Copyright 2005 by Derek Tober
I can still smell the scent of plum blossoms floating into my olfactory on any given breeze; I think a petal got caught in there last spring on one of those wet nights when I galloped or danced home from one of the parks or karaoke’s in Higashi Koganai. There were four rather spacious plum orchards bordering the streets and alleys leading back to Big Apple Mu, and I gave myself the indulgence of a face full of their delicate pink flowers every night. The guys and the girls from the house are all shadows behind the sweet rouge haze that invades my mind by way of the nostrils. They say that smell is the sense closet linked to memory. That may be true, but I can never tell if my memories are brought back by something I smell or if the memories bring back something I want to smell… either way is okay with me.
That first night I arrived at the House tired and sweaty and unsure of my situation; I was lugging a forty pound backpack, and the closest thing I had to a land lord had just abandoned me with a few words in broken engrish and an exaggerated gesture at his digital watch. My brother had taken me to the building I’d be staying at the day before to drop off the bulk of my luggage and to make sure that I knew the directions from his station to my own and from my station to my apartment. I had stayed at my brother’s place the night before, which was foreign enough, even with the familiar sound of his snoring two feet away. But now I had to fend for myself; it was the most alone I’d felt since getting lost in a swamp at twilight as a child, but my parents were not going to come looking for me here, not now; though, if they had I would have run to them with my chin quivering and my arms outstretched. The rain and cold in a climate that was supposed to be just like that of Florida did not help me.
We were not allowed to wear our shoes to our rooms or even past the breezeway of the building. As I walked barefoot through the half-dark hallways I realized something I hadn’t taken note of the day before; the floors were actually wallpapered. The paper was adorned with a cheerful array of shooting stars and crescent moons. My room was up stairs, and as I made my way to the staircase I was glad that none of my fellow tenants happened upon me on their way to the showers or the kitchen. I did hear voices and dinner sounds spilling out of the dinning room, so I quickly slipped up the stairs lest any of the long term residents should ambush me and try to find out what I was doing there, or, worse yet, should try to be my friend. What would I say or do with one of the scary, world-wise people who lived here? I felt sure I would embarrass or disappoint or offend.
I did escape notice the whole way to my door, but just as I got the always difficult key to turn in its lock, the door beside mine cracked opened and a delicate face, half concealed by the door, looked out at me from behind messy strands of long black hair. I was frozen for a brief moment, but I quickly took evasive action; with a very insincere nod of my head and a tightlipped smile I said ‘Hi’ and fumbled with my key and backpack to get into my room. She watched as I stepped behind my door and heard as I smacked my head, with a very appropriate thud, against the low-hanging door jam—I deserved it; I also deserved the giggles I heard from the hall behind as I shut the door.
Over the next two days I was a trapdoor spider; I came out only to eat or use the facilities, and then only when there was little chance of being caught or even seen. I was more comfortable outside the House; I walked around the neighborhood for hours, becoming acquainted with the local shops and back alleys. I had not yet taken note of the little pink buds just beginning to unfold at the ends of the gnarled black arms of the hoary looking trees lining the streets and reaching over garden walls.
Of course, my solitude could not last. During my first days at the House I could be seen sneaking to the showers at midnight or trying to comb the curls out of my hair in the afternoon. But it seemed that everything changed in one day. I’d gotten up earlier on my third full day and took my meager supplies down to the kitchen to fix breakfast. I could tell from the clinking sound of soapy dishes that someone was in there, but I was in no mood to forego my hot breakfast. I gathered my wits, arranged my clothes and stepped through the short doorway; in the kitchen I found an unremarkable looking young man eating something with fried noodles and thin strips of meat at the table (also covered with happy-go-lucky space-theme wall paper) and a slightly older looking man in a striped stocking cap washing dishes.
They looked at me, I looked at them, and everything
suddenly became exceedingly normal. We introduced ourselves;
the man at the industrial sized sink spoke very little and had a
smoldering look in his eyes; his name was Jun and I seldom saw him
after this first encounter. The man working on his Yaki Soba
was named Joseph; he had been named Joseph seven years earlier when
he had come to America as an exchange student and wound up living
with a family in Salt lake City, Utah. Yes, he was a Japanese
Mormon. Joseph spoke English well but with a heavy accent; he
and I talked about food, which made me very comfortable; during this
time he told me about his experience with the abominable Oat Meal
he’d been pressed into eating while in America. He also told me
briefly and matter-of-factly about his coming to America, the initial
culture shock and his eventual conversion. I couldn’t
help but like him.
The night before, it had rained again, and on my walk to the train station I could almost taste the freshness of the droplets hanging from the serrated edges of kiwi-green baby leaves. I enjoyed the sight of the lopsided houses built in strange polygons so as to economize all available space between each other and the hard liquor vending machines outside the gas stations. I spent all day with my brother, whose vacation had just begun; he introduced me to strange snacks and delicacies that made my throat convulse in terror at a new texture before my tongue could convince it that everything would be all right. It rained a gentle, warm shower while we were shopping for watches and digital cameras and other tempting shinnies, so we sought refuge in a Starbucks. Inside they sold all the usual confections and mocha-choco-latte-espresso-ccinos in addition to novelty coffee cups celebrating the blooming Sakura, which I left one week too early to witness. They sold nothing in honor of the fragrant plum blossoms, but I guess they can’t print a scent on a porcelain mug.
