Part 2: Oasis
—–Translated by daydrop. Please read on the original site at daydrop.nowaki.net.
It had been a complete coincidence that he learned that Kei’s mother had been sick. They had been watching TV together when news about a fire in Shizuoka City aired, and Kei commented with a true nonchalance, “Oh, that’s close to the hospital where Mom was hospitalized.”
It had been so flippant that Ushio thought that he was referring to something that had happened years ago. However, not even half a year had passed since it happened. Say something, damn it.
“I had too many things going on at the time.”
“But not for several months though.”
“It wasn’t a huge deal. She was hospitalized, but it was for 3 or 4 days. It was like a short trip. Telling you after all that time would make it a bigger deal than it was.”
Kei was about to snap back at him, unhappy at being told Say something, damn it, so Ushio warded him off with an amiable “I’m sorry” and then suggested “Let’s go for a visit.”
“To see her all recovered.”
“No way, it’s a pain in the ass. I already went out of my way to see her the day of the surgery.”
“Aww, you could have said that you were worried and ran over to see her…”
Kei grimaced and told him about how his mother was absolutely fine and even tried to show him the myoma that the doctors had taken out, so he had left.
“Well, okay, sure, but let’s go anyway.”
“I said no way.”
“Why not? Don’t you love spending time at your parents’?”
“It’s exhausting to go there for just a weekend.”
“Let’s drive there. It won’t be crowded unlike around New Year’s.”
“Listen to what I’m saying.”
“I’ll buy you anything you like at the service areas. Like all the things that Gal Sone ate on Legends of Gold.”1
“I said I’m not going.”
“Fine, I’ll go by myself. Take care of the apartment for me.”
“You’re so weird.”
But Kei reluctantly accompanied him. Apparently he was worried about what they would say about him when he wasn’t there. Even though Kei was the one who had outed them to his parents in the first place.
Kei warned him from the passenger seat, “Don’t say anything unnecessary.”
“…Like anything about the apartment.”
“What? You still haven’t told them that we’re living together? Want me to send them a postcard for you?”
“We’re not living together; we still have separate households! I only told them that I moved, so don’t you dare say anything.”
Uh, why are you so desperate to deny that particular point after all this time?
However, Ushio knew that this Prince had a very naive shyness to him. Viewed from the side, he was like a very holey cheese, completely vulnerable, with plenty of room for Ushio to poke fun of him, but because Kei was so stubborn and insistent about it, Ushio had no choice but to let him have his way.
“What do you want for breakfast? Should we stop at Ebina?”
“Ebi ebi yaki, melon bread, and smoked turkey.”2
Kei gave his answer without delay as he looked at his cell phone. He was probably checking a Service Area Gourmet website.
“I’ll eat in the car so go buy them for me. Park somewhere not too conspicuous.”
It was an extremely hot day today, but the weather was clear. It was an excellent day for a drive. They only had iced coffee in stainless steel bottles with them, and Ushio completed the errand like Kei had instructed and returned to the car.
“Food’s here, what do you want first?”
Which was what he figured. Kei took the turkey by the bone, which was wrapped in aluminum foil, and took a bite of the dark amber-colored smoked meat. After chewing for a while, he grunted “Nn” and offered Ushio an untouched part of the turkey.
“What? You’re offering some? For me? Thanks, but why~?”
“Don’t act so surprised!!”
Habits and beliefs that he had picked up when he was younger were difficult to break, and even now Ushio found it hard to ignore the idea that he could save some money for another meal by skipping one. He wasn’t a light eater, and he enjoyed eating too, but whenever he had deadlines for work, he tended to put off his meals even more. However, if he ruined his health because of it, it would all be for naught, and so he had been conscious to have his meals, but more so because he needed gasoline for his body.
But that particular significance that Ushio had for food started to change a little since he met Kei. And it changed even more after they started living together. Kei would come home from work or he would wake up, and Ushio didn’t find it troublesome to pause his work to prepare food in the kitchen. There were no heavy feelings behind the act, such as serving or supporting Kei; it just eased Ushio’s mind to see Kei eating his food that he had thrown together. There was no special gratitude or compliments from Kei, but Kei would eat it all with gusto. Maybe he thought that it was fine because there was a balance between them—Ushio didn’t think that he was doing anything in particular for Kei, and Kei didn’t think that he was getting anything in particular from Ushio. They were each doing whatever they wanted.
And taking a bite of the meat, Ushio thought that this sharing of food between them was the simplest expression of trust and love that there was.
