Mom bought tickets for two people and went through the ticket gates. The last train had just gone, and we had about twenty minutes until the next one arrived. No one else was on the platform except for Mom and I.
I clutched the fireworks tightly as I sat on the bench. Mom put her arms around my shoulders and rested her cheek against my head, looking out over the ocean from the platform.
“Mom, why did you start hating Dad?”
Mom’s fingers twitched on my shoulders.
“...I don’t hate him.”
“Then why did you and Dad divorce?”
She wouldn’t answer me.
“Dad is so nice, though.”
Mom slapped me in the face. In my surprise, I let go of the paper bag, and it tumbled to the ground. The fireworks scattered about my feet. Mom’s lips were twisted and she looked like she was about to cry.
“Don’t you think I know that?” Mom covered her face with her hands and curled up. “I know he’s kind.”
Mom was crying. Even though she was the one who hit me, I felt like I was somehow at fault. Watching Mom cry like that made me feel sad, too, and I cried a little while I picked the fireworks off the ground.
People gradually began to gather on the train platform. Mom wasn’t crying anymore. She stroked my cheek and said, “I’m sorry for hitting you.”
The train came in. Lots of kids came off, holding hands with their moms and dads. Maybe they were going to the beach.
I loved my mom, but I wished I could play a bit longer with Dad and Mister. I wished I’d been able to go to the haunted house―the thought made tears well up in my eyes.
After his summer vacation ended, Nao told his friends about his gentle dad and funny old Mister. Before, he’d been jealous of kids who talked about their dads, but he didn’t feel jealous anymore. My parents are divorced, but I have a really nice dad. I love him lots. Nao was able to say so proudly. And he was happy that he could say so. The hat that his dad bought for him became his biggest treasure, and he wore it wherever he went.
“Next summer, I want to visit Dad’s place again,” Nao told his mother one day. His mother, who had refused to tell him his father’s name before, shook her head and said, “Absolutely not.” But Nao refused to give up. He wanted to see his dad and Mister again.
At first, his mother got upset to the point of hysterics.
“Do you like your father that much? Do you like him more than me?” she had said shrilly, but in the end, she gave in to Nao’s persistence and tenacity, and agreed that he could visit them for three days only during the summer holidays.
For every summer vacation after that year, Nao visited the town by the sea where his father’s house was. For the three days that Nao was over, his dad and Mister both took time off work, and spent all of their time with him as if to make up for the rest of the year that they had not seen each other. He swam in the ocean, walked Ao, and gave tinned cat food as a peace offering to Shiro, who now completely hated him; he lit fireworks on the porch, went to the summer festival going on in the next town―three days passed in a flash.
Mister was more fun to play with. Dad usually stood by and watched, but Mister took their games very seriously. He seemed genuinely disappointed whenever he lost to Nao.
Although Nao only visited for three days during his summer holidays, he talked over the phone a lot with Mister and his father. Once he got into middle school, he began to turn to his dad for advice rather than his mom. There were things he didn’t feel comfortable discussing with his mother, and his mother was busy enough managing the day’s worth of household chores that she had no time or energy to listen to her son.
A lot of the time, Mister answered the phone. Once in a while, Nao would get so carried away chatting with him that he would forget what he had called to talk to his father about.
Soon after Nao entered eighth grade, his mother broke a piece of news to him.
“There’s someone special in my life.”
His mother’s new lover came as a considerable shock to Nao, who had been secretly wishing that his mother and father would patch up their relationship. He was so shocked, before he could think, he found himself making a phone call. Dad was silent for a while on the other end.
“Nao.” His voice was quiet and calm. “I think it’s a good thing that your mother has found someone she loves.”
“But then that means you won’t...”
“I’m sorry, Nao, but I have no plans to get back together with your mother again.”
The fact that there was no chance for repair shocked Nao more than his mother’s new lover.
“It’s hard to explain, but... we just can’t get back together. But that won’t change the fact that you’re my son on the register. Things didn’t work out between your mother and I, but I do want your mother to be happy.”
Nao was relieved to hear those words. He knew now for certain that even though his mother had gotten a new boyfriend, and even if that person were to become his new father, Dad would always be his one and only real father.
In May, his mother, her boyfriend, and Nao dined together. The man’s name was Hiroyuki Taguchi, and he was three years older than Dad. In the beginning, Nao could tell that Taguchi was extremely nervous around him―a child―and it made him feel bad. But once Taguchi had a few drinks, Nao soon found out that he was a talkative, cheerful man who laughed a lot. He was kind of like a cross between Dad and Mister.
They ate together four times after that. After their fourth meal, Taguchi brought up the topic with a nervous air.
“Would it be alright for you if your mother and I got married?” he asked. Dad’s face crossed Nao’s mind. Taguchi was not a bad person. But he doesn’t have to be my father, Nao thought.
Nao’s mother watched him worriedly at his lack of an answer. There was no chance of reconciliation with his father. Dad had said that he wanted Nao’s mother to be happy. Nao also wanted his mother to be happy.
