Natsuki double-checked the address on the ad in the free real estate magazine, 3 Bancho Nakano Building.
This was it. Unlike most other real estate agencies in Japan, there were no brightly colored flags outside advertising its location and there were no new listings posted outside for the casual passerby to look at. The only indication that it was there was the small little name plate bearing the name 'Sakamoto Real Estate - Third Floor'.
It wasn't that flashy stuff that had drawn Natsuki to this agent (aside from not actually having any, the building was appallingly dingy). It wasn't the listings in the free magazine (in fact, she wasn't even able to find a single listing by this place). It was the ad that had attracted her: "If the first place we show you isn't perfect, we'll pay the deposit no matter where you rent from."
Natsuki closed the magazine and put it in her non-designer purse, took out a tissue, and pushed the grimy up button. While she waited for the elevator to crawl its way down to her, she once again cursed her misfortune at being transferred. She begged and pleaded with her boss, but it had come down from the home office and was out of his control. What was done was done and she was going to have to do this sooner or later.
The elevator arrived and Natsuki slunk in. The doors rattled shut and the miserable girl felt like it was a sign of her fate being sealed. She wasn't the only person being transferred out of her office, but that didn't stop her from feeling singled out.
She regretted not going to a single office party, but it just wasn't in her. There was always someone who was a little too drunk, someone who was a little too forward, or someone who was too insistent on everyone going to karaoke. Or, the whole thing was just a bit too loud and Natsuki would wind up having a panic attack.
On top of that, there'd just always been so many. There was the annual end of year party, followed by the annual beginning of the year party. There was the Ohanami party, a picnic beneath the cherry blossoms. After that there was all sorts of celebratory parties for completing contracts or signing new ones or just the random team builder.
The ones that Natsuki dreaded turning down the most were the beer garden parties. All you the food can eat and all the beer and wine coolers you can drink sounded like fun, and Natsuki wished she was the type of person who could enjoy such things, but just the idea of sitting on top of a tall building surrounded by a hundred drunk people in a place called a beer garden was enough to cause her to hyperventilate.
With so many parties, Natsuki felt that at some point she'd come out of her shell and join in, but she hadn't even shown up to the farewell party cast in her honor.
Natsuki's heart leapt as the elevator jerked when it started its slow ascent. Even though she rode the shaky elevator up by herself, Natsuki felt crammed in; she noticed the capacity was six persons. She was barely able to make that out through all the stains that covered the walls. To make things worse, it reeked of cigarette smoke. Were people that inconsiderate that they'd smoke in such a tiny elevator Natsuki wondered?
The two signifying the second floor flickered on and the one finally faded out. Natsuki's leg started shaking in anticipation of getting out of the small death trap. Her movements sent vibrations through the elevator and made it shake even more. Forcing her leg still, Natsuki chewed on her lower lip. Her adrenaline-fueled heart worked overtime, and she could feel the blood gushing through it.
At last the floor bell chimed, and Natsuki jumped out as soon as the doors were open wide enough for her to get out with out making actual contact. The elevator deposited her directly into the real estate office.
In stark contrast to the rest of the building, the office was pristine. Freshly painted white walls seemed to glow in the fluorescent light shining down from the fixtures. Plants thrived in front of immaculately clean windows. There wasn't even a speck of dust on the floor.
A busty young woman smiled at Natsuki as she walked in. "Welcome!" she beamed.
Natsuki weakly smiled back. "Hi. I'm being transferred here in April and..."
"Oh, Goodie!" the girl cut her off. "How smart of you to come early! February and March are our busiest months with all the transfers in April. You know how companies all over Japan just send their employees everywhere. I'm so glad I work at this small place with Sakamoto-san. He's so nice. I don't know what I would do if I got transferred. This time of year it's like a war over the better apartments. Not that I would get transferred since this is our only office. I think it's a nice office. The outside is kind of icky and the elevator ... Anyway I work really hard to keep it nice and clean in here. That's what I do. I love to clean, but not as much as I love to file, if you know what I mean."
