“Of course you’re here,” he said, “where else would I find you?”
Raz and I are sitting on the last two stools of a seven-stool bar in Tokyo. The lights are dim, and both of us are smoking Japanese cigarettes though neither of us should be. Down the stairs and outside is one of six narrow, electrical-cable strewn alleyways of Golden Gai. Beyond that is the brash of neon, the stories-tall billboards, the millions of people headed in and out of the busiest train stop in the world: Shinjuku.
I’ve been in Tokyo less than a day and I crossed the neighborhood on foot to come here. I wove through the unfamiliar streets, dwarfed by futuristic skyscrapers drenched in lights. When I arrived, finally crossed the path to get into this tiny district, it felt like stepping back in time.
Due to uproar by its longtime residents, Golden Gai has escaped the post-war revivification of Tokyo. Each tiny saloon is stacked on top of each other and sandwiched in so tightly that it can be hard to discern one from the next. Many of the bars here have been around for 50 years or more, and there are over 200 of them, though the entire district is but a few square blocks, some of the last remnants of the city it once was.
Having been popularized in the west, hordes of tourists have descended upon this place for the past several years, and the bartender likely sees Raz and me as no different. We are, to him, just one more American, one more Australian, precisely like the thousands of others that climb his steps every year to sit at one of his seven stools.
“Where else would I be?” I answer cheekily, but the truth is that I’m just as likely to be in Tokyo as anywhere else. I was in Shanghai yesterday, Chicago the week before, Rio the month before that. Raz has barely ever left his hometown.
“I’m sorry,” Raz says, just over a whisper, “I’m so sorry for everything.” He shakes his head, defeated.
He’s right. He was mean to me, but it feels so bizarre that he’s sitting on the stool next to me, in Japan of all places, that I’m instantly inclined to forgive him. It’s just so unlikely to have run into each other here in the biggest metropolis in the world—on my birthday no less. The spell is quite potent; it all feels so destined.
We haven’t seen each other in seven years since we said our goodbyes under the transom of his front door in Melbourne, but now we’re drinking pint after pint like we might have all those years ago together in Australia.
Our memories fold into one another while the city outside seems to disappear.
“When are you coming back to Australia?” he asks.
“Maybe next year, but I’m leaving for Johannesburg soon. I want to try to live there,” I respond.
He asks me why I don’t move back to Melbourne, and he’s shocked when I tell him it’s because I don’t want to. It’s been years since that was the only dream I had. I have new ones now.
“South Africa,” he says, his nose crinkling gently, “why would you want to live there?”
My hackles tingle, but they don’t raise. Maybe they are placated because I’m convinced that it has to mean something that we ran into each other here, or maybe I’m just drunk and too willing to shove things aside. I tell him, “I just want to,” and his face contorts like he’s searching for a reason why someone would do such a thing, as if millions of people don’t already happily live in Africa.
I laugh without pointing out his ignorance. I laugh because I’m tired of having to navigate my friendships like this all the time. I laugh because it’s my birthday, and I should be allowed to have at least one day a year when I’m not subjected to someone’s internalized colonialism. Because it’s so much easier to rationalize how he’s behaving than to just ask him.
I laugh because I don’t yet know that in a few months, from the comfort of my couch in Johannesburg, I’ll read about the Central Park birdwatching incident and the murder of George Floyd, and from thousands of miles away I’ll begin to see my home country erupt into a full-fledged revolution. And I don’t yet know that with all the sentimentality and empathy of a sledgehammer, he’ll simply text me: “your country is fucked, never go home.”
He laughs too, because what he doesn’t know now is that within a few months I’ll see my country in a way that makes me feel like a patriot for the first time in years. I will watch statues topple and police cruisers burned to carbon and I’ll be desperate to go back. And no matter how many months pass, he’ll never understand that the precise scenario he’s mocked is exactly when I admire my home country the most. He will never look at our revolution and see what I see.
It’s easy to sip my beer here in Japan because I don’t yet know that his defensiveness will overpower his will to learn how to navigate these things, while simultaneously ignoring all the work that people like me – Black women – have done in the United States and all over the world to change it for the better. All while dragging white men like him with us.
Soon, my afternoons in South Africa will be spent watching America bring a fresh news cycle every morning, just like I did after Trayvon, Philando, and Sandra. But as folks come out of the woodwork with their tone policing and uninformed opinions, my allegiances will begin to shift.
In this chaos he will ask me, “how do you know I’m not doing anything to undo racism?” And I answer with what he deems to be too curt, too bossy, and mean for him to accept from the mouth of a Black woman: “because if you were doing it correctly, you wouldn’t be speaking to me like this.”
But for now, I am back in time at this charming bar, sipping a dry Japanese beer. I’m beginning to realize how swiftly dawn can come in its namesake nation when you are busy trading stories that span a seven-year absence. I don’t yet know how after a night spending the length of the dark hours in a hazy bar, your instincts can dim to match its interior, and how I will soon cut him from my life just as swiftly as he returned.
All I know now is that before the sun comes we’ll have to lift from our stools and head out into the kawaii glow of the still busy Tokyo streets. There, awash in the hedonistic lights of Shinjuku, it’ll be so easy to imagine that he will remain exactly whom I need him to be.