Of course, I’ve never been to Tokyo. Well, in fact, I have. A few years ago, M and I were there as travellers – tourists, I should say – since it was only that one place we went to, for our honeymoon. We had a $400 tempura, which consisted of deep-fried fish, prawns, and veggies. The chef, aka the God of Tempura, told jokes all the while we ate. I presumed jokes were partially why the price was so ridiculous. At least they sounded funny. Or that was the impression I got from the reactions of the Japanese patrons. So it stood to reason that I should get a partial refund if I could not understand his jokes, am I right? Maybe they could credit $350 back to my credit card. But I’m pulling legs here, exaggerating. I’m not crazy. The refund should be $375. Or was the restaurant in Osaka? I can’t remember. Maybe I’ve never been to Tokyo after all.
When I was little, there was a boy that was close to me. His name was Xiaoma – Little Horse. I called him Brother Little Horse, like in the movies. But in fact he was nothing like the handsome gangster who wore a coat riddled with bullet holes. He was the quiet kind, timid even, for he was afraid of ghosts and whatnot. One thing is for certain: he liked his deskmate, a tall, beautiful girl whose beauty was ahead of her years. Why am I so sure he was so into her? Technically, I should not be, since I’m not privy to his psyche or at liberty to pull whatever information that was palatable to my pastime. Despite that, I am certain that he lost sleep over her. When Xiaoma grew up, however, he never got married. That had something to do with his mother, who saw herself as a victim of his father’s betrayal. Once she told him: “Xiaoma, don’t you ever get married! You should go to Tokyo instead and never come back.” That was exactly what she said, every single word. Did I mention Xiaoma was my little brother? Perhaps I should start with that. But anyway…
Now, why am I saying all this? Because they are true stories, that’s why. Because above all, I abhor falsehood. I’m basically incapable of untruth. Of course, my mom will disagree with me on that. Perhaps that’s why she is calling me now. Maybe she’s in dire need of changing her diaper or, more likely, asking for Xiaoma. I lean toward the former because by the smell of it, she’s done another number two. I guess the spicy hotpot we had yesterday was a big mistake. Anyway, maybe it’s time for another story, a story that’ll calm her down. It’s always better to say something while I clean her up.
One night, as I walked the streets of Tokyo, streets that I had never set my feet on, someone came from behind and put a hand on my shoulder. When I turned my head I did not see a soul. Then I heard the laughter of Xiaoma and looked down on the ground.
This seemed to be a back alley. It had been raining. The narrow lane was wet and many people, in twos or threes, were standing in front of small restaurants or izakayas, in conversation.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“Why? I’m not allowed to squat down on the streets of Tokyo? But why are you here? Don’t you have a family to attend to? What about M?”
For a minute I did not know who he was talking about. Then I said:
“Maybe I’m looking for her.”
“In a back alley, in the middle of the night?”
I found it hard to explain myself.
“Let’s have a drink, then.” He said, standing up.
The next thing I knew we were in an izakaya. Besides us, there was only a middle-aged woman in the corner of the bar, eating rice and fried chicken from a wooden tray. Some Japanese lanterns hung on the wall, decorative rather than providing any real light. An array of white cloths hung down from a horizontal pole close to the ceiling, each with some Japanese words on it.
“I ordered Tempura for both of us,” said Xiaoma.
“Are you out of your mind? Do you know how—”
“I’m sure they are reasonably priced. If you don’t believe me, ask mom.” With that Xiaoma indicated the middle-aged woman with his chin. I was amazed and looked at the woman with squinted eyes. She caught my eyes too and smiled politely with a slight bow of her head.
“Mom?” I went over and sat beside her. “How long have you been here?”
She said something in Japanese and slightly shook her head. It was impossible to know what she meant. Then she got emotional, held my hand, and called me “Xiaoma” over and over again.
“You’re mistaken,” I said. But she would not look away.
“She said she’d been here for twenty years. And so have you.”
“You’re lying, Xiaoma. She’s way too young. And clearly she doesn’t recognize me.”
“She could be forgetful from time to time,’ said my brother, sniffling. He turned to the woman and whispered something into her ear. The woman eased up and smiled. Then she stood up and took her leave. When she reached the door, however, she paused, turned back her head, and said something to both of us, before disappearing into the luminous night of Tokyo.
“What did she say?”
“She said that you should take care of yourself, Xiaoma. Don’t you catch a cold. And,” he himself paused for a second, “see you tomorrow.”
Hemu Wang is a Chinese Australian writing in English as his second language. He’s recently taken a short-story course in UCLA Extension by Wendy Olson. In his work, he often explores the unconscious realm of human experience and constantly experiments on the boundaries of storytelling.