Authors: Haruki Murakami
Tags: #Literary, #Contemporary, #General, #Romance, #Teachers, #Missing persons, #Japan, #Unrequited love, #Fiction, #Women novelists, #Businesswomen
“What’s it like to have such a handsome father?” Miu asked. “Just out of curiosity.”
Sumire sighed—people could be so predictable. “I can’t say I like it. Everybody thinks the same thing: What a handsome man. A real standout. But his daughter, well—she isn’t much to look at, is she? This must be what they mean by
Miu turned toward Sumire, pulled her chin in ever so slightly, and gazed at her face. Like she was admiring a painting in an art gallery.
“If that’s how you’ve always felt up till now, you’ve been mistaken,” Miu said. “You’re lovely. Every bit as much as your father.” She reached out and, quite unaffectedly, lightly touched Sumire’s hand, which lay on the table. “You don’t realize how very attractive you are.”
Sumire’s face grew hot. Her heart galloped as loudly as a crazed horse on a wooden bridge.
After this Sumire and Miu were absorbed in their own private conversation. The reception was a lively one, with the usual assortment of after-dinner speeches (including, most certainly, Sumire’s father), and the dinner wasn’t half bad. But not a speck of this remained in Sumire’s memory. Was the entrée meat? Or fish? Did she use a knife and fork and mind her manners? Or eat with her hands and lick the plate? Sumire had no idea.
The two of them talked about music. Sumire was a big fan of classical music and ever since she was small liked to paw through her father’s record collection. She and Miu shared similar musical tastes, it turned out. They both loved piano music and were convinced that Beethoven’s Sonata no. 32 was the absolute pinnacle in the history of music. And that Wilhelm Backhaus’s unparalleled performance of the sonata for Decca set the interpretive standard. What a delightful, vibrant, and joyous thing it was!
Vladimir Horowitz’s monaural recordings of Chopin, especially the scherzos, are thrilling, aren’t they? Friedrich Gulda’s performances of Debussy’s preludes are witty and lovely; Gieseking’s Grieg is, from start to finish, sweet. Sviatoslav Richter’s Prokofiev is worth listening to over and over—his interpretation captures the mercurial shifts of mood exactly. And Wanda Landowska’s Mozart sonatas—so filled with warmth and tenderness it’s hard to understand why they haven’t received more acclaim.
“What do you do?” Miu asked, once they’d wound up their discussion of music.
I dropped out of college, Sumire explained, and I’m doing some part-time jobs while I work on my novels. What kind of novels? Miu asked. It’s hard to explain, Sumire replied. Well, said Miu, then what type of novels do you like to read? If I list them all we’ll be here forever, Sumire said. Recently I’ve been reading Jack Kerouac.
And that’s where the Sputnik part of their conversation came in.
Other than some light fiction she read to pass the time, Miu hardly ever touched novels. I never can get it out of my mind that it’s all made up, she explained, so I just can’t feel any empathy for the characters. I’ve always been that way. That’s why her reading was limited to books that treated reality as reality. Books, for the most part, that helped her in her work.
What kind of work do you do? Sumire asked.
“Mostly it has to do with foreign countries,” Miu said. “Thirteen years ago I took over the trading company my father ran, since I was the oldest child. I’d been studying to be a pianist, but my father passed away from cancer; my mother wasn’t strong physically and besides couldn’t speak Japanese very well. My brother was still in high school, so we decided, for the time being, that I’d take care of the company. A number of relatives depended on the company for their livelihood, so I couldn’t very well just let it go to pot.”
She punctuated all this with a sigh.
“My father’s company originally imported dried foods and medicinal herbs from Korea, but now it deals with a wide variety of things. Even computer parts. I’m still officially listed as the head of the company, but my husband and younger brother have taken over, so I don’t have to go to the office very often. Instead I’ve got my own private business.”
“Importing wine, mainly. Occasionally I arrange concerts, too. I travel to Europe quite a bit, since this type of business depends on personal connections. Which is why I’m able, all by myself, to compete with some top firms. But all that networking takes a lot of time and energy. That’s only to be expected, I suppose. . . .” She looked up, as if she’d just remembered something. “By the way, do you speak English?”
“Speaking English isn’t my strong suit, but I’m OK, I guess. I love to read English, though.”
“Do you know how to use a computer?”
“Not really, but I’ve been using a word processor, and I’m sure I could pick it up.”
“How about driving?”
Sumire shook her head. The year she started college she tried backing her father’s Volvo station wagon into the garage and smashed the door on a pillar. Since then she’d barely driven.
