“I have a secret agenda for today,” Mitsuru announced. She punctuated her sentence by taking a sip of her coffee, then grinned at Ritsu across the table. He looked at her, surprised, over the rim of his herbal tea. The cafe around them was engulfed in Christmas spirit. A sprig of holly was nestled in a jar on the table between them. There were a handful of bedecked Christmas trees scattered around the small shop with pretend presents wrapped and stacked underneath . Since they had come in, Christmas songs in English had accosted them, replete with bells and yearnful pleas for the perfect snowy day. It all fitted neatly with what Mitsuru wanted from Ritsu.
“Ah, what's your agenda?” He responded, looking a little scared. She batted that fear away with an easy hand, not wanting to make him nervous.
“I need to get my mother a Christmas gift, and I think you’re the only person I know who can help me.”
For the past couple of months, Mitsuru’s mother had been waxing lyrical on her desire to become more Japanese . Which, it must be said , was an odd thing for a fully Japanese woman to want. However , this was a phase that she went through every so often, and it was something to which both Mitsuru and her father had become accustomed .
It usually started when Mitsuru visited her parents’ apartment in Tokyo, which was located in a building constructed only 10 or so years ago . The apartment was furnished with all the technology of modern, defiantly non-traditional, life. Mitsuru’s mother would survey her husband reading some foreign literature on his eReader, perhaps sipping an Americano as he did so . At the same time, her daughter, adorned with short ‘practical’ hair and some casual Western clothes because it was her day off, might be scrolling through her smartphone and chatting away about some Korean drama or American hit show that she was really into lately .
In response, her mother would suddenly declare that they might as well be a family from New York (she had never been, but she reckoned this is exactly what it would be like), and would proceed to have an existential panic that she had become too distant from the culture of her own mother. This would usually end with a promise that she would become properly Japanese, because wasn’t it unbelievable that she didn’t even own a yukata, for goodness sake? And just when had she last gone to view some cherry blossoms?
It was now winter, so there wasn’t much Mitsuru could do about the cherry blossoms, and her salary most definitely would not extend to buying her mother kimono. However, she did know one person who appeared to live a life a bit like a beetle preserved in amber. Mitsuru had never seen Ritsu wear anything other than kimono, and he had vaguely intimated, without intending to brag, that his family owned an onsen. He embodied what Mitsuru’s mother wanted for herself.
“A present?” Ritsu said, breaking into Mitsuru’s thoughts. He cocked his head to one side, his expression earnest. It was adorable and Mitsuru had an urge to reach across the table and touch his face, but they weren’t yet at the point in their relationship where she could do things like that unbidden. They had only once got as far as holding hands, and Ritsu had blushed so much that Mitsuru felt compelled to suggest they sit down on a nearby bench, just in case he started to feel faint from the rushing blood.
“Yes. My mom wants to become a proper Japanese lady,” Mitsuru said, caressing one of the waxy leaves of the holly instead of Ritsu’s face. “And I’m completely useless with these things. I don’t even know how to tie an obi.”
Ritsu’s eyes widened. The sashes to secure kimono were doubtlessly so simple to him that it was akin to if she had announced that she didn’t understand how zippers worked. However, if he thought anything bad of it, he didn’t say.
“My family are very Western,” Mitsuru continued, “So it all feels a bit foreign to me. I think I had a yukata when I was a child that my grandmother bought for me. But since I grew out of that, I’ve just found Western clothes to be more straightforward.”
Ritsu nodded, taking this in. His mouth had furrowed into a pensive line.
“Obviously I can’t afford something really expensive,” Mitsuru added quickly. It was a slightly awkward thing that she definitely got the sense that the Sohmas were wealthy. In fact, she had seen Shigure sensei once ruin a set of formal kimono when he laid it out drenched in red ink on the tatami in his writing room, trying to convince her that something awful had happened to him .
And, looking across at Ritsu, who was wearing a dark blue furisode, itself one of the most expensive forms of kimono, decorated with motifs that Mitsuru supposed were winter-themed, it did seem to confirm that his family would perhaps have different ideas about what counted as expensive.
“I couldn’t afford full-on kimono,” Mitsuru clarified, “Just maybe a little token something that would make my mom feel better about living in an apartment in Tokyo, rather than weaving straw shoes somewhere in the mountains.”
Ritsu nodded slowly , but he appeared a little cautious.
“I would very much like to help you, Mitsuru-san. It's very wonderful that you are putting so much thought into a gift for your mother,” he said, “ However, I must admit something.”
Mitsuru blinked, waiting. She had been hoping that he would enjoy helping her pick something out, as well as the venture having the added benefit of extending their date, giving a natural excuse for them to go on somewhere once they had finished in the cafe.
“I’ve never celebrated Christmas,” Ritsu continued, “So I’m not sure I would know what kind of gifts people buy.” He said this as if he were admitting something shameful, “I’m very sorry.”
“Oh!” She hadn’t foreseen this, but it did make sense. Her family largely celebrated Christmas because they had seen a lot of American Christmas movies, and her mother had decided when Mitsuru was young that it was incredibly important that her own daughter be as happy as the children in those movies always were by the end. It would be fair to observe that, despite desiring to be more Japanese, she also had an everlasting love of and belief in the magic of the (very American) Christmas experience .
“That doesn’t matter at all!” Mitsuru reassured, “A Christmas gift for your family can be anything, really, just like a gift you’d get them for their birthday or something .”
“Ah,” Ritsu’s face brightened, “Is that so?”
“Absolutely . Just think what kind of gift you’d buy your mom for her birthday. I want to get something like that. Except, maybe if what you bought for your mom cost less than 7000 yen?”
