by Charles M. Knudsen
|part 1 of 3|
Live-ins. That’s what my Net buddy Bubs called us. According to Bubs’s system, I was a Level 1, still willing to step outside as far as my front porch and engage in a little conversation with the Berlin Airlift of delivery guys and gals that kept me going.
Bubs classified himself as a Level 2: four walls and a ceiling was all he needed. His only live human contact was his mom, a nice lady who sent me half a dozen different kinds of home-baked cookies on my birthday and, at Christmas, a card that said: “To Carl, Bobbie’s Best Friend.”
Pretty sad, I know, especially since I’d never met the guy.
The night after the morning the Kamakuras left to go back to Japan, I was okay. Tipsy from too many beers, but okay. I chatted briefly online with Bubs.
“Wade slowly into new waters,” he said. “Trust your routine. We live-ins, routine’s all we’ve got.”
Four years earlier — nine months to the day after Risa walked out on me — the Kamakuras had moved in next door. The three of them rang my doorbell the day after they arrived from Japan. I cracked open the door and there they were, Dad, Mom, kid, all smiling and friendly like, all dolled up in new Hawaiian shirts, standing on my “outer limit” as Bubs called it.
Mr. K introduced himself and handed me a towel beautifully wrapped in fine paper with cranes flying across it, a sort of reverse welcome-to-the-neighborhood gift.
I said thanks, pleased to meet you, and was about to close the door when Mr. K started telling me all about his transfer to Hawaii from Tokyo and how excited they all were to have this chance to live on the islands.
The boy, Keito, sure was a likeable little guy. He peeked at me from behind his mom’s jeans, bashful at first, but then jumping out and yelling “Hello!” with a big two-teeth-missing grin on his face.
I could tell right away he was a bright kid with a bit of the joker in him. He squirmed around a lot, leaning this way and that as he held on to his mom’s hand, looking as if he was going to fall half the time and then catching himself at the last second with a marionette jolt.
Keito was six and would be starting first grade in a few weeks, Mr. K explained. They were worried about his English: he’d only taken a few quick lessons at a Berlitz back in Tokyo.
I heard myself telling them not to worry, that Keito could come over anytime, that I’d be happy to chat with or read to him, that I had a box somewhere full of Tasha Tudor books — leftovers from a still hopeful Risa — that he might enjoy. They thanked me, but in a way that let me know they had no plans to take me up on my offer.
And why would they? I was a complete stranger, and I knew how I must have looked to them: ridiculously short arms, as a despairing Risa once called them; scrawny legs; bulging beer belly; and thinning, shoulder-length hair that Risa hated. I didn’t exactly scream out Reliable New Neighbor.
So I dropped the subject. Besides, by then, Keito was getting restless. He whispered something in Japanese to his mom, probably about wanting to leave. Before they could go, I asked them to wait right there and dashed into the house.
A minute later I returned with an armful of T-shirts — my own designs, I explained — and held them out to them. After a few “Oh, no, Mr. Carl, we couldn’t,” they accepted and went on their way.
Over the next few weeks, I watched as the Kamakuras settled in to their new lives. I even moved my recliner closer to the window so I could get a better look. It was Keito who really interested me. Something about him made me want to know what he was up to every day, how he was getting along.
Whenever they noticed me looking out the window, they would wave and I would rush out to the front porch and ask how they were all doing. In those early weeks, Mr. K was still surprised and a bit frustrated at how casual all his Japanese colleagues were.
“Everyone goes home so early,” he said, and wondered if he would ever get used to it. Mrs. K. admitted that she was thrilled finally to have some time for herself, away from family and friend obligations that had become too much for her, I gathered.
And what about Keito? I would ask. Mr. and Mrs. K. would smile and say that Keito was about to embark on a huge adventure of his own: first grade in a foreign land.
Once school began, Keito and I got a nice little routine going. I’m not sure now how or when it came about, but every school day morning as he walked out to the car, Keito would shout, “Mr. Carl! Ittekimasu!” (‘I’m leaving!’), and I would stick my head out the front door and shout back, “Itterrashai,” the Japanese equivalent of “Have a nice day,” according to Mr. K.
I’m not ashamed to admit now that I looked forward to this little weekday exchange as much as I longed for Risa’s return. And those silent Saturday and Sunday mornings? Well, they about broke my heart.
I had told Bubs about the Kamakuras and hinted at my fondness for little Keito. He sent me a link to some free Rosetta Stone software, and, after a while, I picked up a few Japanese phrases. But it turned out to be unnecessary. Within a year, Keito was speaking English just like any other kid his age. But we still kept up our morning exchange of greetings in Japanese. Am I imagining things, or did he look forward to it as much as I did?
Gradually, I worked the Kamakuras into my routine. Whenever I saw them out on their driveway or in their front yard, I would think of some excuse to wave them over. “I’ve got some new t’s for you,” I would say, or “Try these home-baked cookies my friend’s mother sent me.”
