This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d–see here it is–
I hold it towards you.
— John Keats
Kiyoomi woke up knowing deep in his being that it was a bad day. The persistent dread had lodged inside his head again, an ambient, slow thrumming, its sound serrated and misshapen.
On bad days, the world was the same, but not.
He woke up late. He opened his eyes to a bright sun, too bright for his customary 6:30 AM alarm. He fumbled for his phone on the end table—8:19 AM. On the app, he’d set an alarm for 6:30 PM instead. It was the only one listed.
He thought, How could that happen? He’d been using the same alarm setting since he upgraded his phone to the latest model three months ago, and he’d set it then for 6:30 AM. Did he delete it and make a new one? Why would I do that? He considered submitting a tech support ticket while he changed for his morning run. Then he made his way downstairs.
The thrumming in his head persisted.
On bad days, he looked at all his— their possessions and knew something was off. Did he close the blinds last night? He did, of course he did. He always did, before he went to sleep. He counted them, four long blinds for four tall, industrial windows in their apartment. Yet that morning, one of the blinds was open just a crack, strips of light cast across the floor by the 8:30 AM sun.
Did he water his areca palm last night? He did. He must have. He always did every other day, before he went to sleep. He clearly remembered his old spray bottle spluttering fat gobs of distilled water onto its leaves instead of a fine mist. He’d made a mental note to buy a new one. Yet the leaves looked parched that morning, their edges a bit shriveled.
There was something else breathing in his apartment, something he couldn’t see. It seemed to run its hands all over his— their things.
Atsumu kept a collection of touristy magnets from places they’ve been on the fridge. They’d accumulated dozens in four years. A self-portrait of Frida Kahlo from Mexico. A small, sculpted cuckoo clock with a shepherd in a brown dress ushering two sheep from Switzerland. A single sheep standing in a grassy plot of land laden with yellow flowers from Iceland. A yellow and orange tropical fish from Bali. A group of five cats huddled together from Kuching.
He looked at them all together that morning and knew in his gut the Singapore merlion was two millimeters off to the right from where it had been last night.
Worse were the places that looked as they always did, but he knew somehow that they’d been touched.
The kitchen counters were clean. The smooth stone felt as it always did under his fingers. He wiped them down himself last night, after dinner. And yet. He felt himself make his way to the cupboard where they kept the cleaning supplies before he thought to do it. The idea of going on a run grew more and more distant.
He wiped down the counters with a cresol solution he learned to make during an internship in a physics lab years ago. As he always did on bad days, he had an excuse ready.
I want to make breakfast, he told himself. I need clean counters for that.
While he was wiping, Kiyoomi turned to the home speaker in the corner, slotted beside the Nespresso Atsumu bought last year.
“Hey Siri, how far away is Paris?”
Its unfeeling voice answered back, “I’m not sure how far Paris is by car, but it’s about 9,710 kilometers as the crow flies.”
The most not-right thing was ongoing, more persistent than the thrum, around for both good days and bad: His boyfriend was in France. He had been for nine months now.
Kiyoomi spotted the blocky, white building, a long structure winding out from it and back, kilometers away. Landed planes were spread out from the center like the ribs of a hand fan.
Not that he needed visual confirmation of where they were headed. The loud din of flying and landing planes was enough. But the sight of Narita Airport made Kiyoomi’s palms sweat, his fingers clutch the steering wheel tighter.
From the front seat, Atsumu said, “‘Samu and me got the swings taken outta the neighborhood playground back in the day.”
His voice was raspy, sleep still clinging to him. But he was smiling. It was past 5 AM. He’d spent most of the drive pressed against his window, sound asleep after three tracks off one of his instrumental playlists. It was still going, indistinct lo-fi humming from the car speakers, though Kiyoomi had turned down the volume when he started nodding off.
Atsumu continued, “‘Samu swung right into me while I was standin’ within swingin’ radius. The seat hit my nape, then ‘Samu fell out, then I hit the ground and almost landed on my head. There was blood, tears. It was a whole thing!”
“The scar on your nape?” Kiyoomi asked. A younger him would have been baffled by the non sequitur, but four years was enough time to be fluent in Atsumu. Babbling was his boyfriend’s solution to most negative emotions, and the car was filled with dread.
Atsumu reached behind his neck instinctually to touch his scar. Even with his hands on the wheel, Kiyoomi’s fingers could feel the smooth, raised skin, about two centimeters long, right below where his hair ended, a little to the right.
“Yep. The neighborhood council voted to take out the swings after like three days. All the kids wanted us dead for a full three weeks. Grandpa was so mad.” His smile dimmed. “Can’t believe I never told you that story before.”
