The Mangaka Lover by Russell Hemmell

My sister pouted her lips, chin lifted in the air, hand on her hip as if she were unsheathing a katana.

“Hell, that’s bad timing, Nick.” She glared at me. “Fashion Week is in two days. They’re going to eat me raw like your tuna sashimi, with no wasabi on top.”

“I know.”

“I thought you had forgotten Julia.”

“I know. Shoganai.”

“Don’t give me your Japanese voodoo words, bro. You could avoid it if you wanted to.”

We finished our bento in silence.

“Damn you,” Naomi said eventually. “If you have to go, do it now. Tonight.”

And so I left, boarding a plane for Tokyo Niigata. I didn’t try to sleep, knowing too well it was close to impossible; I switched on my laptop instead, searching for her photo, buried in my hard drive but still there, ready to pop up on my screen. Julia’s wide-spaced green eyes and pretty Japanese face smiled at me, triggering painful sensations and unbearable longing.

***

I had always walked through the imposing gate of Barrio Liberdade in awe, every time grateful for that unexpected possibility. My life in Sao Paulo as a fashion designer was a good one. I enjoyed wandering around those streets in Julia Minaze’s neighborhood, inhaling the scent of mixed aromas—teriyaki and feijoada in a unique mix, like the beautiful features of the nikkei, the second generation of Japanese-Brazilians. But that day I didn’t pay attention to my surroundings.

“It is not the end of the world, Nicholas,” Julia said, her green eyes as serene as ever.

Maybe it was not, but I couldn’t avoid crying.

The accident had injured Julia’s spine. How do you tell your 21-year-old girlfriend she was never going to walk again? Her mother and I braced for the moment of truth, trying to give her all the comfort she needed. But we soon found out we were the ones in need of comfort.

“I’ll have more time for my work.”

“Julia…”

“Creating my manga, you know.”

I wasn’t sure how to reply to that. “And what about us—about me?”

“You?” She smiled, “I’ll be here anytime you want to meet. Convenient, no?”

I hated to admit it, but she was right. Julia worked all day, always smiling whenever I paid her a visit, welcoming and gentle. Sitting at her desk, clad in black-and-white and soberly elegant as usual, with her fancy, men’s classic shirts and silky black hair falling on her face.

Then something changed. I couldn’t precisely tell what, and yet I sensed she was absent-minded, as if a yokai from the old Japanese legends had taken her soul away. Her eyes wandered around, distant and restless.

Until one day, when we were on her bed kissing and she stopped me.

“I can’t, Nicholas. No longer.”

“I understand. Your disability is getting to you. We’ll work on it together.”

Julia shook her head. “No.”

She pointed her index finger at her design table. “Kimera.”

“What?”

“Kimera is the reason. I think about him when we’re together. That’s not right. For you.”

I stood up and went to look at her sketchpads. The sheets were full of images of a young male with long blond hair, transparent ice-blue eyes, and the beauty of an angel.

“This one?”

“Yes.”

“You can’t make love…because of one of your characters? Is he jealous, maybe?” I tried to keep the incredulity out of my voice, but irony seeped in nonetheless.

“You don’t understand. Kimera comes from a far-away planet. He’s here, alone, and I think he misses contact with people. With anybody, actually; I was just the one he found who was not too scared of him. We had long conversations, and I’ve decided to produce a manga about the story of his life. Since then, we meet every day.” She looked straight at me, her green eyes honest and direct. “I don’t mean any disrespect to you, Nicholas, but I think I’m falling in love.”

I went back to bed, massaging her calves.

“And I think you need a doctor. ”

“For my legs?”

“No, not for your legs,” I replied, annoyed and making no effort to conceal it. “You sound delusional⁠—more, you sound deranged. I understand the accident, the stress and everything, and how hard it is for you to take it. I know everybody reacts differently to tragedies like this. And you’re an artist, a real mangaka. But…”

“You think I’m making it up?” her voice had a puzzled tone.

“Listen, I spoke to your mother yesterday. Nobody visited you in the two last weeks apart from me. And now you say you had long conversations with this…alien. How does he come to you—entering your window on a broomstick?”

“By the same door you used, when everybody’s asleep. He is very silent.”

“I’m sure he is.” I gave her a hard look. “I’m going for a walk.”

***

I didn’t visit Julia for a few weeks. There was something disturbing about the whole story, something that hit a nerve. I knew I couldn’t possibly be angry: she spent her weeks alone in her room, seeing nobody apart from me whenever I was free to go and keep her company. I felt humiliated, nonetheless⁠—offended that she preferred a pure fantasy to a flesh and blood boyfriend. Then I calmed down. I asked myself what I would have done in her situation, depending on others and living as a virtual prisoner. I would probably have behaved just as oddly, and not as nicely. She’s jealous I can still enjoy life, see people, talk to other girls. She’s insecure.

I went back, deciding to straighten things up with her.

When I entered her room, Julia was not at her desk as usual, but on the bed, staring at her window with a dreamy look in her eyes. When she saw me, her expression became sad.

