He was dazzled for a moment as he stepped out of the hospital. Perhaps it was because he had gone from being inside all day to being suddenly in the sun, which was bright for October. Takafumi Douno darted immediately into the shadows of the building and sighed. He fished his cell phone out of his jacket pocket.
“Kei, it’s me.”
The reception was not very good, and the voice on the other end was choppy. He managed to make out one phrase.
“How’s your mom?”
Douno took a step back out into the sun, still looking at his feet.
“They couldn’t do anything. We lost her―just now.”
A short silence on the other end. An ambulance blared its sirens as it passed in front of him.
“I see. I’m sorry.” This time, he could hear the words clearly.
“The wake is tomorrow, and I think the funeral will be on the next day. I don’t know who my mother was close with over here, so I have no idea who to contact.”
That was not all. Once his mother’s death had been confirmed, Douno had barely any time to cope with his feelings before he was bombarded with a stream of questions on which company to call for funeral services, which temple the service would be held at, and which immediate family he had already contacted. His mind was a mass of confusion.
His sister had been the one to let him know that their mother was in critical condition from a subarachnoid hemorrhage. As he boarded the bullet train to his parents’ home, the worst-case scenario was already a possibility in Douno’s mind. Perhaps it was crude to think this way, but his mother was eighty-four and a ripe old age. Although she had lived an energetic life with very few illnesses for a woman of her years, Douno told himself if the worst happened, it simply meant she had reached the end of her life.
But Douno’s preparedness vanished the moment he got to the hospital and saw his mother’s face as she lay limp in bed. He could no longer think. His heart seized up at the sight of his own mother up close in such a weakened state, especially because she had always been so healthy.
His mother now fought to keep a pulse, and as Douno sat beside her, he was flooded with memories of his childhood. It was troublesome because they all spilled out of him as tears.
Douno was pulled back to reality. His head had half-sunken into memories of his mother. He pressed his forehead with his hand. It was hot.
“I’m fine. It was just so sudden, I’m just kind of flustered...”
“Am I allowed to go to the funeral?”
“Of course. I’d like you to come. Oh, but Kei, what about your work?”
“I’ll finish it up today.”
“You don’t have to push yourself.”
He thought he heard someone call his name. Douno turned around to see his younger sister Tomoko running this way from the entrance.
“Takafumi, the funeral home’s car is coming in thirty minutes,” she said.
“Alright. I’m actually on the phone right n―”
“Hiroaki is coming in the evening. You didn’t bring any mourning clothes, did you? Since you two have similar figures, should I ask him to bring an extra set? Or are you going to go out to buy new ones?”
Tomoko apparently did not see the cell phone in his right hand. She pelted him with machine-gun talk.
“Hold on a minute,” Douno said to Tomoko before pressing his cell phone to his ear.
“Kei, I’ll call you again later.”
“You need mourning clothes?” Kitagawa said.
“Ah, yeah. But I’ll get a set over here.”
“If you’re okay with getting them at night, I can bring them. But I’ll be taking the last train, so I’ll be pretty late.”
“You have work, don’t you?”
“I’ll get it done. Are they the ones you wore for Shiba’s?”
“Yeah. ―It would be a huge help, but are you really sure?”
“Don’t worry about me.”
“Sorry about that. It’d be great if you could bring them.”
When Douno hung up, Tomoko apologized.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you were on the phone. Who were you talking to?”
“Kei Kitagawa. The guy I live with.”
Tomoko knew that Douno and Kitagawa had been living together for close to twenty years. Back in his late thirties when Douno had gotten divorced, Tomoko had gotten wind of the news and given him a worried phone call. When she had asked where he had moved to, he had told her a friend was letting him stay at his house.
“Are you really that tight on money?” she had asked with concern. Unable to tell her that the man was actually his lover, Douno made the excuse that he was not having problems getting by financially; he simply felt at ease to have someone around.
“Make sure you don’t impose on him,” Tomoko had said sternly, asking for no further elaboration.
