A week later, Shige buys a world encyclopedia from the only bookstore in the village, the only encyclopedia in the only bookstore if you get to that, and they read it together on the lighthouse deck on still nights when the only winds are light breezes brushing over their cheeks and hair. Massu likes the photographs; they're bright and colorful and nothing like what he's used to, worn pictures in faded grimy print on his school textbooks where the world exists in primary colors. He examines the details of each of the pictures with deep interest – the shine on the crests of little rippling waves in a river, so like the sea on moonlit nights like tonight; the thick and wispy clouds covering most of the earth's surface; the bright gaudy reds of a Beijing Opera singer who's applying her makeup backstage (is it a she? Shige says that she's a he) – and it's all fascinating, until Shige says, "Do you know what's the biggest river in the world?"
Massu thinks for a minute; he might have heard that somewhere before, in the never-ending dusty hours sitting at a creaky classroom desk that didn't balance too well on its four legs. He remembers the idly twirling pens, the dirty rain marks on the unwashed windows, the dusty chalkboard with its myriad of kanji characters and numbers covering its smooth black surface, but no, he doesn't remember the biggest river in the world.
"It's the Nile River," Shige says, looking as though he'd expected Massu to know that. "It's in Africa and it's more than fifteen times the Shinano-gawa. Isn't that amazing?"
Massu nods, distracted by a following picture of the Beijing Opera singer marauding the stage as a warrior of ancient times; it's a he after all, isn't it strange how people look like in other parts of the world? Shige pokes his cheek and he blinks, attention fluttering back to his friend who looks abnormally serious.
"I've applied for university," Shige says.
The first thing Massu thinks is that Shige must be lying, definitely, because there isn't a university in their village. Universities are in far-off cities like Tokyo and Osaka, where Massu hears people actually spend more on a meal than what his father makes in a month, where Shige's father once dreamed of going and then gave up for a rickety fishing boat and a soft-voiced wife and a son who grew up to read world encyclopedias.
People give up their dreams here. That's what they do. That's how they survive.
"How?" he gasps; what he means is how are you going to university but Shige interprets it as how did you apply.
"Mother wrote to a few universities in Tokyo and Osaka and other cities," he explains, putting away the world encyclopedia and drawing his arms around his knees. "I received application forms from Kyoto University and Kobe University two days ago, and I mailed them out this morning. We're waiting for the forms from Todai and Osaka."
Massu doesn't really know what to say. Where will Shige get the money to go? What will Shige's mother do without him?
"Father didn't get to go." Shige looks over the railings at the world that lies, shining and quiet, beyond the lighthouse. "There weren't so many universities then and…he didn't go. Now I want to, for him."
"Mother has been saving up since father died," Shige says. "She has enough to see me through two years of tuition fees. I'll have to find work to pay off the rest of it." He looks at Massu. "I don't mind doing any kind of work as long as I get to go."
Massu's throat feels strangely constricted but he wants to be happy. He wants to imagine that one day he'll be visiting Shige in some glittering city where the night is as bright as day and they'll see trains, maybe, and geishas, and women dressed up like Americans. "I'll work too," he offers. "I'll help send you to university, Shige!"
Shige doesn't like that idea at all. "No, whatever money you make has to go to your parents."
"They won't mind," says Massu eagerly. Now that he's hit upon this brilliant plan of helping with Shige's fees, he doesn't want to be denied of it; it'll be a great thing, the both of them working to get Shige through university, like it's their own personal pet project and Massu won't feel so left out. "They'll want me to help you. I'll send you as much money as I can, Shige."
Shige gives up arguing; they've both learned through experience that when Massu gets stubborn, he stays stubborn for the longest time. So Shige doesn't say anything more, just nods to Massu's enthusiastic plans of taking up part-time work here and there to earn extra money, and because he's so quiet Massu feels uplifted, feels his initial sadness falling away, thinks that it's just four years and at the end of it Shige will be back and they'll sit together on the lighthouse deck again, like always, and nothing will have changed.
In the month prior to Shige's leaving for a region called Kansai where they have okonomiyaki and ancient castles – he'll be attending Kyoto University, a very reputable university that everyone now seems to know a great deal about – the entire village fusses over him and sends him so many gifts that he has to keep half of them at home. Massu acts as his secretary, noting what he gets from who – a brand new travelling suitcase from the general store owner, Takayama-san, a stone paperweight from their former school teacher Tanimura-san, a stack of blank notepads from the florist Kanae-san - and Shige makes the rounds, thanks everyone for their thoughtful gifts. Schoolboys who used to snigger at Shige for being such a bookworm now look at him with grudging respect, while the girls giggle around him and try to catch his attention with sliding eyes and high, soft voices. It's interesting, really, seeing how much his station has changed in life from the mere fact that he's going to university, and Shige tries to live up to the hype, tries to appear confident and knowledgeable, tries not to let on that he's really scared shitless at the thought of going so far away from all that he knows.
Massu notices that Shige spends a little more time at home now, learning how to cook from his mum and doing "man-work"' around the house; replacing light bulbs, fixing water pipes, mending cracked windowpanes, as his father used to do before him. He wants to leave the house in perfect working condition so his mother won't have to worry that the water pipe in the kitchen will burst some day.
"I'm worried about her," he confesses to Massu the afternoon before he leaves. He's packing his clothes and his mother comes by every other minute with yet another object to slip into his travelling bag just in case he might need it in the foreign land called Kyoto. Massu admires her strength; he knows where Shige gets his courage to go away for further studies in a university. "She'll be all alone."
