A cartwheel? I had never in my life done a cartwheel.
After spending all those years studying hard, cramming, memorizing everything—I could recite the entire preamble of the Japanese constitution, classic Chinese poems, how to apply trigonometry formulae, the laws of physics—not doing a cartwheel would be how one of the top universities would fail me.
The day of my exam I got up early. My breath turned to white smoke in the unheated bathroom. The snow-capped mountain in the distance suddenly lit up in the morning sun.
In the kitchen my mother was spreading strawberry jam on buttered toast. As soon as she saw me coming in she poured tea and sat across from me at the kitchen table. “How long is your exam?”
“All day,” I answered.
“Do you want to borrow my wool socks?” she asked.
She held her teacup with both hands and looked into the steam as if searching for a good luck sign.
A whistle of the northbound train echoed through the valley. I jumped up and grabbed my wool jacket, a large tote bag of notebooks, sweatpants, indoor shoes, and a lunchbox, put on my sneakers and rushed out.
“No need to run. You have a good five minutes before the train comes back from the terminal,” my mother said. She followed me to the door.
I looked back to see her pale face full of worry. “Good luck.” She waved. “Don’t run. It’s very slippery today.”
If I failed the university entrance exam I would have to spend another year memorizing everything, from the meanings of the archaic expressions of the 10th century literature like The Tale of the Genji, who among the Mongolian warriors invaded China during the 13th century, and so on. But if I passed I could study literature, read books in English, write haiku and tanka, and maybe I could study abroad and graduate with a degree in education.
I walked to the corner and as soon as I was out of my mother’s sight I began to run. I couldn’t miss the train today.
I ran down the steps to the station, over a stone bridge and along a strip of local stores: a bakery, a barber, a grocery, a sushi restaurant, a dry-cleaner, and a row of vending machines selling tea, coffee, sodas, beer, sake, cigarettes, condoms, and men’s magazines.
After the academic tests the university entrance exam included a 50-meter dash and an improvised dance.
I put on my sweatpants and dashed on the track. It was easy even with the cold wind blowing in my face.
For the dance we moved to the gym and changed our shoes. The judges were seated at a long table on the shining wooden floor, staring at us.
An instructor told us the dance music was from Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody, and that we must perform a cartwheel. A cartwheel? I had never in my life done a cartwheel.