This is the second instalment of the second part of the redacted archive of Kenji Setou.
In which he gives up love in the end, for the beginnings of an illustrious career.
Kenji 2: The Sound of Wings—Year Two
(April 2011-March 2012)
I remember this year very well. It was not only filled with the sound of wings, but the sound of letting go. There are times when you must let go of earth, to gain the air. A dandelion seed must feel that way, but it probably feels less anxiety and no pain.
In 2011-2012, the world turns black and white and grey. There are flashes of sweet brightness, but the colour is leaving my life. It is only later that the colour comes back.
These memories are taken from my redacted log entries, from 2010 to 2015. I call them ‘The Sound of Wings’. Angels or vultures, butterflies or wasps, we all have wings, and to listen to them is to listen to life itself. Before we fly away.
At the beginning of this month, I wake one morning and remember Naomi is home from Australia. I feel warm, happy, comforted. I fall asleep again. I have just spent weeks in an empty house, and I have been sad. But not any more.
The new term has begun. I will make it count. I am a Master’s candidate now. My past is behind me. My future is ahead of me. This damn entry sucks because I have forgotten how to write like myself. I’m reading my logbooks. I can see it’s not me anymore. Is it better? I don’t know, but if I had to blame anyone, I’d blame Naomi Inoue, whose home I live in. She has made me literary.
If anyone has been the love of my short life so far, it would be her. She, of the short dyed ash-blonde bob and the half-sad eyes, of the mouth whose lips carry fragile happiness. She is not really pretty. But to me, she is beautiful. For those who may one day read this entry, let me not leave you in doubt of what I feel.
“I’ve always liked it that you walk me to school every day. It’s been three years now, Kenji. Don’t you ever get bored?”
Her voice is light, girlish, a little mischievous. Under that, she’s tired, stretched by the hidden things that go on in her mind. I only know of a few of them, and there are many.
“No, I couldn’t ever be bored. I have to make sure you stay alive.” It’s a joke, it’s not a joke. It’s love, it’s not love. In English and in Japanese, you can twist those words to look quite like each other. I watch her smile, and realize that she smiles with relief more than happiness.
It’s a day on which the new Master’s student and the final-year humanities student will visit the Manga Museum in Kyoto and stay there for hours. The horrifying emo-ness of the characters in manga serials make my own life bearable. Thank God I’m not a character in one of those things.
But whoever reads my log will laugh. So boring, they will say. He spent months getting sadder and sadder or happier and happier for some girl who wouldn’t spend the rest of her life with him. How to explain that? How, Kenji? Yes, how?
A whole year now, since my sister died. For the second time, I’m standing by the grave, a quiet and lonely place. Naomi is still with me. She makes the pain bearable. She is wearing the black pearls that she gave Sachi, and which Sachi gave back. They are stark against her pale flesh. In the morning light, it’s as if they separate her head from her heart.
Next year, I’ll be here all alone, I can’t help but think. Somebody has already put flowers here, a sad little bouquet. Someone’s been keeping the grave clean. I doubt it was my non-father or my non-stepmother. I wish a blessing on whoever it was: may that person have a happier love-life than any of us, no matter how long it takes.
And then April passes, and takes its cruelty away with it.
Showa Day fell on a Friday, so the Golden Week break seems slightly longer this year. Natsume is visiting, and I’m prepared for another lonely-but-not-alone week.
“Hello, Kenji. How’s the new programme coming along?” she says. The usual business-like conversation. We’re waiting for Naomi to get ready before we go out. And then, something changes. Before I can reply to her first question, she asks, “Did she tell you about Australia?”
My rival doesn’t look happy at all. But I don’t rejoice at misfortune. Especially when I cannot understand its nature. “Not really,” I reply. “She seems to like Sydney a lot, though.”
“That’s what she says.” I have no idea why she sounds so gloomy, and there isn’t much time to ponder that, because Naomi joins us then.
A few days later, Natsume texts me: [Hey Kenji, you know MM, right?]
Cautiously, I respond: [Yes.]
[How well do you know her?]
That’s a hard question to answer. More so when you have no idea of the context involved. I hide in Kenji-ness: [Ha ha, how well would crazy Kenji know a hot girl like that?]
[She doesn’t think you’re crazy.]
This is not good. If triangles are bad, a rectangle is worse. I don’t reply, and when Natsume comes round at the weekend, we exchange very few words.
