I used to think emails were fun to receive. Whether it was a super sale at Kate Spade or a message from an old friend, I always looked forward to seeing what Inbox (1) had in store for me.
That feeling of euphoria changed at a job I had a few years back. At the time, it was the best job I’d ever had. My coworkers were nice, supportive, and caring. The work I was doing was noble and helped empower people. Then, I received an email from my boss:
To: Courtney Takabayashi
From: Courtney’s Boss
Date: November 20, 2010
Subject: Urgent Matter
There have been several reports by your colleagues of your “inappropriate, immature, and unprofessional behavior.” They feel this behavior is creating a “hostile work environment.” I want to talk to you about these allegations as I do not take behavioral problems lightly. Please come to my office immediately.
It’s an understatement to say that I was surprised, shocked, and hurt. I had no idea who these people were and I couldn’t imagine that my perceived behavior was creating a hostile work environment.
I spoke to my boss and she said my accusers wanted to remain anonymous. I wasn’t given any specific examples so I was unable to defend myself. My accusers wanted mediation with me, our boss and another colleague, someone they had confided in. I agreed to mediation if my accusers were separated, if there was a third-party mediator, and if I was provided with a list of the complaints so I’d have time to prepare my side of the story. After weeks of stress and worry, my boss informed me that my accusers did not decide to pursue meditation, end of story.
It was kind of a relief, but I still felt uneasy. I couldn’t eat or sleep. I wondered who my accusers were. I wondered who was talking about me. Just when I thought I was safe, there it was again: Inbox (1).
To: Courtney Takabayashi
From: Courtney’s Boss
Date: January 31, 2011
Subject: Unbecoming Behavior
Today, I received reports from your colleagues who were appalled and upset by witnessing your boisterous laughter today. Your laughter was perceived as malicious and it prevented several people from doing their work. Some people believe you are trying to call attention to yourself and that you are contributing to poor moral and reflect a lack of professionalism. I would like to speak to you immediately.
Yet again I was being accused by anonymous cowards (probably the same motherfuckers), but at least this time I knew the specifics. Though I did my best to to explain that I had no intention of laughing maliciously or keeping people from working, my boss said that “some people” thought I was “rallying support” for myself, trying to bring everyone down by creating “Courtney-sympathizers.” WTF.
After that I was traumatized. Every Inbox (1) made my stomach hurt and heart race. I lived in fear that I was going to be accused of something else. Maybe for sneezing threateningly or breathing intimidatingly. Though I maintained my innocence, I still felt like I must have been an awful person for other people to report me to our boss. Maybe I did have a malicious laugh. Perhaps I did create a hostile work environment. I felt isolated from everyone. I did not want to get my friends in trouble through guilt-by-association. And I sure didn’t want to chance talking to anyone in case they were one of my nameless accusers. I hated my job. I hated my life. I hated myself. I felt like a worthless person who didn’t deserve to live.
Just as I was about to give up on everything, I saw it again: Inbox (1). Tears of frustration in my eyes, I clicked to see what crime I was about to be accused of this time. To my surprise the message was from a stranger.
To: Courtney Takabayashi
From: A Stranger
Date: February 10, 2011
Subject: Your Mom
My name is Cindy. You don’t know me but I saw an advertisement for your book with the name Jan Shoda in its title. It caught my eye because I had a good friend named Jan Shoda. We had classes together at Waipahu High School and in college, we would take turns driving to UH. Then, your mom met and married Ronald Kunimura and we lost touch after that because Ron was a little possessive.
Anyway, I last saw Jan at Times Supermarket in Pearl City. She was pregnant at the time and she was still the same cute, sweet, funny, sparkly person I remembered from high school. After we parted, I regretted not asking for her number or address. I never knew if she had a boy or a girl. I heard that she passed away awhile back. It made me very sad.
When I read Jan’s name in the title of your book, I thought intuitively you may be her daughter. Just seeing her name brought a flood of wonderful memories of my dear friend. If you are her daughter, I want to say that she would be very proud of you. She was a strong person with a good, kind and giving heart and I am certain you must be like her. Please let me know if you are in fact, Jan Shoda’s daughter.
I couldn’t believe it. Out of nowhere, a woman from my mom’s past came into my life when I needed kindness and reassurance the most. It was as if my mother, who passed away when I was 19, was looking out for me. She had sent her old friend to comfort her distressed daughter. Cindy’s message made me realize that things weren’t so bad after all and that life was so much bigger and beautiful than a couple of duds intent on bringing me down.
