© Copyright Protection 2009 Talia Carner <br>
THE SHIP SAILS AWAY <br>
The fluorescent light shines off the sheets with the whiteness of a kabuki dancer's makeup. My cubicle in Osaka Station is long enough to stretch in and to roll from side to side. It is bigger than a coffin, and just as clean. It is quiet and safe here, a modern version of the mosquito net my mother used to drape on bamboo poles over my bed. Spending some late evenings here is not bad, not at all. It gives me peace.
As a yawn seizes me, I hold on to it with great deliberation, making it last. Yawning replenishes the blood with fresh oxygen, purifying the body from the toxins of the day. I trust the air piped in, Osaka air filtered of its infestation of germs and pollutants. I raise my arms over my head until they touch the air conditioning grille. A big white man, like the American guest I entertained tonight at the tea house, might become afflicted with one of those psychological hurricanes Westerners are known for. But I turn my palms backwards, stretching the inside of my arms while letting my spine and ribs sink into the mattress. My hands block the air, and the chilled current escaping around my fingers makes a pleasant hissing sound. I let go and listen for rustles and rumbles of life from my neighbors, although since climbing the ladder to my chamber, I have heard not a sound. Yet, I know that our structure of sleeping capsules, stacked high like a beehive, is teeming with salarymen like me, who have eased off their pants, removed their shoes and loosened their ties. In this cocoon of silence, it is my time to read, to meditate. The late night commute home is not as beneficial to my boss and family as preserving my energies by passing the night in this capsule hotel.
The truth, though, is that most of the other men are inebriated and have missed the last train home. Few have prepared for a night out with an extra ironed dress shirt and a change of underwear, carefully laid out in an oversized briefcase by their wives. Come morning, many will buy underclothes in the convenience store and will shower in the sento, the public bath.
My boss, Oshikawa-san, having studied in America, insists on paying for a health club membership. It would be impolite for me to mention the matter of my sleeping arrangements, for it might impose upon him the knowledge that our business dealings with foreigners cause me difficulties, which he cannot diminish. Since he must have guessed at them, he is compensating by making the health club available for my matinal toilet. I will make good use of the gift of an extra two hours and fifteen minutes: Sleep for fifty more minutes than I usually do, and exercise for fifty-five minutes, then a shower and change for eight minutes. I will spare two extra minutes to study the newspaper at a stand-up counter, where I will stop for my morning tea.
I crawl around in my space to reach my briefcase. Usually, in anticipation of my night, I place my book of poems by my head. It is not like me to forget, and I now worry whether there might be something else I have forgotten. Maybe a directive Oshikawa-san has given me and I might have bowed, registering the request on the sandy beach that is my brain. To remember things, I imagine them as characters stamped on the sand; then I can walk by the water line of my imagination and read what I must do. When I am done, an ocean wave erases it. My kyoiku mama, education mama, gifted me with this method of remembering when pushing me to study for my exams.
After I get the poetry book, I plug my cell phone into its recharger and flip down the switch of the fluorescent strip. Before turning on the small reading lamp, I lie in the darkness for a short while, feeling the walls of my chamber recede away. I imagine that I am on the deck of a ship in a vast ocean, lying on my back and gazing at the starless night.
My mind thus expanded, I turn on the small light and read a poem. Usually, after an evening of sake, one poem is sufficient to transport me to the state required for tranquil sleep. But my mind wrings its spongy cells and I think again of the possibility of having forgotten something important. I play back my conversation with Mr. Roberts, this gaijin, foreigner, who looked like an open watermelon--red, though not yet ripe, still cool, with twin rows of yellow seeds. Not that he was cognizant or lucid to check his words before they sailed away from him. The sake--and whiskey--had softened him--as did the hostesses. Ripened him to a florid hue; even his eyes reddened and bulged like those of a dragon.
When my gaze first washed over the American's strong jaw and big feet, and rusty hair sheared short like burned grass, I knew that haragei, our communication that necessitates no words, would not be forthcoming. Taking this watermelon for a visit at a refined tea house where the hostesses are trained in gentle ways of pleasing our hearts and minds would be peeling money into the harbor. This Mr. Roberts must be entertained in the crude way that brings Japan scorn and shame. He was too dense to grasp the deep insult we feel when regarded his way, and I could not attempt to show him Japan below the surface.
