Falling Through Doors

Oct
23

River Mouth

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It was the shoes I saw first. It seemed that I saw the shoes even before I heard the thud, the sliding tires, the shatter, smelled the hot rubber. I watched the shoes in their slow-motion trajectory, the height, the arc, the descent, the astonishing distance from the motionless toes pointing to the centre of the sky. My heartbeat became audible in that moment and I stopped my bike. A man of about seventy was on his back in the middle of the road. A car was up on the adjacent sidewalk, its snout contorted and steaming and wrapped around a lamppost. Two black orthopaedic shoes lay on opposite sides of the intersection, and I found myself stopped and staring down at the left one. I hadn’t wanted to watch, yet I couldn’t ride away, as if I were waiting for a moment in which I could do something to help, as if a moment would come that would allow me to process what I’d just seen. Or not quite seen.

I had left for work at two-thirty in the afternoon. The sun that day was sharp and flat against the roof of the sky. The reeds along the river bank were a wheaty gold, the river itself royal and still. Our little house by the Yoshino river was half a kilometre from the river’s mouth, where it gave itself over to the ocean. Usually, when I left early enough, I would enjoy a leisurely detour along the river path, past the sports fields, the aged joggers, the gradual construction of the new bridge out of town. That day, though, I was running late, which is why I took the main road and found myself fifteen minutes later staring at a body that I was pretty sure wasn’t dead, but could have been dead.

When I heard the ambulance’s siren was when I began to pedal again slowly, the rest of the way to English Square, the private language school on the second floor of a bluish brick building in a part of town called Sako, where I worked. I spent the rest of the day in a daze. My low-intermediate students complained that I was being mean. An advanced high-school student told me I seemed distant.

*

The first of the messages came that afternoon from France. I had just finished a lesson with six-year-old Kayo on the difference between producing the voiced v versus the unvoiced f. The class had come to an end with the two of us sitting opposite each other, Kayo with one hand on her own throat, one on mine, a fine slick of saliva covering the desk between us. She wasn’t really getting it. My next class would be with a group of teenagers, their eyebrows shaved, their English intermediate, their testing of words like shit and homo, their apathy fully formed. I wiped down the table with a fistful of tissue and looked at my phone. There was a message from Winnie, an old friend from Montreal. We had not seen each other in years.

Hey. Are you ok?

I read the message several times before responding. Nice to hear from you! I’m great, thanks. And you?

*

When I had woken that morning from dreaming of spring, the remnants of temperate breezes and cherry blossoms fading with each waking breath, I found the room was cold and so stayed where I was. In March it could go either way, but when spring was ready it would happen overnight, the explosion of pink blossoms in the yard, the sunlight suddenly soft and warm and defeating the cold hardness that oppressed winter’s days. I lay in bed listening to the neighbourhood. Tokushima Elementary School was behind our house, and each morning the school greeter, a child who remained anonymous to me but whose voice I had come to detest, would stand at the school’s entrance bellowing Ohayo-gozaimasu (good morning) repeatedly for fifteen minutes before the first bell rang. I always wondered how the other children felt about him, coming to the conclusion that had he gone to my elementary school he would have been the object of relentless teasing and minor assaults.

I had been living in that house for nearly a year, which is remarkable considering that after waking there for the first time, when it was still just Aaron’s house, I looked around his room and asked him if he was squatting. (I recently rediscovered on my old computer a short video I made for a friend back in Canada, which included a guided tour of my house, me moving from room to room. About two minutes in, during an explanation of my closet, which I had DIYed with a metal pole balanced on two door frames across the hallway at the top of the stairs, I interrupt my own narration with laughter, saying aloud, What am I thinking? I can’t send you this, you’ll worry. I’m still laughing when the video cuts off.)

*

The second message came from Montreal around eight o’clock, just before I began my final lesson for the day with the mute fifteen-year-old returnee, Saori. Saori was nearly fluent, but impudent, and each week I was an intentional five minutes late for the lesson. I ate a tuna rice ball outside the classroom and read the message, this one from Gillian in Montreal.

I love you. Send me a message when you can.

I wrote back. Love you, too! Skype tomorrow? I swallowed the rice and entered the room.

“Hello Saori. How are you?”

“Did you do anything interesting this week?”

“How was your rhythmic gymnastics performance last weekend?”

“Ok, what was in the news today?”

“Sendai was in the news.”

“What happened in Sendai?”

“Sendai had an earthquake.”

