Permeate: to diffuse through or penetrate something; to spread or diffuse through; to pass through pores or interstices of.
When Majime is little, his mother holds him on her lap and carefully counts out the daisies drawn on his arms. It’s a game that makes Majime giggle and squirm when she tickles his chubby ankles with a pen nib, creating the constellations of the stars she draws in return, always one more than the number of flowers.
Majime learns to count in flowers. He’s too young then to really understand where they come from, only that they make his mother happy. When Majime thinks back to his earliest memories this is what he can recall: the comfort of his mother’s voice, the tickle of the pen, and the warmth he’d feel whenever she explained how lucky he was, a precious, loved child.
When he reaches elementary school he comes to understand that the flowers were another parent’s love, sketched across his skin. The writing he finds wobbling across his palm is no longer neat and adult, formed as smoothly as the teacher’s chalk forming characters for every student to practice, now the new letters he finds on his skin are as clumsy as his own on school assignments and occasionally near-indecipherable.
Majime writes across the back of his own hand in response. He notes the precise shape of the characters for dog and cat. Even though they disappear, he still gets them right on the test. In truth, words become Majime’s first love. He knows his mother is right; he is lucky to be able to share them with someone, to share how amazing it is to be able to give a concept form, to order the world through regimented shapes, predictable and constant whether for an animal or an abstract thought.
Extrovert: one whose personality is characterized by the act, state, or habit of being predominately concerned with and obtaining gratification from what is outside the self; a gregarious and unreserved person.
Nishioka likes people. His father always complained about how Nishioka is likely to wander off on his own with a random stranger, if not kept under a watchful eye. When Nishioka was little, he didn’t understand why his father was so worried and always had a firm hand on Nishioka’s shoulder, steering him away from dogs and babies and women with brightly printed dresses.
“She has flowers just like mommy draws on me!” Nishioka would point gleefully and his father would apologize and herd Nishioka away to finish their shopping or their walk to the local bookstore or bank.
As Nishioka gets older, he gets better at being friendly. People are interesting and he learns how to make his new classmates talk about themselves, how to make his teachers smile at him and continue conversations even as they walk back to the teacher’s office, how to charm grocery clerks and bank tellers and the young woman behind the counter a the bookstore.
His father sends him on errands and affectionately complains about how Nishioka has wrapped the whole neighborhood around his finger.
“They tell me what a pleasant son I have, so thoughtful and polite, they don’t know you never remember to take out the trash,” his father says pointedly and Nishioka groans.
“Can it wait till I finish my math homework?” he asks and his father’s booming laugh fills the kitchen.
Nishioka knows many of the other kids at school struggle with the equations their teacher puts on the board, but if there’s one thing Nishioka likes more than people, it’s numbers. Sometimes, when he’s bored waiting for the train, Nishioka will scrawl equations across his arms, forming numbers in chains and then applying the repetitive logic he’s learned to untangle them into answers. He’s the only one to ever write in the answers. When he was younger, he’d used to hope that maybe he’d receive answers back, that it could become a game, the way kanji did when he was first learning them.
Nishioka still finds words on the backs of his hands, or the crooks of his elbows, but these days they’re complex. “What a good vocabulary you have!” his teachers have praised, but Nishioka doesn’t really care. He wouldn’t have paid attention, or learned them in the first place if not for finding them saved on his skin. It seems like each time whoever it is he’s destined for finds a new, strange, term, they share the weird gift in definitions on his skin.
Nishioka may be ambivalent to words, but he loves numbers, so he boxes the definitions in equations and smiles at how they form spiraling patterns of numbers and letters, a shared tapestry.
Bibliophile: a person who loves or collects books, especially as examples of fine or unusual printing, binding, or the like.
Majime doesn’t understand people. He’s liked by his professors for his diligence, appreciated by the fellow students in his study groups and group projects for the tenacity with which he retains information, and mostly ignored by his neighbors and the other students in his complex. It’s fairly easy to ignore Majime. He’s always hunched over a book, whether on the train or walking his slow, steady way between classes.
