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.
"I've been in this business since I got back from America about 10 years ago, so I'm pretty good at knowing what people want. About three years in, a buddy of mine got tired of hearing me boast about how good I was and told me to put my money where my mouth was. Here I am, seven years later and still not a dime given."
Natsuki's gaze never left his card. «i»Well, someone's got to be the first«/i».
"And don't you go thinking you're going to be the first. I've got you pegged," he told her. "Let's see, Oh! I know where your company is and I've got a 1LDK pretty much on top of where you'll work."
1LDK? Natsuki wondered to herself.
"Oh, sorry. You're definitely not the moving type. I shouldn't just throw out all this real estate lingo. A 1LDK is a place where the living room, dining room, and kitchen are all one big room and then you've got another separate room for the bedroom. They're the best for single people. They're cheap and usually have air conditioning units pre-installed. 2DKs and up, most of them don't even have overhead light fixtures!"
A 1LDK sounded good to Natsuki.
"So, we're set on a 1LDK," Sakamoto said. Natsuki furrowed her brow. Sakamoto laughed, Natsuki winced as his foul breath washed over her. "Sorry if it seems like I'm reading your thoughts. I really am just that good. Anyway, like I was saying, it's really close to where you'll be working."
Maybe he was that good Natsuki thought. It sounded perfect. Stress she wasn't even aware of lifted off her shoulders. «i»If it was that close to where I would work it means that I won't have to spend as much time outside around people«/i».
"Shall we go see it?" Sakamoto asked. Natsuki nodded once in response.
"Okay then. Let me go get the keys." The real estate agent got up and headed to the other side of the partition. Natsuki sat by herself and sipped the coffee she'd been given. Now that Sakamoto wasn't there talking, Natsuki thought she could hear a vibrating sound and an occasional slight moan.
"Akiko," Sakamoto's voice came drifting in from the other side.
"Yesssss!" Akiko said.
"Akiko, I'm taking the client to see a place."
"Akiko. Akiko! Okay, you can keep filing. I'll turn the elevator off, but answer the phone if someone calls. Okay? Akiko? What are you going to do?"
"Answer the PHONE!" Akiko screamed.
Sakamoto reappeared around the corner with a smirk on his face. "Sorry, she just really does love filing. She says she just loves putting stuff where it belongs."
He walked over and pushed the button for the elevator. Natsuki waited behind him. The doors clattered open and Sakamoto reached behind her and put his hand on her arm too guide her forward. Natsuki instinctively jumped away from him. If Sakamoto noticed, he didn't show it.
The two got on the elevator and Natsuki tried her best to avoid touching Sakamoto or the walls, but the elevator was too small and she couldn't avoid brushing up against him. She felt like filth was infiltrating into her body, not only where their arms made contact, but also where he had touched her earlier.
Natsuki squeezed through the still-opening doors into the cool crisp air. Her arms pulsed where they'd been touched. Sakamoto strolled out of the elevator and had a cigarette lit before he was all the way out.
"My car's just over here," he said and gestured her to follow him. Sakamoto hit the unlock bottom on the remote entry key and opened the passenger side door for Natsuki. "Hop on in."
Sakamoto closed the door behind her. He took one last drag on his cigarette before stomping it out and walking around to the driver's side. "It shouldn't take too long to get there," he said. "Maybe 20 minutes or so. Let's put your purse in the back though."
Sakamoto reached over and took the bag out of her hands. Natsuki let go of it the instant his hands made contact with hers. Natsuki's hands joined her arms in the feeling of uncleanliness. She resolved to throw the purse away when she got home.
"Isn't that better?" Sakamoto asked, completely ignoring his passenger's discomfort. He started the car and reached over to put his hand behind the passenger seat so he could turn around and back out of the parking space. Natsuki leaned forward to avoid his hand but was too late; a large clump of hair got tangled up in his hand.
"Oops, sorry about that," he apologized. "I really should back into my parking space like most Japanese do, but most Americans pull in head first and I guess that's just another thing that rubbed off on me."
Natsuki didn't care what had rubbed off on him in America. She just wished he'd stop rubbing on her. Could she wash that dirty feeling out of her hair or would she have to get it cut off?
Sakamoto backed out on to the road, put the car in first, and took them on their way. They rode in silence while Sakamoto navigated the narrow back streets. When he finally pulled on to a main road, he glanced over at Natsuki and asked, "Been to many other places yet?"
Natsuki shook her head no.
"So I'm the first, huh?"
"Well, you saved yourself a lot of time. When you see this place I'm taking you to, you'll wish you could already move in."
Natsuki doubted it. "Hey, you've got something here," he said. Faster than Natsuki thought possible, his hand reached over and brushed her cheek and up against her lips as she jerked away.
The dirty tingling sensation buzzed in her cheek and lips. "Don't you dare touch me!" she screamed.
"Sorry! I'm sorry. Please calm down. You had some cream or something from the coffee on your cheek..."
"Don't. Don't touch me."
