“Houses like little boxes, people too tiny to be important
and me, as if I have no care, I’m just flying
I’m flying away.
Maybe I’m flying to you.
Thank you for making those months worth living.”
Still holding the note in my hand, a silence crawls around me in which even the faintest of sounds echoes in the small town I used to call home. For a moment, remains of a melody ring from the depths of my consciousness, luring reminiscences of the day I first saw a woman who, without her even knowing it, made me dream again.
That day, not unlike most days, I was sitting on the bench in front of my apartment, writing lyrics for my piano piece — a habit I developed with the years, ever since I was a little boy and my mother’s delicate fingers showed me the first note. My neighbourhood was busy as it has always been at such hours, people filling the narrow street and its tiny stores. I often thought it odd that almost all of these stores have wooden surfaces — a rare sight in Tokyo.
As the setting sun changed the colours of the evening sky, she passed in front of me, her movements gracious and confident, a faint smile drawn on her face as if she believed good of everything, awoke a long forgotten hope and a strange kind of curiosity in me. Her eyes glowed with intelligence and kindness, leaving me to marvel at her beauty. And yet, there was something more in those eyes; a glimpse of melancholy, almost imperceptible for those who hadn’t felt it before.
But as with every bit of hope comes a wave of worry, feeling uncertain I’d get the chance to see her again, I watched her getting lost in the crowd and my heart dropped for a second.
Until the next evening, she had tortured my mind with that particular blend of hope and worry, longing and fear of the unknown as she awoke my senses, making my heart beat with a unique rhythm — a tempo even my fingers could not follow.
When I saw her walking in front of my apartment the next day, however, that spark of hope developed into a fire. Maybe she lives close by, I thought.
At first, her evening walks past my house were limited to a couple of times a week, but as the days went by, she became a sweet routine — the kind of routine I was thankful to have. I started looking forward to the evenings when I’d be done with work. I’d sit on the bench and write and she’d pass in front of me, keeping my smile and inspiration alive.
In a way, I felt as though I had become a part of her routine too. I watched as she became familiar with my presence, as her lips curved slightly upward when she saw me, as her eyes searched for mine. With time, we grew into each other naturally. I never spoke to her back then, not even a shy, Hello; but in my head, she heard my every thought.
I spent hours thinking of her and how strangely she had entered my consciousness. Since I saw her, my perception of happiness suddenly changed, as if there was a missing piece of a puzzle I was ignoring because I had somehow managed to patch it up with everything that kept me busy. My friends used to say that I appeared serene, but I knew I was in trouble when I closed my eyes thinking about happiness and all I could see and feel was her, and the strange glimpse of hope she had awoken. My mind was filled with images of her dresses that floated in the air when she walked, and her long, dark hair that glistened in the sunlight, reminding me of little fireflies, glowing in the dark. But most of all, the way she looked at me when our eyes met.
And I knew I was actually serene, indeed, but I couldn’t help dreaming of the way she could harmoniously blend into that happiness, making it complete, like the punch line of the most poetic lyrics or the crescendo of a perfect melody.
She could disappear from view, it didn’t matter; she remained in my thoughts throughout the day. And when the night would arrive, I tried to find the right words I would use to ask her out once I’d finally build up enough courage — it kept me looking forward.
I often imagined the two of us doing things that couples normally do. Simple things like watching a movie, or shopping at the supermarket, or sharing our music. Or just sitting side by side with our fingers intertwined, talking about our lives, or just about dinner, and my heart smiled with desire. Could she be feeling the same when she looks at me? I wondered.
On a cool spring evening, as I was returning from work, I saw her walking in front of me, on a street close to my neighbourhood. The shops that lined the sides were still open, people filled every corner but I was able to sense her presence in a way that, for a moment, I would have sworn, I could have found her with my eyes closed. She wore a short, yellow dress and brown, flat-heeled, leather boots that matched her backpack. Her perfume was not strong enough to disturb, but a mixture of iris flower, jasmine and vanilla floated in the air and landed on my heart.
