from the cell phone novel Tsugaru Min’yō (津軽民謡, “Folk Songs of Tsugaru”)
by CHAWAN Emiko (茶碗 恵美子)
trans. MYŌGADANI Mōra (茗荷谷 望裸)
Author’s Note: Inspired by Sawada Katsuaki’s (澤田勝秋) rendition of Tsugaru Jongara (Shin Bushi) (津軽じょんがら節(新節)).
The heat and steam feel good, melting away the aches left over from last night and this morning. So does just breathing, sitting here together – not together-together, clearly lovers; they can’t go to that kind of place and don’t want to anyway- but close enough to hear each others’ breathing, and take comfort in it. Or at least Shinsuke is.
He’s been starving for Yoshida, lately. They don’t go to love hotels – most don’t allow male couples anyway, and he doesn’t want to be remembered at the ones that do – so they’re limited to the odd occasion when one of their houses is empty. Often in public they don’t even touch, not even knees under the table.
Of course that’s Shinsuke’s own fault – if he weren’t so concerned with looking spotless for the media scrutiny of the future, then it wouldn’t be like this. But he wants to be a Diet member, and that means he has to be careful that they don’t accidentally out themselves.
All of which means that when they have the chance to get away, like now, on vacation together to an onsen, they spend more time in bed than they do out of it for the first day or so, and then they start getting sated and sore and actually start leaving the room for more than just meals.
The advantage to vacations at hot springs inns is that the heat of the water soaks away a lot of the aches, like the one at the small of his back, and his wrists. He knows better than to think his ass is going to feel much better afterwards – that last time Yoshida did him too thoroughly to have a chance of it.
And anyway Yoshida already said, right before he started in on the blow job this morning, that he wanted to bottom tonight. So. Shinsuke’s back not hurting is far more important. And more important than that is the fact that the heat of the water spreading through his muscles feels amazing. It reminds him of being curled up warm in bed in the morning, heat dancing up and down his spine. The difference is that beds don’t usually leave your fingers and toes pruney.
There’s no one else but them in the water right now, though he can hear voices from where the women’s onsen is, so he lets his fingers slide along the seat until he reaches Yoshida’s thigh, just rests his fingertips on Yoshida’s skin.
Yoshida opens his eyes from where he was not-quite-drowsing. Glances over. Doesn’t say anything.
“Just wanted to touch you,” Shinsuke mumbles, and Yoshida’s eyes close for a moment, open again as his mouth twitches almost into a smile.
“‘s anyone coming?”
“Don’t hear anything.”
The water splashes lightly as Yoshida turns, leans into him. Kisses him, lightly, there in the water, where anyone who walked in could see and remember. Shinsuke’s belly tightens with nerves and he doesn’t open his mouth, doesn’t answer, until finally Yoshida moves away from him, leans back against the outcropping of rock behind them, looks down at the water with faintly hunched shoulders.
“You know,” Shinsuke says.
“I know,” Yoshida answers. The silence is loud, uncomfortable, heavy. A woman laughs, and the sound of water splashing echoes around them.
Finally Yoshida says, “Let’s go inside,” so they do.
Traditional Japanese-style dinner is included with the room. Simple homestyle cooking ― houtou noodle soup, and boiled tofu and fish. Miso soup, and stir-fried vegetables and pork. It’s very good. Once, he and Yoshida reach for the soy sauce at the same time, and neither of them stops. Shinsuke lets his fingers wrap around Yoshida’s for a moment before he drops his hand away – I love you, he doesn’t whisper, but he thinks it. Yoshida pours the soy sauce out onto his saucer, small circles flowing into a puddle, then holds the pourer out for Shinsuke to take.
His fingers are cold, his knuckles rough as Shinsuke wraps his fingers into the spaces between Yoshida’s. They hold it together for a moment, not long enough to look suspicious, and then Yoshida lets go. Shinsuke pours his soy sauce and hopes his emotions aren’t obvious on his face. His belly feels empty and his heart pounds heavy in his chest. Yoshida likes to press his fingers, his lips to the hollow of Shinsuke’s throat so he can feel his pulse; Shinsuke wonders what he’s thinking now, as they watch each other and Yoshida half-smiles.
Which is when Shinsuke feels the spill of liquid under his fingers – he looks to find his fingertips stained dark. Soy sauce must’ve dripped down the side of the bottle. There’s a couple of droplets on the table, too.
“Spilt soy sauce won’t return to the tray,” Yoshida murmurs, sitting forward to take the pourer from his hands and putting it down on the table. There’s soy sauce on his fingers now, too, and he licks it off his thumb. Watches Shinsuke as he does it.
Shinsuke isn’t sure what he’s trying to say, with that adage. If he just means that there’s no real point to trying to clean up the soy sauce – but Shinsuke knew that, and wasn’t trying to. So he must have meant something more –
Yoshida smiles at him, lopsided and welcome, and says, “An answer would’ve been nice, but it’s okay.”
Ah. That. Yoshida needs more straightforward ways of expressing himself. Like being able to have a conversation about their relationship, but that’s…
Shinsuke nods, sets his eyes back on the food, and goes back to eating.
After dinner, they go back to their room. Shinsuke hasn’t quite decided if he wants to do something before – before they start, but Yoshida answers that question right after the door closes by making a face and stating flatly, “The place smells like sex. I’m opening the window.”
