Of all the cliché ways that a story could start, this one started with an email joke.
"Fw: I'm moving to Africa!!"
There aren't too many outlandish ways in which you can react when, upon a fateful night, you open your inbox and are confronted with an email—one with a most obscure subject. I think most people would quickly assume that the email was spam from an unemployed man who wanted all your money, or an idiot who was trying to waste your time.
Me? Well, I've been known well for my curiosity. It seemed pretty obvious to me that it was an email joke.
Subject: Fw: I'm moving to Africa!!
Damn you, Zaizen!! Reactions please?!
The easiest way to tell was by the mention of my seatmate Zaizen's name—and as far as I knew, there weren't many people who were graced with the misfortune of having the surname "Zaizen."
I figured, what better way to react to an outlandish email than to answer with an outlandish reply?
Subject: Re: Fw: I'm moving to Africa!!
WTH YOU CAN'T BE SERIOUS!!1!
Haha, just kidding, stranger. I guess you got the wrong email?
For once, my curiosity served me well.
When I got to school the next day, my first order of business was to make sense of Zaizen's involvement in the outlandish curiosity that was still sitting in my inbox. He was in the same place he was every morning: in the classroom, with his legs kicked up on the desk and his ears plugged up with Chelsea Dagger on full volume; I heard as much when I walked by.
Over the three years that I'd been graced with the misfortune of sitting next to him, Zaizen hadn't changed much as a person. He had gone from an easygoing freshman to a lazy sophomore to an even lazier senior, and he was still on his way to ultimate slothdom.
He still wasn't much of talker, either. In fact, he usually only ever talked to me when he felt like being mean, or when he needed answers for homework. Needless to say, I was caught off guard when Zaizen actually waved to me, and took out his earphones when I sat down. For a little while, I stared at him.
"What?" He said. "I can't talk to my seatmate?"
"Usually it's more like you don't want to." I said. "Well, I have a story for you, but if you want to keep listening to music, then that's okay, too."
"No, I want to hear this." He said. Ah, the reaction of an involved party.
"So last night I got an email joke." I said. "The subject was something like... 'I'm moving to Africa!' And then the email cursed you and demanded a reaction. Well, I guess the email could have been from anyone, but there aren't many people in the universe who are named Zaizen and have my email address."
Zaizen was too busy spilling tears (metaphorically) over his desk from laughing so hard. I'd never seen him even laugh to the point where his lips moved more than a centimeter.
I frowned. "Are you okay?"
"This is the best day ever."
When class started, I was left to try and come to terms with what was so special about today. I checked the calendar on my phone at lunch time, and it was then that I realized today was no ordinary day: no, it was my birthday. Cheers for missing out on that one, .
But, wait—if it was my birthday, then why did Zaizen call it the "best day ever"?
It took a bit more thought, but I got there.
Today was April Fool's Day.
- x -
When I got home from school that day, my first matter of interest was switching on the computer. When I signed into my email, I found 'Re: Fw: I'm moving to Africa!!' sitting in my inbox, just like I'd been anticipating. I clicked it open.
Subject: Re: Fw: I'm moving to Africa!!
I'M SO SORRY!!! I SENT THIS TO THE WRONG PERSON!!? PLEASE IGNORE THIS!!
I couldn't help but laugh at how frantic he was coming off as. Out of good humor (and morbid curiosity), I turned a blind eye to his request and replied to the email:
Subject: Re: Fw: I'm moving to Africa!!
It's okay! Haha. I can't ask who this is?
I didn't get a reply from 'need4speed' that night. I just hoped that he hadn't given up on me just yet; it would be disappointing to have to let go of such a strange happening in my typically uneventful life, even if it was incredibly ironic that the most interesting thing to happen to laughable existence was an email joke, well, so be it.
- x -
The following morning, I walked into the classroom with the intention to play sleuth with Zaizen. I waltzed up to his desk, skipped the hello wave, and said, "Zaizen, who is the person that sent me the email joke? He cursed you, so... Zaizen."
He was bobbing his head to... well, it was probably Chelsea Dagger again.
I made hand motions in front of his face to attract his attention. "Zaizen."
He grinned at me.
I nudged his foot. "Zaizen."
He took his earphones out. "What?
"I asked you who the person that sent me the email joke was. He mentioned your name, so he obviously knows you, right?"
"That doesn't matter anymore. April Fool's Day was yesterday."
"I was just curious..."
"Don't be." He said. In his spotlight moment, he pretended to wave around a magic wand and improvised, "Stars and fairies and all things that shine, let's... forget about that email over a glass of good wine."
"You're too young to drink. And that was just generally terrible."
"Sorry you can't be as talented as me."
I sighed. "You really won't tell me who it is?"
"I could, but I won't. I can't be bothered."
"Sometimes, Zaizen, I really hate you."
He grinned at me again. I sighed at him again.
The conversation I had with Zaizen served as something of a pointless distraction to me during class time. In the forty minutes that I should have been taking notes on algebra, I made determining the identity of this 'need4speed' my top priority. I had out a piece of paper, and was brainstorming any possible leads I had to identify the identity of this person; the only thing that would kill my buzz now would be if it turned out I didn't even know who need4speed was.
- Subject was 'Moving to Africa.'
- He obviously knows Zaizen.
- Check times the email was sent. Maybe he's not in school?
- Or maybe it was sent from a phone. That would explain the time.
Zaizen obviously saw what I was up to in the middle of class. At some point, he abandoned his attempts at looking for the page we were meant to be doing algebraic equations off and engrossed himself in a task of some kind. I tried to crane my neck to see what he was doing, but his arm was in the way; if I craned my neck any higher, the teacher would wonder what on earth both Zaizen and I were doing. That was probably a worst case scenario.
Thankfully, the teacher ducked out halfway through the lesson to retrieve photocopies. At that point, Zaizen passed something across to me. It was a picture of... well, Zaizen was no artist, but I guessed from the whiskers, feline-like face and spots that it was a cheetah. I searched the piece of paper for a more obvious hint, and found a little note written on the bottom corner of the paper: 'All cheetahs should be cute like me.'
For a moment, I wondered if Zaizen was legitimately trying to help me out, or if he was trying to throw me off, or if he was just being an idiot. I stared at my notebook and blinked rapidly.
Slowly, I wrote on my paper.
- x -
I came home to an email that had been waiting for me since 11:08 AM. That meant that either his person had accessed their email during school hours, or they were out of high school—maybe in university or something.
I opened up the email.
'Never!! I'm sorry, this was not meant to be sent to you!!! Damn that Zaizen...'
I started to laugh. Was that desperation?
'Haha, it's okay! Sorry Zaizen's being such an idiot to you. Not that any apologies can make up for his idiocy.'
Strange that it was, I could sort of see why Zaizen had such a penchant for making fun of people. The sense of humor he had was strangely appealing to the causer of grief.
- x -
As I slowly inherited Zaizen's traits (such as his sense of humor and love for rebellion), I decided to be a rebel and check my emails during lunch time.
"Ooh, what a rebel." Zaizen said when he saw me with my phone out. "Having your phone out at lunch. Ooh, you're such a rebel."
"Ooh, you have so many piercings, Zaizen. Ooh, you're such a rebel."
He ran his fingers through his hair. "I shouldn't brag. I'd feel bad for all the losers."
I scrolled through my inbox. No reply yet, which was strange; I checked all of need4speed's other emails, and they had all been sent around the same time of 11 AM. Maybe there was a hiccup in his plan?
I was distracted from my detective state of mind when I saw Zaizen grinning. At the time, I didn't really get why.
For the next week, I didn't get any replies from need4speed. I checked my email often enough that Zaizen thought I'd contracted a stalker-like habit. Obviously I couldn't blame the stranger for not wanting to reply anymore, in seeing that he probably didn't even know me, but... there was still something very odd about the stranger not wanting me to find out who he was. I didn't expect Zaizen would help me.
That was, until I went to school on Friday. As usual, Zaizen was at his desk with his feet kicked up on his desk. When I walked in, he took out his earphones and said, "You must be a girl with shoes like that."
"You know me well." I said. "What's up?"
"What? You think there's a reason that I'm starting a conversation with you? That's rude."
"Zaizen, there's always a reason with you." I said. "Cut to the chase."
"Because no speed, no life." he said. When I didn't say anything, he coughed. "Tell me you know where that's from."
"I don't watch manzai skits."
For a moment, Zaizen paused. Then he started to chuckle. "I need to write this down for later," he said, pulling out his phone to quickly update his blog. "I'll tell you during gym."
"You wish you were."
"I wish your mom was."
"You don't know how much I wish my mom was, too."
I snapped my fingers in disappointment at my hapless backfire.
The end of the class came disappointingly slowly. Zaizen had a fun time sending me messages across the forty minutes that we probably should have been doing algebra, and being the prat he was—he only sent his messages one letter at a time. Sometimes I got a blank paper, and it took me a very long time to work out that they were spaces. By the end of the class, I got:
'Hi . Am I cute now.'
When class ended, I immediately disposed of the paper in the bin. Zaizen waited for me in the hallway, and when I finished cleansing my hands of his stupid jokes, I met him out there. He looked at me and said, "You're too slow."
