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Mar 20, 2021

American Christian Friendship

You are going to think I’m crazy, but I’m thinking to myself. In other words, if you were to read my mind, it’d go like this:     

My name is Knick-Knack. I live for Japan’s fresh, new scent of cherry blossoms and walks around Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden—ever since my missionary parents announced we were moving to Tokyo. But I can’t stand its lights, people, traffic and honking cars. It’s just so much. So much like my parents. Who pressure me to succeed. That’s why I glare at others when I walk down the crazy-busy streets to my restaurant job at the Nina Shinjuku Ajito.           

I hold myself tight amidst thousands of people walking and crossing the streets. I push my shoulders up so they’re like book ends to my head, jam my hands in my warm coat, press my lips together. I dodge people like a ninja whips out of sight.     

As I fry up some fish and let the steak sizzle in the oiled pan, I drift off to Ancestor Land. I go here to see whether I can figure out what all the nonsense is with prestige and position—

Buzz! My parents are always bugging me.

Working. Can’t talk right now!

Sorry. Just wanted to see how things were going.   

I just told you I’m working today. Can’t—

My boss yells at me to get the steak on the plate and season the fish. I drop it into my deep pocket and continue with my culinary life. Five minutes later, my parents call. I snap at them, and then shut it off. Then a presence steals my attention.   

“If you’re still angry, I think I’ll take that apron.”

“Sorry, sir. I’ll…” I swallowed, letting my shoulders sag. “I’ll be politer.”

“What?” He hurls at me.

My cheeks feel hot. I wish this moment was a dream.

“I said, ‘I’m sorry, sir.’ I’ll do better.”

My boss just snickers and mumbles to himself about my incompetence. Then he orders me to grow up, or I’m out of here. I give him my most respectful ‘yes, sir!’ but he just shrugs it off. Then I smell something burning!

As I scramble to slide the blackened fish onto a plate, I leak some grease. It’s pouring into the burner! I’m making a mess. I scurry to get the now very dark steak—actually charred—into the trashcan a few feet away. I pass some chefs, apologizing unceasingly to who I only know is my boss standing nearby, and tossed the pan onto the stove. I grabbed a frozen steak out of the freezer in the back room. My panic rose as my ability to defrost this meat in such a short amount of time slid towards failure.

Struggling, I just chucked it into a sink behind me and stole a fresh piece from the refrigerator. However, some guy yelled that that piece was his to fry. I searched for another thawed piece, but this task too nosedived.

I was fired. I knew it.

The boss’ shiny black shoe tapped hard on the white tiled floor. His face was scrunched, forehead creased with stiff lines, eyes piercing into mine.

“Sorry.” My voice bordered on breaking. Tears would cause laughter to spew from this man’s mouth.

He clapped a leathery hand onto my thin shoulder, and mumbled I’d be better off somewhere else. 

I undid and handed over my apron. My head swirling with whether I’d face another year or two in a hotel or, worse, gas station, I pulled my head in—wanting to be as small as my chances at succeeding at one of these dead-end jobs. 

As I shuffled out the restaurant, I sighed. I knew I wasn’t really fit for this place. I did belong somewhere else, where pressure wasn’t the name of the game.

I just couldn’t face my parents’ demands I reclaim my job. So I headed towards a train station bound for Ueno Park. I needed some peace of mind. I ran quickly past people, swiping my card to get from the metal turnstile to a nice seat aboard the train.     

Mom and Dad knew I would talk back, but I wasn’t going to lie to them—they always trusted their only child. However, I couldn’t see her pinched face relaxing into cold concern. Or his eyes shining with disapproval. Disappointment that I had failed the family line of successful restaurateurs— 

I smiled as I remembered Tokyo’s cold, crisp fresh air gently stroking my plump cheeks and big nose, gazing in awe at Ueno Park’s recent but beautiful cherry blossoms and hanami. I would breathe in the spring wind while wrapping my light, leather coat around myself—

I felt several eyes staring, bewildered, at me. I tried ignoring them but found myself giving a cold sideways look to someone. She turned her back on me and sighed. I sighed, too.

My phone vibrated. I jammed it to my ear. “Yes?”  

“Honey, I don’t understand. You’re still angry. What’s up?”

“I lost my job. I’ll never be a part of your family.”

“What?!” Some noise. “Honey, you’re always our child! A job is a job. There have been people in our family who run restaurants, but they’re them. You’re you. Don’t think we want you to be someone else.”

“Mm-hm.” I replaced the pocket’s emptiness with phone. And wrapped my arms around myself. Maybe this was all a dream—my parents should be mad.

I studied the person. Her phone was displayed like she wanted the ceiling itself to read its texts. Well, I did. Then she turned.

“Are you reading my messages?” She said in Japanese. Anxiety pinched her face.

I blanched, but she just laughed and then sat adjacent to me. 

“Sorry. Are you still interested?” She held her phone out to me and giggled. “I’ll let you read the really funny ones!”               

“I’m sorry, but I don’t speak Japanese.” I fumbled with the words. But she giggled, and I laughed, feeling a little more comfortable. Striking up a conversation, I tried getting the words right. She helped me and then I told her, in English, I was going somewhere nice and restful.   

“Oh!” She cocked her pretty auburn hair. “I know where you can go.”     

I sat up straight and opened my ears.

“Where?”

I leaned forward, telling her I was already heading to Ueno Park. She looked surprised but excited.

“I’m going there, too!”    

“Really?”

As we talked, I learned she worked there. When the train stopped, I joined her. A grateful smile stretched across her face.  

I asked her where we were going exactly. She pointed to overhead signs and ones standing at the edge of the train tracks as we walked around and through people. I dodged some nonchalant people whistling past us. As we chatted, I thought about spending my days at a national park rather than another hot, stuffy, high-pressure restaurant again. So I didn’t stop inquiring until we arrived at the security building.             

The girl introduced me and then told the security officer I was unemployed. She said all this stuff in Japanese.

“You guys walked here?” He narrowed his eyes.

“Yes!” I begged.

“You must enter by vehicle.”

“I have my work badge.” She pulled out and handed a card to the officer. He shook his head.

I bit my lip. My car was all the way back at my apartment.

“Do you have a car?”  

She brushed some hair away. “I take the train and then enter a van. It drops me off here.”

After I told the officer we’d return, she must’ve sensed my distress because she encouraged me by teaching me some new words in Japanese.     

“Wow!” 

When we made it to my car, my parents flew out of the house. They folded me in their arms, forcing me to endure fifteen seconds of excitement and love that I was their daughter, no matter what. Afterwards, I introduced my new friend and mentioned working with her.      

“Oh!” My mom clasped her hands. “That’s something new.”      

“Working somewhere irrelevant now is a little bizarre. But,” he pulled me into a hug, “I’ll honor your request.”        

I nodded coldly, getting into the driver’s seat while my friend claimed the passenger side. As she navigated the way, she chuckled and shook her head when I said my parents were just embarrassing me because they didn’t want to admit they were pressuring me into believing I needed to be like everyone else. She just nodded.     

As I scrolled down the window, she told me as she handed the officer her card that she was grateful I was willing to drive her—that, she said, proved true friendship.       

I was speechless at her kindness. But before I could laugh at never having gotten her name, the security officer asserted I needed a card as proof I either worked here or was coming for an interview. I said I didn’t have anything.   

“Then you must drop Annaisha off.” He removed his sunglasses and wiped some sweat with a handkerchief. “You can’t come here without identification of some kind.”

“Yes, sir.” I reluctantly obeyed directions. At home, I researched interview times.     

Or, I thought slyly, I could first talk to Annaisha about interviewing. She must know.

Then I realized I didn’t get her number. Gritting my teeth, I told my parents I’d be out. My father beckoned me over to the really small family room where my parents sat watching TV. I sauntered over.     

“We’ve been talking about you. Why the disrespect?” He switched the TV off and looked at me. I took an enormous deep breath.

“I’m always being told I need to be someone else. I never feel I have a voice.”

“Knick-Knack—” 

“I know we’re missionaries. But I’m so sick of hearing I have to follow in everyone else’s footsteps. I don’t want to become a sous chef one day. I want to be myself, to make my own decisions in the world.”

“That doesn’t mean I need to hear the sarcasm.”       

After apologizing, I waited for her behind a van. A long time passed. When I saw that the driver wasn’t inside, I asked the officer. He told me I needed to get this information straight from Annaisha, who would be done in a few hours.

“Okay.” Great. Now I have to sit in my hot car when Annaisha and I could be setting up an interview and even pick a Saturday to spend at Ueno Park! Maybe when I ace that interview, we can spend all the time we want.  

Suddenly, I jumped and looked over. Then smiled as I scrolled down the window. 

“I just realized I never got your number.”       

She promised it was all okay and texted it to me. She also said there was a spot open in one of the museums nearby. I said I’d think about it.

She just nodded, smiling small. After we said goodbye, I wondered why she was so kind to me when I just protested everything.          

I received a call from the security officer. Excited, I asked how he got my number before inquiring about being hired at the park. But his voice shook as he said Annaisha gave it to him.   

I gripped my phone, furrowing my eyebrows. “Is everything okay?”           

“The train Annaisha usually takes to go home on must’ve hit a guardrail and spun out of whack, because her body was found crushed between the first and second cars. I recently found out the conductor was drunk. He had one too many shots that day but still felt it was okay to freaking drive the train!”     

