Ok, disclaimer. The story you’re about to read is not the next chapter of Maybe True, Mostly Metaphor.
I know I promised to do a chapter every two weeks. And that lasted all of…10 weeks. Unfortunately, as the title states, Shikata ga nai. It’s Japanese for “it cannot be helped” or, in more prosaic terms, the literary equivalent of the shrug emoji:
Speaking of Japan, though…
Just because I was unable to finish the next chapter of our story doesn’t mean I’m leaving you empty handed. I decided to give you a peek into a separate story I’ve been working on for the past year. It’s a short serialized fiction that I was originally planning to start and finish in ten parts. I spent most of last year working on it and I’m up to part…seven…I think…but the ideas just kept coming so I think it will go a few extra scenes. We’ll see. I’m staying flexible. Shikata ga nai, Que sera sera and all that…
I wasn’t going to post any of it until I had the entire thing completed, but I think it’s a good time to give you a glimpse. Mind you, the below story is entirely separate from the Maybe True, Mostly Metaphor, different characters, different setting, everything. Though, you’ll probably find some recurring themes and a few big-but-subtle Easter eggs and references.
So, without further preamble…here you go:
1. Osaka: Takeoff
So a girl walks into a bar.
It’s not the set up to a quick laugh, I just didn’t know how to start the story off. I’m terrible at knowing how to begin things. And, actually, the ending is always tough as well.
It’s the middle part that I’m fluent in. That easy cruise after the inertia of getting off the ground is spent, but the skill and finesse of sticking the landing is not yet necessary. I’m an airplane perpetually between takeoff and landing—a balloon indefinitely drifting—my words gliding and spinning wherever the wind blows.
Where was I? See…I told you I’m not good at starting stories. A hundred words in and I’m already lost and wandering.
So…a girl walks into a bar. My bar. My big, empty bar.
When most people walk into my bar, they pause in confusion. They look at me, take in the atmosphere of the place, then look back out the door they just came in from, trying to find the logic in what their eyes are telling them. My bar always feels…out of place…to people who wander in off the street. Like walking into a woodshed but finding a library. Or going into a phone booth and finding out it’s a time machine. Or, visiting the in-laws and actually having a pleasant time. My bar is…unexpected.
You’ll see what I mean later.
This girl, though, there’s no shock. No look of surprise. No double takes or attempts to justify how she walked into a place that feels so foreign and yet so familiar.
She just marches in, finds the nearest stool to me, and plops herself down, unafraid to make eye contact.
What does she see on my face with her green eyes (Green eyes? Who has green eyes anymore)? Surprise, for one. But, only mild. Just my pair of upturned eyebrows. I’ve been at this for a while and have learned to temper my reactions—I’ve traveled around, seen a lot. Usually from behind this very bar.
“How’s it going?” I smiled while wiping down the dark wood of the countertop. Yesterday it was black marble. Granite the day before that. I own a strange bar.
“Oh, it’s goi- wait, you speak English?” Step one for every new visitor: bewilderment that I can speak their language. Check.
“Eh, I speak a lot of things.” I put down my rag and start filling a glass with water for her.
She nodded, still strangely holding eye contact, not bothering to take in the rest of the room, “Are you an expat or something?” Her eyes narrowed.
I looked up at the ceiling in contemplation, “The latter, I’d say.” I handed her the water from across the bar. She kept looking at me, sizing me up, it felt.
“The latter? That’s a strange answer.” She sipped at the water. I was still waiting for her to look around the room. All she had to do was turn her head, swivel around on the stool. Then she’d figure it out, ask the same question everyone else does.
Nope. She was still looking at me.
Hmm, ok, how long can I keep this going, then? Before it hits her.
“Well, you gave me the option between the two. Expat or something. And I’m not an expat…I don’t think. So, I guess that makes me the something.” I placed my hands wide on the bar top and leaned in, “What about you? Coming or going?”
“Coming or going?” She repeated. Confusion started to form on her face. Finally, confusion. That meant it was close. It would dawn on her in just a second.
“Yes. Coming or going? Every person who finds this place is always either coming home or…going somewhere else. In one way or another.” I threw my arms out around me when I got to “this place” to make my point…and to get her to look around.
She finally stopped staring me down like a hunter on her prey and glanced over her shoulder at the strange room.
“What…” her voice got quiet.
“Where in the hell…” the quick determination in her voice turned to wonder.
Here comes the question. Everyone always asks the question…
“Where on Earth am I?”
Finally. I win.
“This doesn’t…this isn’t very Japanese looking…and the building outside doesn’t look anything like in here. It looked like a…like a little izakaya. This isn’t right.”
“Ahh!” I smiled, “So you’re in Japan? I love Japan.”
