Original illustrations by Irene Koh (Thanks!)

Watercolor Romance

When I finally tidied my bookshelf, I was left with a little pile of books I knew I wouldn’t read. A haphazard mish-mash of beautiful, half-finished, and half-loved paperbacks. Faithful, hopeful dates I had left forever waiting.

I decided to sell them.

The girl at the Book-Off counter gave me a number and told me to wait. They’d check my books, she said, and they’d call my number.

I wandered the shelves and stared at books. Thought about buying new ones I knew I wouldn’t read. Spent time reading titles and guessing plots before checking blurbs.

Eventually, they called my number.

The girl had a receipt. She asked for ID. Made me sign a paper and asked if the address was correct.

“I found these in your books,” she said, “would you like them?”

I looked at the little pile of bookmarks. Sighed. They were postcards. One from the Mori Art Museum, one from Naoshima, one from the Ghibli Museum. There were pictures of cute animals and landmarks. It was a collection of memories with messages scrawled on the back.

Love letters.

“Er, I suppose so,” I said.

“She sounds like a great girl.”

“She was.”


“Well, you know how it goes.”

“What about that one?”

She motioned to a postcard of a skeletal pattern, spiraling into itself. Odani Motohiko.

I shook my head. Shrugged.

“I meant to finish writing that. After I finished the book. But I never did.”

“You have a beautiful way with words,” she said.

“Oh, thank you.”

She nodded, counted out some money, and had me confirm it.

“Here’s your 1,500 yen,” she said.

Always overpriced, but never actually worth much. That’s memories, I guess.

“Here’s your receipt.”

“Oh, it’s okay. I don’t need it. You can throw it away.”

“No,” she said. “You do. You need it.”

“Uh, okay.”

On the receipt was a phone number, an email address, and a name.


“You write stories. You should have told me.”

I stared at the books on the table. Wondered how she found them.

“I used to.”

“They’re beautiful.”

“Thank you.”

“They’re like letters.”

“Well, they kind of were letters.”

“They’re beautiful.”

“You said that already.”

“Will you ever write the third one?”

“I should.”

“You won’t?”

“I’ll think about it,” I said.

The same way I always thought about it.

We spent the winter together. Went to Roppongi to see the Christmas lights. She clung to my arm and pulled me around. It was her first time, she said. I told her it was mine, too. I pretended I didn’t know what was coming next. It was fun.

We did what poor lovers do in Tokyo. We ate at cheap oden haunts and family restaurants. Holes-in-the-wall, and neighborhood izakayas. KFC for Christmas. She laughed at my jokes and taught me Japanese. It was refreshing to have a person’s eyes on me when I talked. To have someone’s full attention. It was an odd sensation, like taking winter clothes from an old box, and catching memories in the scent.

But some days she stared at me, or through me, and I couldn’t quite place the focus of her gaze.

She was looking for something. And she was sure it was there, but she couldn’t seem to find it.

“Will you write me a letter?”


“A letter.”

“You’re right here. I don’t need to.”

“Your writing is different to the way you talk.”


“I want to know the other guy. I want to hear from him.”


“Write to me.”

“But I don’t have a reason to. You’re right here. I see you almost every day.”

“I’m going to Kobe,” she said.


“I don’t know how long I’ll be gone.”

“But you’ll call, yeah?”



“I won’t have my phone. I lost it.”

“You lost it.”


She placed a scrap of paper on the table.

“Here’s my address,” she said. “You can contact me here.”

“This is a hotel. Can I call the hotel?”


I sat there for a moment. Sipped my coffee. Nodded.

“Okay,” I said. “I get it.”

“Thank you.”

Ito-ya has a vast selection of cards. Wall to wall, for every occasion. But none of them were right. Too colorful. Too blasé. Too cute. Too bright. Too lacking in spontaneity. No serendipity.

It had been years since I bought a card. Looking at them, taking them in hand, admiring the craftsmanship — it felt nostalgic, somehow. Refreshing.

It brought back memories of cold hands and winters under a kotatsu heater. Of scribbling long letters to a girl living a long way away. Of the simple hope that she might be writing, too.

I stared at a card full of tiny santas hanging out at the local bath house.

I put it in my little shopping basket.

And I wondered why I always saw those nostalgic memories in third person.

“Thank you for the letters.”

“That’s okay. Did you like them?”

“Kind of.”

“Kind of?”

“You’re different now.”

I tilted my head.

“You don’t write like you used to,” she said.

“It’s probably a style thing.”

“You didn’t write me like you did her.”

“You’re different people.”

“What happened to him? What happened to you?”

How to explain that the guy I was three years ago, and the guy I was today, were different people?

“You loved her more, didn’t you?”

I thought about that comment for a long time. It was a ghost — it seemed to haunt me.

I’d never considered love in terms of weight. Never thought of it as something you put on a scale next to a past love, or a past fling, and measure in comparison.

I thought of love like blending watercolors. Like dipping a brush in water, taking one color, and mixing it with another. The resulting hue wasn’t something easily comparable. The base elements were different — naturally, so were the results. Whether one was nicer than the other was a matter of personal preference.

Love then, was the image two people painted with the watercolors they’d mixed. Whether it was pretty, or bland, or ugly — who could really say?

Art is fickle like that.

But I knew if I tried to say all of that in person, I would screw it up.

So I wrote it on the back of a postcard. A piece by Alphonse Mucha.

And I sent it in the post.

“I read it again.”


“Your book. The first one.”


“There’s a longing in that. A desire. A passion.”

I nodded.

“I think I wanted that. Do you still have that?”

I shook my head. I didn’t think I did.

With every experience in our lives, we change. Over time, we become different people. Perhaps with age, parts of us mellow and thaw, while others harden and crystallize. The soul changes shape to match its environment.

Or perhaps each time we get burned, or cut, or hurt, we simply learn to avoid danger.

Physical, mental, romantic, or otherwise.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I can’t expect you to be who you were in the past. I shouldn’t. I won’t.”

She glanced at the Mucha postcard.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “It’s my treasure.”

I pulled her close, and kissed her on the forehead.

“We’ll paint our own picture,” I said.

How cheesy.

But she stared at me then, and I saw focus in her gaze.

She’d looked for it. That something she was sure was there.

And she’d found it.

I sat down with a pen and paper, and I wrote. The words and sentences were messy, long, and unclear, but they were mine. They were from the heart. They felt good.

It had been a long time. Writing like that. Writing with the flow. It was like bumping into an old friend you thought you’d never see again. Falling into an old conversation.

Falling into old times.

Perhaps we don’t change much after all, I thought.

We’re all of us souls that don’t want to hurt again.

I put that letter in a nice envelope, and I sent it in the post.

But I never saw Akiko again.

The letter was returned. Unopened.

Akiko’s apartment was empty. She’d moved out. Her landlord didn’t know anything. The book shop said she quit. The hotel in Kobe turned up blank. Her phone was turned off. Perhaps disconnected. She didn’t answer emails.

I never knew her friends. I never knew her family. I never thought much about it. I liked that our time together was exclusively ours.

She was a pocket universe. My escape from the world.

And now she was gone.

I wrote a letter each week. I wrote on postcards I picked up on my travels. Coffee shops, museums, art galleries, tourist spots — whatever caught my eye.

There was a flow and spontaneity to them, those letters. They felt natural to write.

In them was honesty, love, and joy.

And behind them, a simple, lonely soul. One that hoped someday it would have an address to send those letters to. A person to read them.

And fresh colors to mix, to paint a brand new picture with.

But even then, painting by myself, I found enough material for a third book I thought I’d never write.

And whether that’s good, bad, beautiful, or sad, well… who’s to say?

I simply like the color of it.


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Thanks for reading!
 — Hengtee