Ascenseur pour l’Échafaud, or No Robots Here – 10 November 2012
This is a story that I’d like to share, mainly because I drank quite a bit of gin tonight, and the scribble bug hit me pretty hard. I wrote this one about seven or eight months ago, but edited it tonight by retconning a few things and shifting a few others to make it flow a bit better. I love writing fiction, but if it’s not put on the chopping block for fine people like you to read, it’s all for naught.
So, you should probably read it, then.
It all happened in the space of three minutes twenty-five seconds—the time it takes for Miles Davis’ “Darn That Dream” to finish. These two—the man, Kenji, and the woman, I never caught her name—took a thin slice off my soul one night, amongst the gentle lilt of jazz and the smell of Tanqueray.
Back when I was in college, I had dated a girl, a fantastic girl, named Perelle. She was Haitian, she was tall, and she was an unquestionable knockout—long, shoulder-length hair the color of onyx, with a sheen that was brilliant even on the cloudiest day; skin the color of a stalk of wheat, lightly roasted over a campfire; legs the same hue, long and sinewy, feminine and beautiful; hazel eyes that knew my thoughts even before I had a chance to express them… and I was crazy about her from the outset. We met by chance walking across the quad one day—straight out of a romance novel, I know, but on that day I discovered exactly how the world works; when we have our heads turned askew, fate will find some way to snap our attention back into true. That day it was Perelle’s smile as we passed one another. I stopped her, dropped the textbook lines on her by way of screwing up my courage, and finally asked her out, then and there, fully expecting her to say no. Instead she said:
“Really. Okay, cowboy. I’ll give you a shot. Just one.” Within a year we were talking about life together after graduation.
Perelle and I dated throughout college, and it was what every straight guy dreams of—strolling through campus with a total ten on your arm, the envy of every dude’s wistful glare, the target of every girl’s passing fancy… at least, at first. Freshman and sophomore years passed this way, but by junior year the cracks had begun to show, and by graduation we had almost broken up at least a half dozen times, from things ranging from low gas tanks to unfaithfulness on both our parts. Given our respective career paths—me studying Japanese and searching for an internship abroad, Perelle prepared to take the wild world of Wall Street by storm—I suppose a break up was in the cards from jump street. And a break-up’s just what happened.
One night, not long after graduation, I made dinner—pan-seared pork cutlet on a bed of wild rice—we watched a movie—Ascenseur pour l’Échafaud; she was crazy for Miles Davis and film noir—and we made love for what turned out to be the last time. When I woke up the next morning, she was gone. It didn’t take me long to search my tiny studio apartment for her, and I eventually found the note she left under a pile of books on my kitchen table.
I think this is where we have to end everything, cut all ties. The course has been run and there’s no more water to wring out of this rag. But it’s been real, real fun, real love. You go to Japan. You go to Japan knowing I wish all the best for you… and I hope you’ll do the same for me in New York. I won’t say sorry for leaving you like this, because an apology means nothing here. It was just time.
I fumed and railed and sobbed for at least a month afterward. I went to Perelle’s apartment, but she had the locks changed. I went to her parents, but obviously she had told them to stonewall me when I came looking for her, which they did with sorrow in their faces. I eventually gave up on her, but I read that stupid note so many times I wore the red ink off in places. But it didn’t matter, because I had memorized the entire thing the first time I read it. A sorry excuse for a Dear John letter, full of empty idiomatic claptrap and even shallower metaphor that were supposed to qualify three and a half years of a relationship. I never saw Perelle again, and she faded from my memory. Six months later I started grad school, and a year and a half after that I packed everything feasibly possible and moved to Japan.
I was living in Tokyo at the time, a twenty-seven-year old working as a translator for a small publishing house on the Ginza. By then I had been there for about two-and-a-half years, so I knew the city like the back of my hand; there was little I hadn’t either seen or known about or hadn’t taken a friend to do. I had fallen hard for the city, too—the sound of the traffic clogging her streets at the morning rush; the smell of the sukiyaki vendors’ wares as they cranked up in preparation for the lunch spike; watching the masses of people moving along her streets and sidewalks and tunnels, for all the world like cells rushing through narrow, branching veins. Hearing spoken Japanese on the street was like the musical babbling of a brook, and understanding it was the supreme proof that my life hadn’t just gone to pot out in some urban jungle; I was making something of my life, something of it that I had worked hard for, and that made me feel damn good about myself.
