Full Read the Online Chapter 4 PDF of the Norwegian Wood Book by Haruki Murakami for free.
Norwegian Wood Book PDF Chapter 4: During the summer holidays the university called in the riot police. They broke down the barricades and arrested the students inside. This was nothing new. It’s what all the students were doing at the time. The universities were not so easily “dismantled”. Massive amounts of capital had been invested in them, and they were not about to dissolve just because a few students had gone wild. Those students who had sealed off the campus did not want to dismantle the university either. All they had wanted to do was shift the balance of power within the university structure, about which I couldn’t have cared less. And so, when the strike was finally crushed, I felt nothing.
I went to the campus in September expecting to find rubble. The place was untouched. The library’s books had not been carted off, the tutors’ offices had not been destroyed, and the student affairs office had not been burned to the ground. I was thunderstruck. What the hell had they been doing behind the barricades?
When the strike was defused and lectures started up again under police occupation, the first ones to take their seats in the classrooms were those arseholes who had led the strike. As if nothing had ever happened, they sat there taking notes and answering “present” when the register was taken. I found this incredible. After all, the strike was still in effect. There had been no declaration bringing it to an end. All that had happened was that the university had called in the riot police and torn down the barricades, but the strike itself was supposed to be continuing. The arseholes had screamed their heads off at the time of the strike, denouncing students who opposed it (or just expressed doubts about it), at times even trying them in their kangaroo courts.
I made a point of visiting those former leaders and asking why they were attending lectures instead of continuing to strike, but they couldn’t give me a straight answer. What could they have said? That they were afraid of losing marks through lack of attendance?
To think that these idiots had been the ones screaming for the dismantling of the university!
What a joke. The wind changes direction a little, and their cries become whispers.
Hey, Kizuki, I thought, you’re not missing a damn thing. This world is a piece of shit. The arseholes are getting good marks and helping to create a society in their disgusting image.
For a while, I attended lectures but refused to answer when they took the register. I knew it was a pointless gesture, but I felt so bad I had no choice. All I managed to do was isolate myself more than ever from the other students. By remaining silent when my name was called, I made everyone uncomfortable for a few seconds. None of the other students spoke to me, and I spoke to none of them.
By the second week in September, I concluded that a university education was meaningless. I decided to think of it as a period of training in techniques for dealing with boredom.
I had nothing, I especially wanted to accomplish in society that would require me to abandon my studies straight away, so I went to my lectures each day, took notes, and spent my free time in the library reading or looking things up.
And though that second week in September had rolled around, there was no sign of Storm Trooper. More than unusual, this was an earth-shattering development. University had started up again, and it was inconceivable that Storm Trooper would miss lectures. A thin layer of dust covered his desk and radio. His plastic cup and toothbrush, tea tin, insecticide spray, and so on stood in a neat row on his shelf.
I kept the room clean in his absence. I had picked up the habit of neatness over the past year and a half, and without him there to take care of the room, I had no choice but to do it. I swept the floor each day, wiped the window every third day, and aired my mattress once a week, waiting for him to come back and tell me what a great job I had done.
But he never came back. I returned from lectures one day to find all his stuff gone and his name tag removed from the door. I went to the dorm Head’s room and asked what had happened.
“He’s withdrawn from the dormitory,” he said. “You’ll be alone in the room for the time being.”
I couldn’t get him to tell me why Storm Trooper had disappeared. This was a man whose greatest joy in life was to control everything and keep others in the dark.
Storm Trooper’s iceberg poster stayed on the wall for a time, but I eventually took it down and replaced it with Jim Morrison and Miles Davis. This made the room seem a little more like my own. I used some of the money I had saved from work to buy a small stereo. At night I would drink alone and listen to music. I thought about Storm Trooper now and then, but I enjoyed living alone.
At 11.30 a.m. on Monday, after a lecture on Euripides in History of Drama, I took a ten-minute walk to a little restaurant and had an omelet and salad for lunch. The place was on a quiet backstreet and was slightly more expensive than the student dining hall, but you could relax there, and they knew how to make a good omelet. “They” were a married couple who rarely spoke to each other, plus one part-time waitress. As I sat there eating by the window, a group of four students came in, two men and two women, all rather neatly dressed. They took the table near the door and spent some time looking over the menu and discussing their options until one of them reported their choices to the waitress.
Before long I noticed that one of the girls kept glancing in my direction. She had extremely short hair and wore dark sunglasses and a white cotton mini-dress. I had no idea who she was, so I went on with my lunch, but she soon slipped out of her seat and came over to where I was sitting. With one hand on the edge of my table, she said, “You’re Watanabe, aren’t you?”
I raised my head and looked at her more closely. Still, I could not recall ever having seen her. She was the kind of girl you notice, so if I had met her before I should have been able to recognize her immediately, and there weren’t that many people in my university who knew me by name.
“Mind if I sit down?”
she asked. “Or are you expecting somebody?”
Still uncertain, I shook my head.
“No, nobody’s coming. Please.”
With a wooden clunk, she dragged a chair out and sat down opposite, staring straight at me through her sunglasses, then glancing at my plate. “Looks good,” she said.
“It is good. Mushroom omelet and green pea salad.” “Damn,” she said. “Oh, well, I’ll get it next time. I’ve already ordered something else.”
“What are you having?”
“Macaroni and cheese.”
“Their macaroni and cheese isn’t bad, either,” I said. “By the way, do I know you? I don’t recall. ..”
“Euripides,” she said. “Electra. “No god hearkens to the voice of lost Electra.’ You know – the class just ended.”
I stared hard at her. She took off her sunglasses. At last, I remembered her – a first-year I had seen in History of Drama. A striking change in hairstyle had prevented me from recognizing her.
“Oh,” I said, touching a point a few inches below my shoulder, “your hair was down to here before the summer holidays.”
“You’re right,” she said. “I had a perm this summer, and it was just awful. I was ready to kill myself. I looked like a corpse on the beach with seaweed stuck to my head. So I decided as long as I was ready to die, I might as well cut it all off. At least it’s cool in the summer.” She ran her hand through her pixie cut and smiled at me.
“It looks good, though,” I said, still munching my omelet. “Let me see your profile.”
She turned away and held the pose for a few seconds.
“Yeah, I thought so. It looks good on you. Nicely shaped head. Pretty ears, too, uncovered like that.”
“So I’m not mad after all! I thought I looked good myself once I cut it all off. Not one guy likes it, though. They all tell me I look like a concentration camp survivor. What’s this thing that guys have for girls with long hair? Fascists, the whole bunch of them! Why do guys all think girls with long hair are the classiest, the sweetest, the most feminine? I mean, I know at least 250 unclassy girls with long hair. Really.”
“I think you look better now than you did before,” I said. And I meant it. As far as I could recall, with long hair, she had been just another cute student. A fresh and physical life force surged from the girl who sat before me now. She was like a small animal that popped into the world with the coming of spring. Her eyes moved like an independent organism with joy, laughter, anger, amazement, and despair. I hadn’t seen a face so vivid and expressive in ages, and I enjoyed watching it live and moving.
“Do you mean it?” she asked.
I nodded, still munching on my salad.
She put on her sunglasses and looked at me from behind them. “You’re not lying, are you?”
“I like to think of myself as an honest man,” I said. “Far out.” “So tell me: why do you wear such dark glasses?”
“I felt defenseless when my hair got short all of a sudden. As if somebody had thrown me into a crowd all naked.”
“Makes sense,” I said, eating the last of my omelet. She watched me with intense interest.
“You don’t have to go back to them?” I asked, indicating her three companions.
“Nah. I’ll go back when they serve the food. Am I interrupting your meal?”
“There’s nothing left to interrupt,” I said, ordering coffee when she showed no sign of leaving. The wife took my dishes and brought milk and sugar.
“Now you tell me,” She said. “Why didn’t you answer today when they called the register? You are Watanabe, aren’t you?
“So why didn’t you answer?”
“I just didn’t feel like it today.”
She took off her sunglasses again, set them on the table, and looked at me as if she were staring into the cage of some rare animal at a zoo.
“I just didn’t feel like it today.” You talk like Humphrey Bogart. Cool. Tough.”
“Don’t be silly. I’m just an ordinary guy like everybody else.”
The wife brought my coffee and set it on the table. I took a sip without adding sugar or milk.
“Look at that. You drink it black.”
“It’s got nothing to do with Humphrey Bogart,” I explained patiently. “I just don’t happen to have a sweet tooth. I think you’ve got me all wrong.”
“Why are you so tanned?”
“I’ve been hiking around the last couple of weeks. Rucksack. Sleeping bag.”
