In provincial towns, the hotel staff usually slides the hometown paper under the door in the morning. Unfamiliar with local news, most guests from cities barely glance through the main sections. But when your business meeting has gone well, and you wake up invigorated after a pleasant night of drinking, it’s a different story. Perhaps because you feel a certain fondness for your host town and begin to feel attached, you want to read the paper from cover to cover.
That’s exactly the way Mr. Iwasaki felt that morning. After taking a shower, he lay on the bed with a cigarette in his mouth and perused the local paper. He was in a prefectural capital in Shikoku, a provincial town facing the Pacific Ocean.
Mr. Iwasaki was a well-known graphic designer. He had come from Tokyo, hired by a large hotel that was set to open in the town. Now fifty, he had steadily built his career for the last twenty-six years. His firm now employed thirty workers and was located in the heart of Tokyo. He was in charge of publicity for the new hotel. He woke up feeling refreshed, having enjoyed a party hosted by its management the night before.
After he read every page of his paper, he went back to the announcements section he had briefly glanced at earlier. There he found a photo slightly smaller than a business card.
Mr. Iwasaki jumped out of bed and grabbed the case for his glasses from the night table. He stood by the window and put on his reading glasses, which he rarely used. The morning rays of the April sun shone into his room.
The photo was of his ex-wife, whom he had divorced twenty-three years earlier. The daringly short hair, slender body, and oval face—she hadn’t changed a bit. Photographed together with an elderly man and a young woman, she was tall for a Japanese woman.
“It must be her,” he mumbled. “I heard she had remarried, but didn’t know she lived in this town.” As he went over the article carefully, his conviction was confirmed. Her last name was different, but her first name was the same. The man next to her was her husband, the director of a large hospital in town. As he read further, he was surprised. Judging from her name, the young woman smiling between the couple was his own daughter, whom he had left more than twenty years earlier.
The article reported that the young woman was having her first exhibition at a local gallery. Having participated in a few juried exhibitions, the woman, a twenty-four-year-old graduate of an art college in Osaka, was touted as an up-and-coming painter. The photo was taken at the opening reception, as her parents congratulated the young artist. In the bright morning light, Mr. Iwasaki felt slightly dizzy, his heart pounding.
When he and his wife separated, Mr. Iwasaki was twenty-seven and had recently opened his own graphic design firm. His wife was twenty-six and had given birth to a baby girl eighteen months earlier. Perhaps because they married just out of college, they still felt like students.
Looking back now, Mr. Iwasaki thought that their marriage ended because they were young and inexperienced—they had rushed to get married against their respective parents’ will in the first place because of their youth and inexperience.
After he opened his office in Shibuya, Mr. Iwasaki found it troublesome to go home to the apartment in the suburbs, where his wife and child waited. He had originally rented a workplace away from home because he couldn’t get his work done with a fretting baby in the room. He worked frantically and didn’t mind burning the midnight oil.
He was also reluctant to go home for another reason entirely: he enjoyed social evenings after work, discussing new design ideas over drinks with his workmates. He lived for those moments, which gave him the energy to throw himself into his work.
As Mr. Iwasaki began to live like a bachelor, young women flocked to him. Soon he became intimate with a few of them. He started avoiding his family even more. Using work as an excuse, he often stayed away from home for days at a time. The couple quarreled ceaselessly.
One day, when he went home after a long absence, he found the apartment empty. His wife had gone back to her parents’ house in Osaka with their baby. When he went after them, his in-laws thrust divorce papers into his hands. “She wants you out of her life. We’ll look after the baby. If you agree to a divorce, we won’t ask for alimony or child support,” her parents said. They also told him to leave their daughter and grandchild alone.
Having taken back their daughter from the son-in-law they disliked, her parents were elated, leaving no room for discussion. Mr. Iwasaki sensed that his wife was resolute in her decision not to see him.
“I won’t tolerate infidelity of this kind. You’ve humiliated me enough already. I’ll never forgive you,” she spat out, trembling, when she had got wind of his affairs. She glared at him as if he were dirty laundry.
Remembering her sharp words, he hung his head and signed the divorce papers.
Mr. Iwasaki canceled his return flight. He called his office in Tokyo and rescheduled all of the day’s appointments. He was surprised not only to find that his daughter lived in the town, but that she had followed in his footsteps. He felt the strong tie of his blood relationship with her.
Five years after his divorce, at thirty-two, he had married a fellow designer. The couple were blessed with two sons, who were now in middle school and high school. They liked music, but had no interest in painting. Mr. Iwasaki was excited to learn that his daughter shared his interest in visual arts.
Mr. Iwasaki left his hotel, waiting for the gallery to open. The front desk told him it was ten minutes on foot. The gallery was on the first floor of an elegant building. For a moment he hesitated. “I may bump into my ex-wife,” he thought. In the cold-looking glass door, he saw his reflection—a middle-aged man with a bemused look on his face. “She hasn’t changed much, but I’ve put on twenty kilos since I last saw her,” he thought. “My hairline has receded considerably. She wouldn’t recognize me with my glasses on.”
