Turning JapaneseTurning Japanese

Running late. Slipped into my shoes without pulling the backs up. Easy to do. They’re so smoothly caved in now. Halfway to the station I stop, pull them on properly. Don’t want to lose them in the standing-only commute crowd. “Hmmm–no laces. Do I even own a pair with laces anymore?” Yes, just one pair: running shoes. Never untied though.

Driving my Mac Truck clodhoppers through the tiny shoe parking lot that is the entrance way to my Japanese home once required the reservation of valuable brain space. Brain space needed for stuff. Stuff like Japanese greetings, bowing and carrying gift bags. Now, this complex ballet of removing, turning and arranging is hardwired, second nature.

The transition from monster foot demolition derby to gallantly pirouetting Mikhail Baryshnikov, was a painful one. My will had to be broken, roped up day after day like a wild horse. When I thought no one was looking, I’d kick down the corral gate and gallop out shoeless, to pull the morning paper from the letter box with my teeth: “brrrrrr, brrrrr.” Free at last, I’d think, only to turn and find my Japanese wife standing behind me in the driveway, with a large wet cloth and a divorce form.

Once or twice, I tried sneaking back into the house without taking my shoes off. Tiptoed back in. Was even paranoid enough to wipe the prints from the floorboards after me. “Moo ha ha, the perfect crime. No one will know!” But she did. She always did. Always.

In the beginning, I couldn’t figure out how. Hidden cameras? Pressure sensors? A crime scene investigation kit? ESP? Judging by my mother-in-law’s creepy ability to chastise me through the sliding walls of the Tatami room, whenever I so much as even thought about reaching for the refrigerator, ESP was the odds on favorite.

Gradually my muddy, wild-western hooves became “Japanized.” I now unconsciously point the toes of my shoes towards the door for a smooth getaway, even when I’m half asleep or really drunk. Dip, lift, spin and drop–four swift moves in one. Seamless. When I come home very late and very drunk, this habitual arrangement gets followed by a quick valet parking session of the family’s shoes into neat little lanes, as if that will somehow erase the sin of my excessive alcohol consumption.

Where did I learn that, I wonder, as I’m backstroking across the polished floorboards towards the Tatami room to sleep it off, before going upstairs.

I realize that in the absence of my Australian father, I’m becoming more like my Japanese father-in-law. Next thing I know, I will be making giant jars of homemade plum wine and buckets of Korean chili cabbage.

I’ve made a point of becoming even better than my wife at maintaining our home’s entrance way, according to Asian traditions. It gets swept and mopped every Saturday morning without fail. Stick of Buddhist incense on the sideboard to evict nasty spirits, Fueng-shui turtle pointed to the east, excessive shoes shelved, (at least those that will fit.)

Next comes the friendly reminder: “Come on honey, its bad Feng-Shui to have more than one pair of shoes per person in the entrance, it loses money. You know that.” Response: stony silence. Second, I pile the offending excess high heels upon the inside doormat. Response: stone-cold vengeful resistance; and I’m pretty certain, that the soft flopping noise on the pavement outside, is the sound of my clothes draws being emptied out over the second floor balcony and onto the muddy garden path below. Third, she comes home later to find me waiting in the doorway with the equivalent of a divorce form in my hand: her favorite pair of high-heel Sacchi leather sandals, dangling over the blade of a pair of especially sharpened kitchen scissors. In my softest, politest, and most level-headed of Japanese tones I say, “honey, please put your twenty pairs of Wednesday shoes away, now.”



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Short Story – Turning Japanese By Lee Neale
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