Part 2: All You Need
It was December 28th. Ushio had finished his year-end housecleaning the day before and wrapped up his work for the year. In previous years, he would laze around the house, find people to go out with, or spend a few days at a hotel. It was typically a slow and easy New Year’s holiday for him, but this year would be a little different.
He was at a gourmet meat counter in the basement marketplace of a department store, staring at all the bright red displayed behind a refrigerated glass case. If he was eating by himself, he would never fork out the cash for these revered, majestic cows…err, former cows now.
—Meat would be good.
New Year’s was a holiday reserved for spending with close family, and as a show of appreciation for letting him stay over at this delicate time of year, Ushio had asked Kei what he should bring as a gift, and this was his response. When Ushio asked suspiciously, “Isn’t that what you want?” Kei had pulled up his LINE chats to show him as proof. He had been chatting with a Masae…oh, so that was his mother’s name. Ushio thought that it was a nice surprise to know the name of one of Kei’s relatives as he looked through the messages.
“I’m bringing someone over for New Year’s.”
“Don’t tell me you made a friend? Or is it someone from work? Whichever it is, I don’t want to be forced to keep up your little charade in my own home.”
“He’s knows, so it’s fine.”
“Are you serious?”
“When you say he knows, does he know that you like to put worcestershire sauce on your rice?”
“Shut up, he knows.”
“So it’s okay if I treat him like he knows everything? Don’t complain about it to me afterwards.”
“Okay, enough. He’s asking what he should bring.”
“Hmmm, meat would be good. By the way, please tell him that at our house we don’t make accommodations for anything other than allergies, and if he’s okay with that, then he’s welcome to stay. Oh, do you know if he can play mahjong?”
“He probably can.”
“Then we should play, since we’ll have 4 people. It would make your dad happy.”
Kei had said that his parents were normal, but Ushio wondered if it was really true. There were lots of varieties of meat he could get, and when Ushio tried to get Kei to ask for more specifics, Kei flat out rejected him with a “Too much trouble.”
Then why did you invite me to come?
Steak… probably wasn’t what he was looking for. There was the feeling of I brought this so you can cook it for me. Then should he go for shabu shabu1 or sukiyaki?2 But he didn’t know how they would feel about sharing the same pot with a stranger. Kei would probably say something like, If it really bothers them, we can make stir-fry with butter and soy sauce, knowing his B-grade tastebuds. With the arrival time of the Shinkansen fast approaching, Ushio ordered some high-quality beef suitable for sukiyaki and had the counter pack it securely with ice packs.
When he reached the departure platform at Tokyo Station, the Hikari3 train still hadn’t arrived, and he headed for the location marked for his designated car number. As he approached, his gaze was drawn to the figure of someone with beautiful posture standing in the boarding line. Oh, wow, it was Kunieda Kei, in the flesh.
Kei was wearing a beautiful, expensive-looking coat with no sign of any pilling. The profile of his face as he looked straight ahead was a picture of elegant serenity, and it was a complete contradiction to the Kei whom Ushio saw on a daily basis. He didn’t view either one of him as good or bad, but he was still astounded by the difference. Kei had a scarf wrapped high around his neck, and the delicate fabric, almost white and translucent under the lights, wavered back and forth almost touching his lips.
“Do you see that guy over there…?”
“I’ve seen him on TV, but I can’t remember where.”
“Oh, do you think he was on a TV drama?”
“Ahh, I can’t remember. But I definitely recognize him.”
Ushio had stepped back to watch Kei from afar because it was entertaining, and he inadvertently overheard a few people’s conversations about him. Now that he had zoomed back from the picture, he noticed several pairs of eyes sneaking glances at Kei. The reactions ranged from Hey, it’s Kunida Kei, recognizing him on sight, to others such as now, wondering, He’s on TV, right? or Where have I seen him before?
Celebrities who said that people never noticed them on public transportation were probably too oblivious (in a good way) about their surroundings. People who made a career out of standing in front of a camera for an audience were substantially different from the average person. Ushio thought so too when he had met Tatsuki, and so it wasn’t just his personal bias talking. In contrast to Kunieda Kei who had kept himself at a distance from the public, Tatsuki was openly friendly to everyone, and so he was often approached for pictures and autographs, but he didn’t feel particularly stressed over it, saying that he’d run away with a Sorry! whenever it got too much for him. Personalities really worked in mysterious ways.
