Renji catches sight of Sadaharu on the sidewalk. Just his back, but Renji knows that back as well as he knows his own face. It’s four years since they last spoke but Renji isn’t surprised to see him; Sadaharu in his peripheral vision feels normal, even when it’s been so long.
Sadaharu is too far ahead to call out after but Renji doesn’t even consider it. He just watches until Sadaharu is out of sight and keeps watching even after that.
Back at his desk, Renji pauses between client work and blinks because Sadaharu is still in the corner of his eye.
Renji knows where Sadaharu works, a nearby high school with a decent reputation but nothing outstanding. He knows where Sadaharu lives, but not much more. He does know how unusual it is that they haven’t run into other before, living so close.
His phone is on the desk in front of him and he touches it with one finger. He still has Sadaharu’s number, assuming it hasn’t changed, and he wonders what Sadaharu would say if he called, if he texted. They’ve never been much for hello. He closes his eyes a moment and when he opens them, his peripheral vision is clear.
It’s two weeks later when Renji sees Sadaharu again. He wouldn’t normally be out at this time of day but he has to deliver some documents to a nearby client and the weather is so nice, he tells himself, he should walk back to the office. A bright May day, warm and breezy, blue sky, probably singing birds and all the rest of it.
And that’s how he ends up near Sadaharu’s school, watching from the corner as Sadaharu supervises the students streaming out of the gate. He looks happy, but Sadaharu has always looked happy, at least most of the time. He laughs at something one of the kids says to him. And Renji remembers when Sadaharu used to laugh at what he said, even when Renji didn’t mean to be funny.
Sadaharu raises his head and Renji wonders if he’s in Sadaharu’s peripheral vision. But he turns the other way, showing Renji his back again.
Renji takes longer than he should walking back to the office and he ends up staying late, sitting at his desk and touching his phone with one finger.
They’ve seen each other on and off over the years, but the last time they spent much time together was back in junior high, at the U-17 training camp. They fooled around a little then, when they could find a private space. It was Renji’s first time with someone else: arms around each other, learning how to kiss.
But the most heady feeling was working together on the court, or off it. Analysing opponents and creating strategies. After the World Cup, they texted and called, but they were both busy with studying and exams and lived too far apart to do much more.
By the time they were in high school, even that had dwindled to the occasional email forward and a card at New Year’s.
There was one weekend in university, though. Sadaharu showed up at Renji’s door unannounced, not even a text, and before they even said a word to each other, Renji was trapped against the wall, arms around Sadaharu’s neck, grabbing at his shirt to pull it over his head.
A bad break-up, maybe. Renji didn’t ask, just took the chance as it came, touching Sadaharu all the places he used to think about, back when they didn’t quite dare to go that far, and moving with him, always in sync, on the court, in bed, it didn’t matter which.
Afterwards, there were a flurry of texts but they were both busy, they were far apart, and it didn’t take long to reach equilibrium again. And maybe Sadaharu’s break-up didn’t take.
There have been a few people in Renji’s life since then but there was never much to break-up, more drifting away. He knows how to be an adult now, how to go to work, get promoted. He has a life plan and he’s ticking off the boxes all in order. But he didn’t leave a column for relationships. He wonders if Sadaharu did.
He wonders if Sadaharu likes teaching or if it’s just his job, if the kids like him, if they behave for him. He looked even taller surrounded by students. His hair was longer, styled nearly straight, and Renji wonders how much he has to fuss with it in the mornings. That’s everything Renji saw, but what he felt, what he still feels now, is an itch in his palms and a pull in his chest.
He should have taken a photo of Sadaharu at the school. Renji can recall it all, of course, but a picture in his phone is almost like a physical item, like the keys in his pocket, or the medals in the box in his closet.
He wonders what Sadaharu felt, knowing Renji was there. Because of course he knew. Because that was the second move in their game.
