Things We Don't Say

Essay

When I think of Kazu, I think of his hands.

            In the car, I look at them. His fingers are long and smooth, those of a surgeon or a diplomat. My eyes trace the crevices and craters of his knuckles, smooth skin pulsing as his fingers tap out a beat to a soulful CD. In one hour I will leave Takikawa, my adopted home for the past year, and we’re going to get ice cream, going to delay the inevitable, delay the goodbye, the not knowing what to say and pretend over a cone of gelato.

            “Your fingers are so long,” I say.

            “Girls used to call me Goldfinger,” he says.

            Lynn and Marina, friends from Singapore and the States who will stay in Japan, laugh from the backseat. Kazu is our surrogate grandpa, though he’s our parents’ age. My mom has long fingers too.

            “The last thing I remember about my grandmother was her fingers,” she always says. “I remember looking at her fingers and seeing how mine were the same as hers.” So we’re in the car and I’m thinking about his hands.

            I think about the tray of beers his hands carried a year ago at the town’s craft beer festival. It was my second night in town, first week in Japan. I sat with other foreign English teachers around a plastic table in collapsible red chairs. We drank Kiwi beer from blue and orange cans with psychedelic motifs. And then came Kazuaki, carrying a tray of draft beer.

            Everyone else had paired off in side conversations I was too jetlagged to participate in. From across the circle, Kazu and I started talking. I learned he studied in Long Beach, California for six months and lived in Tokyo for thirty years. I found he’s curious, and I later find how he remembers how much I listened that first night.

            We next meet at the Obon celebration. The city’s international division invited a group of foreigners to participate in traditional dancing as part of a celebration for deceased ancestors. Different teams wear sumo or Snow White costumes. I stumble through the steps and hand waving as we circle the singers, raised on their podium. From the sidelines, I hear a call.

            “Hey, Michael!” Kazu smiles brightly, big with dimples and teeth and light eyes. He takes a picture. I’ve been lonely since coming, not really knowing anyone, speaking little Japanese. Seeing him again is a relief. So the next day I ask him about having dinner.

            He invites me to his house and serves a bounty of homemade Japanese dishes and beer. I bring wine, which I later learn to skip in favor of a six-pack of Asahi or Kirin. Kazu lived in California and dated his English teacher. Kazu worked in Germany. His life shimmers, but he’s modest. Only as I get to know him do I learn about the time he got food poisoning in Cairo or the time he met the president of Azerbaijan.

            But he’s invited me to his house to hear about my time in Italy. He draws me out and asks questions about Bologna, speaking Italian. I mention visiting Berlin for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the wall, and only then do I learn about when he lived in Frankfurt.

            We bond over a love of coffee, and when I offer to help with the dishes, he turns me down.

            “Please let me. Next time, you can help.” This inspires something light inside me. It’s raining when I leave. He lends me an umbrella and shows me the way back to my place.

#

His fingers are deft on the switchboard at FM G’Sky, the community radio station. By now, Lynn, Marina, and I have all gone to his place together for dinner, and he brings us to his radio show. He asks about our backgrounds, finding the right questions to transcend banal self-introductions. When I don’t understand Japanese, he’ll graciously switch to English or easy Japanese. I forget that I’m even on the radio.

            At Christmas, Lynn and I go on his show again. Beforehand, he asks us about “River” by Joni Mitchell. He wants to know if it’s a Christmas song. We comment on the “Jingle Bells” motif, and he talks about being alone at the holidays. We return to his house and eat KFC.

            Kazu lives alone. He lived in Tokyo for thirty years until he and his wife divorced and he returned to Takikawa. He took care of his parents, and they both passed away before I meet him. On my last day in Takikawa, when I stay at Kazu’s house, he shows me pictures of other JETs he’s known. For seventeen years, he’s welcomed foreigners to Takikawa.

            “I can bridge the communication gap,” he says. I think back to first meeting him, to how many people he’s interviewed on his radio show.

            For seventeen years, he’s gotten close to all of these people, of whom he speaks as if they’d just left a year ago, just before I came. For seventeen years, he’s gotten close to all these people and watched them go. This brings me close to a panic attack when I am at the airport in Sapporo, the night before I fly home. How has he said so many goodbyes? How can he continue to do it?

            After getting ice cream, we say goodbye at his house before going to the train station, where my friends and coworkers have congregated for a formal send-off.

            “I’m not good at these.” He resists a hug and gets in the car. Lynn, Marina, and I share hugs, and I watch him inside the car, staring at his street beyond the driveway. When we get to the station, he hovers in the back while teachers I worked with and friends I made say a last goodbye.

            Throughout the year, he tells a story. He spoke with one JET about giving up on this community for the repeated sadness, the abandonment. That person told him he couldn’t live that way, as do I when he tells it, but when I leave I feel less sure.

#

His fingers slide between the pages of his photocopied textbook, searching for examples to help teach me. I’m studying for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, a test that in July I will fail by one point.  

