Elena hung the quilts out the window. It was what you had to do here in this humid climate. You let the sun shine on them and the wind blow through them. Every day when she did this, she saw other women leaning over the sills of their houses, beating the quilts with a bamboo paddle. Their house, well-equipped, didn’t come with a bamboo paddle. The Japanese university assumed that Americans wouldn’t be beating their quilts or even hanging them outside. For weeks she had noticed that people put out pillows too. So today she added their pillows, propping them on the sill, hoping they wouldn’t be snatched up in a sudden gust.
This was a windy place they had moved to. Walking down the street she always felt as if a broom were behind her, sweeping, sweeping her away. She loved watching the wind as it pummeled its way through the bamboo forest across the road from their house, making the bamboo leaves sizzle. She’d been told that a baby bamboo can grow several inches over night. She didn’t believe this, but she tried to remember a certain shoot and look for it the next day. This plan didn’t work out because she could never quite tell which shoot it was–there was a fence between her and the forest, so she couldn’t mark it with a pebble or a stick.
Now it was night, and she and Roy were snugly under the quilts that smelled of sunshine and salt from the ocean. It was April, just getting warm out. They had the window cracked open and the sliding screen in place. They both taught at the university, classes to Japanese students who were planning to study overseas in English-speaking countries. Roy’s classes had titles like “American Entrepreneurship” and “Facing the Global Economy in the 21st Century.” Elena taught history courses. Currently she had a class called “American Women on Display.” They were itinerants, globe-hopping in their thirties. Roy had run various businesses back in the States and made enough for them to take jobs when they wanted to. She had taught at universities, but had never found the right niche for herself. Elena hoped by the time they hit their forties that they would be settled somewhere. It didn’t matter to her which side of the Pacific it was, as long as she could put shelf paper in the cabinets and have their own furniture, not a couch that dozens of others had made dents in before them.
She was safely asleep now, dreaming, when she heard, no felt, a commotion. The commotion was Roy, ruffling the quilt, letting cool air under it, sending shivers through her. “What’s wrong?” she murmured.
“Can’t you hear it?” he asked.
She could see his outline sitting up in their bed which was on the floor. “Hear what?”
Elena held her breath, trying to hear, but all that she came up with was the sound of a bicycle going by, the whoosh of it–a latecomer from the train station. Otherwise, it was so quiet in their neighborhood she could hear their neighbors running some water from a faucet.
“Don’t you hear?” Roy asked.
“Not really. Just a bike.”
“Not outside. It’s inside.”
“A burglar?” she asked.
“No, it’s in our room.”
“A rat!” she yelled, sitting up, much more awake than she wanted to be. She clutched his arm.
He put his arm around her. “Not a rat. It’s a mosquito. There’s a mosquito in here. It was whining around my head.”
Elena sniffed, suspecting what was coming.
“There’s only one thing to do,” Roy said.
Elena didn’t say anything.
“Honey, did you hear me? We’ve got to turn on the light and find the critter and demolish it.”
“No,” she said. “Absolutely not. I can’t take the light right now. Can’t handle it. Let’s just go back to sleep. Maybe it flew out the way it came in.”
“Can’t we just try it?” She gently tugged him down, and they lay next to each other, tense, waiting. Slowly she relaxed, feeling herself drift off again. Then she heard it. The distinct loud buzz. Japanese mosquitoes and American mosquitoes spoke the same language.
The quiet night was over. She resigned herself to that. Roy jumped up and snapped on the light. If lights could blare, this one did. She squeezed her eyes shut.
“Now isn’t the time to close your eyes,” Roy said. “Why won’t you help me look?”
“Too much light. I hate mosquitoes as much as you.”
“Then let’s find it–the sooner we do. . . “
“I know–we can go back to sleep. There it is,” she yelled.
“Where?” Roy stood up, slipper raised, ready to slap.
“Over in the corner.” Elena pointed across the room. A dark dot crawled on the wall.
“Good eye, honey.” He leapt across the room and reached up, hitting the wall. “Got it! The miserable ca,” he said, using the Japanese for mosquito.
“Whoops,” Elena said. “No, you didn’t.” She ducked as the mosquito dive-bombed her.
“Get it,” Roy said. “Gambate kudasai.” A standard catch-phrase–try your best.
She reached out her hand, then brought it down hard on the floor. Roy came over. “Let’s see the hand.” She revealed her palm, showing a mangled and bloody corpse. “That is one smashed mosquito,” he said. “Good work.”
“I wonder whose blood it is,” she said, reaching for a Kleenex.
They turned off the light and lay down again. “That was one hell of a catch,” Roy said. “You should try out for the team.”
“What team?” Elena asked.
“I don’t know. Any team. They could use you.”
She smiled, hoping sleep would come soon.
“Did you hear that?” Roy asked.
“Listen, and you’ll hear it.”
They lay there for another minute, then, yes, she heard it too. The persistent sound of another mosquito. “Let’s just hide under the covers,” she suggested.
The light went on before she could protest or bargain for more time. This was going to be a night of almost no sleep. They took care of this mosquito in record time, as soon as it came down from the ceiling, that is.
“These fiends are coming in through the window,” Roy said.
“But there’s a screen.”
“Not during the day, there isn’t. You open it for the blankets.”
“All the people do. You have to, or the dust mites will eat you alive.”
“Well, the mosquitoes are eating us alive right now.”
