A Taste for Christmas Cake

Amateur

Note: ‘Christmas cake’ is a slang term in Japan referring to a woman over 25 and still unmarried. The idea is that, like Christmas cake leftover after Christmas day, a woman older than that has already passed her use-by date and is supposed to be no longer attractive.

*****

“Everyone, here’s to another successful year for Eastport Corporation! Thank you for all your hard work. Kampai!”

I was bringing the foaming head of that long-awaited first jockey of Asahi Super Dry to my lips when my phone vibrated in my jacket pocket. Sighing, I replaced my beer on the table and started fumbling around for my phone.

“What’s the matter, Mi-chan?” asked my fellow executive Hideyuki sitting next to me. His dark eyes narrowed and his lips curled into a teasing smile. “Jealous boyfriend checking up on you?”

I glanced at the number. “Oh no,” I muttered. “It’s the office.”

“Oh, right, you’re on call tonight. That’s too bad.” Hideyuki returned to his beer as I got up and removed myself from the noise of the booth. It was our end-of-year party and I’d been looking forward to it for a long time. The party was much later than most other Japanese companies’, since we have a lot of foreigners at our office, and this year it happened to fall on Christmas eve. That had annoyed a few people, since Christmas Eve is usually a time for couples to enjoy a romantic date, but the executive had allowed people to bring partners to avoid any bad blood.

I’d come alone, of course. That moron Hideyuki had already forgotten that I was still recovering from a bad break up with my boyfriend of three years. It was the reason I was on call tonight: being single, I’d volunteered to do it.

Now I was regretting my selflessness. I took the call and talked to Naomi at front office. One of our foreign teachers had got himself into trouble.

“What is it this time?” I muttered. An incident late on Christmas Eve could be any number of things: an altercation over an unpaid bill at an izakaya or karaoke, an irate taxi driver with a vomit-stained cab or, worse still, a furious parent of a student found going out with one of our teachers. It was against our company policy, of course, but happened all the time regardless.

It wasn’t any of those things. The guy was just lost.

“He says he’s wandering around paddy fields at the moment,” Naomi told me. “I’ll send you his number.”

“Who is it?”

I recognised the name. I was surprised. He hadn’t shown up on my radar as someone who was likely to cause us trouble. Usually, those individuals outed themselves during orientation. This guy, well: he’d seemed extremely normal. A little shy, maybe, and with almost non-existent Japanese, but sensible enough.

“Where was the last place he recognised?”

Minami-Arakawa. I groaned. It was miles away, on the Toudama line. I’d take me forty minutes to get there. I’d have to find him pretty quickly after that or we’d miss the last train.

I thanked Naomi and hung up then rang the kid. He was extremely apologetic but I quickly cut him off and told him to stay put. I told him to access the map app on his smartphone and try and find out where he was. He called back telling me that everything was in kanji and he couldn’t read any of it.

I sighed. Of course it was. I told him to find the closest train station and make for it. The sign would have the name of the station in English characters on it. I was going to jump on a train and be with him soon.

He thanked me again and hung up. His voice had sounded fragile, like he was very upset, and slurred, as if he’d been drinking. I knew something must have happened to him. That sort of thing happens a lot on Christmas Eve. At least my fiancé – wait, no, my ex-fiancé – had had the good manners to break up with me last month.

I excused myself from the party with a rapid-fire set of bows and wished everyone a Merry Christmas. Then I slipped on my shoes at the entrance to the izakaya and ran for the station.

Things were going to be tight.

I was on a rapid when I felt my phone vibrate. I struggled to pull my phone out with my fellow commuters bunched around me like sardines. It was a message from the kid.

“I’m at Naka-Shimazawa.”

It was a small station, next to Minami-Arakawa. I got off the express and changed for a local at Musashi-Shimazawa. It was the next station after.

The train was pretty full, but not quite as full as the rapid had been. Apart from the omnipresent salary-men there were a few couples on their way back from dates. I ignored the hand-holding and the heads on shoulders and stared down at my phone.

It wasn’t long before the train pulled in at the station. Only a few people got off. Naka-Shimazawa was in the middle of nowhere. I scanned my pasmo card and came out of the station. He was standing there waiting for me.

He was scanning the faces of the people coming through the ticket gates and when he spotted me he smiled with a mixture of relief and embarrassment. He hurried over and bowed, badly, apologising for having dragged me out casino şirketleri here.

I was annoyed but maintained my professional demeanour and told him not to concern himself about it. There was also the fact that his eyes were red. He’d been crying. Something sprung up in me then, a maternal, protective feeling, but also empathy. I knew what must have happened. Being broken up with is never fun. It doesn’t get any easier, either.

Even though he looked much younger, I knew from his profile that he was 21. When you’re that age, a break-up feels like the end of the world.

The concrete shuddered. A train was about to arrive.

“Come on,” I said. “That’s the last express back into the city.”

We hurried through the ticket gates and up the stairs. The platform was strangely deserted. The train approached. It was coming very fast.

The train flew straight past us and didn’t stop. I pushed away the black hair that had flown across my face. Why hadn’t it stopped?”

I went and checked the timetable, the boy following behind me. I read the numbers and symbols and then groaned. I’d misread the timetable. I’d thought there was one more express, but it was Saturday night. The additional express only ran during the week. I kicked myself for my incompetence.

The boy looked at me, a little fearfully I thought. I stopped muttering and sighed. He started to apologise again but I shook my head.

“No, it’s my fault. Look, let’s find a café or something to sit down at and I’ll ring up the office and see what we should do.”

He trailed behind me. There was no café near the station. I asked the guy locking up the ticket office and he told me there was a little family-run izakaya just down the street open til late.

“Let’s go,” I told the boy.

I spotted the little sign half-hidden between blooming camellia bushes. The chalk writing read ‘Mama-goko’. It was a cute name for an izakaya: “Playing at being mom,” like little kids do. It was a house that had been turned into a shop. Warm, buttery light welcomed us as I pushed the door open.

“Excuse us!” I said. “Are you still open?”

“Welcome!” came the cheery reply from behind the counter. It was an elderly mama-san. She was wiping the bench. “How many of you are there?”

I glanced back at the boy. He was staring at his feet. “Just the two,” I said. “Are you sure you’re still open?”

“Oh, yes,” said the lady. “Since it’s Christmas Eve a lot of my regulars have gone out to the city so it’s a bit quiet.” She smiled at the boy. “What a cute young man!”

The boy looked up, His face went red. So he could understand simple Japanese. I felt myself flush, too. It did seem a little strange, the two of use being together.

“We missed the last train,” I explained. “I’m… well, I’m his sempai, I guess you could say.” ‘Older colleague’ sounded strange in this situation, but it was the only word I could think of.

The mama-san turned to the boy and asked him what he did.

“Uh… English teacher,” he said in pretty passable Japanese.

She smiled. “I hope you’re enjoying our country. Booth or counter?”

We chose a booth. There was no one else there, but I wanted a little privacy and I was sure the boy did, too. The mama-san came and brought us two little dishes of hors d’oeuvres and placed napkins and chopsticks down before us.

“Are chopsticks okay?” she asked the boy in Japanese. He nodded. “So what would you both like?”

I remembered that icy glass of Asahi Super Dry and ordered that. The boy ordered the same. The mama-san raised her eyebrows.

“I’m sorry, but in Japan you have to be 21 to…”

“It’s okay,” I said. “He’s 21. He just looks underage.”

The mama-san smiled apologetically and went off to pour us our beers.

The boy stared down at the little dish, his chopsticks in his hand hovering over it.

“It’s pickled burdock-root,” I said. “It’s delicious.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m just… I’m just not really…” He turned away and brought a hand to his eyes.

I stared down at my own dish, suddenly intrigued by the pickled burdock-root. The mama-san returned and set our beers before us and then discretely vanished. She soon returned with a small packet of tissues which she placed on the table without a word.

The boy sniffed and rubbed at his eyes with the back of a hand. I took some tissues and handed them to him. He pushed them at his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “My girlfriend, she…”

“You guys broke up?” I asked.

He nodded.

“Just happen tonight?”

“Yeah,” he said. “We were supposed to go out to Tokyo tonight but she told me we had to talk. We went to this café and she…”

“Don’t tell me,” I said. “She has tea-coloured hair, right?”

He blinked at me. “How do you…?”

“I’ve seen it a million times,” I said with a sigh. “Party girl, right? Meet her at the Hub or Gaspanic or somewhere like that?”

“Uh…”

“Listen,” I said. I knew I was entering my preachy mode, but I wasn’t going to stop. “There are a casino firmaları lot of girls like that here in Japan. They’re not very serious about anything. They just like foreigners. That’s why they hang around in those English-pub chain-stores. Having a foreigner as a boyfriend is just a fashion accessory.”

