Weaving my way through the bustling city center, I headed towards the train station. I purchased a train ticket and went through the ticket gate. I could see the over bridge that led to the platform that was opposite to the one on this side. My feet came to a stop.
I could hear the sound of the train; it’s the one heading to the opposite platform. If I ran up the stairs, I could probably make it in time to catch it.
The fourteen story apartment. The wind that blew across the hallway. The gently sloping hill and the range of mountains that could be seen in the distance.
The moment my feet began to move, a smell assaulted my nose for an instant; it was the smell of antiseptic. The heavy atmosphere that I had felt the first time I had gone into the storage room of the hospital to borrow the VCR player washed over me in waves.
The train came to a smooth stop at the opposing platform. I fought to breathe as I gazed at the white train with its horizontal brown line.
I rode the bus from the train station. It was the conductor-less bus that I always rode. I fed a coupon ticket into the fare box that was located next to the driver’s seat and took a seat in one of the one-seater seats.
The fifth stop was the bus stop for the medical center.
There weren’t many people on the bus, and there weren’t that many people who were waiting at bus stops to be picked up to begin with, so the bus quickly made its way through its route.
When the bus neared the medical center, I pressed the stop button without hesitation.
The sky was cloudy, but the rain that had been falling in the morning had let up. Just like last time, there was a riotous profusion of red sage blooming in the front garden. The dirt, which was a rich brown from the plentiful moisture, caught my eye.
“Come and visit her again, will you?”
Tetsuya had said this to me, but I hadn’t gone to visit her since. All I had done was tape the baseball game as he had requested me to do. There was no link between her and me. I thought that even if I went to visit her, I didn’t know what to talk about.
But today, I felt as if I could talk to her.
I got off the elevator, and as I passed by the nurse’s station, Izumi-san was there.
“My! Are you here by yourself today?”
She asked me with a twinkle in her eye.
I made my way down the long, straight hallway. There were numerous identical doors lining the sides. It was probably the case that behind each door, there was a patient who was battling some sort of illness resting quietly.
I double-checked the name tag by the door before knocking.
A surprisingly cheerful voice spoke from beyond the door.
When she saw it was me, she said this as if she were pleased to see me. She was bundled up again and was sitting upright on the bed. Since she seemed happy to see me, I could, for the time being, let out a sigh of relief.
“I was just watching your video!”
There was a small VCR player that wasn’t the one from the hospital storage room hooked up to the television that was on the shelf.
On the screen was the image of me playing the piano. I hadn’t realized it when I had opened the door, but there was the faint melody of Ravel.
That was the only thing I could think of saying. When I was heading over here, I had felt as if there was something I wanted to talk about with her, but now that I was standing in front of her, I didn’t know what to say. I had never thought in a million years that she would be watching the tape of me playing the piano. I was caught off guard that I was momentarily left speechless.
She gazed up at me playfully as if she enjoyed seeing me like this.
“Well, don’t just stand there. Have a seat!”
She said this in a tone that was almost like a command rather than a suggestion. I sat down in the foldable chair that was next to the edge of the bed.
“My dad bought me a VCR player. It’s one of those cheapo-s from Hong Kong or Taiwan or whatever, but it does its job so I couldn’t care less.”
I had only seen her twice, but she talked to me in a carefree manner as if we were lifelong friends. It may just be that she had an outgoing personality, but I couldn’t help but feel a hint of haughtiness to her character as well.
Naomi returned her gaze to the television screen. I also watched the screen. We watched in silence listening to the melody until the song ended.
“Oh, can you stop the tape right there?”
She said this when the baseball game began. The VCR player was at a distance that if she reached out, she could have easily touched it but since she had wrapped herself up in blankets, she couldn’t move.
“Aren’t you going to watch the baseball game too?”
I got up and reached over the bed to press the “off” switch; with this, I was finally able to say something.
“Why would I? Baseball’s one of those things where if you know the outcome, it’s boring to watch.”
She said this in a tone that showed clearly just how uninteresting she thought it was.
Wrapped up in blankets, she was sitting in front of me. It was my first time being so close to her. I didn’t know if it was because of her illness, but her translucent skin was dry to the point that it looked irritated. Despite this, it didn’t take away from the beauty of her ink-black eyebrows, the sparkle of her eyes or the rosy -color of her lips; it made me want to stand this close of a distance to her and continue gazing at her.
“Music’s great though; no matter how many times I listen to it, I never get bored.”
She said this as she gazed up at me. There was a faint trace of a smile on her lips. Her eyes gave off a vibrant glow like that of an animal in the wild, and it was full of life.
“You’re sure energetic today.”
I said this as I took a seat in the chair next to her bed. The moment the words came out of my mouth, I realized how lacking in taste the comment was, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“I’m always full of energy; it’s just that my leg’s gone, that’s all.”
She said this nonchalantly without missing a beat. I tensed. If it had been Tetsuya, I’m sure he would have been able to twist the comment into a joke… either that, or he would have been able to scold her by saying she shouldn’t be saying things like that, but all I could do was sit there.
