Closure

Beaver’s Pick
Alex Shishin


Photo Credit: Jamelah E./Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

In February, Bart Kozlov, a professor at Ikeshita Women’s University, learned that Emiko Toyohashi, taking her Semester Abroad in America, was having homestay trouble. The homestay family’s emails said Ms. Toyohashi had gone mad; she had locked herself in the guest room and had not eaten for days. The English Department chairwoman was departing for Los Angeles to bring Ms. Toyohashi back home to Nagoya.

There was still time for Ms. Toyohashi to enroll in classes at Ikeshita Women’s for April. The chairwoman informed Bart that Ms. Toyohashi was assigned to his English Composition seminar and his American Literature lecture class. “This is her fifth year. She is severely short of credits, as you know. Have you worked with her before?”

“Never,” he said.

“Do your best, Kozlov-sensei.”

Upon entering the seminar room, Bart felt Ms. Toyohashi’s glittering presence. Her hair, dyed fiery red, seemed to reflect in the sheen of her white mini-dress. Long red fingernails accentuated her small hands. Her lightly freckled face bore an expression of somnambulant vagueness. She sat rigidly at her desk, surrounded by a dozen chatting young women.

His ex-wife, a fellow American, also glittered, he recalled. She had run off with a blond tennis-playing millionaire a decade before.

Bart wrote his name as Bart and Bartholomew Kozlov on the whiteboard.

“Bartholomew,” Ms. Toyohashi said.

“Good pronunciation!” he said.

Ms. Toyohashi nodded but did not smile.

In her first in-class essay, Ms. Toyohashi wrote, “I want to work in a boutique. It is my dream.” She concluded, “I am making my parents sad.” On the other side of the paper she wrote, “Dear Professor Bartholomew Kozlov-sensei: “I am sometimes away because I am unstable. I also catch a cold easily. I am sorry. Please excuse me.”

She was gone the next week and the week following. Ms. Toyohashi was splendidly groomed from head to toe when she returned, but her face was blank. He guessed she was sedated; his girlfriend, Tsuki Ogori, an orthopedic surgeon, had told him in Japan doctors treated psychological illnesses mainly with drugs and not talk therapy.

Ms. Toyohashi gave him two make-up essays for English Composition and a note saying she had read “Fever,” one of the two Raymond Carver stories assigned for the American Literature class. The other story was “Jerry and Molly and Sam.”

The essays, likely written under sedation, were just comprehensible. In the first she wrote about becoming a flight attendant. In the second she wondered if she could be a fashion designer.

At the close of the semester Bart had his English Composition students write an in-class essay on a theme of their choice. Ms. Toyohashi was not there.

That afternoon there was a knock on Bart’s office door. Ms. Toyohashi entered, redheaded, bleary-eyed and mini-skirted. “May I write the essay?” she asked.

“Sit at this table, Ms. Toyohashi,” Bart said. “Here is paper. Here are pencils and erasers. Take all the time you want.”

She wrote nervously for half an hour, often erasing or scratching out words and whole sentences. She stood as he read the paper.

Her essay was about free schools, jiyu gakko in Japanese. Free schools were for truants and dropouts: girls and boys who had escaped regular schools because they were bullied or misunderstood. Though somewhat loose in organization, the content and her command of English were good.

“You’ve passed English Composition,” he said and handed her the paper.

Ms. Toyohashi appraised Bart with a puzzled look.

“You passed. You may go, Ms. Toyohashi.”

She did not move. Then she smiled. Bart smiled.

“Don’t miss American Literature this Friday,” he said. “Okay?”

“Okay,” Ms. Toyohashi said. “Goodbye.”

The final paper for American Literature, an in-class open book essay in English, was the only major project for this class. Because it was a make-or-break assignment, Bart spent three weeks reviewing the theme. He was worried because during that time Ms. Toyohashi was absent.

