Yumi Suzuki decided she’d throw herself in front of a train on a warm, sunny day. She came to this conclusion sitting in her apartment, watching the weather forecast for the next week. It rained for the last five days, and if the forecast was correct – she’d see the sun tomorrow.
Forty hours of her week slugged by at a French restaurant in Roppongi Hills – a few streets away from her apartment. She’d developed a habit of drifting off during her shifts and figured there wasn’t much of a difference between being dead or alive. Yumi thought of herself as an upright, animated corpse going through the motions. The manager agreed, and a particular memory sprung into Yumi’s mind often:
“Suzuki,” said the restaurant manager, in a deep voice, with one hand on her shoulder, “Smile. You’ll drive off the customers otherwise. This is a restaurant, not a funeral parlor.”
“Stand up straight, you’re slouching.”
“Your hair. Fix it.”
In the wide-paned glass window of the restaurant, peering out into Tokyo’s nightly light show, Yumi pulled a half-baked smile and brushed her fringe from her eyes. That was the best she could muster.
She lived in a studio apartment dominated by a kotatsu, which doubled as a table and bedding. And on the other side, against the wall, rested a modest, third-hand TV. The wooden floor functioned as Yumi’s wardrobe. Scattered art pieces hung on the walls. Impersonal frames. Washed out lilies and roses. To an outsider, the apartment seemed nothing more than an amalgamation of clothes, food scraps and pill containers. On a square meter balcony, Yumi imagined the feeling of falling, carving through the air like a meteor entering Earth’s atmosphere. Many years ago, her then-psychologist diagnosed her with a chronic form of depression – dysthymia, and balconies became ever so dangerous.
A handful of people called in a month. Yumi stuck to texts instead, mostly to keep informed about changes to her shifts. However, an odd text from her manager popped into her inbox, three weeks prior – a text more likely traded between lovers. Yumi dismissed it as an accident and didn’t respond. Yet, it lingered somewhere in her subconscious mind. However, at three in the afternoon, someone called. Foreign. She didn’t recognize the number. Her contact list was small enough to index all the numbers in her head. Yumi lingered for some time, wishing the mobile would die. Whether that came from a dead battery or a disillusioned caller didn’t matter. The phone rang four times. On the fifth ring, Yumi answered.
“Ah, hello! You finally picked up. This is Suzuki-san, right?” asked a bright, pleasant voice.
“My name is Okada Sakura. Do you remember me?”
Okada Sakura. Yumi recalled the name, but not the face attached to it.
“Class 3A. We sat next to each other in the back-left of the classroom,” Sakura continued, “You’d share notes with me whenever I skipped class.”
A tall socialite popped into her mind. Yumi never considered Sakura a friend. At most, they were acquaintances, occasionally exchanging words about anything outside of classwork. However, on a particular morning, she covered for Sakura’s truancy – using an off handed white lie. With an after-class meeting and with a few clear ups, Sakura got off the hook.
“I remember,” Yumi said.
“Wonderful. I haven’t spoken to you in ages. Could we catch up, say, at six, today?”
Yumi’s first instinct kicked in.
“Um,” Yumi muttered, and started tapping the back of her phone. “I’m not sure I can-“
Yumi quietened and tried convincing herself. They weren’t too close, but Sakura wasn’t a bad person. A part of Yumi wanted to know more about the person on the phone. People changed in different ways, and change was an inevitable force. Often times, how people changed was more important than why or if. Aside from that, sooner or later – Tokyo would shine under the sun’s warmth, and it wouldn’t matter too much. In a sense, that was also a source of motivation.
“Great! You’re in Tokyo, right?”
“I know a nice café in Harajuku. I’ll text you the address.”
The call ended.
The last time Yumi had an outing with anyone was over a year ago – a stray workplace gathering. Management called it recreation. Yumi thought that the whole event was more like a shift without the uniforms. She spent some time idling, with her feet tucked under the kotatsu, vacantly peering into a black mirror – an everchanging universe tucked away behind wires, plastic, and glass.
An hour before the scheduled time, Yumi took a shower. The glass steamed up, spurred by blistering-hot water. A phone alarm went off, reminding her of finite time. If she could, she’d spend her entire life in there, dreaming of ‘would-bes’ and ‘could’ves’. A choice here and over there could’ve swung the pendulum to a different trajectory. The baseline hung low. She didn’t play her cards right. Perhaps, she was playing Shogi against Yoshiharu Habu – the margins of error infinitesimal – with a royal flush in her hand.
After scalping an acceptable outfit from the floor – Yumi looked well enough to pass as an ordinary citizen. A crinkled dark blue woolen sweater and long pants were enough to cover her undernourished frame. Yumi never wore makeup, accessories, or jewelry – tangible badges of high status. She took a cab to the address texted.
At six, Yumi stood outside a chic establishment. A jazzed rendition of DJ Okawari’s Flower Dance played through high-quality speakers, mingling with the sound of passing cars. The scent of fresh coffee beans drifted from the interior. A new establishment. It aimed for a youthful audience. A relaxing place after passing hours in lit-up clothing stores. Fifteen minutes later, Sakura arrived, in a half-sprint down the sidewalk, handbag flailing against the wind.