“All right—can you explain, in two hundred words or less, the difference between a sign and a symbol?”
Sumire lifted the napkin from her lap, lightly dabbed at her mouth, and put it back. What was the woman driving at? “A sign and a symbol?”
“No special significance. It’s just an example.”
Again Sumire shook her head. “I have no idea.”
Miu smiled. “If you don’t mind, I’d like you to tell me what sort of practical skills you have. What you’re especially good at. Other than reading a lot of novels and listening to music.”
Sumire quietly laid her knife and fork on her plate, stared at the anonymous space hanging over the table, and pondered the question.
“Instead of things I’m good at, it might be faster to list the things I can’t do. I can’t cook or clean the house. My room’s a mess, and I’m always losing things. I love music, but I can’t sing a note. I’m clumsy and can barely sew a stitch. My sense of direction is the pits, and I can’t tell left from right half the time. When I get mad, I tend to break things. Plates and pencils, alarm clocks. Later on I regret it, but at the time I can’t help myself. I have no money in the bank. I’m bashful for no reason, and I have hardly any friends to speak of.”
Sumire took a quick breath and forged ahead.
“However, I can touch-type really fast. I’m not that athletic, but, other than the mumps, I’ve never been sick a day in my life. I’m always punctual, never late for an appointment. I can eat just about anything. I never watch TV. And other than a bit of silly boasting, I hardly ever make any excuses. Once a month or so my shoulders get so stiff I can’t sleep, but the rest of the time I sleep like a log. My periods are light. I don’t have a single cavity. And my Spanish is OK.”
Miu looked up. “You speak Spanish?”
When Sumire was in high school, she spent a month in the home of her uncle, a businessman who’d been stationed in Mexico City. Making the most of the opportunity, she’d studied Spanish intensively. She had taken Spanish in college, too.
Miu grasped the stem of her wineglass between two fingers and lightly turned it, as if turning a screw on a machine. “What would you think about working at my place for a while?”
“Working?” Unsure what expression would best fit this situation, Sumire made do with her usual dour look. “I’ve never had a real job in my life, and I’m not even sure how to answer a phone the right way. I try to avoid riding the trains before ten a.m., and as I’m sure you can figure out by talking to me, I don’t speak politely.”
“None of that matters,” Miu said simply. “By the way, are you free tomorrow, around noon?”
Sumire nodded reflexively. She didn’t even have to think about it. Free time, after all, was her main asset.
“Well, then, why don’t we have lunch together? I’ll reserve a quiet table at a restaurant nearby,” Miu said. She held out the fresh glass of red wine a waiter had poured for her, studied it carefully, inhaled the aroma, then took the first sip. The whole series of movements had the sort of natural elegance of a short cadenza a pianist has refined over the years.
“We’ll talk over the details then. Today I’d rather just enjoy myself. You know, I’m not sure where it’s from, but this Bordeaux isn’t half bad.”
Sumire relaxed her dour look and asked Miu straight out: “But you just met me, and you hardly know a thing about me.”
“That’s true. Maybe I don’t,” Miu admitted.
“So why do you think I might be of help to you?”
Miu swirled the wine in her glass. “I always judge people by their faces,” she said. “Meaning that I like your face, the way you look.”
Sumire felt the air around her suddenly grow thin. Her nipples tightened under her dress. Mechanically she reached for a glass of water and gulped it down. A hawk-faced waiter quickly sidled in behind her and filled her empty glass with ice water. In Sumire’s confused mind, the clatter of the ice cubes echoed hollowly, like the groans of a robber hiding in a cave.
must be in love with this woman, Sumire realized with a start. No mistake about it. Ice is cold; roses are red; I’m in love. And this love is about to carry me off somewhere. The current’s too overpowering; I don’t have any choice. It may very well be a special place, some place I’ve never seen before. Danger may be lurking there, something that may end up wounding me deeply, fatally. I might end up losing everything. But there’s no turning back. I can only go with the flow. Even if it means I’ll be burned up, gone forever.
ow, after the fact, I know that her hunch turned out to be correct. One hundred twenty percent on the money.
t was about two weeks after the wedding reception when Sumire called me, a Sunday morning, just before dawn. Naturally, I was asleep. As dead to the world as an old anvil. The week before, I’d been in charge of arranging a meeting and could only snatch a few hours’ sleep as I gathered together all the necessary (read
) documents we needed. Come the weekend, I wanted to sleep to my heart’s content. So of course that’s when the phone rang.
ere you asleep?” Sumire asked probingly.
