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Big in Japan Collection II



Bibliopolist



Yumi



It turns out August is really hot in Japan. Not to mention humid. I began to sweat just thinking about going outside. I fell into the routine of sleeping in—since I didn’t start teaching until afternoon—going to the bookstore by the train station, stopping for udon on the way back, working through the afternoon and evening, taking a bath, then reading manga into the wee hours when it was cooler and quieter. I read with my dictionary at the ready in my little tatami room and recognized more kanji every day.

Keiko, having cleared the air regarding her long-distance fiancé, was cheerful, and helpful. She taught me lots of stuff you have to know to live successfully in Japan: bagging your own groceries, the myriad categories of recyclables, and waiting faithfully for pedestrian traffic signals to turn green whether or not there was any vehicular traffic in sight. I spoke to her in English and she replied in Japanese. It felt natural to us but cracked the students up when they overheard us chatting back in forth in two languages.

Chiho came in again on Thursday, but there was another student in her class so we didn’t really get to talk. I liked the way she smirked, though, when she asked me what kind of music I liked.

I didn’t see Mika again, and Keiko declined to make my bath. Cold water would be a good teacher, she said, if I couldn’t figure it out. So I did. It wasn’t that hard, and it was way worth it when I sank into water as hot as I could stand it. If I ever build my own house, there will be a Japanese ofuro in it.

It was cool not being a virgin anymore. Times three, not that I was counting. I studied my body in the mirror for signs of muscle mass and thought my dick got bigger. A little bigger. At least it didn’t look puny anymore. Sex will do that for you.

By Saturday, I was missing sex. My best week ever was not finishing strong. The school opened in the morning on Saturdays, and my last class finished in the early afternoon. I was hoping Mika or Chiho would pop in to brighten my weekend, but neither did. Keiko watched the clock after the last lesson since Mr. Fiancé was in town and they were going out. She didn’t quite shove me out the door after the last class, but her desire to start her weekend—without me—was obvious.

I went across the hallway to my one-room apartment and lay on my back looking up at the ceiling. It hadn’t felt lonely to come in by myself at nine o’clock at night since I could take a bath and go to bed, but it was different in the middle of the afternoon when people were out and about. I thought about walking down to the beach and going for a swim, but it was a bit of a hike and I was tired of telling people about myself. Not that there was all that much to tell.

I decided I’d cook something. That would be a change. I’d hit the bookstore to see what had come in overnight, pick up groceries, whip up dinner, and spend a relaxing evening munching on something that wasn’t udon and reading manga. All I had to do was get up and put my shoes on and start walking.



* * * * *



I woke up an hour later refreshed from an unexpectedly delicious Saturday afternoon nap, and put on my shoes and went out. People on the street wore yukata, light cotton robes popular during summer festivals or for lounging around the onsen. Women walked home from the grocery with shopping bags hanging from the crooks of their elbows. Un-uniformed kids ran relatively wild on their summer break from school. People hiked from the beach up to the train station, some bronzed by the sun, others cool and pale beneath their sunhats.

My bookstore’s proprietor wasn’t behind the counter for the first time ever. He was a small man in his 50s with a toothy smile who always greeted me enthusiastically. I’d asked him about a manga I was looking for once. He’d made a show of rooting around in the racks for a couple of minutes, but he didn’t have a clue. I was, like, why work in a bookstore then?

Today there was a girl behind the cash register. Her hair was orangish and she was poring over a book open on the counter, reading glasses perched on the tip of her nose. She looked up at the sound of the bell on the door and welcomed me perfunctorily. I studied her from the corner of my eye while I browsed. Her lips were full, and an intriguing shade of pink. Her purple eye shadow drew me in.

I couldn’t help but glance at the manga she was so into when I walked by the counter: Ushijima the Loan Shark. The holy grail. Dark, brooding, ruthless. The guy who’d made me want to learn to read Japanese in the first place.

She must have heard my intake of breath and looked up sharply at the interruption.

I looked meaningfully at Ushijima’s menacing scowl. Someone was about to find out what happens when you cross a true badass.

“No English books,” she said in a tone that suggested shooing.

I nodded at the one she was reading. “I have that one. It’s good.”

