The stillness of the pond is not the same as the stillness of a swamp.
Sounds cool, huh? I’m a regular Aristotle!
Out of all of the, um, women I’ve gotten to know so well in the past year, I figured the one who would be the least outspoken about everything staying the same and, well, quiet… would be Eri Ozawa. Despite all of the crazy things that had happened in the past year or so, it always seemed like Eri was just going along with things. She rarely ever spoke out… or spoke at all, really… and most of the time she only seemed to act if something else was going on already. True, when she did decide to act it was usually with a precision you might describe as, um, deadly… a certain decapitated doll comes to mind… but surely she wouldn’t find reason to draw her blade after all these recent accusations of stagnation… would she?
I wandered out of the teacher’s room one spring afternoon, perfectly content to have nothing to do and nowhere to go, wanting nothing more than to dust off my old Famicom that had been neglected for far too long and obliterate some brain cells in an evening of… oh, what’s the right English word… how about “sloth?” I know it’s a deadly sin, but I can always apologize for it later, right?
Apparently, Eri was not the type to take apologies today. I walked out of the room and nearly had a shinai shoved up my nose. I looked down the long wooden weapon into her endless black eyes looking straight into the soul of my soul, her little mouth set into a firm and hard scowl. There was even a few furrows on her pale forehead where so often a hachimaki had been tied. Eri rarely showed this emotion, and even more rarely seemed this, um, angry.
“We must talk.”
That itself was a surprise. First of all, because Eri put three words together. Or, at least three words as you’re reading it, there. Also surprising was that she said we must talk. Eri doesn’t usually must anything, except if it happens to involve musting that stick into someone else’s kendo helmet, or men, at lightning speed. Even then, once the red mist of battle goes down, she apologizes.
Really. I’ve seen it. It’s kind of adorable.
So hearing Eri say we must talk must mean something very serious… with or without the, um, stick in my face. I forced myself to blink a few times, as if the tiny movement of my eyelids would have caused my own destruction if done at the wrong time. Finding my mouth suddenly dry, I managed to gasp out something like “Sure” and this seemed to pass the test. Eri lowered the shinai a bit but used it like a traffic officer’s baton, waving it briskly in one direction indicating where I was to go. She followed me closely as I walked down the hall, the stick always perched over my right shoulder, hovering like an angry hornet waiting for the chance to sting.
Oh, and I really should explain for an American audience: a hornet in Japan is actually called ōsuzumebachi, which literally means “giant sparrow bee.” In Japan, hornets are about 4.5 centimeters long. They are the most deadly animal in Japan, killing about 40 people every year and, let me tell you, I was indeed fearing for my life as Eri escorted me down the hall into one of the empty classrooms. As I entered, I took a quick glance around and immediately understood what Eri really meant when she said “we must talk.” The chalkboard was covered nearly top to bottom, side to side, right to left with her short, efficient handwriting.
“I don’t know what I expected,” I sighed as I walked into the room. I turned to Eri, who had lowered the shinai and shut the door to the classroom firmly behind me. I threw my hands up in dismay.
“Well, where do I start?”
She walked to the front of the classroom in silence, her indoor shoes padding softly with brisk, measured steps. She turned back to her, um, classroom of one and swung the kendo stick with alarming speed, cracking it against the chalkboard so loudly I thought Chuck Yeager had just passed by.
“Read,” she ordered, “Out loud.”
I prefer to keep my head on its shoulders whenever I had the option, so I started off reading.
“Three years on the rock… wait, isn’t that a proverb?”
“Uh, let’s see… it means you should always persevere and see your enterprise through to its conclusion.”
She nodded again. I glanced at the wall full of text and groaned.
“Do I really have to read all of this out loud?”
“This isn’t good teaching strategy, y’know.”
“Not a class.”
Her response was immediate, almost frighteningly so. Had she expected me to say that? What’s worse… am I that predictable?
“This is gonna take forever, Eri… does it really matter if I read it all?”
