The door bell rang. I opened the door to find Muda smiling as he said, “Merry Christmas.”
He was wearing a black cashmere coat. A light gray scarf was wrapped carelessly around his neck, and he held with both hands a gift so big that he looked like he was having a difficult time carrying it. When he handed me the box which had a bottle of beautifully wrapped champagne and a small Christmas tree with a heart-shaped necklace hanging off it, he took off his shoes and stepped into my apartment in high spirits.
“I figured that you probably wouldn’t have a Christmas tree decorating your room so I bought one that caught my eye on the way here. Oh, and the champagne’s been chilled but you should put it in the fridge just to be safe. Oh, and this is a cake. It’s made from ice cream, so you should put it in the freezer. And the rest is hotel take out. I can’t guarantee the taste, but I figured it’s better than nothing, don’t you agree? Where do you want me to put the tree? Is on top of the dining table okay? Why don’t you try plugging it in? Miniature bulbs will light up.”
When I plugged the cord of the Christmas tree into the socket just as he had suggested, miniature bulbs in multiple colors began to flash on and off. Muda took off his coat and smiled with satisfaction.
His figure was reflected in the window which was dark with the winter night, and this reflection overlapped with the light from the miniature bulbs, which gave off the feel of a cheap illumination.
I didn’t want him to see my sour mood, so I silently turned towards the take out he had brought with him, and began to set them out onto several plates. I laid out two indigo-coloured lunch mats on the small dining room table. I also put out forks and knives, and for the brass candle holder, I placed one gold Christmas candle.
A Celine Dion Christmas song was playing from my CD player. I had meticulously cleaned my room, and there was not a sign of the magazines, newspapers, manicure bottles, mugs with dried coffee stains or the square-shared ash tray filled with cigarette butts that were usually scattered about on the shaggy crème-coloured carpet.
That day, I had painstakingly vacuumed every inch of my apartment. Anything that seemed out of place was shoved into the back of the closet, and I had even washed the cushion covers. And since it was Christmas, I wanted to at least have the place feel like so, so I had run over to the nearby flower shop and bought a potted poinsettia.
After our small Christmas party had drawn to a close, I had planned to give Shougo the potted plant on his way out. I couldn’t imagine what his apartment was like. It was amusing though to imagine a poinsettia being placed in the minimalist room of a young man living by himself.
I would have felt embarrassed giving him something over the top for a Christmas present, so I was pretty satisfied with my idea of giving him a potted poinsettia.
I had never been one to decorate a room with flowers; it goes without saying that I’d never purchased a leafy plant either. For me, it just felt strange to have something living inside the apartment. I didn’t know why I thought this way. Whenever I saw beautifully arranged seasonal flowers decorating Misao-chan’s room, I was capable of thinking it’s beautiful, but I couldn’t do the same thing when it came to my room. It may be that somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind, there was something not quite right about me.
I told myself that I would throw the potted plant away later if Shougo didn’t come.
Tonight was Christmas Eve, and Shougo and I had made plans to spend the day together. Since it was the first time to invite him to my apartment, I felt a strange feeling of elation that began from the previous evening. I went to a high-end supermarket and bought a whole roast chicken along with ready-made salad. I even went all out to purchase an expensive French wine to go along with this meal.
But, the evening we were supposed to get together, I received a call from Shougo on my cell phone. It was him calling to tell me that as it turned out, he couldn’t get out of working at his part time job that night.
I asked him why, when it was a holiday. I could hear the accusatory tone in my voice.
He explained that the owner had suddenly changed his mind and started saying he would make a special exception and open the bar tonight. “I’m sorry, I’ll make it up to you.”
Maybe it was because the conversation was so short, but it didn’t feel to me as if he were sorry at all. He seemed to be calling from a place that had bad reception, and at times, the background noise drowned out his voice. Not only that but he spoke in a flat manner, as if he were simply informing someone he couldn’t care less about the changes in plans.
“Fine,” I said curtly and hung up on him. It was true I was angry, but I thought for sure he would call me back. However, the truth of the situation was, my cell phone remained silent after that.
I wasn’t in the mood to be the one to call him. My pride didn’t allow for me to do something like calling back a person who had cancelled our plans at the last minute, especially since I was the one who had one-sidedly ended the first call.
I tried waiting for exactly an hour. Just the act of waiting was unpleasant in and of itself.
After that, I didn’t give much thought before giving Muda a call. The café in Hiroo was closed for holidays so I didn’t know where he was, but when he picked up the call, he readily agreed to my invitation.
“Do you have any plans tonight?”
When I asked this, he replied as if he had been waiting for me to call. “What a surprise. Could that be your way of inviting me to spend Christmas Eve with you?”
