I met Kayo for the first time at a friend’s birthday party in a karaoke room, the big party kind of karaoke room lined with brown vinyl booths, flat screens hanging at both ends and mugs of frothy Asahi lager sweating onto wobbly tables. Kayo’s self-possessed style clashed with the self-conscious English teachers, foreigners in our mid-to-late 20’s, loud and brash and thirsting for the karaoke spotlight, singing overplayed pop songs and those of us who had been studious, chopping our way through overplayed Japanese pop songs.
I thought she was someone’s mother or conversation student or a grossly out of place librarian. She wore deep red rose colored lipstick on full lips, slightly wrinkled around the creases, two circles of matching rouge slapped on her cheeks, flat and fleshy like pancakes, peering at us behind small, heavy hooded eyes with kind acceptance, even love, a desire to be accepted by us for whatever reason.
Somewhere amidst our crude renditions of The Stones, N’Sync, and Lady GaGa, Kayosan with her skirt neatly folded and legs crossed, perched on the sofa as if it were a chaise in His Imperial Majesty the Emperor's castle, she lifted the microphone gently to her lips and sang a soul shattering version of “House of the Rising Sun”.
The whole room that moments before was milling, talking, laughing, dancing, came to a halt, or seemed to, to watch Kayosan as she flooded the room with her deep sonorous voice, rolling her shoulders up with every belting lyric, pulling the song from somewhere deep inside, sending her left cheek trembling.
The woman observing meekly in the corner, causing me to feel mildly uncomfortable was now irreversibly transformed. Her lips, a fluttering red river that revealed all her emotions and the beautiful thoughts and images held in her mind, quivered over each word and made her whole face beautiful.
When I looked away and just listened, the song came from a haggard ex-hells angel who had killed a man, not a sophisticated Japanese woman who taught music lessons and Japanese to foreigners, for something to do with her time, a volunteer, she told me.
At my first lesson, I found her waiting for me at a coffee shop, looking around with droopy, wet eyes. I gracelessly piled myself into the chair across from her, a few things sliding from my bag. I smiled and all small talk I was prepared to have was brushed aside as she pushed two books in front of me and went into an explanation that I didn’t understand other than that students she had in the past always used those books.
One of the books was called “Japanese for Busy People” and I started to laugh considering how busy I considered myself, I started to tell her this, she was already telling me about the next book, a book of Kana, the Japanese phonetic alphabets. She slid her thumb down the rows of the curving Hiragana letters reading each aloud, having me repeat, stopping at “n” and “wa” and “z”, telling me these sounds aren’t like English, Japanese don’t use their abdomen or lips to form the sounds, the sounds come from minimal effort and just happen as if from nowhere.
She lead me through the activity book, “so, so, so,” she said as I spelled words correctly. My mind was complete putty in her hands and I was worried I wouldn’t remember a letter, I would disappoint her, she would think I was wasting her time. My brain struggled trying to remember the straight and bland Katakana letters.
A few letters were no problem, but as she added more, others spilled out like alphabet soup and were forgotten. She asked me if I was okay, I said I was okay and she said okay, one more, my boxing coach, putting me in for one more round of sparring, pushing me past myself a little harder, a little further than I could on my own.
As we left after that first meeting I felt so grateful to her, I wanted to ask her about herself, to not feel this strangeness. In front of the train station I searched my brain on how to form a sentence, she waited until I haltingly produced ramen o tabetai, “I want to eat ramen” to which she became excited and shuffled me into the closest ramen shop.
Between slurps of oily hot noodles she asked me how I liked Kimitsu, the town I lived in, and I started telling her how I liked being able to ride my bike out into the woods, she sighed and I felt like I was telling her I liked to watch grass die. She motioned to the chef that she wanted to pay.
“Tell him oishkatta ‘it was delicious’,” she said nudging me.
“Oishkatta,” I said hesitantly. The chef nodded.
Our lessons continued awkwardly, I thought each might be the last, but without fail she always asked me to meet again, and I always did. I wondered why she was so generous with me, because with whom had I ever been generous?
It would take three months and the arrival of Kelly, my husband, until Kayo invited me to her house. An event which I had both longed for and feared as I imagined there to be a large albeit silent ordeal in the doorway concerning the removal of our shoes with me and/or Kelly inevitably doing something wrong followed by stooping into a dark cavernous tatami room where we would sit at a kotatsu in a world of secret unbreakable customs, slowly but surely breaking each one.
She met us outside the train station, her eyes pinched and searching upwards at the schedule like a lost puppy. On the way to her car we had the usual conversation like backstroking through lumpy oatmeal. Me with my American casualness, asking first always how she is doing which seems too abrupt a question but a question without which I could never manage to start a conversation.
I asked her about an email she had sent me in Japanese which was written with Kanji, the third and final 2,131 character basic level writing system, the Chinese characters, the bane of my existence. She began explaining it to me as we walked.
