10. The Second Night

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.”

“Me, too.”

“Thank you.”

“So, do you often bring students here?”

“Often? No.”

“That’s a shame.”

“But I try to do this weekend camp every autumn.”

“I wish you had brought us here earlier.”

“Oh?”

“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?”

“Job-hunting.”[1]

“Oh?”

“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 . . .”

“Just right.”

“Ah, Goldilocks.”

“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[2] 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.[3] 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?”

“Tōkyō.”

“Tōkyō?”

“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,[4] 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[5] 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.

“Yeah?”

“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.

Sensei?”

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 . . .

Sensei?”

“Yeah?”

“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.


 

[1] Much of the fourth year of a college student’s life in Japan is occupied with job-hunting. In 2015, there was an effort to shorten the job-hunting season by having it start in the spring, or the first semester of the last year of college, and finish by late summer, but many companies had difficulty making hiring decisions in a timely manner. In 2016, the government relented and permitted companies to start the multi-stage hiring process a few months earlier.

              In 2014, the old system was still in place, whereby third year students like Kana would begin investigating companies near the end of the second (autumn) semester, have interviews the following spring, in the first semester of their fourth and final year, and receive job offers as early as July or as late as autumn.

[2] Sempai (先輩) is an upperclassman or someone senior in age who acts as a mentor. This mentor system can be seen in all levels of education, sports, business, and other organizations. Even children in kindergarten use the term sempai when referring to children older or cleverer than themselves.

[3] Karōshi (過労死, literally, “excess”, ka + “labor”, + “death”, shi) is death caused by overwork or job-related exhaustion.

[4] Kura (倉or蔵) is a traditional Japanese storehouse usually built with a wooden frame and thick fire-proof walls made of bamboo lathing and clay.

[5] A sentō is a public bath, typically located in an older residential area. A supā-sentō or “super sentō” is a much larger facility offering a variety of spas, baths, Jacuzzis, saunas, and so on. Where the smaller sentō are something of a dying breed, the supā-sentō have been growing in popularity.


The first installment/chapter of Tears can be found here.

This and other works are, or will be, available in e-book form and paperback at Amazon.

8. Caught in the Rain

We made our first trip to Kitsuki, Ōita a week later.

You may not have known it at the time, but my stomach was in knots waiting for you to arrive at the station.

I knew from past experience that half of the students in the seminar were not going to show up. Instead, they—the ones with a conscience, that is—would mail me to say they had a fever or had caught a cold. A cold in May? The more creative students would kill off a distant relative, uncles being the most popular to dispose of when groping for an alibi.

But you came, a few minutes early at that, carrying a furoshiki[1] full of homemade muffins and bread in your hands. You were the first person who had ever gone to the trouble to prepare something to share with the others on the journey.

“Sawajiri-kun, I think you may have just earned yourself an A in my seminar.”

“Oh, these aren’t for you, Sensei.”

“Wh-wh-what?”

“Just kidding!” And with a devilishly playful smile you added: “You can have as many as you like . . . Sensei.”

We waited until we could wait no longer, and with only half of the seminar assembled made our way toward the platform where our train was preparing to depart. On board, you sat with one of the other co-eds, and I remember wishing you had sat down next to me, but it was just as well because I could see you and every now and again during the long trip, I would look up from my notebook computer and watch you smile or laugh as you talked to your classmates. And every now and again, our eyes would meet. Rather than look away embarrassed, though, you would maintain that eye contact, then smile, and every time I could have just died.

 

Two months later in early July, we returned to Kitsuki to present the results of our study and offer suggestions on how the town might better preserve and promote its heritage.

Typical for the rainy season, it had been unbearably hot and muggy all day. And as we were walking up a cobbled slope between century old samurai houses, lightning flashed, followed immediately by a deafening peal of thunder. The heavens unloaded its burden, sending all of us scrambling for cover. Soaked to the skin, the two of us huddled under the thatched eaves of a home. There, you pulled a terry cloth hand towel from your bag and offered it to me. I took the towel from your hand and began to gently wipe your brow, your ears, your cheek, your chin, your long neck. You turned your face towards mine, raised your chin, and ever so slightly parted your lips . . .

Just then, an official from the city came scurrying through the torrential rain towards us.

Sensei! Sensei!” he said, handing us two convenience store umbrellas. “Please, use these!”

