by Gail Wallace Bozzano
When the woman opened the door and slid into Kaito’s back seat, a smell crept into his cab: the smell of brine mixed with silt mixed with decay. A smell that has stayed in the back of his nostrils, in the back of his mind, since the day the wave hit Ishinomaki six months before.
The woman is young, maybe twenty five. Maybe five years younger than he. She wears black jeans and black boots and a beige shawl over black long sleeves. Her hair is pulled back. Slick. Shiny, perhaps from gel, perhaps wet from a recent shower. It is her narrow face, pointed chin, and large eyes that makes Kaito catch his breath. Hiroko’s face. Hiroko’s eyes. Kaito shivers. He pulls out his fare book. Starts the meter. “Where to?” he asks.
“Minamihama District.” Her voice is thin but clear. A voice that could pierce through multiple conversations. A voice so like Hiroko’s that at first he doesn’t process her words. Words that make no sense. That district was washed away.
Hiroko left him two days before the tsunami. It was a chilly March evening, the sea fog reaching its long fingers toward the shoreline. They had just finished dinner and sat together in the kitchen of their tiny apartment on the outskirts of town. Instead of picking up their bowls and carrying them to the counter as she did every night, Hiroko continued to sit, hands clasped. Before she opened her mouth, Kaito could feel the table tremble from the approach of a train, as it would during the earthquake. Tremble as if in shock from her words. Leaving tomorrow for Tokyo. Staying with my sister. I’ve chosen a better job, a better way. Don’t want to marry a taxi driver. Go back to school. Improve your life.
Two days later, when that ugly, oily smear of water devoured a good part of Ishinomaki, Kaito told himself his shock and sadness was for the people who died, who had lost loved ones. His friend’s son and daughter, swept away at Okawa Elementary School. A neighbor. Many regular customers. He did what he could to help, drove people to shelters, refused to charge them fare. He texted Hiroko to tell her he’d survived. Pride kept him from saying anything more. He told himself his loss meant nothing compared to this new tragedy. But his grief over Hiroko felt as big as the wave.
“Minamihama District,” the woman repeats. Kaito realizes he hasn’t pulled away from the curb. He eases the Nissan into the street. “You know there’s nothing there now,” he says. She doesn’t answer. He tries to think of something to ask so she will reply in her voice that sounds so much like Hiroko’s, so he can once again feel that exquisite pain. But something holds him back.
They pass the paper mill, the closed fish processing plant, the old shrine. The street ends in a T. On the other side, a chain-link fence separates the inhabited buildings from the rubble. The living from the dead. “This is as far as I can take you,” he says, glancing in the rearview mirror.
Maybe it is a trick of the light. A bank of autumn clouds partially hides the sun, giving the air a watery quality. The light shines behind her, haloing her body, shadowing her face. Her eyes meet his in the mirror. Wide. Young. Shimmering as if with tears, as Hiroko’s did the first night they slept together. Full of a growing realization.
“Have I died?” the woman asks.
Kaito looks away from the mirror, down at his hands on the steering wheel. His hands that have driven this cab all over this city as he tried to make sense of loss. He looks out at the chain link fence. A seagull sails past in the sky above the ruins, disappears into the clouds. Kaito’s chest, his heart, swell with gratitude. She chose him.
The clouds edge away as a wind picks up. Kaito stares at the place in the sky where he last saw the gull. Delays the moment when he must look into the rearview mirror. The moment when he will turn around and search the back seat in vain. He already knows she is gone.
Gail Wallace Bozzano is the author of the novella, “Supposing She Dreamed This,” which won the Michigan Writers Cooperative Press Chapbook contest in 2016. She is a 2015 recipient of the Ragdale Rubin Fellowship. Her work has appeared in Solstice (as an Editors’ Pick), Grub Street, Hypertext Review, the Chicago Tribune, Cagibi, Chicago Literati, and elsewhere. A former journalist, she holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago.