The Language of Love

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The screen a few rows up ahead says we’re cruising at an altitude of 35,000 feet. A little white plane moves in geometric lefts and rights as it progresses on its two-dimensional course from Tokyo to Toronto. We’ve only been in the air for three hours and already I’m a mess. If I don’t get some sleep soon, I think I’ll go crazy and jump out of the airplane, pirouetting down into the Pacific headfirst. Knowing my luck, I won’t die on impact. Nor will I drown. I’ll simply bob up and down on the stupid waves until a gang of hungry sharks gets smart and realizes I’m the easiest meal they’ve ever had.

Love plagues me, love frees me.

I want to tell Sakura that I love her, in English, but I’m scared. That it’ll have more meaning than it should. Than I allow myself to feel. That’s why I switch to Japanese. It’s safer if I do that. And safety is insulation from pain.

I reach for my copy of South of the Border, West of the Sun, make myself nice and comfortable in the built-for-a-wafer-thin-runway-model chair, turn on the reading light, and open the book. I’m only 50 pages into the story, and although I like it, I have issues with the translation.

Let it be known that I’ve come to both love and loathe translating. In university, when languages were abstract concepts like the space-time continuum, I felt it was empowering to be working with mankind’s greatest invention. With Japanese, French and Spanish, I thought I was on my way to becoming a regular Richard F. Burton, the same person who learned twenty-nine languages in his lifetime.

Okay, so I’m nothing like Sir Dick Burton.

The original idea was to translate the Japanese equivalent of The Arabian Nights into English, perhaps from some esoteric language like Ainu, the minority ethnic group on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido whom I’d make famous through my work.

That was the dream then. The truth is, after three months of living in the insanely expensive metropolis of Tokyo I wasn’t getting enough translation work to pay the bills, so I started teaching on the side. Eventually, I was so busy teaching Japanese businessmen, housewives, and university students that I had no time for myself. No time to work on any translations. I wasn’t completely blind to the irony that I had gone to Japan to translate Japanese literature and ended up teaching my native language. The only good thing to come out of my private tutoring was the day Sakura walked into one of my private classes. That was nine years ago.

Man, I love Miles Davis, especially when I’m cloaked in silence. Like right now, as the plane drones on and everyone sleeps. The flight’s complimentary headphones are pressed hard against my ears. I forgot I was listening to the in-flight radio service, but those last few notes of “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” when his trumpet fizzles out breathlessly, send a shiver through my body.

The little white plane on the monitor has hardly moved since the last time I checked. We’re still at the same height. Same speed. Same destination. Caught in between the two worlds of East and West, I feel like a rootless tree spinning through space.

Sakura is still sound asleep, her measured breathing my only tranquility right now. I feel part of my heart tearing away under a mountain of guilt.

I don’t deserve her.

I don’t.

I know I don’t…

I keep telling myself this until I lose track of what it is I’m coming down on myself for. I switch channels on the in-flight radio service and Beethoven’s “Symphony No. Five in C Minor” is just coming on. I close my eyes, wishing this situation would disappear. That’s not what I mean. A situation is something that arises during a political crisis or after a military strike that’s gone awry. What’s happening within me, between Sakura and me, is much more than a situation. It’s a segment of life unraveling before my eyes that I don’t have the strength to make whole again.

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