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 “Dirty Old Motel Room”

© By Kathryn Sussman

© Illustrated by Dennis Stillwell Martin

When my brother’s friend Darren killed himself, it stayed with me awhile.  Kind of haunted me.  It’s not like I thought about him all the time or anything, more like I couldn’t get him out of my dreams.  Sometimes I’d wake up all sweaty with my heart racing and have no clue what was the

Illustration © by Dennis Stillwell Martin

Illustration © by Dennis Stillwell Martin

matter with me.  Other times I’d lie awake in the morning replaying a crazy vivid moment over and over again in my head.  Like the time I saw him on his knees bending over the crumpled body of his mother in that dirty old motel room they found them in, his hands suctioned to the sticky bullet hole at the back of her head, just above the hairline.  Or the time I dreamt we were French kissing for hours on the black leather sofa in my den, me all curled up cross-legged in his lap twirling a piece of my hair with my right hand, and then suddenly he’s bleeding gobs of hot blood into my mouth and I want to throw up.  Those are the kind of dreams I had nonstop when my brother’s friend Darren died.

I’m thinking about all this now, two and a half years later, because last night I experienced my first real kiss.  But in the middle of it for about a half a split second, I thought I was kissing Darren, and for a half of that half a second, I felt the hot stickiness of his death blood.  Thinking about Darren almost ruined my first real kiss for me.  Almost wrecked what I’ve been waiting for, for as long as I can remember:  Not that I’ve been waiting to kiss Marcus specifically, but I’ve been waiting for my kiss since grade three French class when my pretty teacher Ms. Beaulieu showed our class the short French film about the babysitter sneaking her boyfriend into the house where she is babysitting.  She sneaks him upstairs into the pink bedroom, where they make out, until the parents come home and kick them both out of the house.  The young girl was so pretty with her long blond hair and pink sweater.  I wanted to be her and to be kissing more than I’ve ever wanted anything.  The colour pink just making everything prettier.

Marcus’ name is the opposite of pretty.  It is the first thing that attracted me to him.  You can feel muscles and hardness just saying it.  Second is that two other girls are madly in love with him.  He is dark and gorgeous.  Thin with glossy straight black hair and a girl nose.  When he kissed me last night the big whites of his eyes were everywhere and exposed.  My heart was going haywire. His breath on my mouth made my stomach shoot up into my throat then out the top of my head and I was flying.  The seconds stretched out into each other like strands of gum being pulled after it’s been chewed, and I was boiling hot.  His lips were warm and juicy like I thought they’d be.  His tongue was slippery and spongy and wet. Wet lips like an open cut and liquid inside, gooey like clotted blood; but I didn’t want him to stop kissing me.  Darren would have liked what I was thinking during the kiss.  He would have made me tell him about it up in his parent’s loft above the garage if he were still alive and if it hadn’t been because of him that I was imagining it.  He would have shown me naked magazines while listening to me tell him about kissing Marcus and thinking about clotted blood.  It would have excited him.

The week after Darren died I almost got hit by a car. People think I did it on purpose.  But I didn’t.  It was a freezing cold day, so bitter the cold had seeped through my bones making them feel like jelly, all numb and rubbery, so that they no longer even hurt.  I could smack my thighs together and not even feel that they had touched.  I remember the sunlight on the white snow blinding me and the smoke my breath made when I breathed out.  I was crossing the street a block up from my house without even looking, when an old crinkly woman all in purple with a boney red nose shouted to me, “Little girl! Little girl!” to warn me that a car was whizzing by, honking and going so fast I couldn’t even really see it, so fast that a gust of wind hit my face when it passed.  Almost ran over my toes.  My heart started racing and I sped up, running the rest of the way home.  When I got there, only my brother was inside.  I didn’t tell him what had happened. Just went into the living room and turned on the TV.  Tried to block out the redness and embarrassment from my mind.

I remember hearing the hard knock on the door a couple of minutes later.  Looking out the window and seeing the bony red nose standing there – all angry and stern.  My brother answered the door and I heard the nose telling him what I had done.  “She ran right out in front of that car,” the mean grump told my brother with a voice so loud it made my heart pound faster than I ever remembered feeling it pound before.  “I came to tell someone because she didn’t respond to me at all.  Are your parents home? Is your sister deaf?”  Nose demanded of my brother.  I got up and ran to the opposite end of the house as fast as I could.  Shut the door in the gray spare bedroom, my face red as Nose’s – a roasted tomato the colour of my mom’s homemade spaghetti sauce.  I curled up into a ball on the floor and thought of blue parrots and green rainforests.

