Fiction / May 2009 (Issue 7)


Coming of Age

by Caitlin Militello

Every night after work we go out drinking, just the men. Most of them are new to the job—or as my wife enjoys reminding me, new to life. They stumble into my division fresh from the top Tokyo universities, desperately gripping their diplomas as if they were guarantees of success in business. It's just another part of my job, as I see it, to shape these insolent charlatans into the proper businessmen I require.

I'm all business, always was, even with my children as they were growing up, but part of good business is also knowing when to loosen up. Anyone who doesn't understand this doesn't understand what it is to be a professional—look at my wife, for example. She takes a few instances and blows them out of proportion, as though that's what happens every night.

"Here you are," she says, hitting me with a pillow when I get into bed after a hard day's work—the thanks I get, "fifty-five years old and out partying with these boys like you're one of them. You're their superior, and you barely make the last train home at night! And all the money you waste on this, this behavior!"

What she doesn't understand is how infuriating these wet-behind-the-ears types are, never using common business sense and making a thousand little mistakes. When we go out at the end of the day it's to restore the good will, to keep things running smoothly—in the noble name of good will, you see. I've seen many make the mistake of neglecting these important interpersonal relations, to the detriment of the company. Unlike a wild young man I have everyone's interests at heart, you see.

In spite of all this she's certainly not a bad woman, though she doesn't understand how the real world works. If she didn't yell, well I might be worried she'd stopped caring. Family members admire the strength of our marriage after all these years—my business sense and my wife's passionate, temperamental side always balance each other perfectly, they say. Being married is like being in a business contract, and if I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times: good interpersonal relations are what business is all about.

So in the name of good business we're reclined around the table at our favorite izakaya, counting the empty sake bottles and pitchers of beer, picking at what is left of the food. One of the new hires, either exhausted or unfamiliar with his limits, seems to be sleeping on the table.

It's the time of evening when everything gets a warm glow and we're all loose but not yet too drunk. The air smells like salt and wet wood and cigarettes. I'm ready to smoke another when Oda announces he wants to make a pilgrimage to the Sapporo Beer Factory in Hokkaido. I say I had quite a good time there myself once, and Ishida asks me what century that was in.

I like Ishida for his irreverence—no doubt he's the type who made his way through secondary school by the grace of educational law. He may be something of a punk but he knew enough to hunker down when he failed the entrance exams the first time. And here he is, a fine young salary man at a prestigious company, picking at the mucosal insides of the soy beans and flinging them onto the plate in front of him, sucking the salt off his fingers like a five-year-old.

You can't help respecting a man who lives his own way such as this—and indeed Ishida was one of the quickest to call me by my first name out of the workplace. Some of them still can't quite handle it, which irks me a little. Only old fools and half-dead dinosaurs are called boss or sir at times like these; times which are business run with the rules of friendship, I always say. It's a philosophy that hasn't failed me yet.

There are a lot of conversations going on at once here, with fifteen of us in the room—well, fourteen since one has gone to the bathroom; one conversation centers around whether the missing man, Koyanagi, is hovering with his head over a toilet or a pretty waitress's neck. In the middle of some political talk Shigemori is taking out his cell phone, reading something with his forehead wrinkled like when he's working hard.

Shigemori is a newlywed, and his spine vanishes the moment he gets an e-mail from the wife. It's obvious he wants to leave, so Ishida solves the dilemma for him by seizing the dutiful husband's phone and tossing it to Konichi, who is reclining by the sliding door.

There, he tells him, no more e-mails for the night. I'm doing you a favor, you know. Shigemori is drunk and in the back corner, so it would be impossible for him to get the phone back, but he tries anyway. We all laugh as he slips on the zabuton when he attempts to get up, and I tell him to relax. There has to be a balance in a marriage you know, a man has to have his own life, I say.

Marriage is a business, right, Taka-san, Ishida pipes up. And business is about having a good relationship. He slurs the word relationship and giggles at his own cheek after. He is truly an admirable little bastard.

We're momentarily interrupted by some revelers in the next room singing happy birthday. When they cheer at the end, we cheer with them, and drink to a person we've never met getting one year older.

Hey now, Oda interjects, the sound of swallowing still in his voice. He's tipping his glass of beer in Ishida's direction. You're harsh on Shigemori-san when you haven't even got a girlfriend. You sure you aren't just trying to deprive him because you're jealous? Everyone hoots like a challenge has been laid down.

I've got a girl, he replies, trying to sound nonchalant, but the edge beneath his words betrays him. That doesn't mean I have to go running every time she calls. A man has to be man. He is completely unconvincing and Oda glances at me from the corner of his eye. Oda is a good businessman—in the name of good relations he lets it slide even though we all know Ishida doesn't have a woman.

But—Shigemori begins to protest, and turns redder than he already is from the sake he's been pouring down his own throat. The room begins to look glassy somehow. I've drunk too much already.

Nagao at my left leans over and supplies me with the whispered word newlyweds when he sees my muddied brain can't make the connection. So I try to cover my inebriation with volume.

Shigemori, I say, careful not to melt my words together like the ice in the glasses. Are we keeping you from your husbandly duties? I'm so loud it makes him more embarrassed and everyone laughs again. By all means, I continue, don't let us keep you any longer. We laugh harder when he practically jumps from the floor, throwing bills on the table as he climbs over the others, a couple of whom are too drunk to move properly.

Konichi is smoking a cigarette on the floor, and returns Shigemori's phone to him with his free hand. If you fall asleep at work tomorrow we'll know why, he snickers. Something about the way he exhales the smoke looks lewd.

Shigemori thanks me for my understanding and bows, nearly forgetting himself and calling me by my title. When he says Taka-san at last it sounds forced, and Konichi gives him a light kick, and then there is more laughter and the young husband is gone on to better things.

My eyes are starting to burn from all the smoke. I rub out the bright-colored end of the cigarette in my hand, the last remnant of the warm glow from earlier. The smokiness and glassiness are starting to look like fog rolling over a still lake, like a strange dream. My fingers, too, feel strange, like rubber. Nagao acts as though he wants to get some air, and asks me to join. No doubt he is watching me slowly turn green. It seems the night has been so entertaining I've forgotten my limits.

I'm about to rise when it happens that we are all going to be getting some air—Koyanagi has returned from an apparent misadventure at last, a tough-looking manager burning anger into his back from an eerily static face. This is like a ritual for Koyanagi, but it seems this time he may have gone too far and we're out of another good drinking spot. Everyone begins to gather their things and finish their drinks in a swallow, grumbling at Koyanagi as they rise uncertainly on sore and wobbly knees. There's yen being pulled out everywhere and I'm struck with how stone-faced the people depicted on them are, just like the manager who is relishing the opportunity to kick Koyanagi out at last.

Like a robot I'm paying and Nagao is helping me stand so the others can't see. Two of them are pulling the unconscious new hire off the table at the same time, and his facial features look smudged. The next thing I am aware of I'm in shoes and on the hard pavement of the street, the cold air biting my face. My eyes are really stinging now.

Hey Taka-san, Koyanagi calls out from ahead of everyone, naturally the first out of the izakaya given the undignified circumstances. The others have been goading him. Why don't you introduce me to some pretty young girl to marry, to keep me out of trouble? He laughs like this is the best joke he's heard all week. Then suddenly he straightens up a little, like he's trying to be respectable. You've got two daughters old enough to get married, right?

I want to refuse with indignation, until I realize he's correct. I seem to be walking forward. The thought of one of my daughters with a man like Koyanagi chills me as much as the wind off the frigid ocean, though I hide it with a joke. I tell him I couldn't consent to giving one of my daughters to such a slacker at his job. He laughs with a shrug and lights a cigarette, but something in the line of his shoulders makes me think he is still serious.

We're at the train station and there are lights everywhere. The ticket gate leers at me as I go through. Nagao is still at my back like a mother watching a toddler, so I slip away to walk next to Oda. Oda is telling with pride how big his girlfriend's thighs are, how unusual it is for a Japanese woman these days. Konichi is demanding he take a picture and bring it to work. I feel like I'm walking through garbage and can barely move my legs.

Somehow I make it to the platform, and we're waiting for the train to come roaring through. Koyanagi suggests we go someplace else since it's so early, that he knows a place a few stops over in Shinjuku. He's willing to pay since the night was cut short on his account. The new hire is finally with it and seems ready for another round, but others seem against it. It's my responsibility to settle it, so I take a step forward, past the yellow line, and say, I know something we can do.

