Close to you
I was awoken suddenly by the silence.
When Yumi parked the car and stopped the engine we felt it oppressing around us.
Nothing happened for some minutes, until Ken-chan opened the door and disappeared from view. Yumi was watching me through the rear-view mirror and I couldn’t help but feel… invisible.
Tetsu… the one who had been the most important part of my life for the past months was somewhere. Somewhere chatting and laughing with his sisters and his ex-girlfriend. And I was here, feeling cold, unattached to everything around me… and maybe just a little bit angry.
“Hi Hi-chan, don’t wo-“
Before she could say anything else I opened the car door and went out.
I was sick of those empty phrases, of those “don’t worry, it’ll be ok”. She hadn’t said it before but I knew she would eventually utter the words I hated to hear. I didn’t plan to accept them.
I quickly followed Ken, who was about to get into the elevator, ignoring completely Yumi’s voice that was calling my name.
Yes, I was worried. Of course I was. Tetsu had just openly accepted in front of his sisters that Hikari was his current girlfriend. He had just turned his eyes away from me and ignored my desperate looks.
I had to be worried because I knew that it was just the start. The indifference was something I knew, something I had felt in my skin year after year. When my mother began to divert her gaze from me everything was lost. The only hope of change, of getting away from hell vanished completely.
It was only a matter of time before Tetsu would hurt me, before he would make me feel like a ghost… I had been too naïve to think otherwise. I had been a fool all along.
I blinked. I was sitting under Yumi’s kotatsu, Ken was watching me sitting directly in front of me.
The moment I entered Yumi’s apartment, sat under the kotatsu and drifted into my own thoughts was a mystery to me. Maybe I had truly died and my ghost had floated into Yumi’s living room.
“I know you’re angry at him.” whispered Kenchan.
‘You’re damn right I’m angry! You’d be angry too. Anyone would be angry! Especially if you had no one else in your life, no other place to go!’
For once, Chibi Ken was acting as my conscience… and he wasn’t helping at all.
“He has no other choice, you know? His sisters are like his children to him and he can’t gi-“
“Give a bad example?”
I silenced Ken before he could say those terrible words himself. Coming from my mouth, it wasn’t so painful even if I knew he was right.
Yes, I was a man and I knew it and I had fallen in love with another man. Society condemned us from the very start and yet I couldn’t believe I was so angry at Ken for even thinking those words.
The prejudice was a social sickness, and it hurt.
Ken-chan was now watching the kotatsu table, lost in thoughts. Yumi was in the kitchen, I could smell something that she was cooking. Knowing me too well she knew I ate my sorrow away, almost like a pathetic depressed girl.
“I want to tell you a story, Hyde.”
I looked at him reproachfully. Seriously, he could be so carelessly manly sometimes… he was actually calling me by a nickname!
“I met Tetsu when I was… around 9 years old.”
He was looking at the kotatsu table, unaware that the last thing I wanted to hear was a story about the man that had denied my very existence. He was slowly drawing circles in a patch of dark wood that stood out from the smooth wooden surface of the table. His gaze was clouded, his shoulders were slightly down. In a moment, I realized I knew Ken-chan so little.
He began to tell the story without even waiting for me to accept it.
“We were neighbors, Tetsu and I. We had been neighbors for a while but our families never cared to meet, not even our parents knew each other.
I still remember the first time I saw him… My older sister was playing outside in our backyard. She had spread her dolls in the grass and sat there and I had followed her as I always did. I had taken my toy cars and I was planning to annoy her all afternoon, ruining her perfect doll house she was building with a few rocks and sticks. I just kept running around her, making as much noise as I could and giving my cars the chance to fly around her head.
Suddenly, I heard a girl crying from the other side of the hedge that separated our houses.
I’ve always been a curious bastard and the first thing I did was go beyond the hedge to see what was going on. My sister didn’t notice, yet I knew she would eventually do…”
Ken-chan suddenly stopped talking as steps coming from the kitchen drew nearer. Yumi came to the living room holding a tray with a teapot and two teacups. She probably deduced from Ken’s uncomfortable smile that we were having an important conversation for she set in front of us the teacups. We didn’t share a word as she kneeled and poured us her delicious green tea (funny I remembered, in the midst of it all, that she made the best green tea I ever had the pleasure to drink). She left without even looking at us.
Ken took the chance to look at the tea and probably at his own reflection in the liquid. He looked at me and I could only nod, indicating that he could continue his story.
