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It was widely said that spring was coming late this year, and just a week ago they had seen snow on the hot springs trip. For a while, Hirosue remained under the impression that it was still winter. But the temperature soared once they pa.s.sed the twentieth of March; winter coats soon became a bulky and unfashionable sight.
About two days before the official announcement of his layoff, Hirosue got a call from Matsuoka during overtime.
“Can I see you today?” he said. They had both been busy with work and overtime after returning from their hot springs trip. Although they still e-mailed each other, they had not had a chance to eat together yet.
“I’m fine, but are you, Matsuoka?” Just yesterday, Hayama had returned from headquarters to tell him that Sales was in utter chaos. The core of the sales department was losing a quarter of its staff, and the succession of duties was not going well. The department was upside-down with confusion.
Being originally from headquarters, Hayama had gone back for two days this week to sort out their administrative work. With Hayama now coming in only every other day, they were neck-deep with no way out. The head clerk had negotiated directly with Human Resources, and they had sent a contract worker to fill in starting this week. The woman was an expert, and although she worked only from nine to five with no overtime whatsoever, she got as much work done as two people. Thanks to her, Hirosue had been able to finish work at around seven these past days.
“I’m fine. So, can I see you?” He had never heard Matsuoka sound so tense. Perhaps he was stressed out from being busy at work and wanted to go for drinks to let off some steam. Since Hirosue was almost finished with his own work, he promised to meet the man around eight and hung up.
Matsuoka always invited him to dinner by e-mail and never called Hirosue during work hours, even during overtime. But Hirosue simply brushed off the change. Everyone has times like that, I guess, he thought, and made nothing of it.
After they met up at the station, on Matsuoka’s request they went to a cozy izakaya with private booths instead of their usual place. “Just to change things up,” Matsuoka had said, and Hirosue did not doubt his words. The menu was varied with numerous unusual dishes, but Hirosue felt like the food at their usual izayaka was better.
Matsuoka did not make a single complaint about work. When Hirosue asked if things were busy for him, he only said that it was like that all the time, and the topic went no further. Yet Matsuoka still appeared restless, constantly checking his watch and fidgeting.
“Hirosue, are you interested in law at all?” Matsuoka asked out of the blue, just as Hirosue was wondering about his peculiar att.i.tude.
“What’s this all of a sudden?” he asked back, but Matsuoka was strangely vague.
“Er,” he said uncertainly.
“Are you in some kind of trouble that has to do with the law?”
“No, not really, but…”
This was not the usual Matsuoka who was outspoken and clear-cut. Even though he had started the topic, the man kept his face slightly down and didn’t even try to look at Hirosue. Perhaps it was something difficult to speak about. Hirosue turned his thoughts over in his head for a little while.
“I don’t know any lawyers personally, but if you can wait, do you want me to ask my relatives if they know anyone?”
“Oh―I didn’t mean I wanted you to introduce me to a lawyer.”
Hirosue had been almost positive about his guess. Now, he had no idea what Matsuoka was trying to say. In the s.p.a.ce of their silence, a cell phone started to ring. Matsuoka opened it, checked the caller, and lightly clicked his tongue.
“Excuse me for a bit,” he said, and left their booth. Hirosue was left alone with nothing to do, so he drank as he nibbled at the food. Matsuoka came back about ten minutes later, but he was even more restless than before.
“Who called?” Hirosue asked, wondering if he was prying too much.
“One of my juniors from work,” Matsuoka answered. “He made a mistake and he’s cleaning up the mess. We’ve been having a lot of those kinds of problems lately. It looks like I’ll have to go back to the office after this, too.”
“I guess we’ll wrap up after we eat, then?”
“Sorry for doing this to you after dragging you out here,” Matsuoka apologized. “But I wanted to see you today, no matter what. My senior told me to give him an answer by tomorrow, so―”
“Oh―” Matsuoka blurted softly, then lowered his face. As Hirosue sat confused and uncomprehending, Matsuoka looked up again decisively. “A former uppercla.s.sman of mine at university is a lawyer, and he’s going to be opening his own law firm.”
“Wow, that’s good for him. He must be really capable.”
Perhaps Matsuoka was involved in some kind of dispute after all. But if he already knows a lawyer, why does he need to come to me about it? Hirosue thought, but then again, perhaps it was a matter that was awkward to discuss with an acquaintance.
“That’s why he’s looking for someone to do administrative work and reception when he opens his firm. He said the candidate wouldn’t need any specialized knowledge or qualifications for now, but he did say he’d want them to learn a couple things.”
Hirosue felt the underside of his heart bristle unpleasantly. Where was this discussion going?
