“The Usual Pain” by Marc Kaufman

When I left the house today mother was on the balcony banging the dust from the futons. It had been snowing for more than a week and you remember how cranky she gets when she can’t put the laundry out and clean. Maybe the futons had sat for a week longer than usual, but while they suffered I couldn’t help but imagine that some of her wrath was meant for me. She hardly noticed me or watched me go. It’s been that way between us for a long time. Arisa, you must go to Tokyo to help Mai, she said, and though I knew I should, I deliberated before deciding. You know me. There isn’t a decision alive I haven’t dragged back from extinction. Arisa, there is no one else who can go, she said and looked at me the way she always looked at everyone, stone-faced, expecting the world to bend to her will. Do you want your sister to lose her business? I didn’t, but it felt too soon to go anywhere, and besides I was never the one who wanted to move to that awful city. She punished me for being unsure, and then when I said I would go she punished me for hesitating at all. I should have never gone back to their house to begin with, you would have been so angry with me, but I couldn’t stay in our apartment anymore.

Father drove me the half-hour to the station in Morioka and waited near the ticket gates until I was gone from sight, like I was still in junior high school, about to set off on a school trip. Last night he drank a thimble full of that Scotch whisky you gave him and made it last for hours. The way he drank it you would think it was the last bottle on earth, but it was a gift from you and he must believe drinking it honors you. I wished he’d finished it already. He dragged it out so long, with every drop I felt like I was losing you again.

There was an older salary man sleeping next to me on the train. He smelled rank with sweat, like he’d been traveling for days in the same clothes. Is that what it was like for you? All those trips up and down the country? All those flights to those small Asian cities? On the train I felt as though I were with you. You’re in the fabric, in the air somehow. The train went so fast. Before I knew it, I was as far from Iwate as I had been in years. The man next to me snored and snored as though he were showing off. It was you, wasn’t it? Showing me how easy it is. Trying again to teach me to sleep without you.

It took twenty minutes but Ryu finally found me. Tokyo station is an underground city. I’ve never seen so many signs pointing in so many directions. All those colors for all those train lines. All those people walking so fast, each of them knowing exactly where to go. It made me feel more lost. I think you were walking in circles, Ryu said but he wasn’t the least bit angry. He was wearing that Tigers cap he always wore and a thick winter coat over jeans and dark shoes. I can’t argue with him over baseball like you did, but he’s easy enough to talk to. He’s just like my sister, the first thing he asked was, Are you hungry?

Don’t laugh at me for being stubborn. I know I should have taken Ryu’s advice. I should have let him take me back to the apartment first like he wanted to. I just couldn’t. Can you understand that? If mother found out that I waited for my pregnant sister to finish work before seeing her, there would be no end to the silence she would scold me with. Shimokitazawa is a labyrinth. Small streets take you down smaller streets. Everything is so close together. I had forgotten.

We went into the café with my bags, which just jammed up the already jammed up space. There were four or five people at the counter, men mostly, even a foreigner. There was one couple sitting in the corner by the window, and a small group of women eating cake and drinking coffee. Mai was balancing bowls of rice and curry and glasses of beer, shuttling her pregnant body back and forth between the tables and the counter and the small hidden kitchen. Before I knew what was happening I was taking orders and clearing plates.

They live near the top of one of those thin, tall buildings near other thin, tall buildings. I’ve never lived above the second story of anything in my entire life and I swear I could feel my ears pop in the elevator all the way to their high floor. You wouldn’t have believed your eyes—how modern it was. I thought I had walked into the pages of one of those architecture magazines they have at the salon. The living room is a wall of windows and all the floors are dark hardwood. There are two bedrooms. They sleep in the larger of the two, and Ryu uses the other for his writing study. I’m on the couch for now, but I don’t mind.

I guess there was an embarrassing amount of money after the popularity of Ryu’s last book. You remember, the one about the girl who was abducted by the North Koreans. Secretly I think he resented its popularity and wanted to make the money disappear into something. At the very least, he seems much happier writing another one of those Detective Sato books, and is now furiously working in his study, morning and night, trying to get a draft done before the baby comes.

