I had arrived in Tokyo around thirty hours ago. After a sleepless night in my hostel, I'd spent the day wandering the streets of Shibuya intoxicated with jetlag. Wherever I went, I kept expecting to see him. Every corner, every step. Finally, in the late evening, plodding the familiar steps towards Wasted Time, the feeling had intensified. Like the air waves around the club were alive with his scent.
Even now, a day after landing, this unpleasant feeling stuck to me – it was like watching an old movie I had loved as a kid, which didn't really have lasting power into adulthood.
I leaned back and felt the smooth bar counter press into my hips. I couldn't believe I was back here. A White Russian in hand, shaking the ice cubes around so I had something to do. I stared at the floor, at my hands, back at my drink. I had flown all the way here and I couldn't even lift my eyes to look around.
I nearly dropped my glass in shock. I looked up to find a friendly-looking gaijin sidling over to me, introducing himself as Thomas.
“You look like this is your first time in here? Me too,” Thomas continued without waiting for my answer, turning his body to scan the room with an appraising nod.
I followed his gaze for a second. At least half the room was made up of gaijin (“foreigners"). But, unlike me and Thomas, these gaijin ping-ponged around the room, exploding the groups they touched into exclamations of recognition and delight, their hands thrown up in the air and then around the gaijin's shoulders, like cheerful bursts of shrapnel.
Thomas looked on with sympathetic excitement, a twinge of joy twisting his face for a second every time one of these greetings happened, like some of their exuberant affection was splashing back onto his face. I dropped my gaze back to the floor. I felt like how an actor must feel watching a play she's performed hundreds of times before, sitting for the first time in the wings of the audience.
“What a place, huh?” he pronounced suddenly. "Everyone seems to know each other!” He turned to me and smiled again, encouragingly.
I glanced at the scene again and back to my drink with a sudden pang of realization. He was right. The club was full to the brim with “regulars” – new regulars. I barely recognized anyone.
“Yeah, it’s incredible,” I stammered. “But, so then, you don’t know anyone here, do you?”
Thomas took a sip of his drink — a draft beer — and shook his head, leaning his back up against the bar counter like me, so we could observe the crowd together, side by side. With a small sigh of resignation which the room’s din effectively smothered, I tossed the rest of my drink back and followed Thomas's gaze again. For the first time, I looked intently at the scene before us.
The room was dimly lit except for a small stage at the back that was harshly illuminated by three overhead spotlights. A few small round tables were scattered around, but their chairs were strewn with coats and bags, the happy regulars standing behind the backs or milling around the space between.
In the far-left corner, near the stage, was the red velvet round booth, crammed with people and instruments – guitar cases poking out from the floor. One musician had his acoustic guitar in his lap, tuning it, with the head pointed up at a harsh angle in order not to poke his friend seated next to him. To the right of the stage, where the sound deck was set up, a complicated pile of instrument cases, naked guitars, drumsticks and cables were huddled together. There was never any thought of security here.
“Ooh, I think they’re going to start!” said Thomas, giving me the gentlest of nudges and nodding his head towards the brightly lit stage. As he did so, his elbow knocked against my empty glass, which I had set back down on the bar counter.
“Oh, do you need another drink?” he asked, almost with a hint of alarm.
“Oh, well…” I started turning around to look for the bartenders, but Thomas was faster. He locked eyes with a tall, curly-haired Japanese bartender who was hastily rinsing glasses in the sink.
“What would you like?” Thomas asked, turning to me.
“Okawaride, onegai shimasu,” I said to the bartender ("another of the same, please").
“Oh wow,” said Thomas, as the bartender gave me a sweet smile and, in an almost hushed tone, added, “Kashikomarimashita, Emeree-san” (Sure thing, Emily), and retreated.
“So, do you live in Japan, then?” Thomas asked, for whom the bartender’s reply had just been a long line of random syllables.
“No, no. But I … used to.” I cut myself off suddenly and Thomas looked down at me with a slight wrinkle of confusion.
“What about you?” I pushed on quickly.
