Author’s Note: Here’s the first short story I wrote in college. It’s from 2017. I workshopped it in the first creative writing workshop I took at Harvard — thank you to Claire Messud and everyone else who gave me their precious feedback. The writing might be kitschy at parts and the style is also rather different from how I write now. But, here’s a story for those yearning for love and also those who are happily in love. Happy Valentine’s Day! x
All illustrations below are by a talented Vietnamese artist I came across on Pinterest tonight, Xuan Loc Xuan, whose artworks somehow tie in astonishingly, effortlessly with the lives of three women.
The bar is closed. Sometime between darkness and dawn. Kento sits behind the counter, surrounded by pyramids of bottles from floor to ceiling and an assembly of shimmering glass. His fingers, bathed in the dusky retro lighting from the lanterns overhead, drums on the mahogany. This is his crystal vestibule. But, right now, his fingers look like they are rubbed with faint streaks of blood. He is almost afraid to touch the book before him. What if he sullies it?
He unbuttons his vest, rubs his hands, and noiselessly mixes the cocktail that gave him his first sip of fame; it has been a while since he last made the Taiko for himself—It’s her favorite drink here, he thinks, as he downs it in a gulp. When his tongue swipes against the residuum of bitter matcha powder on the roof of his mouth, he wonders if this is why she drinks it so religiously. It has been exactly four years and eight months, he thinks, since she first walked in. Wearing sunglasses past midnight. Looking like a lost tori. That night, she sat there in silence staring at the Taiko she ordered. He alone saw the drops that trickled down from under her metal shades into the green swirl. He said nothing.
She came back the next week, and then, the week after. It took him a while to realize that she wasn’t frigidly aloof like those other moneyed Japanese women who frequented the bar. She was just painfully awkward. It took him even longer to realize that she was, in fact, a writer—her unsmiling photo on the back covers, hesitantly staring into readers’ souls from the bestselling racks. Her most recent novel published last year was even getting adapted into a film starring Ume Yuji.
Just yesterday, she asked him, “What is the Taiko to you, Kento-san?”
“Taiko? It’s love. I’m not sure if you’ve fallen in love before, Yuri-chan, but it’s everything. Bitter, sour, sweet, and a burning feeling that then dulls into solitude.”
Her eyes flew to his hands before looking down. A quiet moment passed between them. Then, she took out a book from her handbag. “This book to me is like the Taiko to you. It’s my gift. I hope you read it,” she said. She left without ordering anything.
Now, the Taiko has given him courage and awakened a long-dormant thought. Can it be?
He holds the book, feeling its smooth spine. His curved knuckles rest against the hard wood. April is scrawled across the light brown cover, which has printed creases. It looks like a piece of cardboard, he thinks.
He flips open the cover, his index finger briefly touching her printed name, and begins.
— March 31, 2013 —
She couldn’t help staring at him. She didn’t expect to see him again. An anorexic girl sat a few feet away, giving her the side-eye every so often; on the other end, a tiny kimono-clad grandma with a silver bun primly perched on a seat, orange Daiei grocery bags pooling around her sandaled, flaccid feet; and, sprawled across four seats, two high school boys with brilliantly bleached hair who, considering the hour, must have skipped school. While her usual rush-hour mornings were spent on trains brimming over with men and women in monochrome suits, this was a sparsely occupied carriage with specks of personality.
And there he was: a tousled-haired young man slouching against the white train door—of a small build, but lean instead of stocky. His dark eyes looked like they had been mascaraed—framed by very, very long lashes, she decided—below gently arched brows, resting slightly far apart above a roundish nose. There was a shadow on his left cheek, which turned out to be a dimple on second look. He wore a long-sleeve navy and white striped shirt, a ticket stub sticking out of the cotton pocket on his left chest. He didn’t look too poorly-shaven for a homeless boy. Perhaps, he lied that day?
She wondered how others saw him, a face constructed in delicate strokes, maybe soft and unthreatening, an underlying glint of narcissism in every curve and every line. He knew he was attractive. If so, she did not see him the way they did. He was to her violently tantalizing, appearing out of nowhere each time, searing her sensibilities. Her lips parted a little at the thought of walking up to him. She smacked them and tasted the bitterness; ah, the shimmering warm pink of Marc Jacobs Have We Met? 108. She inhaled sharply.
You are already late for work, she reasoned with herself. You told him off that day, why change your mind? You rarely change your mind. But, she could already feel the gears in her mind eagerly reverting their course. Let them watch.
His eyes darted down from inspecting the ceiling to meet hers. It was a disinterested glance. Bored, almost goading. He flicked his gaze away after a few seconds too long. She wasn’t sure if those seconds held in them any gleam of recognition, but she would know in a moment.
