By Brian Grover
Tetsuko did what any mother would. After all, her daughter was a Christmas cake. Everybody knew it, talked about it even, right in front of her. Really, she had no other choice. Especially in Japan where women, like Christmas cake, go unwanted after the 25th. And Tetsuko’s daughter was already 30.
What got me though, was that I didn’t even see it coming. In my naivety I missed the set up completely. When Tetsuko, our cleaning lady, first invited me to dinner I didn’t think it odd, I just thought of food. Yakitori perhaps. Or a hearty nabé. Sashimi of course. Kanarazu. Without fail.
I did wonder why she hadn’t invited any of the other gaijin, any of the other foreigners from the guest house though. I know now. Michael was in his twenties and not exactly single. More multi, you might say: a really busy guy. Vernon, let’s face it, was too short even if his youth didn’t disqualify him. And Ahmed just simply didn’t have the right racial qualifications: a little too much gai mixed up with his jin.
“One of those bizarre aberrations that the gods
unleash from time to time…”
I know now but, at the time, I just thought Tetsuko wanted to brag to her cronies: I have a gaijin friend. He came to dinner. He can use chopsticks. The usual stuff. The usual stuff. I innocently thought she just wanted the notoriety of associating with gaijin, much as one might keep an exotic zoo animal. Even though I was recent I wasn’t that green. I had already been put through those paces. Still, any of the others, with the exception of Vernon perhaps, would have been a better choice. Their Japanese was far superior to mine for one thing. At the time though, I missed that hint. Besides, no one in Japan ever really expects a gaijin to speak the language anyway. If you do it’s just quaint, disturbing even: one of those bizarre aberrations that the gods unleash from time to time: like snakes with armpits or two-headed monkeys. Certainly not the norm.
No doubt Tetsuko could have used the notoriety. Her life was no Disneyland. She looked older than 55, was tiny, frail even, with frizzy, brassy, lustreless hair. Her face was deeply wrinkled with the lines all radiating out from the centre like a sphincter. The others had noticed this too so we sometimes called her The Sphinx. On the other hand, Tetsuko was cheerful and energetic and chain-smoked like a convict awaiting execution. She was divorced and had an unmarried daughter that largely supported her. They both lived in one of those government subsidized monstrosities called a mansion in Kyōto, a tenement in New York. And Tetsuko cleaned up after a bunch of sloppy gaijin for extra pocket money. That was her life.
“…a grimy, rubber Minnie Mouse hanging by the neck.”
Ahmed successfully predicted that I was going to be asked to dinner well in advance of the actual invitation. He based his analysis on a morning ritual that became known as Interrogation Time. This was a little pause Tetsuko took every morning between vacuuming the tatamis and hosing down the kitchen. Lighting a cigarette, she would launch into the same litany of questions she had asked me the day before and, the day before that and the days before those, over and over. As far back as I could remember the day started with a cup of coffee and an interrogation.
“Nihon ryori ga suki desu ka?”
“I love Japanese food. You know that.
“Nihon no biru wa?”
“Yeah, yeah, Japanese beer too.”
“Ohashi o tsukau?”
“Of course I can use chopsticks. Can you use a fork?”
“Nansai desu ka?”
“Honto ni dokushin desu ka?”
“Single? Yeah. Really. So what?”
“Kanada de okusan inai no?”
“No, I don’t have a wife back home.”
“Kekkon shi na katta?”
“Nope, never married. Too ugly. Ha, ha, ha.”
The same thing every day, dropping ashes where she’d just vacuumed while I slurped on a coffee and trooped out the same answers, never quite able to muster enough sarcasm to put a stop to the ritual.
Ahmed was right, of course, but even he didn’t really get it. I was way off though. I thought she just wanted to chat and stuck to safe topics, fearing to venture beyond where my language was sure not to follow. Either that or she had a terrible memory.
