THE BAROQUE IN HUMAN AFFAIRS
Teaching English Saves the World — Again
It had been a sleepless night for Jason, a young English conversation teacher, from Ohio. Jason felt sick, very sick. Feverish. And his dreams had turned sour. It was like he was slipping down a vertiginous slope of icky slime, until he woke up nauseous. He had been in Osaka just six months, and this was the first time he had been sick in years. After vomiting in the toilet, he managed to fall back to sleep again. Then he had another dream: an amazingly erotic encounter with a young Chinese waitress he had met a week earlier in Taipei. She had been the distraction he needed on that whirlwind day trip. The day he was compelled to accompany an eccentric American, an elder woman named Mrs. Julia Stanford, to Taipei. She had crossed his path the day before, outside Osaka, Japan, on Mount Koya, while he was on a brief tour visiting famous Buddhist temples. He was glad to be taking a couple days break from his intense teaching schedule, and was really getting into videoing his sightseeing tour. But then the old woman came out of nowhere and fainted right in front of him, on Mount Koya, in a very isolated area. At the time, he was worried for her and rushed to her aid. Now, in retrospect, it all seemed somehow contrived, staged for his benefit. Why? There were a dozen reasons, but he wasn’t thinking about them on the day. After a lot of hassle, he was able to help her into an ambulance. But sure enough, later, the evening, back at the hotel, she had left a message for him at reception, inviting him to her suite. Her note claimed a remarkable recovery. So he went, reluctantly. She politely offered him a reward for his assistance. And before he knew it, he had been railroaded into being her new best friend and travel companion for a day trip to Taipei, Taiwan where she was to meet her old friend Dr. Kang.
Jason was a soft touch. He couldn’t refuse an old lady, because his mother had taught him to be kind to old people. He mistakenly had the impression, endorsed by Mrs. Stanford herself, of course, that Dr. Kang was a medical doctor who would give her some kind of follow up treatment. Dr. Kang was nothing of the sort. He was an odd ball. They had met him only for lunch, a friendly chat, at a restaurant near the Taipei airport; and before he knew it, they were off to the airport again to return to Japan, bearing a couple meaningless souvenirs and two boxes of Swiss Chocolate, of all things. It was very weird, but Mrs. Stanford was paying, so why complain? He did take a few good photos along the way, and there was that nice Chinese waitress in the restaurant — the one he had just dreamt about.
He recalled how, at every opportunity that day, it seemed, Mrs. Stanford had apologized, claiming to be a tourist with no friends to accompany her on this last-minute side trip to Taiwan. She had told him, “Jason you are such a gentleman, blah, blah.”
Anyways, he had returned safely the same evening to continue his little tour of Buddhist temples in Japan, because Taiwan is only a short one hour flight away. But there had been a problem at the Taipei airport for Mrs. Stanford, on the return flight. For some reason, Mrs. Stanford was escorted from passport control by two men in black suits, but not before she had covertly given Jason the two boxes of Swiss Chocolate. One for him and his girlfriend Petra to share, she said, and the other for somebody named Juju.
“Juju will pick it up,” said Mrs. Stanford nonchalantly, with a big smile. “Juju, Jason,” she whispered again, out of earshot of the two men. And then she was gone, escorted away by the men in black suits. Now, that was just weird, thought Jason.
Back in Osaka, it took Jason two days before he finally had the courage to tell his girlfriend, Petra, about Mrs. Stanford, Dr. Kang, the day trip, and the extra box of Swiss Chocolates.
“I mean, why buy Swiss Chocolates in Taipei?” he asked Petra, not waiting for her answer. “When there are local Chinese souvenirs? Why Swiss Chocolates?” he wondered, out loud. For some reason, he felt like he had been duped by Mrs. Stanford, but he didn’t want to admit it to Petra.
And now, here he was, sitting on the toilet at three A.M. in the morning, sick with the flu, after a nightmare that seemed to be an old rerun of an earlier nightmare he had had in Kyoto after he had first met Mrs. Stanford.
From his weak perch on the toilet, he looked up through the bathroom door at the package of Swiss Chocolate that was balanced upright on the bedroom dresser, by the bed where Petra was sound asleep.
He wondered what was really in the box. What if Mrs. Stanford and her friend Dr. Kang were playing some kind of trick on me, a game, or something? If so, he thought with nauseous despair, they are probably laughing right now thinking about it. How I will probably never open it, because I’m such a conscientious and polite young man, who always helps old ladies. They think I will wait forever for somebody named Juju to pick it up. What did Mrs. Stanford say? “Somebody will visit you?” Ha, I could be waiting forever, thought Jason, who suddenly needed to heave again.