“Yes. Please take good care of her.” Nao looked Taguchi in the eye and slowly bowed his head.
Taguchi and his mother got married in July. There was no ceremony; they only entered into Taguchi’s register and moved into a slightly more spacious condominium.
Nao Takamura became Nao Taguchi, and even though his new father was always around the house like a father should be, Nao couldn’t bring himself to call Taguchi “Dad”. Nao had his own stiff resolve that Douno would be the only father for him. Taguchi was cheerful and kind, but he was not Nao’s real father. He was just a man who lived with them. In Nao’s mind, he was always “Mom’s husband”.
Right after his term-end exams and before his summer holidays, Nao told his mother that he would be going to Dad’s place from August 6th to the 8th this year. His mother wore an unusual, strange expression.
“What do you mean, why? I go every year.”
“Your father’s right here at home.”
Nao felt slightly offended at his mother’s statement. It was like she’d forgotten about his dad in Kanagawa.
“Yeah, but there’s only one person I’ll call my father.”
Sensing her son’s irritation, his mother began to say something―then lowered her gaze.
“...I know you’re attached to him, Nao, but that’s rude to your new father. You haven’t called Mr. Taguchi ‘Dad’ yet, have you?”
Nao suddenly felt awkward. It was true that he’d been feeling guilty towards not calling Taguchi “Dad”.
“But Mr. Taguchi says he doesn’t mind what I call him. He said he wouldn’t force it on me.”
“Yes, but deep down, he does want you to call him Dad. Of course he would.”
Nao bit down on his lip.
“I do feel bad for Mr. Taguchi, but I want to see Dad, too. I only get to see him once a year.”
“Don’t go this year, okay? Let’s go on a trip with the three of us instead,” his mother said gently as if to parley with him.
“I don’t want a trip. Just let me go to Dad’s house.”
“I said you are not to go this year!”
“I'm still going!”
Nao insisted on going while his mother insisted that he would not; it became a battle of wills. In the end, Nao left without getting permission from his mother. He said he was going to his grandmother’s place, but headed to his father’s place instead.
Nao liked his father’s old rented house and its ambiance. He exited the station, went through the deserted shopping district, and crossed the small bridge. He felt a sort of relief when he saw the fence of the rented house in the distance.
In reality, the house was old, the creaking of the hallway got worse every year, and when Mister cooked dinner it was curry every time, but even so.... Ao barked while Nao napped in the room with the table. Shiro approached him cautiously, apparently finally ready to forgive him.
The following year, Nao went to his father’s house again during the summer holidays. His mother no longer told him not to go.
“Keep quiet to Hiroyuki about this,” she said to him. So Nao did not tell Taguchi that he was going to see his real father over the holidays.
In the autumn of Nao’s ninth grade, his little brother was born, bringing a rush of hustle and bustle to his home. His little brother was always in a good mood, laughed often, and became very attached to Nao, who took care of him often in the place of his busy mother. Soon, his brother began to talk in broken words. Nao worried that his brother might find it weird that he always called Taguchi “Mr. Taguchi”, and so began to call him “Dad” instead. The first time he said “Dad” to Taguchi, the man, who had been talking and laughing until that moment, suddenly began to cry. Nao was startled. Although Taguchi had always said he didn’t mind what Nao called him, it had probably bothered him that he was never called “Dad.” I must’ve given him a hard time, Nao thought in regret.
At the beginning of eleventh grade, Nao went through career guidance. He wrote that he wished to go into the faculty of arts of a private university, but his mother did not seem too keen. The fact that it was a private school seemed to be an issue, and even if Nao explained to her that there was a specific professor whose lecture he wanted to take, his mother only looked at him worriedly and asked, “But what are you going to study?” His career guidance teacher warned him that females were usually the ones who intended to go into the faculty of arts, and he also warned Nao that arts would limit his career options. Everyone around him seemed to say it was a bad idea. This made Nao uncertain. Private schools had high tuition, and his little brother would cost their family a lot of money in the coming years as well. “Do what you want to do,” Taguchi had said, when Nao had gone to him for advice. But later, he overheard Taguchi telling his mother that he thought it would be a better idea for Nao to go into finance or science and technology.
After an endless cycle of weighing his options, Nao finally went to his father for advice. His father asked Nao what school and faculty he wished to get into, asked him why, then hung up the phone, telling him he would call back tomorrow or the day after. Two days later, Nao’s father called his cell phone.
“You should go to the university you’re aiming for,” he said.
“Well, you want to go, don’t you?”
“What happened to your enthusiasm?” Dad laughed. “I researched that university you were talking about, Nao, and... well, now I know what you want to study and the professor you want to learn from. If you have a goal as clear as that, I don’t have a reason to say no. I’m actually envious that you have such a clear-cut goal.”
“Really?” Nao couldn’t help but ask at the unexpected answer.
