On our first official night of being college students, the head of our residence hall suggested that we play a game so we could get to know our roommates better. The premise of the game was simple – players would take turns drawing randomly from a stack of cards, and then each of the roommates would talk about the topic on the card as it related to their own lives. We went through the green-colored deck quickly – it was all of the relatively simple ones, like ethnicity and age – and when Taiga and Isabella went on to the orange deck I stopped playing. I didn’t see the point of sharing so much about myself with these two strangers – I had no intention of really becoming friends with them. I lit up a cigarette and went to sit alone under the window. Taiga looked after me wonderingly; Isabella shrugged, smiled, shuffled the orange cards and scattered them on the table.
“You pick first,” she said to Taiga. “I’m going to go get a drink.”
She went out to the pantry – the dorms in this hall were arranged suite-style around a large bathroom, living space, and kitchen – and a few minutes later came back with a steaming mug of hot chocolate. The scent was dark and sweet. I sat there smoking and wondering what hot chocolate tasted like. I’d never had it once in my life.
Taiga said, “The rulebook says these are more personal, so we have to come to some sort of agreement as to how we’re going to answer them.”
“Just always tell the truth,” Isabella said. “But you can decline to answer if it’s too hard.”
“Fine by me.” He flipped over the card he had chosen and read it aloud – maybe for my benefit. “Languages you speak, how much, and how fluent. Well, that’s not bad.”
Isabella laughed. “It’s a good starter, I guess. I’m fluent in English, and I can understand some bits of Spanish, but I can’t really speak it.”
“A lot of second-generation immigrants are like that, I think,” Taiga said. “I’m fluent in English and maybe half fluent in Japanese.”
“Your name is in Japanese, isn’t it?” Isabella asked. “Taiga Tatekawa. It sounds so interesting.”
I glanced over at them – Taiga was blushing a little. I would later recognize that he always became embarrassed when the topic of conversation so clearly turned upon himself. “I can write it for you, if you want. In Japanese.”
“Crazy,” Isabella said. “Show me!”
He got out a black pen and traced the four kanji characters of his name onto a piece of notebook paper, his handwriting neat and deliberate. Isabella marveled. I was mildly interested to see what they looked like, but I didn’t want to seem as though I wanted to rejoin the game, so I just stayed by the window and puffed. Taiga pointed to what he’d written and said, “In Japanese the family name comes first, so these two are Tatekawa and the two after them are Taiga.” I almost instinctively rolled my eyes, but after a moment I realized with great surprise that he wasn’t lecturing, the way most people do – he was just stating a fact that he thought Isabella would genuinely find interesting.
She did, replying, “That’s really neat. Do they have a meaning?”
Taiga smiled a little. “Yeah, I guess so. My family name is made up of the characters for to stand and river, and my personal name is made up of the characters for big and grace. It’s a bit unusual for a name – Taiga, I mean. Especially the way mine is written. But I kind of like it like that.”
“My name’s not that interesting,” Isabella said with deep regret.
“Doesn’t Garcia mean warrior?”
She shrugged. “No, I meant that it’s not unique. How many people do you know that have the names Isabella or Garcia?”
Taiga thought about it for a minute. “It’s true that your names are very common, but I think that the ubiquity of it just provides a new avenue for making yourself unique. You can make your name mean whatever you want it to mean. It’s more personal, in a way. Am I making any sense?”
I didn’t get it, but Isabella did. “Yeah,” she said, “I think I understand what you mean. That’s cool, I’ve never thought about it that way. Thanks!”
Taiga gave her one of his characteristic slow smiles. “Your turn, then.”
I went out to get a beer and missed a few rounds. When I got back, the two of them were deep in thought, sitting across from each other in almost comedic concentration. I stared at them, trying hard not to laugh as I shut the door behind me. “What are you doing?”
Taiga showed me the card he’d just drawn. Life philosophy, it said.
I almost choked. What a stupid game, I thought. Who the hell has a life philosophy in this day and age? I went back to my spot under the window feeling glad that I had stopped playing.
“Well, I guess it means what drives your actions in everyday life, right?” Taiga said. “If that’s the case, I think for me… I try to always care for the people around me, and I want to always do my best no matter the situation. Isshoukenmei, as they say.”
“That’s a good one,” Isabella responded. She was spooning out the last of her hot chocolate, savoring the final drops. “I guess for me, I just want to always stand up for the values that I believe in.”
“Takes a warrior to do that,” Taiga said. She smiled back at him appreciatively.
The next card they chose was another simple one: left- or right-handed. Isabella said she was right-handed; Taiga explained that he’s right-hand dominant for sports, but left-hand dominant for eating and writing. That was really interesting to me, even though I didn’t say it – I didn’t know those kinds of people exist. Then they picked a card about philosophy again, and I listened to Taiga talk about existentialism and how most people think it’s completely depressing when it’s actually not. What a character, I thought. As the night went on, my roommates were coming off as more and more strange to me.
“Yeah, existentialism is believing that your life is inherently meaningless,” Taiga was saying, “but it’s also believing that you can create your own meaning. You decide what’s important to you, you take control of your own life. Even through all the pain and suffering, you decide to make yourself happy. It’s really empowering, when you think about it.”
“I didn’t know that,” Isabella said. “So it’s like giving death the middle finger.”
Taiga flushed. “In a way, I guess.”
Isabella’s next card was about cooking, diet, food allergies, and food preferences. She laughed as soon as she read it, glancing quickly up at Taiga. “This is definitely for me. I love cooking, I’m allergic to coconut, and I’m pescatarian – I don’t eat land-based meat, and I don’t cook it either.”
“Why?” Taiga asked. The question wasn’t out of arrogance or ignorance; he looked at her evenly, legitimately interested to know what her diet meant to her.
She was abnormally quiet for a while, getting her thoughts in order, and Taiga waited patiently. Finally she said, “Three main reasons: environmental sustainability, morality, and human health.” She paused a moment then, as if expecting judgment, but Taiga only smiled at her. Isabella grinned back and continued on, “Most people think that vegans, vegetarians, and pescatarians change their diet specifically for one reason, but I have three that are equally important for me.”
“Since when have you been pescatarian?” he asked.
“Couple years back. I had to adjust my cooking style. It was hard at the beginning, but I got used to it.”
“Did you ever crave meat?”
“Hardly! And that was kind of surprising for me too, because most of my favorite foods used to have meat in them, so I thought I would miss it a lot. But it actually turned out to be really easy. I don’t think land-based meat is very natural to the human diet, but who knows?”
Taiga nodded. “So why are you pescatarian and not vegetarian?”
She thought for a minute, said deliberately, “If you think about it, most human societies and cultures are traditionally pescatarian. The vast majority of the world subsists primarily on rice, fish, and local greens. Plus, a lot of vegans and vegetarians have to take dietary supplements, or else they have to be very careful planning their meals so as not to miss the vitamins and minerals necessary for human health. So I just think being pescatarian is more natural. Just my opinion.”
I lit up another cigarette and listened to them talk. I’d never considered going off meat before; I always just ate whatever I felt like eating. I watched as Isabella laid out her thoughts and opinions with honest care, tracing how she stood up for her values every day, and a part of me admired her. Another part of me found it pointless and stupid.
Their last card of the night was about romance – current relationships, interests, preference, and so on. Taiga looked like he was going to decline to answer. Isabella saw this and went first, saying slowly, “I have a boyfriend back at home, but I don’t think long-distance is going to work out for us, to be honest.”
“Do you like him a lot?” Taiga asked.
She nodded. “Yeah, but, well, you know. He didn’t want me to go to college. He wanted to settle down together straight out of high school and have a family. So I think he doesn’t like me so much now because it’s as though I chose college over him.”
“It’s your life,” Taiga said. He gave her an encouraging smile. “If he really loves you, he’ll wait.”
Isabella grinned. “Thanks.”
“Me… well, let’s just say I’ve never had a girlfriend. I’m not in a relationship right now, and I’m not actively looking for anyone.” As he said this he looked at the floor and seemed to be choosing his words very carefully. “If something’s gonna happen, I want it to happen naturally, and when it does I want to take it slow. I don’t want to rush into a relationship not knowing who the other person really is – I think there needs to be real respect and care between two people before a relationship can really work. Anyway, if I start to love someone and they love me back, I’d be willing to just try it and see where it goes.”
His choice of words was somehow interesting to me. From my perch at the window I studied Taiga’s downcast face and wondered if he was gay. I know it sounds bad to say it, but I’d never thought very highly of gay people. I guess my family had always been pretty conservative. Big laugh, because I have a boyfriend right now at the time I’m writing this… well, that just shows you how much I’ve changed.
See, to put it simply, Taiga and Isabella showed me new ways to live. They opened up my world, expanded it from the little plot of land I was standing on to include the entire universe. Maybe that’s kind of sappy, but it’s true. I really do mean it. Since Taiga died I’ve changed my name, changed my hair, tried out being vegan, started reading more books, and gotten a boyfriend – can’t you see how crazy that is?
I mean, the craziest part is that I’m still alive. Taiga made sure of that.