Yukiko's First Valentinebygoddessinjapan©
Author's note: Thank you to all of those who read "Yukiko's First Christmas" and asked for more about Yukiko and Matthew. I hope that I haven't disappointed you.
As many of you already know, Valentine's Day, and the more recently-created White Day (March 14th), are widely celebrated in Japan. For more of the history of Valentine's Day in Japan, please do an internet search for University of British Columbia professor Millie Creighton's work on Japanese adoption of Western holidays.
Apparently, the celebration of Valentine's Day in Japan began circa 1950, promoted by a chocolate company.
Thank you for reading my latest effort, and honne choco to you all!
It was a crisp February day as Yukiko walked home from her calligraphy lesson.
"Ah, Yukiko-san!" Abe-san was sweeping in front of her house. "On your way home?"
"Good afternoon, Abe-san. Yes, I've just been to my lesson," Yukiko replied politely.
"Well, greet your family for me. And that handsome neighbor of yours...maybe we will have an international marriage in the neighborhood, hmmm?" Abe-san's eyes sparkled merrily as she teased Yukiko.
"Matthew-san? I don't believe he has a girlfriend, but I'll tell him that you asked," Yukiko smiled to herself and kept on walking. Abe-san was such a busybody, but Yukiko knew that she was only voicing what many people in the neighborhood were thinking. After all, Matthew did spend a lot of time at Yukiko's house. In fact, over the New Year's holidays, he had come over every morning to play chess with her grandfather. When neighbors and customers came to offer their New Year's greetings and drink a toast to his health...and enjoy the top-quality sake that grandfather served...Matthew retreated to the kitchen, where he sat at the table, drinking tea and keeping Yukiko and her mother company as they bustled around, washing glasses, heating more sake, and serving simple snacks. Matthew was always helpful, jumping up to help get things from the high cabinet, keeping the kittens occupied so that they wouldn't get underfoot, and even helping Yukiko to hang the futon out in the chilly winter sunshine.
When Setsubun time came around, it was Matthew who'd jumped around in a paper monster mask as Yukiko and her mother threw beans at him to expel any bad influences from their household...he'd been most persuasive, but then had taken off the mask, happily joining them in eating the number of beans that equalled his age...and he had also joined them in cheering Yukiko's grandfather's effort to eat all of his alloted beans.
Yukiko's mother treated Matthew like the son she'd never had, plying him with food and always trying to load him up with things that she was sure that he'd need in "that big old house." "Matthew-san has been here such a short time," she said, "But I can hardly remember what it was like before he moved in. He certainly is a kind man." Yukiko knew that her mother was also wondering if Yukiko was the real reason that Matthew spent so much time with them, but Matthew seemed to enjoy spending time with all three of them. He talked about business and politics with Grandfather, complimented Yukiko on her attempts at cooking, and taught her to play chess, and even tried to get Yukiko's mother to teach him how to arrange flowers. "Matthew-san!" Yukiko's mother chided him, "If you would like flowers, just ask....I will come over and do them for you, anytime! I'll be happy to help you brighten up that big old house."
Yukiko passed by her grandfather's shop and and went into the house. "I'm home!" she called out to her mother.
"Welcome home!" her mother called from upstairs.
Yukiko took off her winter shoes and stepped up into the entryway. Alice and Rabbit, the two kittens that Matthew had given her, bounced in from the family room to greet her. She scooped them up and went in to take off her coat and have some tea. Yukiko had named the kittens after the characters in a book that Matthew had given her. "Such difficult names!" her mother had complained, after Yukiko and Matthew had tried to teach her to say their names. "I suppose it's good for Yuki-chan to practice her English pronunciation, but these old ears are beyond learning such things!" Soon, everyone except Yukiko and Matthew was calling the kittens Ari-chan and Usa-chan for short. The kittens didn't seem to mind, though.
"Bilingual cats!" said Matthew with a laugh.
"If cats can learn two languages, perhaps babies can, too? If their parents speak to them in English and Japanese, for example...?" Yukiko's grandfather asked.
"Oh, yes, I'm sure it's even easier for babies," Matthew said.
The hints were almost constant, but Matthew never seemed bothered. Yukiko sighed. He WAS very handsome, and of course so kind, but Yukiko had given up on Matthew being interested in anything beyond friendship. He was always a perfect gentleman, and if she had misread the direct way that he met her eyes when she spoke or his quick smile for something more than polite interest, that was her mistake. Yukiko just wished that people would stop teasing her, because it was clear that she and Matthew were destined to be friends, and nothing more.
Yesterday Yukiko had spent the afternoon with her high school friends, Miyoko and Sachiko, and the talk had turned to marriage. Miyoko was married, but Sachiko was single. Yukiko, as a young widow, had something in common with both. She was treated as an adult, like Miyoko, but she was still free to do whatever she pleased, like Sachiko. Miyoko often teased Yukiko about Matthew, too, but always with half an eye on Sachiko's reaction. Miyoko had been the class leader in high school, and had always been outgoing and outspoken. She seemed to enjoy making naïve, innocent Sachiko ask silly questions, and then blush at her direct answers. "
But Yuki-chan, aren't you a bit...AFRAID of Matthew-san?" Miyoko asked as they prepared the oden for their party.
"Afraid? Of Matthew-san? Miyo-chan, he gets bullied by those kittens!" Yukiko said with a laugh.
"But...he's NOT JAPANESE," Miyoko said pointedly.
"Oh, really! Thank you for telling me, Miyo-chan. I hadn't noticed!" said Yukiko.
"Well, just be careful...you know what they say!" Miyoko said with a giggle.
"What? What?" Sachiko hated to be left out of the conversation.
"Umm...well, you know my cousin who lived in Hawaii? Before she moved there, the marriage broker told her to stay away from the American men because..." Miyoko lowered her voice, "Well, she said that THAT is the size of a daikon!"
"Oh," Sachiko said uncertainly, looking at the large white radish on the cutting board. "Oh, my."
"What, Satchan? Never seen a real live daikon?" Miyoko pressed her.
"Well, maybe a cucumber!" Sachiko answered thoughtfully. "When I walk too slowly by the public toilet!"
The three girls giggled, at that, and Miyoko and Yukiko called Sachiko "Cucumber Girl" for the rest of the day.
The cucumber jokes became somewhat strained, but at least, Yukiko thought, the conversation had turned to other things...Anyway, she had no need to worry about what kind of vegetable Matthew resembled, and it was better not to think too much about such things.
"Yuki-chan!" Yukiko's mother said as she came into the room, "Would you take those kittens over to Matthew-san's house? You know that we have to leave early tomorrow for the wedding, and they will tear up the shoji screens again if there's no one here to watch them." Yukiko's cousin was getting married, and the three of them were taking the train to Shizuoka for the ceremony.
"All right, I'll go now...I might have dinner there," Yukiko said, Matthew-san said that he wanted to teach me how to make stew."
"Well, you aren't very good at cooking Japanese food yet, I wonder if you might be more talented at Western cooking. Grandfather and I can heat up the oden and have that salmon, and the pickles that Abe-san brought over. Oh, and don't forget to take that bottle of whatever-you-call-it that the doctor sent your grandfather," Yukiko's mother said.
"Champagne?" asked Yukiko.
"Yes, that," her mother said, "And tell Matthew-san to come here for dinner next week."
Yukiko put her coat back on and called the kittens, "Alice, Rabbit, come on, let's go!" The kittens bounded up to see what was going on, and she scooped them up and cuddled them. Alice was mostly white with black patches, and Rabbit was all white. The kittens snuggled close as Yukiko put on her shoes and her mother hooked the bag with the champagne over her arm for her. Yukiko slid the door open and stepped back out into the cold.
Matthew's house was nice and warm, and the door was unlocked, as always. The kittens hopped out of Yukiko's arms and bounced off to find their brothers and sister. "Yuki-chan!" Matthew said when he heard her come in. Although they always referred to one another formally in company, the two of them had taken to calling one another Yuki and Matt when they were alone.
"Hello, Mattchan! What have you been up to?" Yukiko asked. "I brought some champagne!"
"Oh, that's perfect! You go sit in the living room and I'll show you what I made!" Matthew said with a grin. He headed off to the kitchen, and Yukiko took off her coat and sat down at the table. Many of the rooms in Matthew's big house were filled with elegant Western furniture that he said came from his grandparents, but the living room was Japanese style, with a kotatsu, a low table with a heater underneath. The tabletop was set on top of a thick quilt that hung down onto the floor...you could tuck your feet underneath and stay warm all day, although the whole house was toasty warm anyway. This was a real mystery to Yukiko, but when she asked, Matthew had told her that he'd had workmen come from his parents' house in Hokkaido to put in insulation and central heating. Yukiko's mother said that it was wastefully extravagant to heat the whole house up that way, and mustn't be very healthful at any rate. Foreign people, she supposed, did not have the physical stamina that Japanese people cultivated from a young age, though, so perhaps it was all right for them, but too much heat , like drinking cold beverages in summer or eating too many sweets, couldn't possibly be good for the body.
Yukiko respected her mother's way of thinking, but she loved Matthew's warm house and the baked goods that he was always making. Yukiko's family occasionally bought bread or even sweet buns at the bakery, but having an oven in the kitchen of one's own house was just as unheard-of as central heating.
"Look!" Matthew said as he brought in a big pink cake on a tray. "It turned out well, don't you think?"
"Oh, Mattchan, it's beautiful! A HEART, like on a playing card! Why did you make such a BIG cake?" Yukiko asked.
"Well," Matthew blushed, "It's the only way I know how to make a heart cake. My grandmother showed me...bake a square cake and a round cake and cut the round cake in half, stick them together with icing, and...a heart! If you put on enough icing, you can't see the seams, but it's an awful lot of cake, I know."
"No, it looks very good, but why didn't you just make a square cake, or a round cake," Yukiko laughed. "And PINK, that's NOT a very manly color!"
"Well, it IS Valentine's Day, so we had to have a heart." Matthew said with a wink.
"Valentine's Day? What's that?" Yukiko asked.
"Umm, yes, well, it's a day for sweethearts and lovers to show their affection. You give each other cards and gifts and sweets, and maybe drink a toast." He popped open the champagne with a flourish...Yukiko giggled as it bubbled over, and he mopped at the table after filling their glasses.
"Aha," Yukiko said, taking a sip, "Another Western holiday with cake and drinking...I see the pattern now!"
"Nooo!" Matthew laughed, "Not all Western holidays have cakes! Only Christmas...well, and now Valentine's Day....and birthdays, of course."
"SEE? I TOLD you!" Yukiko teased him. "Anyway, you should share your cake with your sweetheart, then. Abe-san was dropping some hints...maybe she wants the honor!" The champagne bubbles tickled her nose as she drank.
"Really?? Where are my shoes?" Matthew joked. "Abe-san!" He fell one knee, holding out an imaginary cake, "Abe-san, I love you! Would you please be my Valentine sweetheart?" He could always make Yukiko laugh.
"Mattchan!!" Yukiko giggled, "Why DON'T you have a sweetheart?
"ME?" Matthew laughed, "What about YOU? You are the one who's traipsing around like you haven't a care in the world! Don't you want to find a husband before you turn into Christmas cake? You can't be that far away from your twenty-fourth birthday, and no one wants a Christmas cake after the twenty-fifth...or so I've heard!"
Matthew stopped laughing when he saw that Yukiko was taken aback. "Mattchan, didn't you know? I was married already. My husband was killed in the war."
"Oh, Yukiko-san, I'm so sorry. I didn't know...how clumsy of me, and how rude. I meant no disrespect..."
"No, Mattchan, it's ok," Yukiko smiled at him, "Just I assumed that you knew already. Kiyoshi was a good husband to me, but we were married just a very short time, just three weeks, and it was an arranged marriage. I think of him fondly, but the truth is that I hardly had time to get to know him, and now I am happy living with my mother and grandfather, you know that."
Matthew looked embarrassed, "But still," he said, "I should have thought...Sometimes I forget that I don't really know Japan, and anyway, marriages and sweethearts and things like that are kind of beyond me. I shouldn't start conversations on subjects I know nothing about."
"But Mattchan, what about all of those American girls?" Yukiko asked gently, "You must have sweethearts across the sea..."
Matthew sighed. He sat back and took a long sip of champagne. "Oh, no. It's not like that with me. You seen, I never really fit in anywhere I go." He looked sad.
"Mattchan? Would you tell me?" Yukiko asked..."I'm sorry that I never asked about your life before you moved here. You must think that I'm very self-centered."
"No, no, I don't talk about it much. Most people wouldn't understand, they just ask out of curiosity or politeness...so I give them the short version. My parents were missionaries, I was born in Japan, I went to school in America, I moved back here when my grandparents died, my mother lives in Hokkaido now. That's the short version...but the truth is that the happiest I've ever been is living right here."
"Oh, Mattchan, I'm sorry. You must have had a difficult time." Yukiko met his eyes as he poured more champagne.
