Once, when I was a child, my father took me on a day trip to Nagasaki and said, "This is what can happen when you're not careful." He gestured to the Peace Park around us, the chestnut trees and the memorial statue and the plaques commemorating the atomic bombing. We were alone, save for a few crows roosting in the treetops, but he spoke like he was divulging classified information. "Your great-grandfather, for example. He passed away in the explosion, as did many others like him. Unprepared."
He stood with his back to the sun, forcing me to squint every time I looked at him. I was so focused on my eyesight that I said nothing. And perhaps he mistook silence for confusion, because then he whistled, a high-pitched noise that got lower and louder by the second, until he clapped his hands and mimicked the sound of an explosion.
"Just like that," he said.
The finality of his tone knotted my stomach. By way of distraction I pictured my mother as she'd appeared that morning when we drove off. She wore a sun hat and gardening gloves emblazoned with orchids. She waved as we sped down the road, then returned to pruning our cherry blossom tree. I imagined myself by her side, the two of us like a mother-daughter superhero duo, carefully snipping off dead branches and saving our tree from fungi and disease.
It wasn't until later, after my father—knowing I couldn't yet read—had guided me to a bronze plaque cluttered with words and told me that my great-grandfather's name was etched in the tablet, after he'd made me touch it and I cried, that we finally trekked back to the van and drove an hour back home.
The heat from the oven greeted us when we returned. My mother emerged from the kitchen, dusting her flour-crusted hands on her black apron. The smell of matcha cookies trailed her like a shadow.
"Did you have fun, Hana?" she asked.
My father closed the door behind us, stayed beside it and jiggled the knob.
"Yes," I replied, feeling his eyes on my back. And I gave her that same answer when she asked if I wanted to play our game.
We had a routine, the two of us. Every day she would twist my name, adding syllables and letters, teaching me the meanings of new words and phrases.
The day before, when we were in our flower garden, my mother taught me Hanako. Her mouth curved beautifully around the weight of the new syllable, filled the word with promise. "Flower child," she translated in English. She plucked one of her precious hydrangeas, nestled it in my hair.
I didn't know when I'd ever have any use for English. Still, I liked to imagine myself with these names, wondering what kind of person I would've been if only I'd been born as Hanako or Hanae.
That day in the kitchen, with the smell of matcha cookies spiraling around us, my mother closed her eyes and said hanabi. "Fireworks," she clarified, and raised her fist. When her arm could extend no further, she whispered "Bang!" and released her fingers, sprinkling us with imaginary gunpowder.
Feeling particularly clever for catching the connection between this and my father's expedition, I giggled and said, "Oh, like great-grandfather?"
My mother blinked once, twice. Her mouth bobbed. The oven beeped, its timer flashing a parade of zeroes, and she almost dislodged the tablecloth when she jumped to retrieve the cookies.
Later that night, their whispers snaked through the floorboards. I stared out the window at the silhouette of our tree, tracing the outline of its missing limbs as my father's voice grew louder.
"She should know," he shouted. "Why not? She has a right to know these things so she doesn't make the same mistakes."
"What mistakes? She's five-years-old, Daisuke," my mother said. "There's a time and a place for—"
"What time? What place?"
Then my mother murmured something. I closed my eyes, held my breath, did everything I could to hear their words, but the only noise that came after was my father's footfalls on his journey to the couch.
The next day, I found my mother in the kitchen and the batch of cookies in the trash can. When questioned, she said, slowly, "I made a mistake while baking them. I wasn't careful."
"Okay," I said, and decided not to tell her that I tiptoed into the kitchen during the night and ate three of them. They'd tasted fine to me, bittersweet and nutty.
My mother stood at the sink, her hands submerged in the soapy water. "I think it'd be best if you didn't talk about your great-grandfather anymore, Hana," she said. "Okay?"
I stared at the mound of green cookies, stacked like bodies. "Okay."
After she finished washing the dishes I waited for her to broach the subject of our game, eager to hear the other permutations of my name.
She didn't mention it. Not the next day, either. And after a few weeks I gave up altogether, resigning myself to be just plain old Hana.
Years later I played the game by myself, sitting before the glow of the family desktop. I limited myself to researching one word per day, and always repeated their English definitions. By the time I was a teenager, I'd amassed hundreds of names and fanciful identities.
This proved helpful when, a week after my sixteenth birthday, my father accepted a job promotion with a twist: he was to lead his company's operations in Seattle.
On the plane ride to America, as the sky darkened under the wing of the 747, my father issued a litany of instructions: no drinking, no drugs, no parties. Then, before he brought his blanket up to his chin, he added, "And no other boys."
