Chapter 5: Yes, No, or Maybe Half? (5)
“Hey, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedules to have dinner together.” Shitara smiled, apparently in a good mood. “I’m glad you both could make it.”
“Not a problem.”
“Thank you again for the invitation.” Kei smiled modestly and held a champagne glass up to his lips.
Sitting at a round table at perfect 120° angles from one another were Kei, Shitara, and for some reason, Tsuzuki. So this was his work-related thing.
Kei understood that it was unavoidable to keep meeting Tsuzuki as “Kunieda Kei,” but this surprise appearance made his anger from last week flare up all over again.
Dammit, I just want to punch you in the nose.
Tsuzuki stiffly pulled at his collar, adjusting the necktie, unaware of Kei’s thoughts. He said, “I’m glad I asked for the name of the restaurant beforehand. I probably wouldn’t have gotten in if I showed up in my regular clothes. What’s with the fancy place, Shitara-san? Now that you’re a big shot back at the headquarters, your tastes have changed?”
“It’s nothing like that.” Shitara smiled wryly, dressed in a normal suit like he had promised. “It’s been a while since I’ve been back in Tokyo, so when I asked one of the secretaries to recommend a restaurant, I said that Kunieda-kun would be joining me. They got a little excited about finding a restaurant.”
As a result, here they were at a private and exclusive French restaurant.
“I told her that a table barbecue place would be fine, but she scolded me for trying to take the network’s Prince to somewhere so unsophisticated.”
“I would have been fine with anything…”
Delicate bubbles from the champagne popped inside of his mouth, but what Kei really wanted, even in the middle of winter, was a tall glass of beer.
Shitara asked, “Tsuzuki-kun, how are things going?”
“Not bad. Do you want to come over and see the progress? You’re the producer after all.”
“I want to see the final cut in its full glory. Anyway, I have a pretty good idea of the progress from the clips from the evening news team.”
“Then I’m holding you to that, and I won’t accept any claims after I submit the final package.”
“No worries. I’m a big fan of yours after all. Plus, I have full creative reign over the project. No one can overturn my decisions.”
Kei could tell that there was a serious trust in Tsuzuki’s talents from Shitara’s words and a friendly affection from Tsuzuki in his playful tone. They must have enjoyed their work on their last job together.
What was with this warm and fuzzy atmosphere? If they were going to be like this, they should have eaten together just the two of them; they didn’t need Kei here.
With this cheap-talking old guy as the producer, you do know that there’s the possibility that the network will wipe the slate clean by the fall and overhaul the show again to erase whatever flop comes his way? Then all of your hard work on your animation would go straight into the trash. …Well, it’s not like it concerns me anyway. He can work with whomever he wants, and it doesn’t matter to me what happens to his work.
“Kunieda-kun, would you like another drink?”
“Oh? Um, yes, please…” Kei realized that he had emptied his champagne glass, despite not caring for it very much.
“It’s surprising how well you drink.”
“Please excuse me. I was a little thirsty. …Could I get a glass of white wine? I’ll leave it to the sommelier to make the selection for me.”
Kei repeated to himself, Stay calm. Stay calm, as he nodded along to the conversation.
Just as the soup arrived, Tsuzuki abruptly changed the conversation, saying, “Kunieda-san.”
“How did you decide to become an announcer?”
“That’s quite a sudden question.”
“Sorry, I wanted to ask you before, but we don’t really have to the time to sit and talk when we’re filming.”
“Oh, there’s a story to it,” Shitara said, chiming in. “Kunieda-kun had quite an unexpected offer.”
Kei said, “…It appears you’re well acquainted with the story.”
“Well it’s a famous story. I’m pretty sure everyone at the network knows it.”
No one needs to know that.
Tsuzuki prompted, “…An unexpected offer?” There was a faint heat in his gaze that was clearly not out pure curiosity. Kei was used to these kinds of looks, but for some reason, he felt unsettled by it and had to look away.
Kei explained, “I had originally applied for a general staff position at the network. I didn’t have any special reason for applying, it was merely one of the many companies that were hiring. I was extremely surprised when the network president asked me at my final interview if I wanted a job as an announcer.”
There was no mention of any announcer department positions during the initial application screening or through the interview process. That was why at first Kei had thought that it was one last question designed to test his ability to handle unexpected situations.
“So he was serious about it,” Tsuzuki said.
“Yes, quite so.”
