Snugly settled in a loveseat, Kenji plays Ukraine War Stories on his laptop as his wife, Kana, complains about the prices of food and utility bills skyrocketing. Her talk is a part of his ambiance, no different from the honking of cars, the rumbling of a neighbor’s washing machine, and a baby wailing upstairs. The interactive visual narrative game asks him to decide whether to flee from Bucha, hide in the bunker, or fight against the Russians. The choices are always limited to three, unlike his life.
In the kitchen, Kana slices a baguette, which is more expensive and smaller than before. ‘Did this go on a diet?’ she mumbles to herself, the question she’d asked the cashier. A joke. But instead of a grin, she got a grimace. The wrong tone again.
‘Lunch is ready. Can you get me a bottle of sparkling water?’ Kana places a plate of open sandwiches on the counter and looks at the clock.
‘It’s Saturday. Why don’t we open a bottle of wine?’ Kenji chooses HIDE IN THE BUNKER and presses NEXT before closing his laptop.
‘Don’t you remember my doctor’s appointment at two? My second Menotropin injection this month,’ she says, sprinkling too much tabasco on the shrimp.
At a quarter to two, Kenji drops Kana off at the clinic—a four-floor building that provides an end-to-end solution, like the lifecycle management software he sells. An OBGYN on the first floor, a pediatrician on the second, followed by a psychiatrist, topped off by a geriatrician, who calls himself a falling-memory specialist. A year ago, when they saw the sign—Dr. Taguchi, the Best Falling-Memory Specialist— they cracked up and exchanged phrases like falling butts, falling hair, and falling dentures. They don’t laugh at it anymore.
The Disney-like pale pink wallpaper and a woman with a protruded belly who dominates the sofa no longer fill Kana with hope. They are a nuisance, like the cry of the baby upstairs and the clicking of Kenji’s keyboard. The woman makes some room for Kana, who has no choice but sit beside her. ‘Don’t we make a good before-and-after picture?’ Kana says and waits to hear the woman laugh. Instead, she takes Kana’s hand and places it on her belly. ‘Soon you’ll be after.’ Kana feels the baby kick and jerks her hand as if she had touched a hot kettle.
Kenji resumes playing the game at a coffee shop next to the clinic. Under the CONSEQUENCES, he sees the characters’ mood drop by two points. HIDING IN THE BUNKER might not have been the right choice, although it should buy him time before deciding to flee or fight. His iPhone vibrates, but he ignores it and sips his coffee. He considers what to take to the bunker—blankets, tomato cans, or matches. There is a message from Yumiko: I’m leaving my husband. Don’t panic. You have nothing to do with my decision. Adios. His mood drops when glamorous red kiss marks pop up on his screen like bullets. He’ll miss their sex, unlinked to the task of making babies. A pure pleasure. But immediately, his mood goes up a notch. There will be one less thing to juggle, one less decision to make before settling into possible fatherhood.
While Kana waits in the lobby to make her payment, she opens her planner to check her schedule for the next week: dentist, plumber, lovemaking, college reunion.
‘Have you decided what to wear for the reunion?’ Kana asks Kenji as she settles in the passenger’s seat. ‘I better get a new dress.’
Although it is still late October, a Christmas tree dominates a shopping mall’s atrium. They avoid an escalator that provides them with a full view of the tree, that takes them through the infants’ floor.
Kana holds up a lavender wrap dress and a silver maxi dress. ‘Which do you like?’ she asks Ken, who nods at both. He does not care more or less but points at the lavender outfit.
In the dressing room, Kana poses in front of the mirror and wonders what Yumiko will wear to the get-together. At their last class reunion half a decade ago, Kana remembers Yumiko strutting in a burgundy balloon dress accentuating her slim legs. Kana checks the price tag and does her balance sheeting in her head, her newly acquired practice since the Invasion.
In a banquet hall, the members of the class of 2012 swarm around the circular tables, each holding a glass. People move around like bees flying from one cosmos to another, sucking their memories. ‘No, Yumiko. You have it all wrong,’ Kana says. ‘I met you for the first time at the theater club’s Halloween party. The one you’ve dressed as a witch.’ Yumiko gives her a whatever-you-say look and glides to the adjacent table, leaving behind the scent of Poison.
Under the fake crystal chandelier, Kenji exchanges business cards with former classmates, his likely prospects. With uncertainties ahead, his existing clients are tight on their budget, and Kenji has missed his quota for three consecutive months. Rule number one of the playbook: leverage all networking opportunities. Rule number two: find common ground before launching into a sales pitch.
The man beside Kenji holds up his phone and shows off his newborn’s pictures. ‘He’s cute but takes up all my time and energy. No more going to the theater but playing computer games if and when I have time.’
Kenji barely remembers him from the drama club but readies himself for the sales pitch. He opens the conversation with Ukraine War Stories, explaining how a player pseudo-experiences the civilians’ life in wartime Bucha and makes decisions that define the fate of the characters.
‘Sounds pretty sick,’ Yumiko interrupts the conversation from the table behind. ‘How can you turn something that’s happening to real people so unreal? Pretend you have control over their predicament?’
Kenji turns around to Yumiko, trying to read between the lines. Her upturned almond eyes, winged in jet-black, are fathomless. There is no knowing her thoughts, unlike Kana, who is an open book, a safe harbor.
By the time the reunion ends, it is twilight. Kana puts her arm around Kenji’s, trying to keep herself warm. Yumiko walks ahead of them toward the subway station, her enamel stilettos click-clacking at a set cadence. She stops suddenly in front of a group of people wearing blue and yellow armbands and slips a bill in a donation box. Without turning around, she waves her hand, pointing her middle finger at the neon-lit sky, and walks away. Kana and Kenji are left in front of a poster showing the ruins of Mariupol, a tomb yard in Bucha, and the children huddled in a bunker, their eyes glittering like the eggs in a womb.
About the author
Norie Suzuki (she/her) was born and educated bi-lingually in Tokyo, Japan, where she currently writes, resides, and works as a simultaneous interpreter. She received an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Her work has appeared or forthcoming in Aloka, Extra Teeth, and Suspect.
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