This is a story of a girl named Naoko. We met at the university on my freshman year in college. I was a new student from the countryside who moved into the city after high school, and she was a senior then. She is only older for a few years but we attended the same classes together because shifting from the Engineering Department to Literature, you need to catch up on a few extra units. I was renting a small studio-type apartment near campus and she lived at least a thirty-minute bus ride away. I was sitting right behind her on the day we first met, and it was apparent she was reading a novel under her desk instead of paying attention to the instructor up front.
Later, we shared a desk inside a jam-packed library and she noticed I was one of the boys from her class. It was the first time I saw such beautiful eyes. If she weren't wearing any glasses, I would have drawn my face too closely that our noses would almost touch, just to get a closer look at those eyes. "Hi, I'm Naoko," she told me with a smile, her hand reaching out to shake mine. She placed the book carefully on the desk and crossed her palms after I introduced myself. "Funny how I'm named. My parents must have had expected too much from me. I ran away from home, you see. They had always wanted me to be an engineer because our family has come from a long line of engineers. Unfortunately, I didn't share the same dream as my family did and shifted to Literature instead. My dad hit me hard when he found out, so here I am away from home. I've always wanted to be a writer. Whatever the odds, you need to get it done, right?"
"What done?" I asked her then, unsure if I could follow along. She was a strange person to begin with, and I was not quite certain if her story was believable enough I should fall for it. I booked into Literature because I wanted to be a teacher.
"Dreams," she told me while tapping her index finger on the hardwood table as if stressing a point. "I was talking about dreams. Were you not listening?"
After that, she leaned back on her chair and got back to her book. "Anyway, it was nice meeting you. We could be friends if you want. I don't have many friends anyway because people find me quite... how do I put it? Hm, odd. Yes, that's the word. Do you find me quite odd?" she peered through her rounded glasses and I found myself looking at those eyes again.
"Not exactly," I lied. She narrowed her eyes at me suspiciously.
"That means yes, no?"
"Yes," I said. "I mean, no-I mean, it means no, I don't find you odd." She smiled at me afterward and said, "That's good," before sinking back into the world of Greek cities and a war so lost in time in the precious work of Homer in her hands.
How do we become who we are? Are we nothing more than just a composition of our past experiences or does our existence comprises of a far deeper meaning? I keep on wondering what purpose I am made for, or if I am actually living for something or someone. I think about that sometimes. We dream of better things, and we push hard to reach that dream. Then, finally we realize what we've been pushing so hard for what was never meant for us in the first place. What happens then? Do we simply turn around, set our eyes on another dream, and chase after that again, and again, and again? When do we stop? When, I wonder, is enough enough?
It took me a while before I realized I loved Naoko. I loved the way she moved, the way my name rolled off her tongue, the way her eyes reflect the light like a kaleidoscope. I didn't have many friends either, and Naoko and I shared the same love for books. We would stay in the wee hours of the evening at the library and together lose our bearings amid the works of Jun'ichiro Tanizaki and Shusaku Endo, while we were both huddled together near the Languages section before the end of the library hours. Sometimes, I would sit and watch her write, and she would always let me read her compositions whenever she's finished. Naoko is a great writer, and all her works, I always tell her, has some form of life to it, as if I am sucked in the world of her stories and watch the scenes play in front of my eyes, like a film.
Often, I would find myself leaning in too closely to smell her perfume and watch the elegant slope of her neck and the way a few strands of her short-cropped hair fall on her face. Sometimes, I would lose my control and reach over to tuck it behind her ear. She wouldn't mind anyway and simply smile at me instead and return to the book she was reading.
I always looked at her differently. Sometimes, I felt as though my eyes were giving me away, but Naoko didn't say anything. She never saw me the same way, however. She loved me, but not as how I did her. I was pretty much okay with that setting, until one day, a single phone call was bound to change the centripetal force of my life.
It takes me a while to recognize her voice over the phone, and when I did her usual confident voice is frantic and shaky. I reach over the clock on my bedside and reads 3AM. She is calling from a cranky, old phone box somewhere, she tells me, and she doesn't know where she is. "I don't remember anything that happened, where I got here, how, who I was with. What do I do?"