I spend the rest of May buried in the labs. It’s good to be doing work that doesn’t need so much thinking about humans and whether you love them or not.
I spend a lot of time running experiments in the lab. All that is recorded in logbooks that I don’t want to ever see again. I have to fill forms for permission to run experiments, for my supervisor to record that permission has been given, for security to be informed about all this. The list goes on.
I am glad that a few months into my Master’s course, Dr Tsuchida and Dr Takahashi have confidence that I am doing well. I cannot give their full names here, of course, but they are good mentors and I must acknowledge their influence. The latter is not related to a violinist I used to know, as far as I can find out.
At the end of June, I look at Naomi, and Naomi looks back. I think the question we want to ask is, “What happened to our friendship?” It’s not dead. It’s still alive, but somehow it is slipping away.
It’s hard to regain something you haven’t lost. But we try very hard. The ‘Gion Matsuri’ Festival is something that happens in Kyoto every year, but I’ve not bothered with it. Naomi makes it a point to bring me around. The Festival is all about appeasing the kami—spirits and gods—in times of disaster and disease. I guess Japan has not needed it more than at this time, if you believe that kind of thing.
Towards the last stage of the month-long process, I watch the huge carnival floats, and feel alive. I catch the moments, happy that her hand is in my hand. Even if it won’t be there some day, so what? Here is Naomi, dressed in a sea-green and dark blue yukata. Here is Naomi, most beautiful girl of my life.
The vacation comes, and I realize that this might be the last one I ever have with her. I think she thinks so too. I suggest something new. I hope it’s not pity that makes her agree to join me. She’s never been to Hamamatsu before.
“Truth,” she announces, “is a fragile thing.” She waves a tumbler in my direction, as we sit in the lair of the Black Dragon.
My uncle has decamped in his usual mysterious way, but not after meeting us first and having dinner and a nice chat. With his boyish grin and tall, ungainly gait, he reminds me of Mutou-sensei. It is almost as if they might be incarnations of each other.
But he is gone now, as of two days ago. He has given me the house keys, and access to a liquor cabinet. On my phone is a little message from ‘Setou M.’ It says: [She’s a keeper, dear nephew.] Bitter irony there, the forte of any black dragon.
“So we will make more truth,” she continues, as I put the phone back in my pocket. “We will challenge each other with truth, no dares, just truth.”
It’s a fearsome idea. I am armed with nothing but sadness and strange moods. She is armed with nothing but enthusiasm. Our weapons are envenomed with whisky, apparently a 35-year Macallan worth probably millions of yen.
After a while we’ve confirmed that neither of us is a virgin, and that I like her parents more than she does. She knows I’ve kissed Miki; I know she’s been intimate with Natsume. She suspects Natsume is cheating on her. I tell her I don’t think I’m a father yet. The questions get wilder, and sillier, but it’s almost as if they’re doing that to distract us from the main point of something. What?
It’s the eighth day of August. It would be Tanabata in Sendai. This we know because it has arisen in our drunken ramblings. “Do you love me, Kenji-chan?” she says, her eyes suddenly wide open. She places her empty tumbler on the polished petrified wood of the table. It makes a soft clicking sound, like a huge Go stone.
“I love you, there’s nobody else I can love,” I blurt out. I am appalled at what I’ve said, which is private. Not the first part, I’ve said that before a few times. But the second part. Oh, stupid Kenji, Kenji-baka. Surely she will laugh, this is a childish game anyway. And yet, it’s the truth, even if I don’t really know what it means. And truth must be chased relentlessly sometimes.
“Do you love me too?” I ask, recklessly.
She nods solemnly, then begins to cry.
In the morning, nobody knows anything. The gate of truth has closed. She spends the rest of August with me. We talk less and less. We will soon have nothing left but the ghosts of this August. We are desperate to preserve those spirits.
I now know she plans to go off to Australia, to the University of New South Wales. She’ll do her Master’s degree in Law, Media and Journalism. Kenji will be somewhere around Tokyo. He’ll likely be working for the government, just like his father did. I stare at her, lost. She stares back, uncertain.
She looks away. I look at her ash-blonde bob. The arcs of her hair sweep down past her ears, the left tip for chewing when anxious, the right tip always going messy on its own. I’ve known her for years. I’ve lived with her, fought with her, breathed the same air with her. When it all ends, does my world go with it too?
I decide to spend September in Sendai. It all began there, and there is nothing left for me in Saitama. I have to learn to be alone.
