"Matane, matane!" Yumiko waves goodbye to her classmates by the wrought iron gate marking the entrance to the exclusive, international high-school, Kokusai Academy in Meguro. Wild and withered ivy has a firm grip on the gate, but the ivy on the walls of the school is lush and green, almost to the point of looking artificial. Her head is still swirling from information overload, mainly about the periodical system and the mock exam in Chemistry she will need to prepare for. It’s not exactly her favorite subject and this time, no collaboration is allowed, so she cannot rely on Yoko or any of the other girls from her class. Like your typical teenager, she is almost sleep-walking her way on the sidewalk with her eyes completely absorbed by the phone display, skimming through the latest messages in her LINE app.
It is summertime in Tokyo, hot and humid, and the buzzing sound of the omnipresent cicadas creates an oppressive atmosphere. All she can do on days like this is rush from one small cool zone to the other. From the air-conditioned school classrooms to the train carriages, stopping by a convenience store for a quick refreshment before finally escaping the heat for good when returning to her apartment, putting the A/C on full throttle. Yumiko is wiping beads of sweat off her forehead with the sleeve of her blazer, dexterously avoiding getting any black eyeliner on her white shirt. The school uniform, especially the tight tie, is a straitjacket, making her feel like a mental asylum escapee on a desperate hunt for some civilian and more comfortable clothes.
She is writing a long message for her best friend when a black Nissan President with tinted windows pulls over in front of her. A car window rolls down and for a few seconds, a crew-cut guy with sunglasses is staring intently at her uniformed shape scurrying along the sidewalk. The luxury sedan then accelerates and pulls away from the curb into the heavy traffic on Komaba-dori. Yumiko looks up, catching a glimpse of the crew-cut man. Hmm, what a creepy guy. She frowns but continues her text to Yoko.
"Why don't you drop by my place tonight and hang out? My dad is traveling abroad again."
Yumiko takes a shortcut to the station through the park behind the high school. While trotting past the school tennis court, a familiar voice shouts her name.
“Hey, Yumiko! Let’s hit the bar again this weekend!”
Turning her head, there is no doubt as to the source of the voice. Ah, that’s Matt. A lean boy with short blond hair is practicing his serve in the tennis court, and as always, he is wearing white shorts and a matching polo shirt imprinted with the school logo. His dad is an American diplomat stationed in Tokyo for the time being. He is cute, even if he can be a bit pretentious. When she talks boys with Yoko, he is a frequent topic of discussion, and last weekend they went on a double date in Roppongi Hills. First the cinema, then a few soft drinks in a bar. Had Yumiko’s dad learned anything about the bar visit, he would have freaked out, so she kept that a secret, of course. Fortunately, he had been away on yet another business trip to California, so she had been home alone that weekend.
“You’re lucky you can do whatever you want.” That is what Yoko thinks, but Yumiko would gladly give up all that freedom if it could somehow magically bring back her mom. Despite her best efforts to suppress them, memories of that horrible afternoon nearly two years ago resurface now. “Yumiko, the principal wants to see you in his office.” She had left her desk in the middle of an English class and opened the door to the principal’s office with sweaty palms. “Your mom has been hit by a car. She has been hospitalized and is badly wounded.” The room started spinning, and she had to sit down to maintain her balance. While she had been given a glass of water and some comforting words, the earth-shattering message itself had been served with no warning and little empathy. Why did mom always insist on riding her bicycle when doing the grocery shopping? If only she had taken the car on that fateful day.
“No, not this weekend, Matt. My dad is coming home on Friday.” While rejecting Matt’s offer, she is struggling to shake off the somber memories of her mom’s death.
Yumiko turns her back on Matt and breezes through the rest of the park towards Kobama-Todaimae Station. As she exits the park and is about to cross the street, a black car with tinted windows is edging around the street corner. Moving like a slug with a cramp. Is that the same car, and why is it going so slowly? Is it following her? A shiver runs up her spine, and she hurries across the street and starts running down an alley leading in the direction of the station. From now on, she instinctively sprints down the narrowest passageways she can find. Surely, cars of that size will be unable to follow her there. She reaches the station building within minutes, breathing as heavily as if she had just completed the Tokyo Marathon. Thank God! As the name suggests, the station is located right in front of Tokyo University, specifically in front of the Faculty of Arts at Kobama campus. “Tokyo University is the right place for someone of your caliber, Yumiko. You should go to law school or medical school.” While she didn’t flatly reject her dad, she is keener on studying foreign languages and cultures. The look and feel of Kobama campus is perfect. Becoming a lawyer or a doctor is not on her radar at all.
The LED light on the ticket gate flashes green as she briefly places her wallet with her Pasmo card on its sensor. The gate opens, allowing her just enough time to pass through it and ascend the stairs leading onto the platforms. While waiting for the next train, her breathing is normalizing but the beads of sweat on her forehead and around her neck are turning into an icky sheen. Scanning the platform for any crew-cut men with sunglasses in her vicinity, Yumiko boards the first train arriving. Her heart is still racing, and her thumbs are working the phone display as she is texting Yoko yet again.
“Yoko, R U coming 2nite? I think someone is stalking me :-o”
The train is taking her to Shibuya, and from there she can get on the Hanzomon metro line which will stop in Aoyama near her home. Aoyama is one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in Tokyo, and Yumiko lives with her dad in the residential complex called Aoyama Daiichi Mansions. The posh apartments are situated right along Omote-sando, another facet of Yumiko’s life Yoko has expressed envy about. They have often gone on shopping sprees in the luxury outlets along the famous boulevard. How can her dad afford this luxurious lifestyle? Of course, he is the CEO of a company developing mobile apps, but as far as she can gather, they are still struggling to get their apps released on the market. Her dad has always had a special charisma about him, so she assumes he is just good at making investors see the great, untapped potential in his business plans. At least he is regularly traveling to California to meet with business angels from the Silicon Valley circles.
Walking on autopilot through the dense crowd of busy commuters in the pedestrian crossing outside the massive Shibuya Station, vibrations in her pocket bring her back to reality. She takes her phone out of her school blazer and opens the latest unread message.
“Yumi-chan, OMG :-O BRT. Take care! Hugz /Yoko”
A wide smile appears on her lips. What would she do without her best friend? She hurries along the moving sidewalk connecting the JR part of Shibuya with the underground metro lines in the opposite end of the station. It is late afternoon, and a whole throng of people are headed to or from the metro lines. Is anyone in that dense forest of people stalking her? With darting glances, she presses on through the endless hordes of commuters. It had clearly been the same car, first accelerating from the curb when she looked up and next driving very slowly as if on the lookout for something or someone.
Like a centipede on drugs scaling the uneven surface of a LEGO cityscape, the Yamanote line carriage is whisking Tomoko through the dark maze of illuminated high-rise office blocks. While struggling to maintain her balance on her high heels in the moving train carriage, Tomoko is smoothing out the wrinkles in her dress and trying to ignore a balding, middle-aged office worker ogling at her over the top of his newspaper. She is in transit for Shinagawa Station, but her mind is stuck elsewhere, grappling with the implications of what just happened. Not an hour has passed since she left the room in that love hotel near Gotanda Station and thinking about it still makes her pulse quicken. How unreal that she went ahead and did this. A few days after creating her profile on the dating site, scores of male users had already contacted her. Ryo was one of them, and they had agreed to meet up by the western exit of the station. The secret rendezvous had taken place early in the evening, so that she could make it back home in time before her husband. Tomoko had described her looks and her outfit to allow Ryo to easily recognize her.
There she is, standing outside a Lawson convenience store with a pounding heart, scouting the streets for a young guy in his mid-twenties wearing sunglasses and a khaki-colored shirt. Suddenly, he turns the corner right in front of her with a mischievous smile on his lips and his hands in his pockets. "Tomoko-san?" She nods and starts giggling like a teenage girl. Not ten minutes later they find themselves facing a nondescript counter with a sliding shutter only leaving space enough for the anonymous exchange of money and key cards. The front desk clerk assigns them a room on the second floor. 80 minutes. Not exactly the most romantic of set-ups. What a strange place! On her way up the stairs, Tomoko is almost having second thoughts about the whole affair, but the guy's smile is charming, much as she has imagined him to be. He takes off his sunglasses, and his glance also has a calming effect on her. There is something reassuringly innocent and boyish about his behavior. He is slim, borderline skinny, and the bottle of white wine she drank before leaving her apartment is still coursing through her veins imbuing her with an uncharacteristic vitality and devil-may-care attitude.
They unlock the door to the room, and Tomoko hardly has time to take off her high heels or breathe in the atmosphere of the place before Ryo embraces her, letting his hands explore her tight-fitting one-piece dress. Such sweet words and soft caresses. Tomoko forgets all about the location of her high heels and whether they remembered to lock the door behind them or not. It has been so long since she last felt desirable and truly aroused. How often has she not made dinner for her husband and waited in vain for him to come home from work? Or caressed him when he finally did come home, only to be rejected with the excuse that he was too tired? Over the course of time, disappointments and rejections have become the rule rather than the exception, and what little love and respect she had for her husband have crumbled away.
