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There was no sign of Midori at the next day’s lecture, either. What had happened to her? Ten days had gone by since we last talked on the phone. I thought about calling her but decided against it. She had said that she would call me.
That Thursday I saw Nagasawa in the dining hall. He sat down next to me with a tray full of food and apologized for having made our “party” so unpleasant.
“Never mind,” I said. “I should be thanking you for a great dinner. I have to admit, though, it was a funny way to celebrate your first job.”
“You can say that again.”
A few minutes went by as we ate in silence. “I made up with Hatsumi,” he said.
“I’m not surprised.”
“I was kind of tough on you, too, as I recall it.”
“What’s with all the apologizing?” I asked. “Are you ill?”
“I may be,” he said with a few little nods. “Hatsumi tells me you told her to leave me.”
“It only makes sense,” I said. “Yeah, I s’pose so,” said Nagasawa.
“She’s a great girl,” I said, slurping my miso soup.
“I know,” he said with a sigh. “A little too great for me.”
I was sleeping the sleep of death when the buzzer rang to let me know I had a call. It brought me back from the absolute core of sleep in total confusion. I felt as if I had been sleeping with my head soaked in water until my brain swelled up. The clock said 6.15 but I had no idea if that meant a.m. or p.m., and I couldn’t remember what day it was. I looked out of the window and realized there was no flag on the pole. It was probably p.m. So, raising that flag served some purpose after all. “Hey, Watanabe, are you free now?” Midori asked.
“I don’t know, what day is it?”
“Morning or evening?”
“Evening, of course! You’re so weird! Let’s see, it’s, uh, 6.18 p.m.”
So it was p.m. after all! That’s right, I had been stretched out on my bed reading a book when I dozed off. Friday. My head started working. I didn’t have to go to the record shop on Friday nights. “Yeah, I’m free. Where are you?”
“Ueno Station. Why don’t you meet me in Shinjuku? I’ll leave now.” We set a time and place and hung up.
When I got to DUG, Midori was sitting at the far end of the counter with a drink. She wore a man’s wrinkled, white balmacaan coat, a thin yellow jumper, blue jeans, and two bracelets on one wrist.
“What’re you drinking?” I asked. “Tom Collins.”
I ordered a whisky and soda, then realized there was a big suitcase by Midori’s feet. I went away,” she said. “Just got back.”
“Where’d you go?”
“South to Nara and north to Aomori.”
“On the same trip?!”
“Don’t be stupid. I may be strange, but I can’t go north and south at the same time. Went to Nara with my boyfriend, and then took off to Aomori alone.”
Sipped my whisky and soda, then struck a match to light the Marlboro that Midori held between her lips.
“You must have had a terrible time, what with the funeral and everything.”
“Nah, a funeral’s a piece of cake. We’ve had plenty of practice. You put on a black kimono and sit there like a lady and everybody else takes care of business – an uncle, a neighbor, like that. They bring the sake, order the sushi, say comforting things, cry, carry on, and divide up the keepsakes. It’s a breeze. A picnic. Compared to nursing someone day after day, it’s an absolute picnic. We were drained, my sister and me. Couldn’t even cry. We didn’t have any tears left.
Really. Except, when you do that, they start whispering about you: “Those girls are as cold as ice.’ So then, we’re never going to cry, that’s just how the two of us are. I know we could have faked it, but we would never do anything like that. The bastards! The more they wanted to see us cry, the more determined we were not to give them the satisfaction. My sister and I are different types, but when it comes to something like that, we’re in absolute sync.”
Midori’s bracelets jangled on her arm as she waved to the waiter and ordered another Tom Collins and a small bowl of pistachios.
“So then, after the funeral ended and everybody went home, the two of us drank sake till the sun went down. Polished off one of those huge half-gallon bottles, and half of another one, and the whole time we were dumping on everybody – this one’s an idiot, that one’s a shithead, one guy looks like a mangy dog, another one’s a pig, so-and-so’s a hypocrite, that one’s a crook. You have no idea how great it felt!”
“I can imagine.”
“We got pissed and went to bed – both of us out cold. We slept for hours, and if the phone rang or something, we just let it go. Dead to the world. Finally, after we woke up, we ordered sushi and talked about what to do. We decided to close the shop for a while and enjoy ourselves. We’d been killing ourselves for months and we deserved a break. My sister just wanted to hang around with her boyfriend for a while, and I decided I’d take mine on a trip for a couple of days and fuck like crazy.”
