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.

Happy Children / Modern Life

Today, after a long day of work, I went to the beach with my dear friend to see the sunset.

We sat side-by-side in the sand, watching as the sky took on brilliant shades of orange and pink and purple. For the longest time we were quiet. We both just wanted to enjoy the natural spectacle, and to enjoy the feeling of our being together.

As the sun was dropping below the horizon and its light was beginning to dim, my friend Takahashi finally said, “People don’t appreciate things enough…”

I looked at him. Studying his dark brown eyes, his graying hair, the lines of his face, I thought to myself, He’s getting older. And I guess, so am I.

It’s a wonderful thing, this feeling of growing old with someone else.

The beach we were at was smooth and sandy, so the waves were not large. The blue-green seawater crawled toward us and then crawled away in a steady, calming rhythm. I closed my eyes, tasted the salty air, and tried to appreciate this moment with the core of my being.

“Question,” Takahashi said. “Whenever you see children, they’re almost always incredibly happy, for no apparent reason at all… and adults aren’t. Do you think that’s a bad thing?”

I smiled. “I love your questions. Let me think about it.”

It’s true, really, I love his questions. To have somebody with whom you can talk about these kinds of things… this is also a wonderful feeling, and it’s rare. I can count the number of these companions I have on one hand.

“I don’t know if I could say it’s bad, necessarily,” I replied after a while. “But I definitely think adults need to reevaluate happiness. You’re right, most children are so happy, and most adults aren’t. It’s kind of silly when you think about it – we spend our whole lives pursuing happiness. But we already had it when we were kids, and we just gave it away.”

He nodded slowly. “Why do you think we gave it away?”

I was slow with my answer, working it around in my head. He waited patiently, listening, focusing on me and my words.

“I think the act of giving our happiness away was unintentional, and for most adults, it was passive. In other words, we didn’t actively give it up. It was taken from us, and we just let it go. And I think what took our happiness from us has to do with how modern society works. It’s hard to explain, but… I don’t know, in today’s world we have so much technology and all of these gadgets and inventions that are supposed to make life better, to make work easier, to make us happier, and we spend our lives chasing after them… but at the end of the chase, when we look back at who we were before, we realize that we’ve lost everything that made us happy in the first place.”

Takahashi smiled at me when I was done.

“I like that explanation,” he said. “You’re probably right.”

For a minute we were quiet, watching the waves, watching the sun’s slow disappearance.

Then he spoke again. “So, Haku, what makes you happy? What are the things that you don’t want to let go of? Actively speaking.”

I threw my head back and laughed. “I knew you were going to ask that…”

Letters for the Living, Words for the Dead

I lay on the floor in the darkness, breathing quietly. Up above, the white ceiling of my bedroom stares back at me. It’s almost midnight, and I’m alone. Like always.

I close my eyes for a moment, listening to the silence of the night. Something is wrong, but I can’t tell what. Maybe it’s just in my head. I smile to myself, thinking, here we go again.

It might seem strange, but I really like turning off all the lights and just laying on the floor sometimes. I can see and hear pretty well at night, and I love how peaceful the world feels when most humans have gone to sleep. I know that it’s just an illusion, of course – people are still dying, people are still killing each other, the earth is still on fire. But at night it’s easier to pretend that things aren’t so bad.

It’s also easier to talk to the dead.

Sometimes when I’m on my back gazing up at the ceiling, old friends will visit me. They’ll say, what are you doing, Haku? And I’ll say, looking at the ceiling. Then they’ll go, oh, okay, and they’ll lie down next to me and look at the ceiling, too.

What’s that? You think it’s strange to look at your ceiling? Well, I don’t think it’s that strange. Have you ever actually looked at your ceiling? If you haven’t, who are you to tell me it’s a strange thing to do? Ceilings and roofs are so important, really. You should look at your ceiling more, and learn to appreciate it. For instance, when it’s raining, look up and say thank you for once. Don’t take these things for granted.

Hey, who are you, anyway? And why am I talking to you?

Oh… you must be another spirit, come to visit me. Well, thank you for visiting me. It gets lonely otherwise.

What’s that? You just died recently? I’m sorry to hear it. I hope you didn’t suffer too much. More than that, I hope you were ready to die. So many people these days just aren’t ready to die when their time comes… it’s sad. Don’t you think people should talk about death more often? Things like, when I die, I want you to take care of my children for me. Or, when I die, I want you to remember to be happy.

Did you think about these things, before you died? Did you think about your loved ones and what you were leaving behind for them?

I did.

I wrote secret letters for my loved ones and hid them away. I told a friend about them, and when I died, she went and found them and delivered them for me. In the letters I wrote about all of our good and bad memories together, and then I said things like I want you to remember to be happy and don’t you dare follow me. And then I wrote about how much I loved them.

What’s that? You think writing these letters was a silly thing to do? Well, listen. Don’t you think the words we leave behind are important? Words are like magic. All by themselves, they can save lives, or end them. There’s so much power behind that… it’s kind of scary. I’m sorry that you don’t feel the same way.

Well, it’s okay. Everybody is different, I guess. Anyway, as long as you’re happy where you are, I’m happy for you.

What’s that?

You’re not happy?

Hmm… why not?

Because you’re dead?

I see. That’s unfortunate. Most humans don’t live with their death in mind, so they end up unhappy when they die. Personally, I think you should live in such a way that you’ll definitely be happy when you die. But I guess it’s too late for that…

Or is it?