Yamaki disliked many things, with shopping near the top of the list. He'd been a bachelor long enough to be accustomed to most domestic chores, and would not complain if he found himself required to do them, but shopping was another matter. He ordered his clothes from catalogues whenever possible, and had been known in the past to take all his meals in restaurants for days on end so he could avoid buying groceries. However, there would eventually come a time when he would run out of something vital, like toothpaste or toilet paper, and he would have to gather his nerve and go out into the fray. There were few situations he liked less than having to push a shopping cart (always with the requisite cockeyed wheel) through crowds of bargain seeking housewives, probably with at least one person trying to convince him he needed coupon for this or a free sample of that, and wouldn't he like to have his very own discount card for whatever store he happened to be in? It had been a great relief to him when Reika had come into his life to take care of all that nonsense for him.
Reika, for her part, enjoyed shopping. Bargain hunting came to her as naturally as breathing. What she hated was not feeling well-dressed. She had a keen eye for fashion and always had the very best in clothes. Even when she was only spending the day hanging around the apartment, she would still make it a point to look nice.
"One of these days," she said over breakfast, "I am going to do something about these slippers."
Yamaki looked up from his morning paper to glance at the articles in question. He was not the fashion expert that Reika was, but then again, it didn't take one to see that Reika's old house slippers had definitely seen better days. They were ragged and fraying, discolored by years of grime that even her conscientious washing couldn't entirely remove, and one of them appeared to be tearing apart at the seams.
"Get some new ones," he suggested.
"Oh, I know I should," said Reika, as she gathered up the last of the breakfast dishes and went to dump them in the sink, "but I never seem to find the time. You know how it's been lately - it seems like sometimes we're working from dawn to dusk, and I still have the housework and the shopping to take care of..."
"You don't have to go through so much trouble on my account."
She gave him a tolerant smile. "I live here, too. I'd much rather have worn out slippers and a clean home than vice versa. Besides, it's just as much my fault as anyone's. Every time I do manage to find time to go shopping, I always find something more interesting to spend my money on."
Yamaki nodded silently, thinking. He had the distinct feeling that she was making excuses; she was a sensible woman, not likely to deny herself something she needed to spend her money on frivolities. As he half-listened to her talking as she went about cleaning the dishes, it occurred to him just how lucky he was to have her there with him. She was the one who cooked his meals and sewed the buttons back onto his best coat after he let them get snagged on a computer console, and in general took care of the daily minutiae so his hands were free to deal with his own work. She was the one who made sure he remembered to eat and sleep on occasion.
*She does so much for me - slaves away all day over that computer, and then comes home to cook my dinner afterwards. She never even complains, even when she's tired, even if I've been scolding her for no good reason. I really don't thank her enough for that,* he thought. *Perhaps it would be a nice gesture if I...*
He turned the matter over while he was at work, keeping half an eye on her as she attended to her own job. Work was a good place to consider anything, as long as things weren't going wrong. Right now, things were quiet, so while everyone else minded their tasks, he pretended to be busy with some paperwork and debated the issue with himself. The more he considered the idea, the more it began to appeal to him. Surely it wouldn't be such a hard thing just to pick out a pair of house slippers, and it would make Reika happy. It would be a way to show her he didn't just take her for granted. He was not a demonstrative man by nature, and it was sometimes hard to convey his feelings to her. Sometimes he felt a bit guilty that he couldn't tell her properly how much he cared about her. Even if the shopping expedition turned out to be unpleasant, well... he could consider it a form of penance.
As they were clocking out from work and heading home, he said to her, "Reika, would you mind particularly if I was late getting home tonight?"
"Not really," she asked. "Why?"
"I just have a few errands to run. I don't envision it taking me very long. You can expect me home in time for dinner."
"All right," she said. Then, giving him a skeptical look, she asked, "Do you mind if I ask what kind of errands?"
"I do not," he said. "And I hope you don't mind if I tell you when I get home."
She raised her eyebrow at this, but offered no further challenge. He walked off in the direction of the subway feeling a tremor of unease.
*I hope I haven't made her suspicious. That's the last thing I need right now. I think I had better make this quick.*
At least the store he had in mind was nearby. He'd bought a few suits there before and knew they sold quality merchandise; hopefully he could find what he wanted there easily and get home again without too much difficulty. The greatest blessing was that it was fairly late in the day, and there weren't many shoppers there. He walked to the front desk, where a pretty young lady waited to help customers.
