The tiny room was stuffy. No breeze stirred the late afternoon air, heavy with humidity and pollen and expectations -- for the weekend, two days away; for finals, just around the corner. The converted laundry room on the back of the shabby Victorian house had no air conditioning, no fans, no insulation. A half-hearted attempt at a college classroom, it abutted a campus parking lot, and waves of heat rising from the asphalt outside pulsed through the room.
Shoichi-san, a grad student, guided the four students through the lesson as they fought sleep, or restlessness, or both. Each took his or her turn reading the romanized text aloud; it looked sort of like English but, if pronounced correctly, it sounded sort of like Japanese.
Watashi wa toshokan ni irasshaimasu. I go to the library.
Janet read a few tortuous
sentences until Shoichi-san was satisfied. Paula plodded through her
assigned paragraph. Laurie approached the words dully, as if trying to
read underwater. The stagnant air was getting to her; she cracked a
smile and tried not to giggle.
Enpitsu ga arimasu ka? Do you have a pencil?
Joe's turn. Joe's learning curve was flatter than those of his classmates. Japanese did not come easily to Joe, and the warm room and fidgety girls around him didn't make it any easier.
Joe looked at the page. The words swam before his eyes. Joe struggled through the sentence, syllable by syllable.
" . . . shi . . . ma . . . SHIT."
Shta. Joe had wanted to say shta, but it was too late. The word hung in the poisonous air with ponderous finality, daring any of the students to say a word. No words were needed.
I don't remember which of us started giggling first, but Janet and I were goners after that. Shoichi-san blinked at us through innocent eyes -- and ears. "Eez ever'teeng . . . okayyy?" he asked. We assured him that we were just tired and punchy, that was all. Poor Joe was turning six shades of red and cursing the day he ever chose Japanese as an elective.