The English Teacher by Pete Able

When he was in his early twenties, Thomas taught English in a small city in Western Japan. His classroom was on the second floor of a fitness center that sat along the river running through the center of town. The swimming pool was just down the hall and the smell of chlorine worked its way inside the small, square, brightly-lit room. Thomas spent roughly thirty hours a week there behind a narrow gray folding table, working with his students.

Most of Thomas’s students were middle-aged women who just wanted to work on their chat, but chatting had never been a strong suit of Thomas’s. He would read newspapers and prepare a few topics for each lesson, but Thomas still found it difficult to fill the whole hour. When it came down to it, he just didn’t have much in common with middle-aged Japanese women.

One student, Kimiko, a thirty-four-year old woman with pale skin, was a particular challenge. She was cute and pleasant but Thomas could hardly make heads or tails of her grammar or some of the phrases she used. She worked for a travel agency but had never been anywhere herself and had few interests outside of food and movies. Her lessons were at 8pm on Wednesdays and Thomas was often tired.

In her very first class, Kimiko asked Thomas, “I do anything before today?” Thomas told her honestly that he had no idea if she had done anything whatsoever, which made Kimiko’s pale face flush. It took several minutes to unravel the mystery of Kimiko’s meaning. Finally, they arrived at the question she really meant to ask, which was, “What did you do today?”

The next lesson Kimiko turned to the topic of food. “What is the rice in the night of today?” she asked. Thomas was beginning to learn some common mistakes Japanese people made so it didn’t take him long to realize that she had meant to ask, “What did you have for dinner?” Thomas told her. He had gone to a fast food place for a bento box, as was his custom.

“Do you make rice with oneself?” asked Kimiko. Thomas decided she meant to ask, “Don’t you ever cook?” in an accusatory way, but he wasn’t sure about the tone. Perhaps she was only concerned about his health or finances.

Before Thomas had a chance to respond, Kimiko continued with, “I am partial every day if I eat at a restaurant.” Thomas couldn’t translate this. Part of the problem was that ‘partial’ was a tricky word. He knew it could mean both ‘incomplete’ and ‘biased’ or ‘prejudiced,’ but he wasn’t sure which definition Kimiko had in mind. Was she prejudiced about eating in restaurants? Did it make her feel incomplete? At last, after much discussion, Thomas came to understand that Kimiko felt she was wasting money if she ate out more than once a week.

“Do you like to cook?” asked Thomas.

Kimiko’s face lit up as she bumbled through an explanation of how she cooked “wholesome” dinners for her and her parents six nights a week. Thomas then learned that she lived with her parents in a big “Japanese-style” house, which had a wide, “hip-and-gable,” tiled roof.

****

As their lessons progressed Kimiko began asking Thomas more personal questions. “Was there a person who was good for that shop?” she asked, which meant, “Do you like anyone at work?” Thomas told her there wasn’t and that that would be unprofessional of him.

In the same personal vein Kimiko asked Thomas, “Any kind of person is a type?” which more or less meant, “What’s your type?” Thomas was flustered before managing to stammer, “I like dark hair.”

Kimiko seemed elated. She beamed in fact, saying, “The person that the hair is black is an enthusiast?” She paused, fixing a piece of her short black hair behind her ear. “I hate my raven-black hair. So boring. But, are you certain? Is not there a good person?” which meant, Thomas figured, “Do you like anyone?” or maybe “Do you have a girlfriend?”

Thomas was beginning to sense a theme. Kimiko seemed very interested in his love-life. Was it possible that she had a thing for him, or was she just making conversation? Thomas could never tell about those kinds of things.

If she did like him, he decided, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Though she was ten years older than he was, she didn’t look it one bit.

Thomas’s main concern was that dating Kimiko would mean losing her as a student. He was having trouble maintaining a full roster of classes, as several students had quit on him already. They all had claimed some scheduling conflict or another, but Thomas worried it was really due to his lack of interesting chat.

He had come from Boston a year and a half before but he still hadn’t gotten the hang of things. There was something about the work, the people, or the culture, that confounded him. Whatever it was, Thomas couldn’t put his finger on it.

****

Unlike most of his other students, who never seemed to make any progress, Kimiko proved to be very dedicated to learning English. She studied in her free time, came to class full of questions and prepared long speeches for review, making rapid progress. In the course of just six months she went from a hopeless beginner, to an intermediate conversational level. It seemed she had known most of the words all along, and now had more or less learned to put them in the correct order.

