Chapter 3: Yes, No, or Maybe Half? (3)
When Kei returned home, he changed out of his work clothes and into his regular clothing. On his way back from picking up his favorite beef rice bowl, he suddenly remembered there was a special debate airing at 11 pm that night and that he had forgotten to set his recorder. It was a bunch of old men with this title and that title, throwing arguments that went around in circles, but Kei was interested in watching the moderator, Asou Keiichi. It would be the topic of conversation in the announcer department at work tomorrow, plus it was a good learning opportunity to watch a veteran in action.
If he ran now, he’d be able to catch it in time. Kei tightened his grip on his bag of food and started running, but he failed to notice the traffic signal in front of him turning red.
“Whoa!!” he cried, stumbling.
A small beam of light and a fairly large shadow had suddenly appeared out of the corner of his eye. They disappeared in an instant at the same time he heard a loud crash. There was the sound of a wheel spinning in the air. Kei looked over to see a bicycle and its rider tumbled on the ground.
Kei snapped out of his stupor and frantically looked down to check on his food. He might have knocked over the lid when he stumbled back in surprise.
“…Whew, so glad nothing spilled.” Kei breathed a sigh of relief when he saw his beef rice bowl intact.
“What the hell, asshole!?” The man lying under his bicycle was furious. “You fly out in front of me making me crash, and you’re more worried about your fucking food!?”
If you have the energy to yell like that, you should be fine. Shit, I should get outta here.
Kei was about to start running, but the man got up surprisingly fast after moving the bicycle away. Kei saw the man’s face under the streetlamp and froze.
It was Tsuzuki from earlier in the day. Kei was worried that they would run into each other one day, but for it to happen like this? What should he do? Make a run for it?
No point in running, he’s on a bike.
“Hey, don’t you dare run away.” Tsuzuki glared at Kei as if he had noticed Kei’s hesitation to act. “Ah, fuck, that hurts. Here, hold onto the handlebars for me. I can’t move my left hand because of the pain. And the frame is all warped.”
It should be fine. He shouldn’t find out that I’m Kunieda Kei.
Kei desperately tried to calm himself down and searched for a way to safely resolve this situation. Should he confess to everything and apologize? Should he pretend to be a stranger and try to power through it? He had no choice but to choose the latter option.
There’s no way I can let anyone find out about this! I was voted Top 5 in the Favorite Male TV Announcer Rankings! At the network, I’m the one all the fresh-faced rookies want to shake hands with, the kind and handsome Prince who everyone is enamored with! What would people say if they knew that I ignored a traffic light and caused an accident? If they knew that I went out at night to buy a beef rice bowl looking like this? It’d be the end of me. The public image that I’ve worked so hard to maintain for a quarter of a century— Poof! All gone in a puff of smoke!
“Hey, hurry up and hold it,” Tsuzuki said impatiently.
“For the bike and for your treatment fees. I can give you 100,000 or 200,000 yen1 if you want. That should cover everything, right? Going to the police won’t help, since they always side with the pedestrian.”
“I’m in a hurry here.”
“In such a hurry that you ignore the traffic light?”
“…I don’t recall ignoring the traffic light.”
“Are you serious?” Tsuzuki grew more agitated.
“It was green.”
“Are you really fucking serious?”
“There’s no camera, no witnesses. It’d be your word against mine. Arguing is pointless.”
Kei was about to propose once again that they quickly resolve the matter with money, when an angry fist came crashing down on his head.
“Ow!! That hurt!!!” Kei saw sparks behind his eyes.
“I’m the one who’s hurt here, you asshole!! Dammit, why did I use my left hand? Now it fucking hurts again!!” Tsuzuki held onto his left wrist with his good hand looking rightly infuriated with Kei. “You don’t even offer a damn word of an apology. How the hell were you raised, huh? You’re a just worthless piece of trash if you can’t say ‘thank you’ or ‘sorry’ when you’re in the fucking wrong!!”
Kei thought to himself, I suppose you’re not wrong, but it’s kinda silly apologizing out loud to my poor beef rice bowl.
After a moment, Kei offered a mumbled “Sorry…” that had barely any semblance to the word.
“Ugh, do you want me to hit you with my good hand this time? Whatever, fine, just help me push my bike with me. My foot hurts too, and I need help getting home.”
Kei wanted to refuse, but it wasn’t wise to continue making a commotion, even if it was late at night with no one around. Tsuzuki didn’t look like he was going to make a big deal out of it—as long as Kei didn’t enrage him any further. Kei wouldn’t be able to beat him even with his injuries.
“…Fine,” Kei conceded. He reluctantly grabbed the handlebar and hesitated, slowing the bicycle down. As a stranger, he shouldn’t know where to go. So he asked, “Where to?”
