My father’s funeral: my aunt says a few words, my mother cries upstairs, and I sit in the boarding area of gate 23B, Guam International Airport, watching the silent news on CNN. Anderson Cooper tells me these are trying times for migrants and I tell him I know, I know.
Later, on the phone, my aunt asks me how I could have missed two different connections. First LA, she says, and now. Again. This is the same thing the Delta representative said. She said we kept trying to find you, where were you?
I tell my aunt my name was the problem. Twenty hours in flight, and my head was nothing but ginger ale and airplane air. And the thing about my name: with so many varieties, if I don’t focus, I’ll miss it.
For example, my first name. If the flight attendant is Japanese, my name is Gen, the way it should be. But in the hands of an American, it will be Jen, or maybe Gene or Glenn or (sometimes), in a fit of bold invention that always amazes me, it will morph into Jennifer. This is why it’s tough. Someone makes an announcement for Jennifer, and until some bleached-blond girl picks up her backpack and walks to the gate, I can’t be sure it isn’t me.
And then my last name. If I check in with my American passport, it is Del Raye. People always want to know if Del is a middle name. Sometimes the computer doesn’t bother to ask, and the announcement ends up calling for Mr. Ray. On the other hand, if I check in with my Japanese passport, it is Hiroe. Outside of Japan, this almost always turns into hero, as in the second part of superhero. No matter how often this happens, I can never learn to expect it.
I remember my father always used to enforce the right pronunciation. Maybe he spoiled me. When I was a kid, and we travelled together, I could count on a pause, and then the click of the intercom coming back online. Excuse me, it would say. That announcement was for Gen Del Raye, not Gene Ray. Mr. Del Raye, please come to the counter immediately.
The one time my father wasn’t there, I remember, I was twelve and I was going to visit a friend who had relatives in Chicago. This was some years ago, when airlines had more money, and if you were a minor travelling alone on a route with layovers they would assign you a flight attendant to babysit you from the moment you got off one plane until you walked onto the next. Flying out of Osaka, they put out an in-flight announcement to tell me this. I was eating ice cream at the time (they had bumped me up to business class), and I was blissfully unaware until the moment I stepped through the gate and a woman in a red uniform picked me out of the line and said good afternoon, Mr. Hero.
I remember being confused and more than a little delighted. For a full two days, until my friend had to correct one of the neighborhood kids who came over to play, I kept wondering what I had done to make a pretty lady (and what twenty-something woman is not pretty from the perspective a twelve year old?) call me a hero.
It ended like this.
Neighborhood kid: Hero? What kind of name is that?
My friend: Hero-e, with an e.
Neighborhood kid: Hai-roi?
They called me Hey, Roy for the rest of the trip.
Maybe some part of me never got over trying to live up to that name. A sudden accident, and the funeral home calls to say they want to do the funeral immediately. My mother wants to put it off, but I tell her it’s okay. I can make it work. Take the flight from Boston to Houston and then Los Angeles. Overnight to Guam and then Haneda and finally to Osaka. Somehow this shaved off four hours from the regular route and got me to the funeral with two hours to spare. This was, of course, before I missed my connections. The attendant at the gate gives me one piece of good news. I will still miss the funeral, but the next available flight, in four hours, goes direct.
My aunt is fond of saying that hero is only one letter away from zero.
Other times I tried to be a hero: I swam out to rescue my dog from a current in a river and had to get rescued myself. I tried to resolve a fight between my parents about their finances by loaning them the contents of my piggybank. And another time, on vacation in Guam, I took my father to the emergency room. I remember this was in a place called the Holiday In (the missing n was intentional), and while my mother tried to find someone to stop the air conditioner from leaking directly onto the bedspread my father, in the dark room, wasting away with heat stroke, pulled himself up on his elbows and said son, this is your moment. I took my moment. An old van, driven by one of the motel proprietors, got us to the hospital eventually, and just that one time, I really did save the day.
I remember waiting at the airport for the flight back, just a few gates away from this one, I picked out a toy whale that could really swim and my father paid for it. For your troubles, he said.
It turned out it was much easier to pretend. My last year in high school, I got elected class VP on the strength of my name alone. My campaign posters said LET ME BE YOUR HEROE. People still remember that. My friend, who made up the other half of the ticket, went with something more staid, like Yamada: leadership you can trust. Nobody remembers that he won.
This is not just something that works in high school politics. It happens among adults too. I once saw a poster for senate re-election that said Vote YES for NOH! Sometimes I dream about calling that man up. It will be the middle of the night, late May, just before the filing deadline. He will reach for the phone in the darkness, and when he picks up, I will breathe into the receiver. Hello, I will say, this is your worst nightmare speaking.
My father would have wished that I had actually run. He wouldn’t say it, but I knew. My father who had wanted to be an astronaut, a zoologist, a professional sailor, and had to settle for teaching English as a second language in Japan. Every year the school would give him an allowance for classroom materials and he would use it up on a textbook on oceanography, or a dissecting microscope, or a boxed set of Jacques Cousteau DVDs. So of course when I have to split two thousand dollars across two VISA cards just to get home, I think of what my father would have said. He would have said look, I can’t pretend I’m not in the same boat as you. But just…
He’s right. Running for office, I would have been happier. I would have been one of those glad-handling politicians, promising to fix neighborhood potholes, put extra streetlamps on dangerous intersections. Behind the scenes, I would have been cutthroat and ruthless. I would have employed a guy whose full-time job was to plant embarrassing and unsubstantiated rumors about the opposition. I would have been the second coming of Lee Atwater. I would have chartered a plane to bring my father’s funeral to me.
