Lost in Japan
Sean got a text from his father clarifying that, due to unforeseen circumstances regarding their efficiency in packing, they would not be arriving in Tokyo by the afternoon, but rather by evening, and that if we wanted to stick around in the city to join them for dinner or, if our travels had made us weary, for a late lunch in Tsukuba, but that ultimately the choice was ours. When Sean responded in empathy and gave our own anecdotal of our troubles that morning, his father replied with an angry red face and thumbs-down emoji.
“I don’t remember your dad talking like that,” I said as we were transferring trains at Akihabara station, unfortunately without a revisitation, to board the express line to Tsukuba. I remembered that his father was busy with his schooling when I went over, but he spoke as plainly as anyone else save a small hint of embarrassment from his negligible accent. “It’s kind of weird.”
“He thinks it’s funny.”
The express line was an hour-long ride over the flat rice fields surrounding the north of Tokyo, that, through their contrast, gave the impression that the city's outer buildings were not buildings but a large wall built to protect the Emperor.
Tsukuba station sat adjacent to a shopping complex and a park too new to be mistaken for castle ruins. Rolling the plastic wheels over the highway, past the pond of abstract structures and business endeavors, and further still beyond the grand recreation of a spaceship forever grounded. The walk was about forty minutes and his house was not one of any notoriety. It was a typical two-floor home with a parking spot devoid of a car.
Before Sean could announce his return, and before I had even slipped through the crack in his door, his younger brother turned the corner from the much smaller genkan, and cheered, “Onii-san!” and pulled him in the house by his leg.
“Hey,” Sean said and patted his auburn hair. The two of them didn’t look like brothers. Based on appearance, one would not have pegged Sean for being half-American nor would they have Francis for being half-Japanese. However, if one made such presumptions on manner, Sean would seem like a rather shy American, while Francis would seem Japanese but lacking in some discipline.
Upon seeing me in the doorway, he removed himself from Sean’s side, holding his head down low, and mumbled, “Hello,” before dashing off shouting, “Okaasan. Okaasan.”
I was holding myself up against the wall as I took off my shoes. In front of the stairs before the genkan, Sean’s mother appeared wearing an apron over a short-sleeve blouse and jeans. “Oh my God!” She said, covering her mouth with her hand. “Is that Alejandro? Let me give you a hug!” She shouted as she slipped off her house slippers and ran towards me with her arms outstretched, passing Sean without a glance. She was a tight hugger and rocked me back and forth then took a step back, placing her hands on my shoulders as she replaced the image of me in her head with what stood before her. “Wow,” she said, leaning in for the second, looser round which I knew was my cue to hug her back. “You’ve gotten so big. I can’t believe it. I remember you when you were Frenchie’s size.” She had meant it genuinely, but it’s worth noting that it was from her that Sean got his stature and so such a claim had little meaning. “Four years flies by once you get to my age. You lose all sense of time.” She stopped hugging and put her arms on her hips. “And now look at me. An old hag all dolled up. Who would’ve thought, huh? I bet I’m quite the sight for you not in my camouflage, but I still got these guns, BOW! Or what's left of them now anyway."
“No, you look exactly the same, Mrs. Ogawa.”
“You’re so sweet.” Her accent was a bizarre agglomeration of native Californian with valley-girl capital, the Marine Corps Oorah that had dulled from her final orders in the bureaucracy of the local base, and twenty or more years deliberately shifting her intonation to a higher pitch while learning her husband’s native language. “Well, come on. Come in, come in. Uh, Sean.” She said, looking at him for the first time since he’d walked through the door. “The bags.”
“I can carry my own.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, you’re our guest.” Sean was obeying his mother’s orders when she rushed to him. “Who am I kidding, come here!” She outstretched her arms, but instead of wrapping around his waist, she pulled against his cheeks. “I missed my cutie-pie”
“I feel like it’s been three whole months since you left for the airport.” She said, then slide her arms down for a tight squeeze. “I missed you’re pouting frown.”
“Mom, Alex is right there,” Sean had whispered, and for a moment I had thought she had known. Maybe even schemed the whole visit on her own.
“So what? He’s got a mother. He knows what it’s like.” She released him and then said, “Well, come in, come in. Just leave your suitcase by the stairs.” To the right of the staircase was the living room and kitchen with continuous vinyl wood flooring. “I hope you don’t mind the clutter. I had asked someone to help clean up before you came over but he very conveniently forgot.” There wasn’t any clutter except the turned pages of the newspaper his father was reading at the dining table or his cup of tea while he read. Francis rushed down the stairs with a manga and reclined on the couch in the living room, though quickly changed to the TV. I would have sat down to join him, but it was clear I wouldn't be given an opening out of the conversation.