The carriage suddenly decelerates, causing Tomoko to lose her train of thought.
"Densha ga mairimasu". The train is speeding towards the platform. His heart is pounding like a hammer in his chest and his shirt is drenched in sweat. Is he really going to do it? He is on the receiving end of a soul-piercing look from an old lady in a classic black kimono standing next to him. Can she tell what he is up to? Weeks have passed since his last day at work. Yet every morning, Takeda-san has put on his suit and tie, kissed his wife and kids goodbye, and boarded the Rinkai line taking him downtown from their 3-bedroom mansion on the 32nd floor of the posh residential complex near Aqua City at Odaiba, the artificial island in Tokyo Bay. After having lost his job, it no longer makes sense going to Shinjuku Park Tower where he used to work in a start-up developing mobile apps. Instead, he goes to his favorite parks in Tokyo, finds a bench with a nice view, drinks a cup of coffee, and simply observes people around him while reflecting on his life. In particular, he likes Yoyogi Park near Harajuku. He enjoys watching the foliage around the trees, the fountains, the many people jogging, the uniformed and giggling high-school students with white leg warmers. Even the foreign tourists and the noisy activist college students. Every day provides him with a new experience.
For a while he has almost forgotten the impending monthly payment on his mortgage but time flies, and it will soon be the 27th. There will be insufficient funds in his Mitsubishi UFJ account. A written reminder will find its way into their apartment mailbox, his wife will demand an explanation, and he will be in a tight spot. The shame will be unbearable. How will the neighbors react? How humiliating it will be for his wife to break the news to the other moms. To explain why their kids suddenly have to drop out of their international school in the fashionable Akasaka neighborhood and instead enroll into a regular public school. She will undoubtedly divorce him and relocate to her childhood home way up in Aomori province. In the local community, the word will spread like a wildfire that she has left her husband because he was unable to provide for her. The financial embarrassment of having to start over in life will be insufferable. Worse yet, as a middle-aged divorcée and mother of two she will likely be unable to remarry. He will only be allowed to see his kids at special occasions. The smiling faces of Yurika and Kenji bring with them a ray of light into his darkened mind.
Tomoko gets off at Shinagawa Station, walking the few hundred meters through the shopping arcade and past the izakaya which, at this late hour, are packed with hordes of drunken office workers. The last suburbia-bound trains depart Shinagawa around midnight, so the intensity of the drinking is now climaxing, and Tomoko dodges one businessman after the other shouting “kampai” in her direction. Her path takes her down to Kyu kaigan-dori, the old coastal road, heading towards the canal. She lives in a small, two-bedroom mansion in a residential complex right by the canal. The apartment is nicely situated with an unobstructed view of Tokyo Tower from the balcony, and she knows her husband is working hard just to pay the monthly rent. She nods at the receptionist on the ground floor with a quick "konbanwa", scans her keycard, and crosses the lobby. Click-clack, click-clack. That is her high heels touching the opulent marble floor, and she shrugs apologetically in the direction of the receptionist as she heads for the elevator.
Though uncalled for, the excuse is habitual. She presses the button taking her to the 14th floor. Tomoko and her husband never started a family, so she has always had a lot of leisure time in her adult life. While she does have a college degree in European languages, she has never put it to any professional use. Before her career really had a chance to take off, she met her husband. He is about 10 years older than she is, and when they met as colleagues, he already held a permanent position with the company. They quickly got married, and he did not want her to work full-time, so she became a housewife. Although they have tried to have kids for years, they just never succeeded, and Tomoko suspects it may be her husband’s unhealthy lifestyle which is the root cause.
She opens the door to their apartment with another keycard. Everything is so high-tech these days, even in residential complexes. In the entrance, there is a screen connected to a ground floor camera allowing you to see exactly who your guests are before you let them in. Akito is still at work, and Tomoko throws herself tired onto the living room couch. She really ought to prepare a meal for him now, but she is not done digesting the events at that love hotel in Gotanda.
“So how old are you really Tomoko? It didn’t say on your profile.”
“Tsk tsk. Don’t you know it’s impolite to ask a lady her age? Let’s just say I was in middle school when Tonari no Totoro hit the cinemas.”
His gaze becomes unfocused while he is doing the math, but the results of the equation quickly bring him back with a wide grin on his face.
“You could be my mom, haha!”
Having only just enrolled in college, Ryo is 21. On the dating site, Tomoko has not minced her words when it comes to her targeting the young men. They are just more playful and fun, and the age difference is such a thrill. In very direct terms, her secretive profile tells all men above 25 to refrain from contacting her.