"Excuse me, miss," he said, "but could you tell me where I might find a pair of house slippers?"
"That would be the shoe department, sir," she answered.
He gave her a fair amount of time before asking, "And just where is the shoe department?"
She gave him an equally fair amount of time before replying, "Right over there, sir."
She pointed, and Yamaki looked. Sure enough, there was a display of shoes just visible beyond the information desk. Yamaki muttered his thanks and slunk off in high dudgeon.
There were no customers in the shoe department, for which he was thankful. He walked up and down the aisles, finding rows of men's dress shoes, work shoes, rain boots, women's dress shoes and sandals, tennis shoes, children's shoes, trendy teenager shoes in bright colors... no slippers. He was just considering the ignominious possibility that he would have to go back to the front and tell them he couldn't find them, when he was accosted by a salesgirl.
"May I help you, sir?" she asked.
"Yes, I'm looking for a pair of house slippers... for my wife," he added, as an afterthought. Nothing wrong with a little white lie; it was easier than explaining a live-in girlfriend.
"Right this way, sir," the salesgirl said, and began leading him away at a brisk stride. He had to walk rather faster than he liked just to keep up with her. They moved quickly past the rows of footwear he'd already looked at, all the way to a back wall somewhat separated from everything else. There they were - dozens of pairs of slippers in every shape and color imaginable.
"Why did they put them back here where no one can find them?" he asked.
The salesgirl gave him a look that said she was doubting his intelligence, but her only response was, "Is there any particular kind you'd like to see, sir?"
"Something simple," he said, eyeing the pairs that were closest to him, which were made to look like cartoon characters or animals in unlikely colors. A few of them, he noted, looked like Digimon; he was sure he recognized an Agumon and a Gabumon in the mix.
"Of course. What color does your wife like?"
"Red," he answered promptly.
"I'm sorry," said the salesgirl. "We haven't got any red ones in stock right now. We mostly have those around Christmas and Valentine's Day."
"Ah," he said, a bit dismayed. "Well, what have you got?"
"Well, we have these white ones..."
"No good," said Yamaki. "The last pair was white, and she was always complaining about how hard they were to keep clean."
"Oh. Well... the closest thing we have to red is pink. Will pink do?"
She offered him a pair of pink slippers for his inspection. He dutifully looked at them, noting that they were a few notches above her old pair, quality-wise, and appeared comfortable and reasonably nice-looking... if you liked pink.
"These will do," he said.
"Lovely," said the salesgirl. "What size does she wear?"
"Um," he said. "I thought these things were one size fits all."
"Some of them are. This particular brand comes in sizes."
"Um," he said again, frowning fiercely as he tried to puzzle this out. "She would wear... what? Size... six, maybe?"
"Make it six and a half, to be safe," said the salesgirl.
He left the shoe department carrying a pair of pink slippers, size six and a half. He kept them tucked under one arm, keeping them partially hidden, but he couldn't help feeling that the other shoppers were looking at him, wondering why a stern-looking fellow in a business suit was carrying around a pair of fuzzy pink bedroom slippers with roses embroidered on the toes. Where had these customers come from, anyway? He could have sworn they weren't here when he'd entered the store. They gave him the paranoid sensation that they'd all showed up just to watch him. He kept his head held high and his back straight, daring anyone to ask him what he was doing. Probably nobody would. After all, he was an influential man, with the aura of command around him. People knew better than to go around asking him silly questions.
"Wife's birthday?" asked a man who was waiting in the checkout line behind him.
"Yes," said Yamaki tersely.
"I got my wife some of those things for her last birthday," said the man. "She didn't like them much. She really wanted some expensive shirt from one of those boutiques at the mall. She went around sulking for days."
"That's nice to know," said Yamaki.
He reached the front of the line and plunked the slippers down on the counter. The clerk's eyes went from the roses on the slippers to the man who was buying them and back again.
"Will this be all, sir?" she asked.
"Yes," he answered. "And gift wrap them."
"Oh," she said. "Wife's birthday?"
