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In June, Ami and Kick take the train from Seattle to Portland. Kick is quiet, as always, on his dead mother’s birthday. This year he brings a book with him and does not look up from its pages. Ami passes the hours staring out of the window at the motionless surface of the sound reflecting the flat grey sky, listening to Radiohead albums on repeat so the aching timber of Thom Yorke’s voice fills the void that always, without fail, opens up on this annual trip, but this year feels especially dark and yawning.
They have not had sex in two weeks.
“I don’t understand you,” Kick said when she admitted her fertile window had come and gone. Another wasted month. Ami had hidden the results of the ovulation monitor, and Kick was too distracted to notice. The week before the Portland trip, he moved through the world in a daze. His boss had denied his request for promotion, citing budget cuts and some other vague excuses. And there was, of course, the dullness that always followed him like a shadow in the days before his mother’s birthday.
“Do you not want this?” Kick had asked.
By this he meant a baby, a pregnancy. But the word had expanded inside of Ami. This meant Kick, their marriage, the little world they had pieced together delicately over the years. The question felt too huge and the uncertainty of her answer too daunting. So she met Kick’s question with silence, and ignited his frustration. Her husband is slow to anger, but once angered he simmers for days, quietly stewing the emotions until they are reduced to a thin layer of hurt that his better nature finally scrapes away and discards.
The train stops at Union Station, and they catch a cab to the same flower shop they visit each year. Kick picks out a bouquet of sunflowers while Ami wanders the aisles, pressing her face to the roses and crushing sprigs of lavender between her fingers. They leave the store in silence.
Only when they step onto the cemetery grounds does Ami attempt to slip her hand into Kick’s. He allows her to press her palm to his as they leave the cemetery office, a borrowed brush and watering can in hand, and move through the maze of headstones. When they reach the dark marble headstone for the mother Kick lost in the winter accident a decade ago, Ami expects her husband to stop her as she kneels to wash the headstone. But he doesn’t.
Ami fills the watering can to bathe the grave of her mother-in-law, a woman she never had the opportunity to meet, but whose memory her husband carries like a talisman. She brushes off a year’s worth of dirt from the engravings and washes away the debris. This is the task her own mother taught her the summer she turned eight, the summer her mother, Shizuka, took Ami and her brother Jin to a far corner of California’s East Bay to visit the grave of their grandparents. The summer Shizuka gave her children one of the few Japanese words she could remember from her own childhood: ohaka mairi, honoring the graves of your deceased family. The memory floats, uninvited, to the surface of Ami’s consciousness as she rinses the headstone.
“The stone should sparkle when you’re finished,” Shizuka had said as she guided Ami’s hand across the marble. After the washing, Shizuka laid out an array of food. A green apple, a can of beer, a carton of cigarettes, the frosted rice crackers Ami and Jin loved.
That was the day Ami realized her mother was beautiful. Her face had been gentle and smiling, her dark hair pulled into a loose bun at the nape of her neck.
Ami shakes away the memory of her mother and blots out the accompanying ache that lurks closer to the surface than usual these days. Her knees pressing into the grass, she takes a tangerine and an almond-studded chocolate bar from her purse and arranges them on the clean headstone. These are the treats Kick said his mother loved.
When she rises, Kick brushes his lips against her hair.
“Thank you,” he says. The words and the gentle pressure of his body are an apology for the hours of silence he has lodged between them.
Ami nods, a tightness in her throat.
Kick kneels to arrange the sunflowers across his mother’s headstone. Ami steps back to give her husband privacy, opening up enough distance to hear only the low tone of Kick’s murmurs to his mother’s grave. She stations herself beneath the shade of a tree. A breeze rustles the leaves overhead and Ami tries to focus on the coolness of the light wind on her face. She tries to focus on breathing from her stomach, on releasing the tightness that has been forming like a fist in her chest all day.
Then, maybe in the lull of the breeze, or perhaps in the deliberate, slightest raising of his voice, she overhears Kick say, “Ami and I are gonna make you a grandma soon, Ma. We’re trying.”
His words drop into the pit of her stomach. A dull thud. The tears, hot in her eyes, pool and spill. And the old urge to run takes over.
Her feet carry her down the paved road, towards the cemetery office. She calls a cab. When the driver arrives, he looks startled at the tears on her face but says nothing as she climbs into the back seat and shuts the door behind her. As the cab pulls into the street, she sees Kick striding down the cemetery road, searching for her. She sees him stop. She sees the hurt bloom across his face as he watches the cab drive her away.
Kick had appeared all at once, charming his way into an introduction at Simone’s birthday party. Kick, who was not outrageously attractive. Too tall, a head full of unruly curls and a smile that took up too much space on his face. Ami had watched him weave his way through the crowd toward the corner table where she and Simone sat enjoying glasses of champagne.
