from “Face”

 1

“Nine hundred thousand?” Aiko leaned forward and blinked in disbelief. The doctor before her gave an offhanded nod. She felt as though she’d been conned. “But the other doctor I to spoke to said 250,000.”

She stuck out her lip, dissatisfied. Dr. Arai smiled politely. The badge on his chest read "Director" in small print just below his name. At first, when she realized that she was consulting with the director of the clinic himself, Aiko felt reassured and a kind of superiority had come over her. Perhaps the younger doctor was not experienced enough when it came to the actual surgery. She had felt valued as a customer. Still, hearing now that the price of something she was told would cost 250,000 yen had suddenly jumped to 900,000 was unacceptable.

“It's likely he only gave you an estimate for removing the crow’s feet. But look, your entire face is beginning to sag with age. Which is why these lines here are starting to come in." Dr. Arai pointed to the age lines forming along her nose and mouth, and then touched her cheeks. "And here too. There’s no tension—flabby.”

Completely at the doctor’s mercy, Aiko felt pathetic. Miserable even. Though she'd been aware of these changes herself, she didn’t think they would be noticeable to anyone else. Not even her husband had said anything.

“Even if we were to remove the crow’s feet, there's still the overall balance of your face to consider. If we smoothed out the skin just around the eyes, it might only draw more attention to that area."

The doctor sat back in his chair and waited. His explanation made a lot of sense. Aiko gave him an eager nod. Dr. Arai, seemingly around Aiko's age, smiled, "see?" as if he were persuading a child. His tiny eyes narrowed into threads. Though he seemed a bit unctuous, he had a polite bearing and way of speaking.

“The procedure is called a facelift," said the director. "Simply put, it’s a method of removing and tightening the skin.”

Removing the skin. Aiko shuddered.

There was a knock on the door. A nurse wearing a pink uniform poked her head inside. "Excuse me, Doctor Arai. Mrs. Takeda's daughter is out of surgery. She’ll be in the waiting area.”

Minako was done already. Aiko checked her watch and confirmed that the surgery had indeed only taken fifteen minutes. It was as simple as that. And now Minako was in the waiting room, having altered the shape of her belly button.

“Your daughter will want to have a peek, but you'll have to remind her that she isn't to touch her navel for a week," said Arai after the nurse left. "Now, about the facelift . . .”

In short, he would cut around the ear and near the hairline, remove the skin and muscle layers separately, and tighten the deeper muscle tissue underneath as necessary. The skin would be re-draped over the tightened muscle, so it would look even more natural with little strain on the skin. Thus by tightening the entire face, the areas around the eyes, cheeks, and mouth would become smoother. Because of Aiko’s relative youth, she didn’t have many age lines on her forehead. But if the lines became more prominent, the doctor would be able to tighten that isolated area using the same method.

“But, please, remember this: You will look much younger for certain. In your case, I'd say about ten years younger. But this isn’t some kind of magic. We can’t stop time, so you'll need to continue caring for your skin, or you'll gradually go back to looking older again.”

The doctor’s explanation sounded logical. In her mind, Aiko had already committed to having the surgery. However, there were a number of issues to consider. Aside from the cost, of course, how would she plead her case to her husband? Or, would she be able to hide it from him altogether?

“How many days will I be in the hospital? Surely for such a major surgery—”

“Not necessary. It’s different from navel surgery, so the procedure will take longer and you should expect some swelling, but that will subside in about three days. We’ll remove the sutures and have you visit on an outpatient basis for a week to ten days to check on your progress, just in case. You’ll have to refrain from taking a bath or washing your hair for a while.”

The assurance of check-ups gave Aiko a huge sense of relief. A facelift was certainly more serious than navel surgery. She couldn't very well have the doctors tell her to look after her own recovery. But since the director of the clinic was going to monitor her recovery himself, she had nothing to worry about.

“Figuring in the cost of face treatments to prevent tightness and other such services, it will cost a little more."

“How much . . .?”

“Including consultations, tests and check-ups, anesthetics, medication, about 1,300,000 yen."

She had already dissolved one of her fixed-term deposit accounts in her mind. It was Aiko who held the family purse strings. But since their savings were naturally kept in the bank where her husband worked, he could always check on the family’s finances online without her knowledge. Despite her husband's instructions to consult him about everything, and even though he'd said she was responsible for all household matters, Aiko hated the suffocating feeling of being kept on a tight leash. In fact, Aiko had secretly opened accounts in her own name and had been stashing away money for years. She also had some money invested with a securities firm. Set aside for emergencies, these savings were products of her resourcefulness as a wife rather than a secret. Aiko had never bought anything that her husband didn't know about, and as long it was paid out of the established budget with his consent, he didn't complain much about her purchases.

