Ritual

“Just follow me,” she’d said, and I’d followed her without looking back.

Today is our one-year anniversary. Technically, we’ve known each other for much longer, but exactly one year ago, we’d made it official. Sometimes it matters to make things official – something about the formality, the gravity of it, the sudden sense of responsibility. I don’t know. I’m not the type to wonder about stuff like that. I’m just saying that today is our one-year anniversary.

In the morning she surprised me with flowers and my favorite breakfast foods; in the afternoon I surprised her with flowers and a lunch reservation at her favorite restaurant down the way. Our apartment is filled with flowers now, and we’re stuffed with great food that took a lot out of our wallets, but no matter. Rituals are important, and flowers and food are ritual.

Tomorrow I’m going to surprise her even more. I have all kinds of things lined up – presents I’ve made, experiences I’ve ordered and reserved. I can bet she has more surprises for me, too. And that doesn’t come from any narcissistic, self-important heart I might have; we both just have a penchant for surprising each other with gifts, especially on important days like our one-year anniversary.

Anyway, right now, we’re cuddling on the couch. She has her head buried deep into my layers of polos and button-up shirts – it’s been incredibly cold lately, so don’t you judge me – and I have my arms around her. That’s what’s happening, nothing more, nothing less. People don’t touch each other as often anymore, that’s what I think. Hugging, holding hands, touching, cuddling. Never see it. Especially among people who aren’t in a relationship. Isn’t it sad? We could all use some more of this stuff, don’t you think?

So there we were, all cuddled up on the couch, and after a while of this my girlfriend suddenly lifted her head up and looked me in the eyes.

“Haku,” she said.

“Mmm?” I replied.

“I’m glad I met you.”

I smile a little. “I’m glad I met you, too.”

She reaches up to touch the side of my face; I close my eyes, savoring the touch. Then, as usual, she starts to play with my hair. Long and brown and curly, some typical nondescript girl’s hair. She twirls it around her slim fingers, studies it for a while in great concentration. I watch her and wonder what it is about my hair that she could possibly find interesting.

Well, when you think about it, there’s a ritual contained in that, too. She knew it, and I knew it, and that’s all that ever mattered. Right?

That’s all that ever mattered.

Borderlines

“You will not remember me.”

You will not remember me.

It wasn’t the words themselves that gave me pause; it was something in the way he said it, the way he spoke, the way his mouth moved to give form to the sounds. The boy looked at me and said, with absolute certainty, “You will not remember me.” It wasn’t arrogance, or stupidity, not a false assumption nor some dumb superficial pride. He wasn’t trying to impress or intimidate, either. He was just stating a fact. He spoke his line in exactly the same way he would have recited Newton’s universal law of gravitation from last year’s physics class. You will not remember me.

It gave me chills.

It’s not that foreign of a phrase. Maybe I’ve read it in a book before, I don’t know. Maybe I’ve heard it in a movie. But those were always fake, always on the other side of reality, and this boy was certainly here, on my side, and he was very real to me.

“Wh-what’s that?” I managed to reply.

“Don’t worry,” the boy said. He patted me on the arm in an oddly mature, adult way. “I’ll be gone soon, so you don’t have to worry about anything. Your work, your girlfriend, nothing like that.”

I shook my head. “Okay… But I don’t understand.”

“I just wanted to see you,” he said. “I’ve missed you.”

I choked a little in surprise and confusion. “Sorry, but I don’t know you. You have the wrong person.”

“No, no,” he said. “See, Haku, here’s the thing – we haven’t really met. Yet. Right now you don’t know me, but one day you will. Except you won’t remember.”

“What?”

“I just came to see you,” he said. “And I wanted to tell you this: it’ll be alright.”

What will be alright?”

“Everything. School – you’ll graduate, promise. Work – you’ll get a good job. And then you’ll get fired, but you’ll get another one. Family – they’ll come around eventually. Your mom will love you again. She still loves you now, and it’s very hard, but one day it won’t be hard anymore. When your girlfriend dies she’ll realize how much you loved her. Your girlfriend’s death will be alright, too, by the way. And eventually yours. You’ll get through it all. Everything will be just fine.”

I shook my head again, speechless. The boy gazed into my eyes and smiled gently.

“I have to go now,” he said. “You won’t remember me, but that’s okay. We’ll meet again. I just wanted to tell you that it’ll all be alright.”

It’ll be alright…

He nodded and walked away, and that was that.

Connection

“Who are you?”

“Um… My name is Kohaku…”

The young man studies me. “Okay, but who are you?”

“I live in the apartment above you,” I say. “I just moved in.”

“Oh.”

