We were almost friends. We could have been great friends. I miss this great friendship that never was. Why was that ? Well… It’s complicated.
THE ALMOST FRIENDSHIP.
Mrs Takeda had a husband, Mr Takeda. She met him when she was very young. Twenty something I believe. She was a young girl from a remote town somewhere in the mountains of Japan, so remote that she described it to me like this : there’s nothing to get you there, and nothing to do once you’re there. She giggled : it was her way of saying I’m sorry for being such a plain country girl from such a boring town. She moved to Tokyo to study fashion, I think, on a scholarship. She met Mr Takeda on campus. They dated, then they married. His dad was wealthy and gave him money to start a business in the U.S. In Japan, everyone dreams of America, she told me. She followed him. He said “they have fashion schools in L.A., better ones than Tokyo. You can finish your degree there.” She never did.
Our other halves were -briefly- business partners in a joint venture. That’s how we met. Mr Takeda, worried that his wife was ‟a little bored” and was becoming ‟very sad”. It was his way of saying she knew no one and was sinking into depression, making his own life not entirely pleasant. He decided she needed a friend, and he picked me, a little like you pick a pet at the store: you look at what’s there, and you choose one. Needless to say, he had slim pickings: he’d been in the States for nearly three years yet he didn’t know any other ‟Americans”, though technically we were French. I think he meant english-speaking, caucasian people.
One day I came home and I learned that I should call Mrs Takeda, and maybe go see her and spend some time with her. I was a little puzzled, a little annoyed but nonetheless, I picked up the phone and called Mrs Takeda, whom I had met only once before, briefly. All I remembered about her was that she seemed mild mannered, unassuming and very shy. Let’s just say, not my typical kind of friend.
We agreed to meet the following day. I said I’d pick her up at her house and we could go to the mall, have coffee and chit-chat.
– Chit-chat? she asked with her lovely japanese accent – she didn’t know the word.
– Yeah you know, talk.
– OK, she said.
I anticipated the first meeting to be awkward, and it was. Neither of us was quite sure how or why this was happening. I may have been enlisted, but she had been thrown in just the same. So, here we were, sitting at the french café in South Coast Plaza, staring at each other, smiling… I sensed she waited for me to take the lead. I didn’t know where to start, what to say, what to do… So I launched in a long-winded conversation about nothing and everything, asking her opinion from time to time. All she did was say yes, or nod, or smile. I was at such a loss. The girl wasn’t engaging at all. When dropped her off at her place that afternoon, I was quite upset. I wasted an entire afternoon. She didn’t enjoy our get-together. By the time I made it to my house (two hours in traffic) I was so incensed I was about ready to have a fit and make it clear how I never-ever-ever wanted to be drafted in a situation like that e-v-e-r again.
As it turned out, Mr Takeda had already called to expressed his satisfaction: his wife had been delighted, loved my company, and hoped we could do that again.
That’s how my almost friendship with Mrs Takeda started.
Over the next few months, we’d meet once or twice a week. Sometimes we’d go the beach, sometimes we’d go to the mall, sometimes we just drove around to the nearest town. I realized she wasn’t talkative, not because she didn’t like my conversation, but because she simply couldn’t speak the language well enough. She could read English well enough: she was managing her husband’s day-to-day business paperwork. But she lacked the vocabulary and fluency, mandatory for verbal exchanges. She understood me if I didn’t speak too fast and avoided long speeches. She could form simple, short sentences as well. But having a full blown, meaningful conversation was impossible. So we were stuck talking about girly-girl stuff: clothes, makeup, skincare, and what to have for lunch.
I sensed there was so much she wanted to say, and how frustrating it felt to be stranded as she was, a foreigner deprived of conversation, communication, human interaction, and friendship. Little by little, though, as she heard me speak for hours, she gained self-confidence. At first, she was reluctant: she felt self-conscious the minute she had to say something besides please, thank you and the likes. She was a perfectionist, little Mrs Takeda. She believed in doing things well, or not doing them at all. She perhaps felt it was rude of her to speak the language poorly and with her asian accent. To make her talk, you had to make her feel comfortable. Once she realized I wasn’t judging her or making fun of her, she started opening up, just a bit.
Japanese people are discreet, restrained and well-mannered. They don’t spill their guts like we westerners do, at the drop of a hat. Their detached attitude is both a mask and a shield. So it was a while before she felt confident enough to tell me, little bit by little bit, the hell she was living in, the lie she was trapped in.
She told me how stingy her husband was: he gave her very little money. She had an allowance for her personal expenses, of a 100 dollars a month. That’s why she always wore black. classic dresses. You couldn’t tell if they were from this season or three years ago.
She told me how, despite her repeated requests, he refused to let her attend English school. He said she knew enough for the running of the day-to-day business and that was all she needed.
She told me how mad he got when he found the Otis-Parsons catalog she had ordered, with the Fashion Designer program, and how he kept her locked up for two weeks as retaliation.
She told me how he threatened her to send her back to Japan to her forsaken village without any money. I would be a disgrace to my family, she said, it would bring shame to them. I thought I was stuck in a time warp somewhere in the Dark Ages, not the 20th century.
She told me about how happy she was when she first came to LA, how she had all these hopes and dreams and how he crushed them, one by one.
