O watched the road with a concentration that sat heavy on her forehead, pulling her brow in a hardened expression that left her tense despite the ease at which Q maneuvered the car along the mountainside. They drove in comfortable silence, with the wind pressing against the car in a slow building howl that echoed off the window pane. She sucked in a breath, then blew out through parted lips, forming an O to match the sound of the wind. It was quiet besides the occasional note whispered through the stereo speakers.
Her eyes were trained on the white lines painted across the pavement, worn from the weather and brief memories of tire tracks from careless drivers. She turned and looked towards Q, whose hand was draped over the top of the wheel, the other, loosely grasping the gear shift. His eyes darted over, suddenly on her. A glance, then smile. He opened his hand and stretched out his fingers, then tightened them firmly around the gear, jerking it back as they swung around another corner. The car groaned against the wind, adjusted, then sped up, skidding on the pavement. They were gaining altitude. Q sat relaxed, his body almost limp despite the fog rolling in, despite the darkness that encircled them, and despite the way O held fast to the leather cushion beneath her, hidden from his view. They pulled around another corner and the road straightened out from the bend. She released her grip on the seat and settled back, reclining until she slid down from the headrest. She let her body fill the space. He seemed to have noticed, as he stifled a laugh with a cough. “Too fast?”
O let out a small sound of protest and shook her head. Then, she leaned forward and reached for her phone, pulling it out of the cup holder by the cable, like it was a fish dangling on the reel, and unlocked it. She scrolled to the bottom of the playlist and hovered over the song title under the last few notes faded out from the speakers, then clicked play. The song, barely audible, drifted through the speakers, crawled under the fabric of her coat that rubbed against her skin, warmed her, made her forget. Where they were exactly, she couldn’t say. Somewhere in Kobe.
“Is this in Japanese?” he asked. He moved his left hand and placed it delicately on the bottom of the wheel, letting his pinky dangle for a moment before white-knuckling his grip as they sped around another turn.
He hummed in response, then, “It’s nice.”
O turned to look out the window and breathed out, letting the glass turn cloudy. She reached and with a fist pressed the side of her hand against the pane, waited a few seconds, then released. “Are we close?” O dotted the top of the print with her pinky. A trick she had learned in grade school: A baby’s foot.
“Five more minutes maybe,” he said. “But yeah, we’re close.”
The top of the mountain hid several buildings connected by a series of dimly lit pathways, all covered in a blanket of fog that moved as if it were dancing across the finely cut and freshly mowed grass surrounding the property. As they pulled around the corner into the parking lot, O’s eyes adjusted and settled on the lights blurred by the fog. The parking lot was nearly empty, save for a few other cars; a small blue truck with stacks of empty crates, a black Chrysler with tinted windows that mirrored their car back to them, and a motorbike, which had no real business being where it was – knocked over and collecting snow.
“It’s going to be so fucking cold,” O said, her hand hovering over the door handle. She turned to look back at Q whose attention was elsewhere, somewhere nearby the Chrysler with foreign plates.
“I brought hot packs,” he said, pushing his weight against the door as he pressed down on the handle. He shot her a look over his shoulder, a smile that fell somewhere between reassuring and mocking, then, “Don’t worry about it.” He pushed himself out of the car and stood, then stretched, lifting his arms above his head. He bent back down, ducking his head into the car and added, “You always have me if the hot packs aren’t enough.”
O made a face and followed him out, bracing herself for the cold. But, by the time she turned, shut the door, and tucked her hands into her pockets, the cold didn’t come. It brushed past her nose, played gently with her hair, then disappeared. She shivered out of habit. So far, it had been an unforgiving winter.
Up ahead past the parking lot was a cluster of cottage-like houses, their architecture bearing resemblance to something more closely related to the Spanish villas she had seen in books and travel magazines. Yet, on top of the mountain, seemingly kilometers away from the city and reality, they didn’t seem out of place. She jogged toward Q and hooked her arm around his, squeezing the padding of his jacket between her fingers, then releasing just barely. He held back a smile and looked away. The trees held snow in pockets above them, their flat-ironed needles drooped heavy with the weight of what they had collected from that morning. Cradled beneath in the clearing of foliage, Q and O walked quietly, the only sound coming from the ice crunching beneath their boots.
