Illustration by Davianna Inirio

This piece received an honorable mention in the nonfiction category of the 2o24 Wallace Prize.


Niseko, Japan. 

After sliding off my snow-soaked boots, I walk barefoot on the mahogany floor to the elevator, down the hallway to our room, through the unlocked door. The front desk gave us a key when we arrived—not an electronic card, a real key strung to a piece of smooth wood—but we never bother to use it. The room is small for four people; there are two twin beds and two makeshift cots atop the tatami mat. The walls are made of cypress and absorb the sounds of our voices. I undress and unfold one of the tan linen sets from the stack in the closet. I slip oblong beads through loops to fasten the top. The pants fall only to my shins. 

The Women’s bath is marked by English letters, Japanese characters, and a red engraving of a woman in a dress, with lines of steam emanating from her scalp. Inside there is a dressing room: one side is lined with vanities, the other with braided wicker baskets. I tie my hair into a loose bun, take off my uniform, and place my belongings in a basket. When I meet my eyes in a vanity mirror, I instinctively look away, afraid that someone will catch me staring. I walk to the opposite end and open the inner door, switching places with a pocket of vapor. 

For a moment I am alone in the dark, cavelike chamber. I tiptoe along the jagged stone until I reach the bath, testing the temperature with my fingers before getting in. The water is gently simmering, and I move toward the edge as the door opens again. A woman enters. Her body is pale, almost luminescent in the hot, damp haze. There is no meekness to her nudity, but there is no pride either. She lowers herself into the bath and sits perpendicular to me. She knows this ritual better than I do. We do not look at each other out of politeness, or modesty. Only our heads are above the water. I want to turn mine toward hers, I want to study her face. 

I am thinking about my body moving through the snow, my frozen toes pressing against the polymer plastic boots, carving my skis into each turn. It was only two hours ago, but the distance feels immense. In the clear gray water, I imagine the minerals seeping into my skin, softening my hangnails and calluses, and the heat and pressure of the steady stream untangling the knots in my muscles, setting them in place. My legs are tired. They float to the surface. – 

Earlier that day, on the mountain, wind swept the top layer of snow into levitating spirals. I could not measure the steepness of the slopes until they were underneath me. After four years, my turning felt imprecise; one ski lagged behind the other. I was frustrated at how difficult it was to remember how to position my body, how to allocate weight on each foot. The snow was incessant and came down in thick, jagged pieces. But the barren trees were beautiful, as if transposed from the watercolor forests on Japanese screens, where the ink branches taper off into a single point. They collected snow on their upper edges, dark brown outlined in white. In the afternoon, I took off my mittens and slipped two coins into the outdoor vending machine. My fingers shivered as I popped open the metal tab to take a sip of lemon soda, crisp and sweet. 

That morning, my mother fell on her very first run. She was a hundred feet from the bottom of the mountain when her vision went completely blank, snow and sky indistinguishable from one another. When she described it to me later, using her index and middle fingers to mime out what happened to her legs, I couldn’t fully picture it. She lost her balance, she sped across the snow, she tumbled over onto one side, she heard her knee crack. And then there was incredible, sharp, unbearable pain. My father was behind her. He stopped, removed his skis, called the emergency patrol, and waited for them to arrive. 

I was unaware of all of this. My brother and I had already reached the base when we craned our necks to make out the two halted figures: my mother, horizontal, and my father standing beside her. We wondered what was taking so long, why he could not just pull her upright. I was getting cold and impatient, curling my hands into fists to keep them warm. Then the orange-jacketed patrol arrived, placed my mother in a sled, and pulled her downhill. My dad came down to tell us he was taking her to the hospital. He gave us a couple thousand yen for lunch and instructed us to bring their gear back to the hotel. The afternoon of skiing felt forbidden, like testing fate. I was careful not to go too fast, not to push my luck. – 

The woman gets out of the bath, rinses herself with the hand shower on the opposite wall, and disappears into the changing room. It is silent besides the ripple of the jet. In the water I begin to mouth breathy half-sentences that dissolve in the humidity. In summers spent alone, sometimes I would not say a word aloud until the mid-afternoon. My thoughts swam around in my head, amorphous and unfinished, until I had to order coffee at a counter, or call a friend to catch up. But now I speak into the empty room to hear my voice directed only at myself. I verbalize my observations, about the space, the sensations. I think of my mother in the local hospital, in the ambulance, and my strings of words start to resemble prayers. I look at my pruned fingertips and pretend they are wrinkles. I clasp my hands together, interlocking my knuckles. When I get out my skin is so soft, as if its outer layer has been shed. 

After four days of this ritualized bathing I am starting to understand that here, the body is a reverent thing. Back at home, I bite my nails, I wake up too early, I drink alcohol, I cram my toes into tight shoes and tape bandaids on my blisters. I hate the beach, I cannot swim more than fifty meters, I do not particularly like getting wet. But in this place, each body is softened, purified. Healing is not a luxury but a daily practice. Each day I bend my knees and carve snakelike patterns into the snow. I lose circulation in my fingers and toes. I create tiny tears in my muscles. Then I sit in the bath and they are repaired.

