Ripples of energy shoot up my legs as my feet hit the pavement, one stride in front of the other. My neck is drenched and rivulets of sweat cascade down my back, the sun bouncing off the top of my head. Glancing at Halley, I see that she checks her Garmin watch and a broad smile dawns across her face.
“Time?” I ask, over the J-pop blaring in my ears. I never used to run to music, but last fall, Halley insisted we stop running and talking at the same time, so we both spent hours putting together playlists for our training sessions. She loves dub step and the dirtiest rap with the most foul lyrics she can find. I like J-pop, techno, downtempo, and indie.
“Good. We’re good. Mile eight, eight minutes, three seconds.” Halley smiles, her blonde ponytail swaying behind her. “I told you. Short ten mile run, easy pace.”
I roll my eyes at her and keep going. Only Halley would think eight minute miles is an easy pace.
There’s a lot to love about Michigan State University this time of year. After a long hard winter full of five foot snow drifts and below freezing temperatures, May brings with it green grass and trees, cows out on the South Pasture, and the MSU dairy where I can get the best butter pecan ice cream on the planet. The comm arts building looms in front of us as we come to our turn, right down Wilson Road from Red Cedar Road. The building makes me smile, fond memories floating through my mind of sitting in four-hundred-person lectures and eating in the café between classes so I wouldn’t have to go out into the cold. All of my comm arts classes are done for the semester now, and I can’t wait to return to this part of campus in the fall since I’ve finally chosen my major. Well, majors, plural.
“Uh-oh. It’s Peter,” Halley whispers at me, and sure enough, Peter Samuels, lead Epsilon Delta goofball, is running towards us in the opposite direction. His stride looks good, better than it did earlier in the school year when he was twenty pounds overweight and couldn’t keep up with 5k walkers.
“Hey, Peter!” I call out, waving and making Halley groan. “What? I’m always nice…” I whisper back.
“Lookin’ good, ladies!” Peter shouts over his headphones. He pops an earbud out, and Halley’s eyes widen. She taps her watch and speeds her legs. “See you tonight, right? Last party of the year!”
Peter pumps his fist, and we nod.
“Sure,” Halley says. “Looking forward to it.” She winks at him, and he trips over the pavement but elegantly saves himself and runs backwards behind us.
“Good luck this summer, Halley! We’re all pulling for you to win! Woo! Olympics!”
Heads turn as we pass students exiting the urban planning building. Several stop to clap as we run by while Halley waves her hand in the air and laughs.
Not everyone has a potential Olympic gold medal winning best friend, but I do, and I try not to let it go to her head.
“Stop the waving, princess. We have another two miles to go before we make it back to Brody.”
“Okay, okay. Faster.” Halley’s legs speed up, and I struggle to find the energy to match pace with her. I know I have it in me somewhere, but it’s our last run of the school year together. I wanted it to be more leisurely, but these will always be training runs for Halley. We never run just to de-stress or get fresh air or cancel out the pint of ice cream we each ate while watching movies in our room the night before.
I keep pace at her side, but I start to lag behind around mile nine. As she pulls away, she turns her head and shouts, “Comet tail, keep up!”
A chuckle from deep in my belly stops me dead in my tracks. On a run, I’m never Isano or Isa. I’m Halley’s comet tail, and I’ve been her tail for fifteen years. Still the nickname never ceases to make me laugh.
When I enter our room in Bryan Hall, Halley is already icing down her feet and rehydrating. I decided to walk the rest of the way back and cool down instead of running the whole way home and then having to cool down before my shower.
“How are your feet?” I ask, shucking my arm band onto the table and accessing the messages on my iPhone. One from Masa, “Meet you at 11 at the library. Sorry. I know you said 10:30. I’m already late.” I roll my eyes at my phone and type, “Fine. Just in from my run anyway.”
“What’s with the face?” Halley asks, looking up from her Gatorade and protein bar. Her hair is in a blonde halo around her head, her face red and skin flushed.
“You should talk.” I laugh and look at my combination dry erase and cork board on the wall over my desk under my loft bed. Today: run, done. I cross it off the list. Grade papers with Masa. Lunch on the go. Afternoon, pack. Dinner with Halley and dorm crew at Brody. Frat party. Ugh. I hate frat parties. It’s no mystery why that’s written on my schedule in Halley’s handwriting. I bite the inside of my cheek and check Saturday and Sunday. Turn in papers, make my Mother’s Day YouTube video, pack, and leave on Sunday. Masa’s not on the weekend schedule at all.
“Masa’s already running late for paper grading. Typical.” I peel off my sweaty shirt, shorts, and sports bra before grabbing my robe. “I gotta shower and go. Are you okay? Need anything?”
As designated Olympian trainer, roommate, and best friend, it’s my job to make sure Halley is well taken care of every day so she can train and attend school with no hiccups. That’s the pact I made with her parents when they offered to pay for my books and meal plan every year Halley and I live together.
