by Pete Able
When in his early twenties, Jake taught English in a small city in Western Japan. His classroom was on the second floor of a fitness center that sat along the river running through the center of town. The swimming pool was just down the hall and the smell of chlorine worked its way inside the small, square, brightly-lit room. The smell was almost overpowering at times and Jake spent roughly thirty-three hours a week there behind a narrow gray folding table, working with his students.
The majority of Jake’s students were middle-aged women who mainly wanted to work on their chat, but chatting had never been a strong suit of Jake’s. He read news stories and prepared a few topics for each lesson but still found it difficult to fill the hour. He told himself to be more talkative, casual, but he worried he’d say the wrong thing and his lips locked tight. When it came down to it, he just didn’t have much in common with middle-aged Japanese women.
One student, Kimiko, a forty-four-year-old woman with pale skin, gave him particular trouble. She was attractive and pleasant but Jake could hardly make heads or tails of her grammar or some of the phrases she used. She worked for a travel agency but had never been anywhere herself and had few interests outside of food and TV. Her lessons fell on Wednesdays at 8pm and Jake was often tired.
In her very first class, sitting very straight in her chair, Kimiko asked him, “I do anything before today?”
Jake told her honestly he had no idea if she had done anything whatsoever, which made Kimiko’s pale face flush. It took several seconds to unravel the mystery of Kimiko’s meaning. After much pointing and naming, they arrived at the question she really meant to ask, which was, “What did you do today?”
Kimiko acted embarrassed and was quiet and reticent much of the hour. Jake thought she wouldn’t come back. That happened sometimes. When people were confronted with how little they knew, caught a glimpse of how much effort they’d have to put in, they threw in the towel preemptively.
But when Kimiko arrived for her next lesson, she seemed more confident and comfortable. She was dressed more casually, in a T-shirt and khaki pants, and turned to the topic of food. Jake wore, as usual, a long sleeve shirt and necktie which made him feel stiff and uncomfortable.
“What is the rice in the night of today?” Kimiko asked.
Jake was beginning to learn some common mistakes Japanese people made so it didn’t take him long to realize she meant to ask, “What did you have for dinner?”
He told her. He’d gone to a fast food place for a bento box, as was his custom. He liked the chicken, white rice and pickled eggplant.
“Do you make rice with oneself?”
Jake decided she meant to ask, “Don’t you ever cook?” in an accusatory way, but he wasn’t sure about the tone. Perhaps she was only concerned about his health or finances. Or maybe she hoped to make a joke at his expense.
Before Jake had a chance to respond, Kimiko continued emphatically with, “I am partial every day if I eat at restaurant.”
He couldn’t translate this.
Part of the problem was that ‘partial’ was a tricky word. He knew it could mean both ‘incomplete’ and ‘biased’ or ‘prejudiced,’ but he wasn’t sure which definition Kimiko had in mind. Was she prejudiced about eating in restaurants? Did it make her feel incomplete? At last, after much fragmented discussion, Jake came to understand Kimiko felt she was wasting money if she ate out more than once a week.
“Do you like to cook?” he asked.
Kimiko’s face lit up. The ceiling lights flickered at the same time and Kimiko lined up all of her fingers on the edge of the table as if for inspection. In clipped phrases, she bumbled through an explanation of how she cooked “wholesome” dinners for her and her parents six nights per week.
Her voice trembled as she listed a number of healthy dishes and sides. Miso soup, seaweed salad, seared tuna, buckwheat noodle. As she rattled down the list Jake felt he was finally getting to know Kimiko. She was warming to him.
She told him she lived with her parents in a big “Japanese-style” house, which boasted a wide, “hip-and-gable,” tiled roof. There was a garden in back with a pond, a cherry tree and several different types of conifers which were carefully trimmed. Her father was a retired teacher and her mother made flower arrangements. Jake asked about them.
Even if her father was a little stubborn, sometimes got drunk and said rude things, she made the living arrangement sound peaceful and harmonious, as unshakable as the large boulder sitting under the cherry tree in their yard. Jake felt he could’ve moved into the house the next day, no questions asked, without disrupting the harmony in the slightest. That’s how gentle and strong their family unit was.
