[Narise Konohara] Of Beauty – Part 17
(Of Tenderness – Part 8)
Continued from Part 16.
They barely talked until eleven o’clock, when it was almost time for them to check out. Hirosue scrambled to get his stuff together and left the hotel. ―Matsuoka was also with him, looking thoroughly exhausted.
Hirosue invited Matsuoka to an outdoor cafe nearby. He had actually wanted to go somewhere with a more relaxing atmosphere. But he was afraid that if he went all the way to the station, Matsuoka would leave him to go straight home. They chose seats in the shade. Hirosue ordered orange juice and Matsuoka ordered iced tea.
The cicadas buzzed. Matsuoka lazily put his lips to the straw in his iced tea. Hirosue wondered how to broach the topic of their future. He had stopped the man from leaving with no plan in mind at all. A question was tossed out at him.
“ ―So what is it that you want to do from here, Hirosue?”
Hirosue tightly laced his fingers together on the table. Even though there were certain aspects he could not bring himself to accept, he did feel like he had romantic feelings for the man. He was more certain that it might be love, more than the last time he had contemplated the possibility. But he was still not absolutely sure. If he asked Matsuoka to go out with him because he might love him, it would just be the same as last time. He knew painfully well how cruel it was to lead the man on. But he still wanted to see Matsuoka.
“―I’ll come out to the city once in a while. I want you to see me when I do.”
“No.” Matsuoka’s refusal carried no hint of indecision. “How much more of this do I have to put up with? I don’t want to expect anything from you anymore, Hirosue.”
His argument was understandable. But Hirosue did not want to give up.
“B―But it hurts that I can’t see you.” It took all of his effort to say that much. He felt frustrated at himself for being so awkward and clumsy at negotiation. Matsuoka fell silent. The sun’s rays turned harsh, the shadows grew starker, and droplets of concentration formed on Matsuoka’s glass of iced tea. When they had completely dried, Matsuoka finally opened his mouth.
Hirosue lifted his face.
“For three months, starting today―I’ll meet up with you if you happen to come down. But after that, if you feel like nothing has changed, I want this to be the end of it.” After a slight pause, Matsuoka bowed his head. “Please end it,” he repeated.
Considering how Matsuoka had previously refused to see him at all, perhaps a three-month grace period was a considerable concession.
“But in turn, I won’t initiate contact at all,” Matsuoka said. “I won’t be able to see you on weekdays because I’m busy at work. I’ll turn you down on my days off, too, if I’m busy. I won’t prioritize you over anything.”
Matsuoka’s tone was stiff.
“―Also, I don’t want you to touch me. I will absolutely not sleep with you to ‘try it out’. Those are my conditions.”
Hirosue had no choice but to accept them. To be honest, he did want to touch the man a little. He felt like his fingertips had finally begun to acknowledge Matsuoka. Now, he could perhaps touch him without an issue. But there was no way he could override the man if he had already said no.
Matsuoka heaved a long sigh before propping his elbows up on the table and resting his cheek on his hand. Maybe he was regretting giving him that grace period.
But there was no time to be hesitant about that now. Hirosue only had three months. In order to gain a firm grasp of his vague feelings, he had no other way but to get to know the man.
“Did anything change after I went back?”
“Not really,” Matsuoka murmured with his face down.
“What about work?”
“It’s busy. A whole slew of people in senior positions quit. All the new people coming in are newbies who can’t tell left from right. One of them got on the wrong side of a long-time client and ruined our contract. ―Makes my head hurt.”
Matsuoka abruptly lifted his head. “Oh, Fukuda quit.”
“Huh?” Hirosue found himself blurting. “Why? Did he get sick or something?”
Matsuoka gave a wry smile. “That would have been more respectable. No, he got fired because they found out he was embezzling money.”
Hirosue was surprised. He knew Fukuda had very specific likes and dislikes with people, and was also prone to thrusting blame onto others. But he hadn’t thought Fukuda to lack even such basic ethics.
“I guess they were sorting out financial matters properly since there were so many people leaving the company this year. That’s probably when they found out. Apparently he’d been doing it constantly for the past three years, so that was a pretty nasty deed.”
It had only been four months, yet so many things were changing. Their conversation lapsed. Hirosue wondered what to say next as Matsuoka drained his lukewarm-looking iced tea. A waitress came around to the outdoor tables.
