“Unintended” by Yuko Sakata
Welcome to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. Today’s selection is Yuko Sakata’s “Unintended,” a mysterious story about the complexities of family and psychology, set in contemporary Japan. “Unintended” won the 2011 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize for fiction and was the author’s first published story.
By Yuko Sakata
Shinji arrived at his cousin’s house early Monday afternoon after a four-hour train ride from Tokyo. His cousin’s wife, Yumi, was the only one home. Despite short notice, she immediately made Shinji feel welcome. Over some tea and homemade apple cake—she said she taught cooking classes at a local cultural center—they had their semi-introductory conversation. They had never had a chance to sit down and talk one-on-one before. And in the course of this initial chat, she told him about an incident involving her son Kazuo.
“Incident,” they called it, because they had never found out what exactly happened. When Kazuo had come home one night a few months earlier, he had seemed a little quiet. He’d called out from the front door that he was home, gone up to his room to change out of his school uniform and come down for dinner. While he helped set the table, he only gave halfhearted responses to Yumi’s questions about his day. But then again, at age thirteen, he was becoming less enthusiastic about sharing his thoughts with his mother in general. Shinji’s cousin Akio had been working late, as was often the case, so it had been just the mother and son at the table. Kazuo wouldn’t look Yumi in the eyes as they ate from the simmering nabe hotpot between them, but he didn’t seem to be consciously avoiding her, either. Then, midway through dinner, he’d said, “I was wondering today, why are manhole lids usually round?”
“Manholes?” Yumi had halted her chopsticks probing the contents of the steaming pot and contemplated for a second. “I think I’ve read it somewhere. . . . Isn’t it to prevent the lid from falling down into the hole? You know, if it’s square or any other shape, it could fall through when the lid isn’t placed perfectly. Or something like that.”
“I see,” Kazuo had said, without particular appreciation. Yumi went on to pick out some more vegetables into her bowl.
After eating in silence for another minute or two, Kazuo had asked again, “So I was wondering, why are manhole lids round?”
Yumi blinked and looked at her son’s face through the inviting steam from the nabe. He was still looking at nothing in particular, now poking at the food in his bowl with his chopsticks. She had not been able to detect any irony or irritation in his voice.
“Well, so you see, if a lid is square, for example,” Yumi said, drawing a shape in the air with her chopsticks, “and if the lid for some reason came down not horizontally but tilted”—she tilted her palm to illustrate—“then because the diagonal opening of the hole would be longer than the width of the lid at this angle, it could fall through. Whereas with a circle, the widest part of the opening, the diameter, is always the same as the diameter of the lid, whichever way you turn it, so it can never fall through. Right?”
“Uh-huh,” Kazuo said.
“Is something wrong?”
He continued to poke at the now mushy food in his bowl. Then Kazuo’s eyes started to swim a little, as if searching for something to focus on. And as he repeated his question for the third time, his eyes settled straight on Yumi’s face, and he was finally there, looking at her. He finished his sentence and sat there blinking, as if he had suddenly come out into the light.
“But Kazuo, you just asked me the same question three times.” Yumi placed her chopsticks down in quiet alarm.
“So it turns out that he didn’t remember anything about the two or three hours leading up to that,” Yumi said to Shinji now, pouring more tea into his cup.
“Thank you,” he said. “The cake is delicious, by the way.”
Yumi gave him a smile that took over one side of her face slightly more than the other, then got up to boil more water. The warm smell from years of cooking, both sweet and savory, seemed to have seeped into the walls of their house. Sitting in the midst of it, Shinji felt comforted by this mark of domestic life.
“He didn’t remember coming home or changing his clothes or eating,” Yumi went on, talking over the kitchen counter. “And the more I tried to make sense of it, the more upset he got. I called Akio and made him come home early, but in the meantime Kazuo fell asleep on that couch over there. When we tried to wake him up, he wouldn’t budge. Boy, that was scary. We took him to the emergency room, but we couldn’t really explain what had happened, and he slept for three days straight at the hospital. Just slept.”
“Did they find out what it was?”
“Not really,” Yumi said and slipped back into her chair. “At least, they found nothing physical. We were worried that he had been hit in the head or something—bullying at school, hit-and-run, you never know these days—but nothing. They said there was no trace of injury, and he was in perfect health. There was no reason he shouldn’t be awake.”
Then, she said, he’d woken up on the fourth day as if nothing was wrong; he ate up the whole hospital meal and, after a few more tests, was released the same afternoon. He’d seemed fine, but he couldn’t remember those few hours leading up to the manhole question.
“The doctors thought it could have been a short-term memory loss called temporary amnesia—or is it transient amnesia?—that has something to do with the hippocampus. They said it’s something very rare for a young person, but not unprecedented. But have you ever heard of such a thing?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Shinji said. “But I have to say it’s kind of fascinating.”
“Fascinating, yes,” Yumi said and poured more tea into Shinji’s cup. “But you don’t want your child to have anything to do with such a thing.”
“Of course. Sorry.”
Yumi smiled and gave a dismissive wave of hand. “Anyway, thankfully that was the end of that mysterious incident, and everything seems to be fine since, so no worries.”
“Well I’m glad to hear that.” Shinji meant it because he hadn’t planned to impose himself in the middle of a complicated family situation.
Later in the afternoon, Shinji went to meet Kazuo at his school. Kazuo was walking across the school yard with a small group of lively boys, but he wordlessly separated from them to come and meet Shinji at the gate. The group kept on without taking note of his departure. It was difficult to tell if he was actually part of the group or if he had just happened to be following them.
“So you had a fight with your wife?” Kazuo said, once he and Shinji had sat down next to each other on the soft, grassy slope of the riverbank near the school. The wide river flowed at a leisurely pace in front of them, and its smooth surface looked silvery in spite of the clear sky it reflected.
“Who told you that?” Shinji said.
Kazuo shrugged and squinted at the sun. “My dad, I guess.”
“He didn’t tell me, exactly, but I heard him talking to Mom,” Kazuo said and pulled at some grass near his right foot. “Is that why you are staying with us?”
A sweet scent wafted from the ripped grass and made Shinji wonder when he had last sat on the ground like this. On the other side of the river, a little downstream, cherry blossoms along the path had just passed full bloom. Shinji could see some young mothers pushing their bicycles with small children on the rear basket seats. On the baseball field to the left, kids were practicing batting, and once in a while a nice, crisp sound of the ball meeting a metal bat would ring through the air.
“Well,” Shinji said, “long story short, I guess that’s it.”
“What’s the long story?”
“You said ‘long story short.’ What’s the long story?”
Kazuo was mindlessly ripping at the grass. He was short for his age, and his oversized school uniform seemed to assert more presence than the body inside. There was a softness to him that didn’t have much to do with his physicality. His bangs were a little too long, hiding his eyes when he looked down.
It was Yumi who had suggested that Shinji go for a walk and meet her son. Shinji couldn’t tell if she just wanted him out of the house for a while or if she was hoping for his perspective on Kazuo in light of what she had told him. Shinji hoped it was the former, as he wasn’t good with kids Kazuo’s age. Especially now. They seemed tactless and brutally honest, and yet he had no idea what went on in their heads.
When Shinji didn’t respond to his question, Kazuo glanced at him sideways without fully turning his head.
“It’s really boring,” Shinji said. “You don’t want to know.”
Shinji had lost his job the week before. He had taught English grammar at a private cram school in Tokyo for seven years. The school took anyone from five-year-olds trying to get into prestigious private schools to high school seniors aiming for top universities. Shinji mostly taught those in between, which included kids Kazuo’s age. Though he had never outgrown his discomfort with the pubescent kids, he liked the late hours that allowed him to take on freelance translation jobs on the side. That was what he had meant to do after college. He had once intended to become a specialist in film subtitling.
One afternoon, he had been called into the division manager’s office. The HR manager was there as well. A student—or her mother, it was never made clear—had apparently accused him of sexual harassment. Right there in the manager’s office, Shinji was presented with a retirement sum and an offer for impeccable recommendations on the condition that he leave quietly. “We’re sure you understand,” they said. “A scandal of this nature would be disastrous for our type of business.” Shinji could guess who this student might have been: a girl who had had a blatant crush on him, one from whom he had done his best to keep a polite distance. She wore just enough makeup not to be called out, curling her long lashes and constantly reapplying her lip gloss. She kept her skirt short and frequently stayed behind after class to ask questions. It was a completely groundless accusation, but the manager didn’t even attempt to confirm its veracity with him. Shinji sensed this wasn’t really just about the accusation, and understood the futility of defending himself. So he took the offer and left.
In truth, he was ready to go. It was a ridiculous place anyway, and he had felt increasingly alienated from its aggressive culture. In recent years the school, struggling to keep its competitive edge, had started making younger instructors practice enthusiastic, scripted lectures in front of a camera in empty classrooms. They had vigorous training camps. There was a lot of competition among the teachers under the performance-based salary. Penalties were posted openly in the teachers’ lounge. Shinji had been doing okay number-wise, but he’d quietly evaded all the absurd trainings, retreats, and drinking that went with them. Maybe he had stepped on someone’s toes. The retirement money wasn’t insignificant, and he still had his translation jobs. He’d decided to lie low for a while.