Thanks to my mother’s friend and possibly a ghostly intervention, I no longer have anxiety when I see Inbox (1). I feel excited because it could be a new message from a woman who is filled with love, positivity, and best of all, stories about my mom.
INT. RESTAURANT - NIGHT
JANINE, mid-30s, walks into Le Bistro, a small, busy, and trendy restaurant. There are about six or seven tables with chairs, most of which are taken. There is a small area in the middle of the tables for dancing. Janine scans the restaurant. JUSTIN, mid-30s, handsome, clean cut and nicely dressed, waves from his table and stands up. Janine breathes a sigh of relief and walks towards the table.
They both nod and laugh as Justin pulls out Janine's chair for her. She sits down and Justin gently pushes her chair in and sits down.
What a gentleman.
I try. It's really nice to finally meet you. I gotta say, I'm relieved. You're normal. And pretty.
Honestly, I didn't know what to expect. I mean when you're 99% compatible with someone, you gotta wonder what that one percent is, you know?
A waitress comes to the table with a bottle of wine and two glasses.
I hope you don't mind, I ordered some wine. I remembered your profile said that you like sweet wines.
The waitress pours the wine. Justin raises his glass.
To great first impressions.
And a non-deal breaking one percent!
They clink glasses and each take a sip.
Delicious. I can't believe you did your homework.
I just wanted our first meeting to be perfect.
This is a great spot.
Yeah, I heard about it from a friend.
Oh good, you have friends. The last guy I met through Breaking the Ice didn't have any friends. Not one. It was weird. So was he.
Well then, I'll have to thank my mom.
I'm just messing with you. My mom isn't my only friend.
Okay. Really? Of course. (laughs) It was a joke. A really funny joke.
I'm beginning to regret it. I'm sorry, I'm just nervous. It's really hard to meet someone.
I know! In the past month I've been set up with a coworkers' cousin, my best friend's mom's former roommate's hanai son, and just last night, my mom tried to lure the UPS guy into the house with cookies so he could meet me.
Yikes. Well, the women I've had the misfortune of meeting have been so judgmental.
I hate judgmental women.
Another thing we have in common!
A slow-tempo song starts to play.
JANINE AND JUSTIN
I love this song!
Justin stands and offers his hand to Janine.
Janine nods and takes his hand. They begin slow dancing.
Something has to be wrong with you.
I should tell you-
Here it comes.
I'm a guy. . .who likes cats.
Love 'em. I have two.
That's not so bad. Wait, do you torture them? Eat them? Or worse? (shudders) Dress them in tiny sailor outfits?
What, no! That's disturbing. Maybe you're the weirdo.
I'm not. You're seriously too good to be true, Justin.
I better not tell you my cats' names.
Promise not to judge?
I'm not like those other women.
So there's Cheeto Bandito and Chairman Meow. (pause) You're gonna leave, aren't you?
Punny cat names I can live with. Actually, I have two pot-bellied pigs.
With punny names?
Naturally. (cringes) I usually wait until the third date to reveal their names.
Justin pulls her closer as they continue to dance.
My pigs' names are Boromir and Porkins.
Those are really geeky references.
I know. The worst part, is that I can't wait to get a third pig so I can name him Jon Hamm.
The slow song sends and an upbeat song begins to play.
That's my cue. (starts to leave the dance floor) I can't dance.
You were great just now.
There's nothing to slow dancing. But anything else is. . .embarrassing.
Come on, we'll have fun.
They start dancing. At first, Justin dances appropriately. But eventually he really gets into the song. Janine tries to enjoy herself and rein in Justin by putting her hands on his hips. He power shakes her hand off and dances even more vigorously.
Justin's hips are overtly sexual. He dances away from Janine then turns around and dances way back to her. Justine smiles as she thinks she's his focus, but Justin dances past her and heads straight toward a mirror. He dances with himself. Janine gives up and goes back to the table.
For his finale, Justin belly glides across the floor and thrusts a few times. As the song ends, Justin cheers and claps and sees that Janine is back at their table. She has finished most of the wine.
Whoo! Where'd you go?
What was that?
What was what? (he drinks some water and fans himself)
Your dancing is very, very aggressive.
It's just dancing.
I knew it. I knew there had to be something wrong with you.
I don't understand. You don't like me because I like to dance? That's pretty weird. And judgmental.
I wasn't judging. Your hips make me uncomfortable.