"Naoko, calm down." I am fully awake now. I turn on the light and sit on the bed while running a hand through my already disheveled hair. "Calm down for a while. If you can't tell me where you are, then can you step out of your phone box for a while and tell me what you see? Can you do that?"
"I guess so," she tells me. I hear her put down the phone with a clank and returns to me quickly afterward. "I'm not sure but-er, I'm near a shrine. I think I'm somewhere near Nagoya, I'm not sure. I'm too disorientated to think straight." She is near tears. "Please, come get me. I'm running out of change anyway."
I am at my feet now, hands buttoning my coat with my other hand. "Okay, just stay where you are. I'll come get you." And the line is dead.
I find her huddled inside the same phone box, arms around her knees and tears freely running down her face. I yank the door open and she looks at me with not the same expression I used to see her wear. There is something different around her air, like she in not Naoko, like I am staring at a stranger instead of an old friend. Where has Naoko, the real Naoko, gone now? This girl in front of me has eyes completely blank, devoid of any emotion, and I feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I crouch down low to level at the height. She is still crying. "I'm scared."
"I'm here," I assure her and reach over to pull her to a hug. Her lithe frame fits perfectly on my arms, as if they were tailored for each other on purpose. Later, I take her home, fix her tea and she sleeps on my bed. She doesn't dwell into details of what happened and I didn't want to press her. Sleep has long escaped me and I stay on the couch, wide awake and watch her sleeping form, listen to her soft snores. The tea has calmed her down somehow, and the tears have long been dried away. Whatever happened to her, I don't know and it hurt my head to think. Finally, I push myself from the divan and take a long, hot bath. As much as I wanted to find out what happened, my current mind state cannot comprehend anything at the moment. The steam from the shower will help me calm down, and perhaps let me sleep. Matters will be settled in the morning, when we wake up. I am sure of this.
The next morning, I rouse from sleep and Naoko is gone. No note, no trace of her ever being in my apartment. She is gone, just like that. Just like smoke. I tried to call her back many times to check up on her, but the phone on her apartment just keeps on ringing. No message, nothing. I went to school that day, but there was no sign of her. I try again the next day, and the next, and the next and all my efforts amount to nothing. Finally, I paid the school registrar a visit a week after Naoko disappeared and asked about her. Wherehasshegone?Hasshebeensick?Whyhasshestoppedattendingher classes? The old man on the counter reported that she withdrew from the school almost a week ago, with no particular reason whatsoever.
"It's a loss too," he adds with a sad frown. "Suddenly, the kid leaves when the semester is close at its end and her grades weren't that bad. Are you, by chance, a relative of hers?"
A look of confusion and disappointment is etched across my face and I do not answer. I am too stunned, confused, disorientated to say anything. I leave the office without another word and head straight home to skip all my afternoon classes altogether. What happened? What happened? What happened to Naoko, I keep asking myself. She is not there to answer. No one is.
After Naoko disappeared, I kept checking the papers for any reports of her disappearance. I try not to think of the worst case scenario. I did not want to picture her dead, so I try to get that image off my mind. It was then that I realized I actually knew nothing about Naoko. I knew her name was Naoko, but I never knew her last name. I knew that she ran away from home, but I never knew where that home was, or whoever her father was, or whether she owned a pet cat or a pet dog. There was only one thing that we shared and apart from that, nothing. Perhaps, I did not know her well as I hoped I did. It makes me wonder, after all that had happened, if Naoko was actually real or whether or not she was merely a small figment of my imagination. Have I confused reality with fiction, perhaps? She seemed so real, so tangible, but unlike anything I've encountered before, she was nothing more than a wisp of smoke that one can ever actually lay hands on.
Months pass. Then, years. I have not heard from her since then. Not until a letter came to my doorstep with her name on the back of the envelope. There is no return address but the stamp was from another country somewhere in the Far East. I tear the envelope open and read.
03 September 20XX
I'm writing from a quaint coffee shop in Thailand. I'm sure it's summer here, and I think it is always summer here. It's a tropical country with a nice weather unlike Japan. They don't have winter, so there aren't any problems with cold nights and snow blocking the roads on December. It has been a while, has it not? It's more than five years, actually. I've learned to speak a bit of Thai, and write a few Thai characters but I'm still not proficient with their language. Moreso, no matter how hard I try to blend in, I still end up looking helplessly like a Japanese. In the meantime, I have a place to stay and somewhere I can call home. In the meantime. Thais are pretty good people. They are rather hospitable too and I stay at a close-knit neighborhood where everyone knew each other. I think all neighborhood from the countryside are like that. I've never been to an urban place before.
