by Yoshiyo Hotaru (昌夜 蛍)
illustrated by amei
At exactly quarter after three in the afternoon, the final bell rings, and class is dismissed until September.
Matsu’s heart leaps up into her throat. She stays in her desk as everyone else starts putting away their books, and even after they’ve left, with a content little smile on her face. This is her time to treasure the first few seconds of summer vacation. Even after all these years, it’s an exciting feeling.
When she finally leaves the classroom, Hina is waiting for her in the hallway, shifting her weight awkwardly from foot to foot as the students from other classrooms walk past her. Today her knee socks are shoved down around her ankles because of the heat. When she sees Matsu she smiles a shiny lipgloss smile.
“Happy summer vacation, Matsu-chan,” she says.
“Happy summer vacation, Hina-chan,” replies Matsu, smiling back.
“We’re going to have fun this year, too!”
“Yeah, we are.”
This has been their ritual greeting on July 20th for the past twelve years.
Hina and Matsu have been best friends for as long as they can remember. They used to live next door to one another in twin houses near the beach of their small town. Their mothers were aquaintences, if not friends, and their fathers worked in the same company. They played at the same playground, went to the same kindergarten, and they were always in the same class.
They always made a good pair: Hina cute and outgoing, Matsu cool and a little reserved. They were both very chatty, and both a little opinionated, so it wasn’t surprising that they argued sometimes. Every so often they would have a big fight and not speak for a day or so. Eventually one girl would apologize and they would forget the whole thing. Those were the longest times they were actually seperated as children.
They are no longer next door neighbors; Hina’s family now lives in an apartment complex. No longer are they classmates; Matsu is in 2-A and Hina is in 2-B. They’re still best friends, though, and this is a good time of year for them.
Ever since they have been friends – in other words, their whole lives – summer has been their favourite season. When they were little it meant running through the sprinkler and trying to catch bugs in a jar. Now it means hours at the beach – Matsu surfs, Hina watches – and day trips to surrounding towns for shopping – Hina tries clothes on, Matsu is suitably impressed. Most importantly, it’s five weeks in which to see one another as much as they like.
They are best friends, but that doesn’t mean they’re always together like when they were kids. During the school year it sometimes seems like circumstances conspire to keep them apart. They’re in different classes, and different clubs, and they rarely get a chance to eat lunch together, and even the closest of friends can’t help growing apart a little bit over the years.
In the summer, though, they get to go back to being kids playing together. They can relax. For a month or so, it’s like nothing has changed.
“I’m hungry,” says Hina as they leave the school grounds.
“You’re always hungry,” replies Matsu good-naturedly. “What did you have at lunch?”
“Not enough, I guess. Hey, we should get popsicles! My treat!”
“Think your parents would let me sleep over tonight?”
“I don’t think they’ve ever said no to you sleeping over. They want you to live at our house.”
“I think I would, but I’m allergic to your cat.”
“They’d kill him. That’s how much they like you.”
“I hope not!”
“Well, maybe they wouldn’t go that far.”
“Hey, do you have any homework over the summer? Satou-sensei gave us a…”
Hina keeps up a steady stream of conversation as they walk down the street. Matsu nods and responds in all the right places. Other students are walking home around them. She tries to ignore the girls staring at Hina with vague animosity in their eyes, the boys watching the gentle curves of her body.
It will only remind her that things have, after all, changed a good deal.
The next day they meet at a little cafe halfway between their homes. The cafe is on a quiet street, so they decide to sit outside. Hina gets a stawberry milkshake and sips it through a staw almost the same shade of pink as her mouth. Water condenses on the straw. When she licks her lips, Matsu swallows and drops her gaze to the calendar on the table.
“First of all, what about tonight?”
Hina winces. “Tonight’s no good.”
“Ah.” Matsu sips her iced tea and crosses the day out. “Tomorrow afternoon?”
“Well, why don’t we go to the park? We could fly a kite.”
“We could, except that as far as I know, we don’t have a kite.”