"She'll be okay," Massu says reassuringly.
Shige stops folding his shirts and sits down on his bed. Massu plops down on the floor beside him.
"Promise me you'll take care of her," says Shige almost sadly, though why he's sad Massu doesn't know; he should be happy and excited, right? "If she ever needs anything, let me know? And if anything in the house breaks down, you'll help her fix it, won't you?"
"I will," Massu says. He reaches up and they shake hands on it like men.
The travelling bag is packed, the pink and red roses are discreetly placed outside Shige's mother's bedroom door so it'll be the first thing she sees when she steps out of her room the next morning – Shige says that pink and red don't go together but Massu thinks they look perfectly beautiful – and they sit out on the lighthouse deck one last time, sharing apples with white, sweet, juicy flesh concealed beneath red skins. They discuss how Shige's student hostel might look like in Kyoto, who he might meet, where he might go, what he might see. Massu promises to come visit as soon as he can (he thinks, too, with glee, of the money he'll be able to send Shige the following month; it's surprising how much money you can make when you really want to). They observe the ships in the distance, grey bulks of steel against a slowly reddening horizon, and watch the sunset over the sea. Massu wishes that sunsets didn't have to be ephemeral, or sunrises, or anything else that actually make this world a pretty decent place to live in.
In the morning, Shige is gone.
There are spaces where Shige used to be, empty and quiet and not willing to be filled by anyone else. The first couple of days aren't too bad; Massu thinks he might be able to get through this after all, doing his part-time jobs and helping out at the lighthouse. He's shocked, almost, at how easy it is to get on without Shige, to not think about him or how things normally are with him around, and then he begins missing Shige. And when he begins, there doesn't seem to be an end.
Four months later, Takazawa Yuko, the girl who always sat in the front row at class and never got teased because there wasn't anything to tease her about, suddenly becomes a pretty big-eyed girl with a shy dimpled smile that plays havoc with your heart, and Massu wins the race to be known as her boyfriend.
It's easy being her boyfriend; they're innocent in those days, or innocent enough anyway. He escorts her to a few dances hosted by the richest family in the village, takes her out on a rented fisherman's boat and shows her how clear the waters can be when you're away from the shore - she never knew, she says with bright eyes, she never knew that there could be so much beauty under the sea's surface. Massu likes her a lot. It's impossible not to like her nor feel proud of her when he sees the envious eyes of the village boys whenever he has her on his arm. His parents like her too. The women of the village say she's well-built; she'll be able to provide some strapping grandsons to help with the lighthouse. Massu's mother likes the sound of that.
But Massu never brings Yuko up onto the lighthouse deck.
There's something sacred about the lighthouse deck, sacred that would be harmed if he was sitting there with anyone else other than Shige. Shige with his world encyclopedia and musings about the ships out at sea (Where are they going, Massu? What do they carry? Who do you suppose is in them?). Shige with his dreams bigger than anyone else's, who sat with him on a rickety boat throwing fishes and loving apples and who is far away now in a city named Kyoto, where people probably call him Kato instead of Shige.
Yuko knows of Shige of course, everyone in the village knows of Shige and Massu's friendship. She thinks it's cute. Cute, like the grocer's kitten! Massu doesn't bother objecting to that phrase. How can he ever explain his friendship with Shige to her; how can he put in words how much he sometimes wishes it was Shige, not her, who was his companion? How can he ever explain how afraid he is that Shige might come back changed, and all that he's holding on to now might vanish?
It's the summer of his eighteenth year, and Massu is beginning to realize some things about himself that are secret and deep and not to be discussed at all, not even with himself.
He's no fool, of course. He knows that the world works in certain ways; there are patterns, his teacher once said, of behavior. They're called norms. They include superficial things like how you dress and what you say to your neighbor when the both of you happen to be outside your front doors at the same time, and more important things like how you treat your parents and how boys don't cry and girls like dolls. Most of all, they include who you date and end up marrying and co-owning a house made of wood and brick. That 'who' is always a girl if you're a boy, and a boy if you're a girl. Nobody ever talks about boy and boy or girl and girl; that's just not how society works, and Massu knows that it's wrong.
He knows, nineteen years after living in this village, that that's the reason why the old fisherman living near the jetty is shunned by the rest of the villagers; that Uchida-san had once had a lover in his youth, a male lover who had left him to get married to a suitable lady picked out by his family. But everybody has forgotten Uchida-san's grief and remembers only that he'd been different from the rest of them. Wrongfully different.
He sees Uchida-san sometimes, walking about in the village buying his groceries and tobacco for his pipe, strolling along the jetty in the evenings after a hard day's work smoking idly alone, always alone, even though the other fishermen are gathered on the shore knocking back sake and smoking the same pipes. He wonders what Uchida-san is thinking, whether he remembers the man whom he'd loved and who'd left him so long ago for a life founded on norms. Maybe Uchida-san remembers him when he's out at sea, hauling in fish on his big green fishing nets, maybe he remembers him when he sits down to his lonely dinner of rice and miso soup in his little shack, remembers that man who's probably a grandfather by now and, if he dines alone, only by choice.
Sometimes he wonders if Uchida-san will tell him anything if he goes up to that shack and asks him to share those memories, those pieces of long past days. But then he hesitates; maybe it isn't right to disturb something that has lain still and dormant for so many years. Maybe Uchida-san might resent him for bringing back something that he has tried to forget; maybe, more frighteningly so, he has forgotten, that love can be so transient as to appear hotly in the passion of youth and burn out into non-existence with time and discrimination. And if that truly happens, Massu doesn't want to know it; he doesn't want to forget Shige.