As their lessons progressed Kimiko began to ask Jake more personal questions. “Was there a person who was good for that shop?” she asked, which meant, “Do you like anyone at work?” He told her there wasn’t and besides, that would be unprofessional of him. Her face fell. She almost looked as if she’d cry. She was disappointed, or else didn’t understand.
In the same personal vein Kimiko asked him, “Any kind of person is a type?” which more or less meant, “What’s your type?”
This was a question Jake got a lot. All the middle-aged women he worked with wanted to know what kind of girls he liked, and they’d press him for specifics. In the beginning he was flustered and stammered a detailed reply. He described features he looked for, personality traits he liked. This kind of interrogation made him feel ridiculous, like a specimen under glass. Now, to Kimiko, he said only, “I like dark hair.”
Kimiko seemed elated. She beamed in fact, saying, “The person that the hair is black is enthusiast?”
She paused to fix a piece of her own short black hair behind her ear.
“I hate my raven-black hair. So boring. But, are you certain? Is not there a good person?” which meant, Jake figured, “Do you like anyone?” or maybe, “Do you have a girlfriend?”
Jake leaned back and crossed his legs. He sensed a theme. Kimiko seemed interested in his love-life. Did she have a thing for him? Or was she merely making conversation? He could never tell about those kinds of things. He had a very weak radar and if a girl liked him, he was usually the last to know.
If Kimiko did like him it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Though she was twenty years older than him, she didn’t look it one bit. Her face was without wrinkles and her hair was thick and glossy. She had tone muscles on her petite body—took good care of herself. In addition to a healthy diet, she swam laps in the pool down the hall six days per week.
He could do a lot worse. Physically she was attractive and she was also lively, with bright eyes and a youthful energy. Once, while Kimiko was flipping through the pages of her pocket dictionary, Jake pictured her in a swimsuit and swimming cap and became partially aroused under the table. Lack of attraction wouldn’t be a problem.
Jake’s main concern about dating Kimiko was it would mean losing her as a student. He was having trouble maintaining a full roster of classes, as several students had quit on him already. They all claimed some scheduling conflict or another, but he worried it was really due to his lack of interesting conversation. Some wanted him to flirt with them, he felt. Some wanted him to be goofy, like a comedian from an American movie. In both cases, he almost always let them down.
Jake came from Boston a year and a half before but he still hadn’t gotten the hang of things. There was something about the work, the people, or the culture that confounded him. As a nation, or as a society, Japan was fundamentally unique. Whatever the difference was, Jake couldn’t put his finger on it, but there existed some underlying concept he couldn’t quite grasp.
Likewise, there seemed to be something about Kimiko he didn’t quite understand. Something he couldn’t identify. He didn’t understand what drove her, what got her out of bed. Her motives were private. Secret. When he asked her why she wanted to learn English, she said only that it was ‘fun and interesting.’ He felt she was hiding a part of herself from him. A big part—like the underwater portion of an iceberg.
Unlike all of his other students, who never made any progress, Kimiko proved to be very dedicated to learning English. She studied in her free time, came to class full of questions and prepared long speeches for review, moving forward by leaps and bounds.
In the course of just six months she went from a hopeless beginner, to an intermediate conversational level. Her and Jake could actually communicate. It seemed she’d known most of the words all along, and now had more or less learned to put them in the correct order.
In this time, Jake continued to lose students. He only worked twenty-three hours per week and could barely afford his bachelor lifestyle. If things got much worse he’d have to stop going to restaurants and take out places and learn to cook for himself, or even find a roommate. Neither appealed to him.
Jake was never certain, but as time passed he came to think Kimiko was interested in him only as a teacher and friend. It made more sense that when she asked him personal questions she was simply being curious, or that she was actually just practicing being flirtatious, so she could talk to other foreigners, rather than him specifically.
