Chapter 14 is finally underway! Since it's been so long since I've posted anything, I figured I would offer up a little something to whet the appetite...
Chapter 14: Destrudo
“Hi, you've reached the voice mail of Haru Yakumo. I appreciate your call, but unfortunately cannot answer my phone at the moment. If you would leave your name, phone number, and a brief message after the beep, I'll be sure to respond as soon as possible.”
Akira disconnects instead. He already left a message on the Yakumos' answering machine and he doesn't feel like doing it again.
Why, Haru? he thinks, clicking his cell phone shut and seizing his head between his palms. Why are you always busy when I need you the most? It's more emotionally than objectively true. What happened almost ten years ago… It wasn't Haru's fault, but it definitely left a scar upon Akira's heart, one of many that continue to ache.
Frustration wells up within him, and a single tear drops onto the pile of test papers resting on the desk below. Akira quickly wipes his face with the back of his sleeve and sets the papers aside. He tried to put his mind to work as soon as he arrived, but it wasn't happening. He managed to make only a few marks before all of the dark thoughts completely throttled his mental processes. The chance of him getting any work done tonight, as he'd hoped, became exponentially low due to the outcome of the date. There's no real point in staying here. But the other option is going home, and that means… that means…
…facing her again.
His fingers dig deeper into his scalp. I don't know what to do. Haru would know, but I… I'm useless. He thinks he saw Yamagiri's light on when he came in, but he couldn't talk to his kouhai about this. They get along and all, but there's just no way. The only other person whom he might have been able to entrust with something so sensitive is Yura, but that level of comfort between them died years ago. He can't even really remember how, either. Most of his memories about her are quite fond. Did she start getting on his case about seeing a head shrink? That might've been it…
Is his circle of intimates really so small? That beyond Sayaka and Haru, there's no one to whom he can bare his soul? That can't be right. Can it?
He grits his teeth and thinks. How would a conversation with Haru probably go? Well, he'd have Akira explain the situation in embarrassing, painful detail. He'd ask Akira to reflect upon what both of them did wrong, whether to create the situation or subsequently mishandle it. Conversely, did either of them do anything right? After all they've been through, is this really the end of the world? What's the next step from here?
It's pretty easy to imagine the flow and overall outcome, though no substitute for the real thing. He needs to hear someone else tell him what he wants so desperately to believe: “Just go home to her and everything will be fine.”
He starts absentmindedly flipping through the tests, a pensive grimace on his face. The date was a disaster. All because of that stupid, misbegotten package… It's true, what was he thinking? For some reason, he thought everything would go fine, but instead Sayaka blew up at him, and he blew right back up at her, and then he had a breakdown of the sort he hasn't experienced in years. So many of his demons reawakening all at once and putting his soul over the hot coals to writhe in agony. Sayaka did nothing and said nothing until it had ended on its own. There was no reassuring touch. He remained curled in fetal position, and she seemed impossibly far away as she spoke:
“I'm so sorry, Akira. I want to help you more than anything. I hate seeing you like this. But…” A few seconds' pause. “I'm really confused and conflicted right now. Both of us probably need some space. I…” Another pause. “I can’t accept your gift. Not this moment. I want to, though. I really do want to understand you better. … Please, let me meditate on everything. I need time to think.”
After that, she collected her things, said farewell, and left. All too quickly, it seemed. In her wake, there was nothing but cold, stark silence and tear-soaked ambivalence.
He was glad she left. So then why did he also feel so bitter? Was it a feeling of abandonment? Betrayal? Resentment? He doesn't know. The sentiment is still as fire in his chest and he's no closer to putting a finger on it. Maybe it's just too hot to touch. Whatever it is, he doesn't trust it. He doesn't trust how it might make him act. But whether he ignores it or approaches it, it's going to affect him. And he can't stand that. He can't stand feeling like this. Not about her.
He feels like he'll burn up from the inside out if he doesn't do something. He needs a distraction. A real distraction.
Akira pulls out his box of contacts and promptly starts thumbing into TA. Quickly he finds it, the poor beat-up index card which never fails to instill a rush of nostalgic warmth.
