“Do you see this man? Alexander Luria?”
Professor Dunn pointed to a black and white photograph pinned to her office wall. The photograph curled at the bottom edge, and the curl had gathered dust. It was a portrait of a man dressed in the fashion of another time: trim suit, narrow tie, black-framed glasses, slick hair. His eyes held a steadfast, distant gaze. Fingerprints marred the gloss, which meant Professor Dunn had pointed to it before. The advice Erica Hashimoto was about to receive would be canned, rehearsed for a troublesome girl who did not live in a black and white world.
Erica was hungry. Crossing the campus on her way to office hours, Erica had passed through a cloud of good aromas. Freshly watered flowers, cut grass, a clove cigarette. Erica had wanted to add sunshine to the list. And more: the cafe on the plaza was cooking up something that smelled amazing. Erica had scurried past in heels, late as usual, but oh, she wanted a bite. Quickly she doubled back and bought a Mediterranean pocket-bread sandwich. Now she carried the cafe’s smell with her. In this sealed office, the smell floated from from her book bag. It stuck to her blouse and hair. Roasted chicken, sesame oil, garlic, tahini. Erica could practically taste it. She was starving.
Professor Dunn began. “Luria was a genius. We cannot imagine the forces arrayed against him in the Soviet Union. The weight of the bureaucracy, the political minders who shadowed him and inspected his notes. And how difficult were his test subjects, the illiterate farmers of the Ukrainian steppe? Exasperating. Lastly, of course, to have been so utterly in love. Perhaps, even in the Soviet system, love was untouchable, although it smacked of impropriety, an underling, after all.”
Erica gazed at the stacks of books climbing the wall. “Was he in Patterns of Language Acquisition?”
“Correct. Schema theory. Esoteric as the back side of the moon. You have to wonder who in the Soviet bureaucracy decided this was important work to do. Well, Luria thought it was important. Asking a farmer hypothetical questions about cutting down a tree—he was testing the use of the subjunctive, the mind’s pursuit of speculation—and farmer replies, ‘But why do I want to cut down the tree? We have plenty of firewood already.’ And thus I ask you, Miss Hashimoto: you seek a letter of recommendation, but I need to know something: why did you carve into my classroom desks, so bored, so restless, so capricious? What was your plan?”
“I saw you.”
Professor Dunn was holding Erica hostage. Erica had come for that letter of recommendation. Now she wanted only to eat that pocket-bread sandwich. She felt torn. There was the promise of a good lunch, sesame chicken with tahini in pocket bread, or a letter that could change the trajectory of her life. She weighed the imbalanced factors tugging at her desire. She clutched her book bag tighter in her lap.
“Do you remember Luria, Miss Hashimoto? How the peasants of the Ukrainian steppe thought the question was so bizarre? Luria just wanted an answer. They couldn’t even grasp the question enough to proceed with one.”
Professor Dunn leaned across her desk. “Don’t be dense. You ask me for a recommendation, but instead of accepting or declining, I ask you to tell me why you want this job. Do you know anything about international shipping? Do you know about the Noguchi Concern? You saw the lady at the job fair. Was she wearing white gloves? Did she smile at you? We have talked about context before. Well, this is not a desirable company, Miss Hashimoto, while your Japanese is highly in demand elsewhere. Here is another question for you: Do you even want your fate placed into my hands?”
“What do you mean?”
“You arrived late every day to my class. Don’t you have an alarm clock? A regard for time? Was it a boy? Was it a meal?”
Erica thought about pocket bread.
Professor Dunn’s gaze locked on Erica’s eyes.
Erica said, “I always did the reading. You know that.”
It was a boy.
“You scratched my desks.”
Erica did not say, I ran my fingernail over old scratches, timeworn kanji that translated to For a good time, call… and Just shoot me now.
Dunn looked back at Luria. “Tell me why you want this position.”
“Well, it sounds like a good challenge—”
She held up her hand. “Stock answer.”
“The language is at a high register, in real time, under field conditions, as you say—”
She smacked the desk. “Pandering.”
“There is nuance to negotiation. An art to it. It is—”
“This sounds better. Keep going.”
“—everything I love.”
Pocket bread sandwich.
The professor said nothing.
“My mom said I can make a decent living, like, all these Japanese companies are coming to America and taking over.”
“Your mom actually said that? Christ. Next question: why would you decide on me?”
“Because you’re my advisor?”
Tahini and sesame oil.
“Stock answer again. So let me tell you why you are asking me. You want your current authority figure, me, to approve of your advancement where you’ll work under a different authority figure. Has it occurred to you that I have a stake in this too?”
“What do you mean?”
