Foreign Bodies

by Michelle Bailat-Jones

How strange—but Tomoko hushes the thought, bowing her head as she slips into the room, excusing herself with the repetition of ritual phrases, words she does not realize she is even saying. She has not come in to stare at her guest; she must set out the dishes and the food onto the low table: the little plates and the bowls, the small omelet, the soy sauce pitcher, the strong-smelling squid the cook has decided on for breakfast this morning. And this whole time the woman on the futon doesn’t say a word to her.

Tomoko watches this woman at the edge of her vision, a lump of human in a blue robe, unmoving, silent, her head turned away. Tomoko skitters her eyes back to the table. Now the hashi, now the paper napkin and the packet of toasted seaweed, now the teacup and its matching pot. Tomoko turns then just as the woman raises her head, meets her eyes, and again she is surprised, has been surprised since the woman told her yesterday that she was American. She is not like the college girls who came through last year, or that laughing loud family with their three carrot-haired children. She knows she is not supposed to feel this way, but the word “American” gives Tomoko anything but this chubby dark-skinned woman with a shaved head who looks maybe Filipina.

But it doesn’t matter, no, a guest is a guest, and Tomoko is rushing now that the woman’s breakfast is laid out for her, and there are so many more guests to deal with, and Mrs. Matsumoto will be complaining about the tea already, and there is her father to get ready, there is always her father, and so Tomoko is bowing again and giving more of those quiet phrases, and then she is gone.

Kate watches the innkeeper through narrowed eyes, counting the dishes as they slide onto the table and then counting the footsteps as the woman slips out of the room, and Kate is watching those tiny hips shift as the innkeeper turns, and she wonders then about the word for “hips,” because this is something she is certain she will not find in her economical phrase book. Head, yes. Foot, maybe. No hips, no cheekbone, no shoulder blade. Kate scoots toward the food—such an array of pretty colors and smells, so much effort in the presentation, even the chopsticks have been perched jauntily on a little ceramic fish, and such a shame it will be wasted on her. Kate thinks she might attempt to hide the fact that she won’t touch a mouthful, but even this makes her breathe too fast and her stomach rise up, and so she is quickly lying back on the futon again, closing her eyes, and there it is, the dull throb of this weeks-long headache, and she counts each pulse, one, two, three, four. . .

There in Kate’s closed eyes and this easy counting lies the first of her confusions—this body, this country, the sensation of resting quietly on a bed that doesn’t belong to her, listening to unfamiliar sounds—and she mistakes her body for one that was hers a few months before, a body bruised and shaken, with a split lip, a chipped tooth. A body that surprised her with its fragility, its shivers of pain and its cowardly anger. This new body in this new country is intact, and again completely pain free. Strong. Legs larger than ever before, arms thick with muscle and a new layer of fat, and she cannot help it, she is always touching this new body, checking its size and shape, making sure it really belongs to her.

Less than an hour later and there is knocking again and here is Tomoko, ready to whisk away the plates that should be emptied but are not, and she is practicing some English in her head, she is one of the best students in her night class, the young Australian woman who teaches them always complimenting her accent. But how will My hobbies are badminton and sleeping be of any use against these untouched plates. Tomoko is frowning.

Kate knows what she should say, there are easy words for excuse me and I’m sorry, even English will likely suffice, but instead the panic attack is already starting, building inside her lungs and pushing great pulses of blood against the thin membranes of her veins and so all she can do is stroke the fabric beneath her fingers, each fingerpad smoothing along the dark blue edge of the robe, then darting inward, tracing the pattern of a flower, a fish, a fan. Press and smooth, press and smooth.

On Saturdays I walk to the supermarket. I love movies! Who is your favorite actor? Tomoko is shaking her head against these words, unhappy with her inability to say anything interesting, to ask this woman if she is enjoying her visit to Japan, to their small town here in the mountains. But she will not give up, she will be friendly. Do you like rice? Can I give you egg? None of this will come out of her mouth.

No matter. Kate is curling up now, staring at this cheerful woman who is asking her now about the food, not with words but with her eyes and the lifting of each dish into the air, and the questions are coming, each time a new phrase as she raises one of these plates toward Kate’s face, and all Kate can do is try not to pant because her breath just won’t come correctly into her lungs, and she wants to say Oh, it looks delicious! But she can only shake her head and clench her jaw and watch each dish get stacked on a tray. And then the woman is leaving and Kate is sinking again, down against the futon, eyes closed, breathing fast.


