The boys are dancing. They prance around the dark stage in matching white shirts, striking a pose with their pale arms and pale necks. Seven cookie-cutter boys toss back their hair—bangs just skimming the eyes—then bend their narrow waists, fold themselves unbelievably tight, and launch into acrobatic flips.
One of them falls to his knees, sliding forward. His head tilts back, exposing his throat. It’s somehow paler than his shirt, so white it glows, his adam’s apple bobbing under the skin. He sings.
My heart is yours. My heart is yours forever. I love you. Every day with you is a treasure. Even when my lips can no longer form words, I know my voice will still reach you. Please, won’t you believe it too? My heart will be forever yours.
Deafening cheers rise from the crowd. We aren’t the ones cheering though. That would be the girls in the video who are lucky enough to see Innocent live in concert. Shizuko scrambles to lower the laptop volume. But not all the way. None of us tell her to either. We watch to the last second, then let out a collective sigh.
“Ahhh, they’re so cuuuute.”
“I’d date Hikaru in a heartbeat,” I say.
“Yukino, aren’t you married?”
“I mean, yeah, but this is different.”
“So true. Ahh, I wanna date Hikaru too.”
“My friend saw Hikaru in person once, she said he’s insanely tiny. Like, if the wind blew too hard it’d sweep him right away.”
“Oh my god, really? I knew it!”
“Hey, you lot.” An angry voice from behind us—our section manager. “Watching idol group videos in the middle of the workday? Are you kidding me?”
We laugh out an apology.
We knew our manager was just making a show of being angry. About halfway through, she’d planted herself behind us, arms crossed, and we’d all rearranged our heads little by little to give her a good view of the screen. All women have a weakness for young, thin, pretty, cute, tiny men. It’s just instinct.
Still slouched in our spinny chairs, we kick the ground halfheartedly with our stilettos and turn towards our manager.
She’s wearing a tube dress that clings to her figure, showing off the huge contour of her swollen belly. Her due date is right around the corner. Even with that belly, she’s still wearing her favorite pair of knee-high stiletto boots.
I met her husband once. He tagged along to a company barbeque party, sidling up to the grill area where the smiling male employees were flipping burgers, and casually nabbed a pair of tongs. For the rest of the party, he diligently grilled for us. He was quite a large, heavyset man, so we all assumed our manager wasn’t planning to have any more kids. She already had one. Of course, she was still comfortably of childbearing age, but when a woman picks a man like that for her second husband, well, that’s usually how it goes. Usually.
These days it’s not that unusual for couples to live out their whole lives together without having children. I think it’s wonderful. That’s love, for sure.
But apparently, that’s not what our manager had in mind. One day she simply showed up to work with her enormous belly, causing quite the stir.
“My husband just wanted to so bad,” she explained. Instead of her usual brisk manner, she sounded almost demure. “So I thought, why not?”
It was another shock to discover this old-fashioned streak in our manager. I mean really, giving in and having a child with a man like that, so far past his prime. And who would’ve guessed that the sweet, obedient husband we met was actually such a sly fox. How could he wheedle her like that, knowing full well how hard it would be with a man like him? Unbelievable.
Teary-eyed, Shizuko had almost thrown herself at our manager.
“But, I mean… isn’t that just his manly pride talking? What about you, what if something happens to you?”
Men have strong sex drives—they’re always ready to make a baby, but we women are the ones who actually decide.
Way back when, women who didn’t give in to their pleading husbands—no matter how old they were—were considered unlady-like and looked down upon. Silly, I know. That’s ancient history now. Women are the primary participants in childbirth, so obviously it should be entirely at the woman’s discretion whether or not to have a child.
Calm and composed, our manager answered Shizuko.
“You know, my husband actually asked me several times before now. I could never quite come around to the idea… but it’s just, when I thought about his age. From his point of view, this is his last chance, right? If I kept him waiting any longer, and his body got any bigger, it’d definitely be impossible for me. And even if he was done growing, he’d only have getting old to look forward to. The poor thing, that’d be hard on him too.”
Then she told us in no uncertain terms to drop the subject, clapping her hands one decisive time. We couldn’t, Shizuko couldn’t, argue any further.
I began to wonder, what if it were me? What if my husband got as big as hers? No way, not happening. I admire couples that decide to have kids even when the husband is well past his prime, really I do, but I’ve got no interest in carrying around a belly that large. If it were me, I wouldn’t be able to walk around in those knee-high stiletto boots. No doubt I’d be in a shapeless pullover dress, sneakers on my feet, moping about looking sorry for myself.
Our manager sure is something. She’s got stamina. Motor skills like nobody’s business.
