by Barbara Nishimoto
It was July, winter in La Serena, Chile, and Lily sat in a pretty little plaza, her feet resting on the battered train case that her mother had bought at Sears long ago. Hard shell Samsonite. Part of a set for the family trip to Hawai’i. “Don’t pack it too full,” her mother had said. “You’ll break the mirror.” In all her travels with Adam she had never used the case; it seemed too old fashioned and clunky. But she was glad she had it on this trip. It provided a place to sit or put up her feet. The rest of the luggage was arranged around her—the rolling duffle, the cargo bag, the camera backpack. All within reach. “In case someone tries to rip us off.” Adam shook his head, smiled, “I’d like to see someone try to run with one of those bags.”
It was a clear, cool day, and it was pleasant to be able to rest, to sit in the sunlight. People crossed through the square. Not tourists. They walked quickly, and their hard soled shoes tapped against the concrete. Only another woman and child shared the tree lined plaza with Lily. The little boy was just learning to walk; he had a stiff gait and was still unsure how to use his knees. He moved through a flock of pigeons that barely parted. The woman was small, sat round shouldered with her hands in her lap. She wore an ugly maroon quilted coat and stubby brown shoes. She was dark haired and plain, and she watched the boy without expression. “Not the mother,” Lily guessed.
“Let’s park you on a bench, and I’ll find us a hotel,” Adam had said. He had used this strategy last summer in Italy. “It’s faster if I don’t have to haul the luggage.” That was true. And it was also true, Lily knew, that Adam liked being on his own. A little adventure. He’d come back with stories about his encounters. “The guy on the desk used to live in Seattle, worked in a record store selling CDs.” Adam imitated the man, clasped his hands as if in prayer. “Oh my god. Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley.”
And the truth, too, was that Lily enjoyed this waiting. She liked to think Adam was off having his adventure, that he would come back and tell her about it, and until then she was able to sit alone and watch. Not something she would admit to any of her acquaintances. “I hate passive women!” Bethany, a coworker, said after a team meeting. And then the woman had looked at Lily. “Next time say something. Anything.” “Like what?” Lily hadn’t meant to be facetious, but Bethany threw up her arms and stomped down the hallway.
There was a gentle flutter of wings, and Lily turned to see that the toddler had lost his balance. His feet were still on the sidewalk, but he was bent over, his palms flat against the pavement. He tumbled, managed to land on his rear. A padded thump as his bottom hit. “Ooof,” he said. He raised his hands in loose fists and began that familiar weak baby flail. He gurgled and giggled, and Lily laughed and sought to catch the other woman’s eye, but the woman remained expressionless. Lily shrugged, turned away, a little annoyed with what she thought was the woman’s rebuff.
They had come to South America because Lily wanted to see Ichigualasto and the fossils from the Triassic, and then they had crossed the Chile-Argentine border to La Serena because somewhere she had read about the observatories. They had travelled by bus over the Andes, the only Americans aboard, and had smiled in childish delight at the subtitled Schwarzenegger video and the unexpected meal service. “Even a place mat,” Adam smiled and made a production out of setting the tray before her. In the dark they crossed the border, and everyone had to get off and go through a customs check point. The officials carried rifles and attempted no English, in fact said not a word. They pointed and gestured, and Adam and Lily eventually mimicked another traveler, a European Lily thought, who had placed his bag on a table, opened it, and then waited. The building was dimly lit and cold with giant doors like an airplane hangar. Lily could make out the silhouette of the mountains, darker than the night sky. Later she learned they had stopped near a ski resort, but at night all of it had seemed deserted and gloomy.
The sun was just above the rooftops now, and the slight breeze was chilly. The guide books described the winter climate as Mediterranean, and Lily had thought of Southern California. But even at the lower elevations it was colder than Lily had expected or planned for, and now she drew her jacket closer, ducked her chin inside the padded collar. For a moment she thought of stacking their luggage around her on the bench, building a fort to block the breeze. When she was a child she liked to tuck herself into close tiny places—her grandmother’s closet, the imaginary cave behind her bed, her own fanciful tents.
She was aware first of the sound of their footsteps. Lily turned to her left and saw two men running towards her. A man in a thin green nylon jacket was being chased by a policeman. The other pedestrians slowed to watch the chase; they stepped to the edge of the wide sidewalk like spectators at a marathon. “No,” the policeman called out. “No.” He wore a long wool coat and an official-looking cap like a doorman. But his shoes didn’t seem to fit; he ran as though he were slipping. The flock of pigeons exploded up from the sidewalk as the first man ran past. Lily leaned forward slightly—a reflex—as if to reach for the little boy. Surrounded by flapping wings the baby raised his arms and squealed in delight. The woman had made no move to collect the boy, and Lily sat back, suddenly embarrassed, afraid the woman might have seen her clumsy gesture. The officer passed, his steps a loud slapping sound against the concrete. Lily saw that he was very young; his cheeks and nose were pink from the exertion. He was losing ground. He probably wouldn’t catch the other man. Several of the pedestrians were smiling, and Lily thought they were laughing at the young policeman. The two men crossed the street, oddly still running down the sidewalk as though following a course, then turned at the next corner and disappeared.
There was a murmur and some soft laughter and then the people in the plaza continued on their way. The woman across from her was now standing, holding onto the hand of the little boy. The child tried to take a step, but lost his balance, and the woman pulled up on the child’s arm to keep him on his feet. The boy giggled, and the woman squatted, picked him up. Again Lily watched the woman, hoped to catch her eye. She was ready to express a friendliness, something benign, even timid. For some reason she hoped for that contact. But without a glance the woman turned, began walking away from the bench, and in doing so passed so close Lily drew her feet from the train case and tucked them beneath the bench. The woman did not look at Lily but in profile she was scowling. The hateful expression startled Lily and she quickly looked away, stared down at the sidewalk. The long shadows of the woman and child moved away in the same direction as the two runners.
Later when Adam returned it was dusk, and as he gathered up their luggage he chattered on about his adventure. He had found a place not too far away, and the clerk had told him the room would be warm, and they would not be uncomfortable. He had even stumbled upon a Chinese restaurant that was close to the hotel.
“You were gone so long,” Lily said. “I’m cold.”
“Oh,” Adam shrugged. “Sorry. Sometimes it takes a while.”
“I’ve been waiting a long time.” Lily drew a breath, tried to control her temper. She didn’t understand why she was so angry.
“You okay? Honestly, I thought you’d be okay with the wait. You said you wanted to.”
She picked up the camera bag and the train case and started down the sidewalk with Adam. “How much longer?”
“It’s not too far.”
“No.” The case slipped from her hand and clattered to the sidewalk. She thought maybe she had broken the mirror; her face flushed with anger, and she felt like crying. “How much longer?”
Image credit: Tom Godber on Flickr
Barbara Nishimoto was born in Chicago, and grew up along with her two sisters in the western suburbs. She is a Sansei and has spent most of her working life as a teacher in such locations as the Alaskan bush and the Marshall Islands. She now lives in Nashville with her husband and their dog, Koji. Her stories appear are are forthcoming in Discover Nikkei and Streetlight Magazine.