Life in a Box

Hello again!  Where did I leave you?  Oh, yes, the hotel.  APA Ryogoku, to be exact.  Young Sir had been in better spirits after getting off the bus.  And honestly, so was I.  There were chandeliers in the lobby, after all, so how terrible could it be?

I won’t answer that just yet.

Young Sir had been calm on the bus from Narita, calm in the hotel lobby, calm and perhaps even a little excited in the elevator to the 21st floor, and calm as the attendant showed us to our room.  When the attendant opened our door and put the key card in the holder to turn on the lights, however, everything changed.  Young Sir stopped outside the doorway and tears filled his eyes immediately.  He said nothing, yet refused to take another step further, to enter the room.  He didn’t even move a muscle to wipe his eyes, so the tears just trickled off his cheeks and onto the floor.

The quarantine worker pretended not to notice.   He just waited there, awkwardly.  Soon all of our luggage and my younger son, asleep in a stroller, were set safely inside, taking up nearly all the room’s floor space.

I didn’t have a choice.  I picked Young Sir up and dragged his little body through the doorway.  After I closed the door behind us, the screaming commenced.

Please note that these were not just ordinary kid screams.  I’m talking about ear-splitting, glass-breaking, actual-crime-scene,  call-911-because-someone-is-being-murdered-with-a-blunt-object type screams.

Still nobody called the police, nobody even knocked on our door, and the phone never rang.  But you knew that already by now.  In the time it took for no one to care, Young Sir continued to emit blood-curdling screams until he he choked, vomited, and nearly choked on his own vomit.

Perhaps checking on us was deemed too risky; either that, or everyone really was indifferent to our suffering.  We’d all tested negative, and still we were lepers.  Exceedingly loud lepers, but lepers nonetheless.  Perhaps we couldn’t be in danger ourselves, because we were the danger.  It is a very lonely thing, I thought to myself, to be the danger.

And in Young Sir’s defense, the room was basically a box.   Even by Japanese standards, it was a goddamn box.  My mistake, I realized almost immediately, was in implying earlier that this hotel experience might be fun.  “We can jump on the bed for 6 days,” I’d said.  “You’ll like it!”  If I had told him in advance that hotel quarantine was something to be endured, rather than a cool adventure, would he have been as disappointed when he saw the room?  Perhaps, but there was also the issue of ensuring his cooperation for the duration of the trip itself.

And to tell the truth, I was disappointed by the size of the room too.  When I tried to imagine what the hotel would look like in order to prepare, I never imagined that the Japanese authorities would think to put three human beings into a place this small.  I was under the impression that my sons were people, and would be given room to exist as such.  For example, I thought that there might be more than one bed, or a little bit of room on the floor to play.

Mind you, if I were traveling by myself- not that I ever get to do that anymore, but just supposing- I reckon I would have been very comfortable in that room, cold fish bentos and all.

But we were not one person.  There were three of us, a fact the authorities only seemed to recognize while making me fill out various – and often superfluous – paperwork in triplicate.

Fast forward nearly an hour, and Little Prince is awake and crying too now, as anyone would be in the midst of such screams.  And I am no exception.

“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.” I finally collapsed onto the bed and wept.

What have I done?  What have i done to these kids? How the FUCK could I have believed we could do this? This is all my fault.  All of it.

“I’m so sorry.”

“No crying, mommy” an authoritative, if hoarse, voice rang out.  Young Sir approached and pat my head three times, methodically, as if this were the magic spell that could stop all my tears.  Young Sir hates it when I cry.  He hates it when anyone cries, actually, but if I, his brother or any of his school friends cry, he finds it especially unbearable.

And so our one saving grace turned out to be that Young Sir hated my tears more than he hated our cramped, claustrophobic box of a hotel room.

“No crying.” He repeated.

“Ok,” I agreed, “but I need you to stop screaming too.”

Young looked at me but didn’t answer.  He let me hold him though, and soon both boys were asleep.

How could I have thought that I could do

No, it was no longer time to feel sorry for myself.  I needed a plan.  I recalled the doctor, at Tokyo University Hospital, who diagnosed Young Sir with autism at 2 1/2 years old.  “He may be traumatized very easily,” the man’s voice echoed in my mind, over and over again. “Children with autism are far more susceptible to trauma.”

In that moment I realized I didn’t have a choice.  It made no difference whether I believed I could or couldn’t make this work, I had to.  I just had to.  As the adult, I knew from experience that this too shall pass.  Six days, however, is much longer for a child.  Six days can be an eternity when you don’t fully comprehend that it will invariably end.  That said, I knew I  had to do absolutely everything in my power to make this shitty experience somehow bearable for them.

There was a small desk built into a wall by the bed, and I sat in the crawl space under the desk trying to figure out how the hell we were going to survive.  Knowing Little Prince, he could probably be pacified with six days of gloriously unlimited screen time, so the solution in his case was simple.  Young Sir, however, would be more of a challenge.  I had bought some games, craft supplies and remote control cars at Target before departing the US, aiming to surprise my kids with the new toys once we were in the quarantine hotel, but there wasn’t really enough room anywhere to play with them.  There was barely room on the desk to lay out three cold bento boxes at a time.  I needed a new plan.

