The Salaryman's Wife

I suppose there are worse places to spend New Year's Eve than a crowded train with a stranger's hand inching up your thigh. A crowded train undergoing a nerve gas attack? That could mean true death instead of just an emotional one. I tried to be mature about it. After all, I'd almost convinced myself that what had been pressing against me since we'd left Nagano was somebody's suitcase handle.

[book cover]He'd crept up behind me when a crush of skiers boarded and the tiny space I'd staked out had grown so tight I couldn't even move my arms. Packed sushi-zume—as tightly as rice balls in a box lunch—I began worrying about what might come next. I'd heard stories about the chemistry whiz who used a fluid to melt holes in clothing, and the gum-chewer who left a big wad in your hair as a memento. More than one man was known to express his pleasure deeply in your coat pocket. But those were cretins I'd assumed were native to the Tokyo subways and not long distance trains climbing the Japanese Alps.

The hand, which had been almost imperceptible at first, was becoming audacious. Exploring with my heel, I encountered a shin, slid my foot along its length and stomped the ankle underneath. A foot kicked back and a woman snapped at me to be more careful, for goodness sake didn't I know it was an overcrowded train? I ground out an apology. The hand stayed.

It was dark outside, turning the train door's glass into a mirror. I saw myself as I always appear: small, Japanese-American, and with the kind of cropped haircut that's perfect in San Francisco but a little too boyish for Japanese taste. I wished I'd had time to change into a butch pair of jeans instead of the skirt that had provided easy access for someone. I concentrated on the reflections of the three men closest to me: a young white collar guy buried in a sports tabloid, an ancient grandpa and a working-class tough wearing a sweatshirt with the improbable slogan "Milk Pie Club." The latter two appeared to be sleeping, but you never knew for sure. I remembered the last weapon I possessed.

"Hentai! Te o dokete yo!" I said it first in Japanese and then in English—pervert, get your hands off me.

Japanese Cover The Japanese cover

I felt the hand hesitate, then depart.

"It's the guy in black! Oh, no, you aren't getting away!"

I craned my head to see a tall, stout American woman beating the thuggy-looking man's shoulders with her umbrella.

"I have done nothing! Stop it, please!" The man's apology in Japanese did no good with his foreign attacker. The formerly drowsy passengers were tittering.

"That's enough! If you keep hitting him, you could be arrested," I warned the woman as the man twisted away from us.

"I didn't have to understand what you were saying to know what was going on," the woman grumbled as she settled into a suddenly-vacated seat. "Men are bastards. All of 'em. There oughtta be a law."

As I shifted nearer to her, I checked her out. This was no gray-haired feminist in a patchwork jacket and peasant trousers, the kind of soul who peered enthusiastically at Japan from wire-rimmed glasses. My rescuer wore a leopard print parka and purple Reebok sneakers. Her hair was a shade of apricot I'd never seen before.

"So, where'd you learn your good English?" she asked.

"California." That usually brought a blush to Caucasian faces, but not this one.

"You don't look it."

I let that pass. Once I would have said something, but after three years in Tokyo I had become too polite. Too Japanese.

"Are you going to Shiroyama?" she asked, stumbling a bit with her pronunciation of the castle town's name.

I nodded. I was going to the 200-year-old castle town in search of antique folk art and a break from the unrelenting grayness of my life in urban Japan. I had planned carefully, following my boss's recommendation to stay at a minshuku, or family-run inn. The one I'd chosen was particularly famous for its country cooking and decor. Decamping to snowy mountains while all of Japan was celebrating New Year's, the biggest party week of the year, was pretty eccentric. In fact, I couldn't believe anyone else would want to do it.

The woman was fairly clueless about rural Japan, so I started explaining a little about what she should expect at a Japanese inn. By the time we were talking mineral baths, I realized she was booked into the same place and we might as well share a taxi. My solo trip had morphed into something else. I thought ruefully about the Japanese belief that there are no coincidences, that everything is part of a great cosmic plan. Considering how things turned out, I am inclined to agree.

 

Cover The Dutch cover

My first view of Shiroyama was a jumble of old-fashioned shops and houses, tiled roofs loaded down with snow and windows glowing with welcoming golden light. An old woman in kimono bustled past, holding a parasol aloft to keep off the lightly falling flakes. I would have lingered had I not been playing bellhop for my new companion, rushing to flag down a cab before it made it to the taxi stand.

"Don't mind the Vuitton. It's fake from Hong Kong," she boasted as I lifted her pair of heavy cases into the trunk. "I didn't catch your name, young lady."

"Rei Shimura." I pronounced my name slowly, as I always did growing up in the United States.

"Is that Rae with an e, or Ray with a y?"

"Neither. It's a Japanese name that rhymes with the American ones."