In the meantime, there was an announcement of the train’s arrival, and the Hikari pulled in next to the platform. Even in broad daylight, the headlights of the Shinkansen were near blindingly bright, and Ushio watched Kei turn to look around the platform.
Oh, he’s looking for me. Don’t worry, I’m here, I’m here.
Ushio didn’t call out, didn’t make eye contact, didn’t raise his hand; he only responded inside of his heart. It seemed that Kei had caught sight of Ushio and relaxed, turning back to face the front of the line. It was a little ridiculous, acting like they were having an affair, but Ushio didn’t want to draw any unwanted attention from the onlookers, who would probably assume that he was a shameless fan approaching a celebrity. But he really did want to talk to “Kunieda-san” again.
Yes, it was a little stupid, but it would cross his mind from time to time. He loved Kei, both sides of him, but he realized that he would probably never be able to see “Kunieda-san” alone again in private. Ushio didn’t see “Kunieda-san” as a lie or a fake. They were both Kei to him, and it made him a little wistful. The thought that he could only see him on the television screen, like a fan watching an idol, brought out dark emotions inside of him, that maybe he should have let Kei stay in the dark about discovering his secret a little longer. He wondered for his Christmas present next year if Kei would let him do it with “Kunieda-san.” Would he get angry? He probably would. Ushio didn’t care if he got yelled at (it didn’t bother him at all), but he knew that it was something that could hurt Kei deeply, and so he could only keep his thoughts to himself. He was this considerate about Kei’s feelings, and yet Kei would always yell at how insensitive or how tactless he was. How unreasonable was that?
Ushio went to the back of the line to board the train, then found his assigned seat as marked on his ticket. Kei was already sitting in the seat next to the window, his head buried inside a newspaper, not sparing a single glance in Ushio’s direction. He only ventured out to grace a charming smile at the conductor who came to check their tickets, and like a flip of a coin, retreated back behind his paper barricade. It was fine, Ushio didn’t mind. He would have Kei settle the check when they returned home (mainly with his body).
There were a number of folded newspapers tucked into Kei’s leather tote bag, and each time he finished one, he would place it in the seatback pocket in front him, and like magic, another paper appeared for him to read. Ushio was honestly impressed that Kei could maintain his daily work routine even during vacation. Ushio was full after reading a single newspaper. He thought that maybe Kei really enjoyed reading the news, but then he remembered how happy Kei was when he could finally relax on days that there were no publications (but he would go around reading internet news sites instead).
Ushio was surprised at first to learn that there were writers who wrote the scripts that the TV announcers read, but sometimes when Kei watched a different news show, he would scowl at the TV screen and criticize, This guy doesn’t have any idea what’s coming out of his mouth. Apparently, reading the news wasn’t as simple as reciting the Japanese off of a script as written. What the difference was, Ushio, and probably the great majority of viewers, couldn’t say, but there was certainly something to be said about a presenter’s reputation and rhetoric that built up over time—and it was probably related to which announcers stayed in the spotlight and which announcers faded into obscurity. Kei had instinctively understood the severity of this point without anyone ever telling him.
When Ushio glanced at the bag sitting on the retractable table, he caught sight of an ice pack bound together with silver packaging, and he couldn’t help but to take it out. It was a round package of expensive-looking butter, probably imported, beautifully wrapped in silver foil and stamped with a round seal.
“Don’t look through my things.”
It was a very quiet protest from beyond the newsprint wall.
“…Is this for New Year’s?”
Kei explained that he had made a special version of his white rice mixed with butter, soy sauce, and bonito flakes. The rest he had packed up to give to his parents, because he was a good son like that.
This face eating white rice mixed with butter, soy sauce, and bonito flakes. Seriously. It was so far beyond a mismatch, it ventured into the realm of the surreal. Ushio stifled back his laughter as he returned the package back into the bag.
After about an hour, Kei had fully digested the 5 major national newspapers that he had brought with him. Putting on his coat and scarf to transform back into Kunieda-san, they stepped out onto the platform.
“Where do we go from here?”
“We’re getting picked up.”
Ushio followed after Kei as he headed directly towards the traffic circle and stopped in front of a silver minivan. Kei opened the back passenger door and hurried inside, but Ushio couldn’t necessarily do the same.
He poked his head inside the minivan and said, “Excuse me…”
The woman in the driver’s seat—most likely Kei’s mother—asked, “Do you need me to open the trunk?”
“Oh, no, this is all I have with me, so there’s no need to open it.” Ushio lifted his large Boston bag and the paper bag from the meat counter.
“Alright,” she nodded. “Then please get in. I’m sure you’re cold.”
“Yes, thank you.”
Ushio sat next to Kei and closed the door. Kei’s mother immediately started the car and asked, “What’s your name?”
“Tsuzuki-kun then. Do you prefer to do your own laundry?”
“Laundry. I can’t imagine that you have 6 days worth of clothes in your bag. It’s not too much trouble to put your clothes in with our laundry, but I’m asking if you have any objections to it.”
“Oh… I can take care of my own laundry. I can go to a laundromat nearby.”
“You can use the laundry room at our house. Just let me know when you want to use it. Oh, one more thing, I don’t like people touching my kitchen, and so I really don’t need any offers to help with the cooking or dishwashing.”
Ushio knew that he couldn’t trust Kei’s definition of “normal” when he had described his parents, but this conversation was already off to a peculiar start. Normally, people would start off with the set phrases, like Thank you for coming, I hope my son hasn’t been an imposition on you. And then Ushio could respond with a Thank you for having me over. I’m sorry to impose over New Year’s, but he wasn’t able to offer a proper greeting. Ushio’s responses weren’t to the level that one would call curt or brusque, but his tone was dry and crisp, and after a period of silence, he could imagine being asked if he was angry, but it seemed that Kei’s mother was used to dealing with such a tone of voice. She wore barely any makeup other than her eyebrows, and it made it easy to see her facial features. Kei didn’t look strikingly similar to her, but there was certainly a family resemblance.
Kei’s mother took a glance at Ushio from the rearview mirror and offered an apology.
“Sorry about that. This is the first time we’ve ever had guests at our house, so I wasn’t too sure how to go about it. I thought I’d clear up any concerns that I could think of if I was in your position, but I wonder if I was too abrupt?”
“I was a little surprised, but it’s really fine. In fact, I’m rather relieved that you let me know about these things up front.”
Kei let out a loud yawn next to him, entirely uninvested in the conversation. This was always the way things went once he shutout the outside world.
Seriously you, do you not care if we can hold a conversation or not?
“Kei, a number of packages arrived for you from Amazon.”
“Yeah, I ordered a bunch of manga that I wanted to read while I’m here.”
“Tomorrow is the last day of the year for garbage pickup. Make sure you open your packages and sort out your trash before then.”
“You could have opened them for me.”
“Why should I sort out your manga for you?”
“You read them too.”
“That’s because you leave them all over the house after you finish reading them! It’s like you half live in this fictitious world of yours…”
“Leave me alone!”
The minivan stopped to wait for a traffic light, and this time Kei’s mother turned around to stare hard at Ushio.
“You’re really not surprised by this.”
“Huh? Oh, you mean like the worcestershire sauce?”
“Exactly. It was hard enough to believe that Kei would bring anyone home in the first place, but then you also knew what he was like inside. Did you two have a fist fight down by a river or something?
But they certainly had a very physical relationship.
“Focus on driving, not your interrogation.”
“Keep that attitude up and I won’t buy you any Lumonde biscuits.4
“I can buy it myself.”
Ushio burst into laughter when he heard the name of the ridiculously familiar brand of biscuits.
“Masae-san, you’re really funny.”
Kei’s mother suddenly turned around again. “Masae…” she repeated.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t like calling people Auntie and Uncle if I can help it,” Ushio explained.
He tried to say, I can stop if you don’t like it, but she interrupted.
“Say it once more.”
“Oi, what are you flirting for? I’ll report you.” Kei scowled.
“Well, it’s been nearly a quarter of a century since I’ve heard a man call my name. Just let me have this moment.”
“Are you a moron? Hurry up and go, it’s green.”
“Sometimes when your dad gets drunk, he’ll call me Maa-chan.”
“Oh my god, I don’t want to hear that outta your mouth even if I got an oil field for it!”
After about a 15-minute ride, the minivan drove into a residential area and arrived at a very typical single-family house. When they pulled into the garage, they could see someone in the yard.
“Welcome home, Kei.”