“I told you, I had to do my homework before Alex came.”
“When I went to school, we didn’t do homework. You got assigned it, but that was it. All my kids are nerds,” She said, as though I wasn’t, but I knew she was joshing, to use one of her terms. She then leaned over to me as we passed the table as though she were going to whisper but spoke quite loudly, “They get it from their father.”
He set his newspaper down and got out of his chair then walked over to the refrigerator without so much as a greeting. He opened the fridge and at the bottom was a large stash of canned beer. He took one and, leaning against the closed door, opened it. “Don’t you think it’s a little early to start drinking?”
He shrugged. “You’re right. It would not be good to have it now.” He turned to dump it down the sink.
“Well, if you’ve already opened,” she said, then took it from his hand. He smiled as she took a large chug, Sean sighing, then set it on the counter. She punched him in the shoulder. Not a nudge, a punch. His father took it in stride. “Thanks, honey. You’re the best.” I recalled how when we were younger, Sean would often request to have sleepovers at my house instead.
His father, fulfilling his complicated marital duties, shifted so flawlessly into those of hosting. “Sorry, today is crazy, Alex.” His father said speaking in a softer tone which, as a child, I had thought was from some insecurity about his honestly very good English, but, after having just witnessed whatever it was I had witnessed, I then took it to simply be his disposition. “Mariah invited us at the last chance to see her circle’s taiko performance so we made it a weekend trip.”
“Yes, but Frenchie’s been so standoffish. I can’t get him to do any--”
Francis spun around from the couch and interjected the conversation in Japanese with an angry tone which his mother was quick to retort. “Sorry about that. He’s getting to that age, God help me.”
“Alex, do you like pancakes?” His father asked. “There’s a very good place not far, walking distance.”
“Ah, not like American pancakes. Flat like a pancake, they say, but here they’re big.” He gave an estimate with his fingers. “What’s the word? Sufure…souffle?”
“I’m happy with whatever. Thanks again for offering, Mr. Ogawa.”
“Alex this is Nihon. Ogawa-san, right? San.”
“Gosh, I’m sorry Mr.--Ogawa-san. I didn’t mean to be rude or anything.”
“He’s just pulling your leg,” his mom said, rolling her eyes, and crushing her can of beer. His father gave a few deep and hearty chuckles and was grinning as though he had conspired for weeks. “One of these days he’s going to say something he’ll regret and I’ll have to remind him that I’m a professionally trained killer, permanently.”
“Looks like I’m in trouble.”
“Oh.” I didn’t mind a joke about honorifics, but there was one thought that was more horrific. “Were the pancakes also a joke?”
“No,” he said, getting serious. “We do not joke about food in this house.” There was a stern three-second silence, which by the end of I had been convenience it was another joke and let out a chuckle, hardly more than a breath, but he kept looking at me with his hawk eyes for what felt like a minute before his laughter leaned him back. “You’re a good sport. We’ll go when Furenchi finishes packing.”
“Otou-san!” Francis shouted from the couch.
“You do not talk to your father like that. Do you want to get pancakes?” He hid behind the back of the ouch. “Because if you do, you’ll finish packing and say you're sorry.”
“Gomen nasai, otou-san.” His father walked to the couch and squatted down to meet Francis’ avoiding eyes. His father said something in Japanese, then pat his head, and walked with him upstairs.
“What did he say?” I asked Sean as we followed them to put my suitcase upstairs.
“Uh, something like, ‘it’s okay. I know you’re hungry, so if you hurry up and pack we can go eat.’ Not that he can finish those with his small stomach. Guess that’s more for me.“
“No, I meant Frances,” I said as I lugged the suitcase up their stairs. “What was he getting upset about?”
“Oh that,” Sean said, lowering his voice as we walked up the stairs. “He doesn’t like being called Frenchie.”
“I can relate to that,” I said, thinking of his mother. It was innocent enough and really wasn’t a bother, but it’d been so long since I’d heard anyone outside my family say that name. In some ways, it felt like how I imagined a native Japanese would feel had I called them by their first name.
“Yeah, but it’s not the same. Francis,” Sean paused, and like the changing of the tide, his face subsided. “He thinks it’s too girly.”