She told me how she hated her life, but that she did not have a choice.
I looked at her: so pretty, with her delicate features and her incredibly long, black, shiny hair, and her pale skin. I knew there was a soul filled with ideas, and goals, and dreams, and strength and all that, buried under this thick coat of despair. I could not stand the idea this girl had given up. It was not fair.
So I told her she had a choice. I told her she needed to step up her english. Read, talk, write, watch TV, whatever: as long as she did it in english. So she wouldn’t be so isolated. I told her to go out more, and take courses. Cooking classes, needlepoint classes, whatever. Something he wouldn’t object. She would meet new people there. She had to break her wall of solitude.
– But I have you she said.
My heart sank. Yes she did, but for how long? I would graduate soon. Then I’d get a real job. I wouldn’t have as much time.
I told her that if she didn’t change her life, whatever she was living today would be exactly that, or worse, in a year, in ten years… I made her cry. A single tear, that she wiped away quickly, ashamed and embarrassed.
I told her so many things. It’s easy to tell someone else what to do, when your own life is easy.
Then she went back to Japan for a month in the summer, as they did every year. I made her promise to call me when she was back.
Six weeks went by, and no phone call. I was puzzled. Maybe they had extended their stay? I picked up the phone and dialed her number. She answered. I said:
– Oh you’re back, I thought you were going to call me.
– Anyway I can come see you. When are you available?
She agreed to meet me the following day. “Don’t tell anyone you are coming,” she said before hanging up. Her voice sounded strange.
When I saw her the following day, I was horrified. She had lost weight. Her skintone had lost its glow. Her eyes had dark circles. Her gaze was absent. She avoided eye contact. She looked like a zombie.
– I don’t have much time, she said. I must be back in one hour.
– It’s OK, I can come back in a couple of days.
– No, she said.
– What do you mean, no? You don’t want to see me anymore? Why? – I was upset.
– Oh no she said. I want to see you, but I can’t. I am forbidden. He doesn’t want me to see you again.
– He says you put ideas in my head.
– I’m so sorry, I said. What happened?.
– I tried, she said. I tried. I told him I wanted a different life. All the things you told me. He said no, no, no. We had a big fight.
– Did he hurt you?
She didn’t answer. She didn’t need to.
– I’m sorry, I said again. I’m so sorry.
– Don’t be. Her voice was soft as ever, and grew softer as she said ‟Thank you.”
We left and got back to my car in silence. It was like a funeral march. I dropped her off at the house. We hadn’t said a word. As she opened the car door, I said: “Your life is your own, you know.”
She looked at me with tears in her eyes and shook her head.
– I am not like you, she said. Strong like you.
– Yes you are sweetie, I told her.You just don’t realize it. I hope one day you will.
That was the last time I saw her.
I agonized over it. I should have done something. I should have pushed. I should have resisted. But you cannot force yourself onto people’s lives because, as I had said, their life is their own. And that’s how our almost friendship ended.
Years went by. I moved. New homes, new cities, countries, continents. I had put her out of my mind. Then one night I watched a movie called ‟Norwegian Wood”, a Japanese movie. It triggered memories of Mrs Takeda. I felt sadness, melancholy, a bit of longing too… for my years, my life back then and there, the things I did, the options I had, the choices I made. I wondered about her, too… So I googled her name. There must have been thousands of Takedas. Social media, blogs… Jeez, I was looking for a needle in a haystack. I remembered she once told me ‟many people name is Takeda in Japan”. She wasn’t kidding… I switched to image search (side note: sometimes, image search works better and faster than word search). And, lo and behold, way down the search result page, a tiny thumbnail image… I clicked on the link.
On the web page, the image was much bigger. Indeed it was her: my Mrs Takeda. Older, shorter hair – she had cut her gorgeous mane – wearing glasses, and a black dress. Unassuming as ever, classy as ever. She was a guest speaker at a Japanese-American foundation, talking about cultural and language differences and the need to bridge them. I was impressed. I tried to find out more, but the article didn’t go into details and I had already spent enough time on my search.
When my other half came home, I asked him:
– Say, are you still in touch with your buddy Takeda? Do you know what’s going on with him?
– Oh yeah he said – I bumped into him on my last trip, actually. Didn’t I tell you?
– Nope. He still lives in L.A.?
– Yes. He’s now got like three dealerships I think. He’s doing well. You remember his wife I’m sure.
– Of course…
– Well, guess what, she dumped him!
I was floored.
– What? When? Why? You know what happened?
– He didn’t dwell on it, really… He said she left from one day to the next, no warning signs, and moved to San Francisco. She had a friend there – a girl she met in a class or something, and they started a center for Japanese women in the U.S.
– So they don’t have to live like she did, you mean? Stuck home and dependent on their hubby’s good will?
– He didn’t say. But yeah, I guess something like that…
– It must have come as a shock for him.
– Yes, he’s both sad and bitter about it. He said he doesn’t want to get a divorce, that maybe one day she’ll come back.
– I doubt it, I said.
– Mmmm. Guess you’re right about that one.
– Did she tell him why she was leaving?
– No, not really. He came home one day, she was waiting for him, her suitcase packed. She said ‟My life is my own” and then she left. That’s the last time he saw her.
Here ‘s to you, Mrs Takeda.