No, I can't!

It would set a bad example for the children. Aiko had raised her daughters to respect their father and to never keep secrets. If she were to violate those rules herself, she would lose their trust. Her older daughter, Chiharu, especially, might completely despise her.

Having heard so much about the procedure, however, Aiko was helpless against her own imagination. Although her marriage was hardly a waste of time, she wanted to rid her face of any trace of the years she'd dedicated solely to her family. She was still only forty-five, after all. Now that the children needed less attention, this might be Aiko’s chance to start living her life as a woman again.

“Of course, we’ll give you an anesthetic injection so you won’t feel any pain. Why, we even have anesthetics for giving anesthetic injections, for patients who don't cope well with pain. We’ll also give you a blood-clotting injection, so there’s very little blood loss.”

“I'll have to discuss it with my husband,” said Aiko, belying her true feeling.

"Are you happily married?" Dr. Arai asked.

Aiko felt her face flush. “Well, he's very busy, you see—”

“You should make yourself attractive, Mrs. Takeda," said the doctor. "And then your husband will change, too.” She had never considered such a scenario. Aiko looked into the doctor’s eyes, which again narrowed into threads. "Not just your husband. I'm certain other men will notice, too," he said, with a slightly lurid smile.

Aiko’s heart pulsed a little faster. She recalled when she was younger, not yet sullied by the world. Would those days be brought back to her?

“What husband would be angry at his wife for making herself beautiful? When he compliments you on how beautiful you've become, you can tell him about the surgery then."

Yes, thought Aiko. She would be telling her husband after the fact, of course, so she wouldn't necessarily be keeping secrets. But how would she explain the cost of the surgery?

“How about taking that next step? You've at least had the chance to hear your options thanks to your daughter, but if you hesitate now, you're right back where you started." The director leaned back in his chair and smiled.

One million three hundred thousand yen. How was she going to explain where she had that kind of money? What if she told him that she’d been putting away what she could all these years for a facelift? But how? A secret nest egg? No. She didn't want to risk the chance of her other nest eggs being discovered because of a half-baked explanation.

“Well, Mrs. Takeda?” said the director, glancing up at the wall clock. The consultation fee was 5,000 yen per half hour. They'd already been talking for over forty minutes.  But what they were discussing was a surgical procedure—cosmetic surgery, but surgery nevertheless. Was it wise to make such a decision so hastily? Perhaps she'd better think through her options at home.

“Oh, and another thing—” said the director, shifting in his chair. “We've developed a cutting-edge technique called 'The Arai Method' that you won't see used anywhere else. Our motto here is: painless, speedy, and beautiful. As I explained to you earlier, we begin by completely eliminating our patients’ fears and pain, such as with anesthetics for anesthetic injections. Perhaps you'd like to visit some other clinics and see for yourself. I doubt you’ll find the director of a clinic who is willing to counsel patients himself.”

Aiko nodded noncommittally. The director seemed to be misreading the reason for Aiko's indecision.

“Furthermore, I believe 1,300,000 yen, all-inclusive, is a reasonable price. I understand that some clinics are surprisingly cheap, sometimes charging as little as 500,000 yen. Those places can’t be trusted.”

“. . . oh?”

“On the other hand, some clinics charge as much as 20,000,000.  With the ‘Arai Method,’ we don’t gouge our customers the way those other places do.”

“I see.”

“You happened to come here today because of your daughter. But let’s say you go home and decide to do nothing. Years later, you may come to regret it, but the opportunity will have passed. Our only wish is for women like yourself to go on living beautiful and vibrant lives.”

Aiko consented. Though the doctor's persistence had certainly swayed her decision, in the end, she simply couldn't resist the temptation. She asked him to wait on scheduling the surgery until she could check her husband's schedule. However, the doctor countered that they should at least get the presurgery tests out of the way first.

“We do have our own schedule to consider," he said. "We take great time and care with these consultations, not to mention we're quite busy with surgical appointments."

Then he opened an appointment book and asked if Aiko was available on Wednesday. Having no schedule to speak of, Aiko answered with a polite nod.  She left the doctor’s office, feeling a strange mix of hope and unease.

