a girl called Twenty-one

Just lately Twenty-one has grown to welcome the cold. Between her fingers, through her hair, through the crack in her window in the early mornings. A whisper blown from somewhere far off. This is the same cold that blows waves into the shore, the same cold breathed by a Samurai centuries ago. Twenty-one runs towards the park, lifts the frost from the grass with the beat of the soles of her sneakers, fingertips wrapped in jumper sleeves, not quite lost. In this moment she has forgotten the iciness of the blizzard up north. The darkness of the subway in Tokyo where her hands lost their grip on the railings and she fell hard onto a businessman’s briefcase, eyes shut. Now, Twenty-one opens her arms to the cold, gulping it in and she runs faster, higher. The frost flares out behind her, melting into the past.

*

This place, the place of the dinners, the place of childhood, is no longer home for Twenty-one. This Easter she ventures three hours west of Melbourne to find strange books on her desk, someone else’s photos on her pin-board. Her old diaries, once hidden in the depths of the wardrobe, now lie in piles naked down the hallway alongside her winter clothes.

‘What should I take to Vinnies?’ Mum asks.

To pay Twenty-one’s rent in the city Mum has taken in an exchange student who’s away this week. But Twenty-one’s diaries are on the floor, locks broken, pages open. She wonders who has looked at them, what they have read.

‘I’ll go through them,’ Twenty-one says.

And she does, in the mornings while her boyfriend sleeps in the bed that is no longer hers. From the diaries spill angry tirades, musical scores, and girls who Twenty-one thinks she may have loved in a way she no longer understands. Outside of the bedroom and the house that was hers, most of these childhood fragments no longer have meaning. A doll-sized kotatsu table. A set of broken pencils. A floral dress, letters cut out of its hem to form the name Emi, for the towel Mum sent Alison for her second child born across the sea.

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a girl called Eighteen

Eighteen spends her last night at the Gallery, a two-storey nightclub complete with velvet couches and stripper poles. The best drinks are named after genitals, and Eighteen has spent a summer of Saturday nights on the techno floor until close, befriending young farmers from Gippsland and then stalking them online.

The morning she leaves it is Valentine’s Day. She is out until three, clad in a red dress she cut from an oversized polo shirt. The photos will later be uploaded to an album called last night, and they will become more embarrassing as the years pass. Eighteen is giddy with the freedom that comes when a child realises her parents no longer have control. Before she leaves the house, Mum fills her up with lasagne and sushi. Mum asks if Eighteen’s sure everything has been packed. Eighteen wonders about this later, as she reclines with a boy on a bench behind the club. He takes her hand and she lies still, gazing past him into the night. What else should I take with me?

Waiting for Dad on the street outside the club, Eighteen flinches as a shoe collides with her shoulder. ‘Not sure how to get your attention,’ the man shrugs, when she asks. The kiss is infused with tobacco, Moist Pussy and goodbyes. Eighteen doesn’t ask his name, but learns he is from Sydney and older than she would have liked. It is a goodbye kiss to small towns, to boys who hang out at nightclubs, and to a girl who’ll kiss any boy who throws a shoe at her. On the morning of Valentine’s Day, Eighteen moves to the city looking for an intensity to rival her own.

a girl called Nineteen

March 11 is the day of the earthquake, Nineteen will discover later. It is also the night she attends a party of dancing and long grass. Nineteen is drunk on something — she’s not sure what, but when Smoke arrives he announces she is funnier than he remembers. Nineteen slips away as Smoke is offered a beer by another boy she’s loved for months. The bathroom swallows her up. She leans her forehead against the mirror, looking deep into the eyes of her mother, her father, her history, the people who made the people who made her. Pink splotches rise on her chest from the heat of the night and the friction between two boys she loves and doesn’t love. The mirror is cold and hard, and time stands still here. Outside their voices crash against the door in waves, trickling through the keyhole.

In the morning Nineteen will leave a note for Smoke: Something inside me feels hollow. He will come out into the kitchen where she’s cooking porridge, say baby, laugh, and everything will be okay again. Disaster averted.

*

Later that day, Nineteen sees the earthquake on the news. Images of water and children flash across Smoke’s plasma screen, as the reporter translates the Japanese correspondent’s words, drowning her out. There is an ad break, a commercial for gentle washing detergent. A freshness that lasts and lasts. Nineteen remembers her winter in Sendai and wonders where these memories live now that their location has been reduced to rubble. Mum calls from home, asking how many of their past exchange students have been online. The question she doesn’t ask is How many of them have survived? On Facebook, Alison — an old friend who Nineteen hasn’t seen for years — posts a photo of her daughter’s classroom in Tokyo. The children huddle under their tables, arms wrapped around their heads. Nineteen asks Smoke to unplug the Internet, and then she writes a story about love and cities.

