On Monday morning, a man in a poorly fitting navy suit comes into the office and takes a seat near Yumi. The heavy dark clouds that usually hang over my co-worker’s head break and the sun shines in.

Yumi chats animatedly to the man, using that gratingly high and suspiciously blithe voice she normally reserves for the phone.

The man opens what looks like a large physician’s bag and takes out a narrow, but rather thick envelope and places it on the table. Yumi gives the man a slip of paper, which he examines then marks with a small stamp. He hands the slip of paper back to Yumi who rattles cheerfully away. He then opens the envelope revealing a two-inch thick stack of cash. Holding the stack at the bottom with two hands, he flicks his wrists a number of time producing a fan of ten-thousand yen notes.

Good Lord! Whatever this man’s job is, I want it!


*

As much as I’d love to stay and watch the man perform his magic, I’ve got a class to teach and it’s about to start. This morning it’s a group of beginner’s, made up of six housewives ranging in age from their late thirties to early fifties.

When the oldest of the group, Mieko, asks me how I spent the weekend, it is tempting to say that it was spent lying naked on a wooly throw rug tossing about with a high school girl. I tell her, instead, that I spent Sunday studying Japanese, which produces a cackle of praise from the students. Mieko says she respects me and wishes her husband were as diligent as I was.

The woman should be careful of what she wishes for.

Mieko then tells me that her own weekend was horrible.

“Really?” I say. “Why’s that?”

“Finished dinner, my husband . . . ”

After dinner,” I correct.

“What?”

After dinner,” I repeat. “Not finished dinner, after dinner.”

“I see. Thank you.” She looks down at her notebook, studies what she has prepared for today’s lesson, then starts over: “Finished dinner, my husband . . .” I tap the surface of my desk to convey my irritation. The message seems to get across. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she says. “After . . . After dinner, my husband . . . How do you say . . . chidori ashi?”

It’s thanks to good old Mie that I know chidori ashi, literally chicken legs, means stagger. “My husband staggered,” I answer.

“What?”

Staggered.”

She says she doesn’t understand.

“Your husband, he was drunk, right? Yopparai, right?”

“Yes, very, very yopparai.”

“Okay then, he staggered.”

“Sutahgah . . . ?”

“Staggered.”

“Sutahgahdo?

“Yes, staggered. He staggered.”

“What does that mean?”

I feel like a dog chasing my own tail.

“What does that mean?” she asks again.

“Staggered? You’re husband was drunk. He staggered. Chidori ashi.”

“Yes, yes. Chidori ashi. How do you say that in English?”

I’m am this close to going losing it. “Chidori ashi means Stagger.”

“Huh?”

Chidori ashi eekuwaru stahgahdo.” Chidori ashi equals stagger. Believe me this really is how they speak here.

“Oh, I see, I see. Thank you. Finished dinner, my husband staggered . . .”

*

I am distracted by the distinctive sound of a 50cc motor. Going to the window, I look out and see the man in the frumpy suit, the man with the cash, tooling noisily away on a cheap little scooter. When class has finished and the students have left, I ask Yumi who the guy was.

“He’s from the bank,” she says.

“From the bank? On that dinky little scooter? With all that cash?”

“Yes, today’s payday.”

“He doesn’t ever get robbed?”

“Have you got your inkan?” Yumi asks.

“My inkan?”

“Yes, your inkan. Have you got it?”

I tell her I don’t. The stamp engraved with my name in kanji is back at the condominium.

“I can’t pay you unless you have your inkan, because I have to stamp this book.”

“Here’s a wild idea, Yumi, that I’ll just throw out to you, see if you bite: How about I just sign the book.”

“No, no, no. You must use the inkan.

Must. Okay, I’ll bring it tomorrow.”

“What about your pay?”

“I’ll just pick it up tomorrow.”

“But I can’t keep that much cash here.”

“Cash? We’re paid in cash?”

She says of course we are, making me feel like an idiot for asking. You can live for years in this country, study its language and culture, but you’ll still be scratching your head every time you bump up against their notion of common sense.

“Can you go home and get your inkan during your break?”

This is not a request, so after a quick lunch at an udon shop near Ôhori Park, I take the train all the way to the condominium, get my ever so important inkan, and return to the office two hours later where I stamp a little box next to my name in the little pay book and get a brown envelope containing a stack of the newest, crispest bills I’ve ever laid my eyes on.

Unfortunately, I’m a temporary custodian of the money. A few days later, I have to give the entire amount, and then some, to a woman sitting behind the counter of a shabby little used bookstore near my office. My first month’s rent, plus an amount equivalent to another four month’s rent, which I’ve been told, is the key money–fucking expensive keys–plus one more month’s rent for the reikin, a token of appreciation to the realtor, who in this case happens to also be the landlord and downstairs neighbor. Thanks for nothing.

When I asked my co-workers if I will get any of this deposit back, they cocked their heads and sucked air through their teeth. I took that as a no.

So, it’s fine dining on stir-fried bean sprouts for the next four weeks: a small price to pay for not having to live an hour out of town in the middle of nowhere. What the hell was I thinking when I agreed to move there?

In the first few weeks alone at the condominium, I dozed off on the train and missed my station four times. Four times! The first time was in the morning on my way to work. By the time I woke up, I had traveled three stations beyond my stop. I had to scramble out of the train and run across the platform and catch the train going the opposite direction. Had I not been warned so unambiguously by Abazure that were I ever late, I’d be fired immediately, I might have taken it in stride. Instead, I was pushing people out of the way, dashing through the turnstiles and sprinting like an Olympian all the way from the station to the office where I arrived panting and sweating, a minute to spare on the time clock. The guillotine came to an abrupt halt an inch from my trembling neck.

One evening as I was riding the last train home, I succumbed to such a deep, dream-filled sleep that I did not wake until the train had arrived in the neighboring prefecture! As it was the last train of the evening, I was left with two options: crashing for the night outside the station with the drunks or forking over five thousand yen–half a day’s wages–for a taxi.

The third time, like the second, was on the ride home after a long tiring day of work. When I nodded off, the train was shoulder to shoulder with equally exhausted salarymen and office ladies who’d had the very life sucked out of them and were now staring vacantly before themselves as if at the smoldering remains of extinguished dreams. I was fully reclined and drooling on the seat, the contents of my grocery bags strewn on the floor, grapefruits and apples rolling about here and there like orphaned children when the conductor woke me. I was the only remaining passenger on the train which had reached its final destination several stops short of my station. The conductor helped me collect my scattered belongings and groceries. Had it been America, I probably would have woken to find myself stripped down to my underwear. I didn’t have enough for a cab, so I had to hump it rest of the way to the condominium. An hour’s walk in the rain without an umbrella, and loaded down with a week’s worth of groceries.

The following morning I overslept again, yet by the grace of God managed somehow to get to work in time to punch the clock But I’d had it.

*

The Friday evening class consists of three high school students and a rônin, a boy who didn’t manage to get into the college of his choice and has decided to spend the year at a yobikô, a kind of cram school for students like him, and give it another shot next winter. I ask him where he wants to go, but he’s hesitant to tell me. He’s either too embarrassed, or just modest. I prod, I poke, I cajole, until he finally gives in. He wants to go to Waseda University. As it’s one of the best private schools in the country, I say he must be smart. He replies that he’s not smart, that he’s fat.

When asked what he hopes to study, he says he’s not sure. He just wants to get into Waseda like his father. He tells me his father’s fat, too. I wish him good luck and he laughs. Everyone laughs when I say good luck. Ten years will pass and people will still be laughing whenever the words good luck pass my lips and I still won’t understand why.

One of the girls, a short and roly-poly sophomore at a private girls’ school, is excited about her up-coming school trip to Disneyland and the northern island of Hokkaido. I ask when she’s going, she says Tokyo. I ask her again, and she answers Tokyo Disneyland. I say “when?” once more, and she tells me, “In Tokyo.” Is she doing this to me on purpose? Then, deliberately and very slowly, enunciating as clearly as I humanely can and giving the n undue stress I ask, “When are you going?”

She nods! She gets it! There’s a big buck-toothed smile on her round chubby face! “I shee, I shee,” she says. “Hokkaidô.”

