Shuji definitely likes you,” Karen murmured, looking down as she tried to suppress her smirk.
“I’m sick of hearing that,” I groaned with disgust and embarrassment.
It was the 157th time somebody generously pointed it out for me this semester and it was the last day of school before the long-awaited summer break. Kids were running about every corner of the school playground, fully immersing themselves into the seemingly endless moment of amusement after school.
Meanwhile, behind a neatly trimmed hedge, all the things Karen and I were allowed to do were to whisper or to peek through the notched leaves. The low hedge stood at the border between the schoolyard and the concrete stairs leading to the gymnasium, where, by tacit agreement, we were not supposed to step into during the game of tag. We occasionally looked over the field with our eyes wide-opened within limited sight, to make sure the tagger was not coming towards us.
“If you don’t like him, why do you let him do those stupid things to you?” she asked me with a questioning look. It made me so uncomfortable that I couldn’t help but to think about jumping out of the bush, knowing the great risk of getting caught.
“Like what?” I answered with a high-pitched voice, playing dumb as if I had no idea.
When I looked down at my crouching feet, I caught sight of a heart symbol drawn on the ground near hers. My brand-new purple headband suddenly began to itch the back of my sweaty ears.
“Like everything he does only to you, Miteki. Pulling your hair, stealing your pencils and stuff.”
Shuji never failed to make me angry, though I could not understand how his childish acts directed at me implied some special feelings of any kind. In class, he flew a paper plane at me with pinpoint accuracy no matter how far we sat apart and there was always an ill-intentioned drawing of my face inside it. Among his evil deeds, the most infuriating thing was to hide my things somewhere so high that they were inaccessible to me. Before I talk more about him, I have to admit that he was one of those popular kids in the elementary school, possessing every quality a 10-year-old boy would desire: tall, fast and mischievous. Actually, he was so tall for a boy in the fourth grade that people often took him for a junior high school student. At running, nobody in the school could beat him and even some girls in the sixth grade often paid a visit to our class downstairs just to see him.
Drawing a zigzag line on the heart with my right toe, I stammered in self-defense, “But that’s what boys do, isn’t it? Make us angry.”
Karen made a face at me and said, “Well, maybe. But if you really don’t like him, you should act like you don’t.” Taken aback at her comment, I stood up, exposing myself to the waist out of the hedge. She pulled me in the arm hastily and dragged me down to the mass of pricking twigs. No sooner had I faltered to speak than I felt like my hair was stroked by a swift touch.
“Gotcha.” As I looked up, there was a familiar figure making a huge dark shadow over us, letting the sun hide behind his back.
“You’re the new tagger, dumb-dumb,” Shuji proudly announced his win as he walked backwards. As the penetrating sunlight gradually revealed his triumphant grin, his gleaming white teeth narrowed my eyes.
He provocatively sang, “And if you want this back, you better try and catch me.” Swung from his right hand was my headband.
I had already started to run after him even before I noticed. He went all the intricate paths winding through playground equipment like a tree house and swings, and I frantically chased him pushing my way through rowdy children. Losing my balance on a trampoline which some school supplies were scattered around, I lost track of him for a second. Then, he reappeared from behind a slide where some first graders were lying on top of another and ran away with an impish smile.
As we passed by the inquisitive eyes of our classmates, I heard some boys jeering at us, “Are you teaching your girlfriend how to run, Shuji?” Ignoring the mockery, he flew over the hedge I had been lurking behind and leaped down the multiple steps of the ivory-colored stairs. He stopped at the middle, looking back to check if I was after him, and ran down the rest to disappear into the gym. Taking a glance at him vanishing out of my sight, I went down the steep staircase as quickly as possible, with my hands raised halfway as if trying to hold on to the air. The shuffling sounds of my Skechers against the dusty surface of the cement stairs echoed through the sidewall and I got a rhythm as I approached the landing on the ground. I jumped off the last three steps and swiftly made a right turn to the gym. Shuji was already at the entrance hall, turning his wicked smile towards me. He seemed almost reachable, nonchalantly standing a few meters away.
But the next moment I took a step forward, an invisible barrier abruptly knocked my head down with its inflexible straight body, a huge banging sound vibrating around my ears. Despite the subconscious perception that I was about to fall, I helplessly tumbled backwards, catching sight of Shuji’s face frozen with horror at a distance. After my head struck the flat concrete floor, a disembodied dull thud lingered in my ears.
When I opened my eyes again, the first thing in my sight was Shuji’s lean face peering into me. Our eyes met and a straight line between his frowned eyebrows dissolved, which melted bewilderment on his face into something mixed with relief and ridicule. I felt self-conscious all at once.
“Hey, you alive?” he said, toeing my side with the tips of his tattered sneakers. I raised my head and felt different kinds of pain, stinging at its front and heavy at its back. As he saw me holding my aching head, the clumsy words of care uttered by his hoarse voice earlier were soon replaced by a sneering mumble, “You’re such a dork.” Sitting up, I tried to slap him in the leg. However, he dodged the palm of my hand, pulling back his feet with his natural nimbleness. I looked up and saw him awkwardly wear my headband above his forehead, biting my lower lip, dry and bitter with vexation. His overpowering height hurt my neck.
“Your face when you hit on the door. That was classic,” his scornful voice continued. I looked over at the entrance of the gym and found a glass sliding door at front. I had an urge to say something back, something implying that his panicked face was also hysterical, but then I dissuaded myself from doing so, not wanting to suggest that he had showed even the slightest sign of worry. He approached me and squatted down by my body, which was still stretched out on the cold ground.
“This doesn’t count,” he said offering to help me stand up. Compassion he could not fully hide in the conceited way of speaking embarrassed me all the more. Although I was lowering my eyes, I could guess how his crooked smile looked.
“No, thanks,” I spat out. I was not allowed to betray any more of my vulnerability to him. I stood up bearing the headache and dusted myself off. His withdrawn hand stung somewhere inside me.
“Give my headband back to me,” I said as sternly as I could, sticking out my chin.
“Have you already given up chasing me, then?” Shuji cocked his eyebrow. On hearing the question, I answered him grasping at the hem of his t-shirt. Shaking me off with a quick twist of his body, he ran off to the gym and hastily shut the door right in front of me. Behind the transparent shield of tempered glass, he grinned with his facial skin all wrinkled up into his nose.
“That’s not funny,” I shook my head. He responded cupping his hand around his ear and dropping his jaw.
I mouthed “keep it, you look pretty,” and started to walk towards the stairs. As I turned away from him, his teasing face grew into a sulky scowl like an infant whose toy was taken away. A screechy noise reached my ear when the aluminum sash of the open door scraped against its rubber cushions.
“You’re as boring as a snail,” yelled Shuji. But I kept on walking. A split second of silence was taken over by the sound of a summer breeze which swayed the trees aligned at the extensive athletic field next to the gym.
“Why don’t we make a deal?” he said after a pause. “If you win a game, I’ll give it back to you.” I stopped at the first step of the concrete stairs and considered the offer.
“And you’ll be the tagger,” I said looking back at him.
“Fine,” he muttered. His face could not be seen clearly in the shadow of the roof.
“What if you win?” I asked. Against a reproachful tone of my voice, my feet were already heading back to the gym.
“I’m gonna have your headband and you’ll be the tagger. Just like right now.”
“What do you need it for?” I felt like I was interrogating him, knowing that the reasonable answers should not have been expected. He took the headband off his head, stretched its elastic fabric and aimed it at me like a gun.
“You’re such a child,” I rolled my eyes.
Shuji lowered the headband and stuck out his right hand as a fist, asking “Deal?” Vaguely looking at his bony knuckles, not knowing what to do with them, I felt his eyes on me. As I raised my arm to cover them with my palm, he gently seized it, clasped his over mine and made me clench my fist. The warmth of his hand spread over the right side of my body along the elbow. Still holding my hand, he brought it close to his fist and made them lightly bump.
“Deal,” I replied, feeling the sudden coolness on the back of my hand after it got free of his slightly sweaty palm. He strode into the entrance and slid off his feet from the sneakers’ heel collars squashed flat like a pair of worn-out slippers. He raised his face and walked into the gym with my headband put back on his head.
As I entered, the chilly wooden flooring tingled the soles of my bare feet, regardless of the exhausting heat outside. Shuji’s gray socks were abandoned near the threshold of a gigantic sliding door, which I had never seen closed. Its old decayed texture of wood looked too absolute and unwavering as if it had been rusted open since its establishment. The rumbling sound and vibration were transmitted through the floor and I looked at the far right to find Shuji bouncing a basketball.
“What game are we playing?” I spoke out to make myself heard over the ball.
“I don’t know. How about dodgeball?” he turned to me and faked throwing the ball straight at me, only to spin it on his finger.
“You can’t play it with only two people,” I murmured, abashed at a wince I gave.
“True. And you suck at it, too, so it’s not fair, is it?” Although his sassy words got on my nerves, I couldn’t refute him. I did not have an ounce of talent for any ball game that ever existed. Circling around between the lights and shadows growing long across the court from the high windows, he dribbled the ball that precisely fit in his palm each time it sprang up. Without the artificial yellow-green lighting of the fluorescent lamps which usually lit up the place too glaringly, the gym seemed to be more serene and friendly, somewhere I could feel true to myself. When I tried to step onto the three-point line, Shuji trotted off to the center circle, set his large eyes on the goal and started running. The firm determination reflected in his eyes made the molecules in his surrounding air tense and rigid all of a sudden. Leaping up with his stretched arm almost touching the hoop, his black hair glowing even darker with sweat, he tossed the ball effortlessly into the ring. The ball got sucked into it with a swish and fell onto his hand as if magnetically. It was spellbinding.
