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When Kenji got the Big Promotion, he repeated, like a mantra: You’d love Nashville. He’d already visited many times for work. He gushed about it every time he came back to New York with bags full of decadent gooey candy bars aptly called Goo Goo Clusters. There’s live music everywhere, he said, and not just country, all kinds. When was the last time we listened to live music? The people are friendly. They’re not stressed out like they are here. The sky, Yoko. You can actually see the sky.
I fell in love with Kenji’s stories just as easily as I fell in love with him, and I was convinced I would therefore fall in love with Nashville just like he’d promised. I said yes. We made the big move.
But then my mother in Tokyo developed brain tumors, and I immediately wished Kenji and I never left New York. On a map, Tennessee is slightly closer to Japan, but there are no direct flights, and it takes 8 hours longer to fly back. For this reason, New York seemed closer and more convenient. Except my pregnancy – which also happened simultaneously to these two events, like some Bermuda Triangle of life events – prevented me from flying anywhere anyway.
What was there to do but love my dying mother through texts, emails, video chats, likes, shares, and attempts to reach her through telepathic prayers before I fell asleep? I had to reassure her that my pregnancy was fine, while gritting my teeth through the never-ending nausea. Whenever possible, I would lie down on the cold kitchen floor because my body was hot and I wanted the proximity to food, which I was hungry for, but my body would still reject.
I would wonder, throughout my mother’s cancer progression and my growing belly, whether we were, perhaps, experiencing similar side effects.
We kept saying to each other: Don’t worry about me, worry about yourself. We smiled, we blew kisses. I watched her grow smaller and she watched me grow bigger.
My first year and a half in this city was spent mostly in this digital space where I could be close to my mother at the other side of the globe. Every time I looked away from the screen, I was met with the very thing Kenji had promised: the sky. It really was enormous, compared to anything I was used to in either New York or Tokyo. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of it. I texted my mother. The sky, Mom. You can actually see the sky.
It’s been three days since we moved from our moldy apartment in Hillsboro Village into this small rental house in the suburbs of Inglewood, and we woke up this morning to find that the entire neighborhood is covered in snow. Kenji looks up the news and says that all the roads are closed, and the garbage pickup which would have happened today has been indefinitely postponed. Thankfully our fridge is stocked from all the shopping we did immediately after the move, and our Wi-Fi is set up so that Kenji can continue to work from home.
I wait for the kettle to whistle and scoop the coffee grounds into the filter. Sam is on his highchair throwing cereal on the floor, one by one, his new favorite game. I pick one up, and it’s covered in dust and hair from just a few seconds of contact. I have no idea where the broom is. Most of our things are still in boxes, and I dread the whole unpacking process, knowing it’ll take double or triple the time now that we’re parents.
This is our second winter in Nashville, but it didn’t snow last year, and I wasn’t prepared for this. I look out the window and all I see is white. It’s beautiful but blinding. It doesn’t feel real. Aren’t we in the South? Wasn’t it supposed to be warmer? I sold all of my winter coats in New York, assuming I wouldn’t need them anymore. Like everything else, I have no idea where our warmest coats are packed. I figure we’ll just have an indoor day.
Kenji gets into his suit and kisses me before shutting himself in a room now completely dedicated as his office.
Sam is glued to the window like a puppy eager to go outside. It’s his first snow since his brain can process colors.
I rummage through the boxes, unable to locate our jackets but find enough sweaters that we can wear in layers. In lieu of gloves, I put socks on Sam’s little hands. Somehow, I find our rainboots. We both look a little silly, but it’s not like we’re going to run into anyone. I just want to fill up the time until he naps, at which point I can lie on the couch and scroll through my phone and feel connected with my friends in New York, the news, the world.
Once we step outside, the cold air shocks my skin and I’m jolted awake. There’s no wind and the sun is bright. All this snow will probably disappear in the next day or two. Sam is wide-eyed.
I help him take steps in the snow. He squeals a squeal I’ve never heard before, a mix of fear, surprise, and utter joy. I try to mimic it to encourage him to repeat it. We’re just two creatures in a new land. I’m reminded of a Japanese folk story about a fox family. The little fox plays in the snow, but its paws start to hurt. The mother takes them on a journey to the human village to find mittens that are just the right size. Knowing that humans won’t treat foxes like their equals, the mother magically turns just one of the little fox’s paws into a human hand. The mother tells the little fox to ask for mittens, but making sure only to show the human hand through the storefront window. The little fox messes up, possibly out of nervousness. It shows the other paw, still a paw, but the shopkeeper is kind and gives the mittens to the fox like it’s any other transaction.
