Flying to Vermont–January 1, 1969
I wish we had flown to Vermont
instead of riding
on a bus, train, train, bus
all the way from Berkeley.
Ten hours would have soared, compared to six days.
But two plane tickets—
one for me and one for Mama—
would have cost a lot of money,
and Papa already spent so much
when he flew home at Thanksgiving.
Mama is sewing buttons on my new slacks
and helping me fill out the forms
for my new school in Hillsborough, our new town.
This might be a new year
but seventh grade is halfway done,
and I’ll be the new girl.
I’m stuck at the Ethnicity part.
Check only one, it says.
The choices are:
and all me.
Isn’t that all anyone needs to know?
But the form says All items must be completed,
so I ask, “Other?”
Mama pushes her brows together,
making what Papa calls her Toshiro-Mifune face.
“Check all that apply,” she says.
“But it says just one.”
“Do you listen to your mother or a piece of paper?”
I check off Black,
cross out Oriental,
and write Japanese with a check mark.
“What will we do now, Mimi-chan?” Mama asks,
which means: Will you read
or do algebra, so you’re not behind?
“Take a nap,” I say.
but I close my eyes
and pretend we’re flying.
The bus driver is the pilot
and every bump in the road
becomes an air pocket in the sky.
A jolt wakes me up. I was dreaming
my hatsuyume—the first dream of the new year.
If I tell my hatsuyume, it won’t come true
because in Japanese, speak sounds just like let go.
And if my dream meant good luck, I don’t want to
let it go.
I dreamed I was a bird, strong and brown
with feathers tipped magenta and gold.
I shot straight up into the air like a Saturn rocket,
then swooped and dove, the sun warming my back.
I pumped my wings, then glided
over the desert
and the sea.
The air filled my lungs,
the wind lifted my wings
higher and higher
over the mountains
and above the clouds.
The moon grew large,
and I stretched to touch it.
Maybe it was a good-luck dream
and this will be a good year
for Papa and Mama and me.
That’s what I hope.
But, what if my hatsuyume meant bad luck?
Mama says to let go of your bad dreams by telling them.
Papa says to bury your bad dreams
in a hole as deep as your elbow.
The ground in New England is frozen,
so if I listen to Papa, I’ll have to wait until spring.
I’ll listen to Mama instead
and write my dream on paper,
so either way—good luck or bad—
my hatsuyume will not be spoken.
I have never flown before
but one day
The Old Farmer’s Almanac
that Santa had put in my stocking
from cover to cover.
reading about the moon,
and I’ve memorized
all its names and phases.
the moon tonight
is waxing gibbous, almost
the Full Wolf Moon.
It has chased us outside the bus window
all the way from Boston,
bounding through the sky,
skipping across rooftops,
like it has one last word
to tell us.
if you leave eggs under a waxing moon,
all your chicks will hatch.
And Mama said
if you make a wish on the moon
over your shoulder,
it will come true.
to the moon on my shoulder:
all my dreams will hatch.”
This bus lulls.
Some people are reading, some are sleeping,
two ladies behind us are talking,
the baby up front chuckles hoarsely,
someone is sipping tomato soup,
and in back, Glen Campbell is singing “Wichita Lineman” on the radio.
All of us who don’t know one another
are riding together on this Trailways bus to Vermont
on the first night of 1969.
It doesn’t feel like oshogatsu, New Year’s Day,
because Mama couldn’t make ozoni and sushi
and black-eyed peas and collard greens,
and we couldn’t sip warm sake from the shallow cups.
Mama says she doesn’t care about those things
because we’re traveling to meet Papa.
But what bothers her
is that no man crossed our threshold this morning
(because we don’t have a threshold today),
and that means we’ll have bad luck all year.
I told her we can find a man to visit our new
but she said, “Too late.”
The lady across the aisle is knitting a scarf.
She has been staring at Mama and me
ever since the sun set.
I want to stick out my tongue at her reflection in our window
just to let her know
but that would disgrace Mama
and disappoint Papa.
So, I open the Time magazine
with the three Apollo 8 astronauts on the cover—
the Men of the Year—
that came just before we left,
which Auntie Sachi slipped into my bag at the door,
with a note:
Have a safe journey.
I can tell by the way Mama looks at herself
in the window, brushes her bangs to the side,
and runs her finger under her eyes
that we’ll be in Hillsborough soon,
where Papa, in the tweed coat he calls “professorial,”
will meet us.
She pops a wintergreen Life Savers in her mouth
and passes the roll to me.
