Hikaru no Aisukuriimu
Welcome to Shindou's Italian Ice Cream Shop, offering the best and most authentic Italian ice cream in all of Japan!
I'm Shindou Hikaru, at your service.
So, why Italian ice cream, I hear you wonder; well, that went like this:
When I was a 11 year old boy back in Tokyo, I think I was so bored I decided to liven things up by stealing a very expensive antique from my Gramps and selling it for good money. Now if I had kept the sudden influx of ready cash a secret, I would probably have gotten away with it, but being only an 11 year old criminal mastermind, I bought a Ferrari red bike (a real Ferrari being still somewhat outside of the budget).
Needless to say I got busted by the local policeman (he dragged me all the way home by the collar of my jacket) and then I got my head busted by my dad (in the form of a hour long lecture) and then I got my ass busted by Gramps (with a belt. Repeatedly. Ouch).
Now, I think it would have been a toss-up of what would have happened next, because I really was young and very stupid back then and I really couldn't care less about the consequences of my actions. (Even Gramps' method wasn't deterring me much; bruises heal pretty quickly, you know.) And very likely this would have been the start of my life as a fine delinquent. But things went differently and my criminal career came to a screeching halt when dad suddenly announced he had been transferred and we were moving to Italy.
Yeah, that's what I said; "Whaaah?" Italy, as in Europe, as in not Japan, as in no more speaking Japanese, as in eating pizza and pasta, as in no more eating ramen, as in leaving my friends and my home and Gramps? As you can understand I was pretty upset, but dad would hear nothing of leaving me behind or anything, most especially since I'd gotten in trouble so recently (talk about punishment that never stops!).
I think I spent that entire day with my jaw on the floor; I sure had the sore muscles to prove it the next day. But there was no getting out of it; we were going to Italy, mom, dad and me. Cripes!
Turns out going to Italy is the best thing that happened to me in my childhood. Italy is fun for kids. I suddenly found myself surrounded by happy healthy kids who loved playing soccer, eating pasta (which turned out to be not unlike ramen), eating ice cream (what kid doesn't like ice cream?) and who didn't have to cram Kanji at school, all day, every day.
Yes, I went to an Italian school. It was purely happenstance; I had missed (well mom had, as she was in charge of that sort of thing) the sign-up closing date of the tiny Japanese school in Rome and there was no way to get in until at least 6 months later. I suggested I could have the 6 months off but dad promptly enrolled me into a local school (last grade of the scuola primaria).
I was worried I was not going to get on with the Italian kids, but they were super nice (once I proved I could kick a mean penalty corner) and after 6 months my Italian was actually good enough to follow the classes and (I think mom was just happy I was staying out of trouble for once) so mom and dad just let me run with it.
So this is how I learned perfect Italian, no English worth a d*nm (like all the other Italian kids) and no Kanji what-so-ever. Mom did try to home school me on Saturdays, Kanjis and Japanese history, but thank god she didn't push it too much, because at that time I was So Not Interested.
So, how did I end up running my own ice cream place back in Tokyo? Well, blame that on Gino's mom. And on Giovanni's mom. And on every other mom of every one of my Italian friends.
Italians love to cook. And I love to eat. Perfect combo. And Peppino, Gino's uncle, someone not unlike Gramps in his views and behavior, had seen me look curiously into Gino's mom's kitchen, one night, and he gave me a shove that put me into Marcella's (Gino's mom) path and before I knew it I was making dough for linguine while Gino helped his mom make a thick cream sauce.
It was the beginning of my love for cooking.
I stayed in Italy until dad was promoted and recalled to Tokyo. I was 17.
Coming home was a shock. A bad one. Mom had sent me right back to school, a Japanese school, where there were uniforms and formal bowing and no questions in class and cram school after class and endless learning of Kanjis and... well, I chucked it after the first two weeks. It was that or commit suicide, and I'm just not the type for that.
Mom and me spent a very uncomfortable two weeks at home after that. Dad was away on back-to-back business trips and so he was no help whatsoever. Though he did try to wrangle a job in the mail room at his company for me, but thank god, I was turned down for my insufficient knowledge of Kanji; I know I would have hated the job anyway.
To get out of the house - and to reacquaint myself with Tokyo - I started to take long walks - sometimes whole days. It was summer and only just starting to get hot.
