Chapter 12:

Broken Dreams

Sweet like Honey

“Honestly, that’s not much to say.”

“Yes, there is. How is someone like you working at a café?” Shirley peered at me curiously. “I get the feeling that you’re…how do I put it, you are more capable than that. You seem more like the intellectual type. I figure you would be working a desk job.”

“You give me far too much credit. I’m just an ordinary otaku.”

“Judging from how the boss and the boss lady treat you, I doubt it.” She hesitated. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but I overheard some of the conversations you had. They were encouraging you to leave the café and find a better job.”

“Easier said than done.”

“Why? From what they say, it seems like you’re overqualified to be a café waiter. A university graduate like you should be able to find a better paying job with higher status elsewhere.”

“Status? What’s wrong with being a waiter?” I bit back a retort before I said anything I regretted. “I love the café. I like helping out. I don’t really care about the money or the prestige.”

“That’s…fair, I suppose. Given that I just said the same thing earlier.”

“Besides, they are the only ones who are willing to hire me.” I sighed. “You said I’m overqualified. That goes for every job, to be honest. I’m…a graduate school dropout. I dropped out before I could get my PhD even though I’ve spent seven years studying. That’s not something that looks good on my resume, so I understand why companies don’t want to employ me. It’s not that I didn’t want a better paying job or something, but I simply can’t. not with a record of failure.”

“You’re not a failure.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it. But society doesn’t see it that way. You mentioned your producers only viewing success as breaking into the Oricon Chart and music CD sales. It’s something like that.”

“Yeah…” Shirley was silent for a moment. “I know what you mean.”

“Yeah…it’s not that I don’t want to talk about my life, but there really isn’t much to say other than I tried to get a PhD and failed.”

“To get that far, I think it’s still pretty impressive.” Shirley nodded slowly. “What did you major in?”

“Literature.” I coughed, embarrassed. “I say literature, but I mostly dabble in popular culture and anime. That’s the rage.”

“I’m not surprised,” Shirley remarked, glancing at my shirt and smiling wryly. “Doing what you love. I can totally relate.”

That reminded me. She clearly loved singing. From her song earlier, I could tell that she never wanted to give up on it. Making your passion a career…that was everyone’s dreams. Unfortunately, it was difficult. Life never went the way you wanted it to. Not everyone could succeed or maintain the dream.

Mine laid in broken fragments, scattered across the cold, uncaring landscape of academia. If I didn’t make the grade, I didn’t. My advisor couldn’t magically give me a pass. There was no one who would feel sorry for me. There were hundreds, if not thousands of graduate students who had to drop out of their programs for one reason or another, and I was simply another face among the failed masses.

And those who did…from what I heard, they had to contend for survival amidst an intensely competitive environment. The job market at universities was saturated right now, with hundreds of applicants fighting for one position.

Even so, they were faring much better than a failure like me.

“Speaking of which, I watched The Girl Upstairs. I would really recommend it if you haven’t watched it yet. It has a lot of nice themes and the animation is amazing. The characters too! I even wrote an article for a journal about it because of how much I loved it.” I paused in the middle of my passionate tirade and glanced down, embarrassed. “But it wasn’t accepted for publication. I received the rejection email about three months later. I guess my writing wasn’t good enough, even though I’ve been trying to learn how to publish academic articles for seven years. I…really am a failure, right?”

Shirley must have sensed my mood, for she changed the topic.

“Well, enough about our dark pasts. You know, it’s your turn to sing.”

“Nah, I don’t like singing. I prefer to listen.” I passed the microphone back to her. “You have another song in mind?”

“Hmm, what would you like me to sing next?”

“I don’t know. I’m sorry, but I didn’t actually look up the songs you sang other than Sweet like Honey.” I scratched my head in embarrassment. “But it doesn’t have to be a song that you sang back when you were an idol. Just sing whatever you want…maybe a song that will make the both of us feel better.”

“And what song is that?”

“I wouldn’t know. I rarely ever come to karaoke unless dragged here by my friends.” I shrugged. Shirley chuckled.

“You make it sound like I come here all the time.”

“You don’t?”

“No. I never had the time to. And even after I retired…I didn’t have anyone I could go with, you know? I felt like it would be weird to visit a karaoke bar by myself…like, who does that? And wouldn’t the staff feel sorry for me, coming alone to a karaoke bar to sing all alone? That’s why I invited you here the moment I had a chance.”

“Ah.” I didn’t know how to feel about that. Basically, Shirley was okay with visiting the karaoke bar with anyone. She didn’t single me out specifically. I just happened to be the only person she was acquainted with…the only person she befriended after her retirement, and she jumped at the opportunity to drag me to the karaoke bar with her.

Then again, she had never suggested otherwise, so it was my fault for entertaining such delusional hopes in the first place. Why would an ex-idol like her ever hook up with a failure like me? Never mind failure, I was a nerdy otaku. There were plenty of guys who were more appropriate for someone like her. Ex-actors, perhaps. Celebrities. I don’t know.

“You’re the only one for me…”

I glanced up and saw that Shirley had already selected a song. The lyrics were pretty cliché and tugged at my heartstrings, but I reminded myself that she wasn’t directing them specifically toward me. It was just the song she chose.

“A very special someone…your existence is unique. Don’t go, we’re still not done. You leave me lovesick.”

She winked at me mischievously, probably oblivious to the turmoil in my heart. I smiled back, but I saw in her bright caramel eyes that she recognized that it was a constructed façade. Somehow, that spurred her to sing even harder.

“Oh, why…oh, why, oh why? Why do my feelings not reach you? Was everything a lie?

The next second, I forgot all about my delusions and listened, enraptured. There was just something enchanting about Shirley’s singing. Every note hung beautifully in the air, weaving a spell that bound me in a hypnotic embrace. For a moment, I saw her on that stage again, surrounded by an enthralled audience. Her presence was magnified, with the enclosed space of the karaoke room unable to contain her. The walls had broken down, replaced by an infinite void occupied by shadowy silhouettes of cheering people.

How had I not heard of her before?

Despite myself, I began to clap. Even if Shirley was no longer an idol, her music had captured my heart, and I was forever her fan.

No, not a fan. For some reason, I wanted to do more than be her fan. Her singing…it shouldn’t only be for the likes of me. I wanted more people to hear it. I wanted to spread it to the world, to show off how amazing this girl was. That she wasn’t done yet, even after retiring from being her idol. That age had nothing to do with being a good singer. That her years of experience allowed her to surpass all those promising newbies.

That had to be a way to deliver Shirley’s superlative singing to the world beyond this karaoke box room…and I had to find it.
John Lee H. Wu
Steward McOy