Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Tokyoites (Edokkotachi): Futaride, a short story by Jacob Ritari

Each Wednesday in September, author Jacob Ritari is sharing with us one of his unpublished short stories set in Tokyo. This week's story is Futaride, which can translate roughly as "the two of us, together".  It's the story of Ako Sawamura, a 15 year old Japanese girl who on this day skips school to spend the day with a boy she met online.  And ... I don't want to say anything more about it, you'll have to read it yourself to see how it turns out.  I'll just say that I read this story for the first time yesterday and I'm still thinking about it. 

Although officially unpublished, Futaride has previously appeared online. In Jacob's own words, it was "a contest winner in a small local magazine a few years back".
From the Chronogram website:
"Futaride" was selected from nearly 100 entrants by guest judge Valerie Martin (Orange Prize winner for Property), who wrote, "The deceptive calm of this story takes us right to the edge of the darkest place possible, and leaves us there to think it over. I admired both the style and the sensibility of Ritari's story."
I think it deserves the recognition, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Jacob Ritari


Anyone who has heard a Japanese person singing a song with English lyrics will know that, while the words might lose definition or come out strangely, the feeling can be no less sharp.
When Ako Sawamura sang the Beatles classic Eleanor Rigby, the tricky foreign lilt of the name came off the tongue more easily as Ereno, and some verbs lost their present-tense “s”—picks, and waits, for instance—and what was more, she had never seen a Japanese translation of the lyric. But let me give you a better sense of what I mean.
Ako had shared a bedroom with her sister, Shizuko, until she was nine; now she was fifteen and Shizuko was seventeen, and their two small bedrooms shared a wall. Ako sang Eleanor Rigby at just past one in the morning, thinking she was alone, not loudly but softly. Next door Shizuko was lying awake in her bed adjacent to the wall. She was a lazy, narrowminded girl who didn’t listen to much popular music, and had never heard Eleanor before; and although she understood English, she could barely catch enough of her sister’s singing to know that it was English. But what came through the wall was an eerie drone that Shizuko understood perfectly. She rolled on her side, banged loudly on the wall and shouted: “Urusai! Damatteyo!” Being roughly translated: “Loudmouth! Cut it out, will ya?”
The response was out of proportion to the annoyance, but that’s how it was.

In order to afford the extra bedroom, Ako’s father, a policeman, had moved the family into an apartment by the elevated tracks of the Musashino line. The window of Ako’s bedroom opened several feet in the air above the back of a passing train, and if she looked out the window, it was like a river of steel. Over time she had come to think of it as a river. But when they had first moved in she had, like the rest of her family, been upset with her father.
Kenji Sawamura was a man past his prime who did the best he could, but he was the type to never insist that he was man past his prime doing the best he could. He tried to smile and put a good face on things. In fact since that day he had never admitted, even to his wife, that the new apartment was in any way inferior to the old one. When the first train car roared past the windows, rattling some china in an open box, Sawamura had smiled and explained to his livid family that savages in the tropics, living next to enormous waterfalls, were no more aware of them than city-dwellers noticed the sound of traffic. His wife said nothing; Shizuko slammed the door to her room, called up her best friend and started to complain about her lamebrain father. Only Ako understood the truth about Sawamura—that he was too proud to admit to even a partial mistake—but she also knew that it wouldn’t do any good to reassure him. If she had hugged him around the waist, and lied to him that she liked the new apartment very much, he would have cheerily snapped “of course you do!”—or likewise. Sawamura was a man who believed in himself.
But he was right. After several years of living in the railside apartment, Ako no longer took much notice of the trains. When the rattling started, and pale white light swamped her room, washing over the bedsheets and up the walls, it seemed like a natural—even fitting—punctuation of her thoughts. It wasn’t the only thing she got used to: anymore, she didn’t even hear her sister talking loudly on the phone well into the night.
Shizuko disliked most things, but she disliked Ako in particular. She disliked Ako’s music, Ako’s uncertain half-smile, and especially that Ako was thin. Not that she was particularly fat herself, but as she always complained: “We eat the exact same stuff!”
It was true, they did.
It would be tempting to say that Shizuko was like the cruel step-sister from the fairy tale, but Ako was no great beauty; she was an ordinary girl. Shizuko was, strange to say, a subtly different kind of ordinary that found Ako’s kind unbearable. She had a small boil on her left cheek that she was ashamed of, and when she was talking, tried to cover up with one finger in a gesture that looked coquettish. Whenever she saw Ako, she assumed that Ako was staring at her boil. She would have stared if it had been on Ako’s face.


