“What is that?!” Franz’s father, Armin, gasped when his son’s friend O.G. erected the blindingly shiny and colorful construction he had bought for their living room.
“It’s a Christmas tree,” O.G. explained.
“What color is it?”
O.G. checked the label. “Rainbow,” he said.
“In my time, they used to be green,” Armin replied. He looked at the gold and silver accesories. “And there used to be less tinsel.”
“With the green, I can help,” O.G. said. He presented a can of spray paint. “Isn’t Tokyu Hands great? One-stop Christmas shopping.”
Franz’s father and his father-in-law, Katsu, jumped at the opportunity, happy to find a not-too-challenging, yet reasonably masculine task to silently bond over. “Please put newspaper under the tree,” Franz insisted, pointing at the stack beside the sofa.
“These look unread,” Armin noticed.
“Who has the time? I keep my subscription mainly for sentimental and charitable reasons.”
His father picked up a paper and read out: “July 5.”
“Just put it where it belongs,” Franz said. “Under the tree.”
Soon the older men were going about their business, earnest as men will. Franz could emphasize. True, he considered himself more inclined to intellectual labor than manual, but almost being a father himself had already changed his perspective. Successfully putting together all things baby from the bed to the changing table to several safety gates, he felt he had finally been welcomed into the echelons of manhood. Fathering a child had certainly been a step in the right direction, but attaching pieces of wood and metal by using nuts and bolts had brought him all the way. Now, he sometimes even felt the urge to discuss screwdriver sizes with other men.
While his father and father-in-law were busy making the Christmas tree resemble something that came out of the woods, Rumiko and Marianne, their wives, were glued to the television. They were watching “Spring Flower Rhapsody,” the South Korean soap opera Franz translated for a living. Rumiko was entirely engrossed in the tale of a courtesan uprising during the Joseon Era. Marianne could neither understand the spoken dialogue nor read the Japanese subtitles, but she liked the colorful costumes and funny hats.
Franz felt a sense of accomplishment. He went to the kitchen to get himself a congratulatory can of beer. He found Hina waiting for him. “I need to ask your opinion,” she said.
He noticed two things he didn’t like about the situation. One was his wife’s inquiry. Hina often asked his opinion, yet she was rarely interested in it as such. She just needed his stance to confirm that her hunch had been right all along. If Franz’s thinking diverged from the path Hina’s thoughts were already traveling on, she would argue so persistently that her husband would eventually cave in, whether by agreement or exhaustion. He couldn’t cave in too early, however, otherwise she would rightfully accuse him of not really being interested in the question. These days, her queries mainly referred to items for children. Not for babies, which might be considered more pressing at the moment, but for fully developed, walking and talking children. They possessed all the baby items they would ever need, and then some. Hina insisted they couldn’t be prepared enough as they wouldn’t have much time to shop once the child had joined them in the outside world. Franz assumed their lofts and closets already contained their unborn son’s entire wardrobe right up to elementary school, sealed air-tight in plastic, together with bags of poisonous-looking powders and crystals supposed to offer protection from the mold-friendly climate.
“My opinion about what?” he asked.
That was the second thing he didn’t like about the situation: His wife was preparing food. “I thought we agreed that you wouldn’t be cooking,” he said.
“I’m not. Really. Just the sauerkraut.”
He looked at her hands. They were deep in mushrooms. “Are we having sauerkraut with mushrooms? Lots of them?”
“No, they are for tomorrow,” she replied. “Mushroom soup.”
“I thought you were not cooking anything except sauerkraut.”
“I am not. Except mushroom soup. Speaking of which, if you go shopping later, can you buy nuts?”
“For the mushroom soup?”
“No, for the cake.”
“We said no baking …”
“I am not! Except cake.”
“We already ordered Christmas cake from that fancy bakery in the department store basement.”
“That one is mainly for Instagram. It’s not very big.”
“It costs a fortune.”
“Just buy the nuts!” Her eyes simultaneously begged and ordered. Desperation met fury.
Franz backed off.
“I’m sorry about the nuts business,” she relented. “I’m just nervous.”
“We still have a couple of months, and the doctor said everything is fine.”
“Not about that. About your parents.”
“They are fine, too. They get along well with your parents, and they like it here.”
“But they expected more.”
“They know you can’t do much under the circumstances.”
“Not of me, of you! Of Tokyo. I’m sure they didn’t expect to hang around Happy Road Oyamadai for their entire stay. They are first-time visitors. They’ll want to sightsee. They’ll want temples and shrines. Big city lights.”
“They said that?”
“No. But I can read the air.”
“My plan was to have a nice stay-at-home Christmas Eve with a hearty, pre-ordered meal, and classic TV programming that I already bookmarked on Youtube.”
“You will need a better plan.”
Andreas Neuenkirchen is a German novelist and essayist based in Tokyo. “Christmas on Happy Road” is a work of fiction. Some of the names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
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