Aiko found her daughter sitting in the waiting room. “Well, how did it go?" Aiko asked.

Grinning, Minako answered that the surgery was over in no time and that she didn't feel a thing.

After Aiko paid for Minako's procedure and her own consultation, the receptionist said, "See you next week," as they left the clinic. With the early summer sun beginning to set, the streets were flooded with people, as usual, many of them young folk already walking around in midsummer fashions.

“That's what I'm going to be wearing soon," chirped Minako, glancing sideways at a girl in colorful pants with what looked like a bikini top or bra.

How obscene, thought Aiko, but she said nothing, her head filled with thoughts of her own facelift.

“What about you, Mom? What are you going to do?” Minako asked as they boarded the Inokashira Line train. Aiko tilted her head.  “You’re doing it, aren’t you?” said Minako, after looking her mother dead in the eyes.

Aiko let out a deep sigh and answered, "Yeah, I guess I am."

“Whoa! Gutsy move, Mom!”

“—Really?”

“And Dad can't find out about this, right?”

“Well, I doubt we can keep it from him. One look at me and he's bound to find out.”

Gripping the straps overhead, mother and daughter stood side by side and continued their conversation in a whisper. Aiko explained how she planned to tell Minako’s father after she'd had the surgery, to which Minako grimaced and said, “Uh-huh. I guess that's one way to do it.”

Aiko felt cross with the conspiratorial way her daughter looked at her, but a bit bashful and happy at the same time. Soon I’ll be rejuvenated. I’ll have the kind of youthful skin that can't be achieved at a day spa. The thought alone made her heart race. It was enough to make her giddy with joy.

 2

Aiko’s husband spent much of the year away on business. Several days after her consultation and before Aiko had much time to worry, he told Aiko of a weeklong trip to various regional branches.

“A week?”

“Maybe longer," said Takeda. "I've been asked to play golf that Saturday and Sunday. I’ll probably take the first flight back on Monday and go straight to the bank from the airport.”

“So you’ll be back Monday the earliest.”

“That’s about right.”

Offering her usual platitudes about how hard he worked, Aiko gazed at his back, as he changed out of his clothes. You’re in for quite a surprise  next week. So absorbed was Aiko with imagining her rejuvenated self that she felt none of the guilt that she had initially anticipated. Minako's navel procedure was nothing compared to the surgery she was about to have. She felt a vague delight just thinking about it. Aiko had been squirreling away cash, even as she'd promised never to keep secrets. Regardless of the reason, there was no denying now that she was concealing something from her husband.

“This is a big step for you, Mom,” said Aiko's older daughter.

“Not you too, Chiharu,” Aiko said.

“I'm just saying," said Chiharu with an amused look. "I didn't think you had it in you." Then she assured her mother that she knew how to keep her mouth shut, unlike someone else she knew, that her secret was safe. And so, with the full-throated support of her daughters, Aiko made a surgical appointment on the same day that her husband would leave. She would be lying if she didn't admit feeling some anxiety.  But Dr. Arai spoke to her politely and with great care during the lab work and presurgical massage to try to smooth away her fears.

“You’ll feel a prick for just a second. Good, now breathe out and relax.”

Thus began Aiko’s surgery on the very day she saw Takeda off. The procedure was scheduled to take two and a half hours. Aiko lay on the operating table, listening to the same ambient music playing in the waiting area, and imagined herself instantly younger upon sitting up.

“There, you see? No bleeding.” Dr. Arai spoke to her occasionally, as the surgery went on. “Everything all right? We’re nearly halfway through.”

What must my face look like now? Aiko couldn’t imagine what her face might look like with the skin peeled away. Thanks to the local anesthesia, she felt no pain while remaining lucid.

“What did I tell you, Mrs. Takeda? You’re going to be beautiful." Dr. Arai began to talk in her ear just as she wondered if the worst of it was over. "If we could do something about your sagging eyelids, that would really take years off. More than ten years—a dozen or more years at least.”

Eyelids? Come to think of it, I suppose you can't tighten the skin on the eyelids in the same way you can stretch the skin tighter across the face.

“If we also removed some of the fat under the chin, you’d be perfect. You were very beautiful from the start, Mrs. Takeda. It’s a pleasure working on a face as beautiful as yours.”

Listening as she did to Dr. Arai's flattery, Aiko emerged from the surgery ten minutes over schedule.

