"The Rat"

There's a lot here, maybe something for everybody.

Akemi told Sten she couldn't see him because she was spending the weekend with her husband.

Sten didn't know what to say. He found he couldn't remember her husband's name- Mitchell; he'd blocked on it- which made the conversation more awkward.

They were talking on the phone, where words were especially important.

"How is he?" he asked, feeling off his game as you do when you should be saying someone's name- not to is rude- but can't remember it.

"He's fine," Akemi said.

"How's his car?"

Akemi had told Sten Mitchell was having care troubles.

"It's okay," she said. "He's buying the part he needs from a friend who has connections. He always does that. He can get a used engine for only two thousand seven hundred dollars. The problem is that then it breaks again."

Sten heard implied criticism of her husband in Akemi's words, her voice, and he felt better. He sensed, not for the first time, that she was tired of, impatient with the man, wanted or needed or at least was open to a change.

He wondered if she had deliberately filled her weekend schedule to stay away from him, was trying to control herself and how long that effort would continue.

He would persist.

Their conversation didn't last long.

"You're busy. I won't keep you," Sten said.

"Sorry," Akemi said.

We'll meet another time." Sten didn't propose a new date. He even played hard to get. They hung up the phone and he thought he heard an echo of desire in her silence. "Come back," he imagined her wanting to say. "I can meet you after all." She felt regret, he wanted to think. Well, leave her to it. All the better for the future. Leave her feeling she wanted him, might lose him. She'll be back in a flash, ardent, even clinging.

His own thoughts surprised him only a bit. He didn't know how close they hewed to reality, really couldn't guess what was going through her mind. He knew the intensity of his feelings for Akemi but not whether she reciprocated them. He had become used to speculating, hoping and calculating how best to get close to her while wondering if he ever could.

They'd talked about the movie he and friends were making in which she would have a part.

"Sometimes," he explained, "you have to film a scene more than once. You look at the first take and see things you missed and can capture the next time."

The point, swing of her breasts from a certain angle, he had in mind.

The film, a project conceived by friends from his country- they were professionals- was to be about diversity in the U.S. and in it Akemi would show and talk about her paintings and her life as a foreigner. That is, the thing was a documentary, and her breasts were beside the point (no pun intended), though her photogenic qualities were welcomed and had informed the enthusiastic response when Sten introduced Akemi to the team and suggested they feature her in the movie.

She would talk about her American life, her likes and dislikes.

No, she said in answer to a sample question, she didn't want to move to California, though she had been there and saw it was true what people said: the lifestyle was easier, the weather gentler. She didn't like the colors or the artwork there, which latter reflected the lifestyle. Tepid, pallid, indecisive were words that came to her mind about the side of America she found unimpressive. She kept her opinion to herself, not wanting to criticize the country where she lived as a guest. She genuinely appreciated the welcome she'd received.

She said she preferred the East Coast, which had a strong connection to Europe.

Sten had a connection to Europe- hailed from Denmark- and he was strong.

This returns to the beginning of Akemi's involvement with Mitchell, the man who was to become her husband. You might think of these as scenes from a movie.

Akemi asked Mitchell, "Do you dance well?"

He thought about the question for a moment and said, "Not really" and laughed. "What about you?"

"Yes I do."

He recognized that of course she did. She practiced dance as an art along with her painting.

He realized he'd given the wrong answer and tried to fix it.

"I mean because I'm shy. When I warm up and get comfortable, I'm a pretty good dancer."

Mitchell saw that dance connoted sex and that if Akemi thought him not a good partner she might look for a man who was.

He looked at a photo of her shot at waist level, her hips in profile and could see how well she moved.

He heard about a personal security device for women that the head of a powerful Internet platform had designed for his own girlfriend, who happened to be Asian, like Akemi, not Japanese but Chinese. Apparently the young, highly successful, incredibly wealthy innovator worried about her safety. The thing was a simple device a woman carried and could use either to alert help through a wireless network or to make noise or otherwise fend off an attacker. Her boyfriend or significant person in her life could carry one too but only on her request- otherwise it became just another form of chauvinistic monitoring, paternal. Just that invention, which the Internet genius had dreamed up in his spare time, would bring on its own bring in huge profits if it became successful, which it probably would, add to the already fathomless wealth of the digital entrepreneur.

Genius? The guy'd had a clever idea that paid off. A combination of luck and opportunism, and he'd made a killing. Mitchell couldn't help resenting the twenty-something-year-old with his cute Chinese girlfriend- or was it wife now?- who was bland, shallow compared to Akemi, at least seemed that way to Mitchell. He'd never met her, of course.

Mitchell worried about Akemi's security also, even though they weren't yet together. She was attractive. He wasn't the only guy who'd want her, and others would be aggressive. There were some bad characters out there.

