Full Read the Online Chapter 2 of the Norwegian Wood Book by Haruki Murakami for free.
Norwegian Wood Book Chapter 2: Once upon a time, many years ago – just 20 years ago, in fact – I was living in a dormitory. I was 18 and a first-year student. I was new to Tokyo and new to living alone, and so my anxious parents found a private dorm for me to live in rather than the kind of single room that most students took. The dormitory provided meals and other facilities and would probably help their unworldly 18-year-old survive. Expenses were also a consideration.
A dorm cost far less than a private room. As long as I had bedding and a lamp, there was no need to buy a lot of furnishings. For my part, I would have preferred to rent a flat and live in comfortable solitude, but knowing what my parents had to spend on enrolment fees and tuition at the private university I was attending, I was in no position to insist. And besides, I really didn’t care where I lived.
Located on a hill in the middle of the city with open views, the dormitory compound sat on a large quadrangle surrounded by a concrete wall. A huge, towering zelkova tree stood just inside the front gate. People said it was at least 150 years old. Standing at its base, you could look up and see nothing of the sky through its dense cover of green leaves.
The paved path leading from the gate circumvented the tree and continued on long and straight across a broad quadrangle, two threestory concrete dorm buildings facing each other on either side of the path. They were large with lots of windows and gave the impression of being either flats that had been converted into jails or jails that had been converted into flats. However there was nothing dirty about them, nor did they feel dark. You could hear radios playing through open windows, all of which had the same cream-coloured curtains that the sun could not fade.
Beyond the two dormitories, the path led up to the entrance of a two-story common building, the first floor of which contained a dining hall and bathrooms, the second consisting of an auditorium, meeting rooms, and even guest rooms, whose use I could never fathom. Next to the common building stood a third dormitory, also three storeys high. Broad green lawns filled the quadrangle, and circulating sprinklers caught the sunlight as they turned. Behind the common building there was a field used for baseball and football, and six tennis courts. The complex had everything you could want.
There was just one problem with the place: its political smell. It was run by some kind of fishy foundation that centered on this extreme right-wing guy, and there was something strangely twisted – as far as I was concerned – about the way they ran the place. You could see it in the pamphlet they gave to new students and in the dorm rules. The proclaimed “founding spirit” of the dormitory was “to strive to nurture human resources of service to the nation through the ultimate in educational fundamentals”, and many financial leaders who endorsed this “spirit” had contributed their private funds to the construction of the place. This was the public face of the project, though what lay behind it was extremely vague.
Some said it was a tax dodge, others saw it as a publicity stunt for the contributors, and still others claimed that the construction of the dormitory was a cover for swindling the public out of a prime piece of real estate. One thing was certain, though: in the dorm complex there existed a privileged club composed of elite students from various universities. They formed “study groups” that met several times a month and included some of the founders. Any member of the club could be assured of a good job after graduation. I had no idea which – if any – of these theories was correct, but they all shared the assumption that there was “something fishy” about the place.
In any case, I spent two years – from the spring of 1968 to the spring of 1970 – living in this “fishy” dormitory. Why I put up with it so long, I can’t really say. In terms of everyday life, it made no practical difference to me whether the place was right wing or left wing or anything else.
Each day began with the solemn raising of the flag. They played the national anthem, too, of course. You can’t have one without the other. The flagpole stood in the very center of the compound, where it was visible from every window of all three dormitories.
The Head of the east dormitory (my building) was in charge of the flag. He was a tall, eagle-eyed man in his late fifties or early sixties. His bristly hair was flecked with grey, and his sunburned neck bore a long scar. People whispered that he was a graduate of the wartime Nakano spy school, but no one knew for sure. Next to him stood a student who acted as his assistant. No one really knew this guy, either. He had the world’s shortest crewcut and always wore a navy-blue student uniform. I didn’t know his name or which room he lived in, never saw him in the dining hall or the bath.
I’m not even sure he was a student, though you would think he must have been, given the uniform – which quickly became his nickname. In contrast to Sir Nakano, “Uniform” was short, pudgy and pasty-faced. This creepy couple would raise the banner of the Rising Sun every morning at six. When I first entered the dormitory, the sheer novelty of the event would often prompt me to get up early to observe this patriotic ritual. The two would appear in the quadrangle at almost the exact moment the radio beeped the six o’clock signal.