The man—Kei’s father—looked like a painting of someone very gentle and good-natured. He held a dust cloth in one hand and reported to his wife, “I’m done with the dusting.”
“Are you cleaning the house for the new year? Is there anything I can do to help?”
There was probably something he could help with outside of the kitchen. However, Kei got angry at him and said, “Don’t say anything unnecessary.”
“I’ll be forced to help out too.”
“Uh, you should help out.”
Kei’s father looked at them in astonishment at their exchange, but he quickly recomposed himself back to his quiet expression. “No, it’s alright. We’re pretty much finished,” he said as he shook his head. “I hope that my son hasn’t been an imposition on you. It’s a humble, little house, but please make yourself at home.”
“Oh no, thank you very much.”
Hmm, his father seems normal.
Ushio didn’t do well with the customary polite niceties, but he was a little relieved to hear it now.
“Please, please, come on in.”
In one corner of the living-dining room, there were Ryukyu tatami mats5 laid in the floor to form a special kotatsu space, and that was where Ushio was shown to sit. He noticed Kei hurrying upstairs, and after a while, he came back down in his usual sweats and an armful of manga. He was fully in at-home mode.
“It’s really quite nice to have people at all four sides of the kotatsu,” Kei’s father said, sipping a cup of green tea.
“You think so?” Kei’s mother asked.
“Yes, there’s a fulfilling, happy quality to it.”
“But the electric bill’s the same no matter how many people are around it.”
“That’s not what I meant…”
Kei sprawled on the floor, lying down on a cushion tucked under his chest, silently reading Yokoyama Mitsuteru’s Sangokushi.6
And you’re the most fulfilled one here.
“By the way…” A mikan orange was offered along with the turn in conversation. “Umm, Tsuzuki-san, how did you become friends with our son…?” Kei’s father asked.
Oh, you’re asking that question now? I guess you would.
Ushio thought that Kei would have given him strict instructions about what story to tell when they were asked how they knew each other, but he hadn’t mentioned a word about it.
But it was fine if he didn’t want to think about it. He’d just say that they met through work. It wasn’t a lie.
“We met at my studio for work…”
“Just to let you know,” Kei said with an unconcerned expression on his face, twisting his body back over while still lying on the floor. “We’re dating.”
Oh, time’s frozen, Ushio thought to himself. Nothing moved except for the rise of steam from the tea cups. Or so it looked. His head wasn’t thinking straight.
Well, I guess it’s fine. I don’t mind you telling your parents about us, but can’t I have a little head’s up beforehand? What are you doing, coming out to your parents while lying on the floor with your thumb stuck in the pages of a manga?
It was Kei’s mother who broke the short silence.
“Will the two of you get married?”
Kei very calmly retorted, “Are you already going senile? Don’t make any more trouble for Dad.”
“But you could have a ceremony in a country where it’s allowed.”
“I’m happily married to my public reputation.”
“Um, then will you also visit Tsuzuki-kun’s parents? Though he looks completely stunned like he hasn’t heard a thing about this.”
“Correct, I haven’t heard a thing about this.”
“But it’s true that you’re really dating?”
“Yes.” Ushio nodded without any hesitation. It was just the way that Kei had broached the subject was so sudden and so jarring that he panicked a little, but he didn’t think that they had done anything wrong. They didn’t need anyone’s permission or approval. Their relationship between the two of them was for Ushio and Kei to decide.
“Well, you’re going to have to work pretty hard with this personality of his, but good luck. Oh, and you can’t break up with him later saying, ‘He’s not the person I thought he was.’”
“May I ask what there is to work hard at?”
“Everything, of course! Even with Kei’s father, who’s so harmless he wouldn’t hurt a fly, I had to work really hard at our marriage.”
“I’m pretty sure Dad’s had it a billion times harder.”
“How can you say that! …Dear! Get a hold of yourself!”
Kei’s father had been frozen stiff the entire time, and when his wife took him by the shoulder to shake him out of his stupor, he released an “O-Oh…” like he had been woken from a nap. “It was all so sudden that my head couldn’t keep up…”
“But think about it. In nearly 30 years, Kei has never had anyone he could call a friend, but then he suddenly brings someone home with him. That was strange in itself, and then we learn that he’s someone who knows everything about him and is okay with it! In a way, it makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?”
