By Rachel Cohn
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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 Takahara, is actually a Japanese hotel mogul and wants her to come live with him. Um, yes, please! Elle jets off first class from Washington, DC, 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 troop 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.
Copyright © 2018 by Rachel Cohn
Designed by Jamie Alloy
Cover design by Jamie Alloy
Background photograph by littlesam/Shutterstock
Cat illustration by zizi_mentos/Shutterstock
All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information address Hyperion, 125 West End Avenue, New York, New York 10023.
To Zenobia and McLovin
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 bullies.
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 (overlords 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 remember 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, beating 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 perfect 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 crying 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 transition 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 fireball 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 present, 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 sidewalk, 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 standing 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 visits in a beat-up old Toyota Corolla with screechy brakes and holes in the seat covers, standing next to the chauffeur. 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 seeing 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 restaurant 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 gentleman 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 emotional 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 formal, 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 briefcase, 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.
“How do you manage to make even a prison uniform look glamorous?”
I thought I’d lose it at my first sight of Mom, but even though my eyes welled, I was pleasantly surprised. When she emerged into the visiting room, she looked like my real mom, before the Beast. Sober. With color in her face again, her hair washed, and some meat on her bony hips, I remembered how beautiful my mom once was.
She wasn’t allowed to give me a hug, but her big grin reached into my chest and grabbed my heart, hard.
“Jail’s cheaper than rehab,” she said as she sat down at the table opposite me. “I tried for the Betty Ford Clinic, you know. I hear it’s real fancy there, but the judge said no.” I didn’t laugh. It was a good joke, but I was the one paying the price for her need for rehab. Mom said, “How you doing, kid? God, I’m happy to see you. Finally.”
There was so much—too much to say. So, I kept it simple. “I’m sorry I smell bad.”
“You smell like foster care. I’m sorry.” I promised myself I wouldn’t, but I could feel a sob coming on. Mom sensed it—maybe she felt the same. She reminded us both, “Zoellner women are tough.”
“Because we have to be. I know. I remember.” The truth was harsh, but the reminder served its purpose. I felt calmer just hearing the normalcy of her old rules. “So, apparently now is when you’re going to tell me about my biological father?”
“Bingo!” said Mom, looking happy to change the subject to the one she could have brought up years ago but never did.
“Kenji Takahara? Who was he to you?”
“I’m not going to lie. I was a hot-looking thing back in my day.” She smiled and checked my face to see if it was warming up. It was. She always knew how to play me. I felt the crinkle of a smile hearing Mom’s boasting in fine form again. “I was nineteen and had gotten a job as a hostess at a fancy restaurant in DC. I had no polish, but I was pretty. I met him there. He was studying International Affairs or something at Georgetown University. Honestly, the best-looking guy I’d ever met, and he wore the most exquisite tailored suits he had custom-made in London when he was just a student! We fell hard for each other.”
“You loved him?” This might be the most shocking news of all. I’d always assumed I was the product of a married-man affair, or a one-night stand, or worse.
“I was crazy for him. Had the time of my life with him.”
“Why’d you never tell me any of this before?”
“I did. I told you it hurt too much to talk about, and I wasn’t lying. Eventually, I planned to tell you. When you were eighteen and ready to take off into the world.”
“That’s such a selfish answer.”
“You know me best, baby.”
The guard next to us checked his watch, and I felt our meager time ticking away. “So what happened with you and him?”
“I got pregnant. I was thrilled. He panicked.”
I couldn’t believe I was finally hearing this story—in jail of all places. I was riveted and eager to hear more. “Why?”
“He was from a prominent family in Japan. They threatened to cut him off if he stayed in DC with me, or worse, married me.”
“So what’d you do?”
“I’m not a total idiot. I lawyered up, as best I could. Got a settlement from him in exchange for his freedom. His family paid for our house in Greenbelt. I owned it outright. We had fourteen good years there, right?”
“Sure. At the house you eventually sold to pay for your drug addiction.”
Mom bowed her head. “I know,” she said quietly. “At least it allowed me to raise you on a waitress’s income.”
“While you were still employed, yes.” I didn’t owe her any response other than brutal honesty. Zoellner women are tough, right? “So what happened to this Kenji guy?”
“He did as he was told by his family. Returned to Tokyo and opted not to be part of our lives.”
“ ‘Opted’ is a nice way of saying ‘abandoned.’ ”
“I don’t disagree. But things have changed, and the door is open for you to go to him.”
“How do you even know that?”
“When I knew I was going to jail, I tracked down Masa through the Japanese Embassy in Washington and let him know the situation. He was Kenji’s best friend.”
Another blow. How could I ever trust “Uncle” Masa, who’d been part of my life once, yet withheld this crucial information from me? Mom saw my mad face and said, “Don’t blame this on Masa. He was only ever good to us, and you know that. He made all the arrangements to take you to Japan to live with Kenji.”
“Because, duh, you’re in foster care?”
“No, I mean if he didn’t want to be a father before, why would he want to be one now?”
“I was told by Masa that the timing wasn’t right before for you to be part of your father’s life, but now it is.”
“Why?” I asked again.
“How should I know?” Mom said, agitated. “Just be glad the opportunity exists.”
“Opportunity? To live with a complete stranger on the other side of the world? What the fuck, Mom? What if I don’t want to go?”
“Go! Living with him now is your best option.” I shook my head. I still wasn’t buying it. Mom added, “You being in foster care is my worst nightmare come true.”
“So it’s all about you?”
“It’s all about you!” Mom said angrily. “How’d your towel work out?”
It was a bizarre question out of nowhere, but I knew exactly where she was going. Before I was officially made a ward of the State of Maryland, when I was packing my few belongings, I begged Mom to let me bring my favorite towel, a plush, expensive blue towel she’d bought for our house after a restaurant patron left her an unexpectedly big tip. Mom told me not to bother packing it, because anything nice I had would get stolen.
I glared at her, then admitted, “Foster witch-mom said it was hers and then accused me of stealing it from her.”
“I was afraid that would happen. Fuck.” The towel issue seemed, by the look on Mom’s face, to be the one that might finally make her cry. “Is that how you want to live, with people that petty?”
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to want,” I snapped. “Literally everything I know about my life has changed in the past few hours.”
“Take this chance. Don’t be me, Elle,” Mom pleaded. With her other hand, she gestured to her prison uniform.
An announcement came over the loudspeaker that visiting hours were over.
No! We’d only gotten started on our visit! We’d barely scratched the surface of the story of her and my father. I hadn’t told her anything about my own life except about my stupid fucking towel being stolen. I wanted to scream in frustration. I wanted to take my mother out of this place with me.
Mom stood up. “I hate this. I can’t even hug my baby. Please tell me you’ll go, Elle. Let me know so I can finally get some peace.”
Just kill me now.
“I’ll go,” I said, only making up my mind in that instant.
Her face had a look of bittersweet relief. “Tell Kenji I hate him for getting to be the hero—and so many other things—but that you’re a good girl and I’m jealous he gets to have you all to himself.”
I shook my head at her but offered a small smile. “I’m not going to tell him that.”
Mom smiled back and blew a weepy kiss my way as she was led away. “Happy birthday, Elle my belle. I love you.”
“I love you, too, crazy lady.”
- On Sale
- Oct 15, 2019
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers