59 in the East by John J. Staughton
JAMISON COATES REELED from the stab of pain as it raced up his shin. The sharp teeth of his bike pedal had savagely bit into the front pleat of his dress pants as it swung wildly in a cyclical design quirk that Jamison would never understand. He ground his teeth and felt his nostrils flare, but he continued down the steps, guiding his bicycle down the ramped edge of the stairwell.
He could feel the press of humanity behind him in the patient swarm of commuters that filled the small train station each morning, emerging suited and tightly bound in thoughts from their humble homes. Stopping would mean impeding their day, interrupting their focused march to the next objective.
When Jamison stepped out of the covered stairwell, he veered right, and the river of determined, unsmiling passers-by split around him as though he were little more than a troublesome stone.
“Sumimasen,” he muttered to no one in particular, offering it as more of a general apology for his existence to anyone within earshot. Emerging on the far bank, outside the flow, he leaned his bike against a light pole and bent to inspect the damage.
As he slowly raised his grey pant leg like a theatre curtain, he spotted a small row of purpling dents a few inches above his ankle. There was a red blotch surrounding the tender impact point—a halo for the latest wound from his most useful possession.
Dropping the pant leg, Jamison scanned the small traffic circle situated at the entrance of the station. It was semi-crowded with taxi drivers smoking in tight, suspicious clumps and schoolchildren scattered in waiting pods, their matching outfits highlighting their ever-present uniformity.
It was not their unity that bothered Jamison, however; it was his own alienation within their strict, impenetrable bubble.
He glanced down at his watch, a silver reminder of another life: 8:50.
Jamison reached into his front pocket, pushing past his iPod to the recognizable shape of his cigarettes. Lucky Strikes were everywhere, a novelty that had failed to fade in the past two months. He removed one carelessly, past the point of counting or caring, and lit it with a Zippo he carried in his other pocket. It was battered and beaten and bore the Lucky Strike logo, another memento of a different age.
He shifted the weight of the zebra-striped carrier bag crammed into the front basket of his bike, ensuring that it wouldn’t bounce out onto the street to spew a bizarre collection of stuffed animals, dog-eared books, convenience store snacks, and Uno Cards. He hissed a stream of smoke towards the street, savoring the toasted air and the instant pulse of blood it sent through his veins.
He looked up as the dull canvas of clouds finally succumbed to its own weight and began to shed its burden. Jamison felt the insignificant ticks of wetness on his skin—those only noticeable if you stand very still with your most sensitive flesh exposed.
Trusting that a full-on spring shower was inevitable, he swung his leg over the bike seat and pushed off into the humid rush of the morning.
His Thursday morning route was beginning to seem natural, and his landmark map filled up a bit more every week with memorable swaths of billboard colors and impossible words. Jamison read every symbol his eyes could consume, despite not knowing what the vast majority meant. He was able to create his own language, one that told him the story of his new home, with new details added each time he passed the gaudy space-age Pachinko palace or sprawling gated-off gardens.
At the halfway mark of the ride, Jamison broke out from the city streets and felt space unroll to either side. To his right was a small range of peaks that bled upwards from the yellow fields and green hilly brush to an ashen spine bearing off-white peaks. The sky was webbed with power lines humming like overeager monks, but the sparse cottages dotting the small country space seemed oblivious and uninterested in the wattage racing above.
Jamison soared past the houses and the bent figures working sluggishly in their gardens, enjoying the now-regular pelt of rain on his cheeks. He stared at each person he passed for as long as he could, in between flicking his eyes to the street disappearing beneath his tires, hoping that one stranger would look up and see the grinning gaijin flying by.
The small gap of green ended shortly after it began, and Jamison sailed into the next town over, shifting from country cottages to commercial properties with a dozen solid pumps of his legs. Nothing was gradual here; space was wisely used. Cities and towns in the West tended to sprawl, legs akimbo, inefficiently populating the outskirt areas of urban lives, but waste was not in the lexicon of Japan’s rural corners.
