It's been two months since my previous post, a rather busy two months.
During that time, I sat down with Kenji Setou and discussed alternate timelines and universes.
Here's one of many possible sequels to Alt Dreams 08 — Wingmen.
Today he’d be damned if he acted like another nondescript Japanese businessman taking advantage of cheap post-Christmas tourism offers. Three years since he’d resolved to make it work. And maybe, if his confused perceptions of human behaviour had finally got it right, he’d seen the same light flash in her eyes the year before.
They weren’t young anymore. He looked into the familiar mirror of the familiar hotel room, saw the dryness, the slow leathery aging that said so. He’d returned every December, so regularly that he was recognized by all the hotel staff who’d stayed around long enough. He was sure it would be the same for her too, except that changes in hairstyle and clothing tended to throw people off a bit.
Today wouldn’t be high tea at the Rose Verandah, as always before. This afternoon, they were breaking with tradition. It would be the Waterfall Café, this time. He flipped his battered leather wallet open, looked at the dog-eared photo he kept there as a physical memory: a remembrance of two happy people, now a decade gone from the world, and their best friends.
He snapped the thin wallet shut and blinked. Five minutes left. He stuffed the wallet into the pocket of his beige jacket, dithered for a couple of seconds, then hardened his resolve. What the heck. Not just another nondescript Japanese salary-man or senior executive—that was old shit already.
He reached into his small case and pulled the tattered scarf out. She’d recognize that. Maybe he’d even get a smile out of her. Smiles used to be something she’d give away for free, generously. He’d not appreciated them then, and he wondered if it were too late now.
Carefully, trying to recapture carelessness, he flung the bright colours in two loops around his neck. December in Singapore was cool, and there was air-conditioning at the café. He grinned, adjusted his spectacles, and left the room to its own devices.
He sat at the corner table, where he could see the artificial waterfall on his right and everything else spread out before him in front and to the left. In the middle distance some crazy Caucasians were gamboling in the pool despite the light drizzle. She was late, by five minutes already. It wasn’t unusual.
Idly, he wondered what would happen if, one day, either of them just gave up and decided not to make their annual meeting. He felt sad for a moment, then reassured himself that it was unlikely. And besides, there she was, pausing to exchange words with the hostess at the entrance.
He waited for a moment, then stood up. His eyesight had never been good, so he’d had to find other ways of reading a person. Her posture, her movement, the scent she was wearing—all positive signs so far.
“Hello, Misha,” he said.
“Hi! Sorry I’m late, Kenji!~ So nice to see you!~”
Her hair, he noticed, was purplish. She’d sworn off pink for a long while, reverting to her original brown. Today was clearly different; not totally cheerful, slightly ambivalent, but trying hard. Or at least, that was his analysis. Reading people had never been his forte.
She came up to him, close enough to his face for him to see the markings on her irises, then gave him a hug. Awkwardly, he hugged back, politely but firmly. He wasn’t sure how much hug-warmth he had in him, and was afraid to use it all up. She didn’t seem to mind. Her hair had the fragrance of apple-blossoms.
By way of making conversation, he told her, “Today they’ve got a gelato parfait special. It seems to be your kind of thing.”
She laughed. It wasn’t quite the lunatic ‘wa-ha-ha’ of her youth, but it still had bubbles in it. “Kenji, I’ll try to control myself~ Misha’s getting fat and has to go on diet!~ And lots of exercise!”
“Fat?” He looked carefully. A simple white blouse and a dark navy wrap-around skirt of some sort, a bright orange cardigan. Somehow, it worked. And he couldn’t see any fat; the skirt seemed pretty snug and wasn’t the type that could be used to conceal it. In fact, she seemed skinnier—less fat on her knees, he thought. It would be useful to her if he pointed it out.
“Really?” she replied. “Heh, that’s very kind of you, Ken-chan!~ Misha doesn’t think she’s gone skinny, but it’s good of you to say so.”
Not for the first time, he felt warm inside. He had said something right, anyway. It felt pleasant. Yet, it might still end up as it had every year, with empty half-promises and a long flight home by different routes.
