Everyone’s got one of those little tragedies.
For Shiro: the unfamiliar glint of his prosthetic arm under the dim lighting, six missed calls from his mother, and, to his chagrin, the young waiter rushing to and from the bar counter. He’s in a hole-in-the-wall kind of place in Natori, Miyagi, a small tavern nestled between a bank that never seems to be open and an electronic store that leaves its TVs at the front window running into the night. Natori itself had experienced its own little tragedy several years ago, but people here don’t like to bring it up. It works for him too – he’s had enough of them for the moment.
Outside, a dark gloom blankets the town, the summer humidity suffocating. The warm, orange light from the sparse streetlamps retreat down the slope of the hill until they become nothing but burning suns in the darkness.
From the corner of his eye, he watches the young waiter approach him with his order: a cold bottle of Sapporo draft beer, and an empty mug, hanging from the grip of his last two fingers. His skin is fair, cheeks slightly rosy from working in the heat, his jet black mane pulled back into a stubby ponytail low on his neck. Shiro let his gaze linger for a moment – on the sharp lines of his collarbones under his fitting black shirt, partially concealed by the white towel draped around his neck.
“Your drink, sir,” he slides the beer across the bumpy wooden table, stopping them right before Shiro’s clasped hands. Shiro instinctively reaches to pull the sleeve of his windbreaker further over the back of his hand. The waiter lingers for a moment. Shiro has no idea what he’s looking at, since he’s trying to avoid eye contact by pretending to be distracted by the football match playing on one of the TV screens from the adjacent store.
Thankfully, the Earth continues to spin about its axis. People have better things to do than stare at other people’s funny-looking arms and sour-looking faces. So what if he’s wearing a jacket in the peak of summer?
Shiro reaches forward to pop open his bottle of beer and fills up half the mug with the piss-colored liquid. Around him, the sound of buzzing flies around the mercury vapor lamp hanging on the ledge of the ceiling reverberates against the walls of his ears. He watches them circle the bulb mindlessly in a trance, and quickly, their rapid demise.
“To forgetting,” he announces to no one in particular, and he takes a gulp as big as his mouth can hold.
(He chokes on the first gulp, his grimace a perfect facial representation of the bitter aftertaste.
It was his first time drinking alcohol, after all.)
He returns again the next night, orders the same order, and sits in the same seat.
The only thing that changes this time is:
“You didn’t seem to like the beer very much yesterday,” the waiter remarks in amusement, his eyes bright against the dim backlight. “A cup of iced water to force it down,” he continues, and he picks the glass off his tray and plants it on the table.
“Thanks,” Shiro manages to cough out, embarrassment showing through the rising blush up his neck.
And the man shrugs, all casual and infuriatingly effortless. “Hey, it does it job. As long as you get over the rancid taste.”
Shiro nods. For the moment it’s the best he can do. His eyes trail the waiter’s path as he threads through the haphazard arrangement of tables and stools. From the far corner of the tavern, his boss shouts something at him, his voice barely audible above the roar of the midnight crowd. The waiter’s lips tip in a crooked smile – a challenge – but his eyes remain child-like, almost stubborn, as if he were saying, just watch me carry these twenty bottles on my tray, old man.
He ends up breaking something ten minutes later, to his boss’ horror. An empty glass bottle, so no money lost. Shiro watches him grumble as he sweeps the broken pieces of glass up with a broom, and out of nowhere he thinks, he’s kind of cute.
Returning his attention to the drink in his left hand, he’s left to ponder why he’s returned. Beer, the second time round, tastes just as bad.
The vibration of his pant pocket jolts him out of his reverie and he picks his phone out to read:
Takashi, where are you?
His fingers hover over his keypad for a while before he replies his mother.
“I’m okay,” he reads aloud as he types, even if it’s not much. Maybe, just maybe, it might come true the more he says it to himself.
It is midday in the stuffy room he rented in a nearby inn. In the middle of watching the white curtains dance in the afternoon breeze from his position on his bed, a startling realization occurs to him.
He was watching me, he recounts gravely. He watched me choke on stupid tasting beer.
He almost wants to slap his face, but his right hand lays unaware by his side. Right. Fuck.
He slaps his face with his left palm instead.