“I had to come say happy birthday to you,” Kick said, bending down to give Simone a hug. He extended a hand to Ami. “I’m Kick.”
“Nice to meet you,” Ami said, letting him shake her hand. When he held on for a few beats longer than necessary, Ami looked up to see a smile pulling up the corners of his mouth.
Simone adored Kick, who worked with her at the university. She thought he was a great catch, and kept telling Ami so after he stepped away to buy a drink.
“Why don’t you ask him out?” Ami had asked.
“No way. He’s not my type. Too nice.” Simone tilted back her glass and downed the rest of her champagne. “Come on, let’s get another drink.”
At the bar, Ami wound up sandwiched between Simone and Kick. Simone insisted on buying the next round, flagging down the bartender as Ami asked Kick about his work at the university. Kick leaned against the counter as he spoke, his curls tumbling over his forehead, the smile never leaving his face, his gaze drifting from Ami’s eyes to her mouth and back again. At some point, Simone slipped away without Ami noticing. Ami felt as if she were sinking into a delicious trance as she and Kick talked about their respective careers, their mutual obsession with the new izakaya in Capitol Hill, about everything and nothing. When they finally emerged from their conversation, the bar was practically empty, the party was over, and Kick offered to give Ami a ride home.
Kick expects the hotel room to be empty when he walks in. But the first thing he sees is Ami’s running clothes in a crumpled pile on the floor. Then he hears the shower running. Relief rolls over him all at once. He leans against the wall and closes his eyes. She is here.
In as little time, the anger flares back. His selfish wife. The thought feels ugly, the remnants of the frustration that overtook him in the cemetery as he watched Ami disappear down the road. He didn’t bother calling her, knowing her phone would be turned off or silenced. Instead he wandered back up to his mother’s grave site and sprawled out on the grass, his head resting between the headstones, and stared up at the dull Portland sky. He called his cousin instead of a cab. Prentice, the only person Kick wanted to see when he was in town and one of the few relatives who could carry a conversation with Kick without bringing up his mother, without looking him over for any visible scars of grief.
Prentice picked him up in the same busted Honda he’d been driving around since college. No questions asked, he took Kick straight to a dingy dive bar and bought them both tall glasses of beer. He didn’t comment on the fact that Kick kept checking his phone every three seconds. They talked about Kick’s job, his pain-in-the-ass boss who refused to promote him, and Prentice’s new girl, a fresh college graduate who was eight years younger than him. The conversation never broached the subject Ami, though Kick had to fight the urge to hard pivot into a confession and spill everything to his cousin, to admit his fears that he and Ami might not be able to have children, that Ami did not want children, or worst that Ami was on the verge of abandoning him. But saying these fears aloud, even to Prentice, would give them shape and texture, make them real. So he forced the words down and bought them each another glass of beer. Two hours later, Prentice dropped him off at the front of the hotel.
Before driving off, Prentice said, “Call me if you need some more air tonight, man.”
Kick hears the shower turn off. He isn’t sure if he wants to be angry or sorry when Ami steps out of the bathroom. He knows she was hurt by his stubborn silence over the past few days and his admittedly childish silent treatment on the train. He knows that a part of him wants her to hurt. A part of him wants to punish her for not needing him as much as he needs her.
The bathroom door opens and Ami emerges, a towel wrapped around her. When she sees him she inhales quickly. Her hands pull the towel tight across her chest. The realization hits him suddenly, knocks the lingering anger out of him: She doesn’t want him to see her naked. He wants to walk over to his wife and pull her slim, damp body into his. He wants to press his nose into her hair to find out what kind of perfume the hotel shampoo has concocted, mingled with her scent. But instead he sinks down in the hotel chair. He presses his hands into his knees and looks up at Ami. She stands in the bathroom doorway, unmoving.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
“Yes. Are you?”
“I’ve been better.”
Ami stares at him, and for a moment Kick thinks she will say something more. But then she moves to the duffel bag lying open on the hotel bed, snapping off the tension stretching between them, diverting them both in her scavenge for jeans, a bra, a blouse.
“You went for a run. How many miles?”
“Three. And where were you? At a bar with Prentice?”
“Maybe. Are you going to tell me why you left me at the cemetery?”
She pulls out the clothes, holds them to her chest.
“Probably for the same reason you went drinking with Prentice for hours.”
“That’s not an answer.”
She takes a breath. “Can we talk about this after I change? Please.”
Kick pushes a hand through his hair. “Fine.”
He wants her to let go of the towel, to let herself be naked in front of him. But she turns and walks back into the bathroom, closing the door behind her.
