To this day, I still don't understand art.
Since I'm the only one in this traincar sketching in the margins of my notebook, I know that must sound strange. First term hasn't even begun, and I'm taking up space on all these clean sheets of paper, too. Talk about getting a head start on passing the time.
I get the feeling drawing isn't a popular diversion. I think most people feel they can't do it correctly, but there isn't really a right way or a wrong way. If you keep your goals modest, does it matter if you draw a person's head too large or the legs too small? Yeah, some know-it-all art major might say you don't know anything about good techniques, but for me, it's not about that. I don't pretend to be capable of the next Mona Lisa. I sketch things in my notebooks now and then—sometimes with pens way too thick to do anything precise—because it's a good distraction, because it helps me focus on something. Sometimes, I remember lectures better because I know what I was drawing while I wasn't really paying attention at the time. Weird, right?
But just because I can draw half-decent sketches and doodles doesn't mean I understand art. I don't, and I realized I don't have to. Everyone has their own interpretation of a work. Mine just happens to be abject bewilderment most of the time.
I don't draw to have my doodles understood, though. I'm not even really an artist. I studied physics in undergrad. In some ways, it's very different. There's a problem to be solved, and maybe you don't know how to solve it (or even what the problem is), but there's a clear goal in mind for every situation. As my optics professor said once, "If you're going to stand naked in front of a window in broad daylight, you'd better be sure more sunlight reflects than passes through, or else the police will quickly be at your door. Luckily, I can teach you the principles needed to figure out just that."
…he was actually one of the saner ones, too.
Believe it or not, though, art and science have a lot in common, too. In the end, nothing we find with science matters if we can't get the ideas across to others. With art, it's not necessarily idea. It could be a feeling you want to express, but the concept is the same. A mathematical equation or a painting on a canvass are both ways to communicate something that requires more than just words to express.
I knew someone once who found words all but impossible to work with.
And I'm going to see her.
I haven't spoken to her in years, not since a rainy day in the summer of my third year in high school. I've known for some time where she went after that—the art teacher, Nomiya, was all too proud of what Rin had accomplished, and he'd tell anyone who wanted to hear about her scholarship offer in Tokyo. She was his prized pupil, after all, and as sad as it was that she'd left him, he beamed with pride at even the mention of her name.
Rin wasn't like other people, though. She didn't care to stay in touch with people. She may have thought there was nothing to say. I've heard from other students from Yamaku now and then. Shizune has a business degree, but she spends a lot of time doing charity events and other good work like that. Mutou tells me Misha teaches sign language at Yamaku, and just by thinking about her, I can hear her laughter echoing through the halls. Rin's friend Emi is all over the Internet with photos of her running marathons all over the world. She's a personal trainer, and I think she must be happy drawing up dietary plans and exercise regimens for her clients.
I made a point to catch up with some friends of mine from home, too, once I graduated from Yamaku. Iwanako is married now, to a man I don't know, but I sent her my congratulations, which she accepted cordially. We've never discussed the letter she sent me after I left—or my short reply, which in hindsight I realize was altogether inadequate. To be honest, after all this time, I don't know what either of us would say.
Things are what they are, I guess. They're neither right nor wrong; there's only your willingness to change them, if you choose to.
That's part of why I'm on this train, surrounded by strangers who have no interest in my doodles. A couple pieces of luggage are all I have with me—barely more than what I brought to Yamaku. I might have to go back to my parents' house to pick up some more things later on. Yes, definitely. Home isn't where the heart is; it's where your stuff is. I've learned that well.
I say Rin is part of the reason I'm coming to Tokyo because even if she weren't there, I'd have a good reason to go. Come Monday, I'll be a student in the physics master's program at University of Tokyo. It's daunting, being at the best school in the country. Already, I've heard horror stories from former students about professors humiliating them during presentations. Even one derisive snort while you're up there, standing before a panel of professors to explain and defend your research, could be soul-shattering. I hardly want to think about it. I've got nearly two years of work to do before I reach that point.
Still, I'm proud and honored just to be facing that challenge. I realized, after Rin left, that I'd thought she was an artist who made art for the sake of it. As difficult as she always was to understand, I couldn't have misjudged her more. I thought she was a person who could just put everything else aside because she had clear talent, because there was something she knew she could do. That's not Rin at all, though. All along, she was trying to find herself, and the process nearly destroyed her. I couldn't just hang around her and hope for a magic sense of purpose to fall into my lap, especially after she left. I buckled down and focused on what I wanted to do. Mutou helped with that a lot, and lo and behold, here I am.
If I look at my reflection in the train window, I think all I'd have to do to look like him is grow some stubble and put on a world-weary stare. Heh. What's scary is that I don't think I'd mind that.
Overall, I'm not going to get my hopes up. I'd be fine just seeing Rin once, saying hello, catching up, and going our separate ways again for a few years. That's what adults do, after all, right? They maintain friendships over decades, not needing to talk to someone every day or every other day or even less than that.
I realize I don't sound very convincing when I say that. Adulthood still puzzles me sometimes.
In the train, some of the passengers are starting to wake up. The lights flicker. A young girl in the row ahead me points and calls to her father. "Look, look, Daddy, the tower!"
The orange-and-white metal tower dominates the view. I've heard it's painted that way because of air safety, but that doesn't make a lot of sense. The Eiffel Tower doesn't have to be painted. There must be an explanation; it's something I'll have to look up, I guess. Still, I can't imagine the Tokyo Tower looking any other way. I quickly try to sketch it in my notebook, but it's difficult with other buildings zipping past. Maybe I can capture that with some kind of blur….
But it all zooms by in too much of a hurry. Before long, we're pulling into the train station, and I need to pack my things. Two bags? Check. Notebook? Check. Address card? Check. There's one more thing, though, and I pat my pocket to be sure it's there. As the train rolls to a stop, I pull it out just to check it's really what I think it is. It's a flyer—well, a flyer printed out on an ordinary sheet of paper, so the texture is smooth, not glossy.
"Tokyo University of the Arts — Opening Exhibition," reads the title, and the background is a cubist rendition of a man's face, in blue instead of skin tones. Apparently it's an annual tradition at the school to have the new students meet their peers through their work.
I can't think it's great advertising to put a bunch of students' names down as featured artists if no one knows who they are, but all I need to see is Rin's name to know where I'll be Monday night.
The train stops, and I close my notebook with the sketch of the Tokyo Tower unfinished. I'm okay with that. There's plenty of time to finish something once it's started.
Even if it takes me over four years to do it.
It seems like everywhere you go, the buses are the same. Some people can't stop checking their watches or their phones, wondering about the time or how late they might be. Others have music blaring in their ears, which would be fine except that everyone on the bus can hear them despite their headphones. It's like a tribe of monkeys all chattering away, or a group of angry percussionists banging on drums to no rhythm at all.
Or a tribe of monkeys banging on drums.
Is tribe the right word for a group of monkeys, anyway? For some reason, I want to say barrel….
The bus ride is short, though, and a five minute walk from the stop brings me to a white apartment building with green, tinted windows. I double check the address on my card with the one by the door. Yep, this is the right place. This is home.
I feel lucky to be staying here. It's close to campus, and I notice right away how clean the carpets and the walls are. I actually feel a bit guilty. A friend of mine from undergrad heard I'd be going to Tokyo and offered to set me up with her little brother, who's just starting his first year there. Everything just fell into place without me really having to worry about it. On the way into town, I wondered if I should've been more diligent—if I should've looked at other places or come to town before the term started just to check things out—but so far, everything seems to be all right.
My apartment is on the eighth floor, and after getting the wheels on my luggage stuck at the elevator's threshold, I knock twice, just to be polite. I don't even have a key yet, so I hope someone's home.
