When she trudges home that night, it’s forty minutes later, after two transits and twelve stations. She is about to turn left, head down the bridge, cross the crossing under a flickering street lamp and follow that path she has walked for twenty-one days when she notices the 7-Eleven store. Undimmed, the fluorescent white from its windows beams steadfast into the night’s dark canopy. The orange, green, white and red stripes wrapping around its boxy edges are cheery, like a loud invitation to wandering souls. A stop for replenishing. A sanctuary for the untethered. Pre-packaged warmth, microwaved sentiment and cold douses of refreshment are for sale.
She pauses. On a night like this, hungry from dieting and exhausted from interaction, in a mood that can only be called ‘sunset’, the too pristine, uncomfortably synthetic, universally bright convenience store she has seen hundreds of times over in three continents suddenly looks welcoming.
The bell rings overhead when she walks in and a male voice intones a greeting. She moves briskly down the aisles. No one else bothers her after that initial welcome. Packets of food stare dully at her. The undemanding isolation of this shopping process ought to comfort her, but she feels a darkness descend. Whatever she has come to find, there is nothing here but the overwhelming urge to leave. She gives the fridge before her a perfunctory flick, chooses a small carton of strawberry milk and strides to the check-out counter.
There are a few prolonged beats of silence after the milk is scanned as she fishes out the coins from her pockets. She heaps the fistful of pennies and dimes onto the small tray, forming a tiny, tumbling glossy hill.
Sorry, sorry, she says, flustered, fingers clumsily picking out the unnecessary coins. Her head is bent in concentration because, after three weeks in this city, she still has trouble telling the coins apart. The cashier’s fingers enter into her vision, swift and practiced.
She’s pulling back her hand when her little finger and his index finger accidentally touch.
When she glances up, the cashier is blushing. He is slender but not skinny, with a buzz cut, a slightly tanned face, cat-like eyes, and an inscrutable countenance behind the practiced smile. Yet, as he blushes, his eyes crinkle and the banal demeanor ripples. She holds back a laugh. A sunrise, suddenly. Arigatō gozaimasu, she says. And unlike the other thirty-five times that she has said it today, she means it.
He stares at her and then, the blush recedes before he nods politely and recites the ritualized thanks, eyes unblinking and his role reassumed.
When the automatic door closes behind her, she eyes herself from torso to toe. She’s dressed in a baggy t-shirt and shorts, with sore feet clad in dusty sandals. Altogether unremarkable. She considers it for a moment and then sips her strawberry milk before turning left.
She goes through the same routine with him the next few times she visits the store on different days, at 11:07PM, 8:13PM and 8:30PM. She even feels something close to disappointment (but not quite yet) once at 3:23PM when it’s a glum-looking middle-aged man with an oily forehead who gives her change while cheerlessly smiling and bidding her thank-you. She doesn’t have time to stop by the 7-Eleven in the next three days. Serendipity, she thinks. And then she kills the thought.
On June 24, 2018, at 10:58PM, the local train pulls up at this nondescript station, twenty-seven people disembark and stream out through the gates. One of them feels her bloated stomach from a dinner of kishikatsu, furrows her brows almost imperceptibly and then gravitates towards the brightly-lit convenience store—standing like a beacon in the roiling silence of the night.
She feels his eyes on her the moment she enters the empty store. Did she imagine the swallow in his voice? The staple greeting sounds different to her. Her footsteps grow lighter. She doesn’t bother to think why she loiters at the central aisle in full view of the check-out counter as she blithely scans the fridge. The strawberry milk has grown on her, and she carefully picks one up after scrutinizing the expiry dates.
His lips twitch when he sees her in front of the counter.
After reading aloud the payment amount in his hackneyed intonation, she does not expect him to say anything (the sonata he performs has three movements: he announces the amount he has received from her; there is a lull, followed by a clear statement of the change amount; then, it all culminates in the dramatic thank-you—his unvarying finale).
In silence, she searches her skirt pocket for coins.
Strawberry milk again, he says slowly in English. His voice, stripped of the affected intonation, is unexpectedly boyish.
She freezes for a moment before hiding a smile.
Your English is good, she comments, looking up.
I’m having an English test. Tomorrow. he says, as he respectfully receives her handful of coins.
Daigaku? she casually asks. Her summer program classes take place at a private university a few subway stops down from Kyoto station.
High school, he corrects her in English. He meets her eyes steadily when he says those two words.
She tries to hide her surprise. You’re younger than me, she thinks.
I’m older than you. That’s what she says.
Really? he replies nonchalantly.
He thanks her as usual when she turns to leave, but before she’s out of the door, she hears him speak into the air behind her, Goodnight.
She comes back again the next day and the next. Ever since that first off-script conversation they had, a tacit agreement has been reached. He no longer bothers performing his sonata.
Not strawberry milk? he asks when she places a cup of yogurt on the cashier counter. She wishes she could have bought the strawberry milk but she doesn’t have enough coins with her after using them daily at the store. She thinks his English has gotten significantly better since she first remembered his face two weeks ago.
ī e, yōguruto tai, she replies. So has her Japanese.
He watches her empty the handful of coins from a pouch and blinks.
He suddenly bends down behind the counter and surfaces a few seconds later. There’s a dollar in his outstretched, sweaty palm.
You drop this? he says, slightly stumbling over these three words.
She is first confused. No, I didn’t— Oh, she says, oh.
When he gestures at the fridge, she floats there and back, a carton of strawberry milk in her grasp. She doesn’t even remember to check the expiry date.
So they keep talking—a few words here, a few words there. She mostly never lingers for too long. He never asks her to stay. Sometimes, there’s another customer and then, he gives her a shrug from behind the counter and she hears herself humming as she crosses the crossing.
Sometimes he tells her about this girl in his class he finds cute, or the Germany World Cup match he streamed on his phone. She would lean against the counter, sipping her strawberry milk.
Once in a while, in that winding two months, she watches a World Cup match with him on his cracked phone screen after he is off-duty, the phone propped up by two boxes of sour gummies between them on an unused countertop. He would pass her candy and recycle the wrappers. She would find herself stepping across the threshold into darkness hours later, the convenience store light a halo behind her silhouette.
She tells him that the date of her departure flight is near.
He just tilts his head.
I’ll send you off at the station, he finally says. It’s right beside the store, I can sneak out for a few minutes.
On the flight, she wonders what the past two months meant. She wonders about the first feather-like brush, the once-stale sonata, the coins passed between them and the blurry-eyed World Cup matches. She wonders how she ever thought to look up that day, from the isolation and her sunset, to glimpse a human face.
One person wanders, as she did. But two people are always going somewhere. She doesn’t know the route they treaded or the destination they wanted to reach. When he had leaned in beside the gantry to whisper ‘mata ne’, so close as if to kiss her, she had stuffed a carton of strawberry milk in his hands and pivoted on her luggage, darting into the station.
Moments later, he would have seen what she had written on the side of the carton and he would have smiled. He would.