“It’s not so much what is there as what isn’t there,” you say, leaning across the aisle to look out the window and getting in my space, but you never notice social niceties when it doesn’t suit you.
I haven’t been speaking to you since we barreled down Narita’s runway, when I realized you had taken my last Ambien that night we spent on the beach in Hasaki. Nine and a half hours into our flight and you still haven’t noticed.
I give in. “What are you talking about?”
“Look.” The Boeing tilts abruptly and the ground looms; gravity ignores my sullen wish and you remain upright. “Where’s the green?”
“It’s summer. California is hot. And dry.”
“Not San Francisco.” The fasten seatbelt light dings, but you ignore it. “Look.”
“I did look. Sit down. You’re going to get in trouble.”
“Something’s not right,” you insist, but I ignore you through the descent. It’s only when the wheels shudder to a stop that I concede you’re right. There’s no way I’m going to admit it aloud, though.
The earth outside the window is barren; the long grass promenades between runways are fallow and the ocean beyond churlish dark.
We taxi. And taxi. And taxi.
The air inside the cabin is stagnant, fetid with human sweat, and we’re not even back in economy seating. I squirm. You squirm. Everyone squirms. We’re all caught between needing to pee and the itch to break free from this claustrophobic cylinder. Even the flight attendants chafe, their formerly smart suits rumpled with futile anticipation.
You loosen your seatbelt to its full extent, recline your chair, curl your legs up under you, and go to sleep. It’s not fair. My eyes burn from fatigue. It’s been more than a full day since we closed up my apartment and set off, and I still can’t even nap. Poor Hosho and Kirameku down in the cargo hold must be traumatized.
The intercom crackles, the pilot’s tin voice not reassuring. But we begin to move again.
We disembark not at a gate, but on one of the tarmacs, seemingly as far from the terminals as possible. Three hastily erected tents wobble in the wind, flaps flying with the great Pacific gusts and revealing rusted carts of unfolded chairs inside. Downwind, a small fleet of armored vehicles squat, but none approach.
Three hundred of us or so out here alone—ironic, really—and seeing my panic, your voice remains the loudest as you bully the pilots into opening the cargo doors.
Hosho, antsy with latent puppy anxiety, pulls hard on his leash as he ricochets between craving our love and his instinctual need to sniff sniff sniff. Kirameku clings to my shirt, trimmed claws still digging into my shoulder. Her wild eyes belie her insistent purr.
Twenty years. That’s what everyone keeps saying. Twenty years. Our smart phones, that don’t seem so smart anymore, don’t lie.
“Three years,” you had said, boxing up the entirety of my life just days ago. Or rather, years. “Three years in Tokyo, hiding from ghosts, and all you’ve learned is how to make a pot of tea and a passable bowl of ramen.” I still can’t argue with that, even though apparently now twenty-three years have passed between then and now.
We watch the news of our arrival on screens that buffer and buffer and buffer. It’s safe to say we’re all a bit behind on firmware updates. The ads that break up the stream feature a world both familiar and alien. Phones are paper-thin now and fold in origami shapes, apparently. Actors’ teeth in coffee commercials are still impossibly straight and white. We’re the flight from nowhere, the impossible apparitions. All my social media apps are ghost towns.
There’s nothing left in Hosho by now, but he still tries to mark the plane’s tire. Just in case. We are here! Hosho hears a Who.
In retrospect, I don’t blame him.
You take a selfie, peace sign in hand and catching all the confusion behind us. Hashtag just landed, hashtag quarantine. Are hashtags even a thing anymore? Another selfie. Siblings with Cat, the museum sign will say, 1.3 mb with chrome filter. Your grin is infectiously devilish; I appear paralyzed.
“I look really good for fifty,” you proclaim, and I can already tell this joke is a gift you will just keep giving.
The tent does nothing against the weather, it just makes the heat feel worse and the wind more obnoxious. We raid one of the plane’s galleys for mini water bottles and start a trend. The sun is setting and still no movement from the lurking platoon.
“Do you think we’re going to have to sleep out here?” Hosho’s tongue is long from the heat and frothing with sweat. He laps the water I pour with such vigor that one bottle is done before I can empty another.
You shrug, and that’s more than enough of an answer.
Kirameku pulls on her lead, straining the harness. You had laughed when you saw it, but now with her carrier needing to be cleaned out, my over preparedness has proven useful.
The envoy, when it finally approaches, has logos littered on the sides of the trucks and then again on the hazmat suits that zip up their emissaries. If we’ve been contaminated by radiation, then the army’s contracted NASCAR.
