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Contemporary Coming of Age Romance

“Great art is created outside your comfort zone.” Mr. Ueno’s words echo in my head as I study the landscape through the window of the Keikyu express train towards Yokohama. Above the horizon, the sun, a dimly lit semicircle, shines light through a veil of grey clouds and onto the bleak, concrete landscape below. The pipes of the heavens are leaking. Among the odd industrial complex decorated with colorful banners, drab apartment buildings stream by. An arms length and two sets of windows separate me from the lives of complete strangers. Sprinkles of rain race in streaks along the glass surface. The deadline of my final thesis is approaching. What if I didn’t have what it takes to become an inspiring artist? The idea of settling for average scares me. Bureaucrats settle for average.

Ever since I moved to Tokyo my passion for drawing has been buried underneath countless layers of theory. While the school is meant to teach me how to understand my craft better, the more lessons I absorb, the more they seem to fundamentally contradict each other. I used to be able to sit still and draw for hours on end. Now, most days, I question my ideas to the point that I lose confidence in my abilities as an artist, before the tip of the pencil even touches a sheet of paper. Whenever I manage to pull through regardless, I’m left with a piece of work that either falls flat of my expectations or feels overblown and pretentious. I can’t gather the courage to produce any original artwork. I cringe at the slightest suggestion of risk. The preconceived idea of an audience is too far engrained in my mind to let myself create freely.

This reminds me of a time, back when I was in elementary school. I was a terribly hyperactive child and used to dance all around our small apartment. But the moment I gained the self-awareness that I was being watched, and possibly judged, I lost the ability to enjoy moving freely.

The train slows to a standstill at the next stop. I look absently, towards the flock of people pressing through the doors. Suddenly all the heat in my body shoots to my head, I can’t move. This must be a practical joke the universe is playing on me. The moment I catch sight of her, all other thoughts lose significance, extinguished by the gust of wind that is Ai Sakamoto.

Ai is dressed casually. Light blue jeans, white sneakers and a hoodie underneath a sage green bomber jacket. A maroon baseball cap shades the top of her face. Allowing only the tip of her nose to stick out. Her short, dark hair brushing up to the elegantly drawn line of her chin is enough for me to recognize her. Ai’s image is firmly sketched into my mind, she’s the template I hold up against any potential romantic interest.

My eyes dance through the crowd as I try to avoid looking at her, unsure what I would do, if she saw me. Ai moves closer and sits down on the opposite bench, the fabric of which matches her baseball hat. Even though she sits right across from me, she doesn’t seem to notice. She sets her bag down on her lap and pulls out a book. I glance at the title. The End of the World and Hard-Boiled Wonderland. Surely I must’ve lost the ability to read in my state of agitation. Ai smiles to herself, the corners of her lips curl up ever so slightly. this must be her usual expression as she breezes through life with the gift of natural nonchalance.

Ai closes the book, takes her phone, checks it, then places it face down on her bag, right beside the book. My stomach flutters at the possibility that she might lay her eyes on me. Instead her attention wanders back to the book. She moves her hand to her forehead, obscuring her face. My unhealthy obsession with her washes over me in waves. Violent symptoms come crashing down on me, I’m drowning in what I selfishly proclaim to be love. The idea that only she can make my problems disappear, that she is the jigsaw puzzle piece that completes me.

I started taking my drawings seriously in junior high school. It turned out to be the only activity I had that kind of patience for. My mother noticed my dedication to the craft and sent me to a cram school where I met Mr. Ueno. He became my mentor as he prepared me to get into a senior high school specialized in fine arts. Immediately after I got accepted, he’d taken it upon himself to help me secure a place in a fine art college in Tokyo, not an easy feat. Knowing he’d worked so hard to get me there made it even the more difficult to tell him how much I disliked the school. It wasn’t anything like what I expected when Mr. Ueno and I worked on my portfolio together. He had the talent of getting me into a flow state. I produced my best works under his guidance. Which is exactly why I was sitting on this train to Yokohama. So I could relive the old days and find that flow state, which the load of expectations had robbed me of.

The sound of something dropping onto the floor jolts me back into the present moment. Ai’s phone lies before my feet. I hesitantly look up at her, she hasn’t moved an inch.

“Excuse me, you dropped your phone.”

No answer.

My chest constricts. She’s ignoring me. I think back to the time I drew her in school. Just as the teacher left the classroom the boy sitting next to me snatched the paper out from under my hands, held it up and exclaimed, “Haru’s drawing Ai again.” Followed by laughter.

