SHORT STORY- The Last Itako
Dr. Roberts tells me I should make lists when I get upset.
"As problems grow worse in your marriage," she continues, "breaking them down into lists will help you focus on what's really the issue at hand."
We're in her office, only this time it's just me. Caroline has refused to come in yet again.
"It's not problems," I tell her. "It's the same problem it's been for the past fourteen months."
"Make a list." Dr. Roberts clicks her pen. "I'll give you a few minutes." On her clock, the minute hand stalls. I reach for her legal pad and write out the following:
THINGS I HAVE PURCHASED IN MY LIFE THAT I COULDN'T AFFORD:
1. French Horn. Tossed it in the back of Cam's cousin's jeep one night; forgot about it. By the time I remembered, he'd already left for UT.
- 1.Caroline's engagement ring, a .065 carat diamond in which someone's father
strongly suggested it should be upgraded after our second anniversary.
3. Brizmark child's size coffin made of varnished Douglas Fir with Mahogany inserts.
I watch Dr. Roberts while she reads my list. When she gets to the end, she puts the legal pad down, making no move to return it.
"You wanted me to make a list? I made a list."
"You're frustrated that Caroline isn't here, and you're displacing your emotions towards her onto me."
"Who upgrades after only two years? Isn't the rule to wait until your ten year anniversary?" I don't say anything after that. Instead, I stare above her head at the clock on the bookshelf.
"Jeremy, are you listening?"
I nod to show that I am, even though at this point, I have one foot out the door.
"I want you to think about making lists on your trip to Japan with Caroline. I think this vacation will really assist with your grieving process. You remember the breathing techniques we went over last week?"
"Inhale for five, hold, exhale for five..."
"Hold," she finishes.
"Anything else, doc?" I finally ask.
"Your lists, Jeremy." The doctor extends her hand as a farewell. "And tell Caroline to call me."
On the plane to Tokyo, Caroline can't find her sleeping pills.
"Did you pack them? " she asks, tearing through her carry-on. She empties the pockets of her blazer, unzips the front of my suitcase, then turns to me with an accusatory look as if I didn't pack them on purpose.
"Well, do you have any idea where they could be?"
"Ma'am," the stewardess approaches us. "If you would please take your seat."
Caroline's seat is covered with the contents of her purse.
"How am I going to fly without my pills?"
I pull out the in-flight magazine and flip to the crossword puzzle on the last page. It has only been partially filled.
"Drink a whiskey," I tell her. "Drink two."
"It's a fifteen hour flight from Detroit," her voice rises, "not to mention a six hour layover! And you know I can't drink on my new medication." For a second I think that all of this—the fourteen hundred dollar plane tickets, the months of planning—will fall to the wayside because of yet another of Caroline's panic attacks. I inhale for four seconds and then, in my head, tell Doctor Roberts to go fuck herself.
"Did you check inside your wallet? Maybe you stashed them there." I put down my magazine and reach for her purse.
I could say that I go over that day again and again, and sometimes I do. When I think about it, it's raining, for example, instead of it being sunny out, so I have to find Gracie's rain boots. That could have given us an extra twenty minutes.
"Gracie," I wouldn't say, "get your bike out of the driveway so Mom doesn't run over it."
I don't see it but I hear it, the thud and the scream, Caroline's scream before Gracie could even cry out. When I go over it, I ask myself each time, why didn't Caroline say goodbye before she got in her car? She always said goodbye—even when running late—yelling out the word before leaving. How was it the one time we didn't hear? By this time, in my head, I am already racing to the driveway, our ignition still running, the wheels of Gracie's bicycle caught and twisted, spinning in circles beneath our tires.
Our hotel is located in the business district.
"I'm going to bed," Caroline tells me.
"It's five o'clock," I protest.
"We've been traveling for practically two and a half days." Without even bothering to remove her jeans, she gets under the covers and turns her face away from the window. "Would you get the drapes? And the light?"
The authorities had reported the death an accident. There were neighbors who had seen Gracie dart out to get her bike, probably thinking she had time to rescue it. At the funeral, when they rolled the coffin out, I reached for Caroline's hand and squeezed. It wasn't until later that we noticed the bruises. The doctors declared it a mild sprain.