“I’m fine,” she says sinking into the lounge chair in our tiny room. The twinkle lights strung along the outside of our beds makes her hair glow. She lifts her iPhone to take a selfie for Instagram and her five thousand followers before laughing and swiping to her email. She’s fine.
I grab my shower caddy and head to the communal bathroom, praying no one is in there that I’ll have to talk to, but I open the door and our neighbors across the hall are chatting at the sinks.
“Hi,” I say, internally counting to ten. One, two, three…
“How’s Halley? Is she ready, you think? We’re sooooo excited for her. Can’t wait to watch the Games this summer.” Kaylee twirls her dark hair and throws the long locks over her shoulder, holding her toothbrush in one hand and leaning against the sink with the other. I’m surprised they even made it to the count of three to ask me about Halley. Most people just attack me in the hallway and beg for gossip which I know will be on Snapchat five minutes later.
Tiara, her roommate, nods with her toothbrush in her mouth, mumbling, “Gonna be awesome.”
“Halley’s just as ready for this marathon as she has been for the countless other marathons she’s been in,” I say, touting the party line. It’s all true, of course, which makes it even easier to spout off to anyone and everyone who asks me about her. She’s more ready for Tokyo than she was for Antarctica, her hardest race ever. Harder even than qualifying for the Olympic team. Halley thrives in summer and heat. Antarctica was brutal for her and she still came in second.
I shift my weight between my feet, aches in my legs crawling up my calves. I should have stretched more.
“So, when do you leave for Tokyo?” Tiara asks, banging her toothbrush on the side of the sink.
I think this is the closest they’ll get to asking about me. “Halley leaves on Wednesday. I’m joining her in three weeks.”
“You spending time with your mom while you’re there?”
I nod and hum. “Mom’s got a few things planned. We’re going to make a trip to see my cousins, and I’m going to stay at the ryokan a few nights. I’ll mostly be with Halley downtown, though.”
My mom lives outside of downtown Tokyo, in Kichijōji, kind of a suburb west of the city where she runs the family’s ryokan, Kurogashi, a Japanese inn that caters to foreigners. The house and ryokan are lovely, but I haven’t been there since they renovated. My parents divorced six years ago. She moved back to Japan, and I stayed with Dad and went to high school here. I’ve only visited once since then. I don’t have a lot of time or money for international trips. The only traveling I’ve done recently was with Halley, and her parents paid for those trips.
“I gotta shower and go grade papers.” I turn towards the showers but stop, remembering my manners. “Will you two be around later? Halley and I are having one last dinner in the caf before we go.”
“Nope,” Kaylee says, grabbing her caddy. “I’m done with finals. Dylan and I are heading to Grand Rapids tonight.”
“And I’m heading back to Livonia. Yay.” Tiara tosses her toothbrush in her caddy with a frown on her face. “I’m not going home next summer. I hate going home.”
I nod silently. I don’t mind going home to Grosse Ile, but this is the summer I’ve been waiting for. No babysitting, no part-time job at the local theater, and no fifteen-year-old temperamental car. Just a Tokyo Metro Card, summer reading, running, and the Olympics.
I let the shower run extra hot to get the sweat off my body and stretch inside the tiny space. The dreaded “freshman fifteen” meant nothing to me last year. I never gained an ounce, and since Halley and I were constantly on the go, I had to eat more so I wouldn’t lose weight. I wash my hair, soap up my face, and sluice the soap down my body. I glance down to see if boobs have grown in the last day. Nope. Still flat-chested.
I sigh and lean against the wall, going through my mental routine for the rest of the day, the plans I need in order to handle anything that comes at me. This is how I keep the constant anxiety away, buried in my brain under a pile of contingencies and what-if scenarios. If I get to the library and Masa’s not in our usual spot, I’ll find a table and wait for him. If he’s there before me, I’ll try and sit across from him instead of next to him. If I sit next to him, I can’t stare at him when he’s not looking. What if other people are there? I’ll try to smile and be nice. If I don’t know them, I’ll get to grading. I need to remember my headphones. If I forget my headphones, the whole thing will be ruined. I’ll have to beg off, come back home, and then grade papers somewhere else.
Right. Okay. I think I’m ready. I have a plan. What could possibly go wrong?
“Was this Plan B or Plan C?” Masa asks, dumping his bag on the table. The library is desolate, empty, only grad students sitting in the carrels because all the undergrads are either packing up and leaving or stuck in the last exams of the semester on the Friday of finals week.
“Plan B,” I say, bringing the purple pen to my mouth and humming over a messily-written kanji character. I flip to the first page of the exam and find “Emi” written in the name field. Aw. She always tries so hard. I can’t mark her down for this. “Plan A was you’d actually be here before me.” I write the correct kanji for fish (sakana, 魚 ) next to Emi’s butchered version and move on to the next question.
