“That snow, two years later”… Afterward
When she told me apologetically that she was still nineteen, I freaked out.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were underage?”
“Because you never asked.”
“Well, that’s that. Your fault, barkeep. You failed in your duty to verify her age and you broke the law by serving alcohol to a minor. I’ve already alerted the police.”
“No, hang on. This place is just full of middle-aged guys day after day. It never…”
It never occurred to me that this gloomy-eyed woman might be under twenty.
“Please don’t call the police,” Setsuna said.
“Such a serious reaction! I’m kidding. Well, the barkeep here’s just a simple jazz nut, and he’s fully devoted to his wife, so he doesn’t pay any attention to other women.”
“Hey, uh, Rikako-san?” I could do without her ragging on me. “Anyway, I can’t give you any more alcohol.”
“Oh, come on, barkeep, I know you were drinking when you were in high school. Trying to play the rule-keeper now looks pretty lame. I mean, this is a jazz club. You get those kinds of hooligans all the time.”
“Um… I don’t think ‘hooligan’ is a word people use any more.”
“Exactly. Wrong era.”
Wrong era entirely.
“Back in the day, jazz clubs were full of students campaigning for the All-Campus Joint Struggle League, weird middle-aged guys whose jobs weren’t really clear, tough high school kids who couldn’t fit in—basically types who had been forced out of society. This was a place for lonely guys to be alone. Drinking their coffee, staying too long on a single bottle of beer, smoking up tons of cigarettes regardless of their age. That’s not the clientele we get now.”
“Now we just get boomers who have a little money to spare. All they talk about is whether they’ve got an original of this or that record, what they couldn’t snag in an auction, what they managed to sell off high. It’s like small-scale speculation. They don’t even smoke cigarettes because they care about their health too much.”
I was getting a little fed up with it.
“Well, you’re seeing more and more musicians, even, who don’t smoke or drink.”
“This world just isn’t what it used to be.”
What was it young people called it? Jumping the shark?
“Hang on! There are musicians who make their living in ‘this world.’ Cut it out, you’re depressing me.”
“Ah… Yeah, sorry.”
I was getting a little depressed, myself.
“I don’t know how things were then, or how they’re going to be, and honestly, I’m not all that interested,” Setsuna said with cherry-blossom lips. “But this café is the only place I can spend time alone, at ease…”
Now, as then, this was a place for people to come and be alone.
“So… I’d like things to keep going as they have been.”
Even after this incident, the frequency with which the woman calling herself “Setsuna” visited the café did not change.
“Has that girl been here lately?”
Rikako-san had started stopping in whenever she was performing nearby.
“Nope. Haven’t seen her.”
She’d shown up once at the very end of the year, and then there’d been no sign of her since the new year began.
“Hmm. Think she’s a shut-in or something?”
“She tends to come here on Saturdays. And she always leaves at nine.”
“Wow. You’ve got her whole schedule in your head.”
“I mean, she’s a regular.”
“Oh? Coming in once a month makes someone a regular?” Rikako-san smiled impishly. “Sounds like you’ve got yourself a favorite customer.”
“I feel like she might be having a painful time in love.”
“…I wouldn’t know.”
But, even as dense as I was, I could certainly imagine that.
“What I can say is, she’s had that dark look in her eyes for the whole past year since she first walked in here.”
“That’s… a pretty long time, huh.”
“A gorgeous thing like her probably has guys lining up to ask her out at Houjou.”
“Dressed like that?”
“You really don’t have any eye for women, clearly.” She pulled a Marlboro menthol out of her bag and lit it. It gave off the faint scent of mint. “You think she dresses like that at school?”
“I think she dresses herself nice and cute for the guy she likes, so he’ll keep the impression he has of her.”
“…Women are scary.”
“Really? You ought to give Billie Holiday’s whole body of work another listen. Learn a thing or two about women.”
She might be right.
What had I been listening to, exactly, in all of these incredible singers? It was time for me to start paying closer attention.
It was now halfway through February, 2010.
The woman calling herself “Setsuna” showed up for the first time in ages.
She sat silently, elbows on the counter, drinking her red wine.
The hour was a bit late, for her.
She was the only customer present.
As usual, she was dressed plainly, looking pale and sallow.
So, this was meant to be a disguise.
But, today, her mood was more relentlessly dark than before, and it worried me.
Something in her felt more defeated than before.
