Summary: Naoki Itō learns that matters of the heart cannot be dealt with by simply running off to the Nurse’s Office.
Length: ~2,700 words
Nao grew up seeing his male peers desperate to grow tall. He knew it had to do with some unspoken rule that men should be taller than women, but Nao never really understood the appeal.
A huge height difference was just a hassle if you tried to make out with someone.
He had witnessed couples going at it; the trouble they had to go through to mesh their mouths together seemed like too much effort. He’d certainly suffer from premature back pains if he had to keep leaning down like that. And if the person he ended up with — as if he’d ever date anyone — was much taller than him, he’d just hurt his feet tiptoeing for too long.
Nao didn’t fancy being held up by his taller partner either. He saw those scenes in romantic films and failed to grasp their contribution to the plot; held up by strong arms, squished between a wall and a meat-coated skeleton — Nao had tried to understand, but it seemed like the worst idea every single time.
Nao was fifteen when he suspected that he’d never grow past 168 cm. He decided then that he was attracted to girls because it made things more convenient. After he’d taken his sister through his line of reasoning, however, she gave him a smack upside the head.
Rika said that that wasn’t how it worked.
She turned out to be right, for once.
A Danish student transferred to Nao’s school, right into the empty seat beside him.
Arne Østrehjerte was 183 cm tall, cool and regal, like a prince, according to the girls in the class. Arne paid attention to his lessons, took his notes studiously, listened to the teachers, and never spoke out of turn. In short, Arne behaved just like everybody else, which meant that if Arne was a prince, then everybody else must be a prince also.
Nao, himself, didn’t feel like a prince, though. According to the girls, he never felt much of anything. He wished that this was the truth.
Arne didn’t always behave like a prince either. Out on the field, he turned into something else.
Nao watched from the bleachers and felt his mouth go dry.
Arne shot forward when the whistle blew. He tore through the air, blazing like the rising sun. Halfway through the race, laughter burst out of Arne’s mouth. His face bloomed with happiness, raw and bold and bright and so, so
The suddenness of it knocked the air out of Nao’s lungs. Without oxygen, his mind struggled to process what was happening.
Arne flung open his arms as he ran, head thrown back, as if to embrace the clear Japanese sky.
Why did he laugh like that, behave like that? Nao shut his eyes, clapping his palms over his ears. He imagined an eagle, wings snapping open as it leapt off a precipice. It soared through the sky, blocking out the sun. Symphony of sounds crashed against its body in waves; the roaring winds, the raucous laughter, the shrine bells chiming, chiming, chiming, the surging resonance of hifumiyo, hifumiyo—
On the track, Arne’s laughter faded. Nao opened his eyes. The wings unfurled more quietly now, feathers whispering against each other. Arne slowed to a jog, arms falling by his sides, grin softening into a pastel smile.
His classmates surrounded Arne, cheering and clapping him on the back. They laughed and joked and spoke; broken Japanese, stilted English, useless hand gestures, conjuring meaning out of nothing.
Nao felt out of place, icky in his own skin. The sun burned his nape. Beads of sweat slid down the indent of his spine. He got off the bleachers. The PE teacher shouted after him, but he didn’t look back.
Rika glanced up from her desk when Nao burst into the Nurse’s Office. Her mouth moved but he couldn’t understand a single word. The only thing inside him was Arne’s laughter. It rang in his ears, thrummed in his bones until his body shook with it.
He breathed in deep.
Soaking in the coldness of the air conditioning, his heart began to cool.
“What’s wrong, Nao? Are you hurt?”
Nao went to the bed furthest from Rika’s desk. He drew the curtain shut on his sister’s worried face.
“D’you feel sick? What happened?” she asked from the other side of the partition.
Nao knew she needed to hear more than the bare-boned truth, but the truth was all he had. And he hadn’t examined it properly yet.
“I couldn’t think. The sun was too hot.”
Rika sighed. “Nao, you were in PE. It’s not—it’s not Physics.”
He watched her silhouette pace back and forth before the curtain. He couldn’t tell if she was making a joke. “Some of it is.”
“I need to be alone. Please.”
The lunch bell rang.
“Fine, but just this once.”
Nao kicked off his trainers and lay down on the bed. He needed a nap. Everything would make more sense once his brain was back in order.
Nao shoved his textbooks in the car. All around him, the cicadas were chirping, chirping into a cacophonous crescendo.
Nao slammed the car trunk.
“Don’t take it out on my car!” Rika screeched.
Nao slid into the passenger seat. He shut the door sensibly.
Rika huffed. “See? It’s not that hard.”
Nao narrowed his eyes at a group of students loitering by the school gate. They called out to Rika as her car turtled by.
“Do not roll down the window,” Nao warned.
Rika rolled down the window. “Hey, kids. Any of you need a ride home?”
