20 • DON’T GET Comfortable
“Irasshaimase!” I yelled with false enthusiasm as a pair of regulars sat down at the bar.
The standard customer greeting sounded even more insincere coming from my mouth, but the Japanese patrons got a kick out of it all the same. So, I went on mechanically reciting the salutation in a voice that would make my Jesus-freak stepfather proud. The truth was I didn’t dislike working at Master’s izakaya. My personality just wasn’t well suited to customer service. It was the reason I had repeatedly turned down promotions at the bookstore. The bookstore…
By now, my boss was probably convinced that I wasn’t coming back. I hadn’t even thought about it. I had told him that I’d be gone for a couple of weeks and it had already been nearly three months. There was no going back now. I wondered why it bothered me. I had despised everything about that place, the tedious customers; the sterile easy-listening music; the neurotic employees; even the smell, a foul mixture of bad perfume, fresh print, urinal cakes, and overpriced Ecuadorian coffee. By comparison, the smell of Kameya, a combination of cigarette smoke, fresh fish, bad breath, and hot oil, was like a trip to a botanical garden. I knew it was 90% psychosomatic, but I relished the realness of it. Everything about the bookstore was a lie, including me.
I set two drinks down in front of the newcomers, a mug of Kirin lager and a glass of shōchū on the rocks. They smiled in thanks and quickly returned to their conversation. Most of the regulars had grown accustomed to my serving them over the last month. I was grateful to Master for letting me stay with him and work in the pub. I was broke and not legally permitted to work in Japan, but Master wasn’t exactly a stickler for rules. My tourist visa was going to expire soon. Master would be guilty of employing a foreigner and housing an illegal alien. The thought of it made me smile, especially after how he had stuck up for me when I was arrested by the Sayō police. I spent a few nights in the holding cell, but Master came with a bottle of nihonshu in hand and negotiated my release as soon as he had heard. “I love country cops,” he had said with a wicked little smirk.
Master came in through the back sliding door with a styrofoam cooler in his hands and dropped it loudly on the concrete kitchen floor. He went to work immediately, slicing thin strips of fresh octopus.
“Are ya ready t’ tell me what happened with Tresa yet?”
I gave a long sigh. “I guess so. I mean, I’ve made enough money now to get home. So, I’ll probably be leaving soon.”
“I know. I’ve been slippin’ a little extra in with yer weekly wages t’ get ya there faster,” he said with a half-smile on his lips and his eyes fixed on his knife.
“Thanks, but you didn’t have to do that.”
“You owe me. And ya know money don’t mean shit out here.” This time, he spoke through a big grin, teeth bared.
“Yeah, I know how you like your juicy stories.”
I explained the events that led to Tresa’s departure, including all of the tender details. As Master listened, he replied with monosyllabic acknowledgements and switched from slicing octopus to carving up a large sea bream.
“’Hmmm?’ What’s that? That’s all you have to say?” I asked, having expected a bit of Master’s famous wisdom.
“Tresa was right?”
“About everything. You are missing something and you already know who has it. She’s the reason you came back, even if you're too dim to see it.” He had seamlessly shifted into his even toned intellectual dialect.
「Always the last to know.」
“Maybe she does have something that belongs to me, but it’s not something she took, it’s something I gave to her. I need to find and confront my father.” I could almost hear the disbelief in my own words.
“There it is again.”
He gave his signature little snicker and took a plate of sashimi out to one of the tables. That night, I thought about what I had said to Master. Both Kaori and my father possessed something that belonged to me, one I had given and the other had been taken. What was the difference? Did the circumstances of their loss matter? Or for that matter, did the circumstances of their retrieval matter? The order in which you retrieve these pieces is very important. The balance is delicate. Specifically, the heart must be last. “Why?” I wondered. I hardly slept.
The next morning, I made the rounds with Master, driving to Tottori for fresh seafood, Himeji for cheap bulk supplies, and back home to get ready for a busy Saturday night at the pub. I had even taken up smoking again, despite my own warnings. I was becoming Master version 2.0. There were worse things. I respected Master. If I became him, maybe I would learn to respect myself. Later on that evening, without any warning, Joe dropped by the shop with the bundle of journals and letters I had gotten from Gōda-sensei.
“Hey. I didn’t know you were coming by. How did you even know I’d be here?” I asked in surprise.