Mitsuru had been right. Ritsu was definitely the person to ask about this. And, as an added bonus, her heart did happy skips in her chest every time he came to her in a shop, clutching a small trinket he had found, and she felt him watching her carefully as she appraised it.
After a while, he started picking up and showing her joke things as well, and she felt like a wall was crumbling down between them. When she showed him a kokeshi doll painted with the most concentrated frown she had ever seen, Ritsu laughed with all the delight of a small child, and she felt inordinately pleased that she had made that happen.
Some of the shops did make her a little tense with their cramped aisles that forced a proximity between the two of them that she hadn’t experienced before on their previous dates to cafes and parks. Ritsu, however, seemed very adept at keeping just enough space between them so it didn’t turn into an awkward moment (although, she did wonder if that would be such a very terrible thing). Nonetheless, it was hard to relax when the displayed trinkets on shelves were all so very breakable and all so very close to Mitsuru’s handbag or her elbows and a single misstep away from being an expensive accident .
She lingered close to Ritsu, who stooped in front of her browsing decorative plates adorned with seasonal designs. His hands were clutched behind his back as he leant in towards the shelves. It was a posture similar to that of an old man on a constitutional walk, and it made her want to laugh because it was so unlike the feminine and practiced way in which he normally carried himself. She also couldn’t help but notice that his hands were mere centimeters away. She wanted to stick close with him to avoid breakages, but she also quite wanted to hold his hand, if she was being honest .
She took a step closer to him, and for the first time that afternoon, he didn’t seem to notice her nearness, absorbed as he was in the plates. She reached out, brushed her fingertips across his exposed palm, and quickly cupped his hand in hers before she let apprehension get the better of her.
Ritsu stood up straight immediately, glancing round at her as if it might be a mistake he would need to apologize for. Mitsuru avoided all eye contact and made a show of appearing taken by a display of jewellery that cost as much as her rent, as if it were just incidental that she was holding his hand, no big deal, she had barely even noticed…
She could feel him watching her still, trying to assess the situation, and her cheeks burned. Her heart was hammering ridiculously in her ribcage, making her attempt to appear cool and unbothered seem farcical.
After a moment, she felt the gentle squeeze of Ritsu’s fingers around her hand. He came to browse beside her, also making it appear like he was somehow unaware that they were now holding hands. Even so, his thumb ever so softly brushed back and forth over her knuckles.
In the end, Mitsuru bought her mother a traditional ceramic tea set suitable for tea ceremonies, in case she ever decided to learn how to perform them, which she almost certainly wouldn’t Still, it would still probably get some use. It was the kind of thing she could get out when her friends came round for them all to admire, to sip some green tea from, and then decide they might actually prefer some milky English breakfast tea if she had any.
By the time Mitsuru and Ritsu were leaving the final store, it was already dusk. The afternoon had rapidly escaped them. She held the carrier bag containing the gift for her mom, missing the feeling of Ritsu’s hand in hers, and resenting that the nearest train station was only a couple of minutes’ walk away. It was not enough time until they would be saying goodbye to each other, after which Mitsuru would have to wait until one of the two of them had the courage to invite the other out again. This could sometimes take a couple of weeks. Usually, Mitsuru had a wine glass in hand when it was her who summoned the courage.
They reached the entrance to the station, and tucked themselves close to a wall to not get in anyone’s way while they said their goodbyes .
“So, um, thank you very much for today,” Mitsuru said, feeling annoyingly formal now. She never knew what to say when they parted. Everything either sounded too suggestive and pushy or like they were just friends and she would be fine seeing him when she saw him.
“You’re very welcome. Thank you for letting me help you. I had a lot of fun.” Ritsu smiled gently, and Mitsuru couldn’t help but smile back.
“Me too. A lot of fun,” she said, before a wave of bravery came over her in a flood, “Look, um, Christmas…”
“Ah, yes,” Ritsu said, nodding, “I hope you have a wonderful Christmas with your family.”
“Thank you.” She didn’t want to get knocked off track from what she wanted to say. It felt like a very delicate thing, and she was clumsy handling delicate things. “It’s only Christmas Day that I spend with my family, actually.”
“Ah, is that so?” Ritsu said, in that polite way he did when he didn’t understand, but didn’t want to embarrass her by suggesting that she may not have been clear.
“I’m free on Christmas Eve,” she said. She was blushing again, but she’d put it out there now. She’d have to follow it up with something, or else she'd have just told him that she was alone on one of the pre-assigned romantic days of the year for no reason other than to elicit pity. “Are you free?”
“Oh. Yes. Yes, I am. I’m free.”
“I know you said you don’t celebrate Christmas, so it’s fine if you don’t want to, but Christmas Eve is for couples, and-”
“Ah, I’m sorry to interrupt,” he cut across, “But I wasn’t clear before. I only haven’t celebrated Christmas up until now because I didn’t have anyone to celebrate it with.”
Mitsuru was staring quite resolutely at her shoes. She nodded, daring to hope. She felt a bit trembly with adrenaline. She was most definitely not someone used to being the bold one.
“Ah, is that so?” She accidentally echoed him, “So, um, would you celebrate Christmas Eve with me?”
There was a pause, and Mitsuru looked up and saw Ritsu was positively beaming.
“Y-yes,” He stumbled, “I would really , really like that.”
On the train home, having bid Ritsu goodbye until Christmas Eve, Mitsuru fell back into her seat feeling the happiest she had in a long, long time. She felt grateful for her mom’s whims for the first time as she clutched the gift that Ritsu had helped her choose. It was going to be a good Christmas this year.