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Bonjour, Tendresse

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“Redis à ma tendresse

les serments d'autrefois,”

— Ferdinand Lamaire.

 

A soft blue light streamed in through the kitchen window when Kumiko walked in, wrapped in a thin cardigan with her arms folded across her chest. She watched the light filter through the trees outside, bathing the space in stark technicolour; a vividness she could not remember experiencing before filled her to the brim. The eggshell linen curtains billowed under a quiet breeze, its ends flitting towards the kitchen counter where, silent as ever, Reina was preparing breakfast. Kumiko could not make out what it was, but in her heightened sensitivity, she thought she could detect a citrus of some kind. The floor creaked when Kumiko took a step in the direction of the smell. Reina turned around.

“Good morning,” Kumiko said first, after Reina had looked at her for what felt like a moment too long. She thought of averting her eyes, but had promised herself as she collected her clothes from the bedroom floor moments earlier, that she wouldn’t.

Bonjour, tristesse,” Reina said evenly, in that perfect pronunciation of hers. Kumiko’s stomach fluttered at the nickname. Reina smiled and switched to Japanese. “There’s some water on the table. I’m making toast and coffee. Would you like some?”

“Yes, please,” Kumiko said, taking her eyes off Reina only to slide into a chair and pour herself a glassful of cold water from the clear pitcher. Reina turned her back and began spreading jam onto a piece of bread.

Aside from the muted rattling of the cooking utensils, the apartment was silent. This was Kumiko’s first clue that something had changed—or was changing—and it made her heart seize a little. Reina liked to listen to music, on low volume, while cooking. Whether she was aware of this or not, Kumiko did not know. Reina could be nursing a hangover herself, or perhaps she simply did not feel like listening to anything that morning. Kumiko, though, doubted this; Reina often spoke in quiet gestures and Kumiko had learned to read that abstract language over the years. The arm of the record player lay firmly on its bed, as if sending Kumiko a sign: Reina was expressing something.

Kumiko suppressed a nervous sigh and scratched the back of her left ear. The sound of a plate being placed in front of her startled her.

“Is your head okay?” Reina asked, sitting across from her. She gently pushed a cup of coffee and a tiny ceramic creamer towards Kumiko. The smell of the coffee warmed her before she even drank it.

“Yes, it is. I didn’t drink that much last night, to be honest,” Kumiko answered, trying to sound casual by forcing a laugh. Outside, she heard a dog bark and children laughing, which only brought the silence between them to a heightened focus. A neighbour’s radio played an old chanson somewhere, muffling through the apartment walls.

“Are you sure? I can get you some aspirin,” Reina said, making to get up. Kumiko forced herself to think that she was imagining the quiver in Reina’s voice. “I don’t want you to feel sick.”

“Reina, I’m fine,” Kumiko said, tilting her head into what she hoped would be a reassuring smile. “Really. I just want to sit with you and have breakfast.”

Kumiko heard the chair screech against the floor as Reina dropped her weight onto it. This was beyond unusual, and served as the next clue that Kumiko hadn’t imagined the night before. Reina usually moved with practiced precision and with no wasted effort, like an arctic fox padding through a Scandinavian forest landscape, following some path written in the snow by the spirits. Kumiko stared at Reina, who had shifted her attention to her food, as if to mask embarrassment. She looked at Reina’s white, lace pyjamas, as she had done countless times before. The fabric exposed the skin of her shoulders and trailed down her décolletage, drawing attention to what lay underneath the thin material. Kumiko felt the air around her thin and rubbed her eyes, looking away to distract herself. She tried to ignore the pins and needles forming at her fingertips, aroused by an unspoken memory.

“Are you going out?” Kumiko asked a few moments later, spotting the old Yamaha leather trumpet case near the front door of the apartment. It was Sunday, and Reina usually didn’t go to the Conservatoire on the weekends.

“I...was thinking about it,” Reina said, quietly as if she didn’t want to be heard. “But I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“You didn’t have to do that,” Kumiko chuckled. “I would still be here when you came back.”

Kumiko turned to smile at her, but Reina had retreated behind the charcoal of her fringed hair. Kumiko sat there, feeling a little embarrassed, noticing the half-eaten food on the other girl’s plate. She felt herself freeze up, as if on cue. Facing both Reina and a mirror to herself, she could not find ways to turn away now. She shifted her gaze to the surface of her coffee, as if trying to decipher secret messages in the formless reflection of light. A tiny sniffle escaped Reina, and it startled Kumiko. She felt her heart fold and her stomach churn.

“Reina?” Kumiko hurried to ask, running on sudden adrenaline. “What’s wrong?”

“Hey, Kumiko,” she said, not looking up. She reached for a napkin and wiped her eyes with small dabs. It was a miraculously delicate gesture.

“Reina,” Kumiko said, bracing herself for a turning point. The light shifted to a pale, sensitive blue. 

