Ernie Wang resides in Las Vegas. He grew up in Japan, and he is ethnically Japanese and Chinese. He holds an MFA from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and his fiction and nonfiction appear in McSweeney's Quarterly, The Threepenny Review, PEN America Best Debut Short Stories, and others.
They finally send for me in early 1945. By then, we had come to believe they chose to overlook us, those of us living insignificantly in rural eastern Utah. Also by then, we know it’s over for Japan, rendering all internment camps unnecessary, to the extent they were necessary at all. But I get the letter anyway. I’m to leave for Topaz in two days. I get to pack one bag. Refusal to cooperate will be considered an act against the country, the letter says, but they underestimate how compliant our people are.
Mom is livid. She has not received such a letter.
“Why no me? Why only you sent away?” she screams, as though this is my doing. She looks at me, which makes her angrier. “You skinny useless Japanese boy. You no threat to anybody,” she says, and she raises her arm, as though to prove her point. After a moment, she lowers her arm, but she continues to seethe.
“Okay, Mom,” I say. “I’ll be in my room, packing.” And I fill my allotted bag with underwear and books as she stomps and throws things across the living room. But then it gets quiet, so I peek down the hallway and see her crumpled on the floor, her back heaving. I take a step toward her before I change my mind and turn around. She must have heard, because she lifts her head off the ground and calls out to me.
“Pack raincoat, Hiroshi,” she says, quietly. “You catch the cold.”
I get Mom’s first letter a week after I arrive in Topaz, which I read over breakfast in the mess hall. She’s resumed dancing, she writes. She was once a professional ballet dancer. She stopped when I was born, which she reminds me of often, whenever she’s unhappy with me. But she’s now resumed. My adagios are very excellent, she writes, and I imagine her stomping across the living room floor, and that makes me laugh. And then I feel bad. I’m all she has, and yet here I am.
Two months later, I fall in love with Reyna Suzuki from Idaho Falls. I meet her at church. We Japanese, we’re not really the praying type. But we are efficient at learning what pleases the people who demand to be pleased. And so every Sunday, we bow our heads and ask for forgiveness and hide our despair and our exhaustion and our ambivalence toward unleavened bread.
Like me, Reyna was sent here alone. One Sunday, I feel a tap on my shoulder in the middle of my false prayers. I open my eyes and turn. Reyna, in the pew behind me, motions for me to follow. She leads me to the storage room at the back. We strip, and when the pastor reaches the apex of his sermon—God shall strike down the Japs, we hear him decree through the thin wall—when the song of the choir swells righteously, we culminate our love, quietly, desperately, with the gentlest of cries. We clutch each other long after the church has returned to silence. The world has forsaken us, but in this abandonment, Reyna has saved me, and I her, and in this way, life sometimes has a way of balancing out.
“Come home with me when this is over,” she whispers into my ear.
We are young and terrified, and we refuse to let go of hope.
On the other end of the world, Japan prepares to send her pilots to slaughter.
Mom’s letters brighten as she regains her old ballet form. My pirouettes are very wonderful, she declares, and I imagine her spinning like a tornado with such force that she propels into the air and above the ceiling of our home, to disappear beyond the mountain caps in the horizon, and then I have to remind myself to behave.
I have not told her about Reyna. I have not once written her back. I am in love. Nothing else matters.
Reyna and I are drying dishes in the mess hall when a soldier bursts in and, making a beeline toward a small Japanese boy on his knees scrubbing the floor, thrusts a sheet with the Japanese imperial army flag crudely painted on it in front of the boy.
“They said you did this,” the young, powerfully built soldier says. The boy wildly shakes his head and squeaks his denial. The soldier shoves the boy’s shoulders. The boy flies backwards and lands on his back. Panicking, he crawls away, toward the exit, his palms and knees pawing the floor as though he had regressed to being three years old.
The soldier, his face ashen with rage and scorn, strides toward the boy, easily catching up, and grabbing him by the shoulders, strikes his small face. There is a collective gasp in the room, followed by a stunned silence. I look at Reyna. Her face is frozen in disbelief, her hands still clutching a pot and dish rag, suspended in mid-air.
The boy picks himself up and tries again to escape, but blinded by his tears and his terror, crawls in the wrong direction. The soldier casually catches up and kicks him in the ribs, knocking him to the ground. The boy folds himself into a fetal position and lowers his head into his chest.
