The Burdens We Hide (SFW)— Chapter I

Chūshi Oshiba became aware of Aoto Hoshino shortly after moving to Japan. The other young man walked at a measured pace with his head tilted slightly up, thin neck revealing his bobbing Adam’s apple. However, when Chūshi had tried to get closer to the intriguing young man and strike up a conversation, the air around Aoto felt like a black hole, sucking in any and every emotion within a two-meter radius. 

As such neither he nor anyone approached the mysterious young man, ever. And it’s not like you’re any better than the rest of them, Chūshi thought to himself, shouldering his bag and watching the object of his eye cross the quiet street without looking either way.

The sight of Aoto unfiltered made getting up earlier than he normally would worth it. No one else could say that they knew the Aoto Hoshino (seemingly) had conversations with himself. Chūshi always walked far enough away to avoid detection, and therefore too far away to properly eavesdrop. But, he was able to follow closely enough that he could see his lips moving, and feel the edges of the black hole that surrounded the other young man that persisted even when he was alone.

Those moving lips were what drew Chūshi in the most. Plustwo outsiders should stick together

Not only was Chūshi’s name a red flag to the other students that he was different, but his fabled great great great grandmother’s darker complexion persisted for generations no matter how the women in the family tried to dilute it away. Chushi’s father had fled Japan as soon as he could, transferring in high school to study abroad and eventually starting a life in America, planning to never look back. However, when Chūshi’s maternal grandmother fell ill, his father sent him and his mother back to Japan. He pulled strings in such a way that forced Chūshi to a country he’d only engaged with through anime and manga, during his second year of university. His only saving grace was that both his parents made sure to teach him the language throughout his childhood.

The trip down memory lane cost him. Lost in his thoughts, Chushi met slight resistance back in the physical world, and stumbled. Before he could fall completely, an icy hand grabbed his wrist, saving him from the ground but sparing none of his mortification. Embarrassment welled up inside his stomach as he dusted his jeans off. “Sorry.”

There was no one else out here this early in the morning, so he knew who stood before him. They had never been this close before, and Chushi knew that meeting Aoto’s eyes would reduce him to a stuttering mess. He took a step to move past him, but that cold hand gripped him tighter. “What was that?”

“I-I said s-sorry.” Chūshi was by no means small or weak, but something about Aoto’s grip weakened him. He cleared his throat, still boring holes into Aoto’s black tennis shoes with his gaze. “Won’t happen again. So, uh, l-let me go?”

The air, already still, froze. Almost as if Aoto’s black hole rippled and expanded until only the two of them remained. “How can I let you go when you sound unsure of it yourself?”

How can you sound so lifeless and yet so… 

Chūshi didn’t know what to do. He was being laughed at, even though he knew if he looked at Aoto’s face, it’d be as flat as his tone. One thing Chūshi couldn’t stand: being laughed at. Remembering his pride, strength returned to him and he jerked his arm away, finally looking up.

Bottomless pools tempted him behind square glasses, looming larger due to the slight magnification. Chūshi felt his resolve shake, but somehow could tell that his stunned reaction was a cause for Aoto to laugh harder. His expression remained the same though as he waited for Chūshi to respond. Chūshi’s admiration and fascination for Aoto warred with the side of him that wanted to make this geek’s ears burn with shame. Finally, he said, “Your hands are cold as ice dude, guess the rumors about you being a frigid bitch are true.”

Suddenly the sounds of the street rushed over them once more, and off in the distance he could hear a chiming clock. Wordlessly, he pushed past the object of his obsession for the past six months and rushed toward campus. It wasn’t until he sat at his usual seat in the back of the lecture hall that he crashed from the adrenaline. He was grateful for his chair when his muscles morphed into jelly; he couldn’t quite find the strength to grip the zipper on his bag to get his books. He felt alive, but could also see the pearly gates of heaven. Or maybe they were just the lecture hall lights. Either way, everything about him felt unsettled. If someone were to ask him his name, he wouldn’t be able to answer.

Pull it together. He kept repeating the thought over and over as if it’d erase what he said to Aoto. He probably hates me now, he realized, closing his eyes as the professor began class. He tried to pay attention, finally managing to grab at least his notebook and pen, but it just wasn’t in the cards. Both lectures that day passed in a blur, along with the usual stares and gawking. The university, while not large, was large enough that there were a few people who had yet to see the new spectacle. He didn’t have the energy to glare back and rushed along to the cafeteria, vaguely thankful that his classes were done early on Wednesdays. He also liked that by mid-afternoon, the hall was usually empty.

