Meeting Betsy after dinner at Nonnie and Papa’s. But not before swiping a bottle of booze from their liquor cabinet. Having just been dumped, Betsy’s determined to drown her sorrows. As her best friend, I’m determined to be right by her side. Swig for swig.
Bad Decision Number One.
The cabinet where Nonnie and Papa keep the liquor is in the apartment’s entryway. I’ve rarely – if ever – seen a bottle taken from inside. I’d come across the contents years ago while searching for sweets Nonnie always tucked away in little, glass dishes and old, plastic boxes, in closets, pockets, drawers and, in cabinets, throughout the apartment. The non-candy contents of this particular cabinet meant nothing to me.
Taking a moment before dinner to slip into the entry, I squat in front of the small cabinet and quietly open the door. My knees crackle (reminding me of Sunday’s forced genuflecting), and I cringe, as if the telltale sound can surely be heard above the TV.
My heart is pounding through my chest. Catholic guilt is coursing through my veins.
I see bottles of all shapes and sizes. Some look old, dusty, half-drunk and wholly forgotten; while others, still in their special holiday wrapping, look ready for a party they’d never be invited to, and in front all of these, a brand new, unopened quart of Jack Daniels. THIS is the bottle I’ve decided to get drunk with for the very first time.
Bad Decision Number Two.
I’m antsy, anxious and on edge about the heist all through dinner, causing Nonnie and Papa to give each other sideway glances. But I worry myself over nothing. With Nonnie washing up in the kitchen and Papa already in his recliner snoring, I say my good-byes, slip the bottle into my purse, and slide out the door; wondering how soon – if ever – the missing bottle will be discovered, and who will be the first blamed.
I can live with that.
In minutes, Betsy’s in the car with Jack and me, and we’re heading to Janet Kerf’s party, already in full swing. Scuttling through the crowded, parentless house, to the backyard and the back of a garden shed, we crack the seal.
Bad Decision Number Three.
Timid first sips burn our throats, but quickly warm our insides against the evening’s autumn chill. The more we pass the bottle to each other, the less we care about the burning, the cold, or the dangerous level of alcohol we’re consuming.
Blurred Decision Number Four.
Betsy’s Ex, who we knew to be there by reports from friends making their way in and out of the packed party, becomes the slurred focus.
Blurred Decision Number Five.
Emboldened by my best friend’s broken heart and half a quart of Tennessee’s finest, I wobble my way through the backyard, the kitchen, and into the Kerf’s living room where – in the very center of the Lake Forest High School student body – I proclaim at the top of my extremely powerful set of lungs: “Kelly Walsh is an asshole!”
Bold Decision Number Six.
I shout it loud enough to be heard over the blaring music AND din of teenage voices. All heads within earshot – including Betsy’s Ex – turn my way. Having never met, I don’t really know Kelly Walsh and I couldn’t really say whether or not he is, in fact, an asshole. But my best friend – and Jack Daniels – said he is, so I feel justified in my stunning outburst, which momentarily catapults me out of high school obscurity.
The swaying crowd is more confused than concerned and I abruptly stumble from the house and back to my very drunk friend before anyone has a chance to question my center-of-the-party proclamation.
With the ex-boyfriend properly cursed, Jack Daniels completely consumed and friends really concerned, I’m led to a phone where someone helps me dial home and Chris answers. I babble and burble and beg for her help, then return to the back of the garden shed, where me and my best friend wait to be poured into the back of Mom’s car.
The next morning, after having spent most of the evening taking turns hovering over the toilet, Betsy and I are woken at 7 a.m. with a head-splitting phone call and unwelcome reminder that I’d promised to drive friends to an away football game – which would mean following behind a bus filled with a merciless multitude who witnessed my really bad date with Jack last night.
I think the doctor’s last count was seven different incidents – each stroke leaving in its wake a little less Dad. One of the areas of the brain that had been most severely affected was motivation, as was his ability to read and write.
After the last big one, his peripheral vision was also shot, which meant no more driving.
So Dad sat.
And eventually he lost sight of everything that made him tick, gave him purpose, he was good at.
I watched the frustration in his once playful eyes when things weren’t clicking in his quick and clever mind; and quietly mourned the lengthening shadow that would eventually smother the once strong light, turning his weaknesses upon himself and others; until his needs pummeled Mom and his words became brutal.
By the time we placed Dad in assisted living, the shadow was long and the void, wide. The once powerful figure could no longer focus, spent the days crying and the nights wandering, and missed the toilet.
Conversations were now repetitive communications, driven by a series of questions he’d ask again and again. Always about family, living and dead. Impossible to steer him away from this endless loop because it was all Dad had left to hold on to.
It was the only way he could be more than a figure in the room, struggling for thoughts, for words, for loved ones.
His body remained strong for quite long, but that didn’t surprise anyone. Dad had always been a natural athlete with a small, fleet build and a bold swagger. But eventually his muscles and mind began to atrophy after all those years of sitting.
Doing hours and hours of nothing.
And after a while, his sinewy legs (which had hiked a thousand miles of fairways) twisted weakly beneath him; while cherished faces and times and places steadily stepped into the darkness.
Rare became the instants, during my all-too-brief, long-distance visits, when I saw that certain twinkle that came to his eyes when he was pleased, or about to be funny… or silly, or sweet.
Dad’s wheezy, cartoon dog laughter was something, however, that endured and could happily be summoned to the great relief of everyone hovering uncomfortably in his small room scattered with pictures of loved ones, now mostly strangers.
Rarest was the sound of his powerful, steady, low voice, which throughout my life would sing in my ear when he used my pet name, or make my heart (and feet) leap when he used my middle, “Anne Elizabeth!”
The years had made it weak and weary; a whisper of a voice, ever shaken by unaccountable emotions.
I last heard Dad during a regular Sunday phone call. Jim handed him the receiver and he began to speak. I don’t recall a word of what he said because all I heard was this forgotten voice – strong and clear and compelling – which I hadn’t heard in ages and the instant made me ache for and anxious.
Anxious to hear Dad speak again. But Dad never did.
Yet in that flash, in those few words, he once again was my wings, my warden, my beacon, my banker, my mentor, my tormentor, my knight in shining armor.
And everything felt right.
Then it didn’t.
And I cursed myself for not plucking the ether of that very brief moment and stealing that voice to stuff deep in my pockets, where I’d keep it to remind me of the Dad he used to be.
The dad who’d gather us beneath the covers of their covers on stormy nights, when thunder rolled across Lake Michigan like a mighty wave and lightening set a gnarly, old oak outside their wall of windows afire with its flash of ghostly, silver-blue light.
In our small tent of sheets, with our heads tucked close together, he’d tell us ghost stories – while Mom helped us count the seconds between the lightening and thunder – and make us giggle with gentle tickles, until the storm passed and we were brave enough to return to our beds upstairs.
The dad who’d grab the garden hose on hot summer days and with a devilish grin, spray little children who’d dare to cross his thick, green lawn.
The dad who’d takes us on Sunday drives to special, secret destinations, inspiring me to seek out my very own adventures.
And who always gave long, strong hugs of immeasurable comfort.
Who, after raising five children excelling in bad behavior, gradually mellowed and raised the white flag in the form of a hanger he’d found in a closet, draped with some stuff we grew on the bluff and planned to smoke later.
Walking into the family room where three-fifths of us were lounging and asking very calmly about what he was holding and its reason for hanging, Dad reached for a bud, gave it a squeeze, and hung the harvest from the nearest lampshade.
“It’s not dry yet,” was all he said before leaving the room and all of us slack-jawed.
Such a dry sense of humor.
But Dad also had a temper that no one liked seeing, when all that charm and good looks disappeared behind a mask of unreason, and I was left angry, helpless and confused about how a man so loving and generous could have such potent demons.
But then I got older and my very own demons got bolder, as most people’s do.
So, the Dad I choose to remember is the one that no matter how mad we’d get at each other, by day’s end, “I love you” were always the last words I heard.
As a powerful presence.
A stubborn dreamer.
A cocky, passionate schemer, who pursued his passions head first, wholeheartedly, sometimes very foolishly, with great success and equal failure.
His greatest achievement – a bountiful life, not only in the hearth, but in the home, until off we flew to foster big dreams and face demons of our own.
So, I’m grateful for the moments I talked to him about nothing, apologized for everything, and thanked him for the lives he set in motion – even though he wouldn’t remember any of it by the time the call was over.
But love is in the giving.
In the moments Dad heard, “I love you.”
So, I’d tell him different stories about our faraway lives, and in between the same questions and his uncontrollable tears, I‘d try to fill his soon forgotten moments with love and laughter.
And long distance hugs of immeasurable strength and comfort.