Whether it was due to the difficulty in coordinating their movements, or due to the twisted bicycle frame, the battered, old-fashioned bicycle wobbled between the two of them as they pushed it along.
Dammit. Don’t ride your bike out so late at night! Better yet, don’t live in my neighborhood! This sucks.
As Kei’s anxiety over exposing his identity receded, he started cursing his terrible luck.
Suddenly, Tsuzuki spoke, “Hey, your bag…”
“Is that a beef rice bowl from Sudoutei?
“I go there and order it often. It’s really good. But recently the sauce or something’s changed. It’s different from before.”
“…I think so too.” Kei nodded in spite of himself. “There’s something different about the balance between the sugar and the soy sauce.”
“I know, right? Do you go there to eat often?”
“I go there to eat-in sometimes. Their beer is shockingly terrible.”
“Beer’s all the same everywhere.”
“No, no, like, the head on the beer collapses the moment the server sets it on the table. The foam’s too thin, almost like hot milk foam. I don’t know if it’s the bartender or the server who doesn’t know what they’re doing.”
Hmmm? Somehow they were having a regular conversation. It scared him to find out that they frequented the same restaurant, but at that moment, Kei was happier to have someone to talk to about his favorite beef rice bowl.
Tsuzuki asked, “Do you like yakitori? There’s a place called Tanmiya behind the post office that’s really good.”
“Do they do takeout?”
They finally arrived at the building that Kei had visited earlier in the day.
This should be enough right?
“Ok, bye.” Kei turned to leave, but Tsuzuki grabbed his wrist to stop him.
“I’m not done talking to you yet! Damn, I can’t let my guard down around you. …Here, give me your phone number in case I need to get in touch with you.”
Kei rattled off his phone number by speed talking.
“I can’t remember that!”
“I gave it to you just like you asked.”
“What are you, a little kid!?”
They entered the building and pushed the bicycle inside.
“You can sit here.” Tsuzuki pointed at the sofa that Kei had set his bag on earlier. “If you try to escape, I’ll stake out Sudoutei every night until I find you. I’ll warn you now, I can hold a grudge for a long time.”
Tsuzuki headed upstairs, and Kei sat down obediently on the sofa to wait for him. Kei felt fairly guilty at how Tsuzuki was limping on one foot. But then he reconsidered the thought since Tsuzuki wasn’t doing much but holing up in his studio anyway. Kei picked up a tablet lying on the sofa, and the screen automatically flickered on out of sleep mode.
Hmmm? He just left it on without locking it? How careless—
“What the hell!?” Kei shouted, almost dislodging his facemask.
“What’s wrong?” Tsuzuki called from the second floor.
“Uhhh, ah! A c-cockroach!!”
“Really? Wow, I’ve never come across one here. Kill it for me, okay?”
The cockroach was a lie, but the shock wasn’t. There on the tablet screen, paused in the middle of a video, was an image of Kei.
It was a clip from when he first started his career as a TV announcer, he had participated in a mascot character sumo wrestling tournament at the YS-1 Grand Prix. After rolling around in the costume for the Asahi TV mascot character “Asazou” (so lame) and falling off the stage, Announcer Kunieda emerged from the costume, taking off Asazou’s head in defeat while covered in sweat.
The network had made him do all sorts of stunts and bits in his first year. He had the stamina, and it was too early in his career for any specialization, so the production teams had treated him like a toy that would do anything they asked. Kei wasn’t an exception, whether he had to tag along as a sidekick or act as the butt of a joke, he did whatever the assignment called for without complaints. If he had rejected assignments as a rookie, like he was too good for it, they would have found someone else to do the assignment and skipped over him for future work. Television didn’t need people who couldn’t overcome their sense of shame. Yes, there were things that he didn’t like, but it was his job to do embarrassing things. Luckily for Kei, the network quickly decided that he fit the mold of a serious announcer and switched him over to different assignments.
Everyone was the low man on the totem pole once in their careers. Just like how all the famous actresses with their lifestyle brands once used to model for gravure magazines to get their foot in the door. There was nothing he could do about it, and he didn’t regret it one bit, but he did find it annoying to have people dig these things up and post it on the net. Sure enough, when he looked at the comments section, someone had written, Even the Prince had to participate in ridiculous TV stunts too!
Kei thought irritably, Why do you think, moron? It was for work!
But more importantly, why was Tsuzuki watching this old video of him?
There was no chance that Tsuzuki had accidentally stumbled on to this video. Kei checked the viewing history and saw that Tsuzuki had watched several other clips featuring him. Such as the time when he followed an idol group for a day and practiced their dance moves with them. Or the time when he rode in a stunt plane. They were all videos of Kei putting himself on the line for TV.
Hmmm, I really worked my ass off back then. …But back to the main issue. Oh, maybe he hates me so much that he wanted to use something to mock me the next time we meet?
It was difficult to imagine from the video history that it was motivated by anything nice. Kei thought to himself, Hmph, what a petty man, growing unhappy at the thought despite calling the kettle black. But it wasn’t like he couldn’t handle it. He would just laugh it off if Tsuzuki decided to bring it up in front of the crew.
“Hey, you’re still here.” Tsuzuki finally returned downstairs. “Sorry, it took me some time to find where I had put the pain relief patches.”
He saw Kei looking at his tablet and asked, “Do you know him?” He didn’t seem to mind that Kei had used it without permission.
Kei was on high alert in case Tsuzuki was trying to trick him into exposing himself, but Tsuzuki just continued talking, lighthearted.
“His name’s Kunieda Kei, a TV announcer for Asahi TV. He’s on the evening news.”
Tsuzuki sat down next to Kei, unconcerned if Kei knew the person or not, and said, “He was here earlier today.”
The alarm bells in Kei’s head were flashing again, but he responded with a casual “…Hmmm.”
Why is he telling me this?
“I was pretty rude to him.”
“Don’t you have any other reactions?”
“Well, whatever. I had an interview just yesterday. Another male announcer, pretty similar to Kunieda-san. He was all smiles in front of me, but after I left the room, I caught him kicking the AD.”
Tsuzuki frowned a little, like he was recalling the incident as he spoke. “He was calling him names and telling him to die. All because he didn’t like the brand of mineral water that the guy had bought. I was listening to them and thinking, ‘Really? Would it kill you to drink it?’ It’s not such a big mistake that you’d kick someone for it. On top of it, he was muttering about my studio being a dump. But as soon as I returned, he was back to smiling like nothing had happened. Ugh, it gave me goosebumps. He made me so sick of the entire thing.”
Kei said, “Maybe he had an off day?”
He wasn’t excusing the announcer’s behavior. That type of harassment wasn’t particularly uncommon, and it wasn’t limited to the TV industry either.
“Yeah, maybe, but I was sick and tired of it all. It made me remember the time when I was treated like a doormat when I first got started, but as soon as I got a little attention, the assholes came crawling out of the woodwork pretending like we were great buddies. I thought I had put it behind me, but I realized that no, it still bothered me. I got so worked up about my stupid pettiness that I couldn’t focus on my work and went to bed angry. So when morning came, and I saw Kunieda-san, I thought he would be like all the others, just putting on a pretense in front of me.”
“Sounds like you had a hard time.”
Heh, so his mood had nothing to do with me.
“Yeah… But then the AD today knocked over Kunieda-san’s bag, and he just smiled like it was nothing and asked if the AD was hurt anywhere.”
Kei was thankful to be wearing his facemask, because underneath it, he couldn’t restrain himself from smirking. It was so funny, he wanted to roll around dying from the laughter. He was completely fooled! Haha, what a chump!
Even though the AD was completely expendable, there was no need to yell at him for such a simple mistake. He was a lowly contractor now, but there was no telling if he might make it big in the future (though the odds of that happening was like hatching a grown sea turtle from a chicken egg). From Kei’s point of view, the workplace hierarchy was a laughably basic tenet of Japanese society, but maybe Tsuzuki didn’t understand these subtleties, having never worked a standard office job. Tsuzuki seemed a little pitiful in that respect.
Tsuzuki continued his story, none the wiser that Kei was currently mocking his naivete. “Also, I saw a pretty thick book fall out of his bag. It was some kind of reference book, an accent dictionary. I didn’t know announcers had to read those things.”
“Hmmm…” Kei nodded his head in case his lack of a reaction seemed too unnatural.
“Have you heard of it?” Tsuzuki asked, noticing Kei’s reaction.
Kei said, “Nope,” hoping he didn’t draw too much suspicion.
“Me neither. The book was really beat up, and there were post-it notes stuck all over to mark the pages. That’s when I realized that he was probably different from what I had thought. So I pulled up some videos of him. At first, I thought that all an announcer had to do was look good and read a script, but when I saw the videos of him working so hard, I was honestly a little impressed.”
And I’m happy that you’re a simple idiot. Looks like the on-location shoots will be smooth sailing from now on.
“I’m gonna have to see him again soon. Do you think he’ll forgive me if I apologize to him?”
Hey, you don’t have to apologize. I don’t want to navigate this mess any more than I have to.
But Kei didn’t want to drag the conversation any longer than necessary, so he offhandedly replied, “Why not?”
“You think so?”
