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.