“Would you like anything else?” she asked as she took away Matsuoka’s glass. Hirosue swallowed hard.
Matsuoka ordered another of the same thing. Hirosue was relieved; he had thought Matsuoka would go home after finishing his first drink, but he had ordered another one. That meant he would stay with him until he finished it.
Matsuoka fished out a cigarette from his jacket pocket and lit one. He pulled the ashtray towards him.
“You…” Hirosue began.
Matsuoka lifted his slightly-bowed head.
“You smoke a lot now, huh?”
“Did you always smoke that much?”
“I smoke more now than I used to. ―There’s been a lot to be stressed out about lately.”
Seeing Matsuoka smoke made him want to try the same thing.
“Could I have one?”
Matsuoka looked surprised. “You smoke, too, Hirosue?”
“I only did a little bit after I started working.”
Matsuoka opened his cigarette case and clicked his tongue. “Sorry. I’m out.”
“The one you’re smoking right now is fine. Can I just take a drag?”
Matsuoka gave him a slow blink, then stared at the cigarette between his fingers. The ashes fell onto the table.
“I mean―but if you don’t want to, that’s fine,” Hirosue added.
“I don’t mind.”
Hirosue took the offered cigarette and took a drag. He choked before he could taste anything, and he curled up hacking. When his coughing finally settled down, he lifted his face to see Matsuoka laughing.
“―No need for you to laugh,” Hirosue grumbled.
Matsuoka’s shoulders still shook from his mirth. “No, it’s just… I haven’t seen that in a while. It reminded me of when I first smoked in high school.”
“High school? That means you were a minor,” Hirosue said disapprovingly.
“Everyone tries it out around that time,” Matsuoka said, looking unruffled.
“I didn’t start until I was of age.”
“You’re so straight-laced,” Matsuoka laughed again. Hirosue felt sullen for being ridiculed, but at least Matsuoka was smiling. That was a good sign. He passed the cigarette back.
“You finished already?” Matsuoka teased, then slowly brought it to his lips. There was something so sensual about his lips around the cigarette that Hirosue unwittingly averted his gaze.
“You don’t have to do things that don’t suit you,” Matsuoka murmured. “You don’t fit the image of the bitter, world-weary type who’d smoke up, anyway.”
Matsuoka smoked his last cigarette until it was a small stub. He took out his portable ashtray from his jacket pocket, and threw the butt inside. Hirosue wondered why he would put it in there when there was an ashtray on the table.
The buzzing of the cicadas grew louder.
“It’s so hot…” Matsuoka grumbled, wiping the sweat off of his forehead with the back of his hand. Hirosue thrust his hand inside his pocket. He could feel a handkerchief. When he pulled it out, it was very wrinkly and creased in strange places. It wasn’t the most hygienic-looking, but at least it was laundered.
When he offered it to Matsuoka, the man tilted his head.
“I know it’s wrinkly, but it’s washed. And I haven’t used it.”
Matsuoka was staring intently at the handkerchief. Soon, Hirosue began to feel embarrassed at having offered such an unattractive-looking article. Just as he tried to withdraw his hand, Matsuoka stuck his own out.
“Let me borrow that.” He refolded the handkerchief into a square, wiped his forehead, and put it down by his hand. Then, he looked at his watch. The gesture filled Hirosue with dread. He wondered if Matsuoka would say he was going home.
Matsuoka looked at Hirosue, then opened his mouth to speak.
“…I’m kind of hungry. Can I eat something?”
They ended up whiling the time away at the cafe until four o’clock. Even after he finished eating and the sun began to lean towards the west, Matsuoka still did not say he was going home. He spoke in short fragmented bursts about his current life, but he did not mention a word about anything serious.
Even when the hour approached for his scheduled bullet train, Hirosue still wanted to be with Matsuoka. But he was also concerned about the time. Matsuoka seemed to notice him glancing at his watch often.
“What time do you have to head home?” he asked.
“Around five, I think.”
“Shouldn’t you be on your way soon?”
At the man’s words, Hirosue reluctantly stood from his seat. Although he had said he would pick up the tab, Matsuoka still paid for his portion in full.
“Say, whereabouts did you move to?” Hirosue asked once they left the cafe. Matsuoka widened his eyes in surprise.
“How did you know I moved?”
“I went to your house once, but there was someone else living there.”
“Oh, I see,” Matsuoka murmured quietly, then told him where his new condo was. It was a little east of Tokyo Station.
“I’m actually getting on the bullet train from Tokyo station. Let’s go to the area together,” Hirosue suggested, and Matsuoka was steered into a walk by his urging.
They boarded a JR line so they wouldn’t have to transfer trains. Their trip wasn’t long, but they decided to sit since there were open seats. Matsuoka left a little bit of distance between them when he sat down.
He stuck his fingers in his breast pocket and rummaged around. Then, he clicked his tongue softly.
“Cigarettes?” Hirosue asked.
“I forgot I was out of them. Well, it’s not like I can smoke in the train, anyway.” Matsuoka let out a long, thin sigh.
“The one I smoked at the cafe was your last one.”
“Yup. The one you choked on.”
When Hirosue fell silent, Matsuoka snickered. Back there, he had only forgotten the trick to it because he hadn’t smoked in a while. If he’d had one or two more puffs….
Wait a minute, he realized. Why had Matsuoka taken the trouble to put the last cigarette butt in his portable ashtray? Could it possibly be because Hirosue had smoked it―because he had put his mouth on it? Was that why Matsuoka had put it in the ashtray that he carried around instead of throwing it away?
Or he could simply have put it in his portable ashtray out of his usual habit. But Matsuoka had thrown out all the other cigarettes he had smoked into the ashtray on the table. But the one Hirosue had smoked, that was the only one that he―Hirosue felt his face suddenly burn as if it were set on fire. He could feel the flush reach his ears, and he pressed his right hand to his face. That cigarette, that butt which he had indirectly kissed―he hadn’t confirmed with Matsuoka yet, but he was sure he wasn’t mistaken in thinking so.
Matsuoka was adorable. Maybe it was the wrong word to use, but the man sitting in a daze beside him was so pitiably endearing, it made him tremble.
“What’s wrong? Are you feeling sick?” the man said to him. Hirosue hastily shook his head. “Your face is red. Maybe you’re starting to get a fever. You did get wet in the rain last night, maybe that’s why…”
The man leaned in to peer at his face from below. The man’s proximity made Hirosue blush even more with nervousness.
“I-I’m fine,” Hirosue stammered, shrinking back. Matsuoka’s face stiffened as he quietly drew away. Hirosue felt like his avoidance had hurt the man.
“Oh―it’s not like I didn’t want you near me, or anything―”
“Doesn’t matter,” Matsuoka said with a shrug. “It doesn’t bother me.”
Was that true? Before, he would have taken Matsuoka’s word for it. It made things easier for him. But now, he was curious about Matsuoka’s feelings, especially because he knew that Matsuoka was kind and always took care not to hurt people’s feelings.
Hirosue had reacted that way not because he was repulsed, but because he thought Matsuoka was cute. In the end, however, he could not bring himself to say so. If he did, he would only lead the man on. But if I’m going to make him feel bad because of a misunderstanding, maybe I should just come out and say it, I mean, it’s true, after all… but then… His thoughts ran around in circles, and as always, he ended up sealing his lips.
He had vague memories of yesterday, when he had gotten wet in the rain outside the convenience store. If Matsuoka hadn’t picked him up, he would perhaps have gotten drenched and caught a cold. Now that he gave it proper thought, he realized Matsuoka’s new condo was in the opposite direction from his old one. Then, for what reason would he have walked down that road if it wasn’t to visit Hirosue at his hotel?
Matsuoka said he had decided to bring Hirosue back to his hotel because he happened to cross his path. But perhaps he had actually come to see him. Matsuoka had claimed he didn’t want to see him, and that he wanted to be left alone, but there was always a part of him that didn’t follow through with it. If Hirosue told him he wanted to meet, the man still did.
Hirosue threw a furtive glance at the man beside him. Matsuoka was gazing at the hanging advertisement in the train. His lips were slightly parted and he looked dazed. Hirosue was seized with an impulse to kiss him, and he was confused at himself for feeling that way. His heart stirred fitfully, and although he wanted to look at Matsuoka’s face, he found he could not.
It was almost as if he were in love. Had Matsuoka always been this way? Perhaps he had been sending these nonverbal signals all along, as well as verbal ones, and Hirosue had just been too dense to sense them. How many of these signs had he missed in the past?