Midori clamped her mouth shut and rubbed her ears.
“That’s OK,” I said. “So you went to Nara.”
“Yeah, I’ve always liked that place. The temples, the deer park.” “And did you fuck like crazy?”
“No, not at all, not even once,” she said with a sigh. “The second we walked into the hotel room and dumped our bags, my period started. A real gusher.”
I couldn’t help laughing.
“Hey, it’s not funny I was a week early! I couldn’t stop crying when that happened. I think all the stress threw me off. My boyfriend got so angry! He’s like that: he gets angry straight away. It wasn’t my fault, though. It’s not like I wanted to get my period. And, well, mine are kind of on the heavy side anyway. The first day or two, I don’t want to do anything. Make sure you keep away from me then.”
“I’d like to, but how can I tell?” I asked.
“OK, I’ll wear a hat for a couple of days after my period starts. A red one. That should work,” she said with a laugh “If you see me on the street and I’m wearing a red hat, don’t talk to me, just run away.”
“Great. I wish all girls would do that,” I said. “So anyway what did you do in Nara?”
“What else could we do? We fed the deer and walked all over the place. It was just awful! We had a big fight and I haven’t seen him since we got back. I hung around for a couple of days and decided to take a nice trip all by myself. So I went to Aomori. I stayed with a friend in Hirosaki for the first two nights, and then I started traveling around – Shimokita, Tappi, and places like that. They’re nice. I once wrote a map brochure for the area. Ever been there?”
“So anyway,” said Midori, sipping her Tom Collins, then wrenching open pistachio, “the whole time I was traveling by myself, I was thinking of you. I was thinking how nice it would be if I could have you with me.”
“How come?!” Midori looked at me with eyes focused on nothingness. “What do you mean “How come?’?!”
“Just that. How come you were thinking of me?”
“Maybe because I like you, that’s how come! Why else would I be thinking of you? Who would ever think they wanted to be with somebody they didn’t like?”
“But you’ve got a boyfriend,” I said. “You don’t have to think about me.” I took a slow sip of my whisky and soda. “Meaning I’m not allowed to think about you if I’ve got a boyfriend?”
“No, that’s not it, I just – “
“Now get this straight, Watanabe,” said Midori, pointing at me. “I’m warning you, I’ve got a whole month’s worth of misery crammed inside me and getting ready to blow. So watch what you say to me. Any more of that kind of stuff and I’ll flood this place with tears. Once I get started, I’m good for the whole night. Are you ready for that? I’m an absolute animal when I start crying, it doesn’t matter where I am! I’m not joking.”
I nodded and kept quiet. I ordered a second whisky and soda and ate a few pistachios. Somewhere behind the sound of a sloshing shaker and clinking glasses and the scrape of an ice maker, Sarah Vaughan sang an old-fashioned love song.
“Things haven’t been right between me and my boyfriend ever since the tampon incident.”
“Yeah, I was out drinking with him and a few of his friends about a month ago and I told them the story of a woman in my neighborhood who blew out a tampon when she sneezed. Funny, right?”
“That is funny,” I said with a laugh.
“Yeah, all the other guys thought so, too. But he got mad and said I shouldn’t be talking about such dirty things. Such a wet blanket!”
“He’s a wonderful guy, but he can be narrow-minded when it comes to stuff like that,” said Midori. “Like, he gets mad if I wear anything but white underwear. Don’t you think that’s narrow-minded?”
“Maybe so,” I said, “but it’s just a matter of taste.” It seemed incredible to me that a guy like that would want a girlfriend like Midori, but I kept this thought to myself.
“So, what have you been doing?” she asked.
“Nothing. Same as ever,” I said, but then I recalled my attempt to masturbate while thinking of Midori as I had promised to do. I told her about it in a low voice that wouldn’t carry to the others around us.
Midori’s eyes lit up and she snapped her fingers. “How’d it go? Was it good?”
“Nah, I got embarrassed halfway through and stopped.”
“You mean you lost your erection?”