“I went over the hedge and I found myself behind a small shrub with pink flowers. The yard was huge, maybe twice the size of mine and it was filled with flowers and low shrubs. Two big oaks were not too far away from me, and its leaves were a shade of green I had never seen before.
I was so perplexed by it all that when my gaze fell over the crying girl I remembered I was a stranger spying in my neighbor’s backyard. I crouched behind the shrub, making as little noise as I could and I found a spot between the twigs from where I could watch the little girl.
She was sitting on a step next to a sliding door that stood open. The long curtain was swaying with the wind as well as the little girl’s dress. Her hands were covered with dirt and she kept crying.
I didn’t know what to do for my sister would soon realize I was gone and she would start calling for me. Yet that girl, she wasn’t over 3 years old I was sure, had a large bruise in her knee.
While I was weighing my next course of action a boy came from beyond the curtain, carrying a small box. He had short dark hair and he was wearing shorts and a plain shirt. I thought he was probably my age and curiosity fixed me on the spot. I wondered why my parents had never mentioned I had a neighbor my age.”
I could picture the scene perfectly. A hot summer afternoon, the sunray’s filtering through the trees illuminating the boy who would one day become the Tetsu I knew.
Ken took a sip of the tea and his face suddenly changed. He laughed heartily.
“Keep on making such good tea and I’ll make you my wife!” he shouted towards the kitchen. His serious, melancholy face was lost in his laughter.
A giggle came all the way from the kitchen, followed by an answer.
“Keep yelling to me and I’ll marry you!”
Ken only laughed in return and muttered unintelligible words to himself. He took another sip and turned his attention towards me again, his smile suddenly dropping.
I had stayed fixed in time; Tetsu’s old backyard was all I could see in my mind. I was sure he could tell from my face, for he continued instantly.
“Where was I?.... oh! The boy came and kneeled next to the little girl, whispering things I couldn’t hear. Damn, he was so into his nurse role that he didn’t even noticed the dark dirt spots the girl had left as she grabbed a hold of his shirt. She had his full attention and he had mine’s. Well, you could say… I was truly impressed by him.”
He smirked now, playing with the teacup. Slowly he turned it around and then turned it the other way.
“He was… fidgeting like a mom. He appeared calm and focused but it was obvious he was nervous and a little bit annoyed by the girl’s tears. When he put the antiseptic over the wound and she started crying even harder I had to laugh out loud at his reaction.
He didn’t silence her, or twisted his mouth in impatience like a brother would do; he simply patted her back and whispered some words to her. He wasn’t just acting like a mom; he was that little girl’s mom! She actually calmed down and let her brother work on her wound! No sister would do that, I assure you. When I annoyed my sister or hit her she would keep on wining until I was punished or at least I was five meters away from her.
Anyway, back to Tetsu… I was pretty sure that by that moment he had already figured someone was hiding under a shrub, no shrubs laugh out loud suddenly. But he didn’t give signs of it until some minutes later. He finished treating the wound and took the girl inside the house. All along I had just watched and when they both disappeared from my view, I realized my sister hadn’t called my name yet. I was about to turn and dive through the hedge again, my curiosity partly satisfied, when he came back.”
He paused again, now looking at the dark fireplace that stood to our right. His eyes were lost in a log, almost completely turned to ashes, and I knew his mind was somewhere else, reviving his childhood memories. He continued with the story without diverting his gaze from the log.
“I actually expected him to scold me like a mom would do but then I realized I was still crouching behind the shrub. He was standing in the exact same place where her sister had been sitting, and he was looking all over the place.
Now, at that moment, I thought of going away. Maybe my parents had never talked to the neighbors for a reason. Maybe they were crazy people, or they did something shameful as a living. My childish mind was racing at the possibilities.
But as I watched him I felt the need to go over to him and say ‘hi’.
There was something in his face, some hint of loneliness that got the best of me. And of course, I couldn’t say no to the opportunity of meeting a crazy person hahaha.
I stood up and walked straight towards him, an idiotic smile upon my face. When he spotted me he stood as shocked and lowered his eyes. He’s always been shy but my 9-year-old hyper self ignored that. When I got to him I simply said ‘Hi, my name is Ken but you can call me Ken-chan. I’m your neighbor and I’m happy to meet you!’”
I could picture the smiling Ken and the blushing Tetsu now. And I had to say what was going through my mind.
“Don’t tell me. He just stood there and smiled, right?”