He scratches his head for a second, turns to glance over his shoulder, and then looks back at me. He opens the door slightly wider but still won’t let me in. I shift my weight uncomfortably.

“What do you want?” he asks warily. Immediately he winces, recognizing that his question came off as rude in a way he didn’t intend.

I let it slide. “I just want to get to know my new neighbors,” I say.

“Oh.”

“I missed your name,” I suggest politely.

“Brandon.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Brandon.”

He nods in return.

By this point it’s clear he’s never letting me in. That’s okay – I understand. People generally aren’t willing to let strangers into their apartment, even strangers who live with them. But all I want to do is make friends with him, and how else are we going to do it?

“Do you want to come over to my place for coffee sometime?” I ask him.

He thinks about it. “Um… sure, I guess.”

“When are you free?”

He thinks some more. “I can do tomorrow afternoon. Around two o’clock. Is that okay?”

“Sure. Absolutely.”

“But I don’t drink coffee,” he adds suddenly. “Tea?”

I smile happily. “Tea it is.”

We say goodbye, and I head back up the stairs, rejoicing in my slight victory.

Shilah

Our paddles sliced through the water in unison, cutting the blue-green surface and setting the kayak on a smooth, silent glide. I gazed at the back of Shilah’s head, moving my arms in time with hers. The minutes flowed quietly by.

Shilah spotted the private beach and started to angle in towards shore. I followed. At a certain distance we both stopped paddling and let the waves carry us in. Then Shilah jumped out into the shallows and pulled the kayak up onto the sand.

“Been hot today,” she said, speaking for the first time since we’d set out.

“You’re right,” I agreed. “Glad I remembered to put on sunscreen.”

I got out of the kayak and stretched. The sand was incredibly soft and warm beneath my feet. Shilah splashed around in the water, and I watched her.

“When are we going back?” I asked.

She laughed. “Who cares? Whenever we feel like it. I hate planning. Life is better if you just go.”

“Hmm, yeah, I guess you’re right.”

It still gives me anxiety to not have a schedule. I guess it’s something I’ve yet to learn.

“Come over here,” Shilah said.

I went over to her, stepping into the briskly cold ocean. She extended her hands to me and I took them. Without warning she started to dance, pulling me along, and I followed her lead with surprise.

I guess a private beach is a pretty romantic setting for a dance. But I’ve never been good with romance. Shilah was always the more sensitive one.

We danced for a while and then fell back into the sand, tired. Shilah was beaming. I smiled at her, breathing hard, and part of me wanted to do it again.

“Haku,” she asked, “what do you dream of?”

I thought for a moment. “I don’t know.”

She lay on her back, looking up at the clouds, and nodded. “I dream of tiny little stars in the ocean that glitter and shine brighter than the sun.”

I laughed. “Why? What does that mean?”

“Whatever you think it means,” she replied. “It’s my dream, but you’re still free to interpret it however you want.”

She closed her eyes, leaving me with that.

“It’s kind of weird… but I like it,” I decided.

“When I die, I’m going to turn into one,” she said.

“A tiny star in the ocean that glitters and shines like the sun?”

Brighter than the sun. Yeah. You should turn into one too.”

I laughed. “That’s kind of cute, actually.”

“I don’t think it’s cute. I just think it’s important. But if it’s cute to you, that’s alright.”

She opened her eyes and sat up.

“Let’s dance again,” she said.

“Okay. But the sun is starting to set. How long are we going to be out here?”

Shilah looked at me seriously.

“Who cares?”

Phone Call

“Haku. You’re not going to make it.”

“Wait, hold on, I’m getting in the car right now.”

You’re not going to make it. The hospital is over an hour away. Just shut up, sit still and listen.”

“Will you sing for him?”

“I promised I would. Put it on speaker.”

“Hold on.”

“Baby, it’s Kohaku on the phone. They’re going to sing for you.”

“Hey, Ari… just take it easy for me, okay? I’m gonna sing now. Here we go…”

I sang for ten minutes longer than I needed to, and so sent him away.

Girls’ Day Out

She lay on her back on the bottom of the boat, eyes closed, hair spilling around her shoulders in glowing curls. I slowed down my rowing and gazed over at her. She said nothing for the longest while, content to simply lay back and relax, and I tried not to disturb her. We glided through the water in companionable silence.

After some time had passed she began to speak softly. “You can hear it…”

“Hear what?” I asked.

“The rhythm of the sea.”

She opened her eyes and looked at me. I smiled.

“The rhythm of the sea, huh? I haven’t any idea what that sounds like.”

“Don’t be a goof. You live right near the ocean.”

She sat up and looked around us – the wide expanse of clear water, the forested shoreline still not too far away. The scenery was beautiful, as always, but I was only looking at her. And she knew it.

