They Were Standing in Line at the Airport

by Michael Hoffman

They were standing in line at the airport, waiting to pass through security, when Yoshinori’s cell phone rang. “Didn’t you say you were going to change the ring tone?” asked Ai. Yoshinori flushed. The four opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony had seemed a bold and original choice, but no sooner had he downloaded it than it began to seem silly – never more so than here. “When we get home,” he murmured. He reddened. People were staring at him. “Yes?”

“Yoshinori?”

“Dad. What’s up?”

“Listen. There’s a typhoon out there. I don’t want you to fly.”

“The flight hasn’t been canceled.”

“Don’t fly, Yoshi. I have a… laugh if you like… a premonition.”

Yoshinori laughed. “You and your premonitions!”

“Again?” murmured Ai, rolling her eyes.

“Please…”

“What do you want me to do, tear up the ticket? Throw away eighty thousand yen?”

“Yes. I’ll pay.”

“Dad, how many of these premonitions…” He glanced uneasily about him. What would people be making of this? “How many have you had over the past twenty years?”

“I know, I – ”

“And how many have come true, eh?”

“Two did.”

“Out of how many?”

“It’s never been as strong as this. And besides, it’s not just a premonition, I can hear the wind howling!”

“So can the airline people, dad. They know what’s safe and what isn’t.”

“Sure they do! That’s why planes never crash!”

“Dad…”

“Please, son, please. For me. For your child-to-be. I’ll pay, you’ll lose nothing.”

“We have to be at work tomorrow.”

“You can take a day off and fly out tomorrow. Please, I’m begging you.”

Yoshinori turned to Ai. “Should we humor him?”

“Yoshi, he’s crazy! Humor him once and every other day it’ll be something else! ‘Do this, don’t do that, I had a premonition!’ We’ll be puppets on a string – his string!”

“You’re right. Dad, I’m sorry, really, it’s impossible. I’ll call you the minute we land, how’s that?”

Sighing, the old man hung up. He’d done his best, and it hadn’t been good enough. He went into the living room, sank into a chair, and stared vacantly at the worn carpet.

***

Yoshinori worked for a major advertising firm. Ai was a banker. They were rising, ambitious people. They had known each other as children and had sometimes been in the same class at school. They’d had something in common – talent; Yoshinori for drawing, Ai for numbers. She would help him with his math homework – not out of friendship or sympathy but to indulge her sense of superiority. She quoted Pythagoras: Number was the underlying reality, the universe was number given material form; if you don’t understand numbers you don’t understand anything – this when they were eleven years old! More amused than offended, Yoshinori all the while would be busy sketching her; then triumphantly, without a word, he would hand her his sketch – his silent refutation of her assertion of his hopeless incompetence. She, of course, would be a great mathematician when she grew up, and he a famous artist. Then one spring her family moved away. So casual had their friendship been that she didn’t even think to say goodbye to him, and he, discovering her absence when the new school year started in April, was mildly surprised and nothing more. Years passed; then they found themselves attending the same university in a different city. They passed each other in a hallway on the way to different classes; both stopped abruptly and turned around, each struck by a sense that the other looked vaguely familiar.

The friendship was renewed and became more than friendship. They were different people now, both having cast off childish dreams and acquired an adult determination to make their way in “the real world.” And making their way is what they both were doing. Their combined income approached fifteen million yen. Their first child was due in May. At first Ai had arranged to take a year’s maternity leave. Then she discovered a daycare facility that took infants of three months, and came home in high excitement, having altered her plans accordingly.

Ai slept through the entire two-hour flight home. She was exhausted. Brushing aside the protests of both Yoshinori and his father, she had spent most of their three-day visit cleaning the old man’s apartment and cooking for him. It was a disgrace the way he lived, neither cooking nor cleaning, living on canned soup and tinned fruit. His wife, Yoshinori’s mother, had died three years before, and in dying seemed to have killed the best part of him. They’d had a beautiful home; he sold it to the first buyer who came along, taking much less for it than he could have got, ignoring Ai’s advice on that subject as on most others, and seeming to choose on purpose the dingiest, gloomiest, pokiest apartment he could find – to bury himself in, Ai observed sardonically as she fussed at the stove. She was a first-rate cook. She sent Yoshinori to the supermarket with a list of ingredients “as long,” he laughed, “as my arm.” “Never mind,” she retorted, “just make sure you don’t forget anything.”

