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Norwegian Wood Book PDF Chapter 3: Naoko called me the following Saturday, and that Sunday we had a date. I suppose I can call it a date. I can’t think of a better word for it. As before, we walked the streets. We stopped somewhere for coffee, walked some more, had dinner in the evening, and said goodbye. Again, she talked only in snatches, but this didn’t seem to bother her, and I made no special effort to keep the conversation going. We talked about whatever came to mind – our daily routines, our colleges; each a little fragment that led nowhere. We said nothing at all about the past. And mainly, we walked – and walked, and walked. Fortunately, Tokyo is such a big city we could never have covered it all.
We kept on walking like this almost every weekend. She would lead, and I would follow close behind. Naoko had a variety of hairslides and always wore them with her right ear exposed. I remember her most clearly this way, from the back. She would toy with her hairslide whenever she felt embarrassed by something. And she was always dabbing at her mouth with a handkerchief. She did this whenever she had something to say. The more I observed these habits of hers, the more I came to like her.
Naoko went to a girls’ college on the rural western edge of Tokyo, a nice little place famous for its teaching of English.
Nearby was a narrow irrigation canal with clean, clear water, and Naoko and I would often walk along its banks. Sometimes she would invite me up to her flat and cook for me. It never seemed to concern her that the two of us were in such close quarters together. The room was small and neat and so lacking in frills that only the stockings drying in the corner by the window gave any hint that a girl lived there. She led a spare, simple life with hardly any friends.
No one who had known her at school could have imagined her like this. Back then, she had dressed with real flair and surrounded herself with a million friends. When I saw her room, I realized that, like me, she had wanted to go away to college and begin a new life far from anyone she knew. “Know why I chose this place?” she said with a smile. “Because nobody from home was coming here. We were all supposed to go somewhere more chic. You know what I mean?”
My relationship with Naoko was not without its progress, though. Little by little, she grew more accustomed to me, and I to her. When the summer holidays ended and a new term started, Naoko began walking next to me as if it were the most natural thing in the world to do. She saw me as a friend now, I concluded, and walking side by side with such a beautiful girl was by no means painful for me. We kept walking all over Tokyo in the same meandering way, climbing hills, crossing rivers and railway lines, just walking and walking with no destination in mind. We forged straight ahead as if our walking were a religious ritual meant to heal our wounded spirits. If it rained, we used umbrellas, but in any case, we walked.
Then came autumn, and the dormitory grounds were buried in zelkova leaves. The fragrance of a new season arrived when I put on my first pullover. Having worn out one pair of shoes, I bought some new suede ones.
I can’t seem to recall what we talked about then. Nothing special, I expect. We continued to avoid any mention of the past and rarely spoke about Kizuki. We could face each other over coffee cups in total silence.
Naoko liked to hear me tell stories about Storm Trooper. Once he had a date with a fellow student (a girl in geography, of course) but came back in the early evening looking glum. “Tell me, W W-Watanabe, what do you talk about with g-g-girls?” I don’t remember how I answered him, but he had picked the wrong person to ask. In July, somebody in the dorm had taken down Storm Trooper’s Amsterdam canal scene and put up a photo of the Golden Gate Bridge instead. He told me he wanted to know if Storm Trooper could masturbate on the Golden Gate Bridge. “He loved it,” I reported later, which prompted someone else to put up a picture of an iceberg. Each time the photo changed in his absence; Storm Trooper became upset.
“Who-who-who the hell is doing this?” he asked.
“I wonder,” I said. “But what’s the difference? They’re all nice pictures. You should be grateful.”
“Yeah, I suppose so, but it’s weird.”
My stories of Storm Trooper always made Naoko laugh. Not many things succeeded in doing that, so I talked about him often, though I was not exactly proud of myself for using him this way. He just happened to be the youngest son in a not-too-wealthy family who had grown up a little too serious for his own good. Making maps was the one small dream of his one small life. Who had the right to make fun of him for that?
By then, however, Storm-Trooper jokes had become an indispensable source of dormitory talk, and there was no way for me to undo what I had done. Besides, the sight of Naoko’s smiling face had become my own special source of pleasure. I went on supplying everyone with new stories.
Naoko asked me one time – just once – if I had a girl I liked. I told her about the one I had left behind in Kobe. “She was nice,” I said, “I enjoyed sleeping with her, and I miss her every now and then, but finally, she didn’t move me. I don’t know, sometimes I think I’ve got this hard kernel in my heart, and nothing much can get inside it. I doubt if I can really love anybody.”
“Have you ever been in love?” Naoko asked.
“Never,” I said.
She didn’t ask me more than that.
When autumn ended and cold winds began tearing through the city, Naoko would often walk pressed against my arm. I could sense her breathing through the thick cloth of her duffel coat. She would entwine her arm with mine, or cram her hand in my pocket, or, when it was really cold, cling tightly to my arm, shivering. None of this had any special meaning. I just kept walking with my hands shoved in my pockets. Our rubber-soled shoes made hardly any sound on the pavement, except for the dry crackling when we trod on the broad, withered sycamore leaves. I felt sorry for Naoko whenever I heard that sound. My arm was not the one she needed, but the arm of someone else. My warmth was not what she needed, but the warmth of someone else. I felt almost guilty being me.
