My life is dual. It has two sides in two distant places, between which I shuttle back and forth bi-weekly.
One of the two sides is in Los Angeles, where you cannot tell the season from sky because it is always as blue as possible. At dusk, I finish work, drive my car back home, open the door, and find the messy floor of the living room covered by clothes, books, and empty Amazon boxes. I open the fridge, pull out a big pot of curry, and scoop a serving and put it on a bowl of rice – exactly the same dinner as every day since the last weekend. This side accounts for eleven out of fourteen days.
There is a countdown clock in my mind. It displays the remaining time until Thursday night on alternating weeks, a magical night that flies me to the other side.
Thursday, March 29, 2018. It was the night. I put the bowl in a dishwasher, replied to emails away, took a shower, and pulled out a small suitcase from the closet. Packing won’t take more than ten minutes. I requested an Uber ride at 9pm. And left home for a four-day long one-night trip.
The car drove at 75 mph on a six-lane highway through Downtown to the airport. Countless lights in various colors kept flying backwards out of the window. I am pursuing a dream in this city. Meanwhile, my wife got a job in Tokyo. It had been almost a year since she moved to there with my then-one-year old daughter, Mi-chan [pronounces “mee-chan”]. Hence, biweekly one-night trips to Tokyo.
The most unpleasant part of the dual life is the tight and upright economy class seat, but it won’t bother me anymore. In Buddhism, it is said that if you detach your emotions from your mind, you feel cool even in a fire. That is the state of nirvana. Once you learn to put your mind in the state of nirvana, you can sleep comfortably even in an eleven-hour flight on a torturous economy class seat.
My flight took off LAX at 12:50 am on Friday, March 30, and landed on Haneda Airport at 4:30 am on Saturday, April 1. Friday was just 50 minutes long in this week.
As I walked out of the plane to the boarding bridge, I found it was noticeably warmer than two weeks before. There were pollens in the air, to which my nose and eyes are hypersensitive. Spring had come to Tokyo.
I took a cab, arrived in my parent’s home 30 minutes later, and had two hours of nap. Woke up, ran to the station, jumped on the train. The Yamanote Line train at 9 am was crowded even though it was Saturday. Passengers were quiet in general and seemed not very happy. Most of them were occupied by their smartphone rather than seeing flowers blooming everywhere outside of the window. Subcompact cars were driving through narrow winding passages through a crowd of small houses. This is my hometown. I suddenly felt as if I still lived here, as if the twelve years I spent in America was merely a dream. Life has a plasticity. Your childhood continues to be familiar throughout your life.
I got out of the station and ran the street to my in-law’s apartment, where my wife and daughter lived. I rang the bell. Heard the footsteps, followed by the sound of unlocking the door – the door to the other side of my life. I was like the moment in The Wizard of Oz where the screen switches from black-and-white to color.
“Hey, did you sleep well?”
Said my wife as she opened the door.
The small, two-bedroom apartment was warm with vapors and flavors from the kitchen. On the shelf, on the floor, in every inches of the room, baby goods were organized and stored. “Wash your hand before playing with Mi-chan,” yelled my wife. So, I washed my hands for two seconds, wiped with my pants, and rushed to the living room. Next to my mother-in-low with a gentle smile, on a high chair, sat my little Mi-chan.
On this side of life I speak with a half-octave higher pitch. Mi-chan gazed at me momentarily with a somewhat surprised expression, then slowly pointed her finger to the plate on which Mickey Mouse was printed, and said,
“Papa, here, Mickey-san!”
Then she grinned from ear to ear. Grinned so much that I saw chewed food in her mouth. Then words flooded out.
“Juice, and milk, which?”
“Mi-chan shares with Papa!”
“Bring Anpanman (Japanese anime character)”
“Look, kanshoku (I ate all)!”
The growth rate of her vocabulary is truly amazing. She also speaks a lot. That is rather not surprising because her mother speaks as much as a radio show, but does that mean there is a gene of verbosity?