“If you should fail?” Steeple fingers. Eyes closed. Professor Dunn seemed to be enjoying a private story.
Erica cut off her professor’s enjoyment. “I won’t fail.”
“You always were like a vessel.”
“I won’t fail.”
“What if you fall in love?”
Erica said nothing.
“Listen to me. Akihiko Noguchi’s father owes me a favor. This is how I redeem my favor?”
The professor’s gaze found Erica’s book bag. Could she smell the pocket bread? Did she want what Erica had?
“Young lady, you don’t understand the world, only the words. There is a second meaning to everything. God what have we taught you women, you girls?”
Erica did not feel like playing along. “You should teach us to say exactly what we mean.”
“Excellent. But are you worth my special favor?”
“You’re confusing me!”
“If I recommend you, a passably competent interpreter, to the Noguchi Concern, is his obligation paid? The last girl—”
Erica said, “Is this about me, or is this about you?”
“It is never about you! The interpreter should be invisible in the room.”
“An interpreter is the sina qua non!”
“A paradox! Beautiful!” Professor Dunn smacked her desk. “I’ll write your damn letter. You’ll be perfect for the job. Perfect for him.”
“Thank you.” Erica didn’t even know what she was thankful for. She estimated escaping this office in five minutes. She shifted the loops of her book bag over her shoulder. She would scurry across the plaza in her heels, find a bench beside some flowers, and eat her pocket bread sandwich.
Professor Dunn held up her hand. “Wait. About Luria?”
“What about Luria?”
“Well, there was an issue with his work. Even in Russian, his work wasn’t published until 1974. Sit down. You’re not going anywhere. Luria alludes to the political sensitivity of describing central Asians as having a child-like mentality, being so contented with their simpleton lives as to not even speculate on the hypothetical chopping of a tree. These were satellite republics, mind you, with a testy relationship with Moscow. Well, are you contented, Miss Hashimoto? Does that make you a child? What shall I write in this letter? You certainly had a testy relationship with me.”
“Is this the Soviet Union?”
“Whatever do you mean?”
“My parents met in an internment camp, okay?”
“Are you contented, Erica Hashimoto? You’re a Sansei girl becoming a woman, rising to legitimacy, but does that make you content? Let’s zero in on that one.”
Sun and silence tugged at each other, a knotted, motionless tautology in the stale room. Erica’s mind broke free, to the loggia outside, light and shade, brick and stone, her heels echoing across the plaza to the bench beside the flowers where she would devour her meal. White box, pickle on the side. She would eat her sandwich and never come back. How to explain this to her mom. Four years at USC, and she maybe was getting the job? Maybe it would pay this much? She would need new blouses and skirts and shoes. Wear her hair up? No, her hair was so shiny slick, it would only slide loose again.
She really wanted that sandwich. She would gobble it down. Sated, she would wonder what to want anymore.
“Erica, dear, you think you’re supposed to be content, but desire can be swayed. No one is content.”
Erica felt herself loosen at “dear.” An easy word to give away, but the professor seemed to have meant it. The tone in her voice was gentle, not motherly, but gentle, like—
“Of course, there is also the propensity, prominent in Japanese-American culture, to mirror what is presented to you. Your wants and dreams do not come from within. What forms within you derives from without you. Especially true for a young woman.”
“I’m not sure I follow you.”
“Erica, you’ll be interpreting for a man.”
Erica said, “If I was contented, I would not be asking for this letter.”
Student and professor locked eyes for a second. Too long. Erica didn’t care about Alexander Luria anymore.
“I said I’ll write your god-damned letter. But international shipping can get gritty sometimes. You’ll have to manage.”
Erica said, “Kansha.”
“You have no idea.” The professor waved a dismissive hand.
“So now I am the one owing a favor.” Erica stood, shouldering her book bag. She would never return to this room. She wasn’t even hungry anymore.
“That’s very good. Favors exchanged like coins…”
“The obligation owed to you is transferred to me.” Erica bowed.
Professor Dunn spun in her chair, in and out of the light, stirring the stale air. “Keep going with this. I like it. Favors akin to currency, transactional in nature, debts parlayed…”
“Are you saying that I am the favor?”
“Commodification of the woman? That’s going too far. Just don’t disappoint me.”
“It sounds like I already have.”
Professor Dunn stopped. Another student was peeking in. Book bag, skirt, blouse, nylons, heels. Another pocket-bread sandwich in a little white box
Alexander Luria gazed, steadfast, but Erica wasn’t looking in the same direction.
Erica said, “Well, thank you. I really have to go.”
“Of course you do.” The professor resumed spinning her chair. She did not see Erica leave. Did not see Erica brush past the waiting woman just like her. Did not see Erica run.