by Lani (9th)
The children sit in the grass, the woman standing behind them next to her husband. A shaggy dog runs around their feet happily, tongue lolling out. The cameraman is cleaning his lenses, preparing to take their picture. They are patient, keeping silent smiles in place.
The house behind them is what could be called the American dream, twin shutters on every window and trimmed bushes surrounding the front. The house resembles all the other houses in the neighborhood, the same repetitive shape and clean white door, concrete pavement steps and big yard. From outside, you can’t get a good look of what’s inside besides the cotton curtains that hang in the windows. But if you went inside you would see a tidy, little kitchen and a living room with an old-fashioned couch and a black and white tv.
The woman wears a practical blouse and pants, her hair shoulder length in frizzy, dark curls. She burned it on the curling pins in her haste this morning and hid the cut off piece behind her ear. She is tired, but it does not show besides in the small lines beneath her eyes. All unvoiced worries have been packed away with everything else. The man’s small doctoral business has been given over to the Wilsons, next door- for now, until the family returns from their trip.
The man wears a button up shirt with faded stripes and office pants pulled up all the way over his hips- he has pushed his thinly framed glasses to the very top of the bridge of his nose. His hands are shoved down his pockets. He is too hot and misses the air conditioning inside already. He tries to hold very still.
The children are squinting at the camera, the woman cringing slightly as the sun cast their shadows dark over the freshly hosed down green lawn. She has a hand on her son’s shoulder either to hold him in place for the picture or to offer comfort. She gives him a little squeeze of reassurance.
The woman’s and man’s shoulders don’t touch, equally spaced apart- their marriage had been arranged by their parents. The woman had been top of her class and a good cook. The man had been close to his doctoral degree.
The families had both immigrated from Japan and had met a few times before; to them, the man and woman looked like a perfect fit on paper. The woman clutches her handbag. She grips the handle so hard her nails cut into her palms. Of course, the camera will not catch this. Her husband tries to stay even stiller, tries not to move at all, his back is so tense, it hurts. He still does not move.
The woman and man keep smiling as the camera clicks and the picture is taken. They hope they look happy. Their baggage is packed, the house cleaned out; sheets ripped off beds and drawers emptied.
When the family finally returns from their trip, the man will have gotten used to the heat.
1940, Manzar, an Internment Camp
The woman’s name is Hiromi and the heat is making her head boil like it is filled with hot water, cooking on a stove. She glances at her husband who is buttoning up his shirt in front of the mirror. There is a line of sweat on the back of his neck as he tucks down the collar. He doesn’t turn to look back at her though he feels her eyes on him. She looks away to glare at the ceiling. She had a crack shaped like a dog on the ceiling of her room at home. This ceiling only has a leak.
“I’m going out looking for a job today,” he tells her.
“Good,” she nods affirmation at him out of habit.
“I think maybe you should get a job too. How do we survive off of so little money? We need two incomes,” her husband reasons. He waits for her response, to this she isn’t sure how to react. Her job is taking care of the children, managing the household. Without her in the house who would fold all their clothes and do the laundry? Who will make sure everything is exactly where they want it?
“I just think that you should start contributing to the family a little more,” her husband continues, walking to the other side of the room before she can give a full answer.
“Contributing to the family?” She mindlessly echoes his words. Her skin itches with the heat, her skirt sticking to the back of her thighs.
“What about the children?” she insists, trying to keep the sharpness from her voice. She looks over at her children, who lie awake, pretending to sleep- their chests rising and falling too fast to be sleeping. She rests her hand on the back of Kaito’s small, round head with a sort of protectiveness.
“I know that this might be a hard adjustment for you,” her husband keeps his voice low and hushed, his eyes pointedly eyeing the piece of cloth that separates the Satos and the Watanabes rooms.
“But they can go to school now,” he is talking from on the far end side of the room, his voice sounding distant even though it is only a few feet away.
“Okay,” she gives in.
“Yes?” He re-inserts.
