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Like Mineral Water

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Miki tilted her head back and let the soda water break across her tongue. She’d done this trick as a kid, a way of getting the sound and taste of the ocean rolling around in her thoughts. She was back in Yokohama, and walking along the pier she wore shorts for the first time—she realized—since she’d left for university. Her thoughts had been in a fog; the break in her routines was helpful. It was the weekend and work was two days away. As for graduate studies, that concern still bubbled away on the back burner.

Her thumb paused over Kuzuken’s number, and not for the first time she let the screen fall asleep and she pocketed the phone. How she’d ever gotten the courage to call him last time she had no idea.

Every day, on her laundry list of tasks, she’d written “Apologize to Kuzuken.” Three days, two weeks, a month, all of it passed and now she was finally back to Yokohama, where her old bedroom looked smaller and yellower than before. She couldn’t apologize by text. She couldn’t think of what to say out loud. She’d read in a book, standing in the self-help section, that the longer one thinks about a task, the more you feed your fear of it.


If she hurt him again—.

She took a swig of her water. Unpleasant taste, but cleansing. It was darkening blue outside and she saw a lighthouse go on like a flashlight.

She would hurt him more by staying silent. So she was just afraid of being hurt herself.

The letter she’d left on the hotel nightstand wasn’t enough. What if he hadn’t even seen it? What if he’d ripped it in fourths without reading it? What if it had fallen beneath the bed instead and he thought she had up and left, completing his sketch of her as a coward?

Instead of pressing his contact information, Miki typed out his number digit by digit. The hand that held her soda water was instantaneously sweaty and made her cling to the glass bottle like she was holding it with a glove. The tone rang in her ear, disquieting, since it was ringing slower than her heartbeat. It was like the rush you hear when you’re light-headed; the whole world moving at a different pace than your own.

The noisy wind was a comfort—but then what if he couldn’t hear her over the wind? She kept occupying her thoughts, piling them up, so that when the ring clicked and Miki heard the silence like a pulled breath, and waited till she realized it wasn’t going to voice mail, she finally burst:

“Kuzuken? Can you hear me?” she said this first, thinking of the wind, but then, realizing how he hadn’t greeted her, she wanted to say what she had to say before he could hang up.

“I suppose I should just say what I told myself I’d say. Sorry for the wind. I’m in Yokohama—but you knew I was moving back here. It’s not so far from Tokyo but it feels like it,”

She paused briefly, “I guess I was hoping we could meet. Maybe it’s been too long. I don’t know, I feel like a completely different person, but maybe that’s just how people react when they come home for the first time. What’s that book they talked about in that seminar? You Can’t Go Home Again. I don’t think I liked anything about it except that title. But you know, your TV series reminded me of the story that should have gone with that title—”

“—You’ve watched my show?”

When Miki imagined him speaking, she saw his throat swallow. The quality of his voice, low, like she’d woken him up, was better than she had been imagining it.

“Yes,” Miki said, “I—I really like it, actually. Usually I just watch romances—but lately they all seem so…well, like air. Sometimes fresh, usually stuffy. Nothing about them was ever very real, huh?”

In waiting, Miki had chosen to concentrate very hard on the material of the bottle in her hands, on the distant lighthouse, anything to keep her from conjuring up his expression and what it must be, and all the things he would surely never say to her.

“What do you like about it?” Kuzuken asked.

“Oh!” Miki was relieved, she began talking with her arms, swinging the bottle and spilling some of the liquid so that it bubbled on the pier, “It’s kind of nostalgic. And I usually laugh out loud once per episode. I don’t know, I like that it’s about growing up, I guess,”

“Mm. I’m working on writing the finale right now, actually,”

“Really? It’s ending? I’m sorry to disturb you in the middle of your work—”

“No, I like distractions,” said Kuzuken, laughing a little, “I actually need someone to proofread the thing,”

“Oh?”

“You said you wanted to meet?”

“If that’s okay,”

“Yeah, I’ll text you the place. You say you’re in Yokohama? There’s a new cafe I’ve wanted to try. They serve Vietnamese egg coffee,”

“Egg coffee?”