“We could make one!” Hina beams. “I bet it wouldn’t be that hard. I mean, we could just try a small one…” She thinks for a moment. “Do you have any markers?” Matsu nods. “Then we could draw something on it. Let’s do it! Please?”
“Okay, then. I guess that sounds good.” Matsu writes ‘kite’ on the calendar in slanted little characters. “Then, tomorrow night?”
With a start, Hina looks up from her milkshake and wipes her mouth with a napkin. When she puts it back down it’s smudged with pink. The shape is familiar. Matsu is tempted to draw a line around it, make it into a star or a flower.
“Ah,” Hina says quietly, “tomorrow night is also…”
“…That’s fine,” replies Matsu smoothly, without missing a beat, as if everything was normal. “The next day.”
“Swimming, of course! …Oh, and then, I think I’ll be free that night, maybe we could go to the movies. I read about this one film, it sounded really funny…”
For the rest of the afternoon, as they make plans to go to the beach or on day trips or perhaps even down to Okinawa for a few days, Matsu never crosses the evenings out but never asks about them either. The look on Hina’s face suggests she is ashamed, perhaps even somehow disappointed, but overall grateful.
They never talk about these things, of course. Matsu refuses to pry. It’s too strange, too undignified, to ask someone about things like this. She doesn’t think of herself as having that right.
She didn’t even believe the rumours, at first. When she heard several girls in her class talking about it during lunch –
“Ah, I heard Kogawa-san has a new boyfriend.”
“Can you really call that a boyfriend, I wonder?”
“But he must know he’s not the first, so why…”
“Well, same reason as all the others, right?” And then laughter all around.
– she had dismissed it as jealousy, because Hina was by far the prettiest girl in the school, and she had been ever since Matsu could remember. She had approached the girls and scolded them for gossiping about people behind their backs.
Because Matsu was tall and calm and thus moderately popular, her classmates hadn’t picked a fight with her. They had simply nodded and then given each other knowing looks, as if to say ‘poor thing, she really has no idea.’
After that, she had noticed occasionally that Hina was flirting lightly with several boys in the school, but had wanted to believe it was only friendliness. She had continued not to believe anything she heard until she herself saw Hina with Suzuki-kun from 2-B.
They were kissing behind the supply shed after school. It seemed that they had been there for some time. The top button of Hina’s blouse was undone under her blazer, and Suzuki-kun’s hands were pawing clumsily at her breasts. Her face was flushed, her lips red and wet.
Matsu’s gut feeling had been utterly irrational. It wasn’t that she felt shocked about catching her childhood friend in an intimate moment. Rather, she felt as betrayed as a jilted lover. It was unforgivable to her that someone else should be touching Hina like that.
She left before they even saw her.
Ever since then, Matsu has hovered between denial and acceptance, trying to rationalize what she felt that day. Hina is a friend. Of course it’s natural to be worried about your friends. Of course you don’t want to learn uncomfortable things about someone who has always been flawless in your heart. But these things are natural. It’s time to forget about it, to move on.
Part of her knows that she’s fooling herself. Her feelings won’t disappear so easily. Still, she tries, because the only other option is an awkward adolescent love that won’t go anywhere.
Sometimes she meets them, the boys that flutter around Hina like bugs. They aren’t bad types. They’re nice enough, usually older, a little athletic, basically good-natured. And they’re discreet. If she felt that they were hurting Hina, or even being disrespectful to her, she would intervene right away. But they’re not. So she can’t.
When she talks to Hina she avoids the topic of relationships entirely. It’s gotten to the point where she feels awkward when they even watch a romantic movie together. Anything could lead to an awkward moment. The slightest reference – even if she were to say something nonjudgemental – would be the most shameful kind of prying.
Above all, she is very careful, because she can’t let Hina know how she feels. She has her own life to live, and while Matsu can’t imagine gentle Hina resenting her or thinking of her as gross, it would add too much distance to the already widening gap between them. That can’t be allowed to happen.
So she pretends not to notice when she sees Hina with someone new, or hears rumours. She’s learning to control the way it hurts. Better to be silent and at least spend the summer together.
The days pass in a blur of pleasant activity. They have something planned almost every day, and aside from a few days when Hina comes down with a cold, everything goes as planned. The shopping trip is fun this year: they find a basement-level shop which sells nothing but homemade soap and Brazilian folk music, and Matsu leaves with a bar of soap and a few tapes. At the shop next door Hina tries on floral shawls, draping them over her shoulders one after another until she laughs and they all slip off. They really do make their own kites, and they fly them together. They try making ice cream, too, but they do something wrong and it becomes totally inedible.
The nights are not quite so pleasant.
Eventually Hina says that she has to go. Matsu says goodbye and smiles, but a bitter taste rises into her mouth. She walks home alone. The rest of her night is spent lying on the floor, staring lethargically up at the ceiling, trying desperately not to feel sorry for herself.
One evening she almost says something. They are walking down the street together after a movie. Hina gets a call. As she giggles becomingly into her cell phone, Matsu wants to take her hand and ask: why? Do you even like these guys? Do they make you happy? Why can’t I make you happy like that?
Won’t you stay with me, just tonight?
But of course she will never say any of this.
About a month into summer vacation, they decide to go to the beach and swim again. Hina wears a pink and white polka dot bikini, new this year, and Matsu wears a black suit she remembers having had since puberty. As they wade out, Hina skims her hands over the water around her, making ripples. Then she splashes Matsu with it.
“Hey,” says Matsu, indingantly, and a small fight ensues. It ends with both of them being dunked in the water and coming up bleary-eyed and coughing.
“Bleck. My nose hurts.”
“Why didn’t you hold your breath?”
“I didn’t know you were going to dunk me!”
“Hey, neither did I, and I’m not complaining.”
Hina touches her head. “Oh, and now my hair’s all full of salt. You should have waited until we were further out.”
“I don’t know. Salty hair or death by drowning?”
“I can swim just fine.”
Matsu grins. “You couldn’t always. Remember when we were little and your mom tried to put you in the wading pool and you wouldn’t stop crying?”
“I just didn’t want my hair to get wet.” Hina grins back. “The more things change, the more things stay the same, I guess.”
They swim out further. The waves are always gentle on this beach, but far away from the shore, all the noise of summer receeds until they sound powerfully loud. Matsu leans back and stares up. Her outstretched arms just barely touch Hina’s shoulder.
“It’s nice out here,” says Hina, and although her ears are underwater the words are perfectly clear. She nods in agreement.
After a few minutes they swim back, having decided to get a snack at the Beach House. Matsu walks out of the water first. She turns around at exactly the right time to see Hina emerging after her, shaking out her dripping hair, laughing like a victorious goddess. She is amazing.
Matsu feels a familiar ache at the bottom of her stomach. As always, she ignores it.
“Oh, look!” says Hina, minutes later, while they stand in line for their french fries. “They’re building a sand castle over there.”
“We should do that. We could build a giant sand castle and live there.”
“I don’t know. It would be pretty damp, wouldn’t it?”
“…Yeah, I guess so.”
They get the fries. Hina squirts ketchup on hers, and vinegar on Matsu’s, which is the way they’ve eaten them since they were kids. “Hey,” she says hesitantly. “Um, are you alright?”
“Well, you seem a little… I don’t know.” Hina bites her lip. She is clearly having trouble phrasing her inquiry, but she keeps going. “I just sort of feel like you’re not feeling, well, um, happy. It’s like something’s bothering you. And if anything’s wrong…”
“I’m fine,” says Matsu, lying without a second thought.
Neither of them wear yukata to the summer festival. “Mine doesn’t fit anymore,” says Hina with a laugh, “and besides, you don’t like wearing them, right? And it would be funny if only one of us was wearing one.” Instead, they walk around together feeling slightly out of place among all the kids and older people. The other teenagers they see tend to shy away from them, which is usual to a certain extent for both of them.
“I guess they’re lighting the fireworks at the beach again this year,” says Hina cheerfully, eating one dango and then sliding one off the stick to give to Matsu. “I wonder if they’ll be any good? We’ll have to find some place to watch them. Everyone’s going to be down there already.”
