After that Christmas, after New Year’s Eve
2011 had begun, and January was almost through.
As usual for my café, tucked away in Denkiya street in west Onjuku, I was pulling in only as many customers as would allow me to maintain the place, just barely.
But even this place was full for one day a year.
That was our annual New Year’s session—January 28th, a Friday this year. On this day, the place was packed with regulars and long-time patrons.
“Setsuna-chan’s going to be here today,” Rikako-san said, looking over her sheet music.
She was acting as host and main pianist for the musicians that would be participating today.
The woman she referred to as “Setsuna” had been coming here since the autumn of two years before.
Once a month, and only on Saturdays—just barely frequent enough to be called a regular.
In makeup that made her look pale, clunky thick-framed fake glasses, messy braids, worn-out unflattering clothes…
A college student in disguise, who had caught my attention.
“How do you know that?”
Last year, she wouldn’t come even if I called her.
“She messaged me. I got her address the last time we saw each other here. We’re text buddies now.”
“Seriously?” What was with that smug look?
“…She doesn’t reply much, though.”
“But I begged her, I told her I was the host today and I had to have an audience. And she said she’d come.”
“She wants that seat, if it’s open.”
Rikako-san gestured with the cigarette pinched between her fingers to the familiar barstool next to her.
A seat just beside the record player booth, from which one could see the record shelves. A seat that left only one’s back visible from the floor.
The least noticeable seat in the whole café.
It was her reserved seat.
Spring of the year before… The night that Setsuna expressed her feelings.
Almost a year had passed since then. Later on, right after Golden Week, there was a period in which her mood seemed slightly uplifted when she came to the café—I assumed something good must have happened…
But that period vanished in an instant.
Between autumn and the end of the year, in particular, she was so haggard that it hurt just to look at her.
But her eyes were no longer empty. There was none of that darkness, that nothingness.
There was resolution in her gaze.
Yes… Perhaps she had decided.
Decided that she could endure, with these feelings that never made it through, with this despair that made her feel constantly as though she were on the verge of casting herself into the abyss.
That decision must have changed her.
Her charm had increased, such that she could no longer hide it with that lousy disguise.
A womanly appeal had arisen from inside her.
She appeared as fleeting as a summer haze, but this was her human appeal, giving off an earthly heat that could never be cooled.
It made one think that the more pain she was in, the more her allure shone through, and the guilty pleasure of thinking that way drew my heart even more.
The best I could do was to avoid prying clumsily.
That, and to play torch songs.
But, at some point, I started thinking.
…She couldn’t keep coming to this café forever.
She couldn’t keep drinking here, all alone.
I started wishing for her to be happy.
And I started thinking that, if it were possible, I wanted to hear her sing.
“Haven’t seen you in a little while.”
“Sorry. A lot happened over New Year’s…”
Setsuna had arrived an hour before the performance was set to start.
“I wasn’t able to go out. This time, I… Well, too much is happening.”
“Tell me more,” Rikako-san interjected, from the neighboring seat where she was encamped. Her “full steam ahead” mode had apparently been switched on.
“Barkeep, you don’t need to listen. Look, a customer just came in.” Rikako-san waved her hand to chase me off.
After that, I was caught up in greeting customers and taking orders.
Still, while feigning a lack of interest, I strained my ears to try to pick up their conversation; but the volume of the record and my weakened sense of hearing with my encroaching age made it very difficult.
“At Christmas, he and I…”
“This lie… I couldn’t forgive him for lying, trying to love me to the point of crushing his own feelings…”
“But, I felt so stupid for rejecting…”
“Right after New Year’s Eve, I got a call…”
“I still love…”
“My feelings were such a mess…”
“Something terrible happened, I got super drunk on wine trying to forget about it, I called him and took it out on him…”
“But he forgave me for it…”
“Ever since then. Every night…”
“I have no idea what to do now…”
“I’ve got all these selfish feelings…”
The snippets I heard made me extremely curious.
Rikako-san had stuck firmly to her role as listener, but she was gradually opening her wealth of experience to Setsuna.
Her ripostes were sharp, just like her piano playing.
“Today’s singer sounds pretty good, yeah?”
“Yes. Her pronunciation is great, too.”
During the intermission following the second set, Rikako-san once again sat down by Setsuna and began chatting with her.
Somehow, today, I seemed to catch some brightness in Setsuna’s face.
“Yeah, she lived in New York for a long time. She was married to the guy who taught me how to play jazz piano.”
The singer in question was mixed in amongst the patrons, drinking. The smell of tobacco smoke and alcohol was strong throughout the café.
“My teacher’s gone now, though.”