The first time Ami slept with Kick, he traced the shiny brown line on her wrist and asked, “What’s this?” and she told him how she had once burned herself with an iron. He kissed the white scar along her calf when she told him of the lump that had lived there, how long the incision took to heal after an infection. He discovered the beauty spot tucked into the tender flesh behind her knee, the birthmark that rested at the base of her neck. Kick explored her body with a tenderness that made her heart sing. He entered her and Ami felt her walls shift, wanting to make room for him. And suddenly there was a Kick-sized space inside her, a space Kick could enter with a freedom that surprised and excited her.
“I think this could be it,” she had told Simone.
“Didn’t I tell you?” Simone laughed her full-bodied laugh and squeezed her hand.
But on the night of their second anniversary, when Kick grasped her hand across the table and asked if they could start trying to conceive, trying to make a family, something slipped out from a hidden recess. As she kissed her husband and told him yes, she felt something like fear darken the air.
Ami dreamt of her mother that night. In the dream, Shizuka, still pregnant with Jin, rested in a rocking chair in the sunny corner of an unfamiliar room. Her hand rested on a belly that swelled with unnatural quickness. In the dream, Ami watched her mother from a careful distance until Shizuka opened her eyes, snatched up her daughter’s hand, and planted it against her firm stomach.
“Your baby, Ami,” Shizuka said, her voice strangely harsh and feral. Through her mother’s flesh, Ami felt the baby move, its body pressing against her hand. She felt a surge of revulsion. She looked down at her own stomach to see it huge and swollen against her shirt, a baby’s handprint pressing through her own skin. The force of her panic snapped her awake.
That first month of trying, Ami spent her days imagining a baby forming in the base of her belly. Her body suddenly felt foreign and mutinous. Any tinge of nausea, every ache of tenderness in her breasts, triggered a rush of anxiety. She had more dreams of her body swollen with child. When her period came, a wet dark smear on her underwear, she hid her relief from Kick, who could not hide his disappointment.
He rubbed his hand across her back and said, “It’s okay. We’d be too lucky if it happened right away.”
She wanted to tell Kick she was having recurring nightmares about being pregnant, that she was afraid of losing control of her body. She wanted to tell him that, for the first time in ages, she had the urge to contact her mother, to ask Shizuka to help her dislodge the fears sprouting inside her like mushrooms. Tell me how to be pregnant. Tell me how you carried me, how you carried Jin. But she could not expect Shizuka to be a source of comfort in this. Shizuka, who refused to attend their wedding. Shizuka, who refused to speak to Kick after she looked into his face and took in the curls, the large dark eyes, the un-Japanese-ness of him, and took in the fact that this man would be the one to carry her daughter away from her. Her mother would give Ami no comfort. She had not seen or spoke to Shizuka in over a year. How could Ami expect to mother a child when she herself felt so wholly unmothered.
She wanted to tell Kick she wasn’t so sure about the baby anymore. But it felt too much like tugging on a linchpin; if she revealed her doubts to him, their carefully constructed world would collapse.
By their second month of trying, Ami began to catch herself bracing for Kick’s touch, anticipating his fingers behind her neck when they sat on the couch, his arm curving its way around her waist when she stood at the kitchen sink. She started to find relief in the hours they spent apart. During the day, her body became her own again. She imagined shedding tainted skin along the highway on her drive to work. Her body took on a lightness that lasted into the hour she had to herself before Kick came home. At the sound of him unlocking the front door her body became heavy again. She would feel his body drawing hers like a magnet.
The wine from dinner put color into his wife’s face. Kick can see the warming glow on Ami’s cheeks even under the dim street lighting. The night is cool and quiet. Ami’s arm is twined around his as they walk the five blocks back to the hotel. A truce has nestled between them since they left the hotel for dinner. Ami had emerged from the bathroom, fully clothed. She cupped his face in her hands, kissed him gently and said, “I’m sorry I left you at the cemetery, babe. Can we just leave it alone for now?”
Kick wants more than a truce. He wants to love his wife and believe she loves him in return. He wants to forget his dead mother in the ground and the cloud of grief that follows him when the earth swings back around to another year without her. He wants to forget that he and Ami are half a year into their attempts to start a family of their own. He wants to shake his fears that Ami’s attempts are half-hearted. He wants the delirious fullness that seems to have drained away from their marriage.
The hotel’s marquee comes into view, and Kick stops walking.
“What’s wrong?” Ami asks.
Kick pulls her close, wrapping both arms around her.
“I want to feel you again,” he says, his mouth pressed against her hair. “Just feel you to feel you.”
He is grateful he cannot see Ami’s face as he says this. With her head tucked between his chin and shoulder, he can pretend she is smiling into his jacket. He can pretend that in a moment she will turn her face up to him and kiss him. And, as if she’d heard his quiet hopes, Ami does look up at him. She pushes back to look at him fully. Kick can see that her eyes are wet, but he cannot tell if this is from tears or the wine. She frowns, peering into his face like she is looking for something. Then she smiles. And before he can doubt if her smile is real, Kick closes his eyes and kisses his wife.