“Damn,” she said, shooting a look of annoyance at me. “You can’t let yourself get embarrassed. Think about something sexy. It’s OK, I’m permitting you. Hey, I know what! Next time I’ll get on the phone with you: “Oh, oh, that’s great … Oh, I feel it … Stop, I’m gonna come … Oh, don’t do that!’ I’ll say stuff like that to you while you’re doing it.”
“The dormitory phone is in the lobby by the front door, with people coming in and out all the time,” I explained. “The dorm Head would kill me with his bare hands if he saw me wanking in a place like that.”
“Oh, too bad.”
“Never mind,” I said. “I’ll try again by myself one of these days.”
“Give it your best shot,” said Midori. “I will,” I said.
“I wonder if it’s me,” she said. “Maybe I’m just not Innately.”
“That’s not it,” I assured her. “It’s more a question of attitude.”
“You know,” she said, “I have this tremendously sensitive back. The soft touch of fingers all over … me.” “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Hey, why don’t we go now and see a dirty film?” Midori suggested. “A filthy S&M one.”
We went from the bar to an eel shop, and from there to one of Shinjuku’s most run-down adult cinemas to see a triple bill. It was the only place we could find in the paper that was showing S&M stuff. Inside, the cinema had some kind of indefinable smell. Our timing was good: the S&M film was just starting as we took our seats. It was the story of a secretary and her schoolgirl sister being kidnapped by a bunch of men and subjected to sadistic torture. The men made the older one do all kinds of awful things by threatening to rape the sister, but soon the older sister is transformed into a raging masochist, and the younger one gets turned on from having to watch all the contortions they put her through. It was such a gloomy, repetitive film, that I got bored after a while.
“If I were the younger sister, I wouldn’t get worked up so easily,” said Midori. “I’d keep watching.”
“I’m sure you would,” I said.
“And anyway, don’t you think her nipples are too dark for a schoolgirl – a virgin?”
Midori’s eyes were glued to the screen. I was impressed: anyone watching a film with such fierce intensity was getting more than her money’s worth. She kept reporting her thoughts to me: “Oh my God, will you look at that!” or “Three guys at once! They’re going to tear her apart!” or “I’d like to try that on somebody, Watanabe.” I was enjoying Midori a lot more than the film.
When the lights went up during the intermission, I realized there were no other women in the place. One young man sitting near us – probably a student – took one look at Midori and changed his seat to the far side.
“Tell me, Watanabe, do you get hard watching this kind of stuff?”
“Well, yeah, sometimes,” I said. “That’s why they make these films.”
“So what you’re saying is, every time one of those scenes starts, every man in the cinema has his thing standing to attention? Thirty or forty of them sticking up all at once? It’s so weird if you stop and think about it, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, I guess so, now you mention it.”
The second feature was a fairly normal porn flick, which meant it was even more boring than the first. It had lots of oral sex scenes, and every time they started doing fellatio or cunnilingus or sixty-nine the soundtrack would fill the cinema with loud sucking or slurping sound effects. Listening to them, I felt strangely moved to think that I was living out my life on this bizarre planet of ours.
“Who comes up with these sounds, I wonder,” I said to Midori. “I think they’re great!” she said.
There was also a sound of a penis moving in and out of a vagina. I had never realized that such sounds even existed. The man was into a lot of heavy breathing, and the woman came up with the usual sort of expressions – “Yes!” or “More!” – as she writhed under him. You could also hear the bed creaking. These scenes just went on and on. Midori seemed to be enjoying them at first, but even she got bored after a while and suggested we leave. We went outside and took a few deep breaths. This was the first time in my life that the outside air of Shinjuku felt healthy to me.
“That was fun,” said Midori. “Let’s try it again sometime.”
“They just keep doing the same things,” I said.
“Well, what else can they do? We all just keep doing the same things.” She had a point there.
We found another bar and ordered drinks. I had more whisky, and Midori drank three or four cocktails of some indefinable kind. Outside again, Midori said she wanted to climb a tree.
“There aren’t any trees around here,” I said. “And even if there were, you’re too wobbly to do any climbing.”
“You’re always so damn sensible, you ruin everything. I’m drunk ’cause I wanna be drunk. What’s wrong with that? And even if I am drunk, I can still climb a tree. Shit, I’m gonna climb to the top of a great, big, tall tree and I’m gonna pee all over everybody!” “You wouldn’t happen to need the toilet by any chance?”
