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a cartography of love

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But I feel a change in the love I'm given
I'm turning the page on my indecision

 

 

Lights. Camera. Lucia, muttering under her breath that he’d better not say anything embarrassing because she wouldn’t understand it anyway, and Tooru smirks and lets her steer him into position in front of a giant wall covered with tiny Olympic logos.

“When am I ever embarrassing, Lucita my dear?” he asks, turning on his heel just a little so his right side’s angled towards the TV crew.

The only thing that keeps Lucia from smacking him upside the head, probably, is that she’s just spent way too long fussing with that one lock of hair that keeps sticking out funny no matter how she tries to smooth it down. Behind her where the rest of the team is gathered round Coach Blanco, Cristian catches Tooru’s eye and grins, while Carlito gives him both thumbs up. Tooru makes a face in Lucia’s direction when she has her back turned.

“Okay, Oikawa-senshu, if you’re ready…”

Tooru draws himself up straight, clasps his hands in front of him and lets Oikawa-senshu sink in. It’s been a while.

Enaga Fumi is smaller in person, but then again, sometimes people say the same of Tooru. He’s tall in Japan, he keeps insisting; it’s these South Americans, they’re giants. Lucia steps back with a few choice parting words to Tooru.

“My team manager says, thank you for the opportunity, Enaga-san,” Tooru says with a small bow, which Enaga returns. She shakes her head and holds a microphone out to him.

“No, thank you for accepting our interview request. This is such a highly anticipated match, and of course there’s only one question on everyone’s minds. If you don’t mind, tell us how you feel to be playing against Japan? And to face so many members of the Monster Generation… in fact, isn’t Kageyama-senshu your middle school teammate?”

Enaga’s leaning forward just a little, her eyes bright, like she’s been dying to ask him this since she saw his name on the player list. And Oikawa Tooru smiles. All of the lights in the stadium are luminous upon his face. And he is brilliant, right there and then and always.

He says, “I’ve been waiting for this all my life.”

 


 

They call it el zonda, the dry winter wind that sweeps through the Cuyo and makes it over twenty degrees in the daytime. Iwaizumi likes to lord his gorgeous Californian winter over him. Tooru likes to say it’s not really winter if it doesn’t get cold, and here he has the best of it anyway, for they have proper curled-up-with-blankets and hot chocolate weather once the wind’s come and gone, and it’s capricious enough that it never stays long. In the meantime, the amount of dust it brings to San Juan is enough for Tooru to keep their windows firmly closed.

“One day,” he declares, his mouth stuffed full of medialuna, “I’m going to start a blog for Japanese readers, and it’ll be called, Buenos Aires Is Not The Only City in Argentina And I Do Not Live There.”

Mateo doesn’t bother turning around from the coffee pot. “I thought it was going to be called Quit Asking Me If I’ve Met Messi Yet.”

“He doesn’t even play in Argentina!”

Ming-Yi shuffles out from the bathroom in one of Mateo’s oversized Boca Juniors shirts, yawns and grabs a medialuna from the plate on the table. “Are we talking about Tooru’s blog again? Who is it now? Your nephew?”

“Matsukawa,” Tooru mutters. “And it’s not like he doesn’t know. He’s just being annoying. Also, stop stealing my food!”

Ming-Yi wipes the flaky croissant crumbs off his lips with the back of his hand. “You ate twice as much of the barbecue than both of us combined last night, you pig. How are you hungry?”

“I’m an athlete. I’m always hungry.”

“Both of those statements are true,” Mateo remarks. He sets two full mugs of coffee on the counter, and Ming-Yi begins spooning sugar into his like there’s no tomorrow.

“When I’m in Rio next week,” Tooru points out, “you’ll have to get your own medialunas.”

Ming-Yi pulls out a chair from his usual spot next to Tooru’s and flops into it. “When you’re in Rio next week, we’ll finally have peace and quiet—”

“I do not sing that loud in the shower!”

In response, Mateo pops two slices of bread into the toaster and clears his throat. “La nieve pinta la montaña hoy—

“Oh, I don’t sound like that! And I know you’re going off-key on purpose! I’ve heard you sing all the Boca songs just fine without even being drunk!”

En la soledad un reino, y la reina vive en mí.” Ming-Yi presses a dramatic hand to his chest, tips his chair back and bats his eyelashes at Tooru, who who makes a gesture that would’ve been understood as rude even in Japan.

“Say what you like,” Tooru sniffs solemnly, getting to his feet. “I owe my incredible fluency in Spanish right now to Princess Elsa.”

“Of course. Not your amazing roommates,” says Ming-Yi.

“Not at all,” says Mateo.

