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“Server,” by Bryan Washington

Jun 27, 2023

By Bryan Washington

Halfway across the field, I spot Vic leaping from boulder to boulder, rising higher and higher, taking flight across the map. He glides between hills. Dips into villages. Swoops entirely too high, until I can hardly make out his pixels, before descending so fast that my entire screen lags—and then he’s zooming beside me, clipping my fucking shoulder.

Despite everything, after all this time, his in-game avatar looks just like him: not too tall, but lanky. He’s still got twists, dyed at the tips. Vic’s wearing all black, with a coat that’s somehow even darker, and he has two silver wings, which are the only additions to the avatar I knew.

He ignores me jogging beside him. My avatar’s nearly doubled over from the exertion.

But it hardly matters.

There won’t be any surprises, since nobody uses this server anymore.

It was empty when I logged in just after midnight. I’ve been off it for years, because I stopped after Vic died, four years ago.

But now he’s here.

Right in front of me.

Plain as fucking day.

So I follow him.

I’m too low-level to go airborne like Vic, so I wheeze underneath him as the digital clouds darken. And, predictably, it isn’t long before a dragon materializes above us, something powerful enough to blow me away with a glance.

But Vic simply waves his hand.

The dragon bursts into flames.

When another pair of dragons appear, Vic flicks his wrists two more times. They both pop like firecrackers, fizzling on their way down.

If I played this shit every hour of every day for ten years, I still wouldn’t have that kind of power.

You could have it tomorrow, Vic says.

What, I say.

You’re just lazy, Vic says. Still. After all this time.

He floats until he’s directly above me, boots barely grazing my head.

For a second, I think he’s going to obliterate me. It would be so easy.

But Vic just gets really close, enough to make me flinch, until our noses touch.

And then he disappears.

A few hours later, even though it’s before the morning rush, the local line from Namba is entirely packed. Somehow I make it to work before the last of my students. The rest of them are already fucking around on their phones.

Hello hello, I say, in English.

Hello hello, they mirror back.

Today, we’re talking about introductions, I say. In English, when you meet someone for the first time, you can lead with—

Who cares, Asa says, in Japanese.

Can we just take naps today, Shota says, yawning.

They can’t be bothered. I gawk at them. But most of the students wear the same expression, and I honestly don’t really blame them.

I work at a prep school in Osaka for at-risk students. Whatever the fuck that means. Really, they’re all just recently graduated high schoolers who’ve failed their university entrance exams, and somewhere along the way each of them has been deemed too difficult for any other yobikō. And, instead of juvie, or jail—which is where they’d have gone in the States—the students end up in my class, funded by parents hoping to lob them toward prestige, taking practice test after practice test in hopes of reaching qualifying scores in the new year.

I’ve parachuted into their lives as an obvious fucking foreigner. Probably one of the few Black guys they regularly see IRL. But it’s the same twelve pairs of eyes blinking back at me every week. And, apparently, they’re meant to take my word as gospel.

Let’s see how much vocabulary we cover first, I say.

Why, Yuudai says.

You guys, shut up, Daisuke says. Really. The sooner we start, the sooner we’ll be done.

Not necessarily, Yuudai says.

Yeah, Asa says, it’s not like we’re—

O.K, O.K., I say, in Japanese. How about we start over? What don’t we like about English?

That it doesn’t make any sense, Yuudai says.

And no one actually speaks the way you teach it, Asa says.

That’s every language, I say. They’ve all got their own logic.

Exactly, Ryu says. It’s like you want us to learn every language.

Dudes, I say, I just want you to pass your exams.

That’s not gonna happen, Shota says, slumping onto his desk.

Their previous instructor—a white woman in her thirties—married rich and moved to Nagoya. The white guy before her landed a gig with Google in Tokyo. So the school offered me a yearlong contract, hoping to keep me around—except the year is ending, which means that entrance exams are around the corner.

A.k.a. every student’s chance to swan-dive back into society.

A.k.a. a referendum on whether I keep my job.

Or my visa.

The rainy season has finally ended. But our classroom still sags from the humidity. The students’ shoes squeak against the tile, conducting their own tinny chorus.

Let’s warm up, I say. O.K.? O.K. Basic phrases first. Good afternoon.

Good afternoon, the class parrots.

Great. How are you?

Fuck you, the class says in unison, laughing.

Once our session ends, I ask Shota to hang back.

The other students cackle on their way out the door, leaving the two of us. Shota leans on a table as I pack my chargers and notebooks and pens, shrugging.

You were pretty quiet today, I start, in Japanese.

There wasn’t much to say, Shota says. Everyone else was talking.

Sure. But it helps to chip in sometimes.

Even if it’s nonsense?

The only way to learn a language is by speaking it.

Is that how you did it, Shota asks.

Sure, I say, and I start to say more, but I think better of it, reaching for my backpack instead.

Shota shuffles his feet. He’s nearly as large as I am. When the year started, I didn’t know much about the students beyond what my boss, Ken, told me, but you pick up little things. So I know that Shota’s repeating this year of school. I know his father got into loan trouble. And his mother took care of him before she ended up in the hospital from COVID complications, so Shota lives with his aunt, and even that’s none of my fucking business.

When I asked Ken about the situation, he’d only winced back at me.

You wouldn’t believe what some of these kids have seen. My job was just to get them to the next point in their lives.

But now Shota yawns. I can hear his stomach growling.

Hey, I say, need cash for a snack?

I’m fine, he says.

You sure? It’s on me.

I’ve got food at work.

Work?

Work. Is there anything else?

No, I say, and Shota nods, just barely, before he dips into the hallway, taking care not to slam the door.

All of a sudden, the room feels entirely too fucking small for the task before us. But, before I take off, I look at each desk to make sure no one’s left anything, and on one there’s a piece of paper with an illustration of someone who’s clearly me. Only he’s taller, and skinnier, and a darker shade of brown.

I crumple it up. But then I straighten it out and shove it into my jacket instead.

Back at my apartment, I immediately log in to the server.

My building sits by the Dōtonbori River. It’s owned by this Chinese couple. Whenever I see them, they’re smiling, dressed in sweats and letterman jackets and chains, which makes them cool with me even though the rent’s nearly double what it should be.

But, if I tossed all my shit outside onto the patio, the apartment would almost look pretty cute. Big enough for a coffee table and a futon. When I’d sent a photo to my mom, in Texas, she asked where the rest of it was.

I figure spotting Vic on the server must’ve been a glitch. He never would’ve shared his log-in info. His siblings weren’t gamers. And he hardly spoke to his parents when he was alive. Maybe the game’s parent company sold his information. Or maybe some shitbag coder fucking around with vacant avatars stumbled across his.

But, when my screen finally loads, I see that Vic’s still logged in.

He’s buying bread from a stall in the town’s main square. His hair creeps out from under his tunic’s hood. And when I approach, tugging on my crossbow, Vic doesn’t flinch.

I’m reporting this account, I say.

Hello to you, too, Vic says.

Look, I say, I’m not fucking joking.

I’m sure, Vic says.

This is identity theft.

Did you read that in a book?

The mods will ban you for life, I say. I’ll make fucking sure of it.

I think I can stomach that, Vic says. All things considered.

The map’s weather is dry. Pixelated sand floats past us. The stalls are full of N.P.C.s selling wares, and they’re the same digital residents who’ve occupied this town for a decade. They nod our way, tracking us until we’ve passed. Which hardly feels different from actual life.

Meanwhile, Vic buys ethers, potions, elixirs, and phoenix downs. It’s like he’s got an infinite inventory. I’ve never seen anyone in this game with so much cash to burn.

You should stock up, he says, if you’re coming along. We’ve got a long way to go.

I’m not doing shit with you, I say. I don’t even know who the fuck you are.

Great, Vic says. Then have fun doing whatever it is you’re here to do.

And you still carry those arrows, he says. I already told you they’re fucking useless.

Once we reach the town’s edge, its tents fade into a haze of gray. Sand becomes grass. Dunes fizz into forestry. The screen becomes heavily wooded, and the branches shiver from a digital breeze.

Why the fuck are you doing this, I ask.

I’m looking for something, Vic says. Something important.

In this map?

Here. In this world. And I’m not leaving until I find it.

Vic looks at me. Even the hue of his eyes is the same.

So you can come along, he says, if you think it’ll make a difference. Except it probably won’t.

But who the fuck are you, I say.

I thought I was your friend, Vic says.

It took ages for me to appreciate the tint of Osaka’s sunlight.

My first year in Japan, I lived in Tokyo. The school where I’d been contracted to teach stood just outside Ueno. But, the week I landed, that English program’s owners got caught up in a bank scandal, and since my contract had just been signed I was the first person to be let go.

Which meant I needed a new gig. Immediately. Couldn’t stay in the country otherwise. I’d packed up my life, and spent my savings on the move, and I had no intention of going back to America. So I worked for a few months washing dishes at a ramen chain, and another few months stacking boxes at a grocery store. Many of my colleagues were Japanese, but a lot of them weren’t. They were from Bangkok and Mumbai and Lagos and Guadalajara. Some of them spoke a little English, and others spoke a little Japanese, but none of us were fluent in one another’s languages.

I found a one-bedroom apartment with two Malaysian guys and a Dutch woman in Shin-Ōkubo. We split everything we earned on konbini dinners and rent and Wi-Fi. None of us knew how to cook. We used apps to communicate. But this life still felt more manageable than where I was coming from. I knew where the margins were. I could expand a little bit inside them.

Eventually, I caught a break: a cram school in Shibuya was hiring. The bulk of my colleagues were white. And most of my students didn’t actually give a shit about English. But the gig paid on time, and it let me keep my visa, so the months passed in a breezy way: for the first time in my life, I watched the seasons change. That just wasn’t possible where I was coming from. The first time snow fell across my earlobes, when I was standing beside a crosswalk under some bright lights in Omotesandō, I froze, and I started shaking, and I couldn’t fucking stop. Everyone else walked around me.

Eventually, I moved out of the one-bedroom. Ate dinner by myself, alternating between two decades-old yōshoku restaurants. My Japanese improved, since it was the language I lived in. And, after one of the diners closed, a colleague—a math teacher who’d grown up in Nara—invited me to an izakaya he liked, before bringing me to karaoke a few weeks later, and then to a gay bar tucked on an upper floor of a Ni-chōme cluster the month after that. When he asked why I hadn’t visited any in the city before, I told him that I’d simply never thought about it.

One night, after we sucked each other off, fumbling around in the dark of his apartment, he asked why I didn’t live closer to Kansai. He told me I’d do better there. It’d feel more approachable, for someone like me. I asked what that meant, and he gave me a long look, before he burped, scratching his chest. He told me it was just a hunch.

But my contract at the school was ending. And, once again, I needed another gig. So I looked into Osaka, on a whim, and the only school I applied to had an opening. When I got to the city, blinking from the smog and the dirt and the way everyone seemed to laugh at everything, COVID immediately shut everything all the way down.

The school paused its sessions. But they didn’t cancel my contract. So I spent a lot of time on the Internet. At night, I took long walks from Namba to Umeda. Other people shuffled along by themselves, until we could recognize one another by our gaits, even well after midnight.

We found different ways to acknowledge this. Sometimes that meant making room on the crosswalk. Other times it was keeping our distance, but strolling just slowly enough that we looked like a pack.

Once, a lady walking with her young daughter ended up just beside me. From time to time, the woman glanced my way, smiling under her mask. Her kid just talked and talked. They wore matching jackets. Sometimes I’d wait by the 7-Eleven until they appeared, and the mother would smile from across the road before they passed me.

This went on for weeks. The city’s COVID numbers rose and rose. Her daughter’s voice bounced from bored to chatty to melodic, until the mother carried her down the alley where they must have lived.

But then I stopped seeing them.

It wasn’t much longer before I stopped walking, too.

And that’s when I started gaming.

I hadn’t played on a PC in years.

It took another year and a half before I ran into Vic.

A few nights after it happens, I tell Ren about the glitch. We’re in his apartment, out in Tennōji, which has only one more bedroom than mine. But he’s got rugs. And a too-long sofa. And art by his kid framed on the wall.

Ren drums his fingers along my stomach as we lie on his bed, and I thumb the edge of his waistband when he yawns.

Weird, he says, but it’s probably just a bug.

That’s what I’m thinking, I say.

Maybe someone stole your friend’s password. Some drawn-out data leak.

But he has Vic’s voice. That’s what I can’t shake.

You mentioned that, Ren says, squeezing my belly.

I sit up, staring into his face. Ren’s older, in his forties, and his features are softer than mine. He has a relaxed way of talking. Like he’s not entirely certain what his next words will be. But he’ll smile afterward, as if it’s a miracle there’s anything to offer at all.

It makes him seem trustworthy.

Which means a lot, coming from me, someone who never trusts anyone.

You think I’m lying, I ask.

