The Other Side of the Closet (Part 3)
Aya hid beneath a wide-brimmed sunhat and peered furtively over the tops of her dark glasses as I approached. She looked down the main road in both directions, then grabbed my arm and dragged me down a side street.
The sun was too bright and my vision blurred with the impact of every footstep I took, but I eventually managed to form words.
“Where are we going?”
“You stink of alcohol enough as it is, so it’s best if you keep your mouth shut,” came her terse reply.
As we threaded our way through the quiet, mostly deserted streets she would occasionally stop and consult a small, hand-drawn map. After a while I realized that we were quite near the apartment. I was just about to ask her again when she stopped outside a house.
“Here, suck on this for a while so she can’t smell your breath.”
Aya handed me a pack of mints. I took a few out and popped them in my mouth as she knocked on the door.
A lady in her 50s answered. Aya took off her hat and glasses, and smiled warmly.
“Hello, my name’s Aya Kitagawa and this is my friend Shunsuke Machida. I spoke to you on the phone earlier.”
“Oh yes, from the university. Please come in.”
We took our shoes off and the lady led us into the living room. She served us tea and Aya made some polite remarks about the weather. The TV was on in the background -- the kind of show where minor celebrities try out various recipes and dutifully pronounce each one delicious -- but all my attention was absorbed by the photograph beside it on the cabinet. A teenage girl in a school uniform smiled shyly at the camera; she was a couple of years younger but there was no question about her identity. It was Chiyo.
The lady noticed me looking and broke off.
“Yes, that’s her. She was in the second grade of high school then. Never really liked having her photo taken.”
She smiled sadly.
After we left, Aya was silent for a while. She felt bad about lying to Chiyo’s mother and so did I. Despite the dated sounding name she used, Chiyo spoke in a modern dialect, and presumably she had some connection to the apartment she was haunting, so over the past couple of weeks Aya had painstakingly searched out information on every suicide in the last ten years within a couple of kilometers of the apartment. Next she had narrowed them down to the most likely cases, then finally to this house. Then after last night's failure, she had called and told the lady that we were students, which I suppose was still kind of true in her case, and that we were collecting research on social problems among Japanese youth.
The mother had been so keen to help. Her husband was always away, working in Hokkaido, and she was obviously desperately lonely with only the TV to keep her company. She had shown us all the photos that she had of her daughter, and told us in loving detail about her life. How she had once eaten washing up detergent as a child, how she had played Cinderella in a class play when she was ten, how she had driven her parents to distraction with her terrible grades in mathematics, and how proud they had been when she had passed her university entrance exams.
What she still didn’t know, and what still tortured her, was why, at the age of nineteen, her daughter had jumped from the top of the main campus building and killed herself.
It was a short, solemn walk to the apartment and as the ugly yellow building appeared round the corner, Aya said goodbye and headed for the station. She didn’t know what to do with what we’d just discovered any more than I did.
Back inside the apartment I sat at the kitchen table, facing the closet, and waited.
Time went by, one hour moved into the next, but nothing happened. Maybe Aya had scared Chiyo off after the showdown last night. No, not Chiyo. I knew her real name now.
Nevertheless, as the sun began to set and the natural light began to dim, the closet door opened slightly and an eye peeked out from behind.
“Wh- what do you want?”
Her voice was small, with a slight tremble.
“I think we need to talk,” I said, adding with what I hoped was a friendly smile, “I’ve been waiting for you all afternoon.”
She moved into the kitchen but didn’t sit down.
“Just because I’m dead, doesn’t mean I don’t have a life,” she replied haughtily.
I wasn’t sure if she was joking so I didn’t laugh, but she’d pricked my curiosity. Of course there was another place she went when she wasn’t here. Keiichi had hinted at that before.
“What’s it like in there?” I gestured at the closet, “You know, on the other side.”
She pulled out a chair and slumped down in it, her face suddenly seeming quite childlike beneath the old-fashioned hairstyle and delicately applied makeup.
“Meetings,” she spat, “Loads of meetings. You don’t have any idea how boring it is.”
A thousand more questions suddenly jumped to mind but I had to force myself to stay focused. I shifted in my chair and fixed my eyes on her.
“Why do you keep coming back here, Saki?”
