sublingua

The heart with a mind of its own.

(Be present.)

The mind with a heart of its own.

(It's past.)

The dream that is your waking life.

(Go there now.)

-
Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021


We looked around until the noise became overwhelming. On the way out, I bought a large Morinaga dark chocolate bar for two hundred yen.
By this time it was very late in the afternoon and twilight was descending very gently on Tokyo. The sky had been darkening for hours and we hadn’t gotten very far from Don Quijote when it began to rain. The drizzle turned quickly to a downpour. Neither of us had an umbrella so we took shelter under an awning next to a bank of vending machines.
I bought a Coke from one of the machines, wiped the top with a tissue the way I had seen other women do, and offered him a drink. I had heard that Japanese would not drink from the same cup except under very few circumstances, parent and child, for example, or lovers.
He hesitated before taking the can. “You want to share this with me?”
I feigned innocence, trying to project the feeling that it was not a big deal. Westerners do this all the time. “Yes,” I said. “Why not?”
He took the can from me and took a drink, watching me carefully. It was like someone keeping their eyes open during a kiss. I looked away first. We passed the small can back and forth until it was empty.
The rain had done nothing to deter the crowd which was now so thick that they pressed against us as they passed. “So many people,” I remarked. “It’s like a river of people.”
“Eh? River of people?”
“A river of people.” I tried some made up Japanese, linking the word for person—hito—with the word for river—kawa, “Hito kawa? Kawa no hito? Or—?”
He laughed. “It doesn’t make sense, I don’t think.”
“Hito no kawa?”
“It sounds like you are saying ‘people skin.’” It sounded suggestive the way he said it.
I didn’t know that kawa, the word for skin—leather or hide, actually—was the same as the word for river with only the pitch changing the meaning.
His phone rang and he reached into his inner jacket pocket to retrieve it. I watched the crush of people flowing by as he spoke to the person on the other end. When he hung up, he said, “I have to meet a friend. We have a plan to meet for dinner.”
Finally, I thought, an exit. “Ah, okay,” I said. “I can find the station from here, I think.” He looked confused, so I added, “So you go and meet your friend.”
“No, no,” he said. “Please come.”
“You want me to come to dinner?” I asked.
“Yes. Ah, yes, okay.”
I was not convinced. “You want me to come to dinner with you and your friend?”
It seemed that neither he nor the day were finished with me yet. “Yes. Come to dinner with me and friend.”
We took the train to Sakura-shinmachi—“My friend works near to there”—which was close to Shibuya. “Sakura-shin-machi?” I asked. “Cherry blossom new town?” Kiyoshi nodded, “Ah, yes. That is correct.”
We found the place—“It’s a popular okonomiyaki restaurant”—where he and his friend had arranged to meet. By the time we arrived, the rain had stopped, but the streets were slick and shiny with reflected light from the bars and restaurants that were opening for the evening crowd. The restaurant was very small with an Edo-style wood front. I could see through the window in the door that we would be seated at low tables. That meant taking off our shoes. I hoped that my socks didn’t have holes in them.
The restaurant wasn’t open yet but already there was a crowd gathering at the door. As we walked up to join them, the people facing the street caught sight of us and nudged their companions who turned to stare at us. It was nothing new for me to stared at—some days it felt like I was the only Western woman in all of Tokyo—but it still made me uncomfortable. Kiyoshi said he wanted to look at the menu that was posted a few feet away from the door. He led me to the menu stand and angled himself so that we were both faced away from the crowd.
The menu was entirely in Japanese and there were no photographs or plastic models of the food out front for me to rely on. I could read a bit of the kana, but only very slowly. Du-ri-n-ku-su. Drinks. De-shya-to. Dessert. I caught a few other words here and there, but the more complicated kanji were lost on me.
Kiyoshi watched as I turned the pages. “What do you think?” he asked.
“Looks good,” I replied.
While we waited near the menu stand, I asked about his friend. Kiyoshi told me that his friend was called Hiroshi, a common name in Japan. They had been roommates at the marine college, thrown together by a chance room assignment. “He is a good friend,” Kiyoshi said. “Very fun.”
Hiroshi arrived in the suit he had worn to work. He was several inches shorter than me and skinny, a marked contrast to Kiyoshi’s larger, heavier built. They told me that when they were in school they were called saru and go-ri-ra, the monkey and the gorilla. The nickname seemed to amuse them.
Despite the crowd, we were quickly called to the front. The waitress led us to a low platform topped with four tables, three of them already filled with patrons. We took off our shoes at the edge of the platform and stepped up. She gestured to one of the tables, a table for four squeezed between two other tables, both already occupied. To my surprise Kiyoshi took a seat next to his friend. The waitress handed Hiroshi one menu for the table. At least I was off the hook for having to pretend that I could really read Japanese, but seated opposite Kiyoshi and his friend, I felt like I was going to be performing for an audience of two. I had not planned on drinking, but when the waitress asked about drinks I ordered a gin-tonic.
Kiyoshi and his friend had an easy way of speaking to each other—they were clearly very close —but Hiroshi deferred to Kiyoshi on every subject, from the degree of popularity of the restaurant to what to order for dinner. Even before we had ordered dinner, Hiroshi twice mentioned in English that someday he would work for Kiyoshi. “Work for my company,” Kiyoshi corrected each time.
Together they looked over the menu and decided what to order, discussing the options in Japanese. My opinion was not sought. From what I could understand of the conversation, Kiyoshi was telling his friend what my preferences were be based on what he had seen me eat. I heard my name and asked what they were talking about. “I was telling him you don’t like noodles.”
This was not true. “I like noodles,” I said.
“But you don’t eat noodles.”
“I don’t?”
“You said they are like worms.”
He explained that one night I had not eaten noodles when we had gone out drinking and when he asked why, I had made the worm comment. I had been too embarrassed to admit that I had not wanted to eat the noodles because I was steadily gaining weight on a diet of alcohol and carbs. Forgoing noodles had been my attempt at damage control.
I told them, “I was making a bad joke.” Kiyoshi nodded. I added, “I ate salad.”
“Salad?” Kiyoshi asked. “Is that enough?”
“Maybe.” I laughed. “Anyway,” I said, “how do you even remember that?”
He replied, simply, “I remember.”
Once they had decided on what to order, Kiyoshi leaned away from our table and loudly called, “Sumimasen!” The waitress came immediately. He did not order noodles.
Order placed, drinks brought—two beers and my gin-tonic—“kampai” done, Hiroshi asked in English, “Where did you go today?”
“Ah,” Kiyoshi answered, “Shibuya. We went to Shibuya.”
“What do you do there?” the friend asked.
“Dating,” Kiyoshi replied. “Only dating.”
I was a fool. This was the first indication to me that we might have been on a date.
Later, I would talk on the phone with Kiyoshi about this. I asked him about our day in Shibuya, carefully explaining to him that in America, men and women could spend time together as friends. I said that I thought it might be unusual for this to happen in Japan, but it was common in America. I wondered if he and I were doing that when we met for coffee and went to Shibuya after.
He listened very patiently to all of my prattle and when I fell silent, he said simply, “I am am man. You are a woman. That was a date.”
I drank gin-tonics through dinner. I smiled and laughed and tried to be charming. I asked Hiroshi questions about himself and his life and while he answered, I tried to read Kiyoshi’s reaction. He was sitting cross-legged and, as Hiroshi and I had leaned toward each other, Kiyoshi had leaned back. I could see that from this position, Kiyoshi was observing me conversing with Hiroshi. I noticed that he purposefully did nothing to draw attention to himself, did not join in the conversation, did not even take a drink of his beer.
Hiroshi told me had met his girlfriend at his part time job in a ramen shop.
“Where did you meet your girlfriend?” I asked, turning the question to Kiyoshi. He answered with one word—“Australia”—and then resumed his watchful silence.
I asked Hiroshi why he liked his girlfriend and he paused—“Ah”—and then admitted that he liked her because she had a nice body. “That’s a good reason,” I said, nodding and smiling. Maybe the only reason at your age, I thought.
I said to them, “Please ask me a question.”
Hiroshi leaned forward immediately. “What do you look for in a man?” he asked.
I didn’t have to think. I answered, “Intelligence and good sense of humor.”
Kiyoshi’s gave me a wry smile. “Is that all?” he asked.
“And a good heart.”
“Ah.” The expression on his face didn’t change.
We caught a very late train from Okakimachi together, the three of us, and parted ways in Shibuya, where I stepped off the train and waved goodbye to the saru and gorira.
At Asakusa, I caught the last train to Higashi-Mukojima. My first date with Kiyoshi had lasted thirteen and a half hours. I had shared a drink with him the way only lovers might. I had met his best friend. On the train home, I started shaking. I hid my face as I cried.