He looked back at her as her stiletto heels clicked across the carriage. She smoothed down her pencil skirt, wiping the sweat that gathered on her palms since she saw him.
“Hi, I’m Etsuko-chan,” she spoke quickly, before this spurt of crazy courage ran out.
“I remember you. But I don’t need a lady friend.”
At work, no intern around his age would have dared to treat her this way. But, right now, this didn’t bother her at all. The words tore out of her rouged lips awkwardly: “I’ve changed my mind.” She was trembling like a loose leaf, autumn-red.
He looked less wary now, the hard set to his mouth softening like the bowed wet edge of the cardboard in that Tuesday’s downpour. Ever since she had lifted the soaked lids of the cardboard box—a box that read “UNWANTED PET” in a Sharpie scrawl—beside the back entrance to her apartment building three days ago, she had been haunted. Angled towards her widening eyes, his striking face was lit by the dusky glow of the streetlamp. The raindrops slid off his cheeks onto the hollow of his collarbone. That day, he was curled up like an umbrella handle.
This face now seemed almost hopeful.
Taking a deep gulp of air, she continued rapidly, stumbling over words, but the invitation tumbled out before his warming gaze, “Have you been—uh, have you found a place yet? If not… if not, you can stay with me.”
“Why?” The question trailed out before them both. He uttered this one word in wonder.
“I don’t know,” she replied in equal wonder, “I don’t know.”
“Cut!” the director, grinning through his grey stubble, yells in a hoarse voice. He sounds strangely choked up. His bloodshot eyes aren’t the only misty pair in the studio. A round of appreciative applause breaks out amongst the set crew.
Ume’s head hurts. This is a bit too much for her, she knows. Every engaging script is like this. They suck you in and then spit you out, rearranging the configuration your soul. It must be almost midnight.
He withdraws his lips from hers, and bows slightly. “Thank you, senpai. I thought you were really good, as usual, ” he says, eyes crinkling. She smiles, but her involuntary raised hand to her lips betrays the fact that somewhere in the middle of that long, passionate kiss she had completely forgotten that the reel was running. She has been exceedingly careful thus far not to let her budding attraction to him spill over the boundaries of their professional relationship, but now that she is no longer attached it is far too easy to indulge in her attraction and let herself fall.
Her assistant’s head pops up from behind one of the cameras, sending her a wink.
As Ume collapses onto her cushioned chair, she kicks off her heels and massages her sore feet. It feels good to forget for a while, no matter how briefly, the scrutinizing eyes, sympathetic looks, or, worse still, veiled messages from that smug harpy Ayane who must have been praying for her breakup since they competed for the same role two years back. When Ume started dating the heir of the Toshiba Group last year, she thought that she had finally found the right man—he might have been balding, but he certainly could be considered good-looking for a wealthy guy. Here was a man who was finally as successful as she was, if not more. Even the newspapers thought so, deeming them the power couple of the entertainment world. She must have been congratulated at least a thousand times. Yet, their perfect match began unraveling once Ume started filming April this year against his objections and the bald pig in turn got caught with some unknown model in the tabloids within a month of her strict filming schedule. What a joke.
Since breaking up publicly two weeks ago, Ume has been trying to figure out why she had felt the strangest tide of relief wash over her when she told Mr. Toshiba, “Let’s end this.” And then, there’s the tricky matter of her feeling a little too much attraction for her younger costar on set. At the first script reading in January, she had taken one look into his gentle eyes, single lidded, almond-shaped and slightly drooping, the white of his eye like fish belly, and felt the tension from her fights with Mr. Toshiba caressed away by softly lapping waves. She liked him immediately then. He may be seven years younger, but there is an almost Buddhist serendipity to his quiet demeanor. Being around him makes her feel light. Yet, the outside world will chew them up if she does anything about her attraction; she can already imagine the headlines in bold font: “Ume Yuji Dating a Toshishita after Losing Toshiba Heir”.
Feigning nonchalance, she turns slowly to glance at him, sitting a few feet away and diligently annotating his script. He seems to sense her gaze, suddenly looking up. Instead of averting her gaze as she usually does, this time she holds his eye. She catches the mild surprise on his face. He arches a brow, and makes a move as if to get up. It breaks the spell and she looks away instantly. What is she thinking being so forward?
Is it the script? The narrative is doing weird things to her. She has never thought about dating a younger man before reading the script and the novel of the same name that it is based on. April has a resounding sense of loneliness that resonated with her even while she was still dating that Toshiba heir. The novel’s last sentence encapsulated what she yearns to feel but has never felt despite dating several men:
Many years later, as she stepped onto the train, Etsuko would always remember that last day of March when she looked into the eyes of solitude and found another, arriving again and again onto the shores of a shared loneliness that can only be love.