“Where’d you go?”
“Kanazawa. Noto Peninsula. Up to Niigata.”
“Alone,” I said. “Found some company here and there.”
“Some romantic company? New women in far-off places.”
“Romantic? Now I know you’ve got me wrong. How’s a guy with a sleeping bag on his back and his face all stubbly supposed to have romance?”
“Do you always travel alone like that?”
“You enjoy solitude?” she asked, resting her cheek on her hand.
“Travelling alone, eating alone, sitting by yourself in lecture halls …”
“Nobody likes being alone that much. I don’t go out of my way to make friends, that’s all. It just leads to disappointment.”
The tip of one earpiece in her mouth, sunglasses dangling down, she mumbled, “Nobody likes being alone. I just hate to be disappointed.’ You can use that line if you ever write your autobiography.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“Do you like green?”
“Why do you ask?”
“You’re wearing a green polo shirt.”
“Not especially. I’ll wear anything.”
“Not especially. I’ll wear anything.’ I love the way you talk. Like spreading plaster, nice and smooth. Has anybody ever told you that?”
“Nobody,” I said. “My name’s Midori,” she said. “Green’. But green looks terrible on me. Weird, huh?
It’s like I’m cursed, don’t you think? My sister’s name is Momoko: “Peach girl’.”
“Does she look good in pink?”
“She looks great in pink! She was born to wear pink. It’s unfair.”
The food arrived at Midori’s table, and a guy in a madras jacket called out to her, “Hey, Midori, come ‘n’ get it!” She waved at him as if to say “I know”.
“Tell me,” she said. “Do you take lecture notes? In drama?”
“I hate to ask, but could I borrow your notes? I’ve missed twice, and I don’t know anybody in the class.”
“No problem,” I said, pulling the notebook from my bag. After checking to make sure I hadn’t written anything personal in it, I handed it to Midori.
“Thanks,” she said. “Are you coming to lectures the day after tomorrow?”
“Meet me here at noon. I’ll give you back your notebook and buy you lunch. I mean … it’s not as if you get an upset stomach or anything if you don’t eat alone, right?”
“No,” I said. “But you don’t have to buy me lunch just because I’m lending you my notebook.”
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I like buying people lunch. Anyway, shouldn’t you write it down somewhere? You won’t forget?”
“I won’t forget. Day after tomorrow. Noon. Midori. Green.” From the other table, somebody called out, “Hurry up, Midori, your food’s getting cold!”
She ignored the call and asked me, “Have you always talked like that?”
“I think so,” I said. “Never noticed before.” And no one had ever told me there was anything unusual about the way I spoke.
She seemed to be mulling something over for a few seconds. Then she stood up with a smile and went back to her table. She waved to me as I walked past their table, but the three others barely glanced in my direction.
At noon on Wednesday, there was no sign of Midori in the restaurant. I thought I might wait for her over a beer, but the place started to fill up as soon as the drink arrived, so I ordered lunch and ate alone. I finished at 12.35, but still no Midori. Paying my bill, I went outside and crossed the street to a little shrine, where I waited on the stone steps for my head to clear and for Midori to come. I gave up at one o’clock and went to read in the library. At two I went to my German lecture.
When it was over I went to the student affairs office and looked for Midori’s name in the class list for History of Drama. The only Midori in the class was Midori Kobayashi. Next, I flipped through the cards of the student files and found the address and phone number of Midori Kobayashi who had entered the university in 1969. She lived in a north-west suburb, Toshima, with her family. I slipped into a phone box and dialed the number.
A man answered: “Kobayashi Bookshop.” Kobayashi Bookshop? “Sorry to bother you,” I said, “but I wonder if Midori might be in?”
“No, she’s not,” he said.
“Do you think she might be on campus?”
“Hmm, no, she’s probably at the hospital. Who’s calling, please?” Instead of answering, I thanked him and hung up. The hospital? Could she have been injured or fallen ill? But the man had spoken without the least sense of emergency. “She’s probably at the hospital,” he had said, as easily as he might have said “She’s at the fish shop”. I thought about a few other possibilities until thinking itself became too problematic, and then I went back to the dorm and stretched out on my bed reading Lord Jim, which I’d borrowed from Nagasawa. When I had finished it, I went to his room to give it back.
Nagasawa was on his way to the dining hall, so I went with him for dinner.
“How’d the exams go?” I asked.
The second round of upper-level exams for the Foreign Ministry had been held in August. “Same as always,” said Nagasawa as if it had been nothing.
“You take ’em, you pass. Group discussions, interviews … like screwin’ a chick.”
“In other words, easy,” I said. “When do they let you know?”
“First week of October. If I pass, I’ll buy you a big dinner.”
“So tell me, what kind of guys make it to round two?
All superstars like you?”
“Don’t be stupid. They’re a bunch of idiots. Idiots or weirdos. I’d say 95 percent of the guys who want to be bureaucrats aren’t worth shit. I’m not kidding. They can barely read.”
“So why are you trying to join the Foreign Ministry?”
“All kinds of reasons,” said Nagasawa. “I like the idea of working overseas, for one. But mainly I want to test my abilities. If I’m going to test myself, I want to do it in the biggest field there is – the nation. I want to see how high I can climb, and how much power I can exercise in this insanely huge bureaucratic system. Know what I mean?”
“Sounds like a game.”
“It is a game. In general, I couldn’t care less about wealth and power. I don’t. Despite being a selfish scumbag, I have a lot of patience with crap like that. I may be a saint of Zen. The one thing I do have, though, is curiosity. I want to see what I can do out there in the big, tough world.”
“And you have no use for “ideals’, I suppose?”
“None. Life doesn’t require ideals. It requires standards of action.”
“But there are lots of other ways to live, aren’t there?” I asked. “You like the way I live, don’t you?”
“That’s beside the point,” I said. “I could never get into Tokyo University; I can’t sleep with any girl I want whenever I want to; I’m no great talker; people don’t look up to me; I haven’t got a girlfriend; and the future’s not going to open up to me when I get a literature BA from a second-rate private university. What does it matter if I like the way you live?”
“Are you saying you envy the way I live?”
“No, I don’t,” I said. “I’m too used to being who I am. And I don’t give a damn about Tokyo University or the Foreign Ministry. The one thing I envy you for is having a terrific girlfriend like Hatsumi.”
Nagasawa shut up and ate. When dinner was over he said, “You know, Watanabe, I have this feeling like, maybe 10 years or 20 years after we get out of this place, we’re going to meet again somewhere. And one way or another, I think we’re going to have some connection.”
“Sounds like Dickens,” I said with a smile.
“I guess it does,” he said, smiling back. “But my hunches are usually right.”
The two of us left the dining hall and went out to a bar. We stayed there drinking until after nine.
“Tell me, Nagasawa,” I asked, “what is the “standard of action’ in your life?”
“You’ll laugh if I tell you,” he said. “No, I won’t.”
“All right,” he said. “To be a gentleman.”
I didn’t laugh, but I nearly fell off my chair. “To be a gentleman? A gentleman?”
“You heard me.”
“What does it mean to be a gentleman? How do you define it?”
“A gentleman is someone who does not what he wants to do but what he should do.”
“You’re the weirdest guy I’ve ever met,” I said.
“You’re the straightest guy I’ve ever met,” he said. And he paid for us both. I went to the following week’s drama lecture but still saw no sign of Midori Kobayashi. After a quick survey of the room convinced me she wasn’t there, I took my usual seat in the front row and wrote a letter to Naoko while I waited for the lecturer to arrive. I wrote about my summer travels – the roads I had walked, the towns I had passed through, the people I had met. And every night I thought of you.
Now that I can no longer see you, I realize how much I need you. University is incredibly boring, but as a matter of self-discipline, I am going to all my lectures and doing all the assignments. Everything seems pointless since you left. I’d like to have a nice, long talk with you. If possible, I’d like to visit your sanatorium and see you for several hours. And, if possible, I’d like to go out walking with you side by side the way we used to. Please try to answer this letter – even a short note. I won’t mind.
I filled four sheets, folded them, slipped them into an envelope, and addressed it to Naoko care of her family. By then the lecturer had arrived, wiping the sweat from his brow as he took the register. He was a small, mournful-looking man who walked with a metal cane. While not exactly fun, the lectures in his course were always well-prepared and worthwhile. After remarking that the weather was as hot as ever, he began to talk about the use of the deus ex machina in Euripides and explained how the concept of “god” was different in Euripides than in Aeschylus or Sophocles.