“What, Julia?”

“I betrayed you, Nicholas. I have no excuses,” she said. “I had sex with somebody else.”

Oh, now that. “When?”

“A week ago, for the first time, and every night since.”

“Every night?”

“Yes. Just here.”

I looked at her, and, for a moment, I didn’t get what she was talking about. I knew her mother was not keen on allowing acquaintances into her room. She would have mentioned something, I was sure of it. Then a thought dawned in my mind.

“Julia, enough.” I was no longer annoyed. I was scared.

“I’m sorry. He didn’t force me. It was my own decision.”

“You have to stop.”

I could see she wasn’t listening.

“He has been gentle⁠—so kind to me. I still wonder how he learnt these things not knowing any other human. What we have is a communion of minds; not just of bodies. He gives me so much pleasure.”

He doesn’t exist, Julia.”

She looked at me, the expression on her face no longer distant as it had been over the last months. Her cheeks were red, almost flushed, and there was something burning in her eyes, like a blazing white flame.

“Who is delusional now, Nicholas?”

I extended my hand to reach for her, but she pulled away. I left without saying a word.

***

I couldn’t sleep that night. Something ominous had just happened in Julia’s room. It was not her story that upset me; it was her attitude, that look I had seen in her eyes. There was longing there. There was desire.

And the morning after, when the telephone rang and I heard the apologetic voice of Julia’s mother, I knew.

“Nicholas-san, Julia left for Japan.”

On a magic carpet? I was on the verge of asking. But I stopped myself in time; she would have been too embarrassed to explain, anyway. And I didn’t need to know any details.

“I have a message for you. I’ll send it over. I won’t read it.”

As if that mattered.

I’m going to Tokyo; my elder sister is taking me there.

Julia’s calligraphy was thin and elegant, like her lithe figure.

That’s where I belong. You don’t need to worry about me; Kimera will take care of everything. I wish you a beautiful life, with a girlfriend that deserves you more than I do. Okaware da, Nicholas.

Of all farewells I had gone through in my life, that one stung and burnt like salt on an open wound.

***

I left Sao Paulo immediately afterward. I went straight back to New York, working on a tight schedule. And for four years I consistently tried to erase Julia Minaze from my mind. It was not that difficult; only Naomi knew about her, and my sister avoided the subject. I even found myself a girlfriend. I told Leslie about Julia, an edited version of the truth⁠—just enough for her to understand where my love for Japanese culture had come from. But I stopped reading my previously beloved manga—I put them in a box and forgot about it. Manga meant Julia, and Julia meant pain. I was now treating manga as a dangerously addictive substance, or as forbidden books.

One day, Leslie paid me a visit in my office, putting a manga on my desk with an enigmatic look in her eyes.

“Since when have you started reading Japanese comics?”

“Since meeting you, Nick,” she replied, opening the booklet to the first page. “A friend from Tokyo gave it to me. It is quite famous now.”

“What’s so special about it?”

“In an interview, the mangaka said it was inspired by real-life characters and events, no matter how fantastic they appear.”

“So?”

“It’s the story of an alien that comes to Earth and falls in love with our planet. Thanks to a girl that becomes his companion.”

“How amazingly original. Does he travel in a faster-than-light flying saucer?” Then I noticed her strange expression. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Because one of the characters looks like you,” she said. “Spot on, eyes included. Strange, isn’t it?”

No, not if Julia Minaze was in the equation. I didn’t bother to check, and I dismissed Leslie with a shrug.

My life was as a fashion designer in New York. Julia was not part of it any longer. Four years is a long time, even when you don’t live on opposite sides of the planet like we do. Screw you, Julia.

***

Four years were fleeting moments, faster than fast, full of memories, colours, and sounds. Regrets, too.

Less than 48 hours later, during lunch break, I gave in and picked up the manga Leslie had left for me. The title was, tellingly enough, Koibito no Mangaka. Otherwise translated, The Mangaka Lover.

There was Julia, in those pages, dressed in her manga as in real life: a man’s white shirt over black trousers, silky hair over silkier skin. I could recognise myself too, more handsome than I was in reality and certainly smarter. And there he was Kimera. His transparent eyes looked like mirrors and his words to Julia were songs from another time, their meanings cryptic, and their sounds bewitching. An ethereal presence like a benevolent god or a demon with a tormented soul.

In one of the stories, he took Julia on his lap, kissing her face and caressing her lips. Kanawanu yume wa arimasen, he said while undressing my girl. That’s not an impossible dream.

I vomited.

That night, I was not able to make love to Leslie. Nor the nights after that, either. When she finally asked what was going on, and if there was somebody else, the answer that came out of my mouth was just too natural. Yes.

“Who is she?”

“Julia. My former girlfriend.”

She was less mad at me than I had expected. “Is she back?”

“No.”

Now she was mad.

There was not a lot that I could do except leave. Fashion Week would have to wait.

