Mara braced herself for her sunset uphill climb. The first time she walked home from work she swore it was a wall. She imagined herself leaning into it and catching herself on her hands, scaling the nearly vertical slope like a spider. Her legs ached for a week. By the time she reached the top it was always murder black and the forest to the left heckled her with pops and caws. To the right was the neighbor mountain, freckled with little houses hanging their laundry to dry. At the top was a castle of an apartment complex. It loomed over all the little houses, with their drying underwear and numerous houseplants.
She couldn’t decide whether to marvel at the castle or be worried for the people living in it. When would the next earthquake bring them all down? Why did they build something with so little land to surround the building? And would their tiny chain link fence be enough to protect a dog, a child, a drunk, from toppling down the steep incline?
The stars began to yawn and say good morning one by one as she finally made her way up to her driveway to her house. Only one light was on in the old house that squatted next to the belt of houses along the neighbor mountain. Mara noticed with disappointment that Shoko San had already watered her plants. Saying good evening and exchanging a nod with her elderly neighbor made her feel like she wasn’t somewhere far away, and at the same time reassured her it was ok to be.
Her cluster of key chains hung from the lock like a bunch of iron grapes as she turned the lock and shoved the door with her shoulder. Mara steeled herself and felt the laughter begin to rise in her belly as she heard the loud, wailing welcome of Mimi from inside her living room. Removing her shoes with a little smile, she flicked on the lights in her kitchen pretending not to notice the shadow of two bugs scattering behind her stacks of recycling and garbage. Again Mimi, the cat who was really a frog, gave a whining greeting from behind her shoji door. She slowly pulled it to the side and she zoomed past her into the kitchen, running in circles like a Labrador.
They played fetch for a good 20 minutes. Mara was exhausted from her day of teaching and the climb home, but she imagined what it must be like to be Mimi, all alone at home with nothing to do but hunt the occasional bug. She had no one to play with her. How did she spend her hours with all of his energy to burn? Did she feel how lonely the old house was? No of course not, she was just an animal and all she knew of the world was the cat café she had lived in since she was a kitten before Mara saw the “for sale” sign and couldn’t bear to see her leave.
Mimi had a brother. Mara felt a pang of regret every time she remembered how she had asked her landlord for permission to adopt two cats rather than sneaking the brother in like everyone else in the complex did. Now Mimi was alone and she knew no other cat would understand her dog-like tendencies or be able to match her explosive playful spirit.
So maybe Mimi was lonely. But then again, she didn’t miss someone every time she looked at the television. She didn’t remember her friend in the frame on the table who left months ago. Mimi didn’t have 8 years of her life wasted on someone who brought her to a foreign land only to drop her at the next shiny new opportunity. She didn’t anticipate care packages from America like they were manna sent from the sky.
Mimi awoke Mara around 5:30 am to remind her to feed her breakfast. Mara obeyed and silently swore to get around to buying those dark curtains. The mornings were too long with Mimi waking her up so early and she walked down her hill hours later, wishing she could have had just one morning to sleep until a normal hour. She never bothered with makeup. There was no one to notice if she wore it or not and with the humidity rising in the summer, and the active nature of her job teaching young children, it probably would have just melted off her face anyway. Still, she sometimes felt a stab of embarrassment when she saw the perfectly manicured women on the train. Their little wrists adorned with sparkling watches. The effortless way they walked in heals. The way their clothes were always modest, dry, feminine, and undoubtedly expensive.
She would never let herself believe she was fat. She had worked on her inner self-talk too long to let that shame back in. She had done it almost all her life until she had become a danger to herself. But she couldn’t deny she had gained weight since the breakup. And even though she would not let her thoughts express the dissatisfaction she felt when she caught sight of herself next to the other women on the train, she felt the slightest beat of a wing against her heart that weighed her existence down just a little more every time.
Mara naturally had hair the light brown shade women were spending visits to the salon to acquire. Her skin was clear (when it wasn’t beaded with sweat) and her eyes danced with green light when she was happy. In fact, everything in her seemed to be beautiful when she was cheerful. When her laugh was easy she was as effervescent and comforting as beer to her weary colleagues. When she wasn’t, she was utterly invisible. Unremarkable. And she used her brown hair to curtain her eyes like blinders as she walked down the city streets, avoiding eye contact like germs.