But most of the time I asked about Keito, how school was going, how he liked his dance class, if he was keeping up with his Japanese lessons. It must have been obvious to them how crazy I was about the boy. They didn’t seem to mind, though. They no doubt felt sorry for their wifeless, childless neighbor who sat home alone all day, never venturing beyond his front porch.
Four years went by and it was time for the Kamakuras to return home. The night before they left, we stood chatting on my porch. Mrs. K reminisced about all the great times she had had in Hawaii but said she would be happy to be near her family and friends again.
Mr. K laughed and confessed that he would miss the laid-back atmosphere at work and that he definitely was not looking forward to getting “sucked back into Tokyo’s work culture,” where employees had so little time to spend with their families.
I brought out a stack of new shirts, my best crew-necks. “Take whatever you like.”
As usual, they shook their heads. “Parting gifts are inessential.” But I insisted right back and they each picked one out. Keito chose one I’d made for the science-buff and techie market: a plain white tee with a double-slit interference pattern on it — one of the few designs of mine that Risa had actually liked. In fact she had come up with the caption herself: “Observe.”
“Trippy,” Keito said as he admired the shirt. “But what is it?”
I gave him a brief rundown of quantum physics’ famous double-slit experiment and the observer effect. “For some reason, matter at the quantum level — where things are really, really small — behaves like waves instead of particles. That is, unless someone is watching...”
I couldn’t have explained it very well since, to be honest, I’d never really quite understood the concept myself, but Keito listened intently and then said, in his now impeccable English, “Well, that was about as clear as mud.” He laughed and looked at the shirt again. “But it’s cool, Mr. Carl. Thanks.”
We took turns with cameras, shook hands, and said our goodbyes. I wanted to grab Keito and give him a good, hard American squeeze, but stopped myself, knowing it wasn’t the thing to do. Besides, Keito was already down the steps and strutting towards his house. “Say goodbye to Carl,” Mr. K. had to remind him.
Early the next morning, I was sitting on my sofa, my back to the window. I heard a taxi pull up outside, doors opening and shutting, suitcases being lugged and rolled about. Then I heard what my heart had been waiting for. “Mr. Carl! Ittekimasu!”
I hurried to my front porch and shouted, “Itterrashai!”
And he was gone.
As I said, that night I was okay. But the next morning something was off. I couldn’t get back to my old rhythm, couldn’t reestablish my old routine. No morning coffee, no ten minutes of hanging upside down on my inversion table, no hour-long soak in the tub, no 10-3 work session. Instead, I just sat around sighing and moping and diligently working on my beer belly.
Late that afternoon, I stood slumped with my back against the wall inside my front-porch door waiting for another shipment of Big Kahuna to arrive from lazygrocer.com. I heard a car pull up and park. Thinking it was my friendly Rastafarian delivery guy, I cracked open the door and peeked out. No beer. Just a real-estate lady planting a for-sale sign in the front yard of the empty pink bungalow across the street.
I was about to shut the door when I noticed a beam of sunlight illuminating something on the seat of one of Risa’s old wooden porch chairs. What could it be? A towel, maybe, a piece of clothing? And how did it get here?
I opened the door just enough to squeeze my gut through and, hanging on to the door handle with my left hand, inched my way along the porch wall. Reaching as far as I could — by now way past my outer limit — I snatched up whatever the object was, clutched it to my chest, and slipped back inside, pulling the door shut behind me. I ran to the sofa and lay down to catch my breath.
After I’d stopped shaking, I sat up and looked at what I’d found. It was a white T-shirt. I shook it open and saw that familiar interference pattern, the gray and black waves pouring out through two slits, creating a distorted, curved net — something you might see on a Yahoo! optical illusions page.
Keito must have tossed it down when we were having our picture taken and then rushed off without giving it a second thought. I buried my head in the fabric and curled up on the sofa like a salted slug. And just like that, I started sobbing. I might as well have been a bereaved mother. What was going on? What the hell was wrong with me? And then I passed out.
Later on that night, I woke up with a headache that felt like an icicle lodged in my brain. I pushed myself up off the sofa and took a few unsteady steps towards the kitchen. “Water...” But then I spotted a new case of Big Kahuna just inside the front door. Had the Rastafari guy brought it in? Or had I brought it in myself and didn’t remember?
It didn’t matter, because the beer was infinitely closer than the kitchen and that was all my pickled brain could handle. I ripped open the box, plucked out a bottle, twisted off the cap, took a long, hard swig, staggered to my desktop, and slumped down in my chair. “Are you still alive?” flashed on the lower right hand corner of the screen. Bubs again.
I wasn’t in the mood for a chat. Instead, I launched Illustrator and typed KEITO over and over again in different fonts. KEITO, KEITO, K...E...I...T...O.
That’s when I heard the breathing.
Copyright © 2012 by Charles M. Knudsen