“Really? I’m flattered you still think I’m prompt after all this time.” Masa reaches into his bag and pulls out a stack of papers the same height as mine before sitting down across from me. I smile, relieved he didn’t try to sit beside me. This way I can watch the way he rubs at the short hair on the back of his head when he’s thinking, or the way he chews on his pen, or how he plays air drums when he finishes grading an exam. Every single time. Today he’s wearing his glasses which means he accidentally slept in his contacts last night and woke up with sandpaper eyeballs.
He leans across the table and glances at the paper I’m grading. “You should mark her down for that.”
“Who? Emi?” I pout and frown at the paper. “She’s so nice and tries so hard.”
Masa sighs as he sits down. “You’re right. She is nice, and she’s studying for the JLTP Level Four this summer.”
My frown deepens, jealous of Emi. How does Masa know anything about her?
“Did she tell you that?” I ask, moving on to the next question.
“No. I heard her gossiping about it.” Masa smooths out his Michigan State gray t-shirt before withdrawing a green pen from his bag and opening to the first exam on top. He uncaps the top and glances at my purple pen. “How’s that pen treating you?”
“Great, thanks. Still going strong.” I tip the pen up to the light and take note of the dwindling ink. The pen was a gift from Masa for my birthday last September, along with a few Japanese journals he picked up in Tokyo while he was there last summer. It didn’t escape my notice that he brought gifts back from Japan for me but none for his girlfriend-at-the-time, Toni. It didn’t escape her notice either. That was the beginning of the end for them. I thought maybe, once they were through, something might happen between Masa and me. I hoped it might. I’ve laid in bed every night and dreamed we would climb past this friendly limbo we’re stuck in.
Halley thinks we’re eternally cruising in the friend zone, though. She’s probably right.
“If it runs out, you can get more at Ito-ya when you’re in Tokyo this summer.”
I sigh and rest my head on my arms. “I can’t wait.”
“Stop rubbing it in,” he grumbles. “How were your last exams? Did you make it through unscathed?”
“I think I did well and only had half a panic attack around Wednesday.” I laugh even though I’m not kidding, and Masa laughs too, unaware I’m telling the truth. I like to keep my deep-rooted anxiety to myself. He only gets to see the surface stuff.
He kicks me under the table and my head shoots up. “Did you talk to Professor Fukuda this week?”
I shake my head, moving on to the next paper. “No. He wasn’t around when I picked up the exams.”
“He said he wants to see you. Be sure to hand in the papers straight to him.”
My freshman year last year was a complete blur. I met Professor Fukuda in my Japanese Intro 101 class, which I passed out of the first week. I was sent directly to level 201, where I smoked everyone in the class. Japanese was the only class I enjoyed my freshman year, and it was how I met Masa. We’re both teacher’s assistants for Fukuda now, and I’ll be taking graduate level classes next year when I return.
Keeping my Japanese fresh is important to me. When I call my mom and talk to her and my grandparents over FaceTime, I want to speak to them in Japanese. I could force them to speak English, but I’ve noticed how much longer they’ll stay online if I use Japanese. This is also why I started my own YouTube channel. I’m not popular like the fashion and beauty vlogs I follow, but my meager thirty subscribers, including my mom and grandparents, watch and comment on every video. Since Mom moved back to Japan, I’ve tried hard to keep in touch with her. Too many of my friends lost a parent after a divorce. I didn’t want to be one of them.
I zip through my stack of papers, often looking up to stare at Masa through the nose-level bangs I keep forgetting to trim. I love the way his tortoiseshell frames slide down his nose when he’s slanted over his work. His slim, calloused fingers push them up the bridge of his nose over and over. Those callouses come from hours of playing guitar when he’s not studying or reading. Some of my favorite memories are of lying in his bed, the scent of his sheets floating around my head, reading for one of my comm arts classes, while he played the guitar at his desk. His roommate, Shrikant, would call him Casanova, and Masa would blush before putting the guitar away. Whenever Masa wasn’t around, I kicked Shrikant hard in the leg. He deserved it.
I lean across the table and take five exams from Masa’s pile since he’s making negative progress at this point. “Thanks,” he mumbles, flourishing a percentage on the front of one exam and moving onto the next after playing a round of air drums.
I tap my fingers on the exams and hate on myself for a moment. This is another reason why Masa and I have never been romantic. I treat him like a best friend or a brother, not like someone I want to strip naked and push into my bed. My mouth runs dry as I remember last summer, when I drove up to Novi for the day and spent the hot summer afternoon lounging around Masa’s family pool while his parents were in Tokyo, before he left to join them. I was half naked in a bikini and Masa wore board trunks. I was so sexually frustrated, I lay on the couch all night staring at the ceiling, only falling asleep once. I had dreams of slipping into his room and his bed but chided myself for being creepy. Who does that shit anyway? People in romance novels maybe.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been hung up on a guy who considered me nothing more than a friend. In fact, this is the fourth guy in a string of heartaches from middle school straight to college. I was in love with Tom for both freshman and sophomore years of high school. He was nice enough to turn me down gently when I confessed my crush after a school football game. His rejection came with a “sorry” and a pat on the shoulder, then he never spoke to me again.
It was Ethan that ruined my confidence completely. I should have known better since he was one of the popular crew, but I fell for his smile and his sense of humor. We were easy friends in all our joint classes, so I thought I might have a chance. I wish his rejection had been as simple as Tom’s. Instead, I confessed I was into him when we chaperoned the fifth grade camping trip, and he told every boy in the school what a loser I was. My life was awful for months. The situation eventually died down when Halley stood up for me, and then his family moved to South Africa of all places, but the damage was done. At least my senior year was quiet and fairly uneventful, but no other guy would look at me, and I went to prom with a bunch of girls instead of a date. I was strong enough not to cry, but I wanted to. I really wanted to.
I know Masa well enough to realize he’d never be as cruel as Ethan was to me, but there’s no way I’m going down that road again. Masa and I are friends, no matter how in love with him I am.
We work for another thirty minutes, pack up, and head outside. The sun is bright, the grass green, and people whiz by us on bikes. I dig in my backpack for my sunglasses so I don’t have to squint the entire walk home.
“Are you heading back to Brody? I’m going to take the bus from Wells,” Masa says, running his hand through his hair. It stands up in a hundred different directions, and I quash the desire to reach out and put it in order.
“Yeah. I’m having dinner with Halley and the dorm crew tonight, but I have to pack this afternoon.”
Masa smiles a winning, straight-white-teeth smile that knocks me dead every time. His father is a dentist. “Let’s walk through the gardens. It’s a shame the school year is mostly during the winter when the gardens are dead.”
I roll my eyes at him. “Will you write a poem about the coming of spring and summer?”
“I’m thinking about it, and don’t roll your eyes at me. I’m a sensitive artist. You might ruin my ego.” He laughs. His ego is fine. I doubt anything I could ever say would shake him. “Come on, Isanooooooooooo. Walk through the gardens with me one last time before summer comes and we’re separated for months.” He takes my hand for a moment and tugs, but I pull it away from him as my skin prickles where his fingers met mine. I wish he wouldn’t play these games with me. Every time he touches me, I can’t help the flood of hope that crashes over me and drowns out my good sense.
“Call me Isa, for fuck’s sake. Only my mom and grandparents call me Isano.”
“Oops,” he says, falling into step next to me as I lead us towards the botanical gardens. “Whenever you swear, I’m in trouble.”
“I just don’t want to be reminded that I won’t see you this summer.”
He glances at me then at the ground in front of us as we round the corner around the main library.
“Let’s just skirt the edge along the river and then we can double-back to Wells on the other side.”
“I’m in no rush, Isa, and I just changed my mind. I’ll take the bus from IM West instead.”
We walk in silence and I take a deep breath, enjoying the summer air. I can’t believe that I chose to stay in state and go to a school that’s covered in snow most of the year. I hate winter. This is much better.
“So, you’re gonna miss me this summer?” Masa asks.
I study him, trying not to read too much into his question or the hesitant way he asked it. Is it possible he knows just how much I’ll miss him? I don’t want to let myself get carried away with what-ifs, so I just respond with a typical Isa flippant response.
“Of course, asshole. Who else will I spend my time with?”
“Halley and all of Tokyo.” He kicks at a stone and sends it flying into the grass.
“Halley and I will spend time running together and that’s about it.” I shove my hands down into my low-slung jeans. “She has appointments for interviews with every news agency on the planet, plus time at the gym, and a million other things to do.”
Masa frowns. “Then what are you going to do while you’re there?”
“I have plans made,” I scoff. “I put together a list of places I want to go see, the temples and shops. I have a queue of books on my Kindle a million deep I haven’t been able to read all year. Plus I need to visit my mom and the ryokan. I’ll be plenty busy. My planner is booked.”
“Of course it is. That’s what I love about you. You have plans for everything. Your planner is chock full of appointments and ideas. How many plans did you come up with for today?”
I count them in my head. “There were four possible outcomes.”
Masa has never faulted me for my planning anxiety, even though Halley’s had enough of it. I’ve planned out everything since my parents’ divorce — how I would tackle my homework, where I would go for holidays, what I would buy at the store. I even planned out losing my own virginity, which was an entirely, one-hundred-percent successful plan. My seminal work. I doubt I’ll ever be able to top it.
“Only four? What if a meteor fell out of the sky and obliterated the library? Did you consider that?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Masa. Events like that fall under my end-of-the-world plans. I keep those written on special paper in a vault with a key code only I, and the President of the United States, know.” I blink my eyes at him seriously, but he laughs anyway. I have a weak moment, where I want to reach out and squeeze his hand, come clean about how nervous I am about the whole summer, how I hyperventilate every night thinking of all the things that could go wrong, but I push the urge away. Masa is the last person I want to introduce to my brand of crazy. I’ve done a good job of hiding everything but the planning. Don’t ruin it now, Isa.
I pull out my iPhone and crouch down next to some pretty white flowers with bees on them, snap a photo, and upload to Instagram. Immediately, Halley favorites the photo. She’s always on her phone when she’s not in class or running.