“Yes,” Hiromi repeats, making a small nod, her teeth pressing against each other to the point of aching.
“Where did you put my pipe?” Her husband is going through all the neatly folded clothes. His hands scraping the sides and bottom of the suitcase.
“It’s in the side pocket,” she’s quick to answer.
“The children's clothes are a mess now,” she points out
He doesn’t apologize, “Why have you not unpacked already? We’ve been here for at least a week.”
“I haven’t had the time,” she looks at the ceiling again to find that disappointingly, the leak is still dripping.
“Do it today,” her husband tells her. He wipes the sweat on his hands off on his nice pants. Hiromi tries to breathe but the air is suffocating.
All the women are wearing white blouses with their hair up in curls like Hiromi. The women are meeting in a classroom of some sort with a chalkboard and old wooden desks and chairs. One woman has brought an old Vogue magazine she kept in her suitcase. All the other women scramble to get a seat peering over her shoulder.
Hiromi sees the page the woman’s turned to. On it is a beautiful white woman. The woman is dressed in a winter ensemble, a beaded headscarf and two strings of eggshell pearls close around her neck. She is casually leaning against a wall, holding a luxurious grey fur loosely around her shoulders and looking out to something in the distance.
All at once, everyone in the room is discussing the girl in the picture.
“Look at that! Those pearls sure do look expensive,” remarks one woman eagerly, craning her neck to see better. A few agreements are murmured.
“I could never afford that…” One woman trails off, laughing to a friend.
“And the fur, what is that… rabbit?”
“If I had that I would wear it every day out to the town,” one woman laments, looking down at her own coat with disapproval. Hiromi hears the sound of the page flipping, but she’s stopped paying attention. Her hair feels like a wig, itching against her scalp.
“Of course Hiromi isn’t interested in this,” Akari teases. “Too rich.”
Hiromi’s mouth tastes dry, she musters up a retort, her tongue fat and limp: “That’s not true..”
“Don’t lie,” Akari is smiling, but Hiromi isn’t.
“You still haven’t unpacked,” Hiromi’s husband frowns at this.
“I know, I will soon. I was busy today,” Hiromi insists.
“Any luck on finding a job?”
“No,” he says in a gruff voice, taking off his coat. He is ashamed. She can tell by the way her husband looks away from her which he does whenever something is not meeting his standards. His back is stiff as a wooden board as he fishes for some clothes from the suitcase.
“I heard some rumors,” he says.
“What kind of rumors?” She places her hands in her lap, trying not to get too nervous.
“They’re going to make us sign a loyalty pledge.”
“What does that mean?”
“We pledge allegiance to America, it’s to make sure we’re not spies. It’s not a big deal. There’s going to be a war.”
“But we’re not spies,” Hiromi insists.
“Precautions? Was taking us away from home just precautions?” She wonders out loud frustrated. Her husband doesn’t answer, instead, he just zips the suitcase closed with a single motion and goes to lie down. That’s her cue to get the children to sleep.
They are already lying down on their beds, patiently waiting for their parents to finish the conversation.
All the lights are off and shadows stretch and twist into monsters over the creaking floors, old irrational childhood fears rise in her stomach and Hiromi finds herself listening to the sound of the leak again. Drip… drip..
“Are we ever leaving this new place?” Haru suddenly asks in tune with Hiromi’s own thought trail. Hiromi tries to make out the expression of her son in the dark. Is he sad, should she offer some comfort to him? She knows Kaito is listening in too.
“Well-” Hiromi can’t think of anything to say. There is the obvious answer. But she’s never liked being the one to deliver bad news. Her husband has already closed his eyes, meaning he isn’t available to help her out or he purposefully is leaving it up to her.
“I hope we’re not leaving! All my friends are here!” Haru interrupts enthusiastically. Not being able to wait any longer. “I love it here!”
Hiromi wakes up at one in the morning and starts to unpack the bags, her hand shakes slightly as she closes a drawer. There’s going to be a war.
Hiromi falls back onto her mattress to sleep.
Oakland | East Bay, CA