“He probably saw that you had talent.”
“I’m not sure about that.” Kei frowned. “He said that all of the applicants for announcers that year didn’t click with him. So when I asked why he was interested in me, he said that I had very distinct nasal consonants.”
“What are nasal consonants?”
“Without going into a lengthy explanation, it’s the pronunciation of the ‘g’ syllables in such a way that air exits through the nose,” Shitara explained. “An exaggerated version would be like the nga sound. It’s not my profession, so I can’t really make the sounds very distinct, but words that start with ‘g’ syllables are pronounced with regular voiced consonants. Examples would be like gakkou1 and ginkou2. But words like kogoto3 and rakugan4 use nasal consonants. There are more subtle distinctions than what I’ve explained, but I won’t get into it.”
Tsuzuki puzzled over the explanation like he didn’t understand it. “Is there a reason that it’s important?”
Shitara said, “Well, a voice that hasn’t mastered nasal consonants will sound rougher and unrefined. You should try listening to people who’ve learned it and to those who haven’t. It’s a surprisingly big difference. Although a lot of the announcers nowadays just barrel through their words… Kunieda-kun, did you happen to learn it somewhere?
“No, I was never aware of any difference in my pronunciations. That was the first time I had ever heard of nasal consonants and what they were.”
“I see, so the president had found a diamond in the rough in you.”
Kei said demurely, “I’m not so sure…”
Shitara suddenly noticed his phone vibrating. “Oh, sorry, I need to take this call. Please continue without me.”
After Shitara left the table, it was harder for Kei to know where to look.
“Was there a particular reason why you didn’t turn down the offer to become an announcer?” Tsuzuki asked.
Because he had wanted the job hunting process to be done and over with. And they had treated him the nicest out of all the companies that he had applied to. Most of all, he had had the utmost confidence in his abilities to work hard and succeed at anything that would be thrown his way.
“I had thought that it was an interesting challenge to tackle. I was also very honored to have been personally chosen by a professional who had seen hundreds of announcers for the job.”
“I see. I don’t understand a lick of this nasal consonant thing, but I have always thought that your words sounded very gentle to the ear. Now I know that it’s not simply that you have a nice voice, but there is an art and a science to your talent that a layman wouldn’t understand. You are truly amazing.”
“Please, I’m not that—” Kei lifted his head up and saw Tsuzuki smiling at him with his eyes softly crinkling.
Kei loved compliments, and normally he would be floating in the clouds, happily basking in his praise. However, at the moment, he couldn’t finish his sentence. His mind went completely blank, like his thoughts were all consumed as calories for the blush that was currently taking over his face. He had just regretted drinking his champagne so quickly, but now he needed to throw back his entire glass of wine to cover up his embarrassment.
What the hell!? Stop looking at me like your soul’s been stolen! You would never look at ‘Owari’ like that… Wait, that’s not the point. What the hell’s wrong with me? Why can’t I ignore it like all the other times?
“Kunieda-san? Are you alright?”
“…May I also ask why you decided on your current profession?”
Kei needed to take control of the conversation again. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be Kunieda Kei.
“Me? I didn’t have a particular reason either. I didn’t have good grades, and I was always drawing flipbook stories during class. I’d use dictionaries and draw an entire story in the margins. I worked my way here essentially as an extension of what I did while goofing off during school.”
“It’s like you have the heart and creativity of a child.”
“Without any of the progress also.”
“I wouldn’t say that. I very much look forward to seeing the new opening of The News.”
“Thanks.” Tsuzuki smiled again.
Maybe Kei had built up some immunity to his smile because this time he was able to take it in more calmly. He wondered mean-spiritedly what he could do next and asked, “How has your friend been lately?”
“You had mentioned a friend to me once?”
“Oh, right.” Tsuzuki smiled wryly. “He’s…”
He trailed off, then pulled off his necktie as if he could no longer tolerate it, and stuffed it into his pocket. “He’s mad at me,” he finally admitted.
“Is that so?”
“He got really angry all of a sudden. I think I might have triggered one of his landmines.”
“You must have had a hard time.”
“No, I’m alright.”
What the hell? Why aren’t you more bothered by this?
Kei wanted to strangle him with his necktie.
“I called him a friend, but I only know his last name and cell phone number. Whenever I try to learn more about him, he gets mad or he ignores me. He probably doesn’t want to tell me anything. He just wanders in, lazes around my house, and wanders back out, like a stray cat. I don’t know what he thinks at all.”