I break out the chalk, write WHEN and WHERE on the board, stab at the WHEN causing the chalk to crumble in my hand and ask for the last time. She apologizes then answers that she’s going in July. Progress! But wait, it’s only April, why’s she already all fired up to go. She says she can’t wait to go to Tokyo Disneyland to see “Mickey Mouse ando Donarudo Duck ando Pooh.” I tell her what poo means, then ask whose poo she wants to see, Pluto’s? She waves her hand frantically before her face. She doesn’t want to see Pluto’s doodoo. She wants to see the bear. Oh, you mean Winnie the Pooh. She says “yesh, yesh, yesh,” and asks why on earth Christopher Robin would be so mean to call his bear doodoo. I shrug and say, “Maybe it sounded nice.”

She tells me she’s sad to learn what Poo’s name means. I try to comfort her, telling her that she now has something funny to share with her friends at school tomorrow. She says she’ll never tell them. Why not, I ask. Because they’d be sad, too.

I ask her why they’re also going all the way to Hokkaidô which is an hour-and-half-long flight from Tokyo and I’m told that they’ll visit the city of Fukugawa to see Clark’s statue. When I say who’s this Clark, the rônin answers, “Boys be ambitious!”

All of the students nod their heads collectively, and say, “Ambitious.” The phrase rings a bell and I recall having read about a missionary and educator who founded a school in Hokkaidô over a century ago. The sophomore points upwards imitating the statue. I ask her what Clark’s statue is pointing at, she says the sky. What the hell’s he pointing at the sky for? She giggles and says she isn’t sure.

I tell the girl she’s lucky she isn’t a boy.

“Why’s”

“Because if you were a boy, you’d have to be ambitious and work hard. You’re a girl. You can take it easy and have fun.”

She shouts, “Yea! Yea!”

The rônin hangs his weary head.

*

After work I squeeze onto a crowded train back to the condominium. The worn out passengers hang loosely onto the overhead handles, swaying gently and bumping into each other like racks of beef, frozen and suspended from steel meat hooks.

Earlier in the day, Abazure told me the students were happy to have me as their teacher, that I was doing a wonderful job. Compliments are cheap in this country, like smiles at McDonald’s, they don’t cost a cent, but Abazure was sincere, eerily so.

So many of the adult students have declared me a great teacher and introduced friends that most of my morning classes are now filled to capacity. Even dreary old Yumi after sitting in on one of my evening lessons has rediscovered something to be enthusiastic about. All this praise depresses me because there is nothing that makes me feel more like the loser than being told how well I perform tasks embarrassingly beneath my potential. The compliment jars my confidence as malignantly as insults; I feel my dreams begin to slip through my fingers.

As I ride the train, pressed between the carcasses of salarymen and office ladies, an appalling realization finally begins to seep in. The deposit I paid and the contract I signed with Abazure as my guarantor have all but indentured me. I was so recklessly eager to escape, at any cost, from the inaka, from the condominium in the middle of nowhere, that I didn’t give fuck about anything else. Now I do. As much as I am loath to admit it, I am probably looking at another two years performing the old eikaiwa soft-shoe routine. God, how depressing.

I look at the meat around me. Do they have dreams as well, or have those been extinguished by damp circumstance and necessity? What possesses them to be packed like cattle into trains, to work until they can barely stand? Just to pay off the mortgage on the place they drop their weary bones every night? I look at the expressionless faces, the vacant look in the eyes. Each day inertia alone manages to carry them through. Were they ever motivated by dreams, inspired by love? Were they once animals in the sack, passionately thrashing about, lusting for life itself? Or, have they always been pathetic shells of men feigning impotence if only to have an extra half hour of blessed sleep? God help them.

*

There isn’t a single light on in the condominium when I enter the front door. Not a sound, save the sickly hum of the second-hand refrigerator, to be heard either. Friday evening, alone with nothing in particular to do. Again. I’ve come to hate the weekends, hate how they remind me how little there is to look forward to after working all week. I couldn’t have been born to live this way. No God could be so callous.

I plop down on the woolly carpet in the living room. In the absence of the static work provided, my thoughts tune into Mie. As surely as the tide returns, my thoughts return to her. Where she is? What she’s doing? Who’s she’s with? Is she thinking about me, wondering these very same things, or is her mind elsewhere? Is there still a pulse to be found in the relationship we once had? Or am I wasting my time waiting for her to discover it, waiting for her to come back? Can the love we had be resuscitated, or is it as hopeless as a corpse, naked on cold stainless steel? It kills me to think that she may have moved on, that I have been forgotten when the pain in my heart is still so fresh. What the hell am I still in Japan for? I wish I could take my deposit back, erase my name and inkan from the apartment contract, go back to the States. Coming to this country derailed me, and every day that passes is another day further off course.

*

I consider calling Aya, having her sneak out of her home to spend the night with me, to have her distract me with those glorious breasts of hers. But the way I’m feeling tonight, I doubt I’d find much consolation in screwing a high school girl. As surely as she would oblige me, I know the morning would greet me more depressed than ever, bitter that it weren’t someone I loved lying next to me.

With the move only a day away, it makes sense to stop moping and start getting my things together, to pack up my clothes and belongings. I never quite settled into the condominium. Lacking the resignation to a life in the inaka, I have lived for the most part out of a suitcase, unpacking things as necessity required and hanging them up in the closet or putting them away in a drawer when I was finished, so it doesn’t take long.

My “roommates” are in town and probably won’t return until Sunday evening, meaning I’ll have vacated the condo by the time they return. I’ve heard stories of Japanese families digging themselves so deep into debt that they’re left with only two options: packing up what they can and moving out of their homes surreptitiously in the middle of the night, so-called yonige, or committing ikka shinjû, or a family suicide. Considering that I haven’t mentioned my move to the “roommates,” I kind of feel like I’m yonige-ing myself.

You think they’ll miss me? Think they’ll even notice that I’m gone?

*

I take a small box containing Mie’s negligée, her yellow toothbrush and overnight kit, what she called her o-tomari setto, from one of the drawers and place it in the clear plastic container where I keep photo albums and souvenirs from my first year in Japan.

It’s been months since I last opened the albums. Fear of an emotional onslaught has prevented me from summoning Lazarus out of his tomb, from taking the albums out and reviving the past.

I take them out now, one for nearly every month shared with Mie, with the exception of October. I still can’t bring myself to have the film from that month developed and have interned it like dry bones and ashes in a tin can.

Some of the happiest memories of my life are recorded on the pages of the albums. I can’t help myself, can’t keep myself from taking the first album out, from cracking it open, and diving headfirst before checking the depth.

My twenty-sixth birthday. There’s Mie sitting among a group of some two dozen of my students who’ve crammed into one of the six-tatami mat rooms at my old apartment. She’s beaming at me. So beautiful, so vibrant, so engaging. She didn’t know if she would be able to make it, if she would be able to get away from work. I told her thirty people would be coming to the party. She was the only person, though, that I really wanted to celebrate with. “Wakatta. Gambarimasu,” she said. Okay, I’ll try to be there.

I was on tenterhooks the whole party, my eyes turning expectantly towards the front door every time I heard footsteps coming up the stairwell. When she did come, I could barely contain my happiness. I shouted “Mie-chan” as she walked in through the door. That night after everyone had left we made love for the second time.

On the following page, Mie and I are at the izakaya near the apartment we sometimes went to. In the first snapshot, Mie is pouring sake for me from a small earthenware tokkuri bottle into the tiny choko cup I’m holding. Before us on the counters is a small plate of grilled mackerel with daikon oroshi, grated radish before us. It was my first time to try it. A dish of a nimono of beef and potatoes, another plate of tempura on white paper. In the next photo, I’m pouring soy sauce into the choko of the customer next to me. Mie’s laughing, but the customer himself doesn’t quite know what to make of my little Amelikan jokku.

On the next page, is an adorable letter Mie sent to me after returning from a trip she took with all of her co-workers to the island of Hokkaido in the very north of Japan. She included several photos of herself taken while there. The letter mentions how mild the summer is in Hokkaido compared to Kyushu, the places visited and sights seen, the wonderful seafood she ate so much of that she’s afraid she has put on weight . . . again. It closes with a few lines that reassured me when I had already started to fall in love with her:

“I’ve been thinking a lot about you recently. I don’t quite understand how I’m feeling, but I miss you so much and want to see you. Call me.”

