Parfait

‘I asked him why he’s here, but he doesn’t answer.’ Minami said from the deck chair with a sigh, turning her head toward me. I don’t need to come over to where you are,’ I replied quietly. Occasionally she and Nishino would exchange a few words. ‘Hey, Natsumi, when I die, I’ll come to you,’ he once said. Will you run away, like the mice who belled the cat? The dragonflies and butterflies that had alighted on her all dispersed at once. I wondered what Nishino had seemed like to Minami back then. By that spring, when Minami turned fifteen, I hardly ever thought about Nishino anymore. The sound of Nishino’s name suddenly emitting from Minami’s lips triggered a range of emotions within me. Just what is love anyway? Then we both looked at each other. For the past year or so, Minami had been going through a growth spurt. Even though Minami and Nishino’s shadow were some distance from me in the kitchen, somehow I could clearly make out both of their movements. An organ. My husband may have known everything or nothing at all. ‘Mom, come here,’ Minami called from the garden. Nishino looked as if he might cry, but he didn’t. Minami seemed made up of entirely new cells – her metabolism was so high, it was as if every few days the cells in her body were replaced completely. She may not even have noticed the sweetness in her voice. The last time I saw Nishino, it had been winter.  
*
 
‘Mom, you and Mr Nishino were lovers, weren’t you?’ Minami asked, looking me straight in the eye. Just as Minami’s voice had rung out, the refrigerator had started humming again. Yet Minami has never said a word about any of them to me. Barefoot, I stepped into the garden. No, it’s so that I can catch you, Natsumi – so you won’t run away. ‘Mom, why is Mr Nishino here?’ Minami asked. ‘She’s right – no way,’ I agreed.  
*
 
Nishino called the house once while my husband was home. Then I’ll always know where you are, Natsumi. Each time I saw Nishino, I would nestle in closer to him, but for Nishino, the feeling was always the same, no matter what. Minami took an old deck chair out of the shed and set it next to Nishino, kicking off her sandals as she sat down. During the three years or so from the time I first met Nishino and fell in love with him, to when he gradually began keeping his distance, to when finally even the phone calls stopped, my husband never asked me any questions. Pebbles stuck to the soles of my feet. He was sitting amid the thick grass, almost blending in with them. Nishino always seemed uncomfortable around people, although he was apparently quite capable at his job – I remember being surprised, when we first met, by the impressive title on the business card he handed me. ‘I never married.’
There were plenty of dragonflies and butterflies darting about now. Minami was squatting, as she peered into the face of whoever this was. It might have been my youth, coupled with the fact that Minami was still as tender and defenseless as a baby, which invited my dislike. Instead, we would go to a restaurant that had a terrace, and before Minami could say a word he would order her a strawberry parfait, and hot coffee for himself and me. An expression of denial on her face, with long strides she took the stairs, two at a time, and slammed the door to her room. ‘Chocolate parfait is no good!’ Nishino declared, drawing out the last syllable of ‘parfait,’ so that it sounded like ‘par-fay-ee.’ Minami nodded vaguely, as did I. ‘Is it alright if you’re not the one to give it to him?’ Minami asked as she took the glass of water from me. The old refrigerator hummed noisily. I stayed where I was, standing in front of the sink. Despite this pain, I longed for Nishino more and more. Did a part of me hope that she might accidentally let it slip to him? He would place each of them in our hand – an adult ticket for me and a child ticket for Minami. ‘Yes, here you are,’ I said, ignoring his gesture and standing up in the spot where I was. I was in love back then. ‘Little girls are great,’ he often said. She had named him Koro, and every so often she gave him a good shine with polishing sand. He must have already been in his forties at that time. I’m just happy you’re here. He must have left, I thought. They darted among the foxtails and smartweed. While Nishino made love to me, the bell tinkled faintly the entire time. Once our tickets were punched, I’d turn back to see Nishino grinning and waving at us from the other side of the ticket gate. ‘Minami, dear, you’re so pretty now,’ Nishino’s eyes squinted with affection. Nishino bought tickets for us. Some of them even alighted on Minami’s shoulders or arms. When Nishino was alive, he had been a bit more restless. Nishino accepted the glass politely with both hands and carefully drank all of the water. A bean-paste bun sprinkled with poppy seeds. ‘Thank you for coming,’ I said as I approached Nishino, and rubbed my cheek against his. She was a shy child. Within the pale whites of her eyes, her pupils were starkly round and fixed on me. I went back to the kitchen and fried up dinner. With an unusually serious look, Nishino said, ‘I don’t.’
 
