This is Chapter 3 of the novel “Welcome to the Raindance Cafe” by Yama Yamasaki (山崎山). I’ve talked to the author and gotten his permission to translate and put it on my blog.
As usual, if you like this story please like and/or comment on this post to help me decide whether to translate more of this or to move on. You can also see this survey where you can vote for this story, or others for me translate.
Thanks to Nijima Melodiam for helping to proofread this chapter.
(Note: you can see a link to this story’s table of contents which contains links to other chapters and the summary here)
Welcome to the Raindance Cafe by Yama Yamasaki
Chapter 3: Lonesome Pop Star (Part 1)
For the next two weeks–technically only 8 working days–I had devoted myself to learning the ropes at the cafe and finally got into a good routine that began when I entered the front door and ended when my shift was over.
I’d already become an important part of the cafe’s operation. But it’s all thanks to Rei. If she hadn’t been kind enough to train me so thoroughly, I don’t think I ever would have become this productive. She was my superior in the real sense of the word, and I was happy to learn all of her knowledge and skills.
However, the feelings I felt towards her neither blossomed nor wilted, remaining frozen in some strange deadlock. Maybe it would be better to say that it was only our relationship as superior and subordinate that developed, and in the absence of any other changes between us my emotions simply spun in an endless loop. But all is as it should be. These two weeks I was focused entirely on getting accustomed to the job, and my shifts were much shorter than Rei’s, who was there all day. And yet, I had to admit I was still in love. That’s why taking some action towards the target of my affection was the key to success–or at least that’s what I read on a news site yesterday. I wanted to get closer to Rei; after all, she was the reason I applied to this job in the first place. But even though I knew I had to do something sooner or later, I hadn’t yet taken any definite action towards that goal, which only served to preserve the neutral distance between us. This annoyed me to no end, and yet I couldn’t for the life of me think of any plan to close this distance. I was completely clueless about what to do. Even though fewer than ten days had passed since we first met, I was painfully aware of my life’s regretful lack of romantic experience.
“Jun, would you mind bringing that over here?”
“Of course not.”
So, as a baby step, I tried to get involved in work where I would be physically close to her. It may have only helped me make progress toward my goal a tiny bit, but even an ocean begins with a single drop of water. Putting up the decorations for upcoming Halloween was one of such tasks.
It just so happens that the manager had a tendency to dramatize things, and for Halloween he replaced all the cafe’s curtains. Apparently this cafe’s original gloomy decor was also due to his tastes, but here they went as far as completely changing the menu for each and every holiday, an effort that outdid even the local train-station cafes. But there was no denying they were just trying to enjoy themselves, with no concern for actually attracting customers.
“Alright, that’s it for the curtains. Thanks for your help, Jun.”
Rei climbed down from the stepladder with a look of satisfaction in a job well done.
We had replaced simple, white curtains with thick, dark burgundy ones befitting of Halloween, taking the usual gloomy atmosphere to a new, disturbing level. But I guess as long as Rei liked these, I wasn’t likely to do anything impolite like oppose them.
Of course it wasn’t just the curtains–nearly everything about the cafe had been changed for Halloween. The place’s entire atmosphere was transformed in a mere two weeks since I was hired, though it’s true that it was mostly Rei and I who did the transforming.
“OK, good job with the Halloween decorations guys. You can take a break now if you like.”
“Sure, we’ll do that.”
The manager appeared from the kitchen and placed our lunches and coffee on the counter in front of us. It seemed that any task, if given enough attention, made me lose track of time–even something like putting up these decorations, something we did to kill time when there was no customers around. The hour hand of the clock, having reaching its peak, began to edge slowly downwards.
Rei faced the counter, eyes glittering as they always did around this time. One thing I learned during these two weeks was that she loved eating more than anything else. Whatever was served, she enjoyed every bite. This conjured up images of the manager feeding a pet animal. I hoped that there was no truth to this fantasy of mine.
As always I sat down next to Rei. Naturally, I made sure to avoid getting too close.
“Wow! This food looks great!”
“Yeah, sure does.”
Rei and I put our hands together in prayer for a moment, giving thanks to the ingredients used in the meal and the manager who prepared it.