He had been talking for some 15 minutes when the lecture hall door opened and in walked Midori. She was wearing a dark blue sports shirt, cream-coloured cotton trousers, and her usual sunglasses. After flashing a “sorry I’m late” kind of smile at the professor, she sat down next to me. Then she took a notebook – my notebook – from her shoulder bag and handed it to me. Inside, I found a note: Sorry about Wednesday. Are you angry?
The lecture was about half over and the professor was drawing a sketch of a Greek stage on the blackboard when the door opened again and two students in helmets walked in. They looked like some kind of comedy team, one tall, thin, and pale, the other short, round, and dark with a long beard that didn’t suit him. The tall one carried an armful of political agitation handbills.
The short one walked up to the professor and said, with a degree of politeness, that they would like to use the second half of his lecture for political debate and hoped that he would cooperate, adding, “The world is full of problems far more urgent and relevant than Greek tragedy.” This was more an announcement than a request. The professor replied, “I rather doubt that the world has problems far more urgent and relevant than Greek tragedy, but you’re not going to listen to anything I have to say, so do what you like.” Grasping the edge of the table, he set his feet on the floor, picked up his cane, and limped out of the classroom.
While the tall student passed out his handbills, the round one went to the podium and started lecturing. The handbills were full of the usual simplistic sloganeering:
“SMASH FRAUDULENT ELECTIONS FOR UNIVERSITY PRESIDENT!”, “MARSHAL ALL FORCES FOR NEW ALL-CAMPUS STRIKE!”, “CRUSH THE IMPERIAL-EDUCATIONAL-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX!” I had no problem with what they were saying, but the writing was lame. It had nothing to inspire confidence or arouse passions. And the round man’s speech was just as bad – the same old tune with different words. The true enemy of this bunch was not State Power but Lack of Imagination.
“Let’s get out of here,” said Midori.
I nodded and stood, and the two of us made for the door. The round man said something to me at that point, but I couldn’t catch it.
Midori waved to him and said, “See ya later.”, Hey, are we counter-revolutionaries?” Midori asked me when we were outside. “Are we going to be strung upon telephone poles if the revolution succeeds?”
“Let’s have lunch first, just in case.”
“Good. There’s a place I want to take you to. It’s a bit far, though. Can you spare the time?”
“Yeah, I’m free until my two o’clock class.”
Midori took me by bus to Yotsuya and showed me to a fancy boxed lunch specialty shop in a sheltered spot just behind the station. The minute we sat down they served us soup and the lunch of the day in square, red-lacquered boxes. This was a place worth a bus ride to eat at.
“Great food,” I said.
“And cheap, too. I’ve been coming here since school. My old school’s just down the street. They were so strict, we had to sneak out to eat here. They’d suspend you if they caught you eating out.”
Without the sunglasses, Midori’s eyes looked somewhat sleepier than they had the last time. When she was not playing with the narrow silver bracelet on her left wrist, she would be rubbing at the corners of her eyes with the tip of her little finger.
“Tired?” I asked.
“Kind of. I’m not getting enough sleep. But I’m OK, don’t worry,” she said. “Sorry about the other day. Something important came up and I just couldn’t get out of it. All of a sudden, in the morning. I thought about calling you at the restaurant, but I couldn’t remember the name, and I didn’t know your home number. Did you wait long?”
“No big deal. I’ve got a lot of time on my hands.” A lot?”
“Way more than I need. I wish I could give you some to help you sleep.”
Midori rested her cheek on her hand and smiled at me. “What a nice guy you are.”
“Not nice. I just have time to kill,” I said. “By the way, I called your house that day and somebody told me you were at the hospital. Something wrong?”
“You called my house?” she asked with a slight wrinkle forming between her eyebrows. “How did you get my number?”
“Looked it up in the student affairs office. Anyone can do that.”
She nodded once or twice and started playing with the bracelet again. “I never would have thought of that. I suppose I could have looked up your number. Anyway, about the hospital, I’ll tell you next time. I don’t feel like it now. Sorry.”
“That’s OK. I didn’t mean to pry.”
“No, you’re not prying. I’m just kind of tired. Like a monkey in the rain.”
“Shouldn’t you go home and get some sleep?”
“Not now. Let’s get out of here.”
She took me to her old school, a short walk from Yotsuya. Passing the station, I thought about Naoko and our endless walking. It had all started from there. I realized that if I hadn’t run into Naoko on the train that Sunday in May, My life would have been very different from what it was now. But then I changed my mind: no, even if we hadn’t met that day, my life might not have been any different. We were supposed to meet. If not then, some other time.
I didn’t have any basis for thinking this: it was just a feeling. Midori Kobayashi and I sat on a park bench together, looking at her old school. Ivy clung to the walls, and pigeons huddled under the gables, resting their wings. It was a nice, old building with character. A great oak tree stood in the playground, and a column of white smoke rose straight up beside it. The fading summer light gave the smoke a soft and cloudy look.
“Do you know what that smoke is?” Midori asked me all of a sudden.
“No idea,” I said.
“They’re burning sanitary towels.”
“Really?” I couldn’t think of anything else to say. “Sanitary towels, tampons, stuff like that,” she said with a smile. “It is a girls’ school. The old caretaker collects them from all the receptacles and burns them in the incinerator. That’s the smoke.”
“Yeah, that’s what I used to say to myself whenever I was in class and saw the smoke outside the window. “Whoa’. Think about it: the school had almost a thousand girls. So, say 900 of them have started their periods, and maybe a fifth of them are menstruating at any one time: 180 girls. That’s 180 girls’ worth of towels in the receptacles every day.”
“I bet you’re right – though I’m not sure about the maths.”
“Anyway, it’s a lot. 180 girls. What do you think it feels like to collect and burn that much stuff?”
“Can’t imagine,” I said. How could I have imagined what the old man was going through? Midori and I went on watching the smoke.
“I didn’t want to go to this school,” Midori said. She gave her head a little shake. “I wanted to go to an ordinary State school with ordinary people where I could relax and have fun like an ordinary teenager. But my parents thought it would look good for me to go to this fancy place. They’re the ones who stuck me in here. You know: that’s what happens when you do well in primary school. The teacher tells your parents “With marks like hers, she ought to go there.’ So that’s where I ended up. I went for six years and I never liked it. All I could think about was getting out. And you know, I’ve got certificates of merit for never having been late or missed a day of school. That’s how much I hated the place. Get it?”
“No, I don’t get it.”
“It’s because I hated the place so much. I wasn’t going to let it beat me. If I’d let it get to me once I’d be finished. I was scared I’d just keep slipping down and down. I’d crawl to school with a temperature of
103. The teacher would ask me if I was sick, but I’d say no. When I left they gave me certificates for perfect attendance and punctuality, plus a French dictionary. That’s why I’m taking German now. I didn’t want to owe this school anything. I’m not kidding.”
“Why did you hate it so much? “Did you like your school?”
“Well, no, but I didn’t especially hate it, either. I went to an ordinary State school but I never thought about it one way or another.”
“Well, this school,” Midori said, scratching the corner of her eye with her little finger, “had nothing but upper-class girls – almost a thousand girls with good backgrounds and good exam results. Rich girls. They had to be rich to survive. High tuition, endless contributions, expensive school trips. For instance, if we went to Kyoto, they’d put us up in a first-class inn and serve us tea ceremony food on lacquer tables, and they’d take us once a year to the most expensive hotel in Tokyo to study table manners.
I mean, this was no ordinary school. Out of 160 girls in my class, I was the only one from a middle-class neighborhood like Toshima. I looked at the school register once to see where the others lived, and every single one of them was from a rich area. Well, no, there was one girl from way out in Chiba with the farmers, so I got kind of friendly with her. And she was nice. She invited me to her house, though she apologized for how far I’d have to travel to get there. I went and it was incredible, this giant piece of land you’d have to walk 15 minutes to get around.
It had this amazing garden and two dogs like compact cars they fed steaks to. But still, this girl felt embarrassed about living out in Chiba. This is a girl who would be driven to school in a Mercedes Benz if she was late! By a chauffeur! Like right out of the Green Hornet: the hat, the white gloves, the whole deal. And still, she had this inferiority complex. Can you believe it?”
I shook my head.
“I was the only one in the whole school who lived in a place like Kita-Otsuka Toshima. And under “parent’s profession’ it said “bookshop owner’. Everybody in my class thought that was so neat: “Oh, you’re so lucky, you can read any book you like’ and stuff. Of course, they were thinking of some monster bookshop like Kinokuniya. They could never have imagined the poor, little Kobayashi Bookshop. The door creaks open and you see nothing but magazines. The steady sellers are the women’s glossies with illustrated pull-out sections on the latest sexual techniques. The local housewives buy them and sit at the kitchen table reading them from cover to cover and give ’em a try when their husbands get home. And they’ve got the most incredible positions! Is this what housewives have on their minds all day?
