The phone rang.
It wasn’t her cell phone ringing though– it was her home phone. Reflexively, Misao glanced at the watch on her wrist; it was a bad habit of hers. It wasn’t something that came about because of her profession, but just something that had become a routine of hers before she’d even realized it.
It was almost nine. The phone display flashed a number. She recognized it right away as Mio calling from her cell phone.
“Misao-chan– I’m surprised! I thought you wouldn’t be home.”
“Where are you? Are you still at Muda’s café?”
“I left early today so I’m in my apartment right now. Hey, do you have any work to finish up tonight?”
“Tonight? Not particularly. Why do you ask?”
“Then would you mind if I drop by for a bit now?”
She could tell that behind Mio’s words was a faint sign of embarrassment, which wasn’t like her. Misao wondered if something had happened to her, but she didn’t ask.
“Of course, come on over,” she replied. “I’ll be waiting for you.”
Mio said that she would be over in ten minutes and hung up.
Since she was able to finish up work early for the first time in a while and had no plans for the night, she had stopped by the food section of the basement floor of the department store in Ginza and had purchased a small block of Gorgonzola cheese and vegetables for a salad. She had then returned home and cooked some penne. She had melted the Gorgonzola cheese and mixed it in along with the fresh cream into the penne in addition to whipping up a fresh salad topped with handmade dressing that she piled onto a plate. She also opened a small bottle of red wine. For dessert, she had cut two pieces of apple with yogurt topping. For a dinner made for one, it was a rich and savoury meal.
Whenever she had dinner at home, she tried to make sure she made her meals from scratch. Since she ate out on a practically everyday basis, she couldn’t get into the mood to have readily prepared meals when she had her meals at home.
Mio arrived at exactly ten minutes after her call, and she inhaled a whiff of the scent of cheese that lingered in the air.
“Could this smell be…Gorgonzola cheese?”
“Bingo. I matched it with penne. It was really simple, but still quite delicious.”
“You’re really something, Misao-chan. You not only work but you make sure to cook meals for yourself like this. I guess they were talking about you when they came up with the term ‘Super Woman,’ huh?”
“It’s no big deal. If there’s no one to cook for you, and on top of that you want to eat something delicious, you really have no choice but to make it yourself.”
“I couldn’t do that in a million years. Whenever I eat at home, it’s usually something I bought in the neighbourhood.”
“It’s not good for your beauty, you know.”
“I know. Not only that, but I drink and smoke. I probably won’t be able to live that long.”
“You’re still a slip of a girl at 30, what are you talking about? Sorry to break it to you, but at fifty, I still drink alcohol by the truck loads and I smoke too. Even then, I have a feeling I’ll live at least for a few years yet. I don’t really need more than that though, to be honest. Hey, what would you like to drink?”
Mio replied, “coffee” with a smile on her face as she took out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from her pocket, along with the keychain that held her house keys which she placed with a loud rattle on the dining table.
She was wearing a black crew neck sweater with flower-pattered straight jeans. She had tied the shoulder-length hair that she was growing back into a loose knot by her neck and there was not a trace of makeup on her face.
“I won’t stay long; I’m sorry to barge in on you out of the blue. Maybe you had some hot date planned?”
“I’m sorry to say, that’s not the case.”
“Oh, well that’s no fun. Maybe the truth is though that there’s a certain someone in your bedroom?”
“Why don’t you check for yourself?”
“Maybe I will.”
Mio stepped towards the direction of her bedroom in an exaggerated manner, and Misao broke out into a loud laugh.
Misao had told her about Kusuda. She didn’t go into details, but her relationship with him wasn’t something she wanted to particularly hide, and there was a part of her that wanted to tell Mio.
She had always felt since she was young that love was like the theatre. People rarely started their loves without telling anyone. The mysterious thing about love is, that when a person falls in love, they want to tell those around him or her about it.
That, coincidentally, matched what it was like for an actress acting out a love story on the stage. One suddenly begins to crave an audience; it didn’t matter if that audience consisted of only one person… as long as that person was willing to continue to watch that love story unfold.