Fumie’s death happened like this:
Kiyoshi was from a small fishing village on the Seto Inland Sea. On one of our early dates I had asked him where his hometown was. After he answered, he said, “Hometown. Hm. More like a village. Is there a word in English for a place smaller than a village?” I said I didn’t think so, but I then I thought: Hovel? Trailor park? How small are we talking here? His family’s company was based in the village and that’s where he still spent most of his time when he wasn’t in Tokyo or on a ship.
Fumie came from an even smaller village near to his. Her family was a good one. She was an only child. Their marriage was arranged—not unheard of in Japan—but it was not an unhappy arrangement. After the wedding, she moved in with Kiyoshi’s family and assumed the exacting role of daughter-in-law. When she got pregnant two months later, everyone seemed happy. She did as many Japanese women do when they are pregnant and returned to her hometown to stay with her family until the baby was born. “Only nine weeks pregnant,” Mrs. Sanae told me, “too early. Usually wait until the baby is almost come.” Kiyoshi was away at sea throughout the pregnancy. The way he saw it, she felt more comfortable with her parents.
Against the doctor’s orders, Fumie had gained a lot of weight and had high blood pressure throughout the pregnancy. Mrs. Sanae shook her head. “Very fat,” she said. I wondered if Fumie had preeclampsia, but Kiyoshi didn’t know what that was, even when I tried searching for the translation. Fortunately, Kiyoharu was safely delivered and Fumie stayed with him in the hospital for a week after, then with her parents for another three months. “Very long time,” Mrs. Sanae sniffed. Kiyoshi explained that he didn’t mind this (though he carefully avoided answering whether his parents had minded) because he was still at sea—“Shikata ga nai,” he said, “can’t be helped”—and had only met his son via video calls and texted photographs. Fumie had returned to Kiyoshi’s parents’ house with the baby just before the hundred day okuizome, when the family has a special meal to pray that the baby will always have enough to eat.
The second pregnancy went much the same as the first, with Fumie returning to her family home with Kiyoharu almost as soon as she found out she was pregnant. This time Kiyoshi was not at sea and he was not pleased, nor were his parents as they had grown fond of their tiny grandson. But it was the custom for the mother to return home and so they did not protest.
Mrs. Sanae shook her head very slowly, almost imperceptably, from side to side at this part of the story.
“Were you and Fumie close?” I asked Kiyoshi.
“Yes, close,” he answered, mistaking my question for one of geographical distance. “Very close. She is only in the next village.”
He had planned to be present when his second son was born, but Fumie’s due date came and went. Then another week came and went. And another. The ship could not wait for the baby, so he was gone when Fumie’s went into labor.
The tiny hospital in her village had been slowly closing down as the population that it served withered. This was happening in small towns and villages all over Japan. The doctor on duty was not an obstetrician—the town could not support one—but a general practitioner. He assured Fumie and her family that he had delivered babies before.
Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Fumie had gained even more weight with this baby than with the last and she was so embarrassed at the doctor’s disapproval that she missed many of her checkups. Her blood pressure grew higher and higher. Preeclampsia progressed to eclampsia. The lone doctor was busy with two victims of a car accident that happened as Fumie arrived at the hospital in labor. The baby was delivered by an inexperienced nurse—“So relieved,” Kiyoshi said—then Fumie began to have seizures. She was alone in the room when it happened. Kiyoshi didn’t know the words, was reduced by the memory to miming, his chest heaving, leaning forward to vomit—then, catching his breath, inhaling sharply, audibly—aspirating the vomit. “She died from this,” he said, soberly.
Kiyoshi’s parents informed Kiyoshi of this, reaching him by on the ship by phone. Then they went to Fumie’s village and paid for everything, the hospital bills, the cremation, the funeral, the priest who prayed for her soul. Under the guise of giving Fumie’s family the time and space to grieve the loss of their only daughter, they took Kiyoharu, now almost two, and the new baby. They named the baby Rensuke.

