The voluptuous student from Amagasaki, her hair dyed platinum blonde, puts her pencil, eraser first, up her miniskirt, draws it out and holds it before the nose of the young woman next to her. The other student cranes her neck slightly and sniffs it. The first student, whom Aurora Tanabe nicknamed “Booger Eater,” whispers something in Osaka dialect and the other student covers her mouth with her hand. In disbelief, Hank Hashimoto, their English Communication teacher, loses track of what he was saying and lets the class go five minutes early.
Booger Eater has done it again.
In this private Osaka junior college for women Booger Eater stands out. While the demure and proper students in the class speak of their pets and hobbies, Booger Eater talks about going to love hotels with her now ex-boyfriend who works in a convenience store. One time this boyfriend called her mobile phone in the middle of class and they had had a spat in front of everyone. Several times she talked about her father hitting her. Another time said she had lent him twenty thousand yen after he lost all of his money playing mahjong. When she and her boyfriend broke up Booger Eater announced it to the class.
Booger Eater’s “what new” anecdotes are invariably along the lines of seeing a baby throw up on the Midosuji subway line or a news item about a policeman arrested for urinating off of Ebisu Bridge. But she does not eat nose dirt—not as far as Hank knows. Aurora gave her that nickname after she told the class that if you didn’t have pickles to put on your rice you could use your hana kuso (nose shit) to make it salty.
Booger Eater only wears miniskirts and likes to sit with her legs splayed. Since her breakup she has tended to sit in the front row. Hank figures this is for his benefit and tries not looking at her, which is not easy. If Booger Eater is not sleeping, she is either drinking soda or eating. He has repeatedly told her not to do these things in class and she has always answered with a noncommittal, “Okay, okay”—which is about the only English that she knows.
Detoxing in his office after nearly an hour and a half of Booger Eater, Hank finds himself smiling. Another Booger Eater adventure. Though an oddball in the prim and proper ladies’ school, she has many friends. And though she is a poor student, there is a universal fondness for her among the faculty. Everyone has a Booger Eater anecdote. Ironically, Aurora Tanabe, beautiful, intelligent and poised, was never a favorite of the faculty, though she was Japanese-American, like Hank. That was why her two-year contract wasn’t renewed, Hank has assumed, unless it was because they had discovered his and Aurora’s secret affair. Hank, tenured and respected as a scholar, cannot be easily fired. He almost wishes he were so that he could follow Aurora.
A year since her return to San Francisco and he is still in love with her.
A mutual attraction between them was there from the first. At her welcoming party they sat apart and smiled at each other. Sitting next to him in the taxi, Aurora briefly touched his leg with hers. Unease about becoming involved with a colleague made Hank keep a professionally cordial distance from Aurora. On an unusually sweltering April day just before Golden Week she came into his windowless and stuffy office without knocking and announced, “I have the most beautiful breasts in Osaka.” Then she locked the door and removed her top.
“Here?” Hank said not getting up from his desk. “We can get fired!”
“Seize the moment or regret it forever,” Aurora said.
Naked, they made love on top of Hank’s desk, sweating wonderfully on each other. Later, they took the Bullet Train to Akashi city, getting off at Nishiakashi and getting on a local train to Okubo-machi. Since Hank kept his beater commuter bicycle at the station, they walked for forty minutes to his apartment near the Inland Sea.
Hank’s memories of the next hours appear in soft focus. Aurora seemed to float about the apartment. Touching his racing bicycle, she said she loved cycling. Admiring his black and white photographs, she told him she was also photographer. Did he enjoy cooking? She did too…
Aurora spent the entire Golden Week with him. Not long after, she all but vacated the dingy apartment the college provided for her and moved in with Hank, bringing her racing bicycle in a carrying bag on the train.
Again, Hank’s memory shifts into soft-focus to the evenings when they walked along the path that runs parallel to Okubo Beach. With the sky and sea turning from gold to purple as the sun set, Awaji Island’s lights coming on and Shodo Island silhouetted in the distance, Aurora declared that not Capri, not Nice, not Tahiti, not Malibu ever provided such a view. He asked her to marry him. She said she looked forward to the day they could break the secrecy of their affair.
And then Aurora told Hank her contract would not be renewed. She had promised to return from San Francisco in a few months, but he never saw or heard from her again. The posts he wrote to her e-mail bounced back.
