Alan Miller. One seat, business class, from Cincinnati to Los Angeles to Osaka. Selecting the itinerary took seconds. But once he boarded the first plane, doubts struck: he was flying to Japan, the other side of the planet. He was going alone. Not because he needed to, or wanted to, but because no one expected him to. The Alan they knew was tentative and fearful, dependent on Marcus to do everything big: the driving, the navigating, the decision-making.
Now, a month after the funeral, he felt that doing something bold—something only Marcus would do—was the way to free himself from expectations of what his grief should look like. But he had never traveled this far alone. Unable to sleep, he stayed up on both flights, re-reading his guide books and jiggling his knees.
Twenty-two hours later, he landed in the dark. From the shuttle bus Osaka looked no different from any other place. The hotel clerk smiled at his passport and slid him a key card. He took two Ambien in his room and laid down. His last thought before he went to sleep: Why am I not sadder?
He awoke, still in the dark, to a muffled woman’s voice resounding through his room. She spoke first in Japanese, then English. “Excuse me, we have just experienced an earthquake. Please remain unmoving in your bed. Excuse me . . .” He sat up, searching the dim corners for the source. He was alone. The woman’s voice—an automated warning system—repeated the message from the hallway. He had felt no rumbles and wondered how big the shaker had been.
After five more iterations, the voice stopped. He stayed in bed and turned on the TV. He found no word about the quake or aftershocks; such events were probably ordinary in a land built on volcanoes. After a while, light bled in through a crack in the blackout curtains. He kept watching: soap operas, food shows, documentaries about pottery-making.
At home, he had spent every day since the funeral avoiding phone calls and visitors. He took long walks alone and listened to podcasts. History, crime, culture. The subject didn’t matter. What mattered was that voices filled his ears without seeing him or evaluating his level of sadness. There was some comfort in that.
Japanese television was not as comforting. By mid-morning, the gentle programs gave way to manic game shows full of young people and bright colors. After a while he became hungry. He dressed and headed outside.
The district, Dotonbori, was garish and commercial, full of bars and restaurants with neon hieroglyphs he could not translate. Young people moved around him with their eyes averted. His size made him obvious; boorish and lumbering. Deep in his gut he felt another rumble of hunger. Beneath it, there was a restless, untethered gnawing; with dismay he noted it was loneliness.
Though he’d been avoiding contact for weeks, people had checked on him constantly: his parents, friends, Marcus’s family. Their hovering had been welcome, at first, then smothering. Now that he’d moved beyond their reach, he felt their absence like a kind of anger. This confused him. Most of his emotions did, now.
He could not find a restaurant with food he understood. Eventually his hunger waned, replaced with a drive to keep moving. This is what I do, he thought. I walk. Forever if I have to, until I can recognize myself.
After what seemed like an eternity, the tourist area of love hotels and karaoke bars transitioned into a quieter district, lined with sakura trees and ancient temples. A group of joggers passed him on the sidewalk. His legs grew tired. He rounded a corner and saw a long, stone wall, and beyond it, the stacked triangular gables of Osaka Castle. A deep thumping reverberated in the air. Percussion—taiko. Marcus, a music teacher, had been a fan; a month after his diagnosis they’d driven to Columbus to see a touring company perform at the university. The intensity of the enormous drums, and the stomping feet of the dancers, had shaken the floor of the auditorium. After the show, Marcus had bought a CD which they’d never listened to; it was still wrapped in plastic, somewhere on a shelf full of music he hadn’t the heart to touch.
He followed the sound to a rusted iron gate. Through the bars he saw an amphitheater. On stage, a group of performers in casual clothes hammered their mallets in unison. A man stood below them, pacing and nodding his head in time with the rhythm. He looked up and noticed Alan; he waved. “Hello!” In accented English, he added, “We are rehearsing. Come in, please. You can have a free show.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Alan pushed open the gate and joined him. The man bowed. Shoichi, conductor. Alan, American, retired county clerk. Widower. He was surprised to hear himself say this.
Shoichi nodded and offered him a rice ball, onigiri, from a full box. He finished it in three bites, then surprised himself again by asking for another. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder, watching the troupe run through another piece. When it ended, the musicians took a smoke break. Alan awkwardly bowed and turned to leave.
“Please, stay,” Shoichi said. “I need someone to listen. To tell me if it’s successful.”
“I don’t know how.”
Shoichi shook his head.
“It’s not a ‘know’ thing. It’s only a problem if you feel nothing at all.”
When the performers came back from break, Alan took a seat and closed his eyes. The vibrations from the taiko were heavy and commanding; they rumbled up through the ground into the stooping curve of his spine. They seemed to be asking something of him. How long had it been since anyone had asked something of him? He resisted at first, then obeyed.