Jason Lee Brown
I was nude on a small stool in a public bath, my heart pounding with a great fear that I was one cultural mistake away from being disowned by my father-in-law, one faux pas from shaming my wife and her family in their home country. I was washing my hands when my father-in-law stood up, and, without warning, started scrubbing my back with his soapy towel. The sixty-two-year-old dug his cloth into my reddened skin without missing a spot, as if working hard for a job well done. My first thought was, What the fuck! I had no idea what had brought this on and wondered if somehow, unknowingly, I had asked for it. Was this how he showed dominance? Or kindness? Maybe my wife had told him to do it. I couldn’t figure it out so the safest response was to act as if I had expected it. I bowed my head. “Arigato.”
Before Haruka and I left for Japan, this was how she described it: “It’s a public bath. You will have to get completely naked. With my father.” I wanted her father to accept me as something more than the man who’d married his youngest daughter. I was a Midwesterner who’d rarely traveled beyond a one-state radius of Illinois, who’d never even thought about a passport before I dated a girl from Kawasaki. We’d dated for five years and been married for nearly one, and I was ashamed for not learning more about her home country, for not trying to meet her halfway through our cultural gap. I gave her no choice but to assimilate. In Sullivan, the small town we lived in, there was no sushi, no Asian store, nothing that made her feel at home.
“I think you’re more worried about it than I am,” I said. We stood next to the bed packing for the flight. “I played three sports in high school. I’ve showered with plenty of men.”
“Impressive,” she said. She refolded a long-sleeved shirt I had just folded.
“If I have to strip down naked for your father to like me, I’m doing it.”
I looked forward to the hot springs. I often made myself ill by sitting in hot tubs until my skin turned red and my muscles were too relaxed to move. To keep in good graces with her father, I planned on sticking with what worked when I met him in the States: be polite and respectful in everything I did. The first time we met, he didn’t know I was her boyfriend or why she’d driven him three hours from St. Louis to this small town in central Illinois. I met her family in the parking lot at my workplace, a county newspaper and printing press, and I hugged her in front of her father, mother, and sister. When I pulled away, I saw the utter surprise on her father’s face. I couldn’t understand what he said to her but I knew it was about me. I thought her family knew, but, apparently, she decided to tell them right then that we’d been dating for a few years. I wasn’t sure I could turn around that bad first impression.
The following year, her family again visited the States, this time for the wedding. After the ceremony, the toasting, the cake cutting, and the eating, her father warmed up to me when the drinking started. We stood at the reception bar and drank beer and congratulatory shots, and late in the night, during a small lull, he knew exactly when to break out an expensive bottle of sake and pour shots for friends and family. When he’d asked earlier, via Haruka’s translation, which Japanese beer I liked the best, I’d told him the answer he wanted to hear. We liked the same two, Sapporo and Kirin, a huge coincidence considering the large selection. Though I didn’t venture into Japanese cuisine that often, I had no problem sampling different brands of beer in the Japanese restaurant up in Champaign, where Haruka would eat worse-than-average sushi while she talked about visiting Mitsuwa, the Asian grocery store three hours away in Arlington Heights.
We did not travel to Japan until a year later. Her parents picked us up at Narita Airport and drove us to the Dai-Ichi Hotel in Kawasaki. The next day, Haruka and I took the trains to Shibuya, the fashion center of Japan, so she could go shopping. At the Shibuya Station, three JumboTrons and even larger building advertisements overlooked the intersection inundated with pedestrians scrambling curb to curb from all directions, the most chaotic crossing I’d ever seen. That night, we met her friends at the Hachiko Exit, named for the bronzed statue of Hachiko, a legendary Akita celebrated for his loyalty. When the dog’s master died and never showed up at the train station where they’d met every day after work, Hachiko held a vigil at the exit for nearly ten years, until he died in that very spot. Haruka’s friends and I posed for photographs in front of the statue, and I wondered if a bond like that was even possible between humans.
