“Please, please help me get accepted,” I whispered in a feeble and desperate voice that embarrassed me, reminding me of how I had similarly almost begged at my local shrine when I was waiting for my senior high school entrance exam results.
But this time it was more serious – dead serious! My entire future was at stake. I was standing on the threshold of reaching the final goal when all my efforts since elementary school, all the sacrifices I had made, and all the cram school bills and textbooks I had convinced my parents were great investments in my future, were going to pay off. Today was the day when I was supposed to get my reward; a job offer from a major corporation. This was the whole reason I had left my childhood home, a little fishing village in Hokkaido which at the time was everything I knew, and from which I was the first person ever to attend college – let alone a top-ranked university in Tokyo.
The gruesome job application process - so much more stressful than I had ever imagined - had been going on for several months already, and after a string of rejections had eliminated all my options so far, including companies I had originally considered just back-ups, I was now down to one single company; my very last chance, like the final buoy to try to grab on to before I was swept out to an open sea of uncertainty and despair, while my friends happily cruised on with their new lives in the adult world.
I bowed deeply, took a step back, and then bowed once more, as if to reassure myself that I had followed the unwritten rules of worship at this particular shrine to perfection, and by this point done everything I possibly could to maximize my chances, including asking higher powers to graciously offer a helping hand to a little girl – well, a twenty-one year old woman still feeling like a little girl – in need.
I turned and walked away, and as I took a deep breath trying to gather my thoughts, I broke into a cough that had increasingly troubled me lately. When I was a kid, my asthma and weak lungs hadn’t bothered me so much, although my doctor never allowed me to take part in PE class and the annual sports day, but in Tokyo, especially during the worst heat of the summer, it could sometimes get so bad that I even dreaded going outside.
“It’s not the heat and humidity. It’s all those cars and factories spewing out fumes all the time,” Dad always told me with authority, in spite of never even having set foot outside of Hokkaido, raising my weak health as yet another reason for me to give up on my crazy idea of working in Tokyo, always adding with his trademark wide grin that I loved so much and took comfort in, “and you know we need someone to take care of the accounting here as soon as your mother goes senile.”
There had never been any serious discussion about me getting involved in the family fishing business, at least not in the physical sense now that my two older brothers were already working on the boat together with Dad, and our long-lasting family venture, now on generation five and counting, was in fact booming since we didn’t need to hire any outside deckhands anymore to help. It wasn’t just my weak lungs, though, but also the fact that Dad knew I hated boats ever since the first time he took me with him fishing one early morning when I was only five or six, leaving me nauseous for the rest of the afternoon, to the point that Mom even rushed me to the doctor.
Pressing one hand against my chest while trying to quell the cough, I walked into a little park I now knew like the palm of my hand, its shape reminding me of a slice of cake cut too thinly, wrestling for room squeezed in between a motley row of buildings of mixed age, height, and design, and the elevated railroad tracks by Nakameguro Station. The size of it never bothered me, though, and during late March, when it revealed its most beautiful side with the crowns of the five large trees standing along the train tracks exploding in a serene firework of pink and white cherry blossoms, shielding off the very presence of trains roaring by, it turned into my own private oasis of heavenly beauty still not discovered by the hoards of tourists who during the precious two-week season flocked to the much more famous Meguro River nearby.
Most weekdays the park was swarming with kindergarten kids with blue and orange caps chasing each other around, or playing at the jungle gym or in the sandbox, their teachers participating in the fun rather than just overseeing the action from a distance, seemingly enjoying themselves as much as their little pupils.
Today was such a day, and when I entered the park and sat down on my usual bench, a sense of happiness filled me allowing me to, if just for a moment, forget my troubles as I basked in the sound of the carefree voices of laughing children. But as usual it was an emotion accompanied by a sense of envy as I watched the smiles of the teachers - becoming a kindergarten teacher had been my dream as a little girl, until I grew old enough to understand that my weak health prevented it from ever coming true.