On his own initiative he bought two bottles of wine, and the dinner proved surprisingly gay. The old man’s mood seemed to brighten at the first sip. Ai wasn’t drinking because of her pregnancy but said, “I can get drunk on soda water, just watch” – and amid much laughter proceeded to do so, not even protesting when Yoshinori, somewhat carried away, blurted out, “Why don’t you move in with us, dad? We have room. Don’t we, Ai?” “Oh, we have room all right!” she shot back., laughing as boisterously as though she’d really had three glasses of wine. “You bet we have room!”

They landed, collected their bags, and proceeded to the parking lot. “I’ll just call him and tell him we’re alive,” Yoshinori said.

“Listen,” she said. “Were you serious, about… you know.”

“What?”

“Him coming to live with us.”

“Oh. That. Hm.” It was a subject he’d meant to take up with her later, at leisure. His tongue had run away from him at dinner; it had been on his mind for some time, and it had slipped out. It was a marvelous bit of acting Ai had pulled off; he could imagine only too clearly her true feelings. He hardly blamed her. He wasn’t her father, after all, and there was no love lost between them.

“Why doesn’t he move in with your brother?” Ai asked.

Yoshinori sighed. “Why indeed.”

***

Yoshinori’s brother Ichiro, three years older, had been his childhood idol. He was everything Yoshinori wanted to be but wasn’t – handsome, athletic, popular, a near straight-A student who, unlike Yoshinori, seemed to sail through the curriculum without so much as opening a schoolbook. Maybe it was the ease with which everything came to him as a child that unfitted him for adult life; or maybe it was something else. Maybe it was the knowledge of how rich and indulgent his father was. Maybe it was an illness – a secret, debilitating, incurable illness that only he knew about because he chose to suffer in silence rather than burden others; so Yoshinori sometimes fantasized, knowing it was fantasy and yet wondering if it wasn’t true after all. Once, against his better judgment, he dropped a hint to that effect to Ai, who merely laughed and said, “Sure.”

Ichiro was thirty-six, unemployed, unmarried, living on a monthly allowance from his father. He had never lived any other way, to all appearances had never thought of living any other way, and was quite unembarrassed about what Yoshinori called his “eternal childhood.” “Eternal childhood,” he mused. “Yes… I like that… Well, it’s a role somebody has to play…” His sentences had a way of trailing off. “Why does somebody have to play it?” Yoshinori asked. To which Ichiro’s reply, accompanied by a characteristic shrug, was, “Why not?”

He was an aesthete – not an artist, as he was the first to admit, but a lover of art, art of all kinds – painting, sculpture, ceramics, literature, music; philosophy too, if philosophy is an art. He had knowledge and taste, depth and insight. There was nothing affected about his appreciation; even Ai granted that it was perfectly genuine and highly sophisticated; all the paintings and statuary with which she adorned her living room and hallway were bought with his advice. Likewise the books she read and the music she listened to. She had her abrasive side, but she knew how to give credit where it was due. Still, she would say, unable to repress a faint shudder, “A man who can breathe only the rarefied air of art and philosophy makes me cringe.”

Every Wednesday night the brothers got together, just the two of them, for dinner and drinks. When had that started? On whose initiative? Yoshinori could no longer remember. It was a custom of very long standing. In earlier years they’d dine at a restaurant and repair to a bar, but lately Ichiro seemed to prefer to entertain his brother at home. “We can be at our ease here,” he said.

“Is there something about a restaurant that makes you uneasy?” Yoshinori asked lightly.

“Yes.” Impossible to know what he meant, and better, Yoshinori decided, not to pursue the subject.

***

“So how’s the old man?” Ichiro asked.

“The same. Listen…” He broke off. It was too early in the evening. They would have a few drinks first, loosen up as it were; there would be plenty of time for plain speaking later.

“What?”

“If you were to offer me some of that famous Glenlivet of yours, I wouldn’t object.”

“Very charitable of you. Come into the cave. I want to show you something.”