Nah, Ren says. I’ve heard stranger things. But didn’t you say it was impossible?

Then he squeezes my belly. It’s enough to jolt me from the sofa.

Sorry, he says.

It’s fine, I say. It’s just been a while.

You’re telling me, Ren says, and then the two of us are quiet again.

Do you think I’m being paranoid, I say, and Ren scrunches his nose.

He reaches for my arms, pulling me back on top of him. We press against the sofa, until I’m straddling his waist.

I think you’re in a strange fucking situation, Ren says. And I think you should give yourself a break. You’re gonna make yourself sick.

I’m fine. Tested last week.

That’s not what I mean. Plus, you’ve got students to worry about.

They aren’t even worried about themselves, I say.

Because that’s your job, Ren says. But I’ll give you something to worry about.

And then we’re kissing, moving our hands along each other’s bodies, until Ren’s hard and I’m hard and we’re groping each other’s dicks, but before we can start much of anything there’s a knock at the door.

When it opens, Ren’s kid is on the other side.

Kota turns from me to his father. He squeezes his hands under the pits of his sweater. So I wave, and Kota waves back, and when Ren asks if the kid wants to sit with us I rush to adjust myself in the kitchen.

Ren and his sister Rika trade the kid off on weekends, between their shifts at her restaurant. I’ve watched them hammer out the arrangement since Ren’s wife passed away. At first, he mentioned his wife only occasionally—and the life that they’d attempted to make in Sydney, before she insisted that they move back to Japan—and I’d try to lead him along, until he stopped bringing Hiroko up at all. I wondered how their marriage worked, and whether she knew about Ren, but I never brought myself to ask. And it wasn’t any of my fucking business. I knew enough to know that.

Kota grew only taller. But he also turned quieter.

And then, a few months back, he stopped speaking entirely.

A doctor chalked it up to stress. A shifting environment. Uncertain variables.

Now he lies between us, his head on his father’s thighs and his feet on mine. I throw him a thumbs-up, and he throws me one back.

It could be a glitch with your O.S., Ren says, but I’m no programmer.

Thanks for clarifying, I say.

All I’m saying is that you shouldn’t beat yourself up over this. Because what does it change?

And I start to say, Everything.

Except I’m not sure that’s true.

My first few months in Osaka, I hardly heard from my family. They lived in Texas. Another fucking galaxy. My mother texted on Sundays, sent Christmas-tree GIFs for the holidays, swearing that all of our lineage’s extended branches said hello, but of course I didn’t believe her, because I’d stopped expecting much of anything from anyone years ago. When I came out, my people hadn’t taken well to the news. My grandmother called me Satan walking. My uncles swore I’d end up giving rim jobs in Hell.

In some ways, this made life easier. All of us knew where we stood. But, when that same grandmother passed from cancer, my father called, for the first time in years. He wanted me back in America for the funeral.

It’s your responsibility, he said. Even if you don’t want it to be.

So I told him I understood. And that I’d figure something out.

A week later, when he asked about my ticket, I simply didn’t respond.

The day before the ceremony, I got text after text.

Then the funeral came and went.

The texts stopped entirely.

And I knew something had shifted.

Even if no one told me so.

I thought about how, somehow, I really had ended up alone. Even more so than I’d been to begin with.

Ren called this fate.

A few weeks after the funeral, we met at a gay bar in Doyama. Osaka was beginning to open up, but I still hadn’t found a way to make friends in the city. The guys I’d hooked up with were usually drunken one-offs from the apps. Generally thoughtful. Generally shy. Generally married.

One guy I fucked for a while had four kids in Nishinomiya. Another worked at a bank, and we’d meet at my place on the weekends. And a third was an H.I.V. activist, but his family had no idea: once, in bed, I asked if he’d ever tell them.

That’s very American, he said.

To be open with them?

No, he said, smiling, propping himself on his shoulder. The need to let everyone know that you’re open.

So I turned to the bars. It wasn’t long before regulars started nodding my way. My usual spot was behind this crowded takoyaki joint down the road—tourists were always keeled over in line, dead drunk—a karaoke haunt that was usually empty during the week. But, on weekends, gays stumbled up the stairs behind that building, yelling the lyrics to whole pop catalogues. Inside, I’d watch them, bopping along. Sometimes men bought me drinks. We’d end up at one of the love hotels down the road, and then I’d show up again a few nights later, and the bartender would nod my way, pouring more rum and Coke.

I figured this was simply what my life here would be like.

Which hardly seemed like a bad thing.

And then, one night, a guy in an olive-green sweater sat next to me. He had graying hair and traces of stubble.

You never sing, he said, in English.

I perform in the shower, I said, in Japanese.

Because you’re too shy for the stage? Or just sparing the rest of us?

Some days it’s one. Sometimes it’s the other.

But it’s nice to have an audience, this man said, and he smiled with all of his teeth.

I’d seen him once or twice. Always alone, and always bright. He may’ve been a decade older than me, but when he grinned you couldn’t tell.

Plenty of beautiful voices here tonight, I said. You should try them instead.

Maybe, he said. But I want to talk to you.

No offense, but I’m not looking for a father.

None taken. And I already have a son.

That was when I really looked at Ren for the first time. He grinned again, shrugging.

Tell you what, I said, you sing first. And if you’re any good then I’ll follow.

Ren considered me for a moment. I figured that he’d finally let up. But he stood, ordered a pair of cocktails, and wheeled through the karaoke dial with his thumbs. I don’t know what I expected from him, but once the instrumentals began there were whoops from the crowd. And then total silence, before a steady drumbeat, as he started on Groove Theory’s “Tell Me,” swooping from a low croon to a high yelp, leaving his stool and carrying the mike across the floor. Ren winced once he hit the chorus, tapping his heel, bending over, raising his fist, looking me directly in the eyes.

I started clapping. And laughing. The night passed before I realized that that hadn’t happened in months.

The next time I log in, Vic’s trekking up a mountain.

It’s a map I haven’t seen in years. A forest drenched in blue foliage. I’ve played it with Vic before—in his living room, sprawled on the rug, while he tapped away at a controller cross-legged beside me, smoking a blunt. He always complained that this region was too difficult. It took away from the fun.

Now he floats along, dissolving ogres and snakes and twelve-foot toads, fissioning demons into loose strands of code. And I’m wheezing beside him, watching my health points plummet. But Vic continues upward, vanquishing everything in sight with one hand.

From time to time, he glances my way.

Smirking.

He’s doing the heavy lifting. I fumble with my bow and arrows. And Vic doesn’t even have to say it: that’s how our relationship’s always been.

Eventually, we reach a cliff. It overlooks the entire expanse. I’ve seen screenshots of this view across Web forums, but never in actual play.

You’ve gotten stronger, Vic says.

Bullshit, I say. What you’re doing shouldn’t be possible. Not even for a pro.

So you’ll report me? That’s what you want?

I want you to stop fucking around. Are you Vic’s sister?

No.

His mom?

Don’t be stupid.

At least tell me where you are, I say.

Right in front of you.

Specifically.

We’re on the sunken plains of Mount—

That’s just the fucking code.

I already told you, Vic says. Now step back.

The wind stirs around us. Trees pry themselves from the ground. And a void opens beneath our feet, growing wider and wider, swallowing houses and livestock and people. As Vic rises, I latch onto a protruding boulder, while clumps of N.P.C.s cling to the sinking dirt, clambering for solid ground. Branches bend, and the dirt below us shimmers, and clouds swirl and pool, sucking everything up, spitting it all right back out.

I’ve never seen anything like it.

Vic just nods along.

Hey, I say. That’s enough.

So now you’re worried, Vic says.

No one’s worried.

Didn’t you say it was all just numbers?

Still. There’s no reason for this.

You need to make up your mind, Vic says.

He continues widening the void.

For a moment, I genuinely wonder if my PC’s going to crash.

Then Vic sighs, shaking his head. Like he’s suddenly disappointed.

Just like that, the rift closes.

Everything settles again.

And Vic ascends, arms outstretched, abandoning me below.

Once he’s gone, every evil thing on the map resurfaces. Demons and ogres and nymphs. They catapult from the ground, sprinting my way, and it’s, like, not even a minute before I’m entirely torn apart.

A week later, my students fail yet another practice exam.

A stupid language, Daisuke says.

That’s an adjective, I say.

A fucking stupid language, Asa says.

Another descriptor, I say.

And shit, Yuudai says.

Lots of functions there, I say.

For once, they’re actually frustrated. Which means they might be taking it seriously. But I don’t know whether to be grateful or what.

We go on like this for another hour. Autumn’s heat has become something slightly cooler. But that chill also means rain, and it patters along outside as my students scratch away at their answer sheets. Shota stares out the window, tapping his pencil along with the raindrops.

They’re sick of the repetition. I’m exhausted, too. I spent the evening before at Ren’s place, before I made it home to play with Vic—or with whoever’s pretending to be him. So I’m fucking worn out, despite my efforts to hide it, and obviously the students see all the way through that.

Look, I say. Guys. It’s all useful info. You may find yourself in a situation where you need to describe something, and—

In English, Asa says. No way.

Maybe if we’re helping a foreigner, Daisuke says.

Or dating one, Yuudai says.

Why the hell would I be doing that, Asa asks.

Maybe it’s your boyfriend, Yuudai says.

Fuck you!

Don’t be fucking rude, Shota says, and the entire class erupts, before I, for the first time ever, yell for them to shut up.

A silence settles over all of us. The soles of my feet feel like they’ll explode. Shota gives the window a glum look, before he turns to me, sighing.

I decide that it’s time for a break. Half of the class roll their eyes, while the rest make a clear run for the hallway.

But Asa simply stands, loping toward my desk. Shota watches the two of us from his seat, nodding off.

So, Asa says, you’re telling me that people just know all of this shit?

They learn it, I say. Just like you are right now.

And they use it?

Well, I say. It’s useful.

But do you use it?

Occasionally.

That’s bullshit.

A noun, Shota says, raising his hand from the back of the room.

Asa and I turn to him. But Shota’s already set his head back on the desk, rapping his knuckles along with the rain.

A few weeks earlier, Ken had told me the rub: for most of my students, it’s their last chance to pass the university entrance exams.

You mean this round, I said.

No, Ken said. Ever. It’s expensive, staying here. There’s nothing cheap about yobikō. Even ours. And their parents definitely aren’t made of money. They can’t backdoor into these universities with a connection, or because of who their families are. For most of them, this is it. Even if we don’t want it to be.

Some frames dotted his desk. I couldn’t see the photos in them. Ken crossed his arms, leaning back in his chair. His eyes couldn’t have been gentler. Early on, he’d insisted that I call him by his first name. But even this gave his words even more finality.

I asked what would happen to the students who failed. Ken smiled, leaning over his desk.

Same thing that happens to all of us, he said. They’ll move on. Some will find trades. Others will start working.

But they’re still trying, I said.

They are.

They want to be here.

They do.

That seems unfair.

Capitalism always is, Ken said, smiling.

So we have to do our best, he added. But I’m not saying you need to move the world.

Except this really could mean the world to most of them, I said.

Ah, Ken said, running a hand through his hair.

After class, Shanté and Eli ask if I’m down for a beer. They’re the only other two instructors willing to smoke on the roof.

I’ve got plans, I say.

Bullshit, Eli says.

He’s visiting his widower, Shanté says.

Don’t be rude, I say.

It’s a fact, Eli says.

You say that like it makes a difference, I say.

You’d be surprised, Shanté says. We never know what people carry with them.

Sometimes Shanté’s the only other Black person I’ll see for days. She arrived in Osaka with her girlfriend a decade ago. Stayed at home while that partner worked a programming gig out in Kyobashi and, five years later, pushed for a transfer back to Denver. But Shanté wasn’t down for that. She’d fallen in love with the Midosuji line’s arrival chimes, and Kyoto’s summer street festivals, and the convenience stores that never closed. So Shanté told her girlfriend that she was staying. And she’s taught in the city ever since.

Meanwhile, half of Eli’s family hails from Osaka. But he’s actually from Vancouver, and the other half of his folks are from Busan. He’d planned on holding this gig only for a year, and every few months he swears to god that he’ll finally pack up and leave, but he always changes his mind. Eight semesters later, he says that he just prefers the food in Kansai.

Are we ever going to meet him, Shanté says.

Will we ever meet your girlfriends, I ask.

Ask me nicely and you might.

Fuck that, I say. You never bother Eli about his dates.

It’s different, Eli says. The women I’m seeing aren’t looking for anything serious. Or at least not with me.

And you’re saying I’m serious, I ask.

Never, Shanté says. But your guy might be.

No such thing as a serious man, Eli says.

Or a smart one, I say.

Word, Eli says. We’re all useless. Take it from us.

I will, Shanté says. That’s the truest thing either of you’ve said all year.

