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Headline

The Voice of Tokyo for over 50 Years

JAPAN’S NO.1 ENGLISH LIFESTYLE MAGAZINE

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Latest Issue
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TW Creatives: “The Lump” – A Short Story by Suzanne Kamata

A domestic drama with feline catalysts

By Suzanne Kamata

Tokyo Weekender’s series TW Creatives features various works by Japan-based writers, photographers, videographers, illustrators and other creatives in a bid to provide one additional platform for them to exhibit their talent. The works submitted here belong entirely to the creators. TW only takes pride in being one of their most passionate supporters. This time, we introduce a short story by Suzanne Kamata.

 

The Lump

When Lexie first noticed the soreness in her left armpit, she thought that it was due to a pulled muscle – maybe from carrying that heavy bag of kitty litter – but after a week, she started to get worried. She was quite sure that the area was swollen. She thought about barging in on Kentaro and asking him what he thought, but they weren’t speaking. Or at least he wasn’t speaking to her. He’d told her that he was practicing living alone, that he was thinking about divorce. Their house was large enough, their schedules different enough, that they could go for days without seeing each other even though they were still sleeping under one roof – Lexie, in the master bedroom, Kentaro, in a smaller tatami room down the hall.

Lexie never knew for sure what exactly would set him off, but this time it had been because of the cats. She had noticed that Fifi, her fluffy black princess, was refusing to drink water from her stainless-steel bowl. She took an old plastic dish out of the cupboard, filled it with water, and set it on the floor.

“What are you doing?” Kentaro asked, his voice dripping with disdain. “That was my bento box.”

“But you never use it,” Lexie said. “And anyway, we can wash it.”

It didn’t help that two minutes later, Fifi hopped up onto the kitchen table and started grooming herself.

Kentaro looked at Lexie. When she didn’t react, he shouted “Get off!” and Fifi scurried behind the sofa. “Ugh. She was just in the litter box five minutes ago. It’s like wearing toilet slippers on the table.”

Lexie thought of showing Kentaro Instagram photos of a certain fashion designer’s cherished Persian eating from a silver dish placed beside her master’s plate. And then there was that famous singer who also let his cat sit on the table while he himself dined, sometimes feeding his pet caviar from his own fork.

“They probably jump on the table and the counter all the time when we’re gone, at work,” she said. “And we’ve never gotten sick. The germs have probably helped us build up our immune systems.”

That was the last straw. Kentaro had sputtered something about “filthy animals” and “different values,” and she hadn’t laid eyes on him since. Although he had been making breakfast for the two of them for the past three years, he suddenly started leaving the house early, before she got up, and coming home late, when she was already in bed. She figured he was stopping at convenience stores on the way to work for a rice ball and some coffee. Maybe afterwards, he went someplace cheap, like Yoshiya, for beef-on-rice, and then hung out in pachinko parlors. Meanwhile, Lexie spent every evening at home with a book, a glass of wine and both cats sprawled across her legs. At bedtime, Fifi, and Prince, the tabby, followed her up the stairs and arranged themselves around her sleeping body.

Lexie had always known that Kentaro wasn’t a cat person, but he had been the one to bring the animals into their lives. Every once in a while, he’d talked about getting a dog – maybe a poodle, like his mother had had, or one of those big affable Akita dogs (although the climate in Shikoku wasn’t really suitable for a dog with such a thick coat). Lexie liked dogs and had fond memories of her childhood pets, but she hadn’t been enthusiastic about getting one in adulthood. She knew that she would be the one who would have to walk it, and feed it, and take it to the vet. Kentaro’s working hours were longer than hers. She taught English part-time at area kindergartens and community centers. And then one day, Kentaro’s high school friend called him up and asked him if he wanted a couple of kittens. To Lexie’s surprise, her husband said “yes.”

Kentaro had been the one to buy and assemble the cat tree. He brought home scratching posts, and toys, including mechanical birds that flew around the living room. He was the one who reached under the table at dinnertime with tidbits of food. He’d even taken Fifi to the vet for her shots, and later, to be neutered.

Gradually, however, he had become more and more exasperated with the cats, swatting them with newspapers when they clawed at the furniture and shoving them off of his lap when they dared to playfully bite his fingers. In an attempt to discipline Prince for hissing at him, he had held the cat immobile and yelled in his feline face, which hadn’t made the tabby any more submissive or obedient or affectionate. The cats began to avoid him, preferring Lexie’s soft touch and gentle voice. Now, he couldn’t stand them. “You behave as if you like the cats more than me,” he sneered, when upon hearing Prince meowing at the door, she jumped up to open it. “Maybe you should decide who you’d rather live with – Prince and Fifi, or me.”

Now, Lexie sat on the sofa, which had been scarred with claw marks, with Fifi on her lap. Fifi was the more affectionate and needier of the two cats. Her purring soothed Lexie’s frayed nerves. She buried her fingers in the cat’s plush fur. Prince would tolerate a few rubs on his head before he would bite or reach out a claw, signaling that he’d had enough. Lexie still had a scratch from several days before. But she wasn’t concerned about that. She was becoming obsessed with the lump.