“How thoughtful of you,” I replied. But, in my mind, I was cursing the man: Thanks for nothing, you knucklehead!

 

Later, on the train back to Fukuoka, you chose the seat next to mine and, like many of the others in our group, quickly nodded off once the train had departed. Before long, your body was leaning against mine, our arms touching, your head resting against my shoulder. My heart beat like a hummingbird’s keeping me wide awake and aroused all the way back to Hakata.

 

[1] A furoshiki (風呂敷) is a Japanese wrapping cloth used to transport gifts, bentō boxes, and so on. Furoshiki were first used in the Nara period (710-794) at public bathhouses to wrap one’s clothes to prevent them from being confused with those of other bathers, hence the name furo-shiki (Lit. “bath” (furo 風呂 + “cover or spread” shiki 敷).


The first installment/chapter of Tears can be found here.

This and other works are, or will be, available in e-book form and paperback at Amazon.

7. Keeping the Embers Hot

I don’t know whether you were doing it consciously or not, for my benefit or for someone else, but over the next few months there were things you did that would keep the spark glowing.

Whenever it seemed as if my interest was waning, you would change something about your appearance. That shoulder-length dark brown hair of yours, for instance. It had grown quite a bit over the months since we first met, and now that it was long enough, you would arrange it in a variety of ways. One day you would wear it in a ponytail; another day you would come in with your hair down, and yet another day you would wear it in braids. You would color your hair from time to time, too, something I said I wished I could do myself, but with that increasingly limited resource on top of my own head, I didn’t dare. You would go from dark brown to light. From light brown to jet-black with a lock of it dyed burgundy.

And one day, you came with your hair done up in an elaborate bun. I never liked women wearing their hair in buns until I saw you wear yours that way. It revealed a neck, so long and slim that when you stood next to me after class, your head tilted slightly with your neck curved towards me, it was all I could do to not sink my teeth into it.

And then there was the way you dressed. I’ve always had a thing for fashionable women—not the types who follow all the silly crazes, mind you, but the ones, like you, who had their own sense of fashion. When we first met, you were wearing those maroon Doc Martens laced up high and tight. You would wear them every now and again with a denim mini skirt and black tights or with tight-fitting jeans rolled up at the ankles, accentuating those long slim legs of yours. Some days you would wear a casual dress, another day, a nice skirt and blouse. So many different styles, from punk rocker to o-jō-sama[1] to studious co-ed complete with glasses. Anticipating what you would be wearing and how you would have done your hair became one of my simple pleasures.

And then one day in early May, we were having one of those perfect spring afternoons. The sun was shining and it was hot but not oppressively so. You came into my office wearing a loose fitting white cotton blouse with an open neck. You wanted to show me some information you had found about Kitsuki online and as you were leaning over me at my desk, I couldn’t help but look down the opening of your shirt—we men are wired that way—and I was surprised, happily so, to discover that in spite of your otherwise willowy figure, you were endowed with full, milk-white breasts.

“I was thinking . . .,” you began, “and, well, I haven’t been there yet, so I don’t really know what it’s like, but . . .”

And I was looking down your blouse at your breasts and my heart started to beat faster. My breathing became strained.

“. . . that a fun slogan for Kitsuki would be ‘kitto suki’.[2] You know, like, ‘If you visit Kitsuki, you will surely like it.’ Get it? Kitsuki, kitto suki. Don’t you think that’s cute? When I first heard the town’s name, I was reminded of Nestlé Kit Kats[3] . . .”

Mesmerized by your breasts, I mouthed a dry: “I like it . . . I do . . . I do . . .”

Appetite piqued, that night I gorged myself at home, so to speak.

“You certainly are energetic today,” my wife commented after I rolled off of her.

“Am I?” I panted.

 

[1] An o-jō-sama (お嬢様) usually refers a young woman from a good, often wealthy family. There is also a fashion look related to the term that is refined yet coquettish.

[2]Kitto suki”, (きっと好き), which means “surely like”, is indeed Kitsuki’s marketing catchphrase today. I jokingly call it “Kitsui-ki” (きつい気, lit. “tough/hard+heart/spirit”) because the journey to the remote town can be exhausting.

[3] Nestlé Japan markets its Kit Kat candy bars at exam time with the catchphrase “Kitto katsu!” (きっと勝つ! Lit. [You will] surely win!), suggesting that if you eat a Kit Kat while you’re studying for your entrance exam you will pass. God damn, marketers!