The woman comes into the room, her slow movements and her close body position betraying the nervousness she feels. The crows feet around her eyes move animatedly as her glance darts here and there. “Good afternoon!” she says.
It is evening. I don’t correct her.
“Nice to see you! Come on in, have a seat.” She does so and sets about unpacking her things. The textbook we never open, the notebook in which she scribbles in a doctor’s hand, a bottle of tea. “It’s getting cooler these days, isn’t it?”
She looks up, searching her mind for the meaning behind what I said. “Cooler… yes! It’s mid-autumn, you know.” She takes a dainty sip of her tea. “Tea is important when seasons change. It will keep you healthy.”
I smile and nod. “I’ll keep that in mind. I don’t drink much tea though.”
“Don’t you like Japanese o-cha?”
I shake my head. “Not really. I don’t drink any hot drinks, and I find tea too bitter.”
“It’s healthy though.”
“Most healthy things are bitter, I’ve found. But so is the sting of being unhealthy. It’s difficult.”
She nods sagely.
I remember I have to return something. I push a small paper bag from a high-end boutique toward her. The pink rings of roses catch the light. “These are yours, by the way.”
“Oh?” She cocks her head to one side.
“The food you cooked me was delicious. Thank you. I have to return these. Sorry I took so long.”
“Oh, my containers! Thank you. I’m glad you liked the food. I’ll cook for you again sometime!” I can’t tell her that I threw the food out. I never eat homemade food from my students as a matter of policy. For the same reason, though I am an avid baker and cook, I will never try to serve my homemade food to my students. There’s just… it’s too dangerous for both us, I feel. Regardless of the truth of whether I ate or not, the sentiment of gratitude was still legitimate.
“So,” I continue, “You were away last week. Was everything all right? I know you’re worried about your health these days.”
Her eyes light up and the wrinkles around her mouth spread as she smiles, revealing white but uneven teeth. “Oh no, I’m fine. I went to Hawaii though!”
“Hawaii! I’m so jealous!”
She giggles. It reminds me of a girl I knew when were in elementary school. “You should go some day. It’s beautiful.”
“What did you do?”
“I took a cruise. The ship was very nice.”
“You like cruises, don’t you? You’ve been on several right?”
She nods, thrilled that I had remembered. “Yes! I was on the maiden voyage of the Nippon Maru, and the Sakura Maru, too!” I search my mind for those two ships. The only results my inner Google provides are of troop carriers during the war. But she can’t be that old. Can she? And why would she be on them anyway? I let it go for the time being. “I rode a cruise boat when I visited Italy, too. It was a famous one, afterwards… oh what was its name… ko…ka….cosu…” The intense concentration causes her pencilled-on eyebrows to nearly meet.
“… wait, did you ride the Costa Concordia?”
“Yes! That’s the one! Costa Concordia.”
“But it sank!”
“Well yes, but I rode it, hmm, three or four years before it sank.” She nods. “My captain was good.”
“Oh, well that’s okay then.”
“Yes. My captain this time was good too! He was very handsome and very tall. Twice as tall as me!”
“Wow, that is tall!” Though she’s an old Japanese lady, she’s not much shorter than I am, so this man would have had to be over 2m in height. If he had actually been “twice as tall”, as she claimed, closer to 3.2m, and I don’t think anyone is quite that tall.
“My favourite part of the cruise was the disco hall.”
“There was a disco hall! Wow, that’s… very… 70s.” I can’t help my snark sometimes.
“It was so much fun. I danced and danced and danced.” She stops and looks around, then leans in conspiratorially. “But it was full of black people.”
Ah, I see casual racism time has started. I didn’t hear the klaxon. “Oh?” I ask, trying not to sound judgemental.
She nods. “Yes, but they weren’t dark black like your iPhone’s screen,” she said, “no, they were the colour of President Obama.”
“Oh, well,” I fumble for a reply that will keep the conversation going. “That’s… I see!”
“Though,” she continues, “there was one man who was twice as tall as me —” again? Really? “— and he was as black as the night.” I can’t believe I’m listening to this. She’s just old, she’s not actually a real bigot.
“Yes. My friends were very scared of him. They all pointed and gasped. But I got up and walked up to him and asked him to dance. My friends were shocked and very afraid for me. Their faces were funny.” See, I told you.
“I can imagine!”
“He was a gentleman and a very good dancer. I hope I changed my friends’ minds about him.”
“I’m sure you did. Good work.”
Our chat continues and meanders here and there. She promises that next time, she’ll tell me the story of how she climbed Mt. Fuji in a typhoon and took shelter at a shrine in the caldera, but she can’t go there anymore because it’s been closed “for the safety of tourists”. I can’t wait.