Seven Thousand

Ethan Woo

Ethan Woo

When Akira was twenty nine, he moved away from home.

It was a journey of seven thousand miles – Kyoto to Cambridge.  He had packed his bags and opened the door to his apartment.  It wheezed as it swung to the left.  He heard it click shut as he forced himself into the elevator and sunk sixteen floors down to the lobby.

Early morning starlight softly illuminated the paved roads.  His family was waiting in the car and he sat in the back, his tattered suitcase weighing down the pads of his knees.  He leaned his head against his brother’s shoulder absentmindedly.  There were no words as the car puttered down the street.

When they arrived at the station, Akira’s father hugged him.  His mother and brother did the same.  A terse “good luck” from his father and a humble bow from Akira were exchanged.  And then he stepped onto the train and watched as the doors closed and his parents faded into little bland dots, indistinguishable from the others on the platform.

It had been two years since that moment. 

In his very first week, the Japanese community had invited him to some kind of casual function.  They were all students, majoring in either electrical engineering or applied physics, like Akira.  He had been tempted.  It would’ve been nice to have a couple of people to talk to.  But he never responded to the invitation.  A few days later, someone asked him in person to come.  In response, he mumbled unintelligibly and rushed off aimlessly, hugging his textbook closer to his breast as the distance between Akira and the stranger grew and grew.

He was better now, more comfortable.  A routine had been established.  After seminar, he’d return to his room and work on his problem sets with a ballpoint pen on a cramped desk, chewing two sticks of grape gum as he did so.  He’d leave after about two hours and walk quietly across the lawn.  There was an old rusty bridge that extended across the Charles which on Wednesdays, at six o’clock, remained inexplicably free of zipping cars and urban smog.  He’d watch the water ripple in its serenely determined cycles, interrupted only by the occasional sculler and his oars.  Expired gasoline lingered in the air and his skin prickled in the cold.  A car honked a few roads down and Akira heard the blare echo sullenly across the water.  When the gum in his mouth shriveled and the grape on his tongue evaporated, he leaned over the railing and spat it out. It made a satisfying plop as it hit the murk below.

There was a cheap restaurant down the road that wasn’t particularly good.  But the woman who owned it spoke in Japanese and was plump and kind and happy.  She treated all the students the same way but Akira was glad for the company.  It felt like home when she set his soup down in a clay bowl and asked him when he was planning on going back.

“Not sure,” he’d say.  And she’d nod receptively, familiar with the generic response, and crack a raw egg against the edge of the table and pour it into the soup.  Her rubber apron, soaked in steam, flapped loosely in the air as she walked back to the kitchen.  He’d skim his spoon across the top of the stew until the clear whites of the egg congealed into a sticky layer that clung to the sides of the clay.

He burst the yolk open with the back of his spoon and stirred it absentmindedly.

There was a beach out on the cape.  Near the beach was a small cottage, open for rent by another student.  On a whim, Akira shelled out the rent money so he had a place to stay over the summer and in mid-June, he leaned against the side of its doorway as gravity tugged his suitcase to the floor.

The house came already furnished, although there wasn’t much room for anything large.  A stove, a small table, a refrigerator, and a cot were all crammed into a couple square feet.  The only other space was a small cubicle that served as a bathroom.  Akira left everything as it was, failing to see the point in unpacking his belongings around a three-foot radius.  He went to bed an hour later as the rain clicked rhythmically against the thin roof. 

He found himself on the beach the next morning.  The brine in the air rubbed against the inside of his throat.  A boy was wading through the water, staring intently at the murk before plunging his hands in and sifting through the grainy solution for something that was alive.

Akira went to the edge of the water, the damp sand slightly giving way to the soles of his feet. 

The boy found a hermit crab which had retreated back into its minuscule shell.  He looked around eagerly for someone to share his discovery with.  He bounded up to Akira.  “Look!”

Akira nodded mutely, feigning appreciation.  He muttered some vague sounds of approval.  “Very nice,” he managed to whisper.

“I’m Kevin,” said the boy.  Akira realized how thin the boy was.  He couldn’t have been more than six or seven but already his skin was pulled taut around bone and muscle.  Akira winced inwardly and he felt his sagging belly grumble from beneath his sweater.

“I’ve never seen you here,” said Kevin.

“I’ve never been,” was the blunt reply.

“Oh,” he said.

A silence followed.  But it was comfortable.   Akira saw the boy’s brain fill with questions, his mind whirring and spinning.

“I’m really hungry,” he said finally, unable to choose.  “Do you have anything to eat?”

Akira’s hand fumbled through the pockets of his sweatpants and produced the granola bar meant for lunch.  It didn’t matter.  He had a whole box of them back in his suitcase.  He handed it to Kevin.