But to his amazement, his wife was skeptical.
“With a fifteen-year-old?” she’d said. She had been surprised to find him in the apartment when she came home from work. “That’s clearly underage, an obvious crime, isn’t it? Was it even legal for the school to handle it internally?”
“What are you talking about?” Shinji said, standing beside the kitchen counter in his apron. He had been cooking when his wife came home. “I can’t believe that’s what you are concerned about. I told you, it’s totally bogus, it’s groundless. My point wasn’t even that.”
“You’re sure it was groundless?”
“I don’t know—these things are really complicated. The subjective experiences of victims and offenders often don’t match up. I’m just saying.”
Shinji stared at his wife. She was half reclined on the couch, still in her well-tailored suit. She looked smart and professional but tired.
“What are you accusing me of?” Shinji said. “You are the one who’s actually had an affair. With someone much younger. Your subordinate. That’s textbook sexual harassment right there.”
“But it’s the criminality,” she said. She sounded like a teacher dealing with a slow student. “Mine was consensual.”
“What criminality?” Shinji took an indignant step forward, but then heard the pot boil over and hurried back to the stove. He was boiling water for pasta. The savory aroma of salmon slowly cooking in the oven permeated the apartment. He had a bottle of white wine cooling in the fridge. “Of course it wasn’t consensual. I’m the one who didn’t consent.”
“Then why did you give in so easily? It’s such a dishonorable accusation. You could have sued.”
“You know, I was happy to leave that job,” he said, releasing some linguine into the boiling water. “It wasn’t something worth going through a legal nightmare for. And of course they knew I wouldn’t fight them. Why would they make such a ridiculous accusation otherwise?”
“They knew you well.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” He came back out around the kitchen counter. “Just think about what you are saying. You did have an affair, you screwed this coworker, and I forgave you. We put that behind us. And you are accusing me of what? Something that never even happened.”
“Forgave me,” his wife said. She had her elbow on the back of the couch. She looked strangely relaxed. “Why do we even talk about forgiving? Who’s in the position to forgive?”
“We are married,” Shinji said. “Aren’t we in the position to forgive each other, if anyone is? And to stand by each other in a moment of hardship like this?” He paused. “What am I even talking about? I didn’t do anything.”
“I didn’t ask you to forgive me,” she said.
“You probably shouldn’t have forgiven me so easily.”
Shinji stood there. The familiar apartment seemed foreign, as if someone had moved each piece of furniture just by a couple of centimeters this way or that.
“I’m still seeing him,” his wife said.
The kitchen was getting hot from the oven. A burned smell was starting to replace the savory aroma. Shinji realized he had forgotten to set the timer for the pasta. He hated overcooked pasta. But he couldn’t move.
“Why are you telling me this now?” he said.
“I just wanted to be truthful.” His wife remained in the relaxed posture. But then she pinched the corners of her eyes with her fingers for a good three seconds, and the gesture made her look older than her age.
“Why are you suddenly being truthful at this particular moment? Couldn’t you keep it to yourself? I mean, at least for now. Until we got through this crisis?”
“I thought it would only make things worse if I waited,” she said. “The whole thing would get drawn out, and there would be more hard feelings in the end. It’s better that we deal with all these things at once. Maybe it’s all for the best.”
“Wow,” Shinji said.
“Besides, this is not really my crisis.”
“Wow,” he said.
Since the apartment belonged to his wife, Shinji had to find a place to sleep that night. She repeatedly said there was no need, but of course there was. He quickly packed his small overnight bag and left. Later he remembered he had not bothered to turn off the stove or the oven.
“What’s she like?” Kazuo was asking on the riverbank. “Your wife?”
Shinji thought about it for a moment. He no longer knew. “God, you just ask these questions.” He tugged at some grass. The stalks were tougher than he’d thought, and he couldn’t pull any off at first try. “Let’s see. She’s the kind of person who at a restaurant orders a huge sandwich, picks it apart, eats bits and pieces of things between the bread and, leaving most of it uneaten and dissected, absentmindedly pokes at the remaining food mash on the plate with her fork for the rest of the dinner, while talking.”
Kazuo kept looking downstream for a second, but then he turned to Shinji and raised his half-hidden eyebrows.
