The Flight Back
It was just as Tokyo was being yanked out from underneath him that Jun was struck by this thought, that by the time they touched down at the other side of the sea, everything, the entire two weeks, no matter how much he tried to prevent it, would simply evaporate from his memory—and as he realized this and as he felt his stomach stapled to his seat under the force of liftoff, Jun’s chest tightened in a panic and he could not help but swing his head sideways for one last glimpse of whatever was out there, square fields of indeterminate produce perhaps, or a stand of hotels cradling the airport, any last thing to carry with him into the sky. But they were already ascended.
Come, his father had said, and he had been taken so off-guard that he had involuntarily pulled the phone away from his face and stared at it, as if by removing it that arm’s breadth he would not have to answer. But he had come, or gone, or whatever.
His first trip back.
Because though it was his birthplace Tokyo had not existed until two weeks ago. Jun knew no Japanese, had no Asian friends. Tokyo had been nothing more than a black dot on a world map, all the way over at the other end of a blank blue paper sea. Now, finally, at twenty-three, he saw it—Tokyo—not, he would realize many years later, anything close to the real city, but a version of Tokyo nonetheless, magical and illusory, and as such it was as close to real as it could have been for him, then.
And this is what he had beheld: people. People everywhere, a never-ending mad rush of them, people on the train, people in the stations, in a multitude of stations, the stations themselves cities, with a tangle of train lines looped and woven through each other, winching them tight to the earth’s belly—as if, unloosed, those sparkling stations would ascend up into the clouds, into space, to form some new and wheeling constellations there. And Shibuya! With its magical crosswalk where converged so many of the proud, beautiful young; and what haunted him most about that place was how, when Jun had glided through these clouds of girls, a handful had actually let their eyes linger over him, though the others had seemed all the more beautiful, for not noticing him at all.
How strange it had been! Walking around, knowing that a part of him lay mysteriously in those cool smiles, yet knowing that that part of him had also been passed up, carried off to America as a sleeping child in the arms of his blue-eyed mother, so that those meek smiles, the soft faces, the clean manners, they were all things he saw from a remove, as if those years spent among the tall and broad and fair-haired had tucked that part of himself away, high on the shelves of the small closet in the big suburban house in New Jersey, to be taken out and glanced at only in small-cut photographs and Ektachrome slides his father pulled out on holidays, before the divorce, before his father quit his job dealing with Japanese clients in New York for one involving American clients in Tokyo.
But now, leaving, flying back to his Bay Area apartment, it seemed more as if his American life were the one stuck on slides, instead of the other way around. His life in America seemed as unreal as the coarse American comedy that was now showing at an oblique angle from his window seat behind the shaking, swept wing, the film that he was seeing at incoherent intervals but which he did not hear and did not participate in except to note the uproarious, ridiculous, singular laughter of the fat American in front of him, the man’s seat shaking under its strain inches from his knees; and though Jun found this disturbing, though he glanced over at the youngish Japanese man next to him, wanting his resentment affirmed, the man only dug deeper into his book, a Japanese guide to San Francisco, and Jun was left alone to sulk behind the fat man’s shaking seat.
And so he closed his eyes. He saw himself as he had been earlier that day, slipping up the stairs, making his way to the airport, vaguely following the yellow lines of plastic studded tiles that lay along the train station floor, that served as a guide for the blind and that now led Jun, unsure of his whereabouts, through the morning rush. He saw himself the strange face in this comfortable sameness—the gaijin, the foreigner—and he could not believe that he shared the same blood as them. He could not believe that he could have been them had circumstances been slightly different: the distance was too great. Yet he knew that he did once—and perhaps did still, perhaps it was only dormant—share some portion of their aspect; after all, he had just said good-bye in his guidebook Japanese to the man who had engendered a full half of his jumbled array of chromosomes, up in his Shibaura apartment looking over the city—he who, even now as Jun sat in 22H, a window seat, was probably leaving his office and following the crowd back to Tokyo Station. Or perhaps he was on his way to the gym where he would run the treadmill and the Stairmaster for an hour, trying to lose the weight he had had all his life, before stopping off at the smoky yakitori shop for a beer with work mates. Jun could even imagine the beer: Asahi Dry, light and thin and only good ice cold. Perhaps his father would imbibe in solitude—or perhaps he would forgo this simple pleasure altogether, returning instead for an evening of anxious smokes on his twentieth-floor balcony and then to an early sleep. Perhaps he would pay a visit to his new girlfriend, whom he had not so much as mentioned, but whose existence Jun suspected anyway. There had been signs: feminine touches to the apartment décor, a phone call taken with a touch of hesitation, and a single hair pin, lying discarded in a bowl of change.
The truth was, Jun did not know. He had just visited his father for the first time since the divorce, spent a week with him, and he left now not having learned a single new thing, though his father had taken time off work to take Jun around to see the things any ordinary visitor would see, and some other things that seemed all the more wonderful, for seeming to be inaccessible without his father’s guidance.
