Marilyn Abildskov ~ Bodies in Transit

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:  BEMAN. I CAN RECOMMEND IT WITH CONFIDENCE AS LIKEMOST 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.