I took Midori to a pay toilet in Shinjuku Station, put a coin in the slot, and bundled her inside, then bought an evening paper at a nearby stand and read it while I waited for her to come out. But she didn’t come out. I started getting worried after 15 minutes and was ready to go and check on her when she finally emerged looking pale.
“Sorry,” she said. “I fell asleep.”
“Are you OK?” I asked, putting my coat around her shoulders. “Not really,” she said.
“I’ll take you home. You just have to get home, take a nice, long bath and go to bed. You’re exhausted.”
“I am not going home. What’s the point? Nobody’s there. I don’t want to sleep all by myself in a place like that.”
“Terrific,” I said. “So what are you going to do?”
“Go to some love hotel around here and sleep with your arms around me all night. Like a log. Tomorrow morning we’ll have breakfast somewhere and go to lectures together.”
“You were planning this all along, weren’t you? That’s why you called me.”
“You should have called your boyfriend, not me. That’s the only thing that makes sense. That’s what boyfriends are for.”
“But I want to be with you.”
“You can’t be with me,” I said. “First of all, I have to be back in the dorm by midnight. Otherwise, I’ll break curfew. The one time I did that there was all hell to pay. And secondly, if I go to bed with a girl, I’m going to want to do it with her, and the last thing I want is to lie there struggling to restrain myself. I’m not kidding, I might end up forcing you.”
“You mean you’d hit me and tie me up and rape me from behind?”
“Hey, look, I’m serious.”
“But I’m so lonely! I want to be with someone! I know I’m doing terrible things to you, making demands and not giving you anything in return, saying whatever pops into my head, dragging you out of your room, and forcing you to take me everywhere, but you’re the only one I can do stuff like that to! I’ve never been able to have my way with anybody, not once in the 20 years I’ve been alive. My father, and my mother, never paid the slightest attention to me, and my boyfriend, well, he’s just not that kind of guy. He gets angry if I try to have my way.
So we end up fighting. You’re the only one I can say these things to. And now I’m, really, really tired and I want to fall asleep listening to someone tell me how much they like me and how pretty I am and stuff. That’s all I want. And when I wake up, I’ll be full of energy and I’ll never make these kinds of selfish demands again. I swear. I’ll be a good girl.”
“I hear you, believe me, but there’s nothing I can do.”
“Oh, please! Otherwise, I’m going to sit down right here on the ground and cry my head off all night long. And I’ll sleep with the first guy that talks to me.”
That did it. I called the dorm and asked for Nagasawa.
When he got to the phone I asked him if he would make it look as if I had come back for the evening. I was with a girl, I explained.
“Fine,” he said. “It’s a worthy cause, I’ll be glad to help you out. I’ll just turn over your name tag to the “in’ side. Don’t worry. Take all the time you need. You can come in through my window in the morning.”
“Thanks. I owe you one,” I said and hung up. “All set?” Midori asked. “Pretty much,” I said with a sigh. “Great, let’s go to a disco, it’s son early.”
“Wait a minute, I thought you were tired.”
“For something like this, I’m just fine.” “Oh boy.”
And she was right. We went to a disco, and her energy came back little by little as we danced. She drank two whisky and cokes and stayed on the dance floor until her forehead was drenched in sweat. “This is so much fun!” she exclaimed when we took a break at a table. “I haven’t danced like this in ages. I don’t know, when you move your body, it’s kind of like your spirit gets liberated.”
“Your spirit is always liberated, I’d say.”
“No way,” she said, shaking her head and smiling. “Anyway, now that I’m feeling better, I’m starved! Let’s go for a pizza.”
I took her to a pizzeria I knew and ordered draught beer and an anchovy pizza. I wasn’t very hungry and ate only four of the twelve slices. Midori finished the rest.
“You sure made a fast recovery,” I said. “Not too long ago you were pale and wobbly.”
“It’s because my selfish demands got through to somebody, she answered. “It unclogged me. Wow, this pizza is great!’, “Tell me, though. Is there nobody at home?”
“It’s true. My sister’s staying at her friend’s place. Now, that girl’s got a real case of the creeps. She can’t sleep alone in the house if I’m not there.”
“Let’s forget this love hotel crap, then. Going to a place like that just makes you feel cheap. Let’s go to your house. You must have enough bedding for me?”
Midori thought about it for a minute, then nodded. “OK, we’ll spend the night at mine.”