Perhaps, Ume is, as much as she is unwilling to acknowledge it, lonely like Etsuko.
Despite how utterly bizarre April is as a love story, Ume has never felt this close to a character before. Her character, Etsuko, is a beautiful and successful twenty-seven-year-old woman. Yet, Etsuko is also broken in some way, always wearing a mask of control that everyone expects of a Todai grad; this nags at Ume the more scenes they shot. After a string of failed relationships with men who are inevitably intimidated by her intelligence and accomplishments, Etsuko adopts a homeless twenty-year-old young man like a pet, settles into what most would definitely consider a taboo pet and owner relationship, discovers genuine companionship and even the possibility of love, but one day finds him missing from home. Everyone tells her that they have never seen a young man with her. Etsuko checks the CCTV tape of her apartment building to try to find out when he left, but realizes as she goes further back that no such person existed in all these months. As she wanders out, Etsuko sees the same cardboard box labeled with “UNWANTED PET” again, opens it to see a cavalier puppy staring back at her, and smiles. What a great story. Ume knew without a shred of doubt that she was going to take up the role the moment she closed the book covers.
Yet, during the January script reading, the director had blithely announced, “Look at the powerful ending! We have a wonderful film in our hands about feminism and about finding oneself, which has been very popular since Hollywood’s Eat, Pray, Love. We might have a good run at the box office.”
She had immediately protested then before the round table, “Kubota-san, I don’t see how that can be the case. I read the book and it’s honestly all about solitude to me. I wonder if the writer-sama might be here to share?”
The writer, Yuri Yoshizawa, had not been there and never did come to the set at any point in the filming. After a month and a half on set, Ume has all but confirmed that the mysterious Yuri Yoshizawa is a recluse, but that is beside the point. Even if Yoshizawa-san were at the script reading to endorse the director’s interpretation, Ume would have still refused to concede that this is what the story is all about.
In that glass-paneled room, crowded with the primary cast and the director, assistant-directors, and assistants of assistants, Ume had asked, “Is Etsuko schizophrenic?” But the director had declared, “No, no, making Hisao up in her head is just a coping mechanism! At last, our dear Etsuko-chan realizes that she needs no man. That’s more important, that’s way more important. We want to leave it open-ended for the audience.” If Ume were Etsuko, she would have wept bitterly when she opened the box only to see a dog. She knows what it’s like to want to fall in love so badly with someone who will love you unconditionally in return. It’s a yearning for someone to share in your loneliness, a yearning that can overcome pride, societal conventions, and render all the petty checklists you have inconsequential. It seems to her that April is a lonely woman’s plea for love. She feels herself echoing this plea wordlessly, with every laden line that she acts from the script. If she doesn’t do something, she might go crazy like Etsuko.
“Hey, Ume-chan,” a voice sounds from above her. Her costar has made his way over to her chair and now looms over her.
She looks up at him searchingly, curiously. So this is how she falls: despite every rational fiber in her body telling her how unwise it is, despite how she knows even if he says yes their relationship will not be fondly looked upon, she is about to exhilaratingly, unwaveringly throw herself onto the path that Etsuko wanted so badly to tread upon.
“Ume-chan? Are you okay? There’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you,” he draws a deep breath before speaking, droopy eyes unblinking, and crouches down to her eye level.
She knows her mind is made up in that moment. She inches her face towards him, places a finger on his moving lips, and whispers, “I have something to tell you too.”
“I want to ask you out on a date,” she says to him. A pause and then, her bold red lips, still slightly smudged from the prior scene, open and close: “Thoughts?”
As she watches his eyes lit up, Ume finally thinks she can grasp that feeling of arrival that Etsuko mentioned, that marvelous feeling of stepping ashore when your feet expects watery depths but instead finds an assuring foothold of solid earth.
Yuri gets off at the Yushima station when it’s dark. Outside, there are the few usual men drinking scotch and smoking cigarettes on the curb. She drags her luggage down the steps leading to her favorite bar with some effort. One of the men—half-drunk and pretending not to be—sways to his feet with an outstretched hand and yells slowly, “Blind obasan, d-o y-o-u n-e-e-d h-e-l-p?” By then, she is outside the basement entrance, but she would not have dared to answer anyway. She pushes her sunglasses further up her nose bridge before entering.
Her eyes make out the inside with accustomed ease. There are the same few Mesdames surveying the bar like hawks; they must have been beautiful once, with subtle, artful touches to their eyes and lips and cheeks that remind people constantly of that fact. Poaching rich men? she thinks to herself. She cocks her head as Kento appears behind the bar. The Mesdames’s alert faces melt into what might even be a smile when he slides the drinks to them.
