“Kyou Ji-mu ni ikanai no?” Aren’t you going to the gym today? Kana asked. I opened my eyes, carefully rolled over to the side of the bed and checked the time on my cell phone. Shit, it was 9:00am already. I felt like I’d just gone to sleep. I’d told Kana last night that I was going to play ball today and I had every intention of doing so. I was about to hop out of the bed like I usually would but thought better of it and clawed and crawled from under the quilt and two comforters and climbed out cautiously.
“Daijoubu?” you ok? she asked, probably noticing the difference. “Ojii-san mitai.” You look like an old man.
I grunted an ambiguous affirmative. Minimally, an OK morning requires a warm bedroom. Our bedroom was freezing, and it was only going to get worse once I stepped out of it. I could literally see my breath, thick enough to blow smoke rings. And I blame her! I blame her for a number of irrational reasons that seem fair game when I wake up in the morning, emerge from three layers of wool and down, dressed in sweat pants, a hoodie and tube socks, and suddenly feel like I’m roughing it the Adirondacks in the middle of January. She chose this fucking igloo posing as an apartment that we live in and I pay for. Moreover, it’s her country that compels us to conserve energy by making oil, gas and electricity practically luxuries. The oscillating space heater at the foot of the bed tempted me to sit in front of it and dawdle a bit but I thought better of that, too. If I sat back down, chances were I’d lay back down and the next time I opened my eyes it would’ve been noon. And that small window I’ve allotted myself for a weekly workout would slam shut once again. I slid the door open, ducked through the doorway.
The gym opens at 10am on Sundays and I planned to be there when it did. On Sundays I have 4 private students, each an hour long, so every Sunday from 2pm until 8pm I am busy teaching English. In fact, every damn day of the week I’m busy teaching English. I work Monday through Friday, 8-4 at a Junior High School, with at least 1 and sometimes 2 private students in the evening, and on Saturday I also have 4 private students for a grand total of 15. At 3500 yen a pop it’s not a bad deal, and it keeps me out of the kind of trouble I used to get into when I had free time up the wazoo. You’d think I’d have used that time to set to paper the great American novel I’d been writing in my head since I was 17, but nope. I’d had better things to do then. Now I have no time and ideas up the wazoo. Seems me and my wazoo can never get on the same page.
Generally on Sunday mornings at the gym, I meet up with a couple of other players. The reason I joined the gym was because they offered basketball -a rarity in health clubs in Japan- so I considered it a bonanza not only to find one with, albeit, a lonely half-court, but for it to be only one station away from my crib at that.
I stepped through the doorway to the staircase, ducking the top edge of the door. I have to be especially careful when I enter and exit rooms because of the low-clearance. At least twice a week I drop my guards and WHAM, temporary drain bamage. Or worse, I recover from a bend a little early and it’s the give-less doorway versus the top of my head which leaves me feeling like my neck should be broken. So, moving about the house requires a series of bows and bobs, stoops and dodges. I make my way downstairs to the bathroom for the morning whiz and brace myself for the Frigidaire.
I wouldn’t say our duplex is drafty but there must be leaks somewhere. I just can’t seem to find them. It’s like the cold comes in through the walls, windows and up through the spaces between the parquet wooden floors. I tried that old ghetto insulation, putting blankets and what not at the foot of doors and sliding windows, but that hasn’t helped. And the bathroom…that fucking bathroom is the worse! It called for some drastic action so I went out and bought a miniature space heater just for the bathroom. I have a number of pet peeves and a cold bathroom is in the upper echelon. I want to keep it on at all times but every time Kana uses the bathroom she shuts it off.
Yeah, it’s easy to point the finger at her.
“Why is this house so fucking cold???” I screamed out in exasperation as I do every so often. I wanted to take a dump but I’d be damned if I was going to do it then. I stooped through the doorway- this one lower than the others in the house- and turned on the toilet space heater. Then I went and made a pot of coffee while I waited for the toilet room to get warm enough to consider sitting in it. In Japan, the bathroom and the “toilet” room are in separate places, sometimes on opposite sides of a hallway, sometimes next to each other, but generally separated by at least one door. It makes sense to me. I mean, I think of the many times when I had girls staying with me in my brownstone apartment in NY and if I was taking a bath and they had to take a shit, either I’d have to be inconvenienced by having to vacate the tub until she was done or have the artificial bouquet of my dish-washing liquid derived bubble bath invaded by the aromatic yet perfumy odor of a girl’s number two. However intimate it may be, the 2nd room idea is a cinch as an improvement.