“Nope, and I never used to, either, so my Japanese is pretty shit.” He laughed. “But I’m trying. So far I’ve learned nama beeru (draft beer) – “
“Oh yeah, an essential.”
“– Yep, and, um, sumaimasan?”
“Sumimasen,” I corrected. “Su-mi-ma-se-n. Yeah that’s a good one.”
“That’s ‘excuse me’ right?”
“Uh-huh, but it’s really versatile. You can use it to apologize, like if you bump into someone, or if you need to get a waiter or bartender’s attention you can just scream that out across the restaurant.”
"Really, though, there’s no shame.” I laughed too.
“So, wait when did you live in Japan?”
“Um… “I could feel my face reddening and was glad the low lighting covered it. “It was a few years ago. I’m just back on a visit for a little while.”
“Oh cool. Just visiting friends or something?”
“Yeah, basically.” He could sense my nervousness through the darkness and wrinkled his brow a bit again.
“Well, that’s fun.” It sounded almost like he was comforting me.
Just then the bartender returned with my drink and placed it in front of me delicately with “Hai, douzo.” Thomas paid for it (“I got this!” Cheerful, uninsinuating) and I took a sip as we turned back to the stage. While we had been distracting ourselves, a man in a brown fedora had taken the stage with a beautiful mahogany acoustic guitar. As my eyes fell on his face, I felt my entire body constrict. The room began to swim. Little red waves pulsed in the tails of my eyes. This was it. My eyes roved slowly towards the drum kit placed at stage right and I felt like they were coursing through thick layers of mud.
And then the room flashed back into focus. A gaijin with a smooth, youthful face and a perfectly bald head was seating himself at the kit and deftly screwing and unscrewing cymbals. I let out a long, low sigh that was almost a sob. I looked back at the guitarist, but it was unquestionably Yuta. To his right the bald gaijin had finished his adjustments and was now rummaging behind for sticks. So he had a new drummer.
Yuta started testing the microphone in front of him (“one two one two” in English), glancing at the sound deck, where one of the gaijin bartenders was now standing. He asked for more reverb in Japanese and to turn up the volume on the monitors and the bartender nodded and flicked some of the controls. Yuta gave a brisk thumbs up when he was satisfied.
Turning to his drummer, he gave a slight nod, which the drummer returned, and then faced back towards the audience and started introducing himself in Japanese. I translated for Thomas.
“Good evening everyone!” Raucous applause. “My name is Yutaka Senuma. But ‘Yuta’ is fine. And this is Robert.” He gestured to his drummer, who grinned and bowed his head. More applause.
“Um, for my first song, it’s called ’Night’ and it’s about a train crossing the universe.”
“What?" Thomas interjected to me in a whisper.
“I think that’s what he said,” I whispered back.
The last words had been greeted by one more swell of shouts from the audience, followed by a sudden blanket of silence, as Yuta hung his head and started slowly swaying his whole body as he tapped his right foot like a bereaved metronome. He held the neck of his guitar such that his fingers lay across the strings, gently muting them, while his right arm hung loosely at his side. His mouth and eyes were shut, facing the floor, his nose a couple inches from the microphone.
Suddenly, the air quivered. A musical shudder rippled out, gingerly, searchingly, from the almost motionless stage. It took me a second to realize that the shudder was coming from the drum kit. Instead of drumsticks, the bald gaijin was holding what looked like tiny metal rakes that he brushed across the cymbals, his wrists moving so quickly, so imperceptibly, and yet with such perfect methodical control. It was more like he was vibrating than drumming.
Without looking back, just feeling his way through the sound waves, Yuta strummed a chord on his guitar, so rich and sweet I could taste it. Then he took a deep breath and began singing.
Bokurano umaretamachi ni
Shiroi, shiroi tori o mita.
("In the town, where I was born, I once saw a white bird. Suddenly, I recall that moment.”)
The English didn’t sound as good. I was glad Thomas didn’t ask me to translate. I inhaled deeply, letting the familiar tones drill through, dizzying me with pleasure – and a nostalgia so painful it was like heartache.
