Logan followed Natsumi to Japan and he was beginning to wonder why. Yesterday he wondered why when he drank bad coffee from 7-Eleven but was desperate for an iced latte. Today he wondered why when he tried to buy stamps at the post office to send his seventeen-year-old sister a birthday card.
“Kitty,” he said. “America made kitty.”
Natsumi had told him what to say as she ran out the door of her mother’s house to buy more medicine. Her mother was sick. Badly sick. With what, Logan didn’t know.
“Logan, I need to go home to Japan,” she’d said. In bed, her back was to him. He stroked her smooth shoulders, outlining the Astoria house he saw through the window. “My mom is sick.”
They were coming up on the end of their lease. Their first apartment together. They met in college, Wesleyan. He was studying in the basement of their dorm, and she noticed his computer background. “That’s the Biei Blue Pond. It’s close to my house.” They met because she said that to everyone with that default background. They started dating because Logan thought he was special when she told him this. Now two years out, Natsumi was a paralegal and Logan worked at a literary agency. “What about your brothers? Aren’t they closer?”
“Tomo won’t leave Seoul. And Ken’s too busy with his kids. Lucy’s on sabbatical in Australia.”
“What about your job?”
Natsumi rolled onto her back to face Logan. Her face was light, sunny, brightened with the news. “I don’t like it. This can be my new purpose.” Her bangs tickled his cheek as she kissed him.
Logan followed Natsumi two weeks after her first announcement. With him he brought the novels he was going to read, the running shoes he would use, and the engagement ring he’d bought two days before he knew she had to leave.
The flight was bad. Natsumi knocked out fast, used to flying from New York to Tokyo. Logan had only left the country when he went on a spring break trip to Calgary. They had drunk cheap Heineken and watched the rodeo. He came home with a Mountie figurine that sat on his desk at work.
He walked the aisles, brushed his teeth, and picked through the meals that the airline gave him and Natsumi slept through. He read some of a book and then watched three movies. He watched the seatback screen and thought about how big Alaska is. He imagined himself swimming from each island of the archipelago to the next while his family and job languished on the shore.
By his third week in, he had picked up some Japanese. But it wasn’t like the French he had studied in high school, easy to build upon the more he heard it. After coming back from the pharmacy, Natsumi brought Logan back to the post office to send his sister’s card. Since they’d arrived, her smiles had grown goopier, tired, patronizing.
He went to one Japanese class with a local teacher.
“Japanese is a high context language,” she said. “German and English are low context languages. In Japan, if someone says, ‘We’re running low on milk,’ they’re implying that you should go buy more.” His teacher had a severe forehead and hair that she tied in a frayed floral ribbon.
Logan thought of his mother speaking low context English.
“It’s so nice to hear from you finally!” Translate: Why don’t you call more?
“You look good.” Translate: Glad you lost the freshman fifteen.
“So does this job have any career prospects?” Translate: Why can’t you find something better after I helped pay for college?
Logan thought about his few interactions in Japanese with his neighbor. “Is there much to do around here?” Translate: I’m bored out of my mind. Please invite me to do something.
Neighbor’s response: “Here? Not really.”
Logan: “I heard there’s a Sheep Land nearby. That sounds interesting.” Translate: Please hear my cry for help. I hate sheep.
Neighbor’s response: “Is that so?”
Logan then realized that maybe his neighbor’s responses were, in fact, high context.
“Here? Not really.” Translate: Save yourself while you can.
“Is that so?” Translate: Can you leave me alone already? I’ve made it clear that I don’t like you.
After this, Logan stopped talking to his neighbor. Instead, he started going for walks. He walked past buckwheat fields. Dragonflies copulated in midair. Every day he hoped a farmer would come through and cut the buckwheat. Then fall would come, and he could walk into the middle of the field at night, wedging himself into the soil, waiting for the typhoon to come and wed him to the mud.
“I found you a job,” Natsumi said before popping her sushi into her soy sauce and then her mouth. She had a brown dot on her cheek. Like she’d dipped her finger in soy sauce or paint and forgotten that it was dirty when she touched her cheek.
“Can you order me more tuna?”
