I walked with my son Jay, who was back for a month to visit me in Osaka during his summer vacation from college in the US, by the cramped shop with the sizzling wok that sold deep-fried maple leaves at the start of the path to Minoh Falls. Jay’s mother Machiko, who was engaged to my former colleague and lived in Chicago, would often buy him a small bag of the crunchy leaves before the three of us headed up the path to the waterfall. Jay and I now passed the glass-tubed elevator shaft of the hotel that rises high above Minoh and by a cluster of humming vending machines filled with varieties of cold green tea before entering an uninterrupted stretch of shady forest. Coming back out into the sunlight, we walked under the vermillion bridge near the Buddhist temple where, years ago, we sometimes came across lounging monkeys blocking the path until park workers chased them away with bamboo sticks. Today, there were no monkeys, only unclenching green leaves and a slightly chilly late-spring breeze against our faces. On a warm afternoon, the trail would be full of senior citizens with walking poles; children wearing visored sun hats, and women in high heels as if there were a theater or reception at the end of the trail and not a waterfall. One super-fit middle-aged jogger sped past us with a white towel tucked into the neck of his T-shirt, but the path was almost empty.
Jay peeled open a green apple flavored Hi-Chew packet, the kind Machiko used to coax him forward with on the path when he was little. Did he still remember this? Jay handed me a piece, placing the rest inside of his camera bag. He had also purchased a few Red Bulls. “They’ll help me stay awake so I can sleep at a normal time tonight,” Jay explained. He was still jet lagged. I had never heard such concern from Jay before about his sleeping habits. By the time he was fourteen, Jay sometimes slept until 2 pm on the weekends and then stayed up for twenty-four hours straight. Even as a teenager, I only slept a little longer on the weekend than I did on school days.
After Machiko left us during Jay’s junior year of high school at Osaka International School, when we didn’t quite know what to say to each other, Jay and I played Call of Duty together, after I got home late on one of my after work swim nights–always on Monday, Wednesday and Friday–and couldn’t sleep. I remember him holding the controller in one hand, wiping damp cheeks with the back of his other. When I asked Jay what was the matter, he just shook his head and refocused on the screen as his first-person shooter avatar sought out terrorists. We had an unspoken agreement that Jay could stay up as late as he wanted as long as he made it to school on time. That didn’t always happen, and I was called into the principal’s office more than once as his graduation approached.
I now noticed that Jay’s left middle finger was bruised and swollen and asked him about it.
“It’s no big deal. I jammed it on the climbing wall at school, and I guess it kind of swelled up on the flight.” Jay had a new–and often expensive–hobby every few months. Recently, he had talked on the phone a lot with me about the mountain climbing equipment he had ordered online. But somehow Jay was able to fund his all-consuming, usually short-term hobbies without needing very much of my help. During eighth grade, he ate one ice cream bar every day for lunch and saved his left over lunch allowance until he had enough money to buy a paintball gun.
Jay announced that he planned to climb Mount Rainier. “You should do it with me,” he said. He was wearing one of his decorative English T-Shirts that he had forgotten to pack when he left for college last summer. This one said, “I Will Drink Soup. Go Home.”
Jay well knew I was both out of shape and nervous about heights. “I’m not sure I could manage that, Jay.”
“Sure you could,” said Jay as he pulled his buzzing phone from his right front pocket. It was his high school friend Yuta whom he had planned to meet the next day. Yuta still lived alone in the apartment near the international school rented for him by his father since he was sixteen. Having grown up partly in Los Angeles and Hong Kong, Yuta was bicultural like Jay. His father ran Hyatt Japan and was enormously wealthy. Once he came across Yuta and Jay playing tennis on their private court and offered 100,000 yen to the winner of the next set. How could I compete with that? Jay and Yuta spent a lot of time together, especially after Machiko left. There was a period when the two of them thought it was hilarious to startle sleeping salary men on trains and dash out. “We’re doing them a favor” was Jay’s excuse for a game they boasted about for weeks. When I finally lost my temper and yelled that they needed to stop, Jay calmly insisted it was no big deal and just really funny. On a cold New Year’s Eve during Jay’s junior year, as I visited a local temple hidden in a thick copse that blocked out traffic sounds almost completely, Jay ate sashimi and macaroons in the resplendent Regency ballroom with Yuta and his father. As I waited to ring the bell, the same bell Machiko and had rung yearly for over a decade, a couple of teenaged girls turned around in my direction, covering their giggling mouths with the back of their hands. Sometimes, I worried that Jay thought I was too boring, too careful with money, too bound to routines.
