Skyscrapers stream past as Hatori drives through the city. Their silver-blue facades bend and shimmer in each others' reflections, and as I look out from the passenger side, I struggle to keep my expression neutral. As though Hatori, even with his eyes on the traffic, will be able to sense my excitement.
He's always been able to read me, probably the only person who has. Except maybe my father. But that was a long time ago.
"Are we almost there, Tori?" I fight to keep my voice cool, to keep That Woman’s inflection out of me.
His eyes still fixed on the road, he nods. "It’s just a few more blocks."
Red and green and yellow-orange lights sluice over asphalt and concrete, pouring out of vehicles and shop windows and traffic lights and apartments. The city crowds my mind: vibrant signs of hot dog vendors, the gleam of briefcases, parents with small wobbling children.
My eyes catch on a woman in black. No, a girl — about my age, seventeen. Her outline shakes with energy and laughter at something a friend has said. She holds the leash to a large black dog, and I wonder how she’s allowed to have an animal on the patio of an upscale Italian restaurant. She sits amidst a crowd who look to be in their early twenties. They all wave their hands as though whatever they’re saying is incredibly exciting. But it’s the girl who holds my attention.
Her dark brown hair falls to her shoulder. The sunset shoots red-gold through her edgy bangs, her eyes hidden behind black-sky sunglasses. At her side, her dog listens as her deep red lips move with words I can’t hear. Her black dress stops above her knees, and she's thrown a long black jacket over, matching her high boots. I estimate her to me a bit shorter than me — tall rather than gangling. She doesn’t fold into herself when she sits, doesn’t look like she’s trying to hide. Whatever she’s saying, the words come easily to her.
A girl like that would never even speak to me. I feel like an alien scientist observing another species.
I make myself look away. White stripes on the road pass us by.
“There’s the building,” says Hatori.
It looks like all the others, but something jumps in my chest.
My new home. I’ll be free.
The blue-grey glass draws closer.
"Well, this is it." Hatori holds out the key. I grab it from his fingers and twist it in the lock. The battered door opens and we step inside.
The apartment smells of cleaning, traces of disinfectant and inoffensive, impersonal air-freshener. The bedroom and kitchen directly attach, a closet-sized washroom off to the side. The ceiling is low and the walls yellow-white with age or old smoke. I take off my shoes and let my socks touch the thin blue carpet. Flourescent lights line the ceiling, already flickering. I find an inflatable mattress, a microwave, a grey plastic table, a folding chair.
"How is it?" says Hatori.
"Very good," I say. I try to keep my voice low, level, but I know he's seen through me.
"I'm glad you like it," he says, and a strange feeling comes over the edges of my lips. I realize it’s a smile.
I sit down on the mattress and it sinks until I feel the floor beneath me. I flinch — despite trying to eat "normally" the last few weeks, at least in front of my relatives, I'm still bony enough that it hurts to sit on anything hard. I'm proud of this, of course. But it's inconvenient, as though my body is covered in permanent bruises.
I think back to the people I'd seen walking, and heat rises to the surface of my skin. No one deserves to live in their body that effortlessly. Not when I’ve been trying so hard.
But this time I have a home, I remind myself. I breathe in the soap-smell of the air, and warmth uncurls in my chest. I made it to the city.
Something glimmers on the wall, and I notice a set of cream-coloured curtains blending in with the paint. Orange shreds of sunset slip through the folds and shine in the carpet fibers. I rise to my feet, push the curtain aside, and look.
Behind the smeared pane, buildings stretch into a glass and steel forest. Lights spill into the approaching evening; the white and orange squares burn the blue shadow creeping over the city. Down below, cars stretch out of sight, lines of glittering beetles.
A hand touches my shoulder, and I cringe despite myself. "I got you something," says Tori. "As an apartment-warming gift."
I reach for the small box and unwrap it. I unfurl a cord and set the clock radio on the floor beside the bed. I plug it in and set the time to match the display on my watch: 5:24. I've done nothing all day, but I'm exhausted.
I flip through the stations, volume at a whisper, then grow bolder. A song with birdlike piano, balanced with the thrum of base, blooms from the speakers. Sound fills the apartment like a substance, air or water. Rhythm hums up through my socks.
"I'm glad you like it," says Hatori.
"Thanks." I can't look at him. I don't know how to say things like this. "Really."
"It's not a problem," he says, but I don't believe him.
I wait for him to leave. But when he walks to the door, he says, "Akito? Are you coming?"
I make sure the door is locked behind me. As we walk, Tori points out restaurants and clothing stores. I find a green belt and a pair of baggy black jeans, making a note to go back and get them when I have a job. But as soon as I mention this, Hatori buys them for me — more apartment-warming gifts. I feel guilty for accepting, and make another note to pay him back in the future.