Today’s lunch was paninis, Italian style sandwiches. Sometimes you’ll see chain restaurants near the train stations that serve these, but ours were much larger. In any case, size didn’t matter much to Rei as long as she could jam the food into her mouth and chew; she would just hold the sandwich with both hands, tear a piece off with her teeth and munch on it happily. From Rei’s appearance, you’d never guess she’d eat in such a barbaric way. But that is what really made her great–though I feel a little crazy saying this.
I followed Rei’s lead and, holding it in both hands, took a big bite out of my panini. Oh yeah, this was delicious. Unquestionably delicious. It was delicious enough to make me think we might get some more customers just on account of this sandwich.
“Don’t you guys think this place looks wonderful? We’re finally ready for Halloween.”
Putting aside the matter of whether this was “wonderful”, the manager was ecstatic for having redecorated the cafe to his heart’s content.
As he didn’t show much appreciation for all our hard work decorating, I decided to rock his self-complacent boat and hit him with a question I had.
“By ‘ready’, do you mean that there’s some event you hold here each year?”
“Darling, you see, the crowd always picks up on Halloween, whether we have an event or not. Everyone comes to see you-know-who.”
The manager pointed to Rei, who was finishing her last bite next to me.
“That’s right honey. Everyone comes to see the special halloween version of Rei.”
“Oh yeah, of course…That’s why right around this time in autumn it gets a little busier…”
Having just finished her sandwich, Rei nodded indifferently several times. This girl hadn’t even figured out that she was being complimented.
Indeed, Rei’s uniform was a bit different than the typical maid uniform. There was orange splashed around a few places like the cuff of her sleeves and the hem of her skirt, matching well with black to make ideal halloween colors. The headband she wore with small, black horns made her the epitome of the “little devil”. I thought her outfit was pretty unique, but I guess I can understand what the manager meant by her special halloween version.
“Ok guys, pretty soon things are going to get a little busy, so I’ll be relying on you.”
“No problem, sir.”
The manager disappeared into the kitchen, his last remark sounding like a general ordering soldiers to the battlefield.
While we might get a few more customers thanks to Rei, to be honest, it was hard to believe this would be much of a significant change to the place. The stagnant atmosphere here made that painfully clear.
Trying to avoid disturbing her as much as possible, I casually posed a question to Rei as she happily drank her coffee.
“The manager didn’t force you to wear that outfit, right?”
“I wouldn’t say he exactly threatened me, but he did request I wear something Halloween-ish.”
“I see. So why did you pick a maid costume?”
“It’s just something I liked and really wanted to wear. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have wanted you to try it on.”
I shuddered. That incident the other day was truly a bona-fide crisis.
“On the day I got hired, I asked the manager what I should wear. He said anything was fine, so I thought I might as well wear a maid outfit.”
I had no idea what she meant by ‘might as well’, but the only thing I could infer from this is that the manager was putting Rei into a special category apart from all the other employees, girl or guy alike. I had trouble believing that he had even entrusted her with the cafe’s wardrobe. Was this guy actually the manager? Maybe Rei was the real reason everyone had quit. May those nameless, maid outfit-wearing victims rest in peace.
“There’s nothing more functional, cute, and well-suited to this job than a maid outfit. And yet, nobody wants to put it on! Can you believe it? I’m sad, so terribly sad…”
Rei began sobbing, wiping her tears with her apron. But–for the sake of future hires crying themselves to sleep–I’d better let her know it’s not that easy for some people to hop over the fence of gender.
“Don’t you think that everyone should try wearing a maid costume at least once? I really just want people to know what’s so great about them. I think anyone who tries one on will discover a new, amazing world they’d never even dreamed of!”
Actually no, I think that world is truly not meant to be discovered.
But if this conversation escalated any further, I think my health would be at risk. So I tried to diffuse things with a mild rebuttal, as if gently pushing in her protruded lips.
“Yes, that maybe true, but everyone has a different taste in clothes. And if you force your taste on others, it might backfire, don’t you think?”
“Uh…Yeah that’s true but…”
“If you really want others to understand what’s great about maid costumes, I think a little give-and-take is important. Now is the time to back down and give them some space. When the time comes, I bet everyone will probably realize that you were right about this.”