She looked at me again with renewed focus in her eyes, “What are you talking about? Of course I’m in—we’re in Japan. I just walked into a bar—your bar,” she pointed at me, “here, in Japan. So, why do I suddenly feel like I’m not…” she looked around at the distinctly not Japanese bar. Yeah, she was probably thinking, if I had words to describe this place, the first two would definitely be ‘not Japanese’.
She looked at the water I gave her, then back at me, “Is this some kid of trick? What’s going on?”
Uh oh, her wonder was turning into anger. I don’t do anger or accusation very well. Wonder is my sweet spot. Wonder is that lilting glide that carries you between the excited rushes of takeoff and landing. Gotta bring her back to wonder…
I took a deep breath, and prepared to explain. No matter how many times it happened, this never got old.
“Don’t worry. You’re still in Japan. At least, you will be when you walk out those doors. This place, however,” I waved around us, “is not exactly Japan. It’s not exactly anywhere. But, it’s everywhere.”
She took a step back off the stool and continued staring at me, but now less like a hunter and her prey, and more like a nervous child. She suddenly looked younger than when she first walked in. Do they check IDs in Japanese bars? I don’t remember…
You’d think that, with how often I have to explain this, I would be a little better at it. I decided to take a different tack.
“You know how, when you go to a big international chain hotel, you don’t feel like you’re at home, but you don’t quite feel like it’s a part of the place you’re visiting, either? It’s just a sort of…sense of displacement? Like you’re in a third location altogether—a weird transitory world that only exists when you’re traveling. Or, like an airport. It just feels international. Airports, no matter where they’re located, feel like a place that belongs to the world—not to any one culture or country. A crossroads, or…a junction. That’s what this place is. A junction.”
“Like an airport…”
“Or a hotel. Or a big train station. Like the Gare de Lyon in Paris or Grand Central Station,” I couldn’t help but smile in pride at this next part, “A unique place where the world comes together—a distillation of every part of humanity condensed into one hub. You aren’t in Japan and you aren’t home, but there’s pieces of it all here. Don’t worry, though. As soon as you walk out, you’ll be in exactly the place you were when you walked through that door. People from all over the world find themselves here all the time, all from different places.”
Her hint of anger was slowly shifting back into something closer to confusion…not quite wonder yet, though, so I kept going…
“I don’t exactly know how it works, myself.” I pointed at her, “You walked in through a door in Japan. In another minute, someone could walk in from Oslo, or Texas, or Peru. All of them thinking that they’ve found a hidden away bar off a busy street, but as soon as they walk through the door, they’re here. This place exists everywhere, all at once.”
“It changes from time to time, too. Yesterday, this bar top was black marble,” I rapped my knuckles on the solid oak of the glossed counter, “it was pretty classy. Today, however, this whole place has a slightly more rustic feel.”
Slowly, she started nodding her head, she took her seat again, “Okay…so I’ve stumbled into some magical, extra-dimensional bar where random people from all over the planet get trapped…” she looked at the bar counter, “This was really marble yesterday?”
“I pinkie swear it,” I smiled.
I think that finally won her back into wonder territory.
She looked up from the bar top, “So, what about you, then? Where are you from? Do you live here? What happens if you walk out the door? Where do you end up?”
Ah, there we go. Mind full of questions. Questions are good. Questions are always good in this situation. Questions mean that you’ve accepted the strangeness of the world and want to dive deeper into the mess.
“Well, I traveled plenty myself when I was younger—sometimes against my will—and I could’ve used a place like this to stop into from time to time.” I looked around my beloved bar, “I needed a place like this, really. A refuge. A break from all the movement. So, after years on the road, in the air, and over the seas, I bought a space to make my own. I renovated it, fixed it up to be a normal hang out space, coffee during the day, drinks at night.”
I shrugged, “The rest, though, I really don’t know how it happened. I walked out the door one day and found myself somewhere…different. I turned around and there was a nondescript door in the side of a run down building where my bar had been. The sky was different, a deep purple-golden twilight with the stars beginning to flicker on. The sun was setting, but just a few minutes ago—in the bar—it was mid-day.
“The air was dry. Cold. I was on a dirt road and felt dizzy. I kept gasping for breath but felt like I was drowning. I flagged down a passerby on the road and, after some odd confusion, learned I was in Patagonia. My coffeeshop was originally by the ocean, near a sea wall. Now, I was stuck on a mountain higher than I’d been in decades. Confused, panicky, and gasping for air, I went back through the door and, poof, the bar was still there as if nothing had happened. After catching my breath, I go outside again and this time I’m in Moscow. Then London. After that, Seoul. Different every single time.”
“So, wait,” she interrupted, “you show up in a different place every time…do you ever get more than one person in here at one time? From two different places?”
“Yes, actually. First, though, I should make you a drink, I’ve been rambling way too long.”
“You mean I haven’t already?” I feigned offense.
