Illustration by Max Currie

Kent first met Kumi at a charity photo shoot. She wasn’t out of her teens when she’d begun modeling for shampoos, soaps, creams, and lotions, whatever product her agency could negotiate. She bore an innocence in her face people couldn’t get enough of. They believed her. Kent met her in a green room before the photo shoot. He’d seen her print ads. He knew she was going to be something rare, someone you didn’t forget. She was taller than the other girls and sure of herself, already a professional despite her age—as if she knew all along what she’d become. The press called her neko-chan—little cat—because of the way she walked.

She peeled a tangerine.

Even now, Kent was surprised by how much he remembered, the sweetness of that fruit that lingered in the room. The talent waited for a group photo shoot—a charity event they had committed to, and the whole room was filled with the sharp smell of tangerine. Kumi focused on the fruit, as if nothing else mattered—this girl, still a teenager, surrounded by adults, veteran actors, and models. Celebrities everywhere, but Kumi was oblivious to it all. She was young but at the same time grown-up. One minute her tongue was lodged in the corner of her mouth and she bit at her lip as if her job that day was to peel that tangerine. The next she was texting someone on her cell phone with a slice of fruit in her mouth.

Kent knew Kumi noticed him watching her—she was used to people watching, a lot. Everyone—everyone—knew who she was. But she sat there and moved tangerine slices around on a napkin in her lap as if she didn’t notice. She picked up a juice box and slurped at it. Then she gave him the slightest smile; and however subtle, there was kindness there. Kumi was known for her pout, which Kent first believed was phony, a part of the role she played for photographers. He soon realized it was a gesture she was unconscious of. Her bottom lip was always swollen and red from biting it. Makeup artists complained that they couldn’t hide it. Directors and photographers couldn’t get enough of it.

Kent imagined Kumi by the bar door, Hey, cowboy, her forehead to its glass as she stared out into the street and smoked a cigarette.

Ku… mi… ko…

To acknowledge the sound of each syllable, so unlike its brothers and sisters, such a solitary sound, equal in emphasis but peerless in combination. Not ka or ki, but Ku. Not ma or mu, but mi. And finally, the character for child, that also told you she was a sheko.

There were fifty-five characters in the hiragana syllabary, but there was only one combination that formed Kumiko: forever beautiful child.


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