He also walks us into restaurants, and I consider whether this whole outing might be a ploy to ruin my routines.
He knows I hate eating in front of people. I've designed my life so that meals are quiet, private, and constrained by enough rules to keep me under control. Without the rules, I feel like I’ll start eating and never stop.
But I owe him.
I make up some emergency rules: if I eat slowly, cutting the food in the smallest pieces I can, and force myself to delay between each bite, I can keep control. As I tell myself this, my heartbeat becomes less erratic, though my lungs remain constricted.
I ask Tori questions about his thesis and summer plans and whether Kana is doing any better. My voice comes out faster than I want it to, but he answers in the slightly-less-deadly-serious-than-usual tone that is his version of enthusiasm. As we talk, I consume an egg roll, a bowl of miso soup, and some fries with ketchup. He watches my hands as I saw at the fries with a plastic knife, but he doesn't comment.
Tori and I got our first girlfriends around the same time. But since he was a seventeen-year-old guy and I was a fourteen-year-old girl, our experiences didn't have much else in common. Well, aside from the fact that they both ended badly and brought even more complications into our lives.
I was in ninth grade, and by this point I had already realized I wasn't "normal." What I was trying to figure out was what exactly that meant.
The other students whispered whenever I walked down the hall. Is that a boy or a girl? I'd hear them laughing. During group assignments, I'd do the whole thing myself to avoid interaction. If my group didn't let me do this, my blood pounded and my vision blurred at the edges. More than once I had to run to the washroom to vomit. Then I'd sit on the cold linoleum and force myself to breath until the black specks cleared from my vision.
I couldn't eat in front of anyone else. It was the same feeling — that I was going to expose myself, whatever it was that was wrong with me.
At home, That Woman and I alternated between screaming fights and weeks without speaking. She would throw things at me — plates, water glasses.
She told me it was my fault my father had died.
I hated school. I hated home more.
I wore layered clothes that covered as much of me as possible. It would reduce the number of comments on my weight.
And I was always cold, anyway.
At lunch hour I did homework in empty classrooms. Before and after gym class I waited until the girls’ washroom was empty, then changed in a stall.
Then one day, after I'd changed into sweatpants and two hoodies, she was there. I hadn’t heard her come in. A girl with short, messy blonde hair was applying eyeliner in the mirror. Her reflection looked straight at me.
I wanted to duck back into the stall, but she'd seen me. If I ran out of the room she might follow. Or tell her friends what I freak I was.
"Hey." She had the soft, rough voice of the kids who smoked off-campus during lunch hour. "Akito Sohma, right?"
I'd never seen her before. Why did she know my name? Did people talk about me that much? "Yeah," I said. At least she wasn't freaking out. Not even a Hey, you're in the wrong bathroom.
I set my clothes down on the counter and washed my hands, trying not to look at her. Failing. Her white-blonde hair was brown at the roots, and she was half a head shorter than I was. I made myself stare at the water frothing over my hands, but I couldn't block out the scent of her. Cigarette smoke, but also flowers. A lavender scent of soap or perfume. Nice.
I felt strange, standing close to her. It scared me because I liked it.
"I'm Nikki," she said.
"Nice to meet you." I spoke carefully, not letting out what felt like a wild bird slamming against my chest.
"What class do you have?"
She stuck out her tongue. "Lame," she said. My insides crumpled, until I realized she meant the class, not me.
"Yeah," I said.
"I really don't want to write this math test. Want to skip together?"
I didn't skip class. I came to school when I was so sick it felt like I was dying. I avoided social situations for homework. "Sure," I said.
No one stopped us as we walked off the grounds. Nikki seemed so confident that, eventually, I stopped looking over my shoulder. We went to a fast food place where I paid for everything and Nikki said she'd pay me back and I said she didn't have to. I ordered a burger, and when I ate it, I think I experienced the same rush Nikki got shoplifting at the next few stores we went to. She took jewelry, socks, pins with band names on them. I offered to pay. The whole collection couldn't have cost more than ten dollars. But she smiled, said I was sweet and that it was okay.
She was my first friend.
We met up after school and over lunch break, and the occasional times when she rescued me from gym. We talked. About stupid kids and teachers who were always judging us. About music. About our families.
I didn't tell her a lot, just that my mom had a lot of problems so it was best if we stayed out of my house. But that was more than I'd told anyone else. When I said this, my throat constricted on the words. Nikki kissed my cheek and said it was okay, we could always go to her house.
