Hiroki leaned across the table at Foresta, pushing aside the empty coffee cups. “Hey Sumiko,” he said, grinning but looking a bit nervous, “Let’s take a trip down to Izu.”
Sumiko felt a little flutter of joy in her stomach, but she just nodded happily. “Ok.”
She had met him only a few months before, in the spring, when they were both starting their senior year at Hayata University. She was in the International division, and he was in the Department of Literature, so their paths might never have crossed, but the first weekend of the new school year, the film club had thrown a party to attract new members, and he had come along.
Sumiko could not forget the moment she first laid eyes on him. A commotion by the door had caught her eye, then the crowd sort of parted and she saw a guy in a wheelchair, pushing carefully through the crowd, trying not to hit anyone. Sumiko knew it was rude to stare, but she couldn’t take her eyes off him. He was so different from anyone she had ever met before. The wheelchair had foot plates, but no feet rested on them. He seemed to have no legs at all, except one longish, misshapen stump that curved around his lower body, like he was sitting cross-legged. His right arm ended just below the elbow, tapered off to a point. His left arm was the normal length, but on his left hand, he had only three fingers. Like a cartoon character, she thought absurdly. His appearance was shocking; at first she didn’t even want to look, yet he was the most fascinating, beautiful boy she had ever seen. His arms and shoulders were taut and muscular, wiry but bulging in the biceps. His face was long and sophisticated, with a high nose and large, deep-set, wide eyes with double eyelids. His skin was elegantly pale, and his hair was longish and cut so that it looked slightly wavy. Just then, she saw him say something and grin up a friend. His front teeth were slightly crooked, which gave him a cheerful, carefree kind of look. Even his wheelchair was different from the ones she had seen in pictures and on TV. It was so streamlined and sporty. There were no handles, and the backrest was low. It was painted red and white, and somehow it reminded her more of a mountain bike than a wheelchair.
Sumiko was riveted. She hardly even noticed her friends come in, barely greeted them. She had always thought of her life as ordinary. She came from an ordinary family in Chiba. Her father was a salaryman, and her mother was a housewife. She had studied hard and gotten into a good school, but beyond that she didn’t have any plans. She had always felt, deep inside, beneath the ordinary exterior, that she was somehow different. She did all the right things, had ordinary friends, but secretly, she knew she wasn’t like them, although she would never have said so. She knew she was pretty enough, because boys were always asking her out, but after one or two dates she would lose interest. In high school, then college it was the same. Her friends teased her, and she got a reputation for being cold, but those regular boys just couldn’t hold her interest.
A fascination with foreign films had lead her to join the film club, to major in French, then to study abroad in Paris for a semester the previous year. She had enjoyed her time there, but had come home much the same as she had been before. Wherever she was, she found herself wishing she were somewhere else.
But now she felt as if the ground were slipping, sliding away under her feet, as a desire more powerful than any she had ever felt before gripped her. Normally she was rather shy and reserved, but before she knew what was happening, her feet were, as if on their own, taking her in his direction. It was a party, after all. The whole purpose was for people to meet each other, right?
He was sitting off to one side, drinking beer from a plastic cup. She waited until the person he was talking to wandered off, then boldly walked up and introduced herself.
“Hello,” she said rather formally. “I’m Sumiko. Welcome to the film club.” She bowed awkwardly.
He repeated the same stiff little bow, and said, “I’m Hiroki, nice to meet you.” He gave her a crooked grin. “Sumiko, that’s a nice name.”
“Oh no, it’s terribly old-fashioned. It sounds so dark,” she said, blushing hotly. She flailed around for something to keep the conversation going. “Did you come here with a friend?” she asked.
“Yeah, I came with those guys,” he pointed with his chin to a group of clean-cut looking seniors. “I’m friends with Yamada.”
“Oh, you mean the club president? Are you thinking of joining? But you’re a senior, too, right?” Sumiko felt herself starting to babble.
Hiroki grinned at her again. “No, it’s too late to join, I’m just here as a guest. But do you think I could come to some of your screenings? I really like those foreign movies you show, like those old French ones from the 60s.”
“Really?” Sumiko squeaked. “Me too!” That had been the start. He came to all their screenings, and afterwards they would linger outside under the pine trees in the dark, deserted campus, discussing the films. Soon they started meeting in the afternoons after classes at Foresta, the one wheelchair accessible café near campus and the train station. Sumiko had never noticed before, but now she realized that all the tiny cafes and restaurants by campus were either up or down stairs, or were too narrow, or only had chairs bolted to the floor by a counter.
“So you’ve never eaten at any of them?” she asked.
Hiroki shook his head. “It’s so annoying. You know in other countries, there are laws about universal access, but in Japan everything is so cramped.”
“Well you’re not missing anything,” Sumiko replied. “Those restaurants around here are all terrible.” They both laughed. He was so easy to be around. She had been so nervous at first that she might say the wrong thing and offend him, but he was always light-hearted and quick to joke around, even about his disability.
One time, thinking it might be nice to try someplace new, Sumiko suggested they go to Takadanobaba, the bigger train station, where there were a lot more restaurants and shops. She walked there frequently, but somehow she had never noticed what a steep hill it was from campus to the station. As she watched Hiroki struggling to push up the hill, she felt intensely guilty. Because his right arm was so much shorter than his left, he had to lean over to the right to push, and she suddenly realized what a tiring, inefficient position it was. As she trudged slowly up the hill behind him, she was in an agony of indecision. Should she offer to push him? But his chair didn’t have any handles, and she was afraid of making him angry by offering unwanted help. By the time they reached the top of the hill, he was red-faced and sweating, although it was cool day in early spring. Worst of all, when they got there, the restaurants were no more accessible than the ones right next to campus, and they ended up in a cheap café almost exactly the same as Foresta.