Majime doesn’t just read for the assignments laid out by his literature degree, he reads every extra, suggested book, both the optional assignments and the passing suggestions of his professors. He reads books that win prizes in newspapers and books that are the least checked out from the campus library. He reads book that catch his eye on train advertisements and books that he overhears other students discussing in the cafeteria.
As he reads, Majime compiles words. Anything new, he writes down to define later. His small notebook of words steadily fills with rows of definitions. He’s stopped writing his favorites across his fingers and arms, it seems strange to do so now. There are several of the other students in Majime’s year who have already found the person behind the writing on their skin, all of them old enough now that such things are becoming a common occurrence.
Majime overhears excited conversations between young women sharing the details of how they revealed their names and first met future husbands and wives. Majime listens in on debates over whether it’s better to be straight forward, to write down a phone number, an email, a place to meet, a name, or whether the writing entails a sacred, destined connection. Whether each person should discover the source of their writing naturally.
Majime doesn’t write on his skin, he doesn’t write his name and he doesn’t write words, he doesn’t know what the right answer is, or what to say. It’s not that people dislike Majime, but he’s mostly left alone. The numbers circling his wrist don’t go away, even when Majime doesn’t respond. It’s nice to imagine that there’s someone in the world, somewhere, who’s destined to understand him. Majime isn’t totally sure he even understands himself. He tries to think about what he’d want, what this person calculating time and space and abstract thought might be like. A young woman maybe, quiet and thoughtful and willing to listen patiently while Majime stumbles through a confession, maybe.
Writing partners as lovers across time and space unfold on the pages of a thousand books Majime has read. But Majime’s favorites are the stories of best friends; inventors each with their own romance, one a wife, another a husband, whose written bond inspires them to build the most miraculous creations, whose lives are perfectly complete though they never met; best friends whose words painted each other’s skin from birth with parents so certain of the children’s future, until they each married, but not each other, the fall out between the families crafted in biting, beautiful prose, the children’s surety of the specialness of their friendship, their bond true and not needing any accompanying romance set stark against the pressure of the world around them. The stories make Majime ache, a little bit, he hopes he never has to meet his own person.
If they never meet, Majime won’t face a future like the ones detailed in TV dramas where one partner thinks the other doesn’t want them, and so overtly states their acceptance of being “just friends” while falling to pieces, so close and yet so far from the source of their writing. Majime knows that unlike the dramas he isn’t going to one day realize everything he’s been missing and sweep someone into his arms and into his bed.
Absence: a state or condition in which something expected, wanted, or looked for is not present or does not exist.
Nishioka doesn’t notice at first when the words stop. They were fewer and fewer for a while, so the ending is natural enough that almost a year passes before Nishioka really thinks about it. It’s his mother calling, asking about his upcoming graduation from his business degree and making some teasing comment about the stars she used to find on his feet that prompts Nishioka to think about it.
If it had been more sudden, he probably would have known sooner. He doesn’t mention it to his mother, but spends the next several months carefully looking over his body each morning, searching for a sign. Perhaps they’re too busy to secret away odd words for Nishioka’s amusement, or maybe something has happened to them. A broken arm, unable to use their dominant hand. Surely they’re still alive.
Nishioka continues applying for jobs and passes the days at his internship with a friendly smile for each person he meets. He hears rumor that the publishing company is thinking about hiring him when his position ends. Nishioka stays late to work on projects and triple checks calculations and politely suggests ways for the department to be more efficient and brings coffee for his supervisor unprompted. She smiles and promises to put in a good word for him. Nishioka is polite, and completely distracted by the blank expanse of the back of his hands. Her hands are covered in complicated swirling designs. She laughs lightly when she notices he’s staring.