Tsuzuki looked sad as he talked about “Owari.” Kei was surprised, and then he felt guilty. Tsuzuki was always so casual when he asked his questions, so Kei had thought that he never cared that Kei didn’t answer them properly.
If Tsuzuki didn’t say anything, how else was he supposed to know? Kei wasn’t a monster, otherwise he’d—… But then again, based on who “Owari” was, he had to answer what he could without revealing himself. He had no other choice.
But was it ok? Was it really what he wanted?
“I wonder why,” Tsuzuki whispered as he cut through his fish with a knife, “I had always liked working alone. He didn’t really do much of anything when he was over, but I’d hear him flipping through the pages of his manga, or laughing by himself at the TV, or clicking his tongue at something that annoyed him—it was like background music that I didn’t really pay attention to, but somehow I really liked working to the sound of him just there around the house. It was nice… and comforting to have him there.”
When Kei was finally home, his first thought was …I’m so hungry.
Although the two-hour, full-course meal was enjoyable and by no means inadequate portion-wise, Kei felt like the meal was too fancy for his tastes and his palate was overwhelmingly unsatisfied. Unfortunately, he didn’t have anything to eat at home, and so he changed into his usual uniform to head to the convenience store for some snacks. That was when his private cell phone rang.
Kei had thought that it was his mother calling. He heard Tsuzuki’s voice say, “Oh, I finally got it right,” and he became speechless.
“I called the wrong number three times, but I’d say my memory’s not bad at all. Hey, are you still mad?”
“The hell?” Kei’s shock morphed into anger. Why was he being treated like he was in the wrong here?
“I’m sorry about the other day.”
“I don’t forgive you.”
“I’m really sorry, so that’s why I’m apologizing. You’re the one who taught me that.”
“That really fucking pisses me off.”
“What do you want?”
“Do you want to come over for some yakitori? I bought some from the place I had mentioned before. I was treated to a nice restaurant earlier, but I feel like I’ve barely eaten anything.”
So they were thinking the same thing. Kei paused for a moment and answered, “Okay.”
Shit. Kei only realized after he had arrived what a stupid mistake he had made. He couldn’t eat with his facemask on. He had no choice but to take his plate, grab his portion of the skewers, and turn his back to Tsuzuki.
“Hey, what are you doing? Are you really still mad?”
“I don’t want you watching me eat!”
Kei was about to answer, Because I don’t fucking wanna, but he recalled their conversation at dinner earlier and decided to make up a white lie.
“My teeth are really crooked. Like seriously bad. That’s why I’m wearing a facemask.”
“I thought you wore it to prevent colds.”
“There’s that too. Anyway, don’t think about trying to sneak a peek, even as a joke. I’m sensitive about it.”
It seemed to be a better choice to end on something less harsh than I’ll get angry if you do, and Tsuzuki responded with an unusually quiet “Okay.”
Good, that was solved. They sat back-to-back, and Kei chewed happily on the grilled chicken laden with a thick, heavy sauce. So damn good. Now this was what he wanted to eat. The smoky charred flavor was to die for. The green onion scattered on the chicken was surprisingly sharp, irritating his nose and causing him to sneeze, but he didn’t care and continued devouring his plate.
“What? I’m busy here, don’t interrupt me.”
“About your teeth, why don’t you get them fixed? If it bothers you that much, it’s not too late to get them straightened. Though I hear it hurts a lot.”
“…I don’t need it.”
“Why not? I can lend you some money if you need it. Oh, but I guess you can probably afford it yourself.”
“Huh? Are you a moron? Don’t offer to lend money to someone you barely know.”
Kei grew irritated, his frustration sharpening with each passing moment.
It’s a damn lie. Quit worrying over my stupid nonsense. Idiot.
“You wanted to give me money when you first met me.”
“The situations are completely different. I’m surprised you’ve been able to run your business for so long. You’re an easy mark.”
“I wouldn’t offer to lend money to just anyone,” Tsuzuki countered. “I offered it you because I’d be okay with you, even if you weren’t able to pay me back.”
“I don’t want it.”
“Are you going to live the rest of your life with a mask on then?”
Kei saw red. With his back still turned, he gritted out, “Yeah, I am.” In his anger, he knocked over his few remaining skewers onto the floor. “I’ll wear this damn mask! For the rest of my life! So fucking what? What the hell does it gotta do with you!?”
