The door to our room clicks open at the ungodly hour of nine the next morning. I don’t remember sleeping, but I must have been unconscious because Halley’s entrance scares the crap out of me. The room is pitch black before Halley flips on the table lamp on her desk.
“Oh! Sorry, Isa. Did I wake you?”
I groan and roll over, clutching my extra pillow to my chest. My eyes are glued shut. A year’s worth of tears shed in one night caused my eyeballs to revolt and refuse to work anymore.
Halley laughs. “Someone drank too much last night.”
“No,” I respond, anger creeping out. “Leave me alone.”
“Isa?” Halley’s voice has changed, but I lie still, hoping she’ll let me go back to sleep. The stairs to our loft beds creak and Halley squeezes my foot. “What’s going on? Are you okay?”
“I hate that question,” I whisper.
“Oh my god, have you been crying? Did something happen to you?” Halley’s voice rises in alarm as she lifts the covers of my bed and tries to examine me.
“Halley, stop,” I say, sitting up and pushing the covers back down. “It’s okay. I haven’t been attacked or anything. I… I kissed Masa.”
“You did?” she squeals with a huge smile, grabbing my foot again, before frowning. “Wait. I guess it didn’t go well.”
“It was an amazing kiss. One of the best I’ve ever had.” I burst into tears again and bury my face in my hands, the memory of his lips on mine rushing through me. “Until he pushed me away, accused me of not meaning to kiss him, said I was too drunk, and then wiped his mouth in disgust.” I hiccup and reach for the tissues, but the box is empty, a huge pile of used ones lying next to it.
“What?” Halley’s nose flares and her cheeks redden. “Excuse me? He did not do that,” she says, wagging her head from side to side.
I nod, my brain knocking back and forth. “He did. I wasn’t that drunk. I did mean it, but what could I say? He was upset, so I said I didn’t mean it and apologized. Then he walked off and left me outside.”
“Mother fucker,” Halley mutters, backing down the stairs to our loft. “No way is he getting away with this.”
Uh-oh. I inch forward on the bed and flip over so I can descend the stairs. Halley is peeling off her clothes and pulling a fresh shirt and jeans from her already packed suitcase on the floor.
“What are you doing?” I hug myself and try to stand without swaying. I forgot how bad a crying hangover is. It’s worse than a beer hangover by a million times.
“I’m going over to talk some sense into Masa, that’s what.”
“No. Nononononono…” I grab at her arm once her new shirt is on. “No. Don’t do that. It’s over. It’s done. I’ve ruined everything. I should have stuck to the plan.”
“Fuck your plans,” Halley says, and I whip back from her vitriol. “Plans mean you never take any risks, you never fall in love with someone who loves you back, you never really challenge yourself.”
A new wave of tears breaches my crusted eyes, so I hug myself tighter. “Plans keep me safe.” My bottom lip quivers, and Halley sighs, deflating from her burst of rage.
“You deserve more than pining away for someone who won’t love you. You deserve more than just being my comet tail. You know that?”
I nod my head even though I don’t believe it. Do I really deserve anything better than the misery I bring upon myself?
“Jesus, I’ve known you for fifteen years, and this is only the second time ever I’ve seen you cry.” She coaxes her hair into a ponytail holder, wipes the mascara from under her eyes with a baby wipe, and grabs her purse and keys. “I’ll be back later. Go back to sleep.”
The door clicks shut before I can protest.
“I’m so so so so sorry about last night. SO sorry. I hope you’ll forgive me.” My text to Masa sits on the screen all alone. I sent the apology two hours ago, and with no reply, I have no idea where I stand. I turn my phone on silent before putting it away.