It was on an early evening on one of these walks that I heard sounds that reminded me of home. It was a Mama arguing with a Papa about spaghetti sauce. I headed straight for the sound and was hit with a wave of freshly fried garlic and basil, simmering tomato sauce and oven-fresh pizza bread. Home indeed.
This is how I came to work in Joseppe's Pizza Place. Run by Joseppe (who did most of the cooking except the sauces and who was married to Tanaka Haruko who did all the serving and all the cleaning) and his mother Maria, who had a permanent seat in the kitchen by the big stove, and made all the sauces. The only other person working there was Mariko, who basically assisted Haruko, and now there was me in the kitchen of this always full Italian restaurant.
I stayed in the restaurant for 4 years and once Joseppe discovered I knew how to make good Italian ice cream (thanks to Giovanni's mom) he promoted me to pastry, ice cream and coffee chef. I had to learn the coffee part from scratch, but I had made some pastries before, so it wasn't too daunting. I really learned a lot there.
And that's how, now two years ago I set up shop next door to Joseppe's as an Ice Cream Shop. (With coffee and pastries and what not). And I supply the ice cream to the restaurant. And all in all, after a slow start, I now have a very profitable business. Even dad has told me he's proud of me and that's a first!
It's all well and good to have a good livelihood, but I did find myself, after all the commotion of setting up the shop had died down, living all alone on the second floor right above my shop. Mom had gone back to join dad in Italy after Gramps died the year before, and the rest of the Shindou clan still lived in Nagasaki, as they had always done.
So I was utterly alone. All my childhood friends were in Italy and I'd never made any in the few months I spent in school in Tokyo. Of course I had Joseppe and all the others at the restaurant, and to give Mariko credit, she did her best to set me up with any and all marriageable girls in the district and well beyond, but I decided to be truthful with and tell her I wasn't really into girls.
Yeah, as life choices go, being gay in Tokyo is not a great option. But believe me, being gay in Italy was a lot worse. Or, maybe not, since I'm know to be notoriously thick about these things and I really didn't realize I had such a thing as a sexual preference (or a sexual anything) until little Anna Pesca (Giovanni's very round-breasted next door neighbor, all of 14 years old) threw herself at me and all I could think was 'yuk!'
The scene is self was an absolute disaster, because little Anna was roaring drunk and after her dad had verbally taken me to the cleaners, which left me the patsy no matter what I did - 'hands off you molester!' 'but I didn't molest her!' 'What? My girl not good enough for you Japanese ****?!' - she proceeded to prove her inebriated state by throwing up spectacularly all over her dad's new shoes and then fainting dead away.
Well, it was a good thing I was already set to go back to Japan - Gramps was getting old and wanted to go home - and I think my absence gave Anna room to live the episode down. I hear she married Giovanni and they already have two kids.
So my sexual exploits really didn't get going until I got back to Tokyo. And let me tell you, there was a lot of trial and error before I figured out what I really wanted in a lover.
To avoid making a long story even longer I shall skip my adventures in the bedroom, but I will tell you what I learned about myself; I don't need to be the boss in a relationship but I absolutely refuse to be bossed around. On the other hand I don't like to be around wimps; a guy's got to have some personality for me to keep being interested. And he should be sporty; tall and fit enough to keep up with me would really be nice.
Yes, I knew I wanted much and yes, I knew the chances of getting what I wanted were not good.
So after the last very nasty break up with a guy named Kaga - in which my fist was faster than his and he ended up with the bloody face instead of me - I took a break from 'dating' and concentrated on my career as an ice cream vender. You know, selling ice cream is safer than dating any day!
In summer my shop is never empty and that summer was particularly hot, so at times a cue formed before the ice cone counter that stretched almost all the way to the train station! On days like that I'm making fresh ice cream in the kitchen while Nanako and her kid sis Tomoko are selling double and triple scoop cones as fast as their hands can move. Yuki mans the till and herds the pastry and coffee counters and if it really gets busy I borrow Haruko from the restaurant as an extra pair of hands.
Long story short, on days like that all I see is the inside of the kitchen, and I still say, that seeing Him that first time, on the hottest day of the year, was an honest to god miracle.
This miracle involved Yuki, who isn't a sturdy guy, needing help with changing over the huge tub of vanilla ice cream I had made. Usually Nanako and Tomoko could take care of it between them, if Yuki held the door open for them, but they were already working their butts off scooping ice. So this one time I did it with Yuki trying to be helpful and when I came to the front of the store carrying the tub in my arms - Yuki really is less than useful with heavy items, but he does make an authentic espresso, now anyway - that's when I saw Him.