After breakfast, Mi-chan brought an A-I-U-E-O (Japanese alphabet) jigsaw puzzle and scattered the pieces on the floor. Every time she put one piece at the right spot I must say
“Mi-chan, you are gooooooood!”
and Mi-chan jumped, smiled, and clapped hands for joy. If I forgot to praise her she pouted and said
“Papa, say goooooood!”
So, I said “gooooooood” and she jumped, smiled, and clapped hands again. This repetitive process continued for 30 minutes.
She followed me whereever I went, even to the bathroom. Soon after I sat down in the closet and started doing the job, the door knob turned slowly and the door opens a little, where the two curious eyes gazed at me through the opening.
“Papa, what are you doing?”
My wife came for rescue. She dragged Mi-chan out and closed the door, but soon after I heard the voice again from the outside of the door.
“Aaaa, Keeee, Teee!” (Please open!)
“Yaaa, Daaaa, Yooo!” (No thanks!)
“Are you done?”
But two seconds later she asked again
“Aaaa, Keeee, Teee!”
As expected, this repetitive conversation lasted until I was done. She followed me even when I washed my hands. She was almost like my tail. My wife laughed that Mi-chan was her tail when I was gone but switched the host immediately after I came back.
Dressing a two-year-old up is as laborious as swimming against the current. It was already past 11 am when we left my in-law’s home. We three walked on a street hand in hand and talked a lot. It had been only my wife and me until two years before. Now Mi-chan is always between us.
Mi-chan was as happy as the birds in the spring.
“Papa, Mama, do swing!”
Said Mi-chan. So, we pulled her arms up and lifted her. She kept giggling all the way to the station.
The purpose of our outing was, of course, to see the cherry blossom, which only lasts for a week and was already past the peak. Cherry trees are everywhere in Tokyo. Even where you cannot see a tree, you can see petals on the street, dancing with the wind. We went to the bank of Meguro river, one of the most famous cherry blossom sites in Tokyo. I pointed my finger to the surface of the river, which was almost fully covered by pink petals, and said
“Mi-chan, look, the river is beautiful.”
I wanted to show it to her because she would move to LA by the next cherry blossom. But she was more interested in trains running on an elevated track across the river. It was not surprising as I loved trains in my childhood, but does that mean there is an epigenetic mechanism to pass down the affection to trains?
In the late afternoon, before going to my parents’ home where we would stay on that night, we went to the playground in a shrine near the station where I used to play in my childhood (kid’s public playgrounds are often hosted by local shrines and temples in Japan). I liked this playground because you can see trains from there.
It was a minimalistic playground only with a slide and a “fried shrimp ride”. Yes, a fried shrimp ride. It is nominally a plastic horse on which kids ride and sway, but for some unknown reason, in this shrine, a horse is replaced by a fried shrimp. Anyways, Mi-chan was happy and did not get bored only with trains, a slide, and a fried shrimp ride. Unlike adults, kids do not need much to be kept happy.
A miracle visited us in such an ordinary moment.
The shrine has a big and old cherry tree next to a wooden storage building with an elevated floor. A gust of wind blew through the tree and hundreds of fragile petals started dancing in the air like snow. A few pigeons landed under the tree, which attracted an immediate attention of Mi-chan and made her run towards them.
It was that moment. The ray of the warm evening sun shined the petals in the air and the silky fine hair of Mi-chan from the back, embossing them in gold. The light was so divine and unreal that I’ve only seen it in paintings – such as the closest one would be Craude Monet’s Rouen Cathedral. Perhaps I saw the bare skin of the Cosmos accidentally exposed through a tear of the cloth called daily life. I hastily took out a phone and tried to take a photo, but by then the wind had already stopped, pigeons had flown away, and the goddess was gone. Only Mi-chan kept running cheerfully through the playground, probably still chasing the pigeons in the sky in her unbounded imagination.
At 8 am on the following day, I woke up and turned my body to find Mi-chan’s wide open eyes and a big grin. She had been waiting.
“Tanoshii ne! (It’s fun!)”
Said Mi-chan. I felt so sweet that I hugged her, kissed her cheek, and said
“Mi-chan, daaaaaaaisuki! (I loooooooove you).”
