Fiction

Fire Keeper, Part 5

Part 1 | Part 4

It’s after school and I’m sitting across from Nakashima-sensei, unhappy.

“You would like to be an esthetician Watanabe-san?” Sensei asks consulting my future career planning survey.

I pucker my lips in thought, “Sensei, why is this happening now? Isn’t it a bit late? Career surveys are something we do in middle school, right?”

She nods, “Right, but the school board is running a little study. We’re taking the surveys from middle school, conducting some now, and we’ll be asking for follow-up surveys a few years after the class graduates.”

“I guess that makes sense. What are they hoping to, um, discover?”

She smiles, “It’s not so much ‘discover’ as it is studying trends. Sounds pretty interesting hmm?”

I nod uncommittedly, “Yup.”

“So, esthetician. It’s certainly a growing industry! There are numerous schools for it as well, where were you thinking of applying?”

I feel tired, “No, that’s…sorry Sensei I’m not going to try to be an esthetician anymore.”

“Oh? What happened?”

“I’ll be working at the family ryokan. It’s been decided.” Before the conversation can continue, I get up, bow, and excuse myself.

I grab my bag from the class and skulk home. My phone pings a few times and I check to see Mako asking me how the meeting went and where I am now. I ignore her and keep walking. I feel my face turn red, my hands keep going into fists.

I’m angry and frustrated. Maybe more angry and frustrated than I’ve ever been in my life. I have no options in a career path. Since the day I was born, my future was decided for me and I was never given the curtsey of a hope of a choice. I was naïve. To think my parents would let me just leave the ryokan. I should’ve known I’d be at the ryokan for the rest of my life.

I stop in the middle of the sidewalk and crouch down. I hug my bag and my knees. I’m shaking from anger and I want to scream. But I don’t. To stop myself by biting on the leather hand strap of my bag and take a few deep breaths.

People walk by me, even a few students from my school, but no one stops to talk to me. I’m grateful. If someone were to ask me what’s wrong, I don’t think I’d be able to hold back all my emotions.

I don’t think I can handle being at the ryokan right now, so I head to a nearby family restaurant.

I drop into a booth, sulk, order a chocolate sundae, and sulk some more as I wait.

Yesterday, I tried to have a serious conversation with my mother about what I would do after I graduated. At the time, I was feeling hyped up about being an esthetician. I think it was just a loose means of freedom to me. In retrospect, I feel like any reasonable job would’ve motivated me. It wasn’t so much finding a career as it was leaving the ryokan.

“Okaa-san,” I said, “I want to talk about my future.”

Mother didn’t bother to move us to another room or try to take me seriously. She didn’t dismiss Yuuka or even Shun so we could talk privately. She looked at me with that terrible glare of hers. She didn’t say anything, she waited for me to explain myself.

“I was thinking,” I said, looking her straight in the eye, “after I graduate I would like to attend a beauty school.”

“No.”

She had said it so quickly and so firmly, it was almost like she didn’t say it at all. Like it was obvious state of being rather than words. I don’t think she even acknowledged what I said. She already knew, she has her plans for me and my wants are negligible.

“But I’m not needed here!” I tried to argue, “Yuuka, Shun, Itsuki, Mizuki, they’ve got everything handled! I’m not – there’s no room for me!”

“It is not fair, Riko, that you are allowed to pursue your whims while your sibling continue to support this family. Yuuka had much brighter prospects than you could hope for and she stayed with us. Everyone in this family must make sacrifices.”

I remember Yuuka had a pained look on her face when mother said that. She was looking down at her feet and was frowning deeper than usual.

“Then what can I do?” I started to shout, “What’s left?! Are you going to shove me downstairs and hide me away like Matsuoka-san?”

I’m still not sure why, but that really hit mother. I saw her nostrils flare a bit and she took a sharp breath. “Enough.” She didn’t raise her voice, but there was a new seriousness to her tone, “You will work throughout the ryokan and support your siblings and your family. End of discussion.”

I sit in the family restaurant for a couple hours. I do my homework as I eat my sundae. Then I order some cake to sweeten my sour mood. I feel a little sorry for Itsuki, since he probably won’t like that I’ve spoiled my appetite for dinner.

When it gets dark I pack up and return home. I completely avoid the front entrance and swing by the basement. I want to see Matsuoka-san, hopefully she can cheer me up or something. I really hope her husband isn’t around today.

“Matsuoka-san…” I call into the basement from the back door, gingerly peering in.

She’s not in, but a woman is rummaging around her desk.The woman turns to face me and I see the stoic, unimpressed Kawaguchi.

“Eeh?” She says in monotone, “Riko-san? What are you doing down here?”

“Um…nothing, just looking for…” I feel awkward.

“Hmm? You know that old bag? What, is she making you do chores or something?”

I shake my head and have my hands up defensively, “No, nothing like that.” I quickly change the subject, “Are you delivering her dinner?”

She nods, “Unbelievable the quality she gets. You think I’d get this kind of service if I asked for a meal? Ha!”

