by Sugaru Miaki
by Sugaru Miaki
It's been too long since we took the time
No-one's to blame, I know time flies so quickly
But when I see you darling
It's like we both are falling in love again
It'll be just like starting over, starting over
— (Just Like) Starting Over
This is the story of how upon reaching my twentieth birthday, I was sent back to the age of ten, and lived to be twenty once more.
* 1 *
The story I'm going to tell may run contrary to your expectations.
After all, you would probably believe that, if one had the opportunity to be sent back to the age of ten with their memories up to twenty, they would make good use of their knowledge and be able to change all sorts of things.
Everyone has those regrets, those thoughts of "If only I had done this instead."
For those who wish they'd studied more, there are others who wish they'd played more.
For those who wish they'd been more honest about who they were, there are others who wish they'd listened more to others.
For those who wish they'd gotten closer to someone sooner, there are others who wish they'd never had anything to do with someone.
For those who wish they'd made more careful decisions, there are others who wish they'd taken bigger risks.
When I was a child, I once happened to talk with a vagrant under a bridge for about an hour.
He was a cheery man who laughed with his whole body. Regret was a thing that seemed unbefitting of the man, yet there was one thing he couldn't quite get over.
"In these fifty years," the man said, "the only mistake I've ever made was being born into this world."
So even that could be a regret.
Well, anyway. What I'm trying to say here is, life comes packed with regrets. I'm sure you can empathize with that yourself.
And if you could start your life over, no doubt anyone would use their self-reflections, lessons, and memories to make for a smoother second go.
Because they'd know those regrets lie ahead of them.
But when it came to my experience, well, it was quite the opposite.
Thinking on it now, I did a truly foolish thing. I really did.
* 2 *
When I realized that my life had been rewinded a decade, I had one immediate thought:
“Talk about unnecessary.”
Let's suppose we have a guy who doesn't have a single regret about his life.
Now the guy could be plenty happy, or else he could be a moron.
He could've lived a life so perfect that there was nothing to reflect upon, or he could just lack the brains to reflect on anything.
Granted, I'm speaking for myself, but I was the former. I was a happy guy.
I was pretty pleased with what I was calling life. It's the truth, I didn't have any problems at all.
Had the best girlfriend I could ask for, great friends, a perfect family, and went to a decent university. Nothing lacking, in my mind.
I mean, I guess there was the fact I was having so much fun as to only get six hours of sleep a day, resulting in the occasional headache.
Since I knew I could always wake up to good things, I always wanted to stay up a little longer. Sleep was just missing out on life, as I saw it.
And so for me, who was pretty pleased with how his life was going, the chance to relive my life just seemed like more of a bother than anything.
A big waste, I thought - felt like it should have gone to someone a little more despairing about their life.
Suppose there'd be lots of people who wouldn't mind living the years from ten to twenty over again.
Opportunity always seems to fall upon those who don't seek it. God's just a big old prankster.
Turn on the TV, and you'll know right away from the people you see that "God doesn't give with both hands" is one big lie.
Maybe I'm just asking for punishment here, but God doesn't have the first notion of "equality."
Anyway, seeing one of God's cruel pranks with my own eyes just got me thinking about all that stuff.
Point is, I was satisfied with my first life, and I had no interest in doing it a second time...
So I thought, hey, maybe I should just do everything the same the second time around.
That was the idea.
I guess in a way I was a bit of a prankster myself, taking God's prank and sorta making it backfire.
Fix those mistakes and missed chances in my first life? Nah, I would have it all play out the same.
I'd set out to make the ten-year rewind meaningless.
I knew in my mind all the accidents and calamities, the crises and changes to come, but I'd keep my mouth shut.
After all, soon as I started talking about that stuff, I wouldn't know when to stop.
Besides, there were already plenty of crazies out there claiming they're from the future and know what's gonna happen, so there was no way anybody'd find me any more credible.
I'd live out the rest of my life in a hospital if I went off in that direction.
Sure, I suppose choosing not to save people who could be saved wasn't something you should rightly do.
But to be honest, there wasn't anybody out there I cared about enough to consider sacrificing my own happiness.
Yeah, some people are willing to do that kind of self-sacrifice. But they just do it because the satisfaction they get from the act exceeds what they lose, that's all. So no different from putting priority on your own happiness.
The important part is what brings in the most happiness for you. And for me, happiness was "nothing ever changing."
So I'd thoroughly re-enact my first life. That's all I sought out of the second round.
I bet upstream time-swimmers who don't even want it are real rare.
Feels like I should be congratulated.
* 3 *
My second shot at life began right at the Christmas when I was ten.
What tipped me off was the paper bag with a Super Nintendo by my bedside.