“Really? Was it a big one?” I recalled the last earthquake we’d had in Tokushima, a few weeks previous. I was in a class of six junior-high girls who vacillated between dying for my approval and not giving a shit about anything that came out of my mouth. They were all smart, all wily, all banded together throughout their various tactics of dissent, and this made them my most frustrating group. They were frequently baited with the promise of Pictionary, and more frequently punished with textbook readings that were slightly above their level. I became a master of ignoring their pleas. The day of the most recent earthquake they all suddenly started shrieking and took cover beneath the table. Later I found out it had been a five-point-four, but I hadn’t felt it at the time and thus scolded the girls for misbehaving.

“I don’t know how big.”

“Okay. Anything else you want to talk about?”

“Please open to page 84.”

*

It was nine-thirty when I locked up the classrooms and the office. It was a Friday night, which meant Aaron wouldn’t be home for another hour. An avid and characteristically obsessed triathlete, he cycled forty kilometres each way to work three days a week along the river path, coming home in a sheen of spandex and sweat, the beam from his high-powered headlamp lighting up the windows as he pulled into the driveway. I didn’t like being the first one home. Without him there it felt to me like a shell, made me feel temporary. We met at a cherry blossom festival just as I had been planning to move away. Instead, a month later he asked me to move in. The rent was cheap and the house—one side of a duplex­—was in disrepair, but there was a garden out the back and all the faucets worked and I had a room to myself on the upper floor for reading and writing and binge-watching downloaded episodes of 30 Rock, as was the style at the time. I eventually learned to look past the torn paper doors, the water-marked Snoopy wallpaper in one of the upstairs rooms, the occasional centipede, the scent of humidity stored in the warped wooden walls. I had found a kind of love there, which made me feel I had found a kind of home.

Riding back, the streets were emptier than usual. There was no traffic, no groups of uniformed teenagers biking home on the sidewalks, four-abreast, from their night schools. I turned off the main road toward the river, and when I got to the river path I found it barricaded. Neon-clad officers waved glowing orange sabres at me, indicating a detour back the way I came. The night was still and wan, the river silent. I asked in Japanese if everything was okay, but the man spoke too quickly for me to understand so I thanked him, turned around, and rode home through the deserted city streets.

*

The third message was waiting when I got home. This one was a voice message from Jon, a friend from my days teaching in South Korea, who now lived in Ottawa.

Alison, hey. Please tell me you’re okay. I’m just watching the news. Call me when you can. I need to hear you’re all right.

It was just after ten o’clock when I opened my laptop. I went to the BBC and clicked on the first video link, which was titled “Earthquake and Tsunami in Japan.” A wave like a wall. Houses afloat. Screaming. Drivers stepping out of doomed vehicles in attempts to escape a crushing fate. I opened another tab and went to the Japan Meteorological Agency website. Tokushima was under extreme tsunami warning. Aftershocks were predicted. The rivers were meant to rise. I called Aaron but he didn’t answer. I tried not to worry; he often didn’t answer when he was riding. I put the kettle on and thought of him speeding through the dark beside that black strip of river, headed home to the point where it fed the ocean.

I waited for the water to boil and looked at a map. We were more than seven-hundred kilometres south of the epicentre off the coast of Miyagi prefecture. Surely, I thought, that’s far enough. I watched another video on YouTube. Homes and cars and cities swirling together like leaves in a gutter. I called Jon.

“Alison, I can not tell you how relieved I am to hear your voice.”

“Thanks for your message. I’m just watching these videos, and—”

“Are you okay?”

I told him we were really far from it all, that I didn’t even know it had happened until I got home from work just then. I told him it was crazy. Sad. Frightening.

He told me about a nuclear plant. “The news here says some reactor’s melting down. They’re talking about Chernobyl.”

I imagined ash, masks, limbless dolls, silence. I thought of Aaron and thanked Jon for calling, told him I had to go. He asked that I email him in the morning, to let him know I was still there.

I dialled Aaron again. There was still no answer. I made tea and didn’t know what to do next. The North American news coverage was sensational, depicting Japan as an island nation under threat, a speck in the blue that could be taken by the sea, toppled from below, choked by clouds of radioactivity the moment the wind changed. The Japanese news was vague and difficult for me to understand. The power was out in Tokyo, the streets gridlocked with vehicles and debris. Bicycle stores were broken into, bicycles stolen by people desperate to get home. I imagined my parents waking up on the west coast in a few hours, switching on the CBC, hearts rocketing to throats. I sent them an email.

I turned off the lights and slid open the back door. This was my favourite spot in the house, the narrow stoop that faced out over our vegetable garden, still a month at least from being planted. I could see up to the lights blinking like stars in a children’s book on top of Mount Bizan. Another high-school student of mine, Kazuya, had been telling me the week before about his emergency backpack. He kept it in his bedroom beside his desk, he told me. It had clothes, food, a multitool, a torch, and a blanket. He would seek elevation, running to the top of Bizan. He had a map with various routes demarcated for all possible contingencies. He said that was where he was most likely to survive.