He felt very relieved when he finally got out of the store carrying his package. Gift wrapping had been a moderately good idea, and he could almost thank the annoying man from the line. Now he was no longer obviously carrying around a pair of pink slippers. Instead, he was obviously carrying around a pink box with frilly white ribbons on it. He wasn't entirely sure it was an improvement. People on the subway kept looking at him, no doubt composing scenarios in their mind about why a man in a good suit should be going around at night carrying a pink gift box.
Finally, he arrived back at his apartment building, and he hurried for the elevator so he could return to his own home. Like Prince Charming bringing the glass slipper to Cinderella, so did he arrive grandly bearing his own token of love.
"There you are!" said Reika, as she heard the front door open. "Where have you been?"
"Shopping," he said. "Come here - I brought you something."
"Oh, really? How thoughtful!"
She glided into the room, her slender grace marred only, he thought, by her scruffy old house slippers. He felt his labors had not been in vain... unless, of course, she turned out not to like pink, in which case he would feel like a first-class idiot. He handed her the box.
"Ooh, gift wrapped, no less. You really went all out, didn't you?" she asked, laughing a bit. She shook the box, reminding him of a girl investigating Christmas gifts.
"Go on, open it. I want to know what you think," he said.
She wasted no more time in tearing off the wrapping paper and opening up the box. There, surrounded by a nest of white tissue paper, were the slippers. She laughed again.
"Trust you to get something practical," she said. "Other men get their girlfriends flowers, you know... but this is exactly what I needed. Much more useful than flowers. Thank you." She kicked off the old slippers and tried on the new ones. "Oh, these are nice. I hope they didn't cost you too much."
He gave a half-smile. "Only my pride."
"You're funny," she said, giggling. "But thanks just the same. You're very sweet." She gave him a kiss on the cheek and wandered off, humming to herself.
"Reika," he called after her, "can I say something?"
"Sure, go ahead."
"Well... I've seen a few other women, before I met you. I gave them flowers and chocolate and jewelry and all that sort of thing... but you're the first person I've ever given house slippers to."
She laughed again. "You have interesting ways of saying things."
"I meant it."
"I know. I understand. Come on, now - It's time to eat."
"I understand," she said again. "Now, come. Your dinner's getting cold."
He gave a sigh and followed resignedly. She had not understood. In her eyes, all he'd done was go out and get her a cheap, practical gift. How could she know what his real intentions were? He certainly wasn't going to tell her. What could he say? "I bring you these house slippers as a token of my eternal devotion"? She would laugh at him. Never mind if it was actually true. He couldn't demand that she be grateful for that token, so he wouldn't. He would be quiet, as always. He thought now he knew how she must feel when he didn't say anything to her. It didn't make him feel any better.
He was still in a sour mood when he went to work the next morning, and he went around scolding people for doing perfect jobs. His mood didn't lift until around lunchtime, when he left his office to look for something to eat. Overhearing the voices of people gathered around the water cooler, he stopped in his tracks to listen in.
"... don't understand how you stand him sometimes," Megumi was saying.
"You just don't know him like I do," answered Reika. "He tries to pretend otherwise, but he's really very sweet."
"I don't see it," said Megumi. "He never even seems to talk to you, except about work."
"He doesn't have to talk. I know what he means. You wouldn't believe what he bought me last night."
"What?" asked Megumi, sounding interested.
"A pair of house slippers."
"Mm-hm. Pink ones."
"Well, I guess that was nice of him, but... that's not really very romantic, is it?"
Reika laughed. "You don't think so? Let me tell you, I've had plenty of guys in the past tell me things - that I'm so beautiful and perfect, and they'd love me until the stars died out and all that. Do you think they meant it?"
"Right. At least I know when he tells me something, it's because he means it. And trust me, there's no greater love than for a guy like Yamaki to go out and buy a pair of pink house slippers just to make me happy. Can you imagine what that must have been like for him?"
Megumi giggled a little. "Maybe you're right."
"Of course I'm right," said Reika. "Didn't anyone ever tell you that actions speak louder than words?"
Yamaki didn't bother to listen in on the rest of the conversation, but then, he didn't really need to. He returned from his break in a considerably better frame of mind than he'd had when he'd left. Was he going to tell Reika just what had improved his mood like that? Of course not.
But maybe he'd find a way to show her.