In no time at all I became thoroughly Tokyo-ized. I was the gaiyuu at work, the foreigner with the friendly disposition and good conversational Japanese skills. I made a few close friends, and I enjoyed spending time discovering facets of the city with them. But I loved wandering through the streets alone. During that first year I got lost on the subway as often as I could, and challenged myself to make it through the maze of tunnels back where I had started. That’s how I learned the routes. There are many, many secluded alleys in Tokyo, and I found many an excellent hole-in-the-wall strolling up and down plenty of them. I frequented Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines wherever I could find them. I was a junkie trying to get his fix of everything Japanese, and I got high every day.
Tokyo at night, however, is something else entirely. When the sun goes down she puts on her sequined dress, and no two nights will she ever wear the same one. Blazing neon signs become necklaces; the lit spires of buildings the points on her tiara. She smells different, she sounds different… Everything about Tokyo changes once the sun sets. The air changes, even—there’s a strange mixture of freedom and agitation and yearning that hangs within it. And when this mixture is tipped out of balance the perceptive soul can feel it, just the way I did that one night.
I went to my tiny apartment, showered and changed, and hit the streets again. I was headed to a regular haunt of mine in the Roppongi section of Tokyo, the Devil’s Interval. The bartender-slash-owner, Koichi Kumagawa, had become one of my closest friends since I had come to Japan, and he made sure I felt at home whenever I stopped by.
Kuma-san was about ten years older than me. He was born in Osaka to professional musicians, and his inborn talents took him to the Julliard School, where he excelled. Primarily he went to study violin, but a friend there introduced him to New York’s jazz scene. Somehow or another Kuma-san became enamored with the feathery pulse (as he puts it) of jazz drumming, and it led to his founding a well-known combo based out of Honolulu, with him at the hi-hat. They traveled the world, playing in hotspots everywhere: pubs in London and São Paulo; nightclubs in Paris and Sydney; cigarette bars in Istanbul and Cairo. Kuma-san spread his idea of jazz all over, and got people hooked. But he also picked up a lot of stuff along the way, and it all became the basis for the Devil’s Interval.
He had been back in Tokyo full-time for about a year when I stumbled through his doors, wet behind the ears, fresh out of grad school, halfway around the world from everything I had ever known and looking for a shot of gin. I began to frequent the Devil’s Interval, and within a year Kuma-san and I bonded over the three things we had in common: we both spoke Japanese, we both loved jazz, and we both loved to get drunk and tell our unlucky-in-love stories.
My past with Perelle. Miles Davis. And Kuma-san and the Devil’s Interval. That was all I needed to find myself.
It takes about fifteen minutes to walk from Roppongi Station to the Devil’s Interval, and even from twenty paces away faint wisps of jazz caress my earlobes. I pull open the glass door and walk in, and the familiar dimness greets my eyes with warm, soft reds, yellows and oranges. To Kuma-san’s specifications there are no windows except the two that frame the entrance; thus, all of the color and sound is somewhat muted but focused by the deep brown, acoustically-insulated walls. This also encourages communication between those in the space, and as always there’s a light electric buzz flowing around the room—the dozen or so quiet conversations being carried on around me simultaneously. The combo’s just warming up on stage, under a blue haze. It’s a quintet, all guys about my age—a drummer, a sax player, a trumpeter, a guy on the small upright piano and the fifth on upright bass. They’re playing without amplification, so they’re working to get a sense of the way the room resonates; a few strains of this, a few of that, some discussion and adjustment, and repeat until perfect. As a matter of habit I glance across the intimate space as I head for the bar, looking for no one in particular. I smooth out my gray turtleneck as I lower myself to the corner barstool, and turn to face the colorful room again.
“So, you finally made it.” I hear Kuma-san’s voice right behind me, but I know better. I turn and find him standing in the far corner of the bar, wearing a huge smile. Like he always does he’s tending bar in a suit minus the jacket—tonight it’s a powder blue Armani shirt, a navy Hugo Boss tie with the clip glinting orange in the overhead lights, and black Armani dress pants and black Bontoni shoes. Sharp, as always. I flash him a smile back and hold out my hand as he walks over to me.