Not long after the move, something unfortunate happened to Kenji Sawamura: his close friend, an Osakaan named Morita, died. Although Morita was also a policeman, in what was by Japanese standards a fairly seedy neighborhood, he didn’t die in the line of duty but from asphyxiation in a house fire. He had been an inveterate smoker indoors and out, and everyone assumed, though nobody said, that he had been responsible for the fire himself. Everyone commiserated. But because Morita’s death had lacked that certain heroic quality, it left Sawamura with a bad taste in his mouth. It wasn’t right. He was sad that his friend was dead, and that he would never hear his deep smoker’s cough again; but he was almost angry with him, that he had chosen this way to leave the world.
After the incident, Sawamura talked less. He was assigned a night shift: he told his wife, with his habitual self-confidence, that he done his best to plead his case, but that after all someone had to do the work. As usual he almost seemed to believe his own lie. But Ako, listening through a gap in her bedroom door, suspected the truth: that on the contrary, he had begged to be assigned the night shift.
No one knew exactly why, not even Sawamura himself. The night air, and the way streetlights and the fronts of convenience stores looked at night, calmed him. The smile never left his face, but everyone felt, when he returned home in the morning, that he hadn’t wanted the night to end.
Ako was eleven.


When she was fifteen, and enrolled in the prefectural high school, they were still living in the apartment by the railway. Sawamura had earned a promotion, but possibly his conceit—that the move really had been the best thing all around—had infected him so deeply that he wouldn’t admit defeat by moving again. It was loud outside the apartment, intermittently, but inside it was quiet. Sawamura was rarely at home; his wife had become enthusiastic about American television programs from HBO; Shizuko talked on the phone with the door shut. In the kitchen, her murmuring wasn’t any louder than the cars in the street outside.
One morning Ako got up with a smile on her face. The day was cloudy: the light in the room was the color of dust. As she looked out the window, her smile faded. She had been smiling because she had a special appointment that day, and she had hardly been able to sleep from thinking about it, but the weather was all wrong. Well, she reminded herself, it didn’t really matter.
Ako’s computer was a cherry-red IMac. Like most mornings, before a shower or even breakfast, she logged on to check her e-mail. She felt a close, tight thrill in her chest: he had mailed her one last time. That was just like him.


I know you might not even get this, but it’s late, I’m still up. Just wanted to say I’m really looking forward to tomorrow (I guess actually it’s today). That’s all.