“S-Sorry I’m late, something came up at work,” she said, pressing her hands together. “I’ll make it up to you. Let’s go inside.”
Sakura retained her qualities from high school. An anomaly for Japanese women – she stood a tad under one hundred and eighty centimeters tall. Much of this stemmed from her parent’s differing ethnicities. She carried a sparkling expression and stood upright, lacking a hint of a slouch. Sakura wore a bright pink dress, matching shoes, a branded crème handbag and a necklace with a small green gem at its core. Yumi had the impression that she had just walked off a movie set.
The interior of the café matched Yumi’s outfit, clean and saturated with darker colors. She wondered if she would vanish into the walls, hidden.
“I’ll go order. No need to split the bill. What’re you feeling?” Sakura asked.
“I’ll get a black coffee, please. I can split the bill.”
Sakura denied the proposal with a wave.
“You drink black coffee?”
“It’s a bit strong for my taste, but regardless, I’ll be back.”
Yumi looked out the window and watched the people traverse, paths intersecting like Tokyo’s subway system. It was an irrefutable fact that she was surrounded by many, many people. Tokyo was home to nine million residents. Yet, every time she passed someone on the street, she’d only see an empty slate – a blank paper cut out. She was the same.
Sakura returned with two black coffees. Dark black liquid filled each cup to the brim. No crème, with a hint of brown around the edge, like cola. She placed them on the table and sat across from her ex-classmate.
“It’s fine. There’s no harm in trying it out, right?”
Sakura took a sip of her coffee. Her face morphed into a scrunched, distorted rendition of itself, returning to normal after the bitterness dialed down.
“You know,” Sakura said, a sliver of bitterness still resting in her mouth, “I had to pry your number from Eiji after we graduated, and you dropped off the grid. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Oh,” Yumi said.
Whenever she thought of Eiji – a man she was once intimate with in high school and early into college, the wounds on her arms and legs, covered by wool – sprung to life. Cigarette burns. Scars from wire lashes. In the dark after midnight, she’d trace them with her fingertips, imagining that they were constellations in the night sky.
“Anyway, how are things?”
“Where do you work? Somewhere big, I assume, you were a genius in school.”
“I’m a waitress.”
“Part-time, right?” Sakura said, shifting her gaze to somewhere on the table.
“Full-time. I dropped out of college in the second year.”
“How about you?”
Sakura’s cheeks turned red.
“Well, recently, I got signed to a modelling agency here in Harajuku.”
“It’s nothing too big.”
“I don’t get much time to breathe these days. I almost miss school.”
“You shouldn’t. I don’t feel the same.”
“You should. As they say, ‘treasure your youth’ – once it’s over, it’s over. The only upside now are my co-workers.”
“They’re easy on the eyes, you know?”
They stopped conversing for a moment and alternately sipped on their drinks. Yumi looked at the wooden floor, thinking of a way to continue the conversation. Closed off, the onus wasn’t on her to continue the exchange. Someone else would have to pry her out of the bubble. that’s how it always played out.
“The truth is,” Sakura leaned forward. “I almost committed suicide two years ago, from a ten-storey building in Shinjuku.”
Her gaze pushed Yumi back into the cushion of her seat.
“An elderly janitor saw and persuaded me out of it. I figured that if an old man, a janitor no less, was talking me out of suicide, then something must be right, right?”
Sakura looked out the window.
“Eventually, I got down from there, got therapy, and by a god’s wish – got into an agency, which led me to another, and another. At the end of the whole ordeal, I wanted to connect with some people from high school, as a newly blossomed Sakura. You’re the fifth person I’ve contacted so far.”
“A newly blossomed Sakura?”
“Well, before, I always had a smile on my face. It took me some time to realize that I wasn’t really smiling. I was only pretending. I’m smiling now, for real.” She pointed at the edge of her mouth. “Oh, and also, I picked up guitar and started getting into running. Hell, even drinking water. I don’t spend that much time in bars anymore.”
Yumi smiled, but her reflection didn’t follow suit.
“It is reassuring. I never thought I’d come back from that nightmare. There’s always a way out, I guess.”
“What about you? Any hobbies?” Sakura asked, with an illuminated disposition.
Yumi drifted off, with her palm slanted against her face. In that position, she felt like she was made of glass. Too vulnerable.
“I was a member of the tennis club, in university.”
“Tennis? Hah! I can’t imagine you in tennis shorts.”
“Me neither.” Yumi touched the outline of a scar on her thigh. “It was a long time ago, and you need two people to play-”
“I prefer Karaoke, what do you think about that?”
“I don’t mind-”
“Great! We should play some time then.” Sakura said, looking at her nails, covered by a vibrant pink.
In reality, Yumi’s voice rarely varied in tone and the result screen drove that fact home. This created a cycle where she’d clam up and turn even more monotone, deepening her grave.
The conversation lost focus after some time, confining itself to a common rhythm and tempo at the tapping of a metronome. Sakura would ask a question, Yumi would answer like an economical writer, then Sakura would give her take – a winded, yet intriguing answer. In turn, Yumi nodded, listening. On the surface, there were no differences between Yumi and a wall. Deep inside her head, the cogs rotated. Sakura didn’t seem to mind, cheerful, as always. Half an hour passed following this rhythm.
