I call up every ounce of strength in my body and say, “So, what’s new?”
She coughs out a shy little laugh. “I’m graduating in a few weeks. I’ve already got my credits in, but it’s not official until March.”
God, she’s cute, even after three years. Well...not cute. Not the same cute. Gangly, diminutive Ayumu from high school was cute. The woman sitting across from me in the booth is a knockout. Even in a ratty blue T-shirt and black jeans, she’s stunning, like a bride coming down the aisle, or the moon over the ocean. She holds her glass with her fingertips, swirling the ice around with little movements of her wrist as she talks. She’s growing her hair out. “I told you about Hanazawa, right?”
I purse my lips a little. “You mentioned the name. Who was it?”
She smiles good-naturedly. “It’s not a person. Hanazawa Mental Health Clinic. I was an inpatient there for a few months. After you moved.”
“Oh, wow.” I try to discard the images of decaying brick buildings, “loony bins” with rats and chains and filthy, emaciated women muttering to themselves that rush into my brain. It’s a clinic. A hospital, just like the one Dad went to. Focus, Miki. Just talk to her. “Did they treat you well?”
She laughs again, and I melt. “Yeah. I was scared too, at first. I mean, they can dress it up however they want, but it’s still an asylum, right? But they do a good job explaining stigma and helping you feel like you’re not a freak. Everyone there was really nice. I mean...it wasn’t fun, and I’m glad it’s over, but it was for the best. Net gain, y’know?”
I make my relief visible. We drink.
“Anyway, while I was there, I was able to get some extra credit work done, to kinda offset that couple of months when I…”
She trails off, and her eyes drift down to the table. I extend my hand, palm up, and she takes it. Her hand is warm, and she smiles as we lace our fingers together. I can still see the faint stripes on her wrist and forearm. Most of them only left wispy, fading outlines, like the shadows clouds make during the summer. A few stand out, but none look fresh. I choose my words carefully. “How long has it been? Since…” My mouth goes dry.
She follows my gaze down to her arm. Her expression doesn’t change.
“You don’t have to tell me if-”
She meets my eyes and she’s smiling. Not a sad smile, either. She’s glowing.
“I don’t know,” she says, grinning even wider. “At least a year.”
I don’t understand why she’s smiling, or why I’m smiling. That means she kept cutting for two years after I left, didn’t it? Why does she seem so happy?
“I thought…” I say before I can stop myself.
She leans her head forward, urging me on.
“I guess...I thought you stopped. Like...when I left.”
I realize that my voice is barely audible. I’m using the same hushed tone I used when I talked to the nurses about Dad when he was getting worse. Businesslike. Cautious. Afraid to break something.
Ayumu leans back in her seat and sighs. “Yeah. I...the word they used at the clinic was ‘relapse’. It means I had stopped for a while, then I fell back into it. It’s normal. They wanted me to focus on minimizing the damage I do to myself and maximizing the amount of time I go without doing it. The urge is still there, but it’s weaker than it was back then.” She grins again. “And I’m stronger.”
For a brief moment, there’s no air in the room, and I feel an odd, comfortable pressure behind my eyes.
Then someone says “Shiiba?” and I’m back in the real world, blinking.
Ayumu’s head jerks toward the speaker, a blonde girl in a green jacket standing by the door of the restraunt. “Shi-chan?”
“Oh my god! It’s been forever.” The girl walks over to our booth. “Can I sit down?”
Ayumu glances at me, looking like she’s going to throw up. The look disappears when she turns back to the girl, though. She smiles and scoots aside to make room. “Miki, this is Kaori Shinozuka. We went to junior high together.”
I dip my head, and Shinozuka dips hers and smiles. “Miki Hatori. Nice to meet you. What was Ayumu like in junior high?”
“Dumb as a post,” says Ayumu, taking a sip of her tea. Shinozuka laughs.
“Pretty much. No, she just learned differently. She was just kind of...in her own head most of the time. Kinda spacey. She’d talk your ear off, though, as long as you started the conversation.”
Ayumu smiles. Shi-chan continues. “I tutored her during finals. She wasn’t dumb. You just had to explain it to her the right way.”
They’re quiet for a moment, and their smiles fade in unison.
“She was smart enough to get into Nishidate,” I say in an effort to fill the silence.
Ayumu looks pleadingly at me, and Shinozuka laughs.
“Yeah. I helped. I blew my own entrance exam helping her. Probably for the best though, I heard some nasty stuff went down in that school.”
“You’re not mad?” Ayumu asks, genuinely shocked.
“No. Why did you think I’d be mad?”
Ayumu freezes. The friendly glow is gone from her face, replaced by an expression I can’t begin to read. She sets her glass down on the table. “You...told me you hated me…”
“I was a kid. I was angry. I said stuff I didn’t mean. You didn’t think I’d hold a grudge for this long, though, did you?”
Ayumu shakes her head.
“Well, good. The truth is, I forgot about it after a few weeks at Minami. I figured you had too.”
She shakes her head again.
Shizunoka stands up and shoulders her purse. “Well, I’m glad we could bury that hatchet. It was nice seeing you, Ayumu, it really was. See you around?”
“You said you wished I would die,” Ayumu murmurs.
“You said you wished I would die. That was the last thing you said to me. And you never wondered...what happened to me?”
Shinozuka looks like a deer in the headlights. She sits back down and looks at her coaster. “I...I didn’t.”
Ayumu sighs. I’m ready for her to smash her glass against Shinozuka’s face, but…
“Okay,” she says. It’s barely a whisper.
I look at my watch. “Hey, Ayumu, the movie’s about to start.”
“Oh, wow, we better get going. Shi-chan, it was great seeing you again.”
We stand up and start heading for the door. Ayumu puts her hand on Shi-chan’s shoulder and gives her a reassuring smile. “Don’t feel bad, okay?”
We’re outside, sharing a bench. I light a cigarette and blow a ring of smoke into the air. It’s almost dusk, and the wispy bluish nicotine cloud stands out against the dull pinkness of the sky. “You okay?” I ask.
Ayumu clutches her purse and nods. “Yeah. Just…weird that she showed up like that.”
I take another drag and blow from the corner of my mouth, away from Ayumu. “Talk to me.”
She smiles, caught. “I’m...I dunno, I’m wired. It was like seeing Manami again. Not that bad, but...pretty bad.”
I scoot closer to her, and she takes my hand. “Thanks,” she says. We lace our fingers together and watch the sun go down.
I think about Ayumu, the frail-looking freshman with the short hair who would flinch when you said her name and cry when you smiled at her. That girl’s gone.
This is the girl who climbed three flights stairs carrying her desk and chair to prove that she wouldn’t let Anzai and her clique push her around anymore. The girl who stood up for herself, for me , when it seemed like everyone in school wanted to see her suffer. And now look at her. Sitting in the glo with her arms uncovered, smiling. Happy . After everything that happened, she can still be happy.
She is the strongest person I know.
I kiss her before I know what I’m doing. I feel tears tugging their way from my eyes and running down my cheeks. They seem to evaporate against the warmth of Ayumu’s face.
We finally pull back and I wipe my tears away with my palms. “Sorry,” I say with a noise that is simultaneously a sob and a laugh. “Sorry, I...I’m really...God, I’m so happy. I’m so happy.”
She’s giggling, and it’s a beautiful sound. She takes my hand again and rests her head on my shoulder. “I’m glad,” she says. “You’ve earned it.”