On a clear day, from the classrooms of the junior high where I now work, I can see the Izu Peninsula across Suruga Bay, misty in the distance. But some days, I have to turn away and pretend it’s not there. Some days, seeing it makes me a little sad. And for the better part of May, it also made me more than a little angry.
Sadly, The Village did not linger in memory the way it was supposed to do. It continued to change, and I did not like the direction it was taking.
It would be at this point that I should at long last explain about Mrs. Peel.
Mrs. Peel was the tea-and-cleaning lady at Wednesday Elementary, my mountaintop school. When we first met two years ago, I thought she was cute and fun and pretty much the only attractive woman at any of my schools. Of course, I also thought she was 27. This erroneous assumption was corrected the day I encountered her at Friday Elementary’s parent-teacher day, where I was taken aback to learn that she was checking up on her 10-year-old son. Then I tried not to look totally incredulous when she added that she also had a daughter—in junior high. I subsequently established, through subtle inquiry, that she was probably about 34. But if I’d asked her directly in the first place, I would have known that she was 37.
I never admitted it to anyone, but Mrs. Peel was part of what made it so imperative that I leave The Village. I knew that my life had to continue beyond The Town Two Hours South of Nowhere, and that I wasn’t ready to settle down yet. But Mrs. Peel had a childish energy that gelled perfectly with my own perennial immaturity, and I saw it as admirable that she somehow seemed to have avoided growing up for all of her years. She referred to herself as “one of the boys,” and although she’d been married, divorced, and had two kids, when we were together at work, at parties and at volleyball practice, we still joked and kidded like high-schoolers with a half-hidden crush. The more time I spent with her, the less I was concerned about the12 years between us, the social stigma of co-worker relationships in Japan, the fact that I taught both her kids, and the reality that every single person in our town of 7000 would be watching. The longer I stayed, the more I toyed with the idea of simply marrying Mrs. Peel and living in The Village for the rest of my life.
Of course this was idle fantasy, but the concept still emerged and banged around in my head from time to time.
Once I met A., leaving The Village ceased to be a matter of debate. A. had been kind enough to make the three-hour journey to visit me every other weekend since Halloween, and I knew that the distance between us had to shrink. If nothing else, it was forbiddingly expensive. So I was going to move, and Mrs. Peel was gradually, if perhaps a little grudgingly, slotted into the mental category of “definite friend.”
So March came, I packed up my apartment, made assorted visits to my new town, went to help with ALT training in Tokyo, and got ready for my new life.
Having successfully organized two years’ worth of accumulated detritus into boxes safely stacked the middle of my apartment, I was cooling my heels the night before I moved when I received an invitation to a party in my area. Mrs. Peel was in attendance, and she and I chatted and mocked one another liberally, engaging in our usual brand of semi-acknowledged flirtation, all while she adeptly handled inquiries about my girlfriend by rapturously telling everyone about how incredibly cute A. was.
I had to start loading my life onto a truck at 8:00 a.m. the next morning, so it wasn’t long before I took my leave, slow though it inevitably was. When I finally got out the door, however, elation and concern commingled as I found that Mrs. Peel had followed me outside. Perhaps luckily, someone else had stumbled out with us. In the presence of this neutral observer, I initiated what would be our first real physical interaction since I’d drunkenly tossed her over my shoulder at the November taiko festival: I gave her a parting hug.
Japanese people typically respond to this unfamiliar act of human contact by stiffening like a stunned antelope. Mrs. Peel melted into my arms. My mind went into the spin cycle.
Maybe I really could live in The Village for the rest of my life. Maybe it was Mrs. Peel, not A., that I was supposed to stay with. Maybe I’d chosen the wrong path. Maybe it wasn’t too late.
It was a moment full of maybes.
I held Mrs. Peel a little longer. Then I told her one of the two things I had always wanted to say to her: I told her that she should be very proud that she had raised two such wonderful children.
Maybes are tantalizing. But they are also temporary. Neither A. nor Mrs. Peel were maybes, and both deserved better than someone who grasped at them.
Still, it took me a few days to get that hug out of my mind.
Meanwhile, my branch office in Company B was wrestling with the ludicrous impossibility of finding someone else who wanted to teach Two Hours South of Nowhere. It seemed that my boss Number Two had a different person lined up every few weeks, and at one point the BOE had even received a picture and resume from some guy who was supposed to relocate from Osaka before, inevitably, he decided to back out. I was beginning to fear that an enormous vacuum would be left in my wake.
Little did I know that the vacuum soon would be filled with Evil.
