William stood in line with the others, waiting to be tagged with a plastic wristband, and looked around at all the people he didn’t know. It was busy for a cool Friday afternoon. On the other side of the gate, he saw Maury and Dennis, two old men who lived at the pool as far as he knew, heading toward the steam room and arguing about something. Dennis noticed him and waved. Maury looked over and did the same, and then they went back to arguing.
Something crumpled under William’s shoe as he shuffled forward. It was a bright pink flyer. “Company Picnic This Friday,” it said. “Please plan on attending this non-optional team-building event. See your supervisor for food assignment. Spouses and children over 4 are welcome. An enjoyable time will be had by all.”
William looked around again. Office workers, he thought. No wonder they’re all so sallow. Nebbishy men were paired up with similar women; very few of them belonged in a bathing suit. Dour children clung to their parents’ arms or legs. The guaranteed good times had apparently not begun yet.
“Welcome to Family Splash Fun Center,” said a teenaged boy in charge of the line. “Are you here with the company?”
“Yes,” said William, and slipped the three dollars in his hand back into his pocket. He held out his other wrist obligingly.
The teenager was named Charley, and William had seen him at least a dozen times in the past year. “Please observe all pool rules during your visit,” droned the boy, neatly avoiding eye contact with anyone in the line. “Men’s changing rooms are on the left.” Charley applied a plastic strap to William’s wrist. It caught on his arm hair and chafed. He fiddled with the bracelet and pushed his way through the turnstile.
In the men’s changing room, William set his bag on an empty bench and began to undress. He was glad that he’d worn his swimsuit under his clothes; stripping naked in a room full of regulars was one thing, but he had always been a little suspicious of businessmen. He took a towel and a quarter from his bag and purchased a locker, then stuffed his belongings into it and went out to the pool area.
The pool, and most of Family Splash Fun Center, was indoors. William didn’t know much about architecture, but he guessed that it had been built in the 1950s, when lima-bean-colored tile was still in vogue. Small, high windows were thick with steam, and what little natural light filtered through was washed away by the dejected mercury-vapor lamps hanging overhead. The only concession to modernity was a small room filled with noisy video games, but the two he liked were occupied.
William reached the steam room just as a pretty blonde woman wrapped in a towel was coming out. He held the door open, and she smiled at him as she went past.
“Hey, Billy Boy, you’re letting all the steam out.” That was Maury. William went in and closed the door behind him.
“Just being polite,” he said, and took a seat on the marble bench.
“Polite, uh huh,” said Maury. “Did you see the legs on her?”
“You’re a pig,” said Dennis. “She could be your granddaughter.”
“Could be, but isn’t,” Maury shot back. “My Mary, God rest her, she used to have legs like a dancer. Did I ever tell you about the time we were in the Catskills and—“
“And Jack Benny danced with your wife. We know,” said Dennis.
“Twice,” said Maury. “He danced with her twice.”
“So there’s a company party here today?” William had also heard the Jack Benny story before.
“Yeah, they come here every year,” said Dennis. “Owner’s brother-in-law runs this place, or something.”
“Bunch of suits running around without suits,” said Maury.
“Is a suit without a suit still a suit?” asked Dennis.
“You can take the man out of the suit, but you can’t take the suit out of the man,” replied Maury.
“Be fair,” said William. “Some of them are women.”
“That they are,” said Dennis, and chuckled.
“Oh, hey,” said Maury, “I hear they’re thinking of putting in one of those rock-climbing walls.”
“Who is? Here? What’s a rocklining wall?”
“Rock climbing. Climbing. You know, one of those walls with bumps all over it, and you put on a rope and some special shoes and climb to the top.”
“What’s at the top?”
“So what’s the point?”
“I don’t know…so you can practice your climbing, I guess.”
Dennis shook his head. “If they put some beer at the top, maybe.”
“Or that blonde number that was in here.” He made a biting motion toward the door.
Maury laughed. “Nothing wrong with a healthy libido.”
William stretched and smiled. “I’m gonna go in the hot tub. You two old coots want to come?”
“Coot? Get outta here, ya punk.” Maury shook his fist and mimicked a toothless grimace.
“In a bit,” Dennis nodded at William and turned back to Maury. “You got enough libido for five guys.”
“I don’t do guys,” said Maury. “That time in the Navy doesn’t count.”
“That’s not what I meant,” said Dennis.
William picked up his towel and left the two men to their bantering. A pair of attractive middle-aged women passed him in the hall and went into the steam room. They’re in for an interesting time, he thought. He considered returning to the steam room to listen in, but decided against it.
