[Narise Konohara] Of Beauty / Of Love – Part 3
Continued from Part 2.
Matsuoka spent Saturday and Sunday either sleeping or drinking. He got no phone calls from Hirosue, only four e-mails. He wanted to hear the man’s voice, but he couldn’t bear hearing or discovering any more lies, so he did not make any calls himself.
On Monday morning, Matsuoka had a dull ache in the base of his head. Perhaps the alcohol from the night before hadn’t quite left his system. He stood in front of the bathroom mirror and realized how pitiful he looked with his overgrown stubble, which had been left untouched since Saturday and Sunday. Matsuoka made a sweeping stroke with his razor, taking special care with the blade as he groomed the borders of his small goatee.
He was spaced out, perhaps, for his fingers slipped. By the time he realized it, it was too late. He had already shaved half of his goatee off. No amount of adjusting could patch this up now. Matsuoka had no choice but to entirely shave off the goatee he had maintained so regularly until now.
On the train to work, and even after he arrived at the office, Matsuoka’s head was prone to drooping. He hadn’t wanted to shave off his goatee, especially because Hirosue seemed to like it. He often nipped at it or licked it when they were fooling around. When Matsuoka resisted because it tickled, Hirosue would touch it even more. It annoyed him but made him happy at the same time.
A part of him that Hirosue liked had disappeared. It felt like a foreshadowing of their future, making Matsuoka’s feelings plummet. He hastily waved away his negative thoughts.
When bad things came in succession, Matsuoka’s irritation often spilled into his work. He desperately repressed the impulse to take it out on his subordinates and bought cigarettes and a lighter during his break. As he was lighting up in the smoking area, Shinozaki came in and let out a happy exclamation.
“Oh! Chief. So rare to see you here.”
His happy tone grated on Matsuoka’s nerves.
“Smoking is great, isn’t it? There’s no other moment quite like it,” Shinozaki said.
Although he was irritated, ignoring Shinozaki was not an option. Matsuoka smiled wryly in response and continued to smoke. He was so easy to read when he was stressed out. He always sought refuge in alcohol and smoking.
“Say, why did you shave off your goatee? You had it for a while, didn’t you?”
Several people had asked him the same question when he came into the office today. Matsuoka lightly ran his fingers along his chin, which still felt strange.
“No reason. I got tired of it.”
Matsuoka smoked two cigarettes to their fullest before returning to the office. Although he had already checked his phone at the smoking area, he peered at the screen again right after he sat down in his chair. There was no e-mail from Hirosue. He hadn’t received the usual e-mail this morning, either.
He hated the e-mails that never came, and he also hated himself for waiting endlessly for them to come. He turned his phone off, only to realize it would probably be bad for his work, and turned it back on.
He probably forgot to send an e-mail in the morning. He probably didn’t follow up because by the time he noticed it was already the start of the work day, and he didn’t want to e-mail during work hours. He’s always been the kind of guy not to e-mail during work.
Despite the desperate excuses he made for himself, Matsuoka still did not receive an e-mail from Hirosue even after he finished work and boarded the train bound for home.
I wonder if we’re just going to end like this, Matsuoka wondered as he clutched his phone. Last time, Hirosue had distanced himself at a more gradual pace. Compared to that time, things were moving much more rapidly, and Hirosue’s actions were much more obvious.
Things has been going too well until now. He should have seen the red flags: it was unnatural for the man to suddenly turn gentle after being unaccepting of him for so long. Even when Hirosue told him he loved him, Matsuoka wasn’t able to believe him. Although he wanted to, he was too afraid.
But in the end, Matsuoka hadn’t been able to refuse the man completely because he, too, still loved him back. Matsuoka asked himself what would have been better: to have dated properly before breaking up, or to have let things end without dating at all. It was no use comparing the two. They were equally horrible.
On the way to his apartment from the station, Matsuoka stopped by a convenience store and bought two six-packs of beer. He was clearly preparing to drink his miseries away. He didn’t want to let this painful drifting-apart draw out any longer, so he would end things quickly. He’d be able to find the likes of Hirosue anywhere, anyway.
―But there was no way he could cut loose and move on so quickly. If he could, he wouldn’t be dating Hirosue in the first place. After all, even though he had foreseen failure, he had still clung to an uncertain possibility and continued to harbour one-sided feelings.
Unable to pick either path, he had no choice but to hold onto his turmoil and use alcohol as an escape.
Matsuoka had his head slightly bowed as he opened the door to his apartment, and was surprised to see that the hallway was lit. In the doorway was a familiar pair of shoes which were one size bigger than his. Matsuoka tossed the shopping bag aside. Don’t tell me―could it be―he thought frantically as he ran down the hallway and burst into the living room.
“Welcome home.” The man sitting on the sofa turned around and smiled.
Hirosue wasn’t supposed to be able to come on weekdays because he was at work. And today wasn’t even Friday.
“I had some free time.” Hirosue approached Matsuoka, who was frozen in astonishment. He stroked Matsuoka’s clean-shaven chin.
“Um… sorry. I was spaced out in the morning, and… I ended up messing up with the razor.” Matsuoka immediately regretted having shaved the goatee off because of his own clumsiness, when Hirosue had such a liking to it.
“You don’t have to apologize.” Hirosue humorously nudged his chin, then pulled it up. Matsuoka was drawn close, and their lips met. Matsuoka trembled as he held onto Hirosue’s arms.
“―It’s been a while. You taste like cigarettes.”
Today, Matsuoka had been smoking during every free minute he had. He seemed to pick the worst timing possible for everything. Hirosue lifted his face and looked at the clock.
“Do you have a minute right now? There’s a place I want to take you to.”
Hirosue only smiled and did not give him an answer. Since Hirosue said it was nearby, Matsuoka followed after him without changing out of his suit. Hirosue ambled through the residential area.
