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they were just friends. (they were not just friends.)

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It’s 4:24 p.m. and the love of your life is cheating on you.

You know this instinctively when you arrive home to find a stranger’s bicycle docked outside the front door, but that’s just a prefacing betrayal among other discarded goods that are waiting to greet you inside the house.

A pair of pretty pink kitten heels in the foyer, two sizes too small. A lavender handbag left on the coffee table. A raincoat in pastel blue hanging on the coatrack.

These are things that double as a cheerful little trail of clues, except the cheerfulness only goes one way, and that’s up the stairs. No obscene noises from the bedroom yet, but you know she’s there.

You know he’s there too. All the signs are pointing in that direction. The car’s parked in the driveway, his boots, covered in mud, are sitting peachy next to her kitten heels, and his workman jacket is hanging next to that cute little raincoat. It would’ve been too much to ask them to at least put their shoes on the shoe rack, but then again, it’s not like you were home to say hello to the treachery firsthand.

Instead, you’re left with a stark recreation of the unfolding events that led to this moment. Your husband had arrived home first, having likely sat deep in anticipation on the leather couch where the butt prints are still in the process of disappearing. She, whoever she is (though you have a pretty good inkling it's the cute girl from his construction office that he told you not to worry about), arrived soon thereafter, parking her bike on the porch before letting herself in the front door. He had risen, offering to take her coat while she slipped out of her kitten heels, laughing as she stood in your living space, studying the place like it would one day be her own.

He probably had no idea how to encourage her up the stairs. There’s no checklist for cheating on your spouse, and he probably wished there was. If you close your eyes, you could see him putting his hands on his hips, rocking back and forth between his toes and the balls of his feet in that terribly endearing way that charmed you once upon a time.

(She took the leap of faith. She had to have.)

You can practically see her leaning up on her tiptoes to kiss him on the mouth before descending down to flat land, no doubt still feeling like she was floating on cloud nine. (The kitten heels in your foyer could only aspire.)

They wouldn’t have met each other’s gazes just yet, instead stewing over the excitement of venturing into new territory that had otherwise been teased in longing looks and touches that were too deliberate to be coincidental.

Footsteps creak against the floor above, snapping you out of your listless daydream. There’s one set you recognize, and one set you don’t. Your gaze falls to the clock hanging in your kitchen as the reality begins to dawn.

It’s 4:25 p.m. and you decide you don’t need to see this to know it’s real.

--

For a while, you just drive through Sendai with no notion of where to go, if there’s even a destination worth meeting on the other side.

You start filtering through the memories from the moment you met, trying to pinpoint the exact moment things started taking a turn for the worse.

You know you learned each other’s names in the sandbox, which is coincidentally where you also made your proposals. All your firsts came thereafter, including your first kiss, your first I love you, and your first time. You became high school sweethearts, having grown up in a township with less than two-thousand people, and you remembered thinking how lucky you were when he offered you his jacket for the very first time, in front of all his friends. They called him shameless, and he said something to the tune of what’s so shameless about being in love with my future wife?

He was the kind of boy who wanted sex to be good for you, like it was for him. You remember he’d gone through the embarrassing process of googling woman, orgasm, how-to on the family computer completely unprompted, only for his mother and father to make the shocking discovery at a later date.

That’s the kind of boy I want to marry someday, is what you thought, until you decided to go to Tokyo for college. The distance took a toll, and four years of it took an even bigger toll. Time moved slower in Sendai, and it was rougher for him than it was for you. It was like living in a hyperbolic time chamber of testing your limits, and the inevitable breakup that ensued had you letting loose: you went on an innumerable number of first dates, almost slept with a stranger, and led on some boy who probably deserved better.

But there was no comparing them to your first love, someone who had treated you so sweetly, someone who once held you in his arms and told you how he would love you until he was buried six feet under, until he was nothing but maggots in the soil. You had gone through the supercut of happy memories, knowing you would never find someone who would be as good to you, someone you were so comfortable with that you could unapologetically be yourself.

Your breakup lasted about two months before you went crawling back to him, but his resentment never waned. After graduating, you returned home, but found that he had developed a sense of abandonment that was unrecoverable. You started believing you wasted four years of your life on a major that meant nothing, that you wasted all that time when you could’ve been with him, stoking that little flame of your relationship and protecting it from the oncoming storm.

You settled, thinking you knew what the worst could be, only to find out it could get much worse. Because there’s bad, and then there’s cheating-on-you-in-the-bed-you-made bad.