Nope,” Tooru echoes. He pulls on his hoodie, grabs his sports bag from the doorway and waves to Mateo and Ming-Yi. “See you tonight.”

“I’m making soup noodles for dinner!” Ming-Yi calls after him, and a grin spreads on Tooru’s face as he sprints down the corridor and takes the four flights of stairs down. Creak, creak, creak, sing the floorboards under his feet, wind whistling through the high shuttered windows and the cracks in the walls.

When he’d first answered the ad for a lodger, Mateo and Ming-Yi had told him the three basic rules of this shitty old building: first, don’t open the living room window more than a precisely calculated fourteen-degree angle because any wider and the whole thing will blow off its hinges; second, Tía Angelita on the first floor has lived here for something like forty years and just say yes if she asks you if it’s 1975; and third, don’t take the lift if you value your life.

“We’d just got married,” Mateo said, when Tooru asked why they’d bought this place, and he’d smiled. “We were broke, but hey, it’s not such a bad home, right?”

By the time Tooru hits the road, he’s a little out of breath just the way he likes it, and San Juan’s winter sunshine dawns bright upon a clear blue sky. It’s still early, cool enough that he can see his breath for a moment before it dissipates, warm enough that he doesn’t need to layer up if he’s going to keep moving. He’s great at that. Keeping moving.

Ming-Yi likes to call him borderline loco for running the distance to Estadio Aldo Cantoni every day, instead of taking the bus like a normal person. Tooru likes to say that when they watch him on TV at the Olympic finals, Ming-Yi can marvel at his stamina and then call him borderline loco all he wants. He slows down only to buy a bar of chocolate from the kiosko down the street, because he owes Tía Maria for not having enough small change for yesterday’s milk.

“You’re a saint,” he tells Maria, and kisses her on both cheeks just to see her eyes crinkle. He could map San Juan on her crow’s feet; how he loves it, the valleys in that smile. “A beautiful saint.”

Chocolate in one hand and water bottle in the other, Tooru picks up the pace. He expertly dodges the pothole on the corner of Diaz Norte and turns down the road. Half the city is waking, the other half just going to bed, and the old ombú tree by the traffic junction is waiting for him to say good morning to it. Patient as always. Mateo says it survived the earthquake, and will probably outlive all of them; something about it reminds Tooru of the poplars by the Gokoku Shrine, where they used to pray before matches.

He slows to catch his breath as he passes the ombú, reaches to brush his hand against the omamori dangling on his bag, as if to make sure it’s still there. Of course it’s still there. Certain victory.

At the end of the road, the white walls of the Aldo Cantoni call his name, and he’s listening.

 


 

The first time he phones home, it’s from a youth hostel that sleeps eight to a room and vibrates at all hours of the day with cumbia music. The time difference means that right around dinner, he’s catching his mother in the morning, and it takes her a good month or so to get used to the idea that eating at 10pm doesn’t mean he’s starving himself. On the contrary, Tooru says, he’s found a place that finally fits right in with his eating habits, except that he’s eating a proper meal instead of instant ramen at 10pm and aren’t they happy for him?

He doesn’t talk about how, on his first day, he’d gone out around half past six to find half the restaurants in town closed, and the other half so empty the waiters inside seemed more interested in flicking flies away than in customers. After walking two blocks end to end, he’d gone to the frutería, bought a paper bag of slightly dented plums and eaten them in his hostel by the windowsill. They were sweet, locally grown; the tía at the frutería had been sweet too. She had smiled at him with such kindness that Tooru had had to walk away very quickly, lest he find himself clutching her arm and starting to tell her all about Kizu-obaachan from the fruit store down the street, whose daughter had just had twins, and wasn’t it an amazing thing, to think that people’s lives, whole continents apart, kept on unfurling like vines to the sun? If he wasn’t careful, he’d find they’d all gone and bloomed while he wasn’t looking. And he? Well—and he?

Well—weren’t these plums fresh, and delicious? Yes. Yes, they were.

He doesn’t talk about what he misses. What would he say? Well, of course being surrounded by people speaking in a foreign language makes him miss Japan, and the buses don’t run on time, and he can’t find proper rice in the supermarket. But the inconvenient and frankly annoying truth is, it’s stupid little things Tooru never noticed in the first place that really get him. Like tissue packets being available everywhere. The traffic light jingle he used to hear every day of his life. The magnificently bland ubiquitous flavour of ¥120 tuna mayo onigiri. Tooru doesn’t even like tuna mayo onigiri. Reading an article titled Best combini snack foods, ranked that Hanamaki sends him on LINE moves him close to tears.

