As April bled into May, I felt myself sincerely beginning to enjoy the routine of my life. Driving school often felt like a bit of a chore, but I'd made significant progress over the weeks; I'd learned to take pride in the fact that my driving instructor no longer felt the need to make the sign of the cross every time I performed a reverse parallel park. Work became all the more enjoyable once I became so proficient at it that the tasks often became menial. It helped that I was now in Shiraishi's good books. It also helped that he spent a lot more of his time training Hotori, who turned out to be a very efficient worker and an excellent multi-tasker. I liked that she warmed up to both Shiraishi and myself in such a short amount of time, and often treated us like we were children of her own. She often brought in cakes and other baked goods that she'd made herself, and they were shared around and loved by all members of the florist.
University wasn't so bad, either: having goofy and lovable friends made taking classes that much more endurable. I found myself growing particularly close with both Junko, who was naturally funny and extroverted, and—believe it or not—Shiraishi, who turned out to be remarkably kind and noble beneath his awkward exterior. After getting to know him on a deeper level, I began to readily admit to myself that he was a better human being than I'd initially given him credit for. He was well-attuned to the needs of others and rather perceptive—something I came to notice the more I observed him around the shop.
On an afternoon not unlike any other, I found myself walking with Junko to Shibahara Station to get coffee before I left for driving school and she went to work. Koyama and Endo had chosen to stay back at the library to get in some extra study time (Koyama needed to practice for English, and Endo had nothing better to do other than distract his best friend), and Shiraishi was (predictably) at the florist, manning the shop with Hotori while Satou and her husband, Masaki, were out on a flower arranging job. Junko and I found a charming café by the entrance of the station. We ordered our coffee and then sat down at a booth by the window, watching passers-by hurry off to their departing trains.
We made small talk until our drinks arrived. That was when Junko decided that it would appropriate to bring up the topic of Shiraishi. "So—you and Kura-chan seem really close these days."
I almost spat out my coffee. Almost. "D-do we?"
She laughed at my reaction. "Kura-chan's very sensitive, so he has a harder time than most people making friends." She explained. "He spends a lot of time second-guessing people, which consequently makes it harder for them to get close to him—but it makes you feel accomplished when he really starts to trust you."
Her remark surprised me. Junko was usually the one who made Shiraishi the butt of her jokes, so I hadn't expected to hear her speak so highly of him.
"Kura-chan has the easiest time warming up to people who are either very easy to read—like Endo—or people who are blatantly honest about their thoughts when it really counts—like me." She went on. "I think he has a harder time dealing with people who are polite or reserved, since he spends more time trying to read and second-guess them rather than actually trying to get to know them. So—people like you."
"You think I'm polite?"
"Sure—I think you adapt to whatever makes people comfortable and happy." She said. "Things like that are really important to Kura-chan, so it would explain why he seems really taken by you. ... He just has a hard time expressing it."
I raised an eyebrow at her peculiar word choices, but chose not to acknowledge it out loud. "I mean, it's not that I'm a particularly nice person—I just found his attitude kind of off-putting to begin with, and I thought that if I was extra nice to him or complimented him more than normal, he'd become a little more... pleasant?"
For a moment, Junko looked like she didn't believe me, but a few moments later she loosened up with a laugh. "I'm pretty surprised that you managed to figure that out on your own—I'm used to Kura-chan being the only one in our group to draw random conclusions about people. But I think you're really good for him." She said. "He thinks very highly of people who can recognise the needs of others, since it means that he'll never have to admit out loud how awkward he is about social interaction."
When I added a drop or two of Junko's logic to my thought about Shiraishi's past and present attitude towards me, it started to make a little more sense as to why he looked legitimately happy to see me these days. It made more sense as to why his smiles looked more genuine, and why he never hesitated to start a conversation with me. "I guess I see your point—but it's not like I did it specifically for Shiraishi. I've just never met or known how to deal with someone as... well, I suppose a tad particular, but..."
She seemed to understand what I was getting at. "Kura-chan may look like he has his life together, but nine times out of ten he's a nervous wreck." She said with a bit of a laugh. "We're all used to the way Kura-chan acts, but his sensitivity often gets he better of him. Because of it, he gets embarrassed very easily, and I think that often influences the way he speaks and acts. I know he might come off as serious or a bit of an oddball when you first meet him, but he's honestly a good guy." She gave me a knowing look. "You'll see what I mean."
The look on her face made me second-guess what she was really trying to say. It was as if her grin held some sort of ulterior meaning that I couldn't manage to decipher. What would I see? What exactly was she getting at?
- x -
The memory of my conversation with Junko that day faded from my mind as my schedule became all the more hectic. As I became a fully-fledged part-timer at the florist, I started cutting back on my hours at driving school to try and accommodate Satou's increasing need for me to man the shop. Matsuta, who was about to go on maternity leave, gave Shiraishi and Hotori all the training they needed to replace her after she left; and Satou and her husband continued to handle deliveries and arrangements at external locations. That left their daughter, Nagisa, and me to alternate shifts and ensure that the store had at least one attentive member at all times.
In between my increased work hours and steadily increasing study load, I barely found the time to do much more than cook for myself and take out the trash. My mother decided to make weekly trips to Osaka to deliver home-cooked meals and a replacement arsenal of toiletries, which generally consisted of toothpaste, toothbrushes, soaps, shampoos, and conditioners that my father took from hotels on his frequent business trips. It was something of a family tradition to gather and distribute toiletry rations amongst all members of the family, and my mother thought it might spare me the extra expense of having to buy them myself.
She came by every Friday afternoon with a large suitcase and a cheery demeanour. When I opened the door for her she would sign at me, "I come bearing supplies." She knew that those words would always warrant her a big hug and a warm welcome.