One of the best things about the Devil’s Interval is the ceiling above the bar. It’s arched, and the legs come down into the corners of the bar in such a way that when the vibrations from speech travel along them they can be heard from the base of any other leg.
According to Kuma-san, that arch is the real secret to his success.
“Sensei,” I greet him. We shake hands. “How’s the grind tonight?”
“Same old, same old,” Kuma-san says. “But I love every second of it, so this is torture I’ll take any day.” We both chuckle. “Checking out the combo I booked for tonight? Fresh to the scene, but these guys have something—something serious, too. Told them if tonight goes smoothly they’d have a place to come play a set a night or two a month.”
“Nice. Thought I heard a little of Mr. Davis as I came in. They must really be trying to win you over, huh?”
“They’re off to a good start, too. An Old Etonian and a shot?”
“You know me so well, Kuma-san.” He chuckles as he heads off to tend to other customers, and I light a cigarette as I wait for my drink to arrive. The combo’s not too shabby, either; they start with a few selections from Miles Davis’ Ascenseur pour l’Échafaud—Lift to the Scaffold— his soundtrack to the French film noir of the same name. That soundtrack. First up was “Nuit sur les Champs-Élysées,” and by the time they had slipped into “Assassinat” I was so lost in memory I almost didn’t notice the couple take the seat across the bar from me.
He wore a leather jacket, as blue as the midnight that had fallen outside. His hair was long, and a lock hung mockingly over his left eyebrow despite his repeated attempts to chase it away. He constantly fidgeted—with the napkins on the bar, with the collar on his jacket, with his cell phone. She clasped a body-length fur around her shoulders—an attempt at portraying fragility, perhaps. But she was much too cool for that. She had an avian look about her; like an eagle in its eyrie, she swept the room one time as she sat down. They weren’t much different from any other couple in the bar that night—at least, not outwardly so. But their body language betrayed whatever it was they were trying to conceal. There was a bit too much space between them, and they elevated eye-contact avoidance to an art form.
“Here you go,” Kuma-san says as he sets the drink and the shot down in front of me and snaps me out of my thoughts. He’s also brought a shot of gin for himself. “It’s my toast, is it?” He pauses for a beat to think, during which the aroma of the gin silently mingles with the jazz. “To all the good things this life brings us: good friends, even better loves, and jazz too sublime to be qualified.” We clink and drink. Just then the combo begins “Darn That Dream”. As the sax player steps to the mike, pulling a wayward lock of hair behind his ear and out of his face, the couple begins to speak, and the magic of the arch activates.
Darn that dream I dream each night…
“Well, Kenji?” This is delivered lightly, evenly; there’s no mal intent behind it. Only Kuma-san and I hear, and we freeze in place to listen. “Do you think you’ve said enough yet?”
You say you love me and you hug me tight…
Kenji says nothing.
“Oh, Ken-kun,” the woman says with an air of irritation. “You tried. I tried. We both did what we could, but…”
Darn your lips, darn your eyes…
“No, wait,” Kenji whispers fiercely. “You didn’t try. You gave me an ultimatum and forced me into a corner. I did love you. I cared. I’d have walked through hell barefoot and backwards for you, and for what? This?”
Then I tumble out of paradise, oh darn that dream.
Kuma-san and I strain our hearing to catch her response. Darn this one-track mind of mine…
“You’re right, Kenji. I didn’t try hard enough, if at all. But think of why that is.”
“Why? Because you’re sleeping with someone else? Because you’re taking that job offer in Sapporo, and weren’t going to tell me? Because you’re a bitch? Or some combination of the three?”
Just to change the mood I’m in, I’d welcome a nice old nightmare…
She sighs. “Oh, Kenji… Can’t we just enjoy the jazz, one more time together? I didn’t wish for this to happen—I never would have. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t.”
Kenji pauses for a beat. “We never enjoyed anything together, I don’t think. You took, and I took too. But I gave, and you never did.” He pauses again, channeling Miles Davis through the doleful trumpet solo for a few more beats. “But you’re right about one thing. This did happen. We both wished for this. From the start. And why? Simple. Our bond was meant to be broken.”
Darn that dream, and bless it too,
Without that dream I never would have you…
Kuma-san and I anxiously await her response, hesitant to look in their direction. We hear instead the dry, staccato clip! of her heels hitting the floor.
But it haunts me and it won’t come true, oh darn that dream.
