Didn’t love it, didn’t hate it-- it was just where I lived.
In the back of my mind, there was always New York, where Dad lived a life I could only imagine-- far from this sleepy town with its ponds and pines, temples and tea, wooden houses falling into each other like sailors wobbly from too much sake, days as predictable as the tides.
In the back of my mind, I’d graduate from high school, leave the place Dad left behind.
Mom rode her bike to the oyster farm, pulled shell clusters from the ocean, pried the oysters off the mother shells, washed the sludge away.
Obaachan1 picked wild ferns on the mountain. Ojiichan2 fixed a busted light on his sanma3 boat.
Shin’s dad washed his taxi in their garage, bleached the seat covers white as bone.
Shin, Ryu, and I walked to school together-- Ryu juggling his soccer ball the whole way.
We planned to skateboard by the seawall after school, but we never made it.
Just an ordinary spring morning, ordinary fight with Mom. Maybe she spoke to me in English and I answered in Japanese-- don’t even remember now. Maybe I threw my dirty socks onto the floor or left the toilet seat up again.
Whatever it was seems so stupid at 2:46 p.m., when I’m sitting in math waiting for the bell to ring
and the earth starts to shake.
what they’ve taught us since nursery school-- bring my knees to my chest, cover my head.
The desks rattle, the window frames buckle, the building creaks from side to side, no one runs out.
We laugh, thinking we’ll get out of school early, thinking the quake will stop like the others always have.
But the shaking continues, stronger and stronger, not caring at all what we thought.
flies off the wall. Time stops. Windows shatter.
We dive under desks-- this time for real. The earth jolts us over and over. It’s like getting kicked up from the ground and thrown from side to side and punched in the stomach all at once.
Aki-sensei shouts: Evacuate! Evacuate! his voice fierce, urgent.
shake, my legs shake, my hands shake, but somehow I manage to stumble out from under my desk, stand up, scramble to pull the yellow vest and hard hat free, put them on, throw the emergency pack onto my back.
We rush out of the room-- all except for Keiko Inoue, curled under her desk, long legs tucked into her chest, frozen.
KEIKO! COME ON!
We’ve got to go! I shout. She doesn’t budge. I reach out, but she won’t take my hand.
Get up! Get UP! NOW!
Her dark brown eyes won’t focus-- she’s not there.
The wall cracks, splits in half with a groan.
Taro Nishi pushes me aside, kicks over the desk, scoops up Keiko, slings her like a deer over his broad shoulders.
So relieved to be out of the building-- then I look at Taro carrying Keiko, think: Wish it had been me.
SCHOOL SWAYS AND TILTS,
playground cracks, classroom crumbles, cinder blocks shower, sheets of wall collapse.
Roof buckles into itself, tiles rain down with chunks of concrete, shards of glass.
In the distance, water sloshes over the edge of the pool.
I close my eyes, pray I’ll wake up from this nightmare, pray that everything will be normal again.
Tsunami! A tsunami is coming!
It’s been drilled into us since nursery school--
a tsunami always follows a quake.
Still, I never thought I’d be this close to one-- too close to one right here, right now.
break through the eerie silence. Then Aki-sensei shouts: Higher ground! Get to higher ground!
Another quake shakes the earth beneath our feet, jolts us sideways, almost knocks us down.
LIKE A BULLET TRAIN
we speed off toward the mountains behind the school.
First straight lines, then chaos, scurrying toward safety.
I turn around, keep my eye on Shin behind me-- tall, thin Shin, he says he’s got my back.
Ryu’s up ahead, strong thighs pumping. Hurry up, everyone! he shouts, moving quick as lightning.
I’m fast, too. That’s what Coach Inoue always said-- fastest boy in town-- gotta prove him right.
Gotta make it up the hill! Come on! We’re going to be all right! Ryu shouts, even though everyone knows the water will be coming soon.
Dirt flying at our heels, ocean at our backs, we funnel our bodies into narrow streets, zigzag around rubble-- once-peaceful town now a war zone.
ALMOST AT THE MOUNTAIN BASE--
fallen pine trees block the path! Can’t get up the mountain.
Can’t go back.
Sky turns black, then orange, then red.
Clouds open up to sudden rain.
Teachers huddle, try to determine the next-highest place.
I text Mom to let her know I’m okay. But I don’t say that. Instead I ask R u ok?