“Thanks,” he said.  And he ran off.

For the rest of the day, Akira spent his time meandering along the shore.  At some point, when the sun was higher and the wind harsher, Akira and the boy crossed paths again.  This time, a woman followed close behind.  She wore no shoes.  An airy skirt blossomed around her knees.

Kevin whispered something in the woman’s ear and pointed in Akira’s direction.  The woman nodded and moved towards him, smiling kindly as she did so.

“Thanks,” she said.

“Excuse me?”

“For the granola bar.  It was nice.  I was at work; sorry if he bothered you.”

He nodded, made a sound.

The woman’s name was Anne.  Anne was a paralegal, a title Akira was unfamiliar with.  Kevin was her son and they had one more day together before she would fly to California to settle a messy divorce.  Kevin would stay at a friend’s house for the next few weeks.  Her flight left at eleven in the morning.  For the next sixteen hours, she lived near Akira’s cottage, in an apartment a few roads down.  She told Akira all of this in three minutes, in what seemed to be one huffy breath as Kevin sat two feet away, breaking up sticks and throwing the pieces at the sea.

In the evening, Kevin went back into the water.  Anne spread out a towel in the sand and sat cross-legged as she took Tupperware boxes filled with vegetable sticks and chips out of a grocery bag.  She glanced at Akira who hesitantly accepted her implicit invitation to sit.

“Where are you from?” she asked.

“Kyoto,” he said.  “Japan.”

“Pretty far away,” she commented.

Three arbitrary words.  But they struck a chord within Akira that he did not know existed.  He hadn’t gone back home in years.  Question three in his problem set mentioned that the diameter of Venus was a little over seven thousand miles, the spatial barrier that separated Akira and his family.

He imagined unfurling Venus, jabbing some kind of ribbed stick into the center and wrenching it around, unraveling a sphere of burning gases and scorching heat.  He’d wrap it around half the earth, drying up the Pacific Ocean in a strip so long he’d be able to run down a blackened runway, cleared just for him, and finally come home.

He had then muttered something under his breath about how stupid he was, how unbelievable it was that such a ridiculous thought would even cross his mind.

“Do you like it here?” Anne asked.

Again, arbitrary.  But nobody had ever asked Akira this, nobody had ever bothered. 

He looked out at the sea.  A man moored his boat to the dock, a clean arrow of white against a gray backdrop.  The sun began to shine and he felt the warmth mingling with the salt on his face.

“I do,” he finally said.  “It’s beautiful.”

And it was.  In his heart, though, he knew he didn’t belong.  He would never truly mesh with America.  His accented English and affected nature contrasted starkly with the easygoing ways of his peers on campus.  Home was on the other end of the planet.  But there he felt defined, able only to walk a path predetermined by his parents: a grade, an education, a job, a marriage, a family.  His father asked him what he wanted to be when he was four.

“A teacher.”  

That was his reply.  And in response, his father had laughed and his lip had curled upwards in a disdainful snarl.  He walked away and dismissed the response as mere wishful thinking.

Akira tilted his head back and watched as the sun slid under the horizon.  It was only here, on a beach seven thousand miles away with a woman he had met only thirty minutes ago, that he could breathe and fill the empty space around him.

Eventually, when the tubs had been emptied and their stomachs were filled, Anne rose to call Kevin back to the sand.  As she did, Akira began to stare at her calves.  They were beautiful.  Tan and lean, dappled with sunlight and age.

She moved with a grace that Akira knew he would never adopt.  It was with a manner that carried with it a knowledge of the ways of the world.  She didn’t know the formulas he did.  She would live her whole life without being able to synthesize the Lorentz force law with Maxwell’s equations.  He cringed, slightly, gnawing at the inside of his cheek until he tasted salt.

Anne had had her heart broken.  She was being forced to uproot her life and move across the country against her will.  She had lived, experienced so much more than Akira had in his sheltered existence of numbers and reading and experiments in the laboratory.  He would never adopt the ease with which she glided through life.  Eventually, he would be able to move himself from Cambridge back to Kyoto, from point X to point Y.  He would eventually bring himself across that physical barrier.  But this was an emotional divide he would never cross.

When Anne and Kevin returned, they said goodbye.  Anne hugged Akira and they parted ways.

Akira returned to his rented house and sat on his bed.  The rain had started again and he felt the water tap away at the roof.  He looked out the window and smiled slightly as he watched Anne’s footprints form in the sand as she walked back to her car.  She had left her towel behind.  It alternated between strips of pink and green fabric, meant to resemble a watermelon.  He was about to run out and get it for her, chase after her car and hand it back with a smile. 

But something held him back, as always. 

The next day, the towel and the footprints had been washed away.  It was like she had never been there at all.

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