CHAPTER 1: GOLD COINS TO A CAT
KOSUKE IWATA WAS PUSHING A shopping cart along the aisles of Mitsuwa Marketplace. It was busy for a Monday. Akiko Nakamura was singing “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair),” the verses in Japanese, the chorus in English.
Iwata passed by Cosmetics, and the woman behind the counter waved. They made small talk and she told him his mother seemed to be doing well. He knew the woman didn’t mean anything by it, but the implication was that he wouldn’t know how his own mother was. He thanked her and pushed his cart toward the pickle aisle, where he picked up ginger, daikon, and plums.
For the better part of an hour, Iwata deliberated over baby abalone, shells pearlescent in the bright lights. He weighed up fresh yellowtail steaks, gleaming ballet pink, against the dark woody flesh of bluefin tuna. There was no shopping list; the tradition had always been that he would buy ingredients that jumped out at him, and his mother would interpret them as she saw fit.
When his cart was finally full, Iwata made his way to the checkout. The cashier bagged his goods, gave him his change on a plastic platter, and bowed. Outside, Iwata loaded his shopping into the trunk of a moss-green Ford Bronco, almost as old as he was. As he worked, he listened to two elderly Japanese men chatting about the coming snow—the kind that really accumulates.
Iwata looked up. The sky was sharp blue, the sun tingling on his shoulders. Palm trees shushed in the breeze. Across the road, the McDonald’s was open twenty-four hours a day, the American flag flying. An inactive neon sign above the parking lot read:
It was still winter, but there would be no snow here. This was Torrance. Yet the old men were not discussing the weather in California. Iwata took them for nisei, second generation, born in a new land to Japanese immigrants, issei, first generation. He listened to the way they spoke about America, as though their lives here were temporary, little more than a quaint reverie. For them, it was Japan where the weather mattered, the Torrance palm trees merely likable props.
Iwata understood the importance of heritage; he just didn’t much care about home or where it could be found; he’d done without for the better part of forty years. Here in California he was Japanese. In Japan, he was an outsider. So, for him, the weather was simply whatever was happening over his head.
Kosuke Iwata’s mother, Nozomi, abandoned him in a rural bus station as a child. Down the years, there had been the odd phone call and a few strangely worded letters, as though Iwata were on some well-planned journey, but he did not see his mother for the better part of a decade.
The summer before she came back for him had been torrid for Iwata. His only friend, Kei, had disappeared from the orphanage, the police able to do little more than shrug shoulders. After that, Iwata had become lost in a silent, miserable rage, expecting nothing from anyone.
And so, although Nozomi had repeatedly promised she would collect him, he was shocked to see her standing at the gates one day. By then, he was a head taller than her. To his surprise, a man was by her side, a tall American in military uniform. Gerry Kaminsky, his new father, clapped him on the back. Let’s get you out of here, pal.
Iwata remembered the flight clearly. Gerry explained that due to the time zones, their arrival at LAX would be earlier than their departure from Narita. Like traveling back in time.
Seeing Los Angeles for the first time, Iwata thought it looked like a city trying to disguise itself as a greener place, the scorched browns and grays in some kind of tropical drag. Within a few days, Iwata was enrolled in a new school and speaking a new language. Almost immediately, Japan and the orphanage faded away, as though none of it had ever happened.
Gerry thought Torrance would be perfect for his new wife and son. There had been a large Japanese community there for decades. It was home to major Japanese corporations, Japanese schools, Japanese restaurants, Japanese banks. Some even called it “Japan’s Forty-Eighth Prefecture.”
Gerry put down the deposit on a house and booked the Toyota Meeting Hall for his wedding to Nozomi. He figured the Japanese hotels would come in handy for relatives visiting from Japan. None ever came.
As Iwata grew up, he understood the logic in his stepfather’s choice. But to him, Torrance would only ever feel like a place he happened to be staying in—never home. As soon as he was able to, he escaped to Los Angeles.
Nine-seventeen Beech Avenue was an agreeable ranch-style house dappled in the shade of a tall sycamore. Iwata parked outside and crossed the lawn, seeds crunching underfoot, the glass wind chime tinkling in welcome. The TV was loud. He opened the door and took off his shoes in the genkan. Some of Gerry’s were still there.
Iwata sighed and drank in the smell of the house, a mess of sweetness that had never changed—clove with star anise. He paused to look at the photos hanging on the wall, something he rarely did.
Iwata saw himself as a teenager, in his school’s baseball uniform, a grudge match against North Torrance. Though he was pale with fear, he was expressionless, looking to camera, the bat hanging by his side. He remembered that day. He had struck out.