The tavern in broad daylight manages to look decent. Maybe it’s the sunlight that streams in and fills all the corners of the square space. Even the yellowed tiled walls look less disgusting. The bank next door is open, and old men and women stream in and out of its doors. During the day, the electronic store plays reruns of a high school volleyball match from the Spring Tournament in the Miyagi Prefecture, and little boys on their bikes stop and watch the spectacle, even if they’ve already seen it countless times before.
Shiro ducks into the tavern, choosing to head indoors this time to seek refuge from the blazing sun. He sits near the entrance though, so he has something to look at. Outside, a clump of heavy, impossibly white clouds sit above a shophouse in the distance, a giant in the common folks’ midst.
“Oh! It’s you,” he hears a familiar voice gasp behind him. Shiro turns his head to meet the same waiter’s eyes. He finds him easily, his gaze warm like the heat under his windbreaker.
The waiter jogs over from where he had emerged from the storeroom, his face coming into the light. Here, in the path of the unrelentless rays of sunlight, he looks absolutely radiant.
“Uh,” the waiter starts, caught by surprise. “Beer this early?”
“Ah, no,” Shiro corrects. “I was hoping you had normal people food. The kind that people eat during the day.” His words sounded better in his head. Maybe he should have thought this through.
“Uhhhh,” the waiter has to pause, scratching the back of his head as he looked at the ceiling. It doesn’t look too promising. At that moment, Shiro notices that he doesn’t have his hair up. And then something in the man’s head clicks. “I’ve got some beer-tella. Sound good?”
“You’ve got some… what?”
The man shrugs. “I mean, all we serve here is beer and sometimes onigiri. And I haven’t made those yet. So.”
The waiter emerges from the storeroom again two minutes later with a bakery to-go box in his hands. He introduces himself as Keith Kogane , the katakana of his first name harsh on his lips. Pulling up a chair across him, Keith sits himself down and gets to work on opening the cardboard box.
“Keith?” Shiro repeats, the first English name he’s heard in awhile. He says it again silently, his tongue smacking against the back of his teeth, almost angry.
“It’s edgy. Different. A new beginning,” he explains, all while picking the tape on the edges of the box. Finally, he gets them open. He curses too, because a dainty looking box like that had no need for heavy-duty tape on all four sides.
He pushes the open box towards Shiro for the first helping. Shiro picks up one of the castella sponge cakes carefully with his left hand, his right arm resting peacefully on his lap. He takes a bite, and his face scrunches up immediately. The bitter-sweet collision of flavor catches him by surprise, but surprisingly, the aftertaste isn’t all too bad.
“Soaked in brewer’s yeast instead of baker’s yeast. Genius, don’t you think?” Keith laughs, and laughs, the quality of his voice carried on the passing mid-afternoon breeze.
Between his second and third piece, Keith asks, “So what are you here for? Vacation?”
It’s a harmless question that Shiro struggles to find an answer to. One missed call from his father today, twelve missed calls from his family in total. Maybe he should find some touristy things to do while he’s here, like stroll along the coast, or maybe buy some junky t-shirts for his parents to shake their heads in disappointment.
“Yes. Vacation,” Shiro replies simply. “As long as I want.”
“Wow,” Keith sighs into his palm, shifting his entire body weight to slouch over the table. “Lucky.”
Keith is an interesting character, Shiro figures out by the end of their afternoon conversation. Keith’s boss shuffles in at around five in the afternoon and looks surprised at seeing Shiro in his establishment once again. He must be wondering if Shiro had a life to get to, or if he were just a homeless bum that sat around drinking all day. Well, a rich homeless bum, since Shiro paid for all his drinks.
Keith’s growth was oddly figured: like a child in a grown-up’s body, or a grown-up in a child’s body – Shiro couldn’t decide. Keith, at points in their conversation, exhibited a childish sort of glee, and then, as sudden as an afternoon downpour, a tongue as sharp as a knife. He was shrewd, but showed restraint.
Shiro didn’t let any of this get to him though. In fact, he found Keith to be relatable, in an odd twist of fate.
Later, Keith insists he take the rest of the castellas home with them, even after Shiro’s politely declined. So Shiro leaves with the box in hand, thanking him sheepishly over and over. Halfway down the hilly asphalt, he turns behind to leave the tavern a parting look, expecting to see the tall zelkova trees framing the skyline and the warm cherry sunset of an afternoon well spent.
He sees all the above, including a small irregularity: the silhouette of a young man, mane of a hair combed back like waves, quietly watching.