There were thirty-two students in the American Literature class. Ms. Toyohashi was there on time and sat in the back. She was the last to leave. He face was blank when she handed in her paper and thanked him.

Bart read her paper first. It started out by saying that “Fever” was unrealistic. The protagonist’s wife had run off with his colleague and friend and he was too nice about it. He and his wife were too nice to each other. The children were too nice. His girlfriend was too tolerant. Mrs. Webster, the housekeeper, had a too easy time of taking care of the children whose mother had abandoned them. On the other hand, “Jerry and Molly and Sam,” a story about an alcoholic man cheating on his wife, was very realistic because it was filled with bitterness and cruelty. The part she found most poignant was where Betty tells Al: “I know you don’t love me any more—goddamn you!—but you don’t even love the kids.”

Bart was shocked by what he read next. It was about her homestay family’s domestic unrest: the parents shouting from morning and into late at night, the slaps, the tears, the broken dishes, the unhappy children who threw tantrums. She felt unsafe outside the locked guest room and deeply regretted missing her classes, which she enjoyed. She concluded: “I have not told anyone else. Because I don’t want to cause more trouble. Who would believe me anyway?”

Over dinner, Tsuki, said, “She was not the crazy one! You have a duty to report this before another homestay student is abused.”

The department chairwoman said, “Let me keep Ms. Toyohashi’s paper for a while, Kozlov-sensei. Only until I take care of this matter. Please, sensei, keep this to yourself. It could hurt our Semester Abroad program. I’m glad Toyohashi-san passed your classes at least.”

“Not any others?”

She shook her head.

Prior to spring break, Ms. Toyohashi came to Bart’s office. “Sensei, I want to do a tutorial with you on Raymond Carver next semester,” she said.

“Certainly,” Bart said. “Your Carver essay showed you have a good command of English, a fine eye for details and a good mind for literary analysis. It all needs to be refined, of course.”

“Can we start with ‘Preservation,’ sensei? About the man with no job who spends all his time on the couch. My boyfriend is like that. He is always in his room. He never leaves the house. I try to help him.”

“That is really good of you!” Bart said.

“Sensei, I want to teach in a free school. I know I’d do well there because I’m an outsider.”

“I am too,” Bart said.

“Eh?”

“I found solace in reading Carver at a time when I felt I didn’t belong at my university. Ironically, I married a woman who acted as though she owned the place. When I came here I knew this was where I belonged. My ex-wife hated our university, hated Japan, and hated everyone I cared for. Finally she hated me.”

“Poor sensei!” She said. “I will always be your friend.”

“Thank you, Ms. Toyohashi. I need to catch the bus.”

“Me too! We must hurry!”

It was raining and only Bart had an umbrella. When they reached the bus stop the bus had already departed.

With the umbrella between them they were both getting wet. There was no other shelter. Bart remembered that Ms. Toyohashi was prone to colds. There were taxis close by. He also remembered the administrative admonition to the staff not to take taxis with students.

“We’re taking a taxi,” he said.

In the taxi, Ms. Toyohashi asked, “Do you have a girlfriend?”

“Yes. A doctor.” He told her which national hospital she worked for. “She is also a professor.”

“I want to meet her!” Ms. Toyohashi said. “Could I meet her today, sensei?”

Bart called Tsuki on his cellphone and then told Ms. Toyohashi, “She wants to meet you. She’s at our usual café.”

Tsuki was waiting at their usual table. She had changed into blue jeans and blue work shirt, and had unfurled her long straight hair. Today she was wearing the gold necklace Bart had given her for her birthday. She stood when they entered. The women bowed to each other and introduced themselves.

“You’re beautiful!” Ms. Toyohashi said.

“Thank you! So are you!” Tsuki answered.

Rapport established, Ms. Toyohashi poured out her life story to Bart’s girlfriend. Bart listened.