While I was away at work on the weekends, she handled chores like vacuuming my tiny apartment, bleaching the bathroom, or aerating the fridge. She kept everything clean so that I wouldn't have to worry about doing it myself. On the rare occasions that we both had spare time, I'd take her out sight-seeing, and she would find new comedy material to take back to Mihama. On Sunday afternoons, I'd walk her back to the station after my shift and see her off.
Before she left, she always asked if there was anything she wanted me cook when she came up next week. My answer was always the same: anything that could make my tongue taste again after weeks of instant ramen. Her answer to my answer was always the same: "You're funny, but not as funny as me."
Her answer to my answer always made me laugh.
The sight of my laugh always made her smile. "I know. I'm hilarious."
As Mother's Day approached, the florist became encumbered by orders for red carnations, roses, and everything else in between. Shiraishi, Hotori and I held down the florist—which became progressively busier as the weekend drew nearer—while Matsuta, Nagisa, Satou, and Masaki tried to get in some breathing time in between preparing orders. It was the only weekend since I'd started working at the florist that I joined Shiraishi in the ranks of the voluntarily but illegally overworked.
Somewhere in between shifts I found the time to show my own mother some appreciation. In an attempt to be above red carnations and roses (in terms of originality), I gave my mother chrysanthemums, and she smiled at her namesake.
"Chrysanthemums for Kikuno." She said, looked amusing. "Thank you, . You're a wonderful daughter."
"But not as wonderful as you." I signed back in a display of mischievousness that would have made my father proud.
Her eyes were alight with laughter. "I can't argue with that."
At the end of the Mother's Day weekend, Satou held a small get-together in the back of the shop to farewell their only daughter and their most beloved employee, as well as to show her immense gratitude to Shiraishi, Hotori, and I for our hard work and dedication over the past couple of days. They congratulated Nagisa on landing a graduate position with a prolific international company in Kobe. Satou, Masaki, and Hotori drank sake in her honour; while Shiraishi, the pregnant Matsuta, and I all settled for juice. Satou also raised a toast to Matsuta, who would always be welcome back to the shop as both a customer and an eternal member of their team. Matsuta laughed bashfully.
Satou also took the time to acknowledge the ongoing efforts of their dear Shiraishi, and the admirable ethic that Hotori and I were displaying, despite having only been recent additions to the team. She wrapped up her speech by saying that she was proud to be part of such a hard-working and cohesive team, and everyone wrapped up the formalities by drinking to the ongoing success of the shop.
Within the hour, Hotori and the entire Satou family had managed to drink their weight in sake. Matsuta, although completely sober, was swept up in the energy, and the five of them had a grand time laughing and making noise while Shiraishi and I kept to the edge of the small-scale pandemonium. There was a pleased look on his face and an amused look on mine. It was impossible for the two of us to have a proper conversation, given the circumstances, but on occasion we would manage to catch the eye of one another. When it happened, I smiled at Shiraishi. The first time he saw me do it, he fumbled to smile back, evidently not having expected me to be so openly amiable. Every time he caught me hence, he slipped on an effortless smile; it was an unexpectedly pleasing sight. Part of me had forgotten that about a month ago, the boy in front of me had been an awkward and bumbling mess who couldn't manage to hold a conversation and maintain eye contact with me at the same time.
As the night wore on, I decided to go home, lest the trains stop working. In seeing that it was well past midnight, Shiraishi wanted to make sure that I got home safely, so he offered to walk me all the way. When I assured him that he didn't have to go to such great lengths, he decided that he would at least walk me to the platform and ensure that I got onto the train alright. In seeing that he wasn't about to budge any time soon, I conceded. We thanked Matsuta and Nagisa for everything and said goodbye to the other members of our team before we headed for Shibahara Station.
Now that May was drawing to a close, the weather had become pleasantly balmy, and the humidity had yet to truly settle in. Shiraishi asked if I was cold and offered his jacket to me more than once, but I wasn't trying to be polite by gently refusing: I simply saw no reason to take it on a night as fine as tonight.
When he offered me his jacket for the third time that night, it came to my attention that he might have simply been trying to fill in the silence—a silence that I'd been happily enjoying, but one that clearly had been making him uncomfortable. In an effort to appease his evident need to have a conversation, I decided ask, "How's your sign language coming along?"
He looked relieved that I'd finally chosen to break the silence. "Good, I think. I've done a bit of reading on sign language in my spare time—"
What spare time?
"—and I've been practising finger-spelling. I think I'm a little more fluid at it now." He said. "Would you like to test me?"
I tested him on his syllables, which he demonstrated for me without neither err nor error. "You're really something, Shiraishi-san, you know that?"
He looked torn between a bashful smile and a look of discomfort. In the end, he settled with some sort of compromise. "I've also picked up a few expressions here and there." He said. "Would you like to see?"
"Go on." I said encouragingly.
In a slow by careful manner, he signed, "My name is Shiraishi Kuranosuke."
"Not bad." I said. "What else have you got up your sleeve?"
A little more confidently, Shiraishi signed, "Where is the bathroom?"
I gave him a round of applause. "Anything else?"
This time, he paused. He assumed a look of concentration, as though he were trying very hard to recall the signs he claimed to have learned. With much more care than his two earlier attempts combined, Shiraishi signed, "I like you."
It was so off-topic and out of the blue that I couldn't help but laugh. "That will definitely come in handy! What have you got for me next, a pick-up line?"
Shiraishi turned his head to hide his reddening face. "I don't think I know any pick-up lines." He said, laughing nervously.
I attracted his attention by signing a pick-up line at him. "That one's my favourite."
"What is it?"
"It's: I wish I were cross-eyed so that I could see two of you."
It was undoubtedly a terrible pick-up line, but I allowed myself to laugh when he just went redder.
We were halfway through a sign language lesson on pick-up lines when we arrived at Shibahara Station, so Shiraishi just decided to catch the train with me and walk me home. Once again I assured him that he didn't have to—I only lived two blocks away from the train station—but he was insistent on seeing me home safely. I guessed that he would have happily argued with me all night, if given the chance, so I decided to let him walk me home.