Ten-year-old me'd desperately wanted one.
"Super Nintendo." Hearing it now, it's a pretty damn silly name. But at the time, it was the best toy out there.
When I first saw one at a friend's house, I was shocked, all like, "Is it right for something this fun to exist?"
I was so transfixed on the screen, I didn't even lay a finger on the candy they brought out.
Games were pretty expensive at the time, but my birthday was December 24th, Christmas Eve.
My birthday and Christmas presents got put together, so I did get bought some fairly expensive stuff.
I emptied the paper bag onto my bed. The dull gray system itself. The red, blue, yellow, and green buttons on the controller. Man, those were the days.
Forget thinking about this swimming up the river of time stuff, I wanted to play. Old games always had a certain charm to them.
They were limited to simplistic methods by limited storage, but that turned out to make the games more effective overall.
The paper bag had a game in it, too. Ah, of course. The system was worthless without one.
...But, you know, I had to laugh. Because the game in question was all about time travel, going to and fro between the past and future.
To borrow a term from said game, my life had been given a New Game Plus: carrying on the memories and abilities from the previous playthrough to do it all again.
And what better description for what was happening now.
* 4 *
Now, around this point you might be begging to know. How was I suddenly sent back in time at the age of twenty? And what about time paradoxes? And all that sort of science fiction nonsense.
Well, to be honest with you, I don't have a lick of interest in that stuff. See, you could make all these theories, but I'd have no means of proving or disproving them.
As far as logistics goes, what happened to me was, well, something that would never ever happen. It was like two plus two coming out to five. Like your ruler itself was out of whack, I guess.
One possibility was that I'd gone nuts - basically, that ten-year-old me suddenly started hallucinating he'd gotten the wisdom of his twenty-year-old counterpart, as a result of twenty-year-old me being sent back in time.
But honestly, I was very much sane. I mean, what's the point of wondering whether you've gone nuts, anyway? Really crazy people never notice that they're crazy.
The only thing that needed my attention was "what to do next," and nothing else.
Could I live a happy life out of this situation? That was all I needed to consider.
* 5 *
I wiped the condensation off the foggy window with a pajama sleeve.
It was still dim outside, but I had an unbroken view of the snow-covered town.
From how the sky looked, it should have been rather cold, but my young body was warm. Kid's bodies are great like that.
It was still early morning, so there wasn't anyone outside, nor was there a sound.
All that was even moving out there was the snow, drifting down at a fixed rhythm.
It made my own breathing and the rustling of my clothes seem unusually louder.
As I rummaged through the paper bag, it woke up my little sister sleeping on the bottom bunk, and I heard her crawl out from under the down quilt.
I grabbed onto the bed frame and peered down at my seven-year-old sister.
She drowsily turned to a teddy bear beside the bed and shouted “Yaaay!” with a slight delay.
Long hair like lacquered silk, round mouth, big eyes with just a light touch of color.
Oh yeah, my sister used to look like this, I thought nostalgically. Always walking a few meters behind me, going "Big brother, big brother!"
I guess in a way, I'd say this was when she was cutest. 'Course, she was still a great little sister ten years later, that didn't change.
But thing is, as she grew older, she didn't need to rely on me anymore. Good for her, but makes you wonder if your little sister can ever be too capable.
I dropped off the bed onto the carpet and sat down on my sister’s bunk.
As she sat entranced by her teddy bear, I said to her “Hey.”
"Your brother’s come back from ten years in the future."
Still sleepy, she laughed “Welcome back!”
I kinda liked that response and said “It’s good to be back,” rustling her head.
My sister being my sister, she looked down, smiling wordlessly, and did the same with her teddy bear.
I didn't do this kind of thing much when I was ten, so it might've been new. So I wondered how I should respond.
I wanted to open my heart to someone about the brilliant plan I’d devised.
I just had an itch for somebody to hear my strange notion, my dare to re-enact my first life. And my sister seemed like a good pick for it.
She was little and wouldn't understand whatever I told her, and she'd soon forget all about it.
I said this to my sister, sitting before me with a teddy bear on her lap.
"I know the mistakes I’m going to make, and I know what it is I should really do. Tell the truth, starting right now I could be a prodigy, or get super rich. Heck, I could even be a prophet or some kinda messiah.
"...But you know, I don’t want to change a thing. It’ll be fine by me if I can just live the same life as before.”
She stared absentmindedly at me, holding her teddy bear.
"I don’t get it," she replied honestly.
"Suppose you wouldn't," I said.
* 6 *
This is the story of how upon reaching my twentieth birthday, I was sent back to the age of ten, and lived to be twenty once more.
* 7 *
First thing I want to get out of the way: I made no compromises in my recreation of the first time ‘round.