He was with a small group of guys roughly my age - all a little old for going to get ice cream as a group; it's more a high school thing, even I know that - and He was obviously the odd one out with his idiotically long hair caught low in a ribbon and wearing a full kimono where all his friends wore button down shirts and the kind of pants that usually belong with a complete suit. One of them even wore a tie!
The whole group looked like they were melting in the day's heat - what were they thinking, wearing that and then cuing up in the sweltering afternoon to get ice cream, even if it is the very best ice cream in all of Tokyo?!
Of the group He was the only one who didn't look uncomfortable in his outfit; He was just the type to pull off the effeminate look, hell, he even wore his obi in the girl style! He had his fan out and fanned himself slowly while looking curiously around the shop from where he stood in the cue. Then His eyes met mine and the world just stopped.
Now, if you would have asked me earlier to describe my dream guy - and I do believe I told you already - I would have said I wanted a tall muscular dude with a sense of humor and above all no emo, just a cool, easy going guy, nothing remotely girly. But now...
Now, as our eyes held each other, I knew he was The One. Those deep purple pools that invited me to look deeper and maybe find out his innermost secrets. The wide eyes that exuded a childish curiosity about life, the universe and everything. His girly pink mouth that glossed and sparkled in the bright overheads of my shop and reflected the glow of the sun outside. The way the dip in the neckline of the kimono showed just enough of the nape of his neck to really catch my attention. The way -
- the huge tub of vanilla ice cream was escaping my grip! I fumbled and ended up saving the tub by going down on my knees behind the counter and guiding the thing down in a controlled fall.
I panted a couple of breaths with the sudden shock of the broken moment combined with the tingling in my hands and stomach from where both locations were warming up from freezing point to normal, as I had let go of the tub once it was safely down on the floor. Then I got back up, gripped the handles again and hoisted the tub with one fell swoop on to the counter's edge. And then I looked back at the cue and at Him.
Well, hot d*mn, if the guy wasn't laughing at me behind his ridiculous pink and yellow fan! I just know I turned red. And then I tried to save the scene by shrugging my shoulders and putting an hand behind my head, rubbing my neck, like a dumb 12 year old. Oh, so mature.
After that the only thing left to do that I could think of was just turn around and go back to the kitchen. And that's what I did. I went there, opened the door to the big freezer and stuck my head inside to cool off.
And it wasn't until 20 or so minutes later that I realized I had fallen in love with only that one look into His eyes, and the moment I did I went back out front - my staff giving me alternating strange and miffed looks because I hadn't brought more ice cream with me and on hot days like that the only thing I ever come up front for is to resupply - only to find Him and his group long gone.
I'm such an idiot.
From that day on the hot summer really sucked. All I could think of was Him with his ridiculous hair and ridiculous fan and his ridiculous kimono. Who on earth wears a full kimono on the hottest days of summer? With a full three tier butterfly knot at the back and a red silk juban underneath? He must have been melting in that much silk! It was utterly ridiculous, He was utterly ridiculous! And still I couldn't forget him...
After having had my shop for two years I had grown used to the routine of the summer weeks. All afternoons and evenings and all day Saturdays and Sundays would see me slaving away in the kitchen at keeping up with the demand for tubs full of ice cream from the scoop counter, where the girls would hand out the cones and Yuki would run the till (the only thing he was really good at; keeping track of money).
Weekday mornings I'd be there with only one of my staff for the morning crowd, and so I could take it easy then. Then I'd do the basic accounting (I leave the real accounting to Mr. Yashida since I never actually finished Japanese high school and just don't know enough Kanji to be considered literate. Never mind the fact that my interest in accounting approaches absolute zero.)
I also make the shopping lists and if I get very lucky I actually get to do some shopping, but usually my supplies are brought in with the supplies for the restaurant, and I'm not really worried about that, since I know Mariko and Haruko know how to get the best ingredients at the best prices. The only thing I do regret is not having the excuse for an outing; almost all year 'round I see nothing but my shop and my flat and the little park out in front of the building. I'm not sure it's helping my sanity, and I know it does nothing for my social life...
