This might come off sounding arrogant, but I’ve always been aware that I’m one of the ‘capable’ ones, ever since I was young. What I mean by ‘capable’ is that I know that as long as I put in the effort, the results will follow. And I know that I’d be capable of maintaining it. I think I understood the value of, and the meaning behind those 2 ideas at a much earlier age than other kids around me. So I’m not bothered by the fact that I’m up to my eyeballs in extra-curricular activities.
Flower arrangement and calligraphy classes, piano and cram school, and now that I’m in 3rd grade, swimming lessons have been added to the mix. I think English conversation classes will be next on the list. I basically picked up everything that kids usually have to make a choice from. Being able to choose is already a blessing in itself.
Even through the eyes of a child, my family home looks grander than anybody else’s. The front gate is painted black with a side door to its left for the servants to use, while a number of trees line the garden grounds. The walls are high enough to make it impossible for outsiders to look in. This house is larger than the entire light green-painted apartment block opposite ours.
The residents of the house consist of my parents and I, my paternal grandparents and two cats. The space in the house is far bigger than what its inhabitants need. Having been born into, and growing up in such a household, means that being second-rate is not an option for me. Nobody taught me to think this way – it’s just a conclusion that I reached naturally. Of course, I’m unsure if my views are right or wrong since there is no one I can ask. But I know that as long as I work my socks off and get the results I need, my family members won’t frown upon me. Could any parent ever feel displeasure at having such an outstanding child?
So today, I’ll go home and drop off my school bag before heading straight out for lessons. Both of my parents are working so the house is so quiet you could hear a pin drop. It’s a stay-at-home day for my grandparents and there’s no sign of the servants either. I head over to the kitchen to quench my thirst. Walking the short distance between the primary school and my house is enough to parch my throat. I could hear the cries of the cicadas coming from the other side of the ventilation fans.
I head out of the house clutching the bag containing my swimming gear. Instead of heading straight ahead, I take a little detour around the walls of the house and peek into the garden. You can usually find the cats of the house lingering around the small pathway leading to my grandparents’ little hideaway. A tortoiseshell cat with rusty brown fur, and a black-and-white patterned cat. They’re sitting around in the same spot today. We’d only taken the cats into our house recently but it seems like they’ve already adapted to the place and won’t run away even if I try to get near them. It’s safe to pet them when they’re in a good mood but I wonder how they feel today.
I kneel down and try to stroke the black-and-white cat. Lifting its head with a wary look on its face, the cat moves away swiftly. It joins the tortoiseshell cat, and they both duck into the shade.
“What a shame.”
I bid them farewell and go on my way to swimming lessons. Classes are once a week, on Wednesdays. It wasn’t a deliberate move on my part, but associating swimming with Wednesday, which is written as ‘water day’ in kanji, makes it easy to remember. I slip through the gate and head outside.
The cries of the cicadas continue as I walk through the residential areas. If you listen carefully, you can hear a disparity between the sounds coming from the left and the right. Comparing the two sides, I conclude that this is most likely down to the differences in the type of areas that they inhabit.
The unchanging landscape of my neighbourhood flickers in my eyes. Perhaps the summer heat is to blame for the incessant ringing in my ears.
I reach the main street and walk across two pedestrian crossings. Then I go straight ahead for about 10 minutes or so. The swimming school I go to is a small one in the town area. It’s in a tall, thin building with the reception area on the 2nd floor. The school’s swimming pool is on Basement Level 1. And it’s a mystery as to what’s on the 1st floor since there doesn’t even appear to be any way of accessing it – what a strange building this is.
Next to the building is a large paid parking lot. The staff members repeatedly warn us to watch out for the cars going in and coming out. I see two buses are parked in front of the school. Glancing at the sidewalk where someone is being helped into a wheelchair, I head up the narrow staircase at the entrance.
“Oh hey, Saeki-san.”
I turn around when I hear my name. It’s a girl from my class. Seems she’d headed to swim classes straight from school as her backpack’s slung over her shoulders. We go to different schools so I’m not that close to her. Well, it’s not like I hang out with any of the other kids in my swim class either. The girl skips up the steps to catch up with me.
The girl greets me but to be honest, I don’t like her.
“Don’t you go to school, Saeki-san?”
What a strange question. I continue staring at her as I pass the automatic doors into the building. The receptionist at the counter greets us with a smile and I return it in kind, showing her my card. Taking the card from my hand as well as that of the other girl’s, the receptionist hands us our keys. It’s a key for a locker in the changing rooms. I’m secretly relieved to see that the locker number I’d been handed is some distance away from the other girl’s. The air conditioning is on and my neck’s starting to get cold. To the left of the reception area is a glass-panelled wall that overlooks the pool on the basement level. Sometimes, you can see the visitors coming to observe lessons from up here. The flickering lights gently paint ripples of light across the surface of the pool.
Halfway to the changing rooms, I decide to ask her.
“What were you talking about just now?”
“Your skin, it’s too fair.”
We’re barely into July but the girl’s skin is already brown. I could see what she meant – by comparison, I look like I’ve barely ever seen the sun.
“You look like you’ve never been outdoors”
Hair down to her neck in length and dark as her complexion; I watch as it sways. We haven’t even gotten into the pool yet but her hair already looks wet. I give a simple reply as I continue gazing at her.
“Does that even make any sense to you?”
It isn’t the most interesting response ever. Nor does it need to be.
“Yeah you’re right. You’re so serious after all, Saeki-san.”
Her opinions seem to change as quickly as her expressions. She’s slightly shorter than me, and every inch of her face from her forehead to her hairline is tanned. If her hair is any shorter I might’ve mistaken her for a boy.
“You’re the most enthusiastic one in the school, Saeki-san.”
I’m getting fed up with this one-sided conversation. I’ve never been fond of people who act all friendly with me even though we aren’t particularly close. And there’s another reason.
“Maybe I am. And you’re the most half-hearted one.”
When you point out facts to her, negative as they might be, she doesn’t care a jot. It seems that I am no match for her impertinence.
I walk past the vending machines and enter the changing room. Two-tiered lockers line up the sides of the walls. In the bathroom, there are 3 mirrors with sinks in a row and a staff member is cleaning the area with a piece of cloth. I open the locker corresponding to the number of my key and place my bag inside. From the corner of my eye I can see the girl who arrived with me similarly shoving her bag in. She looks over to where I’m standing and our eyes meet.
I want nothing to do with her; have zero interest in her. I undress and change into the school-designated swimsuit. This time, I feel someone’s gaze on me so I glance over to find the girl still staring at me, her hand unmoving from the locker.
It’s my turn to question her. Can’t say it feels fun to have someone staring at you.
The girl quickly turns away and starts to take out her swimsuit and cap. What’s up with her? I’ve no intention of being friends with her but whenever we run into each other she’ll start talking to me. I head to the pool ahead of her. Beyond the door I’d just entered is another door that leads to the back, which I open. Passing through the pale green lighting that indicates the emergency exit, I descend the stairs. The humidity increases every time I go down. By the time the smell of chlorine hits my nose, the pool is right before my eyes. I soak my feet in the disinfectant at the doorway and the chill of it sends shivers down my spine. A few of my classmates have started doing warm-up exercises by the poolside. I greet the kids and the instructor. The instructor’s taller than my father and his orange shirt contrasts his dark complexion, giving him a cheerful image. Indeed, he speaks clearly which makes it easy to hear what he’s saying.
I rinse myself under the shower, put on my swimming cap and start warming up. Nobody has entered the pool yet and the surface of the water seems so calm and dark, almost as if I could walk on it. The 25m pool is divided into 6 lanes. I’d once tried to count how many people it would take to line up across the length of the pool.
As I’m bending and stretching my legs, the girl belatedly arrives. The girl greets the other kids and for some reason, starts to approach me. Her swimsuit is identical to mine but the impression it gives off is vastly different thanks to her tan skin. You could still manage to catch a slight glimpse of her creamy skin hidden by the lines of her swimsuit.
“Indoor swimming pools are nice, aren’t they? At least you don’t get sunburnt.”
“….it doesn’t seem like it would matter much to you though.”
“You’re 100% right.”
Grinning a ‘lol yeah’ kind of grin, the girl heads off to shower. Surely she doesn’t need to talk to me at every opportunity…who knows, she probably doesn’t even think of me as a friend. Having finished showering, the girl makes little effort to warm-up and instead, hangs around by the poolside gazing at the water. That’s the kind of girl she is.
With all participants now present, the instructor emerges from the back of the hall. It’s a weekday so there are only 6 of us in total. I guess it’s pretty obvious, but apparently the number of kids turning up for lessons on weekends is way more.
Observing the rest of the kids as we line up side-by-side, I start pinching my arms. It certainly looks like I’m the fairest. I wonder if it’s because I never go out to play during lunch breaks.
The type of coaching we receive is different depending on the class you’re assigned to – I’m currently in the intermediate level. The system is made up of several grades and we’re coached accordingly – once you pass the tests, you move up a grade. Students usually reach the advanced class once they’re in junior high. So even though there isn’t much I could do about it, it doesn’t change the fact that I dislike how the word ‘intermediate’ sounds. Whatever I do, I have to be at the top.
Age isn’t something you can manipulate anyway. You can’t catch up with it, nor can you wait for it to arrive. The cats at home and my grandparents spring to mind.
As the students gather to listen to what the instructor has to say, we hear a sound of water splashing from a distance. I turn my head to see the source of the noise and as expected, it is the girl. She’s not listening to the coach’s instructions and is instead, swimming and treading water as she wishes. Initially, the adults had warned her to behave but they eventually gave up and now leave her to her own devices. There are plenty of lanes available so she isn’t going to infringe upon the other kids’ lessons. Though obviously, the girl remains a problem.
The girl is as irresponsible as always. It doesn’t seem like she has any interest in improving her swimming skills; on the contrary, it looks like she’s only here to enjoy herself as much as possible. I have no idea what is the purpose of her taking lessons. I could never bring myself to like her. Or rather, I don’t like her. At all. The sight of her fooling around while I’m trying to take practice seriously is extremely irritating.
She’s so cheerful that she doesn’t seem to worry about what’s going on around her, and it appears that she really isn’t thinking about anything at all. In all honesty it does seem like a carefree way to live, but I’m sure I couldn’t bear being like that.
Swimming lessons usually last for an hour or so. We’ll start off by lightly treading water & doing warming-up exercises before moving on to learning swimming techniques. I have no idea what kind of experience the instructor has, but I did think that his coaching methods are good. After listening to what the coach says I’ll try to follow his instructions and I discover that the water does indeed, pose less of a resistance. This will probably eliminate wasted motion. Observing the way the other children swam reinforces my belief that my movements are more refined. You can tell how much you’ve improved by whether you’re able to utilize your whole body; making it a simpler sport to gauge than others. The lesson continues this way for another 40 minutes or so. Once that’s done we move into individual lanes, swim 25 meters and have our times measured. The instructor determines what stroke we’ll swim, and for today, it is the breaststroke.
6 students for 6 lanes, just the right number to fill up the pool. This is the only segment that the girl who spends her time fooling around and ignoring the coach’s instructions takes part in. Somehow we end up in neighbouring lanes, unintentionally of course. Active participation in the lesson had warmed up my body considerably all the way to my ears, despite being in the water. On the other hand the girl shows no sign of fatigue; instead, she flashes an innocent, toothy grin at me. I wonder if they’d actually checked whether the girl could swim properly? All she’s been doing so far is play around.
A smile might be taken as a sign of friendship. For me it indicates a strong desire of not wanting to lose. To be honest, I can’t say that I’m particularly athletic. Since I’ve chosen to take this seriously, I want to achieve results that corresponded to the effort given. It would be devastating to swim slower than someone who’s barely even trying. So I’m going to go all out for this.
The instructor readies his stopwatch and whistle, and signals the start of the race. It’s a rather feeble attempt at a whistle which makes it hard for me to react quickly. I dive into the water and pushe off the wall, the muffled sound of water in my head. I extend my body outwards to eliminate the sensation of imbalance and surge forward, picturing myself accelerating.
The water is a uniform shade of blue. At the bottom of the pool is painted the name of the gym, the white of the letters the only colour to break through azure. With one eye on the white letters, I try not to waste the momentum I’ve gained from kicking off of the wall and thrust as far forward as I can manage, immediately switching to the breaststroke. When I lift my head I notice a shadow soaring upwards beside me, at a momentum not unlike a fish jumping out of water.
The girl in the next lane has swiftly opened up a gap between us. I’m shocked at first, but when I see how she’s swimming, I’m appalled and start spitting bubbles. She’s doing it freestyle and flying rapidly through the water. Oh yes, she’s fast, but all I can think is ‘What the hell?’.
The girl’s legs kick up and down effortlessly, leaving behind a trail of bubbles that the rest of us worke hard to chase as we propel ourselves through the water. You can’t even call this a match. The girl hasn’t been taking this seriously at all. I’m trailing the selfish girl but somehow manage to finish ahead of the others. When I surface above the water, the girl is leaning backwards with a smug look on her face. She’s huffing and puffing.
