The sun is starting to rise as Blanca crosses the massive brownstone gates of Green-Wood cemetery. His invitee came early, waving earnestly before shaking Blanca’s hand. His thick round glasses look familiar. He gained a little weight, better than the man he saw from Yue’s photographs from the wedding he attended almost a year ago. His nightly hair no longer needed a ponytail. In his arms were armfuls of white mums covered in burlap.
“Been a while,” he says before beckoning Blanca ahead. The bespectacled man wore red and black plaid and distressed jeans. He is careful in his steps.
“I saw your article in the Times,” Blanca notes gently. “And about your new book later this month. New York Sense… Intriguing title.”
“All the reporters were asking me what the book title meant. What is the sense of New York? Like it’s some work of a genius. He must be displeased up there, with the book and the stuff I’ve published. I wrote a little too much about us.”
“But not everything,” Blanca points out
Eiji nods. “Yes, not everything,” he murmurs. “The world doesn’t need to know everything. Especially where he sleeps.”
They are walking side-by-side now. Blanca’s hairs stand up a little, his way of walking reminding him too much of someone he thought he knew well. It must be the way he puts his hands on his pockets and glances up at the sky. Eiji’s smile makes him reconsider, however. It doesn’t try to encompass anything. None of the smug optimism. There is weight, but not the terrible kind.
Long ago, maybe he did imagine that blonde-haired boy wearing his worn shoes. He had forgotten that empathy did not mean fitting someone in your old, unwanted things and then stitching them as you see fit. He really isn’t suited to be a father.
“This isn’t my first time,” he says. “Being here, uhm… Maybe fourteen years ago, I ended up following him here. I think it’s best if I start from the beginning,” he then laughs. “Back at his flat in Times Square, remember that?”
Blanca chuckles. “I could not get a clear shot of you.”
“Don’t lie. That’s the first time I ever saw him frightened. Rightfully so,” he says, taking out a cigarette from his bag and a lighter. Blanca refuses. “I never saw him take a drag either,” he said after blowing a puff. The headstones are now in full view as they walk. Famous and infamous names, people they will never know, they pass them all. “I digress. But during our time there, before you came to New York, he’d always be out and won’t be back until the crack of dawn. One of the reasons why he pissed me off then. It was always a joy to get him out of bed.”
“You found him here?”
He nods. “I followed him. Took a cab when he drove up to this place. Turned out he knew, made a big show out of it. He called this place his ‘Necropolis,’ like the one in Scotland. There’s even a big chapel here,” he points at the steeples of the building just ahead. “He liked to visit the old graves. He’d let me sit with him and we’d watch the sunrise together. Really out of character, visiting them. He’d recite their forgotten names,” he said as both of them now start to climb the gentle incline, avoiding the graves. “And he’d guess them right every time.”
“How many times did accompany him?”
“Only three. Then there was that Coney Island thing. Never had the time and privacy after that, especially when you came along,” Eiji laughs. “He was always on edge whenever we’d go outside.”
“Sorry about that.”
“Doesn’t matter. You are here now, Blanca-san. Thank you.”
“No, the pleasure is all mine. I’m glad you agreed to meet and let me visit Ash.”
“It sure took you. He’ll definitely be pissed,” Eiji suppresses a snort with his free hand.
“It’s good you’re doing well.”
“Did Yut Lung tell you?”
He swallows and wonders if there is still bad blood boiling between them. “Only a hunch,” he adds with a bashful laugh.
Eiji hums. “Doesn’t suit you.”
Another smile crosses Blanca’s lips. “He said the same thing.”
“Ash did, huh?” Eiji clicks his lips and steadies his pace. “I guess his attitude rubbed on me a little bit.”
Blanca says nothing at this.
“Anyway, I’ve been a constant guest since. When I was still starting out, had to ask for Sing’s help in buying land for Ash and the rest.”
They stop near the top and watch the city skyline in the distance. Eiji then leads him to a row of cherry trees. The wind keeps blowing as Blanca tries to keep up with an aching knee, as Eiji kneels down in front of each lonely and tiny grave, offering a prayer and a flower. He tells you the story of each one in his measured, weathered voice. Leaves and white petals swirl occasionally in the cool breeze.
As they walk, the more Blanca sees the names etched on each grave and their epithets. He watches Eiji mutely moving his lips as he prays, at his pressed hands, at his dirty jeans. The sun is still barely up in the sky. Blanca then stops as he reads the names on the final gravestones. Compared to the ones time decided to bury, these were newer, more familiar.
“This is Skipper, Ash’s close friend and right hand,” Eiji motions before giving Blanca one of his last chrysanthemums. “You know him?”
Blanca shakes his head.
“Now you do,” he says patiently before motioning the next one. There are Chinese characters along with the standard ones. “Shorter Wong, Ash’s best friend. Mine too. Did Ash talk about him before?”
Blanca shakes his head slowly, imagining Ash after each lesson, bruised, but his eyes less dead as he reminisces about his first time eating dumplings in Chinatown. He would watch as Dino slapped the boy and ordered him to leave.
“God he really is a prick,” his laugh is raucous and warm. “Wonder how he fared with your other students.”
“He was the only one.” Without meaning to, his words sting somewhat. “He never really liked talking about himself.”
He lets Eiji talk about his fallen friends, watching his eyes. There is a smidge of melancholy, embers. Blanca saw this vividly in her eyes too.
“That’s a shame,” Eiji says. “I don’t even know if all the things I told you is true, word for word. Time does a lot of things to your head.”
“Narrative consistency is often easier to swallow than the truth. Not a sign of madness,” Blanca says kindly.
“You know, before, I thought people only talk to reveal something about themselves. I thought it’s hard to resist when someone genuinely wants to listen to you. But the more I talked to him, the more I realize, now, maybe I was only manipulating him, to coax out hidden truths,” Eiji says as he signals the older man to go on ahead to the last grave. Blanca knows who it is, but his eyes still sting. He hasn’t built up a thick skin as Eiji has. How many times had this man visited to keep smiling like that here? “Always looking for a chink in his armour for me to barge into and leave my mark on him.”
“You paint yourself too badly, little bunny,” Blanca says but swallows quickly. He feels disconcerted and bites his cheek a little. “He never saw you negatively. The time we met again, thirteen years ago, he told me he was a lucky man because of you. I believed him. That was the first time in a while that I believed in someone.”
“Was that only the second time for you?” he murmurs.
Blanca nods as he places his flowers in the grave, as he looks at Ash and his brother’s name. “I told him then that I’d be praying for him,” he presses his hands together as he lowers his knees on the damp grass. “Haven’t stopped.”
He turns. Eiji’s beam was brighter to look at than the sun behind him.
“I’ve accepted that nothing is temporary years ago,” he says. “And have decided to forgive.”
He imagines Natasha and he skating across the solid lake several winters ago. How after keenly holding onto both his hands, she lets go and lets him thread through the ice himself. The sky was as pink as this.
“It does take time.”
Eiji nods. “But I’ll keep going.”
He then turns his direction at the sun. Blanca follows.