Renji goes to the closet and lifts down the box. He sifts through the medals and certificates – they hardly make him feel nostalgic – and at the bottom he finds what he was looking for: the record of a shogi game they played when they were fifteen, just back from Australia. He can follow the moves in his head but he looks the board out anyway and sets it up on his table, readying the pieces for the start of the game.
“Your move, Sadaharu,” Renji says and sets the piece down for him.
On June 3, Renji keeps looking at his phone. But he waits until he’s home, late as usual, and waits again until it’s almost midnight, until he’s turned out the lights and he’s lying in bed, just the glow from his phone on his face. Because that’s what they always used to do.
At 11:59, Renji taps in a text:
Happy Birthday, Sadaharu. He looks at the words for a moment. Even here, Sadaharu makes the first move by being born one day ahead. Then Renji taps Send.
He knows the blue light is bad for sleep but he stares at the screen, waiting. He doesn’t try to trick himself into thinking he doesn’t care. He touches the phone with one finger, wondering if the number is still correct, wondering if Sadaharu is up and waiting for Renji’s message.
And at 12:01 Sadaharu’s message appears on the screen:
Happy Birthday, Renji.
Renji puts down his phone and smiles in the dark.
After work, Renji doesn’t go home. The light is fading and the breeze lifts his hair. He walks the same route as that first day, circling near Sadaharu’s school, and ducking into the small bar on the corner. He sits alone at a table and orders beer, two glasses. And then he waits.
It’s only half an hour until Sadaharu comes through the door, laughing with three other men. But when his eyes meet Renji’s, he stops. After a moment, he apologizes to the others, that’s what it looks like, and comes over and sits down.
Renji wants to touch Sadaharu’s hair, stiff with wax though it must be. It makes Sadaharu look older — and he is older, they’re both older — more adult then Renji somehow ever expected Sadaharu to be.
“Renji.” Sadaharu is smiling, that same warm grin that Renji has always known. “Are you alone?”
“Not now.” Renji fills Sadaharu’s glass and leans back in his chair, his limbs easy and his face slipping into a smile.
Sadaharu tips his glass but doesn’t pick it up. He touches the beer bottle with one finger. “Just a minute.” He pats his jacket until he turns up a pen and a scrap of paper torn from an envelope. He scrawls a few words down, hidden by his hand, reading them over and tucking the note into his pocket. Then he picks up the bottle and pours Renji’s beer.
The beer feels good sliding down Renji’s throat, cool and bitter, just the way he likes it. “Are you satisfied with your school?” he asks. “There must be better options for someone with your qualifications.”
“I like it there,” Sadaharu says. “The kids are fun.” He tops up Renji’s glass. “Are you satisfied with your company?”
“There’s a pretty rigid hierarchy,” Renji says. He’s made some notes about what he’ll change when he’s promoted, if he’s not moved to another branch before that. Even then it will be tricky work.
In the corner, Sadaharu’s friends are laughing and they wave at him. Sadaharu looks over at them and shakes his head and Renji feels it like it’s Sadaharu’s hand resting on his back. He turns to Renji.” I thought you’d be with your family tonight.”
“They’re too overbearing,” Renji says. “You remember when we were eleven and you came over for supper?” The memory unwinds like a cord pulled from a spool and they laugh over it, and the next, and the next, until they’re tangled up in reminiscence and fuzzy with the beer.
“Another bottle?” Renji offers because he likes how warm he feels and he doesn’t have to work in the morning. When Sadaharu shakes his head no, Renji reaches across the table and closes his fingers around Sadaharu’s wrist. “Remember?” he says and moves his thumb across Sadaharu’s skin. Remember last time, in Renji’s small flat, hardly room for both of them. The chill air of the room, Sadaharu’s breath hot on Renji’s neck, rolling together in what little space there was.
Sadaharu doesn’t move, except for his other hand reaching into his pocket, reading the note. His grocery list, right now?
“There’s a convenience store by my apartment.” Renji stands, his fingers trailing off of Sadaharu’s hand. “At least walk me home.” He settles the bill without looking back but when he leaves the bar he knows Sadaharu is behind him.