The next time Young Sir opens his eyes, I resolved, it’s gonna have to be Christmas morning in this joint.  Goddamn. Christmas. Morning.  If we are to come out alive.

That’s it!  Christmas!   I thought to myself.  I had packed some multicolored Christmas lights that I bought on sale after christmas in the US.  There wasn’t enough room under the desk to fully open the suitcase, but I groped inside until I was able to pull out the strings of lights.  I took them out and attached them to the corners of the ceiling with cellophane tape.  It was an improvement.

I then tried to blow up an inflatable punching bag, but realized the the bottom had nothing to weigh it down, so I gave up.  Then I blew up some balloons, and placed them on the bed and around the room.  This would do.  Oh and I located all of Young Sir’s train maps, and piled them up next to him on the bed.  This is his favorite one, he can stare at it for hours.  I made sure it would be the first thing he saw when he opened his eyes.

Fortunately, in somewhat of a Box-Christmas miracle, I woke up to the sound of laughing. Unfortunately, it was because Little Prince had discovered the self-cleaning toilet.  None of them had ever seen such a contraption before, and were duly fascinated by the possibilities.  Fortunately, for them, normal rules no longer applied.  They could touch all the buttons they wanted to.  Anything not overtly dangerous that could potentially make either of them smile, was now fair game.

Things were definitely looking up, but we weren’t exactly out of the woods, seeing as Young Sir spent the first morning throwing up.   To be honest, I didn’t even consider notifying the health center to tell them that he was unwell.  I was scared to death that they would try to separate our family if they thought any of us might be ill, which would surely cause my kids severe trauma.  For as I knew by now, they just didn’t care.  And I just could not risk putting my sick child at their mercy.  Even as he begged me to get him ice pops and juice, which usually make him feel better when he is sick, there was nothing I could do.  I could offer him water.  That was all.  And he threw it all up anyway.

I couldn’t find a bowl large enough for him to vomit into, so a lot of his vomit went straight onto the bed (which was, by default,  our multi-purpose living and eating space).  I held off asking to change the mattress cover, however, until he also wet the bed several hours later.

My conversation with the front desk, which I shared on Twitter as it happened, went like this:

Call Center: So your child wet the bed and you would like a replacement mattress cover?

Me: Yes.

CC: Sorry but we don’t do that. Please continue using the one you already have.

Me: Yeah, no, we will not be doing that. It is already rolled up outside the door.

CC: …

Me: We can use the mattress without the cover, but it will be damaged if this happens again. And I don’t accept any responsibility for that.

CC:  … We will send up some extra sheets then.

So we made do with some unfitted sheets.  Honestly, I wasn’t even fazed by this point.  So APA wanted us to ruin their mattress.  Ok.  Sure.  Whatever.  Using the treatment I’d received thus far as a model, I commenced my indifference to the state of our tiny room.  And spoiler alert: they did wet the bed again.

That day I also got a text from my mother, telling me I was her hero.

“Did you tell them kids have special needs?” she then asked.

“I did but they don’t care,” I wanted to write, but couldn’t bring myself to put into words.  Instead I just snapped a photo of the view out our window, and sent it without any text.  Then I put the phone away.  It was a pleasant enough view.  It lied so I didn’t have to.

I rearranged a bit more “furniture” on the first day, until we arrived at a box layout that everyone found acceptable.  Language is powerful.  So when we took two small chairs out from under the desk and put them together in front of the door, draped a couple towels over them and called it “the sofa,”  we then had a sofa.  And the narrow walking space between the bed and the desk, that was “the hallway.”  The tiny space I left open between “the sofa” and the door so that I could reach my hand out to receive our “meals,” was called “the genkan.”

“Don’t eat on the bed, eat on the sofa,” I would say.  And they sometimes even listened.

After Young Sir was feeling better, he and I sat down on the “sofa” and had a talk.  Staying at this hotel is not actually fun, I admitted.  I then apologized for telling him earlier that it might be.  We were here because we had to stay in quarantine.  That meant that if we went outside, other people could get sick.

Do we want other people to get sick?


Then that means that we have to stay in this room for the next six days, and not go outside, even though it isn’t very much fun.

After our talk, Young Sir didn’t complain at all- let alone cry or scream- for the remainder of out stay.  I really don’t give him enough credit sometimes.  Whoever said that autistic people lack empathy was catastrophically mistaken.

On day two we all stopped wearing pants, because there was no point.

On day three, I admitted to myself that my children were starving (cold fish bentos are not an option for them and they’d already consumed all the snacks I’d packed for the occasion) so I figured how to get Uber Eats to go to Lawson for us, and that improved our living conditions substantially.  By then I was also able to get the screen mirroring function on the TV to work with YouTube, so we spent most of the time watching the most insufferably banal children’s programming imaginable (I’m looking at you, Cocomelon).  But it kept the kids happy, so I could deal.  More than that, I was grateful.