I still like learning new things about you , Kiyoomi wanted to say, but Atsumu slumped and turned to the passenger window again.
Kiyoomi took his left hand off the wheel then. He reached out and pressed his palm on Atsumu’s nape, where the scar was. Atsumu leaned into Kiyoomi’s extended arm. The position was awkward, but neither of them wanted to pull away.
The sun was rising, shining orange light on Atsumu’s blonde hair. The clouds hung low in the sky, the world waking up to an overcast summer day. Autumn and the start of volleyball seasons the world over with it was months away, but training was starting in earnest. It would be for Kiyoomi and Atsumu both.
They parked close to Terminal 2 because Kiyoomi had the foresight to reserve a parking spot two weeks earlier. Their row had 11 cars when they arrived in time to take the last one.
The air outside was warm and balmy. Kiyoomi was grateful for Atsumu’s early flight. Even on an overcast day, Tokyo’s midday humidity was unforgiving. The asphalt under the soles of his shoes was cool, still unbaked by the blazing sun. Atsumu only brought two rolling suitcases for a ten-month contract with a Ligue A team in Paris. He’d always been a light packer.
Wedged inside the trunk was a big red umbrella, years old now, always there in case of rain. Kiyoomi paused midway from pulling the second suitcase out when he spotted it. Atsumu, already steering the first suitcase behind him, detected his hesitation.
Atsumu was smiling again when he said, “Thank gods it’s not rainin’.” Because he was fluent in Kiyoomi in return.
A memory of a brick path in a park in Koto ward and the big, red umbrella passed between them, unspoken.
Atsumu asked, “That’s a great story, ain’t it?”
Kiyoomi replied, “It is. Your grandma loves it.”
They walked to the entrance together, each pulling a suitcase behind them. Wordlessly, Atsumu extended his hand for Kiyoomi to take. Of course he did. Atsumu’s fingers were rough and calloused entwined with his.
Up above them, a flock of migratory birds flew by, and Kiyoomi imagined dividing his life in different locations with the passing seasons, weightless and untethered by his need for roots.
Neither spoke as they made their way inside the airport, hands still joined.
Atsumu called everyday. They had a schedule. Paris was seven hours behind, so they set the schedule at 12 NN for Atsumu and 7 PM for Kiyoomi. They agreed on the plan even before Atsumu left for Paris.
Most days of the week, their conversations were less than an hour long. The calls were there to sate the longing of seeing each other’s faces. In between, they texted constantly. Enough that one of the assistant coaches had to ask Kiyoomi to put his phone down during practice, like he was sixteen again. On Sundays, they could stay on the call for five hours, talking about everything and nothing. It worked out because Kiyoomi never had games on Mondays.
He was loading the laundry at 6:58 PM when his phone rang. When he picked up, Atsumu was there, hair still mussed. He was in bed, his curtains still drawn. The only light in the room came from his bedside lamp.
“How’re you babe?” he asked, his voice still hoarse.
“Hi,” replied Kiyoomi, pausing from loading the washing machine. He angled his phone to the laundry basket beside him and said, “I’m doing the laundry right now.”
Atsumu fought back a yawn. “Pretty late for laundry.”
“Pretty late to just wake up.”
Atsumu smirked. “Well, you got me there.”
“Hang on.” Kiyoomi took the bottle of liquid detergent and placed it on top of the kitchen counter beside the closet with their stacked washer-dryer set. Then he leaned his phone against it, so Atsumu could still see him as he did chores. “It’s your fault. I finished that Netflix show you won’t stop talking about.”
He didn’t have to look to know Atsumu was grinning. “But isn’t it so good?”
“Yeah, it is. The last episode made me cry.”
Atsumu laughed, the kind that made his eyes crinkle. “I know so many things about you no one would believe.”
Kiyoomi turned to look right at his front camera, lips pressed together, eyes narrowed. “Under pain of death, if you’ll recall.”
Atsumu was still grinning when he replied, “Yessir,” complete with a mock salute.
“What about you? What are you doing today?”
“Finally doing the touristy thing. Going to the Louvre.”
“Burying the lede there, huh, listening to me talk about laundry.”
Atsumu got out of bed and walked to his bathroom, still holding his phone. Then he balanced it against the wall beside the sink like he did every morning. “Well, I didn’t really want to talk about it. I won’t spoil you for when you visit me.”
He opened the faucet and splashed water on his face. Kiyoomi watched him carefully while he wasn’t looking. It was the quiet, mundane things that he missed the most.
Aloud, he said, “There’s a virtual tour online, you know.”
“I know. But I want to see you see it with me.”
