Unbelievable. Look where I am, just a year after I came to America: Planned Fucking Parenthood. Shinjirarenai!(1) In Japan, they call them reideizu kurinikku—straight up Ladies’ Clinics. Makes more sense, right? Like, who ever had an abortion ’cause they planned to be a parent?!
I could use a smoke before I go in—I mean, yeah, I knew what I was doing. Got pregnant on purpose. Knew I’d be aborting it and everything. But I’m no psycho! Some girls eat. Some starve. Some shop. Some cut themselves. I guess killing my ex-boyfriend’s baby is just my version of that. Also, I’m an artist. So I basically have to try and make something cool out of anything bad that happens to me. Not much point staying alive otherwise.
I bum a cig off this kyōkotsu(2) leaning by the bus stop. I’m showing bigtime—thirteen weeks. He doesn’t bat an eye though. Looks like someone who’s been through some shit. Guess I’ve been through some shit, too.
“Um, sorry to bother you again but . . . could you take my picture?” I hand the kyōkotsu my phone and pose with hand on hip so my belly sticks out, Planned Parenthood sign smack dab above my head.
He takes a few shots, makes sure I like one.
“Hey, baby, just wantchu to know Jesus loves you,” he says as he hands the phone back.
Glad someone does. I smile really hard ’cause I’m afraid I might cry, and I’m so not in the mood for that right now.
My first mistake was going to a Japan Club party. My second was making eye contact with a guy there. I mean, I’d seen blue eyes, but these were so blue they basically lasered me from across the room.
Then he came up and introduced himself, and I couldn’t get over his name: Yuri. ’Cause that’s my name, only not! A guy’s name in Russian (his dad was from there), but a girl’s name in Japanese. Then he said something all cool about the way different languages sometimes have words that sound the same, but don’t mean the same—like Turkish and French, Chinese and Portuguese—and whether it’s just coincidence. Let me be Yuri-kun(3), he said, and you be Yuri-chan, so people don’t mix us up, and I thought wow, this is going somewhere!
Not like I never saw an Amerikajin(4) before I met him—I mean, I’d been in the U.S. over a month already, and had lots of American English teachers back in Japan. But all those English teachers, the only foreigners I ever really got close to, were all kimoi(5) in one way or another: greasy, smelly, big-nosed—like the one we used to call Umeboshi-Sensei, ’cause his face was all red and wrinkly like a pickled plum (which are super yummy, but, like, uglier than dog balls, as Yuri-kun put it. So yeah). And their Japanese sucked. Well, not all of them. There was this one girl who was kinda kakkoī(6). I guess I’m saying the guy teachers we got were pretty bad.
Nothing like Yuri-kun.
Don’t know why I even went to that fucking party. This girl on the quad shoved a flier at me—Japan Kurabu no pātei ni zehi kite ne!(7) she said, like we already knew each other. Still went, though. Nothing to fucking do in in this middle-of-nowhere state without a car, so that was probably why. If I’d gotten into RISD or CalARTs or somewhere halfway decent, I wouldn’t be stuck in this dasai(8) place!
Anyway, Yuri-kun said the J-Pop was too loud, could we talk outside a while. (Good line, right?!) He snagged some Hello Kitty cups on the way out (had a flask of umeshu(9) in his trench coat), and we went walking in the dark and drinking together. He showed me these Dogwood trees in a park near his apartment. “Inu no ki?!(10) What a stupid name,” I laughed. He said the Japanese name was hanamizugi, which means “flower-water tree.” We decided to just call them that instead. He said they were no sakura(11), but they kinda made him miss Japan less when they were blooming. They actually weren’t blooming at all—it was October—but the way he described it, I almost felt like I could see the clouds of white flowers.
We sat down to drink on the fallen leaves. Not for long, though.
I didn’t go for it at first when Yuri-kun pushed me, gently, onto the leaves. “Koko ja dame yo,” I said. “Not here.” So he took me to his place.
There were sakura blossoms on his sheets.