I found myself mesmerised by the way she walked. With movements exactly as I remembered them: quick but gracious, she moved lightly as a dancer that danced to the sweetest of songs. Her face turned left and right, with the inquisitiveness of a child that wanted to study everything on her way. I couldn’t help but smile as I watched her.
On impulse, I started walking towards her, determined to at least say hi. With a quickened heartbeat I followed her steps, but the closer I got, the denser my doubts about what I should say. Who was I to her? The guy whom she saw every day sitting on the bench? Did that give me the right to speak to her at all? My words got stuck in my mouth while I still followed her for a couple of minutes as though I was under a spell.
She turned after the next corner and I, suddenly conscious that I was following her unable to speak, stood and watched her as she stopped in front of what looked like a store of some sort. She took out a key from her backpack and unlocked the door, entering and disappearing from sight.
I didn’t follow her further. Instead, I returned home sad and frustrated, trying to put my focus on the song I was writing.
I needed a good ending.
As the days went by, she stopped passing by my house.
I waited and waited but there was no sign of her. Blaming myself for the chances I missed, I regretted all those weeks that passed by without making a move to get closer to her. I had forgiven myself for missing chances a million times in the past but this time made me hate my lack of courage and the stupid notes I wrote in my music book. They were all pointless, incomplete.
They had no melody for I had never heard her voice.
Unable to bear her absence and resolved on doing something, for once, I decided to look for her at the store. I thought if I pretended to be a customer, I might have found a way to speak to her and ask her out.
I followed the same path, my mind replaying the memory of her walk and unforgettable scent and I realised that, back then, I followed her because I felt the need to be close to her, even if that meant I only got to stand beside her in the street. As I reached the corner, the thought of seeing her weakened my knees, the possibility of rejection quickened my pulse, but my desire pushed me to move forward.
Short metallic barriers lined the narrow street, making me think of the path of life that could only lead to her, my beautiful muse. Street lights and shop signs lit my way with yellow, red and orange lights until I reached the store she had entered that evening. An oval, brown sign stood at the front. Looking at it closer, it wasn’t a store but an art gallery.
A small paper taped to the door read “Closed temporarily. If you need to find me contact me at “Ayami.Is@artnow.com”. I noted the address and returned home. Ayami. What a beautiful name, I thought.
When I found the gallery’s site, I studied her paintings. Mostly scenes from everyday life, so brightly coloured, I could have described them as happy paintings if it wasn’t for an unexplainable sadness they expressed. I felt like I was looking at one of those people that seem all happy and cheerful until you focus on their eyes and you change your mind — people like me and her. The more I thought about it, the more similar it appeared to the way I felt about her. Her vague presence gave me a sense of happiness wrapped with melancholy that left an aftertaste of nostalgia — the type of nostalgia one gets thinking back at warm summer days that are now gone. Driven by instinct, I wanted to make her smile and I was sure, along with her lips, my heart would smile too.
I wondered about the way she saw the world. Did she find it as huge and unreachable as I did? Did she also compare it to a vast ocean? And would my presence soothe her fears at all, the way the possibility of having her in my life had soothed mine?
I tried contacting her but I received no response.
The more the days passed, the more I lost hope. The gallery remained closed, my email got no reply. I questioned my emotional response to the matter since even to myself, it seemed absurd to feel so desperate because of the loss of a stranger.
As I continued to look for her, all I could think of was that I lost her, and, along with her, I’d lost the chance at happiness.
I never got an explanation for my ignored email.
Next time I saw her, she was standing in front of that bench. I walked out my apartment for my usual songwriting and she stood right there, bowing her head and extending both hands, as she offered me a thank you card she had illustrated. The card read “Thank you for caring about me.”
I was astonished, only managing a mumbled thank you, my attention taken up with her smile until she started walking away. It took me a few long seconds before I finally ran after her.
She is here.
My heart pounding in my chest, I shouted her name. She stopped walking but didn’t turn to face me until I reached her side.
“Thank God,” she said, still smiling. “I thought I had interpreted your email in a wrong way when you didn’t react.”
“No! Thank God you didn’t think of me as a stalker.” I managed a laugh. “Sorry, I froze there for a second.”
Her gaze was forthright, she let out a laugh that completed my song.
She whispered a shy see you tomorrow as she turned around to continue walking.
I stood smiling like a crazy man, all alone.
That was the beginning of ten wonderful months of happiness. Ayami would stop by every evening and some nights after she’d closed the gallery.
We talked and talked. I showed her my music and she promised to show me more of her work one day. She told me she was preparing a special exhibition and wanted to wait until she made a perfect painting before she showed them to me.
I finally asked her out.
With her, I felt a peace that is hard to come by; a total calming feeling of having a person to share every tiny, hidden part of myself. It was all so new and beautiful, the hours and days with her seemed fragments of a second and yet when I looked back to those memories, I felt as if she had been there my whole life.
But she fluttered around me like a warm evening wind — impossible to catch or to predict.
Sometimes she’d disappear for days or even for weeks and I’d be left wondering about my next move. At those times, the gallery was always closed and Ayami gone, leaving no trace as if she had never been there. She’d then come back like she never left and I could not but welcome her the same way.
I always thought I should have taken us a step further, yet I was as lost as I was happy. The times I asked her about her absences she lowered her gaze and kept quiet, or responded by a simple I’ll tell you soon, I promise. I knew better than to push her further when I felt she still hid a part of herself.
Or perhaps I had always been wrong.
The last time she disappeared was way longer than the others.
Worried sick, I stayed out my door until late every night, struggling to figure out the reason she was vanishing from my life and hoping everything would be okay. That particular time, however, struck me as a bad sign. I feared something had happened to her and I just knew I had to do something.
As I reached her apartment, my heart ached for everything that looked abandoned. What was once important and treated with care now resembled a ghost. The small garden in her front porch was full of dying flowers, the shutters of her windows full of dust but still open, two little bowls that once contained bird food and water all dried up. I felt as if time had left a cruel touch that withered everything that had once been loved.
The weight in my chest became unbearable while I knocked meaninglessly on the wooden door. I lost control, knocking harder and harder, releasing pent-up stress and fear until my fist hurt. I gave up convinced that something had happened to her. When silence clung to the air around me, brutal thoughts of self-blame scratched the walls of my mind. I sat on her doorsteps and cried for the loss of my brightest days.
As the hours passed, I found myself unable to let go. Sitting on the floor with my back leaning against the door, I spoke to her as if she was once again beside me. My words revealed everything I hid from her when I foolishly thought we’d have a lifetime to share the words we kept inside.
A silhouette approached me in the dark. Ayami’s neighbour stared at me with concerned eyes.
“Worried about Ayami?” she asked. “Or maybe you know where she is?”
“I was hoping to find her here. I take it you don’t know either?”
“I don’t, I’m sorry. We are very concerned too. Maybe the therapy didn’t work out this time or maybe it just lasted longer. We like to assume the latter.”
Unwilling to expose my lack of knowledge, I tried to keep up. “Me too. So what if it failed?”
She stared at me agape, her eyes showing a mild disapproval. “I think you need some rest. We all hope she’ll overcome this and will come back alive and well. I’ll tell her you stopped by. What’s your name again?”
I lost sense of reality along with every other word she said after alive. “Ryan. Thanks,” I mumbled and made my way home.
Walking felt like a long torture. Alive and well. My head spun and I struggled to breathe.
I tried to call some hospitals but they refused to give me any information. I waited for weeks, each day that passed without hearing from her was more confirmation that Ayami was never coming back.
The sight of the bench made me sick. What was I supposed to do with those memories? Memories are nothing like gifts one keeps from an old love. I couldn’t pack those away, or throw them out, or make them disappear by will. They’d stay and haunt me until they sucked the last bit of life out of me.
It took me a couple of months to make a decision. I’d leave town and along with it, I’d leave everything that could remind me of her — except the pain in my chest.
I had to get over Ayami.
I didn’t pack anything. Sitting on the bench for the last time, I wrote her a goodbye letter, telling her that she had been a light I never believed existed before meeting her, and how losing her threw me back to the dark. I thanked her for every moment she made me feel alive.