We all ping clean, though. Even my two fur balls, whose rabies shots have laughably lasted two decades longer than they should have.
Doctors take up residency within our tents, floodlights illuminating the dark circles under all our eyes as we wait our turn to be interviewed, inspected, and inoculated. The vet technician tries to get Hosho to stay still, but he is having none of it. Not when there are so many hands around and belly rubs to be had.
MREs as we wait for the self-driving shuttles. The future of food thus far isn’t very impressive, but at least the soup heats in seconds and the grainy vitamin juice is ice cold. There’s even a packet of parsley garnish that blooms almost-fresh when fed a dribble of water. Dipping my bread roll in what resembles minestrone, I’m grateful to see gluten is not a thing of the past.
The airport hotel we’re herded into doesn’t normally allow pets, but in this case they’ve made an exception. It’s very noble of them. While everyone else doubles up in an adult rendition of gym class, you and I are already on our way up to our full-sized beds.
“I always thought the future would be more future,” you complain around your toothbrush.
“A lot has happened,” I muse. “We have so much history to catch up on, we may as well go back to school.”
You laugh. “Will they let us? We’re so delinquent on our student loans.”
We all end up in the same bed, unable to bear the solitude engulfing the space between the matching headboards. Hosho shoves his warm bulk between us and Kirameku takes up guard at the foot. In the pitch darkness of the room, it feels like we’re six and eight again, staying up past bedtime to whisper innocent secrets and dream up epic tales. Our new story is non-fiction, but no less fantastic.
“I miss Mom,” you admit. It’s the first time I’ve heard you say that. Even after the last shovelful of dirt had filled the grave, you had remained clear-eyed and tight-lipped. It was your silence I couldn’t endure, your determination to carry on as though nothing had changed. It was your silence and the empty space at the table that drove me away. But it was your voice, authoritative despite the fresh bad news, that brought me home.
There is no home anymore, at least none that I can see. We are adrift in the present future with our present past skulking right behind our shoulders.
“That’s what scares me,” I confide. Hosho, ever ready to comfort, licks my cheek. I wipe his slick saliva off. That only serves to encourage him.
The rabble of journalists swarm like butterflies, flitting from one passenger to the next. We are the Boeing 300. Technically, all included, we’re the Boeing 321, but 300 sounds better. We are the lost flight that was never expected to be found. The miracle of the skies. ANA’s PR rep is having a field day, and the CEO is already on her own flight in to greet us.
One reporter asks you what you’re most grateful for—“That the airline didn’t lose our luggage”—and can’t tell if your deadpan is serious or not.
Kirameku is the most recalcitrant of our ever-lengthening new-found fame. Camera after camera, each as thin as the phones, flash bright at her carrier and countless pictures of her gleaming and glowering eyes through the bars are enhanced and filtered on the spot. Feline Groovy, one stylus captions in a flurry.
“Wrong decade,” I mutter to you; your suppressed snicker is a snort.
Hosho, on the other hand, is ready for the press. He sits as regally as he can for thirty seconds before dropping the charade to search hands, pockets, and crotches for hidden dog treats. “Oh, he’s twenty-two years old,” I answer into one proffered microphones. “But he’s still pretty lively for his age.”
Our dryness is starting to get a reputation, and it’s all too obvious who gets our humor and who doesn’t. I wonder if any of the other passengers are jealous of the attention we’re attracting, but in the end I reason they’re probably more grateful they’re not the ones who have to keep wrangling an overeager pup out of the hotel lobby’s fake decorative foliage.
Our bank accounts are both in the deep negatives. Twenty years of auto-bill pay and no income has cursed us.
We’re not the only ones in this bind. As the reporters give way to lawyers and social workers over the next two days, we can tell who among our company planned well for their financial future and who, like us, didn’t count on their day-to-day living wage being maladapted to year-to-year. Your studio apartment has also long since rented out to other tenants.
I sign the kibble deal for Hosho without hesitation, but you argue Kirameku would be happier hawking office products. Specifically, laser pointers.
Our banks make very public debt forgiveness announcements, as does your former local library branch. No word yet on the student loans.
The hotel room, with its retracting toilet and LCD walls, is overrun with gifts. New phones from multiple companies, each vying for our business as our previous contracts have long since expired. Flexible teeth molds that correct gaps and cavities as we sleep. Make-up that not only lasts all day, but also all night and all the next day, too. High heels that convert to flats for that morning-after walk home.