The street lamps were spaced widely apart, and there was an especially dark spot between two of them. Matsuoka tripped over a small step and fell forward.
Before he could fall down, he was caught by the right arm. His body tipped halfway, but he was spared from slamming into the concrete sidewalk. Once Matsuoka regained his footing, the fingers holding his right arm drew away.
“Are you actually a bit of a klutz, Matsuoka?” Hirosue said, crinkling his eyes in a smile. But as soon as the words were out of his mouth, he also tripped and jerked a step forward. Before Matsuoka could make a remark, Hirosue made a hurried excuse.
“I already had a drink before you came home, so.”
As Matsuoka’s shoulders shook in laughter, Hirosue awkwardly looked at his feet. Their commonplace conversation made Matsuoka feel stupid for brooding and sulking since Friday night.
Hirosue’s spirits appeared to be renewed, and he broke into a walk again. When Matsuoka drew up beside him, the man glanced sideways at him.
“It feels strange to see you without a goatee.”
“You have a thing for goatees, don’t you, Hirosue?”
Hirosue stopped in his tracks and thought. “Do I?”
“I’ve heard of scent fetishes and foot fetishes, but I certainly don’t see goatee fetishes that often.”
“I’m not that obsessed over it,” Hirosue said hastily. “It just catches my attention, that’s all.” Matsuoka found his denial hilarious. They chit-chatted about other things for about ten more minutes before Hirosue stepped into a three-storey building.
There was no answer as they climbed wordlessly up the stairs. When they arrived in front of a suite on the far right end of the third floor, Hirosue used a key to open the door. Matsuoka was ushered inside. There was a kitchen on the right side of the hallway, which led into a far room. At the end of the hallway was a room about ten square metres in area. It felt spacious, since it was furnished with nothing but a futon. As Matsuoka stood rooted to the spot on the threshold of the room, Hirosue took his right hand and placed a key in it.
“You can have this, Matsuoka. I moved in yesterday. Feel free to visit whenever you want to.”
Matsuoka had already had a feeling when they were climbing up the stairs. But he had deliberately took his mind off of it because he thought he’d only be disappointed by his overblown expectations. But now, that “what if” had turned into reality.
When the man peered into his face, Matsuoka finally realized he had been standing dazed with his mouth gaping open.
“―I’m so surprised, I lost my voice for a moment.”
Hirosue grinned happily. “That’s a good sign. I wanted to surprise you.” He then went out into the hallway and took out some beers from the small refrigerator.
“A drink to celebrate,” he said, as he passed one to Matsuoka. Matsuoka took a swig. He was invited to take a seat, and sank down on the tatami mat.
“I used a pickup truck to move all my stuff here. My brother helped me. Thanks to that, it didn’t cost me a lot to move.” Hirosue spoke of it lightly, but moving was not such an easy thing to do.
“Is it because of that time I told you to move back here? Is that why…”
Hirosue did not deny it.
“I guess that’s a part of it,” he admitted. “I’ve been making preparations for a while. I knew it would be cheaper to rent a place here than coming down by bullet train. But I had my job back at home, and they had to put up job postings for a part-time worker to take over after I left, and… there was a lot of things to do. I also thought it would be more reassuring for my parents if I moved back to Tokyo after I found a job. But…”
Hirosue’s fingers stroked Matsuoka’s cheek.
“But when you asked me to move back, I couldn’t sit still anymore.”
Hirosue’s hand overlapped his own on the tatami mat. His fingertips were startlingly hot. His eyes were also heated as his gaze tangled with Matsuoka’s.
Matsuoka made the first move and drew up to kiss Hirosue. The man’s feverish fingertips slid across his back with a clear intent. Tomorrow was Tuesday, but he didn’t care. Matsuoka wanted this man right this moment.
Hirosue had mentioned that he had been drinking at Matsuoka’s apartment and had also had something to drink after coming here. Perhaps the alcohol had taken its toll, for he fell fast asleep soon after devouring Matsuoka.
There were no curtains on the windows yet. The street lamps outside filtered in dimly through the glass, and Matsuoka could get a clear view of the man’s face as he slept soundly.
He was embarrassed at himself for all the brooding he had done, thinking he was going to be dumped or that they would drift apart. While he was busy mulling over their breakup in his head, Hirosue had been planning his move so they could be closer to each other. Six months ago, the man had left without a single attachment to him, and now, he had come back―he was almost sure of it―solely out of an attachment to him. This was despite the fact that he had said he was quite content with life back in the country.
Matsuoka felt like the man loved him a lot more than he gave him credit for. The two months together so far had proved the fact well enough, but here he was having suspicions over every little thing. Matsuoka was forced to admit how weak his heart was.
He buried his nose in Hirosue’s shoulder and thought to himself. He was happy. Very happy. Hirosue had moved out here for him. That in itself was already amazing. He had been greedy for wishing they could live together, he thought as he clenched his jaw.
When Hirosue thought about moving, had he not considered Matsuoka’s apartment as an option? If he was going to rent a place this close, hadn’t he ever considered living with Matsuoka, even on the condition of paying half of the rent?
Matsuoka had a feeling that Hirosue had thought about it. But in the end, the man had rented his own apartment because he had wanted to do things that way.
Back in the springtime, their relationship had spiralled into a mess because Matsuoka had gone and arranged work for him without being asked. Even though Matsuoka’s help would have made things go smoothly, it was not what Hirosue had wanted. Now Matsuoka could agree that even if hadn’t lent a helping hand, and even if the job wasn’t as good as the one he was offering, Hirosue would have managed things on his own somehow.
Matsuoka figured he would also have mixed feelings if made to stand in Hirosue’s shoes. No matter how much you loved someone, there were still boundaries that you could and could not cross. That was what it boiled down to. He didn’t have to go around minding things for Hirosue: the man could manage on his own, and that was what he wanted to do.
