Shaggy black hair, briefcase slung over his shoulder, black blazer with the last two top buttons undone, and a tired face, this is the Kazuta Takeda that I, the man next to me, and Hina look at. A smile, which I knew this Kazuta only opened in front of this specific person, invites us to approach, and Hina does so, happily. She stops in front of him, trying to control her breathing, which goes out of whack as she begins to hurry her pace.
"Hello, Take-kun!" she says, using the abbreviation of my name that she always uses. My past self nods. "Come on in, come on, come on!"
Holding the hand of my past self, she enters the diner. The place is somewhat empty, but now I remember this day better, and know that it will soon fill up. It was only a matter of time before not only Hina and I, but several students arrived at the very popular cafeteria.
They sit down, and we, the intruders, enter the establishment, standing next to them. Being here arouses my curiosity; we had entered this memory late in the afternoon, during the last period of Hina's classes, and thanks to this, I got only a glimpse of something I wouldn't like, which was Hina suffering abuse from her classmates. Here, with my past self, I knew that Hina was safe.
And I knew I would have memories I wouldn't want to have. But I needed to.
Before I know it, a waitress is already leaving their table. Apparently they have already placed their orders, which I don't remember what they were. Looking at my past self again, I feel a shiver: it is very strange to be observing oneself from another perspective. It's like a totally different, unpredictable person, a person I didn't know. My "I" has become a "he," and it makes my head throb.
"How was your day?", Hina starts a conversation. It was great that she was like this, cheerful, because I just needed to go with her flow, and we would have a pleasant conversation.
"Team practice was cancelled today," my past self comments. I remember that too. "The court will be being used for a school party, and we weren't notified."
"I see," Hina lays her eyes on the menu. "Then I picked the right day to ask you out."
I am in awe of Hina. A few minutes ago she was being humiliated in class, and here, in front of me, it is almost unnoticeable. Her skirt is still torn, and this is still apparent, but I didn't notice it at the time, I guess. On this day, my head was full of worries about the volleyball team, and I...
Not only that day, who am I kidding?
"Is there something you want to tell me, Hina?" my past self questions, and Hina suddenly stands up.
"Can you give me a minute? I'm going to the bathroom."
She hurries off down the hallway, until she reaches the bathroom. The Kazuta from the past picks up his cell phone, and opens his chat app, typing something with anyone, but I'm not paying attention anymore.
"Hina will probably open up about what really happens at school with you," the elderly gentleman next to me says. He was so quiet that I was feeling absorbed in the sounds of the cafeteria. "Do you remember anything like that happening?"
"Maybe..." I remember that on that day, Hina stepped a bit out of her perky girlfriend persona. I remember that day was the first day I didn't see Hina only as my relief for the week, it was the first day I started to consider, too, her feelings. But I have no idea what conversation we had here, maybe because I wasn't paying attention to her at the time.
I feel like punching my self.
The waitress returns, with fast-food snacks and drinks for me and Hina. As she leaves, I pick up some chips before Hina returns from the bathroom. She sits down, already opening the box of her hamburger, and begins pouring out words:
"I quite like this one you ordered, but you know when you want to change it up, totally out of the blue? So that's what I felt today." She gulps down her snack, and continues speaking, "I had a day that I came here with Rena, and she doesn't really like hamburger, so she ordered a portion of nuggets, but she went in the bathroom, just like I did now, and I ate half of her nuggets!" She covers her mouth, stifling her giggles. "You should have seen the look on her face. Do you talk to my sister at your school?"
"Not much, she's currently busy, since she's a strong candidate for the position of student council president..."
"Oh, don't even get me started on that, Rena only talks about this so-called council. I don't understand why she's so eager to join the student council, she's always been super responsible and very smart, but, I don't know, it seems to take up a lot of my time, doesn't it?"
I am chewing my hamburger, then a very short silence arises. So Hina continues:
"Does it taste good?"
I nod my head "yes," and Hina faces her own snack.
"Mine is too," and she takes a bite of it.
It was quite nostalgic to see this, as it had been to see Hina as a child. Smaller, bigger, Hina was always the same Hina. The same sparkle in her eyes, a great cheerfulness, happiness in such small things... Hina was very easy to please, her companion didn't need to be a lively person like herself, because she could make her own joy.
I think that some people are born with a feeling inside, that not even the worst situations outside can erase. And Hina is one of these people.
I realize that I am getting emotional; my nostalgia is turning into regret. Why didn't I enjoy Hina's company while I was still there? When I was still the author of my life, not just the spectator? Here, watching me squander the fountain of youth that is Hina, I feel like an old man; a tired man, a man who has denied what could bring him back vigor, and embraced his sameness. A lost man.
The elderly gentleman, however, touches my shoulder.
"Don't stop paying attention."
"You asked how my day was," my past self, to my surprise, initiates a subject, "but you didn't tell me how yours was."
Hina filled her mouth with potatoes as soon as I finished speaking. After that, she took a long sip of soda.
"I saw that your skirt is torn when you were going to the bathroom," I say, and Hina widens her eyes. I didn't remember noticing that... nor did I remember initiating any conversation. Really, I didn't remember much about myself. What could I expect, after all, from a guy who let things transit through his brain, forbidding the parking of any of them?
"My skirt caught on one of the desks in the room, and I didn't see it, then I tried to pull, and..." she stopped. She looked into the eyes of my past self, and I stared back at her. I look at the man next to me, and he also has his eyes on Hina.