Our first night together we just sat looking at one another. Every part of my body that could move hurt with some unknown pain. Mai put her feet up and complained about not being able to smoke. Ryu and I drank some wine and ate some of the fruit father sent with me. They said, Thank you so much for coming. They said it a lot. I said, I’m happy to be able to help. I wonder if they felt the same about needing me as I felt about being needed. You know we were never close. Maybe it’s because I am so much younger, maybe it’s because she left home before I got a chance to know her. Eleven years is a big difference.

There is a garden on the roof you can use, Mai said. I never go up there but I’m always meaning to. It was one of the perks of buying a place on the upper floors. She was trying to be kind so I didn’t interrupt her, but just the idea of it—me in a garden. It’s too funny. Now I almost have to go up there and plant something and let it die so she won’t ask me again.

They never say your name. They never put themselves into situations where they have to say it. More people protecting me. They never mention that I was married or what happened. It’s like I was born from the Shinkansen. Sometimes I don’t mind it. Here there is no past, only a future. They talk about cherry blossoms in spring, beaches in the summer. I admit waking up here feels clearer. Before, my brain in the morning felt as cloudy as unsettled tap water. I’ve stopped believing the whole thing was a dream. I’ve stopped thinking a good night sleep will bring you back. It doesn’t mean I’m forgetting you, or that you can’t come back to me if you find a way.

There are fourteen recipes to memorize along with five desserts. Of the fourteen only half seem to get ordered often enough to pay attention to. No, I’m not going to tell her that. Did I tell you that not a single recipe is written down? Not a one. Mai’s been working alone so long that she just cooks right from her head. Some of them she stole from mother, like the batter for the tonkatsu that everyone loves, so I’m on firmer ground there. Some of it is easy enough, like taco rice and some simple salads with sliced avocado and chunks of expensive mozzarella, but most of it is beyond me. There is a meat in a demi-glaze that I keep burning. My first few days in the kitchen were…well, let’s just say I have to practice. I also have to practice at being fast and not getting burned. You should see my forearms—they would scare you. There are some rules. Everyone gets water. For the regulars who sit at the counter she puts out some simple ostumami like nuts or rice crackers that come from giant plastic tubs she buys from the American wholesale stores. She keeps the air-conditioner at twenty. It never goes above twenty. Even if you learn someone’s drink, I mean even if they come in every day and order the same thing over and over and over again, you still have to ask first. There is no chance in this lifetime that the quiet old man who owns the vegetable store will ever order anything other than imo shochu on the rocks, but Mai says it could happen. Maybe if we have the chance to change our drinks, we can change our lives.

During the day it’s quiet. There are smatterings of people off the streets eating the lunch specials, or wandering shopping couples sharing ice cream over warm chocolate brownies and drinking tiny individual pots of coffee. Mostly I don’t say anything. You know me. What was it you said about me, my tongue is like my appendix? Just as useful for how much I use it.

By five-thirty, the counter crew starts to fill in. It’s the same five people or so every night. Ryu’s friends: Yuta, Moriya from the vegetable shop, the foreigner Jake, and sometimes his roommate, Ryan. Occasionally Mai’s friends Kanae and Nao come to even out the gender wars. They are an odd group. So intimate with one another and yet so impersonal. Sometimes I feel privileged that they talk to me at all, even if just to ask me for another drink.

By eight or nine, most have moved on to the next place. At ten we lock the door and clean up and make notes for the next day. These early days feel so long. It will get easier, Mai keeps saying. You’ll work less. How many times did I say that to you? Love, it will get easier…Love, you’ll work less.

It never did. You never did.

Now I know how it feels to be reassuringly lied to.

Something’s happened. Mai’s in the hospital. There was blood. So much blood. I was so scared. It happened in the middle of the night. They shouted at me to call a taxi, but I didn’t know the number. I called emergency. We went right to the hospital. Her face. It’s okay. It’s okay, she kept saying, but her face. All she ever wanted was to be married and after that all she ever wanted was to have a baby, and since both came later in her life, I think for a while she never thought there would be either.

