Tomoko doesn’t leap so much as lean forward from her window ledge just before midnight. It’s a movement she’s attempted for months at the Nishi-Hiroshima high rise where she lives. She lets her legs dangle and feels the breeze in the pockets between her toes. She believes there will be relief in the falling, or something other than this numbness. Not pleasure but a catharsis of some sort, when for one or maybe two seconds there’s nothing more to do.
Tomoko suspects she’ll feel some sense of peace, an epiphanic moment of laughable acceptance: maybe a beekeeper who has stung to death smells the flowers the bees pollinated, lavender and fireweed, or the drowning child feels the tickle of bubbles on his flesh, like those from his mother’s womb, a sensation he wasn’t aware he’d forgotten, or perhaps Tomoko expects the company of angels. Though she doesn’t believe in angels, she likes the idea of them.
It’s just after 9 PM when the door’s sing-song chime announces Nora entering the konbini. She just ended her shift at the eikaiwa where she teaches small children English nursery rhymes. It’s been three days since Nora has had a conversation with a native English speaker. This wears on her to the point of snapping at Haruna, a private level two student. A forty-something in a red smock pauses while lining the shelves with melon pan to yell, “Onegaishimas!” Nora gives a half-bow, as she’s unsure what to say. She knows she cannot repeat the phrase because it would mean she is also welcoming the employee to the store. This was a mistake she made throughout the first month she lived in Japan. It was met with polite smiles until a co-worker corrected her. She ducks toward the candy aisle as a J-Pop singer harmonizes on the store’s speakers.
Nora lingers through the aisles. Even if she can’t talk with the employees, she’s grateful for their company. They demand nothing of her and let her finger all the packages while deciphering the characters. It goes like this most nights.
The dinner choices at the end of the day are mystery sashimi, and a meaty ketchup concoction made to resemble spaghetti. Nora peruses for a bit, attempts to decipher the kanji on a package of cough drops, but selects the Doritos whose ingredients list “meat products” and a box of “Men’s Pocky” sticks. Not outstanding as far as dinners go, but the choices are limited at this hour, and her feet are swollen.
Nora and Tomoko are neighbors who share a common wall. When they sleep, they are separated only by studs and drywall, and yet when they encounter each other they do a half-bow, half-nod maneuver in the hallway. Neither knows the other’s name, nor have they ever exchanged any fragments of language between them.
In the morning — Iowa’s evening — Nora will call her mother to tell her of the stranger’s leap. She will attempt to describe the scene, but no words will come. For Nora, language is a bottomless well that she visits so that she might create life as she tells it. Still, when she calls her mother she struggles to describe the large smear of blood on a fourth-floor air conditioning unit, and the way the woman’s body twisted and contorted itself until it was nearly unrecognizable. She will have frozen moments imprinted upon her, moments devoid of language.
This absence of words will cause Nora to slip quietly into an anxiety from which she suspects she might never recover, but it will take two more months before Nora can get on the plane to return to Iowa. By then Nora’s mother will be recovering from her second round of surgery for cancer. Her mother’s wounds will still be fresh, cold from the ice compress, and Nora will find herself once again in the cornfields. She will have resolved that she belongs there more than anywhere else.
When Tomoko leans forward the night air puffs up her skirt. It’s hard to say why today is the day she leans. What makes the leaning less difficult on this particular evening? It’s possible this is just the one time she can’t bring herself to ignore the pull, to separate her body from the tug of gravity.
Tomoko’s apartment looks over a sparse concrete garden, and the garbage of her neighbors. Most of the lights are out in the building, and the only real movement is the occasional whoosh of the elevator. After sitting at the window for so long, she grows too drained to combat the urge to tilt forward.
One of Nora’s favorite Japanese things is the Hiroshima streetcar line which she takes each night to the Nishi-Hiroshima high rise where she lives. Each stop announced one after the other:
Nora reads her book. In Japan, she’s become skilled at tuning out the noise.
