Passing time at a café somewhere near the karaoke bar started to grate on Hisao almost immediately. A steaming hot coffee sat in front of him, untouched, along with some sort of pastry the waitress had recommended. He happened to be the only customer in the place at the moment, and had more than an hour to waste. His fingers itched to be working on something, anything.
Hisao took a small bite of the foodstuff in front of him and barely avoided spitting it out. Trying to wash the taste out of his mouth with hot coffee only helped to burn his lips. His waitress chatted with another server somewhere barely within earshot.
Scalding coffee and a Styrofoam doughnut. He let a sigh escape his lips. And all the time in the world to think.
Hisao hated thinking. He hated introspection, reminiscing; he'd arranged his whole life to avoid it. The only things worth remembering were memories of Shizune, which were also the most painful. So he'd thrown himself into school, into work. He was only happy when something was holding his whole attention; otherwise, memories consumed him.
Despite his careful life planning, the previous few weeks had offered a large amount of down time. Even after taking on as much paperwork as he could find, he still lay awake at night, unable to sleep. He'd devoured three books in a week. The television he owned had gotten more use in the last two days than in the years since he'd bought it. All in an effort to avoid time to himself.
Sleepless nights, interminable train rides and empty cafés. Everything I could want and more.
Misha. She'd been Shizune's interpreter. She'd been – she was still – Shizune's voice. Sometimes he'd recall Shizune's words but hear Misha. And Misha was the reason Hisao was sitting in a deserted café, waiting around for a karaoke party with people he didn't know.
Anger quickly melted back into melancholy. I don't even know what I'm doing anymore. Half the time he wanted to scream; other times he wanted to pretend he'd never seen the video. She was his only friend, and also a constant reminder of his past. The way she prodded him about everything, from his attitude to girlfriends... Like some random girl could give me back what I lost. She managed to drag Hisao out of himself, forced him into the real world.
Hisao dragged unusually cold, clammy hands down his face. Enough of that. He called the waitress over, paid and inquired if there were any bookstores nearby. Something to take my mind off of this... situation. Directions in hand, Hisao walked outside into cool December air.
Fatigue slowed Hisao's steps. He walked down some nameless street toward an unknown bookshop, doing everything in his power to forget Shizune, to forget Misha, to forget the world around him. Trying to forget my life. Through a wooden door and into a hall of literature.
Firmly lodged between the pages of some random novel, Hisao waited for 7:00 to roll around. That was the time he would get his answers, ask his questions. But until then, he could only wait. And Hisao was tired of thinking.
He came to himself suddenly, hurried to check his watch. It read 7:24. "Great," he mumbled under his breath as he returned the volume to a shelf at his elbow. I'll have to remember that book. He raced past the register and through the front door. As soon as his shoes hit pavement, he began to run.
By the time Hisao found the karaoke place it was almost 7:45. Breathing a little heavily, he approached the lobby attendant, feeling out of place in his black suit and tie, carrying his briefcase, trench coat lapping at his knees.
"Hello," he replied politely to the shopkeeper's greeting. "I'm meeting a party. Can you tell me what room they're in?"
Up the winding staircase and around a corner. Red paint assaulted Hisao's eyes. I never liked karaoke places.
As he turned down a long, eye-wrenchingly colorful hallway, he spied short pink hair, black slacks, and a white shirt draped over a familiar frame. As if she were expecting him, Misha stopped halfway down the hallway and turned. She seemed... different, though Hisao couldn't immediately discern why. They locked eyes. Hisao saw a flash of recognition, a twitch across Misha's forehead.
As Hisao opened his mouth to speak, his friend spun on her heel and hurried away.
"Misha!" he called, probably too loudly for the setting – but she ignored him, rushed into a room on her right. She's shorter. The thought came unbidden to his mind; his eyes flitted to her feet quickly, just as sensible black flats disappeared behind a gaudy red doorjamb. He hurried down the hall after her.