If Jamison continued riding straight west on that street, he could reach the coast in 40 minutes. He had seen pictures of the destruction, the sweeping shots of obliterated coastal towns – even before and after pictures of the area – but he hadn’t made the trip to see the remains of the tsunami’s destructive wrath. It had thus far been an unconscious impetus for his move and a dark memory that could still be seen in the faces of his new community, but not a tangible aspect of his reality.
He struggled to light a second cigarette at a stoplight, just as the rain swelled from a drizzle to a steady driving rhythm. Jamison shivered as he cupped his damp hands around the meager flame, coaxing it towards the dry tip.
Four blocks west and two more north brought him to a nondescript street with one fenced-in building sporting a white and blue sign. The text was scripted in the Comic Sans of Japanese symbols, and rose like a cryptic rainbow over a simple scene of animated bears playing on a green hill. He parked his bike in the gravel lot across the street, which held a handful of white half-size buses bearing cartoonish aliens and bright flowers with wide, hyper eyes and toothy smiles. Jamison stubbed out the smoke beneath his foot and dug around blindly in the bag still smashed in the carrier basket. He fumbled for a moment until his fingers closed on the small metal tin. He tossed two Altoids under his tongue, yanked the vinyl bag free, and strode across the empty street.
A chorus of Ohayou gozaimasu from the milling crowd of grinning female teachers in the front yard of the kindergarten brought a blushing smile to his face. He responded in kind, aiming his brief, stuttering bows at each teacher in turn. A trio of students, two boys and a girl, came bounding towards him, screaming wildly with undirected glee, but as he tensed for their impact, they froze a few feet from him, suddenly shy.
The squeaking gibberish of their young tongues meant nothing to him, but he politely smiled down and bade them Ohayou. Any of his pathetic attempts at speaking their language were greeted with laughter – sniffling, raucous bursts – interspersed with whispered strings between tiny mouths and ears. Jamison enjoyed the innocence of their ignorance, endlessly amused by their confusion at his own inability to understand them.
After the nervous dam had broken, dozens more children, jet-black hair bouncing in the sun, eagerly ran up to say good morning, or stand in anxious awe, nibbling at their fingertips and hiding behind braver companions. Jamison slow-stepped through them carefully, as though wading through a lake without stepping on any reeds. They reached out for him as he passed, plucking at his clothes or running a hand along his arm. Some tried to hold his hand. If they hadn’t been miniature, foreign, unintelligible people, he may have felt elated by the attention.
“Ohayou, Jamie-san,” the office manager of the kindergarten greeted Jamison with a smile too wide for the early hour. Most teachers had taken to calling him Jamie-san, given that the formal greeting for a colleague or equal involved tacking –san on the end of a first name. His given name of Jamison sounded idiotic as Jamison-san, so he had accepted the alteration after a week of trying and failing to explain the wordplay of his own name to every freshly introduced acquaintance.
“Ohayou gozaimaaaaasu,” Jamison responded with the stretched out vowel that seemed to signify enthusiasm and familiarity. As always, they smiled and bowed effusively, uncomfortably so at times, like a wobbly chess opponent grinning madly across the board, waiting for the next move. He was always on display, constantly being poked and prodded by the eyes around him.
“Kyo wa hare desu,” he bravely continued, while tugging on his collar to signify the heat and removed his sunglasses with a meaningful flourish. His bright blue eyes were almost as alien as his tight blonde tumbleweed afro, and the teachers were often as taken aback by his appearance as the students.
Many of the kindergarten teachers, a dozen or so in all, were barely out of school themselves, and were still getting over their girlish giggles at the sight of a smirking American male in their midst. A small gasping laugh drew Jamison’s attention to the far side of the teachers’ common room, where a petite teacher with bronzed hair sat on the floor with her back to him, reading an oversized book to a seemingly uninterested boy. The space between the boy’s nostrils and upper lip was a gleaming mess from the endlessly running nose of any toddler. His arm was sheathed in a blousy blue sleeve, which he swept across his face, transferring the effluvium from one surface to another. The woman pulled a handkerchief from her apron smock and wiped his face tenderly, even as he squirmed out of her grasp. She shook her head admonishingly at the little boy, who wriggled at her touch.