Eventually she sprang the question. About dinner that is. And I went, expecting a sumptuous Japanese feast. I was about an hour late because of something at the university but that’s not necessarily bad: He’s A Hard Worker. Social Duties Come Second. After the preliminary “Gomen nasais: Sorry I was late” and “Hajimemashites: Nice to meet you,” Tetsuko sat me down at the kotatsu with her daughter Chiyoko on my left so she could pour my beer. Over the low table glared a fierce fluorescent lamp fashioned of imitation bamboo and clear acrylic panels. From the pull-cord there was a grimy, rubber Minnie Mouse hanging by the neck.
Tetsuko promptly disappeared into the kitchen behind me. Chiyoko and I exhausted my Japanese in the first seven minutes then launched into her high school English. That took us another three minutes into the soirée. But I came up with this: She worked in Kobé and had been enduring the daily four hour commute for the last ten years. She was an OL or office lady in a large company which meant she had the privilege of serving tea to the men, tidying up after the men and fetching newspapers, cigarettes or cans of Pocari Sweat for the men while the men engaged in the ever-significant business of moving pieces of paper from one desk to another and stamping those pieces of paper to prove that they had indeed shuttled them. Chiyoko had no outside interests per se though she professed a desire to study English. That was her life and during the lulls in the conversation I looked around and saw where she lived it.
“The redundant diptych was punctured here and
there by big holes, unpatched.”
The mansion was a cramped little suite, cluttered as only Japanese living space can be. The layout was thoroughly western though, just shrunken. Instead of the usual plaster and lath, wallboard enclosed the space with no tokonoma or other exposed beams in evidence. The view from the living room window was blocked by removable shoji screens, giving the room that typical inward-looking appearance. A dusty white curtain was half drawn over that. One wall was taken up by sliding fusuma doors that masked a closet. Crudely printed on the fusuma was a scene remotely evocative of something Chinese. Central to the composition, repeated verbatim on both doors, was the caricature of a twisted and venerable pine tree growing from a steep rock face. In the background was a humble rice cultivation scene with sketchy details of a village, paddies and toiling peasants. The redundant diptych was punctured here and there by big holes, unpatched.
Terrorized by the lulls, Chiyoko rummaged through a huge mound of papers and magazines that likely contained a piece of furniture of some kind in the centre. In no time at all she came up with a bilingual dictionary and some hair curlers. “Good idea,” I said. While she flipped through the pages I checked her out. She looked tired, older than thirty. Unlike most Japanese women she didn’t wear make-up. Her mode of dress could have been called casual though dowdy would have been more accurate. She had on a peach-coloured acrylic sweater dotted with fuzzballs and navy polyester slacks.
“Seebrings you have,” she asked then leaned over to show me the page.
“See…Oh, siblings. Brothers and sisters,” I said in English then switched to Japanese. “Older sister I have. Lives she by Toronto. Younger sister I had. She lives by Vancouver.”
“She do wedding?” Chiyoko asked in English.
“Um…Yes…Older sister and younger sister marry.”
“Yeah, child born older sister. Two child. Man and woman. No younger sister,” I stammered, reaching my linguistic limits. I sipped at my beer, a little embarrassed, while Chiyoko searched the dictionary for further inspiration. Silence slowly solidified around us. Desperately grasping for topics Chiyoko reached for the TV remote and asked “Japanese terebi you like?”
“Daisuki, I lied,” explaining that of course I couldn’t understand it. Suddenly animated in its corner by the window, a small set emitted rollicking, prerecorded laughter in response to the inane antics of some guy dressed up as Davy Crockett. The like construction proved useful, however. Questions such as Do you like dog? Do you like cat? Do you like panda? bought precious minutes until dinner saved us.
The sukiyaki or sashimi or okonomiyaki that I had imagined never materialized. Instead, a kind of hamburger was plunked down in front of me. They obviously weren’t eating. After plenty of gestures and garbled syllables I finally realized that they had already eaten. I apologized profusely again for being late and then chomped into my repast, forgetting to say ittadakimasu first, as the cleaning lady watched and smoked and her daughter poured my beer.
