Exchanges

Fiction
Alex Shishin


My adult English classroom
Photo Credit: Mark Mrwizard

Philip delivers the lesson without thinking and still charms the Japanese students, who have paid good money to study English with a real native speaker at this better-than-average language school in Osaka. There are only three in this advanced class. The businessman takes notes and occasionally glances at the mini-skirted university student. Legs splayed, she looks up at her teacher with innocent familiarity: she lived in Connecticut as a child. The coffee shop owner, somewhere in her forties, keeps her mouth in a perfectly straight line, a key that she is getting her money’s worth.

None know that their teacher has been delivering the same lesson, nearly word for word, for the last fifteen years and that he created the lesson when he was the youngest employee in the language school.

Today he is the oldest employee and the highest paid because of a favor he did his boss, Mr. Tsurukawa, years ago when they were young men and wild.

In those days, when Bill Clinton was the American president, Philip’s nickname was “Charisma Man” and women adored him, too often to their disappointment.

These days, slightly paunchy and a little puffy in the face, he is known for his devotion to teaching, his affability and his kindness. On occasion he alludes to his commitment to a distant woman but never elaborates. The university student told the coffee shop owner (who later told him) that she wants to marry a man like Philip-sensei.

His boss remembers the favor when they drink together and when Philip has an occasional special request.

The boss, then the Osaka language school’s sub-manager, asked him the favor on the jetliner to Hawaii when they were on a business trip to recruit new teachers. It was to set him up with a native Hawaiian prostitute. That night Philip had a confidential chat with a bartender at their hotel and gave him a fifty-dollar tip. At the Waikiki bawdyhouse Mr. Tsurukawa, who liked to be called “Harry” then, got his Hawaiian girl and bought Philip a girl, a redhead from Nebraska.

Shortly thereafter Philip fell in love.

They were attracted to each other the moment she walked into his advanced English class. Chiharu, tall, long-haired, long-legged and intelligent, was the only student at the language school he ever slept with, in violation of the rules that would have seen him instantly dismissed.

Chiharu has not been a student for years but the rules extend indefinitely in forbidding intercourse between instructors and former students. If he and Chiharu are ever exposed, after over ten years of courtship, not even Mr. Tsurukawa can save him, though he is now the Osaka branch manager and a senior vice president of the language school chain.

The formal lesson over, free conversation begins.

“Christmas is soon,” the businessman says. “What will you do, sensei?”

“Will you go back to America?” the university student chimes in.

“Just for a few days,” he says.

“What will you do?” asks the coffee shop owner.

“See my sister,” he says. He adds, “Both my parents are dead.”

Unlike the other employees, he does not have to work on Christmas Day, thanks to his boss, who has given him two weeks off. He hopes these three will not tell his colleagues about his trip.

On the Midosuji subway line, jammed between his fellow commuters, holding a strap and barely able to move, he clutches the little bag with Chiharu’s present. In New York he will get her something better. The exchange rate is especially favorable to him at this time.

He remembers that when they last saw each other a month ago the usually ebullient Chiharu, in a moment of despair, spoke of some author’s story where two lovers, meant for each, are forced to live apart like migratory birds locked in separate cages.

Chiharu’s mother needs her and her sister’s almost constant care because of a tumor that was treated too late. She is lucid enough to refuse moving to a nursing home but so irresolute in her habits that she cannot be left alone. The sisters work at home in Ashiya. Chiharu is a computer graphic designer and her sister translates technical manuals online. This make caring for their mother less burdensome than it would be otherwise. Their brother in Tokyo does nothing to help the sisters. Over the years Philip has told Chiharu that if he married her he would help with her mother and Chiharu has always shaken her head, telling him he can never imagine what it’s like in this house.

He gets off in Umeda and penguin-walks with the tight crowd through narrow underground passageways and up a long flight of stairs to the Japan Rail wickets. She is there waiting for him in a brown overcoat, her hair tucked into a white knit cap. They only acknowledge each other with a glance. He follows her tall presence through the crowd after passing the wicket, his commuter pass in hand. She ascends the stairs leading to the Sannomiya- and Himeiji-bound trains. He assumes they will be going to a hotel in Himeiji as usual on the Shinkaisoku super express train. But she gestures to the incoming Kaisoku rapid express. They get on and stand together in the crammed train car, not speaking and letting their bodies touch as the car sways.

She looks about at the surrounding blank faces and then whispers, “Okubo.” Seeing his questioning face, she says, “Two stops past Akashi.”

At Okubo Station they look about before entering a taxi. Chiharu shows the driver her hand-drawn map and explains the directions. Heading toward the Inland Sea, Philip and Chiharu hold hands. “I’m renting a studio apartment for the weekend from a couple who have left early for the holidays,” she says.

