“Would you like to have dinner with me tonight?”
“Yes,” she replied, to my great astonishment.
I was on a business trip to Europe and as my timing happened to be good, I decided to attend a Hi-Fi show in Milan. I had been to Italy many times before and was always impressed with Italian design and aesthetics. In Milan, stores have magnificent displays, lighting is flawless, and colors are matched perfectly. While having a drink in a café late one afternoon a couple of handsomely dressed young men entered, followed by a procession of the most stylish women I have ever seen. It was the end of the workday and this particular watering place, near the fashion district, suddenly filled with the most beautiful people I have ever seen. After such an impressive display, I couldn’t wait to visit the show and see how the Italians do it.
The directions to the show bus were vague and when I exited the subway station I was lost. After a few minutes I saw a crowd of people waiting for a bus. They were a seedy group of schleppy-looking middle-aged men, mostly unkempt, and poorly dressed. This couldn’t be the line for the show, could it? I then recognized one of them, an English journalist, and my heart sank. As I now feared, the show, with a very few exceptions, wasn’t going to be any different than any U.S. show: poor design, with poorly dressed people.
I had arranged a meeting with the sales manager of a Japanese company and to my surprise, she was a woman. Impeccably dressed, Masumi was tall and elegant, her English was perfect and she was very professional. We conducted our business and after a short while, we separated.
Later in the day, as the show was closing for the night, I bumped into her and on a whim, asked her what she was doing that evening.
“I have no plans,” she answered.
So I asked her to dinner. One of the disadvantages of travelling for business is loneliness. It always sounds glamorous to travel to somewhat exotic places, but at the end of the day, you are alone in your hotel room in a strange city. For all her poise and confidence, I sensed that Masumi was alone in her world, too.
She thought for a moment and then said she would be happy to join me. We cabbed it back to my hotel in via Camperio and after a drink in the bar, she told me that she is often asked to dinner but always refuses to go.
“Why did you accept my invitation?” I asked.
“I don’t quite know. There was something nice about you, so I said yes.”
We headed down the street to a local restaurant. I have visited Japan many times and making small talk with Japanese can be challenging. It was no different with Masumi. The natural formality of the Japanese is difficult to penetrate and try as I could, using all my charm and humor, I couldn’t get her to lighten up, until the end of the second bottle of wine. Then a transformation began and she started to talk about her life.
She was married to a man she didn’t love. She had married him for two reasons: he was taller than she was, and he asked her to marry him. After the ceremony her husband and parents pushed her to become a good, stay-at-home housewife, but she broke with taboo and resisted. This led to conflict and estrangement, and she and her husband now led separate lives.
“What do you do to fill the space?” I asked.
“Women like me have three options,” she answered. “Alcohol, the credit card, or the Hare Krishna.” She hadn’t decided which one, if any, was for her.
I then asked her about sex.
“Don’t you have it? Don’t you miss it?”
She looked at me with a tear in her eye and said,
My heart went out to her as she quietly sobbed.
When she had composed herself, I called for the check and put her into a cab. The next morning I met her at the show. She gave me a formal “Good morning,” with no hint of recognition or intimacy.
I never saw her again.