I drove to her house, dropped the letter in the mailbox and started my way to the unknown. I didn’t care where I’d stop, only that it was far away from my disappointing self. I also didn’t care that she would never read my letter, as just dropping it to her, felt like a desperate but completed task. A pathetic kind of relief at last.
A few months later I managed to see hints of a new start. I got a new job, got back to songwriting, made a couple of new friends and, eventually, I figured holding on to Ayami’s memories could have the opposite effect than I thought at first. She might have been far, in a place I couldn’t reach if I tried, but she had been there with me once. She had given me a hope I never would have known existed before I met her — a hope I could hold on to.
Until my phone rang on a Friday evening.
Silence. I repeated, “Hello?”
“Hi…It’s Yuki. Ayami’s neighbour. Remember me?”
How could I have forgotten the voice that took away my happiness? “Sure, is everything okay?”
Goddamn. I was starting to resent that woman. Had she called to confirm Ayami’s death as if I needed to be convinced? “What can I do for you, Yuki?”
“Well… the day of the funeral, her family and I got into Ayami’s house to gather some things. I found an envelope addressed to you. I dropped it at the address it indicated, maybe you could pick it up. I remembered Ayami told me she never found you after that day I met you outside her house.
“So how did you find me now?” Wait, what? “Did you just say after the day you met me?
“I noticed you put your house for sale a few days ago — the real estate agent gave me your number. And yes, Ayami returned a few months later and I told her you stopped by. That was a week before we heard about the s — ”
My phone slipped from my hand. Ayami was still alive when I left? I tried to resume breathing while I picked up the phone from the floor. “Yuki? You still there?”
“Are you okay?”
“How did she die?”
A deafening silence drowned me. “Well…I don’t know what to say. You didn’t know? I’m really sorry, she committed suicide.”
I tried to take the words in. Every effort to move on destroyed, every moment I spent in the new town regretted. I got in my car. I had to read that letter.
Facing the bench, everything around me turned dark. I rushed to the mailbox and picked up the letter. I slid my fingers over the handwriting, tears already flooding my eyes. I sat down and stared at it, weak before its importance and the effect it might bring in my life. Would I ever be able to overcome such a goodbye?
My fingers run under the slightly glued edges of the envelope and fished for the letter. Unfolding it as if it was breakable, I saw a quote on the front:
“Houses like little boxes, people too tiny to be important
and me, as if I have no care, I’m just flying
I’m flying away.
Maybe I’m flying to you.”
Thank you for making those months worth living.
I got stuck trying to figure out what she meant, without any luck. I turned the page to read the actual letter.
I’m not sure why I’m writing this letter as you won’t read it. I guess there are just too many words left unsaid; I’m afraid they’ll drown me in your absence. I imagined, you see, that even if I am ill, one day we might have overcome this burden. Maybe one day would have been as I wished for us.
I never got to say how I felt when I saw you each day. I looked forward to passing by your house as I knew you would be there. I liked to see you sitting on your steps and the way your fingers tapped on the marble, following the melody coming from your red headset. I thought red looked good on you as it framed your face. The red wire reminded me of the red string of fate and I always smiled when you couldn’t see me.
I also never got to say that all those scenes you told me you imagined before we met, I didn’t just imagine them too, I painted them.
I thought of waiting for the perfect painting before I showed them to you (even though I always feared you’d think me crazy). I guess the expression ‘If you can do something today don’t leave it for tomorrow’ stands true but, regretfully, I ignored it.
What I never thought of, however, was that you’d be the one to leave first. I was sure that my illness would eventually tear us apart — that was the very reason I held back the urge to tell you everything. I wanted to wait until I had my results. I guess they don’t matter anymore.
After your letter, there were times I felt the need to see you but I couldn’t find you. That, however, made me realise that your disappearance might have been a good thing; not so much for me but definitely for you. You’ll be free without me. And I wish you only happiness. You don’t deserve a life surrounded by doctors and hospitals and stress. I’m so tired of it, too.
So I very much regret I never told you I love you when you were there to listen. Who knows, you might have hugged me and said you loved me too.
The key in the envelope is for the gallery. It won’t be of any use to anyone, not even to you now, but you’re the only one who should have it. You never got to see the paintings. I guess that doesn’t matter anymore either.