In the two weeks since the afternoon I had seen him, I had been incredibly busy as usual. The shop was experiencing a boom with the hot summer and Tomoko told me she'd talked to one guy who had come all the way from Nagasaki to try my ice cream. I was very proud of course and I was sorry I missed out seeing him try my newest flavor, but the man had come in on a Sunday afternoon and that's rush hour in the Shindou kitchen.
I was glad everybody liked my ices but I really would have liked to say 'you're welcome' to their faces once in a while...
Monday morning, 7:15 am; I was turning down chairs, before planning to hit the kitchen to make another big tub of raspberry ice (a very popular flavor), some smaller tubs of various choco flavors (some with nuts or coffee or taffy or what not) and continue my experiment of making a credible dark chocolate with mint ice cream - experimenting is necessary to expand the selection; and it's great fun too! - when I looked up at the person who was just entering the shop. It was Him.
'Good morning,' he said, using the more polite form of speech. I was glad to see he was not wearing a formal kimono this time, but a more weather appropriate yukata with a purple and pink butterfly design. He did wear the obi in the girl's style but it was tied with a simple bow this time. His long hair was caught in a long braid that started at the nape of his neck and reached to mid-thigh. Bare feet in wooden geta, a purple and white fan, and a pink parasol decorated with white peonies finished the outfit nicely.
'Hiya,' I stuttered. I was not used to the politer speech levels and I kicked myself for being so rude to a man who was obviously of a much higher rank than li'le ol' me. But you know, having lived so long in Italy, where people were a lot more relaxed about rank, I just never got into the habit of ritual politeness. Heck, even us kids called the local church elder by his first name, Giorgio, instead of Mr. Mastriami, and he was the most respected man in the neighborhood at nearly 95 years old. I guess in Japan the kids would have used the politest form of speech with a man like that, but old man Giorgio wouldn't have any of it!
So, back to the story, I just had made myself sound like an unwashed, uncluttered lout. Congrats, Hikaru. But to my amazement, and relief, He just raised his fan to cover half his mouth, smiled (I could see the corner of his mouth turn up and his eyes crinkle) and then, believe it or not, He blushed.
And then I blushed. And we just stood there for long minutes just blushing at each other.
And then the bell above the side door rang as Tomoko entered and moved to set her bag on the shel[f] behind the counter, throwing a 'Hi, boss, hi Fujiwara-sensei,' over her shoulder as she reached up to the hook where the apron hung.
Fujiwara-sensei? My jaw dropped but my eyes were still on Him and I could see the blush now reached his neck and ears, even though he did his best to hide behind his fan.
As Tomoko calmly put on her apron, tied up her hair with one well- practiced twist flip and proceeded to lay out scoops, spoons and drying cloths and filled up two small empty tubs with rinsing water for the scoops, she said conversationally, 'Oh, I'm glad you finally found each other. I was running out of advice on when you'd be available, boss, it's been like soooo busy lately! And I was running out of flavors for Fujiwara-sensei to try too. Oh boss, I do hope that new flavor is coming along; I've had many folks asking about it, and the longer it takes the more everybody's gonna expect of it. I've let it leak that it may include mint, as I've seen you've been buying fresh mint stalks. I do hope I've not said too much...' she trailed off and I think it was because she'd looked up just then from where she was putting the second tub of rinsing water on the counter; I could see it from the corner of my eye. And then she blushed.
You see, as Tomoko had spoken her monologue, Fujiwara had slowly dropped the fan away from his face, that blush still firmly in place. And like a moth to a flame, I felt myself gravitate forwards until I was only a foot or so away from him. By this time I felt my face had cooled down and I could see his had too. The shy smile had also gone, being replaced by an intense look in his eyes, and around his mouth I could see determination form. And I felt much the same as he looked; concentrated and vibrant.
It was I who had moved forward first, but it was he who took that last step closer, and who tilted his head first. Then I reached out to touch his chin gently with my fingertips. I pulled gingerly, tilted my own head so our noses wouldn't clash and, feeling no retreat from Fujiwara, I moved the last few inches forward and we kissed.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Well, actually it was not. When our first kiss ended - with Tomoko going TWEEWEET from behind the counter, cheeky girl! - extreme embarrassment set in and we both stepped back and stood around looking very awkward for some minutes before Fujiwara suddenly looked stricken, then at the clock, then even more stricken and not unlike the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland he called out, 'I'm going to be so late!' and he turned around and fled.
And I was left behind on a summer's morning seeing the person that I was now 95% sure of being the Love of My Life disappear out of said life for a second time.