The silence continued.
The more I felt the need to speak, the more the words scattered and disappeared into thin air.
She kept on glancing my way as if she was secretly enjoying watching me being flustered.
“Hey,” she suddenly said.
“I’m a little tired, so would you mind helping me lie back down?”
I hastily stood up.
“All you have to do is support my back, and I’ll slowly lean back.”
She shrugged off the blanket that she had wrapped around her body and pushed it towards her legs. Her light pink pyjamas came into view. I could see her bare neck; it was a white, translucent color. When I neared her bed, I caught a whiff of a faint sweet fragrance. I walked up to her side and reached out. It felt as if I were reaching out to touch a fragile object. So much so that my hands shook as I reached out.
I felt the soft cotton fabric, and at the same time, she began to lean back. I felt the reassuring warmth and weight. She was more thin than I had thought, because I could feel the outline of her shoulder blades as I held her.
“That’s right. You’re doing great.”
Since I had watched Tetsuya helping her lie down before, I knew the bare basics of what I was supposed to do. When her head rested safely on the pillow, I couldn’t help letting out a brief sigh of relief.
She giggled as she said this. She has a mischievous look in her eye as she looked up at me.
I was quick to distance myself from the bed as I returned to the chair.
Naomi pulled the blankets up to her chest.
“You’re pretty kind, you know that?”
She said this as she smoothed out the wrinkles on her blanket.
“You think so?”
I said this cautiously because I didn’t know what she would add to that.
“But you’re a bit sensitive though, aren’t you?”
“You are. I can tell. I can tell everything that you’re thinking.”
When I didn’t reply, she glared at me as she said: “You think I’m some poor little girl, don’t you?”
Her lips had lifted into a smile, but there was no laughter in her eyes.
“So what, you came to see me because you felt sorry for me?”
She seemed to be testing me as she threw this question in my direction.
I replied: “No, that’s not it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I came only because I wanted to see you.”
“Is that right? So are you saying that you don’t feel sorry for me at all?”
It was the first time in my life that I was talking to a girl one-on-one like this. Just that alone was enough to make me feel nervous, and to make it worse, she was sharper than the average girl.
In my flustered state, I must have had a stricken expression on my face, because her voice suddenly lowered as she whispered, “I’m sorry.”
“I shouldn’t be so nasty to you.”
Her eyes had softened as she said: “You really are kind. If it were Tecchan, he would have yelled at me by now; he’s just a brute like that.”
She made this comment as if she were speaking to herself. She was probably thinking about Tetsuya right now.
“Hanegi’s a nice guy.”
I honestly believed this so I just said what I thought.
“Really? What’s nice about a guy like him?”
She shot back as if she thought the opposite, but her eyes sparkled as she said this. She looked as if there was nothing she enjoyed more than talking about him.
“He gets embarrassed easily so he just tries to cover it up with rough talk.”
“Do you think so?”
“Yeah, I do.”
She shrugged and laughed.
“I guess you’re someone who makes sure to read people carefully.”
She stared fixedly at me as a smile formed on her lips. “Then tell me. What kind of impression do I give you?”
“What do you mean…”
“Do I look like a kind person to you?”
I felt my nerves loosening the longer I talked with her and I felt as if I were becoming more comfortable in the conversation. I replied: “Hanegi said you have a ‘warped personality’.”
“I’m asking what you think.”
“I think so too.”
She puckered her lips into a pout, but her eyes were alive with laughter. Whether she was angry or laughing, her expressions were constantly changing. No matter her expression though, they were all full of life.
I was truly glad that I came here that day.
“Isn’t Hanegi coming here today?”
After we spent some time talking about school, I asked her this question.
Naomi sparkled with life even more when she talked about Tetsuya. Seeing her so happy made me feel the same way.
“He came yesterday, so he won’t come today. He puts up a front saying stuff like how he’s ‘too busy’ to come.”
“He should just come everyday.”
“Whatever. I’d get bored of him if he came here everyday anyway. And besides, my daddy said he’s coming today.”
“Your father? Oh, then should I leave now?”
“No, stay until he comes.”
She stopped me from leaving so I decided to stay, but our conversation topics dried up. I felt uncomfortable continuing to talk about school since she couldn’t leave the hospital. She probably wanted to go back to school as soon as she could.
For a brief moment, I wondered why I had come here. My gaze shifted towards the window. I could see the cloudy sky from between the two buildings. I could hear the rattle of trains in the distance. It brought back the dull sharp pain that shot through my heat. My thoughts flashed back to the train that came to a brief stop at the opposing platform, and of the distinct smell of the antiseptic. I couldn’t even remember what it was that I wanted to say to her before I came.
I didn’t know how much time had passed, but I had become absorbed in my thoughts. I didn’t know if it was for a brief moment or if quite a long time had passed, but when I snapped back into the present, I caught her gazing at me.
“Hey…” she said in a low whisper.
“You have problems of your own too, don’t you?”
I couldn’t reply; my heart was thudding painfully and it was hard to breathe.
