1

Sometimes I can’t shake the feeling, the sinking feeling that my life is little more than the punch line of a very bad joke. Someday when I can’t take it anymore, when I finally cry “uncle”, I know in my heart of hearts that God will be waiting for me. The bastard will give me a friendly jab to the shoulder and say, “Sorry, Peador, I was just feckin’ with you.”

Looking at my reflection of the darkened window of the subway car, I can see I’m a mess. After what the Almighty Prankster has put me through this morning, I’m not surprised.

As the train pulls into the station, my gut rumbles. Nature has been calling for the past half hour and I know I should pop right into a toilet and relieve myself, but, checking my watch, I see there isn’t a minute to spare.

*

Abazure couldn’t have been more explicit about being on time. “You cannot be late,” she said at the end of last week’s interview. “Not even once.”

I had arrived twenty minutes late for it. What can I say for myself but that I’m human and stuff happens.

“I do not tolerate sloppiness or tardiness,” she said. “Is that understood?”

I replied that it was.

“Now, your boss told me that you were often late.”

The man is a bastard and a bald-faced liar.

“I may have been late a few times over the course of the year,” I admitted. “But often? No, no, no. That is an exaggeration. Did my boss inform you that he had me travelling all over Kitakyushu in rain, sleet, and snow for lessons? Yes, I may have been a few minutes late every now and then, but then I always overcompensated by stay . . . “

“Well, I won’t tolerate you being late even a few minutes,” she said. “Is that clear, Peador?”

“Crystal.”

“Can you promise me that you won’t be late?”

“I can,” I answered dryly.

“Then I’d like you to come again next week. And be there by nine sharp.”

“Nine o’clock sharp,” I said, writing the time down in my day planner. “I will be there. You can count on me.”

*

And yet here I am, and it’s two minutes of nine when the train pulls into the station. I’m one misstep from getting sacked even before I’ve been officially hired.

My intestines do a somersault as I step onto the platform. I really should head straight for the restroom, but I don’t have the time.

If only I hadn’t taken the slow train. If only I had made the connection. If only . . . Twenty-six years old and my life is already a litany of regrets.

Climbing up out of the subway station, my gut calms somewhat, giving me a reprieve. It’s the first bit of luck I’ve had all morning and so quicken my pace, but not too fast, because I don’t want to surprise my bowels; heaven forbid I jump start them into peristalsis.

*

A few minutes later and short-winded, I stand before the foot of the stairs that lead to my next place of employment: The American School. After catching my breath, I climb the steps and introduce myself to a dour young woman behind the counter. She tells me that Abazure hasn’t arrived yet and, gesturing toward the next room, tells me in to take a seat and wait.

Plopping down on a shit-brown vinyl sofa in the lobby, I thank my lucky stars that I managed to get here first.

The American School is a bit larger than the dismal little eikaiwa I’ve been slaving away at for the last twelve months, but no less bleak. Like a dozen other private English schools in the city, many of which I’ve had the “pleasure” to visit for interviews before Abazure called me back, there are the usual weathered stencils on the window declaring it to be an “English Conversation School”.

There are chalkboards instead of the more common white boards. Small desks are arranged in a circle rather than a single round table in the largest of the four classrooms. The walls are decorated with the kinds of cheap posters you’d find at a teaching supply store in the States, and pictures cut out of magazines. The lobby has been furnished with second hand furniture. The sofa I sit on was probably once in Abazure’s livingroom.

In short, it is an uninspiring place. If the schedule weren’t so ridiculously easy–only two or three classes a day compared to the five or six that have been teaching–I might have taken up employment at Yeehaw! English School, instead.

Being paid more to work less. As intractable the dreariness hanging in the school’s air is, that is still a song I can dance to. Better still, I’ll have a boss who seems to know what she’s doing, rather than a moron who clutches at straws just to keep from going bankrupt every month like I’ve had these past twelve months. Even if the expiration date of my visa weren’t bearing down on me as it is, I would still leap at Abazure’s offer.