Natsuki just nodded in response. She reached into her bag and pulled out the listings magazine. "I saw your ad in this and it intrigued me," Natsuki said.
"Silly me! Here I am prattling away at you when you're here on business. Let me call my boss. He's so good at finding people the perfect place. He even found me mine. Sakamoto-san!"
A balding man came out from the partition behind the bubbly girl. His beer-belly rested on top of his belt and his stained tie followed the gentle swell. He gave Natsuki a big smile. Even at a distance, she could see the yellowing effect that countless cigarettes had had on his teeth.
He gestured for Natsuki to sit down at the counter and then sat down across from her. The once-bright room seemed to dim and become a spotlight illuminating her for the man's roaming eyes. She clutched her cheap purse to her chest and stared at the counter top. The polished surface twisted its clean appearance into an unwanted mirror. No matter where she looked, Natsuki couldn't avoid seeing his gaze.
"I'm Kenji Sakamoto," the man said and held out a business card for her.
Without looking up at him, Natsuki reached out two tentative hands and gingerly took the card between her thumbs and index fingers; the slightest of breeze would have knocked it out of her fingers. She wanted to just drop it on the counter, but not wanting to be rude, set it down on the counter in front of her and looked at it. She used it to break the reflective property of the counter.
Natsuki wasn't repulsed by how he looked; she was repulsed because he was a man. She didn't trust men. She didn't entirely trust women, either. She just tolerated them more.
She was used to the people she worked with and could speak to people over the phone, but if she was around any man she didn't know, all she could think of was running away. Sakamoto's slovenly appearance didn't help.
"So, looking for a new place to live?" He asked. His breath smelled of smoke and whatever garlicky substance he had been eating for lunch.
Natsuki nodded. He waited for her to say something. When she didn't, he said, "Okay," and handed her a piece of paper. "Please fill this out and we can get started."
He offered her a pen, but she took one out of her purse instead and started writing. It asked for her name and birth date, current address, contact information and current employer. There was also a short survey as to how she'd found the agency. After filling it out, she turned the paper towards Sakamoto, put her pen back in her purse, and clutched it to her chest.
The bubbly girl who had greeted Natsuki came over with a fresh cup of coffee and set it in front of her. Natsuki nodded her appreciation and the girl stepped back, hugging the service tray to her ample bosom.
Sakamoto had finished reading the paper and looked up at Natsuki. "So, you're an omizu, huh?"
Natsuki flared with anger, but before she could say anything, Sakamoto's assistant slapped him on the back, "No, silly! She's not a hostess. She'd a nice office lady who's being transferred!"
"Clearly, Akiko. I can tell by looking she's an OL," Sakamoto said, referring to Natsuki by the Japanese colloquialism. "It was just a joke." Sakamoto's red checks gave away the anger his tone hid. "I was just trying to lighten the mood here."
Akiko laughed. "I get it!"
Sakamoto rolled his eyes. "There's some filing I'd like you to do. Go to it."
Akiko's bright and smiley face lit up even more. "Really?! You mean it?" Natsuki did everything possible to repress her amazement that this bubbly girl somehow became even perkier...
"Yes! Go file!"
"Oh my god! I love filing!" Akiko turned and dashed around the partition.
"I'm sorry about my assistant, she's a little spacey sometimes, but she sure keeps this place clean."
Natsuki didn't respond. She wished she'd never come to this realty. Not only was he a man, he was repugnant and rude. She couldn't wait to reject whatever dive he showed her and get the deposit money the ad promised.
"I'd also like to apologize for my crass humor. I'm afraid I spent too much time in America and their sense of humor has rubbed off on me." His apology made Natsuki feel slightly better, but she still couldn't wait to be done with him.
"So, I see you found us through our ad. I can promise you, I'm as good as it says. I've never once had to pay out a deposit." Natsuki doubted it. It either meant he'd just started in this business or that he hadn't been offering it long.
.... There is more of this story ...