Story 2: Things That Happened Today
Author’s Note: I faintly remember writing this sometime before a meet and greet… On a happy, ordinary day where nothing particularly special happens, it’s actually quite quiet and laid-back for the two of them.
First published in Shousetsu Dear Plus Special 50th Issue Commemorative Free Mini-Book.
Translator Note: This story takes place some time after Volume 1 of Yes, No, or Maybe Half? There’s a spoiler in the author’s note for Volume 3 that I recommend that you save until after you read the chapter.
For Kei, it was scarier to have symptoms that didn’t hurt. Normally there were warning signs such as irritation or soreness in his throat before losing his voice, but once or twice a year, he would suddenly lose his voice with absolutely no additional symptoms beforehand.
“Ah… Ah— Ah—”
Kei sat on the bed and tried to focus his breathing through his diaphragm, but no matter how much he tried, all that came out of his mouth was a shriveled up wisp of a voice like the skin of a wilted grape. Even a tsk of his tongue sounded pathetically dead and flat. Although he didn’t have any warning signs, in the back of his mind he had felt it coming. First, there were issues at the recording session for the extended narration job that he had yesterday afternoon. Of course, none of it was Kei’s fault. Throughout the session the director kept asking him, “That sounded really good, but can you do it again differently?” like he had only a vague notion of what he wanted the narration to sound like. The inability to make a decision—did he like it or not, dammit—was what irritated Kei the most. He wanted to charge the jackass by the take. Then after being put through the wringer, he had to go on air for the nightly news, then late night off the air he had things, all sorts of things… Basically, it was all his fault.
At least today was a Saturday, that was one small consolation. His throat would probably recover after letting it rest for two days. To be more precise, it was always the weekends when he would lose his voice. He didn’t know if it was just a considerate way for his voice to rebel on him.
“Oh, we’re outta of eggs today. Is just toast okay with you?” Ushio asked, already up and showered.
You’re half the reason for this, Kei thought as he glowered at Ushio and jabbed a finger at his throat.
“I lost my voice,” Kei croaked with a bizarre-sounding hoarseness; he sounded ridiculous even to himself.
Ushio immediately ran over to the bed, placing his hands on Kei’s forehead and his cheeks. “Is it a cold? A fever? Does it hurt? Want to go to the hospital?”
But if you make such a concerned expression while you touch me all over, you’re gonna make me blush.
Kei pushed away Ushio’s hands. “It happens from time to time,” he explained hoarsely. “If I leave it alone, it’ll get better.”
Ushio looked relieved, seeing that Kei had treated it like it was no big deal. He ruffled Kei’s hair a few times and gave him an indulgent smile.
Kei couldn’t let his guard down. He learned his lesson that Ushio always said the stupidest things whenever he smiled like this.
“Can you say, ‘Good evening, I’m Mori Shinichi,’ for me?”1
He knew it’d be something stupid, such as imitating someone famous for a raspy voice.
Kei couldn’t curse him out as much as he wanted. He hit Ushio in the shoulder with a pillow, and Ushio exclaimed, “It’s a joke,” to try to defend himself.
“A joke, huh? This is my moneymaker, you know.”
“Then shouldn’t you put less strain on it?”
“Whose fault do you think it is?”
“I’ll go out and buy you the morning papers, so forgive me? I’ll make you whatever you want for breakfast too.”
“Got it, got it, eggs, you said.”
That didn’t sound remotely like anything I said.
Kei went to take a shower and when he exited the bathroom, his personal errand runner was nowhere in sight, probably still out doing the shopping. In his stead, there was a light blue-green kerosene stove with a large kettle sitting on top of it, warming up the room. Ushio only pulled it out on nights when it was especially cold in the downstairs studio, but apparently he brought it up for Kei to help with the warmth and humidity levels. It was a pain to keep replenishing the kerosene, but Ushio seemed to really enjoy the charm of this stove more than an electric heater, saying that he liked watching the flickering blue flame through the round porthole.
Kei brought a round stool closer to the stove and warmed himself in front of it while he let his mind wander. There was a real heat that could be felt from a live fire. Which reminded Kei by the way—where did Ushio find this gigantic ass kettle? It was like it was made for a rugby team. And written in magic marker on its side were the words “Hot Water Supply.” Ushio’s house was like a mix of odds and ends—not a single dish of his matched each other, he got his refrigerator as a payment for helping someone with a move, he made his bed frame out of scrap wood that he cut himself, his linens didn’t match, and he used a stack of wooden trays used for displaying baked goods as his clothes dresser.
There was no sense of cohesiveness, and yet it didn’t feel uncomfortable being in this space; there was a strange sense of completeness that came from being in this large bundle of mishmash that could only be described as “Ushio’s home.” It would be an exaggeration to call it a kind of system or harmony, but there was a calm steadiness that suffused the house. Maybe it was because everything he was given, everything he had picked up, Ushio had deemed that he had wanted it or needed it. That was what it had felt like to him as he remembered the sight of Ushio sitting down to disassemble the stove, carefully polishing the parts, like undertaking a ritual, before putting it together again for the start of the winter season.
