The Long Way Home: On Love, Departures, and What Detroit Means to Me

In today’s #yoiconph2017 #blog, Meg presents a beautifully thoughtful exposition on love, letting go, and growing up but not necessarily apart, with the help of Yuri Katsuki, Phichit Chulanont, and a place fondly known as Detroit.


The Long Way Home: On Love, Departures, and What Detroit Means to Me
by Meg

The fourth episode of Yuri!!! on Ice was a pivotal episode for me for many reasons. Prior to that my investment in the series’ early episodes was always tempered by a kind of caution—I’d been enjoying the push-and-pull between Yuri and Victor as Yuri struggled to come to terms with the fact that his idol had taken any degree of interest in him and Victor attempted to draw him out of his shell, and seeing the seed of what would eventually develop into a complex dynamic between him and Yuri Plisetsky, partly admiration, partly rivalry, partly a care and concern that neither of them quite knew how to express. But likewise I’d made it a point to be a little guarded—to hang back and wait until fuller character arcs for the protagonists and for the people in their world began to emerge before I gave the series my heart and soul. (I was a little scared, do you see? I didn’t want things to just turn out like another carrot-and-stick game between the shy anxious boy and the hot foreign guy he’d idolized forever who had taken a sudden and inexplicable interest in him. It didn’t help matters that at the time all the conspiracy theories floating around were that Victor was evil, or that he was dying. But anyway.)

All of that reserve flew out the window by the fourth episode, which essentially took the little hints the earlier episodes had been making at the characters’ hidden depths and cranked them up to eleven. There’s so much wonderful insight that comes out of this episode—from the by-now iconic “When I open up, he meets me where I am,” to the way Victor challenges Yuri to put together his own free skate as a way to build his confidence. The conversation they both have with Yuri’s former coach, Celestino, is especially telling of Yuri’s personal challenges and what he needs in order to grow: Victor asks, “Why didn’t you let Yuri choose his own music?” to which Celestino replies that he chooses the music for his skaters unless they tell him that they’d like to pick their own. He proceeds to add that Yuri only brought him a piece once, but that he’d gone back on it when asked if he believed he could win skating to it: “Please choose the music for me after all, Coach.”

In a sense, this conversation with his former coach reveals to Victor how past!Yuri failed a kind of test—one that had to do with his capacity to trust his own choices—and that present!Yuri now needs to face and surmount a similar test before he can move on. The difference is, of course, that Victor’s not going to let him give up on himself. Where Celestino withdraws and lets Yuri fold, Victor insists on pushing. I also like how this short conversation is illustrative of the fact that, for all that it didn’t work out between them, and for all that his methods differ from Victor’s, Celestino knows Yuri and has his best interests at heart, and understands what he needs in order to succeed, even if it’s not something he can help Yuri with at this point.

Suffice to say that there’s a lot to like about this episode, a lot to love, but the real kicker for me came a little under ten minutes in, when Yuri’s slumped at his desk at a loss as to what to do with his program, and he’s scrolling through his Instagram feed. He sees a friend of his is practicing in Thailand—and right then and there, he calls this friend. Yuri, who’s anxious and overthinky and shy and has such a hard time opening up to people, just calls up this random boy from Instagram in the middle of the night, like it’s the most natural thing in the world. He greets him with “Sawasdee krab.” Cue me bringing my hand to my mouth in dismay—He has a Thai friend and he’s greeting him in Thai, oh my god. I felt the axe hovering above my head about to drop.

Suffice to say that it was love at first sight for me, as far as Phichit Chulanont was concerned. From his very first appearance as a smiley image on Yuri’s phone screen, he exudes a natural warmth and an effervescence that it’s difficult to look away from, and that have proceeded to endear him to the fandom surprisingly thoroughly for a supporting character without too much screentime/internal monologue time/poignant backstory reveal time. But more than that, it was the ease with which I saw him and Yuri talk to each other that intrigued me, and the idea of their shared past—“Detroit’s boring now that you’re gone!” he said, and I felt the axe smash me right down into extrapolation hell, because cute former rinkmate? Cute former rinkmate whose wiki entry later told me was also a former roommate? Look at all the fanfic waiting to happen.

(Spoiler: Happen it did, and then some.)

***

I think one of my favorite things about fanfiction—possibly my favorite thing—is that you never start from zero. There’s a joy to be derived from building upon the foundations of a preexisting universe—taking the characters and fleshing them out in ways that canon doesn’t get to, dropping them into entirely new scenarios or even entirely new worlds, exploring “what if” scenarios. In other words, the act of filling in gaps.

