One: My High School Reunion Was Wrong As I Expected
This story is not a romantic comedy.
I cannot stress this enough. First of all, it's not funny; I am a very humorless person. I think trying to make people laugh is a form of egoism.
Secondly, it's not romantic. Yukinoshita would agree with me on that. She, too, is not a fan of the romantic comedy god.
I've never had any pretensions to being a good writer. I wrote this for myself, because I am self-obsessed and I can face this. But writers love to talk about universalities, as if in doing so their lies become some garbled form of truth. Well, then, I can embrace my phoniness too. I know everything about what is 'wrong' and rotten, because this is the natural order of things.
If I had any idea how to tell a story correctly, like a writer would, then I would probably begin with the phone call. But at that time, it never felt like a beginning of a story – no, it felt like a half-baked reboot of a serialisation that had gotten cancelled. It brought up memories of things that had never ended and things that had never begun. By that time, you see, I had not thought of Yukinoshita in years. She had ceased to matter as if she had never existed in the first place, and yet I still remembered her voice, ten years after the fact. The thought neither comforted nor irritated me; it was not even very much of a surprise.
But if I did not begin with her, where would I start?
It is impossible to escape from who you are or who you will become, after all. They are one and the same thing, simply measured on different degrees of a yardstick. And I think Yukinoshita Yukino knew that, too, as well as anyone.
It was around six months before my high school graduation when Yuigahama Yui told me that she wanted to be my girlfriend. I said, "No," and it was there my 'Moteki' period ended, relatively speaking. No girl has ever fallen in love with me before or since. I experienced the fate that I have always felt is inevitable of a protagonist from a harem anime. He picks no one, the heroines come to their collective senses, and the protagonist is forever alone.
I hated love. I hated it because I hated youth, and love is the epitome of all a youth's hopes and dreams. People seem to think that if you hate love it's because you are lonely and you wish you had it, but it's more than that. Hating love is what makes a teenager feel morally superior.
In Yuigahama's case, I did not even think she loved me anyway. If pure, unending love existed, I had no inkling of it. All I saw of young love was people scratching each other's backs, drawn to each other only because of their selfish desire to have their existence be affirmed by another person.
So I said no, because I did not want to be fooling myself either, and Yuigahama cried as if her heart was broken.
I'll admit it: afterwards, I regretted it. I regretted it because Yuigahama and I stopped talking as much as we used to and even Yukinoshita was colder to me than usual. The end of high school came and went anticlimactically, no sentimental tears except from the girls, and so it felt wrong as expected. Even I, in all my cynical, pessimistic ways, thought my graduation would be like a finale of some sort, but it was just another day. The sun rose in the east and set in the west and instead of being there as all my classmates hugged each other, I stood outside and hugged myself. I thought of Yuigahama and what might have been. I had almost felt as if I had grasped at something, but in another instant, whatever half-formed thoughts I had were gone and I headed off for home without ever saying goodbye.
At the back gate, I was surprised to see a familiar face. She had been waiting expectantly for me, knowing full well what a coward I was.
"Nice to see you slinking off," she said, unfolding her arms and flicking her long, silky black hair behind her.
"Yukinoshita," I said, and then I lowered my head. What was there to say? No, I wasn't going to justify my actions now, not at this late stage of the game.
"So, even in the end, you never changed your way of thinking, did you?" It was just like Yukinoshita to cut through the pleasantries and get right to the truth. She wielded her words as if they were a katana. "No," she went on, half to herself, "you refused to let the world change you."
"The only person I can be is me," I said, and we both fell silent.
"Maybe so," she said, after a pause. But her eyes had clouded over with sadness, even as her expression remained unchanged. "Congratulations," she said.
"You won, didn't you? Whatever wager you had with yourself to never succumb to your youth."
"You hardly talk like a teenager either, Yukinoshita."
Yukinoshita drew herself up a little. "You realise, Hikigaya-kun, for all intents and purposes, we are now adults of society?"
"I fear for the Japan of the near future."
She took my answer as a yes. "And so that means," she went on, "that you will never be the hero of a youth romantic comedy ever again."
"I never was one," I insisted grimly.
"The signs were there."
I stared mutely at Yukinoshita.
