Shizuko waits for me, as always, leaning back against the moss-stained low wall that encloses a house that always seemed deserted. On the other side of the narrow path leading to the main street of our tiny town, some neighbor has accumulated wooden planks, piles of rubber wheels and tarp-covered refuse on a gravel backyard. Although nothing about this spot spelled out romance, for many years I only needed to close my eyes and picture this view for my heart to ache.
Shizuko is wearing her long-sleeve, checkered, white and pewter grey shirt, her black pants and her indigo, white-rimmed sneakers. She’s holding a notebook against her thigh. Her black hair is pulled back and tied with a ribbon. The gaze of her nut brown eyes is focused in front of her, on the overgrown vegetation next to the asphalted path. Whenever I caught her like this, I wanted to stand out of sight and keep looking at her. I wished to know what she thought about, what images were passing through her mind. I would give out every single yen I ever made to see them the way she did.
She notices me approaching her, and I stop a couple of steps away. As she bows her head slightly, she offers me a shy smile. A warmth rushes to my throat, tightening it. For a couple of seconds I hear nothing but the white noise of insect noises that always surrounds us in this town, and another instance of the squeaking call of some insect, a mix between a robotic laugh and a door with rusty hinges. The breeze plays with Shizuko’s hair.
“Hello,” she says. “How was your day?”
The same old youthful, vulnerable voice, tinged with an undercurrent of sadness even when she was happy. I take a step forward and hold her hand. It’s warm, a contrast with the breeze of this cloudy day that may break into rain at any moment.
I squeeze her fingers gently. Her hands are smaller than mine, fragile, delicate. I feel the pressure of her fingertips against my skin.
“It will be much better now that we’ll spend the afternoon together.”
Shizuko nods, a little smile appearing in her lips.
“Yes, the same for me, although I’ve gotten some writing done in the morning.”
We descend along the asphalted path as my heart reacts to Shizuko’s body heat, the skin of her hand in mine, her scent. We pass by the corrugated wall of the building on our left, and the small, menhir-like sculpture that stands on a tiny yard to our right, and we exit into the main street of our town. We turn right. We can barely fit in the old, cement sidewalk side by side, so I put my arm around Shizuko’s waist. She doesn’t say anything, just holds onto me tightly. Behind the single row of rice white buildings on the other side of the street, with windows that have the shutters closed, the tall, dense trees of the hilly forest that this town is encroached by looks faded due to mist, or low clouds. The air smells like water, a promise of rain, and it makes me want to narrow my shoulders.
The streets are deserted. There is a single white van waiting for a traffic light to turn green, even though no other cars are around.
“Are you cold, Shizuko?” I ask her.
She shakes her head slowly.
“It’s a bit chilly, but fine otherwise.”
I look at her face, at her warm, gentle gaze that always seems to be wondering whether I’m alright, whether I’m sad, anxious, worried. She smiles a little.
Other identical afternoons I have guided Shizuko up the path on our right to the graveyard. For many generations, the locals have built the graves on a stepped hill, and the nearby grounds are pleasantly green, with trimmed bushes and a gravel garden with many stone buddhas in varied poses. But today I want quiet, I want to return to our secluded spot. Although I know that nobody will bother us, I want to erase from my brain the possibility that anybody will.
We cross the road to walk in front of the convenience store. Its tattered awning, which originally might have been sandstone orange and white, is the only detail that adds color to this building. We pass by the eternally closed store with its half-empty shelves and the faded posters announcing long-gone days. The rounded, mushroom-like bushes, that have grown in a narrow, long planter between the building and the sidewalk, graze the left arm of my jacket as we walk by.
“Can we get something from the vending machines?” Shizuko asks as she points at the conspicuous red and green machines a few meters further ahead.
I nod. While Shizuko inserts some coins into the slot to get her usual Kirin Lemon Tea, she turns her head to look down the street, which ends in a wall of vegetation. A flock of pigeons flies across the sky above us.
“The town is so deserted today, isn’t it?” she says. “At this hour of the afternoon, I’d expect to see at least the kids returning from baseball practice, but it feels as if everyone is asleep, or hiding behind their windows.”
Her bottle of lemon tea makes a thud sound as it falls in the machine. Shizuko crouches to take it out. When she straightens her back, she lifts her gaze to mine, but she drops her notebook accidentally. I hurry to pick it up as my skin tingles; looking into her eyes always does these days. After Shizuko retrieves her notebook from my hand, she twists the cap of her bottle and takes a drink. She must have noticed how tenderly I’m staring at her, because she blushes slightly.