“This is the address you gave me.”
“Yeah, but I figured you’d just send the translations in the mail or something. I mean, the last time I saw you I was on my way to Okinawa. Long way to come on a hunch.”
“Tresa called me and asked me to help her book a flight home and get her to the airport from Kōbe. I gave her my card when you introduced us last month, remember? Anyway, she told me you were staying here, so I thought I’d drop these off personally. I take it you guys had some kind of falling out.”
“Yeah, things didn’t end so well,” I replied in a heavy voice, trailing off at the end of my sentence. I physically shook off the memory and took him by the shoulder. “Here, sit down. Drink?”
I poured him a beer and sat down at the bar next to him, lighting up a cigarette. “Drink up. It’s on me.”
“I thought you quit years ago,” he prodded, eyeing the Marlboro between my fingers.
“Yeah, I did.”
“Hey, I’m not here to judge.”
“Speaking of that, and don’t think I’m not happy to see you, but why did you come all this way to drop off the translations in person?”
“Yeah, that…look, I’m violating content confidentiality by bringing this up with you at all, but you’re an old friend and I figure you’re not gonna sue me. These letters and journals have some seriously heavy stuff in them. I don’t know where you got these or what you plan to do with them, but there are a lot of people who would pay a fortune to get their hands on documents like these, first-hand accounts of war crimes and details about the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. Not to mention the legal implications. These accounts might be used to vindicate or implicate soldiers. Most of them are probably dead by now, but the truth matters, man. These could potentially correct history. It’s important.”
“They were given to me in confidence by the men who wrote them. I don’t think it would be right for me to sell them off, either for money or for principle. As far as how I plan to use them…I don’t really know. I haven’t read them yet. The man who gave them to me thought they might help me on my…journey.”
“Journey? What journey? For that matter, why did you come back to Japan? I mean really…why? I don’t buy your ‘I’m just here to show my new lady-friend around’ bullshit.”
“I don’t think I could explain it to you even if I knew the answer to that. I guess you could say I’m looking for something that I lost.”
“Well, I hope these help you. It’s a shame that you won’t share them, but I get it. You don’t want to betray your friends. Believe me…I understand…” his eyes turned down and his voice went weak with the words. “Do me a favor though, just think about it. Okay?”
“I will. How much do I owe you for these?”
“A place to crash for the night and as many beers as it takes for me to pass out.”
“Done and done.” I replied, laughing. “Thanks man. You can’t even imagine how much that helps me right now. I was totally fucking broke before Master took me in again. I’ve been working here for the past month and I can finally afford a flight home.”
“So you’re going back then?”
“And how is Master anyway, that dirty old man?” he asked loudly in Japanese so Master could hear.
Master leaned out from behind the beer taps and replied, “a little older and a lot dirtier.” The three of us shared a laugh as the clock wound back eight years. “Ya hungry Joe?” Master asked, saving us from settling into an awkward silence.
Master went to work behind the counter, his hands moving almost completely independent of his attention, cutting, skewering, grilling, flipping. His movements were rehearsed and executed with great efficiency, but he lacked the grace of a true cuisinier. He wasn’t so much an artist as he was a craftsman. He didn’t possess the instincts necessary for great culinary versatility or the ambition to create a signature dish. Master had developed his cooking skills out of necessity, through trial and error. He had a very small repertoire, but he had taken the time to perfect his menu. Every variable was accounted for and every process had been analyzed and refined for maximum consistency. Joe and I watched in silence, mouths watering. He arranged the small skewers of various meats on a plate and put on the final touches, lightly brushing sauce on a select few and adding a dollop of spicy mustard to the plate. He finished off the plate with a garnish of big green leaves from a shiso plant.
He leaned over the counter to set the plate down in front of us when he suddenly froze with his eyes toward the door. We turned around to see a small group of men wearing dark suits filing into the bar. The man in front wore a pair of Oakley sunglasses and sinister-looking smile just below. He gave his head a slight turn to the left and the three men behind him sat down at a table to the left of the door with stone faces. His movement was almost imperceptible like the quick jerks of a snake preparing for an attack. He turned his attention back to the bar with another indistinguishable flick of the neck and the air in the bar went cold. Everyone became aware of the tension that was slowly filling the room. He seemed to announce himself without a single word and all eyes were on him.
