L’amour est un oiseau rebelle (Love is a rebellious bird)
Que nul ne peut apprivoiser (That none can tame)
–Habanera, from George Bizet’s Carmen
There’s no warning to a lightning strike. If you’re lucky, you might feel the change in pressure in the air, the hairs on your arm standing on end, and you might at least get an idea of what’s about to happen, but there’s no anticipating it. No predicting it. And certainly no preventing it. When lightning strikes all you can really do is hang on, and know you’ll have one hell of a story afterwards.
This past Saturday, on my way to fixing my craving for some authentic Japanese soba (buckwheat noodles) at a restaurant near my home, I was struck by lightning. But instead of a bright and blinding light and electrical shock running through my body, I just ran into a small, lovely, incredibly friendly and entertaining Japanese woman.
From the parking garage to the soba restaurant is about a five minute walk crossing two very busy streets. As I’m waiting at the first one this tiny little Asian lady walks up and waits beside me. The lights change, and change again, and nothing happens for us, so she says in fluent English with a strong Japanese accent, ‘I don’t think this light works. I’m going to run for it.’ Look I have no doubt she could make the crossing no problem, but I’m not about to risk being the guy standing at the crosswalk while his Asian aunt gets run over by some unaware driver. So I pace out onto the street with her and just make sure I’m between her and traffic. We get to the second crossing and this time the light actually behaves for us and, I notice, we just keep continuing on in the same direction.
Seeing as we just survived a near-death experience and we seem to be kindred spirits on the same path for at least a little while, we strike up conversation. I forget who started talking to whom, but friendly chatter and some casual facts are shared. We both hate that the new garage is further from all the restaurants and actual main part of town. We both go into this town often but are from other areas (me from a different part of north Jersey and her from Manhattan). And we’re both right now heading to lunch.
Okay, I think as we continue walking in the same direction together and my soba restaurant comes into view, now I actually do want to know where she’s headed.
‘So where are you having lunch today?’ I ask her.
‘Oh every Saturday I like to drive here and then have lunch at this soba restaurant.’ She replies.
‘No way! I’m actually headed there as well!’
‘Well then, why don’t we just have lunch together?’
A bright flash. A crackle of white. A boom of thunder.
First of all, when she said she came here every Saturday, I believed her. I come to this place often enough to know it’s good food, authentic handmade soba prepared in the restaurant (which is incredibly rare), and that the owner is a charming elderly Japanese man. She not only knew of the owner, but immediately greeted, and was greeted by, him in Japanese and straight away had a table prepared for the two of us. She greeted every member of staff personally and shared some of their details with me.
She has family in Tokyo, and she’s the only one here right now.
He used to be just a busser but look now he takes orders!
She’s going away to the University of Hawaii next week! It’s her last day here and I didn’t want to miss saying goodbye.
And to each one of them she happily joked, ‘Look! I’m taking my grandson out for lunch!’
We browse the menus, even though being the obsessive foodie that I am I’ve already studied this menu over and over for the past three days thinking about and fantasizing about my order already. I wait an appropriate amount of time to pretend like I just came to my decision. She gives me some extra Japanese tips, like which dishes were just added because of the season, and which ones are best to have during the hot or cold months. We both order and now we have a chance to really get to know each other.
Waiting at that crosswalk ten minutes ago I had no idea who this woman was, or what her story was, or how incredibly fate works in getting the right people to the right place at the right time.
Her name is Emi, Emi Peluso, and I don’t think she or I would mind putting her name out there because she’s lived a good deal of her life in the public eye to begin with. She was born in, and grew up on, the island of Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. Though her family was primarily Buddhist she alone converted to Catholicism at an early age because, as she said, ‘she fell in love with how beautiful little Catholic girls looked like in pictures and paintings, their hands clapped together in prayer’. She studied to be an opera singer and graduated from the Tokyo College of Music. After performing in Japan she moved to New York to continue to pursue her singing career, though this was before recordings could have preserved her performances. She told me what it was like being the third daughter among four children, all girls. She was, as she put it, ‘the forgotten one’, the rebel who had to piece her life together on her own. She was the only Catholic, the only musician, and she was the only one who left Japan, left their island of Shikoku, where they all are still. I got to hear stories of what it was like growing up in Japan, studying opera, how hard she had to work to get her parents to accept all these things that made her different. How her study and passion had led her to New York. What it was like moving to a new city not knowing a word of English, only having opera to get doors to open for her.
She told me about her family and her home, but the real spark was how much she talked about love. Two years ago her mother passed away, and her father (going strong at 99) picked up the practice of writing daily haiku (Japanese short poems) in memory of her and their love. Last year she was in Japan for his 99th and as a surprise for the family, he read aloud some of these haiku. She was so happy and animated to tell me how sweet and loving and beautiful they were, and how writing them seemed to save her father, keeping his mind sharp and his spirit strong. Her own life has also been a fascinating and beautiful story of life. Obviously this Japanese girl from Shikoku did not originally have the surname ‘Peluso’. At an audition just two months after moving to New York, while waiting for others to finish, she heard the most beautiful tenor coming out of this young, handsome, Italian-American boy from Brooklyn. With his charming smile, young good looks, shiny slicked back hair, and his love for fine-tailored Italian suits, she pegged him for a playboy. And the one main warning her mother gave her before moving to America was, ‘stay away from the playboys!’ So she did. But they both got parts in the same production and she would listen to him sing and be amazed, but they never spoke a word to each other. Until opening night, after the final curtain fell, when he came up to her with a bouquet of flowers, and said the most incredible, unbelievable thing she’d ever heard. ‘I’ve been talking about you to my family non-stop, and they’d really love to meet you’.