“Oh, that makes sense…”
While I was saying this, I felt like I was somehow condemning myself instead of Rei. I not only had trouble with the “giving” side of things, but I was completely unable to “take” as well.
However, Rei nodded to herself quietly in acquiescence; my lame attempt at a counter-argument seemed to actually strike a chord in her. I could just imagine her being persuaded by some salesman to buy a million-dollar piece of useless pottery. I made a mental note to warn her about this someday. Living alone truly has its dangers.
While all this was happening I had polished off my panini. Just as I thought, the massive sandwich was quite filling and the coffee thoroughly delighted my tongue and full belly–though I would not expect any less from the manager’s coffee. For a little while Rei and I wallowed together in feelings of utter satisfaction. At this rate, my stomach would become a slave of the manager, though I was pretty much a slave of Rei already.
With both our minds and bodies captivated by the manager’s culinary prowess, a familiar high-pitched sound suddenly rang throughout the cafe. It was the new doorbell we’d just installed on the front door. Even during our break the cafe was still technically in business, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise for a customer to drop by. Though for this place, I guess it was sort of a surprise.
Taking advantage of this perfect chance to return to work, we immediately put our plates on the other side of the counter and headed towards the sound. After all, every customer counted. And so with a wide smile I’d learned from Rei, I said,
But I faltered partway through, uncertain of whether to continue or not.
Standing in the doorway was a little girl, donning a beret, ink black sunglasses like you see in classic detective shows, and a mask that concealed most of her face. I could tell this customer was a girl thanks to the red checkered skirt that peeked out under her white coat and light brown pigtails dangling under her beret. Unlike Rei, my sense of fashion didn’t blur the gender boundary, so I could tell someone’s gender just from a glance at their clothes, and the pigtails removed any doubts I had. But if I was wrong and this was actually a guy, I’d really be concerned about our country’s sexual norms.
The girl gave us a quick glance and took a seat in the rear of the cafe, below where we had been putting up curtains only moments earlier. She leisurely opened her menu and began to flip through it.
Rei and I still hadn’t moved an inch. I couldn’t see her expression from where I was, but I was in the grip of some indescribable fear. The temperature in the room seemed to suddenly have risen two degrees, but when I realized this was an illusion caused by my nerves, an uncomfortable sweat broke out on my forehead. Judging from her appearance, if there was ever a suspicious person, it was her. In my entire life, I’d never seen someone this blatantly suspicious, nor did I imagine such a person would actually come visit where I worked.
While I was deeply regretting not taking a self-defense class, she looked up from the menu and towards our general direction. I could feel her gaze from behind those inorganic-looking lenses. It seems she was ready to order.
I held my breath. I knew I had to take her order, but no matter how hard I tried, my legs wouldn’t budge. That’s when I heard Rei speak.
“I’ll take her order.”
She announced this casually, as if it was the easiest thing in the world, and walked over to the girl’s table.
The customer gestured what she wanted on the menu while Rei took her order like she always did. But was something more sinister going on here? I also got the impression they were deep in some important conversation. The young girl’s expression didn’t reveal anything, but Rei had a genuine smile as if she was talking to an old friend.
As I stood helpless, still frozen in shock, Rei returned to the kitchen with her usual jolly gait, apparently having finished taking the customer’s order.
“Manager! I’ve got an order for a bolognese cheese toast, pastrami panini, cheesecake, and a cafe au lait.”
Wow, that was a mouthful. How hungry was this girl?
After energetically announcing the order to the kitchen, Rei turned towards me with a hint of a smile.
“Hey Jun. I’m sorry to bother you, but would you mind serving the food for this customer when it is ready?”
“Huh? Oh, of course…”
Rei didn’t seem the least bit fazed by the situation. It dawned on me that if Rei was going to be this calm, there was probably no reason for me to be concerned either. But one can’t be too careful. I’m sure Rei, an experienced waitress, is doing her best to maintain a smile in front of customers, and the presence of a suspicious-looking customer doesn’t change that.