After taking a deep breath, I eventually replied: “Does it look like I have problems?”
“Yeah, it does.” She smiled.
“You’re honest like that, so it shows on your face clear as day.”
Her sharp gaze sent something akin to fear rushing through my veins. I felt as if she could see through every part of me. I dug into my mind but there were things that I was facing that even I didn’t fully comprehend. What was it that she had sensed?
I couldn’t bear to continue locking gazes with her so I once again shifted my gaze towards the window. Once again, I could hear the distant rattling of the train.
There are times I think, “if it’s now, I wouldn’t mind dying.”
The fear and doubts linked to such an act would vanish, and it would feel as if my body were suddenly afloat. The window. The handrail of the stairs. The white line of the train platform. It would only take one step forward.
“There was a grade five boy who committed suicide a few years back.”
Even I didn’t know what I had suddenly began to tell her, but when I had realized it, the words had already come tumbling out.
“Oh, I remember. He jumped from a high-rise apartment building didn’t he?”
I looked at her.
“You’ve got a good memory.”
“He was the same age as me.”
“Yeah, but it’s not as if kids committing suicide rarely ever happens.”
“There was a suicide letter… something he scrawled on the walls.”
“I read his composition in the weekly magazine.”
“Oh, I never read it. What did it say?”
“Well… it wasn’t really any different from your average composition.”
I told a white lie because my heart felt heavy at the thought of explaining the contents of the writing.
“Is that right…”
Naomi didn’t try to press for further details.
The conversation trailed off. I had said something I shouldn’t have. Now that it was put forth though, there was no going back. I began saying this as a way to explain myself: “My problems aren’t that big of a deal. It’s just that my academic deviation value won’t rise on my mock tests; that’s all. In other words, that’s all that it boils down to.”
“So what, you want to kill yourself over it?” She asked coolly.
“No, that’s not it.”
I felt as if I were being slowly cornered. I wanted to get rid of the hazy, uncertain feelings whirling about in my heart that I began speaking fast: “I can’t really explain it very well, but to put it simply, I guess it comes down to this: along with the materials enclosed with the mock test grades are a countless number of high schools listed like menu items at a restaurant. When your deviation value is low, the schools you can choose from get progressively smaller. But I’ve come to think that there must be a way to live your life in a way that isn’t listed on that menu.”
“Well, what I’m thinking right now is to go to a music school. There are art schools, agricultural schools and horticultural schools too. Cooking, cutting hair, bookkeeping, computer programming… there are so many things a person could do. They could go to a specialized school or they could just start working. There’s even the option of trying out for the university entrance qualification examination. All I’m saying is, in that long list, it wouldn’t be so bad to have ‘suicide’ be among them.”
She didn’t seem to be satisfied with my explanation. She exhaled a short breath and she broke her gaze as she sighed, “Add ‘hospitalization’ onto that list, all right?”
Her voice shook slightly as she continued: “But someone who’s healthy could never possibly understand this. The only list that’s given to me consists of: sickness, sickness, and more sickness; that’s all. I don’t even have the option of committing suicide. Because even if I did, they’d think it was the fact that I’m ill that I did it. When it comes to suicide, no one’s surprised if it isn’t done by a healthy person.”
She gradually calmed down as she talked. Her gaze was affixed to the ceiling as she continued: “Back when I was in grade five, I wasn’t sick. Back then, I had the option of committing suicide too; that’s why I remember that time clearly. But then again, since I was attending a private elevator elementary school that didn’t require you to take junior high school exams in your last year, all the people in my class including me were all pretty laidback. There’s no way we could have understood what was going through the mind of a boy who had committed suicide. When I heard about it, I was just a little surprised. I thought that was a world that was completely different from mine; nothing more.”
She lowered her head to gaze at me. A transparent quietness blanketed the room.
“Can you even imagine what I was like back when I was in elementary school? If I go into the details it only makes me feel miserable, and I really wish I didn’t have to talk about it, but when it comes down to it, I had so much going for me, you know? I had pretty good grades, I was learning ballet, I had even begun to learn a bit of rhythmic gymnastics. When I started high school, I even planned on writing a story for young girls… I had so many dreams. There was an endless list of things I wanted to do. And the last thing on my list that I planned on doing if my dreams didn’t pan out was…”
She wrinkled her nose and giggled with amusement:
“…to be Tecchan’s wife.”
She was smiling but tears had begun to form in her eyes.
“But with my body like this, I can’t even make that plan a reality anymore.”
Closing her eyes, she said: “I can’t help but feel envious of those with a future. They don’t realize how lucky they have it just to be able to consider something like suicide.”
As she said this, she turned her gaze to me. Her large eyes which were brimming with tears continued to gaze at me. I realized there were no words that could have countered what she had said.
The door opened.
A man with a receding hairline but with a boyish face peered into the room. I immediately realized that he was Naomi’s father.
“Oh? So it’s not Hanegi-kun today?”
“Hello,” I said to him as I lowered my head. I knew I should have put more thought into my greeting but I couldn’t think of anything else to say right off the bat.
“His name’s Kitazawa-kun,” she said as she introduced us.
Her father was smiling as he turned my way; he seemed nice. He was probably a few years older than my father, but his smile was still youthful.
“I didn’t know you had a boyfriend other than Hanegi-kun.”
“Kitazawa-kun’s a pianist, you know?”
“Is that right?”
His eyes rounded as he gazed my way. I looked away self-consciously.
“He’s just shy,” she piped in.
“My daddy’s a chemist, you know.”
This time, it was her father’s turn to be embarrassed.
“I’m just a researcher for an electrical appliance manufacturer. Just your average business man.”
His face had flushed pink; it seemed that he was pure at heart.
And with that, I stayed and had a conversation with her father. He explained the details of his research to me. He specialized in applied chemistry and he explained to me how he was doing research on organ silicon compounds. His line of work sounded complicated, but he didn’t talk to me as if I were a child; he was patient as he explained what that entailed and I enjoyed listening to him. It was my first time talking like this with an adult.
I couldn’t help but think what a wonderful father he was. He was kind, cheerful and intelligent. It was probably the case that his nature had been passed on down to his daughter. I felt my mood lift slightly. If for nothing else, I was glad to have come to the hospital to have been able to meet a person like him.
By the time I got back home, it was nearing time for dinner.
Having wrapped up her lesson, my mother was in the kitchen preparing.
“Where were you until now?”
She always talked to people as if she were angry. Even now, I still couldn’t differentiate between when she was fine and when she was actually angry.
“What do you mean ‘out’? May I remind you, you’re a student preparing for the entrance exams! Where were you wasting your time until now?”
“It’s not as if I were goofing off.”
“Well, then why don’t you tell me where you’ve been until now. Or was it somewhere you can’t tell me?”
“There’s no point in telling you. It’s none of your business.”
“Wait just a minute, young man! That’s no way to talk to your mother!”
She grabbed my arm as I tried to make up my way upstairs. She was well trained on the clavier, so her grip had a strength to it. When it came to physical strength and determination, I couldn’t hold a candle to her.
“You’re hurting me.” I yelled.
“What’s going on here? What’s with all this noise?”
I heard my father’s voice coming from the living room. I hadn’t realized that he was home. He was leaning back against the rattan chair and he was drinking a can of beer. He looked as if he had just come out of the bath because he was still wearing a cotton robe.
“Now, now. Don’t go resorting to violence.”
He said in a laid-back tone.
“Don’t you dare try to interfere. You stay out of it when it comes to household matters.”
It seems she was truly angry this time. In situations like this, my father was of little use. He was weak when push came to shove, and because he was rarely ever home, he rarely ever raised a voice of opposition when it came to my mother.
He was the head of a production company that specialized in paperbound pocket novels. Although he was technically the head, there were only a few employees at the company, and they only did subcontracted work provided for by one of the major publishing firms. That being said, they’d released consecutive hits these past few years and I heard that business was booming. With work as busy as it was, there were many days when he would stay overnight at his office. Even on a Sunday, he was rarely ever home.
“Why don’t you have a seat over there.”
She continued to keep a firm grip on my arm as she dragged me over to the living room. My father silently watched as the scene unfolded in front of him.
“Since your father’s home, now would be the perfect opportunity to talk about your future.”
“Now that’s a great idea.”
My father said in his usual light-hearted tone.
My mother practically pushed me back into the sofa.
“You hid the results of your mock test in your desk, didn’t you?”
“It’s not that I was hiding it from you.”
“Then why didn’t you show it to me?”
“Because there’s no reason for me to; this is my business. Besides that, I wish you wouldn’t go into my room without permission.”
My father abruptly cut into the conversation: “What’s with that tone! Whose house do you think this is? It’s my house. There’s no such thing as ‘your room’.”
His words were harsh, but I knew that he rarely ever got enraged so in that respect, I felt a bit relieved. I shot back sharply, “Even kids have a right to privacy. We’re not slaves, after all.”
“Well, you’ve got a point there.”
He seemed to have been convinced by this that his voice suddenly lowered. My mother’s voice in turn became even louder: “ You stay out of this!”
Her anger didn’t show any signs of dying down. Once she got worked up like this, it was almost impossible to get her to listen to reason. She was so furious about the fact that I had made her angry that it was useless to get her to try to listen to what I had to say.
I knew this was a slightly underhanded way to go about doing things, but I decided to use my father to my advantage. I put on a serious face as I said to him: “There’s something I’d like to discuss with you— alone.”
I knew very well that he was weak when it came to this approach.
“Oh!” He exclaimed, and his expression became serious.
“Is that right? Okay, I understand.”
The same time that my father said this, my mother screeched: “Don’t you try to weasel your way out of this! I’m asking you a question, young man! Why can’t you just tell me?”
She had a menacing look on her face, but my father said to her in a strong tone that he rarely ever used: “Now hold on just a second. Ryoichi’s saying he wants to talk to me alone, so leave this to me, won’t you?”
