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Carlos is intertwined with my love of the pleasures of Japan. We met there while we were both in the Navy, meeting the first time at work in the windowless, cold bunker that was our command’s building. We were under fluorescent lights in the drab beige uniforms of Navy office work, but he was vivid and funny and sexy. I found myself flirting helplessly. And soon we were off on adventures, Japan becoming the backdrop of our passionate affair, with a definite, looming ending date: I would be transferred to Hawaii in nine months.
Mono no aware is the Japanese concept for being sensitive to the sadness and beauty of fleeting moments. Everything we did–eat sushi, drink sake, visit temples, make love, read aloud from “The Confederacy of Dunces”–was tinged with my feeling of the poignancy of the impending end. For what relationship could survive my move to Hawaii, the inevitable fizzle of the long-distance romance?
So, Tokyo, September 1992, we are saying goodbye before I board the bus for Narita airport; I am crying, cradling this pain of the end, and he says, “Don’t cry, I’ll see you in 6 months.” It hadn’t occurred to me that this could continue, that he was already planning the future.
The future was expensive phone calls and long letters in the time before e-mail, a civil ceremony in Honolulu on October 7, 1993, and, when my four years of service were up, married life together–finally!–in San Diego in August 1994.
After all that mono no aware, the together time sped up and propelled us. San Diego, Washington, D.C., Naples, Italy, back to San Diego, Montgomery, Alabama, London, Yokosuka, and finally back to the D.C. area. Besides living in the U.K., Japan, and Italy, we vacationed in Bali, Vietnam, France, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, Ireland, Spain, Belgium, Mexico, Bolivia, and Puerto Rico. He deployed many, many times for six months, three months, eight months. Each time it hurt and then it stopped. Perhaps I learned patience, perhaps we were just stubborn and persistent.
We bought our first house. We renovated a bathroom, we gardened and hosted dinner parties. He retired from the Navy. We adopted two rescue dogs. We got fatter and older. We fought, we made up, we got drunk–often. And we laughed.
We laugh and laugh. We endlessly quote movies: “Stripes,” “Bull Durham,” “Caddyshack,” “The Godfather,” “Cool Hand Luke.” When we started dating, he read to me National Lampoon’s version of Che Guevara’s Bolivian Diaries.
Noviembre 13. [...] Even I found myself forcing down a bottle of Coca-Cola, the vile mate of yanqui imperialists, Although the foul liquid made me gag, I noticed an odd aftertaste that I could not dispel. A half hour later I found myself having another, and yet another. This is foolish counterrevolutionary weakness on my part, and I will steel myself against it. But I suppose it can’t hurt to kill the six-pack.
Enero 17. No Cokes for three days. My hands are shaky and my knees are weak. I am itching like a man on fuzzy tree. Delirious. I cannot go on unless I have another. Soon. A peasant in the village will deal with me–one rifle, one six-pack.
Enero 20. [...] A company of Bolivian infantry opened fire, chopping Pombo and his men into paella. [...] Marcos himself barely escaped with his life, shielding his body with a Coca-Cola cooler.
Summer 1992: I am laughing with delight as he reads to me. And then twenty years flash and burn. And I am here, with puppies and husband. And I am still laughing.
If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, but lingered on forever in the world, how things would lose their power to move us! The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.
—Yoshida Kenkō, Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idleness) (Donald Keene, trans.)
A last dinner together with good friends. She hands me fabulous peonies cut from her garden. Their aroma is mono no aware. This pink beauty cannot last, the sweetness of the perfume is tinged with sadness. But such is the life of Navy families, now moving in or getting ready to move, or wondering how long we will stay. We ask, “How long are your orders for?” We wonder how long the perfume will last.
Au revoir mes amis…
It has been a lovely morning despite the guilt I feel not doing much productive work in the new house while my husband is in an office doing that Navy stuff he does. I checked out Daily Kos, watched Prop 8–the Musical. A comment on that thread directed me to Neil Patrick Harris in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Then I remembered and read some more Dispatches from Roy Kesey, An American Guy Married to a Peruvian Diplomat Living in China on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. All the videos and readings were delightful. I drank Coca-Cola (the hard-core stuff) that we bought because we were having a big family party and some people would be driving. Otherwise we wouldn’t have it in the house because I tend to drink it. All.