“It’s… not cold here,” O said, filling the silence. “Yet…” She kicked a bit of snow with the toe of her boot, sending pieces upward to sprinkle back down like rain on the path. As they moved closer to the building the pathway dipped down into broken cobblestone. Dimly lit lanterns hung low, surrounding them on either side as they continued towards the tower-like structure erected at the end. Q lagged behind a few paces, waiting for O, her heeled boots echoing with each step she took on the pavement. There was a sign etched into a picket on the side of the tower. O looked over to Q for a translation.
He frowned. “No admittance,” he said.
O looked around, rocking back and forth on her heels, then shrugged. “Who cares, there’s no one here.” She crossed the grass to the entrance. The wall opened up to a small corridor where a collection of stairs peeked out, reaching up into the darkness. She peered in, barely able to make out what looked like a faint light near the first corner. She turned to see Q still standing where she had left him, hands stuffed in his pockets, the beanie on his head pulled back to reveal a tuft of hair poking out in the right corner. “Come on.” O darted up the staircase, pausing until she heard Q’s footsteps behind her, then continued, hoping that despite being in near complete darkness she wouldn’t trip up the stairway. Just before she rounded another corner, someone whispered something in her ear. A name maybe; she couldn’t make it out. It drifted from somewhere behind her, causing the hair to raise on the back of her neck. She stopped and spun around, Q nearly running into her.
“You, okay?” He grabbed her shoulders to keep her from falling, holding her for a moment to steady her against him.
“I thought I heard someone,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “Something said my name, I thought…” She glanced past Q’s shoulder, paused for a beat, listening, but was unable to make out anything other than the sound of Q’s breathing. She pushed back against him, maneuvering out of his grasp, then continued up the stairs.
When they reached the top, O moments before Q managed to come through the corridor, Q found her standing at the edge of the roof, leaning against the wall that wrapped around them, her chin resting in her hands. Q looked around, tracing the stars that covered the sky, their light nearly bright enough to illuminate their surroundings. “I’m leaving you if someone comes,” Q said, coming up behind O. He shot her a glance and raised his eyebrow. She simpered, looking pleased with herself, then turned to look back out towards the mountain. O sucked in a breath, the air cool and crisp, rid of any pollution, rid of anything she had yet to take in since she had arrived in Japan.
Q let out a small laugh, short and only lasting for a few beats. Then, “I wish you could see the city from here, but-” he paused, “this damn fog.”
“I think it’s beautiful still,” she said, leaning further against the concrete, her hands gripping the dents where pieces had broken and fallen off. “It’s like looking into a dream.”
“You seem disappointed,” she said.
“Not disappointed really, just-”
“I love it – really.” O looked up at him and smiled, the blush pressed on her cheeks making her appear flushed. It reminded him of the first time he had seen her, laughing and stumbling at a party, her face red from drinks, her lips stained with cheap red wine, her smile, enough to draw him in.
“That’s a relief.” He let out a sigh and joined O to lean against the roof.
“Let’s just create what we see.” O pointed past Q, her right arm extended and reaching towards something that wasn’t there. “Right there, the bridge over the port. Lit up with fairy lights.”
“Actually, the bridge would be that way,” Q said, nodding towards her left.
She frowned. “I said let’s create – use your imagination.”
“Okay,” Q said hesitantly. “Over there, the shotengai I went to with my brother when I was younger. Before we moved.” He looked over towards O, who was watching him carefully. She raised her eyebrows, then gave a small smile, as if gesturing for him to continue. He nodded. “And that way, you can see Kyoto from here. The geisha districts, alive and bustling as if before the war.”
“And there,” she stretched her arm out straight in front of her. “The onsens, burning the last of their coals, that’s why it’s so foggy and the air smells of sage and spices. Late night guests are pouring in now, the onsens busiest hour – businessmen, tired from work and meetings, coming in to relax with their mistresses before they have to return home.”
“Yes,” she said, holding back a smile.
“And up over here, there’s a diner. You can barely make out the light coming from the neon sign that sits just up there beyond that tree.” He stopped to move her head a bit until her sight lined up with his. “Do you see it?” he asked. O nodded. “So, there’s a diner there, a diner without a name, and through the main window you can see a girl, wrapped up in a gray scarf that covers her mouth – she’s reading. All by herself over there.” O bit her lip, chewing the sides that had already become raw and dry from the cold weather. “The book looks good though, I don’t think she’s the least bit alone right now.”
“Are you writing a book?” she asked. “So poetic.” She brushed her hair away from her face and tucked it gently behind her ears.
“Just an old memory, I guess.”
“I know.” O looked away, past the thicket of trees and out towards the sky that bore no horizon. Then, a smell, slow burning and heavy. She could almost make out the sound of something sizzling against the grill. “What is that?” O looked over towards Q, who seemed to have picked up on it too.