As the winter deepened, the transparent clarity of Naoko’s eyes seemed to increase. It was a clarity that had nowhere to go. Sometimes Naoko would lock her eyes on to mine for no apparent reason. She seemed to be searching for something, and this would give me a strange, lonely, helpless sort of feeling.
I wondered if she was trying to convey something to me, something she could not put into words – something before words that she could not grasp within herself and which therefore had no hope of ever turning into words. Instead, she would fiddle with her hairslide, dab at the corners of her mouth with a handkerchief, or look into my eyes in that meaningless way. I wanted to hold her tight when she did these things, but I would hesitate and hold back. I was afraid I might hurt her. And so, the two of us kept walking the streets of Tokyo, Naoko searching for words in space.
The guys in the dorm would always tease me when I got a call from Naoko or went out on a Sunday morning. They assumed, naturally enough, that I had found a girlfriend. There was no way to explain the truth to them, and no need to explain it, so I let them think what they wanted to. I had to face a barrage of stupid questions in the evening – what position had we used? What was she like down there? What color underwear had she been wearing that day? I gave them the 36 answers they wanted.
And so I went from 18 to 19. Each day the sun would rise and set, and the flag would be raised and lowered. Every Sunday I would have a date with my dead friend’s girl. I had no idea what I was doing or what I was going to do. For my courses, I would read Claudel Racine and Eisenstein, but they meant almost nothing to me. I made no friends at the lectures and hardly knew anyone in the dorm.
The others in the dorm thought I wanted to be a writer because I was always alone with a book, but I had no such ambition. There was nothing I wanted to be. I tried to talk about this feeling with Naoko. She, at least, would be able to understand what I was feeling with some degree of precision, I thought. But I could never find the words to express myself. Strange, I seemed to have caught her word-searching sickness.
On Saturday nights I would sit by the phone in the lobby, waiting for Naoko to call. Most of the others were out, so the lobby was usually deserted. I would stare at the grains of light suspended in that silent space, struggling to see into my own heart. What did I want? And what did others want from me? But I could never find the answers. Sometimes I would reach out and try to grasp the grains of light, but my fingers touched nothing.
I read a lot, but not a lot of different books: I like to read my favorites again and again. Back then it was Truman Capote, John Updike, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Raymond Chandler, but I didn’t see anyone else in my lectures or the dorm reading writers like that. They liked Kazumi Takahashi, Kenzaburo Oe, Yukio Mishima, or contemporary French novelists, which was another reason I didn’t have much to say to anybody but kept to myself and my books. With my eyes closed, I would touch a familiar book and draw its fragrance deep inside me. This was enough to make me happy.
At 18 my favorite book was John Updike’s The Centaur, but after I had read it several times, it began to lose some of its initial luster 37 and yielded first place to The Great Gatsby. Gatsby stayed in first place for a long time after that. I would pull it off the shelf when the mood hit me and read a section at random. It never once disappointed me. There wasn’t a boring page in the whole book. I wanted to tell people what a wonderful novel it was, but no one around me had read The Great Gatsby or was likely to. Urging others to read F Scott Fitzgerald, although not a reactionary act, was not something one could do in 1968.
When I did finally meet the one person in my world who had read Gatsby, he and I became friends because of it. His name was Nagasawa. He was two years older than me, and because he was doing legal studies at the prestigious Tokyo University, he was on the fast track to national leadership. We lived in the same dorm and knew each other only by sight, until one day when I was reading Gatsby in a sunny spot in the dining hall. He sat down next to me and asked what I was reading. When I told him, he asked if I was enjoying it. “This is my third time,” I said, “and every time I find something new that I like even more than the last.”
“This man says he has read The Great Gatsby three times,” he said as if to himself. “Well, any friend of Gatsby is a friend of mine.” And so, we became friends. This happened in October.
The better I got to know Nagasawa, the stranger he seemed. I had met a lot of weird people in my day, but none as strange as Nagasawa. He was a far more voracious reader than me, but he made it a rule never to touch a book by any author who had not been dead for at least 30 years. “That’s the only kind of book I can trust,” he said.
“It’s not that I don’t believe in contemporary literature,” he added, “but I don’t want to waste valuable time reading any book that has not had the baptism of time. Life is too short.”
“What kind of authors do you like?” I asked, speaking in respectful tones to this man two years my senior.
“Balzac, Dante, Joseph Conrad, Dickens,” he answered without hesitations.
“Not exactly fashionable.”
“That’s why I read them. If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking. That’s the world of hicks and slobs. Real people would be ashamed of themselves doing that. Haven’t you noticed, Watanabe? You and I are the only real ones in this dorm. The other guys are crap.”
This took me off guard. “How can you say that?”
“‘Cause it’s true. I know. I can see it. It’s like we have marks on our foreheads. And besides, we’ve both read The Great Gatsby.”