Of the six of us, she has the brightest and sunniest expression on her face. Of course you’ll be enjoying yourself when you’re doing something just for fun and not as part of a learning process. But it won’t last. She might be quick, but it won’t last. I need to think that way, or I’ll start doubting myself.
I tread water for a while before finishing off with some stretching exercises. I’ve expended all my energy swimming but I’m still surprised by how heavy my limbs feel once I’m back on solid ground. It’s as if there’s an invisible hand on my shoulder pulling me backwards. I start to understand why fish never leave the sea. It’s so easy to stay in the water. Maybe that’s why I turn around. Our lesson is up but I see the girl’s still floating alone in the pool.
She’s on her back, facing the bright lights like she’s forgotten the basics of flutter kick swimming. I wonder what she’s thinking about. We’re polar opposites personality-wise, so I can’t even begin to fathom what’s on her mind.
The coaching instructor says to me “Saeki-san, you were the fastest today” and I’m silently satisfied. But it bothers me.
“Today?” I wonder if there’s any deeper meaning to his choice of words.
“But you were first the other day too.”
The instructor’s head is turned towards the pool and there’s a troubled look on his face.
Watching the surface of the water gently ripping in this quiet aftermath, there is only one thing that comes to mind.
….A person swimming the breaststroke is never going to beat someone swimming freestyle. I don’t really care and dismiss the thought. I am the fastest today after all. That’s what I want to hear, and it’s the reason why I’m pushing my limits and constantly moving forward. No matter what I do, I want to be in the lead. That’s the intention whenever I choose to pursue something. I’ve seldom ever had to experience anyone being ahead of me.
The intensifying heat at the start of summer gives me a convenient excuse to sit quietly in the classroom during lunch breaks. Though I usually fill my afternoons after school with activities, any other spare time I have will be spent studying. My friends eventually stopped inviting me to hang out, but I didn’t feel lonely at all. And it’s equally as obvious where my priorities should lie.
Today, I write the same kanji characters over and over in a notebook.
‘Saeki Sayaka’ [佐伯 沙弥香]
That’s my name. None of the kanji characters that make up my name will be taught in primary school. It is therefore necessary for me to practice writing them by myself. It’s childish to carry on writing in hiragana and even if I am just a child, I still feel that I’m lagging behind other children. I look up the stroke order for the characters and realize that they aren’t difficult to write. However it feels like I’m merely tracing symbols and the letters of my name don’t really seem to belong to me.
I practice writing over and over until I’ve familiarized myself with the kanji – the easiest to pick up is ‘eki’ (伯). I find ‘ka’ (香) to be tough in terms of balancing the top and bottom parts of the character. If I’m not careful either one component could end up being bigger than the other. I decide that in my next kanji class, I would practise writing out my name using a paintbrush.
I wonder what this name means. Now that I know the shape of the characters, it is time to find out their meaning. You learn one thing, and it becomes a catalyst for the next piece of knowledge. It’s a process that repeats every day. There is so much for me to learn.
I have piano class after school today. They’re private lessons so my teacher comes over to our house; unlike swimming classes, I won’t have to compete with anyone. Thanks to piano class, I’m able to read the musical notations during my music lessons in school so I guess that of all the activities that I’ve been taking part in, piano has proved to be the most useful in my daily life.
I’d honestly love to be able to say that flower arranging helped me out in some way in school. But perhaps it’ll prove useful at some point. When I’m in junior high, high school or when I’ve grown up. I’m equipping myself early in life so that I won’t have regrets when the time comes.
I flip my notebook shut after I’d finished up my writing practice and at that very moment, the cries of cicadas start to fill the air. It sounds more distant than you’d expect from a house that has trees lining up its gardens. If I strain my ears, I’d be able hear that the noise from the kids in the playground is louder than the cicadas crying. They’re noisy in the classroom as well, though I suppose the only quiet kid around is me.
I don’t believe that a person necessarily achieves excellence by studying. But I do think that I’ve managed to keep one step ahead of the other kids. In the hustle and bustle of the classroom, I whisper my own name. The name that crops up in my mind is written in hiragana letters.
I’m a little late that day so I break into a run halfway. Sweat flies off my back, the way drops of water would run down my skin on a rainy summer’s day. Panting as I run, I grow increasingly conscious of the hardness of the ground.
