The first letter arrived in late February. Harry opened it without looking at the name on the envelope, and initially found the contents entirely confusing. It wasn’t until he fished the crumpled envelope from the trash that he realized the letter was meant for his neighbor.
Harry’s neighbor was a university student by the name of Aya, and Harry was in love with her. The letter to her was written by a young man called Sota, who Harry surmised was attempting to establish contact after a prolonged distance of some kind.
Harry thought the letter was quite banal. It was the kind of letter that had a voiceover in a cheap romance movie, where the shots flip back and forth between the two stars living quiet lives apart. I hope you’re well, how is your new life, things here haven’t changed, I’m working on a new short story and I want to share it with you, your friend, Sota.
It was the kind of letter that had “I love you and I miss you” written everywhere except for in the letter itself. Such young, naive (pure?) love made Harry feel a little sick.
Even then, however, he read the letter more than he would have liked to admit.
For a few days, The letter sat on Harry’s desk. He knew the right thing to do was return it to its intended recipient, but he didn’t like the idea of introducing himself to Aya through the act of delivering her a letter from his rival.
Also, Harry hated writers.
But for whatever reason, he was unable to throw the letter away, so it was put in a desk drawer, and promptly forgotten.
A second letter arrived in March, which Harry opened knowingly. Mostly, it was the same as the last one; updates on life in Oyama colored with a general feeling of loneliness and longing (A mutual friend had had a baby, and another’s father had passed away, and somehow the proximity of the two events felt meaningful in a ‘circle of life’ kind of way.) Near the end of the letter, however, was a single, semi-important development: one of Sota’s short stories had been accepted by a literary journal, and he wanted to send Aya a copy when it was published.
Harry thought about this for a time. He considered the vast majority of (well-known) literary journals to be more interested in trends than actual talent and originality, and the journal Sota had been accepted to was — because of its renown and general good favor in the writing community — just another egregious perpetrator of this injustice.
In the end, Harry did not think much of the development. Also, he had recently shared a half-smile with Aya at the local supermarket, which he planned on turning into a full-smile by the summer. He was expecting this to grow into something resembling a short conversation by the end of the year, and with some luck, Harry hoped they would be dating within three, maybe four years.
He did not much like the idea of a hopeless romantic and a literary journal halting the slow growth of a budding almost-romance.
And so, the second letter joined the first in Harry’s desk drawer.
New letters arrived each month, which were summarily read and put with the others in Harry’s desk. By August, Sota’s persistence started to annoy Harry, who had been unable to make any major strides with Aya since their fated half-smile at the supermarket.
Sometimes, Sota was hopeful; he talked of the stories he was working on and his new life in Osaka. It was hard, he said, leaving the comfort of Oyama to start a life in a new city. He said he’d developed a new found respect for Aya’s decision to leave Oyama a year ago, and he now saw her stubbornness as a determination and courage he hadn’t understood at the time.
Reading lines like these made Harry especially angry, because they felt entirely unfair. His love for Aya was a pure and beautiful thing, but he did not, could not, and would never share of the longing that bled from Sota’s heart and stained the letters, words, and sentences of his one-way correspondence.
Sota’s letters felt like the kind of best-selling coming of age stories Harry actively avoided, because they felt so unrealistic and insulting for it.
So it bothered Harry — and it gnawed at his soul — to discover that these stories were sometimes a reality.
Around late November, as winter began to settle in, Sota’s letters began to feel weary and tired. His words and sentences were peppered with a light snow of despair, and it was clear Sota felt there was a reason behind Aya’s lack of a reply. And though he poked and prodded in his own quiet, polite way, Harry knew Sota was too polite to ask directly.
These winter letters made Harry feel good; they mirrored his own feelings of despair and hopelessness. Despite deliberately meeting at the apartment elevator at the same time in the morning, and intentionally-coincidentally meeting at the same bus stop on the way home in the evening, Harry still could not find the courage to speak to Aya.
On those lonely winter nights, it bothered Harry that he sometimes found himself wishing for the kind of coincidental opportunity that opened the doors to conversation, and sometimes, romance.
It bothered him because these, too, were at the heart of the coming of age stories he so vehemently disliked.
In January, a large, thick envelope arrived in the mail. Inside of it was a book, a literary journal, the name of which Harry recalled with the slightest echo of nostalgia. In the book was a selection of short stories, essays, and poems, and among them, one written by Sota.
Sota’s story was bittersweet, as though he had colored a romance in sadness, but shaded it with hope. The flow and the rhythm of the words was reminiscent of something like a long faded memory that Harry thought of like a past lover.
The letter sandwiched between pages of the journal was heavy with resignation. It started with pleasantries and polite updates — with a happy new year and some plans for the future — but eventually collapsed into a pained and confused honesty; apologies for unknowable wrongdoings, and at the end, the simple promise that Sota would stop writing, now that he had sent the story he promised.
Harry stared at the letter for a long time, then put it in the desk drawer with the others. That night, he poured himself a lonely glass of whiskey, and read Sota’s story again. The prose was neat, the words were honest, and the story was good.
Harry liked it, though it was true to say he wished he didn’t.
The following week, Harry received another letter, which was surprising because Sota’s other letters had arrived at such a regular rhythm. Harry did not open it immediately; the letter felt heavy with words long unspoken, and deep emotions given shape.
Eventually, however, Harry opened the letter, and to his surprise, found only a thank you note, tinged with the shadow of a broken heart, and faded over a distance that felt like an eternity.
This letter in particular made Harry feel sick, because in it Sota talked of his inspiration, which was of course, at its heart, Aya.
From what Harry could piece together from the context of the letter, Aya had stopped writing poetry about a year and a half ago, some three months after the writer of her favorite blog had disappeared. Sota had loved Aya’s poetry, and when he could not locate the writer of the blog — who had apparently deleted all traces of his online persona, leaving only the site that held his stories — Sota had decided to write himself.
I know it was silly, he said, to think I could hope to write like the author of Clippings, and I know how much you adored his work. If it was disrespectful to copy his voice in my attempts to find my own, I hope you will know that I am sorry. But I hope you will also understand, he added, that in searching for a way to rekindle the flames of your passion, I stumbled across the wood with which to light my own.
That evening, Harry read Sota’s story again. The prose was still neat, the words were still honest, and the story was still good.
And Harry still wished he didn’t like it.
Later, drunk, lonely, and dispirited, Harry logged onto a blog site he had not been to in more than a year, and stared at a collection of stories like old books in need of dusting.
They were, and would always be, his heart and soul.
Looking at them again, Harry thought of vague, indignant feelings from rejection letters, and a love that was born in Oyama the day he threw his laptop out a window in Tokyo.
He took Sota’s letters from the desk drawer, and put them on his desk. He thought of the person who wrote them, and the person who never received them, and the person in between.
And it bothered Harry to find that the coincidental interweaving he had long searched for in his own stories, should discover him now, in the shape of a kind of shameful, karmic justice.
In February, Harry folded Sota’s letters, put them in envelopes, and wrote on them the correct address. He waited for Aya to leave in the morning, then put them in her mailbox and returned to his apartment.
Back at his desk, Harry looked out the window to the plum blossoms in the trees that lined the nearby streets, and then towards the sky. He thought of beginnings and endings, and the tiny waves that rippled out from them. He thought of love and longing, and the strange story that had woven them together on a single day of rage in a lonely writer’s apartment.
And it bothered Harry that the whole thing felt fitting, somehow.
But in his own lonely way — as he began to write for the first time in a long, long time — Harry hoped that this particular coming of age story might still amble on it to its rightful, and perhaps destined, conclusion.
Because he didn’t think he could bring himself to hate this one.