First Memory: Kazuta Naoki, 2006
The old man inflicts me with his gaze, so I step back. He, seeing my hesitation, turns forward again, returning to his usual posture.
"Don't think I'm just fooling around here," he tells me, now facing forward, yet standing still, facing the backyard of my house. "It's all because of you."
I have nothing more to say. And even if I had, I doubt I would be able to say anything: my hands and legs are shaking, and I feel as if my throat has been blocked with absorbent cotton.
"There are no more relevant things for you to relive in this period. At least not now."
In an attempt to pull myself together, I try to walk toward him, only to find a restless leg refusing to obey me. My surroundings become muffled, and I can no longer tell if we are in the same place as before... perhaps because my vision is blurred, and my eyes are wet with my despair.
"I want you to see other things."
And at that moment, everything around us disappears. In the blink of an eye, the environment is totally different. We are still facing my house, but now it is snowing, and there is a whitish layer that looks just like whipped cream on the grass and over the doghouse. Obviously, we are facing a winter.
If I was supposed to feel cold, well, I wasn't feeling anything. Perhaps because I was fully aware that this was just a memory, my senses were all heightened, yet the sudden cold did not bother me. Apparently, it was just a psychological issue: when I kept in mind my conditions before the places I passed through, I did not feel any discomfort in my body. And when I forgot about it, the force of a non-existent reality hit me with its full force.
"We go back quite a long time in your memory" comments the old man. I am confused, in fact I have been confused since the moment we started arguing, and the lack of explanation from the gentleman in the top hat only makes my thinking more difficult. "Your parents divorced a year ago, and in this moment, they are all alone in there."
"And... where am I?"
"At daycare." The man smiles mischievously, seeing my helplessness. "People's lives are much more extensive than they remember."
He moves toward the house, and I see no choice but to force myself to follow him. I still feel my legs trembling, but now I can walk and partially trust them. The man walking in front of me, who had just spoken exactly like my father, was now walking into the house, so that we could see my real father.
We enter the house, passing through the front door. There are two people talking in a room to the right, which I know is the living room.
We approach there, and the people are my parents. Much younger, they are sitting on the couch, side by side, while the television is on, playing some movie that neither they nor we are paying attention to. There are some toys scattered on the floor, Kazuta Takeda's toys, and neither of them seems to have the slightest intention of putting them away.
"What time do you need to pick up Takeda?" my father asks. His voice, a little less coiled because of his age, is low and reserved, as it had always been. Although he was a lively party man, he was inexplicably calm.
"It's in a little while, actually," my mother replies. She, also calm and also controlled, contributes to the cozy atmosphere of that couple. "Will you get it for me?"
"Sure. I'm going out with him for a snack today. If you want... we can go, both of us."
My mother turns her face away, somewhat dismayed. I notice that they are even closer to each other on the couch, their shoulders touching, although I haven't noticed this closeness at any point.
"I don't want Takeda to look at us as a couple..." she doesn't look at my father as she says this, but he doesn't take his eyes off her face. "We are divorced, after all."
"That's not a terrible thing, Kaori; we're not bad relationship people, we didn't separate over disagreements... we are Takeda's parents, and that bond of ours is forever."
He raises his hand, stroking my mother's hair slowly, while she does not look into his eyes. The man insists:
"You can come with us, I'm sure Takeda will love it..."
She doesn't respond, and he doesn't press her any further. I roll my eyes; I don't want to see this. I don't want to see my mother submit to this man's wills, I don't want to see how he and my mother talked, nor do I want to know what they said about me when I was still too young to even think about it.
"You know that's just your stubbornness."
I look at the person who said that, who is standing next to me and still looking at my parents, on the couch. The man in the tuxedo, skeptical, doesn't seem the least bit moved by my feelings. On the contrary, his disapproval is returning, and showing itself visible in my eyes.
"You don't think your mother was submitting to anything she didn't want, you are watching."