They arrived at Tokyo Station before Hirosue could calm his heart and mind. Matsuoka said he would transfer to another train from here. Hirosue only had to walk through the station to get to his bullet train platform.
But he did not want them to part here like this. He felt like the distance would make him lose his grasp on the emotions he had just begun to understand.
“Well, I have to go that way, so,” said Matsuoka.
“Wait,” Hirosue said, stopping him. He still had at least thirty minutes until his bullet train arrived.
“You haven’t told me your cell number or e-mail address yet.”
“Oh,” Matsuoka murmured. “I’ll e-mail you later.”
“Tell me now.”
Matsuoka let out a small exhale as if in exasperation, then took his phone out.
“Do you want to do it through infrared? It’s faster.”
“I―um, sorry. I don’t really know how to.”
“Give me your phone.”
Matsuoka opened Hirosue’s phone and fiddled with it. All Hirosue did was stand still and watch, even though it was his phone.
“I think it’s saved.”
His phone was returned to him.
“Try e-mailing me just in case,” Hirosue insisted.
“Is that you, Matsuoka?”
The two of them turned around at the familiar voice. Hayama was standing a little way off. Beside her was her husband, whom they had seen at the wedding. Hayama left her husband’s side and jogged over to them.
“Hirosue, you, too! What a coincidence!” Hayama appeared a little excited. Matsuoka threw a glance at her husband, who was standing in the distance behind her.
“Is that your husband over there?”
“Yeah. We’re just about to head off on our honeymoon. It’s a late train.”
“Where’s all your stuff?”
“We’ve had our luggage taken in advance.”
“I see,” Matsuoka replied. “Where are you going again? I think you mentioned it before.”
“Ten days in England,” Hayama said happily.
“Lucky you,” Matsuoka said. “I have a friend who’s been there before. Apparently the lakes are really beautiful?”
“Seems like it. I’m so excited,” Hayama said, before her eyes were directed at Hirosue. “Hirosue, thanks for coming out such a long way for my wedding.”
“It was a great wedding,” was all he could say, a typical and worn-out phrase compared to Matsuoka’s skilful small talk.
“So it looks like you two have made up,” Hayama observed. “That’s good.”
“Hayama, what about your train?” Matsuoka interrupted over Hirosue.
“Your husband might get jealous if you keep chatting with two studs like us.”
“Oh, come on,” Hayama laughed, giving Matsuoka’s shoulder a slap. “I’ll be in touch again when I come back. See you.”
Hayama returned to her husband’s side. She turned around once to wave to them, but she quickly became invisible in the throng of people.
“What did she mean by us making up?” Hirosue asked, but Matsuoka did not answer.
“I’ll be on my way, then,” he said as he made to leave.
“You haven’t answered me yet.” Hirosue grabbed Matsuoka’s arm. The man’s whole body flinched.
“I told you not to touch me!” he yelled.
Startled by his voice, Hirosue let go. Some passersby turned around to give them a glance. Matsuoka brought his right hand to his forehead.
“When you went back to the country, Hayama asked me if I was still keeping in touch with you. I couldn’t tell her I was dumped, so I lied and said we got into a fight. She kept saying how sorry she was because we seemed to get along so well, and she kept asking me a bunch of questions. So I told her we fought over something stupid and we didn’t have the chance to make up.”
Matsuoka let out a shaky breath.
“I didn’t expect you to be at the wedding, much less be in the seat right beside me. It was a white lie that I told in the moment. I didn’t think Hayama would go so far to set things up for us like that.”
Hirosue had found it odd when he was invited to Hayama’s wedding, but now that he knew the chain of events behind it, it made sense.
“I know you hate it when people lie, Hirosue, but…” Matsuoka’s whole body was shaking―his bowed head, his clenched fists, and his shoulders. He looked like a scolded child, and it was adorable. Maybe to other people, he looked like a tall and handsome man, but “cute” was the only word Hirosue could describe him with.
Matsuoka slowly lifted his head.
“―Don’t you need to get going for your bullet train?”
It was almost departure time, but Hirosue wanted to stay with Matsuoka, to talk to him a little longer. Perhaps he could stay an extra day? But he had already bought his return ticket. If he didn’t get on the next bullet train, he would miss his transfer for the last train on the local line. And on Monday, he had work to help out with back home.