*

What the hell was I even trying to find another job for? Considering how miserable my first year in Japan has been–after twelve months I’ve emerged heart-broken, humiliated, physically and emotionally exhausted, not to mention broke–you’d expect me to be fleeing for home like everyone else I know is. Blame it on misfiring synapses, if you like, but it is precisely because the year’s been so patently awful, that I sit here on the shit-brown vinyl sofa and think with muted optimism: Things can only get better. Things can only get better. Things can only get better.

It’s a congregation of one, of course, that I preach to. No one else will listen. Every gaijin I know is going back to his or her home country, including my closets friend in Japan, Ben, the only person who could reasonably say that he’s had a fulfilling year.

None of them have minced words: they’ve all told me I must be a masochist to even consider staying another year. Why subjugate yourself to another twelve months of what will surely be more of the same bullshit and hassles? Like a proselyte whose faith has been challenged, I defended the choice and reminded them that I would not only be teaching less but would be living in Fukuoka City rather than god-forsaken Kitakyushu, and so on.

But I’m not very convincing. How do you expect me to be when I can’t even win myself over to my own logic?

No, the truth behind my willingness to remain in Japan is an obstinate unwillingness to let go of the thin hope that the woman I love might find it within herself to come back into my life.

*

Fifteen minutes pass and still no Abazure.

So much for the importance of being punctual . . .

I’m feeling like crap, really awful. My chest aches from the congestion and every time I breathe in, the fluid in my lungs rattles like a hookah, my nose dribbles without stop, and, if that weren’t enough, my stomach has started to act up again. The coffee seems to have gone right through me.

Just as I’m about to stand up and inquire about the restrooms, Abazure arrives. The four-foot-eight powerhouse smiles widely and bellows out a sunny greeting, then disappears into the office. I’d love disappear myself into the restroom, but figure it’s best to wait, stomach doing flip-flops, all the same.

Abazure gives the girl in the office a big “Ohayo” and the two then converse in hushed voices. With the restroom beckoning, I’m tempted to interrupt when Abazure emerges. The broad smile she was wearing when she arrived is gone.

She directs me to a smaller classroom where we sit across from each other at an old dining room table. She looks down at the document before her, hard nails tapping at the surface of the table. The woman is fuming about something and I haven’t got the courage to ask what about. She looks up from the document, and stares at me through her narrow glasses. For a woman of such small stature, Abazure comes off as formidable, intimidating, and downright frightening.

She inhales slowly, deeply before speaking. I inhale slowly and shallowly so as to not shock my bowels. I’ve begun to percolate and want nothing more of this world and this woman before me to be excused. Nature has stopped calling. It is now shouting. The way Abazure is looking at me, however, tells me there’s nothing I can do but try to grin and bear it. My insides churn and I’m thinking this is what it must feel like when an unborn baby kicks.

“In our conversation the other day,” she begins, “I made it very clear that you were not to be late . . . ”

“Y-yes, I know.”

“Yes, you know . . . “ She glares at me over the tops of her spectacles. “But, you were late today, weren’t you?”

Jesus Christ, that bitch in the office went and told her I was late.

“Yes, but only . . . ”

Oh mother of God help me! My bowels have started doing the rumba.

“I have a right mind to tear this contract up and find someone else. It wouldn’t be hard after all. There are more than enough people out there looking for work.”

And then, Abazure actually picks up the contract and rips it in half and I cannot believe my eyes.

What the fuck?

2

I woke up shortly after dawn and stuck out my kitchen window to check the weather. The cold air bit my cheeks and my breath clouded before me, but the slag heap to the west of the working class neighborhood that had been my home for a year was bathed in the glow of the rising sun. With the sky promising to clear up, it made sense to dress lightly, to endure the chill in the morning rather than sweat throughout what I thought promised to be a lovely spring day.