In his first month away, he thinks he might even miss sorting the trash, and it’s all he can do to keep from rifling through the bin to separate the combustibles for his own peace of mind.

 


 

Tooru is lucky, Cristian insists, to have come to San Juan and not Buenos Aires. The porteños are full of themselves and the taxi ride from the airport might have killed him. Tooru tells him that sounds exactly like what someone from Mendoza would say. He’d say the same about Tokyo.

“Tell me about Tokyo,” says Cristian.

Tooru wrinkles his nose at him. “See, that’s like if you went to Sendai, and someone asked you, tell me about Buenos Aires.”

Cristian is the first friend he’d made on the team, by which what Tooru means is that Cristian was the first one to hug him and kiss him on the cheek, and within five minutes everyone was doing the same. They’re standing at a food stall with a gorgeous view of Parque de Mayo, Cristian’s just introduced Tooru to the wonders of choripán, and Tooru’s a quick study in relishing the indignities of stuffing his face in public.

“The chimichurri is the best part,” Tooru mumbles round a mouth full of chorizo, which makes Cristian whack him on the arm and with a loud, chagrined snort. Tooru smirks. He can’t imagine why Cristian’s offended, chimichurri is godly. He wishes he could bring it back to Japan and slather it all over ramen, if only to see the way Hanamaki glares at him for crimes against perfectly good soup broth.

Eating with new friends is easy, when he doesn’t have to talk too much. He’s still getting by in a scrappy mix of half-baked English, quarter-baked Spanish, a whole lot of gesticulation and his phone dictionary. Some days, only the thought of Iwaizumi’s similar suffering a few timezones away fuels Tooru with the petty strength to power through.

Ming-Yi tells him he sticks out like a sore thumb when he says instead of vos. “It’s an Argentine Spanish thing. Verbs too, like... querés, not quieres.”

“Oh, that’s just unfair,” says Tooru, sagging into the sofa. It’s beginning to learn his shape, a perfectly Tooru-shaped dent in the middle cushion. “This was not on my Español 101 CDs.”

Ming-Yi grins at him over his laptop. He’s camped at the dinner table with two-week-old eyebags, a stack of papers he’s been grading forever, and a National University of San Juan mug that contains probably his sixth coffee for the day. “Languages. Aren’t they the worst?”

“You speak like fifty of them!”

“And they’re the worst,” Ming-Yi says.

Tooru rolls over so he’s staring at the ceiling, watching the plaster slowly peel, along with a fading post-it that’s so high only Mateo could have stuck it there. Whenever he happens to overhear them, Mateo points out that Spanish is about a hundred times easier to learn than kanji or Chinese, which hasn’t stopped him from labelling random objects in the apartment with 電視 and 桌子. Even Tooru has no witty rejoinder to that.

The post-it, which probably has whatever the word for ceiling is written on it in Mateo’s meticulous hand, floats to the floor.

Querés, Tooru mouths, with the accent in the right place, again and again till he gets it. ¿Que querés?

When he’s on the court, his body knows. He doesn’t need words in any language to hold the answer between his hands, give it up like an offering. But there’s nothing sacred about anything he does, only sweat, only bruises and dents, only his entire life’s work.

And there are times he’s off the court, and it’s past midnight and Tía Angelita’s ranting out her window about her good-for-nothing husband, and the guys across the road are yelling about football just like everyone else up and down the street. The guitar from the restaurant next door strums a memory of the pampas that seizes Tooru with a nostalgia bigger than himself, for a place he’s never been. And the wanting beats so loud in his chest he has nowhere to let it out, but here, right here.

 


 

“I grew up in the streets of Sendai, and I was forged in Argentina. I am proud of the places I come from…”

 


 

Meeting Hinata Shouyou in Rio is like looking into a mirror that goes both ways. Looking back, remembering when he could barely string a sentence together. When he’d set a ball for the first time in Argentina, and the earth moved. No one else noticed, but when Tooru’s feet touched back down on the court, he knew. It had moved. The ground was different. He was a tiny bit further round the sun than a moment ago.

Looking forward, knowing full well the earth will keep on moving.

You’ve grown. Tooru doesn’t say as much, not out loud. Does Hinata think the same, when he looks at Tooru? Has he grown, too? It’s so damnably hard to tell, when it’s himself.

Itadakimasu in his mouth. The sweetness of rice, shared. Dinner conversation about old friends, in a language he hasn’t spoken face to face for two years. They could be in Japan, except if they were, the truth is: they wouldn’t be hanging out like this. Tooru wouldn’t have had a meal one-on-one with Tobio, let alone Hinata, back in Sendai.