I remember the year I got elected class VP my father went around telling everybody how I was devoted to politics, how he could see that I was made for it, even from an early age. He would say that after my parents refused to accept the contents of my piggy bank that one time, I made them promise to stop fighting in exchange for not taking the money, and when he finally wrapped his head around this reverse extortion, he knew. A joke, actually, but when I told him I was dropping out of college after the second year he really did ask: what about your dreams, your political future?
My mother would have said he loved you anyway, and with that anyway, she would have been right. Living small in downtown Hartford, doing the odd translation for cash and then blowing it all on travel abroad—he loved me anyway. He would have done almost anything, if I had needed it.
This is what I would have said at the funeral if I had made it on time.
Two hours before my new flight, and I go looking to see if they still sell that swimming whale. My mother would be glad to be reminded of it and maybe afterwards, I could sneak it into the urn with his bones. I remember it was built like one of those old submarine toys. You put a spoonful of baking soda in its back, and when you set it down in your bath it would dive and come up for air, dive and come up for air again. This used to confuse the hell out of my dog, who would sniff at the spot where the whale went under and jump back in fright when it popped to the surface.
Sometimes the dog would bite at it, trying to snatch it in his mouth, but the way the toy was made, if you jostled the water more than a little bit, it would pop out a bubble from the compartment in its stomach and duck underwater, almost as if it knew.
The deal my father made was that if I could explain exactly how it worked, I could take an extra day off school. So that Monday, he called in and told the office I’d caught the stomach flu during my winter break. I remember him winking at me, his voice becoming subdued in the same way that my mother’s voice went high whenever she spoke on the phone. He even made me talk a little, not to offer proof, but just for the amusement of acting, my father holding my nose so I would sound stopped up. When it seemed that we wouldn’t be able to delay our laughter for another moment, he hung up.
We went into the city to watch a movie. I picked Jurassic Park: Lost World. My father was still a little tired out from the heat stroke a few days before, and not long after the lights went out he fell asleep. I had to go to the bathroom, so I snuck out to the hall.
I was walking back past the concessions stand when I heard some girls in line for popcorn say, in Japanese, I bet you could get that one. I turned to them just as they were looking away and giggling. There were four of them, all older than me, and they had come to the theater by themselves instead of with their father or mother. But still, I kept my cool. Only a few days ago I had saved my father’s life. This is what I told myself. So I spoke up—try me—and one of the girls, instead of being embarrassed, said I’m Shizue who are you?
I said I’m the boy that’s going to ask you out.
Did I really say that? And why did I think it was a good line?
My aunt likes to say that every man is popular with the ladies at least three times in his life, and this was my first time. The girls were sneaking in to watch the second half of The Titanic, and when they sat down in the last row I was in the seat next to Shizue. At night out in the Arctic sea in the lifeboats, when the theater went pitch-black, we held hands. Afterward, when we went to the arcade across the street, she looked pointedly at the others and we headed off, just the two of us, to the quiet corner with nothing else except claw machines. She picked out a stuffed dolphin, and for once in my life, though it cost me twenty minutes of mounting desperation and two fistfuls of hundred yen coins, I actually managed to get it. It was dusty and unwieldy and faded on top like it had been sitting in that place for years. But when I handed it to her, and she smiled, the rush of tokens falling out of the change machine across the room echoed in my ears like applause.
She said do you want to know a crazy thing?
She said when dolphins dive their heart almost stops. Every time they take a breath, it’s like coming back to life.
This was the moment: the two of us in the semi-darkness, Plexiglas all around us, a hundred lights moving and reflecting in our eyes. It was warm in the arcade but we were both wearing our winter coats. The way the light was, little slivers of color striped across our faces, I could see her heartbeat, could actually watch the shadow of it fluttering above her faux fur collar. It was strong and fast, the way I imagined it must be for a dolphin after a long time lost underwater, starving for oxygen, when it finally breaks the surface. I wanted to tell her this, but when I opened my mouth, nothing came out.
I was just thirteen, and she was a year older. I should have kissed her, but I didn’t know.
She asked for my number. I didn’t have a phone. She said that’s okay. She said if I give you my number, will you promise to call?
I said I promise. I said nothing will stop me. I said dependable is my middle name, and then I smiled to show that it was a joke but not a joke at all.
This is how the story ends: A dusty arcade, the music fading away and replaced by the crackle of the intercom. A high voice, probably a high school kid, speaking first too close and then too far from the mike. Delryu Gen, said the kid. Delryu Gen. And then the click of the mike turning off, and then back on, and my father’s halting breaths.
Who knows how he found me. On the ride home, I asked how he did it, and he said menacingly: you can’t escape me that easy. But there must have been something about my face. Something that changed in my eyes that made him forget about all the time he must have spent on searching, all the fear he must have wasted. He said next time, come back before the movie ends, and I said yes sir, and that was that. He was that kind of father. And I was this kind of son: I never ended up calling Shizue. I didn’t know what to say. I worried that over the phone, without any distractions, our words would run out. On weekends or after school, whenever I could get away, I would stand outside the movie theater, hoping to run into her.
I was the kind of kid who would rather wait for a miracle than risk seeing my luck run out.
Let’s be honest. I’m still that kind of man. The quit-while-you’re-ahead kind, or just quit-before-you-lose. The kind of person who, when I ran into my poli-sci professor outside a laundromat three weeks after I left school, he said you had so much promise that first day you came in. The first day. Of course I dropped out. I didn’t want to stick around for the fall, however slight.
Even now—feet propped on the cheap plastic seats, leaning around the CNN to see. From somewhere behind me, above but not too far away, the announcement goes out for the third time. It says final call for Flight 2173 to Osaka International Airport. Passenger Gene Ray, Gene Ray…
The intercom clicks off. Then it clicks back on.
It clicks off, and then it clicks back on.
© Gen Del Ray
[This piece was originally published in now-defunct Buffalo Almanack, selected by Sara Crowley]