She lived in the most unlikely of places, at the very top of “Love Hotel Hill,” the sleaziest part of Shibuya’s nightlife district.
As I made the familiar walk up there along the narrow, winding back streets, passing the flashing, pink neon signs of cabaret clubs and strip joints, next to dark, anonymous doors hiding illegal casinos and other shady businesses, all mixed up with regular bars and cheap restaurants, I crossed paths with droves of rowdy youngsters and office workers out to grab a few drinks to fight off the cold December weather, cuddling couples of all ages and walks of life on their way up to some particular hotel that catered to their specific desires for a few hours of intimacy, along with some lonely, lost souls wandering around with emptiness in their eyes, making easy targets for shady gang members overseeing most of the activity taking place on Love Hotel Hill.
And then there was me, wearing my best suit, polished black shoes, and sporting a new, short haircut, as I always did for this special occasion.
“Once a month for almost three years straight now,” I mumbled, as I buttoned up my cashmere coat all the way to the top, wondering if it was finally going to snow tonight, as it usually did once a year in Tokyo.
I did the numbers in my head and realized that I must have met with Ms. Ochiai – that was her name - at least thirty times, but she still hadn’t bought a single item from me. No Chanel jacket. None of those expensive Italian bags or pieces of jewelry that I had offered her. Not even a leather key holder in spite of all my attempts, always putting on my very best sales manners. I kept asking myself what the point was of repeating this process every single month, and why always in the evening?
“She’s almost ninety, for crying out loud!” I burst out in a voice much louder than intended, making the young couple walking in front of me turn around and stare at me the way you look at a crazy person, turning their gaze away again quickly, denying me the opportunity to pretend that I was on the phone. I heard whispers being exchanged between them, followed by another brief look, and then muffled laughter as they turned away onto a side street.
I ignored them and walked on, in an even worse mood than before.
“I thought people of her age woke up at sunrise and slept before eight, like Grandma always did. Weird old lady!” I continued, now keeping my voice down to an angry whisper - I was too frustrated to let my mind operate in solitude without orally blowing off some steam.
All I knew about Ms. Ochiai, apart from all her stories of course, was her age, where she lived, and that she was the widow of a very wealthy man of influence in the dealings on Love Hotel Hill; some hotel developer or something rumored to have had ties with the underworld, although nobody seemed to really know anymore since it was so long ago.
My work as a department store salesman exclusively dedicated to serving our very richest customers at their homes was very different from the everyday life I was used to on the sales floor. I actually quite liked my assignment, which consisted of spending every day visiting the most affluent residential areas in Tokyo to pamper our VIPs, rather than being stuck inside the stuffy department store all day. Most of the customers would make large purchases every time I visited them, happily accepting my recommendations of specially selected luxury items, based on their particular taste that I knew well by this time.
Then there was that handful of customers who were more difficult to convince, but after a few persistent visits, they would end up buying something, often spending a small fortune, easily making up for my time spent with them.
And then there was Ms. Ochiai. Everybody in my company knew about her, although few had met her since she hadn’t set foot in our store for decades. The only way to serve her was to visit her home, which was how my predecessors had eventually managed to place giant orders with her, keeping our bosses happy. Now the turn had come to me, and I wasn’t doing well at all; not a single purchase in three years was a new company record by far and the reason for my mounting frustration.
By this time I had almost given up, in spite of knowing too well that I would probably never get promoted until I broke through to her. All of my colleagues knew of my predicament, some of them still giving me cheerful support when the topic came up, others making fun of me behind my back, apparently convinced they could do a better job themselves.
My heart was heavy as I turned onto another alley zigzagging further up the hill, with love hotels lining both sides, their discreet, yet extravagant entrances beckoning to the slowly walking couples that I was involuntarily mixed up with. Feeling out of place, I took a deep breath and started my usual process of kicking myself into sales-mode by forcing an awkward grin across my face as I ran through in my mind the standard phrases of courtesy ahead of my meeting.
After climbing a narrow staircase I arrived at a straight, flat street at the very top of the hill. At the end of it stood a giant, white building that I knew my daughter Aoi would have loved since it resembled the Cinderella Castle at Disneyland. Given its location, though, had there only been a signboard with pictures of rooms and prices at the front, anyone would have mistaken it for yet another love hotel, and there were theories that in fact it had operated as one decades ago catering exclusively to the wealthiest and most secretive customers, including high profile politicians.
“Alright, let’s get this over with!” I said out loud, as I arrived in front of the white double door decorated with golden ornaments and the name “Ochiai,” written boldly across it.
The familiar click from the lock came so soon after I rang the doorbell that I wondered whether Ms. Ochiai had actually been waiting for me right inside. The left door opened slowly, and the usual process followed of me offering a series of the politest greeting phrases that were linguistically conceivable, while bowing deeply and repetitively, and her simultaneously trying to make me feel comfortable by offering appropriate language to assure me that I was most welcome and wasn’t in any way disturbing her.
This ritual continued as she showed me into the usual room for meeting guests, and when I walked in, I remembered how impressed I had been during my first visit by the white marble floor, the sparkling crystal chandeliers, the precious artwork and white sculptures that looked like they could just as well have been on display at The Louvres in Paris, and of course the sheer size of this but one corner of her mansion that I had the privilege to enter.
I sat down on the red satin sofa as usual, as she excused herself to go and get me coffee. “Chanel dress…the white one,” I mumbled after she disappeared, knowing it was one of my predecessors who had made that sale. At least one size smaller would have been a better fit for Ms. Ochiai’s now feeble-looking and tiny stature; the iconic shoulder pads of her jacket desperately clinging on to her thin structure to give the appearance of perfect proportions, something that I was sure had been the subject of admiration by many in her youth.
