Chapter 6:

The Pleasure in Solitude VI

Backward Steps

Of course, the day was not over there.

The teaching that I missed had not yet been delivered. If it had, and I had missed it, surely the God reaper next to me would have said something. Hina had not yet given me what I needed.

She holds Kazuta from last year with attitude. He turns and returns his attention to her once more, now closer.

"And where do you want to go?"

Hina, perhaps avoiding the question, hugs him tightly. Kazuta is taken back a little, such is the sudden force that is pressed against his body.

"I just don't want to go home.... Take me somewhere else."

Now my memories are fresh; we had not gone home after the cafeteria: I had taken her to the square, to that square, where the old man and I had begun our journey through time, where we first saw Hina and her mother. And where I saw myself too, the young Kazuta.

I look around, but the old man is no longer there. Without having said anything, just as he suddenly appeared, he is now gone. I no longer feel his imposing presence beside me, or nearby. I don't readily understand the reason for this, but neither do I feel distressed. I am still seeing my past, and this was his doing, so surely he is still somewhere, supervising me. 

Hina and Kazuta from the past walk, hand in hand, in the direction I know where the square is. It is not far from there, and certainly much closer than the Kazuta and Kanzaki family homes. The atmosphere is cold, autumn is opening its floodgates for the coming season, a herald of the merciless winter. And the dry leaves still adorn the ground, warning of the passage of time.

Watching Kazuta as he hugs Hina and walks beside her, I realize what an ungrateful person he was. Never before had I stopped to think about Hina's presence in fact, about what she meant. More than a girl or a body, she was getting very close to the real me. And even if I kept her from getting that close, she still had me close to her chest. And perhaps the closest human warmth I felt was the warmth emanating from her presence.

I look at my surroundings. My town, full of people who knew each other, was quite busy at night. Friends going out for a drink, college reunions, couples' parties... Things were still far from shutting down by the establishments, as was predicted on every Friday.

Ignoring all the excitement around us, Hina and I were in our own little worlds. Hina was feeling tired, perhaps her strength to endure Mana's bullying had been exhausted, and I needed to try to rid this weight from her. To my chagrin, at that time I had not thought about it...I had not prioritized Hina at any time. Even though I had noticed her remarkable weakness, the rare moment when she was not acting with her usual confidence and will, I had not considered that this could become a major wound.

And it fills me with a warm remorse that makes me regret it so deeply that I want to take the place of that Kazuta before my eyes, I want to be able to do differently.

And as much as I want to change my past, it's all just memories now. And wounds.

After many more busy streets, we arrived at the square. In contrast to the rest of the city, the square is quiet and calm. A few people are walking along the cobblestone streets, observing the landscape, the trees and the starry sky. The square is, without a doubt, one of the refuges for those who want to escape the weekend noise.

Not unlike the square of nine years earlier, the space is large and beautiful. Kazuta guides Hina to one of the benches in the square, and there we stand. Behind us, only the bushes and trees of the square, and before us, a longer space, which holds within it toys like a slide and a swing. They are all silent.

"I want you to forgive me for that" Hina says, leaning her head against the chest of my past self. And I feel that part of my body tingle, with the memory of that moment becoming vivid in my mind. Now the feeling of déjà vu is strongly present, because I am watching exactly what I remember.

At that moment, there are no details missing in my head.

"I just don't feel like facing my parents, or my sister, with this terrible face" Hina continues. The Kazuta I watch runs his hand through the girl's hair, respecting her moment. "I'll have to sew that skirt too...I hope I have blue thread at home..."

"I do, if you need it," Kazuta comments.

It's not your thread what she needs! What would it cost to be understanding? What would it cost to be a little safe haven? It is incomprehensible what my self of a year ago was doing to Hina. Unacceptable. Anyone observing us from the outside, as I am doing, would have the same feeling.

Our relationship was destructive.

I approach the couple, now seeing them face to face. Hina has tears in her eyes, a silent cry that doesn't intend to say anything more. For her, only the presence of her boyfriend is comforting, and this is thanks to my great acting. The day in the cafeteria, the jacket, the kiss, the trip to the square... were all part of the half-concentrated Kazuta, the Kazuta who tries to divide himself between the athlete and the boyfriend.