Around the pool, children ran and shouted. The shouts echoed strangely off the walls and air hangar ceiling. They sounded hollow and artificial, like happy robots. William set his towel down on the rim of the whirlpool and eased himself into it. Two other people were in the whirlpool as well, but he didn’t know them and they were engaged in their own conversation, so he was free to watch the crowd. A minute later the jets turned on, and the nozzle pressed against William’s left hip began to fill his trunks with air. He moved over and discreetly squeezed the air out of his trunks, and when he looked back up he saw her.
She had kind eyes, warm and almond and a little shy. She caught and held his gaze like silk on thorns, and he swallowed. As she moved through the crowd, the rest of her came into view. He tried to look away, even turning his head a little to the side, but his eyes would not let her go. When she broke contact, he blinked a few times and admired his way down her body. She wore a flattering blue one-piece bathing suit and had a white towel in her hand. Maury would definitely have approved of her legs.
William murmured silently to the universe, hoping both that she would and would not come join him in the whirlpool. After looking around the pool area for a few minutes, she set her towel down on a vacant chair and dove into the deep end of the swimming pool. He could no longer see her, and he leaned his head back on the rim and closed his eyes.
As the warm water and soothing jets gradually relaxed away the few butterflies in his midsection, he dozed lightly. Sounds from the pool wove their way into a daydream in which he was charming and made her laugh, and she touched him lingeringly on the arm. A shift in the shadowed light beyond his eyelids caused him to blink awake; he turned to the left in time to see a blue-clad feminine bottom easing into the whirlpool. She settled on the sunken bench and demurely adjusted her swimsuit. The conversing couple had gone, and they were alone. Water lapped at her shoulders, and her dark wet hair clung to the nape of her neck. Carried along by the evaporating tendrils of his daydream, William smiled warmly at her and said hello.
“My name’s William,” he offered. Several useless pickup lines blurred through his mind, and he did his best not to laugh at himself.
“Hello, William. My name is Aiko,” she said. Her soft accent made each word sound as though it had been prepared in advance just for him. “Do you work for the company?”
“No,” he said. “I’m just here to relax. What about you?”
She smiled at that and looked down at the water. “I am here with Kaishi Tokugawa. He works for the company.” She turned and gestured toward the pool, where a Japanese man in red trunks was talking with several other people.
“Are you his….” Realization crept in. “Sister?”
“He is my…fiancé? Is that the word? I am to marry him.”
William did his best to look detached.
“Why do you look sad, William? Do you want to marry Kaishi instead?” Her eyes laughed gently.
William looked over at Kaishi again. “He is a handsome man. I’m sure he’d make a fine husband, but I have my eye on someone else.”
She blushed and looked away.
“Sorry,” he said. “That was kind of pushy, wasn’t it?”
She looked back at him and studied his face for a moment. “No. You should not apologize. I am not accustomed to men who speak their mind so freely.” She glanced away toward the far end of the pool, then back at William. “You will let me do the same? This will be something we share?” She smiled again, and he nodded.
“So how long have you been here?”
“I have been here for seven months. Kaishi thought it would be nice for me to make some new friends, American friends. I studied English in Japan; it is a very strange language, but I like it better now. I hope I speak well enough for you.”
“You’re beautiful,” he said. “Your English, I mean. Your English is beautiful.”
“Thank you,” she smiled. “Your English is very handsome as well.”
It was his turn to blush. “I don’t know a lot about Japanese culture, but I thought the women there were, um…shy. You know, not very outgoing.”
“Many women in Japan are submissive when they are in public. It is a very…patriarchal?” He nodded. “Patriarchal society, very traditional, but it is changing. Besides, I am not in Japan any more. The women here are very bold. I hope to be bold some day also.”
“You seem bold to me already,” said William. “I mean, that’s a good thing, I think. You’re in a new country, speaking a new language, making new friends. That’s pretty brave.”
“Perhaps,” she said, not meeting his eyes. “The path we are given is not always the one we would choose.”
“I don’t understand.”
“May I tell you something personal, William? Something that you will not tell to others?” He nodded and leaned forward slightly, in case she whispered whatever was to come next.
“I am here to marry Kaishi because his parents and my parents wish it so.”
“An arranged marriage? Wow, I didn’t know that still happened.”