Luckily it turned out that Tomoko knew more. Namely that Fujiwara was a 'Go-pro', whatever that was, and that that was why he had been in the neighborhood with his overdressed friends over two weeks ago; there had been some sort of competition of Go going on at the local center.
Of course I knew what Go was, I wouldn't be my Gramps' grandkid if I didn't! I could play it too; when we'd first moved to Italy, Gramps had followed a year later, after Granny had died. The first few years were hard on him; he couldn't learn the language and he had nothing in common with the local elderly, friendly though they were. So at that time Gramps taught me to play Go so he would have someone to play. I became quite good at it too, but had never considered people would have real competitions in it; it was just a game after all.
What? So, I didn't tell you about my Go ability before? There's lots of things I learned to do that I haven't told you about; I can name you all the major cities in Italy - the Italians are proud of their cities - I can bowl out the boccino in one turn in Bocce - had to learn how to because Gramps learned the game from the locals in his last few years in Italy and bowling the boccino was the only way to pry him away for dinner - I can do a hand stand and a wheely on Gino's mountain bike - but not at the same time, as I found out the hard way - and I know how to change the front wheel of a mountain bike - Gino's dad made me do it after that handstand-wheely gone awry, but he did give me pointers. So there's a lot I haven't told ya, and more I'm probably never gonna!
Anyway, I knew Go and now that I knew Fujiwara played it professionally, I tortured the internet for some info. And boy did I get info! Turned out Fujiwara Sai [picture] (yup that's him) was a Go heavy weight. Yes, that long haired, effeminate, shy skinny guy seemed to put the fear of god in his fellow players; they either adore him as a god or they wanna decimate him (figuratively speaking, as in on the board only. I think. But some of these folks really sound pissed at Said's roaring success. A bit creepy really. Brrr.)
Also I noticed that everybody agreed that Sai - good grief, we've only met twice and kissed once and I'm calling him 'Sai' already! - was a Go-playing machine. He came from a very wealthy high class family, had a socialite mother and a CEO father, but no siblings, no wife or even a whiff of a girlfriend. When he wasn't playing official games he would be spotted at all hours of the day and night playing Go on the net. He never was seen at parties or in the nightlife. Basically if he wasn't taking part in something job-related, that guy was playing Go somewhere online.
This gave me pause; this guy is just like me, nothing but work-work-work. No matter how enjoyable ice cream making and developing is - and it really is - it is still work and I was imagining the same would be true of playing a game professionally.
I ended my internet search. I could have gone on and like some ditsy fangirl I might have found his home address. But even supposing I did, what would I do, go visit him in his upper class home? Apart from the fact that I didn't have time until Autumn at least for such an outing, what was I gonna say? 'Hi, I'm the ice cream maker from this morning and I love you'? It'd be stupid, right?
I decided to start on making the day's ice cream instead. The weather forecast had said that day was going to be a scorcher...
By that evening I was a frazzled mess. The day had indeed been super hot and I had made ice cream non-stop. The only 'break' I got was when one of the smaller freezer units decided to conk out on me and I had to move the contents to the other units. And all that day I couldn't stop thinking of those soft lips on mine, those deep purple eyes, the low neck on that yukata and the feel of my fingertips touching his chin.
No, by that evening I had made up my mind that I had to see him again, no matter my guaranteed embarrassment.
I had asked Tomoko to come in early the next day and help out Yuki while I could go and find Fujiwara.
Tomoko had told me, after Fujiwara had left, that in the few weeks after Fujiwara and his friends had been to the shop the first time, the man had been back a few times on his own for ice cream. Each time Fujiwara had asked after me, but each time the timing had been lousy; one time I had just stepped out to deliver ice cream to the restaurant, one time I had been stirring the really big tub of ice cream - this is a tiring but necessary process, to make the ice cream come out really fluffy, it is done by hand and shouldn't be interrupted - and there were more such little things.
Of course Tomoko had asked Fujiwara to wait but whether from embarrassment or true lack of time, Fujiwara had excused himself each time and had left immediately after getting a triple scoop ice cream cone with different flavors every time. Tomoko assured me that she believed it really was lack of time, because Fujiwara had been dropped off by a black limousine each time and had taken his ice into the car instead of eating it outside to save the interior from accidents, like most people would. No, he had hurrendly climbed on board with his ice, no doubt preassured by the chauffeur who had been waiting impatiently with the car door open the whole time Fujiwara had been in the shop.