We took the Yamanote Line to Otsuka, and soon we were raising the metal shutter that sealed off the front of the Kobayashi Bookshop. A paper sign on the shutter read TEMPORARILY CLOSED. The smell of old paper filled the dark shop as if the shutter had not been opened for a long time. Half the shelves were empty, and most of the magazines had been tied in bundles for returns. That hollow, chilly feeling I had experienced on my first visit had only deepened. The place looked like a hulk abandoned on the shore.
“You’re not planning to open shop again?” I asked.
“Nah, we’re going to sell it,” said Midori. “We’ll divide the money and live on our own for a while without anybody’s “protection’. My sister’s getting married next year, and I’ve got three more years at university. We ought to make enough to see us through that much at least. I’ll keep my part-time job, too. Once the place is sold, I’ll live with my sister in a flat for a while.”
“You think somebody wants to buy it?
“Probably. I know somebody who wants to open a wool shop, She’s been asking me recently if I want to sell. Poor Dad, though. He worked so hard to get this place, and he was paying off the loan he took out little by little, and in the end, he hardly had anything left. It all melted away, like foam on a river.”
“He had you, though,” I said.
“Me?!” Midori said with a laugh. She took a deep breath and let it out. “Let’s go upstairs. It’s cold down here.”
Upstairs, she sat me at the kitchen table and went to warm the bath water. While she busied herself with that, I put a kettle on to boil and made tea. Waiting for the tank to heat up, we sat across from each other at the kitchen table and drank tea. Chin in hand, she took a long, hard look at me. There were no sounds other than the ticking of the clock and the hum of the fridge motor turning on and off as the thermostat kicked in and out. The clock showed that midnight was fast approaching.
“You know, Watanabe, study it hard enough, and you’ve got a pretty interesting face.”
“Think so?” I asked, a bit hurt.
“A nice face goes a long way with me,” she said. “And yours … well, the more I look at it, the more I get to thinking, “He’ll do’.”
“Me, too,” I said. “Every once in a while, I think about myself, “What the hell, I’ll do’.”
“Hey, I don’t mean that in a bad way. I’m not very good at putting my feelings into words. That’s why people misunderstand me. All I’m trying to say is I like you. Have I told you that before?”
“You have,” I said.
“I mean, I’m not the only one who has trouble working out what men are all about. But I’m getting there, a little at a time.”
Midori brought over a box of Marlboro and lit one up. “When you start at zero, you’ve got a lot to learn.” “I wouldn’t be surprised.”
“Oh, I almost forgot! You want to burn a stick of incense for my father?”
I followed Midori to the room with the Buddhist altar, lit a stick of incense in front of her father’s photo, and brought my hands together. “Know what I did the other day?” Midori asked. “I got all naked in front of my father’s picture. Took off every stitch of clothing and let him have a good, long look. Kind of in a yoga position. Like, “Here, Daddy, these are my tits, and this is my cunt’.”
“Why in the hell would you do something like that?” I asked.
“I don’t know, I just wanted to show him. I mean, half of me comes from his sperm, right? Why shouldn’t I show him? “Here’s the daughter you made.’ I was a little drunk at the time. I suppose that had something to do with it.”
“My sister walked in and almost fell over. There I was in front of my father’s memorial portrait all naked with my legs spread. I guess you would be kind of surprised.” “I suppose so.”
“Explained why I was doing it and said, “So take off your clothes too Momo (her name’s Momo), and sit down next to me and show him,’ but she wouldn’t do it. She went away shocked. She has this conservative streak.”
“In other words, she’s relatively normal, you mean.”
“Tell me, Watanabe, what did you think of my father?”
“I’m not good with people I’ve just met, but it didn’t bother me being alone with him. I felt pretty comfortable.
We talked about all kinds of stuff.”
-What kind of stuff?”
-Euripides,” I said.
Midori laughed out loud. “You’re so weird! Nobody talks about Euripides with a dying person they’ve just met!”, Well, nobody sits in front of her father’s memorial portrait with her legs spread, either!”
Midori chuckled and gave the altar bell a ring. “Night-night, Daddy. We’re going to have some fun now, so don’t worry and get some sleep. You’re not suffering anymore, right? You’re dead, OK? I’m sure you’re not suffering. If you are, you’d better complain to the gods. Tell ’em it’s just too cruel. I hope you meet Mum and the two of you do it. I saw your willy when I helped you pee. It was pretty impressive! So give it everything you’ve got. Goodnight.”