They sat, Misha squirming around a little to get comfortable. She was wearing one of those odd fitness bracelets that tracked everything your body did. Maybe she was serious about that diet after all.
Somehow, between the crème brulee and the second cappuccino, they’d found themselves in a rather difficult conversation. At first it had been Misha saying, “Oh you’re not really blind, Kenji! You seem to see me pretty well, except you think I’m thin, so that’s probably astig… asthma… something!~”
And that had led to legal disability and other things, before Kenji committed the unforgiveable crime of asking her what her disability was. He bit his tongue at that.
“Ouch!” he grimaced, tasting blood with his cream.
“Are you all right?”
“No. Yes. Sorry, shouldn’t have asked.”
Her gaze slid sideways from his and swept out towards the waterfall. She put down her parfait spoon. Embarrassed, he looked down at his near-empty dish.
When he looked up, her eyes were locked on his. “Kenji, do you want to hear a story?”
“What? Er, sure.”
He swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry. She swallowed too. He wondered if her mouth was as dry as his. Maybe they could conserve wetness if they shared lips for a while, a naughty voice in his head whispered. Alarmed at this subversion of his own mind, by his own mind, he shook his head once, sharply.
“Are you sure?” Misha whispered, her voice very small. “It’s okay if you don’t want to hear it.”
He wasn’t sure what he wanted, but their relationship had always been a strange one anyway. He seized his cappuccino cup and took a swig as if it were whisky. “Um, maybe… would you like to come up to the room first?”
It hadn’t been the first time they’d shared a room. It had been two single beds at first, a way of saving money for impecunious young people. For the last three years, it had been a single king-sized bed, shared by two people, guilt and sadness. Sometimes, they’d comforted each other. Sometimes, the bed had seemed cold and forbidding.
Today, they sat at the brown-glass coffee table, on the balcony overlooking the frangipani trees and the manicured grass. He’d made some aromatic black coffee, glad for the new machines installed in every room.
They’d made small talk at first, as she unpacked her small purple travel bag and he figured out the coffee machine. Then she’d disappeared into the bathroom while he sat and waited, trying not to think too much.
Across the table, he saw her open her mouth to speak. Panic rose inside him, but he grimly held on to it until he had leashed it.
“Ah, yes, you said you had a story…”
“Yes.” Her teeth, fine and white, teased her lower lip.
“Tell, tell,” he said softly, in a clumsy attempt to encourage her.
“Don’t hate me for it, please?”
The trills had vanished from her voice, he realized. This wasn’t chirpy Misha or even trying-to-be-chirpy Misha; this was uncertain Misha, and maybe sad Misha. And in the late afternoon sun, she was rather pretty. He could see the purple in her hair more clearly now, and at some angles, it shaded to maroon and redwood.
“Hate?” he said, bewildered. “Why? No, won’t hate you, nothing to hate.”
She sighed. “I don’t know. Kenji, maybe after this we’re not friends any more, so before I tell you, please promise you’ll remember the times we had together? They weren’t all bad times, right?”
He found himself about to frown at the table, then stopped. “Ye-ess, good times. But why… ?”
She’d cut him off with an emphatic gesture. Her hands still had that ability to convey meaning even if you didn’t quite get what they were trying to say, he noticed. His gaze rose to meet hers.
What a funny look she had in her eyes, he thought. Then he understood. She was frightened about something, or anxious, or very nervous. He forced himself to smile a bit. She smiled back, as if they were apprehensive virgins about to lose that status.
“Yes, of course!”
“I wasn’t always a girl.”
Later, still in their room, she sat down on the edge of the king-sized bed and looked away from him, out into the well-manicured gardens with the frangipani trees. He still didn’t know what he could say or not say, so he looked at her out of the corner of his eye.
She was pretty. She’d never been beautiful, never a stunner. But she had always tried to be positive, tried to bring light into a room. Boys had found that simultaneously irritating and cheery. Most of them hadn’t appreciated the noise.
Kenji looked at her calves, still firm and yet round, since he didn’t know where to look otherwise. That, despite having seen her unclothed before.