Now all you remember is waking up at 5 a.m. to get a head start on making pork bone broth for your sister in chemo, only for him to never show up. Now all you remember is him staying out late, drinking with his friends, urging you to be cooler about it because there’s nothing worse than a nagging, uptight wife who doesn’t understand even boys need a day off from domestic duties. Now all you remember is the day he proposed to you, at the sandbox where you met, and realizing he was drunk the whole walk there.

You come to a full stop at your family home on the outskirts of town, a two-story minka house, sitting empty now with all those blackened windows.

Without thinking, you untuck your phone, dial up an old flame from college, and buy yourself a one-way bullet train ticket to Tokyo.

--

There’s a sequence of events that led to this moment: you, sitting here, on an old, springy mattress with no bedsheets, stains everywhere. You’re half-drunk-mid-sobering, somewhere stuck between the state of caring and completely uncaring. In hindsight, you should’ve thought this through a little more, but things are only ever 20/20 in retrospect and you’re not about to harp on your own bad decisions when your husband is arguably making worse ones.

As you study what’s about your first-ever one-night stand, you feel your stomach churn. That unseemly black happy trail on his pale, veiny stomach is pretty gross, especially underneath the glow of that shitty lava lamp on the floor. You don’t know how you got here, but now you’re wondering if it’s too late to bow out of these mating processions.

This isn’t you, but it is now. Somewhere deep inside, you realize it’s impossible to stop something you’ve purposefully set into motion. To walk back on a promise between two consenting parties, an invitation that you sent out in the first place. Are you free tonight? One little innocuous text with repercussions that you simply didn’t consider. Backing out now would be like throwing your body before a boulder rolling down the mountain going one-hundred miles an hour and counting, picking up more and more momentum the more items of clothing are discarded on the floor.

It wouldn’t make sense, stopping the inevitable. You’d just be whimsy caught in the crossfire. Because bowing your head and saying no would require summoning an immense amount of courage, something that you simply did not possess. He’s already in the process of unbuckling his belt and tugging down his pants to his ankles, nothing but his boxers hugging the strain of his erection.

“You look so pretty,” he says, kneeling on the mattress next to you, and suddenly the finish line of hot sex and absolution is sitting on the horizon, already in sight.

But then something magical happens.

Some invisible ghost of valor takes possession of your body and you muster the courage to rise from the stained mattress. “I need to go,” you state, which elicits nothing but a confused look on his part as the greasy smile vanishes from his face, followed by an annoyed little huh?

You’re already pacing towards the door, slipping on your boots in the foyer. In his spirited attempt to follow you, he actually trips over his own pants, holes catching taut around his ankles. It’s a pretty pathetic sight to witness, one you don’t actually have the privilege of seeing the tail-end of as you make your grand exit from his apartment.

Once you’re in the hallway, you break into a sprint, down the stairwell, and through the lobby doors—

The evening symphony of Tokyo meets you in full bloom, a chorus of car horns and neon lights.

You take a deep breath and close your eyes, coming to full terms with the fact that you’re just not that kind of woman. Revenge sex isn’t your style, and neither is wallowing in the comforts of someone else’s arms. This isn’t me, you think, and when you open your eyes, you find tears spilling down your cheeks. (You wish it were.)

There’s a buzz from your phone, a series of new messages that you press ignore on as soon as you see them.

Hiro: Are you coming back?

A series of dot-dot-dots, followed by two new texts.

Hiro: I know you saw my message.
Hiro: ?

You start down the street, only to feel another buzz in your hands.

Hiro: You fucking tease, fuck you

You’re about to press block on his number, only to get one final message to cap off the night.

Hiro: Don’t ever call me again

Blocked.

Car horns blare in synchrony with the modulated voices of automatons in department storefronts. You catch your reflection in the glass right over the pretty yukatas prepared for this year’s summer festivals, the sight a pretty hilarious one to witness. Even in the nicest robes, you look like every other sad girl in the street who can’t hang. One step forward and all you see is that try-hard outfit that’s nothing but false advertising: the thigh-high boots, cute skirt, the top that makes your breasts all perky and cute.

Your phone buzzes again and you have to mentally prepare yourself for another hate-text from Hiro, only to realize it’s your husband, asking where you are.

Ryusei: Where are you?
Ryusei: It’s 10 p.m.
Ryusei: Call me.