Master took off his apron and came out from behind the bar to face the man in the sunglasses. He spoke in a low voice, but everyone in the bar had gone silent and we could hear his words. “Please forgive me for saying so, but I think you must be lost, kind sir. If you would please join me outside for a brief moment, I’m sure I could help you find your way.”
I had never heard Master use such formal language before. It scared me, especially because I knew who they were. I could tell from the cut of their suits, the way they moved, the tattoos peeking out from underneath their collars, and the primal way in which they communicated. The only question was, how did they find me? I looked over at Joe who was very obviously averting his eyes from the scene.
“Joe? Do you know something about this?” I asked in a stern whisper of English.
He turned his eyes down toward the floor and said nothing.
“Joe. What is this? What did you do?” my whispers turned into a low growl of a voice as the betrayal became clear. Master and the man in the sunglasses continued their own exchange in hushed tones behind us. “Joe.”
“I’m sorry man. They threatened to bankrupt Yuka’s family. You know how hard it is to run a family-owned shop in Kōbe, especially these days. I had no choice. I swear. If they had threatened only me, I would’ve told them to go fuck themselves, but I couldn’t let them go after her. I’m really sorry,” his explanation blasted out of him like water from a fire hose. His words sounded rehearsed. He had probably spent the entire two and a half hour train ride from Kōbe thinking about what he would say to me. Still, he stumbled over his words and rushed through the syllables in a panic having been confronted with the real situation.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” I huffed, dropping my head into my hands and rubbing my temples.
“What? If you’re not here for me, then who…” Master shouted in surprise and then cut himself off as the answer hit him mid-question. He turned back and looked at me. I looked up from behind my hands and our eyes met in an intense exchange. If they didn’t do it for him, Master was going to kill me.
“You?” the man in the sunglasses spoke slowly and coolly. “Why should we be interested in you? Have you had dealings with our family in the past?” His question was accompanied by another almost undetectable movement. He flicked his finger every so slightly in Master’s direction. One of the men at the table behind him stood up with a smartphone in hand and snapped a picture of Master. He immediately sat back down and started tapping and swiping the screen.
“What do you want with Matto?” Master asked, ignoring the actions of the man with the smartphone.
“I’m afraid that’s between Mr. Fokkusu and myself. Now, if you don’t mind…” he said, gently pushing Master out of his path and walking toward the counter. Joe got up and moved a few seats down just as he sat down next to me and took off his sunglasses, folding them carefully and sliding them into his jacket pocket. “My name is Terawaki. I’m sure I don’t have to explain to you why I’m here.”
I shook my head.
“Good. There’s someone who would like very much to speak with you. So, if you’ll kindly accompany me to Kōbe, maybe we can come to some agreement and put this all behind us.”
I stood up without a word and nodded my consent. He put his hand on my shoulder and led me to the door. We stopped just in front of the door as the man with the smartphone stood up and showed the screen to Terawaki. I could see the Japanese message displayed on the screen next to a young picture of Master with a different name written underneath. The sinister smile returned to Terawaki’s face.
“Well,” he turned around and looked at Master again. “It seems someone is looking for you. We’ll be sure to let them know where to find you, Ishii-san.”
At hearing Master addressed by an unfamiliar name, everyone in the bar turned their eyes to him with puzzled looks on their faces. Master was breathing heavily and staring fiercely at Terawaki. Terawaki gave a little laugh through his nose and winked at Master. He pushed on my shoulder, signaling that it was time to leave. I turned and took one last look at Joe and Master and Kameya. My past was catching up to me and threatening to hurt those I cared about. My old mistakes and willing misdeeds were were infecting my present like an epidemic, sweeping through the people around me in an uncontrolled pattern.
Joe had gotten dragged into it all, receiving threats against his fiancé and her family and being forced to betray a friend. I had exposed Master. It was clear now that at least some of the rumors about his past were true. He had been hiding in Sayō all along as Morihiro Harada, humble bar owner. It didn’t change a thing. He was my friend and I had to do anything I could to protect him. He had always done the same for me.
I pushed all my weight against Terawaki’s hand with my shoulder to signal my resistance and spoke with my eyes fixed on the door, “I’m not going anywhere until you promise to leave my friends alone.” My Japanese was intentionally crude and disrespectful.
