I was not sorry.
I told anyone who would listen that I wasn't staying and there was nothing anyone could say to convince me otherwise. They would roll their eyes and shake their heads at my big talk, but I knew I would do it. So when I turned eighteen, I left and never looked back. It was, single-handedly, the most selfish thing that I have ever done.
Frankly, I couldn't stay. I felt stifled in that tiny town that couldn't contain my hopes and aspirations. I dreamt of big cities and even bigger opportunities. I took my life savings and made a break for it, alternating between bus rides and hitchhiking. Nowadays, you can't really do that - especially young girls on their own. The world is a different place. No less dangerous or scary, but it tends to show its teeth and claws more often.
After a few days, I made it to New York. The lights and bustle were everything I had imagined. What I hadn't anticipated was the smell. The noise. The grit. The oppressive feeling of being so small that I could be swept away like a little fish in a swiftly moving river. But no matter what, I still wanted to make it.
When I called home, I would lie. I said that I loved it, that the city was everything I had hoped for and more. The energy was electric; I had found friends who loved poetry and art galleries and dressed all in black like proper beatniks. We hung out in jazz clubs, smoked skinny cigarettes, and discussed the prevalent themes in e e cummings' poetry. As far as anyone was concerned, I was having the time of my life.
"Don't forget to go to church on Sundays."
"Don't go out with strange men."
"Eat a hearty meal at least once a week."
On the other end of the telephone, I could almost hear my grandmother's smile, "I'm so proud of you, mein mäuschen." She would brag to the women in her sewing circle about all of the things I was doing in the Big Apple; some would disapprove of "my lifestyle," but all shared the same sense of living vicariously through me. Someone from this dusty old town that had never fully recovered from the Dust Bowl had finally gotten out. We would then share our "I love yous," and hang up. And I would burst into tears.
At times, the weight of loneliness and insecurity in a city packed to the gills was too much to bear. How could one feel so empty in a city that was teeming with life? My only source of comfort was to escape to the frigid and dirty rooftop of my apartment building and gaze up at the night sky. You couldn't see too many stars - they competed with the dazzling lights of the city - but I would pretend that I was back home, looking up at the same moon that Oma saw.
It was 10:24 PM by the time I made it to the Dome. It was a less than 15-minute walk from my hotel. The streets were still lively and loud, the neon signs advertising karaoke joints and okonomiyaki restaurants were welcoming and friendly. Oneesan, spend your money here! But the closer I walked to the Dome, the flashing lights twinkled and faded, and the hustle and bustle of car horns, tram engines, and general revelers subdued to murmurs. By the time it was 10:24 PM there was nothing but silence, like slipping underneath the ocean one wave at a time.
You can’t miss the Dome. Whether it is daylight or nighttime, the Dome invades the skyline, reminding you of its ugly history like a hungry tumor that refuses to be expunged or die. As unnerving as it was during the day, it felt like a suffocating nightmare at night. Everything was quiet, and still, the theatrical lights illuminating the building from the inside out highlighted its garish features cruelly and honestly.
I’d brought my camera to take pictures but immediately felt like a CSI or – even ruder and invasive – a paparazzo at the scene of a horrible meltdown. I snapped a few shots. Adjusted my lens. Changed perspective. I moved around to the well-lit river side to escape the nightmare watching me from the darkness. I took a few more shots, still feeling incredibly paparazzi-ish. Then I saw it.
A mass was sitting atop one of the massive lights inside the belly of the Dome. At first, I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me; then I was startled – I’d seen a few maintenance workers walking the perimeter of the Dome and thought one had gone inside. However the more I watched I came to realize it was a visitor of the feline sort.
A cat, trying to find the warmest spot he could find, had settled down on top of the light to bunker down for the night. I thought of alerting someone. Should a cat really be in there? Is it safe in there? What if he knocks over some bricks or something falls on him and gets hurt? But then I realized: This cat has probably gotten up close and personal with the Dome many times before. Besides, who would I alert? It was already well after 10:30 at night.
Admittedly, I watched this little cat for an embarrassingly long amount of time. I’d come all this way to see the Dome at night, and I let myself get side-tracked by a cat. He didn’t do anything. He sat perched on the light as if it were his throne, and the Dome his castle. He was lounging, completely relaxed. His little heartbeat was beating inside his own chest as he sat inside the empty cavity of the building that once was. It was once the site of industrial promotion within the prefecture; now it stands as the Genbaku Dome, a memorial to the 140,000 people who died in the flash of an explosion. And his little heart was still beating. The dichotomy between this cat’s behavior and how I felt because of Hiroshima was nearly maddening.
