by Anna Martin
“This house is Western style,” says Naoko, my hostess. I remove my shoes in the genkan and put on slippers she provides. Inside, small dishes are stacked in glass-fronted cabinets and on the table chopsticks are laid on their rests. I am invited for dinner. On the wall are postcards behind glass: Michelangelo, Botticelli, Raphael. One incongruous Degas. Abstracts from a continent unvisited. The Degas is a sketch of a woman, nude, sitting amongst messy blankets in bed and drying her hair. Her belly is soft and folded, her spine curved, her thighs fleshy.
We eat raw fish with basil and balsamic vinegar. “I always cook western food,” Naoko tells me, as if sharing a confidence. She produces a lasagne and I don’t quite recognise its flavours. I am served four different kinds of wine. “We buy it in an import store in Tokyo.” A yellow Chardonnay, a Riesling, a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Beaujolais nouveau. Her husband produces the bottles and pours. He is a heavy-set man whose face will turn red and sweaty as he drinks. He moves warily around me as if he considers me unpredictable, like a skittish cat. He says little as he uncorks one bottle after another. My head will ache tomorrow.
After dinner, they show me an album of photographs of other Westerners they have met. It’s a catalogue of frozen poses, brittle smiles, two fingers aloft in the Japanese V. A red-headed American, a tall, long-haired Jamaican, a suited Russian. One woman from Trinidad with the nametag “Luisa” rendered in katakana. Face after unknown face offered for my inspection and admiration. “Here,” says Naoko. “Look. My first Western friend.” On the wall near the postcards hang framed photos: a woman in a wedding dress, a faded bicycle trip, a picnic table surrounded with young smiles. I think of butterflies pinned and fading under dusty glass.
She produces the camera towards the end of the evening. I hold up two fingers and stretch my mouth into a smile.
I am in the entertainment district. The last beat of life in a dying town, where girls in short skirts totter in the cold and boys with spiked hair hunker by walls and talk closely, their gazes flickering now and then, catching on us, then back down. The smell of ramen and cigarette smoke rolls out from restaurants and the din of karaoke boxes punctuates the streets. A crowd of men flows around us on the pavement and we hear the word gaijin spoken with the oblivious volume of the drunk. “Hallo-how-are-you,” someone calls. We make our way to our regular bar where we’re less of a curiosity. Inside it’s dim and murmuring. The karaoke screens silently flick through song choices, though no one is singing. I sit between Jason and Feliciano and we order beer.
“It’s Japanese relationships,” says Jason. “Like, these guys, they treat women so badly.” Behind him a tattooed man thumbs his cigarette against an ashtray and talks earnestly to a woman in a black dress. “I knew this guy, he treated his girlfriend like shit. They’d just got together and he was already checking out other girls. Really obviously, right in front of her. It was disgusting.” He doesn’t look at me when he talks, his gaze flicking from woman to woman, seeking out those unaccompanied by men. Always his restless conversation, circling, circling. “She was so pretty, too. Why would she settle for this creep?” He sighs and drinks deeply. “Hey,” he says to Feli. “Are you dating Risa Nakagawa?”
Feli nods. “Yes.” His eyes are steady behind his glasses. He offers nothing more.
“I asked her out once,” says Jason. “She said no. Way to go, man, on succeeding where I failed.” He holds out his hand for a fistbump and Feli bemusedly complies.
Jason orders another beer and drifts off towards the dartboard. “Come on,” he says to us. “Let’s play.” Feli joins him. I stay at the bar and watch. I can tell by the cock of his hip that Jason wants eyes on him now. Thunk. Thunk. He throws fluidly, but Feli beats him all the same.
I teach at an elementary school where the children crowd around me and try to touch my skin. The young ones reach out for me, undisguised and carnivorous. The older ones feign a lack of interest, though now and then I catch them staring at me, maybe in some contemplation of my high nose or light hair or my watery blue eyes. Or maybe they are wondering how this foreign creature ended up here at the end of a city’s life. From the top floor of the school I can see across to the old, rusting paper mills and coal refineries. Down at the port, waves lap hollowly against fishing boats, and racks of squid and saury are set to dry in the pale autumn sunlight. I can see the old town with its boarded-up streets and crumbling ramen alleys, empty echoes of more profitable times. Broad avenues cut through ancient, cross-hatched streets are half-abandoned now. A sprawl of strip malls clamours around the routes inland. The city is slowly crawling from the sea.