The sink has last night’s dishes in it. Kana is against dishwashing. She loves cooking but cleaning the kitchen afterwards fucks up her high. And even if she does deign to do it she does such a half-assed job that I lose my mind. Also on my list of peeves are half-cleaned dishes. I think this peeve is derived from an episode my Moms had when I was young. There were six of us and my mother was doing all the cooking and, like Kana, she’d be damned if she was going to clean up after us. So, we did it in rotation according to a duty roster. My older brothers found a roster laughable and they were away half the time anyway, and my older sister had moved away, so they weren’t a part of the rotation, thus it fell to me and my younger sister, Iisha. Anyway, disgruntled at being forced to do what television had shown me time and time again was a woman, specifically a Mother’s duty, I probably did them half-assed from time to time, and I know Iisha was a half-asser. She really hated doing them. Then, one day, my mother got sick. So sick that she had to be hospitalized. It was a very scary thing not to have someone you depended on for everything around for an indefinite amount of time. And a terrifying thing to see this force of nature in a hospital bed looking like there’s no tomorrow. I blamed myself, with some help from my mother. She laid on the guilt pretty strongly as mothers are apt to and adept at doing. Hepatitis, the doctor had informed her, was behind her illness, and he suggested it might have been contracted as a result of half-ass cleaned dishes. He must have been a quack or maybe my mother misunderstood what she’d been told. But, I didn’t know shit about Hepatitis at the time and neither did my mother. I don’t even know what alphabet it was A, B, C, D, or E. But she bought the doctor’s quakery hook, line and sinker, and blamed us, and since my little sister and I were doing most of the cleaning anyway, I blamed myself and ever since have been a little on the anal side when it comes to clean dishes. I don’t mind cleaning dishes. I just don’t like to be told or asked to do them. If I don’t do them for some reason just accept it and wait for me to get around to them, or do them yourself. Nor do I want to be told thanks for washing the dishes, like Kana has a habit of doing. I guess she feels compelled to because of the disparity between the way she does it and the way I do. I’m like a human bottle of bleach. I clean dishes and silverware with a Brillo Pad or at least a soapy scouring pad. I scrub the black off of cast iron frying pans. I don’t release a pot into the drainer until it squeaks. My metal sink shines, my stove gleans, and I put dishwashers to shame.
I aimed the gas-powered space heater in the living room at the kitchen and knocked out the dishes. The sinks in Japan, due to the height of the people I guess, are much lower than the sinks in the US, so I have to bend over quite a bit to wash them. While the coffee brewed and the toilet room warmed, I bathed in the warmth wafting from the heater.
A typical wintry Sunday morning in Yokohama.
That is, until I bent over even further to put the knives in the knife rack under the sink and I felt a twinge. And froze. There was nothing abnormal or unusual about the movement, no strain, nothing awkward, and no unusual exertion to warrant its arrival. It just came. Slowly, painfully slow, I returned to an upright position. The twinge…actually I can hardly call it a twinge, too premature, but it was something. It was not painful. It was just there, ominously so.
I decided to stretch…stretching was the ticket. It was all I could do not to panic.
A couple of weeks ago, on the last day of school before the winter holiday, I didn’t have any classes to teach so I went to the school gym to shoot the ball around. While I was there some of my 3rd year students came in the gym to practice. When they saw me with a basketball they were ecstatic. I’d been working there for about 3 months but they’d never had an opportunity to play ball with me. It’s a given that they’d never seen a black man play ball except on TV so this was an incredibly rare opportunity for them. Something they’d probably tell their kids and grandkids about it’s such an anomaly. In their minds Black People are the authority on a couple of things, and one of them is sports. I hate this kind of thinking, as you might expect, but they’re just kids and it’s hard to get angry at them the way I get vexed at their parents for reaching adulthood and maintaining that level of ignorance. In fact, when the kids start in on me, I actually got excited about showing them a little of the playground legend shit I used to do not so long ago. If only I’d been wearing sneakers. In Japanese schools, as in Japanese homes, outdoor shoes are not allowed, and gym shoes are to be used in the gym, so actually I was already breaking the rules by shooting around in the sandals I wear around the school.
