The dream always started the same way. A clear night sky, illuminated by countless shining stars, brilliant clouds of color forming nebulae, and splashes of light from far away galaxies. Takaki could lose himself staring into that sky all night long. As he brought his eyes downward, he started seeing the clouds gathering along the horizon, he could feel the wind picking and whipping against his clothes, and he could almost see a sliver of light from the rising sun. He was always on a faraway world, an alien landscape, and stretching in front of the hill he stood on lay an ocean of barren craters and dead trees. As the sun rose, he would become aware of someone sitting next to him. A woman. The sun came up, blinding in its brilliance, and he would turn to his right, trying to see her face. Most of the time, he could never make out her face. One time, when he was in high school, he dreamed it was Akari, sitting next to him. She smiled at him and said nothing. He wanted so much to reach out to her, touch her, and tell her all the feelings he had held back that day they had last seen each other. That's when he would start to realize that he was dreaming, because he knew that such things could never be, and a stab of deep sadness would penetrate his heart.
He felt his eyes adjusting to the light. The landscape was the same, always the same. The starry night was the same. Everything was the same this time, like always. He looked to his side at the woman who sat next to him. She stood up and turned her head to face him.
For the first time, he saw Kanae standing next to him. She was smiling. Her eyes were soft and kind. She opened her mouth to say something, but in the wind, he could not hear her.
Takaki woke up. He slowly sat up in bed and looked at the clock. It was early in the morning, almost 6:00.
"That dream again," he said softly to himself.
Almost one year into their relationship, Kanae traveled with Takaki to Nagano to meet his parents. Each day, Kanae could feel herself growing closer and closer to Takaki. He was the rocket flying off into space that she never could catch up to. She was the much slower rocket. But now, either she had managed to catch up, or he had slowed down. She felt she was finally living at the same speed. Each day, she would see Takaki, to have dinner after work, or to go out on dates during the weekend. Occasionally, he still accompanied her on surfing. On days when she had the misfortune of not seeing him, they always called each other to talk on the phone. They would talk about both small and big things, sometimes she felt she talked to him for no other reason but to hear the sound of his voice. He was always the last person she would talk to before sleeping. Kanae thought that if for some reason, they failed to talk, she would go to sleep with a deep unsettled anxiety in her heart. And each night, before they said goodbye, Takaki always closed with those precious words.
"I love you."
Kanae introduced Takaki to everyone who was important to her, in Tanegashima. When Saki came back to visit, she would join Kanae, Takaki, and Yukko for dinner, where they would reminisce.
"We knew how much she loved you, even back then," Saki said to Takaki, as Kanae sat next to him, her face slightly crimson, her hand clutching Takaki's tightly under the table.
"We were always asking her about how things were progressing, if she was ever going to confess to you," Yukko added.
"She was always looking at you," Saki said with a smile. "Always."
"We're so happy to see the two of you together, after all these years," Yukko said.
After dinner, when Takaki went to the restroom, the girlfriends prodded Kanae for more details, if they had had all their "firsts" yet. Had they met each other's parents? Were they growing closer as a couple? Did they take any trips together yet? How was their first kiss? Did they make love yet?
"No, not yet," Kanae said. "I'm not ready for that yet."
"I see," Yukko said. "You're waiting for marriage."
"Ma-marriage?" Kanae stuttered, blushing. She had not really spoken of it to anyone, but deep in her heart it was her fondest wish.
"Have you discussed it yet?" Saki said.
"No. Not really. I'm afraid to bring it up. I don't want to scare him away. Maybe he's not ready either."
"Well," Saki said, "He did move all the way down here for you. That's a good sign, right?"
Kanae played back these conversations in her head as she stared out the window of the moving train, speeding through the snowy landscape, carrying her to Takaki's parents. Takaki looked with her out the window, but his mind thought back to something different. A sadder memory, of times long past, when he had traveled alone at the age of thirteen all the way to Iwafune to meet Akari. So much waiting, so much agonizing and checking his watch. He remembered all the feelings of that night, the feeling of wanting to see Akari so badly, but feeling guilty that she was waiting for him. He remembered the eight page letter he had taken two whole weeks to write, which had contained all his feelings and dreams, and in which he closed with the words, "I love you, Akari." They were words he could not muster up the courage to say that night. He had never liked taking the trains after that. Every time he rode a train, especially at night during the winter, he would think back to that fateful night with Akari and their first kiss, and feel the pain of knowing that they were destined never to be together...