Yuta sung Japanse like no one else. The vowels were soft but full-bodied. Just like with his guitar, there was something so luscious and yet so present, so distinct about the sound. It didn’t radiate outwards, flooding the room indiscriminately. Rather, it was like every sweet syllable was dripping directly into my ears alone, snaking around my neck, wrapping around my tongue.
As the song swelled to its chorus, the drummer swapped his little rakes for normal drumsticks so quickly I never noticed the exchange. He throbbed wildly against the membranes, his whole body enveloping the kit. I tried to resist it but it came to me immediately, without choice, Takumi's voice as he stood with his back against the terrace railing, consuming a chain of cigarettes between acts: “I always go into a trance when I’m drumming.” He blew out a whiff of smoke, turning his head to exhale the stream away from my face. "When it’s finished, I don’t even remember what happened."
“Sugoi Subarashii!!” the crowd thundered when they finished. Thomas clapped frantically and cheered, and I ripped myself out of my own trance to join in.
After the applause died down, the duo started up again, this time with a more up-beat tune. At the bridge, the drummer flayed out into an elaborate but brief drum solo, his arms stretching across the kit’s pieces like tentacles, and then ripped himself back with perfect synchronicity as Yuta pummeled into the chorus. The song was in Japanese again, except for two words which were the song’s title: Get Out. I smiled to myself. This one was an old one.
“Amazing!” Thomas whistled. He was pink in the face from slapping his body up and down and cheering. Most of the crowd was sweaty from jumping like Thomas. Just in front of the stage a small area had cleared where two Japanese girls twirled each other around gleefully, as others watched nearby, trying to muster the courage to join in.
“If their next one is a fast one too, let’s get up there,” Thomas suggested, pointing to the makeshift dance circle.
“No, they’re done,” I shouted to him over a fresh wave of cheers – the artists were saying their goodbyes and preparing to leave the stage.
“What?” Thomas wheeled his head back to the front with a look of dismay.
“You can only do two songs unless you’re a band. And you have to be at least three people to be a “band”. So, yeah, just two songs for them.”
“Ah, what a shame.” He took a sip of his almost-forgotten beer, sounding a bit deflated.
We watched as Yuta made his slow and deliberate way through the crowd, every hand he passed slapping him on the back with cries of ‘otsukaresamadesu!’. Robert, his drummer, was still on the stage, standing behind his drum stool and rapidly unscrewing cymbals, turning to the crowd with grins and nods as they shouted to him their praise and ‘otsukare!’’s.
“They were great, weren’t they?“ Thomas mused. "But I bet everyone here is great. Wonder who’s next."
I didn’t respond. Yuta was approaching the bar where Thomas and I stood. I could feel my pulse quickening, my face reddening. He hadn’t noticed me yet – the crowd between us was still grabbing him and slapping him on the back. You could tell the ones who had never seen him play before because they detained him the longest, so stunned with admiration it was like a state of shock. But then his face turned gracefully from an ardent fan on his right and I could see it in his mouth before it was in his eyes – his grin, bashful but glowing, suddenly fell into a slight gape. And then his eyes followed, widening as they took me all in.
“Emeree-san…?,” he began once he was in front of me, and then drew his body slightly back, as though preparing for a denial. I smiled helplessly in response.
“Eh… nandake…[what the…]. Hisashiburi! [long time no see!].”
“Hisashiburi da ne,” I replied.
“When did you get back to Tokyo?” he asked in Japanese.
“Just a few hours ago, actually.”
“A few hours ago?! But… well, welcome back!” I could see his eyes darting away from me, like he was already trying to make his escape. But no, he was just trying to order a drink. He called over the Japanese bartender who had served me and ordered a cold oolong tea. Yuta didn’t drink, out of respect for his voice, though I didn’t know any other musicians who showed that kind of delicacy.
“How are you?” he continued. I realized he was too polite to ask me why I was back in Japan. I felt a sudden wave of relief – and a strange twang of disappointment.
