A hand lashed out my left cheek.
Pain burst across my skin. As I stroke my flaring skin, frustration clawed my mind. My brain sizzled and crackled for logical reasons of what I did wrong. Nobody told me greeting someone would give you a slap in the face in return. A respectful one, even.
I narrowed my eyes at the petite girl before me. The wheelchair she sat on buckled her tiny frame.
“Konnichiwa. (Good afternoon)” her thick Japanese accent spilled from her lips. Her face void of emotion.
My eyes flew wide in disbelief. Did she just greeted me back in Japanese? Whatever it was, I believed slapping my face wasn’t necessary. What a peculiar person.
Before I gave her a piece of my mind, she spun her wheelchair and wheeled out of the scene, leaving me with sheer confusion. As I watched her departing figure warily, a voice behind pulled me from my trance.
“Weird girl, isn’t she?” A man in a white lab coat approached to my direction. As he strode, his coat swayed to and fro. He was the owner of this clinic and my uncle, Genesis.
I acknowledged him with a firm nod before asking. “Who is she?”
Genesis was silent for a moment before rubbing his chin. ” Her name is Hanako Chiro. She is one of my patients who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. People like them are unable to pick up on social cues.”
Hearing that, I instinctively took a step back. As I recalled how I regarded her presence earlier, guilt suffocated my chest. For goodness sake, this place was a psychology clinic. People like her gathered here. I should be more considerate next time.
I muttered an apology. Genesis just grinned.
“I can’t blame you, my nephew.” His voice slipped into a higher pitch. “This is the third day of your internship after all. It’s really time I should give you some work.”
A small ember lit inside my eyes. Even though I already worked here for three days, watering Genesis’ favorite cactus plant and sorting out the patients’ names in alphabetical order was all I did. If my next task involved dealing with Genesis’ disabled patients, I was more than ready for the challenge.
But my uncle’s next words flushed my hopes into the drainage.
“I want you to be friends with her.”
I dropped my jaw. Bile rolled on my stomach like a wave rolling in the ocean. Uncle Gen was asking the impossible.
Trying to socialize with someone who was socially blind was like teaching the deaf to compose a music. Unless you’re Beethoven.
However, enthusiasm fueled within me. Maybe, just maybe there was a dim ray of hope that was kind enough to spark a little, just like a star glowing in the moonless night.
For my first step, I decided to connect the bridge to cross over the wall between Chiro and I. A barrier that separated us from the beginning of life.
Language. I would teach Chiro to speak English.
After receiving primary based English textbooks from my uncle, I searched for her around the hospital wards. I couldn’t find her in the day, but then I saw her lounging in the children’s playroom in the same evening.
With sheer resolution and heavy textbooks in hand, I marched into the playroom. A faint scent of lavender teased my snout.
Chiro never acknowledged my presence. With head tilted down, the book on her lap completely kidnapped her attention. She blinked, batting her eyelashes gracefully. Her plump lips slightly apart. Her pale skin could make anyone mistook her for a porcelain doll.
Then, I felt blood traveled to my cheeks. I never found a disabled person to be so…dazzling.
“Hello…Thank…You.” She whispered while forming motions with her hand. Apparently, she wasn’t talking to me. “Your welcome…see you.”
I stared at her incredulously. To heal my confusion, I peeked at the book from above.
Then my eyes dilated wide, almost plugging off from the sockets. My stomach performed a roller coast leap. I shook my head inwardly.
It was a human interaction guide – basis of conversation, greeting tutorials and social manners.
Based on what Uncle Gen informed me about Aspergers, these infected people had narrow but deep information about a particular interest. My eyes ran across the other books circling around her. Book titles like “Socializing for Dummies”, “Daily Manners”, and “Human Communication” littered all around the floor.
Then I finally realized it. An interminable ache knitted around my chest. Chiro was interested in communicating with other human beings. That was all she wanted.
Socializing. Something so simple (and even superficial) for others was a mystery to this poor girl because of her unfortunate mental damage.
Gripping the English textbook tightly between his fingers, I came to an absolute conviction.
I would not let her only interact with Japanese people.
English was a universal language.
I would make her interact with people all around the world.
I would give her this chance.
I would be the key for her to interact with people all over the world.
Without further ado, I stammered my broken Japanese. “K-Konbanwa! (Good evening!)”
Chiro blinked imperceptibly, noticing my presence.
“Ikaga nasaimashita ka? (How can I help you?)”
“I ….I–!” I gulped before blurting out my mother tongue. “I want to be friends with you! I am going to help you to communicate!”
My fists were shaking. She glued her eyes on me for a long moment before she spoke in English.
I nodded with a grin. Seemed like the words ‘Friends’ grabbed her attention. “Yeah. I will help you to communicate with people all over the world by teaching you English language.”
“Eigo…Oshiete? (Teach me, English?)” a flick of light glowed in Chiro’s dark eyes. “Sekai.. no…tsushin? (Communicate…with…the world?)”
I raked my hair at the rapid-fire Japanese shot at me, but the smile on her face told me I am walking in the right direction.
I uttered. “Hai. (Yes.)”
This informal contract was where everything began.
Ever since that day, Chiro and I would meet in the clinic’s playroom in the evening for our English sessions. I could see my uncle from behind the windows with a thin smile on his face before he departed with a darker expression.
“Even though in Japanese you called people with honorifics such as ‘san’ or ‘sama’, you don’t really need that in the English language.” I explained to her in one of our evening sessions as she nibbled her doughnut.
Chiro tilted her head and said her broken English. “No need that…why?”
“Because we don’t need to be formal to communicate with our friends in English.” I sunk into full education mode and lifted my finger. “When we act informal, we tend to attract more friendship because letting yourself be open and vulnerable is one step to tell people you’re interested in them. Understood?”
Chiro nodded. The next thing she did almost let the whole male population banish me to rot in the cell and die.
Without a word, she lifted the shirt off her waist, exposing her sultry milky skin. As my eyes accidentally fell upon her sinuous curves, I slapped a hand over my eyes.
I squeaked, panicked. “What are you doing?!”
Chiro froze her undressing motion as she spoke. “Friends interested…you open and vulnerable…”
That was when I realized that teaching English to a Japanese Aspergers’ patient wasn’t a walk in the park. The language barrier paired with her impaired brain nerves placed my self-righteous mission on the edge of the knife.
The rest of our study periods were indifferent. Even though Chiro often frowned and pounced me lightly when upset, I preferred to see her demonstrating her emotions than just sitting like a ragged doll just like the first time I met her.
As days went by, I watched Chiro’s progress like a mother watching her child grow. Moreover, my uncle brought some children from the local to join my informal English course. What was once a private English class between Chiro and I had expanded into a full-fledged classroom.
Gradually, my heartstrings sewed an emotion called gratitude inside me. I wanted to thank my uncle for handing me this opportunity to teach English to the need and add value to their lives.
I thanked my Uncle…
I thanked Chiro for that.
My encounter with Chiro was a blessing to both of us. Not only I enriched her with knowledge, her existence fueled my pride and caring heart. Teaching her English opened up new opportunities for us to grow as a better person.
Three months later, something memorable occurred between Chiro and me before the beginning of our class session in the evening. While waiting for the children to fill in the classroom, Chiro scurried to my direction with a thick book in hand.
“Noel,” she started. “Butterfly theory….hear ever?”
My lips parted. Not because of Chiro’s poor grammar, but I found her question engaging.
“Yea, I did,” I replied with a smile. “When a small change occurred, it resulted in a big difference.”
All of a sudden, Chiro’s gaze went downcast. “That…English…look alike.”
I was taken aback at her sudden grim expression. I voiced my concern with a heavy heart. “What do you mean by that, Chiro?”
Chiro shot me a horrified expression. As she bit her lips, the fear on her face became palpable before she declared.
“The present and past tense…they are different, aren’t they? Like ‘is’ and ‘was’. For example, if I said ‘Chiro is Noel’s friend’ and ‘Chiro was Noel’s friend’ it’s different, right? The first one means that I am your friend, but the next one means I am no longer your friend! If I suddenly switched both of them, it could create such a sad scenario right? It’s just a simple mistake, but it is so different! English language…is very scary!”
My jaw dropped at Chiro’s emotional outburst and her sudden perfect English speech. For the first time, Chiro exposed her emotions bare, leaving her naked and vulnerable. An imminent feeling coalesced within my stomach.
As an Aspergers’ patient who possessed a deep interest in human interaction, I never thought she could relate the English language to her surrounding relationship. I couldn’t say I’m not impressed.
I sidled towards her directions before squeezing her tiny fingers against mine. My lips formed into a wistful smile as I spoke.
“But that’s what makes the English language so powerful,” I explained. “They are so…specific.”