*
 
‘Mom, someone’s in the garden,’ Minami called out. My heart would ache after these unpleasant feelings, and I would hug Minami all the more tightly. Nishino still waved at Minami, who clearly made no motion to turn around. This feeling that the fifteen-year-old Minami had evoked in me was different from the dislike she had aroused when she was seven years old, but it was still unpleasant. Sometimes I’m surprised when I realize that Minami is now practically the same age I was when I was seeing Nishino. I went to the kitchen to fill the glass again. Come to think of it, ‘When I die’ was the kind of thing Nishino would just come out and say. His voice had that distinctive, slightly indulgent tone. Minami laughed. I turned on the faucet and filled a delicate glass with water. That was just like Nishino. The dragonflies and the butterflies had also left the garden. A delicate calligraphy brush stand encrusted with pink shells. As long as I know your whereabouts, then you can’t leave me. Nishino kept humming. ‘Don’t you know?’ I replied in a low voice. For the first time in a while, I had the urge to hear Nishino’s voice. I knew this, but what was so painful was that my feelings for Nishino had no effect on his feelings for me. ‘I knew that.’ Nishino reached out a hand and gently patted Minami’s bare arm.  
*
 
Mom, stop wasting time over there and come here – no doubt Mr Nishino will be gone soon enough. ‘Like one for a goldfish, that would be nice.’
I looked at Nishino’s face. Nishino sat up slowly. ‘Mom, why don’t you bring it to him?’
Small dragonflies were flitting through the grass. A moment later Minami appeared in the kitchen, her gaze fixed on the floor as she murmured, ‘He’s gone.’
Yes, he’s gone, I said to myself. She made all kinds of things, and then quietly put them away in a box covered with gaily patterned Chiyogami craft paper. And yet Nishino ordered strawberry or banana parfait every time. I had just started to simmer some pumpkin, and the aroma of the mildly sweet stock wafted throughout the kitchen. We remained still, our eyes closed and hands in prayer. The person I was in love with was named Nishino – he was a full twelve years older. Nishino waved at me, he waved at Minami, and he waved at the space in between us. This was what enabled him to speak so cruelly of marriage to me. He was sitting upright and tall. And once you know, what will you do? Then all the sounds ceased.  
*
 
Nishino stayed in the garden until just before the sun set. ‘He told me he would come,’ I replied lightly, sitting on the veranda. What is love, really? ‘And the bean-paste bun with poppy seeds, that was delicious.’
Nishino had a knack for giving gifts. .’
‘You give it to him.’
Minami pursed her lips, turning down the corners of her mouth, and with a sort of reckless gait walked back to where Nishino was. ‘Just open it,’ Nishino would prompt her, and Minami would unwrap the package, without a word. The wind chimes jingled. Dangling from my hand, it produced a clear ring. She passed the glass to Nishino and squatted beside him. Nishino was unmarried. People have the right to fall in love, but not the right to be loved. ‘He’d like more.’ As she handed me the empty glass, Minami seemed to be glaring at me. Minami didn’t say much when she was little. Minami squatted next to me. His expression was the one he often wore when he was alive, like that of a child being scolded by his mother. And it’s only now, after all this time has passed, that I’ve finally been able to clearly remember Nishino. A light breeze stirred the wind chimes. Even though he was seven years older than my husband, Nishino had none of the slightly detached, self-possession of my spouse. ‘Minami, dear, gets a par-fay-ee, right?’ he said, a note slightly higher than usual creeping into his voice as he peered at Minami’s downcast face. Nishino sat there, looking in my direction. The lush hydrangea leaves seemed to rustle in concert with Minami’s voice. Minami was waiting there for me, standing on the paving stone. Minami never finished her parfait. The first time Nishino put his arms around me, I silently let him hold me, the same way as Minami did with me. ‘Natsumi, I’m here,’ Nishino spoke in a clear voice as he beckoned me. I searched for a set of pincers in the back of a drawer. ‘Is it Mr Nishino?’
‘It must be.’
‘Is he dead?’
‘Yes, probably.’
Minami and I looked at each other calmly. It felt as though a hole had been pricked in my belly and air was now leaking out. Whenever I held Minami tight, she would always be very quiet and still. You’re very pretty, Minami, dear, but your mother, Natsumi, is a beauty,’ Nishino said, his tone shifting. Then I made my way as far as the louver door, being careful as I walked not to spill the full glass of water. Nishino’s words had made me blush a little. I had been quite young when Minami was born. I went to get the calligraphy set that Minami had used in middle school, and on top of the counter I ground the ink, then with a thick brush I wrote out, ‘Here lies Nishino.’
I went out into the garden and. It’s been fifteen years or so since Nishino and I broke up. Sometime, let’s go out for a par-fay-ee, I said to Minami as I stood up slowly. I raised my eyebrows slightly, and Minami smiled faintly, her brow lifting as well. I took apart the box and set the smallest rectangular plank on the counter. ‘Alright,’ I replied, and Nishino took me gently in his arms. I had a hunch it was Nishino. ‘I wouldn’t have taken you out for a par-fay-ee, it would have been a more grown-up date.’ As always, he drew out the word par-fay-ee. ‘Nishino.’ I called out his name softly, and he sat up straight again, holding his hand out toward me. From now on, I want you to wear it, Nishino had said with a smile. ‘Nishino, this song is a little too appropriate for you,’ I called out, this time trying to sound as cheerful as possible. I have my father’s eyes, my mother’s nose, and my grandma’s mouth, Minami recited in a murmur. I told Minami, ‘Nishino said that when you grow up he’d like to go on a date with you.’
‘Very funny!’ Minami cried out. The louver door to the garden opened. Parakeets. Minami gazed at these gifts, her expression barely registering any change, and then with a slight bow she would say softly, ‘Thank you.’
From the beginning, Minami never asked anything about Nishino. ‘Come, Natsumi.’ He looked at me with puppy-dog eyes. The surroundings beyond this shadow were clearly visible. ‘Every day is peaceful and quiet.’
‘What more can one ask for?’ As Nishino spoke these words, Minami sneezed.  
*
 