Still dwelling on his gaffe from the morning, he threw random things on his tray. Chūshi sat next to one of the few windows that overlooked the lawn, mindlessly opening a bag of shrimp chips. Students walked at various speeds, some alone, some in larger groups. It made Chūshi miss his friends from home. They still chatted, but it wasn’t the same. He was thirteen hours ahead of them after all. He’d hoped to approach Aoto on the premise of outsiders sticking together. Plus, they had almost two years left in their program. The time would go faster with someone to occasionally study with or whatever.

Maybe I should apologize… He toyed with the idea while chewing and not tasting the usual salty goodness he savored about the snack. Even if I do, I’m not sure I can survive that again. 

Aoto’s eyes were beyond intense, and it dawned on Chūshi why people avoided even looking in Aoto’s direction. That face flashed in his mind again: fine eyebrows over those mesmerizing eyes, a small nose, and thin lips. Aoto’s cheekbones sat high making him appear even more regal up close, especially when juxtaposed with his glasses. How did I miss the glasses?

Chūshi finished the rest of his lunch, still not tasting any of it. He was in such a daze he almost ran into a number of people on his way back home. His father reluctantly agreed to his moving out, only with the stipulation that his new place was no more than a five-minute walk from his mother’s apartment building. “You’re there to support your mother, not party. If your grades drop by even half a point, you’re moving back in. This is your last and only chance. Don’t fuck it up.”

“Maybe I should stop by,” he muttered to himself, the sun beating down on his neck. It had been a few days since he’d visited his mom and he knew he’d be hearing from his father sooner rather than later if he didn’t fix it. Plus I haven’t had a home cooked meal in a while…

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Mrs. Oshiba lived much messier than her only son; at least three days’ worth of dishes festered in the sink. The couch had a variety of items strewn across it, most of them being clothes and shoes. The only part of the mess that didn’t make Chūshi’s skin crawl was the mess of books. There were never enough bookshelves for his mother’s extensive collection. 

The Oshiba library grows again. He couldn’t miss the extra piles stacked on the ground next to the bookshelves. None were there the last time he visited. From the spine labels, he knew his mom had been online manga shopping again.

“Darling, is that you?” A short, wide woman appeared from down the hall. “You’re not skipping again, are you?”

“Remember? Wednesdays I finish early?” His slippers scuffed tatami as he headed for the kitchen, rolling up his sleeves. He hated doing dishes, but the smell of sitting water was worse. And he couldn’t let his mom feed into her negative habits. Though cleaning up behind her every time probably doesn’t help.

“Oh yeah,” she moved in behind him, wrapping her stubby arms around him briefly before walking to the stove that butted up against the wall. “If you’re staying over tonight there’s dinner; I cooked earlier this week. Just warm it up in the oven.”

“Are you going to visit grandmother?” The cleaning gloves slid on with some resistance, stiff from disuse. The sound of the kettle scratching against the rusted metal of the stove hurt Chūshi’s molars and he turned the hot water knob all the way to drown out the sound.

“Yeah, she’s been doing well these past few days.” Her words somehow managed to sound right in his ear, and he felt sad eyes sink into his back. “You could always come with me?”

He tensed against her request.“I have an exam next week so…” The clanging of plates filled the air, underscored by the growing sound of boiling water. “…but uh, maybe after?” He would regret refusing that olive branch later, but he couldn’t swallow the words back up.

“She’ll love to see you again, so just let me know. Call your father before you leave.” 

Just as the kettle began to wail she removed it from the heat and filled her travel mug to the point steam rose in light clouds. She kept facing him and carefully backed out of the kitchen. “He said he has lined something up for you.” 

With her message delivered, Mrs. Oshiba turned toward her bedroom. The mug Chūshi had struggled not to drop crashed into the now mostly empty sink, ringing like a death knell. His father had given him a month to find a job, and he was well past due. He knew this conversation would come, but whatever his father lined up would be torture for him. Fuck.

Clean dishes meant he could comfortably start on his lab report, and further put off calling his father. The standards in Japan were a lot more intense than in America, meaning Chūshi had to dedicate his entire attention to them, so he welcomed the distraction. Even though his becoming a doctor was decided well before he was born, it was the one choice in his life he would make himself if he were ever asked. He became so immersed that he missed the kiss his mother left on his head before heading to the hospital. There was something comforting about equations and schematics. Chūshi could spend the rest of his life doing only this with no complaints.

The clock read 19:49 when he clicked “Submit” several hours later. Should I call him or eat first? He couldn’t decide which would be worse, but settled on ripping the band aid off. Plus, his father wasn’t one for calling people back, so if Chūshi missed him this time, he could leave a pleading voicemail and skip class tomorrow to find a job. 

