If I Could See You: On Friendship, the Creative Journey, and Yuri!!! on ICE

Today, on the #yoiconph2017 #blog, May, in a beautifully honest and wonderfully heartfelt narrative, shares her experience of watching Yuri!!! on ICE, and how the life and love of the series as led her to insight and appreciation of her own.


If I Could See You:
On Friendship, the Creative Journey, and Yuri!!! on ICE
by May

I was at my desk on a slow work day, half-heartedly browsing the internet, when I started noticing a set of screenshots circulating on social media. Over and over, I saw the same scene—a light snowfall descending upon the rocks of a traditional onsen, where a silver-haired man was emerging from the steamy bathwater, a bold smile on his face as he flung his hand out towards the viewer. From what I could gather, the pictures were from the first episode of a new anime about figure skating, which was…also gay, maybe?

Strangely, though I didn’t have much to go on, the little I did know was enough to pique my interest. I was never a sports anime fan, or a sports fan, period—but ice skating seemed accessible enough. Can’t hurt to give it a shot, I thought, as I opened a new browser tab and typed in “yuri on ice episode 1.” If I don’t like it after the first few episodes, I’ll just stop.

From the first few seconds, the animation had my heart. The first episode of Yuri!!! on ICE begins with a dreamlike sequence of Victor skating alone. He moves in and out of the shadows with a grace both fluid and cutting, backlit by the high windows surrounding the darkened rink. On the sidelines, Yuri watches as his childhood idol moves through his step sequence, then skates closer—smiling, reaching out to Yuri, but not touching him just yet. “He never fails to surprise me,” Yuri says in the voiceover narration, as onscreen his eyes light up, an expression of uninhibited joy giving way to one of determination.

After finishing the first two episodes, I got on Facebook and messaged my friend, Celeste, to tell her about it. Celeste is something of a skeptic when it comes to me recommending things to her, and she’s always told me she doesn’t like watching ongoing shows; she prefers to have all the episodes already available, ripe for the binging. But she was going through a bit of a slog at work, too, so like the good friend I am, I helpfully supplied her with the link. At the same time, I casually began browsing the YOI fanfiction archive, where in spite of the show’s just having come out, stories were already pouring in by the dozens. I made myself a cup of coffee. I waited.

When Celeste messaged me “I’M ONLY THREE MINUTES IN AND HE’S ALREADY CRYING???”, I knew she was sold, too.

***

I studied creative writing in college, and though I’d always known that I was a good writer, and that writing was what I wanted to do, it took me a while to hit my stride. Being in an arts course is no less competitive than being anywhere else; it can feel cutthroat even when much of the pressure is internalized. You become desperate to prove yourself—to your professors, all famous writers themselves, who have their bars set high and their eyes trained on you; to your parents, who love and support you, but who you know deep down are wondering if it’s really worth it for you to pursue this.

You watch as your peers get published in journals and get accepted to national writing workshops, while you are left behind. You look down at your own drafts folder, all your best attempts at capital-L Literature that you worked so hard to create, and suddenly you’re not so sure anymore. You start wondering whether you’re cut out for this at all. Whether it might be better to just give up.

Yuri’s breakdown in the first episode hit close to home for all those reasons. Faced with utter failure after finishing dead last in the Grand Prix Final, Yuri sneaks away and locks himself in a bathroom stall. He calls his mom. He says he’s sorry. He starts to cry, hands pressed over his mouth in an attempt to hold back his sobs.

Watching it, I remembered all the times in my life when I cried just like that—having lost all faith in myself, feeling helpless and utterly alone. It can seem so insurmountable, that feeling of what if I’ve just made the biggest mistake of my life? What if this is all there is? What do I do now?

***

Although we call each other best friends now, and although we were in the same course, Celeste and I didn’t really start getting close until about halfway through college. One semester, we got to chatting online while we were holed up in our respective dorm rooms. What initially brought us together was fandom—in between talking about what we’d learned in class or what we’d had for lunch, we discussed our Harry Potter and Marvel ships and linked each other to fan art, laughing at the imagined scenarios we spun out between us.

