A pretty smile. Lovely dimples. Cute and innocent. Would make a good wife. Kind.
Whenever the men discussed what they liked in a girl, “she” knew she didn’t want to become that sort of girl. She would rather die.
So “she” gave up smiling. She stopped trying so hard to please. She resolved to stop serving out the Caesar salad when they placed it pointedly in front of her. And so the men called her cold. They talked about her behind her back. But it was much better this way. The men thought for whatever reason that these roles were the natural order of things, and the women went along with it, whether they believed it or not.
“She” vowed to show them that some women were different. This was war.
When C-da first started at the company, fresh out of college, she was surprised to find that her team leader was a huge, hairy creature. He was humongous, as wide as he was tall, and appeared even bigger because he was covered in coarse, wiry hair. If you were to clone her small body, stand three side by side, and sit three more on their shoulders, he would still be bigger. His face was hard to see, hidden as it was by so much hair. Sometimes the thick curtain would part and she could spot his eyes gleaming deep within. If pressed, she would say he looked like an orangutan.
C-da thought back to the orangutan at the zoo she had often visited as a child. It was usually perched on the thick branch spanning the cage, with a large sackcloth draped around its head. It had the allure of a grand old French dame ruined by men and drink. C-da would stand transfixed. She could just picture it singing a chanson.
So what was the deal with this team leader? She had heard that working life would be full of surprises, but she had never imagined anything like this. What was an orangutan doing in the office? All the other new employees had been assigned to different departments or locations, so she had no one to ask whether the team leader resembled an orangutan to them too.
It became clear as soon as training began, however, that he was probably not an orangutan. For one thing, orangutans have reddish hair, but the team leader’s was jet black. Also, his hair had more volume.
During her lunch break, C-da did an image search for orangutans and other apes, but the results were inconclusive. She decided to get that guy who’d been asking her out, a fellow new hire from a different department on the same floor, to take her to the zoo that weekend. This would solve two problems at once. She had already turned him down three times but he was a relentless adversary, and she couldn’t be bothered to come up with any more excuses to repel his advances.
The weather was nice that Sunday. I figured you like zoos, the guy said looking smug. What do you mean ‘figured’, C-da wondered as she fixed her attention on the orangutan and gorilla cages. The team leader was not an orangutan. Check. She would not go out with this guy ever again. Check. His shallow enthusiasm was a real drag. It wasn’t as if he even liked her that much. He could chase whoever was close at hand—that was up to him, but she didn’t want any part of it.
The team leader’s long hair hung like a bridal veil, trailing behind him as he moved about the office. Post-it notes, crumbs, and wrappers of all colours got tangled in it, weaving a colourful tapestry while he wandered around. There wasn’t a speck of dirt left in his wake, and that might have made the cleaners happy had they not been scratching their heads over the yellow stains and droppings left behind in the spots where he would suddenly stop and tremble slightly. To be honest, everyone was put out by that.
However, the biggest problem for C-da was that she couldn’t understand a word the team leader said.
The orientation in particular left her at a complete loss. They were rough. Going through training in the language of a wild animal was a problem. Of course it was a problem. It was a problem however you looked at it.
What was wrong with this company? The team leader must have felt he was making sense as he stood there growling, but for C-da his sudden low barks, odd whoops through puckered lips and whistles between bared teeth had a rhythm that could only be described as unpredictable. She glanced around at her colleagues, who were carrying on with their work as if nothing was wrong. They were the picture of indifference. Shit. I’ll never get my head around this. I don’t even know when to nod or how to respond.
Her heart sank. She had just managed to land this job and the last thing she wanted was to be branded incompetent or unsuitable and then let go. I want to work.
C-da recalled a conversation with a cousin who had joined the workforce a few years before her. After a year and a half at his first company he suddenly stopped going to work—I just can’t do it anymore, he had said. He had walked out, spent two months in bed, then one day sprang up without warning and threw himself into a new job as if nothing had ever happened. Amidst the hubbub of a family gathering, as he picked out the squid from each of the three trays of catered sushi on the table, he told her, ‘It’s simple. All you need to know is that no one will ever understand you. And one more thing—you’ll never understand anyone else either.’
Those words worked like magic. From the next day on, she focused all her attention on the team leader. While she still had no idea what he was saying, she listened for subtle changes of tone in his hooting, and when she thought a response was called for she would interject ‘yessir!’ with all the determination of a women’s volleyball player going up for a spike. She managed to get the gist of her job by piecing together snatches of overheard conversations between colleagues, and the bits documented in the company manuals. It felt like putting together a collage. Back in university, one of C-da’s professors always used to wearily remind the students, who seemed lost in a perpetual fog, that they had to learn to read between the lines. She finally understood what that meant.