“Don’t you want anything from the machines?” she asks. “I’ll invite you.”
“No, I’m good.”
“Alright. You can drink some of my lemon tea if you want.”
I look forward to drinking it, but not from the bottle. I put my arm around Shizuko’s waist and we continue along the sidewalk. A few meters later, only a guard rail separates us from a drop to a dirt-covered terrace overlooking the river, that runs maybe twenty meters below the street. Now that I’m staring at it, I hear the seaweed green water flowing. The tall trees rising from the forest, which starts on the other side of the river, have stretched out long branches with fern-like leaves a few meters over the current. The breeze blows through them and rustles the leaves.
As we keep walking, we pass by the wooden front of a restaurant that will never open. Beyond the parked minivan next to the building, the owners had installed outside a fish tank, protected with a metallic lid, in which the long, silvery fishes swim around frantically as if trying to figure out how to escape. Shizuko glances at it, like she always does. She used to mention that she felt sorry for them, because some of the fishes she had noticed disappeared from week to week.
“Shall we go to our spot?” I ask her softly.
We reach the opening between two stretches of guard rail where a floor paved with pebbles ends in stairs that lead down to the riverbank. Ancient-looking moss has grown between the pebbles as well as on the worn and cracked steps of the stairs.
Shizuko stops by the stone railing. She looks at my face, then she puts her hands on the railing and leans against it. Her hair flutters in the breeze.
“Before we started coming here together, descending that stair gave me the impression that I would get lost somehow and that nobody would ever find me. You know what I mean?”
My heart beats faster. I nod. Although she shoots me a look, expecting an answer, I remain silent. She ends up smiling softly, but her eyes are sad.
“But now, I feel as if we’re the only ones who have come this far,” she says. “The rest of the world is sleeping or hiding behind their windows.”
As she was peering down at the river through the dense treetops, she closes her eyes and they remain closed as she rolls her eyeballs towards me. She shoots me a strange look, one I can’t describe; maybe too confident, unlike her shy, sad self. One that I wouldn’t associate with her. For a moment, it takes me out of my dream.
“Let’s go,” I say in a thin voice.
While we descend the steps and step on dirt-covered landings, I get the feeling that many decades ago we would have been able to walk on proper floors, but the vegetation has long broken through, making it seem as if we are walking through a forest trail. Once we reach the foot of the stairs, a tall cement wall on our right separates us from the town as effectively as if we had driven far away. The loudest insects must be hanging out in the nearby trees, because their strident, insistent calls come from all around us, and only the sound of the flowing water is competing against them.
I stop and turn to my left to face the river, maybe ten meters below. Shizuko rests her head on my shoulder. My skin tingles again. As I stare at the river, I see the reflection of a large black bird flying past above the current.
“It feels like we’ve become the last people in the world,” Shizuko says.
We stand there for a while, listening to the birds’ cries. The cloud cover is drifting across the sky, and the temperature has dropped slightly.
“Do you think they have places this secluded in Tokyo?” she asks. “A river running underneath the houses, few to no people around, a view of the mountains. Somewhere we can be alone together, just the two of us.”
My heart aches, making my eyes twitch. I gulp.
“I don’t know. Probably not.”
She lets out a deep sigh and turns her face away.
“Whenever I think about all those streets full of busy people, it makes my skin crawl. It has always been like that… The same way you always wanted to leave our nowhere town.”
“Yes,” I answer, trying to hide how much it hurts, “ever since I was a child, I wanted to leave. I thought I was too big for this place. I certainly wanted to be.”
Shizuko’s shoulders droop.
“You are. I know you have to leave. You would be miserable if you remained here.”
I don’t want to turn my head to look into her eyes, because I fear I won’t be able to contain myself. But I do anyway. Shizuko’s eyes are red. She looks as if she has been crying for a while, but the tears aren’t coming.
“I was so sure about it,” I say in a low voice. “Made all kinds of plans. I would study in Tokyo, then start a company that would make so much money. And after you and I got together… I thought that I would return to bring you with me.”
Shizuko puts her hand on mine. She doesn’t have to tell me that she wants me to stay. She was always too bright to utter wishes that couldn’t come true. Even now, I remember her as a little girl who loved to write stories, dreaming of becoming a novelist one day.
“You sound unsure…” she says. “Are you changing your mind?”
“I don’t want to leave anymore. But I can’t change the fact that in about two months I’ll be gone from here. Nothing will stay as it used to be.”
Shizuko furrows her brow in confusion. When I look away, she leans her forehead against my chest. We stand there quietly as I look down at the river. Her hair brushes against my chin.