Uniform was wearing his uniform, of course, with black leather shoes, and Nakano wore a short jacket and white trainers. Uniform held a ceremonial box of untreated paulownia wood, while Nakano carried a Sony tape recorder at his side. He placed this at the base of the flagpole, while Uniform opened the box to reveal a neatly folded banner. This he reverentially proffered to Nakano, who would clip it to the rope on the flagpole, revealing the bright red circle of the Rising Sun on a field of pure white. Then Uniform pressed the switch for the playing of the anthem.
“May Our Lord’s Reign…”
And up the flag would climb.
“Until pebbles turn to boulders …”
It would reach halfway up the pole.
“And be covered with moss.”
Now it was at the top. The two stood to attention, rigid, looking up at the flag, which was quite a sight on clear days when the wind was blowing.
The lowering of the flag at dusk was carried out with the same ceremonial reverence, but in reverse. Down the banner would come and find its place in the box. The national flag did not fly at night.
I didn’t know why the flag had to be taken down at night. The nation continued to exist while it was dark, and plenty of people worked all night – railway construction crews and taxi drivers and bar hostesses and firemen and night watchmen: it seemed unfair to me that such people were denied the protection of the flag. Or maybe it didn’t matter all that much and nobody really cared – aside from me. Not that I really cared, either. It was just something that happened to cross my mind.
The rules for room assignments put first- and second-year students in doubles while third- and final-year students had single rooms. Double rooms were a little longer and narrower than nine-by-twelve, with an aluminium-framed window in the wall opposite the door and two desks by the window arranged so the inhabitants of the room could study back-to-back. To the left of the door stood a steel bunk bed.
The furniture supplied was sturdy and simple and included a pair of lockers, a small coffee table, and some built-in shelves. Even the most well-disposed observer would have had trouble calling this setting poetic. The shelves of most rooms carried such items as transistor radios, hairdryers, electric carafes and cookers, instant coffee, tea bags, sugar cubes, and simple pots and bowls for preparing instant ramen. The walls bore pin-ups from girlie magazines or stolen porno movie posters. One guy had a photo of pigs mating, but this was a farout exception to the usual naked women, girl pop singers or actresses. Bookshelves on the desks held textbooks, dictionaries and novels.
The filth of these all-male rooms was horrifying. Mouldy mandarin skins clung to the bottoms of waste-paper baskets. Empty cans used for ashtrays held mounds of cigarette butts, and when these started to smoulder they’d be doused with coffee or beer and left to give off a sour stink. Blackish grime and bits of indefinable matter clung to all the bowls and dishes on the shelves, and the floors were littered with instant ramen wrappers and empty beer cans and discarded lids from one thing or another. It never occurred to anyone to sweep up and throw these things in the bin.
Any wind that blew through would raise clouds of dust. Each room had its own horrendous smell, but the components of that smell were always the same: sweat, body odour and rubbish. Dirty clothes would pile up under the beds, and without anyone bothering to air the mattresses on a regular basis, these sweatimpregnated pads would give off odours beyond redemption. In retrospect, it seems amazing that these shitpiles gave rise to no killer epidemics.
My room, on the other hand, was as sanitary as a morgue. The floor and window were spotless, the mattresses were aired each week, all pencils stood in the pencil holders, and even the curtains were washed once a month. My room-mate was a cleanliness freak. None of the others in the dorm believed me when I told them about the curtains. They didn’t know that curtains could be washed. They believed, rather, that curtains were semi-permanent parts of the window. “There’s something wrong with that guy,” they’d say, labelling him a Nazi or a storm trooper.
We didn’t even have pin-ups. No, we had a photo of a canal in Amsterdam. I had put up a nude shot, but my room-mate had pulled it down. “Hey, Watanabe,” he said, “I-I’m not too crazy about this kind of thing,” and up went the canal photo instead. I wasn’t especially attached to the nude, so I didn’t protest.
“What the hell’s that?” was the universal reaction to the Amsterdam photo whenever any of the other guys came to my room.
