A Fish is a Fish is a Fish

The family lore goes like this: a fish fell from the sky. Then there was another, and that one was me.

And what kind of fish was she? someone would ask, egging my father on.

He’d grin. A sel-fish, he’d say, what else? As if this were the only truth there ever was.

Here’s what really happened: I was supposed to be a twin but then I ate her. It. Absorbed it, for nutrients, in like the first trimester. Dad got a kick out of that. Let’s never let her live that down, he said to Mom. And they haven’t.

Oh yes, and the fish thing — while they were driving home from the hospital with me, a fish landed on their windshield, went smack against the glass, came out of nowhere.

Oh this is good stuff, said Dad, this is good.

Twenty-five years later, I turn twenty-five. I celebrate my birthday with a seafood meal: tradition. My parents still live on the East Coast, so I go to sushi with two friends— my treat, a second tradition, this one intended to foil the sel-fish narrative. Seems only right, Dad had said when I turned fifteen and was cashing steady paychecks from the Kumon Learning Center. I had cried—it’s so unfair—but eventually coughed up fifty of my hard-earned dollars at the Chinese seafood buffet. We sat at a four-person booth, benches bolted to the floor. I pushed coconut shrimp back and forth across my plate with the belly of my fork. Mom cracked crab legs. Dad ate salt and pepper fish because he mostly still kept kosher then.

I maintain that because of my youth, my memory of that dinner is superior; Dad claims that my youth only translates to more pronounced feelings of embarrassment. Mom says, imagine how both might be true. Of course what we’re talking about when we talk about that evening is the humming. Which Dad insists never happened.

At most, he says, he momentarily vocalized a tune that had been bouncing around his head. But I remember it differently and, because of my youth, I remember it all very clearly. How the humming started quietly and then climbed louder and louder. How it traveled up and across the booths until neighboring tables started to look, their necks craning, their bodies pivoting. How ultimately every restaurant patron was facing us in defiance of their immovable seat.

Mom was the only one who noticed a couple nearby asking to move. You were both being too loud, she says. This is her way of saying that she sees herself as collateral, an unwilling character in strangers’ tellings of the family shouting at the buffet.

We all agree on what happened next. I slammed my hands down, went smack against the table.


And then Mom redirected—looked at my plate, reminded me that if I take it I eat it: immigrant buffet etiquette. So we got back in line and piled our plates high with dessert.

My friends and I celebrate my first quarter century alive with lychee cocktails and a SUSHI CRUISE FOR THREE, which is the same as three SUSHI DELUXE SETS, except we eat our meal off a two-tiered boat-shaped wooden platter. After dinner, one friend surprises me with a small chocolate mousse cake. The other gifts me with what she describes as a very pleasant book about family life: EVENING CLOUDS by Junzō Shōno. Might not be your dad’s speed but your mom would probably like it, she says. Not that she’s met either. Just a guess, she explains, based on your stories. My stories are generally about Dad—Mom’s philosophy of never-need-to-know means her presence sidesteps most tales. I suppose this has made her the opposite of Dad to my friends. Pleasant, if you will.

I don’t start reading my new very-pleasant-book-about-family-life for a full two-and-a-half months because of commitments I’ve made to other literary tasks. For a time, I’m preoccupied with a self-designed Kawara-inspired exercise in which I visit my favorite tree every morning so that I can write about the routine. It culminates in my first ever poem, which I email bcc to ten friends. The subject line: For Fifty Days I Visit My Favorite Tree. The body:

She carries me, my fists full of dandelions.
Morning dew? Morning mud,
more like. Lichen— bright after rain; learn new degrees
of green. Greet every lemon tree. Count every
red van. A game I cannot lose, my winnings,
delight. Fists full of dandelions; the snails
slurp paths across leaves; the butterfly,
no longer aflutter, lies in my palm. I still do not care
to investigate birdsong. When others are near her,
my sweet Monterey Cypress, I am

I have no story for them,
these uninvited witnesses— only a habit,
this practice of intimacy. Each day
carries me to her; I say

After hitting send I try to shake the wiggly feeling that always comes with attempting to locate myself with language.

