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love you if you let me

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Shinobu Kawajiri doesn’t look at herself in the mirror anymore.

She realizes this in a moment of lucidity as she towels off her face before bed. It stops her dead in her tracks as she holds her face within the confines of terrycloth, allows her breathing to warm it well past the point of comfort. Avoiding herself hasn’t been a conscious decision but it suddenly feels like one now. Something is coming into focus, like the sudden awareness of your breathing, or the realization that your tongue is resting uncomfortably in your mouth. Now that she’s noticed, it feels impossible to blur her vision again.

The air within the towel grows stale and humid; Shinobu comes up for air.

She worries her lip as she sets the towel to rest on the edge of the sink. She looks at the corner of her reflection rather than her face, fixates on a loose thread on her pajamas. They’re old, old enough to have been from a time when she still bought things for herself.

Things haven’t felt right in a long time. The unrest of a loveless marriage bleeds into the rest of her life; like flood water slowly rising, it overtakes her self-esteem and her patience as the years crawl on. A long time ago, Shinobu decided something in her life had to give. Without any other answers coming, she knew it would have to be her.

It isn’t that she’s insecure with herself but she’s tired. Her discontentment is growing into some large and unnamable thing that she can hardly contain; it bubbles and it threatens to pop in little actions. Something has to give, she reminds herself.

Shinobu goes to bed and night gives way to morning.

It’s been the same routine for a decade now: wake up, get the paper, make breakfast for a family who pays you no mind, clean the house, go to bed with a man you feel nothing for. Rinse and repeat.

Kosaku reads the paper and Hayato eats his eggs and is out the door before Shinobu can properly say goodbye. It’s just her and Kosaku now, and they sit at the table in silence.

There’s a mutual agreement in the way they don’t look at each other when Kosaku leaves in the morning. It’s something that says: “We’ve never loved each other. It’s not okay, but I understand”. If there’s one thing they understand about each other it’s this. Kosaku leaves and Shinobu stays.

She clears the table of plates, lays the cutlery on top and holds all three cups in a triangular pattern with the tips of her fingers. It’s all muscle memory when she tucks the paper under her arm and walks to place the dishes in the sink.

No matter how clean the house gets, the air is still stale. It’s killing her slowly, suffocating her.

There’s nothing special about this morning. The light filters through the curtains the same way and she made the same thing for breakfast and there are no sensational headlines in the paper. There’s nothing different about this morning but Shinobu stops as she goes to toss the newspaper into the recycling, her eyes catch on an advertisement. It grabs hold of her and she lingers on it. Shinobu eases herself slowly onto the corner of one of the dining chairs and reads the ad over and over again.

Change your luck: Using makeup for finding love.

--

Every time she thought to call it felt like admitting defeat, so Shinobu steps through the doors of Cinderella without an appointment. A part of her hoped that she would stop by another shop on the way, that her interest might carry her elsewhere in the time it took to walk to the salon. The fact that she persisted means that this must be necessary.

Maybe she was right not to call ahead. As she steps through the doors of the salon she finds it completely empty. Shinobu cranes her neck to get a better look at the place, puts her hands in the pockets of her coat as she walks further into the shop.

“Hello?” There’s no answer.

She feels like she should cut her losses and leave but there’s a need to satiate her curiosity, make this all feel worth her time. She doesn’t touch anything, stays quiet. There’s a bit of a museum-like quality that she’s preserving. The salon floor is empty but there’s character to it; it feels lived-in. Shinobu’s eyes draw over the working table, the station--

“Can I help you?” A voice cuts into her thoughts, a voice that’s just beside her.

Shinobu starts like she’s been caught. “God, you--” She lets herself breathe a moment, evens herself out. “I didn’t think anyone was here.”

“Are you surprised?” the woman asks. She sounds like she’s trying to leisurely catch her breath.

That feels like a loaded question and it shouldn’t. She was surprised by the fact that she made it to Cinderella in the first place, but that feeling had dissipated quickly. Is it the woman speaking to her that she’s surprised by? Now that she can get a better look at her, that feels like part of the equation. There’s an effortless beauty about her, in the gentle slope of her nose and the way her clothes drape over here in this classic, demure way, and it shouldn’t surprise her exactly but Shinobu finds herself struck by it. Mostly Shinobu is surprised by the way her heart pounds in her chest but there’s surely no way for the woman to have realized any of this.

