Note: This is NOT the final installment.
There are still a few scenes yet to go after this.
Picking up from "Defend Rika..."
Scene 12: Polarity
I close my eyes, trying to gather my thoughts. Emi truly has been my best friend since coming to Yamaku. She’s always been there for me, helping me stay positive in spite of myself. Would I have survived last night if it weren’t for her? Could my heart have handled Rika’s perpetual tight-rope walk? How many years am I adding to my life just because of Emi?
For the whole time I have been here, these two have come to define the boundaries of my life. Rika the fatalist, Emi the optimist. Rika the dusk, and Emi the dawn. The promise of life comes with the morning, and the fickleness of death lingers in the evening. It’s almost absurd the extent to which the two are conceptually opposed.
When I open my eyes again, I can see the intensity of my expression crushing Emi. My reply comes almost unwilling, my voice quavering.
“You don’t understand.”
Her lower lip trembles. She looks frightened. Hurt. Her mother beholds me from where she sits behind her daughter, hands on her shoulders, a distant, worried expression on her face. My voice becomes more stern as I continue talking.
“Emi, you come in here after I almost die… after we both
almost die… and you think you can start throwing blame around? Did you ever stop to think that maybe, just maybe, what happened wasn’t anyone’s fault? That no matter how hard we try, Rika and I are always going to be people who could die any day, any second, without warning? For no reason?”
She shakes her head stubbornly, fighting back her tears.
“But there is a reason! All you have to do is work hard, and you don’t have to die… why can’t either of you see that? I don’t understand why you can’t! Why you won’t…”
I sit back against my pillow and let out a deep sigh. She’s trying so hard. I don’t doubt the veracity of her feelings. Emi does want what’s best. But there’s something troubling about her that I haven’t been able to pinpoint until now.
“I think you’re right about one thing, Emi. You don’t understand. You really don’t. Me and Rika… we’re not like you. We’re people who probably aren’t going to be alive for very long. We can try, Emi, but you just have to accept that there’s no way of knowing when our lives are going to come to an end. And when it does happen, it’s not something you can just try to blame anyone for. That’s not how death works.”
She glares at me with intensity as I talk. I go on, unrelenting.
“I am going to die, alright, Emi? And I’m not going to die with fear or hatred or blame being the last thing I think about. It doesn’t mean that Rika and I love death, or we want to die, or we want to kill each other… and if you can’t see that, then you must really not understand us at all. Every day I have to live knowing that that day might be my last.”
I trail off with a note of sadness, almost alarmed at my own decisive tone. It’s something that I’ve been meaning to articulate, something unspoken that Rika and I have shared all this time. Something we both understand so well that it never had to be explained until now.
Emi trembles with anger, seething with rage, tears overflowing from her eyes.
“You don’t think I know what it’s like to face death, Hisao?”
Her mother squeezes her shoulders and a much more troubled look overtakes her. “Emi, sweetie… don’t…”
She shakes her mother off, rising to her feet again.
“Do you even know what it means to lose someone? It’s not a game! If you die, you’re gone forever! And you’re never, ever coming back! Why would you do that to the people who love you? How could you do such a thing?”
Her mother reaches out to her one more time, but Emi shakes her off and runs out of the room, hiding her reddened face from me.
Much to my surprise, her mother doesn’t follow her but instead stays with me. The look on her face is almost shockingly unaffected considering the exchange that just took place in front of her.
My mind goes to the beeping sound of my heart monitor. Faster, but holding steady. It’s strange how calm I feel in spite of the weight of the guilt trip Emi came here to lay on me.
I feel the hand of Emi’s mother stroking mine as she gives me a reassuring smile.
“Is she going to be alright?” I ask.
Mrs. Ibarazaki, frowning a bit, gives a quick nod. “Hisao, something you may not realize about my daughter is that she doesn’t like to burden others with what she sees as her own problems. You two have been friends for a long time, so I’d expect you’ve noticed she can be rather distant when it comes to her own past. Particularly at this time of the year...”
I tilt my head inquisitively as she talks, and she seems taken aback by my curiosity.
“So she still hasn’t told you anything about how she lost her legs?” she asks.
I swallow hard. Her forthrightness is alarming. I simply shake my head at her and she seems to ponder my response for a moment before continuing.
“Let me just say that Emi learned her own lesson of death when she was still quite young, and she’s come to view it as something very private. So it’s difficult for her when the people she cares about start to talk about death. No less when a friend accuses her of not understanding it.”
A hint of disapproval enters her tone as she utters this last part, and I blush with shame at her reproach. I hadn’t even been thinking of Emi’s past, much less how she might have lost her legs, when I started talking about death just now. Seeing my shame and perhaps finding it apology enough, Mrs. Ibarazaki restores her smile.
“My daughter will be fine, Hisao. This isn’t the first time she’s had this conversation with someone she’s taken under her wing, you know. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you and Rika were playing a rather nasty prank on her.”
Oh no. I should have known.
“So this has happened with Rika as well?”
Mrs. Ibarazaki looks thoughtful for a moment, then sighs.
