A Brother’s Story About Being a Stranger to his Sibling

“My Sister, Nozomi” by Sacha Idell

AN INTRODUCTION BY BRANDON TAYLOR

I love stories like “My Sister, Nozomi” because nothing seems to happen and yet everything happens. These stories are often called quiet in such a way that implies there is something muted or empty about them; as if these stories about home and family weren’t dealing in the greatest and most urgent themes of literature. Part of the appeal of such stories is that they reveal the great activity at the heart of any life, no matter how seemingly uninteresting. These stories expose how curious pressures are exerted from even the most familiar structures and rhythms.

“My Sister, Nozomi” is the story of a brother and a sister, Naoki and Nozomi, who meet for the first time when they’re teenagers. Naoki, the oldest, is nineteen and is treading water in his life. He’s reached that age between adulthood and childhood, when one becomes aware of the shape of one’s life hardening around them. Nozomi is much younger and lives with their father, who is emotionally distant and unavailable. Nozomi is casting around for a sense of family and belonging. The story is remarkably patient, letting these two orbit each other and find their way to one another. Naoki is a tentative caregiver. He doesn’t trust himself not to mess it up. He wants their father to step into the role, but he doesn’t trust him to do so either. Nozomi remains a mystery to him — she’s walled off by her headphones and her cell phone — but the story articulates the great warmth of feeling between them. In many families, love can feel inarticulate and quiet, but it’s there.

These stories expose how curious pressures are exerted from even the most familiar structures and rhythms.

Sacha Idell’s prose is clear and sensitive, and it lands on odd but poignant observations. Of making food, Idell writes: “There’s something sad, I think, about walking away from a meal when it’s half-finished. Even if you come back to it later, the focus is different: the precision and the timing are all lost. Finishing a meal like that isn’t worth the disappointment.” And later, when the protagonist is trying to understand his little sister during their first meeting, he observes, “Unrealistic dreams always make you happy when they come true, regardless of whether or not they’re what you actually wanted. It was probably something like that.” There is something off-hand, casual about the wisdom in Idell’s prose which keeps it from being too precious or too forceful. It’s the sort of wisdom that you’re free to take or leave, insights given with a shrug.

After I finished reading “Nozomi,” I was left with a sense that something had changed in the world or in me. I think that’s the most of what we can ask of a story, that it leave us with the possibility of change, of some irrevocable alteration no matter how vast or small. A good story leaves you, but it never leaves you. It’s always there, whispering around the corners of life.

Brandon Taylor
Associate Editor, Recommended Reading

 

A Brother’s Story About Being a Stranger to his Sibling

“My Sister, Nozomi”

by Sacha Idell

I grate a piece of wasabi, open the window, and pretend to ignore the phone when Nozomi calls. I don’t want to talk to her — not yet, anyway — and once I start cooking I hate to stop. There’s something sad, I think, about walking away from a meal when it’s half-finished. Even if you come back to it later, the focus is different: the precision and the timing are all lost. Finishing a meal like that isn’t worth the disappointment.

Nozomi knows that the phone isn’t the best way to reach me. She’s seen me ignore it enough. If Nozomi really wanted to hear from me, she’d show up at my apartment doorstep unannounced again. If it’s important she’ll leave a message. That’s the way it’s always worked. It’s just that Nozomi can get stubborn. It’s easier for her to call than it is to take the train out here from Chiba. Plus, she can’t always lie to our father about where she is. Everyone gets caught eventually.

My Sister, Nozomi (Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading Book 277)

The phone buzzes again — Nozomi must have left a voicemail — and I scrape green paste from a container, watch it fall into a ceramic dish. The paste reshapes against my fingers. Wisps and indentations mar the edges. I set the dish aside, wash my hands and the grater, spray and wipe the counters, and check on the rice in the cooker. The timer has about fifteen minutes left. A filet of pike is crisping in the broiler while tofu simmers in a broth of dashi and mirin, topped by ginger and scallion slices. By the time I stop moving, I’ve made a nice little meal for one: tofu, pickles, grilled fish, rice, and a small bowl of miso soup.

