I always answer Seattle calls. Just in case it’s her. My sister, who has forever seen me as more naïve, less experienced, harmless—all because she was born four years earlier than me. I would give anything to be treated like that right now.
“Hello?” The tone of my voice when I open my mouth is laced with hope and longing.
“Bun, si Ate.” The familiarity is unnerving, and the pit inside of me shrinks. Voice does not change in five years. My dedicated work timer is telling me I have half an hour left for this proofreading project, but I tap pause and shut my laptop, positioned perfectly on my standing desk—everything thought out, so my posture is ergonomic.
Tagalog feels sticky in my mouth. The sensation of the words contorts my tongue in uncomfortable ways. “Ate, hello.”
“Did you hear?” Her voice breaks. The familiarity dissipating, as I realize I have never seen this part of her. My mind races, but I keep tabs on my family even from far away. There was no accident, death or birth.
“Arashi?” Even just saying the name makes me brace for my body’s reaction. My eyes flicker to my closet, where the one DVD I couldn’t throw away is tucked beneath my winter coats, neatly categorized by thickness. A plea to myself to forget where it is, that it exists, even though evidently it isn’t working.
Sniffling starts in my ear. “I knew you would. Ikaw lang. I can only talk to you about it.”
My muscles relax, tenseness I didn’t realize I was holding leaves my body. I’ve missed you, I want to say, but I’m scared that might make her hang up. Instead, I pace in my tiny studio apartment, where five steps will take me to the kitchen corner from where I’m sitting at my desk, tape lining where everything is supposed to go: laptop, client documents, pens—immaculate, in place—the one thing I can control in my life.
“Kumusta?” is all I muster, and she stays on the line, and for now, this is enough.
My feed exploded with crying emojis when news broke that Arashi would be going on hiatus in 2020—posts shared by old online friends with common interests, the few who haven’t unfriended me. I immediately thought of my sister and felt elated at the thought that she might reach out. Growing up, we watched fan cams and pirated DVDs of their concerts and music videos. She was a diehard fan of Matsujun, and her room was filled with his symmetrical face. Somehow even a flat rendition of his face exuded so much charm that I caught her once pressing her lips on a poster of him, with his lips slightly parted—his face blown up so much that my sister was only kissing the bottom part of his lip. The scene was so magnificently odd, so etched with embarrassment for me at witnessing this intimate, sacred moment between Ate and her poster, that the whole scene is incredibly vivid in my memory. When I remember that moment, I am nine again, looking through a door ajar, my heart racing, careful to keep my breathing even, preserving my presence. In that moment, I am innocent and pure, untainted by wickedness. I come back to that place often.
I pace in my tiny studio apartment, where five steps will take me to the kitchen corner from where I’m sitting at my desk, tape lining where everything is supposed to go: laptop, client documents, pens—immaculate, in place—the one thing I can control in my life.
Matsujun was interesting enough to me, but I was most enamored with Ninomiya Kazunari. Nino, whose face did not look like a grown man’s. Niño, which in our language, meant small boy. My myopic eyes locked on to his clumsy, jell-like dance moves, recorded through VHS—white lines cutting across the screen on the small, dated, hand-me-down television my sister had in her room. She was dumbfounded by my fascination with him. Nino wasn’t idol-like according to her, this perception magnified by her own favorite’s personality—Matsujun was flashy, effervescent. Nino was awkward, folded into himself, openly disdained interviews. I was in love.
When they performed their songs on music shows and concerts, small boys would accompany them as back dancers.
“That’s how they all start,” Ate explained, when I asked who they were. “Then, if they’re good enough, they debut.”
“So Nino was a back-up dancer when he was younger too?” A concert from 2002 was playing on our only desktop computer, illegally downloaded from a Spanish fan blog. The CPU’s fan whirred angrily, competing with the pop music played on cheap speakers, the bass completely absent.
“Yeah, he joined Johnny’s pretty young.”
The five men danced in synchronization in ugly, exorbitant costume—random assortments of shiny fabric stitched together, while cowboy frills lined their arms, swinging rapidly as they spun. The outfits were meant to be glamorous, but I had always found them atrocious, even then. Pre-teen boys littered the stage, doing the same dance moves in a more subdued attire, meant to complement the main men in the middle. The camera never focused on them. The audience was supposed to forget about them. I did not. A strange tingling started in me.
No job with a background check will hire me, so I spend most days at home, paying bills by the skin of my teeth with freelance money. I am tethered to my IKEA desk, always neat and organized, writing and translating anything I can get my hands on. I live in a studio where all my furniture is against the wall, barely no space in between each other. My life after Cory has meshed in my mind—there is no point in keeping track of days, months, or years. My life is now devoid of color—obsidian black, and I fantasize about being swallowed by the hole that keeps growing bigger and bigger inside of me. I let it, sometimes. Waste a whole day distracting myself by watching shows a normal person would watch, mainstream TV. I don’t touch the entertainment of my childhood. It is sacred and impermissible. Until my sister called.