I wait for Halley, but she doesn’t show up at our dorm room, so I shower, grab the exams I graded, and walk to Wells Hall. I love the path through Kellogg Center, past the field house, Sparty, and the stadium. The long walk always calms me and returns me to some semblance of normalcy, no matter how stressed I’ve been. Being an undecided major put me straight into Brody Neighborhood with Halley. Halley decided last year to go into sports medicine, a smart choice given her Olympic aspirations. I finally made my decision, too, only last week, right before finals. I love my comm arts classes and English and Japanese, too, so I decided to major in communications and linguistics with a minor in Japanese. My father wants me to major in something practical like engineering, but it’s not my passion like Japanese is. Instead, I was inspired to double major in two related areas like Masa. Hopefully, it’ll mean we can both get jobs in Japan after we graduate.
My steps falter on the sidewalk, pain ripping through my chest. What will it even matter if we’re both in Japan since I’ve screwed everything up? My throat closes up and tears threaten to fall again. No, Isa. Stay strong and get through the rest of this day.
My sandals click along the tile floor of Wells Hall as I make my way to Professor Fukuda’s office. The building is empty and quiet, almost eerie, since the halls are usually filled with students. All the Japanese professors share a central office space, so I open the door quietly and sneak past the other professors to Fukuda’s space.
“Ah, Brown-san, it’s good to see you! How are you?” Professor Fukuda, or Fukuda-san as I’ve come to know him, stands and bows to me, so I bow back. He’s a fantastic man in his late fifties, originally from Japan, the Osaka area. I only realized recently that his mannerisms and slang were different from my mother’s.
“I’m well, thank you,” I say in Japanese, but he waves at me before sitting down.
“English is fine, Brown-san.”
“Isa is fine.” I laugh as he smiles at me. This is our running joke about levels of familiarity in the Japanese language. When I need a dressing down for being too lax about my grammar, he calls me Brown-san, my last name. When we’re in good standing with each other, I get Isano-san, but never Isa. Isa, he argues, is only for good friends, never teacher and student.
I sit down in the chair next to his desk and lean forward so he can see me past the stacks of papers. I open my backpack and draw out the exams. “Here you go. All done.”
“Ah, thank you. You left the essay questions for me, yes?”
I nod. “Yes. I know you wanted to grade them. I went easy on a few students. I hope you don’t mind.”
“It’ll depend on which ones,” he says, smiling. I’m glad he trusted me to be a TA as a sophomore since I’m taking the four-hundred-level Japanese language and linguistic classes now. Getting this job really helped my loan situation. Masa is a junior and was in the same classes with me this year. He grew up speaking Japanese at home like I did.
Masa. My thoughts always return to him, even when I don’t want them to. Next year he’s living off campus with Shrikant. Will I even see him?
“Are you all right, Isano-san?” Professor Fukuda reclines back in his desk chair, bringing his pen to his lips.
I hate that question.
“I’m fine.” I think quickly of something that will explain my somber mood, something besides Masa, which is too personal. “I’ve been thinking about what next year is going to be like, now that I’ve declared my majors. I have a lot of credits to catch up on.”
“Your grasp of language and linguistics is quite remarkable for someone so young,” he says, shaking his head. “I’m sure you’ll catch up.”
I fold my hands together and squeeze until my knuckles are white. “My father wants me to go into engineering, and I could, but I love English, Japanese, and linguistics. I’m glad I chose this path, but I’m not sure how practical I’m being. Getting a job when I graduate is a top priority.”
“You could go on to graduate school…”
I shake my head and shrug my shoulders. “Don’t get me wrong. I like school, but I want a job. I’m already in a load of debt.” Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night sweating about the amount of money school is costing me, and MSU isn’t even as expensive as most other colleges. My dad pays for a quarter of my tuition, and I get money from Halley’s parents to cover food and books, but the rest is on me. My mom doesn’t contribute funds at all, which was not unexpected. She rarely gives me money. My student loan balances arrive via email, and I file them away in a folder and don’t look at them. I can’t even begin to plan for them yet.
“Ah sooooo…” he says, breathing out a Japanese saying people inject in conversations when they’re thinking. “There are lots of options open to you with your double major. Pass JLPT Level One, learn copywriting and marketing, and you could teach in Japan or work for a Japanese company in Japan or here. Engineering is a good profession, but there are opportunities for you with your chosen major, too.
