Tomoko comes to school every day with her hair perfectly coiffed and makeup carefully applied. She doesn’t need it of course. Her long legs and mysterious glance leave dozens of heartbroken boys in her wake. She is always polite but manages to sneak in a bit of sarcasm every now and then. She comes to visit me in the teacher’s room often, with her posse of shy but hopeful “Tomoko wannabees”. They stand in the background silently, hanging on her every word and gesture. When she flicks her hair, they instantly try to imitate her. They try to outdo each other, each of them hoping to one day be the next Tomoko. She sighs, as if annoyed but resigned to the fate that her beauty had brought upon her. As an afterthought, she flashes her winning smile, savouring the adoration that gravitates around her presence.
I’m not sure why she comes to chat with me. Perhaps amongst all her admirers she feels lonely and I alone seem approachable to her. Perhaps she sees me as more of a curiosity. Perhaps she even sees me as an equal, and to take it a step further, a threat. Perhaps she stops by to check out her competition- to “know thine enemy” as it were. If that is the case, she doesn’t show it. I am a suspicious person by nature, especially of beautiful people, so when she asks me questions about myself I think perhaps she is gathering an arsenal of information so she can later use it against me. I know her motives are probably benign. Nevertheless, I quiz her about her life as much as she does mine. One can never be too prepared for battle.
As an ugly duckling, I have always been fascinated by people like her. It was a small wonder for me now to finally be the object of fascination for one of them. Having been mistreated in my youth, I harboured an urge to hurt beautiful people as they had hurt me. And now, as her mentor, I am in a position to do just that. Yet I feel no such urge towards her, no malice, despite my suspicions. I even feet a bit protective of her because I recognize a part of myself in her. Just as I was an ugly lonely girl, she is a beautiful one. Neither of us is able to form a real friendship, not even with each other.
She is as unwilling as I to relinquish information, and of course we have difficulty communicating because of language, but we talk only in Japanese. Having studied Japanese for ten years, I still struggle to express myself. She is pleased that I make an effort as she is also too shy to speak to me in English. As time passes, we regard each other with less and less weariness.
I have a hard time, as I do with all of my students, to get her to look me in the eye. Japanese students are taught to be demure, and looking someone in the eye is a sign of disrespect. One day, just as I am leaving school, Tomoko runs after me and purposefully looks me in the eyes. “I want to trust you,” she says in broken English.
We stand in front of the gates of the school as the traffic of students and teachers are diverted around us, staring at each other. There is a brief moment of understanding as I recognize the look in her eyes, mirroring my own. It is both a challenge and a plea for help. I gaze at her face, as different from my own as yin from yang and the moment seems to last for infinity. I feel as though I am teetering on the precipice of a truth I have been running away from for a decade. Perhaps it was fate that I would study Japanese and that it would bring me here and now- the time of reckoning.
I embrace her and she recoils instantly, unused to physical contact. But, seeing the truth in my eyes, she slowly returns my embrace. We stand there in the twilight, shivering but not cold, as the masses continue to swarm past us.
*Published in JET Journal 2007*