“What kind of act are you trying to put on? You’re rarely ever home, so don’t go around acting like a parent when the situation suits you! You’re always so wrapped up in your work that you force everything about the home on me! I have work too, you know!”
“Wait. That’s between you and me– don’t bring up that kind of talk in front of the children.”
It had turned into a full blown fight between my parents. Although it was in my favour for the topic to move away from me, it wasn’t much better to have to be in such close proximity while my parents went at it.
“At any rate, it’s better for him and I to have a talk, man-to-man.”
My father liked the word “man.” It’s probably because he loved to watch Japanese yakuza movies. He rarely ever raised a voice towards my mother, but there were times when something would trigger his switch.
My mother glanced at the clock. She probably had more she wanted to say, but since her student would be coming in for an evening lesson soon, she had to finish preparing and eating dinner soon.
As if on cue, Kousuke came down the stairs.
“Are we having dinner yet?”
Kousuke, the honour roll student, was the main focus of this household.
His words settled things, and I was able to slip through my mother’s interrogation.
I wonder when I had begun to call him “father.”
A long time ago, I had called him “daddy.”
Long before I started kindergarten, there was a period when “daddy” used to spend all his time at home. Although the memories weren’t sharp, I still had a faint recollection of him lazing around the house all day. It might just be that he had been working on some manuscripts while I was sleeping. At any rate, when I was awake, he was always there to play with me.
Back then, my father was unemployed. I wasn’t sure if he had been fired from the publishing company he had been working at or if he had quit, but for a while, he couldn’t find another place of work. My mother’s parents’ home was nearby. My mother taught piano lessons out of that home, and she had financially supported the family. The house we were living in was a small wooden frame apartment, so we couldn’t have a piano there. My grandmother was taking care of Kousuke, who had just been born, so in the afternoon, it would be just my father and me.
Thinking back now, I think my father had probably been drinking from the afternoon since he was always so cheerful and upbeat.
It wasn’t long before his work became busy though. He worked as a ghost writer, and he went to interview professional athletes and celebrities and released books under their names. He set up a production company, and set up an office in a city condominium, and he came to spend his nights there working. Since around that time, his mood did a complete turn around, and he became gloomy.
He began to talk only about numbers of how many books had sold. When Kousuke was studying for his entrance exams, he somehow found time to come home on Sundays to help him with his studies; perhaps he found joy in watching his son’s deviation value rise.
He wasn’t always this way though.
Back when it was just the two of us in the apartment, he talked to me about many things. He told me outlandish children’s stories that he wrote himself, along with parodies of famous folklores among others.
I’ve forgotten most of them, but there were some that I remembered even now.
For example, one being “The Story of the Spider’s Silk.”
One day, the Buddha dropped down a spider’s silk from Heaven to a man who was suffering in Hell. The man grabbed the silk without hesitation and began to climb it. Just as he was about to reach Heaven, the Buddha cut the silk and watched as the man plummeted back into the pits of Hell.
My father laughed then saying, “Well, wasn’t that fun!”
There were some stories that I couldn’t understand what was so interesting about it. Most times though, he laughed before he got to the funny parts, so I rarely ever laughed. But I was just happy about the fact that he took such joy out of telling these stories.
From time to time, he even took me out for walks to the nearby park. It was a park that had a large pond that had some canoes. My father watched as I played on the swings and slides. In the beginning, he watched as I played, but eventually his gaze drifted towards the direction of the pond. He wasn’t gazing at the pond though, but rather, at something beyond it. He looked as if he were looking at the end of the earth, so much so that I almost felt sorry for him; I loved this part of him though.
After dinner, it was just my father and I. I heard the piano lesson commence downstairs, and from the second floor, I could hear the echo of Mahler. To top it off, I could hear the roar of the dishwasher from the kitchen.
“So…” my father trailed off. Since we rarely ever talked alone, he seemed to be a bit hesitant.
“What is it that you wanted to talk about?”
When he asked me this out right though, there wasn’t anything that I felt a pressing need to tell him. If he had been the father I had known as a child, perhaps it would have been different, but I had nothing to say to the person he had become.
It wasn’t if I could brush this off. At any rate, this was miles better than having to deal with my mother.
“I’m the eldest…”
I paused there to gauge his reaction. He looked at me with an expression that said he was wondering he what I would say.
“…but that doesn’t mean I have to succeed your company, right?”
I tried to put on a calm, indifferent expression as I said this.
“Of course. It’s not as if I’m running a store.”
“Then I can decide myself what I do with my life?”
“Well, yes. I guess so.”
He cast a sharp glance my way.
“But you’re still…”
With that his expression turned to a troubled one.
“How old are you?”
“Oh yes, that’s right. You’re still fourteen.”
He gave a firm nod.
“What could you possibly know at fourteen?”
I didn’t answer.
He nodded once again as if confirming what he just said.
“You can decide yourself what it is that you do with your life. But that’s only after you turn twenty. Until then, you need to study hard, go to university, and leave many options open to yourself.”