Taro “Tako” Takanashi.*
The cartoon octopus on the reverse side, drawn by “Tako” himself, brings Akira back. Way back, to a time that had its obvious drawbacks, but overall was much more simple. When Akira was still figuring out who he was, and still had a gleaming, unknown future ahead of him. Before his own mind turned against him, and he could still rely on himself for almost everything.
Calling the States won't be cheap, but he doesn't care. He needs to hear a reassuring voice. Akira punches the number into his phone, and waits with bated breath. Please answer, please answer, please answer…
* Taro's name came up as early as “Enter the Dragon” in what probably seemed like a throwaway moment. His nickname “Tako” was arrived at by replacing the masculine ending -ro with feminine -ko. (Tako also means “octopus”.)
“Hello?” asks a masculine, very American voice.
Akira frets, clutching his necklace to brace his nerves. He didn't expect someone else to pick up, but, now that he thinks about it, of course Tako would have at least one housemate. And there's no guarantee the man knows a word of Japanese. Akira's spoken English is lacking at best, and he has no real excuse given his age and profession. He has to know enough to get by here, though. He's sure of it. “H-hello,” he stutters in response. “I am looking for Taro Takanashi. Is he home?”
“May I ask who's calling?”
Akira takes a moment to parse what was said. “Akira Katsuragi. Old friend. From high school.”
“Ahh, I think I’ve heard of you” the man says, his tone suddenly friendly. “Hold on. Let me get him.”
Akira exhales a sigh of relief and relinquishes the death grip on his pendant. He's amazed he got through that. And Taro happens to be home now, too. With his luck,
he was expecting to leave another message.
A couple of minutes later, a familiar voice appears on the other end. “Still there?”
“Yeah,” Akira says. “Yeah, I'm here.”
“He tells me, 'There's some German guy named Katz-something on the line for you.'” The voice is soft and effeminate, almost mistakable for a woman's in timbre. “'Says he knew you in high school.' And I'm all, 'We didn't have any German kids in high school…' Took me a second to figure it out!”
Akira chuckles. “Yeah, I have a German accent whenever I try to speak English. Better than a Japanese one, I suppose. Same language family at least. Speaking of accents, you sound like you're picking one up. I can just barely hear it.”
“I don't get to speak Japanese much nowadays. I mean, other Japanese folks aren't difficult to find, but with my lifestyle… our paths don't cross much.”
“That’s understandable. So, Taro, how've you been doing?”
“No 'Tako'?” his friend asks, teasing. “Everyone calls me 'Taro' these days. I kind of miss my old nickname.”
“But it was such a cruel nickname…”
“Most of the time. When you were the one saying it…” A sly chortle. “...well, it was kind of special.”
“I suppose so,” Akira relents. “Tako, then. So, tell me.”
“Can't complain,” Taro says. “The States have been everything I hoped for. I even have a boyfriend now. Ryan, the guy who picked up the phone. We've been together for well over a year now.”
“Really, Tako?” Akira asks. “That's wonderful.” He feels a warmth, a slight flutter, in his chest.
“Plus I have a job I really enjoy. It’s doing hair and makeup for TV, so it’s about the most faggy thing you could imagine, but, well, I guess that's just the kind of person I am.”
“And there's nothing wrong with that,” Akira says. “Not everyone is going to fall to the sides of the bell curve in all things.”
“I wasn't always okay with it…” Taro murmurs. “I guess if anyone knows about that, it's you. But I’ve long gotten over all that self-loathing tripe. We like what we like. True passion should be embraced, no matter what it is.”
Akira isn’t sure he wants to touch that one. Too close to home…
As if sensing Akira's discomfort, Taro changes the subject. “And how are things going for you? I noticed that you published your thing back in April. Congratulations.”
“Thanks. It was nice to get that off my chest, even if almost no one will take it seriously.”
“Meaning,” Taro prods, “some people do?”
Akira sighs. “There's one organization that was impressed enough by it to offer me a job with them. But…” He simply trails off. There's nothing to discuss there, least
of all with Taro. Well, he should give his old friend something, at least, even an incomplete truth. “I think I want to stay with teaching after all.”