“I suppose that’s true…”
“At this point, if not a girlfriend, then I’m perfectly happy if he has a boyfriend. We’re not getting any younger, and I’m just happy to know that he finally has someone he can open up his heart to.”
“Um, I suppose, maybe…?”
“This is good news. Really good news, don’t you think?”
“Umm, maybe he needs some time to process everything,” Ushio intervened despite himself, secretly appreciating that these two people were beyond a shadow of a doubt Kei’s parents. There was just too much to say about their thought processes and the way that they were strangely and easily convinced by the simplest of arguments.
“Um, I think I’m going to hit a few balls at the driving range.” Kei’s father nervously stood up, and then he addressed Ushio. “I’m very sorry, I’m unable to sort out my mind right now…But my son is already an adult, and I don’t have any particular thoughts against you, so please don’t feel like you need to leave, you’re very much welcome to stay.”
“Thank you very much.”
Ushio also exited the kotatsu and bowed deeply to Kei’s father. The little prince of the house, however, remained on his back and made no signs of any movement.
“Oh, one more thing. If I happen to say anything offensive or wrong, please stop me and let me know. I will do my best to be more careful about it.”
“Oh… I think it’ll be alright, but I understand, I’ll let you know.”
Ushio buried himself in the kotatsu once more and whispered from the bottom of his heart, “H-He’s a really good person.”
However, his wife had a different opinion. “I wouldn’t call him a good person, just that he’s too darn trusting,” she criticized. “Let’s have crab for dinner tonight. We can save sukiyaki for tomorrow.”
“Is there a particular reason?”
“Because I think Kei’s father won’t have processed his feelings by the time he gets back. With crab, it’s not awkward if people aren’t talking.”
That’s what you’re concerned about? Really?
“I should start making preparations for the hotpot. Oh, but we’re out of tofu. I’ll need to go out and buy some.”
Once they were alone, Ushio kicked Kei from under the kotatsu.
“Hey, that hurt.”
“Don’t ‘hey, that hurt’ me. Tell me beforehand if you’re gonna drop a bomb like that!”
“It’s not that big of a deal.”
“No, seriously. What were you thinking?”
Ushio didn’t know if Kei was just grandstanding or what, but he was fairly shaken by all of the commotion. However, Kei only replied, “Like I said, it’s not a big deal. It’s a pain in the ass to hide it from them. If I told you beforehand, you’d probably blow it out of proportion. That’s why I didn’t say anything. Anyway, isn’t it easier for you to have them know everything upfront?”
“Well, yeah, I guess…”
It was true that he couldn’t say that he felt no sense of guilt while pretending to be a friend and staying at their house.
Ushio watched Kei drop his eyes back down to his manga, and it took everything he could muster to say, “Your family is absolutely not normal.”
After devouring the crab dinner that was thoughtfully planned for them, Ushio took a bath.
“Excuse me, where should I put the towel?”
“Oh, there’s a basket in front of the washing machine, on the left-hand side.”
Kei’s mother was standing in the kitchen, drinking a cup of tea. Ushio was reminded of how Kei also liked to stand in front of the sink drinking his coffee. Their stances were completely different, but for a moment, they seemed to overlap naturally inside his memories.
“Would you like some tea? But it’s pretty weak by now.”
“Yes, thank you.”
Ushio sipped the slightly lukewarm tea and asked, “How long has his personality been this way?”
“Not sure, maybe since birth? When he was a baby, he would always be smiling, even during his vaccinations. Then when we were home, he would suddenly turn unhappy and throw his toys.”
So not much different from now.
“As a parent, first and foremost I was most concerned that he grew up safe and healthy. I never remembered ever telling him to behave or to study or to do his homework. Up until he entered elementary school, every time people praised him for being such a well-behaved child, I would respond by saying ‘Oh, no, he’s a little monster at home.’ I was just correcting them, but I would end up looking bad instead. Like I was patronizing them by over-humbling myself, or that I was being overly severe with a child who had behaved so well.”
“Kei would snort at me and say, ‘Mom, you’re really dumb.’ That was when I probably stopped trying to correct people.”
“I don’t have any friends either, so I can’t really lecture him about it. I don’t like dealing with people, and I’m happy enough having my husband to talk to. But to be honest, I was really quite worried that he didn’t have anyone he could talk to besides us. Well, now I’m relieved.”
“Even if it’s man?”
Somehow that little bit of detachment felt just right.
