••• The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes Life Stories
"Are You Not Crazy?"
James C. Clar
“… but each [an] ‘isolato’ living on a separate continent of his own.” Herman Mellville
Sabrina’s, at the corner of Waialae Avenue and St. Louis Drive, has stood the test of time. Down from the rain-washed slopes of the University of Hawaii at Manoa and a few blocks from the foodie paradise of Kaimuki, it’s one of the few authentically Italian restaurants in Honolulu. For twenty years and running, the eponymous and classy Sabrina has waited tables. Her husband, Stefano, does the bulk of the cooking. They came to the islands from Rome. Their tiny, casual and somewhat faded looking establishment is a favorite of locals as well as the occasional tourist who’s savvy enough to escape the crowds and higher prices of nearby Waikiki. The food is good, the service solid and you can bring your own bottle. Predicable and consistent, it’s the kind of place where nothing unusual ever happens … until it does!
One weeknight a few months ago my wife Kathy, our best friend Mayumi and her daughter (our “niece”) Maile arranged to meet at Sabrina’s to celebrate, well, a weeknight! We were all traveling separately. I took the TheBus. Kathy and Mayumi drove together while Maile planned the short walk down the hill from UH.
Unaccountably, I arrived first. Traffic had been light and the notoriously fickle elder-gods of public transportation had been particularly gracious. An avid amateur photographer I, of course, had my trusty Nikon in tow. Over the years I had gained a reputation as the “camera haole.” I was recognized by security personnel all over the island and afforded access to places normally considered “off limits” because everyone knew I was there simply to snap a quick photo and, once done, would disappear as quickly and unobtrusively as I had materialized. There were times, however, when my timing was a bit off.
Seeing me sitting on one of the benches in front of her place like a castaway, Sabrina unlocked the door a few moments before the official opening time. She greeted me with a kiss and showed me to our “usual” table. As I sat down I waved mentally to the (de rigueur) framed photographs of my old friends: Frank Sinatra, Marcello Mastroianni and, of course, Sophia Loren. They hung somewhat askew on the walls around me and were coated with the airborne effects of years of inadequate ventilation and good Italian cooking. Restraint, not being one of my finer points, I opened the bottle of Barbara D’Asti I had purchased up the hill at Tamura’s. While waiting for the ohana to arrive, I continued to work on the crossword I had started on the bus.
Sabrina’s is in a small strip mall across the street from City Mill hardware store. While the view is not likely to be something you’d find in a tourist brochure advertising the beauty of the islands, she does have two small bay windows framing her front door. Outside are flower pots with hibiscus as well as trellises from which bright blue and red bougainvillea drape. With sunlight streaming in the overall effect is quite picturesque and softens the view of the parking lot and street beyond.
Some movement outside or, maybe, a small alteration in the light and shadow in the room caused me to look up from my paper. Through one of the windows I caught sight of two Japanese women. One was my age, late-50 or early 60’s while the other was younger, maybe 35 or so. I’m guessing at the ages of course since I have a notoriously difficult time judging a woman’s age. Both women were attractive and extremely well-dressed, especially for a low-key place like Sabrina’s. The younger of the two was bending down slightly while the older woman was applying make-up or powder to her friend’s face with a pad from an old-fashioned style compact.
The scene was so charming, I couldn’t resist. I grabbed my camera and crept surreptitiously to the window to capture the moment. Just as I was about to take the picture, the older woman completed her ministrations and her younger companion stood up straight. As she did so she looked in through the window and caught me in the act. Embarrassed to have been “busted” so flagrantly, I smiled nervously and waved as I sat back down. Seemingly unperturbed, the young lady flashed a radiant smile and waved back. They entered the restaurant and, as if acting out a script I had not yet read, headed straight for my table.
I stood up quickly and, expecting the worst, launched into a profuse apology. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I know that was rude but it was such a charming scene I had to take a picture. Two such lovely ladies …” yadda, yadda! Both woman looked at me with nearly total incomprehension. I repeated my apology, this time gesticulating freely and thus attempting to convey even greater sincerity.
