Early spring

by Jane Joritz-Nakagawa


Remember that

it takes very little

to make a happy life

was written on April’s tote bag, the one she had bought at the 300 yen shop to use at the gym.  It was not as elegant or petite as the ones the other women used inside the gym.  April needed a larger bag than they did because she carried her heavy size 41 sandals from H&M, medicines, towel, gloves, uchiwa, and large can of deodorizing spray from the 100 yen shop in her bag.  If she had to use the toilet while at the gym because of her colostomy she knew she had better spray the air with deodorizer to avoid the wrath of female gym users who wouldn’t be used to the stench.  She carried the sandals because she was not allowed to use the gym shoes she brought with her inside the locker room and to be bare footed even for a short time was too painful for April.   The rules were very strict, or at least they were for April.  April witnessed Japanese gym users breaking rules all the time but nobody complained about them, no staff member or other customer said anything.  But when April had worn her clean gym shoes inside the locker room many customers complained to her directly and also to the staff about her.  She saw people breaking rules like hogging equipment and talking too loudly during COVID or keeping their shoes on while using equipment situated below a sign telling you to remove your shoes before using the machine. Nobody said anything.  But if April did these things, she’d probably be tossed out!

Was really so little needed to make a happy life?  April used to think that way.  Whoever wrote that is not very disabled she thought to herself.  Written on the 100 yen plastic zipper bag she carried her portable toothbrush in was

              The new hopeful season has come

She hoped this was true, as it was now early spring, but wasn’t sure.  She wondered who wrote or found the English sentences that appeared on her cheap Chinese everyday items.

This morning when disconnecting her urostomy night bag a little bit dribbled out onto the sheet and bed cover.  The 100 yen plastic tablecloths had shifted exposing part of the bed.  April threw the sheets and bed cover into the laundry machine.  She went and got toilet paper to wipe up the floor.   She emptied her colostomy bag without spilling any of the contents this time.

It was Sunday and Hiroshi was still asleep.  Quietly she made breakfast and hot black tea, although she drank several cups over a long period just to wake up — the sedatives she took at bedtime were very strong.   She counted out her medicines and took them with cold barley tea. She removed her leg bandages and put on her daytime stocking and appliance.  She emptied the night bag into the toilet — as usual the smell made her want to vomit — and then rinsed the bag twice with cool water.  She got all her gym stuff together and threw it into a large bag.  She also grabbed her emergency backpack which contained ostomy and lymphedema supplies in the event something went awry, as often happened, and her handbag.  Too many bags! She could barely carry them to the gym.  Hiroshi had said the other day that she was a nuisance to others while waling outside as she took up a lot of space with her big gym bag slung over her shoulders plus the emergency backpack and second shoulder bag.  Maybe she looked ridiculous.  How much space was she allowed to take up in Japan?  Hiroshi also complained that she inconvenienced others with her large umbrella but she had long legs and her feet got wet with the ordinary (for Japanese) size ones. She felt awkward in her gigantic shoes but wore gold glitter socks with them to give those who stared at her something to look at – she had bought them because they were girly.  She had bought a bunch of ultra feminine items after her surgery, a sort of compensation strategy, including socks with bows at the ankles that came off in the wash or blew off while hung outside to dry and lacy bras.

She decided to take a local train part of the way rather than walk to the gym from home.  In the elevator up to the platform that an older man also was using April felt an intense pain between her legs, a feeling like a sparkler she thought.  She thought it was odd that she quietly could endure the sparkler while riding the elevator with this man who had no idea of what she was feeling.  Of course, April had no idea of what he was feeling, either.

The train came pretty quickly.  April got off with all her baggage and walked the rest of the way to the gym.  As usual, people stared at her big bandaged left leg and at the disability symbol on her backpack.  Funny nobody noticed either when it was time to give up the priority seat on the bus or train.

The locker room was hot, especially because the steam from the showers entered the room.  While wearing a face mask April thought she’d pass out from the heat, although other customers perhaps didn’t mind or didn’t seem to mind.  Hard to tell.  Japanese people had stiff upper lips and poker faces.  However April knew that heat and humidity affected her far more than a “normal” person.  Presumably this was due to the broken thermometer inside her body, a symptom of fibromyalgia, one of many.  And of course she hadn’t grown up here so she wasn’t used to 80% and 90% humidity.

