My mother always said I would see the advantage of being half-American someday. “Never ever be ashamed of yourself, Isamu,” she told me, her bright blue eyes staring firmly into my own. “You’re better than that. Stronger than that. Don’t let yourself be defined by what you see in the mirror. You can’t change how you look,” She’d placed a hand over my heart, “But you can change this.”
That day was three years ago, when she’d found me over the bathroom sink. I had just gotten home from the principal’s office after a fight with three other boys, and was shouting at her as I used my fingernails to angrily scrape the skin raw around my eyes. “I hate myself! I hate how I look! Why do I have to look so much like you?” She’d grabbed my shoulders and forced me to turn around as she yelled over me, “Stop screaming! Stop it!”
I glared at her, but she cupped my face with her hands anyway. “Isamu, what happened? Just tell me what happened. Please. Stop screaming…” I bowed my head and sobbed. She held me tightly, rocking back and forth in a soothing rhythm.
“Did they tease you because of me?” she asked quietly after a few minutes. I stayed silent, seeing that she already knew the answer.
We sat on the bathroom floor. She got up an hour later, telling me she had to start dinner. I quickly washed my face and went to the kitchen. My mother sat at the table, hands wrapped around a cup of steaming, untouched green tea. A bowl of unwashed rice sat beside her. I swallowed hard, feeling guilty, and went upstairs to finish my homework.
Even if those memories hadn’t faded, I was older now, and taller. My mother said I had the same build as my American uncle-whom I’d never met before. A picture of him and his wife, both smiling happily, hung in my parent’s room. He had the same striking blue eyes as my mother. And me.
During my second week of Junior High school, I was finally beginning to understand what my mother had assured me of three years ago. Towering over my classmates definitely had it advantages. The bullying I had experienced in elementary school stopped completely, along with the blatant stares my American features always attracted. I excelled in English, and I could tell my classmates were jealous of my grades.
My best friend Nobu, on the other hand, took advantage of it. “Want to study together, Isamu-kuun?” he asked me one day after exams. He, opposite of me, was the smallest in our class. He had asthma, and I always saw a lump in his school uniform pocket where he kept an inhaler. “Why would I want to do that?” I asked him curtly. He showed me his test scores and I laughed out loud. He grinned with me, “My parents own the bakery behind the school parking lot. Maybe we could walk there after school and get a snack…”
We studied together every school day after that, and it’s what we were about to do on a cool afternoon in the middle of April. As soon as the bell rang, we quickly raced through the crowd of students, backpacks slung over our shoulders and jackets stuffed in our gym bags.
“Look at these ink stains!” Nabu groaned, staring at the black splatters covering the front of his shirt. “I spilled my ink bottle during Kanji class today. Not the easiest to scrub out either. I was threatened with my life the last I time I came home with my shirt looking like this…” I rolled my eyes at him. He laughed and stuck out his tongue. I always teased him because he was dramatic. And had big ears and was clumsy. He told me I needed to give him a few inches. “I want to have some tall American uncle I’ve never met before!” He whined, “Why do you have to have all the height around here?”
I laughed walking ahead of him to open the side gate as he grabbed his inhaler from his pocket and shook it. Raising it to his mouth he breathed in a few times. “You could share a lung or two with me, you know.” He pointed the inhaler at me and smirked.
I smiled. It was a game we always played together. “Sorry, I…”
“You could share a lung or two with me, you know.” The mocking imitation from behind didn’t sound like Nobu’s voice at all. I turned around, leaving the gate ajar. A hand rested tightly on Nobu’s shoulder. Eyes wide, he had stilled completely.
A warning bell rang inside of me. “What are you doing here, Jiro?” The bully ignored me, and began circling around Nobu with slow, purposeful steps. Where had he come from? I looked down at my friend’s hands. They were shaking. His smirk had disappeared. He gripped his inhaler tightly. I shrank inside and then shrank back, heart beginning to drum as I tried to swallow down the lump quickly forming in my throat. I caught Nobu’s eye. They pleaded with me silently. I tore my gaze from him. Three years sped away, and I saw myself in Nobu’s place.
