Author: Rachel Cohn
Pub. Date: December 18, 2018
Formats: Hardcover, eBook
“I’m here to take you to live with your father. In Tokyo, Japan! Happy birthday!”
In the Land of the Rising Sun, where high culture meets high kitsch, and fashion and technology are at the forefront of the First World’s future, the foreign-born teen elite attend ICS-the International Collegiate School of Tokyo. Their accents are fluid. Their homes are ridiculously posh. Their sports games often involve a (private) plane trip to another country. They miss school because of jet lag and visa issues. When they get in trouble, they seek diplomatic immunity.
Enter foster-kid-out-of-water Elle Zoellner, who, on her sixteenth birthday discovers that her long-lost father, Kenji Takahari, is actually a Japanese hotel mogul and wants her to come live with him. Um, yes, please! Elle jets off first class from Washington D.C. to Tokyo, which seems like a dream come true. Until she meets her enigmatic father, her way-too-fab aunt, and her hyper-critical grandmother, who seems to wish Elle didn’t exist. In an effort to please her new family, Elle falls in with the Ex-Brats, a troupe of uber-cool international kids who spend money like it’s air. But when she starts to crush on a boy named Ryuu, who’s frozen out by the Brats and despised by her new family, her already tenuous living situation just might implode.
My Almost Flawless Tokyo Dream Life is about learning what it is to be a family, and finding the inner strength to be yourself, even in the most extreme circumstances.
Keep your head down. Stay quiet. In ten minutes, it will be over.
“EZ! EZ! EZ!” The boys at the back of the bus chanted. My bad luck that the initials in my name—Elle Zoellner—made me too “EZ” a target for unoriginal
A sharp pencil hit my neck and then fell to the floor behind me. I heard Redmond’s voice say, “Damn, I was hoping it would catch inside her spiderweb of frizz hair.” Hah, the joke was on him. My hair was indeed frizzy, but it was so dirty that anything thrown into it would have no scientific option other than to slide down, the result of that one-shower-a-week rule.
Today was my sixteenth birthday. While other girls probably wished for a driver’s license or a new outfit or a later curfew, all I wanted was to be clean. Sucked for me that this year’s birthday fell on a Tuesday. Wednesday was shower day.
Of course Foster Home #3 parents always denied to my social worker that the shower was off-limits to me except on Wednesdays. If I had a phone, I could secretly record them talking about it, but why bother? Then I’d probably be sent to an even worse home. Foster Homes #1 (lice) and #2 (bedbugs) had been bad enough, but #3 (over- lords who were mean, and liars) was the worst. I didn’t want to know what could happen at #4.
The devil you know is better than the one you don’t, Mom always told me. Mom was raised in foster care; she would know. She tried for better for me, and until the car crash two years ago, she’d succeeded. She had a job. We had a nice, small house. There was laughter in our lives. A cat. Then, after the car accident, the Beast moved in and took over. He wasn’t someone I could see or talk to; the Beast was addiction. And thanks to that Beast, my mom was now in prison.
Was Mom keeping track of time? Did she even remem- ber today was my (Not So) Sweet Sixteen? If I had a phone, I knew I’d see a dozen emails/texts/GIFs from Reggie, my best friend from when we were both on the swim team at the Y, wishing me a happy birthday. But he also didn’t have a phone and was stranded at a boys’ home across the county, another foster care victim. Not victim—he’d hate that word. I’m a survivor, Reggie would say. His mother had also been an addict, but she never made it to prison. She died from a fentanyl overdose. Despite my miserable situation, I was still incredibly grateful that my mother was alive. I knew how lucky we were that Mom’s problem took her to jail rather than a graveyard.
“Hey, smell bomb! Turn around when you’re addressed by your superiors.” The latest taunt came from Jacinda Zubrowski, who sat two rows behind me on the bus and two seats behind me in homeroom, and never failed to comment on my smelly, secondhand clothes.
