The taxi moved at a snail-like pace in the rain. It inched forward before stopping, and inched forward again only to make another stop, this time for a red light.
The cold November rain came down in buckets. The front windshield wiper moved back and forth busily. The endless rattle of a man could be heard coming from the car radio. Since the volume was lowered, there was no way to make out exactly what he’s saying— his voice seemed almost like the low hum of a fly buzzing around inside the enclosed space.
“There’s no denying we’re late.” Misao sighed as she looked down at her watch. “We should’ve started to head here earlier. We totally missed the mark. I didn’t think to calculate the traffic jam that comes with rain on a Friday.”
Honda Misao’s my aunt on my mother’s side. My mother passed away when I was four, shortly after giving birth to my younger brother. Ever since, Misao has been like a mother figure to me— at times an older sister, and at times a close friend.
Her dark brown buckskin trouser suit suited her chest-nut coloured short hair. The small leopard print scarf that was tied around her neck looked stylish. Her figure and manner both oozed sophistication. Just hearing that she’s a skilled lawyer who set up a law office in Ginza is enough to intimidate most people, but I always figured that was something that couldn’t be helped.
She has a youthfulness about her that makes it hard to believe she’s fifty years old, along with a cool beauty about her that makes her stand above the rest. But when it comes to work, she rarely shows a smile, and she maintains a Noh mask-like expression so she gives off the impression that she’s hard to approach. Her words always cut right to the chase and they have an inherent rhythm to it like that of a metronome. She isn’t one to waste words — the way she talks gives the impression that she chooses intellect above passion and logic over feelings. Because she always keeps a distance from others, it’s very rare for others to get close to her.
“Does he have a cell phone?”
When Mio asked this, Misao’s mouth turned down at the corners as she shook her head. “The restaurant’s underground, so it’s out of cell phone reception.”
“Then how about we call the restaurant and get them to pass on the information?”
“That’s a good idea, but we can’t do that.”
“Why ever not?”
“Because I don’t know the restaurant’s number.”
“Didn’t you write it down in your address book?”
“That’s just the thing. I forgot to bring my address book with me.”
I chuckled silently. This is my aunt’s true self.
Even the female lawyer, who gives off the impression of a competent person who doesn’t show her weakness to anyone can, in her off time, be a bit unreliable, and show a side to her like that of an innocent young girl. She leaves her house without taking her wallet. When she has more than two things to carry, she ends up leaving one behind somewhere. Because of her inability to remember faces and names, she always ends up breaking out in cold sweat in an official setting. Despite all that, she doesn’t stress out over it; she’s able to shrug her shoulders and laugh off her faults.
Sometime after my mother passed away. my father began to have relations with his sister-in-law, my aunt, and this was something that continued until my father’s sudden death in an accident. Looking back on it now, I can kind of see why the only thing that my father, who was always changing women like a rotating daily menu, wasn’t able to do was completely cut ties with her.
My father probably wanted the natural strength that women have. The power of women to calm men. The ability they hold to be cool and collected without being overly self-conscious or overly dramatic. The strong vital force that makes men think that even if they didn’t pay them any attention and they’re left to fend for themselves, they’d manage to find a way to survive…
Because he doted on me, his only child, he never considered remarrying after my mother passed away. There were even some women he was involved with that threatened to kill themselves if he didn’t marry them– some even went so far as to actually attempt to commit suicide. Despite that, no matter what happened, he never wavered in his decision to live the way he did.
Even with the way he was, it was only towards his sister-in-law, Misao, that he carried a love for to the very end of his life. It may be that the initial feelings of passion changed to a more tranquil form, but it was still a deep love that was based on trust…there was no denying it was an unwavering friendship– sort of like affection among two kindred spirits.
“Are you nervous?”
Misao suddenly asked in a teasing tone.
I replied: “No, not really,” and shook my head.
“You’re awfully calm about this.”
“Are you saying I should feel nervous?”
“Do you want to know why I asked you this? It’s because I’m nervous.”
Misao raised her eyebrow, and flashing a tiny smile my way, she folded her arms and crossed her legs before shifting her gaze outside the window with an expression that belied her words.
It was just over ten days ago that Misao told me that she had found my younger brother, Shimada Takao.
The summer of the year that I turned four twenty-four years ago, the just born Takao was snatched by an unknown person from his crib. This received prominent coverage on TV and in newspapers, and many who had prior contact with the Shimada family were investigated thoroughly by the police over a long period of time.
The young live-in caregiver who had left Takao sleeping in his crib on the day of the incident while she was busy off having a rendevous with a male friend at a nearby park collapsed from anaemia numerous times during the investigation. She broke down in tears saying “It’s all my fault. If only I had kept my eyes on Takao-chan, this would have never happened.”
