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When the woman first met the man, he seemed for the most part ordinary. He had his oddities – he was shy and often had trouble finding words for his thoughts – but nothing about him struck her as suspicious. There were no obvious warning signs or alarm bells.
The two met online through a popular dating app and, after a few weeks of quiet, friendly conversation, agreed to meet for lunch at a quiet bistro by Shinjuku Gyoen Park. Neither was sure of what to say when they finally sat down, face to face. I apologise, the man said eventually, I haven’t been on a date in a very long time, and I don’t remember how this works. The woman replied with a reassuring smile. Let’s start with the weather, she said.
Their conversation was polite and reserved, the way it often is when people in their late 30s meet with the secret hope they are encountering a potential life partner. As they navigated the somewhat rocky path of getting to know one another, the woman began sketching a conversational outline of the man through his questions, answers, expressions, and gestures. There was not yet enough for a detailed portrait, but the woman was pleased with what she saw.
After lunch, the two took a stroll through the park. They passed by young couples, groups of friends, and families indulging in the warmth of early spring. They talked mostly about books. It was a simple, pleasant day that ended with the man walking the woman to the station, where he thanked her politely and said something that would play on her mind for the next few days.
It feels like it has been such a long time since I was happy, he said.
The woman and the man went on more dates, and though he was never completely at ease, in time he began to open up. It was a slow process. He did not offer personal information easily, though he seemed genuinely apologetic for it. He was timid in a way that reminded the woman of a small animal, unsure of its new owner after many long years of surviving alone.
Through their dates, at cafés and bistros, on walks and in art museums, a portrait of the man began to take shape in the woman’s mind, coloured with the specks of emotion she felt at the heart of their conversations and the stories he told in them. Little moments when his defences slipped, his eyes shined, and his heart showed.
The woman felt a kindness in the man and a lonely warmth, but underneath it something deep and unknowable, too. It was hidden somewhere beyond his occasional distant gaze and deep silence. He was a simple man with mysteries unique to his life, but this was true of all people, the woman thought, and so she let it go.
In this way, over time, their romance blossomed into something deeper and more heartfelt than either of them had expected, and for this the woman was grateful.
Eventually, the depth of their relationship brought with it new uncertainties and questions, the biggest of which regarded the future and whether it could accommodate a place for the two of them to share a life together.
For a time, the conversation around next steps was one that hovered like the ghost of things unsaid or a murky swamp on the map of his psyche. It was a place the woman did not want to visit uninvited, because it always seemed off-limits. She knew he avoided the topic, and she knew he had his reasons. Still, she also knew they could not avoid the swamp forever.
When the woman finally asked the man what he wanted, at a restaurant by the beachside in Kamakura, his long, pointed silence concluded with a warm and apologetic smile. I want to get married, he said. I never meant to make you wait so long, and for that, I am sorry. It was a dull and muted kind of marriage proposal, but it was dull and muted in a way that was genuine, and very much like the man she had grown to love.
It was a moment of joy for the two of them, and yet the woman sensed something else: a nervous uncertainty in the subtle movement of his eyes, and slightly longer silences filled with what felt like worried thoughts. Some part of her wanted to put a hand upon his own. To ask if something was bothering him. To ask if she could help. But the bigger part of her was silent, filled with a worry that giving a voice to doubt and fear would in turn give them shape, and thus bring them to life.
She told herself there was nothing to worry about, and when the moment had passed and their meals arrived at the table, she believed it, too.
On a warm summer day, the two visited the woman’s parents to announce their intended marriage. There was not much in the way of fanfare or celebration, only a particular sense of relief, found in the type of people who follow life like a checklist. The woman’s mother made a joke that perhaps now she could die happily and at peace, which was followed by polite, awkward laughter.
Time passed quietly. The woman and the man talked a little about their past dates and future plans. The man did his best to answer questions politely when asked but was noticeably silent when the conversation turned to his own parents and how glad they must be to see their only son finally find a wife. The woman gave her mother a short but knowing look and deftly changed the subject, much to the man’s near invisible relief.
Later, the woman would tell her mother that the man’s parents had both already passed away, his father when he was just a boy and his mother more recently. He had lived with his mother in a small house in Kiyosumi-shirakawa, and the two of them had carved out a quiet life together until the day he found her finally at rest. The man did not talk about his mother often, and the thought of her sometimes brought with it a long, deep silence. In that silence, the woman sometimes thought, were feelings she would never know the true shape or colour of.
They went to look at wedding rings in department stores. They toured potential apartments in the Shinagawa neighbourhood. They imagined a life with a cat they did not own but already had a name for. In their own slow and steady manner, they quietly planned for a small wedding.