“Doing the same stuff in Seattle, IT things.” Ate has calmed down, now that we’re talking about what she’s been up to for work. “Ikaw? Kumusta? Are you doing ok?”
The concern sounds real. No one has cared about my wellbeing in a long time. “Yeah, I’m managing.”
A long pause. I want to keep talking. Every second feels nourishing, and I’m getting greedy. “Have you heard from mom and dad?”
I hear her take a deep breath.
“They’re fine,” she replies. Another breath. “They’re not really ready to…”
“I know,” I cut her off. I don’t need to hear it again and again. “Sorry.” I am spiraling, falling in deeper and deeper into myself. I almost said, don’t hang up please, but that would almost certainly drive her to do so.
I am quiet, waiting, the sound of my family nickname comforting. I feel streaks of pink and yellow surge inside me.
“Have you listened to their new album?”
“No,” I say, breathy, smiling from ear to ear. “Maybe tonight. How is it?”
I knew it was Nino, even from far away, even though he was not the focus. He looked to be around twelve, focused on remembering the steps, absolutely no stage presence. I found this video when I was nine, after hours of searching online, sifting through fan blogs. I discovered one, Kazunari DieHard, as dedicated as following Nino’s journey through the agency as I was. My download was interrupted when my mom yelled at me for needing to make a call, and I had to painstakingly wait for the two hours again, watching the computer tell me it was steadily accumulating the megabytes for the video—ten minutes for split second glances of Nino as a young boy, charmless, but looking more innocent than ever before.
The anticipation of a downloaded file brings numerous memories to resurface. I am ten now, diligently completing homework on our dining table—our house sprawling, each activity had its own room, a mockery of my own living situation today—when my sister bursts out of the computer room, beaming, saying, “It’s done!”
We both look to our mom for permission, desktop use usually banned on weekdays. She and Dad roll their eyes. They relent. “Just that video,” Mom says, as I go in the room with my sister, the video already occupying the width of the monitor. I sit on the floor while she sits on the rolling computer chair, swiveling it to the side so I can see.
Their songs all meld into a common melody for me. I don’t think they’re particularly good or catchy. In fact, sometimes the tone is almost grating—too pop, a lack of soul intertwined into the music. But people don’t become boyband fans because of the songs. I truly believe it’s because of the narrative they sell, the idea that these handsome men—clean, laced with boyish charm—are completely interested in the listener’s soul, who they are inside, no matter what they look like. It’s poisonous, an addicting sentiment to a vulnerable, impressionable mind like a young girl’s, who has been convinced that it’s important to be pretty to be loved. The beautiful, sparkling men tell me otherwise.
On the screen, Nino is wearing a gaudy button-up shirt, dancing in front of balloons, getting doused by water. How he looks wet makes me tingle in strange places again, and another part of me wants to yell, scream, squeal to let out the energy bubbling up inside me. I don’t let it out, embarrassed in front of my sister. But she ends up squealing when Matsujun has his solo, his face close to the camera, lip syncing to the song. I imagine her kissing the monitor if I weren’t here, her hair sticking up as she gets close—electrons transferring, lips aligned if the video is paused at the right time.
“There’s behind the scenes footage too,” she says, after the three-minute music video is over. “That’ll probably take a few hours to finish downloading.”
We’ll take the world by storm was Arashi’s motto when they debuted in 1999. The word arashi has two meanings: energy from the mountains or a tempest, and at that age, watching them and that video in particular, makes me feel alive, excited, aroused even, though I don’t know it then. I am in front of that yellowing monitor, the ragged rug underneath me prickling my crossed legs, and I am still feeling a rush, restless. The energy in me is palpable, and I think this must be why they are called Arashi. I am not ready for the feeling to leave, so I say, “Let’s watch it again.”
“Mom might get mad,” she replies, but her tone is jubilant, a mischievous grin cutting across her face. “Don’t tell her.”
There is nothing new, interesting, or memorable about Arashi’s new album. It’s the same combination of sounds mixed together to make an upbeat melody with lyrics of familiar Japanese and English a native speaker would never say—the safe format a boyband group like them always employs. I truck on, doing it for the sake of my sister—the idea of being able to speak to her again comfortably makes the hole smaller, allowing pieces of me to form in full focus. I leave their new music video to watch for last, which would probably excite me more, but I want to finish the entirety of their album first, the last before their 2020 hiatus.
I let my guard down, close my eyes, and lie on my made bed, the covers tucked like they do in hotels, as the cacophony of instruments flood my ears, Arashi’s voices vaguely distinguishable from one another. Nino’s has always been squeakier than the rest—his talents more suited for acting than singing or dancing. The voice swirls color inside of me, fills crevices and craters. Cory, with his high voice, looking more like a ninth grader than an eleventh grader, knocking on an open door, wondering if he could bother me with a question. Though quiet as a mouse during class, he is animated, gesturing as he gushes about the book I’ve recommended to him. He is so clean, not a speck of facial hair on him, and I always fantasized about touching his soft skin, touching boys who have not been touched, their purity hypnotizing me. The moment I gave into that desire, the crack inside me widened into a chasm—everything crumbled. Around me, the world is chipping away. There is no storm of emotions, no energy like in my youth. I am dark, swallowing, falling into myself. I am a black hole where light disappears. My mind wills me to re-experience the shame and humiliation—the look on mom and dad’s faces. The look on all of the parents’ faces. LOVE, the song sings, rabu, written in their language, standing out from unknown syllables in the happy melody. But we’re in love, Cory said. I am in deep. I need to crawl out before I disappear into nothing, collapsing into myself, forcing me to look within—the tone of Cory’s statement imprinted in memory, the sentence ending on too high a note, begging for a refrain, and it sings in me, quietly, muffled and stuffed, pushed down as far as it can go, where the cracks and tears begin. Are we?
The playlist for the album has long ended before I resurface. There is nothing but black, pressing in me and on me. No amount of distraction can make me forget. My face is wet with tears I don’t remember shedding.
On my darkest days, when absolutely no one wanted to do anything with me, when I was scared people might recognize me in public, I did end up watching shows Nino was in. My favorite is Stand Up!! where he plays a senior in high school, the DVD for it now buried in my closet. Even though his real age was twenty, Nino passed as a high schooler easily, with the crisp white uniform and the classroom background. On days when the emptiness in me was so enormous, I retreated into this version of him—a life where he would love me, and I would love him, truly, not just because of how he looked, and no one had to know, and no one would say anything, and there would be no labels. I would click pause on a moment where he’s just sitting at his desk, mulling his life, a shot so common in a coming-of-age film. Let my hand go past my underwear, beneath it, where I’ve made everything as smooth as it can be, the suppleness strangely arousing. My hand goes further down, until it’s wet—fingers in a specific circular movement while electrifying sensations travel to my brain, screaming, this is the only time you feel alive, as my eyes never leave the wonderful, beautiful boy on TV—I will only cum if I keep my eyes on him, I can only cum if it’s boys like him. I hold my breath, the asphyxiation seemingly intensifying the pleasure, but I also think, maybe, if I hold it long enough, count until twenty, I can finally suffocate everything ugly inside of me.
About a week later, Ate’s name flashes on my phone and I surprise myself, letting it ring a couple times before I swipe across the screen. The past week has been a blur, zoning out in the world with work as my only savior, dulling the rift opening in me.
The sound of my nickname pushes away all apprehensions. “Ate.”
“Ano, did you listen?”
I grunt. “Ok lang.”
“Just ok? It’s their best kaya!”
I make a face, even though she can’t see me. I wonder if she has the same hairstyle—a bob that further rounds her face. She deactivated her social media stuff years ago, when news broke about me. “It’s fine. I don’t know.” I laugh, trying to make things light. “It sounds like all the rest of their songs.”
“Hm… well, I feel like there are more ballads.”
“Oh, yeah,” I say. I’m not sure. I can’t listen to it again. “I guess so.”
“Eh the music video? Did you see it?”
A normal conversation with a family member. When was the last time I had this? Give me anything but black emptiness. “No…”
“Watch it! It’s so cute!”
I grimace. Before I can reply, Ate speaks again, “I sent the link. Let’s watch it together.”
The word together makes pink and yellow dance around in me. I am back in our computer room for a moment, sitting cross-legged on the floor, looking up at our family computer: bulky, white, yellowing in places, the fan whirring.
“Fine.” I pull up the link on my laptop. My sister starts counting down so we can watch it at exactly the same time.
The video starts with a shot of a goldfish in a large jar, then a white boy is shown lying down on a couch, which confuses me. Arashi soon begins appearing, shrouded in shadows—their faces obscured in the dark. When Matsujun’s face is finally illuminated, I hear my sister squeal, the sound unchanged even now that she is twenty-nine. I can’t help but laugh at her, color expanding in me, and I wish my emotions could bubble on the surface like hers sometimes, but it already feels like I’ve spent my whole life pushing everything down—a lid on a boiling pot, even if it is spilling on the sides. When Nino appears on my screen in a suit in the middle of a garden—his face barely changed, looking as boyish as ever—the colors retract and my heart lurches, terrified of what might awaken inside me.
Ate pulls me back. “Do you think they’ll come back as a group after their hiatus?”
The song is a ballad, which I completely missed when I listened to the album. It’s slow and romantic, the sound of a piano distinct in the background.
“I don’t know,” I reply, watching Matsujun sing foreign words on the screen. He looks like he’s aged since the last time I saw him. Fine lines are etched around his mouth and eyes.
I ponder if my sister still secretly kisses him at times. I am nine. She is thirteen. I am peeking through her bedroom door, blood rushing to my face.
I am innocent, naïve. Nino is back on the screen by himself in the midst of a wild garden—an overpowering green in the shot. His face fills up my screen, and I realize I was wrong. He has changed: weariness cloaks his face now, a distinct absence of buoyancy in his skin.
I am untainted by wickedness. The video goes back to the white boy on the couch, where he is tapping the goldfish bowl.
“A hiatus means they might come back though, right?” Her tone is hopeful, maybe even desperate. Are we?
I don’t answer her.