“Lovely Nurse Itō is as kind as ever, so unlike your baby brother. Oh hey, Naoki, didn’t see you there.”
“Yes, you did. Now go away, Desk Number 30.”
“Nao,” Rika said.
Desk Number 30 laughed. “’S all right, Nurse Itō. We know Naoki loves us.”
“Erotomanic delusion has been diagnosed in patients as young as thirteen,” Nao said.
Desk Number 30 winked. “Actions speak louder than words, my friend. We know you stopped calling us by our exam ranks ‘cause you care about our feelings.”
Another student poked his head in through the car window. It was Desk Number 15. “Yeah, man. If that’s not love, we don’t know what is. Speaking of which, we need you to tutor us this weekend.”
Behind him, Desk Number 30 yelled, “Hey, Arne, come say halløjsa to our Talking Dictionary! Your pale god knows you need him for—”
Nao reached across Rika’s lap and slammed his finger on the button by the door. The window rolled up.
“Oh, c’mon! The test is next week,” cried Desk Number 15.
“Yes, goodbye,” Nao said, heart drumming in his ears.
“Why’d you do that?” Rika demanded.
Nao made the mistake of looking up. He saw Arne standing by the assembly flag with a bunch of their classmates. Arne’s smile seemed to have frozen on his mouth. Hurt flashed across his face as he watched the car window slide shut.
“Drive,” Nao wheezed. “Please. Just drive.”
They didn’t talk on their way home. But Nao knew the subject would come up eventually. He was right.
After dinner, Nao got up to clear the plates but Rika gave him the look. He sat back down.
It had been three hours since the incident. He’d had plenty of time to prepare an explanation, something more than just the bare-boned truth. He’d even come up with metaphors to help illustrate his predicament.
“Don’t you get along with your new classmate?” Rika asked.
“That’s not it.”
“Then why’d you ignore him like that?”
Nao recited the words exactly, “Arne’s got my heart in a vice, and the traitorous organ’s developed Stockholm Syndrome. It refuses to be dissuaded by any amount of logic.”
Silence fell between them.
Nao counted down from ten inside his head. Rika’s eyebrows disappeared beneath her fringe.
“He—what?” she blurted out.
“What I just said. Can’t you understand?”
Rika swatted her hands like she wanted to wave away the last ten seconds of their conversation. She laughed.
“Do you think I made a joke?” Nao asked. His blood boiled.
“No. No, I don’t think you made a joke.” Rika reached across the table and took hold of his hand. “Nao, you—you’re trying too hard. Just give me the facts. I’ll understand, I promise.”
Nao couldn’t think. Rika’s touch was distracting him. He fisted the edge of the table. It was the only way to keep his hand where it was.
Rika must’ve noticed because she let go. The fog in Nao’s brain cleared.
“Okay. I’ll tell you. Are you ready?”
Rika nodded. “I’m ready.”
“Sister, I am in love.”
Nao woke up grumpy the next day.
He made eggs for breakfast and gave Rika the overcooked ones. As usual, Rika complained about her cholesterol level. Nothing was out of the ordinary except for the invisible elephant padding about the house. Nao felt it somersaulting in the hallway, and now it must be dancing on the dining table or something because Nao couldn’t fathom why Rika would be smiling in that nightmarish manner.
“Please stop looking at me like that.”
Nao shouldered on his backpack. “Like that time when I was seven and you tricked me into drinking sand through a straw.”
Rika followed him out into the hallway. “I told you — it wasn’t a trick.”
“You said it was orange juice.”
“Nao, we were playing Shop!”
“Yes, you were playing Shop with a retarded brother.”
Rika smacked him on the arm. “Don’t call yourself that!”
Nao glared at her. His arm stung.
“Why not? Because the truth makes people uncomfortable?” Nao said shrilly. Rika didn’t answer, which made him angrier. “I feel uncomfortable too, you know. I have to listen to people talk about things that I don’t understand. Even when it’s about things that I understand, I still can’t understand them. Words come out of their mouths but they don’t mean what they should mean. Sometimes they tell me one thing but they mean something else. Sometimes it turns out to be a joke and they don’t mean it at all!”
The backs of Nao’s eyes burned until he couldn’t make out Rika’s face any more. Not that it mattered. He wouldn’t be able to tell what she was feeling either way.
“They look at me like I’m stupid when they are the stupid ones for never knowing what they mean! But I don’t go around telling them they aren’t allowed to say this or that. If they are uncomfortable with me calling myself retarded then that’s their problem. I’ve never had a problem with the truth. It’s everybody else that does!”
Nao gripped his backpack straps so tightly that his fingers went numb. He unclasped them to scrub the dampness from his face.
Rika lifted the car key off the hook and reached around him to open the front door.
“After you, brother,” she said as calm as ever.
Nao stormed out of the house. He was furious with himself for lashing out, furious with Rika for not fighting back. He wished she wasn’t so sensible. He just wanted to fight with someone. He wished Rika would fight with him just once.
