She didn’t notice the first time he came in. Or rather, she didn’t remember. At some point, it just seemed like he had always been there.
He was handsome, but more because of his exotic looks than because he had a pretty face, though it was small and oval-shaped, as compared to her melon-shaped one. His nose was small but long, he had good straight teeth—which he flashed sometimes when he smiled—and he often wore a shirt and tie, though the tie disappeared on the hottest of days, and Tokyo in July could be quite hot, not to mention humid.
She did not know the man’s name, and while her name was written on her name badge, she wasn’t sure that he could read it. Kanji was muzukashii—difficult—for foreigners to learn.
Her conversations with the man were limited. He would come in to the little Internet cafe, where she worked when not helping out her parents at home (her duty as the youngest and only unmarried daughter), and get her attention. She would ask what he was there for.
“Intanetto,” he would say.
She would show him the price plan. He could pay by the minute, for three hours, or for five hours. He’d point to the minute plan. She’d give him a small clipboard with his cubicle number, printed on a sheet of paper, attached to it. He’d take it and go. Sometimes, he would come back and ask for paper and use of the printer. She’d ring up the paper for him. If there was a problem with the printer, he’d come get her, speaking in broken Japanese and making gestures for her to follow him. He never touched the manga or magazines that were on the racks, though she sometimes caught him looking at the women who adorned the front covers.
Then, one day, after finishing his session and while she was ringing him up, he said, “Sumi masen desu ga, namae wa nan desu ka [Excuse me, but what is your name]?”
“Fumiko desu,” she replied.
“Fumiko? Hajime mashite. Jahn desu.”
She responded with a quick and shallow bow, bending from the waist, and said the rest of the greeting, “Yorōshiku o negai tashimasu.”
In response, he bowed slightly, arms at his side. She told him how much he owed, writing the amount down on a piece of paper and showing it to him as she spoke. He paid. She gave him his change. He waved and said, “Ja, mata.”
She waved and said, “Bye-bye,” in that girlish way in which Japanese women infuse an American word for farewell with as much “kawaii”-ness as possible.
After that, whenever he entered the Internet cafe, he greeted her by name.
“Konnichi wa, Fumiko-san.”
To which she would reply with a short bow and an answering, “Konnichi wa.”
There was another girl who worked there. Her name was Sachiko. She was the exact opposite of Fumiko. Thin, intelligent, and beautiful. Popular with the guys and her professors, though for different reasons. She said it was because, for the latter, she’d open her books, while for the former, she’d open her legs. Much of what Sachiko said wasn’t true, however, and she had followed this statement with one of her trademark laughs. Except for the rare night out, Fumiko and Sachiko only saw each other in passing, when one of them came to relieve the other of her shift.
Some time after John had begun greeting Fumiko by name, Sachiko pulled her aside, right as Fumiko was about to start her shift, and whispered, “[Your boyfriend asked for you yesterday.]”
“[Boyfriend? I don’t have a boyfriend.]”
“Gaijin-san,” Sachiko replied, using the honorific with the somewhat derogatory Japanese word for “foreigner.”
“[Oh, him. What did you tell him?]”
“[I gave him your work schedule and cell phone number.]”
Sachiko answered with a laugh.
As mentioned before, the Internet cafe was small. So small, in fact, that it didn’t serve any drinks, unless one counted the drink machine that stood outside the front entrance of the building. The cubicles were spread out in a tiny cross pattern, which was ironic, since the sufferings of Christ often came to mind while trying to fit into one of these confined spaces. If the customer didn’t mind a loss of privacy, he or she could use one of three computers lined up near a window, which afforded the user a view of the equally cramped street below.
The door to each cubicle looked like one-half of the doors that led to saloons in the Wild West, except that the wood was smooth. Coats could be hung over a solitary peg attached to one of the cubicle’s walls.
There were twenty cubicles in all, each big enough to barely fit a computer desk and a rolling desk chair inside. On the computer desk sat a monitor, mouse (but no mousepad), and keyboard. Underneath the desk stood the tower. Speakers weren’t included, as music would disturb the other users, but headphones could be asked for at the front desk. Apparently, cigarette smoke would not disturb the other users, as smoking was allowed. While Fumiko’s dad smoked, she couldn’t stand the smell, which is why she often cracked open one of the windows or turned on the small fan behind the counter when she was working.
The final items in the cubicle were pencils and scrap paper, a wastebasket, and slippers. The slippers were optional. Unlike in certain restaurants and people’s homes, it was okay to wear shoes in here.
The cubicles were the farthest structures from the door. The closest structures to the door were the magazine racks, filled with weekly and daily manga magazines, which looked more like phone books than glossies. This cafe didn’t stock sex manga or pornography, but every other kind of manga—and magazine—filled the shelves.
The front desk was to the right of the door, facing the magazine racks. As one walked past the magazine racks, and away from the desk, one encountered manga in book form. Next to them, and perpendicular to the cubicles, were the bathrooms. But, let’s return to where Fumiko spent most of her time: the front desk.