“Oh, Storm Trooper likes to wank looking at this,” I said.
I meant it as a joke, but they all took me seriously – so seriously that I began to believe it myself.
Everybody sympathized with me for having Storm Trooper as a roommate, but I really wasn’t that upset about it. He left me alone as long as I kept my area clean, and in fact having him as my room-mate made things easier for me in many ways. He did all the cleaning, he took care of sunning the mattresses, he threw out the rubbish. He’d give a sniff and suggest a bath for me if I’d been too busy to wash for a few days. He’d even point out when it was time for me to go to the barber’s or trim my nasal hair. The one thing that bothered me was the way he would spray clouds of insecticide if he noticed a single fly in the room, because then I had to take refuge in a neighbouring shitpile.
Storm Trooper was studying geography at a national university.
As he told me the first time we met, “I’m studying m-m-maps.”
“You like maps?” I asked.
“Yup. When I graduate, I’m going to work for the Geographical Survey Institute and make m-m-maps.”
I was impressed by the variety of dreams and goals that life could offer. This was one of the very first new impressions I received when I came to Tokyo for the first time. The thought struck me that society needed a few people – just a few – who were interested in and even passionate about mapmaking. Odd, though, that someone who wanted to work for the government’s Geographical Survey Institute should stutter every time he said the word “map”. Storm Trooper often didn’t stutter at all, except when he pronounced the word “map”, for which it was a 100 per cent certainty.
“W what are you studying?” he asked me.
“Drama,” I said.
“Gonna put on plays?”
“Nah, just read scripts and do research. Racine, lonesco, Shakespeare, stuff like that.”
He said he had heard of Shakespeare but not the others. I hardly knew anything about the others myself, I’d just seen their names in lecture handouts.
“You like plays?” he asked.
This confused him, and when he was confused, his stuttering got worse. I felt sorry I had done that to him.
“I could have picked anything,” I said. “Ethnology, Asian history. That was hardly the most persuasive justification I could have come up with: “I simply happened to select drama, that’s all.
“I don’t get it,” he said, looking as if he really didn’t get it. “I like mm-maps, so I decided to come to Tokyo and get my parents to s-send me money so I could study m-m-maps. But not you, huh?”
His approach made more sense than mine. I gave up trying to explain myself. Then we drew lots (matchsticks) to choose bunks. He got the upper bunk.
Tall, with a crewcut and high cheekbones, he always wore the same outfit: white shirt, black trousers, black shoes, navy-blue jumper. To these he would add a uniform jacket and black briefcase when he went to his university: a typical right-wing student. Which is why everybody called him Storm Trooper. But in fact he was totally indifferent to politics. He wore a uniform because he didn’t want to be bothered choosing clothes. What interested him were things like changes in the coastline or the completion of a new railway tunnel. Nothing else. He’d go on for hours once he got started on a subject like that, until you either ran away or fell asleep.
He was up at six each morning with the strains of “May Our Lord’s Reign”. Which is to say that that ostentatious flag-raising ritual was not entirely useless. He’d get dressed, go to the bathroom and wash his face – for ever. I sometimes got the feeling he must be taking out each tooth and washing it, one at a time. Back in the room, he would snap the wrinkles out of his towel and lay it on the radiator to dry, then return his toothbrush and soap to the shelf. Finally he’d do radio callisthenics with the rest of the nation.
I was used to reading late at night and sleeping until eight o’clock, so even when he started shuffling around the room and exercising, I remained unconscious – until the part where he started jumping. He took his jumping seriously and made the bed bounce every time he hit the floor. I stood it for three days because they had told us that communal life called for a certain degree of resignation, but by the morning of the fourth day, I couldn’t take it any more.
“Hey, can you do that on the roof or somewhere?” I said. “I can’t sleep.”
“But it’s already 6.30!” he said, open-mouthed.
“Yeah, I know it’s 6.30. I’m still supposed to be asleep. I don’t know how to explain it exactly, but that’s how it works for me.”
“Anyway, I can’t do it on the roof. Somebody on the third floor would complain. Here, we’re over a storeroom.”
“So go out on the quad. On the lawn.”