Gradually, this evolved into trusting each other with our fan fiction as well as our quote-unquote “serious” writing. I have fond memories of the night we spent analyzing character arcs and motivations, via text messages that were four paragraphs long. Apart from our creative impulses, we share an introverted nature, a closeness to our families, and what I believe is the sensitivity of a true conversationalist—not the ability to talk a mile a minute, but the ability to listen, to ask the right questions, to make the other person feel at home.

Over the years, we’ve seen each other through much more than just our senior theses and the finales of shows we didn’t want to end. When one of my family members passed away, I remember Celeste texting me while I sat in the chilly funerary chapel, reminding me not to accidentally set my hair on fire with my vigil candle again, giving me a small pocket of normalcy in the midst of my grief.

After we graduated from college, we both got jobs that require us to spend a fair amount of time at our computers—so until now, we still find ourselves chatting almost every day. Celeste occasionally travels abroad for work, however, and I have a tendency to worry when someone close to me flies out of the country. So whenever she’s away, we send each other selfies—me from the office bright and early in the morning, her from the hotel room she’s just checked into close to midnight. Just our way of touching base, across the miles.

***

I can’t remember exactly how it started, but at some point one of us must have suggested watching the new Yuri!!! on ICE episode at the same time. It quickly became a regular thing, and I found myself building my weekly routine around it. On Thursday morning I’d wake up a few minutes early, and download the episode while I brushed my teeth. I knew there was no real need for this, since I wouldn’t be seeing it until later anyway; I just liked knowing I had the file on me.

The rest of the day would be spent avoiding social media like the plague, so as not to see any spoilers. Any other Thursday night plans were out of the question; if another friend asked me whether I was free for dinner, I’d tell them sorry, but I had a prior commitment. At 6 PM I’d leave work, and after eating and changing into my pajamas, I’d log back onto Facebook to ready myself for Celeste’s video call. The blip-blip sound as the connection was made filtered through my earphones, and I’d drum my fingers on my keyboard, waiting for the pixels on the screen to crystallize into a familiar face.

Prior to this, we’d tried using Rabbit, but eventually settled on something a little more old-school: queuing up the episode on our respective video players, and counting down three, two, one together so we could hit Play at the same time. As color splashed across the screen and the first strains of “History Maker” blared out, we’d laugh wildly or just start screaming, oh my god oh my god oh my god. For the next half hour, we’d lose ourselves in both Yuris’ stories—cheering as we watched them ascend the ranks of the competition, holding our breaths whenever someone made a particularly tricky jump, exhaling in relief when they landed clean. On some of my worst days, knowing I had all of this waiting for me was what got me through.

One week, Celeste had a lot of work lined up, and she told me she wouldn’t be able to make it to our usual viewing. That Thursday, I downloaded the episode as usual, but held off on watching it until later that weekend, when she was free again. When I asked her, Celeste said she’d already seen it without me, having snuck it in during a break—so she couldn’t understand why I hadn’t. “SMH, I can’t believe you,” her message to me read, and I could clearly imagine that look on her face that she gets, the way the corners of her mouth turn down as her brow scrunches up in incredulity. “Why did you wait?”

In hindsight, it was a little silly. I knew Celeste wouldn’t have minded me watching it alone, the way I didn’t mind that she had. But to me, there was no other way I could experience YOI; she and it were inexplicably linked in my mind. “I don’t know,” I typed back. “It felt weird without you.”

***

At the start of the show, Yuri is anxious and inclined towards self-doubt; whenever Victor addresses him, he retreats, stammering and blushing. Happy as Yuri is to have his idol become his coach—and move into his house, no less—he can’t fathom what Victor could have possibly seen in him.

