Two other times after that, I failed to show up as myself and met him as the old woman.
My aunt got in a car accident, and I needed to go visit her...
Then my uncle got in a car accident, so I needed to go visit him...
I would send those messages right before we were supposed to meet, and his reply was, “Understood. Take care.”
Both of the reasons were lies, but he handled them like a grownup and didn’t let old me see he was disappointed that young me wouldn’t be coming.
“We meet again,” he smiled and accepted the red bean treat from who knew where that old-lady me offered as a thank you for the other day; he even ate it on the spot.
When I casually asked if he was dating anyone, he said he had his eye on someone and that she had a great smile. I knew it had to be me. By smile, was he talking about outside or inside? I conveniently interpreted it as inside and decided it was about time to meet him as myself on one of our days off.
I did feel bad—about lying, about meeting him with the old-woman skin on. Each time I met Fujisaki, what was inside him seemed more pristine, just gleaming—it was like his light was casting a shadow in my mind.
The next break we had, I invited Fujisaki out.
I met him, not as an old woman, but as myself, at Shinjuku Gyoen.
The weather was beautiful.
“Great weather we’re having today.”
Even mundane topics were fun to talk about.
Fujisaki stretched with a groan, took a huge breath as if he were filling up his entire body, and said, “I feel so peaceful surrounded by nature. The trees and the pond are so big that it feels like I’m not important at all.”
“I totally get what you mean. That sense of your own insignificance is so comfy.”
Yes. When I wore the old-woman skin, I felt like I disappeared. No one gave me creepy looks. It was so pleasant to be hidden. But now, I had taken the skin off; I was exposed.
“I’m happy,” I said.
“That I can meet you like this.”
When I said that, his face brightened even more.
We shared things about ourselves as we strolled through the park.
How he was into videogames, and his secret streaming channel was doing so well that he was making—not a lot, but some—money off of it. How I loved horror movies, and back in Fukushima my friend and I would watch them at home to get scared and imitate the screaming characters. How he actually wanted to do system development, not sales. How I actually didn’t hate working in the newsletter section.
Since I had met him a few times as an old lady, I could talk to him without awkward pauses.
I relaxed. I was able to laugh a lot.
After that, we coordinated our schedules and met up often.
We saw movies. We went to an amusement park. We sat at an open-air café on wi-fi and watched the fighting game tournament Fujisaki recommended for hours. We even had dinner at a fancy restaurant with a great view of the city at night, but our relationship didn’t progress any further. I was happy about that. Since our relationship didn’t involve sexual desire or physical compatibility, it felt like we were seeing each other clearly.
I wish we could just stay good friends like this forever...
Even as I thought that, I knew that if he said he wanted to get more serious, I would be okay with it.
It had been a few months since we had started going out together.
We were running out of places we wanted to try and had started returning to our favorites. We liked small amusement parks.
One day we were at Inokashira Park.
Looking at the pond, I had a weird déjà vu feeling.
“I wonder if that old lady is doing all right,” he murmured abruptly as he gazed at the bench across from where he was leaning against the fence.
Oh, right. The season was different, but the first time I met him wearing the old woman skin had been a day with a temperature that was just right, like this one.
I had tripped right in front of the bench Fujisaki was looking at.
An old woman was passing in front of it.
When she stumbled and nearly fell, Fujisaki ran over to support her.
I felt like I was dreaming.
Yeah, I really do like him, I thought.
After making sure the woman was all right and talking with her for a little while, Fujisaki and I strolled until night fell. As I was wondering how and when to express to him what I was feeling, he turned to me with a serious look on his face and said, “I like you, Kyoko. Will you be my girlfriend?”
It’s rare for a guy these days, an adult, to ask so clearly. It probably took some guts.
“Yay, I like you, too.”
He beamed and seemed liable to burst into tears.
“Umm, what is you like about me?”
“Whoa. Tears. I’m crying. Ha-ha-ha. What I like about you, huh? I like your face.”
