Between Skin and Sky

by Mitsui Matsuri (θœœδΊ•θŒ‰θŽ‰)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/15483.html)

There was nothing to be done, after all.

Shibata took apart his camera, put it back together, and did everything all over again with his eyes closed for the hell of it. The three schoolgirls in knee-high socks stared blatantly at his boots — still muddy from Kashmir — and his long fingers, and giggled when he returned their stare. They looked impossibly young, nurtured as would hothouse flowers in their vicious, vapid self-importance.

For an iron-hot moment, he resented them. Then a dark cloud stretched over the train, plunging the entire car into twilight, and in that instant the girls became as unto goddesses: the angles of their throat and shoulders in prominence, faces veiled from mortal sight.

His fingers twitched. He forced them into stillness.

“No pictures,” Jasminder had said, and he knew better than to protest. They shared a bitter cigarette in the London evening, watching the queen city regurgitate its suit-clad drones. She reached across the distance between them and brushed the tips of her fingers on his shoulder, so lightly — Jasminder did not like to touch or be touched, and he appreciated the affection in the gesture.

“You’re too good a photographer to waste on a burnout,” she repeated, turning from friend to editor in a blink of her heavy-lidded eyes. “I’ve known you for years, and this– this shouldn’t be a dead end–”

“I know.” He scrubbed at his face. “I don’t know. Dead — that’s what my photos are, every single one.”

“Yeah. They are.” Jasminder was always brutally honest to him, and he reciprocated by treating her as he would another man. Between the two of them lay an unspoken agreement to bury the proscribed behaviour of their respective upbringing, the polite silences and privileges taken for granted.

“… Still don’t see why I have to go home to Japan.”

She raised an eyebrow at him.

“It’s been a decade. Time to stop running, Kiyoshi.”

And that was that. He was on a flight to Tokyo barely two weeks later, his Archos Gmini loaded with Ladytron and Janis Joplin as a bulwark against desultory safety instructions and screaming children. He spent most of the flight drinking overpriced vodka every four hours, on the dot, and thinking up increasingly agitated postcard messages for Jasminder.

Shibata eventually sent one, written in a badly-lit Shinjuku club the night before he left for Fujisawa City. It read, simply:

Taking the train to Fujisawa. My hometown.

Still can’t see.

The train station was crowded with people and ghosts. Shibata watched the back of a woman clad in faded flower-prints, hope lodged in his chest, and forced himself to look away when she turned and it wasn’t her.

He should have known: the woman was shorter and more heavy-set. His mother was always mournful and stork-like in his memories, prone to fits of temper.

“I’m going back to Abashiri,” she said five years ago, seeing him off at the train station. He’d been home, briefly, for his father’s funeral — he was their only child and, for all the coldness between them, there was still some love there.

He kissed his mother on the cheek.

“Why should you be the only one to escape?” she whispered harshly against his ear. “I waited for so long for the old man to die. I want to go home.”

Her fingers branded his forearms where she clutched him tightly, though there was no malice in her touch. Just a bone-deep sorrow, which he was only beginning to see in the lines of her mouth.

“I’ll see you there next time, ‘kaasan,” he lied. He never did make it to Hokkaido, nor did the letters half-written in notepads he subsequently lost.

Summer in Fujisawa was bright and humid. He blinked against the sunlight, then cursed himself for not remembering to arrange for a place to stay. Another family was living in his childhood home now — relatives of his father, but no one he was particularly fond of.

He stood at the entrance to the train station, undecided. Youth hostels were out — he didn’t like their curfews — and even low-budget hotels would drain his savings in no time. He could buy the local newspaper and look through the apartment listings, but he felt oddly reluctant to take the step.

It felt too much like settling down.

His mobile phone chimed. It was a message from Jasminder.

DONT CHECK YOUR EMAIL. GO SIGHTSEE YOU WANKER.