Natsumi rolled her eyes when Logan handed her the iPad. Her fingers tapped at the tablet a few times before she set it back on its stand. Natsumi’s mother was feeling decent, so they left the house and went out to eat at a conveyor belt restaurant. Logan was excited by it at first, the idea of doing something that seemed so fundamentally Japanese in Japan with Natsumi. They could focus on them again. They could talk about where they saw things. He could take out the ring he’d been holding in his pocket. But when they stepped inside the restaurant, its scent unsettled him. He couldn’t place it as formaldehyde until the first piece of sushi was in his mouth. He was back in high school anatomy class, scalpel in hand, skinless dead cat before him.
“Today we will look at the nervous system.”
When he and his partner finally cracked the skull, they found purple goo, thick and rotting, while everyone else’s held an intact beige brain. He vomited on his cat, and he and his partner failed the day’s dissection.
“So this job,” Natsumi said. “We have an old family friend whose high school age kids need an English tutor. She’s tried cram schools, but her kids still aren’t doing well.”
“So now I teach them English and they miraculously pass their exams?” He didn’t want to tutor kids. He’d never taught, and he didn’t like kids. He had hoped that Natsumi would announce she had some free time. That she wanted to take him to the Blue Pond, which had seeded their relationship years ago and could be the place where they brought it to the next level.
“I told her that you worked at a literary agency helping authors, and she was impressed,” Natsumi said.
“Did you tell her why I’m in Japan?”
Two days after Natsumi had declared her intent to leave, Logan’s boss called him for a meeting.
“I’d like to call it ‘creative leave,’” his boss Chuck had said. He didn’t use the air quotes, but Logan knew they were there. “It’s time you get to spend working on your own writing.”
Logan had nodded. Logan wasn’t a writer. Logan read people’s writing. He rested his elbows on the arms of his chair and wove his fingers together in a tent in front of his face. “Okay,” he said. “What do you mean by ‘creative leave?’” Logan used the air quotes.
“That’s the good part,” Chuck had stood up from his chair, walked to the front of his desk, and leaned against it, crossing his arms. Logan wondered if anyone aside from people in movies did that. “You determine what this means for you. This is in your hands.”
Logan had thought for a moment. He’d just taken on a new client. He’d just ordered new business cards. “I’d love to work with this new client. I’d love the company laptop while I’m away.” Logan knew what Chuck was saying. He wanted Chuck to say it. He wanted to watch the words condense in his mouth, bursting open the hinges of his jaw. Chuck was only five feet tall. His cheeks were red, and he looked like a chipper high-school boy. He had a go-get-‘em, we’re-a-team attitude that he used to lead the office. Logan wanted more than anything for this literary sprite to have to say something mean.
“Logan,” Chuck had started. “I don’t think you quite understand. This is really in your hands, not our hands anymore.”
“Can I get a raise?”
“Can you clean out your desk by five?”
Out of a job and with Natsumi leaving, Logan had gone to their apartment after work. He carried with him his box of desk trinkets and a couple of manuscripts he’d like to reread for the laughs. Logan and Natsumi sat at the kitchen table and booked flights while drinking wine and eating pizza.
“Logan, why are you being this way?” Natsumi asked. “I know you’ve been struggling since we got here, so I’m trying to help. You don’t have to be an asshole. You chose to come with me to Japan.” A racecar with two more plates of sushi slid down the belt to their table and broke the silence. “You’ll work from seven to eight, and you can teach them at their house.”
On Wednesday night, it rained. Hokkaido didn’t have a rainy season, and Logan learned this from everyone he engaged in conversation. On his way to the apartment where he’d tutor, he paused next to the buckwheat field. Water fell through the stalks and gushed into the trenches carved in the perimeter. Once he reached the apartment, the mother of the kids he was tutoring also commented on the weather. “This rain is very strange. What do you think of it?”
“I’ve learned I could never live in Seattle.”
For the next hour, he tried to coax her children, Ayaka and Shuri, into speaking English. After introducing himself and telling them about New York, the conversation digressed.
“Do you like doughnuts?” Shuri asked. He texted under the table and watched Logan until his phone dinged again.
“Do you know Taylor Swift?” Ayaka asked. At least she didn’t have her phone out.
Their mom had brought out a bowl of edamame, and they watched Logan snap them open and suck the beans into his mouth. He would’ve liked a beer, to be sitting at his favorite dive bar in Queens with Natsumi across from him. They used to go Friday after work and drink two-dollar Heinekens before going home and heating up a frozen pizza for dinner.
