By Alex Shishin
I’m Susan Frisch, language teacher and poet. I grew up in Japan. My parents, who came from California, were professors in Sapporo. I went back to California for graduate study and returned to Japan to teach at a women’s university in Osaka. I was not much older than my students and they treated me as one of their generation. They shared their dreams and problems with me, which were like my own dreams and problems. When I made them cross they hung me out to dry. They did not address me formally, not even as “Susan-sensei.” They called me “Suzie” because they thought it was cute. I should have been annoyed but I wasn’t. I’d gotten used to being “cute” at the private school in Sapporo, attached to my mother’s women’s university. I was the only blonde wearing the school’s dark blue uniform.
But this story is not about me but about the “Crazy Girls Club” my students started, which met in my office once a week and where everyone spoke only in English.
I had suggested we call ourselves the Women’s Discussion Club and was met with a chorus of groans. They were not old ladies! They were girls and would be girls until they graduated from the university!
Looking back, there are two students from our “club” who have continued to stand out in my memory. One is Kei, a triathlon champion, an outstanding photographer and a top student who in her second year was already being slated for our valedictorian. Kei was shorthaired and slender, not an atom out of place. The other was Kei’s best friend in the club, Chie. Chie was either dumpy or voluptuous, according to one’s taste. She had a proclivity for miniskirts and tops that emphasized her bosom. She dyed her dirty blonde. (We had a dress code that was never enforced.) Admitted as a legacy, she was an indifferent student on her way to not graduating in four years. She slept in class, or talked, or texted. At our club get-togethers she mentioned going to love hotels.
Kei never said anything about her family. I knew her parents were divorced and she lived alone with her mother. Chie constantly talked about the misadventures of her rough and tumble family life. One day her father hit her but the next day asked her for a loan of 20,000 yen because he had lost heavily at ma jang. When her mother discovered her father was going to “soaplands, ” she took Chie aside and explained in explicit terms why men were “like that.” I blushed crimson when Chie told us the story and everyone giggled and said I was cute.
Chie’s major virtue, besides being ungrammatically good at speaking English, was that she didn’t smoke. If she had, it is likely she and Kei would have never become friends.
Their friendship began and grew because Kei and Chie each had something the other lacked. Kei was attractive but had no confidence when dealing with boys because she had only known girls from kindergarten to university. (I would have had that problem if I had not gone to the U.S.) Chie introduced Kei to her former boyfriend from her innocent high school days. They fell in love at first sight. He was older and moved to Tokyo to work for a company but their bond held fast. Chie told Kei her problem was she had terrible study habits. Kei asked Chie what she did in her spare time. Chie answered she had two part time jobs, she went to parties during the week, she had a succession of boyfriends who proved unsuitable in some way and there were a lot of distractions at home, like the TV and computer games. Both her parents worked and were often not home, which made her feel lonely. When they were home they argued and paid little attention to her, which made her feel unwanted. Kei’s verdict was, “You’re tired and stressed.” She gave Chie a prescription: Cut one part time job, party only on weekends and don’t get into intimate situations until you are sure of a stable relationship. “If you’re lonely, study with me.” As a consequence of their friendship, Chie’s marks improved and Kei shed a not overt edginess. Her limbs seemed looser and she smiled more.
One day Kei disappeared.
She did not come to our weekly club gathering and all her teachers said she was not attending. Chie called her cellphone multiple times and got no answer. Kei’s homeroom teacher called her mother and only got evasions.
Chie came to my office late in the afternoon. She was wearing a suit instead a miniskirt. She called me “sensei” for the first time and spoke only in Japanese. Something was afoot.
“Kei might’ve been murdered,” Chie said.
“It would’ve been reported,” I said.
“Well, maybe her mother murdered her and is hiding the body.”
A chill ran up my spine. “That’s farfetched,” I said.
“She could’ve been kidnapped!” Chie said. “It’s possible the kidnappers are holding her for ransom and threatening to kill her if her mother calls the police or saying anything to anybody. It happens all the time, sensei.”
“I wish I had an answer to that but I don’t,” I said. “Only don’t jump to conclusions.”
“The whole Crazy Girls Club will be here at four-thirty. We’ll speak in Japanese, if it is all right, sensei.”
It was four twenty-eight.
Before I could say anything, all the club members piled into my office. They were not their usual bubbly selves. They sat quietly and expectably, their eyes on me.
“When was the last time you saw Kei?” Chie asked us.
All but one of said at the university.
“I saw her with a woman in Kobe,” said Yuka, the bright star of my comparative literature class.
“Cherchez la femme,” I said without meaning to. I put my hand over my mouth.
Chie said, “In detective movies that means ‘find the woman!’ Where in Kobe?”
“In Sannomiya,” Yuka said. “They were going into Sogo department store. The woman had dyed blonde hair. I could tell she was Japanese by her body language. They were both wearing spandex and carrying bicycle helmets. There is a bicycle shop nearby.”
“Kai is a cyclist,” I said and felt stupid. Everyone knew that.
“We’ll start at the cycle shop,” Chie said. “Who’s coming with me?”
Nobody stirred. Chie looked me.
“All right,” I said. “We’ll head down to Kobe as soon as we can.”
“Let’s go now,” Chie said.
The cycle shop was about to close when we arrived but the personnel were kind and took time for us. They said they had seen a woman who resembled our description of Kei and the woman with blonde-dyed hair. They had looked into the shop but not gone in.
Chie and I went for coffee.
“She is somewhere in Kobe. But where?” Chie said. “Maybe the blonde lured her into a trap for the kidnappers by pretending she was a cyclist. You should call Kei mother.”
“I should not,” I said. “Not on a pretext like that. I am not Kei’s homeroom teacher and I’d get in trouble for interfering. Anyway, what’s the point? The mother does not want to say anything for whatever reason. She won’t open up to me.”