One month after the incident, the caregiver left something that was neither a confession nor a suicide letter before disappearing. Later, her hanging decomposing body was found in the mountains of her home town of Shimane prefecture.
Takao was never found. We never received any contact from the kidnapper either. There were no witnesses, and there were too few leads. At first, the police focused on my father’s numerous relationships, and much of the time was dedicated to investigating that. However, nothing came out of it.
Nothing resembling the dead body of an infant was ever found, and before long, time had passed. The investigation team dedicated to the case was considerably downsized. And one by one, the detectives who had been chipping away at the case were transferred to other departments. There were even some who retired. By the time we’d realized it, the statute of limitations had passed.
Society forgot about the incident. Even those around our family sealed the fact that there used to be an infant named Takao deep into the recesses of their memories. Even when we got together with relatives, we stopped talking about it.
So it came as a surprise that that very brother….the 24 year old Shimada Takao was found, and not only that but he was happily living a life now under the name Iwasaki Shougo. He moved to Tokyo after graduating from a high school in Utsunomiya city, and two years ago, while independently working to raise his living expenses, had passed the entrance exam to a private university. I was told that he was currently receiving money from a scholarship and living on his own in an apartment in the city and was also working a part-time job as a bartender.
I listened silently as Misao told me this.
Even though he’s supposed to be my younger brother, no deep emotion rose to surface. I remembered nothing except the face of the monkey-like, tiny, wrinkly infant. All infants look alike— even down to their cries and the expression they make when they cry. Even down to the smell of milk that emits from them and the way their mouths look without any teeth. He had disappeared before I’d gotten to fully realize the fact that he was my baby brother.
I do remember touching his warm and tiny hand as he slept in the crib; however, that’s all. I could remember nothing except that he felt warm. I was still only four then. I hadn’t ever picked him up nor pressed my cheek against his. I never even wanted to do any of those things. For me, the infant before me was just an infant and nothing else.
So when Misao had asked me if I wanted to see him, I was at a loss for how to reply.
I couldn’t say that I wanted to see him, or that I didn’t want to see him. The feeling I felt was similar to the kind of feeling you get when you’re asked if you want to meet a complete and total stranger.
Misao told me this: “It‘s up to you. Either way, this is probably something that shouldn’t go public after all this time. The woman who kidnapped Takao-chan brought him up under the pretence that she was his real mother. Her husband knew nothing of the kidnapping, and he truly believed that Takao-chan was his son. She submitted baby registration papers with him registered as ‘Iwasaki Shougo,’ and he’s lived his life up until now under that name.
The couple divorced when he was eight, and the woman, who was the sole person who held the key to the truth, passed away from an illness two years ago the year he began attending university. I’m sure he doesn’t want to dredge up the incident from the past either, and I’m sure he doesn’t want to have it examined closely that the person he believed to be his mother was in fact a kidnapper.
It wouldn’t even come as a surprise if he couldn’t care less about his past .”
“Well, what has he said? Did he say he wanted to see me?”
“Well, at this point and time, he hasn’t said anything.”
“So it’s not as if he’s saying he wants to see me, right?”
“In any case, I’ve told him exactly everything that I just told you. I didn’t say that he should meet you because you’re his older sister or do anything to try to pressure him into seeing you.”
I nodded. “If I do see him, then what? Would something change?”
“Nothing will probably change.”
“Even though you’re telling me you found my younger brother, nothing clicks for me.”
Misao took in a deep breath. “I understand. He’s a brother you only spent three weeks with, so it can’t be helped. But if you’re still curious and want to see him despite all that, I can arrange for you to see him right away. Likewise, if you say you have no connections with him now and that you don’t even want to be reminded of the unpleasant incident, of course, that’s fine with me. That’s all.”
Misao also told me that she hadn’t told anyone else that Takao had been found, and that she had no intentions of telling anyone else either. At the very least, Misao had found Takao purely by chance and not because she had been searching him.
The circumstances of the incident came to light more easily than she thought because of her profession as a lawyer, and she wasn’t trying to reunite them to dredge up details of the past. It’s just that if both sides had any desire to see the other that she would be able to arrange the meeting. That’s all. She kept repeating this like a mantra.
The silence continued. I told her to let me think about it. There was nothing else that I could say.
“Oh, and one more thing: I know this might be besides the point, but…” Misao added with a soft smile: “Takao-chan….no, his name’s Shougo now, but…he’s a nice boy. He’s smart. What I can guarantee you is that meeting him won’t be an unpleasant experience for you. Oh…and I wasn’t planning on telling you this, but he’s a dead ringer of your father. The very first time I met him, I thought your father was standing there in front of my very eyes and for a second, I was left speechless.”