Matsuoka concluded that he could only wait. Maybe one day, Hirosue would want to be together more, and would say he wanted to live with him.
The tips of his shoulders were getting cold. Matsuoka pulled the sheets over himself and nestled up against the heat beside him.
Hirosue had said he was going to start looking for a job. The offer for his upperclassman’s law firm crossed his mind. He wanted to tell Hirosue, to bring the offer up to him, but he could not. Not until Hirosue himself, even jokingly, wondered aloud whether there were any good jobs around.
Some distance was necessary in order to keep Matsuoka from trampling over Hirosue’s personal territory, and it was necessary for them to remain equal.
Even though Hirosue had moved close by, Matsuoka knew that privacy was still a necessity. Perhaps Hirosue hadn’t mentioned moving into his apartment for the same kind of reason. Don’t get involved more than you need to. Matsuoka took those words to heart and was careful to keep a distance.
But as one who had always wished they could live together, to be quite honest he wanted to see the man every night if he could. And he was less than a ten-minute walk away. It was less than two minutes if Matsuoka got off one stop before his own.
Matsuoka restrained himself at first and only visited once every three days. But Hirosue greeted him so happily at the door each time that it soon became once every two days, and before long, Hirosue’s place was his second home.
Hirosue was doing day labour while he looked for a permanent job.
“It’s not easy, with my age and all,” he would say.
Although he barely talked about employment to Matsuoka, once in a while he would let a sentence or two slip. Each time, Matsuoka desperately restrained himself from blurting, “Actually, my upperclassman has a firm.”
“But I already knew it was going to be challenging to find re-employment, so.”
Hirosue was optimistic, and he didn’t seem to be be getting irritated or impatient. Nevertheless, he was still thoroughly put out every time he got a notice of rejection, and on days like those, he was especially reluctant to let Matsuoka go home. Even if they didn’t do it, he would still come clinging to him. Although Hirosue didn’t put his discouragement into words, Matsuoka was still happy that the man relied on him―that he turned to him for consolation.
On the last weekend of November, Matsuoka was out shopping at a nearby supermarket when he got a phone call from Rokushima.
“So, what’s going on with that friend of yours?” he asked.
“Uh,” Matsuoka mumbled.
“The thing is,” Rokushima began, “my aunt is asking me if I can hire my cousin to work for me.”
Hirosue had still not found a permanent job. Matsuoka was patiently waiting for the man to turn to him for help, unable to bring up the topic himself. He didn’t want to keep Rokushima waiting when he had no idea when Hirosue would come to him for help.
“…Oh, then… please go ahead and hire your cousin.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Huh?” Matsuoka blurted without thinking.
“I don’t like that cousin. He’s two years older than me, but he’s a massive jerk and used to bully the hell out of me when we were kids. I know we’re older now, but I still can’t stand him. Besides, it’s kind of hard telling your relatives what to do, you know.”
Rokushima sounded more irritated than ever.
“That’s why I kind of slipped and I told her that I’ve already decided to hire my underclassman’s friend.”
“I had to, or else she wouldn’t get off my case. So, what’s going on with your friend?”
Matsuoka lowered his head in apology to the invisible person on the other end.
“I’m sorry. I still haven’t told him about your firm.”
“Huh? What do you mean?”
“He’s older than me, and… I have a feeling he wouldn’t want to get a job referral through a younger guy like me. Once I started thinking about that, I couldn’t bring myself to broach the topic to him.”
Rokushima seemed to understand his situation.
“Hmm,” he grunted thoughtfully. “Well, you’re right, that’s a difficult spot. I’m sure you’ve got your social relationships, too. How about this, then? Tell that person you’re going to introduce a friend to him, and the three of us can go drinking as a group. That way, I can do an interview of sorts, and if I like him, I’ll bring up the topic of the job. You won’t have any part in making the offer. Sound good?”
He was right; it was a good idea. This way, Matsuoka wouldn’t hurt Hirosue’s pride by arranging employment for him, and if Rokushima happened to not like Hirosue and keep quiet about the job offer, Hirosue would be oblivious to it all, which meant he wouldn’t get hurt, either. To him, it would just be a night out for drinks. Matsuoka wasted no time in asking for a date that Rokushima was free. After telling Rokushima he would ask for Hirosue’s schedule and get back to him later, he hung up his cell phone.
Matsuoka had been concerned that Hirosue hadn’t been able to find a job, and now things were finally starting to look like they would work out. Since he had taken a considerable amount of time chatting at the supermarket, Matsuoka hastily finished his shopping and headed to Hirosue’s apartment. The master of the house usually came home at irregular hours, but Matsuoka didn’t want to make the man wait, just in case he had come home and was hungry.
Matsuoka hurried to get back, but when he arrived, Hirosue didn’t appear to be home yet. The window facing the walkway was dark. The next-door neighbour came out of his unit as Matsuoka was unlocking the door. The neighbour was a young man in his mid-twenties. Their eyes met.
“Hello,” Matsuoka said for the sake of politeness. The man didn’t answer him; in fact, he even knitted his brow in clear displeasure.
How rude, Matsuoka thought for an instant, but that was the end of that. When Hirosue came home, he asked about what kind of person the neighbour was. Hirosue said they had only exchanged greetings when he moved in, and didn’t know him too well.
When he brought up the topic of drinks with his upperclassman, Hirosue was hesitant.
“Are you sure I can come along?” he said, but in the end, he agreed to go.
The next morning, Matsuoka left Hirosue’s apartment early. He had stayed the night, but since he didn’t have an extra shirt, he needed to go back to
his own condo once to change. The man next door appeared to be leaving for work as well, and they came out at almost the exact same time. He was an office worker, too―he was wearing a suit this morning.
Their eyes met, and Matsuoka figured he had perhaps just been in a bad mood yesterday.
