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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

"Take Another Road," Chapter 5

Here it is...Chapter 5 of "Take Another Road."  As before, the previous chapters are on the older posts; enjoy, and let me know your thoughts!

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Chapter 5--Meetings

            Dear Kira:  Today has been a quiet day, compared to Thursday.  Meeting Minoru and Asuka yesterday was rewarding.  They are such an interesting, and attractive couple.  Asuka was a little shy, but I found her very nice; then to see Minoru again at the shop, that was even more fascinating.

            I’m sure you know my thoughts Kira, but I must put them into words.  Minoru is dark and mysterious, yet I had a most pleasant conversation with him.  There is this romantic aura that surrounds Minoru, in the way he speaks, how he conducts himself, and his reading material. 

            The Poe book he carries with him has been read many times, I could tell.  That it was a gift from his late mother, I can see why he keeps it close.  I think Minoru is bearing his mother’s loss well, though he remains saddened by it.  He does, like Kaz seem to come alive through his music, as does Kaldera. 

            Kaz is much as you remember him, at least when he is not playing music.  I recall so many people, especially his parents talking when they thought he could not hear, about how awkward Kaz was.  You and I both know well about his shyness; he needs time to warm up to others, the same way I am told Asuka does. 

            I do know how much being that way hurts Kaz; he does not display his confidence well, because he doesn’t know he has it.  Yet he rises to the occasion, when needed, or called upon.  To hear him play and sing yesterday was special; Kaldera has indeed helped him.

            Now Kaldera is one of those very unusual, yet engaging characters; I wish you could have stayed longer and met him.  Though a foreigner, Kaldera walks through this land as if he were a native; he is so comfortable in his own skin.  I am still trying to figure out what he meant last night:  he sees himself as a gatherer, a bringer of disparate ones together.  His music is not religious in nature, but it is spiritual in a way, and that has something to do with Kaldera’s makeup. 

            The dreamcatcher tattoo is the one thing that stands out; people always ask him what it means.   I know it has to do with the Native Americans, and I think Kaldera has some of that in him, though he’s never mentioned what tribe he is descended from.  Just like Minoru, Kaldera is so complex, a mystery…

            Aimi set her writing aside, and leaned back on the top step of her porch.  It was mid-afternoon, and Aimi was alone.  She was not needed at the shop today; Kaz was doing some work for Kaldera, Mei was at her martial arts class, and Midori had a club meeting after school.

            As she sat, Aimi surveyed the street.  This neighborhood, the one she’d lived in all her life, was one of the working class districts; nearly all the houses here were built after the war and placed very close together, with no real setback from the narrow street.  They also looked alike, built as they were with traditional wood-frame supports and heavy, tiled roofs.  In fact, Aimi and her friends’ homes were laid out almost exactly the same inside; the joke was they would walk into the wrong houses by mistake, if each of the three did not have different-colored trim.

            Aimi turned the cuffs of her shorts up so each leg was even with the other, adjusted her leg warmers below her knees, and leaned forward.  Her cleaning chores had been accomplished, and for once there was no homework.  Exams would begin on Monday, but there would be plenty of time to study over the weekend.  Aimi thought of Saturday as well; it would be a half-day at school, and then later everyone would go to Tanaka’s to see Kaldera perform.

            Something else occupied Aimi’s thoughts this day as well.  She again looked at her surroundings.  Perhaps it is too soon to be thinking this way; Mom and Dad have never pressured me, but like Kaz, I wonder what I am to do with my life.  Do any of us really know?

            I don’t possess the artistic skills Mom and Dad have.  I love being with them and working for them, but I can’t do that forever.  I keep thinking there must be something more to life than just that.

            I love to read, yes, but I am no writer.  I should like to study at university, but I don’t think much of my prospects.  My grades in school are not top of the class, though they are good; but that is not enough to gain acceptance.  The entrance exams will be hard, and I hear the competition to get into any university is almost vicious.  Then there’s the money; we just don’t have it.