My mother has already turned her face to the man, and for some reason they are smiling. My parents are acting like a happy couple, like husband and wife... which they were no longer, because of my father's selfishness.
"Your mother was happy."
They kiss, and go back to watching the movie, hugging each other, draping two blankets over their bodies.
"You just don't want to accept the good your father did for your mother."
"My father didn't do 'good' at all," I interject, looking down. I feel anger at what I am hearing. "How dare you defend this man..."
"I am only talking about what we are seeing. And I am seeing a man who is concerned about the woman he loves, and about his son."
Concerned... the man who abandoned us. The old man wants to show me, somehow, that my father was a good man; but that was just ignoring what he caused. Maybe my mother didn't have any kind of resentment of what he decided to do, but as for me... I grew up without a father present. And it is impossible for me to forget the days when I thought about it and felt discarded, the nights that this thought invaded my mind and I couldn't sleep.
I feel no compassion, only hatred.
"You will not make me think differently. This man has abandoned me."
"Do you really think so?"
What? I feel my face heat up at what I hear. Before I can say anything, however, my parents stand up. Because I am no longer paying attention to what they were saying, I don't know why, but they put on their shoes and coats and leave the house, which can only mean that they had decided to pick up Takeda from daycare together.
My father's car was not the one he had in 2015: much smaller and gray in color, the car made a sound that indicated that my father had pressed some button on his key to unlock it. Opening the passenger seat door for my mother, he turns around and gets into the car as well, starting it soon after. They are going to the kindergarten in town to pick up my old self.
They leave, and I am left alone with the grim reaper. I feel anger at what he was implying earlier, but I don't intend to continue confronting him. I had already had my lesson: this man was much bigger than I was. Faced with his imposition, I am left with no options but to follow him.
But I am beginning to hate this relationship.
"Don't you want to visit your past anymore?" he questions me, for the first time. Unlike all the other attempts I had made, to avoid the burden of reminding myself of painful things, this time he is asking me directly if I agree to continue. And for the first time, I see an opportunity arising, the opportunity to deny my memories, and to return to my safe place.
"Why are you asking me?", I question, just to reassure myself, and he says what I least expect:
"We can quit here, if you want."
Well... What do I have to lose? It's not like I'm enjoying this. What the man shows me are not moments when I felt happy... and when he does that, it is only to highlight the pain caused after such moments. When he had put me in front of good memories I had, like the day I had lunch with Hina, or the day I went out with my friends to swim and eat mochi... was just to show my mistakes, my failures, and things that made me feel guilty. He just wanted me to notice what a bad human being I was while I was still conscious.
Maybe he was just judging me, as I had suspected in the beginning, to know whether I will go to that paradise or be condemned to the agonizing precipice.
But now, his approach is different. He asks me if I want to keep sinking. He asks me if I am in favor of seeing more of what saddens me. And, if I were to answer that question without thinking, I would obviously deny it. Who would accept an offer as frightening as that? If learning lessons comes at such a high price, I intend to remain ignorant, for sure. It's not as if it's easy, looking at myself and denying that that self is correct... it's complicated to see my own self and feel disgust, pity, anger, displeasure... and, for me, Kazuta Takeda, a young man who grew up ignoring all that... turning over the pile of filth that was my life was very itchy. For it was a pile covered with cloths and trimmings, so that it could go unnoticed.
It's not as if I wanted to touch it.
But maybe the time has really come. At this moment, alone, unconscious, on the verge of death... maybe the time has come to fix myself. As much as it bothers me, dealing with everything that I have camouflaged all my life, I am sure that it would bother me much more if I just decided to leave here now. And if I had the opportunity to think more about everything that happened to me, and could think long and hard before deciding whether seeing my past was a better choice than letting it go, maybe I would hesitate a little before denying the opportunity. And maybe I would even accept the burden.
But the fact that we are facing the man I hate the most gets in the way of that.