The guts for it too.
Just one look at her stomach and everyone will think—if the husband had been younger and smaller, he wouldn’t have put the poor woman through so much.
That’s probably why our manager puts on this carefree act, adorning herself in her usual fashion. So no one will pity her. So no one will try to console her with their insults, lift her up by putting her husband down.
Our manager notices my fixation on the swell of her stomach. “What?” she prompts with a smile, narrowing her eyes.
“That’s love,” I say. As soon as the words leave my lips, tears suddenly well up at the corners of my eyes. When I hunch over, our manager says, “Oh goodness, now what’s the matter?” and squats to my level. With that huge belly. With those knee-high stiletto boots. Definitely insane motor skills.
“I totally get what she means,” Machiko says. Shizuko and all the other girls nod their sincere agreement.
“That’s love. Definitely love, boss.”
I press my hands to my mouth, nodding my head up and down.
“What on earth’s gotten into you lot?” Our manager shifts back upright. Shoulders back, chest out. When she does, the knobby bumps of a spinal column at the center of her baby bump are thrown into sharp relief. Those undulating ridges press against the cloth, as pushy as her husband.
“Weren’t you just kicking up a fuss about Hikaru from Innocent? Ah, well, he is a looker. I’ll give you that. But even Hikaru will be getting bigger before long. The summertime of boyhood passes quickly.”
She slides a hand over her stomach in an unconscious gesture. Her strong, relaxed fingers trace the spine’s dips and swells. As she does, that knobbiness suddenly seems inconsequential, so fragile she might smooth it away.
The boys are dancing in their white shirts. Innocent is down to six members. Hikaru isn’t there anymore. The press uncovered his passionate love affair with a popular actress, which set off a flood of anguished fan protests, and in the midst of it all he up and got her pregnant. Our manager’s dour prediction had missed its mark—Hikaru would never get big. He slipped away with perfect execution, right at the peak of his prime. Even though the actress just got pregnant, putting her belly at its biggest, she’s starring in a TV drama. Upon close inspection her belly is slightly rounded, so slightly that you’d miss it if you didn’t know what to look for. No surprise there. Way to go, Hikaru.
“I mean, Hikaru’s shoulders were so narrow…” Yukie murmurs, staring wistfully at the screen.
“Arata’s also pretty cute.” I point out the new boy singing lead vocals, the tip of my finger blocking his tiny face from view.
“Hmmm, Arata? Hmm. Arata.”
Arata clutches both hands to his chest, singing out like the sound is being wrung from him. My heart is yours. My heart is yours forever.
“Even if IIII, can’t say a worddd,” Shizuko sings along softly, her voice overlapping with his. “I knowww deep down, my voooice will reach you.”
“Ugh, Hikaru’s voice won’t be reaching us anymore.”
“It’s not like his voice is actually reaching that actress either,” I say, and everyone laughs.
“Yeesh, Yukino, you’re brutal.”
“I mean, it’s true.”
“Ugh, but even if I couldn’t keep his voice, I wanted to make Hikaru’s heart mine.”
“Hey, you lot.” Our manager looms behind us. Still slouched in our spinny chairs, we kick the ground halfheartedly with our stilettos and turn towards her.
She stands with her arms crossed, her stomach practically flat now. Through the fabric of her usual figure-hugging dress, a bumpy spine barely brushes the surface, curving slightly rightward. It won’t be long now.
“One of our clients just delivered us a cake, a big one. Apparently it’s my early congratulations gift. I had Mr. Sasaki here cut it up for us, so eat up.”
We cheer. Our manager steps aside, and I realize Sasaki has been standing here the whole time, hidden in her shadow, holding a serving tray. He looks none too amused by the situation. After our manager takes a plate off the tray and returns to her desk, Sasaki sighs.
“Okay then, come get one.”
“Wow, the service here sucks, at least set them down for us,” Shizuko jokes.
“Shizuko, watch it, that’s pretty sexist. Sorry ‘bout that, Sasaki.” Machiko stands, unloading the plates and lining them up on our desk area.
“You know, if you think about it, it’s also pretty sexist to have a man cutting up the cake in the first place.” Standing there stock still with the tray, Sasaki launches into a rant. “I mean, I was sitting at my desk, fully immersed in work. And you all are watching Innocent videos and chatting up a storm. And still, I’m the one that has to do it? Is cutting up a cake and putting it on plates really so important I should have to put my work on hold? You all should just do it yourselves. Or just put it in the refrigerator and anyone that wants it can cut their own slice whenever.”
From about halfway through I started digging into my cake, and as he finishes I’m finished too.
