Tatsuta River - 1

Taichi Mashima earned his first girlfriend in middle school. Like everything in his life, this was the result of hard work and ripe, fulfilled expectations. In middle school, Taichi played Karuta, and when he studied, he unconsciously grouped his vocabulary words together like poetry in his mind. He was not particularly good at Karuta, but he was quite decent. He was not the kind of genius who sparked; rather, he fizzled, a potential that could have been there if he had kept at it. I was in the Karuta club during my freshman year in middle school, and during that time, Taichi only played once a week. He was two years my senior and anyone could see his true talents were far broader and more diverse than card games. We were happy when he played with us – he was an agreeable sort of person, although he could wipe the floor with all of us – and bit by bit, he improved.

Taichi Mashima's first girlfriend was a doe-eyed beauty with a habit of biting the tip of her tongue and letting it poke through between her teeth whenever she grinned. There was nothing rude or impetuous about sticking out her tongue, and in fact she was hardly aware of this habit of hers. She blushed often, but not as a usual sign of embarrassment. She blushed whenever she was concentrating hard, eyebrows creased. Annoyingly enough, whenever she wrote or concentrated on anything in particular, she muttered the words aloud, tracing them vacantly in the air around her. When she was angry or flustered, she made a ticking noise with her tongue. Her entire being seemed focused around her mouth and tongue.

I occasionally saw Taichi with his girlfriend at lunchtimes. I never paid too much attention to them – they were like part of the scenery. But I can still remember that clicking noise the girl made with her tongue. She was annoyed with him because you're empty, she accused. You do everything right but you are nothingness. Being with her, Taichi learned to stop acting like a boy when words cut deep and to simply let it scratch and slide off him. I was reminded of a dirty glass that never showed its sheen no matter how much you rubbed at it. After a couple of weeks or so, the two of them broke up. That was the first of maybe three or so girlfriends Taichi had in middle school. He was no player, never seemed intent on using his girlfriends for selfish reasons, and his relationships always died a natural, stagnant death. They were like stillborn infants.

Taichi graduated one day and I never saw him again, not for twenty-odd years or so. Like many people I had known from middle school, he simply dimmed out of my memory as I went on to high school and college. I did somehow recognise him instantly when I saw him, although he didn't return the favour. Despite my incompetence at Karuta, I was blessed with a good long-term memory; I could never forget a face. When I eventually became a writer, it was the faces of these side characters in my life that came to mind whenever I wrote. I was drawn to these peripheral kinds of stories and when by sheer chance I met Taichi, I was eager to hear his tale.

I was in Hokkaido at the time. I was on a skiing trip and was simultaneously attempting to finish off the remainder of my novel. Truthfully, I was having trouble with this – I always do, finishing my novels – and had resigned myself to the throes of writer's block. My publisher was starting to get anxious and was ringing me every night asking me when I could be done, and I was quick to assure him not to worry, the book would be done in a week or so.

And miraculously, that ended up being the case. I have no one else to thank but Mr. Taichi Mashima. We ended up staying at the same hotel for similar reasons (it was holiday season, so it was no big surprise) and after a few occasions of polite though distant chatter, he ended up telling me the story of Chihaya and the Karuta club. Truly, it was an epic a writer could only dream of, a story of indomitable will and friendship. But the tale I chose to pen down here isn't a story about Karuta. This is a love story, although maybe calling it that isn't quite true. This story never had the satisfying ring to it that Chihaya's tale had, and if we're going to be technical, it's not really a story to begin with. There's no meaning or moral behind what happened. But it did happen, and I'll leave it up to you to decide whether it was a story worth telling.

"First, I should tell you something," Taichi said to me. He'd already had a few drinks by this stage and it seemed as if there was something he wanted to get off his chest. I had the feeling it was something he had kept inside of him for a long time. He wouldn't have told me if he hadn't had the drinks, I was certain. And he also wouldn't have told me if I was close to him, because these weren't the kinds of burdens a friend was meant to hear.

"I cheated on my wife," he admitted heavily. He bowed his head. There was a deep regret in his eyes. "My entire married life I cheated on her. It wasn't an affair or anything like that, but it was eating me up on the inside. Do you know what I mean?"

Truthfully, I didn't. I had no major complaints about my wife and she had none about me. We had the typical spousal problems, but nothing that consumed me. I told Taichi that I did understand, however, and he smiled in relief, albeit wearily.

"I never forgot her," he confessed. "And by her, I mean Chihaya. I was crazy about her, even when I was just a kid."

"Perhaps you should start at the beginning," I said to him delicately.

"Okay," he said, sighing. He took a deep breath and then another sip of his wine.

And then he began.