I raised my head, and stared hard at Misao. It was in that very moment that I was spurred by a strong, indescribable desire to see him.
It was strange. It affected me more to hear that he had taken after my deceased father in looks than the fact that my younger brother was alive and well.
“If I were to see him…how would I go about doing that?” I asked.
In that moment, Misao, suddenly showed a soft expression like that of a mother and replied: “Well, for starters how about a nice, relaxing lunch with just the three of us?”
The restaurant where we had promised to meet Shimada Takao, aka Iwasaki Shougo, was located in a quiet place tucked away on Aoyama street.
At night, the place was a wine bar and restaurant, but in the afternoons, it offered a light French meal a la carte. The walls that were glued with subdued-coloured bricks and the stone pavement hallway— the classical atmosphere, the refined sophistication of the place felt somehow well matched with the meeting that day.
We were showed in by a young garcon with a beard, and as we walked inside the restaurant, which was empty save for three or four tables, I was suddenly over taken by an indescribable feeling.
It wasn’t nervousness, and it wasn’t shyness, and it wasn’t uneasiness either. It was a feeling that told me that I was making a big mistake. It was a feeling of regret, a kind of feeling that told me that to do something so stupid as to reunite now after all this time with a brother who I had taken for dead was meaningless.
I didn’t know why I felt this way now. Looking back on it later, I would end up thinking back to it many times. I would wonder later why, in that moment, I didn’t just run away– why I didn’t turn to my aunt and tell her: “I’m sorry, but I’ve changed my mind. To reunite with my brother now after all this time is just ridiculous.”
Even if Misao tore into me later on about it and yelled at me saying why I told her I want to see him if I was only going to back down at the last second, I could’ve just shot back sullenly “Well…I don’t know why, I just suddenly didn’t want to see him anymore. I couldn’t help it.”
But I didn’t try to run away. I didn’t even tell her that I wanted to back out of this. I didn’t even try to stop walking in my hesitation and get Misao to stop and turn around. To the contrary, I practically charged up to the table where my younger brother awaited, as if I was trying to open of my own volition the door to a cruel destiny.
Beyond the thick screen that had an arabesque-pattern engraved into it, a lone young man sitting at a six-person oval-shaped table got up in a flustered manner as he sensed our presence.
Misao stepped forward first, and said: “I’m sorry we’re late.” She said this in a frank manner as if he was a close friend she had known for years. “You must’ve waited for a very long time.”
“Oh, no, not really.”
“Of all the days to be late, to think we’d be thirty minutes late on a special day like today! This restaurant doesn’t have cell phone reception, and not only that but you wouldn’t believe the traffic jam outside because of the rain. I wanted to contact you, but I didn’t know this restaurant’s number. I considered looking it up using 104, but I figured we’d probably get here while I was doing that. And that’s how we ended up being this late. We’re really sorry.”
He was a tall young man. He had on a black turtleneck sweater and black pants, and he matched that with a charcoal gray jacket. You could tell it wasn’t an outfit he spent a lot of money on, and although his clothing didn’t scream top quality, they suited him.
The young man smiled and nodded at Misao. As he did this, he slowly shifted his gaze in my direction. He continued with a brief bow in greeting.
On the inside, I was in a panic on how to cover up my surprise. It was as Misao said. He was the dead ringer of my father when he was younger. It was as if my father from back when he was young was standing right in front of me smiling.
Misao waited for the garcon to leave a menu list on the table before straightening her posture and saying: “Well then. I guess there’s no need for any further delays. Mio, this is your brother, Takao-kun. Oh, I’m sorry. It’s not Takao anymore, is it? It’s Iwasaki Shougo-kun. And Shougo-kun, this is your sister, Shimada Mio.”
I didn’t know how I should greet him. I plastered on an awkward smile, and said in a small voice: “Hello.” I could feel myself losing my cool.
I didn’t want him to sense my unease though, so I asked him bluntly: “Should I say ‘long time no see’? Or would ‘nice to meet you’ be more fitting?”
“I’m not even sure myself. But I guess if it has to be one or the other, ‘long time no see’ would be more appropriate?” Shougo continued to gaze at me as he cast a shy, but bright smile my way.
“Since it has been a while, after all.”
“You’re right,” I smiled back. “Then let’s say ‘long time no see’.”
“It’s been twenty four years.” Misao added as she sent a carefree smile their way. “What a long time to be apart when you’re siblings. Well then, don’t just stand there you two, let’s all have a seat. Let’s put an end to this awkward greeting.”