The comics are the other big-sellers: Magazine, Sunday, and Jump. And of course the weeklies. So this “bookshop’ is almost all magazines. Oh, there are a few books, paperbacks, mysteries swashbucklers, and romances. That’s all that sells. And How-To books: how to Win at Go, How To Raise Bonsai, how to give wedding speeches, how to have sex, how to stop smoking, you name it. We even sell writing supplies – stacks of ballpoint pens and pencils and notebooks next to the till. But that’s it. No War and Peace, no Kenzaburo Oe, no Catcher in the Rye. That’s the Kobayashi Bookshop. That’s how “lucky’ I am. Do you think I’m lucky?”
“I can just see the place.”
“You know what I mean. Everybody in the neighborhood comes there, some of them for years, and we deliver. It’s a good business, more than enough to support a family of four; no debts, two daughters in college, but that’s it. Nothing to spare for extras. They should never have sent me to a school like that. It was a recipe for heartache. I had to listen to them grumble to me every time the school asked for a contribution, and I was always scared to death I’d run out of money if I went out with my school friends and they wanted to eat somewhere expensive. It’s a miserable way to live. Is your family rich?”
“My family? No, my parents are ordinary working people, not rich, not poor. I know it’s not easy for them to send me to a private university in Tokyo, but there’s just me, so it’s not that big a deal. They don’t give me much to live on, so I work part-time. We live in a typical house with a little garden and our car is a Toyota Corolla.”
“What’s your job like?”
“I work in a Shinjuku record shop three nights a week. It’s easy. I just sit there and mind the shop.”
“You’re joking?” said Midori. “I don’t know, just looking at you I sort of assumed you’d never been hard up.”
“It’s true. I have never been hard up. Not that I have tons of money, either. I’m like most people.”
“Well, “most people’ in my school were rich,” said Midori, palms resting on her lap. “That was the problem.”
“So now you’ll have plenty of chances to see a world without that problem. More than you want to, maybe.”
“Hey, tell me, what do you think the best thing is about being rich?”
“I don’t know.”
“Being able to say you don’t have any money. Like, if I suggested to a school friend we do something, she could say, ‘Sorry, I don’t have any money’. Which is something I could never say if the situation was reversed. If I said “I don’t have any money’, it would mean “I don’t have any money’. It’s sad. Like, if a pretty girl says “I look terrible today, I don’t want to go out,’ that’s OK, but if an ugly girl says the same thing people laugh at her. That’s what the world was like for me. For six years, until last year.”
“You’ll get over it.”
“I hope so. The university is such a relief! It’s full of ordinary people.”
She smiled with the slightest curl of her lip and smoothed her short hair with the palm of her hand.
“Do you have a job?” I asked.
“Yeah, I write map notes. You know those little pamphlets that come with maps?
With descriptions of the different neighborhoods’ population figures and points of interest. Here there’s a so-and-so hiking trail or such-and-such a legend, or some special flower or bird. I write the texts for those things. It’s so easy! Takes no time at all. I can write a whole booklet with a day of looking things up in the library. All you have to do is master a couple of secrets and all kinds of work comes your way.”
“What kind of secrets?”
“Like you put in some little something that nobody else has written and the people at the map company think you’re a literary genius and send you more work. It doesn’t have to be anything at all, just some tiny thing. Like, say, when they built a dam in this particular valley, the water covered over a village, but still every spring the birds come up from the south and you can see them flying over the lake. Put in one little episode like that and people love it, it’s so graphic and sentimental. The usual part-timer doesn’t bother with stuff like that, but I can make decent money with what I write.”
“Yeah, but you have to find those “episodes’.”
“True,” said Midori with a tilt of her head. “But if you’re looking for them, you usually find them. And if you don’t, you can always make up something harmless.”
“Peace,” said Midori.
She said she wanted to hear about my dormitory, so I told her the usual stories about the raising of the flag and Storm Trooper’s radio calisthenics. Storm Trooper especially made Midori laugh, as he seemed to do with everyone. She said she thought it would be fun to have a look at the dorm. There was nothing fun about the place, I told her: “Just a few hundred guys in grubby rooms, drinking and wanking.”
“Does that include you?”
“It includes every man on the face of the earth,” I explained. “Girls have periods and boys wank. Everybody.”
“Even ones with girlfriends? I mean, sex partners.”
“It’s got nothing to do with that. The Keio student living next door to me has a wank before every date. He says it relaxes him.”
I’m not too knowledgeable about those topics. I spent a long time attending a girls’ school.
“I guess the glossy women’s magazines don’t go into that.”
“Not at all!” she said, laughing. “Anyway, Watanabe, would you have some time this Sunday? Are you free?”
“I’m free every Sunday. Until six, at least. That’s when I go to work.”
“Why don’t you visit me? At the Kobayashi Bookshop.
The shop itself will be closed, but I have to hang around there alone all day. I might be getting an important phone call. How about lunch? I’ll cook for you.”
“I’d like that,” I said.
Midori tore a page from a notebook and drew a detailed map of the way to her place. She used a red pen to make a large X where the house stood.
“You can’t miss it. There’s a big sign: ‘Kobayashi Bookshop’. Come at noon. I’ll have lunch ready.”
I thanked her and put the map in my pocket. “I’d better get back to campus now,” I said. “My German lecture starts at two,” Midori said she had somewhere to go and took the train from Yotsuya. Sunday morning I got up at nine, shaved, did my laundry, and hung out the clothes on the roof. It was a beautiful day. The first smell of autumn was in the air. Red dragonflies flitted around the quadrangle, chased by neighborhood kids swinging nets. With no wind, the Rising Sun flag hung limp on its pole.
I put on a freshly ironed shirt and walked from the dorm to the tram stop. A student neighborhood on a Sunday morning: the streets were dead, virtually empty, and most shops closed. What few sounds there were echoed with special clarity. A girl wearing sabots clip-clopped across the asphalt roadway, and next to the tram shelter, four or five kids were throwing rocks at a row of empty cans. A florist’s was open, so I went in and bought some daffodils. Daffodils in autumn: that was strange. But I had always liked that particular flower.
Three old women were the only passengers on the Sunday morning tram. They all looked at me and my flowers. One of them smiled at me. I smiled back. I sat in the last seat and watched the ancient houses passing close to the window. The tram almost touched the overhanging eaves. The laundry deck of one house had ten potted tomato plants, next to which a big black cat lay stretched out in the sun. In the garden of another house, a little girl was blowing soap bubbles. I heard an Ayumi Ishida song coming from somewhere, and could even catch the smell of curry cooking. The tram snaked its way through this private back alley world. A few more passengers got on at stops along the way, but the three old women went on talking intently about something, huddled together face-to-face.
I got off near Otsuka Station and followed Midori’s map down a broad street without much to look at. None of the shops along the way seemed to be doing very well, housed as they were in old buildings with gloomy-looking interiors and faded writing on some of the signs. Judging from the age and style of the buildings, this area had been spared the wartime air raids, leaving whole blocks intact. A few of the places had been entirely rebuilt, but just about all had been enlarged or repaired in places, and it was these additions that tended to look shabbier than the old buildings themselves.
The whole atmosphere of the place suggested that most of the original residents had become fed up with the cars, the filthy air, the noise, and the high rents and moved to the suburbs, leaving only cheap flats company apartments and hard-to-sell shops and a few stubborn people who clung to old family properties. Everything looked blurred and grimy as though wrapped in a haze of exhaust fumes. A minute’s walk down this street brought me to a corner petrol station, where I turned right into a small block of shops, in the middle of which hung the sign for the Kobayashi Bookshop.
True, it was not a big shop, but neither was it as small as Midori’s description had led me to believe. It was just a typical neighborhood bookshop, the same kind I used to run to on the very day the boys’ comics came out. A nostalgic mood overtook me as I stood in front of the place.
The whole front of the shop was sealed off by a big, rolldown metal shutter inscribed with a magazine advertisement: “WEEKLY BUNSHUN SOLD HERE THURSDAYS”. I still had 15 minutes before noon, but I didn’t want to kill time wandering through the block with a handful of daffodils, so I pressed the doorbell beside the shutter and stepped a few paces back to wait. Fifteen seconds went by without an answer, and I was debating with myself whether to ring again when I heard a window clatter open above me. I looked up to see Midori leaning out and waving.
“Come in,” she yelled. “Lift the shutter.”
“Is it OK? I’m kind of early,” I shouted back.