Jamison recognized the woman, Chiyaku, as one of the co-teachers of a class he would be teaching later that morning. She was slender and serious, with piercing green eyes and a firm manner with her students, but she looked no more than 20, her soft features betraying a youthful radiance when he had occasionally seen her smile.
“Hey John.” The choppy, sharp-edged welcome in his native tongue came from behind him, snapping him from his reverie. The words sounded out of place as his own co-teacher walked through the office door, pulling his attention from the scene on the floor.
“Good morning, Ayaka,” he replied, flooded with the same sense of relief he always felt when she appeared at the morning lessons. She was his human shield from the onslaught of questions and attempted conversations in the pre-lesson commotion. It wasn’t that Jamison didn’t like the attention, but after two months in the country, he had only mastered a bare-bones survival guide of the language. Every phrase directed his way felt like an oral exam, and while the teachers seemed to understand his silence, there was a cringing look of pity that often appeared in their eyes.
The looks also silently asked, why are you here? However, the answer was not a simple one of teaching a few 20-minute lessons once a week. Their questioning glances probed far deeper, to the real reason he had come to their country. Was it curiosity? Pity? An attempt to find adventure? Or perhaps a Japanese wife? His guess was as good as theirs.
“Do you have everything?” Ayaka asked in her brusque English that always sounded more aggressive than intended.
“Hai,” Jamison responded in the affirmative Japanese, which made her smile.
“Very good,” she replied with a chuckle and an eye-roll. She was a part-time instructor at the main school where he worked, as well as his co-teacher at the Thursday morning kindergarten class each week. She was in her mid-40s, with two young daughters who were students of the school that employed him, and she possessed an infectious laugh that seemed to bubble up from deep in her healthy frame.
Jamison and Ayaka sat a short distance from the clump of young teachers, who continued twittering, hands over their mouths, as they prepared for the day. The pair briefly reviewed the plan for the lesson – puppet presentation, song time, activity, lesson, and the final game – including a scaled-back run-through of the hand gestures and choreography for the song. He could feel himself blush during their short sit-down, as he could sense a dozen almond eyes locked on his movements from the common area of the room.
He leaned back on the diminutive couch, clearly intended for the students of the school, rather than the teachers, and only succeeded in slouching uncomfortably before immediately straightening back up. Feeling a trickle of nervous perspiration welling up on the back of his neck, he excused himself, grabbing his bottle of water from the vinyl bag and striding towards the main door.
He slipped back into his shoes, which he had removed on the way in, and from that vantage point, he could just make out the delicate profile of Chiyaku, who was still sitting on the floor. She was leaning in to the same small boy, straightening his collar and talking gently to him. Her long fingers brushed down his arms and he let his eyes linger on the caramel skin of her hands.
Jamison, once re-shoed, quickly shuffled outside and darted through the fenced-in schoolyard, doing his best to avoid drawing the attention of the miniature hordes. He stood in the shade, letting the drags of a final cigarette settle deep in his chest as he calmed himself, mentally rehearsing the lesson ahead between squinting pulls. His thoughts were invaded more than once by the vision of Chiyaku on the floor, and the gentle shape of her shoulders above the slanting rise of her breasts, which were nearly lost within the loose uniform smocks of the kindergarten.
Five minutes later, Jamison was back inside, standing on a small raised stage facing two impatient lines of kindergarteners. His weight was settled firmly on his left leg and a stuffed elephant puppet enveloped his opposite hand. His middle finger extended deep into its trunk. He was on the clock.
February 19th, 2013 – 9 months later
Shoko leaned back against the door and slowly sunk into a crouch, balling herself tightly and resting her head against the cold wood behind her. Two thin streams of tears rolled down either cheek, symmetrical and tinged slightly indigo from her eyeliner. She raised a single finger to catch the tinted tears before they fell onto her tight white denim pants.
That goodbye was far from the scene she had imagined, and she wondered if he felt the same way.
As she entertained that thought, her eyes wandered the room – to pictures of her daughters in Kyoto two years prior, the stack of dry dishes in the sink, her purse splayed open on the couch, and his unfinished glass of whiskey on the table.
Unbeknownst to her, only inches away, Jamison stood on the other side of the door, wrestling back his impulse to burst back through the door and sweep into her modest apartment, ignoring the dozens of reasons why none of this had ever been a good idea.
