WE lived in a small apartment thirteen minutes from Tsukamoto station. The exterior was made of large cement blocks and supports. Some walls were covered with tiles in bright primary colors. The inside had pale linoleum flooring. There was a bedroom, an office, and separate rooms for the toilet and tub. The living room had one exterior wall that was made of opaque glass brick. The stove was gas, had three burners and a small broiler designed for use with a single piece of fish. There was no refrigerator. There were, altogether, thirty-one other units of varying sizes. None came with an air-conditioner. Pets were allowed, but carried an extra fee of three-thousand yen per month. Grace called it Legoland.
I let Grace pick where we lived. No, Grace had opinions about where we lived, and I did not. We were together because we had nowhere better to be. My concerns were: could I walk to the station? how many times must I transfer on the way to work? could our combined salaries cover the rent comfortably? Grace’s concerns were: are the floors tatami and smell like the bedding in a hamster cage? does the apartment look too Japanese to be my home? is it possible to order delivery that isn’t ramen or Pizza Hut? can I have a cat?
We paid the pet fee, but we never did get a cat.
We furnished the apartment like this: Grace asked what colors I liked; Grace picked furniture that paired well with those colors. We split the cost down the middle. She lent my choices additional weight in the office, because I would sometimes work on my translations at home. I did most of my work in the middle of the night, while she was sleeping. I hadn’t slept much in years. Grace put a vanity in the bedroom and hung sconces on either side. We helped each other with the bedframe. I held the pieces tight and Grace pounded them together. I insisted on as many pieces of glass furniture as possible. Grace said this was impractical, but bought me a glass desk anyway. We planted basil, rosemary, and mint in metal buckets in the kitchen. I assembled a table and helped her hang a Van Gogh print above the toilet. Grace hung shelves and a painting of a cat staring at the moon in my office. I kept a bottle of Talisker on my desk and always left behind rings I had to spray with windex in the mornings. Grace hid it in the closet whenever we had parties.
We didn’t meet many people. My best friend said he would visit from Tokyo once, then twice, and then pretended to be busy. We lied to our employers and said we were engaged. All my coworkers were women, and all her coworkers were men. Yuki, my 39-year-old secretary, had hands that broke out in hives whenever she was stressed. She had two children with a Swiss insurance salesman and divorced him. She was an ethnic Korean. She couldn’t vote, and didn’t receive child support. I was much younger than she was. We invited her to our Christmas party, tried to cook for twelve people with nothing but our three-burner stove. Everyone brought a box of cookies from the bakery by the station. My boss described the decor of my office with a Japanese word I couldn’t understand. When I looked it up later my dictionary said it meant surreal. Yuki said we had a lovely home and that I must be very happy. She wore gloves the entire evening. They were navy and didn’t match her dress. The next morning was cardboard recycling day, and I carried three empty Pizza Hut boxes to the curb.
We took a train from Osaka to Kyoto and a man in his thirties sat on the bench across from us. He looked at Grace, at Grace’s blonde hair, and then at me, and asked if we were American. Grace said that we were. He asked us how many guns we owned, and I smirked, lied and said many. He moved to another car, and Grace told me that I shouldn’t make foreigners seem worse than they already are. I slept on the couch sometimes.
The insulation in our apartment was terrible. It was probably the glass wall. As soon as January hit, a chill descended on our living room. Even the floors were icy. The herbs in the kitchen withered and died. I asked Grace if we should bother replanting them. She smiled and said no, and went back to ironing her blouses. I ran late on a deadline at work and brought a stack of folders home so I could proofread. Grace was on couch, reading her third-graders’ winter break journals. I offered her a cup of tea, and she said that would be lovely. When I poured water into the cup, the heat splintered and cracked the glass. Boiling water rushed over the counter. Grace looked at me, and I looked back at her. We stared at each other for a while, not moving, steam still rushing towards the ceiling.
We began to gain weight. I told Grace to stop using butter as an ingredient in everything. She asked me to stop drinking and deep-frying. I started running in the mornings, and Grace complained that I was too loud getting out of bed. I relapsed and took up smoking again. In March, we went to go see the cherry blossoms. They were pink and white and there were petals everywhere. We bought cherry blossom ice cream. We took the train home and a man tried to give Grace his seat. When she looked confused, he pointed to a picture of a pregnant woman on the priority seating sign. Grace flushed red and shook her head. That night we went to Osaka castle and laid on a tarp beneath the full moon and the blossoms. She rested her head on my chest and I closed my eyes and couldn’t remember ever having been happy in quite the same way. Grace asked me if I would want to marry her even if I knew we would be divorced in five years. I asked her why five years, and she nuzzled her head against my shoulder and didn’t say anything. We cuddled but didn’t have sex, and turned on our new air conditioner for the first time. Everything in our lives felt heavier.
I went shopping and went through a pack of Seven Stars on a Thursday afternoon. I was writing a story about an astronaut, a sick girl, a urologist. I couldn’t quite figure out the details. I kept recording facts about the distance between the Earth and the Moon. I lit incense and paced in the kitchen. The sun sank low, scattered orange across the flooring. A pair of sneakers dangled from a power line. I remembered that Japanese people sometimes left behind shoes as a way to indicate a suicide, but then realized no one could possibly have committed suicide on top of a power line. I felt ridiculous.