“That’s no good, either. I don’t have a transistor radio. I need to plug it in. And you can’t do radio callisthenics without music.”
True, his radio was an old piece of junk without batteries. Mine was a transistor portable, but it was strictly FM, for music.
“OK, let’s compromise,” I said. “Do your exercises but cut out the jumping part. It’s so damned noisy. What do you say?”
“J-jumping? What’s that?”
“Jumping is jumping. Bouncing up and down.” “But there isn’t any jumping.”
My head was starting to hurt. I was ready to give up, but I wanted to make my point. I got out of bed and started bouncing up and down and singing the opening melody of NHK’s radio callisthenics. “I’m talking about this,” I said.
“Oh, that. I guess you’re right. I never noticed.”
“See what I mean?” I said, sitting on the edge of the bed. “Just cut out that part. I can put up with the rest. Stop jumping and let me sleep.”
“But that’s impossible,” he said matter-of-factly. “I can’t leave anything out. I’ve been doing the same thing every day for ten years, and once I start I do the whole routine unconsciously. If I left something out, I wouldn’t be able to do any of it.”
There was nothing more for me to say. What could I have said? The quickest way to put a stop to this was to wait for him to leave the room and throw his goddamn radio out the goddamn window, but I knew if I did that all hell would break loose. Storm Trooper treasured everything he owned. He smiled when he saw me sitting on the bed at a loss for words, and tried to comfort me.
“Hey, Watanabe, why don’t you just get up and exercise with me?” And he went off to breakfast.
Naoko chuckled when I told her the story of Storm Trooper and his radio callisthenics. I hadn’t been trying to amuse her, but I ended up laughing myself. Though her smile vanished in an instant, I enjoyed seeing it for the first time in a long while.
We had left the train at Yotsuya and were walking along the embankment by the station. It was a Sunday afternoon in the middle of May. The brief on-and-off showers of the morning had cleared up before noon, and a south wind had swept away the low-hanging clouds. The brilliant green leaves of the cherry trees stirred in the air, splashing sunlight in all directions. This was an early summer day. The people we passed carried their jumpers or jackets over their shoulders or in their arms. Everyone looked happy in the warm Sunday afternoon sun. The young men playing tennis in the courts beyond the embankment had stripped down to their shorts. Only where two nuns in winter habits sat talking on a bench did the summer light seem not to reach, though both wore looks of satisfaction as they enjoyed chatting in the sun.
Fifteen minutes of walking and I was sweaty enough to take off my thick cotton shirt and go with a T-shirt. Naoko had rolled the sleeves of her light grey sweatshirt up to her elbows. It was nicely faded, obviously having been washed many times. I felt as if I had seen her in that shirt long before. This was just a feeling I had, not a clear memory. I didn’t have that much to remember about Naoko at the time.
“How do you like communal living?” she asked. “Is it fun to live with a lot of other people?”
“I don’t know, I’ve only been doing it a month or so. It’s not that bad, I can stand it.”
She stopped at a fountain and took a sip, wiping her mouth with a white handkerchief she took from her trouser pocket. Then she bent over and carefully retied her laces.
“Do you think I could do it?”
“What? Living in a dorm?”
“I suppose it’s all a matter of attitude. You could let a lot of things bother you if you wanted to – the rules, the idiots who think they’re hot shit, the room-mates doing radio callisthenics at 6.30 in the morning. But it’s pretty much the same anywhere you go, you can manage.”
“I guess so,” she said with a nod. She seemed to be turning something over in her mind. Then she looked straight into my eyes as if peering at some unusual object. Now I saw that her eyes were so deep and clear they made my heart thump. I realized that I had never had occasion to look into her eyes like this. It was the first time the two of us had ever gone walking together or talked at such length.
“Are you thinking about living in a dorm or something?” I asked.
“Uh-uh,” she said. “I was just wondering what communal life would be like. And. ..” She seemed to be trying – and failing – to find exactly the right word or expression. Then she sighed and looked down. “Oh, I don’t know. Never mind.”
That was the end of the conversation. She continued walking east, and I followed just behind.
