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Playing Catch-Up

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There is a feeling between gut-wrenching anxiety and gut-wrenching excitement which can only be described as gut-wrenching. Suzume tried her hardest not to dwell on it, especially considering that she might not even see him during her visit home, but the possibility of a reunion seemed inevitable and she could not stop thinking about it. It made her feel stupid, like a high schooler all over again, which was exactly what she didn’t want. She had grown so much in the last four years and she wanted to portray the woman she had become, not the child she had been. But on the train ride to her uncle’s house, her mind insisted on focusing on one thing and one thing only.

            Suzume and Daichi had broken up a year into university. It was a mutual decision, and it had been hard. Intensely hard. She had loved him, and he had loved her. He was the love she had chosen. Her daytime shooting star. Letting him go had been Hell. She cut her hair. For weeks she barely ate, clinging to Yuyuka’s company to keep her from feeling desperately alone. Her mind had kept throwing them together, Daichi and Shishio-sensei, questioning her decisions, every decision since she had chosen Daichi almost four years ago, every decision since she had moved to Tokyo.

            Yuyuka had encouraged her to find someone else, and she had. A classmate, another economics major. He was tall, and he smiled a lot, and Suzume enjoyed spending time with him. They never got serious, though. By some grace, she was able to see that she wasn’t taking him seriously for who he was. She was using him as a distraction, and letting him go had been disturbingly easy.

            She drank a lot this year, feeling very adult. She wondered if this was how Satsuki felt when Tsubomi had left him. No, he had probably felt worse. At least Suzume had had a hand in her own break up.

            Poor Satsuki.

            What would she call him if she saw him? Should she still call him Shishio-sensei? Ever since her breakup, she had only been able to think of him as Satsuki. But that would be inappropriate.

            It was feasible that he had moved away. She forced herself to consider that possibility. Part of her felt relieved at the thought, but part of her stomach clenched in the most unpleasant way. She tried thinking about her uncle’s cooking instead, how delicious it would taste after so long without it. Even if she didn’t see Satsuki… She wasn’t coming back for him.

            Nana had recently gone through a very difficult breakup, and Suzume wanted to be there for her. Yuyuka had also wanted to go, but her part-time job hadn’t been able to give her the weekend off. So Suzume came alone.

            Through her anxiety, her stomach rumbled. Soon, she comforted it. Soon you will be filled with Uncle’s delicious cooking.

Early Monday morning came peacefully. The weekend had been entirely uneventful. Nana seemed to be feeling much better after spending time with her friend (and her friend’s handsome uncle), much food had been eaten, and Shishio Satsuki’s name had not come up once. Suzume couldn’t help feeling disappointed, but she tried to talk herself out of it. Seeing him would have only been painful, anyway. She didn’t need any more emotional confusion in her life right now.

            She arrived at the bus station in peace, almost comforted about her uneventful weekend. And then she reached into her bag to grab her return ticket.

            It wasn’t there.

            She had left her wallet at her uncle’s house.

            Great, she moaned inwardly. But no good would come of throwing a fit now. She considered asking him to bring it to her, but decided against it. He had been busy with her and her friend all weekend and was behind on preparations for the week. She could just go back. She would probably miss the first train and, by extension, her morning classes. And she was behind in all of her classes, so that was bad. But since she was behind anyway, it could only do so much harm to miss one more period, right?

            Besides, she wasn’t emotionally prepared to leave yet. Maybe the bike ride to the shop and then back would help her come to grips with her regrettable love life.

            At first, breathing the fresh morning air with this new resolve to be encouraged was freeing. Her chest started to feel just the slightest bit lighter as a smile softly broke out. The sun was just rising when she returned to the shop.

            “Uncle!” she called when she entered through the back room. “Can you believe I forgot my wallet? I feel so stupid. I got all the way to the station before I realized it.” Her laughter died on her lips when she stepped into the shop area and saw the person she had just been beginning to believe she didn’t need to see.

            “Yosano-san!” Satsuki exclaimed. “Your uncle thought you would be on the train back by now!”

            She was frozen to the spot. Twenty years old, two inches taller, bare-faced, a sheen of light sweat across her forehead, and slightly out breath… This was not how she wanted to see him. She wanted to look… different. Stunning, like she knew she could when she had enough warning to try. Not like this.

            Satsuki looked somewhat uncomfortable himself, but he didn’t seem to be feeling the emotional turmoil that was rumbling through Suzume. His posture was stiff, but something about his awkward smile was sincere, a warmness in his eyes. She noticed some new wrinkles in their corners, emphasizing that she wasn’t the only one who had grown older. Who had changed.