“I didn’t know you play basketball,” I said.
With his face lowered, he replied, “I do, it’s just that I don’t play here. I’ll be a professional someday, like Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O’Neal. You’ve heard of them?”
“Yeah,” I lied. The purposefulness that I could perceive in his words overwhelmed me. While I was woolgathering for a moment, he threw the ball underhand and it bounced once on the floor, and then into my hands.
“Me? I can’t.” I felt my face go stiff.
“Just give it a shot,” he said in a soft voice and tilted his head to the goal.
I hesitantly asked, “You’re not gonna include this in the deal, are you?”
“You’re obsessed,” he laughed. Under the goal, I looked straight ahead and focused all my attention on it, feeling the hard, granular surface of the rubber in my hands. The basket hanged from the board was inconceivably high and unreachable, even if I used a vaulting box as a stepladder. When I bent my knees and readied the ball before my face, its whole weight on my wrists disturbed my concentration and I let go of it without any control. Luckily, the ball flew forward to the goal, but began to descend halfway through the arch before it grazed the goal net. It dropped with a series of hollow sounds echoed through the broad floor.
“That wasn’t bad. You should keep your upper arms closer to your body next time,” Shuji said with an encouraging smile on his face, trying to break the awkward silence.
“If there is next time,” I smiled back. The throbbing headache had already seeped away.
He walked towards the left corner to catch the ball and came back asking, “How about you? What do you wanna do when you grow up?” A whishing sound the ball made whirling on his finger occupied the short distance between us.
“I’ve never told anyone,” I shook my head. It was true. I had never mentioned it even to my parents or to Karen. As a matter of fact, no one had asked me that question straight.
“Then, now is the time. C’mon. I told you about mine,” he prompted and stopped spinning the ball.
“I want to be an actress.” Right after I said so, however, I was baffled by how absurd it sounded and instantly added, “I know it’s ridiculous. You can laugh at me.”
But he said with composure, “No, I won’t.”
“Why not?” I asked. It was not like him.
“Simply because I think you can. Well, I’ve never seen you acting before, but at this point of life, there’s nothing we can’t be,” he said with conviction, and then added, “That’s at least what my dad says.”
“Good to know. Maybe I’ll have a chance to play a snail,” I said sitting on the floor.
“C’mon. I didn’t mean it to be ugly,” he mumbled with his voice smaller at the end. He sat balancing himself on the ball and continued, “So how do people become actors?”
“I think they usually get hired by a talent agency and have auditions and stuff. But eventually, I wanna work in Hollywood,” I confessed.
“Wow, then you’re gonna be in the movies with a bunch of foreigners?” His tanned face was full of excitement.
“Yeah. And I’ll be speaking English,” I said proudly, though I did not have any knowledge of the language at that time.
With his eyes shone, he said, “That’s cool. I can imagine that. You dyeing your hair blonde and shooting guns in a fancy dress or something.”
“That’ll be really awesome. Like a Bond girl from the 007 films.” I got all thrilled.
“I don’t know what that is, but it sounds great.”
“Yeah, but I won’t be a blonde.”
“Yes, you will,” he said as if he knew that I would.
“No, I won’t,” I denied again, but this time I did not think that it was such a bad idea. A pleasant silence filled the air.
Then, Shuji opened his mouth and said, “Do you wanna go somewhere?”
I got confused and stammered, “What do you mean?”
“I mean, now,” he said, taking the ball under him and sitting on the floor.
“Like right now?” My voice was somehow quivering.
“I don’t know. We can go anywhere,” said him, beginning to play with the ball. It was not until then that I noticed that it was only two of us. Together. Alone. What am I doing here? I thought. I wasn’t supposed to be with him. I looked over my shoulder at the entrance.
“They wouldn’t know that we’re gone. They should’ve started another game by now,” he said trying to ease me.
“No, that’s not what I’m worried about.”
“Then what? We can play at a park or a game center, if you like,” he said in a bright tone.
“I can’t.” The words just popped out of my mouth. I became extremely fearful of taking our temporary intimacy out of that desolate gym.
“Why? We can definitely be home before five, I promise.” I fumbled for some reasonable excuse.
“It’s just… I can’t. I gotta go to the meeting of the Girl Scouts.”
“Cut the crap. You’re not in the Girl Scouts,” he rebutted. Of course, he knew.
“Tell me, what you’re afraid of?” With a compassionate look on his face, he asked me the perceptive question, which I myself had no idea what the answer was. He continued inquisitively, “C’mon, what is it?”
I stood up and said, “I’m not scared of anything, alright?” It’s just…”
“Shuji, stop asking me questions. I just can’t. There’s no reason.” I started to walk towards the entrance. If I didn’t like him, I had to show it to him, like Karen pointed out to me.