"I'm going down to the bar," I say, but she doesn't respond.
After the burial, after Caroline had gone through trials with Lexapro and Lithium, after endless therapy sessions, Doctor Roberts suggested we attempt to make amends with the trip. "Think of this as something to reconnect the two of you," she was insistent, "a vacation to rediscover one another."
At the bar, I signal for the bartender.
I wave my hands at the other patrons. "You can smoke here?"
He pushes an ashtray towards me; I ask for a Sapporo. I had quit smoking when Caroline had become pregnant. It was hard enough to give them up the first time. Pulling a pen from my pocket, I turn a paper napkin over so that the blank side is facing up.
ACTIVITIES THAT WERE ONCE ENJOYABLE:
- 1.Burgers at Bingham's. Meat tastes weird. Is this how it's going to be from now on? Where a burger won't even taste good any more?
I know what Dr. Roberts thinks her ‘magical' lists are trying to achieve. I just feel like she never gives me any real direction. "One of the most difficult aspects of grieving," she had told us in our first meeting, "is not only the loss of your daughter, but the loss of your self. You've lost the part of you that she represented. How are you going to tackle these issues as they come up?"
I stuff the napkin into my pocket and signal for the bill.
We sleep the entire first day. Near eleven thirty the following evening, we get up. I haven't eaten since Detroit. I can't remember having seen Caroline eat since we left the house. We walk through the Roppongi district of loud pachinko salons, heading for the first restaurant that has an English-speaking menu. At a noodle shop packed with people, I motion Caroline inside. Vending machines with picture buttons signify our dining options.
"I don't have any cash," Caroline says, "I haven't cashed my traveler's checks yet."
I extract Monopoly-colored bills from my wallet, punch buttons at random, feed money into the machine. Caroline stands there sheepishly. "I told you," I pull her sleeve to the only empty seat at a low table, "no one accepts credit cards here. You should have listened when I cashed my traveler's checks at Narita. Now you're going to get some jacked up hotel exchange rate and lose money."
Ever since the accident, we hear how cruel I can be to her. "It was her time," friends suggest, trying to help. Doctor Roberts reminds me to think before I speak, to inhale and expand white light in my chest. Sometimes, I imagine punching Caroline in the face.
"I think we're doing it wrong," Carline points to teenagers dipping cold noodles from one bowl into the hot broth of another. I stare down at the silverware the patron has placed out with our chopsticks. In one bowl I had poured the noodles, mixing them into a gravy-colored broth. I haven't eaten much, and yet, the noodles suddenly taste like dishwater. A server arrives from out of nowhere and bows, before whisking our bowls away.
THINGS TO DO IN JAPAN (REALISTICALLY):
- 1.Visit some sort of temple. Say a prayer for Gracie.
1b. Despite the sentiment of this thought, would this set Caroline off into an episode?
- 1.Propose temple visit to Caroline.
3. Harajuku district. Shoto-Club in Shibuya.
Back at the hotel, I visit the business center to check my email.
"Hi there," the first email reads, "Thank you for contacting us this time. I'm Noriyuki Iwai of Tokyo Free Guide. Please call me Nori. Well, Is this your first time to visit to Japan? How long can I show you on the date? I joined our association more than 2years ago. I've been to US 7times. I will take you all around Tokyo. Let's enjoy together!" The email ended with the letters blending into one word: NoriAntinori
"Shit," I say out loud. I had forgotten about the guide.
Neither of us knows what Nori looks like, nor do we know how he will recognize us. In my first reply email months ago, I had explained that my wife and daughter would like to try exotic foods, perhaps see a bit of Japanese history. I had forgotten, like so many other things that have since slipped through the cracks, to mention that Gracie would no longer be joining us.
Finally, a man emerges from the elevator's doors into the empty lobby. I step forward, offering my hand, "Are you by any chance, Nori?"
Nori bows. We bow in response.
"Jeremy-san." He looks from both me to Caroline. "But where is the daughter?"
I wait for Caroline's emotional response to come but she simply puts her hand against my arm to steady herself.
"She couldn't be here. Are you ready to go?"
LIES I HAVE TOLD:
- 1. Santa Claus is real.
2. Long distance won't be a problem.
3. I think we should give this another shot.
4. I think we still have a chance.
5. No, I don't think it was your fault.
For a guide, Nori isn't much of one.
"We take the JR Sobu line at Ryugoku. The Edo temple, it is hardly three minutes walking distance."
At the subway, I purchase subway tickets for all three of us.
"This way," Nori plows through the crowd, "we don't want to miss."
The train is packed with schoolgirls typing on cell phones with dangling key chains attached, larger than the actual cell phones. Nori frantically moves from the door, to a map, and back again.
"Ginza line, we should have taken the Ginza line. This is express."
"Express like how long express?" Caroline asks.
Twenty minutes later, the train roars outside, passing gray buildings leaning against each other. The sky is an inky color, clouds stretched thin and low against its backdrop. Wet cherry blossom petals litter the streets.
"Did we miss the festival?" I ask.
"By three days," Nori nods, still looking outside. "The festival moves south now."
Chugging along, we pass men on bicycles, their baskets loaded with groceries. The subway car seems emptier than before, with one schoolgirl in striped knee socks reading a manga novel.
"Your daughter," Nori directs this to Caroline. "She wants to try the local food? We can go to a ramen spot I know. All wheat soba. It's very good."
Caroline wraps the strap of her purse around her finger until the tip turns purple. After Caroline stopped coming to therapy, I hacked into her Facebook account. She had written to some high school girl whose name I did not recognize.
"I'm just now terrified," she had written, "of going to Japan, because it's way too soon, and because I don't speak Japanese. I'm just realizing that I've never really been anyplace where I can't stop to ask someone a question on the sidewalk. I'm worried about being the type of traveler no one really wants there." I didn't know what to make of the email so I exited her account and said nothing about it.
"We lost her," Caroline says.
"I, too, lost a daughter," Nori offers to us.
"When did she pass?"
Nori shakes his head. "She studies at University. I don't see her or speak with her much any more. She does not come home on holiday but travels with friends. But now we go to Senso-ji Temple. We pray for your daughter to be found again."
He doesn't wait for us to disagree. I think to take Caroline's hand.
Nori tells us that in the year 628, two brothers fished a statue of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, out of the Sumida River, and that the Senso-ji Temple was built for her. We head down Nakamise, the shopping street leading to it. Stalls are stacked with folding fans and plastic Buddhas. Outside the temple's entrance, American tourists wave their hands around a well filled with smoke.
"The incense scares away bad spirits," Nori leads us to a wall lined with wooden drawers.
"100 yen and we each get omikuji. You put the yen in your own honor box. Shake the cylinder there. Inside are sticks with numbers on them. You shake until your stick falls out, then your stick with the number on it matches the drawer on the wall. That drawer has your fortune."
"What are all those slips of paper tied to string over by the well?"
"Bad fortunes left behind for the wind spirits to carry away."
I drop in my money and Caroline follows. "Nori, please participate with us," she says, "You should have a fortune too." I draw a seventeen, Caroline draws a five, Nori draws a twenty-two.
"What does yours say?" Caroline asks.
Your fortune: Excellent Luck. Everything is promising, and if you are moderate in everything, you are sure to get on in life. The most important thing for you is to be patient.
Missing thing: It will be found at a higher place.
Love: Don't make love in the final, coital sence.
Illness: The most important thing is to pray to God that you might get over the illness.
"What horseshit. The missing thing will be found at a higher place? The thing doesn't even spell sense right."
I throw the list at her chest, where it bounces off.
"The most important thing is to be patient? That's a fucking laugh. I wonder what Doctor Roberts would have to say about that. Huh? What do you think she'd have to say about patience?"
Caroline storms over to the well where she sticks her head into the smoke, taking in gulps of smoky air.
"What does yours say?" I attempt to break the tension.
"Dai-kyo," Nori gently places it on top of a trash can. "It is very bad luck."
I can see Caroline crying. The string trembles with knots of paper, the fortunes' sides folded up like birds' wings. Wind rushes past us, shaking some of the fortunes to the ground, and, for a minute, pushes the smoke in front of Caroline, blurring out the contours of her face.
"Aren't you supposed to, like, tie it to the string? Isn't that what you told us?"
"It makes no difference," he says, "it is bad luck every time."
At the stop for our hotel, Nori forages ahead into the crowd.
