Shizuko waits for me, as always, leaning back against the moss-stained low wall that encloses a house, one that seemed deserted for as long as I remember. On the opposite side of the narrow path leading to the main street of our town, some neighbor has accumulated wooden planks, piles of rubber wheels, and tarp-covered refuse in a gravel backyard. Although nothing about this spot spelled out romance, for many years I’ve 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; black pants; and the indigo, white-rimmed sneakers. She’s holding a notebook against her thigh. Her black hair is pulled back and tied with a ribbon. She has focused her nut-brown gaze in front of her, on the overgrown vegetation.
Whenever I caught her in a pensive state, I wanted to stand out of sight and keep staring 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 witness her mental landscapes the way she did.
She notices me approaching her. As she bows her head slightly, she offers me a shy smile. Warmth rushes to my throat and tightens it. For a moment I only hear the white noise of insect calls that always surrounds us in this town, a mix between robotic laughs and doors 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.
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 improve now that we’ll spend the afternoon together.”
Shizuko nods as a little smile appears on her lips.
“Yes, the same for me, although I’ve gotten some writing done in the morning.”
We descend along the asphalted path. My heart is reacting to Shizuko’s body heat and her scent. We pass by the corrugated wall of the building on our left, as well as by the small, menhir-like sculpture that stands on a tiny yard to our right. When we exit into the main street of our town, we turn right. We can barely fit in the old cement sidewalk shoulder to shoulder, so I put my arm around Shizuko’s waist. She holds onto me tightly.
On the other side of the street, behind the single row of rice-white buildings with the shutters rolled down, the tall, dense trees of the hilly forest that this town is encroached by look faded due to mist or low clouds. The air smells like water, a promise of rain, which makes me want to narrow my shoulders.
The streets are deserted. A lone white van waits for the 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.”
Her warm, gentle gaze always seems to be wondering if I’m alright. She smiles a little.
On other identical afternoons I have guided Shizuko up the path to the graveyard. For many generations, the locals have built their graves on a stepped hill. The nearby grounds feature trimmed bushes and a gravel garden with 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 wish to erase from my brain the possibility that anybody could.
We cross the road to walk in front of the eternally closed convenience store. Its tattered awning, which originally may have been sandstone-orange and white, is the only detail that adds color to this building. Its shelves are half-empty, and some faded posters announce long-gone days. As we walk by, the rounded, mushroom-like bushes, that have grown in a long planter between the building and the sidewalk, graze the left sleeve of my jacket.
“Should 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. Above us, a flock of pigeons flies across the sky.
“The town is so deserted today, isn’t it?” she asks. “At this hour of the afternoon, I’d expect to see at least 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 drops her notebook accidentally. I hurry to pick it up as my skin tingles; looking into her eyes always does these days. After Shizuko recovers her notebook, 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 that overlooks the river, and that runs maybe twenty meters below the street. Now that I’m staring at the seaweed-green water, I hear it flowing. On the other side of the river, a wall of tall trees have stretched out long branches with fern-like leaves over the current. The breeze blows through them and rustles their leaves.
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 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 that she had noticed disappeared from week to week.
“Shall we go to our spot?” I ask her softly.
We reach the gap between two stretches of guard rail where a pebble pavement ends in downward stairs. They lead to the riverbank. Ancient-looking moss has grown between the pebbles, as well as in the worn and cracked steps of the stairs.
Shizuko puts her hands on the stone railing and leans against it. Her ponytail flutters in the breeze.
“Before we started coming here together, descending those stairs 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 expects an answer, I remain silent. She offers me a sad smile.
“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.”
She peers down at the river through the dense treetops. She closes her eyes, and they remain closed as she rolls her eyeballs towards me. When she opens her eyes again, she shoots me a strange look, maybe one too confident, unlike her shy, sad self. For a moment, it takes me out of my dream.
“Let’s go,” I say in a thin voice as the dreaded cold spreads through me.
We descend the steps, and step on dirt-covered landings. Many decades ago we would have been able to walk on cement pavement, but the vegetation has long broken through, making it seem if we are walking along 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 canopies, because their strident, insistent calls surround us, and only the sound of the flowing water is competing against them.
I turn to my left to face the river, located maybe ten meters below. Shizuko rests her head on my shoulder. My skin tingles again. As I stare down at the river, I spot the reflection of a large black bird as it flies far above the current.
“We’ve become the last people in the world,” Shizuko says.
We listen for a while 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 could be alone together.”
My heart aches, which makes 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. I have never felt any different about that prospect… the same way you have always wanted to leave our nowhere town.”
Once again, I’ll have to hide how much it hurts.
“Yes. I wanted to leave even as a child. I thought I was too big for this place. I certainly wanted to be.”
Shizuko’s shoulders droop.
