Outside the window, it had begun to rain again, another passing shower. Through gaps in the clouds, the sun shone, making the raindrops sparkle in a ring of pure magic.
"Ruri, your mom and dad have been in love since they were in high school. That is so cool! What's going to happen to me and my boyfriend? I'm worried. I am so worried, I can't stop eating!"
Kaoru said, as she crammed the last of the fried potatoes into her mouth. Every day after school, a lot of the high school kids would hang out at the A&W nearby. I always had a root beer and fries. Kaoru always had orange juice and a hot dog. Lately, though, Kaoru sometimes ordered a hamburger with sides, and even a muffin on top of that.
She was dating a boy from another high school in the area. He was ahead of her in school. Next spring, he would be going to a specialty school on the main island of Honshu. She was a mess about that. She looked like she could be a model. He was not tall, and he often walked a little behind her. He was the picture of kindness and consideration, not someone she would have to worry about.
"We have Zoom and everything. You're gonna be fine!"
How many times had I had to cheer her up, I thought, draining the root beer that made me think of rain clouds. But she would just moan, things like, "It won't work out if we can't see each other at least once a week," and "I'm sure he'll fall for some other girl." Honestly, she was a mess.
Even though I was there for her, she couldn't see herself as anything except his girlfriend. If he was now a bowl of curry, I was just a spoonful of chutney. The fact is, the only time I had her to myself after school was the two days a week when he had extra classes.
Why didn't I have a boyfriend? Was there no one I liked enough? It may have seemed strange, but there was no way I could ever look Kaoru in the eye and tell the truth about this question. "Just being with you makes me happy." Sometimes these words could get as far as my throat, but they never came out.
"Did your parents ever hit a slump, Ruri? Your mom was the prettiest girl in her class, wasn't she? Didn't she come from Honshu?"
"What are you talking about? I have no interest whatsoever in my parents' 'love story.'"
"Oh, okay. I just think it's cool, your parents' story. They still act like lovers, don't you think? I think that is so cool!"
My mom was only 22 when she had me. They would never tell me this, but my mom was pregnant with me before they got married. I don't think that is so terrible. Like mom says, it was God's will. But as I myself get closer to that age, it seems to have faded into the background. We seem so distant now.
The A&W clock was pointing to five.
"Oh, crap! The ferry! I gotta get going! Living on an island is such a pain! Gotta run!"
Kaoru used to be on the track team, so she could run down to the ferry dock in about three minutes, but it would always take me ten no matter how fast I tried to go. "See you tomorrow," I said, waving to her as I ran out into the rain.
Cicadas were chirping all around, pulling me back to the here-and-now. As I ran and ran, the ring of light from the sky closed around me and wouldn't let me go. My legs felt heavier than usual. I could hardly run. I could never allow myself to miss the ferry just to hang out with Kaoru. I felt like such a boring person.
"Hey, Ruri! No need to hurry so much! You're going to trip!"
Tamashiro, the ferry pilot, with his sunburned face, was sucking on a cigarette as I passed him as he sauntered down the wharf. The high-speed ferry, rocking on the swells, was waiting for me. I showed my pass to the attendant, and as I boarded the boat, the old man closed the door. He sat down in the pilot's seat and revved up the engine. Slowly the ferry turned to its course, picked up speed, and began to hydroplane.
The boat was lively with tourists, and shoppers returning to the island with their purchases. Up on the deck, the wind tossed my carefully arranged bangs, exposing my forehead. The bow sliced the sea in two, turning the water into a road, and wetting my face with salty spray. The scent of the sea. The sound and smell of the sea were steeped in my bones.
This view from the deck was my favorite thing. I had seen it hundreds of times, but I could never be bored of it. Coming and going the view was pretty much the same, but it was the return trip that was my very favorite. That would never change, I was sure. At some point, the rain stopped, and the sea turned orange with the sunset.
When I got home, my dad was at the outside spigot washing his face and hair. He had been working in the fields, harvesting sugar cane. He shut off the spigot, and slapped clouds of dust from his work clothes that were lying on the bench. They smelled of late summer: sweat and cut grass and motor oil.
“Oh! Ruri! Welcome home!”
"How's the new semester? Did you have fun at school?"
"Kind of. Well, it was okay I guess. It was just a normal sort of fun."
"Hmm. Normal... Something not quite right? When we were your age, that was really the 'springtime of our lives.' Wouldn't you say, Shō?"
He was yelling toward the kitchen, but my mom couldn't hear him, because of the noise the fan was making. Dad was sharp enough to recognize what was missing in my answer. He kept talking as he started up the washing machine. If this was the best time of my life, what kind of future could I possibly have? I was hoping the best was still ahead of me.
I knew that my mom had changed schools in the summer of her second year in high school, and that was when my dad fell in love with her. By "knew," what I mean is that is what my neighbors and relatives would tell me after they had a few drinks at a festival or memorial ceremony. Hearing talk like this, my dad would say things like,
"I knew the first time I saw her, she was the girl for me."
This was unusually talkative for him.
