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II.11. Benefits (continued)
They have forks at the Shanghai. Ms Kitagawa picks hers up. Hisao picks up his sandwich and takes a bite. The interruption gives Hisao time to assess the situation. He is uncomfortable having the spotlight turned on himself, when it should have been on Miya. Other than trouble, what does
he get out of being with Miya?
Ms Kitagawa takes a forkful of her salad, then puts down the fork at a perfect angle. Hisao takes a bite, chews, perhaps too quickly, then puts down the sandwich. With perfect timing, Ms Kitagawa resumes: “So, you don't know what you want from my daughter.”
Hisao hesitates. He doesn't have the answer to Ms Kitagawa's question, and the only way to move this conversation forward is to go beyond Miya to his own situation. He does not want to. “That's right,” he says, making his decision. “But it's more general than that. How much has Miya told you?”
“Please, assume she told me nothing.” Ms Kitagawa leans slightly forward. Her eyes rest on him, easily, comfortably. When Miya focusses on you like that, you're in trouble, but Ms Kitagaw is different. A bit of Hisao's resistance melts away.
“I have been diagnosed with a heart condition,” he says. “It can't be cured, and I can die from a heart attack at any time. The chances are slim, but there are a lot of opportunities. It was... quite a shock to learn this. It's why I've transferred to Yamaku during my third year in high school. My life is thrown into disarray. I have to take care of my health as well as my future. I'm still unsure what to make of this, and I somehow feel that my options have been cut short.” It sounds a lot simpler than it feels.
“That must have been hard,” Ms Kitagawa says. It's a cliché. He has heard it before, and usually a barrier goes up. What does the person understand? But with Ms Kitagawa it's different: he has the impulse, however slight, to indulge. If he were to complain, she would understand... he catches himself. He can easily see how they would have fallen for her, boy after boy, but what he's feeling here is not that sort attraction.
“I wonder.” It's a silly thing to say, but he has no other response. It was
hard, but to admit this here would feel like... an act. Sympathy from a stranger, or more precisely, from a mother other than your own. Substitute role playing. The realisation comes as a shock.
If Ms Kitagawa noticed it, she doesn't let on. All she does is keep up her attentive pose, patient, no pressure. Hisao collects himself. The bigger picture. He has to lay out the bigger picture as well as he can.
“In my old school, they would be handing out career surveys any time now. What would I have put down on one of these? Do they have these here? Probably. When I get them, are they any more difficult to fill out than they would have been at my old school?” A pause. “It's not like my condition made a particular plan impossible. It's not like I wanted to become an astronaut or something like that.”
“You realise,” Ms Kitagawa is leaning back now, speaking slowly, carefully, “that my daughter is in a similar situation?”
Miya. He'd almost forgotten about her. A similar situation? Heh. Tension falls away, as obvious things regroup in his mind. All he has to do now is go with the flow. “From the get go,” he says, “this has been why we couldn't leave each other alone. We met when I was taking a walk in the morning mist. I felt I'd just intruded on her territory. We met because we were both trying to isolate ourselves.” He pauses. “I don't like to think about that. In a sense, I thought life is rejecting me. But meeting your daughter made me think that, maybe, it's me rejecting life. That the main difference between the two of us is that... I'm still the new guy. People are still trying to befriend me.”
“You also realise,” Ms Kitagawa intervenes, “that you are not the same as Miya?”
A humourless laugh escapes Hisao. “Everyone's different, right?”
Ms Kitagawa tilts her head sideways. “Is that what you think?”
Hisao looks away. “It's all a sham, anyway,” he says. “Any theory, any train of thought Miya triggers in me... it's just... I just don't understand her. And I don't know what I want, myself. Maybe your daughter doesn't know what she wants, either. But I don't know what that means
. A... friend of mine worries that your daughter is... taking away all my hope. But I'm not sure that is true. Your daughter has given me... I don't know how to say it, some sort of drive. Some sort of will to push forward. But I have no direction. Nothing to focus on. I release pressure by doing morning runs with another friend, but I'm still... restless. I don't know what I want. I was about to accept that and then I met your daughter, and now I'm restless. And I don't understand what's going on.”
“There,” she says, and the sudden gentleness in her voice runs through him like electricity. “That's what I wanted to hear.”
Hisao turns to look at Ms Kitagawa again. “But...”
Ms Kitagawa smiles. “Unfortunately,” she says, “I have little advice to offer. But one thing I did
take from this is that you have friends who worry about you. Right?”