“I went to university without really knowing why. I think choosing a flexible faculty is one way to do it if you have no idea what you want to learn, but you’re not like that. I think it’s a wonderful thing that you have a goal.”
“B-But Mom doesn’t really seem to get it, and the guidance teacher told me it would limit my options.”
“That might be true, but you really like that professor, don’t you, Nao? That feeling of liking something, enjoying something, is going to give you strength in life. As long as you stay true to what you like, I’m sure it’ll work out. Besides, we humans aren’t as good at faking ourselves as we think we are. I’m sure it would be stressful for you to work hard at something you don’t like.”
His father’s words swept everything away, even the uncertainty that had been settling in Nao’s own heart. His father did not merely say “yes” without meaning it, like Taguchi. He thought everything out well before giving his opinion. He was not neglectful of his words. Nao knew it wasn’t right to compare the two, but he couldn’t help it. Taguchi doesn’t try to have a serious discussion with me. It’s almost like he’s afraid of being disliked.
Now free of uncertainty, in the winter of his third year of high school, Nao applied to the private university in Tokyo he had been longing to go to, and was accepted. As he searched for a place to live, Nao began to wonder if it would be possible to stay at his father’s house. Although the university was in Tokyo, it was more on the west side. When Nao looked it up, it was quite close to his father’s house. The trip was less than thirty minutes by train. It was well within commuting distance.
Although Nao had defied his parents to get into this university in order to learn from a particular professor, the financial aspect of going to a private school still bothered him. He planned to work a part-time job on the side, of course, but if he could save money on rent by living with his father, he was sure it would help his family’s finances greatly.
His father’s rented house was old and worn, but it had a good number of rooms. Nao knew that they had a room that they only used for storage, containing piles of boxes. Nao also knew that since getting remarried, his mother had become even more disapproving of Nao going to his father’s place. But Nao was almost graduating high school and going to university. He felt like he should at least be free to visit his real father. His mother always said it would offend Taguchi, but Taguchi was a good man. Nao felt like Taguchi would understand if he explained how he felt.
That day, Nao was playing with his little brother in his lap as his mother made dinner.
“Mom, about where I’m going to stay in Tokyo,” he began.
“Did you find a good place? Or should we go together to a real estate agent first beforehand?” His mother answered with her back to him, her knife making steady chopping sounds against the cutting board.
“Yeah, about that... I’m thinking of staying over at Dad’s place.”
The chopping stopped. His mother turned around.
“By ‘Dad’, you mean...”
“Dad in Kanagawa. My university’s out west, so it’s pretty close, and Dad has an extra room. You know how high my tuition will be because my school’s private. I’ll get a part-time job, but I’ll be able to save money on rent, too, if I stay over at his house.”
“What are you saying?” His mother’s expression was a cross between anger and reluctance.
“I’m serious,” Nao said. “I think Mr. Taguchi will agree. He’s understanding. Besides, I’m going into university now. I think I can decide things for myself.”
His mother furrowed her brow and bent her finger slightly at her lips.
“But... Mr. Kitagawa lives in that house, too.”
“Oh, right. But I don’t think Mister will mind if I’m there. I haven’t talked to Dad about this yet, though. I wanted to tell you first.”
There was a strange pause as they simply stared at each other. Although Nao had made a pretence of asking his mother for input, he was already ninety-percent sure that he would be staying at his father’s house. The remaining ten percent that would possibly prevent him was Taguchi’s refusal.
His mother washed her hands, and came down to sit at the dining table across from Nao. She’s serious about not letting me go, Nao thought, and put himself on guard.
“I will not allow you to stay at Douno’s house.” It was almost a command. Nao felt a twinge of irritation that he wasn’t even being given a chance to discuss it.
“It’s not for you to decide whether I’m allowed to go or not. If Mr. Taguchi and Dad say yes, I’m going to stay there.”
“Why does always it have to be Douno?” his mother accused shrilly. “Are you saying you like him more than Hiroyuki?!”
Nao hated his mother’s emotional interrogations. She had asked him the same question over and over since he was little.
“This isn’t about who’s better or who’s worse. Dad is Dad, and Mr. Taguchi is Mr. Taguchi. You can’t ask me to compare the two.”
His mother dropped her gaze, pressed a hand to her forehead and sighed testily. She ran a hand through her bangs, scratched her hairline irritably, fiddled with her earlobe, then finally lifted her face. She looked straight at Nao severely.
“It’s about time you grew up and got over Douno. You’re not a child anymore.”
“Get over? What’s that supposed to mean? I’m not going there to be babied by Dad. I just thought it would help our family if...”
“If you live there, you’ll only cause trouble for Douno.”
“How would you know if it’s trouble for Dad unless you ask him?”
“You aren’t Douno’s son.” His mother had spoken slowly and clearly enough. But Nao couldn’t help but question her back.