Somebody’s calling my name with a super-strong American accent—the “r” is hard ’cause you guys don’t roll your r’s here,(12) and you stress the wrong syllables, so it sounds like Yoo-REE HO-ree-OO-chee. The smiley-faced nurse holding the door open for me is wearing Minnie Mouse scrubs with the name “Kara” above her left boob. I get this crazy impulse to laugh out loud and say that her name means “empty” in Japanese. Yuri-kun would LOVE that. In a parallel universe where he was still around. And gave enough of a shit to be here with me…but in that universe, I wouldn’t even be here. I wouldn’t have stopped taking my birth control without telling him (only started the damn stuff in the first place ’cause he asked). I definitely wouldn’t have fucked him like a nympho the last two months before he ditched me when all I wanted was to punch his gorgeous white teeth down his throat—zettai īya!(13) No way I would’ve let this baby grow for thirty, sixty, a hundred-plus days (all summer and then some) until I felt like it was big enough to leave a really big hole when it came out.
The nurse (guess I’ll call her “Nurse Empty”) takes my blood pressure and makes me step on the scale. 105.2 pounds. I’m usually around forty-three kilos, so…sugoi!(14) That’s more like forty-eight. But I don’t even know how much of that weight I gained before I got pregnant. I wonder if Yuri-kun noticed. If that’s what turned him off. Wouldn’t surprise me. Nurse Empty asks me like a thousand questions about my medical history, my sex life, what kind of birth control I use—same questions I already answered in writing all over again.
Actually, I like this nurse, though. Big smile, big hips, big wedding ring. You can tell she cares about people. People care about her. If anyone’s empty here, it’s me. Weird how I feel so hollow when I’ve never weighed this much in my whole life!
“Excuse me, ma’am, could you please take a picture?”
I hop off the table and stand in front of a big knock-off Georgia O’Keefe print of a labia-shaped flower on the wall. (Which is so inappropriate, but in the best way!)
“Everything alright, miss?”
I get why she’s surprised and all, but hell, I can’t be the first slightly unhinged girl to come through here. I wish she’d just roll with it. Like that nice junkie out front did.
“There anybody with you today?”
Nurse Empty flips through my forms. “What about your emergency contact? Tiffany Meyers?”
“My roommate. Out of town.”
She stares at me. “How are you getting home?”
Her big brown eyes are about to melt out of their sockets. She won’t make this easy. Guess it’s time to play the Japanese culture card.
“So, when Japanese women have an abortion, we do a kinda religious ceremony for the baby. It’s hard to explain. I just need some pictures for that.”
Nurse Empty goes from shaking to nodding.
“OK, I understand.”
I feel bad about halfway lying to her. I mean, yeah, there’s a thing called mizuko kuyō, the “water child ritual” a lot of Japanese women do.(15) But I won’t be doing any rituals—not the religious kind, anyway. What I’ve got planned, and why, is way too sick (in both senses—something else Yuri-kun would love!) for this nice lady to process.
Yuri-kun probably never wanted a baby with me, but he sure as hell LOVED the little chūgakusei(16) he taught English to in Japan before I ever knew him. Kept their pictures over his desk, remembered all their names and everything. That’s how I know he’ll LOSE IT when he finds out what I’ve done. When it’s on display in the campus gallery, all over Insta, and in the special, personalized fuck-you-mentary(17) version I’ll be sending him by e-mail. He sure as hell won’t be flying back from Japan to see it. But I’ll make him feel like he did.
Nurse Empty takes my picture, not smiling anymore. She looks like she wants to hug me or something. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind. I’d like her to ride home with me afterwards. Wash my hair, sponge off my body. Put me in a clean white nightgown and tuck me into bed.
Pretty sure none of that’s allowed.
I can’t remember Mom(18) ever doing stuff like that for me. I mean, she’d cook and do housework and all, but if I was sad or sick, it was my problem. Dad(19) sure wasn’t there to help—always busy with work and other stuff you’re not supposed to ask about. So I had to scrub my own back, make my own hot tea if I woke up at 3 a.m. with a sore throat. That’s just how it was. Even before Mom went crazy.
