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Authors: Haruki Murakami

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

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H
is mother was waiting for us when we got there. She’d changed into a smart little white sleeveless blouse and a pleated skirt. Her eyes were red and swollen. She must have cried alone the whole time after she got home. Her husband ran a real-estate agency in the city and on Sundays was either at work or out playing golf. She had Carrot go to his room on the second floor and took me not to the living room but to the kitchen, where we sat down at the table. Maybe it was easier for her to talk there. The kitchen had a huge avocado-green fridge, an island in the middle, and a sunny window facing east.

H
e looks a little better than he did before,” she said weakly. “When I first saw him at that security office, I didn’t know what to do. I’ve never seen him look that way. Like he was off in another world.”

“There’s nothing to worry about. Just give it time, and he’ll get back to normal. For the time being it’d be better if you don’t say anything to him. Just leave him alone.”

“What did you two do after I left you?”

“We talked,” I said.

“About what?”

“Not much. Basically I did all the talking. Nothing special, really.”

“Would you like something cold to drink?”

I shook my head.

“I have no idea how to talk to him anymore,” she said. “And that feeling just grows stronger.”

“There’s no need to force yourself to talk with him. Children are in their own world. When he wants to talk, he will.”

“But he barely talks at all.”

We were careful not to touch as we faced each other across the kitchen table. Our conversation was strained, the kind you might expect of a teacher and a mother discussing a problem child. As she spoke she played with her hands, twisting her fingers, stretching them out, grasping her hands. I thought about the things those hands had done to me in bed.

I won’t report what’s happened to the school, I told her. I’ll have a good talk with him, and if there’s any problem, I’ll take care of it. So don’t worry about it. He’s a smart boy, a good boy; give it time and he’ll settle down. This is just a phase he’s going through. The most important thing is for you to be calm about it. I slowly, calmly repeated all this over and over, letting it sink in. It seemed to make her feel better.

She said she’d drive me back to my apartment in Kunitachi.

D
o you think my son senses what’s going on?” she asked me when we were stopped at a traffic light. What she meant, of course, was what was going on between her and me.

I shook my head. “Why do you say that?”

“While I was alone at home, waiting for you to come back, the thought just struck me. I have nothing to go by, it’s just a feeling. He’s very intuitive, and I’m sure he’s picked up on how my husband and I don’t get along well.”

I was silent. She didn’t say any more.

S
he parked her car in the parking lot just beyond the intersection where my apartment building stood. She set the parking brake and turned off the engine. The engine sputtered out, and with the sound from the air conditioner off, an uncomfortable silence fell over the car. I knew she wanted me to take her in my arms right then and there. I thought of her pliant body beneath her blouse, and my mouth got dry.

“I think it’d be better for us not to meet anymore,” I came right out and said.

She didn’t say anything. Hands on the steering wheel, she stared in the direction of the oil gauge. Almost all expression had faded from her face.

“I’ve given it a lot of thought,” I said. “I don’t think it’s right that I’m part of the problem. I can’t be part of the solution if I’m part of the problem. It’s better for everyone that way.”

“ ‘Everyone’?”

“Especially for your son.”

“For you, too?”

“Yes. Of course.”

“What about me? Does ‘everyone’ include me?”

Yes, I wanted to say. But I couldn’t get the words out. She took off her dark green Ray-Bans, then slipped them on again.

“It’s not easy for me to say this,” she said, “but if I can’t see you anymore it will be very hard on me.”

“It will be hard on me, too. I wish we could continue the way we are. But it’s not right.”

She took a deep breath and let it out.

“What is right? Would you tell me? I don’t really know what’s right. I know what’s wrong. But what is
right
?”

I didn’t have a good answer.

S
he looked like she was about to weep. Or cry out. But somehow she held herself in check. She just gripped the steering wheel tightly, the backs of her hands turning slightly red.

“When I was younger all kinds of people talked to me,” she said. “Told me all sorts of things. Fascinating stories, beautiful, strange stories. But past a certain point nobody talked to me anymore. No one. Not my husband, my child, my friends . . . no one. Like there was nothing left in the world to talk about. Sometimes I feel like my body’s turning invisible, like you can see right through me.”

She raised her hands from the steering wheel and held them out in front of her.

“Not that you would understand what I’m trying to say.”

I searched for the right words. And nothing came.

“Thank you very much for everything today,” she said, pulling herself together. Her voice was nearly its usual, calm tone. “I don’t think I could have handled it alone. It’s very hard on me. Having you there helped a lot. I’m grateful. I know you’re going to be a wonderful teacher. You almost are.”