“I know. That was mean.” Shinji sighed. “No, she’s very smart. Intelligent. She’s pretty. She works out and stays in shape. She makes more money than I do. Or did. She has a great sense of humor when she chooses to. She has lots of interesting friends. I guess she’s just a better person than I am. I don’t know.”
“So are you getting divorced?”
“Jeez, is that what your parents said, too?”
“No. I’m just asking.”
“Well don’t talk about such disturbing things,” Shinji said. “I don’t know yet.”
Akio owned a small printing business in town, and Yumi said he was rarely home. Shinji didn’t see him until Wednesday morning, just as Akio was leaving for work.
“Oh, you’re here, good,” Akio said, when Shinji found him putting his shoes on at the entrance. “Sorry, but I have to run. Make yourself at home.”
“Man, you must be busy,” Shinji said. “I never even hear you come home at night.”
“Well, can’t complain in this economy. It’s a blessing to be busy.” Akio smiled, and wrinkles softly gathered at the outside corners of his friendly eyes. “Stay as long as you like. We have plenty of space.”
“Thanks. I really appreciate it,” Shinji said.
“You’re unemployed or freelancing or something, right?” Akio said. “In a way, it’s a luxury that you don’t have to be in any one place.”
Shinji didn’t know what to say to this, so he just nodded.
“Ask Yumi how to get around. Movie theaters and such, you know. Well, then.” And with a little wave of hand, he was out the door.
“He just loves what he does,” Yumi said later, when Shinji told her about the exchange. “I don’t think he even thinks of it as work. It’s like playing with a toy, always experimenting with new techniques.”
From the kitchen table Shinji watched her come and go in her green indoor slippers, watering the plants and picking up misplaced items. There was something fluid about the way she went about her tasks. Their house was never immaculate, but it was kept at a comfortable level of clean untidiness. Observing Yumi’s movement, he realized that she was fit and maintained a shapely figure. Her round eyes curving down at their corners, together with her full cheeks, had given him the impression that she was much softer and plumper than she really was. He found himself enjoying this discovery.
“But don’t you sometimes wish he was around more?” Shinji said. “Hasn’t it ever been difficult for you?”
“Oh, please, it’s not like we are newlyweds.” She laughed. “We make do with what we have.” But then she halted in front of the table and rested a hand on the back of an empty chair. “Are you thinking about your own situation?”
Shinji looked up and was met by her gentle, lopsided smile.
“You are wondering if it would have made any difference in your case?” she said.
He blinked. “How did you know?” he said.
“It’s the wisdom of age,” Yumi said, and winked with both her eyes. That is, although she blinked both eyes, Shinji could tell it was meant to be a wink. “Just give it some time,” she said. “Come help me with the plants in the back. I’ve been wanting to move those heavy pots around for ages.”
“What do you think is the meaning of life?” Kazuo said as he carefully peeled the asparagus stalks. “Do you think there is a meaning?”
He and Shinji stood together in Yumi’s kitchen, preparing dinner in her place because she had an unexpectedly late meeting at the cultural center. People arranged their kitchens differently, and using someone else’s would normally pose a slight inconvenience even if it were well organized. You would have to look for the measuring spoons or spices, inspecting each drawer and cabinet before finding them, for example, in the fridge. Even in his own kitchen, Shinji was often frustrated when his wife “misplaced” items according to her own logic. But Yumi’s kitchen was extremely functional, and he felt right at home moving around in it.
“It depends on what kind of meaning you have in mind,” Shinji said. “I tend to think there is no particular meaning, so I don’t look for one.”
Shinji was chopping off bits of vegetables to make the soup base for risotto. Kazuo had volunteered to help and obediently followed his instructions. Shinji could see it fascinated Kazuo that they got to mess with his mother’s domain.
“Not that you should listen to my silly opinion,” Shinji said a little later. “I don’t quite have what you would call a respectable life. Do you discuss these things with your parents?”
“No. Not really.” Under Kazuo’s careful labor, the asparagus stalks shed their fibrous skin. He inspected each of them before placing it neatly in the skillet. “Do things get easier when you get older?”
“Easier?” Shinji put the vegetable bits into a pot of water and turned the heat on. “That also depends on what you mean by ‘easier.’ From my personal experience, as many things get easier as get harder.”
Kazuo sighed, and put the final asparagus in the skillet. “Now what?”
“Pour the water just enough to cover them, and put the lid on.”
“I meant like dealing with friends and worrying about, you know, things.” Kazuo wiped his hands on the towel and stepped back.
“Well, I would never want to be a junior high student again, so you can take that to mean things get better after that. I think relationships at your age are generally excruciating.” Shinji chopped up some mushrooms and then took an onion from a basket. “Is there anything you want to be?”