* * *
The operative knocked on Jason’s door at eight forty in the morning. No answer. The operative looked up and down the hallway of the English Teacher’s Dormitory. This was the place, the address he had been given. It was silent. Everyone appeared to be at work. He jiggered the lock and the door opened. He entered and waited, listening. The ticking of an old battery-powered clock on the wall and the gurgling of an old refrigerator were all that filled the silence. He walked through the tiny kitchen into a small living room. No Swiss chocolates there. He moved softly to the dark bedroom, the door was half closed, the curtains drawn. He entered but didn’t turn on the lights. He waited for his eyes to adjust. On a dresser, near the window, straight across from the bathroom door, on the other side of the bed, he saw the box of Swiss Chocolates.
Bingo, he thought, winding his way around the corner of the bed to fetch it. But the box of chocolates had been opened. He picked it up and looked inside. Jesus, he thought. That’s when someone in the bed started stirring.
“Jason? Jason? Is that you?” The young woman’s voice was hoarse and weak. She continued, “Oh, my head is killing me. I’ve still got the fever. Summer colds are the worst. It must be the flu. You must feel awful, too, babe. Are you back? — already?”
Before he could move, she had raised her head and saw him. Her red hair was a mess, her face was pale, her watery blue eyes were bloodshot, pupils dilated, probably from the flu and too much medication, but she didn’t look frightened.
“Who are you?” she asked with perfectly medicated composure, and then again. “Who are you?”
“I’m the new teacher. My name is Cliff,” he said, offering her his hand, “from Canada, Quebec, actually. Jason told me you were sick. I came to check up on you for him. He said I could — ”
“Wait! Wait!” She shook her head and looked at the box in his hands. “You’re here for the fucking chocolates, aren’t you? Ha, ha, ha.” She laughed weakly and lowered her head for a woozy interlude before summoning the strength to continue. She said, sarcastically and without fear, “C-I-A, yes? C-I-fucking-A chocolates. Am I correct?”
“Come on, you’re CIA, right?” She looked at him, matter-of-factly. Her hair a bird’s nest, her eyes unable to focus, her lips so dry they stuck together sometimes as she spoke. “You’re a spook, a spy, James Bond, yes? A…brrrr…” She pretended to shiver. “You’re one of those, those…you know?”
“Jason told me the story.”
DP didn’t move or say anything.
She continued, “About the trip? Mrs. Stanford, you’re friend? Ring a bell? Sheesh! He told me about that old woman, the old spy and Dr. Kang, her special friend, you know, and all that. So he and I decided to look in the box early this morning, before he went to work. We couldn’t sleep.” She paused to fix her hair and look for a hairbrush, but finding none, she said, “I’ve got the passport right here — under my pillow. We’re not stupid, you know?”
“Passport?” He held up the box, caught in the act, nothing to do but play along. “Anything else?”
“Nope, that’s all that we found,” she said, in a playfully mocking tone, “one little passport, right here.” She pulled a plastic bag out from under her pillow. He could see an America passport inside, along with some paperwork. “Jason didn’t want me to open the box of chocolates, but I did. And lookeee here what I found.” She forced herself up on her elbows and glared at him, her blue eyes piercing through strands of long oily hair. “You CIA assholes think you can run roughshod over everyone, don’t you? You had poor Jason scared out of his wits thinking he was on a fucking CIA mission or something with that creaky old Stanford woman. How can you use innocent citizens like that? Huh? As mules? What are you smuggling, anyway? Huh? What’s wrong with you people? You’re fucking crazy, you know that?”
She stopped, suddenly realizing her pajama top was off her shoulders, exposing the cleavage of her ample breasts. She caught his eye looking and sniffed at him, while shaking her head. “Asshole,” she said, pulling up her top and carefully buttoning it in the wrong holes slowly, still wobbly, apt to fall over any second.
“I’m sorry, I do apologize,” said the operative, with the appropriate amount of unctuous mien that the situation called for. “Look, if nothing’s missing, why don’t you just hand me the bag, I’ll be going and — ”
“Jason read about it online,” she interrupted. “At first he thought you were with that black ops thing that they’re talking about. Juju is for the J in the J-Ops, isn’t it? Huh? That’s what the old lady said when she fainted — “
“An old woman fainted?”
“Yes, that’s how she manipulated Jason. Bitch. Old, but attractive, I could tell by the way Jason explained to me.”
“What did she say?”