“Um,” I groaned, and instinctively glanced at the alarm clock beside my bed. The clock had huge fluorescent hands, but I couldn’t read the time. The image projected on my retina and the part of my brain that processed it were out of sync, like an old lady struggling, unsuccessfully, to thread a needle. What I could understand was that it was dark all around and close to Fitzgerald’s “Dark Night of the Soul.”
“It’ll be dawn pretty soon.”
“Um,” I murmured.
“Right near where I live there’s a man who raises roosters. Must have had them for years and years. In a half hour or so they’ll be crowing up a storm. This is my favorite time of the day. The pitch-black night sky starting to glow in the east, the roosters crowing for all they’re worth like it’s their revenge on somebody. Any roosters near you?”
On this end of the telephone line I shook my head slightly.
“I’m calling from the phone booth near the park.”
“Um,” I said. There was a phone booth about two hundred yards from her apartment. Since Sumire didn’t own a phone, she always had to walk over there to call. Just your average phone booth.
“I know I shouldn’t be calling you this early. I’m really sorry. The time of day when the roosters haven’t even started crowing. When this pitiful moon is hanging there in a corner of the eastern sky like a used-up kidney. But think of
I had to trudge out in the pitch dark all the way over here. With this telephone card I got as a present at my cousin’s wedding clutched in my hand. With a photo on it of the happy couple holding hands. Can you imagine how depressing that is? My socks don’t even match, for gosh sake. One has a picture of Mickey Mouse; the other’s plain wool. My room’s a complete disaster area; I can’t find anything. I don’t want to say this too loudly, but you wouldn’t believe how awful my underpants are. I doubt that even one of those panty thieves would touch them. If some pervert killed me, I’d never live it down. I’m not asking for sympathy, but it would be nice if you could give me a bit more in the way of a response. Other than those cold interjections of yours
s. How about a conjunction? A conjunction would be nice. A
“However,” I said. I was exhausted and felt like I was still in the middle of a dream.
“ ‘However,’ ” she repeated. “OK, I can live with that. One small step for man. One very small step,
“So, was there something you wanted?”
“Right, I wanted you to tell me something. That’s why I called,” Sumire said. She lightly cleared her throat. “What I want to know is, what’s the difference between a sign and a symbol?”
I felt a weird sensation, like something was silently parading through my head. “Could you repeat the question?”
She did. “What’s the difference between a sign and a symbol?”
I sat up in bed, switched the receiver from my left hand to my right. “Let me get this straight—you’re calling me because you want to find out the difference between a sign and a symbol. On Sunday morning, just before dawn. Um . . .”
“At four-fifteen, to be precise,” she said. “It was bothering me. What could be the difference between a sign and a symbol? Somebody asked me that a couple of weeks ago, and I can’t get it out of my mind. I was getting undressed for bed, and I suddenly remembered. I can’t sleep until I find out. Can you explain it? The difference between a sign and a symbol?”
“Let me think,” I said, and gazed up at the ceiling. Even when I was fully conscious, explaining things logically to Sumire was never easy. “The emperor is a symbol of Japan. Do you follow that?”
“Sort of,” she replied.
“ ‘Sort of’ won’t cut it. That’s what it says in the Japanese constitution,” I said, as calmly as possible. “No room for discussion or doubts. You’ve got to accept that, or we won’t get anywhere.”
“Gotcha. I’ll accept that.”
“Thank you. So—the emperor is a symbol of Japan. But this doesn’t mean that the emperor and Japan are equivalent. Do you follow?”
“I don’t get it.”
“OK, how about this—the arrow points in one direction. The emperor is a symbol of Japan, but Japan is not the symbol of the emperor. You understand that, right?”
“Say, for instance, you write ‘The emperor is a sign of Japan.’ That makes the two equivalent. So when we say ‘Japan,’ it would also mean ‘the emperor,’ and when we speak of the emperor, it would also mean ‘Japan.’ In other words, the two are interchangeable. Same as saying, ‘
’ That’s what a sign is.”
“So you’re saying you can switch the emperor and Japan? Can you do that?”
“That’s not what I mean,” I said, shaking my head vigorously on my end of the line. “I’m just trying to explain the best I can. I’m not planning to switch the emperor and Japan. It’s just a way of explaining it.”
“Hmm,” Sumire said. “I think I get it. As an image. It’s the difference between a one-way street and a two-way street.”
“For our purposes, that’s close enough.”
“I’m always amazed how good you are at explaining things.”
“That’s my job,” I said. My words seemed somehow flat and stale. “You should try being an elementary-school teacher sometime. You’d never imagine the kind of questions I get. ‘Why isn’t the world square?’ ‘Why do squids have ten arms and not eight?’ I’ve learned to come up with an answer to just about everything.”