“Asking you to accompany me to Kōbe was merely a courtesy. You don’t actually have a choice.” He looked over at Joe and continued, “we have no reason to pursue any relationship with your translator friend. Ishii-san, on the other hand, is…family, so to speak. We only want to reunite him with those from whom he’s been estranged.”
“And I’m telling you that I can’t allow that to happen,” my words may have been cool and determined, but my legs were shaking and my palms were sweating. I was terrified.
A subtle twitch of Terawaki’s head commanded a fist from one of the goons at the table to collide with my stomach. It sent a lightning bolt convulsion through my torso and I doubled over in wrenching pain. A few of the male customers in the bar stood up suddenly in response to the attack. Terawaki jerked around to address the threat with his cold unwavering eyes as his soldiers slowly rose to their feet. Two of them shuffled out from the table to help me up.
“There’s no reason for things to get out of hand. It’s just business. It doesn’t concern you. We’ll be leaving now. I’m sorry for interrupting your evening,” he apologized insincerely and tapped me on the shoulder.
I pushed the door open slowly and hobbled through still clutching my stomach. I passed another suited man who had been waiting just outside the door. He took me and pulled me aside to wait for the others. They exited one by one like a platoon of marines covering their retreat. First, Terawaki came out and lit a cigarette as he waited. In second was the one who had taken Master’s picture on his smartphone. Then, the one who hit me. We all waited for the last one, but he didn’t come.
A loud crash came from inside the bar. I turned around and looked through the window to see Master struggling with the remaining goon’s hands around his neck and a few of the customers trying to pull him off. I swatted the hand from my shoulder and pushed my way back into the bar. I joined the other customers and peeled the death grip from around Master’s neck. The other Kameya regulars were barring the door from the inside to keep the odds in our favor. Master held himself up on the counter coughing and gasping for air. I hit the thug in the face over and over as the other customers held his arms. By the third blow, my fist felt like pudding. The pain was intense, but I continued hitting him with my shattered hand. His nose cracked loudly and assumed an unnatural shape. I didn’t stop. A feeling of pure instinct boiled up inside of me, fueling my rage and bordering on euphoria. This man had attacked my friend and tried to strangle the life from him. Now, every fiber of my being wanted to destroy him, to erase him from the Earth. I didn’t care what Master’s real name was, and clearly neither did the other bar patrons. He was family.
The rest of the goon squad came charging back in through the door, minus Terawaki. The customers released Master’s attacker and backed away toward the counter. The man collapsed to the floor under his own weight, his face wrecked and bloodied. A thick mixture of blood and mucus streamed from his broken nose. I looked at my hand, which was red and swollen and covered dark spots of soon-to-be bruises. It was shaking uncontrollably.
One of the thugs seized me immediately and the one next to him hit me hard in the stomach again. This time, it felt like someone connected a vacuum cleaner to my mouth and sucked all of the air out of my lungs in an instant. My head swirled from the throbbing pain in my abdomen and groin. They each grabbed handfuls of my jacket and, together, threw me through the door. My shoulder took most of the impact, which felt like a sledgehammer. I fell to the asphalt outside the bar, losing strips of skin from my palms and chin as I skidded over the hard surface of the street. I slowly rolled over on to my back. Everything seemed to ache at once until suddenly the pain stopped, like the flip of a switch. It was like some kind of short-circuit in my brain, an overload. I kept still, watching the landscape of my chest rise and fall with my panting breaths.
The gangsters poured out of the bar like a swarm of angry bees and surrounded me, shouting and kicking me over and over. The struggle was completely one-sided. Every time I tried to throw up my arms and protect one part of my body, they found an unprotected part to attack. The brief and wonderful numbness had subsided and now my nerves became attuned to every nuance of pain that filtered through my body. My view was filled with flailing limbs, towering figures, and glimpses of the moon. I thought of that night in Sayo, but not the real version. I reminisced about the romantic delusion that had replaced it in my mind. Every rib-shattering kick made me more painfully aware of the lie.
Suddenly, the violence surrounding me took on a different character. There seemed to be a shift in focus away from me. My attackers were now fighting on two fronts. I tried to roll over and push myself up, but the boots continued to fly at my torso and head, if somewhat less frequently. I could scarcely see what was happening around me when a few of my attackers moved away from me, clearing the way for Terawaki. He walked into the crowd casually as if nothing was going on around him, stroking the shaft of an aluminum bat and smiling. He stopped right in front of me, my head practically resting on his shoe.