Nikki's friends all kind of looked like her: black clothes, eyeliner, perpetually shrouded in smoke. They were kind to me, though we never really got close. I didn't understand their jokes, and their explosive laughter seemed unnecessary. One of the boys would share vodka he stole from his older sister and the group of them would get drunk. Nikki was always fairly calm, but some of her friends talked frantically, or became suddenly tearful, or just stopped making sense.
In retrospect, they couldn’t have been as drunk as they seemed. It was an excuse to lose control. But the loss of control was real. With every too-loud laugh or incoherent sentence, I fell back into memories of screaming. Shattering glass. My muscles tensed in preparation for a fight, though I'd never seen her friends violent.
Screaming. Shattering glass. It’s your fault he’s gone.
I'd make up an excuse to leave, and I'd go for a walk alone beside the fields.
One day when I was walking, I heard steps behind me. I turned to see Nikki run up beside me. "Want some company?" she said.
She only ever drank a little, chewed gum after to hide the smell. She said her parents would kill her if they found out. A pink tinge glowed under her skin, though that was probably from running. Her words came out perfectly clear.
"Okay," I said. "Did you have to go home too?"
"Um, I kinda wanted to talk to you, actually."
"Thanks," I said, which was a stupid response, but she didn't seem to notice.
"Yeah," she said. She was looking at her feet as she walked. Her black nail polish flashed as she fidgeted with her lighter. "Do you, uh… You like girls, right?"
My face burned to the point of being painful. She knew what the other students said about me. Of course she knew. I should have dressed differently, worn girl clothes, my comfort was a small thing to lose in exchange for having a friend — and now she knew there was something weird about me, and she was going to leave.
"Um…" I stared down at my feet too, then let out another "um." As though it wasn't a yes or no question, but an essay I was being asked to compose. "I guess. Why does it matter?"
"Well, um… I was wondering if you liked me."
I forgot how to move my legs and stopped walking. My brain seemed to have fallen out of my head.
"Yeah," I said, looking at the sidewalk and hoping it would open up to swallow me.
She touched my hand, and I looked up to see she was smiling. "I like you too."
The sky poured blue over shimmering fields. She slipped her hand into mine and we walked towards her house, my face on fire the entire time. A few blocks before her neighbourhood, she kissed me goodbye and I marveled how I could ever be unhappy in a world that contained her.
"Isn't it bullshit?" she said one day, after a school assembly. We lay on our backs in the late autumn grass, on a hill equidistant from her house and the school. Hardly anyone else knew about it, so we could be alone here together. The hill offered a panoramic view of the sky above and the town down below. It was starting to get dark, and the tiny houses' lights were going on, white and orange, reflecting on the underbellies of the layered clouds.
Nikki lay with one hand around my shoulders, the other playing with my hair. I could hear her breathing. She felt warm against me.
Nikki seemed to think a lot of things were bullshit, so I asked what she meant in specific.
"I mean," she said, "like, that whole speech they gave us. About how school prepares us for life. Why do they assume we aren’t living now?”
I thought I knew what she meant. "I don’t get it either,” I said. “Age isn’t the only factor in how smart someone is, or how valid their experiences are.”
“Exactly. We’re fourteen, not stupid.”
“And it’s not as though everyone the same age has the same life. Though it can be hard to know what’s real sometimes — I mean, in terms of what’s meaningful.”
She kissed me. She tasted like smoke and bubblegum. "This is real," she whispered.
I apply for a job at the bubble tea place in the mall, just because it's close to my apartment and they have a "Now Hiring" sign up. A day later, I get a phone call notifying me that I've been hired and can begin work as soon as possible.
Two people work the same shift as I — a tiny red-haired junior high girl, and a geeky 15-year-old with blond hair that is always getting in his eyes and in customers' orders. He lives in fear of mispronouncing my name, and thus always refers to me as "sir."
I'm in the middle of taking an order when my cell phone rings. "Just a moment," I tell the redhead as I duck into the back of the shop to answer, although I'm not sure if I should. What if it’s her? I know how unlikely it is That Woman would call me, but my hand shakes as I bring the phone to my ear.
"Akito Sohma speaking."
"Akito, your school just called me." It's Tori.
"Why?" It didn't even start yet. How can I be in trouble already?
"I'm listed as your guardian. They notified me that your transcript has been finalized."
"What does that mean?"
"You can start attending classes as soon as you're ready. They've emailed you your schedule."
"As soon as I'm ready… so, on Monday?"
"If you wish."
I never would have expected it, but in the time I've been in the city I've actually been… lonely. I spend my non-working hours wandering downtown, looking at food I can’t eat and clothes I can't afford to buy, or I stay in my apartment, listening to the radio and reading books from the library. At the thought of school, a rush of unrealistic possibilities floods my mind — friends. University. Normalcy.
"I'll go. Thanks, Tori."
"I've got to get back to work."