by Theresa Sanford-Schmits
I was willing to give it a chance, this place. I landed where I could not read the signs, where I could not even read the alphabet (people keep reminding me that there really isn’t an alphabet), I could not speak the language, and small people ran through the airport, looking officious, and wondering why I could not run, too. This was a place that I had deliberately crossed off my wish list—probably due to the wars over here for which my father and brother were meat. This was a place where I never wanted to be. However, the job offer was a golden opportunity, one for which I was too old in the U.S., one which would never come again. I could work with students; I could change their lives. The internet links they sent assured me there was a hospital and most prescriptions could be filled at the pharmacy. I hurried to catch the next flight, but I could not run, I could not lift my luggage to go on the conveyor taking it to the next plane. Fat American, they were likely thinking as they looked me up and down.
I am tall, thin, blonde, with a wide face and round green eyes. Staying thin has always been an imperative, as my father’s family’s favorite denigration of my mother was “fat bitch.” As thin as I have ever been, no amount of running, swimming, climbing, jumping, or spinning could prevent the swelling and puffiness from the disease--that disease that killed my mother and now had me in its sights. I am still head and shoulders taller than the typical person in the Far East and even at my thinnest, I take up the space of one and a half of them.
Once I was there, I looked at my family through digital screens. I could talk to them. I could see my puppies playing in my sister’s backyard. My heart was broken, and I felt as though I had died. My communication with them was like a specter who leaves a whisper in a dark hallway or slams a cabinet in the kitchen as it moves through the other side. I could feel the darkness of the vast ocean, deep and alone, between my home and me. A red moon rose outside my window.
Months in, this is what I had learned: women, here, are expected to be quiet and follow orders—I spoke confidently and issued orders; there are mountains like Diamond Head—but they are covered in bamboo and spiders; there is a hospital—they cannot treat me; some said I do not belong here—I said I am here changing lives; I was old and sick—but to be accepted, I needed to be young and well. To this end, a few days after I arrived, I put on my running shoes and ran four miles in the heat, all the while looking at the mountain that reminded me of Diamond Head and the blue haziness of the sea. When I was done, my knees felt like bone on bone, my ankles were swollen over the tops of my shoes, my hands were baseball mitts, and my fractured back threatened to collapse on itself. But I had done it. I looked up at the fake Diamond Head. “Fuck it,” I said. And running again became my life goal.
After I had a house, chosen for its closeness to the beach, and my belongings had arrived, I struck up conversations with the neighbors through Google Translate and chatted briefly with little girls in Japanese school uniforms walking down the street, who, seeing me, practiced their English. The little boys on the playground that I rode by on my bike would call to me in English and I would ask them, “How are you?” They would think for a moment then, “I am hungry!” I would call back over my shoulder, “Me, too!” Then they would giggle together. Every day was a struggle of figuring things out.
I could not run often, but I did run. Other days, I would ride my bike out of town and through the green rice fields into the valley west of Yuu-machi, dodging enormous spider webs in the woods. There was a beautiful, old magnolia, leaves all shiny green-black, just off the path; there were cedars, fragrant and dull green, bark hinting at red, amongst the bamboos. I would ride up to the orange shrine with its kitsune statues guarding the entrance, over the bridge, by the onsen, and further up the valley where the whitewater of the river roared quietly in the rush below and even at the brightest noon, the ground was always cool and dark. I rode amongst the farmers up in the hills, living a life simpler than I ever could, like the folk in Appalachia.
But one late afternoon in November, I decided to run down by the beach and look at the Seto Inland Sea and maybe see the moon come up, sent to me from America with love. I usually tried to avoid the beach. There was frequently a crazy man there who hated Americans. He would bring his cute little black and white dog and talk with others who had dogs. I missed my puppies terribly and while I liked to tell most how sweet and cute their dogs were, if I even got near him or spoke to him, he became a monster who delighted in harassing me. “Ko-o-o-nni-i-i-ichiw-a-a-a-a!” he would mock me. He drew the vowel sounds out, he would elbow anyone standing around him, and he would laugh at me. It was because of him that I learned, “Fakkuofu!”
Then were the people who were cruel to their dogs. Most people had small dogs, but there were a few who had big dogs. One day, I was running at the beach and a couple had a beautiful golden retriever. Obviously untrained, he made eye contact with and tried to jump on every human who looked at him. “Hi, buddy!” I called to him while the owners looked on and smiled. But I could smell him before I could see him, and from his chest hung the biggest mass of matting I had ever seen. It was as if the dog were carrying around another dog nearly his size, suspended by hairs on his chest. It was no wonder. The cleanliness emphasis often meant that dogs were made to live in the garage, ignored, and never loved. Others were chained up in the yard, not even getting a nod or a pet when their humans came home. Some, ignored and chained outside, barked in desolation the whole day.
