“Repeat after me,” said Ms. Fujita, the homeroom teacher. “Women are from Venus, men are from Hell.”
“Women are from Venus, men are from Hell,” the class echoed, including Masao despite being a boy. The only one in this junior high school.
“Heavenly.” Ms. Fujita adjusted her black, thick square glasses. “Never forget that motto, girls, because this school was founded on it. Understood?”
“Understood,” Masao and the class repeated.
“Good, goodbye girls — also remember, next Monday you have to bring your essay: ‘My realistic dream.’” Ms. Fujita ambled across the classroom and out the open door.
“Lunchtime,” someone said.
“Lunchtime!” the rest roared.
Masao fished his bento box from under his desk and set aside the lid. Today was his favorite food: sausages shaped like octopuses, carrots cut like stars, and rice balls rolled to look like pandas.
“Great,” said a raspy voice, “you brought my favorite today.”
Oh, no. Fukada.
Pulling back the sleeve of her blouse, she picked up Masao chopsticks and popped a sausage into her mouth. “Delicious octopus.” She engulfed another one — and another and another until there was none left.
He had no right to cry. After all, he was the one who chose the hard-boiled environment of this man-hating school.
“I bet the rest is tasty too.” Fukada rolled up her other sleeve and started devouring the star carrots. Finished, she ravaged the panda rice balls. Covering her mouth, she mumbled, “Sorry, I should’ve left you some.”
“Hey, hey!” Nanase sprang at Fukada and seized her by the arms. “That’s bullying, you know.”
“Look who’s here. The man-lover.” She yanked Nanase’s hands away. “Look, men are bullshit, so they deserve to be bullied.”
“At least respect Masao’s mother,” Nanase yelled. “She prepared that lunch box for her son.”
“Why is she doing that, anyway?” Fukada remarked. “She’s not his slave. The prick should learn how to cook. Or he shouldn’t make food because he’s a man?”
Nanase gritted her protruding canines. “You are — ”
“Gone. Bye-bye.” Fukada glided to the desk in the middle of the classroom, swaying her tight pigtails.
Nanase fetched her bento, her chair, and sat across from Masao. With her chopsticks, she shoveled half of her rice, cherry tomatoes, fried salmon, and octopus sausages into Masao’s lunch box.
“D-d-don’t do that,” he stuttered. “You’ll get in trouble again.”
“That is correct.” Ms. Fujita stepped beside Nanase. She must’ve come back because of the racket they were making. “How many times do I have to tell you, Ms. Nakamura, you shouldn’t side with the enemy. Plus, if you keep saving him, he will never get the punishment he deserves. He will never pay for Adam’s original sin.”
“But Fukada always steals his food.” Nanase rose and lifted Masao as if he were a puppet. “He’s become so thin. Please look.”
Ms. Fujita cocked her head, her ponytail swinging on one side like a pendulum. “Speaking of looks, didn’t I tell you, Ms. Nakamura, to cut or tie your hair? Or maybe you want to look sensual for men?”
“But I like it long. And it only reaches my shoulders.”
“Take this as a final warning.” Arms folded, Ms. Fujita marched straight out of the door.
Masao and Nanase ate, letting the noise of the girls swallow their silence.
“Nanase,” Masao said, “maybe you should tie your hair?”
She averted her annoyed eyes. “You like ponytails?”
“I like any hairstyle. I just don’t want you to have problems with Ms. Fujita.”
“Whatever.” Nanase’s arms tangled around each other like two snakes. “Mind your own business.”
“I can’t. You’re always getting into trouble. Especially because of me. Maybe you should stop sticking with me?”
Nanase slammed down her chopsticks and lifted Masao by his collar, possible since she was two centimeters taller than him. “Shut up. I’ll never leave you alone, you got it?”
“O-o-okay,” Masao stammered.
“The little dimwit is right. He’s a big problem.” Funae leaned on Masao’s desk with a bottle of Coke. “And it’s his fault. He’s the one who decided to join this anti-boys school. How’s that even possible, I wonder.”
“The school was looking for a boy,” Masao explained between gasps of air, “so you guys — I mean, you girls could experience the vileness of men.”
“That’s evil.” Nanase released Masao and returned to her chair.