Nobody at the gym asked her anymore about her leg; probably it was common knowledge at this point.  People looked away when she was in her underwear.  She wore cotton mesh underwear because it was cooler.  You could see her two ostomy bags or something bulky in there but not make out the precise contents, very much like lace curtains popular in Japanese homes in daytime that created some privacy so long as the lights were off, plus a “normal” sports bra.   She had found her eyelet knickers online after many failed attempts to find underwear high waisted enough to hide the top of her colostomy bag or long enough to hide the spout of her urostomy bag. She sometimes felt like crying when in her underwear in the gym.  She felt like her privacy was taken from her but she refused to hide in the curtained area.  She could not wear the sexy items other women wore when working out.  Fully-clothed, April thought she looked fat, because of the bulk around her waist created by the ostomy bags, and the baggy clothes she wore to hide them, plus the widening and repositioning of her hips that occurred after her surgery, and of course her swollen legs and hips, although actually she was trim and fit, in large part thanks to this gym.  She had managed to create a four pack to replace her six pack abs (the six pack was now impossible it seemed due to the two stoma and lymphedema).  At least the four pack was like a scrap of her old self.

Rather than take the train back she decided to walk the whole way home.  She suddenly felt like crying again, but did not want to cry in public.  She remembered what her friend Elaine had said to do to calm herself down: Breathe in the bad; exhale the good.  She repeated this over and over in her head while breathing in and out.  Her left leg hurt quite a lot and there was itching under her urostomy flange and her stomach ached.  The breeze shot through her cheap floral pattern skirt.   Most of the buildings she passed were white but covered in soot.   Here and there were flowers blooming or about to bloom.

When she got back home she was hungry and light headed.  “Tadaima!” she said loudly.  “O kaerinasai” came Hiroshi’s voice from behind his closed bedroom door.  Although it was afternoon, she wondered if Hiroshi had even eaten breakfast yet.  She popped her head into his room.  Have you eaten yet? she asked him in Japanese.  No not yet.  I’ll make you ham cheese on naan? Ok said Hiroshi.   He never made his own breakfast.

April ate some leftover vegetable curry with brown rice while Hiroshi ate the sandwich she made for him.  April flipped on the television set.

Hidoi! April said under her breath.  Some children were about to cut the hair off of very long haired sheep with scissors.  None of them had done it before and they said they were scared to do it.  Why do it in the first place if you don’t know what you are doing?  Children shouldn’t cut the hair off animals. Actually, sheep should not be bred in the first place to have such long hair!

She didn’t think Hiroshi heard her, but he said in Japanese: They have to cut the hair off, otherwise the sheep will die!

I know that! April replied, that’s what’s terrible about it.  People should not create animals that need their hair cut by humans.  Such sheep don’t exist in the wild.  It’s wrong!

Oh, there you go again Hiroshi said in Japanese.  Go live in your own universe!  Hiroshi was an omnivore who did not share April’s concern for animals.   Since her surgery he seemed harsher towards her, or was she imagining it?

April recalled a different program about shearing sheep.  The sheep had normal length hair.  They were shorn with an electric shaver but it was done very rapidly as if it were a contest and the sheep were all bloody afterward with many razor cuts.  Suddenly an image flashed before April’s mind, from a video she had seen on the PETA website. Young sheep were lying on their backs in a group on a rotary like object that spun in a circle.  Each was getting its tail cut off without anesthesia.  A mother sheep stood by watching helplessly. Why remove the tail of a sheep?  Seeing the sheep positioned like that reminded April of being in the gynecological chair for the many exams and surgeries she endured for vulvar and vaginal cancer.  Her “tail” too, had been removed – her anus and rectum were gone along with her bladder reproductive organs and genitalia.  She wished she had never seen that video.

Written on April’s white tee shirt was

              I was able to travel and discover my own personality

              Be yourself

This was why she had come to Japan.  But the person she was no longer existed.  She thought of how carefree she had been, how she used to take long walks with Hiroshi (now she could only endure short walks and Hiroshi walked too fast for her, as did all her friends).  She could still sit and talk with people.   She texted her friend Elaine about meeting up tomorrow.   They’d have herb tea and chat and everything would be ok, wouldn’t it? And then she’d go to class and teach and feel like she was back to “normal” and forget about herself and focus on her students as she always did.

Japanese Vocabulary

Tadaima!= I’m home

Okaerinasai= Welcome home!

Hidoi= terrible

Uchiwa=a type of hand held Japanese style fan for cooling yourself