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Utsukushii Koto Vol 2 Chapter 7

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On the day of the wedding, Hirosue left his house in the morning and arrived at Tokyo Station before twelve o’clock. It had been raining in his hometown, but the weather here was clear and sunny. Perhaps it had rained a little in the morning, for there were some puddles left behind.

He took the train to the business hotel he was planning to stay at. He was told he could not check in yet, so he left his things with the front desk. The wedding was at five, and the venue was about fifteen minutes by train from the hotel. If he came back to the hotel by half past three, it would give him more than enough time to get ready.

It would have been easier for him to book a hotel close to the wedding venue, but he had chosen one a little far away because it was a five-minute walk from Matsuoka’s apartment.

 

Hirosue knew Matsuoka had a reason for not informing him of his new phone number and e-mail address. He knew it wasn’t good to stir things up when Matsuoka was avoiding contact and confrontation. Hirosue was only acting on his own urge to see him; it was not like he could offer Matsuoka the kind of solution that would make him happy.

But even so, he reasoned with himself, what was wrong with simply seeing his face? Then again, he wondered if he would be satisfied just to meet with Matsuoka. What if they met, but Matsuoka clearly showed distaste at the sight of him? Would it still remove the knot in his heart?

The cicadas were causing a deafening din around Matsuoka’s apartment building. The ma.s.s of noise was coming from within the few large trees in front of the bicycle lot. When he looked up at Matsuoka’s suite from outside, he could see the curtain drawn open. He had a feeling that Matsuoka was home. But even after arriving in front of his door, Hirosue could not ring the doorbell. He was afraid. If Matsuoka gave him a look as if to ask what the h.e.l.l he was doing here now, he felt like he wouldn’t be able to say a single word back. Hirosue had a feeling that Matsuoka was still in love with him, but perhaps that was his a.s.sumption. Perhaps Matsuoka was getting on well with someone new. Hirosue had no idea―none at all. He knew nothing of Matsuoka’s life over these past four months. He knew that the man had changed his cell phone number and e-mail address―but apart from that, he knew nothing.

There was a heavy click as the lock was drawn, and before Hirosue could mentally brace himself, the door to Matsuoka’s apartment opened. Hirosue drew back, startled, and was startled once more to realize that the person who was at the door was not Matsuoka, but a young woman. He did not recognize her face. Was she his girlfriend?

“Um… can I help you?” the woman asked when she noticed Hirosue.

“Uh… um, no, that’s okay.”

The woman locked her door behind her and started walking towards the elevators. She looked like she was in her mid-twenties. She had short hair and a cute face. So Matsuoka had gotten a girlfriend after all. Unlike Hirosue, who had whiled his life away in the country as if suspended in time, Matsuoka’s own timeline was moving steadily forward.

His fingertips trembled. Matsuoka had told him he loved him, but they had never dated―at least, he hadn’t thought of it that way. His “friend” had only gotten a girlfriend―what was he so agitated about?

Besides, what had he come here to do in the first place? It was to see Matsuoka. His objective had been to see Matsuoka, and that didn’t matter if he had a girlfriend or not. In fact, if he did have a girlfriend, Hirosue could have her handle the romance side of things so the two of them could just be friends. That was what he had always wanted, but somewhere he didn’t feel quite satisfied.

But Hirosue wasn’t sure of that fact yet. He hadn’t asked her if they were lovers. Maybe they were only acquaintances. His feet began to move. He broke into a run. He caught up to the woman waiting at the elevators.

“Um―excuse me.”

The woman slowly turned around. “Oh, it’s you again.”

“May I ask what―what kind of relationship you have with Mr. Yosuke Matsuoka?”

“Huh?” the woman asked, creasing her brow and tilting her head.

“You’re acquainted with Mr. Yosuke Matsuoka, right?”

“Who is that?” the woman looked at him warily.

“You just came out of Matsuoka’s apartment, didn’t you?”

“That’s my apartment.”

This time, Hirosue was the one to tilt his head. “But… it’s Room 502, right?”

“I’ve been living there since May of this year. Maybe you’re talking about the person who used to live there before me. Once in a while, I get advertis.e.m.e.nts addressed to someone like that.”

“That’s… um, I’m really sorry.”

Hirosue left the apartment building in defeat. Matsuoka had not only changed his cell number and e-mail address, but had even moved out of his apartment. Was this on purpose? Or was it a coincidence?