Luckily, the lock clicks right away, and a kid with light brown hair—almost into his eyes—and a Yomiuri Giants baseball cap nods at me approvingly. "You're Nakai, right? Come on in."
He takes one of my bags in hand, struggling a bit. He's shorter than me, but not by much. I realize that he's not just wearing a baseball cap; he has a jersey on, too, though I don't recognize the name or number. What's most striking, though, are his two blue eyes—light in color, like the sky. I think it must run in the family.
Speaking of family…"I'm sorry, your name is Hayashi?" I ask. "I know Sumi got married, so I'm just trying to remember."
"Just Mitsuru is fine," he says, fumbling for the keys to one of the bedrooms. "You're older than me, after all, right?"
I should hope so. "I'm Hisao, then."
"Cool. You know Sis from Kyoto, yeah?"
"Yeah, we studied physics together. To be honest, I was surprised she tracked me down. I hadn't seen her in a couple years. I know she was living on Okinawa for a while, but she's around here now? In Tokyo?"
He nods. "we came out here about a week ago. We couldn't get an apartment big enough for the three of us, though, so she and Ryou have their own place."
Too bad they couldn't stay together. I'll have to ask where she is and visit, but right now, I'd rather get settled in. Mitsuru helps me unpack my bags, and I quickly start laying out my desk with notebooks, pens, pencils, the works. My endtable is for meds, and while the array of pills I have to take has shrunk in the last few years, it's still an intimidating regimen. The way Mitsuru stares at the line of bottles tells me that question is coming up sooner rather than later.
"I have a heart condition," I explain.
"A heart condition? But you're only what, twenty-two?"
"That's why it's a big deal," I say. I try to sound nonchalant about it, but it's clear he's still surprised. Still, he has the tact not to say anything else about it, which is a relief, but in the silence, I try to steer the conversation elsewhere. "So, you like baseball?"
I wince. "Can't say I've followed it. I guess I was more into soccer when I was younger, but even then, I only played occasionally."
"Soccer's cool; I don't have a problem with it, but baseball is an ancient and storied game, man, with wisdom for the ages. There's just nothing else like it."
I somehow doubt the Egyptians were playing baseball while on breaks from pyramid building. Anything more recent than that doesn't strike me as ancient, but I let it pass. "What exactly is this wisdom for the ages that baseball is supposed to teach us about?"
The way Mitsuru's eyes light up, I know I've gotten into more than I asked for. "Everything, man, everything. I mean, let's take you as an example. You're going to Toudai—the best university in country—for your master's degree, right?"
"Are you nervous about it?"
"A little. I mean, I know there's a lot of coursework and research and probably the publishing of a few papers…."
He starts grinning, and I can only imagine I'm already making a worried face. Mitsuru doesn't mind, though. He gets right to the point.
"So it's like undergrad was your minor leagues, and now you're ready to break into the majors. You're like, hm—maybe Matt Anderson? Yeah, Matt Anderson in the '97 draft. That guy could break 160 on the radar gun easy!"
Let's stop right here. I know almost nothing about baseball, let alone American baseball, let alone what radar guns have to do with anything. Ask me about the Doppler effect, sure, but this is all beyond me.
"Is that a good number—160, I mean?" I ask. "I guess for a car that would be pretty fast."
"It is. He tore through the minors and made it to the big leagues, striking out 44 men in 44 innings."
That sounds impressive, but don't they usually face at least three batters in an inning? What happened to the other two?
I get the feeling that's all irrelevant to the point. "So, this Anderson guy had a good career in the major leagues after doing well in the—the…"
"Yeah, the minors. So you're saying that because I did well in undergrad, I'll do well in grad school, too. That's what you're saying, right? Because this Anderson guy did so well in the majors after proving himself in the lower levels of baseball?"
"Well, yeah, until he tore a muscle in his arm."
Mitsuru shrugs. "Anderson tore a muscle in his armpit after four years and never succeeded in professional baseball after that again. Too bad. He was the number one pick, too."
Whatever encouragement this story was supposed to give me is seeping away like the air from a punctured tire. And I'm not convinced baseball was really needed to tell me I could fail miserably at my degree, either.
Mercifully, there's a knock on the door, and Mitsuru goes to answer before he can crush my spirit with any other depressing anecdotes. I thought sports were supposed to be uplifting.
"Need something?" asks Mitsuru, which strikes me as a bit casual to say to a guest.
"Nah, just seeing if your roommate's arrived." The voice sounds slightly hoarse, but it's definitely a girl's voice. "Is he in?"
"Did you tell him a silly baseball story yet?"
I peer out from my bedroom. Mitsuru and the girl are still talking at the doorway; he hasn't even let her inside. She's shorter than he is, with dark hair tied up in a ponytail. Having her hair up accentuates her forehead, but only a little. Like Mitsuru's, her eyes are a distinct shade of blue, but she wears a pair of glasses with black rims and sharp corners. She's thin and, well, rather flat. Not that this is the first thing I look for in a woman. Really.
"Hey, stranger," she says to me, waving. "Liking your new digs?"
That's Sumi for you—very casual. "Haven't really had a chance to settle in," I answer. "What brings you here? Checking on your little brother?"
"On you, of course. And on Mitchan, a little."
Mitsuru scowls at the nickname. I'm glad she doesn't call me Hicchan.
"And also to steal a little soy sauce," Sumi goes on, rummaging through the kitchen cupboards for a bottle.
"You need to go shopping," says Mitsuru.
"Shut up!" She says this with a sing-songy lilt; she's not being serious. "Anyway, if I keep running out of condiments, I may pop back in, so keep your door unlocked, okay?"
"Yeah, yeah." Mitsuru rolls his eyes.
Sumi puts her slippers back on as she's headed out the door. "Good to see you, Hisao. You don't have any plans for lunch, right?"
"Ah, no?" I say.
"Awesome. Get back to settling in then; I won't be too long."
She ducks out, and I'm left a bit crosseyed. I turn to Mitsuru, who's closing the cupboards Sumi left open. "Something wrong?" he asks.
"Yeah. Where is she going with that bottle of soy sauce?"
"Which is where?"
"Across the hall?"
I feel like I opened a jigsaw puzzle and only realized that, after staring at it for several hours, I'd yet to actually scramble the pieces. "She lives across the hall?"
"Yeah. Didn't you know? All week, she's been so excited about having a friend from her old school to go to classes with and study and stuff."
Now I think my eyes are about to roll back into my head. Maybe I'm just not one for surprises. At any rate, it's enough for me to go through the door and knock at the apartment across the hall. I hear a pot clanking on a stove, and Sumi answers right away with a dishrag between her hands.
"Forget something, Hisao? I don't have a lot of extra supplies, but if you left something at home, I can take a look around."
That's hardly what this is about. I've been brought here under false pretenses! If Sumi had told me she lived just next door, I would've…I would've…well, I would've felt different about things! Because then they would be different. Different from now.
Thankfully, Mitsuru has the presence of mind to break the silence that's gripped Sumi and me. "Sis, you didn't tell him you were going to school together," he explains.
"What?" She puts her hands on her hips, indignant. "Yes, I did! I totally fucking did." A look of worry comes over her face, though, and she glances at me. "Didn't I?"
I shake my head feebly.
"Oh. Well, surprise?"
Another voice calls from inside the apartment. "Sumi, I think you're about to burn something."
Panicking, Sumi races from the door. She's cute when she's flustered; she does this motion with her hands like you'd expect a bad actor to do in a stage play when he's supposed to be horrified, except for her it's genuine. I peer in, and I see a man in a muscle shirt sitting in front of the television in the corner of the main room. He's hammering away at the buttons of a video game controller while colorful explosions and harsh sounds come from the set.
