Ayumi warns me by e-mail: Please be patient with my English, it has gotten bad because I don’t use it. And: I look older. But she catches herself. I guess we all do. She gives me specific instructions for when and where to meet: the tour is organised so there is a narrow window of time. Friday night. 9pm. Lobby of the Swissotel. Is it a problem to get there?

The CBD is bustling. A few young families, obviously not from here. The Friday night drinks crowd. Girls in heels out for a big night on the town. Seats of cheap Korean restaurants are filled by dozens of young Asian men and women. A gaggle of girls ask me where Kent Street is. I’ve suddenly forgotten but can point them to a map fixed to a post.

I am exactly on time and find them already there. Andy, they exclaim. Ayumi rushes forward, leans into me, pats my back, and I turn towards her mother who smiles broadly and offers me her hand. I was planning on bowing, as low as I could, but she is not as formal as I expected. She is wearing a bright top of floral design with elegant jewelry. I had expected differently. Ayumi had told me about her mother’s problems, how sometimes she would stay on the couch for days at a time, watching TV. I’d predicted crazy, some visible sign.

My mother would not like tea or coffee. She would like something to help her to sleep. So, perhaps we can drink alcohol. Ayumi sounds slightly anxious in her second tongue, as if her mouth isn’t fast enough for her, but her English sounds like the last time I’d heard it. There is a famous hotel bar around the corner. It’s not far away. Only a block. On the way, she tells me, We’ll pay. Let’s be extravagant.

You look good. I’d seen Ayumi three years ago when I was at a conference in her hometown as well as a year before that on vacation. The first time I’d seen her after sixteen years, I was shocked. She had changed though I wasn’t sure how. Her eyes were excited and dull all at once. She had been eating a powdery candy, its traces covering her lips. I couldn’t stop staring at the yellow dust.

Yes, I lost a lot of weight. Ayumi and I have been writing to each other since leaving college. I can remember the square shapes of her handwriting, the delicate paper, and colourful stamps. She wrote her return address in Japanese, and near the end, before we switched to e-mail, I’d copied the Japanese kanji out carefully, though included the English translation just in case. Our routine was that she would tell of her problems: fitting in, failing to get into university, unable to hold down jobs, friendless. I would offer advice: volunteer work, perserverance, counselling, exercise.

The Hilton has door staff, three broad-shouldered imposing men, and a beautiful blonde. A group of people, dressed up, jostle past them and down some stairs. They are holding out cards. Invitations? ID? My nerves jump. Ayumi gestures at her clothes, a light rainjacket over a simple t-shirt. I’d like to show my friends from Japan the bar. Can we get in? I ask. Sure. The doorman gestures towards the stairs without hesitation. The blonde starts to say something, and then shakes her head. Never mind.

But there’s a band playing tonight. Blues. Loud. The interior of the bar is ornate. Roman columns shimmer bronze. Light catches stained pictorial frames. Rich red furnishing and cedar. Designed in 1893, it’s about as old as Sydney gets but I don’t know what else to do but motion at it with my hands. There is nowhere to sit. The customers are beautifully dressed. It’s noisy and crowded, and staff members are shifting leather sofas from the bar to the foyer, almost running over Ayumi’s mother in the process. She has trouble hearing, Ayumi explains. Even in Japanese.

Two floors up, the wine bar is much quieter. We sit at the end of a high table. I get into a complicated exchange with a server who wants a credit card to create a tab. For one drink? He explains that two groups and eight hundred dollars have walked off already tonight. Ayumi’s mother is fidgeting with her purse awkwardly. I tell him, this is awkward, and wait until he leaves.

I can barely find the cocktail list hidden after many pages of Australian wines. Angel’s Eyes, says Ayumi, but it takes me a few times to understand the words. It’s a cocktail her mother had many years ago. But we don’t know what is in it, so I order the house special cocktail for her, an “Australian” (she wants something sweet), a Spanish white from Ribeiro for me, and a mocktail for Ayumi. About three years ago, I got so sick after drinking I decided to never drink again. It’s a good thing, obviously, though at the time I couldn’t blame her. I think I’m an alcoholic, she wrote but I thought: no job, no friends, nothing to do but cook and clean. I’d drink.

We exchange gifts. A large flat paper bag for me. From my father, for you and your boyfriend. I ask whether I should open it, and Ayumi hesitates, then says yes, but I feel awkward to open them here at the bar. Later, a set of two flat paper fans, two folding fans, perfumed, and two sets of 2008 coins from the Japanese mint, in 2005 I’d received from her (and her father) that year’s version. I don’t know anyone who collects coins.