According to the director, the swelling would go down in three days. But five days had passed and the swelling on Aiko’s face had still not subsided. Her entire face, marked by dark bruises, felt faintly feverish and itchy.

“Don't worry, these things vary with every patient." Dr. Arai made the same assurances every couple of days when she visited the clinic. "The incision lines look fantastic. Your recovery may take longer if you worry, so it's best you keep telling yourself that you'll be better and more beautiful soon."

But what if the pain and swelling doesn't go away? When she thought about her husband’s imminent return, she could hardly relax. Nevertheless the discomfort gradually dissipated as if the layers of skin were being peeled away one by one.

On the day of her husband's return, the dressings and bandages came off and Aiko saw her face in the mirror for the first time.

“There, how lovely.”

“They’re gone.” Aiko stared in the mirror and felt as if she were dreaming. The age lines along the sides of her mouth and around her eyes had disappeared. Her sagging cheeks were now firm. Letting out a deep sigh, she continued to gaze at her face, until Dr. Arai asked how she liked it. Moved beyond words, Aiko could only nod.

Since she'd already made a deposit, she paid for the remaining 1,000,000 yen and it was done. Aiko bounded down the early-summer streets of Shibuya as if her whole body had been rejuvenated. Though the wind felt muggy and far from refreshing, even that made her irrepressibly happy. After all, the dry air was the skin’s worst enemy. This humid wind would only smooth her skin all the more.

She found herself putting on an affected air, wondering whether someone might stop to take notice and recognize her youthful beauty She desperately wanted to stop by the department store and buy a new outfit. She wanted to admire her younger self, alone in the fitting room. But her husband would return today. Having felt sluggish since the surgery, she had neglected her household duties. She would have to clean the house and prepare an elaborate dinner. And then she would witness her husband’s shock. Fighting back temptation, Aiko picked up only the necessary groceries and hurried home.

“Wow, Mom, way to go!”

“Your skin looks so smooth!”

Minako and Chiharu came home from school and took turns peering into Aiko's face. Standing in the usual kitchen wearing her usual clothes, Aiko felt alive in a way she'd not felt since the girls were little.

“Let’s not tell your father until he notices first.”

“Well, of course he's going to notice.”

"Yes, but you know . . ." Aiko shot her daughters a mischievous look, as she prepared dinner.

The girls nodded, smiling. “Dad's going to be blown away.”

Just as the meal was prepared, the doorbell rang. Although Takeda was rarely home for dinner, he usually returned early enough from his business trips. Minako went to meet him at the door. Aiko checked to see if anything was missing from the dinner table and casually fixed her hair.

She heard Minako greet her father at the door, followed by "Thanks!" She smiled, figuring Minako had been handed a souvenir. Before long, the tired figure of her husband stood in the dining room doorway. Seeing dinner already set out and Chiharu seated at the table, he grunted his surprise.

“Welcome home," said Aiko. "We’ve been waiting for you.”

He gave a satisfied nod and went upstairs to change out of his clothes. Aiko’s heart sank a little. Maybe he’d been too far away.

Takeda sat down at the table and opened the evening newspaper.

“Would you like some beer?”

He grunted in his usual way from the other side of the paper.

Aiko brought out a bottle and offered to pour the beer. He folded the newspaper, held out his glass, and looked up at Aiko standing over him.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

In an instant, her heart began to pound. Oh, I haven’t felt this way in years! In decades! “What do you mean?" she asked.

“You’re being awfully attentive today.”

Aiko smiled and poured the beer. Her husband’s attention was unmistakably focused on her face. Notice, please! Tell me that I’m beautiful! Setting the beer bottle on the table, she shifted her gaze at her husband, but he had already looked away. She glanced at her disappointed daughters, who'd been waiting expectantly to glimpse their father’s reaction. Aiko sat back down, not knowing where to bury her newly revived excitement. “Well, shall we eat?” Aiko fell silent, thinking the dinner rather pointless if her husband was not going to notice, and for her daughters, too.

The dinner went on in awkward silence, until finally, Minako blurted out, “Dad."

“What?" he said, looking up from his rice bowl.

“Don’t you think there's something different about Mom?”

He regarded Aiko’s face as he chewed. Tilting his head to the side, he said, "Well…" Aiko's heart began to pound. “Now that you mention it—”

Yes, don’t I look younger? Like I did in the past?