“Kamiya-cho-higashi…Kamiya-cho-nishi…Genbaku-dome-mae Atomic Bomb Dome…”
And there it is, that tiny bit of English distracts her from reading. She stops to watch a few passengers exit the streetcar. It has always struck her as curious that of the twenty or so stops on the main line, the only one spoken in English is the Atomic Bomb Dome. It’s courteous, as if to say, “Please bear witness to ‘Little Boy.’” Even the streetcar is polite to a fault.
She senses the smooth pull again. If she pores over the words and blocks out the whirs and clicks of the track, the faces, and the motion that hum in her peripheral, she is able to read while moving. But she cannot focus, so she retrieves her cell phone. She’d hoped there might be a message from her mother, some update on her scans or details on the upcoming appointment with the specialist. She glances at the screen, but there are no messages.
Nora likes to sneak pictures of the Japanese. An endeavor she cannot pursue with her cellphone as the Japanese keitai is sold so that the camera feature always makes a shutter sound when taking a photo to combat voyeurs. She rests her Canon in her lap and presses the shutter. Tonight is a sleeping salaryman, and an elderly woman who looks to be about 180 years old. It seems no one here dies of old age.
The photos please Nora. Sometimes it’s merely to have documented proof of life in the East. Once she saw a woman board the train wearing a fuzzy tail. The tailed woman played games on her cellphone, oblivious to Nora’s stolen glances. Nora feels closer to these passengers, and to the konbini attendant, than she does to her coworkers or her students. She allows herself these moments to study their faces, and finds more connection in the shared silence than in all the broken English at school today.
Nora knows something about fashioning an identity even if it is with a tail. Nora crafted a new identity while she sent off her college diploma to the Japanese consulate for her Visa. Nora isn’t even Nora’s real name. Nora’s real name is Eleanor, after her grandmother. Her parents decided upon it the day they learned they were having a girl, but to her it always sounded like the name of a woman who dies in her bathrobe, so they call her Ellie. A name they continue to call her in spite of her new identity as Nora—an identity with which they are unfamiliar, which she has no desire to share. When she was offered the position in Hiroshima she decided she’d go by something else, something more mature, worldlier.
In Japan she would be Nora, a person sprung into existence at the teacher training in Okayama. She prepared by purchasing three Banana Republic pantsuits and two skirts. Then she went to Macy’s for the satin underwear, slinky lace bras and nightgowns. When she packed her luggage she left all the ragged, sweat-stained, cotton bras and thinning underwear in the states. She watched Youtube videos until she mastered the chignon hairstyle, and memorized kanji until her eyes grew tired and each character started to look like a pound sign.
This was where she’d become the person she was meant to be. When people asked what her parents did she’d tell them they were “in sales,” to avoid the truth—that her father worked as a night janitor at Grawn Elementary, and that her mother was just a stay-at-home mom who cleaned houses on the side.
She wasn’t embarrassed of them, not exactly—she was embarrassed perhaps of how unembarrassed they were of themselves. It was just that she wanted so much more than they’d ever thought to ask for. Something beyond a modest ranch in the suburbs, to not wait thirty years to fly on an airplane for the first time, to read literature rather than People Magazine. The more she learned of the world the stranger they seemed. It wasn’t that she was gifted or talented exactly, but she was living in a world apart from theirs. Every insidious or slightly racist thing her mother said at the dinner table felt like a dare that she nail her tongue to the roof of her mouth. They did all they could to get her into college, how could she engage them without insulting, without showing them how small their world was?
Once she was Nora, she was determined to travel for Golden Week to Laos, or Hong Kong or Thailand. Her family had only ever taken road trips, and traveled exclusively to places where they knew someone with a guest room or a pullout sofa.
Nora could pull off a platform heel or a chiffon blouse, whereas Ellie was the kind of girl who would wear jeans most every day of the year. Ellie was the forgettable type whose name was nowhere near the tip of your tongue, though she sat behind you in pre-calculus for two semesters. The kind of girl whose signature in your yearbook would make you thumb through school photos looking, trying to remember some girl named “Ellie.”
