by Kate Tighe-Pigott
We booked the Marriott Miyako Hotel in Osaka because it’s right in Tennoji station, which was going to be genius—us arriving in Japan jet-lagged with forty pounds of luggage and a three-year-old—except now we can’t find it. “Are we at the aquarium?” My daughter points to a poster of a turtle. It’s an advertisement for the world’s largest aquarium, which we’ve promised her we’d take her to, as soon as we drop off our bags. I don’t know what to say. I’m awed she doesn’t know the difference between an aquarium and a train station. What must it be like to not know what things are? What words mean? And yet, in a hundred years, with sea level rise, this could be an aquarium, sure. “Almost,” I say.
The floor of Tennoji station is made of large oatmeal-colored squares with occasional yellow speed bumps. Men in backpacks, women in high waisted peasant skirts, business suits, t-shirts, sneakers, skinny jeans wing by in all directions. I cajole my daughter through the station, bowing and saying “sumimasen” to all the people she cuts off with her razor scooter. I keep one eye on my husband who walks thirty paces ahead of us and just trusts us to catch up with him. “Come on Sweetie,” I say when she becomes transfixed by a video advertisement of a Japanese woman in full cowgirl gear, wielding her cell phone like a six-shooter. For a moment, I too become transfixed. What does a Japanese cowboy wrangle? Octopus? “Can I scoop you?” She’s big for three, so I can carry her the way Jane Goodall carries chimps. Her bum sits squarely on my forearm, her scooter hangs from that hand. I’ve got my backpack on my back, and am dragging a rolling suitcase behind me with my other hand. I spot my husband waiting for us in the far entrance of the station and speed us to him.
“It should be right here,” my husband says, looking at his phone. “It says we’re in it.” He flashes his screen to me. Google Maps says: You Have Arrived at the Marriott Miyako Hotel. Better be cheap, I don’t say, since it will sound meaner than I mean. Realistically, the cost of a sidewalk hotel is just the price of standing in the sidewalk—the price of having legs and using them.
“The mermaid!” my daughter shouts. Across the street, I see the corporate logo of the mermaid with the bifurcated tail. To my daughter, the mermaid sings siren songs of ham sandwiches and chocolate chip scones. To me, she sings of a cup of tea as big as my face.
We enter. My daughter is psyched to get a scone. I’m psyched for some black tea. We are all relieved to sit. This Starbucks looks out over a mall entrance where there is a hot dog bun vendor. From the sign, it seems they’ll put any kind of food—spaghetti, shrimp, rice and beans, even ice cream—inside a hotdog bun.
Regrouping, we find ourselves seated under the Asia section of a world map showing the coffee-growing regions. A sign over my husband’s shoulder describes the climates and terrains and soils in East Timor and Sumatra and the Philippines. He turns around to read. “Can you believe Japan was formed from a volcano?” he says. I’d forgotten. These buildings, people, hot dog bun vendors, and global corporations wouldn’t be here unless a volcano spewed out a bunch of lava to make islands. Then lava had to cool, get rained on, be fertilized with bird poo, etc. It’s really amazing what had to transpire in order for Japan to be habitable, and what limited and fragile conditions we are able to inhabit. Actually: all of Earth used to be lava. Right? For a time?
Ed Sheeran’s summer hit coos through the sound system. “Mom, this is our song!” my daughter says. We hear it a lot in the car going to and from her preschool, the grocery, our local neighborhood Starbucks. In a metaphysical sense, we’ve gone nowhere. I’m reminded of that part in Breakfast at Tiffany’s when Holly Golightly is on her way to Argentina and the guy she calls Joe says: Well, Baby, you’re already in that cage. You built it yourself. It’s wherever you go.
Everything goes the same. We’re at Tennoji station. My daughter asks if we’re at the aquarium. My husband walks far ahead of us, just like my dad used to. We become transfixed by the cowgirl advertisement and end up in the same sidewalk hotel.
