I recognized the woman at the door immediately, despite the mask that covered her nose and mouth. I knew her daughter too, as one of my son’s many pre-school friends. ‘Konnichi-wa,’ I said, trying in vain to recall either of their names. The woman offered a slight bow, awkward enough with her daughter on her hip, forget about the underlying circumstances. ‘Kevin-san, domo.’ She handed me a small, heavy plastic bag.
My wife had said she’d be dropping by, with milk formula for our little boy. In the intervening moments I’d forgotten her name, but I remembered very clearly one thing my wife said: she was going to be driving to Sendai.
‘I’m leaving tomorrow,’ she said in response to my casual query. I glanced over at her boxy car, already half-stuffed with blankets and bags. ‘Are there any buses running out of Sendai, do you know?’ I asked. She shook her head. ‘Maybe, but I don’t know.’ With this we both understood: I was looking for a way out of town, and while she really would like to help…
Even if we got to Sendai where would we stay?
I paid her for the milk, thanked her for her exceptional kindness – by now the common sentiment was that no one wanted to be outside any longer than necessary – and we wished each other luck.
My wife was holding our little boy at the top of the stairs. ‘What should we do?’ No gas in the car, no gas at the gas stations, no buses or trains and reports of rain clouds blowing in from the southeast. Damned if I knew what we were going to do – an answer that, for the first time in my life, wasn’t going to cut it. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have the option of passing for now, didn’t have the luxury of choosing my way, or saying screw it and choosing no way at all. Staying put, I’d be placing my family at risk – of something I didn’t even understand. I had to find an answer. I had to find a way where there was none. And it occurred to me that all my life I had been avoiding having to do exactly that. This time, for the first time, I couldn’t say screw it.
I called two friends; one had gas in his car but wasn’t going anywhere, the other would take off if he could. I wondered aloud if there might be any gas in my wife’s father’s truck, and if we maybe couldn’t siphon some out. Or maybe we could convince one of the neighbors to sell us the gas in their tank. Or do you think our car would run on kerosene? Do you want to try hitchhiking?
The idea surfaced in my head and I knew it wasn’t going away: I was failing my family.
‘Akita,’ my wife said, and I immediately felt something in me lift. I knew exactly what she was thinking.
Our neighbor, from downstairs and over one, was from Akita prefecture, a fair distance to the northwest. We only knew where he was from because of the license plate on his full-size Volvo wagon. We’d been neighbors for almost a year now, and while it was nothing out of the ordinary for Japan, I found it decidedly regrettable, on more than one level, that I still didn’t know his name.
I ran to the window and looked out at the parking lot. His car wasn’t there. I bounded down the stairs and threw open the door, expecting nothing but a deserted street.
There was his car, in front of his place. No one was inside, but the motor was running. Same with another car, waiting along the opposite curb. With my sneakers barely on my feet I jumped down the front steps. This, I knew, was the answer my family needed. The answer I needed. I eased over toward my neighbor’s open door. He plays soccer for Fukushima United, I reminded myself. He wears number six. Out of all the things to notice about a person I notice his laundry, hung to dry now and then out on his balcony.
‘Hey,’ I say as he appears from his darkened front hallway. He smiles. He always smiled when I said hey, as if inviting me over to trade a few words while wondering whether we’d have anything to say to each other. ‘Hey,’ he says back, and I hate that I don’t know his name.
He was on his way to Morioka, he told me, to visit his brother before continuing on to Akita and his home. His girlfriend wasn’t going with him; she’d be staying with her family, right there in town. The look in his eyes as he said this told me he didn’t think she was making the right decision but who was he to tell her to leave her family behind. This, I didn’t mention, was exactly what my wife had already decided to do.
In the next few seconds a silence hung between us. There was no room for small talk here, no time to get to know each other first before stumbling into the conversation we both knew was coming. And as helpful and generous as Japanese people are inclined or bred to be, I sensed a reluctance on my neighbor’s part – a guy I knew not by name but by a number – to let us into his car and his plans and his immediate future as our best friend and savior. And just for a moment, I hesitated.
To hell with pride, dignity and social graces. This was my chance to get my family out of town.
‘I can only take you to Morioka,’ he said. That was fine. It was fantastic. ‘And I’m not sure where you can stay. The hotels might be full.’ He probably knew as well as I did the situation – in other words, he didn’t have any idea either. ‘We’ll figure it out once we get there…if you can get us there…’
In every other situation, in every other moment of my life, I would have felt like I was imposing and ended up offering the guy an out. If you’re too busy… If there’s not enough room… We can probably get a ride from someone else… But not today. Not now.
‘Can you wait ten minutes?’
