“Bye, Chef-san!” The men and women who worked in the kitchen filed out the door, waving and calling goodbye, and walking through the empty restaurant. I caught a glimpse of Ana buttoning her coat to go outside before the door swung closed.
Yasahiro waved to them and turned back to me. He sighed, and brushing his fingers on the side of my face, said, “Here come the clouds.”
“What?” I was breathless every time he touched me.
“There’s a famous photographer, I’ve forgotten his name, who took thousands of photos of Mount Fuji throughout his entire life. He used to say he was in love with Mount Fuji, going so far as to call it Fuji-ko, like the mountain was his wife.” Yasahiro pulled over another stool to sit next to me, and I turned to face him. “He would say, ‘I married such a fickle woman because I can never tell what mood Fuji-ko will be in today.’” Yasahiro’s lips quirked. “I saw that painting of Mount Fuji in the bathhouse, and I just knew that you painted that fickle mountain because you identified with it. Cloudy and misty one moment. Clear and bright, shining like a diamond another.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
He took my hand in his. “It’s a compliment. I like complex women. I like that you keep me on my toes, that you don’t take anything for granted. I never know what to expect with you, at least not yet. I hope to have lots more time to learn all your little quirks.” He leaned into me, and I stayed very still, absolutely shocked by his words. I’d never been compared to Mount Fuji, our greatest national treasure, and I didn’t feel I deserved that kind of a compliment. He dragged his nose along my cheek to my ear and kissed to my jawline. I scrunched up and smiled, giggling at the contact.
Murata’s apartment was warm and stuffy as I sorted through the first pile of magazines and newspapers she directed me to. In anticipation of a large amount of recycling, Murata had handed me the recycling guidelines for Chikata as I walked through the door. Of course, I knew them by heart, but it was sweet she thought I needed them.
Trash and recycling in Japan were a serious business. We were an island nation, and we only had so much space to put waste. Everything was either recycled or burned. Thankfully, Murata had many of the required recycling bags, but I’d have to pick up more the next day before coming over. They were sold in the local convenience stores, and she’d cover the cost. I had to bag her old magazines and newspapers and bring them all downstairs to the paper bins for her apartment building.
“I would have done it myself,” she said to me as I sorted through her paper collection. “But they were so heavy. I used to drag them down the stairs, but the bags ripped too often. So I gave up and just let them pile up.”
“Why don’t you stop the deliveries?”
“Crazy girl! I actually read them, you know?” She smacked me playfully on my shoulder. “I don’t have a computer so this is the only way I stay up to date on anything.”
I knelt down as there was a knock on the door. “Do you want me to get that?” I gestured at the door but she shook her head. “They’ll stop distributing paper eventually, though, Murata-san. You can’t deny technology forever.”
She hobbled to the door. “Hopefully, they’ll keep coming until I’m dead.”
“Well, isn’t that cheerful?” Sheesh. The whole elderly mindset was so final, but I kind of enjoyed the raw reality. There was something comforting about knowing you only had so much time left, so you made the most of it. This was nothing like the terrifying feeling of seeing your life come to an end at the age of twenty-six. I stared into space, the flames in the barn swirling around me. “You had a second chance, and look what you did with it. Nothing.” I’m doing something now, Tama.
Shaking away the daydream, I counted the papers in the stack in front of me. Murata wanted to clean up her place so she could entertain and see people in her last years, and I admired that. I was happy to help her.
“If only I could do for others what I do for you, as a real job.” I sat back in my chair and stared at the woman making coffee behind the counter. “I don’t think I have it in me to be a nurse, nor do I have the qualifications to work in a nursing home, but there has to be something else.”
Murata hummed, picking at the napkin on the table. “You know what’s missing in Chikata? A gathering place for us older folks. It used to be that the community center was that for us.”
“Right,” I said, perking up. “You were telling me that last week.”
“What about a central place where people can do crafts?”
“Maybe they could do crafts, or sit and talk, or have tea. They could even have family gatherings there some days.”
“Yes, yes,” Murata said, nodding. “If you could figure out how to sell discounted meals there, too, that would be ideal.”
I slipped away into a daydream of this place. Several low tables and easy seating, crafts on designated days, birthday parties, and grandkids coming to visit, hot tea and discounted bento boxes. A place like this, central and catering to anyone over sixty-five, would be hopping with people. What if it also sold specialty items to help cover the rent?
“Mei-chan?” Murata sat forward, trying to get my attention. “Your smile is as wide as the ocean.” She laughed. “What are you thinking about?”
“I’m thinking about making dreams into reality.” I picked up our empty cups and brought them to the counter. “Let’s brainstorm some more on this on the way home. I just had a fantastic idea, and it’s going to involve a lot of planning.”
“Planning, young lady, is what I do best.” She snapped her hat on her head. “Let’s go.”