And now Kei had made himself fully at home here. Looking back…
…Hold on, am I something that he picked up like everything else too?
Ushio returned with the rustling of plastic bags from the convenience store. Kei opened his mouth to try to speak as soon as Ushio appeared upstairs.
“Here are your papers. Hmm? What are you trying to say?” Ushio asked.
Kei wanted to insist that he was the one who had picked Ushio up out of his magnanimity, but in the past 15 minutes his throat had grown even hoarser and now he could barely make a sound. Ushio gave him a funny look with a “What the heck are you saying?” like he had heard Kei, but there was nothing more to be said.
“Is your voice completely gone now? You’ll have to behave and stay quiet.”
After handing Kei his morning papers and the throat lozenges that he normally used, Ushio headed to the kitchen to prepare breakfast. By the time Kei finished reading through one of the papers, Ushio called out, “Breakfast’s ready.”
“I tried a little harder today.”
Normally when they had eggs, they rotated between sunny-side up with ham, omelets, or scrambled eggs, but this morning there were English muffins each with a plump poached egg sitting on top, covered in an orangish cream-colored sauce.
“I thought something a little fancier than normal would be nice, and I saw on TV the other day how to make hollandaise sauce. Do you want a knife and fork?”
It was a pain in the ass, so no. Kei shook his head and asked for chopsticks in a voice that didn’t sound like a voice. He picked up the Eggs Benedict with his chopsticks, opening his mouth up wide and took a bite. He would die if this were ever made public.
“Is it good?”
“Eat your vegetables too.”
Kei ignored him, but Ushio held out a small bowl in front of his face. It looked like he had abandoned his fancier efforts halfway; it was just a simple salad with hand-torn lettuce, smashed cucumbers, and baby tomatoes tossed with Krazy Salt mixed seasoning.
“Without the proper nutrition, you won’t recover properly, you know.”
Kei couldn’t retort, What difference does this single meal make? And so he reluctantly picked up some salad with his chopsticks. He’d eat all of it, okay? He was the type to eat his favorite foods first. There was no meaning in saving the best for last if it went cold before he could eat it.
After cleaning up their dishes, Ushio said, “I’ll be downstairs doing some work,” as he dried his hands on a towel. “You’ll stay here, right? I made some daikon radish soaked in honey for your throat, so have some around lunchtime. It’ll get soggy if you leave it sitting for too long.”
The space was thoroughly warmed up. Kei passed the time reading his newspapers. As a repercussion for maintaining his outside persona, he liked to talk to himself in private. He’d always grumble things like, Not again, or, How dumb, while he read, but the only sound accompanying him today was the rustling of the paper. He couldn’t get into a rhythm for reading, and he couldn’t process anything that he read.
Kei also liked to grumble in front of Ushio without any reservation, and Ushio would often ask him about it. When Kei would point to the article and explain, Ushio would always give a “Hmmm…” before launching a series of unexpected questions.
“Whose fault is it?”
“Why does it have to mean that?”
“What will happen next?”
“What common ground is there?”
They were exceedingly simple questions, but being in the news business meant that Kei tended to be a news maniac, in the bad sense of the word, as he processed the stories. Rarely did he ever have to think about the heart of the problem, and he secretly struggled to answer the questions. However, most of his viewers didn’t devour multiple sets of newspapers daily like him; they probably all had the same question: So what does it mean? That was why Kei always replied, “Fine, let me explain it to you.” A lot of the times it helped Kei out in going through the exercise. But right now he couldn’t talk, and Ushio was busy; it was impossible to concentrate.
Kei finished reading through his newspapers feeling completely unsatisfied, and he lazed around on the bed until it was lunchtime. He was taking a spoonful of honey infused with daikon radish juices when he noticed that the stove had run out of kerosene. He went downstairs to find Ushio sitting at the computer desk and mouthed “Kerosene” at him.
“Okay. How about we ventilate the second floor now that the cartridge is empty?”
Kei gave him a look that said, Even though it’s nice and toasty upstairs? But Ushio didn’t pay any mind to his objections and went upstairs to open the windows anyway. Kei rolled up into a ball on the sofa downstairs instead.
Ushio returned to his desk and asked, “Want to watch TV? You have a lot of shows you’ve taped and want to check, right?”
I’ll do it later.
“Do you want lunch? I’m fine with either.”
I’m not hungry.
“Ok, I’ll get some beef shank, potatoes, and onions to stew— …Hey.” Ushio turned to look at Kei. “Does it sound like we’re having a regular conversation to you?”
That’s what I want to ask.
“I’m just filling in what I think you’d normally say. You’re easy to read, after all.”