He started to roll his eyes, choked on his next breath, and sat down heavily on the concrete. The eyes of passers-by slid uncomfortably over him as hysterical laughter bubbled out in fits and starts; Shibata bending over his mobile, clutched in one sweaty hand, and trying not to cry.

“Thanks, Jasminder,” he muttered under his breath, ignoring the suspicious glance of an old man, tracksuited to the nines.

Yeah, playing the tourist in his own fucking hometown. As if he didn’t feel out of place as it is, in a country where he’s told he should belong.

Eventually he stood up, dusted himself off, and took the bus to his old senior high school. He watched the sunlight turn golden, slanting through the glass panes of the bus windows. A toddler across the aisle, cradled on the lap of her sleeping mother, tried to make a grab at shining dust motes floating in the air. She burbled, disappointed at her failure, but was soon distracted by the colour of her skin under the sun.

“Aim higher, kid,” he advised her, as the bus slowed to his stop. She giggled.

His school looked the same as it was when he graduated more than a decade ago, only a little smaller and worn. Deserted, but that was only to be expected at this time of the day. Or perhaps it was a holiday — he made a mental note to find out, and to avoid Enoshima.

Shibata walked up the main staircase slowly, hand sliding up the banisters. They’d repainted everything at some point, including the brownish stain where a boy had fallen down the stairs and hit his head. His girlfriend at the time said the boy was pushed; basketball lockerroom talk said he deserved it, the cocksucker.

There was the noticeboard where students from 3-B pinned up nude photos of two married teachers who’d been having a surreptious affair. Not the worst of sins — not even on par with what a girl in his class had found in Nakamura-sensei’s desk — but Tanaka-sensei was deeply unpopular, a florid man given to hounding the boys for smoking.

Tanaka-sensei was replaced by Ito-sensei, who encouraged bullying as a way to toughen up “little sissies” into real men. Shibata remembered his frizzy hair, framed by the chalk-dusted blackboard as he clapped his hands and tried to jolly up the students. Ito-sensei had a tiger’s smile, so at odds with the rest of him, which were as unprepossessing as a milk carton.

A sound glided in-between his thoughts — a cello, the strains hauntingly familiar. Bach, his newly-reawakened memories supplied. Without noticing, he’d automatically made his way to the music room, next to the school’s darkroom. The music sang louder with every step, a siren’s call to the 17 year-old he’d thought buried and gone.

Shibata almost turned to run.

Logic insisted: it couldn’t possibly be him, not after all this time. Shibata drew in a deep breath and pushed open the door.

The music gasped to a halt. Wide dark eyes peered at him from a pale, fined-boned face, a face he was sure he’d forgotten — stupid, stupid to think it would be that easy, that he wasn’t just fooling himself. The man stood and god, even the shape of him fitted into the cut-out silhoutte in Shibata’s memories: a thin body hiding under too-big clothes.

“Shibata-senpai?”

He couldn’t breathe.

“Yo, Mizuno-kun,” he said finally, the name distorted on his tongue. “I’m back.”

If he had ever allowed himself to imagine their reunion, it probably wasn’t this: Mizuno’s face blanching to the colour of bone, music sheets crumpling in his hands. Emotions roiled and died in his expressive eyes, clouds across a placid lake.

“Never expected to find you here,” Shibata said, shifting uncomfortably against the doorway. “Again.”

Mizuno smiled feebly. “I teach here. Mathematics.”

“Like your father.”

“Yes.”

“I thought–”

“Yes?”

“Nothing.” Shibata hefted his backpack higher on his shoulders. “Guess I thought wrong.”

The dusty curtains of the music room billowed around Mizuno’s form. Shibata could smell summer on the breeze: sea salt and tar. There was no symmetry here, no sense of a circle closed — they hadn’t, after all, met on a day like this. Shibata remembered the smell of dying flowers from the sakura tree in the school courtyard, the one they said was haunted by a disgraced woman.