There was no need to rush to their destination, and so they had stopped at other service areas along the way. It was a little before noon when they arrived at Kei’s parents’ house.
“Oh, so you two really did come,” Kei’s mother said.
“Pardon us for the intrusion.”
“Don’t worry, it’s fine. I sort of feel bad that you came all this way and I’m fit as a fiddle. Kei, you didn’t make a big deal of it, did you?”
“I just told him like it was.”
“Did you have lunch?”
“We ate as we drove, so we’re not hungry.”
“Okay, maybe we’ll have an early dinner. Your father and I just finished eating soumen earlier.”
They had last visited the Kunieda home two years ago for New Year’s. They had planned to visit last year (or would it be this year?), but they were both too busy with work and weren’t able to make it. So this was their first visit in a long while, but the only thing that really changed was that there was no kotatsu in the living room.
“Oh, hello, welcome.”
“It’s been a while, sir.”
Kei’s father had appeared, and as usual there was no hint of arrogance in the bow that he gave. Kei’s comment that he should watch and learn from my dad was absolutely correct.
“Isn’t it surprising that they haven’t broken up by now?” commented Kei’s mother. She brought over cold barley tea as everyone sat around the low table.
“It’s none of your business.”
“Why don’t you register as an adoptee in his family? That way he can’t escape so easily. Is that how it works? Why not do it? It’s not like we have much to leave to you, right, Dear?”3
“Ummm, but I think a lot of things depend on who is the older of the two. Things like their last name for example…”
As usual, it was frightening just how fast they were able to accept and understand things. Actually, Ushio was really amazed at how naturally they could delineate their own lives from their son’s life. They didn’t seem to show any pride that this was something that they valued; they seriously looked like any regular middle-aged married couple.
“Why would I do that, stupid? The company would find out.”
That Kei was concerned about his image to the public made Ushio feel more reassured.
“Hmmm, by the way, how’s your new home? Is it comfortable?”
Kei gave Ushio a side eye when he answered his mother. Ushio blinked his eyes slowly to say Yeah, I know.
“Should I go over and clean it for you?”
Oh, but that jab clearly said that she had a hunch.
“I have a Roomba that does it.”
Is that supposed to refer to me?
“Who normally cooks between the two of you?”
Oh, and now she went in for a straight. Ushio had promised not to say anything, so he kept quiet, but in return he refused to lie just to cover for Kei.
“We cook in our own homes, who else would do it?”
Unexpectedly, Kei was able to smoothly sidestep her attacks. This was a space where he could be himself and let his guard down. It wouldn’t be strange to show his weaknesses here, but Ushio was a little impressed at how natural Kei sounded just now. Maybe he had experienced enough bloodbaths here to learn from them? But Kei would totally rage at him if he were to tell him that.
“Hnnn… Oh, someone’s at the door.”
Kei’s mother got up at the sound of the doorbell.
“Your father’s bookshelf is probably here. We’re going to assemble it together, so feel free to relax. Dear, come along.”
“Oh, I’ll do it,” Ushio offered.
“It’s fine, it’s fine.”
Ushio heard them call out to each other, Take that side and Heave ho, as they moved the item, and he asked Kei, “Maybe I should have gone instead?” It would probably be faster if Ushio did everything himself.
He half-expected the response when Kei grunted, “Don’t expect me to help,” and flopped on the floor to turn an empty seat cushion into his pillow.
“Just let them do whatever they want. There’s the two of them there, they’ll be fine. If they want help, they’ll come and ask for it.”
“Isn’t it called help to do it before it’s asked?”
“They’ll age faster if you spoil them.”
And then Kei fell asleep in no time. It was only natural since he had woken up early in the morning, but this ease in dropping off to sleep was too incredible. Maybe because his parents’ house was that peaceful and reassuring to him. Ushio had no place similar that he could compare to, and he watched Kei with a deep curiosity. Plus, Kei absolutely worked hard during the week, and he must have been exhausted. He had read his newspapers in the car since he always had to diligently check the news over the weekend, so maybe the only time that he was truly “off” was when he was sleeping.
Ushio spent some time watching Kei’s very relaxed countenance while he slept, but he was still worried about how Kei’s parents were doing, so he went out quietly to the hallway to check on them. He could hear voices from the door that they had left open. Ushio took a peek inside, and it appeared to be an office for Kei’s father. There was a desk, a chair, and bookshelves in the room, and on the floor was a partially assembled bookshelf and its scattered parts. The married couple was sitting on the floor, building it together.
“…Oh no, the bottom shelf is backwards. It’s not very noticeable, so maybe we can just leave it?”