Like there was a massive abyss spreading out before her, like she might fall and be engulfed in darkness…
That was what I saw in her eyes. Exhaustion, too, in their corners.
She appeared to have lost some weight.
But, being as I was, with no idea how to talk to this woman who was younger than my own daughter, I didn’t pry, just let her be.
…Come to think of it, when my daughter was in high school, in college, I never bothered asking her about herself.
Even though she did so much for the house by her own initiative.
Even though she must have felt so much loneliness and pain over what happened with her mother.
Things were tense between us.
Maybe I was scared of involving myself with her.
After she graduated from college, she had left home to live on her own. Even now, we weren’t exactly close.
With these pointless thoughts going through my head, I finally had the notion of looking for the day’s final record; then, I heard her say, “Barkeep?”
I realized she’d had three glasses. Her pace seemed to be a little elevated today.
“Ready for the check?”
Setsuna shook her head. “Could I get one more glass?”
“All right… You okay, though?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, maybe you shouldn’t force yourself to keep drinking.”
I had never said anything like this to another customer. Apart from the drunks.
“…Why would you say that?”
Setsuna raised her face. The eyes gazing at me were darker than ever.
“Well, I mean…”
And there was an irrational coldness to them.
“You’ve never drunk more than four glasses here. I’m just worried that you might get drunk.”
Something felt off. I’d never heard her voice sound like this before.
“You’re worried about me?”
Setsuna’s voice had a self-deriding laugh mixed in.
“I don’t want anyone worrying about me.”
Her eyes were open, but they weren’t looking at anything.
“You’re a minor, aren’t you?”
So, really, I shouldn’t have been giving her alcohol.
“I turned twenty recently. And, what’s so wrong with doing what I want to do?”
There was something wrong with her saying such childish things, for one.
“I’d rather be at home, you know. You think I want to be out and around?”
She was definitely drunk.
“Then what are you doing here?”
“Because if I stay at home all the time, Mom will get suspicious…”
‘Mom’? So she lived with her parents?
“She’ll figure out that he and I broke up… No, that we’ve been broken up for a while now… She’ll worry about me… She might think badly of Haruki-kun… So, so… I have to go out sometimes, on days when I don’t have school. But… other than the movie theater, I don’t have anywhere to go…”
“What about a friend’s place?”
“My friends would worry about me, too. I don’t want them to see me like this.”
“Is it a love you can’t let go of?”
“At a school like yours, there must be other nice guys, right? Anyone in your seminar?”
Setsuna set her hands on the counter and fixed me with a furious glare. I had never seen her look like this before—brimming with hostility.
“A guy in my seminar? Ugh, I’m getting chills just thinking about it. I don’t want any man trying to talk to me. I don’t want to talk to any man other than Haruki-kun. I sure as hell don’t want anyone asking me out. I don’t want anyone touching me.”
“I can’t take this…”
“You look like you’re older than my father… which puts me at ease… That’s why I come here…”
I knew that much.
“Sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.” It was an honest apology; there was nothing hidden in it. “I’m really sorry.”
Setsuna’s cynical, self-torturing smile relaxed slightly. She dropped her eyes to the counter, hugging her own shoulders.
“Hey, no, you don’t have to apologize. That was my bad.”
Silence filled the space between us for a short while. Before I knew it, the record had ended.
With no mechanism to lift the needle automatically, the old record player continued tracing the inner groove.
Pop… Pop… Pop… Pop… Pop… Pop… Pop… Pop… Pop… Pop… Pop… Pop…
I’d never liked that sound.
The needle, still perched on the innermost part of the record.
The unvoiced feelings, traced over and over.
An uneasiness that could not escape.
Someone, notice me. Let me out.
Let me sing something else, the needle seemed to be saying.
Why are you spinning emptily above me?
I have nothing more to say to you.
Leave me already, the record seemed to be saying.
The needle tracing, the record traced.
Once the music ended… Once the springtime of your youth passed… All that remained was to run back over those recollections, whittling each other down, hollowing each other out, a little more each time.
And, before you knew it, it would all be full of static.
I lifted the exhausted needle.
The only sound to be heard was that of the air conditioning.
No… Through the soundproofed café, a quiet lamentation resounded.
Setsuna’s stifled feelings.
“You can’t give up on the guy?”