“No problem. Come upstairs. I’m busy in the kitchen.” She pulled the window closed. The shutter made a terrific grinding noise as I raised it three feet from the ground, ducked under, and lowered it again. The shop was pitch black inside. I managed to feel my way to the back stairway, tripping over bound piles of magazines. I unlaced my shoes and climbed the stairs to the living area. The interior of the house was dark and gloomy.
The stairs led to a simple parlor with a sofa and easy chairs. It was a small room with dim light coming in the window, reminiscent of old Polish films. There was a kind of storage area on the left and what looked like the door to a bathroom. I had to climb the steep stairway with care to reach the second floor, but once I got there, it was so much brighter than the first that I felt greatly relieved.
“Over here,” called Midori’s voice. To the right at the top of the stairs was what looked like a dining room, and beyond that a kitchen. The house itself was old, but the kitchen seemed to have been refitted recently with new cabinets and a bright, shiny sink and taps. Midori was preparing food. A pot was bubbling, and the air was filled with the smell of grilled fish.
“There’s beer in the fridge,” she said with a glance in my direction. “Have a seat while I finish this.” I took a can and sat at the kitchen table. The beer was so cold it might have been in the fridge for the best part of a year. On the table lay a small, white ashtray, a newspaper, and a soy sauce dispenser. There was also a notepad and pen, with a phone number and some figures on the pad that seemed to be calculations connected with shopping.
“I should have this done in ten minutes,” she said. “Can you stand the wait?”
“Of course, I can,” I said.
“Get good and hungry, then. I’m making a lot.”
I sipped my beer and focused on Midori as she went on cooking, her back to me. She worked with quick, nimble movements, handling no fewer than four cooking procedures at once. Over here she tasted a boiled dish, and the next second she was at the cutting board, rat-tat-tatting, then she took something out of the fridge and piled it in a bowl, and before I knew it she had washed a pot she had finished using. From the back, she looked like an Indian percussionist – ringing a bell, tapping a block, striking a water-buffalo bone, each movement precise and economical, with perfect balance. I watched in awe.
“Let me know if there’s something I can do,” I said, just in case.
“That’s OK,” said Midori with a smile in my direction.
“I’m used to doing everything alone.” She wore slim blue jeans and a navy T-shirt. An Apple Records logo nearly covered the back of the shirt. She had extremely narrow hips as if she had somehow skipped puberty when the hips grow fuller, and this gave her a far more androgynous look than most girls have in slim jeans. The light pouring in from the kitchen window gave her figure a kind of vague outline.
“You didn’t have to put together such a feast,” I said.
“It’s no feast,” answered Midori without turning my way.
“I was too busy to do any real shopping yesterday. I’m just throwing together a few things I had in the fridge. Don’t worry. Besides, it’s Kobayashi family tradition to treat guests well. I don’t know what it is, but we like to entertain. It’s inborn; a kind of sickness. Not that we’re especially nice or people love us or anything, but if somebody shows up we have to treat them well no matter what. We’ve all got the same personality flaw, for better or worse. Take my father, for example. He hardly drinks, but the house is full of alcohol. What for? To serve guests! So don’t hold back: drink all the beer you want.”
“Thanks,” I said.
It suddenly dawned on me that I had left the daffodils downstairs. I had set them aside while unlacing my shoes. I slipped back downstairs and found the ten bright blossoms lying in the gloom. Midori took a tall, slim glass from the cupboard and arranged the flowers in it.
“I love daffodils,” said Midori. “I once sang “Seven Daffodils’ in the school talent contest. Do you know it?”
“We had a folk group. I played guitar.”
She sang “Seven Daffodils’ as she arranged the food on plates.
Midori’s cooking was far better than I had expected: an amazing assortment of fried, pickled, boiled, and roasted dishes using eggs, mackerel, fresh greens, aubergine, mushrooms, radishes, and sesame seeds, all cooked in the delicate Kyoto style. “This is great,” I said with my mouth full.
“OK, tell me the truth now,” Midori said. “You weren’t expecting my cooking to be very good, were you – judging from the way I look?”
“Not really,” I said honestly.
“You’re from the Kansai region, so you like this kind of delicate flavoring, right?”
“Don’t tell me you changed style, especially for me?”
“Don’t be ridiculous! I wouldn’t go into that much trouble. No, we always eat like this.”
“So your mother – or your father – is from Kansai?”
“Nope. My father was born in Tokyo and my mother is from Fukushima. There’s not a single Kansai person among my relatives. We’re all from Tokyo or northern Kanto.”
“I don’t get it,” I said. “How can you make this 100 percent authentic Kansai-style food? Did somebody teach you?”
“Well, it’s kind of a long story,” she said, eating a slice of fried egg. “My mother hated housework of any kind, and she rarely cooked anything. And we had the business to think about, so it was always “Today we’re so busy, let’s get a take-away’ or “Let’s just buy some croquettes at the butcher’s, and so on.
I hated that even when I was little, I mean like cooking a big pot of curry and eating the same thing three days in a row. So then one day – I was in the fifth year of school – I decided I was going to cook for the family and do it right. I went to the big Kinokuniya in Shinjuku and bought the biggest, most handsome cookbook I could find, and I mastered it from cover to cover: how to choose a cutting board, how to sharpen knives, how to bone a fish, how to shave fresh bonito flakes, everything. It turned out the author of the book was from the Kansai, so all my cooking is Kansai style.”
“You mean you learned how to make all this stuff from a book?!”
“I saved my money and went to eat the real thing. That’s how I learned flavorings. I’ve got pretty good intuition. I’m hopeless as a logical thinker, though.”
“It’s amazing you could teach yourself to cook so well without having anyone to show you.”
“It wasn’t easy,” said Midori with a sigh, “growing up in a house where nobody gave a damn about food. I’d tell them I wanted to buy decent knives and pots and they wouldn’t give me the money. “What we have now is good enough,’ they’d say, but I’d tell them that was crazy, you couldn’t bone a fish with the kind of flimsy knives we had at home, so they’d say, “What the hell do you have to bone a fish for?’ It was hopeless trying to communicate with them. I saved up my allowance and bought real professional knives and pots and strainers and stuff. Can you believe it? Here’s a 15-year-old girl pinching pennies to buy strainers whetstones and tempura pots when all the other girls at school are getting huge allowances and buying beautiful dresses and shoes. Don’t you feel sorry for me?”
I nodded, swallowing a mouthful of clear soup with fresh junsai greens.
“When I was in the sixth form, I had to have an egg fryer – a long, narrow pan for making this dashi maki-style fried egg we’re eating. I bought it with the money I was supposed to use for a new bra. For three months I had to live with one bra. Can you believe it? I’d wash my bra at night, go crazy trying to dry it, and wear it the next day. And if it didn’t dry right, I had a tragedy to deal with. The saddest thing in the world is wearing a damp bra. I’d walk around with tears pouring from my eyes. To think I was suffering this for an egg fryer!”
“I see what you mean,” I said with a laugh.
“My mother’s passing was somewhat of a comfort to me, even though I know I shouldn’t say this. I had control over the household spending plan. I could buy everything I wanted. I now possess a collection of culinary tools that is largely complete. Concerning the budget, my father is completely ignorant.
“When did your mother die?”
“Two years ago. Cancer. Brain tumor. She was in the hospital for a year and a half. It was terrible. She suffered from beginning to end. Finally lost her mind; had to be doped up all the time, and still she couldn’t die, though when she did it was practically a mercy killing. It’s the worst kind of death – the person’s in agony, the family goes through hell. It took every yen we had. I mean, they’d give her these shots – bang, bang, x”20,000 a pop, and she had to have round-the-clock care. I was so busy with her, that I couldn’t study, and had to delay university for a year. And as if that weren’t bad enough – ” She stopped in mid-sentence, put her chopsticks down, and sighed. “How did this conversation turn so dark all of a sudden?”
“It started with the business of the bras,” I said.
“So anyway, eat your eggs and think about what I just told you,” Midori said with a solemn expression.
Eating my portion filled me up, but Midori ate far less. “Cooking ruins my appetite,” she said. She cleared the table, wiped up the crumbs, brought out a box of Marlboro, put one in her mouth, and lit up with a match. Taking hold of the glass with the daffodils, she studied the blooms for a while.
“I don’t think I’ll put them in a vase,” she said. “If I leave them like this, it’s like I just happened to pick them by a pond somewhere and throw them into the first thing that came to hand.”
“I did pick them up by the pond at Otsuka Station,” I said.
She chuckled. “You are a weird one. Making jokes with a perfectly straight face.”
Chin in hand, she smoked half her cigarette, then crushed it out in the ashtray. She rubbed her eyes as if smoke had gotten into them.