I open the fridge, reach over bottles of soy sauce and salad dressing. It’s still early in the day, but I grab a can of Sapporo and pour it into a glass. Foam rises and settles. I polish off everything quickly — I always make sure to eat everything — and wash all the dishes by hand. Then the phone rings again and I continue to ignore it. Some calls don’t need to be answered.

I call Nozomi my sister, but it’s not like we’ve ever lived in the same house. She’s my father’s daughter, but we have different mothers. It’s an ordinary story. My mother was a hostess at a small bar by the station. My father hadn’t married Nozomi’s mother yet, but I guess he might have already been dating her. I don’t know the specifics; all I know is the ending: my mother pregnant and living on her own, my father married to the daughter of a wealthy family and taking over their business.

The rest isn’t very important. Nozomi’s mother died when she was young, and the two of us met some time after her funeral. My father invited me to dinner one night, as a way of reaching out to a family he had never known. His secretary must have drafted the letter, but at nineteen, I was intrigued. Wasn’t it an ordinary thing to want to meet your father? Why shouldn’t I feel the same way?

On a Thursday evening, I slipped on my only jacket and tie and took the train all the way to Tokyo. There were three transfers just to get to Shinjuku, and one more to get to the restaurant in swanky Aoyama after that. The menu in the window failed to list any prices.

A waiter with dark shoes that probably cost twice my salary lead me to a private room in the back of the restaurant. My father, his secretary, and Nozomi were all seated on cushions at the far end of a low table. The room smelled faintly of tatami. A moth-patterned tapestry hung at the back of the room. It seemed slightly out of place, and I found myself distracted, unable to focus on my father’s expression and greeting. He waved me over, as he might a frequent guest in this sort of establishment, and motioned for me to sit near the door, next to Nozomi. I sat, somewhat stiffly, and was handed a menu.

“Anything you might like is fine,” the secretary said. “We’ve already taken care of it.”

I glanced over at Nozomi and caught her staring at me. Her face turned red at the edges, and her head shot straight down to her empty plate. I smiled. Kids have to be nervous in these sorts of situations.

A chain of waiters appeared and handed us drinks. A garish blue cocktail was set on a napkin before my father. He sipped it slowly, and I wondered how long it would take for his tongue to stain that color.

Worried that I might order the wrong thing, or that I would request something too expensive, I asked my father to order for me, and he nodded and lit a cigarette. He didn’t seem to have much interest in talking. At one point, a call came, and my father and his secretary excused themselves to deal with a work situation. Nozomi and I were left alone.

“How old are you?” I asked, unable to think of other questions to ask a kid her age.

“Ten.”

I nodded. “That’s a good age, ten. I remember liking it.”

She stared at her plate. Clearly I was making a muddle of things.

“Is there anything you’d like to ask me?” I couldn’t think of anything else. “Why I’m here or anything?”

She shook her head.

“Really? Nothing at all?”

“Do you have a car?”

I was taken aback for a second.

“A car? Why?”

“So you don’t have a car?”

I shook my head. “The train gets me where I need to go.”

Nozomi bit her lower lip. A confused expression flickered across her face.

“But I thought everyone in the countryside had a car.”

My father and his secretary re-emerged from the hallway and sat down. Nozomi stared at me expectantly.

“Not everyone has a car in the countryside. It isn’t always important.”

“But you live in a house, right?”

I laughed. “More people do out there, I guess. But I don’t need much space, so it’s just an apartment.”

“We live in an apartment too. It’s big, but it’s an apartment. There isn’t a yard. Do you have a yard?”

I looked over at my father, but he just took another sip of his cocktail. The moth tapestry fluttered as a nearby door opened. The fabric’s trembling made them look as though they might fly right out of the fabric.

“Not really. There’s a lot with some grass and gravel that the apartments share. And a shed with a coin-powered washing machine. But that’s about all. It’s near the beach though.”

“The beach? With surfers? In Ibaraki?”

My father was silent for the rest of the evening, chewing his way through the conversation while Nozomi besieged me with question after question, all of which I answered dutifully, even after I had lost the ability to pay attention.