I love visiting other people’s worlds to play. Add to this the fact that I’m the kind of person who enjoys thinking a lot about how our pasts shape who we eventually become, and who can get pretty obsessive about going back over my own memories with a fine-toothed comb and trying to trace how the various people I used to be might have been built, brick by brick, experience by experience, into the person I am now. So maybe it only stands to reason that I’d latch on to the idea of Yuri’s time in Detroit, that long formative period in his life that’s talked about in canon but we never actually get to see except in the tiniest glimpses, and turn that strange obsessiveness of mine toward extrapolating the life out of it. Or, well, extrapolating the life into it, I guess I should say—making it real, trying my best to build it into a world of its own. I’ve never been to Motor City myself, but in the process of all this extrapolation I’ve looked at so many maps of the city, so many long lists of shops and restaurants, so many photos in particular of the Detroit River and of Ambassador Bridge, that it kind of makes my head spin. The imaginative exercise has made Phichit and Yuri’s Detroit so real to me that sometimes I think I can almost smell the air. It’s honestly kind of weird when I stop and think about it, but that’s what the imagination can do if you take it and run with it.

Yuri leaves home at eighteen, and spends the next five years in Detroit. He trains under Celestino, goes to college, makes it to his first Grand Prix Final. It’s never established in canon how many of those years he spends living with Phichit—usually I go with around two, on the assumption that Phichit moves to the US at eighteen, as Yuri does, though this varies depending on who you ask—and how they come to be such good friends, different as they are. In other words, lots of gaps to fill in. Lots of room to play, and to extrapolate.

In the Detroit that I imagine, Yuri and Phichit go to school and train together. They do the groceries and the laundry. They explore the city. They get hamsters. Somewhere in the middle of everything, Phichit gets his driver’s license, which means long late-night drives in Celestino’s car. Sometimes they go to parties. Sometimes they dance. They eat and watch TV and clean up their apartment and study together, and eventually they push their beds together so they can sleep next to each other too. Probably in that shared space they talk more and more deeply with each other than they ever have with anyone else. (Needless to say I was happy beyond words to see that little flashback in episode 11, where Phichit tells Yuri about his dream to skate to “Shall We Skate?” at a major competition, and how important it is that Yuri be there too when it finally happens. Needless to say at least three friends who saw it before I did were kind enough to tweet me a warning that the episode was going to kick my ass. Shout-out to my friends. I love my friends.)

In my imagination, all of this leads to them falling in love, though weirdly enough that’s almost beside the point—secondary to the fact that, somehow, they come to love each other. More on the difference between those two things in a bit.

***

Yuri tanks at the Grand Prix Final in December. He returns home to Hasetsu in March of the following year. In the intervening months you can imagine him as caught in a kind of downward spiral—how depressed he must be from what he imagines is the worst performance of his life, how lost he probably feels. The competitive season has ended early for him, and he’s right about to finish his college degree, so in a lot of ways he’s at a crossroadsand there are a lot of things he’s unsure about. Should he leave Detroit or stay? Should he keep skating, or start trying to imagine a life where he does something different? Can he see himself taking over the family business, even?

What little we learn from canon about Yuri’s eventual decision to leave Detroit is zeroed-in on Yuri to the exclusion of everything else. All we know is that he doesn’t think that what he’s doing is working anymore, so the only decision that makes sense to him in this time of intense personal crisis is to seek a change of scenery. We learn that he’s trying to recover the love for skating that he’s somehow lost along the way, and the way he’s decided to do it is to make his way back to his origins. We see him return to Hasetsu, his hometown, and skate Victor’s “Stay Close to Me” program for his childhood friend Yuuko, a nod back to when they were little and fell in love with skating copying Victor’s iconic performances. We’re not told anything about what he’s chosen to walk away from, what he’s decided to leave behind.

Detroit City is one of those things. Celestino is one of those things, as is Phichit, as is the skating club they practice at, and the place where they live, and the hamsters. And it’s possible from here to spin out versions of this story that are sad and painful and poignant especially with regard to Phichit’s place in this quite complicated order of things—to look at it from bittersweet pining Phichit angles and I’m-sad-I-couldn’t-help-you-love-skating-again angles and I-know-you-don’t-love-me-like-I-love-you angles, and from here it makes sense that in some imaginative spaces this develops into a deep undercurrent of helpless sadness that those Phichits carry with them into the canon timeline, sometimes past it, sometimes forever. And I get the place those Phichits grow from, I do. I know what it’s like to love someone you’re scared you can’t help because you don’t completely understand what they’re going through, and how easy it is to feel like you failed them, and to carry that with you so long it starts to feel like part of you—but that’s another story for another time, and the bottom line is that, with all the respect due the imaginations of others, my particular imagination always gives me back something different.