Hisao's heavy, black briefcase knocked against his leg as he rushed toward the karaoke room he had seen Shiina enter. As he approached, the door opened to reveal Mafuyu, fidgeting with the barrette in her hair. Before they could collide, the small woman squeaked, brought her hands to her chest and looked up at Hisao, startled.
"Hisao!" Behind her, the door closed roughly, propelling both she and Hisao into the hallway. Mafuyu jumped out of Hisao's arms, blushing furiously and stammering apologies, which the man waved off.
"Yes!" She peeked over her shoulder, then returned her attention to Hisao. "Yes! She- I mean Shiina isn't ready yet." Black vest, black skirt and hose, white blouse – still blushing red. "She asked me to ask you to wait."
"Wait?" The guard nodded. "So she's going to talk to me, finally?" A look of puzzlement crossed Mafuyu's face. Oh, right. She thinks Misha and I are... "Sure, okay." Hisao slumped against the wall, letting his briefcase hit the floor. "I'll wait."
Standing in the hallway with a shy secretary, Hisao waited obediently. He tried to pick out songs from amidst the cacophony of notes in the air, but failed. I don't listen to much music, I guess. Still, he tried.
Mafuyu opened her mouth several times, but never managed to say anything. She would gape for a moment, reconsider, and return to awkward silence.
Minutes passed. What is going ON here?
Hisao stood from his slouch. "Miss Kumagai."
Misha's door opened, forestalling any reply. Akiko and Haruko emerged, wearing the same black skirt and vest as Mafuyu.
"She's ready." Akiko invited Hisao inside with a wink, then shared a laugh with Haruko that disconcerted the man. He stared, dumbfounded, at the three women standing in front of him, all knowing looks and innuendo that Hisao couldn't quite discern.
Dazed, he stepped past the women and through the doorway. I don't even know what I'm doing anymore. Misha had succeeded in putting Hisao on the defensive yet again. At least I finally found her. He shut the door with a soft click.
Sitting on a couch, karaoke paraphernalia arranged neatly beside her, Misha tightened her lips nervously.
"Hey, Hi-" She stopped, closed her eyes as if berating herself. Starting over with a deep breath, "Hello, Hisao." She gestured stiffly to a couch across the small room from her. "Won't you have a seat?" Her Shiina voice, lower and more metered; but shaky, hesitant. The way she sat on the cheap couch, back too straight, knees drawn together unnaturally, hands lying on her lap, palms down, awkward and obviously uncomfortable – Hisao swallowed.
As he moved to the couch, again he noticed that something was different with her, though it eluded him. He studied the woman as he sat, setting his briefcase down on the floor awkwardly. She was wearing slacks, which was odd – Hisao hadn't seen her not wear a skirt. Her face seemed overly smooth, like she was forcing herself not to show any emotion. She couldn't have been comfortable in that ridiculously formal position – it belonged at a job interview, not a talk between friends. And she seemed paler than usual. Even in the relatively dim light of the karaoke box, Hisao could tell that Shiina looked like a ghost compared to her usual self.
Something tugged at the back of his brain. Hisao's eyes narrowed, focused on Shiina's lips. Lipstick. She hadn't been wearing lipstick in the hallway just now, had she? Her swooping bangs clung tightly to the side of her head; Her hair looks wet. A strange feeling welled up from the pit of his stomach, a confusing and troubling feeling.
Blush on her cheeks where there had been none. Empty liquor glasses conspicuously absent. He would have bet money that the strong smell of perfume in the room was fresh, less than a minute old. A crazy thought entered his head. No...
A glance down, beneath the table, confirmed: she was also wearing heels.
Hisao had to fight to avoid burying his face in his hands.
"M—" was as far as he got before Misha bowed deeply at the waist, doubling over completely.