Shiro doesn’t end up doing any of those touristy things like he’d said he was going to. He tries, and it does absolutely nothing to improve his mood.
In the evening, the tide starts to rise, gradually creeping up the embankment. It picks up the stray leaves that had fallen on the steps from the large trees, pooling it into a clump of golden-gray flakes at the base. The scent of brine left an unwelcome taste on his tongue, and he leaves within the first five minutes.
Instead, he heads back to his inn. He pays the old woman at the counter a week’s fees in advance, because he had figured, on his way home, that another week’s stay wasn’t going to hurt anyone.
He dials his mother’s phone number, the first on his list of recent calls, and presses his phone to his shoulder as he searches his pockets for his room key. His mother picks up within two rings.
“Takashi!” First word in and she’s already sobbing – making his entire life sound like an apology – and in an instant he regrets it. He can hear her tears warm on her phone screen, if that’s even remotely possible. He tilts his head back, the blank white of the ceiling staring him in the face, and waits for her to stop.
When she’s finally got it all out of her system, her breathing ragged on her end of the phone, Shiro asks for her to pass the phone to his father.
“I’m fine,” he assures, after the shuffling sounds stop and he hears the loud clank of a table.
“I’m… taking a break. It’s been a lot to process the past few months. I’ll be back home soon.” he pauses here and thinks about what his parents want to hear, “I’ll call again.”
He throws his phone to the corner of his bed and collapses on his back. The plastic of his arm never felt heavier than before.
(When he rouses from his sleep in his hospital ward, it’s already night time, darkness spread unevenly across the sky. The weather was poised on the precipice of winter – a little more and they’ll fall into spring. And with spring comes new life, sunshine and happiness. But for now, the bare branches of the trees outside thrashed against the windows, blown back in the harsh winds like claws on glass.
His right side felt painfully light.
Outside, he hears his mother’s voice unacceptably loud in the hallways and the sound of her hand slapping his father’s broad chest.
My son will never be normal again!
He presses his eyes closed and sinks into sombre silence. He pretends not to hear that one.)
If it was a social taboo to patronize the same restaurant twice in a single day, then, well .
Keith’s boss does a double take, surprised at his own luck, and Keith watches him meander through the sea of people to end up at the bar counter, an island in it’s own right.
“You’re back,” Keith breathes, and it comes out like a whisper. It’s barely audible enough for Shiro to hear, but the surprise in his eyes gives him away, pupils blown a deep winter’s gray.
Shiro glances behind him and points to his regular spot with his chin.
“Looks like my spot’s taken tonight. Mind if I sit here?”
“No, no. Not at all,” Keith replies, mouth spreading into a flustered grin.
There's nothing much to look at in his position. The small TV mounted on the wall was playing the ten o’clock drama, but there wasn't any point in watching if he couldn't hear the dialogue. Keith comes and goes, grabbing bottles of beer by their necks as he fulfills order after order. It is his job, after all, so Shiro doesn’t know why he’s feeling disappointed.
Keith shoots him a glance every time he swings behind the counter though – leaves it lingering for as long as he can because he knows that Shiro is watching. Drumming his fingers restlessly on the cheap wood, Shiro attempts to string an invitation in his head, but Keith beats him to it.
“If you’re not busy later-” Keith says when he serves Shiro a second bottle. “We should hang out.”
Shiro stares in response, his breath held and his lungs burning.
“Yes,” he eventually spits out. Easing into a bashful grin, he waves his spacey behavior off to the alcohol.
Things eventually quiet down around two in the morning. The other patrons pick up their briefcases and leave one after another. This leaves Keith at his station behind the bar counter for longer periods of time, to Shiro’s delight.
Keith’s boss lets him leave after he’s wiped the tables down and stacked the stools on the tables.
On the walk home, Shiro trails behind Keith, the narrow alleys and stairs making it difficult for them to walk side by side. The moon, which earlier was shrouded by the thick trees, suddenly makes its appearance and in the moonlight, Keith’s hair shines like a black pearl.
They make it to Keith’s apartment at the top of the stairs. He jams his key into his lock and gives it a good shake.
“Old door,” he explains when he's finally got it open.
Keith flicks on the light and tosses his keys into a little dish on the table by the door. It's a modest one bedroom studio: a couch that doubled as a futon, a small kitchenette, and a quaint circular table right in the center of the room. It’s not much, Keith starts to explain, looking increasingly embarrassed, but Shiro can tell what the space meant to him. The table had been dutifully wiped down, letters and bills neatly stacked and placed at one end. A calculator sat atop the pile, its buttons discolored from use. As for the wires that had come undone in the kitchen, Keith had promptly fixed with some duct tape.
