You have not yet recovered from jet lag when your neighbors in teachers’ housing throw you a welcome party. You and two other Americans just arrived to teach English here. After drinking, one of your neighbors presents each American with a large bouquet of flowers. As if you are special! Celebrities! It’s absurd and you are embarrassed and yet you love it. Who would refuse such lavish attention?
A friend takes a group of you, Japanese and American teachers, on a trip to a Buddhist temple. People are always taking you on trips to see Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. The drive takes you up to the top of a mountain and then, on the way home, down a winding hill full of sharp, endless turns.
You ask your friend to pull over. When she does, so does the car behind you. Someone in that car, too, is carsick. So there you are, two figures a few feet from one another, hunched over by the side of the road, vomiting into the tall grass against a backdrop of sun and slender bamboo trees.
You meet the Shiojiri businessmen once a month, skimming the surface of one another, learning of each other through broad strokes, categories. You. An American woman. Teacher. Unmarried. Childless. Them. Japanese. Men. A salesman in industrial recycling. A maker of laquerware. An architect. A welder at a steel company. One sells real estate. Two are dentists. Another is a lawyer. Another sells tombstones. One works at an optical store where he’s branch manager. Another works at a gas station. One makes doors.
You skim the surface of conversation, practicing adjectives. Expensive. Fast. Noisy. Big. Practicing verbs. To eat. To drink. To sleep. To hate. To hear. To wear. To send. To lie. You ask questions that simplify. How often do you play mah-jong? How often do you play golf? How often do you go to movies? How often do you go to hostess bars? Have you ever heard of the game Monopoly? Have you ever heard of the dancer Fred Astaire? Have you ever climbed Mt. Fuji? Visited Russia? Eaten whale? Eaten turkey? How old are you? What are your hobbies?
Thirty-nine years old. Thirty-three. Skiing. Golfing. Reading mysteries. Sleeping. Forty-seven, married for nine years. Ten years, three daughters. Ballroom dancing. The surface goes on and on. Two children, one says. Recently married, another says. One says he lives with his parents. One says he was an exchange student in Indiana when he was 19 years old. One says he has never changed his baby’s diapers.
You wonder what else. What surprises them. What moves them. How they look when they sleep, if their mouths drop open, if they snore. You wonder if, when they golf together and enter the baths, if they talk differently than they do here, if they slump in white towels, afterward, sitting on cedar benches, silent as fog.
But your wondering doesn’t last long.
All but two of them smoke. Ashes litter the table you share. And so, month after month, on Thursday nights, you leave the room on the second floor, drenched in the smell of cigarettes, the lives of the Shiojiri businessmen still a mystery to you.
For cleaning time at school you put a kerchief on your head like everyone else and you take a dirty rag from a pile of other dirty rags like everyone else and you get down on your hands and knees alongside your students and you clean the floor like everyone else. Or pretend to clean. You say to one of the Japanese English teachers afterward, wouldn’t it be better to wash the rags? To clean once a week, instead of once a day, and do a better job? The floor never gets clean. Not really. But cleaning, you learn, isn’t the point. The point is to gather once a day and pay your respects to the physicality of the school, to take a rag—who cares if it’s clean or dirty—and run it along the hallway floors. Later you wonder, why hadn’t you thought of this before?
You go to Carrie’s apartment for wine on weekend nights. You talk about what you love about Japan and what you don’t understand. You love how safe its streets are, how you can ride your bicycles home late at night. You don’t know yet it’s not the same for Japanese women, that such luck is not afforded them, that like all places, there is one experience, yours, and another, theirs, and another and another and another and another and it’s foolish to think you can know a place.
One night Carrie tells you what happened. She was a college student in New York. She went out with him because he was smart and funny and they had mutual friends. She invited him to her dorm room because, well, she doesn’t remember now why. It seemed a good idea at the time. When it happened, she couldn’t believe it was happening. She kept her eyes on the top shelf of her bookshelf. A stuffed bear from childhood. She couldn’t take her eyes off that bear.
Later, you’ll think of her every time you pass a pachinko parlor with its array of stuffed animals lined up in the window, prizes, prizes, so many stupid prizes.
It is winter of your second year. Finally, you have routines that add up to an ordinary good day, things you’ do after the teaching workday ends. Stopping at the stationery shop downtown. Buying a notebook whose slogan read: BE A MAN. I CAN RECOMMEND IT WITH CONFIDENCE AS LIKE A MOST INTELLIGENT STATE OF BASIC DESIGN. Watching a young salesclerk at the store near the train station giftwrap trinkets: a key chain; a folding calendar; a small tea cup with delicate yellow flowers dripping down a rounded dark blue side. You go to the bakery to buy a loaf of bread, a small slab of cheese for dinner.
You stop at 7‑Eleven before the long bike ride up the last hill home to buy two onigiri, small triangles of pressed rice with a surprise of salmon inside. Or a box of curry to heat up over a bowl of white rice. And on these days, you steal a glance at the men and boys lined up, facing the window in the front of the store, all of them lost in manga, shoulders slumped as if apologizing. But for what?