Shige seems taller, but not really so. Perhaps it's in the way he walks, shoulders a little more squared than before, head held up, confident. They don't really talk much when Shige first comes back to a crowd of cheering villagers who throw dozens of questions at him and carry him off to look at all the changes in the village that had happened since he'd left. Don't talk much when Shige sits with his mother and Massu's parents in his kitchen and tells them about Kyoto with its big temples and beautiful mountains and mysterious Gion, nor when Massu introduces him to Yuko and Shige evidently thinks she's great, nor when Massu sits eating pumpkin while Shige fixes a broken light in the store room, and then they are alone at last on the lighthouse deck three days after Shige's arrival and Shige hugs him, tight and friendly, both hearts pumping together, whispers "I'm glad to be home" and Massu finally breathes.
They don't do much for the first week, just lounge around the beach soaking in the summer sun and talking about going fishing, catching some sardines maybe (only the tiny fish ever seem to latch onto Shige's line, much to his displeasure and Massu's amusement), spending the day out at sea, watching the fishermen at work with their toughened hands and browned faces. They borrow a boat from one of the villagers, an old rickety boat with boards for seats much like the one they used to go out in when they were children and Shige's father was the strongest man in the world to them. The air is sweet and salty, ripples on the water like moving silken threads, sky intoxicatingly blue above them as they cast their lines and settle back down to wait. When the high of the morning comes upon them, condensing tight sunshine into their hair, they pull on hats and begin to talk, Shige mostly, about university life and his new friends from all over Japan and professors and lectures and things that Massu doesn't entirely want to know about but listens to anyway, to the undulating of Shige's voice, syllables rolling up and down, rough on the falling sounds, teasing on the double "aa"s.
When they go back to the lighthouse that night, Shige has sardines and Massu has a couple of good catches that Shige cleans and fries in the kitchen using Massu's mother's frying pan. His cooking is better than expected and all of them praise him; Massu's mother laments that Massu can't cook quite as well and Shige smiles (doesn't mention that it took him a month of hard practice to cook something edible), and they leave the dishes for their mothers to wash while they go up to the lighthouse deck and celebrate Massu's catch with homemade apple juice.
"Homecoming has been great," says Shige, smiling into the limitless space before them, and suddenly Massu succumbs and acknowledges to himself what he's been avoiding for the past year. It's so clear before him now, this whole business of loving Shige, not that he hasn't already loved Shige for years but this business of – loving him in an entirely different sense – the lifelong lovers sense. He's too afraid to say anything, in case his voice might give his feelings away; too afraid even to look at Shige, so he keeps quiet, keeps the realization to himself, clinks glasses with Shige and watches ships with him on this great homecoming night.
Summer passes by fleetingly, the fastest summer Massu has ever known. They make the trip to town to meet up with childhood friends Tegoshi and Koyama whom they haven't seen in half a year, go fishing and swimming and hiking out of the village (though they neither get very far nor see very much; Shige's plans always seem to fail), and Yuko joins them occasionally but they don't really like having her around and she can sense it. So most of the time it's just them, singing at the tops of their voices into empty air where nobody can hear them and be disturbed; slinging sandy arms around each other's shoulders and stumbling back home late at night, smelling of fish and salt and worn out sun. At night Massu looks down from the lighthouse and sees the light in Shige's room with Shige at his desk probably, reading one of his books about the world, lit room like a glow in the darkness.
Shige's departure draws nearer and before they can take it in, he's three days away from leaving and Massu feels empty, not because Shige will be leaving soon, but because he feels as though he hasn't squeezed every moment of its potentiality, hasn't been brave enough to change something about their friendship. They were friends when Shige came back and they're probably going to be friends until Shige leaves and Massu can't find fault with that, shouldn't find fault with that, rather; only that he wants something more, doesn't know what, just more, very much more.
He doesn't know how to get more, though, and he can feel the time slipping away from him, unutilized moments passing by. He tries not to acknowledge to himself that he's scared shitless about what might happen if he changes the nature of their friendship.
It's the last night and they're lying in an old shrubbery behind Shige's house; they used to go there when they were kids and the shrubs hadn't been quite so big, playing with sticks and stones and cups with handles broken off and a myriad of other things that Massu remembers only as vague shapes now. How quickly people forget. Shige's resting his head on the back of his wrists, knees drawn up, possibly thinking of his friends in Kyoto who have never seen such clear night skies. Massu feels lonely at the thought of those friends, a painful, hopeless sort of loneliness that he has only ever imagined before when looking at Uchida-san.
It's a feeling that he'll become very accustomed to over the following decades.
Maybe it's also this feeling, too, that moves his hand forward, fingers inching by blades of grass just as Shige says, "I'll go up to the lighthouse room tonight and watch the ships with you, since I don't think I'll be able to sleep much anyway" and then Massu's hand is on Shige's arm, bare skin on skin. Shige starts slightly at the contact, turning to look at Massu with round questioning eyes. Massu doesn't know how much fear he's communicating through that touch; he knows only that his fingers are trembling and that Shige's mouth is open but he isn't saying anything, just watching, as Massu moves his hand to Shige's chest and then downwards, over cloth and button, hardly daring to breathe.
He kisses Shige first, before he does anything else. There's the slight scratchiness of Shige's chin, the surprising softness of his lips; they've done nothing like this before but somehow it fits together, that Shige should give a little sigh and would open his mouth just at that moment, that Massu should push his tongue in hesitantly, fearfully, that Shige should be holding onto Massu's shirt, fisting it, that in the cover of darkness and shrubs and nobody watching (and this, Massu realizes [realizes] later, will be the state that they will always be in; they will never leave the darkness), they should wrap legs around each other and grind until they come wetly in their pants.
Then they're apart and breathing thick breaths, spent on the grass, and Massu wants to say something but he doesn't know what, I've loved you for a really long time, I've always wanted to be with you?, trite, trite. Perhaps things are better understood without words; yes, after all, the silence and the night and, when they catch each other's eye, the slight tentative smile on Shige's face tells him much more than Shige's low "It's alright" when they finally get up and leave the shrubbery. Shige doesn't go up with him to the lighthouse room after all; he says he might be able to sleep. So Massu goes up alone and watches the ships and thinks nothing, everything bubbling under the blankness of his thoughts, happiness maybe, the potential for happiness maybe, the definiteness of sadness to come, the apprehensiveness, the secrets to be fastened and kept, nothing.
"We're still friends, aren't we?" Massu asks an hour before Shige leaves.
"Don't ask awkward questions," says Shige, and Massu doesn't know how to read his words.
"I won't let anyone find out," he says, not with confidence but with a hope that it's the right thing to say.
Shige reaches out and pulls him into a hug, much like those they've shared before, only not like this. "Nobody needs to find out."
They don't explain or justify anything, and Massu doesn't really quite know where they stand, still can't read Shige's words, but in the tightness of the hug, he doesn't ask.
In the winter, Massu helps replace a couple of windows in the Kato house, carries groceries for Shige's mum, helps with the delivery of new clothes to The Red House, takes on a part-time waiter's job at a restaurant, and whiles several nights away in the lighthouse room wrapped up in his jacket sipping hot tea and waiting for any potentially troublesome ship. His father isn't too well these days; aching bones, he says, only that Massu knows it's not bones but muscles, aging muscles, and a possibility that there might be something much more malevolent about his failing health than aching bones. So Massu stays up instead, watching the crisp, clear winter nights and thinking occasionally - who is he fooling really, more than occasionally - about Shige in Kyoto, awake possibly, watching the same clear sky.
He continues seeing Yuko, but there's a rift between them, a space that Massu feels all the more acutely when Yuko looks at him with sadly bewildered eyes, as though trying to read in his face the reason for his sudden reticence towards her. A couple of times, Massu comes close to telling her that he doesn't want to marry her and so they should break up, but when he hears his mother talking about her in affectionate terms, he falters. How do you go about doing this, how do you do the opposite of what society and your family expects you to? It's hard being a deviant.
He feels himself sinking in deeper into the life that society has carved for him, the modest wedding that will take place in the little temple right in the heart of the village, the moving in of his new wife to the lighthouse, the household chores that will then be divided between Yuko and his mother while he tends to the ships at sea, the dinners of rice and fish and miso soup, the gossiping women who will crowd the lighthouse to visit Yuko, the dinners, the long nights spent lying beside a woman he doesn't love, the children (for, of course, there will be children), the boy who will sit on his lap and learn how to keep the light burning, the lifelong, non-rewarding trade of being a lighthouse keeper, the passing of middle age and the gentle descent of old…
He knows it all, how he will never get out of here (it's typical; of their generation, Shige is the only one who will), how this is the only way he can hope to survive peacefully unless he has a wish to end up sitting alone outside his hut smoking and thinking of his lover who'd left him, decades ago, to a life he himself had forfeited for a few short moments of happiness.
Still, he breaks up with Yuko a month after Shige leaves.
Perhaps the few short moments of happiness are worth it, after all; preferable to having lived a life without truly knowing happiness.
Being a free man is so much better than being hounded every day about when we're going to get married, he writes to Shige. Though everyone now thinks I'm a mad man for giving up someone like Yuko. I think I might get killed by her dad one day.
He doesn't mention how he'd cried when breaking up with Yuko, cried…; there had been real tears, though not stemming from the reasons that Yuko thought they were for. It had been so hard to give up society's acceptance based on a tentative kiss in a shrubbery and a tight farewell hug.
The day that Shige comes back again, Massu starts waiting for the bus two hours earlier than the scheduled time of its arrival. Jittery like a bridegroom, checking the road a dozen times from his kitchen window, checking the clock many times more than that; his mother laughs, "There's no need to be so excited! Shige-kun will only be here at one o'clock!" and he knows that she's right, but he can't help himself. He starts imagining the dust that the bus will kick up on the road when it finally comes. Shige will come down the steps with his battered brown suitcase, wide smile on his face, and maybe they'll find a respite from the villagers (the shrubbery? The lighthouse deck?) where they can keep away from the maddening crowds, drink in every moment of being alone together.
It doesn't turn out quite like that. The bus turns up promptly at one o' clock and Shige gets down with his battered brown suitcase, but he isn't smiling as widely as he did the first time; is barely smiling, in fact, with tired rings around his eyes and strange, fine wrinkle lines on his forehead. Massu picks up his suitcase and there's a press of their hands together, warm and intoxicating and so very brief, before Shige goes straight back home and sleeps the afternoon away.
He's just tired, he says later; it was a tough semester, examinations were killer, there were some friendship problems (though he doesn't go into detail about it), and he hasn't had a proper meal in weeks. His mother sticks to him and Massu. Despite knowing that she has more right than him to cling to Shige, he can't help being almost resentful at not being allowed some privacy with Shige until Shige finally extracts himself sometime after nine o' clock for "a walk to clear my head".