It was a difficult road, to be frank. Taking lessons for a ten-year-old with the intelligence of twenty and having conversations that suited a kid my age was harder than you'd imagine.
Real grueling. Felt like I was gonna go insane in a classroom one day.
Maybe this isn't the best way to express it, but I bet that's how it feels to be a sane guy thrown into a mental hospital.
Anyway, I was serious about everything I did, cut no corners.
Everybody craves the limelight from time to time, so of course I had urges to answer questions that nobody in class knew, or object to ridiculously wrong nonsense the teacher said. I'm not gonna deny it.
All that self-control can't be good for the body; it was pretty stressful resisting those urges.
But it wasn't all bad, of course. There's nothing better the world can offer than the luxury of seeing the world through a child's eyes again.
I was still friends with the world then, you could say. The trees, the birds, the wind, they all opened for me. And that's not half bad.
Of course I'd seen all of this before, yet it all seemed new somehow, so it was a great experience.
I wondered what exactly it was. Maybe my memories had been damaged in the trip back. Or maybe they were compressed for space into something less detailed, more abstract.
For example, let's take this memory: "The starry sky on the day we camped at the lake during the summer when I was twelve."
If I tried to recall that, I'd think "The stars were innumerable and pretty, and there were a number of shooting stars too."
That's what I'd naturally remember, but not a trace of the physical scenery came to mind.
I couldn't remember what the lake or the campsite were named. I just remembered "lake" and "campsite."
Even if I tried to recall deeper, sometimes I just couldn't scrounge up any more detail.
This is how memories work to begin with, of course, but it seemed extra prevalent in my second loop of life.
So because of that, I chose to not waste any of those moving experiences.
Or maybe I should say that, with some knowledge of what was going to happen, I could be prepared, and would take the opportunity to enjoy every moment.
Maybe you could say it was like reading a book having only read the summary prior.
But with how vague my memories of the ten years ago were, I'm sure there were things I just flat-out forgot.
Still, I planned to do what I could to recreate my first life.
Using my limited memories to shed light on the situation, I made the choices that felt most "natural."
It wasn't an easy thing to do, but I'd sent off all lingering doubt about using my advantages to improve my life further.
I loved everything about my first life, and I was bound to the idea of keeping it. Whatever happened, I didn't want it to be undone.
But as they say, something as small as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can bring drastic changes.
Five years into the second round, my life began to veer off from the path of the first significantly.
* 8 *
I’m not really sure where to begin. Every little thing ended up different.
I mean it, I really couldn't tell you. If you compared the two and asked me "Where were they different?", I wouldn't know how to answer.
You need to have some common points to compare and contrast. You can't just ask someone to explain the differences between a merry-go-round and a pencil, right?
But in a word, I was ruined. Far worse off than one would ever imagine given my first life.
To give a few examples, let's see. I was bullied by my best friend from my first life, I was severely rejected by my girlfriend from my first life, and I failed the exam for the high school I attended in my first life... and so on.
I bet you're dying to know what change in my heart or whatever brought on such corruption. But I don't want to talk about that, at least not right now.
Basically, I'm not the type to moan about his worries.
Anybody who enjoys hearing that stuff's gotta be someone who love strangers' sorrows better than three square meals, some real rubbernecking gossiper types.
And this story's not for them. So let's just summarize the interesting bits.
I guess I'll put it like this. In my second go at life, a vicious cycle had created itself seemingly out of thin air.
One bit of misfortune led to another bit of misfortune, and that led to a third. As soon as there was a tiny misalignment in the cogs, all these other ones got mucked up, and those ones mucked up even more...
And in the end, the cogs had all come apart. I think that's a good way to explain what happened.
It was a friend of mine who put it that way first, though.
I was always a guy who could "fall either way," so to speak. I had the potential for great success, but I also had the potential for massive failure.
The more I think about it, I realize that's hardly something exclusive to me.
* 9 *
There were a lot of causes all linked together which I could point to, but what I would call the most decisive one was how readily the girl who should have become my girlfriend rejected me.
When my confession - which I was a hundred percent sure would succeed - bombed, well, it's not hard to imagine my dismay.
According to my memories, "that girl" always had sleepy eyes, but it only looked that way because of her long eyelashes.
When she appeared to be spacing out, the gears were in fact always turning in her head... That's what my "future girlfriend" was like.
Those memories about her were some of the most clear. Maybe memories have a hierarchy, where the highest-priority ones make the most concrete memories. Yeah, I guess that's memory for you.
At any rate, she seemed like the kind of girl I'd fall for. I've never been particularly interested in a girl simply because she's smart, but I guess I'm soft for "looks like she's spacing out, but always has her head on straight."
