“Nothing was ever lost, I thought. The past is in all of us, all of the time.” A deeply stirring short story about change, and the innate desire to touch base with those you’ve left behind…
by: T.E. Cowell1
He spoke poor English, that’s what made him stand out. Working at a hostel, where people from all corners of the globe come together, you meet plenty of people who speak an accented English that you can, more or less, work around to understand. But this guy, Kenji, he was harder to discern than the others. At least at first.
I was working the last hour of my shift which ended at midnight when I buzzed him in. He came up the stairs with his luggage — a trendy leather shoulder-strap bag designed for laptops, and a durable-looking square suitcase with wheels that he clumsily towed behind him.
After making it up the stairs he smiled at me, and smiling back I said “hi.” I watched as he removed the leather bag from his shoulder after resting his large square suitcase flat on the carpet. After placing the leather bag on top of his luggage, I offered for him to sit in the empty seat facing the front desk. He plopped down and let out a tired sigh. I noticed that the ends of his black hair, which hung over his forehead almost to his eyebrows, were clumped together from dampness, and that just above his upper lip were beads of sweat.
“Long trip?” I said. His eyes widened a fraction, and then he nodded. “You looking for a room?”
“Yes,” he said curtly, and again nodded.
“Okay, I’ll just need to see your passport,” I said.
He opened an inside zipper pocket on his coat — a green military style jacket with a series of breast and side pockets — and then handed his passport across the desk to me. It looked and felt brand-new to the touch. I flipped it open to look at the picture inside. There he was, the same shaggy-haired schoolboy, not smiling or frowning, just staring straight-faced at the camera. Kenji Yokohama, the passport read in English, next to Japanese characters that I admired for their artistry. I glanced at the expiration date on the passport before handing it back to him.
“Did you just arrive from Japan?” I asked.
“Yes,” Kenji said. “Japan.” He nodded his head with a strained sort of look on his face. Japan, I thought, and then tried to imagine the hours he spent on the airplane, the insane distance that plane traveled, and the disorientation Kenji must have felt finding himself in a faraway country.
“Do you know what kind of room you’d like?” I asked, and his eyes widened once more. “We’ve got private rooms for forty-two a night and dorm rooms for twenty-six.”
“Cheap,” Kenji said.
“Alright,” I replied as I consulted the computer monitor beside me to find a room with an available bunk. “Just one night?” I asked, glancing in Kenji’s direction, and again he nodded his head as he dug a hand into one of his jean pockets. Retrieving his wallet I watched as he sifted carefully through the bills he had before pulling out two twenties. He glanced uncertainly at me before handing them over.
“That’ll do it,” I said, smiling and nodding.
After handing him his change, I stood up, walked past him away from the front desk and down the hallway — a hallway where on the wall was a world map with a plethora of tacks stuck into it that marked the home countries of the hostel’s past guests — to the storage room to fetch Kenji his bed sheets and pillowcase. When I came back I led him up the flight of stairs and down the hallway towards his room, informing him as we walked what time checkout was (11 a.m.), the window of time for the complimentary coffee and breakfast in the kitchen (7–10), and requested of him to strip the bed and bring his sheets downstairs upon checkout. He let out a mumbled “hmm” after each item and I questioned whether he had understood anything I’d said.
In his room were three bunk beds. Two windows offered different views of the street below. The light in the room was turned off, but from the windows the dull glow from the street lamps shone on the wall. Other guests were sleeping, someone was snoring. The room had the smell of dried sweat and body odor, with a hint of week-old socks added to the mix. It was the standard odor I associated with all the male dorm rooms in the building.
I watched Kenji glance around the room as his eyes adjusted to the dark. Then I showed him his bed, a bottom bunk, and he set down his luggage. I handed him his sheets, his room key, whispered goodnight, and then left him to return to the front desk to finish up my shift.
Before moving to Venice Beach I was in Santa Barbara for a couple of months. I found work at a different hostel there. Santa Barbara was the first place I stopped and considered calling home after leaving Seattle. I didn’t hate it in Santa Barbara, but I didn’t much like it either. It’s a beautiful place, peaceful and quiet compared to the ceaseless hubbub found ninety-five miles south in Los Angeles, and though I dug the laid-back vibe of the neighborhoods, I felt restless to move on. In my spare time I’d been using the public library’s computers to search out other hostels along the California coastline, and I found an abundance of them scattered all over, from Venice Beach to Hermosa Beach to San Pedro, and further south down to San Diego. Based on the ease in which I’d found employment at the Santa Barbara hostel, I figured I could find work elsewhere in California as long as there wasn’t a full staff. I could cover a lot of ground that way, I hoped, just hostel-hopping until I found someplace that really grabbed me.