“Who? Greta Garbo? Oh, she mumbled something as she passed out that sounded like Juju. It was in the newspaper article, later, in the headline. Jason read it. And it’s what she said at the airport.”
“Yes, when she gave Jason the two boxes of chocolates. Is that the codeword? Juju? That’s what I think it is, but Jason thinks you’re smugglers.”
“Because of what was in the box.”
DP reached inside the box.
“Yeah, Mr. Spy, what is it, anyway? I still think you’re CIA.”
He found it: the pendant, under stuffing paper. He said, “So, just to clarify, there was nothing else in this box of chocolate, except this, and that plastic bag you’re holding — ”
“Damn right, we opened it, and we looked inside; a passport and some jewelry. Hmm, I mean, the old lady never came back from Taiwan with him. The men in black took her away. She just disappeared with them. Jason wasted a whole day going with her to Taipei. And what for? And now, a week later, you show up? I mean, if you’re CIA, what took you so long?”
“Look, Jason sent me to get the box, I’ll just be — ”
“You liar, pants on fire. How can you do that? Who are you going to kill? I mean, we’re not stupid. We’re Americans. Citizens. Do you know that?” She started to remove the bed covers to stand up on the bed, but almost stumbled into his arms. “You can’t have it.”
He looked into her eyes. She stood still in front of him, on the edge of the bed. She wobbled under his gaze. “I must look awful,” she said, embarrassed. “My hair must be a mess. I think we both have swine flu, Jason and me, you know?”
“Look, I’ll just be going.”
But she still held the plastic bag behind her back, out of his reach, and told him, “I said, you can’t have it.”
“Right…right, the reward. I almost forgot. I have it right here.” He pulled out a wallet and handed her five hundred dollars.
“Fuck off with your reward, Mr. Bourne-identity.” She slapped the money away. “That’s my tax dollars at work, anyway, isn’t it? On second thought, maybe I will take it.”
He picked it up and handed her the money. She then she spit in his face. “I hope you get the flu. Now what’s the fucking password, asshole? Remember? The codeword? The signal? Open sesame? Huh? Don’t know it? Mrs. Stanford told Jason not to give the box to anyone unless he heard the magic word. Come on…come on…what is it?” She weakly snapped her fingers throughout the challenge. “Cat got your tongue? You’re supposed to introduce yourself by saying…”
“Wham bam thank you, Ma’am,” she said, weakly pumping her fist in the air. “Take your damn package. And if I ever see you again, I’ll call the police, the FBI, my father, Interpol, and my senator. Now, get out of my apartment. Jason will never believe this.” She then collapsed unconscious into his arms. He picked her up and gently put her back into the bed.
On the bed stand he noticed two bottles of cold syrup — both empty. She was high on codeine and delirious with fever. He felt her forehead, checked her pulse. He went to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. He found a carton of orange juice, poured some and returned to the bedroom.
“Here,” he said, seeing her eyes flutter and lifting her up to offer her a sip of juice. “Drink, you need more liquids. Okay? You’re dehydrated. You need to cut down on the cough syrup. Drink more water and fruit juice, okay? Drink up. That’s a good, very good. You’ll be fine tomorrow. What’s your name?”
She was so thirsty she finished the glass, burped, and then gave him a loopy smile. Looking deep in his eyes, she said in a slurred voice, “What the hell, this is only a dream, right?” She then wrapped her arms around his neck and gave him a slobbering kiss that he was unsuccessful in avoiding. She then passed out gently, this time slumping into his chest for a much-needed and delirious sleep.
He laid her down gently into the bed again, wiped his lips gingerly with the back of his hand, thinking: If this doesn’t give me swine flu, nothing will. He then found the plastic bag she had been hiding behind her back. As he was leaving, he decided to make it look like a theft. So he nabbed a MP3 player, and a pair of expensive-looking lady’s shoes, but on his way out he had second thoughts and decided to drop some more money into the mailbox on the front door.
As he departed the dormitory, he felt flushed. No, it can’t be the flu, not yet, he told himself. Then his leg tingled. He did his best to ignore his physical state as he walked to the subway. At least now he could think about Peg. He could go to Vladivostok and find her. Once her situation was taken care of, he could continue on and follow Booker’s orders concerning the Counter-College. He reckoned he had plenty of time: didn’t the damn cyber anomaly prophesy that they had forty days, which Booker said gave them until the second week of July? And Nydman, back at the Counter-College, had said that the countdown to the Big Bang had only just begun. There was still time to track the Peace Trip and stop the attack.