When we arrived at my apartment block, I said very firmly that he did not need to walk me up to my apartment. He reluctantly agreed that he would go no further. "Okay." He said. "I'll make my way back to the station slowly, so don't hesitate to call me if you need anything."
"Okay, worrywart." I said, laughing. "Thanks for walking me all the way to my apartment—even though you really didn't have to."
"It's okay." He said.
I smiled. "Good night, Shiraishi-san."
"Oh... um, good night..." He trailed off into a mumble.
Used to his sudden spells of awkwardness, I asked with an amused look on my face, "Is everything okay?"
He reached up to scratch the back of his head. "I was thinking..."
He cleared his throat. "Well, we've known each other for a little while now, and..."
I held my patience. "Yes, Shiraishi-san?"
This time, he visibly winced. "Would you... perhaps not call me that anymore?"
I blinked, faintly surprise. "You mean... not call you Shiraishi-san?"
"So... just Shiraishi?"
He shifted his weight from foot to foot. "Well, if it suits you, I was wondering if..."
A pause. "Do you want me to call you Kuranosuke?"
Shiraishi jumped a little, as though he hadn't expected to win me over so easily. "If you wouldn't mind, well..." He trailed off once again. As soon as he'd registered what exactly he'd just said, he hastily corrected himself. "What I mean is that—well, since the others all call me by my first name to begin with—and Shiraishi-san just sounds so formal—"
"Relax, you don't have to explain yourself." I said with a nervous laugh, feeling a gradual onslaught of second-hand embarrassment crawling underneath my skin as I watched him squirm. From my standpoint, he was making a bigger deal out of the matter than he needed to—but given his history as a person who didn't dole out his trust so easily, I felt that, perhaps, something like this was a big deal to him. "Is Kuranosuke-kun okay?"
He smiled, a little shyly. "If you wouldn't mind."
"Okay, Kuranosuke-kun—thanks for walking me all the way." I said. His smile got wider. "Good night, then."
"... Good night."
I turned and started to walk towards the building until I heard Shiraishi clear his throat.
"Yes, Kuranosuke-kun?" I asked, turning back around to face him. Part of me was wondering if there was something that he actually wanted to ask me, or if he just really enjoyed hearing the sound of me calling his name.
"I was thinking... um..." He turned his head away. "Would you mind at all if..."
I held back the temptation to press him: he was sweating enough as it was, and I was reluctant to point it out, lest he lose his nerve and dismiss me with a never mind.
My patience paid off when I watched him pause. He mentally steeled himself before finally working up the nerve to ask, "Would you mind at all if I called you ?"
I hadn't expected it to be something so simple. With a laugh, I said, "Of course I don't mind, silly."
"So I can call you... -san?"
Trying to keep any further laughter contained, I signed, "Yes."
He seemed pleased with my response. "Okay." He said. "-san."
"Okay, Kuranosuke-kun." I said. "Good night."
I turned around once again to leave, but I'd barely made it a few steps before he cleared his throat again. Holding fast to my patience, I turned back around to face him. "Yes?"
Having done this two times already now, Shiraishi seemed a little more confident when he asked, "Would you teach me how to sign good night?"
I taught him what he asked, and he had it memorised in less than a minute—nothing less than what I would have expected from my best (and only) pupil. "Okay, for real this time." I said, laughing as I signed, "Good night, Kuranosuke-kun."
"Good night, -san." He signed back.
This time, when I turned and made my way towards the building, he didn't stop me or try to hold me back. I climbed the staircase to my apartment on the top level and waved at Shiraishi from the door. He waved back, signed goodnight, and didn't leave until I was halfway through the entrance. As I locked the door behind me and switched on all the lights, I couldn't help but think about the face that he'd made just before turning to leave: it had been such a bright smile, almost on par with the street lamps edging the road. The very thought of his beam brought a smile to my own face.
He'd been very happy with himself—very happy indeed.
- x -
With the end of June came a slew of mid-semester exams, and with mid-semester exams came a slew of content that needed to be memorised by the week's end. It was on those harsh summer nights that every member of the Chemistry Support Group (RIP) banded together and stayed in the library until late, studying until our brains physically could not function. We were desperate to understand the semester's content in its entirety—desperate to do well—so we were at uni most nights until eleven or twelve at night.
We must have combed through every inch of our textbook for Frontiers of Chemistry trying to refine our notes. We must have done every worksheet and exercise in order to make sure we understood the content, and we must have killed a rainforest or two, given the number of flashcards we'd made to try and memorise definitions for Neuropharmacology. We rarely took breaks except for meals, and every now and then, we would send two people from the group to go and collect sustenance (usually drinks from the vending machine, but sometimes a late night snack).
On that particular evening, it so happened that the two people nominated to collect our midnight snack were Koyama and Endo. When our drinks started running low and our stomachs were starting to empty, they temporarily quit the books in favour of finding sustenance of the rest of us. While they were gone, Junko did her very best to make sense of the baffling notes she'd taken for Organometallics, but she didn't get very far before she decided to procrastinate working. Every now and then I'd stop to watch her take long, slow sips of her chrysanthemum tea and stare blankly at the diagrams scrawled in her notebook.
Although my studies for the past couple of days had been progressing rather smoothly—I'd successfully memorised all of the required key terms for the majority of my subjects and had moved on to doing exercises for Neuropharmacology. I breezed through the definitions section on the revision sheet, but when it came to interpreting diagrams, I was stumped.
Shiraishi, who had been diligently working through his study load ever since he'd gotten back from his scheduled bathroom break twenty minutes ago, noticed that I'd zoned out and had started staring blankly at my page, not unlike what Junko was doing. Despite the fact that both Junko and I had quite clearly lost it, Shiraishi chose to direct his attention to me when he asked, "Are you okay?"
He gently shook my shoulder to make sure that I was still alive.
After taking a moment or two to recollect my last remaining braincells, I slid my revision sheet over to Shiraishi and pointed at a diagram I'd been agonising over. "Can you please explain this to me?"
He peered at the diagram. "It's a second-messenger mediated synaptic transmission."
I looked at him blankly.
It took about ten minutes for him to explain what was happening in the diagram, and another ten minutes before I was able to fully comprehend what he was saying. It wasn't until I'd confidently managed to explain the diagram in my own words that I felt comfortable moving on to the next question. "Okay, I think I get it now." I said. "Thanks."
He smiled. "That's okay."
Moments later, I found myself hitting another roadblock. I reached out to tug Shiraishi's sleeve and said, "Hey Kuranosuke-kun, can you help me with this?"
Junko spat out her tea.
She managed to limit her outburst to a small spray, but droplets of chrysanthemum tea went all over the cover of Koyama's textbook. In a moment of quiet desperation, she borrowed Endo's jacket to wipe up the stray droplets.
"Are... you okay?" Shiraishi asked as Junko hung Endo's jacket up on the back of his empty seat.
She returned to her own seat to cough down the remnants of her tea. Once her coughing fit stopped, she looked suspiciously between me and Shiraishi. "Is there something going on between the two of you?"
I didn't expect that Shiraishi (who had his head turned away in sheer embarrassment) would respond, so I took it upon myself to do so. "No. Why?"
"You just called him Kuranosuke-kun." She reminded me.
I frowned. "Have... you not heard him call me that before?"
"No." She said. "I've never heard you guys call each other anything except 'hey' and 'um'. That's why I was so surprised."
I couldn't exactly fault her there. "I mean, you call him Kura-chan. Endo calls him Kuracchi. Koyama calls him Kurayan. I guess I just felt a little left out."
"So you asked if you could call him Kuranosuke."
"Really." She said.
"Really." I said, as convincingly as possible.
She paused to consider my logic. Then she shifted her attention to Shiraishi. "So do you call her ?"
"Does it really matter?" Shiraishi dismissed Junko's attentive gaze in favour of diligent study.
But the two of us found it increasingly difficult to concentrate on studying when Junko kept grinning like a fool. We both felt incredibly relieved when Endo and Koyama returned from their crusade with a second dinner in tow. We decided to go outside to eat, so as to avoid filling the library with the smell of fast food and canned coffee. As we were packing our books away, Koyama's fingers brushed the cover of his textbook, and he recoiled with a puzzled looked on his face. He narrowed his eyes, and it took all of my effort to avoid spitting coffee all over Endo when I heard Koyama say, "Why is my textbook sticky...?"
- x -
We all walked out of our mid-semester practical for Chemistry Experiments, weary and weathered shadows of our former cheerful selves. Endo was looking positively morose. In an attempt to chase away his thoughts of the "personal disaster" that had occurred a little under an hour ago, he suggested that we all go out for some comfort food in celebration of our last piece of assessment for mid-semester. I would have been on board with it if Shiraishi and I didn't have to be at work within the hour.
"Sorry, Endo—I have to work." Shiraishi said. "I'll have to go another time—but you guys have fun."
Since they were well aware that he felt a sense of duty to his beloved part-time job, they forgave him and decided to go on ahead without him.
Then I said, "I... also have to go."
They looked at me, surprised. As far as they knew, I had no other commitments except class, driving school, and weekly visits from my mother—which almost always happened on a Friday afternoon.
Junko looked at me suspiciously. "Really."
"Really." I said.
"But what could be more important than celebrating the end of midterms?" Endo put forth.
"Work." Shiraishi offered.
"We all know that you have to work, Kura-chan." Junko said. Then she looked back at me. "But what about you, ?"
Shiraishi and I exchanged a glance.
"Actually," I said, "it's the same excuse as Shiraishi's."
"Though it's not an excuse." Shiraishi said matter-of-factly.
"Really." Junko said.
"Really." Shiraishi insisted.
"No, I meant ." Junko said. "Where did you get a job? When?"
"I guess before midterms?" I suggested. When she raised an eyebrow, I gestured towards Shiraishi (who looked a little bewildered at being put on the spot). "Kuranosuke-kun got it for me."
"... So—wait—does this mean you're working at the flower shop now?" Endo asked.
"Yeah." I said. "I got sick of eating instant ramen for every meal, and I remember Kuranosuke-kun saying that his workplace was really understaffed, so I asked if they had any part-time positions available, and he said that they were. I got set up with an interview, and his boss was really desperate for workers, so I got hired pretty much right away."
"You never told me that!" Endo looked positively offended. "I called you my best friend, man."
"I... took a second job there." Junko said, acting as though she were confessing to something she'd been hiding for a long time. Almost as soon as she said those words, Endo realised that we were all just pulling his leg.
"It's fine." Endo said, sniffling. "I never thought of you guys as my real friends anyway."
Koyama gave him a comforting pat on the back.
"Seriously, though." I said as Shiraishi checked the time on his phone, looking faintly distressed. "We have to get going."
Junko gave a long, drawn-out sigh. "Okay, you kids have fun then. Let's re-schedule our celebration to when we're all free and Endo's at work."
"Did I say that out loud?"
Shiraishi and I said goodbye (in between laughs) to Junko, Koyama and a pouting Endo before setting off for the florist in high spirits. We talked about how we should celebrate the end of midterms: I was in the mood for yakiniku, but for some reason, Shiraishi seemed somewhat put off by the idea. He explained that he had a mild trauma that involved yakiniku, but he was unable to elaborate upon why. He had very hazy memories of the event, but all he seemed to remember was that he didn't want to set foot in another yakiniku restaurant until he could remember why.
We arrived at the florist before long. I proceeded to help Hotori around the shop while Satou took Shiraishi and her husband out on some deliveries. They came back to the shop every now and then, but they never stopped for very long . Satou asked how my exams had gone, and I reported that they'd gone by without (too many) hitches. She also asked how my driving was coming along, and I reported that I could get my licence as early as July. Now that Hotori was trained and able to help out around the shop, Satou said that my hours might get waived in favour of me attending driving school. "We desperately need another employee who can drive." She explained.