Two weeks earlier Kate stepped off the plane in Tokyo and onto a train and into the city at rush hour, and there it was all around her, a frenetic and disorganized musical production—everyone seemed to have a part and so did she, but it didn’t matter that she wasn’t sure what her lines were or where she should be standing, because everywhere around her people were moving and talking, and if she hovered close to packs of them she could pretend that she, too, was on her way to somewhere. Somewhere equally busy and important. And she could have been on her way to the hotel her assistant had booked for her, to test run the amenities, or double check the spa facilities, but she’d never actually intended to participate in this tour package. Instead she had hopped around the subways and walked through streets so crowded she had to push her way around building corners. And how funny that no one actually touched her, that so many people kept their distance so carefully. And what a relief that there were billboards and giant video screens that could tell her without words, with only pictures, but with absolute authority, what she should buy, or drink, or wear, listen to, or eat.

Later there were restaurants and food stalls, and she visited them all, adding to the outer wrapping of her new body with careful bites and sips. She loved the vending machines with their ice cold beer and she plunked her yen in those metal slits and held onto those cans, drinking fast, drinking without looking around, except to click her can against those of the businessmen who stood beside her, standing not very close, but along the same edge of sidewalk, their faces gray, and she wanted to smile at them but this would have meant moving that can a little too far away from her face.

That first night she didn’t even bother with a hotel, she walked and walked in the never-quiet city, and then there were the gyarus, girls much younger than Kate but immediately and strangely sisterlike to her, touching her arm and pulling her into bars and clubs, and the girls loomed over her on their platform shoes and they pointed at tubes of lipstick and gloss she should buy from little corner shops, so she bought them drinks and one of them suddenly kissed her, stroking Kate’s arm, and when those fingers reached Kate’s wrist Kate was already crying because she had never meant to look like a man or a lesbian, or whatever it was these girls had decided, because this new body of hers is not an expression but an accident.

The girl stopped petting her and instead, ever so kindly, she wiped at Kate’s face with a tissue, she called her friends back from their dancing and Kate was immediately surrounded by their stiff orange hair and thick eyeliner, by white lipstick and sparkle and blush, and some of the girls must have had their eyes surgically widened, so big were their gazes, and Kate thanked them, shooting back her glass of whiskey and suddenly they were laughing and shouting:

“Kate! Kate! Kate!”

She followed these cartoon creatures onto the dance floor, the music pounding through her, nearly painful it was so loud, and the club was packed, she barely had space to move in either direction. Before she knew it there was a man with his arms around her, twirling her, his sweat falling in drips onto her face, her neck, and she didn’t even get a look at his face, the smell of him was enough, that damp earthy scent rising up off of his body, and then his arms, too, rising in the dance, over her head, waving above her, and she was racing across the club, toward the bathrooms, toward a stall of her own, that lock closing behind her, the cool metal of the stall doors against her bare arms, her forehead, and she kissed the metal, she nearly tongued it, she breathed it in along with the odor of the thick black marker that covered it with graffiti.

One of the girls came to find her and they were soon again outside on the street, arms linked. The group of them speaking to her in broken English, laughing still, most of them so drunk they couldn’t walk straight, and each girl pulling a lollipop from a pocket or purse. There was a moment of silence as all of them sucked hard on the candy, eyes closed. A set of twins, boys, so young-looking they could have been Kate’s middle-schooler nephews, came then to tease the girls. The twins and the gyarus chased each other like children until one of the girls tripped and stumbled off the curb, twisting her ankle. To keep them all from leaving then, the twins brought out a pair of dice and Kate sat with them in the streets playing a game they called Cho-Han as the dawn hit the concrete of the buildings.

“You are lucky, Kate-oh san!” one of the twins shrieked before ripping off his t-shirt to show her the dragon tattoo winding up his arm and over his shoulder, but Kate saw more than a tattoo on his bare skin and she traced her fingertips along the needle marks at the bend of his elbows. He giggled, which confused her, but he pushed her hand away. Still, she won most of his money in the game, then gave it back to him. He took it with a scowl and a lick of his lips.

One of the girls frowned. “He buy shit with that money. Why you didn’t keep it?”

But Kate wasn’t listening, she was watching this boy walk away, his arm over the shoulders of his twin brother, and she wanted to follow them, immediately, to get a taste of this life of theirs, to swallow it for herself and see what it might do to her, to this new body, because maybe this new Kate could take it, maybe this new one had no idea yet of what she could really endure. But the gyarus were tired finally, their eye-shadow feathering at the corners of their eyes and their white lipstick rubbed away to expose the authentic pink of their lips, and so she followed them home, letting one of them rub a hand back and forth across her back as they walked until they reached an apartment, and in only a few minutes enough bedding and towels sprung from the walls for everyone to sleep comfortably on the floor.