“Girls are supposed to be a little more elegant when they put out their cigarettes. You did that like a lumberjack. You shouldn’t just cram it down in the ashtray but press it lightly around the edges of the ash. Then it doesn’t get all bent up. And girls are never supposed to blow smoke through their noses. And most girls wouldn’t talk about how they wore the same bra for three months when they’re eating alone with a man.”
Midori muttered, rubbing her nose, “I am a lumberjack.” I’ve never been able to pull off style. I try it as a joke sometimes, but it never sticks. Any more critiques for me?”
“Girls don’t smoke Marlboro,” I said.
“What’s the difference? One tastes as bad as another.” She turned the red Marlboro packet over and over in her hand. “I started smoking last month. It’s not as if I was dying for tobacco or anything. I just sort of felt like it.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
She pressed her hands together on the table and thought about it for a while. “What’s the difference? You don’t smoke?”
“Stopped in June,” I said.
“It was a pain. I hated running out of smokes in the middle of the night. I don’t like having something control me that way.”
“You’re very clear about what you like and what you don’t like,” she said.
“Maybe so,” I said. “Maybe that’s why people don’t like me. Never have.”
“It’s because you show it,” she said. “You make it obvious you don’t care whether people like you or not. That makes some people angry.” She spoke in a near mumble, chin in hand. “But I like talking to you. The way you talk is so unusual. “I don’t like having something control me that way’.”
I helped her wash the dishes. Standing next to her, I wiped as she washed, and stacked everything on the worktop.
“So,” I said, “your family’s out today?”
“My mother’s in her grave. She died two years ago.”
“Yeah, I heard that part.”
“My sister’s on a date with her fiancé. Probably on a drive. Her boyfriend works for a car company. He loves cars. I don’t love cars.”
Midori stopped talking and washed. I stopped talking and wiped. “And then there’s my father,” she said after some time had gone by.
“Right,” I said.
“He went off to Uruguay in June last year and he’s been there ever since.”
“Uruguay?! Why Uruguay?”
“He was thinking of settling there, believe it or not. An old army buddy of his has a farm there. All of a sudden, my father announces he’s going, too, that there’s no limit to what he can do in Uruguay, and he gets on a plane and that’s that. We tried hard to stop him, like, “Why do you want to go to a place like that? You can’t speak the language, you’ve hardly ever left Tokyo.’ But he wouldn’t listen. Losing my mother was a real shock to him. I mean, it made him a little cuckoo. That’s how much he loved her. Really.”
There was not much I could say in reply. I stared at Midori with my mouth open.
“What do you think he said to my sister and me when our mother died? “
I would much rather have lost the two of you than her.’ It knocked the wind out of me. I couldn’t say a word. You know what I mean? You just can’t say something like that. OK, he lost the woman he loved, his partner for life. I understand the pain, the sadness, the heartbreak. I pity him. But you don’t tell the daughters you fathered “You should have died in her place’. I mean, that’s just too terrible. Don’t you agree?”
“Yeah, I see your point.”
“That’s one wound that will never go away,” she said, shaking her head. “But anyway, everyone in my family’s a little different. We’ve all got something just a little bit strange.”
“So it seems,” I said.
“Still, it is wonderful for two people to love each other, don’t you think? I mean, for a man to love his wife so much he can tell his daughters they should have died in her place “Maybe so, now that you put it that way.”
“And then he dumps the two of us and runs off to Uruguay.”
I wiped another dish without replying. After the last one, Midori put everything back in the cabinets.
“So, have you heard from your father?” I asked.
“One postcard. In March. But what does he write? “It’s hot here’ or “The fruit’s not as good as I expected’. Stuff like that. I mean, give me a break! One stupid picture of a donkey! He’s lost his marbles! He didn’t even say whether he’d met that guy – that friend of his or whatever. He did add near the end that once he’s settled he’ll send for me and my sister, but not a word since then. And he never answers our letters.”
“What would you do if your father said, “Come to Uruguay’?”
“I’d go and have a look around at least. It might be fun. My sister says she’d refuse. She can’t stand dirty things and dirty places.”
“Is Uruguay dirty?”
“Who knows? She thinks it is. Like the roads are full of donkey shit and it’s swarming with flies, and the toilets don’t work, and lizards and scorpions crawl all over the place. She may have seen a film like that. She can’t stand flies, either. All she wants to do is drive through scenic places in fancy cars.”
“I mean, what’s wrong with Uruguay? I’d go.”
“So who’s running the shop?”
“My sister, but she hates it. We have an uncle in the neighborhood who helps out and makes deliveries. And I help when I have time. A bookshop’s not exactly hard labor, so we can manage. If it gets to be too much, we’ll sell the place.”
“Do you like your father?”
Midori shook her head. “Not especially.”
“So how can you follow him to Uruguay?”
“I believe in him.”
“Believe in him?”
“yeah, I’m not that fond of him, but I believe in my father. How can I not believe in a man who gives up his house, his kids, and his work, and runs off to Uruguay from the shock of losing his wife? Do you see what I mean?” I sighed. “Sort of, but not really.”
Midori laughed and patted me on the back. “Never mind,” she said. “It doesn’t matter.”
One weird thing after another came up that Sunday afternoon. A fire broke out near Midori’s house and, when we went up to the third-floor laundry deck to watch, we sort of kissed. It sounds stupid when I put it like that, but that was how things worked out.
We were drinking coffee after the meal and talking about the university when we heard sirens. They got louder and louder and seemed to be increasing in number. Lots of people ran past the shop, some of them shouting. Midori went to a room facing the street, opened the window, and looked down. “Wait here a minute,” she said and disappeared; after which I heard feet pounding upstairs.
I sat there drinking coffee alone and trying to remember where Uruguay was. Let’s see, Brazil was over here, and Venezuela there, and Colombia somewhere over here, but I couldn’t recall the location of Uruguay. A few minutes later Midori came down and urged me to hurry somewhere with her. I followed her to the end of the hall and climbed a steep, narrow stairway to a wooden deck with bamboo laundry poles. The deck was higher than most of the surrounding rooftops and gave a good view of the neighborhood. Huge clouds of black smoke shot up from a place three or four houses away and flowed with the breeze out towards the high street. A burning smell filled the air.
“It’s Sakamoto’s place,” said Midori, leaning over the railing. “They used to make traditional door fittings and stuff. They went out of business some time ago, though.”
I leaned over the railing with her and strained to see what was going on. A three-story building blocked our view of the fire, but there seemed to be three or four fire engines over there working on the blaze. No more than two of them could squeeze into the narrow lane where the house was burning, the rest standing by on the high street. The usual crowd of gawkers filled the area.
“Hey, maybe you should gather your valuables together and get ready to evacuate this place,” I said to Midori. “The wind’s blowing the other way now, but it could change any time, and you’ve got a petrol station right there. I’ll help you pack.”
“What valuables?” said Midori.
“Well, you must have something you’d want to save – bankbooks, seals, legal papers, stuff like that. Emergency cash.”
“Forget it. I’m not running away.”
“Even if this place burns?”
“You heard me. I don’t mind dying.”
When I gave her my full attention, she gave it to me in return. I wasn’t sure if she was being serious or humorous. We continued in that manner for some time, and eventually I stopped worrying.
“OK,” I said. “I get it. I’ll stay with you.”
“You’ll die with me?” Midori asked with shining eyes.
“No way,” I said. “I’ll run if it gets dangerous. If you want to die, you can do it alone.”
“I’m not going to die with you just because you made lunch for me. Of course, if it had been dinner. ..”
“Oh, well … Anyway, let’s stay here and watch for a while. We can sing songs. And if something bad happens, we can think about it then.”
Midori brought two floor pillows, four cans of beer, and a guitar from downstairs. We drank and watched the black smoke rising. She strummed and sang. I asked her if she didn’t think this might anger the neighbors. Drinking beer and singing while you watched a local fire from the laundry deck didn’t seem like the most admirable behavior I could think of.
“Forget it,” she said. “We never worry about what the neighbors might think.”
She sang some of the folk songs she had played with her group. I would have been hard-pressed to say she was good, but she did seem to enjoy her music. She went through all the old standards – “Lemon Tree”, “Puff (The Magic Dragon)”, “Five Hundred Miles”, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore”. At first, she tried to get me to sing bass harmony, but I was so bad she gave up and sang along to her heart’s content. I worked on my beer listened to her sing and kept an eye on the fire. It flared up and died down several times. People were yelling and giving orders.