She soon returned with coffee and biscuits, and the next step of the process began. This was a phase of our interaction that I had by now polished to perfection, able to entirely anticipate every change of her mood, every minute gesture of her hands and face, knowing exactly what reaction from my side made her feel comfortable and relaxed, making sure she was fully enjoying our conversation; in other words being a perfect listener and companion to her.
Ms. Ochiai started off by talking about one of her many trips to Paris long ago, as I attentively listened with wide eyes, pretending to be surprised when appropriate, breaking out in laughter when I knew she expected me to, and falling into deep thought when so required from her vivid description of the beauty and mystique of such a wonderful city that I knew I would never have the opportunity to visit.
I watched her old and wrinkled face, conveying nothing but kindness and warmth, almost completely white from too much foundation in stark contrast with her burgundy red lipstick and long, black fake eyelashes, as she with passion and excitement, sometimes tripping on words, relived one of her most treasured experiences as if it was happening in the present.
Thirty minutes passed. Then an hour. After a second cup of coffee I excused myself to go to the toilet, apologizing for the inconvenience caused while doing my very best not to make her believe I needed a brief break from her company. She kindly smiled at me and showed me the way.
To my disappointment I realized that I had left my phone on the table next to the product catalogues, having missed the opportunity to send a quick apology to Aoi for being late for dinner – after all I had promised to be home early for her seventh birthday!
When I came back, to my surprise Ms. Ochiai was looking through the catalogues with a serious expression on her kind face, and even before I sat down she said, “Could you please get me this one,” pointing at one of the most expensive necklaces we had to offer. Before I even got a chance to ask whether she was sure, given the price tag, which easily exceeded my annual salary, she picked up another brochure and continued pointing, “And this one here. Also this nice bag, please. Maybe I need a new coat, too.”
I busily jotted down everything, and when she was done, I got my calculator out and with shaking fingers punched in the numbers first once, and then again just to make sure I didn’t make any mistake.
I felt my heart pounding as I showed her the total amount and said, trying to keep my voice steady, “Are you sure you want all these items, Ms. Ochiai? If you prefer, you can think it over and I would of course be more than happy to come back again tomorrow?”
“Of course I’m sure,” she said, smiling warmly at me before taking out her credit card.
I went through the steps of finalizing the purchase as she watched me in silence, and when everything was done, I stood up and bowed deeper than I had to any customer in my entire life. She walked me out with slow steps, and just as I finished thanking her again and wishing her a nice evening, she said in a voice that sounded deeper than before, maybe with a touch of sadness even, “I have very much appreciated your visits. I wish you a pleasant birthday dinner tonight.”
Before I could think of anything to say, she added, “Goodnight,” nodded slightly and closed the door.
I stood there staring in confusion at the door, overwhelmed with questions. Was that a farewell? How did she know it was Aoi’s birthday? And why, after three long years of no purchases at all, had today been the big day? More than ten items in a few minutes, as if she was in a rush after I got back from the toilet. Surely the purchase amount was a new record for a single customer in a day. A wide smile spread across my face as I imagined the reaction of my colleagues and boss when I told them. Finally success; my career was back on track!
Finding no answers to her behavior, I shrugged my shoulders, convincing myself that it was only natural that she finally opened up her wallet after all my efforts and impeccable salesmanship. After all, I did have a pretty impressive track record with my other customers, so why not Ms. Ochiai?
I started walking back down the hill with light steps, humming on Aoi’s favorite Disney song as I got my phone out to finally send her a message that I was on my way home.
Suddenly I froze in my tracks. There had been a call from Aoi just fifteen minutes earlier lasting for over two minutes! How was it possible? My mind was racing for an explanation, and a moment later it hit me: Ms. Ochiai must have taken the call when I was in the toilet!
But who would answer somebody else’s phone?
Maybe it was the most natural thing in the world for someone of Ms. Ochiai’s age and generation, seeing Aoi’s smiling face appear on the display wanting to talk to her dad. She must have spoken to Aoi and that’s how she knew it was her birthday. Feeling guilty for taking up any more of my time, Ms. Ochiai then started placing her orders, perhaps also as her way of repaying me for the numerous conversations during the past three years? Her way of thanking me! And of course she must have known that there would be some new sales person taking over my role; after all, that’s what had happened every previous time when she finally made a purchase. It really was a goodbye!
Gratitude filled me, and suddenly feeling overwhelmed by the consideration and kindness this old lady had shown me in such a subtle and discreet way, not even letting me know directly that it was also her way of saying goodbye, I felt an urge to thank her properly, full of regret for not having realized what was happening sooner.
I dashed down to the main street and entered the first flower shop I could find, asking them to quickly prepare a giant bouquet, as I sat down and crafted as polite and thoughtful a thank-you note that I was capable of.
A few minutes later I was standing in front of the white door again with the bouquet in hand, ringing the bell while trying to catch my breath. There was no answer. One more time, but still no answer.
I figured Ms. Ochiai must have gone to bed, so I carefully placed the bouquet on the porch with the card clearly visible, took a step back, bowed deeply and said “Thank you!” out loud, not paying any attention to the people passing by behind me.
I finally realized that all the time there had been a much deeper meaning – a more profound dimension – to my relationship with Ms. Ochiai than just making that sale to advance my career, and with conviction I started typing a message to my boss to report on the evening’s business, finishing off with a request to remain in charge of Ms. Ochiai’s account even after being transferred back to the sales floor.
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