The text appears out of nowhere. From Ritsu Tainaka.
“Come to the Shanghai for lunch?”
It’s been around three months or so now since Ritsu’s been gone. We texted frequently at the start, but there eventually there was just too little left to talk about. As of today, we haven’t talked for a week.
In the meantime, I’ve settled into my life here at Yamaku. I eat lunch sometimes with Miki and her friends, accepted a tentative position as soccer team manager, and finally hit the books and gotten my grades up. I have a lot of friends on campus and every day feels pretty good.
It’s a Saturday, and I don’t have any plans. Lunch, as sudden as it seems, sounds fine.
I text her back.
I didn’t even know she was back in town. I guess she’s passing through, or she’s come to stay. Either way, I’ll be more than happy to eat lunch with her.
It’s nice outside recently, so I’ve elected to sit outside at the Shanghai. There’s a small patio area that’s covered from the sun, so it’s not too hot.
It doesn’t take long before a chalk grey Ferrari pulls up in front of the Shanghai, the 4.5L V8 roaring as Ritsu clutches in before parking.
She steps out and I can’t help but think that she’s a sight for sore eyes. She hasn’t changed a bit—the same placid expression, the same yellow hairband, the golden-eyed glance. She gives me a wave, then reaches into the passenger seat and pulls out a shoebox, which she places on the table before me before sitting down.
“Hey Hisao. Long time no see.”
Her clothing is weird—a tennis dress covered by a warm-up jacket, and her face is slightly sweaty, as if she had just returned from a run.
She’s sitting across from me as if we hadn’t been separated at all. Her face holds the same slight, smile, as she looks at me carefully yet casually.
“Hey, Ritsu. Good to see you too.”
Casual is as casual does, I guess.
“I brought you a present. Are you going to open it?”
I give her a slight frown.
“You know it’s rude to open gifts at the table, right?”
“Just open it, Hisao.”
The box is orange, with a large Nike logo, but no other markings—size, model, or anything. Pretty strange if you ask me. I wonder what’s inside.
As I’m about to open the box, a red-headed face pops through the door, the bell chiming in protest at being violently shaken.
“Sorry! I didn’t think anyone would be eating here today so I put myheaddownand—“
The figure checks herself, wrings her hands, and after realizing who it is, exhales visibly.
“Oh, it’s just you, Hisao. And Ritsu. Long time no see.”
I never spoke with Yuuko about the incident, but she seems to take Ritsu’s return perfectly in stride. I wouldn’t be surprised if students left Yamaku for long periods, either for medical or personal reasons.
Ritsu takes the initiative to reply.
“Good to see you too, Yuuko. Some sandwiches and coffee, please?”
Yuuko takes the hint and disappears inside, the bell clinking and rattling as the screen door slams shut.
Ritsu turns back to me, her gaze one of complete focus.
“So, time to open your present, Hisao?”
I give a mock sigh.
I open the box and move apart the wrapping paper. Inside is a pair of new, flashy, Nike sneakers. They’re a bright, vibrant, tennis-ball yellow—everything except the tongue, the laces, and the “swoosh.”
“Uh, Thanks, Ritsu.”
Of course, there is a second question which I’m hoping she has an answer to.
“But uh, why did you get me a pair of shoes?”
Ritsu’s face becomes one of puzzlement, then relaxed explanation.
“Those are special shoes, Hisao.”
I look at them again. Beyond their loud and somewhat obnoxious color, I don’t see anything too abnormal.
“Forgive me, but what’s so special about them?”
Ritsu sighs again.
“I keep on forgetting you’re an uncivilized savage.”
Now it’s my turn to pout.
“Those are Nike Vapor Tour 9-1’s—the limited, pro-only Nike shoe. Everything that the street shoe has, only hand-made and crafted from a variety of experimental rubbers and plastics. Roger Federer uses the exact same shoe. You can’t buy these.”
I’m not really a sneakerhead, but I guess from the description, Ritsu went out of her way to get me a pretty special gift.
I’m still not exactly sure what the intent is behind it, but that can wait until later.
I close the box and put it under the table.
“Thanks, Ritsu. That’s pretty cool.”
Yuuko slips through the door, places two mugs of coffee and a tray of sandwiches in between us, and then disappears again.
There is a slightly awkward silence as we both start pick up our coffee and a sandwich.
I decide to break it.
“So Ritsu, what’ve you been doing over the past few months?”
Her face becomes slightly uncomfortable, and she puts her sandwich down and grabs the mug in two hands.
She doesn’t look me in the eye as she answer the question.
“You know, just the usual. Visiting friends and all. Flying around. Just figuring my life out.”
She seems kind of uncomfortable about it, so I decide not to press on what exactly she did.
“Well, you know, not much has changed at Yamaku. Except that I eat lunch in the cafeteria, instead of eating cardboard bars on some hill in the middle of nowhere with some girl I just met.”
She laughs nervously and gives me a shy smile. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her like this before.
She sets her arms on the table and gives me a focused, clear, look. It’s so intense I almost have to look away, but I force myself to keep steady.
She starts to speak.
“You know, Hisao, over these past months, I’ve missed you so much. I went everywhere.”
