from Tatami Burns
The phone rings and I flinch. I don’t know who it could be or which language I should use to answer.
—Hello gorgeous! How are we?
It takes me a second to recognise Adrian’s voice, one of the other Kiwis sent to this area.
—Yeah, hi. I’m good.
—Brilliant. Let’s go to the beach. I’m fairly certain we can meet on that sand spit thingy. You’ve got a bike, yeah?
—Yes, but I think I’m only supposed to use it for getting to work.
—Bullshit. Cycle like hell and let’s see where we meet. Leave in five, yeah?
I start to answer but he hangs up without waiting for a reply. I barely know him but it’s nice to think I’ve got someone to hang out with the first weekend here. There were only a few people at the orientation in Tokyo headed for here but I’m still surprised to hear from him. I doubt we have anything in common other than we live nearby. I throw on some clothes and take the food I pocketed at the buffet breakfast and stuff it in my bag.
I know I’ve taken more than five minutes and I don’t know exactly how to get there. I head north along the main road. The streets are narrow with no footpaths, even though they are lined with shops and shoppers. The gutters are more like ditches and are up to three feet deep with no grates over the top. They are as wide as a person and I imagine falling in and getting wedged up to the armpits. I try being careful and going slowly but then I end up wobbling into the paths of cars. It’s been a long time since I was on a bicycle.
After half an hour the end of the sand spit is in sight. I turn off the coastal road and ride down a narrow street lined with souvenir shops. As I turn the corner at the end I have to swerve to avoid crashing into a cyclist almost airborne with speed rushing over a curved stone bridge. He slams on his brakes.
—There you are! Damn, was expecting to meet you halfway. When did you leave?
—Oh hi. I…
—Come on. There’s a good spot back there.
The sand spit is wider and longer than I thought, with a hard dirt road running down the middle. Either side of the road there are pine trees, patches of sandy soil and straggly looking grass. The pine trees are knobbly and stunted looking and I assume they’re diseased until it occurs to me that the ones my dad grows back home are straight because they’re bred and grown for timber. Here the limbs are not lopped off every season to make them grow taller. They look wilder.
After five minutes at high speed Adrian swerves off to the left and we find ourselves on a long stretch of pale sand. The water looks clear and refreshing. Adrian spreads out a towel and immediately strips off his shirt and shorts revealing a toned bronzed body and a skimpy pair of speedos. I look away with embarrassment. It’s a shock sitting so close to a naked man. Well nearly naked. I am ashamed to get undressed. I could go home. Say I still have jet lag.
—Wanna swim? he says.
Yes, desperately, I think. Even without the cycle ride here and it still being morning it is stinking hot already. My T-shirt and shorts are sticking to my skin. If I don’t go swimming today Adrian may find someone else to hang out with and I can see myself spending a long unpleasant summer hiding in my air conditioned apartment alone.
There are a few couples and groups of people further down the beach. Everyone seems to have a large beach umbrella or sun tent, a portable sun lounger and an inflatable ring; we seem woefully ill equipped by comparison. I’m glad we’re not sitting too close to the locals. When I was fifteen my family hosted a Japanese exchange student who constantly stared at my breasts and wanted to know how I’d grown them so big. She was impressed but it still made me self-conscious.
—No one else is swimming.
—No, they reckon it’s still jellyfish season. We’re not supposed to go swimming for another week according to my supervisor.
I pretend to look disappointed and settle down on the sand.
—Come on! he says, heading off towards the water.
—But the jellyfish?
—Do you see any jellyfish? He points to the water. — No. The locals don’t know how to use their own discretion; they’re such rule followers. Come on. Jellyfish don’t know what the date is.
I follow him still fully clothed to the water’s edge.
—Surely the locals know what they’re talking about? After all they live here.
—No, he says, — they’re drones. They get told what to do their whole lives and have lost the ability to think for themselves. Anyway, you can’t scare me with a prissy Japanese jellyfish.
He wades in and starts swimming out to a platform twenty metres from shore. I just know the people further down the beach are watching us but I scan the water and can’t see a single jellyfish. Adrian has reached the platform and is waving at me so I take off the clothes covering my togs and follow him in.
When I get to the platform Adrian is already sprawled on the wooden top, water dripping off his body onto the planks. His eyes are closed and he looks asleep. I climb up the ladder and sit next to him. The platform bobs up and down and the waves barely make a sound on the beach. After the non-stop racket in Tokyo I’m pleased to find that it is so peaceful here.
—Shit, says Adrian.
I look up and see him peering into the water. The platform is surrounded by striped jellyfish. The sea is clear with red stripes, like a puddle of melted candy canes.
I want to say I told you so. I know the people on the beach are thinking we’re stupid foreigners for going swimming when we’re not supposed to. Adrian knows it too I reckon. He’s standing up tall with his chest puffed out pretending to look off into the distance.