She looked back at me, stunned, for a few moments. The corner of her mouth flickered, as if she was trying to smile, but her eyes were filled with the most unimaginable sadness. I waited for tears to come, but she fought them back with all her strength.
“Saki...” she tried to laugh, but it came out as an unhappy, strangled, choking sound, “I remember now.”
"The bus was always late," Saki said, her voice unsteady, "I always had to wait."
I remembered the sight of the bright yellow apartment building as I was walking home, and the smell of frying vegetables that sometimes wafted from the kitchen as I was passing the bus stop outside. Saki went to the sideboard and picked up a knife as she continued talking.
"There were always the nicest smells coming from this apartment..."
I eyed the knife warily, but she just went straight to the fridge and started gathering up vegetables and fruit.
"We're supposed to put all this behind us when we go in there," she gestured to the closet, "but those smells, waiting for the bus on a chilly winter's day, were the one thing I couldn't forget."
"So you had to come back."
She nodded and started chopping the grapes and celery.
Saki talked about the other side only in the vaguest terms because she herself didn't really understand it. The dead do all their thinking and planning in terms longer than we can imagine, but she still had one foot in the world of the living and whatever I asked her about, she would always eventually turn the topic back to food.
With the knife and the vegetables in her hands, she had regained a little of her composure and I started to see why Keiichi found comfort in her. Saki's mother had vividly described what a gentle child she had been, and listening to her talk I could see what her mother had meant.
I asked what she was going to do now. She looked at the half-finished salad.
"Now you've made me remember, it doesn't feel the same coming back here. There are too many things I can't do: I can't even eat this stupid salad."
Saki put down the knife and stood up.
"Are you going to be alright?" I asked.
"I'll get used to it," she replied, and walked back towards the closet.
As she turned her back, I thought of her mother again and the question that had been nagging at my mind came blurting out of my mouth.
"Why did you kill yourself?"
Saki gave this a moment's thought and then replied, sadly, "It seemed so important at the time."
She opened the closet door and left.
A bit before midnight Keiichi came home. He saw the unfinished salad, saw me still sitting at the kitchen table, and went into his room without speaking.
A little while afterwards, I went back my own room. As I lay on my futon, staring at the ceiling, my phone buzzed. A message from Keiichi.
-She's gone, hasn't she?
I thought about how I could explain everything using just the tiny screen of my phone, but there was no way.
And that was that.
The next couple of months were pretty bleak. For a few days Keiichi and I just went about our lives, barely speaking, and then one day he too was gone.
A few more days and all his things followed him. I heard from a friend that he'd gone back to his family's place in Sendai, leaving Aya and I behind like a bad memory. The estate agents panicked a bit and even knocked another few thousand off the rent to persuade me to stay. Paying it all on my own was still difficult though, so I found myself working just a little bit harder and looking into full-time job vacancies just a bit more seriously. I was surprised to find that the harder I worked, the more I found myself enjoying it, but something still didn't feel right. I'd expected to feel guilty for betraying Keiichi, but without knowing why, whenever I thought of him I just found myself getting angry.
One day a paycheck from a big advertising job came through. I went to a club to celebrate and got talking to a girl called Yuka. I told her that I often got mixed up between Yukas, Yukis and Yukos; she laughed and said that was cute.
We exchanged phone numbers and left seperately. As I walked home the next morning I wondered whether she'd have gone home with me if I'd asked, but what was the point? I hadn't asked.
The old man in the first floor apartment was there as usual. He didn't say anything this time. Just looked at me and shook his head as if to say, "Stupid boy."
And I was stupid, I realised. I was angry at Keiichi because he'd taken the easy option. The option of doing what was comfortable and what was easy. The option of disengaging from his life. He'd behaved like me, wasting his life, and so he was stupid too. He and I had always been too similar, and I wanted to tell someone that I wasn't going to make that mistake anymore.
I picked up my phone and after a couple of rings Aya's voice answered.
"Shunsuke? What are you doing up at this time? That's not like you."
Her usual edge of sarcasm was there, but she seemed happy to hear from me. It was always like that with her. She could be sharp, even cruel sometimes, but when she was happy you could always tell. You just had to work a bit.
"Listen, there's something I want to tell you..."