On a weekday, he would perhaps be able to catch Matsuoka if he waited at the station close to the office. But today was Sat.u.r.day, and tomorrow was Sunday. He had to head back home on Sunday. Even if he extended his stay for one more day until Monday to stake him out, he would miss the last local line going back home if he waited past the end of the work day. Either way, he wouldn’t be able to see Matsuoka. Stay until Tuesday, then? But he had work to help out with, and he couldn’t afford to be out of the house for so long.

“What should I do?” he muttered to himself, but there was nothing he could do. Nothing. If he was well-aware of one thing, it was precisely that.

After returning to the hotel, he agonized over how else he could get in touch with Matsuoka. He wasn’t completely out of options yet: he could still stay until Tuesday and wait in front of the office. But that would take up more time than necessary, and there was still the possibility that Matsuoka, being in Sales, would go straight home from his rounds. There were also people at the office whom Hirosue was acquainted with. If he could, he preferred to avoid exposing himself to the disdainful stares of those he knew, who would wonder what business Hirosue had at the office when he had been laid off.

Or he could ask someone. But he was reluctant to bother Hayama just for Matsuoka’s contact information when she was probably busy with the wedding. That left him with the option of asking f.u.kuda, his former boss and Matsuoka’s acquaintance. They had barely talked at all since Hirosue was transferred to Koishikawa, and f.u.kuda did not like him much.

Maybe it would be quicker just to go to the after-party instead of asking around. Matsuoka would probably be there. Would anyone bother to invite Hirosue to the after-party when he was in a different department? ―That didn’t matter, he would just speak up and say he would like to go. That way, no one would probably refuse.

He thought about this and that until it was nearly time for the wedding. Hirosue changed into his suit and fixed his hair. He fought a fierce struggle with the stubborn cowlick on the back of his head. Once he was able to pat it down into a respectable form, he left the hotel. Although it had been sunny during the day, the sky was now darkened with a layer of clouds. It looked like a bit of rain was on the way.

He had left early with time to spare since he didn’t want to be late, but he lapsed into thought and ended up missing his stop. He hastily hopped on the train going back.

Once he got off at the right station, Hirosue found himself in the middle of construction work. There was only one available exit, which led him out in the opposite direction from the hotel. Time had ticked by steadily as he was missing his stop and taking detours, and by the time Hirosue arrived at the venue, it was three minutes until the reception. Most of the guests had signed in and gone inside. The only person left in the lobby was the receptionist.

As Hirosue scribbled hastily in the guestbook, he spotted Matsuoka’s name three names above his. His hand stopped in surprise. The man he had wanted to see was here. Hayama had said only her boss and some girls were coming, but Matsuoka had also been invited to the ceremony.

“Sir―the ceremony is starting soon,” the receptionist urged him hesitantly. Hirosue hastily ran his pen across the page. He received a table number and headed to the hall where the ceremony was being held. The doors were already closed, and when he opened it quietly, he could see that everyone was already seated. He stood lost in front of the door, not knowing where he was supposed to sit. Someone who looked like a staff member approached him and took him to his table. On the way to his seat, the lights suddenly went out. It looked like the bride and groom were about to make their entrance.

“This is your seat, sir.” He was offered a chair at a round table of about ten people. It was too dark to see very well, but Hirosue felt like there were a lot of females there. He could feel all eyes on him because he had come late, and it was embarra.s.sing. He tried to draw his chair, and ended up tripping over nothing and falling forward.

“Whoa!” he cried out unintentionally. He could hear a suppressed giggle from across the table, and he felt his face go beet-red from embarra.s.sment.

As soon as he sat down, a fanfare began to play. A set of doors, illuminated by a spotlight, slowly swung open inwards. Hayama in a traditional j.a.panese weddingkimono entered with the groom.

The room grew a little brighter from the spotlight, and Hirosue could finally see the faces of the people seated at his table. His breath caught in his throat. He doubted his eyes. The very man he had agonized over how to contact was sitting right beside him. His hair was a little shorter, and the stubble on his chin was still there. He looked like he had lost even more weight.

“It’s been a while, Matsuoka,” Hirosue said. The man glanced at him.

“It has,” he said, inclining his head. It was too dim to clearly see the expression on his face, but his tone of voice seemed somewhat distant.

 

The table that Hirosue was seated at seemed to consist mostly of people from the sales department. There were five men and five women. The only person he knew there was Matsuoka.