“I don’t know,” Kazuo said. “I’m kind of interested in geography. I think.”
“Yeah? Good. That’s more than I ever knew at your age.”
Leaning on the column at the kitchen entrance, Kazuo scratched his ankle with socked toes. “When you look at a map, you see all the roads and city blocks laid out, right?”
“And all the manmade things like streets and bridges and canals were planned by someone at some point, intentionally, right?”
“Right.” Having finished with all the chopping, Shinji placed a saucepan on the stove. “You can turn on the stove for the asparagus, too. See, like this.”
“Okay,” Kazuo said. “But when a city or town develops over a long period of time, it doesn’t only expand outward, but things get changed, right? Like new layers rewriting parts of the old layers, but not completely? So maybe sometimes things get left out. Like underneath where highways and train tracks intersect or where a street gets cut off on both ends. Places no one ever visits or thinks about anymore. I think about these spaces that weren’t in anyone’s plan.”
Shinji glanced at the boy. He heated some olive oil in the saucepan and started cooking the risotto. That familiar smell of garlic and onion wafted off the pan and filled the kitchen. “Well,” he said, “so maybe you are interested in something like urban planning? You want to plan out city streets and public spaces and stuff like that?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. I don’t think I want to build anything.”
“I’m just curious about these unintended places.”
“Huh,” Shinji said. “What about your dad’s job?” He wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep up his end of the conversation. “Does he want you to go into printing? Take over the family business? You can turn off the stove and dump the water now.”
“I don’t know much about Dad’s work,” Kazuo said, following the instruction. “He’s always off in his own world. We don’t really talk much. When I was small we’d hang out a little more. You know, like playing catch.”
“You want to play catch? Shall we?”
“I didn’t mean it literally. I’m not good at sports, anyway.”
“Oh. Good. I’m not good at throwing and stuff either.”
There was a sound of the front door unlocking, and Yumi sang out, “I’m home!”
Shinji was more relieved than he thought he would be. “Here, let’s roll the asparagus with prosciutto.”
They started on their last project. The risotto was just about al dente, and the dinner was almost ready. It was nice to cook for somebody. The meaning of life, Shinji thought, could be something as simple and small as being able to cook for someone else.
Despite the clumsiness Shinji felt with Kazuo, Yumi seemed to appreciate his presence at their house. It was great to have company, she kept saying, especially for meals.
“I’m really sorry to burden you,” Shinji said one afternoon. “I promise it won’t be too much longer. I just need to get my bearings.”
They were both doing some work on their laptops in the living room, Yumi making the handouts for her next class and Shinji working on a new translation job. The monotonous sound of the raindrops outside seemed to make the colorless scenery even flatter. But it made the warmly lit indoor space all the more cozy.
“Are you kidding me? You cook, you do the dishes, you lift heavy things, you hang out with my teenage son—oh, you’re such a burden.” She laughed but then put her folded arms on the coffee table and leaned over a little. “I’m very glad you are here. Especially for Kazuo. With him being so quiet these days, I can never be sure if it’s just the age thing or if there’s something we should be worried about. I’m glad he’s taken to you.”
Shinji felt awkward about this assessment. “I don’t know if you can say he’s taken to me, but . . .” He saw Yumi’s expectant eyes. “I mean, I think he’s a great kid. A smart kid. A lot seems to be going on in his head, for sure.”
Yumi smiled, satisfied. “Really, take your time. Don’t rush.” She reached over and squeezed his wrist. Her hand was surprisingly soft and cool on his skin. “Akio says so, too.”
“Shinji-kun, shall we go out for lunch?” Akio said.
It was late Saturday morning, and the two of them were reading at the kitchen table. Yumi had gone out already to prepare for her class, and Kazuo hadn’t come downstairs yet. It was apparently a rare occasion that Akio was home on a Saturday; he and Shinji were sitting down together for the first time. Outside the window, the light rain from the day before was still moistening the trees.
“What’s that?” Shinji put down the international section he was reading and looked up.
“There’s this coffee shop that serves great lunch food. Especially curry. Would you like to go?” Akio said. “Two or three days ago I suddenly had a craving for curry. Don’t you get that sometimes? It’s almost lunchtime, too.”
Shinji stroked his stubbly face with his palm. He was still in his pajamas. Akio, on the other hand, was already dressed and clean-shaven. He looked like the kind of person who wouldn’t do anything before he had made himself presentable, even if he had nowhere in particular to go.
“Sure. Let me go get ready then,” Shinji said. “What about Kazuo-kun?”