“You aren’t Douno’s son. ―When we were still married, I cheated on him with another man and got pregnant with you. I loved Douno, so I didn’t want to be apart, but he wouldn’t forgive me. He kept requesting a divorce, but I didn’t listen to him because I didn’t want to... and while all of that was going on, you were born. I asked him not to file a denial of legitimacy to court, so Douno is your father on the family register. But you have no biological ties to him.”
“Wh... what the hell...” His throat was dry. His voice shook. His arms, which held his little brother, were also shaking. His mother saw it and took Nao’s brother from his arms. Nao slumped over and held his head in his hands.
“If you’re saying Dad... isn’t my real Dad, then whose son am I...?” he asked in a low growl.
“Hiroyuki Taguchi,” his mother said quietly. Nao slowly looked up.
“Your current father, Hiroyuki, is your real father,” she repeated.
I don’t know what the hell is going on anymore, he thought in desperation.
“I cheated on Douno with Hiroyuki. We’d already broken up before I got divorced with Douno, but we ran into each other again seven years ago. Both of us had gone through a lot of... just a lot of things, and although we both had our fair share of troubles, we thought maybe this time we would be able to get things right. We talked about it over and over, and finally decided to get together again. Hiroyuki was crying, saying he could finally be a real father to his son.”
Nao had always thought Douno was his father. He had believed it so firmly that he had never thought otherwise. Nao remembered the first time he visited that house in Kanagawa during his summer vacation. He remembered being gently patted on the head―and being so moved by it that his heart trembled. All this time, he had thought it was because Douno was his father. He had always thought he felt this way because that was how a son felt towards his dad.
“...Cheated on him?” Nao growled, his head still bowed. “What the hell? Why did it have to be Taguchi? Way for you two to spit in Dad’s face!”
“There’s nothing I can do about what you say. It’s true that I cheated. ―But Douno hasn’t been alone all this time, either. He’s always had Mr. Kitagawa with him.”
“...Mister...?” Nao raised his head.
“Mr. Kitagawa is Douno’s lover.”
Nao didn’t know what to think anymore. I’m having enough trouble accepting the fact that I’m not Dad’s son, but to hear that Dad and Mister are lovers...? What? Sure, they got along really well. They were really close, but they didn’t seem like lovers. They were never all over each other. They just seemed like good friends who lived together.
His mind was a mess. Mom cheated with Taguchi, I was born, and she got divorced with Dad. After they got divorced, Mom remarried her boyfriend, Taguchi, and Dad became lovers with Mister. It made sense in words. It made sense, but Nao’s emotions could not keep up. He didn’t want to acknowledge it.
“So Dad... he knows I’m not his real son, right...”
“Yes. That was the reason why we got divorced.”
A child born from his wife’s affair. Nao was that child. Then what was I to Dad? Proof of his wife’s betrayal? Unshakable proof of her mistake?
Nao covered his mouth with his hands. Mom and Taguchi aren’t the ones spitting in Dad’s face. It was me. Me―for being alive. On Nao’s first visit during the summer, his father had been awkward and aloof at first. Now he could understand why. There was no way Dad would have been happy to see me. No way he could have found me endearing. No way he could have loved me.
But still―Nao thought. He had indeed felt like he had been loved. He had felt like they cared about him. Indeed, in that house, with those two men, he had felt very much loved. They took time off to spend with him every year during his summer holidays. They listened attentively to his stupid stories; they patiently thought through all of life's little troubles with him.
“―Dad never said anything to me.”
Nao’s little brother began to cry, and his mother comforted him by rocking him lightly.
“...Every summer after that time you went to Douno’s house in primary school, you’d throw a tantrum and say you were going to see him, do you remember? That’s when I phoned Douno and we talked. We decided that maybe you still needed a father in your life, so Douno said, ‘if it’s fine with you, I’ll play the father until you remarry’. But even after I remarried, you still thought Douno was your father, and you were so attached to him.... You were still so small. I couldn’t bring myself to tell you the truth.”
His mother sighed, still holding his little brother in her arms.
“Douno must have cared for you very much―enough to make you believe without a doubt that he was your real father.”
Tears sprang to Nao’s eyes. His father’s kindness, his gentle lies, and Nao’s own childish wish―why couldn’t he have been my real dad? Why couldn’t I have had him instead?―made him weep.
“I think you were a very fortunate child,” his mother said quietly.
After graduating university, Nao began working at a major publisher called Shinkasha. Shinkasha issued a literary magazine called Quo Vadis, and Nao hoped to land a position in its editorial department. However, he was instead placed into the editorial department of a monthly medical journal.
Not only was this totally different from what he requested, medical journals like these contained a lot of jargon. Learning the words was a mission in itself. Not only that, the academic papers which made up the bulk of the content were entirely different in structure and objective compared to novels. Nao had to begin by fundamentally restructuring his mindset.
As an editor fresh out of school, like any new graduate, he was useless at first. Nao settled into the routine of being ordered around by his seniors: collecting material and putting it away as he was told, occasionally being put in charge of a marginally-important page, then being yelled at for spending so much time on an insignificant piece.