His face fell. I was hitting some home truths. I knew I was being blunt, so I said, “But you were serious about the relationship, right?”

He stared down at his beer. His head gave the slightest of nods.

“I’m sorry.” I reached across and placed my hand on his. He looked up, surprised. “I can tell you were serious. Boys wear their hearts on their sleeves, don’t they?”

I realised I was leaving my hand on his for too long and took it away. I grabbed my beer. “Come on. Let’s forget our troubles for a while and have a drink or two. It’s Christmas Eve after all.”

He managed a weak smile and lifted his glass to mine.

“Kampai!” I cried.

“Kampai!” he repeated.

The beer was beyond delicious. The sip became a long drink and I lay back on the seat. “Ah!” The boy was sipping at his. “You like Japanese beer?” I asked him.

“Oh yes,” he said.

“Japanese girls too?”

He blushed and smiled. I was wondering if my teasing might go too far, but I was glad that I’d read him correctly. He had one of those earnest, open, naïve faces that just cry out to be teased. No wonder he’d been snatched up by that gal. He would have been putty in her hands. I knew that right now she was almost certainly having sex with his replacement.

Just like my fiancé was… with whoever it was that he… Wait, no. My ex-fiancé.

I chased the image away with another long drink.

“Sooo,” I said. The silence between me and the boy had become awkward. “How are you enjoying teaching?”

We talked about his job. Eastport is a company that farms out foreigners with ESL training to universities to teach freshman and optional English courses. I’d been working for them for a few years now and seen a hundred kids like him pass through.

He replied that he was enjoying his job. Living in Japan was a bit difficult for someone who didn’t speak much Japanese, he told me, but everyone was very polite and helpful.

I nodded, taking another drink. Japanese people are definitely that on the outside, especially to people they don’t know. When they get to know you though, they’re some of the bluntest people you’ll ever meet. I told him as much.

He arched his eyebrows. “Really? But-“

“Well, just look at me,” I said. “Sitting here and giving you advice about women. Pretty obnoxious, right?”

He shook his head. The smile on his face this time was genuinely brighter than before. “No, it’s good advice,” he said. “I just wish I was smart enough to follow it.”

“Well, it’s not so much about smarts as wisdom,” I said. “When you’re as old as me you’ll be giving unwanted advice to people younger than you as well.”

“Oh, but you’re not old,” he said, taking a long drink of his beer and looking at me over it.

What?

I ran his words over in my head. I’m fluent in English, but sometimes subtleties like irony or sarcasm can be lost on me. He’d sounded genuine.

“Oh, but I am old,” I said, and laughed. He frowned and I said, “Wait. How old do you think I am?”

His eyes went wide. No man, Japanese or foreigner, likes to be forced into the position of guessing a woman’s age.

I stared at him. My gaze left him in no doubt that I required an answer from him, and an honest one. I’d know if he was lying.

“Uh, 25 or 26?” he said at last.

I knitted my brows. The boy looked panicked. “I’m 33,” I said.

“What, really?” He looked about nervously. “Uh, I guess it’s just hard to judge Japanese people being a foreigner.” He glanced at me and managed a smile. “Women are sensitive about their age, aren’t they?”

I tried to hide the fact that I’d been flattered by his answer by saying, “Yeah. Especially ones my age.” I took a drink. “You know about Christmas cake, right?”

He blinked at me. “Christmas cake?”

“Not the real cake,” I said, chuckling. “No. In Japan, when women get older than 25 people start calling you Christmas cake if you’re not married. Well,” I waved a hand in the air. “No one wants to eat Christmas cake after Christmas day, right? It’s the same with women. Nobody wants you after you’re 25.”

“Really?”

I nodded. “In Japan when you get to 25 you have a choice as a woman: either get married or buy an apartment.” I took a long drink then added, “I bought an apartment.”

“We don’t really care about that sort of thing,” said the boy. “I’ve known lots of guys that have gone out with older women. My girlfriend… uh, ex-girlfriend I mean. She was 23.”

“That so?” So 23 years old was an older woman for this guy. I guess that made me a grandma.

The mama-san used the lull in conversation to come and ask what food we wanted. I was feeling hungry and the boy said he was, too.

“You didn’t eat anything with your girlfriend güvenilir casino earlier?”

“No, just a couple of drinks,” he said.