As we came up to the actually rather small waterfall, Jay took his camera out of his backpack, my graduation present to him. He climbed over the wooden fence and slid down the steep bank to the pool underneath the falls. Jay hopped from boulder to boulder, looking back up at me and laughing after he almost slipped into the water. Jay was never really a daredevil, but fascinated by those who were. He liked to explain parkour maneuvers he would never try and horror movies he had watched with friends in gruesome detail to us. I think Jay wanted to share what intrigued him more than goad us, but Machiko didn’t see it that way and didn’t want to hear it. I avoided contradicting Machiko in front of Jay, but I thought she was being unfair to him. Yes, Jay was argumentative, but a lot less belligerent than many kids his age. He just wanted to assert his ideas, to figure out things for himself, to engage us. “Then why don’t you do that,” Machiko shouted at me once. “Why don’t you talk to him?”
When Jay squatted on one knee to take a photo of the waterfall, I followed the angle of his camera lens up to the top of the falls and gazed at patches of water in free-fall too the pool below. As Jay climbed back up the bank, he asked if I could hand him a dust cloth from his camera bag just behind me. When I reached back for the bag, I heard rustling and suddenly Jay’s eyes widened: He scrambled the remaining way up the bank, launched himself off of the top of the wooden fence, and sprinted toward a silvery Macaque clutching something in its right hand. The frenetic monkey froze for a second, hissing at Jay who had scooped up a rock from the side of the path. As the monkey scurried away, Jay launched the rock, shouting, “Hey you!”
Did he really expect to hit the monkey? “Jay, it’s not worth it!” I exclaimed, but he was already out of sight.
I grabbed Jay’s camera bag and jogged down toward the bend around which he and the Macaque had disappeared, passing through charcoal smoke from whole squid grilling on sticks in front of one of the shops. When I came coughing around the bend, I saw that Jay was crossing over a rough, bouldered stretch of the river. By the time I started across myself, Jay had already reached the other side. He made it look so easy, but for me each step took deliberation, and I needed a few seconds to steady myself before moving to the next boulder. Even with being so careful, I still managed to twist my ankle jumping from the last boulder to the shore. I looked back for a moment; a couple of shopkeepers holding twig brooms stared at me as if trying to decide if I were in danger or just an odd foreigner. After twenty years in Osaka, I still encountered such stares, especially when floating around by myself looking at roof tiles and plastic food displays in restaurant windows. These things didn’t really interest me so much anymore; I just wanted to occupy my mind with something other than memories. Sometimes on these walks, I saw young Western men with their Japanese girlfriends. I knew that you shouldn’t overgeneralize about these relationships, but still I knew that some of these men were in love with an idea and not fully aware of the actual person with whom they were holding hands. One of the worst things you can do to someone is freeze them into a single set of ideas that you have about them.
After my first wonderful but lonely year in Japan, I met a pretty and kind woman in a mesmerizing and secure place, a woman who would never have to move away from her family, who could have a well-paid husband, one hopefully more available and open-minded than a Japanese man would likely be. When Machiko and I walked back under cherry blossoms to her apartment in Senri Chuo, it didn’t seem to matter that neither of us were fluent in the other’s native language or that we never thought ahead beyond the next few months. And after we were married, I just assumed that one day we would have children, that Machiko would want to be a mother.
There were no boulders in the last few yards before the shore, and my sneakers were now soaked. No sign of Jay, but I made out a narrow, overgrown footpath heading up the bank. He must have gone this way. It was hard to see where the trail continued, especially now that the sun had disappeared and it was starting to drizzle. Adjusting the camera bag over my shoulder, I took a few slick steps forward, worried that the path would be too steep for me to navigate. I did, though, with a lot of effort manage to pull myself up higher by stepping onto the crook of a branch in a small tree that jutted out from the rock face. I looked farther up the mountain hoping to catch sight of Jay. It was hard to see where the trail continued, especially now that the sun had disappeared and it was starting to drizzle. When I tried to take my next step, I found that my soggy left foot was firmly wedged between the tree and the rock. I gripped tiny protrusions in the crag as tightly as I could and found a spot where I gained the smallest hold with the tip of my free right foot. Gazing at the muddy rock and my muddy hands, I tried to decide what do next other than just not fall.
