Simone was in a coma ten days before she died. She had fallen down the Kami-Hongo train station stairs, the steepest and most narrow set of stairs I'd seen in Japan, if not the tallest. Strangely enough, my wife Anne (who was my girlfriend at the time) remarked on the steepness of the stairs the night I met Simone and Anne met Simone's fiance, Clarke.
Anne and I had just viewed and signed the contract on an apartment we planned to move into the first of the month when we literally bumped into Simone and Clarke on the Kami-Hongo platform at the foot of the steep stairs. Simone and Clarke had just stepped off the train and were on their way to visit friends who'd soon become our neighbors. Anne introduced me to Simone and I introduced Anne to Clarke; Anne taught with Simone at the Kashiwa branch of the corporate conversational English school we worked, and I taught with Clarke at the Toride branch, two stops from Kashiwa on the Joban Line, an hour northeast of Tokyo.
As Simone and Clarke waved goodbye and climbed the steep stairs, Anne and I first remarked how they were the nicest Kiwis we'd met since coming to Japan, and then remarked how we nearly busted our asses scrambling down the steep stairs for the train. My last glimpse of Simone alive was of her at the top of the stairs.
Three weeks later, Simone and Clarke were visiting the same friends when she fell down the stairs. Her hands had been full with shopping bags and she had lost her balance or placed a foot awkwardly on the narrow steps. Her fall and death affected Anne and me deeply for a few reasons. First, it was the same set of stairs Anne and I used at least twice a day. Second, we related to Clarke and Simone more than any of our friends in Japan: they were in their mid twenties like us, engaged to be married like we were soon to be, and wanted to travel more of Southeast Asia as we did. Lastly, Anne was six months pregnant, unsure of her body, and no longer able to find her center of gravity.
Japanese law forbade Simone's body being shipped back to New Zealand and ordered her cremated, so her family and Clarke's family flew to Japan for the funeral. As to be expected, Clarke was devastated by the loss of his fiancee, but Simone's parents actually smiled and hugged Anne and me when they thanked us for attending the funeral. I felt horrible for Clarke, but I couldn't help envisioning Anne, with a swollen and distended belly, falling down the Kami-Hongo stairs each time I glanced at Simone and her fully bandaged head in the coffin.
After the funeral, a group of eight or ten of us (mostly Anne's Kashiwa co-workers I'd met in passing at sayonara parties) decided to get some lunch. We didn't say very much to one another as we made our way back to Kashiwa on the train; being confronted with our own personal, sudden and abrupt mortality was frightening. It goes without saying Anne and I were particularly unsettled, myself perhaps more so than Anne. For more than eight hours a day, Anne would be out of my sight, and Japanese people were not known for being very polite as they rushed up and down the stairs for overcrowded trains. It wasn't so bad at the large stations, though; those had elevators or escalators, but small stations like Kami-Hongo had neither. Needless to say, from the day of Simone's funeral until the day Anne and I flew back to Canada to have our daughter, I hovered nervously next to Anne each time we used a set of stairs together.
It was Nicola who called to our attention the three Japanese women openly and brazenly staring at Anne and me on the train, very much unlike the shy people the Japanese are known to be. I suppose it wasn't every day a Japanese person taking the train saw a large group of American, Canadian, Australian and British foreigners together and dressed in all black. And I suppose within that group, it wasn't every day a Japanese person taking the train saw an African American male hovering protectively over a for-all-intents-and-purposes white Canadian pregnant woman (Anne is Hungarian-Japanese, but looks more Hungarian than Japanese).
Regardless of what Japanese people are used to when they take the train, Nicola obviously wasn't happy the three Japanese women kept looking from Anne's pregnant belly to her face, to my face and back to Anne's pregnant belly. So as we got off at Kashiwa, Nicola, a black Canadian with an American sista-gurl attitude, did what could only be expected of her in that situation: she put her nose an inch from the nose of one of the Japanese women and screamed, What are you looking at?
The Japanese woman didn't answer, of course.
About the author:
Malon Edwards is a freelance writer and recently returned to America after a three-year stint in Japan. His work has been published by African American Review and Thieves Jargon. He currently lives on the north side of Chicago with his wife and two-year old daughter.
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