“Japanese are supposed to be polite. It’s a defining part of the national character.”
And before that argument can crash, I back it with . . .
“In the same way that bees have buzz, cows say moo, and pigeons on the street go coo, coo, coo.”
To which my wife replies . . .
“Poetry will get you nowhere. Especially lines so flat. I am going first and that is that.”
Ouch. We’re both arguing in rhyme. Bad rhyme too. As if we know any other kind. Still, I gird myself and make one final try.
“It’s not right to be impolite. This you have to reckon; which means I am going first and then you’ll be second.”
She begs me to stop, before the shades of Keats, Whitman and the rest rise from their graves and strangle me. Which would, in this case, render me victorious.
For we have been arguing about death. As to which of us should spring first from this mortal coil. So far we’ve been playing Alponse and Gaston in reverse.
We have been wedlocked in mortal combat now for over three decades, with no end in sight. But just because we cannot yet mark the finish, doesn’t mean it isn’t coming.
As to who should go first . . .
“It’s me; I insist!”
A line we draw and fire together. If we were using bullets and not words, we would have blown each other away.
But words it is. And she can reload much faster.
“Of course, I should be first. Think of all the red tape with you — a foreigner — expiring in Japan. Would I have to call the embassy? Go there? Tell the ambassador in person? And what would I wear?”
“And then what? Do I mail you back?” She shudders. “Who wants to worry about such things? At a moment of grief? No, it’s easier if I go ahead first.”
“Wait a minute.” I wag my finger. “You want me to conduct your service? In Japanese? You know how tongue-tied I get. People will end up crying for the wrong reason. They’ll be mourning the language and not you.”
“Oh why worry over trifles,” she says. “All you need do is weep and mumble. Japanese love emotional babble and you have a knack. Besides, you won’t have to dress up whatsoever. Everyone knows you have no fashion sense.”
I shift tactics. “So . . . you want me to subsist on toast? That’s what will end up happening. Toast, frozen pizza and beer. That’s the life you will be leaving me with.”
“So how,” she says, “is that different from now? Except for the order? Instead of three meals and snacks, you will just have nonstop snacks. Plus stockholders in McDonald’s will consider you a sort of god.”
“But,” she goes on, “how will I get along without you around? Can you imagine?”
I happen to have a good imagination. Yet, no problem comes to mind.
“Can’t you see all the extra work!?”
“Like what? You won’t be able to swear at the laptop when it freezes? I’ll just leave you a tape. Or I can teach you.”
“No, no — can’t you see? I’ll have no one to tidy up after. Which means I’ll have to do it all: Both make a mess and then clean up as well. And how will I learn to dribble around the toilet?”
I admit there are some things that can’t be taught.
“So,” she says, “if you go first, it will cut my free time in half. I’ll get far more rest the other way.”
“OK, then how about the neighbors?” This time I think I’ve got her.
“You know I don’t give a hoot about keeping quiet or making small talk. I’ll become the neighborhood pariah. The gaijin Grinch. The bogeyman from abroad. The local nightmare on cherry street.”
She mulls this over and answers . . . “Yes, you’re probably right. If I go first, they’ll probably all wish to come with me. It can’t be helped.”
“But if you go first,” she says, “how will I deal with them? And all the gifts of condolences? I won’t be able to keep up with returning presents. I’ll have to sell the house and move away. Thank goodness for old folks’ homes.”
And there, I say, is the truer nightmare on cherry street. That she should go first and I would end up in a Japanese old folks home alone.
“Can you see me singing ‘Sakura’ with a bunch of Japanese geysers? Or folding origami during arts and crafts hour?”
No, she can’t.
“And after 30 years, how do I go back?”
A moment of silence. Too bad we didn’t think of this three decades before. But back then all we did was go coo, coo, coo.
“If we’re lucky, we might have three decades more to work it out.”
I shake my head. Lucky in love means going first, I tell her.
“For the one who is left is the one who’s bereft.”
Sometimes we poets get it right.