Being told an idealistic dime-a-dozen view like that didn’t resolve anything. He probably wasn’t even aware of the situation of entrance high school examinations as of late. It wasn’t like the entrance examinations for private schools where honour roll students went head-to-head. And unlike elementary school students who just went along with their parents’ wishes by attending cram schools, half of the junior high school students had already grown up. Once they reached their last year of junior high, there were even some who gave their futures a serious consideration. I didn’t want to live my life working day and night at work thinking only of money.
“You don’t need to worry about grades. Just put your all into it from here on out.”
“Okay, I got it.” I said.
I didn’t even have the urge to argue with him. There was no one I could open up to about my real feelings on the matter. There was no more need for me to continue this conversation with my father.
The sounds of the piano, Mahler, and the dishwasher sliced the atmosphere of the room.
“Do you really get it though?”
Since I was silent, he put strength into his words as if he doubted my words.
I was walking towards the music room after lunch when Tetsuya appeared.
“Yo,” he said to me.
“I heard you went to see her on Sunday?”
I silently nodded.
“Well, visit her again, will you?”
“I will,” I replied. I thought that was the extend of his conversation, so I began to head in the direction of the music room, but he stopped me by standing in my way.
“You really are weird though, you know that?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I heard you talked about suicide with her. Who in their right minds would go to a hospital to see a sick person and talk about something like that?”
He had a point.
“You’re right. I said something that I shouldn’t have.”
“Well, whatever. She was happy that you came, and that’s all that counts. She’s got a screw loose in the head too, ya know?”
Naomi’s face floated to surface in my mind. Tears were in her eyes as she gazed unwaveringly at me. A translucent quietness was infused in her figure…
I asked: “Are you going to visit her today?”
“Yeah. Do you want to come with me?”
When I agreed, a flash of unexpected joy lit his face.
“All right then, let’s go together!”
We agreed to meet in front of the classroom and headed to the bus stop together.
Since Tetsuya was pretty well known around these parts, the girls turned around to look at him; there were even those who said hi to him. Every time they did so, he’d answer in a cheerful voice, “Hey!” His carefree cheerfulness was part of his charm. There were some girls who just watched him from afar without trying to talk to him. They didn’t stop at him though– they even stared at me, since I was walking beside him. The rare sight probably piqued their curiosity; it felt a little strange, to be honest.
We didn’t say much on the way to the hospital, and the bus came shortly after we reached the bus stop. We were the only two to get on from this stop.
We found seats at the back of the bus and sat down. That’s when Tetsuya began talking, “Back when we were in pre-school, she was taller than me so I could hardly say a word against her, you know? Even in the neighbourhood, she was like the leader of the group. She turned into some girly girl after she started going to a private elementary school, but she’s pretty strong-willed even now. What do you think of her?”
He asked me this very same question before. I wondered how I had replied to it then.
“What do you mean…”
“You think she’s a pain-in-the-neck?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Huh, is that right? Well, she’s a nice person. It’s that disease that’s messing with her, you know?”
I had a feeling his tone of voice was slightly higher than usual. There were other passengers on the bus, but he paid no heed to them as he continued talking: “Back when we were kids, she used to take piano lessons. I bet she didn’t tell you that, did she? She forced me to go to a few of her recitals but to be honest, she wasn’t that good. That’s why she ended up quitting soon after. She probably feels a little jealous listening to you play.”
In stark contrast to his cheerful tone, my mood turned darker and darker.. I didn’t know anything about Naomi. I wasn’t on the same level as Tetsuya. There was no way to wind back the hands of time.
The fog dispersed and the summer rays cast a glow on the garden in front of the hospital. The red salvias, under the direct light of the sun, appeared to be on fire.
Tetsuya got off first and made his way to the hospital.
“You’ve got two visitors today,” he said.
Naomi lifted her head and looked in our direction. She couldn’t have missed seeing me, but she kept her eyes focused only on Tetsuya as she talked to him. Her demeanour was strangely awkward. I had been expecting a warm welcome, so it was as if I had cold water poured over me.
“Help me up,” she said in a low voice. Tetsuya rounded the bed to her side, and supported her back. I watched them from a spot away from the bed.
Last time, I had been the one supporting her back. My hands still remembered the feel of the soft fabric of her pyjamas and the comforting warmth.
But now, she had Tetsuya.
“Can’t you get up on your own, huh?”
Tetsuya said in a slightly harsh manner.
She raked back her front hair which was falling over her forehead as she replied, “When there’s someone here to help me, it’s easier to ask for help.”
“If you don’t start putting some effort into the rehabilitation stuff, you’re not going to be able to live on your own, you know.”
“It doesn’t matter anymore.”
“What are you talking about?”
“There’s no point in doing rehabilitation exercises.”
He lifted his arm, and I was momentarily taken aback because I thought he was going to hit her. But he lowered his arm and gave a light flick on her forehead with his index finger and thumb.
Naomi closed her eyes and turned away from him; she looked as if she were in a foul mood.