For a second, I froze.
Laughing and crying, he covered his face. "Agh, I was so nervous!”
But I wanted cover my face. The few seconds he spent facing my way hidden behind his hands seemed to last impossibly long.
I wanted to tell someone how I felt. I thought about calling Yuri, but decided against it. I had the feeling she wouldn’t really understand. Later at home, flopped on my bed, feeling like I was about to start sobbing, I saw the kokeshi on my shelf. Oh right, this kokeshi has been living with me all this time, watching me.
“I’ve always hated being called pretty. Anyone who says it looks at me as if what’s inside doesn’t matter at all...”
Once I started talking, I couldn’t stop. I told the kokeshi everything bothering me.
The day after Fujisaki asked me to be his girlfriend was the day our company told us we had to wear masks in the office and during our commute. Work on the 50th anniversary booklet was coming to a head, and I continued spending my time going back and forth between the archive in the basement and the in-house newsletter section on the sixth floor.
Everyone had half of their face covered with a mask. That included me. I couldn’t see anyone else’s face very well, and the fact that no one could see mine very well either was such a relief. My time holed up in the basement quietly focused on work seemed even more relaxing than before.
I had told Fujisaki that day in no uncertain terms that I liked him, too, and we were a couple now. But we hadn’t gone out since then.
Honestly, I didn’t know what to think of him anymore.
What about that stuff he said to old woman me so long ago?
Aside from speaking a couple words when we met at work, I gave him the excuse that I was scared of Covid and didn’t see him for a while.
Then one day he messaged me.
“When things calm down, I’d like to talk.”
I couldn’t say that I didn’t like him.
But along with the fondness, I was now scared of him, so I didn’t know what to do.
We decided to meet at Inokashira Park.
But I didn’t go as myself, I wore the old-woman skin.
I thought it would protect me.
When our meeting time passed, he was irritated, which was rare for him. Constantly checking his watch, he hung his head. At the sound of footsteps, he must have thought I had arrived. He immediately looked up but was disappointed to see the old woman instead of me.
“Haven’t seen you in a while,” he said, forcing his eyes to smile above his mask.
“It has been quite a while,” I said, sitting next to him on the bench.
Both masked, we filled each other in on our current situations.
How my granddaughter had a guy she liked. But that lately, she wasn’t sure about him.
Part of me wanted him to realize who I was.
“Same,” Fujisaki said. “Things aren’t going well with my girlfriend, either, but I’m not sure why.”
“Oh?” I said, expressing concern about their relationship. I said if he didn’t mind, I would like to hear about her (that is, me), which got him to talk.
He laughed and said he felt like he was being interviewed.
“Hmm, hmm.” I put on a serious face and considered his story. “You don’t think it was that you told her you liked her face when you confessed your feelings?” I said. “You know, I...I mean, my granddaughter doesn’t like that sort of thing, I told you before, right?”
“I understand that logically—that it’s not right to judge someone by the way they look. But I like what I like. And I really like Kyoko’s face. It seems bizarre to like it so much and not tell her. If we like each other, then wouldn’t she accept my feelings, even if she’s annoyed that they’re about her face?”
He chose his words carefully, but seemed convinced that he was right.
“If you knew it would annoy her, maybe you didn’t need to say it...” I answered, but I did sort of understand what he meant. I knew that feeling of liking someone and wanting to be your selfish self to see how much of you they would accept.
“By the way,” I said nervously, “are there other things you like about her besides her face...?” This was the question I wanted to ask most of all.
And he fell silent.
Wow, I thought.
It was a shock that he couldn’t reply immediately.
He started typing something on his phone and said nothing.
It was if he had forgotten I was even there. He kept typing and erasing and typing again.
When I stood up from the bench, he said, “Oh, see you,” with eyes that seemed focused on something far away.
I went home and told the kokeshi what had happened that day. As I was talking, I got so overwhelmingly tired that I practically fell into bed, still in the skin.