“She’s a hard worker. Matsuoka-san starts working at 6:30 and doesn’t leave until 11.”

She scoffs, “I’m aware. Don’t believe everything she tells you. Half the time I come down here she’s napping or on her phone. Easiest job in this place…” She scoffs again.

I don’t respond.

“And she’s got an attitude. She talks big about respect for elders but then is rude to me. Can you believe she said my eyeshadow was ‘too much?’ Ha! Says the woman who regularly has a racoon mask from the ash.”

“Racoon mask?”

Kawaguchi seems passionate about this or, more likely, extremely bothered. She rests her hands on her hips, “She must have a bad habit of rubbing her eyes, because more likely than not, she’ll have charcoal stains all around her eyes. And yet she criticizes me? Unbelievable.”

She sighs and shakes her head. She murmurs to herself and turns back to the desk. I hear the jangling of dishes. She walks to the stairs but turns back to me before going up, “Whatever, I’m just glad she’s not here right now. If only she was gone every time I came down here. Ha.”

She climbs the stairs saying nothing else, not even a goodbye.

I’m stunned, but I don’t take her words to heart. I suppose that explains that why Kawaguchi was badmouthing Matsuoka-san so much. Funny how a woman who barely interacts with anyone in the ryokan manages to find an enemy.

I stay in the basement, hoping Matsuoka-san will return soon. I pace a bit, stretch, check my phone and finally reply to Mako. Soon enough, the upstairs door opens and she slowly makes her way down the stairs.

“Matsuoka-san!” I say, genuinely happy to see her, “Hello! Did you have a good day off?”

She laughs, “Riko-chan! Good to see you too. It is a little funny I took a day off eh? Haha, it was a good day! It was so strange to be out and about, I’m not used to so many people! Hahaha!”

“Did something happen?”

“Oh no, nothing like that. I’m still very healthy, hahaha! Don’t let it concern you. But my husband, he told me your message! So what did you decide on for after school?”

“Uh…well, it was esthetician–”

“Hmm? Sorry Riko-chan, what is that?” She laughs a but weakly.

“Oh, uh…the person at a spa who does, like, manicures and hair styles, things like that.”

She smiles brightly, “Yes, of course! That’s a lovely choice.”

“Right, but that’s…no longer happening.” Strangely I growl even though I intended to sigh.

“Eeeeh? What happened?”

I frown and scoff and fold my arms over my chest, “My mother. I’m not allowed to be selfish and not support the family.”

Matsuoka-san nods slowly, “Hmm, I suppose she has reason. That’s a shame, it is important for a child to listen to their parents, but children should leave home at some point.” She sighs, like old women do when thinking about their past.

“It’s – it’s so frustrating! Mother wants me to support the family, but what’s left for me? The front of the restaurant? The basement?”

“Aaah, the basement wouldn’t be fit for a young girl like you Riko-chan, hahaha!” She waves her hand to dispel concerns, “You won’t work down here, I promise. I’ve already got a successor lined up, hahaha!”

“A successor? Really? Oh, is that what you were doing yesterday?”

She smiles brightly, “Yup! He’s a nice kid, maybe I should introduce you two? Haha! No no, wouldn’t want to tie you to the ryokan too much, hahaha!”

My face heats up. I can’t tell if I’m embarrassed by Matsuoka-san thinking about my love life or that she found a successor and didn’t consider me. It’s a weird flux of emotions that I feel would be so much easier to handle if I was older. I both do and don’t care about working in the basement. I couldn’t imagine working such a strict job, but I also like Matsuoka-san so much and I like the barrier from my family. I like how she cares about me and it makes me want to help her, take up her mantle and all that.

Matsuoka-san grabs some firewood and throws it into the furnace. The heat drifts past me and I stare into it’s orange glow. She pokes at the fire and talks over the crackle.

“Riko-chan, maybe you could find a compromise with your mother.” She smiles at me over her shoulder, “Yknow, my oldest daughter was like you at your age. Rebellious! She hated the idea of being a homemaker. She wanted to go to France for school, hahaha! She could barely do her own laundry and she wanted to study abroad so young? It still makes me laugh! Hahaha! But, we made a deal. Instead, she went to Australia and helped with chores in her last year of high school. What was I…? Yes! Compromise! I know your mother can be difficult, but I’m sure she wants you to be happy.”

I purse my lips, a mix between frustration and amusement at her storytelling.

“I don’t know if compromising is possible with my mother.” I say somewhat in jest.

“I’m sure it’s possible, she agreed to marry your father after all. HAHAHA!” She finds great amusement at her own joke, “Oh, don’t tell him I said that…hahaha!” I smile too.

“Thank you, Matsuoka-san.”

“Eeh?”

I shrug girlishly, “You just say encouraging things. Thank you for that.”

“Hahaha! I’m just an old woman happy to give advice.”

“I’m going to try my best!” I clench my fist and I legitimately feel determined.

Part 6

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