Chatter. The songs of birds. The humming of insects.
The sun was shining brightly, warming the world from it’s place in the cloudless sky. After a cold and windy week, this was a much needed change of weather. All around the campus grounds scattered groups of students were having picnics, eating snacks and drinking beer, laying on the ground, and talking. Asuka was sitting among one such group, immersed in her phone messages.
“There you are Natsumaru!” shouted a tall guy with green pants who was sitting next to her. “What’s up man?”
“Hey man, nice to see you! Is there any beer left for me?” Natsumaru said as he approached the group, wearing his usual carefree smile. His red hair looked especially bright today in the warm sun.
“Sure thing.” replied a girl who was sitting next to a half-empty crate of beers. She handed him a bottle.
Asuka wondered why most guys spoke this way to each other. All of this “man” and “what’s up” and “bro”. Did it come naturally or were they trying hard to sound cool? In any case, she tried bringing her attention back to the phone, but suddenly stopped herself. Something compelled her to stand up and look around. As soon as she did, she saw Hibiki in the distance walking alone with his head down, probably headed towards the library or the practice room. Asuka excused herself, picked up her backpack and went after her brother.
She hadn’t heard from him in a week and her instinct told her something was wrong. Being only one year younger than Hibiki, the two of them had grown up really close, almost like twins. Both shared a certain introversion and preference for being alone, which was especially strong in Hibiki. She understood this side of him and didn’t bother him with her presence unnecessarily, but their silent bond remained strong.
When she caught up to Hibiki he turned around and looked her as if he already knew she would be there. They walked side by side in silence for a couple of meters.
“Natsumaru told me he found you sick in your room this Wednesday. He wanted to check up on you every day, but I told him to leave you alone.”
Her brother did not reply. Asuka thought about it for a minute. Hibiki must have been faking his illness because if he was really ill, she would know. Surely it wasn’t to avoid classes or other people – Hibiki had avoided people his whole life without needing to fake an illness. He had been skipping classes too, and he walked unusually quickly through the crowded campus grounds. To anyone else this might have been confusing, but not to Asuka.
“You finally commited to not speaking. Why now?” she asked without expecting an answer. She simply wanted to let him know that she understood.
“It’s not a good idea though. You can keep it up for as long as you want, but something will go wrong eventually, believe me.”
Hibiki shrugged. He didn’t think it was a very good idea either, but he was determined to remain silent for as long as he possibly could. With the exception of his encounter with Natsumaru a few days earlier, he had been doing well so far and had gathered some confidence in his new way of life. He was starting to get used to it.
“I’ll leave you to whatever you are doing. Remember, you can always text me if you need anything – that doesn’t require any speaking.” with these words Asuka turned around and went back to the group.
She spent the rest of the afternoon with them. Over time the group grew as more people completed their daily tasks and joined the picnic. She spoke to some girls about plans for the upcoming spring vacation, laughed at the jokes she heard, played some drinking games and let this simple fun take her mind off her worry for Hibiki. A guy she vaguely knew as Yoko asked her on a date and she kindly refused. Natsumaru asked her about Hibiki and she told him not to worry, everything was okay. Somebody offered her potato chips and she gladly accepted them. Distraction after distraction, she eventually realized that it had gotten dark and cold, and most people had left. She went to Natsumaru who, as usual, was the last to leave any social gathering. He was talking to the guy in green pants.
“Hey, Asuka. Nice to see you joining us for so long today. How are you doing?” Natsumaru said as soon as he saw her approaching.
“I’m doing well, thank you. This was fun, we should do it again some time.”
The guy in green pants grinned. “Actually we are having a party over at Yoko’s yard tomorrow if the weather is still nice. You’re welcome to join.” he said. Asuna laughed nervously, remembering that Yoko was the guy she had rejected.
“Very kind of you to invite me. I will think about it.” she replied diplomatically, closing off the topic.
“Alright then. I was just leaving” said the guy in green pants. He placed his empty beer can on the grass and squished it with his foot. “I guess it’s just the two of you now.” he added, grinning once again. He said goodbye to Natsumaru and left.
“He thinks you and I are a thing.” Natsumaru said when his friend was too far to hear the conversation. “You know, because we hang out a lot and we’ve been grabbing breakfast together. What does he think, you grab breakfast with someone and suddenly you’re together? He keeps trying to pair me up with every girl he sees, so he’s probably enjoying this.”
“Maybe it’s better that he thinks this way.” Asuka took Natsu’s hand and they slowly walked in no particular direction. “Then at least he won’t suspect that you’re, you know...”
“Yeah, I know. It’s tiring though. I’m surrounded by so many people, but I can’t call many of them my friends. You are one of my few true friends, Asuka. All those other guys and girls are fun, but if word went around that I’m gay, I don’t know how many of them would still want to hang out with me. Especially the guys, you know. They get intimidated by this kind of thing.”
“I like being close to people, I like hugging them when I see them and joking around and inviting them to hang out with me, and it means nothing special. I just like people. But I don’t want guys to suddenly think I’m hitting on them when I’m not. And girls are no better sometimes. They think they are more progressive and compassionate, but when they find out someone is gay they try to befriend him and do his makeup, so they can have a “gay best friend”. That’s not right either.”
Asuka didn’t reply. She knew most of what Natsumaru was saying is true. It’s fashionable nowadays to accept gay people, so her friend was at least safe from mockery or physical assault. But he wasn’t protected from people’s inevitable prejudice and bias towards something they don’t understand.
“I get that, Natsu. But you can’t go on living in secrecy forever. And sometimes losing people in your life can be a blessing in disguise as you will get to see who your true friends and family are.”
“Wow, Asuka, you are very wise when it comes to other people’s problems.” Natsumaru replied in an irritated voice. A painful silence followed.
“I’m sorry I didn’t mean to make you feel bad. Look, let’s just go to my room and watch a movie or something, are you up for that? I don’t really want to be alone tonight.”
“Shouldn’t you go to sleep? You have volleyball practice early tomorrow, right?”
“I do, but it will be fine. What do you say?”
Asuka smiled and nodded. She didn’t have anything else planned anyway. The two of them headed for the dorm.
That evening, while Natsumaru was taking a shower, Asuka called her mother. After the usual exchange about how each of them was doing and whether Asuka was eating enough, she told her mother about Hibiki’s decision to stop speaking.
“I don’t know, Asuka.” her mother had said. “Hibiki did not confirm this, did he? And you know your brother, this might just be one of his episodes. It will pass eventually. Try to take care of him, will you?”
“Won’t you try to do something about it?”
“Asuka... If your brother listens to anyone, it will be you. If he doesn’t listen to you, then he certainly won’t listen to me or your father. He’s always been a strange child. You don’t understand this yet, but a mother is in great pain when she can not come close to her child. I could never come close to Hibiki. It’s like there is a wall around him and I’ve been banging and scratching at it to no avail all his life. A mother can only take so much. If you love someone, let them go they say...” There was a long pause. “I think he is a good kid, but to be very honest with you, I don’t know that for sure. I don’t know anything about your brother for sure. You are old enough to understand this, right?”
“Yes, I understand.” Asuka replied. She felt that her mother was upset and did not try to argue with her. “I will take care of him, don’t worry. I’m sure nothing bad has happened to him. If it did, I would know.” she forced a short laughter and so did her mother on the other side of the line.