"Here," he said and offered her his handkerchief. Natsuki sneered at it. She reached into the back seat and pulled one out of her purse. She wiped her face with it and then threw it on the floor. The feeling of being contaminated didn't go away.
"Even if you are yelling at me, it's nice to finally hear you talk."
"I don't want to talk to you," she said.
"You're talking now," he joked. "And you've got a lovely voice."
"Thank you," Natsuki said and then clamped her mouth shut. Why was she thanking him? She didn't care what he thought of her voice. She should have demanded that he let her out, the free deposit be damned.
"So, will this be your first time living on your own?"
Don't answer him. "Yes, I even lived with my parents while I was going to community college. And like most unmarried girls, I'm still at home with them even though I'm 25." No! Why was she talking to him? She didn't like talking to people and she didn't like him. All she wanted to do was ride in silence and get away from him as soon as she could. "How long were you in America?" she asked, then clamped her mouth shut.
"I was there for about 15 years," he answered.
Natsuki didn't hear what he said. She was trying to figure out why she had asked him in the first place. "Oh? What took you over there?"
"I went over to study at UCLA at first, but transferred to this little school in Chrystal Heights, Florida called MCU."
Natsuki's mouth had developed a mind of its own. She had no interest in continuing the conversation, but her mouth did. "You must be pretty smart and speak good English then, huh?"
"I sure am and I sure do."
Sure is humble, Natsuki thought. "What'd you study over there?" Natsuki gave up trying to stop herself. She just sat there and listened to the conversation her mouth was having with Sakamoto.
"Pretty much everything," he laughed. "I'm not really sure if I graduated or if they got tired of me being there and kicked me out."
Natsuki laughed, too.
"I think I wound up with a double major in Psychology and Business with a Marketing minor."
"Do you ever miss it?"
"Yes and no. I had a lot of fun over there, but it's always nice to be back home, you know?"
"Since I've never left, yeah!" Sakamoto laughed at Natsuki's joke. "To be honest, I'm really nervous about it," she said.
"To be honest, you're doing a terrible job of hiding it!"
Natsuki couldn't help but laugh with Sakamoto he was laughing so hard.
"Well, we're here," Sakamoto said and pulled up to a building.
Natsuki hadn't ever enjoyed talking to someone she didn't know like that. She was actually sad that they had arrived.
"It's this building to our left. If you want to get out here and wait, it's a bit of a ways to the closest parking spot," Sakamoto told Natsuki.
"Okay," she said and smiled. She grabbed her purse out of the back,
"Let me get that tissue," Sakamoto said, referring to the tissue she'd wiped off her cheek with and thrown on the floor. He reached over and picked it up, and wiped Natsuki's shoes off with it. "You had a little bit of mud on there."
Natsuki thanked him, got out of the car, and watched it pull away. Natsuki took in the surroundings and the smile fell off of her face.
All of the buildings around her had neon sign stacked upon neon sign, announcing the name of a different caba-club on each floor. Mixed in every now and then was the name of a Japanese-style bar or restaurant, but, they were almost universally hostess bars.
Natsuki folded her arms across her chest. Very few people walked the streets around her. The few that she could see were mainly bar keeps dumping garbage or setting out crates of empty beer bottles. Natsuki avoided eye contact with all of them. She wanted to get out of there immediately. Sakamoto had to be mistaken. There was no way her company had an office in this area.
Several minutes later, Sakamoto came half running, half waddling up the street, while puffing on a cigarette. Despite the crisp February air, beads of perspiration dotted his balding forehead. "Sorry to keep you waiting," he said. Natsuki didn't respond. "Hey, You okay?" he asked and put a hand on her back.
Natsuki twisted away from him. The feelings of uncleanliness on her body came throbbing back, her arms, her cheek, her rear, and now her back, too. "I want to get out of here," she muttered.
"But you haven't even seen the place yet," Sakamoto replied.
She didn't need to see it. She couldn't live in a place like this; at night it would be crawling with drunks and perverts. Natsuki just looked at the ground.
"You know, if you don't actually look at it, it doesn't count as the first place and I can't give you any deposit money."
Natsuki stared at the ground. Was it worth it? All she had to do was go up, walk in, and say no. It wouldn't take longer than five minutes. Even though she'd heard the average deposit for a place could cost well over three months rent, she was still tempted to leave on the spot. "Fine, take me up," she said.
Sakamoto led her down a small hallway in the building in front of her. They got into the elevator at the end of it. Next to the button of each floor was the name of the joint that was on that floor. Sakamoto took out his keys and inserted one next to the button for the tenth floor. It was the only one that didn't have the name of a bar next to it.
"Just like the penthouse of a hotel," he laughed, turned his key, and the elevator smoothly started its ascent.
Like the elevator at the real estate office, this one was small enough that she couldn't help but bump into Sakamoto as they rode. Unlike the elevator at the real estate office, this one was clean; the walls were a faux wood surface that shined with a freshly polished look and the floor looked like it had been buffed that morning.