If I were an office worker in Japan, I would take a holiday with my Japanese boyfriend to the Hachiman Shrine in Kamakura. We would ride the train together, holding hands. We would always be holding hands. I would know the feel of his grip better than anything.
Old women would whisper and blush to see us holding hands on the train.
They would say: Oh, to be young and in love.
If I were an office worker in Japan, my Japanese boyfriend would wear a yukata that day, and I would wear a yukata. I would be as pretty as all the Japanese girls I have admired, their perfect mascara and lipstick. Their thin waists. I would wear a flower in my hair. It wouldn’t wilt in the summer heat, remain bright and pretty.
And I too would remain bright and pretty, and hold my Japanese boyfriend’s hand.
If I were an office worker in Japan, my Japanese boyfriend would buy me a sweet potato ice cream, dango on a skewer. He would only let go of my hand to place the yen on the counter. The clerks would smile.
It’s a beautiful day, they would say, desu ne?
We would agree that it was beautiful, so beautiful. We would smell the ocean in the air; the trees would be thick with the electric buzz of cicadas.
If I were an office worker in Japan, I would clap and bow at the shrine, perfectly. I would pose for a selfie beside the vats of sake. My Japanese boyfriend would put his face beside mine. I would get the angle exactly right, not make my nose look too long or show my teeth in an uncomfortable way.
When I went back to work, I would show people at my office the photo.
They would say, like the old women on the train: Oh, to be young and in love.
They would say: How happy you look. How perfect you are together.
If I were an office worker in Japan, my Japanese boyfriend would kiss me in the shade of the trees behind the shrine. He would whisper my name, brush my hair away from my face. He would kiss me again.
There would be birds in the trees, small brown Japanese birds. They would take wing above us. For a moment, the cicadas would quiet. We would watch the small brown birds disappear past the trees, into the sky. It would be like there had never been birds there at all.
If I were an office worker in Japan, I would ride the train home, standing beside my Japanese boyfriend. There would be a little girl on the seat in front of us. From time to time, she would smile, and we would smile.
The little girl would be holding a cup of ocean water in her hands. There would be a small fish in the bottom. It would flick from side to side in her plastic cup.
If I were an office worker in Japan, I would see the cup slip in the little girl’s hands. I would forget my Japanese, make a tight sound in the back of my throat, something that might be English, something that might be no. I would watch the cup spill out of the little girl’s hands, seawater seeping toward my wooden geta, seashells, ocean pebbles clattering, tiny fish writhing on the floor of the train.
I would watch and watch, mouth going open, then closed, soundlessly. My Japanese boyfriend would hold my hand, tug me away from the seawater trailing the floor, away from the gasping fish. The water would never touch me. I would never cry. I would be so pretty in my yukata. The flower would still be fresh in my hair.
Cathy Ulrich loves dango, sweet potato ice cream and riding trains in Japan. Her work has been published in various journals, including Jellyfish Review, Wigleaf, Booth and apt.
Photograph by C.C. O’Hanlon, In Hiroshima 2002