Shige talks on about university and fishing until they're behind the hut and lighthouse in a remote part of the beach, and Massu just has time enough to take in their location before they're suddenly pressed tight together, noses bumping, teeth hard, and Shige's tongue in his mouth. His eyes automatically water and he's gripping onto Shige's shirt in fistfuls, returning the kiss as well as he knows how, heart thudding almost painfully inside his chest, breathing made impossible, madness, insanity. Shige's kissing him again, this time slower, less forceful; Massu's heart returns to some semblance of normality.
"Don't go back to Kyoto," he says when they're apart, mindlessly; he doesn't really know what he's saying. "Don't go back, stay here with me."
Shige shakes his head. They're still walking, circles and circles because they've run out of shore but don't want to leave this location invisible to the eyes of the village. "You know that's not possible."
Massu looks up at him. Shige's hair is different; shorter than it used to be, more fashionable. The way he walks has changed too, so different from the slouching and lazy steps of the village boys; his back is straight, steps confident, shoulders squared – how many more changes will Massu have to observe instead of share? He feels a deep sense of loss for their childhood days when they could be together all hours of the day and nobody questioned it, nobody sent Shige onto a bus back to the faraway place called Kyoto; nobody had cause to change. "You're…okay with us being like this?" he says. It's foolish, really, seeing as Shige had been kissing the life out of him a few short minutes ago, but he needs Shige to confirm it vocally, say something concrete about it.
They turn around and walk into yet another circle, waves breaking softly on the shore.
"I've wanted to be with you like this for a long time," Shige says finally. "I just thought you wouldn't want to, especially since you had Yuko and you never seemed to…you know how things go. I didn't expect…"
He breaks off, and Massu doesn't push him any further; the happiness is too frightening, heady.
They don't say "I love you" then. In fact, Masuda thinks now in his old age, looking at the lighthouse-that-isn't-a-lighthouse, legs aching from the strain of having stood for too long – he doesn't recall them ever having said those three words. Their love was just understood, its existence accepted without question like the old red and white lighthouse of his past, until the new came into the old and existence ran out.
That summer is marked by languid afternoons in the lighthouse room while Massu's dad is asleep and their mothers are working at The Red House serving customers and making notes of their stock; avoidant and illicit with windows all around and wind passing above their heads as they make love on the floor, perspiration from their bodies soaking into the material of the thin mattress beneath them. They hadn't really known what to do the first time they tried it; they'd both been aroused but later on terribly hurt, aching, and Massu had to take time off his part-time jobs to avoid people asking him about his weird gait when walking. It is slightly better the second time after experimenting with lotions and creams that would make their lovemaking less painful, and even better the third time, until they become addicted to it as teenagers are to anything pleasurable, unable to bear passing an afternoon without being entangled in each other's arms, sweating and moaning into each other's mouths, always quietly in case anyone hears them (even though it is highly unlikely that they can be heard so high above hearing distance).
"Have you done this with anyone before?" Massu asks afternoons and afternoons after their first time, lying breathless beside each other.
"Did it with a girl a couple of months after I went to Kyoto," Shige says. Massu flinches a little, but he isn't surprised, not really; not hurt, either. "That was when I figured I really wasn't that into girls. I sort of knew it before, but the other guys were screwing around and so I thought that I could get into all the action too, see what was the big deal. It was nice, but I wasn't too impressed." He turns his head and smiles at Massu. "Nothing like what we've done."
"I don't think I can find this with anyone else," says Massu a little wistfully.
"You can try," Shige suggests.
Massu looks at him strangely, but Shige is unaware, leaning over to pull on his pants and shirt. "You'll do this with other people?" Massu says, and he's surprised at the sadness sneaking into his voice.
Shige stills at the sound of it, remains still, then works his way into his pants and sits up. Massu looks at the smoothness of Shige's back, the valley in the middle, the little space between the top of his butt cheeks peeking over the waistband of his pants. "The thing is," Shige begins slowly, "there are a few guys in my hostel who're like us. Don't like girls, only go for guys. They didn't mean to be found out, but when they were, god, hell was given them. Persecuted like nobody's business. One of them even dropped out of college, it was that bad. Nobody wanted to room with them, anonymous letters were sent to them telling them to get out…at a party, one of them got a sleeping drug in his drink and the next morning he was found stoned outside his room with his pants off and 'cocksucker' written on his underwear. He was the one who dropped out."
Massu doesn't say anything, coldness around his heart like an icy murderous hand; oh so, he thinks, so. This is what happens to guys like them in other parts of the country.
"Things like that." Shige turns to look at him, eyebrows furrowed, and suddenly Massu understands how those fine wrinkle lines found their way to Shige's forehead, how many nights he must have spent awake in his hostel thinking over their relationship. People are always saying that Shige is a worrier. "You see, Massu…there just isn't space in this world for us to be together. We can do this, yes, but we can't think that this is what we're going to do for the rest of our lives. People will catch up with us, and when they do, it isn't going to be pretty."
"Maybe we could try trusting them," Massu suggests, though he's thinking of Uchida-san and how he has been an outcast for so many years.
"It's better not to find out."
"Damn it," Massu says, and doesn't know what else to. "Damn."
Shige lies back down and puts his arms around him; rests his head in the crook of Massu's neck meeting shoulder for a moment. "We can find out how long we can keep this up."