“Maybe it's not really my place to tell you this. I’m sure you already know that the two of them were once running partners, and that a number of things… came between them. My daughter is very hard on herself when she puts her mind to something and doesn’t succeed.”
After another pause, she stifles a laugh, then waves her hand at me apologetically. What a strange woman.
“Please excuse me, Hisao. I’m not trying to be rude. It just seems to me that the three of you are making this out to be something much more complex than it is. It’s just like people your age to think that you’re arguing about abstract things, like death, when really your feelings are so ordinary that they are hardly worth arguing about. Emi is worried about losing you, and not just to death. It’s one thing to have a falling out with a running partner. Quite another when he’s a handsome young man of whom you’ve grown fond.”
I shake my head at the implication. “Mrs. Ibarazaki, I don’t think Emi has romantic feelings for me. We’re just good friends.”
She gives me another matronly smile, her eyes lighting up with a bit of the mischief that I see in Emi from time to time. “Well, Emi hasn’t said a thing to me and I wouldn’t tell if she had. Sometimes she’s not very good at understanding her own feelings. All I know is that when she got news of you being here, and asked me to drive her all the way out here to see you, she wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. But far be it for me to meddle. Oh, and please call me Meiko.”
The way Meiko is talking to me, it’s almost as if nothing were amiss between me and Emi at all. It’s strange, but I guess if anyone knows whether she’ll be alright, it would be her mother.
Just as I’m about to break an awkward silence, the nurse does me one better by entering to notify Meiko that visiting hours are going to end soon. I can hardly believe it’s already so late, especially considering the fact that Emi and Meiko came out here so early in the morning. They must have spent the whole day at my side.
Before leaving, Meiko gives my hand another pat. “Please don’t be angry with my daughter,” she says. “She cares about you very much.”
The silence of the night begins to emerge the moment visiting hours are declared over. Any chance I might have had to see my fellow campers is certainly gone by now. I guess I couldn’t expect them to wait around for me all day. After all, today is the day we were supposed to all head home.
Meiko’s musings and Emi’s tirade take turns playing over in my head as I stare out the window, searching for something else to occupy my thoughts with. The more I run over the things they’ve said to me in my mind, the further it seems I’m getting from any kind of meaningful answers. Even the questions I ought to be asking myself are growing more and more dubious.
As the light outside fades and the window grows more opaque, I notice the night nurse entering my room. I smile at his reflection, but he takes no notice of my gesture. I guess I can’t expect everyone to watch reflections the way Rika and I do.
I roll over to face him and he gives me a small bow as he notices me.
“Is there something you need, Mr. Nakai?”
Scene 13: Poems and Riddles
It’s easy enough for me to understand why Rika hates being visited in the hospital. Being a hospital patient is a humiliating experience. It's almost like being a prisoner. Actually, maybe it's worse than being a prisoner. At least a prisoner knows what it is he's done to deserve being locked up.
In a hospital, the word “need” is overused almost to the point of losing meaning. You need to lie down. You need to rest. You need to finish the rest of your food. I was eager to answer the question posed to me by the night nurse before I could lose touch with what it is that I really needed, and after a rather humiliating process of liberating me from the machines that bound me to my bed, he’d been either kind enough or careless enough to let me out of my room unsupervised for a brief walk.
The hallway of the small hospital is surprisingly vacant, with only a few staff members walking from room to room. The low ceiling and the art on the walls make it look almost more like a hotel than a hospital. A sterile aroma is in the air, something like the smell of a band-aid, and the only sounds are the hushed voices coming from the different rooms and the quick but light footsteps of the night staff.
As I walk past the various half-open doorways in the small hallway, I absent-mindedly observe the sights and sounds of the other patients. An old man makes chit-chat as one of the nurses tends to him at his bedside. A small boy with flowers and greeting cards on his table makes eye contact with me as I walk by, and his eyes are moist and frightened. Yet, as uninvited as my glances might be, nobody takes offense. There’s a kind of solidarity among hospital patients.
I’d like to say that I hate hospitals, but that’s hardly the right word for it. They are eerie. Unsettling. Surrealistic. But it’s hard to feel any particularly negative emotions. The dead and dying are all around you, and there’s never any way of knowing whether the person that just smiled at you is any worse off than you are. So you just smile back at them.
My thoughts are interrupted at the sight of a defibrillator, much like the one that had been parked outside my room when I stepped into the hallway. I’d probably have thought I was walking in circles if not for the fact that it’s parked by a room across the hall from where I’d been staying. It still makes me glance over my shoulder into the direction from which I came. An embarrassingly short distance compared with the amount of effort it’s taken me to get here.
I turn back to the doorway and my pulse quickens noticeably as her eyes meet mine. Not binding me like they normally do. Pleading. Different.
Rika stares out the window, sitting upright on the edge of her bed, her long silver hair hanging loose over her back. Her reflection is clear and bright in the dark glass. Just beyond her, through the glass, I can see the sun setting on the horizon. Maybe she hasn’t noticed me?