I’d been putting on my shoes at my doorway when one of the cats surprisingly head-butted my foot. It wasn’t making any attempt to escape so I played around with it for a while before realizing I was late. At first, I was satisfied, thinking it was alright since the cat was cute. That is, until I began to run. By the time I started sweating, half of the satisfaction that I’d felt had evaporated away.
The sweat that’s formed on my back leaves me feeling uncomfortable, but I finally arrive at the building where swimming classes are held. I’m about to go up the staircase when I stop in my tracks. The girl’s standing at the entrance of the building. She’s near 2 umbrella stands on the right side, repeatedly opening and closing an umbrella. Her backpack is on her shoulders again today.
“Oh hey, Saeki-san.”
She raises her head while continuing to open and close the green umbrella. She turns around to check out the weather and tilts her head.
“What are you doing?”
“I was wondering why there’re still so many of these umbrellas even though it’s sunny.”
I thought so too. There are about 10 umbrellas in the stand. They’re a rich variety of colours, and I wonder if they’re umbrellas that kids had forgotten and left behind, or whether they’re spares. The girl drops the umbrella back into the stand and comes up to me.
“You’re sweating quite a lot today. Did you run all the way here ‘cos you were a bit late?”, she surmises while gazing at my forehead.
I half expect the girl to stick her face in mine but instead, she pulls away and begins to observe me. I stare back with a look that’s a mixture of defiance and discomfort.
The girl replies, “I’ve never seen Saeki-san run before so I found it hard to imagine you doing that.”
“You do seem more like the princess type after all.”
She isn’t too far from the truth but I still feel aggrieved to have someone say that to my face. I wonder why. Maybe it bothers me to be judged not for my achievements, but for the family I was born into and the environment in which I grew up.
The girl slips in right beside me as if it’s the most natural thing in the world to do. I narrow my eyes and glare at her.
“What do you want?”
“Nothing. I thought we might as well go together”
She points at the entrance and as the auto doors pull open, the cold air from the blowers hits me in the head. We do the usual card-key swapping routine at the reception, and the girl laughs as she glances at my key number.
“We’re locker neighbours today.”
I grunt in lieu of a reply and quickly look away. The pool on the other side of the window seems farther away today than it usually does.
“You don’t like it?” The girl gets straight to the point.
“Whatever” I answer curtly and the girl goes ‘Oh’, making to look as if she’s troubled. We continue walking to the changing rooms and by the time we’re standing in front of our lockers, she’s reverted to her cheerful self.
“I’d kinda suspected that that might’ve been the case for a while though.”
“Saeki-san, do you hate me?”
Once again, she manages to shove a wholly unpleasant question right in my face. This is one of those situations where you should gauge the mood and refrain from stating the obvious, I think.
First of all, ‘might’ve been’ is unnecessary.
“So you want me to be honest with you?”
The girl smiles wryly.
“That line pretty much says it all, doesn’t it?”
“I suppose so.”
She surely must’ve expected an answer like this the moment she chose to ask the question.
The girl rests her forehead on the locker, visibly crestfallen. She’s always messing around so it’s hard for anyone to take her seriously. I wonder whether that thought might ever have occurred to her.
“What exactly do you hate about me?” The girl asks without even moving to change her clothes. Her eyes are hard, sharp and much more serious than usual. It’s enough to arouse my curiosity and I keep the conversation going.
“What’s the point of knowing?”
“I thought if I knew what, then maybe I could fix it.”
I’m about to blow up. That is exactly what I hate about this girl.
“Your half-hearted attitude.”
“Oh that, huh.”
The girl starts to laugh but quickly retracts it.
“Well, you’re being a nuisance aren’t you? Everybody else is trying to do things properly and there you are, fooling around.”
Since we’re already here, I might as well just give her a piece of my mind. The girl flinches at the menace in my words, shoulders jittery, but she quickly softens as she absorbs what I’d said.
“Is that what it is?”
“That is what it is.”
“Hmm…I don’t really care what’s going on around me.”
If you really don’t care, then why are you bothered by whether I hate you or not?
“Okay.” the girl whispers, as she opens her locker door.
I have no idea what her ‘okay’ means, but okay, I’ll just change and speed off ahead of her. Before exiting the changing room I turn around to see the girl undressing, her lips pursed. I head to the pool and start the usual drill of showering and warming up. As I’m limbering up indifferently, I sneak a glance or two at the door that connects the pool and the changing room. The girl is weighing on my mind.