My imagination hits a wall whenever it tries to imagine Phichit wishing that Yuri might stay when he knows he’s not happy, or that he isn’t growing. I can’t see Phichit looking at Yuri and feeling like he’s the one that got away. In some versions of this story, sad!Phichit exists, but mine isn’t one of them. It can’t be, just because my imagination—the tiny, not-so-significant-for-all-its-obsessive-extrapolations little theater of my mind—doesn’t play it out that way for me. I’ve already told you that I’ve watched them fall in love; now I see them not so much fall out of love as decide that it might not be good for them to be in love anymore if they’re going to be apart in such a big way, and that this decision is just one of the many things Yuri has to set in order if he’s going to go home. And he needs to go home, if he’s going to move forward with his life. I’d like to imagine that, not only does Phichit know this, but he commits wholeheartedly to helping him. Because, any way you want to slice it, he loves him.

Phichit knows that Yuri needs to go—and yes, this knowledge is a sad thing, but that’s not all it is. I want to think it’s also a decision that makes sense to him. For one, he’s a skater himself and knows how ephemeral their existence as professional athletes is and how tumultuous lifestyle setups can be when your craft necessitates you shuttle back and forth all over the world. In addition to that, though, there are certain things I imagine someone like him—someone who by every token seems to be such a giver, such an emotionally generous and caring and other-directed person—would probably understand about the nature of love.

It’s easy to see the act of letting someone go, of ending a relationship, as essentially black and white. If you really loved this person, you would never have left them, or if you can’t make someone you love stay with you, then you’ve failed them and yourself. But the thing is, a lot of the time it’s not like that. It’s entirely possible to love someone a lot and still need to recognize that your time together has run its course, at least for now. It’s a loss that needs to be grieved, for sure, and it can feel like your whole world has been turned on its head because suddenly you’re missing an important presence, so many routines have fallen through, certain places look weird to visit now without them beside you. I know.

But the sad thing about getting stuck on what-might-have-beens and if-onlys is that you miss the possibility of something good coming out of that necessary separation—which you probably can’t think of at all in that moment, I know. It’s hard. Sometimes you can’t even imagine what life would be like after you let someone go, because naturally human beings find comfort in consistency, resist change because the unknown is frightening. If you let someone go, how can you be sure you’ll ever reencounter each other? How do you know you’ll ever be happy again?

On the flipside of that, we talk all the time about how love is wanting the best for the other person. I think what we talk about less often is that part and parcel of wanting the best for someone you love is giving up control over them and their decisions—trusting the other person to know what’s best for themselves, to do what’s best, to make their way back to you eventually in the ways that are best. Or maybe not, if life happens and leads them so far away it doesn’t make sense to reconnect; that’s the risk you take. But if you do find your way back to each other, after you’ve had the chance to be apart and grow up a little bit and become essentially new versions of yourselves, how can the chance to pick up again be anything but a gift?

There’s a very specific nuance here to the act of letting go. It needs to be total. You don’t let go halfheartedly, while still partially clinging, still wanting to hold on. You don’t let go kind of hoping to be vindicated somehow for your selflessness. You let go with grace, in good faith, and trust the process that may or may not bring you and the one you love back around. (The feelings are running high at the moment, so let me pass you briefly to Maya Angelou, one of my favorite poets, who captures the idea of true unconditionality better than I ever could: “I am grateful to have been loved and to be loved now and to be able to love, because that liberates. Love liberates. It doesn’t just hold—that’s ego. Love liberates. It doesn’t bind. Love says, ‘I love you. I love you if you’re in China. I love you if you’re across town. I love you if you’re in Harlem. I love you. I would like to be near you. I’d like to have your arms around me. I’d like to hear your voice in my ear. But that’s not possible now, so I love you. Go.’” The last words are gratitude and acceptance. That imperative she ends on is really, really important. She said Go.)

