On my third day in the hospital, I was finally allowed to join others in the common area and eat my first meal of solid food. And by solid food, I mean okayu with absolutely no seasoning. For the uninitiated, okayu is what happens when you boil your rice for way, way, way too long. It's a lot like watered-down paste. Made from rice. My first meal after three days consisted solely of okayu rice paste and weak tea. Yummmm. But sitting there, gloomily considering the gustatory challenge before me (after all, if I didn't eat it, I wouldn't be promoted to better food and couldn't secure my discharge), I had a chance to look around the room and see for the first time all of my Miyajima 3 floormates. They were either very old or what appeared to be members of the local motorcycle gang (bozozoku).
As I scanned the room, I noticed a not-white-haired, non-bozozoku, and (gasp!) tall Japanese man helping carry trays to various immobile patients. Maybe it was his matching yellow-striped pajamas, maybe it was the fact that he seemed to be born in the same generation as me, maybe it was his towering height (he was surrounded by old people, after all), or maybe it was the kindness he demonstrated to his fellow patients, but Ren stood out to me the moment I first saw him.
Almost immediately, I got the sense that I really needed to talk to that strange, tall man in the matching pajamas. So, after the trays were put away, I lingered in the common area and pretended to study the pictures of mountains hanging on the wall.
"Those are the Japan Alps," said a voice from behind. No kidding. As if reading my mind, Ren walked up to me and started telling me about all the pictures on the wall. From that first conversation, I learned a couple of astounding things. First, Ren, like me, was an avid hiker and spent as much of his free time as possible in the mountains. Second, his father was born and raised in the tiny mountain hamlet that had become my home. The conversation was brief and soon we returned to our rooms.
That night, Ren appeared in my dream. In the dream, we were sleeping side by side. It was a profoundly peaceful dream. Okay, let me stop for a minute (again) and emphasize the point that I don't normally dream about men, or sleeping with men, or sleeping with tall strangers in matching pajamas. But, there you have it, from the first time Ren and I spoke, he had clearly inhabited my subconscious.
"Weird," I thought when I woke up the next morning. It wasn't like I suddenly realized he was the man I'd been waiting for (Ha!). It wasn't even like I planned to talk to him again. But, I did find myself spending more and more time in the common room. And somehow Ren usually showed up. Later I learned that he spent his time waiting for me to go to the common room and then resisting the urge to run out and talk to me whenever he saw me there. But I didn't know that at the time.
When the day of my release finally came, I packed my bag and sat on the bed waiting for my neighbor to come get me. As I sat there waiting, I felt unexpected pangs of regret knowing I would never figure out what was going on with the tall stranger in the hospital room next door. I didn't even know if Ren knew I was leaving, and I certainly had no idea whether he liked me or not. Eventually, I convinced myself that too much free time relaxing in a hospital bed had made me crazy. I barely knew the guy, after all.
This is what I was thinking as I left the room and started walking toward the elevator. My heart started to race a bit when I realized Ren was sitting at a table between me and the elevator talking to a friend. I had no idea what to say as I walked past, or whether I should say anything, or whether I should even acknowledge him.
He stood up.
If you know me, you know I am not in the least bit romantic, or melodramatic, or prone to much in the way of sappiness, but when he stood up, I swear I could hear violins swell and everything else fell away leaving just the two of us.
"Jya, odaiji ni (Get well soon)," he said.
"Arigatou (Thanks)," I replied.
And then I walked to the elevator, out of the hospital, and to the car, and made my back up into the mountains.
To be continued...