“You look like you put on some weight.”

Aiko was dumbfounded. Her daughters, too, sat slack-jawed in disbelief.

“Over-snacking between meals, I bet. What happened to that dance school?”

“I stopped going," muttered Aiko. ”Someone there isn't very nice."

“Again? You're perfectly fine speaking up for yourself at home," he sneered. "That’s why you never stick with any of your hobbies.”

Suddenly, Aiko felt heartbroken, and at the same time, she sensed the anger beginning to boil in the pit of stomach. There had to be something more he noticed. To begin with, she had quit dance lessons six months ago. Why would he mention such a thing and not notice the transformation so plainly in front of him?

Takeda went about asking his daughters several questions, to which the girls mumbled some listless answers so as not provoke rebuke. The dinner went on quietly and after he slurped down his tea, Takeda announced that he was tired and left the table. All he would do now was take a bath and retire to the bedroom.

“I wonder why he didn’t notice.”

“Maybe Dad’s never really looked at her face before.”

Aiko had no answers for her daughters. Only a bitter feeling of betrayal began to swell inside her.

 3

A day passed. And then a week, but Aiko's husband had not noted the change in her appearance. As peeved as she was at first, Aiko was soon confronted with a new worry: perhaps she didn't look as young as she felt. If that were the case, she would have to attempt a more drastic change. Aiko promptly decided to fix her sagging eyelids. This particular surgery, unlike the first, would be shorter and cost only 300,000 yen. She made an appointment on a day her husband was leaving on business, as before, and returned to the clinic.

“Too much off the lower lids will look strange, but you'll see quite a difference with the upper lids alone," said Dr. Arai, snipping away the excess folds of her eyelids. "Now, if we sucked out the fat from under the chin, the double chin will be gone and you'll have a much prettier jawline."

Several days later, Aiko’s sad, sleepy eyes were round and double-lidded just like when she was young.

“You’re sure beginning to look like I remember you when you were young," her daughters took turns telling her, gazing at an old photo album. Yet her husband still failed to take notice. Only once did he ask if she had changed her makeup. However, the remark that followed was what irritated Aiko more:

“I guess, at this point, makeup wouldn’t make a difference.”

Just how ugly did he think she was? What husband could remain so oblivious to the changes in his wife of twenty years, a wife who'd borne him two children? Fine. Then I'll just have to get rid of the double chin. Aiko no longer wavered. In fact, by the end of the summer, she was practically defiant.

The standard method of liposuction was to break up the excess fat with ultrasound. It was on this visit to the clinic that Dr. Arai revealed that, of all the procedures offered at the clinic, liposuction was his specialty. “We make an incision and suck out the broken up fat cells through a tiny tube. The incision is very small, about five millimeters.”

The procedure would cost 350,000 yen. Aiko went straight to the bank and made a withdrawal from the nest egg that had taken years to save. Even though money could not really buy back her youth, it was money well spent if she could at least regain her youthful look.

By the time the weather began to cool, Aiko had acquired her new face, and the neighbors and mothers of Minako’s classmates began to take notice.

“I’ve seen you around town. You’re looking young.”

“Don't you look lovely.”

Every time Aiko heard such praises, she felt as if she were walking on air. One housewife even whispered in confidence, “You're not in love, are you?” Why was her husband the only one who hadn’t recognized the changes? She began to resent the man who noticed nothing and said nothing. Jackass! Just how clueless and thickheaded can you be? When she thought about how she'd looked after the household, having to ask his permission for the tiniest of matters, she wanted to scream.

Around the same time, Chiharu spoke up about wanting to alter her face. "You know the desperate situation I'm in. I have to find a job by this time next year, and the employment outlook for women isn't going get better."

With regard to Chiharu's employment, Aiko had asked her husband to put in a good word at the bank. However, Chiharu’s first choice was with a media-related company. She insisted that even if she managed to land an employment exam through a connection, first impressions were crucial at the interview. Which was why she wanted to fix the single-lidded eyes passed onto her from her father and the button nose inherited from her mother. Aiko grimaced. What Chiharu was proposing wasn't like altering a concealed area like the navel or like defying age like Aiko. In fact, she was opting to change a feature that resembled her mother's. Aiko couldn't help feeling as if her own face were being criticized. Nevertheless, Chiharu had already made up her mind, and given that Aiko had been under the knife several times these past several months, it was difficult for her to say no to a daughter whose future was at stake.