“I guess you could say that.”
“But didn’t you tell me before that you’d made plans tonight with that good looking younger brother of yours?”
“Would you mind not adding the phrase ‘good looking’ every time you talk about him? I just got a call from him saying he won’t be able to make it.”
“Is that right And so you were looking for a replacement, and I just happened to be singled out?”
“If you’re busy, then just forget it. I’ll ask someone else.”
“There you go again deciding everything on your own like that.” He didn’t seem to mind my attitude; he just simply chuckled.
“Have I ever turned down an invitation from you, Mio? What time should I come? I’ll prepare some things and bring it to your place.”
“Seven o’clock,” I said in a disinterested tone. “You don’t need to bring any wine. Oh, and no roast chicken either. You don’t need anything; I have most of the stuff prepared.”
“What about a Christmas cake?”
“I don’t need something like that.”
“What do you plan on doing, sticking candles in a large cake and blowing out the lights together? It’s not as if we’re in grade school.”
“But you won’t mind if it’s an ice cream cake, right? It’ll be a small one.”
“You don’t need to bring so much stuff with you. We’re just going to end up not being able to finish everything and throwing most of it away.”
“For a Christmas feast, it’s better if we have an excess. Just leave everything to me.”
And with that, he ended the call.
I didn’t ask if it was okay for him to leave his family to come see me on Christmas Eve. I’ve never asked him a question like that to him straight out. Whether it be Christmas or New Year’s, when I asked him out somewhere, nine times out of ten he would happily agree. Even on a day when most people in the world would spend it enjoying time with their family, he placed a priority on my invitations.
I didn’t think he did this because he loved me. It was something unrelated to love or passion. I just figured that there was simply something not quite whole about his family.
He was in a good mood as he lit the candle in the brass candle holder. He commented that my room looked cleaner than it usually did; I didn’t reply to this.
We sat across the table from each other, and he pulled the cork of the champagne in a theatrical manner. It came off with a loud pop, and white foam overflowed from the mouth of the bottle.
He poured the deep amber-coloured champagne into two glasses, and as if he had just remembered what he had wanted to say, he said, “Oh, I almost forgot,” and took out a small box from the inside of his jacket.
“Before we make a toast, here. This is a small token of my feelings. It’s a Christmas present for you.”
It was a suggestive small black box tied with a gold ribbon. In my mind, I thought I should be acting excited, but my face remained expressionless as I stared at it.
“I hope you like it. Why don’t you open it?”
He was always looking for opportunities to get me gifts– a small Louis Vuitton bag, a wallet, jewellery, a sweater, a watch, imported lingerie…
And every time he would present me with something new, I would feel a dark mood wrap around me. Every time he gave me something, it was as if I could feel my feelings towards him cooling more and more… The more expensive and grand the gift, I couldn’t help but feel how cheaply I was being treated.
And yet, until now, I had never once forgotten my manners to accept everything with childish glee.
When he gave me imported lingerie with an abundance of lace, I had even gone to the lengths to take off my clothes to model the lingerie for him right then and there. I even posed in ways I knew would excite him; I was fine with doing all that.
It was easy to put on lingerie that a man had given me and to do things to arouse him. I accepted what was going to happen afterwards, and once the lingerie that I had put on were torn off me, so ended the ritual of showing appreciation for a gift.
When I untied the ribbon around the box and opened it, a bracelet was nestled inside. At each end, a small diamond sparkled. The chain was platinum, and when I put it on my wrist, the design was so that the diamonds on each corner would sparkle as it swayed.
“It’s beautiful, I said. “But it looks quite expensive. Maybe you were a little to excessive?”
“I don’t think so. To be honest, this was something I had prepared from quite a while back to give to you today. So when I found out that my adorable princess was spending Christmas with her good looking brother, I thought ‘well, for Christ’s sake!’”
“Were you so angry that you thought about giving it to another woman?”
“Don’t be silly,” he laughed. “I bought this for you. Why would I give it to some other woman…?”
“Well, it would’ve gone to waste. In a situation like this, you should just give it to your wife.”
Perhaps it was because he was used to snide remarks, or maybe it was because he derived a certain high from being told something like that, but his shoulders shook as he laughed. “Putting that aside, you’re going to introduce me to him one of those days, aren’t you?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Your good looking younger brother, of course.”
I formed a tight smile on my lips as if I couldn’t care less who that was. “You want me to introduce you to him?”
“Well, of course– he is your brother, after all.”
“Don’t tell me you’re suspicious?”
“Of whether he’s my real brother or not. Maybe you think it’s something that I made up?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Why would I have reason to hold suspicions?”