He held the bat long across his hands, bobbing the end up and down in his left palm. “I’m sorry that things had to go this way Mr. Fokkusu. It’s just a law of nature, you take something from us and so we must take something from you in order to maintain balance in the universe. Matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed; they only change hands. This is no different.”
He raised the bat up behind his head and readied his swing, but I was too weak to get out of the way. As the tip of the bat began to move down into view, I closed my eyes and waited for the inevitable. I waited, wondering how death would look, how it would feel, but nothing happened. I opened my eyes to see Master on the ground in front of me on top of Terawaki with the bat pressed across his throat. His head was hovering over the asphalt next to Terawaki’s ear.
“Stop!” Terawaki shouted in a stern, but desperate voice.
The fighting around me settled quickly into heavy breathing and regrouping, the gangsters forming a line behind their downed commander and the bar patrons gathering around me. They scooped me up, but the pain of my broken body being stretched was too much to bear and I protested, reverting to a supine posture on the street.
Master stood up slowly with his hands tightly gripping the handle of the bat. Terawaki clutched his throat and hacked like an old smoker as he was helped to his feet by the lackeys behind him. Master didn’t back up a single step. It was like a scene from a classic Western, the standoff in the thoroughfare. Everyone was standing in uneven postures, panting and sweating, fists and faces bloodied. The door of the bar swung open slowly behind us, as the goon with the broken nose emerged and hobbled unsteadily to join his cohort.
Terawaki, still holding his throat, turned his head slightly and the gang behind him shuffled off down the street toward a pair of black Toyota Crown Royal Saloons with tinted windows.
“You can’t run from the laws of physics Mr. Fokkusu,” Terawaki said, pulling the dark Oakleys from his pocket and sliding them over his eyes. He gave a shallow bow with his head and followed his crew down the street.
They drove past us on their way out of town. Master still hadn’t moved an inch, forcing them to drive up on the shoulder of the narrow road to avoid him. After they had disappeared across the river, Master told everyone that everything was okay and that they should go back inside now. They did as he asked and he knelt down in front of me.
“Can you move?”
“Definitely not,” I answered in a weak voice. I reached up and placed a hand on his knee. “Master, I’m so sorry.”
He sat down on the rough asphalt and patted my hand lightly, producing a series of whimpers from me. It was the same hand I had crushed against the face of Master’s attacker inside the bar. He lit up one of his Seven Stars and lay down next to me in the street, blowing clouds of smoke straight up into the cool night air. “Don’t be sorry. I knew this would happen some day. You didn’t even know about my past. It’s not your fault.”
“The rumors were true after all, huh?”
“So, you were an amateur porn star too?”
“Ha. Why would I quit a career in porn?”
“Good point,” I said, laughing and bracing against the pain it caused in my chest and stomach. He laughed too and we carried on snickering and catching our breath until the air settled into a long silence.
“I knew about the baby.”
I could feel that familiar tingle in my chest, that rush of adrenaline. “What?”
“She told me after you ran off. She asked me to promise not to help you find her if you came back. I promised.” His tone was full of conflict and his voice was uncharacteristically soft.
“If you knew, then why the hell did you hit me?” In the face of revelation, my first question was the least important.
“Because I didn’t know that you knew. She made it sound like she hadn’t told you. How could you do that to her?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t…” I could feel my past merging with my present as my answers shifted grammatically. “…I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“I promised not to help you find her if you came back, but I didn’t promise not to help her find you.”
“You know where she is?”
“You’re not gonna tell me, are you?”
“No. But, I am going to do what I can.” He flicked his cigarette off into the stone gutter that ran along the edge of the street in front of the stationary shop and stood. “C’mon, I gotta get back inside and I can’t leave ya lyin’ here in the street.”
“Easy. Easy,” I cautioned loudly in English as he lifted me slowly to my feet. I felt like I was being stretched on a medieval rack.