Supper was a greasy ball of meat smothered in hyper-sweet catsup with two enormous pieces of Japanese white bread an inch and a half thick. Scrumptious! Or at least I muttered the Japanese equivalent a dozen or so times as I washed the spongy mass down with quantities of beer. I declined a second meatball by patting my belly and insisting that I was stuffed. “Happy pon-pon!” I said, making my little joke. I did acquiesce to another beer though.
“… I related my adventure to an audience much amused.”
At this point Tetsuko took control of the conversation, dragging out a family album featuring pictures of herself or her daughter or both of them standing in front of temples or gardens or bridges, all no doubt famous though I recognized nothing but the Married Rocks. I had seen Meotoiwa two months before. They are simply two rocks just off shore from Mié Peninsula. One rock is bigger than the other and a couple strands of braided hemp rope link them together. On top of the biggest rock is a tiny shrine. Since the sun rises between the two rocks on New Year’s Day it’s a good place to find lots of people taking pictures of each other at that time of the year, if teeming crowds are your thing. Tetsuko’s pictures were taken at mid-day, probably in June judging by their clothes and umbrellas.
After the photo session Tetsuko showed me a yukatta and, gesturing like a seamstress with palsy, indicated that her daughter had sewn the cotton kimono herself: Handy at Home. The yukatta was actually quite nice, deep indigo with varicoloured leaves sprinkled across it. After more gestures and consultations between mother and daughter and dictionary I learned that she intended to give it to me as a gift for my mother. I eventually sent it to an old flame back home but at the time I thanked them repeatedly and managed to say something like “Mother this really love.” Intelligible, but barely.
At this high point in the evening I deemed that enough time had elapsed to escape graciously before conversation degenerated into a dictionary search again or another family album made its debut. Summing up all the thank-yous and sorry-I-was-lates and deep, clumsy bows I could manage I retreated in a hail of oyasuminasais. Good night. When I got back to the guest house I related my adventure to an audience much amused.
“You know what it was, don’t you?” Laura asked, laughing.
“What do you mean?”
“A whaty eye?”
“An omiai,” Ahmed repeated. “An arranged marriage. Or more exactly, the first tentative introductions.”
“No way,” I declared.
“Yeah, the Sphinx was trying to foist her charmless daughter off on a long-nosed hairy barbarian because none of the samurai will have her,” Michael, ever cryptic, ever the cynic, pronounced.
“That’s ridiculous,” I countered defensively, losing conviction by the moment.
Even Vernon, the greenest of greenhorns, got into the act. “I like the hamburger part best. I think she chickened out.”
“Un-huh.. She’d heard that gaijin can’t handle strange and mysterious Japanese food so she served you good, wholesome American cuisine.”
“Or,” Laura speculated, “When you didn’t show they ate dinner without you and then when you finally came they had to scramble to make something from what they had in the house. Voila. Bon appetite!”
“No. They were punishing you for being late,” Michael, never subtle, declared.
Groaning, I could not join in the others’ mirth. “Jeezus, do you really think it was a…a…what-do-you-call-it?”
“…She wants me to marry her daughter?”
“What will I say to her on Monday morning.”
“Tell her you like little boys,” Michael, routinely absurd, said.
Laura, a little more helpful, counselled, “Just be polite. Thank her for the lovely dinner.”
“And don’t go again,” Ahmed added.
I moved out of the guest house shortly after that into a flat of my own and, despite entreaties to keep in touch, I never called Tetsuko. But, about four months later I ran into Chiyoko on the train. Frankly I didn’t know who she was until she explained. With her make-up and office wardrobe on I wasn’t even sure it was the same cleaning lady’s daughter. Didn’t look half bad at that. Since my Japanese had been improving we were able to keep some semblance of a conversation going all the way to Osaka. We were married six months after that and we live in an apartment much like her mother’s. We have a boy now, just a baby, who cries all the time. I can’t say that I blame him.