Kei was the only one that mattered. He was the only one he cared about. He was the only one that he liked. He would hide his true self behind “Kunieda Kei’s” perfect smile, behind a mask, for the rest of his life. But when he tried to imagine this future of his, he became frightened to his core. Who exactly was Kunieda Kei?
Who did you see all this time? Who do you see now?
Kei pulled up his facemask and attempted to escape outside, but Tsuzuki caught him at the front door.
“Don’t touch me. Let me go.”
“Calm down. What came over you all of a sudden?”
“I suddenly wanted to go home. Got a problem with that?”
“I just want to know what’s wrong. Is it really something to get so angry about? Sure, it can be irritating to be asked personal questions, but I don’t understand the angry reaction.”
“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!”
That’s not my fucking name! But I’m not “Kunieda Kei” either.
Everything’s a mess. My hairstyle, my expressions, my mannerisms, my speech—everything about “myself” was bound up and ordered neatly like a calendar, but now I’m unraveling, scattering into pieces. Why? Where did I start falling apart? It all started when I ran into you that night. It’s your fault this is happening to me.
Tsuzuki took Kei’s hands that he had pressed over his ears. Kei saw the flecks of paint that were stuck on Tsuzuki’s nails, making him remember the crowd of soulless people and the lonely alien made out of clay. He couldn’t help the tears that started falling.
“It’s your fault…”
Kei had been satisfied with his life. He was blessed with good looks and a good job. He had been fine as long as he protected the one little secret of his. He had managed to live his life just fine without ever getting his true self involved with other people—without ever confronting his own warped, twisted sense of self. If only he had never met Tsuzuki.
“Ok, I accept that. But I can’t make it right if you don’t tell me what I did wrong or why you felt the way you did.”
Kei couldn’t tell him. It would ruin everything that they had between them.
How would you react if I told you that the Kunieda Kei who you complimented for being so kind and so professional—was actually a fake, two-faced liar with no redeeming qualities? That I was hollower than the paper-mache dolls and sets that you make? I’m sure you’ll hate me and never forgive me.
Kei flattened his lips together behind his facemask and shook his head silently. Tsuzuki tightened his grip on Kei’s hands.
“Is it really so hard to trust me? That you can’t open up to me and share how you really feel? If you really feel that way, then why did you come over to see me so often?”
Tsuzuki’s face crumpled as Kei chose to remain silent. Kei could see the bitterness, frustration, and sadness swirling like a whirlpool of marbled paint.
“I admit that I guilt-tripped you into coming over to help out in the beginning, but you continued to come over even after my arm was healed. Even when I didn’t have any work for you. Didn’t you enjoy coming over? I for one enjoyed having you over.”
Enjoyed it? Not that it was comfortable? …Uh, what was the difference between joy and comfort?
“It was comfortable,” Kei said.
“It was comfortable for me.”
“And now it’s not anymore?”
“No… Now my head’s mixed up with things that I don’t want to think about. And it’s your fault.”
“What kind of things don’t you want to think about?”
“I’m not telling.”
“Because I want to know. I want to understand you better.”
Kei sneaked a look through his ruffled, unkempt bangs into Tsuzuki’s eyes. There was a look that he saw there that had never been shown to “Kunieda-san” or to “Owari” before. It was beautiful. Kei’s head was calm and clear, and he recognized that it was a confusing reaction to have, but then Tsuzuki drew closer, and Kei couldn’t make out much of anything anymore. He felt the non-woven fabric of his facemask pressed up against his lips. To be precise, it was Tsuzuki’s lips on his with the facemask between them. Maybe it was the thin fabric separating them, but Kei became even more aware of the softness and the heat on his lips. He trembled throughout his body at the warmth of the breaths that passed through the fabric to reach him.
That was when Kei felt Tsuzuki’s hand reach behind his ear. He immediately thought, He’s going to take my mask off, and hit Tsuzuki across his face with as much strength as he could muster.
Tsuzuki stumbled back with a grunt.
“What the fuck are you doing!? You gross me out, you fucking pervert!” Kei yelled.
Then before Tsuzuki could recover from the slap, Kei ran out of the door the fastest that he had ever run in his life. His heart was swelling in his throat. His heart hurt. It was so painful. He wanted it to hurt more. Then maybe he wouldn’t have to think about anything.