In the apartment they embrace, pressing their bodies together.

“I missed you, darling!” he says.

“I missed you, darling, darling! Let me start the heater so we can be naked together.”

In bed he falls in love with her body all over again.

“Marry me,” he says after they make love.

“When I’m free of mother, darling. Forgive me for saying that. Meanwhile, let’s think about dinner. You must be hungry.”

“Yes.”

“I must confess, thanks to my dear sister, I could come here earlier. I bought some food over at Vivre. I thought we could make a salad and spaghetti bolognese together.”

“Wow! The last time we cooked together was six years ago!”

“At the cabin in Nagano.”

While making the salad, Chiharu takes the radishes out of the sieve and covers her face with them.

“Darling?”

When she uncovers face she is smiling and there is a tear on her cheek. “I’ve never seen such beautiful radishes,” she says.

He leans over and kisses her cheek.

After dinner they exchange Christmas presents. Chiharu claps her hands at the sight of the tiny pearl earrings and he tells her he’ll get her a better New Year’s present in New York. She gives him an iPad.

“I bought one for myself,” she said. “We can communicate with them when you are away.”

“Come with me!”

“You know I can’t,” she says. “When you go, make sure you also take your laptop, camera and your American cell phone. You forgot the cell phone last time. And please take the album to show your sister.”

“That’s nearly all of my worldly goods,” he laughs.

“Take them. Here is a list in case you forget. I’ve made sure all your bills are paid and I called the post office to hold your mail. Now let me set up your iPad.”

Philip wakes up at dawn while Chiharu is yet asleep. He looks about the studio apartment. There are two desks next to each other and two bicycles on a rack. Photographs of the apartment’s couple look down on him from the walls. Tears come to his eyes. He wipes them away with the back of his hand. Long ago they had agreed to show each other only happy faces when they could be together and not lament over what could be. Presently Chiharu wakes up. She opens the window and cries, “Look at the sunrise!”

On Sunday night they exchange their farewell embraces in the studio apartment. They are barely dressed when the taxi arrives.

At Okubo station they exit the taxi quickly and then take separate train cars back to Osaka.

A few days later he is on a jetliner bound for John F. Kennedy International Airport. He resets his Rolex GMT watch for Eastern Standard Time. The watch, a present from Chiharu, had belonged to her late father. He checks the exchange rate in the Herald Tribune. With the dollar sliding, he thinks he will have no trouble paying the entire property tax on his inherited Port Washington home, where his divorced sister, coincidentally a computer graphic designer, now lives.

At a Port Washington French restaurant on the evening of his arrival, his blonde and short-haired sister sips her Pinot Noir and says, “Philip, I can’t thank you enough. And I truly wish you and Chiharu could settle down. I’m surprised you’ve lasted so long.”

“We try to see each other at least once a month. Thank goodness for email.”

“Love means to bet the farm,” his sister says. “I’ve already bet mine. I can’t offer you any advice, I’m afraid. I wish I could meet her.”

“With my new iPad you can!” he says. “I can show her the house and the bay!”

But before contacting Chiharu, he is determined to buy her a proper New Year’s present. So, jet-lagged as he is, he goes into Manhattan via the Long Island Railroad. He shops at Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy’s. He buys Chiharu a ruby necklace and matching earrings, discounted, and a black pearl necklace, also discounted, for his sister. On direct orders from Chiharu, he buys a new suit, ten shirts, and five ties. In the taxi to Penn Station, upon passing the fast food place where he worked after dropping out of university, he figures he has spent around two-thousand dollars.

Returning home, giddy from jet lag and hubris, he goes upstairs to his room and without undressing falls flat on the bed his sister has made for him. “I am Exchange Rate Man,” he says to the pillow. “I’m able to leap tall department stores in a single bound…” Before falling asleep, he remembers to contact Chiharu.

At dawn he dresses in a heavy overcoat and goes outside with his iPad. He connects with Chiharu and shows her Manhasset Bay caught in the first morning light. Switching the camera back he beholds her face against the brightening sky.

“It is almost as if you’re here, my daring,” he says.

“Don’t start crying now, darling,” Chiharu says, smiling. “Show me your house!”

He switches the camera toward the house.

“Oh, it’s so big, so white!”

“It’s two stories, plus an attic and a huge basement my folks converted into a den.”

“How lucky!”

His sister comes out in a thick woolen bathrobe.

“Sophie,” he calls. “Say hello to my girl.”

“Okay, but come in the house. It’s freezing out here.”

