The girl came as a surprise. The sonogram showed a boy at four months, a boy at six months, a boy at eight months. The parents had already chosen the kanji for the name, the clothes, the furniture. Now at the moment of celebration, they were faced with expectations that would never come to fruition and a future that would never materialize. There would be a future, yes. Neither of them doubted that. It would be one different than they expected, but no worse. They had six months to dream of things they wanted their son to become and things they wanted their son to do. There was no reason why their daughter couldn’t do all of that, or why she couldn’t become the same things.
The main problem, of course, was the name. They called both of their parents (grandparents now—they seemed so happy, even if the news was not quite as they had hoped) again to look for names.
Something traditional, all four grandparents said. Something that looked nice and sounded nice.
Masaharu wanted to keep the kanji for commander (“Souko,” he said. “It sounds nice, doesn’t it?” “Dear, don’t get so agitated. It’s raising my blood pressure”), but he was outvoted four to one. ‘Kazuko’ was eliminated by Masaharu's parents; ‘Masami’ because it reminded Minamo of an annoying classmate; ‘Sakurako’ because it was the name of an ailing relative; and on and on the objections went.
Years later, they joked that they chose "Shouko" because it was the least offensive thing they could find. Shouko never laughed at the joke, even though she always felt as though she should have.
Shouko had always known that other people thought she was special. Ideal, even.
"A lovely, even tempered girl," people said to her parents. Good at school, good at sports, would get into a good college. Wouldn't become famous, but would be reliable. Steady. She would find good work, a good husband, a good house. Her child, maybe children, would be raised under a steady hand, a touch that was feminine without being soft, authoritative without being abrasive. She would be a daughter her parents could depend on, a wife her husband could count on, a mother her children could rely on.
It annoyed the hell out of her. Whose future was she supposed to be living, hers or someone else’s? She had a picture of her future in mind, and none of it involved the ridiculous notion that she needed to be a good girl. Well-behaved women never made history because well-behaved women never got to do what they wanted; and while her goals might not be “join the army” or “become a senator,” she held ambitions outside of her parents’ idealizations, and had dreams beyond her future, hypothetical children.
She never failed any tests on purpose, or quit playing sports because she knew that those were two things her parents would not compromise on. She wanted to shake things up, but without causing trouble—too much of it, at least. The middle school she was attending required female students to wear ribbons; she replaced her ribbon with a tie, and though the teachers reprimanded her, they never told her to stop wearing it, either. What did it matter, as long as she kept her grades up and brought her middle school's basketball team to the nationals before she inevitably moved away?
The thrill of quiet, subversive rebellion made her shiver with the potential of possibility. When the time came to switch into the summer uniforms, she wore the boy’s dress shirt rather than the girl’s blouse, and she looked damn good in it. When the teachers called her up that time, she argued. Drew the line in the sand. As long as she wore the skirt, then it was all right, wasn’t it?
“Seta-san,” her homeroom teacher said. “You’ve always been so agreeable.”
That was why it was okay if she acted out at least once, wasn’t it? She nodded her head sharply. Project confidence, her father would have told her. That was how people got their way: project confidence. Project strength.
The teacher rubbed his nose and said, “At least wear the ribbon.”
She tied the ribbon at her neck. No one seemed to notice or care about the change, except the class president, who made a point of railing at her during lunch. That was around the time people started calling her Seta-kun. She didn't mind it and there were worse things to be in life. At least they weren't calling her a whore.
Shortly after the summer uniform incident, she skipped practice to head into the city. There was a hair salon her friends had been talking about, but never dared to approach. Shouko dared. It wasn’t that she was a rebel or a punk or any of that: she wanted a haircut, and this was where she wanted to get it. Her mother made her keep her hair in braids for years. She was tired of feeling like she was eight.
"What wonderful hair you have," said the stylist, lifting up a strand and letting it fall through her hands. There was a faint note of, ‘boring, though.’ Shouko ignored it. "How would you like your hair cut?"
Shouko handed the stylist a picture of a pop star with wild, razor-cut hair, and said, "Like that."
“It’s your decision,” said the stylist. “You’re too meek for that kind of thing, hon.”