"I'm sorry. I'm really, really sorry, Hisao." She remained folded up, speaking to the floor. "I shouldn't have run away like I did. I shouldn't have avoided you. I should have returned your calls. I shouldn't have been so rude to you on the phone the other day." Her pink head dipped a bit. "I shouldn't have done a lot of things. A-Are we still friends?"
"Wh…" Hisao rubbed his forehead a bit, confused. "Please, stop bowing," he pleaded gently. Misha hesitated, but straightened, back to her too-stiff posture and expressionless face. She kept her eyes on the floor in front of her.
"I'm more confused than anything, I think," muttered Hisao. Angry, too, but that can come later, I guess. Her apology had at least seemed sincere. "Misha, what's going on?" He spread his hands, at a loss for words momentarily. "I know you're probably embarrassed about—"
"Stop." Shiina was back for a fleeting moment, firm and unyielding. She was looking not at Hisao, however, but at the door. Hisao turned his body slightly to see what had caught her attention, but all he could see was a large wooden door.
"…What is it?" Still training his gaze on nothing.
"…" Shiina shifted her gaze back to Hisao, then quickly dropped her eyes. Suddenly, her hands were moving.
‘Do you still sign?'
Oh. He looked back toward the room's entrance; sure enough, shadows danced under the door. I see. Well if they wanted to listen, they could do as they pleased. Hisao stretched his arms – and stopped short.
The lessons are going poorly. Hisao sighs, trying to force his fingers into unnatural shapes, move his arms without flailing. Shizune and Misha sit across the table, starting intently, faces blank, eyes sharp. Sunlight streams through the windows behind them, a warm early evening sun that can lull you to sleep if you aren't careful.
'Again,' signs Shizune impatiently, and Misha translates unnecessarily. Some of the simple words Hisao can understand; but the girls don't know what he gets and what he doesn't, so Misha's vocalizations continue, and will continue to do so until he shows more improvement. He folds his aching fingers in to make a fist, extends his thumb to the side. 'A'. Fist again, pinky up. 'I'. Index and ring fingers straight up. 'U'. 'E'. 'O.' 'Ka'.
Hisao blinked and the room came back into focus. Pay attention, Hisao. Deftly, hands started to make the complicated gestures necessary for sign language.
‘I try to keep in practice.' He smiled slightly to himself, unconsciously; it had been a long time since he'd signed with another person instead of videos or books. Far too long, in fact.
Shiina visibly relaxed, back into Misha, a tired smile playing across her face momentarily. She snapped back into a nervous frown quickly, though, and sat up straighter – a feat Hisao had not thought possible. Her arms slipped into familiar patterns, white sleeves tracing patterns in the air.
'I'm glad. I... don't really want them to know.' A quick look to the door; Hisao nodded silently. He started to sign again, but once more Misha cut him off. 'Please. There are some things I need to say.' The sign Misha used gave Hisao another pause.
At Yamaku, that had been one of Shizune's idiosyncrasies.
Alone, in their shared bed late at night, she and Hisao would exchange stories from middle school, childhood. In the dark of that small dorm room Hisao came to know her better than all the time they spent together working in the student council room, or going on dates, or wandering the school grounds.
'My father always told me that I could do whatever anyone else could do,' she signed to him one steamy night, sweat glistening from her forehead, dripping between her breasts to a slightly swollen belly. Distant eyes had regarded Hisao that night; a sad, far-away look crept onto her face. 'Once, when I was being bullied in elementary school, I had a bit of a breakdown. I stopped signing altogether. Not at school, not at home. I barely ate, and as soon as I got home from school I went to bed.' Hisao had waited as Shizune took a breath, just staring at her hands for a long moment with a wistful smile.
'Eventually, my father managed to convince me to sit with him for a bit. He didn't do anything for a full ten minutes, and I started to get impatient. But still, he just sat there, watching me, as if he hadn't had to bargain for a full week just to get me to acknowledge him like that. His eyes...' Shizune's breasts rose and fell with a deep breath. 'I still remember his eyes as he quietly regarded me, looking like he wanted to hold me, stroke my hair, as he had when I was small. At the time, I couldn't appreciate it.' She smirked slightly. 'Now, that memory is one of my favorites.