Exhausted, Hisao can do nothing but stare. Two such simple words. Such a simple concept.
“My daughter won't want you to worry about her, but you do, don't you? It's good to have people worry about you. I couldn't have raised Miya without help. The first job I found... they were more than just employers. I owe them a lot. To receive benefits from people, even if you think you're unable to return the favour... to receive benefits is nothing to be ashamed of. It's one thing my daughter has always been bad at: accepting favours. Don't let that stop you. But also: if you receive help, take it.”
“Take... help?” Hisao doesn't fully understand. “But one of my friends wants me to stop seeing your daughter.”
“Because your friend's worried, right? Allow your friend to worry and do what you think is best.” She scoops up a forkful of salad. Hisao is grateful for the pause. He takes bit of his own sandwich chews. Allowing people to worry isn't easy. They don't always worry the way you'd like them to. A string of past failures: Parents, friends, Iwanako...
Eventually, Ms Kitagawa speaks again. “In a way, by asking you to pretend to be her boyfriend Miya asked you to alleviate some of my worries. It's a comforting little fantasy, you see. My daughter is a well adjusted, happy girl, with a nice boyfriend. We both know we're pretending. In a sense it's a game. But, please believe me when I say that my daughter knows she can't just use you like that.” Then, all of a sudden, Ms Kitagawa bows in apology. “I apologise for all the trouble you go through on my account.” Her head stays down. She is serious.
“I've...” Hisao starts. “I've done nothing I didn't choose to do.”
Her head comes up. “Then I thank you for what you've done for us.”
“But I haven't really done anything. I don't even know what to do. As I said, I just don't...”
Ms Kitagawa raises a finger, silencing him. “You should have more faith in yourself. Your friend, you know, is not the only one who worries about what Miya might do to you. Miya herself does, too, you know?”
“Miya worries about what she might do to me?” Hisao repeats. In a sense, this is no surprise. He has seen her turn around, that day, at the mere sight of Hanako, someone she has badly hurt in the past. The way she flickers in and out of his life... She thinks she's a burden. She thinks she's dangerous. It's no surprise, but hearing it said like this, by none other than her mother?
Ms Kitagawa nods. “I think that's part of why she fled today. She was afraid she'd... force too much honesty, maybe.”
Hisao has no answer to that.
“Please take care of yourself. For her sake as well as your own.”
Silence. Hisao's mind is blank. “I will,” he says. It's a promise he doesn't know how to fulfill.
Ms Kitagawa nods. She reaches for her fork again, but then stops. For a moment her hand hovers over the table, and then she reaches for her handbag. “Oh, maybe I should give it you.”
“Give it to me?”
She opens her bag, finds a folded piece of paper and hands it to him. He unfolds it and stares at it. It is a photocopy of a newspaper article.
“My daughter's not much for theatre...”
Not much for theatre? But the drama club...
“...but she's always been fascinated by this play.”
Newly translated from the original French rather than, as usual, from the English version. A rather successful run New National Theatre in Tokyo.
“Waiting for Godot?” Miya's favourite play is one that makes no sense.
“Throw it away, give it to her. Do what you want with it. I wanted to give it to her, myself, but I think it might be better off with you.”
Hisao stares at the copied newspaper article. At the bottom, there is a list a venues. One is circled with a blue pen. It's not that far away. He folds it, pockets it.
An impulsive action. Hotaru is almost immediately racked with doubt. She'd circled the performance as a suggestion for her daughter, without the expectation that she'd actually attend. But it's a message for her. Go out and do something. If the boy picks up on it and decides to invite her? It's a risk, both for her daughter and for him, and it's Hotaru's responsibility.
The boy looks thoughtful as he picks up his sandwich and takes a bite. He's looking down, sideways, then closes his eyes. He's still in this position, the sandwich still in his hand, when he speaks. “If I invited her, would she come?”
Hotaru hesitates. She has no way of telling what their relationship is like. A lot depends on this. “I don't know,” she says.
He puts the sandwich down and faces her again. “I think you have said that she has always
been fascinated by this play. Does that mean, before...” He catches himself, stops.
Hotaru doesn't give him time to worry. “Yes. My first employees had the book. A trilingual edition. French, English, Japanese. They were husband and wife, very interested in Western culture. They were running a used record shop, specialising in rare foreign editions. Still are, but they moved away from Tokyo to save on rent. Their shop runs mostly online, now. They had a daughter, one year older than Miya. I owe them a lot.”
The boy takes the information in. “I see,” His voice is very soft. Maybe he is speaking to himself.