By the time June rolled around, Nao had grown slightly more accustomed to his senior’s yelling, and had stopped flinching every time. One day, he was handed an illustration of an organ and told to file and put it away. Nao was surprised to see it signed by Kei Kitagawa.
It was Mister. Dad’s lover who lived with him. Even though he knew Douno was not his real father, Nao still always thought of him as “Dad”.
Although he had been surprised to find out the two men were lovers, it did not give him a reason to hate them. I remember Mister was really good at these kinds of illustrations. He used to draw them all the time. It brought back nostalgic memories. The first year I went, he ignored his deadline to spend time with me, and got into huge trouble by Dad. From the next year, the two of them took work off for the whole three days I was there and spent every hour with me. Mister never took out his drawing supplies when I was around, so I completely forgot he was an illustrator.
Mister was still doing what he was good at, illustrating for books. If he was working, that probably meant he was doing well. As for Dad... and Ao? Shiro? Since being told that he wasn’t Douno’s son a little before his high-school graduation, Nao had not gone back to his father’s place. There was no way he could.
At lunch that day, Nao nonchalantly went up to the senior who had told him to put away the illustration, Saikawa, and broached the topic.
“About that illustration I put away earlier... it was really well-drawn.”
Saikawa was wolfing down a bun at his messy desk.
“Illustration?” He tilted his head. “Oh, you mean Mr. Kitagawa’s,” he murmured. “He’s a famous illustrator in this field. He’s good at drawing detailed pictures, which is perfect for diagrams of organs and stuff. Plus, he works fast. He’s got a lot of authors who are fans, so he draws for literary magazines sometimes, too.”
“I see...” Since Nao had intended to work at a publisher, he had always routinely perused many literary magazines, but he had never spotted Kitagawa’s illustrations.
“Have you met Mr. Kitagawa before?” he asked.
“Yeah. He’s a handsome person in his fifties. He can be a bit brusque, so I thought he was a bit scary at first. But once you get to talk to him, it’s not that bad.”
I guess everyone’s first impression of Mister is the same, Nao thought in amusement. Saikawa glanced around before suddenly lowering his voice.
“You didn’t hear this from me, but―I heard Mr. Kitagawa is gay.”
Nao’s heart jumped.
“I knew he’d been living with another guy for a long time, but I think about three years ago? Suddenly he changed his last name to Douno. He still signs his work as Kitagawa, though. All of us in the editorial department were talking about it, how strange it is for him to do that at this age.”
“Someone asked him in person, and apparently he said he got adopted. I guess they couldn’t ask for any more details.”
Seeing Nao’s lack of reaction, Saikawa wrapped up his story briskly. “Well, I guess that’s not a shocking story to hear nowadays,” he said. “I’m not complaining. Whether he’s gay or otherwise, at least he gets his work done.”
That day, Nao stayed behind in the editorial department and searched for any work that Kitagawa had done at this publisher. Medical journals, botanical journals, literary magazines... Kitagawa’s illustrations turned up everywhere.
Nao wished he could speak to his father. Dad, Mister’s done so much work, and been acknowledged by so many people. He’s pretty amazing, isn’t he? He’s a bit of a celebrity. Nao wished he could say all of it to his father in person.
He knew the telephone number of his father’s house in Kanagawa, and his father’s cell phone number. Even when Nao switched cell phone models, even if he didn’t keep in touch with them anymore, he never deleted these two numbers from his phone book.
Nao stared at the cell phone on his desk. He knew everything now. He was no longer an ignorant child. His rational self knew he shouldn’t call. So he didn’t. He could restrain himself. ―But at the same time, he felt forlorn.
One year and one month passed since Nao was placed in the editorial department. It was right after the end of Golden Week in May. One Sunday, Nao came into work on his day off because one of the authors’ manuscripts was running late. He received the manuscript by courier and began checking it straightaway at the editorial office.
Past five in the evening, Nao had just started thinking of wrapping up and going home when Saikawa came in. He wandered into the office and began rifling through the things on his desk.
“What brings you here today?” Nao asked.
Saikawa smiled wryly when his eyes met with Nao’s.
“One of the illustrators I’m in charge of passed away. The chief editor called me with the news. Told me tomorrow is the funeral. I heard he wasn’t doing well, but I didn’t think he would die. Supposedly the funeral’s going to be at the rented house he lived in, but I couldn’t find my planner or his business card anywhere at home, so I don’t know his address... oh, there we go. Is this it?”
Nao froze when he saw the envelope that Saikawa was holding. On the back of the envelope, which was addressed to the editorial department, it was written “Kei Douno”.
“Wh―Who did you say passed away?”
“Mr. Kitagawa, the illustrator. ―Kanagawa, huh? I’ve never been there. I guess once I get into the area, I can just ask the taxi driver to take me there...”
Saikawa cut away the address from the envelope.