My mom was new to the island, and it seems she was as cute as could be. Dad's childhood friends would go on: "She was like an angel who came from the moon." They loved cheesy clichés. They would say she practically radiated. "She still looks like Namie Amuro," one of these old guys would say, but I wasn't buying it. Now my mom was a typical Okinawan mom: plump and toasty brown.
My dad and his pals liked to get pickled, and then they would all pass out in the living room. My mom really was an angel. She would cover them with blankets, muttering to herself what idiots men were.
Now my dad was folding laundry, standing where he could see my mom as she cleaned up from dinner. He was drinking the Orion beer that he had carefully poured into two glasses: one for him, one for mom. I don't know about other people's parents, but Kaoru might be right when she said my parents still acted like two people in love.
My brother Kento was doing his homework at the table. He was already in middle school, but the kitchen table was the only place he could get his homework done. My grandma had bought him a really special desk, but he just used it to pile stuff up on. This was proof that kids who can do their work can do it anyplace.
After my bath, I drank the apple juice we had gotten as a summer gift from Aomori, and reflected on my day, which was both normal and special, because my parents and my brother were there. Although the same blood ran through our veins, we were different people. We were alike in some ways, and so different in others. The four of us lived together, and at times I found it odd. If my parents had paired up with other people, would I have been a different person? Or not? My dad says it was fate, but it was easier for me to believe it was just circumstances.
"Ruri, your teacher might just be calling it a one-on-one meeting, but it's about time for you to be thinking about what you want to do with your future."
I was being thoughtless, but my mom's words went straight for the target. I didn't want to be like Kaoru, whose parents didn't seem to care a thing about her, but it was also a pain to have to hear the same thing over and over, month after month. This was why I was so depressed lately, no matter what I did.
"You don't have to do what we tell you to. Do what you want to do."
"Yeah, that's what dad says too. My dreams are big. I should give it a go."
The two of them were on the same page. It could be the two of them didn't see the risks behind these words.
"What I want ... to do."
"If you don't know yet what you want to do, maybe you should go to college for a while."
Is that what they had done? Had they done what they wanted to do? If I do what I want to do, would that make me happy?
"Shouldn't it be the other way around? Don't people go to college after they decide what it is they want to be?"
Kento said, looking up from his homework. I wondered about his goals, but he never shared them with me. Kento had passed the exam to go to a middle school that took him 90 minutes to get to, each way. When he took the exam, all the relatives were crowing about having such a smart kid in the family, but I wasn't so surprised. From the time he was little, I was sure that Kento would be able to escape island life. Even for those of us who were born here, island life suited some people, and it didn't suit others. Kento could tell he had to do what he had to do to get away, and he was doing it.
"What about you, mom? You lived in Tokyo until the summer of your second year of high school, didn't you? What did you want to do when you graduated?"
"I must have had some dreams. But that was a long time ago. I can't remember."
That's how she always managed to dodge the question. I thought it was unfair of her to always ask about other people's dreams and never to share her own. Or was it that youth was the only time for people to have dreams and aspirations? When people become adults, become parents, do they let go of their dreams? Do they disappear? Had my mom never had dreams of her own? Had she never loved anything other than dad?
"Today, Kaoru asked if you guys never had a 'slump.' You've been together since high school. It's almost too much. Were you each other's first loves?"
Mom checked that my dad was in the bath. She seemed uncomfortable to be talking about this.
"The truth is, your dad professed his love for me five times."
"What? That's incredible!"
"Kind of. Most people would give up after three times. But your dad was so tenacious, swearing he would make me happy my whole life. What do high school students know about their 'whole life'? So we started going together, not knowing what the future might bring. But over time, I was surprised to see, we were really happy, every day. Your dad really is like a kid, don't you think? We've been together a long time, but I have never wanted to leave him. It's like our high school years have gone on forever. Twenty years gone by, in the blink of an eye."
Twenty years in the blink of an eye. It was like a fairy tale that really happened. I don't even think my friends will last that long.
"My friends’ moms say boys from other schools would come to hang around the school gate just to look at you.”
Mom looked at me like I was a five-year-old and said, “I had transferred from a different school, so I was the newcomer. You're much cuter than I ever was."
"No need to flatter me like that! All parents think their own kids are cute."
"The truth is, I always hated it, being called cute."
"What are you talking about? You hated it?"
"It just seemed so superficial to me. I was pretty unhappy about it. It made me wonder about people. All I could think was, if I wasn't cute, nobody would be nice to me. Was my appearance the only thing people cared about? There was a big part of me that wanted a deeper connection."
She couldn't be talking about dad, could she? Maybe at first the attraction was superficial, but surely he grew to love everything about mom. Even if mom had looked different, I'm sure that over time they would ended up the same way they are now.
My homeroom teacher, Ms. Sano, always tells me, "You have to think hard to know what you like."
What do I like, what do I like? Rolling this over in my mind, the first thing that comes to mind is this island, and Okinawa. I can't picture myself ever leaving. That might be just an excuse for not having the courage to go anywhere. I am not beautiful like my mom and Kaoru. I don't have the kind of nonchalance that would attract someone like my dad. I can't say things clearly the way Kento can. I couldn't think of a single thing that was mine alone, nothing that only I could do.