“The other day, Hayama came back to headquarters, and… the topic turned to you, and I heard you were going through a hard time.”
Matsuoka had phrased it vaguely as a “hard time”, but there was no doubt he had heard from Hayama about the unofficial announcement of his layoff. Two days from now, his name would have gone up on the list of resigning employees on the bulletin at headquarters. Hirosue was prepared to face it when Matsuoka found out through the bulletin―that, at least, was inevitable. But this―
“There’s a guy from my department who quit, too. He’s a year younger than you,” Matsuoka said. “He got really fed up with the way things were being done at the company. It took him two seconds to slap his resignation slip in their faces and transfer to another company.”
So it seemed that the Sales worker was nimble enough to find a post at another company after getting laid off. He was different―completely different―from Hirosue, who had gone to interview after interview only to be rejected.
“I heard from Hayama that you were looking for a new job, and I wanted to help somehow,” Matsuoka explained. “I contacted some friends from university, and that was when my senior suggested his place. But he told me he wants an answer by tomorrow. I know that it might not be my place to say this, since you haven’t mentioned anything to me, but my senior’s really friendly and he’s a good guy. It’s administrative work, but it’s full-time. The salary might not be as high as our company, but I don’t think the conditions are too bad.”
Matsuoka’s concern for his layoff was probably genuine. Although it was a fortunate offer, the more Hirosue listened to it, the more he began to lose sympathy. Not only that, a feeling of irritation began to mount within him.
Hirosue balled his hands into fists under the table.
“I noticed you seemed kind of down since last month, and it was bothering me,” Matsuoka continued. “And the other day, when you mentioned going back to the countryside… I wondered if something had happened. When I heard the news from Hayama, I finally knew what it was about, so…”
It was true that he had been depressed since receiving news of his layoff. He had compared himself to Matsuoka, who was a capable man, and wallowed in his share of self-pity. But that was his own responsibility, and it was his problem. He didn’t want to be told what to do. He didn’t want people to poke and pry. Although he was hard-pressed to find his next job, he hadn’t asked Matsuoka to do him any favours. He hadn’t even mentioned a word of it to the man.
No amount of interviews had been able to secure Hirosue a new post. But with Matsuoka’s power, he would be given a job with good conditions. The sum of all his efforts paled in the face of Matsuoka’s social network.
I can find my own job. Just leave me alone. Don’t rub our difference in my face. It might take time, but I’ll do it on my own. I’m not a child. I can take care of myself. He was angry and frustrated. But when he wondered if his frustrations stemmed from his own twisted and negative views of himself, his anger turned to sadness.
Why did Matsuoka take the pains to do things for him? Was it out of sympathy? Or pity? Hirosue was overcome with a sudden nausea, along with a wrenching in his gut. He didn’t want to see Matsuoka’s face, or hear his voice, or be near him anymore.
Hirosue took his wallet out of his bag and placed a few thousand yen on the table.
“I’m not feeling well. I’m going home.” He stood up without waiting for an answer.
“Huh? Are you alright?” Matsuoka scrambled out of his seat.
“Matsuoka, you should stay and eat. You’ve barely touched any of the food.”
“Yeah, but―hey, wait. Wait up. I’m coming. I’m coming, too!”
Hirosue left the restaurant and walked briskly without waiting for Matsuoka to finish paying the bill. He wished the man wouldn’t follow him, but he heard hurried footsteps chasing after his.
On the deserted sidewalk, he was pulled back by the arm. Just his touch was enough to make Hirosue bristle, and he violently shook the man off. Matsuoka looked like he was about to cry.
“For what?” The coldness of his own voice surprised him.
“I went and I… did something that was completely uncalled for.” Matsuoka’s head was bowed and he was trembling. So you’re aware of what you did, Hirosue wanted to say, but he didn’t. He felt like putting it into words would just make him feel even more detestable.
“You were just concerned for me, right, Matsuoka? Thanks for the job offer, but I’ve already decided to go back to my hometown after I quit.”
It had only been one of his options, but he spoke of it as if it were set in stone. Matsuoka’s eyes flew wide open.
“What…?” he said softly.
“I have to make arrangements to move out of my apartment, so I’m going to get busy. I don’t think I’ll be able to see you like I used to.”
“But last time you said you still―” Matsuoka began, but Hirosue interrupted him.
“Bye, then,” he said shortly, and got into a taxi. The trains were still running at this time, but he felt if he walked to the station, Matsuoka would come after him.
He vacantly watched the scenery slip past him out the window. Soon, unable to stand it anymore, he cradled his head in his hands. Enough, enough, enough, enough…. He had had enough of everything―of his immature, miserable self, and of meddlesome Matsuoka.
“Sir, are you feeling ill?” The driver sounded more concerned about his car being soiled than about how Hirosue was feeling. Hirosue said nothing as he lifted his face and shifted his gaze once more out the window. He wasn’t looking at the scenery. He was remembering, over and over, about their conversation at the restaurant. With each recollection, the black fog in his head grew thicker and thicker until it filled every corner of mind―until he could think of nothing else.
He heard the ringtone for an incoming e-mail. It was from Matsuoka.
‘I’m really sorry for what I said today. It was thoughtless of me. But―’
The e-mail went on for much longer, but Hirosue turned off his cell phone without reading the rest.
Although the option of going back home had always been in Hirosue’s mind, the prospects of re-employment always made him hesitate. But now that he had said it out loud, the fact began to take solid, realistic shape within him. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to go back to the countryside―to take up a job completely unrelated to administration rather than endure the unpleasantness of remaining here.
The moment he made the decision to go back, Hirosue found his heart feeling lighter. That was when he realized for the first time that he had neither truly sought a life in the city nor a new career.
Now that he was going back to the country, he had to choose whether to go back to his parents’ home or rent an apartment. But before that, he had to explain to his family why things had turned out this way. He deliberated whom to tell first, and decided to tell his older brother.
Hirosue told his brother that he had been laid off from his company, was sick of work, and wanted to go back to the countryside. His brother was silent for a moment before answering.
“Alright,” he said in firm solidarity. “Come home and relax, for a month or two, or as long as you need to. But there’s no need to move completely out of your apartment, is there? Don’t you need to find your next job over there?”
“I’m thinking of looking for a job out in the country.”
“You won’t find any good jobs here. Mom and Dad are still working at our factory. To be honest, we’re in need of help since my wife just gave birth and the baby’s been a handful, but we’re not well-off enough to give you a salary.”
Reality was not so forgiving.
“Look for your new job over there,” his brother said. “As long as you’re not picky, there are a lot more options than the countryside.”
Although that was his brother’s argument, Hirosue was starting to feel an overwhelming weariness towards his unsuccessful job search and his mundane life of going back and forth between the office and his apartment. Even if he were to return to the city to search for a job, he wanted to start with a clean slate―that was the argument he used to convince his reluctant brother as he made the decision to move out of his apartment after all.
His brother told him he would tell their parents that he had quit because he was exhausted from being so busy at work. By not mentioning the layoff, he was allowing his little brother to save face. It was his way of being considerate, which made Hirosue feel both guilty and saddened.
On top of his work, Hirosue was now suddenly busy with contacting his landlord, arranging for a moving company, disposing of unneeded belongings, and getting his things together.
He received e-mails from Matsuoka every day. ‘Whenever you’re free―it doesn’t matter what time―please let me know. I want to talk to you,’ it said each time. Hirosue’s answer was always, ‘I’m sorry, I’m busy,’ and he did not make time to see the man.
His feeling towards Matsuoka were mixed and hard to put into words. He knew Matsuoka had only meant good, but the gesture was something Hirosue hadn’t asked for. Yet, he admitted his att.i.tude towards the man who was concerned for him was inexcusably immature.
All in all, this incident had not caused him to hate Matsuoka; he just did not want to see him. He couldn’t stand the sense of inferiority he felt before Matsuoka. Once he had come to terms with the reality of getting laid off, he had managed to go back to having a regular relationship with the man, but being introduced to a job opportunity had made those feelings flare up again. He only had to give it some time until they calmed down. He would not see Matsuoka until then. He did not want to become the kind of miserable man he hated in front of Matsuoka.
The last day of this fiscal year fell on the last weekend of March. Hirosue’s last day at the office fell on March 29. Three days ago, he had already gone to a slightly contradictory farewell party which consisted of more people leaving the company than staying behind. Since Hayama was scheduled to work at headquarters on his last day, she and Hirosue had said their farewells on the day before.
On the 29th, Hirosue got off work at a regular hour, received a superficial bouquet of flowers and went home to his apartment. It was empty inside, with only a few cardboard boxes packed with his belongings.
His things were scheduled to be moved out tomorrow. This would formally end his tenancy, and would return to the country on the last train.
Hirosue ate a bento from the convenience store in his barren room. When he thought of how he would truly be unemployed starting from tomorrow, he felt an indescribable sense of anxiety. Perhaps he would go on to be a complete deadbeat; perhaps he would never find a new job―he kept thinking of bad things.
He nursed a beer that he had bought with his bento as he stared absently at the wall. Never did he feel more glad that he had decided to go back home. He could not stand imagining all the lonely nights he would have to spend like this until he found his next job.
I probably won’t be able to sleep tonight, he thought, when he heard his cell phone ring. It was from Matsuoka. Hirosue debated whether to answer it or not. The phone rang incessantly. He didn’t want to see the man just yet. But if he was going back to the country, he wouldn’t be able to see Matsuoka for a while. Perhaps he should at least say farewell. That was his reason for picking up the phone.
“Hirosue.” Matsuoka’s voice was trembling. “Thank G.o.d… thank G.o.d you answered the phone. I want to see you right now. I need to see you.”
He was not asking for permission. He had clearly stated that he wanted to meet. Hirosue did not mind talking over the phone, but he did not want to talk face-to-face.
“I’m pretty tired out, so… sorry.”
“Please. If you don’t want to come out, I’ll go to your place. Five minutes is enough.”
The man’s voice sounded so desperate, Hirosue felt sorry for him. Since he didn’t want to let the conversation drag out by inviting the man over, he agreed instead to meet Matsuoka near a park close to his apartment, and went on to set a time.
When he arrived at the park ten minutes before their agreed time, a figure sitting on the bench right beside the street lamp moved. Matsuoka was wearing a dark grey suit and a thin coat of a light colour. He looked like he was on his way home from work, for his bag was bulging.
Hirosue had been too lazy to change, so he had thrown a tracksuit top over his shirt.
“I’m sorry for making you come out when you’re tired.” Matsuoka’s nose was a little red. “I have to work on Sat.u.r.day and Sunday, so I figured today was the only day I could see you.”
“You have to work during the fiscal year-end break?”
“I have to prep for training new recruits,” Matsuoka mumbled hesitantly. His promotion had apparently brought with it a lot more miscellaneous tasks to do on top of his regular work. Even though Hirosue knew it had nothing to do with him anymore, he still felt a grey fog roll into his heart.
“I heard from Hayama that you were going back to your hometown sometime in March. Is that true?”
Matsuoka’s tense lips twitched.
“If you’re going back, that means you’re moving out of your apartment, right?”
“That would be right.”
Matsuoka lowered his face and emitted a long, thin sigh.
“Tell me your address back home.”
A short silence. A dog was barking in the distance.
“What good would it do to know?” Hirosue said.
The man’s lips looked pale, perhaps because of the dim street lamp. His mouth was pulled into a thin line.
“I’ll visit you when I have the time.”
“But it’s far.”
“It’s two hours by bullet train and forty minutes by local line, right? I can still manage a day trip.” Matsuoka sounded casual, but Hirosue felt like he was only putting on an act.
“You don’t have to go through the trouble.”
“I’ll have to, won’t I, if I want to see you!” Matsuoka raised his voice, then covered his mouth as if he were surprised to hear himself. He narrowed his eyes painfully. “I’m sorry for yelling. It’s no trouble for me. Really. It’s not like you’re going overseas, and I just have to get on a bullet train to see you. So it’s fine.”
If he told Matsuoka his address, the man would probably come to visit him. He was going to the countryside to forget about this place; if Matsuoka came, it would defeat the purpose. Hirosue was willing to see the man once he had sorted out his feelings. But not yet.
Hirosue did not give an answer. Since he didn’t want to say anything, only silence wore on without meaning.
“―You won’t tell me,” Matsuoka said.
“I’m sorry,” was the best Hirosue could manage to say.
“What am I to you, Hirosue?” Matsuoka asked, his gaze earnest and his question desperate. Hirosue swallowed hard.
“You told me before, Hirosue, remember? You asked me to wait until you were sure of your feelings. And I’ve been waiting. But how much longer do I have to wait? When are you going to give me a proper answer?”
He had left things vague, and the consequences were coming back to him now. Back then, he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about Matsuoka, and he had thought it was because he had romantic feelings for him. So he had held the man back so he could make sure. Even after the answer became clear, he had kept putting off telling Matsuoka because he had wanted their lukewarm friendship to continue. But if Matsuoka wanted an answer, perhaps now was the time to be frank about it.
“Matsuoka, to me―”
“Never mind,” a trembling voice interrupted. “You don’t have to say it.”
Hirosue had a feeling that Matsuoka already knew. He was sure the man knew what he was about to say. That was why he had said there was no need. Hirosue turned over his thoughts. He wanted to keep being friends with Matsuoka. But if he dragged this relationship on and kept Matsuoka’s hopes up, he would prevent the man from finding anyone new.
“Matsuoka, I asked you to wait because I wasn’t sure about my feelings. ―I thought about it after that, and in the end, I can only think of you as… um, a friend.”
Matsuoka’s stiff cheek twitched. Hirosue continued to speak as if to justify himself.
“It’s not that I hate you. I enjoy spending time with you. But it’s different from how I would see someone romantically, and…”
“Sorry,” Matsuoka mumbled quietly. “I got really ahead of myself. I heard you were moving in March, and when I realized if you changed your cell number I wouldn’t even be able to get in touch, my mind just went blank, and… I… yeah, I’m used to waiting. I can wait for as long as it takes…”
“I can’t be your lover, Matsuoka. All the time you spend waiting is only going to be a waste.”
“What the h.e.l.l do you mean, a waste?” Matsuoka’s voice suddenly turned harsh.
“What I’m saying is…”
“Are you saying I don’t even have a chance?” he demanded angrily. Hirosue fell silent at his oppressive question.
“Tell me what’s wrong,” Matsuoka pressed. “I’ll fix it. If you find it annoying to get e-mails every day, I’ll e-mail you less. We can even just meet once a month. I’ll go with your pace, Hirosue.” Numerous compromises. His voice, almost like a cry of pain, racked Hirosue’s heart.
“It’s not about how many e-mails you send or how many times we meet.”
“Then tell me what’s wrong.”
“It’s on a more… fundamental level…” Hirosue trailed off. It was difficult to bring up a reason that no amount of effort could fix. The silence wore on, and Hirosue felt like he was standing on a bed of needles.
“…Is it…” Matsuoka’s lips moved. “…because I’m a man?” The uttered words lingered in the air. When Hirosue nodded slightly, Matsuoka’s face contorted harshly.
“But you knew that already! I wasn’t crossdressed anymore when you asked me to wait for your answer!”
It was painful for Hirosue to be criticized about that. Before, he had told Matsuoka, who had been in woman’s guise, that he would fall in love with him no matter what form he took. He had meant it at the time; however, he had not been able to love Matsuoka as a man. And he had truthfully told him so.
When he had held Matsuoka back, he had thought his preoccupation with him came from love, and that he would maybe be able to love him even though he was a man. But just as he had thought, he could not. There was nothing he could do about it. After all that he had made Matsuoka expect, he was going to reject him with the same reason again.
“I thought I wouldn’t mind if you were a man. But when it came down to it… just physically, I couldn’t…”
Matsuoka pressed his right hand against his chest. “If you’re saying you can’t be with me because I’m a man, should I start crossdressing again? If I put on makeup, wear skirts, just like I used to…”
“But that won’t change the fact that you’re a man.”
“Then what the h.e.l.l am I supposed to do?!” Matsuoka yelled.
Hirosue averted his gaze from Matsuoka’s. He could not look the man in the eye.
“I don’t think there is anything you can do. ―I don’t think anything can be done.”
Matsuoka’s knees gave out as he crumpled to the ground on the spot. All the life left his face as he hung his head deeply. His curled back was such a painful sight to see that Hirosue could not help but say something to him.
“I wasn’t lying. I really did think I would be able to love you. ―But even though I can’t, I still care about you a lot, Matsuoka. If I could, I’d want to keep being friends with you.”
Matsuoka was silent for a long while as he hung his head.
“…I can’t be friends.” When he finally spoke, his voice was weak. “Maybe to you, we were just a couple of friends going out for dinner or going away somewhere, but for me, the whole time I felt like I was going on a date. Even if we were only seeing each other for a bit in the evening, I’d wear a nice suit that day. I would have wanted to see you every day, but I thought you’d get annoyed, so I held back. I know you never told me you loved me, or that you wanted to date me, but it felt like you’d already said so.”
“I did have a feeling that―maybe I wasn’t good enough. Maybe it wouldn’t work because I’m a man. But I still thought maybe one day things would take a turn for the better, and…”
Matsuoka’s voice shook and tapered off.
“I don’t want to be friends. If we’re friends, I’d have to congratulate you when you get a girlfriend or when you get married, right? I’d never want to. I don’t even want to see you become someone else’s.”
What would happen, then, if they could not be friends? Matsuoka got up from his knees to stand on his feet. His eyes were damp and red.
“―You don’t have to tell me your address over there.” His voice was limp and lifeless. “I won’t e-mail or call you anymore.”
If they could not be friends, perhaps this was the only choice left to them.
“When you―” Matsuoka’s reddened eyes beheld his own steadily. “When you decided to go home to the country, Hirosue, did you ever think about me?”
He was stuck for words. He thought and thought some more about what the right answer would be, but in the end, he was only able to say the truth.
Matsuoka dropped his gaze and lowered his face.
“I see,” he whispered sadly.