When I met him, Taiga Tatekawa was nineteen years old, but to me he always seemed much older. He was tall and slim, with fluffy black hair and dark brown eyes that had some kind of mysterious sadness to them. He was very friendly even to the most complete strangers, and he had a uniquely slow, gentle smile that made people feel at ease. He was always well-dressed – respectable, not formal – and he carried himself with a real dignity and grace that I’d never seen before. Even though he was a college freshman, he had already secured a well-paying internship in the town, and even though he worked long hours there, he maintained top grades in all his classes. Every student, professor, and townsperson respected him immensely, but Taiga himself never abused that respect. He would never order his juniors to do humiliating or menial tasks, and he never asked for preferential treatment or special favors. Instead, if someone showed him respect, he would pay it back to them with a great amount of love and care. He was well-known for treating younger students to expensive meals, helping to pay for their rent or laundry, or giving them a hand on their homework assignments. Graceful, reliable, hard-working, and utterly compassionate, Taiga was the epitome of exactly the kind of person I wanted to be – and exactly the kind of person I’d never allowed myself to be.
Because his grandparents were all immigrants from Japan, Taiga had decided to major in Japanese language and culture as a way to connect to his heritage. He also wanted to take a wide breadth of other classes simply to further his knowledge of the world. Someone of his intellect and character could have done more – I always wondered why he even chose such an obscure college – but he was also the kind of person who wouldn’t give in to the pressures surrounding his social stature. Taiga had a very strong sense of his own center. He knew what would make him happy and what would make him miserable, and he wasn’t afraid to pursue his own happiness even if those around him urged otherwise. That’s a kind of bravery in itself, and in the end I admired him a lot for it.
Isabella Garcia had almost the same quality. At eighteen years old – she was three months younger than Taiga and I – it seemed like she had already figured out her life. She knew the things that mattered to her, and she wasn’t afraid to visibly and vocally support them. She was the kind of person you would see at rallies and protests, waving a sign and chanting, whether it was for women’s rights or Chicanx rights or environmental sustainability. At first, she could come off as too assertive and intimidating, but she was really a genuinely nice person – she simply stood up for what she believed in, and I eventually realized that that was also worthy of admiration, because it took a lot of courage. With all her short-haired and makeup-free class, Isabella was double majoring in gender studies and classical literature, and she wanted to go study abroad at some point – for the experience if nothing else.
And what about me? At the time, I was a complete loser. To be honest, I had chosen this college not simply to get away from my family, but also because I’d heard it had a fantastic party scene – with no police, you could get away with almost anything. I had no plans to actually attend my classes or get my degree. I had this ridiculous dream of being able to enjoy complete and utter freedom. Somewhere down the line I would meet a beautiful girl, and we’d drop out together and disappear into the back alleys to never be seen again. Hedonistic, I know, but what can I say? My parents didn’t love me – for most of my childhood, they weren’t even around. My older brother made sure to put food on the table for me everyday, but he never talked to me or tried to make me do my homework or anything. In the end I barely passed high school, which is a ridiculous achievement all its own, and when I decided to apply to college I had no particular morals or values to speak of. There was nothing I wanted to study, no career I wanted to pursue. I didn’t want to go out and change the world like Isabella did. I think I just wanted to enjoy myself for once.
And then, by some chance of fate, I ended up with these two as roommates, and before I knew it my life plans went all to pieces.
With the way I described the three of us, I bet no one could believe we’d fit in together, especially with me in the equation. We certainly seemed like an odd group, but we actually fit into each other’s lives quite easily, each of us filling in the niches the others had left empty. I was shy, Taiga was introverted, and Isabella was clearly extroverted. Where I was a filthy mess, Taiga’s side of the room was always immaculate, and Isabella wasn’t afraid to yell at me to get my chores done. I had planned to survive off of instant ramen, Taiga had the money to go out for a real meal, and Isabella was a fantastic cook who could manage up to ten people a night with no problem – so long as Taiga pitched in on the prep work, that is. I know it’s crazy, but somehow, our rooming arrangement really worked – and part of it was because Taiga and Isabella gave me exactly what I needed. When I was at my lowest low, they gave me back my life. They proved to me that life was worth more than its transient pleasures, that people were capable of giving genuine unconditional love. They made me see that for all my flaws, I could be just as worthy as they were, and they gave me the time and space to figure out how to earn that worth. But in the end they couldn’t give me enough. Or maybe, they gave me too much, and I couldn’t – or didn’t – give any of it back.
I know it’s bad to say it, but I think it took Taiga’s death and Isabella’s disappearance for me to fully realize all of this, to be able to put into words what they’d been trying to teach me. It wasn’t until they were gone that I realized how much I needed them, how much I cared for them, how cruel and unfair I had been.
Sounds like a confession, right?