Maybe this vague insult fermenting in me is the cause of my forgetting to take out my book. I have been trying not to feel humiliated since the moment this gaijin stepped into our conference room, his voice too big, his handshake almost pulling my arm out of its socket. Although none of other our foreign guests had done it quite this way, at first I thought that the rattling of each other's hands like the shaking of sesame seeds in the soy jar was the American way and I responded with the same vigorousness. But then Oshikawa-san signaled with a particular silence only I could hear that I should drop the watermelon's hand. Later, like a surgeon, I scrubbed my arms up to my elbows, the soap suds bubbling.
If the insult I cannot define is still in my horizon, it might signal that I am giving more weight to my heritage than to Oshikawa-san's interests. In the end, I now think, I did right catering to Mr. Roberts' base perceptions of Japan by taking him to a hostess bar where the peasant girls could barely converse, let alone sing. Indeed, their refinement turned out to be irrelevant. Mr. Roberts sang karaoke and got drunk, the girls goading him on.
I read the poem, yet my mind refuses to travel to a place of tranquility. I breathe in and out of my lower abdomen, then in and out of the space below my diaphragm, then in and out of my upper chest. Nevertheless, in my head I see the small figure of one of the hostesses, a girl only a few years older than my daughter Ru, and, under the Western makeup, sharing the same perfect heart-shaped face. Can the delicate petals of a flower bear the weight of a watermelon and not be crushed?
When sleep still holds back its visit, I wish that like my fellow salarymen, I had developed the taste for whiskey. Instead, I must take a sleeping pill.
In the morning, at the office, I type my report. I need not speak of the places I took Mr. Roberts, only of the nature of our talks and the concessions our discourse brought forth.
Oshikawa-san's business is shipping, and I find it stimulating to take part in moving goods across the ocean. These past twelve years, ever since I graduated the university and joined Oshikawa-san's team, the thought of a ship sailing away and disappearing behind distant islands has filled me with yugen. The image has an aesthetic beauty that includes the vastness and, ultimately, the fragility of the universe. A ship sailing away is a thought beyond words.
But my dealings with ships are only on the computer screen, and in the customs forms I complete with three copies. We ship appliances to Boston, motorcycles to Germany, textile weaving machines to Brazil. All are packed and sealed in containers, and then lowered into the bowels of ships. The crates are stowed so close to one another that not even a mouse can find a crack to scuttle about. Other than the crew, there are no humans on those ships, and I can imagine days that are very quiet, filled with silence except for the lapping of ocean waves and the mostly gentle blowing of the wind.
Mr. Roberts will be our agent in Boston, his duty to bid for contracts of shipments heading to Japan. Because of tariffs and other government regulations, Oshikawa-san finds it harder to fill our homebound ships. Therefore, it is very important that Mr. Roberts does his job industriously, and this morning I am content that I have made my contribution to Oshikawa-san's endeavors. Before noon, I will meet with our lawyers and go over the draft of our agreement. Oshikawa-san will treat Mr. Roberts to a late belly-filling lunch, get the agreement signed, and then send our guest to the airport with the driver.
Only when the gaijin is gone will the insult depart. For now, I must ascertain that no detail escapes my attention, that I forget nothing.
As an office lady places delicate flower arrangements on each of the executives' desks, I reflect on the simple and quiet asymmetry of my flowers. Arranged as earth, wind and sky, three levels in harmony, yet each with a mind and pace of its own, they reflect my world, one which is in complete balance. Tonight, I will go home; I have promised my five-year old son to continue with his bicycle lessons. He has made enough progress that soon I will remove the training wheels. But he has not yet achieved the balance required for the task and might forget what he has learned unless I reinforce it in a timely fashion.
My daughter will play the violin for me; she has been practicing for her concert, sparing me the whining of her strings until she was ready to perform. And my wife, who takes care of our home and children so well, may act amai, dependent and fetching, presuming upon my affection, which I am inclined to reciprocate.