Now C-da was trying harder than anyone to follow this advice. She focused every fibre of her being on reading between the company lines, even when she didn’t have to, even when there was nothing to be read. She felt like a foreign exchange student. If only it were as simple as taking a few language lessons at the local school, she sighed, gazing at the ads for English conversation classes while taking the train home. But she wanted to work. I want to work. That’s why I’m here.
She kept pushing forward. She listened diligently, though the team leader’s incomprehensible noises continued to baffle her. She watched his every move, every flail of the arm and twitch of the leg so as not to miss a thing. The rest of the time she was busy with scissors, knife, and glue, working on the collage inside her mind.
The first time her pay came through, she felt a deep sense of relief. Okay, I can keep doing this. Not that I’ve got any idea whether I’m getting it right. C-da gripped her bankbook, with its figures printed in solid black ink.
H-mura noticed someone waving in his direction. Someone was waving from the middle of the river. Someone? No, maybe it wasn’t a someone at all. The brightly coloured thing stood out against the murky grey world. Not just bright, rainbow. Whatever it was, it was alive. It was a lump of ugly with googly eyes and a teeny-tiny nose, and it was covered in rainbow scales. At first H-mura thought it might be a carp streamer snagged on a branch, but carp streamers don’t have arms. They don’t tend to wave at you either. The creature spread its webbed arms wide and waved with greater urgency. H-mura shot a look at the others waiting in the rain for the bus, but he was the only one who had been enjoying the river view. Everyone else had their backs to the water–they were all staring at their feet, or glowering in the direction from which the bus would come, or lost in the screens of their phones. There was one other person who seemed to be looking towards the river, a boy in yellow boots with a woman who was probably his mother, but he showed no sign of surprise. Even when their eyes met, the boy’s face seemed to say, There isn’t anything on my mind right now. I am perfectly calm.
I guess I’m the only one who can see it, then. The mysterious creature made its next move, as though it had read H-mura’s mind. It furrowed its brow, drew its mouth into a tight line, and pointed directly at him: You. That’s right, you.
Somehow, the gesture felt very American.
Why did I see that? Does it mean something? Some kind of message? Have I been chosen? Why me? The team leader walked past and said, ‘Hey, you’re looking a bit off. Something wrong?’ For a moment, H-mura couldn’t remember where he was. But almost immediately, he felt the usual clamor of the morning office wash over him. He came back to his senses. Oh yeah, that’s right. I’m a salaryman, I’m just an ordinary salaryman.
‘Uh, no, it’s nothing. Just another morning, same as every morning.’ H-mura smiled as he pulled out his chair and sat down.
As I watched, a river boat went by, then disappeared. The water swelled in its wake. I gazed at the surface until the waves died down. For such a small boat, it took a long time for the water to settle. I rested on the window ledge and took a sip of coffee—what I really wanted was beer. I quietly watched the swell. The breeze felt good. It got under my shirt and chinos and blew right through me. I could smell the sea. It was already growing dark. As the water calmed, the grey reflection of a building appeared on its surface. I stared hard at it, thinking that it looked familiar. It was my office building. Its reflection quivered on the water. The workday was long over. Lights left on here and there dappled the water. The light was still on in my own office. I looked for myself in the window. I was surely still there somewhere doing overtime. I searched, certain I would be there. There were so many windows, but I wasn’t in that one, wasn’t in that one either. I was in this one here. That man sitting at his desk. Was it me? I couldn’t quite see his face. It was hard to make him out through the ripples on the water. I kept staring at the reflection unable to decide whether the man who looked like me really was me. Half an hour later, the lights went out in the office next to mine. Two hours later, the office two floors below went dark too. Moments before this happened, I saw someone in there stacking chairs. An hour later, the lights came on in the office above mine. At no point did all the lights in the building go out. There was always a light on in a room somewhere. Not just in my building. In other buildings reflected in the water, too, lights blinked on, as others blinked off, and blinked on again. Every building in sight was flickering on and off. As it grew brighter, as morning neared, they began to fade. They dissolved into the light outside. The sky grew lighter, and the air also changed. I could sense the arrival of morning in the colour and quality of the light. The chain coffee shop just outside the station was getting ready to open for the day. The convenience store of the night became that of the morning. More and more people were appearing from the station. I could see more and more people in office windows. My building was filling up with people. I searched for myself inside. The morning sun bounced off the glass and I couldn’t tell one face from another.
Consensus translation at the 2013 BCLT Summer School by Asa Yoneda, Dan Bradley, Ginny Tapley Takemori, Hart Larrabee, Jonathan Lloyd-Davies, Lucy Fraser, Lydia Moed, Morgan Giles, Sam Malissa and Takami Nieda, with workshop leader Jeffrey Angles, and in the presence of the author, Aoko Matsuda.