A few months after I started the job, Eli told me that he and Shanté took bets on how long I’d last. And, as close as we’ve become, they still won’t tell me their estimates: Shanté was the first to acknowledge me, but Eli was the one who first spoke to me.

The week we returned to school after lockdown, Shanté smiled whenever I passed her. I’d nod back, doing my best not to look too fucking ridiculous. Osaka had started recalibrating itself after COVID’s first wave. People were back on the streets. The crowds in bars ebbed and flowed according to governmental mandates. But jostling through so many bodies after so long made my brain freeze. More than once, I’d jog toward a bathroom to catch my breath, pushing down panic attacks while my finger hit the flush button.

My second week at school, I ran into Eli texting outside. And I nodded quickly, looking away, but he wouldn’t stop fucking staring.

Hey, guy, Eli said. Do you drink?

What?

You speak Japanese, right?

Yeah, I said. But—

So you don’t drink?

I do. Just a bit.

Then I’ll buy, Eli said. We can talk shit together.

The yakitori spot he brought me to was two train transfers away. The whole operation wasn’t much more than four benches and some barrels. Two Indian restaurants glowed next door, beside a man grilling eel under a tarp for some salarymen.

We sat side by side. Some stragglers walked around us. Eli spoke to the matron in Korean, laughing as she waved at me. But it was an early evening in the middle of the week, and the air felt warm from the smoke, and I realized that this was the first time I’d sat outside for a meal in years.

She was surprised to see you, Eli said.

Because I’m Black?

Obviously. And also I never bring anyone here.

Should I feel grateful, I said.

You don’t have to feel anything, Eli said. Just buy the next round.

After a line of skewers and a mug of beer, Eli asked about my students, and I told him they were fine. After our second round, replacing the chicken thighs with innards, Eli asked how I liked the job, and I told him it was fine. After our third order, when the matron brought a line of wings with peppers and negi, Eli asked how I’d ended up in Japan, and I gave him a long look before I answered him honestly: to change my fucking life.

Wild, Eli said. But I guess people like us don’t just end up here.

Like us, I said. Foreigners?

Maybe, Eli said. Shanté says this better than I do. And I know it’s different for you two. But I’m talking about us, too. Like, you’ve gotta be running away from something.

I don’t know if that’s necessarily true, I said.

You don’t have to, Eli said, because I do.

We were both drunk by then. All the benches were packed. The matron bounced from group to group, laughing, juggling trays and dishes and glasses. From time to time, she’d catch my eye and nod.

It sounds like you’re projecting, I said.

Probably, Eli said. But I know what I’m talking about. And eat this chicken, it’s fucking delicious.

Eventually, a line waited for each table. We needed to give up our seats. But Eli was wasted, so I guided him by the elbow. After I paid, the matron tapped my shoulder, smiling, and told me to take care of him.

He’s always alone, she said, in Japanese. This is the first time he’s brought someone.

I’ll do my best, I said.

So Eli and I walked to the nearest station. Bars stood packed from window to window, even if the streets were clear. Eventually, he sobered enough to walk on his own, but he didn’t let go of my neck, and I didn’t push him away.

The next time we went out, Shanté joined us. But we went to a different bar.

I asked Eli about the yakitori place, and he only shrugged. Apparently they’d closed shop.

We went on their last day, he said. We really were lucky.

The next few weeks follow a familiar pattern: no matter where I respawn across the server, Vic’s waiting for me.

We hike snowy cliffs. We dawdle through caverns. We skim across the centers of unravelling volcanos. Vic floats above me, casting spells toward the undead, obliterating every obstacle into a digitized abyss. He battles raptors and vultures. They disappear under the ridge of his blade. Sometimes Vic hardly glances their way before he ends them.

But it’s gratuitous.

Cruel.

You don’t need to do this, I say. These guys aren’t a fucking threat to you.

And you still don’t know what you’re talking about, Vic says. Everything is a threat.

A mini-boss appears in front of him, then disintegrates just as quickly.

Enemies that would take whole hours, whose armies span whole territories, disappear in seconds.

Watching Vic, I hardly feel like it even matters if I’m there.

He always played in a brash way, with little regard for the future. Didn’t care about health because he’d already won the battle. Didn’t care about M.P. because he knew he’d make it to the next town.

But now he’s taken things to the absolute maximum: there’s no regard for the future. Vic’s entirely too powerful.

Also: I die and I die and I die alongside him.

Vic revives me every time, muttering impossible spells.

We trudge through entire ecologies. We pass structures and botany I haven’t seen in years. It’s how we used to play, jogging aimlessly from map to map, only now we amble in silence, as if Vic’s only walking his fucking dog.

And Vic won’t tell me where the fuck we’re going. The most he’ll allow is that he’s looking for something.

Something important, he says.

What? What could possibly matter to you now?

You don’t get it, Vic says. But you will.

And then, one night, after hours of stomping in circles in a cavern, Vic turns to me with a smile and says, I think this is where we part ways.

He’s just exploded an entire horde of demigods. I’m utterly exhausted. It’s the deepest I’ve travelled through any chunk of this server, and I’m outclassed at every level, but Vic continues rolling along.

He’s just too strong.

It makes no sense whatsoever.

What the fuck are we searching for, I ask.

We aren’t doing a goddam thing, Vic says. I won’t find it with you.

I could help if you told me.

You wouldn’t even know what to look for, Vic says, laughing. You never have.

Then tell me.

No. You’re better off minding your business.

You can’t make me do that, I say. You can’t make me do anything. You’re fucking dead.

Before I can react, he’s squeezing my neck.

Then our feet leave the ground, until we’re ascending toward the hollow’s opening.

My health immediately plummets. The screen begins to dim.

Tell me more about what I can’t do, Vic says. Teach me a lesson.

I’m on the verge of dying, but I don’t move. Can’t. My controls won’t allow it. I just stay limp, staring at Vic, and I’ve got only a few health points left before Vic finally lets me go.

And I fall.

But it doesn’t kill me.

Vic spits on the ground beside me. Then he rises farther into the sky, and disappears.

We met in college: I walked in on Vic fucking my roommate.

In our shoebox of a dorm room, Vic’s head crept above the pillows. The whiteboy I lived with hid under the sheets. Once Vic saw me, he simply crossed his arms, asking if I wanted to join them. And, when I declined, he said the least I could do was shut the fucking door.

Vic’s family had moved to Texas after Katrina, but he’d grown up in New Orleans. And I came from Pearland, a white suburb plopped just outside Houston. Both of our families went to church every Sunday, and also on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with Saturday-morning Scripture study, and when I got to college the first thing I did was toss my Bible. Vic still went to sermons, but he ended up fucking half the attendees.

After Vic ended it with my roommate, I started seeing him around. He brought me to my first gay bar. Dragged me to the bathhouse in midtown. The night I split from my first boyfriend, Vic wheeled me to the queer clubs in Montrose. I met two new guys, and we went back to their place, and Vic waited in the car until we’d finished fucking.

Somehow, he juggled his classes alongside everything else. As graduation loomed, we met up only on weekends. Still passed through the bars. I only ever ended up with dudes I had no business clinging to. Vic fucked whoever, whenever, perennially bored.

Growing up, I’d never made a queer Black friend who was actually out. Which made Vic a fucking alien.

It felt like meeting an angel.

Or your second half.

More than anything else, the two of us gamed.

Alongside his fucking and occasional drugging, this was another habit that Vic picked up in college. He’d sit on my sofa, intending to stay for a few minutes, only to realize that he’d been lost in my console for hours. Sometimes I fell asleep to him tapping at the controller, humming under his breath. Way past midnight, I’d lie on the sofa while he lounged on the floor, and the sound of his breathing mingled with the city outside.

One day, I asked Vic what he liked about the games. They paled in comparison with his actual life.

We were smoking on the edge of campus, where the grounds met the city’s poverty. Vic crossed his arms behind his head. It was the first genuine smile I’d seen from him in days.

Think about it, he said. Games are like an alternate life. A heightened life. Or an improvement, even.

Calm down, I said.

Shut up, Vic said. Like, look around. At all of this? This community’s in a fucking bind. And the people who could actually change this shit are invested in their suffering. But what if you had the chance to escape all of that, even if just for an hour? Wouldn’t you take it? Isn’t that amazing? It might make things worth sticking around for.

The two of us kicked bottles at the curb. We stared out at an abandoned piece of the light rail, half built and miserable, a project that Houston had started and stopped and re-started.

But maybe you’re right, Vic said. Maybe it’s all just a fucking game.

And, before I could reassure him, Vic slugged me on the elbow, laughing.

My first weeks with Ren followed a similar routine: we’d meet at the karaoke bar, drinking until we leaned all over each other, just barely catching the last train toward Dōtonbori afterward. His first night in my apartment, he collapsed on the futon immediately. The next time, a week later, we managed a lazy fuck against my washing machine.

Ren had been dating again only for a year. Swore he was still new to all of it. But he caught up quick, and it wasn’t long before he knew what he wanted, and how he wanted it, and it was my first sexual relationship that insisted on communication; usually, I played whatever role I’d been assigned. I’d fuck a guy if he asked me to. I’d get fucked if some guy asked me to. More than once, a single partner had become two or four or five, and I’d lost myself in a puddle of limbs without knowing exactly how it’d happened.

But Ren needed to be talked through bottoming. When I let him top me, we moved slowly, step by step, until we came up with our own sort of rhythm. In this way, the fucking was new to both of us: we forced each other to be present.

Afterward, he’d roll off the mattress, wiping himself down, and stumble toward my kitchen pantry. Ren remained appalled at the state of my fridge—all Pocari Sweat and packaged sandwiches—until his visits became punctuated with grocery tote after grocery tote. In an apron and boxers, he’d chop onions by the stove. Some nights, he rolled omelettes, stewing tomatoes inside curry. Then we ate what he’d cooked on my patio, smoking with an ashtray between us. We’d watch the occasional passersby stroll below us, eying them until they disappeared around the corner.

Ren said his wife had loved his cooking: for a while, they managed a restaurant together. Food was the one way he knew how to consistently bring her pleasure. And one night—after we both came twice, and Ren cooked us a carbonara afterward, grating the cheese under my patio’s shitty strung-up Christmas lights—he told me, offhand, that we were in charge of our own delight, and it was the most certain I’d ever heard anyone sound about anything.

A few months later, Ren brought me to his apartment. He lived on the sixth floor of a walkup, with a shrine on one end of the building and a bar at the other. His place was only halfway furnished, but Ren had done a decent job of cleaning up after Kota. When the two of us arrived, his sister clicked her tongue at the sight of me, and grinned at Ren. In that one gesture, I could see how they were related.

At first, Kota peeked at me only from the hallway. A few visits later, he joined us at Ren’s rickety dining table. The kid had mostly stopped speaking, but he smiled and laughed and frowned all the same. When I asked Ren if my being around made things stranger, he told me I was the only other person the kid even showed his face to.

Some weekends, Ren, Kota, and I walk laps around Kuromon Market, then pass through a couple of shrines.

Ren calls this tourist behavior. And he’s hardly wrong. But Kota likes waving to the venders, and, if we make it there early enough, we can bounce from seller to seller, buying oversized shrimp and grilled oysters and skewered crabmeat until we end up chewing side by side, leaning against buildings as the morning drones on.

So we’ve made it a habit. And I’m waiting for the two of them just outside Kintetsu-Nippombashi Station. It’s a few stops from the spot where Ren and Rika cook Italian food. And he’s never invited me to her restaurant, and I’ve never asked to go: I know what it means to draw a boundary. Even if it seems unstable.

I spot them. Ren’s carrying the kid on his shoulders. They seem like a part of this place, as organic as anything. When Kota catches my eye, swinging both arms above his head, it makes me wonder what the three of us look like to anyone else.

After eating, we hobble toward a shrine just outside the market. It’s already early afternoon, and the streets are settling into Saturday laziness. Kota holds his father’s hand, pressing down on his cap. When the kid glances at me, I ask if he wants to pray with his dad—but he just shakes his head, and when Ren skips toward the altar I stay with Kota on the curb.

That’s O.K., I say, and Kota fist-bumps my thigh, turning back to his father.

So I don’t see the cops until it’s too late.

Kota spots them first, turning his head. The two men stride toward us with masks scrunched against their noses. It’s rare for me to spot cops in Japan, but not because they aren’t around: they’re simply out of the way.

As close as the men are, I don’t make eye contact. Then one of them asks me how we’re doing.

I open my mouth, but nothing comes out.

Kota looks up at me, too.

Are you all right, the other cop asks, in English this time.

My body just locks itself up.

Then Kota squeezes my hand.

I manage to hum an agreement, nodding back at the men.

And then, incredibly, the cops simply nod back.

They tell us to have a nice day.

And then they’re gone.