They walk together in the cool air, hands by their sides, shoulders bumping now and again. They pass the store by Renji’s apartment and Sadaharu doesn’t turn off. He keeps pace and waits while Renji lets them into the lobby.
Inside, Sadaharu reaches in his pocket again and comes out with the scrap of paper. But he doesn’t read it this time, just crushes it in his fist and drops it back in his pocket. He stabs the elevator button and when the door opens, he crowds Renji inside, backs him against the wall and kisses him.
There’s probably a security camera but Renji doesn’t care. He puts his hands inside Sadaharu’s jacket, around his sides, up onto his back. Opens his mouth for a few seconds until the elevator hits his floor. Stumbles warm and happy, hand around Sadaharu’s wrist again, down the hall, through the door, back into Sadaharu’s arms.
The room is dark and and they stagger through it together, kissing, touching, flaring. Sadaharu bumps into the table and the shogi board tips off, pieces tumbling over the floor. “Sorry,” Sadaharu says but Renji knows which move they were on and he just tugs Sadaharu to the bed and they roll together.
When they’re done and lying back, sweat cooling on their bodies, Renji touches Sadaharu’s hair. The wax comes off on his fingers, tacky and strong-scented. He rubs it into his own hair while Sadaharu breathes beside him.
It’s seven minutes exactly when Sadaharu sits up, legs over the side of the bed, back to Renji. There’s just enough light to see Sadaharu’s broad shoulders, his straight back. Renji wants to place his hands there, count each vertebra with one finger, skull to coccyx. He’s still thinking about reaching out when Sadaharu stands and steps into the shadow, feeling around for his discarded clothing.
Renji sits up and watches as much as he can at the edge of the faint light from the window: the side of Sadaharu’s solemn face, an outstretched arm pulling through a sleeve. You can stay over, he wants to say, but Sadaharu must already know that. When Sadaharu is dressed, Renji gets up and follows him, naked, to the door.
He catches Sadaharu’s hand. Sadaharu waits three seconds before he lets go. “Good night,” he says and closes the door before Renji can even tell him to fix his hair in the back.
Renji picks up the shogi board and resets the game to where they were. He stretches, arms wide. “Your move,” he says and goes to take a shower.
Two days later, Sadaharu’s move still hasn’t come. Renji wonders if he’s missed it, some clue he hasn’t followed up. He checks through all his social media and messages for anything suspicious, even slogging through the spam folder in his work email. Sadaharu was always better at hiding his intentions; Renji never felt he had to hide. Maybe he should have spent more time when they were children on those games, on the strategies layered over strategies that Sadaharu always tried.
He’s undressing for bed when he sees it: one corner peeking out from underneath the bed, a swatch of white. He pulls out a handkerchief, plain and crumpled. A cliché move but it works. He folds it and puts it on the table beside the bed. Before he turns out the light, he touches it with one finger.
In the morning, while he’s waiting to buy coffee, he messages Sadaharu.
You left your handkerchief. Where should I bring it back to you?
It’s halfway through his morning before Sadaharu’s message lights up the screen.
I don’t need it back.
Renji takes the handkerchief out of his pocket and unfolds it. He doesn’t understand. If Sadaharu doesn’t want it back, why did he leave it there in the first place? He turns it over, looking for a mark or anything unusual, but surely even Sadaharu wouldn’t be leaving coded messages at his age.
At home at night, he goes over it with a magnifying lens just in case and googles for information on invisible ink. But in the end, it’s just a discarded handkerchief that smells like Sadaharu’s hair wax.
Renji decides that it’s his move. Now he just has to decide what that move is. Maybe he should hack Sadaharu’s calendar and add an event – location, date, and time – and when Sadaharu gets there Renji will be waiting. But Sadaharu isn’t going to have a guessable password, he’s not going to leave a back door for anyone to get through. Even Renji.
