This is a continuation of PART 10.
It was warmer outside than he thought―enough to make him think he did not need the coat he had worn out that day. Takafumi Douno was sitting on a park bench, absently watching his daughter, Honoka, play in the sand. She was turning four this year.
The three of them had gone out shopping when his wife, Mariko, said she had forgotten to buy something. When she explained that it was dish detergent, Douno offered to go back and buy it for her.
“But you don’t know which brand we use, do you?” Mariko had answered him, hunching her shoulders.
Schools were out for the spring holidays, and it was a sunny Sunday afternoon. There were many children in the park who looked about primary-school age. Douno remembered Mariko mentioning she wanted a second child. He liked children and they were dear to him, but his low salary made it hard to say yes.
“Daddy, come here!” He went to the sandbox where his daughter beckoned. In it was a misshapen triangle made of sand.
“Honoka’s house,” she tilted her head and grinned. Douno bent down and brushed the sand off her checkered dress and hands.
“Mommy’s coming back soon,” he told her. “Why don’t we wait at the bench over there?” Just as he began to lead his daughter by the hand to the bench where their shopping bags were set down, a voice called him from behind.
“Excuse me―” Douno turned around to see a tall man standing there. The man thrust a map out towards him, his head slightly bowed.
“I want you tell me―is this park where I’m in right now?”
Douno remembered that voice. Could it be―? He stared hard at the man in front of him. It had been six years since then, and his hair had grown out. His head was not shaved anymore. He was also not wearing a grey prison uniform, but a normal white shirt and black pants.
“I don’t understand this map, and I can’t read the kanji.” The man looked up at him. His eyes snapped open in surprise.
When Kitagawa called his name, Douno felt both happiness and uncertainty swell in his chest in a tangled mass.
“Takafumi, Takafumi!” The wind was knocked out of him as he was met with an embrace. He felt his spine tingle. The man’s arms were also shaking slightly as they encircling his shoulders.
“I’ve―I’ve finally found you.”
A middle-aged woman passed by, looking at them apprehensively. Douno realized how abnormal it was for two men to be hugging like this.
“Let go of me for a minute―I can’t breathe,” was his excuse as he pushed the man’s shoulders away.
Kitagawa wore a boyish grin from ear to ear as he stroked Douno’s cheek with his thumb.
“Your hair is longer. And you’ve gotten old. Your face looks different.”
Douno smiled wryly at being called old.
“I’m only thirty-six,” he said.
“I turned thirty-four.” Kitagawa gripped Douno’s left hand. “Take me to your house. I have so many things I want to tell you. Oh, I should’ve brought my notebook. I drew tons of pictures. Everyone who sees them says they’re nice, so I’m sure you’ll―”
The man stopped talking at Honoka’s voice. He furrowed his brow and stared down at Douno’s young daughter.
“Who’s this little kid?”
Douno’s hand trembled as it sat on his daughter’s shoulder. Kitagawa had approached him just as he would have six years ago, but Douno did not know how the man would respond to being told the truth. Douno was afraid. But he could not keep silent forever; Kitagawa would find out eventually anyway.
“She’s my daughter.”
The man’s mouth twitched.
“I got married five years ago.”
The man’s eyes, which had been glowing with happiness, clouded grey in an instant. His gaze wandered left and right as if he were lost, then he hung his head. His grip on Douno’s left hand tightened, as if he were angry. Detached, yet passionate―memories of this man’s violence resurfaced in Douno’s mind, making him shudder.
“You were always on my mind,” Douno said hesitantly. “I was wondering what you’ve been up to since getting out. So I’m happy I was able to see you again.” He did not mean to be sucking up. His feelings were sincere, yet his voice sounded even to his own ears like he was making excuses.
“What kind of work do you do now? Are you getting along with your co-workers? I’m happy to hear you still draw. You were really good at it.”
He was intimidated by the man’s gaze, which almost looked like a glare. He forced his words out anyway.
“I’m glad you seem to be doing well.”
“Honey,” he heard Mariko’s voice calling from afar. He turned around to see her coming at a jog with a small plastic bag in hand.
“I’m sorry I ended up taking so long. I remembered all sorts of other things we forgot to buy.”
Douno hastily let go of Kitagawa’s hand as he saw Mariko’s gaze fix on their linked hands. A strand of hair had fallen across Mariko’s cheek, and she tucked it behind her ear as she tilted her head.
“Is that gentleman someone you know?”
“Oh―yeah. He’s an old friend, and we just bumped into each other.”
“I see,” Mariko murmured. “Hello. Nice to meet you, I’m Douno’s wife,” she said in greeting. The man stared silently at Mariko. Mariko, flustered at being stared at with no answer, glanced nervously at Douno.
Honoka clung to his wife’s legs. “Pick-up!” she said, pulling her skirt.
“Oh my, aren’t you a little baby,” teased Mariko, picking Honoka up in her arms. The awkwardness of the silence seemed to lift a little.
“Honey, if you’re going to have a talk with your friend, should I head home first?”
I don’t want to be alone with him. It was Douno’s honest thought. He was happy to see Kitagawa. He really was. But once they were alone, who knew what the man might say?
“No, uh...” Douno mumbled incoherently.
“I’m going home,” the man muttered. “I live far away. I’m going back.”
“Where did you come from?” asked Mariko.
“Shizuoka,” the man answered without looking up.
“From so far away! Are you here for work?”
The man fell silent again. Suddenly, he lifted his head and looked at Douno.
“Tell me your address.”
“Hold on, I need something to write with, and some paper...” Douno automatically reached into the breast pocket of his jacket, even though there was nothing there. At work, he always kept a pen in that pocket.
“I’ll just memorize it. It’s not much.”
Douno’s fading memories of prison came back to him. As a principle rule, inmates were not allowed to exchange addresses, in order to avoid conflict after getting out. If even a scrap of paper with an address was found on an inmate, he would be punished. Everyone memorized the addresses of people they needed to contact once they were out of prison.
When Douno told him his address, the man listened but did not confirm or ask to hear it again. His mouth moved voicelessly, as if to recite it to himself. As soon as his lips stopped, he turned his back to Douno and walked away.
He never said “See you again” or “Goodbye.”
“He’s kind of different,” Mariko murmured, once the man’s white shirt was nowhere to be seen in the park. “And he seemed a little scary.”
Douno could not argue, knowing how overpowering the full force of Kitagawa’s anger could be.
Once they returned to their apartment, Douno played with their daughter while his wife prepared dinner. While he kept his daughter company, Douno thought about Kei Kitagawa.
Douno and Kitagawa had spent about nine months together in the same prison cell. Douno had been imprisoned on groping charges even though he had done nothing―it had been a false accusation. Kitagawa had served time for close to ten years for murder, and he was an expert at prison life.
Even though he was skilled at getting by in prison, Kitagawa did not know how to believe in people, how to love; he did not know what it felt like to receive kindness. Douno felt as if his unhappy upbringing, absent of a loving mother, had something to do with his crime. Even in prison, Kitgawa was always surrounded by inmates who were only concerned about taking advantage of people’s weaknesses to make a profit.
Douno had reached out, wanting to become closer with him. At first, Kitagawa responded like a wild animal, with apprehension.
But once the binding cords fell away from his heart, Kitagawa began to like him more than as a friend. He had whispered “I love you” even though were both men, and he had even begun talking about living together once they were out of prison.
Days before Douno’s release, Kitagawa had gotten into a fistfight in their cell and been sent into punishment. Douno emerged from prison without saying good-bye or exchanging promises. He did not tell Kitagawa his address. If he had really wanted to, he could have asked a trustworthy inmate who lived in the same cell as him. But he had not.
If they had been able to get on as friends, if Kitagawa had not told him he loved him, if he had was not so violently emotional that he was blinded to anything else when it came to Douno, he would have wanted to keep in contact even after Kitagawa was out of prison. Douno liked Kei Kitagawa as a person, but those feelings were not equal to those of love.
Douno could not accept the man and his love with open arms, so he decided not to see him. He did not tell Kitagawa his address, and he did not pick Kitagawa up on the day of his release.
But his feelings remained. The feelings Kitagawa had shown him, his own feelings of wanting to do something for Kitagawa, remained with him.
When they reunited after six years, Kitagawa had not changed at all. His demeanour, the way he talked. But what about his feelings? Did Kitagawa still love him and want to live with him?
Did he perhaps think he’d been betrayed? I loved him so much, but he went and got married. Even had children. If that was how he really felt, would his anger and hatred at being betrayed drive him to do something serious? Like how he had attacked the inmate who made advances on Douno in their cell and punched him until he went limp?
I’m happy to see him. I’m glad to see he’s doing well. Douno’s feelings were not false, yet he found himself afraid of Kitagawa. The man was blinded by his temper sometimes, but Douno knew Kitagawa was not underhanded. He was certain that Kitagawa would not harm his family out of vengeance, but still, he was unable to deny the possibility. Human feelings were prone to influence and change.
He had told Kitagawa his address. If Kitagawa wanted to know, did that mean he planned to come again? Perhaps it had been better not to tell him. But in that situation, Douno knew he would have been unable to say no.
Douno hugged his daughter as she sat in his lap. He prayed that his reunion with Kitagawa would not threaten this modest happiness he had found.
The next day after their reunion, Douno’s mind was full of thoughts about Kitagawa for the entire day. Even while he was working, he felt like Kitagawa would suddenly appear from the shadows, and his foolish thoughts made him restless. His senior, Tatsuta, seemed to observe it as a sign of giddiness, for he teased Douno and asked him if anything good had happened lately.
After getting out of prison, Douno found new employment as an accounting clerk at Iwai Foods through the help of a support group for those falsely-accused of groping. He had once worked as an accountant for city hall, and working with numbers was something he was good at. If he had anything to complain about, it was his low salary and the fact that he got barely any extra pay for overtime.
Tatsuta, a caring and considerate man, knew about Douno’s situation. Tatsuta himself had past experiences of being victim to the police’s unfair and overbearing questioning practices, and understood what Douno was going through. It was a great relief for Douno to not have to hide his past.
In the end, Kitagawa did not appear in front of Douno at all that day. It was not until evening the Douno realized it would have been impossible for Kitagawa to come anyway, especially after yesterday; if the man worked, it would be even harder to come down from Shizuoka on a weekday.
Two days passed, then three. Even after a week, there was no communication from Kitagawa. Since he did not know Douno’s phone number, the only methods he had of contacting him was a direct visit or a letter. But Douno received neither.
The cherry blossoms finished blooming beautifully. They fell and were replaced by deep green leaves, and Golden Week was just days away. By this time, Douno had begun to think he would never see Kitagawa again.
Had the man’s feelings diminished from seeing the reality of Douno in a marriage, or had he been happy enough to see him just once?
Douno wondered if their brief reunion in the park had been their last, and he forgot how afraid he was, or how he had feared for his family’s safety. A loneliness welled up inside his chest. He wanted to try sending a letter, but since he had missed asking for Kitagawa’s address, he could not send one even if he wanted to.
