It rained in the last hour or so. The sweet dust smell of concrete rises off the pavement. Where rays of morning sunlight reach, steam weaves on the darkened road. It’s 5:45. The already humid air intensifies in the rain street bath. The silence is clean and complete, no echo of voices bouncing down the walls from apartments, no movement of construction vehicles in the nearby site yet. Just the gray city noise a distant hum, the sound of a city about to wake up and pulse through the day.
I stretch beginning with my arms, two counts of seven and down to the major leg muscles, again two counts of seven. My clothes cloy against my back and stomach by the end of the exercise. Checking the street for cars one last time, I press start on my watch and jog down my dead end lane toward the main streets of Nagoya.
The route takes me down two main roads, across a major cross walk and through some traffic lights, but with the exception of a few cars strolling along looking for breakfast and owners opening shop, the city leaves me alone. Until I get to the canal.
Here the usuals join in the early ritual, come to the wide path and green areas of the canals to do their morning routines. Dog walkers speed step along the path, their track suits swish and they chorus out good morning to every one they pass. Their miniature dogs scramble behind to keep up, stump legs blurring. A tempo of panting keeping their masters’ going.
I tend to pass one particular retired couple every morning at the same point in the beginning of my 40 minute course. Matching track suits of neon color. The woman’s wide brim sun visor casts a shadow over her whole face and curled and fluffed hair above it bouncing along to each step she takes. Her gentlemen husband has grown a little round in their later years, but he still keeps up. He uses a fishermen’s bucket hat to keep the strongest rays off his face, and a set of heavy glasses seem to weigh his face down-his lips falling toward his chin. They each hold a leash to their matching set of terriers. I never could remember which kind of terrier was which.
They both say good morning, like every morning. I say it back, in my bad accent like every morning and we continue on our separate ways.
Passing another footbridge over the canal, the path runs through an open green area. The addition of benches makes it a park. Depending on the day of the week, different groups congregate on the grass. Some days a fleet of elders, all in loose fitting shirts and pants like they may have forgotten to change out of their pajamas. In formation, they move silent and slow from position to position in a tai chi pattern. Other days a young man stands shirtless in the bright sunlight. Glaring across the canal. He lifts his arms, numchuks in hand and whips them back behind his elbows, a pause and he begins to spin and twirl them, avoiding the slightest mistake which could leave bruises or even blood on his bare skin. Other times a track suit troop doing morning exercises together, squat and stand and pinwheeling their arms. They loosen up and get the blood pumping for the rest of their day.
The path continues. On occasion another gaijin, white, runner appears. Almost always graying men, the traveling business type. Oiled in sweat, hair flattened to their forehead. An expensive music player tucked into a running belt or arm band and plugged into their head. They push hard against the growing looseness in their ass and the wobble in their belly. Too many late night pizzas, cocktails and high carb airplane meals. Their breath comes and goes like a snore, lungs trying to regain control. I prefer they ignore me, and they do. Not even making eye contact, despite our shared foreignness in this land. Too busy thinking of losing that extra fat, the next meeting, next agenda, next flight, next affair.
Japanese joggers are rare. Perhaps preferring one of the many air conditioned fitness centers, complete with a muscled personal trainer and TV led running bands. With those I do pass, we never break the runner’s code. Nodding a greeting and mutual understanding. We must focus on the breath, the pace, the signs of the body-can I push myself harder today or slacken up or is that muscle twinge in near the knee the beginning of an injury.
High school children travel in pairs. The boys open their dark suit jackets, the girls in dark pleated skirts. Carrying baseball bats or tennis rackets or lacrosse sticks. Perhaps on their way to practice before class or the other way around. I never ask. Immersed in their teenage world or exams and cell phones and social circles and ladders, I pass almost invisible. I like it this way. I make myself a fixture of the path, nothing to see here.
After another car bridge the path becomes a road, no more company on the way. My stride spreads, breath comes a little harder in and out in concentration. Pre-fab concrete and plastic homes line the right side of the street, each much the same as the next. But this, this is the best part of the road. The pavement runs smooth and flat, I don’t need to look down instead keeping a close watch on the canal. And almost every morning without fail the crane comes. It flies low along the water away from the city. Long wings sail through the sky, graceful beak pointing away. Going where? On what agenda? Always alone we see each other here. Me the runner. He the flier. Sprinting to the dead end, he continues on out to sea.
Some of the magic of early morning has died on the return leg. City noise heightened, warming up for the day, a huge machine beginning its’ work. More cars on the road, more commuters, people in formal suits, ties, skirts, shined leather shoes on bicycles, briefcase in the handlebar basket. But I am no longer watching, I think of the day to come, what must be done, the possibilities of what free time I might have left.
By the time I leave the canal and get back on to main roads, I have to wait for traffic at street lights. Jogging in place to keep my heart rate high. Trying to avoid breathing car exhaust. Five minutes out from the homestretch I see him again.
The old man waits in front of his shop, apartment, laundromat. I don’t know. He sees me coming from the street light corner and pivots to face me full on, like the bad guy in a spaghetti western. He wears dirty, ankle-cut sweat pants and a over-used undershirt. Plastic slippers instead of cowboy boots. The skin looks taught on top of his head, shining under a few left over hairs. His body droops toward the earth, ready to dive back in to where it came from. Getting closer and my skin prickles, the standoff near its climax. His jaw drops slack and eyes make a direct attack at me.
This time will be different. This time I will not back down. I glare him down, trying to put hatred and disbelief and shame all into one gaze. My feet kick harder against the pavement. But he doesn’t back down. His jaws open so wide, drool could start hanging down. Time seems to slow down, but it’s a short distance and I pass inches away, refusing to adjust my path even a bit. I see from my side vision his turn to watch me go. The gaze slithers under my skin. I am angry. If only we could speak the same language, if only I were the heroic cowboy. Hat, stirrups and jeans. If only…
I stop two feet away from him and hands on hips take a moment to iron out my breath. Feet planted firm and wide, because I’ve had a horse under me my whole life. Since before I could walk or talk. I spit and take one step closer, he leans back slaps his mouth shut for the first time.
“Sir, I think we’ve a problem here? Every morning I go about my business, getting a little exercise for health’s sake. And every morning the same time, you come out to this street post and interrupt my pace and my peace.”
He remains speechless of course in the face of such direct talk.
“I may be a foreigner in these parts, but that’s no way to look at a lady. And I happen to be a lady, through and through. In fact, staring is no way to look at any person, now is it?”
He scratches his head, an eraser on paper sound, but still can’t find his tongue.
“Exactly. Now here’s what we’re gonna do. You’re gonna apologize and from now on just a nod or good morning will do. No staring, no open-mouthed nonsense like I am the 20-foot woman come to conquer the city. After the greeting, back to our own business. Have we got a deal?”
Gravity’s pulled him even further over, a flower bent over the edge of its vase. Looking very sorry indeed. We shake or maybe bow. And I continue on my way. To home, to work, to my own day.