By Karen McGee
He shows up in a freshman English class looking like a catwalk model and carrying a halo of space you recognize. Your foreign students have complained about it, “The other students, they won’t talk to me.” As a foreigner in Japan, you know what that halo feels like. The empty seat next to you on a crowded bus is a cliché.
It turns out he’s from Hong Kong, six years older than your other students, a drama major working on his second degree. He doesn’t need an English class, but you’ve taught at Japanese universities long enough not to question this, and at first it feels like a perk to have at least one student who always laughs at your jokes.
He smiles a lot and slowly licks his lips a lot and watches you every second. You are twenty years older than him, old enough to be his mother, and at first you tell yourself you’re mistaken, this isn’t what it feels like, don’t project, beautiful people like him have a rough time with this kind of thing. But your radar is pinging, and soon you are remembering the crushes you had in college.
There was the lanky philosophy professor with the slow drawl who called you once the class was over. “Aren’t you married?” you asked, and he said “No, never been,” so you went out a few times but it wasn’t the same as when he stood at the front of the lecture hall and talked about Plato’s cave. There was the psychology professor who reminded you of a young Bob Newhart. It was an enormous class with six-page, computer-graded exams but you scored 100% on every one. When the semester ended you promptly forgot him and psychology, but years later, as a graduate student, you saw him in the elevator and he turned and smiled, “I remember you!”
You relive these moments from twenty years ago and think, yes, you must have glowed like neon, why has it taken so long to realize? And you decide you’re probably not mistaken about the student from Hong Kong. So you give him less eye contact and then you’re afraid you’re treating him differently, penalizing him, so you try not to avoid eye contact, but it’s like when a director tells you, “walk naturally across the stage” and you forget how to walk.
He begins to show up at your office during lunch and late in the afternoon to bond over life as a foreigner in Japan, and you leave the door open and try to be friendly but brisk. He tells you he wants to do his final presentation on Hong Kong martial arts films, and you mention you were a big fan of Bruce Lee as a teenager, and he assures you that when he takes his shirt off, he looks just like Bruce Lee. You begin to think about him outside of class. You’re single for the first time in decades, no longer wearing a wedding ring, and you worry maybe this is your fault, maybe you’ve somehow drawn him in. You tell yourself you could never cross a line with a student, but yes, okay, it’s flattering, a little bit exciting.
You notice in class he’s pairing up on projects with a quiet, earnest, plump-cheeked girl named Momoko, one of those students who sits in front and makes your job worth doing. (And yes, you think of her as a “girl;” she’s nineteen, not twelve, but most of the first-year students seem like children to you.) Momoko and the drama major seem to be getting along, and you’re glad she’s no longer so quiet and he’s no longer so isolated.
He makes a point of inviting you to the plays he’s in and asking about your second-year classes and you find yourself bracing for the class, wishing it would end so you won’t have to meet his intense gaze. You’re with another professor outside of class one day, and the drama major waves a greeting and smiles and she turns to you, “Who is THAT? My god!” You both laugh and you feel better, it’s not just you, he has the same effect on others.
And then one day he comes to class and sits and smiles and watches you, and you notice Momoko is still at the same desk but she’s leaning away from him, her face stiff. When it comes time to pair up for a project, she rushes to find someone else. He sits with his long legs stretched in front of him, same beautiful bones, same relaxed smile.
You try not to make assumptions, but suddenly the smile looks smug. You give him an A, you treat him like any other student, and he takes one of your classes the next year, but you don’t feel flattered or excited anymore, and you’re relieved when he finally stops dropping by the office to chat. END