“He’s an artist,” she explains and Nishioka apologizes for being rude. When they hire him, they ask if there’s a particular department Nishioka wants to work in. Nishioka remembers holding definitions in the palm of his hands. He’s never cared about words. He requests the dictionary department.
Benchmark: a mark on a permanent object indicating elevation and serving as a reference in topographic surveys and tidal observations; a point of reference from which measurements may be made; something that serves as a standard by which others may be measured or judged; a standardized problem or test that serves as a basis for evaluation or comparison.
Sales make Majime uncomfortable, but that’s not unusual. People still want to ignore him, but that’s much harder to do when he’s nervously shifting from foot to foot and trying to convince a store manager to stock certain books or order from their company. Majime’s numbers aren’t great, but he’s still doing well enough that he hasn’t received more than some gentle reprimands from the office. It’s possible he’s achieving more positive contacts because the storeowners feel bad for him, or are just uncomfortable enough by his presence to agree to his requests, just to make him go away.
Majime feels better, back on the train, heading to his next stop. When he looks down, the back of his hand has a word. It’s a new word, a word Majime has never read before. Something strange bubbles up in his chest, an emotion strong enough to pull the breath from his lungs. Majime closes his eyes, fingers curling around his own hand, though of course he can’t feel the press of ink across his skin. He remembers the tickle of his mother’s pen and wishes he’d brought his little book of words with him. It’s back in the rooms he’s renting, atop the pile of his most recently finished stack of books, if the cat hasn’t knocked it over.
In the past year Majime has grown ever more certain that he can’t write on his skin. There’s a woman at his office who brought her husband to the Christmas party, he’d been talking with Majime when a picture of a boat had blossomed across his hand. Majime had noticed, because he’d been pointing to something on one of the piece of marketing materials they’d been discussing. The man’s wife was still across the room, laughing into her glass of champagne with their supervisor. Majime had looked from the boat, to her, and back. The man had laughed, sheepish but without any shame.
He’d tapped the back of his hand, “She’s like my sister, we grew up together. They say it’s a person who will change your life, who will make it better, make you a better person just by being in it. I’d say that’s true. Then when I met my wife I knew I’d never love anyone else, and not just because she understood that the writing didn’t make any difference about that.”
“Oh,” Majime had said, unsure how to placate the man’s slightly defensive tone. “No, that’s good, uh, that you love your wife.”
The man had stared at him for a moment, before breaking into a friendly laugh and clapping Majime on the shoulder, as if he’d said something amusing. Majime had smiled and hoped it was enough.
A few months later, Majime had said yes when a woman working at one of the bookstores he attempted to sell to had asked to meet for coffee sometime. She’d been pretty, a neat green blouse and gray skirt with her hair pulled back into a loose ponytail and small gold studs in her ears. Her bright smile had put him at ease and she enjoyed talking enough that she didn’t seem to mind his nervous silence. They’d met for coffee again, planned to go to a movie. Majime had shared definitions for cinematography terms when she’d mentioned how much she loved film; she’d called him cute and held his hand.
When he walked her back to the train station from dinner a few weeks later, she went up on tiptoe to kiss him. He’d cupped his hands against her shoulders and tried to give it some of the passion he’d seen in the movie. It was probably clumsy but she laughed and smiled and her arms went tight around him instead. Majime couldn’t help feeling grateful that she didn’t seem to mind.
They kept going out and Majime kept waiting for the time when he would look at her and feel something beyond the fondness that had started to grow in his chest. They walked through a park and he took her photo posing in front of the swans on the lake. She was beautiful and funny and her smile made him feel warm and light. He’d tucked her close against his side and smiled down at her while she talked and they looked like any other couple at the park.