Misao and I sat beside each other, and Takao…no, my younger brother who lived his life until now as Iwasaki Shougo ended up in the seat across from us.
I studied him from the corner of my eye.
His hair, which was simply cut, fell softly on his cheek. There was no trace of him having dyed his hair. His hair, which had a hint of the color of chestnut, reminded me of my father when he was alive.
He had an oval-shaped face with almond-shaped eyes. His features were clean-cut, but there wasn’t any particular feature that stood out above the rest. But I sensed that he had something like an intense sadness to him that inevitably sucked in those around him. But it wasn’t a distasteful sadness by any means. It was something characteristic of someone who has lived his life carrying loneliness in his heart, a sadness with even a tinge of light-heartedness in it.
That was the one thing that was different from my father. There was no sadness in my father. If there was, it was an act that he put on, because my father was a through-in-through upbeat romantic, a colourful optimist.
“I don’t know how I should say this…” Shougo said as he straightened his back. “But I’m nervous. This is like a scene straight from a drama. I still can’t believe it.”
He had a low, slightly husky voice. He smiled in my direction. His smile though gave no hint of the nervousness that he talked about.
That calmness, the collected attitude he gave off lowered my defences. It made me think that the way he didn’t try to re-enact the commonplace scene from a reunion drama that he was a head above the rest. I was surprised because I realized there was a part of me that was waiting to hear some cheesy drama-like line so that I wouldn’t hesitate to look down on him.
It seemed to me as if this man sitting in front of me gave no hint that the person who had raised him was in fact a kidnapper who raised him as her own. It seemed to me as if the truth behind his birth was something that he had no interest in finding out.
Knowing that let me feel at ease. I thought: this person is a stranger. He’s a complete and total stranger who just happens to have the label of my brother… now that I thought of it like that, I was even able to feel that I might be able to enjoy myself in this situation.
We each placed our orders, and after opening up a bottle of white wine and making a toast, I spoke up: “I hear you work as a bartender?”
“Yes, but it’s only a part-time job. I can make a cocktail or two though.”
“You worked at an amusement park before that, right?”
I knew this because Misao had told me that before he had started working as a bartender, he had had a part-time job at a city amusement park that involved interacting with children. It was a job that had him dress up in a Bugs Bunny outfit and walk around the amusement park greeting little kids.
“It might not look like it on the outside, but those suits are heavy. I had to run around, be chased around, shake hands, and take pictures with the children… it’s especially bad during the summer because it gets to be like a sauna in there. I was soaked in sweat and it was terrible.”
I poked and prodded the shrimp with my fork and forced a smile. “What kind of bar?”
“The place you’re working at now.”
“Oh, it’s a counter bar in Shibuya. The owner’s gay.”
“Are you okay? I mean, doe he try to hit on you?”
“It’s fine, because I’m not interested.”
I nodded, and put the white wine to my lips. I didn’t have much of an appetite. I rifled through my bag and took out a pack of cigarettes. “Do you mind?” I asked. Shougo replied: “I’ll have one too.”
I lit my cigarette and silently inhaled. “Can I ask you something?”
“After moving to Tokyo from Utsunomiya— before you passed the entrance exam to your university, what did you do?”
“Oh, various things. I did almost everything that I could make money off of. For example, I worked as a host at a host club…”
“Believe it or not, I did get quite a few requests. Thanks to that job, I was able to save up a lot of money in a short amount of time. I was even able to send money home to my mother. By then though, she had taken a turn for the worst and she was spending her time in and out of the hospital. Oh, I’m sorry. I guess in this situation, I shouldn’t say ‘my mother’ since she was a kidnapper…”
Although his words could’ve been taken as being snide, his way of talking didn’t have a trace of distastefulness in it. I pretended to not hear what he said and continued: “A number one host, huh? That’s amazing. So that means the rich women who worked in the entertainment business plastered themselves all over you, huh?”
“I didn’t know what my clients’ jobs were. Even if I had asked, they probably would’ve lied.”
“So you’ve lead a pretty interesting life until now, huh?”
“Do you think so?”
“Yes, I do. You were kidnapped as an infant, raised by your kidnapper and when you came of age you became a host and entered university with the money you made by doing that job…after that, you dressed up in a Bugs Bunny suit and made cocktails and on a miserable, rainy afternoon like this you’re meeting a woman you’ve never seen before who’s supposedly your older sister.”
“Haha,” he let out a dry laugh. “Could it be a hint of sarcasm I hear in your voice?”
After tapping off the cigarette ash onto the small crystal ashtray, I straightened my posture and apologized. “I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just… I’m not really sure what to say in a situation like this.”