She chuckled as I turned to survey the shelf of liquor bottles.
“Just yesterday there was a man in from Marrakesh and this woman from Boise, Idaho. The woman was at the airport in Salt Lake City, waiting for a connecting flight. She wandered around the terminal, found an interesting looking door, and curiosity drove her in. Poof, she winds up here. Here’s the best part…” I turned from the shelf to face her, “she was on her way to her own wedding, but was getting cold feet. Spilled her emotions out to this random Marrakesh stranger and all over this bar. Tears everywhere.”
“Oh my God,” her face was wild fascination as her eyes got big, “Poor thing! What did you do?”
I shrugged, “I looked at the Marrakesh guy like, ‘what the heck do we do?’ And he looked at me the same way.”
Her eyes rolled as she shook her head, “You’re kidding.” She sighed, “Men.”
“But, there’s more to the story. So, this guy, Mr. Marrakesh, he’s a big, burly dude. Thick beard and all. This guy grabs her by both shoulders, turns her in her barstool to face him, and he looks her right in the eyes. Then he tells her—and this was the amazing part—he tells her, ‘you are a strong woman. A powerful woman. No one controls your life but you and you alone. You love this man, yes? Be strong! Be with him! Like the hunter and his falcon, Lead him and let him lead you!’ and he keeps going on and on with this gripping pep talk for the poor woman.
“She was terrified at first, but over time she just looks him right in the eyes as he talks, nodding the whole time, getting braver with each word he gives. When they were done, she bolted out of here with a shout and the most confident smile I’ve ever seen. Her eyes went from waterworks to pure, fiery electricity.”
“All from this rando guy’s pep talk?”
I nodded, “All from Mr. Marrakesh. The guy should be a motivational star online.” I continued making her drink.
“So, what about you? You never answered my earlier question. Coming or going?”
She furrowed her brows, “Well, I’m in Osaka, or at least I was until I came here.”
“Osaka?” I laughed, “I love Osaka. The food’s fantastic. Hike out to Mino-o village and try the fried maple leaves. Oh, and the Dotonbori…just a never ending party.”
She threw her arms up, “Right? I love it here. The door to your bar is actually on the Dotonbori street right now. I found it just off this little side alley.”
“Brilliant!” I smiled, “I’ve always wanted to own an Izakaya in Osaka. I guess now I do, sort of. But, enough about me. What brings you to Japan? Summer abroad? Gap Year? Solo trip?”
She looked down at the bar, “I’m…here with my boyfriend, actually. It’s our five year anniversary.”
That raised my eyebrows as I exhaled a short whistle, “Wow, five years? Congrats. Your relationship’s a kindergartener. But, where’s the boyfriend at now?”
She looked from the bar to the front door, “How’s that drink coming?”
I started zesting a lime, “Almost there. So, boy troubles bringing you in, then?”
“Sort of, he’s back at our hotel. He’s…I don’t know.”
“You’re thinking of breaking up with him?”
“No. I don’t kn— no. He’s just…changed over the years. When we first met, things were so much fun. We went clubbing, we hit up dive bars. Concerts. Parties. Rooftop cigars. Festivals with friends. We lived it up. Every day was full. But, I don’t know. I blinked and now he’s…different. Career. Nice house. Goes to bed by ten. I practically have to beg him if I want se-”
“You think he got boring, basically.”
“Yeah, I guess. Like there was no life in him other than his job and sitting around the house. No spontaneity. No electricity. No edge. So, I poked him for months about taking a trip like this. Something to mix things up a little. It was a miracle that I even convinced him to go through with it. Five years ago, all I would’ve had to do was mention the word ‘Japan’ and we would’ve blown our life savings on plane tickets and hostels the next day.” She took a deep breath, “Is that drink ready yet?”
“Just about,” I grabbed a mint leaf, considered it for moment, “I just need one more ingredient from you.”
“Wait, from me?”
“Just keep telling me more, you’ll see. So, you brought your boyfriend out to Osaka hoping he’d go back to being the spontaneous adventurer you fell in love with.”
She frowned. “No, I didn’t fall in love with him because he was some party guy. I’m not like that. There was more. We were—we are—more than that. I love him, I really do. I just…there’s so much life out there to be lived—that I want to live—that I want us to live. But, it’s like he gave up on that. He’s content to live his small, boring, normal life. He’s in the hotel right now, teleworking, because he spent all day complaining that the city was too crowded, the hikes were too long, the shrines were too weird. So, finally, we just went back to the hotel and sat around until I felt like I was suffocating. So I went out and found…this place.”
With that, I sprinkled one last ingredient over her drink and slid it over to her across the bar. It was vibrant green in color, with a mint garnish and little flecks of something red that I had just added.
Her eyebrows went high in wonder, “Ooh, I’ve never seen a drink like this. What is it? And what ingredient were you waiting for?”