Sunday afternoon, her father drove us to the hotel in Hakone. The room was larger than most American hotels, and four times as big as the Dai-Ichi. It had a bed, a couch, a long coffee table, and a large-screened television. The corner of the room was a tatami room with a two-foot-tall table and two chairs with no legs. A gray pillow rested on top of each chair.
Haruka and I weren’t even unpacked when her father knocked on the door. He wanted to visit the hot springs before dinner. I wasn’t sure what to wear or what the hot springs even looked like. I’d imagined everything from a luxurious Roman-style pool to a hole in the ground filled with warm water. Her father was wearing his yukata, a white robe supplied by the hotel. It was what I’d seen everyone in the lobby wearing. While he waited in the hall, Haruka properly closed my starchy robe, left over right, before she tied the blue belt around my waist. “You’ll need this, too,” she said. She handed me a folded yellow towel, and then wrapped a large white hand towel around my neck like a scarf. It was like wearing a uniform.
I could barely walk down the hall in the small slippers I’d jammed my feet into, but Haruka had told me not to take them off until her father did. We took the elevator down to the public baths, and all I wanted to do was soak in the water and relax. I followed him through a curtain and entered a room as humid as a sauna. His silver-rimmed glasses fogged up, but I could still feel him looking at me. Two tall fans at the entrance oscillated as if scanning the room for potential problems. In the middle, a wooden rack held wicker baskets in each of its slots.
Her father couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak Japanese. We both knew about fifty words in each other’s language, but we couldn’t string them together for a sentence. We relied on exaggerated hand gestures and simple one-word directions, like, “Towel,” which her father said over the humming fans. He motioned for me to lose the robe and place everything in the wicker basket next to his. I took off my robe and underwear and stood there naked, vulnerable, hoping I was properly following orders. He held up his hand towel, which told me to pick up mine, and before he could cover himself with it, I couldn’t help but sneaked a peek. I’m sure he did the same.
He waved me toward the frosted doors he slid open to reveal the hot springs. It was definitely on the upper end of what I’d imagined. The room was large with an auburn-tiled floor. In the middle, steam rose from the clear pool that separated into two sections, a smaller oval pool bumped into the larger squared pool. On the right side of the room, spring water fell from the concrete ledge near the ceiling. I wanted to cannonball right in, but he pointed at the white plastic stools lined along the wall. In front of the stools were faucets with hoses and showerheads, along with huge bottles of shampoo, conditioner, liquid soap, and large bowls.
We sat next to each other on the plastic stools. I had no idea what to do but follow his every move. He turned on the shoulder-high faucet and adjusted the temperature. He filled the bowl, then dropped his hand towel into the water and soaked it. He squirted a light pink liquid, what I assumed to be soap, out of one of the bottles. The other two bottles held white liquid, and I couldn’t tell which was conditioner and which was shampoo. Every move I made had a ritual I didn’t understand.
He washed his body with the towel balled up in his hand. I mirrored each ceremonial motion, wondering about the one spot we eventually would have to clean. I wasn’t sure if I should use the hand towel or my hand, so I watched him out of the corner of my eye, trying not to ogle him. He scrubbed the towel everywhere, so I did the same. He moved fast, as if he wanted to get into the water as badly as I did. We rinsed our towels under the faucets, and the water ran into bowls. We picked up and dumped the bowls over our heads. We hit a lever and water spit out of the movable showerheads. We rinsed.
He squirted shampoo into his hand then scrubbed it into his thin black hair. I couldn’t tell which of my bottles was which. The Japanese characters might as well have been chicken scratches. I looked closer at the bottles for the English word or two that many product labels had. The wet air was hard to breathe. He smiled at my hesitation, gave a slight laugh, though not a disrespectful one, and he pointed at one of the bottles. “Shampoo,” he said, adding a heavy rolling R after the P. I bowed and we were back in rhythm.