His sister and Chiharu talk for two hours before she returns his iPad. He gives Chiharu a walking tour of the house.

“I like her!” his sister says over breakfast. “I like her so much.”

In the afternoon his old friend Mel, a high school teacher, calls, figuring Philip would be in town. They meet a few hours later in an all-but-deserted bar in Queens, close to Mel’s home.

As they sit on barstools and hunch over their beers, Mel, a roundish man Philip’s age who wears a frozen half-smile on his face, asks about Japan.

“Not much new,” Philip says. “The shower and toilet in my hole-in-wall need maintenance. I told you that last time I was here.”

“But, jeez, you’re making out, Phil! That’s a new Rolex on your wrist.”

“Not new,” he says.

“You got a Rolex?” a blonde with long hair in her face calls across the bar. “Cool, baby!”

He smiles at her. Then he turns to his friend, who is drinking quickly. “How are you making out?”

“Everything is totally swell. Really swell,” Mel says and orders another beer. “Everything is hunky-dory. They may lay off a bunch of us teachers. I’ve got nothing in savings and I won’t even have health insurance.”

Mel downs his beer and orders another.

“You’re fortunate to get out, Phil,” Mel says. “This country is a shit hole that makes trouble all over the world and can’t take care of its own people.”

“I get homesick around Thanksgiving time,” Philip says.

“Worst time of year for me. Thanks for what? The hoodlums in my classes? Their bellicose parents? The Gestapo administration? An obese wife? Fuck! Get me a job in Japan, Phil. I’ll take anything. I’ll dump my fucking family and find a nice, obedient Japanese girl.”

“No such thing, Mel. And Japan’s not so great. There are times at work when I feel like a zombie.”

“Yeah? Look at you, Phil. Nice clothes. Rolex watch. Sexy girlfriend. Ass in gravy, man.”

“I’ve got my own troubles over there,” Philip says.

“Excuse me,” Mel says. “Men’s room.”

“Hey, Rolex! Come here!” the woman at the other end of the bar calls.

He goes over to her. Up close, he judges her to be in her late thirties and attractive, though her makeup is smeared. Some of it is on the lapels of her otherwise neat business suit.

“I was in Japan once with my ex,” she says. “Saw Mount Fujiyama.”

“Mount Fuji or Fujiyama,” he says.

“Whatever. Buy me a first-class dinner and I might bestow my favors upon you. I’ve been on TV dinners all week.”

“Waldorf-Astoria good enough for you?” he banters.

“Hey, for that I’ll throw in my roommate.”

“Don’t listen to her,” the bartender calls out. “She’s crazy.”

“You’re no one to talk, Joseph,” she calls back. Then she says to Philip, “Your friend needs help.”

Mel is leaning against the wall by the men’s room.

“I’ll take him home and come back,” he says to the woman.

When the taxi delivers them to the parking lot of Mel’s apartment complex, Philip pays the driver and tells him to wait. He calls Mel’s wife on his cell phone. Minutes later Mel’s wife, globular, baggy-eyed, determined, is in the parking lot helping Phil take Mel up to the seventh floor. They put him on the couch near the Christmas tree in the tidy living room. Philip hears the children mumbling in another room.

“I’m sorry, Phil. He’s usually not this bad,” Mel’s wife says. “Can I make you some coffee?”

“I have a taxi waiting,” he says.

“Sure. Okay.”

Back at the bar, Joseph the bartender tells him, “She left five minutes after you did.”

Just as well, he thinks. He was unfaithful to Chiharu once and bitterly regretted it.

“Beer?” Joseph asks.

“Sure.”

Joseph takes his time. The bar is filling up and he is busier. When he brings the beer he says, “Your friend ought to watch it. Can get into major trouble these days.”

Philip nods.

“They’ve got drones now, you know.”

Not sure if Joseph is joking or not, he says nothing.

“When I have time I want to talk to you about Japan,” Joseph says. “I’ve got student loans to pay off.”

Philip leaves a generous tip on the counter and departs without finishing his beer.

Snowflakes are falling when the taxi from the Port Washington train station brings him home.

“It’s Christmas Eve!” his sister says.

“Yeah. I wish I’d done more for Mel.”

“Don’t worry about Mel. He calls a lot to bend my ear. He’ll be all right. Have some of my grog. How about your favorite Szechwan takeout for Christmas Eve dinner? I’ll order our usual.”

“God, yes! I’ve missed that!” he says. “But I wish Chiharu was here. She’s a brilliant cook.”

“Call her on your iPad. Wish her a Merry Christmas.”

“That’s right, it’s Christmas over there.”

A worried face comes on the screen. “I can’t talk right now, darling,” Chiharu says. “I’ll contact you. Merry Christmas.”