"Hey, Rei! It rhymes. I'm Mrs. Chapman. Marcelle," she added as an afterthought. Still, there was no question I was to call her Mrs., just as I knew she wanted me to carry her bags. She chatted all the way to Minshuku Yogetsu, which turned out to be considerably less poetic-looking than its name, which meant "night moon." Pollution had stained its stucco exterior, and windows covered by dark brown shutters made the house look like its eyes were closed to the world. Part of the garden had been converted into a parking lot holding two Toyotas, one a rusty Town Ace van and the other a sleek black Windom. Given the high price I'd paid for the room, I could guess which one belonged to the innkeepers.

Mrs. Chapman strode past me and flung the front door open. "Yoo hoo! Anyone around?"

A slender woman in her forties with short hair and an equally no-nonsense expression emerged from a side room and slid onto her knees, bowing her head deeply to the floor.

"Welcome. It was so rude of me not to be here to open the door for you." I recognized the voice as that of Mrs. Yogetsu, the innkeeper I had made the reservation with. Behind the courteous words, I sensed a reproach to us for having barged in. When I apologized and told her about the late train, her face tightened even more; she'd caught my slight American accent.

"You are traveling together? Surely you will prefer to have adjoining rooms?" Her offering was bland, but having experienced it many times before, I caught the sentiment underneath: Keep the foreigners together, separate from the rest of us.

"There's no need, absolutely no need at all." I was falling over myself. "I actually met this lady on the train."

We exchanged our shoes for house slippers, at her direction, and Mrs. Chapman painstakingly filled out the guest register while I glanced around. The place was immaculate and Zen simple, its walls hung with a few exquisite scrolls. The floor was covered by straw tatami mats ending at a sunken hearth where a fire burned with a low blue flame. Above it dangled an antique cast iron kettle. Late nineteenth century, I thought, peering at it.

I was impressed again as Mrs. Yogetsu led us past a handsome tansu chest decorated with a slightly unbalanced-looking New Year's arrangement of pine and flowering plum.

"How beautiful. Do you study flower arranging?" Maybe I could flatter her into a friendlier mood.

"As a matter of fact, I teach. I'm a sensei."

I was startled. Sensei was an honorific used to describe teachers or physicians, but was much too pompous to introduce oneself. In describing my own work, I always used kyoushi, the humble word meaning tutor.

The bedroom Mrs. Yogetsu offered me was simple and extremely small, decorated with little more than a tea table and two cushions for sitting. The closet held all the bedding plus a fresh blue and white cotton yukata, the guest robe I could wear to the communal bath. The back wall of the closet looked like another sliding door opening into the next room. How the next-door guest and I would keep our possessions separate, I wasn't sure.

I was dying to soak my tired, stiff body. Mrs. Yogetsu pointed the way down a back staircase. As I gathered together my toiletries, I heard new arrivals downstairs: a low-pitched woman's voice speaking decorously and the more forceful growl of an older man. Another male interrupted, speaking some variation of British English, his vowels more drawn out than the BBC accents I'd grown accustomed to on the short-wave.

Cover The German cover

I hung a women only sign on the blank bathroom door and entered a tidy dressing room with a glass door leading to the long, wide sunken bath. Hefting the large plastic covers off the tub, I dipped a foot in. Like all baths in Japan, this one was oppressively over-heated.

A shower area including soap, water buckets and wooden stools was an unspoken command to wash carefully before entering the tub, which would be shared by others. I knew all about public bath etiquette because my apartment had no tub, forcing me to travel to a public facility when I couldn't stand my trickling shower anymore. My neighborhood bathhouse was always crowded and had just a partial wall between the men's and women's sections; hearing old men talking two feet away did little for my relaxation.

This bath was mine alone and was big enough to swim in. I rested my head on its smooth wooden edge, remembering childhood summers at the pool, races from shallow to deep end that left me breathless. My body was something I didn't think about then. I wasn't a girl, I was a streamlined fish. Looking down at my small breasts breaking the water's surface, I evaluated how life in Japan had changed me. My legs had become sinewy from endless walking, and not being able to afford cheese or wine had flattened my stomach. The deprivation diet really worked.

A fuzzy feeling warned me I was close to over-heating. I hauled myself out and rested until my dizziness subsided. I poured a few buckets of cool water over myself before slipping back into the cauldron. It was still blistering hot, so I cracked open the window over the bath for a rush of frosty air. I heard the bath door opening and turned around, drawing my knees together modestly and preparing to nod hello to the newcomer. I was hoping for the Japanese woman with the lovely voice.

The person who came in was a tall, athletically-built man with reddish blond hair. Also naked, but now fumbling to cover himself with a hand towel. His green eyes appeared stricken in the brief moment they met mine, just before I scrambled deeper underwater for protection.

"Wrong bathroom, please leave!" I realized after the fact that I was screaming in Japanese.