—Right-o, he says. — We have to look cool, like we’re not bothered. Let them think we can’t be stung. Whatever you do don’t scream.
—Scream? I’ve never been stung before. How much does it hurt?
— Look there aren’t too many off to the left; go straight, turn right halfway and swim diagonally to shore. Dive in, swim like hell, then come out looking cool.
— Couldn’t we wait a while and see if they float away?
— No, we can’t stay here all day, you’re as pink as a poof already and anyway I’m thirsty.
I look at his proposed path. It doesn’t look that promising.
—Look cool, okay? he says. — Smile when you get out.
Before I can argue he dives into the water with barely a splash and smoothly starts swimming to shore. I can’t stay on the platform alone and don’t want to dive headfirst into a smack of jellyfish. I swing my legs over the edge and feel a slight sting across my calf. It doesn’t feel too painful so I slip into the water and almost immediately the line across my leg feels like it’s on fire, and then there are more and more slashes across my body. I swim frantically towards the beach.
I try to judge the point where I’m supposed to swerve to the right. I’m not taking enough breaths, terrified I will suck in a jellyfish instead of air. I don’t want to open my eyes in case they get stung but now I can’t see where I’m going. I start to panic and swallow a mouthful of salt water, but then my fingers graze the sand and I quickly stand up on the beach. My legs, arms and chest are stinging. My face is stinging. I try to smile and look calm but it feels like my smile is lopsided. Adrian is talking to me quietly, urgently.
—Pick up your towel, keep smiling. We’ll get on our bikes and nonchalantly ride off.
—My face feels funny, I say slurring slightly.
—Keep smiling, smiling, here we go.
—Are they poisonous?
—They’re looking at us so just keep going, almost there. Laugh at something I say. I’ll say something and you laugh, okay?
—Are they poisonous? Do we have to put something on the stings?
—And laugh, now! Go on!
I laugh. I sound hysterical.
—Ha! Bet they think we’re impervious to jellyfish now. Brilliant.
We cycle down the path until the people on the beach are out of sight. I keep touching my cheek, trying to decide if it’s swollen. I don’t know if we should be cycling. If jellyfish are poisonous it might be spreading the poison around my body faster. I feel lightheaded.
Adrian stops and looks over his arms and legs. I stop beside him.
—Bloody hell, look at you, he says. — Looks like you’ve been flagellating yourself! Adrian laughs and points at all the red lines criss-crossing my body. I don’t know if it’s because I didn’t manage to avoid the jellyfish or whether I’m more sensitive than him, but Adrian looks practically unscathed compared to me.
—What do we do? Is there an antidote?
—Yeah, but I don’t think you’d like it.
—What? What is it?
—I could piss on you.
I don’t know if he is serious or not. I assume an Aucklander would know about jellyfish. But I’m still embarrassed I believed the prefecture advisor when he told me the energy drinks in Japan have nicotine in them. I only realised he was taking the piss when he said to lick inside the lid of Seven Stars cigarettes for hidden acid dots.
I see an old woman up ahead. — I’m going to ask if they’re poisonous.
—No, don’t! We’re building up our mythical status as superhero foreigners. They have to be in awe of us!
I ignore him and go up to the old lady. — Excuse me. Very sorry. I have pain. (I don’t know how to say numb in Japanese). Big fish. Red and white. Looks like a plate. Makes lines, I show her the lines. — Are they dangerous?
Adrian arrives beside me, smiling and bowing and looking like he understands what we’re talking about.
The woman looks closely at my skin. Her finger trails along my arm lightly stroking the fine blond hairs. She touches a freckle then turns her finger over to have a look as if she expected it to come off.
—Like a fish, in the water, but round, like a plate. I’m speaking louder and faster. Dangerous?
She looks up from my arm suddenly and throws her head back and laughs.
—Jellyfish! No, they’re not dangerous. You’ll be alright, my dear. It’ll hurt for a little while. Chin up!
She still holds my arm with one hand and strokes the hairs with her other. There are no red lines where she is touching my skin. Adrian looks at me wide eyed. — Well?
—Not poisonous apparently.
—Good! So why is she stroking your arm?
I pull my arm back gently, the woman lets go, smiles and bows. We smile and bow in return, hop on our bikes and continue down the path. We find another stretch of sand and lie down but I want to look in a mirror and keep touching my cheek.
—That old biddy was totally getting off on stroking your arm.
—No, she wasn’t. She was just checking it was okay.
—No, it was weird! You know she wasn’t checking the stings.
—I think it’s just something they do here. A woman came up to me in the supermarket last night, stroked my hair and said gold.
—Did you tell her to fuck the hell off?
I hold my arm in my left hand. The pain of the stings is already fading but I want to scratch where the old woman touched me.