Last night the new stainless steel vent hood for the stove arrived in an overly large FedEx truck. The truck was at least 50 feet long and it made all the 1939 brick bungalow houses on our street look tiny. It was huge, not one of those boxy FedEx trucks that look friendly and efficient and from which the guy in shorts jumps out and hands you a thin white package. This was a trailer truck; it was moving-your-household-goods-from-Japan big. The delivery man, whom we were inclined to like already because he had called ahead to tell us there was traffic and that he’d be late, swung open the back doors and disappeared into a long, shockingly empty, very unlit trailer. While he was banging around in the dark, rolling a hand cart, unfastening things, the guys across the street walked out of their house. We had been informed by other neighbors that these guys “do the big Christmas lights every year.” I was eager to meet them because they have lived in the neighborhood for more than 10 years and because the yard contractor who trimmed our bushes and cut down a dead tree after we moved in told me that the inside of the guys’ house looks “exactly like Key West.”
Carlos introduces me. They tell us about the previous owners of the house: conservative, Southern, not entirely happy living in Northern Virginia, she a “natural gardener.” I tell them I like plants you can eat. They speak of dead heading the perennials and I feel panic rise. I was thinking a few basil plants would do. We agree to show them ours if they show us theirs. They laugh and say they can see well into our house anyway. I have to remember to draw our newly hung curtains at night. The delivery man emerges from the dark, rolls our vent hood into the house, and drives off in that rattling, empty truck. The guys head off to buy a Christmas tree; we walk to the butcher to buy the duck and pork belly Carlos ordered to make cassoulet this weekend. Good first meeting.
At family gatherings I am asked, “You miss Japan, huh?” I do. Now I love that we’re ordering meat from the butcher and talking neighborhood history and picking out paint colors and having a vent hood put in, but it’s difficult to express the loss I feel having returned from five years in London and Yokosuka. Roy Kesey’s dispatches from China reminded me of that feeling of adventure and strangeness that becomes addictive. I crave the everyday newness of a foreign country. I miss speaking Japanese. At this point in the conversation someone will suggest I find a language group to practice Japanese and I say, yes, of course. But it’s the otherness, the dream state of living in a foreign country—you are yourself and yet you are someone else—that I miss. There I was Studying Japanese or Tasting Sake or Soaking in an Onsen. Even in English-speaking London, we were Having a Pint at Our Local or Taking the Train to Scotland. Here, in Virginia, I am definitely the regular me, with all my regular characteristics: unevenly ambitious, Coke-swilling, indulgent me. And if I cannot conjure a Rilkean poetry out of our new household adventure, I will have failed myself. I dread the guilt and the failure.
How to invest the arrival of the vent hood with the same frisson as an entry into an unknown soba restaurant in Kyoto? After all, observing the mechanics of the process by which the contractor will hang the machine and construct a soffit (a new vocabulary word! I’m learning a new language!), the satisfaction of having a good vent hood under which I shall fry and sear, these are solid experiences, are they not? I shall persevere through this banal nostalgia for the exoticism of the East and embrace the Christmas lights, the raking, the dead heading, and the vent hood. Onward!
Six weeks ago two polite young Japanese men boxed up our iMac, several large suitcases, a few cookbooks, my 18-year-old rice cooker, an Italian chopping board, one of my Japanese vegetable cleavers, our personal papers (or what was left of them: I hand-carried most of the important papers), a box full of shoes, and Carlos’s red toolbox.
Today two polite young Hispanic-American men delivered it all to our temporary apartment in Arlington, Virginia. This measly 400 pounds of stuff (designated “Unaccompanied Baggage” by the military) was flown to the U.S., whereas the rest of our household goods is in containers on a ship. The six containers aren’t due to arrive until October.
After I sent off my shoes and rice cooker and such, I said goodbye to my friends in Japan, checked out of the house, flew to Maine to see my grandmother, and arrived in the Washington, D.C. area three weeks ago. I’ve been reconnecting with friends and family (basically mooching meals), house hunting, and relearning the area (we lived here in 1996/97). My husband will arrive tomorrow; we haven’t seen each other in over 3 months. He is my essential household good and I can’t wait to pick him up at the airport.
After the moving men left the apartment, I pulled out my Japanese knife and felt how distant Japan had become and how much I miss being there. Long time ex-pats I knew in Japan warned me that I would have reverse culture shock when I returned to the U.S. after five years overseas. I had understood reverse culture shock to be things like horror at the size of the servings in restaurants or annoyance when I realized I can’t find decent rice anywhere. Indeed, many small details, too many to list here, make being back in the U.S. strange. I have to look up Japanese markets and plan a special trip because I need soy sauce and good rice and miso and other Japanese food staples. I look up Japanese restaurant ratings in the Washington, D.C. area, and make a mental note to try the most conservative sushi places, yet I have no desire to eat Japanese food right now. I know it will be disappointing, so I will wait until I need a fix.