“Hmm, I wonder,” Akio said. He went back to reading his newspaper, but when he realized that Shinji was still looking at him, he got up and walked off toward the staircase. “Hey, Kazuo,” he called upstairs without going up, “Kazuo, are you awake?”
“What?” Kazuo’s voice replied from the above.
“We’re going out for lunch. Do you want to come along?”
There was a bit of silence, and then Kazuo said, “I’d go if it’s ramen.”
“I don’t think they have ramen. It’s a coffee shop. They’d probably have pasta, though.”
“Okay,” Kazuo called down.
“So are you coming?”
Akio came back to the kitchen and settled into his chair.
“I guess he’s coming.” He picked up the papers but then put them down on the table again. “The thing is, actually, I was sort of thinking we could go out and have a little chat, you and I. Since we hadn’t had a chance yet.”
“Oh, sorry,” Shinji said. “You should have just told me.”
Akio smiled and shrugged. Shinji thought there was something charming about this gesture. “No, you’re right, he should come. It’ll be good, the three of us together,” Akio said.
The coffee shop was old, but it was filled with abundant natural light. The front portion of the store was a bakery, and the sweet, buttery smell permeated the modest space. Behind the counter a small, elderly woman stood by herself, wearing an apron with pink vertical stripes. On a small display table sat a few dishes with plastic wraps over them, indicating the day’s lunch menu. There were only a few tables and chairs set up along the windows in the back, and a young couple with a little girl was having their lunch at one of them.
“You’d think they can’t possibly be good, right?” Akio said, pointing at the sloppy, not particularly hygienic display. “But you’d be pleasantly surprised. Their food is amazing. Especially curry.”
When the three of them sat down at one of the empty tables, the same old lady came out from behind the counter to take their order. After hearing Akio praise it repeatedly, Shinji had to order the curry as well. Kazuo made it known that he still wanted ramen but settled for spaghetti carbonara.
Even with his raised expectations, the food was delicious. But Shinji felt awkward sitting with the father and the son as they ate quietly. Akio repeatedly made an admiring sound in his throat and shook his spoon at his curry but didn’t elaborate on his thoughts, so it never developed into a conversation. Kazuo kept his head down, his bangs hiding his eyes. He bounced his knee under the table nonstop. Shinji thought about asking Akio some printing-related questions, but he wasn’t interested enough and didn’t know what to ask. He found himself looking forward to dinnertime, when Yumi would be home, leading the conversation.
Halfway through the meal, Akio’s phone rang, and he flipped it open after a glance at the caller ID. “Hello? Yes, so you got it? You’re sure you can open the file this time? Okay, start rendering. I’ll head over now.” Akio stood up, pulling out his wallet from his back pocket.
“Work?” Shinji said.
“Yeah. Sorry, I have to run.” He placed a few folded bills on the table, then put his hand on Kazuo’s head and patted a couple of times. “Take your time. Their pastries are great, too.”
Akio went out the door, and the bell attached to it tinkled in his absence. Kazuo fixed his hair where his father had apparently mussed it up, turning it back into an intentional mess. Classical music was playing at a low volume. The young family had left a while ago, and Shinji and Kazuo were the only customers in the store. Kazuo finished his carbonara and went on to work on his father’s half-eaten curry. Shinji wondered where in his small body all the food went. It was so calm that the clinking of cups and dishes as the old lady rinsed them in the sink started to sound hypnotic. Shinji wished he had brought the papers with him.
“You know, I actually know a place like that,” Kazuo said, as though picking up a conversation where it had been left off. He was still chewing, but he had his elbows on the table now, resting his cheeks in his palms. His voice came out muffled.
“The kind of place I told you about. Near my school.”
“What do you mean? What kind of place?”
“One of those unintended places. Don’t you remember? The spaces that weren’t planned?”
Shinji thought about it for a second. “Right.”
“I go there sometimes,” Kazuo said. Without changing his posture, he looked at Shinji, searching his face. “And sometimes, I leave things there.”
“Just things. I don’t know.” He slurped up the soda at the bottom of his glass with a straw. “Do you want me to show you the place?”
They reached a street with heavy traffic and walked along the narrow sidewalk for a while in single file. Then the sidewalk ended abruptly.
“Hey, should we be walking here?” Shinji called out to Kazuo’s back a few paces ahead. “Isn’t it dangerous?”
Kazuo kept on walking. The two-lane traffic became heavier as they went, and under an overpass even the shoulder disappeared. They had to walk almost brushing against the damp concrete wall. Several cars honked as they sped past. Just on the other side of the overpass, there was a small public playground. Kazuo went in, and Shinji followed, glad to get off the road.