'Finally,' now Shizune's smile was full, and her eyes sparkled in the moonlight, 'after more than a half an hour, I exploded. Jumping to my feet, I signed furiously at him. 'Why did you call me out here' this and 'You don't know how I feel' that and 'You and Mom don't know what it's like'. And you know what he did?' Hisao had shaken his head, entranced by the woman sitting in front of him. 'He just smiled and, with tears in his eyes, signed 'I've missed your voice.''
Even Hisao had to blink back tears at that. But Shizune wasn't even ashamed; she let the single drop run down her cheek, never breaking eye contact with her lover. 'These,' she held up her hands, 'are my voice. He was the one who helped me realize that. I may not be able to sing, but I can do just as much with my voice as anyone else. I can tell people what I have to say; I can read bedtime stories to my children; I can even tell the man I love that, well, I love him.' Even with all they'd said and done before, Shizune managed to blush as she grinned a toothy grin and touched Hisao's hair affectionately. 'I love you, Hisao. I just wanted you to hear that.'
Shizune never used the sign language for 'sign language'. It was always – always – 'talk', or 'say', or 'yell'.
"Hisao?" Misha's voice snapped him back into reality.
Shaking off the reverie, he had to bow an apology. It must be from lack of sleep. Silently, he motioned for her to continue.
Despite Misha's insistence that Hisao let her speak, she sat, staring at the hands in her lap, for a full minute before abruptly clenching her jaw and spearing Hisao with a steely, determined gaze.
'First, I want to apologize again for Shizune.' Hisao felt his heart begin to pound, anger surfacing momentarily before he reined himself in. 'I can tell that you don't want me to talk about this, but I need to say it. When I tried before, it didn't seem sincere – and this is very, very important to me.' Gold eyes hardened. 'I'm sorry. I was a terrible friend back then. When she died, I could barely believe it myself. The shock of losing my best friend like that was too big for me to handle, Hisao, and I shut down. I couldn't even take care of myself, let alone check to see how you were doing. My family herded me away from Yamaku, and I let them.
'But that wasn't right. That was a terrible thing for me to do, and I'm apologizing. You had just lost as much as I had – more, in fact. But I was too caught up in myself.' Shaking her head, 'And I thought of myself as your friend.' Shiina's self-deprecating snort communicated more effectively than her words ever could have.
'That being said, I don't expect or even deserve your forgiveness. But it... has to do with the rest of... everything.' Now Misha was growing more nervous. If she had been anyone else, she'd have been chewing on her lip, or shaking her leg; the only way Hisao could tell was a single, furtive glance at Hisao's face, then quickly back to her own hands. 'The videos, I mean.' Plural.
'I'm sure you remember how I was in high school, Hisao. I was a bit ditzy, a bit naïve. I'd never really lost anything. My family was lucky enough to have the money to provide me with a home, food, clothes, spending money – almost anything I could ask for. My relatives were all still alive; my cat, at 15 years old, was remarkably still around; even my friends from public school kept in touch with me after I transferred. I wasn't prepared to lose Shizune, not like that.
'Nothing helped, and I went off to college a broken girl. I didn't even try to interact with anyone. I could barely make it to classes at times. There were whole days where I'd just cry, dawn to dusk, in my dorm room. No one wanted to be my friend; even if they'd tried, I was in no mood to put up with them, most of the time.
'Until I met a boy.' Misha's eyes tightened into a scowl. A fire burned in those golden orbs – anger, and hurt. 'His name's not important, and I'd rather not remember it anyway. But somehow he wormed his way into my life. I guess he saw that I was weak, damaged, and figured I'd be an easy target. Well, I certainly was, at that.