Mi-chan cheerfully replied. My wife woke up, joined us, kissed the other cheek of Mi-chan, and said “daaaaaaaisuki.” Being extremely happy to be sandwiched by kisses, Mi-chan pleasantly repeated
My parents also woke up. While Mi-chan and I were playing as loudly as a fiesta, my mother and wife were engaged in a high-speed chat with a remarkably low S/N ratio, which was originally purposed to decide where to go on that day but covered a wide range of utterly unrelated topics such as funny things that Mi-chan said, complaints to an unfriendly pediatrician, and highly subjective evidences to reinforce their suspicion that Mi-chan is a child prodigy. A plan was made after 30 minutes of non-stop chat: first go to a local cherry blossom festival, then shop Mi-chan’s summer clothes, and finally dine at a nearby restaurant. To Mi-chan’s excitement, the plan involved a round-trip bus ride, which made her say “yuppy!”
As we walked on a street under cherry blossom, Mi-chan asked my father to hold her hand, which made him extremely happy. His walking speed was about the same as Mi-chan’s due to the knee pain that he had recently developed. Arriving at the festival venue, Mi-chan found many kids held balloons and said she wanted a red one. My mother ran to find one, but she could not run as fast as she wished as she got an artificial hip joint a few years ago. Eventually she came back with a red balloon, which made Mi-chan extremely happy. Grandma was smiling as warmly as the April Sun.
Suddenly I reminded of my Grandma, who was very kind and soft. My mother would often say she was very strict in the past. I could not understand how a such strict lady could possibly be converted to Grandma who I knew. Now I can very well understand how. My Grandma passed away two years before Mi-chan was born. How happy she would have been if she could see Mi-chan.
In the evening, Mi-chan, my wife, and I returned to my wife’s parent’s home. I had a bath with Mi-chan, ate dinner, read stories, played with the toy train, and it was already 8 pm. Time to go.
Mi-chan said in a surprisingly emotionless tone of voice. Until a half year before she cried a lot when we said good-bye. Perhaps she got used to say good-bye. Or perhaps she learned that she feels less pain in this way. I felt sorry to her. My wife waved her hand and closed the door. The sound of lock made me feel that I was once again removed from the warmer side of my dual life. The screen went to black-and-white again.
I took off Tokyo at 11 pm on Sunday, April 1st, and landed on the same day at 4:30 pm. I went back in time. (Note that is NOT the counterevidence of relativity.) The sky was as blue as possible with the brutal Sun. I requested an Uber ride and rode back home through the Downtown on a six-lane highway. Opened the door of my apartment and found the messy floor of the living room covered by clothes, books, and empty Amazon boxes. Hello again, this side.
I felt hungry and opened the fridge but found nothing to eat. So, I went to the Mexican restaurant next door. The waiter asked “how many people” to make me feel miserable by replying “one.” The loud Latin music and a gigantic serving of fajitas somehow made me feel like the other side of my life was not real. Perhaps the airplane just circled above LA for three days without going anywhere while I was sleeping on the economy class seat and happily dreamed of Mi-chan.
Well, who can tell a clear distinction between dream and real? Everything in the past is only in memory anyway. A more important thing for me, then, is not to let the happy memory go away. So, I closed my eyes and tried to remember all the happy things happened in the past two days –Mi-chan’s grin from ear to ear, her soft and pink cheek like a cherry flower, the warmth that I felt on the tip on my lips when I kissed it, her silky brown hair that flew like a stream through my fingers. Her little body was filled with love. She ran from room to room to deliver happiness to the whole family. When she ran, she left a plume of shiny dusts behind her like a fairy’s wand, and anyone sprinkled with the dust were made smile and feel happy. It turned the endless chat between my wife and my mother sound into a harmonious music and even made my father’s overly-sophisticated joke with no punchline funny. Her magic warmed up the home like the spring Sun, brought colors and flavors to the otherwise monotone daily life like flowers. Have I dreamed such a beautiful dream ever before?
I opened my eyes. I was alone. Loud Latin music was in my ears and the gigantic serving of fajitas was on the plate. The countdown clock in my mind was set back to “T minus 11 days” again.