I go back to Yamaku a few times, and on the first day, Miyagi-sensei seems genuinely pleased to see me. “Setou! You seem much more, ah, mature these days. How is Kyoto? And have you made any special friends?”
How does she know, I wonder. It’s that damn feminine-teacher-mystique thing. Somehow, they always know.
“Honoured teacher, I have been greatly blessed by my time at Kyodai. I have a few friends. I’m doing my Master’s degree now. How are you?” Yes, my words are wooden. I think it is because I am used only to speaking with Naomi, and talking to other women is somehow not so easy.
“Good! I’m fine, thank you. Just a little busy. This very ordinary teacher has been given a few extra responsibilities, and they are somewhat difficult for my poor capabilities.”
The school organization chart shows her as Head of Humanities, which puts her at least on par with Mutou-sensei in seniority. She is truly modest. I smile bashfully at her, suddenly aware that she is probably hinting that I should go away and leave her to her work. I make some lame apologies and remove myself.
Some days later, I realize I really can’t be a character in a novel. If I were, I’d have encountered some girl from my past by now, and that girl would have swept all my thoughts of Naomi away, and… well, happily ever after, as they say.
Instead, I encounter Mutou-sensei twice: first time, he’s busy talking to some vaguely familiar girl with long silver hair; second time, he’s having a serious chat with Shizune Hakamichi. Both times, I can’t interrupt, because I’m not as rude as I used to be. If this were a novel, I’d end up with one of those girls. Ha ha.
I avoid the school office itself. Bad memories. I am tempted to visit the medical centre, to drop in on Chief Nurse Kaneshiro. I make it all the way to the main corridor, and then realize that his name has ‘On Study Leave’ beside it. What a waste of time.
Should I visit the dorms? I wouldn’t be allowed in, and my stuff is long gone anyway. Maybe I should visit the roof? I look up into the white September sky, trying to see a chain-link fence I shouldn’t be able to see. It’s then that the sadness I’ve been hiding comes down on me like all the darkness of the world. This place, it was where Sachi was last alive. And for some reason, she decided she had no friends, she was all alone, and she looked down from a very high place, and then, she… she was not.
I will never go back to Yamaku again. I reflect, in the true spirit of irony, that if I were in a novel, this would mean I’ve chosen all the wrong choices and am about to end up dead. I wouldn’t care that much.
The sharp sensation of a skinny finger makes me jump. Something has tapped me on the shoulder. My hair stands on end as I turn. But I have to look, so I adjust my glasses. What is it I’m seeing?
There’s a piece of paper in front of my face. [Hope you’re not avoiding me. Wanted to tell you personally that I feel sad for your loss. My brother hasn’t recovered yet. Thinks it’s his fault.]
Ah. My skin stops crawling as the focus adjusts. It’s Hakamichi, Shizune. Serious spectacles, beige top, smart jacket and long dark grey skirt. I can’t remember what I should call her. It’s difficult for me to remember my signs.
[Boss-san? Thank you. Not his fault.] It’s very low-quality. But she smiles a bit. She has nice dimples.
To my horror, I begin to cry. Such weakness in front of the feminist chief, old Kenji grumbles. I sit down on a step, unable to stand. When she pats me on the arm, it is surprisingly gentle. That makes it worse, at first. A long pause. Tap, tap. I feel her grabbing my wrist. She is surprisingly strong.
Another piece of paper, from her little writing pad: [Come. I have a car. Let’s eat.]
Her car is small and midnight blue. It has a weird yellow-on-green butterfly sticker on it, front and back. I never thought she would go in for such cute things. It is going to be a day on which I learn many things I never thought I would.
Shizune. How to describe her warmth? I am still surprised at it. She is very fierce. Her heat is not really sexual. It’s wanting to do things, it’s like how engineers define energy—capacity to do work, to keep doing work. But she cares for people, doesn’t want to see them wasted.
We take seats in the old Shanghai joint which I never much went to in the old days. She writes: [Respect for your great efforts. Didn’t think you would make it. Ooe thinks highly of you. Says you are kind and smart. Also you look after Inoue well.]
I find myself blushing. Fortunately, our food and drinks arrive, and I am not further embarrassed. In the background, someone drops a tray of food and there is a commotion. I hope they are not embarrassed either.
Maybe there is indeed a feminist conspiracy, but it’s not the wicked one I used to imagine. It’s just that women are better at information sharing than men when it comes to social things. I make a mental note of that: if you want to win information wars, get the women on your side.
It has taken me time to get my thoughts together. The new semester has begun in Kyodai, and I have a great resolve to keep what I can before it all goes away. That means working harder at the lab, burning my lamps till late, and somehow still desperately finding time for Naomi.
“When I go away, it won’t be me not seeing you for a month or something like that. It’ll be for a much longer time. And when I get home, you won’t be here. You’ll be in Tokyo, and I’ll have Nat—but only if she still wants to be with me.”
We’re swinging our legs out over the canal, from somebody’s rooftop. Things have changed. She’s musing, coming to terms with what will surely happen. So am I. And we’re still making sure each of us takes the right drugs at the right times. I’ve programmed a little application that reminds her (and me) to do that—in each other’s voices.
“When you go away, I won’t forget you. I’ll just work really hard, thus attracting further attention from Shizune Hakamichi. But I don’t think she’ll want to be my girlfriend. I think she’ll just employ me and send me motivating emails when I’m depressed.”
She laughs. Light, unforced laughter. It’s like a memory of the days when we were carefree. For me, there weren’t many. For her, it must’ve been back in high school. Or maybe, before either of us knew we had disabilities.
“Kenji, I always thought you were funny. Really fun to be with. And a few months ago, I was just thinking, when people like Satou and Nakai just didn’t end up together, did other people become sad? Will anyone become sad if we don’t? It would be so much easier for my life to just listen to my parents and marry you.”
Here we are, sitting in Gion, the historical geisha district, home of broken hearts and those who mend them. I am insane to feel so happy when I should be sad. I look down at the water below, and realize that the joke is on me. If I fall now, it will be into the waterway called the Shirakawa Canal, and I can’t remember how deep it is.
“Yeah, that would be good. But if you don’t want that, I won’t ask.”
Willow trees line the stone-paved roads. Lovely restaurants, glowing pale amber. The people of the night, on their way to work. Naomi smiles, and those things, they’re all dimmed by her glow, and fade away.
A year ago, I remember we watched Autumn come and go. This year, it really feels like Autumn. Everything is coming and going, especially going.
I have an interview to attend. My references are impeccable, my work is good. But I am nervous. It’s my life now, and it’s not automatic. You can’t just work hard. You have to talk properly.
Naomi helps me dress. She and Natsume take me shopping, buy me a proper suit. It feels stiff, it doesn’t feel like me. Both of them know what they’ll be doing next year. Me, Kenji? I have to pass this damn interview first. Nerves. Shaking. Stupid.
The interview is in Tokyo. Naomi comes with me. Natsume sends her best wishes. Irrelevantly, I realize I still can’t call her ‘Nat’ even though she prefers that. She has coached me, scolded me, spent a lot of time roughing me up verbally. If you can survive Natsume Ooe, you can survive a lot. Will it be enough?
“Everything we do is legal,” says one man. “Or we must make it so before we do it,” says another. Or maybe the same. They all dress the same way. My suit is too good, it stands out. I don’t see other interviewees.
“This is a technical division. We are open, transparent. We serve the public good. We are only a small part of the Ministry,” says the first man. He has a forgettable face. I can’t remember it even after staring at it.
“Ha ha ha, actually only four or five years ago, there wasn’t even a Ministry,” says the other. No, not the same. Sounds like the Chief Nurse at Yamaku, but looks different, has a very fleshy nose and a broad face.
Then they start with the questions. And the questioning.
It’s nightfall when I get out. Naomi has been waiting at the little café for a long while. Not for the first time, I think I am lucky to have such a friend. She looks tired, but her face looks up with a smile on it, pale in the evening. “Did you get the job?”
“I don’t know. They’ll let me know. They laughed a lot. Thank you for waiting for me, Naomi.”
“No, no. It is nothing for a friend. I would have done the same for Nat, I think.”
“Thank you anyway.”
She puts her work away and we find our way home, hand in hand.
I have the job. The girls and Naomi’s parents have a little celebration for me. It’s part birthday party, part coming-of-age-and-new-job. Even Natsume’s brother, Matsuo, has turned up. We are a family. At the back of my head, I soar into the sky, waving a jet-powered finger at my non-father. I am Kenji Setou, 23 years old. I am going to help defend my country even though I am legally blind.
All I have to do is survive the next few months and complete all my work.
“Happy New Year, Kenji!” she says. I am all curled up in my sheets. It’s not that cold, but it’s not warm either. What’s she doing in my room? Oh damn, the whisky. No, did we… ? No.