He fell asleep before I could ask him to clarify "other," but his tone said it all. In this new world, any boy that wasn't like us was trouble.
And maybe it was because he was the first person at my new school to talk to me, or maybe it was because he also spoke with a trace of an accent, but trouble found me.
His name was Cliff. He drove a Ford pickup, worked part-time at a grocery store, and made C-average grades consistently. These I knew because he told me the day I transferred, as though he were in a rush to expose his imperfections before someone else had the chance.
At first I rolled my eyes, pretending not to notice his glasses or his toned arms. My father's words occupied the back of my mind like an uninvited houseguest who's worn out their welcome. Cliff was certainly an "other" boy.
But somewhere along the line it became another game, just like the one my mother and I used to play.
He would tell me one new thing about himself every day in first period pre-calculus: that he hadn't actually read a book since second grade, that he thought vomit was tougher to mop up than blood in the grocery store, that he believed true love only came around once in a lifetime. He looked right at me when he said that last one and didn't turn away, even when the teacher shushed him.
Maybe that was the moment I knew Cliff was different.
Once, I'd missed the bus after school when my sixth period teacher made us stay fifteen minutes late to punish one of my classmates. When we were released, I dashed to the bus zone but found it empty except for a few seniors' cars. Sighing, I tried to calculate the how long it'd take to walk home when someone behind me honked. Cliff rolled his window down and beckoned.
Against my better judgement, against my father's forewarnings, when he leaned over and popped open the passenger door, I slid in.
We rolled through the streets with the windows down and the music up. Unlike the Cliff I saw in first period, the Cliff behind the wheel was overly cautious, checking his mirrors and his blind spots with the fervor of a zealot, pulling over to the side when he heard the hint of a siren behind him.
"Tell me something about yourself," he said as we were waiting for the ambulance to pass. "I'm always telling you stuff about me but I feel like I don't know anything about you."
I considered what I had to match his stories, said, "My mother and I used to play this game where we would form different words from my name," and I gave him a few examples with the translations.
He laughed. Hanabi, he said, was his favorite.
Ten minutes later, when we pulled into my neighborhood and made it to the driveway, my heart stopped. My father's car was parked in front of the garage.
He was never home early.
"Let's do this again sometime," Cliff said as I collected my backpack and prepared to alight from the truck.
"Sure," I said, my voice more distant than intended. I turned to thank him, only to feel his lips on mine. My body tingled; my eyelids closed of their own volition. I'd never been kissed before.
Cliff pulled away, a dreamy look in his eyes. "See you tomorrow?" he said. "You know where to find me."
My legs wobbled as I answered, "Yeah," and closed the door behind me. He flashed a peace sign and disappeared down the street in his sputtering truck.
It wasn't until I got inside that I realized what'd just happened. I took a step toward the staircase, hoping to make it to my room undetected.
"Who was that?" my father called from the couch. "Come here, Hana."
"It was a friend from school," I said, and swore under my breath. When I entered the living room, I noticed the blinds were ajar.
He saw. He knew.
"What did I tell you?" my father said, standing up. Then, louder, "What did I tell you? No other boys!"
Something snapped inside me. He had no right to talk about someone he hadn't even met, someone he had no intention of getting to know.
"You don't know what he's like," I shouted back. "You don't know anything. Just because he died in the bombing doesn't mean—"
And I couldn't bring myself to mention my great-grandfather by name.
And then it didn't matter because I recoiled, snapped back into reality by the stinging in my cheek. I felt the imprint of my father's hand before I even knew he'd moved it.
"Don't tell me what I don't know," he said, right before I retreated to my room.
It happened months later, on Independence Day.
Our neighbors from across the street decided to host a block party. After months of spending her time sequestered inside the house with no flower garden or cherry blossom tree to occupy herself, my mother leaped at the invitation. She commandeered the kitchen, perfumed the house with the aroma of her matcha cookies.
She filled two Tupperware tubs by late afternoon. Only when she was stuffing the mixing bowl with more dry ingredients did she realize she was missing something crucial. She called me in from my spot on the couch.
"I need you to pick up some matcha powder at the store," she said. Her hair was frazzled, her apron stained with flour. "The organic kind, if you can find it."
My father, who was at the dining table tucking bits of salmon into sushi rolls, scoffed. "Like they'll be able to tell the difference," he said, and placed $10 on the table.
The Safeway was ten minutes away on foot. Inside, air conditioning flowed freely, putting up a barrier between the customers and the summer heatwave. The place was almost empty, except for the employees.
