Hi all! Thanks for choosing to participate in the “You Decide” Project!
How does it work? I write a story, you vote on a choice with a donation, and once we get enough votes I release the next chapter. There will be about 5 votes (6 chapters) total.
How do I participate? Sign up for the mailing list (form is at the bottom of this page) and vote! That’s it. You’ll see the choices start to matter as the story goes on.
Why are we raising money for migraine research? Since being active in the migraine community for about five years, I have seen the impact that migraine has on countless individuals. I believe we are dealing with an invisible health crisis. Migraine is the 3rd most prevalent illness in the world. Yet, in spite of its prevalence and its serious effect on individuals, families and the economy, research is severely underfunded.
To read more, check out the FAQs page!
And now, Chapter 1:
Maybe it was jetlag-induced euphoria, but the bus ride from Osaka to the Futamachi Island bound port didn’t feel quite real. First of all, Sam of course expected the cars to be on the opposite side of the road, but she didn’t consider the fact that the driver’s seat would be reversed as well. On her short trip to Tokyo a few years back she’d only taken the subway.
While the other newly initiated foreign language teachers chatted or dozed off in their seats, Sam couldn’t do either. Her eyes jumped from scene to scene—pine-covered mountains, power plants and other unidentified industrial structures, and rice fields that looked more like green tiles on a board game than the pools of water she had imagined. The entire landscape might as well be a game of resources: wood, grains, electric, water. For an island that had so few natural resources they managed to fit in what they could. Add to the tile-like game board the rays of sunlight highlighting mist streams that hovered over mountains, and it was a very different landscape from the small flat town—flat fields, flat-roofed big box stores, flat accents—that she had been stuck in.
Sam hoped she hadn’t made a mistake. Surely a year in Japan had to be better than a dead-end job on a dead-end street in a lifeless little town? With all her belongings either packed, given away, or put in a few boxes in her dad’s basement, she was headed towards her new home.
She’d almost said no, almost turned it down. Her boss at the bookstore had just given her a raise and a promotion (manager, yay?). Kristy (now her ex, that was dead-end, too) had wanted her to stay. Her dad said she should be applying for jobs in editing, follow a direct path to her dream. And her mom, who lived god-knows-where at this point, hadn’t been around to weigh in, but she could picture her saying, “No regrets, Sam,” the way she did when she left dad. Though her mom had seemed happier after going off on her own, she didn’t want to take her advice.
As the foreign landscape started to blur past her, Sam thought back to the day she received the letter—she’d been standing outside her apartment mailbox. Her mouth had hung open but she’d clamped it shut before drool could form. She hadn’t expected to get the offer. She thought she’d totally flubbed the interview—I mean, how do you answer a female interviewer who inquires how you’ll deal with being asked to serve tea in the office as a woman? She had no frame of reference for the question. In the break room at the bookstore no one served tea, let alone men verses women. She had said she’d serve the tea, no big deal. She liked tea. But was that the correct answer?
So, when she’d held that letter for the first time (thinking vaguely of little teapots she’d soon be pouring?), she’d wondered if it was real. In fact she’d pretty much already decided if she got accepted to not go, to stick it out in the flatlands. But the reality felt much greater the longer she held the paper, and she realized she didn’t want to let go.
Sam didn’t know how she even got this idea to take hold—go live in Japan? She hadn’t even enjoyed her Toyko trip much. Andrea and Tom had dragged her there spring break and all they wanted to do was buy beers at the Seven Elevens, shop for Tee shirts with anime characters she didn’t recognize, and sink countless tokens into glowing machines with primary-colored spikey-haired characters. When they found out she was going to live here all they could do was list various things she must mail them, none of which were familiar to her. What was a gundam? Would they even have one on the small island of Futamachi?
So far from the bus window all she saw were the houses, fields and mountains. It was difficult to know what she should really expect.
When she had contacted her predecessor, Tam, a few months ago, he’d warned her in an email:
There’s not much to do here. Only one small arcade, mainly junior high schoolers go there. One grocery. Pachinko parlors but that’s dull after the first time. Han Li, Jordan, Nicky, & Terry are cool though, they’re looking forward to meeting you. They do potlucks every Friday. Necessary for sanity.
Tam would’ve stayed longer on Futamachi but he got called back home to Australia with some family issue. He sent her pictures of the apartment—it was a stained cement building that looked like it was from the ‘60s at the edge of a small neighborhood in the middle of rice fields. Not too different from the landscape Sam saw passing by now. Was all of Japan this monotonous? Despite the aging exterior of her soon-to-be-apartment it wasn’t too shabby on the inside. Sam glanced at her phone—the blurred email pictures showed a clean gray carpet in the living room which doubled as a bedroom. The futon was in the closet. And there was this cute little coffee table with a built-in blanket and heater a called a kotatsu.