“I don’t know, is it coming from over there?” He moved past her, briskly walking to the other side of the roof back over in the direction of the town. She watched him, her head cocked to the side, waiting. He turned towards her, adjusting his beanie so it covered more of his forehead, hiding his black hair tucked in folds beneath it. “It smells like street food, no? Should we go check it out?”
O followed quietly behind Q, exaggerating her footsteps so they could match with each indentation he made in the snow. O pressed her print in as if she were invisible as if she was never there. Not even the slightest recollection of her memory present, a ghost, swept away in a moment. As they moved closer, O could make out a huddle of tents, posted in their absence. Plastic covers hung down over them, hiding bar stools and counters, where cooks stood, blurred by plastic overhangings, tossing noodles coated in thick black sauces in pans lined with oils and grease. There was a quiet hum of conversation, though, amongst the vendors, they were the only ones amidst the tents. Shot glasses tapped against one another. A chorus of laughter erupted from a tent up ahead.
“Where are we?” O asked she reached forward to grab Q who paused to look back at her.
“I don’t know- well, wait, I do know where we are, but I’ve never been here at this time,” he said. He held out his hand for her. “Honestly, I didn’t even know there was a night market here. Are you hungry?”
Q pulled her forward and wrapped his arm around her, letting it hang off her shoulder.
“How long do you think we have?” she asked.
He tensed. “Let’s not talk about that,” he said, pulling her closer. They moved further down the street, pausing briefly to look at food, then moving on to the next stall. It was a game, a back and forth where Q would ask the same question and get the same noncommittal reply from O, who frankly, would eat just about anything when she was hungry. As they wandered towards the end of the road, O grabbed Q and tugged him backwards in front of a stall that sat a few paces away from the others, tucked beside a large oak tree that hung overhead. “This one.” O pointed towards a tent, then looked up at Q.
“I haven’t had this in a while.” He looked down at her at smiled. “Good choice.”
They sat on the curb, their knees knocking against one another, their bellies warm from fried food. O licked her fingers. She reached over and poked Q on his cheek.
Q shot her a glance as he shoved a few pieces of fried sweet potato and onion into his mouth. He chewed slowly, then, “So, are you ready to go?”
O shook her head. “Definitely not, we just got here.”
Q swallowed, then reached beside them into the paper cup to dig out a few pieces of fish cakes braised in soy sauce. “You know what I mean.”
“Right…” O tucked her hair back behind her ears and leaned forward to rest her chin on her knees. “It’s a bit complicated is the thing.”
“Why don’t you try explaining it anyway,” he said. He held the cup out for her. She reached over, fishing out some of the cakes, then held them out in front of her, squishing them between the two chopsticks. Sauce coated the wood and dripped onto the pavement in front of her.
“If I leave here, here, that means that I can’t see you anymore,” O said. She took a bite out of the cake and chewed it carefully. “I don’t think I can handle that yet.”
“Do you think you’ll ever be able to handle that?”
“But I won’t be around forever.”
O reached over to take a piece of chicken and bit into it, the juice running down her chin. “That’s why it’s complicated.”
Q leaned towards her, smelling of smoke, his breath still holding traces of fried food. He pressed his thumb against her cheek, still greasy, and leaned forward, moving his thumb down to wipe her chin. O felt hot suddenly and turned away. Q laughed. “You’re too easy sometimes.”
“But, honestly, you’re happy right? You don’t need this anymore, right?”
“I’m happy I think,” O said. She twisted the ring on her thumb. “But, I’m also happy when I’m with you. Happier.” She drew out the last syllable of the word and let it hang between them before settling onto her shoulders, heavier than before.
Q picked up a pebble on the ground and flicked it towards the center of the street. It rolled in between two cobblestones. “Only one problem.”
“It’s not real.” Remember?
O lifted her head and looked over towards Q, to find the space next to her unoccupied. She looked around to find herself seated along a street. The carts had vanished, the smells along with them, and the steady hum of conversation dissipated until all she could hear was the sound of her own heartbeat.