In the morning Kate woke and tried to rise too quickly, fell back onto her futon with a thud of her heavy body and she wiped at the tears that came to blind her, she pushed at the fat of her arms and her legs, she watched the serene child-like faces of the gyarus who were still sleeping, mouths open, hair fanned across the tatami, watched them until she could breathe again, until her nose was clear and her throat had opened itself back up.

“Take this,” she whispered. Over and over. “Take this. Take this.”

She tiptoed, then, over their tiny forms and picked up six of a stack of thousand-yen notes from a coffee table littered with cigarette butts and empty energy drink bottles, stuffing them into her shoulder bag, the only luggage she’d taken with her from home, and she pulled a few crumpled ten dollar bills from her pocket and threw them down in return.


With a series of gestures, Tomoko manages to get this foreign woman out of her room and downstairs; she will need to know how to use the baths and it does not matter that Tomoko does not have time to show her this, it does not matter that her father is waiting for his own breakfast and if Tomoko doesn’t get to him quickly he might wander off and into town, into the road. There are other guests milling about near the reception and the open door to the gardens where the air is cooler, fanning themselves or placing cool towels on their necks. Together, Tomoko and Kate slide down a short hallway to a small waiting area but the door to the baths is locked. Occupied. The Kutsumi sisters are seated on the nearby bench, drinking tea after their hot morning baths, their robes crisply tied, their hair in buns. The oldest has a handkerchief on her head. Tomoko bows to them, returns her attention to the gaijin.

“When the sign is turned this way,” she says, knowing this woman cannot understand her, “the room is occupied. Would you like a cup of tea while you wait?”

Kate knows the old women are staring at her, knows the innkeeper needs to show her how to use the Japanese-style baths, knows that these people will not stop needing to address her, watch her, talk to her, and still her headache is pounding against her temples. And it is so hot in this country, her body is awash with a new layer of sticky sweat, coating the layers from the days before, and she knows she must smell. She also knows that landing here, in this small town, in a country she does not know how to navigate, in a country whose tourist facilities she is supposed to be finished testing and already back on her way home, back to her job and her life and her friends and a man who might still be interested in loving her, and because she has missed her flight, because she has nothing but a credit card to travel with, because she does not know how she will pay for the flight she must purchase at some point, because of all this she can finally feel the tiniest, slipperiest splinter of relief. Here is the situation that manages at last to block the specter of her other body. Kate revels in this accomplishment.

I will give her tea anyway, thinks Tomoko, and she is bowing again to the Kutsumi sisters as she crosses to the teapot set out on a low table, avoiding their eyes, pouring the hot water into a cup and giving it to the foreigner. And in all this coming and going a blister burns on her heel and she must fidget with the strap of her slipper once she has passed the teacup—fingers pressing the cloth strip up and away from the angry pain. In this tiny gesture her mind wanders, she composes a quick shopping list, considers her sons’ recent homework scores, her father’s illness, her husband’s late nights at the office, a quarrel with a local shopkeeper. But then Tomoko is moving again, bowing to the man who has just left the baths and ushering her charge through the hanging curtains. At last! Because she has so many other things to do this morning.

But there is still too much explaining to do, so many charades with the bucket and the shower head, the soap and the shampoo, and will this woman understand that she must NOT enter the communal bath tub until every single cell of her body is clean? Tomoko remembers one set of tourists from two summers ago and closes her eyes, refuses her vision of the catastrophe that was their bathing techniques.

Kate does not like this woman’s demonstrations, her vulgar hand movements and bright smiles. She leans away from her, pulling tight on the sash of her robe, wanting only for this woman to go and leave her with the hot water and the quiet and the scent of the shampoo.

“Thank you,” Kate says. “Arrr-rii-gaaa-to,” she says slowly. Rudely. And she is turning from the woman now, picking up a bucket and a stool like the woman showed her.

“I will lock the door for you, I will turn the sign,” Tomoko says, staring at the woman’s large feet, and she is embarrassed to see the dry skin on the foreigner’s ankles, the chipped nail polish on her toes. She leaves her then, bowing, scooting backwards and reciting again those comforting ritual expressions and then she is closing the door with a firm tug in a way that she wouldn’t do for a Japanese guest.

