Your girlfriend is driving me nuts.
So perhaps I am partially at fault – I bit the bullet and did some research, looked you up – but shouldn't she have known your birthday? I thought that was incorporated in dating 101. As it is now she paces. She runs her hands through her hair. She curses in American – English – whatever. In summation, Elza Gray is rather concerned with the matter of present purchasing for someone such as yourself.
I write this because there is nothing else to report. There has been no activity from the enemy for a few days now. Just dropped off of the radar. Silence. A part of me believes that they've given up – that the framework of the task has been too abstract "Pure-hearted, seriously?" The other part of me, that fractured, twisted part, knows better. Sickening as it might be, I know they must be planning something. They must know something I don't. The 'pure' and ugly truth is that I don't want to know. Knowing might save my skin. It might save the world. It's just that still, in my soul, I don't want to discover that first person to sacrifice. Every time there is that moment when I feel closer, when it looks like a target could be the one, it's like the earth leaves from under me.
Should I find a target first, I guess I could offer them a kinder end.
Angel of mercy?
Angel of death.
In the absence of real work I will report that I have agreed to assist Elza in birthday shopping. Please understand that this is purely because I need her to relax enough to stop pounding the ground directly alongside my bed. Vexed – she is vexed – with all the termination that comes to mind with such a word. Her brain has run itself of the tracks. It doesn't matter; I think I've seen something that would suit you. It caught my eye in the jeweller's shop, the window from the store of one of the previous targets; I went in a few days after the event to take another look. It's a piece of coral – quite small, quite white, and carved out from one of the deepest trenches in the Pacific. The sales assistant (mercifully oblivious to our earlier encounter) explained it. I imagined the quiet of such a place, I thought of the diver in his own time zone.
I thought of you moving through the water.
I want to stop thinking if you.
A spring breeze plays with the curtains at my bedroom window. It is warm. I am seventeen. My first birthday with an official (if secret) girlfriend. How perfect that it should be situated on a Sunday! At the foot of my bed is a shallow box tied with a silk ribbon. My mother's handwriting in the card apologises for her absence and informs me of the phone number of the tailor. From inside the box I unfold a new dress - designer, gorgeous. I touch the fabric to my cheek. I will arrange a time with the tailor to have it brought in at the waist. It's wonderful, wonderful, but more than anything I'm looking forward to seeing Elza.
There is no one in the house to slow my escape. It is oh, so quick to the academy. I leap up the steps, skip down the corridor, push in the door and… find her bed empty.
What can I say? The joy hasn't extinguished. I call out to the shaded bunk on the other side of the room.
But silence, then:
"Mmrph." Tenoh's shoulders turns towards me followed, reluctantly, by her head; fringe over eyes, face in the shadow of the bunk above.
"…hppy brthdy." She manages. I'm not sure that her lips part.
"Thank you!" I say.
Who would dare to compromise my joy at such a time?
"Your girlfriend's making toast, I think…" Tenoh says.
"I don't think they enjoy rice for breakfast in America."
"Probably not." She rolls back over. "Not enough cheese."
"Oh, be excited for me!"
She sighs, turns back, props her head on her hand. I hold my breath. Even freshly awoken, I have to say she has particularly fine features.
"I am, I am…" she says, "congratulations on making it to fourteen…"
"I know ." she says.
"Mmhmm, I looked you up on the computer thing." She swings her bare legs out of the bed, pushes herself into a seated position.
"The computer thing…?"
"Mm, the one where you…" she looks at the floor, " engine on people."
"Where you engine…? As in search engine? You Googled me?"
"Eh? What? No. I think I would remember if I 'googled' you. I think you'd remember if I googled you…"
She raises an eyebrow. I watch her for a blank moment.
"…You don't know what Google means, do you?"
"Hmm…" she rubbed her eyes, "We don't know each other well enough to discuss who we've googled."
"Oh, and what else do you know, Ms Computer Whizz?"