“Maybe it is,” Funae said, “but do you think he came here for a pure reason?”
Nanase scowled. “What are you getting at?”
Funae curled up her colorless lips. “This pig came to this school to be surrounded by girls. He’s a pervert.”
“So what?” Nanase picked a glossy cherry tomato and vacuumed it into her mouth. “He’s a boy. He likes girls. And who knows, maybe a girl will like him back one day.”
Funae chuckled. “Why are you defending this good-for-nothing? He’s making you look like the bad girl in the class.”
“He has his good qualities …” Nanase said. “He can love people unconditionally and has never hated anyone.”
“That doesn’t make him good, just dim-witted.”
“Stop talking bad about Masao!” Nanase shouted.
Drowning in laughter, Funae sauntered to the desk next to the window.
Nanase pushed her lunch box to the side and rested her head on her crossed arms. A minute later, she said, “Hey, Masao … is it true what Funae said? That you came to this school to be around girls?”
Masao looked at his desk, but failed to hide his blush. “Actually, to be around one girl.”
Nanase raised her face, her guard lowered. “Is that person m — ?”
“Someone I’ve loved since I was in elementary school,” he interrupted.
So Masao loved a girl from his ex-elementary school — and it couldn’t be Nanase since she’d attended another one. She doubled over, clutching her chest. Why did it hurt so much? Had she swallowed her rice too fast, or had it been too hot?
No, it was because of Masao. Why, why, why? She’d been there for him ever since they became neighbors. Wasn’t he grateful to her? Maybe he didn’t see her as a girl or didn’t like her tomboyish personality. Even then, he wasn’t allowed to deny her feelings for him.
This is wrong, wrong, wrong.
“Sorry?” Masao asked, his chopsticks tucked between his lips. “Did you say something?”
“Ms. Fujita’s right.” Nanase banged her hands on the desk. “Men are from Hell!”
Masao widened his puppy eyes. “Nanase …”
Before he could utter another word, she raced out of the classroom and locked herself inside a stall in the girls’ toilet. No doubt. Men didn’t appreciate those who regarded them as precious. They only thought about themselves. If they could think at all.
“No, what am I thinking?” Nanase whispered to herself. All Masao did wrong was to be in love with someone else. The bad girl was Nanase. She only stood up for Masao because she’d fallen for him, not because she disapproved of his unfair treatment. Had it been another boy, she’d left him alone in Hell.
Right, Nanase had to make up for her wrongdoings. She had to do it for herself. And maybe for that jerk Masao.
With those thoughts still dancing in her head, she took out her iPhone from her blazer and texted Masao. Meet me at the school gate after class.
Ten minutes passed before he replied. You sure you’re not going to lift me by my collar?
Just do it!
O-o-okay. That Masao. He could even stutter while typing.
As instructed, he showed up at the school gate, under the shade of the cherry blossom trees. Nanase often brought Masao here so she could have one-sided romance.
“Nanase — ” He bowed, showing his wavy hair. “Sorry for upsetting you.”
She gawked at him. “You know why I was angry?”
He gave a short nod. “Because I didn’t eat the salmon you gave me.”
Nanase groaned. “Yes, yes. Forget about that. I wanted to talk about the girl you like. I decided to help you.”
“The girl I like?” Masao parroted.
“That’s right. Your ex-elementary school classmate.”
He hunted for an invisible object on the ground. “I see … but why do you want to do this for me?”
“You’re gutless and pathetic.” Nanase smacked Masao on the back. “You need my assistance.”
Stroking his stung skin, Masao said, “Actually, you can’t help me. Because — ”
“Impossible is nothing!”
Masao rubbed his curly hair. “Okay, thank you. You’re the best.”
Nanase sighed. Second best.
“So, do you have a plan?” he inquired.
She tapped her chin. “The simpler, the better. I’ll tell the girl that you have something to tell her. You show up and confess to her.”
“We can’t do the first part because — ”
“Tell me about her before I kick your butt.”
“O-okay.” Masao searched his imaginary item again. “Her name is — Furui. She should be in the Womansplaining Club now. She’s always there on Wednesdays after class. Alone.”
Nanase frowned, repulsed by how much attention Masao gave to the girl. However, she wouldn’t be disgusted if he acted the same way with her.