“I’d say that it’s completely different. Look how rough it looks. Let’s redo it.”
“Okay, if you insist. Anyway, the print is so tiny in this instruction manual. They don’t make it easy for old people. Don’t you think they need to explain it more too?”
“But the color doesn’t look too cheap, so it’s nice.”
“That’s true. Online shopping is always a hit or miss, and we really lucked out this time.”
“Oh, a wooden dowel rolled over there. Be careful, okay?”
It was a leisurely conversation and assembly. If Ushio had built it, he could probably finish it in 10 minutes. But Kei had been correct in his words. The two of them were there, so it was fine. He had to hand it to their son. Ushio wasn’t needed here. It wasn’t meant in a rosy picture sort of way, like they had created their own little world. He just felt that the time that they had spent together, that they would spend together into the future—it flowed here in this disordered little room on a bright summer afternoon. It was a charm that could only be produced after countless days upon days of living an everyday life together. He was sure that the couple didn’t think that they were particularly happy or intimate, but that was what made this sight look so warm to him.
Sunlight passed through the lace curtains to shine through the glasses of barley tea on the desk, casting clear shadows that rocked and swayed. A married couple, how nice, Ushio thought. He gave a fond smile before returning to the living room.
Ushio looked down at the sleeping face, so peaceful that it was almost overboard, and he thought that they were far off from that kind of atmosphere between them. But he also thought that it was fine. And then Ushio folded the seat cushion in half and lay down on it too. The chirping of the cicadas sounded mysteriously close to his ears.
Ushio woke up to the fierce light of the setting sun. The first things that he saw were the legs of the table and chairs in the dining room. From there, Ushio let his gaze wander up. Beyond the kitchen counter, Kei’s mother was there with her back towards him. She was pulling something out from the refrigerator and appeared to be working in the kitchen.
Ushio knew that the person in front of him was a completely different person, but he still felt like calling out to his mother.
—You look sick. Go lay down.
That morning when Ushio had last seen his mother, she was already busy and dressed, and he had really wanted to say those words to her. But he never said them. He had given up because she would never listen to him anyway. The truth was Ushio had given up on his parents first. The things that he understood, the things that he wanted to be understood for—he had already decided that they would never understand him.
Granted, it was that likely that nothing would have changed. But what if his mother had died even if he had said something? Would it have made him suffer even worse? Or would he find a little comfort that he had just said it? He still didn’t know how he would have felt, and it sometimes pained him.
However, as his consciousness became clearer, he felt a stronger sense for the reality around him—the scent of dashi stock and soy sauce, the sound of the knife chopping—and he was relieved. And there was a light throw that had been placed over his body.
“I’m sorry, I completely fell asleep.”
Ushio had waited for a good time to call out so that he wouldn’t startle her, and Kei’s mother turned around.
“Kei’s holed up in his room again, probably reading manga or something. His father is out running errands. I had planned to make sushi hand rolls, but we’re out of the nori that we need.”
There were small plates of various ingredients crowded together on the kitchen counter.
“It looks like a feast.”
“I would never bother making this with just the two of us here. We would never be able to finish it. But now it’s just right.”
The timer on the rice cooker went off. Kei’s mother had said before that she didn’t like others touching her kitchen, and Ushio wondered what he should do. A lot of preparation was needed to make sushi hand rolls, so Ushio decided to ask, “Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Okay, can I ask you to prepare the vinegared rice? I have the bowl, fan, and seasoning placed out already.”
He scooped the cooked rice into the large shallow bowl, drizzled it in the seasoned vinegar, and let the rice sit for a few seconds. Then he used the rice scoop to quickly mix the rice together, spread it out, and cooled it with the fan. As he completed the series of operations, Kei’s mother commented, “You’re used to this,” sounding impressed.
“I’m not doing anything too difficult.”
“Vinegared rice isn’t something that people make every day, so I thought that you would be more nervous about it.”
“I had lived with my grandmother,” Ushio answered as he fanned the rice.
“Oh, so she had instilled it in you.”
Steam rose from the freshly cooked rice infused with seasoned vinegar, releasing a sweet and sharp scent.
“Lately I’ve been thinking that maybe I shouldn’t have been so insistent on learning everything from my grandmother, that maybe it’s necessary sometimes to wait at the table looking forward to her saying, ‘It’s done,’ and eating her food like it’s only natural to have it prepared for me. That maybe my grandmother felt a little lonely that we didn’t have that.”