“I am unstable and I know why,” Ms. Toyohashi began. She never liked her parents’ business, yet she would inherit it because she was an only child. Her parents told her to study law. She failed to get into every law department she applied for. She was only accepted for English at Ikeshita Women’s University. It was located not far from her home and carried a good regional reputation. Her parents should have been pleased, she said, but they were disappointed. At the university she became bored. “I can never do what people tell me to do,” she said.

In his office that autumn, doing Raymond Carver with Ms. Toyohashi, Bart asked, “Do you understand why Carver chose the title ‘Preservation’ for this story?”

“Yes. The man is sad because he cannot find a job. He stays on the couch because he does not want to be hurt any more. But by preserving himself that way he becomes like the mummy man from the peat bog. Sensei, why don’t you marry Tsuki-sensei? Don’t you love her?”

“We love each other very much. But we were both betrayed and went through painful divorces. We’re like the man in ‘Preservation,’ I guess.”

“I kissed my boyfriend for the first time,” Ms. Toyohashi said and covered her mouth.

At the weekly English department meeting in late January the chairwoman announced that Ms. Toyohashi’s mother had written to say that the family would no longer be paying tuition. Privately she said to Bart, “Emiko-san disappeared a few days ago. Her parents are frantic. Please find her. We know she was close to you.”

“So everyone no doubt knows about the taxi and us meeting here,” he said to Tsuki at their usual café. “They presume I know where to find her. I haven’t a clue.”

“She may find you,” Tsuki said. “I’ll keep an eye out for her.”

Thanks to serendipity Bart found Ms. Toyohashi sitting on a bench and reading in Sakae, Nagoya’s downtown. She was wearing blue jeans and a denim jacket. She had stopped dyeing her hair.

“Bartholomew-sensei!” she exclaimed and stood.

“Are you hungry, Ms. Toyohashi?” he asked.

“Yes, very hungry.”

“I’ll treat you to a good lunch on the ninth floor of that department store over there,” he said pointing.

On the ninth floor Bart showed her around the various restaurants.

“I don’t belong here,” she said. “I feel like a Raymond Carver character.”

“Me too,” Bart said. “But we are hungry Raymond Carver characters. Let’s take another look around. When you find a restaurant that feels right let’s eat there.”

Over lunch she said, “Oh, by the way, I like ‘Fever.’ The people remind me of my parents. My mother and father are gentle. They have never punished me. They only look sad when I do something they don’t like.”

“They are very worried about you. Don’t you want to go home?”

“Bartholomew-sensei, I slept in Internet cafes and ate cheap food because I didn’t want to go home. I left because my parents wanted to put me to work in the business right way. Yesterday I found a job at a free school in Osaka. I start in April. I don’t know what I’ll do until then. I know they’ll tell me to forget the free school and work in the business. I can’t go home.”

Bart did not know what to say. Ms. Toyohashi ate her sushi slowly and with delicacy.

“Maybe Tsuki can help you,” Bart said. “Like write a letter to your parents explaining you have found meaningful work that will help society.”

She put down her chopsticks and looked up.

Bart called Tsuki on his cellphone. She was on her lunch break.

“You’ve done a brilliant job, darling!” she said. “Now let me take over. Hand Emiko-san your cellphone.”

After the next department meeting the Chairwoman told Bart not to worry about Ms. Toyohashi. She was safely at home.

The grateful parents, meanwhile, had sent Bart and Tsuki lavish gifts and invited them to dinner.

The parents were non-stop talkers. They were jovial. They were witty. They were captivating. They were the kind of gregarious people, Bart thought, who could, without meaning to, perpetually upstage a child trying to find herself. Ms. Toyohashi, like her mother, wore a kimono. Unlike her mother, she did not say a word or look at Bart and Tsuki.

Her mother and father told wildly vivid anecdotes about their travels around Japan. They had been to all forty-eight prefectures and even to the disputed islands above Hokkaido. Bart was dying to tell them they were brilliant storytellers and they had no doubt inspired their daughter’s interest in literature. It would break the ice for a talk about her future.

