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When Matsuoka woke up in the morning, the first thing he did was look at his digital calendar. August 2nd―just staring at the letters made his forehead break out into a sweat. As he was jostled along on a packed commuter train, the fishy body odour of the middle-aged office worker in front of him a.s.saulted his nose for the entire ride. The unpleasantness was still lingering about him when he arrived at the office. Hayama approached him as soon as he had put his bag down on his desk. After a quick greeting, she jumped into the main topic.
“You two can meet this Sat.u.r.day at ten in the morning in front of Shimazu Station. How does that sound?”
If Hayama had just told him Fujimoto’s phone number, he could have contacted her directly and Hayama wouldn’t have had to go out of her way to arrange everything. But Matsuoka figured she was just trying to be helpful, and kept his mouth shut.
That was Thursday. On Friday night, one day before the scheduled aquarium trip, Matsuoka got a phone call from Hayama.
“I’m wondering if it’s alright if I come along with you two tomorrow,” she said. Hayama’s tone was guilt-ridden and she seemed sorry that she even had to bring this topic up. “At first, Mako said she was alright with meeting you alone, but suddenly today she said she wasn’t really keen on it. And she’s being really stubborn about it.”
Matsuoka smile wryly. He and Fujimoto had met and talked once already, yet she was still unwilling to be alone with him. She was timid to the point of being absurd.
“I told her off about it, too, that it would be an insult to you,” Hayama continued. “But she told me she just can’t do it. So, I hope you’ll let me tag along in the back. I’m sorry. I’ll leave partway if Mako seems fine by herself.”
Matsuoka ended up agreeing to the chaperoned date. He could tell Hayama was looking out for both of them as their mediator, and he didn’t want her efforts going to waste.
The next day, Matsuoka arrived ten minutes early at their meeting spot in front of the station. Since he wasn’t allowed to park his car there, he took it to the parking garage instead, though he knew he would be back to retrieve it shortly. The sky was blue, and the sun’s rays beat down fiercely. Matsuoka slipped into a shady spot in front of a vending machine and wiped his clouded gla.s.ses. He didn’t wear his fake gla.s.ses at work, but since today was a date, he made an effort to look nice like he did last time. He wasn’t expecting anything. He scoffed inwardly at himself for trying so hard for a date that was a mere obligation.
Fujimoto showed up accompanied by Hayama, five minutes past their meeting time. This time, Fujimoto was wearing a shirred top and a skirt that came down below her knees instead of jeans. She was also fully made up, which brought out her feminine features. Hayama was also wearing a simple and cute navy one-piece dress.
“Hi, again. I had a great time the other day,” Matsuoka said to Fujimoto’s slightly lowered face.
“Hi,” she replied in a barely-audible mumble.
“Can you two wait here? I’ll bring the car around,” Matsuoka said as he made for the parking garage.
“Oh, wait,” Hayama stopped him. “We have one more coming.”
Matsuoka had a bad feeling. “Who?” he asked. He didn’t even have to wait for an answer, for a voice spoke up behind him.
“Um,” it said, “I’m sorry I’m late. I missed my stop.”
Matsuoka turned around to see Hirosue. The man wore a faded shirt and an equally worn-out pair of cotton pants. The stubborn cowlick on the back of his head was visible even from the front, and stuck straight up like a horn.
“I invited Hirosue along, too. I thought one more person wouldn’t make a difference.”
With his back to Hayama’s words, Matsuoka fixed Hirosue with a withering glare. The man shifted his gaze uncomfortably. Matsuoka had a load of things he wanted to say, but he wasn’t about to voice them here.
He bit his bottom lip hard. If he knew Hirosue had been coming, he would have lied that his parents were in the hospital so he didn’t have to come. He would have avoided coming at all costs.
“Matsuoka?” Hayama’s voice brought him back to reality.
“So I’ll get the car, then.” Matsuoka started walking briskly. For the entire time while he pulled out of the parking lot, right up to the moment he pulled up in front of the station where the other three were waiting, Matsuoka was quite seriously considering going straight home instead.
Since their outing was still considered a date, at least in name, one normally expected the pairs to sit together in the car. However, Hirosue was the one who dominated the pa.s.senger seat beside Matsuoka.
“I think I’d be too nervous to talk if we sat beside each other,” Fujimoto had said, and the two women ended up sitting in the back seat together.
Their conversation carried on nicely; they were familiar with each other since they had met before, and both Hayama and Matsuoka made an effort to keep the conversation going. Hirosue, however, did not partic.i.p.ate in their chatter unless Hayama directed the topic at him. At first, Matsuoka simply a.s.sumed the man didn’t feel like talking because of him. But the sight of the man’s tense expression, his bowed head, and his refusal to look at the road reminded Matsuoka that Hirosue had mentioned being unable to drive ever since causing an accident a long time ago. As if to back up Matsuoka’s hypothesis Hirosue’s face turned from white to bluish once they merged onto the highway.
“Can we take a break?” Matsuoka said, and pulled into a parking lot a short distance from the highway ramp. Hayama and Fujimoto went to the restrooms together, and Hirosue tumbled out of the car and slumped weakly onto a bench in the shade.
The cicadas hummed over their heads as Matsuoka approached the man. Hirosue slowly lifted his head.
“Why didn’t you say no to coming?” Matsuoka asked.
Hirosue only responded with silence to his blaming tone.
“Hayama told you I was coming when she invited you, right? Didn’t I say this to you already before? Use your head a little if you want to avoid awkward run-ins like these.”
Hirosue pressed his trembling fingertips together near his mouth.
“I did hear that you two were going together, and that Ms. Hayama was going to go along. But this morning, I suddenly got a call from her saying she wanted me to come, too. She said if I went, it would be easier to split up into two groups. She could leave you and Ms. Fujimoto alone together without having to worry.”
Matsuoka wished he hadn’t heard the man’s answer. That way, he would have been able to keep a.s.suming that the slumped man before him was simply insensitive.
“She begged me to and I couldn’t say no.”
Matsuoka went back to his car, leaving the man staring at the ground. He got in, leaned against the steering wheel and closed his eyes. Perhaps Hirosue had come out of consideration for him and Fujimoto, but he didn’t want that kind of attention. It only made him feel belittled. Gestures like that, which could not be credited to kindness, nor much else for that matter, were the hardest to deal with.
Hayama and Fujimoto came back after a while. Fujimoto offered a can of coffee to Matsuoka in the driver’s seat.
“Here you go,” she said.
“Thanks. I was actually pretty thirsty.” Matsuoka thanked her and accepted the can, but did not open it. He had been avoiding coffee for a while because of stomach problems. Hirosue returned soon afterwards, still looking as pale as ever. He did smile, however, as he accepted a can of coffee from Hayama.
“We’ll be heading out soon,” Matsuoka said. “Ms. Fujimoto, why don’t you ride in the front?”
Fujimoto widened her eyes in surprise in the back seat.
“It’s hard to talk when you’re sitting in the back and I’m in the front. Besides, I think Mr. Hirosue has stuff to talk about with Hayama.”
Hirosue’s mouth was half-open, looking as if he was about to say something, but no words came.
“Come sit beside me.”
Fujimoto was looking at Hayama in a plea for help.
“Go on,” Hayama encouraged, showing no signs of rescuing her.
At Matsuoka’s strong request, Fujimoto ended up sitting beside him. I probably shouldn’t be too talkative around her type, Matsuoka thought, and was careful to leave just enough breathing room between each utterance without letting the silence draw out for too long.
He glanced every now and then at Hirosue through the rear-view mirror. The man looked much better than when he had been sitting in the pa.s.senger seat. After about an hour on the highway, they arrived at the aquarium, which was adjacent to a small shopping mall on the seaside. The four of them started out touring the aquarium together. Partway through, Hirosue and Hayama disappeared right on cue. Fujimoto attempted to look for them, but Matsuoka a.s.sured her that it was better not to.
“It’s probably kinder to leave them alone. If we need to get in touch, we can always call their cells,” he said, and they continued through the aquarium together. When they reached the exit, Hayama and Hirosue were there, just as he had expected.
“Sorry, we got lost on the way,” they lied lamely.
It was past twelve by the time they finished taking a full tour of the aquarium. The afternoon segment of the dolphin show that Fujimoto wanted to see was scheduled to happen at one-thirty, so they decided to grab lunch while they waited. As they exited into the shopping mall, they were faced with a number of restaurants to choose from. Hayama stopped in front of an Italian-style restaurant with a stylish exterior.
“How about here?”
Matsuoka didn’t care what it was, as long as it would fill his stomach.
“Yeah, sure,” Hirosue said, but not very enthusiastically. Oh yeah, he prefers j.a.panese food over Western food. I wonder if Hayama knows, Matsuoka thought idly. But Hirosue did not a.s.sert himself, and the general consensus seemed to lean in favour of this restaurant.
“Oh, actually, sorry, I think I feel like eating something with rice,” Matsuoka said abruptly.
“j.a.panese food, then?” Hayama said promptly, and pointed to the rice-bowl restaurant beside it. No one protested against it, so they all went in together.
They sat down in pairs on each side of a four-person table. Fujimoto still seemed reluctant to talk to Matsuoka, and did not say much. Matsuoka did discover, however, that she suddenly became articulate when the topic turned to dolphins.
“You know, come to think of it, you are pretty good-looking, aren’t you, Matsuoka?” Hayama murmured out of the blue during a lapse in their conversation.
“What’s this, all of a sudden?” Matsuoka said as he laughed and hunched his shoulders.
“I already knew you were good-looking, but it really hit home when we met up at the station. When I saw you, I wondered how you could make a plain black T-shirt and jeans look so put-together. And that ring and necklace―are those Chrome-something? That brand?”
“No, no. No way,” Matsuoka said quickly. “I would never buy something that expensive. I bought these at a stall in front of the station. You know, since I got a new haircut. I thought these kinds of accessories might go well with it.”
He glanced at Hirosue, but the man’s gaze was lowered vacantly and he did not seem to be listening. Matsuoka was constantly conscious of the man across from him, but Hirosue did not seem as attentive. Matsuoka definitely did sense throughout that the man wasn’t enjoying himself. He felt instantly depressed when he wondered if it might be because of him.
When walking in public, Hirosue would stay close to Hayama, but would not hold her hand. But when he had walked with Matsuoka, the man had eagerly held hands with him. After feeling a brief rush of meaningless superiority, Matsuoka arrived at the thought that perhaps Hirosue was just avoiding holding hands so Matsuoka wouldn’t feel hurt. He plunged back into feeling pathetic again.
The dolphin show started in the afternoon. Fujimoto watched with glowing eyes, but Matsuoka was barely paying attention. The seats around the pool were crowded with families, and there wasn’t enough s.p.a.ce for the four to sit together. They split up into pairs instead, and Hayama and Hirosue sat down in the two seats in front of them. Instead of the dolphins, Matsuoka was busy staring at the back of the man’s head, with its unfashionable haircut and untamed hair.
After the show, the group looked around the aquarium gift shop. Matsuoka walked around with Fujimoto, and bought her a dolphin-shaped cell phone charm. It was only expected of him, Matsuoka thought, but Fujimoto overreacted with such an apologetic att.i.tude that he was a little taken aback.
The two of them finished their shopping and went to see what the other pair was doing. Hayama and Hirosue were still looking at the merchandise. Hayama was looking unsure about a ballpoint pen with a dolphin charm that she was holding.
“It’s kind of childish, isn’t it?” she said in the end, and put it back. Hirosue should buy it for her, Matsuoka thought, but the man standing beside him showed no signs of doing so.
Just as they were about to head home, Matsuoka turned to the group.
“Hold on a minute,” he told them, and left the other three waiting in the car. He discreetly returned to the shop and bought the ballpoint pen that Hayama had been eyeing.
Fujimoto sat in the pa.s.senger seat on the way back. She finally seemed to be getting more comfortable, for she began to talk in small bursts about things other than dolphins. As Matsuoka listened to her speak, humming occasionally in response, he soon noticed it had fallen quiet behind him. He peered into the rear-view mirror. Hayama was resting her head on Hirosue’s shoulder with her eyes closed.
Matsuoka felt his chest squeeze painfully. The pain even reached his fingertips. His heart trembled, and the careful balance he had maintained until now seemed to crumble away beneath his feet.
“Can we―” his voice was unnaturally loud. “Can we stop and take a break?” he said to the group before pulling into the next parking area.
“Are you alright?” asked Fujimoto, as soon as he had stopped the car.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Matsuoka answered shortly, and got out.
He went to the resting area inside the store and sat down on a chair.
“d.a.m.n it all,” he muttered to himself as he drank a bottle of tea he had bought at a vending machine. There was nothing he could do about being dumped. They had balanced the books of their past, and now they had each found someone new; on the surface, it was supposed to be happily ever after. But for Matsuoka, it was all in form only. His feelings weren’t keeping up with the facts.
He told himself he was perfectly fine with seeing the two together, but once he was caught off-guard, his bravado fell away all too easily. So easily, it was shameful to watch.
“Mr. Matsuoka.” Matsuoka slowly lifted his head. Hirosue was standing in front of him. Hayama was nowhere nearby.
“You must be tired,” the man said. “I’m sorry for making you drive the whole way. I…”
“You can’t drive because of that time you ran someone over, right? I know,” he said shortly.
Hirosue’s face hardened. Matsuoka immediately regretted his harsh outburst.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“No,” Hirosue said quietly. “I think I can manage to drive a little if I try. But I don’t think I can handle the highway right away.”
“It’s okay. I’m not that tired. I don’t mind driving, either.”
He spotted Hayama behind Hirosue, coming towards them.
“Are you alright?” Hayama said. “Mako was saying you didn’t look too well.”
Matsuoka tried to put on a smile, but he wasn’t sure how convincing it looked.
“I’m fine, I’m fine. I was just a little thirsty.”
Hayama still seemed worried as she looked to Hirosue beside her.
“You have a driving license, don’t you, Hirosue? Do you think you could take over the driving for Matsuoka? Mako and I have licenses, but we barely have any experience.”
Hirosue dropped his gaze. “Um,” he mumbled.
“Oh, no, no, don’t worry about it,” Matsuoka b.u.t.ted in. “I don’t like other people driving my car. It’s unsettling, you know?”
“Yeah, but,” Hayama protested.
“Isn’t Ms. Fujimoto alone in the car right now? I plan to head out in ten minutes or so, so you go ahead and wait in the car.”
His mention of Fujimoto seemed to remind Hayama of her existence.
“See you in a bit, then,” she said, and headed back to the car.
“Why don’t you go back to the car, too, Mr. Hirosue?” Matsuoka suggested, but the man did not move.
“I’d rather not have to worry about other people when I’m not feeling well, alright? Can you just leave me alone for a bit?” he said harshly. Only then did Hirosue leave his side.
After they pulled out of the parking area, everyone was rather quiet out of consideration for Matsuoka. Matsuoka found this atmosphere so suffocating that he made an active effort to carry on a conversation. There was no time for him to wallow in futility or to wish he didn’t have to see the two of them in the back seat.
They arrived back at the station they had met at before five in the evening. Since they were planned to go their separate ways from here, Matsuoka pulled up to the no-parking curb.
“This is for you.” Before they said goodbye, Matsuoka handed a small bag to Fujimoto in the pa.s.senger’s seat. “Open it,” he encouraged.
Fujimoto opened the bag. Her face lit up, and she held the ballpoint pen with the dolphin charm in her hand happily.
“It might be kind of kiddish,” Matsuoka said. Fujimoto shook her head.
“I’m really happy. Thank you.”
“Good for you,” Hayama said, looking longingly at the pen. Matsuoka threw a glance at Hirosue, but the tactless man did not even look regretful.
Matsuoka kept smiling until he parted with the other three. Once his car was in motion and he lost sight of everyone else, the smile vanished from his face and his whole body felt weighed down with exhaustion.
He was still lethargic when he got home. Too apathetic to do anything, Matsuoka sank to the floor without even turning the air conditioner on. I shouldn’t have given that pen to Fujimoto in front of Hirosue’s face. He had inadvertently given away a glimpse of his nasty side with his subtle gesture of pa.s.sive aggression. But he had not planned from the beginning to make Hayama jealous and bring down Hirosue’s reputation by proving how tactless he was.
Here was a man who lacked the sensitivity even to buy something that his lover was eyeing―even something as cheap as a ballpoint pen. At first, Matsuoka had been planning to pa.s.s the pen to the man, advise him to give it to Hayama, and subtly instruct him on the basics of relationship etiquette. But partway through, he lost the heart even to do that.
His thoughts, his actions, made him sick of himself. Left like this, he felt like he would spiral deeper into his miserable rut and ultimately end up detesting himself. He didn’t want to meet Hirosue anymore. He didn’t even want to see the man’s face.
His phone suddenly rang as he received a new message. Although he had no basis, he felt like it was Hirosue―he was almost certain it was. He pounced on his cell phone. The e-mail was from Fujimoto.
‘I really enjoyed myself today. Thank you.’
Matsuoka turned off his cell phone right after reading the e-mail, and left it like that for the entire night.
In the morning, he nervously turned on his cell phone. There were no signs of any new e-mails or missed calls.
Matsuoka sent an e-mail to Fujimoto the next day. He lied that he had fallen asleep right after getting home and had not noticed the e-mail. He also did not forget to write, ‘Next time, let’s meet with just the two of us.’
On Monday, when Matsuoka went back to work, Hayama approached him in high spirits.
“I’m sorry about Sat.u.r.day. You must have been tired.”
Matsuoka tried to ignore the knot in his heart.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said with a smile.
“Mako and I had dinner together after you dropped us off at the station. She said she had a lot of fun.”
“Oh, yeah?” The news that she had enjoyed herself caused no ripples in Matsuoka’s emotions, and they remained flat. He even felt frustration at how honest his heart was. Matsuoka turned around and pretended to look at the clock on the wall.
“I have to start getting ready to go on rounds,” said Matsuoka, trying to wrap up the conversation.
“Mr. Hirosue, you know―” Hayama began at almost the same time. Matsuoka’s whole body flinched just hearing the man’s name.
“What?” he asked. Hayama shook her head.
“No, it’s nothing much. You’re busy, aren’t you?”
“I don’t like to be left hanging like that. Tell me.”
“It’s really not that big of a deal, but,” Hayama continued, “Hirosue asked me a lot about you. Like about your personality, and stuff. But you two have known each other for a while, right?”
Matsuoka’s palms were sweaty. His pulse quickened.
“We just say hi to each other once in a while.”
“Oh,” Hayama said. “Well, the thing is that Hirosue doesn’t talk much in general, but he seemed to be really interested in you, so I was wondering why.”
The man had been asking about him. Did that mean he was at least a little interested?
“Is he really that untalkative?”
Hirosue had talked frequently when Matsuoka had dated the man as Yoko Eto. Granted, he never said much, but he was definitely not silent altogether.
“He’s a quiet person,” Hayama said. “He’s nice, but he can be a little slow to get the hint sometimes. I like that part of him, too, but sometimes I get kind of impatient. Even now when we’re dating, I don’t really have a good idea of how he feels.”
Hayama sighed and raked her bangs up.
“Matsuoka, do you have time this evening?”
“I want to talk to you about some stuff, including the whole thing with Mako.”
I wouldn’t if I were you, whispered something in his heart. Matsuoka didn’t think he could watch Hayama talk about Hirosue without letting any of his own emotions interfere. He would get jealous, be hindered by ugly emotions, and he would end up hating himself like he did Sat.u.r.day night. He knew he would.
“Sure. Sounds good.”
It was only because Hayama had mentioned she wanted to discuss Fujimoto with him―but that was just an excuse. Hirosue had apparently shown interest in him. Matsuoka wanted to know why, and he could not resist his desire to know.
At seven in the evening, Matsuoka wrapped up his visits and met up with Hayama in front of the station. They went to a Western-style pub and drank a little while they dined.
Matsuoka had done his own share of thinking during his visits. As a result, he made a firm decision not to bring up the topic of Hirosue. He would probably never see the man again; by asking about him, he was only hurting himself. Contrary to Matsuoka’s internal decision, once Hayama got some drink into her system, much to Matsuoka’s dismay, she began to talk about Hirosue on her own accord.
“Researchers are an odd bunch. They’re just not very friendly or considerate by nature, you know? I didn’t even get decent instructions on how to take over before I was being told to process receipts and invoices. They knew I wasn’t used to my job yet, but they would still complain about how long I was taking. And when I finally sent out the invoices, I would get calls from headquarters, to me, complaining about how the costs are too high. When I first started, I used to come home every night and just cry. Hirosue was the one who came up and talked to me while I was going through all this. When I made a mistake, he even came to apologize to my boss with me, even though he had nothing to do with it. I kept thinking what a kind person he was, and before I knew it, I was in love with him.”
Hayama lowered her eyes and rested her chin in her hand.
“He’s just slow at picking up the hint. I liked him, so I sent signals as much as I could, but he never noticed. I was actually the one that asked him to go out with me. He was really surprised.”
Matsuoka found himself relieved that Hirosue had not been the one to confess and ask her out.
“But…” Hayama murmured, then looked at Matsuoka earnestly. “What do you think from your point of view? Do you think Hirosue likes me?”
Matsuoka didn’t know how to answer her.
“I’m sorry for asking you such a weird question,” Hayama apologized, as if to infer from his hesitant expression. “I really love him, but sometimes I wonder how Hirosue feels.”
“Did something happen to you guys?”
Hayama smiled vaguely, and looked down. “When I confessed to him, he said he wanted to think about it. He said before he wasn’t in love with anyone and wasn’t dating, but if he had to think about it, that means he never thought of me in that way before, right?”
With me, Matsuoka thought, he sent so many e-mails with embarra.s.sing love confessions. Hirosue had been much more a.s.sertive when he had been dating him as Yoko Eto.
Matsuoka basked in a meaningless sense of superiority. It really was meaningless. He had been better-liked, better-loved―but right afterwards, reality bore down upon him. The rejection came after a promise to love him for the rest of his life. Matsuoka’s feelings sank darkly the moment he remembered it, so much that he did not notice that Hayama had fallen silent across from him.
“I’m just not attractive as a woman, am I?” Hayama murmured in a tearful voice.
“What’s gotten into you all of a sudden?” Amidst Matsuoka’s agitation, a tear spilled from Hayama’s eye.
“It’s almost been two months since we started dating, and he won’t even kiss me. I thought maybe it was because he was shy, but…”
Even while Hayama was crying, Matsuoka could not deny feeling joy at the knowledge that they had not kissed yet. It somehow made him feel like the man still belonged to him.
“I wish I could make him love me more. I wish he would love me a lot. I love him so much―so I want him to love me just the same. I’m sorry for crying,” Hayama said as she dabbed at her eyes with her handkerchief. “I try my best, you know. On weekends, I go over to his house, clean and cook for him. I try to show him how good I am in the household, but I don’t think he’s caught on much.”
Hayama snapped her head up in realization.
“Maybe he doesn’t like bringing people into his house. But when I take care of his ch.o.r.es and stuff, he still says thank you. What do you think, Matsuoka? Am I being meddlesome?”
Matsuoka could only say that it depended on the person. When Matsuoka had visited Hirosue’s apartment, he never even had to pour himself tea. He had never felt a conscious need to, either.
“Sorry for blabbering on about myself,” Hayama said. “Yesterday, I think it was, Mako and I were talking on the phone, and we were saying how nice it would be if the four of us could go camping.”
Four of us. Matsuoka gave a wry smile. “Camping together sounds nice and all, but I’d like to see Ms. Fujimoto alone soon.”
“I guess you would,” Hayama said, nodding slightly. “It’s only natural. I want to move on from being the chaperone, too. I tell her how much of a good person you are. I said to her, ‘Why don’t you meet up with him alone?’ but she keeps saying she’s scared. I did give her a scolding. No matter how uncomfortable she is with men, it’s not like you two have never met before. I told her she wasn’t being very mature.”
Hayama bowed her head.
“I’m sorry. Our next trip will be the last thing we do as a group. After that, I’ll arrange it so that you two can definitely meet up alone. You can count on me.”
Matsuoka could not refuse after being asked so directly. And if he refused to go camping now, he would probably seem like he was pointedly avoiding the group.
After that, he found it awkward to talk about Fujimoto. Hayama seemed to be coming down from her alcohol-induced buzz.
“Let’s get going, then. We have work tomorrow,” she said, standing from her seat.
Matsuoka secretly hoped the topic of camping would go nowhere after that and eventually fade into oblivion, but Hayama appeared serious about it. She decided on a place right away, and came back to ask Matsuoka if he was free the following Sat.u.r.day.
“All the campsites are booked full because it’s the summer holidays. I thought we wouldn’t be able to get one, but my relative owns some cottages on a campsite in Oishi, and apparently there’s been a cancellation for two cottages next Sat.u.r.day. I’ve made the reservation and gotten the OK from Hirosue and Mako, but what about you, Matsuoka? Do you think you can go?”
Matsuoka panicked when he heard she had made the reservation. He had no plans next weekend, but he didn’t want to go. He didn’t want to see Hirosue. But he didn’t want to tell Hayama to cancel a cottage she had worked so hard to reserve. It was partly his responsibility in the first place, anyway, for not refusing her outright at the first invitation.
“I can go,” Matsuoka ended up telling her. The moment the words escaped his mouth, he regretted it with a pa.s.sion. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to see Hirosue and Hayama being intimate in my face.
Matsuoka considered saying no several times, but he could not bring himself to broach the topic to Hayama, who talked about camping with enthusiasm. The fact of having to go camping became a source of stress for Matsuoka, and as the date approached, his stomach began to contract painfully just at the sight of Hayama.
He considered bailing on the day of by saying something had suddenly come up, but since he was the one driving, he would be preventing the other three from going as well. In the end, he would just be causing trouble for everyone else.
The day before their camping trip, Matsuoka placed his cell phone before him and spend three hours brooding. Now is the moment to say no, he thought, then proceeded to let the moment pa.s.s. He had done this several times now.
His indecision circled the same place over and over like a marathon track. If he had truly rather died than go, he would have made that phone call already. That wasn’t the only source of his indecision. On one hand, he did not want to see Hirosue, but he also knew that without an opportunity like this, he would never see the man at all. He didn’t want to see Hirosue―he really didn’t, but he did want to see him a little. His heart was being contradictory. He wasn’t sure about himself anymore.
Matsuoka wondered what Hirosue thought of this situation. Did he not mind? Or had he set aside his personal feelings for the sake of his girlfriend’s friend?
He wanted to know how the man actually felt. His mounting desire to know made him pick up his phone. He came close to calling, but then asked himself what he would do once he confirmed how Hirosue felt. That made his hands stop.
If Hirosue said he was unwilling to go camping, then Matsuoka would back out of it. It was a good motivator to refuse, in his opinion.
The phone dialled Hirosue’s number. Matsuoka bit down hard on his lip and closed his eyes. After seven rings, he heard someone pick up. The hammering of his heart had reached its peak when the voice answered. It wasn’t Hirosue’s.
“Um, is this Mr. Hirosue?”
“Who is this?” It was a woman’s voice.
“I’m sorry. I have the wrong number.” Just as he was about to hang up, the person on the other end called his name.
“Is that you, Matsuoka?” She spoke in a familiar way. It was Hayama.
“Hirosue can’t come to the phone right now. What did you want to speak to him about?”
“Um―” Faced with an unexpected situation, Matsuoka tripped over his words. “It―It’s not much of a big deal. Remember how you said we were going to cook outside? I was―I was just wondering if you bought charcoal. I tried to call you once, but I didn’t get through.” He haphazardly threw together an excuse.
“Oh, sorry! I didn’t tell you. We bought charcoal when we rented the barbecue set.”
“Oh. I see.” He ran out of words to say.
“Who’s it from?” he heard a faraway voice asking.
“Sorry for answering your phone. It’s from Matsuoka. He was asking about the charcoal for tomorrow’s barbecue.” After explaining to Hirosue, Hayama came back on the phone.
“Anything else you were calling about?”
“Are you sure? See you tomorrow, then.”
Now, Matsuoka had no choice but to hang up. His cell phone clock indicated it was eleven o’clock at night. Was Hayama going to go home? Perhaps she was going to sleep over―Matsuoka stopped thinking further than that. It would only make him feel hopeless if he did.
In the end, Matsuoka was neither able to know Hirosue’s true opinion nor turn down the camping trip. Morning came after a sleepless night. Soon it was time to leave home, and Matsuoka drove his car out reluctantly. The clear blue sky seemed to mock him, and the sun’s rays stung painfully in his eyes.
Matsuoka headed to the front of the station to pick the other three people up. The two of them were standing side-by-side at the meeting spot. Fujimoto was there, too, but the pair caught his eye first.
“Good morning,” Hayama said as she slid into the back seat. Matsuoka looked at her and wondered if she had slept with Hirosue. He promptly felt disgusted at himself for even thinking about it.
Matsuoka let his car speed on, swallowing all his ugly emotions and jealousy down deep into the pit of his black heart. Hayama was in a jovial mood, and was almost maddeningly talkative. Matsuoka actively talked to Fujimoto in the pa.s.senger’s seat so he wouldn’t have to think about the other two in the back seat. The shy girl appeared to have shed some of her nervousness from last time, for their conversation carried on decently.
They pa.s.sed the time in the relaxed atmosphere of the car. Matsuoka personally wished he could go home right now, and found himself strange to be able to laugh and talk like he was doing now.
After two hours or so, they arrived at the campsite. The females and males split up and went to their respective cottages. The rooms were simple and about thirteen square metres. A table and set of chairs that looked handcrafted were positioned in the middle, with two wooden beds against the left- and right-hand walls. Matsuoka put his things down on the right-hand bed, and handed the keys to Hirosue, who was standing by the table.
“I’m going to head outside.” It was out of consideration for Hirosue, because it would probably be awkward for him to be alone together. But the man stopped him.
“Um―” he said. “I thought you wouldn’t be coming today.”
It was true that Matsuoka hadn’t wanted to come, but he was offended that he had to hear this from Hirosue.
After a moment of silence, the man mumbled, “I just had a feeling.”
Matsuoka exhaled shortly.
“I thought about saying no, but the plans were already made. I actually wanted to go alone with her instead of with the four of us, but it seems like Ms. Fujimoto isn’t willing to go with me just yet.”
Hirosue looked like he wanted to say something, so Matsuoka waited. No words came forth. An uncomfortable silence fell between them.
“Do you really love Ms. Fujimoto?”
The question made his whole body stiffen. Matsuoka swallowed hard.
“Well, yeah. She’s pretty cute.”
“I see… I guess you would.”
Matsuoka walked towards the cottage door. He spoke without turning around.
“You probably hate being in the same room as me, but it’s just for tonight, so bear with it,” he spat before he went outside. The moment he was alone, his fingers trembled, his pulse leapt, and he was overwhelmed with some sort of emotion that nearly made him cry. He would start thinking about needless things if he kept hanging about. Matsuoka made himself busy by getting the barbecue equipment out of the car and carrying it out to the yard.
Hayama and Fujimoto came out of their cottage about ten minutes later. They gathered in the shade of a tree where the buzzing of the cicadas rained down on them. They talked for a while between the three of them, but when Hirosue showed no signs of coming out, Hayama lost her patience and went to call him.
“Looks like he fell asleep,” she said in exasperation when she returned. The man came out scratching his unruly bedhead. When he saw the equipment that had been unloaded by Matsuoka, he apologized.
Now that the four of them were here, they discussed where they should go. Hayama said she wanted to take a walk in the forest.
“I actually want to try out fishing,” Matsuoka said, pretending to be interested in something he actually didn’t care much about. They decided to split up into two pairs, and Hayama and Hirosue went to immerse themselves in the wildlife of the forest while Matsuoka and Fujimoto fished on the river bank.
Fishing was boring, just as he had imagined, but he didn’t want to look openly bored in front of Fujimoto. He felt guilty for dragging her along and didn’t want to seem rude, so he pretended to enjoy himself.
Eventually Matusoka caught a fish, and was just thinking about grilling it along with the rest of the meat on the barbecue when Fujimoto spoke.
“You’re going to let it go back into the river, right?” she said as she watched the fish swimming around in the bucket. Matsuoka couldn’t bring himself to say he was planning to eat it.
“Of course,” he replied hastily.
Fujimoto was shy, but she was a gentle girl. Matsuoka could tell she wasn’t trying to score points with him when she talked about letting the fish go. He wished he could love her, and on the other hand, he found himself wondering what Hirosue was doing now.
There was a strong breeze on the river bank, and they were able to stay cool since they were fishing in the shade. Matsuoka noticed a dead leaf caught in Fujimoto’s hair, and extended his hand casually to brush it off. Fujimoto flinched violently as soon as he touched her hair, and Matsuoka jerked his hand back in surprise.
“I’m sorry for scaring you. There was something in your hair.” When he apologized, Fujimoto put both hands to her mouth and shook her head slightly.
“Are you scared of me?”
She didn’t say no. She only looked down and curled up into a ball.
“This is our third time meeting up, isn’t it? I’m wondering if we can start going out alone together soon.”
There was no answer.
“I’m not sure how I feel about going with the four of us all the time.” Matsuoka had meant to say it gently, but was otherwise stumped in the face of Fujimoto’s silence.
Thirty minutes later, when Matsuoka was thinking it was probably high time they headed back to the cottage, Fujimoto broke her silence and finally opened her mouth.
“A long time ago―when I used to take the bus to high school, there was one time when a man behind me started breathing on my neck. He did it right up until I got off in front of the school. It was so disgusting, and I felt like throwing up. After that, I just suddenly became afraid of men. I keep telling myself it’s okay, that I’m fine, but I can’t… I can’t help it.”
“Okay,” Matsuoka said softly. He didn’t want to give a halfhearted consolation or say something that wasn’t sincere, but that thought in turn tied his tongue and made him unable to speak at all.
After that, they barely talked as they returned to the cottage. At the edge of the yard, Hirosue and Hayama were already back and preparing food. Hirosue didn’t seem to be very adept at cooking, and his movements were jerky. Once Fujimoto came back, he quickly pa.s.sed the knife onto her and came over to Matsuoka, who was starting the fire for the barbecue.
Matsuoka accepted his offer and let Hirosue watch the fire as he set the table. By the time dusk started falling around them, the preparations were complete and the meat was grilled, so they sat down to eat. Fujimoto had been silent when they were alone together, but she was talkative with Hayama. Matsuoka was also careful this time not to let the conversation stall.
There were heaps of things nagging at his mind―Fujimoto’s traumatic incident, Hirosue’s somewhat stiff smile―but since he would bring the mood down if he made a grave face or if he fell silent, he pretended to be having fun.
Matsuoka drank beer to lift his spirits and enliven himself. He was careful to keep himself under control, and he did drink less than usual. Despite that, he became intoxicated quickly and severely. Perhaps it was because he hadn’t slept well last night. It wouldn’t have been half as bad if he was getting sleepy, but the alcohol was actually making him feel nauseous.
“Excuse me for a bit.” He stood up to go to the washroom, and his knees buckled on his first step. He couldn’t stand on his feet, and he sank to the ground on the spot. Since he had been sitting all this time, he hadn’t realized the alcohol had gotten around to his legs.
“Matsuoka, are you alright?” Hayama asked in concern.
His stomach churned so horribly he couldn’t answer her. He felt like he would vomit if he opened his mouth.
“Can you stand?” Hirosue knelt down beside him. Matsuoka gripped the man’s arm like a vice.
“Washroom. Feel sick.”
Hirosue caught on supported Matsuoka on the way to the washroom inside the cottage. All the while Hirosue supported his shoulders, Matsuoka held his nausea back as if his life depended on it. As soon as he shut himself up in the washroom stall, he vomited copiously. He felt sick, so sick, that tears welled up in the edges of his eyes.
After throwing up continuously for ten or fifteen minutes, he finally calmed down. When he opened the door, he was startled to see Hirosue standing right in front of him.
“Are you alright?” The man peered into his face, and Matsuoka nodded unwittingly.
“…I drank too much,” he said brusquely, and rinsed his mouth. He stared at the mirror over the sink as he talked to the man behind him. “I’m fine now.”
“You look pale.”
“I don’t feel sick anymore. It’d be great if you could go back ahead of me and tell the other two I’m alright.”
“Alright,” Hirosue answered, then left the room. Matsuoka knew he should go back, too, but he was irresistibly drawn to bed.
He collapsed onto the soft springs and thought he smelled Hirosue’s scent. On the bed across, he saw a familiar bag. His bed, come to think of it, had been on the right. I have to move, Matsuoka thought. Just a bit… just a bit longer, he stalled as he rubbed his face against the sheets.
When he woke up, it was pitch-black around him. He had a strong urge to urinate, but he had no idea where the light switch was. He groped blindly along what felt like a sideboard until his fingers touched something. There was a loud thud.
He heard the bed creak beside him. His surroundings brightened with a snap, and Matsuoka reflexively narrowed his eyes.
“Are you alright?” The man asked. Matsuoka raised half of his body off the bed and nodded. Beneath the sideboard, an empty ashtray lay upside-down.
“I checked to see how you were doing a few times, but I didn’t wake you up because you were sleeping.”
“Thanks,” Matsuoka said thickly.
He got up in bed and looked at his watch. It was ten minutes past twelve midnight. He felt Hirosue’s gaze on him, which made him more uncomfortable by the minute. He fled into the bathroom. While he relieved himself, he went pale as he realized he had fallen fast asleep in Hirosue’s bed. He wondered what kind of excuse he should use, but in the end he simply admitted it was a mistake.
“Um, sorry about that. I was drunk and I slept in the wrong bed.”
Hirosue was sitting on the other bed and looking this way.
“We didn’t decide on which bed, anyway.”
He was right, now that the man mentioned it. Maybe he was being unnatural by making a big deal about it. Matsuoka took off his watch and put it on the sideboard before climbing slowly into bed. It was hard falling back asleep after waking up once. He was also preoccupied with the man beside him. Even if they weren’t talking, the man’s presence and his breathing was enough to make Matsuoka’s whole body tense with nervousness.
“Aren’t you going to shower or get changed?”
Matsuoka realized he was still wearing the clothes he wore for the barbecue. He had brought shorts and a T-shirt to sleep in, but he couldn’t bother to get changed.
“It’s too much work. I’ll do it tomorrow.”
“Then, can I turn off the light?”
Once darkness fell, a wave of stillness surrounded him. Matsuoka lay between the sheets and thought of the man sleeping in the next bed. He thought about when the man used to be madly in love with him, and the time he had forced him to have violent s.e.x.
He tried to think of other things, but always ended up thinking of Hirosue. It was no surprise if he couldn’t fall in love with that girl, Fujimoto. Even now, the man caused so much of a stir in his emotions; there was no way he could think about anyone else.
He’s not even all that, Matsuoka told himself. Hirosue wasn’t good at his work, he was clueless, and he wasn’t even that good-looking. Matsuoka knew that, but he still couldn’t forget him.
Every time the man rolled over, the bed creaked dully. His frequent tossing made Matsuoka wonder if the man couldn’t sleep because of him.
Matsuoka slipped quietly out of bed. He turned on the light and looked around. The room key was on the table in the centre. Key in hand, he was putting on his shoes at the door when a voice spoke from behind him.
“Where are you going?”
“Just out for a short walk. I’m taking the key. You can go ahead and sleep.” With that, Matsuoka went outside. The outdoor lamps were off, but since the moon was out, Matsuoka had no difficulty walking around once his eyes got used to it.
He walked through the yard where they had barbecued and made his way to the river bank. The water, which had glittered in the sun during the day, only issued a crisp tinkling sound as it flowed in the dark.
Matsuoka sat down on a flat rock by the river’s edge. He didn’t know what time it was since he had forgotten his watch, but he planned to wander the area until Hirosue fell asleep.
Suddenly he heard a rustling nearby, and Matsuoka hastily got to his feet. A white dog appeared behind him. It was not wearing a collar. The dog gave Matsuoka one look before disappearing back into the bushes.
Matsuoka suddenly felt afraid of being by himself in a dark area, and went back to the parking lot near the cottage. He took out his key case from his back pocket and climbed into his car.
Matsuoka sat in the driver’s seat and pushed it down in a reclining position. He turned up the volume on a late-night radio show and closed his eyes. Because of the late hour, perhaps, the deejay’s topics frequently leaned into uncouth territory. Matsuoka found an odd comfort in its vapidity and meaningless laughter.
Once we get back from camping, I’m going to tell Fujimoto I can’t date her, Matsuoka decided. There was no way he could enter a new relationship in this state. He wished he could have realized this sooner, but regretting it now wasn’t going to help. In fact, he had already known―half-known, at least―all along. He had just pretended not to notice.
He sniffed in derision. He wasn’t laughing at the snappy remark on the radio. He had simply laughed along for the sake of it.
Since the volume was turned up, it was a while before Matsuoka heard it―he felt like someone was knocking at the car door. He opened his eyes. A human-shaped shadow loomed in the window.
Matsuoka lowered the volume and rolled the window down. When he saw who the shadow was, the smile froze awkwardly on his face. Hirosue looked angry as he bent to peer into the window.
“What are you doing here?” he said, his eyebrows drawing together.
“You said you’d go out for ‘a bit’ and you never came back.”
Matsuoka felt a p.r.i.c.k in his chest as he wondered if the man had come looking for him because he was worried.
“I felt like listening to the radio. That’s all.” He didn’t tell the truth. Hirosue lowered his face and sighed.
“I was beside myself with worry when I imagined the worst that might happen.”
“What do you mean, worst?”
Hirosue closed his mouth. He could have brought up any old example, like burglars, even though they both knew there was nothing that could happen in a campsite as remote as this, in the middle of nowhere. But the man was inept at thinking on his feet.
“Thought I’d go over the edge and do something rash?” Matsuoka said sarcastically.
When the man did not answer, Matsuoka laughed at him.
“Why the h.e.l.l would I? I don’t even have a reason to,” he snapped. He felt exhilarated to spit it out, but that only lasted for a moment.
“Because I had a feeling you…” Hirosue cut himself short for a moment. “I had a feeling you were still in love with me.”
Humiliation burned Matsuoka’s whole body before being replaced by rage so fierce that he felt like lunging at the man. When insensitivity got this far, it was plain insulting. His wrath, along with shame at the fact that the man was right, coiled around him.
“I’m not going to f.u.c.king kill myself just because you dumped me,” he yelled. “You think quite highly of yourself, don’t you? But I don’t give a f.u.c.k about you anymore!”
He made the bravest face he could, but his voice still shook. Hirosue probably detected it, too. Matsuoka wished those fingers resting on the edge of the rolled-down window would hurry up and go away. If Hirosue knew that he still loved him, and if he really did care about him, he wished the man would do him a favour and leave him alone.
“When I’m talking with Ms. Hayama, the topic turns to you a lot,” Hirosue mumbled, as if speaking to himself. “She says she gets along the most with you out of all the male co-workers in her cohort. And that you’re good at your job, and kind, and a trustworthy person.”
Similarly for Matsuoka, Hayama was a friend he got along rather well with. They would probably have continued to be friends, with no ill feelings between them, if she hadn’t started dating Hirosue.
“But I don’t understand you that well,” Hirosue said.
They had met and eaten together many, many times. They had talked a lot, albeit through writing. Even though Matsuoka had been dressed as a woman, he had never disguised his honest opinions. As far as he was concerned, he hadn’t changed a bit from before.
He remembered Hirosue’s cold gaze when they parted ways. He figured he would never cross paths with this man again, but here he was, still beside him. Perhaps it was Hayama’s influence. Perhaps it was because she had told Hirosue that he was a good person.
After Matsuoka confessed that he was a man, no matter how many times he told the man he loved him, no matter how much he made it show―almost to the point of excess―Hirosue’s deep distrust did not disappear. But because they were Hayama’s words―because Hayama had said he was kind―Hirosue had been persuaded to at least consider them. He had trusted Hayama’s words over his.
“I understand you really well, Mr. Hirosue.”
After a short silence, he heard a short murmur.
“I’m not. But all that doesn’t matter anymore.”
“There’s no way you can understand me. Not when you’ve only…”
Hirosue hesitated to say the rest, but Matsuoka finished his sentence on purpose.
“When I’ve only slept with you once?”
The man looked down awkwardly.
“Sure, I guess you’re right,” Matsuoka agreed, then took a breath. “I’m going to listen to the radio for a bit longer. I’ll go back to the cottage when I feel like it.”
Hirosue quickly withdrew his hand when he started rolling the window up. After it was completely closed, Matsuoka turned up the volume of the radio and shut his eyes.
A while later. when he figured it was safe, he opened his eyes. As he predicted, there was no one beside him. Matsuoka squinted into the darkness and made sure there was really no one beside him, then cried a little. He wasn’t crying because he wanted to; the tears simply spilled from his eyes on their own.