The office ladies turn off their computers. Giggling in an endearing way which they have not permitted themselves to manifest all day, they depart. I stay only one more hour to ensure that all the day's documents are in order, when Mr. Roberts telephones. At first, I am confused, thinking that he calls from the airplane, but he laughs too loud and asks me to meet him. He had a good time last night, he says, and has decided to delay his departure. He wants to party again at that fun bar, whose name he never got because it was written in our funny characters. Anyway, he must have a local guide for company because in this goddamned country you can't understand even the ones who think they speak English.
More than before, the insult of this gaijin watermelon bubbles in my liver. He thinks too little of me to even wonder whether I am available this evening. Like Japan, I am here to provide for his base amusement. This man cannot begin to comprehend the depth of loveliness achieved by time or imperfection. He sees only what is in front of him, what is untested, undistinguished, and untarnished.
It is unfortunate that our lawyer, whom I invite at Mr. Roberts' request, he is indisposed. Oshikawa-san is engaged with another guest. I have never before wished for his presence. Now, though, his knowing the American ways could help me restore my equanimity.
I telephone my wife and explain the situation. The drawing of air through the gap between her two front teeth tells me she understands her sacrifice--and my obligation--and would not complain. I want to ask her about the children, but I do not; she would tell me if something were serious enough to merit distracting my attention from my duties.
Later, the gaijin sucks in a dinner that could have fed six, and after gulping down his first scotch, he orders that foul drink twice more while I sniff my first. Although most salarymen have acquired the taste for this burning Styrofoam-tasting liquid, my tastes are for subtler flavors.
At the club we visited last night, the flower of a hostess spots us and immediately glides behind a sliding paper wall. Her silhouette fades away, but Mr. Roberts has not recognized her. The girls all look the same to him. He makes no protest when the mama-san leads us to a table too close to the men's room, nor do I plead with her, for I am ashamed. It is clear that my guest's behavior after I had left him--at his insistence, of course--was disgraceful. If I could, I would leave again now.
He asks for the flower hostess, and the mama-san informs him that the young woman is not well. My stomach churns for it is clear that he hurt her as I had feared.
When the sake is served, the watermelon grabs at the willowy waist of the server. When she wriggles away, he yanks at the bow of her kimono, swiveling her around. Although the garment does not open, I hear a tearing sound, and the kimono is askew. Mr. Roberts lets go and laughs. I think that with our contract already signed, maybe I should allow the horizon of everything Japanese--so defiled--to now rise.
Even though the karaoke is not yet on, Mr. Roberts sings what sounds like the blowing of hot pancakes. He does not notice when I drop a sleeping pill into his drink. Then I calculate that he weighs twice as much as I do, so I slip in another.
It takes three men to help me carry the unconscious gaijin to a taxi. At Mr. Roberts' hotel, I tip the concierge, then leave.
Since the express train has long departed, I catch a local one. It will take me longer, but I want to sleep at home.
In the morning, I telephone to check on Mr. Roberts' condition, but there is no answer in his room. After many tries for several hours, I talk with Oshikawa-san. When I speak of our guest's state, I omit the sleeping pills, for my boss should not be bothered with trivial matters. Oshikawa-san, concerned that Mr. Roberts might miss another flight, suggests I go to the hotel myself.
The receptionist directs me to the manager's office on the twenty-sixth floor. There, I wait by the window and watch the ships in the harbor. For the first time ever it occurs to me that I should visit a ship and see it from up close. In fact, I think it would be a good goal to one day sail in one, perhaps when family life makes the planning of such a trip plausible.
After a while, the hotel manager comes out and asks whether I knew the deceased. It is a mistake, I explain, my mind still preparing to compensate for damages our guest might have caused. But then wind blows through my brain. The ocean stretches away at my feet as I stand bolted to the center of the earth. Great shame flames in me, a fire stronger than Mr. Roberts’ insult.
In the harbor below, a ship's horn brays, and I know that all the ships are sailing away without me.
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