I know we haven't spoken in months, but I remember the last thing you said to me. When all is said and done, those words still ring in my ears: Why do you love him so much that you're willing to throw the rest of your life away?
The answer is simple. I'm not throwing my life away, because he would never let me. Maybe you want a more complicated answer, though. Maybe you want to know why I love him at all. I've been turning that question over in my mind for the past week - not why I love him, because that's clear enough, but how to explain it to you. You and I, we've been friends since we were little, and I'd like to find a way to keep that. So I'll try to find a slice of our story to tell you, a little bit of truth to counter the lies I'm sure you've heard.
I hope you read this letter with an open heart and the memory of our friendship, because that's how I'm writing it.
* * *
Like spots against the setting sun, snow drifts down in clumps, steady and thick. It turns the world outside my paper screens into a moving picture, a landscape in constant, quiet change. Turning up the volume on my mp3 player, I push my legs further under the warmth of the kotatsu, bare heels scraping across the tatami. Snow's always made me restless, melancholic. Once or twice a year, I wake up in the middle of the night when it's snowing and find myself staggering out the door, shoeless, before I even understand what's happening. Music helps with that, sometimes. Not my normal music, but the quiet sounds of a piano drifting across my senses like a lover's touch, whispering calm and reassurance.
Despite the snow, it's not actually that cold in this room. There are double-paned windows on the other side of the screens, holding in the heat and the illusion of an old-fashioned hot springs hotel. With the kotatsu and the extra blanket over my shoulders, I'm swaddled in heat and stillness like an infant.
I remember being a child here, in my uncle's resort. Back then, I thought it was bigger, big enough to get lost in. Now I know there are only three small buildings, four bathing pools, and a garden just dense enough to hide the wall around the edges in the summer months. The summer green is gone now, though, and I can see the outline of the wall through the screen, a blue shadow across the the bottom half of the orange sun. It looks like it's eating the light.
Behind me, the door opens, and I pull my earbuds out in time to hear Azukari's uneven gait as he steps up onto the tatami. Smiling, I turn over my shoulder.
"Did you enjoy your game?" I ask.
He quirks his lips in that way he has when he's slightly embarrassed. "A bit."
I left him in the entertainment room nearly an hour ago, teaching a young brother and sister pair how to play table tennis. They were all in yukata, as if it were summer. Azukari's dark hair spiked at the edges, damp from sweat, and a droplet slid slowly down the back of his neck. I left because I couldn't stop staring.
Now we're in private, and I can stare as much as I want.
"I hope you didn't beat them too badly." I wag my finger at him playfully.
He snorts, smiling outright now, then goes down on one knee in a complicated and familiar maneuver that ends with him seated on the tatami with both legs out in front. He rubs at the side of his left thigh, wincing.
"We can eat in the room tonight," I suggest, and he nods in relief.
To be honest, I want us to be alone together anyway. We're on shifting ground now, pieces of our lives, old and new, grinding against each other. Maybe we're just smoothing out the edges - that's what I hope, anyway. I know better than anyone, though, how fate can play with people. I'm done with that. I want Azukari to be done with it, too.
Sometimes, we make our own fate.
I remember the first time we met. You were there, Awaki, remember? Azukari was the university student teaching English to us cram school kids on Saturday afternoons. His patience and his seriousness were legendary even before we joined the class.
I remember.... What do I remember, exactly? It's hard to say. Everything is layered over with later impressions, later feelings. I know I felt something strange that day, that moment I walked in to class to find him already there, organizing his notes. I stood inside the doorway looking at him, and I felt a rising wave of recognition. A rightness, a great relief, as if I'd been carrying a heavy weight for a long time, and someone finally told me I could put it down.
That's what I remember. Maybe I'm wrong and that feeling came later. But I think it was there from the start.
I know that by the time we first met in the park, I had a schoolboy crush on him. At least, that's how he saw it. Yeah, okay, I'd asked around about him. I was clumsy and trying too hard. But the moment was unmistakably right: It was the beginning of summer, and it had stopped raining for a moment, just a moment. Everything was bright green around us like a fantasy world, saturated with color and the smell of living things. Azukari stood damp and sheepish, one hand around the dripping newspaper he'd been holding over his head. I couldn't resist; I called out to him.