Hirosue had figured their adjacent seats would enable them to discuss a lot, but Matsuoka continued to drag on his conversation with the young man on his right, refusing to even look at Hirosue. To make things worse, the person sitting to Hirosue’s left was a gregarious, slightly older man in his mid-fifties who frequently tried to start up a conversation with him. It seemed the man had been Hayama’s boss before she transferred to Sales, when she was still in Goods Management. Presumably he had been quite uncomfortable at a table full of Sales people, for as soon as he found out that Hirosue had been at Koishikawa Laboratory, he mentioned he had been transferred there for a number of months himself, and seemed to feel quite a sense of camaraderie between them.

Hirosue rather wanted to speak with Matsuoka, but the man from Goods Management was very long-winded. All Hirosue had to do on his end was insert an interjection once in a while, since the man carried on very well on his own. But the man also switched from one topic to another without pause, and it was hard to see an end.

About halfway through the ceremony, the man from Goods Management finally stood from his seat, probably to go to the restroom. The young man who had been talking with Matsuoka also turned to talk to the older man sitting on his other side. Matsuoka, without someone to talk to, was silently forking food to his mouth.

“Um, would you like any beer?” Desperate to start a conversation somehow, Hirosue offered to pour Matsuoka some beer. Matsuoka threw a glance at him.

“Thank you,” he said, thrusting out his half-empty gla.s.s.

“You look like you’re doing well.”

Matsuoka took only one sip of the beer before putting his gla.s.s down.

“Sure, well enough.” Matsuoka’s words were aloof enough to make him feel uncomfortable. Matsuoka seemed just as distant as Hirosue had first sensed. Hirosue wondered if the man found him a nuisance. The thought made it suddenly more difficult to talk. But Hirosue still opened his mouth as if compelled to say something.

“I didn’t expect to see you here, Matsuoka.”

“Well, I am in the same cohort as Hayama. I didn’t think you’d be invited either, Hirosue.”

He was distant, but he did not ignore him. Matsuoka was still tolerating him enough to give him an answer.

“I e-mailed you when I decided to attend Ms. Hayama’s wedding. But I couldn’t get through.”

“Oh, I changed my phone.”

“Why?”

After an awkward pause, Matsuoka smiled. “What good would it do you to know?”

Hirosue hesitated over his answer.

“I dropped it,” Matsuoka went on to explain without a hitch. “There was a specific model I wanted, so I switched wireless providers while I was at it.”

So Matsuoka had not changed his phone to sever ties with him. Hirosue was still thinking of his next words when Matsuoka turned to the man next to him to start a conversation, proceeding to leave Hirosue behind. The man from Goods Management came back and began to talk about golf, even though Hirosue had told him he had never played. Once again, he lost the chance to talk to Matsuoka.

Soon, it was time for a costume change, and Hayama left the banquet hall. Matsuoka got out of his seat at almost the same time. Hirosue left the chatty man from Goods Management with a word of apology and went after Matsuoka. He thought the man had gone to the restroom, but there was no one there. He would have had to run into Matsuoka on his way out because he had come straight here. There was something wrong. The wedding was still going on. Had Matsuoka gone home? Don’t tell me,Hirosue wondered as he made his way back to the banquet hall. Suddenly, he caught a whiff of cigarette smoke.

He remembered this scent. Hirosue furtively peeked into the pa.s.sageway tucked away to his right. At the end of the pa.s.sage was a small smoking area. Matsuoka was leaning against the wall smoking beside the ashtray. Smoking was not prohibited at the venue, and those who wanted to smoke were free to do so. Indeed, the man who came to sit down beside Matsuoka was a heavy smoker.

Matsuoka looked up at the ceiling and let a ribbon of smoke issue lazily from his lips. Hirosue was aware that Matsuoka smoked, but the man had also said he only did so once in a while. He had only smelled smoke on Matsuoka once, when the man had given him a get-well visit at his apartment.

Matsuoka wore an apathetic expression with the cigarette in his mouth. He looked like a totally different person. Hirosue could not help but stare; he had never seen the man like this before. When they were together, Matsuoka had always been cheerful and energetic―that was the only impression he had of the man.

Matsuoka took his time smoking one cigarette before he ground the rest out and threw it in the ashtray. When he finally turned this way, his eyes met Hirosue’s, and a look of clear surprise and dismay crossed his face. Matsuoka dipped his face awkwardly and kept his eyes lowered as he slipped past Hirosue.