“You know Chiba, this one,” she said running up to a train station sign and pointing to a Kanji, her finger tracing frantically along its criss-crossing lines. I nodded slowly, I knew Chiba, the prefecture I lived in, but really, I didn’t recognize any Kanji. “Here is Chiba and here station and here,” she ran her fingers around an empty box, “this means a mouth, it’s like an exit, so North, this way, North exit. You see?”
We drove through her neighborhood like most residential areas in Japan, clean, indistinct boxes of apartments and intermittent secret homes, and she pulled up to an out of place lawn butted against what turned out to be her house. She led us into her living room where an unpretentious tan leather sofa rested among stacks of books and CD’s and a few scattered pictures, the whole room somewhat resembling an upper-class goodwill.
Kelly and I stood lingering, eyeing her embroidered Alabama and USA pillows. Kayo darted in her kitchen, banged some cupboards and clanged a few pots, shot back out, jumped straight onto her piano bench, lifted the piano cover and bent her outstretched fingers over the keys, playing a few random notes. I asked her if that was her husband playing the cello in the picture leaning atop her piano.
“So, so, so,” she said, absently telling us he always chooses music that is too difficult for him to play. “Oh yes, now let’s sing,” she said abruptly as if it were what she was trying to remember all along.
My interest in her embroidered pillows suddenly intensified. Kelly grinned uncomfortably.
“Okay, Erin will sing ‘Amazing Grace’.”
Are you kidding me?
I laughed and waved my hand, saying a silent prayer that she wouldn’t press any further.
“Okay, please dance,” she said smiling. I thought of the first time she met me, booty dancing to Snoop Dogg at karaoke, did she expect me to stand in the middle of her living room on the cold wood floor and get low to piano music? I picked a piece of lint from my sock.
“Can you tango?” She asked Kelly, giving up on me.
“Tango?” he echoed.
“He can waltz,” I said and grabbed him by the hand and pulled him off the sofa, figuring this was our best way out of anything more humiliating. We laughed in spite of ourselves, and waddled and spun across the living room, and for a moment between giggles, in each other’s arms, we were at our wedding with all eyes on us for our first dance, an orb of love floating between our chests, the world falling away.
I mentioned at a lesson that my coworker, Kevin, had tried to rent a cello but couldn’t. I asked if she knew where he could, and a few months later, we were in Kayo’s living room, Kevin bolt upright straddling Kayo's husband's cello, holding the massive instrument for the first time since middle school. I sat at the dining room table with a package of white calligraphy paper, a fat bamboo-handled paintbrush, a bucket of black ink and instructions to paint Kanji and to meditate to the sound of Kevin's cello.
“How do you do this stroke,” I asked whisking my hand through the air. Kayo stared at me blankly for a second and without answering ran over to Kevin and set up his music sheets.
“Ugh,” I huffed under my breath, slicking the white paper in front of me. I glared at Kevin and picked up a paintbrush, swirling its bristles into the abyss of ink, trying to let my mind relax, to meditate as Kayo had suggested. I held the brush over my paper and looked from paper to the Kanji I chose from lack of any direction, the one for “water”, back to paper and to Kanji once more. As I set my brush down and began the sequence of strokes, a violent squeal like a duck being tortured pierced from Kevin's cello across the room and sent my line into an indecent puddle, a low-budget Rorschach.
I did this repeatedly until Kayo scurried over to have a look. She sucked air through her teeth, thinking, the sound of Kevin’s cello screeching behind her, and grabbed a pile of newspaper, which she started cutting in halves. “So, so, how about newspaper?” she said, moving the nice calligraphy paper to the other side of the table. “Do BIG stroke, ko, using your whole body.” She made a move like she was churning butter and smiled, teeth clenched.
Books and copies from books and burnt CD’s and sound files written with Kayo’s voice stacked from the floor and shelves of my apartment into insurmountable mountains. I sat in front of Kayosan at another lesson and couldn’t learn one more word or rule or Kanji. Instead, she told me a story about the first time Bill Clinton visited Japan.
“The Prime Minister was so nervous, ‘Whoa! An American president, come to Japan!’” she mimicked and explained, “He wanted to try to speak some English and he practiced a lot, but he was really nervous. When he shook the President’s hand he said, ‘h…h…h… who are you?’"
“This is kind of strange thing, isn’t it- ‘who are you?’ You don’t say this, is this right?”
I agreed and told her it’d be a strange thing to say, maybe only in a really dramatic situation would someone say “who are you,” like if a man just revealed to his wife that he wasn’t really a banker, but had been a spy or a male stripper for the whole of their marriage.
She stared at me blankly.
“It was in the newspaper, ‘Who are you,’ dayo,” she said chuckling. “But ‘who are you’ is really, ko, pushy, right?”
I couldn’t understand her pronunciation of ‘pushy’.
“I really need to be careful with pronunciation sometimes,” she said.
I wrinkled my forehead.
“Pushy, puu-shy,” she repeated.
I didn’t get it.
“Like- pussy dayo.”
I was stunned, I put my head down on the table laughing, I looked back up and I saw for the first time, a real person, a friend.
