Fiction

Finite Times

By: Renee Chen

You were the one who told me about the ancient tale from China, about two lovers who died for each other. That night, we were sitting on the cold roof of our school building, looking out into the darkness rippling across the bare campus. Blinking neon lights lit up billboards across skyscrapers. Was it only me, or did the night also remind you of potpourri? How all the screaming lights and colors in the city were nothing more than taxidermies, decapitated on electronic screens. 

“Do you know what happened after they died?” You asked me. My head was still against yours, my face warm, if not hot, the circuit of blood within me crackling with flames. 

The door of the sports equipment storage room smelled of rust, of iron and blood. 

“No?” I said. 

            “Do you know how light flits sometimes?”

            “Flits?” I thought about butterflies with my eyes closed, wings breaths away from breaking for every flap against the blurred sky. 

            “Light flitted out of their graves,” you resumed. “And two peacocks flew out.” 

            I closed my eyes, trying to imagine. “They must have been beautiful.”

“I bet so.” You swayed your head, moving lightly from left to right. “They were in love, after all,” you said. 

I smiled. Because you were already beautiful before you fell in love. 

***

The first time I met you, I must have been twelve. You were wearing a yellow dress, the color of sparkling lemonades in summers, fizzes caught at the tongue. In the art gallery, under warm orange hues of the lights above, your leather shoes thudded against the wooden hall, like the rat-tat-tat of pulses against one’s chest. You stopped by a white-framed photo of the Palace of Versailles. 

The two of us were the only students at the exhibit, and when you saw me, you walked over, your dress flitting in the air-conditioned room. 

            “Hi,” you said, smiling as you reached your hand out. “I’m Chinatsu.” 

            Under the dim lights, your hair, tied in a short ponytail, was brown, the color of sun-tanned skin three shades lighter than the rest of your face, porcelain skin and glass eyes, dark and deep.

            “Kaito,” I told you, taking your hand. “Kaito Hoshino.”

            “Hoshino?” You smiled, your eyes on the wooden ceiling. Your bangs shadowed the gray birthmark beneath your left eyebrow. “That’s a beautiful name.” 

I shrugged.

            “It means a field of stars, doesn’t it?” 

            “Think so,” I said. “And yours– Chinatsu. That’s a thousand summers, right?”

            “Rebirth and permanence, yes,” you told me. A name beyond the human flesh. 

***

On my birthday, the first one we celebrated together, you gave me a feather pen. It was made of a peacock’s feather, green in watercolor shades with a zircon eyespot at the center. 

“You know? Feathers take up sixty-percent of a peacock’s body weight,” you said, holding the pen up to the flickers of a lightbulb above dusted shelves of books. Cross-legged on the soft library rug, I looked up at it with you. It made me think about sunlight in forests, rays glinting between foliage and twigs. 

“A cost for beauty,” I said and took the pen from you, smoothing the cool zircon with my fingers. “These eyespots– there’re actual crystals, aren’t they?”

“I think so,” you said. “Probably why their feathers are so heavy.”

“Probably why they almost never fly,” I said. 

***

Back then, I told you a lot of lies. Some I regret, some I still don’t know how to confess. You once told me that people lie to mask their insecurities rather than out of malice, that it’s a way of drawing a sword back rather than thrusting it out. 

Perhaps that was why I lied to you about why I wanted to be a writer. Because I was thirteen, and the Earth was four billion years older. 

Do you remember that one morning, a few weeks after our first encounter at the art exhibit, we met again at the old book store your father worked in? It wasn’t the first time I had found myself lingering by the dust-coated windows of the shop, lost among shelves of damp books. But it was the first time I saw you there, clad in a sapphire blue apron, dusting exhaust off the novels of Natsume Kinnosuke. 

When you saw me, you smiled. “You’re Hoshino, right?”

“Yes, we met at the art gallery last time,” I said, smiling. Your hair was caramel-brown under the ripples of the awakening summer sun. You climbed onto a rusted ladder and started dusting the books in the upper shelves. I picked up a blank leather notebook atop the stationaries on display. Its cover, like shadowed water in ocean trenches, was navy-blue. 

“You write?” You asked me, facing the mahogany shelves when you talked. 

“Yeah,” I said, putting it down. 

“A writer then?” You asked.

“A writer?” I crossed my arms. “I guess so. I write the unspoken words, you can say. Or at least that’s what I tell others.”

“The unspoken words?” You asked, stepping down from the ladder. 

“Things not said soon enough,” I told you, “things we forget to say.”

“So you write to erase your regrets?” 

