Friday, March 30th, 2007
by Elizabeth Koch
Part travelogue and part convoluted love story, The World Tour Compatibility Test is a series of true stories set in exotic locales, as two American writers decide whether to break up or move in together. Click to catch up on Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo, a little more Tokyo, two entries in Nara,and two in Kyoto.
When we arrive in Tokyo, Todd and I step off the bullet train and hail a cab, fully aware of the $40 we’re about to blow just getting to our hotel. We’re too hung-over and tired to care.
In the back seat of the taxi, I press my face to the window and take in the shimmering skyscrapers and rolling green hills and feel terror swelling in my throat. We’re back in Tokyo at my insistence. I’ve already decided that Tokyo is my favorite place in the world and that moving here will strip me of hatred and doubt and allow me to emerge as the person I’m supposed to be, as if Tokyo were a glamorous filling station and I a weathered, sputtering old Mustang in need of a good overhaul. Granted, my opinion is based on our previous three-day stay at the Claska Hotel, where breakfast was too cute to eat and the concierge practically threw himself down the elevator shaft to please us, but the lunacy of my plan has no bearing on my attachment to it. I’ve got my future all mapped out. I can’t afford to be wrong here.
My dread only deepens when the taxi pulls into a long driveway in the middle of a barren stretch of the financial district. None of Tokyo’s quirky charm is within eyeshot—no pet groomers, no candy lingerie shops, no crepe trucks with tinkling bells. Surely the driver has made a mistake. Surely this is not where we’ll be spending our final two days in the Eastern Hemisphere, in this giant aluminum warehouse, so dirty and rickety you’d imagine a tornado coughed it up.
“You booked us a room in a mental institution,” Todd says, his first words to me since my little meltdown in the Kyoto train station.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
And then there’s the inside. The lobby is less a lobby than a Communist-era convention center. Information booths and giant polyester plants hold court in every corner of the room. Flyers litter the floor. An assortment of uniformed folk huddle in their various tribes: pilots and flight attendants, paper-thin sailors, a crew of pasty-looking tourists with camping gear and fat ankles.
“This can’t be right,” I say.
“Unbelievable,” Todd agrees.
A woman in a nurse’s uniform approaches us and bows. “Checking in?”
I don’t know what to say. I’m afraid if I open my mouth something hateful will come out. I might punch her. She cocks her head and smiles with pinched eyebrows.
“I think we made a mistake,” Todd says.
We walk outside and hail a cab.
“Where should we go?” I ask, knowing full well where we are going.
“Wherever you want,” Todd says, also knowing.
“Park Hyatt,” I say to the cab driver. The Park Hyatt is possibly the most expensive hotel in the city. Most of the world knows it as the silent, moody star of Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola’s dull and head-achy homage to loneliness, where rich people walk around depressed and semi-suicidal for no apparent reason. I realize that I’m not one to judge rich people who walk around depressed and semi-suicidal for no apparent reason. Nor am I one to judge rich people who hemorrhage money when their surroundings fail them, as much as I detest that sort of person, for that’s precisely what I’m about to do.
The cab pulls into circular driveway of the Park Hyatt, and the building is so glossy, so silver screen glamorous, that I feel sick upon arrival. I thought I could swing it. I thought I could throw guilt out the window and just luxuriate in Eastern opulence for two days. But guilt isn’t the sort of thing you can just toss out the window. Like cigarette ash or chewing gum, guilt tends to boomerang back and smack the face of your traveling companion.
The automatic taxi doors open and two bellboys appear. They relieve Todd and me of our backpacks and swiftly unload our luggage from the trunk. A concierge bows and invites us to join him at a small counter next to the driveway. “My I have your last name or confirmation number?”
“We don’t, er, have a room yet.”
He raises his eyebrows.
My palms start to sweat. For the second time in one day, I am stricken mute in the face of a hotel attendant. I don’t know how to explain our situation in a way that won’t make us sound like grubby tourists who go around checking into hotels we’ve seen in movies. I’m equally afraid of sounding like an intolerant rich bitch for bailing on the previous hotel, which I realize makes no sense, considering our chances of getting a room here would increase precipitously if he indeed thinks I am a rich bitch.
Todd nudges me.
I tell the concierge that we need a room.
He finds us one.
Except that only junior suites are left, and the price of the room is so high that something in my head pops upon hearing it.
“I may be having an aneurism,” I say to Todd as we follow the attendant across the lobby. “If I die, please don’t let anyone know it was in the Park Hyatt.”
Todd puts his arm around me. “Please stop. Whatever you’re doing to yourself right now, just stop.”
Todd is fully aware of my disturbed and convoluted relationship with money. Specifically, he knows that even though I was born into an obscenely wealthy family, I do not toss money around like garden fertilizer, especially not in places where anyone is likely to see me. I want people to like me, and as a small child growing up in a small town, I learned that having money makes people sort of hate you on the spot, so for most of my life I’ve invested great amounts of creative energy into pretending I don’t have any.
How this plays out: to this day I prefer moth-eaten sweaters and flea market jeans and carry around the same water bottle until the label rots off and multi-colored bacteria blooms on the lip. I rarely wear make-up and never comb my hair and wear shoes so ugly that one boyfriend accused me of trying to turn him off, which come to think of it, may have had a little truth to it. Shopping makes me feel bloated and weak-kneed and very bad about myself, so the only time I buy clothing and jewelry is when I’m around my mother, whose disapproval of my “poor-boying it,” as she calls it, makes me so nervous that I spend $200 on a pair of silk knee-socks just to appease her.
Gratitude is in me somewhere, but so buried in shame I have trouble finding it.