Ichiro lived in a house he rented from a woman whose hundredth birthday he had seen written up in the local newspaper a few years ago. He had moved in after university, his academic career having come to an abrupt end a month before graduation. Had something happened? Yoshinori didn’t know. All Ichiro had ever said to him on the subject was, “I’d written enough exams in my life.” He got into his car one night and started driving. He was away two years, saying so little when he got back about where he’d been or what he’d done that it was impossible to form even a vague idea of what he’d been up to. He mentioned odd jobs here and there, books he’d read on the road that made a strong impression on him, museums he’d visited and paintings he’d admired. Any attempts to probe beyond that were turned aside, not hostilely, not aggressively, but with the merest shrug that somehow, weak and unchallenging gesture though it was, had a way of setting a boundary that Yoshinori and others felt compelled to respect.

On returning, Ichiro found this house for rent. It was located in what not so very long ago had been the country. Now it was a suburb. The houses around it were all suburban bungalows, so similar to each other that a visitor, even a regular one, would have to keep the desired house number in mind or risk ringing the wrong doorbell. Only Ichiro’s place was different. The old woman had refused to sell her property to the housing developers. What lay behind this obstinacy no one knew. Presumably she was strongly attached to it and intended to live in it till she died, but as she aged she grew incapable of living alone and moved into a group home. Still she refused to sell. Ichiro was precisely the sort of tenant she was looking for – a young man leading a quiet life who would take care of the house as though it were his own. He had met her only once, when the real estate agent introduced them, and somehow, though she asked him no questions and indeed hardly seemed aware of his presence, he made the right impression. Her hundredth birthday came a couple of years after that. What had become of her since, Ichiro had no idea. Was she even alive? Whether she was or not, her bank account remained open, and every month Ichiro’s rent money flowed automatically into it.

There was nothing special about the house, except that it was not part of the surrounding development and stood out rather starkly among the bungalows. It was old but not dilapidated, small but not cramped. There were three rooms downstairs and two up. One of the two upstairs rooms Ichiro dubbed “the cave” – an incongruous name for an upstairs room, of course, but when once Yoshinori made that observation Ichiro shrugged, and that was the end of that. Cave he would have it, and so cave it was. It was absolutely bare except for the works of art Ichiro purchased and for which it was a repository. “Works of art,” in Ichiro’s vocabulary, had a distinctly modest meaning. In obscure corners he sought obscure work by obscure artists. His tastes were not shaped or influenced by critics, or prevailing fashions, or the artist’s reputation or how much a work commanded in the art market. To some paintings he felt an immediate response, a kind of kinship; towards others, perhaps no less meritorious in terms of objective criteria, if there is any such thing, he felt nothing. He never sought to explain his tastes, or to convince others of their validity, and yet in the hole-in-corner galleries he frequented he was a known figure, it having been observed that artists he favored had a way of rising in the world, though certainly not due to any effort Ichiro made on their behalf, for he made none.

“Well, what do you think?” Ichiro asked as Yoshinori stood in front of his latest purchase.

Yoshinori shrugged, conscious immediately of having appropriated Ichiro’s characteristic gesture. As a child he had made a point of imitating Ichiro – the way he walked, the way he combed his hair, the way he dressed, spoke, everything – the typical younger brother in thrall to an older one. He smiled as he suddenly recalled the time Ichiro got his first pair of glasses. Yoshinori was nine or so, and insisted he too needed glasses – insisted so firmly that his mother took him to the eye doctor. He was furious when the verdict was that his eyes were fine. And so they remained. Even now he didn’t wear glasses.

“What can I say? You know in advance what I think. To me it looks like paint splashed at random on a canvas.”

“You’d say that of a Picasso painting if you didn’t know it was by him.”

“So I’m a philistine. Shoot me. To me a picture should be a picture of something, not – ”

“It’s not a picture, it’s a painting.”

“Forgive me.” This argument had been going on between them for years, and Yoshinori was getting a little tired of it. Indeed it was Ichiro who had deflated Yoshinori’s early interest in drawing. Yoshinori, he said, was not a real artist, merely an illustrator. “Why do you insist on – ”

“I’ll tell you why. Because one day I’m going to show you a painting, a real painting, a genuine work of art, and you will look at it and it will do something to you, and you’ll respond to it, and be changed.”

Yoshinori laughed. “It’s very kind of you, I’m sure, to take such an interest in me, such a brotherly interest, but what if I’m okay just the way I am?”

“Nobody’s okay just the way he is.”

“Except you.”

“Why? No, art changes me constantly, art renews, revitalizes – ”

“Revitalizes! Ichiro, will you listen to yourself? You’re thirty-six years old, you haven’t done a day’s work in your life… Do something, and then talk to me of being revitalized!”