Probably there were stars in my eyes, but he never shot me down. He kept our meetings, accidental or arranged, right on the edge of appropriate through summer break, through the return to school and our long walks together in the fall, and even through private tutoring in the winter. We talked about the state of Japan, the things that needed to be done for our economy, our youth. We discussed music, and he jokingly deplored my tastes. He made me listen to Brahms; I made him listen to Anthem's new album. We ended up discussing the finer points of poetic translations in a context of symphonic metal. That's the kind of person he was.
My crush only grew stronger.
We even talked about traveling abroad, where we'd go, what we'd do if we could. He wanted to go to Italy or Singapore, while I prefered England. I found out he was the heir to a small but important company that provided security for executives and politicians. He feared he'd only ever get to visit other countries for business and never to enjoy being there, to really learn from other people. I feared I'd never get to go at all.
Months drifted by, and it was February. I'd taken my entrance exams; we had no more excuse to meet, but we did anyway. The coffee shops of winter gave way to park benches as spring came in, March followed by cherry-blossomed April. I told my parents I was hanging out with friends. I told my friends I was with my family. The lies didn't stick in my throat for some reason. Maybe because I felt desperate, like I was squeezing time from every day, forcing out drop by drop for the most important thing in my life.
And then, the day before I graduated, he let me kiss him.
* * *
"What do you want for dinner?" I ask.
Azukari is removing the prosthetic and the gel sleeve carefully. My eyes are trained on his face, so I notice the flicker when he supresses a grimace. He doesn't like me to ask how he's feeling, though, so I don't. Anyway, it's clear he's not okay, or he wouldn't be taking it off this early.
"Whatever is fine," he says. "Something warm."
"My aunt makes pretty good udon," I tell him. It's a bit out of character for a place like this, but when I was a kid it was my favorite dish of hers.
He smiles tiredly. "Yeah, that sounds good. I'm going to lie down for a few minutes, if you don't mind."
I lean forward far enough to kiss his temple. "I'll wake you when it's ready."
I don't offer to get the futon out for him, but I do get the lights while I'm up. There's a chant that runs through my head several times a day, and it flitters through now: little things, choose your battles, avoid embarrassing him.
I'm learning. Slowly, but I am.
Years later, Azukari admitted that he let me kiss him because he thought we'd never see each other again. I didn't know that at the time, of course. All I knew was the half-clumsy way I pressed my chapped lips to his, and the gentle press of his hand on the side of my face, correcting the angle, easing me through one of the most terrifying and joyful moments of my life. We parted after a short time, and he offered me one of his almost-smiles, a sad light in his eyes. Then he squeezed my shoulder once and walked away.
I didn't see him again for a long time. I'd wanted to make some grand gesture, secretly apply to his university or something like that, but then I heard back from the University of Birmingham and it was as if everything fell into place. Our paths parted.
I kept a picture of him on my desk at school. I often thought of him and his love of classical Chinese and Western music, of the koto and the piano. Every time it snowed that first year, I put on my Beethoven CD and lay on my bed, facing the window, imagining how he and I might bundle up in scarves and mittens and go out walking through the streets of Birmingham. We'd take a bus to Canterbury, and our footprints in the fresh snow would remain for hours, side by side, leading from the bus stop up the hill to St. Michael's. There they'd pause where I'd leaned against a burned, half-crumbled wall while he took a photo to keep in his pocket.
I dreamed a hundred different scenarios, some wild, some perfectly ordinary. The important thing, the strange thing, was that it was always Azukari. Most people get over their first big crush, you know? I never did. It never even occured to me that I might want to.
I graduated and was lucky enough to be offered two positions. One was as a teacher of Japanese language to adults in London. The other was as part of a PR department in Tokyo. By then, I was tired and homesick, my earlier enthusiasm tempered by time, strange food, and bad weather. I missed Azukari, or my memories of him, but that was only part of it. Despite my fantasies, I held out no real hope of ever meeting him again. What I did hope for was to find a place where I could belong.
Fate, if you're reading this, I know you're laughing right now. You can shut the hell up.
* * *
My Aunt Shimako is from Hawaii, and she cooks all sorts of things you wouldn't expect at a place like this. The other guests are already in the dining room eating when I slip into the kitchen, and she cheerfully sends my uncle out to keep them happy while she starts up the udon for us. She makes me chop vegetables, of course. Some things never change.
I'm slicing pineapple for the other guests when she asks, calmly and casually, how Azukari and I are enjoying our stay. I stammer out something positive, but the face she turns to me is calm and open.