If she’d stayed single, Mom would probably be alive(20) and famous right now. In, like, her second week of kindergarten, she copied the Iroha poem so perfectly they could hardly tell it from the one in the primer—I mean, she was five! But, anyway. Somehow she grew up to spend most of her time making bentō(21) for me and Dad, picking up suits from the cleaners, and scrubbing the bathroom floor. Wasn’t cut out for it. Probably wished she could go live alone in a temple somewhere with her ink, paper, and brush, no sound but the garden sōzu(22) trickling away.
I’m not all OCD like Mom. I don’t overthink shit. I just see or feel something, and I do it. Like for this one installation, I took a screwdriver and stole this paper towel dispenser from a bathroom in the Saty department store. (That actually was fucking dangerous—cameras everywhere; my bag looked like it was about to pop. But nobody suspects the kawaī(23) little schoolgirl, right?) Then I covered that whole strip of rough brown paper with calligraphy. Took me like three months—I mean, by the time I was ready to roll it up, my room looked like a hamster’s cage. Good thing Mom was way past dead by then, or she would’ve gone ballistic.
Anyway! In my application essay, I basically said the piece, when you set it up, would be interactive, ’cause you’d have to push the lever, tear a piece off, and decide what to do with it—blow your nose with it, eat it, throw it away, whatever. And I said there would be a little trashcan. That way lots of the papers people threw out would spill onto the floor. The admissions committee totally went nuts for it!
I have no idea how long Nurse Empty has been talking.
“Did you have questions or anything?”
“No, thank you.”
“Alrighty. The doctor’ll be in shortly.”
She pats my hand before she leaves. But I’m so over it now. No longer interested in being touched. I just want to stick this experience in my past, where I can control it, turn it into something else.
My first night with Yuri-kun was super awkward at first, ’cause I’d only been with two other guys (nothing serious—just sefure(24)): one of them jerked himself off; the other one made me watch hentai(25) stuff that pretty much grossed me out. Yuri-kun was so patient, though. I couldn’t believe how patient he was—he didn’t give up until something worked! At the end I had to laugh and say, “Otsukaresamadeshita!”(26) Like he was going home from the office after a hard day or something. Yuri-kun thought that was hilarious.
We hardly slept for three days—Friday, Saturday, Sunday. On Sunday he said, “Do you realize we’re married now?”
“Nani itteru no?”(27)
“In Heian court society, if a man stayed with a woman for three nights in a row, and they ate ceremonial cakes together, it meant she was his wife.”
“Baka.(29) Didn’t you read Tale of Genji in school? That’s like your Shakespeare!”
Yuri-kun teased me about knowing my own culture less than a foreigner. He kissed me and played with my hair and told me how sweet I was.
I should’ve remembered that good old Prince Genji got “married” at least four or five times.
The doc says his name, shakes my hand. I don’t get his name, don’t feel his hand. I’m focused on other things, like how I’ll make art out of all this.
I’m most aware, right now, of the air, cold as a slice of the sea at my back. I need to steal that feeling. When I’m alone, at the end, I’ll slip the hospital gown in my bag, along with a box of those blue gloves the nurse is snapping on. I’m seeing the gown as part of a backdrop—shredded, red-paint bloodstains. Lots of rubber glove balloons, plus blown-up prints of the selfies I’ve been taking every day since I found out I was pregnant. The positive pregnancy test hanging in the middle of it all somewhere. Maybe dangling from some pink yarn that’s been dragged in the dirt to get that grimy, umbilical look.
Now the doc’s talking. I see but don’t hear him as he takes out a dick-shaped probe and slathers the thing with icy blue lubricant. His mouth’s tight and red, like an anus. Probably just as full of shit, too. I keep my audio channel closed until I sense he’s about done.
“We just need a quick ultrasound before we administer the osmotic dilator, n’kay?”
Mō ī kara,(30) just get the fuck on with it! I grab the edges of the table, hard enough to make it hurt.