“Your mistake,” said Ichiro imperturbably, “is to make doing your measure of all things. One is vital to the extent that one does things. But what if it’s the opposite? What if one is vital to the extent that one abstains from doing?”

“What if one is black to the extent that one is white? You’re making no sense, brother. You’re very intelligent, and you use your intelligence to spout intelligent nonsense. I know you’re more intelligent than me, and I daresay your nonsense would defeat my sense any day of the week. But that doesn’t make what you say any less nonsensical.”

“Maybe it does. If so-called nonsense defeats so-called sense, then maybe your definition of sense and nonsense need to be reconsidered.”

“All right, listen to me. Let’s drop this abstract stuff and focus on a practical problem – because there is one, though you refuse to see it. Father…”

“What about father?”

“He’s not well.”

“What’s wrong with him?”

“He’s fading. He lives all alone in that wretched little burrow of his, he does nothing but brood all day long, his mind’s becoming unhinged. He has ‘premonitions.’ We were at the airport, and suddenly he calls: ‘Don’t fly, I had a premonition.’ He shouldn’t be living alone.”

“Well?”

“Well? Let him live with you!”

“With me!”

“With you! Ai and I are out all day, there’s the kid on the way, we’re busy and too stupid to abstain from doing stuff, whereas you, you’re alone, you’re free, you’re above mere activity… It’s only right, isn’t it? He’s your father, isn’t he?”

“Oh, please! Don’t….”

“Don’t what?”

“Don’t lecture me. It’s not for you to teach me my responsibilities.”

Yoshinori hesitated, and then said thoughtfully, “Maybe it is. Maybe it’s time somebody did ‘teach you your responsibilities.’”

Ichiro smiled. “My boy, a bachelor with no children has no responsibilities.”

***

“Well,” said Yoshinori, “I talked to him.”

“And?”

“And… what do you think?”

“I think,” said Ai, “I can recite the entire conversation, word for word, as though I’d been a fly on the wall implanted with a recording device.”

“Well, go ahead. Recite it.”

“Some other time. It’s late and I have a meeting first thing tomorrow morning.”

“Ai, shouldn’t you – ”

“No, I shouldn’t. There’s three months to go. What am I supposed to do – sit around the house for three months watching my belly grow? I’d go out of my head! And Doctor Tagawa says I’m fine.”

“He does, does he?”

“Good night, Yoshi.”

“Ai, wait.”

“Well?”

“About dad…”

“Listen. I have a good idea. I’ll talk to Ichiro. I’ll talk to him. Unlike you, I’m not afraid of him.”

“Afraid of him! Why should I be afraid of him? What’s he gonna do, beat me up?”

“He’s outrageous, his way of life is outrageous, his way of thinking is outrageous. And he gives that little shrug of his, and you simply crumble.”

“Well, what am I supposed to do? He’s not my child and I’m not his father.” He smiled and patted Ai’s belly. “If this little fellow gets up to any nonsense, I’ll be on him like a ton of bricks!”

“No, he too will learn to wrap you around his little finger.”

“Just like his mom.”

“He’s not your child, you say. But he is your brother, and he’s living the way he does off your father. Doesn’t that offend you?”

“Yes, but dad doesn’t seem to mind.”

“Dad’s gone a little soft in the head.”

“Which is why I want him to live with us.”

“Don’t change the subject.”

“I’m not. That is the subject.”

“Well, I’ll tell you this much. If your father comes to live with us and I to some extent become responsible for him, rule number one is: your dear brother Ichiro’s allowance gets canceled. All right? You want him to live with us? Fine – on that one condition.”