“Good morning,” he said. The man looked at him but did not speak. Matsuoka decided it was best to leave him alone, and carefully kept a distance as they both went down the stairs. The man stopped halfway and turned around.
“…You guys are really loud at night. Can you cut it out?” he snapped, and descended the rest of the stairs. Matsuoka felt his face burn with embarrassment. He knew the walls were thin, and he was careful with his voice, but he had been careless because they were in a corner suite on the third floor. Sometimes he had also gotten so swept away he couldn’t restrain himself. His own condo had better soundproofing, but after Hirosue had moved back, more often than not they slept at his place rather than Matsuoka’s.
Matsuoka returned to his own condo and changed before heading to the office. The whole time, he still felt like he was being pricked by the words the man had hurled at him, and was restless and uncomfortable.
“Let me hear your voice,” the man whispered in his ear, with his desire buried deep inside him and Matsuoka’s body in his arms.
“Let me hear your voice, Matsuoka.”
Curtains had finally been put on the windows, and in the dim light of the room, the man stared at him and ran his hand along Matsuoka’s forehead. He seemed to have noticed that Matsuoka was trying to suppress his voice.
“I like to hear you moan. It’s cute.”
Although it was embarrassing to voice his pleasure, Matsuoka didn’t dislike it. But right now, there was a more critical problem to worry about.
“What? Are you suddenly getting shy?”
When the man pinched the tip of his aroused and trembling member, Matsuoka let out a short cry that sounded more like one of pain. He hastily covered his mouth with his hands, but Hirosue pried them away and pinned them on the sheets.
“Don’t, Hirosue. My voice’ll come out.”
“What’s wrong with that? It’s cute.”
The man thrust upwards in that position, and Matsuoka’s knees jerked.
“St―stop… don’t… ah!”
As his back arched, Hirosue sucked the buds on his chest. Matsuoka could not repress the moan that escaped his lips. He was worried about the neighbour, but he could do nothing with both of his hands pinned down.
“Ah―ah―no…! Stop―st… Hirosue…!”
It was hard to tell whether he was moaning or cautioning the man. After a while, a loud bang sounded from the wall beside them. Hirosue turned around, startled, and Matsuoka’s spine flinched.
“What was that? Making such a racket in the middle of the night,” Hirosue murmured, seemingly unconcerned. In contrast, Matsuoka felt his feverish mood instantly recede. If they stayed joined like this any longer, he felt like the oblivious man would make him cry out to high heaven. Matsuoka shifted his hips and undid their connection.
“Huh?” A pitiful expression crossed Hirosue’s face. It was no wonder; neither of them had climaxed once yet.
“Sorry. Can I do it by hand?” Matsuoka asked hesitantly.
“Oh… sure,” Hirosue answered, but suddenly went silent. When Matsuoka stroked him with his hand, it took a little longer, but Hirosue still eventually came. Matsuoka was relieved until Hirosue’s hand reached down towards his lower parts as well.
“I―I’m fine. Don’t.”
“Just not today.”
Despite Matsuoka’s refusal, his groin was still half-erect. He couldn’t just leave it like that, so he stood up to take care of himself in the bathroom. Hirosue, sensing his movement, stopped him.
“Let me do it,” he said.
“I’ll do it on my own today.”
Hirosue looked steadily at Matsuoka, then apologized.
“I’m sorry, so please don’t be angry with me. I won’t do anything you don’t like anymore.”
“I’m not angry.”
“You are angry,” Hirosue insisted. Matsuoka really wasn’t, but the man didn’t believe him. There was a stubborn, sullen look in his eyes. Matsuoka didn’t want the man to sulk over something like this, and to be honest, he wanted Hirosue to touch him. But he was also just as apprehensive that their voices could be heard next door at this time of the night.
Matsuoka grabbed Hirosue’s hand, pulled him out of the sheets, and led him to the doorway, still stark naked. It was a little cold.
“It’s not that I don’t like having sex.”
He shivered, and gave a sneeze. He sniffled, thinking he should have thrown something over himself before coming out here. Just then, he was drawn close. It began to feel warmer where they touched. Matsuoka had figured it was just a matter of him being careful, but Hirosue would probably not be convinced unless he knew the reason why.
“The neighbour complained that our… voices are too loud when we do it.”
It seemed to be a bolt out of the blue for Hirosue; he looked like he hadn’t expected it at all.
“That’s why I think we should be a little careful when we do it here,” Matsuoka added.
The arms around him tightened.
“I’m sorry for making you worry over that,” Hirosue apologized.
“It’s not… I’m totally fine.”
Hirosue gave him smacking kisses before running his hand carefully over his head. Matsuoka felt glad that he had been honest.
“Does that mean we should start going to your place when we do it?”
True, his condo had better soundproofing than here, but after so many days of coming to this apartment, Matsuoka had come to quite like this cramped room.
“I just have to be careful, that’s all.”
“But that means I have to hold myself in, too.”
Matsuoka was always the one who was crying and moaning at Hirosue’s hands. Matsuoka tilted his head curiously at the man’s words.
“I’ll have to hold myself in from wanting to hear your voice, Matsuoka.”
So that was what he had meant. Matsuoka felt his ears burn.
“If you don’t want people to hear your voice, then―” Hirosue murmured, then kissed him. The tip of Hirosue’s tongue entered his mouth, dominating him and reduced him to submission. As Matsuoka swooned, Hirosue reached down to fondle his half-erect member.
Matsuoka’s body grew hot at the man’s touch while they kissed. Hirosue rubbed the tip, sending a tingling jolt racing through his whole body, and before he knew it, Matsuoka had ejaculated. Since he hadn’t been able to let Hirosue know, the man hadn’t been able to catch it in his hand. Matsuoka’s desire ended up splattering.
“Oh, sorry…” The fluid residue dripping down Hirosue’s thigh looked vivid and repulsive to him.
“It’s warm, Matsuoka,” Hirosue murmured as he swabbed the dripping liquid with the tip of his finger and licked it without the slightest hesitation. Matsuoka had had a feeling that the man occasionally swallowed when Matsuoka came inside his mouth, but he had never bothered to check.
Hirosue looked at him as he licked his lips. Matsuoka hastily averted his eyes. He then looked at the ground, wondering if this man had always been this erotic.
After the incident with the neighbour, this time it was Hirosue’s turn to practically live at Matsuoka’s apartment. He had never had many belongings in the first place, so he began to leave Matsuoka’s apartment and come back again without returning to his own place at all. They were practically like newlyweds who had moved in with each other.
Although Matsuoka had started cooking because he wanted to save money on food, he was starting to rather enjoy it. The thought that he was cooking for two and not just for himself motivated him even more.
When Matsuoka cooked, Hirosue cleaned up afterwards. Hirosue also did the laundry and cleaned the house when he had some time after coming home from his part-time job. Although they had never discussed it, they naturally began to divide household tasks between them.
The man was now clinging to him, fast asleep; while patting him gently, Matsuoka was never more thankful that this man was so awkward. If he had been more fastidious and careful about his appearance on top of everything he was now, Matsuoka figured there was no way he would still be single at this age.
The incident with the man at Hirosue’s apartment had served a good excuse for him to come here. Matsuoka felt like in the near future―just not yet, perhaps―he would be able to naturally suggest to Hirosue, “Why don’t you move out of your apartment and come here?”
One day, about midway through November, Matsuoka had a lot of work to get done last-minute, and when he left the office to have lunch it was a little past twelve.
He ran into Shinozaki at the entrance on the first floor. Shinozaki also said he was going to lunch, so they decided to go to a set-meal restaurant nearby. Donburi were the focus of the menu here, and Matsuoka ordered raw tuna on rice while Shinozaki ordered a breaded pork cutlet on rice.
“Say, Chief, are you still doing well with that long-distance girlfriend of yours?” Shinozaki spoke up abruptly while he sipped his glass of self-serve water.
“Actually, we’re not long-distance anymore. She came out to the city.”
“…I knew it.” Shinozaki nodded with conviction.
“What do you mean, you knew it?”
“She probably started getting insecure over your long-distance relationship. You’re prime boyfriend material as it is, Chief. She probably came out so she could put up a shield around you. Keep those pesky girls from getting close.”
“…I suppose that’s one way to think about it,” Matsuoka grinned humorously.
“It has to be,” Shinozaki emphasized. “This is serious, Chief. Now there’s no way out for you. What’re you gonna do if she tells you to take responsibility and marry her?”
“I’d be happy to.”
“Oh, man. Absolutely hopeless,” Shinozaki sighed.
“No need to be unpleasant about it,” Matsuoka remarked.
“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean anything between you and your girlfriend, Chief. I was just thinking now that this girl―a fan of yours―probably doesn’t have anything going for her anymore. I knew you were pretty serious when you mentioned that you cook, Chief, but…”
Uemura rose briefly in his mind. Was Shinozaki talking about her? Matsuoka did have a feeling that she liked him, but he had pretended not to notice. There was no need to ask unless the other end brought it up first.
“If your girlfriend’s come out to the city, does that mean you’re living together?”
“Well, she rented a place, too, so we’re not actually living together. But I guess it’s getting close to that.”
“Have you started to see the harsh face of reality?”
“Harsh?” Matsuoka cocked his head.
“Things you find unpleasant about your girlfriend, or annoying things.”
“Not so far. I’m the one who cooks, but she cleans and does the laundry.”
“Uh-huh,” Shinozaki grunted in response. “You know, I can’t imagine you being all mushy towards your girlfriend. Do you guys take baths together and stuff?”
There was a slight pause before he answered. Shinozaki widened his eyes in surprise, even though he had asked the question.
“N-No, we don’t! My bath is tiny, anyway.”
Actually, they bathed together every night because Hirosue said he wanted to. It was cramped and confined, and it was certainly more relaxing to bathe alone; but now that he was used to it, Matsuoka began to feel lonely by himself.
He knew a romantic relationship was not all about the physical things, but that was definitely one of the supporting pillars of a relationship. At first, Matsuoka had been afraid and reluctant to let Hirosue see his body. But now, he was happy to be looked at, and he even felt the desire to be touched more. ―He was still, however, not so enthusiastic about doing it inside the bathtub.
“You’re a pretty kinky guy, aren’t you, Chief?”
“It’s not what you think.”
Shinozaki’s eyes still danced in a perverted way.
“Really. It’s not. Don’t you dare tell anyone else.”
“You got it,” Shinozaki answered, but with his last warning, Matsuoka knew he had pretty much affirmed Shinozaki’s suspicions. “Well, it looks like smooth sailing on your end, Chief. I, on the other hand, broke up with my girlfriend the other day,” he said casually. “I got to know this cute girl at a group date, and my girlfriend found out I was cheating on her. Now, I’m dating the girl from the group date.”
Although Shinozaki was a chatterbox, he also ate quickly. Soon, he had polished off his pork cutlet bowl and was taking out a cigarette to light it.
“Once she found out I was cheating, I was kicked to the curb faster than anything. Our relationship was already getting a little stale, anyway, but there was nothing really decisive to end it. As for me, I thought maybe… you know, I just had the feeling that we’d eventually get married. So when this happened, I realized, oh, this must have been her big red button. I was pretty depressed.”
“But now you’re dating that girl you met at the group date, right?”
“Well, yeah. But still.” Shinozaki lit his second cigarette. He looked somewhat listless.