He stood there like a frozen fool, second-guessing every breath, wondering what she had silently expected, what would be appropriate, and whether any of that even mattered anymore. The innocent waters of their dam had finally broken through after nearly a year, and he was struggling to identify the moral difference between a trickle and a torrent.
His hand was raised, poised to either knock or have the door opened for him, as though through telepathy, if she happened to peer through the peephole and see him dumbly struck by uncertainty. Despite the moral battle being waged between conscience and hedonism in his chest, he couldn’t help notice the grain of the door, wet brown and glossy, speared by random streaks of charcoal black, reminding him of a particularly sticky bar in rural Missouri that had the same mountainous camouflage of color, but none of the gloss.
He laid his hand on the impossibly smooth surface, hardly believing that such topography of color could exist on the flat plain beneath his fingers. Some posturing whisper in his subconscious twisted his expression to angst, hoping somehow that she was even then looking through the carefully drilled hole, curiously considering his expression and waiting for his faint pressure on the door to disappear so she could open the portal and accept him tumbling into her arms. He hung his head, letting his chin nearly strike his chest, and he imagined that he could smell her on him, a faint splash of perfume from the place where her breasts had pressed against him for a fractioned second when they’d said hello.
Jamison’s left hand flew up to its appropriately sided cheek and slapped hard across the surface, landing perfectly cupped against his skin to sting his teeth and blast the nerves in his eyes to life. The deep cups of whiskey served around that wide square table hours earlier had already soaked into his body, but some had lingered in his mind, obviously, and the rapid strike against his flesh was flung in the hopes of waking him from whatever stupefied delirium had left him standing outside of a married woman’s apartment in a neighborhood miles from his bed and an ocean from home.
He lurched to the right, allowing his tottering legs to weakly lead him down the sterile hallway, hidden from view of the minute hole in her door.
As the sound of a slap broke the silence behind her, Shoko caught her breath, the back of her head frozen centimeters from the smooth wood. She flexed her calves and wiggled her ass back and forth, shimmying it up the door like a snake wriggling through sand before shoving off expertly into a drunken twirl. The distorted image through the dull glass spyhole revealed only an empty hallway and the bare wall that faced her apartment. Certain that she’d heard something, she wrenched open the door she had so painfully closed behind him and carefully poked her head out, first looking to her right before sweeping back left, dragging her vision along the orange and yellow carpet that stretched nauseatingly to both ends of the hallway.
She had never seen a form quite like his; it bobbed and dipped lazily, a perpetually intoxicated ballerina of a man who never quite fell off the beat of his own drum nor moved against the wind. He seemed to have an agreement with gravity that each of his meandering steps would find solid ground, but never in a straight line, resulting in a swaying dance of casual grace that appeared to dip and dodge through a reality every other person only shared with him. To her, he was America wrapped up in a single bag of smirking flesh, slightly worn jeans with frayed boot cuffs slung low on sharp hips, occasionally revealing a flash of his colorful underwear when he leaned over or offered a drunkenly ecstatic dance step.
Undergarments were not intended for public display in Japan, save in the youthful bouncing rebels of her own people and in sloppy ignorant foreigners who lacked modesty, yet she starved for those occasional slivers of sky blue contraband between his pleated slacks and too-small polo shirts.
She thought all of this in the space of a second, reveling in the retreating figure of her paradox. She felt a single pound in her chest, and then the rush of blood through a chilled spine and shivering hairs on her thin freckled arm. The pulse of warmth that lit her cheeks with blood continued through her shoulders and down across her breasts, collapsing finally into the space below her belt, which cinched her waist like a chain.
He didn’t turn when he heard the vacuuming whoosh of air as the door opened behind him, and tried to maintain his ambling gait, seemingly unaware of the tilting scales being weighed behind him. His self-control, miraculously intact, tried to prolong his slumping stride with affectation, but the knowledge of her eyes on him, searching and debating whether to summon him back, made every breath feel contrived – on edge.
The mangled sound of his name was a symphony to his hungry ears. There was no mistaking the intention of this callback from the threshold of a final farewell.