That night, on my walk to the House from the train station, the plum blossoms brought themselves to my attention. A gentle wind whistled over me from the other side of the street and dropped, right on my face, a small, wonderful gift. It brought to mind the juicy-wet sweetness of ripe wild strawberries blended perfectly with the thick, heady sweetness of raw honey. I walked most of the way back home trying to catch more whiffs of the sweet breath carried on the wind. I hadn’t smelled it for several minutes and I was getting close to Big Apple Mu when, on a street enclosed by stucco houses with private gardens, I took a deep breath in preparation for a sigh and found that I had inhaled the gaseous ambrosia and could actually taste it all the way down my throat into my chest and behind my eyes. I can’t say that anything before or since has smelled so beautiful or kind or close to perfection. I walked to the black and pink tree from which I now knew the breath had had to have come; one of its branches stretched and arched to reach its fingers over the fence of the garden it belonged to. I grasped the tree by what was surely its wrist and breathed in the private aromas of its fingertips. Now, I sighed and smiled; shuddered and floated home.
In my House I took of my shoes and walked toward the staircase; there were sounds of food and talking from the kitchen. I was tempted to go in and make more acquaintances, but decided to listen to my tired muscles and foggy mind and go to bed and hope for deep sleep and a refreshing dream. So, I went upstairs, removed my contacts and ran into Yoko.
Her hair wasn’t in as much trouble as it had
been when we had briefly met for the first time, and she was wearing
glasses, but I recognized her as the half-face as we collided at the
blind corner of the washroom. I uttered phrases of apology in
three languages, hoping one of them would make sense to her, as I
helped her gather her glasses and bath items from the starry floor.
We stood together, and after a moment she glanced between my forehead
and my door, and she ran a thin finger across my forehead and began
to laugh. Apparently she remembered me.
That night Yoko and I talked ‘til almost sunrise about the strange beauty of life and the amazing effects of coincidences and the immeasurable importance of being happy. She was a Yoga instructor in training. She told me that most of the people living in Big Apple Mu were either unemployed or students; I was both.
After that day everything became easier. In the following days I came to know my fellow tenants and befriended: Jose, a Spanish break dancer from the Canary Islands with dreadlocks; An, A Canadian who was tracing her roots and tutoring school children in English and, Nikita, a Frenchman with whom I could not communicate, but he was a good cook, so we became close. Any day I wasn’t doing something with my brother I could now count on having at least a couple friends to accompany me, whatever I did. Everything was easier except in one way: I now had something to loose.
Every time we went out for an all night Karaoke or to play tennis in a park I would be thankful to my brother for having brought me here, and to Yoko for helping me understand the place, and to the plum blossoms for making it all worth understanding. And every night, as I walked home, the blossoms and I would exchange kisses through the thin film of air that separated us.
Leaving may have been easier if I had still been
afraid or, sad or, anything other than what I now was.
Two nights before I was to leave my friends gave me a going away party; it consisted mostly of Kirin beer, rammen noodles and loud music in the common room of Big Apple Mu. For a long time I pretended that night would never end; I danced as hard as I could and tried with all my will to just pause my life as Yoko flung her hair back and forth across my face. It may have been easier not to say goodbye to my friends, to just go on as we had been for the past weeks and pretend I was not just a visitor in their lives, but I knew that to look back and see this time simply cut off would not do. We had all the windows open, and for the first and last time, I smelled the gentle breath of the plum blossoms in the House as I placed the top can on a very large Kirin pyramid.
The last morning, all I had to do was to take my luggage and walk away; I had a lot more than when I had first arrived. My bags seemed heavier with every step I took, and I had to stop and rest in the street soon after I left the House. I knew that I simply could not stay; one way or another I had to leave. Once again, I felt lost; I paced back and forth in the empty street around my swollen luggage. I turned and paced up the street, kicking pebbles and counting cracks as I went; I stopped abruptly with a small gasp when I felt something brush against my forehead; it was the flowery hand of the plum tree. I thrust my face all the way into a large cluster of flowers and inhaled, once, deeply. It was something I knew I would remember.
I am a College student from Michigan. I have won a few local poetry competitions and I have always enjoyed writing. In a creative writing course I took I discovered that I am not, as I had supposed, a Sci-Fi writer; I am much more comfortable writing poetry and narratives from my own life. It would be a dream-come-true if, even in the distant future, I could become a successful writer.
Several years ago had the opportunity to spend
some time in Japan. I went there to visit my brother in
college. The experience turned out to be more of a personal
awakening than an introverted bookworm like me could have expected.
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