Kaori Fujino has written a short story about a female friendship for Granta, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori:
For my best friend’s wedding present, I sent her a potted sansevieria. I compared product photos and prices online, selected one within my budget, addressed it to her new apartment, and hit send. I thought a leafy plant would be a more thoughtful gift than crockery or towels.
I called her soon after.
‘Did you get it?’
‘Yes, thank you! I love it – hope it’s okay, though.’
I knew what she meant. She was the only one in our class who’d failed to grow a hyacinth bulb in water, and she’d even made a cactus rot. The reason I’d chosen a sansevieria out of all the many leafy plants was, shall we say, out of consideration. The shop blurb said the sansevieria was stronger and easier to look after than any other plant, and on top of that it produced negative ions thereby improving indoor air quality, making it the perfect gift. ‘Stronger and easier to look after than any other plant’: that meant even she’d be able to care for it. She wasn’t a child any more after all, not by a long stretch – and she was married, to boot. There had been times when I thought she’d probably never marry, but she did. In which case she should at least be able to care for one of these.
I didn’t tell her that.
‘It’ll be fine,’ I said simply, full of affection for her. ‘The instruction leaflet was enclosed, right? Make sure you read it.’
‘Oh, hang on a sec. Ryo wants to say thank you too.’
The sound of her breathing receded, and her husband exhaled into my ear.
‘Hey, how are you?’ he said cheerfully. ‘Thanks for the wedding reception.’
He was referring to the fact I gave a speech on behalf of the bride’s friends. I put a lot of effort into it, feeling all warm and fuzzy as I rediscovered so many memories of her. They all sparkled, like a little brook. Everything that happened between us, the things she said, the things I said, were all washed away out of reach, leaving only the freshness of crystal clear water. How was I to convey this modest joy, pleasantly cool yet still warm, to everyone there? In a corner of my mind I knew I was being condescending. And yes, I was disdainful of my friend. But this didn’t diminish my friendly feelings towards her. So I put my whole heart into giving the speech. I talked about how gentle and kind she was, how serious and candid and unaffected. I really like my friend. I always did, and I still do.
My friend’s husband laughed and said he would make sure she didn’t let my gift die. My friend came back on the line.
‘You okay for time?’ That’s what she always said when she wanted a long chat. I was okay for time. I was surprised she was, being newly married, but it was just like her really.
‘It’s fine, no problem. Ryo’s going to have a bath now.’
And so she started talking, just like she always did.
The subject was her husband. She discovered new things about him every day, she said. Occasionally she lowered her voice and spoke about amusing details with great relish: how she couldn’t contend with the grime on his shirt collar just by rubbing it with detergent and washing it; how he coughed up phlegm in the toilet twice a day; the dull, heavy smell of sweat that filled the bedroom after a sound night’s sleep; the appalling potency of his bad breath first thing in the morning. How he folded his pants neatly and put them away. How he was particular about which shampoo and conditioner he used. How he’d been upset that they didn’t sell his preferred products in the local drug store, so he’d ordered them online.
‘Isn’t it weird? It’s only shampoo and rinse – any would do, surely?
‘It’s conditioner,’ I corrected her. ‘Even you always use the one your mom chose, don’t you?’
‘I have to. My hair goes everywhere if I don’t.’
Whenever my friend stayed in hotels, she never touched the shampoo provided but instead lined up her own little refillable bottles on the edge of the bathtub. If I ever suggested she stayed over at my place, she would recoil and excuse herself in a small voice saying she hadn’t brought her shampoo with her.
‘I never knew men were fussy about that sort of thing. I always thought they were okay with using just shampoo and didn’t need rinse.’
‘Conditioner,’ I corrected her again.
‘Oh, right. So what’s the difference between conditioner and the rinse that I use?’
‘Yours is treatment.’
‘Oh, is that what it is?’
My friend’s voice suddenly brightened. ‘Hey, Ryo! Sure, I was just about to hang up.’ The words that came through her cell phone hadn’t been directed at me, but rather arrived as a ripple from her voice echoing throughout a large sealed room empty but for herself. Although her new home was a fifty-six square meter two-bedroom condo.
‘So, come and visit, won’t you?’ she said quickly.
‘Sure, I’ll visit. Sometime soon.’
I know her really very well. After all, she is my best friend. For example, it was obvious to me that she knew very little about her boyfriend when she married him, even after dating for seven years. All she’d known about him apart from his basic personal information was his taste in films, his taste in clothes, his taste in food, his taste in women – and most importantly what he liked about her and how much. She’s lacking in imagination and didn’t need to know any more. I knew, naturally, that there were sides to her boyfriend she didn’t know about, and that she wasn’t even aware she didn’t know about them.
I also knew all about their sex life. They hadn’t had sex at all during the last two years they were dating. They’d done it more frequently at the beginning of their relationship, but it had slowly died out. There were all kinds of reasons: he was busy with his work, or she had her period, or they preferred to go see a movie together rather than spend time cooped up in a bedroom, or there was an art exhibition they wanted to see, or they would go two hours by train to eat cake at a café featured in a magazine, or they’d arranged to go out with me or some other friend. I knew she was a little suspicious about it, and also that she was unhappy about it. But I also knew that she was convinced he wasn’t being unfaithful, that he was devoted only to her, and truly loved only her. And it was true. During those seven years, she had often invited me out to lunch with the two of them, and we’d also gone out together in a big group of friends to karaoke and barbecues. On those occasions I’d been able to casually sound him and his friends out, and I had to conclude that she was right. I was pretty good at that sort of thing – at ferreting out gossip, and seducing spoken-for men. He was clean. That was when I first thought my friend would probably marry him. It’d be more fun if it wasn’t the case, though.
I hoped she wouldn’t let the sansevieria die right away. I hoped there wouldn’t be an awkward situation with her feeling she’d wronged me by letting it dry out or rot.
It was rarely me who called her. It was always she who called.
‘You okay for time?’
‘Sure. How’s the sansevieria?’
‘It’s doing great!’ she said enthusiastically. ‘Even though I’ve only watered it twice since it arrived. I wanted to water it more, the poor thing, but Ryo said the instructions said not to water it too much so I forced myself to be patient. And it seems to like it like that. It’s really tough, isn’t it?’
‘Really? That’s great.’
‘Listen, you know what? Ryo still doesn’t do it.’
‘Doesn’t do what?’
‘Look I told you we hadn’t been doing it. For about two years.’
‘What? You are kidding me, right?’
But I wasn’t as surprised as I’d made out, and she wasn’t all that depressed about it either. She told me about how affectionate her husband was. He wants to hold hands even at home. He’s concerned when my friend has to work overtime and comes home late, and goes to the station to meet her. He won’t eat dinner until she comes home. He wants to eat with her, and will wait for hours. Dinner is almost always ready-made meals or easy-cook packets from the supermarket. My friend always lived at home so she can’t cook very well, and she doesn’t have time to practise. Her husband doesn’t complain at all, and just smiles. He can’t cook either. He lived alone for a long time so you’d have thought he would have learned how to, but my friend overlooks this point. In bed, they talk together. She has a lot to talk about and he hangs on to her every word, so that by the time they’ve finished talking they are both dead tired, and the atmosphere isn’t conducive to sex.
‘He’s a bit like a parent, I guess. No, he’s much more overprotective than a parent,’ she said happily. ‘Just when I thought I’d finally managed to get away from my parents, I go and marry a father figure. How tedious!’
I’d known that if she ever married it would be to a parental substitute.
‘When are you coming over?’ she asked. ‘Come while the sansevieria is still healthy.’
‘What about this Saturday?’
‘Sorry, it’s the company trip that day.’
‘Well, what about the following Saturday? Weekday evenings are fine too.’
‘I’ll try to work out my schedule.’