Naked now, her robe on a hook on the back of the door, Kate folds herself onto the small stool in front of the showers. The hot water is falling on her, too hot, really, but she doesn’t feel it, this body does not respond to the questions she asks it—Are you comfortable? Are you really me? And even with her washcloth moving over the expanse of her legs, the rolls of skin on her hips and her belly, over her breasts and between her legs, she feels nothing, only the steady pulse behind her eyes, the pain that makes her wince as she slips into the scorching water of the communal bathing tub and looks out at the forest through the window, but there is too much light out there, so much white and sparkle in the sun bearing down, and she must lower her eyes to focus on the gray rocks along the tub, on the dark stains from the water near the drain.


In Osaka, Kate slept by the river. Because of the heat the city gave off a moist and sour smell, like the entire city was steeped in the slow burn of a compost heap, and it was a noisy place: the braying of taxis and the metallic swish and buzz of the commuter trains. Mosquitoes, great gray beasts with stripes, buzzed around her head and got stuck in the thick rope of her pony tail when she swatted at them.

She was not alone by the river. Drunk businessmen who missed the last trains back to their suburbs would bunk down under a tree, tie their wallets onto chains inside their shirts and fall asleep. Most of them snored and Kate watched one man vomit all over his wallet, plunge it into the river and stuff it back under his shirt. She watched the men in their groups, falling asleep with their arms interlinked or singing songs that sounded like children’s lullabies, and their voices were always pitch-perfect.

She created a space for herself between the two camps of night people, a no-man’s land flanked by the drunk businessmen on one side and the under-bridge territories used by the true homeless on the other. These latter areas were piled high with belongings: one man had a four-poster bed and slept beneath piles of dirty Persian rugs, another had decorated the bushes around his cardboard mat with braided plastic bags and tinsel.

For two nights, Kate slept beneath an “under construction” sign that she could not read, and when she wasn’t sleeping, she lay on her back, watching the greenish night sky and listening to the singing of the businessmen and the rustling of her neighbor’s plastic flags, and she imagined staying in Japan like this forever, melting away to become another member of this night tribe, and she wondered if she would learn to speak the language and when would she become invisible.

“You look like you could use something.”

She could only stare too long—at this unexpected English, at the man’s dark face, at the bright blue of his button-down shirt and the shine of his black shoes.

Kate shook her head, scooted a little away from him.

But he was already sitting next to her, his arms touching her arms. For a long time he was quiet. The sky was still dim, and the pointed peaks of Osaka Castle not yet lit up.

“Where’re you from?”

Kate said nothing.

“I’m Japanese! You’d never guess it. They never guess it. Everyone so blind to what’s right in front of their squinty-eyed little faces.”

Kate’s body was tensing now, tightening into itself with each word the man spoke, with the rising of his tone, the volume of his words.

“Wanna beer? No? You sure? I got plenty.” And he fished a can out of a back pack at his feet. “Never too early for an ice cold Kirin.” He popped the can lid and took a long drink. He drank again, burped loudly and grinned. Then he cocked his head at Kate. “Which of my parents was Japanese? Can you tell?”
She shook her head.

He shrugged. “Not what I wanted to talk to you about anyway. I’ve got some business interests. So let’s focus on that. What I really want to know is—first, can you even talk? I mean, we’ve been sitting here getting friendly for a few minutes and I haven’t heard a word from you. You look Asian, but not quite. Like me. You look only kind of Asian. What are you? Chinese? Korean?” Then he spoke a few sentences of a language Kate could not recognize.

“No, you’re following me in English. I can tell, I’ve got a special language sense.” He turned his body toward her and Kate could smell him, his cologne and something underneath it.

She was holding her knees so tight that her elbows had begun to ache. Her jaw had clamped down and her cheek muscles were twitching. She wanted to get up but her legs didn’t move.

“You got to relax, girl! You got this wide-eyed freak out thing going on. I’m not going to hurt you. I just want to talk to you. I was just walking along here and saw you and started thinking to myself, now what is a fine thick specimen of maybe-Asian woman doing out here all by herself? She doesn’t look homeless. She might clean up a little better, but she is certainly not a homeless creature. And she is not Japanese. And, you know, I am interested in all manner of expatriation. And in all cultures, really. I’m just really interested in the world. I am a citizen of the world, there is no single country in the world that can contain me. But that isn’t what I came here to talk to you about.”

And he was rummaging in his backpack again, and Kate’s mouth had gone dry and she had released her clenched hands from around her knees and saw that they were shaking, and the man saw them, and he reached over with one hand and tried to touch them.