When Ren finally finds us, Kota’s still holding my hand. I’m crouched by some vending machines, a few blocks away, crying with my head in my hands. Ren asks what’s happened, and if he needs to call for help, and I try to gasp that I’m fine, and nothing’s wrong, and I just need a minute, except that all I manage to get out is that I’m anything but O.K.

September rolls into October. Coats appear at the train stations—just a handful at first, and then on everyone at once. Outside my apartment window, gaggles of teens chill by the river walkway, filming TikTok dances and snacking on sandwiches and lounging.

My students are still all over the place. We’re only a few months out from the entrance exams, after the new year, with their final practice tests coming up even sooner. We cover English greetings, goodbyes, everyday appliances, and basic questions, repeating phrases and tracing letters and drawing lines between recognition and comprehension.

How are you, I ask the class.

Good, Daisuke says.

Almost, I say. Well.

But that’s what he said, Asa says.

Sure did, Hiro says.

And what if he’s good, Yuudai asks.

Wait, I say. Fine. You’re right. It’s just—

But you said I’m wrong, Daisuke says.

Both can be true, I say.

The class stares up at me.

Then they turn to one another.

Guys, I say. Seriously. I know I’ve said it before, but this test is a big deal. It’s your way to get back on a steadier track.

What the hell does that mean, Asa says.

Not steadier, I say, stumbling. Sorry. Easier. In a bigger school. With different peers.

I like being here, Hiro says. These idiots aren’t so bad.

Wait, Shota says, did you go to a good school?

The question nearly knocks me over. It’s the first time he’s spoken all day.

And, once again, the students turn to me. There’s genuine curiosity.

I chew on my gums.

No, I say.

But here you are, Shota says. You seem fine. Or well.

And I don’t know what to say to that.

The students seem to sense this.

But, graciously, they allow us to re-start our exercises. One by one, they repeat each phrase back to me. And a few of them nod off, but I let them, because who can blame them.

You really can be right and wrong.

You can spend your whole life trying to figure out the difference.

The afternoon ends like a long exhale.

The students are exhausted. I am, too. They file out of the room in their usual clumps, casting side-eyes on their way out.

Yuudai hangs back. He scratches at his ear.

Honestly, he says, you really think we’ll pass?

Sure, I say. But all we can do is our best.

But is it really our last chance to get on track?

Of all my students, he has a reason for being in the course that feels the most anomalous: an instructor at his old school accused him of cheating on an exam. Yuudai swore up and down that he hadn’t. His parents did, too. But it didn’t matter: the kid was poor, and he’d managed the minor miracle of testing into an élite school, but they kicked him out so fast that it made his family’s heads spin.

Yuudai ended up graduating from high school elsewhere. And he didn’t even take the entrance exams with his cohort; with everything that had happened, it only made sense to wait things out.

So I give him a long stare, weighing the pros and cons of honesty.

Look, I say. Every country in this world has its standards for success. They’re mostly wrong. But they still exist. And, sometimes, life’s a bit easier if we can make them work. Even if we don’t think it’ll help us at the time.

Yuudai crosses his arms, wincing.

Just like that, I realize I’ve been too candid.

But then he smiles, shaking his head.

Are you sure you aren’t the one being tested, he says.

An hour later, I spot Shota smoking outside the station.

He’s puffing beside a convenience store, leaning against the curb. Whenever the doors slide open, a cashier glares from inside. But passersby don’t say shit to him. And Shota makes room for all of them, giving them space as he ashes onto the concrete.

Then we make eye contact.

I figure he’ll pretend to ignore me.

But he doesn’t.

He waves.

And, eventually, I wave back.

That night, I meet Shanté and Eli at a tiny izakaya by Miyakojima Station. The bar’s all corners and benches. Nearly smaller than my living room, with holes in every wall. But, for two thousand yen, the matron lets us drink as much as we want, and our backs rub against those of the other patrons, mostly our age and in work clothes, yelling and bumping elbows as eighties ballads blast overhead.

One beer in, Shanté says that this month marks her fourth year in Osaka.

Two beers in, Eli tells us he’s been broken up with, again, but it was probably for the best.

Three beers, four cigarettes, and a cocktail in, I tell them that my class is dragging along.

We can hardly hear one another. I shout it into their ears. But Shanté and Eli share a glance, wiping it away just as quickly.

I fucking saw that, I say.

It’s not you, Eli says. They’ve been sabotaged. No one fucking expects anything from them.

We do, Shanté says.

No one who matters, Eli says. No one with power.

So we prove them wrong, Shanté says. That’s our job.

Our job’s to teach conjugations they’ll probably never use, Eli says. Unless they marry foreigners. And even then it’s a fucking tossup.

Multiple things can be true at the same time, Shanté says. We can do our best to help our students along, and understand that the deck’s stacked against them.

You’re being naïve, Eli says.

Careful, I say.

Fine, Eli says. Sorry, sorry.

Apology accepted, Shanté says. But you’re being a sloppy fucking drunk.

At least I’m an honest fucking drunk, Eli says.

We each down another beer. The bar’s matron stoops over us, passing a tray of edamame, and we thank her entirely too loudly.

Hey, sad boy, Eli says, what about you?

Don’t call me boy, I say.

Sorry, sorry, sorry.

You’re on a roll today, Shanté says.

I’m just asking a professional question, Eli says.

Honestly, I say, I know that expecting us to unfuck their situations isn’t fair. But it’s still the job.

Shanté and Eli share the same glance as earlier.

The matron cruises by our table again, setting a hand on my shoulder as she passes.

Are you really O.K, Shanté asks.

I’m fine, I say.

What about Ren, Eli says, and Kota? Everything’s cool there?

They’re great. Life’s great.

You don’t seem it, Shanté says. You’ve been like this for weeks.

After five beers, how would you know?

Shit, Eli says. He’s right. We’re drunk! Let’s just be drunk.

The bar continues to vibrate. Its laughter creeps into my bones. At one table, some guys with dyed hair burst into applause, and at another two women clink their beers until they spill. A disco ball spins above us, and the three of us light cigarettes as we watch its jagged swirl.

Shit, I say. We could be anywhere right now.

I could be back in Durham, Shanté says, nodding.

And maybe I’d be in Seoul, Eli says.

But for now, he adds, beaming at us, this is home.

And I try to sit in the moment, to really take it in—but that’s when Vic flashes through my head. Just for a second. But long enough to remind me that he’s there.

An hour later, we hail a cab for Eli.

He swears that he’s fine, and apologizes over and over, but once Shanté waves a car down Eli stumbles into the back seat.

What, he says. I can’t fucking afford this.

Here, Shanté says, shoving a few thousand yen into his hands. You’ll pay me back.

You guys have to stay safe, he slurs.

And you just don’t do anything stupid, Shanté says.

I don’t know what I’d do without you, Eli says.

You’d find something, Shanté says. So go straight to bed.

After we’ve seen him off, Shanté and I turn to each other.

Are you good, she asks.

Perfunctory, I say.

Then we’re off, she says, and we head toward Noe-Uchindai Station.

The temperature gradually rises as we dip down the escalator. Crowds have thinned out. Office folks are bumbling home. The third-shift crowd makes its way back aboveground, and Shanté bounces against my elbow as we walk, and, after we pass through the entrance, we stop in front of her line.

Then she looks me over. Really taking me in.

You’re sure you’re O.K, Shanté says.

Yeah, I say. Just going through something strange.

Too strange to talk about?

Too strange to understand.

Now that I understand, Shanté says. I’ve been there.

A jingle overhead announces her train’s arrival. A drunk couple brushes by us, folding themselves into a single coat.

And congrats on the anniversary, I say. How does it feel?

It’s hard to put into words, Shanté says. But I like it.

And when do you think you’ll head back to the States?

I’m not going back.

She delivers this plainly. Like it’s the stupidest fucking question anyone’s ever asked her.

Oh, I say.

Think of it this way, Shanté says. I grew up in Philly. And I loved my neighborhood. And my friends. But it felt like, regardless of what kind of life I chose there, every single step was planned out. Someone had either done it before, or they’d tried to do the bold thing and were beaten back into place. Because, you know, in most of America, that’s just how it is. Especially for us. And, after my first year in Japan, I actually went back.

I didn’t know that, I say.

Because I don’t talk about it.

And how’d that go?

It was fine, Shanté says. Things were exactly the same. They weren’t any worse. But they also weren’t any better. And, even though nothing had changed, I had changed. So I didn’t even last two months.

But, she says, since I’ve been here, I don’t feel that anxiety at all. And it’s not like I always have a plan. Or like I know what’s going to happen next. I know this place isn’t perfect. It’s got all sorts of fucking problems with literally no solutions in sight. But that still doesn’t feel insurmountable, you know? For now, I can work around them. New things feel possible here. And I don’t know if it’s Japan, specifically, that’s the reason, or the way it makes me feel when I’m here. Like, I can be more myself. Because I have a life I enjoy. I have friends. Girlfriends. And I’m not open to giving that up. For now, this is home.

She keeps her eyes on me as she speaks. Several trains have come and gone on the platform. Then Shanté shrugs, brushing a hand through her hair.

Fuck, I say. How did you get so cool?

I’ve suffered, Shanté says, laughing.

I watch her cruise off, waving through the window. And, for a moment, I’m the only one on the platform. Another few trains pass before I finally catch a ride of my own.

Vic and I continue our trek across the map.

He grows more and more powerful.

Gradually, I level up, too.

Vic’s wrath ebbs and flows. He rarely shows mercy to anyone. On the rare occasions that we run into other players, he’ll ignore them entirely, unless they follow us, which is when he vanquishes them from the screen.

But our server’s mostly empty. Everyone we spot is travelling alone.

I figure that, wherever we are, our situations aren’t too different. Everyone’s just looking for company.

One day, I ask Vic, What are you really doing here?

We’ve just left a glittering forest, and are gliding into a blizzard landscape. I’ve figured out how to leave the ground. My avatar dips and curves, drawing an unsteady line in the air. Vic keeps flying above me, but we’re only a few arm’s lengths away.

After a while, he says, I’m looking for a way to come back.

A gaggle of trees splits us. When we reconvene in a clearing, Vic’s words finally register.

Wait, I say. What?

It’s the answer to a question I’ve had for a long time, Vic says.

And what the hell is that, specifically?

I’ll know when I find it.

You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me.

Have I been playing like I’m kidding, Vic says. Believe it or not, I’m as fragile as you. Infinitely stronger, obviously. But I can die here. And that would be it for me. So this is how I stay in this world.

This isn’t a life, I say. It’s a fucking game. It isn’t living.

It is to me, Vic says. It’s what I have now. Whether you accept it or not.

But surely you didn’t think this was just about me, Vic says. You wouldn’t be here otherwise.

I’m here because you’re my friend, I say. You were my friend.

That’s enough for Vic to stop, leering above me. He scrunches up his face like he’s considered something. Then he turns around, again, ascending further, leaving me behind.

On Sundays, Ren and I spend the day in bed: he’s off from the restaurant, and I’m free from the school.

We usually stay at his place. It’s easier with Kota. And, also, Ren’s fridge is stocked like a grocery store, with leftovers from his shifts: for breakfast, he’ll pull together slices of French toast beside fried eggs and miso soup and pickles; at lunch, he’ll work up a sweet-potato curry over rice, sweet and spicy all at once. But, this time, once the sun sets, he runs a finger over my ear, asking if I want to grab a bite at his sister’s place.

Really, I ask.

For real, he says. You haven’t come around yet.

I know. But it seemed like a very intentional decision.

It was, Ren says. But I’m changing my mind.

When Ren pitches the idea to Kota, the kid glances at me. Then he throws a thumbs-up. And the three of us scramble downstairs for dinner, taking the long walk from Namba.

Things are harder during the week. Ren’s usually busy with the restaurant. I’m juggling classes and grading. But, sometimes, he’ll catch a train to my apartment, and for an hour in the evening we’ll find time to fuck.

We try to make the most of it. I’ll let Ren top me, before we take a break and I’ll fuck him. We’ll stop to smoke on my patio before starting up again. There’s not much space in my place, but we manage to make do: from my bed, to my kitchen, to the doorway, to my cough of a bathroom. Once, we tried it on the patio, and Ren kept swearing that someone would spot us, but when he came it was so loud that I covered his mouth, and then he started giggling, and I did, too, until we were both shaking from holding the laughter.

His sister’s place sits tucked under a bridge. It seats six diners. The space is about as large as a living room, with enough room for a cook and a waiter and seats at the bar. Wine bottles overlook the stoves, stacked on wooden shelves, and when we step inside Rika throws a wave our way, while some guy with messy hair juggles frying pans by the stove, nudging his way into a pantry around the corner.

Ren’s sister looks like him: sleeker and sharper, but the features are there. They share the same ears. The same laugh. And, the first time Rika saw me, the lady didn’t blink. She told Ren that she was glad he had someone, even if he did have to outsource.