I did some quick calculations. “But Fitzgerald’s only been dead 28 years,” I said.
“So what? Two years? Fitzgerald’s advanced.”
No one else in the dorm knew that Nagasawa was a secret reader of classic novels, nor would it have mattered if they had. Nagasawa was known for being smart. He breezed into Tokyo University, he got good marks, he would take the Civil Service Exam, joined the Foreign Ministry, and became a diplomat. He came from a wealthy family. His father owned a big hospital in Nagoya, and his brother had also graduated from Tokyo, gone on to medical school, and would one day inherit the hospital. Nagasawa always had plenty of money in his pocket, and he carried himself with real dignity. People treated him with respect, even the dorm Head. When he asked someone to do something, the person would do it without protest. There was no choice in the matter.
Nagasawa had a certain inborn quality that drew people to him and made them follow him. He knew how to stand at the head of the pack, to assess the situation, to give precise and tactful instructions that others would obey. Above his head hung an aura that revealed his powers like an angel’s halo, the mere sight of which would inspire awe in people for this superior being. This is why it shocked everyone that Nagasawa chose me, a person with no distinctive qualities, to be his special friend. People I hardly knew treated me with a certain respect because of it, but what they did not seem to realize was that the reason for my having been chosen was a simple one, namely that I treated Nagasawa with none of the adulation he received from other people.
I had a definite interest in the strange, complex aspects of his nature, but none of those other things – his good marks, his aura, his looks – impressed me. This must have been something new for him. There were sides to Nagasawa’s personality that conflicted in the extreme. Even I would be moved by his kindness at times, but he could just as well be malicious and cruel. He was both a spirit of amazing loftiness and an irredeemable man of the gutter. He could charge forward, the optimistic leader, even as his heart writhed in a swamp of loneliness. I saw these paradoxical qualities of his from the start, and I could never understand why they weren’t just as obvious to everyone else. He lived in his own special hell.
Still, I think I always managed to view him in the most favorable light. His greatest virtue was his honesty. Not only would he never lie, he would always acknowledge his shortcomings. He never tried to hide things that might embarrass him. And where I was concerned, he was unfailingly kind and supportive. Had he not been, my life in the dorm would have been far more unpleasant than it was. Still, I never once opened my heart to him, and in that sense, my relationship with Nagasawa stood in stark contrast to me and Kizuki. The first time I saw Nagasawa drunk and tormenting a girl, I promised myself never, under any circumstances, to open myself up to him.
There were several “Nagasawa Legends” that circulated throughout the dorm. According to one, he supposedly once ate three slugs. Another gave him a huge penis and had him sleeping with more than 100 girls.
The slug story was true. He told me so himself. “Three big mothers,”
he said. “Swallowed ’em whole.”
“What the hell for?”
“Well, it happened the first year I came to live here,” he said. “There was some shit between the first-years and the third-years. Started in April and finally came to a head in September. As a first-year representative, I went to work things out with the third-years. Real right-wing arseholes. They had these wooden kendo swords, and “working things out’ was probably the last thing they wanted to do. So I said, ‘All right, let’s put an end to this. Do what you want to me, but leave the other guys alone.’ So they said, “OK, let’s see you swallow a couple of slugs.’ “Fine,’ I said, “Let’s have ’em.’ The bastards went out and got three huge slugs. And I swallowed ’em.”
“What was it like?”
“What was it like?’ You have to swallow one yourself. The way it slides down your throat and into your stomach … it’s cold, and it leaves this disgusting aftertaste … yuck, I get chills just thinking about it. I wanted to puke but I fought it.
I mean, if I had puked ’em up, I would have had to swallow ’em all over again. So, I kept ’em down. All three of ’em.”
“Then what happened?”
“I went back to my room and drank a bucket of salt water.
What else could I do?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“But after that, nobody could say a thing to me. Not even the third year. I’m the only guy in this place who can swallow three slugs.”
“I bet you are.”
Finding out about his penis size was easy enough. I just went to the dorm’s communal shower with him. He had a big one, all right. But 100 girls was probably an exaggeration. “Maybe 75,” he said. “I can’t remember them all, but I’m sure it’s at least 70.” When I told him I had slept with only one, he said, “Oh, we can fix that, easy. Come with me next time. I’ll get you one easy as that.”
I didn’t believe him, but he turned out to be right. It was easy. Almost too easy, with all the excitement of flat beer. We went to some kind of bar in Shibuya or Shinjuku (he had his favorites), found a pair of girls (the world was full of pairs of girls), talked to them, drank, went to a hotel, and had sex with them. He was a great talker. Not that he had anything great to say, but girls would get carried away listening to him, they’d drink too much and end up sleeping with him. I guess they enjoyed being with somebody so nice and handsome and clever.
And the most amazing thing was that, just because I was with him, I seemed to become equally fascinating to them. Nagasawa would urge me to talk, and girls would respond to me with the same smiles of admiration they offered him. He worked his magic, a real talent he had that impressed me every time. Compared with Nagasawa, Kizuki’s conversational gifts were child’s play. This was a completely different level of accomplishment. As much as I found myself caught up in Nagasawa’s power, though, I still missed Kizuki. I felt a new admiration for his sincerity. Whatever talents he had he would share with Naoko and me alone, while Nagasawa was bent on disseminating his considerable gifts to all around him. Not that he was dying to sleep with the girls he found: it was just a game to him.
