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salt water

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They think her nightmares are of the apocalypse. Endless dark, the sea a raging maelstrom, vestigial fear anchored in her gut.

But she fears her dreams of daylight even more. In them, she is standing on her balcony over Old Tokyo, the sun overhead turning her shadow into a pool around her bare feet. Sweat tickles the back of her neck. Her father smiles when he speaks to her but she hears nothing. Then he jumps over the railing and into the water, the surface of it startlingly blue-green, crowded by fish like multicolored jewels.

It's all so beautiful.

Father's shoulders are honey-colored in the sun, his arms strong, his teeth white as bone. He swims away, strokes vigorous, as if he's running away from something, from her, from the mundanity of what remains of life in his wake. But even from this distance, she can see he's smiling, a wide grin splitting his face in two, visible as he grows smaller and smaller until only this, a row of teeth, glints against the sunlight.

She thinks to call out only when he's out of earshot, and by then it is too late.


There's an evening she remembers by the bulbous pattern her gold-foil medal makes against the ceiling when she turns it over and over in her small hands in lieu of bobbing her knees. Mother says it's uncouth, for a girl to bob her knees like that, but she doesn't care. She wants to kick her feet about, jump up and down, run around the room to let out her excitement before it consumes her from the inside. It's difficult, when one is so young, to tell the difference between hunger for significance and the more physical need.

They sit face to face, woman and girl at the dinner table, the spread of fish, vegetables, meat, soup and rice fit for a family of ten growing cold between them.

Only when the rice has hardened, the opaque bone soup receded in its lacquer bowl, that mother says she's not hungry anyway. By then, anyway, Misato doesn't want to bob her knees anymore, or eat, or tell father about winning first place at the science fair, about how vinegar mixed with beet juice can melt ice faster than rock salt, how he should let her pack him a few bottles of it, how it would help him work faster, find whatever it is he's trying to find, and come home sooner.

Hours after, when father arrives, mother assails him with tears and accusations. Misato hides in her room with a pillow over both ears, a hand over her growling stomach, thinking about how strange it is for there to be so many ways to love someone while hurting them, to harm in order to profess one's love, to melt ice.


Mother likes stories of dead men best. Each morning she scours the papers for obituaries that she cuts out and keeps in a box by the kitchen. At nights when father is away, the light under her door remains until morning, and Misato pictures her frowning at her computer to read articles that repeat the same thing in different configurations. Once, Misato interrupts breakfast to ask, why do you want father to die? Mother bursts into tears and tosses her bento in the trash, and says, look what you've done.

After the divorce, she spends Saturdays at father's empty apaato leaving her As and A pluses on his desk to find the dusty surface on them growing undisturbed the following week. She is twelve when, sitting outside to while away the hours, she catches the eyes of boys who talk to her in hushed tones as color rises in their cheeks. Each time, she recites their sheepish overtures for all to hear, daring them to defend the inadequacy of their offers, relishing in the way they shrink the louder she speaks.

One day mother sees her pushing a boy to the ground and ushers her home with such swiftness that the next thing Misato remembers is the chill of the bathroom floor under her knees. Men are dirty, mother says, rubbing her skin raw. Your father is not a bad man, but all men are like that.

She pities her mother most of all, to see how her world is confined to the walls of this sliver of a home, to the faded yellow apron she always wears, to her hatred of father like a curled fist about a lifeline, to her fear for her daughter.

Mother is inconsolable when Misato falls delirious from a high fever, shouting at the doctors, refusing to leave her side, holding her clammy hands through the night. She still remembers mother's voice in her ear saying, over and over, almost to herself, the cure is always salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.


The first time she sees the ocean, it sucks the breath out of her, that is, she breathes in and in without stopping, so deeply she inhales as if the damp briny air might carry invisible strings attached to the enormous mountains rolling over the blackened surface, as if she could pull them toward her, swallow it all if she breathes in deep enough. That evening she dreams of tumbling along and over the waves only to realize that she is the waves and the depths and the shore. In the morning she lifts up her shirt in the mirror to find a girl's body, pale and frail and still, hardly undulating.


