The man at the bar said he loved her. The idol.
“She’s my soulmate,” he said, “we were just born a generation apart.”
The idol in question was a member of a four-girl unit. Nothing big; just four teenagers reaching for dreams through pop music. It was a story I’d heard before: they’d put out a number of singles, played small shows in basements around Akihabara, and sometimes did handshake events. An album release was incoming.
“Ayaka is my favorite,” the man said.
“She’s like a reflection of a part of me that was,” he said.
“It’s gone now, that part of me. But I see glimpses of it in her; her smile, her attitude, the way she flicks her hair. I want her to succeed where I never will.”
The man had discovered the group a year and a half ago, and had followed them since. He bought the CDs, the photobooks, the stickers. He attended the live shows, the handshake events, and stood outside watching the interviews when they appeared on local radio stations.
He said he was a fan until just a few months ago.
“The panda,” he said. “the panda happened.”
And he looked at his drink for a long time before continuing.
The panda was a small keychain attached to Ayaka’s bag. She’d dropped it at an event somewhere and the man had picked it up. There was a faded message on its stomach and one of the eyes was missing. But it was also hand made. It had a past. It was personal. It carried an emotional weight.
“I wanted to give it back to her,” the man said. “To Ayaka, I mean. So I followed her.”
Initially, the man started following Ayaka around with the intention of returning her keychain. He waited outside the dance studio hidden in a telephone booth. He ate at the Mos Burger she sometimes visited after school. He took the same trains — all the way to the outskirts of the city — and rode the same buses.
And all the while, the keychain remained in his briefcase.
“The timing was never right,” the man said. “I thought about how and when to give the panda back, but when the moment came I always lost it. So I had to wait for another chance.”
Around this time, Ayaka’s popularity started to drop. Online, rumors said she was forgetting her lines. People said she couldn’t keep up with the group’s busy schedule. She wasn’t posting online very often. There were screenshots of private messages hinting at a boyfriend.
“She didn’t have a boyfriend though,” the man said. “I would have seen him if she did.”
The man said if it was anything, it was the panda.
“The key chain was her good luck charm,” he said. “When she dropped it, bad things started to happen. The connection was very clear, but naturally, nobody else could see it.”
But while Ayaka’s luck faded, the man’s started to rise. He was promoted after a work colleague resigned because of train groping accusations. Pachinko went better than usual. He won some kind of raffle at a maid cafe. His Yahoo auction wins were cheaper than usual. He acquired rare photographs at fan meet-ups he’d never seen before.
“I knew it was all the keychain, and I felt the guilt get heavier with each day. I knew I had to give it back, but suddenly a part of me didn’t want to. I would see Ayaka’s pained expression on the train home, and feel myself pulled in two different directions.”
Ayaka was breaking into pieces before his eyes. He saw the forced smile and tired eyes after dance practice, and the way she didn’t touch her food at Mos Burger. He saw her drift into a pained sleep while studying lyrics and dance moves on the bus. And he saw her crying on the slow walk home.
“I couldn’t take it,” the man said. “At that point, I simply couldn’t take it.”
And so, late one night as Ayaka collapsed into a swing at the park by her house, the man approached her.
“I want to give you this back,” he said. “You dropped it and I picked it up, but I didn’t know how to return it.”
The man took a step forward, and Ayaka took a step back. There was something in her eyes he hadn’t seen before, and he paused for a moment. His mind grasped for words to calm his other-generational soulmate.
Her voice was a quiver on the breeze. “Give what back?” Ayaka asked.
“I’ve seen you on the train home,” the man said. “I’ve watched you after practice walking to the station. I’ve seen you at Mos Burger looking at cat photos to cheer yourself up, and studying on the train home. I know it’s hard for you. But you can do it. I know you can. You can’t let these setbacks bring you down. Not now, and not ever.”
“Who are you?” Ayaka said. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m a fan,” the man said, “and I need to give it back to you. Your luck. I need to give it back to you. That’s why I’m here.”
“Ayaka? Is that you?”
A new voice, carried from afar. A male; a parent, perhaps, but the man wasn’t sure.
“Please,” he said. “I can make things better. I can fix it. I just need to give you this.”
The other voice again. Closer now.
“What are you talking about?” Ayaka asked. “What do you want? You’re scaring me.”
And in that instant the man saw it again in Ayaka’s eyes, and this time he knew what it was.
He suddenly saw it all from a distance; an old man approaching a young girl at night with a dirty keychain in his hand, and the confessions of his stalking habits spilling from his mouth.
So he ran. Clutching the panda keychain balled up in his fist, he ran. His feet fell across empty neighborhood streets, his breath rang in his ears, and his lungs burned in his chest. He ran until there was just the heaving of his breath and the distant sound of a train crossing in the distance. And then, when everything was quiet, he made the slow walk to the station and started the long trek home.
“Did you keep the keychain?” I asked.
“I threw it away a few days later. I didn’t need it anymore, and neither did she.”
When news broke that Ayaka had a stalker, fans rallied around her. Suddenly, her recently failures made sense given the context. The voices that once attacked her lack of enthusiasm and effort turned to cheers of encouragement and support. Over the next few months, Ayaka’s improvement buoyed the rest of the idol unit, and her redemption story pushed the group’s next single to all-new (if still modest) sales records.
The man watched this all unfold from a distance; at home, on the train, at the office, from a table at his favorite maid cafe; everywhere but close to the group itself.
“We can never see each other again,” he said, “but I think that, all things considered, this was for the best.”
And as Ayaka’s luck began to rise, the man’s began to fade. He was transferred back to his old position, the pachinko wins dried up, and rare photos were once again hard to come by.
“For Ayaka and I, our luck is inverted,” he said. “When I am lucky, she is not; when she is lucky, I am not. The closer we become, the harder things are. My penance is to suffer so that she might still succeed.”
The man looked at his drink, and a wry smile crawled across his lips.
“In another life, at another time, perhaps we will be born in the same generation, and we will get our second chance,” he said. “But until then I will support her from afar, in my own way.”
The man finished his drink and left. I never saw him again.
Later that night, I stumbled home through empty streets humming slow jazz and thinking about soulmates. I thought of how a past romance had shattered into shards of glass that cut to the bone when I tried to pick them up. I wondered if I could put it all down to bad timing, or cross-generational romantic issues.
I did not think I could.
Nor, did I think, that I wanted to.
(Perfume — If you wanna)
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