A cryptic note in email? Sadaharu’s favourite food waiting inside his refrigerator? But Renji can’t climb over the windowsill into Sadaharu’s room like they did when they were kids, whispering in the dark about their strategies and tactics.
But Renji remembers a trip they took to Hiroshima for tennis. They won their tournament and stayed to see the Carp play and Sadaharu bought them both limited edition Carp Boy keychains. Renji lost his years ago but he goes on eBay and pays the Buy It Now price for one, even though it’s ridiculously inflated.
He packages the keychain in a small white box. He should have bought two so he could keep the other for himself, on his desk at work where he could see it all day, or at home on the hook beside the door.
His sense memory of that day is so strong; he doesn’t just see the crowds and the players on the field, he can smell the people all around them, feel the heat of the sun on his arms and legs, taste the ballpark food he bought for them both, hear the hollow ring of the aluminum bat connecting for a double. Chattering with Sadaharu about the team statistics, so interested in their conversation that they missed the big home run.
He addresses it to the school, just Sadaharu’s name and no note. “Your move, Sadaharu,”” he whispers before he tucks the box into his bag to mail tomorrow.
He stands beside the shogi board and plays the next move, his move. His defence is shaping up nicely, firm against Sadaharu’s erratic attack. He touches the board with one finger and gets himself a drink.
He’s at home when Sadaharu calls, the phone clinking against the glass of beer he’s working on. He touches the phone and feels the vibration buzzing up his finger, up his arm, in through his whole body.
“Sadaharu,” he says, when he picks up. His stomach tumbles over, like he’s a kid again, trying to hide his pre-game nerves behind an expressionless face. But no one is here to see him, so he smiles.
“Renji...” Sadaharu trails off. Renji can hear the hesitation in the silence. There’s something more Sadaharu wants to say but he’s not saying it. It’s not like him and Renji suddenly feels like they’re bumping the shogi board again, spilling the pieces, but without the record to set them straight again.
Whatever Sadaharu is going to say, Renji can’t face it lying back like he’s relaxed. He stands up, facing the window, and pulling the curtains back to look out at the neighbourhood lights. He doesn’t want to hear it, but... “It’s your move.”
Sadaharu sighs, loudly enough that Renji can hear it over the phone. “No,” he says. “There are no moves. This is not a game.”
“But you made the first move,” Renji says. “I saw you in the plaza. You were there so I would see you.”
“I was there to buy a shirt,” Sadaharu says and Renji wonders if it was the same one he was wearing at the bar, the one that ended up on the floor of Renji’s room. “I didn’t know you’d be there. I didn’t see you.”
Renji believes that Sadaharu didn’t know, he can hear it in his voice. But he’s not sure that Sadaharu didn’t see him. And he’s not sure what to say now, because he didn’t expect this scenario.
“If we made any moves,” Sadaharu says, “they were the same ones. The same opening, the same mid-game, and that’s where we’re stuck.” He pauses for a moment. “Stop looking for the move behind the move behind the move. There’s nothing there.”
Renji drops onto the bed. He feels hollow, like a brittle crust around a pocket of air, and he’s afraid he’s going to crack. “I don’t know what you want me to say.”
“I know,” Sadaharu says. For a few moments, stretching out to seconds, neither of them speak, just breathe together over the phone. Then Sadaharu breaks the silence: “If it’s my move...I forfeit.”
The line goes dead. Renji slides from the bed onto the floor. He hunches up, arms around his knees, forehead head resting on them.
In his peripheral vision, he sees a speck of white, underneath his bedside table. How many handkerchiefs does Sadaharu carry around? But it’s a piece of paper, torn from an envelope, crumpled into a ball. Renji smooths it out. It’s Sadaharu’s note, the one he kept taking out and reading.
It says: Don’t go home with Renji.
Renji holds it for a long time, rubbing the paper between his fingertips, until the numbers on his bedside clock move past midnight.