She’s finally here. After showering she starts to warm up, rather surprisingly. That unusual behaviour has everyone at the pool buzzing, myself included. The girl stretches her legs, looking as if she’s been doing them all her life. At the instructor’s signal, six people ready themselves in line. ….Six people? Five of the six turn their gazes to the right. The girl is obeying instructions, a departure from the norm. We all have puzzled looks on our faces, as does the instructor. The girl is the only one who is unfazed, while I remain suspicious.
She continues in this manner and follows the lesson like the rest of us. She does not complain, does not ruin the mood, practises self-control – just like I always do. I wonder if it’s going to be yet another one of her phases, but she perseveres. The only person who knows what could’ve changed in the girl’s heart is me. I could almost see the thread connecting the conversation that we’d had in the changing room to the way she’s behaving now. Is it all because I’d told her that I hated how she’s half-hearted?
“…Why?” is my only reaction. I’m puzzled by the extreme changes. Has she truly been thinking of me as a friend all this while? Diving into the pool, the girl floats through my thoughts like bubbles on the surface of water. When I emerge from the water and lood back, the girl’s still there. She remains silent even as our eyes meet, continuing to move her body through the pool with a look of feigned ignorance upon her face. If she’s capable of this then she should have done so from the beginning. What on earth is she thinking of? This time, I’m the one who’s glancing in her direction. The girl nonchalantly joins in the swim-off at the end as well. I’, quite confident that she’ll choose to swim the designated stroke this time. If that’s the case, there’s no way I’ll let myself lose to someone who’s just started to take things seriously. My thoughts are fuelling my competitive drive against the girl but I try not to let it show outwardly. On the other hand, a great amount of anxiety is building up within me.
At the sound of the whistle, the girl and I immediately kick off the wall and dip underwater. Today, we are swimming freestyle. Scenes from the previous swim-off flash through my mind and overlap with what is happening now – it’s like I’d been peering into the future. We’re swimming the same style this time but like before, she pulls ahead and opens up a gap. I desperately thrash my legs in an attempt to close in on her only to find the distance between us widening further. No matter how hard I struggle or how frantically I thrust myself through the water, there is no sign that I might catch her and in the end, all I see are the soles of her feet.
What is this difference in ability? I start to doubt my swimming technique as I swim the rest of the 25-metre pool. I rise to the surface while spitting large bubbles, only to see the girl already above the water and staring at me, as if in greeting.
“I’ll try taking it seriously from now on.”
The girl looks at me, beads of water dripping down her face. I return the stare without wiping my face. The insides of my cheeks are tinged with heat, the product of my feelings, which are somewhat close to humiliation. I’d thought that there was no way that I could lose if it came down to a fair fight and the result is now there for all to see.
‘If I did that, would you be friends with me?” Rather unusually, the girl’s voice is getting smaller and smaller as she speaks. Why is she so fixated upon becoming friends with me? We only see each other for an hour once a week and we have almost nothing in common.
…but if she no longer take things half-heartedly then I’d have no reason to hate her. Still, an unfamiliar sense of resistance remains embedded within me, like sediment pooling at the bottom of a river.
I really don’t feel like acknowledging her at all and with mixed feelings, I grimly accept her terms. Upon hearing the reply, my now ‘once-a-week’ friend smiles in visible relief. It’s a gentle smile, like the untouched surface of water.
Sundays are the only days where I have no extra activities. At least for now, since there’s always the possibility that something else might fill up that time in future. I hear a yelp coming from the hallways just as I’m finishing my homework, so I leave my room. The tortoiseshell cat is wandering down the corridor. I’m drawn to the way it wags its tail and when I draw closer, its cat sense kicks in and it suddenly spins around. I hold the palms of both of my hands upwards and greet the cat with a ‘Hello’. The cat stares at me from top to bottom and then abruptly turns back. It starts running, and I try to chase after it. I’ll probably get scolded for running in the corridors, but the feeling of freedom that I’ve gained from completing my homework seems to have gone to my head. The cat runs off down the corridor and attempts to slip through a gap leading into the garden. There isn’t that much empty space in this house yet the cats seem to know all the secret passages. Continuing my pursuit, I put on my shoes and go outside and spot the cat right away.
I think I’ve spotted it, but it turns out to be the black-and-white cat instead. Did it swap places with the tortoiseshell cat? This one is nimbly running in the garden as well. ‘This one will do’, I think to myself and chase it around – it’s almost as if I was a cat too.
