When I woke the following morning, I found you in the kitchen brewing a pot of coffee.
“How did you sleep?” I asked.
“Like a baby. Thank you for . . .”
“Don’t mention it.”
“It’s really nice here,” you said, placing a hot mug of coffee before me. “Do you like it with sugar and milk?”
“With milk and sugar is exactly how I like it.”
“So, do you often bring students here?”
“That’s a shame.”
“But I try to do this weekend camp every autumn.”
“I wish you had brought us here earlier.”
“It’s so peaceful in the morning.”
“It is,” I said, taking a sip of the coffee. Hmm, not bad.
“A place like this, you can really forget your troubles.”
“Troubles? You’ve got troubles?”
“Who doesn’t in this day and age?”
“True. So, what’s eating you the most?”
“The company I was hoping to work for never called me back for a final interview . . .”
“Sorry to hear . . .”
“It’s okay. I had offers at two other companies and now I can’t decide which one to take.”
“Perhaps I can help.”
“Okay, Sensei. What would you do then if you were offered a job with a smaller design-related company here in Hakata or a major general construction company in Tōkyō?”
“I guess it would depend on the nature of the work, the possibilities for the future, the people I was going to work with . . .”
“Exactly, but . . .”
“But what? What’s holding you back from either?”
“Well, one is too big and the other is too small.”
“And the company you were hoping to work at was . . .”
“Excuse me? Gorudy-what?”
“Goldilocks.” And so, I related to you the fairy tale of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”.
“Just right,” you said again with a sigh.
“What are the drawbacks, then, of either company?”
“The size of the local company is a real turnoff. I have sempai working for smaller companies and they never seem to have any time off. They like what they do, of course, but they normally don’t finish work until ten, eleven at night. My father died from karōshi. The last thing I want to do is work myself to death, too. I want to have a life outside of my job; you know, that work-life balance people are talking about.”
“I hear you. And the larger company?”
“The work would probably be less interesting, but the benefits would be better. The chances for promotion and travel are better, too. And, if I didn’t like it, I could always quit and work for a smaller company. It’s more difficult the other way around.”
“True. So, what’s stopping you?”
“I’d have to live in Tōkyō.”
“Tōkyō’s fun! Why wouldn’t you want to live there?”
“I’ve lived my whole life here in Fukuoka. This is all I know. I mean, what would you do?”
I put my coffee mug down. “You’re asking someone who left his hometown to move almost halfway around the world and never once looked back. Tōkyō’s only an hour and a half away by plane. It’s not like you’d be living on the moon.”
And with that, the others, still muddled from last night’s binge, started to drag themselves out of the bedrooms into the kitchen.
After breakfast, we spent the morning doing odd repairs, such as repapering the shōji doors, chopping wood—something which none of you had ever done before—and cleaning out the kura storehouse, which I was going to convert into a shosai, or private library. Later in the day, a sakan shokunin, or a plaster craftsman, came in to begin work on the kura. He showed us how to scrape the top layer of plaster down to the shitanuri, or inner layer of clay, first with gennō hammers and then with a scraping bar.
By the time we had finished three hours later, we were all covered in two hundred-year-old dust and straw. Squeezing into back of the plasterer’s minivan, we drove to a nearby supā-sentō bathhouse to clean up and have dinner. Then, it was back to the old farmhouse to finish off the bottles of imo jōchū and nihonshu we had opened the night before.
Like the previous night, you and I were the last two up. And, once again, you came to where I was sitting on the engawa and asked me if I would read to you. I could tell, though, a bedtime story that was not really what you wanted from me.
As I read, you rolled over toward me and rested your head on my thigh, facing upward. I put the book down and slowly, timidly placed my arm across your chest, my hand on your shoulder.
I remember feeling unsure of myself, eager and yet terrified of what might happen.
“Last July . . .” you began.
“Last July, when we went to Kitsuki and got caught in the rain and took shelter under the eaves of that old samurai house . . .” And, pausing, you took my hand and placed in on your breast. “I wanted you to kiss me.”
I could feel that you were not wearing a bra; your breast was firm, the nipple hard under my ring finger.
I tried to speak, but my throat was too dry. The words tumbled out: “I, um, wanted to, but that . . . that damn official. What timing! If only . . .”
And you held my hand tightly against your breast and raised your chin as if to invite me to finish my words with action. I leant down to kiss you, but as I did the image of my wife crying and my sons’ faces twisted in pain flashed for a second through my mind, and I hesitated.
My hand relaxed.
“What’s the matter, Sensei?”
“Everything,” I sighed.
“But . . . I love you.”
But so does my wife, so do my children . . .
I removed my hand, reluctantly I should confess, from your breast, and straightened up.
“I can’t . . . As much as I want to . . . I can’t . . . I shouldn’t.”
“Don’t you like me?”
“I do. More than you know it, I do. I have liked you and wanted you ever since you first came to my office last year.”
“Then why stop now?”
“You must believe me when I tell you that stopping is the hardest thing for me to do.”
And then I lied. I told you I hesitated for your sake when in fact it was fear that was holding me back. Mind you, not the fear that my wife would find out. Rather, the fear that the full force of karma would come crashing down on me and rob me of everything—my content, my happiness, my success, my family . . .
“Are you a man of your word?”
“I like to think that I am.”
“Then promise me one thing.”
“Promise you what?”
“I’m probably going to take that job in Tōkyō, after all, meaning that come late March, I will have to move away from here. I may return every now and again for the holidays, but . . .” Your words trailing off, you pushed yourself up off of the floor, then knelt before me. “If we ever happen to meet, say, in Tōkyō, or here, or even in Kanazawa . . . What I mean to say is, if fate deems it right for us to be together, kiss me then. Promise me that.”
What did I have to lose?
“I promise,” I said.
And with that, you stood up, and, never once looking back towards me to give me a second chance I would have surely taken, disappeared into your room. The sound of the fusuma closing behind you resonated like regret.