Running into each other wouldn’t have meant anything, there. Here, it’s some kind of sign from the universe. So, because Brazil. Because Argentina. Because they left, both of them.

He’ll go back, though, Hinata says. His eyes are bright, and there’s a set in his mouth that wasn’t there in high school, something he found under a searing sun.

Tooru smiles, and walks on.

 


 

Imagine being a stranger in Ezeiza Airport. Imagine wheeling your entire life in a suitcase too light for its size, a jumble of clothes and a new pair of shoes your team bought you as a farewell gift, and in another duffel, the old pair you wore all through high school because it just didn’t feel right to leave them behind. Imagine being nineteen.

How cliché! To say something like, it feels like a lifetime ago. So Tooru banishes the very idea, makes his way with confidence through yawning grey-tiled corridors he's walked so many times, by now. Second home. Third home. How they constantly rearrange themselves in his mind, these places of his, and yet, would he go back to a time when he didn’t know the way to the coziest cafe in the domestic terminal, or where the toilets were? Would he go back to a time he wasn’t a bona fide expert at juggling his passport in one hand and emptying his water bottle with the other? And if he did—

Well, he’s been down this train of thought before. The scenery was terribly unsatisfying, and Tooru’s never been one for excursions to nowhere.

 


 

After they get back from the Rio trip, Tooru stays on an extra few days in Buenos Aires. He will absolutely die, he tells the guys, if he doesn’t go to that one panadería on Avenida Santa Fe that does milk bread as well as they do facturas, and also, he’s got some paperwork to deal with at the immigration department. Secondary, of course, to the baked goods.

Everything about Buenos Aires is breathless and hot, and most of all, it sings. The first time he’d stepped into the capital proper, determined to dislike everything about it so that he could finally tell Matsukawa he’d been there and San Juan was much nicer, thank you, Tooru had wrenched some of that music away with him when he left. It hadn’t come easy. It had been brash and coy and maddening and the more it resisted, the more Tooru wanted to dance with it forever, with his two left feet and all. He wouldn’t come back, he swore up and down. And then he did. And he did.

And now, stepping out of his favourite panadería with a fresh bag of pastries in his hand, he hears the last thing he expected to hear.

“I think we took a wrong turn, Mother, we should have gone left three blocks ago…”

A Kyoto accent. Twice in as many weeks, someone’s speaking Japanese, in the flesh, after two years of Tooru only hearing it through a screen. A woman in a long yellow dress with a sun hat, maybe the same age as his sister, with her mother, poring over an open map.

He stares at them until someone coming out of the panadería bumps into him, and as Tooru murmurs an apology, he finds himself striding over to the pair of women before his mind catches up with his feet. “Excuse me,” he calls out.

The younger woman nearly drops her map, and looks at him with wide eyes. “Ah! You speak Japanese!”

Perhaps, later, Tooru will look back at this moment and remember that she’d said you speak Japanese, and not you are Japanese. For now, the thought doesn’t cross his mind. He gestures at her open tote bag. “I’m really sorry to interrupt you like this, but I need to tell you your bag is ripe for pickpockets.”

She gasps, starts muttering under her breath as she shoves the map into her mother’s hands, draws her bag close to her chest and starts to rifle through its contents. Her mother’s brow furrows. “Mayu, I told you to be careful—”

The unfortunate Mayu zips her bag closed, tightens its strap and lets out a sigh of relief. She gives Tooru a small, grateful bow. “Luckily, it looks like everything is still here. Thank you so much.”

“My friend just lost his wallet,” says Tooru, mouth twisting in a small grin. “Well, not here. But it’s not as safe in South America as in Japan. Are you lost?”

Mayu’s mother unfolds the map. On the other side of Avenida 9 de Julio, there’s a cafe circled in red. She points to it. “We were trying to get here for lunch. Our hotel recommended it. But I think, somewhere along the way...”

“It’s not far from here. I’ll walk you over,” says Tooru.

Amidst polite protestations, oh no we couldn’t trouble you, and Tooru cracking open his bag of pastries to share, they make their way down the sidewalk. She and her mother are here on holiday, says Mayu, she’s in between jobs and she didn’t know when they’d have a period of time like this again to get away, just the two of them. It is their first time in South America and they’re off to the Iguazu Falls the day after next. They find Buenos Aires very colourful, very loud, all the women incredibly gorgeous, and the dulce de leche desserts to die for. Tooru tells them they have impeccable judgement.

“Thank goodness we met you! Do you live here? You seem like a local,” Mayu asks.

Her mother smiles. “You have a Tohoku accent.”