I chew on the inside of my lip and cross my legs. “You think?”
“I do,” he says, sitting forward and reaching for his wallet. “Think about it over the summer because next summer you can intern someplace and try out working life. Here’s my card with my phone number on it.” He hands it to me using both hands and bowing. I take it with both hands and bow back. This is one of the first things you learn in Japanese business, respect paid when exchanging business cards. “If you want to talk it over, you can call me or email me. Whichever works for you. I’ll be glad to help you in any way I can.”
I take the card and rub it between my fingers. I wonder if I can convince my dad this will be good for me.
Back outside, my phone vibrates when I pass the stadium on my trip home.
“I’m back. Let’s order pizza and keep packing. We go home tomorrow!”
“On my way. What did Masa say?” I type.
“He wouldn’t talk to me. Sorry. Kept telling me it was none of my business and then politely wishing me luck this summer. If I didn’t hate him right now, I would totally squeeze him and thank him. The fucker.”
I sigh, disappointed she got nowhere with Masa, but it’s not her fault. “Ok.”
I take out my headphones, plug them in, and blast J-pop. What if I’ve just pledged to spend the next few years in the same programs with Masa and he hates me for ruining our friendship? I turn up the volume, letting my eardrums take an assault instead of my heart, the music drowning out everything around me. I don’t want to think about any of this anymore.
I double-check my makeup in the mirror, making certain my eyes are no longer puffy and red. They’re fine. Check. I run down the list of items I want to talk about for this lesson in my notebook. Intro, check. History, check. Words, check. My finger glides down the paper, the fine paper of the blank journal Masa gifted to me when he gave me the purple pen. A flash of our kiss the night before, his hands in my hair, his lips on mine, my heart beating faster than my hardest run ever, brings me to a standstill. I press my eyes closed at the memory of his tongue and mine and inhale sharply to stop my body from responding. It’s only a dream.
I turn on my desk light, sit in front of my MacBook, and count to ten before hitting the record button. The little green light next to the camera comes on, and I wait a full second before smiling.
“Hey everyone, Isa here again with today’s lesson on Japan and Japanese language: Mother’s Day. Hi, Mom.”
I wave at the camera and really hope she sees this soon.
“In Japan, this day is known as Haha no Hi.” I hold up a white piece of poster board where I have written 母の日（ははのひ）with my big, fat Sharpie marker. I always enjoy making these boards, drawing the kanji and hiragana correctly and adding in decorations. I’m pretty good at drawing Hello Kitty, foxes, owls, dogs, cats, and mice. Back when I started these videos, I thought that I would just pop text onto the screen, but that was always more trouble than it was worth. I was lamenting to Masa about how long it takes to put up all the text, and his answer was to show me a soccer highlights show where the guys just held up poster boards with stuff written on them. Genius.
“Haha no Hi is a special day in Japan, just like it is in the US. Moms can consider it a day of rest. We give our moms carnations and usually make them breakfast. My own mother would take the day to go get a massage, and we’d all eat dinner together. She would call her mom in Japan and they would talk for the evening. For some reason, eggs are really big on this day in Japan.”
I hold up the next poster board, on which I’ve drawn a happy egg and the word tamago 卵（たまご）.
“Tamago. Maybe today would be a good day to make your mom eggs for breakfast, or if you’re going out for sushi, tamago sushi is good too. The word for carnations is kānēshon and is a borrowed word, so it’s written in katakana.”
My board for carnations has a fluffy flower and カーネーション written on it.
“I’ll admit that there’s a lot to love about this holiday, and I’m sure it’s something I’ll love even more when I’m a mother someday.”