"Sumimasen, excuse me!" He shouted back in the strange, textured accent I had recently overheard. "It, ah, doesn't say anything on the door—"

"It says women!" I shouted in English.

"I thought these baths were communal—"

"That doesn't mean co-ed! What do you think this is, a soapland?" As I spoke, his face reddened, giving every indication that he knew the sleazy sex baths where prostitutes used their bodies like sponges.

"I'm sorry, I meant nothing—" The man's continuing apology was cut off mid-stream as the door banged shut.

My heart continued to jack-hammer as I heard sounds of dressing going on in the other room; stumbling and the zip of a fly. When I was sure he had left, I shot out of the bath and tied on my yukata. I exited just as Mrs. Chapman came down the hall tied up like a giant package in a yellow chenille bathrobe. Probably the yukata would not have fit.

"Be careful while you bathe. The door doesn't lock." My voice shook.

"But the manager told me it would be ladies only." Mrs. Chapman scrunched up her forehead. "That sign on the door. What does it mean?"

"See this kanji; it looks like a woman kneeling, doesn't it? In Japanese, the word for woman is written as one who serves."

"What's a kanji?"

"A pictogram." At her blank expression, I tried again. "The Japanese took their system of writing from China, using pictorial symbols to represent word meanings. This is the man's symbol." I picked up the wooden sign the intruder should have known about. "What does it look like to you?"

"A blockhead on legs."

I stifled a laugh and explained, "The square is supposed to represent a rice field, and the legs underneath it represent power. So it literally means power in the rice field, which is what men did in the old agrarian culture." Next I showed her the sign for family and explained that mixed-sex bathing was considered healthy within the family unit.

"People are perverted here," Mrs. Chapman said with a hint of excitement. "Did you ever notice you can see straight into the men's toilet at the train stations?"

"You're supposed to look away and pretend the urinals aren't there," I scolded, feeling like a hypocrite. The man had offered rather good views during his struggle to get out of the bathroom. Views I should have closed my eyes against, but didn't.

 

An hour later, I sat with Mrs. Chapman in the living room waiting for dinner. She had out a scrapbook out with postcards of Asia. As she droned on about her favorite capital cities, my attention wandered over to the hearth where a middle-aged Japanese couple were warming their hands.

The man was pure Tokyo, wearing an expensively-cut navy suit and what looked like a permanent sneer. I dismissed him instantly as a salaryman, one of the essential office executives who filled urban Japan with an aura of cigarettes, Scotch and exhaustion. The woman kneeling beside him was perhaps a decade younger, her long curtain of glossy black hair tied back with a silk scarf. Her eyes were rounder than mine; no doubt she'd had the de rigeur "Fresh Eyes" plastic surgery.

What riveted me was the fact her ivory dress was made by Chanel — I quickly discerned from the buttons it was the real thing. And her jewelry was Japan's best, a double-strand choker of gleaming pearls with Mikimoto's trademark gold butterfly clasp. The outfit was too expensive for a typical salaryman's wife, she'd probably bought everything overseas at a discount. Maybe they were simply rich, the sort who had every festive move documented on the party page of the Tokyo Weekender, the bi-weekly entertainment guide I studied as closely as my antiques journals. As much as I scoffed at Tokyo's social lions, I was fascinated by them. This woman wasn't someone I recognized, but she seemed familiar. A memory of the bell-like voice I'd heard before my bath came back.

The sleek woman was inspecting me, taking in my ancient cashmere V-neck and the velvet leggings I'd thought would be okay for dinner. Her gaze lingered on my feet. Yes, they are larger than yours, that's good nutrition and my American half, I thought angrily before remembering the tiny hole in my left sock.

At dinner, Mrs. Yogetsu, the innkeeper, seated the elite couple at the head of the communal table. Mrs. Chapman and I were placed in the middle, surrounded by a sea of empty spaces.

My dinner tray looked very promising. Buckwheat noodles swam in broth that smelled deliciously of garlic and ginger. Small porcelain plates were filled with a jewel-like assortment of sashimi, as well as sweet black beans, sesame-flecked spinach, lotus root and other artistically arranged vegetables. The only foods that made me nervous were tiny dried sardines meant to be eaten whole and paper-thin slices of raw meat I suspected was horse, a regional specialty.

Mrs. Chapman's whisper drew me away from my worries. "I can't use chopsticks. Do you think I can get a fork?"

"Don't worry. It's like working a hinge." Even though grace hadn't been said, I slipped my chopsticks from their paper wrapper and showed her how to make the subtle, pincer-like movements. As she followed my lead, two new guests slid into the cushioned places across from me. I made a slight nod of greeting to a younger salaryman wearing a heavily creased navy suit that looked like a cheap cousin to the senior man's. After a panicky look, he bowed back. And then I longed to be small enough to fit into my lacquer soup bowl, because settling in right next to him was the naked giant I'd met in the bathroom.

 

© Sujata Massey.

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