We met in Tojo Park. She was sitting watching the ducks. I was sitting watching the ducks. We were on opposite sides of the pond. We eyed each other. “I will not let this one get away.” I told myself. I had been alone in Takaoka, Japan for well over a month by myself and I had yet to meet another person who spoke English. I had seen a girl at the train station a few weeks earlier and I had run after her. But she started to run and then she ran harder so I gave up. I had become a stalker without realizing it.
This duck watching girl didn’t want me to go away any more than I wanted her to, so we walked towards each other somewhat hesitantly and greeted each other awkwardly. Then like two hysterical long lost friends we went off to the local western coffee shop where we listened to Elvis and Rock and Roll for the next two hours and we drank endless coffees with free refills and ate donuts with elaborate iced western scenarios on top of them. I loved her instantly. Her name was Kerry Robinson and she came from Australia. Our first date was at the Californian restaurant where we ate Japanese style tacos and drank cheap Japanese wine. We got very drunk and they had to ask us to leave when the restaurant closed for the night.
We spent one entire year together living in this little town which had been sold to me as the Switzerland of the Orient. It was kind of. Not really. It had mountains. But Kerry and I spent a year there together. She was trying to figure life out and so was I. She had a boyfriend in Australia who called a suitcase a ”port” and it made her crazy. We talked endlessly and sometimes she worried that she would lose her Australian accent. I assured her she wouldn’t and then for the next few days she had this crazy Oz accent and I was like WHAT THE HELL.
Often we would go to her house which was luxurious compared to mine. By luxurious I mean it was furnished and had a kotatsu, a heated table which helped keep us warm while we drank wine and smoked our brains out. She had asthma and kept her inhaler nearby. I don’t think it mattered because we were both young and didn’t realize we could die yet or that life had any real consequences. And we didn’t care so we just kept on smoking and then taking deep puffs on the inhaler and we’d make plans for our next outings.
We were very different but we loved each other madly and she made a big dent on my life. She made me crazy though. I never met anyone who could walk so slowly. No matter how hard I tried to walk with her inevitably it was just all much too slow for me and before too long we were walking single file until I got a bike and then we would double ride and then she got a bike and we would single file on the bikes.
We always joked about the fact that neither of us had medical insurance. “Don’t worry”, I would say to her smoking one of our millions of cigarettes. “I’ll throw you on the kotatsu and amputate your leg with the kitchen knife. Knock you out with the bottle of Japanese wine.”And then we would kill ourselves laughing because it was never anything else except her leg that we were going to amputate.
At one point we tried different things to become immersed in Japanese culture. I tried flower arranging which lasted two sessions and then I wanted to throw the vase across the room. Someone told us about a local karate teacher whose wife was willing to teach foreigners. So that’s what we did. We studied karate. And it was fun. We were both terrible but our teacher and her daughter ( a 12 year old black belt) were kind and patient with us. Then we decided we should learn Japanese so we started Japanese lessons. We found a teacher who would give us private lessons at her house.
Her house was a free standing modern house that was part of a new suburb that was built in an area surrounded by rice paddies. Kazuko our teacher was a wife and mother and I guess she was also a part time teacher. We went for lessons twice a week. We would ride our bikes there (single file) and park our bikes outside the house. The room where the lessons took place was upstairs and Kerry and I would sit in desks facing the wall where Kazuko would hold court teaching us katakana, then hiragana. We would go over dialogues and she would quizz us, encourage us, laugh with us but always gently guide us back to the important work at hand. There was a window in the classroom that faced the backyard and it was always open.
Although I’m sure Kerry and I went there in winter it seemed like it was always warm and bright in that room with the sweet smell of country air and rice paddies blowing gentle breezes our way. The curtain would lift and fall as the summer came and then went, with Kerry and I practicing and learning until we could manage respectable conversation. Kazuko was determined that we shine. And we did. And then we’d get back on our bikes, Kerry with her crazy hat and the two of us with our matching boots and off we ‘d go laughing the whole way back about how hard that damn language was and did you get how this worked – nope not at all – you. Nope.
But we knew the year was drawing to a close and every day felt more important than the last. And it’s a terrible feeling knowing that you have this short time together with someone and that this experience is going to end. Has to end. The richness of it all is related in some respect to it not being a forever thing.
We said goodbye at the train station. Matching jeans, matching shoes. As nervous saying goodbye as our first hello. We promised to stay in touch. I would come to Australia for a year. She would come to Canada. And we did stay in touch for awhile. A long while. She got a job with Quantas and flew and met me in Amsterdam. And then she came to Toronto. But my life was broken for awhile and I found it hard to maintain the joy of our year away when everything seemed wrong with my current life. And then I heard she had had a baby. Gracie she had called her. And I had hoped that I could overcome the wrongness of my life to embrace the goodness in hers but at that time I couldn’t do it. So we lost touch. And I have no idea where she is. And I look for her all the time. But I think of that year away with her a lot. Of riding our bikes in the rice paddies, eating crazy mile high donuts with icing this big, of sitting getting drunk in California restaurants millions of miles away from home, of reckless cigarette smoking listening to Air Supply, of sitting in the classroom with the wind blowing the sweetest smell of spring into our lives. That was Kerry Robinson. A girl from Sydney Australia. Still my very dear friend wherever she is.