I halt, aware that I’ve just said aloud something I’ve often thought but never really believed — that I’ll find somebody to love who will love me back. I’m not a big fan of kids, but I do want my own someday, instead of babysitting everyone else’s. I gasp when I realize I’m silent, imagining my future spiraling away into spinsterhood with twenty cats and Masa spending his life with someone else. I knock my computer as I reach out to pause the recording. Staring down at the floor, I tap my feet back and forth and take deep breaths. I’ll have to edit out my pause.
Where did I leave off? Carnations. I start recording again, shaking off the overwhelming pain of my own mistakes. Focus.
“On Mother’s Day in Japan, flower stands are overflowing with carnations, hoping to snag busy dads who forgot to buy them a day ahead of time. Cards are not popular in Japan for this day, so just concentrate on the flowers, the relaxing time for Mom, and possibly an egg breakfast.
“Mother’s Day started in Japan in 1931 to celebrate Empress Kojun’s birthday. It was celebrated in March to coincide with that but then was switched to May in 1949 to sync up with the US. So it doesn’t have a long history in Japan, but Mother’s Day is still well-loved, nonetheless.
“Okay, that’s all I have for today! I’m leaving MSU for my summer in Japan, and I hope to record more lessons for you. I have a few planned, and I also want to show you the Olympics as well. Stay tuned and be sure to click on the subscribe button under this video so you don’t miss them.”
I point downward and smile before popping up a peace sign.
“Mata ne! Isa, out.”
I stop recording and sit for a moment before clicking play and watching myself again. I’m getting better at these videos. In the beginning, I did nothing but stammer and trip over my words. Much like everything in my life, I realized that I needed a game plan for every video, and I had to do them consistently in order to keep the rhythm the same each time.
I text Halley that I’m done, bring my video into iMovie, slap the intro on the front, then scrub through and cut out all the parts where I pause for too long. I add in the final end credits and publish to YouTube.
While I’m waiting for it to upload, I throw the rest of my desk materials in a box, and the door opens, Halley pushing it wide with her hip, a large box of pizza in her arms.
“All done?” she asks.
“Yep. I’m uploading now.” I check the status, and once it’s done processing, Halley sits down to watch it.
“That’s great!” she says, clapping her hands. “‘Haha’ is mother?”
I shake my head. “Only your own mother. You can call someone else’s mother O-kāsan. I probably should have mentioned it.”
Halley waves her hand at me. “Don’t bother. Save it for a later lesson. Ready to eat?”
“Just a minute.” I touch her shoulder and pull the wrapped present I’ve been saving for today from one of the boxes on my desk. “This is for you.”
Her brown eyes widen, and she pushes the present back to me.
“You shouldn’t have gotten me anything.”
“Please,” I say, shoving it back into her hands. “I just want to say how proud I am of you.” My face blushes. I’m not used to being so outright with my feelings. “You’ve done amazing work this past year, between the training and your classes. You’re so ready for Tokyo.”
Halley peels off the pink dotted wrapping paper and smiles. “Oh thank god! I didn’t know which ones I would need!” She flips over and reads the backs of the two books I bought for her: a beginner’s Japanese dictionary and a Tokyo travel guide.
“You’ve already learned a lot of Japanese this year. You should be set.”
“Arigatō gozaimasu,” she says, bowing to me.
I throw my arms around her and squeeze her. “I’m so proud of you.”
“You already said that, Isa. Chill.” She squeezes me back and whispers, “Thank you.”
We each eat two slices of pizza when my computer pings twice with notifications of new comments on my video. Already? No one watches my channel that religiously.
I hold my pizza in one hand and click the notification with the other.
One comment is from my mom, “Thank you! Can’t wait to see you soon. Xo.”
Her daughter on video —
Happy Mother’s Day.”
Signed HaikusFromMasa. Maybe this means I’m forgiven?
Giddiness turns to confusion as my phone buzzes, a text alert on the screen from the man himself.
“I loved your Mother’s Day video. Don’t say you’re sorry. There’s nothing to be sorry about. Let’s just forget it ever happened. Talk to you later when I’m home.”