“Danku shite,” dunk it, one kid said, like dunking was in the repertoire of all black people.
“Dekinaiyo,” I can’t, I said. He looked bewildered, like I’d said I can’t read. Once he realized I was serious his disappointment was plain.
I shot a jumper, and since I was already warmed up a bit by the time they’d arrived, it looked pretty good as it swished in, snapping the net a little.
Ohhhs and ahhhs all around.
I passed one of them the ball. He proceeded to shoot with the kind of form any coach in the US or even Argentina for that matter, would be would be proud of. He effortlessly knocked down the jumper from about 20 feet. Like this was something he did everyday all day. Another grabbed the rebound and a third, about the same height- 5’9 or so, gave him a little defense. The ball carrier did a wicked crossover, shaking the defense loose, and cut for the basket while the other regained his composure just in time to block the shot by smacking it against the backboard. Watching them I had a vision of the Olympics in the not too distant future and the so-called American Dream Team capturing the Bronze metal in Basketball, Kobe Bryant shaking hands with Takeshi Tanaka, point guard of the Japanese team who just triple-doubled him to the tune of 47 points, 15 assist, 10 rebounds and 3 block shots.
And that’s when stupidity got the best of me and I decided to defend this guy. His intimidation of my height and weight advantage lasted for about 6 dribbles of the ball. I could see the change in his eyes. He was going to show this black guy how well he’d been studying the NBA. He was fast and clever and had some moves I’ve rarely seen in the flesh in his repertoire. His 15 year old legs were strong, coordinated, with an elasticity I’ve never had even when I was his age. He had a handle and was prepared to be defended the way Kobe might defend him. He expected me to try and out athleticize his ass. But, I’ve been a cagey veteran for a while now, so I pretended I intended to do that, but hung back a deceptive distance. I wasn’t even going to attempt to defend a drive to the boards but indicated I was expecting one with my body language. So, when he tried his jumper he was surprised to find me right in his face. Surprised, but not dissuaded. He pump faked and I faked a block and then when he released it I really didn’t have to jump to swat his jumper across the gym.
Ohhhhhs and ahhhs all around.
His intimidation returned with a vengeance and it felt damn good to be the source. Here I was: a good 20 plus years on him and wearing sandals at that. I could imagine what they must’ve been thinking. With great deference the ball was given to me and another guy who had been chomping at the bit for a go at me stepped up. I slid over to him and showed him some of my wary moves. Not fast or fancy, just time-honored and well-honed. I carried on like this for about 30 minutes or so and had worked up a nice sweat so I called it quits. Before I left, they all lined up and bowed to me. Not because of my game…they couldn’t have been that impressed. My game is streaky at best and straight suspect at worst. The bowing thing is just something that Japanese cats do. They bow for everybody and everything. They bow at the ATM and on the cell phone. After a while you just get used to seeing it; took me about 2 years.
I was feeling pretty good and went to bed that night feeling young and spry. I’d put it on those young whipper snappers but good, and I wasn’t even in my Nikes. I’d decided to meet with them weekly and get some games going. I’d told Kana about it. She was impressed.
“Ojii-san,” old man, she said, “Wakazukuri suru ne” so you’re trying to be young, and proceeded to give me another task to prove my vitality, which I did with flying colors.
The next morning I’d awakened with a twinge. I ignored it. Usually I ignore it and it goes away. But, later that evening, en route to meet my second student at a café in Jiyugaoka, it came back with a vengeance. I’d just gotten off the train and was about to take on a long steep set of stairs when the pain stabbed me in the lower back area so forcefully that I thought it was in my chest and I was experiencing the first of what will be several heart attacks I’m likely to have over the course of my middle age.
I froze, my vision blurred by pain and dizziness, and the staircase began to look like an obstacle I wouldn’t ever consider tackling again. For a second I thought of how fucked I’d be if I collapsed or needed help. But, the anger that thought generated only increased the pain. The pain was humbling. I was at everyone’s mercy. I was about to unload my broken Japanese on the station staff who were watching me curiously.