“What are you doing in the office?” he asked. “Oh, Mr. Satake’s manuscript? He’s always late, isn’t he? Well, good luck with that.”
Saikawa made to leave the room, but Nao called him back.
“Um!” he said in a loud voice, before stammering, “is―is the wake tonight?”
“Probably. What, you going?” Saikawa tilted his head. “The wake is a family-only thing, isn’t it? Besides, you haven’t met Mr. Kitagawa before. If you’re gonna go, you should go tomorrow. You can come with me, if you want.”
“...No, that’s alright.”
Immediately after Saikawa left the room, Nao tossed aside the manuscript he was holding and drove back to his apartment to change into his mourning clothes. Less than half a month at his job, Nao was made to attend a work-related funeral. Since he had no mourning clothes at the time, he had to run into a store just short of closing to buy a set. Having learned his lesson, he now kept a suit for funerals and envelopes for condolence money in a corner of his closet. He had never thought they would come in useful now.
Nao changed and got straight into his car. From a regular road, he merged onto the highway. After getting his driver's license four years ago, the first thing Nao did was buy a used car. Although he couldn’t go to his dad’s place, he did drive a couple times to the beach they always used to go to.
Nao thought to himself―here he was speeding along in his car, but was it really true that Mister was dead? The words, the facts, didn’t seem real. Sure, it was possible, but he had a hard time believing it because he hadn’t seen anything with his own eyes.
Nao’s last memories were of five years ago, when they went fishing together. Despite being the one to suggest going, Mister didn’t seem to be cut out for fishing. He reeled in empty line after empty line as Dad laughed at him.
How old was Mister? He was two years younger than Dad, which would make him only in his late fifties. It was too early for him to die. Just a bit too early.
Nao drove determinedly in the direction of the setting sun. The glare in his face was blinding. Sunsets were an everyday sight, yet this one seemed more desolate than usual, persistently appearing in his line of sight. It was... irritating.
After about forty minutes on the highway, Nao got off the ramp onto a regular road. He had expected to hit gridlock, but traffic was smooth, perhaps because it was Sunday. He drove along the shoreline, passed through the railway crossing, the front of station, and passed the police station. He turned at Ito’s Barbershop, and parked his car in the parking lot of a supermarket that had been built when he was in high school. Nao knew there was no space to park near the house. Maybe I’m actually pretty calm right now, he thought as he locked his car.
As he left the parking lot, he naturally broke into a run. Beyond the bridge that he once crossed in seven steps, he could see the old detached house. The moment he saw the black and white drapes put up on the surrounding fence, he felt his heart go cold. His feet refused to move further. The threat of reality crept up to him.
I have to make sure this is real. If I don’t, it would defeat my whole purpose of coming here. Nao slowly began to walk. He passed through the gates for the first time in five years, and faintly heard a voice reading the sutra from the yard. Off to the side of the concrete walkway, a place had been set up to sign his name. A middle-aged woman, perhaps in her early fifties, bowed her head to Nao when he offered his condolence money to her.
“Please go inside,” she said.
Nao slowly set foot inside the house. When he entered the familiar doorway, he caught a whiff of incense. He walked down the dim and creaky hallway into the room with the table. A small altar had been set up inside, and a Buddhist monk was reading the sutra. The photo in the black frame was definitely of Mister. His aged face wore a carefree, boyish grin.
It hit him visually. Reality overwhelmed him. It was true―the fact sank into his heart. Then came panic.
Near the wall sat Dad, wearing his mourning clothes, and a middle-aged man about the same age―no, perhaps a little younger. They both sat kneeling. His dad noticed him, and blinked in surprise.
“Please accept my... condolences.” Nao disguised his agitation with formalities. He knelt on the tatami floor, and bowed his head until his forehead touched the mat.
“I know I’m in no position to be here today. But Mister was so good to me. Please let me offer incense to him one last time.”
“Nao, lift your face.” It was a quiet voice. Nao looked up. Dad’s eyes, when he looked at him, were as gentle as they used to be.
“Thank you for coming. I’m sure Kei would have wanted to see you, too. Go on and pay him a visit. He’s gotten a bit thinner than when you knew him, though...”
Nao cautiously approached the coffin. Mister lay inside wearing white clothes, with a pale face like a doll’s. His cheeks were hollow, and he was considerably thinner. His hair was white―he had aged.
When they’d first met, Nao had thought him a tall and scary man. But he soon came to like―and love―him.
A hot surge choked up his chest, and his tears spilled over. I should have been more impudent. I should have acted like I did when I invited myself over in grade school, appealing for love and attention; I should have visited anyway, pretending to know nothing, to have heard nothing. I wish I could have talked to Mister more. I loved him so much―I always wanted to be a big-hearted man like him.
The tears did not stop. Dad gently put an arm around Nao’s shoulders from behind.
“If you like... you can rest in that room over there.”