In the evening, Matsuoka quickly wrapped up his work and headed to the park where they were supposed to meet. Hirosue was already there, sitting on a bench and waiting for him. He was wearing what he would usually wear at home: a thick long-sleeve shirt and jeans, with a cotton coat over stop. Since today’s dinner was going to double as an interview, Matsuoka sort of wished he had come in a suit, but there was no way Hirosue would worry about his clothes to that extent when he thought it was just dinner and drinks.
“Did I make you wait?”
“I just got here.” Hirosue was still smiling as he got up from the bench.
“My upperclassman is going to be a little late. He said we could go on ahead to the restaurant.”
Matsuoka ushered Hirosue on, and they headed to the restaurant. It was an izakaya with an Asian vibe, and had private booths. Matsuoka got an e-mail from his upperclassman as soon as they sat down. Rokushima said he was going to be twenty more minutes late, so Matsuoka and Hirosue decided to start on some drinks.
Matsuoka ate mostly at home now; the last time he had gone to an izakaya was the time he went for drinks with people from his office. Now that he had started cooking dinner for himself, Matsuoka also became curious about the seasonings used in the dishes served at restaurants, and ended up asking their server about all sorts of things. He was just about to order another beer when he noticed Hirosue wasn’t drinking much. Matsuoka was on his third beer, but Hirosue still had half of his first glass left.
“You don’t have to hold yourself back,” Matsuoka told him.
“But I’ll be meeting your upperclassman for the first time. I don’t want to be drunk before he even gets here.”
“He’s not the type of person who’d get hung up about that. It’s alright.”
While they were talking, Matsuoka thought he heard his upperclassman’s voice. He turned out to be right. Rokushima was being led towards them by the server.
“It’s been a… not-that-long-of-a-while, actually.”
Rokushima turned to Hirosue and lowered his head apologetically. “I’m sorry I’m late,” he said.
“Not at all,” Hirosue said, inclining his own head.
“This assignment I’ve taken on is pretty complicated. It’s just been causing me a huge hassle. I’m pooped.” Rokushima sat down beside Matsuoka as he spoke. Matsuoka wasted no time in introducing Hirosue and Rokushima to each other, but he deliberately kept Rokushima’s profession under wraps. Rokushima seemed to pick up the hint, for their conversation only dwelt on harmless topics such as celebrities and current events.
Hirosue appeared reserved around Rokushima, whom he was meeting for the first time, and he did not take part in their conversation much. But he still responded if the topic was directed at him. Hirosue had never been the type to assert himself over others, anyway, so Matsuoka felt like maybe this was normal.
The topic turned to soccer, and Rokushima spoke about how he had even gone to the stadium to cheer at a game on a weekday. Hirosue tilted his head slightly.
“What kind of work do you do, Mr. Rokushima?”
After throwing a glance at Matsuoka, Rokushima spoke. “I’m a lawyer,” he admitted.
“Ah, a lawyer. I see,” Hirosue responded conversationally, but went no further.
“What do you do, Mr. Hirosue?”
Matsuoka winced. Even though he had already told him that Hirosue was out of a job, Rokushima pointedly chose to question him about it.
After a slight pause, Hirosue responded honestly.
“…To tell you the truth, I’m actually out of a job right now. I’m looking for one.”
“That’s gotta be hard,” Rokushima said, giving an exaggerated nod. “Did you quit on your own?” Rokushima continued to jab his feelers into what Matsuoka least wanted him to ask.
“…No. I was given my notice in February of this year, and at the end of March I was officially laid off. If I could, I would have wanted to stay, but with these things there’s simply nothing I can do.”
“That’s pretty sudden. Didn’t you try to negotiate with your company?”
“I didn’t; not personally. It seems like my boss tried to talk to the higher-ups about it, but…”
“Hmmm,” Rokushima made a rumbling in his throat and folded his arms. “You know, you might be able to take your company to court over this,” he said, leaning forward. Hirosue shook his head hastily.
“It’s alright. I don’t think I was the most competent employee, either. And I don’t have the finances to go to court. I’m better off working part-time or something,” Hirosue smiled. He didn’t look bitter or self-derogatory. Matsuoka had thought he might get offended from the topic of his layoff, but Hirosue showed no signs of it. He stated the truth in a calm, objective manner.
After that, the topic drifted away from Hirosue. Rokushima spoke about an outrageous client who came to his firm, and Matsuoka clutched his sides laughing. Hirosue was laughing, too.
In the midst of it, they heard a cell phone ringing.
“Excuse me for a minute,” Rokushima said, getting up from his seat. Matsuoka also got up to go to the washroom. On his way back to his seat, he ran into Rokushima in the hallway, who had apparently come in from talking outside.
“I like your friend,” Rokushima murmured.
“He’s not a smooth talker, but he’s sincere, isn’t he?”
“Sure is. Gotta be pretty damn honest to talk about getting laid off to someone you’ve never met.” Rokushima headed towards the washroom, saying he might as well stop by on the way. Matsuoka went on ahead back to the table. Hirosue was peering at his cell phone screen, but when Matsuoka came back, he closed it with a snap.
“What do you think of Rokushima?” Rokushima’s impression of Hirosue was important, but Matsuoka also wanted to know what kind of impression Hirosue had of him.
“What do I think? Well… I guess he’s a funny person,” Hirosue said hesitantly.
“Does he seem like a crazy soccer fanatic to you?”
Hirosue laughed. “I think it’s good to have something to be passionate about no matter how old you get.”
“Oh, are you guys talking about me?” Rokushima was back before they even knew it. As soon as he sat down, he flagged a passing server. “One more draft beer,” he ordered. “Oh, right, so, Mr. Hirosue. You mentioned you were looking for a job. Any prospects of one?” Rokushima finally brought the topic up. Hirosue was smiling sheepishly.