Two or three years later, she began to ask him if he planned to remarry, and how long he planned to bum around at his friend’s house. However, since Douno only saw his sister during the Obon holidays in the summer, he scraped through each time by laughing it off vaguely. Once he passed his mid-forties, everyone stopped mentioning remarriage.
Tomoko seemed to see Kitagawa as a kind but odd man who lived with his divorced friend. Once, she had asked Douno what Kitagawa did for a living. He had told her Kitagawa was an illustrator.
“Well, they do say people in those types of jobs are unique,” she had said, convinced.
When their father passed away from cancer about five years ago, Kitagawa attended the funeral. That was when Tomoko met him for the first time. They only exchanged a few words.
“He’s quite tall,” she had commented afterwards.
“Kei says he’s going to bring my mourning clothes since he’s coming to the funeral, anyway. What a lifesaver. It looks like I won’t have to borrow your husband’s clothes after all.”
“What?” Tomoko said, furrowing her brow. “Takafumi, you need mourning clothes for the wake. He won’t be on time.”
“He says he’ll get here tonight. It’ll be fine.”
“But the wake is tomorrow. He’s coming all the way here today just to bring your clothes?”
“Oh, er, yeah. He said he’s got free time from finishing up some work, anyway.”
“That’s kind of him.”
Guilt clouded his heart. Douno’s sister did not know what kind of relationship they were in. He felt no need to tell her, and had no plans to do so in the future.
He did not expect his sister to understand the life he had lived for close to twenty years with his male lover. But it was no longer a question of gaining someone’s understanding. Now that he was in his mid-fifties and long past the halfway point in his life, Douno simply wanted to do his best to avoid awkwardness and criticism from the few immediate family he had left.
At around eleven at night, they heard a knocking at the door. Douno stood up, stopping his sister who was about to get it. He made his way down the hallway, and before he could even call out, the front door slid open to admit a looming man.
Kitagawa was wearing a black suit. When their eyes met, the first thing he said was, “Are you alright?”
“Uh―oh, yeah. I’m fine. Thank you.”
Kitagawa thrust Douno’s suit out, which was still inside the plastic dry cleaner’s bag.
“Is this the right one?” he asked.
It was the suit Douno wore for every formal occasion. That was fine, but―
“Did you bring it like this?”
“I thought about putting it into something, but it’s not good to wrinkle these kinds of clothes, right? I just brought it as is because it was too much hassle.”
When Douno imagined the man carrying the dry cleaner’s bag as he transferred between trains and a bullet train on the three-hour journey here, he was simultaneously exasperated and a little overwhelmed with emotion.
“I was careful not to get it wrinkled.”
“Thanks for taking the trouble. You’re really a huge help. ―Come on in.”
Douno heard hurried footsteps, and turned around to see Tomoko approaching.
“I’m sorry you had to come out so far.” Tomoko bowed her head to Kitagawa. She seemed to remember his face, despite having only met him once.
“My sympathies.” Kitagawa also bowed his head.
“Tomoko, I’m going to have Kitagawa stay over tonight.”
A hesitant look crossed Tomoko’s face. “I’d love to have him over, but I don’t think we have enough futons. Our uncle and other relatives are also staying over, aren’t they? I’ll reserve a room in the hotel near the station right now, so why don’t you have him stay there?”
Douno had completely forgotten that a group of relatives along with their uncle and aunt were supposed to be staying the night. He had assumed it would be fine since they had enough rooms.
“Right, okay. Kei, we’re going to get a hotel room for you, so would you like to come in and wait? It’ll only be a while.”
“I can sleep anywhere,” Kitagawa said. “It’s not that cold at night, anyway. I could even sleep in a corner of the hallway, wherever...”
Douno knew Kitagawa was serious, but Tomoko did not. She wore a strange expression. Is he kidding? But why would he make a joke at a time like this? she seemed to be thinking.
“L―Let’s have him stay here after all,” Douno stammered. “We wouldn’t want to make him go all the way to the hotel again when he’s just arrived. In this weather, he’d probably he fine just having something to lie on.”
“But he’s a guest.”
Tomoko seemed to have more objections, but Douno managed to convince her, and Kitagawa was brought into the house. In the living room, Douno introduced Kitagawa as a friend to the gathering of relatives there. Douno’s mother was laid out in a futon, and Kitagawa knelt before her with his palms together for a long time.
After he had left Kitagawa to rest in the room upstairs and their relatives had gone to sleep, Douno and Tomoko sat and talked in the living room where their mother was laid. They planned to keep a vigil over their mother for the night, but once they had run out of memories to reminisce about together, his sister began to rub her red eyes. She looked like she could barely keep herself awake. Douno suggested that she take a rest first, and afterwards, they would take turns sleeping.
It was around three in the morning, perhaps, when Douno heard creaking in the hallway. He wondered if his sister had come to switch places with him, but it was Kitagawa who appeared.
“What’s wrong? Can’t sleep?”
“You weren’t coming up, so I came to see how you were doing.”
Kitagawa was wearing his usual T-shirt and shorts as he sat down beside Douno.
“Oh, right, I didn’t tell you,” Douno said. “We were talking about keeping vigil tonight with close family. My sister and I are taking turns, since an all-nighter would be hard on both of us.”
“I see,” Kitagawa answered. This house had formerly belonged to Douno’s grandmother. It had two storeys and many rooms, but it was very old. From the looks of it, his mother had only been using the first floor, and when Tomoko found out that relatives would be staying tonight, she was seen vacuuming the second floor in a hurry.
It was cool out, and the window in the living room, where Douno’s mother lay, had been kept open. It had turned a little chilly after midnight, but Douno had left the window open, figuring the cold air from the open window would help keep him awake. In the countryside, there were barely any cars on the roads at night. The chirping of the insects rang out clearly.
“She was a kind soul,” Kitagawa murmured as he gazed at Douno’s mother, whose face was covered with a white cloth.
In the New Year after Douno’s father passed away, Douno brought Kitagawa home during the holidays to his mother, who was now left alone in the house. Since Douno’s sister and her husband always returned to visit right at New Years, Douno always shifted his visit so that he would arrive after they left, from the third day of January.
Why had he thought of bringing Kitagawa with him? That day, he had told Kitagawa, as he usually did, that he would be returning to his hometown on the third.
“Okay,” Kitagawa had replied as usual. Perhaps it was the forlorn look on his face that made Douno decide to take him along.
Douno’s mother appeared not to mind her son’s younger friend, and the three spent a relaxed time together. Douno and his mother did not talk much even if they were sitting right across from each other. His mother was not the talkative type to begin with, and they spent most of the time in silence. Yet, his mother was chatty around Kitagawa. When Douno asked her later what they were talking about, she had said they only talked about little things. Nothing special.
“He’s such a good listener to a rambling senior like me,” she had said quietly. After that, come every winter, Douno began to bring Kitagawa to his mother’s home.
It was a quiet night. Although it was false charge, Douno had nevertheless been arrested, making his mother worry. He had gotten married, but had later divorced. And as for the granddaughter his mother had adored.... I caused you a lot of heartache, didn’t I? Douno spoke mentally to the shrunken figure in the futon.
He spotted Kitagawa stifling a yawn. Kitagawa worked at night when he was busy, but he was generally not very good at staying up the whole night through. He worked on the same schedule as a company worker like Douno, beginning his work at nine in the morning and putting away his work materials at five.
“You don’t have to stay up with me. Go to sleep,” Douno said to him. Kitagawa shook his head.
“Can I stay here?”
“I don’t mind, but... you were working nonstop, weren’t you? And then you spent all that time on the train... aren’t you exhausted?”
“I want to be close to you, Takafumi.”
Douno laughed softly. “Do you feel lonely sleeping by yourself?”
At home, they always slept in the same futon. At first, they had done so out of necessity because Kitagawa had no extra futon when Douno moved in with him. But even after they had sorted out their living arrangements, an additional futon was never bought. Douno had suggested buying one a few times, but each time, Kitagawa had said there was no need. So things stayed that way.