Maybe that's why I startled in the coffee/tea aisle when I bent to grab the non-organic matcha powder and my name rang out above me.
Cliff stood a few feet away. He looked like a mix between Clark Kent and Superman in his glasses and apron with the red-and-white "S" logo stitched in the middle.
"Did I do something wrong?" he asked before I could stand. "If I did, I'm sorry. Really, I am."
Heat bloomed in my chest, in my cheek where the memory of my father's hand lingered. Cliff still texted me occasionally whenever he saw something interesting or thought of something that might make me laugh, but I never responded. I'd stopped speaking to him in first period after that day. I told myself it was because I wanted to be careful.
The words came tumbling out. "I'm sorry. It was never your fault. I just couldn't," I said, but wasn't sure where to go from there.
He exhaled, releasing his balled fists. His expression was inscrutable, somewhere on the precipice of relief and skepticism.
"I've been wanting to talk to you," he said. "For a while now."
"I know." What else was there to say?
He eyed the tea powder. "Look, are you busy tonight?" he said. "I mean, I know it's a holiday and all, but I was wondering if maybe, if you weren't doing anything, you wanted to spend it together. To catch up. I know this great place where everyone's going."
The matcha box felt like an anchor in my palm.
"I don't know, Cliff." His name still had an edge to it that I loved, a sharpness.
He held up his hands. "Hey, no pressure. If you change your mind, I get off at ten o'clock. You know where to find me."
"Okay," I said, and forced myself to move in the direction of the checkout aisle. I told myself not to look back, not to be careless.
At 9:50, as they mingled with neighbors we'd spent the year living with but had never spoken to, I told my parents my stomach hurt. My father raised an eyebrow, but my mother, the life of the party thanks to her matcha cookies, permitted my return to the house. I closed the backyard gate behind me and continued on down the block.
Cliff stood at the entrance of Safeway, still wearing his apron. Behind him the evening light was fading on the horizon.
"You made it," he said with a smile.
"I made it."
When we got to his truck, he held my door open and waited until I buckled myself to close it. Then he piled in and backed out of the lot and we cruised down the road.
Like the pavement underneath us, our conversation was rough, full of starts and stops, potholes and speed bumps. We drove with the windows down, feeling the wind in our hair and ears. We finally found our rhythm fifteen minutes later when Cliff joked about his job at "Slaveway" and how he could almost afford to buy Netflix with all the money he made.
Another ten minutes later, when we arrived at the place Cliff mentioned, the place where everyone was supposed to be, it was empty save for one other car parked a good forty feet away. The place was a glorified field of grass, rampant with weeds. Insects trilled outside the window. He unbuckled himself but remained seated.
"Where is everyone?" I asked.
Cliff pointed vaguely to a spot beyond the windshield, cut the engine. "Wait for it."
Seconds passed, then minutes. The headlights of the other car beamed for a moment then fizzled into darkness. I stared to the spot Cliff indicated but saw nothing.
Before I could speak, he said, "Hey, can I ask you something?"
It was dark in the car without the glow of the dashboard or any streetlights. It sounded like Cliff was looking at me when he said it, but he could've just as easily been speaking to the steering wheel.
"Did you ever miss me?" he asked. "I thought about you all the time, how you were doing. If I messed things up. I never knew."
But the word didn't seem strong enough. I thought that if I could explain myself, if I could let him know that I never meant for it to be like that, if I could only tell him how this all began, we'd be back to normal, back together.
"My great-grandfather," I whispered for the first time in over a decade, and stopped when a burst of color spanned the length of the windshield. We watched as the sky brightened with bursts of gunpowder. Fireworks crackled to life, bathing us in light one second and shadow the next.
"I missed you, Hanabi," he said. Then he dipped forward and placed his lips on mine, prying open my mouth with his tongue, and I knew where things were going.
When he pulled away and yanked his apron over his head, crumpling it until the Superman-style logo vanished, I knew it then too.
When he leaned over and unbuckled my seat belt, I saw things in my mind as clear as when I imagined myself and my mother pruning our cherry blossom tree together.
And when he put his hand on my knee and spider-walked it up my leg, I let him, silently cursing my father for being wrong and right. Because Cliff wasn't like the other boys. But I understood too what he meant then, how things could happen when you were unprepared, how you could try to fight against them and still be helpless.
Another firework arced into the sky and exploded, releasing a pinwheel of light in the shape of a chrysanthemum. Just before the sparks faded, I caught a glimpse of myself in Cliff's rearview mirror, and I wondered which version of me I was seeing then: Hana the gentle flower, or Hanabi the dazzling firework, or someone else altogether, someone not yet named.