From my left, Masa darts out and grabs my iPhone. “Hey!” I lunge and try to turn it off before he can access anything.
“One last pic before the year is up,” he says, turning the camera around. He mugs for the shot, but I stare at him, swept up in his carefree attitude and easygoing ways. He coasts through life, not a plan in sight. I could never do that.
Click. A moment of my life frozen in time, a moment with Masa. An eternity if you look at it long enough.
Masa stares hard at my phone, the photo of the two of us immortalized and ready for the Internet. Shit. Anyone with two eyes and a brain can see I’m totally in love with him. He quickly opens it in Instagram then pauses, his thumbs poised over the keyboard, ready to make a description as I watch the screen over his shoulder.
“The open garden
Walking along the river —
Selfie of two friends.”
He types and hits “Share.” Masa’s haikus — he creates them when he’s posting a description or leaving a comment. I keep telling him he needs his own Tumblr for them, but he always brushes me off.
A second later, Halley favorites and comments with a red heart. My hand shakes as I pry my phone out of his fingers, turn it off, and slip it into my pocket. Masa keeps walking, oblivious to my rapid breathing and sweating upper lip. I take a deep breath, count to ten, and catch up to him.
We make it all the way along the river and up to Sparty before Masa clears his throat.
“You’re gonna update your YouTube channel while you’re gone, right?”
“Sure. I can think of a bunch of different lessons I could do just walking down the streets of Tokyo. We can Skype too, if you want.”
He nods, not looking at me, studying the cracks in the sidewalk as we make our way to IM West. “Won’t you be lonely and disoriented in Tokyo all summer?”
“It’s not like I don’t speak the language. I’ll be fine.” But my heart beats with another rush of doubt. What if I can’t handle being away? What if my plans fail and I hate Tokyo? I haven’t been there in years and that trip was a disaster. Mom was so nervous the whole time, worried she ruined me with the divorce (which is far from the truth), and my grandparents were busy. I spent the entire trip glued to my iPad or practicing my Japanese with random people in the shops around the ryokan. Mom kept asking about school, Dad, the people back on Grosse Ile, and I kept telling her everything was fine. It was. Everyone understood why she left, including me. Her own sense of guilt was sky high, though. She couldn’t be convinced.
“Besides,” I say, bumping shoulders with him, “the city will be Olympified. Events everywhere. Tourists overrunning everything. I’m sure it’ll be a blast. I wish you were coming, though.”
“Me too. My dad mentioned going to Tokyo for the summer a few months ago but then decided to go to Chicago instead. I’ll keep busy, though. I have lots of plans to get caught up on my art this summer, drawing, painting, music. You know, the stuff I can’t do at school.” He frowns and clutches at his backpack. “My dad’s still angry I never lined up an internship for this summer, so I’ve gotta live with that. It’s a good thing my mom buys the art supplies.”
Poor Masa. His parents love him, but it’s a challenge to keep them happy.
“Well, if something changes, you know how to get ahold of me.” I pat my iPhone in my jeans pocket. I love that the new phones work on every network around the world. My parents are paying for my NTT Docomo plan while I’m in Tokyo so I can always be reached. I just hope the network can handle the extra people. I step away and back towards my path to Brody Neighborhood, but Masa reaches out and grabs my arm.
“Hey, wanna drop off exams tomorrow and get lunch together? One last time before we go?” Masa pushes his glasses up to rub at his eyes, and I’m stopped by how sad he looks. Is he worried he’ll miss me this summer? My heartbeat drums in my ear, deafening me with hope, hope that he feels more than he’s let on these last two years.
“What’s wrong?” I ask, edging closer to him. “Did something happen?” He shakes his head. “Exams?”
He laughs. “No. It’s nothing. Text me tomorrow, and we’ll make those plans you’re so fond of.”
The hope drains out the bottom of my feet and leaves me cold and empty. Why do I continually ride this stormy sea of doomed, unrequited love in such a tiny, rickety boat with no life vest?
A bus cruises past us and he waves to me as he runs off. I stand like a loser in the sidewalk with my hand raised until he’s boarded and the bus heads towards south campus. How will I survive the summer without him?
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“What the hell am I doing here?” I shout at Halley over the ridiculously loud rap music. The frat house is teeming with people dressed in very little. That’s the thing with Michigan. Once the temperatures rise into the fifties, guys start wearing shorts and shunning jackets like it’s a tropical rainforest. Girls catch on soon after and then it’s all skin, skin, skin. Not that I mind. The less I have to wear while running, the better.
I try to sip on my beer and look like I belong at this party, but I so do not. First of all, I’m one of only two Asians here. Well, half-Asian. Still, I’m way out of place in this white bread fraternity. I hope a more diverse crowd shows up later, or I’m out of this place as soon as Halley turns her back on me. At least I dressed appropriately in my ripped jeans, belt, and dark gray silk tank top. I didn’t even bother with a bra. Halley hates that. I told her I’d trade boobs with her any day of the week, but she’s never taken me up on the offer.
