Strawberry flavoring isn't something I'm a fan of, but it was during my stay in Japan that I became enamoured with it. Thus, strawberry pocky, which tastes of fluoride and breadsticks, brings back memories of an upstairs classroom with that looked down on a plum tree blooming across the street. Light would come in through the windows and create squares of lazy warmth on the carpeting. It was silent before the first set of students arrived. If there was sound at all, it came from the CD I'd play to build up the momentum I'd need to keep me going for the next three to five hours.
Those silences weren't lonely. Not like the ones that settled, deep as mid-winter snow, in my apartment after I returned home. I played music a lot at home, or had the TV on just so it seemed like someone else lived there. James, the district leader, told me once that I might have had the largest apartment of any of the teachers.
Most nights it was too large.
I don't remember the name of the town that upstairs classroom was in, but I recall I had to take a bus to get there. Two or three of the five days, I had to hope the parents picked all the kids up on time, because otherwise I'd miss the last bus. Not once did I, but I always worried that I would.
It rained one night—poured and pissed—while I hurried for that last bus, splashing the puddles in my suede boots. They'd already been "ruined" on the night I walked from Dave's to the Lawson's, caught in a celestrial temper tantrum, and had one of what should have been the most comedic conversations of my life. The night where a semi splashed me head to toe, as if I was in a romantic comedy or a chick lit book. Only, in fiction, an adorable Japanese guy would have stopped his car afterwards and offered me a ride home—instead I trudged the rest of the way to my apartment, soaked from head to toe. At least my umbrella didn't have a hole in it.
That town, oh that town, was so good to me. With the cake shop where I'd pick up treats to share with Dave and Alice when we all went to his apartment for dinner. The three of us chipping to make something of a meal, to form a little Kumagaya foreign family.
Why can't I remember the name of the town? I remember the teacher at the school was Rumi, who didn't speak very much English. She was yasashi—kind and genki—enthusiastic. I loved when she was there to teach the younger classes, even if we couldn't really say much to each other. What mattered was two people filled the silence, turning it from lonely to comfortable.
I can even remember the name of the teacher who Dave had a crush on. Nozomi—hope. How upset he was that she brought him chocolate on Valentine's day, but John was substituting so he ate the chocolate instead. How I always wondered if it was giri-obligation chocolate, like the bar I gave Dave, or honmei chocolate like what I never gave Masahiro. (Or was his name Masahito?) Honmei chocolate, to confess the feelings so much more appropriately than how I struggled on that last night in Kumagaya, when he'd been drinking but Dave wanted us to have a chance to say goodbye. How I didn't understand that being Japanese meant never having to say "I like you," and that feelings should have been kept inside so as to not burden the other party.
I wonder if Masahiro/hito still has the keychain I brought him from Tokyo Tower on one of the Foreign Family outings. We got lost trying to find Tokyo tower—Dave, Alice, Wasim and I. Maybe Jimmy and Waka were there, too. We ended up at a temple that seemed to be just in front of the tower, and I bought the little doll charm who was supposed to take all my bad luck from me. The one whose bell fell off a few weeks later when I was walking home one night, and I always wondered if that was because she'd saved me from... something.
I still have the doll charm. Just like I still have the keychain Masahiro/hito won for me from a UFO push machine on our first "date." When Dave and I met him and his coworkers for kareoke. Dave and I tried to sing "Eyes on Me" as a duet, but he didn't know the words, despite swearing that he did.
There's a picture of Masahiro/hito and I together on that night. We look like a couple. At least I thought so when I got it developed, but maybe I saw what I wanted to see. Maybe Ayumi took the photo. Maybe she really did name her baby after me or Dave, like she joked that she would. Maybe Masahiro/hito said that we were friends in English when I asked him if he liked me in Japanese because it was the proper thing to say. Do you think after four years he's forgiven a foolish foreign girl who didn't know the rules?
She's forgiven him. Even if there was nothing that needed forgiving.
I don't really even like the taste of Strawberry Pocky, but I eat it. Just like I'm not sure I even like Japan, but I still dream of being back there. It's not the country that disappoints me, but the fact that it can never be the country of my memory—stripped of its prejudices and sewer smells, lonely lonely nights and heartbreaks, rudeness and stares and segregation.
So I buy a ticket, and I tell myself "this time, I will love Japan." Becauase, in its strange way, Japan loved me.