Getting into a head that some think of as particularly thick? It's not an easy task.
But sometimes, things happen that make it possible.
Here is a very short little tale of a long friendship.
It's a side-story, I suppose, to Rin's arc.
Letting Go (2012-14)
She’s still damn infuriating sometimes, but she is all I have left, and soon, she’ll be gone too. And then I will have to take her advice. It was that long ago? Yes. I should write it down. I never had to write things down before.
“Why was this place ever called the 19th Hole?” I wonder out aloud. I think she has told me before, but I have forgotten. Also, sometimes I need her to tell the old stories, because if I told them to myself, I would go mad.
She adjusts her spectacles, her lips opening to release the faint and comfortable smell of tobacco. “It’s on the 19th corner of this road. And it’s a joke about that stupid game with the eighteen holes. A person who plays that game would never come here. He would not think it existed.”
“As always, you are a fount of information.” I do not mean it sarcastically. But I am not good with words, I always sound wrong. Thank the gods for people who understand me.
She dimples a little, shifts in her seat. Seated, she is as tall as I am, but half the thickness. Standing, she can be taller. “Shinichi,” she says firmly, “we need to talk.”
Oh gods. We needed to talk years ago. Twenty-five damn years, I would say. What is there to talk about in this need-to-talk kind of way?
“Are you having second thoughts about Tezuka?”
I think they would be more like fourth or fifth thoughts. That girl… my best talent ever, but she keeps running away. Still hanging out with that Mutou-acolyte, I suppose. Damn him. Or hims, if that is a word for two men. Him and his master.
“She’ll have to go.”
“What?! Why?!” I’m not good with shocks like that.
“Shinichi.” She places one of her long thin hands on my arm. This always shuts me up. She has long, cool, beautiful fingers. I have known that for a very long time, and it always does this to me.
In our group, everyone knew the tall, slim, beautiful Miss Saionji with the cigarette-holder. But nobody dared to really know her. Until she stopped ignoring all of us and fell in love with my best friend. That’s how I got to meet her and find out for myself who she really was.
“Shinichi,” she repeats herself. It shakes me out of my old-man dreams.
“Why does Tezuka have to go?” I ask, puzzled. Rin Tezuka and Sae Saionji, they get along very well, I think.
“Because I’m dying, Nomiya-san. And I only have one friend to tell it to, and that’s you. And when I can’t look after Tezuka, I am afraid of what might happen to her.”
“Oh gods,” I say. I sound stupid to myself. I always do. I hate it. But there isn’t anything else to say. “Have you told Tezuka?”
“I don’t think she understands me, but I will tell her.”
Sae’s fine features are only a little gaunt. If she had not told me, I would not have noticed. Her face has always been long and striking. Her elegant glasses make her eyes seem rounder, but even if they weren’t like that, people can lose themselves in that gaze. I have been lost in them before. But not for almost twenty-five years—I owe my late friend Ishihara that much.
“You’re dying?” It comes out like a complaint, as if the food is no good or the beer is foxed.
Her hand remains on my arm. “Yes. Too many cigarettes, I think.”
My insane mind suddenly imagines a collage: Sae defined by cigarette lighters, cigarette holders, foreign cigarettes, cigarillos, Indonesian clove smokes, the warnings on cigarette packs. The warnings. The pictures. And Sae, beautiful elegant Sae, going that way.
“No. They can do something, right? Treatment?”
“Unlikely. Stage 4. I didn’t guess. I thought I was just tired.”
“When did you know?”
“Some time back. I tried the new drugs. They’re holding me in place, but they’re expensive, and I don’t think I can afford the gallery anymore. Not with all the work and talking to people. If I had any money left, I’d just keep the atelier.”
“But… dammit… the gallery, the atelier… it’s been all our lives, our memories, Ishi’s memory…” I’m babbling. I babble when I’m angry, sad, when the thin pipe that connects logic to feeling is broken.
“Shhh.” She looks at my beer and I automatically take a swig. “I can’t even afford the rent on my apartment, now. I guess it’s back to being poor again. It’s okay, we should all learn to let go.”
No. No! This won’t happen. It can’t happen to Sae. It is not right, it isn’t! My old dead friend, his sardonic grin, his sharp laughter… they pursue me.
“Come live with me,” I hear myself saying. I once imagined I asked her that, but I never did. And now it means everything that is different from what it would have meant then.
She looks at me, her thin-lipped half-smile just a little uncertain. “Shinichi?”
“Not like that. But you know I have a spare room.”
“I don’t know anything about that.”
“Oh? Sorry. I thought you did.”
“I don’t want to leave the atelier. But I’m putting up all the paintings for sale. It will be like one of those autumn sales when all the department stores clear stock before Christmas.”
It’s like someone has stabbed me with a palette knife and all my colours are coming out. It smells like cheap poster paint in my head.
“Maybe we can try to get Tezuka into school again. A scholarship, some hostel in the university?”
“She won’t go for it, I think. But we can try one last time.”
“I’ll pay for it if I must.”
“And support your dying friend at the same time?” she says in a mocking way, but gently. I guess she’s trying to make a joke out of it.
“No joking, Sae! She’ll be grateful in the end when she becomes someone. When she becomes at least half as good as…”
“Shinichi, no, don’t say it. Once in a while, a bright star falls. There are sometimes no other stars that bright, and sometimes, no other stars that fall.”
“No. If she can be protected, we can let her go.”