(Tomoko even told me the people in line had automatically stepped aside to let Fujiwara jump the cue, because everybody sensed the man's high status. I must admit that bothered me in more ways than one; that the status thing here in Japan was still so important that letting someone like Sai go first was a matter of course; that Sai would be the type to jump a cue, and that I could fall hopelessly in love with a person who'd expect without question to be allowed to go first where others have been waiting a long time...
After opening the shop at 7 am and making sure Tomoko and Yuki would not run into any avoidable problems for the rest of the morning, I changed into the only presentable clothing I had; the grey suit and tie I had bought for the visit to the bank to secure the loan to equip with the shop two years ago. With it I wore a vanilla yellow button down with thin white and black vertical stripes (really a winter shirt but it was the only decent one I had). As I set off with Fujiwara's address noted on a paper napkin in one jacket pocket and the tie stuffed into the other and the jacket draped over one arm, so I wouldn't die of heat stroke before I even arrived, my thoughts kept alternating between anxiety, doubt, blind hope and longing.
Upper class home I said earlier, didn't I? Well, I was wrong; what I found myself walking up to was an effing palace. At least five times I had to talk myself out of fleeing back down the meandering path from the main gate to the house itself. The house was a mixture of western and Japanese architecture; it had a three story core with a slanted roof covered in red roof tiles. All the upper windows had white varnished framing set into red bricks, some were swung open in deference to the hot day. The ground floor was surrounded on three sides with a Japanese style porch and there were traditional sliding doors that opened up to that walkway and the gardens. The front side of the building, where the path was leading me, was designed in the more western style of a large varnished front door with a ball on a chain functioning as a bell-pull.
As I had walked up to the house I had seen no sign of human life. The house was so far away from the street, all I could here was the wind in the trees and the crickets in the grass, and, in the distance, water flowing and a traditional Japanese water clock flipping with a hollow 'plock'.
I took a long breath and rang the bell.
I'm going to spare you - and me - my embarrassment of the details for what happened next. Suffice it to say that Sai hadn't been in, nor had any of the family, as their snooty family butler informed me.
I got back to the shop almost three hours after I had left and I went up to my room to change out of my now totally sweated through clothes. I took a quick cold shower and got into a pair of worn but clean khaki pants and a white 'Shindou's Ice Cream Rules' T-shirt. Then I went down straight to the kitchen to make lemon and melon ice cream.
I gave up on my plan to chase after Sai. If I hadn't been so busy I would have kept trying, but I owed it to my employees, the bank and myself to make the shop my priority. This decision didn't mean that I wasn't hurting, that I wasn't missing Sai. But I reasoned, Sai would still be there in September, and if it turned out he wasn't, well, then the whole thing hadn't been real from the start anyway.
I did, however, start reading the news page of the Go institute - that being the place where the game scheduling was publicized - and it helped me through the day to know that Sai looked to be as busy as I was.
It was about a week later when I checked the Institute page like I did every morning, that I got a shock. I had seen the day before that Sai had one tournament game and two exhibition games scheduled for that day. Now a bright red 'canceled' flashed in front of the exhibition game match-ups and the tournament game was already marked as a loss by default for Sai, and that game hadn't even started yet.
It could only mean one thing; something was wrong with Sai, and I suddenly had shivers down my back; it had to be serious for a dedicated pro player like Fujiwara to cancel and forfeit games.
I checked the scheduling for the next few days on the site; all of Sai's games had been canceled. Then I scoured the internet for his home phone number and, not much caring if I came across as a crazed fan, I called his house. After the phone ringing 17 times - yes, I counted it - it was answered by a sedate-sounding lady speaking very correctly.
'Fujiwara Kiko speaking,' she said. His mother, I think. I did see all the family names pass by as I had researched Sai but I hadn't bothered to remember them. I hadn't expecting a family member to pick up and so I had to swallow to wet my suddenly dry throat.
'Uh, Shindou Hikaru speaking,' I stammered, trying desperately to use all the right polite forms.
'Yes, Shindou-san, what can I do for you?' Her voice held no emotion, nothing by which I might possibly have gaged her mood, her anxiety over whatever it was that was going on with Sai.
'Uh, I was wondering, uhm,' I stammered and then tried again, 'I heard Fujiwara-sensei canceled all his games for the rest of the week, uh, I just wanted to know if he's okay?' I finished.
