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Sharon thought I was Japanese. She was leaning over the front desk using the phone, telling her husband not to bother picking up a Japanese/English dictionary on his way home from work. "No sense buying a dictionary when you can go straight to the source," she said, winking at me. Sharon was my temp contact at Ganesis, and the assistant to the CEO. She was preparing to host an international exchange student from Japan for two weeks, and apparently I figured highly in her plans. The student was due to arrive at Logan Airport the following Thursday, a direct flight from the land of the rising sun. Employees drifted by the front desk and I tried to look busy, but since my only task was answering the phone, all I could do was stare blankly at the cubicle walls.
I'd been handling the phones at Ganesis every Wednesday for the past five months. Most temps wouldn't accept a gig that's only one day a week, especially on Wednesdays, since it breaks up the week and puts you out of the running for the majority of available assignments. I took it because I wanted a couple of days at home every week to finish writing the last chunk of my novel. It turned out to be the easiest temp gig ever, so I stayed on with it. Until Sharon said otherwise I considered myself scheduled to come in every Wednesday for the rest of my life.
Sharon was in her late forties. She was extremely thin, with buggy eyes that made her resemble a grasshopper. She was friendly in a way that was undeniably authentic but still sounded artificial. It was probably her southern accent. The fact that she assumed I was Japanese didn't help my impression of her. I didn't bother clarifying that I was a Korean (albeit oneborn and raised in the States who can't speak Korean) the first time because at that moment it felt like less of a hassle to just let it slide. She'd made only a few passing references to my "Japanese" heritage since then, and I figured her thinking this wasn't hurting anybody. It had now been five months, and far too much time had passed for me to correct her because it would make me the asshole for leading her on all this time.
Now she was asking me to teach her how to speak Japanese. I realized it was a no-win situation, and I had only one option: come clean.
Sharon hung up the phone.
"I can't believe my luck." She beamed. "You're a lifesaver."
Of course I wasn't, but I couldn't help but blush.
"I just want to learn the common phrases so we can get by," she said.
"I don't think it would be reasonable to expect to learn more in so short a time."
"Teach me something now," she said, poking me in the shoulder.
I took a deep breath.
"Listen, Sharon, I probably should have--"
"What does 'Domo arigato, Mister Roboto,' mean?" she asked.
I stared at her.
"It's not the type of thing I need to learn, but I've always wondered."
I mentally played the Styx video in my head, trying to glean some sort of meaning to the phrase. Tommy Shaw--wearing a silver space suit--stood on my brain and frowned down at me.
"Well, first of all, in English it's not Roboto. That's Japanese for robot."
"Mister Robot? I never even thought of that!"
"Do you just love sushi, or are you sick of it because you grew up eating it? I could eat California rolls every day of the week." She sighed wistfully.
"I still eat it," I said. She stared at me without blinking. "But I guess you could say the thrill is gone."
"Same with me and pizza. Okay, let's get to work."
"I'm going to need time to prepare. I'll teach you next Wednesday."
"Can you really teach me in one day?" she asked.
"We'll see," I answered weakly. She made me shake on it.
Her phone rang. She folded her hands as if in prayer and mouthed "thank you" to me as she returned to her desk. I think she bowed slightly, but it might have been my imagination. Her office was at the end of the hallway, and since it had no door we could see each other constantly. I kept my head down the rest of the afternoon. The last hour of work the phone rarely rang, and I sat there trying to write an opening paragraph for a chapter I'd been working on, but my mind was frazzled. I'd been lying my whole life--maybe that's why I was a writer--but it felt like years since it had gotten me into a situation like this. Finally I put the phones on night service and headed for the double glass doors. Sharon hollered my name and I winced. She was waving wildly from her desk.
"Goodbye, Mr. Robot," she shouted.
My girlfriend, Amanda, was still at work when I got home. I stood on the back porch and drank a beer, trying to figure out a solution to my problem. I had a week to learn how to speak Japanese. Was it even remotely possible? I took French for four years in high school and never got higher than a C. I couldn't speak Korean. I just wasn't designed to become bilingual. For some reason, when Korean people called my parents over the holidays I couldn't help but answer in a hybrid form of French and Spanish.
The more I thought about it the more pissed off I got at Sharon for putting me in this situation in the first place. I didn't correct her on my ethnicity because I didn't want to embarrass her, because I was polite. If I corrected her now who knew what would happen? I couldn't chance losing this temp gig because it was so cushy; I actually didn't dread coming to work on Wednesdays. Aside from a few stragglers, most of the fifty employees considered me their buddy. This amazed me. Their definition of friendship was satisfied by the fact that they consistently asked me: Is it Friday yet? It was the company mantra. Everyone asked me it at least once a day, and I always chortled and responded in one of three ways. No. I wish. I hear you, brutha. That was the extent of my relationship with these people. How could they possibly consider this a meaningful conversation? All day I could hear beyond the cubicles someone asking someone else, "Is it Friday yet?"
From the Trade Paperback edition.