He used the house phone, refusing to use his new cell phone to make the call. It was hard outrunning the extensive reach of Mr. Oshiba and he wouldn’t let his carelessness lead to his father having easy access to him again.

“You are even more incompetent than I thought for you to need my help in securing something so simple.” The sound of clicking and shuffling papers filled the silence left behind by his father’s “greeting.”

Breathe. Breathe. “I was getting used to the—”

“Starting tomorrow you’ll be a tutor for English. The pay should be more than enough, so I’m cutting back on your allowance.” He stopped talking and Chūshi heard the sound of leather seating give under his father’s weight. “And make sure to see your mother more often.” His voice relaxed, became soft like ice cream and just as sweet. 

If Chūshi hadn’t heard the change a thousand times over the years whenever his father talked about his mother, it would have creeped him out. “I know the place is a mess, so do what you can. I’ve also bought her another bookshelf so be around this weekend to set up.”

Mr. Oshiba cleared his throat. “Tutoring starts at six p.m. I know you’re done with classes by four so that should be more than enough time to prepare. I’ll send an email shortly with the other details, and from what I’ve heard, you have your work cut out for you. You know what happens if your grades fall.” Click.

The high-pitched dial tone left unpleasant reverb inside Chūshi’s skull, and his father’s gruff voice replayed over and over, becoming a grotesque song. It was a good thing Chūshi had called first after all, because he felt his stomach trying to leap up his throat. How… dare that bastard? 

But before the thought went any farther, his shoulders sank with resignation. At least he’d be getting money, though he didn’t want to speak English on his father’s orders. After all, he’d been pulled away from his home and friends against his will, and to make him talk their shared language to some stranger added salt to the wound. But he also knew that his time in Japan was temporary. Being in Japan wasn’t the problem however, (in fact, he rather liked the change in scenery), it was his father’s ordering him to move along with this new “job,” that induced a throbbing headache, so he pushed the thoughts aside for the time being.

His stomach sank too along with shoulders when his phone and computer pinged with emails containing his tutoring content and the student information, preventing him from escaping his spiraling thoughts. He debated whether to look at it but his stomach finally couldn’t take anymore, and he ran to the bathroom just in time to spit up acid. 

It hurt enough to make his eyes water as his stomach cramped around nothing. He felt so wretched that even the porcelain that normally would offer a sense of relief through its cool surface did little to cool him off, and he ended up curled up on his side like a wounded animal just so his cheek could touch the lukewarm floor. Time passed and his eyes closed, letting him slip into a type of dream state where he found himself in front of his father towering over him. Yelling. Veins in his trunk-like neck straining against his skin.

Although his father never actually hit him, Chūshi often dreamed that he did. This time he snapped out of it before his dream dad could land a blow. With his fully emptied stomach growling, he pushed himself up slowly, feeling his head lighten. He crept toward the kitchen and switched the oven on to preheat. Chūshi’s mother often chided him for being such a picky eater but for once he didn’t care what might lie in the food container he pulled from the refrigerator. He smiled when he saw his guilty pleasure: jambalaya. He preferred Japanese cuisine usually but there were a few dishes from abroad that he liked. A flash of guilt wiped the small smile from his face as his mother’s tired appearance flashed in his mind.

“I should go with her next time…” He tried not to let the thought overwhelm him as he ate, the pasta dish not as spicy as when his mother made it back home. It was still better than anything he could attempt at making. 

He wrote a note thanking her for the food and promising to come over the weekend, but did not mention the bookshelf. His father’s one weak point was his mother and indulging her. He made sure to clean the family room up as well before putting his tennis shoes back on and locking up. 

That night, Chūshi lay in bed with his eyes wide open and ears going numb from absolute silence. It left room for his thoughts to circle endlessly and he considered grabbing his laptop to put on some anime for background noise. He couldn’t bring himself to get up though, and instead unbidden thoughts of Aoto popped in his head.

Even the memory of those eyes froze him in bed. Chūshi’s heart, on the other hand, raced in his chest. He let himself imagine a scenario where he wasn’t a jackass that morning. He’d apologize instead, and then introduce himself, and then they’d walk to campus together getting to know one another. Maybe Aoto would even smile, and what a smile it would be. His imagination took the liberty of fast forwarding their relationship and suddenly…

… They were kissing.

The kind of kissing that leads to touching.

Chūshi felt his pants get tighter around his crotch and his heart sprinted. He tried to think of something else, but the images kept playing like a never-ending movie reel. 

Ahhh shit. You can’t be serious…

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