I was not too crazy about sleeping with girls I didn’t know. It was an easy way to take care of my sex drive of course, and I did enjoy all the holding and touching, but I hated the morning after. I’d wake up and find this strange girl sleeping next to me, and the room would reek of alcohol, and the bed and the lighting and the curtains had that special “love hotel” garishness, and my head would be in a hungover fog. Then the girl would wake up and start groping around for her knickers and while she was putting on her stockings she’d say something like, “I hope you used one last night. It’s the worst day of the month for me.”
Then she’d sit in front of a mirror and start grumbling about her aching head or her uncooperative makeup while she redid her lipstick or attached her false eyelashes. I would have preferred not to spend the whole night with them, but you can’t worry about a midnight curfew while you’re seducing women (which runs counter to the laws of physics anyway), so I’d go out with an overnight pass. This meant I had to stay put until morning and go back to the dorm filled with self-loathing and disillusionment, sunlight stabbing my eyes, mouth coated with sand, and head belonging to someone else.
When I had slept with three or four girls this way, I asked Nagasawa, “After you’ve done this 70 times, doesn’t it begin to seem kind of pointless?”
“That proves you’re a decent human being,” he said. “Congratulations. There is absolutely nothing to be gained from sleeping with one strange woman after another. It just tires you out and makes you disgusted with yourself. It’s the same for me.”
“So why the hell do you keep it up?”
“Hard to say. Hey, you know that thing Dostoevsky wrote on gambling? It’s like that. When you’re surrounded by endless possibilities, one of the hardest things you can do is pass them up. See what I mean?”
“Look. The sun goes down. The girls come out and drink. They wander around, looking for something. I can give them that something. It’s the easiest thing in the world, like drinking water from a tap. Before you know it, I’ve got ’em down. It’s what they expect. That’s what I mean by possibility. It’s all around you. How can you ignore it? You have a certain ability and the opportunity to use it: can you keep your mouth shut and let it pass?”
“I don’t know, I’ve never been in a situation like that,” I said with a smile. “I can’t imagine what it’s like.”
“Count your blessings,” Nagasawa said.
His womanizing was the reason Nagasawa lived in a dorm despite his affluent background. Worried that Nagasawa would do nothing else if allowed to live alone in Tokyo, his father had compelled him to live all four years at the university in the dormitory. Not that it mattered much to Nagasawa. He was not going to let a few rules bother him. Whenever he felt like it, he would get an overnight permission and go girl-hunting or spend the night at his girlfriend’s flat. These permissions were not easy to get, but for him, they were like free passes – and for me, too, as long as he did the asking.
Nagasawa did have a steady girlfriend, one he’d been going out with since his first year. Her name was Hatsumi, and she was the same age as Nagasawa. I had met her a few times and found her to be very nice. She didn’t have the kind of looks that immediately attracted attention, and in fact, she was so ordinary that when I first met her I had to wonder why Nagasawa couldn’t do better, but anyone who talked to her took an immediate liking to her.
Quiet, intelligent, funny, and caring, she always dressed with immaculate good taste. I liked her a lot and knew that if I could have a girlfriend like Hatsumi, I wouldn’t be sleeping around with a bunch of easy marks. She liked me, too, and tried hard to fix me up with a first-year in her club so we could double-date, but I would make up excuses to keep from repeating past mistakes. Hatsumi went to the absolute top girls’ college in the country, and there was no way I was going to be able to talk to one of those super-rich princesses.
Hatsumi had a pretty good idea that Nagasawa was sleeping around, but she never complained to him. She was seriously in love, but she never made demands.
“I don’t deserve a girl like Hatsumi,” Nagasawa once said to me. I had to agree with him.
That winter I found a part-time job in a little record shop in Shinjuku. It didn’t pay much, but the work was easy – just watching the place three nights a week – and they let me buy records cheaply. For Christmas, I bought Naoko a Henry Mancini album with a track of her favorite “Dear Heart”. I wrapped it myself and added a bright red ribbon. She gave me a pair of woolen gloves she had knitted. The thumbs were a little short, but they did keep my hands warm.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, blushing, “What a bad job!”
“Don’t worry, they fit fine,” I said, holding my gloved hands out to her.
“Well, at least you won’t have to shove your hands in your pockets, I guess.”
Naoko didn’t go home to Kobe for the winter break. I stayed in Tokyo, too, working in the record shop right up to the end of the year. I didn’t have anything especially fun to do in Kobe or anyone I wanted to see. The dorm’s dining hall was closed for the holiday, so I went to Naoko’s flat for meals. On New Year’s Eve, we had rice cakes and soup like everybody else.
A lot happened in late January and February that year, 1969.