The choice of high school for her son had been a no-brainer for Nozomi. Almost half of the students enrolled were of Asian descent. She had seen no reason why her son wouldn’t be able to make friends, get good grades, and fit in. In the end, she had been right about the grades.
In the next photograph, Iwata was holding his college diploma, a half smile on his skinny face. In the dim hallway, he saw his reflection. It was still a slender face, his stubble darker. His hair was longer and graying, a stubborn clump of frozen grass on some tundra. His skin was a mellow tan, with some small wrinkles at the eyes. Cleo had once compared him to Hiroyuki Sanada, though Iwata hadn’t seen it himself.
She was in the final photograph, grinning to camera. Cleo. Her hair was dark blond; she wore it in a pageboy style back then, her dusky blue eyes narrowed, as if suspicious at happiness itself. She was wearing one of Iwata’s shirts over paint-spattered dungarees and covering her smile with a hand. Iwata was next to her, caught midblink, holding Nina. Her little eyes were closed, one fist clenched, as if about to choose rock, paper, or scissors. On her pudgy forearm was a chestnut of a birthmark. Iwata was smiling too, facing the horizon, not realizing the picture was being taken.
Only their upper halves were visible. He wondered whether any photographs of Cleo’s feet were left in the world. Seeing them for the first time, large and monkeyish, he had laughed, and Cleo had swatted his arm. When Nina was born, he was scarcely able to take in her face and had looked at her feet instead. They were pink and chalky, but tiny replicas of his wife’s.
In the photograph there were mountains, a hazy Californian sunset beyond them. Somewhere in the Angeles Forest, he thought. Pacifico Mountain, maybe. Or was it Mount Williamson? Either way, it would have been Cleo’s idea, the hike would have been an homage to one of their early dates, as if returning victoriously to an old battlefield, now with a husband and an infant to show for it.
Cleo always spoke of their early days with a zealous passion. It was an intensity Iwata was never able to outwardly match. Something had always hindered him, some numb embarrassment. Even on their first meeting, Iwata had known they were very different people. Cleo always found great significance in small details—weather, dates, names; he found significance in very little. Iwata labeled things coincidence while Cleo would smile with enigmatic satisfaction, as though the cosmic designer had just tipped its hand and she’d been quick enough to glimpse it.
For Iwata, those differences had not seemed so significant. He asked her out on their second meeting, some pretext about listening to a record she had coming in at her shop. They had gone for a picnic, he was almost certain, and there were absolutely strawberries, that was inarguable. But much else was gone. He wondered how strawberries could be clearer than entire conversations. Perhaps their simple red flesh was easier to grasp than the tide of inflections and subtleties that constituted human interaction.
Or else the mind was, Kosuke Iwata concluded, an unsentimental curator. It clutched stubbornly to the insignificant yet dispensed with the meaningful in great clods.
He consoled himself that details were less important than feelings. Up in those hills, high above Los Angeles and feeling much farther away from the city than they were, they had walked together. Through a never-ending parade of Californian walnut trees, along dusty ridges enveloped in chaparral and succulents, he half expected to see cowboys galloping over the horizon.
Long after the sun had set, in the true dark of mountains, she had lain on his chest, the feel of her like warm lead. Though they were less than an hour’s drive from the city, hidden deep in their swale, the small fire had been the only light either could see.
For Iwata, the sound of that fire was categorically clear to this day. It was a soft rustling. It was Christmas wrapping paper. It was a quiet snapping like dreams. It was the singing of his ghosts.
He opened his eyes. Cleo and Nina were both gone. Iwata wondered if he could ask his mother to take the photographs down. She had only met his wife and child on a few occasions and never once displayed any kind of approval. She had been affectionate with the baby and sent gifts through the mail, but he had sensed her discomfort even in her brief letters. She had barely spoken to him as his life disintegrated through the winter of 2009, as though it were better to let him spiral than try to pilot the crash landing.
Yet here the photographs of Cleo and Nina hung, proudly welcoming the gaze of any visitor, the first impression of the house. It was as if they were souvenirs from a country Nozomi Iwata had never been to. Iwata wanted them gone, but that would take talking. He couldn’t even begin to find the words for such a request. The time for talking with his mother was long gone.
“Kosuke?” Nozomi called out.
“Yes,” Iwata called back.
“I thought I heard something.”
In the kitchen, Iwata kissed his mother of the top of her head, the sound of her voice softening his disposition. “That perfume smells nice.”
“It’s nothing.” She blew her fringe out of her face. It was a fine face: pouty lips, big beseeching eyes, and a thick head of black hair—little of which she had passed on to her son.