That sort of fondness for abnormality... Well, if you compare it how I choose my friends, it's a more pure, feeling-based thing, admittedly. Not something I wanna do all the time.
I seemed to recall that in my first life, I confessed to her in spring, my third year of middle school.
And her reply was something like "Thank you, I've been waiting so long," half in tears. And in the five years after that, we were more or less inseparable.
That's how it should have gone the second time, too.
Yes... It should have.
* 10 *
In autumn, in my second year of middle school, the night before the culture festival, as the classes were finishing up all their presentation preparations, I remembered that this day held great significance in my life.
We were implicitly allowed to stay at school until 9 PM that night, so everyone finished up early so we could have a blast.
It might have been a little after 6 PM. As I took in the breeze on the veranda outside, I watched my classmates making props and rehearsing a play in the classroom.
Suddenly, but not necessarily because anything had happened, I was filled with a feeling of happiness.
As I searched my mind for the cause, I realized it was that girl who would soon become irreplaceable.
I remembered that this was the day. It seemed that this was when I began to fall in love.
As ever, I didn't know who that fateful girl was, but I gleamed that today would bring the impetus for falling in love with the one who would become my girlfriend.
Thus, I stuck around the classroom as late as I could that day to meet her.
Just past nine, when I couldn't bear to wait any longer, a classmate spoke up.
"Hey, can somebody take this to the gym?"
I intuitively accepted on the spot, and received a number of props. Among them was a red Santa hat.
I would've been willing to just take it by myself, but then from the corner of the room came a voice: "Wait, I'll help you!"
I looked toward the owner of the voice. It was Tsugumi who came running up to me.
"As I thought," I thought.
Sleepy eyes, long eyelashes, always thinking. As I said, I'd been searching for a girl with those characteristics, and found a few, but Tsugumi matched them most closely.
I had more or less nailed her as the one who would be my future girlfriend a while ago. And I found my guess to be spot on.
With my future girlfriend before me, I nearly danced down the hallway as I joked with Tsugumi, who had put on the Santa hat.
She smiled at the corner of her mouth, took some reindeer antlers from among the props we were carrying, and put them on me.
The lights were already off in the gym, so it was pitch black. After we put down the props behind the stage, Tsugumi looked at me and grinned mischievously.
"Hey, if we go back, we'll just have to do more work. Let's rest here a while."
I agreed, of course.
We ended up going home together that night. We both seemed sad to leave each other, so we talked for about an hour more on a park bench.
This is where the best parts of my life begin, I thought. I was dizzy with delight.
I would repeat everything the same as in my first life. So I thought.
Except, well... what happened in cherry blossom season, in my third year of middle school.
As in my first life, after school, when we were the only two in the classroom, I confessed to Tsugumi.
I was ready to delight, and for her to be delighted, and all of that.
But she just looked worried and said "Umm...", faintly trying to smile.
A few days later, she ultimately turned me down. But perhaps the problem was that I was too cocky.
My confession, in my first life, was said very hastily and with much tension.
Perhaps my desperation managed to move her, and turned a confession that ordinarily would not have won her over into one that did.
The second time, I'd acted more like "Hey, you've been waiting, right? Figured I'd confess already." It wouldn't be surprising if that left a bad taste with her.
I could think of any number of other causes, of course. But I had failed to make her my girlfriend. That was what mattered.
* 11 *
After that, oh, it was awful. I never would have imagined what good influences my girlfriend had on my first life.
Having lost my "goddess of happiness" for my second life, I was as powerless as a vinyl bag in a storm.
For the first month or so, I wanted to believe it was some kind of mistake. Thought Tsugumi must've had some reason to lie to me.
I earnestly believed that soon enough, she'd come tell me "I'm sorry for lying. There were deep circumstances which made me unable to respond to your affections that day, but actually, I love you."
But fifty days passed since my confession, and even I couldn't believe that anymore. It was too late for her to take it back.
It seemed no matter how hard I tried, faithfully recreating the past was impossible from the start.
Why, if I'd known this would happen, I should have just become a prophet.
But it was too late now. Five years had passed since I swam upstream, and my mental and physical ages had mostly realigned.
On a related topic, a life without Tsugumi was so hard to bear that I stopped really trying to listen to lectures after that, putting me down a few notches in academics.
Don't underestimate the effects others can have on you, I mean it.
You might think it's ridiculous that I'd struggle with high school exams with knowledge up to twenty years old.
But hey, you try emptying your head and being stuck back in elementary school for a few years. I think you'll get what I mean then.
Brains are flexible, so any information we deem to be unnecessary is mercilessly tossed out.
* 12 *
I guess it was my plight, after living a first life with no regrets, to live a second one full of them.