From the heat on his face, Kiyoomi knew he was blushing. He also knew that it translated over FaceTime because Atsumu had stopped mid-cleanse to grin at his front camera again. Kiyoomi didn’t care. “New Year’s, I promise,” he said. Then as an afterthought, “Also, gross.”
“Eugh, I know. When did we become Bokuto and Akaashi?”
Kiyoomi, safe from the prying eyes of anyone but the man who guarded his moments of joy like a secret, laughed.
Miya Kaoru sent the first email three days after Atsumu left for Paris.
Kiyoomi glanced at his phone on his way to training at 8 o’clock one morning and found it waiting for him. Her tone was almost apologetic. She had typed the date on the right hand corner of the email body, like she was writing a letter in longhand.
Dear Kiyoomi-san, she’d written, I am taking computer classes in the library and thought to send you this e-mail. I hope you don’t mind being my penpal.
Despite his reputation, Kiyoomi was not unkind. He believed in good habits. Replying to his boyfriend’s 82-year-old grandmother was a good habit.
Dear Miya-san, he’d written back, Thank you for thinking of me. Of course I’m happy to be your penpal.
They both kept at it. Kaoru-san sent an email every Tuesday at around 8 AM. Kiyoomi took care to have a reply waiting for her by Thursday, the only other day of the week she visited the library.
This continued for five weeks before Atsumu finally called him out on it.
“What do you even talk about?” he asked, squinting at Kiyoomi suspiciously across 9,710 kilometers through his iPhone.
Kiyoomi could only give a tight-lipped smile in response. “Don’t worry, we barely talk about you.”
Atsumu laughed. “Somehow that scares me more than you saying you only talk about me.”
These were some of the things Kiyoomi learned from exchanging emails with Miya Kaoru-san: She’d lived in the same apartment complex in Kobe suburbs since 1964. It was built by the government, one of many housing complexes erected all over the country in the 60s for postwar salarymen and their families. Among them was Miya Eiza, a mechanical engineer, and his wife, Miya Kaoru. Atsumu’s father had learned to swim in the complex’s communal pool. And later, so did Atsumu and Osamu.
She wrote, Did you know that Atsumu and Osamu got the swings in the playground taken out when they were kids?
Kiyoomi read the email and thought, I know this one. He was weirdly proud, as if there were any other contender for Person with Frightening Encyclopedic Knowledge of Miya Atsumu other than him, Kaoru-san herself, and Osamu, who both had 15-year headstarts.
Prior to their correspondence, Kiyoomi had been unsure of where he stood with Kaoru-san. She was civil to him in family dinners, but her warmth was directed to Atsumu. In his mind, they regarded one another with the skepticism of people who were sure they loved the same person more than any other in the whole world.
Two years ago, the Miyas had all stayed over in the family house for New Year’s. Atsumu brought Kiyoomi. They slept on a futon in the childhood bedroom Atsumu had shared with Osamu.
Kiyoomi woke up early the next morning and crawled out of the covers, Atsumu still snoring away. He made his way to the kitchen to make coffee. He knew Atsumu needed the smell to wake up for the early visit to his grandfather’s grave. He found Kaoru-san already in the kitchen, scooping ground beans in the coffee maker. They looked at each other from across the island counter. Somehow, it felt like a stalemate.
But as the weeks passed, their emails grew longer. He read them all with care.
On Kiyoomi’s birthday, he received a gift from Kaoru-san. It was a deep green canvas duffle bag with leather trim. She mailed it with an unstamped postcard of the Kobe nighttime skyline containing the note, The leather is Hyogo-made. Please have a good year, Kiyoomi-san, in her neat handwriting. He kept the postcard in a box together with other documents he considered hard-earned: a letter from the head counselor of his children’s therapy group stating that he had improved “so much;” the recommendation letter for the spot reserved for him in Itachiyama; a best thesis certificate from the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Tokyo National; a letter from the JVA formally informing him that he was chosen as a member of the national team.
So when he woke up on what was supposed to be the 36th week of their email exchange and found nothing in his inbox on Tuesday, his dread sharpened. Maybe , he thought, Kaoru-san finally took up a more worthwhile hobby.
She didn’t. He got the call from Atsumu’s father at noon. She’d fallen in the shower while getting ready for her computer class and broke her hip and clavicle. She was in hospital, but doing okay.
The news unsettled Kiyoomi. Would she have been showering, he wondered, if she didn’t have to write to me?
Kiyoomi returned home to an empty apartment. He’d asked Rena-san next door to take his plants for the two weeks he’d be away for games in Hiroshima and Osaka, then a press commitment in Kyoto. He returned to a space devoid of living things.
Or so he thought.
Their apartment was a loft converted from a warehouse that used to store crates of a special, smooth chalk favored by mathematicians. Their realtor called it ‘open plan.’ It had no separate rooms, other than the bathroom and toilet. There was a mezzanine which they’d made into their bedroom. Below, the living room, kitchen, their stacked washer-dryer set, the spaces where his plants used to be.
Kiyoomi was tired from the trip. He’d slept on the train, but it didn’t help the headache starting in his temples. He left his suitcase and duffle bag in the living room. For once, he couldn’t bring himself to unpack and do his laundry the moment he got home. He wandered into the kitchen for a paracetamol and a glass of water.
He’d reached for a clean glass on the dish rack above their sink when he noticed. There were red fibrous strings peeking out from the louvered doors of the pantry, its ends white and frayed, branching into smaller strings. They’d overtaken an eighth of the right pantry door. Kiyoomi felt the prick of goosebumps on his skin looking at them.
He left the glass on the counter, took a deep breath and opened the door. Some of the strings snapped off as he did.
The ones left were connected to a plastic bag of potatoes he’d left in the pantry. There were gnarled bulbs on their surface from where the strings— roots— sprouted out. They’d punctured the plastic and grew towards the door in search of sunlight. It was nature running its course.
The sight revolted him.
Kiyoomi imagined what Atsumu would say if he was here with him. “Ain’t this how the Last of Us started?”
But he was alone. There was no teasing. Only him and the thrumming dread. They were well acquainted. Kiyoomi lived his life resigned to its presence.
Yearning was a strange emotion. It wasn’t a feeling, but the absence of one, like something in his chest was slowly being scooped out. It had only been five months.
He took the kitchen gloves from the cupboard under the sink and slipped them on. Then he faced the rooted pantry door and the gnarled potatoes and started pulling.
Kiyoomi noticed the dead crow first.
It was lying on the curb by the gate of their training facility in Koto, half of its body flattened. There were white maggots on its open, red middle, split like a mushed pomegranate. He remarked about it in practice.
It was gone by the end of the day. But it left a red-brown smear on the ground. He looked at where it used to be on his walk back to the station. At home, he couldn’t get the sight of the wriggling white maggots out of his head. He mopped the kitchen floor twice that night.
Things kept happening after that.
Two streetlights along their street gave out on the same night.
He noticed on his walk back home from early dinner with Shion, Meian, and Bokuto. It was dusk, the world blue and hazy. It was getting dark. All the streetlights turned on just when he crossed the intersection on the way back to their building. But as he was walking, one flickered out behind him. He kept walking. Then another. He heard a foreboding crackle from above both times.
He called the city about it in the morning. The following day, the lights were back, but they glowed a stark, unnatural white. They looked odd among the other lights with orange bulbs.
Rena-san’s fat, white bichon Lizzy stood on the same spot outside their building, staring at the stone wall enclosing the empty lot across the street. Kiyoomi noticed when he glanced out the window one night after talking to Atsumu. She did it for three nights in a row.
On the fourth night, Kiyoomi made his way downstairs. He bent down to face her and asked, “What do you see girl?”
She stared back at him, silent. Her eyes were vacant.
A delivery man came by late at night. He stood outside for 13 minutes. No one came to meet him. He didn’t come upstairs.
There were three missing pet posters in the grocery store—a black cat named Mimo, a terrier named Coffee, an iguana named Takeshi. They were plastered on the shelves with candy and razors by the register.
Kiyoomi noticed kite strings without kites hanging from telephone poles, a yellow smudge on the blank white wall in his favorite cafe, a single running shoe floating down the canal.
All these things were inconsequential. They meant nothing. He knew it was stupid that he thought about them so much. He imagined telling people about them and hearing, “Okay and?” back.
He tried to tell Atsumu about them. Of course, he wasn’t dismissive. He never was. Each time, he heard back, “Are you okay?”
“There are three missing pets in our neighborhood.”
“That’s terrible. Are you okay?”
“Lizzy keeps staring at a blank wall.”
“That’s kinda spooky. Are you okay?
“I saw a dead crow on the way to work today.”
“Gross. Are you okay?”
He didn’t know what to say back.
He asked himself, Am I?
Bad days were a slow, rising tide. The sea level always seemed to inch higher and higher while Kiyoomi wasn’t looking. Until he woke up knee deep in briney, dark water. Until he woke up and he couldn't get out of bed.
Bad days also involved a cruel strain of amnesia. He always forgot just how bad they were until he had to live through them again. He woke up to a pounding chest, cold hands and feet. Whatever scared him seemed to follow him even in his dreams.
He texted Atsumu about it. Today is a Bad Day.
He got a reply back, Are you okay? I’m here.
Kiyoomi fixated on those last two words.