That she was not interested in him romantically became unmistakably apparent one evening in late summer, when the heat was at its most sweltering. At the appointed hour, Kimiko, sweat glistening on her forehead and upper lip, rushed into Jake’s classroom in her work uniform, a navy blazer and skirt with a cream-colored blouse. He immediately saw something was wrong, as she skipped the usual niceties and sat down across from him at the narrow table.
Kimiko sighed and said, “I am long.”
Jake took this to mean ‘sad’ or ‘worried’ mainly from the tight expression on Kimiko’s normally bright, open face.
“I’m sorry to hear that. What’s the matter?”
“I have a story to tell. It is long and makes me long. I don’t know about it. It’s a personal episode. Should I tell it?”
“Please start at the beginning,” Jake said, sounding, he thought, like a therapist. If there had been a sofa in the room perhaps he would’ve asked her to lay down.
Kimiko put her hands flat on the table then drew them back and put them in her lap. She scooted back in her seat and sat up straight, cleared her throat. She seemed as nervous as she had for her first lesson.
“My boyfriend has a girlfriend, I think. I don’t know it, but I think it.”
Jake waited but Kimiko only stared back at him with big eyes. The story wasn’t so long after all and he was caught without a follow-up question loaded. He glanced up at the fluorescent lights and coughed into the top of his fist.
“Do you have a boyfriend? I didn’t know.”
“Yes, boyfriend,” smiled Kimiko. “He’s new. Sort of my boyfriend, sort of relax, casual. I don’t know the English word. Maybe part-time. Sort of.”
“I didn’t know you were seeing anyone. When did you meet him?”
“Two months before about.” She held up two fingers and stared at them as if to make sure. “Yes, seven weeks about.”
“But you think he might have a girlfriend?”
“Maybe. Maybe no. Maybe girlfriend. Maybe wife. Maybe I’m adulterer.”
Kimiko spoke in a matter of fact way, as if this were a faux pas that happened to everyone at least once. And Jake wasn’t sure—perhaps in Japan, it did. Perhaps marriage meant less here than it meant in the States. Maybe affairs were commonplace. The room suddenly felt a couple degrees colder than normal.
“Please tell me the story. Tell me all about it. It will be good practice.”
Kimiko smoothed her hair on one side then put her hands on the table, then into in her lap.
“I will tell some.”
She nodded her head once, a deep decisive nod, then related a sparse sequence of facts and events.
“We met in a pachinko parlor. I went with my friend. My girlfriend I work with. We didn’t know how to play well. He was sitting near. Playing only with himself. Smoking and drinking beer. Soon he came to give help. He was very cool. He wearing a black silk shirt.”
“Pachinko? Really? I wouldn’t have guessed you were the gambling type. Did you win any money?”
“Yes,” replied Kimiko, brightening. “I win a little. I never win before, but because he help, I win 8,000 yen.”
“That’s exciting! Congratulations! What happened next?”
“I give him my phone number and he call the next night. He call 7 o’clock about.”
“The next night? He was very eager, I see. Very keen.”
Kimiko smiled and said, “Yes. I excited too.”
“Did you go on a date?”
“Yes. We make a date two days later. It was Monday night. We went to izakaya restaurant. The lights were dim. Very comfortable, romantic. He was very cool. He wearing slim pants. Very cool.”
Jake wanted to slow the story down. If Kimiko rushed through the material the story would be over and there’d still be forty minutes in the lesson left to kill.
“How was the meal? What did you eat? What did you drink?”
“The food was so-so. I ate fish. Red fish, I think. I don’t know how you call it. He ate pork dumplings and soup. I drink a very tasty cocktail. He drink beer. We talk long. Very long. We order more food to share and talk more. Until near midnight we talk.”
Jake adjusted his tie and failed to think of anything interesting to say. “Sounds like it was a good date. That’s nice. Must’ve been fun. What did you talk about?”
“We talk about many things. Music. Movie. Old friend. He say many funny stories. Some story from elementary school. Some from English class. Some from Sports Day. Very funny. So funny.”
Kimiko smiled at the memory and rubbed her ear lobe between her thumb and forefinger. She adopted a distant expression, as if she were back in that izakaya, or maybe back in elementary school. Just a girl in a school uniform.
“What happened next?”