“But even your father will notice those kinds of changes,” said Aiko.

“Why don't we try it and find out?” cajoled Chiharu.

“But there's still some work I need done. Dr. Arai suggested that we remove the fat around my stomach, thighs, and arms.”

“No fair! You're the only one getting prettier! Aren’t you the least bit worried for your daughter’s future?”

The truth was Aiko's nest egg was nearly down to zero. The liposuction for the areas she was considering alone would cost two million yen, which was reason enough to have second thoughts. But when she considered Chiharu’s future and her own, she had to consider her daughter’s first. In addition, Chiharu pleaded that she would pay back the cost of her surgeries in installments after she found a job.

In the end, Aiko accompanied Chiharu to Arai Clinic the following week. Conducting the consultation was a predictably young doctor named Nakao, whom Aiko had not seen before.

“The eyes won’t be too difficult, but the nose—might be best to bring in the nostrils and make the nose a little bit higher so we retain the overall balance of your face," said Dr. Nakao, drawing a picture as he explained. To Aiko's surprise, Chiharu specified the desired size of her eyes and the width of her double eyelids, as well as the height of her nose, down to the millimeter. “It means that your daughter has a clear image of what she’d like, which is always preferable to the alternative," reassured the doctor. "It’s the women that don't that worry me."

Although the doctor didn’t have an expressive face, he sounded sincere enough. It was decided Chiharu would have the surgery in three days. The cost for both procedures was 600,000 yen—a sum that would clean out Aiko's nest egg completely. But Aiko had already decided; if her savings was gone, she would simply dissolve another fixed-term deposit account. After all, who was going to notice? As much as her husband liked to say that he "trusted" her with all household matters, this was far from trust. It was neglect.

Three days later, against Chiharu's objections, Aiko accompanied her daughter back to the clinic. The surgery lasted roughly an hour. Afterward, the eyelids were treated with ice for half an hour to reduce swelling, and it was over.

“Don't you worry, it’ll take a month to heal completely. Your mother knows the drill, so you’re in good hands.” The heavily made-up receptionist flashed her usual artificial smile. Aiko smiled back at the woman, with whom she had become friendly over her many visits. The woman, whose features looked more European than Japanese, revealed that she had altered her eyes and nose, and shaved the chin bone to make her face thinner. After Aiko paid for Chiharu's surgery, her nest egg was gone.

As a week passed into ten days, the swelling gradually receded from Chiharu's face. Once she had completely healed, the question became: When would her father notice? He had been working late and had barely seen the family in weeks. Two weeks after Chiharu's surgery, however, he decided to forgo golf and spend a rare Saturday at home.

“Your father has the day off today. You girls hurry home tonight,” Aiko told her daughters over breakfast before her husband had awakened.

“But I have plans tonight,” said Minako, whose clothes had become more revealing since the navel surgery. The teen was getting calls at night and staying out late.

“Don't say that, please. And you too, Chiharu," Aiko said, turning to her older daughter, whose new face took some getting used to at first. "This is your chance to show him your new look. Just be back by dinner time.”

“What if Dad notices?” Even Chiharu couldn’t hide her anxiety.

Aiko was amazed by how much more animated Chiharu's face seemed when she widened her eyes or looked down. Her higher, narrow nose also seemed to make her look more refined. “Well, of course, he will. But the surgery was your decision, so you're going to have to talk to him yourself. I'll help you smooth things over with him, all right?"

Even if he did not notice Aiko's, he would have to notice Chiharu’s transformation. How would he react when he does? Would he yell or be struck speechless?

Aiko spent a quiet Saturday with her husband, who spent the better part of the day holed up in his study, at times going out in the yard to gaze idly at the garden. Although they shared a late breakfast, a light lunch, and afternoon tea, her husband appeared not to notice any change in his wife. Aiko wanted to enjoy a proper conversation with her husband the way couples do. If he would only notice, she might be able to do just that, maybe even tell him about Chiharu’s surgery to soften the blow. But his gaze was always turned to the television, newspapers, or the window. When he did speak up, what came out of his mouth were threatening forecasts about the economy and how it was only going to get worse for the banks.

After they'd spent the entire day together, the man had failed to notice any change in his own wife. Aiko was filled with disgust. It wasn’t that he was busy, she finally realized. He simply didn't have any interest in her. I always believed that he was the center of my life, the center of this family. But their marriage was nothing more than a sham. Suddenly, Aiko recalled the very first consultation with Dr. Makabe. The young doctor had told her that the navel wasn’t at all vital to the body—that despite being located in the middle of the abdomen, it was useless, nothing more a scar.