Forget it ever happened? How am I supposed to do that? This already feels hopeless. There’s no way either of us is going to forget last night. I turn off my phone and glance at the computer screen.
“What’s the matter? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” Halley leans over my shoulder, her eyes scanning my computer screen, and shakes her head. “Why can’t he just say he’s sorry?”
“Because I’m the one who’s sorry.” I click on the thumbs-up next to his comment and close my computer.
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Two weeks at home, and my daily routine has consisted of: sleep in late every day, go for a run, watch TV, pick Jackson, my little half-brother, up from daycare at three, watch him until everyone is home from work, read, hang out at Halley’s house (until she left on May twentieth), come home late. Oh, and checking my phone a hundred million times per day to see if Masa has texted me again. I was smart and didn’t write him a hundred million text messages like a crazy person, just checked the phone a hundred million times in case it forgot to alert me. I’m a hundred million kinds of pathetic.
Memorial Day rolls around on the twenty-fifth, and Michigan becomes its own version of unbearable, hot and soupy. I spend the day outside next to the baby pool with Jackson while my dad grills barbecue ribs and my stepmom, Janie, makes pasta salad and white cake with blueberries and strawberries in the shape of a flag. She’s a Pinterest junkie.
I get text messages from both Halley and Masa wishing me a Happy Memorial Day, and I send them back photos and happy greetings too. Masa’s been quiet, not commenting on the kiss or anything around it, but the sheer fact that he’s texting me at all is a relief. Most guys would have dropped contact. Masa continues to be his own kind of person.
The following Sunday means two things around my dad’s house, church and Sunday dinner. I forgo church to stay home, since Mom raised me a Buddhist. Janie hates that I’m not Catholic. Sorry. I keep reminding her I’m barely Buddhist, so what does it matter? This is my last summer home anyway. I’m not returning to Grosse Ile next year. It was a great place to grow up, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t belong here anymore. I don’t really belong anywhere anymore. MSU is a transient home, and Grosse Ile feels small and alien. I need to find a new place to live in and enjoy.
“Isa, no Hawee?” Jackson asks, crawling up my pant leg. I reach down and pick him up, hoisting him onto my hip.
“No Halley today, kid. Sorry. She left for Tokyo, remember?” I should have flown out with her, but I thought it’d be nice to spend more time with my dad before I bugged out to be with Mom. I’ve spent the last few years at home with him, since flights to Tokyo are stupid expensive and neither Mom nor I could afford to fly me there the last five years. Dad’s used to me being around in the summer to watch Jackson, but babysitting is not as lucrative as a summer internship somewhere at a place that might hire me when I graduate. Fukuda-san’s suggestion has been simmering in my brain the last few weeks.
I reach into the fridge and grab the little nugget a sippy cup of milk while Janie makes homemade pasta sauce for dinner tonight. I pretend to watch the TV in the kitchen, but instead I look at Janie and repeat, I do not hate her. I do not hate her, over and over in my head. This is the woman who broke up my parents’ marriage, and I have tried hard to like her for the past six years. I did hate her until my mom told me, “The marriage was over long before Janie came around.” The signs were all there but I never saw them. My dad never learned more than basic Japanese, and he refused to travel to Japan. I have no idea how my parents ever got along before the divorce.
Janie sautés onions and garlic like a pro. She teaches culinary classes, which is how she met my dad. I would hate her more if she didn’t feed me so well.
“Did you talk to your mom today, Isa?” Janie asks, smiling and pouring red wine into a glass.
“No. I thought she’d call this morning, but she didn’t.” I turn on my phone again and there are no notifications. Traitorous piece of plastic. I should throw it in the pool. Masa has only texted once since Memorial Day, and Mom and I talked last Sunday per usual, but she was busy, and the conversation didn’t last longer than ten minutes.
Jackson hits me in the face. “You color wit’ me?” Ouch, three year olds pack quite a punch.
“Sure, buddy. Just don’t hit me again, please.”
