I try and squeeze all of my disbelief into that one word, but the desired effect escapes me. Not that it matters, my curious companion didn’t seem to notice any of the poison in my utterance.
“What’s so weird about it? We were all born with the equipment to make this happen. Driven from a basal level, even.”
“Yes, but… you.” Again my bewilderment is lost to the ether.
It was a week ago that I received an email from my old high school “friend” asking me out on a date. He didn’t phrase it that way, but that was the first thing that sprung to mind when I read the request. A night of bowling to “reminisce upon the glory days of the movement.” There was only one person that would phrase things in that manner. Nor would anyone else suggest a night of disco bowling to anyone over the age of 15. Still, I didn’t really have any other plans on the prescribed evening, and Hanako was working, so I thought nothing of replying in the affirmative. It had nearly been four years since we had last spent any time together, so I steeled myself for the worst. I couldn’t imagine that downwards spiral ending well.
“So, 20 months you say?”
“On Tuesday, yes. What of it?”
“You. Mr Feminist Conspiracy. You don’t remember the shit that you put me through? The charts? The puppets?”
I can see his eyes dart around behind his thick glasses, trying to escape my accusing gaze. How many hours of my life had I wasted listening to Kenji’s rants about snipers and forts and the “fluoride problem?” And now…
“Oh, hi Hisao! I barely recognised you! When Kenji said he wanted me to meet a friend I never thought he meant you.”
“Hi Yuuko. Long time no see.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Kenji’s snort could be heard clearly over the near-deafening disco music. Yuuko and I choose to tactfully ignore it. Somehow I find it a lot easier to ignore Kenji’s moods by following Yuuko’s leads.
“And what’s your name?”
The little girl, maybe a little over two feet high, her hands clinging tightly to her mother’s dress, smiles a nervous smile and shakes her head.
“Come on darling, tell Uncle Hisao your name.”
“Ka…ren.” The word flows from her mouth like treacle; sickly sweet but viscous. Karen stumbles over the two short syllables, but that only amplifies the effect it has upon me.
“Adorable! Honestly, I still can’t believe that she’s yours. She is yours, right?”
Kenji shoots me with his optic blast, and I leave the matter be. That one gaze puts me in my place; feminist conspiracy or no, Kenji actually gave a crap about his offspring. As is to prove his point, he picked Karen up and sat her on his lap. Now free of her bite-sized companion, Yuuko quickly selected two completely different balls, as if by random.
“You sure you don’t want two balls of the same weight?” I tried to feather the question so as not to cause offence. Given Yuuko’s propensity for clumsiness, and the presence of a small child, I didn’t want to startle her.
“No, these should be fine…”
She then proceeded to wipe the floor with us. Even if Kenji and I combined our scores we would still have lost half of the games.
“This is why I never really got into sports. You train all of your life only to have your hopes dashed by someone better than you.” Kenji’s traditional victim complex shone as brightly as ever.
“You mean you actually trained at bowling?”
“Weren’t you listening? You’re not deaf are you? I just said training was pointless.”
“Er… right.” To tell you the truth the hour of bad disco music had taken a toll on my senses, but I doubt a man in full control of his faculties would have been able to comprehend Kenji’s train of thought. “Do you want to grab a coffee or something?”
“Sounds great. We can’t stay long, but Karen is still awake so one cup couldn’t hurt,” Yuuko managed to reply before Kenji could throw a spanner in the works. I could almost see his shoulders drop. The once brave solider of Man kind, the last sane man in an insane world, now reduced to following a schedule set by a 20-month-old woman.
“So, Hisao, tell me… have you found a job yet?” Kenji, still sulking over his complete loss at the bowling alley, could not be drawn into conversation, so Yuuko and I started reminiscing on the past and present.
“No, not really. I’ve been too busy with work and study that I haven’t really looked into it.”
Yuuko’s face was aghast. I know that fourth year students normally have a job lined up by this point, but Yuuko’s reaction were as if I had told her that I was a professional beggar.
“That really won’t do Hisao! Kenji has already got a job as an actuary lined up. He’s already done the induction process and he spends all of his holidays at the firm. It’s already December; how on earth will you find a job in this day and age?”
“Oh, it’s not that bad, really. I’m keeping my options open. With my degree there are quite a few paths I could head down…” I let myself trail off. To be honest, thinking about my future was never really my strong suit. Four years ago I was able to get away with saying “I’m going to University.” That kind of excuse didn’t cut it anymore. I should have gone job searching this time last year, like everyone else. But Hanako and I seemed to find ways to convince ourselves that we didn’t need anything but each other, and so we ended up as unemployed fourth year students. Man, even Kenji could get a job. And a wife and child. What a depressing world.
Try as we might, Kenji refused to be drawn into any topic of conversation. We quickly drained our coffees, and then the strange couple bid me their farewells.
“I had a good night. Thanks. And you have a beautiful daughter.”
“Thank you Hisao! Give my love to Hanako!”
And then they were gone, swallowed up by the crowd and the night. Standing alone in the busy street, I suddenly feel alone. I turn on my heels and head towards the train station.
Hanako is already in bed by the time I open the door to our studio apartment. With both of us working part-time it is the best we can afford. A little far out from town, but with a private bathroom and a decent-sized kitchen. I shuck my clothes, blast myself with a steamy shower, and crawl into bed with my beloved.
“How was your night?”
“Weird. Did you know Kenji and Yuuko were married with a kid?”
“I-I think I remember… someone…” I can tell when Hanako is trying to cover something up. We’d been in this bare-bones abode for long enough to know each other’s quirks.
“Yeah. He’s got a job lined up and everything. I never thought that I would be losing to Kenji. The world’s messed up…”
My words fall on deaf ears. After a long shift at the service station Hanako wants nothing but to sleep. I don’t blame her; full shifts of putting on a brave face as nameless stranger after nameless stranger interact with her. Even I find the shifts draining, so I can only imagine the fatigue that she experiences.
On the other hand, my own mind won’t stop running. I never thought I’d say it, but I’m a little envious of Kenji. He still had all the trappings of the mentalist that I knew from high school, but he somehow seemed to have his life a lot more together than I did. Swirling, caffeine-infused thoughts kept me awake for hours before the thin veil of sleep finally netted my mind, dragging it down into the abyss.