"Okay. Remind me why you were waiting again?"
"Because I need to tell you something."
"I'm in so much shock. I think I need treatment."
"Your mom isn't as rich as mine, so don't stay there too long. Now stop talking and listen." He waited to make sure that I was going to comply before he continued. "I was going to go somewhere this afternoon. I thought I could ask you on a friendly date."
This time, I was overcome with so much shock that I stopped walking. "You're what?"
"I thought I could ask you on a friendly date."
"A friendly date."
"A friendly date."
"Zaizen, you're meant to console my confusion, not send me into a state of—"
"A friendly date."
"Stop. Console my confusion."
"We can shop for music and you can buy me the CDs. I'm finished with Costello Music."
"Oh." I said. Then I started walking again. "I guess that makes me feel a little better."
He ignored me. "So, I'll wait for you after school."
I made my confusion no secret, although I felt that Zaizen had already gauged how taken aback I was by his sudden invitation to go on a friendly date. Here was the guy who was often so reluctant to talk to me (mostly because human interaction proved to be much more of an effort than he cared to muster), asking for me to and buy CDs with him. I had the feeling I was being set up; maybe this was a late April Fool's Day prank? Or a belated birthday present? It was just the kind of stunt that Zaizen would pull.
When the end of school came, it turned out that I wasn't quite being set up. There was just a catch to the notion of our friendly date.
"Oh." Zaizen said as we were putting on our shoes. "By the way, a friend of mine is meeting up with us."
"Okay." I said. "Do I know him?"
"It could be a girl."
"You don't hang out with females, Zaizen."
"I hang out with you."
"No you don't. This is the first time I've hung out with you ever." I said. "So... do I know this person?"
"No speed, no life."
"No, you don't know this person."
"No, you don't know this person."
"I give up on you."
"He graduated recently. You might know him."
I sighed. "Why do you always say the useful things after I give up on you?"
Once we had our outside shoes on, we started to walk. Zaizen didn't tell me where exactly we were going, who we were meeting up with and on what pretense all of this was happening, but I settled the onslaught of questions by telling myself that Zaizen had no reason to answer any of my queries, even if I asked.
Across the duration of the walk, Zaizen remained a happy countenance, and I couldn't tell if it was because I was keeping my mouth shut, or if it was because he was ancitipating whatever was going to happen next. His pace slowed as we approached a corner, at which I saw a figure impatiently waiting. I did an once-over of the person as we drew closer, and as soon as I noted his features, I realized that I knew him from somewhere. He definitely used to attend Shitenhouji, but obviously he didn't anymore; otherwise he would have been in uniform instead of a shirt and jeans.
"Geez, Zaizen, you're so slow!" He yelled in our direction. Zaizen stuck up his hand in a stationary wave as we approached. "No speed, no life!"
"Please, senpai." Zaizen said. "Don't scare the mouse."
"I'm not a mouse." I said, frowning. "I'm taller than you."
Zaizen coughed and changed the subject. "Ah, by the way..." He gestured to his friend, who was now gawking at me for some reason. ", this is my friend."
"Zaizen, you're full of surprises."
"Really, if I didn't already know how brilliant I was, I would have asked for your opinion."
"I would have said you are a prat."
"Which is why I decided that I wouldn't ask for your opinion." He said. "Now, acquaint yourselves while I go somewhere and do something."
I gave him a funny look. "That was oddly nonspecific. I thought we were all going to buy CDs."
"We were?" The familiar stranger asked, looking confused. I felt just as confused.
"Oh, I'll be back." Zaizen said. Then he started to walk away, leaving me with the familiar stranger on the corner of a nonspecific street. I double-checked the familiar stranger's face. He was now looking even more confused—even a little cheated out of his existence. I decided to step up to the plate and break the awkward silence.
"So... hi." I said. "I'm . I'm a friend of Zaizen's... I think." I paused, and we both turned to stare in the general direction in which Zaizen had disappeared. "Never mind, I don't think friend is the right word. Anyways, it's nice to meet you..."
I tilted my head at him.
He tilted his head back at me. "You...?"
"I mean, what's your name?" I asked. He looked taken aback, and for a moment I wondered if we'd been introduced before and I'd just forgotten his name. I didn't think so; I wasn't bad with names, which made it strange for me not to put a name to this person's face. I could have sworn I'd never been introduced before. "I recognize you, but we've never actually been introduced."
"And... err, Zaizen never mentioned me?"
"Oh, I know who you are." I said. "Zaizen just never told me what your name is. I asked him, too, but he just told me to find out on my own."
The stranger turned once more to where Zaizen had disappeared and shook his fist in that general direction.
"It's okay." I said, laughing. "You can just tell me now."
"I'm Oshitari Kenya!" He said, a little theatrically. Okay, very theatrically. "You can't really be saying that you don't know me... right?"
"I know who you are." I said. "I just don't... know you."
He looked confused. "What do you mean?"
"Never mind." I said. "Oshitari-san, it's nice to meet you."
He looked... almost uncomfortable. "Just Kenya is fine. I mean, that idiot Zaizen, who has no respect for me whatsoever, calls me that, so..."
"Oh." I said, slightly taken aback that he had been so upfront. I got the feeling that he was expecting me to protest in return or something, but I didn't really mind much. Formalities weren't a big part of my personal philosophy. "Okay, well, is fine for me, then. It feels strange if I'm calling you by your first name and... yeah."
A little awkwardly, our 'conversation' faded into the figurative mist.
"Um..." I ventured.
"Yes?" Kenya prompted.
I chickened out in the end. "Nothing."
"Oh." He said. "Err..."
"I was just wondering..." He trailed off.
"Do you want to... get something to eat? Just while we're waiting for that idiot Zaizen." He said hastily. Yeah, that was a good descriptor. "That's actually why I'm here."
"You came to eat with Zaizen?"
"Yeah, but I'm not gonna wait for him. He can meet up with us there." He made for the general direction of west. "Come on—my shout."
"Oh, but we've only just met. It's fine for me to—"
"Nope, my shout. Come on, I'll race you to Bounce!"
"To where?" But he had already started to run.
I had never been the most athletic person, but I ran anyway. He slowed down to accommodate my pace a little, when I got ahead, well, he did what most men would do and sprinted ahead of me. I was out of breath by the time we made it to 'Bounce,' which turned out to be a burger joint on the corner of an intersection. Kenya told me that they had the best milkshakes.
"You okay?" Kenya asked me when we made it to the front door. He grinned, but it was a genuine kind of grin—not the devious kinds of ones that Zaizen was famous for. "Was I too fast for you?"
I laughed and said, "Maybe you can order me a cheeseburger by the time my old bones make it to the front counter." Yet despite my words, Kenya did the gentlemanly thing and held the door open for me. It was a redeeming gesture on his part. I thanked him, and he went to order food as I went to pick a seat.
He returned with three cheeseburgers and two milkshakes. I thought one of the burgers was for Zaizen, but it turned out that two of them were for Kenya. He asked me which milkshake flavor I preferred out of vanilla and strawberry, and I picked the latter, to save him the possible shame of having to take the pink drink. Kenya finished eating before I consumed my lone burger, but admittedly, my self-consciousness while eating dictated the speed at which I consumed my burger. Even Zaizen, who was usually quite easy-going, complained that I ate too slowly, and that I wiped my mouth too frequently to be considered normal. He said that there was no point in taking small bites and wiping your mouth clean if you were just going to dirty it again. Maybe he was right, but it was just a public habit.
I wasn't sure if I was imagining it or not, but I got the feeling that Kenya was staring at me when I wasn't checking to see the progress he was making of his milkshake, and I wasn't sure whether I should feel unnerved by it or not. Was Kenya trying to check my progress, to gauge how much longer I would take to finish before we would be on our way? I felt a little bad; I enjoyed hanging out with Kenya, and I would have happily prolonged his presence, but I didn't want to slow him down.
Zaizen would be back soon, I reflected. In my honest opinion, I wouldn't have minded if he decided not to turn up. The only thing that varied between Zaizen and Kenya (aside from their vastly different personalities) was my familiarity with them. I knew Zaizen well, but Kenya... well, so far, we were just acquaintances. Sort of.
When I finally finished my burger and wiped my mouth clean, I looked over to Kenya. He was already looking at me, blinking rapidly.
"So, um," I said, as he embarrassedly sidetracked his gaze, "thanks for the treat. Are you sure you don't want me to pay you back? I'd feel really bad."
"Nope. You'd be insulting me by paying me back."
"I don't want to insult you, but I'd still feel bad."
"That that bad feeling and..." He paused, obviously thinking better of his words. "Wait, I should only use that on Zaizen. Never mind."
He stood up, disposing of our wrappers and his empty milkshake in the nearby bin. I hadn't finished mine, so I took it with me as we left the shop.
When we were outside, Kenya asked, "Where do you want to go next?"
"Let's text Zaizen first." I said, pulling out my phone. I wrote a message telling him to text me back whenever he was done with his errands. Kenya wanted to make an input, so I wrote: 'Also, Kenya wants to say something:' and at the end of the prompt, Kenya wrote, 'WHAT THE HELL MAN.' We sent it, and Kenya handed my phone back to me. Then I said, "Okay. What do you want to do?"
