The Island of Bicycle Dancers

A Novel

Jiro Adachi

St. Martin's Press

Excerpt from The Island of Bicycle Dancers by Jiro Adachi. Copyright © 2004 by Jiro Adachi. Published by St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved.

Chapter One

She looked for him—the bike messenger with the splendid caramel-colored skin. Other bikers went by, taxis, delivery trucks, buses, but no him. Slowly, she swept cigarette butts, bits of food, and store receipts toward the curb. She glanced down First Avenue again, then swept the trash into the street where it landed on top of a pigeon wing. Where was the rest of the bird? No bird, no blood, just dirty feathers and some broken bone curled against the concrete. Back home in Japan there were no dead animals or animal parts lying around. In her hometown of Kawasaki, there was only the occasional stray cat or dog. Once, she had seen a rat outside the Kirin bicycle race stadium, but that was it. New York had everything, she thought. New York had him. Where was him?

Where dat nigga at?

This voice in her inner ear came so quickly she had to go back over it and figure out what it meant, where she might have heard it. Nigga, nigga, nigga. She stared down First Avenue and tried to recall. The 7 train? The guy with the gold tooth at the bakery down the street? One of her older cousin Suzie's hip-hop tapes, maybe. There were so many bits and pieces of English passing by the Lucky Market window each day; it was like a fever dream—full and pressing. The words and phrases she heard crowded her mind sometimes, vied for attention—like this one now. She could hear the voice so clearly but had no face to attach to it, no source. She tried to match it to the face of her messenger, but it didn't quite fit.

Suzie had told her it was good to be able to imagine different voices in English because it meant you had a good ear. In New York, there were too many different kinds of English. Sometimes her head was full of her aunt and uncle's Korean English, sometimes Suzie's American English going on about the Indian women who came into the nail salon dripping with yellow gold and the black women who spent all their money on nails that ended up looking like cheap jewelry. Her ear caught snippets of Chinese English from the high school kids on the 7 train, Spanish English everywhere, Russian English and Polish English near Lucky Market; black English all over, even from white people and some Asians—everyone trying to act black. Did her messenger act like that, too? she wondered.

More cars. A fire truck. What could she say to him? Would he think she was Korean? She imagined telling him that she was half Japanese and half Korean. He would want to know more, of course, and she would explain that she came for the summer. Work in the store. Learn English. The real problem, she would tell him, was that Japanese was spoken all around the neighborhood of the store—not even Japanese English but just plain Japanese—in restaurants and boutiques and hair salons. She couldn't tell if the speakers were tourists or people who lived here, but they were always speaking Japanese, never English. She had promised herself that they were to be avoided at all costs. Only English this summer.

An ambulance was trying to get through First Avenue traffic, its siren loud and steady. In the back, she imagined, lay a one-winged pigeon, a gray stain on a white sheet, eyes wide with fear.

Then she saw him: riding behind the ambulance—long, dark muscles like a wild animal. She drank him in with her eyes. He sat upright, in one hand a bagel and in the other an orange juice. Quick twitches of his hips steered the bike between lanes of traffic. An impossible, crazy dance. She caught her breath as he sped past. Then he was gone. No more him.

"Jae Hee!" It was the girl's Korean aunt, Hyun Jeong, standing in the doorway of the store. "Move from street!"

She never listens to me, thought Hyun Jeong as she waited for her niece to turn around. Hyun Jeong stared at the girl, who was gazing off into traffic as though she had just missed her bus. She mumbled to herself in Korean her growing list of complaints against this half-breed summer guest pawned off on her by her brother-in-law, this girl who didn't dress like a girl but wore a red-and-white baseball shirt and tight jeans on a hot June day. The crazy blond streaks in her short hair. She wasn't even here a full week before she changed her hair color the first time. How many color treatments had that scalp suffered in the last month since her arrival? Hyun Jeong had lost count. Just like Suzie, only worse. At least Suzie was pure Korean. This girl clearly didn't want to be Korean or Japanese. Yet she was skinny like most Japanese. Her head was big like a Korean.

"Jae Hee!" Hyun Jeong cried again as she stepped onto the sidewalk. "You sleeping?"