One of the boys might steal a glance at you. Your face flushes and his does too and you leave the shop, tucking your bag from 7‑Eleven into the basket on the front of your bike, and then, riding away, you wonder about them, those men and boys, in that way that people wonder about the secret lives of strangers anywhere.
One morning at Shinmei Junior High you see Mr. Okuma limping into the teachers’ room.
“What happened?” you ask Kobayashi-sensei.
“It happened two months ago,” she whispers. “A student in 2–2 kicked Okuma-sensei and now he suffers trouble with his back.” Okuma-sensei has six months of physical therapy ahead and still doctors say he might suffer permanent damage to his spine.
Later, after lunch, you ask Okuma-sensei how he’s doing. The student didn’t know what he was doing, he says.
“Was the student punished?” you ask.
“No,” he says.
“What happened after the injury?”
Okuma-sensei tells you when he “spoke out,” the principal pulled him aside and said he’d be fired if the incident became public.
“Why?” you ask.
“He said I’d be recognized as a weak teacher,” Okuma-sensei continues.
When Okuma-sensei sees you’re getting upset, he says, “I am a new customer.” By “new customer,” you he means a new teacher, someone with little power or clout. “If I teach English a long time, I can speak out. But I am a new customer.” So he will keep quiet, he says, and continue on.
“Can the student be sent away?” I ask. “Put in a special school?”
“No,” Okuma-sensei says. “It would be too difficult. Nothing can be done.”
“Do you want to quit teaching?” The minute you ask the question, you regret it. It’s intrusive. But now you can’t take it back.
No, Okuma-sensei says. “I will stay. I like this job. Education is my dream.”
There your conversation ends. Okuma-sensei limps away.
But later that afternoon, as you’re hunched over composition books, correcting students’ sentences, he returns, tapping you on the shoulder. He has one more thing to add, he says quietly. “I want to quit job but I can’t.”
Once, while riding your bike up the hill to Meizen in winter, you skid on ice and wipe out. For a few minutes, you lay on the road, amazed you’re alive. As you stand you can feel blood seeping into your pants. You can feel the sting of a skinned knee. But nothing appears to be broken. As put your bicycle upright and hobble away, you see from the corner of your eye a man standing in front of his house, smoking. He must have seen the whole thing.
Sometimes it’s snowing lightly outside and you put up the hood of your navy blue pea coat, bicycling past darkened pine trees and small square rice fields and the silver-concrete apartment buildings where the windows turn bronze. If someone were watching? From a distance, you wouldn’t know if the figure is male or female, American or Japanese, young or old. You could be anyone. A thought ripples through your head: this is why you travel. For the intense pleasure of anonymity.
When you were young, you sat on a wooden pew next to your mother, next to your sister, next to the other women from church, the sisters whose bodies were small, whose bodies were big, whose bodies had delivered two, three, four, five babies, whose bodies ran marathons and sold real estate, whose bodies miscarried, whose bodies held grandbabies, whose bodies sang loud, whose bodies sang off key, whose bodies grew old and no worries, because here, in this house, the body has claim for eternal life. Here you closed your eyes, listened to the opening prayer, opened your eyes, then held in your hands the hard blue hymnbook. Years went by. You learned what your body is next to the bodies of others, in a house of God. You learned your body is a temple. Now, in sickness and in health, in rest and transition, a temple your body remains.
Your temple is big now, expensive. Noisy. Your temple is visiting. Your temple is homegrown. Your temple skims the surface. Your temple goes deep. Your temple is injured, wiped out, tapped out, wants to quit. Your temple is a song, a cup, a lie, a gravestone. A verb. A window. A hallway. A series of doors. Inside the doors, a mystery. Inside the mystery, a baby. Inside the baby, longing for a baby. Inside that longing, another longing, a small slab of confidence dressed up for winter in a tiny pea coat. Inside the pocket of the pea coat, a bouquet of lilies. Inside the lilies, somebody. Everybody. Nobody. Celebrities!
When your sister comes to visit you, she studies the squid in the supermarkets, she refuses to eat octopus, she bikes with you to temples. When she leaves, she hugs you. She says knows a young woman—just about your age—who lived in Japan, who loved it, too, just like you, who just returned to the U.S. with the cutest baby.
Every night, after unlacing your boots, after peeling off your winter coat, after crossing the entryway to your small Japanese apartment, you’re filled with longing. The longing is abstract, more of an idea than a physical reality. No, that’s not true. It arrives unbidden, sharp and swift, a keen ache that stretches the hours between dusk and dark.
You take a hot bath, then start dinner, measuring rice to be washed, setting the table, lining up your blue and white plate next to a the vase of tulips or lilies, opening a bottle of wine.
As you sit down to dinner, then settle into an evening of reading—a secret life of your own—the cravings, the ache, like the sights and sounds of your foreign city, vanish like smoke.
Marilyn Abildskov is the author of The Men in My Country, and the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award, a Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award, and the Los Angeles Review Short Fiction Award in addition to honors from the Corporation of Yaddo, the Djerassi Writing Residency, and the Utah Arts Council. Her essays and short stories have been published in Ploughshares, Sewanee Review, Story, The Southern Review, Best American Essays, and elsewhere. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and teaches in the MFA Program at Saint Mary’s College of California.