Kenya frowned. "I asked first."
I frowned back. "I asked second."
He frowned more. "First comes before second."
I took a challenging stance. "Are you questioning my ability to count?"
He mirrored my challenging stance. "Are you questioning my rights to first place?"
"No speed, no life."
He was about to open his mouth to say something, and then he realized I'd taken the words right from him. For a moment, he blinked, unsure of how to respond.
I smiled. "You know, I think we'll get along just fine."
- x -
At some point, Kenya and I abandoned our original idea to go on a leisurely stroll and ended up window shopping. Apparently, it was a pastime of Kenya's, and he knew all of the best places to go for anything except female clothes. I told him that it was fine, since I wasn't much of a big shopper when it came to clothes.
"What kind of things do you like?" He asked in response to my statement.
I looked at him questioningly. "What do you mean?"
"You know... things that you like to buy. Places that you like to go."
"I don't really mind..."
He stared at me, like I was a female who didn't belong to the female race. I found that somewhat believable. I hadn't gone on very many—
Was this a date?
Now that I thought about it, Zaizen had invited me out on a 'friendly date.' And that idiot wasn't even here. Was it possible that...
I paused, now extremely confused about my current situation. "Well... I've never really done this with people before." I said to Kenya. "I don't go shopping much, and when I do, it's usually just to find something to eat. Or I already have a purpose in mind when I leave the house."
"Okay. What kind of purpose?"
"Um... well, I need a new notebook for school, I guess. And..." Oh yeah. "It's my mom's birthday next month. I should probably buy something for her."
He brightened. "Let's go, then. What kind of present are you thinking of?"
"Um... she'll have a lot of free time soon, so I was thinking I could get a camera. She's been feeling pretty guilty that she hasn't been keeping up with the family album." I said. "Our last one broke a few years ago, and we never really had the incentive to get a new one."
Kenya led the way to the camera house. I didn't have much money to spend, so I couldn't buy her any of the flash ones with manual focus and specific lenses. I looked dubiously along a row of digital cameras, unable to pick one that caught my eye. I asked for Kenya's opinion, and he seemed biased to a bright red EXILIM EX-ZS160RD. "Portable and affordable." He said. I couldn't help but agree.
I paid for the camera, along with a discounted SD card that the salesman offered me. Kenya tried to chip in, but I told him that only Zaizen's mom was rich, so I couldn't make anyone but her chip in for the camera. Kenya got confused by this, and I remembered that Zaizen wasn't around to hear.
"Oh yeah." I said. "It was a joke we made in class."
"Oh." Kenya said, looking around awkwardly. "Well, uh, why don't we go and take some pictures?"
"Huh? But this is for my mom."
"She can add them to the family album, too." He said. We hit up a discount store to get a large pack of batteries, and we sat down outside a conveniently placed purikura station to set up the EXILIM. Kenya offered to do it for me and—being the speed star that he was—finished up in no time. "Here, : smile for the camera."
Miraculously, I managed to smile at the camera instead of asking why, and Kenya took a snap of my face. As Kenya fiddled with the options on the camera, I couldn't help but remark how amusing it was that we were taking photos of each other with a camera instead of using the purikura booth behind us.
Kenya blinked. "Purikura? Isn't that for females?"
I coughed. "It should be, shouldn't it."
He grinned. "We can make our own happy snaps."
Happy snaps. How cute.
We must have looked like idiots, taking pictures of each other around the mall, but it was a good way to pass the time. In the end, Zaizen didn't text me back, but to be honest, it wasn't like I was consciously aware that he'd ditched us earlier. Anyway, I would talk to him in class tomorrow. Maybe. I could tell him about the new friend I made.
Or—wait. Today was Friday. Guess I would have to wait another three days before I could get a reaction out of Zaizen. And maybe an explanation.
Time sure went fast. It wasn't long before I got a call from my dad, asking where I was.
"Sorry, I'm out with a friend. I forgot to call." I said.
"Oh." My dad said. "Who?"
"My friend." I said again. "Kenya-san."
"Okay." He said. He was probably committing the name to memory. "Just make sure you're home in time for dinner. It's mackerel tonight."
"Oh, that's perfect. Thanks, Dad. I'll see you later." I said, and hung up. Kenya was looking at me curiously, no doubt because he'd heard his name. "That was my dad. He's cooking mackerel for dinner tonight. I should probably start heading back soon... Though, I really had fun today. I hope we can do this again sometime soon."
"We can do this again tomorrow, if you want."
I was a little surprised that he'd extended the invitation so forwardly, but I didn't really have an issue with it. It wasn't like I had anything better to do on a weekend (or any friends to really spend it with). "Sure, I'd like that. Maybe you can help me take interesting pictures for my mom. Want to meet at my house?"
"Sure." He said. "Maybe we should... exchange numbers? Just in case, I mean."
I said I was fine with that, and we exchanged numbers. I could have sworn that Kenya was trembling when I gave him my phone to put his number in, but it might have just been my imagination. I gave him my mail address and told him to write if he got lonely, since no one really wrote to me and it was depressing. Kenya looked a little distressed, so I asked, "What's wrong?"
"I... don't have an email."
"Oh." I said. "That's okay, don't worry about it. It's not a big deal."
"I'll get one tonight."
"You don't have to."
"Are you sure?"
"Of course. You can just call me whenever you need me—assuming it's outside of school hours." I said. When we'd wrapped up the exchange, I asked him which way his house was. It turned out that mine was further away than his, but since it was still in the same neighborhood, he offered to walk me anyway. "Are you sure? You don't have to."
"I want to. I shouldn't let a girl walk home by herself at this hour."
"But... it's only five. And it's still spring."
"Nope. I need the exercise."
"Are you kidding me?" I said incredulously, taking a step back to check him out. It took me a second to realize exactly what I was doing.
But it didn't seem to bother him that much. "Come on, I'll race you."
"What? We can't run all the way to my house; it's too far!"
"No speed, no life!"
"H-hey, wait up!"
And off he ran.
I proceeded to slowly jog after him, trying not to think about how much pain I would be in when I made it home, and my dad would find me dead on our front door step. "You'd just better not take any pictures of me while I pitifully run!"
He just grinned over his shoulder.
- x -
Kenya wanted to stick around, but he said he had some work he had to get done before tomorrow, so he bid me farewell at the front gate and ran back the way he'd come to get back to his own house. When I went inside, the smell of mackerel invited me home. Dad had finished cooking, and mom was still at work, probably drinking a cup of strong coffee as she animated away.
"Hi, Dad." I said as I walked into the kitchen and dropped my bag on the floor.
"Hi, ." He said. "How was school?"
"Oh, school was fine."
"How was your date?"
I couldn't help but laugh. "It was good. I actually made a friend who isn't in my class, and who isn't a female. That's pretty rare, isn't it?"
My dad smiled. "Though," he said, "who is your friend?"
"Hmm? It's Kenya-san."
"No, no," my dad said, as he stopped loafing around and started putting dinner table, "who is he? If he's not in your class, then how did you come to know of him?"
"Oh." I said. "Well, for starters, he's friends with Zaizen—you know, my seat mate."
"Ah-ha." My dad said, as his interest left my story. When the meal was set out before the two of us, I offered up my gratitude, and we started to eat. "So—you only met this Kenya-kun today?"
"Well, that's what I was going to tell you about." I said. "I think I told you this story before, but remember my first day of high school? And I got lost on the way to Shitenhouji, because it wasn't in the neighborhood. You remember that, right?"
"Mm-hmm. Keep going." I got the feeling that he already knew what story I was going to tell him, but he just liked hearing me talk after a long, silent day of nobody being at home.
"I was going to call you to ask how to get to school, but then someone wearing the same uniform as me saw me looking around like a deer in the headlights and showed me the way to school." I said. "Turns out that that person was Kenya-san. I've been wondering for ages what his name was, because I remembered that he showed me all the way to the assembly area before leaving me to my devices, and he waved to me a few time in the hallway when I saw him around. I didn't see him around that often, though, so I never got to ask what his name was."
My dad looked contemplative. "But wasn't he friends with Zaizen-kun?"
"I didn't really know that until I was in second year. I didn't really talk that much to Zaizen in the beginning." I said. "I mean, he was pretty anti-social in first year. If I hadn't had to share English hand-outs with him for the whole of second year, I probably never would have talked to him."
"Mm-hmm, mm-hmm." My dad said, starting to lose interest in the conversation. From that point, he stopped really listening to what I was saying and just wanted to hear me talk, to fill the silence of the house. Still, though, it was nice to be able to enjoy mackerel over a good, pointless and one-sided conversation.
When Mom came home later that evening, exhausted by the work but hyped up on an energy drink of some kind, I told her that I made a new friend. She was able to stay awake long enough to tell me to invite him over to dinner sometime at the end of the week—maybe Greenery Day, if possible, since Dad and I were planning to hold a mini birthday dinner for Mom. I told her that I would ask him, and she left to go and sleep.
- x -
I figured that I could maximize the time between now and May 4 to be productive, and take enough happy snaps with Kenya to fill an album. When he called me up the next morning, I suggested the idea to him over the phone, and he was keen to oblige.
He came over the next morning just after I finished eating breakfast. I called him after I'd washed the dishes to see where he was, and he asked me if I'd checked out the window recently. I did as he said, and found him loafing around just outside the front gate. When he saw me, he waved, and I waved back. I told Kenya that I'd meet him outside in a second, and then I hung up.
As I put my shoes on, I called out, "Dad, I'm going out with my friend today."
He came to meet me. "With Kenya-kun?"
"Yeah." I said, drawing the curtains for him to have a look. My dad looked outside, and when Kenya turned to look at the window (my guess was that he saw the movement of the curtains from the corner of his eyes), and it might have been my imagination, but I think he blanched.
"Oh." My dad said. "Okay. Is it another date today?"
I laughed again. "Yeah, I guess so. A friendly date, mind you."
My dad seemed a little surprised. "Aren't you going out with him?"
"...No, Dad. Not really."
My dad pulled back, and I let the curtains drop. He lost interest in Kenya, and went off to make some coffee for my mother, who was still asleep. I said goodbye, and went outside to greet Kenya by the front gate, the EXILIM tucked in my pocket.
Kenya asked me a little ambiguously. "Was that your dad? ...He was looking at me funny."
"He's an... interesting person. Never mind—maybe you can meet him when you come back." I said. I couldn't tell if the expression that Kenya gave me in response to my statement was a good sign or a bad sign. "Um, anyway... let's go! You lead the way."
"Where should we go first?" Kenya asked.
"I don't know." I said. "Why don't you pick?"We decided to go the stationery shop first, since Kenya remembered that we never got around to buying a new notebook for me yesterday; we spent too much time making happy snaps. There was a huge stationery shop not far from Bounce, so we decided to go there. It didn't take me long to find a usable notebook; after I'd paid for it, I looked around for Kenya and found him poring over a huge display of discount erasers. He was staring intently at a pink rabbit-shaped one that he was holding in his hands.
I joined him at the display. "What's up?"
"This one looks like you." He said, showing me an eraser.
I picked up a monkey eraser. "This one resembles you."
"You're mocking me!" He said theatrically, knocking the monkey eraser from my grip; it dropped back into the display. Kenya went back to studying the rabbit eraser. "Maybe I'll get this one. When I'm trapped in class and I use this eraser, it'll remind me of you."
There was a pause. Kenya suddenly realized what he'd just said.
"Err, I mean—"
"Maybe I'll get this one, then." I said, picking up the monkey again. "It's better than having to look at Zaizen's face every morning in English."
Kenya plucked the monkey from my hand and replaced it with a lion. "I'm more like this."
I put down the lion, picked up the monkey again and left to pay for it. I made it to the counter before Kenya did, but he slapped some money down for both his eraser and mine before I could even think of reaching for my purse.
He grinned at me. "No speed, no life."
We spent a lot of time taking as many photos as we could within the area. Once Saturday was over, Kenya offered to hang out again tomorrow, but he would only be able to do it in the morning, since he had to be somewhere in the afternoon. I said I didn't really mind. He took me out to a breakfast joint that was sadly not the equivalent of Bounce, but still good enough for breakfast.
Saturday was more of a talking day than anything. I found out that Kenya was in a general Media Studies program at IBU, but he wasn't quite sure what he wanted to do once he finished university just yet. I also found out that, in middle school, he became well-known for not only his skill in tennis, but because he did the noon broadcast every day. He said that part of the reason he was so surprised that I didn't know his name was because I should have heard it on the radio every day in middle school.
That's when I told him, "Oh. Well, see, I went to Yuhigaoka for middle school. If I'd gone to your middle school, then I probably would have had a much easier time fitting in. And I probably would have had a much easier time making friends with Zaizen."
Kenya looked at me blinkingly. "You didn't come to our middle school?"
"Nope." I said. "I moved to Shitenhouji at the end of middle school because it was cheaper than Yuhigaoka. It's funny, though; I don't live in the area, so I got lost on my first day of school."
Kenya paused for a long time. "Oh, you—so you really were—err—"
I laughed. "Yeah, I think so. I wondered where you looked so familiar from. I mean, I didn't see you around that much in high school, and then you graduated recently, so—um. I never really got to ask you what your name is. I've been meaning to ask, though, how did you find out my name?"
"I—err—I asked Zaizen."
"And he... told you?"
"But he never told me."
"That... doesn't make any sense."
Kenya cleared his throat awkwardly. "Well, you can ask him tomorrow, right?"
I sighed. "Assuming he answers my questions, I guess. I'll ask him, though, later."
Once morning was over, Kenya dropped me off at home and then left again. I finally sat down to complete the mountain of homework that had inevitably been waiting for me, for once regretting that I'd spent so much time doing nothing over the weekend. Ah, well, it was inevitable—and ultimately, it had been worth it. I managed to find out Kenya's name, and I'd gotten to know him without destroying the carefree and theatrical memory I had of him. Though I still did owe Zaizen a metaphorical punch in the face, I couldn't help but be mildly thankful for the strange turn of events that had occurred over the past few days.
- x -
On Monday, Zaizen gave me no explanation—as I had anticipated. I walked into the classroom, wanting to have a conversation with him, but he just returned my morning wave and continued listening to whatever he was listening to. He said last week that he'd grown sick of Costello Music, so I entertained the possibility that Zaizen had gotten new music to listen to.
I'd have to say that two weeks passed uneventfully. Zaizen and I resigned to our morning and afternoon waves, our glorious moments of fail in gym whenever we were on the same team as each other, and the occasional inside joke about his mom being rich. Otherwise, I spent more of my time with Kenya. He'd called me on Tuesday afternoon to ask if I fancied a rice on his new bike, and of course, I agreed to go with him. We were able to travel further and faster, and we managed to take twice as many happy snaps than we had over the past two weeks. Soon, it became a regular habit that Kenya would pick me up after school on his new bike.
It became quick and easy for me to forget about the very start of all these strange but satisfying happenings: the email joke. In fact, I probably would have forgotten all about need4speed, had it not been for Zaizen.
We were in gym one day, on the sidelines of a competitive volleyball match. Before I could even come to realization that Zaizen was, for once, not wearing earphones, he opened his mouth to make conversation with me. "So how's the sleuth work coming along?" He asked me.
I turned to look at him. "Are you making conversation with me?"
"You're surprised that I'm making conversation with you? That's rude."
"Well, I mean, I haven't had a good conversation with you for two weeks."
"Yes you have. We had one yesterday, about my mom being rich."
"That's a recurring gag." I said. "Not a conversation."
"So particular." Zaizen said, dismissing my accusation. "So, the sleuth work?"
"What are you talking about?"
"The sleuth work."
"The sleuth work."
"Did you forget about the email joke?"
For a long moment, I paused."
Zaizen started to grin. "You forgot about the email joke."
"W-well, you wouldn't tell me, so... I didn't see any point in being tenacious about it. But now that you mention it, who is this need4speed? I've been having too much fun having friends—having a friend—these past two weeks that I forgot to take the time to wonder."
"That's a pity." Zaizen said. "And I've made it so obvious for you."
I frowned. "No you haven't. You haven't answered a single question I've asked you."
"That's because you haven't been very selective about your questions. You just want to know the answer to the big question." Zaizen said. "But I can't answer the big question for you. Jesus never descended from a cloud to tell us the meaning of life, so why should I?"
"You don't even believe in Jesus."
"Stars and fairies and all things that shine—"
"You'll have to grow older if you want to drink wine."
"Thanks for ruining the punch line."
"It would have been a terrible punch line anyway."
"I won't allow this jealousy to infect me." Zaizen said, running his fingers through his hair.
"I'm going to walk away now." I said, leaving him on the sidelines as I switched out for one of my classmates on the court. I tried to leave my pensiveness on the sidelines with Zaizen, but they shadowed me every step of the way—for better or for worse.
- x -
Kenya was very quick to notice how out of it I was when he picked me up after school that afternoon. He was kind enough not to make conversation while he rode to the convenience store to pick up an afternoon snack. I waited outside, like Kenya usually made me do, and he would usually come out with flavored bread and some cans of coffee. Instead, he came out carrying some water and a plastic bag of bananas.
"Let's go to the park over there." He said, nodding to the small expanse of grass across the street. Together we walked, Kenya with his purchases, and me with the bike. We sat down at a park bench, and Kenya reached into the bag to get a banana for the both of us.
He offered me one. "Eat a banana."
Although I took it, I couldn't help but ask, "Why?"
"They have dopamine in them. Eat them when you're sad."
It took me a few moments to process what he was talking about. Then I burst out laughing, and Kenya couldn't seem to figure out why. When I finally sobered, I said, "Thank you, Kenya-san—but don't worry, I'm not sad. I've just been trying to figure something out, but I haven't found the answer to it yet. I didn't mean to come across as sad." I offered a smile as compensation. "I didn't mean to laugh—I just didn't really know how to react. It was a very kind notion."
Kenya, who must have tensed when I started laughing, relaxed. "My dad's a doctor, so these kinds of things are just common knowledge."
"I don't even know what dopamine is. I'm less of a science nerd and more of a cooking nerd."
"I didn't know that."
"I wouldn't have expected you to. All you ever see me eating is burgers. And bananas." I peeled a banana and made a 'cheers!' gesture towards him with it. "I'm more of the doing type than the thinking type. Most of the time."
"Most of the time." Kenya repeated. "But today is a different story."
I frowned. "A different story indeed. It's just this thing that I've had on my mind for the longest time. I mean, I haven't really been thinking about it much lately, but now that it's come back to me, I can't stop thinking about it."
"What is it?"
"It's just this person." I said, piquing Kenya's curiosity—or, attention might have been a better word for it. "I got this email joke at the start of the month from this person I may or may not know, and they seemed really intent on me not finding out who they are. I can't figure out why, though. I've been wanting to ask them, but I don't even know who they are! So now I'm trying to find out who they are."
An awkward silence.
"O-oh. Err—I was just—thinking. Why don't you just send am email asking about the intent? I'm sure they'd be willing to answer that. Just... not the identity thing. Evidently."
"Evidently indeed." I mused. "But I replied to their email quite some time ago, and they haven't gotten back to me, so I wonder if that person will just choose to never respond again."
"Would it be a bad thing if that were true?"
I looked at him. "Well, I mean, sure. It probably wouldn't be the end of the world, but imagine how depressing it would be if I could never figure out who was on the other side of that email joke. I'd be pretty sad, if eight years from now, i still had no idea who wrote that email. That's like the most exciting thing that's happened to me, next to becoming friends with you."
Kenya jumped. "M-me?"
"Yeah, of course. I consider us really good friends." I said. "Well—unless you don't think that way—in which case this conversation just got really awkward—""No." Kenya said abruptly. "I consider us really good friends, too."
I smiled. "Thanks, Kenya-san."
After a pause, Kenya mustered one up in return. "If thinking about this email joke thing makes you sad, then just eat more bananas." He said—a statement at which we both laughed this time. "I'm sure you'll figure out who this person is soon."
"I hope so, too." I said.
- x -
I was in for a surprise when Kenya picked me up the following afternoon. Instead of embarking on our usual Friday afternoon fiasco, Kenya arrived out the front of the shop just next to the school entrance with a plastic bag. When I approached him with a hello wave, he grinned one of his genuine grins at me.
"What's with the plastic bag?" I asked as I approached him.
He was on the brink of laughter as he showed me the contents of the plastic bags. They looked to me like some kind of disguise. I couldn't resist a burst of laughter when I figured out that Kenya had purchased two fedoras and two pairs of sunglasses. All Kenya had neglected to buy was a pair of trench coats, but I was certain that those weren't quite within his budget.
"Now we can go on a sleuth-out." He said, sitting a fedora on my head and pushing sunglasses onto my face. I felt ridiculous, but I was a little more comforted when Kenya put on his own sleuth set. We must have looked ridiculous as we peddled away on Kenya's bike, but at the very least, dressing up ironically made me feel much lighter that day. I guess a keen sense of ridiculousness was key to keeping thought at bay.
Today, Kenya was keen to start a conversation before we reached our destination.
"I'm going to help you find out who the sender of the email joke was." Kenya said as we rode down the empty lane. "Let's go to Bounce today."
He rode to our favorite burger joint and chained his bike a block away, out of the way of the pedestrian walkways. We agreed to remove our sleuth sets and temporarily relinquish them to the plastic bag, although Kenya wanted to keep his sunglasses sitting on his head. He ordered the same thing we always ordered, and we sat down at our window seat.
"If I'd known you were going to help me," I said as I tucked into my single cheeseburger, "then I would have brought my cheat sheet."
"You have a cheat sheet?"
"I made one when Zaizen first refused to help me." I said. "I made a list of all the leads I had, but I guess it doesn't matter too much. I'll leave you to make your own judgments. Oh—I'll show you the emails I got."
I took my phone out from my pocket and handed it to Kenya; in the act of doing so, I recounted (for my sake as well as his) all the hints that Zaizen had given me.
"It's the one with the outlandish subjects—I think it's 'I'm moving to Africa!!' or something."
"...Right." He paused halfway through his second burger to take my phone and have a scroll through my inbox. All was quiet between us as Kenya looked through my email, and I continued to eat my burger. At some point, he made a passing comment: "And you're sure it's not just spam?"
I lowered my burger to stare at him. "You're kidding me, right?"
He looked around awkwardly. "Well—it could—what if it's Zaizen himself?"
That caused both of us to stop what we were doing and lapse into silence.
Kenya might have been second guessing himself, but he'd made a valid assumption. What if it was Zaizen, indeed?
"Elaborate." I said.
"W-well, this person mentioned Zaizen's name, right? It might just be self-incrimination."
"But what about all those weird references? Like... Africa. And cheetahs."
"Maybe it was just a really elaborate set-up." Kenya said hastily. "Maybe he was trying to throw you off the trail or something."
I couldn't deny the suggestion that Kenya had made. It seemed like something Zaizen would do—setting up an elaborate track to confuse me; an April Fool's Day prank as well as a well-earned birthday present, in Zaizen's words. The more I thought about the possibility that Zaizen was need4speed, the less I felt like loafing around.
Without much thought, I rocketed out of my seat and I said, "Your idea might just be the genius I'm looking for. I got to go home and make an interrogation plan—then I can go and talk to Zaizen tomorrow; see what he thinks—"
"But tomorrow's a Saturday—"
"I'll call him out, like a good sleuth would—you know, in those film noir movies—never mind—I got to go, Kenya-san, I'll see you later—thanks for the burgers!" I wrapped up the last of my burger, seized the last of my milkshake, and bid Kenya a farewell before I left him to a peaceful Friday afternoon. I had some plans to make.
- x -
I called Zaizen as soon as I'd gotten home, said hello to my dad, and finished the rest of my meal from Bounce. It took a few tries, but he eventually picked up the phone with, "I'm sorry, you have the wrong number—"
"Zaizen! I had an epiphany."
"You found out who's behind the email joke?"
"Yes! I have to meet you tomorrow."
"I literally just saw you today."
"It won't be long. Maybe—lunch—at Bounce—be there, okay?"
A pause. "Whatever you say. But it's your treat, or I'm not coming."
"Done." I said. After that, Zaizen hung up.
- x -
It's fair to say that I was enthusiastic to actually get out of bed that Saturday and get ready to debate my case at Bounce. Naturally, I was the earlier party; Zaizen arrived about thirty minutes after I had, looking like he'd just rolled out of bed in the clothes he was wearing.
When he got an eyeful of me, he just said, "Burgers first—talk later."
Zaizen managed to squeeze two cheeseburgers and a strawberry milkshake from me; I settled for my usual deal. We sat down at a seat further in the store, where Zaizen prolonged eating time by chewing as slowly as possible. Either he was legitimately trying to annoy me, or he was trying to delay the moment I delivered the punch line.
When Zaizen finally finished eating, he said uninterestedly, "Okay. Talk." Then he proceeded to finish the last of his milkshake.
And finally—the moment I'd been waiting for—"You are need4speed."
Zaizen choked on his milkshake—and at first, I thought it'd been because I was right. He coughed for a straight five minutes, after which he did not sober and stare at me in defeat; he caught me off guard when he, instead, started spilling tears all over the table—literally. I wanted to entertain the possibility that Zaizen's reaction was just the lead up to his... unique breakdown, but the heavy, sinking feeling in my chest told me that my eager presumption could have only been very, very wrong.
After many attempts to Zaizen trying to sober, he finally managed to cough out, ", you could not have been more wrong." He mopped up the strawberry milk that was unattractively trickling from his mouth. "Reactions, please?"
"That was a terrible punch line."
He just kept laughing.
"Zaizen, you're wounding me. Um—stars and fairies and all things that shine—""Let's commemorate this day with a glass of good wine!" Zaizen wiped a tear from his eyes. "But seriously. You couldn't have gotten it more wrong."
"That's depressing. I even tried to build up a convincing case against you."
"And what case were you hoping to use against me?"
"One of self-incrimination and false leads."
This time, Zaizen settled for one of his devious grins. "Believe me, —I would not plot out such an elaborate prank against you. This one's very, very easy; it should be right before your very eyes."
"Indeed. You are right before my very eyes."
"Metaphorically, . Are you a classical literature nerd or aren't you?"
"I'm a cooking nerd. You know nothing about me."
And that was the note we left our conversation on. Zaizen left after he finished his meals, though he offered to call a limousine to take me home; his mom would pay for it, he said. In the situation at hand, I could not bring myself to laugh, so I resigned to a sigh and told him to forget about it over a glass of good wine.
He told me he lied; champagne was more in his taste. He just could never find anything to rhyme with champagne.
- x -
Kenya called me on a Saturday night and said he was sorry about the aftermath of the meeting. I asked him how he knew it went badly, and Kenya told me that Zaizen blogged a full account about it just earlier. Kenya offered to help me out again, but I told him not to worry about it.
"Sorry, not right now. I am so burned out." I said, sighing. "I so thought it was Zaizen! It seemed to me like he would be the kind of person to plan out a prank so elaborately—especially one where I'm the victim of the situation. Well, unless he's lying about the whole thing. That would be... unfortunate."
Kenya circled back to the original topic. "What about tomorrow, then?"
"What about tomorrow? You man—you still want to help me figure out who need4speed is? I don't know; I think I could do with a break tomorrow."
Kenya settled into silence for a moment. "The subject of tomorrow's hang out doesn't have to be about the email joke. How about I take you on a bike ride? It's nearly Golden Week, and we haven't filled your mom's SD card."
I'd almost forgotten about our mini-project. The prospect of going on an hour-long bike ride around the city, just taking photos appealed to me much more than anything right now. Without hesitation, I agreed to Kenya's offer. "That's perfect. Want to do an earlier run than usual?"
We settled for a six o'clock start, and even though I still considered that early, I checked the weather and satisfactorily noted that tomorrow morning would be blue and cloudless. We chatted for a while, and then I hung up when my father came into my room with a midnight snack of pudding—my favorite.
I lay on my bed for a long time after I'd finished eating, letting my forming exuberance swell by embarrassing fail of an interrogation earlier that day. I closed my eyes to the sound of silence, and by the time my clock ticked over the twelve, I was already asleep.
- x -
I went outside early in the morning to find Kenya with his bike, all ready to go. He admired the scene of mid-spring, and commented, "It's a nice day today, . What do you think? I'll agree that itwouldbenicerifyouwoulddateme." He coughed.
"What was that?"
"Nothing." He kicked up the stand on his bike, a little too forcefully. "Are you ready to go?
I hopped on the back of Kenya's bike, and we set down along the empty streets until neighborhoods opened up into occasional expanses of park. Kenya was keen to never stay in the same place; at some moments we neared the city with Kenya's one-man efforts, and other times we found ourselves alongside a canal. We spent the better part of the morning wasting precious time by taking photos of mundane objects. The more, the merrier, Kenya said.
I didn't expect we would be doing much else that morning; I was keen to get my mind off my embarrassing encounter with Zaizen, and Kenya was usually very compliant with my moods and wishes (or, at the very least, he tried to be). Even when he knew that I had slipped into one of my pensive moments—like now, for example—he generally kept a lid on his outbursts, or at the very least kept his suggestions indirect.
Today, however, he was unusually inquisitive.
We were stopped out the front of a convenience store, shopping for morning snacks. Kenya, of course, was paying, and for once, I complied; the only things he bought were water and bananas. We were sitting on the curb next to Kenya's bike to eat, since there weren't any parks nearby, and Kenya said he couldn't sustain himself any longer. (I volunteered to pedal, but Kenya said he wouldn't be able to bear the shame of sitting behind someone who onlookers may view as coughgirlfriendheywouldn'tthatbenicecough. I asked him to repeat the sentence for me, but for some reason he wouldn't.)
After I'd taken kindly to about half a banana, Kenya brought up the topic of need4speed.
"So—err—did you make any progress on your—sleuth-work?"
Having not anticipated that he would bring up such a topic, I only managed to react with a very abrupt, "What?"
"I was just thinking... it might have been my fault that you confronted that prat Zaizen like that." He looked around awkwardly. "I did lead you on, so I thought..."
I thought that this might have been Kenya's way of apologizing for something he wasn't really responsible for, so I thought to wave it off. "It's okay, Kenya-san. I don't really mind—you were only trying to help, after all. Besides, it gave Zaizen a chance to make up for ruining his punchline that one time."
Kenya, who obviously wasn't familiar with that situation, tried to glaze over it and ease back into the previous topic. "W-well, I just thought... maybe I could make up for it. I'll help you again."
"Kenya-san, really—it's totally okay—you don't have to feel responsible for anything. I mean, it's out of my own curiosity that I'm pursuing the case of need4speed." I said. "I don't want you to feel like I'm wasting your time. I hang out with you because I enjoy your company—not because I'm trying to use your intelligence or anything."
Kenya paused for a moment. His silence almost swayed me into thinking that he was moved by my final statement; I didn't know for sure if he was or not, though.
"—think I know who need4speed really is."
I opened my mouth to make a rebuttal, but I wasn't really sure what words I could use against him. His nine words (in total) tempted me to ask, "Who?"
He coughed. "Let's go through this."
"You said that need4speed knows Zaizen—but by some twist of fate, it's not Zaizen." He began. "You said that this person sent these emails out of school time; either he was sending emails to you during class, instead of—all the times he could have sent an email to you—or he was out of school time constraints."
I nodded slowly. "I'm following."
"You also said that Zaizen gave you the hint of a cheetah."
"Yeah." I said. "I mean, I tried linking it to Africa, but then I hit a wall."
"I don't think you're meant to link cheetah to Africa." He paused. "Just think—not where cheetahs are found, but what they're famous for."
I paused. "You mean... running really fast?"
"Right. I think you're meant to link cheetah with need4speed." Kenya said. "You'll probably get the Africa hint once you put everything else together: someone who knows Zaizen, has finished school, and really does like speed and running way too much. ...Then think of why this would link to Africa."
Had it not been for the growing panic on Kenya's face, I may never have been quite certain of who was behind that email joke. But as everything steadily became more and more apparent, the look on Kenya's face grew guiltier and guiltier; all I could think of was how stupid I had been to incriminate Zaizen—and to even suspect that Zaizen had been lying to me when he denied my accusations!
Though, I can safely say that revelation and relief were the only things that hit me. The look on Kenya's face seemed to insinuate that he thought I was going to throw a fit and never want to be his friend again. In those moments of silence, he looked... mildly fearful that I would just up and leave. It came to the point where he felt pressured enough to cough awkwardly and say, with mock enthusiasm, "Reactions, please?"
"That's the worst punchline ever."
"O-oh, okay, err... no speed, no life?"
I put my face in my hands and counted to ten.
- x -
Kenya seemed to think that I didn't want to hang out with him anymore; I guess he thought that hiding his identity (in a way) from me was some kind of uncommittable sin. When neither he nor his bike could be seen near the grounds of Shitenhouji after school on Monday, I called to ask if he had something on today, and he seemed surprised that I was even associating with him.
"Wait—what?" He asked.
"What?" I echoed. "Wait—did you think I was going to ignore you or something?"
"I wouldn't do that, Kenya-san. My mom's birthday is in like a week, and I invited you without your permission. I can't bail on you now."
A pause. "You're not mad?"
"Not really." I said. "Honestly, I'm just glad it's over. Now I won't have to die in the dark. That would have been unfortunate. So—are you coming today?"
He told me to give him twenty minutes, and I did. The moment he hung up, I set the timer to see if he really would make it to the school within twenty minutes.
As I was waiting for Kenya at the gate, I crossed paths with Zaizen, who was taking his time in walking back home today. He didn't have club activities today, or he deliberately skipped out on them. Either way, he greeted me with, "Ah, ." He made a lazy 'ta-dah!' pose. "Reactions, please?"
"If killing you will bring me peace, then that's what I'll do. Hand me the dagger, Chelsea."
"Don't worry, I'm not stupid enough. Besides, if you kill me, my mom will slap down a sum of unimaginable wealth on the desk of a famous private investigator, and it'll be all over for you—assuming they can solve basic crimes, of course."
"They have to; people are paying them good money."
"I'd suggest you steer clearing of becoming a P.I., ."
"Thank you for your observation, Captain Obvious."
"First Chelsea, now Captain Obvious. Let me stick to one persona, ."
"Circling back to our original topic—I might have to kill you."
"Stars and fairies and all things that shine, goodbye—I'm leaving to cross the date line."
"I think that's the worst punch line you've ever come up with." I said.
Zaizen chuckled. "No it's not. I've still got the best one saved up. It'll be waiting for you, say, within the next week or two."
"Great. Now I have something else to look forward to. Just when I thought I was finished with this story—nope." I sighed. Zaizen said a few words to consolidate my pain before he left me to the dying bustle of an emptying street.
It was not empty for much longer, however; within fifteen minutes of the time I had called Kenya, he appeared at the school gates on his bike. I told him his time when he approached me, and he seemed to brighten; apparently, he'd beaten his speed-on-a-bike-to-pick-up- record. I congratulated him as I hopped on the back of his bike; almost as soon as the words had left my mouth, we were off again.
Kenya said he would make it up to me—I asked him for what, but he didn't answer me directly; he just said to hold on; the ride might be a little bumpy. I had no idea what he was talking about until, at some point during the road, he interrupted the silence with:
"What's the reason you agreed to keep hanging out with me?"
"What's the reason you agreed to keep hanging out with me?" He looked around awkwardly, even though he probably should have been looking at the road straight in front of him. "I mean, we were kind of forced to hang out with each other."
"Forced? Did you feel that it was forced?"
"Well—I didn't, but I thought you might have—maybe."
"I didn't. That day was fun. If I got bored at any time, I would have just left." I wouldn't have, but Kenya seemed to be reassured by the notion I'd verbally mentioned. "I assure you, I am not hanging out with you for any reason other than the fact I enjoy your company. ...And the fact I have no other friends."
"I'm kidding. I have a few." Like Zaizen.
Kenya hesitantly circled back our original conversation. "I just mean... what I'm trying to say is, all this time that we've spent together—well, what do you think of it?"
"You mean... what do I feel?"
"I'm having fun, if that's what you mean."
"Err... sort of."
"No? What do you mean?"
"Do you think that we were... just hanging out?"
I was trying to interpret the meaning behind Kenya's very vague questions, but I couldn't really come to a central thought; it was the same with the whole need4speed fiasco—without someone to point out the obvious, I was a deer in headlights. "Yeah, like—friendly dates or something."
"Never mind." He said. "There's just something I've been thinking about, and I wasn't sure if you were curious about it or not, too."
"Are you feeling thoughtful?" I asked. "Maybe you should eat some bananas."
He spared a grin, though it was probably to make me feel better about my terrible punch line. "You remember when I told you how I knew your name? Because I asked Zaizen?"
"I remember. And I was confused, because Zaizen never told me what your name is, even though I asked him many times."
"Right. Don't you ever wonder why that is?"
"Are you going to tell me that you know why?"
"I... have a hunch. But I'm not sure." A pause. "I don't think it's a good idea to go off this hunch, though. You should ask Zaizen about it yourself. Tell him I told you it was okay. Okay?"
"Alright... I'll do that tomorrow, then."
"Okay." Kenya said. His shoulders relaxed, and he started to pedal with more ease then he had before. Maybe I was imagining it, but I could have sworn he started to smile after that.
- x -
The next morning I walked into class, and Zaizen was always where I found him: in his desk, with his legs kicked up, and earphones blasting Chelsea Dagger on max in his ears. Maybe he'd suddenly become awash in nostalgia, and he decided to play a bit of Costello Music, for old time's sake.
I waved hello, and Zaizen waved back. He didn't take his earphones out until I stood at the front of his desk and repeatedly said his name.
"This means good morning, ." Zaizen said, demonstrating a wave.
"I know. I just wanted to ask you something." I said. "But if you want to go back to your beloved Chelsea Dagger, then that's okay, too."
Zaizen removed his earphones and said, "As long as it's not a big question."
"I don't know if it is or not," I said, "but—why did you tell Kenya-san my name when he asked for it, even though I asked you multiple times what Kenya-san's name is, and he never told me?"
He looked as though he would have liked to spill tears all over his desk, but he held in most of his laughter, and spared me a few chuckles. "I knew you would come back for the punch line."
"Just as long as it's a good one this time."
"It was a taunt."
"Think about it this way—you just wanted to know Kenya-san's name out of curiosity; you thought it was stupid saying hello to someone whose name you didn't even know." Zaizen iterated. "Kenya-san, on the other hand, had a very different reason for wanting to know."
"I shouldn't be the one to tell you."
"He told me to tell you that it was okay."
Zaizen paused, and for the first time, he looked mildly contemplative—it wasn't Kenya's level of pensiveness, though; it looked more to me like Zaizen was plotting how he should break the punch line to me, in a way that would maximize my reaction. "I'll tell you if you're prepared."
"I don't think you're prepared."
"Say you're prepared."
"I'm prepared. Seriously."
"Did it ever cross your mind that it might be Kenya-san's intention to date you?"
Zaizen kicked his feet back up on the desk, and made to replace his earphones. "I'll give you some time to process the hole that you've involuntarily dug yourself into."
- x -
I didn't know whether to be more concerned with the extent Kenya had gone to hide his apparent crush, or with the fact that he had tried to foist the confession burden off onto Zaizen. In the first place, it was probably my fault; Kenya had given me substantial time to realize that I'd been playing ring-around-the-rosie with him, and I'd somehow failed to recognize all his attempts to hint at a deeper meaning to the conversation.
Still, now that I'd finally come to the entire point of my friendship (or, "friendship") with Kenya, I wasn't sure how to deal with the situation. There was a blurry line between a platonic relationship and an actual relationship with Kenya. I mean, I already felt very comfortable around Kenya; I considered him a close friend, and even though I'd tried to explain it to my dad several times, my dad still thought that Kenya and I were dating. (He'd never understood the concept of "a friendly date.") On the other hand, though, I felt like I was cheating Kenya out of an honest opinion in not giving the matter of dating him much thought.
At lunch time, I pondered the matter over my phone. I had open a blank email that I was planning on sending to Kenya, but at best, I'd come up with the lines 'YOU SHOULD HAVE JUST TOLD ME HAHAHA' and 'DID YOU THINK I WOULD BE MAD HAHAHA.' I felt that, in sending either of those messages, I would be doing a disservice to Kenya, who had invested so much time into building a friendship with me.
Zaizen, who obviously decided to play the interfering onlooker, said, "You should send him an email. Give it a really outlandish subject. Make it really original, like... 'I'm moving to Africa!'"
"Your sense of humor never gets old."
"I try." He said, running his fingers through his hair. "But really. You're overly hesitant about sending an email when it's obvious what you should say to him."
"In my defense, I've never dated anyone before." I said. Zaizen told me to get back on topic, so I did. "Okay. What is this obvious thing?"
"You have to be kidding."
I sighed. "It's not that I'm hesitant about making a response. I just feel like I'll be doing him a disservice if I say yes without giving the matter proper thought. I mean, yes, I enjoy his company, but is that enough?"
Zaizen raised both his eyebrows. "No one said you had to go from Point A to Point B. If you look really, really closely, Point A-and-a-half wants to be noticed. Faintly, you hear it calling, Matsuhara-senpai!"
"Remember when I said that your date line punch line was the worst? I lied. This one definitely takes the cake. I think it just took the whole bakery."
He just chuckled. "My point is that you should concern yourself with making the transition from Point A to Point B. Do rather than think. You'd be good at that, wouldn't you?"
I paused. "Maybe you know me better than I think."
He made a lazy 'ta-dah!' pose. I cut him off before he could ask, "Reactions, please?"
- x -
The one thing that surprised me about my conversation with Zaizen that lunch was that he didn't end up blogging about it; if he had, I probably would have known about it. (Ultimately, I even checked his blog to verify that he hadn't said anything about our conversation; turns out his last update was a picture of something he'd eaten for dinner last night.) Though I'd given it much thought, I couldn't tell if Zaizen had an ulterior motive behind saying nothing. Or did he simply want to watch the madness of everything unfold to its own accord?
Either way, the resulting factor from Zaizen's lack of involvement was a strange silence. I wasn't sure if I should have felt glad for the reprieve or not; I was definitely grateful for all the extra time that I'd been given to think, but I still found it unnerving that Kenya continually came to pick me up after school, completely unaware of what madness was transpiring behind the scenes. I felt uncomfortable—like I was somehow wronging Kenya for not saying anything, even though I (probably) knew what he was thinking.
I was silently grateful that Kenya had become increasingly busy with university work. Though he would still make the effort to pick me up from school every afternoon, he spent less time hanging out with me on weekends and after school, and more time in his room, working on a project for his class. He told me some of the details: it had to be a film that someone encompassed the theme of "revelation."
Kenya seemed unsure. "I've go a lot of ideas, but I can't decide which one I want." He went on to explain that he wanted his film to be slightly more personal and slightly less formal than an ordinary film, so he was thinking of filming on a standard digital camera instead of the professional-looking ones that IBU had. "Which is why I was wondering—do you think I could—err—borrow your camera?"
"Yeah. I promise I'll get it back before your mom's birthday."
"Well, sure. I don't really have a problem with that. Do you want me to go get it for you before you go home?"
When we came to my house, Kenya pulled up in front of it. He kicked the stand up on his bike, and I told him I'd be back. I said hi to my dad on the way up to my room, got the camera, and took it back down to Kenya, who was occupying himself with something fascinating on the pavement.
"Here." I said, handing the camera to him. "Don't forget, even if we can't hang out, you should join us for Mom's birthday dinner. It'll be on the fourth. You can bring my camera back then, if you want."
Kenya looked around awkwardly.
He coughed. "I... won't be here on the fourth."
"What? Where are you going?"
"Tokyo." He said. "I'm visiting my cousin for a few days."
"Oh. You should have told me earlier—we could have rescheduled."
"I didn't know that I was going until just yesterday."
"...Oh. Well, that's okay."
"...Sorry." A pause. "I did want to come, though."
That's okay." I said again. "We can have another dinner to celebrate the end of Golden Week or something. There'll always be an excuse to celebrate."
That seemed to cheer him up. "I'll drop by before I leave on the fourth, so I can give you back the camera. Sorry we can't hang out until then."
"Don't worry about it. You can just call me when you need a break."
And on that note, Kenya decided to leave for home. He kicked the stand back up on his bike and started for home, and I waved at him until he turned back to look in front of him.
- x -
I didn't do much with my Golden Week. Kenya called me every night at around eight or nine to say that he'd finished with filming for the day; in effect, it was more of a good night call than a hey-how-are-you-doing call. I think, somewhere over those days, I warmed to the idea of mundane things like getting that good night call before I slept. I think that, because I had so much free time on my hands, I had more time to come to terms with my conversation with Zaizen, and my friendship (or, more recently, "friendship") with Kenya. Strange though the notion was, I found myself enjoying Kenya's presence more than I had before, even though we were still a good kilometer away from one another at all times.
