A Snapshot of Sad

By Blair Reeve

Trent leaned forward with both elbows resting on his desk. He held out a digital camera. “Uh, excuse me, Mr. Tanaka? It’s for a lesson on feelings. Would you mind posing?” A stream of cool air washed over his head.

Tanaka lifted the tab on a can of cold green tea. He’d just taken it from the staffroom refrigerator when he heard the request. This was the kind of effort Seth-san used to make for his lessons. Seth-san was the only assistant English teacher he’d ever enjoyed working with. Trent was the latest AET, a young man ‘fresh of the boat’ according to an expression he’d heard them use. He hadn’t much liked Trent the day Ishida-sensei brought him to the school. He’d quickly pegged him as just another slack layabout, only in Japan for the money. In the headmaster’s office where Trent rattled off his self-introduction at breakneck speed, Tanaka barely caught a word.

“It’s for a lesson on feelings. Would you mind posing?” repeated Trent, slowly.

Tanaka stood opposite Trent’s desk by the open window and unleashed his inner actor; he struck a brief, dramatic pose. “Oh? Well then, yes and how would you like it?” he asked, narrowing his eyes a little. His fringe was damp on his forehead.

“Um, let’s see.” Trent scanned a list with his finger. “I still need a sad face. Can you give me sad?” he asked, smiling. The fanned air passed him by. A sheet of fax paper ruffled on Ms. Sato’s desk. The fan, at the end of its swivel cycle, wobbled a little, clicked and started back. Trent waited.

Tanaka’s face went default flat. He could feel the twinkle he’d flashed only a moment ago rapidly dissolving through diminishing gradations of goodwill. A matte shadow from nowhere fell from his brow like a blind. His body too, remained perfectly still. Both hands held the can at chest height. One finger tapped the top of the can. He locked his eyes onto Trent’s and closed his mouth into the faintest of clenched smiles. He observed Trent pinking slightly. He was well practiced at freezing his face. Within that fixed frame, he would hold Trent like a cockroach in a jar until he’d twisted his stupid foreign features into abject apology. The boy’s nose was too big. His ears too. And the present smile was surely vindictive.

Trent felt his own mask sliding away but tried to hold on. Three or four seconds passed. Mr. Tanaka’s expression hadn’t changed. Was this his idea of a sad face? For his lesson on feelings, Trent had gotten some of the other teachers to express various emotions such as surprise, anger and happiness. He planned to screen them on the mounted televisions in the classrooms. The kids would love it. He’d gotten the idea from Seth Jackson.

The sheet of paper ruffled again, lifted and slid a few centimeters before sticking on the metal-edged rim of the desk. Trent was vaguely aware of the ruffling. The fan started to blow towards him again.

The pause began to feel weird, unnatural. A mild panic crept into Trent’s mind—Mr. Tanaka had told him last week about a phone call from Seth Jackson. He froze. Seth, who had worked with Mr. Tanaka before, had called to tell him he was leaving Japan, and that he hoped his son could get treatment. Mr. Tanaka’s eleven year-old son had cancer. Is that why his face had come over so serious? The strangely suspicious look in his eyes now came blazing at him. Okay, so sad was the wrong feeling to ask for, but damned if he was going to let Mr. Tanaka take it the wrong way. The cool air was arriving just in time to fan over his burning face.

Tanaka had worked with Trent since April. This one made a better show at hiding his feelings than most foreigners. He was clever, spoke English too quickly and Tanaka had found it difficult to trust or even like the boy. In fact, Trent had shown himself to work conscientiously enough but he harboured that know-it-all attitude that all newcomers hid behind. He’d told Fuji-sensei in his first month that their teaching methods were out of date; he refused to work with the textbooks and took little interest in extra-curricular activities. Tanaka would see right through him, extract the admission of error from his eyes, and teach him a lesson. He would show him sad all right. Did Trent really think he could smite him with such blunt, deliberate cruelty? He was reckless with his opinions. He should never have come to Japan. 

As fanned air began cooling Trent’s head from the left side, and traversing his face, he subtly adjusted his torso, as if using the passing air for refuge while the Japanese man’s gaze hardened. Trent wondered whether he ought to show an expression of concern, or blink and glance away. The options weighed on him heavily. He would not be forced into confessing a callousness he hadn’t intended. If he looked away now, wouldn’t that be taken as recognition of his mistake? But he was also afraid that if he acknowledged the indiscretion, waived the shot, or asked for a different feeling, Mr. Tanaka would read it as an admission of malicious intent. This niggling soon got the better of him. His lips pouted themselves into a measure of fake curiosity and domino-effected an unconscious raise of the eyebrows. It was concern all right but he hadn’t the gumption to make it empathetic. He returned Mr. Tanaka’s gaze with the pathos of a plea.