Instead, she says, “You do makeovers, isn’t that right?"

“It’s my life's work."

"I… need one," The words fumble lamely from her mouth and Shinobu bites her lip as if it will trap what’s already been said.

She doesn’t generally feel self-conscious but the way the woman’s eyes drag over her, assessing, has her wondering which flaws she could possibly be taking notice of.

And then the woman says, finally, “Is that what you really want?”

Shinobu’s mouth opens and closes. A sharp, disbelieving laugh sutters out from her. “Excuse me?”

The woman leans forward to rest her chin in her palm. Her eyes are wistful as they meet Shinobu’s. “You’re treating the symptom rather than the problem. There’s something more that’s bothering you.”

Of course there’s more to it than that, there’s always more to it. But there’s no way she can explain something to a stranger that she can hardly articulate to herself. Perhaps this is a bandaid over a bullet hole but the gun’s already gone off. This is all she can do.

Before she can summon a proper reply the esthetician takes Shinobu’s face in her hands and for a moment, just a moment, she knows what it’s like to be held with care. The woman’s hands run delicately over her cheekbones and Shinobu notes the sensation of perfectly manicured nails dragging gently across the surface of her skin. It’s a ghost of a feeling, not meant to be felt at all but Shinobu fixates on it. Unconsciously, she leans into the touch. The two of them are so close now that she can feel the woman’s breath against her skin when she says--

“You’re beautiful.” There’s nothing reverent in the way the woman says it but Shinobu’s face heats at the praise. She realizes how close they are, how intimate this is. “You have a lucky face. I’m sure it will attract love.”

The bitter laugh that escapes her sounds ugly to her own ears. “Some good it’s done me so far.”

The woman smiles and there’s something knowing in her eyes. “Love finds you in strange places.” She sighs.

Maybe it’s because she’s never felt it, but love at first sight isn’t something Shinobu believes in. But the way her heart flutters wildly in her chest upon realizing how long the woman’s eyelashes are make Shinobu feel like she might understand what that sort of infatuation feels like. For the first time in a long time, love feels like something tangible, like something she can reach out and touch. It makes her hope that someday it could still happen for her.

But she’s getting ahead of herself.

"I just... need a change," Shinobu asserts. “I want this.” And those words suddenly feel like they have more weight to them.

The woman seems to recognize her resolve, maybe she even respects it by the way her lips twitch as she says, "Follow me."

The esthetician sits her down in front of her station. Once she's comfortable, the woman's fingers trace along Shinobu's jawline, gently coaxing her head forward, upward. She follows along, but her eyes remain fixed on the collar of her jacket.

“Look,” the woman urges quietly against the shell of her ear, her breath ghosting just along it.

It takes a moment, maybe a few, but the woman is patient and Shinobu is trying. Taking a deep breath, her eyes move up with the rise of her chest. In the mirror she sees herself, what she knows must be herself. As she looks, the woman’s hands draw down the back of her neck and come to rest with a comforting weight on Shinobu's shoulders. If she’s honest with herself, she doesn’t look good; unpleasantly, Shinobu finds that worry lines have creased her forehead and all she can see when she looks at her hair are split ends. All things considered, she thought it would be a bit more catastrophic, taking a good long look at herself, but it feels easy like this. Beside her the woman is leaning over, smiling at her through their reflection.

“What did I tell you?” The woman exhales against the base of Shinobu’s neck. Her breath prickles at her skin and every hair stands on end. “Lovely.

“You’re just saying that.” It’s not humble at all. Shinobu is back to looking at the esthetician instead, but it’s progress.

“You would know if I thought you were ugly, trust me.”

In a strange way that reassures her.

“What should I call you?” The woman asks then, trailing a hand across Shinobu’s back to thread through her hair. It feels like a lot at once, all of this, but she welcomes it.

“Ka--” She stops herself. “Shinobu. Shinobu, please.”

“Aya,” the woman introduces herself and the name echoes sweetly in Shinobu’s ear. “Should we get started, then, Shinobu?”

She doesn’t hesitate.