The clock on the mantle read 2:46 AM when I walked into the living room, pushing the door behind me until it closed with a whispered whoosh and a click. I set my suitcases, airport-tagged, still smelling like the dingy Tokyo air (hot fish rotting in the streets), down on the cool cream tile and listened to the insistent hammering of my heartbeat slow, my load lightened. The shadowed room stood silent, waiting. Slowly I traced its contours, my eyes moving as if reading a beloved passage in a well-battered book -- the ficus in the corner, its proud branches with dust-covered leaves; the two gray woolen chairs whose arms reached out and then opened, curving downward, like the arch of my mother's back and arms when she tilled the dirt in her vegetable garden every March. My father's chair in the corner, still the pariah of the meticulously decorated living room, orange and brown with its crumpled cushions and faded sitting spot against the starched grays and creams of the other furniture. My sister had drawn the still life on the wall above my father's chair; I remembered sitting intently on the back deck, watching her ten-year-old hands, skin already a map of charcoal rivulets, work quickly, moving over the page in sweeping strokes, her teeth set as she studied the canvas, blowing the extra dust away with gentle breaths. I listened to the quiet crackle of my bamboo sandals as I made my way across the room to the sofa. It faced away from me and opposite the gray chairs with the coffee table between them as if all of the furniture was enmeshed in a covert conversation that I couldn't possibly understand. Even the ottomans against the wall, stiff in their taupe tuxedos, seemed turned toward the ficus, unaware of my thirsy stares.
I settled into my father's chair, feeling the cushions sink beneath me in quiet submission. They weren't expecting me until tomorrow. I let my mind wander over the past year, over the brown smiles of my foreign family, the austere raked paths of the Shinto shrine near my high school, the men eating soba noodles at counters looking out at the bustling streets. I remebered the aching of the first few months away, watching my tears disappear into my tatami mats while the crickets hummed. The aching had subsided as the language became easy on my tongue and my dreams began to fill with those places, foods, poems. After the cool winter had passed, I'd begun to forget my mother's laugh, the way my father held his pipe in fisted fingers while he made some literary point or other, my sister's soft eyes. My mother's first letter to me had finished, "you're getting so old now; soon you won't need us at all anymore." I hadn't believed her then.
I heard the click and hum of the heater coming on, the cricket music outside, two creaks -- the house settling, my mother had assured me during the long, deep nights of girlhood -- and the quiet home-symphony filled me with a longing to creep into my sister's room and, holding her hand, climb between my parents, bodies intertwined as we slept. But I knew that the bed would no longer contain our bodies, limbs as long as theirs, mine grown longer in my absence. As my house slept, I wept silent tears for a time I had had to leave behind.