Ako sat still a moment gripping her knees. She wasn’t a squealer, but she smiled quietly to herself as she looked out the window. The sun had begun to emerge from behind a cloud.
It was only half past six. Before she had quit the soccer club last month, she had had to get up this early anyway, most days. School didn’t start until seven-thirty, but she was cutting today.
She got up in her white flannel pajamas and skipped—it was hard to skip in such a small space—to the wardrobe, and started to hum as she picked out an outfit. It would have to be the uniform: that way no one would ask her why she wasn’t in school, they’d assume she had a free period.
As she dressed, she started to put words to the tune, and if they had been enunciated perfectly they would have been these English words: “Silently closing her bedroom door—leaving the note that she hoped would say more.” From another Beatles’ song, of course; She’s Leaving Home. But it was a coincidence; unlike the girl in the song, Ako wasn’t leaving home. Or if she was, then unlike the girl in song, she didn’t leave a note. She thought about it—her father’s shift would end in an hour, he might wonder where she was—but no, he’d assume she was at school.
She went out into the kitchen and suddenly heard a hoarse voice calling her. It frightened her, in the early-dawn stillness, but she looked around and realized it was coming from her sister’s room.
Ako respected Shizuko. She assumed all older sisters treated their younger sisters that way, and because in a vague way she associated intelligence with scorn, she saw Shizuko as someone of considerable intelligence.
Opening the door she said politely: “Yes?”
Shizuko was lying crumpled up in her sheets, wearing a halter top. Her face was a pale sticky color. An expression of mild dislike that was always on her face, mainly from her slightly twisted mouth, was made worse by her apparent discomfort. With one hand on her forehead she groaned at Ako:
“Make yourself useful, brighteyes, and get me a soda. I’m gonna die of thirst.”
Ako went to the fridge: there was only a six-pack of beer with two beers left, two oranges, and a half-empty bottle of marble soda. The soda was probably Shizuko’s. She brought it back to the room, where Shizuko had propped herself up on her pillows and was coughing theatrically into her hand.
“I can’t go to school today,” she said, “I’m gonna die this second, I swear.” Then she narrowed her eyes and added suspiciously: “What’re you doing up so early?”
“Archery practice,” said Ako.
She didn’t know if the archery club met before school, but it sounded plausible.
“God.” Shizuko took the soda and slammed it onto bedside table. Then she rolled over against the wall. “You’re always doing something.”
There was a time in Ako’s life when the accusation would have been fair.
Ako stayed in the doorway, wondering if she should say anything. Shizuko didn’t move. Finally Ako whispered, “hope you feel better,” shut the door carefully, and walked away. She could hear Shizuko coughing. She wasn’t sure if her sister was faking, but it was possible – an odd thought struck her – that Shizuko couldn’t tell the difference.
In the bathroom, Ako brushed her teeth. She didn’t take a shower because she had always hated having to do it every day, and today she wasn’t going to put up with it. She looked at herself in the mirror: she was a skinny girl with a receding chin, and brittle hair that wouldn’t lie flat.