But this was always impossible for me. I was totally dedicated to my sport. That was what kept me the furthest away from what was left, the insignificant, abandoned, angry, frustrated Kazuta Takeda... and Hina's part in that equation was what she could offer me; never what she was, as a person.

Hina's crying is a cry for help, and I understand that now. Ever since I was a child, ever since Hina and I had the baby-sitter relationship, she was a happy girl. She always said what she thought, did what she felt like, she overflowed with spontaneity. Her parents supported all her wishes and dreams, and Hina did not spare to have them. Doctor, veterinarian, teacher, lawyer... Hina had wanted to be all these things, and many more. Yes, you can, she was told. And I admired this drive in her, this endless willingness to learn new things.

So from a young age I was watching her. Rena, her sister, studied almost always in the same places as me, because of our close age, and she talked a lot about Hina. Not only me, Hina's contagious joy affected other people, it was a happiness that you could almost squeeze, which, if it was stored in jars, could start a factory and enrich its owner.

And this only increased with time. Hina's glow became bigger, and bigger, as she grew. She didn't become an amazing student, or a scientist, or an influential woman, but she became a more complete version of herself. Hina was growing in the best way possible, and that was not just my conclusion, but it was a conclusion of her own. Foolish, my girlfriend never was.

But that brilliance couldn't please everyone. Torn clothes, exclusion, humiliation, neglect, abuse, disrespect... loneliness. This is how the people who could not live with Hina's brilliance treated her. Unlike Rena, Mei, Mr. Kanzaki, me, and her childhood friends, people would not accept this way of seeing things, Hina. Your success would surely annoy those who use you to compare themselves.

Such displeasure would be manifested in any way... and I was the trigger for your life to start unraveling. After today, I am aware that you will sew up your skirt, you will hide what is going on from your family, and you will learn to live with Mana and her abuse. Mana, with her insatiable jealousy, will influence your friends to mess with you, and your days will still be permeated with sadness and despair. Your only relief will be to be by my side, even though, in truth, it will come from yourself, for I have nothing to offer you. And you will smile and be thankful that I am there, even though I have done nothing on your behalf. I don't remember exactly when it will stop, but I know that one day you will comment to me, with your voice weak and your eyes brimming with relief.

"It's over."

And you will smile, as you always do, no matter your pain. Trying to make me feel important for your conquest. When in fact I only thought of you when I needed to talk to someone, when I didn't want to have to deal with myself.

But good thing you are a strong woman, Hina. Stronger than I will ever be. And you never depended on me, not really. You have always been your own strength, your own pillar. There are people who are born with a glow inside them, that's true, and you are the proof before my eyes. You are what I will never be, and that is why you attract me.

I know it won't do any good, but I want to apologize. Maybe I'll never wake up again, maybe I'll just go away from your life doing nothing but hurting you. But I'd like to wake up, I'd like to look at your face once more, not in the past, but before me, in an unreachable future, and reach for your hand. To squeeze it, and tell you what an amazing person you are, and that everything is going to be okay. That you can achieve any goal you set, that you can meet someone who values you as you deserve, and that you should, must, be happy. Because a person who looks at the world smiling, deserves to get a smile back.

This crying expression doesn't suit you. 

I look into the eyes of my self. It is like looking into a mirror, but at the same time it is totally different. 

Is this me?

It doesn't feel like it anymore.

He looks ahead now, staring at the starry sky. I come closer to his face, as if he will, at some moment, look away and focus into my eyes, as if it is possible to reach this deaf young man with a voice, as if it is possible to make him read, even though he is blind.

My own self disgusts me.

"You are a villain."

I say that, but not to someone else. I am facing myself. And I feel that I am defeating a giant.

But as great as my victory is, it is not yet the end. Kazuta looks away from the sky, looking again at Hina. She has removed her head from his chest, and now looks up at him.

"Thank you for bringing it this far," she says. "The sky is beautiful today, don't you think?"

The few tears that fell from her eyes are now gone. She is getting stronger again.

"You don't want to stay anymore? It's not that late yet..."

"Yes I do, of course I do. Let's keep watching the sky, it's comfortable."

Cuddled up to escape the autumn chill, my past self and Hina watch the sky, in silence. I look in the same direction as them, and notice that it is not much different from the dark environment that was the inside of my mind. If there had been a few beams of light dotting the top of my head, I am sure that being in that place, with that mysterious man, would be much more pleasant, and I would not have felt afraid of death.

