Read Sputnik Sweetheart Online

Authors: Haruki Murakami

Tags: #Literary, #Contemporary, #General, #Romance, #Teachers, #Missing persons, #Japan, #Unrequited love, #Fiction, #Women novelists, #Businesswomen

Sputnik Sweetheart (7 page)

n the interval between my two calls I coached one soccer practice at my school and slept once with my girlfriend. She was well tanned, having just returned from a vacation in Bali with her husband and two children. As I held her I thought of Sumire on her Greek island. Inside her, I couldn’t help but imagine Sumire’s body.

If I hadn’t known Sumire I could have easily fallen for this woman, seven years my senior (and whose son was one of my students). She was a beautiful, energetic, kind woman. She wore a bit too much makeup for my liking, but dressed nicely. She worried about being a little overweight but didn’t need to. I certainly wasn’t about to complain about her sexy figure. She knew all my desires, everything I wanted and didn’t want. She knew just how far to go and when to stop—in bed and out. Made me feel like I was flying first class.

“I haven’t slept with my husband for almost a year,” she revealed to me as she lay in my arms. “You’re the only one.”

ut I couldn’t love her. For whatever reason, that unconditional, natural intimacy Sumire and I had just wasn’t there. A thin, transparent veil always came between us. Visible or not, a barrier remained. Awkward silences came on us all the time—particularly when we said goodbye. That never happened with me and Sumire. Being with this woman confirmed one undeniable fact: I needed Sumire more than ever.

After the woman left, I went for a walk alone, wandered aimlessly for a while, then dropped by a bar near the station and had a Canadian Club on the rocks. As always at times like those, I felt like the most wretched person alive. I quickly drained my first drink and ordered another. Closed my eyes and thought of Sumire. Sumire topless, sunbathing on the white sands of a Greek island. At the table next to me four college boys and girls were drinking beer, laughing it up and having a good time. An old number by Huey Lewis and the News was playing. I could smell pizza baking.

When did my youth slip away from me? I suddenly thought. It
over, wasn’t it? Seemed just like yesterday I was still only half grown up. Huey Lewis and the News had a couple of hit songs then. Not so many years ago. And now here I was, inside a closed circuit, spinning my wheels. Knowing I wasn’t getting anywhere but spinning just the same. I had to. Had to keep that up or I wouldn’t be able to survive.

hat night I got a phone call from Greece. At 2:00 a.m.

But it wasn’t Sumire. It was Miu.


he first thing I heard was a man’s deep voice, in heavily accented English, spouting my name and then shouting, “I’ve reached the right person, yes?” I’d been fast asleep. My mind was a blank, a rice paddy in the middle of a rainstorm, and I couldn’t figure out what was going on. The bedsheets still retained a faint memory of the afternoon’s lovemaking, and reality was one step out of line, a cardigan with the buttons done up wrong. The man spoke my name again. “I’ve reached the right person, yes?”

“Yes, you have,” I replied. It didn’t sound like my name, but there it was. For a while there was a crackle of static, as if two different air masses had collided. Must be Sumire making an overseas call from Greece, I imagined. I held the receiver away from my ear a bit, waiting for her voice to come on. But the voice I heard next wasn’t Sumire’s, but Miu’s. “I’m sure you’ve heard about me from Sumire?”

“Yes, I have,” I answered.

Her voice on the phone line was distorted by some far-off, inorganic substance, but I could still sense the tension in it. Something rigid and hard flowed through the phone like clouds of dry ice and into my room, throwing me wide awake. I bolted upright in bed and adjusted my grip on the receiver.

“I have to talk quickly,” Miu said breathlessly. “I’m calling from a Greek island, and it’s next to impossible to get through to Tokyo—even when you do they cut you off. I tried so many times, and finally got through. So I’m going to skip formalities and get right to the point, if you don’t mind?”

“I don’t mind,” I said.

“Can you come here?”

“By ‘here,’ you mean Greece?”

“Yes. As soon as you possibly can.”

I blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “Did something happen to Sumire?”

A pause as Miu took in a breath. “I still don’t know. But I think she would want you to come here. I’m certain of it.”

she would?”

“I can’t get into it over the phone. There’s no telling when we’ll be cut off, and besides, it’s a delicate sort of problem, and I’d much rather talk to you face-to-face. I’ll pay the round-trip fare. Just come. The sooner the better. Just buy a ticket. First class, whatever you like.”

The new term at school began in ten days. I’d have to be back before then, but if I wanted to, a round-trip to Greece wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility. I was scheduled to go to school twice during the break to take care of some business, but I should be able to have somebody cover for me.

“I’m pretty sure I can go,” I said. “Yes, I think I can. But where exactly is it I’m supposed to go?”

She told me the name of the island. I wrote down what she said on the inside cover of a book next to my bedside. The name sounded vaguely familiar.

“You take a plane from Athens to Rhodes, then take a ferry. There are two ferries a day to the island, one in the morning and one in the evening. I’ll go down to the harbor whenever the ferries arrive. Will you come?”