She stood in the front door and said: “I’m going out!”
She waited for Shizuko, at least, to reply, but didn’t hear anything. She shut that door too and she was outside. It had gotten brighter since she got up, and she stood by the hallway window blinking.
It occurred to her that maybe she should have said something to her mother. But her mother always slept deeply, and wouldn’t have wanted to be disturbed.


Ako Sawamura and Hitoshi Satou had met on a message board: Ako had put up a sort of personal ad, and Hitoshi had been the first to respond. They hit it off because, as it turned out, they had been elementary school classmates: neither remembered the other, and they both had fairly common names, but they shared reminisces of a kind and wise homeroom teacher named Seruhiko Kazumi. Ako had moved away, but Hitoshi still lived near the school, four stops away by the Musashino train that ran past Ako’s windows.
Hitoshi was waiting by the soccer goal on the elementary school field. He was also wearing his uniform—the sleek black jacket with piping—and several teachers shooting glances out of windows had all taken him for somebody’s older brother. He kept looking at his watch; not to tell the time, but to be seen doing something.
Hitoshi was as skinny as Ako. He wore glasses, and had a very small nose under a pronounced forehead, that with his long bangs gave him a furtive expression. He couldn’t believe it when he saw a girl, her hair sticking out in a kind of natural pageboy flip, come smiling toward him across the field. He almost wanted to glance around: but there was no mistaking him, there was no one else.

Hitoshi had described himself to Ako as “like Ikari Shinji, without the Shotacon charisma.” That made Ako laugh. For her own part, she was “flat as an ironing board.” They had never been so honest before: it was funny that it should feel so good to say bad things about yourself.
“Liar,” said Ako, squinting at him, “you don’t look a thing like Ikari.”
It was the first time in his life a girl had spoken directly to Hitoshi because she wanted to, not because she had to; that was if you didn’t count his sisters.
He stood there not answering Ako, looking slightly away from her. Then, as casually as possible, he held out his hand below his waist.
“Well…Shall we?”
He was intelligent, and extremely articulate online, but now he couldn’t get a word out. When he was nervous, Hitoshi didn’t go red; he went pale and stiff. Instead of stuttering, he spoke very quietly. Because of this, some people made the mistake of assuming that he was cool.
“Sure!” Ako said.
It probably goes without saying, but it was the first time Hitoshi had held a girl’s hand. In fact, when it came down to it, it was the first time he had held anyone’s hand; except for his father’s, a long time ago.
Hitoshi’s large hand curled around hers: she had much darker skin.
“Do you like the Beatles?” said Ako. “I’ve got that song stuck in my head, you know the one—Shizu living home, bai-bai…”
“Sergeant Pepper?” Hitoshi said, perking up. He was a great fan of the Beatles.
When he was young his elder brother, an aspiring hippie, had played the LP while Hitoshi lay on the carpet, looking at the album art. For the longest time – he explained to Ako now – he had assumed that sergeants in the British army really wore those uniforms. Ako covered her mouth with her hand and laughed.
“Let’s go get ice-cream,” she said, and they did.