I started rinsing out my shaker, “Try it and you’ll see.”
Hesitantly, she raised her glass and took a sip.
Over time, a good bartender learns to read a patron’s face, perceiving the difference between a sour pucker and bitter grimace to figure out what the drinker likes.
Over time, I’ve learned that I’m not a good bartender. Connecting with people on a non-verbal level has never been by strong suit. Luckily, what I lack in reading faces, I make up for in conversing, and that’s how I make my drinks.
Even to me, the delighted look on her face was clear as she eyes lit up.
“This is fantastic! What is it?” She took a bigger sip.
I shrugged, “I like to experiment based on what people tell me. The more you share, the better the drink…sometimes.” I pointed at the glass full of vibrant green elixir. “This one has several fun ingredients, but the main two are mint and red pepper flakes.”
She put the drink down and looked into the glass in confusion, “What? That sounds disgusting. You’re lying.”
“Completely honest,” I held my hands up, “they balance each other out. You can taste it, right? The mint cools off the pepper. At the same time, the pepper prevents the whole thing from tasting like toothpaste.”
She took another drink, with some hesitation this time, “You’re right. But, it sounds so weird. Two things that shouldn’t normally be together at all.”
Another thing I’ve learned over time is to never tell someone what to think, but rather lead them to their own realization. Like gaslighting, but…you know, with morals and stuff.
So, I let a little bit of silence grow between us so she could think about what she just said.
She pondered her drink and looked around to take in more of the bar, looking a little uncomfortable. She pointed at a set of spiral stairs near the far wall, “What’s up there? There wasn’t a second story to the building from what I saw outside.”
“It’s the library,” I said without looking up.
She nearly choked on her drink, baffled, “I guess the surprises never end in here. Where do you get the books?”
“Same place I get the liquor. I walk out those doors and buy things from wherever I happen to be. Makes for a fun collection. ‘Booze ’n Books’ I should’ve named this place.”
“What do you call this place, actually?”
“What, you didn’t see the sign on the door?”
A return of confusion flashed across her face for the briefest of moments before she realized I was joking.
I chuckled, “This place, my friend, is The Lost Balloon Café.”
“Hmm, how appropriate.”
“There’s a story behind it, actually. I’m writing a book about it.”
“A bartender aspiring to be an author? Isn’t that a little cliché?”
“Yes, but only if I fail.”
Silence sunk in again as she turned her attention back to her glass, “Boring old mint and fiery pepper, I like how you can take two things that are opposites and somehow they work out…”
I started wiping down the bar, “Sometimes, the strangest pairings make for the best results. In drinks and in life.”
She smiled, “So, that girl you mentioned earlier, the one on the way to her wedding. She came in here with a problem, you made her a drink, and she left with her problem solved.”
“No,” was my flat response. “Drinks don’t solve anything, least of all my drinks. She came in here with a problem, she had a conversation, and she left with her problem solved. The drinks are just garnish for the dialogue.”
I’m not good at ending stories. Any pilot will tell you that landing is the hardest part of flying. This girl, there weren’t many more words exchanged between us at this point. All the important things had been said, the main idea taken flight in her head. It was up to her now as to where she steered it.
She finished her drink, “How much do I owe you, by the way?”
“First time’s on the house,” I smiled.
“First time? You mean if I somehow find your random hidden door again, it’ll lead back here?”
“No, it most likely won’t, actually. If you come back to the same door, it could just lead to a broom closet, or a pachinko parlor, or whatever is normally here. People tend to only find this place when they need it.”
“But, this bar is so…fascinating…What if I want to bring my boyfriend back here? Browse the library?”
I smiled. “I thought you wanted to take him on an adventure? Not to some boring old library. My advice, you two go out and try some Fugu downtown. The most dangerous fish in the world,” I raised my arms and waved my fingers to feign a showman, “poisonous and fatal if not prepared correctly, but Osaka’s got Fugu chefs all over, you’ll be fine. That might be a good launching point of adventure for your boyfriend. You know, start out small with an exciting meal and see what happens.”
She got up to leave. “You know? I’ll try that. And then we’ll find you again someday and report back.”
She made her way to the door and called over her shoulder as she turned the knob, “Thank you for the drink, friend.”
I took her empty glass and started cleaning it as I called back,
“Thank you for the story.”
And there you go, readers. There’s your surprise glimpse into my second precious work in progress. I don’t know when I’ll be able to share the rest with you. Hopefully soon, because I am having so much fun with this series and it has really taken a life of its own quite separate from everything else I write. The themes and recurring patterns of each chapter have been a blast work within and test and bend.
But you’ll have to wait to see what I’m talking about. In the meantime, I’ll have another chapter of Maybe True, Mostly Metaphor out in two weeks for you. For real this time!