I've never anyone dance like that. Even male strippers are (grunts and moves around) masculine.
I thought you were different.
Justin storms off. Janine remains sitting and finishes off the rest of the wine. She gets her cellphone out of her purse and opens the Breaking the Ice app, which is very similar to Tinder, in that the user swipes right if they like someone and left if they don't. Janine swipes left three times while saying:
Nope, nope, nope.
FADE OUT. CREDITS.
My first kiss was under an ulu tree at the Bishop Museum. It was field trip day for St. Ann’s second-grade class. Instead of the stiff white, short-sleeved dress shirts tucked into confining blue plaid skirts and high-water slacks, we frolicked around in our red PE uniforms.
As we trekked to Hawaiian Hall, frazzled chaperones and tired teachers did their best to contain the chaos of 64 seven-year olds. I fell behind the group with my neighbor and youth ministry buddy Ali‘i Cruz, a Hawaiian-Chinese-Filipino boy who gave me Valentine’s Day cards year round.
“You like ulu?” Ali‘i asked, pointing at the bumpy, greenish-yellow fruit hanging from the tree above us.
“Ulu?” I asked. Whatever it was, it looked kind of gross.
“It tastes so ono,” Ali‘i said, rubbing his belly. “My mom make ‘em ‘cause das her favorite. Mines, too.”
“Yum! She can make it for me?” I didn’t trust my Japanese mom not to burn it.
Ali‘i shook his head and looked down. “Nah, she sick.”
I patted his shoulder, something I’d seen Mom do to Dad when Bachan died. “Let’s buy her a present,” I suggested, since I loved getting gifts. In fact, whenever I visited the Cruz house, Aunty Sharon gave me cool things my mom didn’t let me have like strawberry lip gloss and baggies of cereal mix without the yucky dark brown Chex.
Ali‘i shoved his hands into his red PE shorts pockets. “No money.”
I pulled my Jem backpack off my shoulder and rifled through it. “I have a quarter for icee after school.”
Ali‘i peered into my pack. “Eh! You get room.”
We looked at each other. “For u-LA!” I cried.
He giggled and corrected me, “U-LU, Lolo.”
I always made dumb mistakes, but Ali‘i didn’t care. “Right. U-LU! Let’s get one!”
Making sure no one was watching, we tried our best to reach the weird-looking orbs. But they were too high up. I stood on Ali‘i’s shoulders, he balanced on a trash can, and we even tried throwing our shoes to knock the prized fruit to the ground.
“Ugh!” Ali‘i said, his chubby fingers struggling to tie his shoelaces. “She no cook now, anyways.”
I felt even more determined to get that ulu. I kind of wanted to taste the breadfruit but mostly I wanted to make Ali‘i’s mom happy. Our families always hung out since we lived in the same cul de sac and went to the same church. Mrs. Cruz smelled good, like the Thin Mint cookies I had to sell for Girl Scouts. “Well,” I said, “we’ll make it!”
Ali‘i’s round face lit up. “Can?”
I nodded. “Can! After school come over, and I guess my mom can help us. We won’t let her mess it up. Then we’ll surprise your mom.”
We high-fived with renewed energy, and I looked around for anything that could help us. Then I spied another breadfruit tree at the bottom of a nearby hill. There was an ulu cheerfully dangling from a low-hanging branch. If we stood at the top of the hill, we could reach it!
“Come on,” I said, grabbing Ali‘i’s hand, leading him to the tree.
I gently pulled the ulu off the branch, wrapped it in my red knit sweater and tucked it safely into my backpack. I smiled proudly.
“Yeah!” Ali‘i said. He hugged me and gave me a peck on the lips.
I was shocked, but before I could say anything we heard someone scream our names. It was our teacher, Mrs. Gomez, holding the hem of her blue palaka muumuu as she stomped towards us. “Gunfunit! Wea you kids was?”
Ali‘i and I jumped away from each other. “We got lost,” Ali‘i said.
“You skea awe da parents an made da teechas look bad!” She shook her head, strands of white hair falling from her bun secured with a plastic plumeria clip. “And nevamine kissing unda da ulu tree. One pervert goin’ snatch you!”
I shrugged. “Sorry.”
“Sorry? No lunch fo’ eeda of you!” Mrs. Gomez grabbed our arms and roughly led us to the rest of the class.
“I goin’ call yo’ maddahs, an’ you goin’ get lickins,” Mrs. Gomez threatened.
