It could have been considered the quietest phone conversation either had ever experienced. Or one of the quietest, rather.
“Are you going to continue destroying yourself, even when there's nothing left?”
The woman's voice on the other end of the line sounded only passively worried. It was a rhetorical question. Naruse's voice did not answer. Neither did his breathing pattern.
“And you're never coming back.”
Another rhetorical question. Perhaps more rhetorical than the first one. Naruse only made an uninterested clicking noise with his mouth in response. He could not be certain whether it had been real or not, but for an instant, he thought she had whispered a you haven't changed at all.
“How has work been?”
“You don't really care.”
A bored sigh escaped his throat as he answered. Their conversations always followed the same, monotonous course. Naruse adjusted the glasses on the bridge of his nose. Sometimes he picked at the hairs on his leg.
“The assistant director is hilarious. He gets worked up over nothing and mistreats the interns so much they avoid him. Nobody likes him, but I kinda pity the guy. The university is hosting a photography show, and they want to display some of my stuff. I told them, yeah, sure. So I have to pick my favorite photos by next week.”
The dialogue could have been read off a script, his tone never once showed any emotion. It was purely factual, nothing but a relation of events. By then Naruse knew that she never expected an actual response anyway. She had long ago stopped expecting anything from him. Why those mock conversations still existed was beyond him.
Nice. Nice was the only answer she ever had for him. It was an interested nice, at least. Silence once more gripped the telephone line. Their conversations felt like a vast deserted ocean with the rare island in sight. Small islands devoid of life. Naruse continued picking at the hairs on his leg.
“How did we fall so low, Paul?”
No answer. He shifted slightly on the couch and heard her draw in a sharp breath. He knew what would come next. Nothing new.
“You know, I visited that grave, three da-”
He hung up. He always did.
Naruse stood up and twisted his body until satisfied with the amount of bones cracking. The phone receiver rested peacefully on the base. He scratched his chest without thought and sat down at a filthy kitchen table. Not that the rest of his apartment could have been considered decent. He acknowledged he had been careless with the cleaning, but that was as far as his goodwill went.
On the table's surface were scattered photographs of assorted subjects. Mostly of plants and small animals. The young adult glanced over them absentmindedly. He tried to group them by various means: focal length, date, color, lighting... By the time he had assembled three pictures together he had forgotten the grouping criteria. Passing a hand through hard green locks, Naruse made a clicking sound with the back of his throat. An appropriate response for everything. He stood up again (though it felt as if he had never moved at all) and set aside the curtains to his balcony door. The city outside shone brighter than the moon. Wearing only light pajamas, Naruse stood against the railing, smoking pleasantly. His glasses fogged with every puff. For a winter night it did not seem so, at least not to Naruse, though he had always been known for barely feeling temperature. 5 am, three hours to daybreak. Not that he expected to stay around for dawn. Winter dawns always left him unsatisfied, they were not nearly as genuine as summer dawns. They came off as bitter and out of place, gone too quickly and leaving no trace behind. Naruse remembered that someone he once knew had lips that turned blue in the cold.
The bells on fishing boats tingled eerily. Those were always the first to leave Greylake's harbor at dawn. In the dead of the night, they provided some twisted comfort. A reminder that the world lived and breathed: a reminder of life. The woman on the phone had called him Paul. Naruse only realized then, as he dropped a lifeless cigarette on the balcony floor. He felt no pain as he put out the dying flame with the heel of his bare foot. Had she always referred to him as Paul? Naruse wondered. Probably. His thoughts were unfocused and muddled. Naruse could not help the faint nausea that arose in his throat at the thought. Paul. Why would she call him that? He had started using his last name as a given name over eight years ago. Naruse looked down five floors and at the empty street below. The name brought with it a ghastly reminder, a cold embrace that wrapped itself around him. Uncomfortably, as a cage. A note, a single sentence spelled on paper almost a decade ago, continued to haunt him: give my stuff to paul naruse. That person had used his full name, then. The memory brought with it an emptiness that settled itself in Naruse's stomach. He made a faint clicking sound with his mouth and lit another cigarette. The time struck 5:30 am.