"You're Nakai, right?" he says, glancing at me from the corner of his eye. "I'm Ryou, Sumi's husband."
Yes, it's hard to forget. Sumi got married before she left for Okinawa. Even while she's cooking, she wears the ring proudly on her finger. I'd never met her husband, but I'd seen some photos. They're high school sweethearts or something like that. I think glumly I could've had a high school sweetheart, too, but that's not really true. Maybe it would've been possible with Iwanako. As for Rin, I dare say she wasn't the type for such a neat and convenient label. Rin was always more complicated, more unique.
Sumi's husband Ryou is a tall, muscular man. I can tell even while he's sitting; he's that impressive. With Ryou playing games and Sumi fretting over the stove, the door is left open, and I'm a little lost over what to do. Mitsuru solves the dilemma, though. He wanders in and motions for me to follow. He even picks up another game controller and sits down with Ryou.
"Maybe we can do a deathmatch," he suggests to Ryou gently. "Three-way free-for-all?"
Ryou blinks at this, puzzled, but as I take a seat beside him he seems to understand. "Oh, yeah. Why not? Let me get the spare controllers. Guess it's a good thing we got four after all, right, Sumi?"
"If we hadn't, nothing would've stopped us from getting a fourth while Hisao was coming into town," Sumi counters. I get the feeling there's more to this argument than meets the eye.
Ryou right away makes himself known as a man of few words. While we shoot rockets and throw grenades at each other, Mitsuru raucously cheers and hollers whenever he scores a kill. Ryou, on the other hand, fights with a level of intensity that seems unnatural, even counterproductive for enjoyment.
As for me, I'm not too hot on video games in the first place; I still prefer to read and be engaged in something I can remember instead of dozens of matches that are forgotten as soon as we move on to the next. Still, it's fun being around other people, and I don't know why I was so uneasy that Sumi and Ryou would be close by. I've been in Tokyo for just a few hours, and the four of us are already hanging out like we've known each other all our lives. It's a good feeling.
Almost as good as running toward your attacker after he sticks you with a plasma grenade and getting him killed in the same explosion that kills you.
"You've got to be kidding!" cries Mitsuru, banging a hand on his controller. "You learn fast, Hisao."
"Not surprised," says Sumi. "His test marks always fucked with grading scales in our classes."
I'm forced to snort a little; Sumi's casual swearing takes some getting used to again, and she's already dropped two bombs in the span of a couple hours. She doesn't seem to think anything of it, though.
After about an hour and a half of gaming, Sumi orders us to put the controllers away and eat. Sumi is, I'm learning, an excellent chef, and very self-sufficient, too. Mitsuru and I only left the game a handful of times to help watch the food while she hunted down more tableware or other missing items.
When it's time to eat, it's a little after one in the afternoon—not an unreasonable time to eat at all. While I'm trying to decide what to taste first—the grilled salmon smells delicious, but I've always had a soft spot for shrimp—Sumi fills me in on the two years of her life I've missed.
"Ryou enlisted in the Self-Defense Force shortly after we married," she explains. "His duty took him to Okinawa, so we packed up and moved there until he completed his assignment. I got into a good program over there; there's actually a ton of high-energy physics on the island. It was almost all that they did."
"Really?" I ask. "Is that what you're going to do here?"
She shakes her head vehemently. "Hell no. If I have to deal with fucking spectroscopic notation again, I will die. Seriously. There was no variety down there. They don't have any particle accelerators or anything; it's all just analyzing data from other labs and schools. That's just not my thing. But I still love doing physics. I'm sure I'll find something to do."
She says it so casually. I have to wonder how she had the wherewithal to go through a program she clearly didn't like. I guess she must've had an eye to the future, knowing that she wouldn't be there forever.
"Otherwise," she goes on, "there were a lot of Americans, as you'd expect. It's pretty educational, and you really get a broader sense of things from talking to them. One of my professors was an American, and he pointed this out to me: we tend to think of Japan as a small country, right?"
Everyone around the table nods.
"But you'd say Germany is a big country, right? Well, Japan is actually bigger than Germany. I'm not shitting you with this; it's not just all the tiny little islands that no one's living on, either. And if you say, what, that Japan is just more densely populated than a lot of countries? It's really not. Belgium, India, the Netherlands—they're all at least as crowded as we are. It's just our mindset, you know? It's like cultural identity. It's really awesome to realize just how much of that is ingrained in what we think. That, and…" She stifles a laugh. "And Ryou asked one of the American soldiers if they had McDonald's in the States!"
"It's not obvious," Ryou insists.
"It's meant to sound Scottish or something. Like that movie Sean Connery was in—"
"Sean Connery's been in a lot of movies," says Mitsuru.
"And he is Scottish," I add.
"Not the point! It's that movie where there can only be one, and Sean Connery plays a Spanish guy, even though he's Scottish, and a French guy plays a Scotsman. His name was Connor MacLeod."
That phrase is familiar—"there can only be one"—but it elicits only a vague feeling that I've blotted something from my own memories. And that someone owes me a few hundred yen, plus interest.
"How do you write that in English?" asks Mitsuru, and when Sumi writes it, he scoffs. "There's an extra a. It's not the same."
"It totally is," says Sumi.
At this point, I pull back from the argument. With Sumi and Mitsuru's good-natured banter in the background, it's just nice to be here. In just the span of a few hours, this already feels something like home.
I go back across the hall after lunch is over. Mitsuru and Ryou are still going at it with the video games, but half of my stuff is still packed up, and I want to get that taken care of before tomorrow. It doesn't take long, though. Having gone from home to Yamaku, then to undergrad in Kyoto, and now here, I realize the benefit of traveling light. Each new home is a chance for a fresh start.
When all my clothes and books are squared away, all I have on my desk is the flyer to the exhibition. The last thing I want to do is run late tomorrow, and walking around sounds like a good way to keep from thinking about things too much.
Rin's school actually isn't very far from Toudai—in theory, just a fifteen-minute walk northeast, but it's Sunday afternoon in Tokyo. The streets are packed, and I find myself taking cautious strides at each intersection. Luckily, the route is mostly a straight shot along a single street, so it's not too hard to follow. I'm glad for that. I think even just the better part of a year at Yamaku changed me a bit. I'm no longer fond of the hustle and bustle of the city. There are good parts to it—the ease of access, the sense of being at the heart of humanity—but ultimately, I think I'd like to go back to some place outside of the big city to settle down at. Kyoto was good about that, too, with the mountainous scenery ever-present on the horizon.
That's not to say Tokyo's all that bad. It's not, and I like that as I get closer to Rin's school, more and more of the cityscape is intermingled with trees. Come to think of it, I've seen a few signs for a park around here, but I admit I haven't the slightest clue where it could be.
When I reach the corner across from the school grounds, I rest for a bit by a directory and close my eyes. The walk hasn't been too stressful, but it never hurts to check myself and listen. For now, the time bomb in my chest is behaving, and I'm not too winded or worn out, but I'm not afraid to admit that the condition of my heart weighs on me from time to time.
Or that, knowing I may die sooner rather than later has played a part in me wanting to resolve the mistakes I've made. I think if I'd been stronger and more resolute about it, I would've made a point to come here even sooner, instead of waiting for a time where avoiding her would've proved painful. But that's all in the past. I can't fix that. I'm here now, and I've had a lot of time to think about what I did and how I acted.
All along, I thought Rin was soaring high above the plane of ordinary men, dealing with concepts and thoughts totally alien to the rest of us mere mortals. The passage of time hasn't really changed that view. She could make connections between things that I never understood, and that made a lot of her behavior incomprehensible to me. My mistake was in letting that bother me, in believing she wanted to sit on that plane of inspiration in isolation, but that's not true at all. Rin was a person just like anyone else, and as much as her unique thought processes gave her insight, they also distanced her from people.
And that's why Rin painted—to try to break down that barrier, to open up a line of communication with people where words so often failed her.
To think I never even looked at her paintings that way. I always thought I should get an impression of something from her works, but insight into her? Where could I even begin?
So in my despair and frustration, I told her the truth as I saw it—that people can't really expect to understand each other. And to this day, I still think that's true. For someone whose mind works so differently from the rest of—for someone like Rin—real understanding may be all but impossible.
But in the years since we parted in the rain, I've come to add a corollary to that postulate of life: as difficult as it may be to find understanding, even minuscule, incomplete comprehension of another soul is worth pursuing, and it is its own reward. It's like Plato's theory of forms. If all we can truly understand about another person is the influence she exerts on the world around her, we can still infer something about who she is, however vague and general those observations might be.
It seems like a small comfort. It may be something I thought of just to argue with Rin's stubbornness—no, her dejectedness—at the time, but for now, I'm sticking to it. For that, my heart is steady, and I can press on.
When the signals change, I cross and head toward a building with a two-tone exterior—reddish near the ground level and metallic gray on the upper floor. I want to say this is the state of modern art, but I think it has to do more with making a hasty addition to an older structure. The flyers plastered around the exterior tell me I'm in the right place—in fact, they tell me this every three or four steps.
I circle around to the front door of the building, finding a couple more flyers taped to the glass of the doors, as well as a sign with a red arrow saying, "Exhibition hall." Mission accomplished, I guess. If I get lost on the inside of the building, I'm pretty sure I deserve to miss Rin.
A woman's voice calls to me. She's a bit short, mostly hidden behind a large, rectangular canvass and frame that she's carrying.
"Young man, could you open that door, please? I promise you'll have an old woman's gratitude for the next ten minutes. After that, I can't promise I'll remember you, but it's the thought that counts, right?"
I obligingly hold the door open, and as the old woman passes, I see more of her. Her hair is all gray, but it's still long and flowing. Despite her claimed age, the woman's eyes are wide, alert, and sharp as she guides the canvass through the door. She wears a pair of overalls, which are stained with a rainbow of paint splotches.
"Thank you, young man, but we're holding an exhibition here tomorrow," she says, clearing the doorway. "The building is closed to the public, so I must ask you to—"
Her eyes flicker to me, and she abruptly cuts herself off. She turns a shade paler than when she walked in, I think. I can't help but wonder if there's something on my face.
"I'm sorry, I was just looking around," I say, trying to break the sudden silence. "I was planning on visiting tomorrow. I'm new in town, so I wanted to find my way."
"New in town?" she echoes, letting the painting lean against the doorframe, but her eyes never leave mine. "Is that right?"
"It is. I'm not a student here; I go to Toudai." I shift my weight, feeling uncomfortable. Something about this old woman's gaze is boring through me. She studies me head to toe, nodding, like I'm a subject she's about to paint.
"I see. New in town. Graduate school?"
How could she possibly—
"It's a small talent I have, to tell people's ages at a glance. It's not difficult. It just takes practice. Go ahead, young man. Guess how old I am. I promise not to get mad."
I stare at her, slack-jawed. A promise not to get angry seems like little more than a trap!
"Oh-ho-ho, I see you're a careful one! Well, such wisdom is a fair talent of its own these days. Please, young man, come inside. If you're interested in art, it would be a shame to turn you away."
I frown. "Is that really all right?"
"Of course it is. Why do you think I'm carrying this painting? Because I happen to run this exhibition. Professor Haruka Adachi, at your service." She does a slight bow—very slight, since it's all she can manage without dragging the painting on the floor. "Who might you be?"
"Ah, my name is Nakai. Hisao Nakai."
She nods knowingly. "Of course it is."
"Ah, nothing, nothing. I was just thinking you look like a Hisao."
I can't say I've ever had that said to me before….
As strange as she is, I follow Professor Adachi without question up the stairs to the exhibition hall. The lights are bright and hot, and I can't help but think the black walls intensify the effect. A handful of students are helping hang paintings. I halfway hope Rin might be there, but I realize that hanging paintings would be a challenge for her.
"So you're interested in art, Hi—er, pardon me, Nakai?" asks Professor Adachi.
"Ah, I, uh, don't know if I could say that. I doodle from time to time. I can't say I'm serious about it."
"Who can?" she remarks. "Art is a form of expression. The people you'll meet here—myself included—are serious about expression. Sure there's something therapeutic, even enjoyable, about the mechanical process of putting pigment to canvass, of molding clay with one's hands, but that's more a matter of the choice of medium, of the process. When you sketch or doodle or whatever you choose to call it, do you have an idea or a feeling in mind?"
I wince. "Not really?"
To my relief, Professor Adachi only smiles. "Such honesty. You might be surprised how refreshing that is to me. For a school of people so obsessed with expressing themselves, honesty can be hard to come by around here, and the person an artist is likely to lie to the most is herself. Keep that in mind when you come by tomorrow, Nakai. The girls here can promise you much, but in the end, they are all artists at heart."
I must be missing something. "Professor?"
"Well, if you're not really interested in art and you're new in town, I can only take that to mean you're looking to meet girls," she says matter-of-factly. "You don't need to feel ashamed about it. I met my late husband at an exhibition like this."
"No, it's not—" I shut up. There's no fighting the color in my cheeks. Professor Adachi isn't quite right, but she's uncomfortably close to the mark.
"Ah, I see. There's already a special girl for you, hm? Well, that's good. Try to keep up, then, Nakai. I'm going to give you a tour of this exhibition. That way, when you come by and meet her tomorrow, you'll be in a position to impress her with all that you know."
I kind of doubt a fifteen-minute primer on the pieces of the exhibition will really help me impress Rin. To be honest, I haven't the slightest idea what would impress her, or if I even should try to. I'm just here to be me, not to win her back or do anything else.
But Professor Adachi seems oblivious to my hesitation. She points out a nearby landscape. "Have you been to the park? It's just behind the school. It's quite lively. Ninomiya, one of my colleague's students, likes to use a thick brush. She's quite capable of exacting precision, but the thicker strokes give it a softer feel that I quite like. What do you think of it?"
It's true, the tree trunks and walkways in the piece are hardly straight or narrow. Still, the combination of strokes gives the right impression. The work is like something formed in the mind's eye. It makes sense as a whole, even when the individual details are puzzling.
"I think it's soothing?" I offer.
"No need to make it a question. What you feel is what you feel. Let's keep moving, shall we?"
Obediently I follow, not entirely sure why I should. Professor Adachi leads me around like the Pied Piper, and I only know to stop when she circles around a pedestal, guiding my eye with her hands. The piece is a white, unpainted sculpture. It's rigid and geometric—a series of pyramids built on top of each other. I hardly understand how it holds together.
"Another of my colleagues is advisor to this boy. His name is Kimura. Geometry captures people's attention, for it's something most of us think we understand intuitively. There are things that are possible and things that are not, yet art allows us to create impossible-seeming constructs and images. Tell me, Nakai, what do you feel when you look at this sculpture?"
"It makes me think there's something I don't know about that must keep it standing," I answer. "I want to find out what that is."
"And that, in turn, tells me you have an inquisitive mind. I'm curious—what do you study?"
"I'm a physicist."
"Ah, science. Is that what brings you here? The compulsion to solve a puzzle, no matter how difficult it may prove? That drive isn't unlike an artist's drive, you know. It's natural to want to understand something that goes against our everyday human experiences, but I think there's much to be said for making the most of something seemingly ordinary. Come. I want you to look at something from one of my students."