I take one
because I want my kiss on Papa’s cheek to be fresh.
The bus slows down.
A barbershop, an insurance company,
a dentist’s office, a grocery store
all slide by. The air prickles
and everyone sits up straight and shifts in their seats,
finishes talking to the person next to them.
“Hillsborough coming up!” the driver calls.
The lady across the aisle winds up her yarn
and tucks her knitting into a tote bag. She looks at me again
and leans into the aisle. “Are you adopted?”
“Nani?” Mama asks me. She must have been daydreaming
or she would have asked, “What?”
I whisper, “She wants to know where we’re going.”
Mama glances at the lady and turns into Mifune.
But before she can pretend she doesn’t speak English,
I say, “She’s my mom.”
The lady looks at me, then at Mama,
and shakes her head.
“No . . . she’s not your mother.”
The bus pulls up in front of a diner
and stops so quick
that we all jerk forward in our seats.
The driver cranks a handle and
the door hisses open.
He disappears outside
as cold air scampers down the aisle.
Papa is waiting in front of the diner
wearing his coat
and a red-and-gold scarf, Hillsborough College colors.
When he sees me inside the bus, he waves.
But I wave harder.
Outside, I hold his hand in his pocket
while he counts our suitcases—four plus my overnight case.
The icy air pinches my cheeks,
but my heart is warm.
He drapes his scarf around my throat
and says, “Now you’re the professor.”
The knitting lady steps down from the bus
for a breath of air.
“And this is my dad. See?” I say, and smile.
She looks at Papa, at Mama,
and back at me. Then,
not smiling, she says, “Yes, I see,”
and walks toward the diner.
When I know Mama and Papa can’t see me,
I stick out my tongue
so far that it hurts.
Our new house smells like varnish and
balsam needles and mothballs.
The floors are all wood, except the kitchen and the bathrooms,
which are linoleum,
and they creak when I walk around in my socks—
which I can’t do for long
because it’s so cold that my scalp tightens.
Halfway up the stairs is a stained-glass window
with a picture of flowers and butterflies in a garden,
Papa opens the cellar door and flips the light switch.
I peer down the dark, dusty staircase.
And in the kitchen sink are the bowl and spoon Papa used for his cornflakes this morning.
He shows Mama the cinnamon-colored dishwasher built under the counter
and the garbage disposal built into the sink.
These are firsts for Mama.
She opens the dishwasher door and pulls out the top rack.
“Hmm,” she says, and that’s all.
Papa and I look at each other.
We know we’ll find out what that means,
but it won’t be now.
“This is our room,” Papa says,
opening a door down the hall.
A big bed with a yellow comforter sits against a wall.
Papa is renting most of the furniture
because we didn’t own much in California.
Before Mama and I left Berkeley,
she shipped her tall china cupboard and her kotatsu,
the low table with a heater underneath.
“Where’s my room?” I ask.
Papa takes my hand and leads me up a steep staircase.
My room is at the top. It’s the biggest bedroom I’ve ever seen.
One side of the ceiling slopes halfway to the floor
and seats are built under the two windows.
“If you don’t like it, you can trade with us,” Papa says.
But I say no—
so fast that he can’t take this room away.
Later, Mama comes upstairs to tuck me in,
like I’m five again.
But tonight, because we’re in our new house,
in our new town, on the other side of the country,
I want her to.
She sits for a few minutes on my bed,
as if she needs to as much as I
need her to.
Papa has had a week to get used to this new house,
and Mama and I will catch up.
She kisses me good night and tucks the comforter
all the way around my chin
and goes downstairs. The light glows up the stairs,
stretching her shadow on the wall.
The sky outside is soft pink, and I smile into my comforter.
It is like the soft pink is inside me, resting,
breathing with me.
Is this house making me feel this way,
or the snow outside? Or knowing our long trip is over?
Or having a big bedroom upstairs
but hearing Mama and Papa downstairs,
and we’re a family again after four months?
all the good things have come together
in soft pink
This house creaks
like it can’t find a comfortable place to settle into.
I toss and turn
and can’t find a comfortable spot to sleep in.
My clock says 2:18 a.m.
I get out of bed and sit at a window.
The sky has cleared
and the moon sits high in the sky
like a pearl button.
Stars—bright, cold, voiceless—
are winking, but I know that’s because Earth’s heat is rising,
the atmosphere is shifting.
(A future astronaut needs to know these things.)
I wonder if Earth winked at the Apollo 8 astronauts
when they took its picture from the moon on Christmas Eve.