After we’d rinsed the conditioner from our hair, he stood up and waved me toward the pool. We set our hand towels on the pool’s edge, eased our bodies into the water without a splash or many ripples, and, in unison, released a universal sigh. I wanted to massage the back of my neck under the five-foot-wide waterfall that fell from the marble ledge in the ceiling, but I wasn’t sure if it was proper. I wasn’t even sure if I could duck my head under until I saw him do it. I held my breath and sank into the humming reverberation of water. Of all the places I had been in Japan—restaurants, shopping malls, Tokyo Tower, Tokyo Dome, Chinatown, shrines—this was my favorite. It soothed my muscles that ached from all the walking, all those hours on the plane, all the worries of making a fool of myself in front of her father.
We soaked for about ten minutes with the waterline just below our smiles. He could tell I was enjoying it, and I could tell he was enjoying me enjoying it. When he got out of the pool, I didn’t move. He sat on a stool and again washed himself off. I wasn’t sure what I’d do if he left, so I reluctantly got out and sat on the stool next to him. I washed my hands and that was when he stood up and, without warning, started scrubbing my back with his soapy towel. After thanking him, I nodded. I must’ve had a suspicious look on my face because his expression changed from pleased to confused. I vowed then to learn more about the Japanese culture, the language. I’d been memorizing five words a week leading up to the trip, but without application and practice, I wasn’t able to retain much.
A few nights later, Haruka and I met her family in Kawasaki, not far from the Mizonokuchi Train Station, at a tiny restaurant called Forest of Mimosa, or at least that was how Haruka translated it. The restaurant seated twelve people, but we were the only customers there. She’d told me that her father liked to impress clients and friends with expensive dinners and rounds of alcohol, so I thought maybe he’d reserved the entire restaurant for the family. The tables were actually cylindrical tree trunks that had been split in half. The inside was folded out and glazed for a smooth tabletop. The forest motif continued with netting and fake vines clinging to the ceiling.
“Master!” her father said before he gave his order to the owner, who wore a white chef’s outfit with a blue bandana on his head. Haruka said the restaurant had been popular a long time ago, but now the owner’s only customers were old friends like her father. The owner had been in a car accident years ago and couldn’t remember as well as he used to, and a new development next to the train station had rerouted the pedestrian pathway around his building. Both events had a negative impact on the business. He couldn’t take many orders at once or he would forget one. Her father would have to go back to the counter and politely remind him. “Master!” he would say before anything else. I admired the respect and loyalty he showed for the owner.
The owner brought out two pizzas that tasted like the homemade crust my mother used to make. Her father and I shared a large bottle of Sapporo. I filled his glass full whenever possible, a courtesy Haruka had taught me years ago, along with the first Japanese word I learned.
“Kampai,” I said. I held up my drink.
After we toasted, he talked at length to Haruka. She seemed confused at first but eventually smiled. She had lived in the States for so long she now dreamed in English, and I couldn’t even bother to learn more than fifty words of her language.
“Yudedako,” her father said.
Haruka giggled. “He said you looked like a boiled octopus.”
“Red as a lobster,” she said. “From the hot springs.”
Her father talked again, his hands patting different parts on his body. He made the same scrubbing motion as he did on my back, and I wondered which cultural blunder I’d committed. I’d probably done something he and his friends would joke about for years. He finished speaking and I waited for her to translate, frustrated that she even had to.
“He said he washed your back,” she said.
One of the few sliver linings in our language barrier was that I could talk freely in front of her parents. “Yeah,” I said. “What the hell was that all about?”
“You only do that for family members or really close friends,” she said. “He even said you’re like the son he never had.”
I nodded at him and smiled. I had no way to repay his compliment or tell him the same in his language, and it was too late to scrub his back. I held up my drink and stuck with what I knew.
“Yudekako” was previously published in was published in Prime Number 17.2
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