Despite what one might expect from his large stature, Kitagawa was prone to feeling lonely, and sought affection like a child. Once, when they had gone on a trip overseas, their hotel room had come with two twin beds. Although they had gone to sleep in separate beds, Douno woke up later to find that Kitagawa had wriggled into bed beside him. When he asked why, Kitagawa said it was because “I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t touch you.”
“You’re the lonely one, aren’t you, Takafumi?”
“It’s sad when your parents die, isn’t it? When your dad died, you looked like you’d collapse. That’s why I came. It’s better if I’m around, right?”
Douno finally understood the meaning behind why this man had hurried through his work and boarded multiple trains knowing he would arrive late at night, just to be by his side. Douno felt too choked up to say anything. Kitagawa’s fingers touched his.
“You can cry. I prepared myself for it.”
Prepared yourself to see me break down and cling to you, bawling my eyes out? Douno thought wryly. He found himself laughing a little in amusement. Kitagawa cocked his head in perplexity.
“Yes, I’m sad, but I think I can hold off crying for a bit. I cried a lot at the hospital already.”
Their conversation lapsed. They sat in absent silence beside each other, only their fingertips interlinked with each other. He’s right, Douno thought. It’s different. Even if there are no words between us, it feels different from being alone.
For an instant, Douno wondered what he was doing here. He turned around to see the darkness gradually lightening, and remembered. I’m waiting for dawn to break.
He heard hurried footsteps, and the sliding door opened.
“I’m sorry! I completely fell asleep...”
Tomoko apparently had not expected to see anyone else. “Oh!” she murmured in surprise when she saw Kitagawa.
“You must have been tired,” Douno said to her. “I’m still alright, so you can go back to sleep for a bit longer. Kei is keeping me company.”
“It’s fine, I’m awake already, anyway. Besides, I need to have a girl-to-girl talk with Mom. You can take a rest, Takafumi.”
Douno was shooed out of the room and to the second floor, into the west room which was about nine square metres in area. Tomoko had mentioned not having enough futons, but she had apparently managed to secure one set, which was laid out on the floor.
There was no hesitation in sharing the same futon. Most people would think nothing of them sleeping together. They had no choice, after all, with only one futon available. And they were both men.
Douno felt comfort in smelling Kitagawa’s scent close to him. He was gathered in a tight embrace, and a fleeting uncertainty crossed his mind―what if his sister came in? What if one of his relatives got the wrong room? But before long, he stopped caring. If they were seen, he would just use the excuse that they were cold. And besides―he was overcome with sleepiness.
As Kitagawa gently ran his hand down his back, Douno suddenly remembered a long-forgotten memory. His mother used to rub his back like this when they used to sleep together. Go to sleep, go to sleep, her soft voice would repeat. It was such an old memory that a haze had fallen over it. He was choked up by something hot, and tears spilled over. When he let out a trembling sob, a large palm touched his eyes and gently brushed away the tears brimming over.
He was sad―sad, but strangely enough, not lonely.
Douno’s company gave him a week off for his mother’s funeral. The ceremony took place three days after her passing. Douno decided to use the rest of the four days to clean up the house. Thankfully, since it was not a rental property, they did not need to make arrangements to vacate the house, but nevertheless there were many things that needed to be put in order.
They looked for her bank balance book and her stamp, and got her pension book and health insurance card in order. They also had to go through inheritance procedures. It was a three-hour trip by train and bullet train to get here from Douno’s house; Douno preferred to get everything done during this time off rather than making multiple trips.
Kitagawa did not go back after the funeral. Since he had reached a lull in his work, he remained behind to help clean up. Tomoko was only able to take four days off. She left, saying she would come back to help on Saturday and Sunday.
Douno called Kitagawa’s name to let him know lunch was ready, but there was no answer. He went through all the rooms on the first floor with no luck. Kitagawa was not in the garden, either. I told him lunch would almost be ready, so he couldn’t have gone out for a walk. Douno went up to the second floor, and found Kitagawa there sitting with his legs crossed in the nine-square-metre room, engrossed in something in his lap.