I know that Shizuko would prefer us to have an in-depth conversation, in which she would convince me to change my plans and choose to study nearby enough that I wouldn’t have to move from our small town, a place that she doesn’t imagine herself leaving. I don’t feel strong enough now to bring those memories to the surface. I urge her to continue walking with me.
We reach another set of stairs that go further down. These ones are made of rusted metal, and look like they belong in a long-abandoned construction site. The moss has managed to conquer these metallic floors as well. I step over a couple of broken branches. In the last stretch of stairs that ends in the riverbank, the overgrown bushes and the branches have encroached so much of the space that we have to push them away with our forearms, or let them bend against our bodies as we continue descending.
We reach the foot of the metallic steps: it’s a curved stretch of cement, about the size of a bed, that would allow us to sit on its edge and almost touch the clear water with our shoes. When we stand down there, the nearby trees and dense vegetation hide us from the world. Many times we sat here to talk, to make out, to make love, away from our relatives and anyone who might know us.
Shizuko walks up to me as she drinks tea from her bottle. When she lowers it, I hug her by the waist and kiss her wet lips. Her saliva tastes like lemon. I close my eyes and I wish to lose myself in feeling Shizuko’s tongue caressing mine slowly, and in how her hands are rubbing my back.
When we pull away, she hugs me tightly.
“It feels so good,” she whispers. “I wish it would never end.”
Shizuko’s body is trembling as if she were cold. I blink away the blurriness in my vision. I feel her heart beat fast against my chest as I look down at the water. The riverbed is made of small, cinnamon brown pebbles, but patches of stripped bedrock show through. The river runs along the bottom of a steep slope, in a corridor of tropical-looking vegetation that stretches from left to right. Floating mist blurs the distant vegetation on both sides. So close to the water, it feels that I’m inhaling water particles every time I breathe.
“I wish days like this never ended,” Shizuko says softly. “I’d like to live in a house that’s been standing for thousands of years.” She takes my hand and squeezes it hard, as if trying to get some warmth from me. “I’ve always wanted to make something that would last forever.”
I hold Shizuko’s head against my chest.
“I want to live here forever,” I say in a low, trembling voice. “I wish we could spend our lives just sitting on this bank.”
“You will still leave. But you will return one day, right?” she asks me as she looks into my face. “I will keep coming here, alone. I will imagine myself holding your hand, looking at the river together. I will see our faces reflected in the surface of the water. And I will remember all that happened here.”
My heart hurts as much as it always does when I can’t stop myself from remembering. I don’t speak for what feels like thirty seconds, so Shizuko continues.
“When we are apart, maybe I’ll manage to get published. I’m sure I’ll do little else than write. So maybe one day you’ll enter a big library in Tokyo and you’ll find yourself staring at one of my books. I hope you’ll like them.”
My throat constricts.
“I would have loved to read anything you had to say. For many years I’ve dreamt of holding a book you wrote and trying to make out what it contained. The text was always blurry. I don’t know what I would have read in there if I managed to focus on it in my dreams. You never finished any book.”
She wants to pull away to look me in the eyes, but I don’t want her to realize how much my eyes have watered.
“You are acting strange today. I know I haven’t finished anything yet, but I’m sure I’ll get down to it in the future.”
I force a smile.
“I’ve been acting strange for many years. That’s what regret does to people. And mine has never gone away. I don’t want it to go away either.”
I allow Shizuko to look at me. She reaches out to touch one of my tears. Her fingers are warm as they run over my skin. Now that I have opened up, she lets her worry and pain come to the surface. She never spoke up about how much it hurt to know that although we were in love, she had a limited time to spend with me before I left the town for the foreseeable future. Both of us knew that even if I kept my promise to return every few weeks, the distance would abrade our relationship, maybe to the point of severing it.
Shizuko wraps her arms around me. I feel the warmth of her body and the softness of her hair as I watch the river flow.
“I’ve never regretted having met you,” she says in a whisper. “Although I knew from the beginning that eventually we would stop seeing each other, I have never felt anything similar for anybody else.” Shizuko takes a deep breath. “I will stay strong. I will keep living. I will try hard to publish something. I’ve never needed much, and I have always been able to be alone. I’m sure that when you return, you will find me waiting for you.”
“That was my intention. I believed I would come back soon. Even as I met that other girl, I’m sure I thought she was temporary. I felt so lonely in Tokyo, after all. Another stranger among millions.”
Shizuko’s hand rests on my shoulder as I look at the water.