Was this meant to be sarcastic? Probably. No—definitely.

“Not yet,” I said. She smiled, ever so slightly. And our conversation came to an end.

I opened the car door and stepped outside. The summer Sunday-afternoon sunlight had gotten considerably weaker. I found it hard to breathe, and my legs felt strange as I stood there. The Celica’s engine roared to life, and she drove out of my life forever. She rolled down her window and gave a small wave, and I lifted my hand in response.

B
ack in the apartment I took off my sweaty shirt and tossed it in the washing machine, took a shower, and shampooed my hair. I went to the kitchen, finished preparing the meal I’d left half done, and ate. Afterward, I sank back in my sofa and read a book I’d just started. But I couldn’t finish five pages. Giving up, I closed the book and thought for a while about Sumire. And the storage room key I’d tossed in the filthy river. And my girlfriend’s hands gripping the steering wheel. It had been a long day, and it was finally over, leaving behind just random memories. I’d taken a good long shower, but my body was still steeped in the stink of tobacco. And my hand still retained a sharp sensation—as if I’d crushed the life out of something.

Did I do what was
right
?

I didn’t think so. I’d only done what was necessary for
me.
There’s a big difference. “
Everyone

?
she’d asked me. “
Does that include me?”

T
ruthfully, at that time I wasn’t thinking about everyone. I was thinking only about Sumire. Not all of
them
there, or all of
us
here.

Only of Sumire, who wasn’t anywhere.

CHAPTER 16

I
hadn’t heard a word from Miu since the day we’d said goodbye at the harbor. This struck me as odd, since she promised to get in touch whether or not there was any news about Sumire. I couldn’t believe she’d forgotten about me; she wasn’t the type to make promises she didn’t intend to keep. Something must have happened to keep her from contacting me. I considered calling her, but I didn’t even know her real name. Or the name of her company or where it was. As far as Miu was concerned, Sumire hadn’t left behind any solid leads.

Sumire’s phone still had the same message on it, but it was soon disconnected. I thought about calling her family. I didn’t know the number, though it wouldn’t have been hard to find her father’s dental clinic in the Yokohama Yellow Pages. But somehow I couldn’t take that step. Instead, I went to the library and looked through the August newspapers. There was a tiny article about her, about a twenty-two-year-old Japanese girl traveling in Greece who disappeared. The local authorities are investigating, searching for her. But so far no clues. That was it. Nothing I didn’t already know. Quite a few people traveling abroad disappeared, it seemed. And she was merely one of them.

I gave up trying to follow the news. Whatever the reasons were for her disappearance, however the investigation was proceeding, one thing was certain. If Sumire were to come back, she’d get in touch. That was all that mattered.

September came and went, fall was over before I knew it, and winter set in. November 7 was Sumire’s twenty-third birthday, and December 9 was my twenty-fifth. The new year came, and the school year ended. Carrot didn’t cause any more problems and went into fifth grade, into a new class. After that day I never really talked with him about the shoplifting. Every time I saw him, I realized it wasn’t necessary.

Since he had a new teacher now, there were fewer times I’d run across my former girlfriend. Everything was over and done with. Sometimes, though, a nostalgic memory of the warmth of her skin would come to me, and I’d be on the verge of picking up the phone. What brought me to a halt was the feeling of that supermarket storage room key in my hand. Of that summer afternoon. And of Carrot’s little hand in mine.

W
henever I ran across Carrot at school, I couldn’t help thinking that he was one strange child. I had no inkling of what thoughts were brewing behind that thin, calm face. But something was definitely going on beneath his placid exterior. And if push came to shove, he had the wherewithal to take action. I could sense something deep about him. I believed that telling him the feelings I held inside was the right thing to do. For him, and for me. Probably more for my sake. It’s a little strange to say this, but he understood me then and accepted me. And even forgave me. To some extent, at least.

W
hat kind of days—the seemingly endless days of youth—would children like Carrot go through as they grew into adulthood? It wouldn’t be easy for them. Hard times would outnumber the easy. From my own experience, I could predict the shape their pain would take. Would he fall in love with somebody? And would that other person love him back? Not that my thinking about it mattered. Once he graduated from elementary school, he’d be gone, and I’d see him no more. And I had my own problems to think about.

I went to a record store, bought a copy of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing Mozart’s lieder, and listened to it again and again. I loved the beautiful stillness of the songs. If I closed my eyes, the music always took me back to that night on the Greek island.