Instinct compels you to whip up a response, but you’re suddenly reminded of what you witnessed at home in the early afternoon and you’re pausing over the screen, chewing on your lower lip until all the lipstick’s been smeared off on your teeth.

You tuck your phone away, stumbling towards the crosswalk. Senses still dull from the liquor high, you’re both hyperaware and unaware, every little detail around you playing on buffer like a cassette tape caught in the hardwire. There’s a mother crossing the street, struggling to hold onto the pudgy little hand of her stubborn toddler. The roar of a BMW i8 comes flying down the left lane, the man in the driver’s seat too eager to impress his girlfriend in the hot pink dress to pay full attention to the road. Her dress reminds you of the raincoat and purse in your home, all pastel and pretty.

As the toddler breaks free from his mother’s grasp, you find yourself bolting across the crosswalk, legs moving on automatic instinct like a robot programmed for a suicide march. It’s only when you feel the asphalt crunching underneath your boots as you shove the kid back onto the sidewalk that you realize you’re six feet high in the air.

I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead, you think, not quite comprehending the fact that you’re miraculously alive, still flying through the air underneath the weight of some stranger’s bulging bicep. At some point, you’re being placed down flat on the soft padding of a backseat you recognize as a motorcycle, being told “hold on unless you want to die,” which you absolutely do because you would very much like to stay alive for the duration of this ride, however long it may be.

The roar of the engine rips through the air and you wrap your arms around the stranger’s waist, taking one last look over your shoulder to see the toddler wailing on the sidewalk, having endured nothing more than a scratch on his knee from his epic fall. His mother has her arms around him, weeping. Don’t you dare run off like that again! No one seems to realize a guardian angel has gone out of her way to save him tonight, no one except you, and this stranger on the bike that you’re clinging onto.

“Who are you?” You ask.

Under the visor of the helmet, he ignores you.

And then the realization hits you.

I’m being kidnapped.

Your eyes dart to the street, everything a blur as the bike hits ninety in the left lane. Throwing yourself off the side doesn’t seem like such a promising endeavor, not when you just mildly escaped death’s clutches moments ago.

There’s a buzz on your phone and you’re realizing your husband is calling you. Whatever fears you have about being kidnapped are being put on hold as you press ignore, only to realize if you were to get kidnapped right now, he’d have no clue. No one would. In all likeliness, they’d find your body in a dump, three days later, having already reached the first stages of mildew and decomposition. (And that’s if they ever find you at all.)

They’d call it a tragedy, but Ryusei would probably be celebrating.

You want a reason to feel vindicated about it, but you don’t. Because he probably wouldn’t be celebrating; he’d be mourning. Despairing. But you want more than that. You want to see him completely gone without you. You want to see him on his hands and knees, swearing off alcohol. Swearing off sex. Swearing off everything that ever made him happy because you were the only thing he ever needed to be happy. But he wouldn't. He'd mourn, and then he'd move on. Because he already has someone else in the picture.

Another buzz comes from your phone, and you’re staring into two gray bubbles with a film of tears in your eyes. If apathy were a text, it would be your husband.

Ryusei: I’m going to sleep.
Ryusei: See you tomorrow.

The motorcycle comes to a screeching halt as your cheek meets the stranger’s back. You blink up and see that you’ve been dropped off at the train station, smack dab in the middle of Ginza, every conceivable line at your disposal as the clock hits 10:03 p.m.

Wordlessly, you climb off the back, staring into the dark visor of the motorcycle helmet.

“Thank you,” you tell him, bowing your head, still feeling woozy.

You try to glean some kind of reaction, but to no avail. The engine’s still rumbling and the stranger gets back into position, ready to ride off, but you put a hand on his shoulder. He’s sturdy under your touch, but the gesture has you taking a sudden step back onto the sidewalk.

“Let me buy you a drink,” you say, and when he doesn’t turn off the engine immediately, you decide to press on. “For saving my life.”

Without saying anything in response, he takes off at a snail’s pace. For a fleeting moment, you’re convinced you’ve been rejected, but he just comes to a stop at the end of the street, where he parks his bike before flipping off the engine. It’s silent, as he pulls off his helmet, running his hand through his hair before meeting you on the sidewalk again.

Oh.

He’s … tall. And handsome-handsome. Narrowed, half-lidded eyes like he’s staring down a shit stain on the floor. Nice jaw, sloped nose, full lips. Broad shoulders, cut waist, and the biggest, bulging muscles you’ve ever seen in your life. You don’t know his name yet, but you will. Because if glory could be a person, it would be Toji.