I swallow the thoughts of my own inadequacy. Then I pick up the phone from the ground, rise from my seat and hold my hand out in front of her.

“Excuse me you dropped this.” I repeat.

Only then I notice how the pages of her book had closed, her chest slowly falls and rises. She’s sleeping. How terribly rude of me. I carefully nudge her shoulder with the phone. Ai flinches. She looks up at me, bewildered. As her eyes meet mine for a split second I catch a twinkle in her soul. My cheeks flush. I stare at her blankly.

“Sorry for bothering, I didn’t want to wake you up.”

“It’s quite alright, I might have missed my stop if you hadn’t."

“Your phone dropped,” I say as I hand it to her.

“Oh, thank you.”

She rubs her eyes and runs a finger through her hair in a spectacular fashion.

“I just worked a night shift, sorry if I’m not the most attentive.”

“Where do you work?” I press my lips together at the intrusive question.

“At Narita Airport. I’m an air-traffic controller.”

“You don’t remember me, do you?”

Ai looks me up and down. “I’m afraid I don’t. What’s your name?”

“Ota Haru, we where in Masamoto Junior high school together.”

“Nice to meet you.” She answers, without indicating any sense of recollection.

“What do you do Haru?”

“I study fine arts in Tokyo.”

“Impressive, an artist.”

“It’s not that impressive actually, I quite ran out of inspiration a while ago.”

“What’s favorite thing to draw then?” She asks.

I laugh at the fact that question hasn’t crossed my mind once since I live in Tokyo.

“I used to enjoy doing portraits, but I haven’t done so in a while.”

“If you’re looking for somebody to sit for a portrait, I’d enjoy that.”

“Yes, that sounds like a deal.” I say, overcome with joy. “How about you give me that phone again and I’ll give you my number.”

She hands me her phone, a faint smile on her face.

I enter the number. “Does Sunday work for you?” I ask.

“Sunday is Valentine’s Day.”

"Do you already have a Valentine?"

She crossed her arms. slightly shrugging.

“Wonderful, then I’ll see you on Sunday.”

Ai chuckles as I, in turn, give a short bow of the head.

The speakers announces the next stop Kanagawa-Shimmachi.

“That’s me.” I say, greeting her as I turn around.

I step out onto the platform with a wide grin. I can’t wait to tell Mr. Ueno he was right.

February 18, 2021 22:28

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11 comments

Aimee Cardenas
13:27 Feb 25, 2021

What a sweet Valentine's Day story. ❤️

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Philip Hedges
17:39 Feb 25, 2021

Thank you Aimee!

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Cb Pinky
22:18 Feb 24, 2021

I love this story! There’s so much to unpack about how subtle but effective the writing is. Thanks so much for writing it!

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Philip Hedges
06:43 Feb 25, 2021

Thank you for your lovely comment!

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Gerald Daniels
19:58 Feb 23, 2021

Loved this story. Was it based on personal experience? Full of atmosphere and subtle drama. Maybe (only maybe) more description of the surroundings and emotion?

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Philip Hedges
20:40 Feb 23, 2021

Thanks for the kind words Gerald. The setting was in part influenced by Haruki Murakami, one of my favorite authors. The situation isn't something I directly experienced myself, but rather something I closely relate to.

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Sam Ackman
20:26 Feb 25, 2021

This is a really cute story. Some of you imagery lines where really cleverly written and helped bring out the atmosphere. I found there was a lot of telling on background information that wasn’t as interesting to me as the exchange at the end. I would have liked to know more on how the main character felt about not being remembered or finally talking to her ect. But all that said it depends if your focus was more “artist lost his way is reminded why he loved it before” or “meeting old crush and finally asking her out”. Good story though!

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Philip Hedges
20:40 Feb 25, 2021

Thank you for your insightful critique, I appreciate it!

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S.S. Bones
03:50 Feb 19, 2021

Well this is sweet. That was actually quite a good experience, though I must say I may be biased thanks to my deep appreciation for Japanese animation. The story in itself is interesting, though perhaps how the conversation unfolded as one bullet after another ceaselessly might have been jarring to a certain extent and could have been improved on by filling the in-betweens with something culture-based like Japanese politeness and shyness that could have given our characters more depth in the short span of moments.

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Philip Hedges
06:30 Feb 19, 2021

Thanks for your feedback, I appreciate it. The directness in their banter was a conscious choice, on one hand I wanted to create a conversation that just flowed, on the other hand I didn’t want to resort to, what I find to be somewhat tired clichés about Japanese people.

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S.S. Bones
07:12 Mar 06, 2021

Your welcome, hoping to read more from you.

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