‘Mr Nishino was a strange guy, wasn’t he, Mom?’ Minami said this to me the spring she turned fifteen. Minami wore an expression of astonishment as she sat in the deck chair, hugging her knees. I said, pecking him on the cheek. Nishino was always the one to end our calls. She simply held my hand, quiet at my side like a shadow. And then she had sneezed softly several times. Once she realized that I was staring at her as she laughed, she stopped, seemingly self-conscious. Should I have worried that Minami would say something about Nishino to my husband? Nishino had a lot of grey hair at his temples, and there were wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. As we nodded, I stole a glance at Minami, who was looking my way. ‘Minami, see who it is,’ I said. A paperweight in the shape of a dog. After we left the restaurant, the three of us would always make two trips around the path through the park. Nishino would always have a small gift for Minami. I just let him hold me, without wondering whether it was love or passion or whatever. It was the face of a man long past fifty. Minami was still ten years old that season when he and I broke up. I slept with Nishino many times. A small silver bell. I’m not letting you go, Nishino said. As she had ascended the stairs, Minami’s body had emitted that saccharine scent that was particular to a girl her age. ‘Nishino,’ I called out for the first time. When I think of Nishino’s embrace, I am struck with a fleeting wistfulness, but I cannot quite recall the way in which I had been in love with him. ‘I’m not coming out,’ I replied slowly through the kitchen window. Now that I thought about it, while I was still involved with Nishino, there had been a few times when Minami actually laughed out loud in his presence. ‘What?’
‘When I die, I want to be by your side.’
‘I bet you say that to all the girls,’ I replied flippantly. A moment later, I heard the clatter of wooden sandals on the paving stones. ‘When he called me ‘Minami, dear,’ it felt as if the palm of my hand had thick paint on it that I couldn’t wash off, no matter how hard I tried,’ Minami murmured softly, like she was singing. ‘Did you ever have a daughter?’ I asked from afar. Then he murmured, ‘Someone from an insurance company.’
Taking the phone from my husband, I whispered succinct responses into the mouthpiece: ‘Yes.’ ‘Right.’ ‘No.’ ‘Very well then.’ I listened to Nishino’s voice on the other end of the line, with him pretending to speak in the tone of an insurance salesman, adding deliberate pauses as he said things like, ‘I want to make love to you right now,’ while I thought to myself, ‘I might not even like this person, really.’
My husband was at my side, quietly looking over some paperwork, when I took this call from Nishino. I no longer knew whether Nishino and I had been in love, or whether I had really liked him, or even whether or not someone named Nishino had actually existed. A music box no bigger than the palm of her hand. Nishino’s eyes were closed as he lay there, and he was humming. Amid the grass, Nishino stirred. Today was Friday, but Minami had taken a vacation day and had been at the house since the morning. Translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin PowellMinami was seven years old back then. If strawberries weren’t in season, he ordered banana parfait. I fell in love with Nishino, but that’s not to say that he was then required to fall in love with me. Even when Nishino and I had been seeing each other frequently, I hadn’t been sure. He comes all the way here after he died and the two of you are making small talk? I remained silent, and just shook my head. These days – quite often – I am struck by a memory of his voice or his body, or of something he said. Minami nodded, without a word.  
*
 
Sometimes Minami came with me to see Nishino. If I wandered along the seashore tomorrow, I would remember things from long ago. Minami laughed to herself. Long ago, Nishino would occasionally say, ‘The truth is, I want to get married.’
I would reply, ‘If you want to, why don’t you?’
‘Would you marry me, Natsumi?’ Nishino asked. ‘Water.. ‘The problem with Mr Nishino was, after seeing him, there was always some trace that seemed to linger.’
‘A trace?’
‘A sort of melancholy trace of something, almost bittersweet.’
‘Minami, why don’t we go get a par-fay-ee, for old time’s sake?’ I suggested, imitating the way that Nishino used to draw out the last syllable. It happens so frequently, it’s occurred to me that Nishino might not even be around anymore. He-heh-heh, he chuckled. .’ Minami was asking.  
*
 
