I couldn’t sleep because of the terrible ringing in my ears from watching bilingual programs on an old TV my neighbor Nishihara-san gave me that had a broken bilingual switch so that both languages came out at the exact same time and exact same volume (actually an interrogation technique, I was to find out later, employed by Japanese police to help maintain their suspiciously high confession rate), and if you think Murder She Wrote is bad (coincidentally, forced viewings of which is another police interrogation strategy), try watching it with Angela Lansbury speaking in two extremely different languages simultaneously, like a less colorfully dressed Mongolian throat singer on speed.
I had tried several times to fix the ancient set. I did this by slapping it on the side, kicking it in the back, and threatening to throw it out the window (the three most popular Japanese interrogation techniques, in precisely that order, the fourth being actually throwing the suspect out the window to see whether they bounce back up and into their chair, proving their guilt by the gods’ rejection of their souls, or if they just land with a dull, wet thud onto the pavement, cementing, as it were, their innocence), but nothing helped.
Irono-fortuitously,* the ringing kept me up late enough to watch the regular 2:00 a.m. showing of Combat, that old American TV series about America’s single-handed liberation of Europe during World War II in which three times as many Germans were gunned down and blown up by a relatively small cast of actors over five seasons than actually perished at the hands of the entire Allied forces during the war itself.
The Japanese broadcast had scratchy handwritten Japanese subtitles that looked like they were drawn on a battlefield with a very short pencil during a hurried retreat, but thankfully there was only one language spilling out into my little tatami apartment, creating a stubborn bubble of English that stood fearless against the onslaught of Japanese that came pouring along with mosquitos and stink bugs through the tattered screens on my windows and doors.
All of which—the ringing in my ears, the late-night viewings of Combat, the clusters of mosquito bites I scratched until they bled, and the occasional hypnagogic waking dream of Angela Lansbury accusing me before a crowd of strangers gathered in a well-appointed sitting room of killing the old woman in my neighborhood who regularly went through my trash, searching for infractions of the burnable/non-burnable separation rule—all of which conspired to keep me up until nearly dawn.
And on this morning, just as I was about to tell Ms. Lansbury that the old woman in my neighborhood had it coming, that I wasn’t sorry and I’d do it again, just as I was about to confess and finally fall fully asleep, there was a great crash outside that very nearly sent into flight a family of mosquitos that were burrowing deeper and deeper into my ankle searching for the last bits of blood in what was a rapidly diminishing supply.
I would have dashed to the window, but my apartment was so small any single stride taken with any sort of force would have shattered every bone in my body. So instead I just leaned over and looked out, and there on the side of the road, at the center of a spider web of cracked pavement, I saw a spaceship.
Yes, a spaceship.
Wait, no, something like one, though. The chair out of one, like Captain Kirk’s big swivel chair with all the controls and stuff on the arms. But slightly smaller, and white.
Wait a minute, one part of my brain said to another, Captain Kirk’s chair wasn’t white. And then yet another part of my brain turned to still another part, hooked its thumb at the part that had just spoken, and, rolling its eyes, said, “And it didn’t have a hole in the middle of the seat.”
“You’re right,” I said out loud to myself in my tiny apartment. “Why, it’s a toilet.” I paused, considering the improbability of this, then turned my eyes heavenward and whispered hotly, “It’s a space toilet!”
Well, of course it was not a space toilet. Not strictly speaking, anyway. It was simply a modern Japanese toilet, which I guess is like a space toilet, or at least like the toilets they will eventually have in space, where we will all live and defecate once the earth has been transformed into one giant ocean with the occasional dead polar bear bobbing up and down here and there.
I went down to investigate.
It was the “Washlet 2000 Lexa XL.” Same model as my private student Mr. Eguchi’s, the one it took me two months to finally work up the courage to use. Well, two months and a visit to an annual gobo festival, an uncomfortably enthusiastic celebration of a tough little root Japanese consider edible. The festival featured gobo-themed music, an oddly suggestive gobo fertility dance, and every gobo recipe one could imagine (and a few one couldn’t)—deep-fried gobo, gobo kimchee, gobo jerky, candied gobo, gobo a l’orange, gobo tacos, and this thing where they wrap gobo in a red bandana, tie it to a stick and carry it around for a while, called hobo gobo.
