Note: This is fiction. Any resemblance, etc.
Anne was bitter, burned out. Here she was, smart, creative, aware. Why was she totally boxed in, then? She lived alone in an unnurturing city, at least a city that provided her with few delights--Tokyo. She felt that she had gone more than a little mad.
She lived on the 14th floor of an apartment building, the cheapest place she could find, compact accommodations for urban living, you might say. She could move around some in her room if she propped the mattress up on the wall. Her clothes hung on a rod.
Not long ago she had lived in her lovely house by the sea on Maui. What a change. "I'm ruined, I guess," she said out loud to herself on this sticky July morning. She did talk to herself quite a bit these days, sometimes on the street and in stores, too, not noticing until she got that startled look from people around her, already on the alert that she was a misfit, not one of them.
"Where did I put that skirt, for Christ sake?" It had fallen off the hanger onto the rather filthy floor. "I can't be bothered to clean up, no one's ever in here but me anyway." She never used to be such a slob, but try doing better when you have 40 hours of teaching, have to stand on crowded subways to get to work, and do all your shopping on foot, not to mention cooking for yourself. No wonder she was such a wreck.
In a cubicle was a tiny shower with one of those telephone things and toilet and sink, where she tried to put her appearance in order. "It would help if I cared, but I don't," she mumbled, yanking a comb through the tangled red bush on her head. She did not like to think about getting her clothes washed, which needed to be done very soon. Her skirt could be worn one more time, and the blouse was clean. "Better polish those shoes, though." Polishing shoes was big, something people noticed, so she always attended to that. Checking herself out in the tiny mirror, she decided she'd pass for human.
Opening the door, down the elevator, into the street, off she went into the crowds and noise, no longer reflecting, but coping as she had to in that demanding, alien place. How did she get here? What series of events put her into this situation that fit her so badly?
Her husband had left her a year ago for a cute young thing from the Philippines, a demure schoolgirl, 19 to his 54, that he met in one of those Bible-thumper churches that had had such a success among Filipinos who no longer felt much uplift in Catholicism. He had dallied in Manila on a holiday he insisted on taking by himself, because he felt the need of spiritual cleansing, and there she sat, sloe eyes cast piously downward, dark hair cascading over her brow, dying to do anything a man could dream of to get out of poverty.
They had moved back to the U.S.Mainland and Anne did not even know or care where he was at this point. Leila, their daughter, while disgusted with her father, had not exactly rallied to Anne's side, rather difficult for her to do all the way from California anyway. Leila had her life to think about, her growing family of three and another one on the way, the mortgage: Anne tried to understand. The fact is, Leila had written Les and her off much earlier and, quite predictably. She had only tolerated them and their way of life until she could get away.
She and Les had loved to travel. Times had been better once, for them. Both coming from dull Iowa stock in the "cake and cookie baking belt," as Les put it, young, charming, he blond, she a lively redhead, full of wholesomeness, they had hit the road, selling themselves as English teachers all over Europe and Southeast Asia, finding and losing Paradise on Maui, splitting up and going their separate ways.
Les, a person of incredible energy, popular with everyone, had always made her feel lucky. She had everything--an exciting husband, and then Leila, a tractable child that you could drag everywhere and even take to restaurants without being embarrassed. On planes, Leila would sit like a little lady while the kids around them panicked and screamed and squirmed and messed themselves She took to strange quarters and stranger baby-sitters, nursemaids, and ammas without protest. Sights, sounds, and odors seemed not to get to her.
Only later did it occur to Anne that Leila did not care about adventures and the exotic. She had reverted to Midwestern type, evidently, starting at a very early age. Leila could hardly wait to find some unexciting man to marry so she could settle down comfortably in a gated suburban community. Her son-in-law Bob acted like a soporific on Anne--earnest and dull, a software engineer who did not mind spending eight hours a day in front of a computer and then coming home to surf the 'net, pausing only to impregnate his wife.
Leila did not even care to have a career, but instead bred and drove around in her SUV chatting to friends on her cell phone as she went. She enjoyed living in a place where there were no dark faces, no funny smells. She awaited her fourth child. Anne wished she could care about the grandmother bit, but it didn't do much for her. It shocked and appalled her that Leila would feel free to have so many children in an insanely crowded world and to consume as if resources would last forever. She even belonged to a "pro-life" group of others like her, all having baby after baby and settling into a matronly existence. Maybe if she lived closer…But no, she couldn't stand it.
After Les left, Anne stayed in Maui for a while; she took up a series of New Age distractions and very nearly went insane from all the drugs she took. She even allowed herself to be drawn into a cult, because she felt that one or two of the women there seemed to have found happiness. But one day she was meditating, and suddenly she felt this enormous scream rise in her but she could not get it out. She sat there in rigid terror for several hours until she could release herself. It was then that it really hit her that she was broke and would have to find a good paying job soon or risk losing her house.
Even now Anne had trouble paying attention to things and would fall into this space and be unable to emerge. The terror had gone, but she would lose herself for hours or even days. The distractions of everyday life and work in Japan helped somewhat. She did not have to deal with others except on a very superficial plane, so she did not feel threatened with engulfment.