Suddenly it was over. Tomorrow was busy day. Before Bart and Tsuki knew it, they were in their shoes and the family was kneeling at the genkan and bidding them sayonara.

Months passed without a word from Ms. Toyohashi. Bart fretted to the point where Tsuki had to ask him if he was in love with her. He answered apologetically he only wanted closure.

One spring day it occurred to him that he was not entitled to closure. Ms. Toyohashi was none of his business.

In June he married Tsuki, his longtime girlfriend.

pencil

Alex Shishin is an award-winning fiction and non-fiction writer widely published in print and online.  Shishin’s non-fiction includes the travel memoir Rossiya: Voices from the Brezhnev Era. His novel Nippon 2357: A Utopian Ecological Tale and other ebooks are published by Smashwords. Originally from San Francisco, he is a university professor in Kansai. Email: magwitchv70[at]gmail.com

To Give Up Smoking

Fiction
Alex Shishin


Starbucks, Shibuya
Photo Credit: St Stev

A man in fatigues enters the suburban Los Angeles convenience store and opens fire with his semi-automatic rifle. The tobacco-reeking young man standing in line behind twenty-eight-year-old Vera Medvedev pulls her to the floor and covers her with his heavy body.

“I can’t breathe! Get off!” she screams amid sounds of exploding glass and other screams.

“Stay put. You’ll be okay,” he says.

These are his last words.

A year later Vera is walking down a street in Kobe’s Motomachi district. It is an early autumn evening. She will teach a special English conversation seminar to a group of middle managers at a well-known Japanese chemical company. She is taking over for a colleague at her university who needed to reduce her load of part-time jobs.

Her family’s vacation apartment is nearby. It is a few minutes walk from Daimaru department store, where she shops and has lunch and dinner, and Starbucks, next to Chinatown, where she has breakfast and where she hangs out in the evenings, enjoying only her own company and luxuriating in the absence of the Second Amendment and gun lobbies. Her Japanese relatives, who found her the university post and with whom she dines on weekends, live in big houses at the foot of Mt. Roko. When she was in high school, her parents sold their inherited Taisho Era Western-style house on Kitanozaka and bought the less troublesome though spacious apartment in Motomachi, where they stay during their periodic visits to Japan.

On the ninth floor of the company building an office lady greets her: “Welcome, Ms Medvedev!” Leading Vera to the conference room where she will be teaching, she remarks, “Your Japanese is very good!”

Seven men are seated at a round conference table and they are all smoking cigarettes. Panes of grey smoke drift through the conference room like harbor fog.

Vera remembers the police extracting her from under the blood-soaked and tobacco-reeking dead man. She remembers crying, “I can’t deal with this.”

“I can’t deal with this!”

The seven men and the office lady do not speak. The office lady’s hand covers her mouth.

“Oh, God, I’m sorry!” Vera says and brings her own hand to her mouth. “I am terribly sorry,” she says in Japanese. “I don’t smoke.”

No problem, no problem, the men tell her in English and Japanese. Soon the office lady has led them to a fresh conference room. The men promise not to smoke.

The businesswoman in Vera takes over. She stands ramrod straight and seemingly unruffled, makes a joke and then introduces herself in English and Japanese. “Medvedev is Russian. My mother is Japanese but my father is Russian-American. He is a company president. My mother is a housewife. My father came to Kobe on business and met my mom. She comes from an old Kobe family. Medvedev derives from the Russian word for bear. I am a mother bear—grrr!—and you are my cubs.”

The men find this uproariously funny and this inaugurates a successful seminar. When it is over three months later the men throw Vera a party at the Chinese restaurant in Daimaru, where smoking is forbidden. They present her with an expensive porcelain tray. Several men say they will try to give up smoking, which makes the other men laugh.

Walking back to her apartment in the cold January night she feels slightly drunk from the Chinese beer and wine and worries she might drop the box with the porcelain tray. When she stops for a light, she hears hurried footsteps approaching. She turns. It is Kurihara-san, who used the name “Walter” in the seminar. The light turns green and she walks briskly across the street.