She knew her school, Sagami High, had 200 students and overlooked the ocean. Other than that, her expectations were blank. Were the classrooms hot and sticky in the summer? Were they clean and tidy or cluttered and run-down? Would she smell tea (teapots, hehe) or coffee in the teacher’s room?
The bus driver stopped at an intersection and made a turn onto a more local road. The landscape was changing, as much as it seemed to in Japan, from mountainous to hilly. The afternoon sun slanted on the fields making Sam think of French wine bottle labels. Finally jet lag caught up to her and her over-caffeinated eyelids could no longer fight sleep. Amidst the chatter and motion, she lay her cheek against the cool window and drifted off.
When she finally came to she could see the ocean sliding by her view. Sam would soon realize the places where land met sea in Japan would never look nature-formed. Giant jack-like cement breakers lined the entire shoreline and the beach was molded into rough concrete steps cascading down into the water. She couldn’t imagine running around in bare feet like in the dirty sand of the bay where she used to fish with friends in the summer.
The other new teachers had since been dropped off at various locations. Sam was the only one going on the ferry for Futamachi Island. She didn’t even remember the names of most others on board. They’d all met in a rushed orientation in Osaka, about a hundred of them, but everyone knew they’d be spending time with those placed nearby, so got to know those who’d live close to them.
The almost-empty bus pulled around some mountains into a gray little fishing village and up to port.
Mr. Nakatsuka had emailed her several times the week before, assuring her that he would be there when the bus arrived. And there he was, silhouetted by the melting sun so at first she couldn’t see what turned out to be a constant glint of amusement in his eyes.
“Hello, Samantha-san!” he said, reaching to take her bags down the three steps going out of the left side of the bus.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Nakatsuka,” she handed him one bag, more to make him feel helpful than anything else.
“How was your trip?” He never stopped talking and moving, thanking the driver with numerous bows and what Sam assumed were polite formalities, and subsequently rolling her red bag through the parking lot to the ferry. “Are you tired? You look tired. Oh boy, I’ve been out of bed since five, but you must be more tired than me. America is a far place to travel from.”
“I’m fine,” Sam answered. Mr. Nakatsuka’s emails had been in simple but clear English and his pronunciation was good, but she still wasn’t sure how much he’d understand.
“And how is Japan? Eto…” he paused as if he were searching for a word. “Have you had any Japanese food yet? I hope you have saved some room in your stomach, do we have a feast planned for tomorrow! Do you have a favorite food? Do you eat sushi? Have you learned any Japanese?”
“Oh, it’s… good. I had some ramen in Osaka. Everyone’s nice so far. I like sushi, I guess. I know arigato and, um, daijobu.”
Sam clutched her backpack to her chest as they moved forward onto the boat, the extra straps hanging down by her legs. Nakatsuka still had Sam’s rolling bag. They settled on a small plastic booth in the middle of the dimly lit cabin. Other booths were occupied by mainly men and women about her grandfather’s age in farming clothes—canvas pants, floral arm protectors, and straw hats. The men were not shy to bring their own cans of kirin beer and share with their neighbors. They only paid attention to each other, while the woman seemed to be acutely interested in the presence of the tall light-haired woman they’d never seen. They kept looking at Sam and chatting to each other. Sam blushed.
On the opposite booth was a father and young son. He was in ordinary shorts and a Tee shirt, which Sam would learn soon was not so ordinary during the school year when all the boys and girls dressed alike.
“You mentioned dinner tomorrow?” asked Sam. “Am I eating with your family?”
“Eto…” there was that word again. Sam assumed it was the Japanese version of “um.” Nakatsuka continued. “Did I not tell you, we have a special evening planned with the teachers. First you can experience a Japanese onsen, then we’ll eat!” His eyes glinted with even more amusement.
“Onsen? Like, hot springs?” Sam had read about the hot springs, but hadn’t expected to visit them so soon. She knew men and woman went to separate baths in the nude and pictured them kind of like a Jacuzzi, but probably larger and open to the air?
“Yes, Sagami town is famous for healing water. People come to soak from all over Japan.”
“So… all the teachers are going?” Sam shifted in her seat. She wasn’t sure if she was ready to see the teachers in that sort of setting, or rather have them see her. And she’d need some help to translate her introduction speech to Japanese, which she was told she’d be expected to give at the first assembly with the teachers.
Nakatsuka smiled. “Yes! You will get to meet everyone including Mr. Sagawa, Ms. Kato, and Ms. Sakamura,” he said. Sam recognized those names as the other English language teachers at her school she would work with.