"What… ? Look, the cafeteria's just down the hall – if you go now you'll probably catch her with the marmalade… or jelly… whatever Americans eat."
"I don't eat jelly for breakfast."
"No kidding." She says flatly. "You don't look like you've eaten jelly your whole life."
"Is that right?"
"Mm right. Life's short, eat desert first."
She stands now, in only a vest and shorts, stretches her arms up, rubs her eyes. In the smallness of the room I am conscious of our closeness.
"I'll… yes, thank you."
"You're welcome - and with that in mind - before you go to see my lovely roommate –I think she left something for you on the cabinet."
Tenoh moves away again. Just like a child… can she really be so fearful?
On the cabinet is a box the size of my hand covered in silver paper. It is wrapped with perfectly folded edges – conclusive evidence that Elza was not involved. I tuck my index finger under the wrapping and lift off the tape slowly. It is relatively weighty. I fully open one side, tilt it and allow the contents to slide into my hand. A velvet box. Jewellery. My heart leaps ahead of itself. My first birthday with a real girlfriend. Inside is a necklace, silver and beautifully delicate. It holds an ovoid filigree pendant surrounding a white stone. I inspect closer. It's coral. I lift it. There is a note underneath, not in Elza's handwriting, the jeweller's I imagine,
"Excavated from the deepest part of the ocean,
Somewhere only water can hear,
Where time swims peacefully,
I thought you might hold onto this."
I read it again. I stop. I could be submerged, the way I hear my heart thump. It is slow. Once, twice. I had no idea that Elza knew me so well.
I watch the back turned against me.
Without good reason, I find I want to kiss her cheek and thank her. I am still afraid of the effect her skin will have against mine… then I wonder if it has had this effect on other skins… has she lain with men… or women… before now? Have others felt her warmth, felt her desperation, felt her need and…
She walks out. The air returns to the room and it is cold.
I pass along the corridor. I smile at the cool feel of the necklace against my chest. I feel anxious too. I don't know that it will ever feel safe to think of Elza in a room with someone so… I don't even know. Dangerous, perhaps? Or an attractant of danger. I am seventeen, I have a girlfriend, it is a Sunday, I repeat like a mantra. The cafeteria is - yet again - relatively empty. Elza sits across from the dark-haired man from the other night – is he Tenoh's lover? He is good-looking enough, I suppose. There is an intensity about him, perhaps rather like Tenoh, but, again, there's something just a bit dubious is his nature. I guess he's at the academy for some crime or another. Could he be violent? He's slumped over a newspaper and a can of coffee. He's smiling at Elza. I wish he weren't here.
"Hey," the man speaks first, "It's your old lady, American!"
I am stopped in my tracks. "Old" I might laugh off, but I had no idea that news of our relationship had spread to…
"Happy Birthday, Sugar!" Elza makes it over to me and kisses my cheek. I stiffen.
"You know Ikeda, right?" He jabs a thumb towards the silently laughing man.
"Not that well…" I smile as politely as could be reasonably expected.
"Ikeda's part of your present."
"Oh?" This didn't seem to be getting better.
"He's got a car."
"How nice for him."
"…sure, if you like noise and fumes." Ikeda tuts as he lifts the can to his mouth. He isn't quite in the conversation.
"I don't understand." I say.
"C'mon, now, I thought you were a genius!" Elza grabs my arm grinning.
"Hmm, not a psychic though…" Honestly.
"We're taking you on a road trip!"
"A road…?" I begin.
"Easy American," Ikeda has an edge to his voice, "Unless your lady here is keen on driving a manual…"
"I don't have a license." I say suddenly. Stuck on the road in a car with a possible violent offender? No thank you.
But Elza is clearly disappointed.
She looks down. The clocks tick. The refrigerators hum. The chair scratches the ground noisily as I pull it back to sit beside her. I sneak my hand into hers below the level of the table-top.
