Divorce. One word that could spell out the rest of his life, forever marked by the piece of paper that he held clutched between sweating palms.
Sendoh Akira resisted the urge to crumple the innocent-looking sheet as he turned his key in the ignition, coaxing his sleek silver car to purring life. With a loud squeal of his tires, he pulled out of his parking spot and floored the accelerator. That ugly word – divorce – was left fluttering as an official document on his passenger seat.
He was only 29.
The stifling heat of summer afternoon made him tug at the neckline of his striped shirt. His left hand deftly slid his tie off; his right hand controlled the steering wheel. Left. Left. Straight. Right. Straight. Left again.
He finally breathed a little easier, his collar undone, as he briskly walked into Pink Paradise.
The barman instantly recognised him as he rested his weight onto the barstool. With a discreet nod, the other man pulled out a bottle. In a number of seconds, Sendoh was sipping cold sake from a small tea bowl.
With a furtive glance around him, Sendoh noted that there were very few people in the pub. After all, it was a Tuesday afternoon, not even lunch hour, and most of the city dwellers would be enclosed in small cubicles that served as their offices. He guiltily remembered the stack of documents that awaited him patiently on his mahogany desk in his spacious air-conditioned enclave with heavy drapes and the expensive jade paperweight and the picture–
Sendoh poured himself more sake.
There was a rapid gush of warm air and bright sunlight, and then, another person took their place at the bar counter. Sendoh swallowed his mouthful of liquor and cast his eyes at the new arrival.
He found eyes as blue as his own staring back at him.
"Rukawa?" blurted Sendoh.
The man's countenance was hesitant as he ran scrutinizing eyes over Sendoh. With some mortification, Sendoh quickly sucked in the small pot-belly he had acquired. There was the briefest flash of – mirth? – in the man's angular eyes and then it was gone.
"Sendoh Akira. It's been a while," Rukawa Kaede murmured, his dark head inclining in an acknowledging nod.
"It has. More than ten years, actually," Sendoh said with an easy smile. "What are you doing here, anyway? The boys would have mentioned it if you were around."
Rukawa's eyes focused on Sendoh. "Oh? The boys?"
"Uhh, you know … Fujima, Maki, Mitsui…"
Sendoh's lips twisted upwards. "Hey, no need to sound so incredulous. He was my senior back in college, and we roomed together for a short while before he graduated. He's the one who keeps me informed what the Shohoku team has been doing lately."
"And you've been doing pretty well for yourself. The pioneers of Japanese players in the NBA – you and Tabuse Yuta. You hit big time, kiddo. I must say, I'm only surprised it wasn't sooner," Sendoh continued.
"Hn. It's not as simple as you think. I had to prove myself in Japan first. It was only four, five years ago that I decided to make the move to America and the rest just fell into place," Rukawa replied, pausing to signal to the barman, "'Scuse me. Whisky, please."
There was a moment of silence as Rukawa consumed his drink, his Adam's apple bobbing as he swallowed the bitter liquid.
"So what," the glass was quietly placed back on the table, "have you been up to, Sendoh?"
Sendoh's mood abruptly fell. What should he say? That he was stuck in a high-paying job his father secured for him in the family company when he would much rather be doing something else? That his house was a humungous three-storey built with imported bricks from Spain but was an enormous waste of space? That he loved his wife but she was a complete bitch who had just served him with divorce pa–
"Hel-lo." The annoyed grumble pierced through his tenebrous thoughts, and he glanced sideways at Rukawa's nettled face.
"Sorry. I spaced out." Sendoh picked up his tea bowl, found it empty, and gestured for more. "I've been better, I suppose," he finished wistfully, gulping down his cupful of sake.
Rukawa's gaze was watchful. "And why's that?"
Sendoh sighed, a weary sound as he slumped over his drink, his head cradled in his hands. "I'm getting divorced."
Rukawa's eyes didn't flicker. "I see. Your fault, or hers?"
Sendoh shook his head. Rukawa hadn't changed one bit. Blunt and to the point, as usual.
"…and so, I found the papers waiting among my work pile and that was that. She didn't even bother to tell me herself," Sendoh's voice was coloured with furious indignation.
Rukawa slowly digested Sendoh's outburst. "You mean, there wasn't any reason for her to do something so drastic?"