            She had thought that she was catching up to him, but she realized now that he was moving forward, just as she was. Life moved forward for everyone. Had she expected him to be the same? It still felt like she was talking to her elder. To her sensei. The equal ground she had been anticipating fell out from under her, leaving her breathless.

            Satsuki shifted uncomfortably. “Ah… Your uncle ran out for a few minutes. I’m sorry. I know you probably didn’t want to see me…I was trying to stay away this weekend. But here we are…” He laughed awkwardly. “I’m sorry. You probably need to run. Although…” He glanced at his watch. “I think you might have missed your train already…”

            Listening to his stumbling monologue, she felt like she ought to say something, but her brain was sputtering. And then her stomach rumbled. Her face grew warm.

            Satsuki moved behind the counter. “Here, I’ll grab something for you. And—might this be your wallet?” He pulled picked it up from next to the display case and held it up. She must have left it there when she was grabbing breakfast that morning.

            Stupid, she scolded herself, reaching to take it from him meekly.

            “This is uncomfortable,” he concluded finally. “You can leave if you need to. I don’t want you to have to stay behind to talk to an old man.”

            “N-no!” she exclaimed, face instantly turning redder. “That’s… not it.” She forced herself to meet his eyes. “I’ve already missed my train, so I’m not in a rush.” Deep breaths. Grown-up. “Um… Shishio-sensei.” He raised his eyebrows, as if he hadn’t expected her to say that. “How have you been?”

            He smiled softly. “Don’t be so formal. Now that you’ve graduated, I think we can at least be friends. I’ve been good. I’m not going to lie. What happened… knocked me off of my feet for a while. I guess I thought that you couldn’t hurt me that much, since I was the adult… which was a little bit terrible of me. I knew what it felt like to be the young naïve one, and I treated you wrongly. I think I expected you to be someone you couldn’t be yet. I’m so sorry for that. But then… Well, I think we’re equal.” He laughed. “Travelling all the way across Tokyo to reject me. Never thought a high schooler would break my heart.” His eyes widened a little bit and he pressed his lips together suddenly.

“I’m sorry. That probably wasn’t appropriate. And that wasn’t even what you were asking. Recently. Um…I’ve been good,” he said. He rubbed his face. “I’ve been good. My life has moved on from that point. As strange as it sounds, I think I’ve grown up a lot since then. I expect that you have, too. How’s university?”

Suzume returned to herself. “Ah… Good. It’s good. I’m sorry, but I’m not studying English anymore…”

            He laughed again, less awkwardly this time. She smiled a little bit herself. He laughed at the most unexpected times. She had missed it. His awkwardness, the way he ran his hand through his short hair when he felt uncomfortable. The way he slipped into being honest and then back into being proper. He seemed more relatable than most adults, she realized. Less put together. She appreciated it.

            “But… I’m studying economics. I want to help with farming development and planning.”

            “That sounds perfect,” he said, grinning. “You’ll do well.” He sounded like a teacher.

            “Thank you,” she mumbled. “I’m certainly trying to. Yuyuka’s doing well, too. Her grades are better than mine… But we don’t have any of the same classes, so I’m not sure how much that means. It’s not surprising, though. She was always so smart.”

            “She’s studying education, right?”

            “Yeah. She wants to teach in high school.”

            “That’s good. I’m glad my terrible example didn’t scare everyone away from the field.” He started to laugh, but then sighed instead. “I am sorry. I was definitely wrong. I hope you can forgive me for everything that happened. I should never have put you in those situations.”

            She shook her head. “You never put me in any situations I wasn’t willing to be in. You were my first love, and that started before you ever saw me as more than a student. You shouldn’t apologize to me.”

            He looked a little bit shocked, and then smiled gently, shaking his head. “So grown up, but still that honest spirit. You really are something special, Yosano-san.”

            “Don’t be so formal,” she scolded him, a small smile on her lips as well. This was good. She was felt so much more comfortable. There was a lightness in her chest she hadn’t felt in a while.

            “Oh,” she said suddenly. “Daichi and I broke up. About a year ago. I… I just thought you should know.” She hadn’t really intended to say that. She did want him to know, but she hadn’t meant to say it. It had just come out. That honest spirit of mine, she grumbled inwardly. Can’t figure out when it needs to shut up.

            “Your uncle told me,” Satsuki replied. She couldn’t figure out his tone, or the uncomfortable look in his eye. “I’m sorry. I know that must have been very difficult for you. For him, as well, I imagine.”

            “Yeah,” she responded simply. Of course her uncle had told him. Of course. Why did she even bring it up? Things were going so well. And then she ruined it. Stupid.