Part of the problem was on him. He found it hard to articulate his worries. He didn’t know what he was worried about sometimes. The pressing dread showed up some days unannounced, lodging itself in his head. It was hard to shake off.
He was bad at distance. Bad because it made him too comfortable. Once he had it, it was hard to want closeness again.
When they first started dating, Atsumu told him, “Sometimes I think yer hidin’ behind an iron grille and I only have a nail file to try to break you out. I keep filin’ and filin’ away, but I don’t know if the iron casings are comin' from the grille or my nail file, you know?”
Kiyoomi said then, “I’m not getting out. You’re the one who needs to get in with me.”
He made Atsumu laugh.
In four years, Atsumu had filed through the bars. His touch, his smell, his presence was a comfort to Kiyoomi now. Kiyoomi didn’t have to explain himself to get it, not when Atsumu was around for most of everything in his life.
Atsumu could give him quiet. On bad days, he’d lay clean blankets over their couch. They’d both put on masks and drape over one another, Kiyoomi’s head on Atsumu’s chest, their legs tangled together. Atsumu pulled up videos from YouTube on their TV. Whatever else was breathing in their apartment could be drowned out by Atsumu’s heartbeat and chatter.
“Honestly,” he’d say, “I still dunno what a seafood boil is. And we’ve been watchin' her eat it for like 15 minutes.”
It was different long distance. Kiyoomi needed to say what he felt. Atsumu couldn’t divine it out of him, not through 9,710 kilometers.
Kiyoomi had almost forgotten what it was like before, when he lived alone. Four years of receiving quiet had waned his memory of how to make it for himself. He’s had to learn again in the past seven months.
He was shaken out of his thoughts by a call. Not on FaceTime, just a call. It was Atsumu. Kiyoomi picked up.
“Hey, I mean it okay?” Atsumu said, worry clear in his voice. “I’m here.”
“I know you are,” replied Kiyoomi.
Atsumu huffed, static on the line. “C’mon, what’s wrong, Omi? Come off it okay, tell me.”
I wake up scared every morning.
I almost jumped at my own shadow yesterday.
I think I have to take a leave again and I’m irrationally afraid that the team will resent me, even if I know they won’t.
Kiyoomi cleared his throat. “I miss you so much.”
If Atsumu noticed the tremor in his voice, he didn’t say. Instead he said, “Do you want to Netflix Party?”
Kiyoomi couldn’t bear the thought of flying. Not in his state.
The enforced proximity to other people for literal hours. The tiny bathrooms with toilets that flush too loud. Breathing the same entrapped air as a whole crowd packed in tight seats. Seeing other travelers walking down the aisle from the bathroom with their hands wet and undried.
He imagined seeing a child in his row sputter fruit juice down her shirt. He imagined an overhead compartment that wouldn’t click close. He imagined plummeting to his death in the Atlantic ocean.
He dreamt of Paris, walking beside Atsumu on bleached cobblestone streets, the buildings around them old and blue-roofed. He dreamt of sitting under the awning of a streetside cafe, watching pigeons hop by. He dreamt of Atsumu’s white-walled apartment and scrunched white sheets.
He took a round white pill in the morning, a blue pill at lunch, an oblong white pill at night, and woke up the next morning to do it all again.
Atsumu understood, of course. When Kiyoomi told him over FaceTime, he had the audacity to pout. “I’m not mad,” he said, “I’m just disappointed.”
Kiyoomi almost laughed. “A kinder man would have said it’s okay, you know.”
Atsumu mimed being in deep thought, fingers on his chin. “A kinder man, huh. you should go out and date one then.”
Kiyoomi copied him, also feigning deep thought. “I could still go for Osamu. I think I went for the wrong twin.”
Atsumu snorted. “First of all, that asshole doesn’t do laundry often enough for you. Second of all, you’d get bored with someone who doesn’t love volleyball as much as you do.”
Kiyoomi couldn’t deny it. The workings of the world were uncertain, but the rules and plays on the court were predictable.
Still, he had to sit out one game. He woke up one morning terrified of riding the bus. He watched on his laptop in bed. Bokuto hit a wickedly angled cross shot. He tried not to feel sorry for himself.
At 7 PM that night, he picked up Atsumu’s call and was greeted by a frame of his boyfriend standing outside the Louvre. The sky above him was clear and blue, even through an iPhone screen. Kiyoomi hadn’t been, but even he could recognize the glass pyramid behind Atsumu’s head.
“Hey babe!” said Atsumu, grinning. He had a scarf on and his ears were red from the cold. “C’mon, let’s go on a tour.”
Kiyoomi ignored his cheeks warming. “Oh god, are you gonna vlog in public?”
Atsumu made a face at him. “Shut up, I know you like it.”
