My family lives in a house full of mountains about to fall over. It’s not that they’re balanced perfectly on the right side of precariousness. These mountains do fall over, all the time. When they do, my mother shouts, “Avalanche!” and my brothers and father casually inflate their safety helmets. When I come over they’re raking the rubble against the wall, forming new mountains, smaller ones this time.
After we’ve cleaned up we all sit around peering across the rolling landscape. Here are its contents: Yarns from grass-fed alpacas. Expensive books with mild water damage. Nine hundred and ninety nine cranes, their folds full of dust. In my chest, rocks begin to slip, these small golden dirt clods rolling downhill and bursting on the ground. My mother sniffs back tears. “I love this family so much,” she says.
At the bakery, I order anpan and wait for the clerk to tell me how good my Japanese is, just for managing to pronounce two words.
“Haha wa nihonjin desu,” I will say, and when she opens her eyes wide and says she can’t see it in my face, I’ll say, “Sou iwareteimasu.” So I’m told.
I will take my red bean bun—warm, round, and filling my hand like a small creature, and leave it whole as I sit at a bench outside, reading a story about an acrobat and a rocket scientist who fall in love.
Once, a scientist loved me too. At night, he walked into the forest looking for owls, cradling the smallest ones in his palms before clamping numbered tags on their spindly legs. In the afternoons, he brought me olive bread. I pulled it apart as we talked, and all our worries fell out, shriveled and covered in crumbs.
In my new neighborhood, I have almost every kind of Japanese pastry I want, but I have to steel myself to buy them, wielding my rice and seaweed childhood, a soft memory pounded tough.
When I finally bite into the glazed flesh, the black sesame seeds will graze my lips. The sweet bean paste will linger on my tongue.
For parents I have an owl and a tanuki. I did not get my mother’s ability to fly, or my father’s voluminous testicles to use as a parachute. No, I live on the ground and spend my days delivering newspapers through the forest.
Sometimes I dream about moving through the air, the wind pushing at my back, the fog opening for me like a hug. People stop me on my paper route to ask about my face: how did I get it, both beak and whiskers? They’re not sure it’s beautiful.
Well, one of my parents flew and the other one floated, I say. They met at the top of a short tree and later they made me.
When I tell them, people look at me as if I could fly, and I don’t correct them. I have the memory, after all. When I sleep, I’m closer to the stars.
Mia Nakaji Monnier is a writer in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in BuzzFeed News, Shondaland, The Rumpus, and more. Her essay “Kokoro Yasume,” published in Exposition Review, was a Longreads editors’ pick and a Pushcart Prize nominee. She is the 2021 Idyllwild Writers Week Nonfiction Fellow. You can find her on Twitter @miagabb and read more of her work at mianakajimonnier.com.