I said goodbye to Santa Barbara one morning and walked down to the 101 with my backpack slung over my shoulders, and stuck out my thumb. Within five minutes an RV pulled over to the side of the road and an old couple told me to hop onboard. I settled into one of the couches in front of the RV.
“This is nice,” I said to them.
“This baby’s our retirement home,” the old woman said, and laughed as her husband batted the steering wheel twice with his palm, the way you might knock on wood if you were superstitious. I noticed the husband’s wedding ring reflecting the morning sun through the windshield.
They asked me where I was headed and I told them L.A. They were a really nice couple, friendly as can be. They talked nonstop. They told me they were on their way down to San Diego to visit their daughter. They said their daughter was getting married over the weekend. They themselves had been married nearly forty years.
“Congratulations,” I said, thinking of my parents, who were no longer married.
The old couple started asking me more personal questions: where I was from, if I had any brothers or sisters, what my parents thought of me traveling — to which I ended up lying. I told them I’d grown up in a household with an abusive aunt and uncle, and that my parents had died in a car crash when I was too young to have known them. I said I had no brothers or sisters, at least none that I was aware of. The couple didn’t know how to respond to my manufactured sob story. I took the moment of silence that filled the RV as an opportunity to ask if I could use the bathroom. In unison they said to go right ahead.
They dropped me off near the Santa Monica pier. Since they seemed worried about me I told them I had a friend from high school who now lived in the area. Through the windows of their RV, right before it slowed to a stop alongside a curb, I saw a Ferris wheel and a roller coaster track out on the pier and hordes of people milling about. I had never seen so many people before. I felt like I was at a giant party or festival. Later I learned that it was just a typical weekend at the beach.
The nice old couple seemed sad to see me go. As I thanked them for the ride, they both looked close to tears.
“Best of luck to you,” the old woman said. They waved as they drove away, signaling back onto the busy street.
The next morning Kenji was in the hostel kitchen eating the complimentary waffles. I poured myself a cup of coffee, watched him look up at me from his syrupy plate to give me his famous nod. I decided to join him at his table.
“Good morning,” I said after sitting down.
Kenji smiled and nodded. He brushed at the side of his mouth where a syrup had accrued. It was early in the morning, just past seven. None of the other hostel guests were in the kitchen yet. The two waffle makers sat on the kitchen counter in between the clear plastic tub full of waffle mix.
“So, what are your plans for today?” I asked.
“Plans?” Kenji said, grinning apologetically.
I nodded. “Plans,” I said. “What are you going to do today? Go to Hollywood? Sit on the beach? You know, plans.”
“Ah,” Kenji said. “Beach.”
“Very good,” I said.
Just then an English couple walked into the kitchen, a couple who’d been staying in one of the private rooms for the past four days now. They looked well rested, and as I said good morning to them Kenji quietly stood up and walked over to the sink. He rinsed off his plate and set it on the plate rack to dry and then walked out of the kitchen after giving me a shy little wave. I waved back, thinking that since he’d only paid for one night he was getting ready to gather his belongings and check out. I figured that maybe he was going to stay at one of the other hostels in Venice Beach, or the one in Santa Monica, or a hotel maybe, and that I’d never see him again.
But I did see him again, later in the day, in the rec room right after I’d eaten the hostel’s complimentary spaghetti dinner and watched a rerun of The Simpsons on on the hostel’s mid-90s box-shaped television. It was one of the Halloween specials episodes, where every member of the Simpsons’ family had some superpower.
The episode reminded me of my own family — minus the superpowers — before my parents got divorced. I thought of my older brother in particular, who used to stay out late with his friends. He wouldn’t come home until three or four in the morning, and then he’d usually make a racket in the kitchen. The noise he made woke me up a lot of the time, even with the door shut to my room. Being fourteen then, it was a mystery to me as to why he’d be so hungry so late at night. I didn’t know about the munchies yet.