But then something unsettling comes over you as you meet his piercing gaze with your head cocked to the side. It’s odd, you think, that you should look at him and feel absolutely nothing at all.

Because sometimes when a man is so, so good-looking, over-idealized to an extremity, you reach a level of nirvana and inner-peace that tells you there’s no way in hell you’d ever have a chance with them.

You smile and offer him a hand, “What’s your name?”

He blinks, looking mildly amused at the gesture as he takes your hand and shakes it. “Call me Toji.”

“And … your last name?”

“None of your damn business.”

It’s your turn to blink at him, wondering why he’s being so fussy about it. “Okay then.” You’re about to wrangle away from his grip, but he doesn’t stop shaking your hand. “Toji … with no last name.”

As soon as he lets go, you massage your wrists.

“I don’t drink, by the way,” he says, starting down the street.

You break into a sprint just to catch up to him. "Really?"

He doesn't answer.

You pause to consider it, “Then I’ll buy you ice cream.”

--

You keep good on your promise, buying him mango-dango at a dessert bar filled with primary school students and teenage couples. The two of you look woefully out of place, but for the most part, no one seems to mind.

He’s not one for pleasantries, so it undercuts any of the awkward introductions and what-do-you-dos for a living. And at this point in the night, you’re not in the proper state of mind to impress so needlessly either, especially with someone so blatantly out of your league. So the air between you goes taut, like it’s been stretched too thin to breathe, as he continues slurping down his mango-dango, much to the disgust of the disgruntled children sitting beside you.

He pulls out a cigarette, but you snatch it from his lips. “There are babies here,” you tell him, and at your insistence, he follows you to the storefront outside, where you pull out a matchbox from your purse and light the stick for him.

“So what’s your story,” he says.

You look at him, eyes filled with pity, “You don’t have to do this.”

“Do what?”

“Pretend to give a crap.”

“What makes you think I’m pretending?”

You give him a look. Expelling a puff of smoke, he acquiesces with a shrug.

“What about you?” A bitter little smile finds its way to your face as you recall the last texts sent from your husband. I’m going to sleep, he’d said, as if it didn’t even matter whether you returned home or not. The revelation is admittedly pretty painful, but also freeing in a way that you don’t expect.

“What about me?” says Toji, blowing smoke in your face.

You let it roll off you as you turn to the streets, still buzzing with cars. “You just ride around the city on your motorcycle hoping to rescue women from imminent death?”

“Among other things, sure.” Everything he says comes with a punch of sarcasm and disinterest; it nearly makes your roll your eyes. “I’m just killing time until my next job.”

“Care to elaborate?”

“Not really, no.”

You snatch the cigarette from his lips and inhale deeply, letting the smoke sit fat in your lungs before exhaling with a breath of relief. It’s silent for a while as you hand the cigarette back to him.

You meet his gaze, “I feel like I should say this now, but I’m not going to sleep with you.”

The smile on his face disappears, “That’s a shame." A pause. "I’m a good lay.”

"I’m glad you can advocate for yourself like that.”

He pauses again, taking one last puff before stomping out the cigarette under his foot. “Sure you don’t wanna change your mind?” The grin on his face is greasy, insincere. “Last chance.”

You snort. His lack of shame somehow makes you even more convinced you’ve made the right decision. As soon as the smile vanishes from his face, you offer him your hand.

“Friends,” you say.

He rolls his eyes, ready to turn heel and leave, but stops before he can even muster out a step in the opposite direction. “Friends,” he mutters, taking your hand and shaking it. But then something dawns on his face, a look of realization as he looks at the jumbotron screens plastered on skyscrapers. The time reads 11:23 p.m. “Hm. It's past eleven."

Ah shit, the trains have stopped.

“I’m just going to get a hotel," you say, sighing.

But you realize that’s not what he means, as he proceeds to drag you down the street towards some intended destination outside your purview. “You wanna do something?” He says, not even bothering to glance at you over his shoulder. “As friends?"

“Everything is closed,” you state.

“Not everything.”

--

His motorcycle zips through the streets of Ginza until you arrive at your intended destination.

A pachinko parlor.

For the most part, you just follow behind him like he’s your tour guide as he makes his way through the seedy den, which isn’t actually so seedy at all. The floors are immaculately clean, the machines are buzzing with those familiar, modulated video game OSTs, and the air is rife with excitement and focus. You get a whiff of cigarette smoke from the aisle he makes his way down, and suddenly you’re thinking back to the last time you went to a pachinko parlor, which was in college.

This is not what I had in mind, but I guess ‘fun’ is just a vocational term that anyone can throw around these days, you think, somewhat sullenly as you fill your pachinko card with money before taking the empty leather seat next to him. You tell yourself to fuck it, and just go with the flow, as you watch him swipe his card through the slot.

“These things are all rigged,” you say, as you follow suit, swiping your card too.

You turn the lever, watching three scantily-clad bikini girls dance on your screen, cheering you on as the words BONUS ROUND! appears in bold text. You turn the lever again, three colors aligning in place, and suddenly the machine explodes in a clusterfuck of happy songs, flashing lights, and encouraging voices, which turn out to be rendered screeches through the cheap speakers of the machine’s sound system.

They’re telling you to high-five the screen, but you’re so overwhelmed by all the blaring lights that you don’t even realize you’ve won the jackpot.

What are you doing,” Toji hisses, grabbing your wrist and forcing you to high-five the screen.

Silver balls come spewing out the mouth of the machine by the dozens, and the employees in the pachinko parlor come to celebrate your win in a conga-line that has you burying your face in your hands out of sheer embarrassment.

Once everything dies down, you find Toji staring at you in disbelief. You’re about to stand up and cash out, but he grabs you by the wrist again, forcing you back into the leather seat with a thump.

“You’re not going anywhere,” he hisses. “You stole my luck.”

He swipes his card down his machine. No cigar.

It’s your turn to stare at him in disbelief, “Are you serious?”

“Yes,” he says, swiping again.

--

You win two more jackpots before cashing out for the night, with Toji dragging you by the sleeve towards a P.C. café, where he has you sit down next to him while he logs onto a VPN to some American website you’ve never heard of. It isn’t until you see the words “sports betting” that you realize he’s attempting to gamble online.

“This is illegal,” you tell him.

He doesn’t even spare a glance your way, “Shut up.”

"You can get arrested for this."

"I said shut up."

A list of horses appears on screen and he has you choose one among fourteen. No pictures, no descriptions. You shrug, picking the horse named Muffuletta while he decides on a horse called One-punch.

The livestream of the race appears on screen all warbled. You squint, trying to figure out which pixel is Muffuletta, only to realize Muffuletta has already won the race, having crossed the finish line first.

Toji just stares at you before cashing out and wiring the winnings to your bank account. Even at your insistence that he keep the earnings, afraid that the government might track you down and actually arrest you, he still has the tired pride of his. You don’t get a chance to tell him this is all a fluke before he grabs you by the wrist and drags you to the nearest hotel.

--

For a while, he just stares at you on the queen bed across from yours, sizing you up like you’re a hack in the matrix. You’ve never been in a hotel room with another man outside your husband, but there’s frankly no indication that anything’s going to happen tonight besides sleeping, so you relax, allowing yourself the luxury of being unguarded.

Until he leaps across the empty space to kiss you.

You jerk away, face contorting with disgust as he hits the mattress of your bed with a thunk. It’s amazing, you think, how unattractive he’s become in the span of one needless decision. “I already said we’re not doing anything,” you state, which elicits nothing but a frown on his end.

“Then what the hell do you want from me,” he hisses.

Rising up, you take the seat across from him. “Tell me about your family.”

--

He does.

Sure, it’s like trying to pry a splinter from foot, and he doesn’t offer any details, names, or identities, but he does tell you the important stuff. The root of his resentments, his absolute shit stain of a father, everyone else who managed to earn his ire, along with the lack of mercies that prevented him from ever having a true childhood.

The weird thing is, the more you learn about him, the more you start seeing him as just any regular guy with a chip on their shoulder. The luster’s all gone, just like your wedding ring, which hasn’t been sent in for shining in almost four years. He’s not even halfway done bitching about his life before he passes out in the bed of your hotel room, and by that time, you’ve already pulled the covers over his shoulders to let him sleep.

Which he’s in dire need of. Because, yes, while he is objectively a very handsome man, he also looks like he hasn’t slept in a proper bed in years.

You glance at your phone, see that it’s 5:03 a.m., and decide to get an early head start towards the bullet train station.

But as you rise from the mattress, you feel him grab your wrist.

“Don’t go,” he hisses, only to drift off again.

You check the timetable on your phone, see that you can still catch the first bullet train to Sendai, and try to leave again, only to realize his grip on your wrist won’t relent. It’s so tight you can barely budge. Even as you tug against him in his deep sleep, he won’t give up. He’s so freakishly strong, you start panicking. It doesn’t even occur to you that he could’ve easily forced himself on you last night and that your struggle would’ve been futile.

“Stop. Fighting,” he mutters. “I’ll drive you home.”

And just like that, you’re stuck waiting for another two hours for him to rise.

--

Ryusei: Where are you?
Ryusei: Did you lose your phone or something?
Ryusei: Call me.
Ryusei: I’m going to work.

--

But eventually he does wake up, only to find you frowning at him.

“I need to pee,” you state.

He frowns right back, “Then go.”

You tug at his vice-grip, but he won’t let go until you’re pulling your entire weight against him. As soon as he loosens his hand, you go tumbling into the carpet, ass-first. You glare at him, massaging the sore part of your wrist where he held you before heading to the bathroom.

He sits up in bed, rubbing the sand out of his eye.

The sun’s barely rising, and he has the adverse feel of having stayed up all night yet again. The sleeplessness is starting to become habit, but it’s not so bad.

He hears you on the phone in the bathroom. There’s an angry voice on the other line, as you try and subdue it. The word “irresponsible” and “insane” get tossed around. He hears you sigh, as you open the door and return.

“I’m going to the train station,” you tell him.

“I already said I’d drive you back home.” He looks annoyed, as if you haven’t been listening to him.

“I live in Sendai. That's a five-hour drive."

Silence fills the air as you tuck away your essentials. Toji glances at the clock on the nightstand. “Four hours by bike,” he says, shrugging.

You’re about to tell him there's absolutely no need when the bullet train exists, but he’s already getting up, sauntering towards the door of the hotel room with his hands dug deep in his pockets.

“Wait.” You brush past him, moving towards the hallway first and pressing the button for the elevator. “I’ll buy us breakfast.”

“You already bought the hotel room.”

You just roll your eyes at him as the door to the elevator opens. He follows you in, unceremoniously, and as the doors move to close automatically, he sees you close your eyes and sigh. He’s about to ask you about the phone call in the bathroom, but as soon as the elevator doors open again, you take off towards the FamilyMart at the corner of the street and he finds himself breaking into a jog to catch up with you.

--

The drive up to Sendai is a long one, and he notices you being uncharacteristically quiet as you try and feed him bread through the open visor of his motorcycle helmet.

His mouth catches your fingers, tongue licking at the pad of your fingertips, but you don’t even bat a lash as you shove the rest of the loaf down his throat, making him choke so hard he has to pull over the side of the road. After asking what the fuck your problem is, he finds himself a nice rest stop to pump gas while you continue parsing through the texts on your phone, searching for something you apparently can’t find.

“So. You live in Sendai,” he starts, leaning against the seat of his motorcycle. “Why the hell were you in Tokyo?”

You stare out blankly at the mountains in the distance, “Because I caught my husband cheating on me.”

He blinks at you.

You head to the convenience store and buy yourself a pack of cigarettes, untucking a stick and lighting it with the matches in your purse. Without any hope he’ll answer in kind, you start offering an annotated history leading up to the event like a beat cop reciting the clinical details of a gruesome murder. Shockingly, it takes all about ten minutes to condense your history into one pithy paragraph, and by that time, the break’s already over and you’re moving to get back onto the bike.

“Why didn’t you go up the stairs and see for yourself?” asks Toji.

You shrug.

“Pussy,” he says, lips twitching up into a smirk.

“Whatever," you mutter. "You barely even know me."

He climbs onto his bike and pulls on his helmet, “I know enough to know you’re a pussy.”

For whatever reason, the insult is the catalyst that punches you back down to reality.

You understand only then that this really did happen, that what you witnessed wasn’t something you conjured from the depths of your imagination, that it wasn’t a knot in the timeline of you, Ryusei, and forever. That was real. And you were there, scraping up breadcrumbs in hopes of believing otherwise. Even in the bathroom, when he told you not to worry, when he told you it was all a misunderstanding, you clung onto the small bit of faith that maybe he was telling the truth.

In the end, you just wanted a reason to forgive him; you just wanted a chance to deny the disappointing reality of being cheated on.

--

It’s 2 p.m. in the afternoon when you arrive in Sendai.

You point to nondescript side streets leading to a small county hospital in a quiet part of the city, far away from the main grid.

“You don’t have to stay, by the way,” you tell Toji, stepping off the back of the bike and feeling your joints crack in all the right, delicious ways as you stretch your arms out. “Thanks for the lift, though. It was appreciated.”

Staring at that motorcycle helmet, you don’t get a good read. So you shrug it off and knock on the visor with your knuckles, flashing him a pretty smile before heading towards the entrance where the automatic doors greet you by splitting apart with a cool wave of air conditioning.

He just watches you say hello to the nurses at the counter, who know you by name. You sign in and walk off down the hall, knowing exactly where to go, and who to see.

He flips off the engine of his bike, parks it in place, and follows you right in.

--

The hospital room you find yourself in is … gray, filled with two other strangers.

You walk to the singular cot at the far-end of the room, where a woman is sleeping. Without disturbing her, you start fussing with the compartments that designate her living space. You take the canister of stew sitting on her nightstand and wash out the remaining contents, you toss away the dead flowers in the vase, and you clean up the jello containers sitting underneath her pillow. From your bag, you procure the magazines you picked up from FamilyMart and place them on her writing table.

“Hey stranger,” she says, opening one eye to study what you’re doing.

You tuck her in like a burrito, shoving the blankets underneath her back. “Sleep. Don’t waste your strength.”

She smiles tiredly at you before closing her eyes again, the last of her energy escaping her.

Toji stands in the doorway, watching you from a measured distance. Instinctively, he knows. She probably won’t make it until New Years. He knows the smell of death, knows just how much suffering one body can take before it starts failing the soul. For now, he decides to keep quiet about it, just watching as you continue fussing around, as if you’ve done this many, many times before.

It’s like watching a rehearsal for a stageplay you’ve already mastered, and when you’re done, you take the stool next to her bedside, taking her hand in yours and staring at her with wistful eyes.

He decides to give you space, loitering by the entrance where the young residents ogle him by the nurse’s station. None of them are particularly offensive to look at and he’d be remiss not to get their contact information, so he chats them up, asks for their numbers, and takes a seat by the vending machines outside the hospital, waiting for you to finish your visit.

--

Night falls when you leave.

You bid farewell to the nurses and offer them your thanks before heading out the entryway and finding Toji waiting for you on the bench outside. You don’t look surprised for some reason, even as you blink at him, still registering the fact that he’s sitting there, waiting.

“Do you need a place to stay?” You ask him, suddenly. Before he even gets a chance to muster an excuse, you sigh. “I knew it. You’re homeless, aren’t you?”

He doesn’t say much, as you start towards the motorcycle first.

--

You give him directions to a minka house in a township far away from the main city. Your closest neighbor is about a two-hour walk, and everything around you is farmland, forest, and mountain.

“This is my parents’ house,” you say, hopping off the bike and squatting by the flowers nesting outside your front yard. They’re beautiful, orange, green-stemmed creatures, nestled away in the shadow and dampness of the house. “They passed away, so it’s technically my house now.”

You rise, suddenly, gesturing towards the house down in the valley. “That’s where me and my husband live.”

“You’re still calling him your husband,” says Toji.

You pause.

“It takes two to tango. And two to break up,” you tell him, opening the front door and stepping in through the foyer. He follows behind closely, studying the state of the interior as you slip out of your shoes and head straight to the kitchen. “Can you go grab a few things from the garden? I’m making chankonabe.”

--

It’s an oddly domestic sight, to be sharing kitchen duties with you.

But Toji doesn’t mind, at least for now. The prepping keeps his hands busy, even as he realizes something else: this is a meal you’re preparing for your husband too, among several other side dishes that get tucked away in a picnic basket. From the kitchen window, he catches sight of a car parked in the driveway.

So you're planning to go home tonight.

You start cutting watermelon too, stowing them into a plastic container and setting them on the first rack of the fridge to be eaten at a later date. It takes him a beat to realize the watermelon is for him because as soon as you’re done, you take off your apron and start loading the other dishes into the trunk of your car.

“You can stay here,” you tell him. “Until your next job.”

He follows you to the car, where you settle yourself in before rolling down the window. “What’s the catch?”

The engine starts and you smile at him from the other side, beckoning him closer.

He leans in and you pat him gently on the head.

“It’s a thank-you for saving my life.”

And just like that, you’re gone.