I move on to a book about black holes that tells me that black holes are their own shadows and that’s it. My biggest takeaway is the phrase stellar collapse, which I proceed to co-opt to more effectively describe my mid-twenties.

That one camping trip? Stellar collapse.

That not-so-sober text? Stellar collapse.

That time I adopted that puppy? Could have been stellar collapse, thank god that went how it went.

Suffice to say, twenty-five emerges as an exemplary year of quarter-life tumult. I call home to catch my parents up. I tell them about the stellar collapse, the aesthetics of my routines, my SUSHI CRUISE birthday dinner. I don’t tell them about the poem—they were not included among the bcc’ed—and I ask my Mom about the-very-pleasant book-about-family-life. She says it will probably read like a book that’s been translated, different than the version she would know. What she means is that my question is irrelevant, and I get that wiggly feeling again.

After hanging up, I text my birthday-gift-giving friend. I say, you can give me books every year that speak directly to my emotional state of being. And she responds that that will be easy to do so long as I keep sending unsolicited poetry.

It’s December when I finally open my very-pleasant-book-about-family-life, which mostly means the air has cleared, smoke no longer hanging in a post-summer forest-fire haze. Back home, they’ve already gotten their first snow. The book’s introduction urges me to mirror the pace of the text’s original audience, to slow down, read one chapter a day. Given my propensity for stellar collapse, I welcome the directive. But each chapter is only ten to fifteen pages, which yields space. In an exemplary year of quarter-life tumult, space sometimes feels like a silence to fill.

On day three, I meet a passage that sticks:

Haruko was still at the age, then, when she begged for stories. Ōura
could never think of any good stories to tell, so he would have to make
something up:
“Once upon a time, a great big fish came crashing down from
the sky.”

A beginning like that would get his daughter all excited,but then
more fish would come falling from the sky, and the story would be

I call home. Dad picks up. Jig’s up, I say. I know about the fish.

Is that so? The question is pure him—middle-child wry. He’s preparing for battle or banter, whichever comes first.

A cat is a cat is a cat. A fish is a fish is a fish. I’m not entirely sure what I mean, but I like how it feels sprouting from my tongue.


I’m on my toes, anticipating his next move.

A pause.

A pause? I hesitate.

The words crawl out of his mouth first slowly, and then very quickly: I meant to call earlier.

I fly home the morning after Christmas, six o’clock out of SFO. The plan was to leave four days later, to only miss two days of work and still arrive in time for ozoni and omochi and otoshidama. Dad picks me up in the Camry from LaGuardia. We drive straight to the hospital.

As we pass the last patches of first snow, Dad and I talk, really talk. He tells me that Obaachan doesn’t need surgery— she just has to wait for her hip to heal, bedbound. Lying down doesn’t seem painful but using the bathroom is daunting, in all its forms. Every night at the hospital, Mom’s been waking up at two-hour intervals to help her go. She hasn’t slept a night through since Obaachan’s fall, Dad says. Newborn rhythms but we aren’t so young anymore.

Obaachan first started splitting time between our suburb and Tokyo when I was in high school. She preferred staying on a futon in Mom’s office, so the guest room became a TV room and I got a full-sized bed. In Tokyo, Obaachan visited friends, did her own grocery shopping, walked the city streets. Here, the kitchen was her kingdom, and she only really left on Sundays to go with Mom to Costco and the Chinese seafood buffet.

Her language has become sharper over the years, but only Mom feels it, practiced in sanding the edges of her mother’s serrated tongue as she translates.

They found Obaachan at three in the morning on the kitchen floor. She had been preparing mackerel for the next day. At her age, she sleeps when she wants and she homemakes when she wants—that’s what she said to Mom in biting Japanese Dad couldn’t understand. The Emergency Squad came and took her to the hospital. Mom rode along, Dad followed in the Camry.

That’s what Dad calls them: the Emergency Squad.

We arrive at the hospital a little after three. Tadaima. I enter the room and walk over to the bed where Obaachan sits propped up by three pillows. Okaeri. She takes my hand.