It’s just a smell, and it’s not like they’re not going to replenish it tonight. Shinsuke watches Yoshida bend to unlatch the window, open it a finger’s-length – it’s too cold out for more than that – and then pull the fake shoji screen back in front of the glass. Yoshida pauses for a moment, standing there, then says to the window, “Do you regret deciding to be together?”
Damn it. “I don’t – that’s a complicated question.”
Yoshida folds into seiza, sitting there. His back is still to Shinsuke. He looks good like this, even if he is wearing jeans and his bright red winter coat and looks nothing like an old-fashioned samurai should. It’s something about the way he carries himself, with so much grace.
Shinsuke sits down, before he can start shaking from nerves. “Politicians aren’t supposed to have visible moral failings. They won’t get elected that way. And career-wise, I want nothing else.
“But I am – homosexual. I don’t believe that’s wrong. I wouldn’t want to do lewd things in public, no matter what kind of lover I had. But I would be happy to live openly, to introduce you as my boyfriend or partner. I want to do that. But if I did, I would never make it to the Diet.”
Yoshida breathes, slowly, and his hands slip off his thighs onto the tatami floor. “I wanted to hear that,” he says finally. “Although I’m not sure you realize that you came very close to proposing to me, just now.”
Shinsuke’s breath catches in his chest. “Don’t be ridiculous. There won’t be gay marriage in Japan in our lifetime.” Even if he’s spent the past three months wishing there would be – since the weekend after his twentieth birthday, when Yoshida brought him home for dinner and introduced him to his parents and sister. Shinsuke didn’t know what to think of it until later that night, lying naked together, their legs tangled and him breathing against Yoshida’s chest as his heartbeat slowed, when Yoshida said, “I wouldn’t mind if your brother called me ‘Yoshiwara’ to my face.”
Shinsuke’d been in love before then, and had known it too. But it flashed through him, like lightning, and he shivered, lying there above Yoshida with warm hands resting atop his back, and thought that if there were any fucking justice in the world, any at all, then there’d be a respectable way to bind them to each other before the law and their friends and family, where he could sit across the table from them with Yoshida at his side and say This is Yoshida Kiyoshi and he makes me so happy I can’t breathe, and not just in bed either, and if his parents agree and you agree I want to mar-
At which point he tried to stop thinking because that sort of wish would only leave his heart broken.
Yoshida has turned to watch him and he looks – as handsome as he always does, smile open-bright instead of the twist his lips take on when he’s laughing at the subject’s expense.
“Maeda,” he says, “What is a heart that bleeds like yours does doing trying to go into politics?”
“Making things better requires kindness,” he says, and Yoshida does laugh at that, a low chuckle that makes Shinsuke smile in answer, and then Yoshida unfolds from seiza straight to lying on his belly on the floor, chin resting on his crossed arms as he looks up at Shinsuke.
“Your blind idealism at once inspiring and adorable,” he says. “Come over here and do me.”
“…that was straightforward.”
Yoshida smiles, and tries to unzip his coat except his hand hits the floor and he can’t go any farther than that, and he sits up and finishes taking it off while Shinsuke laughs at him and sits forward to come closer.
Shinsuke’s kiss catches Yoshida unprepared, strange and awkward, so Shinsuke pauses and tries again. Yoshida’s ready this time.
Yoshida is good at kissing, or so Shinsuke guesses. It turns him on, anyway, the pressure of their lips and the slick heat of Yoshida’s tongue. Yoshida claims he learned from a book he read in high school and practiced with the girlfriend he had in junior year who dumped him when Exam Hell really took over. Shinsuke doesn’t much care where he learned; Yoshida kind of had to teach him how to kiss anyway. Now it’s not comfortable, it can’t be comfortable when kissing just once leaves Shinsuke wanting to keep going, press his hands under Yoshida’s clothing and touch his skin, strip them both naked and fall into bed – or onto the table – or against the wall – together.
Yoshida’s skin under his shirt is warm in the cold of the room, and he shivers slightly as Shinsuke touches him.
Shinsuke lets the kiss fade, breathes in a moment as Yoshida relaxes beside him. “You okay?”
“It’s cold,” Yoshida points out.
“Haven’t turned the heater on.”
“I was expecting to be in bed with my pants around my knees by this point.”
“…huh.” Shinsuke lets his hands rise up Yoshida’s chest, warm skin under his palms and Yoshida’s shirt bunching over his wrists. Yoshida helps him pull it off, then stands and unbuttons his jeans with a quick twist of his hands. The zipper is the only sound in the room for a moment, before he folds the fly open and Shinsuke realizes he’s breathing loudly.
Yoshida’s boxers are bright green. Shinsuke starts folding his feet under himself to rise to his knees, puts a hand on Yoshida’s thigh for support, but Yoshida says, “Get naked first. It’s fucking freezing.”
“It’s like you don’t want to get blown.”
“‘scuse me for trying to save your knees.”
Shinsuke doesn’t respond to that – it’s true; he doesn’t like kneeling to give blowjobs because it ends up hurting – and instead focuses on getting his clothes off. Jacket, unbuttoned, dropped on the floor. Shirt, yanked over his head. He has to stand up to get the jeans off, and it’s really distracting when he looks up and sees Yoshida, naked and kneeling on the floor, rummaging through his bag for the lube and condoms. His back is a long span of skin, his spine a running line down the center, a dusting of pink scar-motes at his right shoulder from falling off a moving bike when he was little.