The feelings that Ushio felt when he prepared meals for Kei—maybe his grandmother had felt the same way for Ushio. The joy that someone he treasured was waiting, that they entrusted him with their wishes and cravings. Ushio had been so busy with his own issues, convinced that he had to become self-sufficient, that it was the best path forward for himself and everyone around him, that he had no time to even question that premise.
“That’s true. It’s the duty of children and grandchildren to let the adults spoil them sometimes. Has your grandmother already passed?”
“No, she’s still very healthy.”
“Then you can start right now. Just call out, ‘Grandma, I’m starving!’”
“It’s hard to say out loud at this age.”
“What are you saying? You’re still young. Besides, Kei is still as spoiled as they come.”
“He takes care of himself properly when he’s on his own. Which reminds me, is pickled scallions with pasta a Kunieda family staple?”
“That’s right. It’s more my own preference than a Kunieda family thing. It’s sort of like rice with pickled vegetables. Like a little side dish.”
Kei’s mother talked while she fried an omelet and cut it into thin strips. Ushio watched as she finished up and broached a different topic.
“Um, the last time when I visited, you had given us chirashizushi to take back. I had promised to return the Tupperware when I visited again, but um, I’ve lost it. I’m very sorry.”
It was very readily acknowledged.
“Should I go out and buy a new one to replace it?”
“Don’t worry about it, I have plenty.”
Ushio breathed a sigh of relief. He had been pretty worried about it out of all the things that he had lost with his house.
“Were you nervous about telling me?”
Kei’s mother gave a wry little smile at the answer. She tended to save her energy when it came to friendliness and social graces, and it was rare to see her smile.
“You’re such an idiot~…”
Not that Ushio knew what it was like, but he thought that the tone was something that a mother would say.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I reverted to how I would speak to my son without thinking.”
“…It’s all right.”
“But that’s quite an overreaction for some cheap Tupperware. Rather cold and distant even.”
“I hear that often.”
This time Ushio gave a wry smile. That was when Kei came into the kitchen.
“Mom, I’m starving.”
“See? Just like that.”
“Oh, I see. You were spot on~”
Ushio wasn’t able to do that. That was why he loved Kei, who could do anything that he couldn’t do. And he thought that it was fine like this.
“What’s that for!?”
“You creep me out…”
“I’m home. It’s quite hot out even in the evening. I’ve bought a yellow watermelon since we haven’t had it in a while.”
The bowl of vinegared rice and lots of different fillings were arranged on the table. There was marinated tuna, salmon roe, crushed natto mixed with pickled vegetables, simmered shiitake mushrooms and dried gourd, strips of ham and cucumbers, and grilled beef seasoned with sauce, salt, and pepper (apparently it paired well with the vinegared rice). The condiments included lots of scallions, shiso leaves, and Japanese ginger.
“You better not drink,” Kei warned Ushio when his father opened a bottle of beer.
“I know. I’m sorry, may I get tea instead? I have to drive later.”
“And you’re going to be shameless and drink, Kei? You’re terrible. Weren’t you driven over here? It’s your turn to drive.”
“No, it’s fine, I like driving.”
“Shouldn’t you think about not spoiling him so much?”
“It’s none of your business!”
“It’s fine,” Ushio said. “If you leave him alone, he’ll come down harder on himself on his own.”
“This sloth who does nothing but eat and sleep all day?”
“Oi, Masae, cut it out.”
“Don’t address me with just my first name. Who did you think you are?”
“And what do you think that you’ve been doing!?”
“For the past 20 some years their arguments have been pretty much the same…” mumbled the husband and father as he calmly rolled the nori for his hand roll.
Maybe Kei had drunk enough and eaten to his heart’s content, because he said that he didn’t want any watermelon and went into the living room to sleep again. Even after they had finished cleaning up after dinner, there was no sign of him waking.
“He can sure sleep like this,” his mother commented.
“He recently had an overnight shoot. I think that he’s been pretty tired.”
“By the way, what work do you do, Tsuzuki-san?”
It seemed that Kei’s father had just thought to ask that question now, and he was hesitant in his voice. Apparently, he didn’t know that Ushio had once appeared on a segment with Announcer Kunieda for the evening news.
“Do you work in the media or the TV industry too?”
“Well, broadly speaking, I suppose so.”
Rather than explaining verbally, Ushio pulled up a video site on his cell phone and played some of his work for them.
“Oh, wow, did you make this yourself?”
“Dear, bring out your laptop. I want to see it on a larger screen.”
“Oh, that’s a good idea.”
Kei’s father brought out his laptop, and the two watched Ushio’s videos with great interest.
“Wow, that’s beautiful.”