She didn’t try to look in my direction. Perhaps I should have been the one to initiate a conversation, but I didn’t know what to say. A strained atmosphere blanketed the room.
Tetsuya unfolded the nearby chair and sat down beside me. Naomi continued looking at him alone. It was the same for Tetsuya; he continued to talk to her without giving a glance my way. Since he had been the one to invite me here, he could have tried to get me involved in the conversation, but he seemed strange, which wasn’t like his normal self. At first glance, he seemed like an easy-going person but he was pretty sensitive deep down. He had probably sensed that Naomi was trying to avoid me.
They talked about their childhood. It felt as if they were choosing topics that I couldn’t participate in on purpose. It may just be that Tetsuya had guided the conversation in that direction because he sensed that if he didn’t, Naomi would become even more sullen. Before long, she began to relax visibly and she even showed a smile from time to time. I listened to their conversation in silence. I hadn’t said a word since I had stepped into this room.
It felt as if a long time had passed when she suddenly turned my way. She looked as if she wanted to say something, but she quickly closed her mouth and she shifted her gaze away with a troubled expression.
“Are you two good friends?”
I wasn’t sure if she was asking Tetsuya or me.
A brief silence. It seemed that he couldn’t think of something to say right off the bat either.
“Well, we haven’t known each other that long… but we get along, right?”
He hastily raised his voice and looked my way as if he was seeking my agreement.
I continued to remain silent.
After a long silence, she continued to keep her eyes diverted as she said, “I’m going to be fifteen soon.”
It was clear that she was talking to me because if it were Tetsuya, he would know her birthday already without her having to remind him.
“I have something I want to ask of you…”
I replied, “I’ll do anything.”
She lifted her head and gazed my way.
“Really? Thank you.”
Tetsuya cut in, “Yo, shouldn’t you ask what it is before you agree to it?”
He said this in a cheerful, slightly joking manner. The atmosphere lifted for a moment. Naomi had a smile on her lips, but that smile quickly faded. She turned back to Tetsuya with a stiff look. I gulped. Tetsuya’s face mirrored hers. It looked as if his facial expression had changed because Naomi’s shift in demeanour, but perhaps it was the other way around.
“Say it yourself.”
Tetsuya said this in an annoyed tone that he rarely ever made.
She seemed afraid as she remained silent.
Tetsuya began to talk quickly as if he couldn’t hold back his irritation, “Kitazawa, would you mind playing the piano for her for her birthday? There’s a piano in the recreation room here.”
“Okay,” I readily agreed.
Naomi said this quietly. Her mood remained as gloomy as ever.
“Hey, cheer up. He said he was going to play, didn’t he?”
His voice as he said this was void of its usual cheerfulness.
I felt uncomfortable being here. I had found myself standing between them; this awkwardness in the air must be because of it. It’s probably the case that Naomi wanted to hear me play and nothing more. But she was holding herself back because of Tetsuya, and asking through him in a roundabout way. If only I had never come here, this would have never happened.
“Tecchan, it sure is hot today.”
Naomi said this in an overly cheerful way as if she couldn’t stand the silence any longer.
“I sweated a lot today. Can you help me change my pyjamas?”
Tetsuya glared silently at Naomi with an angry look on his face. She dismissed this and acted as if she didn’t notice as she turned to me and said in a demanding tone that edged on arrogance: “Kitazawa-kun, I’m sorry, but mind stepping out of the room for a few minutes?”
I got up and swiftly left the room.
There was no one in the hallway. Until the end of the hall, I could see identical doors lining each side. A humid breeze brushed the side of my face. I could hear the faint sounds of a radio. It was the shortwave broadcasting of the stock market conditions. The endless list of the acronyms of what must have been company names along with their associated numbers of the moment droned on.
About five minutes had passed before the door opened.
“Let’s leave for today.”
Tetsuya said this to me with a dejected look on his face.
“Her nerves are on a thin thread today.”
We began walking in the direction of the elevator.
We got on the elevator in silence, and I pushed the button to the first floor. The door closed. The enclosed space made the atmosphere feel even heavier.
Tetsuya whispered: “Kitazawa.”
“I’ve known Naomi since back when were kids; we practically grew up like siblings. You get what I’m trying to say, don’t you?”
His voice was shaking as he said this. I could feel the depth of his feelings in his words.
“Yeah, I do.”
I said I understood, but that was different from acknowledging it; I didn’t want to. I kept telling myself that after Naomi’s birthday, I would never again come to this hospital.
It was a hot and humid day just before the start of summer.
I was standing in front of the piano in the recreation room of the hospital.
In the recreation room, there were exercise machines for those doing rehabilitation, along with a checker board, a shogi board, a rack with magazines and books, and a foldable ping pong table.
The upright piano was a shabby one that was in dire need of a tuning. When the piano lid was propped into place though, the sound became halfway decent. At the very least, it was undeniably better than the quality that could come from listening through a VHS recording.