In the half light of the apaato, the windows shrouded by yellowed curtains and towers of books and manuscripts, the stench of decaying food in the air, father seems to her a frail old sad, sad man, skulking about to find a place deserving of her presence. His every other word is prefaced with sorry, sorry. Mother has warned her of this scene, and it gives her a flicker of satisfaction to see that it is worse than even she imagined.

Emboldened, she strides to his desk, now tall enough to seat herself atop his research papers, to cross her legs the way she has seen heroes do in the movies, arms over her puffed chest, chin held high. She has rehearsed this copious times in the solitude of her own room.

I'm going with you to Antarctica. I'll talk to mother. All you have to do is say yes.

She pictures herself bright and burning amid the gloom he gathers around him, thinking he must not dare gaze upon her when he falls silent, fists against his sides, eyes to his feet, mouthing something to no one in particular.

Years later she learns what it was he said, one late evening while standing outside Shinji's room. I am a coward, she whispers to the closed door.


Sometimes, she wakes up believing that father isn't swimming away from her. In her dreams he doesn't jump over the railing after all, that it is her strength of will that pushes him into the water, her waves that drag him toward the horizon, her depths that swallow him whole and hold him down.


Antarctica is a glittering white line on the horizon that she has watched for the past seven hours that father has made her wait. Three ships have docked and sailed away, spilling people and roaring noise onto the windswept docks before leaving behind bone-deep silence. The place is empty now, the high-pitched wind and her own seething heartbeat the only sound she hears. Her palms are frozen to the cold metal bench by her own stubbornness, her cheeks burn with shame.

She rehearses the speech she would spit at him, a list of her grievances, how she would revel in the joy of seeing his face contorted in agony for her. She pictures him weeping in penitence, kissing her feet, telling her he doesn't deserve her, a daughter so good and dutiful and pure. Then she will tell him, I'm worth nothing to you. You don't love me. And he will wail all the louder for his realization.

Maybe she will toss herself into the freezing water and when she surfaces, her frozen smile will be beatific. It would crush him.

She feels something well up in her chest as if she has accomplished something great. A heady triumph. He would be sorry. He would love her.


Anyway, what matters is she wants to be the one to push him into the sea. That father steps onto the railing and plunges into the water of his own accord is secondary to her intent to kill him, and besides the dream is hers, subject to her will to bend the universe.


When she wakes from the terror, it is as if a bell jar has descended over her. The world has removed itself beyond the grasp of her senses.

She knows the sun refuses to rise and all about her the waves rage on, but neither the water nor the darkness can touch her. Her ribs are sharp beneath her skin thin like a balloon filled with air, and her eyes are hot, the way they get when she is about to cry or when she steals into father's cabinet to take a sip of his alcohol hoping he would come to find her.

And through the years to come, she would hold on to these quiet hours. How during the worst of it, she would feel a physical shifting and remember that there is nothing more to fear, that back then, she had already vanished into her hunger until she turned to dust and shadow.


The difficulty isn't in speaking. They misunderstand. It takes her three years to swallow fully the fear deep down in her belly that it may never slip out the moment she parts her lips, this dangerous knowledge safely tucked behind her ribs, where it tightens and squeezes, but where it won't menace the greater world. There, sealed with the scar that fades quicker than her night terrors.

When she finally talks, her voice seems decades older to her own ears. The sound reverberates from her gut, her chest its amplifier, her mouth a megaphone. I'm okay now, I want to get out of here. The stunned silence that follows feels louder than her words.

She turns eighteen just as the ship docks. But what nobody cares to tell her is how surviving sometimes means looking back and begging for another taste of the thing that scarred her, the sharp sting of fear the thing she misses the most. She races cars, drinks until her stomach burns, dances on tables in heels, kisses strange men, and each time she relishes the dip in her gut when she averts death for the hundredth time.


The truth catches up to her on her first day of university. Walking down the street in her new, ill-fitting shoes, her eye finds the front page of a newspaper neatly plastered against the glass wall of the konbini. The concluded investigation into Second Impact. The final death toll set at 3 billion lives. Then, Katsuragi. The architect of the disaster. Father.