She texts back right away. R U? I’m fine. I love you, Kai & a heart & smile. I’m smiling, too-- only notice that I’m crying when I taste salt in my mouth.
strange sound rises from behind us like a giant Slurpee being sucked through the biggest straw in the world.
Let’s go! Aki-sensei shouts. To the bridge!
Its span is high-- we’ll be safe.
FIVE BLOCKS ACROSS TOWN
to the river-- just five blocks!
Must have run five times that for soccer every day when I was little.
But a huge black sheet of water curls away from the shore, leaves the ocean floor totally open bare, exposed-- like us. . . .
legs pounding head pounding obstacle course of crumbled buildings chunks of pavement rooftops strewn like train tracks tracks buckled like busted rooftops downed electric cables splintered boards upturned cars ships on land flattened trucks.
Each block is like a continent to cross.
hurls us into the air.
I look up at Ryu-- always the leader-- propelling me with his motion. Now he’s on the ground.
Shin is way behind-- gangly grasshopper legs buckling in and out like they always did on the soccer field.
Can’t go on! Ryu groans. You can do this! I stop, reach for his hand, pick him up and drag him along, legs pinwheeling.
Keep running! Aki-sensei shouts, shirt clinging to his sweat-drenched back.
Gotta make it to the bridge.
Gotta run faster than we’ve ever run, faster than we knew we could
because the foaming mass is coming up so fast so strong so soon-- too soon-- behind us.
raging, smashing into land, exploding in sky-high spray
snapping crunching crushing everything in its wake.
Horns beeping cars swirling water sweeping up busesstreetlampsshopsigns homesbuildingstrees even people.
WE MAKE IT
to the bridge--
spanning out over the river
like the wings of an angel. Safe!
But the water makes it, too, churns around the piers thrashes into the railings surges over the railings sweeps onto the deck charges right up to where we’re standing.
SHIN! RYU! AKI-SENSEI! KEIKO!
R U N !
to the left then splits in half as if concrete and steel were balsa wood.
We go down with it.
INTO THE WAVE
f r e e f a l l
Sucked under the freezing black mass--
have to breathe. Have to break free.
Have to get away from the foul-smelling eye-stinging throat-burning monster.
THWAAACK! Slammed so hard my nose cracks, tinny taste-- blood in my mouth.
I reach out, hold on to the tree, scramble up hand over hand, thighs squeeze and release, squeeze and release up up up like the monkey Mom always said I was.
10 feet 20 feet 30 feet 40 feet
Don’t know how high I am, don’t care.
Just hope I’m higher than the next wave.
But the monster rears up again.
THE PINE TREE
bends, sways, bows low to the ground.
up to my feet up to my thighs up to my chest up to my head up to my mouth just want air.
CAN’T GIVE UP
can’t give in can’t give way can’t go under so cold so cold can’t breathe can’t do anything.
Mom’s voice: Kai Kai Kai . . .
in the sludge-- bruised and battered.
Don’t know where I am or how long I’ve been here, shivering, shaking, coughing up sand dirt seawater sludge until I’m empty.
STAGGERING TOWARD ME
clothes in strips-- Principal Kunihara.
You OK? Where’s Shin, Ryu? I cough out.
Don’t know . . . His once-booming voice now a whisper.
Hand on my back, he guides me up the hill to the junior high.
My head hurts. My body hurts. Where’s Mom? Where’s everyone? Where’s my favorite ramen place?
What happened to the vegetable market the fish shop the tofu maker the video store?
BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT BIG BLACK DIRT
What happened to my town?
IN THE AUDITORIUM,
people huddle together on the floor, rocking back and forth.
I’m too scared to ask the question that matters most.
BUT I NEED TO KNOW,
so I go looking face to face-- neighbors townspeople strangers old young wet, bleeding, shaking.
None of them are Mom, Ojiichan, Obaachan, Shin, or Ryu. . . .
MY EYES LAND
on Aki-sensei-- brown face now ashen, big man now small, bent over like a bonsai.
You’re okay! he says, relieved. No, I say. I gotta go find my mom and grandparents! Now!
THEN WE’RE SLAMMED
from side to side like we’re a bone the earth keeps trying to spit out of its throat.
Take cover! Aki-sensei shouts.
We grab on to walls, grab on to each other, grab on to anything to stay upright.
IF THE QUAKES CONTINUE,
the sea could rise up again, take what’s left-- can’t let that happen.
I’m going out! I shout.
Wait, Aki-sensei says. The earth’s still shaking.