One of our best nights, I made Yuri-kun lie down naked on his stomach, and covered his whole back with calligraphy ink; then I spread this long sheet of super heavy ginwashi(31) over him to get the imprint. (I bought that paper special for this thing I was doing with refrigerator boxes, but it kinda didn’t seem important anymore.)
My advisor wasn’t impressed—she said Yves Klein did that way back in the sixties so, like, if I wanted to do it, too, I had to add something that went beyond the “Anthropometry” series. Yuri-kun said fuck her, it’s brilliant. He hung it up over his futon.
Not like I ever believed in all that love and marriage crap. But that first six months with him was just…hontō ni suteki datta.(32) He didn’t buy me shit, take me to fancy dinners, things guys do to impress girls. What he did was way better—he gave me new ideas.
Like with that paper towel installation concept that got me into this place. I’d been calling it “Rip Off.” Yuri-kun said that was clever but made me sound too down on myself. (Don’t go playing into that self-deprecating Japanese stereotype! he teased.) He said I should rename it “Hand Paper,” and he wrote this awesome update for my Artist’s Statement about how the Japanese word for letter, tegami, literally does mean “hand paper,” which sounds like it could be another name for “paper towel,” since they call the cloth ones “hand towels” and everything. So it’s a tegami, but a tegami, if you think about it, really is just plain kami to someone who can’t read it. I mean, I didn’t even tell Yuri-kun the title was bugging me—he just knew. It was like he could dig up these oysters from my muddy brain, crack them open, and give me pearls.
And then, somehow before I noticed, things changed. Yuri-kun started flirting more. With practically every Emi-chan, Hana-chan, and just about any other -chan we ever ran into. Hidoi jyanai?!(33) Acted like I shouldn’t get mad ’cause he was just being “nice” and shit. Mr. fucking cultural ambassador. Some of those girls had been in the U.S. longer than me!
Then in April—when our “flower-water tree” finally bloomed for real—he told me: By the way, I have to go teach in Indiana over the summer to make some cash. Also, I got that Mombukagakusho scholarship, so I’ll be leaving for Japan in August.
OK, those weren’t his exact words. But still—WTF, right?
Before that, all I knew was he had at least a year left to finish his Master’s—probably more, since he sucked at meeting deadlines. I guess I thought he’d take me home with him that summer to meet the folks or something—I mean, weren’t we already “married” by Tale of Genji standards?! But no. He’d be leaving, and I’d be staying, stuck taking summer classes I didn’t want or need just to avoid three months back home with my fuckhead father. Oh, and get this. He’s like, I want you to know how much our time together has meant to me.
Yuri-kun never said anything like, I can’t live without you, quit school, come back to Japan with me. Hell, he didn’t even offer to drive back from Indiana to see me a few times over the summer!(35) Maybe I did tell him I wasn’t interested in kids or settling down. But still! I really just wanted him to try, you know? Sometimes a girl might like to have her mind changed!
I loved that asshole. And he knew it, too. He should’ve known, anyway. Japanese people don’t just say that stuff all the time—you have to pay attention!
“You have the option to view the ultrasound. Would you like to?”
Nurse Empty turns the ultrasound screen toward me.
I see the big head, the scrunched-up legs, the chicken-wing arms; the wand moves, and I see toes and fingers for a second; then I see the tiny heart, pumping tokuntokun(36) through the skin.
Now that I’ve looked, I can’t stop looking.
Mom’s voice, the baby’s heartbeat, are in my head, one on top of the other.
I’ve remembered there was a time, when I was very small and couldn’t sleep, that she’d stay with me, soothe me. Her voice soft and patient. Like petals falling.
Yū-chan, daijōbu yo.(37)
“Miss?” the nurse asks. She misunderstood the look on my face. Mistook it for love, maybe.
“It’s fine.” I smile at her, sweet as can be.
I know this sounds psycho…but I feel so peaceful. So relaxed. Nē, Okāsan(38), Is this what it feels like when you lose your mind? If it is, well, it’s kinda great.
