THE FILTER/ Risako Takanashi

Around 6pm, Koto got a call from Lauren. She sounded upset. Koto grabbed a few things and left her room for the Pronto in Ikebukuro. It was the favorite hangout for the two inseparable friends. They always sat and talked for hours there after finishing their part time jobs. Arriving at the café, Koto closed her eyes and opened them again to see clearly what caught her eyes. Lauren, at the seat in the corner of the first floor, slightly tilted forward her head with unnatural black hair.

“Hey, what’s wrong? You changed your hair.” Koto said as she sat in front of Lauren.

“Hey, he said I’m not his type. Isn’t it too straight?”

Lauren was speaking about the guy she had been into for the past six months. His name was Machiya. Lauren met him in one of the classes she took at university. She had never thought of university as the place for uncontrollably falling in love at first sight. It was around 5pm afterschool last fall. Lauren looked up to the sky and there was a beautiful gradation of pink to blue. She wanted to take a picture of it and approached the small and quiet open space at the university. As soon as Lauren walked into the space she heard the sound of the guitar and Machiya was the one who was playing it. The sound was very soft and comfortable. Ever since she saw him playing a guitar on that small bench in the lovely small plaza by their university, Lauren knew she was in love with him.

“Does he even know how to covey those words? What kind of girl would even want him? He is just a narcissist showing off his guitar ability. It doesn’t have to be at the park, you know. I’m sure a more private place is better if he wants to enhance his skills.”

Koto was relieved, at least, Lauren could show a sense of humor. Koto nodded along; at the same time, she knew she had other thoughts about it. Admittedly, as she met Lauren, Koto was unsure whether she should tell her to return to her previous hair style or flatter her change and let her leave it the way she wanted.

“Broken heart. What a waste of my time,” said Lauren, sadly.

On the table was a pink bag, as bizarre a choice as her new hair color. And, Lauren was in a new white girlish mouton outer that Koto had never seen before. Noticing these changes of Lauren, Koto tracked down the calendar in her head. Oh yes, today is the 14th of February, Koto thought in her mind. She had forgotten one of the most romantic days of the year since Koto was not ready to be in a relationship. She looked at her hair again, and thought again that Lauren looked better without black hair.

Fair white skin, long legs, thin vulnerable shoulders and huge round eyes with long eye lashes; the features that many Japanese girls are dying to get to be recognized as beautiful. Lauren had them already. Without any hair-dying, her natural thin and soft brown hair made her look gorgeous. And, her hazel eyes were already so beautiful that wearing colored contact lenses didn’t make sense at all. Koto wondered what kind of guy on earth, unless he already had an extremely beautiful and attractive fiancé or wife, would refuse this perfect beauty. Or, even any romantic happiness others built could be rendered impotent in front of her beauty. Nonetheless, looking back at her memories with Lauren in the past 5 years, Koto realized that Lauren had neither been satisfied nor confident with her looks.

“You gave him chocolate today?” asked Koto.

“Well, obviously it failed as the chocolate is still with me.” Lauren sighed.

“Wait, did you dye your hair for today?” Koto asked, unhesitant.

“Apparently,” Lauren rolled her eyes.

The waiter came to take the order, and they quickly ordered two hot coffees without looking at the waiter. Koto felt her impatience for more details. Lauren explained that she wanted black hair rather than her natural brown hair because Lauren believed the change would be the easiest and the fastest way for her to blend in among “Tokyo-ites.” Koto once said to Lauren, “The grass is always greener. I swear, every girl would love to look like you.” But, she did not seem convinced, and said, “I at least want a similar appearance to everyone else.” Her mother was Italian and her father was Japanese. Lauren was brought up in Rome and moved to Tokyo at the age of 13. When her father’s grandmother got sick, her parents decided to take care of her in Tokyo. When Lauren was living in Rome, she attended Japanese school there. Since she was exposed to Japanese even before moving to Japan, Lauren had no problem with Japanese. However, Japanese high school wasn’t a fun place for her. It was not because she didn’t have friends to talk to but because she had been experiencing the sense of being alienated among her new friends. Everyone knew that having a new student in the middle term of the first grade in high school caught a lot of attention while Koto sensed out of Lauren’s attitude that she wanted them to leave her alone. Also, in a Japanese school, a mix-raced student was extremely rare and other Japanese students in the school couldn’t help but pick on her. Everyone talked about Lauren, although Lauren did not seem to enjoy getting any unnecessary attention because she was shy and was not confident in the new environment.

Koto was the one who sat next to Lauren on the first day of school. Koto kindly taught Lauren where the bathroom was, the rules of each class, information about the teachers from each subject, brief information and how they call other classmates. Koto became Lauren’s huge supporter in the new school.