I wonder if he will still look at me with such disappointed eyes after this memory.

"Rena is so much better than me..." Hina comments, suddenly.

"What do you mean?"

"Nothing, sorry. I was just remembering some things she said to me... I think they would go well for my... moment."

"I still don't get your point."

I keep my gaze on Hina. And so does my past self. Our attention is hooked.

"She told me, not just once, but I think all my life" she watches the square swing, empty and inert. "...That being alone is an opportunity to correct ourselves."

I open up my eyes. I feel that this is the moment I have been waiting for. My past self remains with his expression unchanged, as he is totally not paying attention, he intends to forget this conversation once he gets home, and intends to do his best on the courts. But this me of today, the Kazuta of now, is attentively listening to what she has to say.

"Loneliness sometimes feels like a terrible burden, doesn't it?" she rubs her arms, and her coat makes a sharp noise. "I don't know about you, but I've always been very afraid of being alone... maybe I am to this day. But Rena tells me that she likes being alone; that's when her mind gets organized, when her thoughts lose their cloudiness, and she can realize how free she is. It's not a sad loneliness that she finds herself helpless; it's a solitude in that she gives time to herself, and then she's ready to reconnect with me and our parents."

She smiles at my past self.

"It sounds like a very pleasurable loneliness, don't you think?"

Yes, I do.

It's getting hard to see. From my memories, I know that Hina made a comment about how Rena and I, older people, are mature, and I make some sarcastic remark, which results in her hitting me. Something common from my relationship with Hina. However, I can no longer see, as tears are taking over my eyes. I have learned my lesson, that's for sure. Along with Hina, who has learned to live with herself, with her own silence. I can say that I also have this lesson from now on, and to put it into practice is my new mission.

If I get the chance.

"That's very good to know." I don't lift my gaze, but I know the man is beside me again. I don't understand the reason for his disappearance, but now he is with me again, because surely our journey is over. "The feeling of seeing you convince yourself of something is incomparable, Kazuta. I feel like I did a good job."

So that was the man's intention, from the moment he had said he had understood my mind, before taking me to relive any place. His intention was to teach me this lesson, which I was unable to accept when I saw Hina in her room, and needed to feel her pain up close, needed to observe my own sins, to understand.

"And... will you take me now?" Maybe I should have expected this. I am already in a coma, my life is passing before my eyes... this can only mean death, right? The man was just waiting for my moment to end, to take me with him. It is the end, and I was being prepared to be taken away.

Everything is confirmed with his response.


I affirm. It's funny, knowing that I am moments away from ceasing to exist, so muffled giggles come out of my mouth, without exactly me allowing them. I don't believe there is such a thing as paradise, and if there is, I'm certainly not going there. I would just like to leave an apology for Hina, I had been very mean to her; and that, for sure, was one of my biggest regrets.

"But he's not the only one, is he?"

An icy hand touches my shoulder, and we disappear from that plane. We leave the Kazuta and Hina of the plaza behind, and all that beautiful, cozy atmosphere as well. I don't feel my body anymore. As if I am really detaching myself from it.

"You well know how Hina went on to live out her days, don't you?"

The man's voice echoes. I can't see anything, not even myself, so maybe I no longer have a body to call my own.

"You know how the bullying continued until Mana left town, with the news of her father's unemployment, don't you? You know that the suffering Hina felt now lasted much longer, don't you?"

I do, I think, but don't say, because I don't have any voice anymore. 

"And you know that this pain, not only Mana's or Hina's classmates' fault, is your fault too, right?"

Yes, I know that; it is now vivid and clear in my mind. And how that guilt hurts me...

To my surprise, I am not dead, and I manage to open my eyes. I am standing in front of the old man, but I am lying down, in an environment that doesn't seem to have any type of ground, not even a soil or something. There are no shapes, no sounds, there is only darkness. I look up, and the man is watching me, standing up.

"Don't think your journey is over, Kazuta."

And above him, in complete contrast to the darkness surrounding me, there is a starry sky, just like the one I saw in the square of my memories, gracing me with its view. And the man, now a little less scary, a little less sad, without his look of intense disappointment, nods at me, friendly. His top hat moves a little on top of his head, and only then does it sink in for me.

I am back at the initial stage, without senses, without a sense of space, and without any perspective. But to my relief, this time it is different.

The Pleasure in Solitude

- The End