We hear the men in our group have received more practical items: satchels that transform with Swiss Army efficiency and water bottles that can make hot or cold coffee with a twist of the lid. Misogyny is apparently alive and well in the future. You put up such a fuss about it that everyone else from the flight is given satchels and bottles, too. I’ve never been more proud of you.
At night, we turn on the wall opposite the beds and try to detangle what has happened.
It’s painfully obvious how secluded we are being kept. The bedazzled army trucks hulk in sight of the front door, more to discourage the Boeing ~300 from leaving than keeping others out. I’ve been encouraged to walk Hosho on the rooftop terrace, where the patio is so far fenced in from the ledge, all I can see is the sky.
“I don’t think there’s a president anymore,” you puzzle out as another primary campaign commercial flicks by. The executive office has been replaced with a corporate oligarchy, but the other two branches of government remain intact. Five companies to carry out Congress’s will… and pander to the public for sales. Appease the masses and make a profit. Don’t just sell the good life, enforce it. Diplomacy and globalization for all. No more mad men with buttons.
We do the math and it doesn’t add up; 2036 should have been an election year, not 2038.
“Maybe we should go back to Tokyo,” I suggest, even though I know we won’t. Even though the whole reason for me returning to the States from Japan is now moot.
Home is where our feet are on the ground, and the skies aren’t so friendly anymore.
There’s still no explanation for how or why we’ve ended up now, and we’ve come to the dark realization that, even if it was possible to go back, we couldn’t. These three long days have been more than enough time for us to pick up pathogens galore. We would be a liability to the past.
You find your old college dorm mate online, but when you call her up to video chat, the whole conversation is stilted and forced. Maybe it’s the grey in her hair, maybe it’s the lack of common years. Two more calls to other familiar-yet-foreign faces go much the same way.
You have your suspicions, but you wait until the last call ends to declare: “I think they’re embarrassed.”
“Embarrassed of what?”
“History. The present. Something happened. We’re the guests who’ve shown up uninvited, and they haven’t cleaned the house.”
I’d like to scoff at your hypothesis, but I don’t have any proof to say otherwise.
We find the obituary, written by someone who clearly didn’t know her. July 2, 2017. B’nai Israel Cemetery. Our grandmother, last of our kin and clan, gone twenty years ago tomorrow. We almost made it in time. The hotel staff procure a yahrzeit candle for us and we watch the flame as it lights up the dawn.
Social worker on our left, lawyer on our right, we cross the hotel foyer’s threshold into the humid morning and past the sluggish guards.
The four of us sit in the car—self-driving again—facing each other with nothing to say. Kirameku serenades us down the highway, singing the song of her people and pawing at the carrier’s cage door.
Bayshore Freeway is deserted, the wide roadway pocketed with ruts and bumps. The cars we do see all appear the same—self-driving and solar paneled. Glass boxes on wheels. Along the edges of the highway, though, gas guzzlers of all kinds languish.
The city is still working on recycling them, our social worker explains. But there are so many old cars that must go and only so many contractors allowed to bid. Bureaucracy, as always, moves at its own pace, banging its own drum.
The Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge are both gone, replaced by a stream of ferries. Our escorts remain in the car, but we stand by the railing as we pass under the Golden Gate’s arches, which are all that is left of great icon. Buzzing around the upper reaches, great bulking drones weld I-beams into place. Lower down, smaller ones spray fresh paint over the original structure’s skeleton—covering swastikas and foul graffiti. Rising above it all, a bright rainbow flag dances with the American stripes and stars—fifty-two now—from the highest rafters.
When I read from the Torah at my bat mitzvah, you had sat just to the side of the podium, making ridiculous faces our parents couldn’t see from their seats on the bimah. Only memorization and a stiff jaw got me through without laughing. Later, when everyone had left, we ran barefoot out behind the synagogue, dirt sticking to our feet and my skirt, adulthood finally achieved.
And then we’re back on the road, passing a sunshine Sausolito and more sober Waldo before swinging right, away from Coyote Creek to cross the bay once more. No matter how many times the social worker checks in—Are you sure you want to go there?—the answer doesn’t change.
Redwood Highway intones home in our bones.
Her house, couched into the hillside and straddling the fine line between urban and rural, is the same. The shutters, hingeless and nailed to the sides, are whitewashed and still at odds with the building’s mid-century modernism. If I close my eyes, she’ll still be there. Just waiting on the other side of the door.
You take my hand.