Principal Kunihara won’t let anyone out of sight.
I don’t care. The earth’s not waiting! Why should I?
THE SHAKING STOPS
and I breathe again, relieved. It’s just a 7.1-- not like the first one, the 9.0 that lifted doors and walls and the ocean floor.
HANDS AND FEET NUMB,
we curl up on the hardwood floor and wait.
Ganbarimasu-- Together, we’ll endure.
Principal Kunihara carries boxes under his arm. What for?
He says we’ll tear the cardboard to make signs.
We use what we have.
I write in marker salvaged from the art room--
Looking for My Grandparents: Hiroyuki and Sanae Takamoto. Has anyone seen Tomoko Takamoto?
Tape the signs to the auditorium wall.
WE SECTION OFF
sleeping spaces with cardboard, tarps, blankets, tents, lines of tape drawn across the floor.
All we’ve got are old futons and blankets so short my feet stick out from under them.
It will be a cold night in the auditorium.
I try to close my eyes. Try not to think about Mom, about Ojiichan and Obaachan, about all my friends.
Try to focus on this other tide, the one inside me-- Me. Kai. Still alive.
IN MY DREAMS
I play soccer with my friends, like I used to do so long ago.
But we’re trapped-- Shin, Ryu, and I can’t kick the ball through a wall of water even Kagawa4 or Honda5 couldn’t penetrate.
WIND BLOWS THE DOORS OPEN
in the middle of the night, batters them shut again. I bolt upright, panicked.
Is it me, or is the earth still moving?
A snowstorm’s arrived and it’s pitch-black outside but I don’t care-- I’m getting out of here.
TIPTOEING LIKE A NINJA
I feel my way around the room, stepping over boxes, shoes, people.
I’m almost at the door when Taro Nishi jumps up in front of me.
Where do you think you’re going? he asks. Where does it look like? I say, pushing my classmate aside.
But he blocks my path, like he always does.
Move! I say, shoving him out of the way.
What’s your problem? Taro snarls.
My problem? How about no water no food no electricity no heat no family no future? Gotta find my mom!
Rescue teams are doing their best, he says, holding me back.
If your mom’s out there, they’ll find her.
I struggle against his grip, try to break free. What if they don’t?
He doesn’t have an answer, so I go slack in his arms, then squat when he relaxes his grip. I kick him backward in the shins, ram my body into his, break away, rush for the door. I’ve got nothing left to lose.
AKI-SENSEI RUNS OVER,
grabs me tightly, whirls me around to face him in the darkness.
We’ve got to keep our heads, he says, jutting his chin toward the scuffed floor where kids huddle together in the dark, wide-eyed, scared.
BACK IN MY CORNER
I pound my fists into my futon, rage like the sea.
Next to me, old folks burrow into their blankets, murmur: It’s just like the war,6 when we had nothing.
Obaachan used to talk about how hard things were back then,
when a banana was a luxury, green tea was champagne.
She told me all this so I’d appreciate what I had.
But I didn’t. Until now. At daybreak sun streams through mud-streaked windows.
In the hallway mirror I see my seaweed hair, dirt-smudged face, bloodshot brown eyes.
Sliding paste over my teeth with my fingers, seawater still on my tongue.
Can’t get the mud out from under my nails-- my skin, my hair. Must be how Mom felt washing my dirty soccer clothes.
The cold water turns brown, brown like my first soccer uniform-- my very own team jersey shining like a stallion.
Sharp white stripes running like arrows down the sides.
Ryu said kakko ii --cool-- and I felt that way.
Ryu! I haven’t seen him since the bridge.
from the sink-- a face behind mine in the mirror.
Can it be? Buzz-cut hair like a monk’s, eyes slit-sharp like a lizard’s.
What? Shin! No way! You’re here!
Kai! Hey! You made it! We made it! Oi! Oi! he says, laughing. We slap each other’s backs.
Never thought I’d be so happy again.
My dad and mom are here, too, and my grandpa! he says, taking me by the arm.
But I don’t move. Oh, he says. Oh.
4 Shinji Kagawa--(b. 1989) Plays midfield for the German club -Borussia -Dortmund and for the Japan national team Soccer Nippon Daihyō
5 Keisuke Honda--(b. 1986) Plays midfield or forward for the Italian club AC Milan and for the Japan national team Soccer Nippon Daihyo
6 Refers to Second World War
Copyright © 2016 by Leza Lowitz. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.