"Surely you felt it too," she said, and for once she sounded vague and almost dreamlike. "The same as I felt the day we first met. A loner boy meets a beautiful girl and their wacky adventures ensue." She smiled wistfully and the breath caught in my throat.
Behind the school building, as countless pink sakura petals fell gently from the trees around us, tinged with the warm glow of the late afternoon sunlight, Yukinoshita Yukino's beauty exceeded anything one could find in nature.
"But we didn't… we never…" I couldn't get the words out properly.
"No," said Yukinoshita, still smiling. "We didn't."
It was as if we were the only two people left in the world. I opened my mouth, about to say something, but I just couldn't bring myself to form the words. Whatever I thought of felt wrong. I looked down instead, frightened of my own heartbeat.
Slowly, the smile faded from Yukinoshita's face.
The moment had passed forever.
"It was nice meeting you, Hikigaya-kun," she said finally.
That was the last time we ever spoke for years.
I later found out from Yukinoshita's older sister that Yukinoshita had been planning to study abroad in Europe after finishing high school in Japan. If she had been planning to say anything at all that day, I could see why she did not say it. She ended up staying in Europe for so many years that I had already finished university by the time she came back to Japan.
Of course we had already fallen out of contact long before then, as I had with everyone I knew from high school. For all my notoriety as a rotten youth back then, I was quickly forgotten. Yuigahama and Totsuka stayed in touch the longest, but even they didn't last for more than a few months.
It didn't help that I put in no effort from my end. Not being practically forced to see the same people every day makes you realise just how much friendship relies on necessity. Long-distance friendships are fruitless. When there is too much effort involved to keep it up, then there is simply no point in maintaining the farce.
As for me, I didn't do very well at university. If you shun people as a high school kid and spend your time studying and doing whatever, you at least guarantee yourself decent grades. In university, that's no longer as true. The schoolwork is harder to figure out on your own. I didn't join a club and I avoided study circles; in the end, I barely scraped a pass. Then I was out in the real world. I wasn't ready for it. But the thing about feeling ready is that you only ever feel that way after the need for it has passed.
So somehow, without my ever noticing, I was shoved into the position of a working adult. Even though I hated my youth, I hated responsibilities too, but the transition was quicker than I expected because I simply had no choice in the matter. I never managed to keep a full-time job, just a string of miserable part-time jobs. Before I knew it, every last shred of my youth was gone. Funnily enough, I never felt any older.
For example: as an adult, I still don't care much for socialising. I especially don't like drinking. I don't attend parties and I certainly don't go out for sushi with my boss after work.
Sometimes, I do think about high school. I have never met a man as beautiful and attractive as Totsuka Saika, for instance, or a woman as sharp-tongued as Yukinoshita. But these are pointless thoughts.
At least, that was how it felt to me until the week after my twenty-seventh birthday.
It was mid-August and I was prone to staying inside all day because of all the sweltering heat. When the phone rang, I was too lazy to move from my spot next to the fan in order to answer it. Besides, I don't answer the phone even when I'm near it. I just let it ring out and anyone who has something important to say will leave a message, I'm sure. (It's usually just my sister, who has an extraordinary talent in verbal vomit.) I have no interest in talking to telemarketers and prank callers.
That day, someone did leave a message and it was not my sister.
"Hello, this is Hayama Hayato. Is this Hikigaya Hachiman's number? We're organising a high school reunion for Class 2-F – from Soubu High. You might remember me. Actually, I still remember you very well, Hikigaya. It would be good if we could all catch up. Sorry if I've made a mistake calling this line. I'd appreciate it if you could call me back. My number is…"
My ears pricked to attention. How could I forget Hayama? He had been the school's Pretty Boy, the apple of everyone's eye, the insufferable nice guy who could never turn his back on anybody. If there was anybody who would organise a class reunion, it would be him.
None of it interested me very much, to be honest. I did vaguely wonder how so-and-so was doing from time to time, but it extended to nothing more than idle curiosity. Besides, the idea of class reunions rubs me the wrong way in general. It's really just a matter of comparing one's status – oh look how far I've gotten in life now! Look at this hot babe and expensive car I own! And then everyone gets drunk and starts laughing about stupid in-jokes that stopped being funny ten years ago. No, I had absolutely no interest in hyping up the importance of my youth.