It’s early spring and still outnumbered are the days of thawing, when the sun shines through the nearly impermeable grey just long enough to make the corral thick and pliable for the heavily-coated ponies to imprint the half-frozen peaks of ice and manure.
With little inclination to be out of doors, Mia, Mark, Jim and I, along with cousins Mary, Gina and Bill, are all hanging out in the kid’s room upstairs, twitching and giggling and getting riled by Jim, the regular instigator of such behavior.
But this time, instead of hanging around to help control the chaos, Jim leaves, leaving his younger siblings and cousins to deal with the consequences – the most important of which is that Mark is wound-up and dangerously near the one thing in the room Jim should have taken with him: his Benjamin Air Rifle.
Jim got the rifle for Christmas and had been target practicing with it that morning. Dad doesn’t like the idea of the eight-pump, .177 caliber pellet gun, but Mom’s Missouri farm roots makes her believe that it’s every boy’s initiation into manhood.
In Jim’s defense, he never shoots at living things – mostly targets, trees and tin cans. However, he does get an enormous amount of satisfaction turning its site on siblings for the sheer satisfaction of watching faces contort; which is likely where Mark got the idea.
Picking up the air rifle, he aims it across the room at Gina, sitting on the sofa. Each of us demands he put the weapon down, but Mark already has that look in his eyes which tells us he’s stopped listening, and before anyone can say another word, Mark presses the trigger and discharges what he thinks is air through an empty chamber.
Gina, already curled into a defensive ball, is hit. The lead pellet rips through her jeans and grazes the skin on the back of her left thigh, already bruising when we gather around to inspect the wound.
Everyone – including Mark – is stunned and silent.
Gina’s eyes grow wide and wild.
“You little fucker! You shot me!”
We all look to Mark for an explanation, but he’s off – like his shot – out of the room, down the back stairs, and out the door.
Having returned to the scene at the sound of Gina’s scream, it takes mere moments for Jim to form an angry mob to go in search of the lone shooter, now taking refuge somewhere in the damp, barren woods surrounding our house. We follow the leader around the backyard and back woods, looking for a spark of tell-tale color among the sullen, gray tree trunks.
Then something turns… Jim’s allegiance. In an instant, we’re all in his sights and half-heartedly running for our lives. Finding a safe spot from his line of vision, I’m watching from the barn stalls when Jim spots Mark weaving through the trees and across the frozen patches of slippery leaves in the back circle by the cottage.
He’s trying to make a break for the large stretch of trees just across the driveway. From there, it’s certain he can outmaneuver Jim through the woods to safety. The problem is the twenty foot stretch of open pavement.
But spring is in the air and Mark is feeling a little wild.
We all are.
Jim gives the rifle an extra pump and takes aim at the small figure now bounding across the asphalt. In one very lucky shot… he hits his target, and like a plastic carnival duck floating atop a painted carnival pond, Mark is knocked flat.
Jim insists it was meant to be a “warning” shot.
As all games are officially over at the first sign of blood, Mark limps toward the house where he pulls down his sock to reveal the day’s second wound on the back of his ankle. Mom’s soon on the scene, shaking her head, calloused by the long history of Jim’s overzealous rough-housing; when Mark ends up with stitches and bruises and we end up with a friendly visit from social services.
Ordering him into the kitchen (with everyone following close behind), she cleans and examines the wound and declares the pellet must have skimmed the surface of his skin (just like Gina’s had, but we felt best not to mention).
Satisfied with Mom’s answer, the hunter and all those hunted walk – and limp – away.
Forty years later, having just had x-rays taken for an orthopedic shoe insert, Mark’s doctor enters the room and hangs the film on the light box, and with a strange look on his face, points to a light spot behind Mark’s left ankle.
“This is a metal object,” he says, “… and it looks like a bullet.”
Both Mark and the doctor stare at the very clear, small, rounded object appearing on the screen.
“No, that can’t be right,” Mark insists. “There must be a glitch on your x-ray machine.”
But the doctor assures Mark that the object is no glitch.
“Do you happen to know how it got there?” the doctor asks, now looking a little sideways at his patient.
Mark stares at the small metal object imbedded in his achilles tendon and suddenly it all comes flooding back to him.
Before leaving the parking lot of the doctor’s office, he sent this out to remind us all of a childhood within close range.
I’m still lying back in the dentist’s chair when I open my eyes. It’s hard to lift my heavy lids, even harder trying to wake from a syrupy haze.
The first clear thing I see are my wisdom teeth – all four – on a pad of cotton laying on my miserably undeveloped chest.
A smiling nurse takes hold of my forearm and gently guides me off the reclining chair and onto my feet. Legs buckling, a second nurse appears, and with each as a crutch, we wind our way through doorways, down hallways and into the waiting room.
The sight of her makes me smile, which makes it hurt, and makes me cry out; making patients sitting patiently, jump in their waiting room seats and glare at me.
Stare at me.
Seeing exactly what they don’t want to see.
I couldn’t care less. I just want to sit.
But Mom and the nurse keep me moving forward toward the exit door.
Nothing looks sweeter than the car where, for the first time in years, Mom has to buckle me in. Her steely, blue eyes filled with fuss and concern, and a little horror. But the haze hasn’t lifted and I’m happily floating in it… and out the car window, toward the warm, autumn sun.
And Mom’s taking me home.
With a heavy hand, I lower the window and turn to face the breezes. I smell hot pavement and mid-day traffic and hear the sounds of a motorbike approaching from behind. As the biker passes, his helmeted head looks my way, so I smile in response, leaning heavily against the car door.
He swerves – suddenly – and passes, quickly.
Seeing such a knee-jerk reaction makes me fumble for the visor’s mirror, where I find a reflection like B-Science-Fiction: swollen cheeks, a misshapen face, and by the looks of the dry and wet tracks trailing down both sides of my chin, I’ve been drooling. A lot. My lips are also cracked and bloody – as if stranded for weeks in the desert – and it appears as if they’ve been pulled apart by some horrible dental device which has left indentations still visible on my face.
I’m the goddamn monster’s bride.
But the care is lost in thoughts of home and Mom and Dad’s blue, velvet sofa, with dogs at my feet, a box of tissue at my side, and a channel changer near at hand – which is where Mom leaves me with a kiss on the forehead and errands on her mind, one of which includes filling a prescription for pain medicine for when the strong stuff wears off.
Propped up with pillows, covered with a quilt and a Labrador, the cloud is beginning to clear from my brain, and although my jaws are sore, I’m relishing a day away from school.
The clock in the living room chimes the eleventh hour and I have nothing but a whole day of sleeping and watching television ahead.
Piece of cake.
It’s been two hours since Mom left. The meds have warn off, the haze has lifted, and everything is very, very clear. The pain – which began as a dull ache in my jaws has turned into something hot and angry.
And my mood, gruesome.
Dark thoughts come to mind on the crest of each unmedicated, tear-filled minute.
“Where is she?” I moan as our Labrador, Heather, lets me squeeze tighter.
But the throbbing grows stronger and the darkness grows darker, and my groans are too much even for Heather, who squirms from my grasp and slinks away, tail between her legs.
The chimes of the clock reminds me that Mom’s been gone for three hours and it feels as if my head will explode.
I now consider mother, my captor and tormentor.
And the blue velvet sofa, my prison of pain, where I dig my way deeper into its darkness and despair.
In the fourth hour since Mom abandoned me, Jim and Mark approach my body beneath the blanket. Jim attempts a taunt, but when I slither from the covers and hiss, “Where’ssssss Mom?”, my gloom and sullen glare frightens even Jim.
He gently, but firmly, grabs Mark’s shoulder and they retreat from the brooding scene…
Misery is my only acceptable companion this afternoon. And we’re inseparable. Wretched and contemptible.
The damn clock mocks me again, making it the fifth hour since our return and still no sign of Mom.
Shrouded in the pain and the darkness, still hidden beneath the blankets, my breath, my mood, and the TV, are disagreeable and inconsolable, and my thoughts, matricidal.
“How could she have forgotten about me?” I hiss into the drool-drenched pillow, unable to think of anything beyond the pain and this painful disappointment.
As the seventh hour tolls and the sky grows dim, the sound of Mom’s approaching footsteps – which should signal the end of my suffering – instead fills me with rage.
Seething in my blanketed underworld, hurtful words I’ve practiced for hours stand ready at the tip of my tongue.
I can hear the crinkle of the white, paper bag from the pharmacy and Mom whispering, “Annie”. Both sounds try to pull me from the darkness, but I remain hidden.
“Where have you been!?” is all that squeaks out.
I don’t really listen to her answer. I just take the bitter pill, turn over and wait for the pain to subside.
