VAPOR TRAILS by SJ Han

VAPOR TRAILS by SJ Han

Before I flew out to Tokyo for college, I lived near a small airport in Hokkaido. On evenings when my father limped out for the overnight shift, I used to leave fresh tangerines––once my mother’s favorite, I was told––at the household altar, then sneak out onto a grassy hill nearby to watch planes on the airstrip. 

I learned halfway through the summer of my first year of high school that there was a girl my age who sometimes came by the same spot––last name Sasaki, first name Mio. I’d never seen her except by the airstrip, but we got along. Every hour or so, we fell silent to watch metal beasts bellow and tumble into the night sky, forgetting about the bug bites we collected on our ankles. I’d feel like a larger person on those evenings––maybe because of the planes, maybe because as a boy, I’d convinced myself that boys only become men in the company of girls becoming women.

*

In hindsight, I hardly knew anything about her. She apparently went to a neighboring school. She had an MP3 player full of American songs, and she’d sometimes lend me an earbud. That and she delivered newspapers, which was why she always had a spare copy to sit on. She’d give me the inner page. 

“Then someone’s missing a newspaper,” I said, dampness cushioning my elbows whenever I reclined. 

Above, contrails from the last flight whittled themselves black.

“The trick is to rotate who doesn’t get a paper. Maybe on Monday, it’s the locksmith. Maybe on Tuesday, it’s the teahouse. One missing paper every few months and nobody makes a fuss.” 

It was the small things that made me think I knew her.

*

Back then, I thought growing up was being more careful about what I told others. I didn’t let slip that my mother died in a car crash when I entered elementary school, that my father dragged his left foot when he walked ever since an accident at the factory. We never talked about the future either, like whether we wanted to leave town or stay. Suspended in darkness, we lived the moment as though it were a tunnel, assuming a distant end but paying it no mind. 

*

On a late summer night, we smoked our first cigarette together. It was my idea. I’d gotten half a pack of Mild Sevens earlier from Kimura, the upperclassman who captained the boy’s baseball club I was in. We’d been in the equipment room cleaning up after a loss. 

“Just between you and me, yeah?” He’d grinned as he rattled the pack, his sweat-polished skin cloaked in papery shadows. “You don’t become a man until you can enjoy a smoke after defeat.” 

He had offered to teach me, though my hesitation changed his mind. 

“Keep it for another time. Just don’t let your mom find them or something.” 

Sasaki went first. I watched. The music was yanked from our ears as she spasmed and spat clouds.

“Your turn.”

My eyes lingered on the lipstick marks covering the filter. While she searched the ground for lyrics that she could hum but not recite, I took a long drag, careful not to cough nor think about my lips resting where hers had been. 

We left the rest of the pack leaning against the wire fence, up for grabs to whoever found them.

*

I didn’t see Sasaki around the next few times I snuck out. For a while, I worried that the cigarettes soured her opinion of me. But between examination season and an upcoming regional baseball tournament, I could hardly spare time either. My father would sidle up to my desk before leaving, coarse fingers and crinkled eyes sifting my hair while I feigned concentration. The sound of him delicately inching the front door shut kept me home. Alone, I could sometimes hear the roar of faraway engines.

“What do you think the inside’s like?” Sasaki once asked. 

“In the movies, it’s mostly chairs.”

“No, you buffoon,” she said, staring out at the patterned beads of yellow and scarlet strewn along the airstrip. “I meant how intense it is from inside when the wheels leave the ground, like whether you can feel your skin rattle.” 

“Beats me.”

*

In late autumn, our team was eliminated in the first round of regionals. It was against Sasaki’s school. I kept Kimura company, pretending not to notice his watery eyes as we leaned against our bus, out of sight from the others. At some point, the opposing shortstop found us from our spindly shadows. He came with spare cans of Pocari Sweat cradled in his elbow, two for us. We’d just met, but we shot the crap together. While Kimura split a Mild Seven with him, I asked if he knew a girl––last name Sasaki, first name Mio. The shortstop took his time whistling out smoke. 

“Sasaki Mio was expelled in the spring. A chronic bully, that one.”

“Bully?” 

“Yeah. Picked on a lot of girls, but she was usually good about straddling the line. Mean in a backhanded way, just enough to stay out of trouble, you know?”

“Then what?”

“New girl moved in mid-semester from Europe. Not particularly cute, not particularly smart. Not many interesting stories about living overseas either. But whatever it was, Sasaki was especially aggressive to this one. Thing was, the new girl was no pushover either. A month in, they end up in a fight during lunch, and the new girl says something that gets Sasaki riled up enough to swing an aluminum lunchbox at her. Girl bruises her chin, school investigates, the rest is history.”

“Huh.” I took sips from an already empty can, limp hands seeking purpose. “Bad influences, maybe.”

He coughed in laughter. “Well, you’re with us and you’re not smoking.”

*

At sundown, I went out by the airstrip. I didn’t necessarily want to convince myself that Sasaki was misunderstood. I just wanted to convince myself that things could remain the same sometimes. 

Sasaki didn’t show up. The next time a plane reared its head towards the runway, I wandered closer to the wire fence. I watched the great creature inhale the world and heave itself up, carrying in its bosom lives I could neither number nor picture. I wished everyone an eventless evening as it ventured into ashen clouds. As my rumbling ears readjusted to the still, I could feel the spare tangerines in my pocket growing warm.

*

Back home, I laid in bed until the faded blue of early morning settled in the air. I walked outside and crouched by the front door. As my eyelids drooped, a bike bell fluttered twice.

“Did you wait for me?”

I rose, then held my father tight. I nodded into his shoulder.

“By the way,” he said. “Paper didn’t arrive today.”

“It’ll be here tomorrow,” I said. 

And though my latest theory was that becoming a man was about being prepared to let go of anything, I let him tug on my cheek like the boy I was, weeks removed from the acquiescence that Sasaki Mio must’ve moved elsewhere and years removed from the realization that the skin gently stirs when the wheels leave the ground. 


SJ Han is a bilingual writer originally from Seoul. He is a graduate student at Georgetown University. His work is published in Smokelong Quarterly, AAWW's The Margins, trampset, Hobart, Jellyfish Review, and elsewhere. He will one day write a novel.

Art by Steve Anwyll @oneloveasshole

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