At the end of January, Storm Trooper went to bed with a raging fever. Which meant I had to stand up to Naoko that day. I had gone to a lot of trouble to get my hands on some free tickets for a concert. She had been especially eager to go because the orchestra was performing one of her favorites: Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. But with Storm Trooper tossing around in bed on the verge of what looked like an agonizing death, I couldn’t just leave him, and I couldn’t find anyone stupid enough to nurse him in my place.
I bought some ice and used several layers of plastic bags to hold it on his forehead, wiped his sweating brow with cold towels, took his temperature every hour, and even changed his vest for him. The fever stayed high for a day, but the following morning he jumped out of bed and started exercising as though nothing had happened. His temperature was completely normal. It was hard to believe he was a human being.
“Weird,” said Storm Trooper. “I’ve never run a fever in my life.” It was almost as if he were blaming me.
This made me mad. “But you did have a fever,” I insisted, showing him the two wasted tickets.
“Good thing they were free,” he said. I wanted to grab his radio and throw it out of the window, but instead, I went back to bed with a headache.
It snowed several times in February.
Near the end of the month, I got into a stupid fight with one of the third-years on my floor and punched him. He hit his head against the concrete wall, but he wasn’t badly injured, and Nagasawa straightened things out for me. Still, I was called into the dorm Head’s office and given a warning, after which I grew increasingly uncomfortable living in the dormitory.
The academic year ended in March, but I came up a few credits short. My exam results were mediocre – mostly “C”s and “D”s with a few “B”s. Naoko had all the grades she needed to begin the spring term of her second year. We had completed one full cycle of the seasons.
Halfway through April Naoko turned 20. She was seven months older than I was, my own birthday being in November. There was something strange about her becoming 20. I. felt as if the only thing that made sense, whether for Naoko or for me, was to keep going back and forth between 18 and 19. After 18 would come 19, and after 19, 18, of course. But she turned 20. And in the autumn, I would do the same. Only the dead stay 17 forever.
It rained on her birthday. After lectures, I bought a cake nearby and took the tram to her flat. “We ought to have a celebration,” I said. I probably would have wanted the same thing if our positions had been reversed. It must be hard to pass your twentieth birthday alone. The team had been packed and had pitched so wildly that by the time I arrived at Naoko’s room, the cake was looking more like the Roman Colosseum than anything else. Still, once I had managed to stand up the 20 candles I had brought along, light them, close the curtains, and turn out the lights, we had the makings of a birthday party. Naoko opened a bottle of wine. We drank, had some cake, and enjoyed a simple dinner.
“I don’t know, it’s stupid being 20,” she said. “I’m just not ready. It feels weird. Like somebody’s pushing me from behind.”
“I’ve got seven months to get ready,” I said with a laugh.
“You’re so lucky! Still 19!” said Naoko with a hint of envy.
While we ate I told her about Storm Trooper’s new jumper. Until then he had had only one, a navy blue pullover, so two was a big move for him. The jumper itself was a nice one, red and black with a knitted deer motif, but on him it made everybody laugh. He couldn’t work out what was going on.
“W what’s so funny, Watanabe?” he asked, sitting next to me in the dining hall. “Is something stuck to my forehead?”
“Nothing,” I said, trying to keep a straight face. “There’s nothing funny. Nice jumper.”
“Thanks,” he said, beaming.
Naoko loved the story. “I have to meet him,” she said. “Just once.”
“No way,” I said. “You’d laugh in his face.” “You think so?”
“I’d bet on it. I see him every day, and still, I can’t help laughing sometimes.”
We cleared the table and sat on the floor, listening to music and drinking the rest of the wine. She drank two glasses in the time it took me to finish one.
Naoko was unusually talkative that night. She told me about her childhood, her school, and her family. Each episode was a long one, executed with the painstaking detail of a miniature. I was amazed at the power of her memory, but as I sat listening it began to dawn on me that there was something wrong with the way she was telling these stories: something strange, warped even. Each tale had its own internal logic, but the link from one to the next was odd.
Before you knew it, story A had turned into story B, which had been contained in A, and then came C from something in B, with no end in sight. I found things to say in response at first, but after a while, I stopped trying. I put on a record, and when it ended I lifted the needle and put on another. After the last record, I went back to the first. She only had six. The cycle started with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and ended with Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debbie. Rain fell past the window. Time moved slowly. Naoko went on talking by herself.
It eventually dawned on me what was wrong: Naoko was taking great care as she spoke not to touch on certain things. One of those things was Kizuki, of course, but there was more than Kizuki. And though she had certain subjects she was determined to avoid, she went on endlessly and in incredible detail about the most trivial, inane things. I had never heard her speak with such intensity before, and so I did not interrupt her.
Once the clock struck eleven, though, I began to feel nervous. She had been talking non-stop for more than four hours. I had to worry about the last train and my midnight curfew. I saw my chance and cut in.
“Time for the troops to go home,” I said, looking at my watch. “Last train’s coming.”
My words did not seem to reach her. Or, if they did, she was unable to grasp their meaning. She clamped her mouth shut for a split second, then went on with her story. I gave up and, shifting to a more comfortable position, drank what was left of the second bottle of wine. I thought I had better let her talk herself out. The curfew and the last train would have to take care of themselves.