“Don’t!” she shouted, which made the man laugh, a nervous kind of titter, and throw his one hand up in the air.

“I knew you could speak English. But you gotta calm down. Because I run this club, see, and maybe you’re looking for a job. I’m always looking for the right kind of woman, the smart kind who knows the value of money, and we are always looking for foreigners, right. And also, well, I can tell that you’re a strong kind of lady, you’ve got this lusciousness about you. . .”

But all Kate could do was watch her fingers dance in the air, her wrists shake where she held them, where she was trying to hold them steady out in front of her, and she turned to the man and she said, “These aren’t my hands.”

And he said, “Whatever you say, Luscious. It’s okay if I call you that, isn’t it? It can be your stage name. We don’t have any girls called Luscious because you can’t call these skinny things anything like that – we got Waterfall and Cherry Blossom and Snow Bee and we even got a girl called Dragon.”

“These aren’t my fucking hands, can’t you see that!” And now she was standing finally, her arms shaking and her fingers jiggling, and she looked at this man and she looked back at her hands.
“You just need to calm down, Miss Luscious, just sit right back. . .”

But her foot had already left her body, and she landed it hard against his shoulder, and then she was shouting at him, and she saw how much she’d surprised him, that she’d maybe even hurt him. She saw the round shock of his expression flatten suddenly, harden, turn into something else. But she was already racing out from under her construction sign and off along the riverwalk, past the homeless men who were still sleeping, past a businessman with his body curled around the base of a tree, and she was a bolt of lightning, each footfall moving beneath her so fast she could hardly sense the ground under her feet. She ran, pumping her legs because it was a steady controlled movement, and when she finally stopped because there was no one behind her, because her lungs could go no further, she sat down on a bench and let herself breathe, let herself feel the pull and heave of this body that was strong enough, finally strong enough.

Later that evening a first hotel and she shaved her head. Completely. All that weight off, all that air against her skin. In the mirror she inspected herself—the line of her chin to her ear, the curve of her nape, the round ball of her head. She was changed now, this new body had gained some ground. But she looked hard in that mirror until her other body came back for a moment, and she stood there staring at her former self, the one still in shock, with those wide stupid eyes, still bleeding at her lip, still holding a slender hand against her small face at the oncoming bruise. She thought of how fine the line had been between these two bodies—a few seconds only, the matter of a tiny explosion.

She had wanted to set an example, pick up a few pieces of trash dropped by a stranger in front of a group of children. She had reached for the— what was it? a paper cup? a crumpled tissue?—and shot the trash-dropper a severe look, then thrown whatever it was into the nearby bin. The children, teenagers really, had been standing together at the bus stop, talking, laughing, holding cell phones, but they had seen her perform her good deed, and had not yet turned their backs to her when the man returned, walking too fast, yelling, swearing and holding his hands in the air. She had returned his anger with an irritated comment of her own, wanting to show the children. . . what? A little civic pride? But his hand came down across her face so hard she spun away, and then he’d yanked her back by a fist-full of her long hair, and he hit her again. His open palm against the side of her head this time because she had already begun to cower. And whatever he had called her echoed in the silence of his leaving, in the quiet fear of the children who dared not come near her until the man had gone off around the corner, smoothing his jacket lapels, his back straight.


In the evening the inn is quiet and even the sound of the late night bathers sliding down the hallways in their slippers only adds to the gentleness of the place. This is Tomoko’s favorite time of day, when she can sit at the front desk and bow to anyone who walks through the door, and she does this without really taking her eyes off of her magazine, even when the foreigner comes in, even if the woman’s face is red and she is struggling with a parcel in her arms. It is only when the woman forgets to take off her outside shoes that Tomoko must get up, all smiles, gesture to her to remove her tennis shoes and use the inn’s slippers.

Kate is nodding now, sliding down onto the raised ledge at the doorway, slipping off her tennis shoes and telling herself that she will not cry in front of the innkeeper, she will not let such a tiny moment of forgetfulness ruin her evening; she had reminded herself about the shoes only a few steps from the building.

It comes to Tomoko then, the English words she wanted the evening before, “Do you enjoy Japan?” she asks, proud now, thinking how she will tell her sons she remembered these words, how her tongue formed the sounds correctly.