I present mine to them. I know Japan well enough to have prepared. But it’s the same routine: they’ll open their presents at the hotel. So I describe: my latest book signed (even though Ayumi’s sister ordered it and it still might be on its way) and “Runaway” by Alice Munro (beautifully wrapped by the bookstore); for her mother, an Australian version of panforte from Haigh’s and some hand cream made with emu oil (wrapped not-beautifully by me).

When they show me their souvenir photos from Paradise World, each holding a fat, sleepy koala, my exclamations draw the attention of our neighbours at the same table. They add their delighted sounds. They’re confused whether we’re one family, or how we fit together, but are a perfect example of Aussie hospitality and warmth, asking about their trip and wishing them well. The tour, run by a Japanese company linked to their national railways, landed them in Brisbane where they saw Surfer’s Paradise, caves of glow-worms (which would die if you took flash photos), and Lamington National Park (which I’ll look up since I hear both Ramington and Remington). Sheep were sheared for them. They fed small colourful birds, which also perched in their hair and shat on Ayumi’s mother’s hair.

Today, a tour bus drove them past the strip joints at King’s Cross. They had photos taken of themselves in front of the Opera House. Tomorrow, the Blue Mountains; the next day, an early flight with Jetstar. It’s not expensive but they’re never on time. I point outside to the Queen Victoria Building, glowing through the windows of the hotel bar, its Romanesque structures from the turn of last century. Maybe we passed it on the way to King’s Cross? Is it beautiful inside too? But there’s no free time on these tours, no place unguided.

Ayumi’s mother reminds me of a male Japanese friend, a brisk, solid cheeriness. But she stares off into space, partly because Ayumi doesn’t translate our conversations. Ayumi tells me that she was worried about how many sleeping tablets her mother took on the plane trip over, though it was good she slept. Remember I take sleeping pills? Mother has the same problem. The last visit I’d found out her doctor had her on a host of pills. Anti-depressants. Sleeping pills for the last few years, every night. She also had the habit of drinking three litres of diet Coke a day, which she worried cost too much money.

As far as I learned, here is the rest of Ayumi’s life: Her sister did not renew her job at the antenna company. They didn’t ask why, but it is now very crowded for four adults to be in their small apartment at all times. So it is good Ayumi and her mother are away for a little while. Her father is 72 and plays soccer twice a week. Her brother lives in the Philippines with his wife. His employment is precarious but they can’t move back to Japan as his kids speak only Tagalog and English. They have two boys, 12 and 7. The oldest is mentally disabled and counts on his fingers, so learning Japanese would be impossible. Ayumi’s mother visits them twice a year.

Ayumi has discovered facebook, and she writes to our classmates from college. But she confesses, I remember so little about that time. I can’t remember which dormitories everyone lived in. Sometimes I write to people and pretend I remember them, but I don’t. She tells me of those who never wrote back and others who do. I smile at their kindness and wonder what kind of bonds they’ve made with her over the years, and were they ever really friends? I don’t remember either, Ayumi, the rooms people lived in. It doesn’t matter.

But here is a victory. After sixteen years of letters and e-mail, and two face-to-face visits, Ayumi agreed to get out of her house, and to exercise. I took your advice. She goes to aqua-cize every week, without fail. She is still too shy to talk with anyone else, but she likes to listen to the other women’s chatter. She has lost 15 kilos since I last saw her, and is slim. Her face seems stronger, more focused and alive. The doctor says I still should lose more weight. I tell her, no, she looks just fine. For Australia yes, but not Japan. But it couldn’t have only been the exercise. Fifteen kilos. I remember her less healthy but not fat. I got a scale, and I made… and here she points out points on a chart in the air. Yes, a chart and I weighed myself twice a day. I tell her mother to make sure she doesn’t lose too much weight, but I don’t know what Ayumi translates it to.She has also given up Diet Coke, three months ago, and drinks only sparkling water. Congratulations, I say. I’m really proud of you. She leans forward conspiratorially. I heard it can kill you anyways. Aspartame.

Thank you. For writing to me all these years. I think I complain too much. When I write to college friends and tell them about my problems, my mother’s, people don’t write back.

You don’t complain too much. I’m being truthful. The last years she writes of the weather, whether she’s trying to read an English book. Maybe when you write to our classmates, try not to complain. Write of the good things. Tell them about your trip to Australia.

Ayumi’s mother pays our bill. I walk them back to their hotel. When Ayumi and I hug good-bye, it is a soft clash of bones and cartilage, not an embrace. I wonder if it’s stereotype and condescension to wonder if she has ever been held, whether she is held, ever, these days.

At home, my mac computer informs me that an Angel’s Kiss cocktail has white creme de cacao, gin, brandy and cream while Angel’s Eyes has cola, tequila and orange juice. Did I get the name right? Was it of fruit or milk? It’s these details we miss, what we think is untranslatable or what we could never put into words. What country? What bar? Was it of a certain time and place, or simply made up by one person alone?


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