“Dad!” shouted Jay from directly below me. “Dad, what the hell are you doing?” I was stable enough to turn my head around for a second to see Jay standing on the bank looking up at me, brushing pine needles off of his bleeding elbow.
“I didn’t see where you went,” I said. “And now my foot’s stuck.”
“Can’t you just wiggle it free?”
“It won’t budge.”
Jay climbed up to just below me and grabbed my stuck heel, pounding it with the base of his hand. I started to protest, but then my foot came loose. Jay hopped back down to the bank.
“Thanks,” I said. “I guess it was wedged in there tight.”
Jay waited for me to come down, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to do this without injuring myself.
“Just drop your right foot about a half meter onto the spot where the weeds are growing out of the rock.” I followed his directions. “Now, grab that root just below your left hand. Then you’ll be able to turn around, and you can just step down the rest of the way.” The last steep step sent me stumbling forward, slanting to the right away from Jay before I could regain my balance. Jay and I often seemed to end up slightly askew like this.
Jay pulled his camera bag from my shoulder, removing a plastic tab of pills. “My codeine. I thought that little shit took them.”
“Jesus, Jay, what are you doing with codeine?”
“What do you mean? They’re for my finger.”
“Your finger? I had no idea your finger was that bad.”
“It’s just a sprain.”
“But if a doctor prescribed codeine, it must be serious, right? It wasn’t easy for me, but I would try to have the conversation. With Jay, it is always better to try to have the conversation.
“It’s not serious.”
“And the pills?”
“They’re my roommate’s, actually. He had knee surgery last month.” Jay looked at me and smiled. “Relax, Dad. He said I could have them.“ Jay handed me the tab, waiting for my reaction, or overreaction, as I squinted at the fine print on the back. The Japanese could be pretty strict about these kinds of things.
“I just don’t want to see you get into trouble, Jay.” I handed him back the tab.
“Trouble? For having Tylenol with codeine? Seriously? It’s not like they’re Fentanyl,” said Jay, stuffing the pills back into his camera bag.
I shouldn’t have said anything. When I reached over and tried to zip up Jay’s bag the rest of the way, he pulled away and closed it himself.
As we started back across the water, my ankle twinged when I stepped onto the first boulder. It was going to be a long time before we got back down.
“I’m not sure I can do this, Jay.” He was already two boulders ahead of me.
Jay looked back. “Why not?”
“I twisted my ankle crossing the river.”
“Oh wow,” said Jay. He looked concerned. “Well, I guess we can just turn around and walk back down from this side. Better not to risk it.”
Better not to risk it? This did not sound like Jay.
We started slowly down along the river. There was no marked trail, which shouldn’t have bothered me so much me because the direction was obvious, but I still wondered where exactly we would end up. Walking a few steps ahead, Jay sipped a Red Bull and texted with his other hand, his swollen middle finger sticking out a little, almost as if pointing back at me. My foot ached even more, and I couldn’t hide the fact that I was limping.
When Jay turned his head around, I could see in his eyes what was coming next: “You could take a codeine.”
“No, that’s OK, Jay. No thanks.”
“Why not? It’ll help.”
“I’d rather not.”
“But why not?”
“I’m just not comfortable with the idea.”
“It’s not like they’re addictive.”
“I didn’t say they were. And, anyway, how much are you–how often do you take them?” I asked. The last thing I wanted was to sound flustered, or worse, panicked. I needed Jay to know that there were things that mattered more than my not agreeing with all of his choices. But there was some reason that I could not say this to him directly. Maybe I had gotten too used to keeping my thoughts to myself in a country where I would always be a foreigner. “Ok, fine, Jay. I’ll take one. But just one.”
“You only need one, Dad.”
Jay handed me a pill, looking not so much pleased, but amused. I swallowed the pill.