My brother started doing other, harder drugs not long after. I remember when I was fifteen hearing about how he drove up to Canada with a few of his friends to go to ac concert in Vancouver, but at the border the customs agent ended up searching his car and finding cocaine residue in the ashtray. My brother and his friends had to wait three hours at the border. as they were each questioned and strip-searched. My brother’s friend, Tucker, had a bag of Percocet pills in his coat pocket. The agent asked Tucker if he had a medical prescription for the drug, and Tucker told the agent that he’d taken the drugs from his dad, who’d recently undergone shoulder surgery for a work-related accident. My brother and his friends were refused entry into Canada, but still being minors at the time, the agent showed them mercy and let them go.
It was about a year after I heard that story that my parents announced to my brother and me one evening after dinner that they were getting a divorce. We were all sitting around the dinner table, our stomachs full with chicken casserole, and I started to cry. I couldn’t help it. My mom touched my hand with hers while my dad pretended to stare off into space, and my brother just said, “Wow. Didn’t see that coming.” I got up from the table and hurried to my room and collapsed on my bed. My parents followed me in and attempted to explain themselves. They talked about love and how people can fall out of it. They talked about the mysteries of love.
“We still love each other but we’re not in love anymore,” my mom said.
“What’s the difference?” I shouted.
“Honey, weren’t you listening to us?” my dad said.
After my dad moved out of the house, I lived with my mom and brother and tried to pretend things were the same as before. It didn’t take long for my mom to start seeing other men though. Some nights she wouldn’t even come home, and other nights she’d come home late with a random, to me, stranger. I started wearing earplugs to be on the safe side. Sometimes I thought I envied my brother for staying out so late with his friends.
Like my dad, I saw less and less of my brother after the divorce. He’d recently graduated high school, and now he was working all the time —painting houses or on light construction jobs. He’d come home smelling of dirt and paint and cigarettes, and he’d head straight for the fridge to crack open a Heineken. He seemed to be aging fast. I felt this deep pain in my stomach whenever I looked at him. I knew he wasn’t living up to his potential, it was like he’d already given up on life.
My dad moved in with some woman in or around Capitol Hill, and though in the beginning he visited my brother and me every other week or so, it didn’t take long for his visits to become more infrequent, until they became almost obsolete. He took me to the zoo once, to the movies a few times, but most of the time we’d just walk around Green Lake. He never brought the woman he’d moved in with him when he visited, and though I was curious about her, I was thankful all the same.
Before I knew it I was a senior in high school looking for a prom date, and then I had a diploma. After the graduation ceremony, people I knew, old family friends, congratulated me, telling me how I had my whole life ahead of me. I did feel that I had my whole life ahead of me, that I could do virtually anything I wanted to — only what I wanted to do I couldn’t say. The way I saw it I had three immediate options: college, work, or travel.
It was a few weeks later when I made my decision. Feeling more disconnected from my family than ever before, I packed my backpack with clothes and my toiletries, left three notes on the kitchen counter — one for my mom, one for my dad, and one for my brother — and left.
That was a little over a year ago. Aside from a handful of sentence-length emails to let my parents know that I’m still alive, I haven’t seen or spoken to either of them since, or to my brother.
After finishing watching The Simpsons, my shift at the front desk was about to start. That’s when I saw Kenji, coming in the rec room with a plate of spaghetti in his hands. I stopped by the pool table in passing and smiled.
“How was your day?” I asked. In turn Kenji smiled and nodded his head. “Did you enjoy the beach?”
“Ah, yes.” he said. “Good.”
“Good,” I said. Then I asked, “So how long are you staying in L.A.?”
“Yes,” he said. “L.A.”
I had to attend to the front desk, and I didn’t want to keep him from his meal, so I smiled and excused myself.
The next morning I found him back in the kitchen eating waffles again. He looked up at me and nodded. I poured myself some coffee and sat down at his table.
“So, what’s on the menu for today?” I said.
“Plans?” he said uncertainly.
“Yes,” I said. “Plans.” I sipped my coffee.
“Hollywood,” he said.
“Hollywood, huh? The man knows what he wants. Very good.”
“You been Hollywood?” he said slowly and carefully.
I nodded. “Once or twice. It’s a freak show over there. Everyone’s either an actor or a model or a drug addict. Sometimes all of the above.”
Kenji looked confused.
“What brings you to L.A.?” I asked.