*

I put the photo album back into the storage container, clamp it shut, and then finish packing up my things. After a meal of tom yum gai soup, I sit down in front of the television and flip through the channels for something to get my mind off Mie. Without satellite or cable, flipping through the channels is like jogging around a short track. Around and around and around. A variety show featuring pop music, a variety show featuring a manzai commedy duo, a dry documentary on NHK, the humorless state-run broadcaster, an English language instruction program featuring sad excuses for foreigners hamming it up on NHK’s education channel, another variety show featuring manzai comedians and pop music, and finally rounding up the lap, an old Schwarzenegger film dubbed in Japanese. The phone starts ringing.

*

Moshi moshi?”

“Hello. Is Chris there?” asks a soft, barely audible voice.

“No, he isn’t,” I reply, turning the TV down.

“Is this Peador?”

“Yeah.”

“This is Machiko.” It’s Chris’s girlfriend.

“Oh, hi, Machiko.”

“Do you know where Chris is?” she asks timidly.

“No.”

My roommate is an affable enough person, but seldom has much to say to me whenever we happen to find ourselves at the condominium at the same time.

She asks if I am alone, what I’m doing, what my plans are for the weekend. Why the sudden interest in old Peador, I wonder. Is this Machiko a player? Is the quiet demeanor just a ruse?

“Yes,” I reply.

“I don’t believe you,” she says.

“I really am alone, whether you believe it or not.”

“You have a lot of girlfriends, don’t you?”

I’ve been getting this a lot. I tell her I’m not seeing anyone in particular.

“Chris and I, we saw you Saturday evening with a girl. You were holding hands.”

Saturday night? Holding hands?

“Oh, them,” I say. “They’re just friends.”

Two former students of mine had come down from Kitakyushu to see me. Sweet girls, both of them, terribly kind, but hardly my cup of tea.

“We were drunk,” I offer as an explanation. I had completely forgotten about that.

“And I saw you with a high school girl near the park before that. You were holding her hand, too.”

Holding hands with Aya? Now that I definitely did not do, but there’s no use in protesting. Machiko has convinced herself.

“Chris tells me you’re a playboy, a real lady-killer. Are you? Are you a lady-killer?”

This gives me a nice and long overdue laugh, a ripe old belly laugh, punctuated poignantly by two loud farts.

“Please be nice to them,” she says.

“Okay, I promise. Cross my heart.”

“I mean it,” she insists and then I can hear the gravity in her soft voice. “Peador, please be nice to them.”

“I’ll try,” I say.

“Do you know when Chris will come home?”

“To tell you the truth, I have no idea,” I say, adding that he sometimes doesn’t come back at all. Oops!

The silence on the other end of the phone speaks volumes. It was a simple mistake; I was under the assumption that Chris had been spending the nights with Machiko. Now that I realize that hasn’t been the case, I whip up a nice and fluffy white lie.

“Chris is busy, as I’m sure he’s told you, Machiko. Lots of overtime. And he’s also helping a friend which . . .” I have to pull these fluffy white lies out of my arse because I don’t know Jack shit about Chris’s private life. “He told me he sometimes stayed at a co-worker’s place in town, a Tony-something, whenever he misses the last train . . .”

The last bit has the merit of being based on more than the threadbare fabric of my imagination: it stems from hearsay.

Machiko remains silent. I can’t tell whether she has bought any of it, or whether she was able to understand what I told her.

After a long, pain-filled sigh, she speaks up. “I want you to give him a message.”

“Sure.”

“Tell him: ‘I love him . . . I miss him . . . “

I can hear her sniffing on the other end.

“I want to see him . . . “

Her voice grows ever more quiet, and with all the sniffing, it’s hard to catch what she’s saying. Even so, I know the message she wants me to convey.

“Tell him . . . I love him.”

I write the simple words down on the only piece of paper available, a mauve napkin with a picnic basket and squirrels in one corner, write her words verbatim with ellipsis indicating the pauses each time she’s too overcome by emotion to continue. When I look at what she has had me write, I realize they are the very same words Mie spoke to me.

*

Mie and I spent a languorous weekend together at her apartment in Fukuoka, rarely leaving her bed. We made love, rested, made love again, and then after taking a shower together, fell into each other’s arms and did it one more time before falling asleep.