I never asked for a lot. If you ask me, I was pretty humble. I thought my attitude was commendable.
In that sense, I don't really know what God was thinking. Heck, maybe God just wasn't thinking. I mean, assuming existence, of course.
Hell, I'm an atheist anyway. Why am I saying all this stuff about God, exactly? Weird.
Well, maybe I'm just borrowing the word "God" to refer to the justice of the world and all that. I suppose that's it.
* 13 *
So with all that going on, by the time high school came around, I was a very gloomy individual.
If my first-life self saw me, he would never believe we were one and the same, I bet. Or at least it might take him a while.
Ever since Tsugumi rejected me in the spring of my third year of middle school, I gradually started to hate people as a whole. Not like I ever completely hated everybody, but...
Well, I went to a way worse high school than the one I'd gotten into before. And thanks to all the people without a shred of intelligence there, my budding misanthropy bloomed.
The fact that I was one of them, objectively speaking, certainly didn't help matters.
So I kept putting more distance around me. As a result, I was the epitome of a loner.
I might say my time at school was reduced to nothing but suffering.
I feel like for the majority of three years, I was just watching the clock. I might even say that was my entire school life, waiting for time to pass.
I thought that with time, things would get better. But the only thing time does is bring things to their end.
Granted, my problems didn't get any worse, but they didn't get any better either.
High school wasn't made for people without friends. I had no such people to enjoy passing the time with.
As such, I barely even remember my second-time high school years. I even tossed out the yearbook with hardly a glance inside.
It was a painful time. Even class trips, which should have been great fun, were just agonizing.
I remembered others openly treating me cruelly, and waking up in the middle of the night at a hotel to go cry in the bathroom. Those were the kinds of memories I had.
I was always thinking to myself, "Why did it come to this?" and "This shouldn't have happened."
But those are feelings anybody can have. It's basically just self-discrepancy.
And yet my first self never once had those thoughts. Which is pretty strange, now that I think about it.
* 14 *
Was I now paying the price for having too happy of a first life? I wondered.
But then again, I felt like I'd already confirmed that the world didn't have any sense of fairness. The world I lived in didn't seem equal enough for that to be true.
I thought that depending on how I went about things, I could've lived an even happier life than the first one. My mistake was trying to preserve it.
Say there's a race with a hundred people, and there's one guy who places around third every single time, right?
But see, he's placing third when he's trying his best to place first. If he were only aiming for third to begin with, he'd probably end up seventh or ninth.
That's more or less the mistake I'd made.
* 15 *
However, there was one little thing that temporarily got me back on my feet. Though when I say temporarily, I mean it.
In the winter of my second year in high school, there was a terrible snowstorm one night.
I was shivering and waiting for the bus that went to the train station.
The terminal had a roof, but the wind blowing the snow around made it near-useless.
My melton coat was completely white with snow, and my face and ears were painfully frozen.
There was a warm light coming from a residence near the terminal.
The wet road served like a mirror, reflecting a distorted and inverted world.
I found it far more beautiful than all those light decorations which clumsily aimed for beauty.
The bus finally arrived, though it should've been there thirty minutes ago.
But before the door even opened, I knew I didn't have time to get on. I reluctantly watched the sluggish bus drive off.
I looked up to the sky and sighed a white breath.
I was sure I'd catch a cold in this weather, but I didn't really care so much. I'd have a valid excuse to take school off, right?
I was half-ready to just stay there another five hours and get pneumonia.
But when I sat down on the bench, I suddenly noticed someone similarly waiting in vain at the bus stop across the street.
I knew the girl well, her hair fluttering in the storm. Yes, it was Tsugumi, the one who had rejected me in the spring of my third year of middle school.
"Why?", I thought first of all. The high schools we went to should've been miles apart.
I wondered if, maybe sometimes, she had errands or other business which brought her around here.
I could've just asked her, but I couldn't gather the willpower to speak to her.
At the time, I still had sort of a half-resentment for Tsugumi. She hadn't accepted my good will, so now I wasn't going to give it to her.
A selfish excuse, yes. But if I didn't shift the blame onto someone else, I wouldn't be able to live with myself.
But now that Tsugumi was right there in front of me, I found there was a part of me that was glad. I had to recognize that, at least.
I gave Tsugumi a rude glance, but she didn't seem to notice it. Maybe I was so insignificant to her that she'd long forgotten about me.
Shivering in the cold, she seemed so lonely.
I felt like she could use someone warm beside her.
Of course, this was just me making false assumptions and fantasizing. Because when I thought "someone," of course I meant myself.
But I told myself that was what she was thinking. A happy misinterpretation.
The illusion that I might be needed by someone actually felt pretty good.
I succeeded in convincing myself that "Hey, that girl needs me after all."