He helped me inside and into a small tatami room just off the main bar area. I lay down on the mats and closed my eyes. Master turned off the lights and closed the sliding door. I could hear the sounds of the bar clearly through the paper-thin panel. Soon, I was drifting off to sleep, the muddled blend of chatter, kitchen hardware, clinking glasses, and Dr. John’s “Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya” accompanying my departure from the conscious world.
• • • • •
When I woke up the next morning, my body was a stiff as a week old baguette. I hazarded a shift in position and was greeted by the stinging reminders of last night’s brawl. More than the pain, I was aware of the intense hunger pangs that were racking my stomach. I was starving.
A strange sound was coming from behind the sliding door, a sound never heard before in Kameya. It was an aria from Mozart’s Don Giovanni playing through the ceiling mounted speakers in the bar. I was not well-versed enough to know who the soloist was by ear alone, but it sounded like a fairly standard recording. It wasn’t too new and it wasn’t too old, no doubt performed by some slightly obscure but still reputable orchestra. If forced to make a guess, I would’ve probably gone with an established performer like Kathleen Battle. She had a beautiful voice and the control of a seasoned veteran, but she lacked that little extra something that would have otherwise propelled her to household name status. She had instead become a mainstay soprano sought after for her consistency. Many people might’ve taken my opinion as an insult, but I preferred consistently beautiful renditions that payed respect to what was on the page. I had little love for the so-called virtuosos that took too many liberties with classic pieces of music, indulging their own arrogance in thinking that they could somehow improve upon the works of masters.
I forced my body up in defiance of the pain and pulled the door open, revealing the small kitchen area behind the counter and Master sitting on a small stool with his back to me.
“Master? Are you seriously listening to opera?” I asked with a gravely voice that was still trying to shake off the morning.
He didn’t respond or even move at the sound of my voice. I pushed myself up with a growl and took a few steps. My legs were so stiff that they felt like they were being walked on for the very first time. I quickly regained confidence in my gait and stepped into the kitchen. Master was sitting upright with his head resting on his hand and his elbow resting on the counter, but he was fast asleep. He had a leftover cigarette butt still pressed between his lips. All that remained of it was the short white filter, yellowed and slightly burnt at the end. I laughed at the sight, but the pain that resulted in my ribs quickly turned my laugh into a cough which hurt even more. Master’s eyes split open and he jumped at the sound of my coughing, nearly falling off of his stool.
“Huh? Oh, Matto-chan. Don’t worry, I stayed up all night t’make sure they didn’t come back,” he explained hurriedly, the tiny cigarette butt stuck to his bottom lip and bounced up and down as he spoke. He quickly clutched it between his lips and again and spat it across the room onto the floor near the door.
I tried to stop myself from laughing again, cautioned by the pain that it had evoked before. “All night huh?”
“Yep, all night,” he answered with a sheepish grin on his face, obviously aware that he had been found out. “What the hell is that sound?” he asked with a scowl, turning the speakers off with a haphazard flick.
I sat down on the stool next to him and hung my head in my hands. “You can’t stay here now can you?”
“I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
“Come with me. Come live with me in Chicago. A couple of bachelors in the big city,” I tried to play off my guilt with a little laugh. “Please Master. It’s the least I can do.”
“I can’t. I’m too old to go live in a foreign country and get used to a whole new set of social norms. I barely fit into the norms here as it is,” he gave a loaded smile. “And I’m too old for the big city. I had to start my life over once already. I can’t do it again. This is my home.”
“But they’ll come for you.”
“Yes…they will,” he ended his words with a strange inflection that seemed to suggest that I should know what would happen when they did come for him.
We didn’t say anything more to each other for the rest of the morning. Master made breakfast while I tried to do some stretching in the tatami room. Satisfied with the infinitesimal improvement in my body’s rigidity, I took a seat at the counter and looked through Joe’s translations. Master set one tray down in front of me and took one more to a table in the corner. It was a simple Japanese breakfast, miso soup, a small bowl of rice, and an egg. I turned around and looked at Master quizzically. He responded with a short nasal sound that conveyed his question, what? I shook my head and returned to the tray in front of me. I was worried that Master was finished looking out for me. I didn’t deserve his friendship after all. I had done nothing to repay his kindness over the years. I lied to him, left Japan without saying goodbye, forgot about him for three years, came back without warning, and ruined his life in a single stroke. The offer to come live with me in Chicago was the final insult. What was I thinking? It proved to Master that I really didn’t understand him at all. I wanted to take it back, but it wouldn’t have changed anything.