“Oh… She must be lonely.”
“They were a really tight couple. She’s still dragging it behind her. Well, that sense of loss is what lets her sing, and gives it the color it has.”
“There are people like that in music. There are even women who shine brighter because of a broken heart.”
“But, I think she took good care of my teacher when he was on his deathbed. The guy didn’t have the greatest personality. He lashed out at her like crazy.”
“Granted, she’s mean enough herself to put up with him, so she would just shoot right back at her dying husband…”
“Um, I don’t really know what to say…”
“What I’m saying is, get honest. Get honest before something happens that can’t be undone. Be selfish, be demanding.”
Rikako-san winked at Setsuna.
“Hey, barkeep, I’m about ready for the third set.”
All things considered, Rikako-san was very well loved by the musicians in this neighborhood.
There was a lot of good musical talent gathered today.
“The man playing guitar, there, he looks pretty old,” Setsuna muttered between songs.
“…Older than my grandfather.”
“He’s a friend of my dad’s. About six months ago, he was hospitalized with pneumonia, and I thought his time might have come, but he’s as energetic and talented as ever.”
“Well, he might be smiling and laughing like a sweet old grandpa now, but back in the day he was outrageous. Nasty personality, foul mouth, made all kinds of women cry…”
“After his wife passed away… that was when he calmed down.”
“Um… I feel like listening to stories like this will warp my own personality.”
“Musicians have to be selfish and stubborn, or else they won’t be able to keep on in this line of work.”
“Now that you mention it, Kazu—the pianist who gave me singing lessons, she was an unfriendly, foul-mouthed, pompous, selfish, nasty, relentless perfectionist.”
“But, the moment I heard her play the piano, she had an eagle grip on my heart, and I couldn’t help being fascinated with her. Anyone… anyone would fall in love with her. No one could ever hate her.”
“Pretty unfair, huh? Her personality was terrible, and yet her piano playing was so amazing… She could say everything through sound. On top of that, even though she was a coward, she was so kind… Kind enough to deceive one of her best friends, the one she loved…”
This “she” and the “she” who couldn’t be forgotten must be the same person.
The next performance started, and we stopped talking.
We listened to a few songs.
…It would be over soon.
“I thought you liked the piano-focused performances best, but it seems like you like the guitar, too.”
“Ah…” For one moment, Setsuna showed a confusion befitting her age. “Yes… Yes, I do. I like it a lot, I think.”
She gave me a strange look.
“All right, we’re all ready for our last song. Here’s ‘You and the Night and the Music.’”
With Rikako-san’s announcement, the drums leapt in.
The singer joined in on the up-tempo, Bill Evans-style arrangement.
The guitar provided a perfect rhythm.
You and the night and the music
Fill me with flaming desire
Setting my being completely on fire…
‘You and the night and the music
have filled me with burning feelings
setting me on fire
‘You and the night and the music hold me captive
When the night and the music are over
Can we still be one?
Until sunlight, announcing the start of a new day
Illuminates everything faintly
Are trembling like the strings of a guitar
But morning will come without warning
And chase away the stars
‘Even if we’re only living in this moment
Let’s love each other until it ends
When this night and the music are over
Will you be mine?…’
The singer finished, and the guitar solo began.
The old guy was pretty damn good. It wasn’t really fair, for such a nasty person to be so skilled at the guitar.
I was absorbed in my emotions.
When I glanced over at Setsuna, I found her with a bewildered smile on her face and tears in the corners of her eyes.
“Oh, um… Sorry. It’s nothing. Old songs are scary, huh?”
“This song is me right now, exactly. Lately, every night, I listen to him play the guitar over the phone. He’s not very good at it, but I listen.”
‘Him’… The ex she still had feelings for?
Is that what she meant by “every night”?
“…That’s dedication for you.”
Setsuna smiled bitterly. It was a strange smile, with happiness and sadness mingling together.
“You’re probably cringing internally right now.”
Her smile was deeply troubled. But it was a good smile, open, befitting her age.
“But, we can’t stop playing this game. So all that’s left is for me to decide…”
“What to do… about making him mine, and singing.”
The round of solos ended, and the singer returned.
are trembling like the strings of a guitar…’
Setsuna turned her face to the stage, listening to the lyrics.
The fleeting lines in her chin showed not weakness, but the strength of her feelings.
There it was. She intended to face it all head-on.
Her own confusion, her past… love, and friendship.
I might not know what kind of relationship there’d been between her, the guy who played guitar, and the girl who played the piano.
Which made this an irresponsible thought.
She ought to find happiness. So…
“You can do it.”
My muttered encouragement vanished into the applause, calling for an encore.