Without wasting another second, Nanase and Masao went back into the school, then to the door with the wooden plate, Womansplaining Club. Nanase knocked. A few fleeting minutes later, a girl with a bob cut opened the door. No wonder he fancied her; she was small-scale and baby-faced. As opposed to Nanase, who was high-reaching and rough-featured.
“You’re here to join my club?” The girl shot her a bright smile, made brighter by her milk-white skin.
“No, but I know a boy who’d like to.” Nanase gestured to her side with her hands.
Furui blinked. “The Invisible Man?”
Nanase scanned her surroundings, finally spotting strands of coiled hair behind a locker. “Excuse me for a minute.” She sprinted to Masao and yanked him by his collar. “Listen, I know you’re traumatized by women, but this Furui girl looks innocent and inoffensive.”
Between coughs, Masao said, “I’ll go if you let me breathe.”
“Deal.” Nanase put him down. “And hurry up before the mood I set cools down.”
With a half nod, Masao slouched his way to the Womansplaining Club. Nanase remained behind the locker, to leave those two alone — in other words, to eavesdrop.
“Uh, F-f-furui,” Masao began, “D-do you remember me?”
She tilted her head slightly. Straightened it to its original position, she said, “Yes, you’re Morita. I didn’t expect to find you in an anti-boys high school.”
“T-the truth is — ” Masao glanced at Nanase, who gave him her I’ll-kick-your-balls-if-you don’t-play-it-well glare. “I-I entered here because of y-you.”
“Because of me?” Furui blinked her cat eyes.
“Y-yes, because I’ve liked you f-f-f-for — ” A droplet of spit catapulted from Masao’s mouth and landed right on her left cheek.
A long silence descended. Longer than Nanase — and surely Masao — had ever experienced. She could hear the passing seconds. Heartbeats pounding in the air.
“Sexual harassment!” Furui wiping Masao’s saliva from her face. “Somebody help me!”
Before Nanase could move a finger, a herd of girls stamped toward Masao and fenced him in. A few seconds later, Ms. Fujida appeared and escorted him and Furui away. Probably the former to the teacher’s office and the latter to the infirmary.
Unbelievable. Nanase darted to the crowd, shouting “Wait, wait, I saw everything. Masao just confessed his feelings to Furui. He didn’t even touch a hair of hers.”
“Look, man-lover.” Fukada leaned to Nanase until they almost kissed. “Sexual harassment is sexual harassment. It’s never justified.”
“Stop calling me man-lover.” Nanase clenched her teeth and fists. “I don’t love a man. I love Masao.”
Everyone wowed, wows that subsided into whispers.
“That’s why you’re defending him.” Fukada twisted her dull lips. “Even though he’s a sex offender.”
“And a coward,” another girl said.
“And a bastard.”
“And a retard.”
“Listen, you all.” Nanase muttered, drowned in tears of rage. “Masao isn’t from Hell. You’re making his life a hell. I’ve seen him running to the accessible toilet so no one would see him cry. I’ve seen him pretend he’s not hungry after you stole his food. I’ve seen him make up ridiculous excuses because he was afraid to come to school. And what was his crime? Wanting to be close to the girl he loves? He should hate you, but he doesn’t. But I do. I hate every single one of you.”
Without waiting for their reaction, Nanase trotted to the teachers’ office. Inside, she found Ms. Fujita, sitting behind her desk in the middle of the room.
“Where’s Masao?” Nanase asked, wheezing.
“He ran away.” She flicked up her glasses, grinning. “After I told him that he would be suspended for four days. And that I would tell his parents that he sexually abused one of his female classmates.”
“He didn’t — damn.” Resolved to explain this later, Nanase stormed out of the office and scoured the empty hallways, shouting Masao’s name. No boy. No reply.
She had to think, think, think. Where could that boy be? Too bad she couldn’t read his thoughts.
But she could read his messages.
Nanase dug out her iPhone. As she’d expected, Masao had sent her a text.
Thank you, Nanase. For giving me advice when I was lost, company when I was alone, octopus sausages when I was hungry. But most of all, for giving me your friendship. No, it was more than that. I could live without friends, but I couldn’t live without you. I could only wake up in the morning because I thought, This is going to be a good day, because Nanase will be in it.