'He started off nice. They all do, I'm told; but I was just out of high school, and had only a little experience with men. He listened to me talk, let me cry on his shoulder, was tender when we..." She paused, took a breath. "...made love. I didn't even notice that he was going out with two other girls at the same time, or the way he laughed at me behind my back.'
Hisao sat still, engrossed. Anger, confusion had melted away; he was completely immersed in her tale. Misha's long eyelashes closed, putting out the fires and holding in tears.
'Eventually,' she continued without opening her eyes, 'he started to groom me, I guess is the way to put it, for the... you know... well hell, I was in them – the pornos. He'd...' Blushing – shame, and anger.
'He'd picked well, with me: I couldn't bear the thought of losing someone again. I was still so fragile. He continued to insist, and I eventually agreed. He said it would only be once, and nothing scary – just sex with him, never anyone else. I could choose not to do certain things if I wanted.' Hisao saw her squeeze her eyes shut more tightly. 'I never did refuse to do anything, but he was at least honest about being with other men, amazingly enough.' Fists, and she dropped her head, shook it from side to side before looking up at Hisao.
'I think I would have, you know.' She looked both disgusted and frightened. 'Been with strangers. It's sad to admit, but I think, if he'd been more aggressive, I could have been lost to that life forever.' At last, a tear found its way down her cheek.
'It was three movies altogether. I never had to have sex with anyone but Yu— ...my boyfriend, and I never caught any diseases. He even shot the movies himself. Only once was anyone else in the room, and that was what snapped me back to my senses. The way that man panted, with his eyes fixed on my body...' She squeezed her legs together tightly and a small shiver rippled through her frame.
'I went home for a short school holiday and confessed everything to my mother. She... To her credit, she didn't tell my father, or I'd have been kicked out of the family, I think.' Hisao nodded, remembering how his own father had taken the news about Shizune's pregnancy. 'I transferred schools immediately, moved cities. A completely new life.' That same, self-deprecating sniff from earlier. 'Maybe I didn't deserve another chance. But I got one, and I took it.
'The videos haven't come back to haunt me since. I cleaned up my act, tried to become the person I'd originally wanted to be. ...Maybe I tried to become Shizune in some ways, too,' she smiled ruefully, 'but who can blame me? She was...' A sad smile played across her lips and she stared down, towards the floor, at nothing.
Yeah. Hisao nodded to himself. Yeah, she was.
'But you, Hisao...' She rose her eyes to meet his. 'Of all the people I never wanted to find out...' Hisao could see her clench her jaw, breathe deeply, blink away moisture. 'Anyone else, I could have handled. The girls,' she glanced to the door, 'my father, even my boss. But not you, Hisao.' A disappointed grunt. 'I panicked and ran. Again.
'Since then, I've been trying to gather my courage to talk to you, to tell you all of this. I didn't want to do the same thing again, to abandon you. After last time, I... I wanted to at least explain. I wanted to do better.' Misha smirked, pale cheeks tight. 'You deserve the truth from me. You deserve at least that much.' She took a deep breath and held it for a moment. 'I'm sorry that I've been so terrible to you. Thank you for putting up with me. I... hope you can forgive me.' She bowed, folding herself to face the floor once more, her hopeful half-question lingering in the air.
It took Hisao a couple of seconds to realize she was done, wrapped up as he was in her story. "Wait," he blurted, forgetting to sign; but he was interrupted by the room's phone. Shrill, especially loud after the long silence. Misha hurried to pick it up.
"Hello?" Hisao glanced at his watch, confirming that their hour had expired "...Yes. Ah, no, thank you. Yes, thank you very much." She hung up and turned to Hisao, shrugging, resigned. Heavy-lidded amber eyes regarded her friend.