They didn’t talk about writing, though he sometimes saw words in what might be French dusted across her arms. But when she finally took him back to her apartment pressing him back onto her couch with a kiss, before sitting up on his lap to fuss with the buttons on her top, she was beautiful and kind and Majime thought he might love her a little, but the idea of her like this, pressing naked against him made his stomach turn, lightheaded with nausea, his throat closing with nerves around the sour rejection on his tongue. When he pushed her away, holding her back at arms length, her whole face crumpled.
“Is it because of the words?” She’d asked waving at the sentence nestled just under her collarbone, the letters backwards as if written looking in a mirror. Majime silently shook his head and she sniffled. “But you like me?”
“I do.” Majime nodded. “I do like you. But I don’t think… I can’t,” he said with an abortive gesture towards his crotch, before awkwardly drawing his knees to his chest, letting his arms wrap around them as he shifted back, away from her.
“Oh.” She frowned, pulling her shirt back on, but not buttoning it. “Do you not? Is it the sex?” She scooted a little closer to him, “You’re not…gay?”
“No. Not gay.” Majime agrees.
She’d cocked her head at him, “My sister’s like that, the not into sex thing.”
He’s still not sure about the other piece, it seems like something he would have read about, but he hasn’t. They spent the evening talking, mostly about her sister and even though she hadn’t buttoned her shirt yet, when she’d slumped back against the couch and they wound up leaning against each other a bit, he didn’t mind. She’d smiled at him and he felt that same, bright spark of warmth, stronger now that she’d given him this, her attention and her compassion embracing his confusion. That made it worse, when she left.
“You’re really sweet and I like you.” She’d said, “but I’m looking for someone who’s interested in…well you know.” her shrug was awkward and Majime couldn’t fix any of it. She’d reached out, unsure and settled on shaking his hand. It was more formal than they’ve ever been with each other, past their first introduction. She’d laughed and that lessened the sting a little. Majime smiled for her. He’d looked back at her door, once she’d closed it, standing in the hall and wondering if what he was feeling met the proper definition of heartbreak.
Chronometry: the measuring of time
Nishioka feels he should have known. Who else in the world could be as into words? Majime is an instant fit for the Dictionary department, he’s awkward and brilliant and Nishioka feels oddly proud for having found him, rescued him from sales and helped him get where he’s so obviously meant to be. He himself still hasn’t quite figured out the hang of all of these words, though trying does make him feel closer to the ideas, objects, and concepts he imagines tracing his skin. Those words still don’t return, and he’s mostly given up trying to elicit any response. That’s probably why he doesn’t figure it out.
He tells Miyoshi about his new coworker of course. Majime is a little strange and awkward, but Nishioka likes people and Majime is interesting. Nishioka finds, for the first time that he’s begun to have fun with his work. He’s been thinking for a few months now about asking for a transfer between departments. His writing partner’s love of words hasn’t rubbed off on him, chasing the words that used to be on his skin hasn’t done him any good. He’s better at people, thinking about what they want and how to talk to them. His skills, his business degree isn’t doing him any good in the endless stacks of edits he goes through with the Dictionary department, though it’s easier to keep their relationship invisible when they’re not working in the same department.
Miyoshi’s been listening to his growing restlessness so she’s pleased for him to have happier news about work. Nishioka tells her about the team dinners and the way Majime is bringing the Dictionary team together, the way Nishioka is beginning to understand the vision that Araki and Matsumoto-sensei have been carrying, that’s coming to life at the quiet enthusiasm Majime brings with him. After one of Nishioka’s Majime stories, Miyoshi’s the first one to suggest any connection.
“I bet his writing partner was covered in definitions in high school, just like you!”
Nishioka scoffs at her, “At least I wasn’t covered in superheroes.”
“Just because your person isn’t as cool as a comic book artist…” she grins at him, “don’t pout. Come on, it’s starting.”
Nishioka gives up his pretense of offense and sits when she pats the couch next to her. They didn’t start dating until after college, but Nishioka is glad that Miyoshi has decided on him. She’d found her writing partner, exchanged information and done a year abroad in America to meet him. They’d connected instantly and they talk at least once a week. Nishioka has never met the man in person, but they’ve talked on occasion. He’s ‘gay, very, very gay’ in his own words, and Nishioka has never been concerned about his relationship with Miyoshi.