In this time, Thomas had continued to lose students. He was only working twenty-three hours per week and could barely afford his bachelor lifestyle. If things got much worse he would have to stop going to restaurants and take out places and learn to cook rice for himself, or even find a roommate.

Thomas was never certain, but as time passed he came to think Kimiko was interested in him only as a teacher and friend. It seemed to make more sense that when she asked him personal questions she was just being curious, or that she was actually just practicing being flirtatious so that she could talk to other foreigners, rather than him specifically.

That she was not interested in him romantically became unmistakably apparent one evening in late summer, when the heat was at its most sweltering. At the appointed hour Kimiko rushed into Thomas’s office in her work uniform, a navy blazer and skirt with a cream-colored blouse. Thomas could immediately see something was wrong, as she skipped the usual niceties and sat down across from him at the narrow table.

Kimiko sighed and said, “I am long.” Thomas took this to mean ‘sad’ or ‘worried’ merely by the expression on Kimiko’s normally bright, open face.

“What’s the matter?” Thomas asked.

“I have a story to tell,” she said. “It is long and makes me long. I don’t know about it. It’s a personal episode. Should I tell it?”

“Please start at the beginning,” Thomas said, sounding like a therapist, he thought.

Kimiko scooted back in her seat and sat up straight, clearing her throat. “My boyfriend has a girlfriend, I think. I don’t know it, but I think it.”

Thomas stared at Kimiko. Kimiko stared back at him with big eyes. The story wasn’t so long after all, and Thomas was caught off balance.

“Do you have a boyfriend? I didn’t know,” said Thomas.

“Yes, boyfriend,” smiled Kimiko. “He’s new. Sort of my boyfriend, sort of relax, casual. I don’t know the English word. Maybe part-time. Sort of.”

“I didn’t know you were seeing anyone. When did you meet him?”

“Two months before about,” said Kimiko. “Yes, seven weeks about.”

“But you think he might have a girlfriend?”

“Maybe. Maybe no. Maybe girlfriend. Maybe wife. Maybe I’m adulterer.” Kimiko spoke in a matter of fact way, as if this were a faux pas that happened to everyone at least once. And Thomas wasn’t sure. Perhaps in Japan, it did.

“Tell me the story. Tell me all about it. It will be good practice.”

Kimiko smoothed her hair on one side then folded her hands in her lap. “I will tell some,” she said. Kimiko nodded her head once and then began. “We met in pachinko parlor. I went with my friend. My girlfriend I work with. We didn’t know how to play well. He was sitting near. Playing only by himself. Soon he came to give help. He was very cool. He wearing black shirt.”

“I wouldn’t have guessed you were the gambling type. Did you win any money?”

“Yes,” replied Kimiko. “I win a little. I never win before, but because him help, I win 8,000 yen.”

“That’s exciting! Congratulations! What happened next?”

“I give him my phone number and he call next night. He call seven o’clock about.”

“The next night? He was very eager, I see. Very keen.”

Kimiko smiled and said, “Yes. I was excited too.”

“Did you go on a date?”

“Yes. We make a date two days later. It was Monday night. We went to izakaya restaurant. He was very cool. He wear slim pants. Very cool.”

“How was the meal? What did you eat? What did you drink?”

“The food was so-so. I ate fish. Red fish, I think. I don’t know how you call it. He ate pork dumplings and soup. I drink very tasty cocktail. He drink beer. We talk long. Very long. Until near midnight.”

“Sounds like it was a good date. Must’ve been fun. What did you talk about?”

“We talk about many things. Music. Movie. Old friend. He say many funny stories.”

Kimiko smiled at the memory and rubbed her ear lobe with her thumb and forefinger.

“What happened next?”

“I embarrassed.”

Kimiko held her hand in front of her mouth to hide a smile.

“Don’t be,” Thomas said. “It’s OK, I won’t judge you. Just think of it as English practice. You might want to know how to talk about these kinds of things someday.”

“Well, in this case… We went to love hotel.”

Thomas shouldn’t have been surprised but he was. Thomas always attributed the women he liked with more modesty than any grown women (outside of cloistered nuns) actually possessed.

“I see. What then?”

“You know.”

Her hand in front of her mouth again.

“I’m sorry,” said Thomas. “I mean what happened after that?”

The next part came in a rush of bad grammar and thickly accented conjoiners. Thomas breathed deeply of the chlorine laden air as he listened.