The next time I saw Nishino, I wore the bell on a chain around my wrist. ‘No, I’m fine here. When Minami was seven, I was still in my twenties, and sometimes I disliked her. It sounded like the folk song, ‘Song of the Seashore.’ Next to him, Minami chanted, ‘If I wandered along the seashore tomorrow –’
From the veranda where I sat, I joined in softly. Because I promised you, Natsumi, didn’t I?’
Nishino sounded just like himself. What’s the matter, I would ask, and she would simply smile at me, without saying a word. Morning glories. ‘That’s the kind of guy he was.’
‘A perv, you mean?’
‘He was just overindulged.’
‘He was ridiculous.’ But Minami’s voice was tender when she said this. Her arms and legs kept getting longer and longer. ‘I wasn’t able to fulfill my promise to take you out on a date.’
‘I never made that promise!’ Minami pouted her lips. ‘A promise is a promise!’
‘I didn’t know you were so conscientious.’
‘Not when it comes to my body, but always when it comes to my heart.’
‘You haven’t changed a bit, have you? ‘No way,’ Minami murmured with a smile. Every so often, Minami would take off from work, for no reason. I pretended not to notice, but back when I was seeing Nishino, the shadows of plenty of other women were always lurking. As often as with someone who is right there. I thought about it, but I no longer knew. He would request that I bring her along. That’s enough, Nishino, I said inside my head.  
*
 
‘What is that?’ Minami asked. ‘Is your husband well?’ Nishino asked, sitting with his heels tucked neatly under him. His mouth was moving but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. beside the graves of our goldfish and cat, I thrust the plank into the ground. She must have had a number of romances. Always folding origami with her thin fingers. ‘C’mon, you’re no fun!’ Nishino would say cheerily, and I would feel a tightening in my chest. A little offering stand. After draining the second glass of water, Nishino lay down on the ground. Back then, I really did love you, Nishino, I said like a prayer, my palms held together as I crouched before the grave. My husband didn’t say a word, he just handed me the receiver. I may not have liked him, but I had been in love with Nishino. The water in the glass formed ripples, spilling over a bit. Knowing that he wasn’t serious, I would always shake my head. As I was disposing of the cooking oil, I heard Minami cry out. ‘I wonder how Mr Nishino’s doing.’
‘I’m sure he’s just fine.’
‘I love the dog paperweight.’
Long after Nishino and I broke up, Minami still cherished the silver dog paperweight that Nishino had given her. I’m lonely.’
‘I’m lonely too.’
‘Minami, dear, you don’t look like your mother. ‘A grave?’ Minami retorted with surprise. Then we’d head to the train station, where we’d part at the ticket gate.  
*
 
Minami is now twenty-five. I pulled out a big wooden box filled with smaller boxes of somen noodles, selected one of the smaller boxes, and used the pincers to remove the nails at the four corners. He always seemed as though he wasn’t quite used to the air around him – he would be blinking his eyes or brushing back his hair. ‘Mr Nishino, I never liked parfait,’ Minami said mischievously. ‘Come here, Natsumi. The paper rustled as her slender fingers untied the red ribbon. Minami remained by Nishino’s side the whole time. ‘Minami, is there someone you like?’
‘Nope,’ she answered reflexively and stood up. The longing that I used to feel for him came back to me vividly. I looked out at the garden through the window lattice. To me too, though he had only given me a present once. ‘Well, then, at least make me a grave.’ Nishino’s tone sounded just like when he used to order a parfait, all those years ago. The shape of someone who seemed like Nishino was sitting in the dense weeds. Minami never looked back, she just headed straight for the stairs in front of us. ‘I promised. Soon the sound of her steps stopped. Far in the distance, I could hear the tinkling of a bell.  
*
 
When Minami came along with me, Nishino and I had no physical contact. ‘I’d like to be buried in this garden,’ Nishino said sincerely. she said as she continued to sneeze three times in a row. ‘I’d like you to give it to him for me.’
‘But.. The berries on the wild grasses grazed my calves. A gust of wind came up, and the grass rustled. At the time, I hadn’t explained to Minami that Nishino and I wouldn’t be seeing each other any more, and she hadn’t mentioned him at all since then. I must have said.  
Image © papadont I wonder what happened to that little bell. Staring at the tidy nape of my husband’s neck, I repeated the same words: ‘Yes.’ ‘Right.’ ‘I see.’ Nishino chatted for a few minutes and then abruptly hung up. Just as, when she was little, she quietly went about folding her origami, she must have quietly fallen in and out of love. He would say it with a slightly indulgent tone. ‘Would you like some?’
The shadow nodded slightly.