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Summer pa.s.sed by. One faintly-chilly morning in the beginning of autumn, Matsuoka turned off his third alarm clock, pulled the sheets over his head and curled up in bed. Soon, his cell phone started ringing. For a while he refused to move, but he knew this was the last chance given to him. He reluctantly picked up the phone.
“Good morning.” A trace of a smile could be detected in the voice that echoed placidly in his sleepy ears. “Ten rings. I think you’ve set a record. You’ll be late for work if you dawdle too much. I’m leaving my house for work now, too. Bye, then.”
The line went dead. Matsuoka sluggishly got out of bed and typed an e-mail while he brushed his teeth.
‘Was it me or was it really cold this morning? I want to be in bed still, to tell you the truth.’ He pressed “send”. He got a new message while he was pouring himself coffee.
‘You’re right, it was cold. Have you been tucking yourself in properly at night so you don’t get sick?’
Matsuoka replied while drinking his coffee.
‘Not bragging or anything, but I haven’t caught a cold in years. You know what they say about how certain types of people don’t catch colds.’
After sending a reply, Matsuoka changed into his suit. He fixed his hair and picked up his bag. Amidst his preparations, he received another e-mail.
‘It’s rare to hear someone say that about herself. From what I know, you seem like quite the competent office worker.’
Matsuoka left his apartment and typed as he walked.
‘Why would you think I’m competent? All I do is send you lame e-mails.’
He went through the ticket gates at the station and boarded the train. In the crowded car, he heard the sound of his ring tone as he received an e-mail, but he could barely move a finger. It wasn’t until he got off the train that he was able to check the message.
‘I don’t think your e-mails are lame. But I do think you’re very honest. I’m almost at work now, so I’ll e-mail you again at night. Have a good day at work.’
Matsuoka stowed his cell phone in his bag. Straight-laced Hirosue never sent e-mails from work. It was common sense, but there were always people who couldn’t follow these kinds of basic rules, no matter how old they got. Matsuoka himself had sent a few e-mails from work when he was still dating his girlfriend.
Maybe it was nothing to be so rigid about; maybe it was alright as long as no one found out and you didn’t cause trouble for anyone. But the sight of this man being so proper made Matsuoka feel like he needed to be proper, too. It was strange.
Ever since telling Hirosue his e-mail address, Matsuoka was getting frequent messages from the man. In fact, he got several of them a day. Matsuoka at first intended to reply a few times before asking the man not to e-mail him anymore, but he found himself enjoying their conversations more than he had planned. Unable to turn him down, Matsuoka kept letting it drag on until they had been in contact for nearly a month. One of the reasons why Matsuoka had trouble rejecting him flat-out was because Hirosue never sent him anything that hinted at the romantic, or anything along the lines of “I love you” or “I want to see you”.
His frequent messages came like one friend to another; for Matsuoka, who had been dumped by his girlfriend and was losing touch with his friends from university, these messages were a good distraction from his loneliness. Hirosue also never sent two messages in a row if Matsuoka didn’t reply. Matsuoka quite liked that he could carry on the conversation at his own pace.
It was about a week ago that he had begun receiving wake-up calls.
‘I can’t get up in the mornings. I was almost late for work again today,’ he’d said in an e-mail to Hirosue once.
‘I could give you a wake-up call if you like,’ came his answer.
‘Then call me at seven tomorrow morning,’ Matsuoka had said, half joking.
‘I wouldn’t mind doing that, but I don’t have your phone number,’ was the reply. Since they had been exchanging e-mails for about three weeks now, Matsuoka was under the impression that Hirosue already knew his number as well. He couldn’t decide whether or not to give the man his number. He hadn’t been intending to let Hirosue step any further into his life than e-mailing. However, considering how polite and courteous Hirosue had been so far, he probably wouldn’t call without good reason―so Matsuoka gave the man his number. Just as he predicted, Hirosue never rang him except for the wake-up calls at seven in the morning.
Now, they exchanged messages about three or four times in the morning and in the evening. Even if the e-mails were about ordinary things, like ‘I just ate’ or ‘I bought a book on the way home from work’, Matsuoka still happily antic.i.p.ated receiving them.
Even if they couldn’t see each other, Matsuoka could still sense the man’s kindness and consideration from his writing, and just reading it tugged his face into a smile and made him feel warm inside.
Aside from inserting a feminine sentence-ending here and there, Matsuoka acted like himself when he messaged Hirosue. Part of it came from his intention to destroy the overly-glorified image Hirosue seemed to have of him. His efforts seemed to work; Hirosue’s tension fell away as they exchanged more and more messages. Sometimes, he would even insert jokes that were lame enough to put a wry smile on Matsuoka’s face. On these occasions, Matsuoka told the man outright he wasn’t funny, internally telling himself he was giving the man life lessons.
‘Was it really that lame…?’ would come Hirosue’s feeble reply, making Matsuoka burst into laughter in front of his cell phone.
As soon as Matsuoka arrived at the office, he was kidnapped by Hayama, in administration. She told him she had to prepare materials to submit first thing this morning, and at this rate there was no way she would make it. She tearfully begged him to help. To be frank, Matsuoka had nothing to do with this. But Hayama was a fellow co-worker who had started working here in the same year as him, and seeing her nearly in tears made it hard to ignore her.
The copier in their department wasn’t fast enough, so Matsuoka and Hayama went down to the copier room on the second floor.
The copier room was open to all departments, and they found Hirosue was inside. Matsuoka would normally entertain himself by discretely observing the oblivious man, but right now there was no time for that. They hogged four out of five copiers in the room and ran them simultaneously. They had thirty minutes to copy fifty sets of thirty-one sheets. It seemed simply impossible.