She leads me to a corner of the exhibition hall, where there's a painting of a bowl of fruit. I don't know much about art, but this seems like a rite of passage. Any artist needs to be able to paint (or sketch) a bowl of fruit. What strikes me about this painting is how incredibly lifelike it is. It's almost photographic in detail. In the bowl, there's an apple, which reflects the light from the window with a noticeable sheen. There are a pear, a banana, a pineapple, and more, but a few inches from the bowl rests another fruit on the bare surface of the table. It's white and molding, to the point it's unrecognizable.
"What is that?" I ask Adachi, trying to point it out discreetly.
"I asked that same question myself of the artist. She tells me it's an orange. Examined in isolation, the color does show hints of it, but it's hard to tell given the lighting implied in the piece. It is, indeed, decayed to the point that only the barest bits of it can be recognized as belonging to an orange at all. Yet still, the fruit retains its shape. To someone who doesn't see color, would it look like an orange, just given the context? I can't say. Perhaps she should've painted it in black and white for effect, but far be it for me to question the intentions of my students, let alone one as gifted as Tezuka."
I can hardly keep from blurting out my surprise. "Rin did this?"
Adachi raises an eyebrow. "Yes. She's quite skilled. Rin came to me as an unpolished and mercurial creature, very set in her ways, but in the past few years, she's driven herself toward mastering a wide array of styles and techniques. I dare say she is the most well-rounded of any student in the school, despite her, ah, unusual demeanor."
That's an understatement, as would be me saying that Rin's work here is a surprise. A whole corner of the exhibition hall is dedicated to Rin, and each painting seems to represent a different artistic style. There's a beach or shore of some kind, rendered strictly in circular dollops of paint. The cubist face on the front of the brochure is here—it's Rin's, too. They even have a sketch of the street outside the school, rendered primitively like a five-year-old drew it in crayon.
On some level, I'm relieved. Rin's abstract stuff was always so obtuse to me. That she can paint and express herself in all these different ways gives me hope we can find a connection after all.
At the same time, it also tells me that Rin has changed quite a bit since I last saw her. She must've. How else could she bring herself to embrace this wide array of styles?
She's grown a lot, perhaps in ways I can't hope to understand, and I wonder if, come tomorrow, I will recognize her at all.
It's not like I haven't changed since Rin left, either. I have. When I came to Yamaku, I didn't really know what I would do with my life—or even if I'd have that long to worry about it. But the future waits for no man. Rin went to pursue hers; I needed to do the same. Mutou was a big help. He talked with me about science programs around the country and helped me realize what my talents could do. If not for his advice, I wouldn't be here. So really, I shouldn't worry over how Rin may have changed. I'm sure we both have, and that's okay.
It's morning now. Professor Adachi's tour gave me a lot to think about, but it's a new day, and I have my own life to worry over. I get up at eight, down my pills, and sneak in a quick shower. Mitsuru is waiting for me as soon as I get out, looking bleary-eyed and zombie-like, but he heads in without a word. It's at this point I realize, for all my preparations, I've neglected to get any groceries for breakfast. I'm forced to go knock on Sumi's door to beg for food. I really need to make that up to her.
It takes a few moments, but she comes to answer. "Hey. You're not ready to go already, are you?"
I wasn't intending to, and she doesn't look ready either. Her glasses are askew, and her hair is all wet. She's dressed already—thank goodness—but I can smell a hint of lavender on her. She turns somewhat away from me as she tries to tie up her ponytail, and I can see the outline of a bird with its wings spread covering half of her upper back. This is no small tattoo. I had no idea she was into that sort of thing.
I turn my attention up, to her eyes, which are still furrowed in concentration as she ties up her ponytail. "No, I just, uh, realized I don't have anything to eat," I say sheepishly. It suddenly seems like begging for food isn't the only thing I have to be sheepish about.
"Food?" Her eyes flash in realization. "Shit. That's important. Uh…"
In her trademark controlled panic style, Sumi goes about the kitchen and the refrigerator, looking for food. We don't have a lot of time, and I think that limits her options. Hastily, she throws a couple pieces of bread in the toaster and looks at me with an apologetic simper.
"I'm so sorry; it slipped my mind. I went over my stuff three times, making sure I had the texts, my notebooks, pens, pencils, and so on, but I didn't think about food."
"I'm surprised Ryou didn't remind you," I say.
She makes a face at that. "Ah, he's not up yet. He'll probably take his time or go get something from the convenience store. Let me see, what else can I do…?"
"Don't worry about it. I already owe you too much for finding this place for me and treating me to lunch yesterday. I'm no expert cook, but I can handle some basic breakfast stuff. It wouldn't be a problem to do that regularly for the four of us."
She makes a wry smile at that. "Only if we all split the cost of food. Don't say anything different, either. You're too nice of a person, Hisao, and people will take advantage of you otherwise."
"People like you?" I joke.
"Maybe," she says coyly.
The toast pops up, finished, and she snatches the two pieces quickly, eyeing her watch. We eat as we walk, not talking very much except to navigate the campus and make our way to class. We make it to class with five minutes to spare, and most of our fellow students have already taken their seats. Sumi finds a desk in the second row, and I sit behind her. Like my major classes at Kyoto, girls are a rarity here. I count three in total, including Sumi. Well, that's all right. I didn't choose this field because of the dating opportunities.
Our first class is classical mechanics—the motions of objects under the influence of forces like gravity, but not including Einstein's relativity. In some ways, it's a basic topic, even if the approaches are a lot more sophisticated than what you'd see in undergrad. At the same time, it's essential because the techniques used are the foundation for other topics.
It is the first day, so the professor elects for a broad overview of what we'll cover and how it all connects together. He strikes me as a bit dull. He makes a joke about a being able to calculate how fast a frog would spin if it were struck by a car while crossing a road. I think it would be pretty funny, if in a morbid sort of way, but delivered in a serious context and with a serious delivery, all the professor is met with is stunned silence.
I feel a bit bad for him, but only briefly, because by the end of class, we already have assignments. We don't even know anything yet!
Our next class is an hour away, so many of us retreat to our offices. The department actually gives us two offices for the new master's students, where we're supposed to hang out and collaborate. Sumi's office is in the center of the building; mine is on the northern wall. I store my things in my desk and lock it. Both desks beside me are left with stuff hanging around but the owners nowhere to be found, so I start to crack open a book. It's one I've read before, and I'm almost at the end anyway—it still gets me every time the kid realizes the wargames he's been playing are real. I don't get too much further, for there's a sudden squeaking sound beside me. It's Sumi, spinning uncontrolled in a chair that doesn't belong to her.
"Really? Your first instinct when in a new situation is to open up a book?"
"There a problem with books?" I ask.
"No problem, but there's a time and a place. You should come to the other office. Everybody's doing it, which means you should be, too."
I glance down and back along the row of desks. Somehow, I managed to miss the memo about where the party would be, I guess. I need to figure out why that happens, but maybe later. I put my book away and follow Sumi back to her office, finding the desk next to hers unattended. Right away, I can feel the changed atmosphere. The lights are brighter, and there's chatter on both side of the divider that cuts the room in two.
"See?" says Sumi. "It's lively over here."
Another student rolls up to his in his rolling chair. He's a bit overweight, with stubble around his chin and up his cheeks, but his eyes are keen and his tone jovial. "Only reason we're lively is because the full magnitude of the doom coming to us hasn't really sunk in yet. Nice to meet you guys; my name's Takeda. Or you can call me Jirou, if you want."
I ask, "Why do you think we're doomed?"
"It's just the nature of the thing," says Jirou. "They're going to work us to the bone and see which of us can take it. That, and physics professors can be pretty scattered. I heard the quantum guy this year accidentally 'forgot' to give his students two of their assignments until right before final exams. Two weeks, twenty problems, and no one had any idea how to do half of them."
