Authors: Bentley Little
I walked through the side door into the kitchen like I always did, grabbing a handful of Oreos out of the cookie jar, acting as though I hadn't just passed by the Torino in the driveway.
"How was school?" my mom asked perfunctorily. She was sitting at the table, looking through a catalog.
I gave my usual answer. "Fine."
My dad was nowhere to be seen and that made me nervous. If he wasn't on the couch watching television or sitting at the kitchen table drinking a beer and fighting with my mom, that meant he was in another part of the house, and there lay trouble. I remember one time he decided to snoop through Tom's room. He found Tom's stash of
hidden under the bed and by the time Tom came home my dad had completely torn the place apart, searching in vain for more contraband. He lectured Tom behind closed doors for over an hour until my brother was in tears, grounded him for a month and took away stereo and television privileges.
"Where's Dad?" I asked casually, finally admitting that I knew he was home.
"Backyard," my mom said, and the fact that she didn't elaborate or editorialize worried me. What would he be doing in the backyard? Tom and I were the ones who mowed the lawn and did all of the yard work. The only time the old man ever went out there was to barbecue, and that was only on weekends. I tried to remember if I'd put my bike away in the garage like I was supposed to or if I'd left it out. My dad could find
to complain about if he really wanted to, and I didn't want to be on the receiving end of his wrath.
I went to my room to drop off my books and pen pal folder. I hid the folder in the bottom drawer of my desk, beneath a bunch of notebook paper. If the boys at school thought having a pen pal was a pussy thing to do, I could bet my ass that to my dad and Tom it would seem twenty times worse. And I'd get no help, support or sympathy from my mom. Although less predictable in her likes and dislikes, she was far harsher than either of them once set off. No, this was something I needed to keep a secret.
I looked through my window into the backyard. My dad
drinking a beer, but he was standing next to the lemon tree, facing the fence, his back to me. That was weird. My dad was not a guy who did stuff like that. He had come home early from work and now instead of harassing my mom in the kitchen or watching TV, he was standing by himself in the backyard staring at the fence. Something was definitely wrong.
I got out of my room before he turned and saw me, then went down the street to my friend Paul's house. Paul went to Catholic school, so I usually only saw him on weekends, but his school and mine got out at the same time, so we were there for each other on weekday afternoons if we needed to get out of the house. I didn't tell him about my new pen palif anyone would have understood, it was Paul, but I wanted to keep that secret to myself for nowalthough I did tell him about my dad.
"Maybe he got laid off," Paul suggested.
The idea sent a chill through my heart. Unemployed, he would be hanging around the house all day every day. And he'd probably be even meaner. "I hope not," I said.
We worked on Paul's go-cart until my mom called me home. Thankfully, my dad was not still in the backyard. The sun was starting to set, and that would have been too creepy. He was in the bathroom. My mom was in the kitchen making dinner. Tom was in the family room watching a rerun of
I sat down on the opposite end of the couch from my brother. The microwave made static lines on the television, and the sound of the oven's fan nearly drowned out the dialogue, but I dared not complain. Drawing any sort of attention to myself would result only in increased scrutiny for the rest of the evening, and that was one thing I couldn't have. Despite the unexplained strangeness of my dad's behavior, my mind was still focused on my new pen pal, and I was just putting in time until I could be alone and write Kyoko Yoshizumi a letter.
My dad showed up and changed the channel without a word. He sat on the couch between me and Tom to watch the news, while the two of us went into the kitchen.
After a dinner of microwaved frozen burritos and Jell-O, I went to my room. I closed the door, sat down at my desk and took out my pen pal folder from its hidden spot in my bottom drawer. I withdrew my new pen and a sheet of stationery. I was supposed to be doing my homework, but instead I tried to write a letter to Kyoko.
being the operative word.