“You can use this, too.” Hirosue freed up a copier, so they used that one, too. They couldn’t start binding the sheets until every one of them was copied, so they could do nothing but watch until the copies were done. Hayama was teary-eyed as she stood beside the copier.
“How did you end up in this fix, anyway? Don’t you usually prepare materials a day in advance?” Matsuoka asked.
“I don’t know,” she said obtusely.
“What do you mean, you don’t know? That’s careless of you.”
“Ms. Okabayashi is the careless one!” Hayama exclaimed indignantly. “I told her yesterday to make fifty copies of these materials, with thirty pages in each set, by tomorrow morning. But when morning rolled around, she said I hadn’t told her anything! When I snapped at her she started crying, and then the manager was all, ‘Did you really tell Okabayashi?’, like I was the guilty one…”
Matsuoka recalled another incident that involved Okabayashi and a dispute over whether or not she had received an order from a company. No harm had been done that time because the partner company had called to confirm the order in advance. Nevertheless, Okabayashi had insisted she hadn’t received the order, while the company representative insisted that she had. At the end of the whole affair, it was never made clear who was responsible.
“She’s always been careless,” Hayama continued angrily. “And when a problem comes up because of it, she just goes and blames it all on other people.” She dabbed at her watery eyes with her fingers and gave a loud sniffle.
“Um―” said a timid voice. Matsuoka turned around to see Hirosue standing there uncertainly. “If you’re in a rush to make copies, there’s another copier in the Development department on the second floor. You can put the copies together in the small meeting room on the fourth floor, since no one’s probably using it at this hour. I don’t think it’s locked, either.”
As soon as Hayama heard this, she took the original doc.u.ments and made a mad dash for the second floor.
“Does she need them for the morning meeting?” Hirosue asked.
“The president usually talks for the first fifteen minutes of morning meetings, so I think you could get away with delivering the materials afterwards.”
Hirosue peered at the materials that were already copied.
“I’m in General Affairs, so I’ll be going back to the seventh floor. How about I stop by the small meeting room and lay out whatever is done? In order of the page numbers, right?”
“It’s just on the way. Please don’t worry about it.” Hirosue flashed him a smile and gathered about ten bundles of copied papers before leaving the copier room. For Matsuoka, there was no doubt that it was a huge help. But truthfully he was surprised that Hirosue seemed to be like this towards everyone. Sure, they were fellow employees, but their departments were different and they barely knew each other. It’s all unwanted ha.s.sle he could have avoided, Matsuoka thought, then caught himself. Being kind to others seemed to come as second nature to Hirosue. That was actually pretty amazing, in Matsuoka’s honest opinion.
With Hirosue’s advice, they somehow managed to deliver the materials in time for the meeting. But their moment of relief was cut short as Hayama was summoned at once to the manager’s desk. Her appeals fell on deaf ears, and the discussion seemed to be progressing under the a.s.sumption that she had not given Okabayashi the instructions. It was piteous to see Hayama’s profile as she bit her lip, desperately fighting back tears.
As for the root of all evil, she was still seated at her desk, looking at Hayama with not a smidgeon of guilt on her insolent face. Matsuoka had been careful not to stick his head in disagreements, since Okabayashi was f.u.kuda’s girlfriend and all, but this time he wasn’t about to remain a simple bystander.
Matsuoka got up from his seat and nonchalantly approached the manager’s desk.
“Um, excuse me,” he said, “I actually overheard Ms. Hayama asking Ms. Okabayashi to make copies.”
An unpleasant ripple of hushed voices ran through the people around him. Hayama was looking at him with a stunned face.
“Is that true?” the manager asked gravely. He was turning forty-five this year, but his thinning hair made him look five years older.
“He’s lying.” Okabayashi stood up. Her usually-rosy cheeks were deathly pale.
“But I heard it.”
“You’re lying! You weren’t here that time, Mr. Matsuoka. You were out on your rounds.”
Matsuoka exhaled and hunched his shoulders.
“Okay, I might not have been here, but Hayama did actually tell you to make copies, then?”
Okabayashi finally seemed to realize she had dug her own grave in front of everyone.
“N―No, that’s not true!”
“What’s not true? You said so yourself. ‘That time.’ By ‘that time’, you mean the time she told you to make copies, right?”
Okabayashi curled up on the spot and burst into tears. Frankly, it was annoying.
“What’s crying going to do?” Matsuoka said coldly. “You’re a full-grown adult. Crying every time something doesn’t go your way isn’t going to solve anything. What were thinking, anyway, making other people clean up after your mistakes? Did you think Hayama deserved to get in trouble instead of you?”
Okabayashi, who had been sobbing loudly up until now, abruptly got up and ran out of the room. No one tried to go after her.
At eight in the evening, Matsuoka got a message as he was getting out of the shower. It was from Hirosue.
‘I just got home. I’m eating a makunouchi bento from the convenience store.’
‘I had a bowl of beef rice on the way home,’ Matsuoka said in his reply.
He got another message while he was watching television.
‘It must take a lot of courage for a lady like you to go into a beef-rice shop by herself. I admire you. I go sometimes, too. At the end of the month and stuff,’ said his message, which hinted at a rather woeful financial state. Salaries were commission-based in the sales department, which meant Matsuoka’s net income increased the more contracts he got. In terms of salary, he enjoyed better conditions than other departments.
“He’s honest to the point of stupidity, really,” Matsuoka muttered to himself.