I sat down on the stoop and drank my tea and listened. I breathed in. The temperature had dropped and the night was silent. I imagined myself stranded by my lack of language, left alone in our riverside suburb, even the neighbours incapable of communication. I looked over at the darkened windows next door. I remembered the day the old lady brought over a pumpkin she’d grown, and the day the old man had not swerved his car from me as I was walking up our narrow street. I’d had to jump out of the way, flattening myself against a chain link fence in order not to be hit.

I slid the door closed again and walked through the darkness, climbed the stairs, pressed my forehead against my upstairs window, rang Aaron again. Seven-hundred kilometres, I told myself, is far enough. I knew he wouldn’t answer. Looking out over the neighbourhood I could make out the boundary where the street lights ended, the strip of emptiness, watery and black. I imagined the houses coming loose from their foundations, water rushing from their first and second floor windows, and drifting towards me. Eventually the houses would collide and the water would push and push and sweep me even further. The convenience store across the street would overflow, the parking lot filling with floating bento boxes, junk food, cigarette cartons, the packaging distended and bloating. I wondered how I would feel, how long until I would leave. I thought of those people up north, huddled in the cold, their cities erased, their homes now figments of the past. I thought of my own home on the other side of the world, waiting there, physically intact. I tried to recall its parameters, its smell, the number of stairs leading up to the front door.

Sep
30

Foreign Food

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The biggest reason I was able to live in a small city in Japan for as long as I did was a seventy-one-year-old woman named Tama. Despite a language barrier that ensured our deep thoughts and the complexities of our personalities would remain a mystery to one another, we got on well and saw each other weekly. She cared for me, taking me to the hospital once in summer for severe dehydration (after an ill-advised half-marathon run on a hot day with a new long-distance group), and again in winter for a torn calf muscle (after crashing over an icy mogul on a ski slope). We taught each other our languages. We went out for meals. She delivered vegetables from her garden to my door and taught me not to plant my tomatoes near my eggplants. We often cooked together. She showed me how to make Japanese dishes like tempura, agedashi tofu, and gyoza, while I taught her to make truly mundane dishes that she repeatedly requested, despite my insistence that we could do better than spaghetti bolognese, fancy sandwiches, and banana bread. (The banana bread episode was a real debacle. She had invited her friends for this particular demonstration, so I was properly on display. Her minuscule oven—it was unclear to me whether it had been bought for the occasion or unused for years—malfunctioned and the bread wouldn’t bake, so of course, due to politeness protocol, I later found myself sitting at her table surrounded by nine septuagenarians smiling and eating what was essentially warm banana batter from bowls with spoons, nodding and telling me it was delicious.) Food was a large part of our friendship.

Food was also one of the most persistent reminders that I was living somewhere foreign. One evening, my Australian friend Aaron and I decided we would finally try the little yakitori restaurant down a small alley in our neighbourhood. We had noticed it many times, and since the kanji for yakitori was one of the few I had memorized at that point, in a way our meal there seemed predestined. (For the uninitiated, yakitori translates to grilled chicken, and consists of skewered chicken pieces [and chicken parts] cooked over charcoal and seasoned, most commonly with salt or a sweet sauce. It’s really really good.) The interior was small and wooden, and there were a few stools lined up in front of a counter dotted with ceramic condiment vessels and ash trays. When a man came out from the back, he greeted us warmly. The menu was handwritten and had no photos, so I asked him to please bring us a dish of his recommendation. When he returned some time later with our meal, we were puzzled.

“Hey,” I said to Aaron. “Aren’t we in a chicken place?”

“Yes.”

“Why do you think he brought us sashimi?”

Aaron shrugged and said “Itadakimasu,” (bon appétit) and we cracked apart our chopsticks. Before us was a beautiful plating of pale pink sashimi, scattered with paper-thin garlic slices and delicate curls of chili peppers. Two small dishes of sauce perched artfully on the side. The man stood back and waited eagerly for us to taste the dish he had prepared. I put a piece in my mouth, and it wasn’t until it had been in there a while that I realized what I was eating. It was chicken. It was raw. It was confronting. It was delicious. I probably wouldn’t eat it again.

I like to eat and to cook Japanese food, and so I didn’t often miss food from home. Until suddenly I did. Acutely. I would find myself blindsided by an intense craving for nachos. My whole body wanted nachos. Gherrrrd, I needed nachos. Or garlic dill pickles. Or granola. Hummus! Brieee!! And then I didn’t—the moment would pass and I’d continue munching on my tuna rice ball. Because I couldn’t shop for those things on a regular basis, I didn’t think of them all that much. But then one day an opportunity presented itself, and I went all the way.