So I didn't ring Hayama back and that was the end of that, I thought. Or at least that was how it seemed.
The next day, I got another call.
"Um, hi? This is Totsuka Saika. I'm not sure if you remember me…"
The power of moe compelled me. Immediately, I picked up the phone. "Hikigaya speaking."
"Oh, hello, Hachiman! It's so nice to hear from you again!"
Not as nice as it is to hear from you, I thought.
"Are you coming to our class reunion?" asked Totsuka cheerfully. He was the same flower maiden I remembered him as.
"Oh yes," I said. "Oh, yes, yes, yes I'm coming. No one would ever dream I wouldn't go."
"That's a relief. I'm looking forward to seeing you!"
We talked for a bit.
"You hang up first," Totsuka said at length.
"Oh no, you hang up," I said.
"No, you hang up! I'd feel rude if I did it first!"
"No, no, I insist you hang up first!"
Eventually, Totsuka hung up. It took a while for me to stop feeling giddy, but when I did, I groaned inwardly at the thought of what I had agreed to.
To cut a long story short, I did end up going to that class reunion. I saw some familiar faces, ate some food and then tried to leave early. My old school companions – at least the ones whom I still remembered – had mostly turned out as expected, although some things I learned did surprise me.
FACT: Hayama is now a successful businessman. He married Miura Yumiko, and the two of them turned out to be the only high school sweethearts in the gathering. They also brought along their four-year-old daughter, who was the object of much unnecessary cooing and coddling from almost all the adults present. (I hate kids.) The daughter did not have much to say and merely clung adoringly to her father's side the whole time. When Yumiko put on a fake smile and asked the girl to give her mother a hug, she petulantly shook her head. She'll probably be a slut when she grows up.
Also a FACT: Zaimokuza, my former schoolmate and obnoxious sufferer of chuunibyou, is now an office worker. He has gained more weight around his middle. He talks in statistics, only holds opinions on the weather and the current state of government, and now possesses no imagination whatsoever.
Unfortunately a FACT: Although still slim and attractive in a metrosexual kind of way, Totsuka Saika is unquestionably a man. He has grown a short beard and when he lit a cigarette in front of me, I felt all my hopes and dreams shatter before my watery, smoke-filled eyes.
I thought I'd seen all there was to see and was just sneaking out the door when Yuigahama burst in, panting, having run all the way in heels. Her hair was longer and her features had aged, but I knew it was her straight away. Her face was still round and her cheeks were still full, and though she had gained some weight in all the typical places for a woman, she was still in essence the same cheerful girl she had been as a teenager.
Her eyes immediately fell on me. "Oh, hello, Hikki! It's been a long time, hasn't it?" She waved to me enthusiastically. The fact that we had been caught up in mutual feelings of unrequited love for each other back in high school seemed especially silly to me at that moment and I could only nod curtly in reply. "I see you haven't changed much!" she said.
"What's that supposed to mean?" I grumbled, but Yuigahama merely laughed and patted me on the back.
"There's no rush, Hikki! Let's talk!" And she steered me back where everyone was sitting.
By then, everyone had more or less split off from the main gathering and had formed their own cliques, identical to what they had been in high school. Those who had brought their kids along had already gone home before the night could mature much further. It was 9:30pm. The only person I still recognised was Totsuka, whom I tried not to look very hard at. That left me alone with Yuigahama.
"Oh, Hikki, it's been so long!" said Yuigahama as she popped open a sakè bottle and casually poured herself a drink. "How've you been? There is so much we need to catch up on! How's your sister?"
"As annoying and intrusive as ever." She'd been pestering me to join the dating scene ever since she'd gotten married, as if being handcuffed to a man in legal terms gave her moral superiority over anyone who was single.
Thinking of my sister's wedlock, though, I was reminded of another thought. I glanced at Yuigahama's left hand; there was no ring on any of her fingers.