She did not go on for long, though. Before I knew it, she had stopped talking. The ragged end of the last word she spoke seemed to float in the air, where it had been torn off. She had not actually finished what she was saying. Her words had simply evaporated. She had been trying to go on but had come up against nothing. Something was gone now, and I was probably the one who had destroyed it. My words might have finally reached her, taken their time to be understood, and obliterated whatever energy it was that had kept her talking so long. Lips slightly parted, she turned her half-focused eyes on mine. She looked like some kind of machine that had been humming along until someone pulled the plug. Her eyes appeared clouded as if covered by some thin, translucent membrane.
“Sorry to interrupt,” I said, “but it’s getting late, and …”
One big tear spilled from her eye, ran down her cheek, and splattered onto a record jacket. Once that first tear broke free, the rest followed in an unbroken stream. Naoko bent forward on all fours on the floor and, pressing her palms to the mat, began to cry with the force of a person vomiting. Never in my life had I seen anyone cry with such intensity. I reached out and placed a hand on her trembling shoulder.
Then, all but instinctively, I took her in my arms. Pressed against me, her whole body trembling, she continued to cry without a sound. My shirt became damp – then soaked – with her tears and hot breath. Soon her fingers began to move across my back as if in search of something, some important thing that had always been there. Supporting her weight with my left arm, I used my right hand to caress her soft, straight hair. And I waited. In that position, I waited for Naoko to stop crying. And I went on waiting. But Naoko’s crying never stopped.
I slept with Naoko that night. Was it the right thing to do? I can’t tell. Even now, almost 20 years later, I can’t be sure. I suppose I’ll never know. But at the time, it was all I could do. She was in a heightened state of tension and confusion, and she made it clear she wanted me to give her release. I turned the lights down and began, one piece at a time, with the gentlest touch I could manage, to remove her clothes. Then I undressed. It was warm enough, that rainy April night, for us to cling to each other’s nakedness without a sense of chill. We explored each other’s bodies in the darkness without words. I kissed her and held her soft breasts in my hands. She clutched at my erection. Her opening was warm and wet and asking for me.
And yet, when I went inside her, Naoko tensed with pain. Was this her first time? I asked, and she nodded. Now it was my turn to be confused. I had assumed that Naoko had been sleeping with Kizuki all that time. I went in as far as I could and stayed that way for a long time, holding Naoko, without moving. And then, as she began to seem calmer, I allowed myself to move inside her, taking a long time to come to climax, with slow, gentle movements. Her arms tightened around me at the end, when at last she broke her silence. Her cry was the saddest sound of orgasm I had ever heard.
When everything had ended, I asked Naoko why she had never slept with Kizuki. This was a mistake. No sooner had I asked the question than she took her arms from me and started crying soundlessly again. I pulled her bedding from the closet, spread it on the mat floor, and put her in beneath the covers. Smoking, I watched the endless April rain beyond the window.
The rain had stopped when morning came. Naoko was sleeping with her back to me. Or maybe she hadn’t slept at all. Whether she was awake or asleep, all words had left her lips, and her body now seemed stiff, almost frozen. I tried several times to talk to her, but she would not answer or move. I stared for a long time at her naked shoulder, but in the end, I lost all hope of eliciting a response and decided to get up.
The floor was still littered with record jackets, glasses, wine bottles, and the ashtray I had been using. Half the caved-in birthday cake remained on the table. It was as if time had come to a halt. I picked up the things off the floor and drank two glasses of water at the sink. On Naoko’s desk lay a dictionary and a French verb chart. On the wall above the desk hung a calendar, one without an illustration or photo of any kind, just the numbers of the days of the month. There were no memos or marks written next to any of the dates.
I picked up my clothes and dressed. The chest of my shirt was still damp and chilly. It had Naoko’s smell. On the notepad lying on the desk, I wrote: I’d like to have a good long talk with you once you’ve calmed down. Please call me soon. Happy Birthday. I took one last look at Naoko’s shoulder, stepped outside, and quietly shut the door.
No call came even after a week had passed. Naoko’s house had no system for calling people on the phone, and so on Sunday morning, I took the train out to Kokubunji. She wasn’t there, and her name had been removed from the door. The windows and storm shutters were closed tight. The manager told me that Naoko had moved out three days earlier. He had no idea where she had moved to. I went back to the dorm and wrote Naoko a long letter addressed to her home in Kobe. Wherever she was, they would forward it to her at least.
I gave her an honest account of my feelings. There was a lot I still didn’t understand, I said, and though I was trying hard to understand, it would take time. Where I would be once that time had gone by, I couldn’t say now, which is why it was impossible for me to make promises or demands, or to set down pretty words. For one thing, we knew too little of each other. If, however, she would grant me the time, I would give it my best effort, and the two of us would come to know each other better.