***

One of the things that makes Yuri such a compelling protagonist is that all throughout his narrative the biggest, most frightening, most important struggles are against himself. His greatest battle is the battle to recognize himself as a person of worth, and so much of that has to do with how he learns to recognize love—to recognize himself not just as someone who’s capable of immense love but as someone who is loved. It’s a battle you see him begin to win in (again!) episode four—which practically deserves an Oscar just on its own, IMO—and it’s a thing of joy to see him work at it, sometimes mastering his demons, sometimes folding under them, but always coming back a little stronger each time.

It can be terrifying, paralyzing to realize that you are loved. Often it makes people push others away—don’t look at me, don’t care for me, I’m not worth your time or attention, direct it at someone or something more worthy—but I like to think it can be inspiring too, and that there’s so much strength to be gained from resting securely in the love of others. And I don’t mean this in the sense that you have to constantly depend on others to build you up because you can’t do it for yourself; rather that sometimes it’s enough to recognize that you’re not alone, to draw strength from that and to become, in turn, a more loving person. Yuri starts off utterly unable to imagine what Victor sees in him—which, if you think about it, dovetails entirely too well with his difficulties with accepting support from anyone else in his life—but everything is changed by the fact that Victor insists, continuously, that it doesn’t matter. He won’t be beaten down by Yuri’s stubbornly deep-rooted poor opinion of himself. Instead, it becomes a challenge: Try to see in yourself what I see in you. Try. Try your hardest. Use your imagination.

I haven’t spoken a lot about Victor in this rambly, weirdly convoluted little essay, I realize. Part of it is because I never quite feel like I need to—so many wonderful things have already been said about his and Yuri’s relationship, and about how important they are to each other’s journeys toward becoming more loving people and learning to own what they do and who they are. Part of it is also because I’m looking at him right now as a link—albeit a singularly important one—in a chain of events that precedes his and Yuri’s relationship and spirals incessantly beyond it. And that’s one other really wonderful thing about love, I think—that love in the true sense doesn’t close the world. Instead, it opens up the world; it makes everything look more whole.

In light of all these things, I find it so compelling that so much of what Yuri learns, through Victor and everyone else, is retrospective—that not only is he loved and supported and believed in now, but that he always has been. Victor helps him see something that’s existed all along—that love has passed from person to person and from place to place and that never for a moment has Yuri been without it. For one reason or another he hasn’t always felt it, recognized it for what it was—anxiety, terror, the impossible standards to which he holds himself—but it’s an idea we see him grow into little by little, with help. And by the end, when he’s running down the sidewalk in St. Petersburg toward Yurio and Victor and thinking “We call everything on the ice ‘love,’” he knows. Suddenly it makes sense now how everything that came before had a hand in bringing all of us here to each other; suddenly it makes sense that all of us are meeting here, where we are.

***

Let me wax extra self-indulgent for a bit and talk about one imaginary scene I always go back to whenever I think about Yuri and Phichit. Whenever I think about Yuri leaving Detroit, I always think about Phichit taking him to the airport. Twice now I’ve written out that scene in a fic, Phichit behind the wheel of Celestino’s car (legally borrowed, this time, because it’s an Important Day), Yuri in the passenger’s seat playing the music as he’s done on so many similar drives that I’ve imagined. Except this drive is a little different, because it’s the last for the foreseeable future. They see the end coming; they’re moving together towards it.

It took me a while to figure it out well enough to get it down in words (instead of, you know, emotional keysmashing) but now I know why I always imagine things this way. I understand why I need to put Phichit where I do, right on the knife’s edge of that departure, carrying him all the way to the last possible moment before the separation happens. I think at the heart of things it’s me trying to emphasize something to myself about goodbyes—that yes, they’re sad, and they hurt, and for a long time you’ll inevitably miss the person or place or thing you’ve let go of. Sometimes deeply, sometimes for a long time, like an arm or a leg or a chunk of your heart. Of course you will. But then I think about Phichit and Yuri in that moment I imagine, idling in the airport driveway—and part of my mind is already flashing forward some months later, to that first Skype call and Phichit’s smiling face on Yuri’s phone screen, forward still to Beijing and Phichit turning up by chance in the very hotpot place Yuri and Victor have decided to eat at—and I can’t help wanting to believe that that’s not all there is.

I want to imagine Phichit smiling at Yuri across the car, maybe squeezing his hand for courage and good luck. I want to imagine in that moment things are as simple as they’ve always been between them—that while it’s not easy, because departures never are, these two silly boys rest secure in the knowledge that they’ll always have each other even when they’re not side by side, that it won’t be impossible to pick up again anytime they get the chance to. That’s how much I want to believe they trust each other, how important they are to each other—and how much I want to think that holds, no matter where they go and what they choose to do.