"I know you came here to get away from the press and your work for a while, but I'm beginning to wonder if you're really happy, Tomi."
My face burns, and I keep my eyes the pineapple, seeing juice bead on my knuckles.
"I think you're happy with him, but you two aren't yet comfortable with other people, and that seeps into your time alone with each other. When we first married, your uncle and I were the same way. People thought he shouldn't marry an outsider, a half-blood like me. It's silly, really, but people are like that."
I give a jerky nod but don't look up. I'm not sure if I'm going to cry or not, and I haven't done that in front of Aunt Shimako since I was seven or eight. Maybe eleven.
She leaves the boiling pot and comes over to put an arm around me, pulling my head down to rest on her shoulder. She's so much shorter than she used to be, or I'm taller. I don't know. I just know she's always done this, always prefered touch when things get messy.
"Silly boy," she murmurs. "It's not you. It's them."
And then I really do cry.
You see, the thing about Azukari is that he's a strong person who hates to look weak, even for a moment. He's always been like that, though it wasn't something I noticed until the second time we met.
I was doing pretty well in the PR department. I had become our division head's favorite pretty quickly, mostly because I made his work look good and never told anyone about the translations I took home to correct at night and handed to him in secret the next day. It wasn't my dream job, but it had its perks, one of which was the ability to get out of the office once in a while to run errands for Mr. Sufu or follow him to meetings as his unofficial assistant.
It was just a Wednesday, an ordinary Wednesday in early spring. Mr. Sufu told me to get my coat and meet him downstairs. Five minutes later, he ushered me into a cab and slid in behind me, giving the cabbie the address of a hospital halfway across Tokyo from where we were.
I remember the dread that settled in my stomach at that moment.
"Where are we going, sir?" I asked him, but he just settled back with his hands folded on his rounded belly and closed his eyes. I thought perhaps someone in his family was there and he was bringing me along to help communicate with the office and keep up with his work for the afternoon. I feel like a terrible person for this now, but that's what I actually hoped for throughout that long cab ride. I thought the only alternative was that it was someone I knew, and he was going with me to prevent any incidents, given my famous temper.
I got no answers until we left the cab and were walking across the shiny floors of the hospital's reception area. Then he said in a low voice, "A colleague was brought here last night. He's the head of a small company within our group, and there were already questions about his company's future before this incident. I want you to go to the flower shop across the street and buy something tasteful but large. We want to show our support."
We want to show our support.
It took me fifteen minutes to buy the flowers, but only ten minutes to figure out what that phrase meant. So by the time I was following a nurse through the corridors, I understood that Mr. Sufu was scoping out the situation for his bosses, and that this man, whoever he was and whatever had happened to him, might lose everything based on this meeting. The flowers were a sop, a way to soften the blow and make it look like our boss was sympathetic. I knew him, though. Mr. Sufu was always practical, and he understood how business worked.
The nurse stopped at a door that looked identical to all the other doors on that hallway, opened it, and gestured me inside. I went, getting a whole two steps into the room before my eyes fell on the patient in the bed, on his face.
I dropped the flowers.
* * *
I'm still sniffling as I shuffle down the hallway with my tray. Two giant bowls of udon, two empty teacups, and a teapot are all crammed onto the small surface of the tray, clattering against each other with each step.
I pause for a moment at the door to our room, trying to go down on my knees without tipping the heavy tray, when the door slides open from the inside and Azukari blinks up at me, sleepy-eyed and beautiful. His face - it always makes me catch my breath a little, but right now it's the most heart-wrenching face I've ever seen. I almost drop the tray just looking at him, and then a tiny crease forms between his eyes.
He reaches up fast to catch the tray, lowering it to the floor before I fall against him, my arms around him, pulling at the yukata like that's the problem, like the fabric beneath my hands is the reason I'm angry and sad and so in love with him it hurts.
He makes a sound, and I shift automatically to take some of my own weight back.
"Sh, Kiuchi," he whispers. "Whatever it is, we'll figure it out."
"I love you," I blurt, because that's the whole problem, isn't it?
He doesn't pull away or stiffen. His arms just tighten around me for a moment, then he whispers, practical as always, "Are you hungry?"
We end up eating on the kotastu with the blanket folded out of the way. Azukari presses his leg against mine under the table, and we brush fingers often, unnecessarily. It's not romantic, though. It's about reassurance. Azukari is the one who retreats from our relationship sometimes, pulling into himself. I'm the one who explodes. He's trying to calm me now, I know it, but it doesn't make me angry. It makes me realize how much he loves me, that he knows me this well and wants to keep me from doing or saying something I'll regret, becoming a person I don't want to be.