When I had returned to Kitakyushu, I took a long walk by myself along the bank of the slow-moving Onga River, listening to a cassette Mie had made for me with some of her favorite songs. I couldn’t stop thinking about her, and felt vulnerable and weak because of it. I was lost in that painfully comfortable limbo, having fallen in love but distressed that the sentiment might not be mutual. That evening I walked up the hill to the cluster of mom-and-pop shops where the only public telephone in the neighborhood was to be found. The booth was alive with mosquitoes, moths, gnats and ticks, every kind of bug imaginable. Braving the insects, I dialed her number. That’s how badly I wanted to hear her voice, wanted to hear her say, “I love you . . . I miss you . . . I want to see you.”

“I miss you, too, Mie.” I told her, with my throat taunt. “I want to see you, too.”

*

“I’ll tell him,” I promise.

“Peador?”

“Yeah?”

“Can I talk to you?”

“Of course.”

Machiko speaks for an hour, describing how she met Chris. She had been walking along a street in town a month ago when she noticed him. Just like that, she went right up to him and asked if he were American. He said, yes, and the two of them started talking. They ended up spending the afternoon together chatting in a coffee shop.

“I was so sad and lonely before I met Chris,” she says sniffing. “But, he’s made me so happy.”

I start to cry. Mie had made me happy, too, at a time when I was desperately homesick and missing all of my friends. I tell Machiko a little about Mie, only a little because to tell her the extent of what has been weighing on my heart all these months would be unbearable.

“Do you still love her?”

“Yes,” I answer, tears flowing down my face, my nose running.

“Then call her.”

“She’ll just hang up on me.”

“Try,” she encourages. “Give her one more chance.”

*

I stare at the phone for more than half an hour, before finally dialing Mie’s number.

How many times did I try to call Mie? How many times did I linger by the phone, wanting to make this very call, but was held back by fear, the fear that the relationship was dead, the fear that Mie was gone and would never come back no matter what I did or said? How many times? I should have moved on and found someone else, anyone, if only to fuck away the memories, if only to mend my heart by breaking others’.

Machiko is right, I have nothing to lose by calling, so I dial Mie’s number.

*

Moshi moshi?”

Mie’s familiar deep voice breaks the silence that has enveloped me since Machiko hung up.

“Hi.”

“Who is it?” she asks.

“It’s me . . . ”

“Peador?”

“Yes,” I say painfully, my throat was dry and taunt. “Yes, it’s me, Peador.”

Mie sounds genuinely happy to hear from me, which catches me off guard.

We exchange bland pleasantries like two old middle-aged women. She mentions the warm weather we’ve been having asks if I had a chance to drink under the sakura blossoms. I tell her I did, that I’m now working near West Park, one of the best places to see the cherry blossoms.

“I’m glad to hear that,” she says. “Do you like the your new job?”

“It’s not bad,” I tell her. “A million times better than working for that idiot last year in Kitakyushu but then just about anything would be better than another year with him.”

She speaks of her own hatred for the tiring and boring routine at the pachinko parlor, then brightens up when she tells me that she got a new puppy.

“He likes to drink beer,” she says.

Six months may have passed since we last spoke, but she is still the Mie I fell in love with and have been missing all these months.

Mie asks how I look, whether I’ve grown my hair out or have kept it short, and so on. Finally, she asks me if I have a girlfriend.

I tell her I don’t.

“No?”

“No.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“I don’t believe you.”

I have no idea why everyone is finding this so hard to accept. Am I missing something here? Am I better looking, more charming than I believe myself to be?

“I don’t have a girlfriend,” I say. “Haven’t had one since you . . . ”

“I’m sorry.”

The tears begin to fall, betraying me again. Women will tell you that they want their men to express their emotions, but nothing turns a woman off faster than a man blubbering pathetically into the receiver of the phone and that’s exactly what I begin to do. And I’ve never hated myself more than I do now.

“I’m so lonely, Mie . . . I miss you . . . I want to see you.”

© Aonghas Crowe, 2010. All rights reserved. No unauthorized duplication of any kind.

注意:この作品はフィクションです。登場人物、団体等、実在のモノとは一切関係ありません。

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

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