A Chance to Unite: New International Writing 2019

Sacha Idell

 

Japanese house and gardens 

 

Kariya's phone stops working somewhere in the air above Hokkaido. He isn't sure what happened; at the beginning of the flight, he switched it—dutifully—to airplane mode when the captain reminded the passengers to do so, but as soon as he lands in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, his phone has stopped working entirely. He presses the power button, the home button, every combination he can think of, but nothing works.

The shadow of his phone hangs over him as he stumbles his way down the escalator and into customs. Is there an Apple Store on Sakhalin? If there isn’t, can he buy a temporary replacement? And what if there is some sort of emergency before then? Will Amakusa Tokisada (his dog, a purebred Pembroke corgi) be all right in the kennel he booked? The agent who checks his passport, a friendly blonde woman who is more chatty than Kariya is comfortable with, speaks halting, accented English which he has trouble understanding. As she flips through his passport, Kariya stares at the blurred red reflection of it on the plastic covering below her hand, certain that something else is on the verge of going wrong.

It is an ominous way to begin two weeks in a foreign country. His employer JapanRail, in conjunction with the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism, has selected Kariya as a representative for their ongoing talks with the Oblast. On the surface he is expected to help orchestrate the logistics of a deal to increase ferry traffic between Korsakov—a small town on the southern tip of the island—and Wakkanai in Hokkaido, but in practice the desired outcome is uncertain. The bureaucrats in Wakkanai would rather their city had fewer Russian sailors, not more, and the Russians hadn't been particularly welcoming either. It is, in many ways, unclear who is pushing for the project at all. But still, Kariya’s boss has sent him to help lay the groundwork, and so now here he is, alone and in Russia for the first time.

When Kariya enters the lobby, a cab driver holds up a sign with KARIYA written in roman characters. There are few other passengers on the flight (with an eight-thirty arrival, unusually late for Sakhalin) and the man finds Kariya easily, or rather, he is so obvious that he is impossible to miss. They speak brief, broken English, and afterward Kariya follows the man to his car, an old Toyota, which speeds them through the darkness to a hotel someone in the ministry has booked on his behalf. The lights of the Russian city smolder in the distance as they approach, and Kariya wonders why the surrounding night seems thicker, more lustrous, somehow, than the night he is used to.

 

Kariya arrives shortly after ten in the evening, and already the main doors are locked, a shutter grate pulled down over the handles. Kariya sets down his luggage and presses an intercom, which (he hopes) will awaken someone to let him inside. An impossible silence lingers, and what follows is a long string of Russian words he can’t understand. After several moments of trying to communicate through a confused mix of English and Mandarin, something buzzes and the shutter begins to rise. The doors behind the grate unlock.

Inside, a sleepy man at the reception desk takes down Kariya’s name and confirms his reservation. It appears that everything is in order, and Kariya is handed a set of keys and ushered to a dilapidated elevator.

“Breakfast?” Kariya asks in English.

The man shakes his head, then raises four fingers to indicate the floor Kariya should go to. Kariya presses the button and soon the elevator jerks upward and slowly climbs. Kariya hasn’t ridden on an elevator like this in some time; his apartment complex is only two stories, and the elevator at his office is sleek and modern and programmed to say Have a nice day as you exit. For a moment he has an image in his head of a box suspended by a cord, the cord fraying and snapping, and knowing that he is being ridiculous, he tries to distract himself with his phone, but that still is broken, and by the time he reaches his room he is so exhausted by cycles of worry that he drops his luggage and collapses on the bed, shoes and all. As he closes his eyes, he is dimly aware of the stains where the wallpaper meets the ceiling, the scuff marks on the corner of the nightstand, the faint scent of a summery mold permeating the room.

For now, this is home.

 

Kariya isn’t due at the ferry office until eleven, and since the hotel doesn’t provide a breakfast, he decides it’s best to get out and experience the city. This is what all of his friends have suggested he should do. “Sakhalin is Russia, right? And even if it’s out in the country, Russia is still European. There must be lots to see!” Saya, his best friend’s wife and a classmate from high school, had insisted. “Go to a museum or something.”

On a sidestreet, he finds a Cinnabon, which isn’t a brand he is familiar with, but the English script is more welcoming, somehow, than the forest of Cyrillic he is surrounded by, so he goes inside and purchases coffee and a doughnut filled with what turns out to be strawberry jelly. He sits at a stool with a view of the alley and makes a mental note of the location as he sits, chewing his breakfast, and considers where he is.