Those times were gone now. Now he had a wonderful woman next to him, at his side. He hoped she would always stay by his side. With Kanae, he could finally forget, not Akari, but the pain he felt in his heart from losing Akari. He would always remember and cherish Akari. But he could now look forward to sharing his dreams with Kanae.
The train pulled into the station.
Takaki and Kanae stepped off the train, onto the platform. Takaki's parents were both standing there, waiting. Takaki felt a lump in his throat when he saw them again. It had been more than a year since he had seen his parents. He rarely even called them, maybe once a month. He thought that, deep in his heart, in his adolescence, he resented his parents a little because of all the moving. If he had never had to move to Kagoshima for junior high... he might have stayed closer to Akari, and they could have had a future together. That's what he thought sometimes. He had had several girlfriends, one for as long as three years, but never had he brought one of them home to meet his parents. He had never felt the relationship progress to the point where he had wanted to do that. Perhaps that explained the expression of pure joy on his parents' faces when they beheld Kanae for the first time.
After embracing his mother and father, Takaki stepped back and gestured toward his girlfriend.
"Mom, Dad," he said, "I want you to meet my girlfriend... Kanae Sumida."
Kanae, smiling radiantly, bowed and said, "It's so nice to meet you."
"Oh Kanae," Mrs. Tohno said, stepping forward and clasping her hands. "We've heard so much about you."
Mrs. Tohno folded Kanae into a warm embrace.
Takaki's father wiped his eye a little. "We were starting to think this day would never come. Takaki never brought home a woman before."
"Dad," Takaki said, "Please, stop. You're embarrassing me."
Kanae laughed. "I was the same way," she said. "I never brought a man home until Takaki."
They laughed together as they departed the station.
Takaki and Kanae spend the weekend at his parents' place. They were both so eager and happy to entertain Kanae, Takaki almost felt like they were completely different people. When Takaki and Kanae found themselves alone, Kanae asked about his parents.
"Your parents are so nice," she said happily. "I love them."
"They really love you," Takaki said.
As Kanae kissed Takaki good night, she felt joy in her heart, knowing that she had come one step closer to the man she loved.
On the one year anniversary of their relationship, Takaki asked Kanae to meet him at the beach at sunrise.
Kanae was curious to know what this was about. It wasn't for surfing. He had just said he wanted to see her so they could enjoy the sunrise together.
"I wonder if he remembers it's our anniversary," Kanae said. She hoped so. Perhaps he had something special planned.
She found Takaki standing alone at the top of the beach. The sun still had not yet risen. The beach was cloaked in darkness. She could still see the faint stars above. The wind whipped around her, and she felt a brief chill. Kanae huddled under her jacket and shivered for a moment.
"Good morning, Takaki," she said.
Takaki turned to her and smiled. He reached out with his hand and Kanae took it. They held hands on the beach and watched the small sliver of light on the horizon.
"I know what day today is," Takaki said.
Kanae looked at him and smiled. He was still looking toward the sunrise. The sun's sliver developed further, throwing brighter colors into the sky and reflecting off the ocean. Gradually, it became bright enough to become blinding, and they had to shield their eyes as the darkness vanished completely.
They sat down on the sand.
"When we were in school together," Takaki said, "I would always have this dream. I'd dream that I was watching the sunrise over an alien planet. I don't know why. Maybe it's because I wanted to be an astronaut when I was younger. You could see all the stars and planets above so clearly. It was so beautiful. There was always a woman next to me. And I would feel sad in the dream because that's when I would realize I was really dreaming, and that I would wake up alone. It was because that woman was just a memory. She didn't exist for me anymore. I was chasing a ghost. I kept having that dream, over and over."
Kanae said nothing as she looked into Takaki's eyes. She grasped his hand tightly, to let him know he didn't have to feel alone anymore.
"I had the dream again, not too long ago," Takaki said. "But this time it was different. This time, you were in my dream. We were watching the sunrise together. I didn't have that sad lonely feeling anymore. I felt happy for the first time. I think it must mean that you're in my heart now, Kanae. I don't have to look and search for someone who isn't there. The woman I needed was right in front of me the whole time. All these years, I was suffering. I couldn't allow myself to be happy. I couldn't move on from what happened to me in the past. I was a prisoner... You set me free."
Takaki pulled out a small jewelry box from his pocket and got on one knee, moving himself right in front of Kanae.
Kanae felt her heart stop as she looked at Takaki and realized what was happening. All the times she had spent with Takaki, both good and bad, came back to her. All the pain and heartbreak she had gone through as a teenager, and all the happiness of being reunited with Takaki as an adult, came back to her.
Takaki opened the box to reveal a shining diamond ring.
"Kanae," Takaki said with a smile, "I love you so much. I want to take the next step with you. Let's always be together, forever. Will you marry me?"
Kanae threw her arms around Takaki. For a while, all she could do was utter his name.
"Takaki," she said, hugging him tightly. She felt his arms around her, and tried her best to commit this feeling to memory. This was the moment when all her dreams came true.
"Takaki!" she said again, hugging him.
I love you so much, she wanted to say. I always knew you were special. I always wanted to be near you. I thought I would never see you again, but I was blessed with a second chance. You finally saw me for who I was, and you loved me. You let me in and showed me all the good and bad things about you, even the parts that maybe you didn't want anyone else to see. But I was so happy that you shared all those things with me. I can't wait to share even more things with you.
Kanae wanted to say all that, but the words were choked up in her throat.
Instead, she cried out one more time, "Takaki!" and embraced him even more tightly.
I can't wait to share the rest of my life with you.
A vision of the future, blinding in its clarity, came to Kanae in that moment. All the lines of fate interwoven throughout their lives had converged on this one spot. She saw the future clearly for the first time. Love, marriage, children, family. Through it all, Takaki would be at her side, always encouraging, always supporting, always loving. There would be hard times, maybe, even some fights and arguments, but they would always make up, because they would both remember how much trials they had gone through to find one another. She knew they would never take their love for granted. She saw them having so many adventures and experiences together, and growing old together. When it was all over, they could leave this life with no regrets. Kanae thought of all these things and felt that now, her life was finally complete. That hole in her heart had healed completely.
Kanae looked Takaki in the eyes. She felt the tears welling up.
"Yes," she said blissfully, smiling and crying at the same time, as Takaki slipped the ring onto her finger.
Takaki put his hands on her face and leaned in to kiss her.
Takaki... I love you!
"Happy anniversary," Takaki said.
The wedding took place three months later. It was a small affair, a western style wedding held in a small chapel. Very few people were present. On Takaki's side, only his parents and grandparents. He didn't feel that he had any friends close enough to invite to his wedding. On Kanae's side, her parents, grandparents, her sister and family, Saki, and Yukko with her husband were in attendance. Kanae didn't mind the small size of the wedding. She had never had any preconceived dreams of what her dream wedding would be like; she was marrying Takaki and nothing else mattered. As the minister had her recite the vows, Kanae could not help choking up during the service. Her voice faltered; her eyes welled up in tears. It was all she could do to hold herself together in front of everyone.
God, I must be such a mess, she thought to herself as she recited the time honored vows. I cry over the littlest thing now. How embarrassing.
But, as she looked into Takaki's eyes and saw his warm smile, and as she felt him reach over to wipe the tears away from her face, she reminded herself this was one of the qualities that he found so endearing, the way she was unafraid to show her feelings and wear her emotions on her sleeve.
When it was Takaki's turn to recite his vows, Kanae looked into his eyes again and noticed the way his voice, too, faltered a bit from the emotion, and his eyes glistened slightly, but he refrained from openly weeping. He was always like that, she reflected. She rarely saw him cry in front of her.
As they slipped the wedding bands onto each other's fingers, Kanae felt the buildup of tension in her heart. The moment was finally arriving, the moment when the officiant minister would proclaim them man and wife, and tell Takaki he could kiss the bride. The veil was lifted slowly, and they gazed into each other's eyes. There had always been a thin veil between them, all these years. Kanae reflected on all the lonely nights she had spent longing for Takaki, wishing against all hope that he would see her, even if for just a moment. He had always looked through her, past her, to something or someone far away and unreachable. He had spent his nights looking into the sky, wishing on a star a hundred million light years away, for the chance at a life he felt always just beyond the reach of his fingertips. Now his eyes were on her and her alone. She wondered what was going through his mind as her own thoughts raced through her own...
Am I beautiful enough for you?
Can I be the one who will make you happy?
I promise to love you all the days of my life.
I'll give you everything, all of myself, my heart, my body, my mind, my soul, until there is nothing left to give.
Her thoughts melted away with their first kiss as husband and wife, and Kanae savored each sensation, the softness of his lips, the feel of his arms around her, holding her close; she felt herself sinking into him, like an unending fall in a dream from which she hoped never to awaken.
That night, when the reception had ended and everyone had gone home, Kanae and Takaki made love for the first time. It was Kanae's first sexual experience, and she let him know that fact. She was nervous, but ready and willing to give herself completely to him. In the quiet darkness of their hotel room, with nothing but the moonlight filtering in through the curtains, they sat next to each other, naked before each other. Every kiss, every touch, every caress produced a warm tingling sensation throughout her whole body, filling her with a desire and a hunger for more. She wanted him so badly, she had no fear of any pain as she pulled him inside of her and they moved together.
Closer, she thought. I want to be closer to him.
She hugged him tightly as he moved inside of her, gasping with each thrust, and when they had climaxed together, they clasped hands and cried each other's name in ecstasy and joy.
The next day, there were more "firsts" for Kanae to enjoy and savor. First morning together as a married couple. Waking up next to her husband, both of them naked beneath their covers and the aura of their night of passion lingering in the air. Partaking their first breakfast together, enjoying the room service. Returning to Takaki's home, now their home, where, just before entering, Takaki lifted Kanae off of her feet and into his arms, carrying her across the threshold, and proclaiming to no one except themselves, "We're home."
There would be many more "firsts" to come in their marriage. And seconds, and thirds, and so on, until she no longer had to keep count anymore.
Twenty Years Later
As Takaki walked back alone to his house in Tanegashima, where he and Kanae still lived, he saw a sight that gave him pause. He had stepped out to do a shopping errand at Kanae's request. His daughter, now thirteen and looking very much like her mother, was walking home accompanied by a boy her age. As he neared them, he observed them from a distance. They did not see him approach. In the darkness of twilight, with only the light from inside his kitchen window illuminating them, he could not make out much. He could tell they were having a conversation which seemed to be causing both of them some embarrassment, as both teenagers had faint blushes on their cheeks.
As he drew near, he overheard bits and pieces of their conversations, something about what senior high school they would be going to. He seemed anxious to know which one she would be attending, and expressed relief that they would both be going to the same high school. An expression of pure rapture enveloped the young man's face, one that Takaki imagined he would have shown if Akari could have gone to the same school as him, back in the day. His daughter Yukie also smiled happily; the feeling appeared to be mutual.
"Want to walk home together tomorrow?" he asked timidly.
"Yes!" Yukie said, her shyness masking her enthusiasm.
The boy smiled. He stepped forward toward her as she did the same, with his arm outstretched, as if wanting to take her hand, but out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Takaki's approach, and stopped himself.
"I'll see you tomorrow then!"
"See you," Yukie said.
Yukie noticed Takaki and watched him as he met her at the steps of their home.
"Yukie," he said. "Welcome home."
"Dad," Yukie said, nodding but not making eye contact. She made as if to go into the house straightaway, but Takaki put a hand on her shoulder.
"Was that a friend of yours?" he asked softly.