Yoshida stands up, turns – glances at Shinsuke, gaze sweeping down his body and then returning to his face. “Fuck,” he swears lowly. “Don’t look at me like that.”
“Sorry.” Shinsuke turns back to trying to get his feet out of his pants legs.
“Not like that,” Yoshida snaps, and drops the condoms and lube on the bed as he paces over to Shinsuke and kneels again, this time helping Shinsuke extract his ankles from the bunched cloth. “I know you’re sentimental, but there’s no reason to go around looking like – like -” He leans his head against Shinsuke’s thigh. His cheek is warm, as they are silent together for a moment.
Finally Yoshida lets his hand drop to the waistband of Shinsuke’s jeans, puddled on the floor. “I sound like a bad girls’ manga.” He pulls away and walks to the futon, throwing back the covers on his side and sliding in.
“How Buddhist. All the world is illusion,” Shinsuke mutters, wiggles his foot a little so his jeans fall off, and pads over.
They laid out the futons side-by-side deliberately, to have the space for their bodies together. When they took a vacation together last August, they didn’t ― or rather, they shifted the beds apart whenever they left the room. They didn’t bother this time, which is nice because they don’t have to think about having enough space, or having to mess with the beds before they can start.
Yoshida welcomes him into the bed with a kiss, lying there beside one another under the duvet, and folds his arms over Shinsuke’s shoulders to keep them close. His erection is heavy and warm against Shinsuke’s thigh, and welcome. Shinsuke rests one hand on Yoshida’s hip and drinks at Yoshida’s mouth, their tongues sliding together. At some point their teeth slam together and they have to pull apart.
Shinsuke lets his head bend to Yoshida’s collarbone, breathes a bit while he waits for his teeth to stop hurting. He tongues the ones that hurt and thinks of what to say, but Yoshida beats him to it.
“Are you sure that isn’t your subconscious’s way of telling you to get on with things?”
“Do you want me to?”
“Do you want to?”
“You say that like I’m the one who’s being inconvenienced.”
Yoshida’s fingers trace the first few bumps of his spine at the back of his neck, tangle with his hair. “Just because I don’t usually want you inside me doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it.”
“Huh,” Shinsuke mutters. He stretches one leg out against Yoshida’s, and the shifting moves them closer together, pressure and heat, before he pushes Yoshida lightly onto his back and slides down his body. Shinsuke likes the feeling of all that smooth skin laid out against him, so he tries to stay close to it, the front of his body resting against Yoshida’s leg. His back starts to hurt if he lies flat on his stomach for as long as it takes to give Yoshida a good blow job, and it’s not like he has any ambitions at deep-throating him anytime soon.
When he first presses his lips to Yoshida’s erection, Yoshida makes a noise low in his throat, and his hand slides halfway down his own belly towards Shinsuke’s head. When Shinsuke opens his mouth, licks at the side, Yoshida breathes deeply in through his nose.
Yoshida’s hands clench, as do his thighs and the muscles between them, when Shinsuke finally opens his mouth and takes him inside. Shinsuke wishes he had a finger or two buried in Yoshida to feel it.
After a bit Yoshida’s fingers twitch against the back of Shinsuke’s palm and he says, “That ― that thing, there, again.” If Shinsuke knew what he was talking about he’d grant the request but he kind of doesn’t, not that there are many options, so he does a few of them again. Yoshida’s hips try to move, checked by Shinsuke’s weight on him, and he almost-settles without losing any of his tension. After a while longer he snaps, “If you want to put it in me you’d better to do it before I come inside your mouth.”
Shinsuke pulls off him, swallows and wipes off his mouth, but doesn’t sit up off him. “Is that what you want?” he asks.
“Is what what I want? Don’t make me repeat myself; I’ll go soft.”
“Yoshida,” he says, because as often as the hints and the innuendo go this far, more than half the time they don’t even make it, whether because they forget in the heat of the moment or because one of them decides he likes something else better.
“You should never negotiate contracts. Yes, by all means, please avail yourself of this opportunity to sodomize me.”
And Shinsuke laughs a little, because he has to, and reaches to the side to open the lube, spread it over his fingers and shiver at the reminder of the cold outside of the bed, outside of the space between them.
Yoshida tightens when he first touches him there, and snarls something incoherent about the cold, but doesn’t repeat it when Shinsuke’s fingertip presses at the space of his entrance and slips in slightly. His hands spread flat over his own belly after Shinsuke pushes in a little deeper, and even if he’s not as hard as he was his body still seems interested.
Shinsuke slicks up a second finger and slides it into him, but Yoshida hisses slightly and his hands tighten and then relax. “I can be ready if you want,” he says tightly, “but if you do, do me a favor and hold back a little.”
“That makes no sense.”
“If I played the bottom more often I’d be fine, but I don’t, which means that no matter how easy you take it I’m going to be sore. Therefore -”
“Therefore I have to take extra care. And follow this up with being on top of you more often.”
“If you were going to ride me, then -”
Shinsuke grits his teeth a moment – it’s true; he does like the sensation of Yoshida filling him – and flexes his fingers apart, feeling the lube squish between his skin and Yoshida’s softness.