“I suppose you hate me,” she said softly and drearily. She sounded resigned, as if rain would inevitably come and spoil a sunny day.
“No,” he replied. He thought he meant it. “No, I don’t know,” he added, keeping the expletives in his head behind a chain-link fence. Sadness and regret, there’s too much of it, he told himself, forcing a smile to the surface.
“Listen to yourself, Kenji.”
He did. After a long silence, he replied, “I’m telling myself that I’m still your friend.”
“And that’s all?” She laughed, but the sound was dry and lacked all cheer. It ricocheted around the small room and landed tiredly in the space between them. “Well, I’m used to that. Friends are always good to have.”
He let his lips open, about to say something along the lines of, “I’ll always be your friend, Misha!” — but realized that this would make the exact opposite happen. People friendzoned each other by accident, sometimes, although most times it was deliberate. Misha deserved more than that. He said nothing instead.
“Nothing to say, Kenji?”
The silence grew. Both of them were remembering moments of desperate loneliness, when only the other person had been a refuge from the overpowering desire to bring an end to all things. Both of them were thinking of the years after their friends had gone away, leaving only the two of them behind.
Almost conversationally, as if she were saying, “This tea is cold,” Misha’s voice cut through the blanket of quiet around them.
“I’ve thought of killing myself many times. Both before and after. Shi’chan, she wouldn’t let me think such thoughts. But I thought them anyway, when she wasn’t around.”
“You mustn’t,” he said automatically. “You’re too good to leave so soon.”
“Like our friends?”
Somehow, she knew how to kill a conversation swiftly, like a sharp spike in the head. Kenji tried to understand what she was making him feel. There was hurt and confusion. Yet… yet, they were still talking.
“I’ve wanted to off myself too,” he confessed.
“We could do it together. I wonder how long it would take for anyone to find out. And it’s not as if anyone would care.”
There was, of course, almost no answer to that.
Somehow, nobody died. Kenji found himself pacing furiously at Narita. Where was she? There were things to talk about. He could hardly remember everything himself, and his mind was full of shit. And whisky. He’d almost been dropped off in Bangkok because of that—and because having a manly picnic on the roof of an Airbus wasn’t considered a rational request.
Was that her flight? Landed, the sign said. He paced around some more. He would at least say one last thing to her. Even if it killed him. The answer he hadn’t been able to give just a few days ago in the Garden Wing of the Shangri-La Hotel.
“Do you love anyone, Kenji?” she’d asked him.
“…” he’d replied, when he should have told her so, told her he loved her without reservations.
Now it might be too late. Panic seized him. At least it was a manly panic, he thought inanely. He looked up. Twenty minutes, thirty minutes had passed. More. She’d done it, hadn’t she? Removed herself from the board.
He felt his tears fogging up his thick glasses. Now, there’d be nothing left for him either. Time to go, just as others had gone before.
Then he heard the voice, as if very far away. “Sorry I’m late, Ken-chan!~ Was at the duty-free getting some good whisky!~”
She was right next to him, smelling of airplane cabin and wild apples. Blindly, he reached out to her. “Thanks for the whisky!”
“Is that all, Ken-chan?~” she said playfully. He knew better. He could hear the disappointment in her voice.
It was not what he’d meant to say. He tried again, and this time, he got it right.
Shiina ‘Misha’ Mikado and Kenji ‘Deadeye’ Setou were married in June 2024, in a private ceremony in Saitama. After the wedding, they visited their old friends Shizune Hakamichi and Hisao Nakai. After they’d washed the marble slabs and lit the candles, they could almost imagine Shizune and Hisao laughing and saying, “What took you guys so long?” — or at least in Shizune’s case, [Why so long? Wasting time!]
Before they left, Kenji fumbled around in his wallet and produced a photographic print. It was in bad condition, worn and faded, but had been laminated and sealed to protect it from further deterioration. It showed the four of them, in happier days.
Misha laughed and replaced hers in her handbag. “Kenji, we’ll put mine up at home. You can leave yours~ here.”
He grinned at her, and then gave in to the tiny internal voice that said, “Well, maybe if you share lip-space right now, it would feel good all round.”
Apparently, she agreed.