What do you want to learn at our institution?
It’s not the first big question you’ve been asked in your lifetime, but it might well be the first one you’ve ever had to answer as no one but yourself.
You are Nakiri Erina and you are nothing if not accustomed to having all the answers, or at the very least holding yourself as though you do. Because you are Nakiri Erina the answers you do not have immediately at hand arrive at your table with all deliberate speed, without you even having to ask. But this question, brief and somehow childlike and unfolding before you on a page of clean paper, is not answerable with your name. Those asking it want to know who you are, and there is no simple way to tell them that.
You wonder now if it helps matters that you’re expected to answer in French. In a second language, you have no choice but to be simple. You have fewer words to tell the truth with, and in a way that might make it easier for a girl who’s been speaking in circles all her life to say what she really means.
How to teach.
How strange, now, to face all the things you don’t know.
Tadokoro Megumi was the first person to ever call you kind. You still remember the train to Hokkaido, streaking like a star into a night so dark it was all too tempting to second-guess where you would land. You still remember how she used to talk then, stuttering and hesitating, but not once over this. You do so much for all of us, Nakiri-san.
She’s still the person who says it most often, after every little thing you do to ease her way. You might pass her a knife that was no more than an inch out of reach and she’d say you were being kind. It’s who she is, that’s all. Her particular, inimitable grace—grace and gratitude and speaking to parts of people they never even knew they had.
Tadokoro Megumi is also the person who shows you the shape of your future, though she doesn’t know what she’s done, and you don’t tell her when it happens. In her mind all you are doing is filling up a form for the Guidance department, her chair pulled up to your desk in the afternoon after classes let out on the first Wednesday of your third year, choosing which boxes to check off to tell them what you plan to do at the end of your time with Tootsuki.
“All I want to do is go home and help my mom, really,” she’s telling you, as if that’s so small a thing. Tapping the tip of her pen against her lips as she thinks. “Our inn isn’t much, but it’s where I grew up, and it’s always been my dream to...”
There’s a thought you feel taking root in your mind, listening to her, and you wonder. You wouldn’t go so far as to call it a dream—you haven’t quite learned, even now, how to want things that way—and yet—
That feeling of wanting to help someone, of wanting to live for more than just yourself. You’re wondering where that desire could take you. Megumi sees it shining ahead of her, every day.
Tootsuki is the place where you became who you are, and here and now you are teaching yourself to leave it. But maybe that can be a goal too: coming back.
“The first train leaves at six-thirty tomorrow morning.” Hisako sits back from the glow of her computer screen, pushes her glasses up high on the bridge of her nose. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like me to come with you?
It’s mostly a rhetorical question. You and Hisako have an understanding. There are easier ways to make this journey; that’s precisely why you need to go alone.
“You don’t have to worry about me,” you tell her. This, too, is mostly rhetorical. Hisako knows she is free; she has a life of her own now, an office to report to in the morning around the time you should be catching your train, while you are still in the process of building yours from the ground up.
The places where you stop, and meet, and make time for one another—you cannot take them for granted anymore, as you might once have. But gratitude will unsettle her, so you decide to spare her that, do a little to make things easy the way she’s always done for you.
“Safe journey, Erina-sama.”
The messages are phrased first like they’re not meant to start a conversation—I hope you’ve settled in okay, please rest, please take care—and for a time it’s enough to answer in the same vein. Tokyo is seven hours ahead of Paris, which means she rises in the morning as you lay your head down for the night. You go to your first class as she starts on the dinner service. It’s nobody’s fault that it’s difficult to carve out time to talk.
Now and again she will tell you a story, about hosting the wedding of a girl she grew up with, a new recipe she and her mother are crafting, ingredient by ingredient. When you can make time, you give her some of her own, tell yourself that this is Megumi and that she’ll take them however banal they might sound: We’ve been doing team-building exercises, and the girl I told you about, Lucille Boulet—she sliced her finger open with a Tournée knife, and I had to hold her hand under running water for so long before the bleeding stopped. I’ve never seen so much blood before. But after we dressed it in the locker room she went right back to her preparations, imagine.
One day you ask her How are you, and you know right away that it’s odd, because you were never in the habit of asking anybody questions before. You still remember a time it was easy to assume that you had all the answers, or that they would be given you without you even having to ask.
Her reply comes several hours later: I’m so sorry. It’s been a busy day. Inoue-san came down with the flu so we were shorthanded, and then around dinnertime a new group came in from Sendai, a family with the sweetest kids. They’re twins, two boys, like Isami-kun and Takumi-kun. They came right into the kitchen when I told them I couldn’t stop to play, so cute, I couldn’t even be mad.
