So we were looking at what I tried so hard to avoid.
Alone, in the darkest and most abandoned corner of the school, was Hina, eating her lunch. She was not making any sound, all that could be heard was the sound of food being crunched by her teeth, and the mushy noise her mouth was creating, probably from crying.
"So you really knew where she was." The man in gala clothes is standing next to Hina, leaning (or rather, appearing to be leaning) against the dusty banister of the staircase. He looks only at the girl, with an expression of enormous sadness.
He feels sorry for her, in a way he never felt for me.
"Is that what you wanted me to see?", I ask the man.
"You already knew about Hina's school life, didn't you? By this time you were already lovers."
I force myself to look at the girl's face. She is holding her hashi and reaching for sausages slowly from inside her lunchbox. Seeing her expression is painful; anger, mixed with disbelief and sadness, as large tears fall from her eyes in an almost unbearable silence... this is not the Hina I have in my memories. This is not the smiling child, bed-wringing and tickling her older sister. This is not the young girl who watches me at all my volleyball matches and shouts my name from the stands as if only I were there.
Unfortunately, I have the impression that this Hina is more frequent than the other one.
"Was that the guilt I was supposed to feel?"
The old man has eyes only for the Hina before us.
"One of them, certainly."
Hina is already finishing her lunch. When I think about it again, memories I didn't even know I had come up before my eyes: Hina felt uncomfortable in class, told how cruel her classmates were to her, told about her bad experiences at school... Once she told me that she had taken the courage to talk to her teacher about what had happened, but that it had not worked out well, and things continued.
From what I remember, it was the other girls in class who were oppressing her. Throwing her notebooks in the trash can, writing humiliating phrases on her desk, and cutting off her clothes during physical education and swimming classes... this was terrible. Hina had a terrible time with her classmates. She was a victim of bullying.
And what had I ever done for my girlfriend?
She has finished her food, and is getting up. Wiping the back of her skirt, she puts her lunchbox away and goes straight downstairs to the bathroom at the end of the hall. I go down and stand in front of the door, and the old man comes down a short while later.
"Do you know the reason for this behavior coming from the other students?", he questions me. As soon as his eyes turn to observe me, I turn my face away, embarrassed.
"I'm not sure... But I have an idea."
"That's great, Kazuta; great that you're staring instead of denying it."
I dare to look at the man's face, and there is a slightly more relaxed expression on his countenance. I feel that I am going down the path that pleases him, but I am not doing this because I want to. After all, what good would it do to deny it? We are already in front of Hina herself, experiencing an extremely painful moment in her life. Denying this is impossible; Hina's pain is almost touchable to me.
He does not look away, so I decide to cut the intense eye contact myself. I have no reason, no determination, and no will to try to oppose the strong will of this gentleman to continue visiting the past. If this is what he intends to do, my only option is to follow him, even if I see horrible things in the process.
Even if I have to look, from another angle, at how pathetic I am.
Hina comes out of the bathroom. Somehow, she has somewhat disguised the signs of a recent cry, and her expression no longer gives away her distress. Walking alone down the hallway, with her skirt visibly torn at the left corner, she keeps her face up and her eyes unexpressive. There are many people walking around her, but they don't notice Hina's presence, nor do they seem to look at her torn skirt, even though it is clearly visible. It is more as if they are ignoring her, not just not noticing.
Not unlike what I used to do.
But Hina was a strong girl; she seemed to be without strength in the staircase, crying and relieving all the burden on her, but now that she was in front of the other children, she had an unshakable will, and this was present in her eyes. That is when I started to connect the dots.
"The day before that was the day she decided to tell the teacher about what's been happening," the man says, along with my reasoning. "She expects him to take some action today about it. Without knowing about such an attitude from Hina, the girls who oppress her have cut off her clothes, and this is the first time this has happened."
It makes sense. Hina is feeling confident because, in her view, today things will start to straighten out; for Hina, her suffering is close to being over; but I, aware of how things have happened, know that she is just deluding herself....
Hina enters her classroom, with the sign "2 - B" indicating her class. When she opens the door, students look quickly to see who it is, and turn their faces away just as quickly when they find out. It is exactly as I imagined: Hina is being ignored. The people who don't bully her are aware of everything, yet they find it better to ignore than to take sides in any cause.
Indifferent to the icy treatment, Hina strides to her desk, the second-to-last one in the right-hand corner, the one closest to the corridor, the one farthest from the windows. As soon as she sits down, she lowers her head and seems to disconnect herself from the rest of the class.
"It really bothers me to see young Hina like this," the man says beside me, as we both watch her and the contrast it makes with the room, noisy and full of children eating and laughing, "even more so when we have just seen her so cheerful with her sister."
If Rena were here... unfortunately Rena was three years older than Hina, a year before me, so she was studying at the same school as me at the time. Hina was totally alone, in front of so many young people who preferred to see her suffer by clashing with the more popular female students.
And I was to blame for that.
"Hina doesn't strike me as a silly young lady" says the man. I already have an idea of what he is getting at. "She doesn't look like a bullying target, not with those confrontational eyes. There is a special reason why she suffers this oppression, isn't there?"
"Hina is not like other girls her age" I say, suddenly aware of what this man wants me to confess. And I need to get away from it. "She talks a lot about what she thinks and what she feels. Maybe that's why they saw her as an easy target, since she's so... docile."
"I understand," the man says, almost as if he is giving up on questioning me. But I understand the reason for this: he is no longer looking at me, nor at Hina.