Everyone believed that the music room was haunted, too. Shibata spent hours in the darkroom (still unofficial, then) from his second year on, dodging well-meaning teachers and the trim pleats of girls who took his insolent grin to be a challenge. He’d whiled away many a peaceful afternoon there, breathing in the chemical fumes Hayashi-sensei said would rot his brain.

But not even Hayashi-sensei, the advisor for the school newsletter, liked to walk past the music room to get to the darkroom. The music club preferred to practice in the hall, quickly rifling through the yellowing music sheets for Vivaldi’s concertos and guitar tabs for the Beatles before scurrying away.

At the beginning of his third year, though, he started to hear the sounds of a cello.

Shibata shook away his thoughts. Mizuno was placing his cello back in its case — probably still the same instrument he had in high school, Shibata thought. Mizuno was a hoarder.

“When did you get back?” The tenor of Mizuno’s voice was as dulcet as he remembered, perhaps a little scratchy around the edges.

“Couple of hours ago.” Shibata shrugged at Mizuno’s incredulous stare. “I’ve been… away.”

“I know.”

The harsh words rang loudly in the room. Mizuno reddened. Flustered, he began shoving papers into a worn leather briefcase. Too worn for someone not yet thirty — the case was probably inherited from someone else, then.

Shibata hoped, without much conviction, that the “someone else” wasn’t Mizuno’s father.

“Hey,” Shibata said. “Hey.”

Mizuno finally met his gaze head-on. There was a brittle quality there he’d never seen before, in the year they spent together.

“I thought you found somewhere else.” He stopped himself from adding “honest”, because that would’ve pushed it into a lie.

“I never blamed you.” But Mizuno did not smile. “I heard your mother left. Do you have a place to stay?”

“Huh? No.”

Adulthood melted away from Mizuno’s features, revealing the shy adolescent who played his cello in secret and stuttered when Shibata touched him, even in passing.

“W-well, if you don’t mind, I can put you up for a while.” He ran a hand through his feathery hair; a nervous gesture Shibata realised, with a start, was one he used to see in the mirror. “Until you find your own place, of course.”

“Thanks.” Shibata coughed. “Thank you. Really.”

“You’re welcome. It’s– nice to see you again.”

Shibata filed the words away. For later questions, he told himself, as he followed Mizuno to the teacher’s carpark. Mizuno drove a second-hand Corona, and the sight of the car — scratched and dented on one side — made Shibata smother a very unmanly giggle.

“The students don’t like mathematics much,” Mizuno mumbled, and Shibata stopped laughing. He shut the passenger door gently.

“Fuck. Take the bus.”

Mizuno flipped down the sunshade and smiled gently at Shibata. “I don’t like enclosed spaces.”

“Switch schools?”

No, Shibata-senpai.”

“Right.”

“I didn’t know you hated your hair so much.”

“Hmm? What?”

Mizuno flicked a glance at Shibata’s buzzcut hair, only just beginning to grow out.

“This? Convenience. I can go months without another cut and still look respectable enough not to be thrown into jail at sight. If I shave.” Shibata’s hand found his camera case and patted it, automatically. “Real useful in the field.”

“I saw some of your pictures.” Mizuno drove carefully around a limping cat. “I-I don’t know if this is right at all, but–”

“But?”

“You seem to be in the middle of a war all the time. I think– I think you’re very brave.”

Shibata thought of Jasminder, whose first assignment outside the UK ended with her having shrapnel dug out from her legs. And she still went back, again and again, facing death threats and “friendly fire” with a hard-bitten aplomb he knew he would never have. He remembered Ben’s grin in the kerosene lamps of Sarajevo at war, even towards the end. There were no dew in the mornings, only frost and bullets on the table next to an unlabelled bottle.

He never forgot the resignation in the eyes of refugees in camp after camp, from Gaza to Eritrea, the ragged kids trying to find someone to tell stories to. Sometimes for any generosity they could manipulate, more often just for someone who would finally listen. He thought of the month he spent taking photographs of displaced children in Rwanda, the stoic pessimism of men and women in UN blue as they displayed the faces to family after family, hoping for reunifications.