The humble gobo—nature’s laxative, Mother Earth’s gift to our colon, Satan’s fiery rectal broom. I could tell you the English word for gobo but where would that get us? Unless you’ve been living in Japan, or lost in the woods for more than a week without anything to eat, you’ve probably never heard of or tried to chew through a stalk of this fibrous, woody plant my dictionary tells me is called “burdock root” in English. “It’s very healthy,” people will tell you as you sit gnawing, and that ought to be a red flag right there.
At any rate, it was probably the generous helping of gobo surprise (thinly sliced gobo smothered in gobo marmalade, served on a bed of gobo peelings by a man wearing a gobo costume treated to be flame retardant because of what had happened the previous year at the “Señor Gobo’s MonsterArgentinian Barbecue!” event) that did me in, and by the time I got to Mr. Eguchi’s for our class, the root had worked its way through my intestines, pushing before it everything I had ever eaten in my life including a wad of gum a nun almost caught me chewing in 3rd grade.
Before I knew it, I was sitting surrounded by the buttons and switches that had previously intimidated me so much that I would eat and drink nothing the mornings I had a class at Mr. Eguchi’s so that I would not have to navigate his toilet. With the final passing of my 3rd grade gum, I began to look nervously around the lavatorial cockpit.
On the right arm, where Star Trek’s Captain Kirk had a switch for shooting lasers at approaching Klingon ships, there was a row of buttons that activated streams of water at different strengths and temperatures and with great precision towards targets illustrated with some ambiguity by blue and pink circles, triangles, squiggly lines, and humanlike silhouettes. Below this row was a large red button with a dot in the middle that I was afraid to touch but suppose put into play some sort of doomsday function that would detonate the chair should there be some threat to national security or problem with the toilet paper.
On the left arm of the extraterrestrial throne was a button that activated a hot air blower towards whatever you might put above the hole in the seat, which most usually would be your freshly hosed off bottom, but could theoretically be a set of soggy playing cards, a kitten just in from the rain, or even cold leftovers. Below this was a button that triggered a high-fidelity sound recording of a toilet flushing, I suppose to mask other sounds that may occur in that little room, such as a kitten screeching.
There were another 20 to 30 buttons, two pedals, and a helmet with an antenna, all of whose functions were impossible to determine, so abstract and minimalist were the accompanying icons, but it didn’t really matter since the buttons previously described are typically the most frequently used ones on devices of this sort, so much so that their icons and symbols soon fade and the toilet becomes eventually a terrifying game of Russian roulette, with water shooting unexpectedly at the wrong places and the sudden roar of a stereophonic flush causing cold pot stickers to leap from their plates and somersault into the blue, chemically treated water.
The “Washlet 2000 Lexa XL,” a state of the art toilet of the future in Mr. Eguchi’s humble one-room 6-tatami-mat apartment, and now here on the street in my very neighborhood. What a country, I thought. What a toilet.
“Help yourself,” someone shouted in English from above. I looked towards the heavens for the second time that day. “Go ahead,” the voice came again, from a place a bit lower, on the second floor actually. “I don’t need it anymore. Help yourself.”
I began to do just that, when the voice came again, “Pull your pants back up!” he shouted, leaning out the window now. “What the hell’s wrong with you?”
“But you said . . .”
He cut me off.
“I said, ‘help yourself,’ you twit. Take it home.”
“Take it home?” I asked incredulously. “But in this toilet lies the very future of humanity.”
“No argument here,” he said, then smiled for a while like he was waiting for something that apparently didn’t come because then he frowned.
“You call that a toilet?” he finally spat, part of his spittle landing irono-fortuitously, in the mizo, that multi-purpose groove that runs alongside roads in Japan and helps drain the country of rain and late night drunken urine. “Come on up, and I’ll show you a real toilet!”
*Irono-fortuitously – a word that doesn’t exist but should; the combination of ironically and fortuitously, two words that have been circling and making eyes at each other for some time now. Joined here at last, the lexically adventurous may now say, “As they led him to the electric chair there was, irono-fortuitously, a storm that knocked out the prison’s electrical system” or “What the hell’s wrong with you that you have to make up ridiculous words like ‘irono-fortuitously?’”
(Stay tuned to this site for the stunning conclusion to . . . Space Toilet! –Loretta Doyle, U.S. Consular Officer)