Her measured footsteps brought her all the way back to where I was standing in the back of the class and, putting the shinai aside for a moment, she grabbed both of my hands in hers. I looked down in surprise and fell into the trap: those eyes, those infinite eyes looking back up at me, and looking not lonely and sad, but deep with feeling and, um, affectionate.
She didn’t add “to me,” but we both knew she didn’t have to. That was the beauty of knowing how to speak Ozawan; after a while, you know exactly which words aren’t being said. She let go of my hand and grabbed the shinai again, wringing her hands around the handle nervously and blushing a little as she looked down at the floor. If that stick had been a chicken, its head would have popped clean off. I tried to loosen the tension by walking in a few rows and sitting down in one of the desks, noting with a little frustration that I didn’t fit in them very well anymore.
I started reading what amounted to a thesis statement and argument against what Eri called “Stagnation.” I was about halfway through when the corner of my eye noticed that the sun had almost disappeared over the horizon. The sudden knowledge of that must have woken up my stomach, who decided that all of this feeding at the trough of knowledge was fine and dandy, but he’d like to have something to eat, too. A loud, gurgling noise poured out of my middle, like someone pouring stones out of a bucket into a shallow pond. I tried to concentrate around the noise, but it kept growing louder and my brain started to lose the battle.
“When in the course of…”
“When in the course of the life cycle…”
yet another gurgle. I finally put my head down on the desk and, possibly out of muscle memory from sitting that way, raised my hand like a good student. I was too late to stop it before I felt like a complete idiot, so I decided to play the entire thing off as a joke.
“Miss Ozawa? When’s lunch?”
I heard her pad over on leopard feet until I felt her, um, presence directly behind me. I didn’t turn around, because at that height, Eri’s hips would have been at a very, um, uncomfortable level for me given her feeling about said bone structure in her lower half. See? I’m learning? A year ago, I would have turned around like a fool and gotten a face of, well…
“Taken care of.”
I heard her soft, even voice behind me and that was enough. She padded back to the rear of the classroom without another word, but the guarantee of food seemed to fend off my hunger for the time being. I continued reading, finally finishing about the time I heard a buzz from the back of the room.
“Uh oh…” I chided, “Teacher’s got her cell phone out in class…”
Eri either didn’t hear me or just decided not to pay attention, because she launched immediately into a brief Ozawan conversation (“Hai… Hai… Iie. Hai. Hai.”) and then hung up.
“Continue reading,” she instructed, pulling the door to the classroom shut behind her. I did as I was told without even realizing that this could have been my chance to escape. I had a brief thought of how foolhardy and short my escape attempt would be, along with a few phantom pains of exactly where she might aim with that shinai if she caught me. Then I thought about whether I was just telling myself I’d get a beating, and whether or not I was crammed in this desk because I wanted to be, and what that said about me. Did I want to be told what to do? Did I, um, like the idea of being threatened with violence by a cute girl? I know in America, Japan has a reputation of being very, um, weird with certain um, likes and dislikes, if you will… and I’ve tried not to think about those things almost as an apology to the rest of the world… but here I was, thinking about them… and not reading the rest of the chalkboard!
The door slid open almost silently, in that sort of way where you thought you heard something, but you immediately disregard it as the wind or a bird or something. I was completely off daydreaming when Eri suddenly appeared beside me, holding two bags of takeout food. All she got out was “Food–” and I threw my hands up into the air, making a sound like a startled, um, I don’t know… yak? What does a startled yak sound like? I made the yak sound and turned around quickly, instinctively, to make sure it actually was Eri and not some roaming ghost of a student who perished at Kotogakko long ago, roaming the halls crying out for the food it never got while staying all night studying until it wasted away… and damn it, I made myself hungry again!
Oh, and did I mention that I turned around only to directly bury my face into the hollow between Eri’s waist and hips? It was an odd sensation that I wish I couldn’t describe as comfortable, but the blend of the smell of cheap takeout and cherry blossom perfume was a little off putting. I didn’t have much time to enjoy it before Eri tried her best to leap out of the way, clipping my jaw neatly with her hip bone and staggering back into the next row of desks in a rather odd looking heap of black pants, white shirt, and white plastic bags. Maybe it was the smell of the sakura still lingering in my nose, but I could have sworn I saw a little bit of pale pink peeking out between the hem of her shirt and the, um, waist of her pants as well… but I’d rather not think about that.