He had two options: turn and respond to her beckoning voice or carry on the last three steps and turn the corner, return to his flat, pack the remaining shrapnel of life in his luggage, and collapse on his leather couch one last time before lugging himself to the curb in the morning and leaving this all behind – not the country so much as this adopted existence – innocent until proven guilty of compromised emotions.
He was nine days away from the off-white neutrality of arrival back in the brutally flat Midwest. He had made it through 58 weeks in the East without shattering any invisible panes of indiscretion, but the home stretch (quite literally) was proving to be his greatest challenge.
He could feel the meek, longing gaze on his back, the imploring expression of desperation he had only reserved for his quietest fantasies of Shoko – the Lancelot-level salvation lay that would rid her of a tyrannical asexual husband and a life scripted for her by blood and bridehood, rather than boldness.
He also knew in that moment that Takuya and Senzo had been right… this wasn’t his world. His actions would last far past his conceivable future. He was a time traveler flirting dangerously with early butterflies of affection, but he still felt the insistent line of temptation like a hook in his gums, begging him to turn and answer the whispering hush of her voice.
March 23rd, 2012 – 11 months earlier
Rei had pulled up in a small grey two-door, shaken Jamison’s hand with a bony claw of her own, and introduced herself in a rushed manner, as though they were already running out of time. He had spoken to her image on a computer screen a few times in the past three months leading up to his arrival in Japan, but facing her in that cutting rain of early spring was entirely different.
22 hours earlier, he had boarded a plane in Chicago, leaving a tearful mother and a stalwart father’s red-rimmed eyes behind. The 13-hour flight had actually taken him past his destination, where he was forced into a 3-hour layover, followed by another puddle-jump from Seoul to Tokyo. Finding the bathroom in Korea had been enough of a struggle, but being deposited in the center of Narita Airport with 100 pounds of luggage was an entirely different struggle.
Piecing together what little Japanese that he could, Jamison managed to retrieve cash, find a ticket counter, go to the bathroom, and smoke a cigarette. That typically banal string of tasks had taken him an hour, and as he dragged his four articles of luggage onto a Shinkansen heading north, he estimated his odds of boarding the correct train to be roughly 50/50.
When Jamison arrived at his destination three hours later, he awkwardly wrenched his bags onto the platform before approaching an officer staring emptily at the train at it unloaded its human cargo. “Watashi wa Sendai ni imasuka?” The thin, older Japanese man wore a light-blue short-sleeve dress shirt and a radio clipped below his shoulder. He furrowed his brows slightly, confused at being asked such a simple question by someone able to speak some semblance of Japanese. “Hai,” he answered suspiciously. Jamison’s smile and jerking bow informed the officer that their conversation was over.
Jamison stared at the three symbols painted in backlit blue, the name of his city, and compared the strokes to images he recognized – roof over a forest, small cottage, crooked crucifix. Sendai-shi. He had arrived.
Navigating the comparatively small train station of Sendai was a refreshing change from the swarming mass of the capital’s hub, and he soon found his way outside, where he welcomed the smell of clean air and foreign rain. The train had arrived at the precise instant it was scheduled, and before he could light a smoke to decompress from the final dashing leg of his journey, a beat-up car had rolled beside him at the curb.
Even in the darkness and steady rain, he wasn’t hard to pick out in a crowd. Not only had he been the only Westerner on the train from Tokyo, but his small mountain of luggage could only belong to a stranger freshly arrived in an alien land.
The wrinkled Japanese woman had stepped out of the car and stood before him, already reaching for his carry-on and gesturing for him to drag his larger bags to the trunk.
“How was the trip?” Rei’s speech was clipped and precise, as it had been over the phone, but Jamison had already noticed that her English was limited, somewhat surprising for the owner of an English language school – even one in Japan.
“A bit long, but no big problems,” Jamison happily replied, English spilling out in pleasure after nearly a day without a receptive ear.
“What big problems?” she answered in her abbreviated spit of speech.
“Oh, sorry,” he backtracked. “No big problems. The flight was good.”
Jamison silently raised his largest bag into the small trunk of the car, already knowing that the other bulging bag would have to sit in her backseat.