“I think I’ll make it somehow. It’s just that I—,” I started to say, and the line went dead. Suddenly, violently, like someone taking a hatchet to a rope. And again that awful static. Thinking we might be reconnected, I sat there for a minute, phone against my ear, waiting, but all I heard was that grating noise. I hung up the phone and got out of bed. In the kitchen I had a glass of cold barley tea and leaned back against the fridge, trying to gather my thoughts.

Was I really going to get on a plane and fly all the way to Greece?

The answer was yes. I had no other choice.

pulled a large world atlas down from my bookshelf to locate the island Miu had told me about. It was near Rhodes, she’d said, but it was no easy task to find it among the myriad islands that dotted the Aegean. Finally, though, I was able to spot, in tiny print, the name of the place I was looking for. A small island near the Turkish border. So small you couldn’t really tell its shape.

I pulled my passport out of a drawer and checked that it was still valid. Next I gathered all the cash I had in the house and stuffed it into my wallet. It didn’t amount to much, but I could withdraw more from the bank in the morning. I had some money in a savings account and had barely touched my summer bonus. That and my credit card and I should be able to come up with enough for a round-trip ticket to Greece. I packed some clothes in a vinyl gym bag and tossed in a toilet kit. And two Joseph Conrad novels I’d been meaning to reread. I hesitated about packing a swimsuit and ended up taking it. Maybe I’d get there and whatever problem there was would be solved, everybody healthy and happy, the sun hanging peacefully in the sky, and I’d enjoy a leisurely swim or two before I had to come home. Which of course would be the best outcome for everyone involved.

Those things taken care of, I turned out the light, sunk my head back in the pillow, and tried to go back to sleep. It was just past three, and I could still catch a few winks before morning. But I couldn’t sleep. Memories of that harsh static lodged in my blood. Deep inside my head I could hear that man’s voice, barking out my name. I switched on the light, got out of bed again, went to the kitchen, made some iced tea, and drank it. And I replayed the entire conversation I’d had with Miu, every word in order. Her words were vague, abstract, full of ambiguities. But there were two facts in what she told me. I wrote them both down on a memo pad.

. Something has happened to Sumire. But what’s happened, Miu doesn’t know.

. I have to get there as soon as possible. Sumire, too, Miu thinks, wants me to do that.

I stared at the memo pad. And I underlined two phrases.

. Something has happened to Sumire. But what’s happened, Miu
doesn’t know

. I have to get there as soon as possible. Sumire, too,
Miu thinks
, wants me to do that.

I couldn’t imagine what had happened to Sumire on that small Greek island. But I was sure it had to be something bad. The question was,
bad? Until morning there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. I sat in my chair, feet propped up on the table, reading a book and waiting for the first light to show. It seemed to take forever.

t dawn I boarded the Chuo Line to Shinjuku, hopped aboard the Narita Express, and arrived at the airport. At nine I made the rounds of the airline ticket counters, only to learn there weren’t any nonstop flights between Narita and Athens. After a bit of trial and error I booked a business-class seat on the KLM flight to Amsterdam. I’d be able to change there for a flight to Athens. Then at Athens I’d take an Olympic Airways domestic flight to Rhodes. The KLM people made all the arrangements. As long as no problems arose, I should be able to make the two connections OK. It was the fastest way to get there. I had an open ticket for the return flight, and I could come back any time in the next three months. I paid by credit card. Any bags to check? they asked me. No, I replied.

I had time before my flight, so I had breakfast at the airport restaurant. I withdrew some cash from an ATM and bought traveler’s checks in U.S. dollars. Next I bought a guidebook to Greece in the bookstore. The name of the island Miu told me wasn’t in the little book, but I did need to get some information down about the country—the currency, the climate, the basics. Other than the history of ancient Greece and classical drama, there wasn’t much I knew about the place. About as much as I knew about the geography of Jupiter or the inner workings of a Ferrari’s cooling system. Not once in my life had I considered the possibility of going to Greece. At least not until 2:00 a.m. on that particular day.

ust before noon I phoned one of my fellow teachers. Something unfortunate has happened to a relative of mine, I told her, so I’ll be away from Tokyo for about a week, and I wonder if you’d take care of things at school until I get back. No problem, she replied. We’d helped each other out like this a number of times, it was no big deal. “Where are you going?” she asked me. “Shikoku,” I answered. I just couldn’t very well tell her I was heading off to Greece.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said. “Anyway, make sure you get back in time for the start of the new term. And pick up a souvenir for me if you can, OK?”

“Of course,” I said. I’d figure that one out later.

