Every year, Jiro agonizes over one thing: what will he give Hisashi on his birthday?
Every year you do this to me.
Every year you torment me without you even trying. It just has to happen and you just have to be there and I will be given the annual insomnia-inducing migraine every time that day comes around.
Every year you present to me this same dilemma: What am I going to give to you on your birthday?
I let my chin leave the cradle of my palm and make my fingers leaf through the huge album on my lap with the thin hope that the photos it holds would clue me in on what I can wrap up in pretty paper and bow and offer to you as a birthday gift for this year. Though they often distract me--the photos, which I’ve personally taken--I would have to admit that it sometimes serves as my general sourcebook: a simple catalog of what you may and may not yet have.
Turning to a page, I smile down at the photos from one of your birthdays. With a snicker, I eye the picture of you on the bike we gave to you on your sweet natal day. I know it was rude of me to have been laughing behind your back the moment you mounted and wiggled your way on your bike, but I hadn’t been able to help it. You looked like a twenty-something riding a two-wheeler for the first time. In fact I had been surprised you hadn’t fallen off.
I pout in thought. Maybe I should get you biking gear set, complete with elbow and knee pads...and a pink Minnie Mouse helmet! Just as easily as the image forms in my mind, I ditch the thought. You hardly ever use that bike anymore anyway.
Maybe it would help if I recall what I have already given you in all the years we’ve known each other. I remember I gave you headphones before...which you rarely use. You say there are just lots of sounds coming from outside, whatever the hell that means. So giving you headphones again would probably be as handy as asking back the one I had given, rewrap it in a pretty package and give it to you.
I know I gifted you with a necktie before and I recall seeing you wearing it only once so I might as well not give you another one.
How about a digital camera? I’ve never given you something like it. But Takuro had already given you one which you never really used anyway because you say it’s too weird. Besides, I’m pretty sure you already have a digicam or two handy in your bag.
I had given you a fancy Cross fountain pen before but I doubt it even made its way out of its case. Ditto for the cute notebook mouse three Februarys back.
I do know for a fact that you liked the huge framed collage of your photos that I made...but that’s what you received from me last year.
With a sigh of dejection, I close the photo album shut and massage the beginnings of a headache. I retrieve a can of soda instead of a beer--for a change--from my fridge as I continue to scan my brain for the perfect gift. Perhaps I should think of something people wouldn’t normally give to you.
An iPod? But you already have one. What do you need two iPods for?
A gold necklace with a matching amethyst-studded pendant. Nice…albeit too romantic.
Maybe a personalized guitar case? But you already love customizing your own things and gadgets. Besides, I don’t want to get anywhere near your guitars lest I break a string and receive a one-way ticket to hell come October seventeenth. You only let me touch your precious six-string once in public.
I could get you a bottle of Jack Daniels...but not before I drain half of it first.
A basketball? Hah, right! Only in an alternate universe would ‘Hisashi’ and ‘sports’ actually go together.
It would be easy to buy you a stash of DVDs. Problem is, I don’t know what you have and don’t.
A wallet? Then again, you hardly ever carry one, much to Takuro’s chagrin.
I suppose you would appreciate a deed stating that I’m going to let you win every argument we’ll have for a year. Frantically, I shake my head, vetoing the thought. I can’t do that. I mean, that would’ve been too nice.
Perhaps the next volumes of your favorite manga would be appreciated...but don’t you have a subscription?
Maybe I should just buy you a car. I stop short. Hell, I may be rich but I’m not that rich.
Forgetting my concerns for a while, I drain my soda can of its contents. After hurling the spent tin into the bin, I proceed to my balcony and witness the city below, my mind still grueling over the same problem. It has been pretty easy back then, when we didn’t make as much money as we do now. At that time, Teru, Takuro and I would pitch something in and buy you one gift, like that bike. At least then, I did not have to do any thinking.
Usually, we have to rely on Teru to know what gift you would like best. Takuro is not much help on the subject anyway. Up until this instant, I still do not know what to do with the sewing kit he had given me before.
On one of your birthdays, when Teru gave you that black Cartier lighter, I felt a tinge of defeat. The expression on your face was of pure joy. Whether it was because it’s an expensive gift or because it is from Teru, I no longer seek to find out.
It’s weird though that even if I know for a fact that you smoke, I never gave you anything related to that vice. I guess it’s because I never encouraged it. You know I never really like smoking. But more than my distaste, I suppose I never abetted your addictive habit because I don’t want to look at you with pity every time you cough. And I certainly don’t want to grimace every time you expel your tar and nicotine-laced breath at my face.
We may not be close, but I care about you. Seriously.
I heave a deep sigh as a thought came into my mind. Maybe that is the problem.
Every time your birthday comes around, I immerse myself in the earnestness that is your gift. Every year, I become too conscious of the fact that I want you to see my gift as something that you will seriously accept, use and treasure. Come the second of every February, I yearn to eye you hold that package from me with that same enthusiasm and honesty that you give to Teru whenever he gets the plum award of getting the best gift for you.