I take a few steps into the room and, hearing me, she turns her body half-way, leaning on her hand. Her sidelong glance looks weak, distant. I search for something to say, my mind a mess, scared that at any moment one of the nurses will take me by the arm and pull me out of her company.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
Her expression turns a little confused, and for a moment it almost looks like she’s about to smile, but she doesn’t.
“I know you don’t like people visiting you in the hospital,” I say. “But I wanted to see you.”
We stare at each other for a few moments, my heart quickening.
“It’s okay, Hisao,” she says at last. “You’re not a visitor. We’re both in the same place, now.”
I take a seat beside her on the bed, and she returns her gaze to the reflective window as I do so, looking at my reflection. I want to hug her. To kiss her. To proclaim my happiness at seeing her alive and well. But something seems to be standing between us. Just as the thought comes over me, I can see the same restraint in her own expression. There are so many words that are begging to pass between us.
I'm glad you’re alright.
I’m so sorry.
We’ll be okay.
Don’t blame yourself.
I forgive you.
I love you.
“How is Emi?” she asks suddenly. Not what I was prepared to hear, to say the least. Either someone told her about Emi’s visit, or she’s making the assumption.
“Not good,” I admit. Rika smiles, but not from cruelty or cynicism. It seems more like the satisfaction that comes from having one’s suspicions confirmed. She leans back on her hands, looking at the ceiling with contemplation on her face.
“She hasn’t changed much in a year. But who could blame her? None of us asked for you to walk into our lives, Hisao. This place was already a mess when you got here. And we can’t be blamed for falling back on old patterns, can we?”
To some extent, she must be talking about herself as well as Emi. The question lingers in the air, growing less rhetorical as the silence draws out. I sigh. Before I can say anything, Rika goes on talking, a bit of emotion infiltrating her otherwise confident tone.
“If you ever told Emi she was stubborn, she’d take it as a compliment. That’s how she is. I’m not surprised that she’s still the same as she ever was… but I guess I did have a bit of hope that she might have grown a little, after all this time. She told you that you had to end things between us, didn’t she?”
I bite my lip. “Not in so many words, but I think she was about to.”
She nods, looking again at the window. The sun has finished setting since we’ve begun talking, and it’s growing dark outside. In the window I spy the night nurse who is about to enter the room, but decides instead to stay out.
“Miki and Lou came to see me,” Rika says. “Miki wanted me to tell you to hang in there, dude. Her words, not mine.”
“Oh, and Lou brought me something.”
She turns her eyes to the table at her bedside. In the place where other patients in the hospital keep their “get well” cards and bouquets, I see a glass jar with a bit of dead grass at the bottom, and a small piece of paper folded up next to it.
“Lou gave me a list of instructions on how to keep them alive as long as possible,” Rika explains. “It’s kind of funny. Read it.”
I reach over and take the piece of paper, unfolding it. Three words are written there in comically large letters.
“Let them go.”
I hear Rika snickering as she sees me reading. I can’t help smiling myself.
“He’s an interesting guy, isn’t he?” I say.
She nods. “I’ve been thinking about him a lot since he left.”
I gawk at her in mock-jealousy, and she smacks me in the chest playfully.
“Don’t worry. It’s just harmless admiration. I wasn’t expecting him to be such a poet, that’s all. Someone with hardly any words to use, but who still manages to find the best ones there are.”
“The cleverest thing on no words?” I suggest. She narrows her eyes at my remark, trying to muster enough spite to fight back her smile, but it’s no use. As much as she loves having the upper hand, she still can’t resist the thrill of having her words thrown back in her face.
She wags a disapproving finger at me. “Touché, Nakai. But it’s more than just parity. Lou doesn’t squander his words, because he can’t afford to. Just that old paradox of having so little of something that its value increases.”
“Kind of like us, huh?”
She raises an eyebrow, pursing her lips with satisfaction.
“You’re trying to get ahead of me, aren’t you? If you only knew. I’m about to ask you a question that you won’t be expecting. And I want you to really think before you answer me. So don’t get too far ahead of me, or you might not like what you see when you get there.”
She leans in and gives me a long, lingering kiss on the lips. I close my eyes, and the contact makes my heart flutter a bit. People like us don’t die in hospitals.
After she breaks contact, she gives me a look of importance, locking me with her eyes before her question comes.
“Did you have fun last night?”
Fun? I give her a perplexed look. That dark grin of hers overcomes her again. It’s getting harder for her to shock me, so every victory must be a little sweeter. I almost wonder whether she’s even being serious, but she simply watches me.
I think back to last night. I can barely even remember everything, but what I do remember fills me with a mixture of shame and lust. Her body, my hands on her, the lightning and thunder crashing around us. The abandon with which we made a poor choice, the recklessness that I’d scarcely even realized was starting to overtake me. The excitement is palpable.
She reads my answer on my face, and takes my hand in hers, placing it between her breasts. I realize that the beeping of her heart monitor has been matching mine so closely that I’d forgotten we even had a separate pulse.
“I have a second question, now, but you don’t have to answer it right away. I already know the answer, but I want you to try to figure it out for yourself. It’ll be our secret. Are you ready?”
She leans close to me and whispers in my ear.
“How can you live with yourself?”
Go to scene 14...