The Evil was found at the last moment, his resume pulled off the Web by recruiters in the Tokyo office and passed on to our branch. He was ex-military, mid-twenties, living in northern Japan with a wife and two young children, willing to leave them all to move to the nowhere end of a peninsula it would take his family at least 4 hours and hundreds of dollars to reach. Tokyo said he was overconfident, but capable. Number Two thought his willingness to relocate demonstrated commendable dedication to his family. With no other options, our branch agreed.
The Evil arrived in my old apartment and thanked me enthusiastically for the detailed transition information I’d provided. He even insisted I should ask for more money in exchange for the washing machine I’d left behind, and requested tips for getting around town and teaching elementary students. After twenty minutes on the phone, he exclaimed that I’d been so helpful that he should have called me first rather than going through the company, and I felt so genuinely good about it that I gave St. Nick a call and suggested he drop in and give The New Guy a welcome to the area. I breathed a sigh of relief to know that my beautiful little town seemed to be in good hands.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of St. Nick’s report the next day. As a rule, I try to base my opinions of people on what they present to me personally, not on what I hear from others. While I’m no longer precisely certain what was said to whom, 24 hours and a trip to the bar later, between St. Nick and myself we had the following aggregate understanding: The New Guy had been a navy SEAL. He had tried out for pro baseball in Japan. He had studied culinary something-or-other, had run a restaurant in a hotel, had quit JET after only a few months, had designed a university English course, had helped write an English phrasebook, would be fine in his bare apartment because his wife was shipping furniture down to him, and had tried to pick up the cashier at the 100-yen shop.
He also tried to get the barmaid to come home with him, but Roxy, a practiced hand at dashing the hopes of dirty old sots, lightly replied, “I already have a boyfriend—with a hard dick.”
The guy had only been in town two days. His attempted infidelity concerned us both, but given his poor batting average, St. Nick was more troubled by the large
number of things he claimed to have done in the small number of years he’d been alive.
St. Nick gave the guy another shot and invited him out to his community basketball game two weeks later. The New Guy took full advantage of the opportunity to get to know the locals, gladly telling some guy he’d just met all the developments in his pursuit of the new young English teacher at the junior high. He grandly declared that his was a very open marriage in which having a “sex friend” was perfectly acceptable, just as his wife had one of her own, and he was thus quite frustrated with the English teacher’s stand-offishness, even once he had her back at his apartment. But he was quite proud to have gotten her home nonetheless, and had no qualms about describing the feat to whomever he pleased in a town of 7000.
In a town of 7000, students’ parents can be found at the butcher’s, the pharmacy, the hardware store, the pastry shop, the supermarket, the burger shop, and the pasta restaurant, not to mention the board of education. In a town of 7000, the teachers are on gossiping terms with nearly every bar and restaurant owner in town. In a town of 7000, you choose your barber because he’s the father of one of your friends at the BOE. In a town of 7000, no matter where you go, it is guaranteed that someone will recognize you. And in a town of 7000, hardly anyone will be removed from the schools by more than one degree of separation.
All I could think at this point was that I wanted to warn Mrs. Peel. Word would get around, but this guy was moving at unprecedented speed. However, A. was well aware of the unspoken truth that, for men, “protection” and “possession” are very similar things, and she had made it very clear that she didn’t like me looking out for Mrs. Peel. In any event, Mrs. Peel was an adult and she could do as she pleased. Plus, if the other women in town could see through the guy, so could she. She was probably over his target age, anyway. Besides, what would I say, “Hi, how’s it going, don’t go near The New Guy”?
I still came within inches of calling her on several occasions.
We had a company meeting on the last Friday in April, and St. Nick reluctantly offered The New Guy a lift, which was wholeheartedly accepted. But when St. Nick went to pick the guy up at 5:45 in the morning, he wasn’t there. The back door was unlocked, so St. Nick even stuck his head inside to check. Empty. He noted that even three weeks after moving, The New Guy’s furniture shipment from his wife had yet to arrive.
Several hours later, St. Nick encountered The New Guy at the station in Mishima, where he promptly excused himself by declaring, “Man, I’ve been sitting here ten minutes, and I’ve already got three numbers!” He would also confess that he was hung over.
It was here that I finally met the person to whom St. Nick had ceased to refer by name. It seemed that he had little positive to say about anything other than his own varied achievements, though he did seem to enjoy telling me just how much my kids adored him. He only came a bit unruffled when describing his shock that the vice principal of the junior high, among others, had come up and warned him about how publicly he pursued the new English teacher. It seemed they had been spotted dining together, and he was absolutely dumbfounded that anyone could be aware.
