I’m learning to read Japanese; each step across the page slides cleanly through me, sun cutting across the undergrowth. The characters fill me to the brim with the sticky reminder of their shape and meaning, stuck to the nape of my neck like the odor of spoiling summer fruit. I stand over a desk in the clouded glow of early morning, tracing their forms with a fingertip. Hiragana, katakana, kanji. I thread them together and run my tongue through them, and they are as new and tender to me as the the birth of the first moon is to the insecure god. I want to own and preserve these characters, cup them close to my chest; I want to mutilate them, too, test their breaking points. Indecision takes root. I remember that boy from high school; how the only thing I could tolerate less than his sadness was his joy. Someday I will be sitting on my haunches at the beach, dipping my hands into sand, writing him a love letter onto the body of the coast that the sea’s blood will soon take away.
My father doesn’t approve. Why Japanese? he asks me during our telephone conversation, his voice ground into pulp by some faraway satellite. Anxiety breathes deep and pure into my stomach; I press my forehead to the window glass and I thank God, not for the first time, that he is not here with me, and that he cannot see my expression. I look too much like my mother when I am upset.
Japanese at nine o’clock in the rain, footsteps up the sidewalk like the drip drop of a bar’s painful piano, my lips twisting at the language as though insistence could return color to the dying leaves of my thoughts; Japanese when I find myself on the floor, crying, folded up, creases and edges pinched to a close. Japanese because when all else fails, at least I have the frustration of a liar’s love to keep me alive through the change into the shattering season. Japanese because I am unhappy and there is no one left to blame.
I come up with a story for each character. Sa is a ghost, cooling touch and grace, wiry frame, wound up by childhood death. Tsu is the soft-eyed and slow-smiling boyfriend I’ll never have. Hi is a town near the seaside, done up in pastel and gold, where mermaids come to be buried. Ku is the secret that would break my dear mama’s heart.
In response to the first draft of my paper, my professor writes: Your paper has some emotions, more thoughts, and many, many questions. On the one hand, I like this structure, as I’ve said. On the other hand, the high ratio of questions to emotions makes me wonder whether the questions are protecting you from an awareness of feelings.
I have to laugh. Oh, the transparency of my doleful and doe-eyed deceit! A few thousand words and two weeks of class, and this man can see into the fleshy glass of my sinner’s heart. The questions are protecting you from an awareness of feelings. Damn straight they are. Bless the questions that keep me from feeling.
Na is a good girl who loves raspberries and spelling bees and dies of alcohol poisoning at nineteen. Shi is an orphan in charge of a city’s courier system. Ka is a white cat with the gift of speech and a duty to mankind. Chi is a fleet of transport trucks on the highway, going a thousand different ways, to opposite sides of a country. A is all I want, all I have ever wanted: a little house, by a river maybe, a good kettle, and someone warm who wouldn’t mind holding me when I’m tired.
Learning to read Japanese reduces and simplifies me, stripping me down to a few elements, as though I were a chemical experiment in the hands of the scientist, a clunky metal some lab technician will cut into with a diamond knife. I sit and forget everything about myself (a great feeling, the greatest of feelings, for a monster like me). The look of the characters, the sounds they carry in their curves, the way they fit in a sentence, inside my mouth. I cover each of them with the flat of my hand, and then slowly reveal them to the light, trying to say their names as quickly as I can. They don’t promise me more than exactly what they can give, but there’s a warmth to them that indicates, perhaps, the possibility of things to come.
In Japanese, someday I will: read a letter, talk to a cat, ask for directions to a town where mermaids go to die, listen to the advice of a ghost, buy a kettle, seduce a sweetheart boy, greet the conductor of the train that will take me somewhere (somewhere I won’t break my mother’s heart or disappoint my father or cry in the dark or run myself down into the slick pools of thick tar I mistake for rivers). Somewhere faraway where it snows the whole year and little houses aren’t too expensive and the locales smile often. Somewhere I can save myself, questions or no questions. And then maybe the scales will fall from my eyes and be replaced with stars.