An Unfortunately True Story
Some time ago, I lived in Japan and worked a strange job teaching English via video conference. As part of my contract, I was put up in company housing with other fellow misguided foreigners. Due to the high turnover rate for the job, several people came and went from the apartment while I was there. Some are still good friends, and some were real weirdos. And then there was Mark.
I was 24 when I moved to Japan. Most everyone else who worked for the company was my age too. It’s the proper age to leave wherever you’re from, sign up with a company that won’t pay for your plane ticket or the housing they’ve stuffed you in, and move to an industrial suburb outside Osaka.
So when my new roommate Mark showed up, I was a little surprised. Mark had lived. Faded blond hair grayed at the temples, a lined puffy face familiar with drink, a dumpy body long since caring. He was old.
He trundled into the apartment with large bags and a Japanese woman of similar age. He introduced himself, his accent revealing his Australian point of origin. The woman was Miwako, his “partner.” (Pronounced “paahtner”)
Partner? Like a business associate? Was he here to open a Vegimite shop, using the work visa to sneak into the country? I couldn’t imagine why he was here.
But here he was, and he was friendly and full of energy, bounding around the apartment like a kid away from home for the first time.
Talkative too. Within an hour, I knew his basic life story, and the puzzle of his particular Japanese exile started coming together. Miwako was actually his paramour. He was divorced. He had two teenage kids. He used to do law work. The town he was from had a real problem with “abbos.” (Only later did I learn this was a horribly racist Australian term for aborigines)
He’d left all that behind, and now he was here in Japan to spend time with Miwako before he whisked her off back to his homeland to marry her. He just wanted to experience her culture and get her mother's permission to wed. A romantic concept I had to admit. Maybe this guy is all right.
But then he just kept talking. By the end of two hours I knew more about his relationship with Miwako than it is appropriate to tell someone you have just met. For example, he explained how loud she gets during sex (a statement he would go on to reiterate several times). I'm sure she would have been thrilled to know I hold this information in confidence.
Miwako was a nice enough person, although her English could be hard to understand. Or maybe it was just hard to listen as I spent most of my mental energy trying not to picture her bedroom antics whenever I spoke to her.
So when I was first forced to make small talk with her I tried to steer the conversation to something simple. How long have you two been together?
"Oh about two years, six months and seven days," Mark said.
Wow. I see. And how did you meet, if you don't mind my asking?
"Oh boy, let's see, I think it was in a dream, wasn't it Miwako?"
Translation: a website specifically for white men to meet Japanese women.
No matter though, I'm not one to judge. They seemed very happy together. And best of all, with a Japanese girlfriend, Mark needed no help to get adjusted. She would take care of everything, and I could keep sitting on the couch drinking one cup sakes from the convenience store and watching game shows.
Unfortunately, fate had other plans. Mark got a distressing call that his ex-wife had been diagnosed with cancer, a call which I heard in its entirety thanks to our paper thin Japanese walls. Now guilt wracked him for being so far from his kids when they needed him. He felt he should go home and be with them, at least for a little while. So the next day he took a month of emergency leave from the company, not even a week after arriving. That night he would tell Miwako of his decision.
The walls let me be privy to that as well. Late into the night I could hear Miwako's storied moans of passion, mixing alternately with her wounded arguments with Mark and his tearful, sobbing apologies. He hated to leave so soon, but he promised he would be back.
The next morning brought a series of soft knocks on my door. So soft I wasn't sure they were knocks at all. When I looked out, there was Miwako. She was leaning close and speaking in a conspiratorial whisper. She had a card in her hand, a card with her number on it.
She was asking if I could text her. Something about Mark, and please would I text her. Then she left.
I wasn't quite sure what to make of it, and the sake hangover wasn’t helping. I considered of asking Mark, but the thought of saying "Hey Mark, any idea why your paahtner just gave me her telephone number?" wasn't appealing. So I narrowed it down to two possibilities:
1. In case of an emergency, she wanted to get in touch with Mark through my phone since he didn't have one yet.
2. She wanted me to spy on him and tell her what his state of mind was.
I puzzled it over for the next day. I briefly considered just doing nothing, my preferred course of action for most situations. But in the end I felt like I should help out. Here Mark was, in Japan, with an emergency at home, a job in limbo and a pissed-off girlfriend. What a small act it would be if I could help out by letting her reach him through my phone.
So I assumed the first possibility, since it was the least weird of the two, and sent Miwako a message saying she could reach Mark through my phone if need be.
Wrong guess. She wanted a spy.
She wrote back that she didn't want to reach him, she wanted me to tell her how he was doing. They had a huge fight because Mark decided to go back without even asking her how she felt. She was hurt and sad but she would try to think of his feelings. She thanked me for being a caring person. Then she ended with these ominous words: "Please don't tell Mark I asked you."
After receiving Miwako's request to spy on Mark and learning I had misjudged her to be a sane person, I quickly deleted the message from my phone. Getting trapped in the middle of a dysfunctional cross-cultural romance is not why I came to Japan. Creating my own dysfunctional cross-cultural romance was the goal. So decided I just wouldn't respond to Miwako, and that would be the end of that.
The right idea always comes too late.
It was the day before Mark was supposed to go home and see his kids. I made my way back from work as slow as possible by stopping at every beer vending machine I came upon. My hope was that if I delayed for a few hours, Mark and Miwako would have already left the apartment. A good plan, if only I had managed to come back one minute later.
When I reached for the door and found it unlocked, my heart bolted for my stomach and attempted to escape out my ass. Shit, they're still here. They’re still here, shit. They’re still shit here. Shit here they’re still. Shit shit shit.