            “I’m sure it won’t take you long to move forward,” he assured her. “You’re young and resilient. I think you’ll be fine.”

            “I just… I’m glad I ran into you,” she said finally. “It’s stupid, but I kept thinking about you. About how… maybe if I had chosen differently, things would be… different? I mean, obviously they would be different. I just… I can’t stop wondering if I made the right choice. With you, I mean. Yuyuka says I definitely did—she’s not you’re biggest fan, sorry—but it’s just… there, you know? I can’t get past it.”

            Satsuki looked very serious. “Yosano-san… Suzume. You can’t regret decisions like that. For what it’s worth, I think you made the right choice. Who I was was terrible, especially for a teenager. Especially for someone as bright as you. You would have gotten very hurt. I realized afterward… There was a lot of darkness that I needed to sort through, and I’m so relieved that you didn’t stay with me. I don’t want to know what it would have done to you.”

            The anxiety was back. This was what she had needed, but hearing it was terribly unpleasant. He was still behind the counter, and she stood on the other side, facing him. She hadn’t noticed that she had stepped closer for their conversation, but now even the three feet of space between them seemed very close. It was hard for her to breathe.

            “I… missed you,” she whispered. “I missed you a lot. I think I missed you all along, but it didn’t hit me until I didn’t have Daichi anymore.” She couldn’t meet his eyes. There was a wetness threatening her composure, and she didn’t want him to see it.

            No, she did want him to see it. She wanted to be honest with him. But she was embarrassed that honest looked like crying. She had wanted to talk to him about Daichi. They were both so important to her, and as much as Yuyuka cared about her, she had wanted to talk to Satsuki. She missed him. She missed him so much.

            She grit her teeth, forcing back the tears. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s been four years, and here I am, acting like a child again. This is unfair for you.”

            “Yosano…” His voice trailed away. “I missed you, too. I saw you everywhere and I had to look away. And then you graduated… and then you left. I thought seeing you was the worst thing I could go through, but not seeing you was worse. I was unwell for a long time. I kept that tie—“

            “Oh my gosh,” she mumbled. “The sushi tie. Oh my gosh. I can’t believe you actually wore that.”

            “That was my favorite tie,” he said matter-of-factly. “Don’t you dare make fun of it.”

            She couldn’t help giggling a little bit. He was shameless.

            “But Yosano,” he continued. She finally raised her chin to look up at him. “I think you shouldn’t think about me so much. It feels good that you missed me. I don’t want you to think that that isn’t important. It is. It means a lot to me. You are very important to me.”

            The tears pricked again. She didn’t know how much longer she could control herself. Her heart throbbed with something like hope, but she tried to keep it down. He probably wasn’t saying what she wanted him to.

            “But you should know… I decided not to wait for you. It wouldn’t be fair to either of us if I did. You never know where your life will go. You can’t wait forever. So… You shouldn’t wait on me, either.”

            “What’s her name?” She wanted to know. She needed to know. She stared at the counter, waiting for him to say more words that she needed to hear. Each one added to the ropes wrapping around her lungs, making it harder and harder for her to breathe. But she needed them.

            “Samejima,” she heard him whisper. His tone was sober, but she couldn’t deny a tenderness in it. Her hands clenched into fists by her side. Her nails dug into the palms of her hands, and she focused on the pain of that instead of the pain in her heart.

            “I was waiting on your uncle to get back from the store, but… I think I should go now,” he said quietly. She felt a hand on her shoulder, large and warm and comforting. She forced her body not to respond. “I am glad that I saw you, Yosano.” His voice saying her name wasn’t comforting anymore. “Continue working hard. I know that you’ll do well.” He removed his hand, and she stared motionlessly at the counter until she heard the door close behind her high school teacher. Her first boyfriend. Her first love.

            She continued to stare motionlessly at the counter until the first sob escaped her chest like a punch to her stomach. Her forearms fell against the counter and she pushed her forehead into them, tears coursing down her cheeks silently as her shoulders shook. She stayed there for a long time. Eventually, she regained her composure, forcing her breath to even out. She stood, straightened her posture, and pushed her shoulders back.

            Deep breaths. Grown up. The final cutting of ties.

            She wiped her eyes with her wrists. This was good. This was how it should be.

            If he was happy, then she was happy for him. Even if it hurt.

            She would be happy, too. She would find it. She didn’t need to catch up to anyone.

            Checking to be sure her wallet was safely in her bag, she looked around the empty shop, smiling softly. This was good.

            She locked the door behind her when she left. Eyes on the blue sky above her, and then on the road before her as people leaked out of their houses and into the brisk Monday morning. This was good.