Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Of Mice and Yen, or: How I Learned to Use My Japanese Washer and Dryer

What do you fear most?

I fear that “technology” has left me so far behind that I’ll never catch up. I don’t Twitter, I don’t have a My Face Space . . . Book, whatever. And until this class, I didn’t blog.

I’m also afraid of being eaten by a shark.

Dying in a plane crash sounds horrific. Not the dying part, but the screaming-on-the-way-down part, knowing I shall certainly not land softly and unharmed.

I’m terrified of mice, and their chubbier, pinker-tailed cousins, the rats.

So my worst fear might be boarding a doomed flight piloted by two mice so busy linking on their laptops that they overshoot their landing zone and run out of fuel over the sharky parts of the Pacific.

But it’s really the rats that make me feel the icy hand of fear at the small of my back.

I don’t think I had this problem when I was very young. No mouse trauma that I can recall. Once, when I was in college, living at the illustrious Wentworth Domicile and Partyshack, a mouse scrambled over my roommate’s foot while we were standing around discussing the latest panty-raid. I don’t remember being particularly troubled by witnessing this event, but then again, the mouse was smaller than some of the Palmetto bugs that used to crunch under our bare feet as we stepped into the shower.

No, I believe I can trace the origins of my fear to a summer night in 1988. I was a newly married girl-woman fresh off the boat in Okinawa. Consider that the first year of marriage is daunting enough in familiar surroundings, and then ask yourself: Who would want to make that any harder? The United States Marine Corps, that’s who. We’d barely crossed the threshold when some crusty CO handed my husband orders for the aptly named “unaccompanied tour” on an island in the South China Sea. This is when I came to understand the military maxim “if we wanted you to have a spouse, we would have issued you one.” They can’t tell you that you cannot follow your beloved, but they can make you wish you’d never set foot in the land of monsoons and bike-rusting humidity. Uncle Sam does not pay, on unaccompanied tours, for your stuff to follow you, nor does he pay for you to live with other Americans in the womb-like comfort of the base. You are on your own, baby, living with the locals, scrounging for furnishings and friends, and as an added incentive for never attempting to buck the natural order of unaccompanied tours again, the Corps waits until you’ve been on your new island just long enough to remember what your spouse looks like, and then whisks him off to some place you are most definitely not allowed to go. Ha! That’ll show you.

I was undeterred. I loved our apartment that smelled like soy sauce from the restaurant below. I loved my bilingual neighbor from Nagasaki who told me Hurry up! A Marine just left all his furniture in the dumpster! I grew to love the caribou, hooked by a nose ring to a post by the road. I even loved my stupid little red car that fostered a new kind of independence in me – that of a young woman who knew how to put clutch fluid in the proper receptacle so she could make it home, and who knew how to hitch a ride when she ran out of clutch fluid. I taught English, got paid in yen, ate a live shrimp, read a bunch of bad novels and some good ones, and missed my husband. I was alive.

I was not, however, of a mind to learn to use the washer and dryer in our apartment. It was a tiny, stacked model, with the operating instructions written in Japanese, so I just bundled up my weekly wash load and drove it out to the base for a rip-roaring evening of standing around the laundry facility, watching whatever baseball game the Marines happened to be playing on the field by the bachelor officer’s quarters.

The washers and dryers lined each wall of a small cinderblock hallway, with a bank of sea-salted windows on the side overlooking the field. A door, always left open in the humid summer, led to the parking lot. I was usually alone when I got there, and sometimes lonely. The smell of soapy laundry mixed with ocean breeze soothed me. Since I’d worked my way through a summer Physics class at a laundromat, I considered myself a professional laundress, and I kept hoping some feckless Marine would come in needing my assistance, perhaps some advice on how to determine if those middling colors belonged with darks or whites. But no one asked for my help.

One evening, as I rested my hip against the pulsing dryer next to the open door, I saw from the corner of my eye a large something waddling through the doorway toward my feet. I looked down in time to see the biggest damn rat I had ever seen in my life just before it disappeared, with some difficulty, beneath the dryer on which I was leaning. Because it did not streak or whip or zip or any other fast verbs that I usually associated with vermin, I had ample time to see the fat, plodding gray body squeeze itself under my dryer, long fleshy tail in tow.

I believe I screamed. I know I jumped on top of that dryer with complete disregard for any damage it might incur. As blood drained from my head to protect my vital organs, frantic thoughts vied for top position in my mind. Could I fit through the window? What would I do for clothes? How the hell did it fit under there? Was it still there? I needed to look, but I couldn’t look. I was afraid if I saw it again I would faint and drop onto the floor where it would surely attack me. Paralyzing fear froze my innards, and I was unable to move voluntarily, though shudders kept racking my frame.

Just as I had resigned myself to standing on the dryer and screaming until someone heard me, Grant walked through the open doorway. Grant was another Marine and a friend from the States, not to mention my savior in a white polo. He wanted to know what I was doing on top of the dryer with a very pale face.

“There’s a rat under here.”

He laughed and leaned on the dryer.

“No, I mean a really big one.”

But Grant just continued to smile. “We used to have mice and rats in the walls of our house in Oklahoma,” he said. “He’s more scared of you than you are of him.”

I felt that was an arguable and imbecilic point, but I refrained from hysteria and from asking him if I could ride out on his back. He talked me down from the heights of fear like a psychologist does a jumper, and after a time, I became convinced my nemesis was gone – probably having slunk behind another machine. If he felt it, Grant never once showed the slightest squeamishness. He helped me get my clothes out of the dryer and walked me to my car, though I sprinted and he walked.

I learned to use that washer and dryer in my apartment. I learned to keep from overreacting whenever I thought I saw movement in my peripheral vision. I learned how to calm myself when visions of that gigantic rat encroached upon my nights alone. And I learned a useful technique for vanquishing fear. Nothing less than this, my friends: Send in the Marines.

1 comment:

Laurynn said...

This. Was. Awesome. You are a master at puns! Ha ha.