We took turns in the bath and changed into pajamas. I borrowed a nearly new pair of her father’s. They were a little small but better than nothing. Midori spread out a mattress for me on the floor of the altar room.
“You’re not scared sleeping in front of the altar?” she asked. “Not at all. I haven’t done anything bad,” I said with a smile.
“But you’re going to stay with me and hold me until I fall asleep, right?”
“Right,” I said.
Practically falling over the edge of Midori’s little bed, I held her in my arms. Nose against my chest, she placed her hands on my hips. My right arm curled around her back while I tried to keep from falling out by hanging onto the bed frame with my left hand. It was not exactly a situation conducive to sexual excitement. My nose was resting on her head and her short-cut hair would tickle now and then.
“Come on, say something to me,” Midori said, her face buried in my chest.
“What do you want me to say?”
“Anything. Something to make me feel good.” “You’re really cute,” I said.
” – Midori,” she said. “Say my name.”
“You’re really cute, Midori,” I corrected myself. “What do you mean
“So cute the mountains crumble and the oceans dry up.” Midori lifted her face and looked at me. “You have this special way with words.”
“I can feel my heart softening when you say that,” I said, smiling. “Say something even nicer.”
“I like you, Midori. A lot.” “How much is a lot?”
“Like a spring bear,” I said.
“A spring bear?” Midori looked up again. “What’s that all about? A spring bear.”
“You’re walking through a field all by yourself one day in spring, and this sweet little bear cub with velvet fur and shiny little eyes comes walking along. And he says to you, “Hi, there, little lady. Want to tumble with me?’ So you and the bear cub spend the whole day in each other’s arms, tumbling down this clover-covered hill. Nice, huh?” “Yeah. Nice.”
“That’s how much I like you.”
“That is the best thing I’ve ever heard,” said Midori, cuddling up against my chest. “If you like me that much, you’ll do anything I tell you to do, right? You won’t get angry, right?”
“No, of course not.”
“And you’ll take care of me always and always.”, Of course, I will,” I said, stroking her short, soft, boyish hair. “Don’t worry, everything is going to be fine.” “But I’m scared,” she said.
I held her softly, and soon her shoulders were rising and falling, and I could hear the regular breathing of sleep. Slipped out of her bed and went to the kitchen, where I drank a beer. I wasn’t the least bit sleepy, so I thought about reading a book, but I couldn’t find anything worth reading nearby. Considered returning to Midori’s room to look for one, but I didn’t want to wake her by rummaging around while she was sleeping.
I sat there staring into space for a while, sipping my beer, when it occurred to me that I was in a bookshop. Went downstairs, switched on the light, and started looking through the paperback shelves. There wasn’t much that appealed to me and most of what I had read already, but I had to have something to read no matter what. I picked a discolored copy of Hermann Hesse’s Beneath the Wheel that must have been hanging around the shop unsold for a long time, and left the money for it by the till. This was my small contribution to reducing the debts of the Kobayashi Bookshop.
I sat at the kitchen table, drinking my beer and reading Beneath the Wheel. I first read the novel the year I entered school. And now, about eight years later, here I was, reading the same book in a girl’s kitchen, wearing the undersized pajamas of her dead father. Funny. If it hadn’t been for these strange circumstances, I would probably never have reread Beneath the Wheel.
The book did have its dated moments, but as a novel, it wasn’t bad. I moved through it slowly, enjoying it line by line, in the hushed bookshop in the middle of the night. A dusty bottle of brandy stood on a shelf in the kitchen. I poured a little into a coffee cup and sipped it. It warmed me but did nothing to help me feel sleepy.
I went to check on Midori a little before three, but she was fast asleep. She must have been exhausted. The lights from the block of shops beyond the window cast a soft white glow, like moonlight, over the room. Midori slept with her back to the light. She lay so perfectly still, she might have been frozen stiff. Bending over, I caught the sound of her breathing. She slept just like her father.