When he got home, he asked Natsumi about the bar.
“Wasn’t that fun,” she said lifelessly. Her cheeks were sallow, the smudge still there. Her severe ponytail swung when she slid the door to her mother’s room closed behind her.
On Saturday, Logan thought he’d go on a day trip. Friday night he offered to go on some errands to help with Natsumi’s mother, but she told him it would be better for both of them if he had some fun. Before her mother woke up, Natsumi wrote down directions for him to get to the Blue Pond in Biei with everything in Japanese as well so he could ask for help. Though there was an ease in her stature and tone that he hadn’t seen since they’d arrived in Hokkaido, lines had creased deeper into her forehead. The smudge of dirt remained unscathed on her cheek, too topical to be a bruise. He thanked her and left.
On the bus, he read. He’d already finished three of the five books he’d packed. He was beginning to worry about how soon his creative leave would turn into vacancy, as English books were in short supply. An old woman sitting behind him on the bus tapped his shoulder. She reached her hands out and handed him a bundle wrapped in a shredding tissue. He opened it and found six fat cherry tomatoes, their stems tangled together in curlicues. She got off at the next stop. Logan watched the clouds forming off the mountains in the distance. He popped tomatoes into his mouth and wished he’d had more.
He transferred at Asahikawa Station and then again in Biei. The pond had been his laptop background until he and Natsumi started dating, at which point he substituted it with a picture of the two of them, on a date, at a concert, their faces dewy, the lights glimmering.
He followed the path behind the few other visitors. When he reached the water’s edge, his insides sank. Typhoon season had turned the water a murky green. Instead of wanting to see it, he now wanted to ingest it, drinking in bottles and bottles of blue water turned green until his skin turned green. Then people would look at him, more bewildered than when they looked at him now. His skin green, he’d crawl into bed with Natsumi and stroke her arm, waiting for the green to rub off. The dirt would smudge her cheek and her arms and she’d be green too.
On the way back, he decided to stop at the Asahiyama Zoo. He walked alone through the penguin tube and stood under the leopard cage until a crow pooped on his shoulder. He went to the bathroom to clean it. An old man laughed at him and watched as Logan wetted his towel under the faucet and dabbed his shoulder. The old man said something and laughed, repeated it, and laughed. Logan wanted to grab the old man, shake him, ask him to stop, but eventually, he started laughing too. Once his shirt was clean, the old man grabbed his arm and bought him a cup of ramen at the snack bar, smiling as Logan ate. As Logan slurped the last noodles, the old man murmured to himself. He looked up at Logan after a minute. “Seal.” The man took Logan’s arm and brought him indoors. In the middle of the empty room was a tube of water. The man pointed. “Seal.”
But there was no seal. They waited for ten minutes. The man shrugged and checked his watch. “Lunch time.”
That night, Logan booked his ticket home. He threw clean clothing into his suitcase and used it to bury the engagement ring. Natsumi had put her mother to sleep. Her head rested on Logan’s lap while he drank tea. The dirt was still there.
“I knew you would,” she said after a pause.
He wanted her to say something different. He wanted her to ascribe this all to the typhoons, but she didn’t, and Logan knew she wouldn’t. He thought about his tutor telling him about high and low context and grinned. There was no difference. It was all the same.
“How much longer will you be here?”
She closed her eyes. Logan looked as she tensed and relaxed her face muscles, maybe trying to make her wrinkles disappear but only accentuating them. “I’d like to leave soon, but my brothers won’t come.” She sighed. “My mother said she’s sick only because of the weather. Once the typhoons pass, she thinks she will be better.”
Logan had heard enough about the weather to know that Natsumi meant she’d be sick at least another month. Another month with the buckwheat stalks still strong. “And if she’s still sick after?”
“I think she’s right,” Natsumi said.
Logan traced a seal onto her stomach, imagining what it would’ve looked like bursting through the tube at the zoo. Imagining what he would’ve said to the old man.
Michael loves horror films (his favorites are Candyman and Rosemary’s Baby) and coffee (his favorites are Ethiopian and Costa Rican). His writing has appeared in such magazines as Avidly, Siren, and Kyoto Journal. Currently, he is pursuing an MFA in fiction at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. You can find more information about Michael on his website. You can also reach out to him on Twitter @mjcolbert16. This is his second feature on the Fictional Café. You can read his first here.