They hooked her up to a fetal monitor and told her the baby was ok. We’re going to keep you here for a while, just to keep an eye on things. Complications are sometimes common in women your age. There is nothing to worry about, the doctor said. He had perfect teeth and strange square hair. I didn’t trust him and neither did Mai, though she smiled her usual smile. We can close the café for a few days, she said.

No…it’s okay…I’ll be fine. You just rest. She gripped my hand hard, so hard I could feel the terror in it. She was on the edge of it, looking over and not seeing anything below that could catch her. I understood it.

Finally, we were sisters.

It’s madness. I don’t know what I’m doing. I throw away half of what I make, and spend my day apologizing to people too kind to care. The counter crew has stopped ordering food. Partly out of pity, I think, partly out of fear for what I’ll carry out of the kitchen. Costs are going up. I’m over ordering milk and vegetables and under ordering that chocolate syrup and those little brown sugar cubes that go with the coffee. Twice last week I’ve had to tell people I was out of something they wanted. Mai would be so embarrassed. I’m wrecking everything. What did they expect? I keep hearing mother’s voice, Arisa, you must go help MaiDo you want your sister to lose her business? 

This was a terrible idea. This is your fault.

At the hospital Ryu does his best to be bright. He brings Mai small arrangements of flowers every day and removes the previous ones before they have a chance to consider wilting. Tell me about the chapter you’re working on, she presses him. I don’t want to bore you, he says. You have to keep working, she tells him, the baby is not gonna let you sleep. That’s okay, he tells her, I write best tired. That’s when she turns to me straight faced and asks, He’s writing? He’s working? He hasn’t stopped? I take her warm hand and say, He’s writing. He hasn’t stopped.

He has stopped. He isn’t writing. He wakes every morning before six and showers and puts on his button-down shirt and jeans and black blazer and that Tigers cap and sits in his small room listening to jazz and waits with his phone in his hand. Sometimes I call his name and ask him, Do you want me to make you some coffee? Working, he says. He’s letting his hair go gray. I try to leave for the café earlier to give him some privacy. The apartment is a couple of stations away from the café, but it’s an easy walk, at least theoretically. There is a left by a Daiso I keep missing. Also it’s a bit cold now. I know. I know it’s not cold. Not our cold at least, but the wind can get vicious when trapped in those narrow streets. I haven’t seen any snow and doubt I will. I won’t miss the way you always had so much fun with me, always up to no good walking behind me, looking for the perfect, wet handful of snow to put down my back. You thought I didn’t know what you were doing and when you would do it, but I always did. I won’t miss the way I turned sometimes before you could do it, and wrestled it from your hands, not caring if it meant we’d fall to the ground, rolling and laughing, together children of the snow.

Sometimes I can’t remember that I was ever the object of my sister’s envy, how jealous she was that you married me right after university. Remember our August wedding in those beautiful gardens? All of your plans for us? All of your promises? It’s cold here in January. I know. It’s not cold. It’s not our cold, but I feel colder. The walk is longer than it should be. I keep missing the left at the Daiso.

I hate you. I mean it this time.

Don’t tell Mai. I’ve had some help. There were events—a series of events. I was drowning. It was a Wednesday, a Wednesday for god’s sake and we were slammed. On the weekends I anticipate the rush more, I line up plates, I prep a little. I’ve gotten better, but it was a Wednesday and the counter crew was in and they were snacking on some edamame and racing each other to the bottom of their glasses. It was almost eight so I thought they’d be gone soon enough, and half of them did leave. Moriya and Yuta and Nao. The tall foreigner, Ryan had come late so the other foreigner Jake stayed with him while he finished his drink. Then the rain started; a real downpour. Three women dressed in near identical suits wandered in dripping. I got the first couple of plates out no problem, but then another group of four came in and took up the other table near the window. Before I knew it the entire place was crawling with people, all of them wet and hungry, and searching the food menu in a way that scared me. It took only twenty minutes for it to go bad. I kept hearing, sumimasen, shouting from outside the kitchen. It rang in my head. I couldn’t go back out there. I wondered what would happen if I just stayed in the kitchen the rest of the night, if I found some place to hide, would everyone just go home? Again, I kept the heat up too high and the sauce was burning, actually smoking in the pan. Maybe that’s when I started to cry. It had been coming for a long time. And just when I committed to waiting them all out, to never going out there no matter how many times they called, the curtain parted and the tall foreigner came in. He barely spoke any Japanese, but he put a hand on my shoulder and took the pad where I wrote the orders down and took it back outside to the other foreigner who speaks more Japanese and reads a little too. He came back in and motioned to his glass, and then motioned to the room, and then he just went to work. Within minutes he located everything in the kitchen he needed. My pan with the burnt sauce was submerged in water and he was starting it again from the beginning, instructively pointing at the knob to the burner and the height of the flame, pinching his thumb and index fingers close together.