There was in particular one teacher who always caught my attention; a relatively tall, sporty-looking girl with a short haircut and a pretty smile – she seemed to smile and laugh constantly - probably a couple of years older than myself, who was the darling of the kids and always at the center of the action. I would watch and listen to Emi-sensei - that was the name she went by - as she interacted with the kids with such natural, pure joy and love, and in fact I suspected she might actually also hail from Hokkaido, since although she spoke in a perfect Tokyo accent, there were occasions when she got excited and her original dialect seemed to slip out, but I had always been too shy to approach her and ask.
As I sat there happy to at least temporarily allow myself to be swept away from reality, I was suddenly brutally reminded of the predicament I was in by a sharp “Ping!” from my phone, making my heart jump. Was this the message I had been waiting for?
My hand shivered as I took out my phone and slowly turned the screen towards me.
“I made it…I can’t believe it! I’m so happy!” the message read, decorated with emojis of joy and relief. It was from my good friend, Kei, who apart from myself was the only one among my university friends who hadn’t yet gotten a job offer.
A smile spread across my face as I started typing, overjoyed for Kei who had been the first friend I made in Tokyo; the two of us having a special bond since Kei also came from a small village in rural Japan. But as soon as I sent my reply to her, tear drops started falling down on my phone as I watched all the messages of congratulations appearing from our other friends, and I had to put the phone away.
Now it was only me left, and a feeling of utter loneliness, to the point that it even frightened me, overwhelmed me as I took out my handkerchief first wiping away my tears and then continuing on my forehead and neck, although I wasn’t sweating, hoping the kids and teachers nearby wouldn’t notice I was crying.
When I looked up again, my eyes met those of Emi-sensei who was kneeling down only a few meters in front of me, just finishing brushing off the knees of one of the little boys who apparently had fallen over but immediately bolted off again over to his friends. There was something in the warm, compassionate look in her eyes that made me think that she had seen through my little performance with the handkerchief, and I felt myself blushing. Just as I was about to look away, her pretty face broke out into an infectious smile, revealing her straight, white teeth that could have featured in a toothpaste commercial. She wiped her tanned forehead with the back of her hand and said in a kind, soft voice to me, different from the sharper, high-pitched tone she used with the kids, “It’s hot isn’t it? Are you okay?”
I nodded and answered timidly, “Yes, thank you.”
“Emi-sensei! Come here!” a group of girls called from across the park, and with a friendly nod, she stood up and ran over to them with light, swift steps.
My eyes followed her, but I soon found my thoughts going back to the question that had been occupying my mind entirely recently, even shaken me to the core; why was it that I had cruised through the job application process with flying colors, often receiving praise for my outstanding academic achievements and extra-curricular activities, including passing most of the on-line interviews, but when it came to the final in-person interviews I had so far been rejected every single time? Was there something wrong with me, with my personality – something so repellent about my very character that when you met me in person it rendered me unemployable? Something that even Kei didn’t have the heart to tell me about?
Sitting alone in front of a panel of intimidating senior company managers scrutinizing my every word and gesture was so unnerving to me that I often felt paralyzed, tripping on words, and afraid I would start hyperventilating. As soon as I left the interview room, I would be completely spent and in despair, holding back tears knowing I had just blown yet another opportunity. Seeing how all the other candidates in the waiting room looked so in charge, self-confident and socially experienced always made me wonder whether it was my rural upbringing of only having interacted with family and close friends that had left me unequipped for life in the big city, simply lacking the basic social skills necessary – just a country bumpkin never meant to work at a large corporation in the first place - and by this point I had lost all my confidence and was on the verge of also losing my last hope.
My eyes went back to the kids, so unaware of the troubles of the grown-up world, as they happily chased Emi-sensei around in front of me. What was I to do if the final reply was also a rejection? Go back home again and admit it had all been for nothing? Wouldn’t I become the laughing stock of the village? Dad, and I guess Mom, too, although I knew she took a lot of pride in my achievements so far believing I had inherited her academic talent, would of course welcome me back with open arms, but what would they and everyone else really think of me?