It’s an odd story, but I think it was about how prejudice works on both sides. The fox mother assumed all humans would discriminate against them. She probably had good reason to believe this or experienced it herself in the past. It’s also possible that the little fox didn’t slip up, and purposefully showed the paw to test the mother’s theory.
Sam sits on the snowy yard and claps his sock-covered hands. He squeals the same squeal and looks like a little mechanical toy. His face and his laughter is Kenji’s, 100%.
It was also snowing when Kenji and I went on our first date, nearly ten years ago, when we were just two young professionals in New York. A mutual friend who was also Japanese introduced us. I can’t recall what her name was anymore. We grew apart and stopped keeping in touch. Back then, most of my close friends were Japanese expats or had some connection to Japan – they studied it, had traveled there, or enjoyed the food.
I had initially chosen to go to college in New York wanting to meet different people. I was tired of the homogeneity of Tokyo. Having grown up a little in Palo Alto, I was too Americanized to really fit in with other Japanese people who had never left Japan. Arriving in New York, I did what I sought out to do, meeting a lot of people from all over the world. What I didn’t expect was how lonely I would feel as a result. I didn’t want to go back to Tokyo, but I knew I couldn’t stay in America if I didn’t find more people like me. Other weirdos who also felt like they never fit in back home.
Unlike the expats who always hung out in groups that would expand and contract over time, Kenji stood out for being the only Japanese-American amongst us who could only say a few phrases in Japanese. He was on a search for a sense of belonging not unlike my own. Over more group hangs and drinks, I would learn that Kenji was fourth generation, or Yonsei, and that his father, who was on the older side, was born inside an internment camp in California.
He said his father never liked to talk about any of it.
Which is why he became a second world war history nut as soon as he left home for college.
Second world war history sounds like a weird thing to bond over, but this shared interest was the seed to finding the love of my life.
One of the Japanese expats in the friend-group said it was perverse how much we talked about it.
But for me and Kenji, it was stranger for them to not be talking about it. How were they not anxious by the fact that they were meeting up for drinks week after week in New York, where descendants of second world war survivors around the world were jampacked against each other? Just sixty something years ago, every neighbor would have been enemies, each considering themselves the victims and the other the aggressor. Winners and losers – they’re all just narratives. Wasn’t that the biggest takeaway? Why aren’t more people talking about this?
We were being downers, they said. Why can’t we talk about something else?
(When Kenji and I referred to each other as weirdos, we meant it as a compliment. It’s possible we were, and still are, in denial.)
Kenji and I started making plans just one-on-one with each other outside of the group, and the group gradually stopped looping us in. The second world war thing wasn’t the main reason, but it’s a moment that stands out in my memory. What really happened was that some of them moved back to Japan and their absence was never filled by another Japanese person, and the momentum we once had was never picked up again.
Our snowy first date was a walk through Central Park. A dreamy memory of a time when we were anxiety-riddled from the recent financial crisis and all we seemed to do for fun was eat gigantic red velvet cupcakes and walk through parks. At one point, we approached a lake that looked mostly frozen. It wasn’t the reservoir, but one of the smaller ones. There was a sign that said Warning: Thin Ice.
I distinctly remember the look on Kenji’s face when he said Let’s go, nodding towards the ice. There was a seriousness in the eyes, but a little glimmer that gave away the joke. I, ever the pessimist with the ability to conjure up worst case scenarios wherever I look, was adamantly against it. But alright, I remember thinking. It looks frozen enough.
I followed him, and the surface seemed to hold for a few seconds before I could feel a crackle beneath my feet. I screamed and ran back to a safe patch of snow-covered dirt. Kenji still stood there.
See? He said. Everything’s okay.
An older white woman from across the street opens her front door and waves at me and Sam.
I take a moment to make sure she’s not waving at someone else, but we’re the only ones outside. I smile and wave back.
The woman comes out with a puffy coat and walks towards us, each step slow and deep in the snow. In my head I’m trying to anticipate the different scenarios of how this conversation could go. I usually think about the worst-case scenarios first. It’s a personal superstition: if I think of it first, it won’t happen.
The woman says hi, first to Sam, then to me. We introduce each other. Her name is Mary Jo, and she’s lived here for 25 years. Knoxville before that.
I say our names and I see her face light up.
I nod. It’s refreshing that she said it first.