Almost a year had gone by since I had last seen Naoko, and in that time she had lost so much weight as to look like a different person. The plump cheeks that had been a special feature of hers were all but gone, and her neck had become delicate and slender. Not that she was bony now or unhealthy looking:
there was something natural and serene about the way she had slimmed down, as if she had been hiding in some long, narrow space until she herself had become long and narrow. And a lot prettier than I remembered. I wanted to tell her that, but couldn’t find a good way to put it.
We had not planned to meet but had run into each other on the Chuo commuter line. She had decided to see a film by herself, and I was headed for the bookshops in Kanda – nothing urgent in either case. She had suggested that we leave the train, which we happened to do in Yotsuya, where the green embankment makes for a nice place to walk by the old castle moat. Alone together, we had nothing in particular to talk about, and I wasn’t quite sure why Naoko had suggested we get off the train. We had never really had much to say to each other.
Naoko started walking the minute we hit the street, and I hurried after her, keeping a few paces behind. I could have closed the distance between us, but something held me back. I walked with my eyes on her shoulders and her straight black hair. She wore a big, brown hairslide, and when she turned her head I caught a glimpse of a small, white ear. Now and then she would look back and say something.
ometimes it would be a remark I might have responded to, and sometimes it would be something to which I had no idea how to reply. Other times, I simply couldn’t hear what she was saying. She didn’t seem to care one way or another. Once she had finished saying whatever she wanted to say, she’d face front again and keep on walking. Oh, well, I told myself, it was a nice day for a stroll.
This was no mere stroll for Naoko, though, judging from that walk. She turned right at Lidabashi, came out at the moat, crossed the intersection at Jinbocho, climbed the hill at Ochanomizu and came out at Hongo. From there she followed the tram tracks to Komagome. It was a challenging route. By the time we reached Komagome, the sun was sinking and the day had become a soft spring evening. “Where are we?” asked Naoko, as if noticing our surroundings for the first time.
“Komagome,” I said. “Didn’t you know? We made this big arc.”
“Why did we come here?”
“You brought us here. I was just following you.”
We went to a shop by the station for a bowl of noodles. Thirsty, I had a whole beer to myself. Neither of us said a word from the time we gave our order to the time we finished eating. I was exhausted from all that walking, and she just sat there with her hands on the table, mulling something over again. All the leisure spots were crowded on this warm Sunday, they were saying on the TV news. And we just walked from Yotsuya to Komagome, I said to myself.
“Well, you’re in good shape,” I said when I had finished my noodles.
“I was a long-distance runner at school, I’ll have you know. I used to do the 10,000 meters. My father took me mountain climbing on Sundays ever since I can remember. You know our house – right there, next to the mountain. I’ve always had strong legs.”
“It doesn’t show,” I said.
“I know,” she answered. “Everybody thinks I’m this delicate little girl. But you can’t judge a book by its cover.” To which she added a momentary smile.
“And that goes for me, too,” I said. “I’m worn out.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I’ve been dragging you around all day.”
“Still, I’m glad we had a chance to talk. We’ve never done that before, just the two of us,” I said, trying without success to recall what we had talked about. She was playing with the ashtray on the table.
“I wonder. ..” she began, “. . . if you wouldn’t mind … I mean, if it really wouldn’t be any bother to you … Do you think we could see each other again? I know I don’t have any right to be asking you this.”
“Any right? What do you mean by that?”
She blushed. My reaction to her request might have been a little too strong.
“I don’t know … I can’t really explain it,” she said, tugging the sleeves of her sweatshirt up over the elbows and down again. The soft hair on her arms shone a lovely golden colour in the lights of the shop. “I didn’t mean to say “right’ exactly. I was looking for another way to put it.”
Elbows on the table, she stared at the calendar on the wall, almost as though she were hoping to find the proper expression there. Failing, she sighed and closed her eyes and played with her hairslide.
“Never mind,” I said. “I think I know what you’re getting at. I’m not sure how to put it, either.”
“I can never say what I want to say,” continued Naoko. “It’s been like this for a while now. I try to say something, but all I get are the wrong words – the wrong words or the exact opposite words from what I mean. My attempts to fix myself just make the situation worse. I forget what I was initially attempting to express . It’s like I’m split in two and playing tag with myself. One half is chasing the other half around this big, fat post. The other me has the right words, but this me can’t catch her.” She raised her face and looked into my eyes. “Does this make any sense to you?”