Nothing is less Japanese than Costco, except perhaps eating standing up, super-sized fries, road rage, and Christmas. Wholesale megastores are decidedly out of place among the other food buying options that side of the Pacific Ring of Fire. Even in the average Tokushima grocery store one would not find the shopping trolleys that come standard in North American shops, and while big supermarket chains are prevalent there, boasting long wide aisles of processed poisons, there was not a POS conveyor belt in sight. People there just don’t really buy big, which may be one reason why in Canada I’m a size M, and in Japan I’m like a double XL.

That said, there was a Costco in Amagasaki, just two hours of bridges and highways from Tokushima, and one day Tama invited Aaron and I to go there with her. We had spoken of it during a culinary discussion over dinner at Tama’s several months earlier. We told her of a place, a large and distant and brilliantly lit place boasting high ceilings and delicacies such as dill pickles, Spanish olives, Havarti cheese, chocolate by the kilogram, and granola.

“It’s cheap,” we told her. “Big and cheap.”

This is the conversation that led to her one day borrowing a friend’s Costco card, the three of us piling into her tiny square Mitsubishi, and driving the pricey highways to Hyogo prefecture.

We arrived and parked. We negotiated throngs of Sunday afternoon shoppers mindlessly pushing jumbo trolleys full of jumbo miso, jumbo mayo, jumbo nori, jumbo chocolate-covered pretzels. We jumbo shopped. Pushing past my food-mileage-related guilt, I selected some mascarpone. Giving in to homesickness, I seized tortillas and salsa. We piled high the olives and pickles and biscuits and muffins and Corn Flakes and bricks of aged cheddar and garbanzo beans and even jelly beans.

The contents of Tama’s cart were sparse: tissues, cling wrap, sliced beef, and a package of a stomach-turning product so perplexing and revolting I couldn’t keep my eyes away. Through the transparent wrapper I saw eight chubby, sausage-shaped processed meat products wrapped around bones. Actual bones. If you can somehow imagine a meat popsicle—a collection of processed animal parts wrapped around a recycled bone from some unfortunate and unidentifiable animal species—this was it. A sausage with a bone jammed up inside. Tama’s judgment had clearly been impaired by the overwhelming experience that was Costco. I hurried away from her.

After the shame-inducing checkout experience, during which we watched our gluttony gliding along before us on a rubber conveyor, we paid a visit to the grimy-floored food court. The look on Tama’s face when we ordered our 200¥ ($2) lunch combos and were handed 20oz disposable cups with foil-wrapped pizza slices inside them was one of sheer bewilderment. We apologized to her many times over the course of the afternoon, embarrassed to have this greedy, gross side of our culture revealed to her so nakedly. I realized that a place like Costco was intrinsic to the perpetuation—validation—of negative stereotypes, stereotypes I lived with each time someone’s jaw dropped when I told them that I could use chopsticks, I ate vegetables, I didn’t eat meat three times a day, and that hamburgers were not my favourite food.

Tama announced on the drive home that she would like us all to visit Costco monthly, and that she’d like to have us over for dinner the following evening.

*

When we got to Tama’s house the next day she met us in her driveway and I presented her with a box of beautifully over-packaged cookies. She disappeared into the house and returned brandishing a bag of perfect red apples, each nestled in its own protective foam netting. I tried to resist, repeatedly refusing them, but ended up bowing a thousand times and putting them in the backseat before we all went inside. I learned another of the myriad important lessons when it comes to the complex practice of gift giving in Japan: wait until the very end, literally until you are saying goodbye and getting into the car to drive home, before you present your gift to the host. Otherwise she will in return give you a gift from her personal stash, an act dictated by custom that will leave you feeling greedy and deflated—you came with a meagre box of cookies and will be leaving with a full stomach and probably all of her apples.

We followed the cooking aromas into the kitchen. Gyoza, vegetable soup, squid tempura caught that day by Tama’s husband. I could see a bowl of potato salad, a dish of gomae, and something else sizzling away in a fry pan. I elbowed Aaron and whispered, “Look on the stove,” and he did, then looked back at me, expressionless and shaken. The meat popsicles. I could feel my throat constricting as I realized that at some point very soon I would actually have to raise one of these abominations to my lips and politely eat it, even pretend to enjoy it.

While I didn’t deem such monstrosities worthy of pre-gustation discussion, and didn’t wish to seem impolite, Aaron luckily had no such qualms.

“What are those?” he said.

“What?” said Tama.

“Those things in the pan.”