It wasn’t until Nao was helped to his feet that he realized he had thrown himself face-down and wept, heedless of the person behind him waiting to offer incense next. The room he was shown into to rest was what the two men had been using as bedroom. Dad returned to the room with the table. Left alone, Nao’s memories and sentiments kept him weeping endlessly. How long had he stayed like this? Nao lay on his back staring blankly at the ceiling when he sensed the sliding door being opened.
His name was called, and he got up.
“The wake is over.”
Now to think of it, he could no longer hear the sutra being read. Dad had also taken off his jacket.
“You haven’t eaten anything, have you? Have this, if you like.”
On the tray was a rice ball and a bowl of miso soup.
“Tomoko... my sister―made these and left them behind.”
“It’s okay. I don’t really feel like eating.”
“Have a bite, at least. Put something in your stomach,” Dad insisted. “Once you finish eating, come out to the room with the altar.”
Dad left. Nao stared at the rice ball that had been left behind. He wasn’t hungry, but his dad’s words lingered with him. Have a bite, at least. So he took two bites of the rice ball. He took the rest of the food on the tray back to the kitchen.
Now that the wake was over, the house was still and silent. There was not a sound to be heard. When Nao peered into the room with the altar, he was surprised to see Dad alone beside the coffin, drinking a can of beer. For a man as straight-laced as him, it seemed a little insensitive.
“Feeling better now?” Dad asked.
“Oh, uh, yeah...”
“How did you get here? By train? Or did you take a taxi?”
“I drove. Parked the car at the supermarket before the bridge...”
Dad looked at his watch.
“It’s nine... that place closes at eight. Shops in the countryside close early. They’ll chain the parking lot off, too... oh, but there might still be someone left in the office right now. Do you want me to call?”
“That’s okay. I’ll take a taxi home or something.”
“Really...? I’m sorry―it isn’t very accessible in the countryside. And I’ve already made you come such a long way.”
Dad took another draught of beer. Nao gazed at his surroundings.
“There’s no one else around?”
“My sister booked a hotel room nearby with her husband.”
The shadows formed starkly on Dad’s face. He looked tired. Mister had aged, but Dad had also gotten older as well.
“It’s probably going to be crazy tomorrow,” Dad said to himself. “But I guess there wouldn’t be many visitors coming to pay condolences. I don’t know where Kei’s parents are. I guess the only people who’d come would be people from his work. My parents have already passed, so my sister is the only person from our side of the family.”
Dad sounded detached. He spoke and drank, in an almost mechanical manner.
“Come to think of it, Nao, aren’t you of age? ―Care for a drink with me?”
“Alright,” Dad said, smiling a little. “I’m happy you came. I wasn’t expecting you to show up. I’m sure Kei’s happy, too. I’m just wondering how you found out―I didn’t tell Mariko about this.”
“I’m an editor at this company called Shinkasha.”
Dad blinked in surprise.
“So you got a job at a publisher.”
“One of my seniors was in charge of Mister, and I heard from him.”
“I see,” Dad murmured. “Nao’s an editor, Kei. Your prediction was off. You said Nao would probably become a public servant.”
“He said you were bound to become one because you were the serious and grounded type. You were so sure, weren’t you, Kei―?”
Dad kept talking to the coffin as if expecting a reply. Maybe he’s drunk, Nao thought. But he wasn’t saying anything funny, and his speech was not slurred.
“Can I ask what Mister was sick with?”
Dad lowered his gaze.
“Lung cancer. And he never even smoked. By the time we found out, it was too late. He couldn’t even get an operation. Since finding out, it’s been half a year... it was all a blur.”
The window was thrown open. Nao thought he heard noises coming from the yard, but there was no one there. The leaves were fluttering. Maybe the wind had picked up.
“Dad, where’s Ao?”
“Ao died. Three years ago, if I remember correctly. ―I think he lived a long and fulfilling life, but it hit Kei really hard. It was painful to see him like that. That dog was the puppy of another dog that Kei brought home, and Kei was really attached to him. Shiro also disappeared around the same time. Kei said he’d never take in an animal again, but he was finally starting to turn around. We were just talking about getting another pet when his illness was discovered, and then... things have just been left hanging.”
Dad tipped the can of beer, and it made a sloshing sound.
“Are Mariko and Mr. Taguchi doing well?” he asked. “Your little brother must be in primary school now.”
Nao remembered now, why he could not come here anymore.
“I’m sorry.” Nao bowed his head. “I’m sorry. I... I had no idea what happened between you and Mom...”
“You don’t need to apologize.”
“But me and Mom... to you, it must’ve felt like we were spitting in your face. And then Mom going and remarrying Taguchi―”
“It really doesn’t bother me. In the end, I’m the one who abandoned our relationship without trying to mend it. I was surprised when you visited us for the first time, though. But it was fun playing father and son. At first I only meant it to be an imitation, but soon I felt like you really were my son. Like when you’d come to me for advice about boyhood troubles. I felt so sheepish, but it was so funny. And I was happy. I think Kei was the same. He liked kids, so he was lonely when you stopped coming. ‘You think he’ll ever come again?’ he used to say.”