Another student turns around from his desk. He wears a sweater and has thin, oval glasses and short brown hair. He's definitely foreign, but from where I can't say. "It can't be that bad, right?" he says, with hardly a trace of an accent. "I mean, if we're all in that much of a pinch, they can't fail the whole class."
"Well, they won't fail you because you're on a scholarship here from France," says Jirou. "Everyone else here is fair game."
"Fair point, fair point," says the Frenchman. "I just don't see the point in stressing out about it. The term just started. I'm sure it'll all work out." He looked my directions and extends a hand. "I'm Michel Dubois. I'm over here from Nantes."
"Hisao Nakai," I say, touching my own chest. "And this is Sumi…ah…"
"Aoki," she finishes, giving me a slight jab in the ribs. "Really, Hisao? You forgot my name? I'm giving you so much shit for this, I swear."
I sigh, and Jirou and Michel have a good chuckle at my expense. The four of us spend most of the our just chatting to pass the time. It seems that here, like in Kyoto, most physicists are procrastinators, and the thought of starting our assignments so early—before we've hardly had any lectures, even—is anathema. Sumi and I tell the others a little bit about ourselves, and they share some of their background as well.
"I actually spend several years in IT," Jirou explains. "I'm twenty-nine. Coming back to science is something I never thought I'd have the chance to do, but I just got so tired of dealing with customers who didn't have the faintest idea what was going on, I just had to do it. So, if I seem a bit panicky to you guys, it's because if I get bounced out of here I don't know if I'll get another chance, you know?"
Michel, on the other hand, is the total opposite of Jirou. He's calm and relaxed, and I can't help but think every time he speaks that his Japanese is very good—not just for a foreigner, either.
"I always wanted to see the world, you know?" Michel explains. "And I've had a strong interest in Japanese culture and history for some time. This seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to get out here and see the country. I feel like it's a different mindset over here, a different work ethic than in the West."
"You mean aside from when we're all dicking around instead of working on our first assignment?" says Jirou.
Michel shrugs. "That I understand. I don't particularly want to get cracking on that either. What are we supposed to do, pretend we know Lagrangian mechanics on our first day?"
Before long, though, it's time to head back for class, and as Jirou hinted at, fate brings us to meet our new quantum mechanics professor. He's Russian, and well, he's very Russian. It's hard for him to get fifteen seconds into a thought about wavefunctions and superposition of states before he steps back from the chalkboard and stares at it ominously, like even his own handwriting and notes don't make sense.
All this downtime gives me a chance to doodle, and I think the most accurate way to capture the start and stop nature of this quantum class is to draw a wave packet traveling through space, only to abruptly stop while a mini, bespectacled Russian quantum professor holds up his hand to think about what the wave should do next.
It's probably not the next candidate for best four-panel comic in Japan. That much I'll admit.
To my surprise, Sumi passes the time in a similar way. She goes through a variety of different-colored pens, boxing various sections of her notes and covering the pages in a bewildering array of arrows and lines. She looks immensely satisfied when she finishes one such correction, even pumping her fist in excitement as she puts a pen down. It's pretty cute.
Beyond that, my eyes wander a little bit while our quantum professor tries to get his addled mind together, and I'm ashamed to say they happen to glance down, where Sumi's crossed legs extend into the aisle. Sumi doesn't seem fond of makeup or fancy dress. It's a fairly warm day, and Sumi's choice of attire is, I'm sure, comfortable for her. Her bare legs are shapely and toned. I think I remember her saying she used to run cross-country at one time. Maybe I should hook her up with Emi for them to do some distance running together.
Still, I try to force my gaze up to the chalkboard. Sumi's a married woman, after all. I suppose admiring is harmless, but if she catches me staring, that would get awkward fast.
Quantum class ends, I think the whole last five minutes were spent in utter silence while our professor stared at the board, lost in thought. He does, however, have the gall to announce our first assignment, which he says will come by e-mail later in the day. The due date, he says, is "negotiable."
This is a very strange professor.
I move to pack up my things, and I glance one more time down Sumi's chair.
Oh damn. I'm caught. I'm caught, and I turn as red as a beet. I hesitate to meet Sumi's gaze, but her expression is as casual as ever.
"Have any plans for lunch?" she asks.
I really need to stop worrying about these things. I shake my head feebly, worrying that my voice will betray me if I dare speak up.
"Awesome. Let's go grab a bite then, yeah?"
Sumi leads the way around campus like she already knows the place. There are actually a few places to eat around school grounds, but they're all packed, and the lines are intolerable. We settle for instant ramen from a nearby convenience store, and we head back toward our offices to get water and use the department-provided microwaves. Still, it's too nice a day to stay inside, and once our food is ready, Sumi and I take our meals to a flat wooden bench outside the building.
"I really meant to make some lunches, too," Sumi notes, a bit dejected. "There's just so much going on right now. You know what? Mitchan should get off his ass and help out with some of this stuff. He can learn to make breakfast."
"It's really all right," I tell her. "You guys have done more than enough. I'm fine with getting lunch around here at the spur of the moment. Three meals a day is a lot for us to handle. We're students. We're busy people, and full home-cooked meals aren't necessarily cheap."
"That's true. Ryou was pretty pissed about how much I spent putting together lunch yesterday, but it's literally the first time I've seen my brother in six months, and I figured you'd enjoy a good meal, too. If I don't keep you well fed, you're no good to me."
I raise an eyebrow. "No good for what?"
"For mooching homework answers off of. What else?"
I laugh nervously. Did she really arrange for me to stay with her brother and all of this so she could…?
Sumi snickers, and when my eyes widen, she starts laughing uncontrollably. Her whole face goes red as she can hardly keep her amusement in. "Really, Hisao? You thought—ahaha! I'm not that bad; I promise. Honest to goodness. I mean, I might need some help now and then, and I'm not afraid to admit the speed that we're getting assignments is starting to scare me, but it's just better to learn the material together, you know? I've always felt that way."
"I think so, too," I manage to say.
Sumi smiles at that, and then she slurps up some noodles in a profoundly unladylike fashion. I don't mind, though. Sumi's pretty cool, and I feel like I've gotten to know her better over the last two days then I did in two years at Kyoto. It may be I was too hung up over Rin to really focus on meeting other people, even as friends, until later on. It still makes me wonder why Sumi's gone so far out of her way to help me out, but whatever the reason, I'm thankful for it.
As we finish up lunch, something vibrates in Sumi's purse. She fishes through it to find her phone. "Ah, Ryou," she mutters with a sigh. "Sorry. This'll just take a sec." She starts texting him back, and I politely avert my gaze. Something in her purse catches my eye, though. She actually carries quite a large bag with her, and it's enough to conceal a paperback: Kokoro, by Souseki Natsume.
"Are you reading this?" I ask her, nudging the book out to read the title.
"Hm? Ah, yeah. It was a gift from Ryou I've been chipping away at." She slides the book back in her purse and zips it up with a dose of finality.
"Is it any good?"
She shrugs. "It's just about stuff right around the time of the death of Emperor Meiji. It's very much about the period. That's all I can tell you. I'm not very far in it, though."
"Well, if that's the case," I say, "I might pick up a copy and read it, too. I've been into books for a while. It'll be nice to read something with a friend."
She doesn't look up to meet my gaze, instead staring down at her food. "Sure," she says, her voice distant and flat. "If you want."
We don't say anything else for the rest of lunch.
Afternoon is quite a bit less taxing than the morning, as we have no more classes for the rest of the day. Our schedules alternate with two classes three days a week and the other two classes for longer periods the other two days. The only activity this afternoon is a talk from the department chair about the goals of the department and resources for new students.