Barely able to see over the dashboard of the ample sedan, toes stretching to reach the pedals, Nonnie is an Italian force on four wheels navigating the gridlock of suburban Chicago.
Her style is unique – driving with more emotion than convention, more conversation than paying attention – usually resulting in last minute lane changes and unpredictable turns, and me sliding from one side of the bountiful back seat to the other.
When the story she’s spinning is a doozy and Nonnie gets roused (which it usually is, and she usually does), up goes her pitch and its volume, and down goes her tiny, bunion-ed foot on the gas pedal, causing the great, lumbering beast of a car – and all its passengers – to lurch forward.
To compensate for accelerating while accentuating, Nonnie then braces herself against the steering wheel and brakes, throwing her kin back against the pristine upholstery.
Repeating this action with each grand inflection.
It’s how she got the nickname, Whiplash Willie, and why, when I see her begin an earful of a tale to whoever called “Dibs on the front seat!” first, I know what’s coming.
I love the final miles to our back door. The everyday sights of tree-lined neighborhoods, sleepy main streets, and stretches of flat fields and crisp, white barns silhouetted against waning sunlight.
After a successful fight for window rights, I’ve rolled mine all the way down, ignoring the moans of siblings wishing to remain buried in the stuffy confines of the car. Sticking my head as far out as I can, searching the darkening skies for the first star of the night, I inhale summer – long and hard – accepting the occasional collision with a bug on its own nocturnal journey.
Sheridan Road (which extends north all the way from Chicago) is the final stretch from Lake Bluff to home, straight and scarcely inhabited – except for the occasional sighting of the reflective, red eyes of wildlife at its edge hoping to survive fields and forests, cars and trains, on their way to wherever.
Alongside Sheridan Road, for much of the way, runs the Northwestern Railroad. Its green and yellow cars, faded and familiar, appear beside us long after its piercing horn signaled its approach. I race the train, stepping on an imaginary gas pedal on the candy wrapper-riddled floor. Pressing harder and harder, as if my desire will make Dad drive faster and finally beat the northbound beast.
But the train rolls past our station wagon and all I can do with the same, old loss is gaze into the windows of the passenger cars; into the yellow-tinged lights where, returning from leave, the white-capped sailors of Great Lakes Naval Base lean heavily against the worn, green leather seats and dingy glass. Their lonely figures the last thing I see before Dad signals right and I close my eyes for the final mile to our front door.
There is comfort in this blind ritual; in the knowledge that I know this mile of road so well that the sight of it is secondary to the feel of its curves, the sounds of its inhabitants, the smells of fresh cut fairways, and a giant of a freshwater lake.
Unlike the miles behind us, we travel more leisurely along Shoreacres Road. Breathing easier and rejoicing in nature. In the great, silent custodians – the Maples, Oaks and Elms – which stand over nearly every inch of it; shading us from the summer sun like a vast, green awning and warming us with their blazing, dazzling, daring reds, yellows and oranges in the autumn. Come winter, tree-lined comfort turns to forest mischief when laden branches drop dense clumps of snow on our hoods and on our heads, surprising us and swamping us as we pass below.
The first curve is less than a quarter of a mile along, and drifts sharply to the left, as it begins to follow a tiny, twisting creek, where moonlit nights make the water dance and daylight hours invite Mallards to its mossy banks.
Each fall, just before the curve and the creek, an old Black Walnut tree drops heaps of its brown-green nuts onto the road, which explode beneath the wheels of the wagon as a call to local wildlife who delight in the meat of the thick-shelled nuts and a seasonal signal of that first turn.
Up ahead, I can see in my mind where the road abandons the tiny creek and veers ninety degrees to the right, toward much greater waters. We call this part of the road, “The Straight-Away” because it’s the longest, lineal stretch in the mile journey, inspiring newly licensed teenagers to ignore speed bumps.
Sticking my head even further out the car window as we head down this long strip of cracked and well-worn pavement, I envision the great expanse of manicured green to my left, the tangled woods to my right, and just ahead, at the end of The Straight-Away, the exact spot where lake Michigan demonstrates its greatness by influencing the weather around its shores in a sudden shift from the warm, near-stifling humidity of a Midwest summer night, to a sudden, clammy chill – like leaving the glow of a campfire. Even sleepy siblings will reach a hand out the nearest window to feel it. Because feeling it, is feeling home.
At the end of the Straight-Away, Dad will turn left and we’ll soon pass the old, white clubhouse standing at the edge of the bluff on the right. I imagine it ’s covered in fog and dimly lit by the street lamps lining its long, unapproachable entrance.
Just past the clubhouse, the wagon gently turns left, bringing us past a faded, old, foamy green water-tower that stands at the entrance of our neighborhood. A sad sentry – rusted and outdated, and destined for demolition – its large, steel legs, are our gateway to high jinks in the forests and on the footbridges of the golf course just beyond.
An expansive, white, Georgian house is next on the left; with three, enormous, old pines nearly hiding its existence. Planted long ago in a very neat row, they dominate even the grand, columned entrance. Each pine is a story higher than the two-story house: shadowy and green and fabulously fragrant after a spring shower; while giant villains in the fog, and enormous yuletide beacons, strung from top to bottom with tiny, bright, white lights that always make me cheat – and peek.
Across the road from where the pines stand tall, there’s a big, brutish fence, behind which stands a tragic folly created by a strange woman named Felicia. (We call her Fishy.) On the nights when its colossal, indoor tennis court sets the sky and woods on fire with its jarring, unnatural lights, I hear my father grumble and briefly my eyes for chance to see if, in between the pickets, I can catch a glimpse of this sad, slightly mad, lonely woman, living her sad, slightly mad, lonely life.
Happy to be past it and moments from home. Minutes from bed.
A slight right at the fork and our driveway’s just ahead, on the right. I know exactly when we’ve turned onto it by the sound of gravel crackling like popcorn beneath the wheels of the wagon as it winds its way through the woods and the summer smells of wild onions and Queen Anne’s lace, pungent and sweet.
Bringing me ever nearer to sleep.
Only when I hear the garage door begin its sluggish retreat and the dogs begin to bark, do I open my eyes and end the game, content for having found my way home again.
I close my eyes for one more game. I pretend to be fast asleep, so Dad will carry me the final steps to my bed, and to my dreams.
We watch the station wagon back out of the driveway. Mom waves through the open window before slowly pulling away. It’s just a few errands, but Mark is inconsolable. Tries to follow her.
Chris sweeps him up, but he squirms with all of his might and wins the fight. Falling to his knees, and then to all fours, the youngest of five laments the loss by slamming his soft head on the hard blacktop.
Shocked by the scene, I race to the street, hoping Mom will see me wave and shift to reverse. But the station wagon turns the corner and disappears from sight.
Back in Chris’s arms, I can see Mark’s forehead is already swollen and bruised. Pockmarked from the pavement. Gravel still clinging to his brow.
Silently, the three of us turn toward the house, motherless and miserable.
Mom and Dad’s bedroom is on the first floor of the house (at the southern end of everything) allowing them to frequently escape to its sunlit, coziness and away from the five, wild seeds they chose to sow.
This leaves the entire second floor almost entirely adult-free, except for the occasional laundry delivery from Mom and the much less occasional visit from Dad – more ceremonial than social – and usually the result of winter restlessness or weekend thunderstorms keeping him from the golf course.
We only know of his plans when we hear, “INSPECTION in ten minutes!” sound from below, at which point all present scatter from the upstair’s common room to our respective bedrooms, where we begin frenzied attempts to hide all clothing, toys, towels, glasses, plates, books and general shit we’ve left strewn everywhere.
Depending on his level of bother, Dad might only scan the surface of the bedrooms and bathrooms. It’s something each of us quietly prays for as he passes dressers, drawers, desks and closets, cluttered and crammed with quickly concealed crap.
If his heart really isn’t in it, he might demand some dusting and vacuuming, to be inspected later – which will likely not occur – and then disappear below. Knowing this, we’ll half-heartedly obey before returning to reruns, twitching on each other, and littering.
However, if Dad’s disposition is grim, he delves further, looking under beds and behind shower curtains, and, if he’s in a particularly foul mood, sliding open a closet door…
She moves up and down the rows of desks, filled with tiny, crouched figures, hovering over lined paper, clutching #2 pencils. Filling the aisle with her middle-age width and Avon perfume, I feel the warmth of her body and breath as she leans over me and sighs.
We’ve been here before.
I’m just not getting this pencil-holding thing.
I thought I was doing it right. The letters on my paper look pretty much like everyone else’s. Pretty much.
But every time she stops at my desk, she gently, but very firmly cups her hand over mine and squeezes, until she forces my tiny, anxious fingers to curl around the long, yellow pencil with the well-worn pink eraser.