Tama, who was slicing vegetables at the counter, blinked. She looked at me then back at him. She seemed worried that she was being tricked. “Frankfurters,” she said. Tama was puzzled by this question because she believed she was preparing western food for her western guests, and therefore that we should already be familiar with, and even excited to enjoy, this taste of home.

If these are enjoyed anywhere in the world, it is surely by a remote few who keep it as a shameful secret.

Aaron continued. “Is that a bone?”

“Yes.”

“From what animal?”

“Chicken. Maybe. Maybe pig.”

“Why?”

Now Tama stopped what she was doing—dressing the boneless green salad—and turned and looked at us. It was a long hard look, both accusatory and nonplussed. I smiled through the silence, stopping only when I realized my eyebrows were raised and I was grimacing a little. “Why why?” she said. Tama was clearly stunned.

This was not the only food I encountered in Japan that had been embraced and marketed as something foreign. Such delicacies could be spotted in the American Food section of a menu along with fried potato (fries) and corn soup. I once got in an argument with a ten-year-old student of mine during a discussion about our favourite foods. This took place shortly after my arrival in Japan and I had not yet encountered the family restaurant favourite known as hamburg (pronounced ham-bah-gu):

Me:                  What’s your favourite food?

Yoshitoki:        Hamburg.

Me:                  No no, your favourite food.

Yoshitoki:        Hamburg.

Me:                  You mean hamburger.

Yoshitoki:        Hamburg!

I went on to explain to little Yoshitoki that there was no such thing, that Hamburg is a city in Germany, not something to eat. I even showed him a map. I mistook his silence for concession, though realistically his English conversation abilities were insufficient to hold ground in an argument with his ignorant new teacher. Only later did I discover hamburg on a menu. I ordered it in an act of atonement. What arrived before me was a greyish ground beef patty dripping with brown sauce and accompanied by a cube of fried chicken and a limp broccoli floret.

After a few more moments of silence Aaron continued. “I mean, why a bone?”

Tama gave the only answer there could possibly be: “To hold.”

When the time came I ate the monster quickly and efficiently, and even though the processed meat itself tasted of any other hot dog, my gag reflex required that I douse the beast in the ketchup and mustard Tama had thoughtfully put on the table next to the soy sauce and matcha salt. When I got down to the recycled bone of ambiguous origin I held my breath. I was contemplating what amount of processed mystery meat would be acceptable for a person to leave on the chicken bone or pork bone or whatever it was when I noticed Tama, still shaken by our incomprehensible line of questioning, observing us. When I saw the pleasure she was taking in watching us enjoy her Frankfurters I took a breath, closed my eyes and went for it. Distracting myself with thoughts of the awaiting gyoza, I nibbled that bone-stick clean.

Aaron was offered a second and, after feigning indecision for a mere moment, he accepted. A teeny bit of my respect for him floated away. I reached for the salad, feeing triumphant in having endured my first “Frankfurter.” I hid the bone under a lettuce leaf, sipped my beer, and got on with my life.

Jul
28

Clearing my throat

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This piece was originally published in Kill Your Darlings No. 13 back in April 2013. It’s a long one. It’s reproduced on Falling Through Doors today because, for reasons I will surely expand on in a coming post, I ran out of time to write something new this week.

Enjoy!

– A


I’m standing in front of the mirror in the bathroom, pulling my hair back and opening my eyes as wide as they’ll go. It’s early May and I’ve just woken up. Aaron’s left for work already and it’s cold in here. I know outside is warmer. I’ve seen the rice fields sprouting green and filling out, but the house has been cold since we arrived in Tokushima last November. I lean forward and open my mouth, but I still can’t see it. I drink a glass of water and try again. A perfect pink bump the size of a pea is tucked so perfectly against the rigid ceiling where mouth meets throat it’s like it’s meant to be there. I drink another glass of water and go downstairs to put the kettle on.

I get to work an hour before my first class and tell my boss, Yuko, that my throat hurts. She suggests I visit the clinic over the road from our office, and says they’ll give me medicine. Japanese people are always asking me if I have the right medicine, or if I’d like medicine, but I politely tell her I don’t think I need any. I have a bump back there, I say. The day begins. I get through my lesson plans quickly and treat all my students to Pictionary.

A week later it’s raining and Aaron drops me off at the big University Hospital on his way to work. Here I see a dapper ENT specialist who speaks just enough English to make me feel comfortable. Despite my diligence over the past six months – attending Tuesday morning conversation groups, filling exercise books with childish Japanese scrawl, hours shouting into my Rosetta Stone microphone which rarely recognizes my voice, testing my progress through conversations with my youngest students about whether Rilakkuma is cuter than Hello Kitty – my Japanese skills remain in the basic comprehension/minimal production stage. The doctor says Open, kudasai, and looks down my throat.