Shuji stood up in a hurry and followed me. The basketball was dumped on the floor, out of his embrace.
“Wait, okay. We don’t have to go anywhere. Just…” The moment he was about to say another word, he grabbed me by the wrist. My heart jumped. On the spur of the moment, I yelled, “Let go of me!” It lingered on in the solid walls around us and we both froze with shock.
He slowly loosened his hold of me and faltered with a cracked faint voice, “Sorry.”
I could not take it back. How could I take it back? I felt my hands go cold and numb with guilt and shame which surged up from the right wrist he had gripped. I could not bear to see his face and started to run. Out from the wooden door, the glass entrance and the shades of the roof into the burning sun. Stepping out of the concrete ground, I rushed into the athletic field, stranded and barren, with dust whirling around me. Inside the vast field enclosed by shamrock green wire fences, I ran straight across it through the dry air. My socks were curled up at the toes of my sneakers and some pebbles rolled in from the flattened heels. When I finally reached the fence, I touched its smooth coating of mesh and put my fingers through the diamond-shaped holes. With my eyes closed, I breathed in the earthy smell mixed with chalk, tasted drops of a salty liquid at the corner of my mouth, and I turned around, hoping to find him coming after me.
When I opened my eyes again, the first thing in my sight was the ash-colored ceiling filled with tiny black holes. Unable to grasp the situation, I sat up and was struck by the unendurable pains in my head as if it was being hammered. On hearing my groan, a school nurse peeped inside the space I was in through the yellow linen curtains.
“Hey, how do you feel?” she said with an anxious look on her face.
“It hurts,” I mumbled. “How did I end up here?” I asked looking around to find myself lying on the bed in the school infirmary. There seemed to be no one else.
“You had a concussion, my dear. You’d been unconscious for two hours.”
“Concussion?” As I put my legs off the bed and tried to stand up, she ran up to me to tuck me back into the bed.
“No no no no. Just stay there for a while, okay? Your mother is on her way.” She handed me an ice pack to cool my head and closed the curtains. Wrapped up in a thin blanket, I felt my dried face and looked at a digital clock on the bedside table, which said 17:27 with vivid red numbers. When my mother arrived and we were about to leave for the hospital to have an examination, I asked the nurse where and by whom I was found. She said that Mr. Matsushita, a P.E. teacher, found me lying in front of the gym.
The results of the checkup came out perfectly fine and the headache faded away after some nights where I could sleep only with the sides of my head on the pillow. With the days of going to the pool, taking a family trip to a tropical island and hanging out with Karen, the summer went by quickly. During the two months, I did not think about Shuji. I was convinced, or at least was trying to convince myself, that it was just a dream. It really was a dream. Nothing happened between us. It was all happening inside my head, no matter how genuine the warmth of his hand felt on my wrist. So, when I heard on the first day of school after the break, that he had transferred to another school due to the familial circumstances, I felt nothing. An enormous stir occurred in the classroom and some girls began to cry. Our homeroom teacher raised her voice to reason them into lowering their voices. In the chaotic dissonance of random yells, I looked out of the window at the stairs running to the gym. I could not see anyone either there or in the playground. It was completely soundless and deserted.
In the P.E. class during third period, Karen and I were told to bring some jumping ropes from the gym’s storage room to the athletic field, where we were supposed to be trained for the obstacle race held in the sports festival in October.
On our way, Karen asked me out of the blue, “On the last day of school, what were you and Shuji doing in the gym, after you ran after him? Did he say anything about me?”
“Umm…I don’t really remember anything. I had a concussion, you know,” I answered.
“Oh yeah, right. Well, it’s such a shame that he had to leave. I kinda liked him,” she said naturally as though it were a well-known fact.
“You did?” I halted my steps, dumbfounded by her confession.
“Well, everybody liked him. Maybe except you,” she said with a modest smile.
“Yeah, totally except me,” I muttered and started to walk again.
As we got close to the entrance, we could see a harsh yellow light someone must have left on leaking through the glass sliding door. Karen opened it with an ear-splitting noise, and we headed across the gym to the storage room on the left. With the light turned on and the piercing chilliness on the floor infiltrating my feet through the socks, I just wanted to leave there soon. We found the jumping ropes hung on the wall and walked back to the entrance.
Midway, Karen suddenly stopped and pointed at the upper front saying, “What’s that?”
And the moment I looked up at where her finger indicated to find my purple headband dangling from the orange rim of the basketball hoop, far above my reach, I realized, with all the simplicity and ease, that I had liked him all along. Karen said something once or twice, or more, but her muffled voice didn’t reach me. After she went out of the gym giving up on me, I was left behind standing there alone, with my heart thumping like a broken alarm clock uncontrollable to stop, even after being smashed into pieces.