I stared at the blank page before me on the desk. What should I say? I had no idea. I never talked to girls at school, and I'd certainly never written to one before. I sat there for nearly an hour, stumped. The only decision I'd made was that I would be twelve years old instead of ten. American girls liked older guys, and no doubt the same thing was true in Japan. But other than that, I was at a loss. I was unable to decide even how to start the letter. "
Kyoko" seemed too intimate, too familiar, but I could think of no other way to lead off my missive.
I hadn't even begun my math homework, and when my mom walked in to check on me, she saw the unopened textbook. The sound of the door opening had given me enough time to hide the folder and stationery but not enough time to open the math book and take out my homework so I could pretend to be working on it.
"What are you doing?" she demanded. "You're supposed to be doing your homework. What's going on in here?"
"I just finished it," I lied, standing up.
"Let me see."
I should have known I couldn't fool her, and I hemmed and hawed until she nailed me and got me to admit that I'd been goofing off.
"I'm getting your father," she said, lips thin.
I shoved my pen pal folder back in the bottom drawer the second she left the room, and by the time she returned with my dad, I had the real homework out. I'd answered the first question and was doing my best to appear studious, but that didn't save me. They both started in, telling me I was stupid and lazy and would amount to nothing. I took it, nodding as though I agreed, but inside I was thinking about Miss Nakamoto and the girl in Japan who probably looked just like her.
I did my homework, then took my punishment, going to bed early without any television. But I did not fall asleep. I lay awake in my bed, waiting hour after hour until first Tom and then my parents went to bed. When I was sure they were asleep, I got up, crept over to my desk and composed my letter by the light of my little desk lamp. I knew now what I wanted to say, and the words flowed fast and easily. I told Kyoko I was in seventh grade, that I was a champion surfer, that I was a star basketball player and on the student council, that I'd just broken up with my most recent girlfriend, that I played guitar and was starting a rock band.
In other words, I lied about everything.
Aside from my name and address, nothing I wrote on that page was true.
But I felt exhilarated as I finished, licking the gummed flap of the envelope, and I immediately began planning a follow-up letter, one in which I expanded upon my made-up life.
was impressed with myself. How could Kyoko not be?
I hid the envelope in my math book, then went back to bed. I fell asleep, imagining Kyoko reading my letters, falling in love, growing up to look like Miss Nakamoto, then coming to America to marry me.
I received her first letter on a Saturday.
The air was filled with the smells of suburbia: newly cut grass, competing flower fragrances, gasoline exhaust from edgers and mowers, the faint scent of McDonald's and Taco Bell from a few blocks over. I remember it clearly even today. I remember, as well, the way I felt when I pulled the mail out of the box and saw the small pink envelope made with unfamiliar paper and affixed with a foreign stamp.
I knew what it was immediately, and I rushed into the house, into my room, closed the door and tore open the envelope.
The letter didn't say much. It was quite a bit shorter than mine, and I sort of resented Kyoko for that, but I had to remind myself that she was writing in English rather than Japanese. She was taking this opportunity to practice a second language, while I was using my native tongue. I read the letter once, twice, thrice. She wrote that she lived in an apartment instead of a house, that her favorite color was pink, that her favorite school subject was art and that she had a large stuffed-animal collection, which seemed kind of babyish and immature to me. But what I liked about her letter was the fact that she signed off with
. It made it clear that this was a girlI'd concluded my letter with
and that was very exciting in a new way that I didn't quite understand.
I'd been half afraid she'd reject me, that she'd tell me she wanted to correspond with a girl rather than a boy, and I was happy that she seemed to want to be my pen pal just like I wanted to be hers. But I knew we needed to quickly establish some things we had in common or this was going to go nowhere.
I wondered what she looked like. In my mind she was still a miniature Miss Nakamoto, but for all I knew she could be hideously ugly and grotesquely overweight.
No, I couldn't think that way.
Eventually, I would ask for a photo, but for now I would just assume that she was as nice and pretty as I wanted her to be.