“You’re right,” Chie said. But I know who will open up to us. Kei’s boyfriend. He and I are still friends and I have his number. I’m sure he won’t say anything on the phone. We have to go to Tokyo.”
“Why are you so sure he’ll give us any information in Tokyo?”
“I just know. Tomorrow is Saturday. Let’s take the early Shinkansen to Tokyo.”
Why am I doing this? I asked myself as I sat next to Chie on he train. Chie said, “Sensei, which one of us is Sherlock Holmes and which one of us is Watson? I’m serious.”
“I think you should be Holmes and I should be Watson,” I said. “You seem to be wise about things I am not.”
“He’ll open up after we meet him. I positive.”
“I’ll try to be a good Watson,” I said. “I hope we can get back to Osaka tonight.”
“If not, I know a good cheap hotel. My father and I stayed there once. He bought me tickets to Disneyland.”
“That was nice of him.”
“He had something else to do. He promised me Disneyland if I didn’t tell my mother. Well, here’s Shinagawa coming up. Tokyo Station is next.”
Chie called Kei’s boyfriend. “I’m worried about Kei. I must see you. Why can’t you? I don’t believe you. We’ll drop by your company office on Monday and ask for you. What? Okay. At the coffee shop across from your dormitory. Give me directions. Thanks. See you in half an hour.”
On the subway, Chie said, “His name is Koji by the way.”
We found Koji waiting at the coffee shop. He was a handsome man. He made me think of a puppy. But a puppy on its guard.
“What about Kei-san?” Chie asked without preliminaries.
Koji made a pained face.
“Is she in danger?” Chie demanded.
“No. I wouldn’t say that.”
“Then what would you say?”
“She is perfectly safe,” Koji said. “Her mother knows where she is. I know where she is. Only I cannot tell anyone.”
“Tell us!” Chie exploded. “Kei is not coming to school and causing distress to everyone. Frisch-sensei and I spent good money coming here. Frisch-sensei is risking her reputation getting mixed in this. Give us a break!”
“I can’t. I promised,” Koji said. “I’m sorry.”
“I’ll go with you to a hotel if you tell us,” Chie said.
“I can’t do that. I love Kei-san.”
“We love her too,” Chie pleaded with teary eyes. “Tell us what’s going on. I know you want to. I can see it in your face.”
“She’s with her sister.”
“Where?” I asked, playing my Watson role.
“Since you’ve gone this far, tell us her address and phone number,” Chie said.
Koji sighed. “All right. Maybe you can talk some sense into Kei-san. I’ve failed.”
“What do you mean?” I said, posing another Watson question.
“You’ll have to hear it from her,” he said.
“Her sister’s hair is dyed blonde and she’s a cyclist,” Chie said.
“How did you know?” Koji asked.
“Elementary,” Chie said in English.
On the Shinkansen Chie said, “It’s still early. Let’s stay on until Shin-Kobe and see Kei-san.”
“Isn’t that premature?”
“Knowing Koji-san, he has already called Kei-san and confessed everything. He’d make a terrible spy.”
She was right. We were invited to Kei’s sister’s apartment.
Kei embraced both of us and wept.
“I’m so sorry for all the trouble I’ve caused,” she said. “I’ll be back at school next week. I’ve settled everything with my mother.”
We sat in the living room. Kei held our hands as she spoke. Her sister, as trim as Kei and with striking blonde-dyed hair, sat in a distant chair. She looked exhausted. “Tell them everything, younger sister, and get it over with,” she said.
“My mother is going to remarry. I don’t like the man,” Kei said.
“The man you’ve never met,” her sister said. “I have. He’s nice.”
“A truck driver! Our mother is marrying a truck driver,” Kei said. “I will not live with a truck driver! I am so ashamed of my mother!”
“What’s wrong with truck drivers?” I asked.
“Our father is a professor,” Kei said. “He’s not only that; he’s a top scholar.”
“He left our mother for a Ukrainian exchange student,” Kei’s sister said. “He has never cared to see Kei-san and me.”
“But a truck driver!” Kei said. “How low! Truck drivers harass cyclists. They scare us with their horns and they try to drive us off the road. They shout dirty things at women. They smoke.”
“Our mother would never marry a man like that,” Kei’s sister said.
“A dirty truck driver!” Kei said. “I’m not going home. I’ll get a part time job to pay for food and rent, older sister.”
Her sister looked at us with her exhausted face. She thanked Chie and me for caring. “Kei-san will come around,” she said.
“I will not!” Kei said.
Chie took my hand as we walked to the bus stop. On the bus we continued to hold hands. Chie was trembling. “I wish we hadn’t found out,” she said.
I felt the same way.
“An uncle of mine is a truck driver,” Chie said. “He worked hard to pass the truck driving test. I’m trying hard not to dislike Kei-san.”
Chie began to cry. I put my arm around her shoulder.
A week later, in early March, Kei appeared at the Crazy Girls Club. She announced she was transferring to a famous arts university in Tokyo and she would not be returning to Osaka.
One day I suggested we change our club’s name to The Feminist English-Speaking Society. The club members silently nodded in agreement. The prospect of needing to search for employment already loomed over them and matured them. Kei had aged them, as she had me. I guess it was then I started taking my poetry seriously.
Chie blossomed as a scholar, which surprised everyone, Chie most of all. There were discussions among my colleagues about making her our valedictorian. In the end she was chosen as the school’s benedictorian. The honor of valedictorian fell to Yuka, who had excelled in my comparative literature class.
Remarkably, Chie and Kei maintained a lively email correspondence. In one email Kei admitted she was able to devote her time to study without needing a part time job thanks to the ample salary of her truck driving stepfather.