And yet at the same time it was as if before his father left Jun and his mother and his big suburban house for a job overseas, Jun did not see him for what he was though the man had walked back and forth across his life virtually every day. It was as if he did not see him until he saw him in amongst this crowd of people who shared the same skin and squared face and silver hairs that he had, all bound for similar white, box-concrete buildings, piled next to and on top of each other in what was certainly the densest city, the most never-ending city, that Jun could ever have imagined. It was as if he did not see him until he had gone to his father’s office and saw him in the middle of orchestrating a company expansion into a larger space on a different floor of the same building, a daring doubling of space and personnel during what was surely Japan’s worst recession, that he saw and admired this face and crossed arms and the shortness of speech that made everyone move so fast.
Because, as he sat and let his eyes roam over the half-moon heads rising above all the seats in front of him, like the short, round waves of a woodblock print, under the flashing obtuse American comedy, Jun had to admit to himself with an excruciating pain that he was once deeply, more than deeply, most humiliatingly deeply, fully ashamed, to know that he was the only Little Leaguer in New Milford, New Jersey, to have a Jap father; that though, to his relief, he did not look particularly Asian himself—though Jun’s eyes did not slant and his hair was not quite black and his mother emphasized his strong resemblance to her brother—he knew that his father was, one hundred per cent, undoubtedly Japanese, and that he was indeed short and carried an array of cameras and put soy sauce on everything, including eggs at breakfast, bought only Japanese appliances, and did not know how to handle a tool. And though his father came to virtually every single one of his baseball games, bearing the hefty, brand-new video camera on his shoulders, Jun would not, could not, look over at him; and, after games, when his father would, flushed with parental excitement, prod and beckon Jun to explain the strengths and weaknesses of his pitching and hitting and offer suggestions on how he would be better able to improve his game, Jun could only nod dumbly and act coolly and never show concern or unconcern for him, saving face, secretly unhappy and wishing his father had a pickup truck and a large, rough, hairy hand that would slam down hard on his shoulder after a good game with an affirmation that would be sure and final.
As he stared without blinking through the double-thick, almost round panes of glass, out over the wing stretching out into that blank darkness, he came to a further realization about his father, his otosan, or “Dad” (although this name never seemed to fit him properly but was like the awkward Christmas presents Jun bought him, a Yankees’ hat or a new rugby shirt that he would try on but which would not have a Japanese fit, too wide at the shoulders): that though this person’s grand, immeasurable DNA digits were undeniably spun together with his own, he realized, without a burst of energy or clarity or strength, that Jun had wronged him—just as he knew, had always grudgingly known, that his father had wronged both Jun and his mother, with his absence, his silence, and his abrupt manner. His rude, abrupt, stony, indifferent, erratic manner. That Jun’s mother, lost in submission, had fought back in goodness and mothering, had even, like Jun, wished away her husband’s Japanese-ness. The wrong spanned half the globe. Jun had to admit now that perhaps the man he had blamed was not to blame, or that yes he was to blame but not to the degree Jun had previously assumed. This was all part of a deluge of realization that he received, with a blank passivity, as he stared at the wing’s end, its tip and the dull tiny light blinking back at him, red.
Jun shifted in his seat, let out his breath, and shifted again, prompting the Japanese man next to him to angle his body and his book away—yet Jun was afforded a glimpse of its cover, the familiar red bridge. He reached above him and adjusted the plastic spherical vent, rested his elbow on the seat rest and his chin on his fist, and stared out the window.
And he stared at the light blinking back at him, and at the double panes in front of his face, and the dull blinding reflection of the cabin.
Finally, he cleared his throat and turned. San Francisco? he said.
The man nodded, startled, and then straightened his back and stretched.
Jun tried again: Vacation?
And again, the man nodded. Jun tried to see around to his eyes, but the man stared straight into the seat in front of him.
I can show you where to go, Jun offered, and the man again nodded, and this time said, Thank you, and Jun complimented him on his English. But the man, however, remained expressionless, and burrowed back into his book. Jun asked more questions but the man hardly gave away anything, answering everything politely, adjusting his glasses and putting a hand to his hair. And Jun looked at him then, closely, and he saw a fashionable man with fashionable hair and sophisticated glasses, and he looked down at his own self, presentable but plain, and he felt an unreasonable anger well up inside himself, at being ignored and at this man for some imagined slight, as well as himself for letting it bother him, and the world for being unable to connect, and suddenly the plane was suffocatingly small, the seat small, the world small. All he had wanted to do was to guide this man, to help him somehow.
And though Jun did not know it yet, this was to be the beginning of things, and years later, when he found himself living in Tokyo, just as lost as ever, he would look back on this moment with wonder and nostalgia, the way he had done it anyway: taken his notebook out of his pocket and scribbled down some names and places as well as his own number, and, clearing his throat, tried again with this man, who at the second attempt indulged him, permitting Jun his one kindness, of showing him where and what. And afterwards they had laughed together for a moment over some small thing, though Jun would not be able to remember later just what that small thing had been, only that it was just loud enough to disturb those around them watching the movie, causing even the fat man to stop guffawing for a moment, to pause and take note of these two, Jun and the stylish Japanese whose name he never did get, laughing together, over the engine’s roar. Father! he would remember thinking. I will never be able to connect with you, but I can laugh with this man here, now.
Up high over the Pacific, crossing through the dark.
Shimon Tanaka is a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. His fiction has appeared in The Gettysburg Review and the anthology Best New American Voices 2000.He is also the recent recipient of a grant from the Asian Cultural Council.