Todd clutches my arm as we walk through the downstairs lobby. “Look, candy,” he says, and points to a gourmet store made of all glass and stocked with jams and glass jars of pickled things, porcelain dishes painted with polka dots, truffles and cookies wrapped in pink cellophane. We take an elevator to a second lobby that expands into a giant room with flower bouquets at the center that stands taller than a Christmas tree. There are no walls in this room, only windows, and next to the windows are dozens of low tables set with tiered trays, for tea time, presumably. We walk down the hall past another fine dining restaurant, and the concierge tells us about the gym and the spa and the New York Bar famous for its world-renowned lounge music.
“This place is like a casino,” Todd says. “You never have to leave!”
“Gambling is not allowed here,” the concierge says sternly. “And this is our library.” He points to a single shelf, where three leather-bound first editions are perched.
Todd nudges me. “We need to get Opium in here. Remind me to contact someone about that.”
I laugh, but he’s not kidding.
Our junior suite has two flat screen televisions, one in the bedroom and one in the sitting room, and a Bose sound system, and low couches upholstered in some sort of silkscreen print that are more fun to look at than sit on. In the bedroom not one but two king-sized beds are fluffed and smoothed over to wedding cake perfection.
“Would you like these beds to be pushed together?” the concierge asks, as if one king sized bed might be a tight squeeze for Todd and me.
“Oh, that’s okay…”
“Sure,” Todd says.
The concierge is on the phone and in minutes two men in coattails and white gloves sweep into the room, unhinge the beds from the wall, and shove the two mammoth mattresses together.
I sit down at the desk and open my computer and start brainstorming travel pitches to send to newspapers and magazines.
“What are you doing?” Todd asks.
“Earning our stay here.”
Two hours later the sun is burning my scalp through the window. The room is still.
“Yes?” His voice echoes as if he were shouting through a drain pipe. The door to the toilet cubicle opens a crack. I see his eye. “I’m naked,” he says. It’s hard to tell through the frosted glass door, but yes, he appears to be sitting on the toilet, naked, with his computer on his lap.
“What are you doing?”
“On the toilet?”
He pauses. “Yeah.”
“You know the heat from your laptop lowers your sperm count. Don’t you want to reproduce someday?”
“Go away, please!”
I go away and come back with the camera, swing open the bathroom door, and take a picture. I take ten. Something about the way he’s bent over his computer makes him looks like the frog guy in Lord of the Rings. Anyone that thin should be forced to wear stirrup pants and a tube top for punishment.
“Get out of here!” he shouts, laughing, and as I shut the door I hear him shout again: “Thank you for loving me!” My heart jerks, and I wonder how it happened, how he became so starved for attention—if I did this to him.
While Todd blow-dries the socks he just washed, I search online for the Japanese entertainment center I read about in the New York Times. According to the article, “media immersion pods” are high-tech resource hubs where customers are invited to watch movies, play video games, search the web, read comic books, watch porn, make themselves milkshakes, and sleep in lounge chairs with baseball caps over their faces all in one area, like a super well-stocked frat house, only less social. I imagine teenagers in giant virtual reality helmets riding from station to station in little silver go-carts while disco balls throw soothing images of penguins and Easter Bunnies against the wall. What a great place to hide from everyone.
I write down the address and quickly check my e-mail. My mother has written me. Her note makes me very upset.
I convince Todd that we should walk because it’s really not so far, and it wouldn’t have taken us any time at all if the Shinjuku station weren’t standing in our way, with its 200 exits and 3.3 million sweaty people milling around with glazed expressions.
Todd puts his arm around me. “You okay?”
“It’s nothing. My mother.” I brush his arm off me.
“She just e-mailed me. She thinks we’re growing apart.”
“I don’t know.”
“Have you talked to her about it?”
“When was I supposed to have talked to her about it? I just read her e-mail half an hour ago.”
“Do you not like my questions?”
“You’re just blurting shit out without thinking.”
“Why are you so angry?”
“Because!” I throw up my hands. “The hotel is so expensive!”
We stand at a stoplight, behind a group of Japanese teenagers clustered around a cranberry red Blackberry. Todd stares at the back of their knees. One is wearing leg warmers, which must be uncomfortable in this 90 degree heat. Todd’s voice lilts when he speaks: “Is it my fault?”
“Is what your fault?”
“That your mother thinks she’s losing you.”
I am stunned. I don’t know where he would get this idea. Of course it should be his fault—that’s what happens when children fall in love. It’s called transfer of allegiance, from parents to a significant other, and it’s very normal, I’m told. But I have little proof that anything like that is happening in this scenario.
For instance: Todd and I visited my parents last April, and as soon as we arrived I felt an overwhelming urge to prostrate myself on the floor and eat dirt in order to illustrate how grateful I am for everything they’ve done for me, that I’m not the spoiled monster they warned me I’d become if I wasn’t careful, which is to say I behaved the way I way I often behave around my parents.
Dinner that first night doubled as a veritable PowerPoint presentation on my various projects and accomplishments—proof of how hard I’m working and how busy I am. I spoke quickly and without pause, the goal being to create a wall of words to defend myself against my father’s questions, questions like, “Are you sure you’re busy enough?”
The remainder of the trip I engaged in varying degrees of sycophantish behavior—chasing my father around the house with newspaper articles on corn subsidies and weather derivatives (look at me! I’m intellectually curious!) and spending Sunday afternoon in front of the computer with my mother, teaching her how to buy bras online.
Todd got to watch.
I don’t know how to be a good daughter and a good girlfriend at the same time; I like to keep my various communities in separate boxes in order to better control how they see me.
I’d like to blame this on Todd. I’d like to blame him for making me act even weirder than I already do. Sometimes I tell myself that things would be much simpler without Todd in my life making me act weird all the time. Then I remember that is what I do, kick people out of my life who make me uncomfortable, until there’s no one left to kick but me.
To be continued…