Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Two Men on a Bench


Tucked away in the back of our hall closet, buried under the sleeping bags, lie five metal boxes. No hidden gold coins for when the banks crash next, but something more valuable— slides of trips taken long ago. (If you’re under 25, look up “photographic slides.”) Inside the box labeled “trip around the world” and in the cardboard column marked “Japan” is a slide of me on my 28th birthday. It is the last day of a life-changing ten-month trip around the world, just before taking the train to Narita Airport. I am sitting on a park bench in Tokyo holding up a cupcake with a single candle in it. My face is gaunt and my body a mere 140 lbs, courtesy of the hepatitis I had contracted six weeks earlier. But in the photo, my eyes are bright with my future’s promise and the excitement of returning to San Francisco after an adventure that I’ll never have again.

To make the occasion of yet more mythic proportions, 28 is an auspicious number, the fourth round of our every-seven-years cell regeneration and something to do astrologically with the Saturn cycle. Add to the mix that because I will cross the International Date Line, I will celebrate my birthday twice— once in Tokyo at the end of these travels and again in San Francisco at the beginning of my new life as husband and father—and the story gets even more exciting. Well, at least it did to me.

So now I sit on another park bench in Tokyo, by years, a somewhat oldish man, but inside not so different from that 28-year-old young man with his birthday cupcake. I sit next to him on the bench and strike up a conversation. 33 years separate us, but he and I still speak mostly the same language. We notice more or less the same things— the frivolity of people spending their day paddling around a lake on a pink-swanned boat, the little spark of energy when the young woman on the next bench smiles at us (hmm—at him or me?), the popularity of horizontal-striped shirts with Japanese women, the weirdness of carp breaking the surface to feed on the food the tourists throw. We admire the recycling bins, but are chagrinned by the relentless many layers of plastic packaging in the stores. We love walking by the temples, seeing the paper prayers, hearing the gongs rung for luck and smelling the incense. We both still love Akira Kurosawa’s early movies and miso soup and the inari sushi and mochi shop we accidentally discovered. But such small pleasures are hard to wholly savor because of the shock of yesterday’s Facebook news. And so I turn to my friend and say:

“Young man, your optimistic smile proved to be justified. You have lived a blessed life, perhaps even a charmed one. You’ve also known your fair share of betrayal, disappointment and grief (I wonder what is a fair share?) and managed to bear it all, get up again when you’ve been knocked to the ground. But there are some things which would throw you down so hard you simply couldn’t rise again. And were it not for those Angels of Mercy’s vigilance, it could have happened yesterday when your daughter Kerala, her husband Ronnie and granddaughter Zadie skidded across three lanes of traffic, smashed into a guard rail, totaled the car and walked away without a scratch.

I already know that most of my time any day of the week should be spent kissing the ground in gratitude, but there aren’t enough numbers to match the requisite bows for this miracle. But in my mind, I’m making them."

My friend and I get up, shake hands goodbye and I return to pack for the airport. On the way back, I stop at every temple to ring the gong and throw in coins, sending more prayers and gratitude to those watchful Angels, hopes that they will remain ever vigilant and awake. For us all. 

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