"Do I really need to see my father's past?"
"Of course you do," the old man promptly answers me. "Your heart harbors an endless grudge against your father."
"And you can't understand that...?"
"I understand, of course; but you are not being fair to Kazuta Naoki. Regardless of his motivations, he was a very supportive father to you and your mother."
"And you really think that's enough? Is that parenting?" My parents' car has been gone for quite some time, but the tire tracks on the snow make it evident that they had just left. "My father destroyed a lot of things... We just saw Ren and his family... Ren's parents' divorce was his fault!"
"I know that, Kazuta. In fact, that's exactly why I decided to show it to you, before we came here."
I take a better look at the man next to me. Always incomprehensible, always mysterious, always keeping me in the dark and guiding me through what he considers right. It is strange to remember our conversation a few minutes ago, when I felt weak and looked into eyes like my father's. No Ren, no Hina, no Naoki: this man beside me was the most complicated thing I was facing, probably my biggest challenge.
"You don't have to forget everything bad your father did, and I don't want you to do that. Mistakes are mistakes, and your father made a lot of them." Then, approaching again, but without any sign of hostility, the man stares me down. "But I don't want you to carry the burden of that grudge. You don't need it."
I continue to stare, steadily, into his eyes. As always, incomprehensible. But as hard as it is to accept this truth, I understand, in a way, what he wants out of all this. Not only what happened to Ren, but to me and everyone around me, he wants to show me who Kazuta Naoki is, beyond what I feel for him. And he wants me to have a verdict, not just on my side of the story, but on the whole. And in the face of the urgency he imposes with our time travel, I realize that this choice is, as was my choice to continue watching Hina, back at Kitagawara High School, necessary for me to grow.
For me to change.
"So... If this is really necessary..." I roll my eyes, feeling ashamed of this situation. I don't want to believe that my father had his good side, but I should perhaps give the chance, at least the opportunity, to observe some of his life before I decide this. I think, as the reaper told me, it would be a fairer attitude.
"Good that you think so" he tells me, walking away again. "Let's observe a little more."
Looking down the street at my house, empty, he seems absorbed in thought, as if he is no longer present there. Then, suddenly, we are no longer there. Now, in front of a very small day-care center full of noisy children inside, we watch my father's gray car park, and my mother get out, while he waits inside the car.
The children, with their inexhaustible energy, are running everywhere, playing and screaming, while the caretakers get their litter boxes, because it is already closing time. My mother appears at the door of the largest room, and exchanges a few words with the women there before holding the hand of a small, thin boy with big eyes, who talks shrilly and jumps as he walks with her. That's me.
I must be in the 4-5 year old range, because I am still very small, and I am still screaming like some excited child. They leave the daycare, and my mother, straightening my coat, puts me on her lap so that I don't have to walk on the snow-covered ground.
"This Kazuta is quite different than what I'm used to," my companion comments, and I roll my eyes, pretending not to be paying attention. "Actually, this Kazuta is a Kazuta who sees his father differently."
And it is true: seeing Naoki inside the car makes my child self happy. My mother brings me close to him, so that I kiss his cheek, and he strokes my head, happy that I am there.
"To this Kazuta, his father was like a hero. And like every hero, he was quite busy, and seeing him was a very special occasion..."
He stops talking, but doesn't look at me.
"You are trying to romanticize what my father did to me.... Trying to give a noble cause for his cowardice."
The man doesn't respond. So I decide to approach their car, without the man asking me to.
"I saw him as a special person, but only because my mother created an idea of a father that I thought was cool; but I'm not a child anymore; and this thing he did, it was nothing but abandonment."
I move closer to the family, who are now putting on their seatbelts, getting ready to go to some diner or whatever, and look at the man driving. Looking at him like that fills me with anger again, and no matter what the man shows me, no matter what I see happening, the sins committed against me, against my mother, and against the Kouyama family, will never be forgotten.
"I will never accept that this man was a good person."