book coupons

Book store in Tokyo Japan
Photo by Martijn Baudoin on Unsplash

We first settled in a basement apartment in Bayside when we moved to America. My mother wanted us to live in a good school zone but couldn’t really afford the rent in the neighborhood, so she found a basement apartment where the landlord expected monthly rental payments to be made in cash only. My mother furnished it with self-built IKEA furniture, an unnecessarily expensive couch and dining set from Pier 1 Imports, the only furniture shop within walking distance, and some donated dressers from my grandmother in Canarsie, who was still alive back then. The floor was covered in green carpet, which sometimes reminded me of grass, but other times made me long for the weaved straws of tatami flooring, which had a better smell.


Years later, for my sixteenth birthday, my mother asked me if I wanted to throw a birthday party or go on a trip to Europe with the three of us—my mother, sister, and me. Without hesitation I chose the trip to Europe, and we left for two weeks in the summer. My mother must’ve maxed out her credit cards in order to pay for the trip.

We came back to our apartment in Bayside after a tiring late-night flight, and when we opened the door and stepped inside, we heard strange squelching noises by our feet. When we turned the lights on, we screamed. There was water everywhere. During our absence, a pipe had burst, and the whole place was flooded. Anything left on the floor was drenched, and most of our furniture was ruined by dirty pipe water.

The landlord who demanded monthly payments in cash only sent his teenage son to check out the conditions, and all I remember is my mother crying. I can picture it vividly because it is one of the only times she has ever cried in front of her children. Through her tears she kept asking the teenage boy, “What am I supposed to do now?”

For the next week we lived in another basement, this time below the landlord’s house a few blocks away. In the meantime, we hurried to look for a new place to live. When my mother came home from work, we would all clamber into her car and drive around, late August sunsets leaking through the windows. We looked for a possible neighborhood to move to, though we couldn’t move very far because my sister was still in middle school. Finally, one day, we drove past a big apartment building with “apartments for rent” and a telephone number on a sign, and within a few days, a one-bedroom big enough for the three of us was ours. We were excited to live above ground, and in such a big building. It seemed less likely for this one to become flooded. But before we could move, we had to return to the flooded apartment to try to salvage all that we could.


Packing up the now-ruined things in the room that I shared with my sister,  I came across a bag of letters that friends and classmates had given me before I left Japan. I’d never written back to them, even though they’d written their addresses on the letters with a note:お手紙まってるからね[1]。I’d meant to write back, but I couldn’t. What would I have told them? That I hated my new school, my new home, my new life? That I had made no new friends in America? That I missed Japan so much it hurt to even write the letter?

I opened up the bag, allowing the multicolored envelopes to slip out onto my bare mattress. Some envelopes were decorated with flower stickers, others with scribbled drawings in pencil.

I picked one up by random and opened it. It was a letter from my friend Reimi. There were also two 500-yen coupons for a bookstore I’d gone to with Reimi the summer before I left for America. At the bottom of the letter, there was a quick note: 本屋さん楽しかったね。これ、あげるね。また日本にきたときつかってね[2]

For reasons I cannot remember, Reimi and I had both received three 500-yen coupons each for a local bookstore. We went there together one hot summer day to use the coupons. It felt exciting because we went on our own, without adults. The two of us walked on the street, cicadas screeching all around us, and entered through the automatic doors of the bookstore, the air conditioner immediately cooling the sweat droplets on our foreheads. The coupons made us feel invincible—we didn’t even have to ask anyone for money, which meant that we were free to choose whichever book we wanted to buy, no repercussions.

The feeling of invincibility quickly wore off when we realized that we were burdened with the responsibility of choosing the perfect book to purchase with our coupons. We circled and circled the small space, our indecisiveness keeping our feet in constant motion. Which book was worth it? A hardcover? A preteen magazine? Were picture books only for babies? We finally paused when Reimi proposed a brilliant idea: “Why don’t we buy a manga? That way, we only have to use one of our coupons. We can think about it some more and come back to use the other coupons when we decide what we want to buy.” Following her advice, I chose a random 400-yen manga off the shelf, even though I hardly ever read mangas.

The memory came flooding back as I held the coupons, which had not lost their shimmer despite being almost a decade old. They were definitely expired, and I had no idea if the bookstore even still existed. Much of the neighborhood I spent my childhood in had changed since an international airport was built just a few miles away. It would’ve been much better for Reimi to have kept the coupons and used them. She shouldn’t have given them to me. Where was she now? Would she recognize me if she saw me? Would I recognize her? Would she remember these coupons?

I looked around at the flood, at the dirty water which had ruined so much of my possessions that I had slowly collected after our move. A backpack I’d used throughout elementary school. A notebook from ESL class. An old painting set. Shoes that were getting too small anyway. I was used to this though—of getting rid. Of purging. Of letting go. Of not placing too many sentiments on anything because that was dangerous. It all felt familiar. This was not the first time that water made it impossible for me to keep things. I had seen the Pacific Ocean shining like millions of gems from the small airplane window. At night, it turned into a never-ending black abyss. I could feel it trying to suck the tiny plane in. Go faster, I kept praying.

The expired coupons were so heavy, and I was suddenly hit with the realization that I was close to losing them forever. The letters, too. What would have happened if I hadn’t placed them in a bag inside of a plastic drawer? The words would have dissolved and floated away, leaving behind a pile of wet, dirty, empty papers.

I imagined リ from リベッカ[3] fading, dissolving, floating away.

I imagined メfrom アメリカ[4] fading, dissolving, floating away.

I imagined 行 from 行っても[5] fading, dissolving, floating away.

I imagined 忘 from 忘れないで[6] fading, dissolving, floating away.

I imagined ず from ずーっと[7] fading, dissolving, floating away.

I imagined 友 from 友達[8] fading, dissolving, floating away.

I imagined ま from また[9] fading, dissolving, floating away.

I imagined 会 from 会おう[10] fading, dissolving, floating away.

All of the letters, the words that I learned to scribble when I sat at a desk with a pencil for the first time, fading, dissolving, floating away from me and there was no way I could get them back. There is nothing more terrifying, more heartbreaking than letters and words disappearing.


[1]               Otegami matteru karane: I’ll be waiting for your letter

[2]               Honya san tanoshikattane. Kore agerune. Mata nihon ni kitatoki tsukattene: I had fun at the bookstore with you. I want you to have these. Use them next time you’re back in Japan.

[3]               Ribekka: My name in Japan

[4]               Amerika: America

[5]               Ittemo: despite going

[6]               Wasurenaide: don’t forget

[7]               Zuuutto: forever

[8]               Tomodachi: friends

[9]               Mata: again

[10]             Aou: meet

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