“You must be a great teacher.”
“I wonder,” I said. I really did wonder.
“By the way, why do squids have ten arms and not eight?”
“Can I go back to sleep now? I’m beat. Just holding this phone I feel like I’m holding up a crumbling stone wall.”
“You know . . . ,” Sumire said, letting a delicate pause intervene—like an old gatekeeper closing the railroad crossing gate with a clatter just before the train bound for St. Petersburg passes by. “It’s really silly to say this, but I’m in love.”
“Um,” I said, switching the receiver back to my left hand. I could hear her breathing through the phone. I had no idea how I should respond. And as often happens when I don’t know what to say, I let slip some out-of-left-field comment. “Not with me, I assume?”
“Not with you,” Sumire answered. I heard the sound of a cheap lighter lighting a cigarette. “Are you free today? I’d like to talk more.”
“You mean, about your falling in love with someone other than me?”
“Right,” she said. “About my falling passionately in love with somebody other than you.”
I clamped the phone between my head and shoulder and stretched. “I’m free in the evening.”
“I’ll be over at five,” Sumire said. And then added, as if an afterthought: “Thank you.”
“For being nice enough to answer my question in the middle of the night.”
I gave a vague response, hung up, and turned off the light. It was still pitch black out. Just before I fell asleep, I thought about her final
and whether I’d ever heard those words from her before. Maybe I had, once, but I couldn’t recall.
umire arrived at my apartment a little before five. I didn’t recognize her. She’d taken on a complete change of style. Her hair was cut stylishly short, her bangs still showing traces of the scissors’ snips. She wore a light cardigan over a short-sleeve, navy-blue dress, and a pair of black enamel, medium-high heels. She even had on stockings.
Women’s clothes weren’t exactly my field of expertise, but it was clear that everything she had on was pretty expensive. Dressed like this, Sumire looked polished and lovely. It was quite becoming, to tell the truth. Though I preferred the old, outrageous Sumire. To each his own.
“Not bad,” I said, giving her the once-over. “But I wonder what good old Jack Kerouac would say.”
Sumire smiled, an ever-so-slightly more sophisticated smile than usual. “Why don’t we go for a walk?”
e strolled side by side down University Boulevard toward the station and stopped at our favorite coffee shop. Sumire ordered her usual slice of cake along with her coffee. It was a clear Sunday evening near the end of April. The flower shops were full of crocuses and tulips. A gentle breeze blew, softly rustling the hems of girls’ skirts and carrying with it the leisurely fragrance of young trees.
I folded my hands behind my head and watched Sumire as she slowly yet eagerly devoured her cake. From the small speakers on the ceiling of the coffee shop, Astrud Gilberto sang an old bossa nova song. “Take me to Aruanda,” she sang. I closed my eyes, and the clatter of the cups and saucers sounded like the roar of a far-off sea. Aruanda—what’s it like there? I wondered.
“Not anymore,” I answered, opening my eyes.
“You feel OK?”
“I’m fine. As fine as the Moldau River in spring.”
Sumire gazed for a while at the empty plate that had held her slice of cake. She looked at me.
“Don’t you think it’s strange that I’m wearing these clothes?”
“I didn’t buy them. I don’t have that kind of money. There’s a story behind them.”
“Mind if I try to guess the story?”
“Go ahead,” she said.
“There you were in your usual crummy Jack Kerouac outfit, cigarette dangling from your lips, washing your hands in some public restroom, when this five-foot-one-inch woman rushed in, all out of breath, dressed to the nines, and said, ‘Please, you’ve got to help me! No time to explain, but I’m being chased by some awful people. Can I exchange clothes with you? If we swap clothes I can give them the slip. Thank God we’re the same size.’ Just like some Hong Kong action flick.”
Sumire laughed. “And the other woman happened to wear a size six-and-a-half shoe and a size seven dress. Just by coincidence.”
“And right then and there you changed clothes, down to your Mickey Mouse underpants.”
“It’s my socks that are Mickey Mouse, not my panties.”
“Whatever,” I said.
“Hmm,” Sumire mused. “Actually, you’re not too far off.”
She leaned forward across the table. “It’s a long story. Would you like to hear it?”
“Since you’ve come all the way over here to tell me, I have a distinct feeling it doesn’t matter if I do or not. Anyway, go right ahead. Add a prelude, if you’d like. And a ‘Dance of the Blessed Spirits.’ I don’t mind.”
She began to talk. About her cousin’s wedding reception, and about the lunch she had with Miu in Aoyama. And it
a long tale.