The stench met him immediately. Almost completely in the shade of the highway overpass, the air of the park smelled musty. And there was an assertive undercurrent of something chemical mixed with the bitter-sour fume of a garbage dump. The last time Shinji had smelled something similar was when he was in kindergarten and visited his grandparents. There had still existed near them an open sewage canal where a local factory dumped its wastewater.
It was an oddly shaped piece of land. The busy road and the tall wall of the overpass formed its two sides, and a long chain-link fence cut across diagonally to close off the triangle. On the other side of the fence was a gray, windowless building that looked like a factory. Although the basic amenities such as a swing set, a jungle gym with a slide and a sand box indicated that this was a playground, everything looked dejected. Here and there some bright yellow and red paint chips clung to the rusted structures.
Kazuo walked to the far end of the playground and turned to Shinji with his fingers hooked on the fence. Shinji went over and stood next to him. There was a deep trench between the fence and the factory grounds, and its bottom was covered with trash of all kinds, soaked in foul-smelling liquid.
“So this is it,” Kazuo said.
“Wow,” Shinji said. “It stinks.”
It was as if all the trash people had ever littered in this town had ended up here. There were plastic bottles, diapers, broken umbrellas and food packaging. Disintegrating plastic bags clung to other objects like tattered rags, making it hard to tell what the objects were. There was something that looked like a bicycle frame, and Shinji saw a leg of a chair sticking up. Underneath the busy road was a barrel-sized opening from which the murky water trickled out into the trench, but there was no indication of how these objects might have ended up down there. It was arguably the least suitable location for a playground Shinji could think of.
“You said you come here often?” Shinji said.
“I don’t know. I just do,” Kazuo said and pulled at the fence a couple of times. “I guess I’m interested in this kind of place. Like, conceptually.”
“Man, you know difficult words.”
Kazuo rolled his eyes. “I’m almost fourteen.”
“Right, right. Sorry.”
“Anyway, like I said, I sometimes leave things here,” Kazuo said. “I thought you could use a place like this, too.”
“What, like throw a piece of trash in there?” Shinji said. “Is that what you do?”
“Of course not,” Kazuo said. “It’s conceptual. You know, you can leave things, like, behind. Because no one cares. No one wants to think about a place like this. It basically doesn’t exist in anyone’s mind, so whatever you leave here doesn’t exist, either.”
A plane flew across the sky overhead, trailing an unusually loud, roaring engine noise. When Shinji looked up, the plane itself was far-off and tiny, and it seemed ill-matched to the sound it made.
“I just want to ask,” Shinji said, looking at Kazuo again. “You’re not saying that this has anything to do with that memory incident of yours, are you?”
They stared at each other for a second. Shinji could actually see Kazuo’s eyes from that angle. They were round and turned down slightly at their edges, like his mother’s. Suddenly becoming aware of the silliness of it all, Shinji shook his head. Why was he playing along with Kazuo’s make-believe?
“Well, okay. What have you got that you’d want to leave behind?” Shinji said. “For god’s sake, you’re thirteen. Do you have problems at school? Do you want to talk about it?”
“You don’t have to be middle-aged to have problems, you know,” Kazuo said.
“Well, sure. Thanks. It’s just that—man, you were just born around the time I met my wife.”
“And you two have problems, don’t you? I’ve been alive the same amount of time.”
Shinji thought about it. “I guess you’re right,” he said. “But you’re just not my idea of a troubled youth, you know? You have a great mom and dad who care about you, who seem to understand each other so well. I almost wish I had a family like yours.”
“Please don’t sleep with Mom,” Kazuo said.
“You’re sad because you had a fight with your wife. You can leave that here.”
“What are you—”
“My mom sometimes goes out with these younger men. I’ve seen them,” Kazuo said. He spoke straight into the fence and the ditch beyond. “Because Dad can’t sleep with her anymore. It’s what they’ve worked out.”
Shinji stood there, one hand on the fence.
“They think I don’t know these things because I’m thirteen,” Kazuo said. “But it’s really screwed up, and I don’t think you should sleep with her.” He looked at Shinji. “I think you are a good person.”
A small truck honked at a car slowing down in front of it, and a flock of sparrows took off from the overgrown bushes.
“Kazuo-kun,” Shinji said, but then had to lick his lips. He must have had his mouth open, and now it was dry. He could taste the foul air on his tongue. “I’d never in a million years even imagine such a thing.” But then he wondered if he sounded convincing even to himself.