Nozomi had been obsessed with the idea of having an older brother for years. She was ecstatic to find out she had one all along. But she also must have been disappointed. A 10-year-old girl probably wouldn’t want a 19-year-old part-timer as her older brother — much less an older brother who only cared about cooking and listening to old Happy End albums — but she seemed happy about it anyway. Unrealistic dreams always make you happy when they come true, regardless of whether or not they’re what you actually wanted. It was probably something like that.

Around a week later, there was a knock on my door. I wasn’t expecting anyone, but figuring it was a neighborhood circular or something similar, I opened it, and Nozomi was standing on the other side. She was still in her school uniform, clutching the straps of her backpack. Her nose was red from the winter cold.

“Nozomi?” I asked.

“I’m running away from home,” she answered.

“What?”

“I’m going to live here.”

Nozomi ducked under my arm and into the entryway. She took off her shoes and lined them up neatly on a small rack by the door. The main flap of her backpack was undone, and a Snoopy pencil case was peeking out the top.

“No you’re not,” I said.

She laughed, ignored me. I shut the door and rushed inside after her. My mother was still at work and would be until the early morning. The television was on in the corner, and a variety show was playing softly in the background. Nozomi took off her blazer and scarf and hung them on an empty coat hanger in the closet. She kneeled down on a cushion and unwrapped a rice cracked from the bowl on the table. Unsure what else to do, I thought about calling our father, but he was usually busy during the day, and it was a long a train ride from Chiba. Nozomi must have spent a long time on the train coming to my apartment, I reasoned. It probably wouldn’t hurt to let her stay for an hour or two.

“Do you want some tea?” I asked. Nozomi looked up at me, smiled, and nodded.

I filled our stained kettle with water and set it on an electric coil. Nozomi started flipping between channels behind me.

“Does he know you’re here?”

“He doesn’t care.”

I reached into the cabinet and pulled out a small bag of loose tea leaves.

“When you run away from home, you need to leave a note or something. Haven’t you ever seen anyone run away on TV? If you don’t, they’ll think something terrible happened. They might even call the police.”

“I’ve never met a policeman.”

“They’re usually nice.”

I shook the leaves into a pot and drizzled warm water over them. The scent filled the kitchen.

“Hmm,” Nozomi affirmed.

I brought the teapot and two cups on a small tray into the living room, set down the cups and filled them.

“You have to call him, okay? You can’t run away and not tell anyone about it.”

“Okay,” she said.

Nozomi stayed the night, and I gave her money to return by train in the morning. For no particular reason, it became a routine, Nozomi running away from home on the weekends and staying with me. I was never quite sure what to make of it, but I enjoyed the company.

As she grew older, Nozomi would call or text me in the gaps between her visits. Twice, when she was studying for exams, she had to cancel the trip. She acted very upset about it at the time, but she would never admit that now.

I have no idea what our father thought of all this. He didn’t seem to mind — in fact, he starting paying for her trips. It always bothered me a little. From how Nozomi described him, he sounded like a very removed parent, but the negligence seemed extreme — brother or not, I was basically a stranger. Not someone to send your young, impressionable daughter to. Even now, I can’t fathom it, but he must have figured that as long as Nozomi was happy, everything would be fine.

A few hours pass and I go into town to buy groceries. My first unemployment check went into my account yesterday, so I can afford to be a little less frugal. Besides, shopping keeps me busy. It’s an old habit; my mother tried to buy a day’s food at a time, to make certain we never let anything sit in the house and go to waste. I might as well have inherited it genetically.

The sun is low in the sky, and the breeze gives everything a slight chill. The closest grocery store is in the center of town, but it’s across from the restaurant so there might be a chance of having an awkward run-in with someone from my old job. I decide to go to one a little further away, at the edge of the shopping arcade next to the stationary shop.

The stationary shop has been deserted for a while now. Mrs. Kawashima ran it for years after her husband ran away. She and my mother were two of the only single-parents in the area, and this town being as tight-knit as it is, they often relied on each other for support. I spent a few afternoons in the Kawashima’s apartment above the shop, but stopped going around the time I turned seven. Her daughter and I never got along.

