Saki Tsushima (b. 1983). Picture in Picture. 2015. Takashina Gallery, HS25.263:950.

The bakery was usually dead quiet at this time of night. I had no idea why we stayed open until midnight during the week. We were on the ground floor of a financial district office building, so by an hour into my shift the place was pretty much deserted. I earned seventy-five percent of my pay, essentially, by just sitting behind the counter and tapping away at my phone. It wasn’t a bad job, really. I was surprised then that the shop manager was having trouble finding applicants, but now that I think about it, there aren’t a whole lot of people willing to put up with this kind of boredom when they could be at home watching TV, or having a nice dinner, or sleeping.

Anyway, that was why I didn’t realize that two customers had walked into the shop at 11:45 until one of them leaned over the counter and said, “Miss?” less than three inches away from my ear. I jumped, almost dropped my phone.

“Welcome to Takayama Bakery!” I said in a flustered rush, hurriedly patting the wrinkles out of my apron. “How can I help you?”

The customer, a man, stepped back and laughed. His face was a handsome kind of sharp and angular, enough to keep him from looking baby-faced, not so much as to seem aged. I guessed him to be in his mid-, maybe late twenties, though the impression of his light suit jacket and pants was of someone who’d had success belying those years. While he was a bit too flashy to be my type, I could imagine girls lining up to court him. I flashed a glance at his left hand. It didn’t surprise me to see that he wasn’t wearing a ring. Not the type to settle down, not yet.

Which was what surprised me about the woman next to him. She had this plain, innocent manner about her. Her hair ran down to the small of her back, in a way that suggested that she had never thought to keep it in any other fashion, and her clothes were a sort of generically pretty. I thought she was cute, but not the sort of person who would grab anyone’s attention. Not someone who would go for the extroverted, smiling fellow standing across the counter from me.

In fact, she looked like she didn’t want to be there at all. I could make out faint dried-out rivulets of tears running down either cheek, running down to where they would have dripped off her chin onto her soft pink blouse. She just stood off to the side, in front of the register, her unfocused gaze fixed on a point somewhere about a yard ahead of her feet that was nowhere in particular. Her hands clutched a small purse in front of her waist. It was as if I’d caught her in the middle of a reluctant bow.

Maybe it was just the man’s personality, but he seemed to be playing off his companion’s distress as if it were nothing. He hummed casually as he inspected the few remaining slices of cake and small pastries in the case. “I don’t even know where to start,” he said, like a teenage girl trying to figure out how best to spend her limited pocket money. “Yukino, what do you think?”

Yukino said nothing. I don’t know if she even realized where she was.

The man smiled. Just a minor speed bump, apparently. “I’ll take one each of what you’ve got left. Oh, and two small espressos.”

“Of course,” I said, still not really sure how to parse the scene before me. I turned around and spun up the coffee grinder. When was the last time anyone had asked for coffee this late at night? For that matter, when was the last time a crying girl had come in at any time of day, let alone with an apparently totally oblivious boyfriend?

I shot a glance over my shoulder. Yukino, the woman, hadn’t moved at all. If it hadn’t been for the tears, you could have convinced me that she was a remarkably lifelike mannequin.

Taking a deep breath, I pursed my lips and decided to focus exclusively on the work in front of me. My thoughts floated to my own boyfriend. Takao wasn’t an outrageously exciting person most of the time, but he was a decent, reliable guy. It had never occurred to me before that a relationship could lead to this kind of stifling, awkward atmosphere. I was still seventeen, and romance was all about flirtatiousness and fun and, of course, sex. That was why I’d gotten this part-time gig in the first place — money made for more interesting dates.

It took until I was halfway through fluffing up the milk to realize that I’d only been assuming that the two people on the other side of the counter were in a relationship at all. Maybe they were siblings, though honestly it would have taken me a lot of convincing. The two of them seemed so different, and the man, whose name I still hadn’t learned, looked to be having more trouble relating to Yukino than I ever did with my brother.

“Is she all right?” I asked the man as discreetly as I could, setting the drinks on top of the counter with a deliberate loudness to mask my voice. He seemed briefly taken aback by my question, as if I’d said I was seeing a ghost standing next to him. His eyes darted to his left, towards the woman I could still only fathom was his romantic partner, then returned to me.

“Oh,” the man said. “She’s… um, having a bit of a rough time today. It’s why I’m getting the cakes. Sweet things cheer her up, you know?”

“Your girlfriend?”

“Not quite?” The man’s intonation rose towards the end, as if he didn’t know the answer, then he laughed. “I just thought I’d do something nice for her.”

I nodded as I ducked behind the counter to pull out a box for the cakes. What was going through Yukino’s mind, if anything? The more I looked at her, the more I felt like she’d been stripped of true consciousness, reduced to a bundle of unthinking autonomic systems that were barely enough to keep her from falling over at that very moment. And what was with her not-quite-boyfriend? Now that the sheer bizarreness of the scene had worn off, an ill-defined anger began to take its place. I didn’t care if Yukino liked sweet things and that was why he was here, to try and do something for her — the fact that he was doing that while leaving her just standing there stock-still just struck me as wrong. Even Takao, as naive as he could be, knew not to do something like that.

Maybe the man didn’t know exactly what to do, but I couldn’t fathom how he thought the current state of affairs was even okay. My frustration expressed itself in the form of sloppy cake retrieval technique. I sliced a good inch from the bottom of one piece, accidentally crushed the strawberries and icing into the top of another one. The man looked on with some bemusement. I’m sure he thought that was just the incompetence of a part-timer, but I didn’t care. The damage was a surcharge for his poor treatment of that girl, and for coming in at a quarter to midnight right as I was getting ready to clock out. If I’d had the power to raise the prices directly, I would have.

I almost slammed the box shut as I brought it up on the counter. “Your total comes to 3,500 yen. How will you be paying today?”

The man pulled out a crisp 5,000-yen bill and handed it to me. “Sorry to cause you so much trouble,” he said. “Keep the change.”

Did he think he was cool, just leaving money on the table like that? I had no idea an older guy could infuriate me this much. Pretending I hadn’t heard him, I opened the till and left 1,500 yen by the register.

“Thank you,” I said, trying to bore my fury into his skull through eye contact alone. “Have a good night.” I forced my mouth into what I thought might be a good grotesque parody of a smile.

It didn’t matter. The man had already wrapped an arm around Yukino’s shoulder, handing her an espresso cup. “Here, Yukino. Something warm. Make sure not to burn yourself, all right?”

Yukino just nodded and brought the cup to her mouth for a second or two, then back down again. I was pretty sure none of the espresso even touched her lips.

“Later, then.” Picking up the box of cake and his own drink, the man walked out of the shop, Yukino trailing alone behind. The extra 1,500 yen sat untouched on the black marble countertop. I thought about ripping it up, or throwing it away, or running it through the paper shredder our manager kept in the back, but I came to my senses. What good would wasting this guy’s money do? It wasn’t like he’d suffer any particular loss after he’d already basically given it away, and technically those bills had never touched his hands. I stuffed the cash in my jeans pocket and sat back down in a huff. 11:52, read the clock on my phone.

Here I’d seen enough to make me want to punch someone in the stomach, and all I could do was stew on it for eight minutes, until the bakery closed. I kicked half-heartedly at the tiled wall separating the front of the shop from the kitchen, thought despondently of Takao, and then just cried, my tears vanishing into the yellow fabric of my apron.