A newspaper helicopter clattered overhead, took photographs, and flew away. I worried that we might be in the picture. A policeman screamed through a loudspeaker for bystanders to get back. A little kid was crying for his mother. Glass shattered somewhere. Before long the wind began shifting unpredictably, and white ash flakes fell out of the air around us, but Midori went on sipping and singing. After she had gone through most of the songs she knew, she sang an odd one that she said she had written herself:
I would want to make you a stew, but I lack a pot. I’d love to knit you a scarf, but I don’t have any wool. Although I don’t have a pen, I’d want to compose a poem for you.
“It’s called “I Have Nothing’,” Midori announced. It was a truly terrible song, both words and music.
I listened to this musical mess thinking that the house would blow apart in the explosion if the petrol station caught fire. Tired of singing, Midori put down her guitar and slumped against my shoulder like a cat in the sun.
“How did you like my song?” she asked.
I answered cautiously, “It was unique and original and very expressive of your personality.”
“Thanks,” she said. “The theme is that I have nothing.”
“Yeah, I kind of thought so.”
“You know,” she said, “when my mother died. ..”
“Yeah?” “I didn’t feel the least bit sad.”
“And I didn’t feel sad when my father left, either.”
“It’s true. Don’t you think I’m terrible? Cold-hearted?”
“I’m sure you have your reasons.”
“My reasons. Hmm. Things were pretty complicated in this house. But I always thought, I mean, they’re my mother and father, of course, I’d be sad if they died or I never saw them again. But it didn’t happen that way. I didn’t feel anything. Not sad, not lonely. I hardly even think of them. Sometimes I’ll have dreams, though. Sometimes my mother will be glaring at me out of the darkness and she’ll accuse me of being happy she died. But I’m not happy she died. I’m just not very sad. And to tell the truth, I never shed a single tear. I cried all night when my cat died, though, when I was little.”
Why so much smoke? I wondered.
I couldn’t see flames, and the burning area didn’t seem to be spreading. There was just this column of smoke winding up into the sky. What could have kept burning so long?”
But I’m not the only one to blame,” Midori continued. “It’s true I have a cold streak. I recognize that. But if they – my father and mother – had loved me a little more, I would have been able to feel more – to feel real sadness, for example.”
“Do you think you weren’t loved enough?”
She tilted her head and looked at me. Then she gave a sharp, little nod. “Somewhere between “not enough’ and “not at all’. I was always hungry for love. Just once, I wanted to know what it was like to get my fill of it – to be fed so much love I couldn’t take any more. Just once. But they never gave that to me. Never, not once. If I tried to cuddle up and beg for something, they’d just shove me away and yell at me. “No! That costs too much!’ It’s all I ever heard. So I made up my mind I was going to find someone who would love me unconditionally 365 days a year. I was still in primary school at the time, but I made up my mind once and for all.”
“Wow,” I said. “And did your search pay off?”
“That’s the hard part,” said Midori. She watched the rising smoke for a while, thinking. “I guess I’ve been waiting so long I’m looking for perfection. That makes it tough.”
“Waiting for the perfect love?”
“No, even I know better than that. I’m looking for selfishness. Perfect selfishness. Like, say I tell you I want to eat strawberry shortbread. You pause whatever you’re doing, then hurry out to get it for me. And as you struggle to breathe again, you drop to your knees and extend this strawberry shortbread to me. I then declare that I no longer desire it and hurl it out the window. That’s what I’m looking for.”
“I’m not sure that has anything to do with love,” I said with some amazement.
“It does,” she said. “You just don’t know it. There are times in a girl’s life when things like that are incredibly important.”
“Things like throwing strawberry shortbread out of the window?”
“Exactly. And when I do it, I want the man to apologize to me. “Now I see Midori. What a fool I’ve been! I should have known that you would lose your desire for strawberry shortbread. I have all the intelligence and sensitivity of a piece of donkey shit. To make it up to you, I’ll go out and buy you something else. What would you like? Chocolate mousse? Cheesecake?” ‘ “So then what?” “So then I’d give him all the love he deserves for what he’s done.”
“Sounds crazy to me.”
“Well, to me, that’s what love is. Not that anyone can understand me, though.” Midori gave her head a little shake against my shoulder. “For a certain kind of person, love begins from something tiny or silly. From something like that or it doesn’t begin at all.”
“I’ve never met a girl who thinks like you.”
“A lot of people tell me that,” she said, digging at a cuticle. “But it’s the only way I know how to think. Seriously. I’m just telling you what I believe. It’s never crossed my mind that my way of thinking is different from other people’s. I’m not trying to be different. But when I speak out honestly, everybody thinks I’m kidding or play-acting. When that happens, I feel like everything’s such a pain!”
“And you want to let yourself die in a fire?”
“Hey, no, that’s different. It’s just a matter of curiosity.”
“What? Dying in a fire?”
“No, I just wanted to see how you’d react,” Midori said. “But, I’m not afraid of dying. Really. Like here, I’d just be overcome with smoke lose consciousness, and die before I knew it. That doesn’t frighten me at all, compared to the way I saw my mother and a few relatives die. All my relatives died after suffering from some terrible illness. It’s in the blood, I guess. It’s always a long, long process, and at the end, you almost can’t tell whether the person is alive or dead. All that’s left is pain and suffering.”
Midori put a Marlboro between her lips and lit it.
“That’s the kind of death that frightens me. The shadow of death slowly, slowly eats away at the region of life, and before you know it everything’s dark and you can’t see, and the people around you think of you as more dead than alive. I hate that. I couldn’t stand it.”
Another half hour and the fire was out. They had kept it from spreading and prevented any injuries. All but one of the fire engines returned to base, and the crowd dispersed, buzzing with conversation. One police car remained to direct the traffic, its blue light spinning. Two crows had settled on nearby lamp-posts to observe the activity below.
Midori seemed drained of energy. Limp, stared at the sky and barely spoke.
“Tired?” I asked.
“Not really,” she said. “I just sort of let myself go limp and spaced out. First time in a long time.”
She looked into my eyes, and I into hers. I put my arm around her and kissed her. The slightest twinge went through her shoulders, and then she relaxed and closed her eyes for several seconds. The early autumn sun cast the shadow of her lashes on her cheek, and I could see it trembling in outline. It was a soft and gentle kiss, one not meant to lead beyond itself. I would probably not have kissed Midori that day if we hadn’t spent the afternoon on the laundry deck in the sun, drinking beer and watching a fire, and she no doubt felt the same.
After a long time of watching the glittering rooftops and the smoke and the red dragonflies and other things, we had felt something warm and close, and we both probably wanted, half-consciously, to preserve that mood in some form. It was that kind of kiss. But as with all kisses, it was not without a certain element of danger.
The first to speak was Midori. She held my hand and told me, with what seemed like some difficulty, that she was seeing someone. I said that I had sensed as much.
“Do you have a girl you like?” she asked. “I do,” I said.
“But you’re always free on Sundays, right?” “It’s very complicated,” I said.
And then I realized that the brief spell of the early autumn afternoon had vanished.
At five I said I had to go to work and suggested that Midori come with me for a snack. She said she had to stay home in case the phone rang.
“I hate waiting at home all day for a call. When I spend the day alone, I feel as if my flesh is rotting little by little – rotting and melting until there’s nothing left but a green puddle that gets sucked down into the earth. And all that stays behind are my clothes. That’s how it feels to me, waiting indoors all day.”
“I’ll keep you company next time you have to wait for a call,” I said. ‘As long as lunch is included.”
“Great,” she said. “I’ll arrange another fire for dessert.”
Midori didn’t come to the next day’s History of Drama lecture. I went to the cafeteria afterward and ate a cold, tasteless lunch alone. Then I sat in the sun and observed the campus scene. Two women students next to me were carrying on a long conversation, standing the whole time.
One cradled a tennis racquet to her breast with all the loving care she might give a baby, while the other held some books and a Leonard Bernstein LP Both were pretty and enjoying their discussion. From the direction of the student club building came the sound of a bass voice practicing scales. Here and there stood groups of four or five students expressing whatever opinions they happened to hold, laughing and shouting at one another. There were skateboarders in the car park.
A professor with a leather briefcase in his arms crossed the car park, avoiding them. In the quadrangle a helmeted girl student knelt on the ground, painting huge characters on a sign with something about American imperialism invading Asia. It was the usual midday university scene, but as I sat watching it with renewed attention, I became aware of something. In his or her way, everyone I saw before me looked happy. Whether they were really happy or just looked at it, I couldn’t tell. But they did look happy on this pleasant early afternoon in late September, and because of that, I felt a kind of loneliness new to me as if I were the only one here who was not truly part of the scene.
