Excerpts from The Ocean in the Closet

Mom put us in the closet again. We used to get scared of its black air, until we came up with the idea to think about something fun, like a big big strawberry ice cream mountain in a bowl with whipped cream and chocolate sauce running down from the top.

Then we weren’t scared of the closet anymore, but it still felt like forever. The closet was busy with hangers, Dad’s winter coats and baseball hats, gloves, bats, plastic containers, and Tupperware. My spot was right under Dad’s coats because it had a little more space. Mom put ropes around the doorknobs so that the door wouldn’t pop open. Sometimes, if I had to go to the bathroom, I kicked the door, but all I would get was the small light from a crack in the door. Mom sometimes forgot that we were in the closet, so we had to wait until Dad came home to let us out in the evening. He never came home soon enough though. At dinner, Dad was always so nice to Mom, holding her hand and telling us that we had to do what Mom said. His voice was so deep that I always thought it came from the bottom of the ocean.

I felt bad that Ken was in the closet with me this time. He didn’t do anything, but Mom locked us both up. When she was upset, she wouldn’t listen to anyone. Her body would shake hard like she was cold, and she just wanted us away from her. I didn’t mean to upset her. I was just chewing the gum Lisa gave me after school. I knew I wasn’t supposed to eat sweets. Mom said that sugar was poison, that it numbed our tongues to make us feel happy. That wasn’t true happiness. Never, never eat sugar. It is dangerous. But everyone at school ate candy all the time, and I wanted to bring normal lunch food like a chocolate bar. Lisa said we were going to just chew the gum, not eat it. So I thought it was o.k. to put it in my mouth. The thin pink gum smelled like a strawberry. I chewed and swallowed the sweet juice. After spitting out the gum on the street, I swallowed the saliva again and again to get rid of the sweet taste in my mouth. But Mom knew about the gum when I came home. She has a dog’s nose and uses it for everything.

When she washed everyone’s pajamas, she always made sure that no one’s smell stayed on the wet cotton. But her pajamas smelled like her soft skin and spring air. I loved holding them. Dad’s pajamas usually smelled like the green water he used every morning to make his hair sticky and glittering. Mine didn’t smell like anything. When I walked in the house, Mom pressed her nose on my head, face, and chest; she smelled my strawberry gum. I told her that I was just chewing it, not eating it.

“But it was in your mouth.” Her nose moved again.

“I had to. Lisa gave it to me.” I never lie to Mom because Mom said that a liar would drown in the ocean. Our house was up on the hill in San Francisco, so we could see the ocean from here. If I didn’t live so close to the ocean, I’d eat chocolate every day and never tell Mom about it.

“You didn’t get that gum from Lisa. You stole it from Polovick’s store, didn’t you?” Mom’s face in mine.

“No, I didn’t even go to the store today.” I shook my head, but Mom had already grabbed her purse and said that she was going to take me to the store so that I could say sorry to Mr. Polovick for stealing the gum. All the way down to Polovick’s, I told her that I didn’t steal it, that she could even ask Lisa, but she wouldn’t hear me. She walked fast, pulling me and Ken. Ken had been watching tv in the living room, but Mom made him come, too. I watched her pale neck turn pink all the way to the store.

Yuko Taniguchi, The Ocean in the Closet

In this beautiful debut novel, Yuko Taniguchi creates a moving story of hope and redemption, of tragedy and resilience, and of the secrets, burdens, and ultimate strength that lie in a young girl’s heart.