“I know you have to leave. You would be miserable if you stayed here.”
I don’t want to turn my head and hold her gaze, but I do it anyway. Shizuko’s eyes are red, as expected. They look as if she’s containing tears.
“I thought so as well,” I say in a low voice. “I figured out how I would escape: I’d study in Tokyo, then start a company that would make so much money. Meeting you threw a wrench in the plans, but I was sure that one day I would return to bring you there with me.”
Shizuko puts her hand on mine. I make the mistake of closing my eyes, and I remember her as the little girl who loved to write stories, who dreamt 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 will be gone from here.”
Shizuko furrows her brow in confusion. When I look away, she leans her forehead against my chest, brushing my chin with her hair. We stand quietly as I look down at the river.
Shizuko would prefer us to have an in-depth conversation. She would try to convince me to change my plans and choose to attend classes nearby, close enough that I won’t have to move from our small town. I feel too weak now to repeat my answers. I urge her to continue walking with me.
We reach another set of stairs that descend further. 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 at the riverbank, the overgrown bushes and branches have encroached so much of the space that as we continue descending, we have to push them away with our forearms or let them bend against our bodies.
We reach the foot of the metallic steps: a curved stretch of cement about the size of a bed. If we sat on its edge, our shoes would almost touch the clear water. Down here, 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 knows us.
Shizuko 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 wish to lose myself in these sensations: Shizuko’s tongue is caressing mine, and her hands are stroking my back.
When we pull away, she hugs me tightly.
“I wish days like these never ended,” she whispers.
Shizuko is shivering as if she were cold. I blink away the blurriness in my vision. Her heart beats fast against my chest as I look down at the water. The riverbed is made out 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 vegetation that stretches from left to right. On both ends, a floating mist blurs the distant vegetation. So close to the current, it feels like I’m inhaling water particles every time I breathe.
“I’d like to live in a house that’s been standing for thousands of years,” Shizuko says softly. She takes my hand and squeezes it as if trying to extract warmth from it. “Can you imagine that, making something that lasts that long?”
I hold Shizuko’s head against my chest.
“I wish we could spend our lives right on this spot,” I say in a low, quavering voice.
“Yet, you will leave. But one day you’ll return, right? Isn’t that the idea?” she asks as she looks up at me. “I will keep coming here alone. I will imagine myself holding your hand and 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 prevent the memories from rushing in. I remain silent for maybe thirty seconds, but Shizuko continues.
“When we are apart, maybe I’ll manage to get published. I’m sure I’ll do little else than write. So perhaps one day you’ll walk into a big bookstore in Tokyo and find yourself staring at one of my novels.”
My throat constricts.
“For many years I’ve dreamt of holding a book you wrote. I try to make out what it contains, but the text is always blurry. After all, you never finished writing any novel.”
She tries to pull away to look me in the eyes, but I want to spare her that sight.
“You’re acting strange today. I haven’t finished anything yet, but I’m sure I’ll get down to it in the future.”
“I’ve been acting strange for a long time, Shizuko. That’s what regret does to people. And mine has never relented. 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 warm fingers run over my skin. Now that I have opened up, she allows her worry and pain to surface. She never spoke up about how much it hurt that although we were in love, she had a limited time to spend with me before I moved out 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.
“As much as it hurts, I’ve never regretted meeting you,” she whispers. “I knew from the beginning that eventually we would stop seeing each other, but I have never felt like this for anybody else. I don’t expect that to change either.” Shizuko takes a deep breath. “So I will stay strong. I will keep going. I will write hard, and try to publish. I’m sure that when you return, you will find me waiting for you.”
“That was my intention. Even after I met that other girl, I’m sure I thought she represented a temporary distraction. I felt so lonely in Tokyo, after all. Another stranger among millions.”
Shizuko puts a hand on my shoulder.
“Are you already thinking of going out with other girls when you move to Tokyo?” she asks in a hurt tone.
I doubt she ever considered 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. From time to time, as I try to make a name for myself out there, I will return home to see you. At first, regularly. 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. However, back in this nowhere town, you will remain the same. I will end up believing that you are weak, that you are afraid of growing up, of improving.”
Shizuko is staring intently at me, stunned.
“Some girl in Tokyo will make your heart skip a beat,” she says in a trembling voice. “I’m terrified of it, but I know it’s very likely. And I’m far from perfect. If… you end up forgetting me, won’t it mean that you found a better life? When the pain goes away, I will be happy for you.”
I close my eyes. How many times have I tried to imagine our future if Shizuko and I had stayed together? I grit my teeth, but my lower lip keeps trembling. As I rub my eyelids, Shizuko rests her face on my chest.
“In the end I will allow one of those Tokyo girls,” I say, “one to whom I was attracted, 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 still remember your voice on the other end of the line. So many times I have pictured you seated on your bed back at your parents’ home as you held the phone to your ear. 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 trembles against me. When she pulls away, tears are running down her cheeks.