Yoshida clenches all over and tries to pull away, briefly, and he really is verging on soft by this point. Maybe there was something to his whining about talking too much killing his erection. That’s not likely to be the real cause, though.
So, two fingers quite happily inside Yoshida, Shinsuke murmurs, “Are you trying to say that you want me to stop?”
There’s a moment of silence, then, “Maeda, come up here so I can strangle you. Get fucking on with it.”
“I can’t do both,” he says lightly, but he’s already sliding his fingers out, holding out the condom in its wrapper for Yoshida to open since he can’t, with one hand slicked up. Yoshida does him the favor, and then slides it on him too, feeling him up in the process, and when Shinsuke looks down at him he’s hardened a little, which is reassuring. It’s not Yoshida’s fault that he prefers topping.
Lining up their bodies is more about luck than anything else, and takes some judicious aiming, too. And then Shinsuke fucks up the angle and Yoshida tightens, hard, and jerks away.
“Sorry,” he breathes, and Yoshida reaches up to brush his fingers against Shinsuke’s parted lips.
“Get some more goddamn practice,” Yoshida says, and shifts his hips in a way that makes him feel twice as open, a slick soft too-tight slide in.
Yoshida doesn’t do much of anything for the first few thrusts, just closes his eyes and reaches down between their bodies for himself. Then Shinsuke raises one of Yoshida’s knees, to make things easier, and Yoshida’s eyes snap open.
“Not there, up a little,” Yoshida says, “and not so deep -” His breathing is suddenly shallower and quicker, and he raises the other leg to hook one ankle over Shinsuke’s shoulder. Shinsuke doesn’t tell him that the loss of circulation will be a pain later, since either way Yoshida’ll find something to whine at him about, and his foot falling asleep is pretty mild.
He almost bends Yoshida in half, leaning to kiss him, but Yoshida winces against his mouth and his legs slip down Shinsuke’s arms to catch at his elbows. He’s touching himself, as Shinsuke moves inside him, and since Shinsuke’s endurance is embarrassingly low, he’s already close to coming when Yoshida says, “I’ve been wondering what it looks like, where you enter me.”
Which means Shinsuke makes the mistake of looking. He sees the stretched pink-red of Yoshida’s body open around him, the slick spread over their skin. It’s weird, how erotic it is, like something out of a porn film instead of real life.
It takes him a few moments to look back at Yoshida, who laughs, his throat a long line of golden skin, inside warm and slick, and he feels the flex of Yoshida’s muscles around him and he’s gone. Sweetness and heat, and all his body rocked with the pulse of his muscles, his blood.
Yoshida is rocking his hips, lightly, when Shinsuke comes back to himself.
“Trust you to only find my prostate right before you come,” he snips.
“Next time,” Shinsuke promises, pulling out and wincing at the intensity of the sensation. The trash bin is on the other side of the room, so he has to get out of the bed to throw the condom away, and the cold is shocking after the heat of the bed and their bodies together.
It feels good to slide back into the bed next to Yoshida, who is – hard beneath the covers, stroking himself slowly.
“Let me,” Shinsuke breathes, and spreads himself over Yoshida to kiss him, deep and hungry, and then back down to taste him, bitter and flesh-soft, and warm, until Yoshida is tense and heavy beneath him and coming, and Shinsuke spits into some tissues from the box that’s been at the side of the bed since they first arrived.
Shinsuke’s half of their double laid-out futons is mostly cold, although there’s some warmth that seeped in from their bodies on Yoshida’s half. He shivers, faintly, and Yoshida rolls onto his side and stretches one arm across Shinsuke’s chest to drag him close.
“I get cold easily and the heater’s on the other side of the room. Be my replacement,” Yoshida mutters. “The advantage is that when I wake up in half an hour there’ll be springs in the floor.”
Shinsuke turns his head, a second away from being shocked, and realizes that Yoshida’s eyes are closed and he’s likely half-asleep. It’s – charming, and the sense of being together, sleeping and living and sex, is so strong that he imagines, briefly, that they have been together for far longer than just a year. Something catches, in his heart and his throat, and he closes his eyes and turns his head towards Yoshida’s as he lets himself doze off.
When he wakes up early the next morning, too early to even be called morning, Yoshida is still pressed up against him, but in a different position. The room is even colder than it was – it’s utterly unseasonable – and there’s not any reason to be awake at this hour, really, unless he wants to take a shower to get the remains of the sex off his skin. Which he sees no point in doing, since even if he did he’d get back into bed with Yoshida again afterwards, invalidating the shower, or close enough.
He rolls over, enough to realize that Yoshida lying on his arm has made it fall asleep.
He half-wakes later when Yoshida moves away from him, then startles at the sudden shock of having his shoulder slapped, not enough to really hurt but enough to sting.
“You bastard,” Yoshida snarls, “We’re riding slow trains home!”
“Huh.” Shinsuke sits up beside Yoshida before he remembers the cold, regrets it, and decides to stick with it. “Did you bleed or something?”
“Probably. I’m a little more concerned by how sitting up hurts, and don’t you dare say anything about how I’m sitting up now.”
Shinsuke thinks about that for a moment, then says, “Be strong” before getting out of bed to evade Yoshida hitting him again.
