On Saturday morning, I stood outside my apartment with a small duffel bag and a laptop case slung over my shoulder. Tadashi pulled up right on time.
My old schoolfriend was in the driver’s seat of a gray compact car with a simple design. He smiled at me through the window, turned off the engine, and got out of the car.
“Hey Chas,” Tadashi greeted happily. He came over and hugged me, to my great surprise.
Flushing with pleasure and embarrassment, I took a half-step back to take him in. His face hadn’t changed much, but he had dyed his slightly curly hair a light blonde, and it was now so incredibly long that some locks came close to his waist. Well, he had always been known for his long hair – I remembered he got bullied a lot in school for looking and sounding “girly” – but it suited his relatively slim build, and I personally liked it. Today he sported a plain white T-shirt and casual khaki shorts in his usual practical style, the only accessory a chain necklace that disappeared beneath the shirt. He looked me up and down, just the same as I was doing with him, and his gentle smile broadened.
“You haven’t changed at all,” he said.
“Your hair!” I replied.
He laughed softly. “Do you like it?”
“I do! I love it.”
“Here, let me help you with your bags,” he said. He took my duffel from me before I could protest, and went to open the trunk of the car. I began to follow him, but stopped as an unfamiliar young man opened the passenger’s side door.
Like Tadashi, the man’s appearance didn’t scream flashiness or wealth. He wore tan cargo shorts and a light gray shirt that was easy on the eyes. He looked about our same age, except for the fact that he was bigger, taller, and more muscular than the both of us. But he didn’t come off as a rough delinquent, either. He didn’t quite share the gentleness that Tadashi exuded, but he seemed relatively calm and reserved. His black hair was also slightly longer than typically expected of a guy, coming down to just below his shoulders. I thought that he seemed like a pretty nice person – that is, until I noticed the look in his eyes.
It wasn’t particularly angry or threatening. It was just, for lack of a better word, a little wild. He looked like he was on the edge of doing something crazy, though I couldn’t tell what. Over the course of the summer, I would learn to spot this look from afar and generally steer clear of him at these times. For now, I just uncomfortably met his gaze.
He flashed a quick friendly smile, came over, and threw his arms around me just like Tadashi had. This hug startled me even more than the first, being that it was from a stranger. I stood with stiff alarm and didn’t really return the embrace. I knew it was rude, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
He didn’t seem to mind so much. He pulled back, gave me space, and introduced himself in an even voice that was deeper-pitched than Tadashi’s. “I’m Katsumi Nakajima. Tama and I met in high school.”
Tama… I almost laughed. I had never given Tadashi a nickname, even though he had given me mine.
“Nice to meet you, I’m Cheng-han Hsieh. I met Tadashi in… I don’t know, fourth grade maybe. But we weren’t close until sixth.”
“Yeah, he’s talked about you,” Katsumi said. “So, a freelance writer, huh?”
I nodded. “Just little articles for magazines and blogs and stuff. Nothing much, but I’m pretty low-maintenance in terms of living costs, and I like the work. What about you?”
“We make music.”
“Oh, the two of you together?” I looked over at Tadashi, who was busy making space in the apparently packed trunk for my bags. It occurred to me that even on our lengthy call the day before, I’d never asked Tadashi about his current job.
“The two of us,” Katsumi confirmed. “And some others, but mostly the two of us. We play at schools and restaurants mostly.”
I’d never paid much attention to the live bands at restaurants. I asked with genuine interest, “What instrument do you play?”
He squinted a little, as though it was a difficult question. “Usually we both play guitar and sing. We’re gonna be making some new music this summer. It’s easier out in the countryside. Anyway, you should get in the car. The drive is some three hours.”
Katsumi took my laptop case and gave it to Tadashi, who somehow found a way to slide it into the trunk. We all gathered into the car, I in the backseat, and so the journey began.
Tadashi drove a little faster than I normally would, but he paid a lot of attention to the road and seemed to be a safe driver, so I allowed myself to relax in the back. I looked around and took note that the car was so clean and empty that it looked almost brand-new. Well, I decided, that part of Tadashi clearly hasn’t changed. He took care of his possessions and treated them with respect, and I’d always kind of admired that about him.
Tadashi glanced at me in the rearview mirror. “Do you need anything to eat or drink?”
“No, thank you, I’m good. I just had breakfast an hour ago.”
“We’ll stop for lunch in a couple hours then, is that okay?”
Katsumi stared out his side window at the numerous apartments and small shops that filled this section of the city. “Hey, let’s put on some music,” he said.
Tadashi glanced at me again with his usual consideration. “What kind of music do you listen to now, Chas?”
“Oh, to be honest, I haven’t been listening to anything recently.”
He grinned, looking at Katsumi briefly. “We used to listen to rock all the time. Anyway, turn on the radio and just pick something.”
“Do you guys have a CD?” I asked hopefully. “I’ve never really heard Tadashi sing…”
We all laughed. Katsumi turned around to look at me. “We only do digital releases and live performance,” he explained. “Don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to hear him sing this summer.”
He turned on the radio at a low volume and started switching through channels. After a minute or two he settled on one that was playing what sounded like rock ballads. I couldn’t identify the band or the singer, but the music wasn’t bad. We all sat in silence for a few minutes, listening to the song.
“He growls too much,” Katsumi said towards the end.
“Mm.” Tadashi made a slightly fast turn, apologized, and then said, “Growling has its place, but I really think he overdoes it.”
“He does have a good range, though. But that bass track…”
Sitting silently in the back, I was a little embarrassed that I couldn’t add anything to their discussion of the song. Then I wondered: why am I embarrassed? I’m not a musician. There’s nothing bad about me not being able to talk about the unfortunately overbearing bass track or whatever. I’d never really paid attention to each individual layer of the songs I heard on the radio. I just took it in as a whole and thought it was either good or bad, and that was that.
The next song was, as expected, a new band and a new singer, but the style was more or less the same. Katsumi didn’t seem to like it very much. He looked at me again and struck up a conversation.
“What kind of articles do you write?”
“Just stuff on sports and the general entertainment industry. Usually just summaries of the latest news, and sometimes my opinions as well. And I’ll do interviews.”
“Have you gotten to interview anybody cool?”
“Nobody hugely popular, but I’ve met some interesting people.”
I thought about it for a minute. “Well, there’s this soccer kid obsessed with building giant sand castles…”