She looked at me skeptically over her glasses.

I shrugged. “Not as good as the volume before though.”

Her eyes narrowed.

“It’s about why she borrowed the money,” I said.

“Why would she? She’s rich.”

“It costs a lot to be rich.”

“There’s an English version already?” she asked.

I shook my head. “I read it with a dictionary.”

Honto?”

“It takes a while.”

“Can I borrow it?” she asked. “When you’re done?”

“Sure.”

She smiled. “Thank you. Do you live here? In this town?”

“I do. I teach English.”

“You must be rich,” she said.

“Not really.”

“English lessons cost a lot of money.”

“The school is rich; I just work there.”

“Ah. What’s your name?”

“Ben.”

“I am Yumi.”

We bowed and recited introductions. I realized I would like to get to know Yumi better.

“I could teach you English,” I said. “If you teach me Japanese.”

“I’m not a teacher.”

“Neither am I, actually. But I speak English really well. How’s your Japanese?”

She covered her smile with her hand.

“I could use some help with Ushijima,” I said.

“All right.”



* * * * *



We met at a coffee shop after Yumi closed the bookstore. Coffee shops in Japan aren’t just about coffee; they can also be meetups with a friend for an hour or two or a quiet place to go to get out of the house. We had our choice of cozy booths since the place was dead by that time of night, and ordered five-dollar coffees. Yumi brought the Ushijima issue she’d been reading in the bookstore out, and I took the previous issue from my messenger bag.

“Trade?” Yumi asked.

“Sure,” I said, sliding mine across the table.

She opened it with interest and started reading. I watched her, waiting for a chance to converse. She didn’t look up. Her eyes darted about the pages, starting from the upper right corner, instead of the upper left, and zooming down instead of across since Japanese is written in columns from top to bottom, then from right to left.

The waitress brought our coffees and Yumi sipped absentmindedly. Eventually she came to a break in the story and looked up and smiled.

“How is it?” she asked. “Can you read it?”

Truth be told, I hadn’t been reading so much as watching expressions flit across Yumi’s face as she read: surprise, anger, then satisfaction at a well-deserved beatdown. I wasn’t stuck on any particular kanji; I was stuck on how to talk to her. It felt odd that she wasn’t fawning over me like my students did, or like Keiko or Mika or Chiho had.

“It’s good,” I said. “I was just watching you.”

“Watching me?”

Her eyes narrowed.

“You look like you’re enjoying the story.”

She snorted. “It’s Ushijima, yo!”

“Ushijima made me want to come to Japan,” I said.

“Why? He is horrible. Do you want to meet him?”

I shrugged. “People borrow his money. They promise to pay him back, but they don’t. Maybe they’re the horrible ones.”

“But they need things,” Yumi said.

“No one’s starving.”

“Starving?”

“Dying from no food.”

“There are other kinds of dying,” Yumi said. “Not just from no food.”

I nodded.

“Maybe your body won’t die if you don’t get something. But your spirit will. If it’s something you really, really want.”

“What do you really, really want?” I said.

She held her fingers up in a peace sign.

“World peace?” I asked.

“You don’t want world peace?”

“Of course I do.”

“Why do you want to know what I want? Will you give it to me?”

“Just asking,” I said.

“What do you want?”

I thought about it. I had wanted a job, very badly. Now that I had one, I guessed I didn’t want that anymore. I liked reading manga. Maybe I wanted to live in one. I didn’t say that, though.

“I want to be one of the cool kids,” I said.

Yumi nodded. “Me too. But I’m not. You should probably go before one of the cool kids sees you here with me.”

“Cool kids suck,” I said.

She smiled. “I love it when they borrow money from Ushijima.”

“Ushijima doesn’t care who you are,” I said.

Yumi shook her head sadly. “He only cares about his money. And honor. He’s very honest.”

“I would not like to owe him money.”

“Anyway, you are American,” she said. “So you are a cool kid.”

“Seriously?”

She nodded. “People want to speak English.”

That explained some things. It was kind of nice being one the cool kids. I thought maybe I could get used to it.

Yumi looked back down at Ushijima. Apparently, she didn’t want to speak English. That was okay, too. I sipped my coffee and looked down at my Ushijima. It was nice reading Ushijima with someone.