Matsu shrugs and eats the dango in one bite. “Well, we could go up to my roof.”
“That’s right!” says Hina, as though just remembering. Matsu’s roof is big and not too steep. Occasionally, in previous years, they have gone up there to tan. “Your house is close, so that’s perfect! Let’s play a few more games and then we’ll go.”
There aren’t many more games, and most are for the kids. Both of them utterly fail to catch a goldfish. When they arrive at Matsu’s house, it’s getting dark and nobody is home. Matsu runs inside to grab a blanket.
She checks the clock. It’s almost eight thirty. If Hina were going to leave, she would have gone by now. …Hopefully, anyway.
“I found the ladder!” calls Hina from outside. Matsu takes the comforter from her parent’s bed and runs back outside. She holds the ladder as Hina climbs up, then tosses the comforter up and climbs up herself. Hina reaches out for her as she gets off the ladder; her hand is warm, her palm still a little bit sticky from the dango.
They get settled on the roof. The comforter is huge: it fits snugly around both of them with more to spare. “I guess they’ll be over there,” says Matsu, with a contented sigh. She points over to the beach. They settle in to wait, chatting quietly.
“Oh, look!” says Hina excitedly. “They’re starting!”
The fireworks really are beautiful this year – the town council must have spent more than usual, thinks Matsu briefly. They fill the evening sky with colours. She’s always loved the way fireworks go off, burning and then fading into ash.
She doesn’t see much of them, though, except what is reflected in Hina’s eyes.
After a few minutes they are over. Matsu and Hina sit in companionable silence, just relaxing under the warm blanket. Hina is smiling. Her pink lip gloss is still shining faintly, even in the dark. She looks beautiful. Matsu feels like a little kid again. Slowly, out of impulse more than rational thought, she reaches for her hand.
Hina’s cell phone rings.
It’s more than Matsu can bear. She watches, stunned, as Hina picks up the phone, Hina says “Hello,” Hina says “Yes, I just finished watching them,” Hina says “Yeah,” Hina says “I don’t know,” Hina giggles, Hina says “Well, what do you think?” and hangs up. Then Hina shrugs a little bit, with an odd little smile as though there’s nothing she can do. As if she has no choice as to whether to go or not, as if these boys are just more important, that’s all, and my, things have really changed, haven’t they? and sorry.
“Um,” Hina says. “I, um.”
Matsu tries to gather the mental strength neccessary to let her go.
She even thinks she has it for a moment. It’s that cool, reserved calm that she has used for years, every time her heart has betrayed her. The will to simply forgive and forget. To acknowledge that Hina’s nights and Hina’s moments behind the school are times which Matsu cannot interfere with and can never, never hope to be part of. That they have grown apart.
After all, it’s not as though… they could ever be…
…and then it disappears.
“Don’t go,” says Matsu, grabbing her hand and holding it tight. Her voice sounds strange, too hoarse, too scared. It’s as though a different person is talking. “Stay here. With me. Please.”
Then she leans forward and presses their lips together awkwardly, not even waiting for a response before she opens her mouth. If this is all she’ll ever get, she has to make the most of it. Hina’s lipgloss tastes a bit like bubble gum. Matsu is surprised even to notice it. She has hardly ever kissed anyone before, and she feels ashamed of her clumsiness, the way her teeth press into Hina’s top lip. The kiss lasts only as long as it takes for guilt to overwhelm her.
When she pulls away, Hina’s eyes are filled with tears. That’s probably what hurts the most. “Sorry,” says Matsu quickly, despairingly, and turns her face away so she won’t have to see. “I’m so sorry. I… I’m sorry…”
“I’m sorry, too,” says Hina, and she leans over so Matsu can see that she is smiling. “I… made you wait for me, didn’t I? I didn’t want things to get this bad…”
“No, it’s not your fault,” says Matsu.
Hina shakes her head. “No, because I… I’ve liked you since we were little. I tried to… but you never understood. It’s, it’s not your fault, though! I couldn’t say it properly.”