“Um―” Hirosue called out. Matsuoka’s feet took three or four steps and stopped. But they soon began to move again as the man made his way back into the banquet hall. Matsuoka had definitely heard Hirosue’s voice―he had stopped in his tracks, after all―but he had kept going without turning around. Hirosue had clearly been ignored.

Matsuoka still gave him the most minimal of answers in the presence of other people, but perhaps this was his honest reaction. Matsuoka no longer wanted to talk to him, and wanted nothing to do with him anymore.

Hirosue felt like he was plummeting after the ground had disappeared beneath his feet. Matsuoka had gotten completely sick of him. Oblivious to that fact, Hirosue had foolishly come to Tokyo wanting to see him. Now, he felt immensely miserable at his naive expectation. He hadn’t been able to get in touch. All the signs had been there. But he had pretended not to notice.

He couldn’t be away from his seat forever, so Hirosue returned to the banquet hall. Inside, Hayama had changed her costume and was on the podium cutting the cake.

The ceremony progressed steadily, but all of it pa.s.sed unnoticed before his eyes. The man sitting beside him now seemed like a world away. Hirosue had wanted so badly to speak to him, but now he couldn’t remember what he had wanted to say. He didn’t know how to interact with Matsuoka anymore, now that the man was ignoring him.

The man had loved him―had told him he loved him. That was why Hirosue could talk to him without restraint. Now, the Matsuoka beside him was trim, fresh-faced, good-looking, and was like a completely different living being from him. Perhaps Matsuoka had been like that all along. His claim to love Hirosue must have been some kind of abnormal blip. Hirosue was sure of it.

Reality was right beside him; yet, Hirosue unearthed memories from the past. Matsuoka opening his mouth wide to eat the snow; his profile, blushing and childishly stubborn. Had those been lies? No. That had also been Matsuoka, too. But the man giving him the cold shoulder beside him was also Matsuoka. Hirosue could feel his chest being squeezed painfully. His throat turned dry.

Hirosue continued to fret in agitation over the firm, solid line drawn between himself and Matsuoka. Before long, the wedding was over. The bride and groom saw them out as all of the guests exited into the lobby. Hirosue held the bag containing his wedding souvenir in one hand and cast his eyes around to search for Matsuoka.

It’s no use now, whispered his easily-discouraged self. Look at the way he’s ignoring you. He’s gotten sick of you. You shouldn’t meet with him again. Get over it. You and him ended on that day in March. He dropped his gaze. ―If I was over it, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be looking for Matsuoka.

“Hey, Chief Matsuoka, are you coming to the after-party, too?”

Hirosue heard a young man’s voice behind him and turned around. Matsuoka was standing in the shadow of a pillar to his right. The girls who had been sitting at their table surrounded him like flowers in a bouquet.

“Knock it off with that ‘Chief’ thing. I’m not used to it. Makes my spine crawl.” Matsuoka was smiling wryly.

“You bet I won’t,” the young man responded cheekily. “It’s how I push your b.u.t.tons.” Matsuoka gave the man a gentle shove on the shoulder. They seemed to get along well, even with the man’s joking att.i.tude.

“Yeah, I’ll go to the after-party,” Matsuoka said. “I told Hayama I’d go.”

The cheerful atmosphere within the members of the group made it somewhat difficult for Hirosue to approach them. The girls surrounding Matsuoka were looking up at him with adoration. When he spotted their gazes, Hirosue felt something stir restlessly in the bottom of his heart.

“You know what I thought? Ms. Hayama’s sure didn’t choose him for his looks, did she?” the young man remarked insolently.

“That’s not true!” the girls around him protested. It was true; to be completely honest, to call the groom good-looking would be quite an exaggeration. But still….

“He looked like a really nice guy. Sweet, you know? I like those types of people,” Matsuoka said reflectively.

“Well, he sure did seem like the laid-back type,” the young man conceded. “Oh, anyway, about the after party―the restaurant is a little far away, so I thought we could split up and go by taxi. I had them book about three cars…”

Once Hirosue missed this opportunity, there were none left to him. And because there were other people around, he knew he wouldn’t be pointedly ignored. Hirosue approached the group of sales department workers. One of the girls hanging about Matsuoka noticed him. Before Hirosue could say anything, she gave him a smile and spoke to him.

“You were sitting at our table, right?”

“Um. Yes.”

Matsuoka had turned around and was looking at him.