Kimiko held her hand in front of her mouth to hide a smile. She had one front tooth that stuck out from the others and she was self-conscious.
“Don’t be. It’s OK. I won’t judge you. Just think of it as English practice. You might want to know how to talk about these kinds of things someday.”
“Well, in this case… We go to a love hotel.”
Jake shouldn’t have been surprised but he was. He never would’ve suspected Kimiko to move so fast. Young American women maybe, but not middle-aged Japanese women. Could all women (outside of cloistered nuns) move this fast if the circumstances were right? The thought made him anxious.
“I see. What then?” Jake asked, trying not to let his voice go low.
Her hand in front of her mouth again.
“I’m sorry. Let me be clear. I mean what happened after that?”
The next part came in a rush of bad grammar and sentence fragments. Kimiko was even more excited than when she discussed cooking. This was the long story she’d wanted to tell all along. Jake breathed deeply of the chlorine laden air and listened. Occasionally he nodded his head or said, “I see,” in a neutral tone.
“For one month we meet at love hotel—three or four times every week. Always same hotel. Always same room with jungle theme. With rainforest wallpaper. Parrots and sloth—animal hiding behind leaf. There’s big snake hanging over big water bed. He like it. He say he feel like Tarzan. He beat his chest and make Tarzan call. So cute. I like the room too. I want to stay all day and night. Having sex. Eating snacks. Watching TV. But we stay only two or three hour every time. He say he busy at work. I think he’s a salary man—architect office he say, so it make sense. But three time he take cell phone into bathroom and talk low. So low I can’t hear. He stay in bathroom maybe five or ten minute. When he come out he say talking to son from ex-wife. But I don’t know about it.”
When Kimiko stopped she sighed, like releasing pent up energy. She looked at the wall and smoothed her hair on the same side as before, using both hands in an overlapping continuous motion. There was never a time when her hair wasn’t smooth.
“You don’t know if you believe him?”
“No, I don’t know.”
“What did you do?”
“After third time, I say I want to meet his son. I like child. I like small boy. So cute and funny. I say I want to meet.”
“What did he say?”
“He say, ‘no’.”
Jake wasn’t surprised, but pretended to be, made his voice higher.
“He said ‘no’? Did he give a reason?”
“He say, ‘No. Not a good idea.’ But he give no reason. So now I don’t know what I better do. I don’t believe he, I think. Maybe he say ‘ex-wife,’ but really she ‘still-wife,’ I think. Maybe so, I think.”
Though he thought he saw an obvious red flag, Jake kept his composure. He pressed his back hard against his chair and kept his face blank, adjusted his tie.
“You think he’s still married and that’s why he didn’t want you to meet his son?”
“Maybe that’s what I think. He’s a liar and I can’t trust about it. He afraid his son tell the truth.”
Jake sighed. More to himself than anything, he said, “Kids will occasionally spill the beans.”
Kimiko knitted her brow.
“Spill the beans? Is that a American phrase?”
“Oh. Yes, it is. I apologize.”
“What does it mean?”
This was a question Kimiko often asked: “What does it mean? What does it mean?” Over and over. At times, when he was tired, had a long day of strained, broken-English conversations, Jake would’ve paid her to not have to answer. If he never had to answer the question again, he’d give her the lessons at half price.
“I guess it means ‘to tell secrets.’ I should have said, ‘Kids will occasionally tell secrets.’ You know, let them slip.”
“I see. Spill the beans. Let them slip.”
Kimiko’s gaze went up and away and she frowned. She glanced at the clock on the wall, which read 8:45. There was fifteen minutes left in the lesson. The thin blue second hand went around and Jake felt the burden of having to fill the silence.
“So what will you do? Will you end the relationship?”
“I don’t know. It’s difficult. Maybe I love he.”
Quiet as he considered this, there was a vague sense too much was being asked of him. Jake felt there was an invisible boundary in place that existed for foreigners. Society had agreed upon its construction long ago but the people had since lost sight of it. Now the exact location was difficult to nail down and so was always being crossed.
“Do you know what you said wrong?”
