It was late in the afternoon when Miki and her daughter returned. They were carrying quite a few bags of groceries between the two of them, and from a small sticky smudge on the corner of the girl’s lips, I could tell she enjoyed having an ice cream after all. Well, kids shouldn’t have to be subjected to the problems of adults. They only have a short time after all before the hell that is the world will fall squarely onto their shoulders.
I wonder if I would have made a good father?
Maybe it’s not too late after they leave to consider my own future again. I suppose now that Miki is here, it’s not unreasonable to have her sign some divorce papers. I could go to one of those services that try to arrange marriages and give it another shot. Maybe have a child of my own before I turn forty and am too old to begin again? Who knows, maybe I'll run into that woman again. Nah, who am I kidding?
After taking off their shoes, Miki went into the kitchen with the groceries while her daughter came over to me, holding a wooden stick.
“Guess what? I ate garigari-kun and won!”
She was holding up a popsicle stick that had the word winner written on it. She would be entitled to a free ice cream when she turned it in at a participating location.
“How lucky! Was it tasty?”
“Un! Mommy got one too! That’s okay, isn’t it?”
“It’s fine. But you won’t let the ice cream ruin your appetite, will you?”
She smiled and shook her head, her shoulder length black hair whipped around softly behind her.
“No way! Mommy is cooking spaghetti! Have you ever tried it before?”
“I have. She used to make it with ground beef. Does she still do that?”
“Uh-huh. Sometimes she makes meatballs too! I have fun rolling them around in my hands!”
“Is that so? Are you good at making meatballs?”
“Yup! But you gotta be careful. Sometimes she gets sneaky and tries to put teeny tiny bell peppers in them.”
I rubbed my chin.
“That sounds pretty sneaky alright.”
“I know! Bell peppers taste yucky.”
“Yeah, they grow on you when you get older. They taste especially good on pizza.”
She quickly covered her mouth with both of her hands after that excited outburst. It was kind of cute, actually. I wonder if when Miki was her age, she did something similarly cute? I only got to know Miki in her twenties. To be perfectly honest, she never talked much about her childhood, or her past.
“It’s okay. Do you like pizza?”
She nodded enthusiastically, then talked in a hushed tone. Was she worried I would be mad if she spoke a bit loud? Even I’m the type to be enthusiastic about pizza every now and then.
“Yeah! I like pepperonis and cheese. What about you?”
“I like it with everything. Mushrooms and onions, bell peppers, and pepperoni. Oh, and extra cheese too.”
“Mushrooms are okay. I could eat a pizza with mushrooms and pepperoni on it all day long.”
We appeared to be conspiring to plan a pizza night unintentionally.
“Momoko, come help me in the kitchen.” Miki called out to her daughter.
“Coming mommy!” She said and then bounded away towards the kitchen to help her mother.
I decided to call it on the alcohol for the day once I finished the fourth can from earlier. It wouldn’t be in good taste to show myself being inebriated to a child. It had been a long time since I last saw Miki in that kitchen. I can’t even remember what the last meal she made that I ate was. Five years is enough time to wipe out the little memories, leaving only the significant ones behind. I wonder why that is? Why I can’t remember certain things that I should… I mean, I’ve had Miki’s spaghetti enough times to know it tastes the best with meat sauce, and that she snaps the noodles in half, even though I would rather have long noodles instead because they are fun to slurp. I know.... A man in his mid thirties enjoying slurping spaghetti noodles just because it’s fun. Kind of ridiculous, but that’s just something I always enjoyed.
While the two of them collaborated in the kitchen, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself.
Tsubasa-ojisan isn’t a bad guy after all.
Mommy was worried, saying she wasn’t sure if he would want to see her, because she caused him a lot of trouble before I was born. We’ve been going from place to place for a while, staying with some of mommy’s friends, but we never stayed for too long with any single person. I guess it will be like that here, too. But ojisan is the only one not to look at me the same way the other people do. He was friendly to me, and even gave mommy enough money to buy me an ice cream!
According to mommy, ojisan is a really nice guy, but it’s strange how he looks at her. It’s like he’s staring off into space every time he does. I wonder what kind of trouble mommy caused for him? She won’t tell me anything about him, other than to call him ojisan, and then when I did, that’s exactly what he didn’t want me to call him! He said I could call him anything else, but I haven’t thought of anything yet.
“Momoko. Here, you can put the meatballs on this tray.”