I calmed myself. No matter. My room was right next to the entryway, I only needed five steps to kick off my shoes and slip in unnoticed.
That would have worked too, if Miwako hadn't been sitting in the doorway crying and blocking my way.
Shit shit shit. Ok, just get to your room. Don't look at her. Don't meet her eyes. Just move awkwardly around her and ... oh no. Oh no she's standing. Open the door. Don't look at her. Don't ... aw hell.
Miwako wiped her eyes with one hand and gently closed my door with the other. She started apologizing. She was sorry, but not sorry enough to let me go in my room. Whispering, she started telling me something. Mark was leaving tomorrow, she couldn't be there ... and who knows. I couldn’t understand a word. It sounded like a question, so I just mumbled something vaguely positive sounding and retreated to my room.
Just in time. Mark (who was also crying when I came in) came out of his room to interrogate her. "What did you just say to Patrick?" he belched out between tears. I hastily turned on my computer and cranked some music up. The front door slammed.
Mark has stormed out. Then he came back. Then Miwako left. Then Mark left. Then they came back. An argument ensued in mangled, accented English. I didn't care, I just wanted to be left alone. Finally, they left together for what seemed to be for good.
Hours later I was sitting on the couch watching two Japanese comedians smash pies in each other’s crotches, enjoying a pleasant dinner of steamed pork bun and Johnny Walker. Suddenly Mark came sulking back in. Alone. He sat at the table and ... just sat there. Sighing. For ten straight minutes. I turned the sound up on a commercial, but Mark’s sigh assault continued. Don’t mind Mark, the sighs said, even though he is obviously upset, so terrible upset. He doesn't want to be a bother. He'll just sit here and audibly sigh, over and over, not bothering you at all.
Don't look at him. Just watch TV. Don't say anything. Don't even move. He'll go away eventually.
"Hey Patrick, mind if I ask you something?"
The room shrank.
Shit. Yeah Mark, what is it?
"Earlier today, when Miwako was talking to you, what did she say?"
Shit. Well to be honest Mark, I can't really understand her when she talks. Something about you leaving tomorrow.
"She didn't say anything about me? Or about us?"
Umm no, just that you were leaving and that she couldn't be there or something.
"Yeah, she won't be there, we broke up. She's furious that I'm leaving her, said I shouldn't leave her, so it's over."
Ah. I see ... I'm ... sorry to hear that.
"Yeah ... has she called you or anything? Did she give you her number?"
Run. (audible gulp) Yeah, yeah she did the other day, I think just so she could get in touch with you in an emergency, you know, something like that.
"Yeah ... yeah. She's very thoughtful. She's a wonderful woman, a great woman, and she's on the market now, obviously, so ..."
Yeah well ... what?
"Just that, she's a great woman, you know, I don't know if you're interested but she's definitely a great woman for a guy to have."
Panic. Listen, Mark, listen, just give her some time. I'm sure she'll cool down.
That seemed to get through. He asked to use my laptop to email her. So I let him, and then watched him sit next to me on the couch and check it every ten minutes to see if she replied. I checked the clock: 9:25. Too early to act like I was going to sleep. I'd have to wait until at least 10. Poor bastard. Despite my discomfort and irritation, I was starting to feel bad for him.
Then the text message from Miwako came.
"Patrick, did Miwako send you a message? She says she just did."
She’s trying to kill me. Uh, sent me a message? Let me check ... yeah, got a message right here ...
"What does it say mate, if you don't mind me asking?"
So I started reading it aloud, because how could that be a bad idea:
"Mark is upset at me. I wanted to ask you in case something happens to him through text messaging. But he thinks I wanted ..."
I stopped speaking.
But he thinks I wanted to sleep with you or something. But he can't say anything now, because I told him he hurt me with his decision and his words. He might say something about it but please forgive him.
I stared at it. Then Mark, sitting right next to me: "What does she say?"
Nothing, I said briskly, snapping the phone shut. She was just apologizing for earlier today when I walked in on you two. No big deal.
And now I had Miwako's side of the story. And I was a major character.
With this information, the act of Mark telling me Miwako was available became even weirder. Was he trying to catch me being interested? Was he backing away from her like an animal that just lost a mating ritual?
Not having learned my lesson from the outcome of my first good deed, I forced my phone on Mark and made him call his girlfriend. Not out of concern for his relationship, mind you. I just wanted to get him away from me.
Two hours later he gave me my phone back. The battery had died, but he said he tied things up with Miwako. I didn't care. It was finally late enough to go to sleep, so I grabbed my phone and ran off before he could strike up more conversation.
Laying on my futon that night, I contemplated the actions that brought me to one of the most uncomfortable evenings of my life. What could I have done different? How much of this is my fault? Is Mark the kind of man to sneak into my room and put a pillow over my face?
Eventually I just brushed it aside. Mark was leaving for the airport early tomorrow. He would be gone before I even woke up and I wouldn't have to worry about him again. With no Miwako, he'd have no reason to come back to Japan. My home life would be serene once again.
I bounded up the next morning, ready to face the day. The sun was out, the birds were singing, and Mark hadn't smothered me with Vegimite in my sleep. Nothin' gettin' me down today.
As I opened the door, it hit something outside. A large pair of black shoes. Mark's shoes. Shoes that should be cruising at 30,000 feet, speeding back to whatever aborigine hating, dingo infested Australia backwater they came from.
I stepped out and looked into the kitchen. There was Mark.
"Good news mate! I cancelled that flight. My kids are alright, they don't need me right away. I'm going to stay here, try to work things out with Miwako."
Work them out, right here, in front of me, in my tiny Japanese apartment.