When one is faced with a long period of enforced solitude, say, from a sudden divorce, one's first reaction is loneliness. Certainly one can make great spiritual strides in solitude. But this takes much focus, practice, and reflection. Before one reaches the top of this mountain, one must first travel through one's sadness, anger, and confusion to reach the pure stream of miserable loneliness, where the stream turns in on itself and one can only think of all the other times one was miserable and lonely.
To distract myself from my current unhappiness, I decided to focus on a case study instead. What was the most miserable and lonely time I could remember? There turned out to be quite a few of these. Like any good finance professional, I decided to simply rank these by intuition and emotion and then make up some numbers to quantify them later.
When I approached the problem like this, one particular episode shot right to the top.
I was in Japan as the Assistant Director of a Year Abroad program. I was in a little village outside of the city of Himeji, setting up a tour of a forthcoming festival for my students. I had been running around talking to strangers all day doing what I had to do to make it happen, and I missed the last train home. So the head of the village, who was also the village barber invited me to spend the night in his relatively large, but rather old home.
Since I was the only foreigner in the village that night (or that year, for that matter) it was decided that an impromptu party was in order. Word was sent to the mayors of the four surrounding villages and soon I was sitting with about fifteen other people in the village head's rather small living room. Of course, this being Japan, we were all drinking. At this point we were drinking beer.
Now never let anyone tell you that the Japanese as a race don't have a sense of humor. They do. And if you spend any time there at all you will soon see that their humor is both subtle and twisted. In this case, the group had (at some point amongst themselves) decided to entertain themselves by secretly inviting a special guest. This guest was the village drunk. Although I suppose I shouldn’t call him that because he was the drunk of both the village I was visiting and the four surrounding villages. Think of him as a sort of the regional drunk.
Their plan was to get me involved in a drinking contest with him. He was tall for a Japanese and, oddly enough, he reminded me a bit of my father, which should have made me smell a rat right off the bat. But I am cursed with the burden of politeness, so I put aside my apprehensions and engaged in polite banter until my host said "You seem to be getting along very well with Yoshi. Why don't you two toast each other?" Of course I agreed and handed my host my beer glass to refill.
And he came back with a tumbler full of whisky, for each of us. At least eight ounces each, neat.
"Good health to you!", said Yoshi. And he proceeded to start to polish it off in one long death-defying draught.
Because of how the day had gone, I have missed every chance for a meal and I was drinking on an empty stomach. But something seemed to be at stake here. I didn't know what it was, but I remember thinking that it seemed very important at the time. So I picked up my own glass and to my own and the assembled guests' astonishment, drained it to the cold bitter bottom, slightly ahead of the drunk finishing his.
I remember applause. The Japanese will applaud anything. I once had a whole noodle shop applaud me when I talked two drunks who were hassling me into standing on a table and dropping their trousers (but that's another story). But this applause was genuine. The only one not applauding (besides me) was the drunk, who was sitting perfectly motionless with a fixed stare. He had passed out, sitting straight up with his eyes open. Someone checked his pulse and when they verified that his heart was still beating they applauded me again.
I was surprised at how good I was feeling. I had gotten a bit of a buzz from the beers I had drunk, but I was feeling nothing from the whisky. I just chatted along with the rest of them for close to an hour. Then the party started to break up (the drunk had to be carried out) and my host insisted, before I went up to my room, that I first take a bath.
A Japanese bathtub is called an ofuro. It is deep and hot. To use it, you actually scrub and shower off first, then you climb into the boiling hot water up to your chin and, typically, relax.
Taking a bath like this is a custom and it is considered polite to offer this to guests. But it turns out to be a very bad idea to immerse oneself in scalding hot water after drinking a half bottle of whisky. I only stayed in a few minutes, but I didn't feel well when I got out. I wasn't drunk. I just felt... not well.
I went up to my room. It turned out to be the son's room. He was away at his first year in college. The room was still decorated with high school stuff; posters of female pop stars covered the walls and sports equipment and model airplanes covering all the surfaces. I took off my shirt and pants, turned out the light, and crawled into the kid's bed.
And woke up an hour or two later completely covered in vomit. It was everywhere, and I was utterly totally drunk.
In the mayor's house. In his son's bed. And I was a total stranger to him.
Reacting quickly I crawled out of the room and down the stairs to the room where the ofuro was. I would clean this up, I thought. I secured a bucket, a wash cloth, and some hot water. I somehow managed, in the dark, to get this stuff back to the room. There, in the dark, I began to scrub. And scrub. And I managed to get most of it up. Everything was still wet of course, and I couldn't do much about the smell, but it was pretty clean (tatami mats clean up pretty well) and I was so drunk that I knew I would have no problem sleeping on the floor.
So I took the bucket, now full of puke, and headed back down the stairs.
Now the ceilings of pre-war Japanese houses are rather low and the risers on the stairs rather short. Pre-war Japanese people tended to be short. I walked carefully down the stairs, but suddenly, I found myself missing a step. Drunk as I was I caught myself and I didn't spill a drop. On the stairs. But I had splashed at least half a bucket of vomit on the ceiling.
And it was there, on those stairs, in the dark, in a strange house, in a foreign country, in my underwear, with drops of puke falling into my hair, that I experienced the most lonely and miserable moment of my life.