Kariya can count on one hand the number of times he’s traveled abroad. His family was not particularly wealthy, and on extended national holidays like Golden Week they were more likely to spend a weekend in Izu or Karuizawa than anywhere exotic. Still, there were a few times Kariya left the country. The first was in high school: his senior trip was to Thailand, where he and his classmates built a house as part of a charity event. Kariya remembers that trip fondly, as a time when he was young and learning about the world. He remembers the humidity, the bustle of people, the distant swaying trees, the way Saya looked in her swimsuit (it was the first time—the only time—he’d see her in one that wasn’t school issue).

Kariya pushes Saya from his mind and leaves the Cinnabon. Although plugged overnight into a charger, his phone is decidedly and irreversibly dead, and after a lengthy phone call on the hotel’s line earlier in the day, AppleCare informed him that there is not an Apple store on Sakhalin, and that his phone must be sent to the nearest hub—Wakkanai—in order to be diagnosed and repaired. In the best possible case, he will be without his phone for a week, in the worst, it could be as long as a month. Though Kariya doesn’t have a pressing need for a phone, exactly, the thought of not having one makes him nervous. The best thing he can think to do is to buy a temporary one, but there aren’t any stores which look like they cater to tourists, and anyway, he couldn’t understand a contract in Russian even if there was, so he decides to tough it out and get his phone fixed when he returns home. Email, after all, is always an option.

There is still another hour until Kariya is expected at the ferry offices, and since he has memorized its location firmly, he decides to take a quick walk through a nearby park. Decades-old Hondas buzz past him on the street as he walks. The block that the park occupies is surrounded by a low metal fence, painted black, and dotted with tall lampposts with a distinctly European design: curled black metal around bulbous glass shades. The streets are large and wide, and though the park itself has few open spaces, there is plenty of seating. Kariya sits inside a small white gazebo and stares at the mountains in the distance.

There is something odd about the way the landscape looks Japanese—certainly, Kariya knows that Sakhalin is not Japan, but somehow all of the vegetation reminds him of Hokkaido. In Thailand, the trees, the foliage, even the shades of green were slightly different, but on Sakhalin everything looks eerily similar, just with Russian architecture and signs superimposed on top of it. At this moment and throughout his trip, Kariya will consider this with discomfort: the Russians meandering about, the density of blonde and brown-haired people, don’t belong in a landscape that looks like this, but then he reminds himself that Sakhalin is not Japanese land, that Sakhalin was never Japan and never truly has been, that there are more Koreans, now, than Japanese, and in the end Kariya remembers that he is the one, here, stuck in a place in which he doesn’t belong, in which there is nothing to call home, and he abandons the thought as quickly as he can.

 

After the Oblast’s ferry company has forced Kariya to wait in the lobby for the better part of an hour, a tall Asian man emerges from the higher floors of the offices and escorts him to the elevator. The man, who introduces himself in Russian-accented Japanese as Hyun Tae, is slender but muscular, and has a natural air of confidence in his movements. As they ride the elevator together, he tells Kariya how much he misses Japan—he spent a year in college in Tokyo, and he remembers it fondly.

“Have you also lived in Tokyo?” Hyun Tae asks.

“Not for a long time. I live in Sapporo now.”

“I miss the food in Tokyo. There are Japanese restaurants here, but,” he pauses and sucks in air through clenched teeth, “they’re not the same.”

Of course they’re not, Kariya thinks. Anything becomes less authentic the further you go from the source. Even if it tasted the same, you’d probably like it less.

But Kariya knows he shouldn’t say that. Instead he says: “I’m sure it’s not all that bad.”

“There are good things too. And many things that look Japanese here. Have you seen the Museum of Local Lore? It looks like a castle from the Kamakura period.”

The elevator doors open and Hyun Tae guides Kariya to a conference room. The walls are wood paneling, and a series of empty office chairs, some with ripped cushions, surrounds an ovular table. Hyun Tae pulls out a chair on the far side of the room (one, Kariya notes, which is not ripped) and motions for Kariya to sit down in it. Afterward he scurries from the room to collect the others on the ferry project, and for a long time Kariya is left in the room, alone.

Kariya goes over his talking points in his head. A regular ferry route will increase tourism in both directions. It will provide expansion for the local economy, and multicultural exposure for both cities. Extracultural exposure? He can’t decide on the proper phrasing. It will create a lasting bond between both cultures, and foster understanding between the citizens of both cities. That has a nicer ring to it, he decides. Economics, multiculturalism. Increased prosperity for both cities. Something like that can only be good for both sides.

Three Russian men—white, burly, their sleeves rolled up and arms covered with hair—walk into the room. Hyun Tae follows behind them and slips into a seat next to Kariya. He begins to translate, and though Kariya is ready to give his pitch, an opening never comes. Instead he is asked about the quality of the seafood in Wakkanai, whether his accommodations are adequate, whether he has ever eaten Russian food before, and—much to Kariya’s discomfort—whether he likes Russian women. He answers these questions the best he can, and before he knows it, an hour has passed, and then men rise from their chairs and leave the room. Kariya turns to Hyun Tae, who shrugs as if to say they’re like this.

Hyun Tae suggests that Kariya contact his home office, to see if they have any other work for him to check—if he wants to evaluate the proposed site for the new ferry terminal, for instance, or if wants to confirm the timetables. Kariya answers that he’s never received any of this information, but he’ll check back with the JapanRail office to see.

“You can use this room, if you need a workspace. I don’t think they’ll need it.”

Kariya nods. He thinks about texting Saya, but of course he can’t. So he doesn’t.

 

Kariya has known Saya and her husband, Naoki, since they were in high school. Naoki and Kariya had both been members of the astronomy club, and Saya was in Kariya’s class all three years they attended. At the time, Saya and Kariya were casual acquaintances at best; they said hello in the morning, and might wind up at the same study session if it was held at the right person’s house. Naoki and Kariya, however, were basically inseparable. As the only members of the same year in their club, they were immediately close, and forced to suffer through mild hazing and then, as tradition demanded, inflict the same treatment upon the years that followed.

In many ways, Kariya saw Naoki as a more successful, more outgoing and charismatic version of himself. While Kariya was bookish and uncoordinated, Naoki had both physical strength and charm, and was the center of his class in a way that Kariya never could be. Though their closeness gathered a cast of friends around the two of them, Kariya made a point of never doing anything that would make him stand out, for fear of ruining Naoki’s image, or at least that was what he told himself.

Kariya was never sure when Naoki and Saya started dating. It had happened quietly, during a break, or else it was something they both had kept secret from him for a long time (though, when he wracked his brain about this, he could never think of a reason they might want to keep it a secret in the first place). In any case, just before the start of their last year of high school, Naoki and Saya were suddenly dating. And so the times when Naoki and Kariya had often been alone suddenly became moments in which the three of them were together.

There was a balance to their dynamic that Kariya enjoyed. Saya, like him, was less outgoing than Naoki, but unlike Kariya, she had a good deal more confidence. While Naoki had led by example, she pushed Kariya to test at better universities, set him up on dates with other girls, and generally supported his well-being in ways that Kariya was unused to. Quickly and unexpectedly as a gust of wind, he began to fall in love.

Sensing that nothing good could possibly come out of the situation for any of them, Kariya threw himself into researching ways to distance himself from them, from the suburb of Tokyo where they all lived together. In the process, somehow, he became fascinated with Hokkaido, with the idea of cold winters and a sky without light pollution. Without telling either Naoki or Saya, he applied to and was accepted by a distant university.

 

After Kariya began working at JapanRail, Naoki called him at work. It was the first time the two of them had spoken in years. Naoki said that he and Saya were in town, on their way to a ski trip before the roads were shut down by snow, but that they had been told that Kariya lived in the same city. So Kariya reluctantly agreed to meet them for dinner.

They met at a small Italian restaurant in downtown Sapporo. Kariya had lived in the city for years, but had never heard of the restaurant before. Naoki, however, insisted the food was famously excellent.

Naoki ordered a bottle of white wine for the table, and the three of them did their best to catch up. A lot had changed in the span of time since they had last spoken. Naoki and Saya had moved in together and gotten married; Naoki was a moderately successful Honda salesman at a dealership west of Yokohama. They had had, in Naoki’s words, a fun but uninteresting time at university. Saya said very little, only nodding along here and there. Kariya noticed that her hair was longer than it had been. It now extended well past her shoulders, and draped the way it was, he could see glints of a gold necklace hanging off of her collarbone.

Halfway through the meal, Naoki excused himself to use the restroom, and it was as though all the air had been sucked out of the room. Kariya and Saya had nothing to say to one another, and though Kariya thought about asking her many different things, about how her life had been, whether they were and had been happy, he held back as much as he could. It wasn’t his place, he felt, to ask those questions, he hadn’t earned the right, and by the time the evening ended, he assumed he wouldn’t hear from either of them again.

The next day, however, Saya had sent Kariya an innocuous text message saying that it had been great to catch up. After a few minutes of hesitation, Kariya responded, and they fell back into their old friendly habits. Over the six months since then, Kariya has spoken with her more each day, and now, even though he was in Sakhalin, he felt, somehow, that they were closer than ever.

 

The next week passes uneventfully. Kariya eats breakfast at Cinnabon and attends three hours of daily meetings in the ferry offices, after which he is escorted out of the building by Hyun Tae and is told to enjoy himself. He eats in either the restaurant that advertises its American Burgers or a Korean restaurant which Hyun Tae has recommended to him, and which turns out to be quite good (or, at least, that turns out to have the same taste as the Korean restaurants he has eaten at in Sapporo), after which he takes a short walk and eventually returns to his hotel room, where he drinks beer and watches television on his laptop in the dark and talks with Saya over LINE messenger.

It seems to Kariya that entering a routine like this has its own special comfort. His expectations are the same as the world’s expectations for him, and this balance, he thinks, is relaxing. Even if he doesn’t have Amakusa Tokisada to keep him company.

On the seventh day of his trip, a day the office is closed, Kariya decides to go to the museum Hyun Tae has mentioned several times. It is a large building, near the city’s biggest park, and the sort that is impossible not to miss. It rises over much of the Yuzhno skyline, and from a distance Kariya has always thought that Hyun Tae is correct, that it is markedly and distinctly Japanese. As he gets closer, however, he begins to notice that the sizing is wrong, somehow, that there are many parts of the building that are too blocky to resemble a Japanese structure.

The exhibits within the museum are rundown and unprotected. Photographs hang from blue walls without frames, and rather than be protected in glass cases, many of the exhibits simply sit on top of sea foam-colored shelves, small papers identifying the objects resting at their sides. The information there mostly covers what Kariya already knows. He knows that Sakhalin was a Russian penal colony and that after that it was a Japanese province called Karafuto. He knows that Yuzhno-Sakhalinski was once called Toyohara, and that this island—this city—has a tenuous sense of its own nationality. He knows, simply from looking around, that a good number of the residents of the island are native Koreans, who mostly speak Russian, and nothing else. Intrigued by the architecture but bored by the subject matter, Kariya leaves, buys a coffee at the Cinnabon, and returns to his hotel.

 

After a day spent discussing possible timetables ends, Kariya asks Hyun Tae to take him to the proposed site of the new ferry terminal.

“It’s a long train ride,” Hyun Tae says. “Maybe an hour.”

“An hour isn’t that bad.”

“It is on Sakhalin. Everything is close to everything else.”

Kariya thinks about this a minute, but doesn’t answer. The two of them walk to the train station, move through the turnstile, and wait for the train to arrive.

“I went to the museum yesterday.”

Hyun Tae looks up at him.

“Did you enjoy it?”

“It’s a weird building.”

“Very. There are many places like that on Sakhalin.”

“Many places that are sort-of Japanese?” Kariya asks.

Hyun Tae nods and thinks for a moment.

“There are many places that are Japanese. One is quite near to where we’re going. But I think Sakhalin may just be like that. It’s multicultural. Our Russian food is made with Korean ingredients, there are Japanese cars on every street, the religious among us are Christians. We’re adaptable, here. We know that names change all the time.”

Rails screech and the train pulls into view. It comes to a stop in front of them, and Hyun Tae and Kariya stand in front of the train doors, stuck between the station and the moment they open.  

 

The site of the new ferry terminal is a cape a twenty-minute walk after their forty-minute train ride. Part of the plan, Hyun Tae explains, involves creating a new regular bus route, in order to deal with the increased traffic. For now, though, scattered junipers rise above grassland and rocky cliffs, and in the distance Kariya can see a few houses, the smoke coming out of chimneys.

“There’s not much here now,” Hyun Tae says. “But there will be more.”

Kariya takes out a camera and snaps a few pictures.

“It seems like it would work. So long as you’re handling the construction costs.”

Hyun Tae waves his hand.

“I’ll tell the bosses.”

They walk down a road that follows the cliffs, until it turns abruptly inland, and Hyun Tae gestures for Kariya to follow. The path winds through a thick forest. The vegetation is a deep green, and it reminds Kariya of hikes in Hokkaido during the summer, when he would always carry a walking stick with a bell tied to it to ward off bears. When he tells Hyun Tae this, Hyun Tae laughs.

“I’m not sure what good a bell would do.”

Kariya frowns. He once read that bears don’t attack other humans out of want or hunger, but most often out of surprise. The road comes to a T in front of a cluster of houses. In the back of them, Kariya sees the edge of a torii gate, an oddly Japanese landmark for the middle of nowhere.

“Is that a shrine?’ Kariya asks.

“My grandfather used to live here,” Hyun Tae says.

Kariya looks at him expectantly.

“His Japanese name was Takagi. After the war, his brother moved to Tokyo, but he stayed here. He had had enough of Japanese soldiers, and didn’t want anything else to do with them or their country. If we were going to be second-class citizens, anyway, as Koreans, he thought it’d be better to cast his lot with the Russians. I do have some family left in Tokyo, but I haven’t seen them since I was in university. We haven’t spoken in years.”

“That can’t be true.”

“I’m afraid it is. Family is a thing you have to maintain, especially over long distances. That’s why projects like this are so important, why some of us are fighting hard to have more of them. We aren’t just in the business of transit—we’re both in the business of closing distances. It is important we do our jobs correctly.”

 

That night, when Kariya attempts to message Saya, she doesn’t respond. At first he assumes that she is away—there are evenings, after all, when a person can’t come to the computer—but as the minutes pile up, he is irritated by her absence. He understands that this is irrational, that he shouldn’t be irritated by another person’s business, but he is irritated anyway.

He opens a can of Sapporo and sits on the edge of his hotel room bed. He imagines what Saya might be doing. He imagines her and Naoki out on a date, or having dinner with friends. Or else he imagines them making love, Saya’s forehead pressed against the cool glass of their (he guesses) fourteenth-floor apartment, Naoki thrusting from behind as the city fans out before them, lights twinkling over the bay beyond.

Kariya looks at his phone sitting on the desk, and on a whim, plugs it into the charger again. He has another beer, forgets about it, looks to see if Saya messaged him back again, but instead there are only new status updates. Statuses from coworkers who have started to have families, statuses from friends vacationing in more exotic, exciting places. Pictures of the stars from another former member of the astronomy club.

Kariya remembers when he and Naoki first became close friends. It was an astronomy club camping trip in the early summer. The other members of the club had left them with the bad telescope, the tent with holes in it, and so they stayed outside later than the others, not wanting to retire and instead choosing to stand in the humid air, hoping the night would grow cooler. Taking turns, they pivoted the telescope to the supposed location of different constellations, but in the end all they could identify on their own was the summer triangle. The constellations, Naoki insisted, were fun but also arbitrary. Anyone could make a picture out of the stars if they connected them with the right lines. Kariya wasn’t sure he agreed—wasn’t it the case that some pictures were easier to draw than others?—but he had nodded, and somehow that shared sentiment had transformed into a friendship.

Kariya’s phone buzzes. He turns and stares at it. The light is on, and though the service is weak, he has a single bar. Kariya picks up his phone. It buzzes again and a notification for a text from Saya appears on the screen. He looks at the locked screen for a for an instant, then puts the phone down and opens his window. Humidity rushes into the air-conditioned hotel room. He stands at the window for a long time, looking at the poorly lit street below, before finally closing it, turning his phone off, and going to sleep. He will decide for himself which distances are most in need of closing.

 


Sacha IdellSacha Idell is a writer and translator from Northern California. His stories appear in Gulf Coast, New England Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. His short story “A Shrine at the Inn” was recently chosen as Narrative magazine’s Story of the Week. His published translations include stories and essays by the Japanese writers Kyusaku Yumeno and Toshiro Sasaki. He lives in Baton Rouge, where he works as coeditor of The Southern Review.

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.