Except, instead of going into the Starbucks together, I go in by myself to ask directions to the Marriott Miyako and order a grande English Breakfast. I think to order treats for everyone, but my husband is on a diet, and he thinks my daughter should be too, that I should be too. That we all should diet together. The woman bows and comes out from behind the counter and escorts me to the door. She points at Tennoji station from whence we came and says in English “Third floor. Third floor.”
“Arigato. Domo arigato. Arigato.” Bow, bow, bow. I taste my tea and realize with disappointment (I can’t handle the milk) that it is a tea latte.
We hike back through Tennoji station, past a LEGO replica of LEGOLAND, which holds us up a few extra minutes. “Look at these guys on this ferris wheel!” my daughter says. “And these tiny ice creams!” How does Lego make such tiny ice creams? How long can a three-year-old keep a Lego ice cream from rolling behind a bookshelf, slipping between planks of wood on the porch, being lost forever.
We reach the far bank of elevators, each elevator covered in the same Revlon ad. In the ad, the model’s head is enormous, covering both doors. Her lips are deep purple. When the doors open, her face splits in half, letting people in and out.
The doors bing open on the third floor.
To our right, a rainbow of fruit cakes: kiwi, banana, strawberry, blueberry, starfruit, all the kinds of fruits you can imagine. My daughter plasters herself to the glass. “Mom! Doesn’t that look so good?” I grunt in agreement, though there’s really only one cake worth eating: chocolate. On the left side of the aisle, across from the cakes, are lingerie sets in equally festive colors. Coral and aquamarine. One has cherries on it. If I had an hour to myself—but my husband is thirty paces ahead of us, again, trying to see if anything looks like a Marriott Miyako around here. “Mom! We should buy one of these for Daddy for a surprise!” She’s means the cakes.
My husband comes back with a security guard, who presses the down button. Ding! “Watch,” I tell our daughter. “This woman is about to eat us.” The woman’s face opens and my daughter giggles as she skips in. The guard presses one and says in careful English: “To the right. Right side. Level B1.”
“Arigato, arigato,” we say, bowing.
“I wish this weren’t a latte,” I say to my husband.
“I’m on a diet,” he says. Three bucks down the drain. I don’t know if that last thought is mine, or if I’m inferring what he must be thinking.
Ah. If you take a right at LEGOLAND, there’s a small half-set of stairs that you don’t really notice right away. The signs are on the floor down here, painted lines directing us to a waterfall that arches over the hallway. We pass underneath “without getting wet at all” (as my daughter keeps marveling) to a new bank of elevators, this one looking much more like a Marriott Miyako than a train station. One elevator goes to the nineteenth floor. The elevator is glass, and Osaka shrinks as we rise. Snow covered mountains encircle the expanse of pale pink buildings. All of civilization, it looks like, though I know it is not. I feel sad that the valley is filled with concrete and humans, but I know humans thrive when we all live together. Megacities and all that.
The lobby is three stories high, glass on all sides. I think of The Fountainhead: Howard Rourke laughing on the rocks he knew he would mold into a building. My husband checks us in while our daughter looks at sweets in the glass case of a small bakery. She’s really good at finding these dessert cases. Humanity is really good at putting them everywhere.
“All right, sweetheart. Pick one.” She picks a pink octopus cookie: shortbread with frosting and googly eyes. I’m able to use my card which is good because I haven’t yet gotten any yen.
We get to the room, and have the normal hotel room reaction. Look at these sleek airy lines. Look at this minibar. My daughter claims a bed by jumping on it, and my husband cranks the air conditioner then opens the curtains, surveils the city. I take off my shoes and climb into the other bed. “What about the aquarium?” my daughter asks.
“After a nap,” I say.
“I don’t want to take a nap!”
“Me.” I say. “Me.”
“It’s four p.m.” My husband warns. “If you sleep now, you’ll wake up at midnight.”
“Sh.” I say drifting off. “Sh.”
I wake at nine p.m. to the sound of my daughter barfing in the next bed. My husband is in bed next to me. I go to her. “You okay sweetie?” I hear a whimper and a wheeze and I fumble with the light. It clicks on and I see her eyes are swollen shut, purple, her lips are growing off her face, like she is morphing into some other species.