***

The Tokyo district of Akihabara was exactly the way I had imagined it: an “otaku” paradise. And walking around big manga stores like Mandarake, cosplay shops, and gaming centres, I had the impression of hearing Julia’s voice.

The Gandamu Cafe she had talked about many times was just outside the JR station, and, as low-profile as I could manage, I sat there, waiting. Julia’s production house was not far away, so I reasonably imagined she would stop by, sooner or later, on her way to work. How was she getting around? Her mother had never given me any explanation—not that I had asked for one. I wondered if she used a wheelchair. Well, I’ll know when I see her, whenever this is going to happen. I simply won’t leave Tokyo until then.

It turned out to be sooner than later⁠—that first day. Julia looked the same, her hair as shining black as I remembered, only longer. Two things struck me: she was dressed in white silk, the mourning colour in Japan, and she walked. On her feet, she wore high heel shoes like the ones I designed for YSL.

I observed her in a dream-like state, trying to make sense of those details. And when she moved on, I followed her to Azabu, a quiet and luxurious residential area with elegant houses.

This is where only the very rich of Tokyo live, especially foreigners. Aliens too, maybe.

Her flat was on the first floor of a low building and, after a moment of hesitation, I climbed up. I stood by her window like an unlikely spider⁠—feeling ridiculous and risking arrest on top of that. It occurred to me that I had resented her for the wrong reasons. You could become obsessed by an idea, or by a person. Did it really matter if this person existed or not? After all, the symptoms were the same, and so was the passion.

I’m going to tell her everything is forgiven and forgotten.

I’m going to take her with me, and never leave her again. Eien ni, Julia. Forever.

I peered inside.

Julia was there, eyes closed, hair spread on the floor like the tentacles of Medusa. She was naked, her skin as pale as the white marble she was lying upon.

She was not alone.

Transparent ice-blue eyes, golden-white hair, and the beauty of an angel, Kimera was there too⁠—a lonely alien from a far-away world.

Julia took his head and put it to rest gently on her stomach. Then she looked outside the window, and our eyes met for a moment. Unfazed, unsurprised, she smiled at me, her lips parting to show pearl-like teeth like fangs.

***

I walk around Central Park every day at dawn. That’s when people are asleep and I have the whole place to myself. I enjoy looking at the city’s skyline, at those thousands of lives teeming and buzzing like a giant hive, from a distance. It gives me a sentiment of peace.

I bade farewell to Leslie soon after I came back from Tokyo, and I have never seen her again. There is no other woman in my life⁠—Naomi has finally stopped trying to set me up on blind dates with her girlfriends. She has also stopped calling me altogether, and I’m grateful she respects my privacy.

Gone, also, is my job in the fashion business. I freelance online for what I need to survive in an unglamorous lifestyle. This spares me the pain of human interactions. I don’t feel lonely—I’m as alone as I want to be, protecting my solitude with suave but steady determination.

But I am no hermit; I did find myself a silent companion. During one of my morning walks, I met a rare red squirrel, aloof when people are around but curious and engaging when it’s just the two of us. It looks different from the rest of rodents, and not only because of its fur. There’s something attentive in its pitch-black ferret eyes, something that makes me wonder. Maybe it is an alien, too, and it has just assumed a different shape. To be more inconspicuous than Kimera, for example. If it is so, this guest from outer space has chosen me as its human of comfort. I’m glad it did. We enjoy long sunny days together, lying on the grass and breathing fresh air.

Speaking of aliens, I’ve never asked myself if that man I saw in her Tokyo apartment was indeed Kimera in flesh and blood or a cosplayer she had paid in the delirium of translating her fantasies into something she could touch and smell.

It doesn’t matter: Kimera exists. I’ll never be that real for her.

And for what concerns me…I’m no longer part of Julia’s everyday life, but I live in her manga. The volumes keep piling up, year after year, with fantastic scenarios and unbelievable worlds. At times, I flip through one old booklet, the one where she pencilled, with accuracy, my visit to her flat in Azabu. I look with sympathy at my pale face by her window like I would at a dead brother lost in combat. The horror in my eyes, the sudden realisation. In her pages, I cry.

I enjoy following us in adventures that never happened; I like to think one day they might become real. Or maybe, they already have—in some parallel dimension, in a reality that multiplies and unfolds like a blossoming flower. Inebriating, scary, perhaps, yet fulfilling. I feel I’ve lived for so long, and I’m close to the moment it shall all come to an end⁠—turning the last page.

Just not yet.

Every week, I still wait for my express delivery from Mandarake, Tokyo. And on the pages of The Mangaka Lover, I taste my life in black and white, counting the days until the next episode.


Russell Hemmell is a French-Italian transplant in Scotland, passionate about astrophysics, history, and speculative fiction. Winner of the Canopus Awards for Excellence in Interstellar Writing. Recent stories in Aurealis, Flame Tree Press, The Grievous Angel, and others. SFWA, HWA and Codexian. Find them online at their blog and on Twitter.