This was a question Jake often asked. At least three times per lesson. He gave Kimiko a chance to correct her own grammar.
“No,” she said. “I don’t know.”
“You should have said, ‘Maybe I love him.’”
“I see. Thank you, Jake. Maybe I love him.”
Kimiko smoothed her hair and Jake looked over his notes. He skimmed the few articles he’d summarized. An earthquake in Chiba prefecture, a celebrity death, a scientific study. He shuffled the papers and tried to imagine which would be of most interest to Kimiko, which would most engage her.
Jake chose the study, which explained why sugar dependency can be such a hard habit to break.
The following week Kimiko called to cancel her lesson and Jake was worried. Not only because losing another student would tip his finances into the red, but also because Kimiko seemed in a desperate personal situation. He wasn’t sure, he didn’t feel he understood her all that well, but Kimiko seemed a bit of a desperate case.
He hoped he was wrong, and assumed he probably was, but he worried if things didn’t work out with this man she was seeing, if he mistreated her or dumped her, she might do something hazardous to her health. Something drastic.
Kimiko lived at home, had never been out of her small town, and seemed to have very little going her way, very little else to hope for. There was little chance of her escaping the small town in Western Japan or even of moving out of her parents’ house. A bad episode with this man could leave her at the end of her rope. Jake had heard stories about Japanese people who were pushed too far jumping in front of commuter trains and he didn’t want to lose a student, or a friend, in such a horrific way.
During all of his other lessons Jake was distracted. He listened to the women talk about their gardens, their jobs, their cooking, their funny or strange husbands, and he nodded as they gave the short speeches they prepared about current events, but he barely commented.
Thoughts of Kimiko’s affair, including a thousand imagined details, and of his precarious finances and, hence, his whole foothold in the country, filled his mind. In addition, the August humidity showed no signs of backing off. After lessons, walking along the sidewalk to his car, Jake wanted to put his hands out in front of him, as if he could spread open the heat like a curtain.
Jake was relieved when Kimiko showed up for her next lesson. She seemed a little tired or distracted, but she told no “long” stories as before. For the first twenty minutes she and Jake discussed the heat and a few headlines from the news in a disinterested manner. When these topics ran their course, only then did Jake bring up the relationship they’d discussed during their last meeting.
“Have you been seeing much of the same man from before?”
“Yes, I see him sometimes.”
“At the same love hotel?”
“In the jungle-themed room?”
She scarcely nodded.
“Does he still take his phone into the bathroom?”
“No. He don’t go in bathroom anymore.”
Kimiko sounded disinterested, bored, like when he talked about American football or TV shows she didn’t like.
“What changed? Has he stopped taking calls while the two of you are together?”
Kimiko glanced down and checked the immaculate white nail polish on her left hand. The nails were shiny, as if she’d just come from the salon.
“He take calls. He take calls from office. From friend. From son. And from wife.”
Without missing a beat, Kimiko checked the nails on her right hand. Jake leaned back. It took effort to keep his mouth from twisting into a sneer.
When she first started studying with him six months ago, Jake had no trouble imagining Kimiko a virgin, as pure and as innocent as an eleven-year-old girl, but now the illusion was completely blown out of the water, and some of the fondness he felt for her leaked out of his heart. She was different from what he thought, what he expected and hoped for.
“I see,” he said, and took a breath of the chlorine-heavy air.
For something like the one-thousandth time during one of his lessons, Jake found himself at a loss for words. And, as he often did at these moments, he peered up at the fluorescent lights above the table and suspected he was in the wrong line of work.
Wrong work, wrong country, wrong life.
Jake was used to the smell of chlorine but he wasn’t used to anything else.
He dropped the matter of Kimiko’s sex life and instead asked about the preparation of rice, miso soup, tempura and other Japanese staples. Which was the least expensive? Which kept the longest? Kimiko spoke without enthusiasm but she spoke a long time. She was thorough with her instructions.
“See you next week,” Jake smiled as always when the time came.
“Yes. See you next week,” said Kimiko.
(Originally published in The Fiction Pool, August 18, 2020. Reprinted with permission.)