And, being the gallant idiot I am, I tried to stand up to help but the desk decided it wasn’t ready to let go yet and I stumbled into a pile of metal, wood, and body parts on the floor at her feet. It was like a perfect little moment of screwing everything up completely… but wait! The food was saved. A little bumped around, but the beef bowls and gyoza were still completely edible. I could have eaten the food right there on the floor, bags and all, but Eri quickly regained her balance, set the food down, and helped… extricate me from the desk.
“Thanks, Eri,” I sighed, rubbing a sore jaw, “that food smells terrific.”
“Did you finish?”
Not even so much as asking if I was all right. How cold! And yes, I am trying to distract from the fact that I had not finished!
“Yes or no?”
“I’m really hungry…”
“That’s not very nice, Eri.”
“Not nice time.”
“Why did you say that in English?”
“Again with the English?”
“Yes or no, Ken!”
I do believe that may be the first time she’s ever called me by my first name. I didn’t have much time to enjoy the sensation, however, because I saw her hand reading for the shinai and I knew the fun was over. I couldn’t help it, and I let the words come tumbling out of my mouth.
“No! I didn’t, okay? I didn’t finish it, because I started thinking about why I was here and why I was reading it and why I didn’t run away when you went to get the food and if I even wanted to run away and maybe I liked being stuck in this desk and maybe I wanted you to tell what to do and then I started thinking about weird things you could do with that shinai and then I started thinking about whether or not I’d like it and… I’M REALLY HUNGRY, ERI, CAN’T I JUST EAT?”
We stood there for a moment, just staring at each other. Tiny eyes to infinite ones. Brown on black. Hers open wide, most likely a little disturbed at everything I just said, and mine open wide at the thought of a face full of beef bowl.
What do you want from me? I was really hungry!
After what seemed like two forevers, Eri finally allowed herself to come forward after being taken aback. Her shoulders rolled forward into that familiar stoop she did to try to hide her, um, attributes, and she let out a long sigh. It wasn’t one of those survival sighs, or an annoyed sigh, or even an angry one. It was just a lot of air moving, and I was close enough to wonder from that air whether or not she had sneaked a gyoza on the way to the classroom. Not that I’d ever tell her that.
“Your answer is acceptable,” she said, her eyes turning from quicksand to sparkling dewdrops.
“We can eat?”
Best. Beef Bowl. Ever. We ate mostly in silence because, well, you know, and it started to annoy me after a while so, despite all sorts of evidence to the contrary, I tried to strike up a conversation with Eri Ozawa.
“Thanks for not thinking I’m a total freak.”
I stopped with a pile of beef an onion halfway to my mouth, which was hanging open. Eri saw my shocked expression and smiled.
She SMILED. It was small, and cute, and unmistakably, um, her.
“But I like you anyway… Ken.”
She seemed to really enjoy saying my name, like a dam had finally burst, a dam of smiles and familiarity… that’s a terrible metaphor!
“So…” I decided I’d already broken down some walls, might as well launch another mortar, “What would you have done if I threatened to kiss you back there instead of answering?”
Her answer was surprisingly immediate, although I noticed she didn’t pick her face up from hovering over the beef bowl.
She reached over and patted the shinai, as if reassuring an attack dog.
“Ah!” I countered, “But you heard what I said there… maybe I’d have liked that!”
“No,” she shook her head and razor bangs swayed back and forth across her forehead like the wheat of my father’s farm. She looked up from the bowl with her eyes and, for just a moment, I saw a little mischief flicker deep in those pools.
“You wouldn’t have liked it.”
I was ready to take her word for it, but at that moment her phone buzzed in her pocket again.
“What’s that?” I joked, “dessert?”