Tooru’s mouth falls open. Not a good look. It’s full of breadcrumbs. “Yeah,” he says, quieter than he means to. The roar of traffic nearly drowns him out. “I grew up in Sendai. I live here now, though... Argentina, I mean. Not Buenos Aires. I’m from San Juan.”

How funny, the way San Juan squeezes round his heart the same way Sendai does, when he says it. I’m from San Juan. Weaving through the crowds and chaos here in Buenos Aires, another vision sweeps through his mind like el zonda on a sunny day; a plaza paved in sandstone and mosaic, flanked by acacias. It’s not much, but the streets are wide, the ombú waits like a sentinel for him every day, and Maria knows to save him a carton of milk on his way home. Is it warm, these days, on that road that leads to the stadium? Will the wind wait for his return?

“Ah,” he says, coming to a stop at the light. “We’re almost there. Look—this is the widest street in the world.”

Sixteen lanes of traffic sprawl before them across Avenida 9 de Julio, hurtling cars and buses and motorcycles as far as the eye can see, the length of an entire city block. Mayu’s eyes widen.

“How are we supposed to cross this road?” she asks. Tooru smiles.

“I know it looks scary,” he says. “But it’s not that bad. You just have to wait for the right moment to take the first step out. And then—you keep moving forward.”

 


 

The day after Coach Blanco breaks the news this will be his last season with CA San Juan, Tooru takes him out to dinner at their local cantina.

There will be time, after their last game, for the team to say goodbye. There will be time for asados and well-wishes, time to crash into Carlito’s apartment because he has a widescreen TV on which they can watch, in excruciating detail, the incredibly sappy farewell video they made for Coach Blanco. Drunk on possibilities, they’ll stay up till sunrise taking turns to make promises, each one grander than the next. To the South American championships. To beating Brazil. To the world.

Tonight, it’s just Tooru and Coach Blanco, and Tooru gets the wine. Not the classy kind they stamp a label on and export, just a good, solid full-bodied red from a vineyard in Calingasta. It tastes like liquorice and leather and the lifeblood of the city.

“To new beginnings,” says Tooru.

Coach Blanco raises his glass. “To San Juan.”

They talk of family, of friends, of Rio and other travels, of how good the food is. They do not talk of volleyball, or of dreams. What is there, for Tooru to say now? Good luck seems so boringly obvious and anyway, Tooru’s never believed in entrusting anything to luck. Sentiments like you’ll do great are just patronising; how can anyone know for sure? And thank you makes it sound like this is an ending, that Coach Blanco’s finished doing everything he will do for Tooru. That Tooru’s done repaying him. Oh, he’s just beginning, even if Coach Blanco doesn’t know it yet.

Coach Blanco leans back. A painted jacaranda arches, tall and graceful, on the ceiling above them, purple petals a shower on the wall behind Tooru’s back.

“It’s almost hanami season in Mikamine Park,” he remarks.

“Spring, huh,” murmurs Tooru. “Do you miss that? Hanami?”

“Of course. Sitting under the trees with sake and dango… it’s the best. Don’t you think so?”

Tooru twirls his fettucine slowly round his fork. “Yeah, I do,” he says, and then he’s surprised to find he means it with all his heart, and at the same time feels no particular desire to be in Japan right now. Is this what it feels like, to hold something so close you can leave it behind, and not look back?

 


 

“…in fact, it’s precisely because I grew up here that I know just what this Japan team is capable of. It’s my honour to face them.”

 


 

Mateo’s working late at the Museo the day Ming-Yi comes back from his evening classes, flicks on the light in the doorway and says to Tooru, “Are you dead?”

Tooru, motionless on the floor with his knees hugged up to his chest, deigns to lift one hand to wave impatiently at Ming-Yi and put a finger to his lips. He doesn't even say shhhh. The illumination of the television on his face is all the light he needs.

“And in his debut at the South American Volleyball Championship, no. 10 Cristian Rodrigues makes a stunning line shot! Another up-and-coming player to note from new Head Coach Jose Blanco’s old club...”

Ming-Yi walks over and drops his bag on the rug next to Tooru. “Ah, volleyball. I should have guessed.”

“It's the semi-final, you philistine,” Tooru whispers.

“Are we winning?” Ming-Yi asks.

Tooru frowns. “Can't say. It's one set apiece. Our team is good at digging and blocking, especially cross court shots, but Venezuela is more experienced... we have Solé, though.”

Distantly, he hears Ming-Yi say something like, “I'll pretend I understood ten percent of that,” hears the springs in the couch whine softly as he settles down, the rustle of a bag of corn chips being dug out of the armrest. But these are sounds Tooru will only recollect later, wonder if he’d made up in his mind. For he is, in that moment, heart and soul in Santiago; he is right there on the sidelines of that court and over the next eternity of an hour, he will watch his team go down with a fight.