The soldier kicks him repeatedly, the boy twisting with every strike, before the soldier finally ceases, if only from his growing boredom. He looks up and around the room and narrows his eyes at us. We cower from the hate radiating in spokes from his icy blue eyes.
“Fucking Japs,” he screams. “All of you.” He marches out the door, slamming the sheet into the garbage can on his way out.
When we are sure that he is not returning, Reyna and I rush to the boy. Reyna embraces him as I wipe his face with paper towels.
“You’re going to be okay,” Reyna says as she strokes his hair.
“I’m sorry to trouble you,” he whimpers.
“Hush,” Reyna says.
“I want to go home,” he says, his face shiny with his tears and snot, and in this moment, I am so overcome with love for the boy that I’m caught off guard when Reyna hands me a paper towel, to wipe my own tears. I caress the boy’s cheek.
“Come on,” I say, hoisting him on my back. We take him to his parents, whose scrunched eyes convey to us everything we already know, but like their child, they simply apologize for having troubled us.
Reyna sneaks into my dorm that night. We lay in each other’s arms in my cot, too exhausted to attempt to make sense of the world. I finally fall asleep as the sun begins to rise, the pale light ushering in the start of another day.
Mom visits a month later. She takes one look at me and says, “You so skinny. Why you so skinny? Why you no eat?”
“I am eating. I have a fast metabolism.”
“Come home,” she says. “I feed you. I make you no skinny, okay?”
I introduce her to Reyna. We have lunch at the mess hall, where Mom is quiet and Reyna nervously stares down into her plate. I give up after several attempts to maintain a conversation.
After lunch, Reyna tells us she has cleaning duty and excuses herself. Mom and I watch her hurry out of the mess hall. Mom sniffs.
“She just okay,” she says. “Too skinny.”
I glare at her.
“Just so you know. Reyna and I are getting married.”
“We’re getting married. And I’m moving to Idaho when they let us go.”
“I’m in love, Mom.”
“You no in love, Hiroshi. You just skinny crazy boy.”
“Mom, you have to believe me.”
She leans forward and clutches my collar.
“Hiroshi,” she says. “You just come home. Come home.”
“You just come home. Okay? Come home. You just come home.”
I open my mouth, but something—stubbornness, meanness—holds me back.
“Come home, Hiroshi.”
Her voice cracks. “Please, you just come home. Please. Please.”
I look down.
“Please,” she says. “You come home. Okay? You come home. Please. Please, Hiroshi. You come home. Okay?”
She stares at me, her hands still clutching my shirt.
I say nothing.
And then, as though to suddenly concede, she relaxes her grip and places her trembling hand on my cheek. She lowers her head and rests it on my shoulder, just for a second, and then she looks up and smiles at me so tenderly that I have to step away. When I finally turn back, she is gone.
On the other end of the world, Japan prepares for total surrender.
It’s two months later. They’re letting us go. Reyna and I are packed. We’re taking the night bus, and we hold our bags in one hand and tickets in the other as we wait outside under twilit skies.
The war is over, and they tell us we can return to life as usual. But I don’t think it’s that simple.
Mom’s sent several letters since her visit, making no mention of Reyna or of my moving to Idaho. She continues to write about her joy of dancing, how the nights are getting colder, how her bones are starting to stiffen for the first time.
I stuff our tickets into my pocket and reach for Reyna’s hand. She squeezes. We can see our breath rise into the plum twilight.
I look into the darkening skies. I imagine Mom dancing in the distance, on the crest of the hill, under the sapphire moon. I imagine Mom dancing in the cold swirling Idaho fog, slowly, deliberately. She is focused, calm. She leaps into a perfectly executed adagio, smiling when she lands.
I imagine the sky turns pink, and I hear a vast orchestra, a thousand violins and a thousand clarinets matching her graceful cadence. I close my eyes. I feel the heavy beat of the drums between the pounding of my heart.
I open my eyes. Mom is now on a stage, dancing under bright yellow lights. She twirls and dips and spins, and she was right, her pirouette really is very wonderful. She tilts her head back and smiles into the adoring lights. She lifts her arm and caresses the paper moon that has descended from the ceiling like a purring, pleased cat. She is so beautiful.