In Episode 4, however, we witness a turning point. Victor tells Yuri to produce his own free skate, which Yuri agonizes over, never having trusted himself to select his own music or choreograph his own program before. The one time Yuri did ask someone to compose a piece for him, one that encompassed who he was as a skater—the song turned out wholly unremarkable. “Find something else,” Victor says bluntly. Later, he asks, “Why can’t you trust your own decisions?” Yuri can’t give him an answer.

It’s not until Victor invites Yuri to get away from the rink one morning that things become a little clearer. The two of them go down to the shore and sit on the sandy shelf that overlooks the ocean, watching the gulls wing their way across the gray sky. Here, away from the pressures of training for the competition, the boundaries between coach and skater begin to relax, and the two of them can just talk. Unexpectedly, Yuri starts to recall a former acquaintance of his—a girl back in Detroit who, during an emergency, took the liberty of giving him a comforting hug, assuming it was what he needed.

“I felt like she was intruding on my feelings or something,” Yuri murmurs, pulling his knees closer to his chest. “I hated it.” But then, he says, he realizes that all the people who really know him—his parents, his sister, Minako-sensei, his childhood friends—have never overstepped and made him feel weak or pathetic like that. Here, too, Yuri realizes that Victor doesn’t see him that way either. When I open up, Yuri thinks, as he takes Victor’s hand and the sky above them begins to clear, he meets me where I am.

It’s in this episode that Yuri comes to appreciate, perhaps concretely for the first time, the love that everyone in his life has for him, and the trust they have in him to grow and achieve his goals. Strangely, Victor’s waltzing into his life is what’s made him look back to see what was always there—and what now is helping him look forward with a newfound resolve.

The closing scenes of this episode show Yuri finally working on his free program. He has a new composition now, one that truly represents the journey he’s taken to get here. As they review the choreography, Victor asks if Yuri’s last jump in the second half can be a quadruple toe loop.

“I’ll do it,” Yuri says with complete certainty. The world is opening up before him. He’s not so afraid anymore.

***

Like I mentioned earlier, there was a time when as an undergrad I floundered in my craft, struggling with self-doubt and the need for external validation. Thanks to the kindness and constructive criticism of my teachers and my friends, however, it wasn’t too long before I found my own voice.

I became more secure in my writing after I learned what my strengths were—my patience in unfolding a series of images, my restraint when telling a difficult or emotional story, my capacity to carry a narrative arc through to the end. I learned to trust my best instincts; I learned to rewrite, to cut out, to start over. In time, I received recognition for my efforts, but I no longer felt that that recognition was the ultimate goal. My writing was born out of love, out of the sheer desire to create.

After I graduated, I started teaching. Every school day became full of small joys, as I began to discover each of my students’ talents. The more I gave them space to grow in the ways they needed, the more I witnessed each of them opening up to me and to their classmates, taking personal risks, blossoming. From the start, I knew I couldn’t take credit for any of their brilliance. All I was doing was giving them nudges in the right direction—showing them what they already had inside them all along.

In between classes and paper-checking sessions, however, I was aware that I should also be writing. I still had the impulse to write, but honestly, I had no clue what to write about. I’d open a new Word document, punch out a few lines—but every story or poem I started felt hollow, like a pale imitation of my own work instead of an actual earnest attempt.

I didn’t know what I needed, until I did. I always used to write about things that bothered me. Questions that were so big, they’d taken root inside my body. Now that I had mastered what I’d strived to master throughout my entire college journey, now that I was happily passing on what I’d learned to the next generation, I had no questions left to try to answer for myself. I was stable. I was safe. What I needed, I realized, was to feel just a little bit lost again.

So when Victor leaned in to embrace Yakov on that snow-covered sidewalk in St. Petersburg and whispered Dasvidanya in his ear, before boarding the plane that would take him to Japan, a world away from the dazzling success he’d worked all his life to achieve—I understood.

And when, just after the Grand Prix Final, Victor gently looped the silver medal around Yuri’s neck, saying I’m worried about making a full comeback even as they looked at each other, both knowing it was what he needed to doI understood completely.