“You’re here with me so I don’t have to talk about the fucking marathon all evening. Maybe I can get laid before I go.” She throws her arm over my shoulder. “Hey, can you wingman-me over to that one over there?” She points to a gorgeous guy filling up his cup with beer across the room, and I cringe. Of course, it’s Karim, the knock-me-dead, blue-eyed Egyptian roommate of the guy I lost my virginity to last year. I would have preferred Karim over Alex, but like most men I’ve had the hots for, he thought I was the best kind of friend to have.
“Karim? Are you serious?”
Halley squints her eyes and turns to my ear. “Oh my god, I forgot all about him! Alex isn’t here, is he?” Halley glances around, but I shake my head.
“Remember? He transferred to Eastern this year, and thank god for that.” I stick my tongue out and make a retching sound that scares the girls next to us. Halley and I giggle as they edge away from us.
“I told you not to sleep with him.”
“Whatever,” I say, sipping my beer again. Two cups of this swill and I’ll be done-zo for the night. I hardly ever drink, and my face is already burning. Damned Japanese genes. Everyone on my mom’s side of the family flushes when they drink. “It’s not like anyone else was going to sleep with me, and I had to get my mind off Masa since he was dating Toni, anyway. Alex did make me orgasm twice.” I hold up two proud fingers. “So it wasn’t a total loss.”
“Twice in over three months of dating is a crime, Isa, and you know it.” Halley waves at a few people across the room that woo! at her and pump their fists in the air. “Look, the summer is coming, a whole summer away from Masa. Take the time to get over him so you can come back next year and date someone new.”
“What is there to get over? He’s my friend —”
“And you’re still head-over-heels in love with him. I saw the photo today.”
I cover my face with my free hand. “Was it that obvious?”
“You should have just jumped up and kissed him and been done with it. Let’s go.” She grabs my arm and pulls me towards Karim’s back. “Ready? Just like we practiced.” Halley smooths back her long blonde hair and jerks down the V-neck she’s wearing to show more cleavage. I sigh and tap Karim on the shoulder, plastering on a smile.
“Karim! Hi! It’s great to see you!” I yell over the music. He smiles at me, that stupidly handsome smile, his light blue eyes and tan skin melting me. I think cooling thoughts of MSU campus in mid-winter. “Have you met Halley?”
I let Halley step into the conversation, and they start talking. Smooth transition, and I’m immediately forgotten. Awesome. I’m in the comet’s tail again, right where I belong. I try to ignore the hollow feeling in my stomach as I chug down the rest of the beer in my Solo cup and refill it at the keg. Taking my cup in hand, I wander through the fraternity house looking for anyone I may know. This particular house is only a ten minute walk from Brody Neighborhood on the north side of town, which is why we always end up here. Halley considered pledging a sorority last fall but decided against it since her training schedule was already stretched to the limit.
I smile at a few girls I recognize but can’t remember their names, so I keep walking. The beer hits my stomach and my head, slamming my brain like a sledgehammer. Damn, my tolerance is low. I’m going to be a lightweight this summer in Japan, where the legal drinking age is twenty and everyone drinks like fishes. My cousins have already filled up my email with pledges of late nights in Shibuya at karaoke bars and izakaya pubs drinking until the last train home. I doubt I’ll be able to keep up with them.
I find a mostly vacant room and sigh with relief, plopping down on a disgusting, brown and sagging couch. I try not to let my bare skin actually touch the fabric as I sip my beer and avoid looking at the couple making out in the corner.
Why am I here again? I could be back in our room in my pajamas, watching Lost on DVD or packing. I should be packing. I wonder if Masa’s home packing? Maybe I should call him and we can meet up instead? I pull my phone from my pocket and gaze at the photo of the two of us today, my stomach clenching. Why can’t I hide my feelings for him? I must do a fairly good job of it, because he’s never said a word or even implied that he knows. I turn off my phone and put it back in my pocket, vowing to not call him, even though I want to.
“Jello shot?” A frat boy tries to hand me a tiny cup filled with jiggly red stuff.
“People still do Jello shots?” I ask him, taking it.
“Of course they do.” He’s completely inebriated, slurring his words, so I smile and say thanks, wait for him to leave the room, and set the shot aside. No way in hell am I eating that thing.
I glance at the door to the room, eager to leave the party and get on with my life, when Masa peeks his head in and smiles at me.
“I had a feeling you’d be here somewhere after I saw Halley in the front room.”
“Masa!” I scream and jump up, throwing my arms around his neck. I’m suddenly very drunk, the launch from the couch sending everything to the right. I stumble, and he grips me around the waist causing my body to tighten, my nipples alarmingly erect under the thin silky tank top. Masa’s eyes lock right on my chest and straight down my top. I twist away and try to laugh off our sudden embrace as heat rushes to my face.