"Tomorrow," he tells us, "we use my car."
"I only thought we were going to see sights for one day," I argue
"There is a place: Mount Osore. Mountain of Horror."
"It is seven, maybe eight hour drive. We shall visit the Bodai-ji Temple."
"Nori," I push through the subway turnstile, "we're more than happy to pay you to show us around. I don't think either of us are up to driving eight hours."
Nori stops. "Mount Osore is the crater of a volcano, no longer active active. We will go to visit the itako."
"The itako?" Caroline asks. Sometimes, hearing Caroline's voice, I forget what it sounded like. At home, we punch dishwasher buttons and turn dryer dials, flip on the television and grind the coffee beans. Any electronic noise to keep from speaking.
"They are the blind shamans who will help you communicate with your dead. The women are getting old and not many replacements have been found. We will go to seek out your daughter."
"She's dead." I feel myself begin to get out-of-control. "There isn't any seeking for us to do, pal."
"Can you pick us up at six?" Caroline talks over me. "We can be ready at whatever time, though, is convenient for you."
In the morning, I take the backseat. My side is stacked with bento boxes; I shove them to the floor.
"Where do you live in Tokyo?" Caroline asks.
"Outside Tokyo. Odawara. I take shuttle car, then train, then subway into the city every weekend."
"How long does that take you?"
"Two hours. Sometimes more."
"And how often do you show Americans like us around?"
"But what does your wife think of that? You're gone every weekend? You must not have gotten home last evening until past eight!"
I suddenly feel sorry for Nori, imagining him taking the train ride back, up into the mountains, exiting into an empty station. I picture him making his way down the streets, up the steps into his apartment where he doesn't even turn on a light, but removes a covered dish from the refrigerator, maybe an Asahi beer. I picture Nori by the window in his chair, sipping a beer, looking out into the darkness.
"Tell us again about these itakos," I say.
"Blind women summon the souls of the dead and deliver your messages to them," Nori explains. "Only four itako will appear at Mt. Osore's summer festival this year. Our youngest, Keiko Himukai, will soon stop due to stomach issues. It is a dying practice."
"We're not going to make the summer festival," I point out the bare trees stripped of their precious flowers. "It's March."
"Keiko-san still studies there."
The car hums from its wheels spinning on the highway.
"We have become an era where children ignore their parents and forget about the dead." I hear the bitterness in Nori's voice and I wonder if I should suggest we turn around for a beer, leave the dead to themselves.
"It is good, what we are doing." It sounds as if he is trying to convince himself just as much as the rest of us.
We know we are getting near when we see tents line the street. Hardened lava stretches out for miles. There is a sulfurous stench in the air. Nothing grows in sight but for a few deadened-looking birches.
"Did you bring cash?" Nori turns off the ignition to the car.
Caroline scrambles out of her seat. I reach for her purse. How much did we bring? Was 120,000 Yen enough? 150,000? What exactly was the going rate to talk to the dead?
"Jeremy!" she waves. "Jeremy, hurry!"
At the front of the temple, a line shifts impatiently. For a moment, I am not here, but am back with Steve, hunting our childhood woods. We'd stay low, the air rich with the smells of burnt foliage and cold November. Often, we'd cross farms and come across electric fences. Steve would rip a blade of grass from the earth and touch it gently to the fence, checking for live current. It is here with Caroline, that I remember the first time Steve handed me the blade of grass and the surge I had felt when I laid it across the wire. How I had stood there—frozen—before recoiling back in shock. It takes me only a second to respond and step back from Caroline, as if she is the live wire herself. Here, on the crater of the volcano, I see only one thing: all the lists mean nothing when I know what I have been feeling all along.
"I can't go in with you," I tell her. "I'm so sorry. I just can't."
I expect her to cry but she doesn't. She doesn't wait, just slips inside the temple. Nori moves away and extracts a pack of cigarettes from his pocket.
"I don't like to smoke in front of the tourists," he lights a match. We stand there together, the smoke bending around us. We wait to hear what my dead daughter has to say.
"Do you have another?" I ask. He extends a cigarette. I put it in my mouth. Scratch the tip of the match against the matchbox. Hear the hiss of the match being lit. I put my face forward to the flame. I hold for five, and then, inhale.