***

In the middle of the Rostelecom Cup, after having skated a perfect short program, Yuri receives a call from his sister. Makkachin is at the vet, she says. They’re not sure he’ll make it. Without hesitation, Yuri tells Victor to fly back to Japan to be with his dog; the two of them argue about it, Yuri insisting he’ll be fine doing the free skate on his own, Victor insisting he can’t leave him.

It’s only after Yakov agrees to stand in as Yuri’s coach that Victor feels comfortable with going. As they say goodbye in the lobby of their hotel, Victor pulls Yuri in for a hug. “Even if I’m not here, I’ll always be with you in spirit,” Victor whispers.

During his free skate the next day, it’s clear Victor’s absence is taking something of a toll on Yuri. Right from the start he flubs several of his jumps, to everyone’s dismay as well as his own. But Yuri tells himself to shake it off, to keep skating this program that he loves, that he and Victor made together. I was able to come this far because Victor believed in me, he thinks. So it shouldn’t matter, really, whether Victor is watching or not. And despite his noticeable mistakes, he still captivates the crowd.

Yuri ends, as always, with a pose that involves him pointing to the spot where Victor would be standing. One hand outstretched, the other close to his heart.

***

Applying to graduate schools abroad is a process that is both tedious and slightly intimidating—but I stick it out, filling up every form and completing every personal essay. Surprisingly, I’m looking forward to being a student again. I tell myself that no matter where I get in, if I get in, I’ll be able to really focus on writing, the way I want.

Despite my excitement at the prospect of striking out on my own in a different country, part of me also thinks it would be nice to do it with a friend. I know Celeste was also thinking of going to grad school someday; we’ve talked about it once or twice, and I even know the program she’s interested in pursuing. So for a while, I entertain the idea of asking her if she wants to apply together.

It’s funny—I noticed a long time ago that the two of us are often thinking or feeling the same thing, but also that we’re both shy about confirming it with each other, afraid of overstepping some personal boundary. The few times that we do say anything, we preface it with an apology: sorry if this sounds douchey; sorry, is this weird; sorry, this might just be me, but. Case in point: it took us two years to figure out we’d been thinking of each other as best friends, because neither of us wanted to assume we meant as much to the other person as they did to us.

Although we don’t talk about it in so many words, we both know that Celeste is in a good place right now. She loves her job, and though she does want to go to grad school eventually, asking her to join me right now would be rushing her into something she isn’t ready for. Waiting for her, on the other hand, would be holding me back. Although we’ve shared a journey up to this point, I know we’re going through life at different paces now—and that this is a necessary thing, for both of us.

So I don’t ask her, or even tell her I was thinking of asking her, until after I have already been accepted to a university in the UK. Celeste congratulates me during one of our Facebook chats, and asks me when I’ll be leaving. Late 2017, I tell her. In the fall.

After that, I start to give her minor updates every so often. I found a few scholarships I might be eligible for. I just submitted my housing application. I have to start buying winter clothes. Though it’s not something I’m actively thinking about day to day, these small, casual mentions help make it feel more real to me. We’re chatting about it one morning when Celeste makes one of her rare confessions. “Sorry, this sounds so selfish,” she says, “but—I can’t imagine you being away.”

I pause, trying to think of a response. I try to tell myself it’s not going to matter. Most of our interactions happen online anyway—so even though we won’t be in the same country anymore, things won’t be any different.

Then I realize I can’t be sure of that. That I won’t know until I get there. So when I finally do reply, it’s to say, “No, it’s okay. I can’t imagine it either.”

***

Yuri!!! on ICE boasts a stellar soundtrack throughout, but arguably one of the most famous tracks is the aria “Stammi Vicino, Non Te Ne Andare”—in English, “Stay Close to Me,” which Victor skates to when he wins the World Championship back in the first episode. There is a deep sadness that emanates from him throughout the routine, and though it might seem like a performance to the rest of the world, what they don’t see is that it stems from his own loneliness and discontent with himself. Victor’s first jump is a quadruple Lutz, followed by his signature quadruple flip. He lands both clean. Sento una voce che piange lontano, the singer warbles over the speakers; I hear a voice weeping in the distance.