“Nah, not brave,” Shibata said, trying for a casual shrug and failing miserably. There was a sour taste in his mouth. “Just selfish enough to want to save everyone without letting the bad get to me.”

Mizuno stared straight ahead for the rest of the drive, and Shibata let the silence lie.

“Didn’t expect any place of yours to be so messy,” was Shibata’s first comment, later, looking around Mizuno’s 6-jo apartment. There were books everywhere, spilling out of shelves and nesting in corners like disgruntled mammals.

He picked one up: Eco’s The Search for the Perfect Language.

“You still making up languages?”

“N-no.” The repressed emotion in Mizuno’s voice begged him to stop asking. “Would you like something to eat?”

Mizuno really wasn’t anything like his father, the one teacher everyone was a little afraid of, even the yankii who blustered through red-inked tests. Mizuno-sensei was a stern, exacting man, untouchable in his severe respectability. Mizuno Ken at fifteen was too slender and too soft, and tried too hard to make himself invisible. Girls pitied and scorned him in turn, boys ignored him, and bullies loved him. None called him Ken.

He reminded Shibata of Higa, a boy in junior high who committed suicide. He’d hung himself the night before school reopened for the new year. In the semester before his death, his entire class turned against him — even those who’d been the bullied tormented him, glad not to be at the receiving end for once. The principal made an impassioned speech against bullying, and no one spoke of poor Higa again.

His former classmates avoided looking at the flowers on his desk, and was secretly glad when a transfer student filled his empty seat.

When Shibata first met Mizuno, he said, “Higa-kun?”

The second thing he said was, “Sorry. Stay right there — getting a camera!”

There were no cameras for him now, at least not for the moment. Every morning he watched Mizuno breathe raggedly, hands tightly clasped together, across the polite expanse of the futon between them. Panic attacks, Shibata thought, and hated the town a little more. He hated the anxious slash between Mizuno’s brows as he dressed for work, hated the way Mizuno tried to pretend everything was fine.

But Shibata always pretended to sleep until he heard the engine of Mizuno’s car.

Slowly they built a delicate equilibrium between them, as days turned into weeks and still Shibata stayed. Not quite trust yet, but something achingly close to it, eased by gentle flirtation. They learned to talk around the bruised spots, the ground constantly shifting as they found more things not to be spoken of.

Shibata charmed his way into a part-time job at a bookstore as a retail clerk. He rearranged the postcards near the sales counter, ranking them by order of aesthetics, and thought longingly of London. Letters from as far afield as Chile and South Africa began appearing in Mizuno’s mailbox, addressed to Shibata. Jasminder sent him short e-mails at 4am and pictures of her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend’s Labrador puppies.

I loathe dogs, she wrote. But as you’re disgustingly sentimental over those creatures, I suppose you may enjoy them. Oh. Sent you a care package, too.

Mizuno came home one evening to find packing foam scattered across the floor and tape gummed up into a ball on the apartment’s one table. His briefcase hit the floor with a thump.

Shibata waved a biscuit under his nose, pre-empting an uncharacteristically lengthy lecture.

“Ginger thins,” Shibata said cheerfully. “Eat it.”

“Senpa–”

“Just eat it, Mizuno-kun.”

Mizuno’s eyes rounded, but he dutifully ate the biscuit and drank some of the tea Shibata prepared. They’d spent long afternoons almost like this in school — Shibata bursting into the music room and dragging Mizuno out for something Mizuno always objected to but eventually followed along for. They avoided the game centers and wandered the back alleys instead, Shibata cradling his camera like a weapon. He took dozens of pictures — of labourers, rickety sweetshops, trannies, posters in porn cinemas — more than enough reason for their crazy principal to expel him on the spot.

He took pictures of Mizuno, too: Mizuno’s lush mouth, reflected in the mirror of the boys’ toilet; Mizuno’s bowed neck as he studied the music scores; Mizuno’s feet sinking into damp sand; Mizuno’s strong, deft fingers. Mizuno never refused, hitching up his shirt to hide yellowing bruises and letting himself be arranged to Shibata’s liking.

Sometimes Mizuno played for Shibata, music by European composers whose names he could not pronounce until well into adulthood.

“I like the cheerful one — hey, play it again,” he said, just to see Mizuno twitch.

“You have no taste,” Mizuno muttered, but smiled as he said it.

“It’s nearly seven, though. Home’s waiting.”

Mizuno coaxed a pure, jewel-like sound from his cello. “I’d rather stay here with you, senpai.”

He blossomed quietly in Shibata’s shadow, protected from all but the worst bullies. Even they were tolerable, and easier to avoid when one knew there was always a place to go to. Shibata occasionally caught sight of Mizuno’s father watching them from the staffroom windows — in approval, he’d mistakenly imagined.

Now, watching Mizuno clearing away the remnants of dinner, Shibata wondered if it was a mistake too to have stayed for so long. If the roof over his head was worth the silent truce, and the constant ache of things unresolved.

“The neighbours upstairs are moving,” he said, wiping down the table.

“Yes?”

“Said they’re trying their luck on a farm up north. Crazy bastards, but best of luck to them.” Shibata rinsed out the cloth and hung it over the sink. “We should give them a going-away present.”

Mizuno sighed. “I don’t even know their names, senpai.”

“You’ve lived here five years.”

“I can count,” Mizuno snapped.

“Yeah, I know. Anti-social maths teacher.” Shibata tweaked Mizuno’s rolled-up sleeve, unhappy but not surprised when Mizuno jerked away. “Join the community orchestra — Fujisawa’s not bad.”

“I don’t want to. Please, leave it alone.”

Don’t scream, Shibata told himself. He made himself relax, and waited until the tension in Mizuno’s shoulders loosen.

“Still have the CDs? The ones for your birthday?” he asked, softly.

A cup dropped from Mizuno’s hand and splashed into the soapwater. “No.”

“Your father?”

“He burned them.”

“Damn. Damn, I’m sorry, Mizuno.”

Shibata forgot not to touch, forgot that there were unforgivable regrets between them, and that Mizuno wasn’t the first-year who turned to him as if he was the sun. Mizuno lay acquiescent in his arms, submitting to the instinctive hug with nothing more than the occasional tremor down his spine. Eventually — seconds, minutes, hours — Mizuno’s arms slowly reached up, sliding around Shibata’s back.

Mizuno smelled of paper and lemon detergent, and a yearning blankness underneath. Shibata slid Mizuno’s hair between his fingers, trying to remember if it had felt this way that winter’s day, before he shut his eyes and ran away.

“Hey,” he said, lips pressed on the soft skin of Mizuno’s temple. “Kill me later if you want, but I’m sorry I didn’t do this then.”

Gently, Shibata tilted Mizuno’s chin up and kissed him. He made it last, made it lingering — and made it as innocent as possible, hands curled up lightly at Mizuno’s side instead of crushing Mizuno against him.

When it ended, Mizuno took his hand and led him to where the futon was already laid out. Shibata tried to ask if this was at all okay, but there was a terrible desperation in the set of Mizuno’s lips and the clutch of his fingers.

“You don’t have to do this,” Shibata protested, faintly.

In response Mizuno switched off all the lights, one by one, even the nightlight Shibata had never seen him sleep without. His pale features were marble-like in the darkness, seemingly cold to touch.

His skin was cold that February afternoon too, waiting in the music room for the last time before Shibata graduated. His cello was nowhere in sight — and when Shibata started to ask, Mizuno shook his head. There was a strange, frantic look in his eyes Shibata had never seen before, and none of Mizuno’s fits of melancholy were as frightening as this.

“Please let me do this,” he said, dropping to his knees before Shibata. His fingers, when they unzipped Shibata’s pants, were chilled and clumsy.