As soon as Nao heard those words, he choked up. Tears welled in his eyes.
“But I’m Taguchi’s kid,” he protested. “I’m the result of Mom’s affair. How could I ever come back―”
“You know,” Dad said as he looked down. “It didn’t matter whose child you were. You as a person, Nao, were dear to me. Even if you didn’t have the title of a son, you should have just visited as a friend.”
Dad placed the can of beer on the tatami floor.
“I think I’ve had enough to drink. It wouldn’t make a very good impression if the chief mourner was hung over, would it?”
Dad turned behind him to look at the altar, and murmured.
“―I wish I could have died with you.”
Nao swallowed hard. Dad turned back around. He was smiling.
“I was kidding. But now that it’s happened, I’m starting to think maybe it was a good thing that Kei went first. When our dog died, he couldn’t eat properly for a month. He was always sensitive about those kinds of things, if nothing else.”
Dad wasn’t crying. He was smiling. But Nao felt like there was something wrong with that. His lover was dead. A man he had been living with for years was dead. ―He shouldn’t be smiling.
“Dad... aren’t you sad?”
“I am,” Dad said, his head slightly bowed.
“Don’t you want to cry?”
There was a slight pause.
“But it’s not like crying is going to bring Kei back... ah, maybe I’ve had too much to drink after all.” As Dad tried to get to his feet with his beer, Nao grabbed his left hand. Dad remained slightly bent over, his somewhat vacant gaze settling on Nao.
“You didn't deserve this, Dad.”
His face showed surprise, then twisted as if in pain.
“...You didn't deserve this.”
The can of beer slipped from his right hand and fell to the floor. Dad looked down and covered his face with his hand. His shoulders trembled. With his left hand, he returned Nao’s grip with so much strength it hurt.
For a little while after Mister’s funeral, Nao commuted to his work from Kanagawa. His father had never asked him to keep him company, but Nao didn’t want to leave him alone.
Finally, in the second week, his father spoke up.
“I appreciate your concern for me, but you have your own life,” he said. “You should go back to your own apartment.”
He was right, and Nao knew his father could handle himself. But his worry still lingered. Nao ended up leaving a dog behind before returning to his apartment.
He went to a pet shop and asked for a dog, any breed of dog, just one that had a long life. The associate appeared at a loss for some moments, then murmured, “I guess you’d want a mongrel, then.” The associate told him that although their store did not sell mongrels, Nao could probably find a dog up for adoption at an animal hospital or pound.
Dad looked like he had mixed feelings about the black puppy Nao had picked up at the pound, but he still agreed to take care of it. Nao began to use “checking up on the dog” as an excuse to frequent his father’s house in Kanagawa.
The black puppy had grown into a full-sized dog when Nao began dating his girlfriend, who was a freelance writer. Nao took her along to visit his father. When he and his girlfriend got married the next year, and when they had a baby, Dad was the first to know after Nao’s parents.
“Mr. Douno seems more like a father than a friend,” Nao’s wife had said to him once.
“Yeah, we pretend we’re father and son,” Nao had replied.
“You are so strange,” his wife had said with a laugh.
In the seventh year of their marriage, on the last day of their combined six-day Obon and summer vacation, Nao was on the train with his son, who was turning five. He had promised in advance that he would take his son to the beach on this day. Nao had planned to go by car, but since his wife insisted that she wanted the car for her business trip, Nao had relented.
The train rocked as it sped through a narrow alleyway-like gap. His son sat beside him. He had been overjoyed that they were going by train instead of by car, but now, he sat sullenly without a word. This was due to the severe scolding Nao had given him before they left. His son had gotten into a fight at kindergarten with a kid of the same age, and ended up hurting him. The fight had started when his son had taken the boy’s toy away from him. Nao heard about this incident for the first time from wife this morning.
Nao called his name. Keita looked at him with a scowl. Nao sat his sullen son on his lap.
“When you go back to kindergarten, you’ll say sorry to the kid you hurt, won’t you?”
His son stubbornly kept his mouth shut. Nao took Keita’s hand and pinched the back of it hard.
“Ow!” Keita cried loudly, flailing his arms and legs. Large tears welled up in his eyes.
“I heard the kid you hurt was bleeding. For him, it hurt much, much more than this.”
Keita pouted, on the verge of tears.
“Don’t do things you don’t like to other people. Don’t make other people do it, either. If you stick to those rules, you won’t go wrong. You’ll turn out a good kid, Keita.”
Nao felt like he’d heard his own words, the same words, somewhere else before. But where? Before he could recall it, the scenery out the window suddenly burst into view.
The same glittering ocean he had seen on his summer vacation in primary school stretched before his eyes.
- "Keita" - as you can tell from the pronunciation, Nao has taken Kitagawa's name, Kei (圭) and added one letter to make Keita (圭太).
This concludes the entire story of In the Box.
* See the project page for In the Box (Hako no naka).