            But now we don’t know this, and he’s my dedicated tutor. It is Thursday and he sits in the one chair in my apartment. I sit on the rug at my low table. I’ve made us coffee and have my Japanese textbooks opened, example sentences on beige paper less exciting than the coffee that’s cooling beside them. He speaks slowly and peppers me with questions and examples to illustrate the grammar points. At the beginning of each lesson, he hands me a ten-question quiz he’s made to review the material from last time.

            When we meet other Japanese friends, he brings up that he’s helping me study, that I’m a good student. This comes after they note, “You’re really good at Japanese” when I mess up polite speech or inflection.

            One week he has back pain and sits slouched in the chair. He later finds that he needs to have surgery, something minor, he’ll be fine. In the weeks that he’s not there, I study on my own at my desk in school. Grammar structures swim past me. Other teachers sometimes notice, offer to help. This language will evade me for now.  

#

With his hands, Kazu hauled tires at a navy yard in Yokohama in his twenties. Once, he lifted a tire on his own and strained his back. Ever since, he’s had chronic back pain, learning to live with it like a difficult family member or an old friend.

            After my lease ends, I stay with him a few days before returning to the States. When I go downstairs in the morning, I find him on the floor. Wires run under his shirt and pulse on his back. The electric shocks alleviate the aching. When he’s done, he puts them on my shoulders. I twitch like a dying ant.

In the mornings now, Kazu has a routine. He wakes before five and studies English for an hour, listening to NPR and adding new words and phrases to his personal dictionary, already filled with over eleven thousand words. He watches an English movie and does some exercises, and then start the shocks.

            Later in the day, we make rice balls. It will be our last party with Lynn and Marina, and we’ll go to the pop-up beer garden where we met a year ago–we’ll be late and will only arrive when it ends. Lynn and Marina will talk to two of the new JETs, and I’ll be reminded of my first week in Japan and will walk away fast with Kazu and want to be back in his house. But now I’m in the kitchen. I stand next to him at the sink. He wets his palms and clasps rice in them. He tosses the ball from his lower hand to his upper, suspending it in zero gravity. He forms an onigiri, and I give him a piece of seaweed to wrap it. It’s only as big as the cup his palm forms.

            “Let’s make them this size,” he says. “That way we can eat more.”

            We stand together at the sink, and he praises my shoddy work. Mine all turn out as circles instead of triangles. Once we fill the plate, he fries zangi, Hokkaido fried chicken. I watch as chicken crackles in the oil.

            “When we eat food like this tonight, you can feel the love from the person who made it,” he says. These are foods that get packed into my students’ bento boxes, prepared by tired parents at 5 AM or by their own, less practiced hands. I think of all the dinners Kazu has made for our group. We always tried cooking for him to thank him, but every time he’d still proffer “a little something.”

#

He cracks open a beer and then another. “We’re only at Chitose?” he exclaims.

            The four of us—Kazu, Lynn, Marina, and I–sit facing each other at the end of the train car. We’ve brought food and beer, ready to picnic on the five-hour train ride. Months ago at one of our parties, we declared our intent to visit Hakodate, the cosmopolitan city on Hokkaido’s southern tentacle. And now here we are, en route and getting drunk on a train on a Friday after work. When we arrive, he stops to take our picture at the ticket gate, in front of the station, inside the guesthouse.

            The guesthouse where we stay is cozy, narrow, a time capsule. Tattered posters and maps from the eighties and nineties paper the wooden walls. Forgotten knickknacks and Japanese souvenirs find homes in the shelves built into the staircase. We stay in a shared Japanese-style room, and in the morning he gets us coffee from a Lawson. I walk down the uneven, wooden staircase and through the winding passages to the shower. It feels like a Sunday morning at my grandmother’s old house, broken-in.

            It’s raining when we head out for the day. Kazu’s umbrella breaks in the wind, and we find refuge in a morning fish market. We walk through the old, red warehouse district where he poses as a sailor waiting for something to come from the sea. We visit the Sakamoto Ryoma Museum where he tells us more about the man fundamental to the Meiji Restoration. We explore churches and parks and see the famous night view. When the tourists get too pushy, I leave for the lower floor where I find Kazu. We sit in silence, content.

            In this city by the sea, I find rich foods, the history of a Japanese port opened to the world. I find that these are people who will be lifelong friends. I find this when I sit on a plastic chair outside the onsen and Kazu is inside the sauna. I divine this meaning in the steam that rises from the Goryokaku star-shaped bath. In the steam, I look for fragments of memories from the past year and from things yet to come. We end the night eating salt ramen, fall asleep without another late night.

#

On my last day in town, his fingers strum his guitar. We record a song that I sent him after our first dinner. A song about leaving home, about saying you’ll be okay. When we finish, he designs a CD cover and gives me a copy to bring back to my parents, a belated Mother’s and Father’s Day gift. But what I don’t say, when he asks me why I wanted to record this, when I put the disc in the car’s CD player on the way back to my parents’ house once I’ve landed in Boston, is that by now it’s not a song for my parents. By now, not really.

Michael2