“A firm grasp,” she says, trying to sound patient about my substandard pencil holding, “is the key to proper penmanship, my dear.”
Not wanting to disappoint her – again – I clench that pencil as if my very breathing depends upon it, until my fingers cramp from it, and the lead of the pencil presses so hard against the paper that the letters bulge through the opposite side.
When she asks us to turn our papers over and sit quietly until everyone finishes, I close my eyes and feel each raised letter with my fingertips. Wondering whether any one else has to press that hard – work that hard – to squeeze out the letters and words, and sentences, anxious to burst forth.
The phone at the end of the hall, right next to my room, comes to life in the middle of the night; its merciless metal bells clanging, resounding off the tall walls of the winding front steps, and down the long, carpet-less hallway.
Startled from my dreams and tormented by its unanswered ring, I crawl over whichever dog or cat is hogging most of the bed and quickly shuffle toward the noise, hoping to get to the phone before another blast of the bell pierces my brain.
Fumbling for the receiver – and words – I already know that the only kind of news that comes in the middle of the night is usually bad. Or at least not very good – and if I’m answering the phone, it means Mom and Dad didn’t, and I’m about to be made the reluctant messenger.
Sleepless in the hours that follow. Anxious to hear the garage door rumble. Hoping the yelling and the lecture happened during the ride home.
And that all the gory details will come over a bowl of cereal in the morning.
Happy everyone is back and in bed. And all is quiet at home again.
My bedroom is at the end of the second floor hallway. Right above the living room and Mom and Dad’s bedroom suite. I hear fights my siblings don’t – or at least don’t tell me. A hard thing to bring to a game of H-O-R-S-E. On the nights there are fights, I never feel more alone in this full house. Sinking through the empty blackness of my room. Drowning in the fury and the screaming and my pillow. Desperate for it to stop, or for me to find the courage to make him stop. Picturing the nearest item that will offer the hardest blow. A cane from the stand, just down the stairs, and through the door below. … If I hear it once more… But I never find the courage, just anger and confusion, and early recognition of a marriage in malfunction. Making monsters in the madness and words into weapons. And me into a quivering mess under my blankets in the dark of my room. Praying for it to stop, or me to sleep.
Walking hand in hand through the woods to Sherwood Elementary – just Mom and me – I stay in the playground, hanging by my knees against the cool, metal monkey bars; looking upside down at the grey, September sky, wondering what I’ve done to make Mrs. Paschua, my first grade teacher, want a meeting.
On our way home, Mom explains that they talked about the way I speak and why I might have troubles with certain sounds. Mrs. P. thought Mom might be the reason – perhaps a foreigner (with that foreign-sounding name). I giggle when Mom tells me how surprised my teacher was to discover that Mom – that we – are as alien as apple pie.
But I love the thought of someone thinking I’m different. It makes me feel special – a little exotic.
Sherwood Elementary thinks I’m special too. Enough to take me out of class each week to send me to speech therapy, where they work the entire year to make me sound just like everyone else.
Whether going out or eating in, food either consumes Nonnie’s thoughts or busies her hands for hours each day, managing laborious feats and four-course, Italian feasts – piping hot dishes of handmade manicotti or tender, breaded cutlets, garlicky vegetables, hot rolls, vinegary salads and sweet desserts.
Second helpings are always encouraged at Nonnie’s dinner table and praise for the cook, expected – as well as a little too vehemently rejected.
The three greatest mis-steps at this Italian table?
One: cutting spaghetti. Either twist it or prepare for a gentle cuff on the back of the head from Papa.
Two: if all diners are not seated at the table while the food is still visibly steaming… Nonnie will burst several blood vessels.
And three: never…EVER… say you’re not hungry. Utter blasphemy.
We like to rattle her with unexpected visits and ravenous appetites, watching her forage through the refrigerator and freezer, brimming with outwardly unidentifiable, but doubtlessly delicious leftovers, sealed inside ancient Tupperware and old Cool Whip containers. Happy to see us, but perceptibly agitated that she can only offer what she sees as barely acceptable fare, each serving is dished up with a generous dollop of misgiving.
I’ve never known anyone as good at cooking as Nonnie, who complained about it more.
So it’s little wonder that while visiting in Florida, the moment Papa announces we’re having dinner out, a palpable – near frenetic – excitement electrifies the apartment.
Following the proclamation, Nonnie spends most of the day in her housecoat, in a walk-run, making sure everyone’s dress clothes are pressed precisely, her hair is maintaining its proper “do” beneath a sea-green hair net, snack intake is severely monitored, and her sisters, Camille and Rose, are consulted and updated (via long distance) on EVERYTHING.
For Nonnie, dining out is the equivalent to an audience with the Pope.
For me, such an event proves far more predictable than papal. More “Holy Cow” than Holy Spirit.
And it most definitely means Italian – old school – with its enticing smells and curtained nooks, smartly dressed waiters with thick accents, and an animated maitre d’ who greets everyone like family. It means trompe l’oeil walls of rural Tuscan scenes, rich, red fabrics draping doorways, and rolling dessert carts filled with cannoli and tiramisu.
From well below the mouthwatering chaos, I watch the loaded serving trays — piled high with pastas and soups, roasted chickens and fresh seafood — pass deftly overhead, with a “Scuza, Signorina!”, until a hand on my shoulder gently guides me out of the busy traffic and into a chair in front of a round table covered in linens and complex table settings.
A fast-moving figure from behind casts a well-aimed cascade of ice water into one of the two stemmed glasses set at eye-level before me.
Tempted and tormented by big baskets of breadsticks and freshly baked rolls, my hand’s gently spanked away from a second helping.
“You’ll spoil your dinner,” Nonnie scolds. (When what she secretly has in mind is a bakery heist for tomorrow’s breakfast.)
Excitement rises with the arrival of the menu which ignites imaginations and appetites.
Wherein the problem lies… with inexplicable regularity, when presented with an abundance of choices, Nonnie almost inevitably orders veal.
The choice seems harmless, but it’s enough to make family members cringe and Papa’s blood boil – not because baby cow meat is one of Nonnie’s favorite things to eat, but because every time she orders veal (whether Marsala or Picante, upscale joint or neighborhood favorite), she usually ends up taking only a couple of bites.
One for eternal optimism.
The other, raging cynicism.
Then raising her head from her plate and, wearing utter disappointment as a mourning veil, complains meekly but unmistakably.
“This isn’t veal… This is chicken… I’m sure this veal is chicken.”
And like clockwork, another battle in Nonnie’s tireless crusade to unmask poultry dressed in calves’ clothing begins, prompting children to slip lower in their seats and adults to start commenting about the day’s weather; while Papa bows his head and sighs with exasperated disbelief.
He and his wife then begin a short-lived, but emotionally escalating and frustrating exchange that will end with Papa vowing to never take Nonnie out to a restaurant again, and Nonnie looking self-righteous, misunderstood and miserable, as she rummages through her dinner-roll-filled-handbag looking for a tissue.
The drive home is what I imagine floating in space is like.
Silent. Solitary. Dark.
Except for the lights emanating from the dashboard (most particularly, the green turn signal arrow which Papa habitually leaves blinking) which let me know other life forms still exist.
A few days pass, then Papa announces we were going out to dinner.
Nonnie’s excitement rises anew…
Until the waiter approaches her with his pen and pad in hand, and with all eyes anxiously upon her… she orders the veal.
And Papa ends up swearing that it’s the very last time he’ll ever take her out to dinner.
A vow he’ll repeat until the day he dies.
Nonnie, however, will work tirelessly in her quest for veal for decades more.
Much of my early views of Florida are seen above a sea of car upholstery, through rolled up windows, where the only things visible are the tops of Palm trees and passing trucks, condos and clouds, and Nonnie and Papa’s heads hovering over a wide expanse of leather stretched across the latest Cadillac’s cavernous front seat.
Here, conversations are muffled, and occasionally in broken Italian, so young ears can’t possibly understand; and elevator music-versions of Rock ’n Roll songs play softly; where Papa’s cautious, half-mile-to-execute lane change regularly causes the turn signal to remain blinking.
It must be an audio-visual black hole, oblivious as he is to both the flashing green light and the constant clicking for miles on end.The sound of it lulls me into a stupor, until Nonnie finally notices the signal of perpetual motion and snaps at Papa to turn it off.
A few miles pass and all is peaceful, until the car begins to fill with a terrible smell.
I turn to my cousin, John, who’s holding the backseat’s cigarette lighter, with a smug yet sorrowful look on his face, as the smell of flaming follicles slowly wafts through the well-sealed compartment.