Sorry, Nanase. For having given you anything but trouble.
Nanase read Masao’s words over and over. Were her eyes sore because of the screen’s light or her eyes’ tears?
Wait a minute, why did he write everything in the past tense?
With his hands and back pressed against the rooftop’s railing, Masao admired Tokyo’s skyscraper-bordered skyline, set on fire by the sunset. A sunset like many others he’d witnessed. Did they mark the end of the day or the beginning of the night?
Similarly, would his death be the end of his life or the beginning of his afterlife? He had no idea. All he knew was that, after he died, people’s problems would perish. Furui wouldn’t have to worry about having a pervert at school. Mom and Dad wouldn’t have to be the parents of a sexual harasser. Ms. Fujita wouldn’t have to deal with a troublemaker.
And Nanase — she wouldn’t have to give him half her lunch, or defend him when he was bullied, or be ostracized by the girls for being his friend. If he died, she’d be free to have any life she wanted.
Nanase. If only he could hear her deep but feminine voice once more. That was his last wish. One that would never —
“Hey, hey, hey,” said a breeze.
“What are you doing?” she shouted behind him, her voice distorted by the wind.
“My last task,” Masao said, without spinning around.
“You, you, you can’t do it.” Nanase’s voice became closer and closer. “Suicide is a sin. You won’t go to Heaven!”
“That’s okay. I’m from Hell, anyway.”
“No, no, no,” she said. “You belong to Earth. Please come back to the rooftop’s floor.”
Masao loosened his grip on the railing. “If I stay on this planet, I’ll only cause suffering. To my family and women and — ”
“And to me! Listen, I told you I’d never leave you alone. You have to do the same for me. Because I need you just as much as you need me. Maybe even more.”
He peered over his shoulder. “You do?”
Nanase nodded, messing up even more her wind-tousled, shoulder-length hair. “So you can’t die. If you die, I’ll kill you. I’ll never forgive you.”
Heaving out a sigh, Masao crawled up to the inner side of the railing. He could die alone, but he couldn’t let Nanase live alone. After all, she didn’t have another friend. Someone she could lift by the collar. Someone she —
She shoved him to the floor and, with both of them sideways, hugged the breath out of him. Whoa. He would’ve had more chances of surviving if he’d jumped off the building.
“You moron.” Nanase softened her embrace to wipe her deluged eyes. “You almost made me have the biggest regret of my life.”
“Not getting back the CD you lent me?” Masao asked.
She shook her head, sighing. “Never having told you that I love you. That you’re the only boy I’ve liked in this school.”
“But I’m the only boy in this school.”
“Take me seriously.” Nanase’s jaw dropped. “Wait, why aren’t you surprised by my declaration of love?”
“Sometimes I understand your feelings better than my own. Maybe because you don’t hide them as I do.” He glued his eyes to the floor. “So, I knew all along, but I was too shy to tell you that I knew. In the same way, I was too shy to tell you that I had feelings for you too.”
“What, what, what?” Nanase prattled. “What about this Furui girl?”
“First, why did you think I was talking about another person in the beginning?”
“You said you loved someone from your elementary school.”
“I said since elementary school.”
Nanase’s mouth hung even wider. “Then why … Furui — ?”
“I tried to explain that the girl I loved was you, but you didn’t let me. Then I got caught up in your plan and couldn’t get out of it. That’s when I remembered this ex-elementary school classmate, who I saw going into the Womansplaining Club every Wednesday. The lie flew out of control and — you know the rest.”
“You moron.” Nanase bawled on Masao’s chest, both of them still hugging on the floor. But he didn’t worry. He knew that she was happy and that he’d have a good life, because Nanase would always be in it.
“I hope you didn’t forget your assignment,” Ms. Fujita said, pacing back and forth in front of the classroom. “Especially you, Mr. Man.” She pointed at Masao with her metal ruler. “Come here to read your ‘My Realistic Dream’ essay.”
With a red-faced nod, he tiptoed to the lectern with his A-4 paper. He stood before the sea of girls, watching, yawning, and whispering with each other in their seats. Finally, his eyes crossed paths Nanase’s, who mouthed a silent, Go guy!
Masao beamed, his gaze still aligned with hers. “My realistic dream is to be an activist. One who fights for women’s rights.”