After a shower, I dressed in a light suit and tie, and hurried out the door. As I was walking away from my apartment, appreciating the sweet smell of magnolias in a neighbor’s garden, Ben rounded the corner. He had the habit of jogging in the morning. Steam billowed from his head and shoulders; the front of his gray University of Wisconsin sweatshirt was black with sweat.

“Leaving already?” he asked.

“Yeah, I have to be there by nine this morning to sign the contract.”

“You might wanna bring an umbrella,” Ben suggested. “TV said it’s gonna rain. Niwaka ame. I think it means a sudden shower, or something like that.”

“Yeah, right,” I replied looking up at the sky. As much as I liked Ben and had come to depend heavily on his advice over the past year, his comprehension of the Japanese language just could not be trusted. The fact alone that the man still hadn’t realized that his Christian name, Ben, meant excrement in Japanese was enough to peck away at the urgency of taking an umbrella. “Besides,” I said, “I’ll miss the bus if I go back now.”

I should have listened to him. No sooner had I started up the hill towards the bus stop than the wind picked up, the sky darkened, and heavens opened up, the rain falling in torrents.

Niwaka ame. I’ve learned a new word.

Halfway between the bus stop and my apartment, I was paralyzed with indecision and getting wetter by the second. Do I run back and fetch an umbrella only to risk missing the bus, or do I high-tail it to the bus stop, and try to find some shelter under the awning of the rice shop until the bus comes?

The rain had already soaked my head; icy rivulets were now running down my neck and back. Umbrella or no umbrella, I was going to get drenched, so I forged ahead, up the hill. As I neared the bus stop, the approaching bus plowed through a cascade of water flowing along the curb, sending a wall of water towards me. I tried to leap out of the way, but wasn’t fast enough. My pants were sopping wet from the knees down, my feet sloshed around in their loafers.

I boarded the bus, looking like something that cat drug in, and took a seat next to a floor heater where I rolled my pants up and tried in vain to dry my feet.

As the damp settled into my clothes, a chill rattled up my spine and the chest cold that had been pestering me for a month started pestering me some more. I managed to suppress the first sneeze. And the next. But the third one was doozie. It developed up deep inside me and, as it gained strength, I rifled through my pockets, frantically looking for a handkerchief.

For the love of God, how could I have forgotten a handkerchief?.

The sneeze came, carrying with it the generous contents of my nasal passages, and deposited it all into my cupped hands.

I opened the window and stuck my hands out into the rain to try to rinse the snot off. Then, taking the silk pocket square out of my breast pocket, I dried my hands.

By the time the bus arrived at the train station, the goddamn niwaka ame had already passed. The sky, however, was still overcast and the air much colder than it had been when I left. Looking around at the sleepy mob standing on the platform, I could see that everyone, but me, was wearing a heavy winter coat over his suit or a scarf bundled around his neck. Spring may have been evident in the buds of the sakura trees and in the frenetic activity of birds, but the wind barreling down the platform was all winter.

A “local train” rolled into the platform. I knew I’d be cutting it close if I took it, as it would stop at every blessed station from now to Hakata, but the limited express train wasn’t scheduled to show up for another fifteen minutes. I’d surely catch myself a death of a cold if I waited on the platform, exposed to the cold wind. I hopped on, figuring I could always transfer to one of the express trains several stations down.

It was lovely inside the train. Unlike the express in which salarymen and office ladies were sure to densely packed in like cattle off to slaughter, there are only a handful of students dozing off or staring blankly out the windows. It was an older model of train, and the thinly padded pews-like cubicles offered a bit of privacy.

I sat down as far away from the doors and frigid air that would surely blow in at each stop as possible, and when the train jerked into motion, the heaters below the seat kicked on. I remove my shoes and socks and tried to warm my blue toes.

Warm air bathed my calves, climbed up my legs, enveloping my knees, and drifted toward my face. Before I knew it, the heat and relaxing sway of the train as it made its easy way to Fukuoka lulled me to sleep.

I woke to a completely empty train. Looking out the window, I couldn’t recognize the station.

