When I open my eyes, the sun comes through the blinds in narrow bands, creating a pattern of light and shadow on the sheets. It has to be morning. It's too bright to still be afternoon or evening.
The night was peaceful, I think. Rin is a calm sleeper. I sometimes think she dreams while awake, so sleeping isn't very different for her. What tends to be more interesting is waking her up. Like anyone else, she can curl up and ask for five more minutes of rest. It's a little childish, but it's sweet.
I turn my head and reach over to nudge her awake, but she isn't there.
She's not in the room at all.
Damn. I should've realized it sooner; the bed's too small not to have felt her beside me at some point. When did she leave?
More than that, why did she leave? The thought makes my heart sink; this is feeling very familiar. The only time we've been intimate before, I woke up to find her painting again, and she was jittery and on-edge. She recoiled just at my touch. I thought for sure she must've felt violated somehow, but she never said what exactly troubled her.
Is Rin only able to react naturally when she's not herself? When she's sleep-deprived and hungry or high on codeine? At all other times, does she just find something in herself that keeps her from reacting, that makes her second-guess what she should do? Maybe her brain goes too fast for her body, and by the time her body can catch up, she's already thinking about clouds in the sky or unicorns grazing at a Savannah watering hole.
I may never know the answer to that, truly. I just know that Rin isn't here.
Clang! Something metal hits the tile floor outside, and that shouldn't happen. Mitsuru considers most kitchen utensils and such to be poisonous. He won't touch them. Sumi would've sworn mightily for being so clumsy. The noticeable lack of reaction can only mean…
I go to the bedroom door, only to stop and realize that my clothes are still on the floor. I take a minute to remedy the situation, pulling on a fresh white shirt to put some barrier between me and the cool morning air, along with fresh underwear and socks. Only then do I wander out.
And I see Rin.
A steel pan lies on the floor, and Rin seems perfectly oblivious to it, for she's sitting on the counter. She holds an egg between the big and middle toes on her right foot and cracks it on the edge of a bowl, letting the yolk fall in.
She's making breakfast for me.
It's the most natural thing to do for someone you love, but for Rin, it's demands far more effort, creativity, and affection, and I love her for it.
"You sleep in really late," she says, not looking up from her work. "That's okay, though. I'm not finished yet."
"Late?" I echo. "What time is it?"
"That's not late."
"It is when you go to bed at seven. But I guess you were tired. I was too."
She's got a point. I could say I'm an overworked graudate student who needs that kind of sleep, but really, I'm not too concerned about defending my sleep habits. I'm much more interested in what Rin's doing.
An array of ingredients is strewn over the counter. Some of them, like the soy sauce, I know are stored in high cabinets above the stove, and I'm at a loss to imagine how Rin got at them, but if nothing else, Rin exceeds expectations, just because she can. How many times did she jump off the counter to retrieve something only to hop back up again? How badly did she twist and contort herself to slice the onions or open the carton of eggs? She didn't have to do this, but she wanted to—for me or for herself, maybe both. Whatever the case, it touches my heart and makes its irregular beat a bit steadier.
"Now you can help," she says, moving right along. "Can you—?" She stops, finally looking at me, and a strange expression comes over her. It changes her face slowly, but a small smile perks up the corners of her lips. "Never mind that," she says. "I think I should say something different."
She tilts her head, and strands of her disheveled hair dangle over the edge of the counter. "Not sure. Something about this moment, about this time and place, about right now."
"How about, 'Good morning'?"
"Good morning." She frowns, puckering her lips like she ate something sour. "Hm, not quite. Close, though. Good morning, Hisao."
"Morning. What made you start cooking?"
"People eat in the morning. At least, that's what I'm led to believe. And I've always wanted to really learn to cook. I'm getting better at it, but most things don't work well with feet."
"They should have a counter and stovetop that's low to the ground," I say. "A traditional dinner table is low to the ground, too, and you sit by it using cushions, not chairs. Why not make the kitchen the same way?"
"I thought the same thing. Are you a mind-reader physicist now, Hisao? Does the power only activate after you have sex?"
I laugh. "Maybe I'm reading your mind, but it certainly hasn't happened before."
"Really? I thought you said you had girlfriends."
"That's not what I mean!"
"It's okay," she assures me. "If you didn't, they were missing out. There's no problem in your pants after all. Quite fulfilling."
That is strangely reassuring.
"Hisao," she says, her tone small and pensive, "would you help me make breakfast?"
"Are you sure? If you'd rather do it yourself, I won't interfere or distract you." Maybe she thought I was hanging around because I didn't think she could do it. I don't want to give that impression.
"I'm behind enough as it is. Your stomach was growling all night. Why do they say stomachs growl? They don't sound like tigers or lions. Maybe they should say stomachs warble, like cicadas."
I chuckle. "Okay, let's get to it, then." She's right; I'm famished from last night. We skipped dinner with our own, er, activities, and Rin's only been preparing a small portion. I usually make breakfast for Sumi and Mitsuru, too.
Sumi and Mitsuru?
They went across the hall for dinner, and as far as I can tell, Mitsuru never came back. His door down the hall is open, and all this commotion surely would've woken him up by now. Sumi must've kept him from coming back.
This breakfast is going to be awkward.
While Rin beats the eggs, I leave a message on Sumi's phone letting her know we're awake and working on breakfast. I expect this is the most discreet way to let her know I haven't forgotten about her and Mitsuru. Her reply, however, is characteristically teasing.
"You'd better have Tezuka stay for breakfast," Sumi writes back. "It's not polite to kick a girl out after you've taken advantage of her."
Something about that rubs me the wrong way, so I send back, "Who said I'm the one who was taking advantage?"
"So you're saying she took advantage of you instead? Do tell. I'll listen to every detail and judge impartially."
On second thought, getting into this argument was a bad, bad idea, and I resolve to write Sumi again only when breakfast is ready. Luckily, neither the eggs nor the corn soup take too long, and Sumi and Mitsuru wander over without making too much of a fuss.
"So, Hisao," Mitsuru begins as we sit to eat, "you hit the home run, right?"
Sumi elbows him in the side. "Really?" she says. "Aren't you out of high school now? Or do we need to send you back?"
"I was talking about baseball!" he insists. "I was talking about how Hisao needed to emulate Oh. Oh hit only .161 in his first season, but he revamped his swing and started clobbering home runs. I was asking Hisao if he did the same."
"And what would Hisao need to revamp himself for?" asks Sumi.
Rin blinks, clearly baffled. "I thought they only had home runs in baseball. Is there another sport they have them in?"
"Yeah," says Mitsuru. "The horizontal tango."
Sumi fumes at that, and she pinches Mitsuru's ear. "Hisao's business is Hisao's, got it? If he wants to share baseball stories with you, that's his choice."
"I was talking about Oh!"
"Oh no you weren't!"
This sibling bickering goes on for most of breakfast, with Mitsuru trying to rephrase his questions to be innocent and Sumi having none of it. Rin, on the other hand, struggles over how dancing the tango can be a sport and wonders if figure skating really should be considered one, too.
Eventually, Mitsuru gets the hint that what happened between Rin and me is off limits, and he satisfies himself with reciting Central League MVPs back to the 1960s. Sumi turns her attentions to Rin.
"So, do you cook often?" asks Sumi.
"Not really. Sometimes I just don't feel hungry, especially if I'm painting, but it's something I want to learn how to do. It feels a little like another form of art in some ways, so that interests me."
"I hadn't thought of it that way; I guess I've been too focused on getting things done because when Ryou would get home, he'd just be starving and devour whatever was ready, pretty or not. Still, I guess I've learned a thing or two. Maybe we can work together on a dish sometime?"
Rin nods cautiously, and Sumi goes on.
"That's great! And just so it doesn't sound like I'm inviting you over just to slave in the kitchen, we can have some fun after dinner one of these nights. I was thinking of starting a tabletop game—it's something Ryou and I used to do in Okinawa—but all the stuff going on lately really made me wait a bit. Maybe we can get something started now that that's settled and you and Hisao are together."
"Together?" Rin looks to me. "Are we together, Hisao?"
"Most likely," I answer.
Sumi glares at that, appalled, so I add,
"As sure as I can be of anything. Definitely. Yes."
"We're together." Rin sounds unconvinced, and it's like she holds the words on her lips to decide if she likes them. "That sounds fluffy," she concludes. "Like cotton candy."
"The game?" asks Sumi. "Or that you're together?"
"Undecided. One of those. Maybe both of those. Probably both of those."
Sumi looks to me slyly. "I see where you get your way with words."
I can't deny that. Rin's thought process rubs off on you after a while. You get used to dealing with ambiguous answers and tangled lines of thinking. I say tangled instead of muddled because individually, I think all of Rin's thoughts make sense. It's just that they intersect and weave together in such complicated ways—they don't separate easily.
Still, I consider this breakfast a success. Sumi's taken a strong liking to Rin, and that's important to me. Rin is reentering my life on good terms with the people around me. It means the obstacle between us is the one we've already been fighting: the barrier to understanding. We may plow through it, we may chip away at it, we may decide we can be there for each other with that wall still intact, but it shapes our interactions. It gives form to our friendship. We would not have struggled and come out the way we are without it.
The weekend passes by too quickly. As touching as it was to be with Rin, we both have things we want or need to do. Rin leaves breakfast confident and inspired, eager to get back to her studio and paint. My weekend is just grueling, with coursework piling up to my eyes. Losing all of Friday night didn't help in that respect, not that I regret it.