With an ambiguous expression, Shougo nodded but didn’t say anything.
“Even after I was told my younger brother was still alive, I didn’t think anything of it other than ‘oh, is that right?’ and I imagine it must’ve been the same for you. Being told that you actually have an older sister and that you could see her… you must’ve been at a loss for how you should see someone like that after all this time.”
“Didn’t it ever cross your mind to just not see me?”
The hand that was moving the fork stopped, and Shougo stared intently at me. “It’s true that in the beginning, my mind was a mess. It took me a while to work it all out in my head. But…there’s no denying that there was a part of me that was curious to find out what kind of person my older sister was.”
“Now that you’ve met me, tell me what you think.”
“Mio.” Misao said in an exasperated tone as she cut in. “If you ask him a question like that so soon after meeting, there’s no way he can answer.”
Shougo said, “No, it’s all right.” and placed his fork down and faced me. “If I knew I had such a charming and attractive older sister, I wish I could’ve met you earlier. I wish I could’ve found out about the truth much earlier…that’s what I thought.”
For an instant, I was struck dumb and my eyes blinked involuntarily. The way he said it, it was easy to see he was used to handling women. His words made me think that like my father, he had been living a laid-back life skilfully hitting on countless women and leading them on, and that he was someone who could continue to do so in the future.
“Did I offend you?” He asked.
“There’s no way I’d be offended. You told me I was charming, after all.”
“But you don’t look very happy.”
“That’s no true. I am happy. Thank you.”
Misao seemed to have caught onto the fact that he had caught me off guard, because she smoothly changed the topic, and began talking about what I did for a living.
“She helps out at a café. I think I told you this before, but she works at a long-established café in Hiroo. Thanks to that, she’s good at making coffee—to the point that no one can match her. Isn’t that right, Mio?”
“It’s not that big of a deal. Anyone can do what I do.”
“How many years has it been since you started working there?” Shougo asked.
“Who knows? I guess 4-5 years?”
“Is it a daytime job?”
“The place closes up at eight. I can come and go as I please. I can take time off if I want, and if I don’t want to go that day, I just don’t. And my pay’s not so bad either.”
“Oh, so it’s one of those rare, easy jobs?”
“Why do you think that is?” I was overtaken by a need to torture myself as I asked this. “I’ll tell you why: it’s because I’m the mistress of the owner of that shop.”
For a flash, Misao had a disgusted look on her face, but Shougo didn’t seem affected by it. He silently nodded and lightly shrugged his shoulders and after a brief interval, he said this:
“A ‘mistress’ is a strange way to describe yourself. I can’t help but feel that you’re belittling yourself by saying that. I wish you’d say you’re his ‘lover’.”
“Either way, it doesn’t change the fact what I am. I’m of the policy that I don’t obsess over labels.”
With that, I emptied my wine glass and pushed my plate of vegetables which was still half full towards the garcon who had come to deliver the main dish.
I didn’t understand what it was that got on my nerves. Was it this man in front of me who’s supposedly my younger brother that was getting on my nerves? Or was it because he was unusually calm and not only that, but he gave a line like ‘you’re very charming’? Or was I fed up with myself, because he reminded me more of my father than I ever imagined, and I found myself interacting with him like I did my father?
The silence continued. His plate was mostly empty, save for the lump of celery piled near the edge of the plate.
The garcon gestured to the plate and asked him if he was finished with his dish. He briefly glanced at the garcon and nodded.
“Could it be…” Misao asked with a low voice: “you’re not a fan of celery?”
“I’m sorry I left it.”
“There’s no need for you to apologize. I just asked if you didn’t like it, that’s all.”
“There are two things in this world that I refuse to eat,” Shougo said jokingly. “One is celery. The other…I know this may be hard to believe, but it’s pickled plum. I’m not sure when this started, but…”
Misao’s eyes sparkled as she turned to me. “I for one, am shocked! Mio’s the very same way!”
I studied the young man sitting across from me, and the indescribable feeling that was close to annoyance that made me wish I hadn’t come here disappeared, and in its place, a curiosity about him assaulted me in waves.
“I can’t eat rice balls with pickled plum in them,” I said in a toneless voice. “It’s the same for celery. I hate the very name, and back when I was a child, my friend named her cat ‘Celery,’ and for the life of me, I could never call it by its name.”
Shougo chuckled quietly. Misao let out a laugh as well and their laughter blended together and a peaceful atmosphere settled.
When I had realized it, I was caught up by their laughter, and I found myself laughing as well.
TO BE CONTINUED…
[UP NEXT: Chapter 2 – 27-47]