“They are intellectuals. Both hold a university degree,” she continues. Why did she bring this up?
“My father is a salaryman. My mother takes care of the house. I had a good life.” His words are slow, measured. It is impossible to tell what he is thinking, but Hotaru does notice the past tense in that last sentence. She is beginning to see better and better how this boy connects to Miya.
“Miya, I'm afraid, hasn't had as good a life as I'd have wanted for her.” She pauses, but the boy doesn't visibly react. She decides to change the topic: “If you were to ask me what you should do with the article, I'd probably suggest that you give it to her, tell her I gave it to you, tell her I suggested this course of action.”
“Confront her with the situation,” he says. “Wait for a reaction, then decide.”
He pauses. “I'll think about it.”
Clearly, His mind is elsewhere. Suddenly he stiffens, takes a deep breath. “There is something that bothers me, but talking about it might be... painful. I don't want to impose.”
She has “If you are fine with facing it, than so am I.”
“It's about that play. I know little about it, but what I do know...” He pauses, changes track. “When Miya told me about her condition, I asked her what she intends to do with... the rest of her... life.”
Painful. There is a taste in Hotaru's mouth, and it's not the salad she has been eating. The poor boy. She is asking too much of him. Is she, herself, ready? They are strangers after all. She braces herself as he continues to speak:
“I haven't forgotten her reply. I don't remember how I phrased my question, but I do remember her reply. She said: 'Meanwhile I wait.'”
Hisao stops speaking. He has gone too far. He knows it. He swallows. But Ms. Kitagawa doesn't lose her composure. She nods slowly. “So you want to know about the play?” she asks. It is a rhetorical question. Perhaps she, too, needs time to collect herself.
“So,” she begins, “what do you know?”
“It's about a pair of men who wait for another who doesn't come. They do it twice. In a way that makes no sense.”
Again the slow nod. “That's the gist of it. There isn't much more to it. Another pair of men drop by, but they make no sense either. I haven't read the play myself. I picked it up. It's very short, so how hard can it be to get through it, right?” She laughs in embarrassment. After a puse, she continues: “A very popular interpretation is the existentialist one.” She pauses. “Do you know about existentialism?”
Hisao has heard the term. The explanations he remembers are either banal or incomprehensible. He doesn't want a lecture in philosophy, though, so he says: “Enough.” He wonders whether Miya is an existentialist, and what that would even mean. Well, she has
grown up with intellectuals... He feels only slightly ashamed for the jab.
Ms Kitagawa continues with her explanation of the existentialist interpretation of the play. “These two people, they complain about horrible their life is, but they think all will be well when this man, Mr. Godot, arrives. The popular interpretation is that you can't push the responsibility for your life on someone or something else that lies outside of your grasp. Unless you take charge of the situation yourself, unless you find your own meaning in life, you will always just drift along. You will always complain about your life, and never take charge.”
This doesn't sound like Miya at all.
“You're probably can't reconcile this with Miya, right?”
Has it shown on his face? “No, I can't.”
“Well, she never outright told me what she thinks of the play, but I think that she used to envy the men. They had that comforting faith and that pulled them through. Finding your own meaning in life, I assume...” she pauses “...I assume this is something she finds... hollow.”
“And you don't need any meanings, when you're dead...” Hisao wants to bite off his tongue, but it's too late. A flicker of emotions from Ms Kitagawa, but it's too fast to interpret. Then she's in control again:
“You understand this much from looking at a newspaper article? Are you sure
you don't understand her?”
“I know the words. I know what the teacher wants to hear, but I can't apply the knowledge. Not in real life. No, I don't understand at all.”
She presses her lips together, then inhales. “Okay. Please listen without interrupting me. Everything I'm going to say is conjecture. Miya doesn't talk to me about this, but for a while I had a “spy”, my employers' daughter. So, are you ready?”
“Okay, imagine you're an only child. You have no father, but there is this girl who is like a sister to you, and this girl's parents are like your uncle and aunt to you. You have no other family. These people live fairly well in an intellectual subculture. Your mother has... has given up her prior life for you. She is... is too... clingy.
“Your mother and your 'aunt' and 'uncle' both value honesty, dreams, to stand up for yourself and what you belief. Your mother is very young and her upbringing isn't suited for the life she leads now. You are left a lot of freedom, and you're meant to decide for yourself. From an early age, you learn that freedom comes with responsibility.