At seven, Tooru had watched Japan lose a match in the FIVB World Championships. His mother told him, five years later, that he’d unravelled almost an entire sweater sleeve doing so; Tooru said she must surely have been exaggerating.

He does not look down at the rug. He looks at his hands instead, and the threads snagged under his fingernails, and the sweat on his palms. He swallows.

“Beer?” asks Ming-Yi, getting to his feet.

“Beer,” Tooru agrees, fervently.

Ming-Yi brings over two bottles of Andes, which they always have in the fridge, for some reason, despite the fact that none of them even like Andes that much. It’s so light it tastes like nothing. But Tooru, eyes fixed on the rapid-fire match replay and commentary going on now, barely notices any of that as he drinks.

“One day,” he says, “I have to make it there.”

Ming-Yi, sitting on the floor next to Tooru now, tilts his head and sets down his bottle. There's an unasked question hanging in the air, and Tooru finds himself praying that Ming-Yi doesn’t go there because if it's him, of all people—if the question comes from his born in Taiwan, raised in Canada, reborn in Barcelona roommate, who fell in love on the other side of the world and knows a thing or two about roots and how deep they run, how it feels to pull them up with the soil still clinging on—

Well, Tooru might find that he has to answer and in that moment, it sinks in that he is terribly unready.

What Ming-Yi does say after a while, is, “Whoever you play for is going to have one hell of a handful to wrangle.”

Tooru throws a cushion at him.

 


 

otooru: hey. i think i might go back to japan this summer.

hajime04: ???
hajime04: What do you mean?? I don't see you called up for the national team yet? You got some reason to show your face back home?

otooru: TO VISIT!!! iwachan!! what do u take me for
otooru: …when i say summer i mean winter. I mean JAPANESE WINTER.
otooru: I MEAN DECEMBER.
otooru: HEMISPHERES ARE STUPID

hajime04: Ok ok, I get it
hajime04: What, you homesick

otooru: no
otooru: well maybe
otooru: idk hard to say

hajime04: There's no shame if you are
hajime04: Er did that sound sarcastic
hajime04: It wasn't

otooru: i know ^-^ thanks
otooru: i just… gotta go. tell u more next Facetime

hajime04: When you see my mom ask her to send me more underwear
hajime04: American underwear is scratchy and not comfortable

otooru: U GO TALK TO UR MOM ABOUT UNDERWEAR URSELF BYE

 


 

In the backseat of a rented four by four in El Leoncito National Park, the Sierra del Tontal a great, jagged spine against the swelling lungs of the fields all around them, Tooru completes a cartography of love.

He doesn't realise it, not then. They hadn’t even known, two days ago, that they’d be on this roadtrip; but one of Tooru’s rare weeks off training—more precisely, a mandated rest break for a flu he isn’t completely over—had found him moping on his bed, making a regular nuisance of himself when trying to help Ming-Yi cook, and tossing his volleyball into the air until it hit his face, and that was when Mateo had come home, slammed a set of car keys down on the coffee table and said, we’re going camping.

Tooru hadn’t really had any choice in the matter. Not even the choice of road trip music (Mateo) or snacks (Ming-Yi). Once they’d piled into the car though, and pulled out onto the highway towards the mountains, Tooru found his complaints fizzing away like soda bubbles on a hot afternoon.

Mateo’s behind the wheel, on account of Tooru not being able to drive and Ming-Yi being what Mateo calls a chickenshit driver, which Ming-Yi insists really means safe. He’d called shotgun because husband privileges, which suits Tooru just fine. It gives him the whole of the backseat to himself to sprawl all his long limbs out. Take up space. He’s good at that.

“Do you think we’ll find a dinosaur?” he asks, as he rolls down the window. The barren landscape breathes in along with him. All the trees are wild, bare twisted shapes that look like they’re melting into the light. Tooru takes out his phone and snaps about five hundred photos before switching to video.

“Our dinosaur will eat Argentinosaurus for breakfast,” says Ming-Yi, and Mateo laughs and puts a hand on his knee, and Tooru rests his head on his arms and lets the sun beats down hot against him. He thinks of floodlights in a stadium bigger than he is, so much bigger, which is saying something. Before he’d come to this country, he’d have sworn to anyone who listened that he was the biggest thing north of Tokyo, and told himself that if he said it often enough, one day it’d be true.

He’s further south of Tokyo now than he’s ever been before. He has never felt smaller. The world has never felt more incredible.