It looked more like a counter than a desk. Only four items sat on it: the cash register, the price list (in an upright plastic case), a bell, and a money tray. The clipboards were stacked in pigeon holes attached to the wall shared by the door. Stacks of white paper, for the printer, also were behind the counter, as was a stool with a black cushion on the seat. The cushion had a tear in it, exposing the stuffing underneath. When Fumiko came to work on a cool day, she dropped her hoodie over this stool. There were also shelves underneath the counter where she kept magazines of her own.
One day, John stopped coming. Fumiko wasn’t sure what day that was, either. At some point, she suddenly noticed that he hadn’t come in a while. She thought it might be because her shifts this month were different than they had been last month (the owner didn’t think that either Fumiko or Sachiko should close every night), but even when she returned to her original schedule, he was nowhere to be found.
Since she couldn’t tell the exact date when he had stopped coming, she also couldn’t be sure of the exact date when he reappeared. All she knew is that, one day, he was there again.
“Ja-n-san, hisashiburi desune,” she said, but he just smiled at her wearily and asked for “intanetto.”
He came regularly after that, though Fumiko’s shifting schedule meant that she didn’t always see him when she was working. When she did, she noticed that his personality had changed. His habits, too. Before, he had been bubbly and cheerful, and had only stayed at the Internet cafe for three hours at most. Now, he stayed most of the afternoon, and often into the night. Before, he had asked for one or two sheets of paper per day. Now, he regularly asked for six sheets or more.
And then, one day, he began talking to her again.
“Eh? Konnichi-wa. O genki desu ka?”
“Hai. Genki desu.”
And he looked genki, too.
Soon after he started talking to her again is when it happened. It was one of those days when she had to work the late shift. She noticed him as she went around telling customers it was near closing time. Of the three people remaining, he was the last one to approach the register.
He waited until the other customers had left, then said, “Fumiko-san?”
“Shitsumon ga arimasuyo.”
What question could he have for her?
“Fumiko-san wa watashi ni kekkon shimasu ka?”
She started laughing.
“Ja-n-san wa omoshiroi!”
She continued laughing, but she stopped when he didn’t join in. Her hand, which had been in front of her mouth, stayed there, but the sound coming from her throat ceased. Her mirthful shaking ceased. The amusement in her eyes ceased.
She looked at him for a moment, then bowed.
“Sumi masen. Ja-n-san ni kekkon ga dekimasen.”
Her eyes stayed focused on the floor.
“Sō desu ka?”
“Sō desuyo. Sumi masen.”
She heard him leave, but did not raise her head.
Now she was alone.
As she went around cleaning up the cubicles and shutting off the lights, she thought about what had just happened.
She never thought her first marriage proposal would come from a foreigner, much less an American. To be honest, she had never thought she would get a marriage proposal from anyone. Not with her average looks. Not with her average personality.
One was not supposed to stand out too much in society, of course, unless one were famous. Fumiko, however, didn’t stand out at all, which meant that no one noticed her. Not her customers. Not her boss. Not even her parents.
The only person who had noticed her was this John, this foreigner who came in to her shop, a few times a week, to surf the Internet. A handsome American man had noticed her, when so many average Japanese men had not. She should have been flattered. Instead, she had laughed at him. Well, how could she have known he was serious? That wasn’t how men asked women to marry them in American movies. Were the movies wrong?
She knew so little about him, and he about her. Maybe he was rich. Maybe he worked for a large corporation. How could she have answered “no” without knowing these things? She knew many foreign men came to Japan seeking girlfriends. But how many of them came to Japan seeking wives?
She did not know his reasons for asking her, and she would never know. A week later, he told her that he was returning to America.
“Ichi ni ka getsu [In one or two months].”
“Taihen desu ne [That’s too bad].”
She didn’t see him much at the Internet cafe after that, and when she did, he didn’t say much to her. He didn’t even ask for paper.
Then, after a month of infrequent visits, he was gone. Week after week Fumiko waited. Another month went by before she was certain he wasn’t coming back.
She worked at the cafe for two more years. And then, one day, she quit. Her parents were horrified at her decision, but she promised them that she’d find a new job soon. With the jobless rate the worst it had been since World War II, however, she was only able to find a temporary job, but one that paid slightly more than her former job had. That temp job led to another temp job and then another. Cherry blossoms bloomed and scattered in the wind, and Fumiko kept working.
One day during this period, a woman handed her tissues for an English language school as she was heading to lunch in Shibuya. She had received language school tissues before, but most of the schools were too expensive for her to attend. Plus, with the collapse of NOVA, learning English at one of these schools didn’t seem as glamorous as it once had.
The prices for this school, however, were not too expensive. She decided to check it out once her shift ended.
An American foreigner (all white people were American to Fumiko) was talking in English to a staff member when she arrived. The staff member was laughing. They noticed her. The staff member got up to greet her while the man headed toward a room in the back. His suit reminded Fumiko of the one that John used to wear, though the color was different. She thought memories of him had faded, but one look at the suit brought memories of him back before her eyes, this person who, a stranger to this land, had nevertheless made her feel welcome.
That day, Fumiko took her first English lesson.