“You’re so right, Sasaki, we’re so sorry,” I apologize, licking the frosting off my lip. Though actually I don’t see the issue with Sasaki just doing it. He’s good at cutting cake. If I’d done it, the pretty frosting on top would’ve gotten smushed.
Only his own slice of cake remains on the tray, but still Sasaki doesn’t move.
“But you know, Sasaki,” Shizuko starts. “We’ve all finished the first stage of our project, that’s why boss isn’t actually mad with us. Does that make sense? Oh, but we were interrupting you, right Sasaki? You haven’t finished yet? That’s rooouugh. Shouldn’t you get back to work then?”
Sasaki’s face clouds. Then he turns on his heel and storms out. Yukie frowns at Shizuko.
“You went a bit far there. Poor Sasaki.”
“You think?” Shizuko says offhand, already moving on. Shizuko is always hard on men like Sasaki, older and on the big side without even a partner to their name.
There are lots of men who fit that profile at our company. But any man who stays in the business world for long ends up like that, so that’s no surprise.
“I mean, men like that aren’t even fun to look at, what’s the point.” Shizuko drops her words carelessly. “It’s not like I’m asking for a Hikaru or an Arata. I just wish our company would hire some cuter boys that are actually small or young.”
But I remember. When Sasaki first started here, he was fairly small, cute, young. If we’re doling out blame for Sasaki getting bigger and failing to have a kid, than we, his fellow hires, are also at fault for not choosing him. When I put that thought out there, Shizuko laughs meanly. “Okay, then you date him.”
Just then, a commotion breaks out on the other side of the office. We all turn as one to see what’s going on.
“I think boss just…” Shizuko’s lips tremble. “B-Boss!” We leap to our feet and take off running.
By the time I get home, it’s almost midnight. I stop in front of the apartment complex, staring upward. My eyes are almost sore from all the crying. The lights are on at my place, that warm illumination sinking into me. My husband’s waiting up there. My husband, still fairly small, fairly young. My husband, who will keep getting bigger just like Sasaki if I don’t make my decision.
I have to make my decision, for him. He wants it. He’s a man, that’s just instinct for them. I want it too. I don’t not want it, at least, it’s that level of want. I just wish we could be together a little longer, as separate individuals. But I know that my “little longer” might be ruinous for my husband. I mean, I can’t go through the same thing as our manager.
She collapsed today. Had to have an emergency delivery, right there at work. A healthy woman doesn’t normally collapse from something as simple as giving birth.
My husband is reading a book on the couch.
He looks up at me, zoned out. His eyelashes gleam.
“Are you crying? What’s wrong?”
“Oh, um, it’s just…” He wipes his eyes, then smiles. “This book is just getting me a bit teary.”
“I guess everyone’s crying today.”
“Hm? Honey, were you crying too? Did something happen, are you okay?”
“I’m fine, just, you know…”
I open up the refrigerator, take out the dinner my husband saved for me and set it on the table. The side dishes come from the prepared food section of the supermarket, and the rest is homemade. The moment I pull off the plastic wrap and pick up my chopsticks, I realize this will be the last time I eat my husband’s home-cooking. The tears come rushing back. I try not to let them fall, but there’s no stopping this—a sob escapes my lips as I start to really bawl.
“Whoa there, Yuki? Honey?” Dropping his book, my husband races to my side. This apartment is so small I could have made it from the couch to the dinner table in three strides, but my petite husband has room to race over.
“Honey, what’s wrong?”
I pull him into my lap, hugging him tightly to my chest. He wraps his soft, useless arms around my neck.
“W-We, we sh— we should have a baby. We should have a baby.” I force the words out through my sobs. “T-Tonight.”
Finally out in the open, the words feel like some decision from long ago. Like the day we got married, no, the day I met him, we already knew we’d make a baby tonight, we just hadn’t said anything to each other all these years.
“Ah, honey, so you’ve made your decision.” He buries his face in my shoulder, conversation muffled by the fabric. But his voice doesn’t waver. Oh, he feels the same. “All right. Let’s do it. Thank you, honey.”
I hug him all the more fiercely.
“But I wanted more time with you.”
“Uh-uh. It’s just the opposite, we’ll be closer from here on out.”
“You’re right, you’re right. But I’m gonna miss you.”
I re-cover my dinner with the plastic wrap, put it back in the fridge. I don’t feel like wasting time on dinner anymore. It’s our last night as a couple. And at the same time, it’s our first night together.
We move to the couch. Hugging each other close, we choose to pass the time soaking in each other’s warmth and talking in low voices.