On this morning, she got off the train feeling somewhere in between. She didn’t feel the heaviness, but she didn’t feel the laughter. Like being in a shower that wasn’t hot but wasn’t cold. She didn’t smile and nod to the old people in the street, yet she didn’t look at the ground either. Her eyes were unfocused and fixed straight ahead. The people around her seemed to weave about like they knew exactly where they were going. Mara knew where she was going- it was the same every day wasn’t it? So why weren’t her steps as sure?
She punched the combination to the key box and turned the lock. Plucking the keys up she snapped it shut again and climbed the stairs to her teaching studio. It was a classroom, and yet it wasn’t. There were no desks, just a couple long, short tables and stools. The carpet had a big circle with the alphabet on it and various shapes, colors, and animals. Mara turned on the air conditioning with a soft beep and watched the large machine come to life as she breathed a sigh of relief. It was a studio and not a classroom because Mara taught English through the arts. Her 9 years in this country so far had been in the typical classroom setting, and she had grown to love it. But there was something so much more rewarding about being able to play with her students. To watch them laugh and express themselves with skits and paints and crayons.
Karasu snapped his son into the backseat of his bicycle. Yuki looked at him with a skeptical stare as Karasu tightened Yuki’s helmet and wiped a smear of sweet potato off of his cheek. Karasu smirked at the contradiction in his son’s chubby, baby-like face that managed to look back at him with the fed-up wisdom of an old man. He couldn’t let Yuki see his smile, it was time to go to school, “Are you going to be a gentleman today, Yuki?” The little man paused thoughtfully, and nodded once; Are you going to treat Mara Sensei with respect?”
Again, Yuki said nothing. His eyes narrowed ever so slightly. Karasu felt again the internal struggle not to laugh at his son’s defiant glare. He turned his face away and stepped into the bicycle pedal, gliding away down the street to the studio where he brought Yuki every Tuesday to learn English. Far away Karasu thought as he let gravity take control and guide them down the slight hill. Fly so far away, my son.
Yuki was named for the snow. Karasu married Nozomi in the winter and brought Yuki into the world the same time the following year. The fear in meeting her family. The victory in their acceptance and the utter happiness in their wedding. Watching her wash herself in the hot spring as they spent their first week as husband and wife in Hokkaido. The feeling of her body and clean sheets. Watching her watch the world and knowing he had found the highest happiness he had ever known. When Nozomi told him he was going to be a father, it felt like the first time he had been at sea. Terror and joy. Why was he allowed to marry the most beautiful woman he had ever seen?
Nozomi was not cute. She did not hide her smile behind her hand. The night they met he would always remember the way she had gracefully taken his cigarette from behind his ear, lighting it on her own and smiling at the floor as she exhaled. When the smoke cleared from around her face she lifted her eyes to his, the only thought that cut through the buzzing of his being was: Nozomi Nakajima, you are beautiful.
Losing her was almost the death of him. All the indescribable goodness Karasu felt in meeting, loving, and marrying Nozomi was completely flipped and transformed into the gutting horror of watching her die. Yuki’s first birthday was the day forever burned into Karasu’s bones. The day the love of his life left him and their son.
Holding Yuki’s hand, Karasu climbed the stairs to Mara’s classroom. He handed Yuki his impossibly small backpack. Karasu unzipped it and handed Yuki his water bottle and workbook, “Hand this to Mara Sensei and tell her you did your homework. Then show me the stamp she gives you when I return.”
Yuki said nothing but smiled at the floor, looking so much like Nozomi. Karasu took Yuki’s little fist in his and helped him knock at the door. The foreign teacher welcomed them with a weary smile. His son shrunk back. And then stepped forward with his shoulders pulled back, determined to show his father what a brave boy he was.
Karasu nodded to Mara as he watched Yuki disappear into her room. It took less than a second for him to realize in her tired smile that they were both so equally and incredibly alone. But as she nodded knowingly at him he was reassured, just as quickly, that it was okay to be.
During Kelly's time in Japan she was fortunate to meet many beautiful, sometimes very lonely people. This story was inspired by the inescapable heaviness of spirit she witnessed in herself and others while living there. She now lives in the mountains of Yosemite with her husband.