“For one month we meet at love hotel three or four times every week. Always same hotel. Always same room with jungle theme. He like it. He say he feel like Tarzan. But we stay only two or three hour every time. He say he always busy at work. I think he’s salary man—architect office he say, so it make sense. But, lately, two times he take cell phone into bathroom and talk low, so I can’t hear. Stay in bathroom maybe five or ten minute. When he come out he say talking to son from ex-wife. But I don’t know about it.”

When Kimiko stopped she looked at the wall and smoothed her hair on the same side as before, using both hands in an overlapping continuous motion.

“Do you believe him?” asked Thomas.

“I don’t know.”

“What did you do?”

“After second time I say I want to meet his son. I like child. I like small boy. So cute and funny. So I say I want to meet.”

“And what did he say?”

“He say, ‘no’.”

“He said ‘no’? Did he give a reason?”

“He say, ‘No. Not good idea.’ But he give no reason. So now I don’t know what I better do. I don’t believe him, I think. Maybe he say ex-wife, but really she still-wife, I think.”

“You think he’s still married and that’s why he didn’t want you to meet his son?”

“Maybe that’s what I think. He’s a liar and I can’t trust about it.”

More to himself than anything, Thomas said, “Kids will occasionally spill the beans.”

“Spill the beans? Is that American phrase?”

“Yes. Sorry.”

“What does it mean?” This was a question Kimiko often asked: “What does it mean? What does it mean?” Over and over.

“I guess it means ‘to tell secrets.’ I should have said, ‘Kids will occasionally tell secrets.’”

“I see. Spill the beans.”

Kimiko’s gaze went up and away and then she frowned. Thomas saw her glance over at the clock on the wall and he felt the burden of having to fill the silence.

“So what will you do? Will you end the relationship?”

“I don’t know yet. It’s difficult. Maybe I love he.”

Thomas was quiet as he considered this.

“Do you know what you said wrong?” This was a question Thomas often asked. He would give Kimiko a chance to correct her own grammar.

“No,” she said. “I don’t know.”

“You should have said, ‘Maybe I love him.’”

“I see. Thank you.”

Kimiko smoothed her hair. Thomas looked over his notes and at the few articles he’d summarized. An earthquake, a celebrity death, a scientific study. Thomas tried to imagine which would be the most interesting to Kimiko. He chose the study, which explained why sugar dependency can be such a hard habit to break.

****

The following week Kimiko called to cancel her lesson and Thomas was a little worried. Not only because losing another student would just about tip his finances into the red, but also because Kimiko seemed in a desperate personal situation. He wasn’t sure, he didn’t feel that he understood her all that well, but Kimiko seemed a bit of a desperate case. He hoped he was wrong, but he worried that if things didn’t work out with this man she was seeing, she might do something hazardous to her health. Thomas had heard stories about Japanese people jumping in front of commuter trains before.

During all of his other lessons Thomas was distracted. He listened to the women talk about their gardens, their jobs, their cooking, their funny or strange husbands, and he nodded as they gave the short speeches they prepared about current events, but he could barely comment. Thoughts of Kimiko’s affair, including a thousand imagined details, and of his precarious finances and, hence, his whole foothold in the country, filled his mind. In addition, the August humidity showed no signs of backing off.

Thomas was relieved when Kimiko showed up for her next lesson. She seemed a little tired or distracted, but she told no “long” stories as before. For the first twenty minutes Thomas and she discussed the weather and current events in a disinterested manner. When these topics ran their course, only then did Thomas bring up the relationship she’d discussed during their last meeting.

“Have you been seeing much of the same man from before?”

“Yes, I see him sometimes.”

“At the same love hotel?”

“Yes.”

“In the jungle themed room?”

“Yes.”

“Does he still take his cell phone into the bathroom?”

“No. He don’t go in bathroom anymore.”

“What changed? Has he stopped taking calls while the two of you are together?”

Kimiko glanced down and checked the immaculate white nail polish on her left hand.

“He take calls. He take calls from office. From friend. From son. And from wife.”

Kimiko checked the nails on her right hand. When she first started studying with him, Thomas had no trouble imagining Kimiko a virgin, but now the illusion was completely blown out of the water.

“I see,” said Thomas.

For something like the one-thousandth time during one of his lessons, Thomas found himself at a loss for words. And, as he often did at these times, Thomas began to suspect he was in the wrong line of work.


Pete Able’s work has appeared in Literally Stories, Philadelphia Stories, Blue Lake Review, Spillwords Press, and Johnny America amongst others. He lives in southern New Jersey. You can find links to some of his stories on his Facebook page here.

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