For all his complaining, Yoshida doesn’t seem any different when they go down to breakfast, and as always he has the most perfect way of sitting in seiza that Shinsuke’s ever seen on someone younger than fifty.
Although to be honest, Yoshida would normally sit Indian-style, and the fact that he’s not is pretty indicative, but at least he’s not acting like he’s uncomfortable.
They woke up late enough that after the quite-necessary shower for each of them they only had time for breakfast before they had to check out, so that’s that. There’s a ten-minute walk to the train station, and then the trip back, although they’ll probably stop off somewhere on the way, since they have the time.
They get two stops before Shinsuke sees a convenient-looking Book-Off and insists on disembarking. So Yoshida suffers through an hour of used books, spending the first half of it flipping through detective novels and the second half flipping through Boys’ Love comics, next to Shinsuke, and making snide comments like His endowment is absurd; the room must not only be freezing but he’s not enjoying himself.
“Either stop reading it or buy it,” Shinsuke says finally. “There are ladies who will pay money for those, and enjoy them besides**.”
“Don’t say things like that; it offends my sense of economics. If the monetary value of their comedy exceeded a hundred and five yen I would buy them.”
“Your sense of economics terrifies me, quite honestly. Let’s go; I don’t see anything I want.”
“You should be terrified; the dollar trap is -” Yoshida begins, at which point Shinsuke, having heard the speech before, tunes it out.
Back on the train, a few stops and then a transfer. At the transfer, even though the train is sitting there on the tracks with the doors open, they have about a ten-minute wait, so after they drop their bags on the floor of the train Shinsuke goes to buy something to drink out of one of the vending machines on the platform.
The vending machine is, luckily, one of the ones that sells hot drinks. His fingers are starting to feel chilly, after they warmed up on the last train.
He presses the button to request the milk tea, then, as the bottle falls noisily down the chutes in the vending machine, he decides to pick something up for Yoshida, too, since he put five hundred yen into the machine anyway.
Almost at random he presses the button for a can of coffee – he’s drunk this flavor before, and thinks it’s okay, and Yoshida is really more into vending-machine coffee than vending-machine tea. Brings both cans back and drops them on top of his bag while he collapses into his seat. Yoshida is spread out over his own, knees apart and body slouched down into the seat. He picks up the drinks and looks at them, then says, “‘s it okay if I drink one?”
“Bought two for a reason.”
“Thanks. Which one’s yours?”
“I’ll have the tea, then. Thanks.” He twists open the cap and drains half the bottle in one go. His throat is warm-golden, muscles shifting as he swallows, and Shinsuke turns away to sip at the coffee.
The train sets off, exactly on time. The girl sitting across the aisle from them pulls out a book with a cover that’s all in English and starts reading; Yoshida squints over and then dismisses it. Shinsuke pulls out his cell phone and starts replying to some emails from his friends with the university’s radio station.
After a bit, Yoshida leans over and looks at his cell phone screen, then leans back to his own phone. Shinsuke looks over; he’s got his web application up and is playing some Internet game or another.
Five minutes later, right after Shinsuke has sent the second-to-last of his necessary emails, Yoshida leans over and grabs Shinsuke’s cell phone right out of his hands. Shinsuke lets him have it, and tries to follow his typing, but he put a privacy screen on it a few months ago so the screen just looks black. He waits, then tries to lean over Yoshida’s shoulder, only to have Yoshida tilt the screen away from him –
Shinsuke grabs his wrist and pulls. Catches a glance at the screen, enough to see filled and that place and push, and he says, “Please tell me you’re going to delete that.”
“I think I’ll send it to myself. Or your brother. I bet he’d get a good laugh out of it.”
“You wouldn’t – !”
“Not your brother. But maybe me. Keep myself warm at night. Just think – perfect pale thighs, spread open -”
“Give me that!” Shinsuke makes a grab for his phone, this time without Yoshida putting up much of a fight, and manages to seize it back. Yoshida goes back to his internet games and Shinsuke finishes writing his email to his fellow club member.
About two minutes after he finishes sending it and starts playing Solitaire, he gets an email from – he should’ve expected. Yoshida.
He makes the mistake of opening it.
I always want to touch your perineum. It makes you tighten, cry out, ask for more, harder. When we have sex doggy-style and I press my finger there, your back arches. If I stroke it before I enter you, you’re far more eager to have me inside. I like knowing these secret places on your body.
Shinsuke closes the email, snaps his phone shut, and glares faintly at Yoshida, who is leaning against the side bar of the row of seats and pretending to play games, and trying to stifle a grin.
Ten minutes of decidedly lost games of Solitaire later, Shinsuke gets another email. Yoshida again.
The bones of your wrists have strength and grace, jagged as mountains.
Shinsuke exhales and looks out the train car window, at the hills passing by, hazy with the cold and the fog. Hits Reply. Sits there, watching the sweep of the sky as it hides the land.
I can’t answer, he writes back, and sends it.
A minute later, Yoshida says, “It’s not difficult, you know.”
“I’m hopeless at poetry.”
“Then don’t write any. Write anything. Math problems, even.”
Shinsuke looks back at his cell phone screen, the empty blankness of the open e-mail.
I don’t like red miso, he writes finally, then tilts his phone so that Yoshida can read it.
Yoshida leans over, takes Shinsuke’s wrist to tilt it further so he can see the phone’s screen, reads the message. His fingertips are rough in a way that surprises Shinsuke every time he feels it. Yoshida’s not left-handed, after all.
“You took me too literally,” Yoshida sighs, and slumps back against the side of the bench.
Shinsuke grunts and deletes the text as Yoshida goes back to playing cell phone games. Thinks a bit.
When you say things like that I don’t know how to answer, he types finally, and plays a couple of rounds of his games before he sends it.
A couple of minutes later, Yoshida shifts, straightening his posture in the seat. His hip, the line of his thigh, press against Shinsuke’s, through the layers of their coats. He has gone back to playing some cell phone game or another.
Shinsuke feels his warmth, and sips at his coffee, which has gone tepid. It tastes worse than it did hot. He wishes Yoshida had chosen it instead.
They get off the train a couple of stops before Tokyo station and make a slow trip of it to Yoshida’s family’s place. It’s not on Shinsuke’s way home, but it’s not too far out of the way, so he doesn’t mind.
Yoshida’s older sister, Arimi, is the only one home; Yoshida, by way of greeting, asks her, “Where’s Mom?”
“Sewing class. Hi, Maeda.”
“I apologize for intruding.”
“Don’t be so formal,” she says. “Have you eaten? There’s leftover stew from last night.”
Yoshida unslings his bag from his shoulder. “I could eat, but first I want to put my stuff away.”
Arimi waves a hand in his direction. “Go ahead. Maeda?”
“I’m fine for the moment.”
Yoshida drags his bag down the hall to his room and Shinsuke follows him there, setting his stuff down in the hall so it doesn’t get in Yoshida’s way. He sits on the rumpled, if half-made, bed and watches Yoshida unpack, tossing dirty laundry in one pile and everything else in another.
Yoshida’s room isn’t all that interesting. He didn’t really decorate it; it’s just a bed, desk, dresser, and closet. The bedsheets are light green, and Shinsuke can see the edges of a poster on the back wall of the closet. He gets up, steps around Yoshida, and pushes aside the rack of dress shirts in the closet to look at the poster.
It’s dark in here, it says, in what is clearly handwritten English.***
“What’s it say?” Shinsuke asks, holding the shirts aside.
Yoshida looks up, squints, then says, “‘It’s dark in here.’ I made it after I passed the W– uni entrance exam. As a reminder to come out to my parents someday.”
“Oh,” Shinsuke says. “Why’d you write it in English, then?”
“…because my parents wouldn’t understand it even if they did see it. They’d think it was a joke. ‘Of course it’s dark in a closet,’ When the closet is where gay people hide their sexual orientations.”
Shinsuke breathes. Runs his fingers over the letters. Yoshida terrifies him at moments like this, where they are so clearly mismatched, his need for secrecy and Yoshida’s moral imperative towards openness. Irreconcilable differences, and someday Yoshida will weary of being in the dark –
“I hope you’re not worrying about the potential of me giving you away,” Yoshida says. “That would be an insult to both of us.”
“No,” Shinsuke breathes, and lets his hand drop. The shirt hems fall back into place over the poster and swing gently as Shinsuke stands.
Yoshida thrusts a pile of laundry at him. “Hold this for me.” Shinsuke takes it and finds that his face is now full of dirty shirts that smell like Yoshida’s skin, and in the case of the boxers that are trying to hang from his ear, his cock.
Yoshida walks out of the room and down the hall, and Shinsuke follows him. Drops the dirty clothes into the family laundry basket.
Shinsuke sits back down on the bed while Yoshida tidies up the rest of what was left in his bag – toothbrush and toothpaste back to the bath room, cell phone charger back next to the outlet, condoms and lube back in the drawer at the head of the bed. The bedroom door is open because Yoshida’s parents hinted that closing the door wasn’t acceptable – they didn’t say why, but Shinsuke can take a hint – though Shinsuke supposes Arimi wouldn’t get angry with them if they did close it.
Yoshida takes about ten minutes to put everything away, then wanders out to the kitchen and reheats two bowls of stew. They sit at the kitchen table, eating without talking, letting the sound from the soap opera Arimi’s watching fill the silence.
Afterwards, Shinsuke washes the dishes. Yoshida dries them and puts them away. A period drama has come on the television, and it’s currently on a scene with a geisha dancing. Another geisha sits behind her and plucks away at a shamisen while the guests talk about politics.
Yoshida freezes, hands full of drying cloth and ceramic plate. “Shit, I forgot to buy new strings.”
Arimi stirs on the couch and looks over at them. “You’re on spring break; it’s not that urgent.”
“Shop’s closed Wednesdays and I’ve got a workshop on Thursday that I want extras for. Damn. What time is it.”
Shinsuke glances at his watch where he left it on the counter before getting his hands wet. “Four forty-five.”
Yoshida subsides and puts the dish away. “Wouldn’t make it anyway.”
Shinsuke waits until he’s finished soaping a cup before asking, “So what do you play?”
“Shamisen,” Yoshida says flatly.
Shinsuke looks over at him, tries to imagine Yoshida playing one. Sitting in seiza, or on a chair and wearing hakama, skin and sound –
“I’m not really surprised, but I would have thought guitar or something a little more cool and a little less…like an old man’s hobby.”