She kept thinking of Kentaro’s father, who had died from lung cancer. Although Kentaro’s relationship with his dad had been contentious at best, he had spent many nights in the hospital at the man’s bedside, wiping his brow and offering him sips of water. Lexie had walked in on them once to find Kentaro reading to him, with a voice filled with tenderness. Of course, Lexie didn’t want to be diagnosed with cancer, but if she were, maybe Kentaro would forget about their feud. Maybe he would turn into a gentle caretaker, bringing her turkey sandwiches and trashy American magazines as she sat propped against pillows. If she went bald from chemo, maybe he would shave his head in solidarity. She finally made a mammogram appointment at a local hospital.

Lexie thought about texting Kentaro. Maybe he would offer to go with her to the hospital. She even went so far as to type out a message on her phone, but then quickly deleted it. What if it was nothing? Then she would be mocked for going to desperate measures to earn his sympathy. No, it was better to wait until she had something concrete to convey.

In the meantime, she tried to better control the cats. Whenever Fifi jumped onto the counter, she turned on the faucet, and flicked water at the cat until she jumped back down onto the floor, mewling indignantly. When Prince meowed at the door, she counted to ten before she let him come in or go out, thinking that he might learn to be more patient.

Every evening, she made a nice meal and set the table for two, on the off chance that Kentaro would come home in time for dinner. Every evening, she ate by herself, then scraped Kentaro’s portion into the trash. She wouldn’t be able to serve it the next day. He always complained when she served leftovers.

Before she left for her mammogram, she sat down on the scarred sofa and beckoned the cats with a pat. Fifi immediately bounded onto her lap and rubbed her head against Lexie’s chin. Prince followed close behind, and allowed Lexie to scratch between his ears a little longer than usual.

“Thanks, guys,” Lexie told them. “You’re the best.”

At the hospital, she had to fill out forms and show her insurance card.

“Do you have any special concerns?” the receptionist asked.

Lexie took a deep breath. “I have a lump under my arm.”

The receptionist’s brow furrowed. Lexie’s heart began to canter. A few minutes later she was directed to the room with the dreaded mammogram machine.

The last time she’d had her breasts examined, there had been an elderly white-haired physician who’d called her “Mother.” She had given no indication that she had children – and in fact did not have any, although she referred to herself as such when speaking to her cats. (“Mommy missed you so much,” she would say, when coming home from the kindergarten, and finding them waiting at the door.)

This time, the technician was a young woman with a ponytail, but she was no more gentle than the elderly male doctor had been as she positioned and compressed Lexie’s breasts in the vise-like machine. Lexie endured the torture, then said, “I have a lump.” In her experience, Japanese medical personnel didn’t like to be told what they would find, and became irritated when patients suggested their own diagnosis, but she wanted to make sure that whatever it was she had didn’t go unnoticed.

“Where?” the young woman asked.

Lexie lifted her arm to show her. She invited the young woman to touch the swelling. “Ah, yes, hmmm.”

See? She wasn’t imagining it.

“You’ll be seeing the doctor next,” the technician said. She laid her hand on Lexie’s
shoulder for just a moment – an unusual, consoling gesture in this land where people rarely touched one another.

Lexie put her bra and shirt back on, then went to another room where she was instructed to disrobe again. She went behind a pink curtain and put her clothes in a wicker basket. When she opened the curtain, she saw a woman doctor in a white coat.

“Hello,” the doctor said, in English. “Lay down here, and I will do an ultrasound.”

Lexie did as she was told. The doctor smoothed gel over her breasts and then Lexie felt the cool wand passing over them. She couldn’t bear to look at the screen.

“No problem,” the doctor said in a cheerful tone.

“But what about this swelling,” Lexie said, lifting up her arm.

The doctor probed with the wand. “Yes, there’s a bit of fluid there,” she confirmed. She pressed the spot with her fingers, and bit her lip, thinking. “Do you have a cat?”

“Umm, yes. Two.”

“Has one of your cats scratched you recently?”

Lexie remembered the gash from Prince on her wrist, which had been slow to heal. “Uh, yes, actually…”

“It’s possible that some bacteria has gotten into your body. I’ll prescribe antibiotics. If it doesn’t clear up, come back.” She chuckled then. “It’s been a long time since I have seen a case of Cat Scratch Fever.”

Lexie’s shoulders loosened. She could just imagine what Kentaro would say. She knew that she would never mention this visit to him.

When she got home, as she stabbed her key into the lock, she could the cats yowling on the other side of the door. As soon as she stepped inside, their yowls turned to purrs. To celebrate her good news, she decided that she would pan grill a piece of salmon and serve it with a bowl of fluffy white rice and steamed broccoli. She’d make miso soup with cubes of tofu and chopped green onions. She took two wine glasses from the cabinet and poured herself a glass of wine. Then she thought better of it, and put the other glass back onto the shelf.

Just as she was sitting down to eat her dinner, she heard Kentaro’s car pull into the driveway. She froze. She heard the car door open and slam, his footsteps on the concrete steps, his key in the lock. Then she decided.

With her chopsticks, she broke off a morsel of pink fleshed fish and set it on a napkin next to her plate. She looked down at Prince who sat at her feet. “Here you go, boy,” she said, patting the table. He gazed back at her for a moment, perhaps disbelieving, and then with a swift graceful motion, jumped onto the table and bent his head to devour the salmon.

Lexie didn’t shoo him away.

 


Short Bio

Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in Michigan, but she has lived in Shikoku for over half of her life. She has written several books including most recently the award-winning novel The Baseball Widow and a romantic comedy for literacy learners, Bake Sale, which is set in Tokyo. She loves figure skating, chocolate and cats.

 

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