The tailed woman probably isn’t important, but it’s difficult to know right now which pieces are the most vital. Memory is spoken of as a tangible part people have, like good eyesight or freckles. But it is not a thing to be touched, as we will never run our hands over memory and finger its gaps, and splitting channels. The scalp will not crack like a pecan shell to reveal tightly bundled nerves, or forking history that we will recognize by mere touch.
As Tomoko hits the concrete she feels her legs buckle under her weight. She folds onto her stomach and senses her shoulder socket’s release—a clumsy but swift pop. Her neck angle is strange, unfamiliar, and everything is dark.
But Tomoko is alive.
The first thing she hears is the frenzied beat of footsteps. Someone is approaching. Tomoko blinks, but when she opens her eyes she sees darkness, shadow. Hair, it must be her hair. Even through the screeching pain she feels the weight of a few threads of hair tickling the bridge of her nose with each blink. Her nerves flicker on. The previous numbness has subsided, evaporated from her cells upon impact.
The footsteps are closer now. Instead of relief she feels shame, and though she is electric with pain she is engulfed in humiliation.
Tomoko hears English.
“Oh my god. Fuck! Oh my god!” Nora mutters on her approach. She had been taking out her garbage when she heard Tomoko fall. Tomoko attempts to lift her head to see.
“Stop! Don’t move!” Tomoko lowers her head not because she wants to, but because there’s a pain that discharges from her temple to her shoulder—no, it’s further than that, long past her hip, into the shattered patella of her right knee.
Nora wrings her hands. Her brows crimp together in an effort to not cry. It’s as if the white-hot pain travels the length of her body, rather than the folded body of the woman before her. The woman, whose legs are akimbo, bowed into perverted angles—angles the body should never know, goes still. She looks like a flopped doll, cast aside and forgotten on the carpet of the playroom.
Tomoko’s shame dissipates and gives way to fury. She is filled with a rage that’s about to bubble over. It percolates until it swells at her mouth.
“Go,” Tomoko says, but the words are only a whisper puffing from the mouth. Nora squats near Tomoko. She leans in to hear the few syllables at the woman’s mouth. Nora reaches toward Tomoko’s face and sweeps a few panels of hair from her cheek. The woman spits two teeth onto the concrete, and a string of pink saliva slinks from her lower lip.
Tomoko’s eyes lock with Nora’s and there can be no mistaking her irritation. From somewhere deep in her gut Tomoko rallies an animal force.
“Go, gaijin!” she growls. A pink bubble pops at the corner of her mouth.
“Gaijin,” it’s a word that means “foreigner,” or “alien,” but at its most basic it means “outsider.” It’s the kind of word that is used freely by children. It’s common when teaching a toddler class to have the child well up with tears, and bury his face in his mother’s lap. The common response to a foreigner is fear. For the younger classes the mothers accompany them. They mostly provide a lap on the other side of the room where the child may hide. The mothers sing along to the songs and teach the children to mimic the motions when singing, “How’s the weather?” Still, the small ones contort their bodies, and conceal their faces for the first few months. They are disinterested in weather, puppets, or toys. It will take time before the shape of Nora’s face isn’t terrifying, before her height isn’t so troubling.
Nora learns “gaijin” when she hears the teenagers say it. She’s not heard an adult use it, and when it’s said in her proximity the eikaiwa manager turns stern and scolds the student. So while she knows that it means “outsider,” it must mean something else, something a little shameful, the kind of word said only at home.
A month or two into her contract Nora experienced her first earthquake. It was just a shimmy while sipping coffee at the train station, barely distinguishable, a brief spell of dizziness wherein the other patrons all looked to each other to acknowledge the tremor. They returned to their conversations. Hailing from the middle of America, the shudder left Nora giddy.
When the second earthquake arrived at 4:00AM on a Sunday morning, she was less giddy because it was five months later. She was no longer the same romantic expat. When not teaching she spent almost all her waking moments staring into the screen of her laptop. She learned to prop it sideways and lie on her pillow watching hours of American television. She’d so desperately wanted to start her life here, and yet she couldn’t help but cling to the familiarity of these characters. She neglected showers on the weekends, and only left her apartment to gather junk food.
When the quake hit she was woken by the rocking, but was rooted to her futon. In her stupor she opened her eyes and registered the sway. She knew what she ought to do—the table, she ought to have gone to the table and sat cross-legged. She ought to at least have walked the four steps to the doorframe and placed herself in a more secure location, but she could not, because the truth was—she wasn’t afraid.
She pulled her blankets toward her face in an effort to ignore the earth’s insistent tremor in her legs. She eyed the pendulum lamp making wide loops above her while holding her breath and constricting her calves so that she might be still. This was a big one. This was the kind of quake that made national news, and yet she was paralyzed.
Nora awaited the crush of the ceiling as the earth’s rocking grew frantic. She closed her eyes, but she didn’t flinch. The building was more elastic than any American counterpart, and was established to withstand the wobbles and jerks of the shifting plates beneath.
She waited. She imagined the way it would feel, how crumbled matter would crush into her. It would push the air from her lungs, bloody her flesh, maim her to pulpy tissues, grind her into nothing. The silt of destruction would fill in the gaps around her. Insulation, dust, fine granules would pour into her ears, her mouth and would stick to the syrupy pits of her wounds.
But the crush never came.
After Tomoko yells, Nora starts to run. She is looking for help, but she’s overcome by the sense that she knew the woman was going to jump even before the sound. Maybe it’s a sixth sense, the feeling of waiting for something terrible to happen, the eerie stillness that she felt even before Tomoko leaned from the ledge.
In that pause there’s a flash, a moment where she knows something terrible is happening even before Tomoko left the ledge. It might have been a dimming light, or some premonition in the stillness. Not a ghost or a vision, but the slightest flash of tension.
Maybe she saw a flash like Georgia Greene had, a woman she read about before she left the states. Georgia was a blind woman, a music student at the University of New Mexico. At 5:30AM on July 16, 1945 her brother-in-law was driving her to her lesson in Albuquerque. The two were happily chatting when the first and last atomic bomb test was conducted. Fifty miles away, the bomb detonated. A great sandy boom shook the New Mexico desert.
But blind Georgia was the only one who really saw the boom. Perhaps it was something other than seeing. She might have experienced a change in air pressure, a surge of warm air, or a sudden shift in temperature. Yet the newspapers still reported that this woman had seen something. She gasped and reached for her brother-in-law’s forearm, said, “What’s that?”
He was curious, unaware of what had startled Georgia, unable to see the bomb himself. Perhaps the elusive bomb, the one that would dissolve entire cities produced a special kind of light. A kind only visible to the blind.
There’s a phrase for women like Tomoko— “Christmas cake,” or more specifically, “stale Christmas cake.” Unmarried women beyond the age of twenty-five are perceived as leftovers. And as the saying goes, “Who wants Christmas Cake after Christmas?”
This is really the least of Tomoko’s worries though, and in an ironic twist she found a sort of part-time gig outside the insurance office where she works. She has been employed mailing her soiled underwear for almost a year now. For 5,000 yen, Japanese salary men drunkenly saunter up to vending machines to purchase the undergarments of a schoolgirl.
On the packaging a schoolgirl clad in a sailor-style uniform poses. She’s complete with the ubiquitous knee-high stockings, the wide stripes of milky skin between her socks and the pleats of her plaid skirt. Her brown eyes peer seductively from beneath the spiky fringe of her bangs.
When Tomoko sees the girl with her hands perched unnaturally at the knobs of her knees, she remembers a time when she might have practiced a similar form. Her knees are now frowning. Two dimpled crescents of flesh wobble from her thighs. Her knees’ grimace is even more pronounced when she attempts to flex her legs.