“Sam!” He shoots out of bed, throws his eye mask off. I shake her and pick her up. Her breath rattles, arms hang limp. “Get the Epipen!” She’s technically allergic to dairy and eggs but she’s practically four and she’s been doing okay – we thought she was growing out of those allergies. She eats donuts all the time, and cookies. And this cookie had frosting, but was the frosting made with butter? I mean frosting is usually made with shortening, which can sometimes be made out of soy, which she used to be allergic to when she was a small but soy’s been fine for years. Unless it was some kind of special Japanese shortening she’s never had. The octopus was pink—maybe Red 40?
“Where is it?” he says.
“It’s in the Pony bag! Find the Pony bag!”
“It’s not in the Pony bag. I moved it.”
“Why?!” I pick up the phone and call—who? Do they have 9-1-1 in Japan? I call the front desk. “Emergency! We need an ambulance. It’s my daughter (Please let this woman speak English. Please forgive us for being such undeserving-hubristic—). Please hurry!”
“Stay awake,” I say. She whimpers again, maybe in protest. “Don’t fall asleep, Sweetie. Please don’t fall asleep.”
Though it feels like forever, first responders do come. I don’t know how many minutes. Four minutes? Ten? A lifetime? Is a lifetime short or fast? Some lifetime later, first responders are in our room. They slide a needle into my daughter’s skinny thigh, and I wait to feel her body tense up, respond to the pain, but it doesn’t. I can’t see for crying. I want to see her, though I know she won’t look like herself. They put an oxygen mask on her swollen face. I try to see her with my fingertips—her shoulder blade, her tangly hair, her thigh, her starfish hand.
One technician keeps two fingers on her wrist, checking her pulse. They count, talk to each other in Japanese. My husband kneels opposite me, hand on my leg. He is being with me. As he should, I guess. But if this goes south, what he does won’t matter. He won’t matter. I won’t matter. Nothing will matter.
“Does she have a pulse?” I ask.
Once, right after she was born, my husband had gone to the Zen temple in Brooklyn and had come home trying to share with me the wisdom of the Dharma talk, which he thought would benefit me. Something about, if you tried to protect every tree in the forest, you’d go crazy, and even if you tried to protect one single tree, you would be really worried all the time, and checking on your tree, worrying if it got enough sun, cutting back other trees to make space and give resource to your tree. But if you cared about the general health of the forest, you would be pretty happy with everything. (By extension, I suppose, if you didn’t care for any trees, your happiness would not be connected at all to the health of the forest.) “Happiness is a frivolous emotion!” I’d shouted, kicking him out of the house.
I ask the technician again: “Does she have a pulse?”
“No,” the man says.
I make an animal sound.
The Fishee Tornado
Everything goes the same—Tennoji Station, the sidewalk hotel, me asking for directions at Starbucks, being directed to the third floor of Tennoji Station, my daughter and I lingering near the cakes and underpants—except, the security guard whom my husband finds to redirect us presses the ‘up’ button instead of the ‘down’ button to call the elevator.
The elevator dings. “Watch.” I say to our daughter. “This woman is about to eat us.” The woman’s face opens and my daughter giggles as she skips inside. The guard presses nineteen.
“Arigato, arigato.” Bow, bow, bow.
“We’re inside her brain!” my daughter says, jumping.
“I wish this weren’t a latte,” I confess to my husband.
“I’ll drink it,” he says. At least the part of me that is him will be fortified.
The doors open on the nineteenth floor, which does not look like a Marriott Miyako Hotel. Instead, as far back as we can see, it’s all flat-screen TVs. They’re showing the same waterfall tumbling down a green, mossy mountainside. “I think we’re in the wrong place,” my husband says.
“Mizu!” says my daughter pointing. Kids picks up languages so quickly.
My husband holds the elevator door and looks to me for direction. I agree, in general, with both of them. With everything. “The sound of the rain needs no translation,” I say.
We stay put. The elevator doors close with us still inside. “Back to Starbucks,” my husband says. “Regroup?”
“Mom, look what I did!” Our daughter has illuminated every button all the way down. My husband tries to unselect the other levels, but it’s not that kind of elevator. We lean against the metal handrails and watch.
