"Letters" by Rachel Davidson
She can’t stand the humidity of typical Japanese summers. July and August send waves of heat across the country, even to her hometown in northern Hokkaido. So in order to avoid the sweltering fate that lay an inch outside her door, she sat at her desk, fan blowing into her face and tossing her hair about like a caricature of a shampoo commercial. And she stared at a piece of blank white paper.
She planned on writing a letter to her boyfriend, her partner since the outset of high school. Their friends called them the 100% perfect couple, since they shared nearly the exact same interests, chief among them aspirations for careers in mathematics. She felt that their time together was like a box, equal on all sides, grounded in stability and mutual respect. However, when he moved to Tokyo and she decided to stay in Hokkaido for university, their interactions were themselves compressed into four-sided shapes: Skype windows, phone screens, the occasional letter like this one.
Having finished a page, she reflected on its platitude-filled banality and regretted her lack of eloquent writing skills. All the best for this semester, keep in touch, and so on. It was too much even for her to take, so she scrapped it – and in the interest of instant gratification, reached for her phone. She intended to type out some of the same sentiments she had expressed on paper, while compensating for lack of appropriate words with emoji. But summer lethargy overcame her, and the little speech bubble appeared on his LINE application as follows:
Many such texts later, they were both unraveling strings of chaos theory equations at their respective schools. The last time they video chatted, his head was bent forward squinting at his textbook for the majority of the conversation. So on that inevitable November day when the sky began falling in chunks of white, it was not a surprise when his missive also descended from the ether. He asked if they could break up so he could concentrate on his studies. Though of course, this question was not negotiable, and she agreed, if only to honor his ambition for a scholastic career. But their box was irrevocably broken, shards of mutual affection losing their luster, lying in disarray. She began aimlessly wandering around town after class, traversing the Sapporo underground and disembarking at a random station. The predictable geometry of the colorful subway lines comforted her, and she would emerge from tiled stairwells to find rows of five-storey beige and blue buildings, forever buried in fresh layers of white powder.
In mid-December, she emerged on the west side of the Tozai Line to find her field of vision pure white. They were the kind of winds that cause flurries to leap up from the ground and send the tails of her scarf flying. However, she could discern through the blizzard a warm light emanating from a café on the opposite corner. Tiptoeing her way across the street, so as not to slip on the solid foot of ice beneath her, she passed the entrance and peered inside, her hand shielding her eyes from the snow. Through the frosted window, there was a boy about her age sitting alone at a table for two. His glasses frames were bright green, flying in the face of neutral-toned Hokkaido winter fashion. Pain stabbed the center of her heart, an icicle that immediately melted once it had hit its target. Stunned, she turned away from the café windows, and sped away before he could see her. Nearly stumbling in front of hair salons and soup curry restaurants down the road, she hastily gathered her footing, gazed up at the sky and started to chuckle to herself.
After that, she would often choose that same Tozai stop and slowly meander in front of that same café. Nearly every weekday afternoon, he could be found there, face steadily calm but hand furiously writing away, constructing miniature cities out of the paper piles around him. Aside from his prolificacy, the two constants about his person were those thick glasses frames and a Nikon with a lens the size of a coffee mug hanging from his neck. One day, he nonchalantly bit into a whole apple and then took a swig of espresso; the very next, she bought an entire box of apples for herself.
One Thursday, she met some high school friends for dinner at Bikkuri Donkey, the dubiously cabin-styled establishment they had frequented for every life event from birthday to breakup. Under the inconsistent spot lighting, between bites of gravy-laden hamburger patty, they asked her how she was doing lately, and she mumbled, “Well, there’s someoneI’mkindainterestedinbut…” Her friends’ eyes lit up. “Heeey, how about introducing yourself to him? Wouldn’t that be romantic, like something out of a song!” She could only answer with a nervous laugh, “Ahh, isn’t that unnatural, though? I couldn’t pull it off.”
But later in the meal, as she absentmindedly stared at reflections in her parfait spoon, she thought: what would happen if I took that conspicuously empty seat right across from him? Knowing me, I wouldn’t have any idea what to say. So in the absence of adequate speech, she thought about subtly slipping him a letter first. Nothing creepy, just a simple hello. In the tradition of schoolgirl foisting forms upon unsuspecting crushes – “do you like me, yes or no?” – the very words fragrant with yearning.
So the next afternoon, she donned a light pink sweater dress, an ornate rhinestone necklace, and her most fashionable, yet ironically least warm, coat. Satisfied with her appearance, she brought her simple stationery set to the café, ordered a latte and settled for the table adjacent to the focal point of her affection. She nervously surveyed the room but inevitably settled on his profile, fearfully close to her. Although he was bent forward in concentration, his eyes nearly level with the paper, he somehow seemed to her capable of much stronger posture. When he closed his eyes, yawned and stretched his lanky arms backward, she could see that his pages were filled with loopy handwriting in dialectical opposition to her careful penmanship. Then her self-conscious gaze returned to the paper sitting on her table, similar in size to his but still pristine, milky white.
As she absentmindedly raised her latte to her lips, only to realize that it was empty several sips ago, she noticed a single, lower-case letter hiding under the cup, smack in the middle of its circular saucer. She had to stop herself from gasping in surprise as it jumped over and affixed itself to her empty page. Suddenly others emerged in sequence, halftone dots slowly blossoming into recognizable shapes. New sentences, the likes of which she had never thought to write. Silly stories of how she and her brother had staged impromptu plays for their family during childhood holidays, and how when she became separated from her parents at Tokyo Disneyland, instead of telling the adults she had an unexpectedly fun time wandering around by herself. Embarrassing yet somehow happy memories she had cherished but never shared with anyone, not even her ex-boyfriend of three and a half years.
Just as she finished reading the thoughts she didn’t know she was capable of expressing, the café door opened to a customer, and the ensuing blast of wind blew her newly completed page across to the boy’s table. She could see he had already set down his pen.
As he slowly, kindly turned to meet her eyes, she wondered if this was really the start of something.