“What’s burning?!” Nonnie shrieks, “Something’s burning! Jimmy, something’s on fire!”
Papa pitches the lumbering Caddy to an empty parking lot at the side of the road, unrolls the windows, and orders everyone out of the car. Nonnie stands there mumbling and grumbling and shaking her head while he makes absolutely sure nothing else has been set on fire.
Throwing John one, last incredulous look – Papa orders everyone back in the car before signaling his return to the road. Where, for the final miles to the restaurant, I lose myself in the smell of burnt hair and the click of the sedan’s left blinker.
From the time the youngest of us is moving independently of a parent, Gina, Mary, Mia and I are seen as a small, drifting quartet of cousins at family gatherings. Two distinct gene pools, one common goal: to discover new spaces and unknown places, where no eyes and “No!”s could block our intentions.
Not to sit and behave, but explore the dark closets and dusted cabinets of quiet rooms far from grown-ups, though never far from mischievous brothers.
Gina usually rouses us to expand our adult-free borders; opening doors and waving us through – and when things don’t kill us – boldly stepping past us. Reassuming command.
And we follow.
Just as we do when she leads us out the door of Nonnie and Papa’s apartment and down a long, humdrum hallway of dubious hues, and thick, padded carpet that silences our patent leather footsteps and makes us whisper.
Without any wear on my new, leather soles, I slip and I slip as we pick up the pace of our great escape, past dark, numbered doors behind which come the murmurs of TVs and mumbled voices, and other people’s lives.
Our little flock focuses on the big, brown, metal door at the end of the hall which will lead us to uncharted worlds and unsupervised floors; to a quiet, pristine lobby where unsat-on furniture needs to be sat on, and plants are dusted; and the floor is so highly polished, it glitters and gleams like a magical, marble lake that I want to skate in my stockinged feet.
Mary presses the button with the arrow pointing down. The elevator hums and clicks and begins to move, and the newly learned numbers over the door blink in slow succession, until the lift stops and the door slides open.
In our reluctance to fully accept our independence, we hesitate and the door glides shut. But there’s an unspoken allegiance, so Mary re-presses the button, and back open it slides.
Pushing us into the small, room with dark wood panelling, Gina reaches for the lowest button, and off we go to the little known land of the lobby. I can see its floor before the door is fully open. It shimmers and shines and lures me from the safety of my flock and the moving box.
We watch her tiny body disappear behind the sliding, metal door.
Mary and Gina’s big, brown, Italian eyes go wide and I feel something – panic – suddenly rise. The elevator starts moving, the numbers start lighting, and Mia’s now off on her own adventure – without Captain or crew, or even a clue, as to where she’s going.
At a loss for what to do, we just stare at the door of the moving contraption which slowly ascends to the top floor and stops. Will she get off and try to find her way back to Nonnie and Papa’s? Does she even know what floor they live on?… Wait… Do we?
With this grim realization, the once strong lure of shiny floors and silky chairs is now replaced with powerful thoughts of Mia and Mom and home; of familiar faces, full plates of pasta, filled candy dishes.
And facing consequences.
Worried and wordless, we hear the elevator again click into motion and anxiously watch the numbers descend, kind of hoping when the door slides open, we see a familiar grown-up, or… Mia!
Standing in the exact same spot in center of the elevator where she’d been deserted, looking slightly startled, but happy to see us. Before losing her again, we jump in and watch the elusive lobby disappear behind the sliding door.
Now all we need to figure out is what button will lead us home.
Gina presses all of them.
When the elevator next stops, we hope to recognize something or someone, but nothing and no one is there. The next floor offers a replica of the last and I feel tears bubbling just below the surface. As the door opens to the third floor, it reveals a sight I thought I’d never be happy to see, Jim and John, sent out to search for their sisters and cousins.
“WE FOUND ‘EM!”, Jim hollers, as the boys race back down the brown and beige hall, to the front door of the apartment where Nonnie stands shushing… and waiting… with oven mitt and apron, and a look of consternation.
A scolding is at hand.
Gina smiles at each of us, then turns toward Nonnie.
There’s a grave in the corner of the Potter’s Field at Lake Forest Cemetery.
Rumors tell of devils and demons,
of curses and misfortune;
of strange things happening to graveside visitors.
But I’m curious.
Finding two equally bored cohorts, we head out in my convertible.
Autumn whipping our hair.
The heater blasting on our legs as we wind along Sheridan Road,
beneath the red, yellow, orange and brown leaves
silently floating to the ground on the fishy lake breeze;
shrouding the lawns, the sidewalks, the forests, and the last season,
in moist, earthy layers.
Entering the cemetery beneath its great, grey gateway,
we haven’t a clue as to which way to go;
only away from the grand mausoleums and stone angels
that mark the graves of the rich and powerful.
We find the unmarked field down a short, dead-end lane
already twice passed.
A small, unkempt and inconspicuous patch.
No statues, flags, or flowers.
No benches or shade for mourners.
Just a sad stretch of grass, cornered by a chainlink fence,
choked with neglected vines and scraggly branches of struggling pines.
Phil and Betsy step into a small ravine separating us from the forgotten field.
Their feet, ankles and shins sink into a river of yellow and brown leaves
and I’m startled by the thought of them disappearing.
Swallowed by some, strange, autumnal underworld.
Eased only when both climb out on the other side.
Wandering up and down the quiet plot, we find nothing but nameless headstones. Unadorned and unnoticed.
So many stories untold.
Until we happen upon a half-buried cross at the very corner of the lot
where the wealthy suburb’s poor were given their unsung plot.
Barely legible, Damien, is scratched in a crudely made crucifix,
toppled by wandering roots of the towering, lakeside trees.
Smothered by overgrown grass and thick, green moss.
Who cared enough to mark a life among the many lost?
Hovering over the grave, we tell our own tales about death, the damned and Damien,
until the daylight suddenly disappears behind a dark cloud rolling in off the lake,
silent and mountainous, like a great, grey whale.
All at once, wicked gusts of wind turn the sky to twisting, twirling, whirling leaves.
Turning our backs to its unexpected violence, we race to the car,
laughing and swearing and shivering in our meager layers.
As the last roof latch clicks into place, the sky over us turns black and wild,
shaking the convertible.
I clutch the wheel and smile at my friends.
A seasonal storm… or something more sinister?
Best to ask later.
I turn the key, but nothing happens.
After a moment of startled looks and nervous laughter, I try again.
Not a sound, except the pounding rain and my impassioned pleas.
On the third try, the engine fires up and my shaking hands quickly shift the car into gear.
Phil and Betsy urge me forward a little too loudly.
Just as the cemetery gates appear in the rear view mirror, the violent storm ends,
and the sun, as quickly as it had abandoned the scene, reappears
as we hurry away from Damien’s grave
on this strange, but strangely perfect autumn day.
When the station wagon rolls away from the curbside, dark and swarming with youth, I begin hunting for familiar faces or voices amid the chatter and the laughter. Desperate not to be standing alone among the dimly lit clusters huddling on the church lawn, cowering, I weave toward the bright light of an open door where a line of my peers is slowly filing into the basement for the Friday night dance.
Plenty of familiar faces dot the scene, but not a friendly one in sight. Until there, at the bottom of the crowded stairs, flash the comfortable smiles of good friends, as happy as I am at the sighting.
Into the dim and din of the dance, we move in a small, giggling mass to areas of equal un-interest: the drinks table, the snack counter – then, to the sidelines surrounding the dance floor, where tiny gangs of nervous pre-teens and new teens twitch, taunt and tell tales.
A group of boys laugh and push and swat at each other as they glance across the floor at a particular ring of girls. Finally, the boy with red hair and distractingly long limbs plucks enough courage to cross the floor toward the girl he’d been dared to ask to dance.
But just as he’s making his way across the vast, sparsely populated stretch of beige and green-checkered linoleum, a popular song comes on which springs the crowd – and his targeted partner – into action.
The dance floor erupts with awkward motion.
The moment – and momentum – are lost.
But the darkness emboldens, and as the first slow song starts spinning conquests are won, as the line drawn between the opposite sexes begins to blur.
Now the dare proves not only daring, but profoundly stirring.
One song leads to another, and another, and another.
New couples on the dance floor encourage others across the hot and cramped basement.
And the boundaries blur further.
Are any eyes on us? On me?
Retreating to the easy obscurity of a dark corner, I watch the clock on the wall – and my friends – whose eyes now focus across the room.
Some are reached by steep, wooden steps,
only at the end of which,
is a switch,
and salvation from the dark;
where cold, cement floors sting bare feet
and we search for cousins playing hide and seek
beneath an old, pine table,
and in cupboards stuffed with moth balls and old lives.