For an average woman, the idea of a man having to go to beef-rice shops at the end of the month because he was running out of money was certainly not attractive. But Hirosue didn’t seem to mind talking about himself like this. Matsuoka was amused by his lack of superficial pride.
‘Mr. Hirosue, you did something nice today, didn’t you?’ Matsuoka wrote with an air of mystery, remembering the copier incident this morning. He got a reply immediately.
‘What do you mean, something nice?’
‘Try asking your heart,’ he replied.
‘I don’t know,’ came the answer.
Hirosue’s help with the copies had left an impression on Matsuoka, but the man himself didn’t particularly seem to think anything of it. It was kind of admirable how he could forget so easily about what he did.
‘That’s fine if you don’t know,’ he wrote, and got a question back in reply.
‘Did you see me somewhere today, Ms. Yoko?’
Matsuoka thought for a bit, then wrote back. ‘It’s a secret.’
‘No fair. I wanted to see you, too.’
Matsuoka inserted his cell phone in the charging dock and flopped down on his bed. He absently wondered if it was high time that mute Yoko Eto disappeared. It was fun exchanging messages, but day by day he was beginning to feel like it was time to move on.
He wanted to become friends with Hirosue, but if he lost Yoko Eto, he would have to meet with the man all over again as Yosuke Matsuoka. Seeing how close they were already, it seemed like a lot of extra work starting their relationship again from scratch. He sighed impatiently.
How did it come to this, he wondered. No doubt it was his own fault for not turning Hirosue down properly, and Matsuoka hated himself for it.
Once October pa.s.sed its halfway point, signs of autumn were well evident in the parks Matsuoka pa.s.sed by on the way to a sales visit, or even in the trees lining the streets. It was nearly two months since he had started to exchange messages with Hirosue as Yoko Eto.
That day, Matsuoka didn’t get a single message from Hirosue even after he had gotten home from work. He didn’t want to disturb Hirosue with a trivial e-mail if the man was busy, so he decided not to initiate a conversation.
The next morning, Matsuoka was so worried about not getting a single message the previous day that he woke up at his first alarm, stayed still between the sheets, and waited for his cell phone to ring. Although he did get his wake-up call at seven, Hirosue’s voice was listless.
“You were quick today. Were you already awake, by any chance? I’ll e-mail you tonight. Bye, then…”
None of the playful word games he usually said in the morning. Now Matsuoka was positive that something was up with Hirosue, but he didn’t want to force anything out of the man before he brought it up himself. He decided to wait until evening.
At eight o’clock, Matsuoka finally got a message from Hirosue. He opened it immediately, since it had been on his mind since yesterday.
‘I want to see you.’
That was all it said. No matter how badly Hirosue wanted to see him, Matsuoka had no plans to meet him in drag again. So he wrote, ‘I can’t,’ then sent it.
‘But I really want to see you,’ came the reply again.
Matsuoka found it strange that a man who was tactful enough to know his limits was suddenly so stubborn about seeing him. He sensed he ought to find out why the man wanted to see him, rather than worrying about whether to meet him or not.
‘Did something happen?’ he wrote.
‘Are you watching me from somewhere, Ms. Yoko?’ came the reply.
Usually, Matsuoka found it wearisome listening to other people vent, but this time it was different.
‘If you want to talk about something, I’m here to listen,’ he wrote. Hirosue was an exception. If the man had made a mistake, Matsuoka wanted to console him. If something bad had happened to him, he wanted to tell him that good things would come later.
It was a long time before he got an answer. One hour pa.s.sed, then two. Maybe it would end tonight without even a goodnight e-mail, Matsuoka thought. But close to twelve midnight, it came.
‘Something bad did happen, but I would end up complaining, so I won’t talk about it. I’m sure you wouldn’t enjoy hearing me talk about my company, about a place you don’t know, and it wouldn’t be very pleasant. Please forget about my e-mail today. I’ll never say I want to see you again. I’d be thankful if could still continue to e-mail me,’he wrapped up neatly.
The e-mail was unexpectedly lacking of all that Matsuoka had braced himself for. He read it over and over until he realized something: ‘I’ll never say I want to see you again,’ Hirosue had written. It was as if he knew Matsuoka didn’t want to hear it from him. Perhaps he had picked up the cues from their daily interactions.
He felt guilty about what he was about to do to Hirosue, who was already so unhappy he was begging to see Matsuoka. But in Matsuoka’s opinion, this really meant the end for Yoko Eto. Since he always acted like himself around him, he was p.r.o.ne to forgetting this fact: Hirosue was in love with Yoko Eto, not him. It was stupid for the man to be hurt over not being able to meet with an illusion.
‘Let’s not e-mail each other anymore,’ he wrote. ‘There’s something I haven’t been telling you. I’m in love with someone.’
Matsuoka sent the e-mail with the firm belief that this wasn’t going to sever his connection with Hirosue. Even if he had to start from square one, as long as he tried the best he could, he believed they would some day be able to talk honestly as friends.
His phone rang not even five minute after he had sent the e-mail. The ringtone was that of his daily wake-up calls. He immediately knew it was Hirosue. He debated it for a great while, but ended up taking the call.
“Sorry for calling so late. This is Hirosue.” He sounded extremely gloomy, so unlike his usual self. “Thank you for picking up. I won’t e-mail you anymore, nor will I call you, so you don’t have to worry. I figured you were already in love with someone, to tell you the truth. So I actually wasn’t very surprised when I read your e-mail.”
Hirosue spoke in regular, detached manner.