Yoshida closes the dishes cabinet with a little more force than necessary and amends, “Tsugaru-style shamisen.”
Arimi laughs. “Now you know why he’s embarrassed to say. The third Yoshida brother!”
Behind the counter, Shinsuke reaches to touch the back of Yoshida’s hand. “I wouldn’t have said that. I don’t know anything about Tsugaru shamisen.”
“It’s shamisen for people who like their music interesting,” Yoshida says.
Shinsuke laughs, and says, “I see,” and that’s when the door opens to herald Yoshida’s mom returning.
Shinsuke sends himself home about twenty minutes later, and when he gets back he has to sort his laundry, too. His mom isn’t too happy with him for getting back so close to dinner time, and she says, I hope you weren’t imposing on them. It’s really very generous of them to put up with you being there so often – and Shinsuke snaps back at her, I go there less than twice a month!
Dinner is quiet with just him, his mom, and Yōko. His dad is working late, as usual, and the TV fills up the silence between them with the evening news.
The next two weeks are a blur of, in rotation, part-time job, outings with his friends, and boredom. After that he’s out of Tokyo on the annual family trip to visit the extended family in Aomori. Now that he and his siblings are older, they can’t make the whole time – Yōko leaves after the first week, getting back to working on her graduate studies, and Keisuke’s family can only make it up for the second week. Eiji appears halfway through the second week, says he can stay for twelve days, and promptly claims the remaining floor space in their cousin Yasuo’s room, which Shinsuke was already also sleeping in. Keisuke took over their cousin Satoru’s empty room, at least, so it’s not crowded like it used to be when they were younger.
Yasuo is out with his friends Friday night, and Shinsuke’s working on playlists for his next radio session on his computer, when Eiji hits him on the shoulder to get his attention and says, “How’s Yoshiwara?”
I wouldn’t mind if your brother called me Yoshiwara, Yoshida breathes, in his memory, and Shinsuke answers, “He’s fine.”
“You two still talking?”
“You going to see him much next school year?”
“You want me to shut up.”
Eiji slides out of his futon a bit, then taps Shinsuke again on the shoulder. “You know that you’re my brother, right? I mean, it’s my job to give you a hard time, but I won’t walk away from you.”
Shinsuke looks away from his computer screen, at Eiji, who’s actually serious for once. Pauses.
“What are you expecting me to say?” he asks finally, and Eiji grins.
“I’m not expecting you to say anything. I’m expecting you think your big brother won’t like you anymore once you tell him that Yoshida’s not just your friend but your boyfriend.”
Shinsuke is suddenly, urgently sick. His stomach is cold and heavy, the muscles shifting despite him as he breathes, shallow and quick, and he can taste dinner again –
Eiji’s hand is suddenly warm on his back. “Hey, hey, I didn’t mean to scare you. It’s all right. It’s okay. It’s just me ‘n Yōko ‘n Keisuke. That’s it. We’re not gonna tell. Please don’t throw up, otherwise it’ll be like that time you got sick with the flu when you were five and we tried to clean your bed up without waking Mom all over again. Breathe slowly. It’s okay. It’s okay. You’re my baby brother. I’m not letting you get away that easy.”
Shinsuke breathes. He feels better, maybe. Like even though the floor dropped out from under him it got put back. Eiji’s hand moves in slow circles between his shoulderblades.
“When – how – ?”
“If I answer that you’ll freak out on me again. It’s okay.”
“Not really. If you can tell then -”
“You’re fine,” Eiji says. “I’m your brother. I’m supposed to drive you crazy.”
“You fucking scared me, you bastard.”
He breathes, feeling his muscles shake. Clenches his hands a couple of times. Somehow manages to close the music program, folds shut the lid of his computer. He hopes he doesn’t kick it in his sleep.
“For what it’s worth, I didn’t think you’d react that way.”
“Shut up and go to sleep.”
He returns about a week before club recruitment starts, and ends up volunteering for the whole week since he has the time.
The second day, he’s on booth duty. Sits there bored, waiting for the other members to bring freshmen to the booth to sign up for the mailing list, when he hears music, different from the Dixieland band ’round the corner. It’s a little like blues. He stands up to get a better look but can’t see anything. Scans the crowd and finally spots a girl carrying a shamisen walking along. She passes, on the other side of the pathway from the booth, and Shinsuke sits back down.
“What were you looking for?” asks Arai, who’s stuck on booth duty with him.
“You like shamisen?”
“I think I do now,” he says, and doesn’t smile. “Think you can hold the booth alone for a bit? My friend’s in that club, and I want to go say hi.”
He weaves his way through the masses of campaigning upperclassmen, carrying a stack of fliers for the radio club so that not only will he not get mistaken for a freshman but also so that if he finds any he’ll be able to give them fliers. He can see Yoshida almost any time; he can only recruit freshmen once a year, and the loss of even one is a striking blow to their club, which is small enough as it is.
Unfortunately, there are no stray freshmen on his search for the Tsugaru-shamisen club’s booth, just extremely eager upperclassmen recruiting for their respective organizations.
The Tsugaru-shamisen club’s booth doesn’t stand out, not visually; there’s just a table, and a board behind that with their name written on it. The way he finds it is by listening and following the thrum of the sound as it weaves drunkenly through the melody, uneven like jazz or like blues.