Down other stairs, parents send rapidly sprouting offshoots
(and their weedy accomplices)
to remain mostly out of sight, sound and smell.
New worlds explored in sunless rooms of cinderblock;
where mismatched 13-year-olds kiss, and later tell,
and budding musicians, mid black lights and bong hits,
learn to shake and rattle the house;
while in the dark and in a lawn chair, I learn to hang out.
Some sunken spaces are like snapshots
kept on a shelf in an old shoebox.
Still lives of vinyl bars and swivel stools
and down-turned glasses on dusty shelves, long unused.
Moth-eaten scenes of what might have been.
A gathering place for friends and kin
where woes of the week were drowned deep in cocktails
and lost in card games – or a top twenty song – to which most sang along,
as the stereo spun its new-fangled, stereophonic sound.
Curious but comfortless, being long-deserted and people-less.
Apart from the ghosts in the room.
My favorite sunken places are worn, but happy spaces
in which my favorite female faces
grow leaps and bounds beside me,
unconstrained and nearly unimpeded by upstairs edicts.
Sharing cigarettes, dance moves, inside jokes
and cases of beer bought just over the border;
making evenings fuzzy, and hangovers a new, underworld reality.
Playing pool, the juke box, the fool;
while trying to play it cool
when faced with firsts and friends far more in the know
about nearly everything that happens down below.
You came to Dad as a hired thug,
but found a mentor and friend instead.
And a family who adopted you like so many strays –
the scarred, the scared, the castaways.
Giving you shelter and a place at our table,
away from the streets, the violence and struggle.
Into our home and into our hearts,
like each lovable loser, you’re family now.
Showing duty and reverence to Mom and Dad,
you become a different creature with just us kids;
when you shadow box and dance in an imaginary ring,
reciting poems of your strength, your knock-outs, your wins.
Filling our minds with fact and fiction,
which is which hardly matters when told with conviction.
We hang on every word from your kind, but battered face
and marvel when you flex your “guns” and chew on broken glass.
Your prized possession is a gold championship belt –
that you sometimes like to wear when doing work.
Yet something tells me you’d give the belt away
if you could simply sit and draw all day.
Freeing your imagination and your wonderful art;
which colors the brutal truth of your life
and what you did for the sake of the dollar,
for food for your dog and bread for the table.
With a smile ear to ear and a clue in your eyes,
I sense your words are mostly lies
to camouflage the things you’ve seen,
the things you’ve done.
Thrust into this world misaligned and alone.
Third grade over and you were gone.
Fighting to survive, then fighting on demand.
Forced to do that with your gentle heart and creative hands.
While the real you, the sweet, curious and tender you,
would prefer to make art of comfort and meaning.
A good reason for being.
In your white t-shirt and rolled-up jeans
above ankle-high army boots and a head shaved clean.
you lean on a rake, on a break from your chores,
spinning glorious tales to the curious, young horde.
I look into Mia’s bloodshot eyes for the challenge.
And off we go.
Stroke for stroke.
Lap after lap.
Ten, twenty, thirty.
Keeping an even pace.
No sign of the other’s weakness.
Forty, fifty, sixty.
Tiring, but single-minded.
Who’ll be first to surrender?
Seventy, eighty, ninety.
I can hear, in my non-submerged ear, Mom calling.
But grumbling stomachs and dinner be damned.
Closing in on a hundred laps, Mom calls out again.
“Okay,” Mia gasps, “let’s stop at a hundred and four.”
Rejecting her offer, I push off once more.
And she follows.
Hundred and four. Hundred and five. Hundred and six.
Mark’s now standing poolside.
Tiny hands on tiny hips.
Dinner is getting cold and Dad is getting mad.
I call an immediate draw.
My opponent responds with a nod.
I climb out, expecting her to follow.
Instead, Mia slowly sinks back in the water.
And with an enormous grin,
pushes off the shallow end
for her victory lap.
With the orientation behind us, twenty-three of us boarded a plane bound for Miyazaki City, the capital of the prefecture where we would be employed. After landing, claiming our baggage, and moving as a nervous pack of science rats through a giant maze, fellow participants in the experiment began to scatter as each found their respective town representatives, or (if you insist on continuing with this analogy) “pieces of cheese.”
After exchanging strained and anxious smiles with Sam from across the room, I found myself chin to forehead with Yamamoto-sensei (sensei, meaning teacher), who will be working with me at one of the three middle schools I’ll be teaching at: Tonda, Nyuta and Kaminyuta Chugakko.
He was joined by two other gentlemen (Oki-Hosa and Kuranaga-kacho) from the Board of Education where I’ll be stationed before the school year begins and where I’ll have a desk when I’m not scheduled for a school visit.
If anything can be said about this unexpected detour from a hot shower and a deep sleep, it’s that I now have the bowing and proper greetings down flat.
I found quick comfort in the fact that these men seemed as nervous as I.
Although the town had been assigned an American AET the year prior, she was of Japanese-American descent and far less, “exotic-looking” than what had just walked through the airport gates. And what did they really know about this conspicuously-sized American gaijin (gaijin, meaning “outsider,” though if you ask most tactful Japanese, they’ll attempt to make it sound far less insulting).
We made it through introductions (Yamamoto-sensei acting as translator) and before there was time for an uncomfortable pause, the entire JET entourage was led into a large room at the airport for a press conference.
Despite the unexpected arrival of “Aunt Flo” (who had just barged onto the scene with a bloody vengeance), the completely overblown media attention, AND the overwhelming desire I had to slither from the scene, the televised event passed without international incident.
Afterward, the two cars they sent for me (in case I overpacked…which I did) were packed up and I settled into the back seat of the lead car.
Breathing a long sigh of relief.
Knowing I was soon headed to my new apartment.
Where I planned to unpack, unwind and sleep for an exorbitant amount of time.
As we headed north to Shintomi, the surreal nature of everything that had happened over the past week suddenly began to fade and the reality of the situation became as clear as the spotless windshield I was gazing out of as the Japanese farmland whizzed past.
Holy crap, Batman. I’m here… and for a year!
During the half hour ride, Yamamoto-sensei restlessly thumbed through my file – which I have since learned was copied and given to nearly every member of the Town Hall and nearly every teacher/faculty member where I’ll be team-teaching.
Who subsequently shared it with just about every member of the village who is old enough to read.
Yamamoto-sensei attempted to break the ice by asking a lot of questions about my life – marriage being near the very top of the list. In other words, at 27 years old, why am I not?
As attempts were made to keep the driver and passengers from experiencing a moment’s silence, I smiled, answered their questions, and occasionally gazed out of the car window as we whizzed past the scenery of Japan’s Pacific coast.
Thick and green to its very rocky edge in one place.
Long stretches of desolate beaches a few miles further along.
As we left the highway for smaller, narrower streets, I saw the coastal scenery quickly replaced by flat meadows, thick with yellow, creeping to the edge of a river.
On the other side of which – more yellow, stretching to meet a range of misty mountains.
Down the road a bit, as my tired gaze grew more gauzy and my hosts more comfortable in the silence, we passed one rice paddy after the next, neat and tidy.
Each patch perfectly reflecting the surrounding trees and tropics, sun and sky. Making my mind wander toward visions of patchwork quilts, windswept prairies, rows of young corn, “knee-high by the Fourth of July.”
Thoughts of home.
We passed fields upon fields of ripening vegetables – daikon and cabbage, sweet potatoes and carrots, each pungent and promising; and one watery channel after another where, Yamamoto-sensei explained, eels (a staple in Japanese cuisine and Shintomi’s economy) are raised.
As we passed a moist, green pasture scattered with grazing cattle, I noticed buildings appearing in greater frequency. First, it was merely a weatherbeaten, old farmhouse or outbuilding at the side of the road, but soon the streets began to fill with tiny shops and modest houses.
Faded but orderly.
Well-groomed and practical – if not beautiful – schools and offices playgrounds.
Yet amid the unassuming architecture, I noticed everywhere shadowy shrines and inviting gardens – the elegant undertones of customs and colors – which made me want to wander aimlessly and as soon as possible.
As we wound our way through town, all of the gentlemen in the car pointed at places of interest and of use, but I wasn’t really listening.
My mind was reeling with how utterly unfamiliar this was going to be from the last five years I spent floundering in Chicago.
I’m up for a World of different.
However, at this point in my adventure, the only thing I wanted to encounter was my apartment.
And a pillow.
My hosts had their own agenda.
First, I was paraded through the corridors of Shintomi’s Town Hall.
If anything could be said about this unexpected detour from a hot shower and a deep sleep, it’s that I now have the bowing and proper greetings down flat.
And this is no easy task, my friends, for there are many complexities which make up the Japanese Office Culture.