Kate nods again, thinking of what someone else might have seen on a real trip to Japan, like the package deal she will sell to groups of people, mostly retired couples, when she returns to work, and she imagines someone else, a middle-aged woman accompanied by her widowed mother on the trip of their lives. In Japan, before they head to China and then on to Thailand or Vietnam, they stalk the temples and castles, visit kimono factories, eat sushi (which the widowed mother does not like but pretends to love), and go to a kabuki theatre.

“What. . . is. . .your. . . favorite?”

“The temples,” Kate says quickly. “The temples, of course. So beautiful.”

And Tomoko is sorry that Kate has said this because in this rural area of southern Japan there are not many temples for this foreigner to visit, not like the jewels of Nara and Kyoto, not like any of the other big cities this woman should be visiting instead of this humble farming town in the mountains. But Tomoko will not ask her how she got down here, what brought her away from the cities and the coast, she will not ask her how she ended up in this small inn, because she assumes the woman will tell her.

“And the food,” Kate says, warming up to her idea. “We’ve been eating all the food, loving how different it is, trying everything. And I could not have imagined how much food there is here, it isn’t all sushi and noodles. Not what we were expecting.”

Tomoko is nodding, wanting to keep up, hoping she has understood. “Japanese food is. . .. very. . . special,” she says, unsure about this last word, but the foreign woman is smiling at her, rubbing her tummy and finally backing away.

Before she turns the corner to enter the hallway, Kate’s face has shut down again, she has banished the touring middle-aged woman and her mother from her mind, she is stumbling in her bare feet, embarrassed she forgot to slip into a pair of plastic slippers, embarrassed she has lied to this woman who means well, embarrassed at her noisy footfalls, the thud of her body in its forward motion as she races into the quiet darkness of this room in the middle of nowhere.


In Nagasaki, Kate finally dared to telephone someone in America. First her boss, to lie about the trip and how satisfactory she was finding the accommodations. She would definitely recommend this package, she said from a phone booth on the street, yes, she does think it is good value for money, and no, it hasn’t been difficult with her limited Japanese language skills. And her boss was so happy she actually said, “Oh, bravo!” and Kate flinched as the words hit against her ears, as her boss laughed, then said she was so happy Kate was getting this little holiday, that they’d all been so worried about her, that they knew she just needed a short break. Kate was nodding the whole time, making little rumble sounds in her throat and watching two children waiting for their mother who was looking at printed aprons on a rack outside a store, and the older sister was pulling on the little boy’s ear, pulling hard as his face screwed up and a howl of pain began to slip through his lips, but she kept twisting that bit of skin, and she was smiling, and the boy started to really scream until the mother turned around and yelled at them both, smacking at her daughter’s hand where it was attached to her son’s head. And Kate’s boss was still talking, still laughing and joking with her, but Kate’s hands were trembling too hard to hold onto the receiver anymore, so she slid it onto the cradle and closed her eyes; the darkness was instant, the silence followed. When she opened them again, the woman and her children were gone.

But how had she gotten to Nagasaki? This she would try to remember for the next few hours, walking up steep streets and through gardens, staring at beautiful homes and looking down onto a sparkling bay of water. There was a train ride, there were a few European tourists who spoke with her, gave her recommendations for a place to stay, there were cans of beer and bottles of plum wine, and there was that man’s hand still raised in the air above her face on that street corner, still ready to strike, and no matter where she went, this hand rose up against her, strangers would turn on the street and look at her and she would stop, freeze, ready herself for the blow, children would stare at her too long and she would swivel around to look for the man, close her eyes, take a deep breath. The blow never came, and when she would open her eyes, the hand would be gone. But it always came back.


The trembling occurs in the morning, at first it is nothing but a gentle shaking beneath Kate’s body, a vibration rising up, a quiver, but the movement builds and lasts just long enough for Kate to stand, to look around the room in a tight panic. Imagined television images of devastation come to her instantly, flashes of buildings crumbled and a wall of water, and she even has enough time to muse at the rapidity of her imagination, at the library of images she holds inside of her. Destruction that has nothing to do with herself, her experience. The quake moves through the building like a wave and Kate feels something like nausea until suddenly it stops.

Tomoko is knocking then and sliding through the door, laughing, and she puts the tray of food on the floor and says, “Jishin deshita!” She shakes her arms to mimic the walls shaking so that this woman with understand. “Jishin!”

Kate repeats the word, not knowing what to make of the woman’s obvious excitement, and she wonders if she will be asked to go outside, to stand out in the garden in her pajamas with the other guests while someone comes to evaluate the structural integrity of the building.