Somewhere in the shabbiness of the fifty-year old staffroom interior, paint peeled. Dust collected. A tiny fly appeared on the row of textbooks along the back of Trent’s desk. Its wings flickered and twitched. Neither Tanaka nor Trent noticed it.

Tanaka thought he registered a grimace on Trent’s face. The boy’s ruse wasn’t working. He was more certain than ever that he’d been making fun of him. He bore his accusing gaze deeper into him. Behind his gaze laid the pain that was propelling it. He was certain that he could see shame brushing Trent’s cheeks. Tanaka was well aware of the moments passing, each one longer than the one before. Each second’s shadow cast a pall over its predecessor. The boy didn’t have a compassionate bone in his body. He’d misunderstood the Japanese completely.

Two teachers were seated at their desks nearby. A faint whistling reached Trent’s ears. One of them, probably Mr. Fuji, would be asleep at his desk. Despite having worked in the school for six months, Trent barely knew any of the teacher’s names. None of them had introduced themselves. In his first week Trent had walked around the room collecting names, until a math teacher, the old grump with a permanent scar of meanness on his face, brushed him away and told him to sit down. Trent stopped trying to be social with his colleagues. Conversations in pidgin English or beginner Japanese frustrated him terribly. It wasn’t easy being the only foreigner in an environment where he knew neither the language nor the culture. No wonder the expat interviewer had told him they rarely employed newcomers straight into local schools. Trent’s trump card was the qualification he’d bothered to obtain before coming—a certificate in teaching English as a secondary language.

The fly wavered in the wind from the fan but held its ground. Flicker. Twitch. Its tiny wings glistened.

Trent resolved to wait for Mr. Tanaka to come round, but by God, if the man were that determined to break him then he would work harder to show his innocence. Yet Trent’s determination was as much fuelled by another fear—a fear being forced upon him by the power of Tanaka’s suspicious gaze. He thought it unlikely that Mr. Tanaka would have learned the real reason Seth Jackson was leaving Japan. Trent was quite sure that he’d manipulated his expression into something openly quizzical, expectant, still awaiting the shot.

The fan was turning again. Wobble. Click. Each brush of cool air revived Trent’s fortitude. It was early September. Tanaka was fine with the heat. He wore it like an old favourite shirt. He stopped tapping the can.

The cool of the green tea can condensed onto Tanaka’s fingers. He sensed that Trent was trying to push doubt into his mind. He taught a hundred and fifty kids every day. His faculty for detecting duplicity was well beyond advanced. Foreigners’ faces were like windows to him. The last time Trent tried to lie to him was the day after sports day. Trent had promised him he would come to watch the third years’ kendo, but didn’t show. The following day he’d approached him about it. “Tell me, Trent-san, you said you would come to watch kendo, and why didn’t you come to watch kendo yesterday?” Trent looked him in the eye and said he’d been in the dojo for over an hour. He somehow knew that the school’s team had won but then averted his eyes like a child. Tanaka dismissed the impasse. He’d long given up feeling disappointed about a foreigner’s lack of commitment to the job.

Tanaka admitted a touch of surprise at Trent’s persistence. He could see the air blowing through his yellow hair. The fanned air left Trent’s side and started on Sato-sensei’s desk. The page of fax fluttered in the breeze, buckled and flopped.

Trent was disturbed at how much Mr. Tanaka’s face seemed to have changed without physically changing. It had gotten painfully serious. A line of poetry came to him—The impassioned glare of a furnace, as though he could hold a thought silent in his head for years. Mr. Tanaka was browner than most Japanese. He was a good-looking man, wavy hair, observant eyes, prominent chin and cheekbones, and for his colleagues, a charming smile. It was the sensitive personality that continually caused friction between them. Trent could see the faint but familiar curl of Mr. Tanaka’s lip line that sometimes sneered disdain. Mr. Tanaka had asked him one day for a list of easy English sayings to teach the kids. Among others, Trent supplied him with ‘Seize the day.’ When he was asked to explain it, Mr. Tanaka took the opportunity to turn it against the whole western world. “Ah, so it’s a bit like ‘I did it my way’?” he asked and Trent, half-nodding, thought he could see the connection. Mr. Tanaka then turned away and spoke in Japanese to a colleague in snorted tones of derision. He’d not thanked Trent for the list.

Wobble. Click.