That being said, she still didn’t know if what she felt for Kusuda could be described as love. She still couldn’t brush aside the feeling that love was nothing more than a faint ember that burned deep in the recesses of her memory. Although it still left its warmth, it would never again ignite into a flame. It would forever continue to remain as an ember and along with the slow deterioration of the physical body, it would be swept by the wind, and eventually it would sizzle and fade out without anyone ever realizing.
As Misao poured a cup of coffee for Mio, she studied her. It was rare for Mio to suddenly come visiting her apartment on a whim like this. Whenever she came, it was generally when she had a problem or when she was itching to tell her about something that had happened.
Perhaps she met with him again. Misao thought. Perhaps she met with her biological younger brother– that young man.
Any way she thought of it, she didn’t think it could be something to do with Muda or some other problem. If it was something new that had happened, then it couldn’t be anything other than something involving that young man. She thought it was strange that her mind would be so insistent on this.
She carried a small round tray with the coffee resting on top and she sat directly across from Mio. Mio lit a Marlboro and exhaled a small puff of smoke from thinned lips.
“I saw him,” Mio whispered as she exhaled.
“Last night… I saw him.”
“You know who I’m talking about. Iwasaki Shougo.”
Misao remained expressionless as she nodded, “Oh, is that right?”
“Were you the one to ask to meet‘?” Misao asked.
“As if I would. I got a call from him about two days ago. He then started saying part way through the call that he wanted to see me, and I turned him down at first because I couldn’t be bothered to. But as I got talking with him…I started thinking maybe it might not be so bad to see him again.”
Misao formed a smile. “What’s wrong with seeing him again? It’s not as if he’s some suspicious person. I’m glad you changed your mind. So, how was it?”
“What do you mean ‘how was it’? It was nothing special. We had a few drinks at a small restaurant in Aoyama. We talked about all sorts of things, and in the end, we ended up staying there for about four hours. When I realized it, it was already past eleven, and we left the restaurant after that because I wanted to make sure he was in time to catch the last train. We parted ways outside of the restaurant.”
“Since you talked for four hours, that must’ve meant you had quite the conversation?”
Mio shrugged her shoulders lightly, picked up the coffee cup with both hands and brought it to her lips. For a brief moment, a shadow passed in her downcast eyes, but that quickly faded. Misao realized that Mio, despite the confusion and bewilderment she felt, was trying to accept Shougo.
“So how was it drinking with your younger brother?”
“I’m not quite sure. It still doesn’t feel like he’s my younger brother.”
“Yeah, I figured. But if it was fun, then that’s all that matters. You should get together again without thinking too deeply about things.”
“Since it’s probably the case that you bear no bitterness about the incident…and there’s no need for you to. That incident doesn’t even really matter anymore. I reunited you two on the grounds that all that was put in the past. And well, if need be, I guess you could talk about the topic of how fate works in mysterious ways.”
As Mio placed the coffee cup back in its saucer, she gazed at Misao, “I told him if only he wasn’t my brother.”
For a brief moment, Misao she grasped for appropriate words of reply, but she could find none. When she continued to stay silent, Mio repeated what she had said.
“I told him if only he wasn’t my younger brother. I said if he wasn’t, I might have just have turned him into my lover that night.”
Misao grimaced in an exaggerated manner, “That’s so like you to crack a joke like that.”
“Well, you never know.”
“What do you mean?”
“Because,” Mio continued. “The truth is, I’ve taken a bit of a fancy to him. If he hadn’t been my younger brother, I might just have made a pass for him.”
Misao laughed saying, “Don’t be ridiculous” but she could feel her smile was a bit forced. “If I only judged you from what you just told me, I’d take you to be some woman who can’t live without a man. The kind of woman who goes searching night after night for some man.”
“So what, are you saying women can’t hit on men?”
“I’m not saying that. I’m just saying that if there’s someone that strikes your fancy, you should set it in a way so that he makes the first move.”
“Then maybe I should try that something like that with my younger brother.”
“Are you saying that in seriousness?”
Mio’s shoulders shook as she broke out into a laugh. She reached over for a second stick of Marlboro and lit it. “Of course I’m joking. What do you take me for?”