Talking to Yuigahama again was very much a case of déjà vu. As a woman, she was still as bright and eager to please as I remembered her. That was not necessarily a bad thing. For all the suspicion and cynicism with which I have regarded "nice girls" throughout my life, I knew Yuigahama to be genuinely kind-hearted and uncritical of her own sex. That she became a PR representative of a woman's magazine came as no surprise to me. It had always been Yuigahama's lot in life to be shaped by the opinions of those around her.
"Say, why were you late?" I asked her, changing the subject from careers to something of more immediate relevance.
"Oh," said Yuigahama with a sheepish laugh. And then, as if she were turning the knob of a lamp, the shine in her eyes dulled and the smile slipped from her face. "I went to see Yukinon – you know, Yukinoshita Yukino."
I had noticed that Yukinoshita was absent from the reunion. I had simply assumed that she would not have bothered with a petty time-wasting activity like this. Perhaps if she had been there, I might have been inclined to stay around a little longer. Or would I have rather "stayed the hell away"? Hm.
Much as I hate to admit it, you see, much of my high school experience was shaped by her.
"She was being her ornery self, I suppose," I said, trying not to betray my interest.
"She's changed," Yuigahama said with a shiver.
How interesting, I thought. This was probably the only marginally interesting thing I'd heard since the reunion started. So Yukinoshita Yukino had changed.
"Oh," said Yuigahama, blushing. "I guess you haven't seen her in the last couple of years? We only got in contact recently and, well…"
Yes, yes, get to the point, darling.
"…she's so docile," Yuigahama finished, and for a moment, she let the statement hang. But like most women, however, she had a habit of immediately rushing to explain every little thing she said. She had no appreciation for the elegance of brevity. "I mean, she always did have a softer side to her even in high school, but now she's different, you know? It definitely feels different. It's like she's tired with everything. She said she didn't want to come to any high school reunion when it wasn't even her class meeting up. Even when I said, 'But it's Hikki's old class!' she just said she wanted to stay home."
"Sounds to me as if she's as conceited as ever," I said.
"It's just strange seeing her so submissive towards her husband. I always thought Yukinon would be on equal terms with whoever she married."
If that was true, I thought, then Yukinoshita disappointed me. In that case, it was a good thing I had not come across her today.
Yet even as I thought that, I knew it was not entirely true. I can't say that I know what the current Yukinoshita is like, but the Yukinoshita that I knew in high school used her silence only to prove her dissatisfaction. At some point, I realised her smugness betrayed feelings of fondness distinct from the usual fancies men and women entertain when it comes to the opposite sex. Even her weakness had a sense of dignity about it. I had always found that part of her refreshing.
"Oh, but don't let what I say put you off seeing her!" Yuigahama was saying. "I was hoping to catch up with you so we could see Yukinon together. It'll be just like the old days!"
"I'm not interested in any nostalgia trips," I said, but my protest was feeble. The longer I stayed, the more my mind lingered on the past. In spite of myself, some part of me thought: it wouldn't hurt.
"Hikki!" said Yuigahama, giggling. "Stop hiding your true feelings! You care about Yukinon, don't you? I've always believed you were a kind person at heart."
But Yuigahama had pushed me too far in one direction. I shook my head and stood up. "Enough, Yuigahama. I'm tired." I was being brusque, but that was just the way I was. Yuigahama huffed at me, but even now she understood my essential makeup.
"Well, alright," said Yuigahama, a little doubtfully. "Why don't we exchange numbers and we can meet up for tea sometime when you're up for it?" She was still pushy in a well-intentioned way, but at least she knew when to stand back. The empathy showed in her eyes.
I agreed to that, because I still had no reservations about liking Yuigahama, but I already knew it was just a polite gesture on my part. If we had drifted when we were teenagers, then there was nothing keeping us together now as adults besides the mere whims of nostalgia.
Yuigahama smiled, though, as if she was satisfied, and suddenly I thought of Yukinoshita. I could see her in my mind's eye. Where everyone else's high school selves seemed vague and indistinct, Yukinoshita was clear and vivid as if I had only seen her yesterday. I turned back to Yuigahama and opened my mouth, my lips quivering. She looked at me expectantly. Quickly, I turned my head away with a sigh. It was all silly, I told myself. Absolutely silly.
No matter how much time had passed or how much things had changed, I wanted to see Yukinoshita. It came down to the two of us.
She was the only one who mattered now.