Tomoko hadn’t intended to be the woman who would send her panties in a bubble mailer to an Osaka warehouse, but when Yoshi left, she became preoccupied with having her own money, with needing no one. Yoshi was just a guy she considered her occasional boyfriend, whenever he was on the rebound he would text her. She would meet him at an izakaya on the corner, and after just one sake or hi-chu their cheeks would flush pink, showcasing the absence of an enzyme. This would inevitably devolve to stumbling toward Tomoko’s apartment. Yoshi never invited her home, always insisting upon a roommate she’d never met. And while she knew it wasn’t love, wasn’t even close to it, she appreciated his company all the same.
She liked how he pressed two fingers to her throat. The first time when he prodded this place she asked what he was doing.
“I like to feel the pulse of my lovers,” he said.
But eventually it had become a familiar post-coital gesture, and Tomoko would wait for the pressure of his two fingers. It was as if he was checking to make sure she was still alive. For a woman who spent most days wishing she wasn’t, she felt oddly grateful that someone was looking for some proof that she had not dissolved to dust just yet.
Maybe Nora doesn’t see a flash of light like the light Georgia Greene did. Maybe when Tomoko hurls through the dark Nora hears the vowels of empty syllables, a slight cry or guttural reflex as the air squeezes the breath from Tomoko’s chest. Regardless, when Tomoko’s body cracks onto concrete, Nora feels a shiver rush through her.
She is stepping off the elevator with her garbage when she senses it. It’s the kind of quiet that gets under your skin. It’s possible Nora is more sensitive to melancholy after feeling she has been wronged all year. She’s waded in the kind of hurt that makes her face cringe, makes her shoulders bounce with sobs. She can feel it inside her ribs. A sharp pain left of the center, tangible but just out of reach.
One week into Nora’s expatriate life she is reminded of Ellie. Her father calls and speaks of her mother’s cancer. This is not the kind of thing she ever considered would be a part of her Japanese experience. It never occurred to her that Iowa might insert itself, might follow her here, or that Ellie would be at her heels.
During those first solo lessons Nora sang the “Nice to Meet You” song louder than usual. She had something to prove, not only to the staff—whom had no knowledge of the illness—but also to herself. She learned the word “genki” in the first days of training. It means excessive enthusiasm, but the teachers in the training videos resembled deranged cheerleaders more than instructors. In spite of Nora’s initial snickers, she now employs “genki” as a way to survive the day. This self is foreign to her, but the children respond to puppetry, music, and saccharine intonation, which allows her to cast out traces of Ellie altogether.
But the worst days in Japan aren’t when Nora is feigning enthusiasm with her charade of genki behavior. No, the worst are when Nora spends the day on the brink of tears, afraid she will erupt at any moment. Each week her manager asks her to do extra consults and they both know she’s at the limit for lessons that week, but if she says “no” she will only make it worse for herself. She will be talked about in Japanese passive-aggressive insults while she’s in the office, because her manager knows Nora doesn’t understand. And if she doesn’t do the lesson it will be added to the following week’s schedule with other consults. So she agrees and shuffles through the level-four workbooks. She can feel the pressure behind her eyes, and hear the waver in her voice. Her jaw feels loose, but she hopes its tremble goes unnoticed.
There is no singular thing to which Nora can attribute this depression. For that matter, she might not even know to call it depression. Yes, she is more alone than she ever has been, more exhausted by her life than ever before, but the worst of it is that she wishes to stay in Japan if only to make a point. To be able to tell strangers of this brave thing she once did. If somewhere someone is keeping track, she wants them to know that she is a woman who is brave. As miserable as she is, there is guilt in knowing that she prefers this isolation to her small life in Iowa. She resents her mother for getting sick now, just as her life was beginning. This is an ugliness she won’t acknowledge, which doesn’t mean she can’t taste its bitterness on her tongue.
Before Tomoko leans, Nora enters her eighth floor apartment and the evening unfolds as it always does. The floor is littered with konbini shopping bags, empty tea bottles, tipped aluminum cans of coffee, and remnants of curry plates collecting mold. She follows a jagged trail of cleared parquet flooring and flops onto her futon, not bothering to remove her pantsuit. She rifles through her konbini bag and retrieves a bottle of Calpiss—the yogurty drink renamed Calpico in the US because its Japanese name sounds too similar to “cow piss” for potential North American customers.
