If I saw all my ex-boyfriends on the train, I would not be surprised. There’s a section called the Transbay Tube that most commuters take and it is crowded. Breathing in there can be difficult sometimes and nobody was free from these encounters with people you least expect to see.
The Tube links Oakland and San Francisco held together in a series of welded steel sections. It tethers the country oak and Monterey cypress, the afternoon sun and evening fog, Millennials in the city and their parents in the hills, as if the tube functions as a portal between two epochs. One common complaint is the noise, so painful you’d rather walk. You know you have entered the tube when the screeching begins.
Five months ago, my grandmother died. Before her death, I saw her in the hospital in Japan where she said hello ten times. I cupped her hand in both of mine and said hello, so good to see you after all these years, ten times back. A cigarette stench drifted from her half-century of smoking Seven Stars. It smelled of home, Japan. It’s where I was born, learned to swim, and spoke my first words. When my family and I moved to the States, my grandma waved good luck and cried. Those tears I vividly remember, swelling at the bottom of her eyes. During college, I waved bye from the airport security line to my mom who poured the same tears. When I was ten, my mom often serenaded to Japanese folk in the minivan. Listening to them now, flashbacks of my childhood flood my mind, and I pour the same tears. My grandma, my mom, and I have more differences than similarities in our separate lives, yet we shed the same tears, a link between my western life with my roots.
Months before grandma’s death, my mom knew it was coming and I believed her clairvoyance. She failed numerous times to visit grandma because of political tensions between the countries. Flights into Tokyo were suspended; I sensed her panic. Weeks slipped by and months until Grandma died without her daughter or granddaughter by her side. This was the first death in my family and I for one, did not know the protocol. I attempted to console mom, but I couldn’t imagine the amount of tears I did not see.
“Mom, are you okay? There was nothing you could do, we are so far away.”
The screeching began. The Tube was pitch dark transforming the windows into a mirror, dim with the car’s fluorescent lights. I glanced down the aisle of necks craning to their phones except for one child. I focused to see that her hair was gray and she wore a dark velvet dress. She blankly stared at the ceiling, lining her forehead with creases. Grandmother. How could it be? I had seen the funeral pictures riddled with purple lilies and my aunts and uncles in black. I lost my footing for a second when the train abruptly decelerated. I looked back up and our eyes met. A small frown like she was expecting me. In a flash, we pulled into Embarcadero replacing the mirror with a crowded platform. Commuters snaked through the exit while I remained searching for a four-foot woman in a velvet dress. I appeared late to work empty-handed pinching myself, is this a dream?
On the train home grandma never appeared. The next morning, I came early to catch the same 8:36 train and watched several trains pass. Passersby looked at me concerned, are you lost? I boarded the train. Halfway through the tunnel, I realized she’d been waiting, sitting behind me and holding my hand. I felt only the warmth of her hand, but not her skin, not her nails, just air. I looked behind to see an empty seat in a crowded train.
“Kanae my darling, I’ve missed you,” she cried, holding my face in her hands.
“Grandma, what are you doing here?” I said to the mirror.
“I’ve been waiting for so long. Where is your mother?”
“She’s not here.”
And then silence, a minute passed.
“Kanae my darling, I’ve missed you,” she cried. “Where is your mother?”
The train exited the tube and our reunion was cut off. A woman wafts the air with a notebook. Who’s smoking?
It went like this for weeks, until one day I noticed grandma’s hair thinning. I was running out of time. “Mom, please believe me. Do it for me. This is your only chance.”
Next morning, mom and I boarded the 8:36 train. I stepped onto the train reluctantly — I loathed the public attention of bringing my mom on this train. The screeching began.
“Kanae my darling, I’ve missed you,” she cried. “And Aiko, where have you been?”
Mom stared at the window, speechless.
“Mom, answer her.”
I said no more and walked to the next car; they needed daughter-to-mother time. The tube was long for everyone, but for us, it was precious little time. And I couldn’t waste a second.
My mom and I reconvened at Embarcadero. Immediately, I have this urge to say these words to her, words I haven’t spoken in a long time. It was uncommon for a family like mine to utter these words, an unspoken custom for they demonstrated vulnerability, frailty that for generations, we had suppressed to live. But growing up in the States, it felt right at the time to come home from school and wrap both my arms around her legs as she slow-stirred a pot of curry. To exhale these words. We spoke Japanese at home, but there was no Japanese equivalent. It’s been swelling up inside of me for decades.
I love you mom.
It was my turn to cry.
Kan Ito is a writer from El Paso. He currently lives and writes in San Francisco where he also takes out his surfboard. He draws inspiration from Ocean Vuong.