            Mom and Dad never speak of it around me, but I know how difficult it is to pay the mortgage and taxes on this home, not to mention those on the shop.  They always do pull it off, but I can feel, without actually knowing how hard it is.  Dad often jokes about being a day older and a day poorer, but sometimes it’s the truth.  I don’t want to be a burden to them; yet, what can I do, when I don’t even know how to support myself?

            Asuka was walking, as Minoru might have quoted, in a strange city.  She had not seen Minoru at the end of the school day, as he had left right after the final bell to go to work with Kaldera and Kaz.

            They did have their morning time in the courtyard (again, Homoka and Masami had withdrawn from conversation and earshot), whereupon Minoru apologized for his abrupt behavior of the night before.  Asuka had to forgive him; the apology was so well meant.

            “There is nothing to be sorry for, Minoru,” she told him.  “I came on too strongly last night, and that was not fair to you.  I am the one to blame.”

            “You are blameless then, too,” Minoru replied, and his smile would have disarmed anyone, even her father.  All seemed well again, and Asuka felt better.  The day passed without fanfare; she would have exams to study for this weekend, but the night at her father’s club would be a good break.  Seeing her new acquaintances again would also be interesting; by how they spoke, Asuka gathered they might never have been to such a place as this. 

            But now, Asuka had a more immediate concern on her mind.  Daisuke had called to inform her that he was taking Keru to a meeting in another part of the city, and would not be able to pick her up at school.  Asuka had responded she would take the bus home; today however, Asuka had gotten off her particular line earlier than usual. 

            At first, Asuka thought nothing of it; the walk should not be that much further, and she wanted more time to think about things.  In her house, Asuka often felt she couldn’t think properly, and she didn’t know why.  Perhaps there was too much activity there, or her parents were in such close proximity; Asuka was unsure.

            She had not gone far when Asuka realized she did not know where she was.  This was an alien part of the city to her; none of the landmarks or street names were familiar. 

            On top of this, it looked like she had strayed into a rough neighborhood:  all the homes, plus the few small stores and businesses she saw were old.  Many had peeling paint, and several of the roofs looked long overdue for repair.  The vehicles on the streets were mostly secondhand, or just plain old.  I knew poverty was a problem in this country, but I’ve never really seen it, except on the news.  Some of these homes look desperate; are the people who live in them the same way?

            The population in this area was different, as well:  most were Japanese, with the odd Chinese, Korean and other nationalities; but most of the residents were dressed in work or old-looking clothes, and the younger set mostly wore street gear. 

            A group of them, boys of her age or younger were congregated on a street corner in front of a convenience store; they weren’t blocking the sidewalk or causing any trouble, they were just there.  Asuka didn’t think they were gang members, but some of them looked pretty tough.

            The eyes of the boys and some of the men were on her as she walked, and Asuka became worried.  No one said or did anything, but their looks--were they just checking her out, or were they thinking something else?

            Clenching her fist around the strap of her school bag, Asuka kept walking and tried to act like she knew where she was going.  But she didn’t, and she was scared; Asuka rarely had walked the streets outside her home neighborhood, and almost never alone.  If she had to make a run for it, she would; Asuka had been in training for field hockey, and was one of the faster members of her team.  She knew she could outrun nearly anybody, even in her school shoes. 

            Asuka also resisted the urge to call her father.  That wouldn’t do; he would panic, and become very upset with me.  I’ll find my way out of here.  It can’t be far.

            A voice called her name, and she looked up.  Directly ahead, Asuka saw a girl standing on the porch of one of the houses, waving to her.  It was Aimi, the girl she’d met yesterday.  Asuka took a deep breath and slowed her pace as she approached; she didn’t want to give Aimi the wrong idea about what she thought of this place.

            Aimi came down to the street, and the two exchanged hellos.  “How are you?”  Aimi asked, her smile a welcoming one.

            Asuka smiled back with relief, and returned the girl’s polite bow.  “I’m fine, thank you,” she replied, “but I’m afraid I’ve become a little lost.  How much further is it to Hakuho Avenue?”  Asuka had mentioned one of the main roads along the Metro that led to her neighborhood.