Sendoh shifted in his seat and Rukawa caught the spark of guilt in the older man's face.
"I have to work late sometimes – okay, most of the time. I missed our anniversary and her birthday. Err, and she might have found out about Aoi-chan…"
"And pray tell, who in hell is Aoi?"
"She's my personal assistant," Sendoh replied sheepishly. "It was nothing!" he hurriedly continued at the look on Rukawa's face. "Just a little harmless fun, that's all. Just a little treat on the side. I mean, after sleeping with the same person for so many years, wouldn't you crave for some new flesh?"
"No," came the sardonic reply, "No, I wouldn't. Not if I was married. If you love someone, you make it work. Not throw it away for some fresh-faced young girl who in all actuality, might be only after your money. God, I thought you were old enough to think."
The cutting remark made Sendoh wince. "I do love her, Rukawa."
"Funny way of showing it, Sendoh."
The two men glared at each other. Sendoh dropped his gaze first, sourly realising that he would probably lose in a fistfight with Rukawa. The younger boy was still in top condition from basketball training and had even added a couple more centimetres to his height, therefore surpassing Sendoh's own plumper figure. Sendoh sighed, making a mental note to start hitting the gym again.
"I know what I did was stupid–"
"Try reckless, impulsive, idiotic, unforgivable…"
"Okay, I admit I didn't think. But I won't do the same thing twice. I love her, and I want her back," Sendoh confessed as Rukawa cocked an eyebrow at him.
"What, now that she doesn't want you, you want her? Sounds like a pretty twisted game to me," Rukawa snorted and swished the ice in his glass around. "How do you even know you still love her? If I loved someone, I wouldn't even dream about doing what you did. What you did was trivialise the importance of the bond between two people, which is supposed to be about cherishing one another until the deathbed, maybe beyond. You tossed aside the basic foundation of the words 'love' and 'marriage' to suit your own needs. You are a selfish, egocentric, self-absorbed narcissi–"
"Okay, okay, I get it already!" Sendoh stared at Rukawa. "Geez, you've changed, haven't you? For one, you talk too much. Second, I didn't expect you to know so much about feelings and emotions and love, in particular. You have a wife, too?"
Rukawa shrugged and finished his whisky but the ghost of a grin was tugging at his thin lips. "No. But I will, soon."
"You've lost me, pretty boy. What does that mean?"
"I'm getting married," Rukawa explained. "That's why I'm back, for the ceremony. Thought I'd drop in here for a drink before meeting with some of the boys later. I haven't told them yet, but I'm betting they'll figure it out when I hand them the wedding invitations."
Sendoh's shock melted away and was replaced by a genuine grin. "About time you settled down, Super Rookie, although I wonder which girl could tolerate your obtuseness. I mean, you sleep all the time, whack anyone who wakes you up, only know how to play basketball…"
"Shut up." Rukawa punched Sendoh's arm lightly. "I love her, and I know she loves me, and I know that's enough. Anyway, I've got to go now; gotta pick up the invitations first. Catch you around, yeah?"
Sendoh lifted a hand goodbye as Rukawa got off the bar stool. He stopped Rukawa as the younger boy tried to pay for his whisky. "No, let me. Think of it as a congratulatory toast."
"Oh. Thank you, then. You're invited to the wedding, by the way."
Sendoh grinned cheekily. "Was the decision made before or after I paid for your drink?"
Rukawa let out a low laugh at that and turned to leave. "I'll pass your invitation to Mitsui later. We hope to see you at the wedding. Oh, and Sendoh?"
"You said you love her. Be sure about it before you do anything else. The divorce isn't final until you've signed the mutual consent document, you know."
Sendoh thought hard about what Rukawa had said as the door swung shut. Ironic, how the cold junior with the icy blue eyes was the one teaching him how to appreciate the wife he had. Strange, how people had changed in the years that had passed.
There was a soft smile on Sendoh's face as he slipped the bartender some money. Sendoh was resolute that he would own up to his mistakes and beg for forgiveness; do anything if it meant saving his marriage from crumbling into another divorce statistic. He left Pink Paradise, his mood considerably lifting as he climbed into his car and sped off towards his house.
He had a wife to go home to.
And he was damned well determined she would still be his wife when he turned up for Rukawa Kaede's wedding with her by his side.