A few seconds after that the front door slammed and my brother’s clunky footsteps came toward me.  He stood there asking me why I wouldn’t come to the door, wouldn’t leave me alone, demanded to know what had happened and threatened to tell my parents if I didn’t spill all the terrible details.  I looked at him so long without blinking, the grayness of the walls behind him mixed in with his eyes and he morphed into a gummy monster with three noses and a gaping watery mouth.  He never did tell them what I had done.  He isn’t the kind of person to do that sort of thing.  I have a feeling he even told the old red nose off for me – stood up for me and slammed the door in the crusty granny’s face.  Sometimes I still see her on the street, but I run away before she can get a glimpse of me.

Marcus is the kind of person I want to kiss again if I get the chance.  He’s the kind of person that makes you want to kiss again.  So pretty and deep you want to jump into him and just be him for a while.  Have everyone in love with you and thinking that they’d rather be you than themselves.  If I was Marcus I wouldn’t waste my time making out with me on my parent’s couch.  I’d take off on wild adventures, hitchhike to California and live on the beach, swim all day with dolphins and eat deep-fried chicken and French fries every night.  I wouldn’t be sucking face with gooey clotted blood leaking into my mouth and Darren staring straight into me like it’s my fault he died after all.  But I’m not Darren, I’m me, and for now, I can only be here imagining our next great kiss.

Kathryn Sussman is a Toronto writer and regular contributor to Artsforum when she’s not working on her doctorate.

Dennis Stillwell Martin is an artist, musician, and teacher; he is also a longstanding contributor to Artsforum Magazine.

Text © 2008 by Kathryn Sussman.

Illustration © 2009 by Dennis Stillwell Martin.

Illustrator’s note: This dark story gets the art deco sign of the seedy motel I’ve dubbed “Last Rest.” The clock is just before midnight: The end.

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“Tumbleweed”

© By Keri O’Meara

I sit on the platform and cry.  What else is there to do?  I have been trying to find my way in this foreign land for seven months now.  Trying to escape a maze with no exit. I am tired.  Too tired to panic.  Too tired to know how to proceed.  So I curse.  I curse and I cry.

Jen told me the ride from Saga to Nagasaki was peaceful and pretty.  She told me I would see some southern country side, ancient mountains, and distant glimpses of the sea.   She told me the seats were comfortable and that a fatigued old man in his navy, Japan Rail uniform would come around with a food cart.  The seats were plastic and hard.  All I wanted was a coffee.  Jen only drinks tea. Earlier, when I woke up on her couch with a mouth like sandpaper and a foggy head, thoughts of the food cart were my lighthouse.  I’ll get a coffee and watch the scenery, I thought.  By the time I reach Nagasaki I’ll be out of the mist.  Clear, fresh, and awake, ready to explore a new city with Nathan. The food cart never came.

This morning, after we comforted our souls with tea and Texas-toast slathered in Vegemite, Jen and I hurried to the train station to meet her attentive Irish boyfriend.  They would show me which train to board and then catch their own.  He was taking her to a small Onsen town* for the evening.  I was envious.  I would have preferred a romantic night of hot springs over a sticky day of war museums, but Nate and I didn’t do things like that anymore.  Dependency had displaced romance.

At the train station, nostalgia gripped my bones as I hugged Jen goodbye.  She was my lifeline to a world that now seemed so far away.  During our three-day visit, I was reminded how much I missed the giggles, the adventures, and the shared reflections you only have with girlfriends.  I was surprised by the open car with plastic grey seats facing each other. This was not a typical JR train with cushy clean blue seats in rows of two separated by a wide aisle.  I sat facing an aging young woman with a permanent frown and deep circles under her distant eyes.  Her chubby child sat next to her quietly.  He stared at me, like all children do in this country.

