I was an impoverished international student with limited fund. I would go to supermarkets to buy inexpensive stationary items, while other students, particularly those from rich families, immediately bought desks, phones and computers after their settlement in the dormitory.
After a few internal moves in the dormitory because of various reasons I may describe later in this book, I finally decided to live in a single room and moved into it. Unlike other international student’s moving, mine from a room to another did not require much energy with very small amount of the belongings.
Probably the most expensive asset I had back then was a lamp. An arm lamp to put on the desk. The arms of the lamp had a joint and they bent sharply. I hung the arms over my shoulder and moved into a new room with my suit case and boxes in my hands.
When I was about to put the lamp on the desk, it fell down to the floor and broke. The junction between the arm and the steel lamp shade was damaged. I figured out that I needed a screw to fix it. And the place I knew to buy it was Fred Meyer, which was located on the other side of down town. I hung the lamp shade from the window frame and remembered to buy a screw to repair the lamp.
A few days later, Don knocked on my door. He was with his friend, Todd. He said he would go shopping at Fred Meyer. Don had a car. He gave me a ride when he drove out. I grabbed the shopping list in my drawer and followed them. Don was one of my few American friends who could stand my slow and awkward English. I helped him solve his math assignments and he gave me rides.
We set the meeting time at the entrance of Fred Meyer and went for own targets. I wandered around in the store, where walls of shelves loomed on and on, in order to cross out the listed things one by one. This was not an easy job for me. Finding a row with the needed items was the first step. Very often I had to find someone to guide me. So the first step required me to find an apparently patient store attendant to endure my slow English and to guide me to the appropriate places.
When the first step is over, here came the second step, one harder than the first. I would kneel down and place three or four brands of competing products on the floor to compare with each other. Most inexpensive one is not always worst. But the factors other than the price did not usually came easy on me because they were often in English. Instructions on packages of pills and on detergent boxes are not usually in complete sentences. Most complicated warnings often contain most important information. The same bottle under the same brand often have their differences in small letters like “shampoo” or “conditioner.”
I reluctantly returned to the entrance to meet Don and Todd, though half of the listed items yet remaining uncrossed. They soon learned my failed mission. And they began to stride dragging my cart to get what I missed. After several times of “What’s next?” the list finally got all crossed-out. They stopped. I stopped. They turned back to me over the cart and said almost simultaneously, “That’s it!”
We were standing beside the tall shelf displaying decoration lamps. My broken arm lamp popped out in my mind. I said, “Lamp!”
“You need a lamp, Sho?” Todd asked with my list in his hand. All I could do was to deny the demand for a lamp, for my brain was desperately attempting to construct a sentence to convey what I wanted. I came up with the simplest word to deny, “No. No.”
“Things in your list are all done, Sho.” Todd seemed a little irritated.
Don, then, asked me slowly word by word, “Sho, what else do you want to get?”
Something rang my bell in my mind. The sentence pattern he used was one of the basic ones which I had learned in school. I would repeat it like, “I want to go to the park.” The easiest answer always uses the same sentence pattern as the question. I rephrased his question in myself, “What else do you want to get?” I envisioned a screw to fix the junction of the arm lamp back in my room.
I confidently announced, “I want to get screw!” I expected them to say, “Okay, let’s go.” But their reaction was totally different from what I expected. They turned slightly pale. They reached out and stared me eye to eye. Don said, “What? What did you say, Sho?”
I assumed another bad pronounced words caused some misunderstanding. I repeated word by word, “I. Want. To. Get. Screw!”
This time, Todd responded to confirm what he heard. “You want to get screwed?”
I replied without noticing the difference between “screw” and “screwed,” “Yes. I want to get screw.”
Something was going terribly wrong. That was what I sensed, as I saw Todd totally confused and Don trying to interpret my words from the given situation. Todd wanted to make sure what he heard again and asked Don, “He said he wanted to get screwed. What did he mean?”
Don couldn’t understand what was going on and said, “I don’t know.”
Our conversation repeated the get-screw phrase so many times that other shopping people around us couldn’t walk by. They noticed this strange conversation one by one and froze. It appeared as if there had been contagious viruses relieved from me to spontaneously paralyze the infected. The radius of infected area stretched. Several people were stood white-knuckled and stared three of us breathlessly.
I got scared. I pulled myself together. I reviewed what I said very carefully. “Yes, I need a screw to fix my lamp.” “But I must have said something completely misled.” Time stood still. It was probably a moment for several seconds but it seemed to me like forever. I felt somewhat frustrated and rehearsed in my mind, “Just one screw.”
Then the words, “one screw” echoed in my brain. The article. That’s what was missing. There is nothing like English article, such as “a,” “an” and “the,” existent in the Japanese language. Except for some special expressions to show plurals, the Japanese nouns do not make plural forms. English as my learned language could not stand outside of the influence of my mother tongue. And I had concentrated myself in making an English sentence to convey what I had wanted. My face suddenly got brightened. And I shouted, “I want to get A screw!” This magical word instantly rescued people from the fatal curse of “get-screw.”
Don and Todd exhaled. Don breathed in and told the revived people around us, “Hey, this Japanese guy has a little bit problem in his English. He’s a foreigner, you know. He wants to get A screw! Okay? He said he wanted to get screwed. But that was his mistake. He wants to get A screw.” The onlookers started to leave nodding and murmuring words like “Japanese” and “A screw.”
On our way back to the dormitory, Don and Todd explained to me what it means by “get screwed.” But maybe because of my poor English skill or because of their hesitation to explicit expressions, it was not until I checked my dictionary that I learned what I said in loud in the public.