All the while, Little Prince often pretended to talk on the hotel phone, in Japanese of course.  “Moshi moshi,” he would say.  “Hai, hai, hai,  hai, summasen, hai, hai, shichure shmaasu.

At one point I thought I actually heard someone on the other end of the line, so I took the receiver from him immediately.

It was the front desk.

“Oh sorry, my kid was playing with the phone.”

“Well, this is the second time this has happened.  Please don’t tie up the phone li-”

I hung up on her.  Oh look, I could be indifferent too!  With that I disconnected the phone, lied back down, and Little Prince continued playing.

On day four, our room got it’s own train line.  The Q line, they called it, where Q stood for Quarantine.

“The next station is Q1: The Bed. Q1: The Bed.  Stand clear of the closing doors.”

The train schedule generally ran as follows:

Q1: The Bed

Q2: The Sofa

Q3: The toilet buttons.

Q4: Wash your hands.

Q5: No really, wash your hands.

Q6: The Refrigerator

Q7: The Genkan

Q8: The Hallway

Q9: The Light Switches

Q10: The Other Side of the Bed.   Last and final stop.  Now get off of mommy.  Her back is killing her.

We also played airplane, which basically consisted of piling up all the blankets and pillows on the bed and shouting “flying through the sky!” as I threw each child into the pile of clouds.  (Yes, my back still hurts.  I plane to go get a massage as soon as I finish writing this post.)

Little Prince also enjoyed playing PCR test, where he took the hotel Q-tips and tried to stick them up his brother’s nose, with varying degrees of success.  He also liked to administer the tests to himself.

We made pet Quaranturkeys with disposable chopsticks and rubber gloves from my don’t-get-Covid kit.  The turkeys mostly enjoyed beating the crap out of one another, but better them than us.

As for me, my favorite game was called “Go To Sleep,” which I played as much as humanly possible.

People give me the most pitied looks when I tell them that I didn’t drink any coffee throughout our entire forced stay.  The truth, however, is that I had plenty of instant coffee from Starbucks in my bag all along-  I just couldn’t bring myself to make it, let alone drink it.  The thing about coffee consumption, you see, is that it generally requires a will to live, a desire to get up and out of whatever is keeping us horizontal.  A survival instinct.  I didn’t drink coffee in quarantine, because i didn’t want to exist in that space.  Even when my head started to pound from caffeine withdrawal, I chose to endure the headaches because I couldn’t stand the thought of being in a more heightened state of consciousness.  Put simply, I couldn’t bear the thought of fully waking up.  Our situation was more palatable, more manageable, while in a constant fog.

Thus the rest is kind of a blur.  I remember laying awake from jet lag at odd hours of the morning, thinking about migrant mothers, of parents who are made to feel like this not just for six short days, but all the time, and yet they somehow push on in order to seek better lives for themselves and their children.  It made me realize that my home country would be far better off, the more families with that kind of strength and determination we could come to count among us.

Meanwhile, Little Prince was documenting his every moment of our captivity with Photobooth.  I have no idea how he even managed to take all these, but here a few highlights to help you get the idea of what my entire camera roll now looks like.







And there aren’t just stills.  Now I’m looking at these videos Little Prince took, which I wouldn’t dare show you because I just look such a wreck (also: no one is wearing pants: see day 2.)   Yet Little Prince is just having a ball somehow.  So is Young Sir.  Seriously, kids can get used to anything.  (Especially if you give them unlimited screen time for 6 days.)

And so we survived.  Not because I martyred myself and broke my back carrying my children through it all, but because they carried me.  Emotionally, they were the ones who gave me the strength to get up- or at least sit up in our multi-purpose bed- each morning.  After the first day or so, my kids weathered the quarantine better than I ever could have imagined.

So I guess I could do it after all.  Or more accurately, we could do it.  Would I try this again?  Fuck to the No.  But now that our quarantine is complete,  I am thankful that I did get to see my family for the holidays.  And I am even more thankful that the entire ordeal is over.

When we finally got home, I told Young Sir that I would take him anywhere on his Kanto train and subway map (the crazy one I posted above) as soon as we finished the rest of our 14 day quarantine.

When that day finally came, he wanted to go to Ito, on the Izu Penninsula in Shizuoka.  Izu is pretty far away from us, so I had my doubts.  I asked him if he was sure several times.  But he was.  So we went.  And he was right.  It was beautiful.



  1. From an Aussie dad of two little girls in Chiba, you have a strength I want to emulate. Raising kids in Japan is so much harder than I’d planned and knowing others have it tougher yet also have the will to push on; helps in ways you can not see or know. Thank you for expressing your thoughts and feelings, they do resonate. We can’t change society, force it to support or care for the nails that jut out, but we can change ourselves and how we choose to react. You’re a good Mum.

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