"Where to?" I ask quietly.
"The beach." She spoke to our laced fingers.
"Oh," I smile, "that would've been lovely." And I mean it.
It is so very long since my family took regular visits to the stretch of land they own on the coast. Money is always there, but time just isn't. It seems to have run away with study and meetings and events and…well, adulthood I suppose. Now, in my memory, that beachside property has a perpetual sea mist around it. I can't recall the colour of the exterior, even the number of rooms. Did we stay for weeks? Months?
Were we all happy there?
I remember the ocean though. I remember watching the green waves, taller than myself. They threw themselves against the rocks in a repeated suicide. They died and were reborn over and over. It seemed terrible and glorious all at once. I know that – at least one time - It was before the start of a brutal storm that I watched. I was totally transfixed. Perhaps it's something like the need people have to stand at a great height, at the edge of tall buildings, that attraction of oblivion. Certainty. Cleanliness.
My thoughts are interrupted as Tenoh walks into the room. Her hair is damp and she brings with her the scent of sandalwood. I find myself thinking of models again and the fresh-faced men on after-shave commercials. She doesn't notice, or simply ignores, our three pairs of eyes on her as she goes to the toaster, untwists a tie on a plastic bag of bread, flips in two slices and turns to the coffee machine. She pushes in some coins, sets off a groaning sound from the machine, waits with her back turned and arms folded before muttering:
"Tenoh, you like fast machines?" Elza asks.
With a practised motion, Tenoh bangs her fist against the coffee machine, propelling it to splutter a stream of milk into her cup.
"Ikeda, you'd go, wouldn't you? With such a master at the wheel?"
"Mm." He nods decisively, still looking over the newspaper. If he wasn't with her, I would guess that he certainly intended to be.
"Perfect!" Elza claps her hands. The gleam has returned to her eyes.
Happy Birthday to you.
I don't know how this was wrangled and we got to this point but, if I'm honest, it's nice to get out of the city. Let's say I blame Elza and her persistence. I blame Ikeda and his hot set of wheels. Let's say I blame circumstance and boredom and things other than the way you looked. The way you spoke when you asked. Gods. I suspect no one says no to you.
It was a great drive, no traffic, no roof, no hideous radio station to interrupt the sound of the wind. From the rear view mirror it looked like the two of you were very happy. Seems you're the only one who can soothe Elza to silence. She's lucky. You both are. Maybe you'll understand how I couldn't interrupt that.
When we got there, while the two of you disappeared down the beach, I have to admit that Ikeda and I had quite a time of putting together that bonfire. I may have threatened to use his guitar as kindling. Seems 'the sensitive man' doesn't frequently engage with such coarse tasks as wood gathering or pit digging… or driving. All these tasks are great fodder for lyrical purposes. Just that the doing seemed rather beyond him. I bet even you would have been a better assistant.
Writing now, in the firelight, as the light in the sky has settled to a red eye on the horizon and the stars are blinking back to life – I don't regret any of it. The four of us sitting around the rather impressive flames, shadows thrown out behind us. The reassuring strum of Ikeda's guitar. The sigh of the sea. Would it be too strange to say that I was feeling something like eternity?
Ikeda's smuggled bottle of Shochu probably has something to do with the way you're swaying just a little out of time. He sings another song in English "For the American," but I don't understand the words.
You hum. You touch the necklace at your collarbone. I catch you looking over at me… you don't look away. Elza puts her arm over your shoulders and you smile and lean in to her. You look over again, touch the pendant and mouth "thank you." I pretend I don't get it. I really hope it has been a good birthday. That there are many, many more to come.
I watch Ikeda. His guitar appears it could be alight, the way it catches the fire's reflection. He looks down when he sings, like no one but he and the instrument in his hands understand. Weird guy. He continues in English and at least it's a part I can translate:
"I can't take my eyes off of you,
… can't take my eyes off of you,
… I can't take my eyes…