“I’m good,” I lied. “And yourself?”
“Great, great.” The bartender handed him his tea, which Yuta paid for with a drink ticket and took a sip. This always seemed wasteful to me – using a drink ticket on a soft drink.
"We’re recording a new EP right now,” Yuta continued. "It’s coming out in July.” He fumbled in his pocket and extracted a postcard-sized slip of glossy paper, an invitation to the EP release party, with a picture of him and Robert on the front.
"But I don't know," he hesitated as he handed over the flyer, "if you'll still be around then...?"
I stared at the piece of paper in my hand, at the glossy picture of him and the bald gaijin. And Takumi's voice came irresistibly to me again: “Yuta’s a genius. Honestly, he should probably be with a better drummer. But he likes me because I can read his mind.”
Oh, what the hell.
“Your new drummer is amazing,” I said, without looking up.
“Oh Robert? He’s incredible. Only 24 and just incredible. I can't believe it.”
I lifted my eyes to him. I could see Takumi’s name on his lips, but he didn’t know how to say it.
“Takumi was great too,” I continued, pressing my foreign advantage over his Japanese politeness.
“Yeah, yeah, he was.” His eyes darted around uncomfortably. Now he was definitely looking for an escape.
“Is he still playing, do you know?”
Yuta’s eyes snapped back to me in disbelief. “Is he…still playing?” he repeated. We both stared at each other in silence for a few moments. I could feel my second White Russian slipping through my veins, loosening my tongue.
“I know he’s not dead, Yuta.” I pronounced the words so softly, I was surprised he could hear me. Turning from his white, stunned face, I tossed back the last dregs of my drink.
It was then I noticed Thomas and remembered his existence, standing there beside us, looking at us sideways in confusion, though trying not to stare. I was suddenly ecstatically grateful to have him next to me and seized him by the elbow.
“This is my friend Thomas,” I said to Yuta, switching into English for Thomas’s benefit.
“Ah, hello! Nice to meet you!” Yuta turned to Thomas with his slow, deliberate English.
“Hey man! Your set was absolutely incredible. I mean, really, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Ah, thank you, thank you.” I could tell that was a bit too fast for Yuta, and he had only caught the gist.
“Jya, kanpai!” Yuta held up his glass to cheers us.
“Kanpai” I returned, intimating to Thomas to follow, who raised his glass joyfully and drank deeply.
“Jya, Emeree-san.” Yuta turned back to me looking solemn. “Ano… Kiotsukete ne… atodene?” [Um… take care…later yea?] His Japanese was vague, but I was sure he meant he had more to say. And then he grinned at Thomas and moved off to find his drummer. His new drummer.
I watched Yuta disappear into the crowd, his neck craned upwards to see over the heads that towered above him. My heart shuddered in my chest. It felt like I had just slapped him.
“You alright?” Thomas was watching me uncertainly.
“Yeah…” I started, lying again. “He’s an old friend of mine actually.”
Thomas opened his mouth to form a question and I quickly pressed on: “Looks like the next act is up." I nodded my head towards the stage where a middle-aged Japanese man in a sparkly black fedora and heavy eyeliner was kneeling beside the stage’s largest amp. Most musicians plug directly into the club’s PA system – direct input or DI it’s called. But some prefer the control of the amps. Of course, that sometimes leads to problems.
“Oh no…” I whispered to myself.
The guitarist had plugged his cable into the amp’s input with a great metallic pop and was adjusting the volume, up and up and up. He crashed his pick across the body, shuddering the pick-ups and smothering the room with more noise than an entire band could manage. It was astounding how much sound could emanate from six strings.
“Ah…” Thomas took a sip of his beer, scrunching down his neck as though to hide his exposed ears.
“This happens sometimes."
The guitarist began a cover of Wild Horses, his guitar crisp and precise, but bellowing. And then he started singing, in English. He shut his eyes and swayed in a trance of passion. It was sad, I thought, that something so earnest could sound so terrible.