Little, little…

I just stood and stared and tried, a hundred times, to tell him to stop but my throat was dry and sandy. My tongue couldn’t remember ever having spoken any language at all. Still in his suit and tie, slightly hunched by his height and the cramped size of the space, a smile dashed from cheek to cheek, he managed the pans and spoons and pots with such intention. He looked like Mai back there. I tapped the middle of his back and pulled his jacket from his shoulders and hung it on a hook inside the curtain. From my apron, I took out a clean cloth and stretched up to his head, so close to him I could smell traces of his sweet cologne, and patted the sweat away and went back out to manage the drinking of all those people trapped by the rain.

Yesterday a man stabbed three people on a train platform not far from here. It was all over the news. Security and some passengers wrestled him to the ground and held him until the police came. Two of the people died, the other, a young woman around my age is still in the hospital. The police have tried to black out his face and hide his identity, but the newspapers have printed a picture from an old work ID. His parents have gone on TV and apologized. The newspapers are running a quote from his father shouting in the jail, Couldn’t you have just killed yourself? I can’t help but think the father was wrong. No way he meant that. No father wants his son dead. True it’s a tragedy. A horror. But there is something I know more than I know anything and I know it so deeply it has got me by the lungs. If I was able to get to you while you still had one breath left in your chest, after they pulled you from that mess you made of yourself, if there was one chance to scream at you, I would have said, Couldn’t you have just killed someone else?

Mai came home from the hospital. The doctor said the worst is behind her, but now she is going to live with my parents for a while. Ryu is sad but I think also relieved. You need to work, Mai said and keeps saying. You don’t need me in the house bothering you all day. The baby is gonna be in the house bothering you soon enough. When she says things like that he puts her face in his hands and pushes her hair out of her face and kisses her nose and her eyes and says, You never bother me. Mai laughs. I know that laugh. In crisis, when you have summoned your better selves, your calmer spirits, you think we forget all those other times when you were so impatient.

I wanted to be supportive. Let me help you pack. I took her suitcase out from under the bed. We worked together quietly, folding her clothes, making small calculations about what she would need and how much of it. I could see she was going to say my name and then she didn’t and then she did. Arisa…I know this isn’t what I said it would be. I kept folding. No one could have known, I said. The café is going to be fine, I said hoping it didn’t turn out to be a lie.   

Tuesdays. I worship Tuesdays. Tuesdays I sleep late and wake up with thoughts so blank and undirected that it feels like a permanent sugar rush. How did you describe your weekends when you had a weekend? Regenerative. For those hours your brain put itself back together piece by piece. I know I said I understood, but I never did. Not really. But now I do. Tuesdays are everything. Tuesdays I eat three meals at normal times, and unless I’m cooked for, I’m only capable of buying convenience store food and pressing buttons on the microwave, and sometimes not even that much. I prune my body in the bathtub only to return to my couch to read ridiculous fashion magazines or watch stupid movies. I cut the day up into pieces and take to them the way father takes to your scotch. You should wander…see the city, Ryu is always gently insisting. He starts to name all the places I haven’t seen. Shibuya, Harajuku, Omotesando, Ginza, Ebisu.