'Ah, you are one of his Go colleagues. Yes, he's taking a week off because of the hot weather. He should be back by next Wednesday,' she said.
I debated with myself if I should let her erroneous presumption stand, but I decided honesty was better and said, 'Uh, thank you for the info, but I'm not a Go player, I, uh, I make ice cream, uh,' and then I trailed off, having no idea what to say next.
'Oh!' she said, surprising me with the first bit of emo I'd heard from her. 'You are, hmm yes, Sai-kun has talked of you; he said your ice cream was the best he'd ever had.' I could hear her take a breath and add, 'He told me he was sorry to have missed you those few times at your shop and that one time you came here.'
I didn't know what to say to that except 'yeah, me too and thank him for the compliment,' so that's what I said. Realizing just after I said it that I had used the wrong verb form. Crap. But apparently it didn't matter because she didn't hang up on me and even asked me for a favor. Sai had liked my raspberry, pistachio and black sesame ice cream flavors best and was it okay to send their chauffeur around for a tub of each?
After I'd found my voice I stammeringly agreed and found myself listening to the dial tone for at least a minute after she had thanked me most politely and had rung off.
I put the phone down and sprang into action; even by car, from my shop to his house was at least a 20 plus minute ride; if those tubs were to arrive even halfway frozen, they'd need a bit of help! So I emptied out one of the carton delivery boxes, put a plastic bag in it to prevent leakage and dumped a large amount of ice cubes in it. I filled three two-liter tubs with the requested ice cream, closed them tightly and put them among the ice cubes, closed and tied the plastic, taped the box closed and stuck the whole thing in the freezer, ready for the chauffeur to take once he arrived.
Limousine driven ice cream take away, from my humble shop, imagine that!
Three days passed and the summer heat, that had briefly given way to a thunderstorm the night before, looked to be back in full force that Saturday morning. Even at 8:15 am the place was already crowded, mostly with ice-cone buyers.
But the cooler Friday had given me a chance to get ahead in the ice cream making, so I could take a restful morning before having to get back to the kitchen. I was just making small talk with some customers when Tomoko, who stood next to me behind the counter, gave a a sharp jab with her elbow. I looked up at her in surprise and that's when I saw what she had jabbed me for; Fujiwara had just walked in the shop.
I quickly dried my hands - they always seemed to be wet whenever I stood behind the counter - and then moved around the counter to walk in his direction. He wore his usual traditional outfit, a yukata in orange and pink this time, again with the obi tied in the female style, with parasol, fan and geta, but this time he wore tabi socks with them and he looked sickly pale.
I stopped a few feet in front of him and said, 'good morning,' quite lamely. He blushed a little at this and brought up the fan to hide behind. 'Good morning,' he said.
'Uh, are you well?' I asked, trying to use the most polite wording, but I wasn't sure I had got it right. (Really I should take lessons if I'm gonna be around high-brow folk!)
'Yes, thank you,' he said. 'The heat was a bit much for me, thank you for your ice cream, it helped me greatly to gain back my health,' he added and gave a polite bow. 'Gee,' was what I said and then I bowed, because I had no clue what else to say.
We were awkwardly silent for a minute or so when I saw Tomoko hold up a triple ice cone and wave at me. What? Oh! And it dawned on me to say, 'how about an ice cream?' At that he smiled fully, dropping the fan away from his face. 'Oh thank you, that's a great idea,' he gushed.
As I escorted him to the counter I said, 'Raspberry, pistachio and black sesame, right?' At this he nodded eagerly, his smile getting bigger. And I went behind the counter to make up his ice.
When, in the process of gathering the ice bulbs, I had my head not far away from Tomoko, I heard her whisper close to my ear, 'boss, you should take your friend to the park. We can hold down the fort for a while, no problem.' And, as I gave Sai his ice cream, Tomoko put a double scoop vanilla/melon cone in my hand and said, 'scoot!' while waving me away.
I decided not to fight her.
Under the tall trees in the park it was surprisingly cool. We found a bench in the shade and for a while we ate our ices in silence. I realized I hadn't sat down to enjoy one of my own ice creams in years. It was like re-acquainting with an old friend. But once my own cone was gone I found that watching Sai eat my creation with the sincere concentration that he employed was new and wholly fascinating.