“Right now Kei’s father is looking for the mahjong mat in the closet. Can you bring Kei downstairs?”
Upstairs there were two western-style rooms: one was Kei’s bedroom and the other was a spare room that Ushio was using.
“Hey, it’s time for mahjong.”
Ushio knocked on the door, but there was no response. “I’m coming in,” he warned and turned the door knob.
Kei was passed out in bed, buried in a pile of manga.
What are you, an elementary school student?
Ushio stared down at Kei’s sleeping face in disbelief.
This place had to be an unconditional safe space for Kei. His parents knew and fully accepted everything about him. They shared and protected his secrets for him. When Kei told them about Ushio, they didn’t get angry and they didn’t make him feel bad about it. Kei felt that being open was the easiest path forward, that it was the most natural thing in the world; he believed in this tiny little universe so wholeheartedly that when he told his parents, he didn’t have to think twice about it and he didn’t need to prepare himself for it.
Ushio thought that Kei was amazing. He didn’t know how many times he had thought so, but Kei was always amazing to him.
His feelings were welling up inside of him, but he couldn’t exactly act upon them here. Instead, he softly whispered a magic spell into Kei’s ear.
“…Kunieda-san, it’s 10 minutes until air time.”
In a single second, Kei’s body shot up from horizontal to vertical, and in the next second, he seemed to have grasped the situation and cursed, “Fuck you, you asshole!” But like a prophet, Ushio knew that if he stroked Kei’s hair, his angry face would fall and twist up, a little annoyed and maybe a little mortified.
“Let’s go downstairs and play.”
They shuffled tiles until dawn, woke up past noon, and after eating a late lunch, Ushio was antsy to get outside.
“You’re seriously not going out anywhere the entire break?”
There was no telling when Kei would run into one of his old classmates from school, and with the holiday season and people returning to see their parents, the chances were higher than usual. Kei planned to stay holed inside the house the entire time.
“Don’t you have reunions?”
“I’ve already planted the impression that I’m not the type of person who attends those things, and my favorability won’t fall even if I don’t go.”
Ushio knew that Kei wouldn’t budge if he didn’t want to go out.
“I feel like getting some exercise. Is there a batting cage around here?”
“Then would you like to go to the driving range to hit a few balls?” Kei’s father asked, listening to their conversation.
“I’ve never golfed before.”
“You can rent clubs and gloves there.”
Ushio accepted the invitation, and the two headed out. The driving range was apparently 10 minutes away by car.
“Do you like golf?” Ushio asked.
“Oh, no. I just like hitting balls and practicing my swing. I can stop whenever I feel like it too.”
“I see. I don’t really want to play actual baseball games either.”
“It would seem like my son would participate in more competitions than me, but Kei apparently has no interest in these things. But if there’s something that he feels strongly enough about, he will train and practice to the point that his blisters start bleeding.”
Ushio could picture it.
They arrived at the driving range with a giant green net raised high over the facility. They headed up the 3rd floor tee boxes, and Kei’s father showed Ushio how to grip the club and place his feet.
Although his rental club had made contact with the golf ball, it sounded fairly pathetic as it bounced a few meters away like a ping pong ball.
“This is pretty hard.”
“But your swing’s not bad. Anyway, it doesn’t matter how much experience you have here. You can take things at your own pace and you won’t bother anyone.”
It was a beautiful day out, and beyond the net was a clear view of the snow-covered Mt. Fuji. It was a great location for a driving range. Ushio focused on hitting balls and cleared out his mind. He could get too wrapped up inside his head when he got absorbed in his work, and so it was important for him to take care of his body too. How far could he twist his upper body like this? What muscles was he using when he followed through with his swing? Was he breathing hard and sweating enough? Even if he used his head to create things, he couldn’t slack on knowing the condition of his body.
The 100 balls in his bucket disappeared before he realized it, and he had reached the bottom. There were maybe 2 or 3 balls that he could have called nice shots.
“When you’re young, you sure have stamina. I’m worn out after about 50 balls. Shall we go take a break?”
There was a clear view of Mt. Fuji from the large window of the clubhouse. As Ushio stared out at it, holding a paper cup of coffee, Kei’s father asked, “Do you like Mt. Fuji?”
“I’m not sure that’s how I would describe it… It’s kinda like it’s always there…Hmm, well, I suppose I don’t hate it. It’s always nice to see it when I’m on the Shinkansen passing by.”
