A year before I moved to Honolulu, on my first ever visit to the island, I attended the Hawaii State Fair with my older cousin Eesh. Eesh was a pro at the games, but I was rather not, so taking pity on me, she won me a stuffed toy; a glow in the dark alligator whom I dubbed Ally Gator. Ally became my travel companion, going everywhere with me; whenever I flew he’d be tucked in my carry on. We went to Florida, Chicago, Portland, Hilo. For someone who tends to travel solo, it was something of a comfort to have someone to share my travels with, even if that was only a stuffed animal.
When I moved back to Ohio to stay with my mom, my traveling came to something of a standstill. There’s not much to do on the edges of Appalachia. Ally the Alligator sat on my bed and whiled away the days in the country. We were wanderers with nowhere to go.
Toward the end of the summer my mother and I attended the St. Bernadette Festival, a church carnival that had been something of a tradition when I was growing up. In true carnival fashion we dined on funnel cakes and laughed at karaoke-ers and gambled. My mother favored the poker table but I wanted something a little more interactive than sitting and waiting for a card to be dealt. I wandered over to the childrens games, and of course, I lost, but being a children’s game, at a church, no less, I was given the choice of a consolation prize. I chose a little stuffed penguin, one arm sticking straight up as to say “Pick me! Pick me!”
His wandering days at an end, Ally Gator settled down and started a family with Penny the Penguin and her daughter Maru. Soon they had a son of their own, Pez. My mother indulged my bizarre imaginary stuffed animal family. When I returned to Hawaii, I left the children behind with my mother, just until we could be settled down. My mother would email photos and greetings from the children, as Penny and Ally enjoyed a belated honeymoon, and eventually the family was reunited. It became a bit of a conundrum then, because I couldn’t take the entire family on trips, but I didn’t want to leave anyone behind. So the boys would go to basketball games and the girls would go to the beach, the kids would come to the movies while the adults had some alone time. Pez tagged along to Zoology class, because he likes science. They’d all help me practice my Japanese.
Penny and Maru went with me to Japan. It was a girls vacation. I even rigged up a pouch on my jacket so that they could have a good view while I travelled. We went to the zoo together, and the onsen resort. We celebrated Christmas with cocoa and cake. At Zojoji temple we counted down the seconds to a brand new year.
And then they disappeared. In the jostling, jam packed New Years crowd, they’d fallen out of their pouch and disappeared. I felt a surge of panic as I ducked down, using my phone as a flashlight, calling to them, calling to these silly stuffed animals that I’d dragged across the Earth. I love traveling alone, I love the freedom and the spontaneity, but sometimes you need something from back home, something to talk to even if it doesn’t speak back. They were my penguins, my friends, and now they were lost in a foreign city.
I found Maru. My heart skipped. Kicked across the patch of dirt, I found her, scooped her up, brushed her off, so many apologies to an inanimate object, tears in my eyes. But Penny was still nowhere to be found, and though the countdown had ended the crowd remained for the ringing of the bell. I walked in frantic circles, shining my light, finding nothing. The crowds slowly disbursed, showing only empty ground, no sign. I was losing hope. I found a temple worker and used broken Japanese and my iPhone’s Japanese dictionary to explain my situation. He looked slightly incredulous, asking, a penguin? Yes, I lost my penguin. If only I could explain to you the meaning..
He was very kind, leading me all across the temple grounds to find help. Finally I filled out a lost item report, difficult because I did not have a local phone number, and they would not accept an email.
I left the office and returned to the giant bell. The area was deserted. There were no penguins. It was nearly three am, and I knew the trains wouldn’t run forever. I headed for the station, took the train as far as Ikebukuro, then spent the night in an internet cafe, just Maru and me.
The next day I posted an ad on Craigslist. Lost Penguin. Sentimental value.
When my friend returned to Japan, I asked her to call up the temple office, see if she’d been found. She told me no, there was no sign of my penguin, and frankly, she thought the chances of me finding her were slim.
My last few days in Japan, I was tempted to go back to the temple and look for Penny. But I did not.
I returned to Hawaii without her. I explained to Ally Gator and their son Pez that Penny the Penguin had been lost. I felt horrible.
I don’t take the kids out much anymore. I’m afraid of losing them. Everywhere I go, I see penguins, but they’re not her. My mother sent me a penguin that she’d found abandoned in her office, unwanted after the holiday season. Betty the penguin, it turns out, is Penny’s sister by marriage. Her husband Benny, Penny’s brother, has also joined us, to help Ally care for the children.
My mom says that Penny is still out there in Japan, wandering. She’s a carny at heart, she’s not quite ready to settle down with a family. A few weeks ago my mother sent a box of cookies with a happy penguin on the box. Penny has gone into advertising now. She seems to be doing well for herself.
I still look for Penny the Penguin. Someday she’ll come home.