After all, people can use misunderstandings as food to keep living.
Religion's a good example... nah, I kid. Don't wanna make anybody angry.
* 16 *
I had lost a lot of enthusiasm for life, but encouraged by my auspicious misunderstanding, I was determined to get my happy days back.
First on the agenda was studying like mad to get into the same university as Tsugumi.
It's not that I was frantically studying, actually. Rather than focusing on studying, it's more like I stopped focusing on anything else.
"Concentration by elimination," maybe? Has a nice ring to it. I did away with all choices that weren't studying.
It's a dangerous method to be sure. If you mess it up, it's an easy way to make yourself otherwise-talentless with nothing to live for. But I guess I hung on by playing music as I studied.
I never considered myself much of a music fan before. I only really cared for John Lennon. Mostly because in my first life, whenever my girlfriend had a spare moment, that's what she'd play.
Strangely, Lennon-related memories stood out a little bit more than others. Well, I suppose his music survives the ages, so maybe it's not that odd.
I read in a magazine once that a good song, even if it doesn't suit your mood at all at first, grows on you as you listen to it again and again.
I used to only listen to your typical karaoke songs. But in my second round of high school, I heard "Yer Blues" on the radio, and immediately realized how familiar John Lennon was to my ears.
Since then, I would always play Lennon while I studied.
Finally having a clear goal in mind, I got more serious with high school.
Until then, I'd been checking the clock fifty times a class, hoping it could go just a little faster.
But the moment lectures became something that mattered to me, it started passing in the blink of an eye.
I'd practice rote memorization even on the bus and the train, and after I got in the habit of spending a fixed amount of time at my desk at night, I stopped having sleepless nights worrying about nonsense.
I'd spent altogether too much time thinking about unimportant matters, that's for sure.
By cramming an extraordinary amount of info into my head in such a short time, old memories got pushed aside, diminished in importance.
My final year of high school was actually a rather peaceful one. The part I remember most was the finale, the exam cramming in early winter. Memories of being cooped up in my room studying.
The smell of coffee filled the room, and the speaker on the left of my desk softly played Strawberry Fields Forever. On the right was a small desk lamp, the only light.
Behind and to the right of my chair was a heater, angled just right so it wasn't blowing hot air directly at me.
Once every two or three hours, I'd get my coat on, go outside, and take in the wintery air.
If the weather was good, I could see the stars. Once I'd had my fill, I would go back inside, warm my hands with the heater, and return to a world of only myself, textbooks, and music.
It wasn't so bad, actually. Maybe there was even a soothing, self-satisfying quality to it.
In the end, I stretched my academic skills as far as they could go.
And miraculously, I was able to enter the university I went to in my first life.
It was a wonderful feeling. I had finally gotten my confidence back. I felt like I could do anything then.
So that was good. Things were going good so far.
When the college entrance ceremony was over, I looked around for my former girlfriend... for Tsugumi.
And yes, I did find her, but this is where the problems began.
Three years was plenty of time for things to change. And I had thought I was ready.
* 17 *
After the ceremony ended, I hurried over to the entrance of the hall, and there I waited for Tsugumi to pass by.
Of course, I hadn't done that thorough of a check to make sure she actually did go to the same college as in my first life.
If nothing was necessarily going to be the same, perhaps even because of the fact that Tsugumi and I didn't get together, it was a clear possibility that she went to a different one.
It was even possible that Tsugumi had long since found a job for whatever reason.
Fortunately, there was only the one exit. So if she was there, chances were slim that I wouldn't see her.
Plus, I had honed my sensor for distinguishing between Tsugumi and other people. I'm not even kidding. If you've ever had an intense love for someone when you're young, you'll know what I mean.
The new students, of which I was one, would see people they knew and cry exaggerated shrieks of joy at recognizing each other.
It looked ridiculous to me, and probably everybody else. But I doubt they cared, they were having too much fun.
I was envious, to be honest. Unfortunately, there was no one I knew, and if there were I don't think I'd want to talk to a single one. So I didn't get to do any of that.
But if when I found Tsugumi and called out to her, she yelled with excitement to see me again like the other girls, that sure would've made me happy.
That idea alone is probably what'd kept me going for about half a year.
By this time, I had become pretty economical. Since my life was lacking in joy, whenever I came upon the slightest happiness, I ruminated on it and got all I could out of it, like licking every bit of an ice cream cone.
I had my hair neatly cut, wore a necktie, and loosened my face muscles for my reunion with Tsugumi.
And then the time came.
I only saw just a bit of the back of her head among the crowd, but I was certain. It was Tsugumi.
I wasn't sure what to say to her, so I started by walking over.
