Authors: Bentley Little
Once she was past, I forgot all about her. I stepped up to the counter and bought six stamps with postage enough to send six letters to Japan. Six extra letters! I felt free, filled with possibility, the way an artist must feel when viewing a virgin canvas. I'd broken out of the box, and while I hadn't exactly been playing by the official rules of the Pen Pal Program, now I could really indulge myself and do what I wanted when I wanted.
That night, I wrote my longest and most detailed letter yet, describing a fictional day in my life cobbled together from my own daydreams and the overheard conversations of other kids. As I finished, I heard a noise from down the hall. I quickly shut off my desk lamp and remained unmoving, praying I wouldn't get caught. But the sound grew no closer; it seemed to stay at the opposite end of the hall. In the stillness of night, auditory elements were amplified, and as the noise differentiated itself into individual components, I realized I was listening to my parents having sex.
I was filled with disgust. I knew what sex was, of course, but there was no place in my conception of it for this animalistic grunting, and I felt queasy as I hid my letter inside my school notebook and made my way over to the bed as silently as possible. Hiding my head under the pillow, I tried to think of something else entirely, tried not to hear my mom's rhythmic high-pitched squeals, my dad's low guttural groans.
I think that night was the beginning of my nightmares. I cannot really remember having any nightmares prior to then, but I have suffered from them ever since. Often they are so vivid and realistic that not only can I not get the images out of my mind, but I cannot be sure whether what I remember is a dream or something that really happened.
The one that night was a doozy.
I was in my bed asleep, and the light in my room was switched on. "Get up!" my dad ordered. I blinked against the brightness, threw off the covers and put on my clothes, still feeling groggy. Stumbling down the hallway, I went to the bathroom, combed my hair and then made my way out to the kitchen. It was still dark outsideI could see only blackness beyond the kitchen windowand I wondered why my dad had awakened me so early. There was something not right about it, and my muscles tightened with anxiety. Something was wrong with the kitchen light, too, I noticed. It was dimmer than usual and had a flickering quality, like a candle flame. "Eat your breakfast!" my dad ordered, but though I looked around the room, I couldn't see him. A plate of pancakes was on the table, however, and I sat down in my usual chair, preparing to eat.
Across from me, atop what looked like a dirty cardboard box, was a single chicken foot, embedded claws up in a square of brown Jell-O.
I realized that this was my dad.
"What are you looking at?" my dad demanded, and the claws of the chicken foot opened and closed in time with the words. "Eat your breakfast!"
"No!" I yelled, pushing my chair away from the table.
And the chicken foot flew through the air, claws open, to rip out my throat.
I awoke in a cold sweat, believing for a brief disorienting moment that my dad really was a chicken foot embedded in brown Jell-O. Then I saw the dark outline of my desk, a black shape in the bluish nonlight of night, and I thought of Kyoko, who on the other side of the world might have been writing to me at that very moment in a shaft of sunlight. The reality of existence returned to me. I lay there for a moment; listening, but the house was silent, my parents' exertions over. I waited another minute or so, just in case, then got up, walked over to my desk, switched on my lamp, took out my letter and reread it.
I took out my pen.
, I wrote at the bottom.
And continued on for another three pages.
It was both exciting and gratifying when Kyoko's letters began arriving on a weekly instead of bi- or triweekly basis. She, too, had broken the pen pal rules, declining to write the obligatory monthly missive and opting to respond to each of my letters as it arrived, although she still kept to the Saturday schedule as I'd instructed.
I was getting pretty good at writing letters, if I do say so myself, and I thought of writing one directly to Miss Nakamoto. I didn't know her home address, but I could write to her in care of the school, and she would be sure to get it. I even went so far as to pen the first half. I told her she was a very beautiful woman and that I found her very interesting and intelligent. But when I read it over, I could tell that it had been written by a kid. My intent was to send it anonymously, with the hope that she would think it was from an adult, a secret admirer, and we could begin an epistolary relationship, one that would last years. Gradually, she would fall in love with me, and maybe by that time I would be old enough that it wouldn't seem too ridiculous.
