When I lived in Paris the first time, I taught English. Most of my students — all but one, in fact — were Japanese.
My friend Eric, smarter than me and very kind, too, suggested that I target Japanese expatriates in Paris.
It worked. Students signed up to learn good American conversational English, and I earned enough to buy red wine, Président camembert, roll-your-own tobacco, as well as yogurt and beef heart. And that was enough for me.
One of my best students was Yukinori Tanada, a man of real brilliance and impeccable style. He’d trained to be an architect, then transitioned into management consulting. He treated my girlfriend and me to magnificent meals of sushi or canard roti, and even drove us to the town where van Gogh died. In short, a prince.
Several months into my sojourn in Paris, a close friend visited. Emily’s an artist, a spontaneous and intense personality. Also, it’s fair to say that she owns more curiosity and sincerity than tact. Or at least, she did back then.
I took the opportunity to host a party with my Japanese students and her in my cramped apartment on rue St. André des Arts. My other students were less polished than Mr. Tanada, less cosmopolitan, but sincere and very sweet, and they all spoke English well.
Although we ended up knee-to-knee and the conversation had a stilted and oddly literary quality, we had a fine time. My friend and my actual girlfriend must have seemed exotic to them. Emily, a green-eyed blonde, towered above all the Japanese students, male or female.
In the freedom of gestures and her movement and conversation, she suddenly seemed completely American to me — in the best way. My actual girlfriend, an alluring Russian beauty, was quite charming herself, and she enchanted the boys.
Things went well; the wine flowed. It pleased me to see everyone getting on, speaking English with facility, finding topics in common.
Then Emily leaned down to the knot of Japanese and said, looking at them from under her brows, “Do you hate us?”
“Do you hate us for dropping the Bomb?”
Even deeper silence.
Eyes shifted. All the bonhomie vanished, blown out the window like smoke in the wind.
After an incredibly long pause, Mr. Tanada spoke up. First he clarified: which bomb?
The nuclear bomb.
Mr. Tanada pulled out a Dunhill cigarette and offered Emily one, which she took. He lit it for her.
“Do you know about the fire bombings in Tokyo?” he asked.
“I think,” he said, softly, “a bomb is a bomb. And you are dead either way.”