There's a roaring coming towards me and voices behind me, and my feet are carrying me awkwardly to where I want to go. I don't know why they're not following me but I know they'll catch on eventually, so I keep going, and I'm about to step down when—

The train is rushing to the end of the platform centimeters from my nose, and I'm dangling. I can't hear anything over the shrieking of the train. Finally something yanks me back and I half fall into Nagao's arms. That's Nagao, always a steady man, a good business man, like Oda, not like Koyanagi.

Then I realize there is something on my back. It's a hand, still gripping the back of my suit coat. I feel so small, and smaller still when I look up and see Ishida's face over me. The young punk, saving me from a speeding train. It's more than I can bear, to see him looking down at me so seriously, looking down on me, still gripping my coat as though I could move. If it had been Koyanagi I could even have lived with it, even for a bad businessman he has his good qualities: he makes the team work. But this irreverent little bastard.

I pin all my anger and shame on him. I want him to let go, and I want his resignation on the spot. I want someone to give me paper so I can watch him write it, on the dirty floor of the platform, with the filthy hand that's touching my expensive suit coat. I want his pampered little twenty-three-year-old fingers to snap and break when he does it. He doesn't know how to be a good businessman, he doesn't know how to be a grown-up. He's the same age as my oldest daughter—and she's still just a child!

I want the paper, and I open my mouth to ask for it, but then I'm on the train with my face smooshed against the cold window, and I can't move my mouth, like it's made of hardened wax, my jaw slacking stupidly. I'm burning inside but I can't think or move.

I think we've done enough tonight, Koyanagi says. Nagao is still holding me up. Like a coward, Ishida has skulked off somewhere, or so I'm thinking. After a couple stops Nagao and Oda are maneuvering me into an empty seat, holding my head up for me. That's when I see Ishida sitting there, straight-backed, looking respectable despite the sake haze that is hanging around him. So this is the next generation, I think, and in the next sentence that comes to mind I realize, I'm out.

When the alarm goes off in the morning my wife is already yelling.

"I had to pull you out of the taxi myself last night, do you even remember? You were absolutely disgusting, I shouldn't have let you sleep in the bed but you somehow managed to stumble there. I'm going to have to wash everything, even the pillows!"

I feel like someone has thrown a brick at my head, so I go to the shower without saying a word.

"I suppose you don't want breakfast?"

Even the water hitting the tub seems too loud. Damn it.

***

All day at work no one speaks of what happened last night. Even Koyanagi's antics go unmentioned, like the entire night never happened. Shigemori waltzes into work fresh-faced, and though he's slightly taken aback when he sees my ashy complexion he thinks it's a morning like any other. I wonder if he'll ever know what really happened, but I assume somebody will let him in on it later. No doubt over some drinks I won't be present for.

When the day gets later and my head feels less heavy no one mentions where we'll go tonight. I hear Shigemori ask innocently if we're going back to that izakaya, and the only response, from Konichi, is that thanks to Koyanagi we won't be going back there anymore. Shigemori is obviously confused, but when nobody explains, he goes on with his work. They're all good businessmen, some way or other.

Especially Ishida—the report he turns in to me today is excellent. In light of the circumstances I only manage an icy good work to him, but he doesn't seem to notice. He seems so upright, like his whole demeanor has changed. Where is the little boy rubbing his fingers into the slimy edamame skins? The salt can hardly be gone from beneath his fingernails, and yet here he is sitting at his desk in front of me, no trace of the irreverent bastard I somehow respected.

Thank-you, Aoki-san, he says sincerely, and bows. If I couldn't see his face I would have thought he was being cheeky, saying it with well-concealed sarcasm. But this is an honest man in front of me. I turn to leave, disgusted this time with myself. And Ishida—before I can leave Ishida asks me if I'm feeling well now. He says, are you feeling well now, sir?

I say okagesamade, with your help, and usually it's such a meaningless expression.

Are you feeling well now, sir?

I'm a dinosaur. An old fool. And I'm on my way out.

***

My wife is so shocked to see me come straight home from work she doesn't know what to say. In the silence I go about doing what I please, until at last she appears in the doorway, holding my suit coat from the night before.

"Taka, the seams have let go right here," she tells me, pointing to the spot where Ishida had grabbed me on the platform. "What on earth happened last night?"

I look up from some papers I've pulled from my briefcase and hold them still in my hands for a moment. Then, with a shrug of indifference, I look back down and begin to rifle through them.

"Must have been one of the young men fooling around," I say, and ask her what's for dinner.

 
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