"He seems to like you a lot," Takaki observed.
She nodded again.
"What's his name?"
"Seiji," she whispered.
Takaki paused at that. He wondered if they addressed each other by their first names, the way he had with a certain girl, long ago.
"You like Seiji, don't you? As more than a friend?"
Yukie hesitated, a bit bashful discussing such matters with her own father.
Takaki knelt down in front of her and met his daughter's eyes.
"When I was your age, there was a girl I knew who was special to me too," he said. "I thought we would always be together, but it didn't work out that way. I had so many regrets. But we all have a destiny, Yukie. There's someone out there, someone just for you. For me, that someone turned out to be your mom."
Yukie didn't know how to respond to that. She had never heard her father discuss Akari before.
"I guess," Takaki said, reaching out to put a hand on his daughter' shoulder, "I just want you to not be afraid. If there's someone you really like, don't be afraid to tell him how you feel. One day you'll know when the time is right to tell him your feelings, and if you miss your chance, it may never come again. People come in and out of your life. Friendships and feelings may fade. If you don't hold on to the ones you hold dear, the ones you love, the ones who are special, before you know it, they'll be gone."
For some reason, Takaki's words touched Yukie, and, without knowing why, she felt a momentary pang of sadness for the things she was yet to understand.
"Yes, Dad," she replied. "I'll remember."
Takaki leaned in to kiss her on the cheek.
"Let's go inside now, sweetheart," he said.
They entered the home together.
"We're home," they both said in unison.
"Welcome back," Kanae said cheerfully. She was busy cooking dinner.
As the three of them sat down to their curry dinner together, they talked about each other's day, making no mention of what had transpired between young Yukie and the young man that she liked. It was just another school day for their beloved daughter. When it was bedtime, and Yukie had gone to sleep, Takaki and Kanae quietly retired to their bedroom. They made love that night, as they still often did, and when they were finished, they each lay side by side on their futon, looking into each other's eyes.
"I heard your little talk outside with Yukie," Kanae said with a gentle smile.
"Oh, that?" Takaki said, blushing faintly. "I hope you heard the part about how I said you were the someone just for me."
"Yes, I did hear that too. Thank you. Such a nice dad. Instead of warning her about boys, you're giving her love advice."
"Ha," Takaki chuckled. "I guess that means I must be soft."
"I guess so. You big softie," Kanae said as she leaned in to kiss him.
"I just want our daughter to be happy. I want her to live a life with no regrets. I want her to have the courage to express her feelings and chase her dreams, the way you came and reached out to me. I just want to... to support her with everything that I have."
"You're a good father," Kanae said. "And an even better husband. I love you."
Takaki looked into his wife's eyes and thought back to all the years between them, the years of unrequited love, separation, and togetherness. The last twenty years had been, by far, the happiest years of his life. All the memories shared with Kanae, all the places they had been to together, the things they had done, the words and feelings exchanged, filled his heart with wonder. He never knew his life could be this full. He never knew what love really was until Kanae had showed him.
Sometimes, in his most private moments, he thought about Akari. He wondered where she was, if she was doing all right, if she was happy. He hoped she was. Perhaps she had a loving family with children, just like him. The memory of that first kiss, that first love, in the snow under that sakura tree in Iwafune would be a precious memory between them. The chance meeting at their promised spot, before he had left Tokyo, would be their secret, just between the two of them. Feelings fade over time, he learned. He believed now that he could finally look back on her with a smile, as she had wished. Her parting words that day at the train station still lingered with him.
"You'll be all right, Takaki. I know it."
Yes, I am, Akari. You were right about me. You believed in me all this time, even when I didn't believe in it myself.
I'll always remember.
Takaki gazed thoughtfully into his wife's eyes and reach over to caress her face. He knew how much she liked being touched that way. She was his present... his future... his all. The train of time would move on inexorably, people and places would change with the times, but with his devoted wife Kanae, he felt comfort knowing that she would always be at his side, always loving and persevering in spite of all discouragement.
"I love you, Kanae," he said softly as he kissed her one last time to sleep.