Matsu feels her heart stop.
“Then… the boys…?” she says, stunned.
Hina winces. “I, I thought if I could make you jealous, then maybe you’d realize it. That you liked me too. But you never did. And after a while I just got used to it, and I mean, it’s not as though I hated them… and, you know, I sort of kept hoping that maybe, someday you’d say something… and now you have! So my plan worked after all.” She laughs, awkwardly. “So please forgive me. But I’m happy.”
Matsu shakes her head. She had never even allowed herself to dream of this, but now that it’s happening it’s so real she’s a little bit overwhelmed. “No,” she says. “I should have known that you… after all, I was always looking at you.” She takes Hina’s hand once more. “You’ll stay?”
“Of course,” says Hina earnestly, as she reaches over to hold Matsu’s other hand. “I’ll stay for as long as you’ll have me.”
“…That’s going to be a while.”
Hina kisses her. It couldn’t be more different from the frantic, desperate way Matsu kissed her before. Hina’s lips are sweet, her mouth warm, her open eyes filled with laughter. Matsu feels almost weak. Her arms settle around Hina’s shoulders and move downward, slowly, exploring the length of her body. Now she has all the time in the world.
“Ah,” she says, when her hands reach the bottom of Hina’s shirt, “is it alright if I…?”
“Of course,” says Hina. She pushes her shirt up and shivers slightly when Matsu’s hands cup her breasts. “Ah, it’s a little cold…” she whispers.
Matsu lies down on the roof, pulling Hina down with her. Then she reaches over and wraps the rest of the blanket around them. “There,” she replies. “Is that better?”
They spend the night coccooned in the blanket. They take each other’s clothes off, slowly, and eventually Matsu’s hand slips between Hina’s legs. She strokes her there, hesitantly and then harder as Hina makes a pleased little noise at the back of her throat.
Hina whimpers and rocks into her touch. “Matsu-chan,” she says, her face flushed and beautiful. Then a little louder, “Matsu-chan, I love you, I love you…”
“I love you too, Hina-chan,” says Matsu. Moments later Hina’s hands touch her in return, and it’s such a surprise that she can barely keep from crying. She feels closer to Hina than she ever has. It’s like nothing ever seperated them, only it’s better than that, because they’re kissing as they come and she feels fearless, completely invincible.
On the very last day of summer vacation, they are drinking milkshakes together at an outdoors table at the little cafe when they actually run into Suzuki-kun from 2-B. He is walking down the street with some other boys, but when he sees Hina he breaks away from the crowd and walks up to them. Clearly he is extremely nervous. He’s so earnest that somehow, Matsu feels a little bit sorry for him.
“Ah, Kogawa-san,” he says, red-faced, fists stuffed in his jean pockets, “did you… my message…?”
Hina blushes back. “Oh,” she says. “I haven’t checked for, um, for a little while. Sorry.” She looks down at her milkshake. If anything, she’s more embarresed than he is.
“I’m sorry,” says Matsu politely. She stands up. “Suzuki-kun, isn’t that right?”
Matsu looks him over. “Well, Suzuki-kun, I don’t think you’re a bad person. In fact, I have nothing against you. But I don’t think you’ll be seeing very much of Hina anymore.” She smiles, in a manner that could be friendly or slightly threatening. “You see, we’re going out now. And I’m a very jealous person.”
“She really is,” adds Hina cheerfully.
“So I’m afraid you had better be on your way, and let us enjoy our date.”
“Please do that now.”
Suzuki-kun flees the scene, an expression of frightened, nervous disbelief on his face. Matsu leans back and laughs. The cloudless blue sky stretches above them in all directions.
“…I can’t believe that this is the last day of summer vacation,” she says, wistfully. “It went so quickly, and now it’s just… gone.”
“It’ll be back next year,” says Hina with a smile. “And on the other hand, there are plenty of fun things to do in the fall, too.” She winks. “Isn’t that right?”
Matsu turns a little bit red. Then she smiles back and reaches over to hold Hina’s hand.
“Yeah. That’s right.”