The door slid open silently. The interior was more spacious than it looked from the outside, about thirty tsubo. As it was still early in the day, visitors were sparse.
Inside, three women stood around talking. Judging from her figure, the one in the middle had to be his ex-wife. Calming his beating heart, he put on his glasses.
About forty oil paintings covered the walls. The artist used light, warm colors, largely green and yellow, depicting young girls and little animals. The paintings warmed the viewer’s heart.
When he stood before the third painting, of a girl with a flower-brimmed hat, Mr. Iwasaki felt tears welling up inside. “She’s trying to create the same world as I did when I was young. She’s my daughter, after all,” he thought, his chest tightening.
As he viewed the sixth painting, which depicted a girl and a puppy on the beach, he felt someone’s gaze on his back. As he moved toward the next painting, he saw his ex-wife’s reflection in the framing glass. Ready to face her, he slowly folded his arms.
When he stood before the twelfth painting, of a girl with a white ribbon in her hair, Mr. Iwasaki heard his ex-wife behind him. She still had a soprano voice as she did years ago. “I’m going out to meet them. I’ll be back in half an hour,” she told the other two. As she passed behind him, a faintly familiar perfume wafted over him.
When he reached the last wall, the two women dodged out of his way. He nodded and looked at them. He immediately recognized his daughter—a round-faced woman with cool eyes. He thought she still had the features she possessed as a baby. She looked like him.
“This is her. This is my daughter.” As he turned toward the painting, Mr. Iwasaki felt a knot in his throat. His heart began to throb wildly, and a cold sweat broke out on the back of his neck. “I may not get another chance to talk to her. ‘I’m your father. I’ve never forgotten you.’ That’s all I need to say. It’s only awkward at first.” As he repeated those words inside his head, he walked toward the center of the wall, and then stopped in front of a painting.
Even though it was similar in color and tone, the painting of a girl holding a doll was different from any of the others. A young girl of five or six filled the canvas, her wide-open eyes staring squarely at the viewer. Unlike the girls in the other paintings, she showed no tenderness.
The clown in the girl’s arms looked familiar. If he remembered correctly, his ex-wife had made the raggedy doll for the girl’s first birthday. If so, the painting was a self-portrait. The girl’s eyes seemed to ask: “How can you claim to be my father? Where have you been all these years?” Mr. Iwasaki felt like the girl saw through him. He sighed and moved through the rest of the exhibition.
After seeing the last painting, he went to the reception desk. “I’d like to purchase the painting in the middle of the last wall. Yes, the one of a girl with a doll.” He paid for the painting and wrote down his contact information, using his assistant’s name and his company’s address. After finishing the transaction, he went back to the wall. He wanted to take a look at his daughter once more while pretending to examine the painting he had purchased.
“Well, thank you for purchasing my painting,” the young woman said from behind him. Her voice was cheerful. Mr. Iwasaki slowly turned around. She introduced herself, looking slightly nervous.
Mr. Iwasaki smiled and nodded. “You make wonderful paintings. I like how you use warm colors.”
“Thank you. This painting is one of my favorites, even though she looks a bit scary.”
“Is that so?”
“I’m glad someone other than my parents’ friends bought a painting.” She suddenly lowered her voice and laughed. “They’ve bought my paintings out of obligation,” she said, carefree.
“That’s not true. Your paintings are truly fascinating. I’m certain they’ve bought them because they liked them.”
Her eyes sparkled, and she clasped her hands together as if in prayer. Mr. Iwasaki noticed a sapphire ring on her left hand, and remembered that she was born in September.
The young woman looked down at her ring and blushed. “Yes. I’m getting married in October.”
“Congratulations. I hope you keep painting after you’re married.”
“Yes, I intend to.”
There were so many things he wanted to ask her, but he couldn’t. The sound of voices drifted from the direction of the entrance. His ex-wife came back with five or six guests.
The young woman smiled at Mr. Iwasaki and whispered, “Excuse me.” Giving him a friendly smile, she headed toward the entrance.
Mr. Iwasaki closed his eyes as if to burn her image into his mind. Then he looked at the paintings again as he walked slowly toward the entrance. The new guests passed him as they moved further into the gallery.
Just as he was about to step outside, he heard his daughter behind him. When he turned back, he noticed the mother and daughter standing apart from the others and looking at him. “Thank you very much,” his daughter said, slightly bowing. Next to her, his ex-wife watched him with a tender smile. She seemed to nod in acknowledgment. Her expression told him that she clearly recognized him.
With his right hand slightly raised, he went outside. As he strode briskly down the paved path, he had tears trickling down his cheeks in spite of himself. He wiped his face with his sleeve like a child.
When he reached the street corner, he finally looked back. Just as he expected, his ex-wife stood alone in front of the gallery. She gave him a polite bow.
You did a great job of raising her—that was all he wanted to tell her. He stood still for a while, looking at his ex-wife in the distance. Then instead of speaking, he bowed deeply before turning around.
©Ryuichiro Utsumi. Translation © 2014 by Toshiya Kamei. All rights reserved.