We ate our meal silently, separately. Master washed up while I went upstairs to pack my things. I came back down ready to say my goodbye and walk to the train station, but Master was gone. I took it as a hint that he just wanted me to go and be done with it. There was nothing I could say that would make any difference now anyway. I took the hint and walked through the front door. Outside, I took one final look at the bar, the place that had once been like home for me.
Master’s SUV came screeching around the corner and skidded to a stop in front of the bar. “C’mon,” he yelled, gesturing for me to get in.
I dropped my head down and looked at my bag hanging from my hand and then turned to look down toward the train station. I looked back at Master and opened my mouth to politely refuse his offer, but he cut me off and huffed, “just get in.”
• • • • •
We pulled into the parking lot of a small kindergarten with a red tile roof and stopped. I had been so engrossed in reading Gobō-san’s diaries and letters that I hadn’t bothered to look out the window even once during the trip. My brain was engaged in mental acrobatics, trying to figure out exactly what it was Gōda-sensei had intended me to get out them. Was it about the dynamic between Gobō-san and his father? Was it about the redemption that he sought after the war? Was it about his near death experience in the mine? I had already stretched the limits of my ideology to wrap my head around the concept of chakras. In taking advice from Tresa, Gobō-san, Master, and Gōda-sensei, I had lost sight of my own reasons for returning. Or maybe I didn’t even know my own reasons for returning.
“Matto-chan,” Master called, pulling me back into the real world.
I looked up at him and then scanned our new surroundings. “Where are we?” I asked.
In front of the kindergarten’s main building there was a fenced in playground for the kids. All of the playground equipment was painted in nauseatingly bright colors and decorated with popular Japanese cartoon characters. Children’s characters in Japan were strange and added an unwelcome creepiness to otherwise normal spaces. A few of the more disturbing and popular examples were An-Pan-Man, a cartoon hero whose head was made of a red bean paste-filled pastry; Doraemon, a time traveling cat-shaped robot from the future whose ears had been bitten off by a mad rat; and Pokémon, for which I had no explanation whatsoever. A bell rang over a loudspeaker mounted on the eave of the tiled roof and an army of toddlers somberly marched out into the playground led by their bored-looking teacher. When the bell sounded a second time, the army became a rabble of screaming kids scattering across the various playground equipment. The teacher rolled her eyes and huffed a sigh, sitting down on the step in front of the door.
“There…on the swing,” Master said pointing at a swing set with four rope swings, only one of which was occupied.
I focused in on the little girl sitting on the swing alone. She had a thin face with a sharp jawline and prominent cheekbones. Her eyes were more recessed than was typical for a Japanese face. They were also bigger and brighter, retaining only a faint almond shape and turning down slightly at the corners. Her nose was pointed with a high bridge. It was my pointed nose. They were my big eyes. She was my little girl…
Keeping my eyes on her, I fumbled for the handle and pushed the car door open. A strange shockwave swept through my body like the vibration of the guitar string, my skin was humming. Master grabbed the collar of my jacket as I stuck my leg out the door. I turned to see his serious eyes saying, don’t. I wanted to swat his hand away, run to the playground, and sweep my daughter up in my arms, but Master was right; it wasn’t the right time or situation for a reunion. Also, if there was one thing that five years of losing arm-wrestling matches had taught me it was that I couldn’t overpower Master.
I pulled my leg back into the car and closed the door, turning my eyes back to my little girl. She was beautiful. My breathing became rapid as all the air was suddenly sucked out of the car interior. My chest was tingling as if my heart's capacity for emotion had suddenly been flipped on like a switch. A flood of conflicting feelings stormed through me, adoration followed by guilt followed by pride followed by overbearingness followed by self-loathing followed by a desperate need for physical affection and on down the list until I was so exhausted that I was pressing my forehead against the car window. Some of the feelings were indescribable, like alien emotions being beamed into my brain from another planet. Just watching her breath and blink and kick her legs as she sat in the swing made my cold body feel warm again. The world around her seemed to fall away and be replaced by something brighter and more beautiful. My apathy, my skepticism, my cynicism, it all seemed to melt away instantly as the sight of my daughter brought me back to life. She made me want to believe in something impossible. She was the answer to all of my questions. I wanted nothing more than to touch her, hold her, and tell her that I was hers. Was this the indescribable feeling about which my friends with kids had told me about a thousand times before? I had always written them off as pretentious and condescending and guilty of abusing hyperbole. Now, here I was in the impassioned throws of ineffability.