“Are you already thinking of going out with other girls when you move to Tokyo?” she says with a hurt tone, barely believing that such words would come out of my mouth.
I shake my head.
“I’m talking about what will happen. I will leave like I always planned. As I try to make a name for myself out there, I will return home to see you, regularly at first. But it won’t take long until I feel a gulf growing between us. So much stuff will happen to me in Tokyo, even without looking for it, but you will remain the same. I will end up believing that you are weak for it, that you are afraid of growing up, of becoming better.”
Shizuko is staring intently at me. She isn’t sure what point I’m trying to make.
“Maybe you will meet someone in Tokyo who makes your heart skip a beat,” she says in a trembling voice. “I’m terrified of it, but I know it’s very likely. I’m far from perfect. I’ve never believed that I matched you. If… you end up forgetting me, it will mean that you found a better life. When the pain goes away, I will be happy for you.”
I close my eyes. I can’t see Shizuko anymore. I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to imagine what it would have been like if we had stayed together. How I wished that it could last forever. I grit my teeth, but my lower lip is shivering. As I rub my eyelids, Shizuko hugs me from the side and rests her face on my torso. I rest my arm on her shoulders.
“In the end I will allow one of those Tokyo girls,” I say, “one that I was attracted to, to convince me that I didn’t need you anymore. I will lie to you on the phone, I’ll tell you that it isn’t working, although by that point I will have dated that other girl for a couple of weeks. I remember… I can still remember your voice on the other end of the line. So many times I have pictured you sitting on your bed back at your parents’ home. The last time we saw each other we came down here. You read me two short stories you had been working on, and we kissed, but my heart was no longer in it. I felt pity for you. You felt so small, so… beneath me.”
Shizuko looks up at me. Tears are running down her cheeks.
“You are breaking up with me,” she says with a hollow voice. “That’s what you are doing.”
Her body shakes against mine. I takes me a while until I feel ready to speak.
“I don’t want to leave. If I could go back, I would have stayed here, Shizuko, for the rest of my life. But I didn’t. After that girl for whom I betrayed you, two others came. Everything I took for granted with you, that feeling of being home just by holding you in my arms, I never felt it with anybody else. I loved you, Shizuko, like I will never be able to love another human being. I have been aware of it every day, ever since.”
Shizuko closes her eyes and keeps them closed for a few seconds. I stop talking, because my throat hurts. She puts her hand on my cheek and tries to get me to look at her.
“I don’t understand what you are talking about,” she says, “I love you too. I already knew that I won’t ever love anyone as much as I love you, even though you were always meant to leave me. But now that you realize that, just stay. We’ll move out together. If we don’t find any decent house in this town, we’ll move nearby. I will always be yours. You are the only person with whom I’d rather be than alone.”
For a moment I feel that my left hand will fall through Shizuko’s shoulder. The frozen ache has spread throughout my body, which I rarely allow it to do, only when I don’t care if it ruins my life, if it prevents me from continuing.
“I remember the day that I received the call from your mother,” I struggle to say. “I was sitting on a bench in a public park, a few minutes after I got out from work. I was looking up the news on my phone while I drank soda. I don’t know what went through my mind when your mother’s name appeared. I hadn’t spoken to her for years. And when I heard her animal sobs, time stood still. You had been taking a walk along the outskirts, the same route you followed three or four days a week. You used to sit somewhere and write, your mother said. But that day, you were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Shizuko’s watery eyes have widened. I can’t imagine what she’s thinking. I take a deep breath while my chest burns.
“It was raining, and they said that the car slipped off the road. Your mother told me that you died instantly from the impact. I never believed it. I kept dreaming of you lying there broken in the rain, suffering. I imagined that you thought of me in your final minutes, realizing that we would never see each other again. I wondered whether you resented me because I betrayed you. I had told you that we would love each other for the rest of our lives, and I had believed it, but I had broken your heart.”
Shizuko looks at me with a blank expression. She doesn’t seem to have understood anything. I feel so tired, my legs are trembling. I lower myself to the cement floor, and I sit on the edge. The insects and birds keep calling out to each other like they always did.
“Once my mind registered your mother’s words, and I understood she wasn’t joking or lying, although she wouldn’t have, I experienced the ice cold sensation of something snapping inside of me. Everything around me had turned into a blur. I thought I would collapse on the spot. When I looked down at my feet, I realized that until then the knowledge that you existed, that you would be there for me if I wanted, kept me tethered to this world, but ever since I’ve felt like an astronaut drifting away in the void. I met what I always needed, everything I could have ever wanted, back when we were children, back at home, and I would never look at you, talk to you, or hold you again. You would never write those books you needed to make. I would never learn what you thought about.”