On the seventeenth floor, just doors. Unhinged. All sizes and shapes.
On the sixteenth floor, potted fruit trees bask under sun lamps. “Lemons!” I say, as the doors ding shut.
On the fifteenth floor, satellite dishes.
On the fourteenth floor, parts of fish—pink tuna filets, whole red snappers, lobster tails.
On the thirteenth floor, women in tall hats whisk matcha in bowls.
On the twelfth floor: “Toys!” I hold my daughter back, as the door closes on a giant stuffed Hello Kitty, a column of red rubber balls, an aisle of pink boxes filled with long-legged blondes.
On the eleventh floor, flatbed trucks.
On the tenth floor, concrete drainpipes honeycombed floor to ceiling.
On the ninth floor, a flooded rice paddy. Two farmers bent at the waist.
On the eighth floor, scorched earth.
On the seventh floor, elegant ladies in silk robes, pink parasols over their shoulders.
On the sixth floor, sand. Red sand and howling wind. We shield our eyes.
On the fifth floor, what I assume is a violent movie. I press my daughter into my belly while three men get popped in quick succession.
On the fourth floor, turtle babies climb all over each other. Seagulls careen groundward to pick them off.
We are a bit stunned by the time we’re back on level three with the cakes and underpants.
Level two is just offices. A phone rings. Someone says “Moshi moshi.”
The doors open on level one, and we are back in Tennoji station. Mini LEGOLAND is on our left; the cowgirl ad up ahead.
We reach Starbucks feeling a little feral. I put my backpack on the milk bar, and feed into the trash receptacle the nonessentials: sundresses, sandals, sticker books, my daughter’s stuffed dragon baby with the weird eyes. I leave The Character of Consciousness by David J. Chalmers on the counter, perhaps starting a take-one, leave-one? I fill the bag with chocolate and vanilla soymilks, ham sandwiches, and cinnamon buns.
“That’s insane,” my husband says.
“Just in case,” I say.
Halfway through her scone, my daughter reignites her pitch for the aquarium, which we did—God, it feels like a lifetime ago—promise to take her to.
After some searching we find a red line on the floor of Tennoji station that leads us away from the JR line, which we took into Osaka, to the Abeno line which is supposed to take us to the Aquarium. We figure out how to read the pricing guide and master the self-serve ticket machines and get ourselves onto a train heading for Osaka Bay. Our daughter sits between us. We pile suitcases and backpacks between our knees, and keep our eyes on the signage which switches between Kanji and English. Though I speak one of these languages fluently and the other not at all, I find myself not sure which is which.
“Mom,” says my daughter, handing me a hard nub of her scone. “Pretend I’m a fly and you give me some food.” I hold out the nub to her. “Flies only take tiny bites like this,” she says, nibbling a crumb. We’re above ground now, so while my daughter is a fly I look out the window. It looks like New York, except the building are made of whiter stones. And there are a lot more clotheslines. I would love a clothesline. When I used to travel as a younger person, I’d take photos of clotheslines. I thought it was avant-garde. I thought I’d be an artist. Plus it makes me ill every time I throw a load in the dryer. All that energy! But my husband doesn’t like the aesthetic of clotheslines.
“I’m not a fly anymore. I’m just myself.” She takes the nub back from me. “I can eat regular like this!” she says. “I can put the whole food in my mouth.” The whole scone-nub is too big for her mouth and it’s kind of gross to see her stuff it in there.
I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be getting out of this trip. My husband practices Zen and is enamored of the Japanese aesthetic. Sleekness, airiness, smallness. Wabi-sabi. Plants that grow out of concrete. Cracked pottery reglued with gold. He loves sushi, could eat it exclusively.
Sushi is fine. It’s just—I feel confused about traveling as a concept. What does one “get out of” a place, anyway? I feel so tired, and we haven’t yet found our hotel. My legs still work, though. That’s good. I can keep going. Fish have to swim or else they die, right? I do worry about what we’ll do when she falls asleep on the way home from the aquarium and we don’t know where we live. How will I feed her something that’s not pastries? I know this feeling is some version of: Where will we sleep tonight? What will we eat? Perhaps traveling is just a way of getting back to a more primal level of instability. The scorched earth on level eight comes to mind. Mushroom clouds.