Have you forgotten about me yet? I do hope you are doing well, and until now, I still feel guilty about leaving like that without another word. Maybe that's exactly the reason why I'm writing to you right now, to clear my head, after all these years about that night before I asked you to come get me from that cranky old phone box, and perhaps to get it all out of my chest.
I am not a fan of melodrama, so I guess I'll just get it straight to the point. The girl, the Naoko you picked up from the phone box that night, it wasn't the real Naoko. It wasn't me and I think you knew it too, somehow. That the Naoko you found crying like a fragile child, alone in the middle of the night, wasn't the same Naoko you used to know. I don't remember much of the details and it would be tiresome if I tell it all here in a single letter, but somehow, the same Naoko in the past has disappeared. Like smoke. As if a part of me has left, the real I has left, and there was a void inside of me that I didn't understand. I hope you get what I mean. I was not entirely sure of what happened to me that night either and I have left behind that part of my life already. I don't want to go into detail on what led me to such a situation though, because I wasn't certain myself either. Maybe a great deal of what I've been talking to you about dreams and stuff was involved, but mostly it was because I was confused and didn't know what to do or where to go. I was like a train running straight to a track heading someplace when it is not exactly sure whether or not it is actually headed somewhere. Then, there comes an empty space in the middle, a transition between fiction and reality, and then you end up not remembering anything afterward.
Am I making any sense at all?
All of it was surreal, so it seems. After that, I found the need to somehow find the real Naoko. The Naoko who left that night, before the phone box incident. I left it all behind in hopes that I could get her back: I left school, my dream, evenyou. I wanted to get back that same warm-hearted girl from before. The dream of becoming a writer has disappeared that same night, and I wanted to find it too. All dreams were lost that same night and I wanted to dream again. Then somehow, I end up here. Then like some kind of redemption, Naoko is here again. I am back. Naoko is back. Just like that. Just like the wisp of smoke that disappeared that night, Naoko is back, just like the same wisp of smoke but with a promise of staying for a long time. Do I sound like the Naoko you used to know? Ha, I bet!
I'm writing again, just so you know. Somehow, when that dream of becoming a writer and I met again after a long time, I began writing again. I have three manuscripts on hand right now and I wanted you to read them first before apply for an editor. Are you up for it? I wonder how you've been doing. Truly, I missed you. And a hell of a lot too.
I am going back to Japan in a week's time so I guess by the time this letter reaches you, I'm already there. I might not know where exactly but surely, I will be there. Perhaps still without a place to stay or nowhere to go, but I know for certain that I am headed somewhere.
And surely, we'll see each other then.
I watch carefully as the leaves fall to the ground in a heap. It is autumn now, and the ground is covered with a blanket of brown and orange leaves. I sit at a park bench and watch as birds land on the asphalt near my feet and pelt on the crumbs from my sandwich. When I finish eating, I stand up and leave. It is 5PM and people are coming out from work to home. I see a few middle school students from the school where I work enter a book store when I pass, and the sidewalk is nearly mobbed. I tuck my scarf carefully into my coat and brace myself against the cool autumn wind.
Then, out of nowhere, a firm hand grabs my arm from behind and I stop. I turn and there she is, for all she's worth, Naoko standing there glasses-less and well-tanned with a lopsided smile and eyes reflecting the orange sunset like a kaleidoscope.
"You're back," I managed to say but all I wanted to do at that moment was pull her close to me and kiss her mouth with vengeance. And then, she does. She steps in closer, places her hands on both sides of my faces and kisses me.
How do we become who we are? We are a composition of our past experiences but our past, no matter where our mistakes and wrong decisions have taken us, does not entirely define who we are. Our existence comprises of the past, the present and the future. The past is history, the present is slowly unraveling, and the future… the future is what will become of us when the seeds of the present finally bloom. Naoko taught me that.
Consideration/s: The name 'Naoko' means 'obedient child' in Japanese, hence the title.