I talk about what happened today at work. Our manager collapsing and being carried to the nurse’s office, suffering for two whole hours before finally giving birth. The baby was big. Bigger than two of my fists put together. Well, big partners tend to make big babies after all. If it were a girl there wouldn’t be any problem, but she had a boy. If the baby boy was that big from the start, he would probably grow fast.
“I don’t care. As long as he’s healthy,” our manager said, cradling her newborn. And we all cried around her. Especially Shizuko—she hadn’t stopped crying from the moment our manager collapsed, new tears simply joining the old.
While our manager was in labor, Shizuko had haltingly opened up to us. Apparently when Shizuko was little, she had an aunt that doted on her. That aunt got pregnant with a man well past his prime who came up to her shoulders—neither woman, husband, nor child survived. I finally understood why Shizuko is so hard on older men. We all hugged her and whispered reassurances.
When I finish talking, my husband picks up the conversation. He launches into a description of the novel he’s almost finished reading.
“It’s set in an alternate universe,” he says slowly, eyes lowered. There’s no way to tell where he’s looking exactly, what with those long eyelashes. “In this world, men and women have pretty similar physical proportions. Actually, men are even a bit bigger on average. And men are stronger, with better endurance. The complete opposite of our world, you know? But the biggest difference lies in how children are conceived. The man and woman remain completely separate individual beings, only reproducing via gametes.”
“Huh, that’s so weird.”
“Right? It’s a weird little book. The male reproductive organs are hanging outside their body. Right at the crotch. Like a short rod glued to their groin. A bit dumb, I know. They combine their gametes by sticking that thing into the woman’s birth canal. But the man and woman remain separate individuals even after fertilization. They always are, forever. And get this, the woman is pregnant for almost a full year. Her belly stays flat at first, only getting bigger as she nears her due date. The newborn babies are around fifty centimeters long, and they weigh three kilos. Even though the women are only like 160 centimeters.”
“Ew, there’s no way such tiny women could birth such huge babies. They’d totally die.”
“Mm-hmm, giving birth feels like dying apparently. And it lasts way longer than those two hours it took your boss. The women suffer through labor for half a day, sometimes even a full twenty-four hours.”
“What about the men?”
“The men don’t do anything. After they release their sperm, that’s it. Oh, but they raise the baby with their wife. And they grow old together.”
“Boys grow up strong and burly, it’s considered beautiful in that world. Women don’t shun them once they’ve grown big. Men have choices, the same as women. In this world, they can live out their lives even after having kids.”
I’ve zoned out. The desire to have a child is building, and my breathing has started to grow ragged. If I miss this chance, I’ll probably never get another one. My instincts are warning me, urging me to get a move on.
“Let’s head to bed.” Cradling my husband, I shoot to my feet. And the book falls to the floor, bookmark sliding free.
“It’s fine. It’s not like I’m going to finish it.”
“Oh, right. Right. Sorry.”
“Don’t forget to give my company a call tomorrow morning.”
“Tell them I’m retiring on paternity leave.”
“You know, I really did want to finish that book. You should read it, if you have time.”
“Finish it for me. If you read it, it’ll be like I’m reading too. Right?”
Atop the covers he makes every morning, I press a kiss to my husband’s adorable lips. I trail my mouth over his ear, his neck, and peel off his clothes. At the sight of his bare chest, pale and boyish, I feel the area around my stomach melt with heat. I’ve seen my husband naked countless times before, but this is my first time looking with reproductive intent, and my last. One and done. He’s so beautiful. Almost sparkling. Also trembling. Being so brave for me, so defenseless under my hands. My excitement mounts. I can’t hold back any longer—I rip open my shirt.
“Touch me.” I squeeze my husband’s cute hand, pulling it to my stomach. For a split second fear crosses his face and he tries to pull back, but I don’t let him. His fingertips, cold as glass, sink into my syrupy stomach, an endless forward motion.
“So beautiful,” I pant. “I love you.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
While my lips and left hand roam every corner of his body, my right hand removes the rest of my clothes and underwear and tosses them aside. Every taste of him seems ephemeral, precious.
At last, the moment arrives. I sprawl out onto my back, gently pulling my husband with me onto my hot stomach. It immediately begins to melt the surface of his skin, fusing us together.
“Aah,” my husband moans. I can’t speak. My skin connected to his skin, my veins absorbing his veins, his blood circulating through my body, this incredible feeling, I almost forget to breathe.
“Aah,” my husband cries out, just before his face goes under. “Aah, goodbye.” Those are my husband’s last words.
Goodbye? This isn’t goodbye, we’re becoming one. We’re going to be closer than ever before. I want to tell him, but can’t. My body has devoted every last ounce of energy to devouring him, body and soul.