“I see. To be honest, I don’t like it very much.”
“Like you said, it’s always there. Whenever I look in its direction, I get a little scared. And lately they’ve been playing those volcano specials on TV.”
“You mean the eruption simulations they do for Mt. Fuji.”
“That’s right. All hope is lost if it were to happen, so I wish that they wouldn’t play such ominous things.” With his back to Mt. Fuji, Kei’s father whispered, “I’m also scared when there are earthquakes. I’m a very timid person, and once I start thinking about these things I can’t sleep at night.”
Kei was also the type to overthink things and find the worst possible outcomes. For how brazen he could be, he could also be delicate. But then in the end he would be defiant.
“But when I found the person who I wanted to marry, I was able to become a little better.”
“So you’re not scared anymore?”
“I wouldn’t say that. It’s like I had found a haven where I felt safe, knowing I wouldn’t be alone when I died. Oh, but I know that we likely won’t die together at the same time and the same place, but it’s still reassuring to me… But saying something like that is terrible, isn’t it? Normally people should say, ‘I’ll protect you no matter what.’”
“I suppose that’s true…”
But there was nothing anyone could do about Mt. Fuji.
“However, my son isn’t a part of what I call my haven.”
“When Kei was a child, I had a responsibility for him. That no matter what natural disaster struck, I had to make sure that he survived, even with how undependable I thought I was. Fortunately he was able to become an adult and found success at a job that I never could do. Of course, he will always be family, but Kei has his own haven that he must find, different from mine.”
Someone who would support Kei through the end of the world.
“But last night while we were eating crab at dinner, I realized that he would be fine.”
“While eating crab…?”
Ushio couldn’t follow his thought process. He had thought that Kei’s father was much more normal than his mother, but maybe the dad wasn’t that much different either.
“Kei ate all the crab legs that were easy to eat, but you silently ate the claws and the body that were harder to get to. I was impressed by watching you.”
“I like working on the parts that are harder to get… There’s sort of a sense of satisfaction when you get to the meat…”
You mean that’s it? That’s how you decided that your son had found his haven?
Ushio let his voice out and laughed. As he laughed, he recalled the images he had witnessed the past day. Of Kei saying, Here, Dad, and naturally pouring him a beer. Of Kei keeping his chopsticks to himself until his father had started eating. It was a face different from Kunieda-san, different from the Kei he knew when they were alone—a face that he had seen for the very first time.
They passed the 30th playing mahjong, UNO, The Game of Life, and hanafuda7 cards. Their precious only son was a ridiculous lion at home and little mouse outside, and so the parents had no choice but to specialize in games that they could play inside the house. What a strange family. But it could also be called a happy one.
“Hey, we should turn on the TV.”
It was just past 2 pm on the 31st, and Kei reached for the TV remote.
“There have been many memorable events this past year! We’ll be bringing you all the secret footage that we’ve collected across the country. You will laugh, you will gasp, and you will shout! Please enjoy the show!”
Kei gloated, “He’s working, he’s working,” as he watched Tatsuki standing at a festive New Year’s style set speaking into a mic. “Please let him slip and fall.”
“You’re absolutely awful,” Ushio said.
“Oh, he’s the young announcer on your show. He must be in high demand if he’s working on New Year’s Eve. Probably even more popular than you?” Kei’s mother commented.
“What did you say?”
“But you don’t have that much exposure on TV.”
“That’s because I’m not cheap!”
They watched clips of small, local festivals around the country, bloopers from live, on-the-scene reporting, let’s try reports of young announcers trying ridiculous things on TV, commenting and chatting as the time passed. Kei was sorely disappointed when Tatsuki started to wrap up the show; he did a great job even to the untrained eye.
“Tch. How boring. Come on, mess up somewhere. If he had a fly open, that’d be good too.”
“Kei, curses cut both ways.”
“We’re nearing the end of our show, and I’d like to introduce a very special clip! This footage was taken just a few days ago from the Asahi TV news floor. Please take a look!”
Kunieda Kei suddenly appeared on the television screen.
The credits on the screen read, December 24th Broadcast, and Ushio knew exactly what the clip was. Of course, Kei knew too.