It’s cold outside. I’m happy here, I chirp back. When he pushes too hard I hold back frowns and pull on clothes, take some chocolate with me, and go to the roof. There are two long benches and some chairs around a small plastic table. The garden that Mai talked about is small and fenced in and there are wood plaques with family names on them separating the small rectangles of dirt. Now nothing grows. Someone is trying cherry tomatoes but a frost last week took care of that. At the top of the world it’s TV antennas and satellite dishes. Competing rooftops laid out like twisted vertebrae, the crooked spine of the city. Everyone said from up here I’d be able to see Fuji, but I haven’t yet. What is it that they say? Fuji only reveals itself to you when it wants you to see it. Maybe that’s where you got it from…just like all the other men who thought they’re as important as mountains. Let it stay hidden.

I don’t know if I should tell you this. Maybe you know it anyway, maybe you have that power of knowing. The foreigner has been helping me. No. Not just that one time. In the kitchen we’re an odd pair. He’s so tall and I’m, well you know me. Sometimes you wondered if I were even real. I am real. All of me. And I’m not that short anyway. Five feet is five feet and I’m sure fifty years ago or longer I would have stood right in the middle of all those women.

What was I saying? Oh. The foreigner. He’s been staying after closing sometimes to teach me about the menu. He wants to drink, but I make coffee. It’s like a silent movie—everything is gesture and example, oversold smiles and exaggerated sounds of understanding or confusion. He has absolutely no interest in learning Japanese. I’ve tried to give him some words, name the things back to him that he names, but he just waves it off or pretends like he’s remembering but he never remembers. The times I get things wrong, too much paprika, too much salt, cutting the peppers too jaggedly, he puts his hands on my hands. You were the only man who ever touched me with any intimacy, and being a widow at twenty-six I imagined it would stay that way. I know he feels my ring. Even if he could ask I’m not sure he would. I think he knows you’re gone, but not how. I heard he’s divorced, but nothing more. Even if I could ask, I’m not sure I would. We’re keeping the whole thing a secret, just between the two of us.

I’m getting better at everything.

What would you say if I told you that sometimes I make mistakes just so he’d put his hands on my hands?

What do you think about tattoos?  Hear me out. I was walking Inokashira Dori last Tuesday and I saw this sign for a shop. I’ve always been curious. Bet you didn’t know that. That’s right, I’m sure you didn’t know that. Do you remember Fumie Asagawa? We went to university with her and she went off to Canada her last year. Right before she left, without anyone knowing, she had a tiny yellow flower tattooed on her hip. When I say tiny, I mean you could hardly see it. I had never seen anything so small look so dangerous. What was all that ignorance we were told? Only criminals?

The place is on the second floor and smells of the alcohol they use to clean the needles. It’s not what you’d expect it to be. Well, okay. It’s not what I expected it to be. It’s not dirty or den-like, like in the movies. There are chairs that remind me of the chairs in barbershops. In one of the chairs was a normal looking man having his arm worked on by a thin guy with a reddish orange flame like Mohawk. They barely looked at me. At the counter was a young man, I’m guessing eighteen or nineteen. He was wearing a Clash t-shirt and had on jeans that looked like they had been ripped by a machine. He had a series of dark waves tattooed on both sides of his neck and was sitting on a high stool reading manga. Every few seconds he reached down and sipped some can coffee. I couldn’t have been more invisible to him. Just when I was going to back out as quietly as I came in, he looked up from his comic and said, Yeah? I swallowed really hard. I just wanted to know…does it hurt? He sipped once more from his can and put his eyes back into his book. It hurts, he said. Trying to get closer to what I wanted to know, I swallowed hard again and asked, What kind of pain is it?  He put his book down on the counter and shook his empty can. The usual pain, he said and then tossed the can into a basket against the opposite wall. Not knowing what to say I repeated it back to him, The usual pain? He nodded. That must settle it for women like me who happen into the place on a whim, but I made an appointment.