In class, the teacher mumbles her name out of pity, but she repeats it louder for all to hear. She remembers what mother says. Sweat, tears, salt against wound.


It feels simpler than she expects, when it happens, an inevitable rite of passage. She is a woman now, no longer her father's daughter, but another man's woman. His. He's kind, far gentler than he needs to be. He holds her hand, asks her if it hurts, kisses her forehead. She feels everything through her skin, unbearable, his hot breath when his lips map her scar. His eyes keep asking for permission. It's sweet. Yes, of course she wants it, silly of him, presumptuous, to assume that women might not want it as much as men.

She trusts him, knows it the moment she wakes up to herself wrapped in her futon, untouched, him causing a ruckus in the kitchen. The scent of tobacco in the air.

Afterward, she cleans him with her tongue, him stained with the supposed death of her purity. She likes it for the meaning it holds. To take the most private and shameful part of him into the most public part of herself is to banish the barrier between chaste and carnal, bad and good, inside and outside. She swallows the salt-iron taste of her deflowering, erasing the evidence of her innocence, her guilt. She will feel him still between her legs for days, and for a while, everything will seem lighter, the edges of things, of her, blurred out.

Later, when he places the fish on her bowl of rice, she tells him: she couldn't be touched for a very long time. Touch was agony. So he holds her and kisses her, and kisses her, and kisses her.


The watermelon has too many seeds. Shiny-black beetles sticking to the sides of the stained milk bottle that she grips between her bare thighs. The heat leaves them both languid, words slurred and slowed. She dangles her feet over the balcony, threatening her sandals upon unsuspecting heads below while detailing plans for his future. Engineer. Salaryman. Househusband. He could be asleep under the ratty hat placed over his face.

"Maybe a farmer. I'll learn how to cook. We'll open a restaurant up in the mountains."

She rattles the milk bottle as proof of the viability of her plan.

"You? Cook?"

"Yes, me. What?"

He doesn't remove his hat, but twitches his toe to ward off a fly.

"You're idealizing me. I can't keep anything alive, let alone a farm."

She interrogates this no further, having seen the soil under his fingernails, the watermelons he brings her, the late-night phone calls, the days-long stretches of absence, the way his eyes alight at the mention of endings, but goes to tip the bottle out and over the balcony. He can barely hear the seeds tumbling out against the shriek of the cicadas. It's better this way. No one can feel misunderstood, when understanding isn't even an option.

A decade later, when they are no longer children, hunched over her desk in a dark room, she will want to ask him about all the hours he spent away from her, about his garden, about his brother, about his death. But it is easier to mourn the unknown than the known, and her fingers will tremble whenever she attempts to open the pill, until it is too late. This is how we make ghosts of absent men.


Their first year anniversary. He is late. Not five minutes or half an hour late but a full hour and a half late. She's staring at her half finished bowl of ramen, the narutomaki bloated with its pink outlines blurring into the white like some kind of engorged eyeball. Disgusting, disgusting like the frightening, scuttling thing inside her chest. This larvae of hatred. When he arrives, hair mussed up with the sloppy grin on his face, she hates herself more for knowing that she can forgive him if she chooses to. It would be easy. Fall for his charms, watch him while he eats, tell him about her day, pretend he isn't late, pretend she isn't hurt anyway, pretend she isn't expecting him so soon. Oh, I was in the area anyway. Oh I mistook the hour. My fault. Everything's fine.

But she tells herself she's more than this, and he doesn't know who she is. Forgiving him would be a betrayal against herself. She is a hard fist wrapped around this indignity.

He sits down into the trap laid out for him, her eyes are accusations, and she topples her ramen toward him in a break from mundanity that has the rest of the room falling into deferential, fearful silence.

I'm going home, she says, going.