“Because you’re always going on about ‘your good looking brother this’ and ‘your good looking brother that’. I can’t help but think you’re just being unnecessarily jealous.”
He gave a hearty laugh. “I guess it’s just become a habit of mine. Okay then, I won’t call him that anymore.”
Muda reached for his glass, so I did the same with mine. We clinked glasses and began to eat the food prepared on the plates. We didn’t talk anymore about Shougo.
For Muda, as long as everything was clear and logical, he was someone who didn’t try to delve further. I met my younger brother who had been kidnapped when I was a child for the first time since the kidnapping… when I opened up to him about this, he gave just a short comment: “Oh, is that right? It’s strange how life works sometimes, isn’t it?”.
The only thing that he showed interest in was what was in front of him. He believed that there was no point in digging into things and trying to find what existed on the hidden side. It was one of the things that had initially attracted me to him when he had first hit on me.
My cell phone was on the kitchen counter. I had set it so I would know right away if I received a text message, but the cell phone remained silent.
I wondered what it was that I was waiting for. Was I waiting for Shougo to call to say that he would find a way to slip out of work so would we be able to meet, even though it was already quite late into the night? Or was I hoping that he would call and say that he was near my apartment and wanted to know if he could come over…? Or was it that I was waiting for a text message from him containing a heart-felt apology from him for having to cancel our plans at the last minute?
I began to vehemently deny the incomprehensible feelings towards Shougo that had begun to build inside of me.
Inviting him to my apartment for Christmas and spending the day together with him over wine and roast chicken wasn’t something I had planned because I had any particular special feelings towards him. It was only natural to spend time together since we would have a part in each others lives from now on. It was part of the responsibility for me as an older sister to suggest such events.
And the promise I made out of responsibility to spend time with him on Christmas was cancelled by him at the last minute. Even if that other person hadn’t been my brother, it made sense that I would be upset at the sudden change of plans.
As I brought another bite of the roast beef that wasn’t very good to my lips, I decided I would call him later. I would call him and complain to him: Why? Why would you do that? And if you’re going to do that, don’t you think it’s rude not to give a proper apology? Do you know how much time I spent preparing everything…? I’m going to lash out at him— yes, that’s what I’ll do.
He’s not my lover; he’s just family. To spew unreasonable complaints to immediate family is something that happens endless times on a daily basis to so many people out there. It wasn’t anything unusual.
Before we’d even had a chance to eat most of the main meal, Muda suggested that we start eating cake, so I got up and headed to the kitchen to pour some coffee. I cut into slices an ice cream cake shaped like Buche du Noel into individual plates.
I put a small dessert spoon on each plate and was trying to carry it back to the table when Muda suddenly embraced me gently from behind. I felt his breath on my neck.
“If we start that now, the ice cream is going to melt.”
“Let it melt.”
“And the coffee– I just poured it in.”
“Leave it for later.”
Muda’s arm snaked in front of my burgundy short-sleeved turtleneck sweater. The way his fingers moved as if to soak in the feel of every curve, and the way his lips sought mine in a way that was strangely in time with the movement of fingers… all of it was nothing out of the usual.
He lifted up the edge of my sweater. He unhooked my bra, and I felt his warm hand cover my breast.
I lowered the plates back onto the kitchen counter. I wasn’t sure if the low moan that came from my voice was one of protest or passion. In the corner of my eye, I could see my cell phone. In that instant, I thought of Shougo.
One day, I would have to tell Shougo about this man. The textbook affair. A man who was pretty much supporting me. Even though my love and passion for him had faded, every time we met he would reach out for me like clock work, and I would respond to his advances. Despite all that, he wasn’t someone who I felt particularly unpleasant towards. He was a man who, when we were apart, he would never enter my mind. With that being said, he was also someone who I was constantly aware of that he supported my lifestyle…
The same old feeling of arousal that I had become so used to came at me from far away in soft ripples. But somewhere deep in my mind I was aware that I was cool to his advances, and it was so strange how I felt like I was disconnected from the scene and only watching from afar as a moan bubbled up from my throat and I felt the feeling of my body as it slowly melted.
“Let’s go to the bedroom,” he whispered in a low voice.
I didn’t care that my sweater had been pulled up leaving half my breast exposed as I walked ahead of him towards the bedroom. As I headed to my room, the square shaped clock hanging from the wall caught my eye.
It read 9:10.
In the back of my mind, I thought cooly that I could get Muda to leave by 10:30 at the latest, and then I could try calling Shougo. As I thought this, Muda’s body covered mine on the bed.