The good thing about receiving bad news in a language you struggle to understand is that, among all the concentrating and inferring and contextualizing and body-language reading, there is little space left for emotion. What I hear is tumors. One word, exactly as if it were any other word, like badminton or brunch. I concentrate on that one word so hard I don’t have room to think about it, or even to be distressed by the doctor’s use of the plural.

He asks questions about me and my medical history that I am embarrassed not to be able to answer. I sit gaping when he asks me what my blood type is, and he frowns. He tells me that they will need to do a blood test and other tests, and that I will have to come back later to schedule surgery. I hardly let myself hear the word as I bow, thank him, and excuse myself.

I wait. Blood is drawn and I find it less gruesome than usual as I watch it pulsing into vial after vial. The needle is withdrawn and replaced by a cotton ball taped taut into the crook of my arm. I wait. The man facilitating the respiratory test is astounded by my lung capacity. He yabbers on and I glean that I am the first Westerner he’s ever tested, and that I’m blowing far above the level of the average Japanese patient. So even after my lungs have proven adequate to handle surgery under general anesthetic, he puts the clamp back over my nostrils and the giant tube back between my lips and admits that he wants to see just how hard I can blow. I find this irksome and embarrassing, but I pretend to be flattered by his excitement. Next comes the waiting room. Urine test. Elevator ride. The electrocardiogram is the most relaxing part of the day because I get to lie down.

In the next waiting room I meet Yuko, who arrived as soon as she could to help with translation and paperwork. I’ve already taken my own blood pressure twice today because there’s a machine in each waiting room and it helps to pass the time. Even though it embarrasses Yuko, I stand up, stride down the hall under curious eyes, sit down, shove my arm into the support and let the cool fabric squeeze the shit out of my arm. It beeps. Air hisses out. The machine relaxes, leaving my hand and eyes throbbing, and spits out a little printout identical to the two others in my pocket: some words, some numbers, and the image of a little penguin wearing a doctor’s coat and stethoscope. With its little head bowed it exclaims Odaijini. Get well.

*

It’s a Sunday afternoon in June, the day before my surgery, and I’m at home getting my hospital things together. I imagine myself lying in a hospital bed, staring at an inflamed IV entry point and bleeding in the back of my throat from little weeping burn sites for seven days. I’m reading a checklist and placing necessities in a canvas bag. Towels, cup, pajamas, slippers, toothbrush, hairbrush, soap, face cloth. I start to cry a little. Aaron comes in and asks, ‘What’s the matter?’

I tell him I feel lonely, and he says, ‘Come on,’ and leads me by the hand out to the car.

The eighth ward is quiet when I arrive. I bow as I walk past the nurses’ station. As soon as I step into room 825 I’m assaulted by the staring eyes of three roommates. It’s hot, too – being in the throes of the rainy season, the entire city writhes under a sticky wet blanket of thirty-two-degree humidity – and these ladies have the heater on. Their conversation stops. All three are sitting up in bed, their legs stretched out before them under matching hospital blankets. They let their gazes settle on me, and what I’m sure were meant to be welcoming expressions are contorted by raised eyebrows and open mouths.

I bow and say good evening in Japanese. They each give a little bow, but only one returns my spoken greeting. They keep staring. So I sit on the edge of my bed, open my cupboard and begin arranging my things. Both pairs of pajamas I’ve brought with me have long legs and sleeves because I was counting on an air conditioned chill. When I close the curtain around my bed their conversation resumes. I put on my pajamas and place my book on the stool beside the bed. I fold my jeans and slide my feet into the slippers I’ve bought specially for the occasion and slip out of the room hoping not to be detected. The women, though, are looking. From the bed directly across from mine the oldest one, about seventy, exclaims ‘Pajama!’ and all three begin to laugh. I look down at my modest heather-grey jersey-knit PJs, then up at hers, and feel underdressed. The old woman’s are made of crimson silk.

*

It’s morning. The yellow curtain that surrounds my bed flickers into view and I don’t even wonder where I am. I hear voices all around me and figure I must have slept in, until I glance at my phone and see that it’s just past six. The room smells like rice and miso and I’m excited for a moment before I remember that I’m not allowed to eat. The woman in the next bed is slurping and slurping, stopping only to contribute to the chatter.