The hours continued to wane, and in due time, our shift finished. Satou, Masaki and Shiraishi returned just before Hotori and I closed the shop. When the day was done, Shiraishi and I made our way to the station. We made small talk about our respective days — about my progress memorising flower trivia, and about Shiraishi's progress on his sign language. When I asked him how much progress he'd made, he reported that he was now able to count to one hundred, and could hold a conversation about the weather with someone. As a joke, I offered to teach Shiraishi some pick-up lines and various methods of flirting, but he immediately turned his head away from me, going bright red in embarrassment.
Once we reached the station, we signed each other good night and were about to part ways. I was stopped by Shiraishi clearing his throat.
I turned back to face him, an amused look on my face. "Yes, Kuranosuke-kun?"
"I was thinking... that perhaps..." His face was still red from earlier, and he was having trouble making direct eye contact with me. "Would you be opposed to..."
He coughed politely. "Would you be opposed to spending some time together this weekend?"
I paused. Now that I gave the matter some thought, I realised that I rarely spent time with Shiraishi outside of class or work. That being said, I saw him so much during the aforementioned activities that I'd never really seen much point in meeting up with him during our (limited) free time. I was about to point this out to him, but when I saw just how nervous and uncomfortable he looked, I got the impression that—coming from someone like Shiraishi—working up the nerve to ask me for my time must have taken a certain amount of courage. "You mean like... you want to hang out this weekend?"
I could have sworn I saw a twitch of disappointment on his face. Still, he responded, "Yes—if you wouldn't mind."
"I'm sure I have the time." I said, laughing as I watched the rigid expression on his face melt into something akin to relief. "What do you want to do?"
Shiraishi considered this. "Is there anything in particular that you would like to do?"
"Hmm... outside of class, driving school, and work, I can't say I've gotten to see a whole lot of the city." I said. "Have you got any recommendations for me?"
He paused once again to think. "That depends on what you're interested in, I suppose. Clothes? Amusement parks? Food? ... Nature?"
It didn't take a sleuth to note that rising, hopeful tone as his suggestions reached their conclusion. Since I had no particular aversion to anything he'd said, I decided to humour him. "I'll tell you what—I'll leave it to you to decide what we should do. I'll go along with anything you have planned, so I guess... surprise me?"
He looked very happy with my response. "Okay. I'll get back to you on the details next time we work together."
"Sure." I said. "I'll see you at work on Thursday, then?"
"Thursday." He agreed. Then he signed, "Have a safe trip home."
I smiled and signed back, "Right back at you."
We signed our goodbyes and parted ways.
- x -
Though he claimed he would fill me in on the details that Thursday we were both rostered on shift, the most Shiraishi told me was that he would pick me up from my house at ten o'clock on Saturday. I tried to divulge more information from him, but he refused to disclose anything more. He was obviously very firm about surprising me, just as I'd suggested. Despite not knowing what he had in store for me, he seemed very oddly happy as he flitted from flower pot to flower pot at work, tending to each with tender love and care, occasionally stopping to grace a plant or two with gentle and encouraging words. Our proposed weekend hangout kept him a delight to work with.
On Friday, I met up with Junko for coffee. She had to go to work that morning and, since I had the day off, I planned on going to driving school. Since we didn't have class that day, we decided to meet at a café in Senrichuo Station, a rough midpoint between our two destinations. Given Junko's consistent interest in my relationship with Shiraishi, part of me was expecting her to bombard me with questions about work and my even closer-knit relationship with "Kuranosuke-kun" as of late. To my surprise, she did nothing of the sort. After we ordered our drinks, we sat down at a booth inside the shop and she made small talk. It wasn't until our drinks finally arrived that she cut to the chanse in a smooth (yet rather indiscreet) manner.
Grinning like a fool, she said, "So tell me about you and Kura-chan."
I nearly spat out my coffee. "What about us?"
She wiggled her eyebrows. "I heard about your little date tomorrow."
I had the sense not to let any more coffee go anywhere near my lips a second time. "What do you mean a date?"
"You're going out with him on Saturday—right?"
"Junko, why are you using such subjective language?"
"I'm not doing it intentionally." She said—but I was having a hard time believing her. "Has he told you what the two of you are doing yet?"
"No, I told him to surprise me. I think he took me seriously."
"Wouldn't be the first time that's happened." Junko said, but breezed on before she even gave me the chance to ask what she meant by that. "My bets are on the Osaka Castle Gardens."
I had a hard time disproving that claim.
"Have you decided what you're going to wear?" She asked.
"Why... would it matter?"
"Don't go overboard with make-up—Kura-chan doesn't like girls who wear lots of make-up."
"Oh come on—"
"Have you picked a new shampoo just for the occasion?"
"You're taking this way too—wait, what?"
She laughed at the bewildered look on my face. "If you ever go anywhere with Kura-chan, it's not a bad conversation starter." She explained. "You'd probably know about it now that you're working with him, but Kura-chan can pick out the scent of pretty much any plant. He also knows a lot about hair care, so his two talents go hand in hand: start using a different shampoo and he'll be able to name the infusion of scents and the brand to boot."
"That... is a very obscure character trait."
"He's an obscure person." She remarked with an obliging shrug. She sure wasn't wrong.
We parted ways not long after we finished our coffee. She had to rush off to work after her boss called and asked if she could start half an hour earlier; I, however, still had time to spare. After I caught the train to Esaka Station, I decided to take a very long detour on my way to driving school. On my aimless journey, I stumbled across a pharmacy that appeared to be having a sale. After a (very) brief internal debate, I decided to browse the shop's wares, unwilling to acknowledge Junko's words—which hung at the back of my mind—as I wandered into the shampoo aisle.