“I’ve been working on my intro speech. Could you translate it for me?” She took a piece of paper out of the top pocket of her backpack and handed it over. Nakatsuka took it, unfolded, and started reading. Sam settled into her seat more and watched the boy and father who were playing something together on separate handheld game systems. She wondered if the dad would let him win, much like her father used to when they played chess—that is, until she was finally old enough to actually crush him on her own. Her mom had been gone by then, off on her own adventures Sam guessed, but she was happy playing with her dad in their own two-person universe.
“Eto… let’s see…,” he said. “Do you have a pen?” Sam pointed to the pocket of Nakatsuka’s crisp white shirt where several pens lived. “Sou desu ne! Of course! I came right from the office today.”
“During school vacation?”
“Hai. There is lot of work during the August break! Eto, let’s see what we have got here. My name is Sam Campestrella. I’m from America…” He started writing the phonetic Japanese in neat print next to the English. “So, to say ‘my name is,’ it’s watashi no namae wa Sam desu,” he said, still looking down at the paper. Sam half-stood and leaned over to read.
“Close! You’ll get it!”
“I only know some French,” Sam said, her shoulders shrugged and she sat back again. “I never really did well with languages. How did you learn English so well?”
“Well, I spent ten years—” Mr. Nakatsuka was cut off by an announcement. The father and son put their game systems away and started gathering their things. The boy tugged on his dad’s sleeve and asked him a question.
“We are docking,” said Mr. Nakatsuka. Sam was finally about to touch land in the place she’d be living for the next year. She hoped she could see a good amount before it got dark.
Mr. Nakatsuka’s car radio was tuned to what sounded like the local news. He let it idle while he placed the suitcase in the trunk, then circled back to driver’s seat (argh! It was on the right side!), jumped in, buckled, adjusted nobs (one turned down the volume), gears and mirrors, checked to make sure Sam was buckled (she was), and then backed out of his parking spot and cruised off into town.
The roads were narrow, most accommodating one way traffic only—when two cars were coming at opposite directions one would pull over and let the other pass. They wove in and out of a network of streets crowded by small white and brown houses with tiled roofs and laundry hanging in any free balcony or front yard space. Nakatsuka had left the windows of the car rolled down as the summer heat had lessened a little with the beginning of dusk, and surrounding them was the sound of chirping. What was that?
“That’s the cicadas,” Nakatsuka said, as if reading her mind. “Tam said he’d heard them in Australia, how about you in America?”
“I think it’s a first for me. I hear they come out where I live every 17 years or so, but I only moved there about ten years ago. They didn’t have them where I lived before.”
“They’re yearly here. They’re our summer chorus.”
“Just on Futamachi Island?”
“Iie, not just Futamachi-jima. All of Japan.”
They left the neighborhood and cruised along a winding two lane road by the water—again breakers lined the water and a sign read, “Tsunami Inundation Area.” Another sign, well-lit and decorated with cartoon yellow flowers, ocean waves, and some kind of orange fruit, boasted in Japanese and English: “Welcome to Sagami Town.”
“Yes, almost to your new home. You really must be tired. We have a busy day tomorrow. I left you some food and you can get settled in.”
“I’m not too tired,” said Sam, realizing that she was about to be dropped off all alone in a place she’d never seen where she spoke less of the language than the local two year old. It was only one night, but still. “I’d be happy to, um, go somewhere or something?”
“It’s time for me to eat with my family. But we will have plenty of that tomorrow, don’t worry! First we’ll need to get you signed up for your bank account, and also, cell phone—”
“—Actually, I have a phone plan already,” Sam said.
“Subarashii! Great! You’ll probably want to buy some things for your place, and we’ll have to register you with the local government office and get your name stamp. We might have to take the ferry to mainland again, as there’s no real grocery store in either town on the Island. Do you want to lease a car?”
“Do I need one?” Sam stiffened. Drive? On the left side of the road…? Maybe a bicycle would be sufficient.
Nakatsuka looked like he was about to answer when they pulled up on Sam’s apartment building. Dusk was fully set in, and Sam couldn’t see if the façade was as weathered as it looked in the pictures, but it looked smaller than she’d imagined.
Nakatsuka pulled into an empty spot marked with a big white number five and killed the engine. The other spots were all filled with cars—6 spaces total.
Nakatsuka finally answered. “Not sure if you need one per se. Tam had one but he sold it to Jordan before leaving. We’ll think about the details tomorrow,” he said. Then he was back to his usual excessive energetic movement: unbuckling, opening, closing, retrieving and walking towards the building while Sam was still trying to undo her seatbelt and get her backpack.
“We put woman teachers on second floor,” he said, walking towards a metal staircase on the side of the building, Sam trailing behind. “You’re lucky because that’s a bigger apartment than what Tam showed you. We moved all the stuff upstairs for you.”