“This is now,” you tell me. “We were always going to get here now. Now then or now now. It doesn’t matter. We’re here. She knows we’re here.” You’re way too wise for your fifty years.
We leave Hosho and Kirameku with our companions and follow the walk up past the silvery sign to our historic future.
The door swings open on its own, life and laughter spilling out into the daylight. The ivory mezuzah is still nailed to the frame.
There are more bookshelves now. The walls of the first floor are lined entirely with them. They crowd around her portrait in the den. Even the kitchen has been converted into a cozy nook, banquet seats by the windows and the cheery freestanding fireplace stuffed with potted succulents.
The last time I was in this kitchen, Kirameku had figured out how open the fridge. We had to put a chair against the door to keep her from sneaking in to chew through bags of shredded mozzarella. Hosho hadn’t been born yet. My idea of ramen came in styrofoam cup.
Upstairs, twin guest beds have been replaced with twin workshop tables, coils and cogs springboards for the imagination. Our LEGOs have been replaced by robots in the making, our dolls with real children—all busy creating new worlds and stories.
The old office has been opened up to connect with her bedroom, the long lengths shimmer with the same LCD screen walls as the hotel. I stop, transfixed by the shifting screens, each wall revealing some other window to the world. Windmill boats devour the Great Pacific garbage patch, sorting refuse with long oars and compressing the waste for future recycling. Bustling 3D printers mass producing Intuitive’s surgical robots. Coastlines being shored up by barriers made of reprocessed cars.
When we had left my apartment, hours ago, our past had menaced and the future felt dubious. Now, our grandmother’s bright home, the foundation of our mother’s childhood and our late adolescence, alive again. The tight knot I’ve been holding in my chest for years no longer clenches. Rather, it hugs the timeline of our lives.
Out in the garden, we let Hosho off his leash. Kirameku sits under a tree, hackles still raised, but she snacks on the grass when we aren’t looking. Further back, where the grill and patio used to be, a group of youngsters is learning how to tell weeds from wealth. They tumble around a center obelisk, glossy dark and engraved, unimpressed by its presence.
History may repeat itself, it says, but knowledge and love will always triumph.
“That’s kinda stupid,” you say, reading over my shoulder, “but it’s true.”
We go back into the kitchen, and I make us a cup of tea.
I’ve been trying to get back into the swing of writing, but the writer’s block is strong with this one and the brain fog shows no sign of lifting. Even so, when time allows, I go to my Saturday Shut Up and Write group and spend a few hours shutting up and at least pretending to write, though sometimes I’m a bit successful. In the fall, I tried using short story contests as a inspiration, and it sort of worked.
Today I went back and reread what I wrote. Obviously, I didn’t expect this story to win the contest—they wanted optimistic views of the future and I can’t seem to write optimistic, at least not in a blatant way. But I love this story. It’s one that feels so right; it’s a story I didn’t know I needed or ever considered writing.
Just like we need more Afro-futurism in our science fiction (and fantasy!), I think we need more multi-theological perspectives in our science fiction. It’s been dawning on me that my fiction is innately Jewish. After all, how could it not be? All my lived experience, my values and morals have been imbued by my reform Judaism upbringing. My cultural identity makes up the foundation of my imagination.
But this identity has been missing in the fantasy and science fiction I consume. When I think way back to my undergrad Jewish Literature class, the names I recall are Issac Singer, Chain Potok, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Shalom Aleichem, and Elie Wiesel. Where was Issac Asimov? Harry Turtledove? David Brin? E.L. Doctorow? And, more importantly, where were the Jewish women, of color, of LGBTQ, of disability science fiction and fantasy writers?
I recently found my old homework assignments from that class, and all of the works we were assigned to write about were written by men, and the women in these stories fell on the conservative side of the spectrum. Where were the pants-wearing, breaking the fast with pepperoni pizza, totally forgetting to check the calendar to see when Hannukah starts women? Mel Brooks has given us Jews in Space (part one), where was part two?
Shortly after I finished “Yahrzeit,” I watched the preview of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Alone in the house, with only the Furballs™ to help me process, I cried. It’s ridiculous, but it’s true. Here was the heroine I wished I’d had growing up, the one I could have identified with. Here was the shrimp-serving, Yom Kippur day-noshing, foul mouthed woman whose family conversations mirror a Robert Altman film I’ve been looking for.
The story of Mrs. Maisel takes place more than half a century from mine, and even further apart from the worlds I write, but in that moment, my only thought was:
Thank effing God. It’s not just me who wants this. Who needs this.