I watched her, all the time trying to imagine what she was like. Was she fearless, outspoken, stubborn, and compassionate like her mother or was she reserved, introspective, and selfish like me? Did she carry the flaw handed down to me by my father? My heart sank at the thought.
A line of cars and women on bicycles flowed into the parking lot all at once, filling it up in a matter of minutes. I watched the anxious mothers file into the playground to claim their sons and daughters. Suddenly, there she was…Kaori, like she had emerged from a dream or a memory. She looked almost the same as on the night we first met, but there was something changed about her. She carried herself differently and her face displayed the weight of life as a single mother. It was the life I had forced upon her. The aliens played with my brain again, transmitting another wave of intense emotions.
Master reached over and preemptively placed a heavy hand on my shoulder, “I know what you’re thinking, but please don’t make a liar out of me.”
I said nothing in response, but followed Kaori with my eyes. She was skinnier than before. Her soft yellow sweater slipped haphazardly off her bony shoulder as she shuffled through the gate and called to our daughter. "Our daughter," the words played back in my head as if my brain was reporting some kind of error. I ignored it and zeroed in on the frequency of Kaori's voice like a radio technician.
My breathing stopped and my lower jaw quivered as the name became clear in my ears. I could feel my heart speed up inside my paralyzed chest. It was like revving up an engine in neutral. Memories of Master’s daughter filled my head. These two singular girls shared the same name and were connected by loss. It was as if Kaori had intentionally chosen the name that would inflict the most damage on me.
Misa jumped out of the swing and ran to Kaori, who quickly took her up in her arms. I zeroed in again on the scene, waiting to hear Misa's voice, but she didn’t speak. I had no idea what my own daughter’s voice sounded like. She kept her arms tightly wrapped around Kaori’s neck as she turned and started walking toward the parking lot. The image stung at my chest. It was a my family portrait, minus me. The image of Nighthawks swirled in my head. I huddled over in the seat and squeezed my head between my forearms. I felt sick, weak.
“Can we go please?”
Master put the car in gear and slowly, quietly turned out of the parking lot.
I picked myself back up and leaned back in the seat. “Why did you take me there?”
“So you could remember why you came back.”
“I don’t get it. Why didn’t you just bring me here the day I showed up in Sayō? I mean, why bother with taking me to Gobō-san and sending me to Gōda-sensei to hear all this nonsense about chakras and spiritual theft and all this…this bullshit. If you knew all along why I came back, why send my on this fucking…’quest?’ I’ve been running all over Japan reliving all the terrible things I did, and for what? For what?” My chest was pounding and my hands were shaking. My voice was broken and desperate. “After all of that, you bring me here to see them. And then, you have the fucking nerve to tell me what my reasons for coming back are. Tell me then! Tell me why I came back!” I was yelling in English by the time I finished. I stopped to catch my breath. My eyes were wet and sore, but no tears fell.
“The truth is…I don’t know why you came back. But, I do know what you’ve been avoiding since you got here.”
“So? So, I’m trying to help you,” he hushed his voice as he finished his sentence, like he was trying to keep it from becoming a yell. “Look, everybody lies, but there’s one person in particular that you lie to more than anyone else and because of it, that person is the hardest to figure out.”
“Let me guess…”
“Yourself,” he cut me off, refusing to give me the satisfaction. “I listen pretty well. I figured that the thing you were avoiding was the thing that mattered most. Faulty logic maybe, but very human.”
“And now you tell me that you’re leaving to go find your father, like he has anything at all to do with this,” he shouted as if challenging me to contradict him. I knew better than to even try. “Of course I had no idea why you came back when you showed up in Sayō. But it didn’t take long to figure it out. I thought it was important for you to come to the conclusion on your own. I took you to Gobō-san because I knew he would tell you exactly what you needed to hear to get to the answer on your own. I went along with it all, but I couldn’t just let you give up and go home without at least seeing what you’ve been avoiding all this time. How’s that for a reason? You fucking moron!”
「Always the last to know.」
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