They were free to discuss the Beatles: Hitoshi already knew about Sawamura’s night shift, Shizuko, and the injury that had kept Ako out of half a season of soccer until she had finally decided to give up the team (it wasn’t as if they needed her). Ako knew all about Hitoshi’s large family: his elder brother who had come out as a homosexual and been all but disowned by his parents, his two elder sisters who had both moved away, and his younger brother with his odd habit. Takeru Satou was thirteen, and lately he liked to do nothing but ride around on the subway: he spent all his pocket money on subway fare. He didn’t seem to be going anywhere, just riding from one end of the line to the other. Hitoshi’s parents were disturbed, and almost angry, for reasons they couldn’t explain: they tried to forbid Takeru, but if he was out of the sight for a second, he was back in a subway car. They got angry because, reasonably, they shouldn’t have been angry. They were afraid to complain to teachers or the police because it sounded so ridiculous.
Hitoshi and Ako sat in French-style café in the open air, eating a mango parfait with two long spoons. The day was shaping up to be bright and cloudless.
Ako kicked her legs under the table.
“I’m lucky I found a guy like Hito-kun,” she said. “You’re so nice. I’m not scared at all.”
Hitoshi blushed on the inside, but he only turned paler.
“Ehh, you’re making fun of me,” he said quietly, talking out of the side of his mouth, although he didn’t intend to, like a gangster.
“No-no,” said Ako. “You are nice.”
“I guess I am. But that’s pretty much it.”
Ako looked up with the spoon in her mouth.
“I mean there’s not much more to me than that.”
Ako looked at him blankly.
“Why should there be?”
When they were finished, they went on down the street, and Ako started holding Hitoshi’s hand again. The fancy parfait had cost him six hundred yen, but he didn’t care.
“Hito-kun, Hito-kun,” said Ako.
“What’s one thing you al-ways wanted to do? I mean if you could do anything?”
Hitoshi looked around. It was a wide street, and the sun showed everything to good effect: the bright blue tops of cars, the hints of white on the cherry tree branches (they wouldn’t bloom for a month). In front of them was a concrete overpass painted yellow. Hitoshi pointed.
“Stand on that thing,” he said, “and wait until a convertible goes by, and spit.”
“That’s terrible!” Ako laughed.
“Maybe I’m sick of being a nice guy,” said Hitoshi, sounding more like a gangster. He was starting to enjoy it.
They went up on the overpass and waited for a convertible. The sun was directly overhead, and sweat came up in Hitoshi’s collar. They waited some time without any luck, and then Hitoshi spit anyway—hitting the empty street—and Ako spit too, and they looked and each other and laughed, still holding hands. They got down on the other side and a fat white tourist, standing with his wife, nudged her and muttered something in a foreign language.
His wife was thinner, and had dark Asian features. She approached Hitoshi and Ako and asked them in accented but correct Japanese: “Excuse me. Please don’t be insulted, but my husband says you are very—pretty? And he would like to take your picture. For souvenir.”
She shared a smile with Hitoshi, acknowledging between them that it was patronizing, but wouldn’t they be nice and play along?
“Sure thing!” said Ako, and suddenly flung her arm around Hitoshi’s neck, and he went very stiff and white. The double-chinned tourist had a camera around his neck, and he lifted it, grinned big white teeth and said:
Ako grinned back: Hitoshi gave a sly smile. The camera flashed.
Then the tourist reached in his pocket. He wanted to give them money, but his wife convinced him through frantic gestures that this would be rude; he settled for shaking Hitoshi’s hand. His grip was enthusiastic and moist.
“It’s like a fairy tale, you know?” said Ako as they walked away. “I sort of expected him to give you gold coins.”
“Yeah,” said Hitoshi, smiling for the first time. “I know what you mean.”
“I wish it could go on like this forever.”
“Who knows, maybe it will,” said Hitoshi.
Then they were very quiet for a block. Finally Ako looked around, and asked more subduedly: “Where are we going?”
“Do you remember that playground on—”
“Oh yeah! Yeah!”
“Let’s go there,” said Hitoshi. “I still go there sometimes. It has a sort of a peaceful feeling on a day like this, you know what I mean?”
“I do, I do,” said Ako.
The playground was several blocks away, and by the time they reached it, the sun had moved a little to one side of noon.
Hitoshi sat on one of the swings: he would have used it, but he was afraid of breaking it. Next to him, Ako hung from the monkey bars, her feet just touching the ground. The children were all still in school; they were alone. No one but an old lady moving past with a walker.
“You know, this is a lot easier now,” said Ako.
Hitoshi was looking at the high-rise apartment buildings. The playground stood on a ridge, and at the bottom of the incline, the four apartment buildings rose up in front of them. In the daylight, all the windows were dark.
“When I was a kid…” said Hitoshi. He looked at the building intently, trying to order his thoughts. “When I was a kid, I guess I thought…Well I knew there were more people in the world than just my dad and my brothers and sisters, sure. But I guess I figured there were about as many people as could fit in that building. That’s pretty fair, don’t you think? Not too many. But enough to be interesting.”
Ako listened to him seriously, and nodded from time to time.
“But there’s two of those buildings…three…four. Then there’s this whole city. Then there’s Honshuu. Then there’s Japan. Then there’s Asia.” He looked at her. “You know what I mean?”
She didn’t say anything, but nodded.
“I live there,” he said, pointing at the rightmost building. “In that one right there.”
They stood together looking at it. Finally Ako took his hand.
“Okay,” she said. “Let’s go.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m not scared if it’s with you.”
“I’m not either. But you’re sure, right?”
She looked at him hard, then suddenly disintegrated into giggles.
“You s-say it all serious like that.”
“Sorry,” said Hitoshi, with a smile. “I haven’t done this kind of thing before, well—obviously I haven’t.”
“Hey,” said Ako, and squeezed his hand. “Which one is yours?”
“Which one do you live in? I mean which window.”
Hitoshi looked at the bank of small dark, glistening windows, like insects. “You know,” he said, after a while, “I’m not really sure.”