One day, while I was running at the beach, a man was running with his big, brown dog ahead of me and didn’t hear me approaching. The dog ran next to him and the man had a skipping gait. When I got closer, I could see why. The man ran two steps and then jumped and kicked his dog every third step. The dog was in pain and afraid and looked at the man’s face for reassurance. He cowered away from the man, but tried not to fall off the sea wall onto the rocks below. The man would jerk the dog back next to him. Then again and again. I was horrified. That’s when I was finally done trying to run at the beach. That’s when I was done trying.
That day in November, it was getting cold and Christmas was approaching. I assumed I would not see so many people out there “walking” their dogs, so I ran to the beach and out on the jetty, careful to leap over the uneven cracks in the concrete sidewalk. Apparently, people in this place are not litigious and they don’t care too much about whether your disabled grandma can get out to the end of the jetty in her wheelchair. I ran to the end of the jetty, then a turn-around, and I was on my way back to the boardwalk that had been decorated in blue Christmas lights. The air was cold on my cheeks, my hands ached from the chill. And as I ran, I looked to my left, to the area where people swim in the summer, behind a shark net. The water looked cold. Lights were winking on in the distant islands, a ship with shining lights maneuvered towards the outlet of the sea, a tangle of seaweed floated in the water between the end of the jetties that protected the beach from the waves. I ran up the stairs, to the left, towards the boardwalk. A man on the beach in a wetsuit was entering the water slowly and at the water’s edge stood a child, looking unhappy, wringing her hands. Then I was on the boardwalk. A crowd of old Japanese women was gathering, one of them talking earnestly on her cell phone. They were all looking at the sea. I, too, looked at the sea. At the man pulling the tangle of seaweed into shore.
And I left the boardwalk, running still, running to where they had pulled her, still in the water, her hair a tangle of what I mistook for seaweed. Her long hair that had floated above while she was face down. And I got there when they had turned her over, but without the buoyancy of the water, they could get her out of the water and onshore no further. The person who I thought was a child was a small, older woman, her mother, maybe. I spoke to them in English. They spoke to me in Japanese, and I understood and said, “Well, I’m here now.” I got down behind her and put my arms around her and hoped for my father’s firefighter strength and I told them we would pull her in one, two, three, pull! And we all pulled and I heard a sound in my back and as she came out of the water and onto the beach sand, smooth and tan, I could see she was full, large, and heavily pregnant, fully clothed, and with my cheek next to her cheek I smelled the odor of alcohol metabolizing in her body and stinking too sweet.
I put my hand in front of her mouth with its blue lips and she breathed, but it was not good breathing. It was tired breathing and I asked her silently, “Oh, little sister, what have they done to you to make you do this to yourself?” And I blamed some boy who might not have even existed. Her mother followed my example. Hand in front of mouth.
The ambulance was arriving with its British siren blare and then small paramedics were running and being slowed in the deep sand. I motioned to her mother that if she began vomiting, they should turn her so she would not choke. As I backed away from the scene, her mother put her hands together to say thank you and bowed deeply and I thought I would die right there. I bowed back and began my run again, colder now with wet clothes and one wet shoe.
About a quarter mile down the next jetty, I came to realize that my back was not allowing me to run fully upright. I slowed to a walk and I looked up at the mountain that looks like Diamond Head and over to the flashing red lights and the group on the beach trying to save that young woman’s life and I hated deep into a tomb-like abyss inside myself, a hate that descended like a serpent hissing and gathering together all that was this place, an inverted tornado pulling me down.
About the Author
Theresa Sanford-Schmits originates from a dreadful, little city high up on the cliffs above the Mississippi River and had a literary youth taking all of her families visitors to the Mark Twain attractions just down the river from my hometown. By the time she was twelve years old, she had written eight full-length manuscripts. We won’t truly dive into those, because as you can guess, they weren’t quite up to par since she had written them at such a young age. Fast-forward to many, many years later, Theresa is currently teaching writing at a university overseas, her children have grown and gone out into the world to live their lives while she is still writing. In the quiet of her home in Japan overlooking the East China Sea, Theresa likes to fill her days with the writing she finally has the time for. She often feels old but not too old. A face that still smiles young, a lecturer that still has energy and enthusiasm, and a writer who has many stories to tell. Finally, most importantly and essentially, Theresa is a fiction and creative non-fiction writer, who occasionally dives into poetry. Her work employs a perspective of poverty, a generally under-represented group or contains an aspect of the critical considerations of poverty, as well as the perspective and contemplation of the aftereffects of traumatic brain injury, migraine, and disabling autoimmune disorders--particularly the invisible ones.