The days were relaxed and easy, They were filled with a slow-building excitement, but it was laced with the kind of apprehension found only in people who inherently believe happiness is something that happens to other people.
Still, each morning the woman woke up, and their wedding was a day closer. The rings were picked out. They were on a waiting list for an apartment. They knew exactly which animal shelter they would visit to adopt their new pet. Life was moving forward, and the imagined future was becoming the lived-in present.
It’s the start of a new life, the woman once said. A life for just the two of us, the man replied.
The woman was not expecting the police when they arrived at her door. She was not expecting them to invite themselves inside. She was also not ready for any of their questions, but she answered them as best she could, given the circumstances.
Yes, I know the man by that name, she said. Yes, we are engaged. Yes, we are planning to get married. No, he has not mentioned his mother recently. No, he did not talk about her often. Yes, I knew they lived together. Yes, I knew she was deceased. No, he told me that she had passed away a few months before we met. No, I did not notice anything strange in the way he acted. No, he didn’t say anything strange. No, we had never been to Zushi or any of the stations by the beach there. No, I don’t think I saw him on August 13th, but I would have to check my diary.
The police were polite but distant. The woman sensed that though they wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt, they were not yet ready. She thought back to her first date with the man and the conversational outline she had sketched of him. She sensed the police were doing the same thing, and yet their questions felt deliberately obtuse. It was as though they had a portrait already in their minds, and their questions were meant to confirm the lines that would draw their expected picture.
What is this all about? the woman finally asked.
The police officers exchanged glances, and the senior one nodded. A woman’s body was found in a suitcase inside a coin locker at Zushi station, one of the officers said. We believe it belongs to his mother. Your fiancé has been taken into custody, where he is currently being interrogated.
Later, through a mix of police correspondence, television reports, and magazine articles, the woman would learn that the man had strangled his mother to death. He’d done it while she’d slept the night before they’d visited the woman’s parents to announce their marriage. Afterwards, he’d placed the body in a suitcase while he decided what to do with it. He had not wanted to pay for a funeral. He did not have time to clean up an old life while he planned for a new one.
The man had originally planned to chop the body into pieces so it could be easily disposed of, but he discovered that he could not bring himself to open the suitcase again. For the next few weeks, the suitcase had sat in the hallway while the man considered his options. He had gone to work as usual and visited a few apartments with the woman.
When the smell of the suitcase had begun to bother him, the man took an early train to Zushi. He had intended to throw the suitcase into the ocean but was unable to find a place where he could do so without being seen or noticed. He was afraid to use a taxi or a rental vehicle for fear of the smell, so he put the suitcase in a coin locker and planned to come back for after he had devised a new plan.
The suitcase and the body were discovered a week later, when station staff noticed a strange smell coming from the coin lockers. The police were called, and the body was taken for further investigation. That evening, a name was found stitched into the collar of the pyjamas the corpse was dressed in. It was later revealed that the man’s mother had done this to ensure her clothes were not lost on her visits to the hospital. From this name, the police obtained an address, where they discovered the man, who turned himself in without issue.
The man said that he did not hate his mother. He simply did not know what to do with her. I could not find a place for her in my new life, he said. This particular comment was printed in magazines, quoted on the television, and talked about online for approximately a week before the world forgot about the man, his mother, and the suitcase she was found in.
The woman did not meet the man again. He was taken to prison, and she made no attempt to visit him before he was eventually hanged. She would later learn that police officers who were interviewed about him said that he seemed for the most part ordinary. He had his oddities – he was shy and often had trouble finding words for his thoughts – but nothing about him struck them as suspicious.
She found it strange and terrifying to think that in the time she had known the man, she might never have known him at all. She thought of their first date, and the slow melting ice of his defences, and the life they had slowly planned together. She thought of the house they wanted to share, and the cat they wanted to raise, and how the hands she held during this time had also squeezed the life out of an elderly woman and placed her body in a suitcase.
When the woman lay down to sleep at the end of each long day, she wondered about the life they would have lived if the body had never been discovered. The rings they would have placed on each other’s fingers, and the apartment they would have shared as they built a quiet life together. She wanted to tell herself she would have found out, but the reality of her late night thoughts told her otherwise. She could see the man as a monster, yes, but she could not ignore the simple fact that for a time she had been in love with him, too.
She often thought about the portrait of the man that she had sketched in her mind. She ran over all the comments, the questions, the expressions and the silences, and she drew the face of the man she had known, over and over, and over and over, until she could no longer tell if it was the face she had known, or merely the face she had always wanted to see.