Unbeknownst to Victor, at least for the moment, Yuri is skating the exact same program, in an empty rink in his small hometown. His jumps are slightly clunkier, his movements more tentative. It doesn’t matter, Yuri thinks; no one will ever see this. This is just for him. He launches into a camel spin, moving to music only he can hear; se potessi vederti dalla speranza nascerà l’eternità—if I could see you, eternity will be born from hope. Here, skating by himself, Yuri is reaching for something he doesn’t quite know the shape of yet.

Ho paura di perderti. I’m afraid of losing you.

***

One morning, I wake up and am almost immediately assaulted by an anxiety attack. Though I’ve known it for months now, it seems to hit me all at once—the fact that I’m going to be leaving a job I love, the house I grew up in, the people I’ve known all my life. Normally, when attacks like this happen, I’m able to deal with them myself, by taking deep breaths and listening to music. For some reason, it doesn’t work this time. I go to work and sit behind my desk fighting to breathe, feeling betrayed by my body, locked inside my own head.

Celeste finds out what’s happening, and messages to ask me if I’m okay. I try to explain, brokenly, my hands shaking as I attempt to put words to the old questions that have returned to haunt me—what if I’m not as ready for this as I thought I was? What if I’ve just made the biggest mistake of my life? What do I do now?

Calmly, Celeste looks at each of my fears, and dispels them one by one. There are so many things for you to look forward to. You’ve grown so much. Maybe you can’t see it, but all the people around you can. Remind yourself you’re in control of this—all of which I know means, You’ll be okay.

Then, a miracle happens. Slowly, I feel the tightness in my chest begin to unravel, and the noise in my head starts to quiet down. Celeste gives me a book to read. She sends me part of a new story she’s writing. She makes me laugh. For the first time in a long while, I take a deep breath, and let it go, steady and clean.

***

Though Yuri!!! on ICE is about many things, what I think I took away from it the most was its depiction of the tough but much-needed process of building up belief in yourself. All of the characters are chasing something, and what many of them come to realize is that they can’t do it on their own. The show is largely, of course, about how Victor and Yuri find courage in each other—but we also come to see that what keeps Yurio going is his desire to make his grandfather proud, and that there’s a give-and-take in the unlikely friendship he strikes up with Otabek Altin as well. Even JJ, after having a breakdown on the ice, is able to come up smiling when his fiancée, Isabella, begins a rousing cheer for him.

My friend Meg always says that even if you already know something yourself—that you’re smart, or talented, or brave—it sometimes just helps to hear someone else say it, and I think she’s right. Real love, I think, doesn’t make you dependent on the other person, but reminds you of your own strength when you need it the most, and lets you know that you’re never alone.

Looking back on everything I’ve done in the past five years—gaining confidence as a writer, becoming a teacher, applying to grad school—I can say that I’m proud of how far I’ve come. But I also know that I couldn’t have done any of it without the encouragement and support of all the people in my life, in the same way that I know I’ll always be there for them when they need it. The assurance of that love is something I’ll continue to take with me—day by day, year after year, no matter where I go.

***

Whenever I read a book or watch a TV show, I always try to find a character to latch onto. I joke that I’m weak for the bratty fifteen-year-old in anything, and sure enough, Yuri Plisetsky both skates and kicks down bathroom stall doors with a beautiful fury that I aspire to possess. Victor’s breezy confidence and shameless sense of humor, but also his deep understanding and his ability to push others to reach their full potential, make him impossible not to fall for. I identify largely with Yuri Katsuki as well; not only with his constant worrying, but with the pensive and tender nature it stems from.