She sits at the bar, where we can watch her work. And Ren orders enough for four people, pasta and fish and carrots and sauces ladled over bread, sampling each dish, until Rika cuts him off, telling Ren that it’s too much for her one staffer, some kid who’s just started, and just at that moment the guy from before rematerializes with frying pans, juggling two in one hand with some cooking chopsticks in the other.

But the guy squints at me.

And I don’t know what to make of it.

Except then I realize that it’s Shota.

I decide not to say anything, and Shota turns back to the stove.

Ren and I never talk about what we’re doing with each other, exactly. Or what the end goal looks like. It just never comes up. But two years have passed this way, and we’ve settled into something like a routine. Ren likes to say that we’re with each other for the sake of each other.

And I tell him that’s fucking corny.

But I still like hearing him say it.

After dinner, we take the long walk back to Ren’s place. He’s had a few drinks, so I carry Kota on my shoulders. The streets are mostly empty, and the train station buzzes beside us, except we can still hear each other breathing and it’s enough to know that we’re there.

Then we’re sprawled across his bed. Ren sets a mug of tea on my ass. And this is when he asks how I’d feel about moving in with him and Kota.

You’re joking, I say.

No, Ren says. Just to see.

I thought you guys didn’t really do that here.

You guys?

The gays.

I don’t care what other people do or don’t do. You already know that.

Well, I say, maybe you should.

What?

I’m just saying, I say, I wouldn’t want to make life more difficult for you. Or Kota.

It’s enough to make Ren frown. But then he smiles.

Let me worry about that, he says. You matter to me, too.

And I don’t know what to say to that.

Because I’ve never heard anything like it.

So I raise my head, press my lips to Ren’s stomach, blowing into his belly, and he yelps from the surprise, until I’m spilling tea all over the mattress and soaking the space between us.

Just that quickly, we’re on the edge of autumn.

Flower-viewing parties span the city. The air’s grown brisk. And Osaka’s throngs of tourists have started to dwindle, but only just barely.

Our weeks before the exams slog along. We talk about setting goals. We talk about careers. I spend three days lecturing the students on improper nouns, and it’s the first time the room actively asks questions, but I can still feel the time slipping away from us.

One day, just after class, Ken asks for a meeting. When I make it to his office, he asks me to shut the door. And he tells me, gently, with his hands folded on his desk, that I should start preparing my cohort for life in the workforce.

I’ve seen their practice tests, Ken says. We need to be honest with ourselves.

They’re getting better, I say. If you’ve seen them, then you know that.

But it’s just not there, Ken says. And it won’t be. So it’s our job to set them up for reality.

So we just say fuck it? We throw everyone to the wolves?

Ken grimaces, just a bit. He runs a hand through his hair. I feel myself breathing heavily, and I try to slow down.

Look, Ken says. I’m not saying you’re wrong. I get what you’re doing. And, ideally, you get to keep doing it. I wouldn’t be running this school if I didn’t believe in them, or you, and that’s the truth.

But we still live in the world, Ken says. And the world isn’t ideal. It’s actually already difficult enough for me, trying to keep you here. So, if you want to stay, then you have to help me. Or at least not make things more difficult. Temper their expectations. Be honest with them about what their lives could look like. Do you understand?

It’s the most disturbed that I’ve ever seen the man. The words look like they hurt him to say. But they leave his mouth anyway. And he doesn’t break eye contact.

All of a sudden, his room feels entirely too small. The walls’ pastel colors feel abrasive.

So I tell him I get it.

A few hours later, Eli says, That’s bullshit.

But Ken isn’t wrong, Shanté says. As sad as that sounds.

The three of us are at an Ethiopian restaurant in Nakazaki. It’s tucked inside an old building, between a plant shop and an insurance company. There are few other customers, but the air feels warm and full—and, once again, Eli orders for the table. The three women running the place revolve from the kitchen to the bar to our table.

After they’ve given us a clay pot of fish, with a plate of injera, it’s followed by a bowl filled with chickpea stew, and another platter with sautéed meat. Some smoke drifts from the stove behind me. And the chef nods our way, turning back to her pans.

Shanté and Eli’s students are younger than mine: they’ve got a few years left before entrance exams. Which means that, in some ways, their jobs are even harder. But it also means they aren’t under the same kind of stress, or at least not yet.

It’s no better than the fucking States, I say.

Let’s not get carried away, Shanté says.

Sure, I say. But the impulse is the same. Throwing people away before they have a chance to grow.

Well, Eli says, in a way, that’s what we’re there for? Or, like, that and also the visa.

Do you really think they’ll manage in their exams, Shanté says, reaching across the table for a spoon.

She and Eli turn my way.

For once, I actually have to think through the question.

Shit, I say. I really don’t know. Some days, we’re on track. Others, it’s like I’m talking to myself. And it’s hard to get a sense of where anyone actually is, but they’ve all got bigger problems than this one fucking class.

They’ll have even more issues if they don’t get their shit together, Eli says.

Well, Shanté says, I guess that’s life, too.

A steady drizzle taps on the restaurant’s roof. It’s late in the year for this kind of rain. And the lights flicker, dimming just a fraction. But Eli raises his hand, ordering another round of beer.

Either way, he says, they’re lucky to have you. And you’re lucky to have us. So we’ll figure it out.

And what if they don’t, I say. I’ll be the first stop to fucking up their lives.

Eli stops chewing. He gives me a look. And it’s the most earnest I’ve ever seen him.

No one person is responsible for a life, Eli says. You can’t put that on yourself. We’re all each other’s responsibilities.

And the time will pass either way, Shanté says, smiling at me, and despite every muscle in my face I try to smile back.

The matron hands off a large bottle with three glasses. We pass it among us, topping one another off.

And then, one day, an argument explodes in the back of my classroom.

I’m helping a few of the students with some vocabulary when Shota raises his voice. That’s rare enough to have me immediately looking up. But what happens next feels quicker than it actually is: a shuffling of tables, some shouting, and a clatter of rubber on the tile.

Shota has Asa on his back, leaning against a desk with an arm wrapped around his neck. They’re struggling. Kicking out their legs. Asa’s taller, but Shota’s low to the ground, and knocking a fist against the top of Asa’s nose.

Everyone else is silent. For a second, I wonder if I’ll actually have to step in.

But then Shota throws his hands up, letting Asa go entirely.

The other students gawk. Then Asa stands, shoving tables out of his way, bolting toward the door.

When he’s gone, everyone in the room turns to me.

But I hold Shota’s gaze, to see if he’ll turn my way. And he doesn’t. He only rubs his palms on his pants, breathing low and heavy.

In Ken’s office, I stand by the door while Shota sits in a chair. It’s the most irate I’ve ever seen Ken. His knuckles grind the top of his desk. He asks if Shota knows that what he’s done is unacceptable, and Shota nods, staring down at his sneakers.

But the mood doesn’t hold. And Ken simply sighs, running a hand over his face. When his features reappear, they’re as calm as usual.

Shota gets a dismissal: he won’t be able to finish the year. And his family won’t be receiving a refund. All Shota does is nod along, keeping his eyes on the ground. And, when Ken dismisses him, Shota stands without a word, nodding again before he reaches for the door, and I try catching his eye but he’s already gone.

Which leaves Ken and me in the office.

You know what, I say, Asa’s a dickhead.

You’re swearing again, Ken says.

It’s probably not even Shota’s fault.

And you know that for sure?

No, I say.

O.K., then, Ken says. But it’s unacceptable either way. Will Shota put every asshole he comes across in a choke hold?

All of a sudden, every bone inside me feels electric. Like I could just pop from the energy.

I’m just saying that a dismissal is harsh, I say.

My hands are tied, Ken says. And you of all people should know that.

What does that mean, I say, and Ken narrows his eyes.

Ken considers what he’s about to say. Then he shakes his head, seemingly deciding against it.

Look, I say, you have to let him finish the year.

Are you sure about that, Ken says.

You have to. This is his last chance. You said that yourself.

Shota really should’ve thought about that before he put his hands on—

Ken, I say. Please. I’m not saying what he did wasn’t wrong. I’m asking you to do this kid a solid. And me, too.

Ken stares from across the desk. Wringing his hands. Like he’s genuinely uncertain.

Shota’s suspended for the week, Ken says. That can’t change. But he can stay on until the end of the year.

Just that quickly, the energy inside me dissipates.

I start to exhale, but I manage to keep it down.

Great, I say. But it won’t matter if he fails out afterward. So—

We’ll see after his final practice exams, Ken says. Pass those first.

O.K. But maybe if—

This is the best I can do, Ken says. And it’s already too much.

Fine, then, I say. We’ll make it work.

You’ll have to, Ken says.

In the hallway, Shota’s grinding his shoe against the wall. He ignores me until I’m standing beside him, and even then he doesn’t look up.

Hey, I say, you can go back in. Ken will talk to you about the next few weeks.

Shota nods, once. But I don’t step away from the door. And then he finally looks up, wiping at his eyes.

Why’d you do it, I say.

Does it matter, Shota says.

To me it does.

That doesn’t mean anything.

Fine, I say. Whatever. But you can’t just—

My dad died last year, Shota says. Everyone knows that. Or they seem to. I don’t know how that happened, but it did, and that’s why I’m working while my mom is sick. But Asa said it deserved to happen.

Shota says this as plainly as he’s describing the weather. He doesn’t look upset, or serious, or anything like that.

Asa called my dad a beggar, Shota says, and my mom a whore. But no one did anything about it. They just let him say those things. Like it was nothing. I felt like, if I didn’t do anything about it, then the words would be true.

A train rattles along in the distance. And some laughter wanders over from the next block over, but it’s far enough away not to work its way in between us.

I wonder, for a second, what I’d do if someone said something like that about Vic.

Talk to Ken, I say, and get home safe.

Shota glances at me for a second. Then he nods, opening the door back to the school.

You always do this, Vic says. Getting too fucking involved.

That night, I immediately logged in to the server. The map it brought me to was in flames. Magma and roasted rock popped across the screen. And now Vic looms above me, floating over the fire. I drift beside him, careful to watch my step.

I didn’t ask for your advice, I say.

You wouldn’t have told me about this shit if you didn’t want to hear it.

I’m just trying to do right by the people that I can.

But that’s the thing. There’s always a limit. You should know that better than anyone.

Vic’s appearance hasn’t changed in the slightest: he still only ever wears black. A coat covers him to his ankles. But, as we fly over the fire, he looks almost uncertain.

After an hour of looping in circles, I realize that we’re probably lost.

We’ve literally reached the end of the world. If there’s a tavern to investigate, we’ve cleared it. If there are caves to excavate, we’ve swept through them. And all in pursuit of whatever Vic’s searching for, something he still hasn’t entirely revealed to me.

Eventually, we run into a wall of rock. It rises until the pixels become fuzzy, towering impossibly high above us. But all Vic does is extend his hand, raising a single finger, and the structure starts to shake, until a seam opens in the center. The rock separates, cleanly creating a crevice.

I’ve never seen anything like it.

Vic looks entirely unimpressed.

Stay here, he says, drifting ahead, and when I start to follow him he freezes me in place.

So I wait.

And minutes pass.

And Vic still doesn’t return.

But then, all of a sudden, the walls begin to close.

I know I can’t pass through them in time. But I want to try anyway. And the last thing I see as they close in on me is the distance that Vic’s already covered.

When I tell Ren about Shota, he gives me a long look.

That’s horrible, he says.

Right?

Shitty and bad, Ren says, but from the way his voice gives out I know there’s something at the end of it.

I’m lounging beside Kota while his father stands at the stove, frying pork cutlets for the three of us. The kid kicks his legs against the living-room table. He’s fiddling with a jigsaw puzzle. From time to time, he grazes my calf.

Eventually, Ren sets a platter of cutlets in front of us, with bowls of rice and pickles.

Still, though, he adds, isn’t it all a business? Getting bodies out to push new ones in?

Sure, I say. But at the expense of their lives?

I don’t think it’s different anywhere else.

That doesn’t make it a good thing.

The three of us sit cross-legged in a triangle. The television lightly drones beside us. Some kind of strobing game show with entirely too many commentators. It isn’t long before the three of us finish our meals, and when Ren starts prepping Kota for bed the kid turns to me instead.

I give Ren a look. He sighs, but then he nods. So I walk Kota down the hall, and I turn out his light, and when I make it back to the living room Ren’s already cleared our plates.

He reaches for my waistband, quietly. I glance down the hallway. But Ren only shakes his head, and we manage a quick fuck standing up in the kitchen.

A few minutes later, we’re back in the living room. Splayed across the floor. And Ren’s breathing softly, but I try closing my eyes to take it in.

Except I can’t relax for anything.

You’re still upset, Ren says.

If you can believe it, I say.

I get it, Ren says. Really. But, you know, at a certain point you have to let people live their lives. We’ve all got our own shit to deal with.

