I wrote the short story “Tsu Means Through and Nami means Wave” right after the great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan. It appeared in 3Element Review, along with an author interview, and it was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Or read it below:
Tsu Means Through and Nami Means Wave
In the hours after the Tohoku earthquake, Clara’s parents grew panicky. They left message after message for her.
“Come home, Clara. Get out of there,” said her mother. Her voice was low and hoarse.
“We hope you’re okay, honey, “ said her father. “Please call us.”
Clara had forgotten her cell phone at Susumu’s the night before so she didn’t get the messages immediately. And it hadn’t occurred to her to reassure her parents. She assumed that they had looked at a map of Japan and could tell she was a long way from the disaster area. She didn’t think they’d be worried. But now, here she was, on the phone with her nearly hysterical mother. Unglued. Her mother was unglued. She couldn’t stop talking about cars floating into the ocean.
“Oh my God, they’re showing the footage again,” said her mother. “It’s like the end of the world.”
Clara pictured her mother sitting in the armchair next to the landline in the green-walled living room of the clapboard house on Mohawk Circle, back in Syracuse. She probably had that pillow behind her back. The one that was embroidered with white lambs and the words “God’s Love” in script. Outside, in March, the night sky in upstate New York would be the color of black velvet. Maybe Orion was visible. The television was probably the only light in the room.
Clara stared out the window as her mother talked and cried. It was almost noontime in Kyoto. Gojo Dori was bustling. A group of old men was heading into the udon shop. One half of a punk couple was waiting next to a tandem bicycle. The guy was wearing an electric blue parka that matched his hair. Before Clara got a chance to respond to her mother, the other half, equally blue-haired, came out of the convenience store. Within a minute, the tandem bicycle and the two riders were gone, camouflaged by the traffic. Clara continued to observe the street. A fashionable young woman, tottering on white majorette boots, was leading a small dog in the direction of Rokuhara Temple. The busy thoroughfare looked like it always did. In the distance, she could make out the plum trees just starting to blossom in the park.
She tried to explain to her mother that there was no reason to leave. She lived in Kyoto, five hundred kilometers away from the disaster area.
“Look at a map, “ she wanted to say to her mother. “Just look at a freakin’ map.”
But she didn’t say anything. She knew that her mother’s world was circumscribed by the new Walmart out on Route 2 and First Presbyterian, by women who looked like her and dressed like her and made the same recipe for meatloaf. Even attending the State Fair was a big deal. “We had those special dough things at the Greek booth,” she would say. “Gyros or whatever you call them.”
Clara continued to look out the window, staring at the laundry drying on racks outside the apartments opposite hers. A whole Japanese family’s pajamas fluttering in the breeze. She was used to such sights by now. How so much was exposed. Ugly electric train wires overhead, garbage bins, personal bedding draped over balconies, flesh in the public baths. And yet, how much was hidden. Emotions, for one thing. There was so much quiet control. Even at this very instant, even among those suffering terribly.
Her mother babbled on, her anxiety pulsating into Clara’s ear.
“They say that everything’s radioactive. I’m worried about what you are eating, honey. What about the water?”
Clara didn’t dare say that she and Susumu were thinking of volunteering in a few weeks, heading up to Tohoku to help out. People were already organizing weekend brigades. She could hear her father shouting in the background.
“Tell her we’ll send her money for a ticket,” he yelled.
“Here, you tell her, Rob, “ said her mother, handing the phone over.
“Just come home, baby,” her father said quickly. “Just come home.”
“I’ll think about it,” answered Clara, but she knew that she wouldn’t. Her head was starting to ache from listening to her mother’s fears.
On Friday, she had been walking down Sanjo, near Kawaramichi, just about to cross the river when the earthquake struck. The bridge had wobbled a bit, but no one paid much attention. Earthquakes were common. Susumu had told her that elsewhere in the city people hadn’t felt a thing. It was early afternoon and she had just finished teaching her classes. She told her parents that much. She didn’t go into details. About how she was on her way to Susumu’s apartment. About having subsequently forgotten her cell phone on the floor next to the rumpled bedding of the futon.