I tried calling several times, but he never picked up. Every time I called, I would hear the voice of the generic operator saying, “The number you have dialled is currently unavailable…”
I was swept up by a fit of rage, and I threw on my Mouton cropped jacket and headed towards the door.
Muda had taken his sweet time taking a shower and had had some cans of beer. Not only that but he began saying that he wanted to stay the night. It had taken such an effort on my part to get him to leave that by the time that he eventually left, the clock had already struck eleven.
The bedroom with rustled sheets and the dining table with the left over food had all been left as is. When I turned off the lights in the living room, I saw the mini-lights of the Christmas tree that Muda had brought continuing to flash in the darkness like some ridiculous toy.
It also took a lot of effort on my part to flag down a taxi at the main street. On Christmas Eve, there were hardly any empty cabs running the streets.
On the chilled night pavement roads, there were flashes of bright illuminations from the cafes interspersing the darkness, and despite the fact that it was late in the night, there were people coming and going on the sidewalks. I was in a foul mood as I tried calling Shougo’s cell phone once more. As before, my call didn’t go through.
I had an inkling about where “TADZIO,” the counter bar where Shougo worked part-time, was located. It was located somewhere a short distance away from the main shopping district. He had told me that it was next to a famous fashion building, so I should be able to spot it right away.
After I finally managed to flag down an empty cab, I got in and after I had told the driver where I was headed, I lit my cigarette. I could see the bracelet Muda had given me swaying gently on my right wrist. I held my cigarette in the corner of my mouth as I unhooked the bracelet and shoved it in an outside pocket of my coat.
I imagined myself entering Shougo’s bar, and asking for him only to have all the employees at the counter look at me with a puzzled expression. Would they turn to me and say there wasn’t anyone by that name who worked there? Or would they say that there was someone by that name who worked there, but he had taken a day off tonight? No, or maybe there might be a sign on the door of the place saying that they were closed that day…
How stupid. I thought to myself as I crushed the cigarette into the ash tray even though half of it was still left. I immediately lit a second cigarette.
Suddenly, I didn’t know what it was that I was so irritated about.
I thought: what did I know about him really? He earned a high salary working at a host club which he used along with a scholarship to support himself. He advanced on to university and was studying philosophy. He was someone who was raised by his kidnapper. Those were the only things that I knew.
Even if I was sure that he was my true brother since Misao backed that fact up, I didn’t know anything beyond that. I didn’t know what kind of place he worked at, or what he thought, or what kind of life he was leading. The way he smokes cigarettes… the fact that he hates celery and pickled plums… how the way he held the handle as he drove resembled my father so much… it was true that I learned many things. But knowing those things didn’t mean I was any closer to knowing this person named Iwase Shougo who was my biological brother, Shimada Takao.
I felt that there were many parts of him that were still shrouded in mystery. Even if I were able to make clear each and every detail about him… even if I were able to collect down to the last detail all the data there was to know about him, I had this feeling that the mystery that was locked away at the heart of the situation would always remain that…a mystery.
It was probably that I was irritated by this mystery that I couldn’t identify. Even if I found out everything that I want to know and everything that I should know, it was probably the case that I would never be truly satisfied.
Was it the twenty four gap that made me feel this way? Or was it something else?
Once I got out of the taxi, I made a random guess and began to walk in that direction. In the vicinity of the fashion building, which was probably bustling in the afternoon, there weren’t very many people walking around. A completely wasted group of university school students had set up camp in the middle of the road. A bright-red faced young girl was staggering about being supported by a boy wearing a duffle coat as they gazed up towards the sky and snickering.
I walked right past them and I checked my surroundings closely as I examined the neon sign of the store.
Tadzio… Tadzio… Tadzio…What a strange name… If memory served me right, there was a young boy named Tadzio in the movie titled “Death in Venice” directed by Visconti… I guess it made sense that the owner was gay.
Perhaps it was the same for Shougo… this thought made me freeze in horror.
That thought had never crossed my mind before. But I had never asked him why, out of all the places that he could work, he would choose one where the owner was a homosexual.
Was it just a coincidence? Or was it that he chose a place that he felt comfortable in? If he really did swing that way, what would that have to do with her?
In a narrow pathway tucked in the back, I found a small sign that read “Tadzio.” It resided in a slightly old building. The first floor was a boutique storage, and from the second floor up were numerous offices crammed together. At this time of night, none of the windows were lit.
When I went down the dimly lit stairs that led to the underground café, I began to hear the soft sound of a jazz piano. And at the bottom of the stairs were sturdy looking black doors made of wood. There was nothing on the doors that indicated the name of the store.
I cautiously opened the door. The sound of the jazz piano amplified. The faint scent of cigarettes reached my nose.