“Vera-sensei, wait!” he says in English as they are passing by Daimaru. “You are walking too fast. I am out of breath.”

She stops and says, “Okay, what’s on your mind?”

“Sorry to bother you, Vera-sensei. Thank you for the seminar. Can you help me stop smoking? I must stop but I can’t.”

“I’ve never smoked,” she says. “I don’t know how to stop smoking.”

“I have tried,” he says. “My wife wants me to stop.”

“I see,” Vera says and smiles. She remembers he has a family and a house in Fukuoka. “I heard the second day is the worst. Maybe if you can get past that.”

“Tried it,” he says and slaps his arms against his sides.

He is in his early forties. Not a bad looking man, though she thinks he would look better with longer hair and perhaps a thin beard.

“Maybe a change of environment,” she says. “Places where people don’t smoke.”

The man stands still with his arms at his sides.

“Where do you usually spend your free time?” she asks.

“Bars. Coffee shops.

“Try Starbucks. Over there.” She points to the other side of the cross street. There is no smoking inside.”

“I’m afraid,” he says.

“Cripes! Of what?”

“Hippies. I feel I don’t belong there.”

“Hippies? What planet are you from? All sorts of people go there. It’s friendly. No one smokes, except outside.”

“I am shy about new places. Well, good night.”

“Wait.”

“Yes?”

“I’ll take you.”

He hesitates. She pulls on his sleeve.

Once there, she finds a table, makes him sit and gets two cappuccinos.

“I like this,” he says. “I like strong coffee. Is that hippie music they’re playing here?”

“That’s Janis Joplin. She’s from my parents’ generation.”

“I’m sorry for what happened to you,” he says.

He knows. Therefore the other men know.

“Thank you. How did you find out?”

“Your colleague told our boss, Mr. Kimura. Mr. Kimura said we should be nice to you.”

“I see. I haven’t talked about it very much.”

“You can talk to me about it. If you want to.”

“I don’t, Kurihara-san.”

“Call me Walter. I like Walter. And please feel free to speak English.”

“Okay, Walter. I always meant to ask why your English is so good.”

“I worked at our New York City office in Manhattan for five years.”

“Manhattan for five years and you’re afraid of Starbucks?”

He shrugs. “You must be lonely,” he says.

“I only stopped by the convenience store to pick up a six-pack for our family barbeque,” Vera says. “I did not know what was happening until the man had me on the floor. Even then I only wanted to run away. Poor guy. There wasn’t much left of his head. Most of it was all over me.”

He nods.

“If I start to cry, please excuse me, Walter.”

“Of course. I understand.”

“Mr. Right-to-Bear-Arms killed three people and then killed himself. I am surprised he didn’t kill more. I am surprised I’m alive. The newspapers said the man who saved me was a hero.”

“He was,” Walter says.

“Yes, he was,” Vera says. “His name was Jack O’Brian. He worked in a warehouse. He apparently had no family because no one claimed the body. Finally my family did and cremated him. We scattered his ashes at sea from our boat. We chose a beautiful autumn morning.”

“That was good of you.”

“Here I was, this rich girl with everything I modestly needed. I expected to lead a quiet academic life at some liberal arts college. I might have married my boyfriend. We broke up after a bitter argument. I told him to get rid of his guns. He accused me of loving a dead man because I couldn’t make love to him after it happened. Excuse me. You look uneasy, Walter.”

“I have to smoke. I’ll go out for a moment.”

He returns after ten minutes and she says, “Whenever my dad has a bad day at work mom makes him a martini and after he’s finished it he says, ‘It’s only misunderstandings. It’ll be okay tomorrow.’ It’s sort of how I handle post-traumatic stress. I am an optimist like my dad, I guess. But I’m bothered I couldn’t save the guy who saved me. Yes, I love Jack. Yes, I’m loyal to him. Yes, I’m grieving. I admit it. I accept it. I don’t care who thinks I’m weird.”