Shouko ignored the barb and said, “I want side bangs, too.”
She dug through her pocket to find the picture. The stylist rolled her eyes and said, “Hon, I know what side bangs would look good on your pointy face. Sit still and let me do my work, hmm?”
She left the salon with just enough money to make it back home. Her head felt light, not because of any freak dizziness, but because of how much hair was gone. Not there anymore. It was her hair now, not her mother’s. “Go spend some money on hair if you don’t like it like this,” her mother always told Shouko. Well, now she had done it. Now she had done it.
Her father called her over to the kitchen before serving dinner, and the three of them sat in silence. Shouko tilted her chin up, but under her father’s gaze, all she could think of was, “my neck is cold” and “I really need to scratch my neck.” Her mother seemed torn between berating Shouko and not speaking at all, but her father reached across and touched Shouko's face, his fingers brushing against the freshly cut ends of her hair.
"It's cute, isn't it," he said fondly. "Don't you think so, dear?"
"You look like a boy," her mother said. Then, after a small struggle played out on her face, she said, "You'll need something to keep that styled. You do know how to take care of hair, yes?"
“Have you ever wondered what you’d look like as a boy?” a boy asked Shouko. Renji Matsumoto, perpetual thorn in Shouko’s side. It really was just like him to think of such a weird question, she thought. The guy never thought of anything beyond the ridiculous. Or the absurdly mundane.
“What’s that matter to you?” Shouko replied.
“Well, it’d be cool to know, wouldn’t it? I mean, you're already wearing the shirt, and—”
“Then what?” she asked. She let her papers slam against the desk with a ‘thump,’ and drew up to her full height. She was a tall girl. Still shorter than Matsumoto, but it wasn’t height that mattered in intimidation. “What would that change?”
His mouth dropped open, and then shut again. “Geeze, Seta,” he said. “Chill, won’t you?”
“No you aren’t. You’ve been tense, ever since…”
“Sometimes, I wonder why you have any friends at all, you ass,” Shouko said. She turned back to her desk, and stuffed her papers into her brief. She had spoken too quickly. No good. She adjusted the collar of her shirt, and, for a moment, was tempted to pop it up. She decided against it. Her neck was too thin for her head. It’d look like she was a vampire or something. “Come on, Matsumoto. Let’s end the year on good terms. You’re not going to be seeing me for a while.” Or ever, if she was lucky. She didn’t even know if her parents would be moving back to this city or if they’d hop down to some other town or country.
“Please,” Matsumoto said. “Like I’d miss you. You’re really going to the country? You could stay with Kibi. Or maybe even Wa-ta-ri-se-n-pai—”
“Bye, Matsumoto! Get hit by a truck!” Shouko called, grabbing her bag and heading for the door.
“Hey! Hey, Seta!” Matsumoto was laughing. She turned her head slightly, just enough to catch a glimpse of him, sunset against his back, arm waving back and forth. “Take care! I know we didn’t talk much, but the other guys’ll miss you. Don’t do stupid things.”
“I promised my folks I’d stay out of trouble,” Shouko yelled back. She found herself smiling along with Matsumoto, and, despite herself, raised an arm to wave back. So many memories. So many things to take and leave. Her hand tightened around her bag. Although in this case there were more things to leave than to take. That was the way things rolled. That was the way things would be.
“Have you ever wondered what you’d look like as a girl?” Matsumoto asked Souji.
He considered it. The picture… the picture wasn't a very pleasant one. Risking losing his strength and the power he could unconsciously exude for what, exactly? What would he gain? What would he lose? His reflection in the glass of the window was calm, impassive, undeniably his, and the idea of looking at the mirror and seeing something that was both him and not him at the same time… well, it wouldn’t even be him if it had a different face, would it?
“Too hot for you to even consider dating,” he replied.
Matsumoto’s smile had a sly edge to it, but, maybe sensing Souji’s irritation, let the subject drop.
“You’re transferring out, huh,” Matsumoto said. “Hard to believe… Where are you headed?”
“Don’t tell me you don’t know!”
“The countryside,” he said. The name of the town was on his lips; and, digging back into the recesses of his mind, he dragged the name to his lips. “Yasoinaba.”