Philip has a troubled sleep. In the early morning he and his sister exchange presents.

“You shouldn’t have!” his sister exclaims as she cradles the black pearl necklace. “It’s the prettiest gift I’ve ever had! I feel bad.”

“I love the wallet,” he says. “I needed one. It’s beautiful.”

After breakfast he looks out the window. “It stopped snowing,” he says. “I want Chiharu to see the bay.” He goes outside with the iPad.

When her image comes on the iPad, he says, “Darling, you have got to see this!”

“I can’t right now, darling. I’ll contact you soon. I love you.”

Her image disappears before he can answer.

Christmas day is tense. His sister works in her study. He tries to contact Chiharu several times but her iPad remains switched off.

Toward evening, he says, “I want to go out. I’ll reserve the French restaurant.”

“Please don’t,” his sister says. “Sweetheart, I can’t afford that place and I don’t want you to throw your money around any more.”

“It’s only money.”

“I know how you’re feeling. But look after yourself, Philip. Anyway, we’ve got tons of Chinese food we haven’t touched.”

Long after dinner the iPad rings.

“Chiharu, darling!” he says to her image.

“I am so sorry to worry you, darling!” Chiharu says. “I’m at Hong Kong International Airport in a business class lounge. I’ll be in New York tomorrow.” She tells him her arrival time at Kennedy International.

“Hot damn! I can’t believe it! She’s coming to New York, sis!”

“I heard it,” she says.

“How did you manage it, Chiharu darling?”

“When I am there I’ll explain everything in detail. I have to be brief. Please listen and have faith in me.”

“Chiharu, what’s this about?”

“Listen, darling. My sister and I took our mother to Tokyo. We left her with my brother and his wife. Then we went to Haneda and flew to Hong Kong. My sister is on her way to London right now. I’m boarding soon.”

“That was nice of them to look after your mom for a while.”

“Philip, listen. It was a surprise. We said we were just visiting so Mother could attend her Tokyo University alumni special after-Christmas banquet.”

“She’s a Todai graduate?”

“Please listen. I have no time. We said we’d go out shopping for an hour and grabbed a taxi for Haneda.”

“What happens when you come back?”

“Philip, darling. Please, please listen. We’re not coming back.”

“Jesus! Have you lost your mind?”

“Philip, listen. We planned everything. I got a Green Card and a job in Manhattan. My sister got a job in London.”

“Damn it! Thanks for not tell me! What about us?”

“Don’t shout, Philip. We’ll be perfect fine. I promise. And Mother will be fine, too. Our brother was always her favorite.”

“Chiharu!”

“Please be calm and listen.”

“All right.”

“Stay in New York. Don’t go back to Japan. We’ll get married as soon as we can.”

“This is crazy! My whole life is in Japan! I’m nothing here. I’ll be eaten alive. You don’t know this place.”

“Darling, trust me. I’ll take care of you. I promise I will! Can I stay with you in your house?”

Philip looks at his sister.

“Absolutely,” she says and sighs. “Absolutely.”

“It’s fine,” he says. “But I just can’t drop everything in Japan. My job. My health insurance. My bank account.”

“Don’t worry about any of that, darling. I’ve talked to Tsurukawa-san. He likes you so much. He and I will handle everything for you.”

“Oh, no, no, Chiharu! You didn’t get me fired, did you? Darling, please let’s go back together and straighten things out!”

“Darling, have faith in me. Meet me tomorrow at the airport. We’ll talk some more. Everything will be fine. I have to go. I love you.”

The iPad goes off.

He and his sister look at each other.

“What do you think?” he asks.

“Love means to bet the farm,” she answers.

“I’m going out for a walk,” he says.

“Philip, it’s dark and icy. You’ll break your neck.”

“So?”

“Philip, for Pete’s sake, you’re all I’ve got.”

His sister is with him at the airport when he and Chiharu rush into each other’s arms.

Philip kisses her on the mouth and about the neck.

“Darling, darling!” Chiharu giggles. “People are watching us!”

“Let them,” he says. “This is America.”

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Alex Shishin is an American living in Japan. His fiction and non-fiction has been published widely in print and on the Internet. His short story “Mr. Eggplant Goes Home” received an Honorable Mention from the O. Henry Awards and was anthologized in Student Body (U. of Wisconsin Press, 2001). The short story “Shade” was anthologized in Broken Bridge (Stone Bridge Press, 1996). “Bulldozer” was named an outstanding short story for 2004 by storySouth‘s Million Writers award. Shishin’s experiments with ebook publishing are available for free on Smashwords. Email: sats_3100[at]yahoo.co.jp

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