“Jackson, watch how you treat other people!” Janie admonishes him. She’s a good mom, but I still can’t believe my dad had more kids. He’s five years from retirement at GM. You’d think they would have downsized from the outrageous home I grew up in and purchased a condo someplace warm. But no, my dad is now one of those sappy, baby-wearing, modern parents who’s getting ready to send another kid through the same school system he just got done with when I graduated.
I color with Jackson at the kitchen island until I’m so bored I can barely concentrate on the picture. I set aside the crayons and pull my paper planner towards me. I know that apps are all the rage for calendars and to-do lists and notes, but I work best with pen and paper. I open it and flip to the calendar. My departure date is this coming Friday, June fifth, a whole five days from now. I run the tips of my fingers over the red and white diagonal washi tape borders around the edges and the Hello Kitty sticker I affixed to that day’s entry. I chose one of her floating away with a handful of balloons.
Flipping to my packing checklist, I double-check every item: passport, cash (which I’ll get on Thursday), Japanese dictionaries, maps, my Olympics IDs, my camera, running gear, clothes for nights out on the town, etc. I’m going to be there for three months, two months with Halley in Tokyo and a month traveling with her afterward. I’ve sent some things ahead to my mom, but I have to check a traveling backpack full of stuff and carry on a rolling bag too.
I skip around in my calendar and look at the dozens of little notes I’ve made over the past year. All the dinners I went to, lectures, study dates, movie nights with Masa. In the front pocket, I have a picture of the two of us I printed out from an MSU football game we went to together in the fall. Looking at the photo makes me simultaneously sick, happy, and sad.
“How’s Masa?” Janie asks, leaning forward and jerking her chin at the photo. I slip it back in the pocket and shut my planner. Janie tucks her chin-length, light brown hair behind her ears and sips on her wine.
“He’s fine. At home in Novi.”
“Will you see him this summer? Don’t his parents have a place in Tokyo?”
“Yeah, but they have subletters living there for the summer, so he’s staying home. He’s bummed, but I told him I’d see him in August.”
Janie dumps cans of crushed tomatoes into her pot and stirs. “He’s such a sweet and handsome guy.” She sighs, and my insides scream, Yes! Yes he is! Fuck. I fucked it up and someone else will snatch him away from me!
I go through the motions at dinner and excuse myself to my room afterward. Last summer, I took down the posters on my walls and helped Dad and Janie reorganize my room into a guest room slash workout room, which was fine with me because they bought a treadmill and stuck it where my old desk used to be. A trade-up as far as I’m concerned. I do miss my corkboard where I planned out every school year until I graduated. I upgraded to a brand-new one when I left for MSU, and it’s now downstairs in the storage space in the basement. I’m tempted to go get it, just so I can have something familiar around me.
I turn on my phone, check my email, futz around on Instagram and Facebook, stare at the ceiling, and finally decide to change into pajamas and watch Lost for the night when the house phone rings. Hearing the house phone ring is analogous to seeing a pink pony walk by. My dad only has it now because with a baby at home, having access to 911 was more important than saving the thirty bucks per month, but no one ever uses it.
My dad’s voice filters in through the crack of my door, high-pitched and agitated, not angry but definitely not happy. Belatedly, I realize he’s speaking broken Japanese, which is something I haven’t heard him do in years.
“Hold on, hold on. Chotto matte kudasai.” He opens my door and I sit up in bed.
“Honey, it’s your grandma. Something’s not right.”
He hands me the phone, his eyebrows pulled together, the gray hair at his temples standing straight out from his head.
“Hi, Grandma,” I say in Japanese. “How are you? Is everything okay?”
“Isa-chan…” My grandma’s tiny voice sounds battered. “It’s so good to hear your voice. You must come to Tokyo now. Can you come tomorrow?”
“What do you mean, I need to come to Tokyo now? What’s wrong?” My voice rises, and my dad’s eyes widen. Janie, peeking in at the door, clutches her robe at her neck.