He gave me this awkward smile and shrugged his shoulders.
“Why are you in L.A.?” I said.
“Yes. Why? Reasons?
“Ah. I here for work,” he said.
“For work? Very good,” I said. “What kind of work?”
“Work for big Japanese company.”
“Cool,” I said.
Kenji nodded some more, and then I had the feeling that he was about to get up and wash off his plate and leave with a wave like he’d done the day before.
“Do you smoke?” I said.
“Smoke?” Kenji said.
I put a finger to my lips.
“Ah, yes,” he said, nodding. “I’m Japanese.”
Kenji followed me out to the third-story balcony. We sat opposite each other at the rickety wooden table that guests often sat around after dinner to watch the sunset and smoke weed. There was an etching in the surface of the table of a stoned-looking Martian who seemed to be wearing an oversized astronaut’s helmet. Kenji glanced at it and laughed.
It was already bright outside, looking like another standard California day. I passed Kenji a cigarette and my lighter, and for the next minute we smoked in silence.
Then I said, “Are you planning on living here in L.A.?”
Kenji looked at me. “Plans?” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “Plans, for the future.”
I tried to explain the past, present and future with a series of clumsy hand gestures.
“I think I will return to Japan,” Kenji finally said, emphasizing each word.
“I thought you were here for work?” I said.
Kenji nodded his head. “I work for big Japanese company. Need more workers in L.A. — more Japanese — but I don’t think I want stay.”
“Why?” I said. “You don’t like it here?”
Kenji shrugged. He craned his neck and squinted his eyes up at the sky. “Family in Japan,” he said. “Family important. I think I miss them here.”
I nodded, and we worked on our cigarettes some more. I tried to hide what I was feeling, but I think Kenji noticed. He didn’t say anymore about it. He just nodded his head a few times whenever he looked my way.
After the cigarette, Kenji politely excused himself for his preparation for Hollywood. Alone on the balcony, I was aware of the morning commotion of traffic on the street below me, though I wasn’t listening to it. It was just background noise, inconsequential.
Finally I stood up and went back inside. I walked down the hallway, then down the stairs to the main floor. I put a couple quarters in the pay phone, put the receiver to my ear, dialed the number and then heard ringing.
“Hello?” I heard.
I imagined him still in bed, disoriented from another late night of drugs and drinking.
“Hi,” I said. “It’s me.”
Silence. I closed my eyes, waited for it.
“Holy shit, Ally. Where the hell are you? You okay?”
“I’m fine,” I said. “I’m in California.”
“California? Shit, Ally. Mom’s been worried sick about you. Dad too.”
“I told her I was fine,” I said. “Her and dad.”
“That was months ago. She said you didn’t reply to her last email. What the hell’s gotten into you?”
“I needed some space,” I said.
“Whatever, Ally. You should come back. Are you coming back? What’re you doing down there?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m working at a hostel.”
“A hostel? You mean a hotel?”
“No. A hostel.”
“What the hell’s a hostel? You sure you’re alright?”
“I’m fine,” I said. “A hostel’s like a cheap hotel for international travelers.”
“Are you happy there?” my brother said. “You should come back, Ally. Everyone’s been worried sick about you.”
“What about you?” I said. “Are you happy?”
I thought about some things as I stood there with the phone pressed to my ear, about some things I’d tried to block out for some time now. Hearing my brother’s voice seemed to bring everything rushing back. Nothing was ever lost, I thought. The past is in all of us, all of the time.
“Ally?” I heard.
“Yes?” I said. I could hear him breathing into the phone.
“You’re crazy, Al,” he said. “You know that?”
I thought that he couldn’t be further from the truth. “What’s new?”
But my brother said exactly what I feared and expected him to say: “Nothing,” he said. “Same old.”
I wanted to ask about mom and dad then, about what they were up to, if they were still seeing the same people they’d been seeing before I left, if my brother thought either of them had fallen in love again. But I didn’t ask. A part of me wanted to know while another, bigger part of me didn’t want to know, the bigger part not wanting to forget the way things had once been, in the beginning, when in retrospect everything had seemed so perfect.
T. E. Cowell lives in Washington State. He’s been writing for a decade, and has had short stories published in a variety of different literary journals including, most recently, Hawaii Pacific Review.
- Header art by the brilliant surreal photographer John Dykstra. [↩]