“Nothing, huh? The cosmetics girl said you looked well.”
Nozomi rolled her eyes, one of their few shared gestures. “Stop being a detective for five minutes and help me clean the fish.” Iwata laid the shopping bags on the table, and his mother inspected the haul. “You spent a lot. Work must be good.”
“What are you watching?”
“The Wendy Williams Show. I hate her but I watch.”
“That’ll rot your brain.”
“What makes you think it’s so fresh to begin with?”
Iwata wondered why they only ever really conversed in English. It was true that his own was flawless and his mother’s had little wrong with it beyond an accent and the odd slipup. Yet it was not their language. Gerry was no longer here. For whose benefit was it? Perhaps, he thought, it was easier to separate their past from when their new life in America had started. Japanese, then, represented the before—Iwata’s childhood in the orphanage before Nozomi had come back for him. She never spoke of those years, and Iwata had never asked. He knew enough. She had been in a bad place and had left him at the bus station.
He never asked her reasons for leaving him there, whether from pride or fear, he didn’t know. She certainly never offered any. That was the before, that was Japan. It hardly seemed to make sense to dredge it up here in America. So it came to be that English overtook Japanese, although silence, more often than not, was their lingua franca.
“Is everything okay, Mom?”
She looked at him. “Everything is fine.”
In the small kitchen, they prepared lunch, Nozomi occasionally giving directions and pausing as celebrities cried, Iwata just shaking his head.
After lunch, they sat out on the porch, drinking coffee. The sky was turning amber in the dusk, warblers singing in the branches above them. A Van Morrison LP was playing in the lounge, Iwata’s mother’s favorite—“Beside You.” Van Morrison was one of the few things they agreed on absolutely. Nozomi was wearing sunglasses and reading the Torrance Tribune. She would read every word of it, even the sports and advertisements, as though one day someone were going to come and test her on her American knowledge. It was also her usual prop for conversing with her son.
Iwata sipped his coffee and waved hello to a passing couple he didn’t recognize. “Who are they?” he asked when they had passed.
“I don’t know, but they argue.” Nozomi peered at him over the top of the paper. “Then again, at least they have somebody to argue with.”
“Not this again. You’re wasting your breath.”
“Why, have you already met someone? Is she Japanese?”
“I don’t understand why you’re so obsessed with Japanese women.”
“Where you’re from is important.”
“Yet you haven’t been back there in years.”
“My reasons are my own. Now listen, does she know what you do for a living? This matters. Women prefer dumplings over flowers.”
“What does that even mean? You always talk at me in aphorisms.”
“Aphorisms. They’re like a—”
“Kosuke, you know I don’t feel this way, but men in your profession are seen as losers.”
“People. People around here whisper about you. They call you a deba-game.”
“Well, believe it or not, I’m not too concerned with supermarket gossip. I’m a professional investigator. If they want to call me a Peeping Tom, no skin off my nose.”
“I’m just saying.” Nozomi dropped her paper and spoke into her coffee. “You’re forty. You follow married women around all day and take photographs. A nice girlfriend won’t like that.”
Iwata laughed. “Maybe I’m not looking for a nice woman. Or any woman at all. But that’s not the point. The point is, if the biddies at Mitsuwa disapprove of what I do, too bad. But if it’s you that disapproves of what I do, just say it out loud.”
Nozomi put down her cup and took off her sunglasses. Sometimes months would go by without Iwata seeing her eyes, and every so often her elderly appearance would startle him.
“Kosuke, listen. It’s your life. I never pressured you to make me proud. I just don’t want you to be alone—”
“I don’t think either one of us has ever been very proud of the other, Mom.”
She looked up at the sky and put her sunglasses back on. “Maybe not.”
“Look, I know you don’t like what I do with my life. It doesn’t reflect well on you, pillar of the community that you are. But understand this. I’m not marrying again. I did it once. And look how that turned out.”
Nozomi exhaled slowly. “You hardly come to see me, and every time you do, you argue with me. I’m not disappointed in you. I never will be. I just want you to be happy.”
“Kosuke, one day I want to talk to you. Explain. I think we could—”
“Not today, Mom.”
She nodded once and they sat in silence until it was dark. Then Iwata checked his watch and kissed his mother on the top of her head. From that angle, he could see the tears in her eyes. Pain and guilt tumbled through his gut. He wanted to say something but just didn’t know where to find those words.
“Take some of the food with you.”
“No, you have it tomorrow.”
“I always tell you to buy less.”
“Next time I will.”
“Gold coins to a cat, Son. That’s what my words are to you.”
Copyright © 2018 by Nicolás Obregón