The poor kid sitting next to me—I didn’t even know his name, he was some scrawny freshman who looked about twelve—slid closer to the window. Smart move. No reason he should be brought down with me. Then he scrunched his nose and said, on the down low, “There are showers in the gym locker room, you know.” Little jerk.
I knew. I was hardly going to further expose myself— naked—in a public high school locker room. I’d rather smell bad.
“Anybody hungry for some mixed nuts?” a male voice—one of Redmond’s friends—asked, and the back of the bus group laughed. What a not clever way to speculate about my heritage. My mother was part Irish, German, African American, and Native American, but the shape of my eyes and my cheekbones indicated my biological father was Japanese. I’d never met him, didn’t even know his name. “Mr. Tokyo,” Mom called him. He was probably married like all of Mom’s other boyfriends. Married men were her primary weakness, until she was introduced to painkillers. One of those men had been driving the car when they got hit from behind on the Beltway. He died. Mom suffered severe spine injuries. That’s when the Beast took over. I blamed the dead married man.
An object much larger than a pencil hit the back of my head. I wouldn’t have known exactly what it was, except the next one missed my head, grazed my shoulder, and landed on my lap. A bar of soap.
A new chant erupted in the back of the bus. “Smell bomb! Smell bomb!”
Happy birthday, Elle Zoellner.
On my fourteenth birthday, right before everything went to crap, I’d celebrated the day by kicking Reggie’s ass in the 50M freestyle at our YMCA swim team practice, beat- ing him by a solid 2.5 seconds. He’d had a cold—it wasn’t his best practice—but still, I’d won! We had dinner at my house after, devouring special treat steaks and mashed potatoes. Reg and Mom sang “Happy Birthday” to me over a cake from Safeway, and my sweet cat, Hufflepuff, licked the icing off my finger. It was probably my last per- fect day. One of the last decent days, period.
Ten months later, only a few hours after Huff had gone missing, our neighbor delivered his dead body back to me. Mom and the Beast had settled into BFF status by then, and we were living in the grungy apartment we had to move to after Mom sold our perfectly nice little house because she lost her job and needed time to “figure out the next thing.” The next thing had turned out to be selling drugs on the Internet, which brought scary strangers to our apartment on a daily basis. While I was at school one day, Mom—in a drug-hazed stupor—left the apartment door open after a sale. Hufflepuff wandered out and was hit by a car. I could barely grieve. By that time, the Beast was so thoroughly in control of Mom’s life—and mine, by extension—that cry- ing and blaming wasn’t worth the effort.
It was amazing how life could go from good to fine to bad to miserable to unbearable so quickly, each transi- tion seeming so much like the obvious next step for the circumstances that it wasn’t until you reached the end of the line that you could see how thoroughly brutal the downward spiral had been. Could it get worse? Of course it could. It probably would. But I had no way out until I turned eighteen, and that was a long two years away. For now, I could only keep my head down, and try to survive. Study hard. Work my way out, and up.
The bus came to a stop. It was the best part of my day—when we reached Redmond’s stop. Usually I tried to scrunch into an even smaller, unnoticeable form at the front of the bus. But today was different. Suddenly, I’d had enough of this particular devil I knew. I put my foot out into the aisle as Redmond passed by me to exit. He tripped hard, banging his head, fumbling to stand back up as the other kids on the bus howled with laughter. He was so mad that I imagined his head surrounded by fire- ball emojis. The slight grin I couldn’t tamp down probably incited him further. Before stepping down the stairs to get off, Redmond glared at me and announced, “Go ahead and laugh, EZ. You’re trash. Nobody gives a shit about you.”
My heart pounded with shame. His comment burned.
Still worth it. It felt incredibly satisfying to end this bus ride with a skunk’s bang. Hated, but legendary.
Sometimes when nobody gives you a birthday pres- ent, you have to give one to yourself.