In that moment, Misao’s cell phone began to ring from inside the shoulder bag resting on the kitchen counter. It was a standard ring tone. She didn’t have it set to a special ring tone. She had tried struggling through a manual book, but she still couldn’t figure out how to change it, and she had given up after getting a headache. Ever since, she had left it as it was.
“Maybe it’s your man for the night,” Mio joked in a teasing manner.
Misao took out her cell phone and glanced at the display. Kusuda Katsuhiko’s name flashed on the screen.
Mio slightly raised an eyebrow and lifted her chin in a joking manner before she tilted her head up to the ceiling and exhaled a puff of smoke.
“I’m in Shinjuku right now,” Kusuda said. “Where are you? Don’t tell me you’re still working?”
“I left early today. I’m at my apartment.”
“Is that right? I thought of asking you to meet up somewhere if you were out… but if that’s the case, I’ll head over there right now. Is that all right?”
Her feelings of wanting to continue to chat with Mio and of wanting to see Kusuda for the first time in a while were evenly matched. That being said, she didn’t have such a happy-go-lucky idea that if that’s the case then the three of them should meet together; they had to protect their own territories. If you thought of things only thinking of yourself, then in the end, any joy ends up being halved.
“That’s fine,” Misao replied. “Are you heading here by car?”
“I’ll catch a taxi because I’ve had a bit to drink.”
“Okay. I’ll be waiting.”
Mio had already begun to stand up by the time Misao put her cell phone back into her bag. “Since it seems I’m in the way, I’ll head back to my apartment.”
“You don’t have to go just yet. He’s in Shinjuku, so it’ll probably take him at least twenty minutes. And since you’re here, why don’t you stay to chat with him for a bit?”
“I’ll pass. Don’t worry about me– it’s fine. I just wanted to tell you what happened yesterday.”
Mio said this with a smile, then proceeded to grab her package of Marlboro, her lighter and keys in one big swoop and with a long stride, headed in the direction of the entrance hall.
Mio had her back turned to her when Misao asked: “How’s Muda-san doing?” The moment that question left her lips, she realized what a ridiculous one it was.
It might just be that she was a bit embarrassed that her niece had found out that a man was coming to her apartment. To bring up Muda’s name as if to say “you’re the very same” was childish even to her ears.
Mio slipped on soft, leather red flats at the entrance hall and in a light-hearted move like that a young girl would make, she turned to Misao and replied: “He’s fine.”
“I met with him two nights ago at my place.”
To Misao, it sounded as if she had said it in the same tone as one would say it was raining two nights ago. She said it in a dry, emotionless manner. It had been a while since Mio had spoken of him in such a manner.
Muda was in his late forties– he could even be called as having been born in the same generation as Misao. He had a grandfather who was the president of a shipbuilding company. In other words, he was the profligate son of the rich. He lived with his wife and child in a condominium in Aoyama. Although he was what could probably be called the “black sheep of the family” having failed to follow in the footsteps of his talented siblings, it was clear from the set of furnishings of his shop and the way he treated his customers that he had a wealthy upbringing.
Be that as it may, Misao still wasn’t quite sure why Mio would continue a relationship that spanned so many years.
It wasn’t as if he was supporting her financially. She was simply helping out at his café. It was true that she was receiving what would probably be considered an unusually high salary for the amount of work she did, but she was still an employee at his café. If you thought of the remuneration as one being just for the work she did, then there was really no need for her to accept Muda’s advances.
This could also be because she was lonely. Because there was no one to secure her in life, perhaps she was holding onto someone she could have a safe sexual relationships with for the time being.
But if that was the case, then it made it even more obvious the fact that Mio was always taking actions that suggested it didn’t matter to her if Muda and her broke up. Misao knew there were men other than Muda who came to the café and who would hit on her from time to time. It was also likely to be the case that Muda had an inkling about it, and yet, they continued their relationship for quite a few years. It was as if they were a couple with a large age gap– in some ways, it could be said that their relationship had settled into a regular routine.
“You told Muda-san about Shougo, didn’t you?”
“What did he say?”
“He asked me if he was good looking.”