The older woman put her hand on her partner’s shoulder and in fractured English declared, “This is ‘Stephanie’.” Stephanie inclined her head and offered me her cheek. Instinctively I complied with a light peck. The two ladies sat down across from me and, of course, smiled.
It was a moment or two before I actually processed what had just transpired. ‘Processed’ but in no way understood. I put my arms in front of me, hands outstretched with palms up. I hunched my shoulders in the universal “WTF” gesture. No response. I apologized again, this time explaining that the seats the ladies were occupying belonged to my wife and friends who would be arriving momentarily, thank you very much. I concluded with the classic, “There must be some misunderstanding?” I was beginning to feel like a character in an Alfred Hitchcock movie, maybe North by Northwest. Either that or, unbeknownst to me, Sabrina’s had become the subject of a reality TV show.
My two companions just stared at one another, if anything their incomprehension had increased … as had my desperation. I tried yet again to explain. I resorted to the very few Japanese expressions I knew; none of which actually pertained to this situation. Had the women not been equally as confused, I suspect they would have been chuckling at the ludicrous nature of my efforts. Finally, after a moment or two of silence so pregnant it was about to give birth, the older of the two ladies asked in halting English: “Are you not Gary?”
“Gary?” I repeated. “Who the hell is ‘Gary’? I’m not Gary. I don’t know anyone named Gary! What on earth are you talking about?” I couldn’t help myself. I began to laugh. A situation which had been bizarre to begin with had now become downright comical.
I stood up. My newly found friends began talking to one another in rapid-fire Japanese. I had no way of knowing if they had understood me. They seemed only mildly concerned by the sharp left turn things had taken. I looked around for help but Sabrina had disappeared and no one else had yet entered the restaurant. My two lovely tablemates looked up at me.
“So, you not Gary?” The question was phrased as though I had somehow been unsure of my true identity when I answered the first time.
I was about to reply with even more conviction, not to mention desperation, when the door opened and Kathy, Mayumi and Maile arrived.
“They think I’m some guy named ‘Gary’!” I said. “I was just taking a picture. Next thing you know, they’re sitting down at the table.” I was babbling. Somehow Kathy – who was no stranger to the situations my camera sometimes involved me in – intuited what had probably happened in this case; or at least closely enough to comprehend my plight. Mercifully as well, Mayumi (from Okinawa originally) and Maile spoke fluent Japanese.
Hearing the heightened level of conversation, Sabrina herself emerged from the kitchen area as the explanations commenced. Here’s what seems to have happened.
Utilizing some sort of dating service Stephanie, from her home in Japan, had begun an online “romance” with a guy from California named, obviously enough, Gary. The two decided to meet for the first time face-to-face in Hawaii, midway between their homes. How they decided upon Sabrina’s as the particular spot for their rendezvous was not clear.
The older woman, whose name was Fumiko, was acting as Stephanie’s companion or chaperone. We never learned if Fumiko’s role in that capacity was part of the package provided by the dating service or whether she was simply a friend recruited for that purpose with, maybe, a trip to Hawaii as compensation. It certainly wasn’t because of her facility with English.
A little while later, after we were all settled at our respective tables – and after more than a few repeated apologies, nervous chuckles, some blushing and respectful bowing all around – Gary himself made his entrance. Damn! He was a little taller, a tad heavier and a little older but, even taking all of that into account, he was my doppelganger … right down to the salt and pepper beard and glasses. If all Stephanie had seen of him had been photos exchanged via email or online, given my inadvertent overture, the snafu that ensued was understandable.
We finished our meals, said our goodbyes to Sabrina and left with only a brief wave to Stephanie, Gary and Fumiko who were still eating. From the few glances I had stolen in their direction during dinner, Gary and Stephanie seemed quite taken with one another. Gary’s Japanese must have been far better than mine! I silently wished them the best.
In the weeks since my encounter I’ve found myself thinking a great deal about what transpired. The first thing that strikes me is the utter coincidence of it all. How did Stephanie and Gary, from two such disparate places, settle on an obscure little restaurant like Sabrina’s for their first meeting?