Come to think of it, what scene had I been a part of in recent years? The last one I could remember was a pool hall near the harbor, where Kizuki and I played pool together in a spirit of total friendship. Kizuki died that night, and ever since a cold, stiffening wind had come between me and the world. This boy Kizuki: what had his existence meant to me? To this question, I could find no answer. All I knew – with absolute certainty – was that Kizuki’s death had robbed me forever of some part of my adolescence. But what that meant, and what would come of it, were far beyond my understanding.
I sat there for a long time, watching the campus and the people passing through it, and hoping, too, that I might see Midori. But she never appeared, and when the noon break ended, I went to the library to prepare for my German class.
Nagasawa came to my room that Saturday afternoon and suggested we have one of our nights on the town. He would arrange an overnight pass for me. I said I would go. I had been feeling especially muddle-headed for the past week and was ready to sleep with anybody, it didn’t matter who.
Late in the afternoon I showered and shaved and put on fresh clothes – a polo shirt and cotton jacket – then had dinner with Nagasawa in the dining hall and the two of us caught a bus to Shinjuku. We walked around a lively area for a while, then went to one of our usual bars and sat there waiting for a likely pair of girls. The girls tended to come in pairs to this bar – except on this particular evening.
We stayed there for almost two hours, sipping whisky and sodas at a rate that kept us sober. Finally, two friendly-looking girls took seats at the bar, ordering a gimlet and a margarita. Nagasawa approached them straight away, but they said they were waiting for their boyfriends. Still, the four of us enjoyed a pleasant chat until their dates showed up.
Nagasawa took me to another bar to try our luck, a small place in a kind of cul-de-sac, where most of the customers were already drunk and noisy. A group of three girls occupied a table at the back. We joined them and enjoyed a little conversation, the five of us getting into a nice mood, but when Nagasawa suggested we go somewhere else for a drink, the girls said it was almost curfew time and they had to go back to their dorms. So much for our “luck”. We tried one more place with the same result. For some reason, the girls were just not coming our way.
At 11.30 Nagasawa was ready to give up. “Sorry I dragged you around for nothing,” he said.
“No problem,” I said. “It was worth it to me just to see you have your off days sometimes, too.”
“Maybe once a year,” he admitted.
I didn’t care about getting laid anymore. Wandering around Shinjuku on a noisy Saturday night, observing the mysterious energy created by a mixture of sex and alcohol, I began to feel that my desire was a puny thing.
“What are you going to do now, Watanabe?”
“Maybe go to an all-nighter,” I said. “I haven’t seen a film in ages.”
“I’ll be going to Hatsumi’s then,” said Nagasawa. “Do you mind?”
“No way,” I said. “Why should I mind?”
“If you’d like, I could introduce you to a girl who’d let you spend the night.”
“Nah, I am in the mood for a film.”
“Sorry,” said Nagasawa. “I’ll make it up to you sometime.” And he disappeared into the crowd. I went into a fast-food place for a cheeseburger and some coffee to kill the buzz, then went to see The Graduate in an old rep house. I didn’t think it was all that good, but I didn’t have anything better to do, so I stayed and watched it again. Emerging from the cinema at four in the morning, I wandered along the chilly streets of Shinjuku, thinking.
When I was tired of walking, I went to an all-night café and waited with a book and a cup of coffee for the morning trains to start. Before long, the place became crowded with people who, like me, were waiting for those first trains. A waiter came to ask me apologetically if I would mind sharing my table. I said it would be all right. It didn’t matter to me who sat across from me: I was just reading a book.
My companions at the table turned out to be two girls. They looked about my age. Neither of them was a knockout, but they weren’t bad. Both were reserved in the way they dressed and made up: they were not the type to be wandering around Shinjuku at five in the morning. I guessed they had just happened to miss the last train. They seemed relieved to sit with me: I was neatly dressed, had shaved in the evening, and to cap it all I was absorbed in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.
One of the girls was on the large side. She wore a grey parka and white jeans, carried a large vinyl pocketbook, and had large, shell-shaped earrings. Her friend was a small girl with glasses. She wore a blue cardigan over a checked shirt and had a turquoise ring. The smaller one had a habit of taking off her glasses and pressing her eyes with her fingertips.
Both girls ordered cafe au lait and cake, which took them some time to consume as they carried on what seemed like a serious discussion in hushed tones. The large girl tilted her head several times, while the small one shook hers just as often. I couldn’t make out what they were saying because of the loud stereo playing Marvin Gaye or the Bee Gees or something, but it seemed the small girl was angry or upset and the large girl was trying to comfort her. I alternated passages of my book with glances in their direction.
Clutching her shoulder bag to her breast, the smaller girl went to the ladies, at which point her companion spoke to me.
“I’m sorry to bother you, but I wonder if you might know of ally bars in the neighborhood that would still be serving drinks?”
Taken off guard, I set my book aside and asked, “After five o’clock in the morning?”
“Yes … “If you ask me, at 5.20 in the morning, most people are on their way home to get sober and go to bed.”
“Yes, I realize that,” she said, a bit embarrassed, “but my friend says she has to have a drink. It’s kind of important.”
“There’s probably nothing much you can do but go home and have a drink.”
“But I have to catch a 7.30 train to Nagano.”
“So find a vending machine and a nice place to sit. It’s about all you can do.”
“I know this is asking a lot, but could you come with us? Two girls alone really can’t do something like that.”
I had had several unusual experiences in Shinjuku, but I had never before been invited to have a drink with two strange girls at 5.20 in the morning. Refusing would have been more trouble than it was worth, and time was no problem, so I bought an armload of sake and snacks from a nearby machine, and the three of us went to an empty car park by the west exit of the station to hold an impromptu drinking party.
The girls told me they had become friends working at a travel agency. Both of them had graduated from college this year and started their first jobs. The small one had a boyfriend she had been seeing for a year but had recently discovered he was sleeping with another girl and she had taken it hard. The larger one was supposed to have left for the mountains of Nagano last night for her brother’s wedding, but she had decided to spend the night with her depressed friend and take the first express on Sunday morning.
“It’s too bad what you’re going through,” I said to the small one, “but how did you find out your boyfriend was sleeping with someone else?”
Taking little sips of sake, the girl tore at some weeds underfoot. “I didn’t have to work anything out,” she said. “I opened his door, and there he was, doing it.”
“When was that?”
“The night before last.”
“No way. The door was unlocked?”
“I wonder why he didn’t lock it?”
“How the hell should I know?”
“Yeah, how’s she supposed to feel?” said the larger one, who seemed truly concerned for her friend.
What a shock it must have been for her. Don’t you think it’s terrible?”
“I really can’t say,” I answered. “You ought to have a good talk with your boyfriend. Then it’s a question of whether you forgive him or not.”
“Nobody knows how I feel,” spat out the little one, still tearing grass.
A flock of crows appeared from the west and sailed over a big department store. It was daylight now. The time for the train to Nagano was approaching, so we gave what was left of the sake to a homeless guy downstairs at the west exit, bought platform tickets, and went in to see the big girl off. After the train pulled out of sight, the small girl and I somehow ended up going to a nearby hotel. Neither of us was particularly dying to sleep with the other, but it seemed necessary to bring things to a close.
I undressed first and sat in the bath drinking beer with a vengeance. She got in with me and did the same, the two of us stretched out and guzzled beer in silence. We couldn’t seem to get drunk, though, and neither of us was sleepy. Her skin was very fair and smooth, and she had beautiful legs. I complimented her on her legs, but her “Thanks” was little more than a grunt.
Once we were in bed, though, she was like a different person. She responded to the slightest touch of my hands, writhing and moaning. When I went inside her, she dug her nails into my back, and as her orgasm approached she called out another man’s name exactly 16 times. I concentrated on counting them as a way to delay my orgasm. Then the two of us fell asleep.
She was gone when I woke at 12.30. I found no note of any kind. One side of my head felt strangely heavy from having drunk at an odd hour. I took a shower to wake myself, shaved, and sat in a chair, naked, drinking a bottle of juice from the fridge and reviewing in order the events of the night before. Each scene felt unreal and strangely distant, as though I were viewing it through two or three layers of glass, but the events had undoubtedly happened to me. The beer glasses were still sitting on the table, and a used toothbrush lay by the sink.
On the off chance that Midori Kobayashi could be at home alone today waiting for a call again, I had a quick lunch in Shinjuku before going to a phone booth to contact her. No one responded after 15 rings, so I let it ring. Twenty minutes later, I gave it another go with the same outcomes.Then I took a bus back to the dorm. A special delivery letter was waiting for me in the letterbox by the entry. It was from Naoko.
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