            “Oh, it’s not that far.”  Aimi turned and motioned further up the street.  “It is just three blocks, and then you’ll see the intersection.”

            “Great, thank you,” Asuka replied.  “I got off my bus a little earlier than I normally would,” she explained, “and I don’t know this area that well.”

            Aimi continued to smile.  “I’m glad I could help,” she said.  “Hey, why don’t you come in and have tea with me?  I was just about to make some.” 

            “Oh…well, okay.”  Asuka didn’t want to impose, but Aimi had helped her, and she realized this was a chance to find out more about Minoru’s friends.  She also found she liked Aimi; there was real, and genuine warmth that just came from this girl.

            On their way up the steps, Aimi scooped up what looked to Asuka like a small notebook.  As they removed their shoes just inside the front door, Aimi said, “Please, make yourself at home,” and pointed to the living room.

            Asuka went in and took a seat on the couch.  The room was so small, she thought; there was barely enough space for the furniture and low table.  The television was small and very old by the look of it.  She noted the house seemed immaculate, but what attracted her attention was what covered much of the white painted walls:  there were numerous drawings, paintings and other artwork. 

            She looked to her left.  “Do you need any help?”  Asuka called, as she could see into the kitchen, which was even smaller than this room by the look of it. 

            “I’m fine,” Aimi called, “this won’t take long.”

            Asuka stood and went to the wall that faced her.  One of the drawings above the TV had especially caught her eye.  About the size of a regular sheet of paper, it was of an ancient samurai and what looked to be a noblewoman, based on her dress.  There was an inscription in Kanji, but the colors and the care taken in the drawing of the characters was remarkable. 

            She continued to look at some of the calligraphy and other works; then Asuka heard the tea kettle, and returned to the couch.  Aimi entered the room a moment later, two cups in one hand, and a steaming pot with a wooden handle in the other.  “I hope Sencha is all right for you.”

            “Oh, yes,” Asuka replied, as they sat on the couch.  After Aimi finished serving, Asuka said, “I have been looking at the paintings here; these are really beautiful.”

            “Mom’s work,” Aimi explained, and she smiled proudly.  “She is one of the best.”

            Asuka chuckled.  “Well, that doesn’t just sound like her daughter speaking.  Really, that one,” she indicated the samurai, “is wonderful.  Did your mother go to school for that?”
            “Oh, no.”  Aimi shook her head and replied, “She was taught by my grandmother.  Is the tea okay?”

            Asuka was in the act of sipping the green tea, and so did not answer right away.  “Yes,” she said, “perfect.  I really appreciate your hospitality.”

            “It’s the least I can do,” Aimi said.  “Besides, I’m glad to get to see you again.”

            “You are?”  Asuka returned Aimi’s smile.  She’s so sweet; I saw that yesterday.  She seems not to know that she’s poor, and yet Aimi is so unaffected by it; but I remember Mom once said that the outside of a home is not to be judged.  It is inside where one feels what the home, and the people who live inside it, are really like.  I feel that here. 

            “Well,” Asuka added, “I’m sorry we didn’t get to talk much yesterday, with the music and everything.  I admit I’m also a little shy around people I first meet.”

            “That’s all right,” Aimi said as she sipped her drink. “I found you and Minoru both very charming.  I’m glad Kaz has found such friends as he and Kaldera; you as well.”

            “Actually, I had not met Kaz until yesterday,” Asuka admitted.  “He seems a nice boy; are you and he close?”

            “He lives next door,” Aimi said.  “He, Mei and I all grew up on this street.  We’ve been friends since we became aware of the world around us.  For me,” she added, “they have always been here.”

            “That’s how it is with Minoru and me,” Asuka explained, “at least to some extent.  His mother worked for my father, and my grandfather; she and Mom were friends for many years, and Minoru and I were around one another since we were babies.”

            “I felt a closeness there, between you two,” Aimi said, “and Minoru is such a gentleman.  You must feel very lucky.”