“Everybody feels like that to some extent,” I said. “They’re trying to express themselves and it bothers can’t get it right.”
Naoko looked disappointed with my answer. “No, that’s not it either,” she said without further explanation “Anyway, I’d be glad to see you again,” I said. “I’m always free on Sundays, and walking would be good for me.”
We boarded the Yamanote Line, and Naoko transferred to the Chuo Line at Shinjuku. She was living in a tiny flat way out in the western suburb of Kokubunji.
“Tell me,” she said as we parted. “Has anything changed about the way I talk?”
“I think so,” I said, “but I’m not sure what. Tell you the truth, I know I saw you a lot back then, but I don’t remember talking to you much.”
“That’s true,” she said. “Anyway, can I call you on Saturday?”
“Sure. I’ll be expecting to hear from you.”
I first met Naoko when I was in the sixth-form at school. She was also in the sixth-form at a posh girls’ school run by one of the Christian missions. The school was so refined you were considered unrefined if you studied too much. Naoko was the girlfriend of my best (and only) friend, Kizuki. The two of them had been close almost from birth, their houses not 200 yards apart.
As with most couples who have been together since childhood, there was a casual openness about the relationship of Kizuki and Naoko and little sense that they wanted to be alone together. They were always visiting each other’s homes and eating or playing mah-jong with each other’s families. I double-dated with them any number of times. Naoko would bring a school friend for me and the four of us would go to the zoo or the pool or the cinema. The girls she brought were always pretty, but a little too refined for my taste. I got along better with the somewhat cruder girls from my own State school who were easier to talk to. I could never tell what was going on inside the pretty heads of the girls that Naoko brought along, and they probably couldn’t understand me, either.
After a while, Kizuki gave up trying to arrange dates for me, and instead the three of us would do things together. Kizuki and Naoko and I: odd, but that was the most comfortable combination. Introducing a fourth person into the mix would always make things a little awkward. We were like a TV talk show, with me the guest, Kizuki the talented host, and Naoko his assistant. He was good at occupying that central position. True, he had a sarcastic side that often struck people as arrogant, but in fact he was a considerate and fairminded person.
He would distribute his remarks and jokes fairly to Naoko and to me, taking care to see that neither of us felt left out. If one or the other stayed quiet too long, he would steer his conversation in that direction and get the person to talk. It probably looked harder than it was: he knew how to monitor and adjust the air around him on a second-by-second basis. In addition, he had a rare talent for finding the interesting parts of someone’s generally uninteresting comments so that, while speaking to him, you felt you were an exceptionally interesting person with an exceptionally interesting life.
And yet he was not the least bit sociable. I was his only real friend at school. I could never understand why such a smart and capable talker did not turn his talents to the broader world around him but remained satisfied to concentrate on our little trio. Nor could I understand why he picked me to be his friend. I was just an ordinary kid who liked to read books and listen to music and didn’t stand out in any way that would prompt someone like Kizuki to pay attention to me. We hit it off straight away, though. His father was a dentist, known for his professional skill and his high fees.
“Want to double-date Sunday?” he asked me just after we met. “My girlfriend goes to a girls’ school, and she’ll bring along a cute one for you.”
“Sure,” I said, and that was how I met Naoko.
The three of us spent a lot of time together, but whenever Kizuki left the room, Naoko and I had trouble talking to each other. We never knew what to talk about. And in fact there was no topic of conversation that we had in common. Instead of talking, we’d drink water or toy with something on the table and wait for Kizuki to come back and start up the conversation again. Naoko was not particularly talkative, and I was more of a listener than a talker, so I felt uncomfortable when I was left alone with her. Not that we were incompatible: we just had nothing to talk about.
Naoko and I saw each other only once after Kizuki’s funeral. Two weeks after the event, we met at a café to take care of some minor matter, and when that was finished we had nothing more to say. I tried raising several different topics, but none of them led anywhere. And when Naoko did talk, there was an edge to her voice. She seemed angry with me, but I had no idea why. We never saw each other again until that day a year later we happened to meet on the Chuo Line in Tokyo.