Is she ill or dead? Did she meet another man? Or is she about to surprise him by suddenly appearing at his apartment with her luggage?
There is a knock on the door.
Booger Eater enters.
“I was itchy when I put my pencil up my skirt,” she says in Japanese. “I wanted to scratch.”
“I didn’t see anything,” Hank answers in Japanese.
“Yes you did. You thought I was putting it you-know-where. Well I wasn’t.”
“I am sure you didn’t. Not that I saw anything. Really.”
“I’m in a bad mood these days since I dumped my boyfriend,” Booger Eater says.
“What happened?” Hank asks, happy to change the subject.
“He had no time for me.”
“Maybe he was busy.”
“Another girlfriend. That always happens.”
“This time I am sure it happened,” she says. “You don’t have a girlfriend now, do you sensei?”
“I’d rather not talk about my private life.”
“Sure. It’s okay. In the meantime you can look up my miniskirt all you want. I don’t care.”
“I do not—! I never look up anyone’s skirt! Don’t tell people I look up your skirt—because it is not true!”
“I really like your class, sensei,” she says. “I wish my English wasn’t hopeless. Well, see you next week. Have a nice weekend.”
Commuting home by train, Hank worries about what Booger Eater might be saying about him. Have a nice weekend, indeed! How can you have a nice weekend when a student tells you that you’re looking up her skirt? Have a rotten weekend, Booger Eater!
On Saturday he gets up early and rides his bicycle along Okubo Beach’s pedestrian and bicycle pathway. It is too early for other cyclists, runners and dog walkers to be out. Only the cat feeders, retired folks, are about. They will be doing the same, feeding feral cats, in the evening. They look after these cats like pets, taking them to the vet when they are sick and having them neutered. On many occasions he and Aurora joined the legion of cat feeders, both being cat lovers.
Everything reminds him of Aurora. In the year she since departed he has not been with another woman.
Hank takes a longer ride than he first intended, coming to the Awaji Island ferry. He boards it, cycles on Awaji until noon and then takes the ferry back.
When he rides up to his apartment building he sees Booger Eater sitting on a cement embankment. She is wearing a matching lavender top and miniskirt and black mesh stockings. Her eye shadow is white. A cigarette protrudes from her crimson lips. He despises smokers. Aurora did too.
“May I come up to your apartment,” Booger Eater says.
“No, you may not,” Hank says.
She follows him to the elevator.
“Put that filthy cigarette out!” he says.
She drops it, steps on it and gets into the elevator. She gets out with him on the third floor and follows him into his apartment. He rests his bicycle against the wall and tells her to leave.
In remarkably good English she says, “I don’t eat boogers!” Then in Japanese: “Tanabe-sensei had no right to call me that name!”
“Is that why you came here?” Hank asks in Japanese. “Tanabe-sensei meant no harm. No one believes you do anything like that.”
“Then why are you here?”
“I have the most beautiful breasts in Osaka,” she says.
Damn it! Booger Eater listened to him and Aurora make love in his office! Had she spread stories? He says, “Keep your clothes on and leave.”
She takes off her top and bra. Her breasts are beautiful. In fact, beneath her wretched makeup and garishly dyed hair this vulgar girl is more attractive than he could have imagined.
“Please don’t do this,” he pleads, and tries not to look at her.
“I know you loved Tanabe-sensei,” she says. “I envied her, but I knew she was going away.”
“You knew nothing of the sort.”
“She had a ‘going away’ feeling about her.”
“Her contract wasn’t renewed.”
“She turned it down. She wanted to get away.”
“I don’t believe that!”
“She would have done everything to stay in Japan if she loved you. She was just like my last boyfriend. She was afraid of being loved.”
It startles him to think that Booger Eater, standing preposterously bare-chested in front of him, might be intelligent and even possess a normal human soul.
“She left her expensive bicycle with me,” he counters.
“That’s how much she wanted to escape from you. You’re grungy. Brought you French soap. Take a bath and I’ll scrub your back.”
“I’ll stop smoking if you love me.”
“I can’t love you! You’re my student. I can’t.”
In the shower with Booger Eater, Hank tries to remember her real name. There are fifty students in his English Communication class and he can remember only a few of their names. Although he has often heard her name mentioned and roll-called her many times, try as he might he can only think of her as Booger Eater. I’ll have a lifetime to remember her name, Hank thinks.
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