Douno peered in from behind. Kitagawa was looking at Douno’s childhood photo album.
Kitagawa turned around in a startled manner, apparently unaware that Douno had come up behind him.
“Where did you find such an old album?”
“There’re lots in the closet. And not just yours.”
“It’s fun to see so many little Takafumis.”
Douno sat down beside Kitagawa.
“That was during our spring hike. I must have been in first grade or so.”
A younger version of himself was standing with a younger version of his mother. Douno’s nostalgia kept him glued to each page that Kitagawa turned.
“You must’ve been cute when you were a kid,” Kitagawa murmured.
“Too bad you see nothing of that now. In fact, I’m old enough to have grandchildren this age,” Takafumi said wryly.
“I think you’re still cute, Takafumi.”
Douno was in his mid-fifties, yet Kitagawa’s face was all seriousness as he called him “cute”.
“Time to eat,” Douno said, feeling sheepish as he gave the man a light slap on the shoulder and went ahead downstairs. Kitagawa showed up in the kitchen some moments later. They sat across from each other and ate.
Kitagawa’s habit of eating quickly still persisted, though it had improved compared to before. His plate was polished off before Douno had even finished half. Kitagawa remained in his seat even after his meal and waited patiently for Douno to finish.
Once they were done, Kitagawa began to clean up. Neither had suggested it; it had become an unspoken rule between them that whoever didn’t do the cooking would do the cleaning up.
Douno left the kitchen and entered the living room. The sun was still glaring outside, but there was a breeze blowing. It was cool as long as they kept the window open. This house was spacious, like many others on the countryside. The yard in their current rented house was larger than average, but this yard was almost twice as large.
In a few years, Douno would reach retirement age. He still planned to do some sort of work after retirement, but he was beginning to think it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to move into this house, as long as Kitagawa was alright with it. For one, his income would dwindle, even if he continued to work after retirement. And although their current rent was not expensive, it was still a significant amount.
If they were going to continue this life for ten or twenty more years after retirement, they would have to think about things further in the future. A long, long life with just the two of them. Douno would be lying if he said he wouldn’t find it lonely. Sometimes he envied his classmates and friends who had stories about their children and grandchildren. He had had those himself once, but they had all been washed cleanly away like a sand castle in a big wave.
But if Douno were offered his sand castle again in exchange for what he had now, he knew he would not say yes. What he had built up was irreplaceable in its own way.
Douno rolled onto his back on the tatami floor. He heard scraping and thumping upstairs on the second floor. Perhaps Kitagawa was rummaging through the albums in the closet again. Remembering how the man had called him cute, Douno chuckled silently to himself. It wouldn’t hurt to bring a few of the albums back home with them―his thoughts trailed off, and before long, he was asleep.
The sun had dipped considerably westward when Douno woke up. He looked at the clock, which indicated that it was a little past four in the evening. Granted, until yesterday there had been a bustle of people coming and going, coupled with several days’ worth of exhaustion. But he had not expected to be asleep for this long.
Douno touched the nape of his neck, which felt damp and sweaty. He was also thirsty. He went into the kitchen to take a draught of cold bottled tea. While he was at it, he peeked into the refrigerator, and found they had barely enough food to last them for three more days. If he bought too much, he would have to throw it all away later―but if they kept getting takeout, it would not be good for digestion.
I guess I need to go shopping, then. Douno sighed with a hand to his hip. Since he had not taken the car here, he would have to walk to the nearest supermarket. It was a five-minute drive, but on foot―it would probably take a long time.
Douno went upstairs to find Kitagawa still looking through the albums, his interest showing no signs of waning. This time he had probably heard Douno’s footsteps on the stairs, for he was already looking this way before Douno called out to him.
“I’m going to the supermarket. Anything you want me to get?”
“What’re you buying?”