"I'm making it years." Massu pulls Shige closer. "Shige, I'm making you stay with me for years."
Our story is a story where nothing ever happens, Shige writes to Massu later on that year, when trees are flaming orange; sometimes Massu thinks the beauty he sees from the lighthouse deck could break his heart, because if something did happen, it would be pretty shitty.
Massu loves how Shige can make him laugh, even when there really isn't anything to laugh at.
Summers, salt and seawater and wind and sweat and slick come, two more years of them, snatched afternoon hours breathing into Shige's skin as he gets filled over and over to the point of moaning, crying; walks on the shore and fishing trips spent pretending to be buddies, hours swiftly passing them by, Shige gone again, two years of it and Shige finally graduates. But by then they're so used to separation (or not used, Massu thinks, just resigned; one cannot get used to separation) that it's not as shocking as anticipated when a business firm based in Tokyo offers Shige a job and Shige, after some deliberation, decides to take it. His mother is broken-hearted, but understanding; Massu thinks of the hours and hours he'll have to count in between Shige's visits for years now, without any seeming end.
Just after Shige's graduation ceremony – which nobody from his hometown, not even his mother, attends because it's too costly to travel so far out – Shige writes a letter to Massu's family asking them to visit him in Tokyo for a fortnight with his mother. He'll pay for all the expenses, he says, even the travel and accommodation and food. Don't worry about it. Just come and have a good time. They wonder where Shige got the money from; how could a poor university student possibly afford to give an entire family a holiday in Tokyo?
Massu's father is pleased by the offer, but declines because he doesn't feel too well nowadays and anyway, someone has to be around to keep the lighthouse going. Massu's mother declines because she doesn't really want to travel out of the village; she says that she can't close The Red House for a fortnight, but the real reason is that she's been cloistered in the village for all her life and she's too afraid to leave it now, even to the fascinating city of lights called Tokyo. They urge Massu to go, but in the end he doesn't either; he can't leave his parents alone for two weeks when his father needs daily care and his mother is working so hard in hers and Shige's mother's failing clothing shop (the fashions are becoming outdated; other little shops are being set up by big clothing companies looking to expand their consumer base).
After their reply, thanking him for his kindness but stating the reasons why they won't be able to come, Shige takes a while to respond. He sounds sad in his reply, and Massu doesn't understand the sadness until a year later; he doesn't know about the money sitting in Shige's bank account, the exact same amount that he had accumulated over four years of part-time work to aid Shige's university education and which Shige had deemed too precious to use for his own benefit. He doesn't know it until his dad falls very ill the following autumn and Shige pays for all the doctor's and medical fees. When they thank him at the funeral (all the way down from Tokyo, the villagers say; look how respectful Kato-kun is to the Masuda family), he says there is truly nothing to thank him for; he looks sad.
As the years pass they move out of the village during Shige's yearly trips down from Tokyo; hitchhiking for half a week with backpacks and roadmaps and vague ideas of where they're headed; ryokans for the nights, curled around each other on the futons after steaming onsens and breathing in the woody scent of the floorboards; walking beside each other in the daytime, two buddies in the eyes of anyone who bothers to look; lovers in the deepest sense of the word when there isn't anybody to see. And when it's over, Shige goes back to Tokyo and Massu to the lighthouse, each tending their own lives separate from the other, and Massu watches as the boys of his generation get married, one by one, to blushing girls whom he used to throw erasers at in school; even Yuko gets married and Massu is invited to the wedding along with everybody else. People begin to wonder and gossip about him; his mother is getting worried – "Some children in this place would be nice," she says meaningfully, and then he feels guilty – sorry, mom, sorry, dad (wherever you are), sorry – in this way, the years pass.
Their early thirties come on them out of nowhere; money problems beginning to take the place of love problems, lines of women being introduced to them in the hopes of getting them married, The Red House closing down after too much loss, Shige's mother closing up the old house and joining him in Tokyo for good. In the summer of their mid-thirties, they go to a little town fifty miles north of the village for a getaway and a gasping, tearing, almost traumatic session of lovemaking that leaves them wrung. Massu says, almost resentfully, that if they're going to live their lives separately like that, they might as well get married to other people and have done with it.
"So get married," Shige throws back at him, "I never forced you into being single. You were the one who insisted that you wouldn't get married. There are lots of nice village women around who would grovel for a husband. Go and make one of them happy."
"I don't ask you about your mistresses in that city of yours," Massu says angrily, "so don't talk to me as though you're so pure."
Shige stiffens, moves away from the bed. "Don't try to pretend that you understand anything about me. You have no idea what kind of life I have in Tokyo, working 15-hour days and trying to please everyone even infinitesimally superior in position to me."
"So busy that you missed last year," Massu says, not keeping the bitterness from his voice (what the hell, it's not as though he is supposed to be happy that Shige didn't come last year – or that he isn't denying the mistresses).
Shige takes out a cigarette and lights it, leaning his head on the windowpane as he smokes. He has aged so quickly; he always managed to look early twenty-ish even when he was well over thirty, but now it seems as though age has suddenly found him and ravaged him. "I came twice this year to make up for it," he says, "it's not easy to get away. Some of my colleagues don't even take leave at all – they think I'm a slacker for taking two weeks in a year."
Massu can't say anything more now; when did they start this – this cat and mouse game, plying justifications and accusations at each other, seeing who could be made guiltier? It's not what he imagined they would be like sixteen years ago when they'd first kissed in the shrubbery. "I'm sorry. Come back to bed."
Shige stubs out his cigarette and goes back to wrap arms around Massu, but they're silent and remain lying beside each other without touching any further; they've gone past the time for making love.
They're getting on in life; Shige is a chief manager in his company now, overseeing about a hundred people, and apparently successful enough to make it into stories in business magazines. Massu tried to get a copy of the magazine but couldn't; they don't ship to remote places like the fishing village. He has installed new equipment in the lighthouse (doesn't have to put the oil in the lighthouse lamp anymore; it's all electrical), and renovated parts of his home (hours spent dismantling the cupboards in the kitchen and putting together new ones), scratched his cheek on a piece of wayward wood and has a scar across the lower left part of his face; Shige says it makes him look halfway villainous.
Four months after the kitchen is fully renovated, Massu's mother passes away one night from "water in her lungs", according to the villagers. Massu calls in the monks, organizes the wake at the temple, and accepts the condolences of grieving friends, including Shige's mother, who tells him that Shige has applied for leave upon hearing of the death and will be here the next day. But things don't work out at Shige's company and he can't come. He arranges to come down the week after, instead, and Massu spends the day of the funeral standing in the midst of people and feeling alone; like a tiny island in the middle of a huge sea, he thinks, like strolling along the jetty evening after evening watching the cirrus clouds turning silken orange and red in the sky and smoking your pipe alone. That night, he lies in bed in his home, so quiet now, and thinks of how his mother hadn't been able to use the new kitchen, of his first lessons of honesty and the value of money learned from her, of Shige in Tokyo probably still working at this hour – that's the way it is. Leave it Massu, leave it.
"I feel like there isn't anybody left," says Massu. They're sitting out on the lighthouse deck, the first time in many years that they're spending Shige's visit in the village. Shige is still trim, a few grey hairs in his head of black, with a polish in his way of carrying himself that hadn't been there when he'd first left for Kyoto almost thirty years ago; he keeps himself fit by working out whenever he can, he says, not that he has much time for exercise (Massu suspects that he's so thin because he hardly has time to eat). Massu hasn't weathered the years as well; he's thickset now, not fat exactly, but bulkier than the wiry fishermen still hauling in their catches with browned weathered hands (Uchida-san died ten years ago – he left no spaces behind, nobody seems to think of him at all); and the women of the village have given up on him as an eligible bachelor. Something's wrong with him, they say. He could've married Takazawa Yuko or any other girl he wanted, but he hadn't – something's wrong with him, living alone in that lighthouse, hardly even keeping up his friendships with the village men…
"What do you mean?" Shige asks. The wind moves through their hair, whispers remembrances of the times when they'd just been two boys and the world had been made up of fishing trips and shells and dusty chalkboards, twirling pens, sun-warmed sand.
"Everything just seems so quiet now." Massu folds his arms and leans back on the deckchair. "My parents are gone – your mum is in Tokyo – and you've been away for so many years, people don't even recognize you anymore. I feel like there isn't anyone left but me."
Shige keeps silent for a moment. "You could come to Tokyo," he says at last. "I'll find you some nice place…you can get a job, maybe, and…"
"Maybe," Massu says, and smiles; it's too late for that.
"It'll be easier to see you then," Shige says, though his voice has lost confidence. "It's getting harder to come down here every year; there're so many ongoing projects and it's criminal to leave them."
"Remember the night we stayed up together to tend the lighthouse when we were around sixteen?" says Massu abruptly.
Shige blinks at him. "Not really. Why?"
Massu tilts his face up, looking at the dark purple clouds. "Nothing much. Just randomly thought of it."
"I don't remember most things," says Shige; he's forgetting already – "I think my memory space is filled to bursting."
"It wasn't anything much," says Massu. "Windy night, we were drinking my mother's apple juice…the usual."
Shige smiles a little, his eyes drooping closed; it's late after all, and he's been working so hard lately, damn that merger, wonder how things are going, is his assistant managing okay?... "Wish I could have that apple juice again."
It had been a windy night, homemade apple juice relegated to rusty amber- colored foam in their mugs. Shige was wrapped up in his sweater, nose buried in his collar, cheeks pink from the wind. Massu wanted to wash the mugs, they were so gross sitting there with the foam turning rustier and rustier, but he was too comfortable to move; his blanket was too warm and cosy. There were a few specks of ships tonight, one with lights on, the others mostly dark, lights reflected on the dark sea. Shige murmured something about being "shleepy"; his voice was thick with drowsiness, head falling lower into his raised collar, hair messing up in the wind. Massu told him to sleep, it was okay, he'd take care of things here. Shige began drifting away from him mentally, and drifting he fell sideways, head coming slowly to a rest on Massu's shoulder, lumps of his arms under the sweater pressing against Massu's blanket, the angle of his nose the only thing that Massu could see when he looked down.
"Land," said Massu, words from his childhood filtering through the wind and sky, "land, green-brown; sea, brown-grey; island, dull peacock blue…"
"Sky, stone-grey," Shige finished, voice more a mumble than anything else.
They sat there, Shige's head still on Massu's shoulder, both awake, and Massu remembered that, still remembers that, as the moment he knew he would be happy – no, could be happy, if things worked out right and he and Shige stayed together always.
"Land, green-brown," he says now to Shige, sleeping beside him on the lighthouse deck.
Shige is sleeping.
"The sky is stone-grey," says Massu.