“I can poop the whole food in my mouth!” my daughter says: mouth full, crumbs flying. “I can poop the whole food in my mouth!” She laughs at how (because her mouth is full, and because we her parents are tired) she’s getting away with saying poop in public. Also because I don’t imagine these Japanese commuters understand her. Though they can see her crumbs fly. That’s a faux pas. In case I didn’t understand her the first two times, my daughter elaborates: “Like this, ppplllffffttt!” Crumbs spray.
“Enough,” I say. “Here.” I pop a straw into a single serving of vanilla soymilk, hoping it will congeal the crumbs into a paste.
She fills her mouth with soymilk and honks at me to the tune of “Mom! Lookit! Mom! Lookit!” I nod. She swallows and says, “Ta da!”
“Amazing!” What amazes me is her buoyancy, the purity of her delight. I kiss her face.
Standing in front of us on the train, a Japanese boy and girl, teenagers, wear complementary outfits: him in a blue gingham shirt; her in a blue gingham skirt. They take pictures of themselves on their smart phones and then edit themselves into monkeys and birds, fish and dinosaurs.
The sky is violet when we get off the train at Osaka Bay. The streets are quiet except for someone on a soapbox, pointing at a newspaper for an audience of three. We walk by, not understanding. Is he advertising the apocalypse? Does Osaka have Doomsday men like we have in New York?
The sidewalks are wide and my daughter is on her scooter. My husband guides us on his smart phone. “It should be right around here,” he says.
We pass an udon shop that looks the right kind of unassuming. The logo is of a bowl of noodles: the lines of steam rising off them sleek, airy, small. It says “Since 1927,” which makes it legit. It was here that morning in August 1945, when the Enola Gay nuked Hiroshima—only an hour or so away by bullet train. “Should we have a real dinner?” I ask. It makes me happy to think my daughter’s body might be nourished by bone broth, something other than sugar.
“What about those ham sandwiches?” my husband asks.
“They won’t go bad.” We laugh at the futility of trying to prepare for, or preserve, or do anything.
“Mom—I found a magic rock! It’s red.” She holds her hand out to show me.
It’s granite maybe, or part of a brick. “Pretty.”
We check that the noodle shop is open, lug our suitcases inside, figure out the ordering machine, and hand the chef tickets for three chicken and udon soups. There’s tea, the brown rice kind. We sit by the window: eat and drink. Japanese food feels validating: I’m relieved that our daughter eats—that the part of me that is her will be nourished. “Mom,” she says between sips of broth. “I’m going to use my magic rock to turn my chicken back into a chicken!” A buff-colored hen with a red comb and wattles comes to mind. “What would you do with a chicken?” I expect her to say “Pet it!” or “Love it!” or “Name it Hank!” Instead she says “Eat it!” My husband and I laugh. She’d have to do all the unpleasant stuff all over again: cut its throat, skin it, drain its blood, carve it, cook it. Or maybe she’d just chomp into it like an alligator.
My husband puts his arm across the back of my chair. I lean into him and smell his deodorant. We haven’t slept but maybe we don’t need sleep. We don’t know where our hotel is, but maybe we don’t need a hotel. We could sleep on a sidewalk. Plenty do. You just have to survive till the morning.
Or not, I suppose. Either way.
The Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan is a downward spiral. It opens with a giant painting of a turtle face that looks like it’s going to eat you. Our daughter loves that. A blurry fish mural in the entrance asks: Why was Earth able to evolve into a habitable planet? And for a moment I’m excited. The answers I’ve been seeking. But the text doesn’t give any specifics, just credits innumerable miraculous accidents, which doesn’t seem very scientific, though I can see how it could infuse a sense of wonder in someone less tired.
There’s a glass tunnel, always a great feature in an aquarium. My daughter tickles the sharks as they swim over her. I enjoy seeing the soft underbellies of things.
