Chapter 11:

"Midnights Like This"

Vibrancy x Vibrancy

Our ryokan room went quiet at the conclusion of her story. High school drama was an unfortunate thing - unavoidable when it casts you as the main character, reducing you to little more than a puppet controlled by the whispers and rumors of your peers. There was even a time during my second-year where I was apparently both a delinquent and cheater - how else could I have beaten our school president in our final exams?

In the quiet of midnight, the sound of a bamboo pole striking a boulder (the classic shishi-odoshi) melancholically breaks the silence. “So you didn’t run the race,” I conclude.

Shizuko just nods and doesn’t say anything for a long while, letting the bamboo speak for her.

This doesn’t sit right with me. The problems of today can often be traced back to adolescence, and more importantly - I don’t like seeing Shizuko upset. She’s my friend, after all.

“Well, Ume has some issues,” I say to break the ice. “But she was wrong about the whole thing. She shouldn’t have told you to drop out.”

Shizuko twirls a strand of blonde hair in her fingers. She must’ve dyed it in college, since she had black hair in the flashbacks. “Ume was my best friend. I was just repaying her. She was nice to me at the start, so I was nice to her at the end.”

“It didn’t need to be the end. You shouldn’t have had to sacrifice your happiness for hers. The whole thing is the dad’s fault, anyways.”

Another bamboo strike. Shizuko taps her fingers along the table. “Ume was my only friend,” she clarifies. “I would talk with the other girls in the club. But I was closest to Ume. When I first met her in my first-year…everything felt so beautiful. Colorful. But it was only because she was my friend. If she wasn’t my friend, then the world would’ve remained dull and gray like it always was when I was growing up. I thought that, if I dropped out, we would’ve stayed friends. And then the world would still be beautiful.”

She grips the side of her yukata. Her mouth motions for a second, struggling to get the words out. “But then we passed the club off to our juniors after that race. Ume stopped coming around. She stopped talking to me. So I ended up going to Tokyo after graduating trying to forget all about it. Like she said. But the world already lost its color by that point. Went back to a default gray. It went back the day she told me to drop out. Before I even made my decision.”

I feel the moonlight on me. “I don’t think the world’s bad by default. Everything’s born good. It’s a beautiful world out there.”

Shizuko tilts her head. “In what way?”

The unfortunate thing about language is that words don’t exist for every feeling you want to convey. It takes me a moment to come up with a satisfying answer. “Just take a look at the view.”

Through the window of our room, we see the bamboo pole, silhouetted in darkness. Clouds cover most of the moon, while trees sway in a midnight breeze full of summer. “You think one scenic picture makes this a beautiful world?” Shizuko asks.

“Because this whole world is filled with scenic pictures,” I answer. “It’s just that some unfortunate people end up mean. You think Ume would’ve done any of that if her wackjob father wasn’t there?”

Shizuko looks away. “No. And I guess I’d be different if it weren’t for my wackjob parents, too.”

“I like you the way you are,” I say, speaking before my brain can catch up. She twirls another strand of hair; I cough and continue. “I think this world and its people are born friendly and hopeful. It’s just that you run into enough mean people or greedy people or oil spills or destroyed rainforests and soon, you’re feeling mean and hopeless, too. You’re born with sure footing on the path, or a candle that burns endlessly, but then, once you start to see all the negativity, you lose that footing and that candlelight flickers. But then somebody helps you into a club, or somebody helps you when you’re feeling lonely about rumors spread by your school president, and you see a nice view, meet a nice friend, and things feel alright. We tend to remember the negative more. We just gotta remember not to forget the positives we see, too. Like the little things. Like the big things, even.”

Shizuko doesn’t say nothing for a long while upon hearing a spiel like that. I get a little red in the face look suavely out the window towards the moon reflection. She runs a hand through her hair and it takes a moment for her to speak. “What positives can you make out of this, then?”

I know the answer right away. “I think you oughta run that race. You can still register tomorrow morning. And you can use my project fund to get anything you need.”

Her jaw slackens. “Me? Run? Shunsuke, I haven’t run base miles in four days now. And I didn’t properly carboload tonight, either.”

“But you’ve been running in general though, right?”

After a moment, she nods. “Yeah. It was a reason to get out of the apartment in Tokyo.”

“The adult race isn’t as packed as the high school race,” I point out. “I bet it’ll just come down to you and Ume.”

Shizuko squirms in her yukata. “What if there’s no point? Will doing something like this make me feel better about anything?”

I ponder her question for a moment. “It could. And that’s a start, I think. You can’t let someone poison something you liked to do. You can’t let the negativity overshadow the joy that comes from something. Or rather…if it does get poisoned, if the negativity does get to you, I think you should know that there are people rooting for you. I’m rooting for you. And you should root for yourself.”

She slowly nods in understanding. “I think I relied on Ume too much. When she was happy, I was happy. And when she wasn’t, all that happiness went away. And I’ve been cooped in Tokyo for over a year now. I think I needed to meet new people. Like you, Shunsuke. They can help make me feel happy. And then, one day, I think I’ll be able to make myself happy.”

Another bamboo strike. Shizuko taps her fingers along the table again. “You really think the world’s good by default? That we remember the negatives more than the positives? And that running the race will really be worth it?”

Those are the easiest questions in the world to answer.

“You bet your ass I do.”

Steward McOy