so well,” proclaimed Henry’s parents. “And look how meticulously he organizes his dinosaur books.” Some years later the semi-prodigy advanced to a conspicuously promising Wall Street career, and was dispatched to Japan during its 1980s boom. There, armed with a high-status job, an expat package, and the bare fact of being American, he was engulfed in romantic attention. That Henry became spoiled was inevitable. But he began taking for granted that all women would always—and irrespective of his own behaviour—treat him kindly. This led to a marriage of crushing unhappiness, without him understanding why. But the marriage was merely temporary.

Hope’s privileges had begun each morning when a massive car door swung open before a fancy international school. And all day long society lavished its solicitude upon her. For not only was Hope a haafu—a “half”—but she affirmed the stereotype that halfs are good looking, though Hope’s pulchritude derived solely from the half-genome inherited from her Japanese mother.

Lately, Hope was additionally acquiring the privilege of freedom. But no amount of undeserved advantage would impede her joy. Let’s make up our minds: We dislike the characters in this story.

“Aside from banking,” Hope had told Kenji, “my father and I have nothing in common.” Moreover, Henry and Hope diverged regarding the appropriateness of a thirty-four-year age gap between spouses.

“Just give her a chance.”

“Sure, Dad. But if Yumi-san has a baby, you’ll spend your sixties like a single parent of two.”

Mere jest. Young women had drifted through Hope’s childhood. She became acclimated during the alternate Sunday afternoons she’d spent with Henry; resentment was impossible. Nonetheless, this lopsided marriage surely violated some fundament of sexual politics. I should’ve taken Intro to Women’s Studies. Regardless, Hope would never relinquish command over her own life. Anyway, the age-difference objection was principled—not just the petty, bitter sententiousness her mother and aunt had inflicted under the pretext of moral education. But Yumi as stepmother? How embarrassing.

“Dad, I accept your indifference to the Japanese way of doing things. But some concept of dignity surely transcends cultural boundaries.”

Hope had spoken calmly. Now, the marriage was a fact. Perhaps its explanation lay in weird sexual peculiarities … Yuck. Still, a new little brother or sister could justify the entire arrangement. Henry, however, had dismissed that possibility, and Yumi probably deferred to him in everything but choice of designer high heels.

“I promised my parents I’d visit next weekend.”

“Again? What about our Kyoto trip? It’s all arranged.”

“Sorry. You know how they worry.”

Henry gave Yumi some cash. She’d shop lavishly with her mother and treat her school friends to dinner. After parading around her glamour, she’d sleep off the excitement while cuddling Poko-chan and the other stuffed animals waiting atop the frilly bedspread in her old room.

So Henry invited Hope. He felt the need for company, preferred the company of women, and, by his re-marriage, found himself disentitled from inviting any other woman. Besides, Hope’s presence would bolster his resistance to the urge for misbehaviour.

A peaceful journey. They could stroll through the temples and gardens they’d visited during their very last trip as a family. They’d doubtless find things to talk about. Very probably. “So many tourists in Kyoto, Sweetie, I’ll enjoy listening to you practice your Chinese.” He could always talk to Hope about banking.

A weekend with her father, passively gathering clues about his new marriage. To that extent, a daughter’s curiosity was permissible. Also, sharing Henry’s luxurious gratifications wouldn’t compromise Hope’s maturity, now that she lived day to day on her own salary. Nor did she quarrel with luxury. Au contraire. Gorgeous hotel rooms. A majestic Toyota Century with a dapper-uniformed driver who might even be handsome. And Henry would take pleasure in buying her gifts of pottery, lacquerware and textiles—was this English terminology even compatible with the fragile refinement of Kyoto’s disciplined but unconstrained sensibility? How could these words explain the objets d’art to be touched and held?

Hope was making her own new beginning. She was flushed with optimism all day long. “Sure, Dad. That’ll be fun.”

They each reached the shinkansen platform eleven minutes prior to departure.

“I presume you’ve investigated why it’s called ‘Green Car.’”

“The name supposedly originated with the green lines formerly painted on first-class cars’ exteriors or the green headrest covers used for reserved seating.”

“Obviously all three phenomena are interrelated. That explanation is trivial at best.”

“Indeed.”

The aisle separated Henry and Hope.

“Your mother is well?”

“So far as I’m aware.”

“And the apartment?”

“Efficient. Wholly adequate.”

They each delayed opening hardcover books pending the arrival of window-seat occupants. Soon, a svelte Korean woman grazed Henry’s knee while stowing her Gucci bag. He evaluated the circumstances—impossible—and faced himself rigidly forward. Hope didn’t detect Henry’s fleeting smile of entitlement, her focus having shifted onto a thirtyish Italian in tight jeans and billowing linen shirt. The train moved. The four occupants of Car 7, Row 18 sat silently. Time passed.

The window-seaters wandered off separately, but were shortly seen chatting in harmony several rows ahead. Thereupon, Henry’s reading progress stopped. He considered asking about Hope’s life. He decided to spare her the burden of yet another excessively prying parent.