As I slip through the trees I bump into my grandmother. She is alone, gazing at the garden. Noticing the cat, she crouches and opens her arms wide in invitation. The black-and-white cat responds by jumping up and snuggling in her arms. Lifting the cat, my grandmother stands up and looks at me. From my perspective, my grandmother looks tall. Maybe it’s because she always keeps her spine straight. Her eyes are quite sharp and it seems she is always careful not to let her guard down.
“Quite attached now, huh?”
“It ran away though.”
“No, I meant that you’re the one that’s gotten quite attached to the cat.” Despite her age, my grandmother’s voice is firm and easy on the ears.
I suppose you could look at it that way. I didn’t have that much interest in cats until we started keeping them as pets. There’re feelings that are born from being up close and personal with creatures. I reach my hand out to the cat but it turns to face the opposite direction. I’d only just played with it the other day. Sure is easy for cats’ feelings to sway.
“Aren’t you going to go for your lessons?”
“I don’t have any today.”
My grandmother notes how unusual that is as the cat, nestled safely in her arms, peers out at me. I stare back at it and the scene remains frozen in time. I can barely even claim that it feels cool in the shade. The cries of the cicadas filter through the trees like raindrops falling. Though they’re making quite the racket not far from my grandmother’s ears, it doesn’t seem to faze her at all. I see the green of the trees and leaves dwelling within my grandmother’s eyes.
“Aren’t you going to hang out with your friends?”
“I was doing my homework.”
“You’re such a good child.”
My grandmother had allowed her lips to loosen a little. Looking at her side profile, I see more wrinkles forming on her face.
“They do introduce you as a child they can be proud of.”
“Your dad and mom.” She lifted the cat’s right paw when saying ‘dad’ and its left when saying ‘mom’. The cat jerks its front paws around in a sign of displeasure.
“That’s the first I’ve heard of it.”
“They’d feel embarrassed saying it in front of you”, my grandmother says, matter-of-factly. I’m thinking ‘no way’, but I try to put myself in the shoes of the people who’d hear those words, as well as considering what it would be like if I were to say the same thing to others. To my classmate, my best friend – if I said that about her, she’d probably turn bright red. I’d be blushing, as would the one listening to what I said. Now I see.
“That might be true.”
“.…You’re quick to learn.”
Grandmother says something else in whispered tones but the collective cries of the cicadas that resemble the sound of a waterfall mask her words.
“But being quick to learn might also cause one to become timid” She goes on again. I’m not quite sure who she’s referring to with her words. On weekdays, my grandparents would look after me, along with the cats. Grandfather is a gentle person, Grandmother is sharp. That was how the child in me viewed them when I was younger. Unfortunately, my grandmother’s sharp senses mean that she isn’t exactly the toast of the town. I do get the impression that the sting and razor sharpness of her personality are necessary for self-preservation. And in her, I had seen the first glimpse of what an adult is.
“Aren’t you going to hang out with your friends?”
“You just asked me the same question.”
“You don’t have to go out with them, have them come over. I mean, you hardly ever bring any friends home. Just a little thought.”
‘Hey’, my grandmother says to the cat. The cat doesn’t seem to be paying her any attention and is instead, staring at a gap in the trees. It might’ve been trying to keep up with the motion of the cicada’s wings. I wonder if this cat has any friends. It’s not like I don’t have any friends myself.
My grandmother seems to be worried that if I don’t play with my friends, then I won’t be very childlike. If I’m not like a child then maybe I could become an adult sooner. That would be good.
“Well, I’m busy with after-school activities.”
Even if I have little to do with school, at least I could say that I have friends in my after-school lessons. Thoughts of the most recent friend I’d made pop up from the pool inside my heart. I feel annoyed.
“Some of them were on my recommendation as well…but do you really enjoy doing them?”
My grandmother’s enquiry sounds more like she’s asking me to take a look at something weird.
I think about it for a moment and answer in the affirmative.
“When I learn how to do a lot of different things, they become easier to understand and it makes me feel like I’ve matured.”
My grandmother lets out a single breath and then nods slightly.
“Anyway, you’ve done well.”
It’s an awkward kind of compliment.
“I wasn’t the type to stick at any one thing for long.”
“Oh there you guys are.”
My grandfather’s finally located our whereabouts. Like my grandmother, he has a cat in his arms.