“It is not an arranged marriage in the sense you mean. I am not being given to Kaishi as a prize. We were engaged two years ago, when Kaishi still lived in Japan. Our parents feel that we are well-suited for one another.” She paused. “Kaishi also got my father his new job when his factory closed. I am grateful to him for this.”
“Do you love him?”
“I am going to marry him,” she said. “As I said, Japan is a very traditional society. Kaishi is a good man, and he treats me kindly. It would dishonor his family and mine to go against their wishes.”
William was unsure of what to say next. Protests and rationalizations ran through his mind, but they seemed selfish and disrespectful. He nodded silently and stared at the bubbling water.
“Who’s your friend here, boyo?” A hand clasped him on the shoulder, then let go. Maury settled into the whirlpool opposite Aiko, and Dennis took a seat next to William.
William gave introductions all around. Aiko and the two older men greeted each other politely.
“They don’t work for the company either,” said William. “Or at all, as far as I know.”
“Nope,” said Dennis. “Worked at Alcon on the line for forty years.”
“Retired electrician,” Maury nodded. “Aiko is Japanese, right? Doesn’t it mean blue?”
William and Dennis looked at Maury.
“What? I spent some time in Japan when I was in the Navy.”
“Ai can mean blue, depending on how it is written,” she said. “My name is written as ‘beloved one’ in Kanji script.”
“’Beloved one.’ That’s nice,” said Dennis. “It suits you.” He looked at William.
“We were talking about Japanese culture a bit ago,” said William. “Aiko was telling me about Japanese women.”
“Now there’s a good topic,” said Maury. “Japanese women are tough. They might act all shy and delicate on the outside, but they run the house, handle the money, make the decisions. Don’t let her fool you,” he winked.
“I see.” William looked at Aiko and raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t mention that part.”
“You are right,” she said. “It is often the case that a man will work very hard, and his wife or daughters will rule the home. Sometimes it is by choice, and sometimes it is not. Was it not this way in American society for many years?”
“I guess that’s true,” said Dennis. “My first wife didn’t work a day in her life, but she could spend every penny I brought home. Libby still works part time at the free clinic downtown. My daughters both work, good jobs too. I’d rather have a partner than a boss.”
“Mary went back to school when she was forty-three,” said Maury. “She wanted to help put the kids through college too. It took me a while to get used to the idea of her working, you know? Like I wasn’t working hard enough or something. I got over that, though. She got a great job and it made her happy, and that was good enough for me. The kids got to go to college, and we got to put some money away and travel later on.”
“I think it’d be kind of strange to have a wife who wanted to stay home,” said William. “I mean, I’d like to stay home too, but it’s just not very practical.”
Aiko shook her head. “Staying at home is not always a matter of being lazy or unwilling to work. Women do not always have the same opportunities as men. Here the women have more choices, but also more pressure to compete with men in an unequal workplace.”
“It’s better than it used to be,” said Dennis. “My daughters had an easier time getting promotions and raises than Libby did when she first started. It’s probably a generational thing. You kids don’t see as much difference between men and women as we used to.”
“Japanese society is changing in that way too. Women are more accepted in the workplace now, but there are still many barriers.”
“Progress is slow sometimes,” said Maury. “All the old coots like us still have our ideas about how the world should be, and sometimes we gum up the works.” He stretched and looked around. “Anyway, I guess that’s enough about that. Looks like they’re setting up to feed people. Let’s go get some free burgers?”
“Sounds good to me,” said Dennis. “Nice to meet you, Aiko.”
“Sayonara, Aiko,” said Maury, and bowed his head slightly.
“Sayonara,” she said, and bowed in return.
When they were gone, Aiko put her hand on William’s arm under the water. She looked thoughtful. “William….”
William gave a guilty start, and Aiko withdrew her hand. They both turned to look. Kaishi stood a few feet off. He spoke to her in Japanese, and she answered, nodding. He turned, walked a few steps away, and waited.
“Kaishi wants to introduce me to some other people,” she said. She leaned closer to William and lowered her voice. “I am glad we met, William.” She touched his arm again.
“Me too,” he said. He tried to look interested in something across the way as she climbed out of the whirlpool and dried herself off. When she joined Kaishi, he took her arm lightly and started talking again in Japanese. William stared after her until they had gone around a corner.
He sat in silence for a few moments while the world splashed and shouted around him. The sudden smell of hamburgers made his stomach growl; he looked around and saw that a barbecue grill was smoking away near the picnic tables. He got out of the whirlpool and dried off, then joined Dennis and Maury in line.
Site Contents © 2004 Robert M. Rowan