After several quiet, happy pages, our waitress asked if we would like anything else. Yumi looked at the clock on the wall and apologized for keeping her past closing time. Smiles and bows were exchanged and we went out into the still, quiet dark.

“Can I walk you home?” I asked.

Yumi shook her head. “Neighbors.”

As in the neighbors would see and gossip and that would be bad.

“And my father,” she said.

“Your father?”

“He said there was an American coming into the store.”

“He’s the man behind the counter?”

“He said you like the same stupid manga I do.”

I smiled. “We have good taste in manga.”

She looked at the time on her phone. “I should go.”

“This was nice,” I said.

She smiled and waved, then turned away.



* * * * *



I started for home because I didn’t know of anything else to do in our little town late at night. There was pachinko, pinball crossed with slot machines, but the cigarette smoke was thick enough to turn the bright neon murky. And there were bars, but I didn’t have anyone to drink with. Saturday night alone again. Some things didn’t change wherever I was. I stood at the empty intersection and waited for the crosswalk light’s permission to cross the street.

There were high walls around the houses I passed. Only the tops of their ornamental trees showed above them. It was quiet save for the cheerful hiccups of the crickets over the deeper hum of window air conditioners. I wished I could simply rub my legs together to attract a mate.

I’d thought I’d bag Yumi. Or more accurately that she’d throw herself at me. Maybe she had a boyfriend. Or maybe she’d already slept with a gaijin and crossed it off her bucket list.

I heard a click and the traffic light changed. The road looked just as empty. Whatever. It wasn’t like I had anywhere to go in a hurry, except back to my empty apartment. I heard the last train of the night pulling into the station behind me as I walked. I snorted at myself for wondering what I was going to do with three girlfriends. Like, what if two of them wanted to go out with me on Saturday night? Could I stagger them, go out with one early in the evening and make the other a late night booty call? I wasn’t sure I’d even want sex twice in one day, but wouldn’t have turned it down if it was offered.

No one was waiting for me in the dimly lit corridor to my apartment. Nor was anyone sitting on the landing, hanging around in hopes of a quickie before bed. I unlocked my door and went in.



* * * * *



I thought about not going to the bookstore on Sunday. Yumi would be there, maybe, reading Ushijima on the counter. She might think I was stalking her. I took the school’s bicycle for a spin around town and out into the rice paddies, then climbed a set of steep stairs to the top of a mountain. It might have only been high enough to be a hill, but felt like Mt. Everest by the time I summited. There was a Shinto shrine there, ancient wood gray with age and weather. I didn’t know what one did there so I didn’t approach.

Our little town was spread out like a map before me, the sea vast beyond it. Iconic golden arches sprouted on the edge of town, and my stomach growled at the thought of hot grease so I went back down the mountain on shaky legs and pedaled for all I was worth. The steaming hot french fries held my loneliness and homesickness at bay while they lasted.

It was still only one o’clock in the afternoon when I parked the bicycle beneath the stairs at the school. The beach or stale manga? Or just go to the bookstore. I went there every day so it couldn’t be stalking.

Yumi was there, playing a game on her phone at the counter. We had the little store to ourselves. I smiled and so did she.

“Tired of reading?” I asked.

“I was wondering if you would come back.”

“I come every day.”

“You’re a scholar,” she teased.

“They talk too fast on TV.”

“I’m going back to the city tonight,” Yumi said. “If you want to come.”

“I’d like that.”

“The five o’clock train.”

“Okay.”



* * * * *



I got to the station early and looked at the fare map above the ticket vending machines, realizing I didn’t know which station we were going to. I stood around, wondering if Yumi would really show. At five minutes to the hour, I realized she wouldn’t. I stayed, just in case. She came hustling in two minutes before the train.

“Hurry,” she said by way of greeting as she chucked coins into the ticket machine.

“Where are we going?”

She told me the name of the station and the fare, and we bought our tickets and hurried up to the platform as the uncharacteristically half empty train arrived. The doors hissed open and we found bench seats facing each other.

Yumi fanned herself with her hand. “Sorry. My mother never wants me to leave.”


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