Chiro tilted her head to the side, urging me to continue. I did so willingly.
“Past, Present and future tense. They might seem ridiculous grammar tactics in the English language, but I personally find them very convenient. Like for example ‘I went to the convenience store’ means that you are visiting the convenience store an hour ago or before. There are some languages that require you to add ‘yesterday’ or a time adverb which will accumulate words in our speech. The more words they are, the less likely people is going to understand.”
I knew my explanation would tangle Chiro’s fragile brain-wires, but her gaze remained sharp and intent. I wanted to ask if she understood, but she nodded and urged me to continue.
“When a message is not understood, there will be misunderstandings,” I frowned. “Then conflicts happens. It could end a relationship.”
Chiro exclaimed at that. “Relationship end no!”
My grin nearly split my cheeks into a half. “Exactly. We should deliver a clear message to our friend in order to maintain a relationship.”
“Chiro and Noel…conflict never…relationship will never end, right?”
A warm liquid formed on my eye ducts. The innocence radiating from her voice rippled into my heart. I nodded with a firm smile.
“I’m not going anywhere.” I said. “And so do you.”
I brushed my forehead against hers.
Our giggling fervor with joy and love echoed throughout the hospital wards.
I would never forget her smile.
However, the reality was not kind enough to hide me from the truth.
Nobody warned me that smile would be her last.
The very next evening, I sprinted towards the usual playroom for my class. Instead of being packed with my students, I only saw my uncle stood there by the doorway with crossed arms.
“Class is canceled for today.” He straightened his glasses. “There is something I need to tell you. It’s about Chiro.”
My eyes widened. As my arms slackened, the textbooks slipped from my armpits and fell ceremoniously to the floor. Shaking my head in disbelief, a bead of tear cascaded down to my cheeks. Our last promise and her last smile drifted into my mind, rubbing the salt into my wound.
Chiro was…dead? I knew Aspergers would eat her brain cells but…
Then instead of announcing her death, my uncle shoved a huge file to my chest.
“Read.” My uncle commanded. That was all he said.
I skimmed through the files. I expected to find a real cause and time of her death or her formal biography.
But I found none of it.
I found something else.
As bile rose to my throat with my built up frustration and sheer panic, my body trembled before I broke into a horrendous scream.
All this time, I had been diagnosed with peduncular hallucinosis. According to my uncle’s file, it was a rare neurological disorder that caused vivid and realistic hallucinations about people during dark or nighttime environment.
Slowly, all the pieces gathered.
My internship never existed. I had been always treated in my uncle’s clinic for the past few months.
My classes with Chiro lasted during evenings only, for I couldn’t find her in the day.
For Chiro was part of my Peduncular Hallucinosis.
Chiro never existed.
As an expression brimmed with bewilderment froze my facial features, my uncle spoke calmly in spite of his shaky hands gripping my shoulders.
“When you start seeing this Chiro girl, I believe it’s an opportunity for your own rehabilitation,” my uncle’s voice trailed coldly. “I didn’t expect my nephew diagnosed with PH has the ability to teach the English language to his students. I am impressed, and some several adults are shocked to see a disabled kid able to teach.”
“So all this time you let me hallucinate to impress the adults?” I gritted my teeth, still betrayed by own hopes.
“It’s for your own rehabilitation and recovery!” my uncle’s voice rose. “And you did. You can’t see her anymore. Congrats.”
Rage exploded in me. My fist flew towards my uncle’s face. He caught my hand with his fast instincts, halting me.
“Before you beat me to a pulp, I want to tell you that I promote you to be an English teacher at the local nursery.”
I didn’t listen. I growled. “So what?”
“This ‘evil’ rehab gives you a job opportunity.” my uncle stated flatly. “You were unemployed.”
Not only I was part of my uncle’s lab experiment, he used my weakness to battle me as well. It seemed like Uncle Genesis knew how to play his games.
And I fell for it in the cruelest way as possible.
A few days later, I was discharged from the clinic and worked at the nursery nearby. I taught the children the same way I taught the children at the hospital. Those are the only real students I had anyway.
I could heal and live my life perfectly without teaching English, but I would never obtain the valuable life lessons. I loathed my uncle, but I decide to hear his reasons one day. I would communicate and understand him. I mean…that’s what I taught her, right?
Then since teaching English was my rehab, it helped me get this job. At least I wasn’t jobless for now.
Teaching english opened up new doors for me.
And even though she was never real, I thanked Chiro for that.