It is easy to be overwhelmed. It is difficult to imagine how the metropolitan city thriving under your sneakers was once a desolate graveyard. It is difficult to imagine the sheer number of souls that were lost that day, and the many, many more lost in the following days, weeks, months and years. It is difficult to stomach when you see the tricycle a little boy had ridden that day rusted and sad, and then read the placard beside it telling you its full story and how it came to be a part of a collection in a museum. It is difficult to understand the complex story behind all of the artifacts, stats and quotes from key players trying to explain “why” it happened. Twice. It is difficult to envision standing up again were I in the same situation.
But all living things have the inherent will to survive, to struggle against death and spit in its eye. It’s how we’ve evolved. It’s what Darwin predicted. If you are a religious man, it’s the desire to protect the most precious gift He has granted. And in spite of all things, Hiroshima is living. It’s a living, breathing organism that continues to move forward every day. But far from accepting the explainable, easily asinine “moving on” sentiments, Hiroshima will never forget. Even in the nearly 70 years since the bombing, the scars are still fresh – you can tell every time you look at the Dome. At its warped iron like broken bones, its drab and gray concrete walls like rotting flesh. The broken brick-organs spill out of the windows and doorways. The vaporized human remains are enshrined there forever, chasing the rainwater out of the lifeless building and onto the lawn to help the grass grow. It gives a home to a little cat trying to stay warm on a chilly February night.
When it comes to Hiroshima, nothing I say will be adequate. I can’t reason or explain away the events of that day. I can’t be stretched across sides and choose what’s right and what’s wrong. All I know is that Hiroshima has left me with incredible a weight of loss and longing, but also a sense of hope I’ve never experienced before. It is my sincerest hope that I never know what it is like to face the brute force of an atomic weapon at my doorstep. It is my sincerest hope that none of you ever experience such a thing in your lifetime. Nothing I say will ever be adequate. Hiroshima has given me something that pangs in my chest like a heartbeat and won’t let go.
This was originally written after my first trip to Hiroshima, Japan, in February 2013.
A Man Gets Into a Cab at the Airport
A man gets into a cab at the airport.
The man -- Adam McArthur -- had a baby face, but the bluish shadows under his eyes and the heavy creases of his brows made him appear much older. He wore a smart camel overcoat, navy suit, dark skinny tie, and black boots. The cab driver's -- Donnie Howard -- eye caught the gleam of an enormous gold watch as Adam slid into the backseat and placed his duffle bag onto the floor. 'Rich guy, huh?' Donnie thought as he absentmindedly traced the face of his own beat-up old Timex.
"Where to?" Donnie looked into his rearview window, but Adam's eyes were locked onto the screen of his smartphone. Taxis next in the pick-up line honked impatiently while a traffic monitor ushered him forward. Donnie rolled his eyes and asked a bit louder, "Hey, buddy, where to?"
Adam finally found what he was looking for and pressed his phone against the plexiglass partition. "Do you know where this is?"
Donnie squinted his eyes to focus on the tiny print of the address. 'Howe Street?' He knew the whereabouts. "Sure, I can get you there." Donnie pulled away from the curb and followed the familiar directions to the freeway.
In the backseat, Adam gazed out the window, his eyes scanning the buildings and new developments. "Wow, this place has changed," he said in a small voice.
"Yeah, lots of changes all over town. You from here?" Donnie asked.
"Born and raised."
"No kidding? Me, too. At least you got out," Donnie laughed.
Adam's face flushed slightly. "Yeah, I guess you could say so."
A strained silence spiraled uncomfortably in the cab until Donnie couldn't stand it any longer. "So...you here for the holidays?"
'Whatever,' Donnie thought after failing to get a response and turned the volume up on the radio to fill the void.
Donnie periodically shifted his gaze to the backseat, but Adam continued to stare out the window. 'What, too good to talk to an old cabbie?' Donnie thought bitterly. Adam was the third business-type passenger to ride in Donnie's cab that day, and the two before him had hardly spoken a word to him. 'Whatever happened to the human connection? Especially around the holidays, for Chrissake!'
Donnie was what his grandkids would call an "old-fashioned man." His children had tried to give him an iPhone for his birthday, but he took it back to the store because it was "too complicated" for the old timer. Now, his contracting company had installed new fandangled GPS units into all the cabs and encouraged drivers to use those instead of radioing into the office for directions. Donnie's rheumatic fingers struggled with the buttons on his GPS unit, but his boss insisted they were "the future" and something about keeping up with "those Ubers."
"Hey, buddy, we're getting close. What was that address again on Howe?"
"Fifty-four ninety-two, Howe Street."
Donnie clumsily punched the numbers into the keypad and eyed the screen while it buffered. "In eight hundred feet, turn left onto Hightower Road," a gentle yet cold female voice informed him.