“Oh, I want to see that part again just now.”
“Eh? Let’s watch it to the end first.”
Ushio was happy that they showed such positive interest in his work, asking questions like How did you make this? and How did you come up with this idea? He had learned from experience that it was difficult to get older people to understand his profession, even though he received a commission and earned a living from this work in practice.
Ushio hadn’t been bothered when he was told that his work was like playtime, but apparently small thorns had been left in him from the sentiment. He only realized that they had been there as they were pulled out just now. When he was here at this house, his weakness and his pain were like old scales that seemed to peel and fall off.
“Tsuzuki-kun, how about you take a bath?”
“I can take one when I get back, thank you.”
“Hmm, I doubt that Kei will wake up though?”
“That’s right. If you leave now, you’ll just be stuck in traffic. It’ll just make you more tired. Why don’t you stay over and leave early tomorrow morning?”
Tomorrow was a Sunday, and he was pretty sure that Kei had no work scheduled.
“Ah… That’s not a bad idea.”
Just as he was about to say, Maybe we’ll take you up on the offer, Kei sluggishly sat up.
“Kei, go sleep upstairs.”
“No, I’m going home,” he said with a loud yawn. His eyes weren’t completely open yet.
“Just stay over for the night.”
“No. I want to spend my time relaxing at home.”
“More than you do here? Well, fine. Anyway, sorry about that, Tsuzuki-kun, can you lug this thing back with you?”
“Oi, watch what you’re saying.”
Kei’s parents walked with them to the nearby parking lot where they had parked the car.
Kei’s mother held out a paper bag to him before they got into the car.
“It’s chicken rice balls from the extra vinegared rice, and I packed the leftover watermelon that we couldn’t finish. It’s all wrapped with an ice pack inside.”
Kei accepted it with a grunt, so Ushio rushed to say “Thank you very much.”
He added, “This time I promise not to lose it.”
“I said that it’s fine, I have a lot. Oh, right, you left your house keys. You should be more careful.”
“Crap, I’m sorry.”
“You sure have a lot of keys here. Do you have so many different residences?”
“Uh, well, there’s a reason for it.”
The moment Ushio accepted the keys in his hand, she proudly declared, “Just kidding~” for some reason.
“Those are Kei’s,” she explained.
Ushio searched through his bag and saw that his keys were still there. Neither of them had a key chain on their keys since the keys were already heavy enough, and it wouldn’t be a problem if they were to swap them either.
“Oh my, what very similar keys you two have. I can’t even tell them apart? Or maybe they’re the same set? My, oh my.”
“Dear, I told you to just let them be…”
“Don’t set up such stupid traps!!” Kei turned red in an instant and snatched the keys back. He flared up at Ushio too and yelled, “You, don’t fall for it!”
“Uh, but you were the one who left it.”
“It makes me want to investigate because you keep hiding it. You should have just told us from the start, you’re such an idiot~” Her voice was the same one that she had used with Ushio.
“Okay, bye, take care,” she said, waving her hand. “…Oh, the show is about to start. Dear, let’s hurry.”
“Oh, okay, be careful on the road, you two. We’ll see you again next time. Good night.”
Although they had come to see them off, there was a sense of this distance where they didn’t stay to watch them drive off.
“I’m not coming back!” Kei snapped rudely as he got into the car and fastened his seat belt.
“It was a short stay, but it felt like a perfect trip.”
“What about it was perfect?”
“For now, can I kiss you?”
“Earlier you said that you wanted to relax at home. That made me really, really happy.”
Here and there, they were both homes to Kei. There was no way to compare the two, but Ushio felt like Kei had said that he loved their own home the best. That he could beat out the 22 years that Kei had lived at this home, it was incredible.
“Are you an idiot…?”
“Why are you laughing?”
“I was just thinking that this ‘idiot’ fits much better.”
But Ushio liked the ‘idiot’ of a mother’s too.
In the corner of the parking lot, he took Kei’s lips for himself. With this, he was fueled up again, and he could drive back to Tokyo. There was also food packed for them, and there was fresh coffee in their stainless steel bottles. They were ready to depart.
The code phrase was of course: A trip lasts until the moment you return home.
—–Translated by daydrop. Please read on the original site at daydrop.nowaki.net.
- Legends of Gold (Ougon Densetsu) was a Japanese variety show, and Gal Sone is a competitive eater that used to appear on it.
- Ebi ebi yaki is like takoyaki but with shrimp. It’s a very popular item at the Ebina Service Area.
- Mama Kunieda is essentially telling them to get married.