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Saturday, Feb. 18, 2006

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Winesburg, Japan, and the will of God


Sherwood Anderson once charmed America with a collection of short stories focused on the fictional town of Winesburg, Ohio. The stories portrayed normal people in the normal agony of their normal lives, tales that made Winesburg a hometown for everyone. One story in particular told of a modest clergyman and the eye-opening sight he spied in the bedroom of the house next door, presented now as a "Flactured Fairy Tale," not from Ohio, but from that other Winesburg, located right here in Japan.

. . . Curtis Wartman was a quiet man in his early 30s who bore his silence with ramrod posture and crinkled eyes that made people think he was brooding and judgmental, when in truth a drought of confidence and a persistent stutter made him instead sensitive to the eyes and judgments of others. Not ideal for a missionary perhaps, but Curtis strove to state with everyday kindness the words and vision that he could not so eloquently voice.

Early in his career in Japan he decided he would not reside in one of the flowing dwellings provided by his missionary association, nor race off at every chance he got to the missionary Shangri-La at Lake Nojiri, like so many of his colleagues. Rather he would rent a humble residence in the midst of the working class and share God's mercies as he shared the workingman's burdens.

The apartment he chose lay at the shadowy top of a narrow four-story climb. The room held a miniature kitchen but no bath. For that, he would have to patronize the public bathhouse, conveniently located beneath his sole apartment window.

It was on the day that he had signed his lease and paid his deposit -- with funds that he knew came straight from the offerings of little old ladies -- that Curtis first glanced down from that open window. Only to gasp.

For in the bathhouse roof were cut vents for the rising steam. From his window, he found he could spy upon a tiled floor of bathing female flesh.

He stepped back. He felt his face sizzle with heat.

This would not do! Should he not tell the landlord? Or the bathhouse? Yet they had to know already. Wouldn't they laugh at him? Prudish foreigner! Or should he tell his colleagues? But . . . such news would roar through his missionary community.

"Ha! I know what part of the 'Body' Curtis is!" He could hear them talk.

Yet if he closed the window -- he reached and pushed it shut with a single finger -- the temptation was gone.

Besides, it was only women bathing. Why, there were far greater perils on the Internet. All he need do was not look. Which he didn't. . . . for a while.

And when he did, he felt so guilty his knees shook. He closed the window, locked it and turned to his Bible. "If your eye is unhealthy," it warned, "your whole body will be full of darkness." An earnest man, he nearly wept with shame.

But after some weeks once more his will crumbled. He discovered, if he switched off his lights and watched after dark, there was no way he could be spotted, even if a bather should turn her eyes toward heaven.

"Please, God, take this yoke from me!" he prayed -- even as he began to watch almost every night.

It was an odd assortment of flesh that scrubbed itself below him -- heavy with grandmothers, yet with dashes of schoolgirls, office women, and mothers with kids. One night his eyes fell on a slender young lady sitting all soaped up on a stool before the faucets. She had her face in her hands and seemed to be weeping. From then on, he watched mostly for her. She appeared nightly between 9 and 9:30.

He began to dream about this girl. How strange. A naked Japanese woman seen only from afar. One whose name he did not know and whose language made him stutter even worse. Could she be the divine purpose behind this? He had always been shy and awkward with women. Could this girl be the answer to even older prayers? Could this be . . . God's will for his lonely life?

His first step was a closer look. His own bath time was late afternoon. He altered this to 8:45, then 9. But even a week of slowly searching for coins at the payment counter produced no chance encounter.

Yet he did make friends with a toothy bus driver on the men's side of the bath, a fellow with passable English. He knew, for example, the word for "stutter."

"My wife, she stutter too," he grinned. He promised to attend the English class Curtis had established at the local civic center and maybe even the Bible lesson at his apartment. Both classes suffered from poor attendance, so maybe, just maybe, Curtis' life was about to change.

And then it did. Outside at the shoe box, with his cheeks a-flush from the warmth of the bathhouse waters, he claimed his tennies and turned to meet head on the young woman of his dreams, seen in clothes now for the first time. She wore spectacles over oval eyes on a bright face framed with slick black hair.

He inhaled and she startled at the sound. They gazed at each other. He swallowed. Then paused. Then spoke.

"K-komban wa."

She smiled back, a smile like the rising sun. "K-komban wa," she said, and his heart sunk. Was she making fun of him?

Then the bus driver was at her side. His wife, he explained. Tomoko, she would study English too.

Many bows, and much bungled and stuttered English later, Curtis watched them walk away, hand in hand, perfectly able to imagine them both naked.

He blinked that vision asunder and saw clearly now to God's will. "I need a different apartment," he reasoned. "One with my very own bath."

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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