I became obsessed with works of autobiographical fiction. I reread Norwegian Wood eight times. I ordered the lunch special at a Turkish restaurant and tried to talk like the protagonist. The waiter looked at me like I was insane and brought me a salad covered in a sunset-colored dressing. For some reason I couldn’t make myself read any new books. My boss invited the children of our employees to the office for Easter, and Yuki’s daughter asked me why a rabbit brought people eggs. I didn’t have an answer for her. Grace’s third-graders put on a play, a theatrical rendition of Princess Kaguya. Grace teared up slightly when the princess returned to the moon. I wrapped my arm around her shoulders until it was time to applaud.
The Moon is three-hundred eighty-four thousand four hundred kilometers away from the Earth. This is equal to two-hundred thirty-eight thousand nine hundred miles. From the moon, the Earth looks as though it has phases, and half or more is often hidden by shadow. It’s as though a dark cloud has swallowed half the world. I thought about the amount of time it would have taken a child to fall to earth from the moon. Magical or not, the journey seemed like it had to be infinite.
In summer I lost my appetite. It was the heat or the cigarettes or the humidity. I drank iced coffee in the morning and worked overtime. Sometimes, on the way home, I would see a family of stray cats. There was often an empty can of tuna nearby. The cats were more attached to food than I was. Grace took her students on a trip to a dairy farm in the mountains above Kobe. They learned about cheese and milk and cows and even got to milk one. They were all very excited. On the way down a kid tripped and fell on his face. Blood gushed out of his nose. Grace held his hand and stained her clothes and had to buy a men’s T-shirt from a Lawson’s in Sannomiya. She wasn’t cut out to be a teacher, she said. I should have disagreed, but I was tired.
I went to Tokyo to visit my friend. His life had gotten busier. We went to a reception at an art gallery and drank unfiltered saké. A soundless loop of footage from the moon landing was projected on a wall. My friend said this was progressive, but images of the past seemed more regressive to me. The video shivered like air in summer. I spent a long time staring at the blackness on the horizon. I couldn’t make out any stars and couldn’t settle on a reason why. On the bullet train I tried to read Norwegian Wood again but never got past the first chapter. I couldn’t tell if fiction was reminding me of reality, or if I just wanted it to.
Our contracts ended and we decided not to renew. I put in for two weeks of vacation, planned to cash out early. Yuki told me she was sad to see me go. On my last day, she gave me a glass calligraphy pen. She told me I would have to buy the ink myself. I had never owned a calligraphy pen, so I asked what kind of ink I needed. All she said was Saa. We gave notice at our apartment complex, tried to sell as much furniture as possible. Grace took photos of all the rooms and posted advertisements on Craigslist. The bookshelves, paintings, the couch and the rug. Everything but the bed frame disappeared in short order. A man in dark glasses knocked on our door. He was with the guarantor company, he said, and wanted to make sure we paid our last month’s rent on time. I told him this wouldn’t be a problem. He crushed a cigarette under his heel and left it on our doorstep. It smoldered slightly on the concrete. We made arrangements for the air conditioner to be taken away last.
I finished my story, but it wasn’t about an astronaut anymore. I wrote five pages of facts about the moon, wrote and deleted a page about Soviet space dogs. I wrote that love was like an accidental collision between satellites that become trapped in one another’s orbit, but I wasn’t sure if that was something that was physically possible. I tried to write a second draft with the pen Yuki gave me, but the ink kept running out and my writing was barely legible. Instead I saved the document on my computer under the title TIDES. Grace said this wasn’t a great title but that she couldn’t think of anything better. I asked her what she wanted to eat, and we gave up and ordered Pizza Hut again. There wasn’t anything else that would deliver at midnight anyway.
We had to get rid of the bed frame. It was too late to pay for sanitation to take it away, so we would have to abandon it. I suggested the riverbank down the road, but Grace thought it was unconscionable to litter in a public space. That was the word she used—unconscionable. We decided to leave it hidden behind the apartment complex. We waited until one in the morning and broke it into pieces. We lost the IKEA tool and smashed wood apart with a hammer. We crept down the stairs, through the thin gravel yard beneath the first floor apartments. I ducked so no one would see me if they looked out the window. We left the wood stacked in a square outcropping, surrounded by empty beer cans and weary blades of grass. The fragments and splinters seemed appropriate to leave there, somehow. Cicadas wound up and wound down. The wind picked up and cleared away the clouds. Moonlight reflected off the tile on the side of the building, and I stared at Grace. She stared back at me. For a brief moment, the night was dazzling.
Sacha Idell is a writer and Japanese translator. His fiction has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, 12th Street, and The Saturday Evening Post. He is fiction editor of The Arkansas International and is in the process of completing an MFA at the University of Arkansas, where he has received fellowships for both fiction and literary translation. He has spent most of his adult life abroad.