Nora flips open her laptop, signs into Skype and checks to see if anyone is online. No one is available. It’s now morning in Iowa. Everyone back home is starting Tuesday just as Nora finishes. Nora tears open her meat-product Doritos and removes her blazer. She removes her pants, knee-high stockings, unlatches her bra and pulls it from the armhole of her blouse. She consumes Doritos until her hand is stained orange, and she feels a little sick. If anyone saw her like this, she would be horrified. At home she had no choice but to keep a tidy room, but here there’s no one to see her. She lets the garbage accumulate in the corners of the room.
By midnight no one has come online. Nora illegally downloads two new episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. When her laptop overheats she alternates to her stomach. She sweeps her arm along the floor, and tips over a few bottles and a bag of stale baked goods. When Nora gets up to pee she notices her garbage poster and remembers tomorrow is a double garbage day: unburnables and broken electronics. A system which is both thoughtful and obnoxious as her cheerful landlord sifts through garbage each week to make sure each tenant is following protocol. A broken hair dryer has been sitting on her washing machine for a month awaiting its designated pick-up day. She steps into some Hello Kitty pajama pants and collects her garbage. She slips her feet into her loafers and walks toward the elevator.
This story is Nora’s, but if she were responsible for its telling, these happenings would be muddled. Nora has never been this empty, and no metaphor will explain this vacancy in her. When she prays at night, she whispers to the dead, wets her pillow, and her eyes wiggle like mercury as they search the dark. There’s a wheezing desperation to her tone when she pleads for a sign, for something to point her in the right direction—whether that means staying put or returning to Iowa.
But Nora is not so different from anyone. Each of us knows the furniture inside these rooms, the chambers we create with thick curtains and stale snow packed into the corners. We too have rested with shoulder folded under the weight of the body, wondering where to find the door. These rooms are for mouthing prayers, and hoping that our hearts won’t fall out of our mouths, for sticking pins into jaundiced flesh and awaiting the spark of nerve. Nora must quit her hungry sucking at the wounds of her loneliness, at the loss of her imagined dream of Japan and the kind of life she would fashion for herself, at the loss of Nora in the presence of Ellie’s resolute pulse, and at the mother who cannot help getting sick. This kind of dark is murderous. While this is a truth Tomoko has known for some time, Nora is only beginning to learn.
When Nora runs and knocks on the door of a first floor apartment, her pleas are frantic and she drums her knuckles on the door until they sting. She drops her garbage and the broken hair dryer in a nearby planter. The tenant won’t come so she just screams until her voice is hoarse, and moves to the next apartment to continue her knocking. By the third, a man cracks the door so she can see a few inches of his face. She points, and starts speaking jumbled Japanese from her phrase book. When he doesn’t respond she starts gesturing and the man follows her. She jogs ahead and then she points to Tomoko’s crumpled figure. His face turns white and he runs back to his apartment to call for help.
Nora folds down Tomoko’s skirt in the spirit of dignity, but her legs are crumpled. Her nylons are tattered wisps that pattern her disfigured limbs like spider webs. Tomoko eyes her, but her eyes cannot lock on Nora’s features.
The truth is Tomoko can’t see Nora anymore. She looks through her, because Nora is just a flesh-toned mirage that she isn’t sure is real.
Minutes later, somewhere off in the distance Nora hears the faint whine of a siren. It’s the promise of this help that makes her start to cry. Tears gather at her lids and she’s overcome. Mostly she can’t stop thinking of that moment after the jump. After that long second she recognized the sound of a human body splitting on concrete. There was a brief flicker, a second where Nora wished it had been her. It was the type of thought that moved like water; it couldn’t be grasped, but if enough of these thoughts collected they could amass and support the weight of a ship.
Upon this she muses the most: Why would a god would make life so long?
The tears are falling rapidly now, and Tomoko is watching Nora. Tomoko’s mouth blooms like a cut, and beyond Nora’s head she sees the scattered punctures of the far stars. She remembers Yoshi.