Five minutes later, the bus turned onto the street where Foster Home #3 loomed. The houses here were small, single-story brick houses like the one I’d grown up in back in nearby Greenbelt, Maryland, but the street in Greenbelt was a million times nicer, with kids playing on the side- walk, well-kept lawns, flower gardens, white picket fences, and neighbors who looked out for one another. This block felt like the horror movie version of my old neighborhood, with houses in various states of disarray, front yards filled with dirt and weeds, nasty neighbors who kept big dogs barking behind chain-link fences, and broken-down cars in the driveways. Foster Home #3’s neighborhood felt like Redmond’s swagger—angry and mean.
Which was probably why the fancy car parked in front of “my” house seemed like a mirage. It was a black Mercedes sedan with a white-gloved chauffeur stand- ing outside the passenger door, seemingly waiting for someone to get out. Even weirder was the sight of Mabel Anderson, my social worker, who usually arrived for vis- its in a beat-up old Toyota Corolla with screechy brakes and holes in the seat covers, standing next to the chauf- feur. Friday was supposed to be her visit day, not Tuesday. The kids on the bus moved to the side with the better view, pressing their faces against the windows: Had someone won the lottery?
The bus came to a stop and the driver opened the door. I stepped down to the street, suspicious. The bus drove off. As I approached Mabel, the chauffeur opened the Mercedes’s back passenger door and Masashi Araki emerged from the car. My heart dropped. It was like see- ing a ghost from happier times.
Uncle Masa, as I called him, had been a friend of Mom’s, before the Beast, when Mom worked at the restau- rant where Uncle Masa was a regular. He used to take me swimming or ice skating, depending on the season, and always threw in a trip for pizza or ice cream after, with no worrying about how much it cost. One time I straight out asked Mom if he was my father. “Oh God, no” was all she said. A couple years ago, Uncle Masa got posted from the Japanese Embassy in Washington, DC, to Geneva, Switzerland. He sent me postcards regularly, but then Mom sold our house, leaving no forwarding address because of debt collectors, and I stopped hearing from him.
“What’s going on?” I asked Mabel.
“I’ve brought news for you,” Mabel said. “This gentle- man would like to be the one to explain.”
Uncle Masa approached me and bowed. That’s how I knew he was real. He never hugged me when he saw me, like an American uncle would; he always bowed. “You’ve gotten tall!” he said, and grinned, like nothing terrible had happened since I’d last seen him. “We’re the same height now.”
“What the hell are you doing here?” I asked.
“There’s no need to curse,” said Mabel, who didn’t take anyone’s shit, especially mine.
From his suit jacket pocket, Uncle Masa took out a blue United States of America passport wrapped in a silky white ribbon and handed it to me. “I’m here to take you to live with your father. In Tokyo, Japan. Happy birthday!”
You know my father?” I asked quietly, trying to hold back the rush of emotions swirling in my heart, my stomach, my brain, every cell in my body.
“I do,” said Uncle Masa. “And he would very much like to know you.”
“Is this a joke?”
“I wouldn’t joke about a matter this serious,” said Uncle Masa.
“Well, maybe you should. Because the idea of even having a father is a joke to me. Where has that guy been all my life and why the fuck would I go live with him?”
Mabel never smiled or frowned; it was like her face’s only mission was just to get through the day without emo- tional expression. Tersely, she said, “You know the rules, Elle. You’re free to vent your anger, but I will not tolerate impolite language.”
“I’m not going,” I said to Mabel. “You can’t make me.” “I have no intention of making you go. It’s your choice,” said Mabel.
I started to walk down the street, just to get away from this nonsense. Hadn’t I been through enough already? But Uncle Masa hurried after me. He made it past me, turned around, and bowed again, trying to block my way. “Listen to me, Elle.”
I saw the living room window blind creep open at Foster Home #3’s no-hot-water-except-on-Wednesdays house. Foster Parent was clearly spying.