Shûten des’. Shûten,” came over the PA system.

Last stop? You gotta be kidding.

I pulled my warm but slightly damp socks over my feet, slipped on my soggy loafers and scrambled out of the train. The platform clock showed eight twenty-five, giving me thirty-five minutes.

But where the hell am I?

I cornered one of the clean-cut uniformed station employees on the platform told him where I wanted to go and was directed with a white-gloved hand towards the stairs.

I dashed down them and on to the turnstiles where I asked another employee for directions.

Sutorayto. Sutorayto,” he said.

“Straight. Gotcha!”

I walked out of the train station and back into the cold, continuing as directed “sutorayto“ where I was supposed to eventually come upon a subway station.

The sun I’d been counting on when I left my apartment was now hidden behind a menacing layer of black clouds and a chilly breeze was blowing in off of the bay. Before long, I was shivering like a maniac and my cold was acting up: my chest ached and my nose ran like a leaky faucet.

I stopped at a vending machine and bought two cans of Georgia coffee which I tucked them under my armpits to see if they would warm me up. To my surprise, they did the trick. Pressing on, I walked, hunched over, hot cans of coffee under my armpits, until I came to the subway station. I now had twenty minutes to travel six stops and walk from the station to the school; meaning I’d just make it by nine.

I purchased a ticket and just as I was about to pass through the gate, a gust of warm air and diesel fumes blew up from the bowels of the station, followed by flatulence: the horn announcing the train’s approach. I scampered down the first flight of stairs to a broad landing where I was offered two options: left or right. The signs were all in goddamn Chinese characters.

Although I’d been studying the language for a year, had even been scribbling the pictograms down in a notebook, I couldn’t recognize any of them on the sign.

A man passed me and I turned to him, blurting out the name of my destination, but he scurried away. A young woman avoided me altogether. Then a soft-spoken middle-aged woman approached me, asking in fluent English where I was going.

“The Ôhori Park station. Ôhori Kôen.”

“Oh, Ôhori Kôen. Yes, yes, it’s very nice this time of year.” The words trickled slowly out. I could hear the swoosh of the train doors opening, the click of heels on tile as the passengers got off.

“Yes, yes, I know. Which . . . ”

“In a week or so, the cherry blossoms will be at their most beautiful . . . ”

“Yes, I, I’m aware of that. Which platform do I . . . ?”

“Oh, yes, the subway’s a very convenient . . .”

“Oh, for the love of God, lady. Left or right?”

“I’m sorry? Left or right? I don’t understa . . . ”

“Which platform?” I say pointing. I’m so exacerbated I could strangle the dimwit.

“Oooh, I see, I see. Platform Two, of course. I’ll show . . . ”

“No, you won’t. I’m in a hurry. Bye.”

I ran off towards Platform Two, flying down a second flight of stairs, three steps at a time, towards the platform, but mid decent a soft bell chimed, the doors closed and the train departed.

“Ah, fuck me!” I yelled, the curse echoing throughout the station.

Plodding down the remaining steps, I came to the platform and made my way to a row of seats where I plopped down and drank the two cans of lukewarm Georgia coffee.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long. Within a few minutes a second train came, but before I could count myself the lucky beneficiary of an efficiently-run, white-gloved public transportation system, I learned that the train wouldn’t take me all the way to Ôhori Park, that I would have to change trains at yet another shûten.

3

The shredded contract lies on the tabletop before me and Abazure has a look on her face like I have wasted her time and should now go. If it weren’t for the fact that my visa is going to expire in less than a week and now have no other prospect for employment, I would flip Abazure and that other bitch in the office the bird and storm out of the building. But I need the job. God, do I need ever it.

As Abazure glares at me, the realization that I’ve made a huge error hits me like a kick in the gut and I can’t take it anymore.

“I’m sorry,” I say standing up, “but, I’m feeling very ill.”

I dash out of the classroom, pass the lobby and office, and hurry towards a door that has “otearai” written in Chinese characters on it. Opening the door and hoping my troubles are over, I discover they’ve only just begun: the school has a fucking Japanese style toilet.