I rarely felt the need to come to the pharmacy, in seeing that I generally had toiletries flowing from the rafters back home—courtesy of my father's frequent business trips. We'd been living off the amenities from distant cities for years now, and it wasn't as if I needed any other medical supplies on a consistent basis. As my eyes roved over the products on the shelves, I had to raise my eyebrow at how many different types of shampoos there were: shampoos to give hair volume, hydration, curls, softness, or invigoration—among other things. I took a bottle of shampoo labelled "for gravity-defiance" and gave it a sceptical once-over. It claimed to smell of cloudberries—whatever those were—but all I smelled was a subtle yet pleasant scent that I wasn't strongly opposed to putting in my hair. I couldn't distinguish any of the individual scents in it, but I felt that it would still start a conversation with Shiraishi. I took the corresponding bottle of conditioner from the shelf and went to the counter to pay for it.
The cashier smiled when she saw the bottle. "This is a surprisingly popular purchase."
"I don't even know what cloudberries are." I said honestly.
"I've heard that it smells like the Arctic." She said.
Neither of us were able to decide what the Arctic could possibly have smelled like.
When Shiraishi came to pick me up from my house on Saturday, he wasn't able to pick the scent immediately. After he signed "Good morning, -san!" from afar, the cheery look that I saw on his face slowly came to resemble a look of pleasant surprise the closer he drew. Shortly following my returned greeting, he asked, "-san, are you using a new shampoo?"
"Yeah—you noticed, huh?"
"It smells... of winter." He said after a momentary pause. "Is it the cloudberry shampoo by OGX?"
I almost kicked myself at how accurate Junko's predictions had been. "Wow, you really know your stuff. How did you guess?"
He looked very thoughtful. "Cloudberries themselves don't have an actual smell, but I've heard that they're one of nature's most popular treats in Scandinavia. I've heard of variations of cloudberry-themed scents, but I assume that—in this particular case—the shampoo sought to recreate the conditions in which cloudberries are typically found."
Shiraishi was surprisingly knowledgeable about cloudberries, despite the fact that they didn't contain poison. (He had a strange affinity with poisonous plants that made very little sense, even to people like Junko.) He gave me all sorts of nifty information about their appearance and their growing conditions, as well as the special place it had in the hearts of the Finns and Norwegians as a consumable. As we walked and talked about cloudberries, it slowly came to my attention that Shiraishi was walking much closer to me than he typically did. By no means was it off-putting, but it became increasingly difficult to keep my attention on his words when, every now and then, our fingertips would brush.
I started to realise all sorts of strange things about Shiraishi that I'd never cared to notice before: I'd never realised just how tall he was until I stood so close to him that any onlooker would have thought that we were together. I'd never realised that he almost always looked straight ahead of him (unless he was looking at his phone to check the time), lest he bump into a fellow pedestrian. He would smile down at me every now and then to demonstrate engagement in our conversations, but he kept his eyes to the front often enough to avoid running into people when we were submerged in heavy crowds.
When we boarded the train at Suita Station, he ushered me to a spot near the door and attempted to shield me from a rowdy bunch of students, clustered not too far from where we stood. We changed trains at Osaka Station (where he, once again, encouraged me to stand by the door) and got off at Osaka Castle Park Station—which I hardly found surprising in light of Junko's first prediction. Shiraishi led the way through the park, which turned out to be much bigger than I'd expected. It took twenty minutes alone for us to walk to the central-most point, although it was hard to say that the journey there was uneventful. As we meandered about, Shiraishi talked of the park's history, and had something to say about almost every single structure on its grounds. Hilariously, walking around with him was not unlike taking a tour with a professional and well-informed guide. When we found ourselves in more crowded areas, I saw a few onlookers get closer to the two of us in order to hear what Shiraishi had to say. Shiraishi, who was oblivious to the group of free tourers that were closing in on our personal space, continued to talk as we walked around.
I wasn't sure whether he'd known of all of those facts to begin with, or whether he'd taken the time to research the history specifically for today—both options were equally as plausible. I reasoned that, in the scope of things, it probably didn't matter which answer held more truth. As he went on about why the grounds had a baseball field, I stopped listening to what he was saying and, instead, tuned myself to the fundamental characteristics of his voice. It was strangely enjoyable to hear him talk, despite the fact that I'd heard him do so almost every day when we worked or went to class together. I couldn't help but internally remark that his voice was soothing and gentle, not unlike the sorts of voices that spoke on relaxation tapes.
I discovered Shiraishi's true reason for wanting to bring me to the park when we entered an area marked Nishinomaru Gardens Entrance. He gave me a tour of the gardens, as though he'd been there a thousand times (and honestly, I wouldn't have put it past him). He pointed out different plants and their properties as we strolled through the gardens, and I found myself more and more content simply listening to the sound of his voice. He seemed very relaxed in the presence of trees and plants, and I couldn't help but let myself feel at ease in amongst the swathe of green. Seeing him like this made me wonder what it would be like if I brought him back to Mihama and set him loose in the national park nearby. He would have a field day exploring the wilds, catching beetles (I had to stop him a couple of times from running off in pursuit of a rhinoceros beetle that he'd caught sight of), perhaps getting lost for a day or two at a time. The very thought amused me.
After a tour of the Osaka International Peace Centre, we wrapped up our adventure at the park and found a café near the southern exit at which we could have lunch. It must have been a few minutes shy of one o'clock when we stumbled across the place and decided to go inside. After we sat down at a small booth, I noticed that Shiraishi had reverted to his old tricks and—once again—seemed to be having trouble making eye contact with me. When the waitress came by to deliver menus, he pretended to look very interested with its contents. Fortunately, he still had it in him to make small talk.
His nose buried deep in the pages of the menu, he asked me, "Do you know what you'd like to order, -san?"
He didn't start to loosen up until after we'd ordered and I tried to make small talk with him. He eventually eased up to the point where having a conversation with him was no longer like trying to rip off a particularly tenacious band-aid. By the time our food came, he was able to bring himself to make (occasional) eye contact.