Something moves in the next yard.
A dog, dark and fuzzy, leaps in the moonlit snow.
Then one sharp whistle from the neighbor’s house
calls it inside.
The sun wakes me up.
Ouch! my neck hurts
because I’m still sitting at my window.
A fringe of icicles hangs outside,
and the sun makes little rainbows inside them.
I smell coffee and bacon,
and I know that hot chocolate is waiting downstairs.
No cornflakes for Papa this morning—
Mama’s making her special basted fried eggs with onions
and the bacon he loves.
Today is Thursday, but it feels like Saturday
because this is still school vacation.
Thursday is the only day that doesn’t have a personality,
so today it borrowed Saturday’s.
Mama has already set out her maneki-neko,
the cat statue that waves, so we will have good luck from the start.
It makes our new house feel more like home.
“What’s your plan today, Meems?” Papa asks at the table,
the newspaper open in front of him.
What I really want to do is see that dog again,
but I shrug and say, “Explore.”
“It’s cold outside,” Mama says. “Wear your warm clothes.”
Papa looks up from his paper. “And do not leave the yard.”
Next Door Boy
Wood smoke hangs in a blue haze outside,
and far off
a chain saw buzzes through the air.
An empty coop in our backyard is covered in snow
like a tiny alpine chalet,
but in the spring it will be filled with turkeys.
My lips stick to my teeth
and my nostrils are stuck shut. My chest hurts
when I breathe this icy air.
I’ll warm up by making a snowman.
This snow is too deep for rolling three balls for his body,
so I pack it into a mound,
then sculpt him with my hands.
I pack a lemon-size ball for his nose, poke holes for his eyes,
and draw a big smile with my thumb.
By the time I’m done,
my skin prickles with sweat under my clothes,
my nose runs,
and my legs shudder.
A boy steps out of the house next door
and kicks snow down the back steps.
The dog from last night bursts past him,
toppling the boy to the snow.
“Pattress!” he calls, laughing.
But she wanders away from him, snuffling
like a steam train.
Even across our wide yards, I can see
the boy’s cheeks are red on his pale skin,
slapped by the cold.
Pattress wags her long, pointy tail.
“Hi,” I say, raising my hand, sniffling.
The boy raises his hand and nods, then
goes back into the house,
calling, “Come on, Pattress.”
The brown dog looks at me, then at the steps,
and follows the boy inside.
Ready for School
These are the new slacks that Mama sewed,
butterscotch corduroy with three black buttons at the waist,
because four would be bad luck.
This is the sweater that Auntie Phoenix sent from Baltimore,
tangerine and fluffy,
scratching my wrists and neck.
These are my tights
and my secondhand boots with a run-down right heel
that crunch in the snow, leaving waffle footprints.
This is the wool coat that Mama wore
the winter she married Papa in Japan.
And mittens with snowflakes on each palm
and a long scarf to shield me from the tiny wind daggers.
When I breathe, my cheeks and chin feel moist
and cold at the same time.
These are my frozen eyelashes
and my Popsicle nose.
You have to wear a lot of clothes
just to go to school in Vermont.
Papa doesn’t want me to take the school bus,
so he’s driving me on his way to the college.
When the wind blows the snow, it makes a rainbow.
Rainbows mean hope. I hope for a good day,
good teachers, a good friend.
Deep in my pocket, I touch the round of omochi
and a square of corn bread
that Mama wrapped in wax paper
so I can remember our small, late oshogatsu.
I wish we didn’t have to live out in the sticks,
but Mama wants to raise turkeys and grow vegetables,
so even in spring, Papa will take me and bring me home.
Maybe there’s another reason we live two miles from town
and Papa drives me to school.
Even if we lived in town,
in the kind of house other professors live in—
like that white-shingled Victorian with the black shutters—
would Papa escort me every morning
and stand guard after the last bell?
I thought that Papa was going to drop me off
in front of my new junior high.
Instead, he turns into the drive and parks in front
of the PRINCIPAL sign.
Our car is a green Malibu, which Papa drove
all the way from Berkeley to Hillsborough.
One day he’ll tell us about that trip
all at once.
Or, maybe he has been telling it all along,
the way snowpack grows:
a million tiny flakes
one by one,
but I haven’t been listening.
“Everything cool?” he asks.
I look out the windshield at the white clapboard building,
the wide steps up to the front doors,
the tall windows framed in green sashes.
“It’s cool,” I say, because it’s what he wants to hear,
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