Hirosue ran to the ticket stands, bought an entrance ticket, and gave it to Matsuoka.
“Come to the train platform with me.”
“But you barely have fifteen minutes.”
Matsuoka did not refuse. They went through the bullet train ticket gates and emerged onto the platform. They had ten minutes until the train arrived. Several long lines were already formed at the boarding points.
He had brought Matsuoka with him because he wanted the man’s company, but he was unable to speak. Was it okay to say he loved him? Or was he just under the impression that he was in love? If he spoke while he was still unsure, he would only hurt Matsuoka. That was why he hesitated to take the leap. That was why he could not say out loud that he thought Matsuoka was cute. He could not say that he wanted to be with him.
He wished the train wouldn’t come, but there it was, pulling into the station. People began boarding. Hirosue let the person behind him get on, and stood face-to-face with Matsuoka.
“Did you keep it because I smoked it?”
Matsuoka gave him a quizzical look.
“The last cigarette that you smoked at the cafe.”
Matsuoka’s face suddenly twisted as if he were about to cry, and his lips began to tremble. His face was honest; he was never able to lie. The bell rang, urging passengers to board quickly, and Hirosue looked around him. There was no one else left apart from the two of them. He needed to get on, but he could not leave the man behind. Before he knew it, Hirosue had grabbed Matsuoka’s arm and jumped onto the train. The doors closed.
The bullet train slowly lurched into motion.
“Wh―What the hell am I supposed to do now?” Matsuoka demanded. “I don’t have a ticket.”
Hirosue could not explain his own impulse, either, in the face of Matsuoka’s reproach. “I―I just couldn’t leave you behind.”
“What kind of reason is that?”
Matsuoka pressed his hand to his forehead and sighed. “And my shoe…”
Hirosue looked down at his feet and saw that Matsuoka was only wearing a sock on his right foot.
“Weren’t you wearing both shoes?”
“Of course I was wearing both shoes,” Matsuoka retorted. “One came off when I got on!”
The station grew smaller and smaller into the distance, with Matsuoka’s shoe left abandoned on the platform. Hirosue had dragged the man onto the train without a ticket, and now he was also without a shoe. As Hirosue gazed at Matsuoka’s forlorn socked foot, he vividly recalled a memory from long ago.
“When we first met…” Hirosue spoke. “You weren’t wearing shoes. I wondered what happened to you, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it… that’s why I doubled back and lent you mine. I remember how cute you looked, wearing my shoes that were way too big.”
That day, he had fallen in love with Yoko Eto. Right now, an impulse much stronger than that was stirring him to action. Hirosue took off his own shoe, knelt down, and put it on Matsuoka’s right foot. It was two sizes smaller than Hirosue’s, and left a gap in the heel of the shoe.
“―Yesterday, I was actually going to go home,” he heard a voice say above his head. “When I found you at the convenience store, I ignored you at first. I thought you were the worst, telling me to come and not showing up yourself. But I went to the station and… I just couldn’t get on the train, so I came back. It was raining, but you were under the eaves, anyway, and I figured the convenience store staff would do something about it. So I kept watching from the other side of the street…”
Then, Matsuoka, unable to leave him behind, had taken an unconscious Hirosue to the hotel and stayed with him until morning.
“Are you getting off at the next station?” Hirosue asked.
“I don’t want you to.”
An expression of hesitation crossed Matsuoka’s face. “Well, there’s nothing I can do. I don’t have a ticket.”
“I’ll buy the ticket.”
“What are you being so stubborn about? I told you I would see you when you come down.”
“I want you to ride the train with me to my station.” When Hirosue took his arm, he could feel Matsuoka shaking.
“I can’t just… I mean… I have work tomorrow.”
Hirosue wanted to be with him, to touch him. It was almost like he was in love. What other name could it have, if it wasn’t love?
Hirosue touched the man’s chin, where a faint stubble remained. This sandy texture was Matsuoka’s. Hirosue could no longer remember what he had found so repulsive about it.
His heart surged with emotion, and the air around him seemed to change colour. His eyes were fixed; he couldn’t take them off the man; it began to feel warm where they touched, and all the sounds around them seemed to vanish. He wasn’t exaggerating; the man before him became his entire world.
Continued in Part 18.