With the school principals seated by order of appointment in a discreet corner and their hospitality coffee served, my supervisor was free to return the tray and coffee things to the caddy stationed just behind my desk. Instead, he paused to glance down at my work… because no one really knows what I do in that office anyway. And I’m just the newest foreigner in a long succession of previous foreigners who have been teaching English since before my parents even dreamed of my possible existence. No one really knows what we do in that office, I suspect.
“Gaburieru Garushia Marukezu.”
Suddenly, without warning, he lifts my iPhone from its cover and pries open the battered book with the slightest traces of urgency. You can tell when someone loves to read. It shows and not just in the way they handle books. Anyway, as far as copies goes, this one has seen better days, which means it has been loved properly. Again, I’m just the latest in a long line of assistant language teachers to inherit it over the past decade; also, I’m excited to see what his eyes might discover that I may have missed. On the title page, a boldly magnificent proclamation is brought back to life, its semi-neatly scrawled hand on the bottom right hand corner:
Bought by Kevin in Kinokuniya on 10/12/’o5 w/ Julia and Jason (on JET)
He points to the title.
“One Hundred Years of Solitude,” I read from the cover as he passes it back, gingerly, into my care. Subconsciously aware that used books breathe a different kind of magic, we’re very careful not to awaken it just yet. In a quiet whisper, I try with my limited, unpoetical, and clumsy translation skills to render the full weight of the title in a language that is not my own.”「百年の寂しさ」かなあ?” And then because I’m curious, too, ” どんな本が好きですか?”
Like most people, I realize immediately after speaking that there was actually a better word for ‘solitude’ but recognition comes a heartbeat too late to fix. Meanwhile…
…”I like poems,” he replies, finally replacing the coffee things where they belong.
“Like Matsuo Basho?”
“Not Matsuo Basho. Tanikawa Shuntarou. I don’t think you’ll be able to find him, though,” he adds doubtfully but eternal optimists that we are, we both instinctively lean towards the computer screen anyway. It’s worth a shot, right?
The Google Machine sputters back nonsense juxtaposed next to potentially click-worthy links next to more nonsense. He’s silently not too happy with the results. “It’s okay. Let me look it up for you!”
The mastery of kanji is still outside my grasp but his native skills render a quicker and more successful search. I manage to scrawl the name onto my palm, a confused mixture of Chinese characters and Hiragana, before quickly making myself scarce as they’re busier today than most other days. In this way I busy myself in an office where no one – not even I – knows what I do exactly. Tanikawa Shuntaro’s Alone in Two Billion Light Years is metaphorically chewed on as my food for thought of the day. I can’t decide just yet if I like him or not; I can’t decide why I can’t decide, and that in itself is a beautiful feeling.
A simple enough conversation, an exchanging of pleasantries, yet I’ve been given a gift, the best gift: inspirational words to read.