He could not understand why he continued speaking to the woman on the phone. She likely did not understand either. There had been a reason, at some point, and it had been obvious to both. Maybe that alone justified the conversations. He wanted an assurance of existing and having existed. He wanted to feel. That want had grown to disproportionate dimensions in his young adulthood, only to settle down when he left his hometown. The young adult's brown eyes followed the crescent shape of Greylake's harbor keenly. He had to squint to make out the furthest skyscrapers, but their tops blurred into the night sky anyway. A painful chill had started to settle in underneath Naruse's skin. Whether it had come from the inside or outside made no difference. He could not help but think of what she had said: destruction. Destroying himself until there was nothing left. She had only started talking about this destruction recently, but he knew it had started years before. Unstoppable, like an avalanche. Naruse breathed a final sigh before returning inside. How much longer would the destruction last? He put out the cigarette on an ashtray. The young adult slunk underneath bed sheets and a blanket; he set the alarm clock to 8:20 am with an outstretched hand. The person whose lips turned blue in the cold had advised him to count wolves, rather than sheep, at night. They would chase away the nightmares. Thinking about blue lips and wolves, Naruse fell into a profound, dreamless sleep.
A vile squawking sound reverberated through the apartment. Naruse awoke with a jolt and sought for the alarm on his nightstand; he pushed his glasses off the surface in his jerkiness. The man imprecated under his breath and turned to the other side, curling up into a fetal shape. He draped an arm over his face as if that were enough to block out the cawing. Naruse had considered leaving rat poison on his balcony more than once. Hopefully that would have deterred the seagulls. Then the alarm went off, as loud as always. Naruse pressed the snooze button with a groan. The seagulls had seemingly left. He knew his downstairs neighbor fed those disgusting birds. Although Naruse had complained once or twice, nothing changed. That man always avoided his eyes and apologized nervously. A lost case. The alarm went off again. Still lying in bed, Naruse picked up his glasses from the floor and put them on. Reality came into focus, and he knew the day had begun.
Walking into the studio, Naruse was greeted by the familiar mixture of good mornings and other friendly remarks. Aren't you cold wearing only that? His coworkers often vocalized their amazement at Naruse's light clothing choice in the middle of winter. He always shrugged nonchalantly. I don't really feel cold. Or get sick. He appreciated their concern, even if it never showed on his inexpressive face. Before the filming began the studio resembled a clubhouse more than anything, due to the sheer amount of conversations happening. All of them pleasant conversations between coworkers. Naruse corrected himself. Mostly pleasant. Dominic Bursnell, the assistant director, talked animatedly with a woman in the background. A tad too animatedly.
"What do you mean she's not coming?"
"I told you, her friend's bachelorette party got moved and-"
"And she thinks this a valid reason to not come?"
"Have some compassion Dominic, it's not her fault-"
"We're filming a movie and she is at a party! What does compassion have to do with any of this!? She's wasting mine and everyone else's time!"
"It's not just a party, it's important to her. Besides can't we just film scene three instea-"
"Fine!" Dominic sighed in exasperation. "We'll film scene three. This is one of the worst examples of unprofessionalism I've ever seen, but not that it matters, of course. We wouldn't want to force her to miss her party."
The woman opened her mouth to answer, but Dominic had already stormed off, irritation seeping through his every pore.
Naruse would have wanted to follow the conversation more. He had never been one for gossip or work drama, but everything about the assistant director amused him endlessly. Dominic had argued with mostly everyone on the set by then, including Naruse himself. Those that did not despise his disproportionate ego found his personality hilarious. Were it not for his competence, Dominic would have been fired long ago. The embodiment of perfectionism, he paid an inappropriate attention to insignificant details. No, no tilt your head some three degrees left… No that’s too much! No, not there yet, try again… Or the example everyone else in the studio always cited as a prime example of Dominic’s absurdity: the time he gave an intern a lecture on the difference between a latte and a cappuccino. The intern was mortified throughout the whole monologue; he never ordered the wrong coffee again. A voice called him. Naruse I think there's something wrong with this thing. Naruse turned towards the voice. He stopped thinking about the assistant director and instead focused on that blasted camera that apparently broke down every three days.
Lunch break came and went with ease. Naruse ate a convenience store sandwich with his coworkers, amid pleasantly superficial conversations. They talked about their plans for the weekend, their families, the movie they were creating. Some brought lunches from home, lovingly boxed and healthy. How anyone could prepare lunch in the morning amazed him. He barely had the energy to shave after waking up. Dominic never ate with them. From what Naruse had heard, Dominic took his dog out for a walk every day at noon, and supposedly ate at home. Not that anyone missed his presence. Rather, conversations flowed with more ease, everyone spoke without fear of being interrupted or criticized. Yet with every joke at the man’s expense, Naruse could not help but raise an eyebrow ever so slightly. He pitied Dominic, him, of all people. The woman on the phone used to tell him he was too compassionate. Before she started talking about destruction, at least. Naruse listened more than talking. He seldom had anything worth sharing.
The studio did not pay anyone for overtime, and working into the late evening happened frequently. Unlike his coworkers, Naruse did not mind much. He used to spend late evenings at bars; more often than not, he would take women back to his apartment late at night. As the working days grew longer the amount of said encounters decreased. He came to realize that the human warmth he used to seek out so intensely did not mean much. The realization had been both liberating and depressing. Naruse waved adieu to his coworkers, placed headphones on his ears, and walked away towards the subway station. He used to ride his motorcycle to work, but the nightmarish hassle of parking soon wore off his patience.
Through the beats of his headphones and the natural beats of the city around him, Naruse thought about those women he used to sleep with. He would make his bed every morning, then, because he had realized early on that they cared. He would also clean more frequently. Naruse had not made his bed in nearly a month. Empty beer bottles and remains of Chinese takeaway littered his kitchen. He entered the near empty subway station and sat on a bench. Only after an instant did he realize he sat next to Dominic Bursnell, the laughing stock of his lunch breaks.
Dominic moved to the side ever so slightly as Naruse sat down; he did not as much as glance in the man’s direction. At first Naruse assumed the gesture to be polite, but rapidly realized that he only wanted distance between them. Not that it mattered in the greater scheme of things. A metallic voice echoed through the subterranean walls. Trains have been delayed due to an accident. The next train will arrive with a delay of forty minutes. We apologize for the inconvenience and thank you for your understanding.
"Any idea why it's late?"
Naruse broke the silence with a nonchalance that visibly surprised the man sitting next to him.
"Heard someone jumped on the tracks over at Delfinari." His body shifted to a more comfortable and relaxed position. "And I missed the last train by just two minutes, what a bother."
Naruse barely acknowledged the second phrase, he busily analyzed the first one. There was something highly discomforting about Dominic’s tone during the explanation.
"A suicide?" An unnaturally silent pause. "How macabre."
Dominic shrugged and spoke without looking at Naruse.
"I have nothing against these people. I honestly don't. But... can't they do this kind of thing without wasting others' time? Take some pills, slit your wrists... Really there are better ways to die, they are just being a burden by delaying trains." He sighed and crossed his legs. "I hate wasting time!"
A woman walked into the station and groaned audibly at reading the bulletin screen. Naruse raised a cold and unimpressed eyebrow at the assistant-director, but did not comment on his observation. The air between the two grew acidic, but only Naruse realized.
"You don't usually take the subway."
Dominic glanced at Naruse tentatively as the latter spoke, but then returned to looking at the empty tracks.
"I'm visiting my parents. I'm going to take this line until Theranze then switch to C Line."
Naruse made a vaguely interested huh sound through barely parted lips in response.
"Didn't you use to travel by motorcycle?"
The green haired man passed a bored hand through his ponytail and slouched further on the bench, parting his legs more comfortably.
"Parking became hell, so I switched to public transport. It costs as much, in the long run."
They both waited in silence for the subway train. Once inside they sat as far apart as possible, and as the wagon filled, Naruse lost sight of that man who lacked the most basic of human compassion.
When he awoke he saw her slender silhouette against the balcony door. Something fake and surreal, akin to a scene from a movie. She moved about the room as if it were her own home. Until Naruse put on his glasses, he did not realize she was almost fully dressed.
“Didn’t know you read Ibsen.”
Their mornings together had never begun with a good morning, or anything else one might have expected. Naruse yawned and allowed his eyes to adjust to the light. She carelessly handled a book picked from the library.
“A Doll’s House.” She paused, silently reading the first few lines. “Didn’t think you’d be the kind to read plays.”
I’m not, he had wanted to answer. The book had been someone else’s, and he had merely never given it away. Unlike most of the belongings that person had left behind. There was something oddly personal about that copy of the play. The mere thought of giving it away felt sacrilegious. Naruse yawned again and stretched a little.
“I’m full of surprises.” He chuckled drily and unenthusiastically. Yawning for a third and last time, Naruse stood up and picked up a shirt from the floor. Sunday mornings brought with them an intolerable laziness. Naruse hated them passionately. He would have gone as far as to say he preferred working unpaid overtime on Friday night, maybe.
“Want breakfast?” The woman’s expression indicated a clear yes. “I think I still have some eggs. Guess it’s gonna be omelets.”
“Someday I’ll have to drag you to the supermarket and do some real shopping. You can’t keep living like this.”
Naruse, with his back towards her, merely waved one hand in the air to signal understanding. Her concern towards him had always been facetious. She was nothing like her sister. Though, for as much as she denied it, he could tell that on some level she wanted to imitate her sister. He cracked the first egg and began whisking.
“I’ll do your laundry.”
The woman clarified her statement.
“Think of it as payback for dinner.”
Fine by me, he thought with a shrug.
Both sat at the kitchen table facing each other. The squawking of seagulls interrupted a dreamlike silence. She looked out the window and blew air from her cheeks in annoyance. God I hate those things, she muttered. Naruse continued eating. He had by then grown accustomed to what the locals called sea pigeons. They were white noise to him. The woman attempted to speak through a mouthful. Stopped, swallowed, and started again.
“Anyway I’m going back to university.”
Naruse blinked, asking for more details with nothing but his eyes.
“I’m going into law. Hopefully I’ll be a lawyer in seven years.”
The man chuckled in his usual dry fashion. He took a sip of water. She glared at him with piercing seriousness. She wanted to let him know the exact extent of her anger.
“You’ve just been lucky. Not everyone can make a living with their passion.”
You could have made it as an actress, he thought, had you not been so bloody presumptuous.
Before then, the two had last seen each other some seven months prior, give or take. Naruse had not been interested in tracking time accurately. But those seven months ago, right after her divorce, they would see each other almost every night. Their relationship was too devoid of any stakes or meaning to be labeled friendship. But no other word came close enough to the warm and comforting apathy they felt for each other. It was an apathy that bred the purest form of honesty. Ultimately, they were nothing but intimate strangers. There are people one loves and others one likes to talk to, in Ibsen’s words.
“Thanks for everything.”
“Don’t you want coffee?”
She stood up and picked up her purse from the couch. Naruse remained seated at the table, and when she approached him, they exchanged a customary, empty kiss. She grabbed her bag and placed a hand on the door handle. With one foot already out the apartment, she turned towards Naruse.
“If I could get my life back together you can too.”