It would be a while before my writing skills were at that level, however. Feeling depressed, I tore up the letter and immediately wrote another one to Kyoko, giving free reign to my mood by describing in detail the divorce of my parents and how tough it was on me.
How I wished it were true.
My dad was getting drunk more and more often. What used to be an occasional thing became first a weekly, then an almost nightly, occurrence. They fought about it, he and my mom, and the fights grew louder and uglier. One evening after dinner, they were arguing in the kitchen. I was in my bedroom doing homework when I heard a plate smash against the wall. That was followed by my mom's incoherent screech and then the clatter of falling silverware. Another plate hit the wall or the floor and smashed loudly. I poked my head out of my door to see what Tom was doing, to see if he was taking all this in, but the door to his bedroom remained closed. I knew he had to hear what was happening, but he obviously didn't want to get involved, and the two of us were not close enough that he would ever share his thoughts or feelings with me.
For some stupid reason, I decided to go out to the kitchen and see if I could calm them down, get them to stop fighting. I poked my head around the corner of the doorway just as my dad, glassy-eyed and lurching, threw a piece of our best china at the wall. It smashed right next to the refrigerator, pieces skittering across the floor to join others already there. "I hate you!" my mom whispered venemously. "One day you're going to die in an accident and I'll be glad!"
"Bitch!" my dad said in a slurred voice, banging his hand down on the counter.
They both saw me at once.
My dad stared dumbly, his alcohol-fogged brain trying to formulate a response. Scowling, he picked up another plate, ready to whale it at me, but my mom was quicker than he was, and before I could utter a word, she strode across the linoleum and grabbed my arm, her fingernails digging deep enough into my skin to draw blood. "Get in your room!" she shrieked.
"I heard you"
"Get in your room and stay there!" She shoved me into the hallway, then turned back toward my father.
I ran back the way I'd come, crying not from the pain but the humiliation. How could I have been so stupid and naive to think that I could intercede in their argument? Slamming the door to my room, I thought I could hear the muffled sound of Tom laughing.
The next morning, my dad was back to his normal asshole self, and since I had to talk to somebody, I talked to him. For all I knew, he didn't even remember last night. I steered clear of my mom. She was silent as she made breakfast, and that was always a bad sign. Tom, too, sensed the mood of the room and without a word grabbed a piece of toast and dashed out the door, headed for school. I was younger and obligated to eat, but I did so as quickly as possible and got out of the house myself, heading for Robert's, where I waited for him to finish his breakfast before we met up with Edson and walked to school.
When I got home that afternoon, my desk had been ransacked.
I shouldn't have been surprised. And in a way, I wasn'tI'd been expecting this from the beginning. But it still felt like a gross violation of my privacy, and I was both angry and embarrassed as I put books and papers back in their proper places. Had she read my letters from Kyoko? Had she seen Kyoko's picture? At least two envelopes were out of order and their contents had been replaced haphazardly, so those had probably been read. I quickly opened them up and glanced through them, grateful to find that they were early ones and dealt mostly with generic topics. The photo was still hidden and untouched.
If my mom asked me anything, I decided, I would just explain that it was part of a class assignment.
But she didn't. She didn't say a word. She knew that I knew that she knew about my pen pal, but both of us pretended nothing had happened and we maintained our usual muted hostility.
I knew I had to find a new location to store my letters, but there was no privacy in that house. During the next few days, I went over every inch of my room, even went out to the garage and into the crawl space under the house, but could find no safe place to keep my correspondence. Finally, out of desperation, while my parents were at the grocery store and Tom, who was supposed to be watching me, was over at one of his friends' house, I pulled out the bottom drawer of my desk, got my dad's box cutter from his tool chest and sliced a hole in the carpet beneath the drawer. I slid all of Kyoko's letters under the rug and replaced the drawer.
No one would ever find my letters here, I thought.
And no one ever did.