The suitcase from her recent travels stood by the bed. Her white coat hung on the back of a chair. Her desktop was neatly arranged, and on the wall over it hung a Snoopy calendar. I nudged the curtain aside and looked down at the deserted shops. Every shop was closed, their metal shutters down, the vending machines hunched in front of the off-license the only sign of something waiting for the dawn. The moan of long-distance lorry tires sent a deep shudder through the air now and then. I went back to the kitchen, poured myself another shot of brandy, and went on reading Beneath the Wheel.
By the time I had finished it, the sky was growing light. I made myself some instant coffee and used some notepaper and a ballpoint pen I found on the table to write a message to Midori: I drank some of your brandy. I bought a copy of Beneath the Wheel. It’s light outside, so I’m going home. Goodbye. Then, after some hesitation, I wrote: You look really cute when you’re sleeping. I washed my coffee cup, switched off the kitchen light, went downstairs, quietly lifted the shutter, and stepped outside.
I worried that a neighbor might find me suspicious, but there was no one on the street at 5.50-something in the morning. Only the crows were on their usual rooftop perch, glaring down at the street. I glanced up at the pale pink curtains in Midori’s window, walked to the tram stop, rode to the end of the line, and walked to my dorm. On the way, I found an open cafe and ate a breakfast of rice and miso soup, pickled vegetables, and fried eggs. Circling to the back of the dorm, I tapped on Nagasawa’s ground-floor window. He let me in immediately.
“Coffee?” he asked. “Nah.”
I thanked him, went up to my room, brushed my teeth, took my trousers off, got under the covers, and clamped my eyes shut. Finally, a dreamless sleep closed over me like a heavy lead door.
I wrote to Naoko every week, and she often wrote back. Her letters were never very long. Soon there were references to the cold November mornings and evenings.
You went back to Tokyo just about the time the autumn weather was deepening, so for a time, I couldn’t tell whether the hole that opened up inside me was from missing you or from the change of the season. Reiko and I talk about you all the time. She says to be sure to say “Hi” to you. She is as nice to me as ever. I don’t think I would have been able to stand this place if I didn’t have her with me. I cry when I’m lonely. Reiko says it’s good I can cry. But feeling lonely hurts. When I’m lonely at night, people talk to me from the darkness. They talk to me the way trees moan in the wind at night. Kizuki; my sister: they talk to me like that all the time. They’re lonely, too, and looking for someone to talk to.
I often reread your letters at night when I’m lonely and in pain. I get confused by a lot of things that come from the outside, but your descriptions of the world around you give me wonderful relief. It’s so strange! I wonder why that should be. So I read them over and over, and Reiko reads them, too. Then we talk about the things you tell me. I liked the part about that girl Midori’s father. We look forward to getting your letter every week as one of our few entertainments – yes, in a place like this, letters are our entertainment.
I try my best to set aside time in the week to write to you, but once I sit down in front of the blank sheet of paper, I begin to feel depressed. I’m having to push myself to write this letter, too. Reiko’s been yelling at me to answer you. Don’t get me wrong, though. I have tons of things I want to talk to you about, to tell you about. It’s just hard for me to put them into words. Which is why it’s so painful for me to write letters.
Speaking of Midori, she sounds like an interesting person. Reading your letter, I got the feeling she might be in love with you. When I told them that to Reiko, she said, “Well, of course, she is! Even I am in love with Watanabe!’ We’re picking mushrooms gathering chestnuts and eating them every day. And I do mean every day: rice with chestnuts, rice with matsutake mushrooms, but they taste so great, we never get tired of them. Reiko doesn’t eat that much, though. For her, it’s still one cigarette after another. The birds and the rabbits are doing fine.
Three days after my twentieth birthday, a package arrived for me from Naoko. Inside I found a wine-coloured crew neck pullover and a letter.
Happy Birthday! I hope you have a happy year being 20. My year of being 20 looks like it’s going to end with me as miserable as ever, but I’d like it if you could have your share of happiness and mine combined. Really. Reiko and I each knitted half of this jumper. If I had done it all by myself, it would have taken until next Valentine’s Day. The good half is Reiko’s, and the bad half is mine. Reiko is so good at everything she does, that I sometimes hate myself when I’m watching her. I mean, there’s not a single thing I’m good at!
Goodbye. Be well.
The package had a short note from Reiko, too.
How are you? For you, Naoko may be the pinnacle of happiness, but for me, she’s just a clumsy girl. Still, we managed to finish this jumper in time for your birthday. Handsome, isn’t it? We chose the color and the style.
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