“What a naughty cat. Chasing around after it has made me run a year’s worth of races.”
It seems more like he’d just only found the cat and then popped over to where we were. His breath is a little ragged and I wonder if he’d actually been chasing the cat around. The tortoiseshell cat has a cool expression on its face but that changes the moment it lays its eyes on me.
“What on earth are you doing?”
“Just happened to run into the cat and I couldn’t help myself.”
My grandfather laughs at my grandmother’s frostiness. My grandparents practically are the ones who cared for the cats. The servants look after the house and its residents, but the cats were apparently beyond their job scope. Though I’d sometimes see them preparing food for the cats. Yeah I’m sure it’s outside their job scope.
My grandfather takes off the white hat that he’s been wearing and places it on my head.
“You should wear a hat when you’re outdoors.”
Nudging the hat a little bit upwards, I look at my grandfather. He’s examining me with his round eyes, as is the cat he’s holding.
“Just wear it even if it feels only slightly warm. There’s no difference in the amount of sunlight whether you’re indoors or outdoors.”
My choice of words makes my reply sound shaky. That happens from time to time – I’ll lose my composure and end up sounding overly polite. I have the habit of making myself humble whenever I’m in the presence of someone older.
“So, what where the two of you talking about?” my grandfather asks, attempting join in the conversation. My grandmother and I exchange glances and we both laugh a little.
“About how our grandchild is so amazing.”
“Oh, the same as usual.” My grandfather lets out a slight breath. The cat’s swaying the lower half of its body from side to side with a grimace on its face, as if lamenting the heat. The candid nature of the back-and-forth between them tickles me, even being the subject of their exchange. Casting my eyes downward, I can’t help but feel a tiny bit of pride welling up inside me.
Monday, flower arrangement.
And Wednesday, swimming.
As I enter the building today I see the girl clinging to the glass window, peering at the pool. The waves of jet black hair at the back of her head are swaying like seaweed in the ocean. I entertain the thought of ignoring her but she notices my presence right away and turns around.
“Hey, friend of mine, Saeki-san!”
“Do you really have to say that?”
I see the receptionist girl smiling from the corner of my eye. This is somewhat embarrassing.
“Stop calling my name out loud.”
“If I said it quietly you wouldn’t be able to hear me though?”
I don’t even want to hear you calling me. She’s ambling over to me with a grin on her face. Why does she have to laugh like a fool?
“Heh, I was just so happy I couldn’t help myself”
“Don’t you have any other friends?”
“Oh, I do have friends at school. But y’know, I’m just glad that I’ve made friends with you, Saeki-san!”
I recall the conversation I had with my grandmother a few days earlier. It certainly feels embarrassing to have things like this said to your face and now I have no idea how to react. Unlike adults, this girl doesn’t seem to care about any of that at all. As we walk past the vending machine, the girl looks back. I follow suit and turn to see the dazzling lights of the machine along with its constant hum. Just the usual sight.
“Let’s leave that story for later. But you do look like you’d have loads of friends, Saeki-san.”
“Why would you think so?”
“Well, you’re cute.”
She said it in such a shameless manner that I impulsively avert my gaze. It feels like all the things that have been accumulating in my lungs are suddenly flowing into my head. I exhale slowly in an attempt to regulate my breathing so that I can make it sound like nothing’s happening.
“Guess I should let you know that I’m bad at maintaining friendships.”
I use the catch-all term of ‘friend’ but in reality, not all friends are equal in value. There are some you’d consider as close friends, while there’re others who are nothing more than friends in name. I’m sure my friends are just friends to a certain extent.
The girl mumbles ‘Is that so?’ and smiles broadly, as if a thought had just entered her mind.
“Then you’d better fix all your weaknesses.”
“Even if they’re negatives, they’re still good for me.”
What I can’t learn from friends, I’ll learn from books and adults. I feel that there’s more value in such methods. There simply isn’t enough time for people to adapt to one another.
“Hmm?” the girl tilts her head exaggeratedly to signal her bewilderment.
“The things Saeki-san says are too hard to understand.”
I want to become someone who is good at discussing difficult subjects, so she is right.
“Saeki-san, you score well on tests, don’t you?”
She changes the subject so quickly. Oh wait, maybe we’re still on the same page. The girl wants to get to know me better, but why? Because we’re friends? There seems to be an error in the sequence of events.
“Well, they’re pretty decent.”
[…to be continued]