I shook my head as it dawned upon me what an abyss of a difference there was between myself now and the confident senior high school graduate they had sent off for her big Tokyo adventure not so long ago, and I found myself fighting back tears again, reaching for my handkerchief.
My phone had been quiet for some time now after the string of messages to Kei, and I figured since it was almost noon, maybe I wouldn’t hear from the company until later in the afternoon.
But just as I started to let my guard down, wondering what I should have for lunch, there was that familiar “Ping!” again. My body immediately froze and my heart started pounding so hard that I had to force myself to take a few deep breaths before I managed to gather courage to reach for the phone. I looked down at my shaking hand, seemingly paler and thinner than usual in the gazing sun, struggling to even support the weight of the phone, as I slowly turned the screen towards me.
The next thing I knew, somebody was shaking my shoulders and a worried voice was repeating, “Are you alright? Heat stroke?” as I found myself sitting with my head bent down so deep it was resting on my lap.
I raised my head and realized it was Emi-sensei kneeling in front of me and looking at me with concerned eyes. In her hand she was holding my handkerchief and phone which I must have dropped. Had I fainted? After a moment of confusion, I suddenly remembered and almost snatched the phone out of her hand, as she pulled back in surprise.
A single message appeared that started, “Congratulations for passing your final interviews.”
I immediately felt all my emotional levees give way all at once, and started weeping like a child, putting my face in my hands. It was finally over! I had been accepted, miraculously. All my efforts had in the end paid off.
The next moment I felt an arm around my shoulders as Emi-sensei now sat down next to me, and with increased urgency in her voice she said, “What’s wrong? How can I help you?”
I turned towards her, failing to produce a smile to let her know that I was in fact alright, and as she looked at me sobbing uncontrollably, my nose running, she started wiping my face with my handkerchief as if I was one of her kindergarten girls having fallen over on the gravel. “Whatever it is, don’t worry. You’ll be okay!” she kept saying while patting me on the head.
My mouth seemed to be unable to produce a coherent explanation that I owed this wonderfully kind and considerate girl, so instead I showed her the message on my phone, stuttering, “I got accepted…finally.”
A liberating smile lit up her face, and she immediately exclaimed, “Congratulations! That’s wonderful. And I thought something terrible had just happened!”
She squeezed me closer to her like an older sister, as if she wanted to share my joy, although she knew nothing about me other than having seen me sitting on the bench many times.
After a few moments I managed to gather myself, straightened my back and said, “Thank you very much, and so sorry for troubling you.”
Emi-sensei watched me in silence with a curious smile on her face, and as I looked into her warm, hazel brown eyes, she suddenly broke into laughter, bursting out, “Oh, look at you! And you just got the best news of your life?”
I started laughing, too, saying, “I was just so nervous. I guess I still don’t know how things work here in Tokyo…and just didn’t think I’d pass this time either.”
She tilted her head to the left and looked at me with a scrutinizing eye before she said, “Wakkanai?”
My eyes widened, realizing that in my excitement I must have spoken in my natural dialect.
“Yes! A little fishing village not far from Wakkanai,” I said.
“Ha! I’m from Sapporo, and I can always tell when someone is from Hokkaido!” she exclaimed triumphantly with a wide grin on her face, adding that she had also struggled to settle in at first.
As we were just starting to get acquainted, I noticed that the park was now empty, and burst out in concern, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize you’ve been left behind!”
She laughed and said, “Don’t worry! The kindergarten is just around the corner.”
I stood up, bowed and thanked her again, adding, “Maybe we can have lunch some time? I’d like to pay you back for being so kind…and I don’t have any friends in Tokyo from Hokkaido.”
“Neither do I. I would love to!” she said, and after exchanging phone numbers, she walked away with quick steps, waving back at me before disappearing out of the park.
Feeling blessed and fortunate for not only having finally gotten a job offer, but also having gained a new friend, I re-read the message to make sure I hadn’t been dreaming, and then headed back to the shrine to express my gratitude while sending a message to Kei, “I made it too!”
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