He comes back when the sky is already growing light. Her limbs move by themselves, untangling herself from the sheets made sticky by her tears, sweat from the sleepless night, like a pair of choreographed dancers she finds him in the doorway, silent and still, just the perfect height and shape for her to wrap her arms around, to kiss hungrily, his form fitting hers just so when he pins her against the wall. His silence the perfect complement to her screams when he makes his penitence.


Summer break and the sun is getting properly strong, stroking her back and thighs.

He looks cocky, at ease. She can still see the boy in him when he smiles like that, as if to tell her it's fine, it's gonna be alright, there will always be time. What a silly thing to say, yet somehow charming. A man who has the confidence to imagine he can appeal without pretenses. She wants to hold him, to yield to him, but already the tide is rising and he has gone into the water.

On the shore, she shields her eyes from the light, watching as he paddles against the waves, grains of sand falling before her face.

There comes to her a glorious, vivid vision.

She's tiny, barely the length of father's arm. He towers over her, broad slats of sunlight blanket his shoulders to warm her limbs, mother laughing from the side of the communal pool. She remembers swallowing a mouthful of water and crying out from the ache in the back of her throat, the worst misery imaginable to a coddled child. Father's hand smoothing her back is warmer than the sun. He, at some point, had forgotten how to love her. But at least, right then, he knows.


So does it matter that she tries calling out to him even if it's too late? Does it matter that she wants him to come back, even if the desire becomes fully formed only once it has lost any chance of being fulfilled? Does it matter that, at times, she thinks of jumping into the sea after him only to wake before she hits the surface?


It sickens her, how she wants to wake up years from now and see the history of their lives mapped out on his face lying there on the pillow. How her heart hammers when she sees his bare leg poking out the of the mess of blankets on their bed, the scars and spots and freckles she has memorized on his shoulders. How he makes everything around him smell warm.

The rain is deafening against their aluminum roof. She whines and says she can't sleep in this racket, because it's easier to speak of discomfort than of contentment.

Come here, he says, and she goes to him. His expression shifts the way the pages of a book flips through too quickly for her to read, and she doesn't want to read him. She thinks of how much older he seems in this light. How mortality follows her about, peeking through the most familiar of faces.

He pulls her onto his lap and immediately she vomits her thoughts into his ears: I keep seeing the dead, and my death, and somewhere in there is yours too, and hopefully I will never see it. I can't bear to see it. It feels like it's all happening so fast, don't you think? Don't you? It's just never enough time. It's not enough. It just feels like there will never be enough time with you. And I don't want you to go and I don't want to not want you to go. It's all out of my control and I'm afraid. I'm so, so afraid.

She hears him promising forever and feels the chilling misery of a wife waiting with a cold dinner. She leaves him the next day.


This is what she would have him engrave onto her skin: If I can see you again, I will say the words. If I can, I will see you again, then the words. I will see you again, and I will the words I couldn't say eight years ago, so I can. I will.

Instead he tells her, the way to the truth is sent by thirty-six other methods but they won't reach you. Instead he says, this is all I have.


In the end, what changes isn't the collection of facts or the order of events. There can be no grand revelations between father and daughter. Only a settling of the dust. A shift of the light.


Her dreams of the dark are repetitions of a memory that never changes in its retelling. She remembers now, how in the night her father so quietly opened her bedroom door to cast yellow light over her form. How he set out the plates for them on the floor with ritualized slowness. The rice, the soup, the meat, the vegetables, the fish. How he didn't turn on the lights or move to wake her, but she woke and took her seat on the floor, pawing the medal still hanging around her neck, feeling all the more foolish when he saw her with it. In the dark, she couldn't tell if he was smiling.

And how, at that time, he took the fish cheek, gleaming in oil, a perfect mound of fat and flesh, nearly toppling off his spoon, and laid it on her plate.


Father arrives at the eleventh hour, as men do. He says only, Misato, I'm sorry.

She slips off the bench with a full heart and a hollow in her gut like a waiting carapace, a stream of tears thawing her cheeks, salt water on her lips. Already wordless, she follows him toward the waiting ship.

Overhead, the gulls echo their deafening signals to each other. Fledglings know their fathers and mothers by the sound of their calls.