Ken-chan laughed and moved his head from side to side.
“No! The funniest thing is that he raised his gaze towards me and started laughing right in my face! He laughed for about 2 minutes straight! I was perplexed and for a moment I thought he was actually crazy but before I could run or open my mouth he had grabbed me by the arm and took me inside the house. At first I was terrified, but when he led me towards a huge mirror and pointed to my reflection I started laughing too.
My hair was full with twigs and pink flowers, my nose had a large brown spot of dirt and my shirt was torn.”
Ken was now openly laughing and I was trying to picture the funny scene in my mind but all I could picture was Ken wearing a huge pink flower in his hair. As we both laughed at different mental images, Yumi entered the living room this time with dinner. I could smell ramen, some kind of stew and more of her delicious green tea.
“I’m sure Tetsu thought you were a beggar or something” she said suddenly, as she sat down next to Ken in the kotatsu and arranged our dinner before us.
“You were listening!? NOSY!”
“Your sweet voice is not a feather, you know? But either way, Hi Hi-chan, I’m sure he was trying to say that Tetsu is very close to his sisters and he’s kind… I’m sure he’s not doing this to hurt you, ne?”
“Hey! I was the one talking! Women always put words in our mouths…”
I refilled our teacups while they kept arguing over who got the right to talk or something like that. When I turned my attention to the food Ken was now praising (mockingly) the instant ramen Yumi had prepared for us.
I was listening to their exchange of ironic words but my mind had stayed with the 8-year-old Tetsu, helping his sister and welcoming Ken to his life with laughter.
His life seemed alien to me. The hot summer day in which I pictured him was opposite to my four-walled memories of childhood. His sister, Ken and everything around him appeared innocent to me.
But… was it?
Ken hadn’t said much but he didn’t need to. It had been a perfect day for a kid to play outside but Tetsu had been busy helping his sister heal her wound. He had rushed inside the house for the medicine and had comforted her and cured her.
He had been alone, left with himself, the house and his sister.
Had it always been like that?
From what I knew of him, he was responsible, independent and he surely didn’t talk about his parents or family.
Had his parents abandoned him, maybe not in presence but in thought, like my own parents did?
“I’m sure he’s mulling over leaving you like that, Hyde.”
Ken’s voice brought me back again to Yumi’s apartment. Both he and Yumi were looking at me.
“He has always been uncomfortable with disappointing people, you know?... He may not look like it, but he has low self-esteem. Probably because his parents never actually cared to know who he was, and he must have felt like he wasn’t anything at all. His only comforts were always his sisters and… well, also me.”
Ken was playing with his chopsticks, aware that the talk had once again turned to the serious side. He paused for a moment, both in talk and in action.
Suddenly, he dropped the chopsticks and looked at me.
“And now he takes comfort in you. I can assure you he’s totally in love with you, not with that bitch Hikari. I’m sure he’s thinking about you right now!”
‘You know, Ken may be a dick, but I agree with him.’
Even when Ken (and Chibi Ken) said the words I needed to hear, I was still feeling insecure. I couldn’t help but hear a part of me denying it all. In the pit of my stomach a mixture of hope and letdown were boiling and I didn’t know which one to trust.
“Hi Hi-chan, I know you’re feeling insecure but please try to understand the situation. This is not the end, he’s not leaving you.”
Yumi’s hand had found my own and she was looking at me. I looked back at her and for a moment I pictured her as the crying girl in the backyard and I could also picture myself as Tetsu.
He had found his comfort in his sisters, I had found my comfort in Yumi.
Were we that different?
“But anyway, let’s just change the topic. I’m sure Ken will gladly eat my over-spiced (or so he claims) stew and drink the too-hot tea.”
Laughter was back again in the living room and a smile crept to my lips without my consent.
I was here, eating dinner with two amazing people who cared about me, who tried to cheer me up and make me choose hope instead of letdown. They were… my real family.
As Yumi tried to place a tofu square on Ken’s nose I wondered how dinner was going for Tetsu.
Was he laughing too? Was he also remembering old times? Or was he thinking about me as I was thinking about him?
As the hot (luckily not boiling) water from my ramen bowl splashed my face (thanks to a flying tofu courtesy of Ken) I couldn’t think of anything else. But Chibi Ken could.
I had a feeling dinner would surely become an interesting memory.
With or without Tetsu, I could laugh tonight.
Thank you so much for reading~ I can't thank you enough T_T