The narrow passageway inside the front door showed a familiar scene. On the table, a miniature camel from Morocco and my son’s last paper and crayon pre-school project. On the opposite wall, pictures from Vietnam in the Spring and Christmas in New Jersey. The recycling still sat in plastic bags over in the corner under the stairs. That dirty soccer ball was still there too.
Only the staleness of the air was new. That and the fact that this was now where we used to live.
Exactly three months had passed since we locked up and left. It was cloudier then, drops of rain poetic in foretelling the heavier storms to come. Today the sky bore bright patches of blue, with nary a rain cloud in sight. Yet it seemed a blanket now lay draped over the town, a dank invisible veil that fell over the streets and houses and floated right through the walls, not settling on our material world so much as invading our learned concept of existence.
To the west the mountains had donned their thick spring greens; the Matsukawa and Arakawa rivers ran from them, clear and visibly cold. Late morning mists, not yet dissipated, hung over the verdant fields. The sun played hide and seek, casting shadows before the clouds moved in to steal them away once more. The air felt warm and cool in turns.
Fukushima really is a beautiful place. I’d always known this. Perceptions sharpen, though, in certain times. Times of fear, and times of wonder. Times of loss.
Upstairs a jumble of moments-turned-memories sat in disarray. Sheet and blanket lay crumpled on the futon where our younger boy had been taking his nap. My clothes were all over the floor, dumped from their plastic drawers when I needed them on my wife’s fortieth birthday, to fetch water from a neighbor’s well. The rooms were all littered with toys – plastic and wood of a thousand shapes and colors. Under the kitchen table and lining the walls were breakables of every kind, set there in uneasy anticipation of even stronger aftershocks. And everywhere, on top of it all, the palatable sense of a dusting of cesium-137.
I was alone, as I wanted it to be. As I prefer it when there’s nothing to say and everything to do. Or when I don’t know what to say because I don’t know what to do.
‘Before you walk around wipe the floors and everything with a wet rag,’ my wife told me. ‘And don’t open the windows, the air is dirty.’ But if the radiation penetrates the walls what good is keeping the windows closed? Are the clothes in the closet any less contaminated than my t-shirts on the floor? You can take precautions, but what will it really amount to? What good is a wet rag in the face of a nuclear meltdown? I’d do my best anyway. My boys wanted to come home.
But they wouldn’t, save for an hour the next day. We were fifty miles and a minor mountain range away from the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, yet different areas of Fukushima City were reporting differing levels of radiation one meter above the ground. On June 15th, the day of our return, the front page of the Fukushima Minyu reported on the new radioactive ‘hotspots’ – the area around Shinobuyama, the natural centerpiece of the city, was one of them. Our apartment was less than a mile from this. To the southeast, Matsukawa and Tsukidate would be barely habitable if things got much worse. The farms and fields a few miles to the west weren't paradise either, but the air was measurably cleaner there, and staying with my wife's parents up on the peach farm was the safe and prudent thing to do - for the kids - while we closed out our Eastern existence and made our escape once again.
In and around town there were no more lines at the gas stations. Store shelves were fully stocked. People smoked as they drove down Nishi-doro with their arms out the windows; they left their cars running in the 7-11 parking lot as they ducked inside for whatever. Some things indeed hadn’t changed. In complimentary fashion was a new daily column in the paper, a full-page spread called ‘Fukushima Makenai’ – words that defy translation almost as much as the contextual sentiment itself but there doesn’t seem much else to do. The stories in the June 7th issue included the village of Onuma putting out their first newsletter since the earthquake, a group of college students in Koriyama starting a ‘Sunflower Project’ to learn whether planting sunflowers can help reduce the effects of radiation, a small but well-known art gallery in downtown Fukushima opening a new exhibition in a temporary space, and a collection of uplifting anecdotes from people living in shelters across the region.
There is a patch of new blacktop in the middle of the intersection in front of our old building, leveling out a dip that had appeared. Along another street, on the other side of the Iizaka tracks, manholes sit six to sixteen inches above the broken road, pushed out of the ground in a mysterious process that took not a few seconds but days and weeks. The grass and weeds at deserted Inaba Park are overtaking the swings and benches. Homes everywhere bear sheets of blue plastic where the roof tiles have fallen off. My wife’s parents’ house is one of them. Next door it is the same. At the sprawling Azuma Sports Park, six thousand acres of athletics and aesthetics in the relatively cleaner air of the higher western end of town, five hundred people still live in a gymnasium. Their homes are in splinters now, unidentifiable among the rubble bulldozed into massive piles along the coast.
Each morning I drive down to the place we used to live, to clean a little more, to haul another load of boxes and bags back for us to go through – mail this to New Jersey, bring this with us, keep this here for later, give these clothes to Kumi up the road, get rid of that, store this in the shed for now, I’d rather hang onto this but God look at all this stuff.
Moving across town burns hours and days. Moving across the ocean can define an entire chapter of life’s story. We shake our heads when the people at the post office tell us what it will cost to get the first six of our boxes onto a ship in Tokyo Bay. The second-hand store offers close to nothing for the furniture we don’t need; it’s not even worth the half-minute trip from the old apartment down to the corner. But as with our old television and older fridge (‘unsellable’ they told us), we’d have to pay out of our own pockets to drop them off at the recycling center. I remind myself of the silver lining in all of it: for years we held off on replacing these things, thinking we’d be moving eventually, maybe soon. Maybe when the time was finally right. Now we only have old stuff to get rid of.
My mother-in-law tends to the peaches every day, in the rising humidity of the season. My wife takes the boys to a pre-school that bathes in the shade of maple and cedar, up in the fair air of Niwasaka. Sometimes they see their friends there, or meet them after for lunch and ice-cream. I’m glad they have good places to be as I pull apart and pack up rooms and closets and cabinets. They may even be able to spend some time further away from here, in Niigata or Yamagata, maybe even Nagano, before we can head for new hemispheres. If not, we’ll stay here in the cleaner air west of town, just for a while longer. From the outside I don’t know how that looks, but from here there’s not much else we can do for the moment.
We will be okay.