If Kiyoomi didn’t deny that fact, only Atsumu would ever know.
Kiyoomi watched his boyfriend angle his front camera to show him a statue of King Louis the XIV and thought, And he denies that he’s kind.
Bokuto was a heavy sleeper. He slept soundly on the twin bed beside Kiyoomi’s, barely moving, silent as a grave. He had a sleep mask over his eyes, so Kiyoomi felt no guilt when he drew the curtains open to let the faint light of the moon in.
The hotel they were staying in was barebones, catered to transient businessmen. It was close to the train station, and offered only spartan amenities—two toothbrushes and the already half-empty bottles of shower gel, shampoo, and conditioner in pump bottles mounted to the shower wall. The furniture was sparse, only two twin beds, one end table between them, a TV on the wall across, and an armchair slotted in one corner near the window.
The chair was on the opposite corner when he and Bokuto first arrived. But there was a large brown stain on the carpet in the corner near the window. Kiyoomi could not stop looking at it. It looked like three globs of a reddish brown something that had bled into each other. There was an attempt to wipe it away because it smeared. But there it stayed.
He entertained the idea of switching rooms. But Bokuto lifted the chair from where it was and placed it over the stain, “So you don’t have to see.” Then he pulled out his phone and left a bad review for the hotel online. He dictated as he typed, “One star. There’s a stain on the carpet and I think clean rooms are the least a hotel should offer. The owners should really invest in a carpet cleaner.”
Kiyoomi fought back a smile as he listened. Kindness was soft and fuzzy against his chest, light as a feather on his palm. It had a way of making him feel fearless.
It wasn’t until hours later, well past he and Bokuto trudging back into their room exhausted from the game, that he started to think of the brown stain again.
Lying in the dark, Kiyoomi was no longer sure if covering it helped. The knowledge that it was there was what made his skin feel tight, his palms warm. He spent the night looking at the corner where the stain was, while Bokuto slept soundly. It was darker there, like the brown smear had masestistized upward into dense shadows. The corner was pitch black. His pulse quickened.
So he got out of bed and pulled the curtains open. The night was cloudless, the stars only a smattering on the dark sky. Cast in faint white light, the chair was a chair, its shadow gray and unremarkable.
Kiyoomi took a deep breath and sat down. He looked out at Nagoya below him. It was late. The trains had stopped running. The office building across the street was dark, save for the combini on the ground floor. A man in a business suit with a weekender slung over his shoulder stood right outside it, his eyes glued to his phone. Inside, a woman eating a microwave bento was seated at the long counter against the full length windows.
The world felt unremarkable, people going about their business, their lives shadowless and free of carpet stains.
Kiyoomi got up and walked back to bed. He took his phone from the end table, plugged earphones in, and crawled back under the covers. He glanced at Bokuto lying on his stomach on the bed across, faint smile on his lips as he breathed deeply in and out, the unmistakable rhythm of deep sleep.
Kiyoomi imagined a different man lying there, someone with a sixth sense for his fears, who would have roused as he did and asked what was wrong. A younger him couldn’t have guessed that he'd forget the cavernous, yawning emptiness of yearning. Yet it had been so easy to relearn in the past eight months.
In the dark he held his phone up and whispered, “Hey Siri, what’s the weather like in Paris?”
Through his earphones, the unfeeling voice replied, “It is currently clear and 8℃ in Paris, France. Expect cloudy skies starting early in the morning, and rain— ”
Kiyoomi fell back asleep imagining he was somewhere else.
Kiyoomi fell in love with Atsumu on a rainy day. It happened near a park in Koto ward.
It was a city park, so the lawns were worn from years of scuttling children playing tag with their friends, flying kites with their dads. It had big wisteria trees that bloomed yellow in the late spring. There were winding brick paths all around that led to cafes and artsy shops at its perimeter.
Kiyoomi was out running when it started to rain. It was unrepentant Tokyo rain, like a faucet from above had been cranked all the way. The brick path gave under his feet, seeping water into his shoes, soaking his socks. He had no umbrella. His apartment was two train stops away. The cold was bone deep. His squelching steps were unpleasant, like stepping onto a membrane only he could feel.
Then Atsumu was there. He was under a big umbrella, bright red and printed with the logo of the bank that approved his and Osamu’s business loan a year earlier. The story goes that Atsumu knew then, when he invited Kiyoomi under his shade.
This was the story Atsumu dusted off at family parties. It garnered aww’s each time. Kaoru-san asked for a retelling sometimes.
But it wasn’t when Kiyoomi fell in love back.
Underneath was another memory, a private one. It happened when they were safely inside Atsumu’s car, watching the downpour from behind the windshield. Kiyoomi was on the front seat, trying to keep himself inside the area of the gym towel that Atsumu had draped over it.