An interesting phenomenon of only partially understanding a language is how attuned you become to the various nonverbal components of communication. You suddenly become an authority on the standard volume used, for example, by various demographics in society, and an expert in assessing tones. To my estimation these women are calmly irate. This, combined with my understanding of the words gaijin meaning foreigner and samui meaning cold, brings me to the conclusion that they are clucking about my having risen in the night under a cover of stealth and sweat-soaked pajamas, and turned the air temperature down by a couple of degrees. I had been lying awake well into the wee hours, silently slow-cooking and listening to Silken PJs’ gas-passing. After the nurse came at 9.30 to ask me to turn off my reading light as it was disturbing the others, I kicked off the blankets in smoldering frustration. They were still in a ball under my feet hours later when I whispered fuck this and rose to tamper with the thermostat. If they wanted to lodge petty complaints about the dim glow by which I was reading, fine, but I would roast no more.

I tune out the complaining roommates and am just dozing off again when my curtain is wrenched back by a nurse. In a moment of delusion I imagine she’ll wink and slip me a bowl of soup, but she is the IV nurse. I am disturbed and despite her greeting I take a strong disliking to her. I can’t make peace with the idea of an IV. It is not the pinch or the prick, but the sustained sight of this little invader that is at once inside and outside my body that I find upsetting. She sticks me, tapes me and walks out of the room without closing my curtain.

It’s just me and the needle and the stand with its dripping bag watching. My shelter now vanished, I am again under scrutiny. Silken PJs starts nattering on to me, but, again, the only words I understand are foreigner and cold, so I smile and look to the youngest of the three. I guess she’s about forty. She has wavy black hair and a warm face, and while her pajamas are not silk they are covered with a lively floral. As I smile at her I notice a thick tube coming out from the bottom of her shirt, and as she smiles at me my eyes follow the tube over the blanket, over the edge of the bed and into a transparent bag hooked onto the bedstead. The tube is draining a reddish pinkish yellowish fluid into this indiscreet receptacle. I shut my eyes tight. All I can think of is that mortality is an ugly thing.

I get up and lead my IV stand – like a pet – into the bathroom.

*

When Aaron arrives I’m looking at a sheet of paper a nurse left for me, entitled ‘Message Board’. I sense it will be a useful tool for communication and I am thus familiarizing myself with the various messages I might need to convey. The sheet lists some words and phrases in both English and Japanese. I can express whatever I must with the simple flex of an index finger, as long as what I wish to say is one of the following: I want painkiller; I want nausea stopper; cold; hot; thirsty; phlegm is hard to appear; bleeding; I cannot swallow a meal; I want to do urine; I want to do mail; I want to change my clothes; I want you to watch intravenous feeding. I am charmed and relieved by the appearance of this sheet, and I am working out the possible meanings and uses for some of the phrases when Aaron says ‘Hey there,’ and I see that he’s brought a mini clip-on fan and I’m so happy to see him. I tell him I’m a mess and he looks from my IV to my twisted pajama top to my pillow-creased face. He presses the nurse button, takes the paper from my hands, and when the nurse appears, points to I want to change my clothes.

I don’t know exactly what time it is, but if they’re on schedule it must be just before two in the afternoon. I have been wheeled on a stretcher from the eighth ward, west wing, through the twisting, shiny guts of the hospital. I am looking up partly by default, given my recline, and partly because a doctor is holding a clipboard above my face, communicating to me via sheets of A4 paper with English messages printed on them. Hello. Flip. Welcome to your surgery. Flip. Are you wearing any of the king’s metals? I think hard about this one and, deciding that it must be referring to jewelry, I shake my head. Flip. Did you eat or drink (vomit is likely fall into trachea while anesthesia)? I wince and shake my head again. Flip. Please inhale oxygen from the mask. Flip. You will become sleepy soon. Calmly. Flip. You will fall asleep before you realize. Flip. When you wake up the operation is already completed. This page has an illustration of a well-rested teddy bear wearing an oxygen mask and stretching his arms above his head. The next page asks whether I have any questions, but the doctor just chuckles and puts the clipboard away.

Now she is checking my wrists. At first I’m concerned by her confused expression until I hear someone say namae wa nanidesu ka and realize that she is looking for a hospital bracelet – which I was never given – to confirm my identity. Now there is collective unrest and I say my name, but everyone is speaking very quickly, including the surgeon, whose presence I’ve just noticed. His scrubs make him look small, like a preschooler wearing an old shirt of his father’s, backwards, as a painting smock. The nurse who wheeled me here goes sprinting down the hallway and I look back at my IV while we wait.

Before long, someone is fumbling with my right hand, and when I look down I see my hospital bracelet with my surname written twice in Japanese and a large A+. Now I know my blood type.