“Um―I was wondering if I could talk to Mr. Matsuoka―”

All eyes in the group turned to Matsuoka. Just then, they heard the voice of a hotel employee.

“Is Mr. Shinozaki here?”

The young man who had been sitting beside Matsuoka raised his right hand.

“I’m here, I’m here,” he said. “Looks like that’s the first taxi. Chief Matsuoka, what do you want to do? I was thinking you could go with the first group…”

“Oh, sure. I’ll go on ahead, then.” Matsuoka put on a fake-looking smile. “I’m on my way to the after-party now,” he said to Hirosue. “Let’s catch up another time.” It was a smooth refusal. The girl beside Matsuoka spoke up.

“Would you like to come to Ms. Hayama’s after-party, too?” she offered.

“Mr. Hirosue’s from a different department,” Matsuoka intervened. “And our drinking party is going to be full of Sales people. I’m sure he’d only find it a nuisance if you invited him.”

“Oh―I guess so. I’m sorry,” the girl apologized hastily. Hirosue was sure Matsuoka was only using their different departments as a polite excuse to avoid him.

“When would I be able to talk to you?” he persisted.

There was no answer to Hirosue’s question. Hirosue no longer knew Matsuoka’s phone number or e-mail address. The man’s home address had changed as well. Try as he may, it was difficult to establish an opportunity if Matsuoka was not willing to.

“I’m going to be staying the night here,” Hirosue continued. “So maybe when the after-party is finished…”

Matsuoka tilted his head. “I don’t know what time I’d be done. I don’t want to make you wait.”

“Then, it can be tomorrow. If it’s until four o’clock tomorrow, I’ll still be…”

“I have plans all day tomorrow starting in the morning.”

Matsuoka agilely deflected every attempt. Hirosue had no way to gain a foothold on him. Matsuoka murmured discreetly to the girls to go ahead and get on the taxi, and sent them out of the hotel.

“Matsuoka, do you remember the business hotel called Verda close to the condo you used to live in? I’m staying in Room 305 over there. It doesn’t matter what time. I―”

“You’re telling me to go over there after the party is over?” Matsuoka stared straight into Hirosue’s eyes. “I won’t go. I won’t go even after the party is over. ―I don’t want to go.”

“Why not?”

“Why not?” Matsuoka echoed, smiling bitterly. “Because I don’t want to. Isn’t that enough of a reason?”

After uttering those words, Matsuoka turned on his heel. Hirosue could see the man climbing into the taxi. He hung his head and stood there, rooted to the spot. It was a while before he could move again.

 

Hirosue headed to the izakaya that he used to frequent when he lived in this area. He ordered drinks and no food. He started off the bat with sake and drank with the intention of getting drunk. But even after the drunkenness set in, it did him no good. Melancholic clouds continued to roll in and depress his spirits.

“Mr. Hirosue, are you alright? Are you sure I shouldn’t call a taxi?”

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” he rea.s.sured the worried female manager and staggered out of the restaurant. He walked towards the station. He felt like walking on and on forever. He wanted to walk to the ends of the earth, become wore down like a piece of sc.r.a.p wood, and meet his end. He began to feel quite reckless about the future. Right now, he was not afraid to die.

But his self-derogatory feelings began to fade when the alcohol began to leave his system. Walking was tiring, obviously. And no matter how much he wanted to forget, he could not. He remembered those eyes that rejected him. He felt a kind of pain as if his heart were being wrung out, and his own inadequacy was enough to make him shake. He was ashamed of himself. Embarra.s.sed.

Matsuoka had cut him loose. Hirosue had been made to face that fact in all its harshness. Even though he had already known, he had pressed forward stubbornly under the misconception that Matsuoka was still in love with him.

Hirosue conveniently found a station along his line and got onto the train from there. As he was b.u.mped along, tears began to spill from his eyes. He had been the one to end the relationship. He hadn’t been the one to get dumped. He had only been ignored and given the cold shoulder. He had no right to cry at something as insignificant as this. He wasn’t a child.

Shameful of his tears, Hirosue lowered his head, fell asleep, and ended up missing his station. He took the train back and finally arrived at the right stop. The scenery was still somewhat familiar to him, all because he had purposely reserved a hotel near Matsuoka’s condo―even though he knew the man was no longer there, all the past memories that his surroundings triggered were unbearable. Hirosue bought three sealed gla.s.ses of sake at a nearby convenience store.

