“The Night, My Wife, and the Detergent"
by Kaori Ekuni, from the collection Somber Slumbers (Nurui Nemuri)
I want to get separated, my wife said. We gotta talk.
It was already 10 PM. I was tired. My wife and I are in the fifth year of our marriage, no kids.
You can pretend you don't see it, she said. But even if you pretend, this isn't going to go away.
Without responding, I continued to watch TV, but she turned the damn thing off. What I was pretending not to see, what wasn't going to disappear, I hadn't the faintest. Same as always.
I saw, as my wife stood blocking my way and glaring down at me, that her pedicure was chipping off.
“Oh, nail polish remover!”
I said. You don't have nail polish remover, so you can't take your pedicure off. That's why you're all upset, right?
My voice was half full of hope and half full of relief. My wife shook her head.
“So then it's those cotton balls. Even if I told you to use tissues instead, you're saying you definitely could not use them, so it's 'cause you don't have any of those cotton balls.”
She sighed - no, she said. That's not what I'm saying at all. I have nail polish remover and cotton balls. I haven't taken my pedicure off because I'm too busy. I just don't have the time to take care of my nails.
Time. I give up.
I love my wife, and I wish I had her strength. But I don't know what to do when she asks for things you can't get at convenience stores.
“Hey, listen to me. I really think we should live separately. I'm sure we could become really good friends.”
I was getting real sick of this. Can't she just leave it alone for tonight?
“About how many trash bags do we have left?”
As a husband, I decided to give my best to her. But the thing you need to know about my wife is that she answers questions. Even when she's angry, even when she's crying, if you ask her a question, she always answers.
“How about detergent? Milk? Diet Pepsi?”
I listed off the things my wife needed in her daily life.
“Well, we have a lot of trash bags. As far as detergent goes, we only have the bottle we're using now, but we have milk and diet Pepsi too. But that has nothing to do with what I'm trying to say to you right now. Please, listen seriously.”
I wasn't listening. I already had my shoes on and was at the door. Stop, or, listen, or whatever my wife was saying at my back, I went outside and headed to the convenience store. The windows in all the houses along the way were lit.
The detergent my wife likes is in a pink bottle. There are several brands with pink bottles, but it's the one with the pink cap as well that's the lucky guy. I bought five of them. I bought diet Pepsi and milk too. And trash bags and nail polish remover. And cotton balls. And while I was at it, an onigiri.
The bag was real heavy. The white plastic bag rustled and crinkled in such a way that I thought it was going to tear apart on the way home.
My wife looked miserable standing at the front door.
“Why would you buy so much?
The amount is crucial.
She sighs again as I pull out the contents of the bag one at a time. You really don't listen when people talk to you, huh. Didn't I tell you we already had diet Pepsi? And milk. And trash bags.
Then, she bursts out laughing.
“Why are you like this, honey? You don't listen to anything do you?"
She's holding the nail polish remover in her hands.
Kaori Ekuni is another famous contemporary author. She's won, among others, the Murasaki Shikibu Prize 1992 and the Naoki Prize in 2004. Not only a literary fiction writer, she is famous for her young adult fiction, poetry, and translations (including poetry by e. e. cummings. and my favorite children's book, The Runaway Bunny. Aw...) Her works have been made into films and she's celebrated for her depictions of modern relationships.
I've been looking through nice short pieces to add to this site, and this Ekuni collection was one of the many that I came across at Book-Off, and now one of the fraction of books that survived the transatlantic voyage to my house (I don't know what happened, but somehow when the package got to my door, it was badly damaged and missing over 30 books. Including some of the Genichiro Takahashi novels I spent weeks trying to find... very upsetting). Anyhow, I was just rifling through the book and this one stood out for it's length. Now that school is upon me I can't devote the time I'd like to long form translations except the ones I'm doing to graduate, so my apologies that the works I put up here are selected for their overall shortness, and not for their literary value. Still, despite its brevity, the story condenses nicely the problems of many Japanese (and others) failed relationships.
If you liked this short story, then you should check out Ekuni's only published work in English, Twinkle Twinkle, which was put out a few years ago by Vertical.