This industry of industry.
This world of uniformed workers, where business cards are handed out like handshakes and three-tiered greetings, as well as ceremonious departures are as much a part of life as crew cuts, white shirts, green tea, exercise, ties clips, white gloves, parasols and sensible shoes.
Walking through the town hall for the very first time, surrounded by my pint-sized, Board of Education posse, I was led into a machine gun round of official, formal introductions with every Head Hancho from every department.
The final, official, formal greetings of the day was at the Board of Education office where I’ll be working. There, I met the Superintendent, a soft-spoken man who quietly arrived, presented the rest of his staff, showed me my desk and then quietly disappeared into the crowd of curious bystanders.
So there I stood in my new office.
This peculiar environment of pushed together desks with thick, yellowing, plastic desk-protectors, folders, forms and neatly stacked file cabinets.
My new bosses and co-workers hovering silently nearby as I swayed with exhaustion.
I was soon whisked away by an expanded posse of SIX.
Both little, white cars now filled to capacity.
Added to the evening’s entourage are Board of Education staff members: a young woman, Akiko-san, a middle-aged woman, Yoshino-san, as well as Hiejima-kakaricho, the office’s chief clerk.
Within moments of leaving the Town Hall, our tiny parade pulled up to Shin Machi Shin Danchi and my apartment complex, which looks about as welcoming as a cell block.
With no traces whatsoever of the simple, elegance of Japanese architecture I’d envisioned for months prior to my arrival, I have to admit I was a little disappointed.
This disappointment was immediately vanquished when I saw I had little to complain about. My apartment is very spacious.
More room than I need, really, especially considering multiple generations of Japanese families regularly share one the very same size.
I have three rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom which boasts (there is a God) a good, ol’ sit down, Western toilet. I’ve quickly discovered that this is more of a luxury than I had ever, in my wildest dreams, imagined. I don’t know if this applies only to the more rural parts of Japan, but nearly everywhere I go and have to “go” I am forced to practice the fine art of squatting over a porcelain hole in the ground.
Because of this ungainly position, it’s probably fortuitous that someone, somewhere in Japan invented a little recording device for public bathroom stalls. Devices which has been designed to play music to veil the potentially embarrassing sounds associated with relieving oneself.
I’ve even heard the recording of a toilet flushing used for the same purpose.
As unaccustomed to squatting as I am (especially where no tent is pitched), bathroom visits have also become a muscle-burning workout, during which time the grunts and groans one hears emanating from my stall might be seriously misconstrued.
The Western toilet, however, is about the only thing familiar about the apartment.
Two of the rooms, divided by a screen, have tatami floors where I spend most of my time. Not only because this is where I unroll my bed each night, but because this is where my heating/ac unit is installed and being a sub-tropic region with cold winters and hot, humid summers this will surely be my favorite fixture in the apartment.
It certainly won’t be the florescent lighting installed in the ceiling of every room – the turning on of which casts a morbid pall over my complexion.
And my mood.
… nor will it be the Japanese-style bathtub.
What could be so different about a bathtub, you ask?
Ah ha, my friends, this isn’t the long, low receptacle we’ve all come to know and love; where one soaks in hot water and Mr. Bubbles after a grueling day.
The official story is that you’re not supposed to wash off in a Japanese-style tub at all, but suds yourself up outside the bath (which resembles more of a box), rinse, and then step into the tub for a soak.
Before any of this can happen, the water must be heated.
That’s right. After I fill the large, plastic box with H20, I’ve been instructed to ignite the pilot light (situated on the side of the tub), turn the dial to the desired temperature… and wait.
About 30 minutes.
The water in the kitchen also requires heating.
And there is no oven.
Only a two burner stove top.
A rice cooker.
And an itsy-bitsy washing machine that might be able to squeeze in one pair of jeans.
The grand tour of my new digs felt like a scene out of Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run.”
Convicts chained together.
The entire Shintomi Board of Education shuffling from room to room.
I began to feel the weight of the past days on my eyelids and was trying to figure out how I could gently persuade my gang to ‘git.
What was I thinking?
The seven of us piled back into the cars and headed off to a local restaurant for a welcome dinner. It was here I met Junko-san, a quiet, apologetic type, who’ll be assisting me in teaching a series of adult English classes at the Community Center.
She relieved Yamamoto-sensei of some of the translating duties as we dove into a feast of fresh fish and cold beer. This is definitely something I WILL NOT have to get used to. Every morsel and every sip of it was heaven sent.
Throughout the evening, I felt anxious glances greeting my every motion. Their unspoken curiousness and unasked questions were palpable. How would I handle hashi (chopsticks)? How long will it be before we can communicate with each other? How can she put away that much beer? How does someone of that size not collapse under the sheer weight of herself?
Actually, their genuine concern for my comfort was of great comfort.
The only instance that brought a moment’s worth of awkwardness was when I first sat down at the restaurant. As is customary whenever I sit on the floor, I crossed my legs.
Keep in mind, I was wearing shorts and tights.
I had failed to notice that all three women were sitting primly and properly on their knees, with their hands folded gently on their laps, and would have continued to be utterly ignorant of this unseemly, unfeminine posture had it not been for Yoshino-san, who approached me quietly from one side.
And slipped a handkerchief over my… how do I put this delicately?
Not a word was spoken about it (not that I would have understood it anyway) and I made an effort for the remainder of the evening to at least attempt sitting with my legs folded to the side.
I did try sitting on my feet in the same manner my female companions, but soon discovered that the leg flailing brought on by cramps caused by maintaining this position for more than 10 seconds would have proven far more embarrassing than an innocent, little groin shot.
When the dinner was over, I was relieved to learn that the women (Junko, Yoshino and Akiko) would be taking me back to my apartment, while the men continued celebrating my arrival at a local Karaoke bar.
The Karaoke bar, if you are not familiar with it, hails from these parts and can be found on nearly every corner of every community – large or Lilliputian.
They are usually small, dark establishments which serve (at least in Shintomi-cho) an array of alcohol – as long as it’s whiskey, shochyu (a local fermented beverage made from sweet potatoes) or beer.
A fixture in nearly every karaoke bar is the Mama-san. Usually in her 50s, dressed in a dazzling kimono or a baffling brocade suit (better suited for a sofa), caked in make-up without looking like it, this tiny, but near-terrifying presence lords over the bar with polite yet stern solemnity, making sure that patrons are well-served and, if over-served, rowdiness is kept to a minimum.
And then, of course, every Karaoke bar is equipped with music videos and microphones.
Now, the kind of music played here is not something a buck will buy you from an old juke box, but a series of sappy sounding, sing-along melodies played on a video screen, ranging from traditional Japanese ballads to obscure renditions of American Jazz standards.
At some point in the evening, each person (and EVERYONE is expected to participate) is handed a microphone and asked to sing their chosen song to a captive and politely captivated audience.
Sometimes you might find yourself standing on a small, spotlit stage and other times, you’re able to hide in a dark booth in the corner. Either way, you are socially obligated to belt out a tune.
For those of us not familiar with the traditional Japanese songs, most local establishments have a handful of Western melodies, such as “Yesterday” (Which, by the way, offers a five minute video of naked Japanese girls writhing on the screen); “My Way,” “Love Me Tender,” “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “Moon River,” and the ever-popular, “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.”
I wish I could say that I am able to perform this ritual in the unassuming shadows.
But that would be silly.
It’s become painfully obvious that I don’t go unnoticed doing anything – anywhere in Shintomi.
However, I’ve learned that the drunker my audience, the more appreciative they are.
And the drunker I am, the better I think I sound.
So I’ve learned to hold off on my song until the end of the evening.
With that said, my first evening in Shintomi finally came to a close.
As the men from my new office continued on with the celebration, Akiko, Yoshino and Junko brought me back to my apartment and after making sure I was settled in, left me on my own for the very first time since I set foot in Shintomi.
As soon as the door closed, my exhaustion morphed into nervous excitement.
I circled the apartment.
A few times.
I unpacked my things.
I called Sam, who was also feeling anxious and nervous.
Which made me feel much better.
So did a soak in the tub.
I soaked IN the sudsy tub for an hour.
Protocol be damned!
Then I tossed and turned on my futon until I heard a neighborhood rooster crow early the next morning.
At about 7 a.m., as I laid in my futon surveying my new surroundings, I heard some kind of nearby machine come to life in a series of clicks.
Followed by several bongs (and not the good kind).
And then a sickeningly sweet, yet strangely soothing voice of a woman who was wishing me (and from the sound of it, the remainder of the town), “Ohaiyo Gozaimasu” (Good Morning).