Like a delinquent teenager, he sat down outside the convenience store and emptied one can. He hated the feeling of coming out of a drunken buzz and the antic.i.p.ation of returning to his normal mental state, and so he yanked himself back into inebriation. With his mind sluggish like a limp, stretched-out rubber band, Hirosue wondered what he had expected from Matsuoka.

Was he trying to force friendship onto a man who had insisted that he could not be friends? Was he doing this despite the fact that Matsuoka had told him over and over that he loved him, and that he wanted to be in a relationship? It was still a vague idea in Hirosue’s mind, but finally, after all this time, he began to feel like he understood how Matsuoka felt. And he felt exasperation was only a natural reaction for Matsuoka to have towards someone like him.

A teardrop fell. He hadn’t realized he was crying, so he touched his cheek to make sure. It turned out to be rain. He had expected some rain before the ceremony, and now here it was. Hirosue slid back in his seat underneath the narrow eaves. They did not cover his legs, which stuck out and got wet. But he didn’t care. He didn’t feel cold. Hirosue opened his second gla.s.s of sake.

 

He was woken by the sensation of collapsing heavily. His face hurt. Red carpet. Feet.

“A-Are you alright, sir?”

Someone’s voice.

“Sorry, can you actually give me a hand after all?”

He heard Matsuoka’s voice. But that soon faded away. His body was floating. As he watched his legs quaver unsteadily like jelly, he caught a whiff of cigarettes.

“Are you sure you don’t want us to call an ambulance?” someone’s voice said worriedly.

“I think he’s just drunk. ―If it looks like I need to take him to the hospital, I’ll call the front desk.” Matsuoka’s voice again. The feeling of rising up. He wondered if he was being lifted to heaven as his thoughts melted. He was sleepy. Very sleepy.

He heard the door slam. He curled up like a cat on the dark green carpet. It was a little cold. He felt his jacket being pulled off of him. His tie was loosened and removed, making him feel much more comfortable around his collar. As each article of clothing was taken off of him, he realized for the first time that he was wet.

In his underwear, Hirosue was pulled up to a higher place. Something was draped over his body, and he felt a sense of relief at its warmth. Something cold touched his cheek, and when he recognized that it was water, he clasped it with both hands. He brought it to his lips. The moisture hydrated his throat, and the haze in his head cleared a little. When he tried to take a second draught, his fingertips shook and he ended up spilling it.

“Geez, what are you doing?”

He heard scrambling footsteps. A towel wiped his mouth. Hirosue grabbed the hand that held it.

“What?”

His vision spun. He saw a blurry face that looked like Matsuoka’s. He was sure it was Matsuoka’s.

“…You said… you wouldn’t come…” He was being resentful. “…You said you wouldn’t…”

His fingers were shaken off.

“I wasn’t planning to come. I was at home when I found you pa.s.sed out drunk outside the convenience store. You were giving the store person a hard time, so I just brought you back to the hotel.”

Matsuoka turned his back.

“Don’t go!” Hirosue found himself yelling. His own voice reverberated in his head and made him feel nauseous. He clamped his hands over his ears.

“D-Don’t go… please… but I’m sleepy. Once I sleep… I’ll be… proper. So don’t go. Don’t go home. Once I sleep a bit, I’ll talk…”

His drowsiness dragged him in. The nausea. The stinging in his chest. A black veil fell over his eyes, everything turned vague, and Hirosue lost consciousness as if abruptly falling over the edge.

 

The quiet sound of something being drawn―then, a bright light. He could see a human figure in the glare. After staring out the window for a while, the figure heaved a sigh and sank down against the wall across from the bed. He flung his legs out and pulled the ashtray full of towering b.u.t.ts towards him.

His shirt was wrinkled and his tie was loosened. A red-eyed Matsuoka was smoking in an absent-minded manner. But the next minute, he would rake his hand through his hair, scratch it aggressively, and hang his head. The smoke from the cigarette between his fingers formed a thin thread as it drifted lazily to the ceiling.

When Hirosue moved, the bed creaked slightly. The man’s bowed head slowly lifted at the sound. Hirosue lifted himself up as the man’s eyes remained trained on him. The motion was enough to make his stomach churn. He had quite a bad hangover.

He sat on the bed and realized for the first time that he was only in his underwear. Yesterday, he had consumed some drinks at his usual izakaya, then gotten on the train. He felt like he had gone to a convenience store. He had no memories of what happened after that. Rain―he did feel like it had been raining.