“You see, I play the harp. Not so much anymore because of my arthritis, but I traveled around a lot back then, and I attended a gathering with other harpists in Kyoto. We did a workshop with the okoto. Do you know it? It has 17 strings, set on the floor. Like a horizontal harp. I was terrible at playing, but boy did I love listening to the masters play. It was… revelatory. It changed my life.”
Mary Jo explains that the okotobecame a gateway for her to learn about other Japanese customs like the tea ceremony, meditation, and ikebana flower arrangement. As I listen to her, I realize she has accessed parts of my culture that I have never gotten close to. I think about how well she would have gotten along with my mother, my grandmother, even my great-grandmother.
Mary Jo’s words flow out of her. She has two grown children, a son who works as a sound mixer and a daughter who works in a cat rescue shelter. She has five grandchildren total, but they all live outside of Tennessee and she hasn’t seen them for the last few years.
Her husband passed away nine years ago. Bad liver.
She takes Sam’s tiny hand and shakes it.
“I still remember my babies like this.”
She keeps Sam entertained with funny faces and peek-a-boos as she asks me questions about my background. After just a few minutes, she already knows how I got here, because of Kenji’s job with the Japanese car company. I manage to summarize Kenji’s history and the fact that he’s a Yonsei. I end up casually telling her that my mother passed away recently, and that we haven’t been back to Tokyo in years.
We don’t embrace, but she’s still holding onto Sam’s hand and I sense her warmth and her yearning to reach out. She tells me about how hard it was for her to lose her mother, even though it happened decades ago. Breast cancer, she says. Lungs, I say. We shake our heads and sigh in solidarity. I’m shocked at myself for how quickly I gave away all of this information to someone I just met. Somehow it felt natural. I feel like I’m reuniting with someone as opposed to meeting someone completely new.
I hear someone else coming outside and it’s a man from the house to our left. He looks to be in his 20s with long hair, and has a fresh cigarette dangling from his mouth. He waves at us and says loud enough for us to hear: “Gonna get some eggs from Mike. Wanna come?”
Mary Jo shouts back, “I don’t eat eggs, it’s bad for my cholesterol.”
“You’re kidding. Maybe I shouldn’t eat them either then.”
“You shouldn’t be doing a lot of things.”
“Oh come on.”
A woman comes out of the long-haired man’s house. She has bleached blonde hair and wears a big fur coat. She looks like an iconic character from an indie film white people my age seem to love unanimously.
“Hey,” she says to me. “Are you the new neighbors?”
We chat, and I learn that her name is Willow. The one with the long hair is her boyfriend Sean, who plays in a “space rock” band called Kuiper Belt. They haven’t been able to rehearse for a while, but she says maybe we’ll get to hear them after the snow melts.
“Wanna join us to get eggs?” Sean says. “I have an extra carton anyway.”
Mary Jo heads back to her house. She has banana bread baking in her oven that she needs to check on. She says she’ll leave some on both of our front porches later. “Sean, will you give this lovely lady my number for me? And say hi to Mike?”
I’ve never been the type to know any of my neighbors, and in the matter of half an hour, I’m getting to know more than a handful of them all at once.
There’s an organic rhythm to our introductions and conversations. We’re not forced to network or talk about our jobs and where we see ourselves in five years. We’re not sizing each other up. We’re just people who happen to live on the same block, who are all snowed in on a weekday and are walking to get some eggs from another neighbor. I feel like a character in a fantasy novel living in some snowy village. Trading our goods, listening to stories.
Willow is a bigger talker than Sean, who walks behind us with some space in between. He says he needs to smoke but doesn’t want to cover us in it.
Last year’s tornado was what got all the neighbors together, she tells me. “We were all fine, but it destroyed a whole row of houses just on the other side of the church. You know, the one with the snarky signs that are like, ‘Don’t social distance from Jesus’? It’s been a year and some of them still have the blue tarp on them. That could have been us, like gees. But that was a moment of like, we all need to stick together. If we lose power, we help each other out. It’s kind of like a commune but not in a creepy way.”
The neighborhood we used to be in was completely unaffected by that tornado, but we all knew about it. The whole city mourned it. There was a New York Times article which made it seem like it happened to all Nashvillians.
In a way, the tornado didn’t directly affect Willow and the rest of these neighbors, but they saw the damage up close and experienced it in a way that Kenji and I didn’t because we were double-digit miles away in Hillsboro. I’m met with a familiar feeling as I listen to Willow talk, of when I was living in New York during the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster in northern Japan.It didn’t harm my parents living in Tokyo, but they experienced it so viscerally in a way that I didn’t. When I visited them later that summer, they and the entire country seemed permanently scarred in a way that was inaccessible to me simply by not being there.