In any case, I wanted to see her again and have a good long talk. When I lost Kizuki, I lost the one person to whom I could speak honestly of my feelings, and I imagined it would be the same for Naoko. She and I had needed each other more than either of us knew. Which was no doubt why our relationship had taken such a major detour and become, in a sense, warped. I probably should not have done what I did, and yet I believe that it was all I could do. The warmth and closeness I felt for you at that moment was something I had never experienced before. I need you to answer this letter. Whatever that answer may be, I need to have it.
No answer came.
Something inside me had dropped away, and nothing came in to fill the empty cavern. There was an abnormal lightness to my body, and sounds had a hollow echo to them. I went to lectures more faithfully than ever. They were boring, and I never talked to my fellow students, but I had nothing else to do. I would sit by myself in the very front row of the lecture hall, speak to no one, and eat alone. I stopped smoking.
The student strike started at the end of May. “Dismantle the University!” they all screamed. Go ahead, do it, I thought. Dismantle it. Tear it apart. Crush it to bits. I don’t give a damn. It would be a breath of fresh air. I’m ready for anything. I’ll help if necessary. Just go ahead and do it.
With the campus blockaded and lectures suspended, I started to work at a delivery company. Sitting with the driver, loading and unloading lorries, that kind of stuff. It was tougher than I thought. At first, I could hardly get out of bed in the morning with the pain. The pay was good, though, and as long as I kept my body moving I could forget about the emptiness inside. I worked on the lorries five days a week, and three nights a week I continued my job at the record shop. Nights without work I spent with whisky and books. Storm Trooper wouldn’t touch whisky and couldn’t stand the smell, so when I was sprawled on my bed drinking it straight, he’d complain that the fumes made it impossible for him to study and ask me to take my bottle outside.
“You get the hell out,” I growled.
“But you know drinking in the dorm is a-a-against the rules.”
“I don’t give a shit. You get out.”
He stopped complaining, but now I was annoyed. I went to the roof and drank alone.
In June I wrote Naoko another long letter, addressing it again to her house in Kobe. It said pretty much the same thing as the first one, but at the end, I added: Waiting for your answer is one of the most painful things I have ever been through. At least let me know whether or not I hurt you. When I posted it, I felt as if the cavern inside me had grown again.
That June I went out with Nagasawa twice again to sleep with girls. It was easy both times. The first girl put up a terrific struggle when I tried to get her undressed and into the hotel bed, but when I began reading alone because it just wasn’t worth it, she came over and started nuzzling me. And after I had done it with the second one, she started asking me all kinds of personal questions – how many girls had I slept with? Where was I from? Which university did I go to? What kind of music did I like? Have I ever read any novels by Osamu Dazai? Where would I like to go if I could travel abroad?
Did I think her nipples were too big? I made up some answers and went to sleep, but the next morning she said she wanted to have breakfast with me, and she kept up the stream of questions over the tasteless eggs and toast and coffee. What kind of work did my father do? Did I get good marks at school? What month was I born? Had I ever eaten frogs? She was giving me a headache, so as soon as we had finished eating I said I had to go to work.
“Will I ever see you again?” she asked with a sad look.
“Oh, I’m sure we’ll meet again somewhere before long,” I said and left. What the hell am I doing? I started wondering as soon as I was alone, feeling disgusted with myself. And yet it was all I could do. My body was hungering for women. All the time I was sleeping with those girls I thought about Naoko: the white shape of her naked body in the darkness, her sighs, the sound of the rain. The more I thought about these things, the hungrier my body grew. I went up to the roof with my whisky and asked myself where I thought I was heading. Finally, at the beginning of July, a letter came from Naoko. A short letter.
Please forgive me for not answering sooner. But try to understand. It took me a very long time before I was in any condition to write, and I have started this letter at least ten times. Writing is a painful process for me.
Let me begin with my conclusion. I have decided to take a year off from college. Officially, it’s a leave of absence, but I suspect that I will never be going back. This will no doubt come as a surprise to you, but I have been thinking about doing this for a very long time. I tried a few times to mention it to you, but I was never able to make myself begin. I was afraid even to pronounce the words.
Try not to get so worked up about things. Whatever happened – or didn’t happen – the result would have been the same. This may not be the best way to put it, and I’m sorry if it hurts you. What I am trying to tell you is, that I don’t want you to blame yourself for what happened with me. It is something I have to take on all by myself. I had been putting it off for more than a year, and so I ended up making things very difficult for you. There is probably no way to put it off any longer.
After I moved out of my flat, I came back to my family’s house in Kobe and was seeing a doctor for a while. He tells me there is a place in the hills outside Kyoto that would be perfect for me, and I’m thinking of spending a little time there. It’s not exactly a hospital, more a sanatorium kind of thing with a far freer style of treatment. I’ll leave the details in another letter. What I need now is to rest my nerves in a quiet place cut off from the world.
I feel grateful in my way for the year of companionship you gave me. Please believe that much even if you believe nothing else. You are not the one who hurt me. I am the one who did that. This is truly how I feel.
For now, however, I am not prepared to see you. It’s not that I don’t want to see you: I’m simply not prepared for it. The moment I feel ready, I will write to you. Perhaps then we can get to know each other better. As you say, this is probably what we should do: get to know each other better.
