How to Leave Home

From Saga Station, take the JR Line to Karatsu. Sit next to a window. Be respectful. Keep the aisle seat open, don’t dump your bag on it, even if you already suspect no one would be forward enough to sit next to you.

Check your watch. Quick. Take out your map and unfold it. Lean across the aisle and show it to the stylish young man in a three-piece suit rocking a Mickey Mouse necktie.

Point.

Ask him: “Karatsu?”

He nods.

“Hikiyama,” he says knowingly, stretching out the last vowel like a patient obeying the doctor. Tell him: “Yes,” and then say: Hikiya-maaah, the same way he does.

Now sit back and relax. You’re on the right train. Let the sleek graphite and glitter carry you with an efficient hum. Count the persimmon trees passing by outside your window. Look for angels in the architecture.

Try not to giggle when the junior high girl dressed in a navy-blue sailor suit turns around in the seat in front of you. When she peeks over the headrest make friends with your eyes.

Observe a tiny plastic toggle dangling from a bracelet on her wrist. Contemplate the bright orange fish with the spiny Mohawk, its puffed out cheeks blowing an air bubble right in your eye.

“Hikiyama!” she says with glee. And then something else you don’t understand.

Say: “Wait—“

Rifle through your bag and find your wallet. Show and Tell. Take out that cute school photo of Nora when she was her age. Say: “Musume.”

Acknowledge the diminutive woman who has just rolled up a large metal cart in the aisle next to your row. She wears a form-fitting mint green skirt with a flirty kick pleat in the back. Her matching jacket, and jaunty pillbox hat, white gloves and stilettos remind you of a first-class flight attendant or maybe, a porn star.

You feel her read your bewilderment, and take pity, as you stare at the cart, unable to make a decision. Then watch as she searches through her inventory and offers a paper container decorated with red hieroglyphics she has specially chosen for you.

You fumble with the money. She shakes her head. Gives you back the first bill and points to the other one in your hand. Her face reminds you of the wooden doll you just bought for Nora in Kyoto.

Silently thank her as she stands at the front of the car facing the passengers and preparing to exit. Watch as she folds her little hands together in front of her and then lowers her head for a solemn one, two, three-second bow.

You want something to eat. Carefully, unwrap the paper with red calligraphy. Fold it in half and stash it in your bag to save for a souvenir.

Remove another layer of paper and then another. Joke to yourself about riddles wrapped in mysteries.

Eventually you discover the Holy Grail– a triple-decker white bread sandwich cut crosswise into crustless quarters, slathered with fillings of unknown origin, each identical rectangle wrapped yet again in a fine tissue paper with cutaway scalloped edges.

Feel the sandwich between your fingers, soft and light as sponge cake. Peel back the bread and examine a layer. Gently sniff. Fantasize that it is egg salad with real mayo, diced celery and pickles.

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