The pain was paralyzing me. I stood there, helpless, frozen, alone, with thousands of rush hour eyes raking me as they passed. I felt afraid, like a child that had gotten separated from his parents in the subway, surrounded and being eyed by thousands of people who looked like the kind of strangers that his parents had warned him to beware of, and they were somehow aware of his predicament.
I had to get out of there. I had to get home. After all, I wasn’t really paralyzed. And if I was really having a heart attack, the way Richard Pryor had described his episode, I would have definitely known it by then. So, I tested the range of motion available to me without eliciting excruciating pain. This testing process almost cost me consciousness. My vision actually blurred and I felt the diminished capacity in the normal use of my mental faculties. For a couple of seconds panic had me because I really didn’t know what I could do. I had momentarily lost the ability to save myself, like a fly caught in a web.
Then it leveled off, the pain did, all of a sudden, or maybe I just realized that my fear of the pain was the only reason I hadn’t moved and if I wasn’t going to suck it up and move on then I might as well had died then and there. And, move on I did. I was walking like Frankenstein with a knife in his back, but I was walking, and that was progress. The staircase before me became traversable. Slowly I began the climb, one step at a time, like a puppy taking on his first staircase, fearful yet determined. And as I climbed I remembered that this was not the first time this had happened.
I remembered the first time I had been stricken so. I was working as a consultant at a housing organization back in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, having the time of my life. I was writing for a local newspaper, volunteering at several community organizations, corresponding regularly with my literary agent while preparing a final draft that she had confidence would find a home in a publishing house. I had a girlfriend who was beautiful and intelligent and liked to get high as much as I did. I was surrounded my friends and family and a community that supported me and I had started my own home improvement business which I was thoroughly convinced would make me entirely self sufficient. I’d quit my 9-5 a year earlier and had changed my life so dramatically that I was almost unrecognizable. I was on such a high, then. I was on the verge of living the life I’d always wanted to live and I felt invincible, indestructible.
Then, one hot summer day, there was a lull, a slow day at the office where I did my consulting work, so I leaned back in my chair, threw my feet up on my desk and took a power nap, the Air Conditioning cooling my body glistening with the sweat I’d worked up that morning breezing around the community on my Specialized Mountain Bike coordinating the installation of yard lights, dreaming of living the life I had already begun to live. When I awoke, I felt refreshed and ready to continue the day. I stood up to go to the bathroom and take a power leak. On the way to the bathroom I abruptly sneezed and maybe I’d tried to contain it a little for my co-worker was headed in my direction and I didn’t want to spray her, but that’s when it began…I felt something happen. I couldn’t be sure until I returned to an erect position, the violence of the sneeze having caused me to lunge forward and bend over. And once erect I felt like someone had taken a steel rod and shoved it up my ass, through my spine, up to the base of my neck. I hollered in agony and my co-workers rushed to my aid.
I was in the throes of agony so I can’t remember exactly what happened, only that everyone had all kinds of advice, chiropractors and hot baths and tiger balm and the likes. Eventually I was able to move and I made my way home, fortunately walking distance from the office, and climbed into my tub, sat there for a few hours and then climbed into bed, feeling helpless, deflated, and defeated. I thought my life was over. If I had to endure this kind of pain, this kind of immobility, even occasionally, I didn’t want to live. The toll it would have on the lifestyle I had mapped out for myself would be too severe. A lifestyle that included daily excursions on my bike, tri-weekly trips to the basketball court, summers at the beach, evenings in my home office, seated at my desk writing the great American novel. In the pain I was in, even rolling over in the bed would be a crucible.
Fortunately, the pain went away, but it had been so agonizing that I remained traumatized.
Till this day…
And when I felt that twinge at the kitchen sink I had a flashback that was almost as terrible as the actual pain. While I stretched I decided that I wasn’t about to go to the gym today and play Jeopardy with my back. I was really disappointed that I couldn’t go. As I made my way to the bathroom I thought about how much I really love playing basketball, how much i really needed to play. It’s the only real stress relieving exercise I do. My only chance to blow off the steam I build up over the course of a week. On the court I can really release myself and that way I can…WHAM! I slam my head in the doorway to the bathroom!
“I FUCKING HATE THIS HOUSE!!!” I screamed.
I sat on the toilet, rubbing my head, thinking about the seven foot doorways of home.