The next night, Renji sets up the board and plays the shogi game from the beginning, Sadaharu’s moves and his own. They both could have been good at this game if they had concentrated on it instead of tennis. But as he watches the mid-game take shape, he knows that Sadaharu would have been better. He’s more flexible, more willing to take risks. And even though it was Renji who won this game, he can see now it’s Sadaharu’s play that’s the most interesting.
It doesn’t make Renji feel any better. His body aches, like he has the flu. His brain won’t focus, like he’s drunk. And his heart hurts, like it’s broken.
He gets out his life plan and reads it over. It’s handwritten, in his small bold strokes, columns and rows, all his plans for his career, his health, his finances. He’s hitting all those marks. And a few weeks ago, he would have said that was enough.
There isn’t enough room at the edge of the paper, but he squeezes in a new column anyhow: Relationships. And in every row he writes Sadaharu’s name.
It’s time to stop playing defensively.
Renji leaves work early and walks to Sadaharu’s school. He waits down the block, pretending to look at his phone so he doesn’t seem too creepy, until the kids have surged out through the gate. After a while, the staff begin to follow. When Renji catches sight of Sadaharu, he walks closer, not all the way there, but where Sadaharu is bound to see him and not just in his peripheral vision.
It hardly seems like reckless behaviour to stand in the street and wait to talk to someone you’ve known all of your life, but Renji’s heart is beating fast and his stomach is tumbling and the palms of his hands are clammy.
When Sadaharu comes through the gate, he stops to look at Renji. He doesn’t turn his back, at least, so Renji starts to walk. He wishes he had stopped a little closer because this is incredibly awkward. Sadaharu doesn’t make it any easier; he crosses his arms across his chest and stares as Renji tries to hurry without being ridiculous.
When he’s close enough, he stops. “I just wanted to tell you,” he says. He may be taking a risk, but he’s not so reckless that he hasn’t planned his words. A Renji-level of recklessness and he hopes Sadaharu appreciates it. Sadaharu’s expression doesn’t change: he looks a little sad, a little angry. A little like a person that Renji isn’t sure he knows as well as he thought. But he doesn’t tell Renji to go away, so Renji stays.
“Sadaharu,” he says. “I don’t know what you want me to say.”
“Why are you still thinking about what I want to hear?” Sadaharu’s hair is sticking up in the back, freeing itself from the wax. The kids probably laugh about it.
Renji wants to smooth it down. “I’m not.” He takes a breath. “I don’t want to play games any more. No moves, no tactics.”
Sadaharu doesn’t respond so Renji steps closer. He looks around, no students, no staff, at least for the moment. So he reaches out and takes Sadaharu’s hand. “Maybe I don’t know you any more. But I’d like to.”
“Renji...” Sadaharu’s face changes, glows like he’s having a photo taken and the photographer is using the most flattering ring light. His fingers tighten around Renji’s. And Renji lights up too, inside and out, like the sun is rising in his chest and warming every part of him.
He reaches in his pocket and takes out the crumpled note. He turns Sadaharu’s hand and closes his fingers over the scrap of paper. “Keep that in case you need it.”
Sadaharu opens up his satchel and drops it inside. And in the corner of the bag Renji catches a glimpse of Carp Boy, hooked onto Sadaharu’s phone.
“I did see you that day,” Sadaharu says and Renji just nods.
“I could buy you coffee,” Renji says. “Or we could stand here in the street and hold hands.”
Sadaharu laughs. “Coffee,” he says. “Just coffee.”
Renji nods and they walk together, hands by their sides, shoulders bumping now and again. They sit down and drink coffee and Renji listens to Sadaharu talk about his school, his classes. The experiment that almost destroyed the chemistry lab and got him fired. The movie they should see together.
“Your hair is sticking up in the back,” Renji says.
“Again?” Sadaharu tries to smooth it but he only makes it worse. “How’s that?”
“Were you trying to make stronger hair wax when the lab caught fire?”
Sadaharu laughs and tells another story.
They’re not playing games any more, they’re not. But Renji still feels like he won.