“Don’t worry about gettin’ the seat wet, Omi-kun,” he’d said. “The seat covers are leather anyway. I’ll wipe ‘em down later, no big deal.”
True to the unwritten laws of Tokyo, the heavy rain brought with it heavy traffic. They were stuck at an intersection with a too-short greenlight for the long line of cars they were slotted into. Atsumu’s signal light for a right turn was on, and for a while the car was silent but for its metronome ticking.
Atsumu cleared his throat and said, “Sorry yer shoes got wet.”
Kiyoomi, genuinely confused, answered, “Why? It’s not your fault.”
Atsumu huffed. “Gods, Omi-kun, I was just bein’ nice,” he said. “Yah, I know it’s not my fault. People just say sorry to each other sometimes when shit sucks and they can’t really do anythin’ to help.”
That’s your problem, Kiyoomi thought. Shit always sucks and you’re always trying to help.
By then it had not escaped Kiyoomi’s notice that he hoarded his interactions with Atsumu in his mind, as if he didn’t see the jerk everyday. He was minutes away from knowing he’d want to keep up the collection for the rest of his life.
“All the more that you shouldn’t apologize,” answered Kiyoomi. “You’re literally helping me right now.”
True to the unwritten laws of Miya Atsumu, the light praise had given him a shot of dopamine, and his smirk appeared. When he opened his mouth to speak, Kiyoomi expected gloating.
Instead, Atsumu said, “I lived with my grandpa and grandma in Kobe before. I mean we did, ‘Samu and I. Back in grade school. It was a really old place, like from the 60s. The sidewalks were bricks too, like in the park.”
Far in front of them, the stoplight finally flashed green. Atsumu pushed the handbrake down and drove forward, their right turn only four cars away. Kiyoomi hmmed in response to the story, wanting to hear more. The red light returned just as they reached the front of the line.
Atsumu took it in stride, pulled the handbrake back up, and continued, “When it rained, the walk home from school was a nightmare. Water underneath the bricks, you know.”
Kiyoomi squited at him and tilted his head.
Atsumu had the grace to flush and look away. He cleared his throat and said, “Well, of course you do Omi-kun, what am I even sayin’. Anyway, ‘Samu and I used to make a game of it, like we pretended we were ninjas crossin’ a minefield.”
Something bloomed in Kiyoomi’s chest then. Something that had taken root long before. Its leaves brushed against his ribs, its petals his heart. It winded him. Miya Atsumu looked as he always did. But here he was, fumbling, filling the silence in his own car. It was enough to slant the light and make him seem bolder, brighter than the rest of the world, at least to Kiyoomi’s eyes.
The stoplight turned green. Atsumu pulled the handbrake down, stepped on the gas, and maneuvered the steering wheel right. Kiyoomi stared at the veins in his hands as he gripped.
Kiyoomi asked, “What did the winner get?”
“In the minefield game. What did the winner get?”
Atsumu looked away from the road for a second to glance at Kiyoomi. Then he smiled. “Absolutely nothin’. The loser got wet shoes. Walkin’ home the rest of the way with those was punishment enough.”
The week prior, Kiyoomi entered the locker room after the game to find Atsumu wiping down the bench across Kiyoomi’s locker. He was using Lysol wipes. The pack was left open on the bench as he wiped.
Kiyoomi approached cautiously and asked, “What are you doing, Miya?”
Atsumu almost jumped up in surprise, like he’d been caught red handed. “Gods, Omi-kun, you surprised me.”
“Answer the question.”
Atsumu snorted. “Okay already, jeez. I sat there earlier, okay? I didn’t want you to have to wipe it down yerself because of me.”
Whatever quip Kiyoomi had loaded died away. Atsumu’s consideration stunned him. All he could manage was, “What do you want?”
Atsumu snorted again. He looked right at Kiyoomi, hurt. “Absolutely nothin’, Omi-kun. What do you take me for?”
In the car, the rain was still falling in sheets. The windshield wipers squeaked against the glass. Atsumu tapped on the dashboard console and prompted an electronic instrumental. Kiyoomi openly stared at him, his plum turtleneck contrasting against the gray interior of the car, the gray of Tokyo in the rain.
Unprompted, Kiyoomi said, “You should go out with me.” He ground it out, like something he needed to get out of his system.
Kiyoomi woke up knowing deep in his being that it was still a bad day. The persistent dread had traveled down his whole body, his heart beating fast, his hands cold, his legs heavy. He’d woken up from a nap of the dead. He wasn’t sure where he was, what time it was, what he was doing before he closed his eyes.