And though I want to work with Sumi, she has her own matters to tend to. Come Monday, Ryou is starting his first day back in SDF, and Sumi spends all Sunday night checking and rechecking the apartment for something he might've left behind, something he might need. It falls to me to make sure she gets up early enough Monday morning to see him off.
Naturally, when I knock on the door to wake her, she's already dressed and waiting.
"You weren't planning on coming in your pajamas, were you?" she teases.
No, I absolutely wasn't. "Did you sleep?" I ask her.
She shakes her head meekly. This is a tough thing for her, but she puts on a brave face. It's so early in the morning it's not even bright out, but the three of us—Mitsuru, Sumi, and I—make our way about an hour across town to the SDF camp in Nerima. It's a long hike for a short meeting. When we approach the perimeter, Ryou is there in fatigues, constantly pulling and scratching at his uniform.
"It doesn't fit quite right," he remarks. "It itches. I'll just have to get used to it, though."
"Is that what big, tough guys in SDF do?" asks Sumi. "They train with thirty-kilo packs, in the rain, with itchy clothing and smelly boots?"
"Something like that, yeah," says Ryou.
Sumi wraps her arms around him, her head barely coming up to Ryou's chin. "Then I'm glad you're my tough SDF guy," she says, "because if anyone can handle it, it's you."
Ryou looks to me and Mitsuru helplessly. He may be able to disassemble a rifle in under thirty seconds, but showing affection for his wife in public still flusters him. I tap Mitsuru on the shoulder and turn him away.
After all, it'd be a crime to let these two go their separate ways without sharing a kiss.
Their separation isn't permanent, of course, but once the kiss is done and Ryou strides forward for the gate, Sumi faces the challenge ahead of her with determination and strength. It won't be easy. In a way, it's exactly what she feared, but to do what was best for herself and her husband, she was able to walk a path she'd found frightening before. She changed the course of her marriage for the better, despite her worries, and I have the utmost respect for her as a result.
I, on the other hand, still have a choice in front of me, one I haven't settled on. I'm pretty sure I don't want to be working in solid state anymore, at least not with the hands-on, experimental stuff. I want to see more of the big picture, to be able to take the problems we want to solve in my hands and work to make them understood. There's no shortage of options; there's just the matter of choosing one for myself.
When I come to class Tuesday afternoon, I find the door to that path open, waiting for me to walk through it. It takes the form of a journal article, printed out and lying on my desk.
"Chaos Theory, Heart Rate Variability, and Arrhythmic Mortality," reads the title.
It's like a glimpse of my life and death all rolled into a single paper.
"Is this real?" I blurt out.
"Very real," says Professor Chiba, grinning. "What do you think, Mr. Nakai? You seem to have a personal stake in this sort of research. Chaos is one of the most fascinating subjects within nonlinear dynamics. Any of my colleagues in the nonlinear group would be more than qualified to supervise such research. And biophysics is all the rage these days. There's money coming out of politicians' eyes for this."
It seems almost too good to be true. It's enough to catch my interest, at least. Just brushing up on the differential equations background is enough to make me realize how much math I would need to get into this field, but that doesn't intimidate me. It's not unintelligible; there's just all this talk of stability analysis and linearized systems that tells me I should review a good bit, or maybe take an additional class next term just to find out about it.
"You should do it. It sounds like you."
When I see Rin that evening and explain the paper to her, that's her opinion. No hesitation, no time to think about it. There's just absolute certainty, and it's enough to convince me.
"All right," I say. "I'll talk to Professor Chiba tomorrow about joining his group. Even though he intimidates me a little, he's gone this far to help me find something I'd like, so he can't be that bad."
"Good." She doesn't look up from her canvas, even though she could look me in the eye if she wanted to. The back of the canvas faces me; she wants this work to be a surprise.
The door to the studio inches open, and a gray-haired woman strolls in with a tray of teacups. "Are we enjoying ourselves here?" asks Professor Adachi. "I was just getting ready to leave, and I thought the two of you might enjoy some refreshment. It also gives me an excuse to peek at Rin's new piece."
"She won't let you look," I warn her as I take a steaming teacup. "It's bad luck, you know."
"Teacher's immune to bad luck," says Rin, making no protest as Adachi circles around to examine the painting. "I once saw her break three mirrors in ten seconds, but she came back from the pachinko parlor the next day with twice as much money as when she left. Very mysterious."
"I have been known to gamble now and then," Adachi admits, peering at the painting with her reading glasses. "And I usually come out better than the house does." She stifles a giggle. "Oh my. How scandalous, Rin! Is this really a good idea?"
"It's not meant to be scandalous."
"No, I suppose not. Is this the kind of thing you want to paint, going forward?"