The skipping-stone series of Golden Week holidays passed as they entered mid-May. Douno came home one day to a dinner of cold soba.
“Soba today? Looks good.”
It had been very hot during the day. Though still a little early in the season, as Douno took off his suit jacket he felt that these kinds of dishes would become more and more attractive with the warmer weather.
“It’s move-in soba,” Mariko said as she took Douno’s jacket from him.
“Oh, really?” Douno said as he loosened his tie. “What kind of neighbours are they?”
“He doesn’t live in this building. It’s from your friend, Mr. Kitagawa.”
“What?” Douno asked in disbelief.
“He brought it for us because he moved nearby.”
Douno felt a foreboding chill run down his spine.
“When was this?”
“About two hours ago, I think. He asked if you were home, and when I told him you were still at work, he left.”
“His address―do you know his address?”
“I got his telephone number so you could thank him later,” Mariko said.
Douno got the note from her and ran into his bedroom. With his cell phone in one hand, he stared at the memo. All he had to do was call this number, and it would get through to Kitagawa. He would be able to talk to him. As a responsible adult, he had to thank Kitagawa for the gift, at least.
Douno’s fingers shook as they clenched around the phone. When Kitagawa didn’t come, Douno wanted to see him and talk to him. But when he came too close, he suddenly felt afraid. Kitagawa lived all the way in Shizuoka―why had he moved in close by? What was the meaning behind his moving in close to Douno? What was he planning to do? Douno had no idea what the man was thinking―not the faintest clue.
Douno was unable to steel himself enough to hear Kitagawa’s voice that day. He made the phone call instead on the next day, past eleven at night, because he felt like the more time he allowed to pass, the harder it would get to talk to Kitagawa. If he was going to thank the man for the soba, he preferred it to be sooner than later.
“I’m going out to buy some beer,” he told his wife, and walked out with his phone in hand. Suddenly, it began to drizzle, and Douno hurriedly climbed into the family car in the parking lot. It was an old subcompact car, and the driver’s seat was cramped. Mariko had been talking about wanting a standard-sized car, but they were not financially comfortable enough to afford to get a new one.
Douno retrieved the note from his pocket and dialled the number. He could feel the pulse thudding in his fingers as the phone rang. On the fifth ring, he heard the phone being picked up. It was such a small thing, yet the tension was enough to make his heart almost stop.
“Hello?” The voice answered in tremendously bad humour.
“This is Douno speaking. Is this Mr. Kitagawa’s residence?”
“Oh, it’s you.” Douno heard a stifled yawn on the other end. “I was wondering who was calling so late.”
Douno hastily turned on the cabin light and checked his watch. It was five past eleven. For Douno, it was still early in the night, but perhaps Kitagawa had not yet grown out of his schedule in prison, where the lights were out at nine. If so, Douno would have woken him up from his sleep.
“I’m sorry for calling so late. I won’t keep you for long. Thank you for the soba yesterday. I was surprised to hear you moved nearby.”
“I wanted to be close to you.”
Douno had already predicted his answer. I knew it, he couldn’t help but think at the man’s frank reply. Douno pressed his right hand against his forehead and closed his eyes.
“I’ve told you this already, but I’m married now.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“So... well... that means I can’t be with you like I used to be.”
When Douno and Kitagawa had lived in the same prison cell together, kissing and physical contact had been everyday things. Douno was not able to refuse when Kitagawa made moves to touch him. They were in a male-only environment, where even masturbation was prohibited. In this situation, even a man’s touch was enough to make Douno erect, and drive him to ejaculate. Douno had had anal sex with the man once, but that was because he could not fight back against him, not because he had wanted it.
Just because he had been on intimate terms with a man did not mean that Douno was gay. Once he got out of prison and returned to society, all the people Douno found cute or sexually attractive were women.
There was no answer from Kitagawa. As the silence wore on, Douno stared absently at the droplets of rain hitting and bouncing off his windshield.
“I thought about it after I went back to Shizuoka,” Kitagawa said. “I’ve been working at the same factory as Shiba since last year, and I told him about it, too. He said, ‘Douno has his own life now. You need to give up and find yourself a nice wife.’”
Shiba was an inmate who had lived with Douno and Kitagawa in the same cell. He had been in his mid-fifties then; he was probably past sixty now. Douno did not expect to hear that Shiba and Kitagawa were still in contact.
“Shiba bought me a prostitute to liven things up. I made her suck my cock, then I boned her. I wonder how much it cost for those two hours. Anyway, before she went home, I told her she wasn’t any different from my right hand, and she started crying.” Kitagawa’s voice was flat and regular.
“When I told Shiba that, he told me I should’ve been nice to her because she was just doing her job. How was I supposed to be nice to a girl who lets me bone her and charges every two hours? Was I supposed to treat her to some desserts afterwards, or what? What do you think?”
Douno had no way to answer that.
“Well,” he began, “I think it’s very hard for a girl to have to give herself to someone she doesn’t even love. But she’s set that aside in order to do her job, so you would have to be considerate of her feelings, and... you probably should have avoided talking about the actual act.”
Mm-hmm, Kitagawa responded. “I still don’t really get it, though.”
The rain was coming down harder. It made a racket as it drummed against the windshield and rooftop of the car.
“Is it raining over there?”
“Yes, it is,” Douno answered.
“When I told Shiba I was moving close to your house, he was against it. He asked me what I was planning to do there. ‘Even if you’re with him, Douno won’t be your Douno anymore. He has a wife and kid. A man should know when to back off,’ he said.”
Kitagawa cut off his sentence.
“I’m at least allowed to be close to you, aren’t I? Even if you have a family?” His words sounded detached. “Can’t I be allowed to think that when it’s raining where I am, it’ll be raining where you are? Can’t I be close enough to walk over when I want to see your face?”
I just want to be close―to be near you. The man’s plaintive plea moved Douno’s heart deeply. Yet he had no idea if being close was a good thing for either Kitagawa or himself.
He could not return Kitagawa’s feelings―this much was clear. But if he let Kitagawa remain like this, remain attached to him, would it not be stealing away Kitagawa’s precious time?
Douno also had another small seed of worry. The man had said it was enough just to be close, just to see his face, but would he really be satisfied with just that? Once they were close, once they started talking... wouldn’t Kitagawa begin to seek him physically, unable to hold in his desire?
“I searched for you once I got out of jail,” Kitagawa continued. “I couldn’t do it alone, so I asked detectives to do it. Apart from buying food, I used all the money I made to pay them. Detectives cost a hell of a lot of money, so I worked every day. There were easier ways to make money without having to do so much work, but if I got thrown into jail again I wouldn’t be able to see you even if I found you. So I told myself I couldn’t. People told me I was just wasting my money. But even then, I still wanted to see you.”
“But,” he continued, “my searching and wanting to see you is a one-sided thing. I love you, and as long as I have you I don’t need anything else. But you don’t love me as much as that.”
Douno’s breath caught in his throat.
“That’s what you mean, right?”
Douno’s hand shook as he held his cell phone.
“I thought I’d be free once I was out. I thought I’d be able to sleep with you all I wanted. But now I feel like you were closer to me in there than you are now.”
“...It’s getting late,” Douno said after a long silence, and hung up on Kitagawa with that excuse. Still clutching his phone, he slumped over the steering wheel.
There was nothing he could do even if Kitagawa blamed him for not loving him back. For Douno, it was the truth. The feelings Kitagawa harboured for him pained him. The faithfulness thrust upon him was unbearably heavy.
I have to get back soon, or else Mariko will worry. Yet for a long time afterwards, Douno was unable to move from his car.
It was a chilly day, and it had been raining since morning. It hardly seemed like the end of May, when summer was beginning. It was cold enough to want a heater. Douno finished work early for once that day, at six in the evening. At the entrance to the office, he parted with Tatsuta, who was taking the train home. He went around to the employee parking lot behind the building. He had pinned his umbrella between his shoulder and neck while opening his bag to fish out his car keys when a voice called him from behind.
Thinking it was Tatsuta, Douno turned around. It was Kitagawa. Douno’s shock made him drop his bag, which tipped over on its side on the wet ground. His empty lunchbox flew out of the open bag and slid across the ground to the feet of the man standing across from him.
As Douno picked up his bag, his empty lunchbox was thrust into his face.
“Th-Thank you.” He took it hastily. Kitagawa was wearing a white shirt and black pants, and holding a clear plastic umbrella usually sold in convenience stores.
“I came to see you.”
Douno had no idea what to do in response to that. He stood at a loss, with his bag still in his arms. The rain showed no signs of letting up, and he could feel his feet getting wet just standing there. He noticed Kitagawa’s pants were darker from the knees down because they were wet as well.
“Let’s get in the car for now. It’s raining really hard.”
“Okay,” Kitagawa answered, and climbed into the passenger seat as he was told. Douno slid into the driver’s seat and put his things in the back seat. He started the car and turned on the heater. He was cold himself, but Kitagawa also looked quite cold as he hugged his shoulders and shivered.
“I’m surprised you knew where I worked.”
“I’ve followed you before. That’s why I know what time you leave the house, what kind of car you drive, and where you work.”
It was definitely not pleasant to know that he had been followed without knowledge, but watching Kitagawa’s eyes crinkle as he grinned blissfully made Douno reluctant to reprimand him.
“You didn’t have to go through the trouble of following me. You should have just asked.”
Kitagawa tilted his head. “I don’t like the phone. And besides, it was fun. I felt like I was a detective.”
It had warmed up in the car, for the man beside him stopped shivering.
“Didn’t you wait a pretty long time?”
“Dunno,” Kitagawa cocked his head. “I don’t have a watch. It was past three when I got on the bus, came here, and made sure you car was here...”
So he had been waiting at least two hours in this rain.
“Next time, you should just call my cell. That way, you wouldn’t have to wait for hours.”
“I told you I don’t like the phone,” Kitagawa said adamantly. Douno had no choice but to back off. The raindrops made pattering sounds against the windshield. He remembered their conversation on the phone about two weeks before. It had been raining then, too.
“How have you been doing since moving here? Have you settled down?” Douno began with general small-talk. The silence between them was more awkward when they were sitting beside each other instead of talking over the phone.
“I dunno. It’s hard to tell. Work is the same wherever I go.”
“Where do you work?”
“Construction sites,” Kitagawa answered. “Digging holes and carrying dirt. When it rains, work gets cancelled. A lot of the time I show up at the site to be told I’m off work today.”
“I see,” Douno nodded. He felt Kitagawa staring at him steadily. Unable to bear his pointed gaze, Douno averted his eyes.
“I like small spaces,” Kitagawa murmured. “You’re closer to me.”
Douno had a foreboding feeling that Kitagawa was going to make advances on him. Kitagawa did not consider the gazes of those around him. Douno vividly recalled memories of Kitagawa as he sought Douno in their cell in the middle of the day, where other inmates were present.
Douno hastily changed gears and drove the car out. He figured Kitagawa would not try to touch him if he was driving.
“Hey, come over to my place,” Kitagawa said to him as Douno drove. “Get takeout or something, and come over.”
Douno had a feeling Kitagawa would force himself onto him physically if he went over to the man’s house. Besides, Kitagawa was taller and physically stronger. Even if Douno refused―he had a feeling Kitagawa would go ahead and do it, anyway.
“My wife, she’s probably already made dinner. She’ll be waiting for me.”
“Uh-huh,” Kitagawa sniffed. Douno swallowed hard.
“I can’t eat with you today, but maybe another day we can go out to eat together. To an izakaya, or something.”
There was no answer. Kitagawa seemed sullen at being refused by Douno.
“So, uh, do you cook yourself? You’re good with your hands, I can imagine you’d be good at anyth―”
“I don’t,” Kitagawa replied almost irritably.
“O-Oh. I see. Then what do you usually eat? Do you go out, or...”
Douno couldn’t help but turn his head.
“What’s Yoshi-chan’s Bento?”
“There’s a takeout place near my house. They’re open ‘til nine. Yoshi-chan’s Bento gives you a lot of food for only 290 yen.”
“Do you eat there every day?” Douno asked hesitantly.
“Yeah. It’s cheap. The main dishes are deep-fried, so it keeps me full longer.”
“Eating ready-made food every day isn’t very nutritious.”
Although they had no choice of meals in prison, they were at least nutritionally-balanced, and the dishes changed every day. It seemed Kitagawa had not taken the trouble to do so for his own meals once he was out and by himself. The silence wore on, and Douno had just begun to wonder if he had made Kitagawa angry by nagging him about nutrition and such.
“What’s ready-made?” Kitagawa asked.
“Food they make in the store to sell. Like bento boxes, or takeout.”
“Mm-hmm,” Kitagawa muttered, then slid down in his seat. It was natural enough for the man not to know certain words; although he had a middle-school education, he had barely attended school.
Douno remembered Kitagawa saying he had been locked into a small room when he was younger, and had his meals thrown in from the window. It was unlikely he had been fed homemade dishes or nutritious meals under those circumstances. That made Kitagawa’s lack of consideration for what he ate understandable.
Kei Kitagawa was a man who had been an unhappy child, betrayed and unloved by his parents. He did not know what it was like to believe in people, to love, or to receive kindness from others. He knew so pitifully little that it was heart-wrenching―wasn’t that the reason why Douno wanted to do something for this man, to be involved with his life?
Douno gripped the steering wheel.
“Let’s eat dinner at my house today, though it won’t be anything special,” he said.
The car stopped at a traffic light. When Douno looked over at the man beside him, his brow was furrowed.
“Why your house?”
“You always eat the same takeout meal, don’t you? I figured it wouldn’t be a bad experience for you to taste some home cooking. I won’t force you, though.”
Even after the car lurched into motion again, there was no answer from him. Douno drove steadfastly back to his house without bringing up another topic, and waited for the other man’s response. If Kitagawa did not want to, he would say so. He was not answering because he was having trouble deciding.
Douno parked the car in the parking lot below his apartment. The rain had stopped already. Kitagawa had still not decided on whether he was going or not. With the engine still running, Douno asked him again.
“Do you want to come over?”
“What’ll you do if I say I won’t?” Kitagawa asked, peering up at him from beneath his eyebrows.
“I’ll drive you home.”
Kitagawa ran his hand through his short hair several times. He stamped his feet irritably, but did not say he wasn’t coming.
“But your family is at your house,” he mumbled. “Why’re you trying to take me there? I waited two weeks, like I was supposed to. I was excited for today since morning, because I’d be able to eat with you in the evening, and...”
Kitagawa shook his head in frustration as he spoke. He was right: Douno realized that perhaps in Kitagawa’s position, having a meal with the family of the man he loved would feel like being rubbed in the face with failure.
“I’m sorry. I’ll drive you home.”
Just as Douno put his hand on the parking brake, the door opened on the passenger side. Kitagawa jumped out of the car. Douno hastily shut off the ignition. He thought Kitagawa would take off and disappear, but he stood stock-still in his spot.
Douno took his bag and lunch box from the back seat.
“...Do you want to come with me?”
Kitagawa only glared at him without saying anything, and did not nod. Douno walked towards the building stairs to see what would happen. When he looked back, the man was following him. Douno climbed all the way up the stairs, then turned around again. The man was still following.
When he opened the door, he was greeted with a whiff of curry.
“Welcome home,” he heard Mariko’s voice call from the kitchen further inside. Honoka came running down the hallway towards him, her small footsteps making pattering sounds on the floor.
“Daddy, daddy, pick me up!” His affectionate daughter thrust both her hands out. “Hurry, hurry,” she rushed him, unable to wait for him to take off his shoes. Douno picked her up, and looked steadily at Kitagawa standing in the doorway.
“You’ve met him before, remember? This is Mr. Kitagawa, daddy’s friend. Say hello.” He patted Honoka on the back.
“Hullo,” she mumbled in a small voice, then buried her face in Douno’s shoulder shyly.
“It’s a small place, but come on in.”
Kitagawa slowly took off his shoes. He was barefoot and without socks.
When they entered the kitchen, today’s dinner was indeed curry. It was not going to be a problem feeding an additional person.
“I’ve brought my friend over. Is it alright if he eats dinner with us?”
“What?” Mariko turned around in surprise.
“It’s Kitagawa, the one who brought us soba the other day.”
Kitagawa stood at the entrance to the kitchen and showed no signs of coming in. Mariko tucked her hair behind her ear, suddenly conscious of any unruly strands on her head.
“Hello,” she smiled at Kitagawa. “Thank you so much for bringing us that delicious soba the other day.” Then, she fixed Douno with a disapproving glare.
“You should have phoned me if you were bringing a friend. I would have made something more decent than curry,” Mariko complained as she swiftly prepared a fourth portion.
“Need help?” Douno offered as he stood behind her. Mariko turned around.
“You gentlemen can have a chat while you wait,” she said with a wink.
“We’ll be able to eat soon,” Douno told Kitagawa. “Do you want to wait in the living room? It’s right here.”
At Douno’s encouragement, Kitagawa finally began to walk. With every step he took, his bare feet made pattering sounds on the floor.
They sat down across from each other on the sofa in the living room. Kitagawa kept his eyes on his feet and did not look up. He had not spoken a word since entering the house.
Honoka was sitting in Douno’s lap, but appeared interested in Kitagawa, who was across from them. She threw repeated glances in his direction. She climbed down from Douno’s lap and disappeared for some moments before returning with her favourite doll in her arms. She carefully crept up to the man across from her.
“This is Marin.”
She thrust the doll towards Kitagawa, who had lifted his face.
The child, heedless of the awkward mood between the two men, sat the doll in the silent man’s lap. Douno felt like it would only make Kitagawa’s mood worse.
“Honoka, come over to daddy,” he called to her.
“I’ve never played with dolls before,” Kitagawa mumbled. Honoka sat the doll down beside Kitagawa, then went back to bring out a drawing pad and pen.
“Then you can draw pictures.”
Kitagawa took the pen hesitantly from her.
“Draw me a kitty-cat.”
Kitagawa’s brow remained furrowed in a difficult expression as his pen effortlessly sketched out a realistic-looking cat on the blank drawing pad. Honoka leaned in to peer at Kitagawa’s hands as he drew.
“Kitty-cat, kitty-cat,” she said happily.
Mariko called them partway through their drawing session. Apparently dinner was now ready. But even as Douno stood up, Kitagawa showed no signs of moving.
Douno knew he was being underhanded, but whispered to his daughter anyway.
“Honoka, can you lead our guest to the kitchen?”
“Yeeees,” Honoka answered in a loud voice. “This way, mister,” she said, taking Kitagawa’s hand and leading him to the kitchen.
At the dining table, Douno and Kitagawa sat beside each other while Mariko and Honoka sat across from them.
Today’s meal was curry rice and salad, typical dinner fare. Kitagawa sat staring, almost glaring, at the curry set out before him. He had never left curry uneaten in prison, so Douno was sure Kitagawa did not dislike it. Even so, he felt strangely nervous.
“I’m sorry this is all we have. I hope it’ll suit your tastes. Please, feel free to have as much as you like.”
Kitagawa glanced at Mariko, and seemed to incline his head a little.
“Thank you for the meal,” they all said, and all three of them, excluding Kitagawa, picked their spoons up. After Douno had swallowed his first mouthful, Kitagawa finally picked up his spoon. Within five minutes, he cleared off his curry and salad.
Honoka clapped her hands in glee at the sight.
“So fast! So fast!” she said. Mariko looked astonished. Douno knew Kitagawa’s fast eating were lasting effects from his life in prison, where time was limited for everything, but Mariko did not know.
“Um... would you like seconds?” she offered.
Kitagawa shook his head. Mariko glanced at Douno. He nodded shallowly, hoping she would understand that she did not have to insist.
“You’re going to eat lots like Mr. Kitagawa, too, right, Honoka?” Mariko petted Honoka’s head. Children her age tended to have trouble concentrating for long periods of time; she often took long to finish her meals because she would be distracted by play. But perhaps Kitagawa had influenced her today, for Honoka was eating with intense concentration.
“What kind of work do you to, Mr. Kitagawa?” Mariko asked while wiping Honoka’s mouth.
“Construction,” Kitagawa muttered.
“He works at construction sites,” Douno jumped in, filling in the words missing from the beginning and end of Kitagawa’s sentence.
“How long have you been friends with my husband? I don’t think I saw you at our wedding.” Douno perceived what his wife was wanting to ask, and answered ahead of Kitagawa.
“He―he was my junior in high school. I had a hard time getting in touch with him after graduation.”
“I see,” Mariko answered. She did not seem to doubt his explanation about Kitagawa being his underclassman. Kitagawa glanced at Douno with a questioning look, but did not try to correct his lie.
After everyone finished dinner, they moved to the living room. Honoka clung to Kitagawa.
“Draw me pictures, draw me pictures,” she begged. Mariko, who was washing the dishes in the kitchen, called Honoka back out of consideration for Kitagawa.
“Honoka, you’re going to help mommy with the dishes,” she said, but Honoka did not listen.
Kitagawa obeyed Honoka’s requests and drew all manners of pictures on the notepad. When she said “bunny-rabbit”, he drew a rabbit; when she said “Mr. Elephant”, he drew an elephant. When she said “castle”, he drew a towering Japanese castle with shachihoko ornaments, was promptly shot down with a “Noooooo” from Honoka, and was seen scratching the back of his head in confusion.
Mariko came into the living room once she finished cleaning up, and leaned down to peer at Kitagawa’s pictures.
“You’re very good at drawing,” she said with awe. “Did you ever study art?”
The man shook his head silently. Kitagawa barely spoke to Douno or Mariko, and drew picture after picture in silence at Honoka’s request. When it struck nine o’clock, both Kitagawa and Honoka yawned in tandem. Judging by Kitagawa’s work cycle, Douno imagined it would almost be time for him to sleep.
“It’s late. Do you want me to drive you home?” he offered.
Kitagawa put the pen and pad down on the table and stood up. Honoka, whose eyelids had been drooping sleepily as she sat beside the artist, appeared to sense him leaving.
“Draw me a whale,” she said, grabbing Kitagawa’s hand to stop him.
“Mr. Kitagawa has to go home now,” Mariko told her.
“No, no,” Honoka protested, clinging onto Kitagawa’s legs.
Mariko peeled the whining girl off of Kitagawa, and Honoka burst into loud tears. Douno ushered Kitagawa to the door, the man turning back every so often as if reluctant to leave. They exited the house together.
“She’s our only child, so we can’t help but give in. That’s why she can be a bit selfish. Sorry you had to put up with her games,” Douno said to the man behind him as he went down the stairs ahead of Kitagawa. “We have to start teaching her that she can’t always get what she wants.”
Kitagawa was silent. He had said barely anything, so it was hard to tell what he had thought about the visit. Douno walked towards the parking lot, intending to drive Kitagawa home.
“We can just walk,” Kitagawa said.
“It won’t even take ten minutes.”
Kitagawa set off ahead of him, and Douno hastily trailed behind. They walked side-by-side through the quiet neighbourhood. A car passed them occasionally, but there were no people. There were puddles here and there, perhaps from the rain in the daytime. Douno avoided the puddles as they walked along, but Kitagawa splashed through them heedlessly.
“How was the curry?” Douno asked.
“Good,” Kitagawa answered shortly.
“You should come over to eat again. I’ll ask Mariko to make something more interesting next time.”
Kitagawa stopped in his tracks.
“That place is your house.” His words were stiff. “I don’t belong there.”
Douno did not understand what he meant.
“Do you mean you feel ostracized when you’re at my house?”
“What’s ‘ostracized’? How the hell would I know?” Kitagawa kicked his right heel into the ground in frustration. “The curry that your wife made was good. The kid was cute. But my feelings are different from that. I don’t really want to see your house. It doesn’t belong to me, and when I see things like that, I really... feel like you’re far away. Like I’m a different-coloured balloon from everyone else.”
I don’t belong there. Douno felt like he could understand now what the man meant.
“Shiba told me, ‘It’s up to you to go over there, but don’t cause trouble for Douno. If you’re gonna see him, keep it once every two, three weeks.’ I figured that’s just how things worked, so I waited for two weeks after your phone call and went to see you. I thought about a lot of things while I was waiting. I’d bring you over to my house, and we’d eat together, and we’d talk. I had it all planned out, but now it’s all ruined. I was so excited for today, and just when I finally get to see your face, you go on saying crap like you’ll send me home unless I go to your house. So I either had to put up with it to be with you, or go home and wait another two weeks. It’s the worst.”
Kitagawa repeatedly kicked the hydro pole beside him with his heel. He kicked it over and over until, panting and out of breath, he began to shuffled his feet forward wearily. Douno was unsure whether to walk him the rest of the way home, or turn on his heel to go back. He felt like it would be awkward either way. But unable to abandon the man, Douno ran after Kitagawa.
“That’s my house, and that’s my family,” Douno said to the man who stomped along with his back to him. “You might not have liked it, but this is reality. You can’t help it if you feel like you’re a different colour, because that house is where we live as a family. You can always start your own household. Then, we can have a relationship that includes both our families.”
“How am I supposed to start a family?”
“Well, you find someone you love...”
“I’ve said over and over that I love you!” Kitagawa yelled, in a voice that was loud enough to ring out over the neighbourhood. Douno felt himself cower, but desperately tried to remain defiant.
“No matter how much you feel for me, I can’t return your feelings. I can’t feel that kind of romantic love for you. If that’s what you want from me, don’t ever come see me again.”
Kitagawa looked seized with shock and on the brink of tears. Watching him made Douno’s heart ache.
“We need to draw the line,” Douno implored. “I can’t feel romantic love for you, But I still want to see you as friends. If we’re friends, you won’t have to wait two or three weeks. Come over every day, if you like. Come over to eat with us.”
Kitagawa hung his head. His clenched fists were trembling.
“I’ve been thinking for a long time: you’re not fair. I like you so many times more than you like me. I know I do.”
“Love isn’t about comparing the weight of each other’s feelings.”
Their eyes met.
“I wanted to live my life with Mariko, not you.”
After a long silence, Kitagawa spoke. “So I’m the loser,” he mumbled.
“Don’t say it like that. It’s true that I married Mariko, but I still want to keep being friends with you. I want to see what kind of person you’ll fall in love and find happiness with. I still want to be involved in your life.”
Kitagawa turned on his heel and started walking again. In the outskirts of the residential area, he turned off on a path, and went all the way to the end. His feet stopped in front of a single detached house.
It was surrounded by high walls, and the branches of a tall tree were poking out over it. Douno had seen this house before; the real estate agent had shown it to him and his wife when they were looking for a house to live in together. It was old and dirty, and since Mariko protested, they had not taken it. Kitagawa put a hand on the gate, which swung limply like a mere ornament.
“I’m going home now,” Douno said.
Kitagawa’s back was to him. He did not answer, nor did he show signs of going into his house.
“I don’t want to be too late, so I’m going home,” Douno said again.
There was no response.
“Feel free to give me a call whenever you like. Let’s eat together. You don’t need to hold back.” Douno insisted as strongly as he could at the man’s back, and turned to go home.
A voice called him.
“Give me your phone number.”
Douno realized he had not given the man his phone number yet. He fished out his cell phone from his jacket pocket, and displayed his number. He repeated the eleven-digit number twice, slowly.
“Can you remember it?” Douno looked up at the man searchingly.
“You still tell me to call you even when I’ve told you I don’t want to, huh?”
Douno remembered Kitagawa mentioning over and over that he hated the phone, in the parking lot of his workplace.
“Oh, sorry. But you’ll be able to get a hold of me better by phone, and we wouldn’t miss each other when we try to meet.” He made a little bit of an excuse for his forgetfulness.
“And don’t hang up on me when we’re on the phone.”
Douno tilted his head.
“You hung up all of a sudden the other day, and it pissed me off.”
“Oh, right. Okay.”
Douno had called to thank Kitagawa for the soba, and had hung up on him from the unbearable weight of their conversation. He had no idea it had bothered Kitagawa so much.
“I remember everything I talked about with you today. I never forget what you say. But you forget what I say right away,” Kitagawa said in a detached way. “Is that what it means for me to love you and for you to see me as a friend?”
Douno felt like he was being blamed. Even though Kitagawa might not have meant it, it still came across to him that way.
“I’m going home now.”
“...I'm lonely.” Kitagawa looked at Douno with a pleading gaze. “I'm lonely.”
Douno looked at his feet. “Let’s meet again tomorrow. Once the new day comes, you can come over again.”
“If I stay home alone, I probably won’t be able to stand it. Like that time with you over the phone, but I’ll feel worse, and tears’ll start coming out of my eyes.”
“You only have to wait a little bit until morning.” Douno repeated as if convincing a small child. He made sure nothing more spilled from Kitagawa’s lips after his plaintive claim of loneliness, then turned on his heel. He walked a few steps and turned around. He could see the shadow still standing in the same spot.
Douno did not turn around again until he got home. If he turned around and found the man still watching him, Douno felt like he would have run back, against his better judgement.
Kitagawa had said over and over that he was lonely. If he’s that lonely, it wouldn’t hurt if I stayed with him for one night―Douno’s feelings were starting to tip in that direction. It was affection, he thought. It was not romantic love, and they were not family. But he harboured an affection inside him which he could do nothing about.
Douno came home with heavy spirits, as if dragged down by Kitagawa’s loneliness. He heard Mariko talking to someone, but as soon as Douno appeared in the living room, the phone was hung up.
“Who were you talking to?”
“Mr. Taguchi,” Mariko said. Taguchi was the manager of the supermarket where Mariko worked part-time. She had introduced them once when Douno went shopping with her. Taguchi was three years older than Douno, but he looked much younger and was an amiable man. He seemed to like children, for he was all smiles when he spoke to Honoka, and had given her a candy from the store as a gift. He was married for over ten years. “They don’t have children, though,” Mariko had said.
“The person who works the night shift is in the hospital from an injury, and had to take emergency leave. He asked me if I could fill in starting tomorrow, but I have a child to take care of, so...”
“I guess you’re right. If my work day ended earlier, I could’ve watched Honoka, but...”
“Thanks, but it’s okay. I already told him no.” Mariko smiled. Come to think of it, Honoka was nowhere in sight, when she had been bawling moments before.
“Did Honoka go to sleep?”
“She cried herself to sleep. I think she really enjoyed Mr. Kitagawa playing with her and drawing pictures for her.” Mariko hunched her shoulders.
“I see,” Douno let out a murmur which sounded more like a sigh.
“He’s a little different, isn’t he?” Mariko said. “He doesn’t talk much. But he’s really kind. He had a lot of patience to put up with a four-year-old child for that long.”
Douno was happy to hear her call Kitagawa kind. He cared about the man, and he felt like Mariko was also on the same page.
“He’s living by himself, and I don’t think he eats very well. He’s not close with his family, either, so I want him to feel at home spending time with us. Is it alright if I invite him over for dinner in the future?”
“Go ahead, but promise you’ll let me know beforehand.” Mariko gave Douno’s chest a gentle prod.
“I will,” Douno answered, and gently embraced his wife. As he stroked her soft brown hair which cascaded midway down her back, he noticed something twinkling around his wife’s slender, fair neck. It was a necklace, but he had never seen this design before.
“Did you buy this?” he asked, plucking the chain with his fingertips. Mariko’s spine flinched.
“I’m sorry I didn’t talk to you about it beforehand. But it was so cute, and it didn’t cost much.”
Douno smiled wryly. “I’m not angry at you. You have a part-time job, too, so you should feel free to buy what you want without my permission.”
“Thank you,” Mariko murmured. She buried her face in Douno’s chest, and circled her arms around his back.
“Say, is Mr. Kitagawa dating anyone?” she asked.
“I don’t think so. Why?”
“He’s kind of good-looking, don’t you think?”
“Yeah,” said Mariko. “He’s tall, and though he’s a bit awkward, he’s kind. I think he’d be on my radar if I were single.”
“I don’t like the sound of that,” Douno murmured uncertainly.
“I’m kidding,” Mariko giggled softly.
“But I do hope Kitagawa finds someone special like that," Douno said. "Then he wouldn’t have to feel lonely.”
“You’re a kind one, too,” Mariko said, touching Douno’s fingers. Douno gently clasped her thin fingers in his own, and wished earnestly that such a someone would really appear before Kitagawa.
* See the project page for In the Box (Hako no naka).