The Ninth Box and the Smells of Japan
When the ninth box from Japan arrived at my in-laws’ home, I knew that my lengthy adventures there were done. It was as if closure had filled them to remind me, “You’ve given up that life. Accept it.” How can I accept it? part of me challenges with a hint of stubbornness. Even now, I still feel displaced. My eyes look out at a lake from my past and sees it as mysterious, views the surrounding houses and cars as strangers, and finally, the dread of being on the outside fills my stomach. I open each box to forget that ache. Each box had books, comics, clothes, and knick knacks accumulated from 5 years, some pieces broken but fixable, and smells from Japan. I opened a Starbucks mug and sniffed its inside. With a quizzical look, I held it out to my brother in law. “This is what Japan smells like.” It had a woodsy odor, something akin to cut tree slabs that had been perched on someone’s porch for several years.
Everything in southern Okinawa emitted earthy scents. On a summer day, farmers would burn their rotted excess sugar cane, and the smell of smoke and smoldering fritters would fill the air, usually causing my husband’s nose to clog with allergies. My nose, which I soon found to be sensitive to smells, picked up the faint smells of smoke before I saw them. Between March and May, the clouds carried heavy rain into the region, and my nose picked up the vague smell of earth. For me, dirt filled my nose, and with am exhale, I knew to grab an umbrella on the way out the door. On hot summer days, the heat offered me a new scent–the smell of smoldering tar and a stifling, thick air that said it would not leave this small island until the chilled winter air blew in. All the plants bent and wilted underneath the heat’s reign, indicating that my chiffon clothing wouldn’t be enough to shield me from the penetrating summer day. When the wind changed and Okinawans dawned sweaters, long sleeves, and corduroys, the island smells brought me back to my San Diego home and my Norfolk upbringing and the York house where my grandparents lived—crisp air with the distant aroma of Chrstimas-time pine, warmed breaths challenging white clouds and freezing hands, apple cider and vanilla bean perfumed on knits and wools and blankets.
“What’re those boxes?” a friend’s little boys asked me, and I opened the box for them to look in. For them, they saw lots of dirty notebooks, pictures of Japanese kids, and messages scribbled in an indecipherable language. I showed them the things there, but I held my tongue on everything else. No matter how I tried to explain each memory and each smell to them, they wouldn’t get it either. They were mine.