I grab a red-plastic shopping basket and fill it with simple things. Tofu, ginger, another six-pack of Sapporo. I add a bottle of Cutty Sark from the liquor aisle, some razor blades and shaving cream, and a tube of mint toothpaste. On my way to the register I notice a woman bump into a display of canola oil. Her shoulder brushes against a stack of the plastic bottles. They scatter everywhere. None break.

I think about going over and helping, but one of the stockboys sees the spill and rushes over first. My phone starts buzzing in my pocket again. The cashier closest to me clears her throat — there’s no one left in line — so I ignore the call and go to check out. The cashier rings up my items one by one. The register beeps as it processes.

I take a long sigh and listen to the messages. As usual there’s not anything all that substantial. “Sorry,” I tell the cashier as I hand over the bills. “I was worried it might be important.”

The cashier smiles and shakes her head. She’s not the type for small talk, but she seems willing to indulge me.

“She’d been calling all morning.”

“Your girlfriend?”

“Sister.”

She nods and hands over a few hundred yen. Outside, moths crowd around a vending machine and a magazine rack. The wings are simple white, faint and shimmering. It’s not really the season for moths, and even though they’re not particularly interesting, for a while I can’t look away.

By the time I get home again, Nozomi’s already sitting on my doorstep. She’s wearing a green sweatshirt over her uniform. Her ears are covered with oversized headphones.

“Hi,” I decide subtlety might be the right approach. Nozomi scowls back.

“Dumbass. I’ve been calling all morning.”

I scratch behind my ear a few times. “Sorry. I haven’t looked at my phone.”

Nozomi rolls her eyes and pulls her headphones back onto her head. I start to say something else, but before I can get the words out she presses the play button.

“Are you going to let me in, or are we just going to stand out here?”

“I don’t know,” I shrug. “It’s a pretty nice day.”

Nozomi makes an expression that must mean something like you aren’t nearly as funny as you think you are.

“Whatever.”

I fish the keys out of my pocket and open the front door. My apartment smells like dashi. The hardwood is flaking in the entryway.

“Have you eaten yet?”

Nozomi walks over to the low table by the TV and plops down on a cushion. She sets her phone on the table and listens to a few songs. I set aside my shopping bags and start unpacking, throw a couple blocks of tofu into the fridge and store the whisky beneath the sink.

“Are you hungry?” I try again.

“Are you cooking?” She asks without a flicker of interest.

“I could be.”

“Make up your mind.”

“Did you have a fight with Dad?”

She turns up the volume. It’s loud enough to hear fragments of the music from across the room. Without another word, I start washing rice in the sink. Water runs through, milky at first, but it gradually clears. I stick the rice in the central container of my antique rice cooker. I chop some mushrooms, chestnuts, and bamboo shoots and throw those in too. I add some sake and soy sauce to the water for seasoning.

“What are you making?” Nozomi asks. Her headphones are down around her neck again. “A bit of this and that. Nothing special.”

I reach in the fridge and pull out two cans of Sapporo.

“Want one?”

She gives a noncommittal grunt, so I pour her half a glass. She takes a sip and grimaces. I pretend not to notice.

“How are things at work?” She asks.

I hesitate — given the choice, I’d rather Nozomi didn’t hear about anything until I have a new a new job. She’s a worrier; she’ll probably imagine something that’s worse than reality.

“I don’t work at the restaurant anymore,” I say at last. Half a lie is going to be better than a whole one. “I quit two weeks ago.”

“Oh.” She says. For a moment I’m a little disappointed.

I turn on the television. We watch a commercial for Pocari Sweat in silence before a variety show comes back on. They’re doing a segment about pet owners in Tokyo. The hostess struts about in heels, dragging a perfectly white toy poodle on a leash while she interviews pet owners on the street. I wonder for a bit if the poodle is even hers to begin with — it doesn’t seem very attached, but then it seems unethical, somehow, to treat an animal like a prop.

“Do you need me to ask Dad for help?”

“No,” I shake my head. “I’ll be fine for a while still. Nothing’s dried up quite yet. I’ll find something new before too long.”