Ren’s leaning on his elbow, facing me. His forehead’s slightly damp, and some hair falls across it.

I say, But I don’t know if I agree.

You don’t have to, Ren says. But it isn’t like their problems will disappear once you’re through with them. They’ll move on to new problems. And they’ll need to figure out how to navigate them. Maybe a part of getting older is realizing that not all issues can be solved.

I’m not an idiot, I say.

I didn’t say you were, Ren says.

You didn’t have to. I know how things work. These kids are still gonna have to live in the world. And it’ll always be people who have shit working against everyone else who doesn’t.

I’m not disagreeing with you, Ren says, gently. Kota’s in the same boat.

The two of us are still on the floor, facing the ceiling. Our clothes lie in a pile on the sofa behind us. Street sirens roll in through the windows, along with a handful of shouts, and I listen for Kota’s breathing, but all I hear is the television.

People are always going to shit on these guys, I say, given the chance.

You know I’m not disagreeing with you.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell with people.

A beat passes between us. I can feel Ren’s body stiffen.

So, he says, you think I’m people?

I think privilege can cloud your view, I say.

This makes Ren sit up. He narrows his eyes.

That’s not fair, he says, and you know it. You think that Kota and I have it easy?

I think I’m making a distinction that you aren’t equipped to make.

I could say the same thing about you, Ren says.

You should probably stop there, I say.

Fine, Ren says.

And that’s when he adds: I think you’re still living off a tragedy that doesn’t belong to you.

When the words come out, Ren’s face works against him.

But he still spoke them into existence.

So they sit in the air between us.

I manage to roll onto my stomach, picking myself up from the floor.

Hey, Ren says, I didn’t mean that.

I know exactly what you meant, I say.

They’re just words.

But you said them.

Wait, Ren says, and he stands, but when he touches my shoulder I brush it off.

I think I should go, I say.

A commercial about some pill that fixes every ache in your body blares beside us. Ren looks confused, like whatever’s just happened played out entirely too quickly. And I feel exactly the same way. But I don’t know how to stop it.

Then Ren says, Fine. If that’s what you want.

He lets go of my arm. I grab my bag and my phone and my jacket. And I’m stepping into my shoes by the door when I see Kota in the hallway.

He’s peeking from beside the doorframe. When he waves, I wave back, shutting the door behind me.

After graduation, Vic and I moved in together. Our apartment sat just beyond Montrose’s cluster of gay bars. I found a bank gig pretty quickly, and Vic landed a job consulting for an architecture firm downtown.

He bitched about the office’s racism every week. He got the shittiest clients. His peers confused him with the other Black employee. Or they forgot his name entirely. Each day at his job felt like an entire month, and each month felt like its own unending decade.

Compared with my experience, it sounded like a different universe: most of my clientele were barely scraping by. When I saw Black customers, they were either old money or unhoused. Elderly Mexican folks entered our bank with minor fees slowly devouring their savings. Most customers had no savings at all. One time, a Vietnamese woman and her kid counted nickels on my counter to pay for a bill. Another time, a Black woman broke down crying at my counter, because her parents had transferred the entirety of her funds into their own accounts.

My boss didn’t give a fuck about any of them. Or any of his employees. He took every chance he had to remind us that we weren’t shit. Every day was an emergency for someone, and my job was delivering the news with a smile. I had a job, with a roof over my head, and I was losing my fucking mind.

Even still, Vic brought me out to the bars. He partied every week. A single Saturday didn’t pass without him bringing some squad of men back to our place. The guy I’d started seeing taught E.S.L. in Sugar Land, and, when we made it back home from our dates, we’d find Vic snorting blow in the living room. This wasn’t something Vic and I ever spoke about.

One night, my boyfriend woke up for water, and when he came back to bed he wrapped his arms around me and sighed. He said he’d seen Vic and some dude doing T in the kitchen. I told him he’d probably been mistaken. But I started keeping the two of them away from each other, whenever I could.

One night, Vic tried enticing my dude into a threesome with some guy off the apps. I told my boyfriend I’d confront Vic about it, but I never brought it up, and he didn’t, either.

One night, my guy said that dating me was like juggling two different people. I told him he didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about.

And Vic partied harder and harder.

He got reckless with the drugs. The wear on him started to show.

Every other morning, I kicked men out of our apartment, cleaning up bottles and baggies. Eventually, I found a loose syringe.

But I didn’t talk to Vic about any of it.

I just threw everything away.

For all that he’d taught me, and all that I’d learned from him, I wondered if we’d reached the end of our story.

But, on Sunday mornings, after the men had left and the air had cleared and the high had finally settled, I’d wake up to find Vic gaming in the living room. It was one of the habits he’d held on to. I’d pretty much stopped playing with him by then. But, sometimes, I’d brew coffee and sit down on a pillow by the sofa to watch him.

When I asked what he liked about gaming, Vic told me he didn’t have to think as much. Or at all.

This shit makes everything else smaller, he said. Gives you a whole new perspective.

One night, my boyfriend finally ended things. He told me just after we’d finished fucking. Usually, he jumped out of bed immediately after coming, but this time he lingered on the edge.

He told me that he was moving to Busan, where he planned on teaching English. He’d live abroad for a year or two.

What the fuck is in Korea, I asked.

Something else, he said. Not this.

That’s just an excuse, I said.

You could leave, too. If you wanted to.

You’re being fucking ridiculous. And that’s just a fucking excuse.

And I’ll never forget the look he gave me in response. It felt a lot like pity.

A few weeks later, he was gone. I dropped him off at I.A.H. My boyfriend crossed through the security checkpoint, and he didn’t look back.

When I made it home, Vic was waiting on the sofa, smiling.

You don’t even know how long I’ve been waiting for this, he said.

I’m fucking sad, I said. Let me be sad.

Fuck that. You can be a sad bitch in the club. I’m gonna give you the night of your life.

Vic told me we were going to get royally fucked up—and, for once, I didn’t disagree.

We started off by pregaming at our place, mixing Adderall and Molly and rum. Vic shepherded me through all of it. I didn’t know what I could handle. And, after I took a tab, we hit our first bar on the edge of Montrose, and every few minutes Vic asked if I felt anything, but I promised him that I didn’t.

So we hit another club. And then another. We drank more, and, when Vic pulled a baggie of coke from his jacket, I dabbed a bit on my nose. Once the last bar finally closed, Vic drove us to the bathhouse, where he disappeared into the halls immediately after checking in, leaving me to dodge the men hunched in every other corner. Everyone was nice enough, but I didn’t feel like fucking anyone. And I didn’t feel like anyone fucking me. So I simply sat in the sauna, lost entirely to myself, sinking into something like a cloud.

Vic found me an hour later, stuck in an orgy that he pulled me out of. He cleaned me off in the showers, and we got in the car, with plans to head toward a Waffle House—but not before I asked Vic if he had any more coke.

He made the first look of concern I’d seen from him all evening. But he passed me the baggie anyway. I took a bump on the dashboard.

I-45 was empty. The sky above us was blue. And we didn’t recognize the sirens behind us until the cop got on his loudspeaker.

He told us to slow down, but it took Vic a moment, gently steering his way to the lip of the highway.

The cop was blond, with sharp eyes. He gave Vic a perfect once-over. Then he told us to step out of the car, and I asked why that mattered, but the cop only repeated himself.

Vic unbuckled his seat belt. He told me I should probably agree. But I was high, and I told the cop to fuck himself, and the cop told me he wasn’t asking either of us again. But I remember his voice shaking, and Vic reached over to unbuckle my seat belt, and that’s when I stepped out and the cop walked over and shoved me against the window and cuffed me.

The cop asked about searching the car. Vic told him no. The man put a finger to his chest. And it was only another moment before two more uniforms arrived, keeping their eyes on me while they all questioned Vic.

But Vic had the answers for everything. He appeared reasonably sober. And he told the cops that he was simply driving me home, no matter how much they pressed him.

Since he wasn’t the fucked-up one, the most they could do was glare. In the end, they wrote him only a ticket for unsafe driving.

We’ll probably see you again anyway, the first cop said, and he gave Vic a long look before he uncuffed me.

And then, just like that, we were alone on the road again.

I sat in the passenger seat. Vic breathed beside me. And then his breathing turned to heaving, which became wheezing, until he was slumped over on the steering wheel.

It was the first time I’d ever seen him cry, and I wrapped my arms around him.

You’re fine, I said, you’re fine. See? You’re O.K.

Vic nodded through his tears. Our car sat on the highway’s lip. A steady stream of drivers cruised around us. And I kept repeating myself until the sun began to rise, and the blue seeping above us became orange.

A few days before my students’ final practice exam, I call in sick. My limbs feel like weights. Can’t even raise my shoulders. So I spend most of the day in bed, and, when I wake up in the evening, I spot a message from Shanté.

They seem ready, she writes.

Is that your professional opinion, I write, or are you just being a friend?

Could be both, Shanté says, signing off with a 😯.

A day later, the rain begins. Sheets of water paint my windows, and it storms in Osaka until well into the evening. Entirely out of season.

I think about texting Ren. Just to see how he’s feeling. Or to ask how Kota’s holding up. But I can’t bring myself to hit Send, because I figure that door is shut.

And that’s when I hear knocking on my door. At first, it sounds like thunder. But it’s Shanté and Eli, shaking in rain jackets, holding bags from 7-Eleven.

Don’t look so happy to see us, Shanté says.

Do you know what a fucking headache this was, Eli says. To come all the fucking way here?

You could’ve called, I say.

You wouldn’t have answered, Eli says.

Just be grateful, Shanté says. Act like you’re going to cry or something.

We set up shop on the floor, cracking open beers. Shanté brought groceries, and Eli stands by the stove, cobbling together the kimchi and potatoes and pork under boiling water. He stirs in some packaged dashi I’ve kept in the cupboard for fuck knows how long. The aroma fills my apartment. It’s enough to get me moving.

You’re a secret chef, I say.

Fuck you, Eli says. I used to cook for my parents. They had this restaurant, blah blah. My dad only ever cooked Japanese food, but my mom was always talking about missing Busan, and whenever she got too homesick she’d cook a spread after service for all of us. So I cook only two or three things. But it’s Shanté’s turn next time.

Cute story, Shanté says, but the kitchen’s none of my business. I’ll eat whatever you serve, though.

Eventually, Eli sets bowls in front of us, filling them with kimchi stew. And we eat slowly, sipping our beer, allowing the rain to play its soundtrack overhead. It’s hard to believe that something like this came together in my home, with the kitchen I’ve lived with for years.

Shanté and Eli tell me about their testing: it’s gone smoothly enough. But their contracts still haven’t been renewed.

It’s gotta happen, Eli says.

Nobody has to do anything, Shanté says.

Who the fuck else would take this job but us, Eli says.

Then I feel a vibration in my sweats.

I pull out my phone, and it’s a message from Ren.

He asks how I am. I send him a photo of the soup bowls in front of us.

Kota asked me to send you this, he writes, and there’s a video attached, and also a voice message.

I glance across the table. Shanté and Eli are complaining among themselves. But they’re vaguely aware of me, giving me space.

I write: Are you ok?

Ren writes: I think so, it’s a newer building.

Then I write: Are we ok?

And there’s silence, for a moment.

But Ren responds: Don’t listen to the message now. Do that later.

Which seems fair enough.

So I play the video instead.

Ren’s holding the camera. It wavers in his grasp. But I can see his apartment, messy as usual, and Kota’s dancing by the window, gawking at the rain. Lightning strikes, and the kid screams, laughing. He turns from the window to the camera to the window again.

I play the video once, and then once again, until Eli and Shanté crowd around me, asking what the fuck I’m smiling about.

A few hours later, I play Ren’s message:

Hey, he says. I hate this phone, you know?

But listen. I never told you about Hiroko and I, yeah? Even though you’ve asked a million times. And you stopped once I finally said to. She and I used to run my sister’s place. It used to be ours. After we made it back from Australia. I ran the front of house, and Hiroko did all of the cooking. We were never exactly busy, but we always stayed afloat. I think that’s because people loved her food. And also, I think, the space we’d made together.

Hiroko and I grew up on the same block. She lived next door. And she knew I was gay. I told her in high school. She never wanted a husband, not really, even though her parents pushed her to find one. She always wanted a family, though. Hiroko just didn’t know what it looked like yet. So after we went to college she fell into her parents’ business, and I studied computing in the city, and one day she asked me to marry her. She said we’d kill two birds with a stone. Get everyone off our backs. I was worried that I couldn’t satisfy her, but she told me that didn’t matter. She didn’t care about that. So I agreed.

Things were fine for the first few years. Or, they were tough as hell, but we figured it out. Sydney was good to us. We could afford to travel. I took a boyfriend every now and then. Hiroko never said a word about it, because she had her own thing going. And then, later, we ran the restaurant together during the day and slept in separate beds at night. Even during the hardest times, it seemed like we could do it indefinitely. Then, one day, cleaning up the register, my wife told me that she was pregnant.

Obviously, I wasn’t the father. And Hiroko said she didn’t want to raise the kid with him. She wanted us to be a family.

But I was livid. I asked her for a divorce. I’d stay at the restaurant, and I’d be there for the kid when she needed me. But this felt like a lie, a lie that I hadn’t agreed to, and I’ll never forget Hiroko’s face when she agreed to separate. I started looking for apartments that week, and I found one a few train stops from the restaurant. Just far enough to be inconvenient. It’s where we live now. I didn’t think I’d still be here.

Nothing really changed, though. Hiroko and I kept working. Our regulars kept coming in. No one noticed the difference. Eventually, Hiroko took a leave for her pregnancy, and my sister filled in for her, because she’d gotten sick of her office gig in Fukuoka, and when Kota was born he looked like the spitting image of his mother. He never did anything but smile.

We lived like this for a few years. Hiroko had gotten what she wanted. A family that looked exactly the way that she wanted to. And, when she found out she was sick, she didn’t tell me about it for months. I went to work and left like usual. Spent time with Kota. Watched him grow up. And Hiroko kept that news inside of her. She just smiled, as if nothing was wrong. And nothing had changed. And, later, at the hospital, when I asked how she could possibly do that, she told me that it wasn’t my business. The reasons were hers to keep. But she was happy.

Hiroko was thinking things though. Figuring out how she wanted to live the rest of her life. She was sick, but Hiroko was still Hiroko, and she didn’t give a fuck about what other people thought. She moved through the world like that. And it adjusted around her. People adjusted. Hiroko told me she wished that she’d known earlier that they would. And, near the end, she made me promise to take care of Kota. A few days later, she died.

Hiroko didn’t take what people thought of her with her. I don’t think that’s what mattered to her in her life. I’ve learned a lot from her—I’m still learning so much from her—but that was important to me. And it’ll never stop being important to me.

Kota knows I’m not his blood father. I told him, because I thought he needed to know. It’s why, I think, he just quieted up. It’s like he’s still processing. Still figuring it out. But he wouldn’t open up, not for a long time, unless it was around you. And he’s gotten a little quieter since you’ve been gone.

I just needed to tell you all of that. I haven’t talked about any of this since it happened. But I thought you should know. It felt like something I needed to share. Hopefully, the rain stops soon. And that you feel better, too.

A few days later, my symptoms clear up. Just enough to make it back to school for the final practice exam.

Eli texts: It’s a Christmas miracle.

I text: We’re weeks away from that shit.

Shanté texts: You need to take it easy 😮‍💨.

I’m hardly feeling all the way there. But I’m able to make the train, tightening the mask around my face, and when I step into his office Ken takes one look at me and winces.

But he hands me a folder with my class’s tests anyway.

Good luck, he says.

Too late for that, I say.

It can never hurt, Ken says, shaking his head.

The students are quiet once I step through the door. It’s the most serious I’ve ever seen them. I pass them their tests, nodding at each desk, counting out every copy, until I realize that I have one left.

Shota isn’t here.

A handful of the guys look at me. My eyes immediately turn to Asa, but he shrugs.

Get started, I tell them, and I reach for my phone.

It’s another twenty minutes before Eli arrives. He looks like he’s just woken up, as if he fell into his clothes. I nod at the students in the classroom as I step outside, jamming my foot in the door.

This is bullshit, Eli says.

I know.

Bullshit. Calling me on my day off.

I know.

Are you sure? Bec—

I’m asking only for an hour, I say. That’s all. If you weren’t going to do it, you wouldn’t have shown up.

Are you even allowed to leave them, Eli says.

No one’s leaving them, I say. You’ll be here.

Eli crosses his arms. Then his face softens, just a bit.

Fifty-nine minutes and counting, he says, and walks into the classroom, shutting the door behind him.

All of a sudden, the neighborhood feels like an unfamiliar place. Like I haven’t been walking through it for months now.

Shota could be literally anywhere.

And I only know where he isn’t.

But I still feel like the least I can do is try.

So I sprint the length of the street, headed toward the station, tagging along behind the flow of foot traffic. But I decide on another direction, dipping down an alley and past a series of printshops, and I pass an Okinawan diner decked in a pastel-blue font. Some trees materialize as I jog by some old folks in the park, and that’s when a chill sets in, and my thighs start feeling entirely too heavy, but I throw one foot in front of the other, wiping at the sweat on my arms.

Then it happens: I spot Shota two blocks away, walking out of the FamilyMart. He’s got a bag of snacks in one hand and a soda in the other, and when he catches my eye you’d think we were passing each other in the hallway.

Hey, he says.

Hey, I say.

And he proceeds to walk in the opposite direction.

Then, a few feet later, he turns around to see if I’m following.

So I do.

The sun’s started to shrink behind a handful of clouds. We walk beside old folks strolling alone, mirroring one another’s steps. We walk by mothers with children. We walk by a man swearing into his phone. Eventually, Shota turns into a residential neighborhood, until we end up at a tiny park dotted with “No Smoking” signs.

He plunks down on a bench, putting his plastic bag in the center. I settle onto the other side.

It’s overcast and muggy. The soil is damp. Some dad playing with his toddler glances our way, turning around as his son twists halfway down a slide. Shota reaches into his bag, tears an egg-salad sandwich in half, and offers it to me.

So, he says, I guess you’re not gonna yell at me.

No reason to, I say. Seems like you’ve made up your mind.

Thanks, Shota says. I guess.

Don’t worry about it, I say. I know what you’re going through.

Shota turns to me, wincing. Like how the fuck could I possibly. But he doesn’t say anything, taking another bite of his sandwich instead.

The toddler spots a little girl and her mother. He races toward them while his father follows.

I say, You remind me of a friend I had. Back in the States.

And you aren’t friends anymore, Shota says.

We are, I say. It’s just different.

So you fell out.

In a manner of speaking. He’s super charismatic though. Really thoughtful. Funny.

The opposite of me, Shota says.

Exactly like you, I say. I really admired him. And, if I’m honest, I wanted to be just like him.

The two kids embrace each other and laugh. Their parents watch from a distance.

So you’re saying I’m an inspiration, Shota says.

Sure, I say. My friend liked to say that nothing is promised until it actually happens. And even then it still isn’t guaranteed. He lived his whole life that way.

Sounds smart, Shota says.

It does, I say. But he was wrong.

Shota frowns. He crumples the plastic wrapping of the sandwich. A train chimes in the background behind us, quieting again after a minute.

Not knowing isn’t a good enough reason not to try, I say. It’s a reason. But not a good one. Because the mystery could go both ways. If we don’t step toward it, the future remains a void. One big nothing. And we have no way of knowing what’s there until we’ve arrived. What’s on the other side could be exactly what we expected, maybe. But it could also be something we never could’ve imagined. It could be beyond anything we have language for at the time.

At this point, my hands are shaking. And I can feel Shota noticing. But he doesn’t say anything, so I take another bite of the sandwich, and, eventually, he does, too.

We sit watching the kids. They chase each other in circles. The man and woman stand beside each other—just an arm’s length away, but definitely apart.

Your friend sounds smarter, Shota says.

He probably is, I say.

I get you, though, Shota says. I guess.

Then you’re already a lot further along than me.

You didn’t have to tell me that. I already knew.

Then Shota stands, stretching. He turns to me, crossing his arms.

Listen, he says, would I even have time to finish?

Well, I say. That depends entirely on you.

I’m already late.

That’s true.

Most people finish at the last minute.

That’s also true, I say. But, look, I add, do you want to try?

And Shota pauses for a moment before he nods, stuffing his fists in his jacket.

A few months after we ran into the cops, Vic left me a voice mail.

We hadn’t seen each other much since then. Our lease had come up. Neither of us had suggested renewing it together, and Vic made more than enough to carry the place on his own. I moved across the city—closer to Bellaire, and to the bank—to a neighborhood whose rhythms were all taquerías and pawnshops and Chinese markets.

Driving out to the gayborhood became a hassle.

Once I was far enough away from that energy, it softened.

Vic and I texted from time to time. Sometimes we called. Every few weekends, we might meet up for dinner. Vic looked well, and he smiled just the same, laughing in his easy way—but he always looked a little distracted. Taking off immediately afterward. Which told me that he’d fallen into old habits.

Sometimes I asked if he wanted to have me over. But Vic only ever shrugged and shook his head.

Because he didn’t need me anymore.

He really had moved on.

And I decided, eventually, that I would, too.

Even still, we played online. That was where I saw Vic. We lived our friendship through the server’s universe.

Sometimes, late at night, wrapping up my work from home, I’d spot his username blinking in the corner of my screen. And I’d log in to find Vic floating from one map to another. I’d join him, floating alongside him, trying not to get in his way, and we didn’t complete missions together. Didn’t challenge other parties. Didn’t even talk, really—but that proximity was enough.

Sometimes Vic played music. The sounds of his apartment seeped into my headset. They’d lull me asleep from across the city—across the world—until I woke up to a blank screen blinking back at me.

The last time I heard from Vic was in that voice mail. We’d made plans to grab dinner, but I’d got sick with a cough. All morning, the bank’s only other teller threw glances my way, until my boss finally e-mailed me from his office: FUCKING GO HOME.

I texted Vic that I wouldn’t make it out. He replied instantly that it was no problem. Then I drove home, put a kettle on the stove, and collapsed on the sofa before it boiled.

When I woke up, around midnight, I had nine missed calls from an unknown number. And texts from the same sender. But I ignored them, nodding off again.

Then, a few hours later, my cell started vibrating, waking me up.

I texted back, asking who it was.

Vic’s sister.

By the time I called her back, she told me that they’d already moved Vic’s body.

The overdose seemed accidental. He’d simply, probably, taken too much. Vic hadn’t left a note, or a will, and his sister told me I was one of the few contacts saved in his phone. So she thought I should know. Then she gave me her address. Told me she’d send the funeral details once she had them.

When I hung up, the first thing I did was make tea. The water was lukewarm. But I reached for a mug, steeping a bag in it anyway.

Vic’s funeral was a week later. They held it out in Waco, near his childhood home. The first two rows were filled with people I’d never heard of. I sat in the back, and, when his mother passed by his casket, she didn’t fall out or scream or burst into flames or anything like that. She just looked down at him. Then she moved on. As the line to view formed, his sister turned my way, motioning me forward.

But I shook my head no.

I didn’t know it would happen until the moment arrived.

And Vic’s sister only nodded, turning back toward the line.

I sat for another five minutes. Then I stood, shut the door gently behind me, got in my car, and drove home.

That evening, I received an e-mail: my packet to teach abroad had been approved.

The next day, I sent my letter of resignation to the bank. My boss didn’t try to persuade me to stay.

After I pressed Send, the feeling that warmed my chest felt the same as when I heard about Vic. I wasn’t sure how that was possible. Or how I could be the same person who’d got both pieces of information.

And that was when I realized that I still had on his coat.

When the tears finally came, I didn’t know they were mine. And I didn’t wipe them away until they ended.

I walk Shota back to the school, but I don’t follow him inside.

He gives me a look, and then a nod.

I throw him a thumbs-up.

When he steps inside, I turn around, walking to the station, catching my line back home.

But, when the train reaches my stop, I don’t get off. The seats empty around me, then fill again. The buildings out the windows slowly start to thin out. They grow less modern, before disappearing altogether, becoming grassy fields and hills and rain-worn department stores.

Eventually, the intercom lets us know that we’ve arrived at Nara. It’s the farthest that I’ve ridden since coming to Osaka.

And that’s when Eli texts me.

All done, he writes. Turned in the tests.

From everyone, I ask.

Yah, Eli writes. Even the little shit. You owe me infinite beers for this.

And a kiss.

The beer is fine.

💗💗💗

There’s a feeling in my chest. One I haven’t felt in years. A low anticipatory buzzing. The kind I don’t know what to do with.

So I stand. Then I sit down. But, before the doors close, I dash onto the platform, and wait for the other line to take me back home, because I figure that I’ve ridden far enough.

That night, the first thing I do is log in to the server. It’s hardly a surprise that Vic’s already waiting. But, for once, he’s beaming.

We’ve got a long way to go today, he says.

Then we should get started, I say.

We glide across an ocean. Vic moves at an easy pace. I float just behind him, rising and falling with the waves below us. Eventually, a speck in the distance forms. It grows into a large plot of land. And that land turns out to be an island, with a wooden door in the center of a mound of cascading sand dunes.

I turn to Vic. He looks entirely unfazed. And, when he opens the door, vegetation spills from its frame.

Fuck, I say.

Yeah, Vic says. We’ve reached the server’s core.

Wouldn’t the shit be in Iowa or something?

No, Vic says. It’s here.

Fronds shift as we pass them, until they’ve surrounded the two of us. It’s the clearest resolution I’ve experienced in this world, but the green life extends past everything, and I can barely see where Vic’s motions end and mine begin.

Listen, I say, pushing past leaves. I’ve been thinking.

That’s new, Vic says.

Maybe you’re looking for a way back?

Hunh.

But I don’t think you’re going to find it.

I step slowly, but the fronds continue shifting around me. They’re so loud that I’m not sure if Vic’s paused, too.

But I can hear his breathing. I know he can’t be too far.

Now you’re just being fucking stupid, Vic says.

I don’t think so, I say. Because I think I’ve been looking for that, too. A way back for you.

And what’s worth coming back to, Vic says. Tell me one thing.

Life doesn’t work like that.

Typical.

Then you just want to stay here?

Stasis isn’t natural, Vic says. And I already told you. This is enough.

The two of us reach a clearing. A patch with no foliage. Vic kneels on the ground, sifting the dirt with his palms.

We’re here to destroy it, Vic says.

What, I say.

We’re burning the core. That’s what I’ve been looking for. It’ll be instant and irreparable.

That’s not what you said!

I know. But it’s what we’re doing.

I don’t think that’s how this works.

You wouldn’t fucking know, Vic says. But you’re about to find out. The server won’t crash overnight, but rupturing this space will damage it. The lags will be small at first. And then unignorable. This place will be uninhabitable in a week. Maybe even a few days.

Vic continues feeling through the soil. I step closer toward him, watching my footing.

But we’re not the only ones on here, I say. You’ve seen the people we’ve passed.

Fuck them, Vic says.

We don’t know shit about them, I say. This could be a refuge for them, and whatever they’re dealing with in their lives. They could fucking be just like us. They might need this space, too.

With this, Vic stops feeling through the dirt. He forms two fists.

Let me tell you something I’ve learned, he says. In all this time away. You have to be O.K. with not knowing things. Sometimes we don’t need to know. It’s natural to think you do, but you don’t, and you’ll be better off for it.

Victor, I say, did you bring me here to punish me?

Vic looks up, blinking. It’s the most human expression I’ve seen him make.

For what, Vic says.

You know what, I say.

But I want to hear you say it.

For not being there.

At that, Vic shakes his head, laughing.

You couldn’t hurt me if you tried, he says. Any blame you feel is with yourself. It’s stupid.

I give him a long look. He seems like he means it.

But the words aren’t convincing.

It isn’t stupid, I say.

It’s fucking stupid, Vic says, and, for the very first time, I strike him.

The arrow doesn’t pierce him entirely.

But it grazes his elbow.

He looks almost as shocked as I do.

And I’m winding up to fire another one, but Vic snaps his fingers, and the foliage around me starts to rise, constricting my limbs. The branches lift me, until I’m aerial, alongside Vic. He floats above a loose branch, wiping his hands, and the foliage tightens, but not before I fire a second arrow, straight into his chest.

The leaves slacken entirely. Vic drops to his knees. He doesn’t smile. But he doesn’t look dismayed, either. It’s a face I’ve never seen from him before. The saddest grin I’ve ever seen.

Bits of his avatar begin flaking beside him. It starts at his shoulders, crumbling down to his toes. And I realize that he’s dying, somehow, again, and it’s enough for me to panic, and I’m rummaging through my bag for a cure, but before I can apply anything I hear him cry out, and I feel the lightning when it strikes me, knocking me off my feet, blackening my vision, and then I’m back in my apartment as the screen blinks off entirely, leaving me alone in the dark.

December’s final weeks roll to a mellow chill. Streets began clearing out earlier. The lights from restaurants and bars shine on the road even brighter.

This is my fourth winter in Osaka.

But I really fucking appreciate the distance from Christmas pageantry.

One morning, I get a text from my mom. She’s asking about my plans for the New Year. And I don’t have the heart to tell her I’ve got nothing going on, so I send back a bunch of skyscraper photos instead.

She writes back, Incredible!

And then, Make sure you don’t spend it alone!

The class’s results are posted just before the semester holiday: incongruously, impossibly, everyone passes.

Most of the scores are perfectly average. Only a handful of students barely scrape by.

Yuudai’s and Asa’s are near the top of the class.

Despite being an hour late, Shota sits squarely in the middle.

We celebrate by throwing a tiny party in class. I bring tea and soft drinks for everyone, with pastries from a bakery in Shanté’s neighborhood. The year’s ending, but the mood feels like a regular day: groups of twos and threes of the students are lost in conversation. Only a few pay attention as I babble about farewells in English. Asa makes sure to let me know it’s the worst party he’s ever seen.

But we have, despite everything, created our own little world in the class.

And now it’s coming to an end.

Before the final bell, I tell everyone to take care. And, for one of the first times all year, everyone pays attention. No one cracks a joke. No one says anything dumb. But it feels like uncertainty’s clouded the room. No one knows what’s going to come next.

Listen, I say. You’ll all be fine. If you remember nothing else from this, going into your entrance exams, please trust yourselves. Trust your judgment.

Then why didn’t you just say that to begin with, Asa says.

You wouldn’t have believed me, I say.

And then, a little quieter, I add: I wouldn’t have believed me.

I don’t mean to speak so honestly. It’s enough to make me cough. But a few of the students nod. A couple more look flustered.

And then, taking off from the classroom, they don’t all leave at once. The students depart in singles and pairs, saying goodbye before they go, telling me to take care. I tell them all to stay safe.

Yuudai and Shota hang back while I pack. I ask what their plans are for the holidays, and Yuudai beams.

My father’s in Tokyo, he says. My grandparents and I are gonna visit.

Sounds fun, I say.

I hate Tokyo. Nobody smiles.

Well, I say. You’ll be there. Show them how.

Shota grimaces. Then he shrugs.

Well, he says, I’ll be at the res—

I know, I say. They’re lucky to have you.

For a second, Shota looks surprised. Then the expression disappears just as quickly.

But my mom and I are going on vacation afterward, he says. To Thailand.

What the hell, Yuudai says.

I’ve never been abroad, Shota says. It’ll be my first trip. We’ve been saving up for it.

You’ll enjoy it, I say. Take lots of pictures.

Both of them linger in the doorway before they leave. They tell me that they’ll visit, and to stay safe, and I tell them I’ll try. But it takes me a few more minutes to pack, and once I manage that I sit on top of my desk.

It’s an entirely different room when it’s empty.

Like its own blank fucking slate.

Then I wipe my face, taking in the silence, before I turn off the lights.

Before I take off, Ken flags me down. He’s got his hands in his pockets. And he’s not wearing his glasses, which knocks a few years off his face.

We stand in the hallway, shuffling a little awkwardly.

He tells me that my contract will, in fact, be renewed.

A New Year’s miracle, I say.

Hardly, Ken says. You did good. And your students, too.

Mostly them.

Yeah. Mostly them.

And they still have to pass their actual tests.

Sure. But it’s on them now. There are some things we all have to do on our own. Here’s a question, though. Would you be open to a two-year option?

The question catches me so off guard that I gasp. Ken grins, toeing a foot into the space between us.

Only if you want to, he says. But you did a nice job this year. Really. And the students actually like you. We’d be lucky if you stayed.

I give Ken a once-over. For once, the building seems entirely silent.

Can I think about it, I say.

I’d be disappointed if you didn’t, he says.

He tells me to take until after the New Year.

Congrats, he says. Make sure you don’t celebrate alone.

That night, back at my place, I log in to the server.

Not for any particular reason.

I just want to see.

But, after a few minutes, the screen still sits frozen.

Then I get an error message.

The server’s been disabled.

A white message on a black background says the licensing has expired.

I re-start the program. But I get the same message. So I try a third time, and then a fourth, but there’s no change at all.

Hey, I say. I’m pretty sure you can hear me.

Or maybe you’ve never been able to hear me, I say. Maybe that’s the point. But it doesn’t matter now.

I just need to tell you that I’m sorry, I say. And I’m sorry that it took me so long to say that. And that it came to all of this. But I’m grateful for you, too.

And I won’t forget you, I say. Every day for the rest of my life, I’ll be thinking about you. Even if you don’t think about me. But I’m hoping that you do. That’s the only thing I want.

Then I sit in the silence.

The audio’s on mute, but the cursor feels as if it’s thumping, nonetheless.

I reach for a series of keys, hitting them in tandem, and it’s enough to delete the program. Then I finally turn it off.

Outside, I can hear the family beside me counting. It sounds like a birthday song. Once they’ve reached the end, their kid’s cheer fills the room like a bell.

The night before the New Year, I’m ducking off the main road heading toward the station: it’s entirely packed. Sidewalks are filled with couples arm in arm. Groups of guys lope across the roads, half drunk. Tourists gaggle together in clumps, and I hook a turn by Dōtonbori, down one side street until it leads to another, to a tiny local shrine.

It’s my last visit of the year. I’m not dressed for the weather. But I reach into my pocket for a coin and toss it as an offering.

I don’t know what to pray for.

Or who.

Maybe being here is enough.

When I turn to leave, a pair of older women come into the shrine after me. We take each other in, and then they nod, and I nod back. But I’m not out of earshot before I hear them chattering.

I lug a 7-Eleven bag into the elevator, and my hands are freezing when I make it to my place. But the apartment is warm: Shanté and Eli are huddled by the television. Eli’s dressed in the same sweats he’s worn most of the week at my place, sleeping on the sofa because he didn’t want me spending the holiday by myself. Shanté just made her way back from a night out, wearing a glossy blue gown and a pink coat with bangles. They’re watching variety performances leading up to the New Year’s countdown, sharing a blanket and a bowl of peanuts between them.

We told you not to go out, Eli says.

You wanted beer, I say. Now there’s beer.

We’d have managed, Eli says.

Just say thank you, Shanté says. Is that too hard?

That’s not fair, Eli says. You just came back from—

And now I’m here with y’all, Shanté says. Aren’t you grateful?

For your presence? Eternally.

Then act like it, Shanté says, laughing.

It’ll just be another minute, Ren says from the stove.

He’s flipping over some noodles he picked up from his sister. Every now and then, he glances my way and asks me to taste them. Kota sits under a pile of blankets beside the television, turning between his father and my friends arguing at the screen.

The evening came together out of nowhere: Ren asked what I was doing for the New Year. Then he suggested that we spend it together.

Kota’s never seen your place before, he said, matter-of-factly.

Just like that, this thing which had stood between us dissolved.

I crack open a bottle of beer and pour glasses for everyone. And, once Ren’s finished, the five of us crowd in the living room, sipping noodles while the television drones on.

Alone in my apartment, the space feels like it’s hardly large enough for me. The warmth from so many other people is something I haven’t felt in a long time.

All of a sudden, Kota coughs once, and then once again.

He can’t catch his breath. We don’t know if it’s the noodles. We stand up, making a circle around him, giving him room.

Are you all right, guy, Eli says.

Get him some water, Shanté says.

Kota, his father says. Kota?

Give him the chance to get some air, I say.

Now, somehow, all four of us are standing around the kid, making space. His back is shaking, rising and falling, and it’s a sound I’ve never heard from him—but it’s only then that I realize why.

Because the kid’s fucking laughing.

It’s a small sound at first, plunking along. Then the laughter rolls into something larger, filling the spaces between us.

I’m O.K., Kota says. I’m fine.

It’s just spicy, he says, pointing at his bowl and wiping his mouth.

But then he takes another bite. His cheeks are warm.

It’s the sort of thing that Vic would’ve called ridiculous. A bunch of fuss about nothing.

But we’re allowed to be wrong.

Sometimes it’s inevitable.

That’s something I learned from him, too.

There is one memory that I carry of him.

And that I’ll keep carrying.

Regardless of whether I stay in Osaka.

Or with Eli and Shanté and Kota.

Or however Ren and I go.

Vic and I are walking farther out from the edge of campus. We walk so far that the houses turn from battered to built up to battered again. We’re passing the bayou, crossing the edge of the woods, and there’s a park with a view of Houston’s skyline, right at the edge of the city, and neither of us says a word about pausing there, but it’s where we begin to slow.

Vic sits on a bench. I nestle beside him. Then he lights a cigarette, and we pass it back and forth. I’m not much of a smoker, and Vic has sworn that this is his final pack, but this is the last cigarette inside it. So we allow it to linger, taking as few drags as possible. Each one is as slow as we can make it.

Eventually, we’ve nearly reached the nub. I sit with it, giving my last pull.

Hey, I say, I love you. Just so you know.

I pass the cigarette to Vic. He doesn’t say a word, just stares over the bayou.

Yeah, he says. I know.

But he doesn’t jump up, either. He doesn’t recoil. When I set my head on his shoulder, he doesn’t jolt me off him, or push me away. And we stay like that, as the sun beats down above us, and the humidity seeps into the air we breathe, the breaths we’re trading back and forth, even now, even still. ♦