"It's crazy what these little machines can do. When I was a kid, we'd just use a map! Now your generation would be up a creek without those thing-a-ma-jigs in your pocket!" Donnie looked back and caught Adam's taut lips upturn into a weak grin.
"My Pop says that all the time."
"Ah, one of the old boys, yeah?" Donnie chuckled. "Well, he ain't wrong."
"In five hundred feet, turn left onto Grand Avenue."
"Unfortunately, we're a dying breed, ya know?"
Adam nodded. "It's a damn shame."
"In six hundred feet, turn right onto Rosecrans Boulevard."
"I hope you enjoy your time with your family." Donnie tapped the steering wheel in time with the turn signal. "That's what the holidays are all about, you know?"
"Yeah, I'll do that."
Donnie looked up at the wrought-iron gate, and his heart sank.
"You have arrived at your destination: St. Mary's Cemetary."
Donnie stole a glance in his mirror at the young man's impassive face.
"Christmas is -- was -- Pop's favorite time of year."
"I'm sorry, buddy. I bet your Pop was a good man."
"He was." Adam reached into his back pocket to pull out a worn leather wallet and tried to read the fare on the meter. "How much do I owe you?"
Donnie shut off the meter. "It's an even twenty."
Adam handed him the cash and grabbed his duffle. "Thanks for the ride."
His hand hovered over the door handle, but Adam couldn't seem to open the door. He continued to stare up at the chapel on the hill where, inevitably, Donnie knew his Pop would be waiting for him.
"Take your time, I'm in no hurry."
For another few minutes, Adam sat in the back of Donnie's cab, his hand wavering over the door handle until he was ready. Once he had left, Donnie gave him a little wave through the window and watched him trudge up the hill towards the chapel to say goodbye.
Donnie looked down at his watch to check the time, shook his head in disbelief, and then smiled to himself. He reached up and pulled down his visor; a faded photo of his wife Betsy smiled back.
"Well played, old gal."
Donnie grabbed his worn woolen coat and trapper cap from the trunk and made the same trek up the hill to say hello.
I know your soft voice easing me into sleep is a trap.
"What about everything I've done for you?"
Marionette strings fly from your fingers like fine spider silk -- with every thread I break, another hundred replace it. It's slick yet strong, and neither the sharpest knife nor the greatest amount of resolve I can muster can cut the ties that bind.
You slither from underneath the shadows of my bed and pull me under towards a make-believe stage of wonder, twinkling lights, and lies. I hate this dream, but I can't wake up. I don't want to dance, but the strings lift my wrists high into a halo above my head and my ankles into first position.
"Isn't it better here?"
I'm leaping and spinning, and an audience I cannot see is applauding. The sounds of a beautiful orchestra ring loudly in my ears. My entire body is shaking. I just want to stop, but I can't break free from your strings. No, not strings. "Strings" is too delicate a word. The hefty weight of your presence is more like a chain.
I finally wake from the dream after my spine is forced forward into a low bow, but I can still feel my limbs burning. If I squint hard enough, I can make out faint, red marks from where your strings held me up.
"You need me, and you know it."
Your whispers continue to haunt me as daylight breaks through the stillness of the early morning. I don't want to need you, but I feel too weak to fight back against your familiarity.
Words of Advice
November 17, 2017
Is that how you're supposed to start these things?
Whatever -- I'm leaving this record behind in hopes that someone, someday, will be able to read it. Hoping against hope that we can somehow turn the tide and humanity wins. If so, tell our story, because I'm sure we'll be long gone.
...I can't believe it's come to this. Yesterday, my friend Jess and I were planning our Friday night plans. Today, I shot her in the face before she had a chance to bite me.
Unless the others haven't been bitten and come back with reinforcements, it's only a matter of time before we're next. Morbid as it is, my only source of comfort now is that I die from the infection before I turn into one of those things. They've broken through our primary and secondary defensive walls, and now we can't escape. We're huddled together in the bunker, but we're truly trapped like rats. We're running low on food and supplies. Morale is even lower. One of the old timers told us to keep a spare bullet, just in case.
Mike thinks they can smell fear, not fresh meat like everyone else says, and that's why they're coming for us. I told him to shut up because he was scaring the children, but I can't help but think he is right.
The waiting is the worst part; it's as if they know there's nothing we can do. I'm startled by shadows. Every tiny creak and whisper make me jump. If Mike's theory is correct, I guess letting us stew in our own juices makes us a tastier meal. I can imagine them growing in numbers, surrounding the bunker just in case we try to run, shuffling along by dragging their feet like they do in the old horror flicks. I used to laugh at those B Films. Now, I've never seen anything more terrifying.
My message to you: I know it's only a rumor, but take the vaccine while you still can. I wish that I had. What's the worse that can happen, it kill you?
...does it matter?
P.S. God help us all.
P.P.S. Drink the good stuff.