***

Dear Yoshinori,

You will be surprised to receive this. People don’t write letters any more. I am quite aware of that. But you will forgive, I’m sure, my old-fashioned, other-worldly little quirks. “Other-worldly” – yes, that’s what it is, what I am – from another world, thrown I no longer remember how, or when, or why, into this one. Maybe all people my age feel that way, or maybe it’s just me. Another thing that may surprise you is that I’m mailing this to your office and not to your home. Need I explain? You won’t be angry, will you, or think I’m senile, if I say plainly that it’s so Ai won’t see it? For I confess that I’m somewhat afraid of Ai. She.. how shall I say it? She sees so clear, and speaks so clear; her actions are clear – everything is clear to her, everything about her is clear, while to me it’s the very opposite of clear, and her clarity frightens me. I don’t know if I am making sense. Maybe you’ll even stop reading at this point, thinking I’m just babbling nonsense and of course you’re busy, you might have a meeting, or a client may be waiting, or a deadline… You’ll toss this scrap of paper over your shoulder, meaning to take it up again later, but then you’ll forget, and there’s no blaming a person for forgetting, is there? If a thought doesn’t enter your head it doesn’t enter your head, there’s nothing you can do about it and nothing to blame. Ah, son… you were here last week, I’d been so looking forward to your visit! “At last,” I thought, “we’ll be together, face to face, I’ll tell him everything, what I’ve been thinking…” – but somehow it never happened, the moment never came, or it came but I failed to seize it, or I didn’t notice it, or I did notice it but was afraid to seize it… I’m not sure. And suddenly the visit was over, you were gone, with all I’d meant to say to you unsaid.

So I’m writing instead. Ah, but… where to begin? How to make myself understood? I’m not an educated man. You know what my life has been. I know my business and nothing but my business. It’s made me what I am, and given me the means to see that my sons had the best of everything, all the advantages I never had growing up. In that sense it’s been good to me. In other senses too. It’s a great satisfaction to a man to throw himself into work he has a knack for – will you laugh if I use the word talent? Well, laugh – but I did, you know, have talent of a kind, though maybe not the kind you or Ichiro admire. Well, enough of that. One thing I certainly don’t have talent for is expressing what I feel, so that people thought I didn’t feel, I had no feelings. I think you thought that. I know Ichiro did. Your mother now – she understood me. Perhaps she alone, of all the people, all the hundreds of people, who knew me. I never said anything, she never said anything, but she understood me and I knew she understood. That was the bond between us – mutual, instinctive understanding. Do you understand? Is there that between you and Ai? Forgive me, that’s not my business, I’m getting off the track…

Yoshi, I don’t want to live any more. That’s the heart of the matter. I don’t. I say it without bitterness. You reach a point in life where you say to yourself, “My life is lived, it’s done, it’s over, to cling to life beyond that point is… pointless. You’re too young to understand. Ha! Do you remember how angry you used to get as a child when I’d say that to you? You would retort in your high piping little voice, “I understand perfectly well!” Sometimes I’d say it on purpose to provoke you, it delighted me so to hear you say that!

I don’t want to live, but I don’t want to die either. There’s the dilemma. Please don’t fear that I’ll… lay hands on myself, destroy myself, or anything like that. What? On the eve of the birth of my first grandchild? Darken his life with…? Oh, no! No! Why, even if I did want to die… But I don’t. I don’t know what I do want – only what I don’t want. Yoshi, I am going to take a little trip. Yes. I didn’t know that when I started to write this, but as I wrote the thought came to me, and as I weigh the idea it seems a good one. I’ll travel for a while. I have time, I have money. Why not? So… I’ll be gone for a time. I’ll call you as soon as I return. Your loving father.

***

“What should I do?” asked Yoshinori. He had telephoned repeatedly – no answer. “Should I call the police?”

“He’s a grown man,” said Ai. “He has the right to take a trip if he wants. No?”

“Yes, but… isn’t this a trifle strange?”

“’A trifle strange’ doesn’t make it a police matter.”

“I suppose not. So what, then? Do nothing?”

“You have no idea where he’d go?”

“He hasn’t taken a trip in twenty years, has never spoken of wanting to.”

“Let him get it out of his system.”

“If it was your father, wouldn’t you worry?”

“No.”

“Not even if he was ‘soft in the head’?”

Ai lost patience at last. “Well, worry then, if you want to! I’m going to take a bath!”

***

Six weeks passed without word from the old man. Though Ai was in her eighth month, she showed no sign of slowing down. If anything, it seemed to Yoshinori, she was speeding up, working overtime more often than not, brushing aside Yoshinori’s timid objections with a contemptuous laugh. “I’m fine, I tell you. I’ve never felt better in my life.”

“I suppose,” Yoshinori ventured, “the bank would collapse without you?”

“My role is important, yes, believe it or not. I’ll be away three months and I have to lay the groundwork.”

“Yes, but… the baby…”

She tossed her head. “I suppose you have a premonition?”

Yoshinori lowered his eyes. The truth was, he did have a kind of premonition, if that was the right word – nothing he could put his finger on, just a vague, indefinable feeling that something was wrong, terribly wrong, and that he was helpless to set it right. 

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