After standing at the kitchen counter for a while, staring at whatever it was in his cabinets, Keith eventually turns, leaning his weight against the counter behind him.
“Would you like some tea?”
“Kintsugi,” Keith points out when he notices Shiro staring at his teacup.
Shiro blinks to attention, raising his head to meet Keith’s concerned gaze, a little too close for comfort. For a second he sees the slight twitch of Keith’s hand resting on the table, looking as if he were contemplating reaching over. But it remains where it is when the moment’s passed.
“The lines on the cup. If you were wondering.” Keith adds, casting his gaze somewhere else. He rifles through the bills on his table as a distraction.
The cracks on the cup extended from its base, colored a shimmering gold like bare branches in the height of a sunset autumn.
“That’s what they do. Broken things, while broken, still retain their value. There’s no way to erase the cracks, and I-” Keith pauses, and corrects, “one has to live with it. Accept it.”
Keith notices the jacket pulled over Shiro’s knuckles, but he doesn’t say a thing.
(“Picked the pieces up myself,” Keith says abruptly even after the conversation’s ended. He’s on his third cup of tea, the teacup held between his hands over his knees.
“They belonged to my father’s favorite tea set. He used it every day.”
Shiro tilts his head slightly so that Keith comes into view. There he was, wiry hands clasped tightly around the porcelain cup, just gentle enough so as to not break it. In his eyes Shiro saw a mix of steely determination and a sorrow so profound, glassed over with a slight sheen of tears.
“I evacuated onto higher ground with my high school when the tsunami swept over Natori. My father was a policeman. My mom, an elementary school teacher. She, along with her students, was carried along the currents as they tried to cross a bridge.”
Shiro wishes, desperately, for the right words to say.
“Thank you for sharing that with me.”
Quickly, Keith wipes his eyes over with the tips of his fingertips. Laughing to himself, he says, “You looked like the type to understand loss.”)
“I was supposed to be a pilot,” Shiro reveals one day over breakfast. He shows up less than six hours since he was last at Keith’s residence the morning before. He had expected Keith to still be asleep at ten, but he rang the doorbell for good measure. To his surprise Keith received him at the door already dressed. His hair was yet to be tamed, and it stuck out at awkward angles. Behind him, his dining table had papers fanned across, the calculator and a metal biscuit tin sitting in the center as not just paperweights.
Keith nods, staying silent. He takes another bite out of the convenience store onigiri.
The morning light filtered through the sun-bleached curtains, leaving a pool of warmth by the window. And that’s where it remained – by the window. A few inches away, Shiro’s feet remained in a familiar gloom.
“They obviously won’t let me back into a plane now, so I’d best figure out a new career path,” he muses bitterly, wondering how they had strayed to such grave conversation topics at this early hour.
For the first time in a long while, Shiro feels relieved, feeling his own self collapse under his skin.
“I don’t think I’ve ever talked to anyone about myself since the accident,” he admits later while Keith is by the sink doing the dishes.
Keith’s hands stall over the soap-covered plates. Any longer and he’ll begin to see his fingertips prune. Shiro casts a look over when he’s noticed him still, only to catch his coy, reserved smile, tucked into his chin. A secret that the two of them will keep.
(That’s what you get when you let a stranger into your life like that.)
After two days of holding it in, the sky finally relents, releasing rain upon the land in waves. The downpour repels customers of any sort. Shiro was the only one who dutifully showed up when the rain was at its lightest. Since then, it has been thundering down, the heavy droplets pelting the acrylic awning angrily.
Keith’s boss lets him go home early tonight, sensing the impossibility for the night to turn around. Well, there will always be the next day.
“It’s not going to get any lighter,” Keith laments, gazing up at the swirling gray sky from under the shelter. The bags under his eyes have only started to grow darker ever since he met Shiro.
Shiro makes a decision. He is shrugging out of his windbreaker when Keith stops him, his hand warm on the crook of Shiro’s elbow. It is then that Shiro registers the proximity of their faces – how Keith looks up at him wide-eyed, face flushed, and expects him not to care.
He makes Keith grab one end of his jacket and swings it over so that it covers both their heads.