--

The state of your family home is … nice. Unlived in, with no sense of urgency or care. Given their passing, he’s not really surprised.

He studies your old family photographs on the counter, including one of you as a young girl in pigtails. One of your older sister playing the piano. The two of you sharing ice cream with another nameless young boy, one he finally recognizes as Ryusei, your husband. For the most part, Toji is indifferent about it until he arrives at the last photo in the line, of you holding Ryusei’s hand in the sandbox.

It’s unmarked and unframed, so he takes it, flipping it over to the other side to see the word forever written.

He pockets the photo and heads to the nearest bar in town.

--

People are so easy to track down, Toji thinks as he studies your husband across the bar.

Ryusei, he learns, is a chummy fellow. A swell fellow. The kind of fellow who gets along with everyone and everything, the kind of fellow who buys his friends a round of drinks with no expectation of them buying him back, the kind of fellow who acts like money is no objection, even when it’s not his money to be slinging around.

He’s rubbing elbows with a cute girl who works at his office. The kind of cute girl who wears her hair in pigtails and smiles with her eyes. The kind of cute girl who charms everyone she meets, who pretends like she doesn’t know what innuendo you mean, even though she’s almost thirty and of course she knows what you mean. But it doesn’t matter because when a swell fellow meets a cute girl, the fireworks are instantaneous.

They’re acting like two teenagers, like they’re the only ones in on the secret, but Toji can tell everyone from their construction office is in on the secret. They even nudge each other, nodding at them, rolling their eyes. ‘Doesn’t he have a girlfriend?’ someone says. ‘I think he has a wife,’ says another someone else. ‘Could've fooled me. The man doesn't even wear a wedding ring.'

Truthfully, Toji doesn’t really get what you see in him. He’s nothing spectacular to look at. He has beady eyes, a flat nose, and a beer gut with his happy trail poking out underneath his t-shirt. His smile’s all greasy, his goatee is scrappy, and his teeth have permanent whiskey stains.

But as soon as he brushes away the eyelash on cute girl’s face, he gets it.

He’s sincerely, utterly in love with her.

Toji decides to finish his water and take his leave, knowing this is just another sad ending to another sad love story.

Weirdly enough, whatever resolve he had in beating the shit out of him has already dissolved as he storms out the front door and hops onto his bike to make the drive back to your place.

--

Where he finds you fast asleep on the tatami mat, the spread of food on the dining table already cold.

"He's not coming back tonight," he says, but you don't offer any sign of hearing. "What a waste of fucking food."

He has the odd urge to kick you in the side of the head, but his pity for you outweighs his bad faith, so he picks you up off the ground, cradles you gently against the crook of his shoulder, and takes you home.

He doesn’t know, of course, that you’re already awake, that this is just like when your dad used to carry you to your bedroom after you fell asleep watching TV.

--

This is torture, he thinks, staring at your sleeping form on the veranda. It takes an inordinate amount of effort, possibly all the resolve he can muster, not to tear off your shirt, along with your pants, and fuck you in your sleep until you’re crying his name. He imagines what you’d feel like underneath all his weight, how supple your breasts would feel in his hands, and how your cunt would feel wrapped around his cock.

And then he stops himself from thinking anymore because thinking means acting in Toji’s world, and acting means, well.

He knows it’s not possible to die from blue balls, but then again, there are worse things in life than dying, and this is definitely one of them.

Something warm wraps around his hand, and he realizes it’s you.

You’re pulling his palm against your cheek, eyes opening blearily towards the moon in the faraway distance. I guess this is what it’s like to be lovers, he thinks, but the thought evidently dies when he sees the wedding band on your finger and the promise you made to someone else once upon a time.

“Thanks,” you murmur quietly, closing your eyes again.

A single tear comes running down your cheek as you curl up into yourself.

Toji brushes it away with his finger before setting his palm back down against your cheek, where he feels the heat shared between your mutual touch. Whatever desire he had to fuck you mindlessly into the tatami mat is gone, and suddenly all that’s left is wanting to protect the small part of you that hasn’t been heard in a long, long time. The small part of you that’s just desperate to be seen, to be known.

“You can kiss me,” you tell him, suddenly.

He pauses, leaning over study your lips, swollen and glistening from being over-chewed. His shadow encompasses your form as he bends down—

--only to press a kiss to your forehead before pulling away.

“Good night,” he whispers in your ear, voice tickling your cheek, and just like that some part of you feels whole again.