I follow his eyes, and see what takes his attention: a young woman, with short hair and bangs high on her forehead, enters the room surrounded by three other girls, and seems to be looking for someone. When her eyes hit Hina, she smiles, pointing to the girl's skirt, and her companions also smile, debauched. They walk over to the side opposite Hina and take their places, forming a square.
"That girl is the leader of the bullies," the man says, and I believe he is right. With her green tie, the same color as Hina's, the sophomore has large, almond-shaped eyes, high cheekbones, and silky hair. Very pretty, she certainly has influence, not only in the class, but probably in the whole school.
"Come on, sit down, break is over!" The teacher enters the room, and all the students, who were shouting, playing and messing around, return to their seats.
Hina, isolated at the back, lifts her head, still inexpressive. The man accompanying me is right: looking at her face, the face I am used to seeing smiling and expressive while pouring out dozens of pieces of information per minute, showing a countenance so complicated, so far from peace... makes me sad. As complicated as my relationship with her was, Hina was still the girl who supported me. She was still the girl I could count on the most, even if everyone else decided to turn their backs on me.
Had I ever reciprocated this selflessness from her?
"I have something to talk to you about," the professor says, as silence settles in. "I have had certain complaints about some students, about an issue that I am ashamed to have in our class. A classmate of yours is being bullied." The teacher looks at the last student in the right corner. "Kanzaki-san, please come forward."
Hina stands up. Looking forward, showing no weakness, she approaches the teacher. Yes, you are correct. That's the attitude they don't expect from you.
As she approaches him, Hina faces the whole class, who are watching her intently. Close but distant, the 2 - B students look at her without the slightest expression of guilt on their faces, and this almost makes me angry... until I notice that my treatment of the girl was very similar to theirs.
"Kanzaki-san has suffered some abuse from certain students, and I don't want that to happen again. Bullying is a shameful and childish attitude, which does not generate anything good, in any point. You practitioners of this kind of oppression should be ashamed of what you are doing."
Hina looks at him as the gap between words gets long.
"You may sit down now, Kanzaki-san"
"What?", Hina says weakly, and a restrained giggle is heard. It is the girl with the bangs and her classmates, who immediately disguise the sound by turning their faces and pretending to read their notes. Hina's eyes begin to sparkle, they are filling with water, and this is remarkable.
The teacher, who doesn't seem to really care about the situation right before his eyes, turns to the board, taking the case as closed, and starts talking about Japanese language. The students, as if nothing had happened, stop looking at the board and reach for their books and the pages the teacher dictates. And Hina, helpless, completely desolate, walks back to her seat.
And, to my chagrin, her head is bowed, her eyes staring at the floor.
The old man remains in a taciturn silence for the rest of the class. Perhaps he could have skipped that whole moment, but I don't think that was his intention. I don't dare look at him anyway.
My eyes are on Hina and the other girl. At a certain moment I approach the young woman to look at her notes and discover her name: Takahashi Mana. From the conversations I have heard, she is not from our town, she moved here in 2020 because of her father's job. And she has been bullying Hina since the return from summer vacation, so it was close to a month ago.
She didn't get to say anything very relevant about the bullying itself, so I went back to Hina's side. She somehow held back the crying that had come to show in her eyes, and no tears were shed. With a look of complete hopelessness, she writes things down in her notebook, looking at the board. Hina was such a good girl... of so many others, why her? She certainly didn't deserve this. This is not the treatment I would expect to see God give to such a nice girl... if the man traveling with me really is some kind of God, he is a hideous being.
When staying in that environment is already becoming unbearable, the sound of the end of classes echoes throughout the building. Hina rushes out of the room, surrounded by hundreds of other students, who seem to be in as much of a hurry as she is, to meet her freedom.
So that day was the moment when Hina lost hope that things could change. According to my memories, she liked the school, but had "adjustment problems". She probably wanted to tell me about everything that happened in class, but I simply did not give her that freedom. Or maybe she opened the case... but why didn't I listen to her? Was it that hard, to pay attention to my girlfriend a little more, to listen to what ails her, to look for a solution?
For me, it was. It was so hard that I needed to go into a coma and meet God to realize how wrong I was.
Hina left the building after putting on her coat and changing shoes at the school entrance. Several other children walk along with her, until they begin to disperse very slowly. She promptly heads for the exit. The man and I follow her, as usual.
Since we entered the classroom and met Takahashi-san, you haven't said anything else. I don't understand what is going on in his head, but perhaps he has nothing more to say to me. I am already fully aware of where I went wrong, even if only vaguely. I feel that from the moment Hina leaves the school, things will become clearer.
That is because I am remembering that day.
Hina comes out of the gate, getting the usual "see you tomorrow!" from the school janitor, and hurries down to the corner that is to the right of Kitagawara. And I know she is heading toward the cafeteria that operates there.
Hina's torn skirt had not caused me any déjà vu or sudden understanding, but somehow I knew that it was not something so foreign to my memories; now, reviewing the cold and frowny autumn atmosphere, the grayish color of the sky, and especially, Hina's new dose of cheerfulness, which overrides the previous sadness, I realize that this day was, yes, present in my memories. It had not been like any other. It had been one of the few days that I saw Hina in a different way than the usual Hina, one of the very few days that I noticed that she was acting a little differently, even if she didn't do anything about it.
And one of the days I would have the most reason to hate myself, for sure.
We turn the same corner as Hina, and there is the cafeteria that you said. And at its entrance, there is my self from last year, waving to the girl.