I looked around. The crowd was very slowly and cautiously starting to thin towards the club’s two exits. One exit, which served as the main entrance, opened on to stairs that led back to street-level. The other, between the bar and the sound deck, opened onto a hallway which led, passed the dingy bathrooms, to the rest of the building interior — mostly office spaces. This was where most of the smokers hung out, even though you were allowed to smoke in the club too. It also served as a makeshift green room.
“Want to get a bit of fresh air?” I asked Thomas.
“Yeah, let’s do it,” he nodded.
I hailed down a bartender, this time a gaijin, and quickly refilled my emptied White Russian. After I paid and took a quick sip, the loud guitarist now plunging into an elaborate and piercing solo, I led Thomas towards the hallway exit.
When the heavy iron door thudded behind us it was like entering a different world. Lonely, peaceful. I stopped for a second to inhale the familiar dank scent. Here, when the silence engulfed us, Takumi would slip his hand gingerly into mine. I could almost feel his soft, scared fingertips searching for my palm.
“Wow, this place is decrepit,” Thomas suddenly cut in.
From the red velvet and careful lighting of the club room, the difference was in fact pretty stark, though I had never really noticed it before. I led Thomas up two flights of stairs, along the second floor hallway that ended in a heavy, faded green door which opened onto the smoking terrace. The terrace overlooked a jumbled mass of back alleys and love hotel signs. Sometimes you could catch a glimpse of a mismatched-looking couple shuffling out of one, parting ways without a goodbye or a look back. My guy friends used to tell me that the streets were lined with prostitutes. But as a girl, I never noticed them – like mystical statues that came to life for certain passersby before fading back into the scenery for others.
There were about half a dozen people from the club up here already. Two more followed Thomas and I out of the door from behind.
“Do you smoke?” asked Thomas, looking around at the crowd of smokers.
“Oh no, I just like it up here. It’s good for a break from the club for a bit.”
He paused. I saw him glance furtively at a trio of laughing smokers speaking in English, two gaijin, one Japanese. I wondered for the first time if he wanted to make friends with other people at the club besides myself. I felt a strange panic at the idea. I didn’t want to talk to anyone else. Tapping the rim of his beer glass with his finger, he turned back to me with the look of someone resolving a calculation.
“So,” he began. “You’ve been here before?”
“To the terrace?”
“No,” he answered, an indulgent smile on his lips. “To Wasted Time.”
“I thought you said it was your first time too?”
“No, well I mean I think, or I know you said it was your first time, but…” I trailed off, my face starting to burn. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he said quickly, laughing at my idiotic apology. “Well you did say you used to live here, right? So you came here back then I guess?”
“Yeah, every week.”
“Wow!” He began excitedly, and then stopped, confused by my solemnity. For a few seconds we sipped our drinks in silence. A Japanese smoker, leaning against the terrace railing, was cupping his hand against the wind as he lit up, nodding vigorously at something his friend was saying.
I realized Thomas was watching me.
“What were you guys talking about?”
“You and that guitarist – what was his name?”
“Right.” Thomas waited. “Seemed kind of serious.” He glanced back at the laughing trio, maybe re-assessing his calculation.
The Japanese smoker at the railing was leaning his arms over the sides, letting his cigarette hand fall towards the dark abyss below.
I could see Takumi’s soft white hands balancing a stub in his fingers, leaning against the railing just like that. “What are you going to do while I’m in Sapporo?” I asked him. He smiled and whipped his hand up to suck another drag. “Go with you.” “Can you fit in my suitcase?” He exhaled over his shoulder, nodding. He pointed at his limbs, making a slicing motion with his fingers. And I knew immediately what he was saying. “You’re going to cut your arms and legs off and sew them back on.” “That’s right.” “Just like –“ “Just like Sally, in Nightmare Before Christmas.” I smiled. I never wanted to kiss him so badly. “What if you can’t sew them back on?” He smiled again. The smoke around his face gave his taut skin a faint glimmer, ethereal and slightly wicked. “I guess, I would bleed to death."