I realize that Sae is my last friend, my only friend. Maybe, I am hers too. I am full of regret, but all I can smell is brushes soaking in turpentine. And smoke.
“What’s left in the atelier?”
She knows what I mean. “Nothing, really. The pieces we sold to buy the gallery? Those were sold a long time ago. I have some sketchbooks at my apartment.”
“You kept nothing?”
“Nothing. How could I? I was poor, I had no family, no friends.”
“Why didn’t you ask?” I groan. Twenty-five damn years, almost, and all she had to do was ask!
“Why didn’t you offer? I could never have asked.”
“What? We’re artists, we don’t have to follow rules.”
“No. He was an artist. You’re an art teacher. I’m just a businesswoman. You’re like him with one arm tied behind his back. I’m like him without any arms at all.”
“Is that why you get along so well with Tezuka?” That sounds bitter even to me, but too late, I have said it.
“Maybe. I admire her. She has no arms and is better than both of us combined.” Her tone is chiding. She doesn’t scold me. Just her displeasure, and I am weak.
“I’m sorry, Sae.”
“You’re being you. It’s okay. We’re friends.”
There’s a silence. Then she absent-mindedly downs the rest of her beer. “I guess I’ll just have to let everything go. It’s the 22nd year since things ended, you know. How appropriate to let the 22nd Corner Gallery go on that note.”
I’ve been selfish. I’m also scared. Me, big rough Shinichi, Nomiya-sensei as my students call me. I’m scared that I will lose my last friend, my only friend. My last and only friend: it is like a refrain in my head, now that it has got inside. If I could paint the idea of Sae, I would. But now I can’t paint, I won’t paint at all.
But even a coward can be brave once, right?
“Sae…” I say, like stepping on thin ice. “Please come and live with me. I have a spare room. It is no difficulty to me.”
“Are you sure? I don’t know how long it will be. You might have to look after me towards the end.”
She is always so blunt with me, especially with things that are painful. Her face is hard to look at, as I remember when it was the easiest thing to look at.
I have to tell her. Surely she will not break our friendship now?
“My spare room, it’s…” I stop. It’s hard to say. Twenty-five years of friendship.
“I have...” I sip the last dregs of my beer before I can say more. “I have a last painting of my own. In the room.”
“You never told me. Again. Why do you keep secrets from me like that? I would have loved to see an original Nomiya. But you got rid of them, didn’t you? I used to love looking at your bird drawings.” Her eyes are flashing like those of the young lady I used to know, like dark brown onyxes, the eyes of a bird.
“Oh. My paintings? I keep a few at the school. They’re something my beginners can aspire to reach. My better students, they’re better than that.” Babbling again, anything to avoid truth.
“You should show them to me. I’m qualified to judge, you know.”
She lights up another cigarette. I stare at her. She stares back, as if to say, What? I’m already dead, no point stopping now. But she stubs it out.
“So, no more smokes when Shinichi’s around, eh?” she says, her sweet voice covered up and roughened by decades of tobacco fumes. “Tell me about the one you keep at home. So I can decide if I want to share a room with it.”
“I… I named it ‘Friendship’.”
“How abstract. Normally they’re named Grus Japonensis or something. You were a very good biology textbook illustrator, I used to think. All the Latin names.”
I wince. I had dreams of being a scientist. But they only wanted numbers and formulae, not like the old days when observation and pictorial description were important. I think of Akio Mutou with his stinky labcoat and exact answers, and feel like spitting.
“Don’t tell anybody that. I’m just an art teacher now.”
“Tell me about ‘Friendship’.” She has a bit of a teasing look on her face. Does she mean ‘friendship’ or ‘Friendship’? I’m not very sure. But here’s where it all ends, I suppose.
“It shows three people. Two men and a woman. Art students. In a silly pose, each one raising a fist into the air, as if celebrating success or an exhibition launch or something.”
“Oh. How conventional. That’s very sweet.” She seems disappointed, and I am not sure how to continue. But I have to go on.
“I didn’t paint it. Ishi did.”
It is as if nobody is left in the joint. Her eyes catch the yellow light and she looks like a dark phoenix, suddenly.
With a sinking heart, I feel as if I have let go of the last thing of my life outside school. Like a balloon floating up into the sky forever until it bursts.
“Bring me home. Right now,” she hisses. She doesn’t raise her voice even when almost shouting at me. My mind wonders how she does it. I automatically reach for my wallet and my car keys.
“I’m sorry, Sae. Do you need to drop by the gallery before we head west?”
“West? Whatever for? Your home!”
It’s a year later, maybe a bit more.
“Everyone has to go sometime, Shinichi. Let me go.”
“Don’t go, Sae.”
Two people, in a room with a painting. The man is sitting in a chair next to a bed. The woman is lying in the bed. She used to have long, lovely hair; in her later years, that hair was left carelessly pinned back. Apart from the painting, there is hardly any colour left in the room.
The painting has three people in it. The woman is heartbreakingly beautiful, tall but full-figured, elegant, standing slightly to one side and looking cool. The two men, obviously good friends, slap each other’s backs and raise their fists in salute. They are young, happy, starting out fresh. They don’t need anyone else.
The light captured in the canvas is brilliant. It is morning, or early afternoon. It will always be bright, even when evening finally comes.
Last edited by brythain
on Wed Jul 24, 2019 1:22 pm, edited 2 times in total.