Sten wasn't dangerous that way, not the sort to use force, get her drunk and launch a physical attack.

On the bus home- yes, he took a bus that day- Mitchell felt terrible, as if he'd lost her, he'd failed to get through and probably wouldn't have another chance. A wall had come up. He felt like shouting or, strange as this may seem, even singing loudly, to make some noise, escape his isolation, broach some of the distance from her that way. The bus was on the crowded side. That might explain some of his panic, he thought. If the person standing in front of him to the right in the aisle, blocking his view, would just move, he might feel freer, less oppressed.

Mitchell wished then he that he had the personal security device the Internet maverick had invented, so he could track Akemi's whereabouts. Of course that would be wrong to do, make him a chauvinist or worse. He and Akemi weren't close enough then she'd willingly give him access to her privacy, comings and goings.

Akemi and her friends appeared at his place a few nights later. "Can we stay over?" They had nowhere to go at that hour, past midnight, had been partying, thought of him, knew he lived near. Mitchell was surprised but said yes, welcomed the group, though they were a lot, six in all.

One of the guys was American and told Mitchell when asked by him that he came from Plattsburgh, New York. Mitchell wanted to say that was his mother's hometown but didn't get a chance amid the hubbub. He tried but couldn't connect to the group, who, in their distraction with their own activity, reminded him of hikers just in from the wild. Later, Akemi apologized to him in private, said she was embarrassed, had lost control of her friends. Mitchell understood. She wasn't a person who would willingly tread on his or anyone else's feelings.

He showed them the guest bed room. "There's just one bed and you all have to sleep on it. Thinking further- the idea seemed unfair- he added, "One of you can sleep on my bed with me if you want."

Of course Akemi didn't. She stayed with her friends. Mitchell woke up in the morning alone.

That happened years ago, but the memory remained fresh.

Mitchell guessed Sten didn't dance well, he had nothing to worry about on that front. The guy was a freaking math teacher! But you never know. Akemi definitely liked him all right.

They were married now but Mitchell still worried about her "security," had to remind himself Sten wasn't an aggressor but a friend of Akemi's. From his point of view, there sometimes seemed no difference.

I'm not saying- I can't claim- Sten resembled a rat. He's just a person. Maybe the comparison wouldn't have come to mind if a a real rodent hadn't appeared on the scene.

Why doesn't he leave my wife alone?

Akemi said she'd found the rat. Friends of ours visiting a week before had told us they'd seen one. We hadn't yet and couldn't quite believe they had. Maybe their eyes had deceived them.

"Really?" I asked.

"Yes."

"Where?"

"Under the sink." She was standing there in the bathroom. I was in the living room.

I knew where she meant. Beneath the sink was a cabinet.

She said the rat was dead.

"Well, that's a good thing."

"Unh," she acknowledged with an appreciative grunt, a sound she makes I like so much.

"Is it a rat or a mouse?" I asked. The latter would be less alarming, although there was probably nothing to worry about in any case. The rodent had been just one and now was gone.

"A rat, I think," Akemi said, "though it's small."

"Well, maybe they shrink when they die," I speculated. "Or maybe not."

Maybe it looked like a mouse but was really a rat. There might be more, but for some reason the possibility didn't trouble me.

"I guess you want me to do something about it," I said, figuring she'd prefer I not she took care of the rat, got rid of it.

"Unh," she replied in the affirmative.

I found myself hoping the thing would just go away on its own, disappear somehow if left in place out of view, but of course that wouldn't happen. I'd have to deal with the problem.

Speaking of death, the end of things, I wondered if in the event we broke up Akemi would start sleeping around, react to newfound freedom by rebelling, maybe with friends of mine who'd wanted her but been holding off because we were together.

Sten would't disappear either.

In bed that night we felt so glad to be together. Time and the apartment, the bedroom, was ours again. The light, the spaces between our bodies, the air itself, seemed to connect us. I kissed her bare breasts. In my mouth they reached points- out of it too. She was on top of me and started to go down, in her raw enthusiasm took the head of my cock in her mouth. I thought, too soon. Once started that would be it for a while. Let's wait. Let's enjoy playing around some more first. Akemi felt the same, it turned out, and pulled her mouth off, turned back to me. She'd just been getting a taste.

We kissed more and appreciated each other. I looked at her shapes- she saw I was and liked it- at the slope of her ass and thought she'd look good even when she got old. She was a keeper. I felt suddenly that I wanted to go down on her. The time was right. She'd given me head a lot and now it was my turn to reciprocate, and the desire to do so came on strong. I wanted my mouth at her pussy, to have it all over me, and I began to pull her skirt down. It was only half way on by then and would now come the rest of the way off.