Oh, for the love of God!

Taking a crap on a Japanese style toilet is like trying to take a dump into a lady’s shoebox. On a slightly raised area is a narrow porcelain trough barely a hand’s length wide over which you’re expected to squat as you do your business.

I mount it and squat as well as my stiff Achilles tendons will allow me, but my ass is hovering precariously above my pants, which are gathered round my ankles.

The forces of nature are in motion and there’s no stopping them. Grabbing onto a large sewage pipe that runs from the ceiling down to the floor, I hold onto it for dear life and lean back, peering down between my legs like a bombardier might until the target comes into sight. When it does: Bombs away!

The collateral damage is worse than expected: half of my payload lands far off target and I have to spend the next five minutes tidying the toilet up. No matter how much I wipe the porcelain down, though the heavy smell of death hangs in the restroom. A useless little fan in the wall coughs out the fumes.

I look in the small cabinet above the toilet hoping to find a book of matches, but there is none. Next to a few roles of the industrial strength toilet paper I just sanded my ass with is a can of what, judging by the picture of a field of flowers on it, must be air freshener.

I give the room a liberal spray, and stir up the air with my arms, but an obtrusive hint of pooh lingers stubbornly in the sweet floral fragrance.

*

Several minutes later, I return to the small classroom and apologize to Abazure. “I’m not feeling very well,” I tell her. “If today’s meeting weren’t as important as it is, I would have cancelled it and suggested meeting later in the week when I was feeling better.”

Abazure softens. She’s still visibly irritated, however, with the foul souvenir that has trailed me back into the room, she cannot doubt my candor. “I am plainly ill.”

She stands up and leaves me alone in the classroom (Could you blame the woman?) and returns shortly with another contract, which she places on the table before me and asks that I read through it.

As I go through the contract, my jaw drops onto the tabletop. Each item in the contract is written in the bluntest of terminology–namely, do this and you’ll be fired; do that and you’ll be fired. There is no room for misunderstanding.

If I am ever late–regardless of illness, accident, ill-timed bowel movements, what have you–my employment will be terminated on the spot.

I swallow hard and sign the contract. What else do you expect me to do?

Once all the paperwork is complete, Abazure instructs me to meet her at Immigration next week, the day before my visa expires.

“If you are even a minute late,” she warns, “I will have no choice but to look for someone else. Am I understood?”

“Y-yes, you are.”

“Well, then. See you next week.”

4

“Fired if I’m late?” I shake my head in disbelief as I make my way back to the station. “Fired if I’m ever absent? Fired if I ever accept presents from the students!”

I take the subway to Hakata station where I then transfer to a limited express to take me back to Kitakyushu. As travel away from Fukuoka City, the train crosses the Tataragawa River. It’s from the bridge that spans that slow flowing river that I can see with an unwelcome clarity a solitary tall apartment building and the flashing neon lights of a pachinko parlor behind it. It’s where my ex-girlfriend Mie lives and works. It’s where I fell in love with her, experiencing some of the happiest days of my life, and where my heart was broken one morning last October when she left me. It has become a Mecca of sorts for me, towards which my prayers are offered. And every time I cross this bridge, either coming or going, I crane my neck so as to keep the building in sight on the off chance that I might catch a glimpse, however fleeting or distant, of Mie. In a similar manner, I signed Abazure’s contract this morning putting my pride up as collateral on the off chance that I might be able to one day meet Mie again.

A rational person would have probably told Abazure to shove the contract up her small, flat arse and gone back to America or wherever, dignity intact. Unfortunately, I stopped functioning on reason the day Mie dumped me. Pure impulse and desperation has been my fuel. So, I wrote my name on the dotted line because more than anything in the world, I want Mie back in my life, or, at least, to find someone who’ll help me achieve the seemingly impossible: to forget her.

Someone, perhaps, like Nozomi . . .

© 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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