Trent felt that Mr. Tanaka had judged him guilty right from the day he started, but guilty of what, he didn’t know. Being a foreigner? He blamed much of it on Geoff Butler and Priscilla King, teaching assistants who’d worked at Minami-Furuya before him. Their reputations trailed behind them like the contents of a garbage can blown down the street. And worse, what Mr. Tanaka didn’t know was that Seth’s leaving was an involuntary departure. Seth had been caught trading inappropriate emails with girls at the school where he’d been working this past year. What choice did Trent have now but to feign ignorance? Perhaps Mr. Tanaka was feigning his own self-righteousness.

The fan was the only thing in the room moving. It whirred away noiselessly. The page of thin fax paper began fluttering again. It swung right, pivoting on the tip of its corner stuck in the desk’s metal rim. Shuddering in the wind, it curled up and over, and pulled by its own weight, slipped to the floor in a smooth furtive arc. Even Tanaka missed it.

Fifth period was in mid-session. No English classes were held on Wednesday afternoons.

Suddenly a fire alarm blatted across the room in two short split-second bursts. Trent flinched. Workmen had been calibrating the system all morning and were back on the job. Tanaka was unfazed by the shrill burst. He remained so still that it almost seemed to Trent that he’d drifted away, despite the piercing gaze.

Tanaka did not hear the alarm. He was ruing his decision to discuss his son’s cancer with Trent only a week earlier. They’d been talking about Jackson-san. The fond memory of Seth Jackson had brought his guard down and he’d weakened. He told Trent about the phone call, and then about how his son, Koichi, had been given less than a year to live. And looking at Trent’s anxious face now, as before, he could see the boy’s concern was only for himself.

When the breeze struck Trent this time, he tilted his head an nth of a degree into it. He needed the cool air to wash over him.

Flicker. Twitch. The fly shot forward then zipped back towards Tanaka’s can and landed on his hand. Tanaka tapped the can once. The fly was gone. Fuji-sensei’s barely audible snoring crumbled into silence.

Trent had been trying to suppress his memory of the details of the conversation – the white bear principle. ‘Don’t think about the conversation,’ but here came his white bear now, dipping its paws into his cognitive streams.

They’d been talking about Seth Jackson’s leaving last week. Mr. Tanaka said that Seth had contacted him to say goodbye. “Yes, I think Seth is very kind, and thoughtful,” Mr. Tanaka told him. “He called me on the telephone, and to say he was leaving Japan. And he thanked me for our time together, and I felt very grateful to him.” Mr. Tanaka then looked awkward. Trent sensed that he was about to hear something uncomfortably personal. “And you know, Seth said to me, ‘I’m very sorry about your son. I hope he can get treatment.’ You see…” He’d paused as if doubting whether to go on. “Well, because Koichi my twelve year old son is dying from a brain tumour, and so, I feel very sad about that.”

Wobble. Click.

Trent had struggled to feel moved. It was too personal. They’d never developed the kind of rapport necessary for him to connect emotionally with Mr. Tanaka. But in Trent’s mind another tension prevailed – if Seth’s indiscretion was known publicly, wouldn’t it taint him too? He knew it was a delicate affair for Mr. Tanaka to be so open with him, but all he’d managed was a shy ‘oh’ of sorts. He’d felt embarrassed. This wasn’t much like Mr. Tanaka. Had he misjudged him all this time? Was this some kind of apology for six months of xenophobic distrust? Sometimes Japan felt like a death trap. Right now it felt like purgatory.

Probably Mr. Tanaka thought he was making fun of him. He recognized now, in Mr. Tanaka’s face, the mirror image of his own hard feelings.

Tanaka spotted the momentary discomfort in Trent’s eyes. The discomfort was mixed up with something else. An emotional response – was that it? Had Trent gotten the message?

Nearly thirty seconds had passed. A situational stratum of staffroom physics resisted their impulses and surrendered; Mr. Fuji woke up; the stretch of sunlight on the floor at Tanaka’s feet faded; the digital camera grew a few milligrams heavier; Tanaka’s palate dried by a degree, and Trent’s discomfort surmounted his determination.

The alarm system blatted on and off again. The fly landed on Trent’s camera. Flicker. Twitch. He glanced down.

Tanaka pounced – the sudden lowering of the eyes. He saw the whole wretched misery of it in Trent’s diffident glance and realized now that the insensitive request had not been calculated. The boy had been obstinate to the end, but Tanaka was better practiced at keeping face, better versed in this kind of silent communication. Probably something of his pain had been passed over. If Trent were going to stay at Minami-Furuya for a full three-year term he’d need to understand that Japanese feelings could not be toyed with.

Tanaka withdrew his anger and smiled. Hunching his shoulders, he leaned forward slightly, tilted his head to the right and constructed a blown up comical frown.

Trent looked at Mr. Tanaka’s big sad droopy clown-face and felt the afternoon slump like a cloud. His smile was all upside down. It was perfect for the kids. He lifted the camera and clicked.