One of the many things that I enjoyed about my lunch with Shiraishi was that we didn't talk about work or class. Shiraishi was the kind of person who kept his conversations context-appropriate: when we were at work, we talked about work; when we were at uni, we talked about class; now that we were on—as Junko called it—a date, he was more comfortable answering direct questions about his personal life.
To begin with, I'd already known that Shiraishi had been working at the florist since he was in high school; he was family friends with Satou and her husband, and he was basically the most experienced worker in the shop next to the owners themselves; he was a hard-worker, and the most sincere person I'd ever met. As we sat and talked, however, I found out that he came from a family of mostly girls: he had an older sister, who had moved out of home many years ago, and a young sister in high school, with whom he was very close. He had a cat, who spent most of her days sleeping in the sun, and he used to have a rhinoceros beetle named Kabriel who perished in the winter of the year that they'd met. (He recalled this fact with a very forlorn look, and it suddenly occurred to me why he'd paid such a strange amount of attention to the beetles in the Nishinomaru Gardens.)
When I asked what his parents did for a living, he said that his mother was a retired nurse and that his father was a pharmacist—to which I responded, "Really? Does that have anything to do with why you decided to go into pharmacy?"
"Not quite." Shiraishi said. "I will admit that my father did try to persuade me to go into pharmacy over organic chemistry on many occasions, but I wouldn't say that his words had any impact on the choice I made."
When he asked what my own parents did, I told him the underwhelming truth. "My dad is your stock-standard salaryman." I said with a bit of a laugh. "If it's not home taking a nap on a Sunday afternoon, he's probably on a business trip on the other side of the country. I rarely ever see him."
Shiraishi frowned. "So your mom stays home?"
"Most of the time, yeah."
"Isn't she lonely?"
"She passes a lot of the time reading, and watching documentaries—and she's always on the hunt for new comedy, so it's not like she doesn't have anything to do, but... if you ask me, she's in desperate need of a new hobby." I said. "My dad does his best to stay in contact with us in between all the travelling—he'll send letters and postcards and other gifts when he can. When he was in Aomori last winter, he sent us a huge box of Fuji apples. If he's ever somewhere for more than a week at a time, my mom will usually return the favour. I mean, she gets by."
Having borne witness to the relationship between my mother and father over many years, the small gestures of kindness that they sent between one another via post had become quite normal to me. To Shiraishi, however, it was apparently sweet enough for him to start tearing up.
Not much longer after we'd finished eating our meal, we got talking about how our parents met. Shiraishi said that his parents simply worked together, and after their relationship started to get properly serious, his mother decided to resign. His father proposed to her not long after, and they'd been together ever since. When he asked me how my parents met, I had to pause to assemble all the fine pieces of the stories before I told him.
"They actually met while my dad was still in university." I said. "At that time, he was working at a bar to support himself while he studied. My mom came into the bar a lot with a friend—actually, he was her interpreter, but they were still really good friends—and when my dad saw the two of them communicate in sign language, he was really interested. He said he'd never seen anyone speak JSL before. My mom and her friend basically taught my dad how to sign, and when he finally became conversationally fluent, he asked my mom out."
Recalling the story always made me laugh, but Shiraishi—as I'd predicted—had a napkin to his face in an effort to drain the oncoming tears. Once he'd regained his composure, he asked, "What happened to your mom's friend—do you still see him?"
"Yeah, they're still good friends to this day." I said. "He and his husband live in Shingu, actually. They came to visit us every week when I was still living in Mihama, and I doubt that's changed."
While it was still relevant to the conversation, Shiraishi brought up sign language. I asked him how much progress he'd made, and he demonstrated that he could now have slightly more fluid and natural conversations. I made a few suggestions and corrections here and there, at which point he decided to ask, "I was wondering what the best method of remembering vocabulary is." He said. "The conventional methods for writing down and memorising vocabulary in any other language doesn't prove to be quite as effective."
I gave the matter some thought. "It goes for any language that the best way to solidify your knowledge is to practice speaking it with people who are already fluent. They can correct your inaccuracies, even if they're not able to explain it to you. I'm a firm believer in the effects of immersive study." I said. "As far as documenting your progress goes... I guess videotaping would be the most effective method."
"In other words, the best method of documentation is to film someone signing?" He paraphrased.
"Right." I said. "That goes for learning new signs, too. If there are signs that you want me to teach you and you feel as though you might forget them, I can film them for you—I mean, I'll need a list of the things you want filmed, but the point is that I can do it for you."
Judging from the look in his eyes, I suspected that he would have lit up like a Christmas tree, had he not wished to appear too outwardly enthusiastic. "That sounds a lot of effort." He observed. "Are you sure you would be willing to do that for someone like me?"
His modesty made me laugh. "What do you mean, someone like you? I'd do it especially for you."
Upon hearing those words, he went bright red.
With an amused look on my face, I went on, "It's not every day that you find someone who's genuinely interested in learning sign language—I mean, even back in Mihama, we had to really fight to give people the incentive to learn it—so if there's anything that you want to learn, just let me know and I'll film the material for you."
"I'd be most grateful if you would." He said, looking the happiest I'd seen him all year. "Provided it doesn't interfere with your current work, of course."
Jokingly, I put my hands up in a defensive gesture. "I'm still dedicated to memorising the names of every single flower in the shop, I swear."
He went red, obviously not having realised the implications of his previous statement. "Oh, no, that's not what I meant at—"
But he broke off when I started laughing. "I know." I said, sobering. "I'm just teasing you."
Although I could see that there might have been unforeseen consequences in teasing Shiraishi, it was hard to hold back. Seeing that deer-in-the-headlights look on his face slowly fade into an embarrassed sort of smile made such endeavours worth my time.