With so much time on our hands on a day-to-day basis, I'm looking forward to getting into research. I check the department directory for professors I'd be interested in working with. My background is in materials, more or less—solids and liquids, those sorts of things. Perhaps I'm overstating things. I spent a summer working for a professor in Hokkaido on carbon nanotubes; that's really about it. Still, it's what I'm grounded in, and I take down the names of a few professors I see are involved in similar research. All around the halls of the building, the professors have posters about their latest works, with the names of students who assisted in the research on there too like they're equal partners. It's exciting. It tells me I can be part of a small breakthrough, too, even in a short time.
I make a note to visit with some professors and look for research opportunities, but there's more to do. I promised Sumi I would start preparing breakfast for the four of us, so I ask around about the nearest market and pick up some eggs, rice, broth, and the like. I'm grateful for the distraction. If I had time to think about what's coming this evening, I might just change my mind.
It really shouldn't be a big deal. That's what I tell myself. It's just Rin. Yeah, she could be intimidating with that stare that seems to go right through you, but that was years ago. I'm a different person now, and so is she, I'm betting. The falling out we had is in the past. I'm sure we've both put it behind us.
When I get back home, it's about five. The exhibition starts in an hour, and it seems prudent to wash up and make myself presentable. I shower again. I put on a light blue shirt with black pants and shoes. I try in vain to get that little tuft of hair on top of my head to stay down, but that's a futile effort. It just makes me feel better. Once I'm sure there's nothing else I can do, I head out, running into Sumi at the elevator.
"Wow, it's been two days, and you've already got a date?" she teases.
I laugh nervously. "It's not like that."
"Sure it isn't. Are you going to be out long? Let me know if you take a look at the classical homework when you get back, okay?"
She waves at me as she heads down the hall. "Have a good time, Hisao."
I'll try. I'll definitely try, but with someone like Rin, the way things turn out is hardly predictable.
The walk to Rin's school seems shorter this time than it did before. Maybe it's just my familiarity with the route. Maybe a little anxiety over the affair has quickened my pace. I admit, this is feeling like a bigger and bigger thing than I'd allowed myself to believe. When I left the hospital for Yamaku, I wasn't in a good state—either in body or in mind. Rin picked up on that. She saw I was in a bad place and pointed it out in the most matter-of-fact way, in a way that was very much her own. When I saw Rin falling down her own dark hole, I couldn't help her in return, and it broke her. She helped me, and I couldn't pay her back for that.
It could be I'm going to see her just to get some peace of mind, to convince myself that she's okay after all. Do I really need to visit her to know that? I saw her paintings. I met her advisor. There's still at least one Rin Tezuka on this earth.
No, that's not it, either. I think there's still a part of me that would enjoy a pinch of her presence in my life. I admit I probably tried to get too close to her, and like Icarus to the sun, the experience melted my wings and sent me tumbling down again, but I'm hopeful there can be a safe distance between us—closer than infinity yet further than the event horizon that would consume us both.
As I reach the exhibition building, I see a thin trickle of people entering, and I shuffle into the crowd. Inside, there's an eclectic mix of casually-dressed students and adults in more formal dress. Some of them I take to be professors; others I think must be museum curators or art aficionados. There are a few students better dressed for the occasion, like me, and I catch one of them standing before a pencil sketch and entertaining guests. He must be here to show his work, and Rin's probably doing the same. I head for the back corner of the exhibition hall, with the bright lights already working up a sweat on my brow.
That's when I see her.
Her top is black and a little thick. It's tight, and it hugs her figure well. As I remembered, she's tied the sleeves into knots below where her elbows would be, but that's where my familiarity with her appearance ends. Today, she's wearing a dark green skirt. Her legs are bare, and she walks on a pair of shiny, black open-toed shoes. Her hair is kept in place by a set of red barrettes. Her lips are cherry red and glossy, and touches of light blue eyeshadow adorn her lids.
I have never seen her like this. The girl I knew is gone, and by all appearances, a woman has taken her place.
That's not the only thing about her that's changed. At her side stands Professor Adachi, looking elegant in a full-length beige dress with pearls around her neck. They stand very close together, almost like Rin leans on her. Rin's having a conversation with a visitor, and what strikes me is her level of attention. She focuses on the person in front of her. Her gaze doesn't waver, though her face has a certain level of tension all throughout.
"May I ask," says the visitor, "I understand you experimented with pastels for this piece here. How did you find the process of using them compared to, say, oil or acrylic?"
Rin shrugs. "It's easier to get the colors in my head to come out, but I have to be a lot more careful." She glances left at right at her arms. "I'll have to practice," she adds.
"I see. And about this face here, why did you cut it off across the left eye?"
Professor Adachi chuckles, stepping in between Rin and the visitor. "Really, Mr. Kinomoto, I should think such a direct question on the artist's intent would be well within your talents to answer yourself. You're an art critic, aren't you? The last thing Rin here wants to do is color your expectations of the piece."
Abashed, the man bows slightly in apology. "Of course, my mistake. I didn't mean to put you in an awkward position, Professor, Ms. Tezuka."
Rin's eyes have wandered a bit, but at Adachi's prodding, she focuses back on the art critic and nods in return. After that, the critic politely excuses himself to visit with other students. Rin looks around absent-mindedly while Professor Adachi scans the room.
And catches sight of me.
Should I run? No, it's far too late for that. It's too crowded, and she'll easily catch me. Besides, isn't this why I came here in the first place?
Professor Adachi steps in front of Rin, taking her by the shoulders. "Rin," she says, "do you remember that student from Toudai I was telling you about? The one who was interested in your work?"
I can't see Rin's reaction, but she's as silent as death itself.
"Would you like me to introduce you to him?"
Gently, Rin steps out from in front of Adachi. Her eyes meet mine, and we're both paralyzed in an awkward stupor. Adachi touches Rin's shoulder and lightly eases her toward me. Rin's steps are short, only enough to keep from falling.
"Rin, this is Hisao Nakai, a graduate student at University of Tokyo in the physics department," says Adachi. "He's new in town, and he just dropped by yesterday, looking for some culture." She winks at me. "Am I right?"
"Of course," I say weakly. My throat feels very parched.
"Nakai, this is my student Rin Tezuka. She's in her fifth year of her bachelor of fine arts degree. The studio work needed is quite intense, so I assure you it's not at all atypical for someone like Rin to need another year to finish. In fact, she's my best student. Rin, perhaps you can convert this fine young man to the ways of art? I think he may have a budding interest already." She checks her watch abruptly. "Oh dear. If you'll excuse me, I must go see that the refreshments are being served. Pardon me for a moment."
Professor, I don't think there's a problem with the refreshments, considering there's a cup of ice in your hand. Still, I have to give her credit for being so natural about it.
Professor Adachi leaves us alone, and I'm left with just Rin's directionless stare.
I should say something. I should've planned something for this, something witty or natural or something. But the more I think about it the more I realize the truth:
I have no idea what to do now. It's like the whole idea of this reunion was so distant to me I never actually planned out what would happen, and now I'm in the position to bungle it royally.
"So, Rin," I finally manage to say, "uh, how are you doing?"
Even the vacuum of space has a hydrogen atom or two in every cubic centimeter, which is more than the content of that question.
She shrugs. "I'm fine."
I'm not sure what I expected; that she'd be angry with me for visiting her? Or sad? Or hurt? But Rin is Rin, and only when she was at her most desperate did she show anything at all. Once again, she's inscrutable to me, and I'm forced to come up with questions just to probe her reactions.
"I overheard you with that critic a little earlier," I say. "I guess you answer questions about art now?"
"Only sandy stuff." She hesitates, frowning. "That's not the right word, but it's…sandy. About what the art is made with and how. It doesn't taint perception much, and people want to know."