The drive to school was quiet. On any other day, Nao would’ve embraced the silence. Rika liked to talk during car rides, usually, about this and that which neither of them cared about.
As they drove past the school gate, the sun disappeared behind thick rainclouds.
Nao hugged his backpack close to his chest. He imagined the silence, his one-sided fight, hanging over their heads like a giant waterskin waiting to burst. He needed to say something now.
“I’m sorry I shouted. I love you.”
When Rika didn’t answer, Nao felt himself getting upset again. His breakfast was rising back up his throat. He was going to be sick.
“How much d’you love me?” Rika asked.
Nao turned around so fast a joint cracked.
Rika was smiling. It was so faint Nao thought he’d imagined it.
“I just love you. I don’t understand the question.”
They drove into the parking lot.
“You know, Nao,” she said, “even if sometimes I can’t understand you and you can’t understand me, you’re still my brother, and I’m still your sister.”
Nao turned away. “That means you forgive me, right?”
“Yes, I forgive you.”
Nao nodded. “The word retarded. You want me to stop using it. Do you really not like it?”
“You’re right, Nao. I really don’t like it.”
“Then I won’t use it anymore.”
“Thank you, Nao.”
Rika parked the car and turned off the engine. They sat in silence for a while. She tried to check the time without letting him notice. Nao let her think she succeeded.
“What else d’you want to talk about?” she asked.
Nao fidgeted with his backpack strap. “I’ve never—” he cleared his throat “—I’ve never wanted to speak to anyone before.”
He could feel Rika smile that nightmarish smile again. He refused to look at her.
“You want to speak to him? To Arne?” Rika sounded way too excited; Nao felt inclined to terminate the conversation immediately.
He opened the door, planted one foot firmly on the asphalt. “Yes, but I don’t know yet if I will. There’s—there’s something I need to figure out first.”
Then Nao was gone, hurrying across the parking lot, away from Rika who’d stepped out of the car to shout contradictory advice at his retreating back, “Don’t forget to introduce yourself, Nao, don’t just stare at him! By that, I mean tell him only your name — okay? — not our entire family history. And try not to list facts about Denmark, or you’ll come on too strong. Just be yourself!”
Nao stood on his tiptoes. He found that it made him just about the same height as Arne. It seemed a difference of 15 centimetres wasn’t that big of a gap like he initially thought. They could still kiss, quite easily in fact. All Nao had to do was tilt his face up when Arne dipped his head down.
Without this arrangement, however, Arne’s mouth would be on the same level as Nao’s forehead. It wasn’t ideal but not entirely to Nao’s disadvantage.
This way, Nao could avoid altogether the trouble of misjudging whether or not Arne wanted to be kissed — Arne would have to meet him halfway.
Arne began to sweat.
He’d been minding his own business, switching his trainers for his school slippers by the lockers. When he turned around, Naoki Itō was there, staring at him with his dark raccoon eyes. What was going on?
Perhaps Naoki’s odd behaviour was a Japanese way of squaring up against people they didn’t like? Yes, that made sense. Naoki was standing on his toes to intimidate Arne by pretending to be taller than him.
Arne bit back a smile. This was certainly a step up from yesterday; he was no longer being ignored. Ah, now Naoki was squinting at Arne’s mouth because he refused to accept Arne as worthy of his eye contact. That must be it.
Naoki’s glare intensified, and Arne tried not to laugh. He wished he spoke Japanese well enough to tell Naoki this: I know the kanji for your name, Naoki Itō. I don’t care how dark your eyebags are, a raccoon with a name as bright as yours doesn’t frighten me.
Naoki’s sharp gaze slid down to Arne’s throat.
Arne slapped a hand over his neck. A shudder ran up his spine.
Okay, perhaps he was a bit intimidated. He’d read somewhere that raccoon bites could be fatal.
“Er, just,” Arne said, “what is this about?”
Naoki landed back fully on his heels. He gave Arne a smile, a quirk of his mouth that, well, seemed a bit creepy actually. It didn’t matter, though, because Arne’s heart had trampolined off his chest, pinballing its way up into his skull. It short-circuited his brain before swan-diving back inside his ribs.
“Perfect,” Naoki said with a laugh.
Arne’s mouth went dry. The first bell rang, and Naoki started to turn away. Arne panicked.
“What is?” he all but shouted.
Naoki looked at him, startled.
Arne’s cheeks grew hot. “What—what’s perfect?”
“You,” Naoki said and walked away.
Arne stared after him, flushed in the face, too flustered to remember how to speak.
Outside the windows, the sun came out from behind the clouds. The hallway basked in its dazzling light. Arne marvelled at the sight, his chest just shy of bursting.
Naoki looked back.
Arne laughed and ran up to him. This dog-leaping happiness in his sun-powered heart. He wanted Naoki to feel it too.