“There is nothing wrong with you,” Walter says.

“Thanks, Walter. You know what, though? I’m more sad these days about not being able to get a martini as good as my mom’s. Funny, isn’t it?”

“It’s not funny,” he says. “By the way, my wife loved martinis in New York. I learned how to make them. Maybe I can make you one some day.”

“I’d appreciate it, Walter. Are you lonely for your wife and kids?”

“Very much. Maybe that is why I cannot stop smoking.”

“Walter, I have an idea. “Why don’t you move into my apartment?”

“I can’t do that.”

“I don’t mean we’ll sleep together. I have three bedrooms. You can have one. You can come and go as you like. Only you cannot smoke. That might do it for you.”

“My wife won’t like it.”

“I’ll write to her. If she agrees, will you do it?

“I’m sure my wife won’t like it. But if she agrees I’ll consider it. Only the company must not know. My wife’s English is very good, by the way.”

After coming home, Vera writes to the email address Walter gave her. She receives an email back a few hours later. “Dearest Vera,” his wife writes. “How kind of you to wish to take care of my husband! As a woman I understand your need to do some good after what happened to you. You have my blessings. I know this might seem very strange in Japan but if it can save my husband from smoking I do not care. With All My Heart, Yumi.”

Their initial daily email exchanges concern Walter’s smoking. Yumi complains how Walter ignored doctors for years and how he would even smoke around the children. Vera writes that she seldom sees him as they come and go at different hours. For several weeks she repeatedly mentions that though he never smokes in her apartment there are times she can smell tobacco on his clothes. In one email Yumi asks if Walter makes martinis for her. He does from time to time, she writes back. Yumi replies that she misses Walter’s martinis.

One evening Vera writes to Yumi that she admires her written English and confesses that though she speaks Japanese well enough, she cannot read or write it. Yumi writes back that she got a master’s degree from Hunter College when they lived in New York. She asks where Vera studied. Vera writes that she was at U.C.L.A. from her undergraduate years to the time she completed her Ph.D. For several days they are no emails from Yumi and Vera thinks that she said too much. Then Vera receives Yumi’s email headlined: WALTER HAS STOPPED SMOKING!! “He called me to say that this time he has definitely stopped. He had not smoked in three days and does not want to smoke again. You have accomplished a miracle!”

Vera writes back: “Come to think of it he has not smelled of tobacco in days. Why didn’t he tell me?”

Yumi immediately replies that he has peculiar habits with regard to information. Then Yumi asks, “How are you coping?”

Vera replies, “Very well most of the time, thanks to your husband.” She does not mention her occasional crying spells when she is safely alone in the apartment.

Yumi replies, “Do you find Walter attractive?”

Vera writes that she cannot think of attraction at this point in her life. She also mentions that when she went to Starbucks earlier than usual she found Walter there with a café latte and a roll.

Yumi’s next email comes a few minutes later. It is about how much fun she had in New York and how much she would like to live there. Vera cannot read it to the end.

Walter is home at eleven p.m. He goes into the kitchen. Vera hears him making martinis.

“Hey, you big holdout!” she calls to him from her study. “Congratulations!”

He comes into the study with two martinis.

“Thank you. But for what? Oh, that.”

“You look younger now that you quit. Why didn’t you tell me?”

He shrugs. “I was going to tell you. I did not know if I had really quit until I went back to my apartment today and couldn’t stand the smell. I called my wife.”

“She emailed me earlier.”

“Good. I am glad she did.”

“Cheers!” Vera says. “I saved a life. I am redeemed.”

“Why do you need to be redeemed?”

“It’s called survivor’s guilt, Walter.”

“Talk about it if you want.”

“I don’t want to. You should change your apartment.”

“Impossible.”

“So stay here. When you need to go back, wear a mask or something.”