He declared that he had, in any event, given up on the English teacher. But as he gladly reported to St. Nick, The New Guy had nonetheless finally managed to get lucky the night before—with the “janitor” at one of his schools.
My heart sank. Then it began to implode when I realized what this meant.
There was only one “janitor” at any of my schools who was anywhere below the age of 45; only one who could have had the “great body” the new guy had so poetically described. But she lived in an apartment so small that her kids had to share a single bedroom. But then, they could have been staying at her mother’s place…
That night, St. Nick lured the guy onto the train back to The Village, while he, in lieu of visiting a friend in Shizuoka as he’d claimed (“Is she cute?”), joined the rest of us for the long night of alcohol and karaoke that my mental agitation required. It was the beginning of the Golden Week holiday. A. was away in China for three days. I desperately needed to keep my brain distracted so I wouldn’t drive myself mad.
I went to two movies on Saturday, then to a rave that night, followed by camping in the mountains on Sunday and Monday. I kept myself in good company and in good supply of liquor until A. came back Monday evening.
In the few hours between the rave and camping, I had an overwhelming urge to call Mrs. Peel. I’d meant to warn her for weeks. Why had I hesitated?
Before I did anything foolish, I rang Soccer-sensei, my best friend in The Village, and the one other person I’d hugged before I left (he'd gone rigid). Following a sociable preamble, I quickly discovered that Soccer-sensei had as much to say about The New Guy as I did.
It seemed that he had already chastised our friend for spending his free periods at school actively trying to chat up the young female teachers, preventing them from getting any work done. Soccer-sensei even knew about the three numbers the guy had picked up in Mishima. Apparently, after St. Nick put him on the train back home, he’d gone on to brag about it at Roxy’s bar, and she mentioned it to Soccer-sensei when he dropped by at the yakisoba shop she works at in the mornings.
Soccer-sensei confided that he had a feeling that, while he’d believed it was his responsibility to look out for me while I lived in The Village, he now felt just as strongly that it was his duty to protect all the young women in town from The New Guy. It came to the point that the BOE quietly decided not to hold adult English lessons this year in order to limit his exposure to the community.
“I mean,” Soccer-sensei finally asked, “Isn’t he married?”
“Yes. With two kids.”
He convinced me not to call Mrs. Peel, though. She wouldn’t have wanted to talk to me. Definitely not then. Possibly not ever.
So instead, swearing for the millionth time over that I would never make the mistake of hesitation again, I called my boss to let her know what was up. To my utter surprise, Number Two was already aware of The New Guy’s recent “conquest.” He had, for reasons unfathomable, mentioned it to her at the meeting after quietly expressing that he and his wife were, in fact, separated.
But Number Two was still convinced that the guy was all talk. While she did do a surprise observation of one of his lessons, she brushed aside my recommendation that she also do a detailed background check, saying that The New Guy just liked to show off, and recommended that I “please relax a little.”
It was the next day that the office got a complaint from one of the schools and things finally started to move.
Wednesday Elementary—Mrs. Peel’s school—called Company B to say that the new guy had shown up at a teacher’s house drunk in the middle of the night and essentially barged through the door, demanding to be allowed to sleep there as he tried to pass out on the floor. The teacher then gave him a lift home, noting that his inebriated state would likely prevent him from remembering anything that had happened.
Mrs. Peel lives within stumbling distance of the bars in town, and I had little doubt that the teacher in question was her. But then I had a further thought. Perhaps you can call it a fool’s hope.
The ALT meeting had been on a Friday. The next week had been the Golden Week holiday, and there had been no school except on Thursday and Friday. The drunken incident was reported the following Wednesday, which was the same day The New Guy returned to the school. So it’s possible that they waited until he was back at the school to call Company B. And if so, it’s possible that the school's reported incident had occurred on the night before the meeting. And if that’s so, this may not be a separate event, but a matter of “He said, she said.” Nothing may have happened after all.
|Mon. ES||JHS||Wed. ES||
|Holiday||Holiday||Holiday||Thurs. ES||Fri. ES|
(Call to Office)
As you can see from this table, I’ve clearly dedicated far too much thought to all this.
The branch manager, Number Two’s boss, went down to The Village for a first-hand evaluation of the situation, but Number Two has now handed everything over to Tokyo’s “risk management department” and she’s no longer allowed to discuss anything with me. So the right wheels are turning, but there is only one answer I really want, and I’m not going to get it without sticking my nose where it really doesn’t belong.
St. Nick, for his part, has strategically memorized the Japanese phrase, “He is not my friend.”