Saturday, April 3, 2010

Family: Chapter XVII- Sleepless in Nagoya

On the second night of my trip to Japan I find myself increasingly unable to sleep. It isn’t the accommodations; they are quite to my liking. Clean, efficient and truthfully much better than any hotel room I visited back in the States. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but my rhythm is off- kilter. I toss and turn in the bed. I sit up and look at my watch. 3:50 am. I rise and walk to the large glass window. I am thinking of my daughter, sleeping soundly, literally on the other side of the Earth. After a few moments I get dressed and walk downstairs and out into the street.
Although our tour has recommended against it, I take to the Nagoya downtown streets alone in the middle of the night. I make a careful note to myself of the approximate location of my hotel. My Japanese is barely sufficient to order food, let alone navigate an unfamiliar city in the dark. After a few blocks I come upon a karaoke club called Joy Joy. Unbelievably it is still open so I walk inside. An attractive female attendant asks me if I would like a booth. I make a few halting attempts at conversation and before long we are laughing it up in the lobby. In the distance I hear the unmistakable sounds of people butchering their favorite songs. For some odd reason this comforts me. We talk and joke for a half hour until she politely explains to me that the club is closing. I say my best goodbye and head back out into the night.
I come upon a convenience store. An incredibly tiny pickup truck is pulling up to the entrance. I mean, this truck is literally not much bigger than a motorcycle. It’s the smallest truck I have ever seen, and it is here delivering what looks like the day’s fresh lettuce. The door jingles as I enter the store.
“Irrashimase!” says the attendant, but he is eyeing me warily. Gaijin are a little suspicious at this time of the night. I ask for an English newspaper and he looks at me like I have two heads. After a few attempts, I realize I have asked for an English “talking” newspaper, instead of an English language newspaper. We both laugh as he pulls me a copy of Asahi Shimbun. The front page is plastered with gruesome images of the latest train crash. Apparently it’s a pretty bad one. On my way to the refrigerator I notice a young salaryman in a rumpled business suit passed out face down unconscious in one of the aisles. I stop in my tracks and glance at the shopkeeper. “Daijobu? Is he ok?” The shopkeeper waves his hand dismissively. “Sake….” He says, and rolls his eyes. I grab a bottle of Aquarius, my favorite new drink, and pay my tab.
I attempt to watch television, but the choice of programming is bizarre even by my standards. Apparently tonight’s choices are two different kinds of black and white samurai soap operas, the Matthew Snellick show (that crazy guy from Lost in Translation is real!) and some genuinely disturbing rape Pornography. I sit wide eyed at this sordid array of choices. I watch a little bit of a game show in which a man uses a magnifying glass to focus sunlight in order to burn another man’s nipples. Both men are wearing diapers for some reason. After the nipple burning, they start putting live eels into each other’s diapers. I take a deep breath and head for the downstairs bar.
For the next five nights this becomes my habit, drinking myself to sleep. I love the country but I cannot make the necessary adjustment for conventional sleep. During the days I visit Buddhist temples and Nijo castle, ancient and dusty. Just about the time I am really getting the hang of the language it is time to go home.
We board the plane headed for America. Everyone is laughing, jovial with the thought of home. The flight is brutally long, almost an entire day in the air. As we descend into Baltimore, I listen to Fountains of Wayne on my headphones as the twinkling runway lights come into view.
After a few moments I realize I will never experience this sensation again. As I arrive in Baltimore, my daughter rushes through the gate and jumps into my arms. My wife is almost tearful with joy. She asks me how it was. I begin to describe it, but for the first time I really realize that none of this will make any sense. The language barrier, the alienation, the crushing loneliness, the unspeakable beauty of the Orient. It is impossible to describe.
“It was great.” I say, and hold her tighter than I ever realized I could.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Family: Chapter XVI- The Wake

In the middle of the night my cell phone rings. It’s my father, explaining in a resigned tone that his mother has passed. I can’t say I am surprised- she was 96 for God’s sake- but still the call catches me off guard. This is just the perfect way to end my week. On Monday I lost my job, on Wednesday my brother crashed a stolen car, and now…. Well, you get the idea. I stand for a second in the darkened spare room, wondering about the best way to tell my family. I seem to be developing a knack for delivering bad news. There certainly is plenty to go around lately. For a second I ponder the impact of this news. I may as well just spit it out.
I have a terrific headache as I walk into the living room.
“It’s my Dad…” I say.
“Oh no!” my wife replies. She knows, obviously.
“Well, uh, yeah, uh, I guess the funeral is on St. Patrick’s Day. We are going right?”
“Of course!”
“On the plus side I don’t have to worry about missing work.” I smile, she doesn’t. My wife doesn’t always find the humor in desperate adversity. My daughter starts crying. All the lights are out.
In the morning, while we load the car, I think of all the things that keep changing. The drive takes place in a blur and we arrive in New York in record time. I think of my grandmother. I picture everything happening to someone else.
After the Catholic mass, the funeral party agrees to meet at the nearby Phelps hotel. An Irish Wake is an interesting thing, if you have never seen one. It’s a little bit like a cross between a Church Service and a Frat Party, except with more drinking. I don’t remember much past about 1 o’clock. At around dusk we make our way back to my dad’s place. My wife drives me, I guess.