"Well, I don't mean for it to sound like that. I'm very lucky to have lived in two countries, to have had a lot of love from my family, but, as I said, I never seem to fit in anywhere. Maybe I never will," Matthew said seriously. His blue eyes looked far away as he told her the story. "My father died when I was just three years old. My mother had no family in the U.S., and she likes Japan so she stayed on to continue their church work, but anyway, a missionary's life is not very luxurious. I don't think that she was very good at converting people...a few older ladies from the neighborhood would come to study English and read the Bible, but it was more like a hobby for them. I think that my father was the religious one, and after he died, well, my mother just probably didn't feel the same enthusiasm anymore. She's a very good teacher, though...she taught me at home until I was ten years old. We had a Japanese housekeeper, and a gardener who came sometimes, and I would talk to them in Japanese, but of course I was a curiosity to the neighborhood kids. When I turned eleven, I tried to go to the local school, but on the first day some of the older boys beat me up so badly that I refused to go back. Then my mother wrote to my grandparents in Iowa, my father's family, and I was sent to live with them. They were wonderful to me...they had a big dairy farm, and I helped with the cows and went to school."
"So, you have school friends!" Yukiko said brightly. She didn't like to see him so sad.
"Well," Matthew said, "It was a rural school, just one room, with seven students. There were two big boys who came sometimes at first, but they dropped out when harvest season came around. Other than that, there were just four little kids, and me. I helped the teacher teach them, actually," he smiled at the memory, "and I had a lot to learn myself...I had never read any children's books, and so I loved to read to the little kids, or have them read to me!"
"Did you read the book about Alice and the rabbit then?" asked Yukiko, "In Iowa? And the one about Peter and Wendy and Captain Hook?"
"Yes, that's right!" Matthew said, "But the girls in the books were the closest I came to a sweetheart. Then, after high school my mother got married, to Sato-san...this was his parents' house, of course. They bought a farm in Hokkaido, and the three of us lived there until last year...then Sato-san's parents were getting too old to live alone, so they moved to Hokkaido, too...and I moved here to look after the place...and I'm sure that my mother thought I was wasting my life living out in the middle of nowhere."
"As if things are so exciting here!" Yukiko said.
"Well, I have to say that I have more of a social life here than I ever had before," Matthew told her. "I inherited some money from my grandparents, so I can support myself, and I like it here. I think I'll stay!"
"Well, everyone in the neighborhood is happy to have you," said Yukiko.
"And you, Yuki-chan?" Matthew asked, looking into her eyes, but hesitantly, almost as if he were frightened of the answer.
"Yes, Mattchan," she said gently, "I'm happy to have you here, too. So, didn't you have a sweetheart in Hokkaido? All those healthy farm girls?"
"Yuki-chan," Matthew said seriously, his eyes clouding, "I told you. It's not like that with me. I've...never...well, my stepfather, Sato-san, tried to take me 'out on the town,' as he called it, in Sapporo once...we stayed in a fancy hotel in the center of the city, and he gave me a bunch of money and told me to go "sow my wild oats"...but shopgirls giggle even when I go to buy shoes, and if that makes me shy...well, anyway, I could never, you know, put myself in that situation...so I just drank a lot, watched a movie, and went back to the hotel. I didn't want Sato-san to feel like he had failed as a stepfather, though, so I told him I'd been very popular," Matthew laughed, but without humor. "Sato-san said 'Now you are a man of the world, Matthew, but we won't tell your mother, now, will we?' I just let him think what he liked, but the truth is that I'd rather be alone forever than have to pay a girl to...well, anyway...that was the end of that. I'm sure that after three weeks of marriage, you are much more experienced in the ways of the world...even if I look more worldly and mature...it's just appearances. The reality is different."
"No, Mattchan," Yukiko said, "No, I understand perfectly. You don't need to be lonely anymore, and I'LL be your Valentine sweetheart."
"Yuki-chan? Do you mean...?" Matthew looked uncertain.
"Yes, of course I love you!!" Yukiko told him with a big smile, "You are very loveable, you know...but you were always SO polite and mannerly that I assumed you didn't want a sweetheart, or that you had one already! So, that's settled!! Give me a kiss!" She leaned over the table towards him, her eyes shut tight and lips puckered..
Matthew's kiss was very soft, not the big teasing smack of a kiss she had been expecting. Yukiko opened her eyes in surprise, and when she saw the expression in his blue eyes as he kissed her, she felt unsteady inside. She sat back and looked at him. He looked back. "Yes," he said quietly, in answer to her unspoken question, "First kiss."