Still groggy from a restless night’s sleep, I couldn’t tell exactly where the voice was coming from, so I crawled from my bed and, assuming it to be emanating from somewhere outside, I opened the sliding door which leads out onto a small balcony overlooking the town.
I waited for the voice to speak again.
When it did, I realized that the voice wasn’t coming from the streets.
It was coming from my apartment.
So, I followed it until I found what I like to call the Clicky Machine mounted in the corner of the room just off the kitchen. The device, so I was later by Yamamoto-sensei, is used to warn the citizens of Shintomi of impending foul weather and such.
Foul weather or fair, it will act as a communal alarm clock each and every morning during my stay here.
So much for hitting the snooze button.
After slowly dressing and making some tea, I headed downstairs where, at precisely 9 a.m., Yamamoto-sensei arrived to take me to meet the mayor of Shintomi and more high ranking, local officials.
When we arrived back at Shintomi Town Hall, I was led into a reception room and there, with my introduction speech now soggy and crumpled in my hands, I waited with eight men and a local photographer.
Each silently watching my every move.
Shy smiles and nods of acknowledgement giving way to the only motion left in the room.
The clock’s second hand… ticking… away… the minutes.
Eventually, we were led into the mayor’s office where I would be welcomed with a short speech.
Followed by my feeble, yet remarkably long-winded “thanks for having me here” speech in both Japanese and English.
Followed by several campaign-style photo-ops.
When the preliminary formalities were concluded, I was motioned to have a seat on the mayor’s leather couch and in doing so made some unfortunate sounds as my perspiring thighs rubbed against unsympathetic upholstery.
Rattled and red-faced, I smiled weakly.
Then I noticed that each man in the room had a copy of my bio.
Nothing in there is going to get us through this any faster, my friends.
Thank goodness, the day ended with Akiko-san inviting me to a jazz festival in the neighboring town of Saito.
It was the fist time since arriving that I remembered to breathe.
I’ve never been so excited; while at the same time so petrified.
So far, I’ve met the Japanese Ambassador to the United States, the governor of Miyazaki prefecture and the mayor of the Shintomi.
They’re all at least five inches shorter than me.
Japanese is not an easy language to learn. Think of everything you know about our native tongue and… forget it. It doesn’t apply. However, I’m studying hard (ok, I’m studying) and I should be able to face the general Japanese public by sometime early next year.
The people of Shintomi are lovely and thoughtful.
But they only drive little, white cars.
I visited my first store in Shintomi on my own the other day to look for a reading lamp to replace the overhead florescent lighting installed throughout my apartment. I found a lamp, approached the counter and nervously attempted Japanese, but ended up playing a highly animated game of universal charades instead. I somehow managed to purchase the lamp, brought it home and – feeling a strong sense of accomplishment – plugged it in.
It’s frickin’ florescent.
I might have a chance at “romance” here having already been propositioned by two men.
Sadly, both were thirty years older… and about five inches shorter than me.
It’s Saturday night and I’m writing to you instead of being out there looking for aforementioned romance, or at least a little fun.
It seems Japanese women aren’t allowed too much fun.
I’ll be playing in a community volleyball tournament next week. This might be the only time my height will be advantageous.
The Japanese seem to have a million different rituals, gestures, sayings, etc.
Customs precede your every move.
Kindness and respect are not considered special efforts but are a given and vital part of daily existence.
At first these “givens” seem a trifle overwhelming – the greetings and the multiple “thank yous”, the blessings, the bowing and kneeling – even eating and drinking appear far too complicated. But as I begin to find my footing in these new surroundings, I’m learning to appreciate the grace in each motion and every saying.
I went to Miyazaki for yet another unremarkable JET orientation and then went shopping with Sam. Miyazaki has some fantastic clothing stores.
None of the clothes fit.
The town bought me a satellite hook-up so I can keep in touch with the happenings in the world on the English-speaking station.
I’m starting to talk to the television.
Everyone I meet wants to know how old I am, why I don’t wear make-up, why I’m not married, why I came to Japan, why I wanted to teach rurally, what I like to eat, what color are my eyes, what size are my shoes, how long are my legs?… Christ… didn’t they read my file?
I miss you all terribly and vow that if you don’t write soon I’ll throw myself into a boiling batch of miso soup.
I probably won’t drown because my head will be 5 inches above broth.
Day in and day out, for the last six weeks, upon returning home after a hard day of teaching English to the young minds of rural Japan, there’s an unmistakable twinge in my stomach each time I approach the mailbox, a desperate, glimmer of hope that when I open it-
– there will be at least one letter from at least one person who dares call me friend.
Much to my chagrin, I swing the door open and bend down, sweat falls into my already tear-stung eyes and the only thing I find inside is the faint echo of my last visit.
“Damn – damn – damn…”
“No letters – letters – letters…”
And I walk to the stairs of my apartment, sighing and crying.
Crying and sighing.
Look, when we said good-bye in July, I didn’t think it meant, “Talk to you when you get back.”
The only other thing that has frustrated me as of late is the language barrier. My understanding and ability to speak Japanese has improved, but only slightly. I just have to stop being so inhibited and so worried about saying something truly embarrassing, such as “Show us your package,” as opposed to “A pleasure to meet you, Prime Minister Kaifu.”
I do find, however, that after a few beers I can convince myself that I’m practically fluent and the words (as well as the often intense intonations of the language) come flowing out. My office got quite a kick out of the fact that I responded to a recent comment with: “Eeeehhhhh?” (To say this correctly, the voice should gradually rise several octaves. It’s kind of like the equivalent of our “Huh?” but, quite honestly, far more effective.)
At first I thought that working in an office where no one spoke English was going to be rather difficult, but I’ve discovered it’s to my advantage. Being forced to learn the language is both challenging and a great way to build relationships.Akiko-san, the young lady who sits across from me at the Board of Education, is trying hard to use English – everyone is – while I struggle with my Japanese.
She’s advancing at a much faster pace than me.
Nevertheless, I try not to get too discouraged and have to be content to learn a few new phrases each day. As it happens, going through my own struggles has made me better understand how I might be able to help my students learn English.
I’ve also been feeling rather lusty lately.
(Wow, where did that come from?)
As in most countries, the male populous of Japan has its share of toothless, pot-bellied, pock-ridden slobs who feel that if they’re going to take a chance on a woman it might as well be me, but man… some of the men here are so dang handsome.
Case in point, I met this incredibly good-looking elementary school teacher at a community volleyball game on Saturday who set my heart – as well as my lower regions – afire.
His name is Tanaka. He’s single, about my height (there is a God), and has a face that would surely launch a thousand sighs from you American women.
We met at a post-volleyball party as Yamamoto-sensei introduced me to each and every individual there. I was shaking hands, bowing, kissing babies and was nearly elected into office, before we got to this delectable, young teacher. The group he was with invited me to sit on the tatami next to him and although I preferred the idea of sitting on top of him, protocol forbid it.
Akiko-san snapped pictures while the hunky teacher and I chatted – or at least tried. He doesn’t speak much English. (Ask me if I cared.) Maybe I’ll send you all a copy of the aforementioned photo after I’ve had the negative blown up life-size. Come to think of it, maybe I’ll have it blown up a little larger than life so that he can be taller than me.
Many at the post-volleyball party departed soon after, including the man I now wished to father my children, so I spent the remainder of the evening eating and drinking and drinking and drinking with my employers, co-teachers and co-workers. Sam and another AET, Ted, arrived in Shintomi at about 6 p.m. only to find they were far behind. It wasn’t long, however, before their plates were piled high and glasses filled.
And kept filled.
It’s a Japanese custom never to let a companion’s glass get less than half full and they take this responsibility very seriously.Following the post-volleyball party was, of course, a visit to a local Karaoke Bar. There is NEVER only one event to attend when you go out in Shintomi and, I assume, Japan. In fact, you’re often expected to go to at least two more places before calling it a night. Even then, the men are often on their way to a fourth and fifth place.
While at the karaoke bar, my bosses and co-workers had their first chance to hear Sam sing.
God love her.
The sweet, utterly tone deaf diva.
At one point, a newcomer to the party (oblivious to Sam’s previous, ear-splitting performances that evening) moved to hand Sam the microphone. To my great astonishment, I watched several of my companions – who, as Japanese, seem culturally and morally obligated to urge EVERYONE to sing – jump from their seats to grab the microphone before the lovely, but terribly tortured songbird had the chance, offering excuses on her behalf.
Don’t feel too bad.
Sam continues to perform, unabashedly and unapologetically, every chance she gets.
After a while, Sam, Ted and I splintered off to a different Shintomi establishment where we encountered a wedding party celebrating, and where, by the end of the evening, I attempted to teach a young man in the party a truly conservative version of the Lambada.