Sunset in Izu by Josh Lernihan

Sunset in Izu

Hiroaki looked at the girl across the aisle, her sheened curtains of brown hair straight and light. She wore a face mask, and like the others, her eyes were cast down at her tapping thumbs. The intermittent rustling clothes of commuters adrift in their napping and the masked girl’s sticky tap tap of thumbs on phone were the only sounds he heard as he waited for doors to close, and for the last train to leave the station.

He always looked at the women; their hair, their eyes, their tights, and how they sat in their work shoes after long office hours. The men too were of interest, sure, but the draws were different; what caught his eye did simply that. This one, now walking through the carriage, with shiny red lips and the tumescent clack of matching heels. Her ring dinged on the pole as she took the last spot and slouched into a doze. He coughed, shallow. From her fire-truck heels his vision danced across the 8 or 9 sensible shoes of salarymen, back to the girl opposite, from her soft, kind sneakers, back up towards her mask.

At the knees, she had light, fine patterns of dust on her tights. What was this? Too young for failing limbs and weakness; too old for playing about. He coughed now, once more and he could feel it, dry and black, sitting in his lungs, soaked in ill. Hiroaki closed his eyes and saw her, all at once, in the park before, her knees on the dry dust. Lips at his hips, at his belt and zips, with her mask strap slipping off her ear. But no. He opened again. Her hair was perfect, her eyelids rumbling with movement. She had not, would not.

Even the motion of his hand as it sought the phone from his pocket threatened to dislodge the row of silenced adults. It was quiet as a library, with just as many volumes along the seats of the carriage. He opened his phone to the picture Umeko had chosen. An embrace, a picture of her and Nobu from last winter in Nagano. The dog, his forelegs wet with snow and a long happy tongue, and she in her ski jacket, arms around his neck. This was before. She was bigger now; rounder and slower. Nobu was slower too.

The time read 19:50.

He coughed again, hot, dry-mouthed, and wet with rattles. The train alarm sounded and doors closed. He looked again, up from her knees, her slender body swaddled in a winter coat. She sensed; she looked up and met his gaze, only for less than an instant, then blinking, left, right, and down again to the thumbs. The smile returned. He saw it in her eyelids, the grin spilling out over the mask.

19:52.

Umeko would be in the driver’s seat, watching through the taxis, through the windows of the bus, waiting for him. He leaned his head back and it brushed the condensation of the window, his hair gel leaving curlicues and spider nests on the glass

He felt the weight in his throat. He looked across again as she clicked the phone and noticed the dust of her kneecaps. Confusion crushed between her brows, she brushed with her palms, brushed off the light brown dirt, and looked up carriage to the approaching station.

The announcement in the vernacular, washed away into the drone of everyday so that he heard but didn’t listen, and then gain in English, different enough to wake him from his staring.

As he stood, his breath caught and he coughed hard. A rumble. A viscous fluid hack. He wanted nothing but to smile at her, to bask her in the sunshine of himself, the light that once was, and to salute her. He would not see her again.

But as Hiroaki walked through the open doors, the high pressure release of which momentarily broke the shared communal silence of the train carriage, with the attendant shuffling of suit pants and discount brogues, and the clacking of heels behind him – some red, some not – she looked up. She watched him leave the train. She watched him as he rubbished his ticket. She watched him as he dropped his mask in the dustbin, the inside flecked with deep crimson. Thick blood on plain white paper. She watched him as he walked down the station steps, to his wife, waiting in the car.

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