Once you are through the tunnel, each outer wall offers a new habitat, while the inner tank is sparsely decorated and contains a swirling column of turtles, skates, whale sharks, some reef sharks, and a school of silver jackfish. Each level offers a new vantage point. You start at the top, checking out the playful otters of North America, or the beavers building dams, or the sea lions of Berkeley, Atlantic dolphins, tropical fish. The skates in the center tank splash passersby to the delight of all. A girl I’d guess is two squeals at the central tank, showing her grandfather the fish. Teenagers snap photos in front of the sea lions. Perhaps as sea lions. Behind the teenagers skitter a ton of tiny red crabs. Purple barnacles suction and cling.
On the next level, my husband and I realize our daughter has lagged behind. We look back a few tanks and she’s communing with a big-eyed soldierfish. I nudge my husband and we watch, awed by her. She notices us and grows embarrassed. “That fish was talking to me!” she says.
“What did he say?”
“It’s a secret.”
There are sunfish and moonfish. Striped fish. Seahorses. Jellyfish. Yellow fish. Nemo fish. Lion fish. A big purple fish that looks like it is covered in glitter. Something called a “red gurnard,” which looks like a fish-lobster with butterfly wings.
The deeper you go, the deeper you go. The water gets darker; the fish loosen up, freak out. On the tank bottom are psychedelic sea stars—their eyes at the end of each of their five arms—and long-legged king crabs and craggy electric lantern fish. Crayfish the size of golden retrievers—the stuff of nightmares.
My daughter watches the jackfish schooling in the central tank. “A fishee tornado!” she says. “The fishees don’t know that the sharks are nice. They’re going to bite their butts!” Water seeps into my shoes. Is a tank is leaking or if this is part of the visitor experience? The wetness is not unpleasant if you just accept it.
“Mom!” my daughter shouts, kneeling over a grate. I assume her magic pebble has bounced in. “I don’t have any feet!” she says.
“Do you have your magic rock?”
“Oh yah,” she says as if remembering it. “Alakazaam, alakazeet, turn my feet back into feet.” My husband puts his arm over my shoulder, and we stifle our giggles. “It didn’t work!” she says.
I go to her, and in fact she doesn’t have any feet. Instead, where her feet used to be she has a silver tail. We can work with this, I decide. If half of my daughter were going to turn into a mermaid, I’m glad it’s the lower half. I can still see her, kiss her, hear her ideas. Surely, we could install a tank in our home. I look down at my own legs and realize they’ve turned a stumpy leathery green, my backpack has morphed into a hard shell. My husband sweeps over us, a wide, soft-bellied sting ray. Are we devolving? Or is this just life?
The aquarium is crowded with people, half-people, plesiosaurs. Ladies carrying chimps, dolphins carrying parasols. A fish swims by with purple lips, a fish who probably thinks it’s the protagonist of this story. The water all around us is gloopy with fish bodies, tadpoles, eggs. “Pretend you’re my mom,” our mermaid says, climbing on my shell. “Pretend I’m your baby and you’re my mom and you have to carry me.” I long for arms to hold her, for the chance to smell her neck. But I have to admit, too, that carrying her on my shell feels sustainable. My husband’s wide body covers us, shepherds us. A crush of people pushes us together: people, alligators, whalesharks, stingrays, dungeness crabs with their long legs, purple lobsters, tropical fish, penguins, beavers, otters, trees, sedimentary and ignacious rocks. Women whisking matcha, cranes and construction equipment; televisions and toilets, hot dog buns full of spaghetti, drainage pipes; rice paddies. A phone rings and someone says “Moshi moshi.” We’re the singularity: everything material thing is on top of us, packing us into a marine patty, a crab cake.
“Imagine if we’d found the hotel?” I joke to my husband.
His cell phone is still twisted into his muscly wing, still glowing. “Honestly, the hotel should be right around here,” he blubs. “It says we’re in it.” Of course we are. We’re right in it.
Kate Tighe-Pigott earned her MFA at the University of Kentucky. Short fiction is forthcoming from Grist Online, Blackbird, River River, and Willow Springs. Earlier work has appeared in Literary Mama and Apocrypha and Abstractions. She lives in Brooklyn.