On the move again. Although I feel quite calm, I can feel liquid streaming from the outer corners of my eyes, across my temples and into my ears. The stretcher finally stops under very bright lights. I am disoriented and squinting, the medical professionals are hovering above me, haloed, masked and gloved. One of them is dabbing at my eyes and putting cotton in my ears and sticking ECG pads all over and pulling my left arm away from me. There is an intense pain in there and then it’s all black and a second passes and suddenly I’m coughing like I’ve never coughed before. It’s the kind of cough that strains your eyeballs and burns your ears and you keep expecting something to come up but it doesn’t. I’m still coughing when I discover that I’m back in motion and I figure it’s all done, that I’ve been burned.

The coughing subsides and gives way to a thick warm sting just as Aaron comes into view. His eyes are full of water and he says ‘How are you?’ and I say ‘Copacetic,’ but no sound comes out. He laughs and walks along beside me. I look at him and point at his watch and he says ‘Half an hour,’ and I marvel at the anesthetic’s thievery: thirty minutes and two tumors, gone.

*

It’s time for the evening meal and I am again taunted by the scent of the steam that fills the air around my bed. This time I am allowed to eat but cannot due to the searing pain in my throat. I ring the nurse and when she arrives I brandish the message board, pointing to pain and I want painkiller. They have given me pain tablets but they’re doing nothing. When it’s clear that I haven’t understood the nurse’s response to my request she runs off and returns moments later with an electronic dictionary, which she jabs a few times before passing it to me. sup•pos•i•to•ry. This angers me more than it should and I pass the dictionary back to her, shaking my head, no.

It’s dark outside now and Aaron has left. Though I enjoyed the companionship, I’m now glad for the solitude. The ladies also had visitors. Visitors who entered the room, did a double-take before pausing at the foot of my bed, staring, mouths open, confused. I wanted to spit blood at them.

So it’s just the four of us ladies. Drainbag and Slurper are carrying on quietly, and Silken PJs’ surgery has rendered her, like me, silent. She looks restful though, and I am restless. Thanks to the IV I don’t feel hungry, but I still fantasize about eating. I taste blood.

Well past lights out I feel the need to move. Silken PJs is snoring a sad wet rattle. I’m wide-awake and my fingers are twitching. I have to pee. As I maneuver myself into standing position I feel intense resentment toward the needle in my aching hand and I come close to ripping it out. I regain composure, pick myself up and begin the journey down the hallway to the toilet. I pull my companion across the metal-strip threshold and slide the door shut behind me, and when I’m finally sitting down I look at my hand. Now in the light I can see my own blood creeping up the tube. I want it back in me. My eyes fill, and when I glance at myself in the mirror – a pathetic nest-haired heap of rumpled pajamas on a hospital toilet in the middle of the night – I begin to weep.

*

Days later, I wake up in the morning and don’t move. I can feel my hair quivering in the breeze from the little fan and I stare straight ahead at constellations of fluorescent light penetrating the pores of my curtain. I imagine that I will be forgotten, scratching a tally of the passing days into the wooden night stand, my nails growing long and curling in on themselves, bedsores. My pajamas are starting to feel like my skin, and my skin is starting to feel numb. I remember in this moment that I haven’t spoken since Monday afternoon.

I close my eyes and whisper the word whisper. It works. I make a short, quiet humming noise with my mouth closed. While yet tender, I’m humming. I part my lips and say ahh very quietly and am surprised at the pleasure I take in hearing my voice. I do it again louder, then louder still. After several more tries it becomes a little too close to a shout and a nurse whips back my curtain. I close my mouth and make a face that says wasn’t me. She smiles, looks at her watch and walks away.

A few moments later she is back. She says good morning, takes my blood pressure and, without warning, slides the needle out of my hand and tapes a cotton ball over the not-so-little hole. She leaves, taking the IV with her. I am elated, waving my arm around to prove its freedom to myself when the nurse returns, this time with the coveted morning meal.

By the time the surgeon comes to see me I am chipper and manage a quiet hello. The first thing he does is hold up a jar containing a clear liquid in which two small greyish pink lumps are suspended. I recognise them and this lowers my spirits considerably. ‘Your tumors.’ In fear of appearing ungrateful or rude, I resist the temptation to look away. I stare at them bobbing around in there, so far from where they started, and tell myself that at least they’re out. The surgeon is saying some things and I’m not really listening, but I am suddenly brought back when I hear the word benign. He says they still have some paperwork to finish, but that I can leave tonight.

*

It’s after dinner and I stand up and wander out into the common lounge. My canvas bag is packed up and I’m waiting for Aaron. I am happy to find no one there except for one pajama-clad man who has been watching the television since my arrival in the eighth ward. He doesn’t look at me and this is comforting. I wander over to the window and stand looking out at the lights of the city, the black snake that is the Yoshino River sliding along the northern reaches, and the void to the south that is Mount Bizan, a looming hole in the night.