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what I did to you last night. I...don’t remember it very well. You, um, you know how I am with alcohol. I’m so scared that I hurt you or...I don’t know,” Reina said, waving her left hand around in some indiscernible pattern, running the right one through her hair, speaking almost at a whisper. Kumiko blinked twice. “I’m scared that I forced you to do something you didn’t want to do.”

Something I didn’t want to do? Kumiko would have laughed if she didn’t think it cruel. She wanted to take Reina in her arms right there and then, planting warm, tactile poetry on her exposed collarbones, impressing onto her delicate skin years of withheld desire. It seemed almost offensive that Reina hadn’t remembered the ease by which Kumiko had opened herself the night before, lapping up that dizzying wave of pleasure that washed over them, like soil after a long dry spell. If anything, Kumiko thought, she should be the one feeling guilty.

“Reina,” Kumiko said, a strange smile forming on her lips.

“I would have never done something like that to you without consulting you first. You were drunk and I...think I took advantage of that. God, I did, didn’t I?” Reina said, closing her eyes into a slight frown. “But you were just lying there, when we got home, on the bed. You should have seen the way you looked at me. Like you had taken off my clothes just by blinking, all slow-like; I felt like I had lost all agency of my body. I’m not trying to make excuses, but I owe you an explanation. You have to understand, I love you so much. I would have never forced you to do something like this if you...”

Reina trailed off, sudden realisation sinking in. Her eyes widened almost comically, and she brought a hand slowly to her parted lips. Kumiko continued to blink absently, thoughts circulating her head in search for rationality, like grains of sand sifting through a sieve. Rays of sunlight shifted direction and landed on Reina, reflecting off her dark hair with tangible brightness. Kumiko watched them splash over the shorter girl’s shoulders as they rose and fell with her breath, and she swore she had never seen such light until she saw it draw that wonderful blue-black silhouette on the kitchen floor. She fell in love again and again in the span of that simple, quiet, magnificent moment.

“I love you, too,” Kumiko said, effortlessly.

Reina snapped up and met her gaze. The wind had quieted and the curtains no longer billowed with the breeze; outside, even the Parisian streets were silent for once, and she could no longer hear the neighbour’s radio playing. Feelings broke down and reconfigured and took on a new form—one that, in spite of its novelty, felt familiar and welcomed them both home.

“And, for the record,” Kumiko continued. “You didn’t take advantage of me. You really can’t hold your alcohol, can you?”

It was Reina’s turn to blink.

“You kept asking me again and again if I was okay with what you were doing. When you took off your clothes, you asked. When you took off my clothes, you asked. When you first kissed me...” Kumiko paused and closed her eyes, trembling with a sigh at the memory, feeling every nerve ending on her body stand to attention. “...and with every other thing we did last night, you insisted on making sure I was okay with it. I was almost annoyed at how very me, you were acting. I know this will sound terrible, but I just wanted you to shut up and tear me apart.”

Reina’s jaw dropped and her face became as red as the jam that spread on her unfinished breakfast. Kumiko laughed, in spite of herself, even as she felt the heat rise up her own face. It was easier this way, more familiar, when she could laugh in spite of her fear. Laugh as she may have while climbing a mountain in some corner of Japan, euphonium on her back, as she watched the ghostly white of Reina’s dress lead her up a path she hoped would never turn, fork, or worst of all, end.

“I’m sorry, that was really inappropriate,” Kumiko said, suddenly sheepish. “I just want you to know that there was nothing we did last night that I didn’t already want to do. Nothing I haven’t wanted to do for years, even if I didn’t always realise it.”

Reina didn’t move for a few moments, eyes unfocused. Then, as if suddenly remembering something, she rose to her feet and walked over to Kumiko, feet padding quietly on the wooden floor, until she was directly next to her. Kumiko watched her approach, heart beating irregular patterns as her world contracted into wonderful, lucid focus.

“I was drunk for our first kiss,” Reina said, frustration betraying the evenness of her tone. “That is so unfair.”

“You can have a do-over,” Kumiko said, lightly pulling on the soft fabric of Reina’s shorts. “If you want.”

Reina didn’t answer, instead bringing a leg over Kumiko’s lap and dropping to straddle her on the chair. Kumiko felt the air around her collapse and fold into a fresh sharpness. She watched Reina bring her hand up from her sides and graze the skin of Kumiko’s arms, coaxing a sound somewhere between a sigh and a whimper from the depths of her chest. She gently cupped Kumiko’s chin, eyes brandishing newfound desire. Kumiko brought her own hands around Reina’s waist and slipped one through the fabric of her top. Reina responded by collapsing her chest against Kumiko’s. The urgency of the movement left Kumiko breathless.

In the warmth of the moment, they shared a kiss that deconstructed every memory that comprised their relationship into a bright abstraction of tenderness. Slowly, confidently, and with a new purpose, they reconstructed themselves with every touch and caress, with every stray article of clothing, and with every step away from the kitchen and into the bedroom, on that Sunday morning, in some corner far from the mountains of Uji.

The sunlight, shifting once again through the trees and into the apartment, continued to wash with its gentle gradient, waiting for the night.