“I’m sorry,” said Sumiko as she sat down across from him. “This was a mistake, I shouldn’t have suggested it.”
Hiroki shrugged. “It’s ok. I should have asked you for help, but I didn’t want you to think I’m lazy.”
“What?” Sumiko exclaimed. “Don’t tell me you did that because you were trying to impress me?” She had expected him to make a joke, but for once he just blushed and looked away. Was he trying to impress her? Sumiko buried her face in her menu to hide her embarrassment. After that, they stuck to the same old place by campus.
Hiroki also had a huge collection of DVDs at his apartment, and soon he was inviting her over to watch them in the evenings. He lived near the Hayata campus, on the first floor of a decaying old concrete block apartment building.
“The rent’s cheapest on the first floor anyway,” he said with a grin. “I guess everyone wants to live upstairs, even though there’s no elevator.”
The first time she went to his apartment, she was surprised to see him stop in the genkan, put on his brakes, then turn around and wiggle down out of his wheelchair on his stomach. The apartment was quite large by Tokyo standards, although rather old. The entry faced directly into a wide kitchen, which was flanked on either side by two Japanese-style rooms with tatami mats and sliding doors. The six-mat room he seemed to use as a bedroom, and the eight-mat room was set up as a study, with a low table, computer, and a TV resting on a bookcase laid on its side, which was crammed with DVDS. There were books and more DVDs lined up all around the walls. Sumiko realized that except for a few step-stools set in strategic locations, everything was arranged at floor-level. She had not imagined him out of his chair before, and now she was amazed to watch him moving around so easily without it. He stood easily on the stump of his right leg, while the left one, which was longer, curved around for balance. He usually left it bare, and now she saw why. He swung himself forward easily on his left hand, moving swiftly across the kitchen, as she struggled to take off her shoes.
He turned and gave her a mischievous grin. “Surprised?” he asked. She just nodded, unsure what to say. She wanted to tell him that she thought he was so graceful, but she was afraid he might think that was girly.
“So you don’t use the wheelchair inside at all?” she asked.
He shook his head. “It would damage the tatami. Besides, when I was a kid, I got around like this all the time. I hardly used the chair at all. My old lady used to stick me in the kiddy seat on the back of her bike and take off, really fast. I must have looked funny, hanging on for dear life with just one hand.” He shook his head at the memory. “Do you want something to drink?” he asked, a bit formally.
“Sure,” she said, and watched, still fascinated, as he pulled some glasses out of the bottom cabinets. She would later discover the top cabinets were all empty. He filled the glasses with cold green tea from the refrigerator, and set them on a tray along with some senbei rice crackers in plastic packs. Then he lifted the tray, balancing it carefully between his left hand and right arm, and walked to the study. It was a slow, awkward sort of walk, rocking from side to side and sort of pulling himself forward with his left leg, but he didn’t spill any of the tea.
Sumiko quickly sat down across from him and helped herself to some senbei. “You’re so formal!” she exclaimed. “I feel like I’m visiting someone’s grandmother!”
Hiroko laughed. “My old lady was really strict about guests and things like that. I guess she didn’t want me to make excuses for bad behavior.”
“Your mom sounds really tough,” she said.
“Yeah, she’s totally no-nonsense about everything,” he said. “When people would stare at me or say something rude, she would just look them up and down and say, ‘What have you got to be so proud of?’” They laughed.
“So you live by yourself?” Sumiko asked. She knew his parents lived just outside the city, in Tachikawa, so she had been a little surprised that he didn’t live at home.
“Yeah,” he said. “When I was in high school, I couldn’t wait to live on my own, to prove I could be independent. At first I did everything myself here, but now I have a cleaning lady come in once a week to do all the laundry and vacuuming and air out the futons and everything. I did it myself for a while, but it was a big pain, and I realized even regular people don’t do that if they don’t have to.” Sumiko laughed.
After that, Sumiko went to his place regularly to watch movies. They would get bento box dinners from the Family Mart down the street, and watch French films, sometimes two in a row. But she was always careful to leave well before the last train home. She didn’t want to seem forward, and the thought of sleeping over when they hadn’t so much as kissed made her nervous.
Her favorite film was Belle de Jour. Catherine Deneuve was so beautiful, so sophisticated, but it was more than that. She had a secret. A separate life, that no one else knew about. That scene near the end, when she leaned over her husband, looked at him so tenderly, it gave her chills. They watched it over and over, with Sumiko sometimes reciting the lines in French.
“So when you were in Paris, did you go out to cafes and pretend to be Catherine Deneuve?” Hiroki teased her.
Sumiko laughed. “Oh yes, I was just like her!” But the truth was, she had felt mousy and slight, with her plain soy-sauce face, compared to the buxom, charismatic Parisian women. It was because of these films she had gone to Paris, but being there only seemed to emphasize the gulf between herself and the fantasy world she saw in them.
As the semester wore on, Sumiko spent more and more time with Hiroki, and her friends started to notice. She wanted them to be happy for her, and she wanted to share with them how she felt about him, but right away she could tell it was impossible. The look on their faces when they saw her with him said it all. Her friend Eri even took her aside and asked point-blank why she was with him.
To be continued....