A moment of shock, and then I slammed the phone down onto the hard wooden floor.

“What?” My parents raced in my room. “Knick-knack—what’s wrong?”

I must’ve sunk into an angry stupor—I could barely stand up. Then I blurted it out.

“Oh my heavens!” My mother grabbed me into a hug.

I was too mad at the drunk conductor to respond. All I did for the next several days was think about what our friendship could’ve blossomed into. Like a cherry blossom.

At her funeral, I spoke some words while a translator spoke after me. But I didn’t want strangers’ eyes staring at a white American girl whose presence only faintly reminded them of their deceased loved one. Her parents and I exchanged bows. When they walked away, I hugged myself. No one comforted me but me.      

I may have only known Annaisha for some time now. But losing a job paled in comparison to what I had for the drunk driver: bitterness and resentment. I stormed out of the church.

Slamming the door, I screamed I wished the driver was never born. My parents stayed silent during my tirade, and then I bolted towards my car. I thought of wrecking it. If I had to walk everywhere, so be it. Annaisha would never be my passenger again. We’d never be two friends walking around Ueno Park.

My parents called me later that evening. I told them I wished the park didn’t exist anymore. 

“Things will work out. God’s timing is for the best—”

I hit the End Call button and sped down a highway. Suddenly, I slammed on the brakes, swerving to a stop just before the edge. Once I overcame the shock, I looked back. No police—yet. I got out and apologized to the construction workers in Japanese. They stared at me in confusion before returning to work.            

I wilted. Did anyone care?

I saw a memory of Annaisha. My frustration with her death only receded, because it just kept coming back. In waves. Despairing, I yanked open my driver door, but someone yelled out to me. In English.

“Wait!”

Some kid jumped down from the inside of a smaller crane and dashed around, a few construction workers all throwing their arms up and yelling at him in Japanese. He looked both ways before crossing half the street and then stopped in front of my car.

“Yes?” I crossed my arms. “This better be good.”  

“It is—you know Annaisha?”

I dug a sneakered foot into the rock-strewn dirt. “You do?”

“I saw you at the funeral. I…I just want you to know she was my best friend.”

My jaw must’ve hit the floor. I dropped my arms. “I can’t believe it! I couldn’t be sorrier!”

“Thank you. I…”

I tried expressing my grief in Japanese.

“It’s okay. My name is Kei. I can help with your Japanese.”

I didn’t want anyone teaching me lessons right now. I was sure we were both grieving Annaisha still. Especially him.

He respected my decision to return to my driver’s seat. I phoned my parents and then leaned over to see Kei back at construction. I always liked doing hands-on things ever since arts-and-crafts in kindergarten. And this was construction—like major art projects for adults!

I believe with all my heart I had received this construction job for a reason. 

A few months later, our families all went out together to a Japanese restaurant. He taught me how to order, food names and restaurant etiquette.  

Whenever I handed him wood, he would smile at me as he held it for me to saw. When we helped pave a new road and nail in a new guardrail, he’d wink. I studied the place at which I braked short of driving myself blindly over a cliff. I thanked God for advertently saving my life.         

When we discussed Kei and my new job at the kitchen table, my parents told me they saw a sparkle in my eye. I said I found myself waking early not just to work, but to invest in a deeper relationship with Him. I told them my struggle with my weight.

My parents instructed me to just do what mattered. I nodded. I didn’t want to just run away or dive off a cliff, but I was a lot ways away from overcoming my anger towards the train conductor.             

The next couple of years, my parents returned to America. I wanted to be close to the construction world, as Kei seemed interested in joining me on my walks to and from the sites.

Working together helped me, at least, laugh and smile. We chortled over Annaisha’s jokes and sweet temper. Cherry blossoms became our signature flower gift every Valentine’s Day. I called my parents, visiting them every summer, Christmas and New Year’s. I even began to shed a few lonely tears while we talked. I told Kei I didn’t know whether I’d be able to live alone for much longer. He expressed that I should—I reminded him too much of Annaisha, as I was her second closest friend.

I wondered whether he was bitter. When he said no, I knew.

I tried helping him overcome it but then made plans to rejoin my parents after we fought severely for over a month.   

But years went by before I again considered stopping my life in Japan.

The seasons changed, and so did Kei. We saved ourselves cherry blossom flowers in envelopes, attended festivals and walked around other parks. Before long, I was wearing a much smaller size. Kei congratulated me when he saw the new me. I always appreciated his kindness.

Eventually, he proposed to me. 

“At the park!” I clapped my hands over my mouth, dancing in place as Kei displayed the ring.

“Yes! Definitely, for you.” 

As we walked hand in hand, my fiancé and I decided to leave the cherry blossoms be. Because that’s what Annaisha, he said, would want for us. They were free to be, and we should let them—because we were free, too. 

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