by Tari Gwaemir
We're not going to be in middle school forever.
He stopped by the tennis court briefly, one hand on the fence, eyes automatically following the ball from court to court. Kamio, who was refereeing the match, noticed him and glared before turning back, pointedly ignoring him. Shinji gripped the fence tightly and muttered, "It's not my fault, you know," but no one heard.
He walked to the bus station, bookbag in one hand, tennis bag in the other. He didn't know why he continued bringing his rackets to school. Uchimura was waiting there as well, without a tennis bag, and they glanced furtively at each other before looking away, their faces guilty. By a tacit agreement, they did not speak and sat at opposite ends of the bus when it arrived.
Shinji scuffed one foot against the floor and said to the air, "I want to play tennis too, you know. But I don't have a choice in the matter. There are exams and high schools and colleges and careers. You can't play tennis forever."
He paused, then said, more softly, "Tachibana-san didn't quit the club, did he?" He put his head in his hands and stared at the floor.
Cram school was a sea of hot, bored students stuffed into cramped, whitewashed rooms, with hot, bored teachers fanning themselves idly as they barked out question after question and wrote meaningless characters and equations on the chalkboard. In the margins of his workbooks, he drew tennis courts and strategies in curved arrows. He quickly erased the doodles in the last ten minutes before packing up his books to go home.
It was dark by the time he left the building, and the slick black city streets were spotted with headlights and street lamps and neon signs. He stared blankly at the passing cars and held on to his tennis bag tightly. He saw Uchimura again at the bus stop, going home, and this time, they looked at each other, as if studying a mirror. Uchimura noticed Shinji's tennis bag, and he slouched, as if slowly deflating. They did not speak.
At dinner, as they waited for Father to begin eating, Shinji asked abruptly, "May I practice with the club on weekends?"
"Eh?" His father took a large bite of tempura. Shinji watched him chew.
"Tennis, Father. I want to keep in shape."
"Shinji, we've talked about this--"
"I'm going to play tennis in high school after all."
"You need to get into a good high school first. One with a decent tennis team. Remember what happened to you in Fudoumine. Those are the consequences of going to a second-rate school."
"We made it to Nationals last year, Father. Didn't you boast about that to all your colleagues? I don't see why it matters if I play tennis on the weekends, after cram school, as long as I get all my assignments done."
"Time better spent studying," his mother interjected, her face calm and smiling.
Shinji said, in a low quick voice, "I study during class, at cram school, before dinner, after dinner, and even in the mornings before class. When I'm not studying I'm either on the bus or eating or sleeping. I spend all my time studying, time better spent playing tennis--"
"Don't mumble to yourself, Shinji. Didn't I tell you to speak out if you have something to say?"
He looked down at his bowl, at the chopsticks in his hand. "I want to play tennis, Father."
"I'm proud of you for all the work and dedication you've put into it, but you must set some priorities. Hobbies are hobbies; schoolwork is schoolwork."
He remained silent for a while. His younger sisters made funny faces at each other across the table. His parents exchanged worried glances.
"Tennis is not a hobby," he muttered, through his rice, and swallowed.
That night, instead of practicing problems, he read an old issue of a tennis magazine he had once borrowed from Kamio and forgot to return. He paged through the articles he had already near-memorized and studied the diagrams carefully. He sketched backhands and forehands and serves in his workbooks instead of writing answers to the questions. He heard his parents quietly open the door from time to time and guiltily hid the magazine in his lap.
He went to sleep past midnight, and his mother looked in approvingly, as she turned off the lights.
Classes were quiet and tense, these days. In the past week, three students had burst into tears and five had been caught dozing off from fatigue. They walked around with baggy eyes and worried frowns, books clutched to their chests. They spoke in nervous, hurried whispers, and looked at textbooks with grim expressions. To Shinji, they seemed like doctors in a hospital, waiting for a patient to die.
During self-study, he heard the faint static of headphones behind him, and he turned to notice Kamio slumped in his chair, nodding his head to a faint but audible beat. He was flipping through a tennis magazine, his books put away in his bookbag. He made notes occasionally in the margins, with a purple ballpoint pen that leaked ink over his fingers.
He looked up and grinned at Shinji. "Look, don't you think that promising pair of first-years should try this formation? Kawashima has the strength and Touda the agility to back him up."
"Aren't you studying at all for the entrance exams, Kamio?" another student asked, leaning over. "You never seem to look at anything but tennis."
"Hey, everyone knows that studying isn't going to get me anywhere. I already know what high school I'll end up in. Anyway, what do you think, Shinji?"
"I think Kawashima and Touda need to practice together more before they try that."
"I've put them in doubles practice everyday for the past two weeks, and they've been improving dramatically--oh. Right. You haven't been to practice." Kamio snorted.
"I can't help--"
"Yeah, yeah, we're not going to be in middle school forever, blah, blah, blah." Kamio turned up the volume on his Discman.
Shinji turned back to his books and stared at the equations. He half-heartedly began solving an algebra problem, sketching out variables and operators with a pencil. He put down his pencil and shoved his chair back into the desk behind him.
Kamio, startled, sat straight up in his chair and took his headphones off. "Hey, what did you do that for?"
"Oi, Kamio. I'm coming to practice on Saturday. Be prepared."
Kamio grinned and covered his tennis magazine. "Sure. Prepared to beat you halfway to Kyoto and back! I bet you're so out of practice that you don't even remember how to return a serve!"
Shinji rolled his eyes and took another look at the algebra problem.
That evening, he finished his homework and practiced sample exam questions. The margins of his workbook remained blank, and he filled in solutions in small, tidy symbols with his sharpened pencil. He solved equation after equation and nodded in satisfaction at the variables no longer unknown. The tennis magazine remained closed and neatly placed in the top drawer of his desk.
Half past midnight, his mother came in to turn off the lights as he settled into bed, and he told her, without preamble, "I'm meeting Kamio this Saturday to play tennis before cram school."
She paused, her hand on the doorknob.
He spoke sleepily, his face half-hidden by the pillows, "Some exercise would help me concentrate. The exam is still two months away. I'm not behind in my studying, and I'm doing fine on the practice exams. But it's exhausting. We're all exhausted. How am I going to survive the next eight weeks?"
She sighed and smiled at him. "I'll talk to your father about it. Now get to sleep."
"Good night, Mother."