            Asuka sighed.  “Yes,” she replied, “but there is nothing going on there.  Nothing ‘intimate,’ I suppose is what I’m trying to say.  I do love him, I cannot deny that; but Minoru is rather careful about our relationship.  I think,” she continued, “Minoru is concerned about losing our friendship, and also what Father thinks.”

            “Thinks?”  Aimi’s expression became confused.

            Asuka slowly put her cup down, unsure of how to continue.  She rarely spoke so freely, especially to those she didn’t know that well. 

            Aimi seemed to have sensed this, and she reached out and touched Asuka’s arm.  “I’m sorry,” she said, “I don’t mean to pry; you don’t have to tell me.”

            “No, it’s not like that.”  Asuka felt Aimi’s touch; her hand was warm, and she knew Aimi was trying to understand.  Placing her free hand over Aimi’s, she explained, “My father is rather class-conscious.  He is set in his ways; Father believes that people of certain classes should not mix together.”

            Aimi’s eyes showed Asuka that she wasn’t quite sure what that meant, either.  “So,” Aimi posed, “he is old-fashioned?”

            “That is a polite way of saying it.  Please don’t misunderstand,” Asuka continued, “Father is a good man; he works hard, and he has all his life.  He tends to believe that people of a certain place should not rise above it.  I think Minoru is afraid of that.”

            “In what way?”

            “Minoru’s mother, Ebissan was an amazing lady,” Asuka told her.  “She rose from a mere office girl just out of high school, to a position of management through the years.  Ebi, as everyone called her, was devoted to her work, and to Minoru.” 

            Asuka thought for a moment, then said, “Minoru mentioned he saw you at your parents’ shop yesterday; did he say anything about Ebi?”

            Aimi nodded.  “He said his mother died,” she replied, “and that his father’s not around much.”

            Asuka’s eyes widened.  “He said what?” She asked in surprise.  “That is very strange.  Minoru doesn’t know his father.”

            There was a long silence, as both girls digested this information from two different points of view.  “Then why,” Aimi asked at length, “did he tell me his father was ‘out of the picture?’  Perhaps that is his way of saying he didn’t know the man?”

            “That could be,” Asuka said.  “Ebi never mentioned him,” she went on, “and my understanding was that he left her before Minoru was born.  You see, Ebi never married; she was so ashamed by what had occurred, but she would not give Minoru up for adoption.  She worked very hard to secure a good life for him; that is what killed her.”

            Asuka noted that Aimi was fascinated by the story, but also saddened, more than the average listener might be.  The girl’s plain, but attractive face had taken on the sorrow of the tale, without being directly involved.  “How did she die,” Aimi questioned, “if I may ask?”

            “Ebi worked herself to death,” Asuka replied, “she was only 33.  You may have heard how in this country some young people are so keen to succeed, they work incredibly long hours, often at the risk of their health?”

            “Yes,” Aimi said.  “I read a story in the paper about that recently.  It had to do with young men and women who seemed in the prime of health, but who suddenly collapsed because of their work schedules.”

            Asuka gave a firm nod.  “That is what happened to Ebi,” she said.  “Ebi worked long, long hours, sometimes so many that Father had to order her to go home, or to take vacation.  He worried over her; finally, she collapsed one day.  They say,” Asuka added, “Ebi was dead before she hit the floor.”

            Aimi shook her head sadly.  “That is awful,” she said.  Aimi had looked away, and in that brief moment, Asuka saw Aimi’s profile change.  It had become deeply saddened, but barely a second later, Aimi turned back to Asuka. 

            “How is Minoru handling this?”  She asked.  “He told me he was all right, but I sensed that is not always the case.”

            Asuka still wondered what she had just seen from Aimi; she was not concern, but puzzled.  “Minoru is the same most days,” she answered, “but I too feel that her death still pains him,” she replied.  “I cannot do much about that, but be his friend.  Father has looked after Minoru as well, but I think that is where we return to what we spoke of earlier.”