B
esides some very vivid memories, including the one of the overwhelming desire I felt the day I helped her move, all Sumire left behind were several long letters and the floppy disk. I read the letters and the two documents so many times I nearly had them memorized. Every time I read them, I felt like Sumire and I were together again, our hearts one. This warmed my heart more than anything else could. Like you’re riding a train at night across some vast plain, and you catch a glimpse of a tiny light in a window of a farmhouse. In an instant it’s sucked back into the darkness behind and vanishes. But if you close your eyes, that point of light stays with you, just barely, for a few moments.

I
wake up in the middle of the night and get out of bed (I’m not going to be able to sleep anyway), lie down on my sofa, and relive memories of that small Greek island as I listen to Schwarzkopf. I recollect each and every event, quietly turning the pages of my memory. The lovely deserted beach, the outdoor café at the harbor. The waiter’s sweat-stained shirt. Miu’s graceful profile and the sparkle of the Mediterranean from the veranda. The poor hero who’d been impaled standing in the town square. And the Greek music I heard from the mountaintop that night. I vividly relive the magical moonlight, the wondrous echo of the music. The sensation of estrangement I experienced when I was awakened by the music. That formless, midnight pain, like my body, too, was silently, cruelly, being impaled.

Lying there, I close my eyes for a time, then open them. I silently breathe in, then out. A thought begins to form in my mind, but in the end I think of nothing. Not that there was much difference between the two, thinking and not thinking. I find I can no longer distinguish between one thing and another, between things that existed and things that did not. I look out the window. Until the sky turns white, clouds float by, birds chirp, and a new day lumbers up, gathering together the sleepy minds of the people who inhabit this planet.

Once in downtown Tokyo I caught a glimpse of Miu. It was about half a year after Sumire disappeared, a warm Sunday in the middle of March. Low clouds covered the sky, and it looked like it would rain at any minute. Everyone carried umbrellas. I was on my way to visit some relatives who lived downtown and was stopped at a traffic light in Hiroo, at the intersection near the Meidi-ya store, when I spotted the navy-blue Jaguar inching its way forward in the heavy traffic. I was in a taxi, and the Jaguar was in the through lane to my left. I noticed the car because its driver was a woman with a stunning mane of white hair. From a distance, the woman’s white hair stood out starkly against the flawless navy-blue car. I had only seen Miu with black hair, so it took me a while to put this Miu and the Miu I knew together. But it was definitely her. She was as beautiful as I remembered, refined in a rare and wonderful way. Her breathtaking white hair kept one at arm’s length and had a resolute, almost mythical air about it.

The Miu before me, though, was not the woman I had waved goodbye to at the harbor on the Greek island. Only half a year had passed, yet she looked like a different person. Of course her hair color was changed. But that wasn’t all.

An empty shell.
Those were the first words that sprang to mind. Miu was like an empty room after everyone’s left. Something incredibly important—the same something that pulled in Sumire like a tornado, that shook my heart as I stood on the deck of the ferryboat—had disappeared from Miu for good. Leaving behind not life but its absence. Not the warmth of something alive but the silence of memory. Her pure-white hair inevitably made me imagine the color of human bones, bleached by the passage of time. For a time, I couldn’t exhale.

T
he Jaguar Miu was driving sometimes got ahead of my taxi, sometimes fell behind, but Miu didn’t notice I was watching her. I couldn’t call out to her. I didn’t know what to say, but even if I had, the windows of the Jaguar were shut tight. Miu was sitting up straight, both hands on the steering wheel, her attention fixed on the scene ahead of her. She might have been thinking deeply about something. Or maybe she was listening to the “Art of the Fugue” on her car stereo. The entire time, her icy, hardened expression didn’t budge, and she barely blinked. Finally the light turned green and the Jaguar sped off in the direction of Aoyama, leaving behind my taxi, which sat there waiting to make a right turn.

S
o that’s how we live our lives. No matter how deep and fatal the loss, no matter how important the thing that’s stolen from us—that’s snatched right out of our hands—even if we are left completely changed, with only the outer layer of skin from before, we continue to play out our lives this way, in silence. We draw ever nearer to the end of our allotted span of time, bidding it farewell as it trails off behind. Repeating, often adroitly, the endless deeds of the everyday. Leaving behind a feeling of immeasurable emptiness.

T
hough she came back to Japan, Miu couldn’t get in touch with me for some reason. Instead, she kept her silence, clutching her memories close, seeking some nameless, remote place to swallow her up. That’s what I imagined. I didn’t feel like blaming Miu. Let alone hating her.

