I was eating breakfast alone the next morning when the call came.
Pulling my phone out of my pocket, I stared at the caller ID for a second. Katsumi Nakajima…
Weird, I thought. By the time I had woken up, the house had been empty. The pair often went out for walks or errands in the early mornings, so their absence alone wasn’t a surprise – but it was rare for them to call while they were away, and it was most unlike Katsumi to call me. I wondered if our talk the day before had anything to do with it.
Picking up, I drew out a slightly hesitant but unsuspecting, “Hello?”
“Tadashi’s in the hospital,” he said. His voice was charged and hoarse.
I was shocked still. “What?”
“The hospital in the city. Come now.”
“Wait, Katsumi, what happened?”
“We were just out for a walk earlier, kind of headed in toward town, and all of a sudden he said he couldn’t see anything anymore. He said his head really hurt, and then he collapsed and passed out. And I called the local doctor and she said I should take him to the hospital, so she drove to pick us up and now we’re at the hospital but he still isn’t waking up and they’re trying to figure out what’s wrong with him and you should come right now. Take my car.”
Before I could respond, he abruptly hung up.
I stood there for a minute with the phone in my hand, shocked and flustered. Tadashi… what?
Without really thinking about any of it, I left the remains of my breakfast on the table, grabbed my wallet and a jacket, and went into the garage. Take my car, he’d said. Tadashi’s keys were all hooked onto his wallet, so he always had them even if he wasn’t driving. Katsumi, simply because he drove less, just kept his car key at home. I found the key, got into the car, and started the engine.
The drive in to the city would take over an hour.
After much too long spent navigating city traffic and hospital guest policies, I finally reached my housemates in a hospital room on the third floor. When I walked in, Katsumi was hollering at a frustrated-looking nurse – and Tadashi was in the bed, still out cold.
Staring at him laying there like that, I vividly remembered a scene from eighth grade: Tadashi passed out in the bed of the school infirmary, bruised and bloodied from an unusually vicious bully. The school nurse had called me in, knowing we were friends, and asked me to sit there and keep him company because his parents would not come take him home. That situation had occurred many times, sometimes with the roles reversed, and now, the visual comparisons chilled me. But this time there were no bruises, no blood, no bullies – and this time, there was Katsumi.
Katsumi stopped yelling as soon as he noticed me enter the room. He stared at me for a moment, and his eyes, which had been full-blown wild before, seemed to calm. The nurse seized on this moment to make her escape.
“You came,” he said slowly.
“Of course I came,” I answered. “He’s my friend, too.”
“They don’t know what’s wrong with him,” he said. “Still waiting on some more test results, but basically they don’t know. They said I should just wait and watch and see if he wakes up.”
I nodded silently. There was nothing meaningful I could say to that.
He stared at me some more. “Chas… how do you do it?”
“You don’t… show your emotions. Aren’t you scared?”
He looked like he was about to cry. I swallowed hard and met his gaze.
“Of course I’m scared, Katsu. But… I’ve been here before. Seeing Tadashi unconscious in a hospital bed isn’t new to me.”
“It’s not new to me, either.”
“Then… I don’t know.”
He nodded and looked away. I knew it was not the answer he had wanted – it really wasn’t an answer at all – but I couldn’t find the words.
I watched Tadashi breathing for a while and then spent some time wandering around the room. The patient information charted on the big whiteboard on the wall caught my eye – Katsumi was listed as his next-of-kin. Something in that struck me, hard. I went to sit next to Katsumi on the little sofa in the corner.
“Back in junior high,” I said. “It was just like this.”
“It was high school for me,” he said.
“Did he get bullied a lot then, too?”
“Not as much, I don’t think. Over school breaks his parents made him take self-defense classes. He really learned to fight, and most of the time people didn’t bother with him anymore. I thought the classes were stupid – putting the responsibility and the blame on the wrong person, teaching them violence, none of it is actually fixing the problem. It just fixed it for Tama… sometimes.”
“Sometimes. Most of the time it was me ending up in the nurse’s office. People didn’t like Tadashi for his hair, for his looks. They didn’t like me because my parents were rich arrogant hotshots – and also because I got in their way whenever they were trying to be mean to Tama. They figured out that of the two of us, I was the easier target, because it was so easy for them to make me angry. Tama is cool and calculated. He’s smart, and he hates violence. But it was the simplest thing in the world for those bullies to knock me off my center.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“For what?” He closed his eyes, thinking for a while. “I just thought it was so ridiculous… beating up another human being, and for what? Because of his hair? Because of his parents? After I met Tama, I stopped cutting my hair. I came back to school the next year with my hair down to my shoulders, and before long we both ended up in the hospital with broken ribs. They could’ve killed us – over our hair. I couldn’t comprehend it. I still can’t.”
I nodded. “Your teachers never did anything?”
“Most of them turned a blind eye. Some of them blamed us for what was going on. Others just couldn’t be bothered.”
“And your parents.”
Katsumi looked at me. “Like I said… couldn’t be bothered.”
For a long time after that we just watched Tadashi sleeping. There was a strange feeling in the air – all the memories we had just brought back to life, mixing together with everything new. Part of me wanted to write, but I knew I couldn’t.
After all, if I couldn’t find the words to talk properly with Katsumi, I knew I’d never be able to find the words to talk to myself.