Mai came home. Ryu is set to keep her hostage in the apartment. He uses my name to reassure her. Arisa has everything under control, he keeps saying, You don’t need to go back there. If only they knew the truth. But it’s good to have her home. Ryu’s back to clicking in the mornings and waking me up with his jazz. Mai is doing her best to do what he says, though I think she’s crawling out of her skin.

She’s come to the café a couple of times, just to say hello to everyone. The counter crew is back to not smoking in front of her. They discourage everyone else also. When she’s there, she makes lots of phone calls and the place fills. Just having her there makes it all easier to manage. They love her. They love her so much that now their love is filled with an unspoken sadness, the knowledge of how it’s changing, spinning further and further from those late nights when she locked the door and they all sat around sharing stories over a bottle of wine.

The bitterness of February has eased a bit. Mai is getting so big. Bigger and bigger. It won’t be long now.

What did you say about Tokyo? No point living where the people are already dead. Or did you mean all cities? Even Morioka, barely a city, was too much for you at times, that’s why you wanted to live where we did, on the outskirts, close to our families, only minutes from all of the places we knew as children. Nothing tall enough to obscure Mt. Iwate and all those slopes and ranges in the distance. I see some of what you meant. The way people sleep exhausted chin to chest on the trains. Everyone walking around with wires hanging out of their ears. I see some of what you meant but not all of it. Sometimes when I get stuck between a rush of people, or hear the manga reader wailing away at the south side of the station, or see the student musicians playing confidently to no one in front of the blue bank late at night, I feel something. What I feel I don’t think I feel alone. Sometimes when the baby is kicking Mai’s insides black and blue, she presses my hand against her belly. This is your aunt, she whispers. This is your family. What I feel, I feel most then. That trembling.

You know how much I loved your eyes. So dark they were almost discolored. When you looked at me, bringing to bear their full power I could never disagree with you. Especially when you came back from one of those long trips, so tired, almost sad. Heaped and crossed-legged on the floor, doing your stretches. The plane is going to cripple us all, you always said. Don’t even get me started on the trains, you always said. You were so resentful for always having to spend so much time away. I think sometimes you overacted to prove how much you hated it. And the sex that followed. Embittered more than impassioned. How tightly you gripped my sides, how forcefully you held my head. It never hurt, but sometimes I thought it was heading that way. I was never as fragile as you thought I was. You could have been a little rougher if you wanted to, you could have been a little more honest with your hands. I wouldn’t have minded a little more of your pain.

Ryan has been walking me home. Just sometimes. Don’t get the way you get about it. After the stabbing everyone has been so afraid. I’m fine…nothing is going to happen to me, I always tell them. It’s not the strangers I worry about. In this country we have more to fear from the people who love us or say they do. Still I’m outnumbered so sometimes Ryu comes to the café before I close, but he can’t come every night, so sometimes Ryan walks with me. Don’t get the way you get about it. Maybe I never talked to anyone because if I did you looked so sad about it. Your poor face would sour terribly, as though you could see me being taken away from you. Didn’t you know I never could? I don’t blame myself for that. Finally. If you couldn’t see it, then you were blind to it.

We walk virtually in silence. He’s so tall my legs hurt the whole way trying to keep up. I swear he takes one step for every five of mine. And I can tell that he’s even slowing himself down, shortening his steps, making himself appear clumsy and mixed up so he won’t get so far in front of me that I have to race to catch up. We’re quite a pair. Our wires get crossed most at the traffic lights. Blinking greens slow me down, and I am frozen stiff at every red, even if there is no one for miles. So impatient with the city, unless a car is right on top of him he races across. When I reach him on the other side he says yukkuri, yukkuri. It’s the wrong kind of slow, but I never correct him.

Did you have a secret life? Was there another woman or a man even? Is that why you came to Tokyo? Is that why you did what you did here? Did you think doing what you did so far from Morioka would spare me a portion of the pain? You can’t imagine all the things I’m capable of thinking in place of actually knowing. I still have the picture you mailed me from your phone of that beautiful hotel room in Shinjuku, your last night. As you were being promoted they were putting you up in such fashionable places and your room wasn’t one of those tiny caves you always told me about. Mai and Ryu want to tell me about the dinner you had with them the night before, but I don’t want to know. I wanted to know for so long but now I know what they’ll say. He seemed so happy. We spent the night drinking and laughing.