Misao laughed, “And what did you say?”
“I told him he sure was, because he is, isn’t he? He looks just like my father. It wouldn’t be strange if you mistook him for my father from back when he was younger.”
With that, Mio gave a light-hearted “Bye” and reached out for the doorknob. “See you. Say hi to Kusuda-sensei for me.”
The door closed behind her. Misao strained to listen to Mio’s fading presence as she walked down the hall. In that moment, she thought that in a short while, the door would once again open, and a man was going to come in. She had a feeling that even if it were some nameless man instead of a man named Kusuda, it wouldn’t have made a difference.
She cleared the coffee cup that was on the dining table and gulped down the coffee left in her cup. She then headed to the mirror in her bedroom to quickly reapply a thin layer of lipstick.
When she saw the reflection of the red that dyed her lips, in that instant, she vigorously rubbed any trace of it away using a tissue. She thought: “What’s the point?” Once they started kissing, there would be no need for lipstick anyway.
Although she felt that that kind of thought was vulgar and wanton, she couldn’t help it. For Kusuda to come to her apartment, that was the kind of thing that would happen; it was nothing more or less than that.
Even now, there were times that snippets of the conversations that she had had with Shimada Keiichi, who had passed away, would abruptly come to surface. When that memory came to her, she would remember down to the very last detail— everything from the scene where the conversation took place, the atmosphere, down to her own very actions and feelings.
Keiichi always said things in straightforward and honest manner. He never said anything to lead her on or said anything in a unclear, evasive manner. Whenever he had something to say, he was always frank about it.
That was what she had loved about him. Even when he said something that didn’t match her views or that made her feel disappointed, the way he was always so direct and honest about everything always put her at ease. She honestly believed that it was that honest and straightforward demeanour of his that allowed their relationship to last as long as it did.
“I’m guessing you’re wondering why I don’t just marry you?”
One day, Keiichi asked this to her. It was sunset in the middle of summer. Keiichi had asked her to come and they were at a small hotel in Tateshina spending the night. The evening of the night before they had set off from Tokyo, and they had spent all of the next day at the hotel.
In the depths of the thicket of trees that surrounded the hotel, a vast number of cicadas continued their cries. Their cries layered over one another, linked together, and it rang in her ears from afar. The sun angled west and the bright sky began to dim and the wind that slipped passed the treetops had a hint of fall chill to it.
“Not really, no.” Misao replied honestly. “It’s true.”
“It’s not as if there’s a law that I can’t marry the younger sister of my wife who passed away. And yet, until now I’ve never brought up the topic of marriage.”
“I know though that as long as Mio-chan is in your care, I’m come second to her. But you see, I’m fine with being number two. I can’t say I wouldn’t be sad if I fell to number three though.”
Keiichi continued to sit on the rattan chair on the balcony of the hotel as he reached out to take Misao’s hand in his. He then placed a kiss on the back of her hand as if in jest. “I have no intention of getting married ever again, no matter who it is with.”
“Well, I guess that would be more fair.”
Misao chuckled quietly. “You have too many hanger-ons. If you ended up choosing one from among them, I’m sure the others would complain and there would be some kind of revolt.”
Five years older than Misao. If he was still alive he would’ve have been fifty five this year.
Misao wondered how old he was when he had told her this. It must have been when he was forty or forty one. Somewhere around there, perhaps? If memory served her right, Mio was still in junior high when this had happened.
“I’m not marrying, but I’m done with women too.”
“What do you mean?”
“As long as I have you, I don’t need anyone else.”
She didn’t think what he said was a lie. He wasn’t someone who lied. However, it was said so sudden that she found it hard to believe, and because of it, she couldn’t help but become drunk on his words.
There was a need for them both to return to Tokyo that day. Although she saw him often at the Shimada mansion in Shirokanedai, more often than not, Mio was also there. As a result, for them to be alone together, they needed to either see each other in the apartment in Tsukuda that Misao was living in or they had to escape on a trip somewhere. That being said, Keiichi was always busy with work, and Misao had already begun to work as a lawyer. This made it difficult for them to find a time to see each other.
“The way it is now,” she said. “That’s enough for me. I don’t need anything more.”