“I just wanted to tell you how I feel one last time, with my voice and not through e-mail. So I’m really happy that you’re listening to me right now.”
Matsuoka swallowed hard as he held his cell phone. Even if he knew what was coming, he felt nervous.
“I love you.” Hirosue let out a self-deprecating laugh after his confession. “I’m sure you could already tell even before I told you so.”
The silence wore on over the line. Matsuoka could do nothing but wait for his next words.
“I’m sorry. I knew this was just going to make you uncomfortable. Thank you for putting up with me all this time. Goodbye.”
Even after his last words, the line did not go dead. Unable to hang up himself, Matsuoka waited for the other’s response.
“Um…” he heard after a while. “Would you be able to hang up first?”
He hung up just as the man had asked. The moment he felt their connection die, Matsuoka was filled with a loneliness that surprised him. It was strange, since was the one who had brought up parting ways in the first place, but there was no disguising his honest feelings.
The next morning, Matsuoka arrived at the office and found out why Hirosue had been acting weird recently: it was posted on the common bulletin board on the first floor. With the advent of internal e-mail networks, it was rare these days to see human-resources decisions being physically posted up like this, but this company still engaged in this habit.
“It’s like public shaming,” a co-worker in Matsuoka’s cohort had once said. That was because promotions were posted along with demotions. What had been posted today was clearly the latter.
Re: Motofumi Hirosue of General Affairs
As of October 25, it has been announced that the above-mentioned will be seconded to Koishikawa Research Laboratory.
Matsuoka read the text over and over. Koishikawa Research Lab, like its name implied, was a department that mainly handled research and development. Unless you had technical expertise, there wasn’t much significance in working there. If a worker who joined the company on a general-duties track was sent to Koishikawa, he was in fact being relegated. He would be cast off like a dead weight from one department to another in this manner until he was finally laid off.
If I knew this was going to happen―Matsuoka regretted parting ways with Hirosue yesterday. Reeling from his demotion, the man had asked to see him. But far from consoling him, Matsuoka had told a huge lie and said he was in love with someone else.
He felt his heart wring painfully. If he had known, he wouldn’t have told the man he would stop the e-mails, that he already loved someone else. He would have been okay with dressing in drag again once to meet with him. If seeing him would have made the man feel even a little better―
He thought he heard f.u.kuda’s voice. Matsuoka turned around. f.u.kuda was exchanging greetings with the women at the reception desk. He crossed the entrance lobby, walking past the common bulletin board towards the elevators.
“Morning,” Matsuoka said to him. He spoke clearly enough and their eyes did meet, but he was promptly ignored.
Called by his name, the man finally stopped.
“What? I’m kind of in a rush right now.”
f.u.kuda was Matsuoka’s closest colleague among his cohorts, but his att.i.tude was unusually cold today. Someone’s in a bad mood, Matsuoka thought in irritation as he clicked his tongue discreetly.
“I want to talk to you about something. How about dinner tonight?”
“Yeah, I have plans this evening.” He was promptly turned down.
“I have errands tomorrow, too. I’m pretty busy these days. I don’t have any free time. You guys seem to be taking it easy, though. Lucky you.”
Matsuoka didn’t know where f.u.kuda was getting the idea that Sales “took it easy”. The man’s nasty tone also got on his nerves, and he responded waspishly.
“So when are you free? Next month? Next year?”
f.u.kuda gave him a clearly annoyed look. “Fine, I’ll be straight with you. I actually don’t want to talk to you right now.”
“What? What did I ever do to you?”
They hadn’t contacted each other for weeks and had barely exchanged any words. Matsuoka couldn’t think of anything f.u.kuda might be angry with him about.
“You know, I like you, and I acknowledge you’re one of the better ones out of our hiring year. But just because you’re good at your work, it doesn’t mean you can take it out on people below you, you know what I mean?”
“Huh?” Matsuoka c.o.c.ked his head.
“That co-worker in your year? You lied to cover her a.s.s, saying she did something she didn’t even do, and you humiliated my girlfriend in front of everyone.”
Matsuoka realized he was talking about Okabayashi’s blaming incident from about half a month ago.
“You mean the thing about making copies?”
“Yeah. You know how much c.r.a.p you caused because of that? She was in tears, and she was talking about quitting and everything. Apparently from what she’s telling me, you’ve always been mean to her.”
Matsuoka furrowed his brow deeply. He had no time to interact with Okabayashi, coldly or otherwise, when he was out of the office all day on sales visits. Women like her, who could easily blame others for their mistakes, seemed to feel no guilt towards lying. No doubt she had told her story to her boyfriend in a way that worked conveniently for her and made her seem innocent.
In this case, strongly refuting what she said would only make things worse and turn f.u.kuda against him more. That much was clear.
Matsuoka dropped his gaze and looked at his feet.
“I didn’t meant to act coldly towards her. These days I’ve been out of the office a lot, so I haven’t talked to her much. But if I somehow made her feel bad, I apologize. I’m sorry.”
At Matsuoka’s humble att.i.tude, f.u.kuda’s icy demeanour seemed to soften a little.
“As long as you understand, man. She can be sensitive, you know, so just be careful about that next time.”
A woman who brazenly ensnared her co-worker didn’t exactly seem like the sensitive type, but Matsuoka carefully avoided that topic. It was useless to say anything to a man wearing the rose-coloured gla.s.ses of romance.
“I’m really sorry.”
By apologizing over and over, he alleviated f.u.kuda’s distrust towards him. Matsuoka looked at his watch. They had less than five minutes until the work day started.