There was a strange pain in my chest. My breathing grew irregular. The few meters felt like hundreds.
When I was close enough that I felt confident she could hear me, I was about to just call out her name, "Tsugumi!" -
But no voice came out of my open mouth.
I felt my temperature plummet.
* 18 *
My former girlfriend was walking, arms linked, with a man I didn’t know.
And if it were only that, perhaps I would have been able to handle it.
I mean, we had been apart for three years. And other guys certainly wouldn't leave such a charming girl alone.
I didn't really want to think about that reality, but I thought I was prepared for it.
Tsugumi would have gotten lonely. So even if she had found someone to replace me, I couldn't rightly blame her.
But when the man walking alongside Tsugumi looked for all intents and purposes the spitting image of myself from my first life - well, that was a different story.
That man who walked with Tsugumi, his height, his actions, his voice, his speech, his expressions, everything was identical to my first self.
As I've said before, my memories of my first life weren't concrete, but he perfectly matched characteristics like "friendly smile" and "melodic voice."
"Doppelganger" came to mind.
But there were some problems in considering the man to be my doppelganger. That is to say, my first and second selves had become quite distinct in every sense.
So oddly enough, if you compared me with the man walking with Tsugumi who appeared to imitate my first life... it felt more like I was the fake.
If there was a doppelganger here, it felt more reasonable to assume it was me, not him.
I knew then that I had failed. Had been I able to exactly recreate my first life, I would have surely become the man before my eyes.
It was now no wonder why I hadn’t been able to date Tsugumi.
Because the second time, I had a replacement.
* 19 *
I hadn’t felt such animosity for someone in a long time.
Until then, I couldn't really muster the energy to loathe anyone. Because to consider someone a villain, you need to see yourself on the side of justice, right?
I couldn't do that. I knew better than anyone that on the second loop, I was a worthless human being.
The most resentment I'd held prior was the vague bitterness I felt toward Tsugumi.
But this time, I was filled with rage.
I could only stand there dumbfounded, shouting in my head "Hey, that’s not right! That’s MY role!"
What can I say? If Tsugumi had merely gotten a boyfriend, I could live with that. Heck, I might even think "I'll take her back," tell myself "I'm way better than him!"
Now that I could really get fired up over. A battle to take back my destined partner.
But that it was none other than myself who took Tsugumi from me... Alright, well, maybe that's not the right way to say that.
Basically, someone who assumed the position I had in my first life, and grew up to be exactly like I had then, appeared to be Tsugumi's boyfriend.
So she had chosen him as "a more perfect me."
So here I had to ask something.
"Can I beat myself?"
Had I been competing with a different type of man, I could have found my own virtues to emphasize.
And I could be sure Tsugumi would fall for those. What you're looking for in a partner doesn't change that easily.
But competing with a man who was the exact same as me? I didn't know how I could win then.
Because I had to admit, he was superior to me.
* 20 *
And so I was lost again.
The months to follow were full of surprises. Since my other self was perfectly recreating my college experience, one event after another.
Normally I'd go into more detail about all that, but this time I'll keep it short. If only because I'd depress myself to explain it all from beginning to end.
In no time at all, he was a central figure in his department, he was respected by lots of people, he got friendly with lots of girls - still, though, he stuck with Tsugumi.
Oh, as an observer, I couldn't help but remark just how happy I had been in my first life. Again. And yet he wasn't disagreeable, he was kind to everyone.
I hate to admit it, but him and Tsugumi walking together sure made a good picture. They were a walking fairy tale, you might say.
They were so dazzling, I felt like I wasn't even in their league. Of course, they were a friendly pair, and if I showed any will to be friends with them they'd readily accept it.
But that wasn't what I wanted.
Yet it felt strange to think that even this seemingly perfect person could end up like me with the slightest misstep.
If he were given the same chance to relive his life, there was a non-zero chance he'd be ruined too.
When you look at it that way, maybe there aren't so much good and bad people as there are good and bad environments which people grow up in.
Heredity didn't seem to have a whole lot of bearing on me, at least.
* 21 *
Around the end of October the following year, something snapped in my head.
After graduating high school, I lived in an apartment near my college. And by then, I had become very much a shut-in.
I rarely went to school, didn't have a part-time job or anything, didn't meet with anyone, didn't eat well, drank all day, and slept the rest of the time.
I didn't even turn on the TV or radio, nor did I read the news. I isolated myself from the outside world.
Other than going to the convenience store to buy beer, cigarettes, and junk food, I hardly went out there.
All my cellphone inbox had in it was stuff from agencies about finding a part-time job and newsletters. Not a single human name.
Ever since I found out my "replacement" existed, I had to compare myself to him whenever I did anything.