This other man changed Miyoshi’s life. She learned a language for him, got a degree in international business and traveled and made friends all over the world. She’s become the person she is today because of him. She’s a rising star in their PR department because of her confidence and the knowledge she’s earned by taking risks and embracing opportunities, buoyed by the support of cartoon encouragement lovingly painted on her knees.
Without the writing on her skin, the superheroes inspiring her to take on the world, Nishioka might never have reconnected with Miyoshi. He might have been too concerned about the way she’d laughed at the comics detailed down her forearms to get up the nerve to ask her out, she might have been too worried about the definitions Nishioka had used to show, to work up the courage to ask him out.
In a way, Miyoshi’s writer has changed Nishioka’s life too, because Miyoshi is perfect for Nishioka, she’s such a good match for him he struggles to imagine someone better, hopes that the blankness of his skin means that wherever his person is, they won’t be sorry when he won’t be the love of their life. Nishioka likes people, he likes numbers and solid constants, he makes decisions and sticks with them despite their consequences. He’s steady, and charming, and he plays for keeps.
Miyoshi’s lips slide across his neck, “Do you think anyone’s ever tried to communicate with their writing partner via hickeys?” she asks.
“I don’t think that’s what’s going to make them respond.” Nishioka points out, though he arches his neck slightly spreading his legs a bit as Miyoshi turns against him, away from the TV. They miss the rest of the program, but Miyoshi doesn’t actually leave Nishioka with a hickey, because they’re still keeping their relationship under wraps at work.
Affinity: a spontaneous or natural liking or sympathy for someone or something.
“You have something on your-“ Nishioka says gesturing towards the back of Majime’s neck. Majime turns his head for a moment, the unconscious action to check, though he of course can’t see the back of his own neck. His collar is crumpled, shirt dropped distracted yesterday while putting away his laundry and he didn’t have time to iron it, could have gotten another from the closet but too tired to think it through, another late night conversation with Kaguya almost dreamlike in his memory, drenched in moonlight and the purring rumble of Tiger under his fingers while she told him about her culinary school, the steps to kaiseki ryori.
Three nights ago he’d followed sounds of movement into the kitchen to find her cooking as the clock ticked past two. He’d sat and watched her in silence and they’d eaten before sunrise. He hadn’t been able to go back to sleep. He knows exhaustion is beginning to hang about his face, deepening the circles under his eyes, blurring the world when he’s not focusing, but sometimes it’s hard to remember, when she sits by him on the stairs, petting Tiger and rustling pages of recipes while he reads another book.
Take will poke her head out of her room when it starts to get too late and yell at them both to sleep. Majime’s chest will warm when Kaguya sends him a conspiratorial smile in response, tucking her hair behind her ear and offering him a hand up as she stands. Her hands are elegant and sure, skilled with the kitchen knife and whisk, precise with chopsticks, gentle where her fingers touch his palm. She smells good, her slight smile beautiful as she squeezes his hand once before running up the stairs. Majime isn’t sure what to do with himself.
Her skin is moon pale, clear of any obvious writing even when she’s wearing a tank top and her sleep shorts, hair mussed and smiling sleepily into the morning coffee Majime hands her. Take will fondly reprimand Kaguya to get dressed and Majime tries not to react, not to look to long at how unmarked her skin is when he sees the concern and faint discomfort on Take’s face. Take is evasive, but her circumlocution has lead Majime to the thought that perhaps Kaguya has never had words on her skin. It’s uncommon but happens some times.