And then: How are your classes, Erina-san?
Another question, and then another, and then another. Sometimes minutes between, sometimes hours. You tell yourself it doesn’t matter much; you can wait any length of time, as long as the questions don’t stop, and you can steal another chance to listen longer, talk longer, stay longer.
The week before your entrance exams, you cut off all your hair, like a heroine out of a shoujo manga on the cusp of a major plot point.
You make the appointment yourself for once, leave Hisako studying at home and go alone. The whole affair is silly, but you mind it less because no one is watching you, and you figure you may as well take a little payment for all the appearances you have to maintain otherwise.
You watch the scissors in the mirror, the angle of light on the edge of each blade as they cut at the lengths of your hair. You watch the locks drop one by one to the floor, coiling on the tiles, golden and gleaming. In no time at all your bare neck is all that is left.
You resist the urge to lay your palm over the skin to protect it, tell yourself you are braver than that, now.
When it’s done and the stylist’s back is turned you snap a picture of yourself to forward to Megumi, the angle a little slanted, like a secret slipped sideways. This too is silly; she’ll see it in person tomorrow morning, but you won’t have that every day anymore, soon enough.
I did it, you tell her. It’s not thirty seconds before she replies.
You look beautiful!
It should be nothing to you, to be called beautiful. But this is different because you know the courage it must have taken her to say it.
You step off the train and into a wind that blows in from the ocean. When you breathe in—deep, from the core, perhaps deeper than you ever have—you taste salt on the roof of your mouth.
The square outside the station is empty, so early in the morning. You spot an old couple here, a man and two children there, a woman with a basket on her arm; each raises their eyes a little as you walk past, surreptitious and shy but no less curious for all that. No doubt it’s easy to tell a stranger from one of their own when their roots run so deep, even in a place in the path of so many winds, so many strangers coming and going, reaching out and pulling back with the tides.
You pull your scarf closer around your neck and edge the strap of your bag up higher, feel its weight press into the flesh of your shoulder as you make your steady way up the main road. You may not know this town, but you can already tell it is everything she told you it was. And you know where you need to go, to find out all the ways it is even more than that.
You don’t ask Alice to fly in alone from Denmark to see you over the winter holidays. You have never asked Alice for anything, and that’s never stopped her from imposing herself all the same.
“You should go home,” she says, winding her arm through yours to keep you close as you walk. “On your break in the spring. Don’t you miss everyone?”
There’s something Alice isn’t saying, something you only just hear. Such subtlety is rare from Alice, who has always been more likely to say what she thinks and take the consequences with open arms, but she’s also the kind who understands more than she lets most people know. That is why the two of you are on foot rather than taking a car, why you’re meandering idly down sidestreets and over bridges in search of a place to take your afternoon coffee, instead of dining in one of the five places along the Champs-Élysées that your families have always frequented.
You are Nakiri Erina, born into every kind of luxury, but after nearly a year in a foreign city you have learned that the only one you will never relinquish is the pride you take in finding your own way. Alice knows this; it makes her smile even as the cold turns her face red. Her shoulder jostles yours, relentless, relentless.
“Eri-na,” Alice says. She sings the last syllable, stretches it out until the sound makes a cloud in the air. “Will you?”
Holding on to people is easy for Alice, because she leaves them knowing with all the certainty of the sun that they’ll be there when she returns. Or that she need only want to, and she’ll find them again.
“Maybe,” you answer.
It’s nearly ten PM in Japan, and the hand Alice has not captured is quiet in your pocket, curled around your phone. You don’t need to tell her you’re waiting for it to buzz.
“You’re so funny,” she says.
All the books you’ve read should have more than prepared you for this moment, beat for beat, detail for detail—the sakura falling, the faces of your graduating class, the tears. Even the tears, standing in so many familiar eyes, speedily dashed away on the back of a hand.
But there is no way the books could have prepared you for what happens when you stand at the podium and open your mouth to speak to them all as one for the last time, how no sound comes out in the beginning, only the dissipating wisp of a held breath. There is a speech you have to give now, painstakingly typed and half-memorized. There is the tidal wave already swelling at the tips of your fingers. And there is Megumi’s seat in the middle of the second row; there are her eyes on your face bringing you to anchor until you find your voice again.
There is a flower petal, you think as you speak, caught in her hair. You imagine there will be more later, when you descend the podium and your friends snatch you up to take a hundred photos under the weeping trees—petals in her hair and on the crown of your head as you lean together, arms locked around each other’s shoulders, smiling as though you will never let go.