“I see. And how's the family?” When Akira offers no immediate response, Taro follows up, “Or should I not ask?”
Akira thinks. Did he call Taro to get actual advice? Or did he call him as an escape? Now confronted with the option to bring that discussion up, he finds that he really doesn't want to. At least, not so early in the conversation. Something blunt and honest should suffice. “Mostly better than average. With some caveats.”
“Hmmm,” Taro hums knowingly. “Sounds complicated.”
“Well, you don't have to talk about it if you don't want to. I probably wouldn't know what to tell you, besides.”
“It's okay,” Akira says. “Just hearing your voice again helps, in its own way.”
“……… It really has been a long time, hasn't it?”
Akira smiles weakly. “I know. Sometimes…” He takes a deep breath. “Sometimes I wish you were closer, Tako.”
“It's best this way,” Taro says. “We both know it is.”
Akira's smile inverts promptly. “I suppose so. You… never would have been happy if you stayed here. And if we'd tried to make it work… You know I never could've…”
He clutches the pendant once more, absentmindedly wringing it for any reassurance it might provide.
“I know, Akira-kun,” Taro says. “Don't keep torturing yourself over it. Please tell me you haven't been?” His voice is ever gentle and understanding, a perfect male counterpart to Sayaka at her best.
Akira tries to swallow the lump in his throat. “No, I haven't. There's been so much else to…… torture myself over…” The final words are barely audible. “I wish I
could take refuge in the good things from the past, but there's so many bad things, too, that I usually just don't think about any of it.”
“Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. But you should think about those good things, every so often.”
He feels almost ready to cry again and he's not really sure why. Saying the wrong thing now would bring it all falling down. He waits, hoping Taro has more to say.
And he does. “Even though I've at last accepted that everything happened in the only way it could… I do want you to know, Akira-kun, that I miss you. I still think about you. You turned my life around. Without you… If you weren't there for me back then, I really don't think I'd be sitting here right now.”
It's probably true. He was a different person back then, one actually capable of having a net positive effect on someone else. The notion feels utterly surreal. Intellectually, he knows he should feel good about what Taro is saying. So, then, why does he feel so sad? Swallowing his tears down again, he struggles out, “It was a very important time for me, too. I'll never forget it, either. I'm just… I can't help but feel regret that I couldn't be that person. That I couldn't make it work. You don't know how much I wanted to.”
“It's okay,” Taro says. “You are who you are, and I am who I am.” A long, wistful sigh. “I used to be nothing more than a pitiful mess of a queer, but now? I'm happy. I like the person I am. I just wish the man who helped me get here could have kept some of that happiness for himself.”
“Tako--” Akira starts.
“You might say things are 'better than average', but I can tell that nothing's changed. Not really.”
Akira stares sullenly into space for a moment. “You still think this was all a mistake, don't you?”
“Hearing about it on and off over the years…” Taro muses. “Akira-kun, you know there were warning signs early on. You thought you could persevere. I suppose you have, in one sense, but was it really worth it?”
“I-- I don't know. Does it really matter anymore?”
“I guess at this point, you can't imagine living any other way. But no matter how many mistakes you've made, Akira-kun, you haven't made any so terrible that you deserve to be miserable for the rest of your life.”
He's not sure he actually agrees — reap what you sow, no? — but trying to argue with Taro on this point would be a waste of their limited time together. Akira bites his lip and tries to think of something to say. Nothing especially productive comes to mind.
“Akira-kun… There's something I want to ask you,” Taro says, not a little bit of hesitation in his voice.
Curious. “Go ahead.”
“There's probably no way you haven't already thought about this, but… Have you considered getting psychiatric help?”
Oh, no. Not Taro, too?
“I don't think you know this, but I… I was recently diagnosed with depression, myself. I really didn't want to go on pills for it. I thought I could transcend it through willpower alone. But that's not how it works. The medication has really helped and I wish I had done something about this years ago.”
Akira says nothing.
“Akira-kun… The way you've talked sometimes, I'm pretty sure you have it, too. This isn't a fight you have to face alone. It's okay to get help. Suffering from this isn't a personal failing, like we were always taught. It's a kind of disease. It really is.”
