We dropped our duffel at the youth hostel and hustled over to Ground Zero at the Peace Park, the Atomic Bomb Dome—it’s most striking at sunset, they told us. We took care to speak in hushed tones. I was thinking, we Americans are so weird, we take pictures of things you wouldn’t even want to pose in front of. I was thinking, a botched mastectomy. An unfinished stupa. The next morning, in broad daylight, the dome looked sort of lonely, despite the constant stream of tourists that kept circling it. I overheard an Australian say, If you wanna make an omelet, you have to break some eggs.
Remember Hiroshima, the guardians of national conscience intone, as if this thriving port on a poisoned sea were nothing but a mirage, the real city a platonic Idea translated aloft by Little Boy’s flash. But if that were true, there would be no possibility of speech, tears, atonement, anything. Reduced to stuttering silence like Schoenberg’s Moses, who could resist that Burning, with its final Word?
But we’re innocent, the cry goes up—on both sides of the Pacific. To be sure: we were naive, my girlfriend & I. I remember what clarity, unnumbed, could come from shock. Like the vajra in esoteric Buddhism, a double-sided thing, both sudden & impenetrable. How an hour in the museum faced by photo after gruesome photo made us afraid to touch or even catch the other’s eye. And despite our leftist posturing, how really all-American we were, our assumption of bedrock national virtue, our proprietary interest in all the military exploits fit to print in a high school history text. When a peace activist confronted us by the Paper Crane Shrine we said Yes—Yes—to each of his accusations. We were twenty years old. The world would have to change.
And Hiroshima? A twinge of guilt still interposes when I recall our lightheartedness the rest of that rainy weekend, as silly and self-involved as only a young couple can be. Forced by poor planning and empty pockets to wander the city all Sunday long, we took turns posing for comic snapshots in front of the city’s unofficial memorials: coffee shops and noodle bars, concrete levees hiding riverside bicycle dumps, playgrounds given over to great yellow monkey-bar castles, a backstreet Shinto shrine where the cedars were already big enough to merit their own collars of sacred rope.