The Girl at the Bar
My friend Hiroki fell in love with a girl who painted.
He said they met at a bar somewhere in Shinjuku. A quiet basement place run by an old guy who liked jazz and drank whiskey.
Hiroki said her watercolor paintings expressed a feeling he didn’t have words for. Something like a blend of nostalgia, tragedy, and hope, as portrayed by gentle, flowing arcs of color.
He said she painted pictures like nothing he’d ever seen.
Her name was Toshiko.
Hiroki met Toshiko by chance, after accidentally falling down the stairs that led to the bar. He pushed open the old wooden door, took a seat by the counter, and ordered a whiskey.
The girl next to him sipped from a gin-tonic, and watched Hiroki’s glass as it filled. It looked as though the act reminded her of something — like it was part of a long distant memory.
When she noticed Hiroki, the girl stared at him a moment, her head tilted. Later she told him the sensation was like noticing something new in an old photograph.
“When I first saw her,” Hiroki said, “I just felt like I had to talk to her. Like I had to say something.”
“So what did you say?” I asked.
“I said, ‘Uh… have we met?’”
“You’re an idiot.”
“Maybe,” he said. “But being stupid enough to fall down those stairs was the whole reason we met.”
Hiroki talked about Toshiko often.
He organized small exhibitions in places like Koenji and Shimokitazawa, got her interviews in local magazines, and had her featured on the occasional website. He wanted people to see her work — to feel it and to swim in it, just like he did.
Toshiko went along with it, but she wasn’t really interested in exhibitions, interviews, or websites.
She just wanted to paint.
“But I don’t fret the small stuff,” Hiroki said. “If she keeps making art, the rest will work itself out.”
“She’s that good?”
“She’s that good.”
To hear Hiroki talk about Toshiko was to hear the words of a man who was young, passionate, and in love.
At the time, I felt like none of those things. And yet, I believed him when he spoke.
Or perhaps I simply wanted to.
Some time soon after, Hiroki disappeared.
One day I realized I couldn’t get in touch with him. He didn’t answer his phone or reply to my messages. He didn’t do social media. We didn’t have mutual friends. I didn’t know where he worked.
All I knew was where he lived.
So a week after Hiroki disappeared, I went to his apartment in Kichijoji.
Hiroki’s apartment was one of four single-room apartments in a quiet old building some twenty minutes walk from the station.
The door was unlocked, but Hiroki wasn’t home.
Inside, I found a suit jacket draped over a chair, an acoustic guitar in the corner, and a small table that played home to a few issues of Weekly Shonen Jump and a rice cooker. The mattress on the floor was an unmade bed covered in recently washed laundry. Perhaps he’d meant to fold it later.
I sat down in the chair. The air felt stale and old.
It didn’t look like Hiroki had run away.
It looked like he’d simply gone out and not come back.
On the small stool next to Hiroki’s bed I found a box of matches, and next to it, a watercolor painting.
It was a painting of a house in the countryside. It reminded me of Nagasaki, and of home. I thought of a girl I wanted to talk to but never did, and long walks with a friend I thought I would grow old with. I thought of coming home to an angry father, and meals cobbled together between pauses in arguments.
I looked at that painting for a long, long time.
The box of matches was from a bar; the address on the side for a basement place, somewhere in Shinjuku.
That night, I found myself at the bottom of a flight of stairs, standing in front of an old wooden door.
I pushed open the door, took a seat by the counter, and ordered a whiskey.
The girl next to me sipped from a gin-tonic, and watched my glass as it filled. It looked as though the act reminded her of something — like it was part of a long distant memory.
When she noticed me, the girl stared at my face for a moment, her head tilted. It was like noticing something new in an old photograph.
“Uh… have we met?” I asked.
She said her name was Toshiko.
We talked about music, and drinks, and life in general. We rode a conversation down a river of whiskey and gin tonics, and let silences fill with the talk of others — old men with their books, old women with their heartbreak — until it was just the two of us and a lonely piano, sifting its way through a mist of cigarette smoke and hazy memories.
When I asked about Hiroki, Toshiko shook her head.
“It’s like he vanished,” she said, “and now I can’t paint.”
The comment felt heavy, like an anchor for emotions hidden in the darkness. I wanted to ask more — to understand — but before I could, Toshiko finished her drink, and she left.
I sat by myself for a time, alone with a half-finished glass of whiskey, and The Bill Evans Trio playing Waltz for Debby.
“She grew up in Ibaraki,” the bartender said. “She moved here to study painting.”
“But her talent is her curse. Her skills aren’t appreciated in the country, but her heart can’t settle in the city. She’s trapped between who she is and where she’s going.”
The bartender said Toshiko couldn’t get used to studying her art. She didn’t want to analyze or understand it, and she didn’t want others to dig into it for deeper meaning. She was most comfortable lost in the act of creation; lost in the act of capturing people and their lives in splashes of blended color.
These days, he said, Toshiko worked part-time at a convenience store in Higashi-Nakano, and painted in her free time.
“She’s a regular here,” the bartender said. “Another soul in search of a home.”
The bartender’s words echoed in my head.
His bar struck me as a gathering place for the lonely and the lost — where nostalgia hung in the air with the smoke and the music. It was a world of grey, but that was the comfort of it — a shared sense of despair.
By contrast, Toshiko brought to mind gentle, flowing arcs of color, thrown against paper — rambling and aimless, but beautiful, too.
I spent my mornings reading at Hiroki’s apartment, and my nights talking at the bar.
With Toshiko I talked about music, art, and living as a shadow in a city of a million faces.
And with the bartender, I talked about Toshiko.
“She doesn’t like the taste of whiskey,” he said, “and she never drinks it. But something about it makes her happy.”
I’d noticed it, too. It was a look in her eyes when she saw it; a sliver in time where she saw something the rest of us didn’t.
“Do you know why?”
The bartender shook his head.
“You know, I don’t even like whiskey,” I said. “I ordered it the first time because it felt right, but when I saw the way she looked at it, I couldn’t order anything else. I still can’t.”
The bartender nodded.
“I know,” he said.
One night, I asked Toshiko why she painted.
“Sometimes,” she said, “when I’m out, I see things in people and places. Something like an essence, or a spirit, or a feeling. I don’t quite have the words for it. The closest I ever get to it is when I paint.”
“You told Hiroki the same thing, didn’t you?”
She paused for a moment.
“How did you know?”
“Because that’s why he fell in love with you,” I said.
And I realized in that moment, it was why I had, too.
In Toshiko was something I always wanted; a simple, beautiful, purity of expression.
I felt it when she talked about her work, and how it suddenly felt lost to her. I felt it the first time I’d seen it, standing in an empty apartment staring at a painting of a house in the countryside, wondering where my friend had gone.
I imagined Hiroki had felt that, too.
“How did you start painting?” I asked.
Toshiko thought a moment. She glanced at my glass of whiskey. She looked like a little girl standing before a door with a very old key in her hand.
“My father gave it to me,” she said. “He gave me my very first watercolor set. It was cheap — probably something from a local 100-yen store — but it was the start of everything.”
She said she didn’t remember there being a reason for it. She thought maybe it was a spur of the moment thing.
“I don’t remember much of my father,” she said, “but I still remember his smile that day, and the sound of his laugh when he heard my own.”
I watched the shadows play across her face.
“I remember I hugged him,” she said. “And he smelled of whiskey.”
Whiskey was woven into the fabric of Toshiko’s childhood memories.
It was why she loved the scent of it.
But it was woven into other memories, too. Memories of broken lives and broken marriages. Of broken promises and broken homes. Broken hearts.
It was was why she refused to drink it.
“People say whiskey is a complicated drink,” Toshiko said. “But for me, it’s a very simple drink — it just happens to be mixed with a lot of complicated feelings.”
The following night, she gave me a package.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“It’s a painting. I wanted to give it to Hiroki, but I think it’s better if you take it now.”
“You can paint again?”
She nodded. “Since last night,” she said.
“Why don’t you give it to him yourself? When he gets back?”
She shook her head.
“It’s not for him anymore.”
The painting was of two boys sitting on a park bench; one of them in color, the other in black and white. They were wrapped in winter coats and thick scarves, marveling at a light winter snow.
In the bottom-right corner, Toshiko had written the date and a title.
“H & H”
I looked at that painting for a long, long time.
The next day, I found out Hiroki had died. His landlord told me when I tried to visit his apartment again.
He said Hiroki was hit by a truck riding his bicycle home. There was a bag of groceries nearby; the police assumed he was on his way home from the supermarket. He wasn’t carrying anything but coins at the time — No phone, no wallet, and no ID. His bicycle was unregistered.
The police door-knocked for clues. It was slow, painstaking work, but eventually they found his apartment.
I thought of a broken body and a mangled bicycle on a winter night. Of spilled groceries and scattered coins on the pavement. I imagined a foggy, ragged breath, fading into a dim, lonely silence.
And for whatever reason, I thought of a watercolor painting of a house, somewhere far away in the countryside.
And I wept.
When I told Toshiko, it was like she already knew. She nodded, sipped from her gin tonic, and stared up at the smoke by the ceiling.
“I will miss him,” she said.
And I realized then that if Toshiko held any other feelings about that moment or Hiroki, I would not see them here. They would express themselves in gentle, flowing arcs of color, thrown against paper.
Rambling, aimless arcs I hoped would be beautiful.
Beautiful and hopeful.
When I left the bar that night, Toshiko walked with me up the stairs. We stayed there a time, watching a gentle rain fall upon lonely Shinjuku streets.
“You shouldn’t come back here,” she said.
“This place, it’s not for you. It’s for people who lose what they can’t get back.”
“What about you?”
“I lost Hiroki,” she said. “I lost your friend. And the color of his memories is my muse now.”
She kissed me gently on the lips, and looked into my eyes.
“But you still carry him with you,” she said. “You still have him, and you always will.”
I sometimes think about that rainy night, and the minutes that passed before Toshiko and I separated; when I wanted to kiss her, and hold her, and not let go.
I think about that bar in Shinjuku, and the bartender who hides behind his doors the stories of those who visit — the ghosts and spirits who might never find what they’re looking for, but find in the bar a comfortable purgatory.
And when I think of Hiroki, I think of a painting of two boys sitting on a park bench in winter; one of them in color, one in black and white.
And I wonder which is me.
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