I went to the business-class lounge, sank into a sofa, and dozed for a bit, an unsettled sleep. The world had lost all sense of reality. Colors were unnatural, details crude. The background was papier-mâché, the stars made out of aluminum foil. You could see the glue and the heads of the nails holding it all together. Airport announcements flitted in and out of my consciousness. “All passengers on Air France flight 275, bound for Paris . . .” In the midst of this illogical dream—or uncertain wakefulness—I thought about Sumire. Like some documentary of ages past, fragments sprang to mind of the times and places we’d shared. In the bustle of the airport, passengers dashing here and there, the world I shared with Sumire seemed shabby, helpless, uncertain. Neither of us knew anything that really mattered, nor did we have the ability to rectify that. There was nothing solid we could depend on. We were nearly boundless zeros, just pitiful little beings swept from one kind of oblivion to another.

I woke in an unpleasant sweat, my shirt plastered to my chest. My body was listless, my legs swollen. I felt as if I’d swallowed an overcast sky whole. I must have looked pale. One of the lounge staff asked me worriedly if I was OK. “I’m all right,” I replied, “the heat’s just getting to me.” Would you like something cold to drink? she asked. I thought for a moment and asked for a beer. She brought me a chilled washcloth, a Heineken, and a bag of salted peanuts. After wiping my sweaty face and drinking half the beer, I felt better. And I could sleep a little.

The flight left Narita just about on time, taking the polar route to Amsterdam. I wanted to sleep some more, so I had a couple of whiskeys, and when I woke up I had a little dinner. I didn’t have much of an appetite, and skipped breakfast. I wanted to keep my mind a blank, so when I was awake I concentrated on reading Conrad.

In Amsterdam I changed planes, arrived in Athens, went to the domestic flight terminal, and, with barely a moment to spare, boarded the 727 bound for Rhodes. The plane was packed with an animated bunch of young people from every country imaginable. They were all tanned, dressed in T-shirts or tank tops and cutoff jeans. Most of the young men were growing beards (or maybe had forgotten to shave) and had disheveled hair pulled back in ponytails. Dressed in beige slacks, a white short-sleeve polo shirt, and a dark blue cotton jacket, I looked out of place. I’d even forgotten to bring any sunglasses. But who could blame me? Not too many hours before, I’d been in my apartment in Kunitachi worrying about what I should do with my garbage.

At the Rhodes airport I asked at the information desk where I could catch the ferry to the island. The ferry was in a harbor nearby. If I hurried, I might be able to make the evening ferry. “Isn’t it sold out sometimes?” I asked, just to be sure. The pointy-nosed woman of indeterminate age at the information counter frowned and waved her hand dismissively. “They can always make room for one more,” she replied. “It’s not an elevator.”

flagged a cab and headed to the harbor. I’m in a hurry, I told the driver, but he didn’t seem to catch my meaning. The cab didn’t have any air-conditioning, and a hot, dusty wind blew in the open window. All the while, the cabdriver, in rough, stinky English, ran on and on with some gloomy diatribe about the Eurodollar. I made polite noises to show I was following, but I wasn’t really listening. Instead, I squinted at the bright Rhodes scenery passing by outside. The sky was cloudless, not a hint of rain. The sun baked the stone walls of the houses. A layer of dust covered the gnarled trees beside the road, and people sat in the shade of the trees or under open tents and gazed, almost silently, at the world. I began to wonder if I was in the right place. The gaudy signs in Greek letters, however, advertising cigarettes and ouzo and overflowing the road from the airport into town, told me that—sure enough—this was Greece.

The evening ferry was still in port. The ship was bigger than I’d imagined. In the stern was a space for transporting cars, and two medium-size trucks full of food and sundries and an old Peugeot sedan were already aboard, waiting for the ship to pull out of port. I bought a ticket and got on, and I’d barely taken a seat on a deck chair when the line to the dock was untied and the engines roared to life. I sighed and looked up at the sky. All I could do now was wait for the ship to take me where I was going.

I took off my sweaty, dusty cotton jacket, folded it, and stuffed it in my bag. It was 5:00 p.m., but the sun was still in the middle of the sky, its brightness overwhelming. The breeze blowing from the bow under the canvas awning wafted over me, and ever so slowly I began to feel calmer. The gloomy emotions that had swept through me in the lounge at the Narita airport had disappeared. Though there was still a bitter aftertaste.

here were only a few tourists on board, which clued me in that the island I was heading for was not such a popular vacation spot. The vast majority of passengers were locals, mainly old people who’d taken care of business on Rhodes and were heading home. Their purchases lay carefully at their feet, like fragile animals. The old people’s faces were all deeply etched with wrinkles, and deadpan, as if the overpowering sun and a lifetime of hard work had robbed them of any expression.

There were also a few young soldiers on board. And two hippie travelers, heavy-looking backpacks in hand, sitting on the deck. Both with skinny legs and grim looks.

There was a teenage Greek girl, too, in a long skirt. She was lovely, with deep, dark eyes. Her long hair blew in the breeze as she chatted with a girlfriend. A gentle smile played around the corners of her mouth, as if something wonderful was about to occur. Her gold earrings glinted brightly in the sun. The young soldiers leaned against the deck railing, smoking, cool looks on their faces, throwing a quick glance in the girl’s direction from time to time.

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