Later, round the campfire, Tooru tells his roommates he was Seijou’s champion yakiniku hot plate master and he’s going to show them what flame-grilled sausages can really taste like, and Mateo says, “I have a confession to make. Before I met you, I thought all Japanese people were humble.”

If not for the fact that he’d just grilled this chorizo painstakingly with his own two hands, Tooru would have thrown it at him.

“Well, before you met me, you thought all Chinese people were quiet,” Ming-Yi says, elbowing Mateo. “And I thought all Argentines were noisy assholes.”

“I still think all Argentines are noisy assholes,” Tooru remarks.

“Only most of us,” Mateo admits.

He leans back, palms spread in the sand. Tooru wonders at the tableau they make, the three of them out here in the cooling shadow of the Andes. What would a condor ghosting overhead make of them right now? Nothing, perhaps. Nothing at all. They’re just three human beings who’ve found themselves in the same place, for now, sharing a meal.

He looks up. Their fire’s not the only light in the vast silence. There are a million stars above them, shining brighter than Tooru’s ever seen, and he can barely look directly at the moon; it seems about to slide right down a snow-covered peak and into their laps.

“I could stay here forever,” he calls out loud, raising his voice as he cups his hands round his mouth.

In time to come, he will realise what he means. For now, the mountains take his greeting, and answer him.

 


 

When people ask what took him so awfully long to show his face in Japan again, Tooru smiles and says, it’s simple: he couldn’t return until he felt like it would be moving forward, not going back.

Matsukawa purses his lips and says, that’s deep.

Surprisingly, adds Hanamaki.

Tooru punches him on the arm and says, there’s nothing surprising, he’s always been deep, and then the way both of them break out into mirrored smirks and Hanamaki starts to shake with barely suppressed laughter makes Tooru cross his arms and kick back with an audible huff.

Really, that’s as simple as it gets, or at least, as simple as Tooru can make it. How to talk about gazing out the windows at Ezeiza Airport, at the ANA plane on the tarmac, hands tightening round the handles of his duffel bag? How to talk about listening to the tourists from Tokyo behind him, chatting about what a nice time they had in Buenos Aires but how glad they are to be going home? How to talk about saying no, he doesn’t need an immigration card, when they’re handing them out on the plane, and then watching the man next to him fill his in? The quiet dawning, leaning forward to rest his head on the seat in front of him, closing his eyes?

He’s left the blooming jacaranda for this: a window misted over, trees full of Christmas lights, illuminated snowflakes and tinsel in blue and white draped round branches. Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence tinkling softly from the speakers overhead in this family restaurant. The light above is a stained-glass dome that reminds him of the cathedral in Córdoba. Tooru can’t eat fast enough once the food comes. Rice tastes so good. Then he raises his hand for a second serving, about to call out che, when Hanamaki presses the bell on their table instead, and Tooru lowers his arm.

Ah. I’m in Japan.

In that moment, the realisation settles deep in Tooru’s bones: he will always be missing something now, no matter where he goes. And while there was a time he might not have bothered to find the words to really explain—might have laughed that breezy, easy laugh of his, said something like, you couldn’t take seeing my handsome face all the time anyway and trusted desperately that they’d get what he meant—Oikawa Tooru looks now at his friends’ faces. He commits them to his most permanent and precious memory, and he begins to tell them about his city.

They haven’t invented a language, English or Spanish or Japanese, enough to say all he has to say. He says it anyway.

 


 

“I’m sure after our match, I’ll catch up with the Japan team over yakiniku. We’re still good friends. But right now…”

 


 

“The next time anyone asks why I left,” Tooru says, stamping snow off his boots, “I’m going to say, this. This shitty winter.”

Hanamaki raises both eyebrows. “You don’t have winter in Argentina?”

“We don't have snow in Argentina. It doesn't even rain in San Juan. Why did I come back in December? I was foolish. I’d forgotten what real winter is like.”

“You and Iwaizumi both,” Matsukawa remarks.

They stop at a vending machine, where Matsukawa buys three cans of hot milk tea and presses one into Tooru’s hands and says, it’s his treat. When Tooru points out that ¥150 is an outrageously underpriced treat to mark the occasion, Matsukawa merely raises both eyebrows and says, Tooru still owes him ramen from that one lost bet over arm-wrestling three years ago, surely he hasn’t forgotten? He’s magnanimous, so they’ll call it even with this canned drink.

Tooru, too, is magnanimous. He saves the drink, and shares half of it with Takeru later when he’s at his sister’s place for dinner. Being in the old neighbourhood makes him feel a little like a ghost. People who knew him gape to see him, and sometimes touch him to make sure he’s real. The hardware shop across the road has closed. It’s turned into a hair salon, and the obaasan who used to run the vegetable store is now assisted by a younger woman. They’ve re-paved parts of the sidewalk, the cracks where stones and petals used to get wedged.

