The Closest Place to Forever
El Liston—that school with the cat sculptures on the roof and no uniforms. Nako looks up and shades her eyes from the sun to count them and smiles when the number tells her what—who—they represent: four former students of El Liston who have made their name in the following years. This new building is more compact and residential-looking than the one Keito attended before she made her comeback, but the same lazy atmosphere remains. Students here spend more time sitting outside than they do studying for college entrance exams.
"Ah! It's Sonoda Nako!"
The first shout of recognition spread through the scattered groups of students followed by a swarm of fans and the sound of cameras clicking. Among the din of requests for spoilers (which she can't give) and autographs (which she can as long as her arm doesn't fall off), she hears one of the teens say to another, "Is she an El Liston graduate too? Like that one actress Keiko…"
"Keito. Aoyama Keito," another student corrects.
Nako shakes her head. "I visited her here once when she was here but, I usually had on-set tutors." The bit of gossip falls upon the students, and spreads through the crowd. This actress was a friend of the Aoyama Keito. She poses a bit for the cell-phone cameras and signs autographs for the few students who have a pen and something signable handy—which includes T-shirts and in one extreme case a bare arm.
"Excuse me!" The shout seems a little too organized to come from a student or fan, but the woman who emerges from the crowd of students doesn't make much of an impression—a supporting character, if not an extra, definitely not a shepherd of the misguided youth. She separates Nako from the crowd. "Wait… are you…"
"Sonoda Nako," she introduces herself.
The woman leads her away from the dispersing group of teens. "Ishikawa Sarina, I'm a teacher at this facility."
Nako raises a carefully crafted eyebrow. "You don't look older than a student."
Sarina sighs. "I know. It's horrible. They don't even call me by my last name. Anyway, what's a famous actress doing at El Liston?"
"I'm doing research for a role in a drama," Nako says. It's not a complete lie. What she's not saying is that she's serving as the executive producer for the drama. This is a way to get closure, she thinks, on a rivalry turned friendly between her and Keito and more than that, a way to understand how a place like this could fuel a comeback like Keito's. "I would like to work at El Liston for a little bit. I could hold a theater group."
"We really don't have formal classes, usually the kids just do whatever they want. The teachers are just here to help the students who want it take the high-school equivalency test, to make sure that no one gets hurt, and to deal with the police when necessary."
"That happens a lot?"
Sarina shakes of her head. "No…it's actually quite peaceful here. The kids are all normal." The word normal comes out with a note of wonderment, as though she expected El Liston to be more zoo than educational facility. A very annoyed man with narrow eyes approaches at that moment, and Nako recognizes him as Keito's husband Kouichi.
"Headmaster!" Sarina calls.
At that, Kouichi scowls, and that's before he turns to Nako and his expression sours further. "What are you doing here?"
"I was hoping you'd let me do some observation here."
"Bothersome," Kouichi says, but he motions for Nako to follow him.
Kouichi's office is both strangely barren and filled with unusual objects. Computers abound. That's right, Keito told her that Kouichi still develops and sells software in addition to watching over El Liston, but besides the computers and some meager thrift-store furniture, the only things in his office a picture of his wedding photo with Keito—she really made a beautiful bride, even if some of the flowers in her bouquet looks like weeds—and a small bundle of coxcomb—the flower that shares Keito's name and the flower Kouichi named his former company after—in a vase. Nako doesn't know her reaction to the signs of Kouichi's quiet adoration scattered across the office is jealousy (that no one has loved Nako so much) or relief (that at least Keito married someone who loves her).
He asks a one-word question. "Why?"
"I'm doing research for a role in an upcoming drama. I'm playing a teacher who works at a high-school for outcasts." Technically, that reason is true, and NHK's production schedule wouldn't say anything different. What Nako leaves out by omission is that this project is hers and hers alone conceived and built around the opportunity to spend time here.
The question repeats. "Why?"
Nako doesn't know if she should lie or not with her mind being made up by the simple fact that he didn't believe her. "Perhaps if I do this, I can emerge from her shadow." The identity of "her" doesn't need disclosed. Keito might be in the middle of shooting a music video, but regardless she fills this room as the person that both Nako and Kouichi's fates are wrapped around in their own ways.
"Three days," Kouichi says. Nako wonders if it's just with her, or if every word that passes through Kouichi's lips has the same tone of bored resentment dripping from it. Admittedly, she wonders and almost snickers at the thought of him using that tone with his wife before she straightens her expression. Nako remains a professional above all else, and this is like any other job she could choose to take.
"Thank you very much. I'll do my best."
The first day, Nako finds herself together with Sarina patrolling El Liston's grounds. The late spring day is warm and clear, a rare opportunity to enjoy the weather without a million pressing demands on it. Before the day started, she'd thought she'd catch the attention of the students, but apart from a few autograph requests and some stray snaps of a camera, most of them leave her pay her no mind after she's been there an hour or so.
"So, what is it the teachers do around here, since there are no formal classes?"
"It varies depending on the day," Sarina says, and Nako notices that the teacher is dressed not only casually, but in clothes designed for running around in—including a beat up pair of sneakers. "But usually we're just here to help organize events and to provide adult supervision and any needed assistance.
"So, does that mean you don't really have deal with the police?"
Pu-ru-ru-ru. Pu-ru-ru-ru. Sarina answers her mobile, "Yes, this is…I'll be there right away." She claps her phone shut and sighs.
Sarina nods. "It's this one kid Rakutarou mostly. He's not even a delinquent; they just find him suspicious because he's a high-school kid taking pictures outside in broad daylight."
"Come on," Sarina takes off running—the reason for the easy clothes and the worn sneakers—and Nako trails behind in sandals she eventually discards halfway through the run. They catch up with Rakutarou and the police on the street.
"I'm his teacher."
The encounter falls into a routine, a warning—more a slap on the wrist—for the student, who hadn't done anything unlawful or harassing, just suspicious, then aspersions cast upon Sarina, who looks too young to be a teacher (and who is called "Sarina-chan" by Rakutarou) and El Liston, and then Sarina shaking her head when Rakutarou moves to physically defend the school's honor. No, Rakutarou doesn't actually assault the police officer, but it's a near thing.
"How am I supposed to practice photography if I'm not allowed to take pictures?" The gangly boy is indignant, but Nako supposes he has a point.
"So, you want to be a photographer? Like someone from the paparazzi?"
Rakutarou recoils. "No way! I want to be a landscape photographer!"
Ah. Nako lets a wicked smile spread across her face, as she comes up with an idea. "You could be my photographer for the afternoon. No one would even think twice about someone taking pictures while a celebrity around."
Nako spends the rest of her day being photographed: at a café, at a florist, in front of Keito's latest movie posters. The click of the camera as she contemplates her—rival? Muse?—unsteadies her. Pictures have captured her in many guises, as a myriad of characters ranging from the good girl, to the slightly rebellious best friend, to the femme fatale and in varying shades of undress down to her bikini, but none have captured this part of her—the one that will always chase the brighter star, even after she's fallen.
"Let's go back." Her voice is rough; she doesn't want to explain anything.
The last photograph is one they take at El Liston: Nako, Sarina, and in the background, the four bronze cats on the roof.
After the students have gone home, Nako and Sarina go out for sushi and sake. Nako wears the classic large hat and sunglasses to protect her privacy.
"So," Nako says, "dish. How'd you come to be a teacher there?"
"I went to a normal high-school and college, but I couldn't get hired by any corporations, so I just happened to see in a magazine that El Liston was looking for teachers. I signed up without really thinking about it. It's not any different from any other job, I guess, except for, you know, the wearing sneakers all the time part."
"Do you really think El Liston makes a difference for the students?"
"The headmaster—I mean, Mine-san—says that the students who come to El Liston are lacking something, but by attending El Liston they eventually gain something their peers don't have."
"Hmmph. Do you believe that?"
Sarina turns her head towards Nako and gives a sideways smile. "You know, I'm not sure, but I can't say 'no' anymore."
Nako taps her fingernails on the counter and contemplates that thought for a moment. "How naïve," she says at last, unsure of whether Sarina is all that wrong despite that.
The meager library of El Liston is the oasis of normalcy compared to the fancy-free atmosphere of the rest of the facility. Here the students study for the high-school equivalency exam, and with the teachers here occasionally answering questions and providing help, it almost reminds Nako of the on-set tutors she had as a teen.
Here even Nako's presence barely registers for these students, who seem more into studying than getting autographs. She observes for a little bit, and when a student asks a question she can answer, she occasionally chips in. This is the part she'll play—unless she changes her mind and chooses to go after the role of one of the misfit students instead of the teacher role crafted especially for her.
The sound of paper ripping distracts Nako, both from her career musing and her tutoring. Quietly, she creeps through the rows of shelving, to an isolated table. A girl dressed in a gothic-Lolita-style dress and bonnet tears old books into strips and places them aside.
"What are you doing?"
"Are you supposed to be tearing up old books?"
"No one was reading them."
"It's for Momiji-sensei."
Nako decides to leave the student and her ripped books to another teacher and investigate the circumstances further. Noda Momiji keeps an office on the top floor of the school. She's not in today—probably working at her outside job, but that doesn't mean her workroom is deserted. At least ten girls in fashions ranging from manba to the whole set of Lolita looks sit at work tables taking the strips of paper and rolling them into what appeared to be beads. Even a few guys dressed in flowing capes and shirts with more ruffles than an average visual-kei band are there stringing the beads, and turning them into wide nets. Nako suspects she's run into a factory run by dolls.
For the most part, they ignore her, until someone deigns to notice that a mere mortal has crossed into their space.
"Hey! Looks like Mai found us a model!" One of the boys says as he takes Nako to the side, and before she can say anything, at least two of the female students have come forward carrying an unwieldy contraption of wire that, if Nako were being generous, might be skirt-shaped. She voices her objection, to the unsympathetic ears of the students. They're already wheeling in a mannequin wearing the most Nako comes to spend her second day as a fit model for clothes made of everything but cloth.
If not for the clothing they wore and the intricacy of the garments they subject her to, this workshop would be like any other high-school crafts club.
"So what are the dresses for?"
"Summer Fashion show," one of the girls says. She brandishes the glue gun with reckless abandon and scissors with only slightly more caution. One of the boys drapes the beads over her shoulders. "Momiji-sensei is going to use them to help model her new accessory line."
"See, told you the paper dresses set off the accessories perfectly!"
"So, thanks Miss…"
"Sonoda Nako, like the actress?" One of the students looks up with pins in her mouth, and Nako nods because yes, she is the actress. "But you're so plain! I thought you were just a teacher."
"Thanks…" Well, if she ever becomes such a big star that she can't take a step without seeing her name on a billboard or being swarmed by a herd of adoring fans, at least she knows where she can come for some humility.
To make the whole deal worse, Momiji comes in then and only stifles her snicker after Nako glares at her.
One more day left, right?
What no one had thought to tell Nako ahead of time was that the third day, a Saturday, was a picnic day. The entirety of the Famous Four (Kouichi, Keito, Momiji, and the pro-soccer player Saeki Rei) show up, as well as other alumni and some neighbors still a touch curious about having a so-called "free-school" nearby.
"It's busy today," Kouichi says, turning to Sarina "you did have the students make extra onigiri, right?"
"Good. If we run out, then you have permission to make more."
"Thank you, headmaster," Sarina says in a tone that implies that she's not entirely grateful.
Kouichi shakes his head. "Don't call me that."
"Well, you are," Nako says, "you bought the grounds to the school, oversaw the construction, and it seems like you're the one who organizing everything. So why not call yourself the headmaster."
"There will only be one headmaster of El Liston. And it makes me sound old."
"Anything I can do to help?"
Kouichi shakes his head and points his finger over to where Keito is already getting mobbed by students into wearing ridiculous cardboard costumes. "You're going to be with her today, on stage."
"You're here!" Nako is fairly (but not completely) sure this is a teacher and not a student who approaches her. "Keito said you might come by." He drops some handwritten pages of composition paper into Nako's hands. "You'll be playing the wicked witch today. Here's the script! Curtain rises in two hours! Someone will get you your props before then."
Nako turns to Keito, "Do they usually do this?"
"Well, there was the one time they made all the actors improvise according to audience suggestions, and then there was the time when we had all of a morning to memorize lyrics and choreography for a musical revue."
Keito turns to her with that contagiously optimistic smile of hers. "Let's do our best."
Nako gets to perform with Keito, and working with her is almost like falling in love—almost. Her rival and friend lets herself get so absorbed in a role that it creates an atmosphere about her that spreads the fantasy across the other actors. Nako—already naturally suited to the role of the not-quite-wicked witch—slides into the skin of her character with alarming ease, and the other actors are swept along to follow in their footsteps.
The show ends to thunderous applause, and even Kouichi standing in the back has his hands together, and a bundle of those weed-like flowers to give his wife later. It's a school play—heck, even the idea of two professional actresses participating is crazy enough—but still he treats the school play today the same as opening night at Shiki Theater, and wasn't that what Nako most wanted to see?
Keito takes her hand as they move front and center of the stage to bow to an audience no less eager for all that they're sitting on the grass, on blankets, and on folding chairs instead of in plush 10,000 yen seats.
Kouichi brings forward the coxcomb bouquet to Keito afterwards, and Nako learns the answer to her earlier question. No, Kouichi definitely does not respond to Keito's words with the same fragile annoyance that he shows to everyone else it seems. In fact, short of the sight of mouths moving and a blink-and-you'll-miss-it ruffle of Keito's hair, they seem to hardly speak at all.
"Good job," Sarina approaches her afterwards with a small bouquet of lilies in her arms. There's only five of them, three in delicate white and pink, and two more in a vivid shade of tangerine.
"Thank you. Working with Keito is always like that, though."
"Like being swept along by a force of nature."
"I…see…" Sarina really doesn't, but it's nice of her to pretend otherwise.
"I wonder if that's what the students who are here gain eventually," Nako thinks of her previous days, never leading, but rather following, supporting, and being led along by the whims of students who knew probably better than most of their peers, the path they wanted to walk down.
A few weeks later, and Nako's agent arrives with an envelope in hand. "From your vacation," she says. With Nako's schedule these days, three days off-set to do some research counts as a vacation. "Did you get the information you needed?"
Nako slides the pictures out, a few each from all three days, as Rakutarou's ready excuse to take pictures of the town, as a fit model for unconventional fashions, and as the witch in an improvised play. Nako remembers the sensation of being pulled into the fast-moving current that hides beneath the lazy atmosphere of the school. It's not a life she wants by any means, neither as teacher nor as hypothetical student at Keito's side, but still, she feels more complete for having experienced a taste of it.
"I think so."
That's all Nako can really think to say.