Malls during summer are even worse than during the school year. Like flies, crowds multiply in heat. I sit as still as I can, massaging my temples. Not even the air condition can disguise the ninety-degree weather or the thousands of people crammed inside fifty thousand square feet. Their voices bounce off the walls, thrumming in my head as if I am a tuning fork.
The mall is the last place I want to be in summer, a time to stay inside and watch TV, read, and play videogames – the highest forms of existence. Some people believe that going out with friends is the best way to spend free time, but the desire for companionship is an evolutionary vestige from our caveman days, when our Neanderthal ancestors had to bond together for survival. Haven't we evolved past hunting mammoths and dancing naked and howling at the moon? But I am dragged back to Neolithic times by Yukinoshita, who insists on shopping together for Yui's birthday present. Or we are supposed to, at any rate. I have been waiting twenty minutes.
In a reasonable world, I would text her, but Komachi has warned me that hurrying a girl along is forbidden. The guy is supposed to wait for the girl. Then, after she shows up two hours later and asks how long I've been waiting, I'm supposed to say, "I just got here." When we browse stores, I am to compliment her on her purchases and offer to carry everything. I will, of course, also pay for our lunch. When everything is finished, I will escort her home – never mind that it's on the opposite side of town from my house – and ask her when we can meet up again.
Is it me, or are the roles too unbalanced? If shopping were an RPG, nobody will ever play as the male. Fortunately, Yukinoshita saves me all that trouble by sending me a text:
"I'm not feeling well and will not be able to come. Sorry. However, don't think of this as an excuse to not get Yui a present."
(Verbatim, grammar and all. Yukinoshita is the only one I know who follows textbook rules when texting.)
So this is what it feels like to be stood up. I feel a bit relieved. Still, Yukinoshita is not one to back out of a commitment. Something serious must've happened to keep her from coming. But I would be lying if I said I wasn't irritated, just a bit. On a normal summer day I will still be sleeping, I think forlornly, looking at the clock. The next bus comes at eleven. I can just make it if I hurry.
We see each other at the same time. It sounds less impossible than it is. The crowd is thirty thick between the aisles, and I'm not sure how she caught my eye or I caught hers –the chances of two individuals on opposite sides of the aisle looking across a gap in the crowd at the same time must be infinitesimal. But it happened, and my breath hitches, and in that moment between the intake and the release she has zeroed in on me like a laser-guided rocket.
"Didn't expect to you see here, Hikigaya."
Hiratsuka wears a red sleeveless shirt and a wolf's grin. Held by two thin straps arcing over her back, the shirt exposes a sheen of sweat on the rise of her breasts. She takes a seat next to me, throwing an arm around the backrest like it is the most natural thing in the world, as if we were supposed to meet here all along. "You look miserable. Bet you're glad to see me, right?"
"Ecstatic. I thought you said we wouldn't see each other during the summer."
That is the normal state of things. It's miraculous how we shed our roles and don them again according to the seasons. No student wants to be reminded of school during summer. Seeing a teacher on her off day is like seeing a celebrity at a fast food joint (I met Kentaro Miura at a Freshness Burger once. We never spoke). But Hiratsuka has always blazed past the norms, accelerating all the way; she is either a great teacher or a terrible one.
"Coincidence, coincidence," she says. "What are you doing here all alone?"
"That's my line. You seem to be alone, too."
She scowls, that special why-am-I-not-married-yet scowl, and I steel myself. She was supposed to go shopping with some friends, she tells me, but nobody informed her that everyone was bringing along their husbands and/or boyfriends. They showed off their lovers like prized poodles, my boyfriend's a lawyer, my husband's a doctor, my last husband was also a doctor, don't you just love this necklace my CEO husband bought me? What about your boyfriend, Shizuka? Well, uh…She ditched them at the first opportunity. "I was just about to pick up some beer and head home," she says.
The response is so Hiratsuka-like I laugh; she is nothing if not predictable. She glares at me. "What's so funny?"
"I also got ditched. I was supposed to go shopping with Yukinoshita, but something came up." Seeing the smirk on her face, I assure her that it is not what she thinks it is. We were going to buy a birthday present for Yuigahama.
"And now you're left to buy it alone," she says with a sigh. "Poor Yuigahama. You're going to buy her something she'll be too embarrassed to carry in public, but she'll do it anyway so your feelings aren't hurt."
"Actually, I was just about to leave. I'm sure Yuigahama will be satisfied with a gift card. Only shallow women judge the value of a gift by its price – "
"Oh, no you don't," she says, grabbing my shoulder. "That girl deserves better than that."
I can see the rest of my free time evaporating like summer rain. Frantically, I say, "What's wrong with a gift card? She can buy whatever she wants – "
"Hopeless. Absolutely hopeless. Fortunately, you have someone right here who knows a maiden's heart."
"You're a decade too old to be a maiden – " Her grip crunches down on my shoulder, and I groan, "Fine. Just tell me what to buy."
"No, no, it's not that easy. We need to take a look at everything first. I know just where to go."
She marches me down the colonnade. I protest, but she displays as much concern for my protests as the first day she drafted me into the Service Club. Hiratsuka's hand holding mine is not the smooth, unblemished hand of a girl but the roughened hands of a working woman, callused from years of grading papers. The crowd brushes past us. We draw curious stares, she and I. Surely nobody is deluded enough to believe we are a couple. In another universe there is a Hachiman who does not turn his head, I think wistfully, or a Yukinoshita who is not held up, or a Hiratsuka who is lugging home a case of beer. Why can't I live in one of those worlds?
We arrive at a clothing store called Xanadu, which I doubt is an actual English word. The moment I step inside, I feel as if I have been spirited away. This is not the first time I've been in a clothing store, but this one must be especially fashionable – never have I felt such a concentrated amount of normalcy in one place. I am an alien. Xanadu does sound like the name of a planet, now that I think about it. Certainly I cannot belong to the same race as these men and women who look as if they walked out of a fashion magazine, browsing through racks of indistinguishable clothes with the same erudite air as scientists. I am still wearing the shirt my mother bought me two years ago and which, to my chagrin, I've never outgrown. The snatches of conversation I catch are so banal I feel like a more productive member of a society just by listening:
"Did you catch the drama last night?"
"How does this look on me?"
"You two broke up?"
By the time I walk out of here, I will have lost twenty IQ points and be trying to find a girlfriend.
"What are you staring at?" Hiratsuka says, pushing me along. "You look like a rabbit in a fox den. Come on, there's a few dresses over here I've had my eye on for a while…"
Hiratsuka, at least, looks the part. She still has not let go of my hand, and I cling to hers like a lifeline. For all our similarities, she has adapted to society much better than I have; perhaps that comes with experience. I'm a bit jealous. She walks through the aisles without a glance at anyone around her, though she receives quite a few in turn. In that red shirt, she looks a decade younger, but I'd bite off my tongue before I tell her that.
"So?" she says at last, stopping at a rack of dresses. "What do you think?"
The dresses – black, white, purple, blue – stare back. I close my eyes. Gaze long into the abyss, and the abyss also gazes into you.
"Which one's cheapest?"
She groans. "Price is the last thing you should worry about when shopping for a girl. Which one will Yuigahama like the most? In other words, which one will she look best in?"
She might as well as have asked me to solve the Riemann hypothesis. I know less about fashion than about physics. If fashion were a class in school, I would still be held back to first grade. Not to mention that Yuigahama looks good in almost anything – you can put her in a Pan-san costume and she'll still look cute.
My floundering like a fish on land told her everything she needed to know. "No helping it then," Hiratsuka says. She grabs a dress and disappears to the changing room. "Wait here."
I take a seat, feeling lost without Hiratsuka to shield me. Several women shoot me strange glances. I feel like I am in a store full of Yumikos. Too many people judge someone based on appearance (even though I am quite handsome). Stores like this are commercialized deception. Appearances can be altered, styled, made up – a good-looking person does not look that way naturally (even though I am quite handsome). Besides, physical attractiveness is yet another vestige from our caveman days, a carry-over from the mating rituals of our animal ancestors. In this age, there is no physiological benefit to a cleft chin over a weak jaw, or a sharp nose over a dull nose, or large eyes over dead-fish eyes (even though I am quite handsome).
Five minutes later, Hiratsuka finally comes out wearing the black dress. She does a half twirl, letting the edge swish against the floor.
"How do I look?"
She takes a step back. I am as surprised as she is. Really, I hadn't meant to say that. The dress is made from a soft, billowy material that is almost translucent at the arms and legs. The neck is held together by two bits of string crisscrossing right above the chest, leaving an egg-shaped window to the pale hollow of her throat that bobs up and down with her breaths, fast and shallow, as if she is being held at gunpoint. We stare at each other.
"Well…uh, thanks," she speaks to the floor. She tucks a stray hair behind her ear. "I guess we'll buy this one, then."
"You're forgetting something."
"You're taller than Yuigahama."
"So?" she murmurs, then catches herself. "Right. Of course. Wait here. I'll try on another."
Before I can tell her how little sense this entire thing makes, she is gone behind the curtains. This is another side I will never understand about her – rather, about all women. Why are they so obsessed with clothes? The question is so cliché I feel like a second-rate comedian. We will finish shopping soon, I tell myself, but playing the optimist has never suited me. I have a feeling Hiratsuka has forgotten our original purpose. Already I can feel her pull like the pull of a whirlpool, dragging me to the depths.
In the end, she goes through another four dresses and another forty minutes before deciding on the original black dress, making the whole thing even more pointless. "Are we finally done?" I say when we walk out.
It is as bad as I feared. Shoes take another thirty minutes. After the shoes comes stationary, after stationary comes jewelry (where she presses her face against the display case of a selection of gold wedding rings, then sighs and looks at me), after jewelry comes clothes (again), and after clothes comes a belated lunch. I am exhausted by the time we arrive at the restaurant at two o'clock. How can a teacher even shop so luxuriously? The Berlitz teacher's strike clearly did not have Hiratsuka in mind. My arms are ready to rip from their sockets, because of course I am the one carrying everything. Hiratsuka hums as she stretches out her legs, admiring the pair of black, open-back heels that she has chosen after trying on seven other pairs. Why not just wear sneakers? I'm still wearing mine from freshman year. Sneakers are cheap and comfortable. Besides, unless they have a foot fetish, nobody is going to be looking at your feet.
"And that's why you don't have a girlfriend," she says.
"After today, I'm not sure I want one. Not that I ever did."
She grins, sipping on her soda. "Don't worry, we're almost done. There's one last place we need to go."
I would've much rather preferred we have no more places to go, but I'll take the small victories. After lunch, we return to the clothing section for a third time, to a store called Uniqlo, a brand that even I recognize. Hiratsuka marches straight past the women's section, leaving behind sequined dresses and summer tops and (thankfully) animal-print lingerie. Before I realize where she is going, it is already too late.
"Come on, it'll be fun," she says, linking her arm around mine. I stand my ground, but a contest of strength between Hiratsuka and me is not much of a contest at all. She drags me to a rack of casual clothes exhibited by a mannequin taller than I am and more built than I am (for once I'd like to see a skinny mannequin with a slouch – surely that is a better representation of the male population). Summer is in full swing: polos, shorts, T-shirts, blazers, vests. Hiratsuka is already thumbing through them.
"What about this one?" She holds up a red-striped polo and a pair of blue shorts.
"No – "
She thrusts the shirt into my arms and shoves me into the changing room. "You have two minutes!" her silhouette calls through the curtains. "Or I'm coming in there myself!"
How did shopping for a present for Yuigahama turn into shopping for clothes for me? The air condition is freezing as I strip down. This entire day will be filed under assault in some countries, slavery in others. The shorts are too tight and the shirt is too big. The entire thing is too gaudy – red and sky-blue are most definitely not my color, more fit for someone who flaunts attention. My reflection reminds me of an impressionist painting. Worse yet, it reminds me of Tobe.
We'll be done after this, I pray to myself, and fling open the curtains.
Hiratsuka rests her chin in her palm, looking me over like I am a museum specimen. I fidget under her gaze. This is surprisingly embarrassing.
"Looking good, Hikigaya!"
Our heads swivel as if mounted on pikes. At the entrance stands the devil herself in a floral dress. Her horns are disguised by a mop of black hair; her fur has been covered by a marble-white film bearing remarkable similarity to human skin; her claws are pink and manicured. She saunters over to us, shoes clicking against the tiles like cloven hoofs. Her smile has the curve of a butcher's blade.
"Are you two on a date?"
"Haruno," Hiratsuka says. "What a coincidence."
"We are not on a date," I say.
Haruno laughs, a sound like glass scraping against asphalt. She walks a circle around us, sizing up the bags at our feet.
"Sure looks like a date to me."
"We just happened to meet," Hiratsuka explains.
"Complete coincidence," I add. There are far too many coincidences today.
"Hikigaya and Hiratsuka, who would've thought? I wonder how Yukino will react."
Haruno is the sort of person who will light the fuse to watch the fireworks. The expression on her face is pure joy; to most other people her expression might bring to mind a woman in love, but Haruno is never so much in love as out of it. It will take a sterner man than Hayama for her to fall. What is she even doing here? Stalking me, no doubt. She reserves a special sort of affection for her favorite toys, an affection worse than most others' hatred, and Hiratsuka and I might as well as have been delivered to her gift-wrapped under the Christmas tree. I shudder and avert my eyes. She reminds me of a child playing with a small animal, knife in hand.
"You've got it completely wrong," Hiratsuka says. "We were both waiting for someone else, but they never showed up."
"So you decided to go on a date?"
"Of course not. We were going to…er…buy a present for Yuigahama's birthday." So Hiratsuka does remember why we are here. She looks at me sheepishly. "We got a bit sidetracked."