He also didn’t know why Matsuoka was in the room. The man had said he wouldn’t come even after the party was over. He had refused to meet him, or to speak with him―because of that, Hirosue had drowned his sorrows in drink. But now, here the man was, right in front of him. Hirosue had no idea what was going on, but his desire to be alone with the man, to talk to him, had mysteriously come true. Although he felt sick, it was like a dream.

“―Oh, have a seat,” he said, pointing at the hotel chair.

“My legs’ll get tired,” Matsuoka muttered, and pulled one knee up to his chest. “When you say you’ll sleep for a little bit, Hirosue, do you mean all night?”

Hirosue sensed a sharpness in his words.

“Um, I… sorry, what are you talking about?”

Matsuoka knitted his eyebrows in displeasure.

“I have a vague feeling I went to the convenience store after drinking at the izakaya, but I don’t remember. Did I say something?”

“Never mind,” Matsuoka said in exasperation, and bowed his head again. Had he said something last night in his drunkenness that would lower Matsuoka’ opinion of him?

Seeing Matsuoka so clearly disappointed and fed up made Hirosue lose courage. But now was the chance to talk to him―now, when Matsuoka was tolerating his presence. There was no time to hesitate. He had asked Matsuoka to come because he wanted to talk, but he could not string together what he had wanted to say.

“I’ve been helping out at home after going back to my hometown.” He decided to start by talking about what he was doing at present. “It’s pretty busy, but all the workers are family, so it’s comfortable. Back when I used to work here, I used to get yelled at all the time, so… oh, but that was something I brought upon myself, so there was nothing I could do about that.”

There was not even a grunt in response from Matsuoka’s bowed head.

“My older brother has three kids, and the oldest one likes me a lot. He’s adorable. He’s in second grade at primary school, and… he might be a little like you, Matsuoka. Anyway, I help out at home, but I don’t get paid. My brother was saying he might be able to give me a small wage starting next month. It’d be about the same as a part-time student wage over here, but in the country, that’s more than enough to get by.”

It looked like the sun was coming up. The angle of the sunlight streaming through the window gradually began to shift.

“I have a lot of friends back in the country,” Hirosue continued. “My best friend had his wedding in May, and we were out drinking until morning. To tell you the truth, I hardly ever remember stuff that happened over here in the city anymore. But you were always on my mind, Matsuoka. I always wondered what you were up to.”

“―So?”

The silent figure opened its mouth.

“I was on your mind. So?”

Hirosue could not respond when he was pressed for an answer like this. Matsuoka had been on his mind, which was why he wanted to meet―which was why he wanted to talk. But there was nothing beyond that. As he stalled, unable to say anything, Matsuoka roughly ran his right hand through his hair.

“Give me a break, will you?” he croaked. “Why won’t you leave me alone? Do me a favour and don’t a.s.sociate with me just because you’re getting sentimental―all this reminiscing, or remembering, or because I’m on your mind. Just don’t. I’m begging you.” He sounded like he was about to cry.

“For you, Hirosue, it always stops there. It starts with interest, and it never gets further than that.”

He was right. Hirosue could say nothing back.

“Even if I were to invest in that interest and keep a.s.sociating with you, it’s going to end the same way again, isn’t it? I’m just a friend that’s on your mind, and that’s all it’s going to be. We’re just going to repeat the same thing again. Please,” Matsuoka pleaded, his voice barely audible. “Will you think about how I feel for once?”

Hirosue had thought about Matsuoka. But he had only thought of whether the man still loved him or not. He had never contemplated deeply about what Matsuoka had meant when he said he wanted nothing to do with Hirosue if they could only be friends.

Even when they had reunited after a long period apart, Matsuoka had refused to talk to him. Hirosue had been hurt by his cold att.i.tude. He had thought Matsuoka hated him, and that he was sick of him, but perhaps Matsuoka was only doing this so he wouldn’t get hurt―so he wouldn’t harbour any expectations.

Silence wore on. Matsuoka lit a cigarette.

“Hirosue, I just don’t think you’re compatible with men on a fundamental level.” His cigarette turned to ash in moments, and he dropped it into the ashtray. “You said so yourself. You don’t plan to get into any kind of relationship with me. When I heard that, I knew that was your honest opinion. That’s why I thought―fine, that’d be the end of that.”

Matsuoka smiled wanly.