“Wait– wait–”

Mizuno licked his lips and lowered his head.

The mouth sucking his cock belonged to no virgin — too easy, the tongue too practiced at seeking out sensitive spots he’d obviously learned from someone else. Shibata had always believed Mizuno hadn’t even so much as kissed a girl, let alone having a few tricks he was sure even Murakami from 3-A didn’t know.

“Why?” Shibata croaked out. Mizuno ignored him and kept sucking and Shibata couldn’t get over how wrong this felt, how wrong Mizuno felt. He came with a hoarse shout, spilling into Mizuno’s mouth.

Mizuno wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Bruises ringed his thin wrist, and Shibata knew that if he looked closely enough he’d see the shape of a man’s fingers.

He looked away.

“Don’t leave,” Mizuno mumbled.

But the next — and last — time Shibata would see Mizuno before a decade’s passing was at his graduation, where Mizuno stood at his father’s side and did his best to smile at Mizuno-sensei’s students. Their gazes met, briefly. Mizuno’s eyes were beseeching, hope flickering like a dying candleflame.

Shibata saw the shadows under Mizuno’s eyes, and remembered the bruises he always tried to tell himself were the bullies’ fault, and thought: he had to do something. Tell Mizuno he understood, finally, and that Mizuno didn’t have to be alone–

Mizuno’s father clamped a hand on Mizuno’s shoulder and turned him around, away from Shibata. There was still time to run, Shibata thought, watching Mizuno’s receding back. Still time enough to grab Mizuno’s hand and take him– to what?

He’d waited too long. Mizuno and his father were gone, and Shibata left Fujisawa a week later.

Now he was given a second chance, Shibata thought. Mizuno was stretched out underneath him on the futon, hands stroking Shibata’s arms, their bodies skin-to-skin. Shibata kissed Mizuno’s parted lips, the curve of his shoulders, the warm dip of his navel.

He still couldn’t shake off the feeling of wrongness.

Mizuno was silent and unresisting, rolling over readily when Shibata’s mouth reached one pale hip. Shibata’s fingers found the knuckles of Mizuno’s left hand, gripping a corner of the duvet tightly, and caressed the taut skin.

A decade was a long time. Enough time to learn he was blind, and sometimes that was because he chose to be. Enough time to learn there were some wounds not even all the love in the world could heal; and the only thing silence implied was that the person next to you was more afraid of what could happen if they said no.

“You know it’s me, right?” Shibata raised Mizuno’s hand and kissed it. “I’m not– there’s more to this than you being fucked and fucked over.”

He leaned over to switch the nightlight on, but Mizuno stopped him with an agitated, “No!”

Shibata froze. “Okay.”

When no further response was forthcoming from the still form at his side, Shibata slowly lowered himself back to the futon. Mizuno was breathing shallowly, as if trying not to cry. Shibata touched Mizuno’s arm soothingly, feeling goosebumps on Mizuno’s skin.

“Can’t promise you forever, but I can give it a good try, can’t I? Friend, lover — whatever you want.”

A faint rustle, Mizuno turning his head to look at Shibata. “I can’t promise you I’ll be whole.”

“No one is.” Shibata closed his eyes, thinking of photographs in stark colours and dead eyes in the living. “Can’t promise you that either.”

He awoke with a start just after dawn, blinking at the glare of the rising sun reflected in the bedroom mirror. Mizuno’s side of the futon was cool, long abandoned. Shibata sat up, worried, but a movement at the corner of his eyes caught his attention.

Mizuno was standing at the window, still nude, his slender body outlined in sunlight. Shibata watched him quietly. Remembering Mizuno’s hands studying his face in the darkness, his own mouth on Mizuno’s neck where the sun now touched and warmed — the same sun he’d sweated and bled under, and tried to forget why it mattered that other people did, too.

Time to stop running, Jasminder said. Shibata stood, a little shakily, and reached out to grasp Mizuno’s hand.

I really am here, all along, he thought, and nearly wept from the pain.

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