I spent the rest of the afternoon playing with Hot Wheels in my room and then going over to Paul's to help him wash windows; his mom promised us two dollars apiece if we did the whole house. I could have written a response to Kyoko, but I wanted to save that experience, wanted to savor it, and my plan was to once again wait until everyone had gone to bed.
We were eating dinner, Mom, Tom and me, and my dad was latewhich wasn't such a strange occurrence. He often spent Saturday afternoons and evenings with his friends, hanging out, watching ball games, and sometimes he lost track of time. Then the phone rang, and my mom went to answer it in the kitchen. A second later, she was screaming furiously, and we could tell from her end of the conversation what had happened: my dad had gone to a bar with his buddies, had too much to drink and was picked up by the police on his way home. Tom and I looked at each other in a rare moment of camaraderie, both of us afraid of what might come next.
My dad had taken the Torino, so my mom piled us into the Volkswagen, and we drove to the police station. Tom and I sat on a hard bench in the lobby while my mom ranted and railed at the hapless men behind the front desk. She was allowed to go in and see my dad, disappearing behind a metal door that was opened by a switch behind the counter. She stayed back there for what seemed like an interminable length of time. We saw a woman come in who complained that her minivan had been broken into and her purse stolen, an old man whose parked car had been smacked by a hit-and-run driver, a woman who wanted to get a restraining order against her husbandand all of them had finished their business and were gone before my mom emerged from behind that security door.
"Come on," she said, lips tight. "Let's go."
I looked at Tom. One of us had to ask it. And he was the oldest. "What about Dad?" he said.
"Your father got himself into this mess. He can get himself out. Come on!"
We followed her out to the car, both of us afraid to speak. I had never seen her this mad before, and I wondered if my parents were going to get a divorce. Back at home, our food was cold and still sitting on the table, but I didn't feel like eating. Not that I could have eaten anyway. My mom immediately started clearing off dishes and dumping food down the garbage disposal in a furious frenzy. Tom went to his room, closing the door, but I stayed in the living room, unsure of what to do with myself, expecting at any moment to hear the shatter of broken dishes from the kitchen. I did hear slamming cupboards, banging silverware, even the unusually loud clink of dishware, but she was not out of control enough to break anything.
Despite all that was going on, my mind was calm, serene, like the eye of a storm, focused in perfect Zen-like fashion on Kyoko's letter and what I would write in my response. After the events of the evening, her simple description of stuffed animals seemed even more immature, but in a way that was nice, a refreshing contrast to my family situation. Besides, I was planning to ask a few questions in my letter this time, force her to talk about less babyish things.
My mom came out of the kitchen, saw me sitting on the couch. "What are you doing here?" she screamed. "Go to your room!"
I didn't have to be told twice. I hurried down the hall to my bedroom, where I shut the door. My bedtime was still two hours away and I was wide-awakeso I had a lot of time to kill. I considered writing my letter, but my mom could walk in on me at any time. I didn't have a TV, so I couldn't watch that. I had a small record player, but the sound might carry, and I didn't want her storming down the hall screaming at me to turn it off.
I wondered what Tom was doing in his room.
Finally, I decided to read a book, a science fiction novel called
Time of the Great Freeze
that I'd checked out of the library twice and must have read four or five times already. I found comfort in the tale of a band of humans who survived the next ice age. It was reassuring to me to once again enter their world, and before I knew it, it was time for bed. My mom didn't come over to tell meshe was still in the front of the house and I had no idea what she was doingso I got into my pajamas voluntarily, put out the light and crawled under the covers.
It was weird lying in bed knowing that my dad wasn't in the house. But it was also nice in a way, and I realized for the first time that I wouldn't really mind if he was gone for good.
I wouldn't mind if my mom were gone, either.
Against my will, I fell asleep, my mind overburdened by the stress and excitement of the day. When I awoke, the world was dark and a sliver of moonlight shone through the crack in my drapes. I crept out of bed to look at my clock, holding it close to my face so I could see the numbers.