I saw a panicked look in Ali‘i’s eyes.
“Aunty Sharon--I mean, his mom--Mrs. Cruz, is sick you know,” I said in my most adult voice.
“She loss all her hair,” Ali‘i said, wiping his eyes with his sleeve.
Mrs. Gomez’s face softened. “We’ll see. Get inside.”
I looked back at the ulu tree, and found myself yelling, “Thank you!” Its branches swayed in the wind, waving goodbye.
Professor Jay was ready for class. Making his way to the classroom, he spied one of his students passed out in a chair in a colleague’s office.
“Miss Martha!” Professor Jay said, peeking into the doorway. “Teddy can’t afford another tardy. His academic performance is already unsatisfactory at best.”
Miss Martha shrugged. “He does what he wants.”
The dedicated educator grabbed Teddy by the arm. “Come on,” he said, “you’re going to get a proper education whether you like it or not.”
Teddy did not resist as his teacher led him to their classroom, which was completely empty. “Where is everyone?” Professor Jay wondered out loud.
But Teddy had already fallen asleep at his desk.
The professor nudged Teddy’s leg with the tip of his shoe. “Hey! How do you expect to learn anything if you’re napping all the time? Osmosis?”
Teddy didn’t budge.
Professor Jay huffed. “You may rest your eyes while I gather your delinquent classmates.”
He found George monkeying around in the cafeteria, Ariel lounging by the pool, Joe working out in the gym, and Minnie chatting outside the bathroom with her friend, Daisy.
Once he dragged everyone to class, Professor Jay wrote two words on the chalkboard: Personal Responsibility. “This means that I shouldn’t have to hunt you down like animals! By the time class starts, you should be in your seats, ready to learn.”
There was a knock on the door.
“We’re in the middle of class!” Professor Jay called out.
The door swung open. Frank entered the classroom slowly. “You know what time it is.” He held a paper cup filled with colorful pills.
“Selling drugs now, Frank?” Professor Jay tsked. “So my former student has turned to a life of crime.
Frank glanced at Teddy. “His mother wants him home, now.”
Professor Jay walked briskly towards Teddy and placed his hand on his student’s shoulder. “Impossible. I haven’t dismissed class yet.”
Frank impatiently grabbed Teddy’s arm. “He’s coming with me.”
Professor Jay seized Teddy’s other arm. “No!”
Teddy remained silent, as though his mouth were sewn shut.
Frank and Professor Jay yanked Teddy’s arms back and forth.
Still holding on to Teddy, Frank used his walkie talkie to call for backup.
“Don’t you threaten me with your gang violence!”
Professor Jay used all his strength to free Teddy from Frank’s evil clutches.
To his horror, Teddy’s arm popped out of its socket. Shocked, both Professor Jay and Frank let go. Teddy fell to the ground.
“You monster!” Professor Jay cried, hovering over Teddy.
“It was your fault,” Frank said. “You’re gonna have to explain everything to his mother. You’re in so much trouble.”
An anger that started in Professor Jay’s belly spread rapidly throughout his body. He saw a pencil on the ground and grabbed it. “Stay away from my students!” he cried as he lunged at Frank, plunging the pencil into the side of his neck. After a fleshy squish, a red fountain of blood gushed from a screaming Frank.
Then, Frank’s gang members burst into the room and restrained Professor Jay. One ruffian prepared a needle and approached him, and before he could protest, the needle made its way into his vein. Everything went blurry, then black.
* * *
Professor Jay slowly opened his eyes to find Dr. Rose and Frank staring at him. Frank had a bandage on his neck. They were all seated in Dr. Rose’s office. Jay squirmed in his straightjacket.
“How are you feeling?” asked Dr. Rose. She leaned in towards her longtime patient, her eyebrows furrowed in concern.
Professor Jay sulked in his chair. His head was pounding.
“You owe Frank an apology,” Dr. Rose asked, patting Frank on the back. “You’re lucky he wasn’t seriously injured.”
“He disrupted my class,” Professor Jay said glaring at Frank. And then he remembered his student. “How’s Teddy?”
Dr. Rose held up a stuffed teddy bear missing its arm. White stuffing hung out of poor Teddy. “He’ll be fine.” She placed Teddy down. “In fact, we’re going to take a nice walk around the ward so you can return everyone’s belongings and apologize. But first, is there something you’d like to say to Frank?”
Professor Jay sighed, defeated. “Class dismissed.”