“In kinder-garden you have few friends. You are odd, but nobody dislikes you. But one day one of the kindergardeners' mothers finds out that she doesn't like your
mother, and you begin too feel that you're different. You've always been odd, but now that takes on a different hue. You start to withdraw. By the time you hit elementary school, you are a lot quieter than you used to be. You have no real problems in elementary school, but you are also not really part of any grouping. You don't learn to fit in. Then you hit middle school, and you and the girls around you start to be interested in boys. And that's when the rumours start. Nobody wanted you. You're an accident, because your mother... your mother couldn't control yourself. You're stupidly honest, as your mother has been stupidly honest to you. You never deny what's right. Honesty. These are your values, right? You have to. It's just what you do.
“And then they start attacking your mum for her past... and you... you make the mistake to defend her. That's when it really
takes off. If you defend your mum's decisions, surely you must be just like her? You're not, but people either don't believe you, or they don't care. It's a very gradual process, but eventually you stop caring what others think of you. You just go along with whatever they say. You stop being embarrassed. If they ask for information, you give them more than they can handle. The truth in ugly detail. You hope they leave you alone, but they think you're disgusting and things really
“What is it like for you? You have no secrets. All your inner life is laid open for everyone to see. In all the detail they want, in all the detail they don't want. There is no difference between inner and outer life. The truth will always come out. Your response? You need to protect yourself, and the only way you can do that is to convince yourself that your life... doesn't... doesn't matter. What you want? Doesn't matter. What you hate? Doesn't matter. What you love? Doesn't matter. Nothing matters? Doesn't matter. You are living outside yourself. You are what other people see in you. And nobody likes a mirror.
“Then you learn you're going to die. It's a relief. Your suffering has a deadline. You calm down. There's something that pulls you through. Now that you're going to die, life's easier to bear. Because it will not last forever.”
Ms Kitagawa has finished. Silence.
Too much, all at once. Hisao stares, exhausted from listening. A thought comes through the bubbling chaos that is his mind. “Wait... she... calmed down?
Ms Kitagawa blinks. Looks at him, but for a moment she doesn't seem to comprehend. Her lips move, as if she is repeating his words. “Calmed down?” She's returning from another world. A helpless chuckle emerges. She's struggling to regain control. “Well, yes. In a way. But there's something else going on, too.”
Hisao can't think any more. “Something else?”
“Sleep paralysis,” Ms. Kitagawa says. “You are semi-conscious, but you cannot move. That is quite frightening on its own. But imagine what it must be like when you feel that people who look at you probably don't like you much, and some might... move in to... let you know.”
A memory, an image. Miya, carelessly dressed and with dirty feet, in his bed. All she wants is sleep. He's always known that he let her down that day, but the trust inherent in the gesture alone... Hisao's mouth is dry.
“She used to like to sleep. Not any more. She stays awake as long as she can. Not even I know how long that is. She is never completely rested. She may have gained something at the prospect of death, some sort of anchor that grounds her, but she has lost the comfort of sleep.”
Hisao can't think. A sickness rises from deep with the belly and settles in his chest. Across the table, Ms. Kitagawa is struggling for control and failing. “I don't know what do,” she whispers.
Hisao has no reply. There is no, can be no reply. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you will fail. Sometimes things don't get better. His heart will never heal. Miya is who she is. Sometimes all you can do is... wait.
It is Ms. Kitagawa who regains control first: “I would... like to be alone now, please. Don't worry about the bill.”
Hisao is still not capable of speaking. He nods. He has no idea how he looks to her as he gets up. He feels unsteady on his feet. He stops, turns to her before he leaves, but still no words come. He stands uncertain. And then she startles him by grabbing both his hands in hers. He feels the warmth, and it calms him. Her eyes are closed, her head bowed. “Thank you,” she whispers, and then she lets go.
Hisao turns and walks away. He doesn't look back. He feels vaguely ashamed for leaving like that, but he feels so helpless. His own troubles are nothing in comparison to Miya's. He feels like he's lost a suffering-contest. It's all pathetic. He remembers what he said earlier, about his mother and father, and how he had a good life. He remembers the image of Ms Kitagawa, always in control, breaking down at the end and admitting her helplessness.
And things run together in his mind. Things he's always known, really. His
parents, too, must have felt helpless in the face of his condition. Suffering contests are a silly thing. You deal with what's at hand, best you can. Has he even called his parents once since he came to Yamaku? They haven't abandoned him, have they? Mum calls once a week, and he delivers his listless reports. Many things are difficult, right now; using a telephone isn't one of them.