* 32 *

You'd know it if you went through it, but high school without friends is frankly hell.
College, in comparison, it's not so much of a problem being all alone.
It's often said that loneliness is something you get used to, and isolation is something you can't.
Stuff like spending holidays alone you can endure for days no problem, but when there's people all around you and you're the only loner... you can't just numb yourself to that.

So then how did I bear with this miserable situation? In yet another thoroughly lame way.

There was one girl in class who was similarly isolated, named Hiiragi. She didn't have a friend to her name either.
She looked like she was always thinking "I don't hope for anything from this world anymore," reluctantly pushing through high school. That was Hiiragi.

I'd say she was on the short side, with eyes that hurt easily. She was always looking down, and when she had to look people in the eye, she practically glared.
And with her frail, no-confidence voice, she often talked in a halting manner. "I, uh, think that's, fine. ...N-No, that won't be... a problem."
It seemed she made a careful effort to pick the most average, unprovocative words as she spoke, but it made people see her as a bother.
Myself, I spoke bluntly so I wouldn't have to talk as much. At a glance, we were polar opposites in that sense, but it came from the same roots.

Hiiragi went to the same middle school as me, and just like me, she wasn't totally alone then. She followed the same pattern of being separated from her friends in the transition to high school.
When I was ignored in the classroom, I felt it severely. And those were the times when I looked over to Hiiragi.
Hiiragi, my only company. Seeing her alone in the corner of the class was a huge comfort for me. At least I'm not the only one, I could think - that was such a relief.

No, that's not quite right. If you want to know the truth, it's also thanks to Hiiragi being there that I convinced myself that I wasn't at rock bottom in the class.
"I've got it real bad, but hey, better than her," I thought to keep myself stable. What a deplorable thing to do.

However... This could just be my own deluded impression, but I think she was doing the very same thing with me.
In situations that made us more strongly aware of our isolation, like class activities and event preparations, Hiiragi and I would happen to make eye contact.
No doubt Hiiragi was looking upon me as the one person even lower than her.
Or at least I felt certain that when she looked at me, she was reassured with the thought of "Ah, he's isolated too."

So in that sense, I might dare to say we "hit it off." In a very twisted definition of it. We were scapegoats for each other.
I looked down on her thinking "She's in a similar place, but as a woman she must have it worse"; she looked down on me thinking "He's in a similar place, but I'm still better in academics"... that was the situation.
It may be my persecution complex talking, but you'd know with just one look at those eyes. They were judging eyes. I'd know, because mine are the same.

In my first year, before I was accustomed to being alone, I'd scurry off at lunch to the library to waste time studying.
And actually, Hiiragi often did too. We came to see each other there frequently. Not like we talked or even greeted each other, but we acknowledged each other's existence.

Once every few months I would be struck with terrible depression, upon which I'd go to the infirmary (though not physically sick) and take my afternoon classes off.
Well, about a third of the times I did that, Hiiragi was there at the same time. It was awkward - seemed like we'd decided to skip class together.
But there was a lot of overlap between the classes we each wanted to take a break from, so it wasn't unreasonable.

Furthermore, my relationship with Hiiragi got closer in second year.
Our homeroom teacher arranged for a change in seating; students could choose to either draw lots, or pick for themselves.
However, those who freely chose their seats were restricted from sitting in the very back row.

Naturally, then, the people who ended up in the back row were people who didn't really care where they sat. And for friendless people, any seat in the corner will do.
So Hiiragi and I always ended up sitting together. It might have been almost ten times, adding up second and third year.

People started to see us as a pair, and I heartlessly thought "Whoa, don't put me with her."
Though what I would say was that sitting next to her put me at ease.
For example, in classical literature or English classes, you often have to read with a partner, right?
That was usually agonizing for me, but when Hiiragi was my partner, I wasn't so nervous.

When partnered with others, I'd worry about my voice squeaking, or my attitude being too blunt, or if they were upset about being paired with me, and all that nonsense.
But with Hiiragi, I could just think "Geez, she's so unsociable" - talk about the pot calling the kettle black.

At the root of all things which soothe us is a sense of reassurance, the feeling that it "won't hurt me."
In that sense, Hiiragi was soothing for me like no other.

Chapter 33

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