“Huh,” I muttered. “You’ll get sick that way.” I’ve never understood how foreigners can sit and drink on an empty stomach. It seems crazy to me. “You need to eat something.” I handed him the menu. It had pictures to go with the simple Japanese, so I thought he’d be okay with reading it.

He stared at it for a while and then handed it back to me, his eyes apologetic.

“Uh, I can’t seem to decide. Can… can you order for us?”

I blinked at him. No one had ever asked me to order for them before. I ran my eye over the menu and chose a few things I thought a foreigner might like: a selection of yakitori, fried chicken and a seafood salad. I ordered raw cabbage with miso paste dip and some battered oysters for myself.

“Just to start with,” I told the mama-san. “I’m pretty famished.”

She smiled and retreated out back.

“I ordered you a seafood salad,” I told the boy. “You look like you need the vitamins. You’re okay with raw fish, right?”

He nodded.

While we waited for our food, I asked him about himself. He was the usual type of kid we get as tutors: just finished an undergraduate degree and wondering what to do with their lives. He was also the shy, naïve type that seems to be attracted to Japan for some reason. He liked anime and manga and stuff like that. Odd that even the most normal-looking foreigners are often into otaku stuff.

“Look,” I said. “Try not to mention you like that sort of thing to girls, okay?”

He blinked at me. “Why’s that?”

“Well, usually the only kind of guys that have anime and manga as an interest are otaku. You know what the word means, right?”

He nodded. “Oh. Maybe that’s why Rika didn’t like me talking about it.”

“Rika?”

“My girl- uh, ex.” He grimaced and his eyes grew moist as if he was about to burst into tears.

I felt kind of bad that he was upset, but on the other hand, his vulnerability was… well, it was titillating. I guess I just have a little streak of sadism in me. A boy crying does strange things to me. I get worked up, wanting to comfort them but also tease them more. I usually keep it under control. I am kind of ashamed of it. I guess somewhere along the line the maternal centre of my brain and the reptilian, aggressive part got their lines crossed.

I smiled at him and reached over to touch his hand again, the nurturing ‘big sister’. His hand was really soft, slender, almost girlish in a way. I wondered what it would feel like caressing my body.

My face grew hot, the smile I directed at him a little too sultry, so I took my hand away. I should have said something mollifying then, some big-sisterly advice about forgetting all about the girl. Instead I didn’t want those teary eyes to go away.

“Figures,” I said. “What is it with girls called Rika?”

He looked across at me, his red eyes questioning.

“Well,” I said. “It’s just that I’ve never met a single nice Rika in my life.”

He closed his eyes, then. “She seemed nice. I thought she liked me,” he whispered. “I was just happy that I’d finally met someone who liked me.”

When he sobbed I knew I’d gone too far.

His eyes flashed open in surprise when I put my hand on his and stroked it. “Hey, there’s no need to cry. I guarantee she’s not crying over you. Don’t give her the satisfaction.”

He sniffed and nodded. He glanced across at me and I smiled my brightest, most nurturing smile at him. His face went pink and he managed a weak smile back and rubbed at his eyes.

Caressing his hand was doing a far better job of distracting him from his broken heart than my words were. He kept stealing glances at me. He wanted to look me in the eye whenever I was talking to him, but looking at me was also making him nervous.

I finished my beer. It did nothing to cool me down. “Shall we order something else to drink?”

The boy nodded. Then his face fell, “Uh, actually I don’t l have much money on me at the…”

I chuckled. “I’m older than you, so it’s my treat. Japanese custom. So what would you like?”

“Um, can you decide for me?”

He was pretty indecisive. I took up the menu. “Well, let’s have some rice wine then. Mama-san!”

“Yes?”

“Do you have Bishounen?”

“Of course,” she replied. “Just a moment.”

A few moments later the mama-san came out with two glasses in little wooden boxes.

The boy stared at the box in front of him.

“They’re pinewood,” I said. “They’re supposed to catch any sake that spills when it’s getting poured. They make the sake taste nicer, too.”

The mama-san lugged a huge bottle up and poured the golden liquid into the first glass. It quickly overflowed and the boy gasped.

“Don’t worry, that’s supposed to happen,” I told him.

The mama-san smiled and kept pouring until the sake filled the little box as well up to the rim, then did the same for my drink.

“Dai-saabisu,” I said. I glanced at the boy whose eyes were still wide from the spectacle. “It means ‘extra-generous’. Saabisu is from English but I don’t think ‘service’ really makes that much sense when you translate it.” I nodded to the mama-san. “Could you leave the bottle please?”

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