Perhaps, this year should be different.
Maybe this time, I should look at your gift as a joke. At least if it gets you angry, I won’t be disappointed. That is my main goal in the first place: to royally piss you off.
Pumped with enthusiasm and anticipation, my mind starts to work double-time. I start to think of a train of bad gifts: a dwarf stuffed toy, a baseball bat, a flower vase…even a pet hamster!
Oh god, this is going to be SO much fun...
The traditional song has been rendered. The well wishes have been exchanged. It is now time to give to you the gifts we have all prepared for you.
"Here’s my gift," Takuro prompts, offering you a rectangular package.
"Thanks." It doesn’t take you long to open the colorful box to reveal a blue-and-white bathroom weighing scale.
"It’s digital," says our paramount leader, "so you get accurate readings every time."
Stifling a giggle, I bite the inside of my cheek. I can tell Teru is trying to practice the same self-control as I by looking at him sink his teeth into his bottom lip before bowing his head down. Takuro can really give the oddest items at times.
You put up an awkward smile. "Uh...thanks. This will come in handy." Takuro likewise grins, as though pleased that you took joy in his offering.
Teru clears his throat to divert the attention to him. "Here’s mine," he says giving a little bow as he hands you your birthday present. "Happy fiftieth birthday, Tono."
Playfully, you whip our vocalist on the shoulder with the towel in your hand. "Thank you, gramps."
It is a small box, beautifully wrapped in metallic blue paper and decorated with shiny silver ribbons. For a moment, I look at the simple swathing of my own present. Compared to Terus’ gift, with its fancy trappings, mine suddenly feels so shabby. But just as swiftly, I expunge the thought. I’m not out to impress you with my gift after all.
Some hushed ‘oohs’ break the silence and I make myself look up, my eyes being greeted by the cool new pair of sunglasses in your hands.
"Oh my god, Tekko...this is so beautiful!" you swoon predictably.
Teru shrugs as though it is not that big a deal. "It’s the latest from Dolce & Gabbana. It’s quite exclusive."
/And expensive/, I silently conclude. Teru must really adore you that much to give all those lavish gifts. Has he been courting you, you probably would’ve said ‘yes’ a long time ago. My mind ingrains a prayer thanking the heavens. I know you’re not interested in Teru as I fear you are. You’ve made that clear to me ages ago.
Still, I feel the green-eyed monster coming out of me to sneak a peek at our charming vocalist. Damn you, Teru. You win again.
"I love it, Tekko. Thank you." You words break out of my trance. You fix your eyes on me--expectantly--and you smile--unexpectantly. I guess it’s my turn.
"Here," I say simply, my hand extending in an offer. "I hope you like it." Sheepishly, for some reason, I stuff my hands into my pockets. "Happy birthday, Hisashi."
Your skillful hands rip open the humble wraps enclosing my gift. I steady my eyes on you, intent on witnessing firsthand the slightest trace of annoyance. At first, I see excitement in those chocolate brown orbs of yours, especially since you have opened the back part of the book first.
It feels so surreal: like I’m watching something just right out of the boob tube. You look at the hardbound material then slowly turn it over. I can tell you’re reading the title now, seeing how your eyes grow round in possible disbelief.
The tip of my tongue darts out to wet my lips in anticipation. I can sense it now: the blood in your veins starting to boil, your nose forming the angry smoke it would spew out later, the delicately sculpted eyebrows coming together for a scowl...
You look up at me, your eyes piercing my soul.
It’s going to happen now.
I brace myself for the onslaught of accusatory acrid words from your delicious lips.
I blink once. In shock. Your voice sounds softer than I thought it should, things considered. This isn’t how I pictured things to be.
"What is it?" Teru asks, bouncing his way towards your direction.
I’m tempted to tell him I had given you a door stopper--I am pretty certain my gift would serve that purpose to you--but I stop myself. Because for some reason, when you’ve shown Teru the front cover of the book, there is a small hint of a smile on your lips.
And just like every year, I feel defeated again. I have aimed to give you that book as a joke but I don’t think it hits you that way.
I am such a failure.
"Have you ever wondered...why I asked you to meet me here today?"
Because you’re going to return to me the gift I gave you? I look at your face intently, studying your features. However, the sincerity I see tells me it will be better if I keep my sarcasm in check. "No, I don’t."
Your fingers abandon their embrace on the cup containing your steaming mocha latte while your eyes stray out the window, as if suddenly finding interest in the people walking past the cozy little coffee shop this lazy morning, a day after you have turned a year older. Are you buying time or are you suddenly hesitating to tell me why you asked to meet? I use the momentary silence to stare at your face. Do you know how much I enjoy looking at you when you’re not looking at me?
I hear you sigh before tearing your gaze off the passers-by. Your skillful hands reach into your bag to come out seconds later with a small box. With a smile blooming, you set it down close in front of my plain brewed coffee. "This is for you."
I think I let out a gasp of shock, very much taken aback. It certainly is a surprise. "It’s not my birthday."