She turned to meet my eyes and smiled slowly, softly. “My mother’s not going to approve.”

“Your family’s like that, huh?”

“A lot of people are like that. Are you tired yet? Let me take over.”

I acquiesced, handing over the oars. As we switched places in the boat I stretched for a moment to relax my arms. She started rowing, in her usual quick, steady rhythm, always faster than me. I sat down and watched her.

“What kind of food did you bring?” I asked.

“It’s a surprise,” she replied.

I laughed. “Oh, good. I hope I’m not allergic.”

“Don’t worry, you aren’t. I made it myself. And it’s not like I’m trying to kill you… at least not yet.”

“Not yet?”

She shrugged in her soft, playful style. “We’ll see after today, won’t we?”

I rubbed the back of my head. “Sometimes I can’t tell if you’re joking.”

“Don’t underestimate me, Haku. I’m always joking.”

“Isn’t that like when people say every day is opposite day?”

She grinned. “Yeah, I guess so.”

I stood up and looked behind us at the distant shoreline. “We’re probably far away enough,” I said. “We can eat now if you want.”

She cut her oars into the water to stop the boat. “I’m not hungry yet, though. Are you?”

“Not really.”

“Why don’t we just lay here for a bit?” she suggested.

“Okay, sure.”

We got down next to each other and put our heads back. The sky above was a light hazy blue. I stared into it appreciatively, but soon I couldn’t help feeling disappointed.

“It used to be prettier,” I told her. “At night, too.”

“Pollution really knows how to mess with a girls’ day out,” she said. “Hold my hand?”

I took her hand. We both smiled into the sky.

“Do y’wanna adopt?” I asked.

“Gods, yes. Let’s have two!”

I was a little surprised. “Okay, but why two? Why not one or three?”

“Well, three is fine too. But at least two – one for each of my parents who are going to disown me when we get engaged.”

I choked a little. She turned her head to look at me.

“Haku, I can’t tell if you’re laughing or crying…”

“Both,” I said. “Let’s have two, then. And then we’ll see if we want more.”

“You’re lucky your parents aren’t like mine.”

“I know.”

Really lucky.”

“I know.”

“Well, no one can help that.”

She smiled, then lay back and closed her eyes. “I could just fall asleep here…”

I gazed at her resting face happily. What a day, I thought to myself.

If we at least could be happy with ourselves, we’d be okay, wouldn’t we?

Final Image

“I had a wife. She’s gone now…”

I can barely hear myself.

“It hurts…”

“Shhh,” he says compassionately. “It’s okay. Rest.”

I lay my head back into his chest. Kneeling behind me, the young man holds me gently. He stops asking questions.

“I can’t breathe…”

“You’re okay,” he says.

His voice is soft and thin. He’s trying to convince himself, too – I know that.

“I’m sorry,” he tells me. “I had to do it. I don’t want you to go.”

Well, I don’t want to go either, but that’s just how it is.

I’m so tired…

The young man grasps at me and begins to cry. Struggling to breathe, I stare up at the sky aimlessly. The sun is rising.

I wonder then what it must feel like to hold someone as they die.

“Kohaku,” he says through his tears. “Is there anything you want me to do?”

I shake my head slightly. No. There’s nothing, no one for him to tell. I was always ready to go.

“I’ll do anything,” he pleads.

He’s trying to find a way to make himself feel better. Part of me feels bad for him, but I can’t think straight enough to come up with a lie. He deflates at my silence and continues the muffled crying.

“It hurts…”

With the young man behind me, I stare into the sunrise.

Then, all of a sudden, I close my eyes.

What else is there to see?

People-Watching

Sitting on a cold bench one morning while waiting for the bus, I’m able to catch a glimpse into other people’s lives.

It’s rare, moments like these. So, I try not to waste them. I store my phone in my pocket and keep it there. I put all other thoughts out of my head and just look at the world around me. A silent observer.

There’s a lot you can learn from other people, don’t you think? So when you have an opportunity to glance into other people’s lives without harm, you should take it. Some call this “people-watching.” Apparently it’s a hobby. Well, it’s not really a hobby for me, it’s just something I do because I think I should do it.

Today I see an elderly woman walking around the block. Her name is Akiko. Or at least that’s the name she gave me. She goes for a walk every morning. She’s always alone, and today is no different. As she walks she waves hello to everyone she sees, and calls out their names. As she passes the bus stop she looks at me and smiles. “Good morning, Haku,” she says.

“Good morning,” I say. “Take care.”

Akiko teaches me this hobby called “people-watching.” She teaches me to value all human connections. She also teaches me to go out and live life every day. Really, the list of things I can learn from her is endless. And all we’ve ever said to each other is “good morning.”