A phone rang. The vibrations rippled through the table.
“Oh, a call. It’s from my manager. Excuse me.”
Sakura released herself from the bindings of the seat, pulling the phone to her ear. Her handbag hung over her shoulder. After Sakura left the café, Yumi returned to a state of contemplation. Yumi played Sakura’s story in her head, as if she was reading a novel. And even though she considered it insignificant, there was a tiny slice of hope in the entire thing. Of course, hope alone wasn’t going to pull her from her grave, but at least she could jump onto the tracks without a plastic smile.
A minute turned into ten, which then turned into twenty. Twenty-five minutes later, Yumi realized that Sakura wouldn’t return. She figured a call with a manager shouldn’t have taken so long. Being ghosted wasn’t a new experience – it happened a few times in high school and college but being ghosted half-way through a meetup was a first. She found a pink paper crane resting where Sakura had been sitting. Yumi berated herself for not noticing it sooner, her mind naive and absorbed in itself. The origami unraveled a neatly written letter.
My dear friend Yumi
Firstly, I would like to thank you for accepting this elaborate ‘date’. If you’re reading this, then I’ve already left the café. Before I ramble, I want to clear something up.
You’re annoyed, aren’t you?
You took a chunk out of your day to listen to an acquaintance (if you could even call me that) rub in the virtues of their life.
You must be annoyed.
I’ll tell you the full truth (currently, you only know one half) I did try jumping off a ten-story building two years ago – but now – I’m not a high-fi model living in Harajuku, surrounded by tall, handsome men in suits. I’m actually working as a call center employee in Shinjuku. The men here aren’t anything special. A bummer, yes, I know. I tried. It’s a tough line of work. It doesn’t work out for most people. Deep down, I’m disappointed in myself for things I have no control over. It’s saddening. But our ‘date’ was a consoling therapy session.
Ten minutes before I called you, I googled your name – ‘Suzuki Yumi’.
I looked for your LINE, only to find that you didn’t have one, not anymore at least. I didn’t find any trace of you, anywhere. I figured that you weren’t someone particularly known or successful. I played a gambit and it paid off. Now, I’m alive. I feel a tad better knowing you – a classmate of mine, someone high above my shoulders once upon a time, has fallen beneath my feet. Now, I can think to myself ‘Hey, at least I’m not that bad off’ and rest.
Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you, really.
Your dear friend,
P.S. You can delete my number. I don’t mind. I won’t try to contact you.
Walking down the illuminated streets of central Harajuku alone instilled a strong sense of displacement in Yumi. Not having someone else’s hand in hers was enough to feel the heat of a spotlight hanging over her head. Yet, Yumi felt the abyss in her chest shrink by a few centimeters. For the first time in a while, her hands rolled into tightened fists and her eyelids turned heavy and warm. A few droplets fell from the overcast sky. Yumi rubbed her eyes.
She called a cab. There was no location. No target. The driver took the form of a paper cut out dabbed in red. When he asked her where she wanted to go, Yumi just listened to the rain clatter on the roof. Then, after a lengthy pause, she almost answered with:
The station, please.
In the end, she took a cab back to Roppongi. It was early in the night – she settled on a quiet bar in a quiet alleyway, scoping Google Maps. From the preview, it appeared like a sophisticated, clean place.
In the cab, many thoughts rushed in. For one, she thought about contacting the woman who birthed her, the last time they spoke being three years ago. The last call regarded Yumi’s decision to drop out from the University of Tokyo’s Engineering faculty. Fresh in her mind, a sigh from the other side of the receiver. A static noise reverberated, striking like a brick or a detuned D-sharp. In the end, Yumi tucked her phone away into the depths of her lint-filled handbag.
The bar had a handful of customers in different ends of the room, blocked into their own worlds. The décor struck visitors as being pristine, yet traditional. It resembled the minimalistic interior of a tatami hotel. A place for the vacant, tortured by neurotic thoughts. Home. She could rest, hidden. Yumi folded her sweater and placed it inside her bag. The left side of the bar had a few spaces empty. The bartender was a concentrated, well-dressed man with grey hairs sticking out above his nape. Each movement had an absolute sense of precision, as if a single ill-calculation in motion would send an entire drink into disequilibrium.
“How can I help you, miss?” asked the bartender.
“A gin and tonic, over ice.”
He slipped into work with fluid motion, in a trance. He took a highball glass, funneled ice into the bottom, poured in the gin and tonic water, and finished it off with a small piece of lime. Bubbles flurried out, resting near the top of the glass. The bartender handed it to his weary customer with a soft smile, like a parent giving their child a double-scooped ice cream cone. In fact, their age difference was large enough for them to be father and daughter. Across the bar – red, puffy eyes looked at the glass on the table – filled with beautiful transparent liquid. Damp spots littered the wooden bench.
A headache. Yumi reaches for her bag.
Can’t take painkillers when you’re drinking, dummy, she tells herself.
“Are you alright, miss?”
She doesn’t answer.