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Only Child

From: The Missouri Review
Volume 36, Number 2, 2013
pp. 156-176 | 10.1353/mis.2013.0034

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Photos by William Chang (boy in park) and Hannah Yoon (older boy)

My mother often speaks to me of my lost brother. Twelve years my senior, brought to this country an immigrant. How he came with knowledge of perhaps ten English words and was fluent within a year. How he was a naturally gifted athlete—baseball, football, basketball. How much he loved me, how protective of me he was. Very occasionally, she will speak of his death. How a careless driver glanced away from the road for a long moment, and the result is that I am an only child. My brother died instantly, my mother says. No long hours in the hospital. No plug to be pulled.

I was just two years old when he was killed and so have no memories of my own. Perhaps faint traces and sensations. A strong arm around my shoulders. Skin the color of sanded oak. An air of competence, a thoughtful manner.

My mother tells me how Benji was respectful of her, of his teachers, his coaches. Looked up to by his classmates. A good brother, she says. A good son.

"Focus, Yoshi. You need to focus."

Coach Anderson is always telling me this, in these words or others.

"I'm focused. Who says I'm not focused?"

"You're supposed do that stretch twice for each leg. Instead you've been bouncing back and forth between the two for five minutes. Where's your head, Yoshi?"

Where is it? Moving between so many places that it isn't anywhere. Wandering. A blur.

"You ought to be warm by now, anyway," he says, heading toward the starting line.

I'm the last to join the row of boys. They bounce nervously from foot to foot, moving their arms like windmills, taking deep breaths and exhaling through pursed lips, preparing themselves for the four laps. I stand at the ready, looking sideways down the line. Though I'm just under six feet and tall for being Japanese, most of them are taller still.

I watch as they settle into their stances; my eyes then drift beyond them. There is the plain taupe façade of my high school, the hulks of the buses idling out front. Beyond, I know, is the rest of Shoreline—the strip malls, the gas stations, the used-car lots. The stink of Puget Sound. I have lived here all my life and yet have never truly thought of it as my home.

The crack of the starting gun draws my attention back, and it takes me a full second to realize that I've just missed the start. I surge forward late, glancing at Coach Anderson's face. He's a short man, always carefully groomed, deliberate and economic in his movements. His lips are pursed, eyes still on me, arm still lofting the starting gun to the sky. He does not have to speak for me to know what he's thinking.

It takes only a few seconds to find my flow. Arms pumping rhythmically, feet pounding dust, breath in and out as regular as any metronome. My head continues in its constant tumult, thoughts whispering over one another, each trying to be heard. I think of my dead brother. I wonder at the impossibility of it, that I am now older than he ever was.

I think of my father. How is it fair that I must live without him, when most of these other boys have the constant presence of their own fathers, some of them in the bleachers even now?

It takes only half a lap for me to overtake the others. By the time I pass Coach Anderson again, they have all fallen behind. That is when the miracle of exertion begins to manifest itself. Where there were many voices before, I can now hear only one at a time.

How Japanese am I? How American? Can I live here in Washington State, on the western coast of America, and still be mostly Japanese? Can I have this body, this skin, these eyes, and still really be an American? Or can I be both, as my citizenship attests?

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