The verdict wasn't good.
"He won't be able to walk again," Mr. Sufu sighed, when I blew up at him in the cab on the way back to the office.
"You don't know that!" I nearly yelled. "The doctor said a lot of words like 'maybe' and 'probably' and 'variable outcomes'. And besides, who cares? Walking isn't his real job. He can think and plan just fine!"
Mr. Sufu sighed again. "Kid, this is a man I've known since his father brought him to my house for a party twenty years ago. I like him. I want him to succeed. But he's got to present a certain image for his company if he wants to pull it out of the slump from last year. People have to have confidence in him personally. And that's going to be hard to do right now."
"I'll help," I said impulsively. "Anything, I'll do it."
He looked at me for a long moment, then his eyes turned speculative.
"If you can curb that impatience of yours," he said quietly, "then maybe you can."
By Friday, I was transferred. I was Azukari's new personal assistant.
* * *
The food helps. It warms me inside and settles that queasy feeling I always get after crying. Azukari even surprises me by finishing off the entire bowl. From his expression, he's just as startled.
"That was really good," he says, wide-eyed and looking at his bowl as if it's some sort of magic pot from a fairy tale.
I smile. "My Aunt Shimako is a really good cook." Also a good person, but he'll find that out for himself someday. "She also said that if we get up at a decent hour tomorrow, she can make sure the indoor men's bath is empty so we can have it to ourselves for a while."
Azukari's head whips up. I wonder how he could possibly have thought I hadn't noticed. After all, who goes to a hot springs resort and then never actually gets in the water? But while the cosmetic cover for his leg is water resistant enough to wear in rain and snow, it can't be submerged without a special sleeve over it - one that stands out, obvious in clear water.
Like an idiot, I didn't think of that before I asked my uncle if we could come for the week. I didn't think about Azukari having to show his body in public, in front of complete strangers. He won't even do that in front of his own mother. I've grown too comfortable, too complacent; I forget to see things through his eyes.
His dark eyes, which are softening with affection now. His voice is gruff when he says, "That would be nice. If it's not too much trouble."
I snort. "If we don't take her up on it, I think she might get offended. She's proud of the hospitality here, you know."
He laughs. "Well, you're the one who sleeps late, so we'd better turn in."
I take the tray back to the kitchen and help wash up. By the time I get back, Azukari has the futon out and unfolded, and the lamp on the table is turned down to dim.
"Are you coming now?" he asks quietly, and I almost say 'yes' before I remember.
"Not yet," I say. "I have a letter to write."
Azukari didn't lose his company, if you're wondering. He's too smart for that. What he did lose was his family's goodwill when he told them about our relationship, so in the end it was me who probably lost him the most, not the driver of that other car. He says he wouldn't undo the decision to be honest, though. He's got some old friends who've stood by him, and that's made a big difference.
I could tell you how we finally acted on our feelings after months of restraint, but honestly, it's so ordinary you'd get bored. One day we just gave up: I broke down, he stopped retreating, and all the rumors about us came true. Well, most of them. I think some of them are anatomically impossible, but that's the internet for you.
My parents have been pretty good about it. My family as a whole is laid back, so even though we're going through an adjustment period still, I feel like by the end we'll all be okay. Then hopefully Azukari will have a new family to support him. It's the least I can do for him, after he's given up so much for me.
I read that interview you did with a reporter last month. I noticed how you mostly talked about the things we did together when we were younger. You mentioned our classes with Azukari in high school; it's funny how we remember that part differently. It's been ten years, though, so I guess that's inevitable.
Anyway, you ended your interview with these words, and they brought me a lot of hope. Hope that we can still talk friend to friend and understand each other. You said, I wonder if I don't really know him anymore, and that scares me.
You do know me. I'm still Kiuchi. I'm still the same person, even if I'm doing things you never expected. Like everyone, I've changed over the years, but not as much as you might think. I still won't throw a punch when I'm angry. I still daydream. I still think the English language is awkward and beautiful. I still sleepwalk on nights when it snows.
People change, it's true, but I think more often it's how other people see them that changes. We don't get to choose how we're seen, but we do get to choose how we look at others, how we choose to define them in our own minds. That choice is yours.
I hope this letter finds you well.