“Goodbye, Su—“The burst of applause cuts off her name as it leaves Kenji’s mouth and snaps the two of us back to reality. I notice my cigarette’s gone out. I pull another, and catch the blonde billow of her ankle-length fur as she whirls away, leaving Kenji behind at the bar. In a sort of daze he sits on the stool she just vacated, but after declining a drink from Kuma-san he cinches up his deep-blue leather jacket and follows his broken heart out into the night.
The rest of the evening I spend in quiet contemplation, wrapped in the velvety womb of gin and the combo’s jazz. I tried to wrap my head around what I was feeling, but I couldn’t. At first I thought it was pity—this guy and his girl did just break up, after all. And then I thought it was empathy—some weird, temporary, psycho-emotional link I had with these strangers. Then it all slid into place. I was jealous of Kenji. I was jealous because he got what I never did, and never could—a clean break.
I get back to the station, five minutes before the final train of the night is due to arrive. On autopilot I touch my fare card to the RFID reader on the turnstile, and walk through. I glance up and down the platform, and there’s only the unbalanced silence to keep me company. There are five benches on the platform, and I sink onto the leftmost, lost in thought. Kenji and his ex-girlfriend’s entire conversation is etched onto my memory, seared there by the branding iron of empathy.
Well, my mind says to me, that was kind of heavy, wasn’t it? Kenji and his girl just broke up, and you were there for the whole thing. You know what this means, don’t you? You’re going to have to come to a conclusion. Otherwise you’ll never sort this out.
Before I can protest to my subconscious that I didn’t even know these people, much less why I had to come to a conclusion about anything, a sharply-dressed guy comes sauntering up to me. I had no idea where he’d come from—I had a clear view of the escalators down to the platform and had swept it as I came in. He was just inexplicably there. I was startled to say the least, but he only asks me for a cigarette, so I give him one. He sits down next to me, waits about thirty seconds, and says:
“This cigarette isn’t going to light itself. We’re not that far ahead of you Americans.”
Again, I’m taken aback, stunned into handing him my lighter without objection. He uses it in blatant disregard for the No Smoking signs plastered all over the platform, then hands it back, exhaling a cloud of smoke that testifies to his contentedness. I decide to join him. I blow out a cloud of my own, and I get a chance to study him closely.
He’s around my age, about my height and weight. He has a head full of shiny black hair, his brown eyes are clear, and his nostrils flare every time he takes a drag from the cigarette. His black blazer hangs open over a white dress shirt, as bright as the center of the sun. The collar lies crisply flat, and a thick silver chain lies in twisted coils against his skin. He lifts his left hand to take a third drag, and I notice he’s missing the first digit from that hand’s pinkie.
“So, out with it,” he barks. “Obviously there’s something you find interesting about me. You’ve been staring at me forever.” He drags on the cig again, and turns to face me for the first time.
“If you mean the finger, then yeah, I got a pretty good guess what’s so interesting.” I coolly take another drag.
“You speak pretty good Japanese for a gaijin,” he says without emotional inflection. “I’m mildly impressed.” He takes a final drag, and sharply crushes the cigarette underneath the heel of his black leather loafers. The clip! echoes off the empty platform walls. He then begins to hum something.
It’s Miles Davis. It’s “Darn That Dream.”
Again, I’m stopped in my tracks, and allow the butt of the cig to burn down to my knuckle. I yelp in pain, but before I can say anything the guy speaks up.
“This city… It does something to everybody that comes here. Tokyo lives. It breathes. People live, love, and die here, same as anywhere else. Westerners seem to forget that. Why did you think it would be any different here from, say, New York or London? Don’t you think people here know how to love? Aren’t allowed to hate? We aren’t robots, you know. We just make them way better than you guys.” I raise my head to protest, but he stops me with a chuckle and a dismissive wave of the hand. “Relax, old man. Just making a simple observation. Maybe I’m too hard on you Americans… or maybe your skin’s too thin.” He sighs and stands, touches his toes, stretches his arms, then squats on his haunches.
“You know good and damn well who I am, and you know how I hate to be asked stupid questions, so don’t,” he snaps at me. “If you’re going to speak, you know what I want to talk about. Nothing else matters.” He stands again and glares down at me, his clear eyes focused on mine.