Koto, like almost every girl in the school, had black hair as they were not permitted to dye their hair. Koto understood she was just like what Lauren wanted to be. In addition to her “perfect looks,” Koto was one of the most generous people Lauren had ever met. Unlike other students, Koto did not ask Lauren about her backgrounds or stared at her with curiosity. Before they even realized, they became so close to each other that they hung out almost every day.

Later, when Lauren went to university, she took a cultural anthropology class where she learned something that had been nagging her. It was the anxiety that she carried throughout her adolescence. It was a so-called “identity crisis.” Knowing that she was neither pure Japanese nor Italian, Lauren would rather merge into the common herd in Japan and disappear. Except the occasion where she had to speak to her mother in Italian, she had used only Japanese since she moved to Tokyo. Lauren often told Koto that she always admired how Koto was brought up in Tokyo and was always surrounded by many friends. Lauren told Koto that hanging out with her made her feel as though she was fitting in more and diffusing her complex. Watching Lauren being unconfident about her own self, Koto knew she had to somehow help Lauren to accept herself. Koto knew that being in a relationship was the fastest way for Lauren to gain confidence because Koto herself had a similar sort of experiences with her past high school loves.

Koto distinctly remembered that Lauren sent her the profile picture of Machiya’s SNS and said he was her new crush. He played guitar well and plus he looked similar to her favorite actor. She was too shy to talk to him in the class but found it easier when he played the guitar in the afternoon. “Literally I could hear my heart beat.” Lauren said to Koto, sounding very excited. The first time they met, she said “hi”, and since then, she gradually got closer to him. As a matter of fact, however, she collected much of information on him through social media after sending him a friend request.

“Last week I waited for him there. And, I asked if he would come to the spot today.” Lauren explained, “There are too few connections we had, it’s so hard to find a way to be closer to him. So, I thought taking this occasion would help me solve where my mind should go. But…”

Lauren looked hurt and despairing.

“Today he taught me he lives in a different world from mine,” Lauren said.

“What does that mean? You guys go to the same school. Plus, you got to talk to him in real life, right? That was a big progress.” Koto said, puzzled.

“Yah, but I don’t know about the artists he listens to and I probably don’t talk and dress the way he likes.”

“Do you know what kind of girls’ fashion he likes?”

“I’ve never directly asked him, but I could research it from his posts on social media. Do I sound like a stalker now?” Lauren laughed quietly.

Koto denied, “Absolutely not. Every girl does that. ‘Jealous women do better research than the FBI,’ I’ve read this somewhere before.”

Unexpectedly, Lauren looked so sad, like she was almost crying. This surprised Koto and made her feel sorry for her. She felt uneasy because she might have made Lauren emotional by her words.

“Hey, sorry Lauren. Are you okay?” Koto asked.

“Oh, no. It’s not you. I suddenly felt like… I mean… I’m just so grateful for you being here for me, Koto.” Lauren said.

Koto, on some level, understood that the reasons Lauren was crying wasn’t only just because she was grateful for Koto. Now, she knew there was no way to make her feel better.

“Hey,” Koto kindly said.

“Huh?”

“How about going to karaoke after this? Luckily, I’ve got no plans tomorrow. Wanna sing?” Koto asked Lauren as the words came up to her mind.

“That’s a good idea but I don’t feel like singing.”

“That’s totally fine. You will be my audience tonight!” Koto voiced cheerfully.

They left Pronto and walked to the karaoke shop. When they got outside, they were shivering in the cold. In the freezing winter night, couples were holding hands and putting arms around each other. Lauren couldn’t miss catching the typical sight of the holiday season.

“Oops,” Koto said to herself. She looked at Lauren and her gaze was melancholically fixed on the pink bag.

“I think I should throw this away.” Lauren said.

She started to walk to the trash can on the side of the road.

“Hey! Wait! Don’t throw it away. I’ll eat it,” said Koto and she swiftly grabbed the treat from Lauren’s hand.

“Pity chocolate.” Koto said, looking at Lauren, “That’s what friends are for.”

Lauren coyly opened her arms to ask if she could give Koto a hug. Before she finished asking, Koto hugged her. The coldness of the winter night didn’t take away warmth from them anymore.

At the karaoke shop, they ordered drinks first and took turns at the mike and sang almost nonstop once they started to pick songs. It was already 11pm. Their unspoken agreement was that they spent the whole night singing together. On the table, there were Koto’s glass of beer and Lauren’s Shandy Gaff, plates of French fries, fried chicken, Yakisoba noodles, and a thick French toast filled with honey, whipped cream and chocolate sauce.  They fueled themselves up enough to sing and chat for an entire night. The next morning came. The girls came out of the karaoke shop. Their faces were the solid proof of sleepiness and exhaustion.

“Can I just say something?” Koto said.

“What’s that?”

“I didn’t like your black hair from the moment I saw you yesterday.”

“I knew it.” Lauren laughed.

The girls headed to the first train and dissolved into the crowd of dark-colored outfits.

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