On our wedding day, you weighed 115 lbs. When you died, you weighed 97. You are now 8.7 cups of ash, and I figure I can make enough 1:25 scale figurines of you from what you’ve left behind, so we can see the world.
In Tochigi Prefecture, there’s a theme park called Tobu World Square where 140,000 miniature figurines are sightseeing at famous landmarks. A boy holds a balloon at the base of the Statue of Liberty. A young couple strolls the gardens of Versailles toward the New York City skyline, toying with the idea of making love behind a carefully manicured privet hedge. An elderly man reads a map as he rests in the shadow of the Parthenon. He’s smiling. Perhaps because he’s saved up for this trip his entire life. Or maybe he taught seventh grade history for over thirty years, and this is the first time he’s been able to see the world outside of a textbook.
I try to capture you laughing. But you’re angry sometimes, too. Eyebrows raised. Arms crossed. Airports always brought the worst out in us like the time I lost hundreds of dollars playing slots during a Las Vegas layover. Or the time you brought a flight attendant to tears because she demanded that we check our carry-ons even though we had room under the seat. I’m painting your favorite blue dress on now. The one with little pink flowers. Your travel dress. Elegant. Lightweight. The shawl my mother knitted is draped over your shoulders. Your mouth is pursed, and I imagine us standing in line somewhere. I’ll make a figure of myself with an arm reaching out, rubbing your back. Or maybe I’ll be flipping through a travel guide, talking about a starred restaurant, oblivious to your frustrations. You said: “How can you not be bothered by this?” And glared at a would-be line cutter wearing an I <3 NY sweatshirt. “I’m going to the bathroom. You better not let anybody cut in front of us.”
You glance at a young Australian man talking to his mate. He’s muscular and tan, and probably surfs every chance he gets. I glance at a pale brunette with headphones on, sitting by the gate. Stand-by. English maybe. Black stockings. Listening to what? Classical, Jazz, heavy metal hair bands? You take my hand unexpectedly as we approach the jet bridge. I smile stupidly at the girl taking my ticket. You notice. We haven’t had sex in two months, and when I tried to join you in the shower one night, you jumped out and said we should take a trip somewhere.
There’s no room for our figurines at Tobu’s Narita exhibit. Only a few model 747s being loaded with luggage, the terminals, and the tarmac busy with service vehicles. But I carve us anyway and imagine us—at security, buying magazines, arguing at the ticket counter, holding hands after we’ve taken our seats. You leaned over me to peer through the window as the plane took off. Your perfume smelled like cinnamon and honey, and I wanted to kiss your neck. I said: “I think we needed this trip.”
After the guided tour, we explored the complex on our own, wandering through the corridors of the lower levels, which represent the underworld, and up to the highest stupas where paradise and enlightenment awaits. Tourists streamed around us, clicking cameras, carelessly wielding parasols. We maneuvered around photographers—sumimasen, sumimasen. Stopped to press a button on a lone traveler’s point-and-shoot. But here, there is just us. I quickly place our figures just outside of one of the gates before anyone sees me step over the rope. A few feet of bonsai tree jungle separates Cambodia from the Great Wall of China.
You are pointing at the tree line where I’ve placed a die-cast Macaque holding a Louis Vuitton handbag the size of a button. I am running after the monkey, frozen mid-sprint a few inches from him. You had put your bag down for a moment to take a photo of a purple flower growing out of a relief when you noticed the tiny robber creeping closer. You told me to look at the monkey. Kawaii, you said and pointed your camera at him. You screamed: “The monkey has my purse!”
I ran. The men within earshot ran, as the Macaque climbed the temple walls. He sat perched under the giant, stone lip of a Buddha and opened his mouth wide, as if to mock us, exposing his sharp canines. One of the men tried to entice him with a power bar. “Come down here you piece of shit,” I cried. I began climbing the wall. Tried to anyway. But one of the tour guides grabbed my shoulder and pulled me off. You said: “Let it go. It’s gone.” You collapsed next to a sculpture of Vishnu, protector of the world and God of universal order. I said: We can replace it. But you explained they didn’t make that one anymore.
No one told us about the crowds and the smell of feet and the beggars and the never ending cycle of getting ripped off by drivers and “official” guides, although we knew, in a theoretical sense, crowds and poverty were part of the fabric of India. The clerk at our hotel in Delhi gave us a corner room for my Hokkaido Fighters hat. A man on a scooter snatched your head scarf as he drove by, nearly pulling you to the ground. A young boy on a moped chased after the thief but lost him in the thickness of Agra. Debarshi. Twelve-years-old. He had a sick mother (we wanted to believe he had a sick mother). You wanted to give him as many rupees we could spare. And as I guarded you while you fished through your belt bag, we both noticed the boy fixating on my shoes, the fact that his feet were bare, dry and cracked as the ground beneath him. We looked at each other, and your eyes said: take off your shoes. And I did without hesitation. I laced the boy up and walked bare foot the rest of the afternoon, feeling India hot against my skin until another boy sold me a pair of sandals. We walked side-by-side, holding each other like we used to in high school, following a man who said he knew a scenic route to the Red Gate.
Of course, at Tobu, none of this exists. There is only the Taj Mahal, the monument of a man’s love for his wife. I place our figurines in the vast, manicured garden under the shade of a tree. Here, we are frozen in the conversation we had that afternoon. And I wish we would have stayed there longer, that I would have fought harder, so everything that happened after would cease to be. You said:
“Do you think we have that kind of love?
At first I thought we were talking about the architectural wonder behind us but then realized you were staring at a young couple kissing passionately near the reflecting pool.
“Isn’t everyone like that at first?”
“I’m pretty sure we were.”
“High school,” you said.
“So the first few years we knew each other doesn’t count?” I asked.