Akira hates this subject. As long as he lives in Japan, he will. Sayaka, Yura, Haru and Risa, they've all attempted tracts like this before, but they simply don't understand the situation in full. Trying to explain it is pointless, too. Utterly futile. But after Taro shared something so delicate, he supposes some sort of response is in order. “Thank you, Tako. I appreciate what you're saying. I really do.”
“But?” Taro prompts.
“But… there's nothing I can do about it right now.”
“How do you know?”
“I looked into the matter thoroughly years ago,” Akira says. “And there really is nothing I can do. Not in this backwards country.”
“Times are changing, slowly but surely. Are you really sure--?”
“It's not just that,” Akira says. “It's that… anything I tried would almost certainly cripple me mentally. And without my mind, I'm nothing. Absolutely nothing at all.”
“………I see. I wish that weren't the case.”
“Believe me, Tako. So do I.”
There's a silence for a short time. Taro finally says, “I have to get going soon. Is there anything you need to get off your chest before then? There's a specific reason you called, isn't there?”
Akira frowns. “You read me like an open book, as always. There was a reason, but… if you have to go soon, there's no point in even starting.”
There’s a faint sound on the other end, perhaps a stifled sigh. “I hear ya.”
“I wish I could just have you to myself for a few hours, face to face. You know? Getting it all out would be easy then.” Suddenly the unthinkable seizes him. “Tako, have you thought about visiting Japan anytime soon?”
The question seems to take his friend aback. “Japan? Honestly, the thought hadn’t occurred to me. I mean, seeing you again would be nice and all, but I have misgivings for obvious reasons.”
“You didn't have misgivings the last time,” Akira notes.
“The last time, my primary reason for being there wasn’t you,” Taro reminds him. His voice is gentle, yet firm.
Akira finally remembers. “Right, right. Your father…” Three or four years ago, Mr. Takanashi came down with terminal illness and Taro, despite hating the man, felt it proper decorum to see him off. There was something very poignant about the gesture.
“Plus,” Taro continues, “when I agreed to that meet-up, I didn't know until after the fact that you’d be keeping me a secret from your wife.”
It's true. Akira knew Sayaka would take it the completely wrong way if he told her he was going to his childhood town to visit… him. So, he simply didn't mention that part, and as far as he knows she never found him out. Understandably, though, Taro disliked being a taboo subject. His attitude was that if Akira was too ashamed, or too scared of the potential backlash, to tell his wife he was seeing an ex-lover in a platonic context, perhaps they shouldn't see each other in person at all. “I'm sorry,” Akira says. “I shouldn't have done that. That wasn't fair to you.” Under his breath, he adds, “Or to her.”
“It's fine, Akira-kun. I'm entirely sympathetic to the why. It's just… you don't need me to make your life more complicated than it already is.”
“But I want to see you again. And I know you want to see me again, too.” Akira feels unexpected passion bursting from within. “I'll tell Sayaka, if you want. Whatever she thinks, it doesn't matter anymore. I won't let her opinion control me. Not ever again.”
There's a silence so long that Akira almost fears the call was disconnected. But, no, Taro is just thinking. At last he says, perfectly calm and composed, “I don't think a visit would be a good idea right now.”
And abruptly, Akira feels himself start to cry. One tear after another, without reprieve. The dry spell that began after his love hotel breakdown is finally over. And what a time for it to end. He mutes the phone to erase his pain. Taro mustn't hear this.
It seems he heard enough, though. “I'm really sorry, Akira-kun. I know it hurts, but you know it's for the best. I wish I could be a better friend to you. If work didn’t demand I be somewhere tonight, I'd--”
“I know,” Akira lets himself whimper. “I know you would. It's okay. Go.”
“Whatever you do,” Taro says, “don't do anything stupid. Okay?”
Akira can't promise anything on that count. “Take care of yourself, Tako. And I'm sorry about all this.”
“Don't be sorry. Just do what you need to do to make things right.”
I don't know if I can, he wants to say. “Hope everything goes okay. Bye, Tako.”
“Later, Akira-kun. Don’t be a stranger.”