For the next twenty-five minutes our new friend waited – ‘I’m Jun,’ he said with a smile – while my wife and I stuffed into two big bags everything we thought we might need for a few days or weeks or maybe a month or two. ‘Put a few books and some cars or trains in your backpack,’ I told my son. ‘Okay,’ he sang, grabbing his Thomas the Tank Engine book bag and picking out what he wanted to bring as if we were going to Grandma’s for the night. We packed a few plastic bags with what food we could eat straight out of the box or bag or can; my wife took care of the baby’s stuff while I took four of everything from my older son’s dresser and stuck it all in with mine. My wife grabbed our passports and her cameras (leaving the battery chargers behind). I slipped a notebook into my backpack, leaving laptop, flash drives and ten years worth of photographs for another day.
‘Switch your main breaker off,’ Jun said as I packed our bags into his car, on and among his own stuff. ‘And bring some blankets if you can.’ Blankets? ‘Yes, it is still very cold in Morioka and my brother doesn’t have many extra blankets.’ This sentence, simple and bloated with meaning, told me that I’d heard what I thought I heard Jun say into his phone as I was dragging our bags down the steps to our front door. Number Six was doing what I had seen so many people do in the past few days, and what so many people I would read about later would do. Jun was reaching out, helping where help was needed. My neighbor, whose name I’d never bothered to learn, was being, simply, Japanese.
I was tearing up and down the stairs, going back for odds and ends as I thought of them. ‘Sorry, I’m really sorry,’ I said, finding side pockets and empty spaces to cram things into. ‘No problem,’ Jun said as if we were not yet late for a picnic. His girlfriend too waited patiently, texting someone as she stood in Jun’s doorway. At long last we locked our front door, too much in a rush at this point to pause and wonder when we might be back. ‘Maybe you should put your masks on,’ Jun said easily as we drove off, raindrops dotting the windshield.
On the news I’d seen one structure in town – an old three-story school building – that had partially collapsed. Other than that I’d only seen toppled three-foot cinder block walls, old wooden fences leaning over into the weeds and a few new bumps and divots in the sidewalks. On the way to Jun’s girlfriend’s house it was a different if not entirely catastrophic picture. A lot of the homes in that neighborhood were of a more traditional type, with rooftops made of clay tiles. Here and there they sat broken now, in piles under the eaves and scattered in gardens, the holes in the places where they’d fallen from now covered with swaths of blue tarp.
I expected Route 4 to be snarled with traffic, half the city headed south toward Tokyo, half crawling toward Sendai and parts further north. But there were only a handful of us waiting at any given red light. Cars were scarce; commercial trucks were all but non-existent. As we passed through Kunimi and Koori and headed for the countryside the road population thinned to almost nothing.
The world itself looked no different. The road was the road, lined with buildings and stretches of forest and field. Cars were cars, and while there were fewer of them than usual this could be explained away if need be. No one was speeding or driving recklessly; abandoned storefronts – the only visible clues to the altered state of existence – were left undisturbed and alone. No sirens, not even a patrol car. Then we came upon a small one-story cement garage crumbling in on itself, waiting, it seemed, for the next big aftershock, or gravity or a piece of heavy machinery to put it out of its misery. Soon we were crossing into Miyagi; signs for Sendai began appearing. I felt like we were delving into the mouth of some kind of invisible beast.
Conversation came in gentle spurts. I learned that Jun had recently traded in his number six for a coach’s jersey. He was from Ohdate, where my wife and I had actually gone a handful of years ago, to see a huge fireworks display. He liked Fukushima. He knew he and his friends could be a bit boisterous at night sometimes and apologized for the noise. He asked where we were from, and asked if we were planning on ever moving to the States. ‘It might be a good idea to leave Japan for a while,’ he said, that smile still hanging around. I told him if we did he was absolutely welcome to come visit us someday, and stay with us for a while, wherever we might be living. Jun said that sounded great. And while we were both being sincere, it felt like a conversation you have with people you don’t think you’ll ever see again.
Traffic turned heavy as we neared the heart of Sendai. Still, aside from the occasional ramen shop or convenience store with all-but-empty shelves, doors remained locked, windows remained dark, parking lots sat empty. At a roadside gas station light fixtures hung low, metal framing bent like a witch’s accusing fingers over the pumps. In a gravel lot rows of tour buses sat in noticeable disarray; three of them had rolled off into the surrounding drainage ditch. A cement factory silo, twenty meters tall, leaned like the Tower of Pisa. The road cleared again as we left Sendai behind, heading back out into a landscape of trees and rice fields and rivers where the only signs of the quake came in the form of uneven joints in the road where earth and bridge surfaces used to meet with barely a wrinkle. We had to slow down a little more at each successive bridge as we made our way into Iwate.
Jun took his mask off. I’d stripped mine off long ago. I offered to drive if he needed a break. He smiled and said he was fine. We talked about stopping for a bite to eat, but we just kept on moving north. I dug out my cell phone and answered messages, one by one, left by friends who had taken off and friends who, for one reason or another, were staying behind, at least for the time being. The words we all used differed but the basic message was the same: Take good care, stay safe, and I’ll see you again when it’s over.
In the back seat my older son looked at picture books and fiddled with his toy cars. I wondered what he might say to his pre-school friends, if he only knew.