My husband sinks slowly down into me, his body unspooling into a gentle mound of flesh. One by one my body absorbs his organs. I can tell exactly which organ is on the chopping block, easy as holding them in hand and peering close. The testicles—they settle onto my uterus, the muscles that make up the organ loosening, dissolving into a soft shower of sperm cells. My husband’s brain—now useless, quickly broken down for nutrition to fuel the fertilization process. His blood vessels fully fuse with mine, his blood becomes my blood, and my husband’s heart—unravels inside me, drifting into nothing.
At some point, Innocent sings their chorus inside my head. My heart is yours. My heart is yours forever.
Your heart will be mine forever.
Dawn arrives, and I awake to pleasant soreness. Warm morning light filters through the curtains, illuminating the fabric’s detailed pattern and slight fuzziness. Unconsciously, my hand drifts down to my bare stomach. I rub the gentle slope of my swollen belly. Until last night this skin belonged to my husband, but now it belongs to me. I carefully trace my fingertips down the knobby outline of my husband’s spine.
Sitting up in bed, I look down to confirm the baby bump with my own eyes. Then I slowly take to my feet, gently twist my hips, march in place. At this size, this weight, it shouldn’t have much impact on everyday movement. Of course, I’m nowhere near as unencumbered as the actress carrying Hikaru’s child.
This rounded belly will supply all the nutrients my pregnancy needs. Over the course of a one-month maternity, everything that was once my husband will fade away. Even the last traces of his spine will be absorbed during labor.
If it’s a boy, I want him to be small and cute like my husband. If it’s a girl, I’ll make sure to raise her big and strong.
“You can do this,” I whisper to myself. From this point onward, I’m on my own.
Yes, technically I’m closer to my husband than ever before, that’s true, but realistically speaking the intelligent, sentient part of him has disappeared, so really it’s like he’s no longer here. My husband is gone. I’m alone.
But there’s no time to sit around moping about it. I have a million things to do.
I take out last night’s dinner from the fridge and eat. I finish every bite. In my head, I’m thinking about all the chores on my list. Heading over to wash my dirty dishes, I kick the footstool away from its usual place in front of the sink. My husband isn’t here anymore, so I won’t be needing that. I should get rid of it. My husband’s things too, little by little. Gotta make space for the nursery before this child is born. But that can wait, I should focus on today. Once I get to work, I’ll head straight for the front office and reserve a spot at the office daycare. I’m pretty sure they alert the city Childcare Assistance Agency for me. Oh wait, shouldn’t I visit the nurse’s office first for a checkup?
I shower, put on make-up, then change into a loose shirt and roomy pants. The pants won’t button, but with my shirt hanging over it’s not like anyone will notice. As I bend down to cuff my pants, I add buy new clothes to the list in my head. New shoes too.
Puttering around the apartment, I notice the paperback lying in front of the couch. It’s face down, open to some page, spine cracked. I pick it up, try to close the book, but several pages got folded in and now it won’t shut properly. Oh right, didn’t my husband say something last night about wanting me to finish it for him? I flip through the pages for a second. How far did he get?
There’s no bookmark in there. No way to tell. I can’t finish it now. Though I have to admit, even if there had been a bookmark, I probably wouldn’t have read it. I mean, there’s so much to do. Even if I did read for him, it’s not like the words would reach him. It wouldn’t reach him. He disappeared, he’s gone.
I drop the book onto the couch. Can’t get caught up in sentimentality, gotta get to work. I lift my foot, and there lies the bookmark. My slipper was hiding it from sight. I leave it there and hurry to the door. Take out my old sneakers. They’re the only flats I’ve got. I grimace—the sneakers are way dirtier than I thought. Yeah, maybe it’s just for one day, but still. If I have to wear a baggy shirt and baggy pants, then I’m damn well wearing heels.
Gingerly, gingerly, I wedge my feet into my usual heels. Stand, march in place. With a hand to my heavy stomach, I shift my center of balance slightly back, testing my equilibrium.
This could work. This might just work.
I open the door and head out. Resettle my bag on one shoulder. Walk at a careful, slow pace. But after a few meters, I realize. This works. It totally works. That’s buy new shoes crossed off my mental list. I straighten up, taking longer, bigger steps. Picking up speed. I take my next step with confidence, and every step after that.
Heather D. Davis is a translator and writer living in Tokyo. Her short story translations have appeared in magazines such as Conjunctions, Chicago Review, The Paris Review, and Guernica. Her translation of Pilar Fraile Amador’s “The Island” was nominated by The Brooklyn Rail for the 2019 Pushcart Prize.