I died laughing. It was just so awkward, so beautiful, so romantic. They had never spoken, never went on any dates, but apparently he was so smitten with her he just kept babbling about her to his parents that they thought they were already dating. Obviously, she said no. But she did agree to go out on a date with him to get to know this ridiculous young man. On their first date he took her up to his apartment on 66th Street, walking distance from the Lincoln Center (where they would have countless dates at the opera) with an incredible view overlooking Central Park. She joked that apart from the man, she could have fallen in love just from the view. Two weeks later, she moved in with him. ‘He treated me like a princess, I felt in my heart really special and important’. Whenever they fought he would stay home with her, talking to her, consoling her, never leaving her side until she felt better. They had their wedding and honeymoon in Hawaii. For their ten year anniversary, he surprised her with a beautiful painting he had commissioned of a photo of her in her wedding dress looking out into a Hawaiian sunset.
Three years ago he passed away. They tried, but never could have any children. He was twelve years her senior and had married before, leaving behind a daughter and four grandchildren. She still lives in the same apartment, with the same view she fell in love with, surrounded by memories of the man she loved. Turns out this building was a hotbed for performers and singers of the time. Imagine my shock when I learned that some of her best friends and neighbors were the likes of Luciano Pavarotti and Marilyn Horne! She was casually listing off some of the greatest and most famous singing talents the same way I’d talk about the family who lives next door. In fact Marilyn was at her husband’s funeral, and surprised everyone there with the honor and pleasure of an impromptu performance. She sang not only for the memory of this man, but for her love of Emi and the desire to comfort her and give her something beautiful to take some of the pain away. Below is a video of Marilyn Horne singing Habanera from Carmen. This was one of her most famous roles and even according to Emi, one of her best. Since then she’s kept busy, taking French lessons in the city and occasionally meeting with old friends. But, like this Saturday could have been, most of her days are lonely, and she says that sometimes she goes whole days without saying a word to anyone.
What absolutely struck me was how memorable and how vivid their relationship was. It seemed like if I had given her the opportunity she could have gone on forever about how much she loved him and how much he loved her. Nights spent together. The good times and the bad. And it amazed me how connected she still was to the memories. Often times I see people, after experiencing loss, try to distance themselves from the reminders. Good and bad relationships alike, some people just aren’t strong enough or willing to put themselves through the process of remembering all the time. Yet here was this woman dedicated to the memory of her love. In fact she told me that this past summer she went back to Hawaii, looked up the judge who married them, and found him again and visited him! He was 89! But she wanted to retrace the steps of their honeymoon. See familiar places and faces. Watching her mannerisms, her expressions, listening to the rise and fall of her voice, I could tell how happy she was to be sharing these stories and how much it meant to her. The same way I might talk to you about food, she would talk to you about love.
I’m never one to shy away from meeting new people, and making friends out of strangers is an important skill to have when you travel, especially alone, like I do. But I make ‘friends of the moment’. I share brief but intense bonding experiences with kindred souls at bars or wander city streets with the equally inquisitive. I relish them for what they are, personal mementos of trips, a soul connection souvenir. But there was something very different about having this completely random happenstance lunch with Emi. I wanted to learn more about this love she had. Wanted to know where a love like that could come from, grow from, and grow into. There was just so much I could learn from this story. Her life just fascinated me. Inspired me. Thrilled me. As a storyteller, there is nothing more exciting than a good story. And I knew she had plenty.
The soba we had was delicious, as always. But this was more than just an edible encounter. Between satisfying slurps of soba I was surrounded with stories. After our lunch she took me to this Japanese bakery right around the corner. I had been coming to this restaurant for a long time and never even knew this bakery was right there. We had a few pastries and some coffee and she continued to tell me about herself. Afterwards, knowing I couldn’t let this opportunity go by, I suggested that we keep up this newfound friendship of storyteller and storytellee. We exchanged numbers, and I told her the next time she was in the area and looking to have lunch, she should let me know and I’d be more than happy to join her. She could tell me all about this love that she’d had for so many years and was very clearly enthusiastic about sharing. We even took a commemorative selfie (which I never ever take ever to begin with) to mark this new friendship. I carried the bags of pastries she bought from the cafe back to her car and we hugged and I saw her off while I continued on with the rest of my day in solitude but I had that tingling feeling. That anticipation. Like maybe I was hoping sometime in the near future, lightning could strike again. I don’t know if we might ever actually get to share another lunch. I’m not sure if we’re ever allowed more than one of these perfectly aligned moments of kismet. This random person, waiting at the same light, going to the same restaurant, with no prior connection, sharing this brilliantly illuminating experience. I’m hoping I get to hear more. Learn more. I’m hoping I made a friend.
Jerel says, ‘love is a rebellious bird’.