Mom stands up, eyes puffed.

Okaerinasai. Mom kisses my cheek, rests her forehead against mine.

I squeeze Obaachan’s hand. Mom’s still leaning against me. Our breaths catch each other’s, and we find a common rhythm. A kind of biting silence I understand.

Obaachan comes home from the hospital on day eight of my very-pleasant-book-about- family-life. In the chapter, Ōura dreams of his dead father, of holding a version of him that’s still alive. There is no before or after in the dream, just the embrace.

We move my bedframe into Mom’s office to raise Obaachan’s futon off the floor, make it easier for her to climb in and out. Sleeping on the hardwood that night, I can feel her every move, the ground reverberating under the command of her cane. I listen as she and Mom make their way to and from the ever-daunting bathroom.

New Years falls on the eleventh day of my very-pleasant-book-about-family-life. Obaachan usually cooks, but this year Mom makes osoba while Obaachan and I go for a walk. It’s her first venture outside since falling, and we decide to go from the side door to the big maple tree out front, cover the length of the driveway.

Kowai, she says as we walk, one hand on her cane, the other in mine. I switch my hands so that I can move my closer arm around her, ready for a slip. Half my weight and three-and-a-half times my age. Kowai she says again.

In the book there is a great big thunderstorm. A thunderstorm so big the family loses track of which crash of thunder belongs to which flash of lightning. A storm so great the mother says she was more scared waiting for it to pass than she was during the firebombings of her girlhood. Obaachan also lived through the Tokyo air raids. She doesn’t talk about it, except once when she said it was beautiful, like the most spectacular hanabi she’s ever seen. And then she said she saw a headless man, still moving. Mom told me that story the last time we were in Japan.

Context is a wild thing— the way fear creeps into our bones, cracks them, creates new paths for itself. Which language barrier renders me silent walking with Obaachan? Is it just the Japanese that escapes me? Outside, the maple tree stands tall and bare, bears witness to my wakefulness. I wonder if the ground also rumbles beneath its roots at night: the echoes of Obaachan’s footfalls.

The day after Christmas, my first night home, something happened.

Obaachan was still at the hospital, and my cousin stopped in to visit, told me that if I watched her son, she could take Mom’s place as night nurse.

I said yes. Of course I said yes.

After tucking my cousin’s son into Obaachan’s empty futon, I went back to the kitchen to clean up our post-dinner dishes. We had made origami hats that looked like bunny ears and drank hot cocoa and ate graham crackers. I told him about my very-pleasant-book-about-family-life, and he told me about Christmas dinner with his dad’s family. I kissed him oyasumi, shut the door goodnight.

As I approached the kitchen, I could hear the faucet already running—Mom had beaten me to the sink: thirty years of habit. But when I entered the kitchen, Mom wasn’t washing dishes. She wasn’t waiting for the water to warm or for the sink to fill. She was just standing there, letting the water rush purposelessly. Dad was there, too, his arms wrapped around her. Their reflection hung against the dark night in the window above the sink. I could see their closed eyes, her head against his arm.

The water ran.

The water ran until the sink was full. It ran until the kitchen floor was wet. It ran until there was a pool around their feet, crawling toward the edges of the room. The water ran and it ran. Mom and Dad never moved. I couldn’t stop watching their reflection, kept swallowing, kept patting my face, checking that it was still dry, ignored my soppy socks.

In that stillness, I felt unfathomably alone. Like I was a star, collapsing.

And then I saw it wriggle. In the corner, between the stove and drawers full of yogurt containers-turned-Tupperware—a silver gleam.

A fish?

Of course it was a fish.

I cuffed my pants up over my calves and waded in.

Light and Moon

And there she was, milky-skinned and wrapped in white cloth so fine it looked spider-woven. Her eyes looking back at us as if she were not a baby, but a god.


So Nora doesn’t have the time to call home, to fly back to Maryland for Christmas.


I had no itinerary apart from a visit to the island with the horses, a treat for my last day.