“The orthopedist said I shouldn’t sit for too long.” Henry strode away.

Hope had refrained from querying about the marriage. Henry’s departure did not affect her boredom one way or the other.

At the extremity of an ordinary-class car Henry found three women with wedding rings drinking canned shochu cocktails. He continued past an automatic door into a vestibule and called his office, positioning himself carefully. Through a narrow window Henry made eye contact with the youngest-looking woman. He gestured; she came. They exchanged words about spouses and children, then cell numbers.

“What’s your book, sweetie?”

Japonisme. France, nineteenth century. And yours?”

“Marine physiology. Freshwater versus saltwater. That reminds me, we have reservations at Aomono—the early sitting. They say it’s superb, though you’ll know better than I.”

The train stopped briefly at Nagoya.

“Have you ever visited?”

“No.”

Henry tapped at his cellphone.

The Toyota Century was the Mashūko Shrine Blue Mica edition. “Splendid,” said Henry. “Indeed,” said Hope, eyeing the chauffeur. “To Arashiyama, please.” And on they went in exquisite soundlessness. Until Henry’s phone rang.

“Yumi, darling … I’m with Hope, like I … Yes, really … Shall I put her on? … Fine … Same from me … Of course I do … Regards to your parents.”

Henry turned off his ringer, feigned sleep, and fell asleep. Hope smiled toward the rearview mirror. The chauffeur, who was not inexperienced with female passengers whose fathers had fallen asleep, smiled back. They spoke. Hope jotted something on a scrap of paper, rolled it into a ball, and tossed it to the front seat.

At Tenryū-ji, Henry stared at the curved roof of the main temple building, sensing a gentle balance. Hope stood by the garden as if waiting for a ripple in the shallow pond. They took different trajectories. Later, at the Buddhist shōjin ryōri restaurant within the temple grounds, they read their own books even as they drank o-sake. Afterwards the two strolled through a bamboo forest.

“So calm.”

“Calm, indeed.”

Neither felt especially calm. Both checked their cellphones.

“I’m glad you’re back in Japan.”

“Yes, me too.”

Their walk led to smaller shrines and temples, where they each wandered alone.

At nine a.m. on the first Sunday of the month two months prior—the first permitted moment—Henry’s underling had repeatedly poked an auto-redial button, finally procuring the restaurant reservation. Yumi had been the presumptive companion. Now father and daughter perched at the smooth ten-seat wooden counter that comprised Aomono.

On a speckled blue platter placed before Henry sat a leaf wrapped around a pale-orangey clump about the size of an average olive.

“Yum, yum. Let’s dig in.”

“Relax, Dad. This is just to tease your senses … Oh, it’s sublime.”

Ceramic vessels, asymmetric, came in waves, bearing finely-calibrated textures and tastes. Hope saw the themes and contrasts in flashes, like brushstrokes of Japanese calligraphy. But her thoughts kept reverting to the possibilities of the late evening. Henry was less distracted. His plans were already fixed.

Both father and daughter threw back alcohol, until they looked at each other and felt no loneliness.

“A tiny place like this, what do you suppose it brings in?”

Henry glanced about, willing his analytical faculty to slice through his inebriation.

“I know nothing about restaurants. But you’ve got financing for land, equipment, perfect furnishings and quality construction. Then upkeep, ingredients, property taxes, whatnot. It’s cash only, so they report maybe seventy percent of revenues, and I’ll assume moderate income-splitting with the owner’s wife and, say, two children. You saw the pricing—fantastically top end. But the restaurant is indeed tiny, and popularity doesn’t last forever. So I’ll say fifteen million yen average annually, over the first ten years, after tax.”

Hope glowed with pride. “I wonder how they divvy up the cash.”

Hope instructed the chauffeur, while Henry went ahead to check in. The rooms were adjacent to each other. At least they were on the Executive Floor.

“An early night for me, I’m afraid.”

“This book is fascinating,” said Hope. “I’ll sit and read in the lounge.”

The chauffeur was finishing his drink; Hope downed hers and signed the bill. “Wait five minutes before following me up.” Two tables over, a cellphone buzzed. The woman Henry had met on the shinkansen read his message.

But she and the chauffeur soon discovered what alcohol had made their respective hosts forget: Ascent required a key-card—the elevator was unforgiving. Texts were transmitted.

Henry and Hope bustled, simultaneously, into the Executive Floor hallway. “I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “How about a nightcap at the penthouse bar?”

At breakfast, Henry thought he should discuss fatherly matters, but didn’t know which or how. Few words passed. Across the hotel’s marble entranceway the limousine door was held open by the chauffeur’s manly arm. But the world, Hope understood, is saturated with manly arms.

Near Gion, she tried on a tunic made from the patterned fabric of an antique kimono, which Henry thought made her look older. “The colours go with your hair, Sweetie.”