“They wouldn’t open the windows during the day if they knew mosquitoes would come in. I’ve heard they just come in after dark.”
“What? Japanese mosquitoes only fly at night? I don’t think so. But let’s check the screen.” They both went over to the window. The screen looked tight enough, but it was a sliding screen. “Would you look at that,” Roy said. “The screen has a gap in it where one overlaps the other. Whoever thought of that should get some kind of idiot’s prize.”
She laughed out loud.
His face turned red, competing to match the red in his hair. “What’s so funny?”
“I don’t know. This whole thing. Can we fix it?”
“I doubt it. We need a different kind of screen.”
Elena looked around the room. “Let’s take that old shirt of yours–that one on the chair.” She stepped over to it, feeling the rough tatami mat under her feet. Her nightgown was loose and alive as it billowed out, then marooned itself against her legs. “Here.” She handed the shirt to Roy.
He took it and started molding it into the gap. “I doubt if it will work–those buzzing ne’er-do-wells can get in a space as thin as a needle.”
“Have faith,” she said. “We’re not going to get any sleep, I can tell you that. I’m about awake as an alarm clock on loud.”
“I’ll tap your snooze button.” He circled his arms around her.
“You watch it, mister.”
“Watch it. Why do I have to watch it?”
She pressed her face on his chest.
“Elena, hello, can you talk to me?”
She looked up, brushing her blonde hair from her face. “I want someone else in the house,” she said.
“Someone else?” he asked. “What are you trying to tell me?” His eyebrows pinched together.
She recognized tension in his startled voice. “No, I don’t mean someone to replace you–I mean someone in addition to you.”
“What are you talking?” He ran his hands up and down her arms.
“We’re so far away, Elena. There’s no family for thousands of miles. How can we?”
“We just can. We have neighbors and friends here. They’d love to help out.”
“Love might be a strong word.”
“Well, they’d be pleased to help out.”
“What if there were a problem, like during, or after.”
“We’d face that when we came to it.”
Roy combed his fingers through his hair. “But I thought we weren’t going to go in that direction.”
“What can I say? The compass was off.”
They sat on the mattress which was only three or four inches off the floor. Elena stretched out her legs over the tatami mat. The straw felt good on her skin.
“Can’t we pull back, go in the direction we were going?” Roy asked. “We were doing great. We like this life, going from city to city, country to country. You even told me last week how lucky we were to be doing this. How lucky we are.”
“I know. That’s how I thought about things–last week. But that bright light coming on all of a sudden. I hated that, but it made me squinch down into myself, and when I unsquinched, I was thinking about it, about adding someone, making a trio.”
“You mean if I hadn’t insisted on killing a mosquito?”
“Maybe. We could have gone on for a while. We would have. Maybe for a long time. Who knows?”
“I need time to think about this,” Roy said. “It’s a new concept.”
“I know,” Elena said. “But promise me you will think about it. Gambate kudasai.” She glanced at him sideways.
He binked her on the nose. “Let’s go down and get some tea. It’s almost morning anyhow, and there’s no use trying to sleep now.”
They did fall asleep again, and Elena woke groggy, feeling hung over. It was her morning to teach an early-bird class. Roy was still deep in sleep, one leg off the mattress. She sat up, listening to the clinking and swishing sounds from outside filtering their way in through the thin walls. The neighborhood was waking up. Mrs. Nakamura next door was already beating something out the upstairs window–a rug or a futon–thwhack, thwhack, thwhack, and her husband was sweeping the front entrance. What to wear. She and Roy had forgotten to catch the weather on NHK, so she wasn’t sure about waterproof shoes and taking an umbrella. She walked across the hall to the little room with the dressers and clothes racks. Opening a window, she knelt down and looked out. The air was humid, but it wasn’t very warm yet. Every once in a while someone whirred by on a bicycle. After four riders had gone by, no umbrellas in sight, Elena knew it wasn’t going to be a rainy day. People here only carried large umbrellas with cane shaped handles, and no one wanted this extra baggage if rain hadn’t been predicted.
She stood up and turned in a flurry, sensing Roy in the doorway. His eyes were still heavy, wanting to be in snooze-land.
“I’m not necessarily going to talk,” he announced.
“Are you running late?”
She shrugged. “Not much. Still have to shower.”
“I’ll make some coffee,” he said.
She closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them, he was gone. Last night she’d had no clue she was going to say what she had, but now that those words were out–I want someone else in the house–she knew she wasn’t going to take them back. Those words were spread out before them, a banner of words. She began gathering her clothes and slowly made her way down to the bathroom. She could hear Roy in the kitchen saying something cajoling to the coffeemaker–take pity on me, please oh please–and then–work, dammit. She smiled as she turned on the shower. They had set up their lives so perfectly American with their coffee and bread makers. They had shelved their fold-up umbrellas but hadn’t thrown them away. They had figured out their automated rice maker. Everything was going smoothly. Yet she had to say I want someone else in the house. She could imagine Roy mentioning something about throwing a monkey wrench into the works. She turned on the water, and it rushed out hot and vapory, peppering her skin.
Karen Loeb’s poem “In the Science Museum” won the Wisconsin People and Ideas 2016 poetry contest. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in Hanging Loose, Thema, The Main Street Rag, New Ohio Review, and other magazines. She’s the current Writer in Residence for the city of Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
© 2019, Karen Loeb