When the train started to move, my heart sunk with the weight of reluctance.  I didn’t want to leave Saga.  The small bohemian town was filled with bustling streets, busy bars, and quirky people.  Jen had made friends from around the world.  We had hung out with Jamaicans, Brits, Australians, and Japanese–all out to explore and have fun.  It was what I had anticipated when Nate and I decided to travel together.  Instead we ended up in industrial Sendai with resentful colleagues as our only friends.  I was dreading going back to our routine.  Grey uniforms, ungrateful teenagers, and tired lesson plans.

On the train, my hangover was at its peak.  I knew I should be more excited to see a new city, but it felt like a chore.  I thought about Nate and how his light would fade if I was in a mood.  I wondered where the food cart was.  God, I wanted a coffee.  The rickety train passed through the outskirts of Saga.  The small apartment buildings turned into old houses, then farms and rice paddies.  The horizon was flat, with no sign of the sea.  The buzzing uneasiness in my head grew to a din.  I pulled out my phone, ignoring the ‘No Cell Phone’ sign hanging above the round glaring child’s head.  Jen didn’t answer.  I left a message describing the countryside. “Does that sound right?” I asked the answering machine.  “And FYI, there is no food cart,” I said, before hanging up.

Now, I curse Nate.  I want to call him.  I should have been more adamant that we get two cell phones.  “We’ll always be together,” he said.  “There’s no point in two.” I had backed down.  After all, he’s the logical one.  He always knows where we are and where we are going.  I wish he was here on this platform with me.  He’d know what to do.  At 12:45 pm the lonely train had stopped.  The tired mother grabbed her staring son by the arm and pulled him off.  I looked out the window at passengers exiting other cars, being greeted by loved ones on the platform.  The train’s engines turned off.  I was alone.  I curse myself for following Jen’s directions without question.  I curse myself for following Nate across the world.  I had let myself be whisked away and led blindly.  Now I am stuck in the middle of nowhere in this far away land.  Tumbleweed slowly, mockingly drifts passed me on the now empty and lonely train track.  My tears break and I cannot help laughing out loud.  “Seriously?  Tumbleweed?”  The Wild, Wild East, I think.  Nate would laugh at this irony with me if he were here.  Instead, I am alone.

The conductor came into the car, where I sat looking around dumbfounded.  His raised eyebrows betrayed his stoic authority.  He spoke to me in Japanese.  I got up and stared at him blankly.  “No Japanese,” I said.  “Oh, Oh,” he fumbled. “Last stopo,” he said, putting up his white-gloved hand. “Nagasaki?” I asked.  “No No.  Hasami.”  He motioned for me to get off the car. I waited on the platform while he ceremoniously checked the rest of the car.  “Excuse me. Um.  Su me ma sen?” I implored when he stepped onto the platform.  “Me,” I pointed to myself, “meet husband, Nagasaki, one, ichi. NOW.”  “Hmm Hmm.  Nagasaki.  Husband.  O.K.”  He nodded in understanding. “Chotta matte, chotta matte,” he said holding up his index finger.  He turned and walked briskly to the front of the train. I followed him. “Chotta matte!” he said again firmly, his hand going up indicating that I wait.  I breathed out slowly as I waited for him on the platform.  I watched as he gathered his jacket and brief case.  He came out of the conductor’s booth.  I prepared to bow and thank him for helping me.  Instead, I watched as he turned away from me.  His quick steps echoed as he hurried down the platform and out the front doors of the small barren station.