“Uh, hey,” he says, pulling his hand through his hair, highlighting the awkward moment with his usual gesture that means, “I’m uncomfortable.” I’ve seen it enough times in the last two years to know it well.
I smooth out my jeans and cross my free arm across my chest. “What are you doing here? You don’t like frat parties.”
He shrugs his shoulders. “Shrikant knows someone here, so I decided to tag along.”
“Oh.” I gulp at the beer, hoping to all that’s holy he really didn’t just see my bare chest. I mean, I wouldn’t mind if he did see my bare chest, except I’d prefer it in bed, naked… soon. I lick my lips and look away. My head moves and the room follows it at a slow pace. Shit. I’m wasted on two beers. How is that even possible? “Well, I was actually going to leave… actually. Now.”
“Really? I just got here. You’re going to abandon me already?”
I close my eyes and breathe deep but that’s a mistake. The room is full of smoke and spilled beer. When I open my eyes, Masa is frowning at me. “Isa, are you okay?”
“Fine! Great!” I fake smile at him, but I can only make it last a moment before depression takes over my face. Dammit. I’m in love with my best friend, and he has no idea, and if I hang out with him at this party, I will blab it and ruin everything, just like I did with Ethan. I can’t bear to have that happen with Masa, too.
“I’ve gotta go. Pajamas, a pint of ice cream, and Lost are waiting for me at home.” I step up to him and put my palm on his chest, feeling the heat from his skin warm my hand through his black shirt. I pull my fingers away as if they’ve been singed. I shouldn’t even be touching him. “See you tomorrow?” I ask.
“Of course,” he says, laying his hand on my bare upper arm. A wash of goosebumps covers me from head to toe. I jerk away from his touch and head down the hall, ricocheting off the wall in two separate spots before I reach the front door.
I walk out onto the front lawn and take another deep breath. It’s a beautiful night in East Lansing. The sky is clear, stars twinkling, and an almost full moon hangs not far above the tree line. I took an Astronomy 101 class last fall, and I’ve been in love with the stars ever since. When I was still trying to decide on my major, I considered astronomy. I thought maybe I was destined to study the stars, what with Halley being named after a famous astronomer and my love of nighttime, but I don’t want to do that for a living, just like I don’t want to be an engineer either. I breathe deep one more time, and the fresh air sobers me a little, so I reach into my pocket for my phone and text Halley.
“Masa showed up and I had to run. Can’t do that. Heading home. Check on me in 30,” I type and wait for her reply while watching the masses of people walking the streets. This is the last chance to party before summer tears groups apart. I wonder if I can walk back to my dorm with someone else.
My phone buzzes in my hand. “Ok. Promise. Sorry about Masa.”
“Whatever,” I say at my phone.
“Isa! Wait up!” I freeze before slowly turning back to the house. Masa comes bounding out the front door, running up to me. “Let me walk you home. You’ve had too much to drink.”
“It’s okay.” I wave at him and turn to go. “I’m sure I can find someone to walk me who’s already going that way.”
“No, please,” he says, lunging forward and grabbing for me. “I want to make sure you make it home all right.” The heat of his hand on my arm stops my breathing. I would give anything to slip my hand into his and walk home with him by my side. I catch my breath in a gasp, and he lets go, shoving his hands in his pockets.
“Fine. Let’s go.” I walk in front of him for a bit, texting Halley again. “Couldn’t ditch Masa. He’s walking me home,” I type to her.
“Good,” she replies and adds in a kissing smiley face. There are days when I want to strangle her.
Masa eventually walks beside me and holds my waist when I trip over cracks in the pavement. I twist away from him and put a few inches between us to steady my beating heart.
He clears his throat. “So, have you heard any more about the apartment you’re staying in in Tokyo?”
“Yeah, it’s in Akasaka. Your dad’s apartment is there, right?”
“Yep. Akasaka is a business district and close to Tokyo Station, Shinjuku, and the Imperial Palace. You’ll love it.”
A warm breeze blows my hair into my face, so I tuck it behind my ears. I went easy on my hair today, letting it be wavy instead of straightening it, but I took the time to put on makeup and even eyeliner. I’m getting better at the cat eye, thanks to the beauty vlogs I follow.
“I’ve mapped out ten running routes for when we get there. I want to make sure she’s acclimatized before the Games start. I have three routes with hills, three flat ones, and four combinations. I think it’s enough. I hope it’s enough. Maybe I should make more.”
“I’m sure it’s fine, Isa. It’s probably overkill already.”
“You’re right, of course. You’re always right.”
“I can’t believe you’re still watching Lost,” Masa says, laughing, as I weave around a group of people walking against us on the sidewalk.
“I never watched it the first time around, and we already watched Battlestar Galactica and Breaking Bad together this year.”
Masa tips his head and stares at the ground. “I miss those Friday nights already.”
These statements are the confusing part of my relationship with Masa. He seems to enjoy spending time with me, and we’ve even slept in the same bed with each other before, but he’s never once shown any romantic interest in me.