My father is hammered up. He is holding a martini glass filled with vodka. In a pronounced slur he launches into a story about my mother. I can the feel the weight of the years slipping away from him.
His story is compelling. I enjoy viewing the 1950’s through his distorted lens. He smiles and looks out the window. He talks about growing up poor, and the way that back then people did not know when they were poor. He talks about being Catholic. He tells us about his father. Then he tells a story about meeting a girl.

“She kissed me,” he says, “Twice.” He holds his fingers in a peace symbol to illustrate the number two, a helpful gesture considering my inebriated state.
He takes a deep breath but says nothing, and as I look at the film over his eyes, I realize he is far away.
As he finishes his sentence, my father faces me, and I can see my own face reflected in his glasses. He looks directly at me but is seeing something else for the first time clearly now, A beautiful young woman stands beneath a flickering porch light, waving goodnight as she begins to fall in love with him, delivering her kiss from beyond the forgotten corners of 1959.
I walk out on to the porch after everyone falls asleep. The stars wheel in the night sky. Suddenly anything might happen.
I forget this night until some months later, when my father has medical trouble of his own. He undergoes some serious surgery. We talk on the phone. He tells me how he cheated death, and he really means it. We laugh. The Doctors think he’ll be okay.
Come November I get a kidney stone; and damn it, I just can’t pass it. An ambulance takes me from the doctor’s office straight to the hospital. On a cold Friday the surgeon removes the stone and I go home late that same night. I am sore but glad to be home. As a matter of fact, I plan to take two days off work…. Just take it easy, and rest. I lay on the couch, thinking.
Suddenly my iPhone is vibrating on the table. My wife and I freeze. I look. The number is from upstate New York. Wait…
The phone vibrates again, more insistently this time; the sound of marbles being poured on a tin roof. I turn and look at her. There is a hunted look in her eye.
I imagine my childhood home, all of its rooms standing empty.
“You’d better get that,” she says.

Family: Chapter XV- Cub

Before breakfast I look out across my porch to enjoy the sunrise as is my custom. I am surprised to see an unruly shock of spiky yellow hair sprouting up from behind the lattice of my deck. “That’s odd,” I think to myself, and taking up my cup of coffee I go out onto the porch to see what it is.
As I cross over onto the porch my knees go weak. There, just beyond the railing of my porch, a full grown African lion devours his morning meal. His magnificent mane gleams in the sunlight. A small sheep hangs limp in his powerful jaws, dead eyes staring dully at the ground. The sheep, if that’s what it is, has a black face and feet, but the rest of his body is covered with white fleece. The lion, oblivious to me, snaps his head and tears a huge chunk of meat from the sheep’s midsection. There is a warm spray of blood and the lion gives a soft growl of contentment.
“Ugh…” I say involuntarily, and suddenly the lion looks directly at me. He stares at me with malevolent determination, sizing me up. There is about twenty feet between us. “I’m alright,” I think, “he has already eaten.” The silence is deafening. I can hear my heart pounding. “Be cool.” I tell myself, “he can sense fear.” A slight breeze whispers in the long grass. “Nice lion,” I say.
His forearms tense like steel springs and in a terrible flash he is over the railing and after me. I stumble backwards toward the door, my coffee cup clattering to the deck. For a moment everything seems to be happening in slow motion; I can see his gnashing teeth, the foam on his jowls, and the smell of hot blood on his breath. I fall backwards through the door and lock it with a snap. The lion looses a frustrated roar that stands my hair on end.
I crawl into the kitchen, shaking, helpless with fear. Natalie stands there, nonplussed, cheerfully stirring pancake mix with a wooden spoon.

“Good Morning!” she says with a smile. I attempt a reply.
“Ahhh….ahhh….” I sputter, breathless. Tears blur my vision.
“There, there.” she says gently, and puts her arms around me. I fall to my knees and clasp her waist with all my strength. She smells of butter and flour, breakfasts and motherhood, sunlight and all good things. “Shhh…. It’s alright,” she whispers. I realize that I cannot let go of her. Not now, not ever. In this moment, she is everything. I bury my face in her apron, paralyzed with distress. She strokes the back of my neck and smiles.
“He cannot hurt you now,” she promises; but from outside come the sounds of the feeding lion, the cracking of bone and the slavering of his great maw.