If it is true, there’s no way Majime would think she was broken like perhaps Take fears. He’s read widely, more widely in recent years, science and philosophy of the human experience, sexuality and love, desires both different and similar to his own. He hasn’t found the right words for himself yet, even if he’s found definitions that fit. He watches Kaguya’s bare feet pad back up the stairs in the mornings, knowing on Tuesdays and Thursdays she doesn’t have to be up that early, might only be getting up to steal his coffee and wish him good morning. One morning, Majime will look at Take and tell her as earnestly has he can, “I understand.” Take will scrutinize him shrewdly before patting his cheek with an affectionate, mostly toothless smile. It’s becoming apparent that Majime wants to find words he likes, words to fit the world changing around him and coming into focus.
Now, sleepily, he looks back at Nishioka who’s staring baldly, face shocked.
“What?” Majime asks, tugging at his collar, fingers desperate to brush off whatever’s on his neck. Nishioka reaches out, turning Majime slowly by the shoulder. Majime startles a little when Nishioka’s fingers brush the back of his neck, the patch of skin exposed when his collar gets pulled askew, low just below the curling tips of his hair. “What is it?”
Wordlessly, Nishioka turns, hauling down the back of his own shirt, the neatly starched collar crumpling under his grip and shirt wrenched aside as he points emphatically at the back of his own neck where there’s a small black drawing of a turtle.
“You have a turtle,” Nishioka says, a little hysterical.
“Yes, you do,” Majime agrees, confused. Nishioka whips back around, jabbing a finger at him.
“You have a turtle. Miyoshi said you wouldn’t be able to see it, that it would be funny. That turtles are cute.” Nishioka waves his hands. It’s the least composed Majime has ever seen him. “That’s my turtle, you’re…” It’s Majime’s turn to stare.
“Your?” It might be the longest they’ve ever held eye contact. Then Nishioka smiles. It’s slow, unfurling across his face little by little, but growing so strong it takes Majime aback.
“That explains so much. Wow.” Nishioka says. “Okay, I have a girlfriend, and you’ve never shown any interest in me, so not that kind of thing right?”
“No.” Majime says slowly. “You don’t-”
“Not at all,” Nishioka cocks his head slightly, something fond and thoughtful flitting through his expression, “I might call you my best friend though.”
Majime starts. His mouth falls open and he works to find words. No one has ever called Majime their best friend. Honestly, Majime hasn’t been referred to as a friend since his mother stopped setting up play dates with other children when he was in primary school. Nishioka seems like the sort of person who would never lack for friends, he talks with most of the people in the company, he knows everyone in passing and is well liked.
“One’s closest and dearest friend,” Majime says, “a position that is filled by a singular person, valued above other friends. Excelling all others in closeness.”
Nishioka shrugs, “I know a lot of people, but I don’t actually have that many close friends. I like you, you’re interesting.”
Majime blinks, the words are all simple and easily defined, but he feels like he’s never heard them in these particular combinations before. Perhaps he hasn’t.
“You know, you could write me definitions, if you wanted,” Nishioka says, offering a pen from a nearby desk. “It made me seem smart.”
Majime nods, writes, closest friend, valued above others on his forearm. The blue ink is instantly echoed on Nishioka’s arm, when he rolls up his sleeve.
“Why did you stop?” Nishioka asks.
“I was afraid,” Majime admits. “That. I wouldn’t. That you wouldn’t like me, or I wouldn’t…want-” He looks down, unable to observe Nishioka’s face as he admits it.
Nishioka grasps his shoulder, reassuring, “No worries, we’re cool right? I mean, we’re here to make each other better people, right? And we found each other naturally. Who does that in this day and age? I’d say we’re lucky.” Majime looks back at him. Nishioka isn’t smiling but Majime feels cared for all the same. He thinks about Nishioka taking him aside, finding him a place in the Dictionary department, making Majiime feel welcomed and at home, warm as that first memory of quiet joy in the daisies on his skin.
Lucky: having good luck; happening by chance: fortuitous; producing or resulting in good by chance: favorable; seeming to bring good luck.