One time Yoshi took Tomoko to a love hotel when he was feeling particularly generous. He was coming off a brutal breakup and when they started seeing each other again he seemed relieved by her company. After too much sake at the izakaya he proposed a love hotel and she was happy at his suggestion. A place reserved for lovers, for making love, a space that seemed special after their routine of Tuesday fucks. The room’s theme was outer space and had a circular bed made to resemble the moon. When he made love to her, she was distracted by the glowing Saturn hovering behind his head. Constellations flickered and a rotating lamp cast shadows and points of light on his shoulders and chest.
To Tomoko, Yoshi had never looked more beautiful. His hair made from raven’s feathers, black but also blue and silver in the celestial light. Orion stitched itself along his collarbone. When he smiled down at her there was a tenderness she had forgotten, a kind of almost love, one which he would never speak of, but she felt all the same. There was an intimacy in the creases at his eyes, the crooks of his mouth. But even as the moment was happening, she knew it was already over. It was not the kind of thing she could cling to and so she pushed it from her, knowing he was never hers to begin with. In a month’s time he’d stop answering her texts after explaining that he had a girlfriend now. A title which he would never offer her no matter how often he craved her company. It had all happened before.
Tomoko doesn’t lean forward for Yoshi, or for any man, at least not directly. Yoshi’s been gone for the better part of a year now anyway. Tomoko leans because she has no one to stop her. Because her parents died years ago. Because there is no one person to root her here. Because the business of mailing one’s panties to a warehouse doesn’t offer much in the way of coworkers or lovers or friends. Because when everyone leaves and Tomoko catches her face in the mirror she sees there is nothing worth loving. Because Tomoko’s loneliness shapes itself into particles that accumulate in her veins and their weight draws her toward the earth, toward her end, because there is no alternate force to abate this sadness.
The howl of the siren grows louder, and Nora is wiping the tears from her cheeks. Tomoko is still breathing, but her breaths are shallow and labored. She senses dust settling into her veins, and all she can feel is exhaustion as the night sits heavy above her. For awhile she has felt the beating wings of a bird on her breastplate, but the feathers only tickle her ribs now. Tomoko has spent years squeezing herself into the nooks and crannies of this life, trying to make a home for herself, trying to find her people, but tonight she has been kneaded down into crumbs and fine particles scattered on concrete.
Nora reaches for Tomoko’s hand. She sandwiches the cold palm between her hands, though it twitches with sluggish spasms. It is a scratched layer of muscle, bone, and tendon. Tomoko starts to wiggle her fingers, and with effort curls them around Nora’s. Her fingers move as if she is searching the skin for braille, attempting to process the sensation.
Tomoko’s hand holding, of course, is nothing more than the erratic, final firing of nerves sensing skin. But Nora doesn’t know this, and she assumes it’s a quiet plea. And this is how Nora makes a ghost of this stranger, of this woman whom she will never know. Nora swallows her whole. She doesn’t realize Tomoko, as with every horror, every loss, is an intruder. Nora’s never been any good at distinguishing larks from lions, and so she takes Tomoko into the bowels. In here Tomoko will live alongside Nora’s mother’s cancer, alongside the accumulated hours of Nora’s time in Japan, and just beneath Nora’s suspicions that she might never belong anywhere. This is where Tomoko will live, no longer twisted and with her skull crushed in, but sleeping soundly in the stomach of a stranger.
“The Jumper and the Gaijin” by Jennifer Popa appeared in Issue 39 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
Jennifer Popa is a Ph.D. student of English at Texas Tech University where she teaches creative writing and literature and serves as Managing Editor at Iron Horse Literary Review. Though she originally hails from Michigan, she found her way to West Texas by way of Seattle, Fairbanks, Austin, and Hiroshima. Some of Jennifer’s most recent writing can be found in Juked, Watershed Review, The Boiler, decomP, and Atticus Review. She can be found at http://www.jenniferpopa.com.