I’ve long become used to the rhythmic thumping of my footsteps in my ears. Music floods into my head via the latest in wanky gadgetry, and I make a game of synchronising my gait with the beat.
Running has become my ritual. Rain, hail or shine, I run for half an hour before work, and for half an hour during lunch. I run, I run, and I run some more.
Such is the life of someone who has been given a third chance at life.
After my first attack I thought my life had been destroyed. I cursed the gods on high for their cruel games, and I wallowed in self-pity. And how was that wrong? I was cut down in what I thought was my prime, separated from my friends, forced into a new environment. At the time, I thought I had lost everything.
In some stupid, adolescent form of protest, I fought against my fate in the only way I knew how. I didn’t follow the doctor’s orders. I slacked off with my medication. I rarely exercised.
Retribution was swift and unforgiving. My eyes we opened to a whole new definition of the word “loss”. Even now the pain is a little too much to bear.
And so I run, I run, and I run. This is my penance; every day for a decade I have run.
Has it really been a decade?
The tracks cycle on my player, and I take the chance to look ahead and refocus. Thinking on the past will get me nowhere. I need to look up, look ahead, look beyond.
A flash of recognition shoots through my brain like lightning. For the first time in ten years I break my stride and turn around.
A figure sits on a park bench beside a pond. I must have run past the same bench thousands of times, but this is the first that I’ve seen this person sitting there. She tears the edge from her sandwich and throws it into the pond. A duck lazily swims over to it and collects it.
If anyone else in the world were to witness that hand they would think nothing of it. And true, the years have been kind to it; the deep purple markings I knew are now faded to little more than a shadow.
“Hanako? Hanako, is that you?”
The hand’s owner turns to face me, and no amount of cardiac exercise could have prepared me for this. Here, a million miles and a million years from when we last met, sits Hanako, in the flesh.
Her trademark bangs are gone, but she has grown her hair. Or maybe not, it’s hard to tell whilst she’s sitting. As with her hands the scarring on her face has subsided.
“Hisao? What are you doing here?”
Hanako stand upon recognising me. She’s grown since we last met; slightly taller, but much more mature.
Well, of course more mature. She’s a woman now…
What the hell? I can’t even concentrate. Endorphins and Lactic acid are clouding my mind. Focus man, focus. The past is just that. The things that you lost can never be returned.
“I, uh, work not far from here. I run by here every day, but I’ve never seen you here before… geez how long has it been?”
Hanako tilts her head slightly. Shit, I shouldn’t have said that. No doubt bad memories are flooding through her head right now. Damn, she has a pretty head. I don’t think I’ve said that about anyone before, but she has a pretty head.
“Too long… too long indeed. I’m here on business, staying in the hotel across the way.”
She waves her hand behind her somewhere. I suppose the specifics don’t really matter. But the big surprise is the change in her manner. Of course, I saw the beginnings of this Hanako way back towards the end of high school.
I suppose our relationship then was like a caterpillar forming its cocoon. Progress was made, but it wasn’t the end state. Before me now is Hanako the Butterfly; fully developed, ready to take on the world.
A pang of sorrow hits me as I realise that I wasn’t the one to be there when she did emerge.
“Wow, a business trip. Sounds like you’ve done alright for yourself…”
Without warning my watch starts to beep at me. Two shrill beeps, then a second’s pause. Repeat. In the past it was a reminder to turn around and head back to work. Today it is a wedge between myself and my old friend.
“Shit, I have to get back to work. Look, are you free this afternoon? It’s Friday, so I can leave a little earlier; do you want to catch up for a drink or a coffee or something?”
“Sure, I think I’d like that. There’s a nice cafe near my hotel, it’s on the main road, I think it’s called ‘Statement’.”
“Yup, I know the one. I can meet you there at about five… or is that too early?”
Hanako shakes her head. The short movement sends her long hair dancing, punctuated by flashes from her crystal ear rings.
She never wore ear rings when we were dating. They suit her.
“Five is fine. I’ll see you there.”
Hanako wears the same suit she did in the park; a light grey with a white pinstripe. Were anyone else to wear her skirt you would call it “long”, but this is Hanako. To me, her 3/4 –length skirt looked like a miniskirt. I’m 18 again and swimming in hormones.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve ordered a bottle of wine. I wasn’t sure how long you were going to be.”