“It’s your mom. She was hit by a car today while riding her bike back to the ryokan from the market. She’s in the hospital and broke her left arm and leg. I’m sorry to ruin your plans. She’s asking for you to come.”
I hold the phone away from my head and stare at it. What? My mom’s been hit by a car and I have to come now to Tokyo? What about Halley? What about training? What about the Olympics?
My fingers are so numb, I can’t feel the phone, and my thoughts tunnel away to a distant pinpoint before snapping back and whipping me out of my own head.
My mom’s been hit by a car!
“Isa-chan! Can you hear me?”
“Yes. Yes. I’ll be on a plane tomorrow. I’ll call you from Narita.”
I hang up the phone as my grandma cries and begins to utter prayers for my safe passage.
I get on a plane to Japan by a sheer miracle. This was not a part of my plans! But I make new ones swiftly like a crisis counselor trying to talk someone down from committing suicide — brutal, harried plans meant to get me from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible, no expense spared. I beg the airline to put me on standby and wait until a passenger doesn’t show for their flight while pacing in front of the airline’s check-in desk for two hours. I’m actually jealous of the man sitting next to me on the flight who pounds beers for the first solid two hours and then passes out with his mouth open. The line at customs after my thirteen hour schlep across the globe is mind-boggling. Men and women in uniforms wearing white gloves direct us with heads bowed and smiles turned on.
“What’s the nature of your visit to Japan?” the man asks, examining my passport and me.
“Olympics, and my mom lives here.” I swallow, trying to get some moisture to my parched throat. I hate flying. Planes suck all the water out of my body. I have to rehydrate for at least two days before running again.
“Where does your mom live?” he asks in Japanese, with a straight face. A test.
He pauses, stamps my passport, and says, “Welcome back to Japan, Miss Brown.”
Nothing about my walk through the airport feels welcoming. I pass newsstand after newsstand, a restaurant that sells udon and soba noodles, charging stations and kiosks, large groups of Japanese people amongst groups of foreigners, all walking around in a daze. I enter a public bathroom and laugh at the fancy Japanese toilet. I forgot about these. The multiple buttons and washes for my hind end that are available make me cringe. I fix my hair in the mirror, wetting my hands and putting my wavy locks back in place. I rummage around in my sack of a purse, find a silver hair clip, and pin back my bangs before brushing my teeth.
Waiting at the baggage carousel, I turn on my iPhone and connect to NTT Docomo. When the carrier shows up in the settings, I breathe a sigh of relief. My grandparents bought me this unlocked version so I could use my phone anywhere. Five years ago, I couldn’t do this. I love technology.
I dial my grandma while I wait for my bag to show up.
“Moshi moshi! Isa-chan, are you here?”
“I’m at Narita waiting for my bags.”
“Okay, okay. Do you know how to get here?”
I glance around until I find the signs pointing towards the trains, my best bet to get into Tokyo.
“Yeah. Train to Tokyo Station and transfer to JR Chuo Line. I remember.”
I squat down, open my purse on the floor, take out my planner, and flip the pages to my maps and directions. I wrote down the names (including the kanji characters) of all the places I would need to transfer, how much each ticket would cost me, and how to use the machines to get the tickets.
“Do you have money?”
“Yes,” I lie, looking directly at the ATM and currency exchange. I’ll go there next. “Don’t worry, Grandma. I’ll be fine.”
“I always worry about you, Isa-chan. You’re my favorite granddaughter. Don’t tell Kae.”
I laugh and roll my eyes. “I know you say the same thing to Kae.” I have one first cousin, Kae, who is a year older than me, and numerous second cousins because my grandparents both came from big families. Gatherings with the whole family are always a good time, and I missed them when I was in high school and couldn’t travel to Japan.
“Call me when you reach Kichijōji. It’ll be getting late. You should take a cab from the station. We’re all the way on the other side of town.”