"So you're telling me a teacher and a student go to the same mall on the same day – in summer, no less – for completely different reasons. They just happen to meet up, and they just happen to go shopping together?" Haruno takes a deep breath, then breaks into another fit of laughter. Out of everybody I know, she is the one most likely to become a serial killer.
"That's exactly what happened," Hiratsuka says.
"Exactly." Haruno smirks.
We are being dragged into Haruno's pace. That's the first and last step to defeat. Much like playing black in a chess game, giving initiative to Haruno means you will never get it back. She excels at holding the high ground, at abusing a slight advantage until it turns insurmountable. That's why her battles always end in landslide victories. In order to defeat her, you must do whatever it takes to wrest back control.
I say, "So what if we are dating?"
Hiratsuka goes rigid. She stares at me like a mannequin, except her face is red instead of white. Haruno, on the other hand, is unperturbed. She gazes thoughtfully upward, tapping a finger against her chin.
"Then I wish you two the best of luck."
"Not that we are," I say.
"Of course not. A teacher dating a student? Imagine the scandal!" she says with relish. "Hiratsuka will never be able to teach again. But what are such petty worries in the face of love? And you, Hikigaya, you're the victim here. An innocent high school boy fallen into the clutches of a desperate older woman!" She eyes me slyly. "One can certainly do worse."
"Completely hypothetical, of course," I say.
"Of course, of course. Take good care of him," she whispers to Hiratsuka, who still seems to be suffering a mental collapse. "He may not look it, but he's more popular than you think. I may even steal him from you!" She looks me out of the corner of her eyes. I say nothing. "Just kidding!"
"Don't you have somewhere to be?" I say. Several college students are waving at us from outside the store. Annoyance flickers across Haruno's face. I feel sorry for those students; it is doubtful Haruno has ever had anyone she considers a friend in her entire life. In that respect, she and I were alike.
"Well, I'll see you around," she says. "Don't worry, your secret is safe with me."
"There's no secret."
"Of course, of course. You never manage to disappoint, Hikigaya."
If only I can. Maybe then she will stop her obsession. The problem is I don't know what she's expecting.
Haruno walks away with a different sort of smile on her face. Her friends say something to her and she says something back and they all laugh, and the entire time her expression does not change as if it is grafted onto a doll's porcelain face. At least she can be trusted to keep her word. Haruno does not lie, though not out of respect for truth or morality. Lying is for those who have no other means to get what they want. Anyone can lie. It takes a different person entirely to speak the truth and still get what they want.
"She's the same as ever," Hiratsuka says. Her face is still pink, but the color is fading.
"The day just keeps getting worse."
She punches me on the shoulder. "For someone who hates her so much, you get along wonderfully. Anyway, we're also done here. Let's go. I'll drive you back."
"What about the shirt?" I say dryly.
"It didn't look good on you anyway."
I am slightly offended. But I am almost free, at last. The sun is at its peak by the time we head outside. The asphalt is hot enough to feel even through my sneakers, the air shimmering like a desert mirage. After being in the mall for so long, the heat hits me like an insult. I am more exhausted than I've been in a long time, almost as exhausted as during the run where I tried to keep pace with Hayama. The weather is perfect for an afternoon nap.
"Thanks, Hikigaya," Hiratsuka says as we load the bags into her car. She stands with one arm propping open the lid of the trunk, sweat sliding down her forearm to the curve of her shoulders. "Teaching doesn't leave you with a lot of free time. It's been a while since I went out."
"I'm never stepping foot outside again."
"I know you'd rather spend your day with your friends instead of me. But I had fun."
"At least one of us did. There's nothing I love better than being a packhorse," I should've said. But Hiratsuka is looking off into the distance, the tips of her hair fluttering in the breeze, the sun casting shadows on her cheeks that bring out the purple of her eyes. What would I have been doing instead? Vegetating in my room, no doubt, being spoiled by Komachi. There was a new game I got yesterday I've been meaning to play. The new episode of FSN aired at noon. I'm two chapters into The Lake, Yoshimoto's newest work. What if Yukinoshita had arrived? We would've bought Yuigahama's present and ended three hours earlier, because if there's anything we have in common it's that we both hate excess. Certainly I would not have had the misfortune of meeting Haruno. An infinite number of parallel worlds exists beside our own – that's Michio Kaku's words, not mine – and in each of them I am doing something far less troublesome than being a packhorse for a woman several centuries past marrying age.
"No," I say. "I wouldn't spend my day with anyone else."
A/N: This is likely the last chapter. The story originally started out as a one-shot, so I never had a destination in mind to tie these loosely-related chapters together. It's time to move on from the Yahari fandom, especially given the awful cliffhanger and lack of resolution S2 left us with. But who knows? If S3 ever rolls around, I might return. Anyway, I hope you all enjoyed reading!