“Oh hmm,” I said, “I never thought about it this way, but I guess so. And not my regrets– it’s this world’s regrets.”

You smiled. “That must be a lot of books.”

***

Sometimes, when I write with the feather pen you gave me, splayed out on the grass on the empty university campus, beneath shadows of exhaust and the jags of skyscrapers, I would think about you again. 

I would close my eyes and picture myself under a night where there are stars instead, glimmers like the peacock’s eyespot in between my hands. I would think about the things I’d tell you if you are still here, about the zircon– the closest thing I know that resembles the dazzle of your eyes. 

***

You knew so much more than I did back at school that the only thing I was more acquainted with than you were books and authors. 

“What do you think Natsume Kinnosuke wrote for?” I once asked you underneath the stars, constellations of Leo and Andromeda. For a moment or so, sitting in the air-conditioned planetarium, holding your hand in mine, it seemed to make no difference that I was not lying under actual stars that would one day collapse on their own gravity and bloat, only to die again, but permanent footages that were dead already from the moment they were taken from the sky. 

You sank down in your seat. “I don’t know,” you said. “But I guess a lot of writers write to be remembered.” You made a triangle with your hands and thrusted it out into the air, trying to match it with Altair, Deneb, and Vega on the screen. “To be permanent, I guess. Embalmed and passed down.”

***

When you got your first heart attack, you were five years old. 

            “Sixty-nine percent of infants born with CDHs can live to eighteen years old,” you had told me at the hospital a few avenues away from our school, where you got your second attack. The room was freezing, the engines of the air conditioner churning above us. I sat still on the tiled floor, holding your hand in mine. 

            “You’ll make it past that,” I told you and thought about e.e. cummings, about what it would be like to carry a heart within your own. 

            You shrugged. “I’ll still have four more years.”

            “You’ll have more than that,” I said, softly. 

            “Maybe four years would suffice.” Your hand felt light in mine, light like a feather. So I held onto it tightly, in fear that it would slip away. 

***

For years, I couldn’t forget you.

Like a hatchling that still needed the warmth of its mother, I was not ready to lose you yet. I dreamt about two people for a lot of nights, two children standing under the winter sky. Every muffled breath, every tongued word was turning gossamer white in the air around them, freezing and dying in haze. The boy was standing there in the falling snow that was growing into a storm while the girl laid still on the ground, resting on the ice-coated land in a long sleep. 

***

When you tested positive for COVID, on a summer evening a week before Tanabata, the Star Festival, we called each other on our mobiles. 

“What is the hospital like?” I asked you, tucking the phone close to my ear, like a child clutching onto a paper cup, tied to another breath with a red strand of yarn. 

“Like Tokyo,” you said, your voice soft. 

“Tokyo?” I looked out of the window in my bedroom, the lights of the city caught on the glass.

“You know– a lot of cars,” you said, “and exhaust. Crammed, essentially.”

I swiveled across the bedroom on my wheeling chair, toward the bookshelf beside my bed. “Hey,” I told you, changing the subject, “you know, I actually have a gift for you– for Tanabata actually, but then you’re in quarantine now–” 

            “It’s the closest thing I can get that resembles stars, I think.” 

On the third shelf was a keychain of a cat atop a cup of bubble tea. Inside were grains of star sand rather than milk tea. I shook it in the air, the crisp sound of sand draining in between my hands, in a glass world that would go on for far longer than the two of us ever would. 

***

Before your family flew over to Honshu, you lived in Ishigaki, an island far off from where the rest of Japan is. It had a boundless sea of emerald, you told me once, transparent, the surface of the water thin like air. 

But what you liked the best about the place was always the sea above you. The sky of stars and the milky way and the light and the darkness, the blue that altered a little every night, the distant clouds of celadon green, glazes that made nights a little less dark, made evenings flash by. 

Sometimes, when the silence of the evening pecks into my ears, I would wonder what it would be like if I too grew up on the island instead of Osaka. What was it like? Running across the summer sand and feeling the bites of the sun in between your toes, listening to the click of your straw sandals against the asphalt bridge, white as slate across a skyline that had no lines? What was it like, to live in a world without me?

***

When I went to a university in Tokyo alone, I bought with me the keychain I once planned to give you. Yesterday night, as I was looking out of my window into the blazing traffic lights beneath me, I started thinking about you again. 

Holding a pen in between my fingers, its tip resting on the last page of my blue leather notebook, ink in drizzles across the page, I thought about what you said a long time ago at the planetarium. 

Perhaps, we don’t write to be remembered, but write to remember instead.  Lying on bed last night, I thought about what you’d said for a long, long time.

Categories: Fiction

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