Author's Note: These past few weeks have been too much of a whirl for me to really sit down and write, and it isn't helping my continuity at all. Hence, I am only half-finished with the third chapter of my other fic (which isn't so bad once you consider that that half-chapter is more or less 2000 words already - but never mind). I decided to test the waters with this one-shot, y'know, try to see if I'm up for a new round of writing so I can get After Goodbye off its sorry, half-finished ass. Thus, this being the warm-up, it's not as crisp as I'd like it to be, but I am proud of the way it turned out, especially towards the end, because for a while I was contemplating a totally different finish. But oh, whatever; I'm rambling again. Don't mind me; enjoy. :)
Standard disclaimers apply.
The pale yellow dress I am wearing seems a bad idea, now that I find myself in the maize lights of the Fiorentina at the Grand Hyatt Tokyo, although it is much too late to do anything about it. I resign myself to the fact that I look like a jaundice patient once illuminated this way. Briefly, it occurs to me that Mi-chan has seen me too many times with my clothes off, so it's likely that he won't mind too much, but that was many years ago: things are different now. I push the thought away, shifting in my seat.
The restaurant is full with the sound of clinking cutlery and comfortable chatter. I glance at my watch: he's already five minutes late, which is a little unlike him, but it has been a while, so who am I to know?
In a minute or two I spot him by the entrance, and after a brief exchange with the maitre d', he is directed to where I am seated. I meet his eyes, and he gives me a polite nod and a smile before he makes his way to the table.
"I'm sorry," is the first thing he says to me as he sits down. "My agent held me up."
"I'm wonderful, thank you for asking," I tell him good-naturedly.
He signals a waiter, before giving me a sly half-smile. "Yes, well. How are you?"
I laugh, and the waiter comes to pour us water and take our orders. Chicken parmigiana and linguine al pesto for him; spinach cannelloni for me. I let him deal with the wine. When the waiter leaves, Tokiya and I gaze at each other comfortably.
"I must say, I'm a little disappointed."
He leans back on his chair. "At my tardiness?"
"Far from it." I eye him: the light blue dress shirt, the navy blue Oxford vest, the black sports coat. "You're more dressed down than when I saw you on television earlier today."
"What are you talking about? This is almost the exact same thing I was wearing. I just came from the TV station."
"Yes, but then you had a tie."
He chuckles. "Touché."
The waiter comes back with a sommelier on his heels, and he sets down small plates of ham and tomato bruschetta and foccacia breadsticks in front of us. He gives a polite nod and leaves, and the sommelier comes forward with a lovely Chardonnay, which he pours for us, and then sets in ice.
"I, on the other hand," he lays his napkin on his lap, "have no complaints about how you look today."
I take my napkin as well. "That's very gracious."
"It's either you've aged unbelievably well, or I just haven't seen you in a while."
"The slight pains in my joints tell me it's more of the latter. The last time I saw you was at your wedding."
He looks at me with mild surprise while he takes some of the bruschetta and cuts it up with his knife. "Seven years. You're kidding."
"Of course not. This bread is delicious, by the way."
"But I'm definite you and Naoko used to speak a lot."
I nod. "On the phone. But we never saw each other, not really."
"That's very sad. You weren't at her funeral."
I put down my fork and gaze at him. "I know. I'm sorry. Raiha and I were in Greece; he was working."
There's a long pause between us.
"How is Raiha?" he ventures.
"He's been in Italy for the past three and a half weeks." We polish off the appetizers. "But he's coming home tomorrow."
"Just in time for your birthday," he tells me, with a smile.
The waiter comes and sets our food in front of us. Everything smells heavenly.
"I'm glad you remembered."
"Ah. It's not likely I'll forget." His voice is odd when he says this, and I don't meet his eyes. The first time he made love to me was my eighteenth birthday.
The silence between us is tense, which is to be expected. We have been working around the difficult topics: I have decided not to touch on his wife's suicide ten months ago, and it seems he has done the same regarding Raiha's deep-seated hostility towards him. It is far from a secret that my husband hates Tokiya, mostly for that dark and intensely passionate affair we had back in college.
Raiha, I reassure him, that was a long, long time ago.
We are not children forever.
"So tell me about your new book."
He takes his wineglass, gently swills it. "I thought you saw me on the morning show."
I pause. "Let's see. A little boy loses his sister to a band of thugs who are searching for a priceless family heirloom; he trains under an old swordsman to avenge his sister's death, and is thus initiated into the seedy underworld of kill-or-be-killed. In the end, he finds out that his master, also his grandfather, was the one who had his sister killed."
"I know how my novel goes, thank you."
"Novel my ass. You're marketing your autobiography as fiction?"
"If James Frey could do vice-versa, then why the hell not? Besides, the critics loved it."
"And, oddly enough, so did everyone else. I hear it's hit Bestseller status."
"Well, that too. But truthfully. It was too good a story to never be told." Where was the cocky, aloof boy we knew in high school in this self-possessed, witty charmer before me?
"The funny thing is that I never thought you would be a writer."
"I didn't either. I think I knew it the day I had my hair cut."
God, yeah. "Wow, yeah. I'd forgotten you used to have such long hair."
He twirls his linguini around his fork. "Yeah. Naoko was really surprised when she saw the pictures. She thought it was a pity I cut it all off."
"Well, everyone needs a little change, once in a while."