Speaking of friends, I didn't always get along well with hers. Part of the problem was language, culture, of course. Ours were different. They didn't understand me (and vice versa). Hiroko for one approached Akemi's foreign husband with skepticism if not distrust. Several pals of hers visited the next day (not the same group who'd seen the rat; those were my friends), and we talked and they asked about a word in English, new slang one they'd heard and didn't fully understand. As an American I would.

They were eager to learn slang, as it made them fit in. Not that they felt a need to. They seemed content with outsider status in America, appeared from my vantage point to prefer the company of compatriots, judged their culture as equal to mine- no, as superior. And there was some justification for their view. Japan was older, had a longer history than the U.S. On the other hand, we had the background of Europe. And in any case it's no good looking down on anyone.

Maybe Akemi's friends' attitude reflected feelings of inferiority. They'd lost the war to America. That had been a blow to the nation's pride and the effects persisted.

Maybe Akemi liked Sten so much in part because he was European.

Sten wasn't my friend. (more on him before and after)

I couldn't tell at first what word they'd asked me about. The sound didn't clearly come through the murmur of continued conversation. The pronunciation wasn't accurate. Then Akemi said it directly. "Drecky."

That was a funny word for them to know. I wondered where they'd heard it.

I explained as best I could- as the concept it conveyed was one that could shift, "Drecky means 'looks bad, old or dirty." I thought it came from German, a word meaning "dirt," in fact, but in English it had become slang, probably by way of Yiddish.

"That shirt looks drecky," I said. "Not good." I had in mind a blue one I owned that had seen better days. Dark blue stiff cotton no longer quite stiff. It wrinkled quickly. Kind of like an old cock.

My explanation didn't thoroughly satisfy Akemi's friends. Some found it unconvincing, doubted my authority in my own language, as if they knew better! Yes, Japanese- including some of Akemi's friends- can be arrogant, dismissive of Americans' intelligence. Of course, there are good grounds for such an attitude. My compatriots aren't exactly the brightest bulbs on the planet, as evidenced by their choices of leaders at elections.

"It's an adjective, you know," Akemi's friend Hiroko said archly. Yes, she was there too. I kept down my annoyance with her condescension and answered, "Yeah, I know," adding as if to prove the case, "I don't think there's a noun for of the word. 'To dreck.' Ha ha."

Akemi likes people who are learned, men especially. I'm not especially, not by a long shot.

She liked one friend of mine, Dan, whom we recently met, Akemi for the first (and only time). He impressed her. We'd gotten together with him for lunch at a fast food restaurant in midtown of all places- we were busy, had things to do with the rest of the day. Dan was especially occupied, dealing with a rough transition in his life. He had just returned from the Southwest, where he'd gone to try living and decided after a year he didn't like it and came back. Following our meeting that noon he'd go for another nearby at the firm he'd left to see if he could get his old job back- that seemed likely, as he was a valued employee and friends with the founding partners.

After lunch, as we walked on the busy streets, office workers out on lunch breaks, Akemi gushed over Dan. "He knows a lot, you know."

"I know." He was a fount of obscure knowledge, a real scholar, and he didn't show off the fact, just lived and talked like an ordinary person, but sometimes some piece of recondite information would surface from him. He knew stuff from the Middle Ages, not only history but also folklore, legends and how they connect to real events, reflected the morals of the time. He had an encyclopedic knowledge and great love of literature.

By the way, Dan wasn't the kind of guy Akemi would find attractive as a man. He was short, not exactly handsome. But you never know. In any case, he was a nice guy. I knew that about him. We weren't close friends, but he would never go after Akemi. And at the moment a lot was on his mind, personal reflection not the least of it. He seemed resigned to a life alone, without a woman, for a while. He'd gone out west with a girlfriend and they'd broken up. That was a reason for his precipitous return. They'd had a plan to start a new life, share one, but it had fallen apart.

"I don't know how he had the time to learn so much," Akemi said to me. "He must have read a lot in school."

"He still does," I said. I did too but not nearly to the extent of someone like Dan.

I also liked learning but was just fairly lazy about acquiring it. No, I wasn't a scholar, though in college and beyond I'd had dreams of becoming one. My adult life was in full swing and there was no turning back. It pushed forward with the relentless force of a steam ship, leaving early ambitions behind in its foaming wake. I found little room for study between the other things I liked to do, being with Akemi chief among them, and those I had to do, my job, which was demanding despite the limited number of salaried hours. I had to think of work while away from it. That made me prize leisure as leisure. I seized on recreation rather than serious pursuits.

Above all, I really didn't have the mind for expansive learning. Not all of us can boast a steel trap memory. I lacked a calling.

It occurred to me scholarly bona fides might be another reason Akemi liked Sten, the math professor at the college with whom she had formed the friendship that had made me so uneasy, was shaking the foundations of my life. No, Sten wasn't a friend of mine. He wouldn't have compunctions about going for her.

No, I can't call him a rat. He's a person. But I do find myself wondering what's the difference.

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