I read Naoko’s letter again and again, and each time I would be filled with that same unbearable sadness I used to feel whenever Naoko herself stared into my eyes. I had no way to deal with it, no place I could take it to or hide it away. Like the wind passing over my body, it had neither shape nor weight nor could I wrap myself in it. Objects in the scene would drift past me, but the words they spoke never reached my ears.
I continued to spend my Saturday nights sitting in the hall. There was no hope of a phone call, but I didn’t know what else to do with the time. I would switch on a baseball game and pretend to watch it as I cut the space between me and the television set in two, then cut each half in two again, over and over, until I had fashioned a space small enough to hold in my hand.
I would switch the set off at ten, go back to my room, and go to sleep.
At the end of the month, Storm Trooper gave me a firefly. It was in an instant coffee jar with air holes in the lid and containing some blades of grass and a little water. In the bright room, the firefly looked like some kind of ordinary black insect you’d find by a pond somewhere, but Storm Trooper insisted it was the real thing. “I know a firefly when I see one,” he said, and I had no reason or basis to disbelieve him.
“Fine,” I said. “It’s a firefly.” It had a sleepy look on its face, but it kept trying to climb up the slippery glass walls of the jar and falling back.
“I found it in the quad,” he said.
“Here? By the dorm?”
“Yeah. You know the hotel down the street? They release fireflies in their garden for summer guests. This one made it over here.”
Storm Trooper was busy stuffing clothes and notebooks into his black Boston bag as he spoke.
Several weeks into the summer holidays, he and I were almost the only ones left in the dorm. I had carried on with my jobs rather than go back to Kobe, and he had stayed on for a practical training session. Now that the training had ended, he was going back to the mountains of Yamanashi.
to the mountains of Yamanashi. “You could give this to your girlfriend,” he said. “I’m sure she’d love it.”
“Thanks,” I said.
After dark the dorm was hushed, like a ruin. The flag had been lowered and the lights glowed in the dining hall windows. With so few students left, they turned on only half the lights in the place, keeping the right half dark and the left lighted. Still, the smell of dinner drifted up to me – some kind of cream stew.
I took my bottled firefly to the roof. No one else was up there. A white vest hung on a clothesline that someone had forgotten to take in, waving in the evening breeze like the discarded shell of some huge insect. I climbed a steel ladder in the corner of the roof to the top of the dormitory’s water tank. The tank was still warm with the heat of the sunlight it had absorbed during the day. I sat in the narrow space above the tank, leaning against the handrail and coming face-to-face with an almost full white moon. The lights of Shinjuku glowed to the right, Ikebukuro to the left. Car headlights flowed in brilliant streams from one pool of light to the other. A dull roar of jumbled sounds hung over the city like a cloud.
The firefly made a faint glow in the bottom of the jar, its light all too weak, its color all too pale. I hadn’t seen a firefly in years, but the ones in my memory sent a far more intense light into the summer darkness, and that brilliant, burning image was the one that had stayed with me all that time.
Maybe this firefly was on the verge of death. I gave the jar a few shakes. The firefly bumped against the glass walls and tried to fly, but its light remained dim.
I tried to remember when I had last seen fireflies, and where it might have been. Though I couldn’t remember the exact moment or location, I could see the event in my head. In the pitch-blackness, I could hear the sound of water and saw an antique brick sluice gate. It had a handle you could turn to open and close the gate. The stream it controlled was small enough to be hidden by the grass on its banks. The night was dark, so dark I couldn’t see my feet when I turned out my torch. Hundreds of fireflies drifted over the pool of water held back by the sluice gate, their hot glow reflected in the water like a shower of sparks.
I closed my eyes and steeped myself in that long-ago darkness. I heard the wind with unusual clarity. A light breeze swept past me, leaving strangely brilliant trails in the dark. I opened my eyes to find the darkness of the summer night a few degrees deeper than it had been. I twisted open the lid of the jar and took out the firefly, setting it on the two-inch lip of the water tank. It didn’t appear to understand its new surroundings. It stumbled around the steel bolt’s head, catching its legs on curling paint scabs. After finding its path obstructed to the right, it turned back to the left . Finally, with some effort, it mounted the head of the bolt and crouched there for a while, unmoving, as if it had taken its last breath.
Still leaning against the handrail, I studied the firefly. Neither I nor it made a move for a very long time. The wind continued sweeping past the two of us while the numberless leaves of the zelkova tree rustled in the darkness.
I waited forever.
Only much later did the firefly take to the air. As if some thought had suddenly occurred to it, the firefly spread its wings, and in a moment it had flown past the handrail to float in the pale darkness. It traced a swift arc by the side of the water tank as though trying to bring back a lost interval in time. And then, after hovering there for a few seconds as if to watch its curved line of light blend into the wind, it finally flew off to the east.
Long after the firefly had disappeared, the trail of its light remained inside me, its pale, faint glow hovering on and on in the thick darkness behind my eyelids like a lost soul.
More than once I tried stretching my hand out in the dark. My fingers touched nothing. The faint glow remained, just beyond my grasp.
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