I went house hunting and wondered at the bathrooms. I want my Japanese bathroom, with the toilet in a separate room, and a separate shower and very deep bathtub. At each house I try to figure if we can convert the bathroom to Japanese style, but all the old houses have a toilet jammed up against the shallow tub/shower and a tiny sink.
I marvel at the variety of restaurants and the variety of the people in them. One day I ate delicious lamb tacos at a non-chain Mexican place; score one for America, the land of Mexican food. Another day I went to Restaurant Eve in Alexandria and sat at the bar for lunch. I was served the best tomato bisque I have ever eaten in my entire life with a sandwich of spiced braised beef shoulder. A bit of heaven from the chef, a recent immigrant from Ireland. A few Chinese food deliveries bummed me out, but I know there’s better Chinese food out there. I’ve had a few nice glasses of wine, some good beer, but so far no sake. Sake may be a problem. I’ll report back.
I signed up for Zipcar and drove out to the suburbs to see my husband’s aunt and uncle. I was lost among the 66s and the 495s and the 123s. I am more comfortable on the Metro, getting off at various stops, walking neighborhoods. But the reality is we’re going to need a car. We’ll see how financially viable Zipcar is for long-term use.
People are talkative in America. I had forgotten that. The Brits and Japanese (my companions over the past five years) are similar in that they seldom spontaneously chat up strangers. One must be introduced. My fellow Americans are chatty chatty chatty. I sit at the Restaurant Eve bar and meet three other patrons and have a long discussion with the bartender about Michael Phelps, swimming, and the bartender’s training program for an upcoming marathon. I slide easily into these comfy chats on line in the supermarket, waiting for the Metro, with waiters and waitresses, with a family with a Weimaraner in Old Town, Alexandria. It’s all so familiar, and yet again and again I feel exhilarated at how exotic it is to talk to strangers.
Nothing really is all that unusual, and yet nothing feels familiar either. This is reverse culture shock: I feel strange in my own land. I know it is home, I’m happy to be here, but for now I feel like I am just visiting and observing the cultural norms of an exotic, self-assured, multi-cultural, and talkative tribe. Field reports to follow.
Thursday, July 10, 2008
7:00 Wake up, pull on t-shirt and loose pants. Take out burnable kitchen garbage and dump the two bags of weed clippings that I pulled from the backyard. I am about to replace the plastic anti-crow net over the pile of garbage bags when I solve a three-part Stephen Colbert puzzle that’s been bugging me. Colbert is my binky for this summer’s deployment, but that’s not the new thought. I already told Carlos that since he left on the ship I had taken up Web surfing Colbertiana, feeling a little unhinged. Carlos wrote, “So, I lose you every few years to an image on a screen, or a voice on the airwaves, but then I steal you back when I return from deployment. At least the past two times it has been to good Southern boys, and Colbert is a practicing Catholic to boot.” He is always so indulgent.
7:05 I run upstairs to watch an old clip from Exit 57 on YouTube, the sketch where Stephen and Amy Sedaris play a couple giving “church-sponsored” relationship advice to an engaged couple. Stephen and Amy are both in their underwear, pawing at each other, giving a talk about the spiritual nature of sex to the horrified couple. Stephen stands with his belly distended over his briefs and ritually presents himself: “This is my body. This is my body. This is my body. This is my body.”
8:00 I drink green tea and make a to-do list. I’m moving in 16 days and I’ve got a lot to do…I’ll start after I read the latest issue of The Believer. There’s an article about John Cheever’s drinking and his attempts to pick up male colleagues.
9:00 Take shower, dry hair, get dressed.
9:45 Get in car, drive. I stop when I realize I’ve left Carlos’s military orders in the house. I’ll need them to check out my medical record from the hospital. I back up, get out, get the orders, get back in the car, and drive to the base.
10:00 I check mail at the post office. A new issue of The New Yorker is in my mail box. I immediately open to the table of contents to see if there’s a David Sedaris piece. There is not.
10:10 I have the pack-and-wrap guy pack my care package for Carlos. I photocopy the financial papers to send to the mortgage guy in Virginia. Hopefully this will be all he needs. I hope we find a house quickly.
10:20 I wait in line at post office to mail the package to Carlos and papers to the mortgage guy. I hear the line in my mind: “This is my body.” I had realized in front of the garbage bags this morning that this line is from the Catholic Mass:
The day before he suffered he took bread in his sacred hands and looking up to heaven, to you, his almighty Father, he gave you thanks and praise. He broke the bread, gave it to his disciples, and said: Take this, all of you, and eat it: this is my body which will be given up for you.