The woman who greets you at the door of the inn must be Megumi’s mother. You recognize her instantly, though you’ve seen her face only in photos and once on a grainy video call, and there is something to the way her eyes soften when she looks at you that makes you wonder if she sees you the same way.
“I’m so sorry, if I’d only known you were coming—I sent her down to the port this morning, but she should be back soon.” She shows you into an empty room, lingering in the doorway while you set your bag down. “Will you be comfortable here, Erina-chan? Is there anything I can bring you?”
You are so well-schooled in polite talk you can discharge all your pleasantries without meaning them, but you cannot help wondering all the same if you sound any different when you do—higher, maybe, or younger, not so certain of yourself. Less like a queen, more like a girl who only sometimes knows her way. “Please, obasan, don’t trouble yourself on my account. I really should have called ahead to tell you I was coming.”
The inn is as Megumi’s described it, an old, rambling building, but well-kept and clean. Water running in the garden, the tatami cool underfoot. You aren’t lying when you call it lovely. Maybe it’s true what Alice is always laughing about, that the years have worn away all your sharpness, little by little, or maybe it’s simply that all your travels have taught you how to appreciate a safe harbor, however small.
Le Havre in the spring. You were four, holding fast to your grandfather’s hand as you walked the span of the seawall, one foot in front of the other like ballet on a tightrope. A sudden draught had blown your hair into your face and nearly made you fall; you’d spat it out angrily, spluttering, your mouth full of salt.
Now you are nineteen and unafraid of the train that will take you there alone, following the Seine on the crest of a wave of desire that tells you nothing but this—now your exams are over, all you want is to be close to the sea. No pretext, no reasons why.
You barely know Le Havre, but it embraces you the way you imagine it must every stranger that blows in by land or water. Later you will lose yourself down its streets, in its markets. But for this first hour at least it is enough to swing your legs over the wall you were so eager to conquer as a child and watch the white beach open up before you, and beyond that the endless blue, luminous and alive in the sun.
I’ve seen pictures, Megumi had said, last night, when you told her where you were going. It looks like the place where I was born.
You have studied enough maps now to know that the sea you face today is the English channel, flowing north and west—a current that can take you only further and further away from home, until it loops around the world and carries you right back, in the end.
The plates and glasses are only half-washed, the paper streamers in the dining room only half-taken down, when Megumi makes you a pot of tea with the last leaves in the Polar Star kitchen. You had meant to finish the cleaning, you and she the last survivors of a farewell party for no less than seventeen people, but somewhere in the middle of making your way down the pile of dishes, her washing and you drying, you had felt your knees buckle and your eyes begin to tear at the corners, and she had made you sit down.
Now you are holding the rim of a cup against your lips, breathing in the warmth, and she is talking softly about all the things she’ll miss—all the faces of her friends (except she says our, strangely enough, our friends), this school, this house and everything in it. And you really have been through a lot, haven’t you? How far you’ve all come, side by side.
It must be close to midnight now, and you’re aware she needs to be on the first train to Tohoku in the morning. You’ve even seen her suitcases, lined up nice and neat and faithful next to the others in the entranceway, and yet—
“More tea, Erina-san?” She taps gently at the back of your wrist when she says your name. You’ve forgotten now when you started letting her call you that, and whether it had been your idea or hers; you only know that soon you’ll have to search a little harder for the sound.
She has taken to touching you more often, these last days, as if she’s afraid she will never see you again and is trying to anchor your memory this way—write it into the palms of her hands, the tips of her fingers. She is braver than you remember her being when you first met, Tadokoro Megumi. But she is even more than that, even more than brave.
“Yes, please,” you say.
There is something else you want to say to her, something heavy and too sweet, lingering in the pit of your throat. It’s a something that makes it hard to speak when you look at her, hard to even move your mouth around a sound; she pours you more tea as if that will help you swallow.
You don’t know how to say it—stay awake with me just a little longer—so you don’t. But Tadokoro Megumi is nothing if not an exceptional listener; you would swear she hears it anyway, and maybe that is even why she stays.
You hear her long before you see her. You are smiling at her long before you see her, and you cannot help it, because she sounds exactly the same.
“Oh, mom, you should have called me! How embarrassing, to keep a guest waiting—mom, please, the fish, the fish...”
You wait, listening. Doors opening, closing, footsteps on the tatami. And then this last door is sliding open to reveal her—braided hair, wide eyes, everything she is just like you remember—and for a moment it’s impossible to tell just which of you is returning to the other.
You draw yourself up straight, and fold your hands together in your lap so that when you face her, they don’t tremble. You remember to breathe.