“Did you find a new girlfriend over there? If you did, you should hurry up and get married. Then I’ll just be ‘that guy who used to follow you around’ and you’ll forget all about me in no time.”

If he got a girlfriend, if he got married―then, would he be able to forget about Matsuoka? Would he not remain in Hirosue’s heart forever, like the innocent romance of his childhood friend whom he’d walked home with on the next morning after the wedding?

Hirosue remembered the words of his sister-in-law.

‘If you were interested in her, you should have gotten married.’

Choosing a lifelong partner was an important thing; yet, in reality, “interest” was often enough to seal the deal. As an example of that, Hirosue’s older brother had suggested the hair stylist to him. Men and women did not need a reason to get married, and it was easy for them to do so. Yet, with a man, Hirosue found himself hesitating to step forward. No matter how earnestly Matsuoka professed his love, and despite the fact that Hirosue was interested in him, too, he was all-too-easily disregarded as an option.

What was the problem? Was it because men could not bear children? But there were many heteros.e.xual couples who didn’t have children. Was it societal pressure? But was he ever conscious about that?

No, that wasn’t it. Love was feeling desire towards the other person. Although Hirosue felt the desire to meet and talk to Matsuoka, he did not feel the desire to have s.e.x with him. In the past, he was supposed to have done, but he could still not imagine it.

Then, would the problem be solved if he could have s.e.x with the man? If he could interact with the man in that way, would something change?

Hirosue went and stood in front of Matsuoka, who was sitting with his limbs carelessly thrown out. Maybe he could get over his physical repulsion towards certain parts once he got used to it. Hirosue bent down, steeled himself, and touched the man’s chin. He felt a grittiness on his fingertips.

“…What?” Matsuka said.

“So it’s okay if I can do it?”

Matsuoka c.o.c.ked his head.

“So if I can… sleep with you, it’s okay?”

Matsuoka’s face instantly paled, then gradually transformed into an expression of fury. Only when Hirosue saw this change up close and in detail did he realize the verbal slip he had made.

“―I don’t believe this,” Matsuoka growled quietly, violently jerking his chin away. The man made to leave the room, and the sight of his retreating back made Hirosue finally aware that he had just said something irreversible. He couldn’t let the man just leave like this. Then, things would really be over. That much he was sure of, so Hirosue clung to the man from behind and prevented him from leaving.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry―” he implored.

“Let go of me!” Matsuoka struggled fiercely and relentlessly. But Hirosue was equally desperate to hold him back. While they grappled, they lost their balance, and Matsuoka fell heavily onto the floor. Hirosue clung to the man’s waist and apologized profusely.

“Just like you said, Matsuoka, I can’t draw the line with my emotions. But I can’t stop thinking about you. I get the urge to see your face, and it hurts when you’re cold to me. You’re the only one who makes me feel this way. That’s why―”

Matsuoka remained sitting on the floor and curled up into a ball.

“So what if you try it out because you’re interested―and then what? If it’s disgusting, are you just gonna say, ‘Oh, it wasn’t what I expected after all,’ and leave me again?”

Matsuoka’s rounded back was trembling.

“I won’t.”

“Liar!” Matsuoka spat as he turned away from him. “It’s always been like that. Every time I try to give up, you say you might love me, make me expect something more―and then in the end you tell me you can’t do it after all. You tell me we can’t be together because I’m a man. Pain isn’t pleasure for me, you know. I’ll be d.a.m.ned if I get dumped three times by the same guy.”

Matsuoka was upset; the tip of his nose and his cheeks were red. His eyes were watery and glistening at the edges. He had never seen the man’s face so raw with undisguised emotion. Hirosue wondered why he looked like this, and realized it was because of him.

He felt pity for the man, almost as if he were a bystander. And he was also filled with tenderness for him. Matsuoka was uncontrollably, irresistibly endearing. Hirosue reached out and tentatively touched the man’s cheek. The sensation of soft and supple skin only lasted for a moment before his hand was ruthlessly slapped away. But Hirosue refused to back down. He stroked Matsuoka’s cheek, touched his nose, rubbed his chin… then, grabbed those shoulders which were taut with tension and drew the man close.

Hirosue held the man in his arms. He did not treat him roughly. The man’s back was slender against his fingertips, but it was also sinewy and hard. His hair and his suit smelled like cigarette smoke. Hirosue did not think that the person he was embracing was a woman.

This was Matsuoka, he thought.

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