Rin shrugs. "It might be. Let's see how this one turns out first."
Adachi pats Rin on the shoulder, and Rin doesn't flinch or shy away. Her concentration is unbreakable, but I think I catch a glimpse of a slight smile on her face.
Adachi leaves the cup of tea by the side of Rin's chair, and she tucks the empty tray under her arm. She walks back toward the studio door, where I'm doodling away. I should be working or reading papers, but the sight of Rin working is something I want to record in my memory, so I sketch her instead. Adachi peers at my doodles, not pretending to be subtle about it, and laughs softly to herself.
"Sharp, jagged lines, far too thick to capture anything. Oh, how refreshing it is to see—someone with the persistence to make art with the tools and skills afforded to him. I think too many of us accept only perfect technique and sharpened pencils before we begin. That's not what art's about, though, not in my mind. It's been a pleasure having you here, Nakai. I hope you know that. Both for me and for Rin."
"I don't intend to go anywhere," I say, sipping on my teacup.
"But I am," she says. "Or rather, Rin is going somewhere. It's just a matter of time before she finishes assembling her final portfolio. Sure, if she goes for a master's in fine arts she can stay for a bit longer, but now or later, she will move on. I'm getting old, Nakai, and I likely won't take many more students, if I take any after Rin at all. I have done my best to guide this girl and give her support. I'm glad that you've returned to her life, for it gives me peace of mind, knowing you will be there even after I've stepped back from her life. Do you understand me?"
It's a role I'm happy to fill. "But Professor," I say, "you don't think Rin will just leave you behind and forget you, do you?"
"Perhaps students remember great teachers," she says, "but good teachers leave their mark and are eclipsed by their students in time. I take pride knowing I've left a good mark and helped a brilliant girl wander through the road of life with a helping hand." She bows slightly, smiling. "Good night, Nakai."
"Good night, Professor."
She opens the door to the studio and make to leave, but as she steps into the hall, Rin calls out. "Teacher?"
Adachi brushes a strand of gray hair from her face, looking back. "Yes?"
Rin cocks her head, puzzled, and finally resolves to shrug, much to Adachi's amusement. The old professor chuckles to herself.
"I understand perfectly," she says. "Good night, Rin."
Adachi slips out, and Rin works quietly for the next hour or so. How quickly we've settled back into old patterns, with me working on coursework (or pretending to do so) while Rin paints. I must say I still don't know how my presence helps her. Maybe having someone around reminds her that she wants to paint to reach people? Maybe it gives her a sense of urgency not to keep me waiting? I don't know. And, it probably doesn't matter. Rin likes it, and that's enough for me.
A paintbrush is laid to rest, rousing me from my thoughts. "Done for the day?" I ask.
"Done," she says flatly. "Come look."
I close my notebook and come around. It's a painting of my apartment—the common area and the kitchen. Rin has painted herself on the counter, grasping at the whisk with her toes, and I'm looking on, hardly dressed well enough to be in a painting, with a smile on my face as I watch her.
"I wanted to say something," says Rin, "but every time I put it on my tongue, it tasted really weird, so I painted this instead. It won't mean the same to other people as it means to us, but that's okay. Art means different things to different people anyway, so why not do this?"
I can't help but agree. Capturing that moment means those feelings will stay with us forever. It's a moment we've shared together; it's a testament to the connection between us. Though we may never understand each other perfectly, there are things we can both look back on and remember.
"You didn't used to smile," Rin goes on, "but now you can. Now you do. You've changed, but you're still a lot the same, too. I want to do that. I've decided. I've always painted, and I'll still paint. Some things I'll paint for just you and me. Some things I'll paint for people, even if they don't really capture who I am. And sometimes I'll try to see if all of me can be understood—or at least more of me. I'll keep trying all these things, and people will learn about me one stroke at a time. The arms I hug people with aren't mine yet, but I can make them more and more my own."
Such hope is what I've tried to bring out in her; it's moving to hear that it's taken root. I kiss her on the cheek, but she fusses.
"Messy," she says. "When you do that, you slobber."
She's never been one to hold back her displeasure. Well, I aim to please. I wipe at her cheek with my thumb, but Rin rises before I can finish.
"We should eat," she says.
I agree with that. I'm famished, too, and Sumi will be starting dinner soon. Rin turns out the lights and locks up the studio, and we go together, confident and sure, for we both know the way.
Here ends "Direction," which I hope demonstrates well how old wounds can heal, how people set in their ways and lines of thinking can come together to forge new paths for themselves, realizing they must be true to their hearts.
I hope you've enjoyed the story. I don't currently have any plans for another KS piece, though I do have some ill-formed ideas, but I'll be writing, in any case. Hopefully we can meet again someday.
Until next time,
2013 February 11
For notes and commentary on this story, visit westofarcturus dot blogspot dot com