“Yeah! That’s what it was called. Tamago something or another. Let’s meet there,”

“Oh,” Miki set down the bottle quickly, “Ok. When?”

“Nine-ish,”

“Nine-ish. Ok,”

Miki arrived first. It was a part of Yokohama that had changed subtly in the last five years. The place was called CAFE Tamago. It didn’t take long to find considering it was the only well-lit place along the pier. The rest of the street felt sleepy for a Friday night. It was chilly with the last vestiges of winter. Somewhere in America this time of year was called sugaring time; the time between winter thaw and spring rain. Miki only thought about that she since had an appetite for maple syrup.

Maple syrup. Egg coffee. Mineral water. Her tastes had been all over the place recently.

I think I’m trying to replace Satoko’s cherry tarts, Miki thought to herself. She was pretending to read a book while waiting for Kuzuken, but the words seemed glued to the page and wouldn’t lift. She had brought another soda water along, and she had ordered two egg coffees without thinking. If Kuzuken didn’t show, well, it would be just the kind of situation that karma would deem appropriate for her. But if he did show, she thought this would soften her sense of debt. She had thought about the dinner, the birthday cake, half the hotel rent, and other things besides, like the wasted bath water, the humiliation. Thinking about it made Miki remove her glasses and rub at the bridge of her nose. She had contemplated wearing glasses or not. The last time they had met all her defenses had been up: clothed neck to ankle, the spectacles she only ever wore at home, very little make-up.

She didn’t want this to feel like a date, like she was desperate, so she’d opted for the glasses and a less dowdy outfit. She slipped her glasses back on in time to see Kuzuken take the seat opposite from her.

He drank his drink like a boy at his first cafe—both hands around the wide clay cup, relishing a long swig, then bringing it back down with a sigh. He wiped the foam from his lip.

“You look good,” Miki said, with a genuine smile. She liked that he still looked so much like himself. She felt like she had changed at least seven times since she’d seen him, though she probably didn’t look it.

Kuzuken still wore his usual favorites—the sports jacket, the Hawaiian shirt, shorts on a cold evening out. He smiled at her, like nothing existed between them except old college experiences, all of them pleasant. Miki swallowed.

“Do you like it?” Kuzuken asked, pointing to her drink. Miki tried her first sip.

“Sweet!” she exclaimed, “I’m sorry, though, it’s lukewarm. I probably should have waited to order,”

“It’s perfect, actually. Went to the dentist last week and had a filling. Said I shouldn’t have hot or cold drinks for a while,”

Kuzuken was behaving gracious, as usual. And Miki used to think it was just because he was good with girls.

He placed a binder on the table, cutting away any small talk. It was Miki’s first inclination that things still weren’t completely comfortable between them. It was more intuition than certainty. Still, Kuzuken was smiling. Miki was smiling, too. She mirrored him, smiling, laughing, an appropriate pause, a compliment on the choice of location. She took the binder, made her own attempt at small talk to smooth the transition, making more comments about the cafe. He politely asked her about Yokohama. She exclaimed how it had changed. Nothing ever touched on the personal sphere; he did not ask about her family, they made no allusions to the last time they had met.

“You want me to just—read it all, right here?” Miki asked.

“If you don’t mind,” Kuzuken leaned back on the back legs of his chair. Something about the way he was acting felt like a balancing act, in more ways than one. Miki tried to see if the smile carried to his eyes, but couldn’t judge.

“No,” she assured, “No, it’s no trouble, it’s just that I’m a slow reader,”

“Tell you what,” Kuzuken came back down on all fours, leaned his elbows on the table. His head came dangerously close to brushing by hers. Strange that she should blush, Miki thought to herself, since they had been much closer before.

Kuzuken continued, “Let’s just take turns reading the lines out loud then. It’s better to get the sound of the words,”

He flipped a red pen between his fingers, a trick of the knuckles that he used to do in college to the chagrin of their professors. Miki smiled faintly.

“You can play the female roles, and I’ll play the lonely male, mkay?”

She nodded.

Kuzuken’s characters were always a little unassuming. Miki couldn’t put her finger on it. Another reading came to mind, one of the books she’d bought for her graduate studies; the author had said, in so many dense words, that characters were always some kind of reflection of the author. Miki had the inclination that Kuzuken was never completely himself. Not on paper. So his characters ended up the same way. There was a quality there that she felt shone through frequently enough for his work to be popular, but perhaps it was youth that was getting in the way of his work leaving a more lasting impression. He just hadn’t got past technique and timing; Kuzuken’s characters were relatable without being real.

Miki thought about the way Kuzuken had been able to provide her a better birthday than a man she had been in love with for four years. He had done it like it was effortless. He had been able to care for without her even realizing it.

But none of that translated into his work. He always subverted it with a wink.

“The parts where it rings the most true,” Miki said, at their first break, “Are when you let the characters breathe. When you let them—get their hearts broken,”

Miki forced herself to look at Kuzuken as she said this.

“I’m not very good at writing emotional stories,” Kuzuken scratched the back of his neck.

“I doubt that’s true,”

He looked surprised, stopped looking at the table.

“Huh?”

“In the seminar, you always had the short and sweet answer to the questions the professors asked. They just dismissed you because you annoyed them sometimes. You were a class clown, so what did you know? That was their attitude. But everyone always thought your answers rang true,”

“Really,” he smiled sheepishly, “Well, women are still better at writing these sorts of things,”

“Doesn’t it take a man and a woman?” Miki pressed. She took the red pen from his hand, stifling a thrill at the shape of his fingers, and scribbled over one of his lines.

“Let them be silent here,” she said.

He stared at her hand a moment. Surprisingly, Miki no longer felt nervous. And she thought she recognized the song they were playing in the background. Like some cover of a song from an old movie….

“Audrey Hepburn sang the original,” Kuzuken pointed out.

“Ah! Moon River,” Miki said, “I thought I recognized this song,”

“Do you know what the lyrics look like in Japanese?” Kuzuken asked her. He took the red pen back from her, wrote in a small, neat hand that Miki would not have imagined to come from such normally animated hands—ah, but she had imagined that. Kuzuken was expressive with his voice, with his face, but his hands, he kept them hidden in his pockets. There was actually quite a bit of him that was hidden.

She looked at what he had written on the paper, flipping the binder upside-down.

“Two drifters off to see the world,” Miki read.

Kuzuken closed the binder and tucked the pen away. Miki quickly tried to swallow more of her drink so she could walk him out to say goodbye.

He turned to her, “Let’s read the rest someplace else,”

She looked at him with wide eyes, but tried not to appear surprised beyond that. So she continued to mirror him.

“Yes,”

They sneaked past rope and signs saying this section of the beach was closed and Miki assured Kuzuken that the tide wouldn’t be coming in until 2 a.m. anyway and that she had done this from time to time with Satoko, her friend from high school.

They read from the script by the light of Kuzuken’s phone. Kuzuken sat himself comfortably by Miki, leg touching leg. She marveled at his level of comfort.

It’s because he doesn’t think of me as a woman anymore.

The thought crushed her, though she continued to read in a steady voice. She scolded herself. She shouldn’t have even expected this much. She shouldn’t have gotten her hopes up.

They continued where they left off. The new scene was set in a ryokan, and after the antics in the baths, a smaller group of the ensemble had broken off. Female A and Female B and the main male protagonist found themselves at odds with staying in the same room. Miki continued to read steadily, but her voice grew quiet. She recognized this scenario.

Miki swallowed, and kept reading. Kuzuken fell silent beside her. When it came time for him to say his next line, he still didn’t speak. He let the screen fall asleep and folded it within the binder, setting it to the side. He folded himself onto his knees and looked out over the waves. It was dark, and the light from the pier above gave Kuzuken only a halo for Miki to see him by.

“You should—” Miki began, “—write like that more often,”

He laughed into his knees, the kind of laugh without any levity in it.

She wanted Kuzuken to burn her up. She had hurt him. He didn’t have to pretend anymore. It was dark. No one was around. There were things left unsaid.

“I guess he was tall,”

Kuzuken said this at length. Miki silently took a drink of her mineral water and looked straight ahead.

“And maybe you liked screenwriters. But here I was, getting published, and he was just writing crap for Rio’s class. You were always such a great writer—didn’t you ever read his stuff? Couldn’t you tell what kind of guy he was just by that?”

He stood up. He walked closer to the water and stopped where the tide stopped. Miki brought her hands together, blew on them for warmth, for something to do, as she walked closer to him. The water at their feet was bracing cold.

“I didn’t know,” Miki said, just loud enough for him to hear her (there was the sound of a group of friends laughing in the distance, quickly retreating), “I honestly didn’t know I was capable of breaking anyone’s heart,”

She let her hands down so she was completely exposed.

Kuzuken said, “Okay,”

He turned to her and looked at her. He was still looking at her like that. Darkly, and like he needed to kiss her.

“Impossible,” Miki found herself laughing, but she didn’t mean to mock him, “I’ve seen the girls you date. They’re gorgeous. They know how to talk about anything. They read the books you like,”

She laughed again as she looked away, “Impossible,”

In the silence, Miki imagined taking Kuzuken’s hand. This way, he’d have two options. One, rejection. Two, something else. But it should be his choice.

A loudspeaker began to go off just as Miki was going to speak:

“Kuzuken, about the manuscript—”

“—Everyone, please keep in mind that the tide will be coming in at 2 a.m. tonight. Light rain expected tomorrow—”

Kuzuken began picking his way off the beach and Miki followed ungracefully behind him. He picked up her mineral water for her and then helped her up over the wall and the rope and up onto the damp sidewalk. An old man with a dog and a cigarette looked at them. The smell of his cigarette was surprisingly pleasant; it must have been an herbal knock-off, help stave off the nicotine addictions. Miki’s mind liked to work like that, collect other people’s details when she couldn’t sort out her own. It reflected in her writing. It was something she had written, though even Kuzuken himself couldn’t remember which word that had done it, that had haunted Kuzuken for years.

He pressed the bottle into her hands. She played with the cap and took a swig. They stood there, just outside the reach of the nearest street light.

“What about the manuscript?” Kuzuken asked.

“Oh,” Miki’s go-to phrase. Her shoulders slumped.

“You know,” she said, and something in the relaxing of her shoulder blades had loosened her, and the bubbles coursing down her throat, “I think Natsuo needs to end up—alone. You’re trying to write a neat, happy ending, but there’s nothing neat about it,”

She felt very loose now. Shoulders. Hands—she set down the bottle again. And she was crying, silently, without her face scrunching up, which felt very good if very selfish.

Rough hands cradled her face. Startled, Miki instinctively grabbed one of Kuzuken’s wrists. It rained, lightly, filling her ears, dampening their hair.

“I thought it was supposed to rain tomorrow,” Miki said.

“It’s midnight,” he replied.

The light of the man’s cigarette had gone out, tossed onto the pier along with Miki’s soda water, which had been accidentally kicked aside and which fell over the edge and onto the beach. Light pollution. Something forgivable in the grand scheme of things.

So he kissed her.

“Why me?” she asked, with a small self-deprecating smile.

He shook his head and kissed her again.

“I don’t want you to be alone,” he said, holding her at a distance then changing his mind, “I don’t want to be alone,”

“I—I don’t need sex,” she blurted out, causing him to pause, look at her, then laugh.

“We don’t have to,” he said.

“I just mean—” she kissed him quickly, “I won’t—use you, again,”

“Shh,” He pulled her in and she rested her head on his shoulder. Closed her eyes. She loved the sound of the ocean.

“I don’t want you to be alone either,”

The tide came in at 2 a.m. and he finally walked her home.


Moon river wider than a mile
I'm crossing you in style (someday)
A dream maker
My heartbreaker
Wherever you're goin', I'm goin' that way