Pretty soon, my ass is as numb as my mind—I feel a little ant bite pinch down there, but not much else. I’m not scared how I’m gonna feel, or how the baby’s gonna feel, or any of that. I don’t even care that much right now how this whole thing’s gonna fuck with Yuri-kun’s head. Something incredible is happening.
Fast forward two weeks, my advisor calls me up to her office.
She’s brought some stuff from my cubby: enlarged prints of me outside the clinic. (The “Before,” and the “After.”) Also this papier mâché statue I made (about twenty-four centimeters high(39))of a little bald dude with a black pleather bib, a spiked collar, and bunny ears. (I may not be too good at sewing but, yeah, made all the accessories, too!)
She squints at the first picture, the one with me, clearly preggo in a white tank top, smoking under the Planned Parenthood sign.(40)
“So, this is you ‘Before’. . . ?”
“Before the abortion,” I finish for her.
“Right. And this is . . . ‘After?’ Were these taken the same day?”
“Uh-huh. Maybe four, five hours between.”
In the “After” shot, I’ve got a huge, cheesy grin on my face, I’m making a peace sign with one hand, and in the other one I’ve got this booklet that says, “Letting yourself heal after abortion.”
“I see.” She takes off her glasses, almost puts them down on my pictures, then kinda jerks them back and sticks them on her frizzy head.
“Tell me about this?” She nods at my statue.
Now for the fun part. This is where I get all profound and mystical and shit. Give her the totally extra version of what I told Nurse Empty.
“That’s kinda like a memorial object for an aborted baby. We call it ‘mizuko,’ and there’s, like, double meaning in Japanese, ’cause ‘mizu’ means water, so you could say it means ‘water baby,’ which reminds me, like, of the Moses story, sort of—you know, how they put him in the water and sent him away—but also, in old Japanese, ‘mizu’ means ‘unseen’ or, maybe, ‘invisible,’ so it’s like you don’t see him. But even if you don’t see him, he’s always there, in the spirit world. Japanese people believe that, so, yeah.”
She might be feeling this stuff—her glasses are sliding down out of her frizz, and she doesn’t seem to notice.
“Thank you so much for that, Miss HO-ree-OO-chee. I just felt we should chat because, well, it seems to me you may have been through a rather traumatic event, and if there’s anything you need, I hope you’ll let me know.”
Why, why do you Americans always offer to help when you don’t fucking want to help, and you’ll die if someone actually takes you up on it?(41) If my advisor had looked twice at me in the last five months (not that she was around much over the summer, but still), she might’ve noticed my mascara running, my clothes getting baggy enough to cover a rhino, my cheeks filling out. What’s so hard about hiding a pregnancy from people who don’t even see you?
“I’m fine. You don’t need to worry.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear that.” My advisor smiles, clearly relieved.
Whatever. Maybe she’ll write me a nice letter of recommendation to RISD—help me transfer the fuck out of this dump!
“By the way, I also plan to use this, but…” I reach into my bag and pull out the ultrasound image I made Nurse Empty print for me.(42)
“I think maybe I can blow this up, like, poster size?”
My advisor sits back, hand on her chest. She looks at the ultrasound a long time.
Holy shit! I think she’s got actual tears in her eyes. I mean, her eyes are kinda leaky anyway (probably allergies or something), but still. I think I got to her!
I give her the biggest, sweetest smile ever.
I can’t fucking wait to tell (and show!) Yuri-kun everything.
He doesn’t believe that stupid mizuko story any more than I do. Knows it’s a goddamn fairytale made up by priests to get money off guilty women who can’t face reality. The souls of dead babies don’t wait around, like glass bottles, to be recycled into new ones just as good as the old ones were. They go somewhere dark, and silent, and forever.
1. “Shinjirarenai” means “I don’t believe this.” I know what you’re thinking—Really? Footnotes? Like, is this your midterm research paper for that stupid Gen Ed sociology class? Well, sorry, but I kinda think and talk in a mix of Japanese and English anymore, so I don’t know what to tell you. Deal with it, or stop here, I guess.
2. “Kyōkotsu” is a scrawny old man who crawls out of the well in Japanese ghost stories. See how this works now?
3. “-kun” and “-chan” are suffixes we use in Japanese to show affection or familiarity. “-kun” is usually for guys, and “-chan” for girls. I’m guessing the only suffix you guys know is “-san,” but that’s super formal and honorific.
4. “American Person.”
7. “Be sure to come to our Japan Club party!”
9. “Plum wine.”
10. “Dog Tree?!”
11. Pretty sure all you English speakers know “sakura” by now . . . but most of you are saying it wrong. Just a head’s up.
12. OK, remember when I said you guys don’t pronounce the word “sakura” correctly? This is why.
13. “Hell, no.”
14. “Wow” or “Damn.”
15. Waste of money, if you ask me. They pay to have these little statues put up at a temple and prayed over so their dead babies will be at peace and stuff. Chill with the ancestors until it’s the right time to come back.
16. “Middle school kids.”
17. Pretty cute, right? All grown up and inventing my own English words!
18. It feels weird to call her this. In my head, she’s Okāsan, which is what you call your own mom, not someone else’s. In English, it’s all the same.
19. Otōsan, aka the guy shelling out for four+ years of art school—not to mention anything else I ever want for the rest of my life—’cause trust me, he owes me. Big time.
20. Forgot to mention she kinda killed herself when I was in 7th grade. Just FYI.
21. These are Japanese-style boxed lunches. A lot more work to make than PB&J. Okāsan probably wouldn’t be the first woman to kill herself over having to do these things every single day—JK!
22. This is a bamboo tube thing in Japanese gardens that slowly fills up with water, then tips over and clacks on a rock when it overflows. Just YouTube it if you have no idea what I’m talking about.
24. This means “Fuck buddies.” Kind of funny ‘cause it actually came from sekkusu fuerendo (“Sex Friend”), which is English, but you guys don’t actually say that!
26. This is something Japanese people say at the end of the work or school day, after a sports match. Stuff like that. I guess it usually means “Good job” or “Thanks for your hard work.”
27. “What are you talking about?”
28. “Oh, wow!”
29. “Silly” or “Idiot” or maybe “Dumbass.” You get the drift.
30. “I’m done with this.”
31. This is a kind of special Japanese hemp paper.
32. “It was just really wonderful.” I know, right? Corny as fuck.
33. “Isn’t that awful?”
34. This basically means “fuck you,” but could also mean “Don’t fuck around with me” or even “What the actual fuck,” depending on context. English is way better for cursing than Japanese ’cause you guys have such a nice menu of bad words. In Japanese, there just aren’t that many, so we have to use tone and facial expression way more.
35. I get it—six hours each way is a long drive for some pussy. The point is if he cared at all about the person attached to that pussy (me), he’d have done it. And a lot of other things.
36. This is an onomatopoeia word for the sound of a heartbeat. You guys may have more curse words, but we have way more words that sound like what they are. Just sayin’.
37. “It’s alright, Yū-chan.”
38. “Hey, Mom.”
39. That’s about 9.4 inches, for all you kids too lazy to do the conversion.
40. That messed-up kyōkotsu who took it actually did a super good job! The no-time-for-your-crazy Uber driver who took the “After” picture was unbelievably bitchy and framed it all weird. But hell, I can work with imperfection.
41. Sorry, you guys, but it’s true. I’m not saying all of you . . . just most of you.
42. Again, said it was for the ritual. She thought I needed serious help by that point, reminded me about the list of resources in the goodie bag they’d be sending home with me—that thing went straight down the dorm trash chute.
Francesca Leader is a writer and artist whose fiction has appeared in Cut Bank, Coffin Bell, and elsewhere. She was named runner up in Cut Bank's 2020 “Big Sky, Small Prose” flash fiction contest, and her original translation of the iconic Japanese "Iroha" poem was awarded first prize in the Society of Classical Poets’ 2021 Poetry Translation Competition. You can connect with her on Instagram at moon.in.a.bucket.