She glanced at the phone’s caller ID, and it was as if The Berlin Wall had sprung up overnight… again. Suddenly, her eyes went as blank as concrete, her face fell from happiness to despair, and ridges of frustration popped out all over her brow like barbed wire.
“No,” she grunted, her voice having lost all of the playfulness it had only so recently found. She scowled at the phone as if wishing the call would just go away, but knowing it wouldn’t.
She flipped the phone open with enough force to snap it in two, and what followed was a conversation that made the one with the delivery man sound like a love letter. It was over mercifully quickly, and she went back to her dinner in silence. She had looked so happy, and now so miserable… I had to do something?
“Was dessert cancelled?”
She gestured angrily with her chopsticks to the one remaining bag next to her, her voice once again cold and unfeeling.
“Ah…” I replied, feeling like I’d just been scolded. I let my legs dangle off the desk where I was sitting, just like I had when I was a kid.
“Did you ever do this when you were a kid, Eri?” I asked, “Sit on the desks when the teacher wasn’t around?”
“No,” she shot back, know angrily gnawing on her chopsticks, “Private tutor.”
I’d forgotten she grew up so rich. Hell, I’d forgotten she WAS rich. I guess wearing the same thing every day could be considered an eccentricity?
“Okay…” I was scrambling to find something to talk about that wouldn’t make her think about her father, “What’s for dessert, anyway?”
“Oh,” she had made it sound so flat, “Flan. I like… flan… do you?”
She nodded, still trying to eat her chopsticks. Finally, I’d had enough.
“Eri, do you want to talk about it?”
I know how strange that sounded, but tonight was all about being strange, I think.
“My father… ass.”
“Understood. May I ask why… why ass?”
“Only child. Girl.”
I suppose that was all she needed to say. As the only child of the head of a conglomerate like the Ozawa firm, she’d be expected to take over the business. But as a girl…
“Does your Dad want you to run the business?”
“I see. Yes… that’s very ass. What about your mother?”
She said words that translate to things much worse than “ass,” but I don’t want to write them right here.
“Those are… strong words, Eri.”
“I am shunned,” Eri replied, taking the chopsticks out of her mouth and gripping them tightly with both hands.
“What?” I asked, blinking heavily, “Why?”
She snapped the chopsticks cleanly in half, and her anger was as palatable as the beef fat still left on my tongue.
“I suppose they want someone to take over the company?”
It was a very nasty sounding hai.
“Oh. Am I… included as an idiot?”
She looked up suddenly, blushing beneath her watery eyes.
“No…” she said, seemingly on the verge of tears.
“I’m just a freak, right?”
She laughed then, an absolute, outright laugh, which she almost immediately tried to restrain, her face now completely red. One nice side effect was that her hot face seemed to be boiling the tears out of her eyes.
“Eri, have your parents ever asked you, um… what you want to do?”
She got up from her seat, took two silent steps, and then wrapped me in a hug that seemed to say “I could break you in half if I wanted to… and I don’t want to.”
“Thank you,” she whispered into the center of my chest, something that made me tingle all over in a very worrying way.
“Uh… thanks for dinner.”
I always say stupid things in my moments of panic. Case in point, I followed up that gem with:
“You wanna have dessert?”
Forget Aristotle. I’m not even Liberace. She, um, disengaged from me and we sat down to enjoy our flan. The poor thing was still so emotional from our conversation that her hands were shaking, which caused the bites of flan to dance merrily on the end of her spoon. After one nervous bite, she wound up with a large spot of caramel sauce on her cheek. I reached out to quickly swipe it off with my finger, but she caught my hand on the way back in both of her hands, holding my outstretched, caramel-coated finger like it was a sacred idol. She leaned forward and put her lips around my finger, removing every last bit of caramel sauce in a way that gave me upsetting dreams for a week straight. There was more intimacy, more connection and raw emotion in that one small gesture than in every single one of Kanagawa’s, um, overtures combined, and after that night I came to look at Eri Ozawa in a very different way… and I came to loathe her parents just as much as she did, perhaps more.