“Okay, fine,” I acquiesce. “It’s just that Kenji and his girlfriend’s break-up…”
“Why are you talking as if you know them? Why should you care that some fidgety dude and his whorebag of an ex broke up? Should it be any less painful because it happened and you were close enough to eavesdrop on it? Try again.”
“I—I… wait. How do you know the word whorebag? It doesn’t seem like standard Japanese vocabulary.” We both chuckle at my cleverness, and then out of nowhere the guy punches me in the face, hard.
“I told you, no stupid questions.” He flexes the muscles in his right hand and calmly retakes his seat on the bench as I leap to my feet, rubbing my jaw as bloodlust creeps up my spine.
“What the hell’s your problem, man!?” I’m ready to rip this guy to pieces, but he coolly sits there and pulls a cig out of the lining of his jacket somewhere. First he stiffs me out of a cigarette, and then he punches me in the face. The nerve of this bastard.
“We can fight, old man,” he says evenly, “but we both know you’ll never beat me. See, that’s your problem. You never listen to instructions closely enough.” He then pulls a silver Zippo from his jacket, and lights the cigarette. “You should probably sit now,” he says condescendingly. I sit in a huff and suddenly the rage lifts from my shoulders all at once, like a soupy fog in the brilliant presence of the sun. And then I get it, all at once. “Are you prepared to talk now? Honestly?”
I hesitate to say anything further, instead checking the dark tunnel in front of me for any sign of the approaching train so I can get the hell home and forget this night ever happened. “Look out there all you want,” he tells me. “You’re not leaving until we figure this out, old man. Why should these two strangers affect you so strongly?”
“I—it’s because of Perelle,” I stammer out in a small voice. “I’ve seen people fight before, sure. My parents fought, and they divorced. Back home, the TV gods turn this sort of thing into a circus and everybody eats it up, myself included. It’s like chumming sharks, you know—everybody wants a piece. There’s one faceless somebody, and another faceless somebody, and the dissolution of their relationship gives the faceless god of the Nielsen box the mother of all orgasms.
“But here, it’s different… or, at least I thought it was supposed to be,” I continue. “I hadn’t seen any of that here before tonight. I thought I had put it all behind me, the business with Perelle. To this day I don’t really know why she had to leave the way she did. But she felt that she had to, and I gave up without a fight. But Kenji… Kenji gave up, but he fought. Not to save his relationship. He fought for closure. That’s the real reason I came to Tokyo in the first place, I think, why I came so far away from that stupid studio apartment—in search of that same closure. But now—“
“Now Tokyo’s not the technologically harmonious utopia you thought it’d be, and you don’t think you’ll find it here, either,” he finishes. “It’s like I told you, old man. There are no robots here.” He drags on the cigarette. He exhales deeply. “Heartbreak isn’t some Western Romantic ideal thought up by sun-starved shut-ins and gay poets,” he says. “Wherever there are people there’s going to be love. And where there’s love heartbreak is sure to follow, as sure as two follows one. You live here now. And chances are pretty good that you’ll fall for some other chick that catches your eye. I hate to break it to you, but you’re probably gonna break up with her, too. If you’re not prepared to leave your preconceived notions about what you think love is scattered on the ground like drops of blood, it’ll just be the two of us. As sure as two follows one.” He stands and crushes out the half-smoked cigarette, and again the smart clip! of his heel echoes off the walls. “Love is a noose that slowly garrotes itself around your neck. It’s not a corndog at the county fair. It’s not supposed to be fun. It’s an honor to be lifted to that scaffold, an honor you never run from. And the sooner you come to grips with that the better.” He stretches again and yawns like a bored lion. “Maybe next time I won’t have to beat common sense into you. Old man.” He saunters away again, whistling “Darn That Dream” as he goes. I stop him with a sharp whistle.
“Tell me, why do you insist on calling me old man?” I ask.
He stops with his back to me, but I can hear the smile in his voice. “The old man’s who you were before you came here. You want me to stop calling you that? Let him die, once and for all. Then I’ll quit.” I smile, pulling out another cigarette, and listen until I hear his footsteps abruptly cease. I look around, and I’m not shocked he’s nowhere to be seen. But he’s not gone, not by a longshot. I chuckle to myself, and just as the huge gust of wind preceding the last train of the night howls down the tunnel and whips across the platform it pulls the cigarette from between my lips and it falls onto the tracks below.
Darn this one track mind of mine…