Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Under an eastern sky

Mike in April 1987,
at the fateful second party
I wrote this story a few years ago for a short story competition. It didn't win, but it's a perfect day to post it...because 25 years ago TODAY, I met the love of my life. That is completely mind boggling to me!

Under an Eastern Sky

Each Monday night, in the small Japanese city of Wakayama, I visited my colorful Scottish friend Cath. We had both recently arrived in Japan, although we had followed different paths to get there. After graduating with an English degree, I jumped at the chance to work abroad. My employer turned out to be a crooked Japanese firm that recruited English teachers and contracted them to the local women’s junior college. Cath taught through the much-more-official British English Teaching (BET) Programme, a partnership with the Japanese Ministry of Education. She frequently spoke of her BET colleague, Mike, who taught at Kinki University in Osaka. Cath described him as funny, bright, kind—and much too nice for her.

My North Carolinian-Anglophile housemate, Mary Elizabeth, had decided—before she had even met him—that Mike was the man for her. Mary Elizabeth eagerly anticipated Cath’s Robert Burns Night in January, to which Cath invited her American colleagues and BET friends. As is traditional with Robert Burns Nights, Cath asked her guests to bring a Burns poem to read. Mike had found an R-rated version of Burns’ poem, “Brose and Butter,” from an old poetry edition in the university library. By the time Mike read his poem, we had talked about our mutual love of Jane Austen and I was giddy from chuhais (a Japanese cocktail with a misleadingly innocent flavor). His charm and easy wit delighted me. Later on that evening, he gave me a friendly peck on the cheek. Our warm conversation clearly upset Mary Elizabeth, who after the party informed me that “those British are hard to warm up to.”

Three months passed, we separately traveled to Thailand with friends, and Cath put her mind to matchmaking. During my weekly late-night chats at her flat, Mike would often phone and hear me in the background, laughing and sipping a gin and tonic.

I asked Cath to invite Mike to a party I was hosting with my housemates. As the date of the party approached, I became excited and nervous, with a growing instinct that my life was about to change.

I will never forget the moment Mike walked into my apartment, fresh from a cherry blossom viewing party. I was electrified by his presence. He wore a leather jacket and a copper bracelet on his wrist. I felt immediately drawn to him. He kissed me on the cheek and walked into my heart.

After the various Japanese, British, and American guests chatted and ate snacks, the dancing began in our tiny dining area. Mike and I found each other on the dance floor after shedding our original dance partners, and his lips found mine. We left the party to take a walk and stopped to kiss every few feet. When we finally returned to the party, everyone was gone.

In those first heady days of romance, I remember being drawn to Mike’s beautiful accent, curly head of hair, twinkling eyes, warm smile, and the way he made me laugh and relax completely. I was totally taken with the way he kissed me in full view of Wakayama’s housewives and the way that every activity that we did was infused with romantic electricity.

Traveling around Japan with a girlfriend
while Mike entertained his university friend
After staying the weekend, Mike left me in a state of euphoric exhaustion to return to Osaka. He was expecting a visit from a university friend who he suspected had feelings for him. I was touched by how he didn’t want to tell her about us for fear of hurting her feelings. At the same time, I was desperate to see him again. Over the next month, we corresponded by mail. As soon as his first love letter arrived, I knew that I had a keeper. Reading his funny, romantic letters left me limp with happiness, feeling warm and adored. When I finally saw him again at Osaka’s Namba Station in his suit and tie, I felt astonished at my luck, to have such a bright, witty, caring man waiting to see ME! Over the ensuing few months, we spent every weekend together in Osaka or Wakayama.

Visiting Mt. Koya in winter 1989
I was due to return to Oregon that summer, but I extended my stay for another year. After we traveled to Hong Kong and Macau together, I went home to Oregon for a visit and then moved to Osaka in the fall. Although I shared an apartment with a college friend who had joined me in Japan, Mike and I spent as much time together as we could and traveled around Japan, Malaysia, and Singapore. Soon two years extended into three, and our relationship continued to blossom. Although we both enjoyed our time in Japan, life there was much easier for Mike—as a man—than it was for me. As a young American feminist, I chafed against the patriarchal culture, even though I was exempt from many of the restrictions placed on Japanese women. By the time we left in the summer of 1989, I was ready for our next adventure, while Mike departed in tears.

Several weeks before leaving Japan
We then embarked on a three-month journey through Asia. Mike’s airline ticket terminated in London, and mine took me back to Oregon. I avoided asking questions about the future, because I knew how I felt but I wanted him to assert how he felt about our relationship.

Commencing in glittering Hong Kong, we started our detox after the last few weeks of alcohol-laden goodbye parties, ate curried crab at our colonial-era romantic hotel, and wandered lazily around the charming city of Macau. I met Mike’s sister, who was visiting a friend in Singapore. In beautiful Indonesia, we ate street food in Jakarta, toured batik galleries in Yogjarkarta, stayed on the beach in the fishing village of Pangandaran, became annoyed by the Aussie partyers in Kuta, and soaked up the green, artistic mountain hamlet of Ubud. Traveling through India by train on overnight hard sleepers, we gloried at the wonder of the Taj Mahal, ate at a fabulous restaurant run by the followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, visited palaces and forts, fended off ear cleaners, and took a painful safari through the vast desert on the backs of camels. And in the exotic city of Udaipur, on the roof of a former maharajah’s palace in the middle of a lake, Mike asked me to marry him. And I accepted with relief. I had already concluded that I would propose to him before we parted ways…so at last we had a plan.

Our parting at the Delhi airport was horrible—I left before Mike, and the nasty security guard would not let him accompany me to the gate. I cried halfway across the ocean. Three long months passed with more letters, phone calls, and wedding preparations.

When Mike was finally on U.S. soil, a grumpy government employee in Minneapolis nearly kept him from me. As the son of a diplomat, Mike had a lifetime U.S. visa, but we had not realized he needed a fiancĂ© visa. In a perfect Catch 22, a fiancĂ© visa lasted only three months, but we had five months until our wedding. The INS officer called my house and spoke to first me and then my mother, grilling both of us about my relationship with Mike. He searched through all of Mike’s suitcases, reading my love letters and his diary and searching for clues that he was an English interloper. By then I was hysterical, waiting by the phone to hear whether he’d be allowed into the country. Finally, just before Mike was due to catch his connection, the INS officer called and announced his decision to let Mike proceed to Oregon. The final convincing piece of evidence that we were not merely marrying for the green card was a calendar I had handmade as a Christmas gift for Mike. Our reunion at the Portland airport was infused with relief, gratitude, and joy.

Now nearly 22 years later, our marriage has grown stronger through the storms. In 1996, our first son was born extremely prematurely at 24 weeks, weighing just one pound, six ounces, and measuring 11 inches long. He spent 117 long, agonizing days in the neonatal intensive care unit and survived several life-threatening crises. Many marriages crumble under this type of pressure, but our relationship grew deeper as we clung to each other through our tears and hope. Later, I experienced four miscarriages as we attempted to add to our family before finally succeeding and having another son—full term this time. Then after we thought our family was complete, we were shocked to discover I was pregnant at age 41. A few years ago we celebrated the 20th anniversary of our first meeting by having a Robert Burns Night of our own. Our family and friends read poems, we tasted whiskey, and I made vegetarian haggis and “neeps and tatties” for the occasion.

After my commitment 22 years ago to support us so Mike could launch his writing career, I continue to be the breadwinner and Mike is the primary caregiver for our three sons. Our children are learning that moms can be the ones who leave the house to work, while dads can be amazing, caring, and fun caretakers. Mike writes fiction when he can squeeze it in, and I am supremely confident that publishing success is around the corner. (Aside: I've been saying this for years, and now it is!)

Sometimes it’s hard to give our marriage the attention it deserves, as our children, careers, and outside activities occupy so much time these days. On those rare occasions when we can get away for a night or spend the afternoon together, I realize—anew—how blessed I am to be married to this loving, creative, and passionate man. I look forward to rare, quiet opportunities for us to rekindle our romance and recall those first few star-struck days under an eastern sky.


  1. Marie, I actually got goosebumps reading the romantic story of Mike and Marie ~ Absolutely Beautiful. I would read this book ~ wink !