            She accepted a refill from Aimi, then continued, “Because Ebissan came from the working class, Minoru fears he will never be able to achieve what his mother did.  Ebissan rose above her station, by her work ethic and sense of duty.  He has never said this in so many words, but I wonder if Minoru fears he will never be able to prove himself in my family’s eyes as his mother did.  Perhaps that is why he is physically distant with me; he is afraid to lose what he has.”

            Aimi had finished filling her own cup, when she put her arm around Asuka.  The girl looked into Asuka’s eyes, and Asuka found herself looking back into them.  Her eyes were dark, expressive just like her face, and there was a depth to them.  Minoru is the only one I know with eyes like these; she does understand, somehow.

            “I can’t say,” Aimi said, “that I know what that sort of thing is like.  My roots and my existence are humble ones; my parents do not concern themselves over things such as class or social standing, because we see no need.  Mom and Dad come in contact with people from all walks of life through their business, and so have I.  We just see each person for who they are.  Minoru, I can imagine,” she went on after a pause, “must be in a difficult place.”

            “I never thought of it like that,” Asuka replied, “but Minoru does not have to think that way, if he even does.  My parents do hold Minoru in high regard, just as they did Ebissan.  That said,” Asuka continued as she carefully set her cup on the table, “we cannot tell Minoru that, and make him believe it.”

            “I think,” Aimi said, “the best thing you can do as a friend Asuka, is to be there for him.  It is obvious he cares very much for you; it may be that he doesn’t want to let you into that space, because he fears it will hurt you or bring you down.  Minoru seems to care very much for others, but not so much himself.”

            Asuka listened and thought about this as she sipped the tea.  She also liked the feeling of Aimi’s arm around her; it felt good. 

            “You are very smart, Aimi,” she said, and she placed her free arm around Aimi’s shoulders.  “You see things differently than I do, but you see them better.  I’m really glad I got lost today,” she added.

            The two laughed, and Aimi said, “I am glad you did, too.  I liked you immediately yesterday, and I knew we would be friends.”

            “You are too kind.”  Asuka rested her head against Aimi’s, and she felt the girl’s arms take hold of her.  She closed her eyes, and held the moment to herself.  Asuka had never felt like this before with a girl; she had never felt an attraction like this before, with Masami, Homoka or any of her teammates.  They were her friends to be sure, but this was different; a good kind of different, Asuka thought.

             After the teacups and utensils were taken into the kitchen, Aimi led Asuka back to the bedroom.  Asuka found this room was not much bigger than a walk-in closet:  Aimi’s platform bed, dresser and desk took up nearly all the room.  There was only one small, square window, and the dark green paint made the room seem even tinier.  Some more of Madoka’s drawings, and pinups of a couple of actors adorned the walls.  Whatever the circumstance, it reminded Asuka of a girl’s bedroom.

            As they sat on the bed, Asuka noticed a photograph on the top portion of Aimi’s desk.  The picture was of two girls, one of them definitely a younger version of Aimi.  “Who is this?”  She asked, as she pointed to the photo.

            Aimi turned.  “Oh, that’s Kira,” she replied.  “She grew up on our street, too.  That picture was taken at school, about three years ago; Kira moved away not long after that.”

            Asuka nodded as she took in the shot.  Both girls were dressed in what looked like junior high school uniforms, and their hair was the same cut; even without this, Asuka marveled to herself at how alike Aimi and Kira looked. 

            She turned and looked back to Aimi.  “You were good friends, then, like with Kaz and Mei?”

            “Yes.”  There was silence, and Asuka watched as Aimi’s smile vanished, and she looked off to a point on the wooden floor.

            “I am sorry,” Asuka said quickly, “I didn’t mean to bring it up; you miss her, don’t you?”

            “Yes, but it is not a problem.”  Aimi smiled, but it was still a very sad one to Asuka.  “Kira was a great friend,” she explained, “just like them.  I do miss her, but one learns to live with these things.  I think Minoru is doing that as well, in his own way.”

            Asuka looked at her watch.  “Oh, I must get going,” she said.  “Father’s going to be worried about me.”  She pulled out her cell phone and began to text a message.