The girl didn't look at her aunt. She glanced over at Daniel, one of the store workers, who was outside unpacking a box of apples. He grinned at her and shook his head. He and José, the other worker, but especially him, seemed to know what was going on at all times. She spoke little to them, but when she did it was friendly. They shared new English words. They teased her about her hair colors. They helped her behind the register if the store got crowded. They called her by her Japanese name.

She had decided not to answer her aunt so long as the woman insisted on calling her Jae Hee. For a month now since her arrival, this was how it had been. This battle of names. Her father had told her this would happen and encouraged her to avoid any conflict by trying to use her Korean first name while she was in New York. There was no reason to keep it a secret in New York, he said. She refused, of course, because it seemed like bad advice from a Korean man who had spent so much of his life pretending to be Japanese to avoid being thought of as a chon, the Japanese equivalent of "nigger" for Koreans. Her father told her stories of when he first came to Japan, how there was a sudden lack of apartments at a real estate agency when he first looked under his Korean name. Then he changed his name but almost lost his first job as a newspaper ad salesman because the boss found out he was Korean. Her mother being the obedient O.L., Office Lady, that she was, told her to listen to her father.

In any case, her aunt didn't seem to care about what name she liked to be called. As soon as she got off the plane, it was Jae Hee you look like a boy, Jae Hee you're much taller than when we saw you eighteen years ago. Jae Hee, Jae Hee, Jae Hee. Like she was trying to make up for twenty years of being called by her Japanese first name. On top of this, the woman was constantly nosy. How much was that bag and that shirt? Where are you going now? What did you eat for lunch? It was no wonder her own daughter, Suzie, came home only to sleep and have breakfast.

"Jae Hee!" her aunt called again, growing more shrill, but the girl still refused to look up.

The messenger was long out of sight already, but the girl felt suddenly disturbed that he hadn't bought his bagel and juice at Lucky Market. She was stuck with her aunt again. But, she decided, it was time for decisive action. With the toe of her sneaker, she slid the pigeon wing onto the flat straw of the broom, carrying it over to Hyun Jeong, who stepped out onto the sidewalk.

"What that?" Hyun Jeong asked. "No, don' bring here. No—"

The girl held the broom up toward her aunt. "My name is Yurika," she said as she dropped the pigeon wing at her aunt's feet.

"Shibal!" her aunt cursed as she moved past her into the store.

"You are also Korean," Hyun Jeong said a short while later when her niece was back behind the register. "You have Korean name. You don't have to make secret here." She had a concerned look on her face that Suzie had told her was never real—the way her eyes grew large and her lips formed O's of worry. She slapped the back of her hand over and over. All the cutting was too much: cutting flowers, cutting meat, cutting vegetables, cutting open large boxes full of small boxes. She laid her hand palm up on the counter and watched the fingers curl closed as though still holding a knife or scissors. No good shape fingers, she thought in English as she reached for the extra-large jar of Tiger Balm under the counter.

"Everybody like Korean people here," she went on. "Not like Japan. Also, I know. Japanese woman always have trouble here." She massaged the balm into her hands. "Men so bad like that. This city not safe for Japanese women." She shook her head and laughed, making her permed ponytail shake like a used party streamer.

Yurika glared at her aunt, then scanned the counter, looking for the top of the Tiger Balm. The smell was nasty, like her. "You don't care the name I like—"

"In this store," Hyun Jeong said, "you are Jae Hee. It good name."

"Nobody call me Jae Hee," Yurika protested.

Her aunt tried to translate the meaning of the name but gave up. She was tired of always having to speak English to the girl. Why hadn't her father taught her Korean? Why hadn't he sent her to one of those Korean schools in Tokyo or Osaka? It was bad enough that she, Hyun Jeong, had to deal with the English her customers spoke, talking so fast, using all kinds of words she had no idea about; plus, she hated having to repeat herself because they couldn't understand what she said. She clicked her tongue against her teeth. "Okay," she said, returning the Tiger Balm underneath the counter. "I go down."

Yurika understood this statement meant her aunt was going down to the basement. She felt relieved and turned to the window. There was no messenger out there. Not hers, anyway. Sadness drew her face down. She had seen him from the store or the street almost every morning since she had begun working there. He looked so free. The times he had come into the store, she was stricken with speechlessness and could not say a thing. Was that why he had bought his juice and bagel somewhere else that morning?

Yurika didn't know what to do with herself, trapped in her uncle's store for a whole summer. The days passed with her pulling on rubber bands, shuffling matchbooks, selling cigarettes and coffee to commuters, aspirin and tampons to young women with their periods, bubble gum to schoolkids. There was Daniel to sometimes talk to, but he was often busy unloading truckloads of produce and packaged food while she rearranged the things under the counter: the first aid kit, telephone books, tape measures. Her two feet never left the ground.

Perhaps her messenger would stop in the store when he came back downtown. Maybe he had a delivery to make in the neighborhood and would need more juice or a candy bar. Maybe he smoked menthols like other messengers who came into the store. Was he a native English speaker? Did he speak Spanish? He looked like something Latin American. Daniel had taught her some words. Bueno, she imagined telling the messenger if he ever asked how she was. He came and went frequently in her daydreams. Gracias. Hola. Sí, bueno. She didn't remember how to say "good-bye."

With one eye on the front door and one eye on her work, she rang up bottles of water, juice, plums, peaches, and every other cold object American people liked to press against themselves to cool off in the heat of early June. But the image of the messenger stayed with her and would not leave. Distracted, her fingers began ringing up incorrect amounts at the register. After the lunch rush, she even left the register open.

"Wake up," her uncle, Sang Jun, scolded.

Sometimes, he looked to her just like her father—the square jaw and lean build. Except her father, who was the younger of the two, did not have as much gray in his hair and seemed a bit softer. With all the work at the store, Sang Jun stayed more fit compared to her father the kai sha in, the salary man who sat at a desk all day selling newspaper advertisement space and who enjoyed his wife's noodle soups at night.

Sang Jun and Yurika spoke little except when necessary. On her first day at the store, they had had their first person-to-person conversation. He had shown her around the store, how to use the register. In between customers, he asked her vague questions about his brother and sister-in-law. He seemed satisfied with her one- and two-word answers, and Yurika was surprised he didn't seem more interested. She wondered why but thought it might be rude if she asked, so she remained silent except to answer his questions. He didn't call her by any name, as though he didn't want to take a side between his wife and her. Sometimes, he gave her little English tips, which he seemed proud of. He told her that if an American asked how you were doing, always be positive—say, "Good" or "Not bad" or "Fine," something like that, then add, "And you?" Americans, he explained, liked to keep things moving when it came to conversation, and they weren't interested in any information that would slow things down.

Sang Jun noticed that the girl seemed to appreciate the advice, and sometimes he heard her use what he had taught her. She was a good worker, he thought now as he stepped outside the store to light a cigarette. But, like his brother, she was a bit of a dreamer. She needed to be watched.

Later that day, he told his wife about the girl leaving the register open. They were alone in the basement of the store, sorting through a dry goods delivery. "Her mind is somewhere else," he said.

"She misses Japan," said Hyun Jeong, making a face. "First time away from your brother and her oka-san."

Sang Jun frowned at her use of the Japanese word for "mother."

"Anyway, that's what happens to mixed children," Hyun Jeong went on. "A dog can't live in two houses."

Sang Jun touched a match to his cigarette and listened to the quickening of his wife's Korean. He was startled when she threw down an empty box of tea.

"Why give her a Korean name if she speaks Korean like a five-year-old—not even! A three-year-old! And she only uses that weak Japanese name!"

Her husband reminded her that since she was eighteen she had been using her Korean last name. "Besides," he continued, "she's here to learn English."

"Not from you! Not from me!"

"Speak for yourself," Sang Jun said in English. He prided himself on his language efforts. Although he had never had the time to take a class, he tried to read only English newspapers and listen to only English-speaking radio stations in the car or in the store. Occasionally, he even tried to listen to a Yankee game on the radio. He also had a thick, blue grammar reference book he consulted now and again and even knew the English names for the parts of speech. Hyun Jeong, on the other hand, never cared about English, never studied. It didn't matter to her that she was in an English-speaking country. She spoke Korean every chance she got, and as incredible to him as it was, for nearly twenty years she had spoken English only when it was absolutely necessary. Most of the English she knew came from television shows.

Copyright © 2004 by Jiro Adachi