A few minutes after Akiko passes by, I watch as two children cross the street. They’re siblings – a seven year old girl and a four year old boy. The little boy is scared of crossing streets, so every time his older sister will hold his hand. I’ve seen them before. They walk to school every weekday, and if I happen to be waiting at this bus stop around the right time, I’ll see them holding hands, crossing the street.

The older sister teaches me how to give and show love. The little boy teaches me to live honestly. We’ve never talked, and they’re a lot younger than me, but there are still things I can learn from them. There’s a lot you can learn from children, surprisingly.

I guess that’s a good thing. We should all pay more attention to the children.

Take advantage of moments like these, moments like when you’re waiting for the bus or taking a walk. It’s important. Open your heart and you’ll see that there’s a lot to learn.

Dying Happy, It’s Time

“Haku… don’t go…”

Well, I’m sorry. I can’t help it if I’m going to die today. Most people who die really can’t help it.

It’s okay, though. It’s good to die. It’s much better than being alive forever, that’s what I think. Anyone who could manage to go on forever and still be kind, compassionate, considerate, and loving, while still appreciating their own life and the lives of others… that would be a sight to see. I’d really admire someone who could do that.

Well, I can’t, and it just happens that I have to die today, so that’s that.

What? You’re wondering how I know I’m going to die?

Hmm, well, it’s kind of hard to say. It’s a long story, so I’d better leave it. But it’s nothing bad, so don’t worry. It’s not like I’m getting executed or anything.

Besides, I’m happy. And isn’t that the most important thing? It’s really hard, but it’s important to live your life in such a way that you can die happy. The trick is, you never know when you’re going to die. You might die tomorrow. So you have to live well, today.

Because “life is short”…

Isn’t that right, Ryū?

After I die, you should go out and live your life. Go live and love and find your own happiness. Make your dreams come true. And every morning, take every opportunity you can get. “Regretting that you didn’t do something will haunt you forever.” Isn’t that right?

Well, it’s time for me to go. I’m getting sleepy…

To Not Forget Each Other…

I stood at the entrance of the cemetery, reluctant to go in. Something in my mind was pulling me back, something… I couldn’t put a finger in it. I just lingered at the gate for a few minutes, staring inside at the neat rows of gravestones lined by shade-giving trees, and all the while wondering what I was doing there in the first place.

After some time a dark blue car pulled up to the curb behind me, startling me. I glanced over as a woman slightly older than me got out of the passenger’s seat. She wore a plain light gray shirt and black shorts that looked strangely exactly like the ones I’d wear while working out. Her straight black hair came down to her shoulders, and she didn’t have on accessories of any kind. She closed the door behind her and gave a little wave to the driver, and then the car sped off.

The woman turned toward the cemetery gate and saw me standing there looking at her. I blushed, embarrassed, and quickly looked away. After a moment’s hesitation she walked up to me and I turned to face her again as she spoke.

“Hello,” she said politely.

“Good afternoon,” I replied. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to stare…”

She shook her head. “That’s okay. Don’t worry about it. I’m Aiko, and you are…?”

“Haku.”

“Nice to meet you, Haku.”

I nodded uncertainly. “You too.”

“If I may ask, why are you just standing here? Is there something wrong with the gate? Is the cemetery closed today?”

“No, there’s nothing wrong with the gate, and it’s open, so you can go in. I’m just standing here because… well… I don’t really want to go in, you see.”

I blushed again as I tried to explain myself. I thought she would laugh at me, but she just nodded with understanding.

“That’s fair,” she said, giving me a little smile. “People generally don’t want to go into cemeteries.”

“Why are you here?” I asked, hoping the question wasn’t too rude.

“Because I can see spirits,” she answered simply. “I can see them and talk to them. So, every weekend, I’ll come here and talk to spirits whose friends and families haven’t visited them in a long time. Death can be quite lonely, you know. I think it’s sad. So I’ll just come here and chat with some of them and try to help them feel better.”

I thought about that for a moment. “Death is lonely,” I declared in agreement. “I’m glad you can see and talk to lonely spirits and help them out.”

She nodded. “It’s bad when people forget about the dead, don’t you think? I’ve been able to see spirits since I was really young, so I try not to forget all the spirits I’ve met since then… it’s hard sometimes, but for the spirits themselves it must be worse!”

“I imagine so,” I said. “You’re right.”

The woman smiled at me. “Take my hand, Haku. Let’s go in together, and we’ll do our best not to forget about each other afterwards. How’s that?”

For the first time all day I allowed myself to smile back at her. “Sounds good.”

I took her hand, and we entered the cemetery side-by-side.