Hitoshi lived on the eleventh floor, in Apartment 2-C. At the moment, his brother Takeru was in his bedroom sulking, and his mother and father were in the kitchen having an argument about Takeru.
“I’m telling you, it isn’t normal,” his father was saying. “Even something like truancy, that’s sort of normal, in a way. But what are we going to say about this?”
“We’ll just have to pretend it’s nothing,” said his mother. “Otherwise people might start to talk.”
“But what’s if it’s something really serious?”
“How could it be serious? Every kid has to spend his money on something.”
“God,” said his father. “Sometimes I think not a single one of them turned out normal.”
Outside, in the hall, Hitoshi said to Ako: “We can’t go in; they’re in there.”
Ako pouted. “Oh, that’s too bad. I kind of wanted to see your place.”
“It’s alright. We’ll go up to the roof.”
“How tall is the building?—I wasn’t counting.”
“Twenty-five stories,” said Hitoshi. Then as they started to walk again, he added: “My place probably looks pretty much like yours…It’s nothing special.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“It’s a lot nicer up on the roof. You can see all the way to the river.”
“Ooh,” said Ako.
It was true, you could see all the way to the river.
By the time they got there, the sun had already started to go down: the whole sky was a delicate red. It was half past four, and the day seemed to have gone by faster than it should have.
The tarpaper roof was a deep pearl-black. A few ventilation towers, and the entrance to the emergency stairwell, were big silent shapes against the fading color in the sky. Hitoshi and Ako came out of the stairwell and stood hand-in-hand.
“Oh wow,” said Ako blankly. “It’s so romantic.”
Hitoshi paled a little and his hand went tight in hers.
“The river’s over there,” he said, pointing.
It was a thick steel band like a train going past an open window. Ako leaned on the railing, kicking up one foot, and Hitoshi stood a little behind her to one side, and they looked at the river. It was as if each one of them was trying to humor the other by pretending to enjoy the view, but there was something else on their minds.
“You can see half the city,” said Ako.
“I know.”
“Do you come up here a lot?”
“All the time.”
After a pause, Ako said: “I’m kind of worried about my sister.”
“She was sick when I went out. I just hope she’s alright.”
“It’s probably the flu,” said Hitoshi. “I heard it’s going around.”
“But that’s where you are, not where she is. I mean where we are now.”
There was silence. The silence was everywhere, even below them, or they were too high up to clearly hear the noise from the city.
“I lied,” said Ako. “I am scared. A little.”
“Me too,” said Hitoshi.
“D’you think it’ll be alright?”
Then it seemed to him that, as the male in the situation, he had some duty to reassure her. He thought about it and added: “It’s fine. I mean, we did our best, didn’t we?”
“Yeah, I guess that’s right.”
“That’s all you can do, right?”
“Okay,” said Ako. “Here goes.” Then she turned to him and said: “Hey, take off your glasses.”
Hitoshi blinked. “What for?”
“You won’t need ‘em,” she said, and reached out and plucked them off his face herself, and then – it was the bravest thing she had ever done – leaned in and kissed his cheek. It was light and quick, but Hitoshi went paler and stiffer than ever. He looked away and murmured something.
Ako hopped up agilely onto the railing and climbed to the other side. A moment later, more clumsily, Hitoshi followed.
“Hey,” she asked suddenly. “Did you leave a note?”
“Yeah, on my desk,” he said.
“Oh yeah?” said Ako. “What’d you say?”
“Well, that I didn’t want to be a bother to anyone, so…” He trailed off. “You know it’s weird, but I’m not sure I remember it all. Oh well. It doesn’t really matter, does it?”
“Nah. I guess not.”
Ako held out her hand again, and he took it.
“Don’t let me go, okay?”
“I won’t.”
“No matter what happens?”
“I promise.”
Ako had shut her eyes, but now she opened one of them and looked sideways at him.
“Hey Hito-kun. What do you think it’s gonna be like?”
Hitoshi, for the first time, laughed.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I really don’t know.”
Ako laughed too.
“No really. What’s it gonna be like?”
Hitoshi looked very hard at the horizon and said: “Maybe there’ll be flowers.”
“Yeah,” said Ako, smiling. “That sounds right.”
Hitoshi smiled back.
“Okay,” he said. “On three? I guess?”
“Three’s so little,” said Ako. “Let’s do ten.”
“Nah, let’s do twenty.”
“If we keep going like that,” said Hitoshi, “we’ll never do it. Will we?”
“Okay.” Ako breathed in. “We’ll do in on three.”
“On three.”
They swung their hands.
“One, two—”
They looked at each other and stopped and laughed.
“Sorry, sorry. Okay. One—two—”
A moment later there was no one on the roof.


For more on Jacob and his writing, visit Jacob Ritari's website. You can also follow him on Twitter.

If you missed it, please also check out last week's story, The Sound of the Train.

Read more about Jacob's debut novel, Taroko Gorge, including an excerpt, at the Unbridled Books website.

Buy Taroko Gorge at: | BookDepository | via IndieBound

The small print:  Links in this post to Amazon, or The Book Depository contain my Associates or Affiliates ID respectively.  Purchases made via these links earn me a very small commission.  For more information please visit my About Page.


  1. Wonderful story. I didn't expect the ending. I really want to read his novel now (I did after reading your review of it!)

  2. Really good story. After finishing it, I immediately reread it to find the 'clues' I missed the first time around -- I love stories that make me want to do that.


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