A couple of days ago a friend of mine pointed out that in Japanese the expressions mata ashita and mata ne, which mean see you again, are so much more common than sayonara, which signals a more permanent, or at least a more long-lasting kind of goodbye. I think about how in my native Tagalog the word for goodbye—paalam—has its roots in the verb alam, which means “to know.” When you say goodbye to someone—pamamaalam—you’re letting them know something, and somehow in my imagination that act of telling someone that you’ll be leaving works to make the absent person even more present. Weirdly enough it helps me remember the idea of returns.

I love these boys too much—and I want to believe that they love each other too much—to keep them stuck on the idea that they’re losing each other. (Is such a thing is even possible?) I much prefer to put them in the space of “see you again,” of “catch you when I do,” like it’s not a big deal at all, even if at the same time it is. Imagine Phichit laughing and saying, “Text me when you get home,” which is something most of us have said to our friends at one point or another before parting. Never mind that home is across the sea, on the other side of the world, fourteen hours away. Imagine how strongly he’d need to believe that the two of them have the power to collapse that distance, make it feel like nothing. Imagine that Yuri, for all the things he’s afraid of in that moment, kind of believes it too.

***

There’s a tiny amount of actual footage from the show to go on, so maybe I’m making mountains out of molehills here, but from the very first moment I ever saw Yuri and Phichit interact, I’ve been struck by how simple things seem to be between them. I love that. I love that it’s uncomplicated, that the only way they seem to know how to be with each other is just tender and joyful and pure. I really love the idea that it’s possible to be that way with someone that you may have loved differently in the past, and that you can acknowledge how important it was to you without necessarily wanting to bring it back again, because that would take away from the integrity of what you share now. And while you can remember the then as something beautiful, so is the now in its own way—and that it’s okay, you’re here, you can be happy now with what you have.

Even if you don’t imagine them as having been in love before, look at how present with each other these two are, in the instances that they have to reconnect. They’ve been apart and come back together, attentive to how much they’ve grown but also to how little certain aspects of their relationship have changed. One of them can call the other in the middle of the night and greet him in his native language, like it’s the most natural thing in the world. They smile at each other on the phone. They bump into each other in a foreign country and sit down, organically, for hotpot. They allow themselves to be proud of each other, to cheer each other on in competition: He’s giving everything he has to this season, too.

In all instances, they’re still them, only grown-up enough now to stay in each other’s lives by choice. That’s what holds, regardless of where they end up or what they do or how much time passes in between. The next time I catch up with you, we’ll probably be totally new people, but I know that over and above everything else these moments are a chance to rediscover you, again and again. Even with the people you know best in the world there’s always something new to learn—and I choose to keep learning. That’s how much you mean to me.

I don’t want this to be a utopic scenario, something that’s thought of as unrealistic or too good to be true. It’s real and it can happen, and it’s worth all the work.

***

The tenth episode shows us a pair of photos of Phichit and Yuri at the Detroit Skating Club, taken at an unidentified point in their shared past. The first is a selfie at the entrance, where they have their thumbs up, and they’re laughing. The second is of them posing on the bleachers while Celestino sits in the background, looking away, thoroughly unamused.

I look at Yuri in these pictures—take in his smile and his silliness and how comfortable he looks in his own skin—and I can’t bring myself to think of those days as any less real than the days leading up to his departure. It’s easy to conceive of Detroit as the place Yuri chooses to walk away from, the place he needs to leave so his story can begin. But it’s also a place with stories of its own, and even if canon never reveals them to us, it’s not difficult to imagine the ways Yuri himself is touched by them even as he moves on.

I think this could be true for him as it’s probably true for many of us: you need Detroit to make it, in the end, to St. Petersburg, that wonderful faraway ending-place that you probably thought existed only in your dreams. You may not be in Detroit anymore, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it was a false start or a waste of time, or that it was never important—in fact, it’s precisely because you aren’t there now that you can maybe now begin to comprehend what it did for you, looking back over your shoulder in memory at all the places you’ve been and seeing with a clarity you didn’t have before just how far you’ve come from where and who you used to be.

On the one hand, of course you remember how hard things used to be. But maybe, just maybe, as you sift through all the things you remember, you’ll find that in more instances than you might originally have thought, you were happy too.

You don’t need to go back to Detroit, even. In a way, you never left—you carry that truth with you. You were happy then. You are happy now. All of it is real.


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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