She was shaking.
This is how things would end? She had given the company everything she hadn’t given her kids. Everything she hadn’t given her husband.
As hard as it was for her to admit: love.
The clock on the wall said it was 4:46. They had waited until the end of the day to break up with her.
They told her not to go back for her things. Someone would send them.
All the better, she figured. She didn’t want her colleagues to see her face. She had never been one to turn to friends in times like this. The way her forehead wrinkled as her eyebrows furrowed. The tension in her cheeks. The way her nose scrunched as she held back tears. Those were only for the walls to see. For only the air to touch. And only occasionally, her husband.
She bore her suffering best alone.
But this time was different.
This time was different because it had to be.
“Mom, you’re home!” Maeko said as soon as Kimika entered the front door. “Tell Dad I can go to –”
“What’s wrong?” Toshio asked.
Hideki stuck his head out of the kitchen, then froze when he saw his wife’s face.
The whole family, all at once.
“Kids, let’s give Mom a moment.,” Hideki said.
Maeko and Toshio both opened their mouths, but for once, in the decade and a half or so either had been alive, they had no words. They each departed down the hall to their rooms.
“Daijoubu desu ka?” Hideki asked, barely above a whisper, when he was close to Kimika.
She shook her head. She was not okay. No part of her felt okay. She fell forward into his arms, and, while she didn’t hug him back, buried her forehead into his chest and allowed her eyes to burn.
Kimika had never wanted to be a mother.
It wasn’t that she had anything against children or even the act of parenting. She just never saw herself doing it.
Her parents thought she was being rebellious. They thought she was making a statement. They thought she wanted to be a modern woman, never mind how un-modern those words sounded. But it was never that complex for her. She simply never saw herself doing it.
But she did like boys. Some girls, but mostly boys. And of the boys she liked, she really liked Hideki. She liked him enough to believe that maybe, with him, kids might be okay. It would please her parents, and she had always wanted to please them, despite how much it looked like she didn’t.
So after they got married, they had a few short years to themselves before deciding to have kids. Then it was a few long years after that before they actually did. She blamed herself. Hideki never did. He said he enjoyed those years spent trying more than he had ever enjoyed trying to do anything else. Sometimes, when the younger Kimika would still slip up to the surface, she would allow herself to smile.
When Maeko was born, Kimika hated it. She hated being pregnant. She hated giving birth. She hated nursing. And in those early years, though she would never allow herself to say it, she hated Maeko. The crying never stopped. Maeko’s, and her own. Those were the months Hideki saw her tears most.
“Anata wa koko kara dete yo,” Hideki said to her. Get out of here.
Kimika glared at him.
Hideki glared back.
“Maeko no sewa o suru.” He would take care of Maeko.
His words stung. But she felt relief flood throughout her entire body.
She went back to work. And when Toshio was born, she barely stopped working long enough to pop him out. Hideki would take care of him, too.
Kimika loved her job. The results were tangible. When she finished designing a building, at some point she would be able to go out and touch it. The dots she connected on a screen would someday be planks of wood or bricks or concrete. She could run her hands along the textures, think back to all the time she spent, and see where it all went.
She felt the way about her homes the way other parents felt about their children.
She loved them. Unequivocally.
And she was good at making them. Or at least playing her part.
But she also had opinions.
“These designs are not practical.”
“They’re necessary,” Kimika said. “And they’re cheaper in the long run.”
“Cheaper for who? We’re in the business of selling homes, not maintaining them.”
“These houses will sell precisely because they’re better and they’re cheaper in the long run.”
“We can’t foot these upfront costs.”
We all will foot these costs, Kimika thought each day as she stepped out into a world of record-breaking droughts and wild fires and storms.
“You need to calm down,” Natasha told her at lunch one day.
“Calm down?” Kimika asked, incredulous. “This is too important.”
“They’re not going to change their minds. We don’t build those kinds of homes.”
“Right, because people don’t want to buy anything under 4,000 square feet.”
“More space for you to work your magic with.”
“And that’s why I’m not going to calm down. As if they will fire me.”
Kimika berated herself silently as she scooped rice into a bowl. She fumbled with the miso soup and natto, then stopped, her eyes heavy against closed eyelids, her clenched hands pressing her knuckles into the counter.
“It’s going to be okay, Mom.” Maeko said.
Kimika didn’t move.
“But, you know,” Toshio started. “It’s also okay for it to suck for a while.”
Kimika turned to face her son at the kitchen table. She almost smiled. She wanted to. But life takes a while to sprout after a blaze.
Instead she composed herself enough to bring the food to the table.
Maeko and Toshio looked at the food, then each other. They had been preparing their own breakfast for years, but Mom left the house before they did. Or she used to.
Life got easier. Or rather, Kimika got grew accustomed to it. She knew she was fortunate. Hideki had never quit working. His company was happy to bring him on full-time again. It wouldn’t be permanent, she told herself. It couldn’t be.
But life went on. She cooked (or learned to cook). She cleaned (or learned to clean). She helped her kids with homework (that one she already knew how to do). By the time Maeko graduated high school, Kimika was sad to see her go. Maeko was sad to leave.
Maeko stood at the doorway to her dorm room. There were no more boxes to bring in. Hideki and Toshio were back in the car, which had to move soon.
“I’m going to miss you,” Kimika said. It felt like what she had to say. But she also meant it.
“I’m going to miss you, too.” Maeko said. Same.
“Mom,” She started as her mom began to leave.
“These past few years with you have been the best.”
Kimika didn’t know what to say. But the tears that pooled behind her eyes, this time they didn’t burn. They were heavy, yes, but like a downpour flooding water into the cracks of a deprived earth.
“Daijoubu desu ka?” Hideki asked, barely above a whisper, as they pulled away from campus.
Kimika didn’t speak. She only looked out the window as the rain fell.