The image that came to mind at that moment was of the bronze statue of Miu’s father in the little mountain village in the northern part of Korea. I could picture the tiny town square, the low-slung houses, and the dust-covered bronze statue. The wind always blows hard there, twisting the trees into surreal shapes. I don’t know why, but that bronze statue and Miu, hands on the steering wheel of her Jaguar, melted into one in my mind.

Maybe, in some distant place, everything is already, quietly, lost. Or at least there exists a silent place where everything can disappear, melting together in a single, overlapping figure. And as we live our lives we discover—drawing toward us the thin threads attached to each—what has been lost. I closed my eyes and tried to bring to mind as many beautiful lost things as I could. Drawing them closer, holding on to them. Knowing all the while that their lives are fleeting.

I
dream. Sometimes I think that’s the only right thing to do. To dream, to live in the world of dreams—just as Sumire said. But it doesn’t last forever. Wakefulness always comes to take me back.

I wake up at 3:00 a.m., turn on the light, sit up, and look at the phone beside my bed. I picture Sumire in a phone booth, lighting up a cigarette and pushing the buttons for my number. Her hair’s a mess; she has on a man’s herringbone jacket many sizes too big for her and mismatched socks. She frowns, choking a bit on the smoke. It takes her a long time to push all the numbers correctly. Her head is crammed full of things she wants to tell me. She might talk until dawn, who knows? About the difference, say, between symbols and signs. My phone looks like it will ring any minute now. But it doesn’t ring. I lie down and stare at the silent phone.

B
ut one time it did ring. Right in front of me, it actually rang. Making the air of the real world tremble and shake. I grabbed the receiver.

“Hello?”

“Hey, I’m back,” Sumire said. Very casual. Very real. “It wasn’t easy, but somehow I managed it. Like a fifty-word précis of Homer’s
Odyssey.

“That’s good,” I said. I still couldn’t believe it. Being able to hear her voice. The fact that this was happening.

“ ‘That’s good’?” Sumire said, and I could almost hear the frown. “What the heck do you mean by that? I’ve gone through bloody hell, I’ll have you know. The obstacles I went through—millions of them, I’d never finish if I tried to explain them all—all this to get back, and that’s all you can say? I think I’m going to cry. If it isn’t
good
that I’m back, where would that leave me?
That’s good.
I can’t believe it! Save that kind of heartwarming, witty remark for the kids in your class—when they finally figure out how to multiply!”

“Where are you now?”

“Where am I? Where do you think I am? In our good old faithful telephone booth. This crummy little square telephone box plastered inside with ads for phony loan companies and escort services. A mold-colored half-moon’s hanging in the sky; the floor’s littered with cigarette butts. As far as the eye can see, nothing to warm the cockles of the heart. An interchangeable, totally semiotic telephone box. So, where is it? I’m not exactly sure. Everything’s just too semiotic—and you know me, right? I don’t know where I am half the time. I can’t give directions well. Taxi drivers are always yelling at me:
Hey lady, where in the world ya trying to get to?
I’m not too far away, I think. Probably pretty close by.”

“I’ll come get you.”

“I’d like that. I’ll find out where I am and call you back. I’m running out of change, anyway. Wait for a while, OK?”

“I really wanted to see you,” I said.

“And I really wanted to see you, too,” she said. “When I couldn’t see you anymore, I realized that. It was as clear as if the planets all of a sudden lined up in a row for me. I really need you. You’re a part of me; I’m a part of you. You know, somewhere—I’m not at all sure where—I think I cut something’s throat. Sharpening my knife, my heart a stone. Symbolically, like making a gate in China. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“I think so.”

“Then come and get me.”

S
uddenly the phone cuts off. Still clutching the receiver, I stare at it for a long time. Like the phone itself is some vital message, its very shape and color containing hidden meaning. Reconsidering, I hang up. I sit up in bed and wait for the phone to ring again. I lean back against the wall, my focus fixed on a single point in the space before me, and I breathe slowly, soundlessly. Making sure of the joints bridging one moment of time and the next. The phone doesn’t ring. An unconditional silence hangs in the air. But I’m in no hurry. There’s no need to rush. I’m ready. I can go anywhere.

Right?

Right you are!

I
get up out of bed. I pull back the old, faded curtain and open the window. I stick my head out and look up at the sky. Sure enough, a mold-colored half-moon hangs in the sky.
Good.
We’re both looking at the same moon, in the same world. We’re connected to reality by the same line. All I have to do is quietly draw it toward me.

I spread my fingers apart and stare at the palms of both hands, looking for bloodstains. There aren’t any. No scent of blood, no stiffness. The blood must have already, in its own silent way, seeped inside.

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