After some time had passed, Kei could tell from the profile of Ushio’s face staring at the monitor that Kei had completely disappeared from his thoughts and that he was immersed inside of the world of the LCD screen. There were times when Kei entered the zone at work, and all outside sounds would disappear from his consciousness while he was on air. Even though he had never played pachinko before, getting into the zone was something akin to the opening of the tulip catchers as the metal balls bounced between the pins. Only when the conditions and the energy was right did it come together like a special bonus time, and since Kei knew how valuable it was, he tried not to disturb Ushio while he was focused on his work. It would be a lie to say that he didn’t feel lonely from the lack of attention he got from Ushio at these moments, but Ushio probably had nights where he felt the same when he was watching Kei on TV.
Kei quietly went back upstairs. It was probably done ventilating by now. He closed the windows in the chilled room and placed his fingers over the top of the fuelless stove. It was cold.
Was it last month or so? Kei had woken up in the middle of the night and found the bed empty next to him. There was no sign of Ushio anywhere, and so he crept downstairs and found Ushio sitting on the sofa warming up by the stove. To be more precise, he was probably watching the dancing of the blue flames. It didn’t look like he was thinking hard about something, but his face was serious and he didn’t notice Kei had come down. Kei wondered if he was thinking about something for work that night. He thought that maybe there was an aspect that was deeply personal and full of solitude to the process of creating art. Maybe Ushio was lonelier than Kei had been before they had ever met.
Kei crawled under the covers into the bed. It smelled like Ushio. He came to sleep over so frequently and for quite a while now, he wondered that maybe his own smell had started to mix with Ushio’s… Ugh, was he turning into a pervert? Kei couldn’t help but jab a critical comment at himself silently. Today he was seized with thoughts that were different from normal. Probably because he had lost his voice. He couldn’t release the fragments of his thoughts, and he had to keep them bottled inside, fermenting inside of his heart until they transformed. It wasn’t anything important that he wanted to say, but the weakened condition of his throat went directly to his heart.
He was afraid when his thoughts turned strangely introspective. It made his imagination get away from him. Like what would he do if his voice didn’t return by Monday? Wasn’t losing his voice without any warning just his body going on strike?
Was he finally at the limit where he could no longer tolerate this impossible, forced, fake lifestyle?
It terrified him to have the switch cut out on him without any pain.
Apparently he had fallen asleep while he was squeezing his eyes shut. He had sweated a little in his sleep now that the stove was on again. The scent of meat cooking traveled from his nose directly to his stomach. If he had smelled it outside while walking by, it probably would have stopped him in his tracks.
Ushio was sitting in front of the stove watching the flames while a pot was heating on top of it. The blue flame was proof that it was consuming the oxygen in the air properly.
However, blue or red, a fire was fire. It released heat and burned people if they got too close.
Suddenly Ushio looked over at Kei. “You’re awake?”
The room was entirely gray inside, tinged with a light orange hue. Kei wanted to ask what time it was, but he still didn’t have his voice back.
“It’s 4:30,” Ushio replied, not minding the silence as he skimmed off the top of the stew. “It’ll be ready to eat in a bit.”
Kei flipped open the covers, making a space on the bed, and patted the mattress a few times.
“What’s that you want?” Ushio laughed as he went over to the bed, and Kei grabbed a hold of him around his waist. This kind of action shouldn’t need any words.
“…This is a rare treat. Are you still cold?”
Kei dug his fingers into a soft area where the muscle seemed to taper, and Ushio grimaced, uttering an “Ow.” Then Ushio went back to the stove, turning it off before slipping into the bed with Kei.
“It probably would have been okay to leave it on,” Ushio said while removing his clothes, “but it wouldn’t be good if it accidentally tipped over from the vibrations.”
Just how hard do you plan to go at it?
They made love, slow and quiet, and Kei was more aware than usual of the rustling of the sheets and the creaking of the bedsprings. And then there was the unsteadiness of Ushio’s breathing and the raw sounds of their bodies rubbing up against each other.
“…It’ll be okay,” Ushio whispered as he slowly immersed himself deep inside of Kei. “You’ll have your voice back soon.”
Of course, I will. I know that. Shut up.
Kei tightened his arms around Ushio’s back, and Ushio stroked the back of his head as he whispered, “There, there.”
With each stroke of Ushio’s hand, the words, It’ll be okay, seeped inside of him.
When the sun had fully set and the slowly simmered meat and vegetables were served on a plate in front of him, Kei’s voice had started to slowly return.
“It was a slow day where nothing much happened, huh?”
Kei nodded at Ushio’s words and shoveled his dinner into his mouth.
- Mori Shinichi is a famous Japanese folk singer. He’s also known for his unusual raspy voice.
- Oden – A slowly simmered Japanese stew with fish cakes, daikon radish, eggs, and konjac as typical ingredients.
- Pot-au-feu – A slowly simmered French beef stew.