“Your father would be honored for you to come stay with him in Tokyo,” said Uncle Masa, sounding very for- mal, like he was the butler for this “father” of mine.
“You’ve got to be kidding me. I haven’t seen you since I was in middle school—and by the way, my life went to hell in that time—and now you’re here with an invitation for me to live with my father, when you never even told me you knew my father? No way. Just, no. And . . . and . . .” I was starting to sputter. There was too much to say, to ask, to know already. “And why is he suddenly ready to be in my life . . . but can’t even be bothered to show up in person?”
Reggie’s dad was a military hero killed in an ambush in the Middle East when Reggie was only five. Reggie had his dad’s photos, his medals, his letters. Reggie’s dad was real. He existed. He loved his son, even though he left Reggie way too early. But Reggie had all the proof— and the memories. All I’d ever gotten was evasive answers about “Mr. Tokyo” from my mother, who shut down each conversation by saying the subject hurt her too much to talk about. I’d never thought of myself as a person who had a father. Girls on TV had them, not people like me. Dads: just some fantasy created by Hollywood.
Mabel caught up to us. She said, “My understanding is your father wasn’t able to be part of your life in the past. Now he is.”
“What’s his name?” I asked.
Mabel rifled through some papers in the notebook she always carried. “Kenji Takahara.” After all these years of wondering who my real father was, I couldn’t believe I was finding out from a social worker of all people. There was an actual name attached to this fantasy.
“Why should I believe this Kenji Takahara guy is my father?” I asked. “I mean, come on. Absent biological fathers don’t just drop out of the sky.”
Uncle Masa looked up to the sky. I forgot how he took statements literally. His English was excellent, but it was not his native language and he often didn’t get turns of phrase. “Come with me,” said Uncle Masa. “I’ll show you.”
I let him lead me back toward the fancy car. He opened the back door, retrieved some documents from his brief- case, and handed one to me. “Here is your birth certificate. Your father’s name is right there. Kenji Takahara.”
There it was, a birth certificate issued by the State of Maryland, with my name and date of birth on it. Mother: Brandy Zoellner. Father: Kenji Takahara.
Uncle Masa held up more documents for me to inspect. “You see? This is your mother’s signed consent form authorizing you to go live with him. This is your plane ticket.”
“Wait. What? You saw my mom? When?”
Uncle Masa said, “I haven’t seen her. I’ve been in touch with her through a lawyer.” He bowed to Mabel. “She saw your mother to get the form signed.”
Even I hadn’t seen my mom since she’d gone to Jessup Correctional Institute three months ago. Every week Mabel gave me the option of going. Every week I declined. Not ready. Too mad. I was grateful Mom was alive, of course—but her addiction had ruined both our lives. I knew prison was difficult—how could it not be? But to see her face-to-face would require too painful an acknowledgment of how difficult my own life in foster care, without her, had also become. All Mom’s fault.
I looked accusingly at Mabel. “Why didn’t you tell me any of this before?”
Mabel said, “I was instructed not to, in case it didn’t work out. We didn’t want to give you false hope.”
“I don’t believe you.” I wasn’t sure if I was addressing Mabel, or Uncle Masa, or the whole rotten universe.
“Then you can verify it with your mother yourself,” said Mabel, looking at her watch. “She’s expecting you, and I assured her I would deliver you to her this time. Visiting hours today end at four p.m. If we leave right now, we’ll get to Jessup in enough time.”
“What if I say no?” I asked Mabel.
Mabel looked toward #3’s house. The blinds closed suddenly.
The chauffeur held open the passenger door for us to get in.
Mabel confidently stepped into the car. Go directly to Jail, do not pass Go.
Rachel Cohn is the bestselling, award-winning author of many books. She lives in Los Angeles with two very cool cats named McNulty and Bunk.
3 winners will receive finished copies of MY ALMOST FLAWLESS TOKYO DREAM LIFE, US only.
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