But of all the skaters in the show, I think I like Leo de la Iglesia the best. I love that the only featured American is a brown boy; I love Leo’s gentle, easygoing demeanor, and how the upbeat R&B-rap number he uses for his short program, “Still Alive,” is about finding God in music and in all of nature. Leo choreographs his own routines, and he doesn’t rely on quads to rack up points—“I just want to skate the way the music feels,” he says honestly. To me, no one else skates quite so freely to the beat of their own drum, just reveling in what makes them feel most alive.

Apart from Leo himself, what strikes a chord with me is his friendship with fellow teenager Guanghong Ji. Where Leo is quiet and steady, Guanghong is fiery and excitable. During his free skate, Guanghong imagines he is an assassin working in the seedy underworld of Shanghai, reunited with an old ally in the middle of his last dangerous job. This ally, of course, wears Leo’s face, and Guanghong’s final pose is him sinking to the ice, taking a bullet for the cornered Leo in the private theater of his mind.

I think sometimes about these two boys—best friends fourteen hours apart, seeing each other only when they’re in competition, keeping in touch purely through the internet. Most likely they send each other selfies. Maybe once in a while, when their training and sleep schedules allow, they make time for a video call—remaining constants in each other’s lives, even though they’re on opposite sides of the world. I wonder if they sometimes feel like it’s a lesser friendship, as opposed to the friendship they would easily have if there wasn’t such a great distance between them.

I look at Guanghong sprawled out on his bed in his sweats, propping himself up with his elbows and smiling into his webcam; at Leo sitting rinkside with a steaming tumbler of tea, glancing back and forth between the finals livestream on his laptop and his phone as he fires off message after message, there they are, Guanghong! Are you seeing this? Oh my god, that was amazing!

I decide, once and for all, that they are happy.

***

I’m bad at goodbyes.

When I have to go home at the end of a party, I can’t walk out until I’ve hugged every single person in the room, sometimes twice. When a friend moves away, I struggle to even write them a letter, because I have no idea what to say. I love picking people up from the airport, but hate taking them to it; I can’t count the number of times I’ve pretended to be asleep when someone was leaving, in the dark hours of early morning, because I just couldn’t face those final moments with them.

Recently, I noticed that when Celeste and I chat, we rarely ever say good night to one another. As we’re packing up at the end of a work day, we say TTYL, talk to you later—and although most times, we don’t even wind up talking later that evening, all it means is that we can pick the conversation right up again the next morning. As though we’re just having one long conversation that never ends.

Sometimes, back when we were watching YOI, our three, two, one, play countdown would be a little out of sync. Because we were on video chat, I could hear the audio of the episode coming through Celeste’s speakers as well as my own, so I could tell whenever I was a little behind, or a little bit ahead. Instead of interrupting the viewing by telling her, I got good at scrubbing forward to the right time in the video, or pausing mine so hers could catch up.

For a brief moment, I’d sit there in the half-silence, listening to the tinny echo of the skaters’ blades carving across the ice, waiting for the few seconds it would take for us to sync up again. Then, at exactly the right moment, I’d hit Play and settle back in my chair—the music swelling to a crescendo as finally, Yuri pushed off from the edge of the rink, raising his arms and sailing out on a wave of thunderous roars, into light.


We welcome guest posts! If you’d like to write about Yuri!!! on ICE or figure skating for the #yoiconph2017 blog, please contact us!

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5 thoughts on “If I Could See You: On Friendship, the Creative Journey, and Yuri!!! on ICE

  1. Daydreamer says:

    I wish to speak with the writer of this piece, man this made me tear up a little–the whole writing thing got me like “Woah. Why d’ya hit my heart” but I guess talking with the writer of this entry is kind of… off? I don’t know. Either way, if she’s still in the UK, I hope she’s having fun and so with her bestie. ❤

    Like

    • May says:

      Hello ahhhhh thank you so much this made me smile, I’m really happy this touched you in some way ❤ and not in the UK yet but your good wishes are very much appreciated! Thank you ❤

      Liked by 1 person

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