“…It’s impossible.” Setsuna spoke in the voice of bright despair that clung to her. “I tried. It didn’t work. Why does it have to be him? Why do I love him? I’ve never thought about what that meant. I never made any special effort to keep thinking of him. It’s just hindsight. That’s all it is now.”
“I can’t forget about him and keep living. I can’t forget about her and keep living.”
“A life without them, having lost both of them, it’s not possible. That’s all.”
Maybe she was stuck hopelessly between the guy she liked and a friend of hers…
“It would be easier if I could just hate him. Ever since this past winter, I’ve been counting the things I hate about him. But I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t possible.”
“The way I am is hurting him, hurting Haruki-kun… He changed his academic department for his third year to get away from that suffering. He left me alone. I’m all alone now. I’ve lost the position where I could worry about him, the position where he would worry about me. All we are now is a pair of old acquaintances. We dated for a little while, once. That’s our relationship. And that love was just going in circles, putting up fronts, never saying what I really felt, fearing to be hurt, never really facing him. I played games, and I lost it. I baited him with the dream of a warm, happy family, brought him into my world, tried to give him all I could, and hurt him instead.”
Setsuna put both hands to her forehead.
I could practically hear her shoulders shaking.
This girl who was younger than my daughter, this girl who continued blaming herself over the man she loved…
I had no words for her.
There was nothing I could do.
All I could give her were records.
Leaving the woman weeping silently at the counter, I picked a record out.
What should I put on? Something bright, to cheer her up?
No… Setsuna would find no joy in a song like that.
If it didn’t hurt her, if it didn’t bring everything else down with her, she wouldn’t accept it. That was the kind of woman she was.
Barely twenty, and so enthralled with an excruciating love…
While I sympathized with her, I also envied her a little, honestly, for feeling something with such burning passion. And so…
“It’s almost closing time. I’ll play one more side of a record, and then you need to go home.”
“And I’ll give you half a glass of wine on the house.”
“Thank you, barkeep.”
Then, I set the record on the player, started it turning, and lowered the needle.
“’Yesterdays’… With that pronunciation, the singer must be Japanese.”
“Nicely done. Her name is Kimiko Kasai.”
“She’s amazing, though.”
Side B of One for Lady, an album Kimiko Kasai recorded in 1971 with Mal Waldron, the pianist who accompanied Billie Holiday in her final years. A collection of Billie’s favorite songs.
And, the ultimate Torch Song record.
“You’re My Thrill.”
And the final track, “Left Alone”…
Where’s the love that’s made to fill my heart?
Where’s the one from whom I’ll never part?
First they hurt me, then desert me
I’m left alone, all alone…
‘Where is the love that will fill my heart?
Where is the one who will stay with me always?
They hurt me, and then deserted me
I’m left alone, all alone…
‘I have no home to return to
No place I can stay
Town or city, it’s just a pity
I’m left alone, all alone…
‘They say if you seek you’ll find
but that’s never happened for me
‘Maybe it’s my fate
He passed right by me
Will I see him before I die?
Then I’ll open my heart
I’m left alone, all alone…’
“You’re not a very nice person, barkeep.” Setsuna smiled sardonically. Tears were gathered at the corners of her eyes.
“You might be right.”
But the face didn’t seem to be sticking to her.
“You should cry when you feel like crying. That’s what sad songs are for.”
“I… guess so.”
“He may have changed departments, but he’s still at the same school, right?”
“So, no one says you’ll never see him again.”
“Why don’t you give up on giving up?”
“You know, three years ago, I lost my wife to an illness.”
“By the time we found out about her condition, it had progressed pretty far, so we didn’t have many options, but I couldn’t accept it. She was all I had… I had the café to tend, and not much money, so what I could do was limited. I put a lot of the burden on my daughter. The world still feels wrong without her. But I gave up—I gave up on not being able to let go of her. Because she was the best woman I ever knew.”
I laughed bitterly. All I could do was laugh.
“What’s impossible is impossible.”
“…Yes. It’s impossible, isn’t it?” Setsuna drained the wine that remained in her glass. “Thanks, barkeep.”
And she took her wallet out of her purse.
She opened the door, and left the café. Through the heavy soundproofed glass, her shoulders looked so fragile.
I couldn’t save Setsuna.
The only one who could save her was herself.
She would accept herself, her inability to give up even through the pining, the burning, all-consuming jealousy, the blood seeping out of her ugly, festering heart, waiting for the moment when she could recover.
Perhaps she was that kind of woman.