“Oh my god, are you for real?” Kei couldn’t hold himself back any longer. “If you’re only apologizing because you want his forgiveness, then don’t say anything at all. Especially if you’re not really sorry to begin with.”
“…Hmph.” Tsuzuki stared at Kei for a long time, making him feel nervous. “You make a good point, despite such a terrible first impression.”
“Well, you’re right. I’ll just do it.” Tsuzuki smiled like he was happy to finally get his story off his chest and handed Kei a pain relief patch.
“I don’t need one.”
“No, help me put it on. I can’t do it with one hand.” Tsuzuki rolled up his sleeve, an angry purple bruise already developing on his arm.
“…What about the hospital?”
“I’ll go tomorrow to check everything out, but I’m pretty sure it’s not broken.”
Kei placed a postcard-sized patch on the area that Tsuzuki pointed to, then shrugged his shoulders when Tsuzuki commented on the coldness of the patch.
“Alright, bye.” Kei was ready to leave and moved to get up, but Tsuzuki grabbed his hand again.
“Wait, wait, wait!”
“What? I helped you put the patch on.”
“That’s not why I brought you here. I was about to bring it up.” He pulled Kei to sit back down. Then he asked, “Why aren’t you asking anything?”
“About the things here or about the interviews that I mentioned. Aren’t you curious about who I am?”
Kei couldn’t say that he already knew, so he said, “Not interested.”
“I’m not sure interest has anything to do with it, but whatever. I’m a filmmaker of a sort, so I really need my hands to do my work. And I’m in the middle of a big project right now.”
“I’m not able to do my work with my left hand out of commission. So you’ll take responsibility for the accident and help me out until I recover.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Are you in any position to refuse me?”
“No, but I said I can pay you. Then you can hire someone to do whatever you need.”
“Do you think you can solve everything with money? Don’t you feel any shame?”
“I don’t.” Kei stood up and thrust his thumb to his chest. “Let me make it clear, I’m not from a rich family, okay!? I work my ass off every day to make a living. What’s so dirty about using the money that I earned to take responsibility for something? Is it so wrong, huh? I’m not ashamed of it at all!”
Tsuzuki stared up at Kei a little speechless and then started clapping.
“Nothing, just that you have a good point again. You’re strangely convincing with your arguments.”
“Doesn’t make me happy.”
“What’s your name?”
Kei hesitated for a moment and said, “Owari.” He simply picked the first word that came to mind when he thought of the homophone for “Tsuzuki.”2
“Mine’s Tsuzuki. Sounds similar to mine, well, maybe not very similar. What’s your first name?”
“Why do you need to know?”
“Well, I guess I don’t. Alright, you can come whenever you’re free tomorrow night. You just need to stay about 2 hours.”
“It’s not a tough job, don’t worry.”
“No, no, no, didn’t you hear what I said?”
“But you’re pretty interesting. I think it’d be a shame to end this so soon.”
No, let’s end this. Please end this!
“I can pay you a little if you want.”
“I can treat you to a beef rice bowl for the night.”
This is so stupid.
Kei got up from the sofa again, and this time Tsuzuki didn’t stop him.
When he got to the door, Tsuzuki called, “See you tomorrow!” and smiled.
“There won’t be a tomorrow! I’m definitely not coming!”
Kei repeated the “definitely” several times for emphasis, but Tsuzuki just continued smiling at him through the door as he opened and then closed it.
When Kei returned home, he realized that he had forgotten his beef rice bowl. He didn’t feel like going back to get it, nor did he feel like going out to buy another one.
He was exhausted. He had gotten mixed up into trouble. He had missed the debate that he wanted to watch. And to top it all off, he had to start going over to Tsuzuki’s house to help him.
No fucking way. Do you know how precious 2 hours of the day is to someone who works full-time? I already said that I wasn’t going, his work is none of my business. Er, wait, I guess it is kinda my business. His arm was all bruised up. It looked pretty painful. Argh, no, don’t think about it! I gotta do my news check for today.
Kei sat on his sofa cross-legged as usual. However, he couldn’t concentrate on his notes or the news. In his mind he kept repeating the sound of Tsuzuki’s voice as he talked about “Kunieda Kei,” the smile that Tsuzuki gave him as he left, the cold walk late at night as they pushed the bicycle together—
What the hell, what was with him? Even when he had work events, or when he had drinking parties, Kei had never had his routine broken like this. He gave up for the night and shut off the TV.
He crawled into bed and closed his eyes, but he couldn’t fall asleep. His head was filled with too much stimulation, like when he had had too much fun outside on a warm summer afternoon. Kei then came to a realization. This was probably the first time in his life that he had ever spoken as his true self to someone other than his parents for such an extended period of time.