Actually, aside from the depression, she felt OK, more OK than she had felt for a long time. And it was a relief to be almost solvent again. She realized that she was a person who did not know how to be happy but had always let Les be happy for her, and once she understood that, she felt great relief. In Japan, Anne knew she was in the wrong place, a misfit, a big bony woman teaching classes of cute little anorexic girl-women who giggled behind their hands. She tried to feel sorry for them and not to hate them. With the best of will, she found them very annoying.
On the Japanese diet, and as a result of trudging up hundreds of subway stairs every day, she had gotten very thin and fit. The thinness did seem to unburden her in some way. She had to work very hard at her job, but she'd never made so much money in her life. She felt guilty, because she was really burned out on teaching. The students weren't used to anything better than she gave them, of course. English teaching for the masses was a big-time racket in Japan.
In her class, the girls sat passively, waiting for the time to be up so they could get back to their chatting and giggling. She had no idea how to animate them. "Maybe if I waved a hunky young American teacher in front of their noses they'd wake up," she told Vera, her colleague. Vera was pretty young herself and just thought Anne was being an old grump. The ads for the language school showed a young Japanese woman on the verge of being kissed by a young, handsome Caucasian. Dream on, girls. It was a lousy school. She knew that because they had hired her and Vera, who was so totally incompetent that she thought she was a good teacher, when actually she was very bad. She was sorry to disappoint the students, actually, and she knew she was not good at teaching any more, but she had to earn the money; She and Les had got caught in a bad real estate market on Maui and now Anne, who had gotten the house in the divorce settlement, had a very high mortgage. Truly, she was a victim of negative equity.
The Japanese-owned college she and Les had worked for there had closed down and thrown everyone out of work with no warning. None of that womb to tomb stuff for these Gaijin. She couldn't sell the house, didn't want to, really. She missed her house very much. Two years ago she was there, overlooking the sea with the trades blowing soft breezes at her, imagining that she had a marriage, painting her paintings that did not sell but which she felt the importance of creating, and now she found herself alone in a society that interested her but also made her feel crazy. But she had to pay off that mortgage, which meant she was stuck here for two more years.
She felt that the Japanese would be much happier if they were robots. They ran around full of feelings they didn't understand and couldn't deal with. When disaster struck, as in Kobe, They would stand there asking themselves, "How is this experience making me feel?" They couldn't cope with emergencies, because they were so busy listening to their insides. "Just like me, " Anne thought. I blocked my feelings out for years, and now I'm practically an automaton. Or maybe just dazed by personal disaster."
She tried to remember what she was like at her students' age. Certainly as self-conscious and conformist as they were. But we changed it, didn't we? We left our cozy assumptions about life and ventured forth. We wrote our own stories instead of letting men write them. Our mothers existed in the minds of men and never reached beyond that. Can these young things do it? Not that she was an inspiring example of success, another woman dumped, but at least she knew who she was right now, admittedly, a mess, but trying to mend things.
And so, two years later, it came to pass, as she had hoped and planned for. Back in her wonderful house, now solvent, she could paint again. She had even found a job teaching English part time. Most of the students were Japanese women, an inescapable part of her life, it seemed. They came to Hawaii hoping to learn enough English to get into an American college. Most of them had no chance of doing this. They were not serious about their studies. They attended two-year colleges in Japan that prepared them to be office girls and later good wives. The ones who had other plans for themselves didn't seem serious to her--examples--become a "nail specialist." One of her students came to class every day wearing her Lee Press-on specialties on both fingernails and toenails. The hours she spent preparing them were hours she did not spend learning English. After two terms in the program, you still couldn't get her to open up her mouth and utter a single English sentence, although she chattered away in Japanese every chance she got. Her best friend wanted to be a criminal psychologist for the FBI but felt that her lack of English and the fact that she was Japanese would work against her dream.
Look at their situation. They came here and found that their English was very bad and that the kind of men they wanted were not interested in them. The Polynesian men they regarded as racially inferior, and they laughed at the Chinese and Korean students, whom they regarded as culturally inferior. Asian women had no exotic appeal on the Islands, either.
Girls as spoiled as this with such bad attitudes and obviously dependent could expect no adventures here. They sat out on the lanai smoking and waiting for Mr. Right to show up, but he never did. So they returned home after a short while, or they went to other programs where they hoped to have a better chance at meeting American men. Las Vegas, cheap and exciting, attracted many of them away. How would they do there? Better, they hoped, than here, where they got Anne. Not that wonderful English teacher who would look into those almond eyes, admire the sweep of that black hair, note with appreciation these dainty limbs, and become an infatuated slave. But Anne.
At this juncture, along came Ray. He recently finally got a full-time job up at the telescope as a computer technician. He thinks she's perfectly fine the way she is. He loves her house and does a lot of handywork, stretches her canvas for her with his strong hands, and he keeps her company at night. His funny, beat-up face and disheveled ways cheer Ann amazingly. He's all beat up. He shaved his head once to keep cool, but it's pretty well grown back. The stubble stage was uncomfortable. He makes her laugh. He's frequently ebullient. He never tries to hide his nature from her. He doesn't step out on her. A former drinker, he's been dry for ten years. He's not afraid to be silly or mistaken. Just what she needs. "Why did we go for the conceited ones?" she asks herself. "Why did I think Les the narcissist was the man for me?
People on the street smile broadly but kindly at the scrawny red-haired middle aged Hauli woman walking along, chatting away to herself.
Copyright 2000, Marianna Scheffer