Naoko might have been angry with me because I, not she, had been the last one to see Kizuki. That may not be the best way to put it, but I more or less understood how she felt. I would have swapped places with her if I could have, but finally, what had happened had happened, and there was nothing I could do about it.
It had been a nice afternoon in May. After lunch, Kizuki suggested we skip classes and go play pool or something. I had no special interest in my afternoon classes, so together we left school, ambled down the hill to a pool hall on the harbour, and played four games. When I won the first, easy-going game, he became serious and won the next three. This meant I paid, according to our custom. Kizuki didn’t make a single joke as we played, which was most unusual. We smoked afterwards.
“Why so serious?” I asked.
“I didn’t want to lose today,” said Kizuki with a satisfied smile. He died that night in his garage. He led a rubber hose from the exhaust pipe of his N-360 to a window, taped over the gap in the window, and revved the engine. I have no idea how long it took him to die. His parents had been out visiting a sick relative, and when they opened the garage to put their car away, he was already dead. His radio was going, and a petrol station receipt was tucked under the windscreen wiper.
Kizuki had left no suicide note, and had no motive that anyone could think of. Because I had been the last one to see him, I was called in for questioning by the police. I told the investigating officer that Kizuki had given no indication of what he was about to do, that he had been exactly the same as always. The policeman had obviously formed a poor impression of both Kizuki and me, as if it was perfectly natural for the kind of person who would skip classes and play pool to commit suicide. A small article in the paper brought the affair to a close. Kizuki’s parents got rid of his red N-360. For a time, a white flower marked his school desk.
In the ten months between Kizuki’s death and my exams, I was unable to find a place for myself in the world around me. I started sleeping with one of the girls at school, but that didn’t last six months. Nothing about her really got to me. I applied to a private university in Tokyo, the kind of place with an entrance exam for which I wouldn’t have to study much, and I passed without exhilaration. The girl asked me not to go to Tokyo – “It’s 500 miles from here!” she pleaded – but I had to get away from Kobe at any cost. I wanted to begin a new life where I didn’t know a soul.
“You don’t give a damn about me any more, now that you’ve slept with me,” she said, crying.
“That’s not true,” I insisted. “I just need to get away from this town.” But she was not prepared to understand me. And so we parted. Thinking about all the things that made her so much nicer than the other girls at home, I sat on the bullet train to Tokyo feeling terrible about what I’d done, but there was no way to undo it. I would try to forget her.
There was only one thing for me to do when I started my new life in the dorm: stop taking everything so seriously; establish a proper distance between myself and everything else. Forget about green baize pool tables and red N-360s and white flowers on school desks; about smoke rising from tall crematorium chimneys, and chunky paperweights in police interrogation rooms. It seemed to work at first. I tried hard to forget, but there remained inside me a vague knot of air. And as time went by, the knot began to take on a clear and simple form, a form that I am able to put into words, like this:
Death exists, not as the opposite but as a part of life.
It’s a cliché translated into words, but at the time I felt it not as words but as that knot of air inside me. Death exists – in a paperweight, in four red and white balls on a pool table – and we go on living and breathing it into our lungs like fine dust.
Until that time, I had understood death as something entirely separate from and independent of life. The hand of death is bound to take us, I had felt, but until the day it reaches out for us, it leaves us alone. This had seemed to me the simple, logical truth. Life is here, death is over there. I am here, not over there.
The night Kizuki died, however, I lost the ability to see death (and life) in such simple terms. Death was not the opposite of life. It was already here, within my being, it had always been here, and no struggle would permit me to forget that. When it took the 17-year-old Kizuki that night in May, death took me as well.
I lived through the following spring, at 18, with that knot of air in my chest, but I struggled all the while against becoming serious. Becoming serious was not the same thing as approaching the truth, I sensed, however vaguely. But death was a fact, a serious fact, no matter how you looked at it. Stuck inside this suffocating contradiction, I went on endlessly spinning in circles. Those were strange days, now that I look back at them. In the midst of life, everything revolved around death.
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