“Say, I had something I needed to tell you. It’s about Ms. Okabayashi, and it’s been on my mind a lot. I didn’t know if I should tell you, but I thought it would be a bad idea if you didn’t know…” Matsuoka trailed off pointedly, then looked at his watch. “Oh, look at the time. Tell you the rest later.”
“H-Hey! Wait a minute!”
He could feel the man biting at his bait. f.u.kuda came running after him as he headed for the elevators.
“Don’t leave me hanging like that. Now I want to know. What about her?”
“Yeah, but work is starting.” Matsuoka glanced at his watch exaggeratedly.
“Tonight, then. Let’s talk over dinner.”
f.u.kuda had apparently cleanly forgotten about the “plans” he had mentioned to turn Matsuoka’s invite down.
“But I thought you said you couldn’t tonight?”
“That’s fine, I can work it out. So, we’re good for tonight, right?”
Before long, it struck eight-thirty, the beginning of the work day. Matsuoka and f.u.kuda hurried into the elevator.
“I’ll e-mail you when I’m done work,” f.u.kuda said with emphasis as he clapped Matsuoka on the shoulder. Matsuoka got off the elevator first on the fifth floor, and got to his desk one minute late. As soon as he put his bag down, he went over to Hayama, the administrative staff.
“I was wondering if I could ask you about something,” he said. “How about lunch together? My treat.”
It was not too hot, not too cold. Matsuoka had longed for this time of the year, at the end of October. He neither had to deal with the weariness of smelling his own sweat like he did in the summer, nor did he have to freeze to death like he did in the winter.
The air was slightly on the chilly side as he walked side-by-side with f.u.kuda. When he tried to head for an izakaya, f.u.kuda intervened.
“I’m actually out of money this month,” he admitted. Matsuoka didn’t mind spotting him, but f.u.kuda had a bad habit of remembering what people owed to him while forgetting what he owed to others.
“So am I,” Matsuoka lied, heading directly for a beef-rice shop.
As soon as they got to their seats, f.u.kuda went straight for the main subject even before they had been served water.
“So, about my girlfriend,” he said.
“Hey, no rush,” Matsuoka said soothingly. “Let’s order first. I actually have some things I want to ask you, too. Mind if I go first?”
He added the last bit intentionally. f.u.kuda didn’t go so far as to override his request, and grew quiet. He ordered an up-sized beef rice and a beer, he turned to Matsuoka.
“So what’s this you wanted to ask me about?” he asked. It was obvious he wanted to get Matsuoka’s story over with so he could go on to talk about his girlfriend.
“You know that guy from General Affairs… Hirosue, was it? You know how he’s being transferred. Is it a demotion, or what?”
“Yeah, that’s right,” f.u.kuda said lightly, raking his bangs back. “It’s all a result of his c.u.mulative performance and his work ethic. I think HR has chosen an appropriate spot for him.”
I don’t know about performance, but he certainly has better work ethic than you,Matsuoka spat inwardly.
“But Hirosue’s not that old, is he? He looks thirty-three or thirty-four, around.”
“Wouldn’t it save the company more money to cut off someone who’s higher up, salary-wise?”
“I guess,” f.u.kuda said with disinterest. “But that’s what HR decided, so,” he shrugged.
“But you’re the one reporting workers’ behaviour to HR as their superior, right? Which means you must have written some pretty harsh stuff.”
“Oh, can you tell?” f.u.kuda said smugly as he gave Matsuoka a sidelong glance. “I know from this incident now that HR actually reads that stuff. I’ll admit I wrote some pretty nasty things. I can’t stand that guy, you know.”
It was absolutely unthinkable to let personal likes and dislikes take the reins over a decision that could change someone’s life. Matsuoka felt his temper rise at the casual way f.u.kuda spoke about it, but he settled with merely grunting “mm-hmm” in reply.
“Anyone can tell that it’s a demotion, so you bet even he’s pretty downcast about it. But when I think about how I only have to wait five more days until I don’t have to see his face again, I even feel kind of sorry for him, you know?”
Feel sorry for him? You did this to him in the first place! Matsuoka felt like grabbing the man by the collar and giving him a good shake.
“Oh yeah, there’s a farewell party for Hirosue the day after tomorrow. The guy who works under him organized it. Personally, I didn’t think we needed to. You know, it’s kind of mean to send him off with a fanfare and everything when he’s being demoted. That’s why I kept quiet, but some people are just meddlers, you know. Man, I don’t even have money right now. Why do I have to pitch in for that guy’s farewell party when I’m broke? It’s unfair.”
So now it was unfair. Matsuoka felt the energy leave him. What kind of questionable judgement had made the General Affairs manager pick someone like him to be chief?Sure, he’s skilful enough to do a decent job, but he’s got zero merits as a person. Zero.
Just then, their bowls of beef rice arrived, putting a temporary hold on their conversation. Matsuoka wolfed his beef rice down. His anger had apparently taken over his taste buds too, for he couldn’t enjoy it at all. f.u.kuda took a long draught of beer, emptying about half his gla.s.s before letting out a great sigh.
“Speaking of Hirosue, there’s just one thing that’s on my mind about him. A little while ago, I think, one of the girls in administration said she saw him walking with areally pretty girl. Apparently she wasn’t just any pretty, she was gorgeous―her face was so beautiful it would even make other girls swoon. When she asked him who the girl was, he apparently said she was a friend. She teased him and said if he’d known such a pretty girl all this time, he should have introduced her to everyone else. He didn’t agree to it, though.”
A serious man like Hirosue―a man who had confessed his love to him―would never go out walking with another woman. The “pretty girl” had to be Matsuoka.