“Everywhere I went, you were in my mind. In the Galapagos, in Ecuador, the sea was so blue that it looked just like the sky, but you were on my mind.”
“And in Ravello, Italy, I saw these lines of poetry, and I thought you’d like them a ton.”
She looks up as she recites the verses from memory.
“Lost to a world in which I crave no part
I sit alone and convene with my heart
Pleased with my little corner of the Earth
Glad to have come not sorry to depart”
She continues without stopping.
“Everywhere, you were on my mind. I really, really, missed you.”
I grab her hands in mine and place them on the table. Holding hands, even such a simple thing, is something we’ve been able to do. As I do, I notice she’s got a new pair of braces—the same model, but a new pair.
We stay there, for a little while, just like that. No words, no nothing.
It’s the most peaceful I’ve felt in a long while. Just us. Nothing else.
Ritsu stops and looks down. She pulls her hands away. She starts to speak again.
“Tell me, Hisao, did you ever play a sport?”
I’m surprised by the sudden change in topic, but I do my best to answer.
“Yeah, sure. In middle school I played soccer.”
She shakes her head, her eyes still downcast.
“No, Hisao, like really play. Like play as if your life depended on it. To live and breathe the sport, even if it’s only for just a handful of minutes.”
I mean I guess not. It was just rec soccer. So no.
“No, not really.”
She looks up, but her eyes stare past me, through me, at something beyond.
“It’s something Hisao. It’s really something.”
The words tumble out of her like drops from a faucet.
“I think we should stop seeing each other.”
Each syllable hits like a bullet on my chest, but I don’t move. They bleed in deep, deep down to the pit of my stomach.
Her eyes are at the porous, worn wood balcony below us, but the words march across the table, unstoppable.
“I came to Yamaku on an injury. It’s true that I was injured. All of it’s true. I burned out. I couldn’t take it. I was a loser. I didn’t have any friends. I couldn’t socialize normally. I didn’t and still don’t know how to deal with people.”
“I escaped. I thought I could be a normal kid and go to boarding school. This was it. My last chance at normalacy.”
Her voice becomes tight.
“And you made it, Hisao. I never even dreamed that someone could have treated me as well as you did. I was there for once. I was normal.”
She stops and undoes her braces. Along her old scars are a new row.
“The operation was two months ago. Experimental. But it worked. I’ve got new wrists now.”
I interrupt her, my voice angrier than it should be.
“So you’re breaking up with me because you don’t think you can attend Yamaku anymore? There’s normal kids here too!”
Part of me is angry that something so trivial is breaking this relationship.
She shakes her head.
“One month ago, I walked back onto a tennis court. My coach was there. My hitting partners were there. It was like old times. I went running on the beach. In a few days, I was right back with them.”
She smiles bitterly.
“The only thing that never leaves me is my talent, huh.”
Now she looks up at me, and I see her face is red and her eyes puffy, and her throat is tight as she squeezes out the next words.
“Can’t you see, Hisao? I can play again. I can play again. I can be free.”
She exhales slowly, and the tension leaves her body as she stiffens up. There is something rigid about her, something strong now.
“But I can’t have you, Hisao.”
She sits up straight and looks me in the eyes, and I can barely stand that golden gaze. It’s exactly how I first remembered it—strong, warm, like golden steel.
"A year ago, I decided to quit. But I was wrong."
“It was so nice being normal, Hisao. But it’s time to grow up now. Yamaku was a place for me to hide. I’ve got to go back on the circuit. I’ve got to make a life for myself out there. I can’t just stay here, doing the same things. I need to be alone again. You remind me that there’s something more to life than tennis.”
She looks down, and her voice drops to whisper.
“And as silly as it sounds. I can’t have that. If I stay with you Hisao, I’ll look for you everywhere. I’ll look for you in the stands when I play. I’ll look for you on the beach when it’s grey in the morning and I have to run. I’ll look for you as I pump my fist in victory. I’ll look for you, when I can’t have you. And I’ll be distracted, and I’ll lose. And I can’t have that”
She looks at her wrists, and blinks back the tears now dripping from her eyes.
“I’ll go through a thousand surgeries if it means I can step on the court again. I have to. It’s what keeps me alive. It’s what keeps me free. That yellow ball is all I have.”
She gives me a genuine, sad smile as she makes eye contact with me again. The tears are gone now.
“It’s not you, Hisao, it’s me. And I mean it.”
She reaches over the table and kisses me on the forehead so sweetly I want to move. I want to get up and tell her I’ll be wherever she needs me to be. I’ll be in the stands. I’ll be on the beach with her. But in my heart, we know I can’t.
Still leaning over the table, she gives me that golden gaze one more time.
“Thank you, Hisao. Thank you for everything.”
She puts her braces back on, and gets up from the table and fixes her hairband. A look of determination is in her eyes now. The same flash of fire I’ll never see again.
“Come see me play, okay? This isn’t the end.”
She turns around, and I still can’t move.
I'm still standing there as the grey Ferrari roars to life and pulls away.
"Dreaming with a Broken Heart"
is a song by John Mayer