I am not completely alone. There are two young women halfway down the platform.  They are talking in whispers and sneaking glances at me.  I am angry. “What, you have never seen a gaijin before?”  I want to yell at them.  “Never seen a tall blonde girl crying hysterically here in Hasami?”  I realize that their glances are worried. I feel embarrassed and exposed.  The women are slowly making their way towards me.  I wipe under my eyes, pull my jean skirt down and sit up a bit straighter.  They stand in front of me timidly, toes pointed inwards. “Hello,” one of them says. “I am Ai, this is Chiori.”  The other nods bashfully.  “Hello,” I say, annoyed.  I reluctantly point to myself. “I am Cleo.”  “Uh … are you dai jo boo? Are you not happy?” says Ai, the shorter, prettier of the two.  “You speak English?” I say, looking back between them.  “Chotto.  A little bit,” says Ai.  Chiori smiles at me blankly.  “I’m supposed to meet my husband in Nagasaki at one.”  I look at my watch. “Now!  He was coming from Fukuoka, I came from Saga.  My friend put me on the wrong train.  I don’t even know where we are.”  My voice raises and the tears flow.  Chiori averts her gaze, uncomfortable with my emotional display. “Nagasaki?” Ai says.  “This is not Nagasaki.”  She says something in Japanese and a look of soft concern passes between the two women.  My panic instinctively backs down.  “You need to be Nagasaki?” Ai asks.  “Yes, Yes,” I say.  “I need to be Nagasaki.  My husband is waiting for me.  He will be worried.”  She explains to Chiori, who nods frequently.  “Is there another train?” I ask. “No.  The train to Nagasaki is in Obu.  It is half hour away in car.”  My stomach knots.  I’m going to have to walk to the next town with the tumbleweeds.  “It’s my hometown,” Ai tells me.  Both women are smiling.  Big, crooked-toothed, angelic smiles.  “I take you.”  “Na ne?”   I say.   “Really?”   “Yes, yes, my car is right here.”  She points to the parking lot.  We say goodbye to Chiori and get into Ai’s compact, dark blue car.

On the way to the station I find out Ai is a teacher.  “Like you,” she says.  “I have been to Canada.  Vancouver,” she tells me.  “Very Beautiful.”  Her English improves as the ride goes on.  We arrive at the train station in Obu.  Ai has become determined, motherly.   She speaks to the man in a green uniform at the ticket booth for some time, making polite gestures to me.  “Hai, Hai, Hai,” I hear him repeat the overused Japanese word for yes.  He understands.  Ai asks me if I would like anything to eat from the vending machine.  I could eat the whole thing.  I wonder if she has heard the mountains moving in my belly.  “No thank you,” I tell her.  She wants to stay with me, but I insist she has done enough.  “Dai jo boo?” she asks me.  “Dai jo boo,” I tell her.  “I am fine, really.”  I put my hands together and bow to her.  “Doma arigato gozaimasu,” I say.  She bows back and smiles.  “Douitashimashte,” she says.  “I wish you have a fine day in Nagaski.”  “I will,” I tell her.  I know it is true.  It’s the first time I have felt sure all day.

When I get to the central station in Nagasaki, Nate isn’t there.  I try looking for the arrivals from Fukuoka, but it is all in Kanji** and I can’t read it.  Nate translates everything for me.  In front of the station is a large square bustling with hundreds of people rushing to catch buses, milling about, and going in and out of stores.  I weave into the crowd, which, to my surprise and relief, is not paying attention to me.  I find an information kiosk and gather some tourist pamphlets.  I sit on a bench and wait.  I do not cry.  I look through the brochures and feel excited about all the things to do.  I take off my sweater and raise my head to the sun and thank it for sending me a guardian angel. Ai.

Twenty minutes pass and the familiar bubble of panic begins to rise.  I get up to walk back into the station wondering for the millionth time that day what I am going to do.  I hear my name.  Before I can turn around I feel Nate’s big hands around my waist. I bathe in relief.  Nate is out of breath.  “Oh my god, babe,” he says.  “I was so worried about you.  I was freaking out.  There was an accident on the highway; the bus was delayed.” I didn’t have our cell phone number with me.  You just assume everything will be on time in this country.  Oh my god, are you okay?”  He takes my head in his hands looking me in the eyes.  “Are you okay?” he repeats.  I give him a long tight hug breathing in the smell of his sweat and musky, soapy Swiss Army cologne.  This is what home feels like, I think.  “I’m fine,” I say looking directly into his concerned face.  “I am really glad you are here.  I’m looking forward to exploring with you,” I tell him.  He looks a bit surprised.  “I thought you would be tired and hung over from partying with Jen,” he says.  I smile and grab his hand.   “Nope, I am good to go.  Let’s start at Peace Park,” I say.  I grab his hand and lead the way.

Keri O’Meara is a Toronto writer who taught high school level English in Japan in 2004.  “Tumbleweed” is a fictionalized account of her experiences.

Text © 2011 by Keri O’Meara.

Editor’s notes: *“Onsen” is a Japanese term for hot springs.  Villages built around such springs draw Japanese and foreign tourists. ** “Kanji” is a reference to the thousands of pictogram-like characters used in Japanese writing.