In the bathroom mirror, Ami watches Kick as he watches her. She wipes the toothpaste from her lips and rinses her mouth. He kisses her shoulder and moves his hands over her hips, slipping his hands under her nightshirt. His fingers feel rough against her skin.
Salty saliva pools beneath her tongue, and she pushes his hands down, trying to be gentle. She does not want him to sense the revulsion rising up like a tide inside her.
“I need to freshen up for a bit,” she tells him.
He smiles at her reflection and kisses her again. She watches him pretend that he can’t see her lack of desire. Or maybe he isn’t pretending. She can’t be sure.
Kick’s hand slides over the curve of her bottom. “Let me know when you’re ready.”
Ami nods. She closes the door and tries to breathe from her stomach. She grips the cold porcelain edges of the sink. Her heartbeat has moved up into her skull and throbs dully behind her temples. The languid buzz from the wine has worn off, and beneath the thickening layer of queasiness, she feels tired and heavy. She splashes cool water on her face and reminds herself that she owes this to Kick, the comfort of her body, an overdue offering of her love. Especially tonight. She tries to convince herself that tonight will not be about a baby, even though she knows there will be no protection between her skin and his.
When she steps out of the bathroom, Kick is standing in his boxers, lighting candles he has set along the nightstand. The air in the hotel room smells of hot wax and pine. An earthy smell. She knows Kick is trying to make this romantic, but the candles make her think of rituals and sacrifices.
Kick turns to her, and that magnetic feeling comes over her. His body, pulling her to him.
“You smell nice,” Kick tells her as he folds his arms across her back, pressing her into him. He bends himself half over to kiss her neck and breathe in the smell of her. He lifts her off the floor and carries her to the bed. She must feel so slight in Kick’s long arms. She has inherited her mother’s small frame, her thin bones.
If they have a daughter, what will she inherit?
“Look at me, baby,” Kick says.
Already he has removed his boxers. Already she is on her back, stretched across the mattress. He trails kisses down her neck, across the soft skin of her stomach. His mouth finds the warm center of her, setting fire to her nerves. She grips the bedcovers and focuses on taking deep gulps of air.
“I love you,” he tells her when he pushes inside her. She watches him. She watches him watch her pretend she enjoys this. But he must see the disgust flickering behind her eyes, mirroring the candlelight throwing shadows onto the walls. She knows he is trying to comfort her.
Kick has gone too long without release. She senses him holding back for the first few minutes. She can see the restraint cording his neck and shaking his arms as he moves his body over her, inside her. He wants this to feel good for her, too, he tells her.
Afterwards, when Kick has slipped off to sleep, Ami slips out from his arms. She makes it to the bathroom. She spits a thin stream of bile into the sink. She sits back on her heels, collecting herself as the faucet runs. She wills herself to find the fortitude to tell Kick she needs space, she needs time. She feels the urge to run again, to silently collect her things and disappear from the hotel. It would be easier to run. But she must try to tell Kick about the fears that have been following her these past months. Tomorrow she will try, she promises herself. She rinses her mouth, turns the faucet off, and climbs back into bed without waking Kick.
Editor’s Note on the Loneliness Issue
We want to thank the contributors who have made this month’s Loneliness issue possible. These stories, essays and works of art have given an exquisitely creative window into the realities of everyday human experiences, with their loss, memory, love, solace, pain and joy.
This past year has seen a steep rise in loneliness and mental health concerns due to the necessary Covid-19 isolation practices.
We at Litro acknowledge and support the need to address these concerns and stand in solidarity with those suffering from mental illnesses and loneliness.
Here’s a short list of resources for the United Kingdom and the United States:
Samaritans provides confidential, non-judgemental, emotional support for people experiencing feelings of distress or despair, including those that could lead to suicide. You can phone, email, write a letter, or speak to someone face-to-face.
ChildLine is a private and confidential service for children and young people up to the age of nineteen. You can contact a ChildLine counsellor for free about anything.
For further UK resources, visit Time for Change
The Jed Foundation is an organization committed to the mental and emotional health of college students. It offers training tools for campus professionals to improve their mental health services for students.
Freedom and Fear is an online non-profit advocacy organization that contains a wealth of research-based information and treatment referrals for anxiety and depression.
Here are 60 Digital Resources available to the American public across a wide range of needs, from depression and anxiety to substance abuse and domestic circumstances.
For more resources, and information on getting help and taking action, visit Mental Health America’s site.
Chelsea Tokuno-Lynk grew up in Kāneʻohe, Hawai'i and now calls Milwaukee, Wisconsin home. A 2015 and 2018 VONA/Voices Fiction & Prose Fellow, she moonlights in non-profit work. This is her first publication.