“Lots of luggage,” she commented, and he could feel his face redden.
“Yes, I probably packed too much.” Jamison made sure to slow down his speech and keep it simple, wanting to make a good impression on his employer, despite her having already informed him that she would only be in Japan for the first two weeks of the contract, and then perhaps back again for a week in the autumn.
“Is that everything?” she asked as he fumbled with the seat release on the passenger side before hefting the suitcase through the triangular space and lowering it gently onto the backseat.
“Yeah, that should be everything.”
Jamison made sure that the wet wheels weren’t resting on the fabric, but she still gave the bag a mute stare after getting back in the car, as though it were an unwanted third wheel on a truly terrible blind date. Once his door closed, she looked over. “Seat belt.”
“Right, of course.” He felt tension tightening every muscle of his body. From the corner of his eye, Jamison watched her squinting down at a smart phone. “So, did you find a homestay for me, Rei?”
His employer had left that detail undecided when they last spoke, but Rei had assured him that she’d be able to find a suitable place for him to stay until his apartment became available.
“Yes. Iwasaki-san’s house. She is mother of two students.” Her stumble in grammar went apparently unnoticed by her own ears. She laid the phone on her lap and shifted the car into drive. “Ready to go?”
“Of course. Thank you for picking me up.”
“That’s okay. I always pick up new teacher. I picked up Maria last year. Right before disaster.”
She spoke matter-of-factly, and Jamison couldn’t discern whether she was irritated, tired, or just overly professional. He chose to remain silent, waiting for her to offer him an opening. He was the one who had just completed nearly 24 hours of traveling; forcing undesired conversation didn’t sound particularly appealing.
“So, welcome to Sendai. It’s a really-really beautiful city,” Rei’s nasal dialect pierced the silence, and he nodded in agreement.
“I think I read that it is called the City of Trees. Is that right?” he attempted to probe a bit deeper as the small car dragged itself through the night. The whisper of wheels on wet road was the only other noise aside from their breathing and sporadic speech.
“Yes. There are very beautiful parks in downtown. My school is not downtown. I told you this, I think. It is fifteen minutes away. Smaller.” She spoke with almost no emotion, and never took her eyes from the road. In fact, she leaned forward and squinted through the rain-streaked glass, which caused him to unconsciously tighten his grip on the door’s armrest.
“Right. Yes, you told me. I think that will be good.”
The conversation was never continuous, with extended gaps punctuated by random questions or statement from one of the two. He reasoned that it was late, and she was old – at least 75 – so he decided not to take her aloof nature as any reflection on him, nor as an accurate first impression.
“Is my homestay near the school?” This was perhaps the most important question he had to ask. Jamison had known that he would be staying in a stranger’s house for the better part of a week before the English teacher he was replacing moved out of his future apartment.
“Not far. I will give directions. You will be teaching Iwasaki-san’s children in class. Daiki and Yuta. Two boys.”
“That’s good. Do they speak English?” The words sounded so profoundly American, and although she lived in Portland for most of the year, he could sense the cringe it set loose in her spine.
“The boys have been studying at my school for two years. Iwasaki-san takes conversation classes, but is beginner. You will teach her in adult class too.”
She hadn’t answered the question, but also didn’t appear to notice the oversight. “Okay. Is their house close to any restaurants?”
His stomach had apparently taken over the interrogation, and for the second time in as many minutes, Jamison realized how single-minded Americans must appear to the rest of the world. He looked down at his bag and fumbled with the flap, doing anything to avoid her eyes. He was simply tired and wanted to be horizontal somewhere, anywhere, before the reality of how far from home he was set in.
“We will be there soon. Iwasaki-san is near the main street in Minami-Sendai.”
As their turns became more frequent, signaling that they were closing in on their destination, she began a final bout of conversation.
“Iwasaki-san will prepare breakfast each morning. And a snack for the day. You will need lunch and dinner. I have money for you. From first month pay.”
He was trying to store all the information without asking any further questions, or asking for clarification. Rei made a final turn into a narrow street and slowed down in front of a tall wooden fence before turning abruptly into a driveway. Jamison reversed the process from twenty minutes earlier until his luggage once again sat in a mound on the wet pavement in front of a squat white house topped with curved black tiles shining with rain.
Rei gave Jamison a final look up and down, saying nothing, before ringing the doorbell. He heard footsteps almost immediately, small ones scampering and the heavier slow paces of a parent. A thin, heart-shaped face appeared, attached to a slender body in a heavy fabric blouse and loose pants. Jamison spotted two blurs of movement behind her in the hallway – her sons, assumedly, whose names he had already forgotten.
The woman’s hair fell in a flat shock on both sides of her face, and she immediately began bowing, offering a jumbled set of welcoming phrases that Jamison couldn’t understand. Rei’s face had split into a broad, gracious smile – the first he had seen since they’d met at the station.
The two women exchanged a rapid barrage before both turning to him. Rei spoke in English. “Iwasaki-san, this is Jamison.” Rei’s speech slowed to a snail’s pace, accompanied by a smile that revealed faint brown umbrellas staining each white tooth.
“Jamie-san,” she parroted in awkward English. “Welcome… to Japan.”
Jamison swallowed and tried to match the intensity of her smile, so obviously eager to impress and accommodate. “Arigatou. Douzo yoroshiku.”
At the sound of her native tongue, relatively un-mangled, Iwasaki-san’s eyes widened to seemingly impossible proportions. “Japanese is good!”
In the face of such joyful praise, he blushed and repeated his most practiced word, “Arigatou,” before bowing lower than his first attempt.
Iwasaki-san motioned them into the house, and Rei signaled him to lead with the suitcase in his hand. Jamison dipped one toe into the house before Rei’s hand fell on his arm. “Shoes off.”
Her tone had returned to the calculated sternness from the car. Iwasaki-san had turned to find them still outside, where Jamison wrestled uncomfortably with his shoelaces, feeling a sheen of sweat break on his forehead. He shifted one un-shoed foot into the wooden interior before turning to remove the other. The process took seconds that felt like hours, and he could feel their eyes on him. He rose, blood flushed in his cheeks, shoes in hand. He swallowed down a brief wave of shame as he caught a whiff of his own feet, which had traveled in those shoes for the better part of a day.
“Sumimasen,” Jamison apologized in the only way he knew how.
Rei entered like a practiced cat, stealthily slipping out of her shoes and gently stepping into the house, closing the door behind her.
Jamison’s employer slipped past him to stand beside Iwasaki-san. Rei spoke quickly in Japanese and the petite mother of two nodded eagerly, occasionally inserting a soft hai during Rei’s rare pauses.
He trailed the pair as they walked through the small ground floor. Iwasaki-san slid open a wall, revealing a cozy room with a second sliding door on another wall. Iwasaki-san had returned to speaking in Japanese, and repeatedly tried to make eye contact with Jamison as she gestured politely and spoke.
Every handful of phrases, Rei would give him a terse translation – “There is a small heater for you” and “The bathroom is in there”. In the main room of the house, two boys sat on the couch, one reading a book with a colorful cover and the second, older boy intently watching a soccer game on the surprisingly small television.
“Jamie-san… my son, Daiki. My son, Yuta.”
“Kon’nichiwa,” Jamison said quietly and held out his hand, then dropped it dumbly to his side as they stood up to bow their heads and shoulders obediently.
“Douzo yoroshiku onegaishimasu,” the older boy said, and Jamison smiled down at him. Rei said something about the boys to Iwasaki-san, who laughed, causing both boys to turn down their eyes. The American wasn’t in on the joke, but he assumed it was something about growing up so fast, or perhaps a compliment on being so polite – universal pleasantries.
With her job of delivering the foreign package to Iwasaki-san’s door completed, Rei began moving back towards the exit. “All okay, Jamison?”
He still had a dozen questions, but he also wanted to be alone. Rei made him uncomfortable. He had seen her façade rise and fall in the past hour – gracious and polite to Iwasaki-san, impermeable and annoyed to him.
The young mother was, after all, a paying customer, and Rei’s American instincts kept her saleswoman tact strong.
Jamison was, after all, an employee – one of which she didn’t seem particularly fond.
“Yes, this is great,” were the words he said, but not the ones bristling behind his teeth.