I am a tourist, and this is a hotel, but something about the hot spring water still feels preserved, like the minerals are unchanged, like this stream feeds into itself and continues forever. I think of my worn body becoming sound, my young body aging, my skin fading in the winter and then deepening again in the sun. I think of returning to this place when my wrinkles are real, sinking into the same bath, catching my gaze in the mirror and holding it there. 


My mother declares that she will never ski again. She mourns the next eight months that will look different now that she is hurt. For the three days, she sits reclined in a massage chair while my father, my brother, and I go to the mountain. We all wear the same jackets and snow-pants that collect moisture during the day and dry draped on the furniture at night. We eat boiled clams and pickled root vegetables and fragrant rice out of clay pots for breakfast. We wait for the shuttle to pick us up at ten. We take the lift up and down the mountain, breaking for an hour to eat lunch. After enough runs, my body starts to remember how it used to move. The shuttle returns at four and the drive home feels longer because we are all exhausted, and our stop is the final one. By five, I am in the bath. Dinner is at seven. My brother and I alternate who retrieves the wheelchair from the front desk and who returns it after we finish eating. My mother props her leg up on a stool and asks us how the snow was. It was good, we tell her, but we couldn’t see anything. You have to be careful, she replies. In bed as I am waiting to fall asleep, I prepare myself for the snow and eagerly anticipate the water. For three days I glide through the motions. The plans are laid out like the next morning’s folded clothes. 


My mother gets surgery a month after we return to New York. When I visit her from school a few days later, she has graduated to white ergonomic crutches. She smiles when I bring her water and her laptop and ask about her pain. 


I do not know what it feels like to tear my leg, but I know it can be just as much a psychological burden as a physical one. Last year, I ran too fast for too long, ignoring an acute throbbing under my kneecap. Afterward I was in such agony I could barely walk. I went to a doctor who told me I hadn’t broken or fractured anything. I wouldn’t have to get operated on or wear a brace. Instead, he printed out a prescription for physical therapy and a map of clinics in the city. I’d have to slowly build strength in my hip flexors, hamstrings, and ankles if I wanted to keep running. 

I never went to physical therapy, even though there were dozens of locations nearby. A part of me didn’t believe a series of banded exercises and calf massages would heal me. The other part was just impatient. After a few weeks of rest, I ran a mile without stopping, but as soon as I tried to go farther, the biting pain returned, and I walked back home. 

I hurt myself in March, and I didn’t begin truly running again until July. I was sick of being injured, so I built up distance slowly, and I stopped when I started to feel my knee throb. At the end of the summer, I ran ten miles on a paved bike path in California that wove between the highway and the dehydrated brush. I started at the coast, headed inland, and listened to a podcast about being an American in Paris. When I passed other runners, we lifted our hands and waved, sometimes mouthing hello or good morning in between our heavy breaths. The cushioned outsoles of my sneakers floated along the concrete. The wind carried the salty ocean air eastward. There was no pain. I finished the run a few blocks away from the house I was living in, and as I walked back sweaty and thirsty and panting, I felt like crying. 

If I had taken myself to therapy, or committed to doing a mobility routine each morning, I could have recovered faster. But I was so frustrated at the time it would take to heal my knee that I did not want to invest in it at all. I saw my body as hindering me from activity, from progress. My body was separate from myself, an instrument I was randomly granted and had to manage. I used to complain to my parents for passing down the genetics that designed my short legs, shallow-set eyes, scoliosis. My curved spine was not me; it was a mistake in my hardware. 

But in the bath, I was inextricable from my body. I could not be angry at it. I felt the millions of little pieces shifting around, reforming myself after a day outside, and I was grateful. I understood why athletes use saunas and ice baths to recover after putting their bodies, themselves, under such immense stress. I used to hate stretching after exercise. Now I know it is just as essential as the run. It untangles all the knots. 

My mother never got to go into the bath again; it was too difficult to maneuver after her fall. But she has been to physical therapy, and she is boarding flights and going into her office and visiting her two kids at college on crutches. She cannot run the marathon in September that she signed up for, but she will be able to walk without assistance by then. Her anger toward the incident has softened into understanding, to hope. We are gentler around her, and she is gentler toward herself. The first night we arrived in Niseko, my mother went to the bath without me. She told me she was the only one there. I wonder where she sat, if she said anything aloud. 

I am writing this now trying to remember the route that takes me back to the bathhouse, my footsteps on the wet stone floor, dim, warm, quiet. The water we shared, the single steadiness that made us new. Imperceptibly, powerfully, without consideration for who we were or why we had come. A mother and her daughter. A swollen knee, a steady heart. A sinking into oneself. A secret spoken aloud, swallowed by the steam.