I’m sorry my Ryan, I know I’m too late. But you never know, maybe one day we will meet again.
Maybe I’m flying to you.
As the shock fades, an overwhelming wave of emotion swallows me and I’m not sure how to react. A need to cry sweeps over me so I try to breathe, swallowing back the tears.
My mind says I shouldn’t, but the impulse to run to the gallery overtakes me and I fail to hold back. Surrendering to the urge, I start running, following the path I know will haunt me with memories. The chill breeze refreshes my sweated forehead, my body protests at the violent efforts to keep going. Even though I’m tired, all I feel is relieved of tension. Reaching the gallery, I freeze at the sight of it. My heart can’t calm down, my weakened knees stop holding me and I fall in front of the door.
Using the key I had kept in my hand, I open the door and crawl my way in the gallery. The cracking of the door echoes in the night, a piercing sound for my heightened senses. My eyes wander objects she once had touched, objects she had created, objects she had put her heart into. The paintings are similar to the ones on the site. All of them separated in different sections under signs that define their themes. I see “Life” and “Thoughts” and “Memories” and “Illusions”. And then I see “Light”. In that little corner, there are paintings of a place I recognise well. It’s my house and it’s me from different angles. It’s images of myself through eyes that looked at me in a way I never looked at myself. Eyes that saw right through me. Eyes that saw me happy.
For once, I can see the way Ayami saw me. Finally allowing myself to cry, tears of loss and regret burn my skin on their way, and I just know they will scar me forever.
Slipping away from the present, the pain in my chest hits me once again forcing me to surrender to the grief.
When my eyes and face are all dried up, I stand up and get closer to the paintings, daring to face the truth for once.
In sight of those colourful canvases, I wonder if my life had any colour at all before I met her. And then I see it, a tiny spot of grouped 12" x 12" canvases, on the left side of the section. In them, it’s me and Ayami.
She’d painted us in different scenes, just as she told me in her letter. She painted a short timeline of us together through the years, I guess the way she imagined we’d be. I pick up one of them, in which Ayami is leaning her head on my shoulder while we’re sitting on that bench. Her face is perfectly depicted in a painting so vivid that it almost resembles a photograph. Her smile is so bright as if she could see herself through my eyes.
Trembling, I bring the painting close to my chest and rush out of the gallery. I wander the streets, fighting the thought that wants me to follow her, that wants me to finally give up. My feet lead me to the Rainbow Bridge, her favourite evening spot.
I walk across it, memories constantly flashing in my mind like jellyfish in dark water, stinging me with the single time we walked here together, holding hands. Reminiscent of the glow in her eyes when she suggested showing me the place she used to go when she needed peace or inspiration, the weight on my chest grows even heavier, bearing the nostalgia. The scene comes alive before me; breathtaking to watch but the pain unbearable. When I find the spot we spent our evening, I stop and look at the painting; in it, the woman that made me feel alive smiles with a smile I’ll never get the chance to admire again. Maybe I’m flying to you, she had said.
I study the view from the bridge. “Houses like little boxes, people too tiny to be important. And me, as if I have no care, I’m just flying. I’m flying away.” It all makes sense now.
The metallic barrier feels cold to the touch, a pleasant change on my overheated body. I lean forward and hold the painting lower, my eyes now focusing on the painting surrounded by water as it’s all my sight can grasp. I remember her talking about a future beach house and I imagine the two of us in it; she’s always leaning her head on my shoulder as I write notes and lyrics on paper.
I watch as my tears land on our happy faces, soaking the canvas, and creating colourful pools of lost hopes. I let it fall from my hands to the dark waters and as it slowly disappears from my view, I close my eyes and open my arms to feel the sweet summer breeze that’s sneaked in this cool, spring evening. There are no other thoughts crossing my mind, there’s no other face to picture.
At this very moment, on this colourfully illuminated bridge, while the warm breeze wraps around me, I have the face of a woman stuck in my head. She’s calling out to me, and though my heart stomps out of fear, I never felt more free.
Maybe I’m flying to you.