“I admit it’s pretty difficult. But I hear if people my age want to find re-employment, they’d have to go to as many interviews as the number of years they’ve lived, so…”
“Well, you see, a girl at my firm is quitting at the end of this year. If you don’t mind, Mr. Hirosue, how would you like to work at my place?”
Hirosue widened his eyes in surprise.
“But… but I don’t know much about law.”
“That’s fine. It’s just a clerical position, so you won’t need to be an expert.”
Hirosue still looked agitated as he closed his mouth and looked down. It was a good offer. Matsuoka watched Hirosue’s expression closely, hoping he wouldn’t refuse.
Hirosue abruptly raised his face again. Their eyes met. He looked steadily at Matsuoka. Matsuoka felt like his gaze looked somewhat angry, and felt a frightening chill race up his spine.
“Oh, don’t worry, I’m not going to force you,” Rokushima added, as the silence wore on to the point of being awkward.
“…No.” Matsuoka could detect Hirosue’s tone dropping slightly. “I’ve been searching high and low for a job, so I’m really thankful for your offer. I was in General Affairs at my former company, so if you’re looking for a clerk, my experience might come in useful somehow.”
His voice was stiff, but his utterance itself was that of affirmation.
“So, you’ll take it?”
“By all means, if you’re willing to have me.”
The direction of their conversation was what Matsuoka had hoped for. Hirosue had also accepted it of his own accord. But Matsuoka still could not look him in the face―he was too afraid to.
They parted with Rokushima in front of the restaurant. Their discussion after that progressed smoothly, and Hirosue was now set to show up once a week at Rokushima’s firm starting in December as a part-time clerk-in-training.
They walked side-by-side on the way home, but neither of them spoke a word. Hirosue only looked straight ahead, and did not look at Matsuoka. Everything about his demeanour said ‘Don’t talk to me’ and there was no way Matsuoka could say anything with this air between them.
Hirosue was still silent after they got on the train. Matsuoka felt like his stomach was twisting into painful knots. He was genuinely relieved when Hirosue did not get off at the station before his; Matsuoka had been afraid that he would head straight back home to his own apartment.
They got off the train at the station close to Matsuoka’s condo. The silence still dragged on between them, and Matsuoka fell a little behind because walking side-by-side was getting painful.
Hirosue stopped in his tracks right before the convenience store.
“I have something I want to buy. You can go on ahead.” The tone of his voice seemed no different from the usual.
“Oh, then I’ll get something…”
Hirosue suddenly fell silent. It was then that Matsuoka finally realized that the stop was Hirosue’s excuse to be by himself.
“…I’m a little drunk, so I’m going to take a bit of a walk in the park before I go home.”
“Uh. Right. I’ll go on ahead, then.” Despite having said so, Matsuoka’s feet did not move, which prevented him from heading home. Hirosue was clearly angry. If he left the man behind here, he felt like Hirosue would go back to the countryside like last time. Even though he knew it was impossible because the bullet trains weren’t running at this hour, he was still afraid.
He remembered the topic about the big red button that Shinozaki had mentioned during the day―that one thing that you could never touch, never overstep, even if you were dating. Something that, by itself alone, was enough to end the relationship.
Hirosue no doubt knew that Matsuoka had set up this employment offer. After all, Matsuoka had already mentioned the same thing to Hirosue before, that an upperclassman at a law firm was looking for someone. It was only natural that Hirosue would sense some contrivance from that. Matsuoka had been too occupied about immediate appearances; he had thought it would be alright as long as he wasn’t the one arranging the employment. It was his mistake for not thinking far enough.
And now, he had without a doubt pressed the button that Hirosue did not want anyone to touch.
“….I’m sorry.” Unable to bear it any longer, Matsuoka apologized.
“Why are you apologizing?” Hirosue asked, in a voice so cold it made Matsuoka shudder. Hirosue continued without waiting for his answer. “Because you arranged a job for me diguised as dinner and drinks?”
“I’m so sorry.”
Hirosue sighed, exuding a thick aura of irritation.
“I’ll see you at home.” With those words, Hirosue crossed at the lights. The park was off the path that led to Matsuoka’s house. Matsuoka stood stock-still until Hirosue’s figure disappeared into the distance, and began to drag his feet home. His feet felt unbearably heavy, as if someone had shackled them.
Upon returning to his apartment, Matsuoka crumpled to his knees in the doorway. His whole mind was pitch-black. Hirosue was not coming home. Matsuoka was almost sure he wouldn’t, and he was riddled with despair. Things had been going so well, and he had ruined it all. He had torn it apart.
After sitting in the doorway for a while, Matsuoka finally took off his shoes. He walked to the living room, and collapsed into the sofa.
“It’s over. It’s over. It’s over.”
The words spun in his head at breakneck speed, and there was a burning pain in his chest. Unable to stay still, Matsuoka thought about running to the park and getting down on his knees to apologize to Hirosue. But if the man still told him it was over after that, he felt like he would never be able to recover.
He wished he could might as well die. He wished a burglar would break in and murder him. Then, Hirosue would see him dead and regret ever letting him come home alone. Although this far from solved the problem, Matsuoka honestly wished it would happen.
He should have turned Rokushima down upfront when he first brought up the topic. Hirosue had been working hard on his own to find a new job. All Matsuoka should have done was watch him benevolently from afar. Hirosue had sought comfort when he was gloomy from being rejected, but he had never asked for more than that.
If he were to be completely honest, Matsuoka did not care whether Hirosue was employed or not. If the man would be with him, that was enough.
Regret filled every corner of his mind, leaving no space for anything else. Matsuoka ran to the fridge. He took out a beer, and drank even though he didn’t want to. He wanted to get drunk as quickly as he could so he could lose his senses and be rescued from this situation. He had just reached for his third beer when he heard the front door open.
There was only one person who owned the spare key to this apartment. Footsteps drew nearer, and stopped before Matsuoka, who was sitting on the sofa with a can of beer in hand.