It didn’t hurt. Okay. It hurt a little. It hurt the size of what I asked for, a small star on my wrist, a little bit of ink barely noticeable to anyone with eyes, except someone with eyes for me. Probably most people would think it’s a scar, and it is, or at least a kind of scar, but every time I look at it I feel something. It’s my little secret from the world and it’s enough to keep my heart beating a little faster. The guy at the shop assumed the task with such disdain. You should have seen how still his hand was, how focused his eyes were. It was like watching you with your numbers. When the needle starts to vibrate on the skin it pinches first, but then it numbs.


It’s happening. Ryu called. It’s happening. I have to go. It’s happening.

It’s happening as I’m thinking this to you, as I’m fighting the crowds on the trains trying to get to the hospital. It started while I was still in the café, cleaning up. Mother and father are on the way. Mother tried to time it. It made me a little giddy that she was off by days and wasted money on train tickets, and now is on a plane racing down here. On the way I thought of where I would be if things had been different, up north, our home, probably not hearing about any of it until it was over, until morning. And now I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else, zooming to the hospital sending messages to the counter crew along the way.

The nights are getting warmer and warmer. I feel warmer and warmer in it. When I got there, it was still happening. Mai was in the delivery room. Ryu was in there too. The waiting room was lit with soft yellows and the nurse at the desk was always smiling. I sat and drank some tea and rubbed my hands together. It might be a while, one nurse said, but actually it wasn’t much longer. Ryu came out from behind a corner and tapped me from behind. His face was short circuiting, flushed and smiling, incapable of putting a single word to any of it.

No one told me, boy or girl, and even when he dragged me into their private room I still had no idea. All I saw was a patch of head, wrapped almost entirely in a little white robe. Come, Mai said, come see your niece. I walked towards them. Already she had a full head of dark hair, already in that starter face you could see Mai’s nose, Ryu’s chin. This is your aunt, she whispered. This is your family. I asked Mai the only question I could think of asking. Did it hurt? She laughed. You’re aunt is so silly…you two will be sisters.

Sometimes I can’t remember that there were ever mountains. Just after two months. Don’t you think that’s funny? All those summer days climbing, all those years we spent surrounded have somehow disappeared. How easily it gets replaced. In my short time here the shoe store across from us has become a clothing store and the jewelry shop down the street has become another eyeglass store. The road that they’re building that everyone is crazed about, how long before it’s only the road that they remember? How long before where we’ve ended up, is the only place we’ve ever been? On the roof at the top of the world it is just me and my little sticks of chocolate. It’s too high for all the power lines, the banners and advertisements that crowd the streets near the cafe. It’s too high for sound, though sometimes there are faint sirens that make it all the way up to my ears. It’s tempting. To wonder where the danger is—to go to the edge and see. But I stay where I am, next to that small garden, at the top of my new city. It’s too easy to get pulled down the side, pushed under the rails. Two floors below they are sleeping or trying to. In a couple of hours, the baby will wake up hungry. I’ve never heard anything like it, the way she cries. It is too young and new and wanting to ever sleep through, but I pull the covers up and pretend. Mai is right. We will be like sisters, both of us just at the beginning here. In the morning, they’ll worry like they always do and talk again about me moving into my own place. You’ll never get any sleep here. I’m just not ready to go, so I’ll fight every yawn with all my strength.

I will look to my wrist and touch the small star and say, Really, I slept right through…I didn’t hear a thing.


Marc Kaufman was born and raised in the Catskills in New York and earned an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. His work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, F(r)iction Online, and is forthcoming from Silk Road Review. More than eight years ago he moved to Tokyo to take a teaching position and this story, “The Usual Pain,” is from his recently completed collection, Tokyo People. He is an assistant professor in the Department of English Studies at Sophia University, where he teaches writing and serves as the faculty editor for the student journal Angles.

Cover photo, “All but Forgotten,” by Michael Kistler Photography. Used with permission.






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