“Just some stuff to eat. I don’t think we’ll last until Sunday with what we have.”
Kitagawa put down the album he had been holding and got to his feet.
“I’ll go with you.”
“If you want something, I can just get it for you.”
“No. I’ll go.”
Since they were both leaving the house, Douno locked the door just in case, though he supposed it would be alright if he didn’t. They walked side-by-side down the quiet, deserted rural road. They could see the train tracks far away. They walked underneath the overpass, climbed a steep slope, and crossed the bridge, emerging on a riverside path. Only then did they see the supermarket, but it was small and distant.
Douno wiped the sweat streaming down his cheek on the shoulder of his shirt. It was hot, but the breeze made it tolerable. There was a lot of silver grass growing along the riverside path which rustled every time the wind blew.
The walk to the supermarket ended up taking them forty minutes. Although they had not bought much, they were still loaded down, and they were two people. Douno had considered taking the taxi home, but before he could suggest it, Kitagawa started ahead of him on the walk back.
Douno followed behind, unable to bring up the topic. The forty-minute walk here was already enough to make Douno raise his white flag. Kitagawa, however, appeared not to mind long walks. Come to think of it, although Kitagawa’s current work was more or less a desk job, before his injury he had worked at construction sites and places where his physical strength was the tool of his trade.
The sunset had fully coloured the sky now. The ears of silver grass rustled and swayed in the cooling breeze. The yellow-brown path and the shadow at his feet; the overpowering smell of grass―Douno’s senses tingled. Hadn’t he experienced something like this before? Yes, it was―
He suddenly remembered. Beside the rented house they had lived in before his father had bought their own place, there had been a field of silver grass. Douno had played there often as a child, and when the sun set, his mother would come out to the edge of the path and call him in. Douno was lulled into the strange illusion that this field was the very same one. He stopped in his tracks.
Kitagawa, who was some steps ahead of him, turned around.
“The silver grass...”
That field of silver grass no longer existed. One day, a large sign was put up, the field was fenced off, and children were no longer allowed inside. Not long afterwards, the green field was dug up and made into a vacant lot with conspicuous chunks of brown dirt. A large store was built on that plot.
Douno had felt forlorn at the time, but the forlornness he felt now was of a different kind. That field of silver grass would never return, and his mother, who used to call him inside, was no longer here. The only vivid things were his own memories, and everything was a story of a past so distant it could be misted over.
Everything else would eventually drift along and disappear in the same way. He himself, and all the people around him, would disappear in a current no one could stop.
“What’s wrong, Takafumi?”
‘Eternity’ was a mere convenient illusion. Some day, this man would disappear as well. If they went by age, perhaps Douno would be the one to go first.
No one knew when the end would come. One could die tomorrow, from an illness or an unexpected accident.
“Oh, it’s nothing.”
It was meaningless to be melancholic about the future. Douno shook his head lightly as if to wave away his emotions. The present was more important than the past or the future. The here and now was what was important.
“I was just thinking how beautiful the silver grass was.”
Kitagawa looked at Douno steadily for a minute, then suddenly turned his back and clambered down to the riverbank. He yanked a few stalks of silver grass and came back.
He thrust them out to Douno as if to say they were for him, and Douno took them. The light-brown ears, unopened still, felt soft and a little damp, like dog fur.
“Give me that.” Kitagawa pointed to the grocery bag.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s not that heavy.”
“Half and half. You carried it halfway, so I’ll carry it the rest of the way.”
Kitagawa swiped the bag from him and began walking briskly. Douno hastily followed him. He clenched the silver grass tightly in his right hand like a child, and ran towards the gentle shadow. His memories overlapped with his past. His hunger had driven him to run, and he had thought only of one thing. That warm place with the steam rising from the pot.
Douno laughed at himself for behaving like a child at this age. He felt comfort and security in the broad shoulders that walked in front of him. The field of silver grass rustled and swayed.
If only I could stay with this man forever. No―I am going to be with him. Douno turned the thought over and over in his heart.
* See the project page for In the Box (Hako no naka).