What if I told him how I feel? The timing is perfect, right before the summer. If he feels the same way, I can convince him to come to Tokyo with me. We’d figure things out together while exploring the city and attending the Olympics. I smile, imagining the two of us doing all the things I planned together instead of me doing them alone.
“What are you smiling about?” Masa asks, as we cross over Harrison and Michigan Ave. Only a few more minutes till home.
I wipe the stupid smile off my face and frown. “Nothing.” I lengthen my stride until I’m right outside my dorm. The parking lot is quiet, and it’s still early enough for me to use my swipe card at the far end door instead of entering through the lobby.
“Are you mad at me, Isa? Should I not have shown up at that party? You could have just told me to go away if you were there with another guy.” He jams his hands in his pockets, his shoulders up around his ears, and rocks back on the heels of his Chuck Taylor’s.
I burst out laughing. “Another guy? What gave you that impression?”
“I don’t know,” he says, running his hand through his hair again and rubbing the back of his head. “You looked like you were waiting for someone.”
“Please, Masa. Me? Dating someone? Guys don’t date me. Guys friend me.” I clamp my mouth shut and slip my swipe card from my back pocket. No need to get rude with him. It’s not his fault I’m a loser who falls for all the wrong guys.
“Come on,” he drawls, stepping closer to me. “You dated… Alex last year.” Masa’s voice changed when he said Alex’s name, or did I imagine it? He sounded annoyed? I narrow my eyes at him and the way his jaw is set and rigid I believe he’s angry. But maybe it’s the beer in my system because he’s never cared about my fling with Alex before now.
“I don’t want to talk about this.” My plans to confess to him are ruined now, our good mood washed away by own bitterness.
“Tell me what’s wrong. Are you mad at me?”
“I’m not mad at you. I’m angry with myself for being so fucking stupid this year. Fucking stupid.” My throat tightens and my voice squeaks. I clamp my mouth shut so I won’t go on and embarrass myself.
“Isa…” Masa’s shoulders fall and his eyes widen. “You’re not stupid.” He clutches both my shoulders in his warm hands and looks me right in the eyes. “You’re a smart and wonderful person. Whatever it is you’re mad about, try to forgive yourself.”
His face is so close to mine, and electricity bounces off of him, charging me, egging me on. “You should have just jumped up and kissed him and been done with it.” Halley’s words zoom back to me, so I close the inches between Masa and me and kiss him on the lips. No plans. No thoughts. No worries about our friendship and what this will do to us. I should have done this ages ago. I had a million opportunities, but I was always waiting for him.
His lips are soft and warm, and he opens his mouth to me and wraps his arms around my shoulders, his hands in my hair. Yes! Oh my god, he’s actually into me. I suck air in through my nose and let my tongue slide down his, feeling how perfect this is, straight down to my bones. I’ve waited for this for so long, my eyes fill with happy tears, and I hum with joy. I’m about to pull his hips close to mine when he disengages, pushing me away from him. The ache between my legs is so strong, though, I stumble.
But gauging the shock on Masa’s face, my brain numbs. The effect is ten times stronger than alcohol, because panic has sauntered in and claimed all rational thought. Run, it whispers in my ears.
Masa wipes at his mouth, and my heart seizes. He doesn’t even hide how revolted he is. “You didn’t mean that.” He doesn’t even question me. It’s a statement. “I didn’t mean that.” He backs away from me two steps, my heart races, and the beer I drank climbs back up from my stomach.
“I… I…” Stammering, I want to say, I did mean it! I’ve meant to do that for two years, since the first week we ever met. But his face is panicked, white, and unbelieving. Anything I say now will be suspect. “I didn’t mean it,” I echo back, horrified by the lie that slips so easily from my lips, but I will do anything to salvage the relationship now. “I’m sorry. So sorry.”
“Why would you do that if you didn’t mean it?” he asks. “Because you’re drunk?”
I groan and crouch down into a ball on the grass, replaying those few moments of the kiss in my head. He embraced me. He took the kiss deeper. What did I do wrong?
I can’t catch my breath. No matter how deep I breathe, my lungs won’t fill with enough air.
“I’m sorry,” I shout at the grass. I can’t look up at him. I have just completely damaged our relationship, and he is either disgusted by me or mad at me, I can’t tell which.
“Go inside, Isa, and go to bed.”
Tears erupt in my eyes, but I keep them silent as I sit hunched on the grass. I can’t let him see me cry. Slowly, footfalls echo away from me, and once they’re far enough, I stand up, my knees trembling. He turns around once, so I swipe my card at the door and let myself in under his watchful eye.
My legs shake, and my vision is spotted and blurred, the world darkening around me. I run up the stairs, taking them two at a time until I reach my floor, but I bypass my door and head straight for the bathroom. I claw past a few open stalls, launch myself into my favorite toilet and lose everything I had in my stomach. Bile rises up again and brings on a wave of tears.
I can’t believe I did that. How could I kiss Masa? He was my friend, my best friend, next to Halley.
Was my friend. Now I’m sure I’ve lost him.
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