“Thank you! You are the only friend I have left.”

“Cripes, Walter! What do you mean?”

“All my friends smoke. I can’t stand them.”

“Funny, after what happened my friends couldn’t stand me.”

“I am insisting that our workplace should be smoke-free. I was transferred to a little room in the basement. I hardly meet anyone.”

“The company works quickly.”

“It does.”

“I hope this hasn’t screwed you up at work.”

“Our boss said it is about time the entire office was made smoke-free. The head office in Tokyo has been smoke-free for years.”

“Good,” Vera. “I ought to mention my mom and dad are coming to visit soon. I already told them you’re my roommate. You don’t have to move out when Mom and Dad come.”

“I want to meet your family.”

“You’ll love them. They are my best friends in the whole world.”

“How could you leave them, Vera?”

“Walter, they are perfectly happy I am in Japan. They actually wanted me to live in Japan a while long before what happened. I want another martini.”

“With an olive or a twist of lemon peel this time?”

“I want it exactly like the last one. Not one molecule different.”

That evening Yumi writes, “I am glad he will continue staying with you.”

Come March, a gloomy Walter comes home and announces that he will be transferred back to Fukuoka.

“Congratulations!” Vera says. “You should be happy.”

He shakes his head.

“My friend in personnel in Tokyo told me something when he was in Kobe.”

“What?”

“I can’t say it.”

“Please say it.”

“My boss in Fukuoka had me transferred to Kobe so he could have an affair with my wife.”

“We’ve both been deceived,” Vera says.

“Well, I’m going back to Fukuoka and my ex-boss is being transferred to our branch in Saudi Arabia.”

“Right. What happens when you go back to Fukuoka?”

“We’ll carry on. We won’t talk about it. We’ll just carry on. For the children’s sake.”

“I’ll make love to you, Walter.”

He shakes his head.

“I won’t make any demands. I promise.”

“I’m in a bad mood. It wouldn’t be nice,” he says. “I’ll go out on the balcony and smoke.”

“Don’t go out on the balcony,” she says.

“Why? I can’t smoke here.”

“Just don’t. I can’t lose you.”

“I’ll only smoke.”

“I’m afraid you’ll jump.”

“I won’t.”

She seizes his arm. “Smoke here!”

“No!”

“Please! I’ll smoke with you. I will. Give me a cigarette. Light it.”

“I’m only smoking because I am sad,” he says.

“I’m sad too. Light me a cigarette, Walter.”

“Okay. Just one.”

She inhales the first puff lightly and the second one deeply. With the third puff she holds her breath until she nearly faints. “Oh God!” she says exhaling. “Oh God! I never imagined!” She unbuttons the top button of her blouse, shakes out her hair and collapses on the couch as her head spins. She uses a coffee cup for an ashtray and then puts the cigarette to her mouth. “Beautiful!” she whispers as she exhales.

Walter has lit his cigarette and bends over to flick ash into the coffee cup.

“Sit down next to me, Walter,” she says.

He sits down on the couch at a discreet distance from her.

“I want another cigarette,” she says, snuffing her stub in the coffee cup. “Put it between my lips and light it.”

He does as he is he is told.

She closes her eyes and inhales smoke. She exhales the smoke in Walter’s direction.

“Sit here and put your arm around my shoulder,” she says.

He does so.

“No limp hand,” she says. “Squeeze my shoulder.”

“I shouldn’t be doing this,” he says.

“Yeah you should. Don’t be shy; squeeze. That’s it. How does it feel?”

“Very nice, Vera,” he says.

She inhales and exhales smoke and then leans against him. “You’re right,” she says. “Just go home and carry on. That’s what I ought to do. Go back to L.A. and carry on. I’ll fight for gun control. I owe Jack that.”

“Vera—”

“Do you know how to undress a woman, Walter?”

“Yes, of course.”

“I need another cigarette first.”

“Okay.”

pencil

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

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.”

pencil

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