I played a few songs from “Kinderszenen” reading off of sheet music. I followed that up with Prokofiev’s “The Love for Three Oranges,” along with the song I had just finished practicing: Falla’s “Ritual Fire Dance.” For the final song, I chose Satie’s “Gymnopedie No. 1.” I didn’t play any song that I had received guidance on playing during my private lessons. They were all my interpretations.
The finger work had all been what I myself had decided so there were times when it the moments became almost erratic; but this was fine since it wasn’t an exam or competition. My fingers moved on their own will, and I could pour my emotion into the song. The reaction of those who had been listening was positive as well.
Naomi, her parents, Tetsuya and the nurse, Izumi-san came to listen. In the beginning, it had been only them but as I continued to play, the patients in neighbouring rooms began to gather and before long, the room was packed with people.
I put my heart into playing the songs. This would be the first and last time playing in front of Naomi. Even if she did get released from the hospital, I had no plans on seeing her.
After finishing Satie and standing to take a bow, Naomi yelled out: “Encore!”
“I only prepared sheet music for these songs.”
“If it’s Ravel, you can play from memory, right?”
I looked in her direction in surprise. She had a mischievous smile on her face. She knew the title of the song.
“It’s okay. It’s not as if I’m the ‘princess’ in the song, so you have nothing to worry about.”
I hadn’t planned on playing Ravel since the song was one that didn’t have a good ring to it to be played in a place like a hospital, but since the person who requested me to play in the first place was asking me to play the song, it wasn’t as if I were in any position to refuse.
I began to play: “Pavane for a Dead Princess.”
Assez doux, mais d’une sonorite ‘large (Quite and sweet, yet with a calm resonance) were the instructions given for the opening.
The gentle melody enveloped the room. A chord that hinted of shadow resonated. Amidst the sounds that blended together in a spiral, I could feel my heart trembling. Even when I played this song alone, I had to fight to keep the tears at bay; right now, there was Naomi. I tried to put all my focus into the movements of my fingers. If I didn’t, I would give in to the emotions.
Tres lointain (extremely distant). A languid melody that reminded one of someone experiencing nostalgia of a time gone by. A deep, vast world spread itself out in waves. Naomi was sitting near the piano. Despite the closeness, there was a wall between us that couldn’t be overcome. The day we first met felt like it had happened so long ago.
Eventually, the song progressed to tres grave (very heavy). A surge of sound assaulted the room. I pressed down on the keys as hard as my fingers would allow. The chord let out a shriek-like lament. Inside this wooden box of a piano, the sound echoed with intensity.
This gave way to tranquility, and the main melody at hand came back to life. And reminiscent to how a candle would show its most brightest light the moment it burned itself out, the song drew to a close with a fleeting brilliance. If I had been alone, I would have let the lingering notes seep into every inch of my body long after the last of the note had ended.
The applause cut through the last of the note. I reluctantly stood up; I felt like letting out a deep sigh.
When I finished my performance, we went back to Naomi’s hospital room. A birthday cake was brought out, and we toasted with glasses of juice as a small party took place.
Tetsuya and Naomi were both in quiet moods. As for Naomi’s mother, she was a person of few words from the very beginning. In the end, Naomi’s father filled in the silence with his talks.
It was my second time hearing his stories, but there really was something unique about him. He was quiet, calm, and yet bright. I wasn’t sure if he sensed the strange atmosphere in the room. It wasn’t as if he were overbearing in the conversations, but whenever it seemed as if the conversation might die off, he kick started it again.
From what he had said, one that I remembered very clearly was the new prosthetic leg that the research center that he was working in had just completed. It was the latest result of human engineering from computer analysis. It came about from the development of a special rubber that had powerful elasticity that allowed a prosthetic leg to be powered just by the movement of the waist and thighs. With enough training, a person would be able to walk so naturally that others wouldn’t notice unless they were told. It even allowed a person to climb the stairs and run. Although he wasn’t personally involved in the project, it was possible for him to borrow a prototype, so once Naomi had recovered enough, she could use it in her rehabilitation.
The topics were all upbeat ones. If such an amazing prosthetic leg truly did exist, then Naomi could even return to school. Although it might be asking for too much to be able to do ballet or rhythmic gymnastics, she could advance on to university and she could open more doors to her future…
It was just about time I had to get going. If my relationship with my mother deteriorated even further, it would cause all sorts of trouble for me. Once I had finished eating my slice of cake, I stood up. In my heart, I said goodbye to Naomi.
I had planned on leaving by myself, but Tetsuya also got up and left the hospital room. Tetsuya had been in a dark mood all day. When I was playing the piano, he had a serious look on his face. It was probably the case that he wasn’t into classical music. He had hardly said a word even after the group had moved to Naomi’s hospital room.
As the door to the elevator closed, just as he had the last time, Tetsuya turned to me to say something: “Kitazawa.”
“What is it?”
He hesitated; it was my first time seeing him acting like this. A brief moment later, he said in a small, hoarse voice: “Never mind.”
He didn’t try to speak anymore after that.
TO BE CONTINUED…
[NEXT: Chapter 4 - 149 - 192]