“Even when you’re an old woman, let’s remain as we are now.”
“When that time comes, you’ll be an old man too.”
“I’ll probably be tottering about the place.”
Their mingling laughter was carried away by the wind and disappeared beyond the trees. The cry of the cicadas became fierce and descended upon them in a wave.
For a long, long time she had continued to see a dream-like illusion, and she truly thought that she would continue to live her life in that illusion for a long time yet.
However, that blissful dream-like illusion came to an abrupt end. It was June eight years ago. On the night of a particularly hard downpour during the rainy season, the car that Keiichi had been driving slipped on the road due to the rain, and crashed into the wall of an expressway.
That night, where had he been headed? Even now, that was a mystery to her. Late at night, he had gotten onto a Tohoku highway and was speeding North…but for what reason? Had he made plans to meet with someone? With a woman she didn’t know?
Misao immediately rejected that answer. For the most part, she knew the women who were around him. There were numerous women who had chased after him and who lived their lives deriving joy from being treated kindly. Even more than that though, there were those who had hoped that if all things went well that he would ask them to marry him.
Keiichi maintained casual relations with them. Whenever the mood struck him, he would ask one of them out and take them out for a drive. It was like an ever rotating daily menu– the women changed at a dizzying pace and it was because there was a constant rotation that Misao never felt jealous.
There was also not a trace of suspicion inside of her that Keiichi only saw her as the aunt of his sole daughter who he doted on… either that or that she was just a convenient person who made him feel at ease.
That being said, it wasn’t that she harboured a conviction that he loved her more than anyone else. Misao didn’t have a habit of thinking of things in such a selfish way.
For Keiichi, Mio was always number one and everyone else after that was on the same level. And among the line of women that were on that level, if you were to ask what her role was, it would be to put him at ease and become someone he could rely on. If she were to say what was certain, then that would be the only thing that she could say for sure.
If a fierce love existed in which everything was destroyed by its passion, then there must also exist a love in which in its quietness and calmness the love continued quietly without anything ever changing; that’s what she thought. And for Keiichi, Misao had been the latter. And as for her, she had derived joy and contentment from this. It was because of this relationship that they were able to continue their relationship for so long without any particular grief. On the contrary, they spent their days as if they were the very best of friends, deriving warmth from each other like that from a sunny day in the winter.
After Keiichi’s death, there wasn’t one man she had been with who she hadn’t compared to him. There were times she had developed feelings reminiscent to that of love, and there were even times she was sure that those feelings were none other than love.
And yet, not one of her relationships ever lasted very long. The shortest was half a year, and the longest was a year. That was all it took for her feelings to wane. When her feelings had cooled down, that person never entered her mind anymore. It was almost cruel the way it worked.
Keiichi was a constant presence by her physical body and in the deep recesses of her feelings. Even if she acted out a semblance of a relationship by going out to dinner, going for drinks and going on a short trip with the new man in her life, never once did she experience that quiet overflow of warmth.
There was always a part of her that held them off at a distance. It all starts to become a bit ridiculous. She knew this was because she kept comparing them to Keiichi; and yet, there was a part of her that felt so very lonely to be alone. Regardless of whether it’s in the middle of the night, there were times she wanted to go out into the night and hit on someone– it didn’t matter who, and have them make love to her. It didn’t matter who… as long as that someone who would be with her until the morning.
If it couldn’t be Keiichi, it didn’t matter to her who it was. It could be A, B, or C– they were all the same to Misao. There was no bringing back the dead. Similar to how Keiichi saw all the women besides Mio as being on the same level, Misao also saw every man except Keiichi as being on the same level.
If anything could be called love, then that was what her relationship was with Keiichi. A love in which the passion burned away everything wasn’t the only kind that exists. There were also loves that began quietly and without any particular ripple, it would change its form quietly.
It was like cruising on a boat, and one day, deciding to switch to a different boat on a whim to be carried off in a different direction— the boat of love would also quietly be swept in a different direction. It took Misao now to realize that was what their love was like.
The chime of the entrance hall auto lock rang lightly. Without answering, she released the lock.