Here we are, tired old once-lovers, his wife inevitably detained; my husband interminably far: things were changing back then, but they never stopped changing, even when we'd left our youth behind.
"Do you miss him?"
I look up; wipe my mouth with the corner of my napkin. "What?"
Tokiya is expressionless. "Raiha. Do you miss him?"
I shrug. "Every day."
He pours us both more wine. "Do you wish she had never died?" I ask.
"Naoko?" I nod. He looks away. "She was never very happy with me. My writing was a private thing: it was one room with a lock she could never quite break. I learned too late that I had shut her out."
But he hasn't answered my question. I stay silent, waiting for the next thing he will say, and he gives this tiny sigh. "But yes, often I do wish she had never died. Sometimes I feel better about it, when I think about how she's going to be treated infinitely better, wherever she's going, God bless her. Sometimes, I just wish she hadn't died such a monstrous death."
I spear a bite of cannelloni with my fork. Tokiya fingers the stem of his wineglass.
"Do you ever wish… you hadn't lost your baby?"
There is a lump in my throat, and it isn't pasta. I open and close my mouth soundlessly.
"We were kids, Tokiya. What could we do? Kill it? And then what? And if I decided to have it… and then what? I'm sorry, but I think Nature did the right thing."
He shifts in his seat, and the light reveals lines on his face that I am surprised to see. He leans his chin on the back of his hands. "I almost asked you to marry me."
I can't take this. "It took a baby for you to almost ask, huh?"
"You lost it." He says this like it's my fault, but then he softens. "And then you broke up with me."
"Because I was sure you would never marry me for any other reason."
It comes out before I can stop myself, and when I gaze at Tokiya, there is hurt in his eyes. He presses his lips together grimly, and nods, slowly. "Yeah. Yeah, maybe not."
Another long silence. This is too much for me: I signal a waiter to bring our check.
"You don't want dessert?" he asks.
I shake my head mutely. He heaves a sigh, and for a moment I feel so much older than we really are.
"The reason I asked to meet you," he begins quietly, "is that I wanted to say goodbye, once and for all." I am not looking at him. "Two years ago, Naoko and I already decided that we wanted to move to Philadelphia, so she can be close to her family. We already bought a house there, and the only hitch in the entire plan was – well, Naoko, she… you know."
"You're leaving Japan." It is more a statement than a question.
He shrugs, gives a small nod. "Her family really wants me to be there, and I think… it would be best, too. I can get away from here, and you, you wouldn't have to…"
What about me, Mi-chan? Tell me.
He doesn't continue, though. Instead, he begins to fiddle with something in his inside jacket pocket, and when his hand reappears he's holding a small white envelope.
"I found it among my old stuff. I thought it would be best if you keep it… it's a timely present, too."
I unseal the envelope and pull the thick glossy paper out, flipping it over. It's a Polaroid of me on my nineteenth birthday, blowing out the candles atop the lopsided chocolate cake before me. It's quite poignant, and I'm radiantly happy in the picture – something I haven't been in a long, long time.
"Raiha would love it too, I think," he says. "You look beautiful." I look peaceful, at least. That was one of the happiest years in my life.
Someone comes to bus our plates, followed by the check. Tokiya waves me away when I reach into my purse. He fishes some bills from his wallet and folds them into the jacket. And then, another pause; there is so much that has gone unsaid between us these years that we don't know where to start.
"Thank you… for the gift," I say, somewhat belatedly. "When are you… ?"
He shrugs. "Two days."
"I see." But I don't.
"I'm glad I got to see you again, before…" His voice trails off.
"Yeah. Same here."
He touches the Polaroid, which is on the table between us, and in the light, I see the faint fingerprint he makes against my face in the photograph. "Make a wish, little girl," he mutters, and I smile sadly. He rises, offers me his hand, and together we walk out of the restaurant in silence.
A mild rain has enveloped the streets with a layer of cold, and I shiver in my thin dress. He steps forward onto the sidewalk and hails me a cab; soon, one sidles to a halt right in front of us. I turn to face him, and slowly, slowly, he leans towards me and gives me a chaste kiss on the forehead.
"Goodbye, Tokiya," I breathe, his face mere inches from mine, my eyes closed.
He disengages himself from me, and I open my eyes. This is the last time I will see his slightly-lined face, his ice-blue eyes, his grim mouth: this is the last time I will see him, and everything after that will be mere memory.
"Goodbye, Fuuko," he whispers.
For a long moment, he and I gaze at each other, and then I make my way towards the cab. I tell the driver my address in a voice that is, surprisingly, shaking, and I slam the door closed. In the rain-spattered window, Tokiya stands there watching me, his hands in his pockets. Tomorrow, I will turn thirty-four, and Raiha will be home; the day after that, Mi-chan will be gone; and after that, what?
The cab starts to glide along the streets, and outside, the world is gray and cool and none too comforting. I close my eyes: the Polaroid in my purse appears before my eyes. Me at nineteen, and me now: where have all the years gone? I have wasted so much. Make a wish, little girl says Tokiya in a near-whisper, but I already know that mine never did come true.
I should say that this is mildly inspired by Haruki Murakami's Birthday Girl, which appears in his most recent collection of short stories entitled Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. I hope you enjoyed this, because I'm surprised I did. What began as a writing exercise turned out to be a pretty decent one-shot. However, if you think otherwise, please do leave a review and let me know, and I hope I see you in my other fic/s, haha. :) Cheers!