He finally manages to get close enough that the crowd doesn’t obstruct his view anymore, and he sees that Yoshida’s sitting with a shamisen lying on the table by his elbow as he chats with a female club member as she plays.
“If you’re going to talk to me about the Chinese economy’s superiority, I want to talk to you about how all indications point to China fixing its exchange rate and economic data and how badly they’re fucked up the ass by America’s economic problems. Also, if you can find translations you should be reading Paul Kru- oi, you aren’t a freshman, get your hand outta there.”
Shinsuke grins and extracts his hand, and the mini chocolate bar in it, from the candy jar. “Sign says ‘Please help yourself.'”
Yoshida gestures to the chairs in front of the table. “If you’re going to play the freshman, you have to listen to the club recruitment speech.”
Shinsuke sits, folds up his arms and declares, in his best impersonation of a nervous just-accepted student, “I actually followed the music here, but I’d like to hear some more before I decide ―”
The girl taps Yoshida on the arm. “Sorry, I’m missing the introduction here.”
“Sorry. Tsugaru-shamisen club sophomore no-relation-to-the-Giants-player**** Wakiya Sayuri, please meet radio station sophomore Maeda Shinsuke.”
“School of Law,” she says. She has lovely eyes, wide and dark, and doesn’t seem to be wearing a lot of makeup. Her front two teeth are crooked.
He swallows his mouthful of chocolate bar. “Politics and Economics.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“At any rate, our club is, as the name suggests, devoted to the study of the style of shamisen playing developed in the Tsugaru region -”
“Is it okay if I’m tone-deaf?” Shinsuke asks.
“No, get out,” Yoshida says. “And while we’re at it, give back the candy, too.” He holds out a hand.
Shinsuke hesitates for a moment. Thinks Everyone’s watching, what if – and takes Yoshida’s hand anyway, turns it over, presses a kiss to the back.
Wakiya squeaks. “Please don’t do gross things in front of the booth!”
“It could be worse,” Yoshida says reasonably. “He could have meant it.”
Shinsuke tries not to look as hurt as he feels. “I kind of regret it, actually,” he says. “He tastes bad.”
She smiles, nervously, then stands suddenly. “Oh, freshmen alert. I’m going to go walk around and distribute fliers.”
“See you.” Yoshida straightens some notebooks and stacks of fliers on the table, then picks up the shamisen. “Don’t you have recruitment duties?”
“Sure.” Shinsuke leaves the booth, but doesn’t walk too far away, just on the other side of the crowd of upperclassmen. Waits a few moments and then hears music coming from the booth, low and then high as Yoshida tunes it, then hungry and joyous once the piece actually starts.
He feels like his heart beats with the movement of Yoshida’s fingers.
The crowd of upperclassmen is deep enough that the freshmen won’t be by for some time, so he pulls out his cell phone and quickly types, I meant it, before pressing ‘Send.’
Waits. The song ends, and he begins to make his way back to his own club’s booth, before he feels his cell phone vibrate in his pocket.
I never thought you didn’t, Yoshida has written back.
* The title is a four-letter idiomatic expression that refers to something that begins impressively and ends weakly.
** The word Shinsuke uses here is fujoshi, printed in hiragana (phonetic symbols only, so with potentially any number of meanings that correspond to the sounds). This is a shout-out by the author, as the word for “lady” has a pun, written with different kanji but pronounced the same, used within the subculture to refer to girls with an interest in manga and anime about male homosexual relationships. Given the source material, Shinsuke is very clearly punning on the fourth wall.
*** In the original, this sign’s text is printed in English, and the ostensibly Japanese reader is meant to be, like Shinsuke, confused. Unfortunately, this effect does not work in English translation.
**** A reference to Japanese baseball player WAKIYA Ryota. He plays with the Tokyo-based Yomiuri Giants.
It has been pointed out to me that I have been remiss and not actually explained what Tsugaru shamisen is. It is a style of shamisen (Japanese banjo) playing that developed in northern Japan, in the Tsugaru region. It was developed in the mid-to-late 19th century by blind itinerant shamisen players.
The style is distinct from other forms of traditional shamisen playing in several ways. The most notable are: striking the bachi (used to pluck the strings) against the head of the instrument-body, creating a percussive sound unique to the style; the importance of improvisation, similarly to jazz; and its popularity. The Yoshida Brothers are two very famous young Tsugaru shamisen players who have strongly contributed to the style’s recent popularity. Kyle Abbott has released an English-language book describing how to make from scratch, and play, the Tsugaru shamisen; as far as I am aware it is the only English-language manual available (but to those devoted enough to buy it, please be aware that this is a folk tradition, and as such any sheet music provided will not be identical to how the piece is actually performed).
Famous practitioners of the style include, but are not limited to, TAKAHASHI Chikuzan (高橋竹山), TAKAHASHI Chikuzan II (二代目高橋竹山), AGATSUMA Hiromitsu (上妻宏光), the Yoshida Brothers (吉田兄弟), KINOSHITA Shin’ichi (木下伸市), and ASANO Sho (浅野祥). The Yoshida Brothers and Agatsuma both have CDs available in the United States, but other than that I have little idea of the availability of this music outside of Japan, and I strongly recommend Youtube searching both in English and in Japanese.