Tomoko is still smiling, thinking how lucky this American woman is for getting to feel the earthquake. Small quakes are good fortune; this is what Tomoko’s grandmother has always said. A way for the mountain to release tension, keep an eruption from building up beneath the earth. She begins to transfer dishes from her tray to the table, trying out some English words to see if she can manage a real conversation, but the other woman is paying too much attention now, staring at her too directly, and Tomoko can no longer find words like mountain and lucky in the blush that rises up from her chest and into her cheeks, in this feeling of being watched, of someone expecting something from her.

“Is this common?” Kate asks, astonished at the woman’s apparent delight. Isn’t this scary, isn’t this a disaster? Don’t people die by the thousands when one of these things hits in the wrong place? Aren’t you worried about your children, your families? But the innkeeper is moving too quickly now, no longer looking at Kate, she is already at the door and sliding through it, gesturing backwards with a bow to the food and the table.

Kate stares at the food, at all those little plates and saucers, and for a moment she thinks she might want to eat some of it, the steam rising off the bowl of rice reaches her and actually smells good, but her adrenaline is still racing and it pushes her up and off her futon, up off the sheets, and soon she is standing, pushing at the door, looking outward. Outside in the hallway the lights are still dimmed, but the summer sunshine is flooding in from every window and skylight, and the green of the trees along the building is so loud she can practically smell it. She pads through the hallways, down the stairs and back up, out into the garden and back inside to the lobby, and she doesn’t care if the other guests seem curious about her rambling, she keeps walking, stopping suddenly from time to time, holding herself still and waiting to feel the building shake again, but it doesn’t. Nothing moves. Only her feet along the carpet, only her body as she wills it forward.


When Kate saw the man again—this time the back of his head only, that furious set of his jaw—in downtown Nagasaki on that last afternoon, she simply ducked into a taxi that was stopped a few feet from her. The taxi driver’s white-gloved hands and gentle nod were a surprise. The taxi took her to the train station, and she bought a ticket for the first train waiting at the quay. It was an unimpressive train and she rode it to the end of its line several hours later, watching outside as it passed through sheer-walled valleys, tunnels, and fields of rice paddies. Vaguely, she knew she was heading further south. This was nothing like the cities, here was a countryside landscape where farmers worked under the sun with white towels draped over their necks, where children got on the train and gawked at her as they walked to their seats, where none of the signs included a Romanized version of the Japanese, where sprawling traditional farmhouses with blue-tiled roofs squatted amidst the fields and great goldfish-shaped windsocks floated in the sky beside them. The sky held much of her attention during the hours on this train, its brightness, its cloudlessness, the way it stretched like a bowl over the train as it passed out of a tunnel and darted out onto a muddy plain.

Eventually, the train pulled into a station and a bus was waiting at the bottom of a short flight of steps, and Kate walked onto this bus, handing the driver a wad of money and letting him select the appropriate fare, and the bus took her slowly up the side of a mountain and halfway down the other side, through a forest of gnarled red-bark trees and into a kind of mist that hovered around the trunks, so thick their middle sections appeared to be missing. When the bus stopped and she walked down its steps, she was in the middle of nowhere, she could finally feel it, she was lost, a place so ordinary and uninteresting that most tourists would not bother with it, except perhaps in passing, a place so off-the-beaten-track that the man could not have followed her; this mountain would not allow his raised hand and his mocking laugh and his unexpected, inexplicable violence. And so she asked inside the tiny bus station building for a place to stay. The young woman behind the grimy ticket window got up and walked away from her without even trying to communicate. Kate waited, a gathering excitement in her chest, a kind of erotic dread. Oh, yes, she was lost. She stepped outside again into the sunshine and there stood another woman, the innkeeper who has been feeding her now for days, and this woman said the words Hello and Please and motioned Kate to follow her, bowing the entire time, smiling, too, and brought her to this small inn. Kate—tired finally, bone tired—slipped down onto a cushion, rested her elbows against the low table and took a deep breath. The room smelled a little like hay and her nose twitched. She closed her eyes. She breathed. She fell asleep.


Tomoko watches the foreigner from behind the curtain that divides the hallway from the thermal baths. She is so odd, Tomoko is thinking, and what is she doing wandering around? But the foreign woman does not move, she is still staring out into the gardens through the large window, still standing there with her palms pressed against the glass, and she might even be speaking but Tomoko cannot hear her from even this short distance, and Tomoko’s fingers have started to grip the fabric more tightly because she can hear her father moving about behind her, getting ready for his bath, and today is one of those days that he cannot remember her name. Mariko-chan, he is shouting, or sometimes even Mother, and Tomoko must help him anyway, help him untie his bathrobe, help him slip his trembling feet out of the legs of his white underwear, and, if he will let her, help him wash his thick white hair. Today is one of those days that he may reach for her with a slap, or worse, with fingers that want to stroke her breast, and she must gently push them away, close her eyes and take his illness for herself, she must forget him as he has forgotten her. It is the only way. His body knocks into hers from behind and she can only shout when she realizes she has not been quick enough, her father is heading toward the woman at the window.

The old man is in her face before Kate can even turn around at the sound of his voice, one of his hands is gripping her arm and the other is raised above his head—a naked man, old and wrinkled and freckled, with a darkened tooth at the front of his mouth. And those eyes are fierce and he is yelling, spitting in her face, words she cannot understand. She is trying to pull her arm out of his grip but before she can do this, he lands a slap against her cheek. Her head swivels but she does not fall. And she reaches out and stops his arm. How strange that it is so easy to stop him. She brings her cheek back to face him, she looks him in the eye, and she is readying her own reply, a fist shaking with fury—how dare he find her here in this place where she has gone to lose herself? Her eyes are bright with revenge, and she does not even realize that she is already yelling until the innkeeper is there, between them, not shouting but stretching her arms out, touching Kate’s hand, touching the man’s hands. Pushing them away from each other. The woman’s voice is so quiet it looks like only her lips are moving, but her hand is cool on Kate’s skin, her smile gentle, and the man’s face has gone slack, his eyes turned inward, troubled, afraid. He lowers his arm, he lowers his head. Kate leans into the innkeeper; she leans hard, knowing this other woman will hold her up. And the woman places those cool fingers on the side of Kate’s face, shaking her head, saying the word sorry over and over.

“Father,” says Tomoko, turning from the guest, ashamed, her head bowed, her one hand still gripping one of her father’s wiry wrists. He is smaller than she is now, but he is still very strong and his muscles dance beneath her fingertips. “Father. Father.”

It is a bad day, Tomoko can see his eyes trying to remember where he is, searching out the familiar and not finding it. He is alarmed at the presence of this foreigner standing so close to him, frightened by the color of the new carpet, by the design of the curtains he did not pick out. Tomoko wishes she could give him the gift of the present tense. She can only bow to him, offer him this gesture of respect even when he has shamed them both by striking a guest. She waits, still holding his hand, her head nearly horizontal to the floor, until his body shifts, relaxes, and she knows he will follow her. He is a child now so it does not bother her when he calls her Mother, when he begins to cry.

The woman and the man do not see Kate anymore even though she has followed them through the curtains into the bathing room. They are speaking only to each other, holding hands, stepping carefully across the slippery floor tiles. And then he is sitting onto the wooden stool beneath the shower head, his small body folded in half, his face tipped to the ceiling, and he holds out his hands as his daughter pours water over his body, as she gives him soap from the bottle. Slowly those small wiry hands set themselves to the task of washing. His fingers are so careful across his ribs, along his shoulders and over his knees, so gently he cleans between his toes, soaps his heels, rubs over his shins and calves, and then up, always further up, so tenderly, reaching finally his chest and then his neck and his ears and face. He is so kind with himself. This is what Kate sees, what keeps her in place. When he has finished this work, he grows still, ready and quiet for whatever will come next, and Kate becomes a statue along with him. Kate is at the door and this old man on his chair. Neither of them moving. She is touching a hand to her face and he has folded his own over his knees. Both of them are frozen now, locked into their bodies, their memories. And Tomoko is readying the bucket of warm water while her father and her guest wait, perfectly still, ready finally for the crash of the water that will clear away the soap, that will cover them both, that will break this moment and set them both moving forward again.

MICHELLE BAILAT-JONES is a translator and writer living in Switzerland. Her novel, Fog Island Mountains, won the 2013 Christopher Doheny Award from The Center for Fiction. Her second novel, Unfurled, is forthcoming in October 2018 (Ig Publishing). She has translated two novels from celebrated Swiss author Charles Ferdinand Ramuz, Beauty on Earth (Skomlin, 2013) and What if the Sun… (Skomlin, 2016) as well as work from Claude Cahun, Julia Allard Daudet, Laure Mi-Hyun Croset and Céline Cerny. Her fiction, translations, poetry, and criticism have appeared in The Kenyon ReviewHayden’s Ferry ReviewThe RumpusNecessary FictionThe Quarterly ConversationCerise PressTwo Serious Ladies and PANK.