Nozomi takes another sip of beer and I lean my head back and imagine tracings in the white on the ceiling. The volume on the TV is so high that I don’t notice when the rice cooker dings, and all the food at the bottom of the container chars together. But we end up eating it anyway.

When Nozomi was eleven, she once visited my mother’s apartment after school. She had gotten to the apartment before me, and had used the spare key to let herself in to wait. She was fascinated with the seed my mother had fed her canary, and had dragged the whole sack of it to the living room table. I was quiet when I entered, and I remember her scattering the seeds across our low table in the living room, the gold of them bright against the dark coloring of the wood. I don’t know why I was watching her. I was probably just curious — why would a girl like her be interested in something so mundane? Or maybe it was the way her hair fell and shook, ever so slightly, as her she counted the seeds. Her mouth framed the edges of numbers, but she never spoke the words aloud.

“What are you doing?” I had asked, and even then I could sense that it was a mistake, that nothing should have been said.

“Nothing.” She said, and scooped the seeds, mostly uncounted, back into the small cotton sack where they were stored.

That sack had vanished from our apartment by the time Nozomi left. I assumed Nozomi had taken it with her, but out of some small fear for her I never told my mother anything.

Months later, I opened a small box in the closet, looking to bring out my mother’s winter clothing, her heavy socks and jackets and scarves. When I opened the box, moths erupted out by the dozen, white and fluttering and somehow torrential. When the moths cleared, it was as though they had never been there. All that was left in the box was a molding bag of bird seed on top of a thick pile of fabric. The clothing had all been eaten away.

I toy with a hole in my shirt and mutter an incoherent response to a question, but Nozomi isn’t paying attention. I turn out the light in the kitchen and the television is the only illumination left. Irregular flickers of blue light rush across the ceiling. I open and close my right hand. In the half-light the motion is distorted, as though I’m moving in a dream, and my hand isn’t really mine.

“Have you called Dad?”

She shakes her head.

“Are you staying here tonight?” I ask.

“Yeah.”

“I’ll lay out your futon in a bit.”

“Thanks,” Nozomi says, and she sounds like she means it.

I wake up earlier than Nozomi and decide to take a walk. It’s cool out. The breeze is rough by the water. My route cuts across a small parking lot, over the sea barrier and down onto the beach. It’s low tide, and something is reeking. Driftwood and seaweed are piled unceremoniously by the waves.

I pull on the cuffs of my sweatshirt a bit and stuff my hands into my pocket. The motion forces me to hunch a bit. My eyes stay locked on the ground.

Around eight I get a text message from Nozomi. She says she’ll call home and then make breakfast, so I should ‘definitely’ be back home in an hour. I text her back saying it’ll be two, and that she can eat on her own if she wants. I don’t really have a reason to say that, and I feel like a jerk, but for some reason I can’t put my finger on it also feels necessary.

At the edge of the shoreline I climb a staircase and turn right onto a grassy cliff that overlooks the ocean. Someone installed a stone bench there, ages ago. The sort of thing that’s only built to seat one, but looks like it could handle another person or two. A small pile of rocks is neatly lined to its side, making the shape of a wing. I sit down and scratch my head and remember the pile of tattered clothing again. It was really more my fault than Nozomi’s. I’m glad I didn’t let her get the rap for it. I don’t think she deserved it. Maybe I didn’t either.

I start to remember all the times I’d let something get ruined. Once I unplugged the refrigerator before we left town for two days. By the time we got back, all of the food in the freezer had thawed and spoiled. I can’t remember why I did it, but I must have had a good reason. My mother was livid all the same.

There was also the time I broke my calculator. I had to buy a special one for some class or other, and it was terribly expensive. I remember the strain on my mother’s face when we went into the shop and saw the prices. I kicked my bag down a flight of stairs later, out of frustration with something unimportant. When I took out the calculator to work, the screen was cracked.

My phone rings. I expect it’s Nozomi complaining, but I see my father’s name on the caller ID.

“Hello?”

“Naoki? It’s me.”

“What do you want?”

I cross my legs, prop an elbow up on the back of the bench, and lean my head into my palm. “Nozomi said you might need some help.” My father says at last.

“I’m fine without it.” I pull the phone away from my ear, let my thumb hover above the button to cancel the call, but for some reason I can’t seem to let myself do it.

“Are you sure?”

The volume is high enough to hear the voice over the waves and the nearby road. I bring the phone back to my face but stay quiet.

“Listen, Naoki, I might have a deal for you. Just hear me out for a moment.” Waves crash in the distance. The sound is almost like static.

“Naoki? Are you listening?”

“I’m listening.”

“Good. Now, I don’t know how you feel about this, but it seems to me that lately, you take more care of Nozomi than I do.”

“I don’t do anything.”

“Don’t be modest, Naoki. You do plenty.”

I clutch my forehead, even though he can’t see me over the phone.

“You’ve got to be joking.”

“You can tell where I’m going with this, then. I’d pay you. Enough to make it worth your while. More than enough. Nozomi needs a role model, especially at such a delicate age. For whatever reason, she seems to like you. Why not let her live with you for a few months? I’ll pay for everything you two might need. You won’t need to look for a new job. If you really want one, of course I could find you something at the company too. It sounds like a promising proposal, doesn’t it?”

I can feel something violent surging in my gut. But Nozomi wouldn’t want me to say anything. Not now, and certainly not like this.

“I’ll think about it,” is all I can manage. And I suppose I won’t be able to help myself. Now that he’s said it, I can’t not think about it. The carelessness of it all.

After breakfast, I offer to walk Nozomi to the station. It’s a bright sunny day, perfect for walking, and even if I’ve already been outside for a while, Nozomi could probably use the company.

“You’re nuts,” she says. “What’s so great about wandering around this town on your own?”

I smile back and ruffle the hair on the top of her head. She glares at me and straightens it out in her phone’s camera.

“Jerk.”

We gather her things back into her backpack and walk down the main thoroughfare. The most direct route cuts through town, right by the old restaurant, but I pretend not to notice even when we walk by.

“Are you okay?”

“What?”

“You seem stiff.”

I shrug. “Sometimes it’s natural to be stiff. Your body can’t be loose if you have nothing to compare it to.”

“You are so weird. I hope I’m not like you when I’m older.”

I shake my head. A light wind crawls across the road, scatters a fluttering of moths.

“You know that I’m going to be all right, don’t you?”

Nozomi nods, but doesn’t saying anything else.

“Just make sure that you can take care of yourself, Nozomi. I’m here if you need me, but I don’t think that you do. You’re old enough to know who you need to rely on. I can’t be the one to help you with everything. But I can be your dumb, deadbeat older brother all you want.”

“Is that all?” She sounds a bit disappointed.

“Yeah. That’s all for now.”

“You can rely on people too,” Nozomi says quietly. “I’m here too, you know.”

Despite her protests, I buy Nozomi a ticket when we get to the station. It’s not that expensive, and she’ll be happy with the extra spending money. She takes it from my hand reluctantly, as if she’s worried I might bite if she gets too close, and then darts away quickly. She stares at the ticket in her palm until we reach the turnstiles. The color of it almost matches her skin. It seems strange to print a ticket like that — why choose a color that can get lost inside your hand?

“Are you sure you don’t need anything? Anything at all?” Nozomi seems hesitant, but I can’t ask her for anything. She’s at an age where she needs a real parent to take care of her.

“I’ll be fine. Really. I promise.”

The train departs on time, a 10-second segment of some unidentifiable orchestral number playing from the station’s loudspeakers as the doors close. I leave as the train’s sliding out of the station. Faces blur in the windows as it picks up speed. My hands are thrust in my pockets, my phone turned off. For a few seconds I teeter in a dim place, white wings fluttering and surging and fading around me. I wonder if I’ve made the right decision, but there are always, I figure, more opportunities to make the same decision over again. Most things that are ruined can be replaced.

The breeze picks up and drags a drop of sweat across my forehead. The sensation feels oddly real, somehow heightened by my uncertainty. I shake my head and walk out of the station, passengers rushing towards the turnstiles behind me. As I walk home, I look carefully for moths everywhere I can think to, but no matter how much I look, I can’t seem to find any. The moths are nowhere to be seen.

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