Wolf Richter – Big Like

biglike

Shirai-sensei, my cute Thursday teacher, is blindly determined to teach me Japanese. Though I’ve studied for hours, I can’t remember a thing, and nothing makes sense. We labor through a story in the textbook on the social importance of getting drunk with friends and colleagues after work.

“I want to get drunk now,” I say in Japanese, peeved by her steadfast refusal to resort to English to shed even a glimmer of light on Japanese grammar.

“Me too,” she laughs, and perhaps it’s an invitation, or perhaps it’s a practice conversation.

At any rate, driven to the limit of exasperation, I go to Ikebukuro after class and commit a forbidden act. In the gaijin corner of a bookstore, I purchase a Japanese grammar written in confidence-inspiring English. I study it at a Dotour’s coffee shop and grasp more grammar over a cup of house blend than I have in all my lessons combined.

Night arrives early in Tokyo, and when I step outside, the street that was drab in daylight is a jarring, flashing orchestra. A guy in a hut at the edge of the sidewalk is baking fish-shaped pastries with sweet red-bean filling. I love these things. I buy one, and as I bite into it, I espy a cluster of strange buildings up on a side street. Tokyo is full of strange buildings you’re better off not looking at, but these are decorated with fairy-tale European and Arabian motifs. Their entrances are concealed behind hedges and walls. Signs are in katakana and end with hotel in cursive pink. Love hotels! Hallelujah.

And I have a date with Izumi at 8 p.m.!

Our meeting point is the Café Renoir in Takadanobaba. Crackling with anticipation, I get there, buy a cup of coffee, and wait. She’s twenty minutes late, a draining period of uncertainty. We greet each other with cropped nods and smiles, like other people around us greet each other, and all I think about is spending the night with her at my love hotel.

We end up at the counter of a basement dining bar. She has pizza and a salty dog. I have jambalaya and a margarita. She has another salty dog, I another margarita. The bar gets louder as alcohol slackens the Japanese rules of conduct, so we hold hands. After the third round, rules get tossed overboard, and convention allows you to do whatever you can’t do otherwise. We kiss, and it becomes clear that this will be a night to be reckoned with. Feelings are welling up inside me, and random thoughts coagulate into words.

“I love you,” I say.

She beams, but whatever she wants to say remains inside. She has another salty dog and I another margarita.

“Travel with me in France,” I say.

She absorbs my words.

“Stay with me in the US.”

She giggles and tells me how she once got caught cheating with her commuter-rail pass by riding much farther than allowed, which everyone was doing, and how she rescued herself with apologies and false tears.

When we climb the stairs up to the street, she grips my arm. Her legs are unsteady, her English slurred and sexy.

“Let’s go to a love hotel in Ikebukuro,” I suggest.

“You found them?”

“Sure.”

“I’m amazed.”

Amazed I’ve accomplished so much with so little.

Read the first few chapters of BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY, for free on AMAZON.

Twenty years after coming to America to escape the debacle at home, Wolf is in the middle of a successful career when a thought trips him up: What if he dies at forty? After one decade in survival mode and another decade in success mode, what’s his purpose now? Stunned, he quits his job and goes to France to open himself up to new possibilities. But instead of answers, he finds Izumi. Her bubbly enthusiasm about Japan grips him; the idea of Asia fascinates him. And during their one night together, he decides to visit her in Tokyo, but via the South Pacific – now that he’s thinking about other parts of the world. BIG LIKE is the startling, funny, cynical, and culturally intense account of an almost regular guy who ends up on a deliciously slippery slope. There’s his time with Ginger in Fiji’s mix of Third World and tropical paradise. Then in New Zealand, they rappel into a sinkhole, crawl through caves, and bungee jump into a canyon. But even Ginger’s deadpan humor can’t overcome the undercurrents of their lives: she wants to start a family; he wants to roam. Solo, he hooks through Australia and Bali on the backpacker trail. When he makes it to Tokyo, he smacks into Japan’s insular culture, impenetrable language, and obsession with unspoken rules. He struggles with inscrutable complexities: love hotels, packed trains, Korean roommates, irresistible food. Everything is hard, even buying hemorrhoid ointment. That’s the backdrop to the utterly confounding experience of a gaijin who wants to roam the world but gets tangled up with a Japanese girl. And the slippery slope turns into a life-changing odyssey.

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