“But if you think about it, you know, there’s no way that Hirosue could get a pretty girlfriend. He’s not that good-looking, his hair’s an awkward mess, and he wears the same suit all year round. My guess is that this girl is a soap-girl or cabaret girl.That’s probably why he can’t introduce her to people. Makes sense, right?”
Matsuoka wondered how many insults f.u.kuda had to pile onto Hirosue before he was satisfied.
“I know!” f.u.kuda exclaimed. “What do you think about putting him in the hot seat about it at his farewell party? We’ll prod him to call the girl, and we’ll ask her directly what she does as a job. Dude, this is gonna be so funny!”
Matsuoka slammed his empty beer gla.s.s down on the counter. f.u.kuda whipped around in surprise.
“What was that?”
“Sorry. Just ran out of beer.”
He was immediately served a second gla.s.s, and Matsuoka downed it in one draught. “So where’s his farewell party going to be held?” he asked.
“Where? This Vietnamese restaurant called Mùa Xuân on East Road, apparently. Why? What about it?”
Matsuoka took a long breath.
“We’re doing a farewell party soon, too. I thought I’d ask to get some ideas.”
“Heard it’s pretty good there,” f.u.kuda murmured before changing the topic. “So about my girlfriend,” he began. “What were you about to say this morning?”
“Oh, right. That.” Matsuoka let out a short sigh. In exchange for treating Hayama for lunch, he had gleaned a lot of information from her. Okabayashi was still dating Yoshida from Sales, and was two-timing him with f.u.kuda. Her real love, however, was a club host. Apparently she was running out of money from spending too much on him, but was managing to hang on by selling the brand-name gifts that the other two men had bought for her. Her lack of morals was appalling.
Perhaps it would have been relatively harmless if all she did was have men wrapped around her thumb; however, this woman even went as far as to spread stories about what s.e.x was like with those men. According to her, the host was the best, unsurprisingly; Yoshida’s skill was apparently “not too bad”. Matsuoka couldn’t help but feel sorry for f.u.kuda: if he hadn’t gone out with Okabayashi, he wouldn’t have had to be called “a two-pump chump who lay there like a dead fish.”
“Don’t leave me hanging, come on.”
f.u.kuda’s nagging firmly sealed Matsuoka’s decision. He had considered doing the man a favour by keeping silent, but he lost all sympathy after hearing the cruel ordeal Hirosue had been put through.
He didn’t know how accurate this second-hand story was, but just this once, Matsuoka decided to be the irresponsible man and air all the dirty laundry he had heard from Hayama.
Matsuoka stood in front of a shuttered store, two doors down from the Vietnamese restaurant, Mùa Xuân.
This was really going to be his last time crossdressing. His flower-print dress was simple, but had a very nice silhouette; as for the cardigan he wore on top, he picked the cutest one he could find. He aimed to become a woman whom one hundred out of one hundred men would find cute.
This was his first time doing personal shopping during work hours, but he had no choice; he wouldn’t have time to buy clothes after work.
Matsuoka browsed the shop windows for a place that stocked tasteful and cute clothes, and once he found one, he ran inside. He’d never bought women’s clothes in a store before, but he felt no hesitation in doing it.
“I want to give clothes to my girlfriend for her birthday. She’s about the same size as me. I want the cutest thing you have,” he told the salesperson.
The a.s.sociate appeared not to doubt him at all.
“She’s a lucky girl to have such a nice boyfriend,” she smiled as she picked out some clothes.
On the day of Hirosue’s farewell party, Matsuoka rushed back to his apartment, polished his body to perfection, and spent an hour putting on his makeup. He pulled all the stops putting on his face, using all of the technique he had built up until now. He couldn’t go too overboard, since thick makeup would make him look flashy, like a woman of the night. He made sure just to emphasize his eyes and double eyelids as much as he could, and aimed for a look that was cute, but at the same time, stunningly beautiful.
The woman in the mirror wearing the flower-print dress and the ultimate face of makeup was the picture of perfection. He was much, much cuter than the models in the women’s magazines he used as reference. It was almost frightening how beautiful he was, if he could say so himself. But Matsuoka still felt like it wasn’t enough, and practised smiling in the mirror over and over.
Matsuoka left his apartment at eight in the evening and arrived at half past eight on East Road, where the restaurant was located. He hid himself in the shadows of the building and called f.u.kuda’s cell phone. He invited the man out for drinks. f.u.kuda turned him down, just as he expected.
“I’m at a farewell party today. I told you about it, remember?” he said over loud chatter in the background.
“What time’s it gonna end?”
“In about thirty minutes, I think? Hey, where are you right now?”
“Wait―my reception’s really choppy. I can’t really hear―h.e.l.lo?―what the―” Matsuoka hung up, pretending he couldn’t hear the other end. When f.u.kuda called back, he turned his phone off, intending not to pick up.
Matsuoka slowly approached the restaurant, secured a spot a short distance away, and waited for the members of the farewell party to come out. Less than fifteen minutes after his arrival, a large group came streaming out of the doors. Matsuoka squinted and spotted a man holding a large bouquet of flowers coming out. It was Hirosue. f.u.kuda was there, too. When all of the farewell party members had gathered in front of the restaurant, Matsuoka raised his chin and squared his shoulders. He slowly went up to the man who had his back turned and gently took his arm.
Hirosue turned around to see Matsuoka standing behind him, and dropped his bouquet in surprise. A young worker standing in front of him picked it up hastily.
“Are you alright, Mr. Hirosue?”