"You shouldn’t have."
"You don’t even know what’s inside."
Your smile expands into a grin before closing down on your mug for a sip of your now-warm stimulant. Taking it as my cue, I open your gift. I guess it’s my turn to be shocked because I felt my eyes nearly pop out of their sockets. Quickly recovering, I take out the lighter and an opened pack of Kool.
"Hisashi, you’re not going to ask me to start smoking now, are you?"
You giggle slightly. "Of course not. I just want you to have it...as a sign of my gratitude."
I think you have just made me more confused than ever. "For what?"
"Your gift." Gently, you set your mug down on the saucer then rest your crossed arms on the table. "I bet you don’t have any clue how that book came at such an opportune time." You pause for a few seconds, perhaps gathering your thoughts. "I’ve actually been trying to quit smoking for weeks now. Drastic measures...I never really thought it would work so I just tried to minimize my smoking, cutting down on my puff breaks little by little."
"I noticed," I say with a nod.
Your eyes suddenly beam with pride. "I even managed to last a day without smoking!"
"Thanks." You sigh. "But it was difficult. My body went through that withdrawal phase and it was terrible. All I could think of was lighting up one stick and hurl my plans into the trash bin. But I figured there has to be a way to make this easier...and then you gave me that book. It was exactly what I needed."
The book. I have given you a self-help book on coping when one quits smoking. Strange how a gift I intend as a joke turns out to be one thing you really need.
I resettle the smoker’s set back into the case it comes in. "I’m glad that you see my gift as some sort of life saver for you. But I still don’t get why you’re giving me..." I tap the box, "...this." I smirk casually. "I mean, if you had wanted me to smoke, you could’ve at least given me a full box."
"Silly..." You smile along with me...for a change. "That’s my last pack...my emergency stash. You know...in case I forget to buy a pack and I’m too lazy to go out. I keep it in one of my old shoeboxes."
I glance at the cigarettes, images of it being in one of your old boots crossing my mind. "I don’t even want to think how it tastes like after you told me that."
"Jiro...I was hoping...I mean, I want you to keep it. I want you to be reminded of how grateful I am that you cared this much for me to want me to kick the habit."
Now you have me stunned still. "I didn’t know you could be this sentimental. But thanks for trusting me enough for this." I replace the lid on the box and slip it into my own backpack. "I was hoping though that you’d give me that Cartier lighter Teru had given you before."
You shake your head, your soft hair moving in cadence. "No...it’s a gift. I don’t return or give away gifts from friends...even if I don’t know what to do with some of them."
The picture of that light blue sewing kit comes into my mind. "Yeah, I get what you mean."
We share a chuckle, one of the rare times we actually do so, though we’ve been talking now more than we did when we first started. And it feels so good.
You kick an unsuspecting pebble lying along the alley that leads to the parking area behind the coffee shop’s building.
"Do you know why I used to hate you?"
The question makes me halt in my tracks in this chilly February. Pulling the ends of my coat closer for more warmth, I wait until you grant me your attention. "No, I never knew why."
You expel a puff of thoughtful misty breath. It’s nice to see your dainty mouth spew haze that hasn’t come from cigarettes. "I used to hate you because I’ve always felt that you’ll be the one to make me quit smoking, directly or otherwise."
Your response is a nod. "Teru definitely won’t be the one to do that. I mean, I got him into smoking. Takuro couldn’t care less just as long as I continue to play the guitar well. I’m not the singer of the group. Besides, it’s always Teru’s smoking he’s been bullish about anyway."
"I thought you’ve always wanted to quit."
"I didn’t back then. Do you know why I quit smoking?"
"I quit because of you."
I smile at you, glad to finally find out the answer to the seemingly mysterious question and proud to have been the one to lead you back to a much healthier lifestyle than before. When you smile back, we continue walking towards our cars parked alongside each other. I walk with you until you get to the driver’s side of your black speedy sports car. "Be careful."
You open the door with your key. For a moment, I think you’re getting in...until you spin around to face me, the space between us measurable in inches. "Jiro...thank you...for caring this much."
I would’ve told you it’s nothing. I would’ve told you that I say the same thing to everyone I know get into their own cars. I would’ve said something...but your gentle lips fuse down on mine, blocking out any words I could’ve uttered.
I don’t know why you did it...but I can’t say I didn’t like it.
You release my lips seconds later, the tip of your tongue darting out to lick the remnants of our kiss. You bite your lip before looking up at me from under your lashes. "So that’s how a non-smoker tastes like..."
I watch you open the door of your car and get in. Stepping back upon hearing your engine come to life, I wait until you drive to let the car move a few inches before you open the window.
"See you at practice tomorrow, Jiro!" you call out. Then you roll up the window and wave at me before disappearing out of my sight.
I stand in the freezing parking lot a few seconds more, letting the kiss sink into my consciousness. My hand rises to touch the exact place where you had left a mark.
I smile, my mind forming just one question…
What will I give you for your birthday next year?