Edith north of Boston, juggling a few too many balls pre-Christmas.
When fans – and other authors – ask if I ever mix up my series, I usually say no, that I do my best to work on one series at a time. Sometimes that blows up. Right now I’m writing a first draft in one, slogging through edits on another, and trying to finish a short story, too. Along with baking cookies, wrapping gifts, and getting ready for family to arrive.
So I thought I’d give all you fabulous blog readers a thank-you gift instead of composing a post from scratch. “The Odakyu Line” is my first published fiction as an adult – and it’s a Christmas story! It won a holiday flash fiction contest held by the North Shore newspapers back in 1995 and was published in their weekly arts magazine. I worked on the story in my first writing group, held weekly in author Susan Oleksiw‘s home a few towns away, and benefited greatly from hers and the group’s critiques.
A bit of background: I lived with my American boyfriend Tim Ottman, who was in the US Navy, in Japan for two years in the mid-seventies. We had a little house near the base, and I taught conversational English to businessmen and studied Japanese. (The picture is me in 1977 and I still have that indigo shirt…)
The following very short story isn’t true, but of course I draw on several of my own experiences. Enjoy, and have warm, cozy, delicious holidays!
The Odakyu Line
Riding the subway was like surfing. Ruth liked to bend her knees and go with the movement of the brightly-lit car. She rode the up and down movement. She swayed from right to left, mastered the sudden slowing, steered into the gradual stops. She only let herself grab an overhead handle in case of emergency unbalance.
Ruth pushed her wire-rimmed glasses back up on her nose. Her long hair was never thoroughly brushed, but she held her shoulders straight back and kept her stomach muscles in tight. A year of karate with a local master had taught her that. Ruth felt good in her body. She thought about how she never would have taken the class without Paul, or have developed such a firm midriff. “Do as many sit-ups as you can, and I’ll do twice as many,” he used to say. This was the nature of their romance.
Paul left. She knew he would, when he started talking about traveling around the world and used the first person singular. Ruth stayed on, continuing to teach conversational English to Japanese engineers. She didn’t much mind Paul’s departure. She had the drafty little house to herself, and while she missed sitting on his lap to keep warm in winter and watching his long strong body move through karate forms, she valued her new solitude. She went to her English-teaching jobs, tried to glean ever more knowledge about making sushi from the local fish woman, and kept up with her Japanese lessons with Kenji.
Kenji. Ruth thought about his smooth skin, his wild black hair, and the crack in his delicious laugh. The way he fed her sushi, morsel by morsel off purple chopsticks, in his tiny 11th-floor apartment outside of Shinjuku. Ruth smiled, then looked around. All of her subway compatriots were studiously avoiding making any eye contact, as per their custom. Ruth knew people managed to look at her: she was gaijin, a foreigner, even though she was the right height and had dark hair. Other women didn’t walk around with their heads up and their shoulders squared. Ruth got a lot of attention, yet among all these people she still felt isolated.
She and Kenji became lovers after Paul left. Now, on Christmas day, they had eaten, slept, and talked together for hours. They ate the strange Japanese Christmas cake decorated with Disney characters sold in Tokyo only on this day, and drank port wine. Ruth sat on the heavy woven tatami. Her legs were crossed under the low table, her chin on her hand, her back warmed by a quilted jacket, a present from her beau.
Since she couldn’t be with family, this was a happy substitute. Kenji fed her another bite of sushi and murmured at her to stay. But when she refused, and it was time for her to go, Kenji smiled a smile as wild as his hair as she trekked shivering off for the station.
Ruth changed for the suburban Odakyu-sen. It was the midnight run, the last train out. She grasped a free pole, wondering if she was too tired to surf this last leg of her trip, and then noticed something unheard of. People were talking to each other. Complete strangers were looking at each other, cracking jokes, and chatting. Unacquainted Japanese people chatting – if that doesn’t take the cake, Ruth thought. The man next to her, red-faced and happy, attempted a few words in her language: “Mari kurisimasu!”
“Doomo, doomo,” Ruth thanked him, smiling and holding her ground as the train swung around a bend. “Merry Christmas to you, too.”