She looks away. Beside the Mesdames sits a lone foreigner—male, in his mid-forties, and white. Definitely American, she knows this from his ill-fitting San Diego Zoo t-shirt inside a boxy blazer and the bowl of fries set before his Budweiser. Next to him is a young couple, too busy making out to drink their glinting Golden Daiquiri originals. And in a dim-lit alcove towards the side of the bar, huddles a group of adults—some sort of bonding gathering after work, probably—slurring “Kanpai!” amid bottles of Black and White, ties and glasses askew.
Kento, who she is here to see, wears a white slim fit tuxedo. His black hair, streaked with silver, is slicked back as usual, adding some color to his outfit, alongside a maroon red tie. He is shaking up a drink, as though cupping a heart in his weathered hands, when she pulls to a stop before him.
“Yuri-chan,” Kento says when he sees her, “you haven’t been here in three weeks.”
She can already feel her body trembling. “Oh,” she manages a reply, her voice humbled, “you’ve noticed.”
“And you are wearing sunglasses again. Like you did on the first day you arrived.” He pauses and then adds quietly, “I notice everything about you.”
Before Kento had opened his mouth, she was positively certain that he would have been taken aback by her book. Yet, here he is telling her that he remembers the first day she came to this bar.
She remembers it too. That night when she first met Kento was also the day her closest friend got married. At the dazzling wedding banquet, Yuri had looked around and felt then as though time had solely left her behind when it was busy transforming every woman she knew from girls to girlfriends to mothers. On the train back home, she caught a glimpse of herself in the window—an expressionless, unremarkable face lit up by the bluish phone screen, blurring with the rolling dark hills that receded into nothingness—and had the strong impulse to be anywhere other than on this train heading back to her empty apartment. She got off at the next station. When she found this bar after a quick Internet search, she had already begun regretting her rash decision. That night, the bar was crowded with a big group of raucous revelers that did nothing to drown her loneliness. She felt lonelier than ever. It was then when she saw the bartender, silent and smiling, like a priest intoning a mass to well-ordered rows of glasses. In the pool of warm light, she saw his dancing hands concocting drinks that swallowed worries without prejudice; his clear-headed sobriety in an inebriated world; and, through her sunglasses, she saw plain as day his brilliant solitude.
“Oh really?” she asks hesitantly, “Did you read April?”
“Then, do you know why I wrote that Etsuko and Hisao met on 31 March?”
Before he can answer, the American man gestures at Kento, taking him away from Yuri’s end of the bar, and requests for a Taiko in a butchered pronunciation. As she watches Kento make the drink, she feels her eyes moisten—fortunately hidden by her sunglasses. Kento is like an artist condensing the human experience into a glass: a few drops of rice wine, some green tea liquor, a spray of matcha powder, ice clinks and then, a sudachi citrus slice sinks into the shades of green, before finally a gold leaf rests with a sigh at the top.
In the past three weeks of self-imposed exile from the bar, Yuri had realized acutely for the first time how intolerable her suburban apartment was. How she had used to spend all her time within those walls for years was now unfathomable. Totoro her pet parrot, who was trained to squawk “I love you” passionately in twenty-four languages, no longer entertained. There were nights when the ceiling seemed to be descending on her and she got to as far as the train station. But, the thought of Kento having read her book and disliking it—disliking her—kept her away from the city. She returned to her dull apartment in Setagaya-ku where even Totoro did not bother to talk to her. In the silence, she allowed her fears to take root and grow.
Kento pushes one of the two glasses towards the waiting American. The other Taiko he places gently before her.
He says, “It’s because we met on March 31st in 2013. Tell me if I’m right.”
Yuri takes off her sunglasses, eyes still fairly red and eye circles a garish greenish-black from weeks of insomnia, and stares at Kento.
“We are also seven years apart in age,” he continues, looking at her so closely that he seems to see into her and past her at Etsuko.
He says, “And I am also as lonely as you are.”
Yuri knows she is crying but she finally doesn’t care.
“So, Yuri-chan, will you accept this from me?” he asks, cupping the Taiko in two hands, sliding it slowly but steadily across the mahogany countertop at where the wooden edge meets her chest.
She remembers the plot that stretched back four years, eight months and three weeks, on the first day of April when she emerged from the bar into a kinder, more hopeful world and felt the wet sunlight on her face; when she locked herself in a dark apartment to write another woman’s life and her own intertwined, wondering if it could say what she would never tell him to his face; when she ventured into the city once a week on a fifty-seven-minute commute past rolling hills to observe another’s solitude, murmuring a soft prayer each time that perhaps he would one day consider sharing it with her. She feels a heaviness as if she had just awakened from a years-old slumber with unspoken words, imagined moments, and fully-written sentences in her body. She finally arrives ashore.
In the mood for love: