The umbrella hangs crooked from an empty chair. With every jolt of the train tracks, I watch it swing, twitch: a pendulum in motion. The sight speaks to me– a lonely, anxious thing, forgotten in the empty train car. This day, out of all days, it feels like a sign.
“Arriving at Kyoto Park Station. Please remember to take your belongings with you. Doors will open on the right.”
Today, out of all days, I will see him again. It’s been three years, you see. Three years in which I grew three inches, gained ten pounds, cut my hair. I started wearing makeup. I started caring about myself.
I stopped caring about him.
Ironic, isn’t it: how things change in an instant? Here I am: independent, self-assured, all on my own. In only a moment’s time, I will be reduced to that little girl at sixteen, waiting anxiously by the window for my father to return home.
He will never return home.
“Miss, you forgot this.”
A delivery man, his parcels jammed under one arm, holds the battered umbrella in the other. I want to laugh, but I bow instead. The handle is cold in my hands, colder even than the rain misting on my brow. I wonder that this sad little thing would follow me out of the train, out of the terminal, out into my world. Misery likes company, after all.
“Arigato gozaimasu,” I thank the old man. He nods and scrambles off, agile for all his age. I think for a second if we swapped roles, bodies, no one would notice a thing. It is I, the nineteen-year-old, who heads down the park path as if taking part in a funeral procession. My destination looms ahead like a gravestone, and I walk slowly, each step another shovel of dirt. Breathing becomes a chore.
The Kyoto Railway Museum. It has a proud sort of bearing: high glass ceilings, shining tile floors, and of course: glossy trains, their engines curved in perpetual smiles. All of it stands frozen: part-sinister, part-glorious, like dinosaurs caught in the comet.
I understand now why he asked to meet here. It suits him– his transparent face, his glittering eyes. I used to wonder at those eyes. Wonder at when they’d reach me.
They never did.
“Good morning Miss, how many tickets would you like to purchase?”
“Just one, please,” I say, and then hesitate. I work now. I pay for my own university funds. “Or… two, maybe.”
The woman behind the kiosk holds my credit card with both hands, an egg waiting to hatch. Politely, she waits for my call.
“Sorry, could I have two please?”
And here it is, at last. My stomach plummets. My ears ring. Air whooshes out of my lungs and then back in again, all too quickly. I am under the earth or above the sky or both. The only thing that matters is that I am not here.
But I am.
“Father,” I answer, turning around. There he is. All one hundred and eighty-two centimeters of him. I waited for his height, but it never came.
I waited a lot, didn't I?
“Mariko, you’ve grown!” He takes two long strides forward, and before I can defend myself, he is patting me on the shoulder, the arm. Smiling. I cannot defend myself from his smile.
“Daughter, you look beautiful.”
I cannot defend myself from his words.
“Thank you, Father.” I bow low, despite myself. Despite the ringing in my ears.
The kiosk lady is still waiting. We turn around.
“Please sign here.” She offers me a receipt, wrapped around my card like a gift. The blank line is there, folded perfectly along the perforation, so that I can sign with ease. Some things are simple.
“Mariko, you can’t pay for the tickets. Don’t insult Father like that. I will reimburse you, and more.”
Others are not.
I mumble a reply and slide the receipt back over the counter. Finally, we are through.
“Do you want to pick up a headset?” he asks, guiding me towards the information desk. “They have Japanese and English.”
“I’m fine.” I cannot concentrate on his words and his face and his presence, and listen to an audio recording simultaneously. I cannot walk and swim and breathe at the same time.
“Suit yourself,” he replies, grabbing a headset for himself. That is like him. He will do his own thing, even if no one follows.
He will do his own thing, even if you try to follow.
The carpet muffles our footsteps as we pass through the lobby into the main atrium. Here they house the grandest trains, the ones from a hundred, two hundred years ago. Older than I will ever be, and yet the paint is shinier than my hair after a shower. These artifacts are valued, you see. Cared for. Wanted.
We trace a perimeter around one engine, like lions stalking prey. Father lifts his headset from one ear. “Did you know this 20th century train was built with the help of German engineers? They came all the way to Japan to demonstrate engine mechanisms.”
“Why is it here then,” I ask, “if it’s a German train?”
“Us Japanese didn't know how to build trains back then,” he answers vaguely, already lost in his thoughts. “This was the closest thing we had to call our own.”
The further we move into the museum, the more Father’s mood brightens. Soon, the headset is off his ears entirely, adorning his neck like a chain, or maybe a crown.
“Do you remember those train simulation games?” he asks, gesturing to the model train set before us. “You cried when you lost.”
“I’ve been here before?” I don’t remember a thing.
He nods, grinning. “I brought you here when you were six. Even then, you said you wanted to be an engineer.”
“You couldn't understand how the trains ran so fast. But still you thought Father ran faster.” He chuckles. “One day, you will build a train that will far outstrip me.”
But you are wrong, Father. Don’t you understand? In my mind, you will always be faster. You will always win.
“Do you want to play now?” he asks.
“Why not? It might be fun,” he teases, as if I am six again.
But I am not. I never will be again. “No thanks.”
He shrugs, moving on. He doesn't care enough to force the issue. He never cared enough to force anything.
We walk into a replica train car– a luxury model. Velvet plush seats, tinkling glass chandeliers. The air is stuffy, the lavish furniture cramped. I miss the simplicity of a skeletal train, stripped bare– the engines, the wheels, the gears.
“How is university?” he asks.
“I’m proud of you, daughter.”
I miss the engines, the wheels, the gears.
“I cannot believe it. My own daughter– an aspiring engineer. At work, we all joke about you. Ishiguro thinks you will never find a man. But I tell him you will not need one.”
So he talks about me then. He can find the time to talk about me, to talk around me, but never to talk to me. For three years, he has never once tried to come to the States.
“Ishiguro doesn't understand. But I tell him, America is different. In America, all the women are engineers.”
I smother a smile. He looks pleased at that– a reaction, for once. It gives him false hope, and it gives me false victory. “Your father is old. But he is trying to understand the new ways of life.”
I cannot help myself. It is like offering water to a parched tongue. “Then why don't you come to the States? You can see for yourself what it’s like.”
A beat of the pendulum. A flip of the switch. One second is all it takes for dark to take to light, light to dark. One second is all it takes for rice-paper dreams to tear.
“Father is Japanese,” he says. “I don’t belong anywhere except home.”
The paper tears. So this is home to him. A cold museum, shafts of light filtering in through glass panels, catching dust motes and turning them golden, sparkling. Like flakes of gold falling through the air, waiting for one lucky lottery winner to swoop in, snatch them all. But I cannot catch a single one.
“How is your mother in America?”
“Is she still planning to go back to school?”
“No,” I say, and that is all.
He senses the shift. Changes the subject. “Let me show you a steam locomotive,” he begins, leading me to the accompanying display. “You see here, manufactured by Kitson from the UK. It’s JGR Class 1800, built in 1881…”
And the day goes on. I see myself through his eyes, a little girl, hair in twin pigtails, eyes in twin wonder. I see myself as someone who is led on, toyed with, played like a puppet– and like a puppet, ultimately discarded.
At six, I wanted to be an engineer. I didn't know that. I wanted to be an engineer because of him. Because of trains. Because of wheels and gears and engines.
There is so much I did not know.
Here’s more: I will never be rid of him. Even when I try, when I cleanse myself, forget, fly over the sea and let the tides separate us– I will never be rid of him. He is in my hands, my eyes, in the way I start sentences. “You see…”
“I have big dreams for you, Musume. You know, your trains won’t just sit in this museum. They’ll be out there on the tracks, roaring through Kyoto and maybe even Tokyo– can you imagine that?” He laughs, delighted. It is he who is the child. “I will take your train, Musume. I will ride it all the way from end to end, back and forth.”
I will never be rid of him.
I bow. “I hope to make you proud, Otousan.”
He pats me on the shoulder. I am defenseless against his assaults. “I will ride your train from end to end, back and forth.”
He writes me a check and offers it to me. I refuse, albeit politely. He expects this. He smiles, slips it in my purse, politely. We are mirrors of each other. Of course we are. He raised me. He made me. He is my thoughts and my mouth and my words.
I will never be rid of him.
I bow low. I do not meet his gaze. I feel the weight of his check in my purse, the burden of his sleek hiragana, his thousands of yen. I want to tear the paper into shreds, but you see, the only things I break are in my mind.
The only thing that breaks is my mind.
My heart is strong. I tell myself this repeatedly as I take the train, so much so that I forget the umbrella on my seat. It is too late to go back. I turn around, watch the car whoosh out of the station. The battered umbrella waits for another lonely companion. I imagine it jumping with each jolt of the tracks: a pained, arduous dance.
I leave Kyoto. This time, I tell myself, this time will be my last. I will not return, I think.
Will I return? To be honest, I don't know. I only know that I cannot help myself. That I have no choice in the matter. You see, my thoughts are like his. My eyes are like his. Even the way I speak, my sentences, are like his. No matter where I go, I will always be riding this train– his train– from end to end, back and forth.
You see, misery likes company.
updated by @americymru: 11/28/17 05:14:16PM