I think of all the Catholic Masses I have sat through with Carlos. I’m not Catholic, but I could have been a contender. It turns out my father was once Catholic, but he didn’t tell me until I was 37. I’m a Buddhist agnostic humanist Unitarian…whatever, but I really miss our priest in London who had a posh accent and who gave liberal homilies. I have gotten used to recognizing what the priest leaves unsaid that lets us know how he swings philosophically. Mass: I like the “Peace be with you” part, turning to our neighbors, smiling, and shaking hands. One time we went to a Mass conducted in Japanese, the deacon had to tell the crowd not to take a communion wafer if they were not Catholic. And when we were supposed to say, “Peace be with you,” everyone just bowed to each other. It was a little too sanitary; I like to press flesh. My turn: I mail the packages.
10:30 I drive to the hospital to check out my medical records. The entire parking lot is roped off for a change of command. I decide to return later.
10:45 Arrive at Auto Hobby Shop to leave car for junking. I fill out some papers, take license plates and base stickers off car. The gentleman in overalls tells me to call Monday to see when I can pick up the junking certificate.
11:00 I realize I have no car. This ruins my plan to go to the commissary to buy a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Peanut Butter Cup ice cream. Without a car, it will melt before I get it home. Instead, I walk to the base hospital.
11:40 I sweet talk the prescription lady into giving me refills on all my prescriptions even though they haven’t run out. I go to the records department and get my medical and dental records. This is my body.
12:00 Walk off base to patch shop to buy more “USS Kitty Hawk Final Tour” patches, the design with a tori gate and a 10-yen coin to represent the Kitty Hawk’s ten years in Japan. Carlos gave his away to a chief and wants more. The shop is closed.
12:05 Try to decide if I should take a taxi or the train home. Stand on sidewalk staring at Route 16. It’s hot. I’m carrying my prescriptions, my medical records, my license plates, a few magazines, a binder of important papers. I go for the taxi.
12:20 Home: eat a PB&J sandwich and drink a glass of milk. Very childhood regressive. I get this way before every move.
1:00 Call Howard, my Australian hair dresser, to make a final appointment.
1:15 Finish filing all the loose papers in the office, weed though the old files.
2:00 Find the audio file of Bloomsday on Broadway 2005, in which Stephen Colbert reads from James Joyce’s Ulysses: the “Lotus Eaters” section. I listen for a while up to the scene where Bloom is in church:
The priest went along by them, murmuring, holding the thing in his hands. He stopped at each, took out a communion, shook a drop or two (are they in water?) off it and put it neatly into her mouth. Her hat and head sank. Then the next one: a small old woman. The priest bent down to put it into her mouth, murmuring all the time. Latin. The next one. Shut your eyes and open your mouth. What? Corpus. Body. Corpse. Good idea the Latin. Stupefies them first. Hospice for the dying. They don’t seem to chew it; only swallow it down. Rum idea: eating bits of a corpse why the cannibals cotton to it.
Colbert gets a big laugh from the audience at “Stupefies them first.”
2:30 I stop the audio. Break over, I get back to work. Finish cleaning the office. Wipe the desk, put suitcases in the guest room. Think about what to pack for the move.
3:15 Fold laundry. Do some dishes.
4:00 Another break time. I know what’s coming, but I listen to the end of the Lotus Eaters reading. Bloom takes a bath:
Enjoy a bath now: clean trough of water, cool enamel, the gentle tepid stream. This is my body.
He foresaw his pale body reclined in it at full, naked, in a womb of warmth, oiled by scented melting soap, softly laved. He saw his trunk and limbs riprippled over and sustained, buoyed lightly upward, lemonyellow: his navel, bud of flesh: and saw the dark tangled curls of his bush floating, floating hair of the stream around the limp father of thousands, a languid floating flower.
My morning puzzle: the metaphorical progression of “This is my body” from the Eucharist to Joyce to Exit 57. Or binky sucking. Whatever gets you through the night ‘salright, ‘salright.
5:00 I try to write a blog post in the style of Robert Shields, but quickly tire of tedious details.
6:30 Feel hungry. Think I’ll have something healthy for dinner. Maybe some broccoli. I don’t know. I think about watching TV with Carlos when he’s home. He’ll be flipping through the channels and one of my past deployment binkys will appear. Carlos will point his chin towards the screen, “Hey, there’s your guy.” We’ll watch for a moment in silence until I say, “Yeah, whatever,” and he changes the channel. I miss my husband. I miss my husband. I miss my husband. I miss my husband.