Shizuko is sitting next to me. She rests her hand on my knee as she pleads with her eyes for me to make sense.
“I’m still here with you, and I will always be. I haven’t gone anywhere.”
“The world has changed too much in these last decades, Shizuko, particularly for a man anchored to the past, but I have made sure to remember you, whether through recalling our moments together or writing them down when they seemed to be slipping off my mind. As long as the memories of you remain, and the means exist, we can have the life that I threw away, starting from the afternoon when I told you that I would leave for sure. I have barely thought of anything else for so many years, and every time I try to recreate our past, I get a bit closer. I believe I don’t have to change much more. One of these days I will meet you again as you lean against that moss-stained wall, and for the rest of the afternoon I won’t notice any movement, any reaction, any word coming out of your mouth that doesn’t belong to you.”
I take Shizuko’s hand. Her fingers are thin and delicate. I squeeze it gently.
“Every time I return to you, I fall in love all over again. It’s so hard for me, like you wouldn’t imagine. I can barely handle looking at you, talking to you, smelling you, touching you. The sadness and regret make me want to die. They insisted I should try to forget you through whatever means necessary. None of those people understand. There’s nothing worse than realizing too late that I had already met and lost the only one who mattered. That whatever remained of you has kept haunting my life is my only relief.”
I stop talking because I am crying. Shizuko puts her arms around my shoulders, and I bury my face in her neck. We stay like that for a while. The sound of the insects, birds and frogs fills our ears.
“I feel that you are telling me the truth,” she says, distressed. “Or else we both have lost our minds.”
I move my vocal cords without uttering a word, to order the interface to appear. A couple of orders later, the cacophony of the animal noises and the sound of flowing water cease abruptly. The sound of our breathing and our quickened heartbeats echo as if inside a chamber.
Shizuko tenses up, and pulls away from our embrace to look around. The world has stopped. The reflections of the sun, filtered through the cloud cover, on the river are static as if drawn with a white crayon, and the ripples of the water are still like the wrinkles in a sheet.
“What is this?” she asks in a voice about to break. “W-who am I?”
“You’re my girlfriend from the past.” I close my eyes, and try to calm myself down. My heart pounds like it’s going to explode. “You are a miracle. One I built up from zero, based on the foundations laid by many other people much more intelligent than me. It has taken me so much time, I have fine-tuned the contents of your brain every day, based on how this afternoon went. But one of these days I will walk you home, you, my Shizuko, and not some forged version, and from that day on I will spend the rest of my life with you.”
Shizuko is trembling. She is staring at me, her face pale. Tears well in her eyes.
“I’m not real…?”
“Of course you’re real. You have been made to be exactly like the Shizuko I knew in my youth. You are more real than anything else in the outside world. You shouldn’t have died. I should have been there so you wouldn’t have died. But now I can bring you back.”
“Why did you do that? Why have you made me to be alive again, even though I’m dead?”
She will never accept what I say; she never has. But it doesn’t matter. This version isn’t the last one. I have so many versions of her, and each of them is slightly different from its predecessor. I can keep on making new ones until I find the perfect replica of the Shizuko who will always be in my memory, and will live forever.
“I love you,” I say. “Back when you stood in front of me and looked back at me with your own eyes, I didn’t understand properly what I meant when I uttered those words. Now I know that I was put in this world so I could love you.”
Shizuko looks down at her lap. Her face is frozen in stunned anguish. I take her hand and place it gently over mine. Shizuko’s chest starts convulsing as if suffering from silent hiccups, and I verbalize another order out loud:
“Stop the simulation.”
Shizuko freezes. Her fingers turn rigid in my hand. I shut off the rest of the world, and Shizuko and I sit in a pitch black void. The sound of my heartbeat is deafening. I feel like a child lost in a dark forest. The blackness makes me think that I am the only living creature in the universe, and I wonder if I would ever have the courage to go forward and make my way alone through the woods. For a long moment I allow myself to keep holding on to Shizuko’s lifeless hand, to grant me enough strength to endure the next days, hours or minutes I will spend away from the love of my life.
If by some miracle you have read the stuff I self-published in Spanish two or three years ago, you may know or remember that this story is basically the same as one of them, except with a completely different setting and a narrative that goes more or less straight to the point. What can I say, I wanted to tell that kind of story again, and I knew I wouldn’t do anything else today. I hope you enjoyed it to some extent. I certainly did, but depression has felt like a second home for a long time.