“Good. See you tomorrow. Bye.” She offered him what he assumed was a smile, but her jagged cheekbones pushed up the skin around them, causing her eyes to narrow. It looked like a glare with bared teeth – hungry. He shuddered as she turned away and felt a weight tumble from his shoulders when he heard the front door close.
He tiptoed back towards the main room, fearful of creaking the floorboards, as if that oafish intrusion might not be covered in the strange foreign accommodation contract to which he was not privy. Iwasaki-san sat with the two boys, who were practically identical save the pubescent awkwardness of the slightly larger one, Yuta.
Iwasaki-san stood when she noticed Jamison on the threshold and gestured to an empty chair beside the sofa. He nodded and half-bowed, opening his mouth to speak, but was unable to generate whatever words were required. His brain was beginning to shut off; the exhaustion of flights, trains, goodbyes, and this bizarre series of introductions had finally smashed into him.
The football match was between Japan and some football club from Eastern Europe – Bulgaria or Bratislava. Within the first minute of mindlessly watching the tiny figures scampering around the field on the screen, Jamison did what comes so instinctively to sports fans – he chose a side to root for.
Jamison recognized the Japanese players by their spiked, auburn hair and their graceful movements, while the European players had buzzed cuts, squat bulging bodies, and beady, nervous eyes. He had spent years cheering for European clubs, but on that night, his typical loyalties felt distant, separated by an extra ocean.
Perhaps it was sitting in that strange room, smelling the remnants of dinner and life from the three hosts to his right, sensing the vast chasm of language and experience he had introduced into their home, or simply feeling the desire for connection after a long period of isolation, but Jamison began silently cheering for the players from his newest step-motherland.
Small exclamations at close plays or condescending exhalations over questionable tackles slowly revealed his allegiance, and from the corner of his eye, he could see the two boys whispering excitedly and surreptitiously sneaking glances at him. He ignored their curiosity, feigning intent concern on the game.
The match was nearing its end, and when Japan inevitably won, the boys had little time to celebrate before being quickly shuffled upstairs by Iwasaki-san. They bowed to Jamison slightly as they left the room. He could hear their giggles grow in volume as they moved further away from him up the stairs.
He retreated to the room where he had left his luggage, finding some comfort in the familiarity of his beaten bags that had shadowed his steps for thousands of miles. A pang in his stomach angrily reminded him that he hadn’t eaten much since the long flight over the Pacific. He didn’t want to impose on his host, but he heard her plodding footsteps coming back downstairs, so he stepped out into the hallway to attempt an interaction.
“Sumimasen, Iwasaki-san.” His tongue felt fat and fraudulent in his mouth. She turned in his direction, eyes wide, anxious to accommodate. He put his left hand to his stomach and his right up to his lips, miming a universal desire for sustenance. He jerked his thumb towards the door and waved his hands in an amorphous parody of walking and opening a menu, followed by another gesture of bringing food to his mouth.
She initially looked stunned, and stayed silent, working out the few words she knew in English. “Dinner?” she asked simply, and he nodded in appreciation, surprised that his poor gesticulations had worked. He made a sound that was intended to signal confusion, and walked to the door, looking behind him to ensure that she was following. He touched the lock, and then pointed to his chest, then out the door. Iwasaki-san nodded in understanding, obviously appreciating the silent film they were playing out, rather than struggling with the trappings of language.
“Daijoubu desu… Is okay,” she replied, and gave him a thumbs-up. He laughed without thinking, the humor of the situation striking him suddenly. After a moment, she joined him, chuckling into her hand.
He waited for the moment to pass before bowing low, eyes to the ground. When he rose, she was grinning and offering him rhythmic nods of her head, encouraging him to leave.
Jamison had spied a row of neon-clad buildings a bit further down the street when he and Rei had first arrived, so he attempted to retrace his steps from the tucked-away front stoop to the main drag of town. The clinical glow of restaurant lights cut through the fuzzy spring fog, drawing him with beacons of fast-food normality.
Patting down his pockets and lighting a smoke, Jamison followed the luminescent road, slick with old rain and painted by the moon, into the unknown night.
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