Something struck me deep inside. Was that why I’d agreed to be his friend? To study with him? Because every time I looked at Nobu, I saw… me? A sickening feeling swelled inside of me as I watched Jiro stop beside him, arms crossed. I was the ‘half-American kid’ now. The one no one dared mess with. Bullies only picked on smaller kids. Like Nobu. Why was I so afraid then? Why couldn’t I bring myself to stop Jiro from…
A firm whack from behind sent Nobu to his knees. He hit the dirt ground with a painful thud, inhaler flying through the air and landing at my feet. I squeezed my eyes shut and then opened them again. Jiro stood over him, hand gripping the collar of his shirt. He didn’t hesitate. Raising his fist, he slammed it into Nobu’s stomach. Nobu doubled over, wheezing and gasping for air.
I felt cold all over, a thousand words stuck in my throat. I winced as Jiro hit his jaw, kicking him in the back of his head every time he rolled over. Blood trickled down Nobu’s forehead, mingling with dirty tears. He blinked furiously. Jiro laughed. I stood where I was, fists clenched and silent.
Jiro grabbed his arm, twisting it painfully as he dragged Nobu through the dirt. He kicked him again, black school shoes slammed against his ribcage. Nobu wheezed, trying to draw in breath. I tensed when he couldn’t. He rasped, crying out in pain when Jiro delivered another blow to his stomach. His eyes went wide as he searched the ground for his inhaler. Jiro grabbed him by his hair and whispered in his ear. Nobu froze. Jiro forced his chin upward, and Nobu finally nodded and mumbled something. I watched Jiro grin as he released him.
He took a few steps back and then looked at me, eyes black and hot. I knew what he was telling me- “Don’t touch him.” I stared back, gaze swinging to Nobu. He lay, crumpled on the ground, covered in dirt. His breath came out in short, stabbing whistles. I looked up at Jiro and nodded slowly. My eyes burned. I stuffed my hands in my pockets. Nodding back, he grabbed his backpack and sauntered through the schoolyard, joining his friends as they walked through the front gate.
I waited for a few minutes until they disappeared. Nausea welled up inside of me. My ears rang and I crouched down. Face hot, I rubbed my eyes. What had I done?
Never ever be ashamed of yourself… I heard my mother’s voice inside. You’re better than that….stronger than that….
My knees weakened. I landed on something hard. Nobu’s inhaler. My hands trembled violently as I grabbed it. I ran over to him, head swimming. The left side of his face was covered in blood. He opened his eyes and stared up at me. His chest heaved.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…” I choked out the words, sliding my hands beneath his neck and under his knees, “This is my fault, Nobu,” I picked him up and ran toward the school building. His face was white. I rammed against the door, panic welling up inside of me. What had I done? What had I done?
Panting, I hurried down the hall toward the nurse’s office. She was locking the door. I started shouting. She unlocked in swiftly. “Bring him in here,” She hurried inside.
“Wait, wait…” I heard Nobu whisper.
I looked down at him, feeling sick. “I sorry…I’m so sorry…”
“Daijoubuyo… Isamu-kuun…Daijoubuyo…” The corners of his mouth turned slightly upward. His eyes, laced with pain, were warm. “It’s ok, Isamu. It’s ok,” He repeated again slowly.
I stopped where I was. The nurse urged me inside. I glanced at her and then looked down at Nobu once again. Tears coursed down my face. I didn’t care. I sat him down and gave the nurse his inhaler. She told me to wait outside.
It’s ok… It’s ok…. His words echoed through my head. I wanted him to be mad. I wanted him to lash out at me. I deserved it. But he hadn’t.
Jiro had done wrong. I had too. Which was worse? Inflicting pain… or staying silent? I was just as guilty as Jiro because I could’ve stopped him. I should’ve too. But I didn’t.
I closed the door and sat down numbly. I slipped my shoes off and brought my knees up to my chest, bowing my head.