It’s an early summer morning in Tokyo. I have been sitting beside the Sumida River for some time; it’s the only place to escape the heat. At 10am, it’s already 85 degrees. There’s a small breeze here, and I’m trying to compose my thoughts, while the life around me interferes.
A large green bug lands on me. It freaked me out me a bit at first, but on its second landing, I’ve reconciled that we’re friends. Small, purple petals float and drift slowly to the ground. I’m sitting under a flowering tree of green and purple. What kind of tree this is, I don’t know. It doesn’t amaze me how little I know; at least now, it doesn’t embarrass me to say the words, “I don’t know.” Gone is the blustering pretense and embarrassment of past years.
The wind has died. Just, still, crushing heat now. Already, the petals on the ground are darkening. A purple hibiscus shrub blooms in profusion on my left. It makes me think of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, the book my mother sent me in the mail. The novel is a haunting, gripping, heartbreaking work of art. I can’t wait to start her other novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, this week.
On Tuesdays, my first class begins at 7:30am in Ojima. It’s a twenty-minute bike ride from where I live– over the bridge, past stone statues, small shops, and past the park. When I arrive at the company, there’s always a student waiting for me with a smile. This morning, I taught “used to, and “”would,” or rather, I summoned my students memories by introducing new words to talk about the past. Here are some of their recollections:
When I was seven, I used to visit my grandfather’s farm. He would cut big watermelons with a sickle and we would eat fresh watermelon all day.
When I was in junior high school, I used to be a delivery newspaper boy. I would wake up by 4am everyday and deliver 100 papers. I would buy comics with the little money I got. I didn’t work at that job for more than six months.
When I was 21, I rode my bicycle from Saitama to Karuizawa. It took six hours. I was so tired, I only took long baths and slept when I got there.
A mother and her son just sat next to me on the bench. He is about two years old, maybe a few months less. His mother is feeding him some bread and jam. He eats without making any sound, then gets up and walks to the rail by the river. He points at something in the water and his mother walks over to look. He starts running and laughing, as children are inclined to do. Will he remember this day or just have a fuzzy feeling of contentment that lingers in his mind whenever he’s near a river?
Maybe, one day in his English class, many years down the line, he’ll say:
When I was a boy, my mother would take me to the river. She would wear a straw hat to shield herself from the sun, and when I would look up at her shaded face, I’d think she was beautiful. She used to make sandwiches, and bring cookies and cold apple juice for us to enjoy. As you know, Tokyo summers can be very hot, but I used to run after pigeons until I was flushed. It was at that time, my mother would chase me, swoop me up and walk for a bit. I used to be tired, and in her arms, I would start to drift off, feeling happy and safe.
Maybe, he’ll say that.