I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but, Kevin, the most focused I had ever seen him, unearthed his forgotten cello talent and I continued to work on calligraphy, the two of us becoming fixtures at Kayo’s house almost every weekend.
One particular weekend, as I practiced the Kanji meaning “to come” over and over on shreds of newspaper, with Kevin playing the same beautifully sad song over and over, something happened. I felt a smile rise in me, watching the charcoal swirl in wet circles on the suzuri stone and my brush wetted in the black ink it formed. I held the brush above the paper, knowing what strokes to do, where to apply the pressure, how to move my body, I didn’t hesitating as I dove my brush onto the paper. No strokes could be erased, corrected, what I painted was indelible, and for a moment, seconds or possibly years, I understood what I was doing.
I lifted my brush from the paper and leaned back to see what I had done, I sensed the connection of all things in the black strokes and the space surrounding them, because for the first time, it was lovely. I fist pumped the air triumphantly, and held it up for someone to see, but no one saw, and I didn't care.
A week after the March 11 earthquake, we had a party with some friends, Miki and Keiko, and Kayo’s husband, Keizusan, trying to get our minds off gamma rays and nuclear core reactors and little families riding the tiled roofs of their house as they floated away on dirty waves.
Miki and Keiko had met Kayo before and were excited to go to her house.
“Oh, she is rich Japanese,” Miki said.
Miki asked me what her house was like and I said jokingly that it was bigger than my apartment, which was barely one small room.
“The whole building?” she said, thinking I meant Kayo’s house was bigger than my entire 36-unit apartment complex. “It’s like palace?” her eyes lit up.
Kayo was outside her house on the street waiting for us in her pastel rose patterned apron and broken corduroy house slippers. Keizusan, as small as Kayo with a face wrinkled into a permanent smile, welcomed us in and shuffled around getting us drinks and trying to keep up with Kayo who was already on the piano poking at the keys, directing Kevin on the cello, telling Keizu what food and drinks to get us, looking for different music, looking for her glasses all while trying to extract from each of her guests what their performing talents were.
Kevin and Keizusan played a piece together on the cello, Kevin’s face clenched in focus on the music sheet, his mouth hanging slightly open and head jerking in agreement to the notes. Keizu behind his cello the same size as his body, his mouth pursed into a kissing smile, flirting with the music, eyes empty black tunnels, transported to some place none of us could reach but wherever it was he brought back a sound that, together with Kevin’s sound, made our hearts cry.
Kayo was at her happiest when her house was full of people playing music or painting or dancing or singing together. One evening a group of old women, one old man, one young chorus teacher and aspiring actor, Kevin and I filled her house. The women showcased their talents on the piano and sang, trying to see who could come closest to shattering Keizu’s crystal whisky glasses as they went through the usual gambit of songs together, awkwardly closing their mouths around the English lyrics to, “Amazing Grace” and “You Raise Me Up”, Kevin sang duets and played "Kojonotsuki", an old meloncholic Japanese song about a moon over a crumbled castle, and two women kneeled beside a long instrument called a koto like the giant neck of a cello, as big as a grown man, that laid on the floor as they plucked its thick strings, an instrument made to be listened to under flowering cherry blossom trees.
That night, after the guests had trickled out, Kayo, exhausted, sat on her piano bench straight enough to balance a book on her head, and fell asleep with lips still curled in a smile like Buddah. I beckoned Kevin to come see, and we laughed, she didn’t know how happy she made us.
Before leaving Japan, I came to her house where she was keeping some luggage for me, as she does for many teachers finished passing through Japan, on their way back to America or Canada or England. Repacking my things, I found the silver wig I had worn at the club the night before, and I brought it to Kayo to try on.
She put it on and stood with her arms to her sides waiting for a reaction from Kevin and me, a thick strand of black hair stuck out at the front. We told her and she swiped her hand across her face, pulling more hair out. She smiled at us expectantly.
“What do you think?” she said.
“Kayo, there’s a piece of hair right here,” Kevin said reaching toward her.
“So, so, so, okay, I will…” she turned and plodded up the stairs.
Running back down, beaming, the wig giving her a shining auora, I handed her my Elton John-esq sunglasses and we all agreed she looked like a celebrity. Kevin took her picture and we told her she looked like a rockstar.
That word, rockstar, sent a switch off in her, she sprinted to her piano and laid into the keys heavy and loud playing “House of the Rising Sun” singing a little too fast, holding back a rage of excitement, and just as quickly as she started, she gave the keys a final push and was finished. I told her to keep the wig.
“Good,” because she had a class reunion that night and, “One of my ex-boyfriends will be there,” she said chuckling.
I instantly thought of all the times I was going to wish I hadn't given the wig away. I wasn’t generous, but Kayo made me want to be, and I wasn’t brave like Kayosan either, who sang rock and roll and broke rules, laughing in the face of status quo and flinging open her doors to the unpredictable foreigner, grabbing them by the arm and, unabashedly, teaching them of beauty.