When her eyes adjusted to the dark, O suddenly felt cold. The air surrounding her grew staler, nipped at her nose and pulled at her cheeks until her eyes were watering and her cheeks burned bright red from the wind. She clicked her heels together. The sound echoed down the port, which had grown quiet save for the few shopkeepers emptying their food waste out into bins tucked down the trail of alleys behind her. It was quiet, almost uncomfortably so. The clatter of a bucket knocking against a plastic bin came from somewhere down the road, followed by water hitting pavement. O sucked in a breath, the bitterness of the ocean air and empty stalls that had earlier held fish drying in the sun drifted by and tickled her nose and the tip of her tongue. She had grown accustomed to the smell of fish and had almost found some comfort in it in the colder months, as it had begun to remind her of a soup she liked in particular, red and boiling, with pieces of fish coated in broth and green onion. She leaned forward, pulling her knees into her chest.
O looked over and gave a small smile. “응. 괜찮아.” The person who sat next to her was watching her carefully, curiously. She reached over and squeezed his hand, then tucked her’s back into the padding of her coat. A small reassurance, passable for the moment. I’m fine. She repeated the words to herself like a mantra, until they felt foreign on her lips.
“무슨 생각해?” He asked. He leaned over, nudged her, and pushed the stray pieces of hair blown about by the wind behind her ears. He swiped the pad of his thumb just beneath her eye as if to wipe away the tears that were welling up, and she could feel them coming but swallowed them instead. He held her face in his hands and smiled. A small gesture, but one that reached her regardless.
She nodded and pulled from his grasp. “I was just thinking about someone from a while ago. An old memory, that’s all,” she said. He nodded, opened his mouth, closed it, then leaned back against the pavement, steadying himself on his elbows. It was moments like this, where the words were lost on him when O felt most alone. He glanced at her, then back at the ocean, focusing on the horizon where boats floated in darkness, their lanterns lighting up like pockets amidst the water. Somewhere a bell rung.
“I think maybe old memories aren’t good,” he said after a beat. O bit her lip and nodded. She tried to find the meaning between his words, parsing through the letters and broken syllables to find something tangible she could cling to. The water rose and lapped against the side of the stones beneath them.
O sighed. “But, they are important.” She reached upwards and stretched, opening her spine until the cavities of air-popped against one another, releasing her. “Wouldn’t you want to remember everything, even if it made you sad?”
“Of course,” he said. “But, I’d rather be here now, with you, in this moment.” He reached over and pressed his thumb against her lip, then brushed it upwards lightly against her skin. She felt her cheeks warming and tried to turn away, but he held her there. “I don’t want to be reminded of something else.”
O hummed in agreement. “Like rewriting history. Transcribing over what’s already happened.”
“Sometimes it’s a good thing,” he said. He turned back to face the water.
“I think I’d rather just remember.”
“It’s not that you forget the previous thing, just that you can change your feeling about it now.”
“Right,” she said. As she let go of the t and let it drift between them, she felt its insincerity, wrapped in her lackluster emotions, her judgment, her overthinking, everything she carried with her. She looked over towards the boy next to her and tried to forget Q, wherever he may be, perhaps on a corner, tugging at yakitori braised in a thick red sauce, or walking down the river in the navy blue hoodie he often wore when the sun dipped down below the horizon. The boy next to her wrapped his arm around her, and she leaned forward into him, burying her face into his chest. They sat like that for a moment, and O, feeling far away, thought of warm sake and sweets, smelling vanilla and honey on him, and the faint hint of soy sauce and whiskey, drawing her in, taking her back to Rokkoshidare, when she stood with Q in the in-between of their reality and everyone else’s, hidden in the mountainside where the steam from the onsens made it look as if they could disappear forever.
“Sometimes I forget how much you can eat,” Q said. “I mean, it’s kind of shocking sometimes, given your size.”
O pulled away to find Q sucking on his fingers which were covered in a thick coat of sauce. He stretched out his legs in front of him and leaned back in the grass, smiling to himself.
“Stop doing that. It’s confusing.”
“Bringing me back here. Back to this place.” O gestured to the street carts in front of them, then turned to look over at Q who was still grinning to himself, as if he had planned it all along.
“I’m not doing anything O. This is all you,” Q said, taking his beanie off to reveal his unruly hair, which fell just below his ears in locks that twisted and folded into one another. He ran his fingers through it, then pulled it back into a ponytail. “How much time do you think we have this time?” He looked over towards O, who was busy watching the candles flickering in the lanterns dance patterns behind the colored paper.
“I don’t feel like counting seconds today.”
“Let’s just sit then,” Q said. He fell back into the grass, folding his arms behind his head, and watched the stars with disinterest.
Then, O was back at the port, beside the boy who smelled of honey whiskey and cigarettes, and then, she couldn’t remember Q’s face anymore.