A buzz erupted within the group as all eyes turned to them. Matsuoka dragged Hirosue away from the circle.
“Ms. Eto, what are you doing here?” Hirosue was looking at him as if he couldn’t believe himself. Matsuoka sidled up and rubbed against him like a cat. Just that was enough to make Hirosue freeze up nervously. Matsuoka took the man’s trembling hand and wrote on his palm.
‘I was just pa.s.sing by.’
He glanced at the circle of people they had left behind. Everyone was looking this way with avid interest. Matsuoka flashed a smile at the group. A few men responded with their own goofy grins.
‘Are you free to go somewhere with me right now?’ Matsuoka wrote, and tightened his arm around Hirosue’s.
“Oh―um, it was my farewell party today. I got, um, transferred… oh, but now the party’s over. Right.” He was a b.u.mbling mess. Hirosue was clearly very fl.u.s.tered. “I think I can go. Let me give my thanks to everyone one last time.”
As the man made to go back to the group, Matsuoka squeezed his hand. Hirosue hesitated a little, but squeezed his hand back, and led Matsuoka back to the group with him.
“Thanks for, um, doing this for me today,” he addressed the group. “I’ll do my best at my new workplace, so if you’re ever around Koishikawa Lab, please drop by to say h.e.l.lo.”
Everyone was busy gawking, not at Hirosue, but at Matsuoka, who was beside him. Matsuoka met their interested gazes with a friendly smile, and stared meaningfully at Hirosue as he spoke, as if to imply that their relationship was something special.
“I’ll be taking my leave here. Thank you for everything,” Hirosue concluded. The young man beside him who had picked up the bouquet spoke up.
“Um―!” he stammered. “Mr. Hirosue, is she your girlfriend?”
Matsuoka sensed Hirosue opening his mouth to say no, and gently pressed his right hand against the man’s lips. He flashed a smile at the group. A buzz simultaneously rippled through the crowd.
“She’s so pretty. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a person this beautiful before,” a female worker sighed as she gazed at Matsuoka, her eyelids bright blue from her excessive eyeshadow.
“So tall and fair… she’s like a model.”
Even the male workers joined in to bombard Matsuoka with questions.
“Where did you meet Mr. Hirosue?”
“How long have you been dating?”
More and more questions required him to give an answer. Matsuoka wore a fl.u.s.tered expression on his face and quietly buried his face in Hirosue’s shoulder. Instant silence fell across the group.
Matsuoka grasped Hirosue’s arm as if to hurry him, and looked intently into his eyes. Hirosue seemed to get his nonverbal message.
“I think she’s in a rush. Excuse us.”
No one tried to stop Hirosue. The two of them held hands as they walked. They heard footsteps chasing them, and they turned around to see the young man who had been standing with Hirosue earlier, holding the bouquet of flowers.
“You forgot this.”
For some reason, the bouquet was offered to Matsuoka. He accepted the flowers, and gave the man the most radiant smile he could. That was enough to make the young man turn beet red.
In the distance, he could see f.u.kuda standing alone, looking stunned. Serves you right, Matsuoka spat inwardly at the idiotic look on the man’s face.
Tomorrow, General Affairs would probably be abuzz with talk of Hirosue’s girlfriend. Matsuoka had wanted to get back at f.u.kuda for all the cruel things he said―that was the root of his crossdressing today. And its effects were impressive.
Go on and think I’m beautiful, he thought in vengeance. And I hope it makes you even a little jealous of Hirosue for having such a beautiful girlfriend.
Once they turned the corner and were cut off from the group behind him, Matsuoka suddenly felt sheepish that they were holding hands. He let his hand go limp, but Hirosue still didn’t let go.
“Where do you want to go?” Hirosue stopped and peered into Matsuoka’s face. There were plenty of places to go drinking since they were in a shopping district, but Matsuoka deliberately chose a 24-hour coffee shop. Although he had been the one to invite Hirosue out, he wanted to avoid getting into any more of an intimate situation.
Most of the other customers in the coffee shop looked ten years younger than them, and it felt like they didn’t belong. Despite having chosen a seat in the back around other unoccupied tables, they were still surrounded by noise.
Matsuoka peered into the bouquet while Hirosue went to get coffee. It smelled like the faint, gentle fragrance of flowers. He buried his nose in the bouquet and sniffed like a dog until Hirosue came back and chuckled at him.
“Please keep those flowers.”
Matsuoka stared back at him, unable to say yes, and Hirosue grinned.
“You don’t have to feel bad. The kind wishes I’ve gotten from everyone is enough. Please put the flowers in your room, Ms. Yoko.”
Matsuoka personally didn’t have much use for the flowers, but he felt like Hirosue strongly wanted to give them to him, so he nodded.
Matsuoka placed the flowers on the seat beside him, and took a sip of coffee. He wondered why he was feeling so hungry, and after much thought, realized he hadn’t eaten dinner. He’d completely forgotten from being too engrossed in perfecting his makeup.
Hirosue had just eaten at his farewell party, so he was most likely not hungry. Matsuoka thought it might be rude to be the only one eating, but in the end he couldn’t win against his empty stomach.
‘Do you mind if I eat a little?’
He discreetly handed the memo to Hirosue. The man hastily got to his feet.
“What would you like? I’ll get it for you,” he said.
‘I’ll buy it myself. Please don’t worry,’ Matsuoka wrote and showed him, but the man refused to step down.
“No, I’ll buy,” he said firmly.
Matsuoka sensed that further argument would probably only make things awkward, so he relented and asked for a hot dog. One wasn’t nearly enough, to be truthful, but eating two or three wouldn’t be very ladylike. He also decided to be modest since Hirosue was treating him.