“Do you think it’s possible to really know what you want when you’re that young?”
“And what do you want now?”
“Not this,” you said, standing up.
“And this trip?”
“I guess,” you began. You stared at the pink, floral flip-flops beside me, my dirty feet, digging into the lawn. “I guess this is a test. To see if there’s anything.”
I didn’t prod any further. I nodded. I said we should get going if we wanted to make it back to the hotel. I could have asked how I was faring. I could have said more. The guide who came with us had disappeared by the time we returned to the gate. We walked fast, ignoring the flank of panhandlers, guides, and vendors, opting instead to find a reliable rickshaw driver that could take us to the train station. A clean-cut man with a Freddie Mercury mustache waved us over. We were so focused on him, on his unusually shiny carriage, and on getting back to our room that we didn’t see what was coming. We no longer walked side-by-side. You walked ahead. You took the first step into the street.
And I would have made you take photos of me, crushing the Sphinx with my fingers, nibbling on the beast’s backside. There would have been other people, other couples taking similar photos, making the most of the perspective from an observation point. You would tell me I was getting ripped off by a man trying to rent us camels. You would tell me that you really could care less about the damn camels. On a tour we would learn about secret chambers built beneath the Sphinx that remain a mystery. And before I even spoke, you would tell me aliens aren’t the answer to everything. But what if, what if? My figurine’s arms wave wildly. Your figurine looks annoyed, is looking off into the distance where smog meets sand, where the shanties of Cairo punctuate the horizon.
Despite arguing for most of the plane ride, we would make up at the bed and breakfast you picked out, kissing to a peek-a-boo view of St. Peter’s Basilica. We would stay in, forgetting about the Segway tour we signed up for (that I signed up for). You would say that it didn’t matter that I forgot the travel plan binder you had been putting together for a month, that we would let spontaneity carry us. Maybe you would have said that. Possibly. Or you would have said there was no point dwelling on it, that we would have to make do. Maybe you would have called your sister and told her to go to our apartment, so she could read off your airtight itinerary. We would waste half the day waiting. We wouldn’t have time to go inside the Colosseum before it closed, wouldn’t see where gladiators waited for their death or glory, where tigers and rhinos would rise to the arena for a hunt. But we would stroll outside of its arches after dining at a Michelin starred rooftop restaurant across the way—Aroma—with two glasses of rosé each.
At Tobu (and in Rome), the Colosseum is awash in gold instead of white light, which means somewhere, someone’s death sentence has been commuted or rescinded. Or capital punishment has been abolished in some province or country. I place us beside a lamppost near where the Arch of Constantine would be. My arm is around your waist. You’re looking up, pointing. I’m looking right at you.
I would have said: If you really want to go up there. You would have said: I wouldn’t feel like I really experienced Paris if we didn’t. We would go in the morning, before the queues got too long, before the forecast brought fog and rain. We would stop on the first level and have an overpriced brunch brought in a picnic basket. I would say: at least drinks were included. I would say: It better not rain when we get up there. I would say: Even though this place is such a romantic cliché, I’m incredibly happy to be here with you. I would say: I love you.
Even at 1:25 scale, the tower is too tall for me to reach the top, so I place us on the balcony of the first level looking out at the New York City skyline with a pair of binoculars. But we would take the lift to the cupola soon after, drink tourist-bait champagne, and ask a Bulgarian man to take our photo twice. First shot: Both of us side-by-side, smiling at the camera. Second shot: Staring into each other’s eyes. You crinkling your nose. Me stroking your hair. We would hang the photos in the living room.
We were sleeping while it happened. I turned on the television while you prepared breakfast. Got ready for work. Tied the new silk tie you bought at the mall the day before. You said: Oh my god, look! You said: America. I said nothing. I watched the headlines scroll across the screen and sipped on the miso you had warmed. You said: That was on our itinerary; we were going to go to the observation deck. You said: Those people. We canceled our trip that year. There would be another time—later, after all this. You asked: Do we know anyone in New York?
At Tobu, there’s a plaque next to the World Trade Center (1973 – 2001). I place us in a crosswalk adjacent to the south tower. We are surrounded by power suits, fanny packs, taxis, and delivery men carrying packages. A woman walks her dog. A couple tries to find themselves on a map. A homeless man sits on a bench. I don’t know what day or what time it is in this snap shot of New York. A few minutes before the first crash? Seconds? Or is it years or decades? But like our conversation at the Taj Mahal, the next moment will never be. I say: Let’s catch a Broadway show. I ask: Do you know where you’re going?
The Streets of Agra
Tobu forgets the side streets, the parking lots, and the slums surrounding world landmarks. Every exhibit is a postcard. And while I want time to stand still at the Taj Mahal, I cannot forget.
In our bedroom I’ve recreated it, the Agra streets filled with dust and traffic and the cacophony of vendors and hustlers. The shiny rickshaw that would have taken us to the train station. A boy who tugged on my shirt. Our figurines are on the edge of the street. You are stepping forward, waving to the driver. Not far away, a man is selling balloons attached to a cart on his bicycle. The balloons along with a stereo blaring music camouflage the approaching bus and the two mopeds speeding alongside it. I’ve created everybody here in a variety of poses. The balloon man who tried to warn you, waving his arms. You on the ground with your eyes closed. Me holding you to my chest, wailing for help. Me pulling you away from harm, as the bus plowed through the crowded street. I would have asked: Are you okay? And you would have said: I think so. I would have squeezed you so hard then, kissed you. And you would have let me. The driver would take us to the train station and you would rest your head on my shoulders. And I would have said: Maybe that was a test. And we would say other things, too. But not for a while. Not until we got back home. We would remain silent the rest of the way.
(winner of the Editors Prize in Prose for issue 22)