I first met Toshi in a quiet basement bar on a backstreet near Aldgate. It was unplanned but I needed to kill an hour before catching a train. Toshi was sat at the bar engaged in conversation with the bartender. Usually I would have found myself a corner table but on this occasion I impulsively decided to pull up a bar stool alongside him. He smiled amiably as I approached and gestured a distracted invitation whilst turning back to the bartender to conclude their discussion of a particular distillery’s output.
Toshi had neatly waxed dark hair atop a round but intensely expressive face with sharp brown eyes. He wore a dark suit with a floral tie, making me feel a little self-conscious in my turtle-neck shirt and jeans, though he seemed not to notice my attire at all. His slender fingers tapped absently at the stem of his Manhattan while he spoke. In hindsight it is easy to understand why so many people initially assumed he was gay. Next to his drink, a pair of expensive looking wireless headphones rested on a thick hardback book. I remember thinking it was an unusual combination of technological convenience and backward bulkiness. Oddly it suited him.
I joined the conversation which meandered between music, politics and esoteric brands of alcohol. After some time the bartender peeled away to serve new patrons. I discovered that Toshi prided himself on his skill as a conversationalist, able to discuss all manner of subjects with ease. Perhaps this explains why women always seemed so comfortable around him, because there was no demand that their discussion change to accommodate a male presence. I noticed that whenever he was unfamiliar with a topic, rather than seeking to change the subject, he would listen carefully, collecting knowledge and opinions so that next time it arose he would have something to contribute.
When I left I took his number and arranged for him to show me a few bars the next time I passed through London. This became a ritual of sorts and we developed an easy, intermittent friendship. Over time I was introduced to a few others in his social circle, almost all beautiful women, usually through chance encounters at bars. He would make introductions and we would speak for a short time, but he would never invite anyone to join us. I had the impression he liked to keep his friendships insulated from one another. At first I wondered whether he changed dramatically around others but I eventually decided he was more concerned that cross-pollination might contaminate these curated cliques if they were to become merged. Nevertheless, he would talk about his other friends quite freely and I began to build up an intricate understanding of his social life.
Although he preferred the company of women, Toshi was ostensibly single throughout the time I knew him. A few evenings a week he would have drinks or dinner alone with a woman. Sometimes these women were unattached but often not, and occasionally they were married. He once explained that he craved, more than anything, intellectual connections with attractive people. I think he was seeking my approval, confirmation that his behaviour was not entirely shallow. He rarely admitted to having slept with any of these women, although I could never tell whether he was simply being coy, or perhaps protecting those who may have been unfaithful. He was far from emotionless and I could tell from the frequency of encounters that some of these relationships were closer than others. I once asked whether he considered what the partners of these women thought of their relationships but he simply smiled and said that they tended to like him. I suspect this was true. If the relationship developed into something more emotionally complicated, with the risk of messily upsetting the fragile balance of his life, he would carefully disengage himself from the situation and provide some distance. Inevitably the women would return to their partners rather than risking the stability of their own lives and he would move on.
I was envious of his lifestyle, which seemed a glamorous fusion of cocktails, women and conversation. Increasingly I wonder if I misinterpreted his world. He often seemed distracted when in the presence of several people. Whilst others might brag about spending a night with a model or an actress, he seemed to tell these stories in order to communicate something more fundamental: a desire for the connection he could never find, a loneliness that seemed only to be exacerbated by the existence of other people.
I suppose this is not much of a eulogy for my friend Toshi. But then, I do not know most of you, and I am uncertain the Toshi we knew was the same person. I sometimes wonder whether he preferred solo interactions, whether people drowned happily in a conversation with him, whether that ephemeral connection he sought was so intense, because he was the perfect mirror in which we could see ourselves, or a better version, the way he perceived us. I can see how that would have frustrated him. The connection we make, that connection he craved, was never really with him. He allowed us to connect with ourselves.