Matsuoka absently watched Hirosue’s back as the man placed the order at a self-serve counter. Out of the blue, a man approached him to start a conversation.
“Hey,” the man said. Matsuoka could tell at first glance that the man was younger than him. He was tall, with brown hair. He was wearing a shirt with a strange pattern, but since it looked good on him, it appeared he had at least some fashion sense.
“Are you alone?”
People often tried to strike up a conversation with Matsuoka when he was in drag. Since Matsuoka was usually walking when it happened, all he had to do was ignore them to shake them off. If they still persisted, he chased them away by telling them he was meeting someone. Matsuoka glanced at Hirosue, who was still at the counter. Matsuoka couldn’t speak up because he’d told Hirosue that he couldn’t talk. If Hirosue happened to hear him, his lie would be exposed instantly.
“If you’re alone, what do you say to some drinks with me? I know a good place.”
Matsuoka let the reluctance show on his face, but the man showed no intent of giving up. Matsuoka was about to pull out his memo pad to write that he was with someone when he heard Hirosue’s voice.
“Is he your friend?” Matsuoka looked up to see Hirosue with the hot dog on a tray, about to sit down in the seat across.
Guilt crossed the man’s face.
“If you’re with a guy, you should just say so,” he snapped before making his exit. Hirosue sighed in relief.
The tray was pushed in front of him. Matsuoka inclined his head a little in lieu of thanks and picked up the hot dog. He was famished, no doubt about it, but it was extremely difficult to eat. The reason lay in the man sitting across from him, who was staring at him so intently it was hard not to notice.
The single hot dog was enough to make him full. Matsuoka wiped the mustard off his fingertips with a paper napkin.
“Why were you in town today?” Hirosue asked him, as if he had been waiting for Matsuoka to finish.
‘No reason. I had nothing to do,’ Matsuoka wrote back.
“You didn’t have plans to meet with anyone?”
Matsuoka slowly shook his head.
“Did you find me by coincidence?”
He nodded firmly.
“Why did you act like you were my girlfriend in front of everyone?”
Matsuoka didn’t know how to answer him.
‘Just because,’ he wrote vaguely, and handed the paper to Hirosue.
“You do these things ‘just because’? You haven’t forgotten that I told you I love you, right?”
Now that it had been pointed out to him, Matsuoka realized and regretted his misleading att.i.tude for the first time. He’d cut off their relationship in a one-sided way, yet on his own whim he was hanging off the man’s arm, taking advantage of his kindness. It was no wonder Hirosue was angry.
‘I’m sorry,’ he wrote, and offered the note to the man. Hirosue read it, then propped his elbows on the table and cradled his head. Matsuoka felt like he’d made the man even angrier by apologizing. He didn’t know what to do anymore. But no matter how many times he wrote “I’m sorry” on paper, it would probably make no difference.
Hirosue’s att.i.tude made him restless with guilt, and Matsuoka rubbed his knees together under the table many times. If he could, he wished he could just go home right now.
“To tell you the truth, I’m at a loss.” Hirosue finally lifted his face. Matsuoka was relieved to see that the expression on his face was not anger.
“I was really happy that you came up to talk to me. When you pretended to be my girlfriend, I felt like I was dreaming.”
He took Matsuoka’s hands in his on the table, making him flinch.
“How do you feel about me?”
It wasn’t a yes or no question, and since both of his hands were being held, he couldn’t write anything. Matsuoka could do nothing but stare at the man before him.
“You said you were in love with someone. Are you dating him?”
Matsuoka shook his head. He didn’t think deeply about what that meant.
“You’re not dating? So your feelings are one-sided, Ms. Eto?”
Since Matsuoka had just said they weren’t dating, he had no other choice but to nod now.
“Why don’t you tell him your feelings? Someone as beautiful as you would probably have no problem―” Hirosue trailed off and shut his mouth. He wrinkled his brow and stared at the table with a difficult expression.
“Do I have a chance?” His eyes were so serious, they were frightening. “Do I have a chance of you loving me back?”
A torrent of words pelted Matsuoka until he gave an answer.
“Because if you hated me, you would ignore me if you saw me on the street, right? But you didn’t. Can I take that as a sign that you have some feelings towards me, even if it’s just as a friend?”
Hirosue’s grip tightened, and he pressed Matsuoka’s fingertips to his forehead as if in prayer.
“I know how you feel. But I don’t mind. When you’re bored, when you’re lonely―call me. In return, I just want you to let me be in love with you, forgive me for wanting to see you. And―” his words continued. “If you get across to the person you love and I become a nuisance to you, please just say so without worrying about me. When that happens, I’ll give up on you for sure.”
Matsuoka’s heart ached as if he were the one who had said it. If he were a girl put into this situation, he would have agreed to date him without a second thought. In fact, if a woman didn’t fall for him after such a display of pure love, there was something clearly wrong with her.
Even while Matsuoka was being dragged along by those heated feelings, a faint doubt crossed his heart. They usually only conversed through e-mail. This was their fifth time seeing each other in person. What had made this man love him to this extent? Although they made small talk, Matsuoka had never divulged his honest opinions to Hirosue. But this man was saying he loved him.
Matsuoka knew it was unnatural for him to see Hirosue in a woman’s guise. That was precisely why he had avoided it. But now, his desire to know was enough to make him turn a blind eye to the abnormality of this situation. Where did this man’s feelings stem from, and how deeply did they run? Matsuoka wanted to see for himself.