“Snow,” says Wada-sensei, standing beside me at the window. He points across the valley. On the other side of the city mountains rise, young and jagged, already white-topped. Winter creeps down the slopes. He tries to say more but I don’t understand and he doesn’t speak English. We break off with apologetic shrugs.
Today we have a tsunami drill: at the sound of the alarm, the children file out of their classrooms, textbooks on their heads, and climb the stairs to the top floor. I try to imagine a wall of water rushing towards us. “Why textbooks?” I ask Wada-sensei, miming the little ones.
“Glass,” he replies, mimicking the explosive shattering of windows with his hands. The children climb up, up. Up is safe. This is not a fire drill. On the top floor they huddle together to be counted.
Later, after they’ve returned to their classrooms, I pack my books and papers to leave. I am familiar with the rituals of coming and going. Excuse me for leaving, I say to the room as I head towards the door. Thank you for your work comes the reply. Call and response. I change my shoes in the genkan. The wind is cold and I button my coat as I walk to my car. In the distance the sea looks dark and restless. “Goodbye!” shouts a second-grader from a first floor window. I wave. He stares at me until I drive away.
The snow comes and is silent. It sits roundly on rooftops and strung black wires, it feathers balcony railings. It buries footfalls and muffles cars. And then the skies clear. Ice forms like lace on melting edges. The ground becomes treacherous. I no longer know where to stand.
Again and again, blizzards roll in from the mountains and hunker us down in solitude. Then comes the ice, stratified like silt, like rock. I struggle along frozen streets enwrapped in fleece and wool and still I feel the cold testing my edges. It seeps into my fingertips. It needles through my veins. At night in dreams I splinter into the wind and scatter through the ruined places and car-worn streets. I whistle through forgotten fire escapes, I eddy in cold corners of rust-stained concrete and flurry around the coal train by the white-sheet lake. Foxes turn and watch and then trot on among the rushes. In the day I feel the shatter of ice beneath my boots. I count out change with cold-clumsy fingers. My thick tongue mangles delicate syllables and conversation is jagged, misaligned.
I order at the counter with half-words and gestures. “Here you are,” says the girl behind the till in her high school English.
“Arigato,” I say to her, and we both smile at the sound of familiar words.
The place is a franchise, lino floors and formica tables, tiny seats cramped close together. I take my chocolate donut and coffee to a table by the window. Outside snow is falling unhurriedly, as if laying down a blanket with care. Cars drift quietly through the car park and beyond them the hills rise, covered in cedars and bare silver birch. The clouds hang heavy overhead.
Later Feli and Risa will come, but for now I’m on my own. The coffee mug is warm in my hands. Around me people read and eat and chat. A few lone students have brought their textbooks and laptops. Children choose cupcakes through the glass at the counter and hold tumblers of melon soda in small hands. I’ve brought a book but I’m finding it difficult to concentrate, so I sit beneath fluorescent lights and drift. The coffee cools a little and after a while my donut is gone. My book lies butterflied on the orange table top. A student in a grey beanie asks me if he can take one of the chairs from my table. I tell him yes.
“Arigato,” he says.
“No problem,” I reply, and he bows a little and smiles.
There is something different now. I hold out my cup for a proffered refill and I feel the warmth in my fingertips. Words coalesce in the clamour around me. I find that I have become accustomed to this place, that I am even fond of it. I catalogue its sounds and smells: the clatter of plastic tumblers on formica table tops, the sugary aroma of donut glaze, the squeak of snowboots on linoleum. Behind it all, like a well-worn backdrop, the thin, familiar smell of franchise coffee.
Outside, the snow is still falling. The sky is dimming and the pale pink glow of streetlamps suffuses the low clouds and pools on the snow. The world fades to a soft patchwork of light and shadow. I sit by the window and watch until Feli and Risa arrive.