More than how the place has changed, it is how it will go on changing that makes Tooru stop in his tracks, and stare at it all. What will it look like the next time he comes back? The audacity, of places to keep on living and growing when he’s not there! The audacity of him, to do the same.

He helps his sister dry the dishes after their meal, sparing Takeru that duty and earning him, for a moment, a reprieve from being the world’s most uncool uncle, since he’s lived in Argentina three years and failed to meet Messi. And when he talks to Mio about it, he says, “It’s funny, but I think... it’s not like my heart is split in two.”

Mio shoots him a sideways glance. “Just to make sure, this isn’t about a girl? Or a boy?”

Neechan!

What? Miracles happen.”

She waits and watches him for a moment, tap running at a trickle. Outside, the snow is coming down again. Tooru thinks of angels, of miracles and faith and winged things, and sighs.

“It’s more like, going away made me realise I have more space in my heart than I thought. Does that make sense? Am I making sense? Do I sound incredibly cheesy right now?”

Mio turns back to the dishes. “With you, it's always been either, your heart's the size of a shrivelled umeboshi—”

“Hey!”

“—or, bigger than Miyagi. Heck, bigger than Japan. Too big to fit in one place. Always one extreme or another... you just don't do in-betweens.” She hands him a plate. “But mostly, it's the shrivelled umeboshi.”

Tooru sticks his tongue out, takes the plate, and wipes it down. He doesn’t look at her. His eyes are on his own hands, his taped up fingers, the clean white porcelain between them. How soothing, these repetitive movements. Takeru’s footsteps upstairs. The reassuring drone of the NHK weather report from the living room TV.

“Even if I don’t belong to a place any more, I think it’ll always belong to me. You know?” he says, quiet.

Mio raises her eyebrows. “No. I can’t know. I don’t have your heart.”

“Okay, forget I was talking about hearts—”

“But I believe you know.”

Tooru presses his lips together, and puts the dish on the rack before he drops it.

“Look,” says his sister, and she’s using her Takeru voice now, the one for shut up and go to bed already, “you’ll always have a home here, Tooru. It doesn’t matter what your passport says. You knew you chose a hard road, so go and do what you need to do. Don’t explain yourself or ask for permission if you’ve already made up your mind. Just do it already, damn it.”

“Language! I always said Takeru got his temper from you.”

Mio flicks some dishwater at him, and Tooru doesn’t dodge.

 


 

When he leaves, it’s with a suitcase full of food and a worn-out Toy Story passport cover that’s been through more airports than Tooru can remember, by now. It had been a gift from Iwaizumi, who bought it at Disneyland Anaheim two Christmases ago because it had little green aliens on the cover that he said looked like Tooru.

Tooru glances round Haneda, commits this, too, to a place in his mind that’s gently wreathed in fairy lights and melting snow. Thinks: the next time he comes back, it’ll be through the foreign visitors queue. Thank goodness for the efficient Japanese immigration processing he hears so much about. Still, they might look at the name on his passport, his face, and they might not understand; there would be no way Tooru could ever make them understand. Citizen, nomad, exile. Home-grown wonderboy. Can he be everything? Can he be all he ever wanted to be?

They’re calling his flight number. Tooru holds his passport close, walks through the gate, and leaves Japan behind him.

 


 

And years later, will he look back on any of these days, these long summer days, these winters of wine and cherries, and think: it was the best day of his life? Will he sit under an ombú tree, rest his head against its trunk and say, I made it? And will he think of his friends, of all the places he keeps in his heart, and will one of them be by his side? And will he smile?

The wind soars to meet him as his plane lands, dust and sand and hopes burning fiercer than the sun. It brings him no answers, only challenges. Tooru reaches out with both hands.

 


 

“Right now, I’m just a setter doing his best to support his team that he’s proud of. I’m proud of the shirt on my back. And I believe we’ll show all of Japan and Argentina an amazing game. Please look forward to it.”

 


 

Iwaizumi’s steady, constant eyes are on him from the bench, and Tobio’s, and Ushiwaka’s across the net. Shouyou’s practically bouncing off the balls of his feet, lit up with a radiant grin he can’t keep off his face. And ahead of Tooru, all his teammates’ backs. Tomas. Juan. Carlito. Cristian. How lucky he is, how incredibly lucky to be here, surrounded by everything and everyone he loves.

He breathes. Spins the ball between his hands, tosses it up, up into the air. It’s going to be a good one. He can feel it.