The silence stretches out. I think I know why she doesn't want to talk now. Hina is perhaps afraid that I will end up taking part in her problems, and this will get in the way with volleyball. But what she doesn't know is that this was never my intention: I never intended to help her with anything.
"Say what you want to say, Hina," my past self instructs. And I agree with him. Getting it off your chest will make you good.
"It's a lie. A girl is doing this to me."
"Is she older than you?"
"We are in the same class. She's the prettiest girl in school."
"And why is she doing this to you?"
Hina bites her lip, looking away. Clearly, she doesn't want to say. Then my past self goes back to chewing his hamburger. He's not taking Hina's story seriously, he doesn't intend to go any deeper than just listening. For this Kazuta, this problem of Hina's will be solved quickly by the teachers at her school, or by her parents, and he will be able to continue to focus on his performance as a libero on the school team, and thus be able to enter university as a sportsman.
And I know this perfectly well, because that Kazuta is me.
I am fully aware of what is going on in his head. Hina is still young, this is just an ordinary disagreement, soon they will make up and be friends again. Who hasn't had a fight at the school? And with that thought, this Kazuta doesn't intend to let Hina open up any more than he feels he needs to allow. Hina is growing up, and she will learn about these things, as everyone else did and does. That's what he thinks.
"She joined the school after summer vacation," Hina says, staring at her lunchbox. "She soon acquired influence among the classes. She's pretty, she dresses well, her parents have purchasing power.... But she doesn't have a boyfriend. That's what she told us when we went to socialize with her."
My past self remains silent, eating her snack. It might seem that I was listening attentively, after all, that's what people always expect when they see my expression and my silence; but knowing me, it's just an act. I am just enjoying the sound of Hina's voice, absorbing less than half of what she says, because that is what I like. Not being silent, having some attention to myself. And Hina, unaware of this, is blurting it out as if I can really help her.
And this fills me with pity. Hina doesn't deserve this, doesn't deserve any of this!
"She asked me if I had a boyfriend, and I said no. She seemed to care a lot about that, so I didn't want to make her sad, I didn't talk about us. But that day, when you left practice early, and stopped by my school to leave with me" Hina lifts her head again, trying to sound as monotone as possible "...she saw us holding hands."
"I see" my period self babbles, engrossed. Hina picks up her phone, and shows pictures she took: her wallet, full of writing things, and dirt all around.
That's what the words in the picture say.
"I took that picture to show the teacher." She puts the phone away again. "She probably felt angry that I lied to her... Or maybe she's upset because I'm not pretty like her, or cool like her, or interesting like her, and I have a boyfriend who is going to college and is a star on the volleyball team..." She sketches a smile, but her face is on the verge of tears. "Speaking like that, it seems unfair, doesn't it?"
"You're much more interesting than she is," Kazuta says. And he covers his face with the glass of soda.
Hina takes one of the tissues that came along with the snack, and gently wipes it over her eyes. Now she is actually smiling, despite the crying in her eyes.
"Thank you so much, Take-kun. I feel very lucky to have you."
At that moment, anger starts to bubble up in my stomach. My face heats up; I'm no longer feeling in control.
"How can she say that..." The old man takes his attention off the couple, looking at me.The hatred I feel from my past can no longer stay trapped inside me, and I can no longer stay silent. "I'm the one who should feel lucky... I'm the one who depends on her... Hina is a strong girl!" I'm not feeling so good anymore. How can Hina say something so positive and good about a jerk like me? She is trying to open up to me, but I keep rejecting her needs, rejecting her humanity. And Hina still trusts me, as if I am doing something worthwhile for her.
"Keep looking, we haven't had your apprenticeship yet," says the gentleman, taking his eyes off me, "I know it's complicated to see things from another perspective, but you have to accept that this is you. You can never run away from your past, and I want to teach you."
I don't feel as motivated to watch this anymore. I no longer have the slightest patience to put up with this monstrous being that is Kazuta Takeda, who simply sucks the happiness out of a young girl and in return offers empty words and feelings. Hina doesn't deserve that...I'm already tired of concluding that. I am already tired of realizing what a terrible companion I am to my girlfriend, and this pain is irreparable, since all these things have already happened. And Hina has already lost a lot of herself because of me.
Even her relationship with her classmates has been spoiled because of me.
Before I know it, they have finished their snacks. Kazuta and Hina stand up, taking their trays. The payment had already been made, by card with the waitress, so they could leave. Kazuta, however, takes something from his briefcase: a jacket, well wrinkled. And offers it to Hina.
"Put it around your skirt, to cover up that tear," he says casually. Hina thanks him, taking the jacket and wrapping it around her waist. They walk to the exit of the cafeteria, which is now full, and I follow them, not waiting for the old man, so angry do I feel.
I had lost the will to watch their conversation, but now that they are leaving, I am very curious to know what else I will say to the helpless girl before I leave. And I'm sure I won't like the result.
They walk out the door, and meet again at the corner. It is already dark, soon to be completely night.
"Thanks for inviting me, Hina," says my past self, looking at the girl. She smiles.
"I thank you for coming," she lifts her head, and we kiss quickly.
I turn, to go home and part with my girlfriend, but she holds my blazer by the end of my sleeve, and at that moment, I remember: the day was not over for us at that moment.
"Actually" she says, pulling my arm towards herself "I don't want to go home yet."