I was in charge of rolling the meatballs! It’s super fun to put my fingers into the ground beef and squish them around a bit. I get to crack the eggs into the bowl, and then mush it around and add breadcrumbs and then roll them into balls. After that, mommy puts them in the oven for a little while and then we have spaghetti and meatballs. When I was little, mommy used to snap the noodles in half. But I like slurping on long noodles, so I complained to her about that, and she stopped doing it. I wonder if ojisan likes slurping on long noodles? I like slurping on ramen noodles, too! But I also think everyone in the whole world does. Long slurpy noodles are fun!
Squish squish, mush mush, pat pat, roll roll.
One by one I filled the tray with yummy meatballs, and, since I was in charge, there weren’t any yucky bell peppers that she would usually try to sneak in there.
She has been really quiet all day today. I wonder if she’s okay? She had me practice the thing we did earlier a whole bunch. I was supposed to get down on my knees and put my head on the ground and make myself as tiny as possible. She said I had to do it because it was super important. I’ve seen her do it before to other people, but this is the first time she had me do it with her.
Mommy knows all sorts of people, but I don’t think a lot of them really like her. I wonder if ojisan is the same? When we’d move to different peoples’ houses, mommy used to sleep in other peoples’ rooms at night a whole bunch, leaving me alone to sleep by myself. But mommy said this time we’d be staying in the same room, and that I wouldn’t have to worry about being alone at night. That’s good, because I’m a little scared of the dark when mommy’s not there. I usually just hide under the covers until I wake up, or mommy shakes me. When it's thundering outside... that's when it's the worst!
Woop. I’m done making meatballs!
“Mommy, I rolled them all!”
“Good job, Momoko.”
She took the tray of meatballs and put them in the oven immediately. Mommy had on an apron she found hanging up and she looks really nice in it. I read a manga once where there was a pretty woman married to a handsome guy who also wore and apron and had a big spoon and she was whistling when she cooked food. It was almost always curry that they made in manga. I like curry, but I don’t get a chance to eat it often. I like it tingly, but not too spicy. But it was just like the manga right now. Mom was humming to herself as she was watching the noodles cook in the water. She seemed to know where everything was in the kitchen. Normally she’s always searching for things in other people’s houses, but why didn’t she need to here?
“How much longer is it going to take?” I asked mommy.
“Hmm, maybe ten minutes?”
Mommy helped me wash my hands. After that, I helped put some of the groceries away. Not only did I get an ice cream, but I was even allowed to have a bag of potato chips! But I can’t have them yet. I had to pick between the ice cream and the potato chips for my snack today. But I can have them tomorrow!
I don’t know why, but I think I might just like it here.
“Tsubasa.” The sweet way she called my name had the hackles on my neck standing on end. “Would you like to eat over there, or will you be eating at the table?”
I suppose, since her daughter is here, I shouldn’t eat in an undignified manner in front of the television. Adults are supposed to set the right example for children, after all.
“I’ll eat at the table.” I replied, to which she answered “Understood.”
The dining room table had four chairs, and only a few times in our marriage did we ever invite anyone over for dinner. I wonder if at that time too, perhaps whoever was warming one of those seats was also warming a bed together with Miki?
I had always occupied the seat facing the doorway, and Miki the seat facing the porch. The seats on either side mostly remained unoccupied. Today it was the same, except the seat to the right of me, with the wall at her back, was occupied by Miki’s daughter, Momoko.
The first plate had been brought out to me, followed by her daughter and then for Miki herself.
“Would you like a beer to go with it?” Miki asked me. I had already drunk four beers earlier on. If I was by myself I’d probably have had a few more, considering Sunday was my day to relax, however I didn’t feel comfortable potentially crossing a line into a state approaching inebriation, even if right now I felt stone sober.
“No. There should be iced tea in the fridge, enough for everyone.” I suggested.
I didn’t fail to notice she was wearing the apron she always did, when cooking dinner for me. It didn’t feel out of place on her, even all these years later.
“You should have some milk, instead! It goes great with mommy’s spaghetti!” Her daughter interjected.
“Milk?” I asked her, and she nodded with a toothy grin.
I looked up at Miki, and then back to Momoko.
“It goes great with the spaghetti, you say?”
“Uh-huh.” She confirmed.
“Momoko, Tsubasa can decide for himself what he wants to drink. Not everyone loves milk as much as you do, sweetie.”
“Actually, if it isn’t too much trouble… I think I'll take the young lady's advice.”
I had ended up with a plate of spaghetti and a glass of milk to go with it. Momoko seemed cheerful, and with a quiet petition from her eyes, the can of beer that was offered to me, now rested on the table in front of Miki.
“Oji–! Um, Tsubasa-san. Would you like to have a noodle race?”
I raised an eyebrow at that unknown challenge.
“A noodle race?”
“Un. We each find what we think is the longest noodle on our plate, and we try to slurp it up the fastest.”
“The longest noodle?”
I hadn’t yet taken a bite of the spaghetti, but when I put my fork into it and lifted some up, they were in fact not broken in half as they always had been in all the times Miki made her spaghetti.
“You gotta choose one noodle, not the whole fork full!” She said. Apparently I was doing it wrong.
“Is the noodle race between us two?” I asked for confirmation.
“Mommy, join the noodle race with us! It’s more fun with more players!”
She was precocious and outgoing. When she said earlier she wouldn’t make too much noise, I had expected a child that might have seen some abuse or neglect. Not that I thought Miki was the type of person to do that to her own child. If for even a moment I thought she was, I wouldn't have fallen in love with her long ago. But seeing as she did what she did, I couldn’t know if what I ever knew of her was all just an act, and I was just blinded by my one-sided love for her, seeing only what I wanted to see.
Miki received the gazes of both myself and her daughter. Her sigh of defeat was easily perceptible, and so after locating a promising long noodle from each of our plates, a countdown from three was begun by an eager Momoko, and we all hastily began sucking and slurping down a single strand of spaghetti covered in sauce. I wasn’t thinking too deeply about it, but my eyes couldn’t help but see Miki beat both of us in almost an instant. Momoko finished second, and I, in last place about a second afterwards.
“Hehe, that was fun!”
There wasn’t a challenge for a best two out of three, or an encore round. It was just the one noodle race. After that, dinner proceeded normally. A bit of the spaghetti sauce had wound up on her daughter’s cheeks and chin. I suppose a sense of relief was there for me that her child had such a healthy appetite from the way she attacked her plate–especially the meatballs. I myself enjoyed the meal more than I felt I should have. All those years of eating noodles broken in half made me think that was exactly how my relationship had been with her. Broken in half. Clearly something was broken way back at the beginning, but no amount of pondering would lead me to the answer of what it was.
Miki seemed to be enjoying her beer and both Momoko and I were enjoying a cold glass of milk. She was right about that much. The milk somehow made the meal feel more full than it should. Before I knew it, I had finished my own plate. When we all had finished eating, Miki set about collecting the plates and said she would be taking care of the dishes. I remember that we often used to wash the dishes together, but that was when it was the old Miki and Tsubasa.
We had all gotten up from the table, with Miki bringing a hand towel over to Momoko to clean her face free of spaghetti sauce. When it was done, Momoko smiled.
“Mommy, don’t forget to get his face too~” She said, pointing at me.
Miki, who had been squatting down, looked up at me, who was just coincidentally standing there, not expecting anything at all of her to perform a wifely duty like that. But Miki rose up and seemed unsure of what to do.
“Please excuse me.”
She reached out with the hand towel and dabbed a bit under my lip. It seems I was a messy noodle-slurper as well and hadn’t noticed it.
“Okay mommy, is it bath time now?”
I ended up rubbing my forehead when Momoko said that. I had given Miki enough money for groceries, but I had entirely forgotten the need for personal effects.
“The bathroom supplies might be lacking.” I said to Miki, addressing an obvious concern now, since all that was in there was some hand soap, shaving cream, deodorant, and shampoo.
“I have some in the carry-all.” Miki answered directly. “I’ll keep the water usage to the minimum.”
I shook my head.
“It’s a bath, Miki. Just let me know if you need money to shore up what’s missing. Everything that used to be in there… is in the cabinet below the sink. I never really got around to throwing it out. I… waited, just in case. As stupid as that sounds.”
I exhaled a bit more loudly than I expected to.
“Ah, just ignore what I said. I don’t know what concerns you have, but you can relax here. I would appreciate it if we can have a conversation soon though… just you and I.”
“I’m going to turn in, since I have work in the morning. Just listen to your mother in the meantime Momoko. You were right, by the way. The spaghetti tasted really good with milk.”
"I told you so!"
“Enjoy your bath time.”
I had turned around to head to my room.
“Thank you. And… have a good night's sleep.”
I went to my room and closed the door behind me. I fell face-first into a pillow and shut my eyes tight. I focused on only breathing as steadily as I could. The tightness in my chest caused me to be unable to do anything else for a long, long while until sleep took me.