My husband takes his suit to the dry cleaners down the road. When he arrives, the woman behind the counter pauses to glare at a bright, chalky white stripe that spans across one sleeve.
"What is this?" She asks him in Japanese.
"I`m not sure," he shrugs, "maybe it is paint."
"Paaaaaint?" the cleaner stares at the stain and then back at him in confused disbelief. "Maybe it's paint?"
"I don't really know what it is," he admits, "this is the suit I wore on the 11th."
Instantly, the woman's expression softens and she nods her head meaningfully. "Oh, of course," she understands now. She understands perfectly.
They do not hesitate to share stories. He explains how he walked in that suit for five hours along the highway, from Matsudo city back here to Ryogoku. She relates that her husband walked for eight hours to reach their home from his office in Kawasaki city. Likely his suit needed a good cleaning as well.
Last week in Yokoami Park, I have climbed upon a rock to take pictures with my cell phone, because that is the kind of thing I often do. I am trying to capture some early cherry blossoms with the Yokoami Outdoor Gallery (which consists entirely of charred metal relics from the 1923 earthquake) in the background, when an elderly woman passes by, walking a dog in a blue sweater.
"Be careful of earthquakes up there" she says to me.
"Ok," I heed her warning, stepping down from my perch.
"You too," I say, and she nods, even though she was not the one perched awkwardly on a rock just moments ago. After I speak some encouraging words to her dog, she walks off in another direction and I climb back up on the rock.
It is an entirely unremarkable exchange between an elderly woman and a 30-year-old who still acts 12 sometimes.
Still the ordinary nature of our conversation feels incredibly refreshing somehow. For the time being, people who approach me outside do not feel the need to welcome me to their country ( which, despite their good intentions, can get very old after 8 years.) Strangers know better that to treat me like a guest in my own neighborhood, if only because all the guests are gone now.
"Do you have enough bottled water?" a Japanese acquaintance asks me when I visit her home on the day after radiation was detected in the tap water.
"Yes, we have plenty," I assure her. This woman has two small children, making her selfless offer all the more ridiculous.
"Are you sure?" she asks, wrinkling her brow.
"No, we really don't need it." I insist. "I was about to offer you some of mine."
After a quiet pause, she accepts my refusal. Perhaps this silence is the sound of her consciousness shifting ever so slightly.
The rules that dictate how "guests" should be treated here in Japan are no joke. So if I were still a "guest" in her mind, this woman would have felt obligated to give me half the water she had, along with all her toilet paper and anything else around her house that I so much as complemented or admired.
Instead, we just engaged in some small talk, then went our separate ways.
Although I do not know how long it will last, I feel like there is a new kind of reciprocity between my neighbors and myself as a result of the disasters. We`ve all been on an emotional roller-coaster together over the last few weeks, and I hope that we can overcome this together as well.
As the plates below the ground fall back into place after any major seismic event, they tend to settle in slightly different formations. I wonder if so massive a quake might also shake our collective consciousness a bit, and alter the very foundation of who we are.
"So," my dad asks me on skype the other evening, "is life starting to get back to normal yet there?"
"It's not going to be normal again here." I tell him. "Its going to be different. But it is going to be ok."