As we continued along the shore, I could see that more shops and tea houses were opening on the other side, and we were now across from the calm stretch of the river where on warmer days, well-behaved young kids with unscratched knees carrying bright white mesh nets bent down to scoop silvery fish out of the water. Jay once ran along the shore with his net, knees scratched, making speedboat noises while Machiko avoided eye contact with the other mothers. Jay would be spending the second half of the summer with her in Chicago.
We were nearer to the highway on this side of the river, but the weedy bank and wildflowers made it seem far away from Osaka, or for that matter, Japan. As we continued, the trail had some surprisingly steep rises and dips, so I had to pay careful attention to each unfamiliar step right in front of me. Finally the water shallowed to the point where it was easy to traverse the river. My foot wasn’t getting any worse, and I was able to put a bit more pressure on it.
Coming ashore, we passed by a group of retirees sitting by easels painting pictures of stone lanterns. Would this be me one day, pleasantly diverted? Machiko’s sister Yuki, whom we planned to meet later in the day, had asked me several times recently when I would be returning to the US. She didn’t understand why I would continue living in Japan now that I was alone. Jay spent a lot of time at her apartment when I was traveling on business. Yuki had always been so kind to me, even though I think she knew that I was partly to blame for Machiko’s departure, that I had failed to reach her, failed to understand what she was feeling without blaming her for those feelings. Blame didn’t really matter now. Machiko had moved on, and as far as I could tell, Jay had started to as well.
When we got back to the bottom of the path, I limped over to the 7-11 to buy Jay Band-Aids for his elbow, which took longer to find than expected. Once, the fresh, varied choices and odd peacefulness of Japanese convenience stores fascinated me. Now, everything in the store seemed rearranged and overly processed. The onigiri, including the once unthinkable barbecue flavored chicken ones, were in the wrong place, and I passed along what was nearly a full aisle of grotesque plastic-wrapped pastries before coming to the meager selection of first aid items.
I walked back outside to find Jay on the other side of the plaza speeding toward Yuta who was pulling up in a late-model Audi, rap music thumping. I started moving as fast as I could manage in Jay’s direction, the plastic bag with the Band-Aids swishing from my left wrist. I finally caught up with him, breathless. “I thought you guys were going to get together tomorrow.”
“Yeah, well, Yuta had a change of plans.”
“But Jay, your cousins were really looking forward to seeing you today. Aunt Yuki too.”
“And I definitely want to hang out with them.” Jay turned around toward the Audi and held up two fingers.
“They just might be a little disappointed,” I said to the back of Jay’s head.
“What’s the big deal, Dad?” he asked, turning around. “I’ll be here for almost a month, right? And Yuki doesn’t mind.”
“She doesn’t mind? She told you that?”
Jay started to say something then pressed his lips together. Yuta beeped and Jay ran over to the Audi and got in before I could say anything else.
“See you later at Yuki’s, Dad!” called Jay, sticking his head out of the window as they pulled away. The window slid up and the music thumped louder. Yuta and Jay sped by the bus stop where we got off this morning. Without signaling, they pulled onto the main road and disappeared.
When was later?
My mind retraced tracks to Machiko’s teacups scattered around the apartment, the covers pulled over her on a bright fall or spring day, the hours-long arguments with Jay about his grades and “disrespect.” Later, her silences and then the inexplicable “overtime” at her part-time job.
Across the way, the door of the convenience store slid open and the endlessly cycling, hectoring, recorded voice announcing the new limited-time lunch combo offer slipped out onto the plaza. A man on an electric bicycle slowed down to take a look at me. I thought of Yuki’s question about why I was still in Osaka and didn’t yet have a good enough answer for her. Then a breeze stirred behind me and the leathery fragrance of incense from a small family shrine near the start of the path wafted by faintly.
I would never climb Mount Rainier, but I could move closer to Jay. Why not? I felt a bit floaty and detached, although I could still think clearly if I really tried. I turned from the biker’s gaze and, thanks to Jay’s codeine, stepped without limping further away from the path.
Dan Shiffman is a high school English teacher at the International School of Hamburg. His creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, Literary Orphans, the Chariton Review, Abstract Magazine and X-Ray Literary Magazine. He also recently published College Bound: The Pursuit of Education in American-Jewish Literature (SUNY Press).