The last time she mentioned Susumu, a musician whom she had met two years earlier, her parents hadn’t reacted the way she had hoped.
“Susumu?” they had repeated. “That doesn’t sound like an American name.”
“It means going forward,” said Clara. “You know, to progress.”
“Their names have meanings?” asked her mother.
“Of course,” said Clara. “What did you think?”
“I don’t know,” said her mother, “Susumu just sounds like nonsense to me.”
Clara sighed. She thought about the distance separating her from her parents. All the bodies of water, all the waves of the Pacific ocean, the continental shelf itself, the whole canopy of sky stretching from Syracuse to Kyoto.
When her mother grew too tired to continue her rant, her father took the phone again. He got right to the point.
“They’re not gonna protect you, baby. If things get worse. They’re gonna protect their own.”
Clara tried to change the subject, but her father had spent the day soaking up information.
He wanted to talk tsunami and disaster.
“The news said there’s no looting yet,” he said skeptically.
Clara bit her lip. It was the idea of “yet” that annoyed her. Her parents just assumed certain things.
Clara tried talking about her work, a new project she had in mind, but all her father could talk about was the videos he had seen on the Internet. Cars and bicycles and buildings swept up like leaves in a gutter. The sucking sound of the tsunami as it ate its way into the coastline. The procession of displaced people staggering into shelters.
“I don’t know if they…the Japs…the Japanese…will ever recover…not from this one.”
Clara half-listened. Before she left to teach in Kyoto, her father had taken her on a long walk, down Main Street, past the clock shop that he owned, up behind the high school, across the playing fields where Clara had captained the field hockey team, and over to the canal, where they used to ice skate every winter.
“You’re going to the other side of the world, “ he said. “I can’t believe it.”
“I can’t wait, “ said Clara. She had studied graphic design and Japanese in college.
“You know that Grandpa wouldn’t have been happy with you going over there. To Japan.”
“Grandpa?” she had asked, puzzled. She only had vague memories of her grandfather, his fingers yellowed from smoking too many Camels, his use of the word “icebox”. She remembered him coming up to the house with Christmas presents in his arms, his lopsided walk.
“Why does Grandpa walk that way?” she had once asked as a little girl. The answer came back in one unfamiliar word. Schrapnel.
Later, she somewhat recalled the American flag draped over his coffin, the VFW president giving the eulogy at his funeral.
As Clara and her father tossed small stones into the canal, she realized that the whole walk had been leading up to this moment.
“He never talked about the war, you know. He was in the Marianas. The Pacific Theater. He lost a lot of buddies to …them.”
“I wish you were teaching closer to home, Clara,” her father said, looking grim.
Later as she was packing her duffle bags, sorting out her possessions before getting ready to fly overseas, Clara started to wonder how long people could hang on to something. Grudges, injustices, red-letter dates. 9/11. Pearl Harbor. Who knew what else? When did people let go and move on?
By the time the telephone call ended, it was eleven o’clock at night on the East Coast. Her parents were getting ready for bed. She could picture her father in his flannel bathrobe, the same one he had had when Clara was a little girl. Red plaid with a floppy belt. Her mother would have her cheeks covered in that moisturizer that smelled like eucalyptus. Even in March, there was probably still winter snow on the ground in the corners of Mohawk Circle, piled up gray and crusty. Clara could imagine the yard bathed in the yellow glow of her family’s porch light which her father would soon turn off. Then he’d check the door one more time.
“We have to get to bed, “ said her father. “But I’ll put Mom on to say goodbye.”
“We miss you, honey, please come home,“ said Clara’s mother.
“I love you, Mom,”
“Love you too, night-night.”
Clara waited for her mother to realize that, of course, where Clara was, it wasn’t night time. But her mother merely said, “Sleep tight,” when Clara said goodbye.
Clara thought about the wall calendar her parents kept in the kitchen, hanging on the pantry door. From the John Deere Tractor Store, with photos of different seasons. Hay baling for August, a tractor pulling a load of Christmas trees for December. On her parent’s calendar, it was Saturday. On Clara’s electronic calendar, it was Sunday. She had already left Saturday behind.