We were too full to eat dessert at the café, so we decided to go to the mall in search of a smoothie bar instead. Shiraishi sneakily paid for both of our meals while I went to the bathroom, so I berated him for not letting us split the bill all the way to the nearest Daimaru. Once we found a smoothie bar, I got him back by paying for his drink as well as mine. He was noticeably sulky about it, but he kept an amiable air about him when we went shopping. We spent a stupid amount of time at the Pokemon Centre, and after he managed to pull me away from the temptations of buying more than I needed to, we steadily worked our way down the levels. While in UNIQLO, he bought me a skirt that I'd mistakenly admitted to wanting. I retaliated by buying him a new watch, and even though he pretended to be mad at me for splashing out on him ("I can't believe you did that, -san—you could have bought real groceries this week!"), I got the sense that it made him happy. He made it a little hard to tell, the way he positively glowed every time he looked at it.
At the end of a long day, we had dinner at a sushi train on the upper basement level and picked up some bakery for dessert on the very bottom floor. On the way back to my apartment, Shiraishi helped me pick up groceries (he almost got away with paying for it, but I managed to convince him to settle for a split payment of the goods) and insisted on carrying the majority of them back home. Even though his arms were laden with shopping bags, he (somehow) managed to hold the door open for me. I thanked him in between laughs, and we set the groceries down on the floor of my tiny room.
"I'm so hungry." I said with a laugh. I dropped the bakery from Daimaru onto the kotatsu in the middle of my room and gestured for Shiraishi to sit down across from me. As we ate and talked, there were several times when we felt the need to readjust ourselves—and thus, several times that our feet bumped one another's. A couple of times I did it deliberately, just to see an embarrassed smile involuntarily rise on Shiraishi's face.
In seeing that the both of us had work the following morning, Shiraishi decided to leave shortly after helping me unpack the groceries. I offered to walk him to the station, but he didn't see the point in that, because then he'd have to walk me back home before he felt assured enough to get on the train. I saw him to the front door, where he stood for a little while, shyly kicking at the pavement and—once again—not making eye contact with me.
"Thank you for accompanying me today, -san." He said, looking abashed.
"Thank you for inviting me along, Kuranosuke-kun." I said, laughing. "I had a lot of fun—really. We should do this again sometime."
Something ignited in his eyes. "Really?"
I nudged him playfully. "No need to sound disappointed there."
A slow but sure smile started to ease onto his face when I pulled my arm away. We signed our goodbyes before he made his way down the staircase, the leftover bakery that I'd forced onto him under his wing. He paused on the road out the front of my building for a suspiciously long amount of time while I waved to him, and he waved back. We were there for at least a couple of minutes before Shiraishi decided to go home. He rounded the corner, where he vanished into the gentle glow of the street lamps.
Chrysanthemums for Kikuno: The Japanese word for chrysanthemum is kiku (菊). When writing using the appropriate kanji, the name Kikuno (菊野) can mean field of chrysanthemums.
I wish I were cross-eyed so I could see two of you: For the brief period of time that I tried learning Spanish on Duolingo, this was one of the lines that came up in the flirting topic, and it was so hilarious that I just had to remember it. If I recall correctly, the Spanish version of it is (apparently): Ojalá fuera bizco para verte dos veces.
Yakiniku: Since this is basically a recurring gag, y'all should know what this is by now, but in case you haven't read our other DNs I'll copy and paste Princo's explanation of it in DTT here: "[It's] grilling meat, [...] then you use sauce; the two most common are yakiniku tare (varies but typically has miso, soy sauce, mirin, sugar, etc.) and salt/lemon. You don't use them interchangeably, it differs by the type of meat you order."
Cloudberry shampoo: The shampoo in question is this: https://ogxbeauty.com/hair/o2/ TIL that cloudberry is an actually thing and has unconventional alternate names such as bakeapple, knotberry, aqpik and low-bush salmonberry.
Also, I know that OGX isn't distributed in Japan, but I believe you're forgetting the crucial fact that this is indeed a work of fiction that lacks any sense of realism,
I say as I continue to use Google Maps to make sure that my location placements are relatively accurate.
Daimaru: According to Wikipedia, Daimaru is a department store chain that's principally located in the Kansai region (so, the region that Osaka happens to be in).
Band-aids: So I actually never realised that this was the name of a brand until I Wikipedia'd it about three seconds ago. They're literally just adhesive bandages/sticking plasters, but I personally just call all of them band-aids. Might be an Australian thing, or it might just be my family LOL.
Fuji apples: The Aomori Prefecture is famous for their apples (according to Wikipedia, they're the largest producers of apples in all of Japan). When I was there a couple of years ago, someone actually sent a huge box of Fuji apples to our dorm. I don't know who they were from or where exactly they came from, but they were huge and also really tasty. Way better than the stuff they sell in Australia, anyway. Fun fact: the apples are apparently called Fuji apples because they were developed in the town of Fujisaki (which is in Aomori).
Bakery for dessert: Okay, well, Princo said that having bakery for dessert would be weird but my family totally does it. I do consider thing like custard tarts, flavoured bread and cakes part of the bakery family. Is it just my family or like?? Guys pls tell us if you would totally eat bakery for dessert??
Kotatsu: A kotatsu (炬燵), according to Wikipedia is a low, wooden table frame, which is covered by a futon or a heavy blanket, which is covered by a table top. There's a heat source underneath so that if you stick your legs under the kotatsu you'll probably accidentally kick your house cat, who's down there because it's so goddamn warm. There's pictures on the Wikipedia article (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kotatsu). As usual, if you want more information you should go to Princo LOL. (Princo: I mean pretty much yeah lmao)
Ribbon: I find it really ironic how, after writing DTT, I very vehemently insisted that I would never write another conventional romance fic again, yet here we are. Why do I do this to myself?
Princo: The part where they sign and Shiraishi signs "I love you" or "I like you" or w/e kills me. ALSO NOBODY SAYS BAKERY FOR DESSERT FITE ME
July 25, 2016.