He grasped around him and fumbled for his phone—10:03 AM. He stared for a second at the exposed beams of the ceiling, before lifting his head to look around.
Right, he thought, I’m in bed again.
He was still wearing his compression shirt and joggers. He’d wiped the counter down. He was about to leave, had opened the shoe closet by the door, but he heard Lizzy bark outside. He walked over to the window and saw her staring at the stone wall again. So he turned back. He went to the kitchen, drank his white pill for the morning, and trudged back to bed. He’d slept for an hour and a half.
He couldn’t find it in him to get up. He stayed where he was and closed his eyes again. Lizzy was still barking outside. The college kid next door was blasting rap again. The Nespresso in the kitchen was bubbling.
The Nespresso in the kitchen was bubbling.
Kiyoomi opened his eyes and sat up. Did he do that? Of course he didn’t, he fell asleep. He turned his head and looked at the kitchen from the mezzanine. The lights were on. The Nespresso was still going. Atsumu was standing in front of the counter. There was a small blue suitcase in the living room.
Atsumu was standing in front of the counter.
Atsumu’s lean looked practiced, like he’d been standing there for a while waiting for him to notice. He was smirking.
Kiyoomi threw the covers off and started down the stairs. He thought, I’m so happy he’s here.
He said, “Tsumu, what the fuck, I almost called the cops on you!”
Atsumu stuck his tongue out at him, like he was five years old. “As if! Surprise, you asshole!”
Kiyoomi entertained the idea of running into his arms. Instead he stopped short in front of Atsumu and said, “Have you showered?”
Atsumu rolled his eyes. “Yes, babe, I have. I got here at 9:30. I got so many things done while you were sleeping.”
Still, Kiyoomi hesitated.
Atsumu continued, “I brushed my teeth too!”
“It’s not that,” said Kiyoomi. “It’s that I haven’t showered. I fell asleep, I haven’t gone on a run yet.”
The Nespresso beeped and deposited coffee into Atsumu’s waiting mug. He hmmed in approval at it, before turning to Kiyoomi. “You can shower first you know. I’ll be here, drinking coffee.”
Whatever had been scooped out of Kiyoomi in the past few months was blooming again, fragile and warm to the touch. He inhaled deeply, savoring how it felt.
“Okay,” he said. “Give me a minute.”
Kiyoomi stepped out of the bathroom newly dressed in loungewear. He’d resigned himself to letting his hair air dry. He padded into the living room to find Atsumu waiting for him on the couch in the living area. His mug was on the coffee table. The NHK news was going, though Kiyoomi could tell he wasn’t listening.
“Hi,” said Kiyoomi as he sat down on the couch beside Atsumu.
“Hi back,” replied Atsumu, turning to face him.
They both leaned in for a kiss. Atsumu had wound his arm behind Kiyoomi and was touching the small of his back. Kiyoomi reached for the back of Atsumu’s head. Atsumu's lips tasted of coffee and spearmint toothpaste. When they pulled apart, he pushed Atsumu back down for another kiss. Surprised, he laughed against Kiyoomi’s lips.
When they pulled apart again, Atsumu openly stared at him.
“What?” asked Kiyoomi. “I know my hair’s a mess, okay.”
Atsumu snorted. “Nah, it’s not that.”
Kiyoomi wrinkled his nose. “You flew across the ocean for me.”
“I did also miss everyone else, you know,” said Atsumu. Then he reached out to run his fingers across Kiyoomi’s cheek. “But I did mostly miss you. And was worried about you. A lot.”
Kiyoomi took a deep, shaky breath. “Lately I’ve been scared of everything. I can play again, because volleyball has always been the easy part of living for me. But everything else—” He stopped, feeling his eyes get water.
Atsumu looked away. He made it look so casual. Kiyoomi felt a surge of love for him again.
He took another deep breath before he continued, “Anything with a shred of uncertainty makes my heart pound. Not in a good way.”
Atsumu was looking at him in the eyes again. He reached his hand out once more, but this time he cupped Kiyoomi’s jaw. “Well I’m back for the weekend. And I’m sorry. Not because I’ve done anything, but—”
“I know. Sometimes people tell each other sorry when shit sucks and they can’t do anything about it.”
Atsumu smiled at him, the kind that made his eyes crinkle.
Kiyoomi wanted so badly for the thrumming dread to disappear, for it to leave him forever. Another Kiyoomi in another universe was fearless. This Kiyoomi was both sitting in front of Atsumu, enjoying his company, and already dreading his flight back to Paris. He imagined Atsumu sitting beside a person with a cold. He imagined an overhead compartment that wouldn’t click close. He imagined the love of his life plummeting to his death in the Atlantic ocean.
But for now, Atsumu was here.