I became very self-conscious about how much better he'd do every little thing.
Thanks to this, even things that were perfectly ordinary before become all of a sudden unbearable.
For example, I'd never had any problem with not attending class in high school, but when I saw Tsugumi and my replacement - it seemed his name was Tokiwa - attending seemingly every day, it made me feel hopelessly alone.
Since then, every day I came and went to school alone, I was overcome with emptiness thinking how Tsugumi wasn't there next to me.
And this gradually started to happen every waking moment.
When I ate alone. When I watched TV alone. When I lied in bed alone. When I went shopping alone.
I was aware of Tsugumi not being there all the time, and I was stricken with a sense of loss.
When I walked through town and saw couples in high school and whatnot, I was wordless.
Tsugumi and Tokiwa must've always been having dates in uniform like that, I thought. I couldn't get over it.
On days they stayed late for clubs they'd bike home together, on rainy days they're share an umbrella, on snowy days they'd hold hands through their pockets.
It was too easy for me to imagine.
And perhaps when I saw Tsugumi waiting at the bus stop that day, she was waiting for Tokiwa.
I knew how happy Tsugumi would be able to make me, and I probably knew how happy I would be able to make her.
And so I felt empty.
I was devastatingly wounded. Unfortunately, all I did to try and soothe myself - look at pretty scenery, eat delicious things, watch emotional movies - had the opposite effect.
It just further reminded me that I didn't have anyone to share those wondrous things with.
I'd given up. There was really nothing I could do. I was only a step away from going mad.
That's why I distanced myself from the outside world, and numbed my brain with alcohol and cigarettes. Some of humanity's finest inventions, those.
* 22 *
It was festival day at college, but I didn't even have the will to leave home. It's not like I was in any clubs, nor did I have anyone to tour around with.
I knew it would only make me feel more miserable, no doubt about it.
Of course, though, I was made miserable that day even despite my decision not to go.
Because unfortunately, I remembered what this day had been like in my first life.
What an asshole of a memory, coming back to me in perfect condition...
Well, suppose I shouldn't have expected any less, as it was an important one.
First-life me and Tsugumi were rarely ever apart after fifteen, and would hug and kiss all the time, even when people's eyes were on us.
But somewhat strangely, there was one important line we were hesitant to cross.
Why? Well, we were very intimate. We trusted that our feelings for each other would remain the same, so there was no rush.
So we held out as best we could. We managed to put our anticipation aside... for a while.
Until that festival day, when the final remaining line was crossed.
So, yes... that night, Tsugumi and Tokiwa crossed that line.
I felt like I was pissing my own self off. Like never before, I was enraged beyond reason; I wanted to smash things, and on that fervor thought I might just go out and find Tsugumi.
But the action I actually chose to do was the polar opposite. And why I did it, I don't know myself.
I hid underneath the table. Yeah, like a fire drill. And I started sobbing. For hours and hours, like a kid.
Even though I was still pissed as hell. Even though I still saw the guy as my mortal enemy.
But once you despair, it's all over. Because that's at least half-accepting that it's all worthless.
* 23 *
My room had gotten awfully dim. I heard the chirping of crickets outside the window.
I had settled down considerably. And I felt that a small flame had lit deep in my heart.
Strangely enough, I was calm.
I consented to the fact that I wasn’t the right man for Tsugumi, and that I could never beat Tokiwa.
So then what am I to do?, I asked myself. That's easy, I replied.
"My double just needs to be taken out."
I readily accepted this answer I'd derived.
Wouldn't say I was at my most sane, no.
Because in short, I considered murdering Tokiwa, this man taking my place.
Then, of course, Tsugumi would be lonely again and move toward me, the next best thing.
No matter how you looked at it, it wasn't rational, and even if I succeeded in murdering Tokiwa, it was difficult to say it would fundamentally solve everything.
In fact, if Tokiwa were to die at this time in their relationship, it was very possible that Tsugumi would deify him and not even try to look for any other men.
But regardless, in that moment, I was very serious. I even selfishly thought "This is for Tsugumi's sake, too." Despite how she would clearly be happier the way things were now.
Those driven into a corner really don’t tend to have good thoughts. Their outlook is too narrow.
Altogether, I have to admit my second self was a complete and utter dumbass.
Depending on how you looked at it, my mental age could've been considered twenty-nine: twenty years of one life plus nine of a second.
But as far as I could tell, it seemed like my mind hadn't matured any further than twenty.
I think I was experiencing that "tortoise and the hare" phenomenon that tends to happen with precocious kids.
Well, now... It got a little long, but all this has more or less been the introduction.
Tell the truth, what mattered most in my journey back to twenty were those last few months.
So from here on out, I'm gonna start explaining things more thoroughly.