“Okay.” My grandparents and Mom live on the southern side of Kichijōji. From the station, I would have to walk through Inokashira Park and another fifteen minutes to their home. The ryokan they own is a few blocks from their house. “Can I see Mom tonight?”
“Visiting hours are only until 19:00. I don’t think you’ll make it in time.”
I pull the phone away from my head and look at the clock. It’s already four in the afternoon. My body has no idea what time it is. “Is she all right?”
“She’s as good as she can be in the condition she’s in.”
I swallow, looking around for a vending machine. My throat is so dry. “That’s not a good answer.”
“It’s the only answer I can give without crying.”
I pinch the bridge of my nose to stop myself from crying in her place.
The baggage carousel jingles a tune and starts to move. That’s pleasant. In the States, they blare a siren. My large backpack trundles by on the carousel so I tuck my phone under my chin and jump forward to grab it. An older man sees me struggling, grabs my bag, and sets it on the ground next to me. I smile and thank him several times while bowing.
Boom. I’m back in Japan, just like that. Everything my mom instilled in me from a young age, all the lessons I put to use coming here as a kid are breaking loose from the American shell I hold them in. And I’ve only been in the airport for an hour.
“You’re right. I won’t be there for a few hours.” I rub my eyes and thank myself for not wearing makeup today. “I’ve got my bag, and I’ll see you soon.”
I hang up the phone while she’s saying good-bye and curse at myself. I’m too abrupt. I never let Halley say good-bye to me either. I’m always ending things too fast.
I stare down at my luggage and glance back at the terminal as my anxiety levels rise. I don’t want to be here under these circumstances! What if I can’t handle seeing my mom in the hospital? I’ve never been good with hospitals, blood, disease, crazy or dying people… I gulp as I break out in a cold sweat. It would be easy to get on a plane and fly home, run away from all of this.
Just as my brain is about to get the better of me, my phone buzzes. It’s Halley.
“Your plane landed an hour ago. What’s going on? Are you dealing?”
She knows me too well, and a small smile surfaces through all my nerves.
“I’m dealing. Just got my bags. Gotta get on the train, though I want to go back home.”
“You can’t do that! Lol. Who will run with me next week? Text me later and let me know how your mom is. I can come to see you tomorrow.”
“No, no. It’s fine. Stay downtown. You need to continue with the runs.”
“I’m coming. I’d like to see you stop me.”
“Ok. Jesus. You’re moody.”
I hoist on my backpack, grab my rolling bag and purse, hit the currency exchange, get yen at an insane exchange rate, and find the train down the escalator. In my seat on the train, I lean back and close my eyes while my stomach grumbles. I didn’t have time to pick up anything in the airport, so I open my purse and eat a protein bar. Narita is outside of Tokyo, so it’s about an hour into the city. The countryside and suburbs of Tokyo zip by as the train speeds along silent and smooth. I look up at the display and smile because I can read everything written there in both English and Japanese.
My brain chugs to a grinding stop. I learned most of these complex kanji last year in my four-hundred level class with Masa. We split up the studying, each taking half the kanji assigned and making flash cards to quiz us with. Those cards are sitting at the bottom of my backpack. I couldn’t bear to leave them at home. I pick at my yoga pants for a moment before giving in. I swipe on my phone and stare at the screen.
I just realized I haven’t told Masa about my mom. I was so busy hurriedly packing and trying not to panic that I didn’t tell him.
I start to type three texts but stop, all of them sounding awkward and needy. I think Masa would want to know if something happened to my mom, but we’ve barely spoken the past few weeks, just those few texts and nothing more. We used to talk every day. I can’t help but think the kiss ruined everything. But it was just a kiss, right? A kiss wouldn’t ruin two whole years of friendship, right? I press the phone to my chest, willing my body to stop the unbearable ache of uncertainty running through me. Rubbing my finger along the side of the phone, I stare outside as the train crosses a river over a bridge, heads underground, and the scenery outside the window fades to black.
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