“Happy New Year, Naomi,” I say, carefully opening one eye, and then the other, hoping to figure out what exactly we’ve been doing.
She’s sitting on one corner of my bed in her dark green silk nightgown, which is currently modestly tied up at her waist. As I prepare to exit the bed on the other side, I manage to determine that there are cold areas. Probably there weren’t two people in it last night.
“You left the door open, and my parents said your snoring sounded like a bunch of buildings swaying during an earthquake.”
It is an insult too grave to ignore, even if true. Sneakily, I grab a cushion from the floor and toss it at her. Oddly, it’s our first pillow-fight ever. In the middle of it, she gasps, “My parents…” and takes evasive action just to close the door properly.
For some reason, New Year’s Day always has us sitting around tired on the floor. People would think we’d been up to it all night. She grins at me, reading my mind. “Yeah, my parents. They’re probably hoping I’ll get pregnant so you’ll have to marry me.”
I look at her, her nightgown askew. If I weren’t an honourable Japanese gentleman, I’d… I cover my loins with more layers of blanket. As always, I delete my lustful thoughts. Come to think of it, I should redact all my previous logs too.
I’ve done it. Made my deadlines, satisfied my professors. You can do a Master’s at Kyoto in two years, but some people get through in one. Kenji Setou is such a man. The Inoues are the first people to know, and they are incredibly happy. I will be sad to leave this household.
I also call the Fist, who is cheerful and enthusiastic: “Hey Kenji, congrats! Buddha’s balls, I think you’re the first one in our batch to get a Master’s degree. Managed to get the Tokyo job?”
“Ah, yeah. I have a few months to make arrangements, then I start officially on 1st May.”
“Golden Week? Shit, you’ve got cruel asshole employers, man. Why’d you bother?”
“I only have to report for work on Monday, 7th May.”
“Ha! That’s more like it. If I can bring myself ever to be in Tokyo again, I’ll come look you up.”
“That’d be nice, Miki!”
There’s a long silence. “Hey, man. In all the time… I don’t think you’ve ever called me by my first name.”
Have I offended her? What does she mean? Ah, I… am confused. I should apologise. “Miura-san, sorry for taking liberties.”
“No! Damn! No, didn’t mean that, Kenji. It’s just that I’ve always wondered if you’d ever call me anything except ‘Miura’ and ‘Fist’ and stuff.” She laughs. It’s a strange laugh, but I’ll settle for that.
Naomi takes me out for a Valentine’s Day dinner. I owe her one too, I say. We end up splitting the tab. She is wearing Sachi’s pearls, and a deep red dress with maroon panels or something. Whatever it is, she looks elegant, a high-class lady. When I tell her, she makes the usual ‘this old dress is not worthy’ sounds. But I know she is happy, and I know ‘this old dress’ was bought only after Christmas.
We’re not like Nakai and Satou. We’ve known each other a long time now. When it stops, will the screen just fade to black? If this were a game, I guess it would be the neutral ending, and the player would just feel empty after that.
Everything seems so final, but yet there’s much to be happy about. The cherry trees are in full bloom, and high up on Arashiyama, Naomi and I press our fingers together and look into each other’s eyes. It could be the end of our relationship, and yet somehow, because we’ve felt that way for so long, it doesn’t feel that way.
“I’m letting you go,” I say, even though I have rocks in my throat and stones in my guts. “I have to, because you’re not meant to be mine, Naomi.”
“I’m letting you go too, Kenji, and it’s not easy at all. I’m not letting you go for someone else, because I don’t know for sure if there will be anyone else.”
Her parents have offered to house me until I have firmed up my plans. So has the Black Dragon. But after that, I will be on my own.
We keep looking at each other. We always knew there would be a real goodbye sooner or later. We grant each other one last kiss. It is like fire and ice, like something sweet and salty that will feed you for a long time. It seems to last forever. It is like trying very hard to remember the best whisky of your life. The better it is, the harder it is to remember anything at all.
Someone speaks: “I’ll always be your friend.”
“Always,” one of us replies.
Who speaks first? It doesn’t matter. We know happiness in the sadness. It’s a joy that we’ve had something we’ll always be able to keep, locked up in our hearts or set free to fly.
There’s a goodbye at the airport. But that’s just for her parents. The rumble of the final takeoff is almost imaginary. The separation is real. The rest of our life has begun.