She walked towards the entrance hall to make sure that the door wasn’t locked. Soon afterward, the entrance hall chime began to ring. When she said in a quiet voice through the interphone that the door was open, the door quietly opened.
Kusuda came inside. Without even a smile her way, he turned towards the door to lock and put the chain in place. Him not smiling wasn’t something that had begun today– it was just the way he was. There were even times that he looked as if he was glaring at her. Misao knew that it was partly because he was embarrassed, but no matter how much she pointed this out to him, he could never act otherwise– similar to how he always had the habit of putting the chain in place.
One time, she had asked him why he would put the door chain in place when it wasn’t even his apartment. He replied that it was because he didn’t want anyone coming in. He also added that if a burglar got it in his mind to break in, that it wouldn’t take him even a minute to unlock the door.
She understood his logic, but at the same time, she didn’t. Every time he put the door chain in place though, it felt as if he was showing what his intentions with her were, and it pained her. It pained her to be shown the commonplace lewdness of their actions. It felt as if she was being told by him that what they shared wasn’t love but simply an affair. It may be true that what they shared wasn’t love, but she didn’t think their relationship was so dry that it would make sense to be pointed out to this so blatantly.
“What’s wrong?” He asked.
“What do you mean?”
“You seem to have your head in the clouds today.”
“Oh really? It must be because I’m happy to see you because it’s been quite a while.”
This was when he showed his first smile. He stepped out of his shoes and changed into slippers before stepping into the hallway and wrapping her in an embrace.
“It’s been over two months since we last saw each other, hasn’t it? The other day, you were the one who said you were busy.”
It took her a while to realize that he was talking about the day when she had reunited Mio and Shougo. She felt Kusuda’s warmth around her waist, and the moment she felt that warmth, he leaned down for a kiss.
“Can you smell the alcohol on my breath?”
“Even if you can’t tell, I did hold back on the alcohol tonight.”
“Did you have some kind of gathering?”
“A drinking party with the students from the seminar. I managed to make up an excuse and leave early.”
His breathing was already irregular. He undid the shoulder tie of the white long-sleeve sweater she was wearing. His lips moved from her neck to her breast.
“You’re wanting to rush things tonight.”
“It must be because it’s been a while.”
“We can’t… not here.”
His body was big. His height was well over 180 centimetres. He lifted her up in one swift move, and carried her into her bedroom.
“You always feel so light. It’s a wonder you can work so much when you’re so slim.”
“It’s because you’re so strong. If anyone else lifted me up, they’d probably say I’m heavy.”
“Is there someone like that?”
“I’m just saying.”
“There’s no need to lie. There is someone else, isn’t there?”
He was laughing as he began to take off the clothes she was wearing. Even through his laughter though, Misao could see the lust that was hidden behind his gaze. She found it so amusing that a forty seven year old man would look at a fifty year old women with lust blazing in his eyes that she couldn’t help but chuckle.
“What’s so funny?”
“You’re hiding something from me, aren’t you?”
“I’m not. It’s just… I was thinking how back in my twenties, I probably would have never imagined what I would be like when I was fifty.”
“You don’t look fifty, Misao.”
“Even if you’re just saying that to be polite, I’m flattered.”
“It’s true. You transcend age.”
Kusuda caressed her breast with one hand, and with the other, undid the hook of her bra. He covered his lips with hers. It seemed as if he was trying to silence her.
Despite this, Misao turned her head to the side and continued: “When you actually reach fifty though, it’s nothing, really. Even when you’re carried into your bedroom by a man and have your bra unhooked, it just means nothing’s changed.”
He didn’t respond to her words anymore. Perhaps it was because he was aroused, but he continued his slightly rough caresses. His uneven breathing filled the quiet space.
Reaching over to the side table, he turned off the light. Her bedroom had the curtains drawn and it let in not a trace of light from the outside. They were enveloped in darkness.
In the darkness, she kept her eyes wide open. She accepted his advances with her eyes open, and as she always did, she fought to keep from saying out loud Keiichi’s name amidst the throes of passion.
TO BE CONTINUED…
[NEXT: Chapter 6 – 109 – 129]