“You are breaking up with me,” she says in a hollow voice.
“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 followed. 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 like I will never be able to love another human being. I have been aware of it every day, ever since.”
I stop talking; my throat hurts. Shizuko strokes my cheek and tries to get me to look at her.
“I don’t understand what you are talking about,” she whimpers. “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 if you have realized the same thing as well, stay with me. 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.”
I feel that my left hand will fall through Shizuko’s shoulder. The frozen ache has spread throughout my body, which I only allow it to do when I don’t care that it risks ruining my life.
“I remember the day that I received that call from your mother,” I struggle to say. “I was sitting on a bench in a park, a few minutes after I got out of the office. 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 showed up on the screen. I hadn’t spoken to her in 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. Your mother told me that you used to sit somewhere and write. 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 as my chest burns.
“It was raining. They said that the car slipped off the road. Your mother told me that you died instantly from the impact. I never believed it; that’s the kind of stuff that doctors say when the truth is unbearable. I kept dreaming of you lying there in the rain, broken. Agonizing. I pictured you choking in mud and blood. What did you think about in your final minutes? Did you realize that we would never see each other again? Did you still resent me? I had told you that we would love each other for the rest of our lives, and I had believed it, but I still betrayed you.”
Shizuko stares at me blankly. I’m exhausted, 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 will.
“Once my mind registered your mother’s words,” I continue, “I experienced the ice-cold sensation of something snapping inside me. 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 waiting for me if I chose to return, kept me tethered to this world, but ever since I’ve felt like an astronaut drifting away in the void. Back at home, back when we were children, I met the only one who mattered, and now I would never look at her, talk to her, hold her again. You would never tell new stories. You must have pictured so much in your head that you never got to put down in words, and I would never see it.”
Shizuko has taken a seat 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 take a deep breath, then look up at the gray sky.
“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 the days we spent together or writing them down when they were slipping off my mind. As long as the memories of you remain, and the means to perpetuate them exist, we can salvage the life that I threw away so easily, starting from the afternoon when I confirmed to you that I would leave soon. For so many years I have barely thought of anything else, and every time I attempt to recreate our past, I get a bit closer. I won’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 look, any reaction, any word coming out of your mouth that doesn’t belong to you.”
I hold Shizuko’s hand. Her fingers are thin and delicate. I squeeze them gently.
“Every time I return to you, I fall in love all over again. But it’s so hard, Shizuko. I can barely deal with looking at you, talking to you, smelling you, touching you. It makes me want to die. They insisted I should try to forget you, but none of those people understand. There’s nothing worse than realizing too late that I had already met and lost the only one who would ever matter. Whatever remains of you has kept haunting my life, and that is my only relief.”
I can’t keep talking through the tears. Shizuko wraps her arms around my shoulders, and I bury my face in her neck. The sound of the insects, birds and frogs fills my ears.
“You are telling me the truth, I can tell,” 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. Two orders later, the cacophony of the animal noises and the sound of flowing water cease abruptly. Our breathing and quickened heartbeats echo as if inside a chamber.
Shizuko tenses up, and pulls away from our embrace to look around. The world has stopped. On the river, the reflections of the sunlight, filtered through the cloud cover, are static as if drawn with a white crayon, and the ripples of the water remain still like the wrinkles in a sheet.
“What is this?” she asks in a breaking voice. “W-who am I?”
I close my eyes and try to calm down.
“You’re 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 ages; 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, instead of some forged version, and from that day on I will spend the rest of my life with you.”
Shizuko is trembling. Tears are streaming down her pale face.
“I’m not real…?”
“Of course you’re real. Made to be exactly like the Shizuko I knew in my youth. You are more real than anything else in the world out there. You shouldn’t have died. I should have been there so you wouldn’t have died. But I can bring you back.”
“B-but I’m gone…”
She won’t accept what I’m doing; she never has. But it doesn’t matter. I’ve yet to perfect her. I will keep on creating new versions until I find the replica of the Shizuko that remains in my memory, and who from then on will live forever.
I press my lips against her forehead, then I hold her face to look into her eyes.
“I love you. Back when you stood in front of me and looked back at me with your original 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’s face is contorted in stunned anguish. Her chest starts convulsing as if she was suffering from silent hiccups.
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.
Shizuko and I sit in a pitch black void. The sound of my heartbeat is deafening. The darkness makes me feel that I’m the only living creature in the universe, too small and weak to keep going through this life alone even for a second longer. I hold on to Shizuko’s lifeless hand until it grants me the strength that I will need to endure the next days, or hours, that I will spend away from the love of my life.
Author’s note: 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 sadness has felt like a second home for as long as I remember.