It was hard for me to get a sense of what Kyoko's home life was like. I don't know if it was the language barrier, or simply the fact that she was closed and reserved and didn't share easily. Whatever the reason, there were huge gaps in my knowledge of her, gaps my imagination did its best to fill. In my mind, she lived in a close-knit traditional Japanese family, with a geisha-looking mother and a father who wore a business suit even at home. I imagined their lives to be satisfyingly structured, as clean and clear and uncluttered as their bamboo-matted rooms and white paper walls.
My own family situation was more ... chaotic. When we weren't at each other's throats, we still lived uneasily with each other. My dad was drunk most evenings and mean even when he wasn't. And there was always the threat of violence with my mom. She never hit me that muchand, truth to tell, it never really hurtbut her moods were so volatile, and her anger was so fierce, that I lived with the constant fear that she would explode, beating me unmercifully. This feeling became worse after my dad's arrest, and I believe it was the same for Tom, though the two of us never spoke of it.
Kyoko's school also seemed a lot more tranquil and less rancorous than mine. I wondered if that was a cultural thing or if she was just one of those people who breezed easily through life, smart and pretty and popular, floating above the problems that plagued lesser mortals.
She was a normal kid, neither exceptional enough to draw attention to herself nor distinctive enough to differentiate herself from the crowd.
It occurred to me that I
the fact that I didn't know a whole lot about Kyoko's life. She was, in a way, a blank slate, and I could project my own needs, wishes and aspirations onto her depending on my mood.
The letters flew back and forth between us. One special Saturday, I even received three of them at once, a harmonic convergence that left me feeling exhilarated for the whole week.
Despite the holes in my picture of heror perhaps because of themI grew to care about Kyoko much more than I thought I would, and much more than I intended. She was still a stand-in for my beloved Miss Nakamoto ... but she was also a person in her own right (or in her own write). I liked her, and strange as it might seem, she was my best and closest friend. I could tell her anything without fear of being laughed at or judged.
I grew bolder in my letters, bolder in my lies. The president of the United States was my mother's cousin. I might be making a trip to Japan soon because my dad had invented a supersecret camera that the Japanese government was extremely interested in obtaining. I'd just taken first in my age group at the Huntington Beach surfing championships and would soon be competing against the top high school finalist in the state.
But in my real life, things weren't going so great. Dad got picked up again for drunk driving, and the precious Tom was caught vandalizing a neighbor's house with two of his loser friends. You reap what you sow, my grandmother used to say, and I would have thought that a prime lesson to be learned here. But of course all the shit came down on me. It was somehow my fault that the two of them had screwed up. I was the whipping boy, and my mom yelled at me, my dad gave me a completely pointless and hypocritical lecture, and I was grounded for a weekdespite the fact that I had done nothing wrong.
I had fantasies of bashing my dad's head in with a rock, putting rat poison in my mom's food and watching her bloat up before puking her bloody guts out.
At school, I got into my first fight. Or
got into my first fight. Brick Hayward, a big dumb kid who'd been held back a year, decided at recess one day that he was going to kick my ass. I knew Brick by reputation, but he'd never been in any of my classes, and the two of us had never had any sort of contact. But he imagined that I'd looked at him the wrong way when we'd both happened to be in the library earlier, and he wanted to extract punishment. He confronted me on the playground, catching me by the drinking fountains.
"Right now!" he demanded, clenching his fists. Robert and Edson carefully backed away from me.
My panicked brain tried to think of some way out. Brick was a good head taller than me, was stronger and tougher and would beat me to a pulp.
The best defense is a good offense
, I thought. I looked at him, hoping I appeared much cooler than I felt. "Are you stupid?" I asked. There was a gasp from the assembled onlookers. Everyone knew Brick had been held back, so this had to hit him where it hurt.
His face reddened as he approached me. "Your ass is grass," he said through clenched teeth.
I held my ground, though every instinct was urging me to run. "I'm not going to fight you here," I said, keeping my voice as calm as possible, pretending I wasn't afraid. "We'll both get suspended."