A little while later, the manager called me to come pick up the bolognese and panini from the kitchen. Oddly enough, even he had a big smile on his face. Perhaps he was in cahoots with this customer. Maybe they were planning to play a prank on the new kid.
Turning my back on Rei and the manager–their foreboding smiles showing no signs of receding–I put the two plates onto a tray and reluctantly headed for the unsavory customer’s table. It was then that I finally realized how strange it was for Rei to have taken the order, but leave the serving up to me. But having already picked up the plates, failing to complete the job would likely arouse her suspicion. My stomach was starting to hurt.
“I’m terribly sorry for the wait. This is the bolognese and panini, and–”
Seeing her staring at me, I suddenly forgot what I was saying.
Her expression wasn’t visible. Some sort of inorganic terror came over me, as if a robot was glaring at me. My instincts had been right about this girl. She took being suspicious to a whole new level. I had to serve the food and get out of here pronto.
I managed to force an awkward smile and tried to return to the kitchen, but she thrust the palm of her hand out towards me. The meaning of this gesture was apparently “Wait!”. I just wanted to go home. But if I ignored her request, there was no telling what she would do to me, so I simply froze in place.
“Can you keep a secret?”
She asked me skeptically. There was something about her voice…I’d heard it somewhere before. Somewhere deep in my memory I could hear the same voice played back.
“Hey, are you listening? I said ‘Can you keep a secret?’ ”
When she urged me to answer I felt the spinning sense of deja vu in my head evaporate into nothingness.
“No…it’s just that I’m too young to ruin my life, so…”
“What? Ruin your life how?”
“Huh? But I thought you were here to sell drugs…”
“Who said I was a drug dealer?! I simply asked if you could keep a secret!”
“I’m so sorry, but I’m still a young guy. Can you please pretend this never happened.”
“Who is–aggh! This is hopeless! You aren’t even listening to me…Rei!”
My desperate attempt to resist her did the trick. Rei responded to the customer’s call, bringing the rest of the food (except the cheesecake) and the cafe au lait to the table. Knowing Rei’s first name and addressing her so impolitely–this girl was probably a regular customer here.
“Rei! You better not let this guy get away with insulting me like this! Why? Why does someone like me who just exudes celebrity have to be treated like an outlaw?!”
“I don’t know what is going on here, but I think you should start by showing us your face.”
Rei placed everything on the tray in front of the girl, the waitress making no attempt to hide her frustration.
Did asking her to show her face mean she was a wanted criminal? If so, then perhaps I should call the police immediately. Even Rei is acting like she knows something now. There very well may be something terrible happening here, unbeknownst to me.
“Ok, I guess I have no choice.”
The girl gave a deep sigh, glanced at me and then sighed once more. She looked carefully around the cafe, then opened the curtains slightly and peeked outside. Once all that was done, she placed her hand on her sunglasses and mask and slowly removed them.
When I saw her face, I couldn’t help but blurt out something idiotic. This was neither a drug dealer neither a wanted criminal. It was someone that even I was familiar with, not to mention Rei.
Having said that, I’d never actually seen this girl before in person. I simply felt like her face was floating around in some corner of the collective zeitgeist. But when I saw it, I finally understood the reason that she was trying to hide her identity, and why she was so paranoid about her surroundings.
Several years ago, there was a performer who–like a shooting star–had suddenly become popular, and then shortly after (again like a shooting star) disappeared completely. The legendary pop star who shook Japan.
“–It’s Mekuru Kira!”
“No, actually that’s Momoko Sawai.”
“Hey, that’s my real name! It was never released to the public!”
In those days she was at the top of the charts, but the tempestuous entertainment world ate and spit out this unlucky girl out. However to this day, there wasn’t a soul who didn’t remember her, a performer with real talent who had been popular with all ages.
But why was someone who had rocked the world back then here in this cafe? And why did Rei address her on a first name basis and speak so casually like they were friends?
In the midst of a storm of doubts, a single thought dominated my average Joe-mind.
This girl, unlike me, had been a shining star on screen in those days. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine seeing her in a place like this. But this unbelievable thing was happening now, before my very eyes.
I felt hopelessly engulfed by the swirling currents of fate.