It was a small bar with a long, narrow counter. The yellow lights lit the entrance. There were also numerous small round lights that gave light to the counters. The place was simple in its decor, and everything was black– including the walls, floor, counter, and even the ceiling.
There were about fifteen stools but half of them were occupied by customers. I could only see their backs. Most of them were couples. It was so dimly lit so it was hard to tell, but it looked as if three people were working there. I gave them a quick once over, but I couldn’t see Shougo.
I stepped inside and sat on the nearest open stool. The moment I did this, a bartender appeared from the darkness from the shadow of the counter.
He was wearing a black suit and a black tie. He was wearing dark-green glasses, and he had a hint of a stubble. He had a small stature, but muscular body. His hair was beginning to thin a bit. From the looks of it, he was around fifty or so.
“Welcome,” the man said. Although he said this in a respectful tone, there was a hint of indifference that was hidden in it. “What can I get you?”
“Is there someone named Iwase Shougo here?”
His face remained expressionless as he gave me a once over. He let several seconds of silence pass by before he replied, “Yes, there is.”
I felt so relieved that I felt ridiculous for having done this, but I was holding my breath so I had to inhale deeply. He’s here. He was here at this café.
I formed a smile on my face as I asked, “Would it be all right if you could call him over? I’m his older sister.”
“Sure,” the man said. I could see a slight shift in his expression. “He just finished up so he’s in the back. He’s probably still here, so I’ll go call him over.”
And with that, he turned and whispered something to a young bartender who was walking past. The young bartender then in turned disappeared off into the back behind small narrow hinged doors.
Two or three minutes passed by, and that door swung open. I heard a low voice behind me say, “Mio-san.” I turned around.
He was standing behind me in his casual clothes. He has a slightly unsure smile on his lips, “What are you doing here…”
I lifted an eyebrow. “So I’m not allowed to come here?”
“I didn’t say that… I’m just surprised, that’s all. I didn’t think you would come…”
“So you were getting ready to leave?”
“Yes. Just a few minutes ago, actually. If you had gotten here a minute later, we might have just missed each other.”
When I opened my mouth to say something, the door to the bar opened, and new customers came bustling in. It was two couples who were talking in a loud voice.
The owner wearing the dark green glasses exchanged a brief glance with Shougo. He in turn nodded, and took me by the arm, “Let’s go.”
“We’re leaving? But I just got here.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t drink here.”
“So what? Not only do you cancel our plans at the last minute, but you’re kicking me out of here on top of that?”
“That’s the rule here,” he whispered this quickly as he put his arm around my waist and half-forcibly made me stand up from the stool.
I was still wearing my Mouton coat, but I felt the feel of his hand on my waist and when I’d realized it, he had wrapped his arm strongly around my shoulders as we headed for the exit.
We faced each other in the dimly lit stairs. I didn’t know why we were just standing there, but I could feel my heart thudding painfully in my chest.
I said, “I called your cell phone but I could never get through.”
“When I’m here, the cell phone shows as being out of range.”
“I was upset.”
I nodded, and folded my arms. “I just came here to tell you that I was upset.”
“Well, it’s the same for me though.”
“You? But why? You’re the one who cancelled our plans at the last minute.”
“I was doing my best to try to explain the situation on the phone, but you suddenly hung up on me. That was a bit unfair, don’t you think? I was looking forward to tonight too, you know.”
I unfolded my arms and let out a deep sigh. “Really? I’m sorry. But it’s not as if I hung up on you on purpose. There was so much static that I couldn’t hear you very well…”
“Then why couldn’t you have called me back?”
“You’re one to say! Why couldn’t you have just called me back?”
“I got on the subway right after our phone call, and after that I was busy with preparations for the bar.”
“I was waiting for your call.”
I nodded, and the moment that I did so, everything felt so comical that I couldn’t help but chuckle. He also had a smile on his lips.
“Do you mind if I go now?” Shougo asked.
“To your apartment. Christmas Eve has already passed, but if it’s Christmas Day, there’s still plenty of time.”
Instantly, an image of the cluttered living room and scattered sheets came to mind, and how there were a few hairs that had fallen in the midst of passion on the pillows. I couldn’t help but think how vulgar of an act that Muda and I had engaged in.
“Forget that. Why don’t we go out drinking somewhere?” I suggested. “Is that okay?”
He nodded enthusiastically. “If it means I can spend time with you, I’m there.”
I felt a warmth rush through my chest, and I tried my best to shake that feeling off as I began to ascend the stairs ahead of him.
TO BE CONTINUED…
[NEXT: Chapter 9 – 171 – 192]