A pottery shop’s sign announced No English Spoken. The proprietor suggested an uninspiring vase. Hope glanced at its label. “I wonder,” she said in Japanese, “whether one might feel compelled to reject the name originally bestowed upon an artwork. After all, the artist merely …” The proprietor nodded. He brought out two brown-reddish tea bowls, each patterned by a haze of minute cracks under the glazing, with encroaching shadows of black. Hope’s hands held one, and then the other, delicately, in the prescribed manner. She picked up the first bowl again, staring at the irregularity of its curve.

“If you like it, Sweetie, it’s yours.”

“But so expensive!”

Father and daughter laughed. The bowl was packed into its paulownia-wood tomobako.

The chauffeur having been set free for a few hours, Henry and Hope walked to lunch. Another tiny, precious restaurant. They received a severely-restrained welcome. Hope responded by praising a sister-restaurant in Manhattan whose chef was the owner’s son. The owner’s English expanded into eloquence. He handed them business cards on which a priority-customer phone number was scrawled in Japanese characters. Hope winked; Henry smiled broadly.

The fifth course was an obscure variety of yellowtail grilled with white miso, resting upon thick, dark leaves, all atop earthen-brown dishes.

“This reminds me of yesterday’s forest. And I remember somewhere like that when I was very little—on a trip. I tried to run away. I wanted to be on my own.”

“Sweetie, it was the very same place.”

As Henry paid, Hope pointed at the copper ten-yen coin resting on his palm. Its obverse depicted a magnificent edifice. “Let’s go there. It’s nearly a thousand years old, but the original wooden building survives.”

Lunch finished early. Down the block, a woman holding a canned shochu cocktail alighted from the Toyota Century. Quite a coincidence, thought Henry. Men, thought Hope.

Father and daughter journeyed onward in pristine silence. When they arrived, the sky was cloudless and the Phoenix Hall reflected cleanly in the encompassing green waters.

Henry accepted Byōdō-in’s radiance. The ancient building, with its surrounding pond and gardens, represented paradise, which father and daughter confronted together. Henry’s mind was clear as they crossed the footbridge. Hope lightly kissed his cheek. Somehow he wasn’t surprised.

During the drive to the station, Henry rested his hand on Hope’s and dozed off.

Onboard the shinkansen, he considered the late meal he’d soon share with Yumi; regarding Kyoto he needn’t tell her much. Hope bought an o-bento, so Henry didn’t ask about her evening plans. Nor did he ask her thoughts on their fast-concluding trip. He asked only about her work. After Nagoya, the carriage began to thin out. The privacy softened Henry and Hope.

“You will have a wonderful career.”

Henry expressed perspectives on banking Hope had never heard. With her talent, he said, she had an obligation—to herself and her employer—to think hard about the choices ahead. “You must know how proud I am, and how much I want to help.”

He laughed. “At least we have this one subject of conversation. It lets me perform some parental duties, but also lets you see who I am. A little. As a human being, that is—apart from being your father.”

“Dad, I’ve never felt anything was missing between us. You’ve been as a father should be. A good father.” Her deep eyes aimed downward. “Some daughters spend more time with their fathers, but that’s not us. You’ve been just right. Unlike my other parent.”

“Hope, it’s my nature to be consistent, and detached, and objective. These are not invariably strengths, though taken together they’re frequently mistaken for wisdom. Anyway, that’s part of me. And now I’ve reached a stage where I find happiness by accepting my immediate desires as they are, and modifying my circumstances accordingly.” Henry smiled. “But you, at your age … you’re vital and creative. Passionate. You can still create yourself as you want to be.” He laughed again. “To a point.”

“I hope I’m doing just that. I feel freer than ever. Especially, liberated from the nagging I got at home.”

“Sweetie, you have two parents who love you, but only one who raised you. I financed it, but that was no burden. Your mother did her part fantastically well—look at you. We clearly made the right division of labour.”

“I won’t complain about my upbringing. With all my privileges, what right do I have?”

“Sweetie, forget about rights and privileges. Forget about guilt. The starting point for an adult is to accept your parents as human beings. Then you’ve got a context for understanding them. Then you can really learn something.”

Henry produced a tomobako identical to the one in Hope’s suitcase. The other red tea bowl. He told Hope to give it to her mother. As a gift from Hope, not Henry.

“She’s bound to like it—its from her you inherited your taste. On my own I still wouldn’t have a clue what to buy her.”

“But you’ve been generous.”

“Hope, my money came from devoting myself to my job. Some of it I’ve spent on amusements, some on freeing myself from worries. Also, I invested in becoming respectable. Though you might think that by marrying Yumi, I squandered my saved-up respectability.”

“No, Dad. Not at all … ” Hope blushes. Who is she to judge him?

They reach Tokyo.

“Sweetie, I’m not so hard to understand.”

Hope smiled vaguely. Her attention had been captured by a tall gentleman, wearing a leather cap and elegant, emerald-blue sports jacket, waiting on the platform.

*

Mark Halpern has lived since 1993 in Tokyo, where he runs his own law firm and writes stories about foreigners in Japan. He was born in America, grew up mostly in Canada, and has also spent much time in the UK and France. As for Japan, Mark has, like some of his stories’ characters, found a way to be both an outsider and an insider.

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