It was my first visit to Japan since I left seven years before. The month before I left, I sent out emails to people I had known and worked with, most of whom I hadn’t had contact with in years. Some actually answered. I made plans to meet with some for lunches or coffee, but it was Kiyoshi who wrote back with a new itinerary for me. I could go to Bizen first, he wrote, and stay for four days after which time he would accompany me to Tokyo. He would make the arrangements and provide me with places to stay. There was no room to disagree, so I went along with his plan.
I flew into Narita, arriving late in the afternoon. I took the Narita Express train into Tokyo, where I caught the Sunrise Seto to Okayama. Kiyoshi had arranged for my ticket on the overnight train and I was met at Tokyo Station by an employee of his company, a young man in a dark suit who introduced himself to me very formally in English and bowed very politely before handing me the ticket. He informed me that the train did not have food service so we stopped at at a small shop that sold ekiben, bento box dinners. In a daze, I purchased tonkatsu sando and two onigiri for breakfast and a large bottle of water. He walked me to my gate and bowed as I went through. The rocking train lulled me to sleep with my alarm waking me up a few short hours later with enough time to prepare to disembark in Okayama. There I caught a local train that stopped at a dozen tiny stations before arriving at Nishikatakami, the closest station to Bizen.
Kiyoshi was working the day I arrived, so his sister was sent



I had never been to Okakimachi, but I liked Ueno. Ueno was cheap and gritty, the complete opposite of the exclusive, glittering Ginza or the trendy Shibuya. Ameyoko, the street market that had begun as a black market after the war, ran from Ueno to Okakimachi. I shopped in Ameyoko for things like dried garbanzo beans and shirasu, neither of which I could find in my neighborhood’s small grocery store or hyaku-en , hundred yen, shop. Sometimes I stopped in Ameyoko to have a hyaku-en slice of watermelon, standing in the street with the other fruit stand patrons to eat it. Sometimes I had lunch in a small, out-of-the way restaurant with plastic table cloths and rickety chairs. They served maguro-don, bowls of rice topped with shiso leaves and slices of raw tuna.

retreat or surrender

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