The improbable fact that I looked a little like Gary aside, what were the chances that the three of us would end up in the same restaurant at the same time? Had Fumiko not stopped to adjust Stephanie’s make up – and had I not attempted to take their picture and been spotted – would Stephanie even have mistaken me for Gary in the first place? What if my wife and friends had arrived before me? It was almost too much to take. The planets must have been aligned in just the right, or wrong, way.
Most of all, however, I’ve been left with an overwhelming reminder of how fortunate I am. My wife and I have been married now for thirty-two years. I cannot imagine what it would be like without her; and that despite my facetious suggestion that had I pretended to be Gary I could have “upgraded” spouses by twenty-years or so! Her advice as to what I might do with my camera was not pretty.
All joking aside, while there are perhaps more ways to connect and to stay connected today than ever before, there conversely seems to be even more loneliness and alienation than ever before as well. The paradox is quite pronounced, as many before me have observed.
I can only begin to speculate as to what Gary’s particular circumstances are or were. Perhaps a lonely, lifetime bachelor or a recent widower? As for Stephanie, I have been given to understand that dating has become quite difficult in Japan. Females looking for a mate, particularly those in their 30’s like Stephanie, face an uphill struggle from both a cultural and demographic standpoint. Given the law of supply and demand, it doesn’t surprise me in the least that services have indeed sprung up to assist women like her.
In the end, I guess I’ll never really know the exact details of Gary’s and Stephanie’s story, neither its precise beginning nor its ending. Still, it has made for great conversation over a cocktail or two, that’s for sure. Friends to whom I’ve related my encounter in Sabrina’s that evening have taken to calling me “Gary.” Inevitably, predictably, they conclude by inquiring after “Steph’” amid good natured laughter and smiles all around.
Despite the undeniable humor of the whole situation, there is also a poignancy to this story. Two “isolatoes” as Melville might call them, Gary and Stephanie, meeting on a speck of land in the middle of the Pacific; on in fact the most remote archipelago in the world, some 2,300 miles from the nearest significant landmass. The irony is palpable.
But then again, maybe not. Islands are notoriously places where things – and people – wash ashore. This may indeed be a story that could only have taken place on an island, and an island like Oahu in particular. Oahu is known as the “gathering place.” Still today, it’s the crossroads of the Pacific, a crowded melting pot and meeting place … a place where fortunes are made and lost, romances are begun and plots are hatched. Like most islands, it’s also a place where identities are mistaken or created outright as well as a place where people go to reinvent themselves. And all to the soft susurration of the palms and the tender caress of the trade winds. A novelist couldn’t ask for a better setting.
Who knows? Islands are also places of enchantment where dreams sometimes come true. Maybe there is a ray of hope at the end of this particular story set in the land of the rainbow. The ladies in my Life – Kathy, Mayumi and Maile – are convinced that Gary and Stephanie will make a “go” of it. They are so certain in fact that they keep challenging me to make a bet with them; that the two lovebirds will show up again to celebrate one of their “anniversaries.” I’m not so sure. Still I’m going to be doubly certain to take my camera every time we go back to Sabrina’s. I want to be ready just in case!
© James C. Clar July 2018
jcc55883 at aol.com
BIO: James C. Clar has published short fiction, essays, book reviews and author interviews in print as well as on the Internet. He and his wife divide their time between snowy western New York and the sunny shores of southeastern Oahu.
James C. Clar
“Excuse me sir, are you the caretaker here?”
My inquiry was met with the kind of deep silence that only the Japanese have truly mastered.
James C Clar
"They were nearly all Islanders
I call such, not acknowledging
the common continent of men, but each isolato living on a separate
continent of his own.
Yet now, federated along one keel, what a set these Isolatoes were!"
James C. Clar
sipped a glass of California Cabernet as he sat in a booth at Trattoria
on Kalia Road between Lewers Street and Beach Walk in the heart
more life moments