by Kaj Tanaka
I’ve been having difficulty with punctuation lately. The more I try to end a sentence, the more it just keeps hanging on. It is my own fault. Sentences are like children; strict discipline is necessary if you want to keep them in line. Stray an inch, and they will walk all over you. If you aren’t careful, you will find them mocking you in your own tone of voice.
When I was a kid, I was told that my great uncle was racist against the Japanese. My mother explained that this was understandable because he’d been a prisoner of war during World War II. He was subjected to a notoriously brutal forced march in the Philippines, during which Japanese soldiers tortured and killed many of his dear friends—he himself was tortured during his captivity, though he rarely spoke of it. My mother tried to explain my great uncle’s racism in this larger context—not that it was okay, she told me, but it was understandable.
I tried to convey my mother’s ambivalence to one of my best friends at the time. We talked about it on the phone, the way we talked about everything on the phone back then. He was my only friend in the world, and all I had was him, and every breath I breathed I breathed for him, and we talked every day. Was it okay for my great uncle to be racist? I asked, given his personal associations? No, said my friend (ever the moral absolutist). We argued for a while, and I think he eventually made me cry with the Spartan rigidity of his ethic (we were only in fifth grade). This was before my best friend got into drugs, before he became a virtuosic cellist, before his adult half brother died from a rare brain condition, and before he—as a consequence of all of these things—abandoned our friendship forever. It was not my choice to end our friendship, and so he broke my heart. For a while I had no one, but now I have my wife, and now she is all I have, and every breath I breathe I breathe for her.
There was a time when I was so fond of em-dashes that I couldn’t get through a paragraph without using at least ten of them. This lasted for three or four years. During this time, I showed one of my short stories to a family friend who writes a humor column for the newspaper in Casper, WY. She read my story, her eyes moving back and forth across my carefully formatted paragraphs. The story was supposed to be funny and whimsical because that’s the way I thought of myself back then, but she didn’t react at all. We were at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving, and while she was reading, my mother came into the room to put on music. She asked us if we wanted some tea. Neither of us said anything. My mother stood there, waiting patiently—all of us in silence. Finally, our family friend looked up. “I don’t use em-dashes anymore,” she said, “I used to, but I don’t trust myself with them—I mean, once you start, where does it end?”
On another Thanksgiving, I am drinking bourbon with my wife’s Japanese parents in Skokie, IL, and, for some reason, I decide to tell the story of my racist great uncle, which isn’t really much of a story, and I have no idea why it occurred to me. I try telling it as a funny anecdote—like my crazy racist family &c, but there isn’t a way to make racism funny—not for me, anyway—and pretty soon my wife and my mother-in-law and my father-in-law are staring at me in the dim light of the living room, scrutinizing me like a spider. My mother-in-law pours some more bourbon into our glasses to break the silence. We sit for a few moments, my words hanging in the air. My wife looks tired from Thanksgiving and from the bourbon and from having to act as a cultural ambassador between her parents and me. The furnace in the belly of the house clicks on, and we hear the air rushing through the vents like a long, unending breath.
My father-in-law clears his throat and says in his roundabout way that when he was living in Kentucky in the 1960s, he met many people who were similar to my great uncle, and it was understandable for people of a certain age to feel that way. Some of the older people in Japan still have a similar view of Americans, he says—it was a war, after all. It occurs to me, then, that my father-in-law was a small boy living near Tokyo when my great uncle was a prisoner of war in the Philippines. I know they are nothing to do with one another, but because I am drunk and my mind is reeling I have this feeling of all my past experiences pulled together in a flash and dropping into this deep well—the greasy lump of existence caught in my throat.
I still see my childhood friend’s posts on Facebook, but we do not speak directly. It’s difficult to tell if he maintains his moral absolutism as strictly as he used to when we were children. He was right about my great uncle, in any case—there is a limit to what we ought to forgive in a person, no matter the larger context. Some things require a line in the sand; though in my family’s defense, we looked the other way out of love.
Later that night, upstairs in my wife’s old bedroom, on her tiny childhood bed surrounded by the detritus of her youth—my wife asleep next to me—I look up my friend on Facebook. I discover that, like me, he is recently married. He posts updates about his cello performances, about the orchestra he tours with, about his father, about his frequent bouts of anxiety. And I am so drunk on bourbon that I have lost my restraint and I write him this very long and sincere message with very little punctuation.
The next morning, I check for his response—sober now, I’m a little embarrassed that I wrote to him, and I am tempted to send an apology message, but I don’t. Instead, I reread what I have written to him over and over, and there is no response. I figure he hasn’t seen my note yet, since we are in the middle of a holiday weekend, and he is probably busy. I check Facebook on my phone obsessively for two weeks, but he never responds, and then it is Christmas, and then too much time has passed for him to answer without it being a little strange, but there is nothing a person can do about that—some things just end.
Kaj Tanaka’s writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Vol. 1 Brooklyn and Joyland. He is the nonfiction editor at BULL.
Image: “Backlit Keyboard”, by Colin.