The same night, Shiro kisses Keith as soon as they pass through Keith’s front door.
“Keith,” Shiro calls out gently after he closes the door behind him.
When Keith turns around he is smiling, all feral with fire in his eyes, and for a moment it's hard to imagine that this very same man has experienced anything less than pure joy.
Shiro extends his hand and brings him close, his hand fitted against the small of Keith’s back. The clang of Keith’s keys on the floor is sharp but fleeting, and it is quickly lost in the barrelling in Shiro’s ears. He thinks of the lifting of floodgates, the waves of his consciousness pounding against the walls of his heart both angry and relieved, especially when Keith presses back. He thinks about all the things he’s lost, and how utterly helpless he is in preventing it from happening again, and again, and again.
And he thinks, out of habit, how they're going to catch a cold if they don’t change out of their soaked clothing.
Keith smooths over Shiro’s arms, leaving his left hand to rest on the junction of his prosthetic, and Shiro recoils like he’s been burnt. Squeezing his eyes closed, Shiro lets both arms fall to his side, his throat all of a sudden closing on him. But Keith – instead of pushing him away – he reaches out again, touch careful like a snowflake on the tip of a strand of hair, and links each hand with Shiro’s.
For the longest time, this is all Shiro registers.
None of Keith’s shirts fit Shiro’s large torso, so he has to make do with a blanket wrapped around his body while his shirt hangs to dry in front of the standing fan.
The lamp by the couch is turned on, it's warm suffusing glow extending to touch their skin. The period between two to five in the morning was rightfully referred to as the dead of the night, the noise and clamor of the town enveloped in a bereft silence. Shiro’s long finished his cup of jasmine tea and he finally stretches over to replace it onto its saucer.
“I’m not trying to fix you,” Keith puts it out there as a disclaimer, a warning. The lingering look on Shiro’s prosthetic peeking out of the covers gives his intentions away.
“And don’t try to fix me either,” he adds ruefully as an afterthought. His gaze is now cast downwards towards his clasped hands, a sour-sweet emotion written on his face. A part of him, Shiro realizes, is desperate to prove he is strong. He lets that be for now.
“Okay,” he says haltingly, voice measured. A nod to end the conversation and a swift change of subject to discuss varying grades of tea is all it takes to return a smile to Keith’s face; stagnancy, as Shiro’s come to know it, is for once a welcome guest.
“I’m going home the day after tomorrow,” Shiro mentions later into the week.
Not exactly the words Keith wants to hear.
“The day after tomorrow,” Keith repeats like a curse. There is no violent reaction, no thrashing of waves or falling apart of the universe. The words vanish into thin air right in front of him, as they’ve always had.
On Thursday night, the summer rain lets up around evening time, leaving a muggy sort of discomfort in the air. The railings on the side of the road still had a sheen of water on its surface, glistening in the moonlight. Shiro took a deep breath standing outside the tavern. One of his lasts – at least for the time being. Only after he’s sorted his life out can he take another vacation.
He chooses to take a seat by the counter instead of his usual seat outside. There will always be another opportunity to catch football on TV, but this–
“Hey!” Keith exclaims, giving him a small wave from behind the counter.
His gaze never loses Shiro in the crowd. His cheeks, rosy like a freshly plucked peach, are set aglow in the warm yellow light.
“What did we say about drinking on the job?” Shiro teases as he slides onto his stool. He sets his hands on the counter in front of him. His windbreaker, always a staple, is rolled up to his elbows.
Keith scoffs and mumbles a curse under his breath, and he pulls out a bottle of beer in each hand.
“We just got a new shipment in. The usual Sapporo , or how about Asahi Super Dry?” He raises both of them up in front of Shiro. “Pick your poison.”
And pick his poison, he does. He stands up and inches closer, capturing Keith’s lips in an effortless kiss. Everything stops then – the overthinking in his head, the worries, the mistakes. Keith’s eyes flutter close, and to everyone’s relief he doesn’t drop both bottles of beer; instead, he sets them down calmly on the counter before pulling Shiro closer by the collar of his shirt. Shiro smiles against his lips, and somewhere in the background he hears an angry Get back to work, Kogane-san and whooping cheers.
They can wait, Shiro decides. They can wait.
Everyone’s got one of those little tragedies.
For Keith: the loss of both his parents in a single night, his god-awful sleep schedule, and lastly, the warm, dizzying press of lips that he knows will not last.