“Anyway,” Willow says, “2020 turned us into survivalists. I kind of like it, though. Mike’s eggs are way tastier than the ones from Kroger.”
We approach a two-storied house with a large rainbow flag out front. A man who I presume is Mike comes out the door, probably expecting visitors.
“We didn’t come empty handed this time,” Sean says, crushing the cigarette in the snow and running to catch up with us.
“Aw you didn’t have to do that.” Mike, a tall middle-aged man in a red flannel shirt and sweatpants who gives off a lumberjack vibe, accepts Sean’s plastic grocery bag and shows us all what’s inside. A large black Kuiper Belt band t-shirt and a zip-loc of oatmeal raisin cookies.
“Willow made those,” Sean says.
“Are these keto?”
“No, but they’re gluten-free.”
“Ha! Next thing you know you’ll be coming here with oat-free raisin-free oatmeal raisin cookies or whatnot. No, but really, thank you. You didn’t have to. Jim’s the one with the sweet tooth so I’ll be giving these to him.”
“How is Jim?”
“His mama got covid so he’s been worried sick. She just had that hip surgery and she thinks she got it while she was at the hospital. He wants to play something for y’all, though, when the weather’s nice. Just out here on the lawn, like last time. When was that, Labor Day? It’s been a while.”
Willow threads her arm in mine. Her fur coat makes me feel like I’m leaning on a bear. “We also brought some new friends.”
Sam, who’s been quiet in the baby carrier, does the same squeal as before. Mike is clearly one of those people who has no idea how to talk to babies and children. We do our round of intros and he tells me that he and Jim got married in 2015 right after same-sex marriage was legalized in all states, but that they’d been together for two decades before that.
Mike goes back to the yard to fetch the eggs, and when he comes back, I open the cartons to find eggs of different sizes, shapes, and shades of blue, pink, and beige. I’ve never seen eggs like these before in my life.
Sean wraps one arm around Willow, and we all walk back towards our houses. I inadvertently make Sean feel uncomfortable when I ask him about his music. Even though he’s the band leader and composer, he doesn’t seem to like talking about it. Willow says he’s a genius. As we approach their house, Sean starts texting me all of the neighbors’ numbers while Willow goes inside to grab a Kuiper Belt band t-shirt.
“It’s an M but it’ll shrink, so it should fit you.”
Sam and I enter our house, and I see in the mirror just how flushed Sam’s cheeks have become. His fingers are frozen from the socks having gotten wet from the snow. I unstrap him and put him down on the hardwood floor. It’s toasty in the house. He continues his squeal, snuggling with my new t-shirt like a security blanket.
Kenji’s in the kitchen preparing ramen for lunch. He looks over and does a double take. “Where did you get the eggs?”
Up to now, it’s been Kenji who knew everyone in Nashville, mainly through his job. For the first time, I’m telling him about people he doesn’t know yet. We boil Mike’s eggs. The yolks are bright orange and rich in flavor, just like the ones I remember eating in Japan, raw over rice. The three of us huff and slurp the ramen, not saying anything for a while.
The next morning, I look out the windows and see the icicles dripping. Some of the snow in the yard already looks like slush. It looks like our car will be able to leave the driveway by this afternoon.
When I open the door, I find that the door has trouble opening because of all the containers that have been left there by our neighbors. Slices of banana bread from Mary Jo. Oatmeal raisin cookies from Willow. Yet more eggs from Mike. I start a group text to say thank you. They all respond immediately. I can see Mary Jo waving from inside her house. I wave back.
About the author: Yurina Yoshikawa holds an M.F.A. from Columbia University and teaches fiction and non-fiction writing at The Porch Writers’ Collective. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, NPR, Lit Hub, The Japan Times, and elsewhere. She was the winner of the 2020 Tennessee True Stories Contest and a 2021 recipient of the Tennessee Arts Commission. She has lived in Tokyo, Palo Alto, and New York before settling down in Nashville, Tennessee, where she lives with her husband and two sons. | Web | Twitter | Instagram
Yurina Yoshikawa holds an M.F.A. from Columbia University and teaches fiction and non-fiction writing at The Porch Writers’ Collective. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, NPR, Lit Hub, The Japan Times, and elsewhere. She was the winner of the 2020 Tennessee True Stories Contest and a 2021 recipient of the Tennessee Arts Commission. She has lived in Tokyo, Palo Alto, and New York before settling down in Nashville, Tennessee, where she lives with her husband and two sons. For more information, visit www.yurinayoshikawa.com.