“Oh…” said Sam. She hadn’t expected it to be a different place than what she saw in the photos. And why the second floor? So she could pour her teapots without a “peeping Tanaka” watching her? Wouldn’t curtains suffice? It made Sam remember how her mom had always closed the curtains tight when she was arguing with dad, as if they blocked sound, too. Her mom could raise one hell of a passionate argument, though her dad had been a decent opponent.
The stairs led to a metal balcony that went to each door on the second floor, and they went to the one in between number four and six. The place had the same grey carpeting in one room that she’d seen in Tam’s photo, she guessed the living room, but had brown imitation wood flooring in the kitchen and tan straw tatami mats in a small adjacent room (the bedroom?). There were no curtains on the windows in the living room or the big glass sliding door that opened up to the cement balcony off the bedroom—so though the sentiment of the second floor was nice, Sam felt it a bit off target.
Nakatsuka opened the fridge—it was shorter than both of them—and showed off the food he’d gotten. Small little plastic containers, probably from the local grocery, were stacked up on one shelf. “We have some yaki-udon, some kimpira-gobo, kabocha, and of course, pudding!” He jiggled the last container which was filled with a creamy white substance topped with whipped cream. The last time Sam had eaten pudding was in grade school at lunch. At least she knew what that one was.
“If you’re still hungry, there’s also some fruit and cup ramen,” Nakatsuka pointed them out on the shelf above the fridge. “This is the water heater, do you know how to use it?” he asked. Sam observed that the Japanese buttons had been taped over with the English for “on,” “off” and “keep warm.”
“I’m sure I’ll figure it out,” She looked around as she wiped the sweat from her brow. “Is there an AC unit?”
“Afraid not. There was one downstairs, but we could not remove it.”
Figures, thought Sam.
“When I was a student, I did not have AC. I took cold baths.” With that Nakatsuka opened a door off the kitchen. Sam expected it to reveal a full bathroom. Instead there was a sink and a washing machine, and to the left and right in two separate rooms was a toilet room and shower booth, respectively. The booth included the world’s smallest bathtub in half the space. Sam wasn’t sure if her five-foot-ten-inch frame would fit.
Nakatsuka finished showing Sam the apartment, including the futon—a thin pad which would be laid out on the floor come bedtime—and asked if she needed anything else. Even he was starting to lose a little bit of the glint in his eyes and show a progressing slump in his shoulders since the sun had retreated behind the mountains.
“If you are all set, I will let you rest.” Sam nodded and thanked him. Then she was alone.
She left her large suitcase on the floor in the kitchen and started to empty her backpack: a notebook, some spare change, passport, credit cards, a few books, her phone with its new Japanese SD card, and some postcards she had picked up in Osaka. One card was of a city street scene, lights blurred and bright, and the other a morning sunrise over the mountains with the skyline below. She took the street scene and started to pen a letter to her dad. She wrote all she could in the tiny space: orientation, the tiny bathtub, no AC, and her supervisor’s energetic persona. She knew she’d probably Skype him before he even got the card, but it felt more genuine writing it out. She put the postcard aside when she was done and glanced at her phone; a few notifications had come in. Sam paused at the site of one.
Her mom had sent her a message. “Hey honey. Heard through the grapevine that you’re going to Japan. I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch. There is a lot I would love to tell you about! Let’s try to talk before you leave.” She’d left her phone number and address—she was living in a different state than when Sam had last checked. Guess her mom didn’t get the memo until it was too late. How did she even hear? She hadn’t talked to her dad in ages. Probably the one time she signed onto social media. Sam sighed.
She glanced at the other postcard with the mountain sunrise skyline. Had she bought two postcards for a reason? She wasn’t sure if her mom deserved an answer, or if she wanted to reconnect, especially after starting this new life and leaving behind old hurts and problems. Then again, was this a time for second chances? Maybe she wasn’t ready to admit it yet, but she missed her mom. Was it her mom’s adventurous spirit she was trying to channel by coming to this new place?
Sitting on the floor in her sweaty apartment with the cicadas screeching in the background she picked up the postcard and paused for a minute.
Choice A: She tossed the card across the room. Then she went to her phone and blocked her mom. This was a new life and she didn’t need any drama.
Choice B: She flipped the card over and wrote a short note to her mom. Then she messaged her back to let her know she was safely in Japan and it was nice to finally reconnect. Maybe it was time for new beginnings.
To vote, donate via my Crowdrise page and put Choice A or B in the Comments:
- $10 and up counts as ONE VOTE towards A or B
- $25 and up counts at TEN VOTES towards A or B
All the money goes to the Migraine Research Foundation. The next chapter will come out after we have at least TWENTY PEOPLE VOTE, so share with your friends! There are only going to be six chapters, so each vote matters!
To learn more about this project and why I am raising money for migraine research, check out my FAQ page.