Once all the ice cream was gone and Sai had consumed the last bite of the cone he looked up at me with a question in his eyes. I looked his face over carefully and was pleased to see he looked a little less wan. I put my right hand over his hands in his lap and used my left hand to grasp his chin and guide his face closer to mine. Again it was he who closed the distance and our lips touched gently.
For a very long moment we sat like that, our lips just resting against each other, breathing each other's breath. I could taste the raspberry and sesame on his breath and I'm sure he could taste the vanilla on mine.
Then the moment ended and I moved back a bit. I let my left hand come down and join my right and with both hands I grasped his. And then I started talking. Just talking. And for the life of me I can't remember what it was exactly what I said, but I know I told him pretty much all that I've told you; all about my life and my shop. And about my loneliness and about my love for a person I had met only three times and kissed twice.
And at the end there were tears rolling down his cheeks as well as mine. And when I had finished speaking he started to speak. He told me of his life, his family with his cold father and kind but distant mother. About growing up alone in an empty house, with only adult tutors for company. Of how he had learned Go so he could at least be of interest to his father and his highbrow, old money friends. How one elderly gentleman had recognized Sai's Go ability and had persuaded his father to hire Go tutors, who in turn had persuaded his father that Sai was good enough to go pro at age 11.
It had been a hard journey for Sai, for his father did not condone failure; either Sai was the best or he'd be out. So Sai worked hard to be the best and he was very thankful to which ever kami had seen fit to give him the necessary talent to pull it off.
For over 10 years Sai did nothing but live and breathe Go. Until these last few weeks, until the day he met a working-class ice cream vender who had looked at him like no other ever had and whose kissed tasted of vanilla and chocolate. Here Sai giggled and I found it necessary to kiss him again, which he allowed me to do, at length.
'All of a sudden doing nothing but play Go seemed such a horrible thing to me,' he said after I had broken the kiss. 'I realized I wanted more; I wanted an end to the loneliness,' he continued. 'I realized I wanted you and I tried to see you but you were always busy or out and I thought you weren't really interested in me and so I nearly gave up. And then Tanaka said you had stopped by the house one morning I was already out, and then I knew you were interested too.'
He sighed and continued, 'And then I tried to get some time off so I could wait for you at your shop. I was determined to wait all day if I had to, but father told me that love was no excuse to skip work and we got into a terrible fight. You see, I had never talked back to him before, not about even the smallest thing, and in hindsight I think he didn't know how to react in this new situation, so because I was determined and he didn't know when to stop,' here Sai trailed off.
He sighed again and slipped one hand from beneath mine only to put it on top of my hands. 'I got so mad and it was so hot that I think I fainted and I think that scared him because when I came to, doctor Ishida was by my bed and he was checking me over and he ordered a break from work for me. Father trusts Ishida-sensei like no other, so I got my time off and,' Sai gripped my hands and looked deep into my eyes, 'I came here as soon as I was able, because I told my father the truth that night; you are who I want to spend my life with,' he finished.
A year has passed since we sat in the shade of the cherry trees in the park on that mid morning at the height of the summer heat. A lot of things have changed; the shop is now so successful I'm considering opening another across town; to that end, and to lighten my day to day work load I've hired some extra staff. This sort of happened by chance because Mariko came to me last September with an idea and a request. Turned out that Joseppe was in contact with some Italian teens who wanted to come over the Japan to learn Japanese and, well, just experience the country all their favorite TV shows came from. So would I mind hiring some of them for work and language experience. To which I said, 'sure! As long as they don't expect me to teach 'm any Kanjis!' And so I got some temporary help, one of which turned permanent almost immediately because Tomoko married Lucca a month ago. The newly weds are going to run the second shop; my wedding present to them. Ah, I'm going to miss Tomoko...
Anyway, with my gaining some free time and Ishida-sensei making sure Sai doesn't work himself to death anymore, we've had time to get to know each other. And, of course, it's not all been roses and candlelight, but, I must admit, there where it matters in a relationship we seem to be able to work out any kinks rather well.
Tonight I plan to ask Sai to move in with me officially - right now he's already over at my place more than at home - and to celebrate this happy event, I'm letting him proof-taste my latest ice cream creation. It's an ice coup with a vanilla and lemon ice cream base with a flattened top, where I'll put a grid pattern in thinly poured chocolate sauce ribbons, on top of which will be strategically placed a few small disks of white and black marzipan, to represent a Go game in progress. I'm thinking of calling it Go è il mio Diletto.