Kazuo relaxed his shoulder and let out a small sigh. A smile formed just on the edges of his mouth. “I have to run,” he said. “I have a piano lesson.”
Without waiting for reply, Kazuo walked away from the fence. Shinji, left standing in the stench, watched his cousin’s son disappear under the overpass. He seemed so small. He wondered if this was Kazuo’s act of leaving; if he, Shinji, was the thing being left behind.
On Sunday morning Shinji went downstairs and found the kitchen and the living room empty. He had never been the first to come down, and he felt like an intruder moving around in the quiet house. The curtains were drawn, shutting out the sunny day outside, and the dim, empty rooms looked as if they were holding their breaths. He made some coffee in the large coffee maker, but he wasn’t sure if he’d used the right amount of grounds. Being used to making coffee just for himself, he always messed up when he tried to make a larger amount. While it brewed, he went to the front door to retrieve the newspapers and brought them back to the kitchen table.
He opened the curtains, and the sunlight spilled onto the floor, making the different textures of the wood flooring and the carpeted areas flat and uniform. A bird kept chirping right outside the window in regulated sets of three high chirps, then three counts of rest. It was so regular that after a while it started to sound like a truck backing up. Shinji felt a little sorry for the lone bird, who called and called without being answered.
As he sat trying to read the papers, Shinji wondered what he might say to Yumi when they found themselves alone at the kitchen table. Before coming downstairs, he had packed his overnight bag again. He couldn’t be sure whether he really hoped for an opportunity to be alone with her. Because what could he say, really? That he was leaving because they might sleep together?
But it was Kazuo who came down after an hour, still in pajamas, hair pressed up on the side where his head had been resting against the pillow.
“Morning,” he said and lifted his palm toward Shinji.
“Good morning.” Shinji lifted his in response.
Kazuo walked over to the TV in the living room, rubbing his eyes. He set up his video game right in front of the large screen and started playing an elaborate shooting game, with 3-D graphics that moved seamlessly. The volume was turned low, and the image of Kazuo sitting quietly on the carpeted floor in the morning sun, shooting down the realistic looking zombies, was oddly peaceful.
A few minutes later Akio came down, as if drawn out of bed by the electromagnetic wave of Kazuo’s game.
“Morning,” he said to Shinji and poured some coffee for himself. He sipped at it and grimaced a little. It had come out a bit too strong. Akio was also in his pajamas today, and his hair was flattened almost at the exact same spot as his son’s. He went over to Kazuo with his coffee.
“That’s too close. How can you see? Let’s bring it back here so we can sit on the couch.”
They reconfigured the machine and the cords, settled onto the couch side by side and started to play a racing game. They played together quietly, both absorbed in the computer graphics world on the TV screen. Their matching bedheads sometimes bobbed with a slight time lag as they manipulated tight curves and involuntarily tilted their bodies. Watching the pair, Shinji felt he belonged to a generation that had been accidentally skipped over. The bird outside chirped an irregular set of two and then stopped.
Lastly Yumi came down, already dressed and with her light makeup on.
“Good morning!” She flip-flopped into the kitchen with her green slippers, and the house came to life. The water ran in the sink, the fridge door opened and closed, pots and pans clattered. There was chopping on the cutting board, ticking of the toaster and sizzling on the skillet. The downstairs was no longer the same, quietly sulking space Shinji had found earlier in the morning. The life of this family took over, and the space that contained it had receded into the background to play the supporting role.
“Breakfast is ready!” Yumi called out half an hour later toward the living room. She set out on the table the plates of omelets and toast, bowls of cereals and yogurt, glasses of juice and milk, butter and jam and, finally, the utensils. The father and son didn’t budge.
“Come on, guys, eat while they are hot!”
“Just a minute,” Akio called back, without taking his eyes off the screen.
“We’re about to finish this level,” Kazuo said.
Yumi sighed theatrically, but she was already in her chair. She passed the butter to Shinji and winked with both eyes. “There’s nothing to be done with those two,” she said. “We’ll just go ahead.”
He could see traces of faint lines at the corners of her eyes, which would only solidly materialize when she smiled her full smile. He suddenly felt the oncoming loss, although nothing in this picture was his to lose.
Shinji bit into the thick toast, and let the buttery warmth spread in his mouth. The sky outside the window was so clear and so uniformly blue that it almost looked fake. The potted flowers on the windowsill were bright and fragrant. Together they seemed to be conspiring for the impression that the world was completely peaceful, that everything was just as intended and would stay that way.
Yuko Sakata writes in both English and Japanese. Her stories have been anthologized in Best American Short Stories and Best American Nonrequired Reading.