A month after Shige leaves, Massu takes time to hand over the lighthouse to the next keeper – a middle-aged, gruff-looking man who had been recently widowed and whose son looks like the bullying type – and when the handover is done, he packs up his belongings, tucks his savings carefully away, and takes the bus out of town. He posts a letter to Shige telling him that he's leaving and that he won't have to come down to the village anymore for his hard-earned once-a-year trips, but doesn't leave information about where to find him next because honestly, he doesn't know either. He figures he will just go.
He goes to a city named Kobe, rebuilt after the Second World War – Massu remembers that war only in the context of having taken away Shige's father (remember that hour at the beach when you cried over losing him, Shige? …no, not anymore) – and takes up a job at a small restaurant serving customers and collecting money. The boss is kind and the ambience is nice, and he has a ten tatami-mat apartment where he can cook up simple meals for himself and watch TV when he's bored. Upon his boss's recommendation, he joins a mahjong club and spends most of his non-working hours playing with the other old men there, gossiping about the heads in government and the weird old lady down the street and the rising costs of food; at night, he goes home and lies upon his mattress and goes to sleep.
It's different from all that he has known before; there isn't any sea here with its ever-changing blues and greens – no rocks on the beach, no seaweed being washed ashore, no long nights of deep and silent splendor. He sees buildings now, and roads, and cars everywhere; buses, trains – he takes them around the city sometimes. He has been to a market and gawked at the amount of produce there. A colleague brought him around town and treated him to a Western-style meal with things called hamburgers and French fries – he didn't really know how to eat them at first. Everything is unfamiliar.
There are no memories here.
It would be possible to live through every day without thinking of Shige, since there are no memories here. Possible, but Massu finds it isn't really the case; he's working on it though, maybe he'll eventually get better at it. Maybe a year or two later he'll be able to look back on those memories as estranged friends. Maybe, in fact, that's what he and Shige have been all these years – estranged friends just trying to remain together through talk of love and acts of sex; friends who have used love to pull themselves together out of fear that they might really drift apart once there was nothing to hold them to each other. Stop thinking, Massu; leave it.
One day, while passing by a magazine and newspapers stall, Massu sees Shige's face on one of the weekly magazines and, despite his resolution to forget, picks it out to read. The article details Kato-san's rise to power in his company, his managing strategies, the mergers that he has successfully implemented and the profit that he and his team have made. Then his personal history, a small, ordinary boy from a remote fishing village far from Tokyo who'd lost his father in the war and then got accepted into Kyoto University. How he'd never married, nor been seen with a woman privately; not a single scandal, no talk of falling in love, refusing arranged marriages, attending gala events alone without escorts. "Bachelor Kato-san", he'd been affectionately known among his close associates. How he'd never forgotten his roots and worked ceaselessly throughout the year just so he could take two weeks off to go back to his old fishing village for yearly visits – "a promise I made to a beloved friend," he was quoted as saying. "A year isn't complete without a visit back." How he'd died in his sleep three days ago from a heart that had failed under too much hard work.
Massu looks up at the newspaper vendor, face numb, asks, "This man" – pointing to Shige's picture – "died recently?"
"A couple of days ago," says the vendor, peering at Shige's picture. "It was all over the news, didn't you see it?"
"No," says Massu.
He takes the day off. Goes back home, spreads the magazine out in front of him and reads again. The work done to justify the yearly two weeks' leave to go back home. A promise to a beloved friend. The lack of scandal ("I don't ask you about your mistresses in that city of yours", Massu remembers someone saying a long time ago, misty, vague, he hears it), the solo attendances at gala events, a year isn't complete without a visit back, nine hundred miles from Tokyo, flights to the airport and six-hour bus rides back to the village, for…?
He touches Shige's face, tries to imagine the texture of Shige's skin beneath his fingers, the smoothness of his cheeks and scratchiness of his chin, the coldness of his ears; tries to hear the low, undulating tones of Shige's voice, rough on the falling sounds, teasing on the double "aa"s. But he feels nothing, hears nothing, sees only Shige's smiling face on paper, forever silenced voice telling him of the years of love and hard work and sacrifice that Massu had known little about, and misunderstood the little he'd known.
It's been close on twenty years since he had last been here, and the old lighthouse no longer exists. Instead, here is this – a lighthouse-trying-to-be-a-lighthouse, that knows nothing of windy nights and homemade apple juice and two boys sitting up in the lighthouse tower watching the ships out at sea with each other. Masuda rubs his face, feeling suddenly older than he has ever felt before. Those memories have passed away; when he goes too, they'll no longer be memories, just fragments of history forgotten. He wants to carve his and Shige's names onto a durable something, a rock maybe, that will be able to withstand time and changing lighthouses; wants someone years later to come and see their names and read into them the history that they've never told anyone; those illicit nights at ryokans and the hikes through forests and fevered kisses in the lighthouse room; the two best friends who'd played together on the beach and thrown fishes at each other and fallen for the same girl at nine years old and squatted on the beach grieving for a lost father. But nobody will do that, will they – even if they see those names together, it will mean nothing to them beyond being just some carving made by some stranger in some point in time.
Most times he wonders why Shige had never told him in so many words how much he'd given for their relationship; remembers that he'd actually never made Shige promise anything. Shige hadn't been bound by a promise; Massu wouldn't have done that to him anyway – besides, love that was bound by promise was not love.
But he had misunderstood and left – that's the way it was, and there's nothing doing about it, nothing that can be changed. Leave it, Masuda, leave it.
- From Gem to triv: Thank you for writing this monster of a fic with me, bb <3 It was a long and rough ride but we made it through!
- Thanks to everyone who commented on the original post. Your comments made our day :D