Later Nineteen will submit several stories to a journal and after months of waiting, this particular story will be accepted. The editor will praise her references to Murakami, who she will have never read. The editor will request that she drops all conjunctions to add to the style. Drop them, the editor will write and Nineteen will picture leaning out of the window of her apartment, watching her words hit the pavement. And then she’ll picture a natural disaster unfolding shot by shot, images thrown violently together in stop-motion. Water. Fear. Building. Drown. Live. She will decline: Events don’t occur without conjunctions.

in our bedroom after the typhoon

You were on our floor collecting shards of glass, and I was on the futon reminding you that mirror superstitions are in no way Japanese.  

For as long as I can remember, every day I have avoided death. It’s a game I play with myself when I feel bored. But it’s not really a game. In the subway I peer down the gaps between the carriages. I look death right in the eye and fly to work feeling saved. That’s why I look out the windows of tall buildings, and why when we visit your mother’s grave by the coast I go swimming in deep, deep water. In another universe, I would drown, fall, and collide with an oncoming train. In another universe our apartment building would have been swept away in the typhoon. Instead you were on the floor splintering your fingers with what you declared would be seven years of bad luck.  

I was unfaithful to you. In the subway at Nagoya, a few weeks before the typhoon, I found a girl who looked like she’d just escaped death. I led her out of the ground and we found a bench near a lantern shop. I pointed out to her where all the stars would have appeared if we’d been lying down together in the ocean. Nothing else happened. I didn’t ask about what had happened to her or if she’d indeed faced something terrible or if she’d even listened to what I told her about stars, but I felt adulterous anyway.  Later when the subways flooded I dreamt of her wading through the tunnels, the hem of her coat making ripples on the surface on the water. A school of soysauce fish and cigarette butts swam after her. 

I love you.  

Down by the coast the soldiers heaped sandbags in piles to stop Nagoya from falling away into the sea. The sandbags lay under the tarp like a line of bodies laid out to stop a hungry sea monster in its tracks. The ocean came crashing over the breakwater at Cape Shiono and people flooded the streets, carrying their most precious things above their heads in plastic bags. Their marriage certificates; their grandparents’ lithographs; their daughters’ emperor dolls. From the city we could hear the wind and the sirens, and I burrowed my head under the pillow.  

At the evacuation centres the children were bundled into blankets as if they’d become infants again and the men held their cigarettes against the cold. The women dished out bowls of ramen and the elderly closed their eyes and prayed. The internet was down. We wrote them a cheque but couldn’t leave the apartment to send it. You warned me to press my feet lightly on the floor when I got up, in case you’d left any pieces of mirror behind. 

The city streets were empty for days after the typhoon. It was cold outside and you were no longer on the floor. There was fog on the windows. You were in the kitchen cooking rice and I was lying on the bed looking up at the ceiling. The cars lay in the river below like submerged whales. Or like waterlogged rice. I thought again about stars, and how from space or at least from somewhere higher up all the cars in Japan would look like scattered grains of rice soaked overnight by the typhoon. 

I wondered what it would feel like to fall into the sky.  

The little boy in the street was maybe eight years old. He spread through the paper like a gas leak. Typhoons were great winds, gusts of invisible fingers that gathered cherry blossoms and small children and dropped them from great heights. You read the words over miso soup. The boy was dressed in blue like a new piece of sky, but he was broken. His eyes were shut tight and his limbs made a blood angel in the water. The neighbours hid behind their umbrellas and were careful to take their gumboots off before going back inside. You said you couldn’t bear to look or talk about it anymore, so you began talking about other things. About newspapers, about rain, and about the fragility of everything. And about mirrors. I sat down on the futon, but I didn’t cry. All I could feel was my own weight.

I’ve found there is a certain violence in gravity. I sat up in bed as you came in and curled up beside me, your hands searching for mine under the covers. Your breathing was the opposite of distance as you whispered, ‘I think we were saved.’ I held you. We looked out the window and saw our apartment building standing tall in the broken mirror of the water below. In another universe we would have fallen.

We took the subway to the coast, two months after the typhoon. You wanted to visit your mother and I wanted to swim in the deepest water I could find. Afterwards we found each other on the breakwater at Shiono, two sad figures with all the luck in the world.