"Time's up, Hisao." With a forced smile, Misha tried to brush back her bangs, forgetting they were held up by hairspray. The smile turned to a grimace, and she turned to the door. "It was nice talking to you, at least." The door opened to reveal Misha's three companions. "Sorry for taking so long," she said to her friends, mock-levity disguising the shame she felt. "I'll pick up the tab if you want to get your things." Her purse was already over her shoulder, her feet already out the door.
"Wait!" cried Hisao. But she was gone. HE tried to stand, to give chase, but Haruko blocked his way as she shuffled into the room. He tried to jump around her, but Akiko and Mafuyu streamed in behind her and began trying to gather their things. Haruko dodged left as he dodged left, mirrored his movements to the right. "Sorry," he breathed quietly, and they repeated their dance.
"Excuse me," he placed a hand on her shoulder and tried to gently nudge her out of the way. Frayed nerves betrayed him; far too forceful, Haruko fell off balance, tripped over Hisao's briefcase. Flinging an arm out to latch onto her bicep, the man managed to keep her from falling, if barely. "Whoa! Are you all right?"
Haruko glared her reply.
"Sorry, sorry. It was an accident." He helped her regain her footing. "You're okay?"
"Fine. She's just paying downstairs, you know," Haruko cast a sidelong glance at him as she bent to get her purse. "It's not like she's going to disappear." Beside them, Mafuyu and Akiko hurried out of the room, possessions in hand. Probably to talk to Shiina. Damn.
"She did last time." Though the woman had a point. Hisao shook his head, sighed, then crouched to pick up his black briefcase. Familiar shoes rested on Haruko's feet. Sensible black flats.
Perfume, hair spray, shoes.
"Mind if I ask you a question?" He ran a hand through now-greasy hair. I have time for one question, I guess.
Mildly surprised, raising one eyebrow, Haruko nodded after a moment. "Sure."
"Why are you wearing Misha's shoes?" Hisao pointed at her feet tiredly. Do I even want to know?
"Misha?" Hisao watched as the woman made a mental note about Shiina's new nickname. I don't even care anymore. Just answer the question. "Shiina likes to dress up when she sees you." Haruko's explanation hit Hisao like a fist. "She didn't have heels with her; I did." Shoulders shrugged slightly in the dim room, though she looked amused.
A headache Hisao hadn't noticed before throbbed suddenly. I shouldn't be surprised. He worked his fingers at the bridge of his nose, attempting to rub away the sudden pain.
"And the make-up?"
"Shiina likes to dress up when she sees you."
"Yes. You said that."
"So she wants to impress her old friend?"
Haruko stared. Next door, a new song started, sending thumping bass through the wall.
"I'm not stupid." He was telling himself almost as much as he was telling the woman in front of him. Looking back on the past few months, the signs were legion. "I'm just very, very surprised." Damn, my head hurts.
"Wh— So you're NOT going out?" Haruko's eyebrows shot up. Hisao didn't even bother to answer; he just continued to rub at his forehead. "Wow. Well in that case," she swept Hisao out of the room roughly, "if you don't get after her, Shiina really will disappear." Hisao stumbled into the hallway with a strangely excited Haruko following behind. "Go!"
What am I even doing? Haruko continued to make motions with her hands, shooing him away. Shoving pain aside, Hisao found his feet and raced downstairs. He caught up to the other three women out front, standing with their heads together and whispering furiously.
"Shiina." All three of them looked up; Akiko and Mafuyu stepped aside, letting Misha bow a shallow bow.
"Thanks for letting me say what I needed to say, Hisao." Hisao's headache gnawed at him. "I'm going out of town for two weeks starting tomorrow, but I'd love to get together for dinner when I get back."
Exhausted, head pounding, suddenly thirsty, Hisao looked to the others in Shiina's group. Impatient; they wanted to leave. Haruko sidled up lithely, joined the others, attempted to encourage him with a thumbs-up. The time for speaking was gone, unfortunately. Shiina was done, and he wouldn't get his chance. So he swallowed his words. Hard.