            “Well, let me walk you out, so you don’t get lost again.”  Laughing, the two rose to go out front just as the door opened and Madoka walked in.  After greetings, Aimi introduced Asuka to her mother, who made mention of the latter’s admiration of her work.

            “Thank you so much,” Madoka replied, and she bowed to Asuka.  “But these are just little things.  Is there one you specifically liked?”

            Asuka nodded.  “The one with the samurai was beautiful, Okuda-san, but these are hardly little.  They are really well done.”

            “Very nice of you to say.”  Madoka went to the frame, took it down from the wall, and walked back over.  “For you,” she said, as she offered it to Asuka.

            Asuka’s jaw dropped.  “Oh, I couldn’t accept this,” she replied, “that’s far too much.”

            “Nothing’s ever too nice for any friend of my daughter’s,” Madoka said as she placed it in Asuka’s hands.  “My thanks, and compliments.”

            Aimi had returned to the kitchen to refill the teapot with water.  Over her shoulder, she viewed the exchange between her mother and Asuka, and she smiled.  She could tell Asuka was stunned, but she did accept the frame, and thanked Madoka very much for it. 

            “The kettle is on for you, Mom,” Aimi said as she joined Asuka in putting on their shoes.  “I’ll just see Asuka out.”

            “Good.”  On their way out the door, Madoka then called, “Be safe, and we will see you tomorrow night.”

            Asuka held the frame to her as they walked up the street.  “Aimi, your mother is so generous,” she said, “I’ve never met anyone like her.”

            Aimi smiled and put her arm around Asuka.  “That’s Mom,” she explained.  “She has a way of letting go of things; she never over-values her possessions or her works.  She was most happy, though, at the look on your face!  That was priceless.”

            Asuka grinned and shook her head.  She was about to speak, when she looked up suddenly.  Aimi followed her gaze; a silver luxury car was coming down the street, the same one that picked Asuka up the day before.  Turning to Asuka, Aimi saw that her expression had reversed and changed to worry…or was it something else?

            The Jaguar pulled to a quick stop at the curb; Aimi could not see past the tinted windows, but the passenger door opened and a large man in a very expensive suit got out.  He addressed Asuka as he approached them, “We received your message, Asuka.  Are you all right?”

            Asuka looked scared, but she replied, “Yes, Father.  I took a walk a different way, and met my friend, Aimi.”  She introduced Aimi to Keru, who looked down at her from his height.

            Aimi held her ground, but just barely; this was a big man, and a most intimidating one, from his size as well as his countenance.  She remembered to be polite, however; Keru was as well, once satisfied that Asuka was all right.  He shook Aimi’s hand and bowed.  “Thank you very much for looking after my daughter,” he said, “most kind of you.”  Then to Asuka he said, “We must go.”

            “Yes, Father.”  Asuka had nodded in assent, but to Aimi it looked and sounded like she was complying with an order.  

            Asuka then turned to her.  “Thank you again, Aimi,” she said, “and thank your mother as well.”  She quickly hugged Aimi, and added, “I’ll see you Saturday, right?”

            Aimi returned the embrace.  “Of course, see you then.”  She watched as the driver, a well-dressed younger man with dark glasses opened the rear door to let Asuka in.  He then nodded politely to Aimi, and got back behind the wheel.  The car made a quick U-turn, and headed back the way it had come.

            Aimi stood there for a long moment.  She didn’t want to think Asuka was in any kind of trouble, but somehow Aimi felt she was.  Her father did not look to be in a good mood; that, coupled with how Asuka had described the man didn’t make Aimi feel any better.

            The wind shifted, and the world turned cold.  Aimi put her arms around herself, and slowly walked back to her house.  She wondered if the eye Keru had given her was meant the way it felt:  he looked at me like I was some kind of street urchin, or worse.  I don’t think he liked me; but that’s silly, he doesn’t even know who I am.  Based on what Asuka told me, I suppose that is his way.

            As she climbed the steps of her home, Aimi wondered about her meeting of Keru, and just what Asuka was dealing with as well.

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