Hanako’s diction leaves me nearly dumbstruck. Only now do I realise the timbre of her voice, something that I never really paid attention to back in school. I need to ask her questions, lots of questions, meaningless questions, anything to get her to speak back to me.
“No, not at all. And sorry for being late; I just couldn’t get away from work as early as I thought. I was going to call you but I don’t have your number, so…”
“Well then we’d better fix that. What’s your number?”
Hanako’s fingers dance over her phone as she enters my details. She finishes by calling my phone, completing the cycle.
“So tell me Hisao, what are you up to?”
“To be honest, nothing much. I’m working as an actuary for a life insurance firm. I work out when people are due to die to see if it’s worth insuring them. 15.7 years. That’s all I have left, in case you were wondering. Before I took up running that could have been halved. I can’t even get insurance from my own employer.”
“It is, but it pays the bills and then some, so I can’t complain. What about yourself? I don’t mean to be rude but you’ve changed quite a bit.”
Hanako looks up and away, as if recounting the entirety of her life since we last saw each other and picking out the highlights for me.
“Well, I guess I have. But a lot of things happened… including your… you know.”
“Heart attack. It’s all right, you can say it.”
“Yes, your heart attack. That made me realise many things, and so I went away to get some help.”
A wave of old anger sweeps through me. When I awoke in that grimy hospital room for the second time she had gone. No note, no phone number, not even a damned message left with the nurse. From my point of view she simply disappeared.
But as much as it pains me to say it, maybe that was the best thing. To finally see Hanako confident enough to show her face to the world and to talk freely is worth any amount of my own suffering.
“Well, whatever you did, it certainly worked! I hope I’m not being too direct, but you look amazing.”
Ah, maybe My Hanako isn’t totally lost. Her cheeks blossom crimson, and her trademark stutter, equal parts enticing and irritating, returns.
The wine arrives and the waiter pours us each a glass. We both order a light meal, and he retreats into the shadows, leaving us alone again.
“Anyway, after I left… that place… I went back to university. I changed my major, and now here I am, writing reviews.”
“Reviews? For what?”
“Hotels, food, clothing… whatever, really. There’s a lot of magazines out there, and a lot of websites, newspapers, travel guides…. All up, there’s a lot of reviews that need to be written. And so I write them.”
“Huh. I never thought of that. Is it fun?”
“It pays the bills, and then some.”
We both sip our wine. With the initial “What are you doing” conversation out of the way, we find ourselves with little to say. When we were dating our relationship wasn’t really built on conversation. More like mutual interest.
The food arrives, giving us a reason to not talk, but it is soon gone, as is the bottle of wine. Hanako orders another, and the waiter asks if we’d like to move from the dining area to the lounge.
“You say you do travel reviews; have you been anywhere interesting?”
“Yes and no. Most of the travel reviews I write are made up, anyway. I’ve read enough about exotic places to make them seem real enough.”
“Isn’t that fraud?”
“Not really. The people that read magazines like the ones I write for never go on holidays anyway. So instead I give them a holiday in their mind.”
“So you’re doing them a service by lying to them?”
“Such is the way of the world, Hisao.”
The wine is starting to take effect. Even this New Hanako seems to be relaxing into the mood. The second bottle goes as quickly as it came, and the waiter asks if I’d like another.
“I’m not really partial to wine, but I’ll have a whiskey on the rocks thanks.”
Hanako ponders this for a moment before ordering some cocktail with an exciting yet forgettable name.
Hanako’s hotel room seems nice, with modern, chrome fittings. The centrepiece, as with most hotel rooms, is the bed. And it is there that Hanako and I embrace.
The last time we met like this, I had sex with Hanako the Virgin.
Tonight, however, I make love to Hanako the Woman.
Sunlight pours in through the open curtains. I guess neither of us payed the drapery any heed last night.
Hanako is already awake, buttoning up her blouse. I roll over slightly and catch a whiff of her shampoo from her pillow; something coconut-y. I smile to myself. After so many years, Hanako and I are together once again. Everything feels right with the world.
“Oh, er, good morning, Hisao.”
Almost unconsciously I see Hanako toy with her left ring finger. In the bright morning light I see the telltale band of light-coloured skin at the base of her finger.
Until recently, Hanako has been wearing a ring.
“H-Hisao… There’s something I have to tell you…”