“…I’m home,” Hirosue said with his proper manners, but there was something grim about his expression. He let out a sigh between compressed lips, which felt like a stab to Matsuoka’s ears. Hirosue sat down beside Matsuoka.
“I’m… sorry…” Matsuoka apologized as he clutched his can of beer, unabel to look at the man’s face.
“Why are you apologizing?”
“I’m sorry…” Tears spilled from his eyes. He knew he would only annoy Hirosue by bawling over something like this, but he couldn’t stop.
A set of fingers touched his cheek, and gently wiped the edge of Matsuoka’s eye.
“I knew something was up the moment you said you wanted to introduce me to a friend. Next time, I want you to tell me outright instead of doing something roundabout like this―just ask me if I want to work at your friend’s firm.”
Matsuoka turned to him.
“But you don’t like to hear it from me. Last time… y-you got angry about that and packed up to go to the country.”
“Well, yeah, but…” Hirosue murmured. “That time, I was at the end of my emotional rope, too. I still thought it was unfair that I had to quit, and it made me feel even worse to see you get promoted. I felt like our differences were being rubbed in my face. But now I know I don’t need to compare myself to anyone, so I’m not going to get angry.”
“But you are angry. You barely talked to me on the way home, and you had this scary look in your eyes and face.”
Matsuoka flinched as Hirosue pulled him roughly into his arms.
“I am angry, but not at you, Matsuoka.”
The man held him close even though he was angry, and Matsuoka wasn’t sure anymore whether he was happy or afraid.
“I love you, Matsuoka. I know you love me, too, but you don’t have faith in me, do you?”
“You don’t have to apologize. It’s my fault that you can’t have faith in me. It makes me feel so ashamed of myself and… angry.”
“It’s not your f―” he tried to apologize before he was stopped with a kiss. Was Hirosue telling him not to say any more? As the man groped him, he began to feel aroused as well as afraid and sad. His mind was a mess.
“You can be more angry at me, you know.” Hirosue looked steadily into Matsuoka’s eyes. “If there’s something you don’t like about me, say so. If something’s bothering you, say so. I’ll do my best to fix it, and if I have an argument to make, I’ll make it. I won’t get angry or hate you just because we have different opinions. And Matsuoka, you should feel more free to be selfish around me.”
The pair of eyes on him softened into a gentle smile.
“I want to see what it’s like to feel daunted from a selfish request from you.”
Matsuoka half-trembled as he shook his head. “No.”
“If I say it, you’ll get put off.”
“I’ll try my best, no matter how outrageous it is. For example,” he whispered, “if you want to have sex all day…”
Matsuoka’s emotions were yanked back to reality. That’s not selfishness, that’s just your wishful thinking, he remarked inwardly. Would you honestly say something like that? At a time like this? It was so much like Hirosue to say something totally inappropriate for the situation. Matsuoka couldn’t help but find it funny.
Still laughing, Matsuoka wound his arms around Hirosue’s neck and pressed his nose against the man’s collarbone.
“Can you move out of your apartment?” his voice trembled. He couldn’t look the man in the face. “I want you to live here with me… together. Please.”
Please, he begged silently once more, and tightened his arms around the other man.
“… But I’m still a bum out of a job. Is that okay with you?” Hirosue said in a teasing voice.
“Yeah,” Matsuoka trembled as he answered.
Starting in December, Hirosue began to work at Rokushima’s firm as a part-time worker. During lunch break, Matsuoka was wondering how Hirosue was doing on his first day on the job when he got a phone call from Rokushima.
“Hey, Mr. Hirosue’s great,” Rokushima enthused, his voice unusually buoyant. “He’s done it, and it’s only his first day! He went up to that girl who’s quitting to get married and straight-out told her she should stop sending personal texts during work. She was all, ‘it’s nothing to worry about because I don’t send that many,’ but he was all, ‘even so, it’s common etiquette as a working adult,’ and, boy, was that exhilarating!”
Hirosue’s uprightness was nothing new, but Matsuoka was relieved to know it seemed to be taking him in a positive direction.
The clerk quit at the end of December, and Hirosue was happily hired as a permanent, full-time worker starting in January.
Hirosue claimed there were still a lot of things he didn’t understand, and was often seen studying legal matters at home.
In March, Matsuoka bumped into Rokushima on the way home from work. Although Hirosue occasionally spoke to him about the firm, he decided to ask Rokushima in person as well.
“Mr. Hirosue’s a good worker,” Rokushima told him. “At first I thought maybe he was a little slow, but he doesn’t make mistakes, so I can leave him in charge of stuff without any worries. I have no idea why he got laid off, really. Well, at least that means I get to have him. ―There’s just one thing,” Rokushima said ruefully. “He’s inflexible, that one. I have a hard time getting him to approve my expenses. One time I was begging him to process this thing as a business expense, and he had this grave expression on his face and he said, ‘don’t do anything that you feel even slightly guilty about,’ and all. I know he’s right. But still.”
“I told you Hirosue’s upright,” Matsuoka said.
“He’s a good guy and I have no complaints. I just think people should be allowed to bend the rules sometimes, you know what I mean?”
Matsuoka parted with Rokushima after that and boarded the train. An e-mail arrived on his cell phone. It was from Hirosue.
‘I finished work early, so I’ll make dinner tonight. What do you feel like eating?’ it said.
If people were cut out for certain things and not for others, Hirosue was clearly not cut out for cooking, and neither was he good at it. Despite that, he bravely kept attempting to cook, which was cute but also a slight nuisance. Matsuoka decided to request curry. No matter how atrocious one’s cooking skills were, curry was bound to be palatable once the roux was thrown in.
‘I’ll try my best,’ came Hirosue’s response, and Matsuoka gave a little smile.
End of Of Love
Read side story Watch -chapter 2-.