On Greenery Day, Kenya came by just before lunch. My mom and dad were still asleep, since my mom wanted to catch up on sleep, and my dad was essentially a cat born into the body of a human being. Since no one else was awake, I went downstairs to get the door.
"Hi." I said, and Kenya waved back at me. "Want to come in?"
"Thanks, but I shouldn't stick around." He said, looking almost as regretful as he sounded. "My train is leaving soon, and I should probably get to the station before it leaves. I wanted to drop off your camera before I left, though—and to say thanks, for letting me use it. Oh, and—tell your mom that I said happy birthday."
"I will. Thanks." I said as he extended the camera towards me, and I took it back from him. "I have something for you before you go, though."
He seemed surprised by the notion that I had a gift to offer him. I didn't stick around to look at his face, though; I ducked into the kitchen and returned with an eco bag with bunch of bananas in it.
"Here—these might cheer you up after an intensive few days of filming." I said.
Kenya paused longer than he should have. "Thanks, ."
He turned to leave, but I called him back again. "One more present."
Though it was not normally in my nature, I felt that now was more an appropriate time than ever to give him a hug. In all surprise, I didn't really give him enough time to hug back; I just told him to have a fun time in Tokyo, and not to miss his train.
- x -
After Kenya left, I contemplated how I should give the camera to my mom. Should I bother wrapping it, even though it had been blatantly used for other purposes? Should I just give it to her, plain and simple? Should I keep the current SD card in the camera, or should I switch it over to a clean one? So many decisions, yet so little time.
Instead of coming to terms with a means of presenting the camera to my mom, I ended up passing most of the time by looking through all the photos and videos on the current SD card. It was a little nostalgic, looking over pictures that mostly included either me or Kenya (but mostly me, since Kenya liked to play photographer far too often). I found the occasional video, too; my favorite was the one time we went to Bounce, and we had a race to see who could drink the rest of their milkshake the fastest. Kenya finished first, of course, but he ended his victory with a bout of coughing, at which point the camera began to shake wildly.
Towards the end of the reel, I was hoping to find some footage that Kenya might have shot for his class project; I wasn't sure if he'd deleted the footage off of it or not, but I figured that I may as well check to see. What lay in waiting for me at the end of the reel was not footage of Kenya's class project, but it was also something that I didn't remember ever watching. The thumbnail of the video was of Kenya in an unfamiliar room (probably his own), looking right at the camera.
My infamous curiosity led me to hitting the play button.
"Hi, " Kenya said on the recording. He coughed awkwardly. "So, by this point I probably told you that I'm going to Tokyo, right? I wanted to go up to spent three days with my cousin, since I don't see him a lot, so I won't be able to come to your mom's birthday! Sorry!"
He clapped his hands together apologetically.
"There's something I've been meaning to say to you, though." He scratched the back of his head awkwardly. "I know I didn't follow up very well with our last conversation about—well, you'll probably know what I'm talking about at the end of this video. What I've been meaning to say... well, I'll just go ahead and say it—I already knew who you were when we first met."
"Well, I think we already established that a while ago, when you told me that you were actually a transfer student from Yuhigaoka. To be honest, I thought you just didn't know where the high school campus was or something, or you weren't good with directions. I thought that part of you made you funny—not in a bad way, though! I mean—you seemed very laid-back and easy-going even though you said you had no idea what you were doing."
He scratched the back of his head.
"And I thought it was it strange that someone who was so laid-back didn't really hang out with many people at school. I mean, I sometimes saw you around, but I never really saw you with anyone. So I thought—hey, wouldn't it be cool if I could become her friend? I asked Zaizen what your name was, since I knew you were in the same class, and he told me. I made it my aim to talk to you at least once before I became a third year, but it never happened! I'm sorry—I just never got the opportunity to talk to you!"
There was a pause, in which Kenya started to look around awkwardly.
"So... I don't know if it was for my sake or if he was just trying to make fun of me, but Zaizen started making blog posts about some of the conversations that you had. I know he's never said it, but he thinks you're funny sometimes. Anyway, back to the point—I guess I sort of came to know who you are through Zaizen's posts, but since he never posted more than amusing conversations, I didn't really get to know you as a person."
"I think the reason Zaizen arranged that friendly date was because I unconsciously hinted that it would be nice if I got to meet you before I at least graduated university. I didn't actually know he had a heart, but—there we go! We have proof now that he does. And before I say what I actually want to say, I just wanted to thank you for living up to my expectations... No, that came out wrong. Ignore what I just said! I wanted to thank you for being such a good friend to me, just like I hoped you would! ...I hope that sounded better.
"I hope you've also considered me a good enough friend to be around. I've had lots of fun with you this past month and a bit. I've never eaten so many bananas or burgers from Bounce at one given time, but I have no complaints. Also, I've probably never told you that strawberry was one of my favorite flavors—but, I think I've come to like vanilla a little more." He seemed to pause to mull this fact over more, before coming to to the conclusion. "I'm not sure why. But anyway! Back to the point. I couldn't find the words to say what I'm going to say, so I made cards instead. I'm going to hold them up to the camera."
Those were the last words he said before he held up a series of cards in front of the camera.
"I KNOW IT'S BEEN A MONTH."
"BUT I'VE KNOWN YOU FOR TWO YEARS."
"I WANT TO TELL YOU THAT..."
"I LIKE YOU." I smiled.
"SO DATE ME."
When the camera shut off, I wasn't surprised, thanks to the heads-up from Zaizen that I'd gotten prior to now. Kenya's video had served a little more purpose than ensure that our friendship evolved to "friendship." Of course, he wouldn't know that until he came back; until he did, I had an arduous task ahead of me: I had to think of the most effective punch line I could before three days' time was up.
- x -
Unsurprisingly, Kenya didn't call me once while he was in Tokyo. I think he anticipated that I would have browsed through the photos and videos on the SD card, and come across his confession, so he was (probably) waiting to see me in person before he asked for my reactions.
It also seemed to me that Kenya was waiting for a more convenient time to meet up with me, since he didn't come and pick me up from school on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday afternoon, even though he probably would have been home by then. No—he made the effort to wait until Friday evening before coming over.
My dad and I were watching TV when the doorbell rang, and Mom was back at work, slaving away—the life of an animator. My dad was about to go up and get it, but I told him not to worry about it, since it was probably Kenya. And it was—when I opened the door, I saw Kenya holding a bag of Tokyo Bananas and wearing a smile on his face. Either he was trying very hard to hold back his emotions where his confession was concerned, or he was confident that everything was going how he planned.
He greeted me with a hug—perhaps as pay back for when I'd left him with a hug, and he hadn't returned it.
"Hi." I said, hugging him back. "How was Tokyo?"
"Good." He said, handing me the bag. "I brought you back some Tokyo Bananas."
"I had a really good punch line prepared for when you came back, but I think you just summed up everything I wanted to say." I said, caught somewhere in between laughing and sighing as I accepted the banana-y goodness—without dopamine.
Kenya grinned one of his genuine grins. "So we don't need the dopamine anymore?"
'Nope." I said. "Now I have you. Reactions, please?"
For the first time since anyone used that terrible punch line, Kenya laughed.
1. The whole "happy snaps" thing is a small inside joke. I think sometime last year or the year, Andria and I were in the yearbook group, and we had to go around taking photos for International Happiness Day. Every time I had to ask if we could take pictures, I asked if we could take "happy snaps" of them. Yeah, cool story. LOL.
2. Tokyo Bananas aren't real bananas. They're a type of pastry, or so Princo tells me LOL. Here's the description I ripped straight from Wikipedia: Tokyo Banana Miitsuketa (Princo: Ribbon inserted the Japanese reading for Miitsuketa, but I do not have the effort to find the html coding for the kanji 'mi.') went on sale in 1991 and banana was used as a flavour that would appeal to men and women of all ages. Once the sponge cake is baked it is steamed to bring out a soft texture, the cream uses strained banana puree making the most of natural banana flavour.On a side note, Princo and I will be in Japan this January, and she's going to buy me Tokyo Bananas. /dances. To be honest, I thought Tokyo Bananas were just actual bananas, and I was like inwardly, "Wow, they must have to be really good bananas." LOL. WOW. SIGH.
Oh, also, here's Kaya's camera: x
ribbon! I've never written a DN with so many bad punch lines and so much cheese before. Like the entire time I was writing RP I was cringing so badly HAHAHA. I think it even surpass Happy New Year's level of cringe. This is my first time writing Kenya so awkwardly, but Kenya's a fun character to write because he's so... interpretable. That's now a word LOL. Also, trivia: this story was longer than WB YET IT'S STILL A ONE-SHOT. IDGI EITHER LOL.princo! I'm never letting Ribbon make a 34 page one-shot ever again. EVER. Also, I'm sorry I didn't put this up before the end of July. Life and an awkward sleep schedule got in the way. (By the way, I'm super excited to meet Ribbon in person next year, and I'm going to spoil her with things I'm lugging over on the way to her dorm).
August 9, 2014.