As the day faded into evening, Aiko’s husband came out of the study to read the mail and asked for a cup of tea. Aiko poured boiling water into the teapot and muttered, “You are the belly button of the family.”

Saying nothing, he shot her a disapproving look for stating such an obvious truth. Aiko despised him for his ignorance. She realized for the first time that she had married an idiot.

At dinner, Aiko’s husband failed to notice the change in Chiharu.

“Anything new with you?” he asked his older daughter.

Chiharu glanced at Aiko and answered that she was getting ready to go on the job hunt.

“Good,” he said, and nodded, saying nothing more. Until a short while ago, such an attitude had been reassuring to Aiko; she had thought that the added girth that came with middle age even lent him an air of dignity. She was convinced now that it was all nothing more than a put-on.

If that was the case, what obligation did Aiko have to fret over a mere belly button? Aiko stared at this loathsome man as he yawned repeatedly as soon as he'd finished dinner and retreated to the bedroom for the night.

 4

 As the end of the year approached, Aiko’s husband went on more business trips and grew even busier with the start of the new year. The lines carved between his brows growing deeper by the day, he stopped talking not only to Aiko but to his daughters. It seemed he was facing difficulty at work. Given the financial turmoil in recent years, apparently the banks were bracing for another Big Bang. No matter what she said to him, such as “Try not to work too hard," he gave his usual empty response.

Aiko's husband habitually said that he would never bring his work home, so Aiko needn't worry about anything but looking after the house. If that was what her husband wanted, then Aiko was only happy to oblige. Ultimately, this man lived in an entirely different space and time and had little interest in Aiko or his growing children.

Spring gave way to the start of the rainy season. Since Minako wasn’t yet home, Aiko and Chiharu ate dinner together on evening and chatted about their plans.

“I’m going to see a play with a friend tomorrow," said Aiko. "Would you mind lending me one of your dresses? "

“Then can I borrow that suit you bought the other day?” asked Chiharu.

“For what?

“A date. With a businessman, so I want to look mature.”

Suddenly, the sound of the rain hammering the roof of the house grew louder.

“It’s really starting to come down," said Aiko, now looking young enough to be mistaken for Chiharu's sister.

The doorbell rang. Did Minako beat the rain home? Aiko went to the door.

"Oh—" There stood her husband, his shoulders dripping wet. “You’re early.”

It wasn’t even nine yet. He swayed and staggered in through the door, smelling of alcohol. How am I going to explain Minako not being home yet?

Takeda had sat down on the foyer step, slumped over with his elbows on his knees. She had never seen him so drunk. For a moment, Aiko could do little but stare down at him, until she heard a groan:

“I’m done. I—I can’t do it anymore . . .”

An inexplicable shiver ran down her spine. What did he say? Never had Aiko heard such an admission of weakness from her husband.

“Who is it? Dad—?” said Chiharu, peering out from the living room. Aiko turned to her daughter and shrugged. “Is he sleeping? Is he OK?”

“I think he’s drunk," said Aiko.

Takeda remained slumped over, perfectly still. Aiko wondered how they were going to carry him upstairs, when the doorbell rang a second time. Quickly, she pushed open the unlocked door.

“It’s really pouring out there!” Minako burst in giggling, her hair dripping wet. A humid wind blew in, dampening the doorway.

Takeda groaned and raised his head.  Letting out a heavy sigh, he slowly opened his eyes as if they were very heavy, and tried to focus them. For several moments, there was a strange silence. His eyes wandered feebly until they found Aiko, Minako, and Chiharu over his shoulder.  “Sorry, I didn't know we had guests," he said.  “Are you friends of Chiharu? Or Minako?”

Surrounded by his wife, so much younger and thinner now she was unrecognizable, his scantily dressed younger daughter, and his sharply featured older daughter, he moaned, “Excuse me—” Then he slumped over again. “My wife, would you mind getting my wife?”

Chiharu stood behind him, dumbstruck. Not knowing how to answer, Aiko could only stare.

“Please, I’m so tired. I can’t seem to stand up.”

Minutes later, he began to snore loudly. Surrounded by his family, Aiko’s husband would never wake up again.

From Bødy,  forthcoming from Vertical Books. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.