I nod. "I like your new paintings, too. They're…" I feel bad for saying this, but it's the truth. "They're easier for me to understand. I mean, like this one here." I go to the painting of a bowl of fruit. "I can see there's an apple and a banana and a rotten orange, and it makes me wonder why the orange is out there, all alone, you know? It makes me feel for the orange, I guess? I had a reaction to it. I think that's what I'm trying to say."
It's hard not to have a reaction to it. Oranges were one of Rin's favorite things. To see one wasted and decaying—it must speak to something inside her, some lonely or helpless feeling. I'm hoping Rin might shed some light on this piece's intent, but she doesn't go for it.
"I tried all different styles to see how people would respond to them. Being realistic seems to work best. People seem to understand what's in the art more. Before, it was like a windshield in the rain. You can't see out of it very well."
"Compared to what?"
She blinks. "A windshield not in the rain? Or with wipers. Have you ever heard the sound when wipers drag on a windshield? I think that's the sound that scares me most. I don't usually wake up when I have nightmares, but if I hear that sound, I always do. Do you have a sound like that?"
I stare at her, mouth hanging open slightly, but once again, her wandering gaze snaps back to me, and with it, some of the life seems to seep out of her.
"Sorry. People seem to understand what's in the art more. Let's stop there."
I nod, understanding that much, at least. "I'm glad," I tell her. "I'm happy for you, Rin—that people are starting to understand you a little."
She shrugs again. "They understand the paintings."
What does that mean? I fail to see any distinction between the two. Rin all but told me so when she left. She wanted people to understand her through her work because it was the only language she felt she could speak competently. Yet from her words now, I'm forced to think she must have something else in mind when she paints, but I can't fathom what.
Her mindset has changed, though. That much is clear. She doesn't really look any different—despite the trappings of a woman that she wears now—but there's a lot going on beyond those deep green irises of hers. There always has been. I stare into them, trying to gain some insight.
What I see is the curling of the muscles around her eyes. Her lips turn up, ever-so-slightly, into one of her muted but distinct smiles. "You still get upset so easily, Hisao."
I chuckle a bit, feeling my worries die down. "I'm glad you remember."
"Of course I remember," she says, her gaze starting to wander again. "If I could forget, you'd be talking to a different person right now."
Whether she means that in a literal or metaphorical sense, I couldn't possibly know.
After this burst of chatter from the two of us, we settle into silence. I study Rin's recent works some more, and a few visitors stroll in to talk with her. Some of them are visibly surprised by her lack of hands, but few people directly ask about it. They ask about her preferences in brushes and media, and she answers these questions rather easily, but the ones who ask what a particular piece means, or what Rin was feeling at the time, get a rather curt answer from her.
"I'd rather not talk about that," she says.
It's not elegant, but it gets the job done.
For a while, I feel like I should leave her alone. We've talked, as bizarre as it was, and I don't know what else I have to say other than that I might like to visit now and then. But as the evening wears on, I notice more and more the tension on Rin's face. She's stayed calm and composed when dealing with so many strangers—not like the girl who was so quickly overwhelmed and broke down—but I can see it's taxing for her. Just to keep her eyes still and focused is taking all her willpower.
I touch her lightly on the shoulder, and she flinches, but when she catches my eyes, she settles down. "Why don't we go outside, huh?" I say to her. "It's pretty stuffy in here. I'm working up a sweat being under all these bright lights. I don't know how you do it."
Silently, Rin nods, and I escort her out. Only when we clear the doors to the exhibition hall and return to dimly lit hallways of the rest of the building does she say a word.
"Thank you, Hisao." Her voice is quiet and soft.
"That's what friends are for."
"Are we friends still?" she asks.
"I would like to be."
She says nothing to do that, her gaze fixed forward. I try to navigate my way back to the exit, but Rin abruptly turns down another passage. "Where are you going?" I ask.
"This way is better."
She's like a magnet, and I'm drawn to her pull. I follow, and she leads me to a back exit. It's a small square, with several buildings nestled around a walkway, flanked by overhanging trees. Rin leans against the side of the exhibition building, and I take up a position opposite her, across the doorway.
"There's a pond down the road," she says. "I like to go there sometimes. It's too far, though."
"Have you painted it?" I ask.
She nods. "The pond, the fountain, the whole park. Even when the park changes—when the landscapers trim the grass, or when the leaves fall—it doesn't really change. There are still trees and buildings and homeless people sleeping under blue tents. It's very mysterious."
I think one of these descriptions isn't nearly as picturesque as the others, but I let it pass.
I look to the sky. The light's fading, and I'm not familiar with the city at night. I'd rather head back while there's still daylight, if I'm going to be doing it alone. I'm grateful, though, that we have some degree of privacy here. Maybe that's what was on Rin's mind, too.
It gives me the chance to say something, to part with her again on a different and better note. But what should I say? What is it I came here to do?
Seeing her lean back against the wall in quiet contemplation, I realize the answer:
I wanted to see that she was all right, that she'd coped and moved on, that she hadn't let the past hold her back. By all appearances, Rin has done that. She's beautiful right now; her green eyes have never been more striking. She's successful and progressing in school, and she has an advisor who's keenly attuned to her needs.
But a doubt hangs in my heart. Rin's paintings were always windows into her soul, even if I could hardly see the meaning in them. Her demeanor is often inscrutable even now, but I think of her painting of the fruit bowl, with the orange isolated and decayed. What does that say about what she's feeling? There's a flyer on the door with a cubist face—a logo taken directly from one of Rin's works, too, but half of the face is missing. I can't know for sure, but these pieces speak to me of isolation, of being incomplete, of change that can't be stopped, leading to decay. I can't know that these feelings lie in Rin's heart, though. She was never so transparent as that, and standing with me now, she doesn't betray any distress.
So I say the only thing I can—I make an offer, one she's free to take up or ignore.
"So, I'm in town for a while," I say. "I guess I'm actually living here now. My place isn't far. Maybe fifteen, twenty minutes tops? So it wouldn't be any trouble to get together from time to time, if you wanted. If you're looking for someone new to talk to, or if you're having trouble thinking about things, I'd welcome seeing a familiar face."
Rin looks up, her gaze wandering among the trees. "I'll have to think about that." She frowns. "But if I have trouble thinking about that, that might be a real problem. Then I might decide to visit without having decided to visit. Very problematic."
I have no idea what she's saying, but her reasoning is so much like what I remembered. I think that's what I feared the most—that I'd meet Rin and she'd be unrecognizable. It's not so. Rin is still Rin, still herself, in a lot of ways. That's a comfort to me, too.
"I should probably go inside," she says, pushing off the wall.
"Yeah, I need to get going, too. It was good to see you, Rin. Take care of yourself."
She nods, and I turn to head off. It may not have gone exactly the way I expected, but all in all, I think everything went for the best. Rin seems to have found a good place for herself here. That's what counts in the end.
I turn for the nearest road, not exactly sure which way I need to go to get back to the main street, when a voice calls out to me.
With the setting sun behind her, all I can see are shadows and her silhouette. She takes a couple steps toward me but stops at a comfortable distance.
"Have you ever painted a mural?" she asks.
I can't say that I have, and as usual, I'm dumbfounded by what comes up in Rin's mind.
"You need a good base first," she says. "A plain layer to work off of, so all the colors come out even. That layer is made of paint, too."
That seems reasonable, I think.
"You still ask questions of me, Hisao."
I feel a pang of guilt at that. I know it saddens her, but I don't know what else to do, how else to understand her.
"But maybe that's okay," she adds, "because when a person tries to understand another, maybe it's like painting a mural."
I'm not real sure what to make of that, and I don't have a chance to ask before the shadow of the girl before me turns to the door.
"Good night, Hisao."
Good night, Rin. I may not be a fortune teller, but I have a feeling I'll be seeing you soon after all.