A girl materialized at the sliding glass door one day, peering in wordlessly. “Natsumi-chan’s here!” said my son Minori. We invited her in. I learned she was in second grade and lived somewhere nearby. She was an eager playmate for the boys, and well-mannered. Her hair was pulled back loosely, but not sloppily, and long bangs swept across her forehead. Her name means, “summer beauty.”
She began to make her way over fairly often. For the sake of conversation, I asked about her family: Did she have any brothers or sisters? A sister in sixth grade and a five-year-old brother, I was told.
“Does your brother go to kindergarten, then?”
“Where does he go?”
“Well, he’s not going now because he’s in the hospital. His leg hurts and he has bruises.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Do you go visit him sometimes?”
“No, because he’s in a hospital an hour and a half away from here.”
I stopped my questioning and let her resume her play.
The last day of school came, and Minori returned home mid-morning with a number of friends in tow, including Natsumi. They played inside, they went outside. They had drinks and snacks. Lunchtime approached, and two girls remained. One was Natsumi. I invited them for lunch but asked that they call home first. Natsumi didn’t know her home phone number, but she assured me it was OK for her to stay and eat. And so she did.
Even though school was out, Minori asked to play with Natsumi almost every day. Her building was a few blocks away, so he implored me to walk with him up the street, and then up the steps to the apartment where she lived. Minori knocked, and Natsumi came bounding out the door. She had seen us approaching from the balcony.
She was called back in and scolded for wearing her sneakers without socks. No, don’t bother with socks–just wear these, the voice said. Flip-flops slapping on tile. Natsumi protested: They’re too big. They’re fine, just put them on, she was told. As we turned to head back to our house her two cousins waved to us, timid but smiling, from the same balcony.
“What’s your sister doing today?” Minori asked.
“She’s still in bed. She’s always in bed!”
We arrived back home, and Natsumi spotted Minori’s summer homework packet on the windowsill.
“I’m already finished mine,” she announced. Then she whispered something to Minori, giggling.
“Natsumi said she looked at the answer key and just wrote down all the answers!” he proclaimed to me, incredulous. Then, turning back to Natsumi, asked, “Why did you do that?”
She shrugged, unapologetic. “No one would help me with it.”
I knew why Minori liked to play with Natsumi. She was always around, not otherwise occupied, and she was willing to go out in the punishing midday heat and endure two-person dodgeball or whatever game he had concocted that day. They’d come back in when I called them, having set the timer for fifteen minutes, sweaty and ready for some barley tea. Natsumi’s bangs would be a spiky halo above her pink cheeks.
Minori was making the most of their summer days because Natsumi was moving. She was moving to the town where her brother was hospitalized, and would start attending school there after summer vacation. So I would allow their impromptu playdates to span the hours from morning till afternoon. A couple times she went home only to return a few minutes later. She was locked out. Other times this happened she might go to the city playground situated between our home and hers, or she might venture over to the store and kill time putting coins in the capsule toy machines.
The day we said goodbye, I saw her to the front door and wished her the best. “If you ever come back here to visit, please come see us, OK?”
Natsumi’s going to be fine; she can take care of herself. I just pray for someone to let her know she matters.