“Magicians and jugglers dressed as Satan—”
“Magicians and jugglers dressed as Satan—”
“Magicians and jugglers dressed as Satan—”
Even though he had seen the clip before, with the sound effects, the hilarious pop-up text, and the lines looping on repeat, Ushio burst into laughter all over again. The editing was definitely critical.
Kei’s face looked like it was about to explode as he yelled, “What the hell is this!?”
“Oh, dear. See, Kei? It was just as your dad said.”
As the studio guests laughed, Tatsuki offered his thoughts on the clip.
“He’s normally such an outstanding announcer that it makes this clip especially valuable and precious!”
“Yes, it’s a reminder that he’s human too.”
“Very true! Considering that it was Christmas Eve, maybe he was preoccupied with his own thoughts. Perhaps something in his personal life? I don’t know if he’s watching the show right now, but Senpai! Have a happy new year!”
“I’m gonna kill him when I get back to work.”
The mistake that was still fresh in Kei’s mind haunted him once again, and after eating his New Year’s Eve soba, he retreated under the kotatsu to sulk. At 11:30 pm, Kei’s parents went out for their first shrine visit of the new year. While Ushio flipped through the channels on the TV, he heard the sounds of New Year’s Eve bells chiming in the distance.
“Hey, it’s almost midnight.”
The rolypoly inside of the kotatsu refused to budge.
“Thank you for bringing me to meet your parents. I love you and your parents too.”
Ushio decided that once the clock hit midnight, before Kei overheated pretending to be asleep, he would unplug the kotatsu for him.
When it was time to leave, Kei’s mother drove them to the station again.
“If you’d like to visit again this year, you’re welcome to come. And if you don’t, that’s okay too.”
“Oh, I would like that.”
It even surprised himself how easily those words came out of his mouth.
“If that’s settled, then you can keep the Tupperware until you visit at the end of the year.”
Kei’s mother handed him square-shaped, clothwrapped bundle as they said their goodbyes. She said it was chirashizushi.8 According to Kei, it was the taste of New Year’s coming to an end, osechi9 leftovers chopped and mixed up together. Somehow it made Ushio happy to know that. Just like how he knew that the Kunieda family recipe for curry didn’t use potatoes, but instead they would have potato salad on the side that they put on toast to make sandwiches the next day.
Special chopsticks had been prepared on New Year’s Day, and each set had their names written in brush pen on the paper wrapping. Of course, Ushio had received his own set too. And under the insistence that it was a good luck charm, in the New Year’s money envelope, he had received a shiny 500 yen coin. He would probably never spend it.
Ushio rode the train back to Tokyo with the chirashizushi in his lap. Kei had already torn through his newspapers at home, and so he rested his elbow on the armrest looking out the window. When the train entered a tunnel, the surrounding darkness outside distinctly set off his face in sharp relief.
It hadn’t even been a week, but Ushio felt like the Kei that he saw searching for him at Tokyo Station was a Kei that he had to recall from a much more distant past. There was a weight and a profound warmth from all of the things he had received. Even the Why not? that might have sounded like a throwaway comment—the words came with a very important, As long as he’s happy, hidden before it.
The Shinkansen passed through several tunnels, leaving Mt. Fuji, that Kei’s father had said that he disliked, far behind them.
Ushio felt an indescribable urge to call out to the Kei that was searching for him back then, Don’t worry, I’m right here.
Because I am your haven where you can feel safe.
Kei was Ushio’s haven, everything Ushio held precious, everything Ushio needed, and so much more.
- Shabu shabu – A hotpot dish typically of thinly sliced beef and vegetables that you dip in broth and cook yourself.
- Sukiyaki – A hotpot dish typically of thinly sliced beef and vegetables that is simmered at the table.
- The Hikari trains run faster than the Kodama trains, but slower than the Nozomi trains.
- Lumonde biscuits are rolled crepe-like cookies with chocolate cream filling inside. They’re made by the same manufacturer as Alforts.
- Ryukyu tatami mats – Okinawa-style mats that are square shaped rather than the customary 2:1 rectangle shape.
- Yokoyama Mitsuteru’s Sangokushi is a manga adaptation of the Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
- Hanafuda – Japanese playing cards that can be used to play a variety of games.
- Chirashizushi – A Japanese dish typically made for special occasions where ingredients are cut up and scattered on a bed of rice.
- Osechi – Special traditional dishes eaten on New Year’s Day.