Authors: Haruki Murakami,Philip Gabriel,Ted Goossen
These questions unanswered, I returned to my seat. When I finished my coffee the waitress came over and refilled my cup. I asked her for a paper bag and put the untouched sandwich in it. I should be hungry later on. But right now I didn't want to eat anything.
I left the drive-in, and drove down the road until I saw the sign for the entrance to the Kan-Etsu Expressway. I decided to get on the highway and head north. I had no idea what lay north, but somehow I got the sense that heading north was better than going south. I wanted to go somewhere cold and clean. More important than north or south, however, was getting away from this city.
I opened the glove compartment and found five or six CDs inside. One of them was a performance of Mendelssohn's Octet by I Musici. My wife liked to listen to it when we went on drives. An unusual setup with a double string quartet, but a beautiful melody. Mendelssohn was only sixteen when he composed the piece. My wife told me this. A child prodigy.
What were you doing when you were sixteen?
I called up the past. When I was sixteen I was crazy over a girl in my class.
Did you go out with her?
No, I barely said a word to her. I just looked at her from a distance. I wasn't brave enough to speak up. When I went home I used to sketch her. I did quite a few drawings.
So you've done the same thing from way back when, my wife said, laughing.
True, I've done the same thing from way back when.
True, I've done the same thing from way back when
, I said, mentally repeating the words I'd spoken to her.
I took the Sheryl Crow CD out of the player and slipped in an MJQ album.
I listened to Milt Jackson's pleasant, bluesy solo as I headed down the highway toward the north. I'd make the occasional stop at a service area, take a long piss, and drink a couple of cups of hot black coffee, but other than that I drove all night. I drove in the slow lane, only speeding up to pass trucks. I didn't feel sleepy, strangely enough. It felt like I'd never be sleepy again in my whole life. And just before dawn I reached the Japan Sea coast.
In Niigata I turned right and drove north along the coast, from Yamagata to Akita Prefecture, then through Aomori into Hokkaido. I didn't take any highways, and drove leisurely down back roads. In all senses of the word I was in no hurry. When night came I'd check in to a cheap business hotel or run-down Japanese inn, flop down on the narrow bed, and sleep. Thankfully I can fall asleep right away just about anywhere, in any type of bed.
On the morning of the second day, near Murakami City, I phoned my agent and told him I wouldn't be able to do any portrait painting for a while. I had a few commissions I was in the middle of, but wasn't in a place where I could do any work.
“That's a problem, since you've already accepted the commissions,” the agent said, his tone harsh.
I apologized. “There's nothing I can do about it. Could you tell the clients I got in a car accident or something? There are other artists who could take over, I'm sure.”
My agent was silent for a time. Up till now I'd never missed a deadline. He knew how seriously I took my work.
“Something came up, and I'll be away from Tokyo for a while. I'm sorry, but in the meantime I can't do any painting.”
“How long is âfor a while'?”
I couldn't answer. I switched off the cell phone, found a nearby river, parked my car on the bridge over it, and tossed that small communication device into the water. I felt sorry toward him, but I had to get him to give up on me. Have him think I'd gone to the moon or something.
In Akita I stopped at a bank, withdrew some cash, and checked my balance. There was still a decent amount in my personal account. Credit card payments were automatically deductedâ¦For the time being I had enough to continue my trip. I wasn't using that much each day. Gas money, nights in business hotels, that's about the size of it.
At an outlet store outside Hakodate I purchased a simple tent and a sleeping bag. Hokkaido in early spring was still cold, so I also bought some thermal underwear. Whenever I arrived in a place, I looked for an open campground, set up my tent, and slept there, in order to save money. Hard snow still covered the ground and the nights were cold, but because I'd been spending nights in cramped, stuffy business hotel rooms I felt relieved and free inside the tent. Hard ground below, the endless sky above. Countless stars sparkling in the sky. That and nothing else.
For the next three weeks I wandered all over Hokkaido in my Peugeot. April came, but it looked like the snow wasn't going to melt anytime soon. Still, the color of the sky visibly changed, and plants began to bud. Whenever I ran across a small town with a hot springs I'd stay in an inn there, enjoy the bath, wash my hair and shave, and have a decent meal. Even so, when I weighed myself I found I'd lost eleven pounds.
I didn't read any newspapers or watch TV. My car radio had started acting up from the time I arrived in Hokkaido, and soon I couldn't hear anything on it at all. I had no clue what was happening in the world at large, and didn't care to know. I stopped once in Tomakomai and did laundry at a laundromat. While I waited for the clothes to finish I went to a nearby barbershop and got a haircut and shave. At the shop I saw the NHK news on TV for the first time in a long while. I say “saw,” but even with my eyes closed I could hear the announcer's voice, whether I wanted to or not. From start to finish, though, the news had nothing to do with me, like events happening on some other planet. Or else some fake stories somebody had cooked up for the fun of it.
The only news story that hit home was a report on a seventy-three-year-old man in Hokkaido who'd gone mushroom gathering in the mountains and been attacked and killed by a bear. When bears wake from hibernation, the announcer said, they're hungry and irritable and very dangerous. I slept in my tent sometimes, and when the mood struck me I took walks in the woods, so it wouldn't have been strange if I were the one who'd been attacked. It
to be that old man who got attacked, and not me. But even hearing that news I felt no sympathy for the old man who'd been so cruelly butchered by a bear. No empathy came to me for the pain and fear and shock he must have experienced. I felt more sympathy for the bear. No, “sympathy” isn't the right word, I thought. It's more like a feeling of complicity.
Something's wrong with me, I thought as I stared at myself in the mirror. I said this aloud, in a small voice. It's like something's messed up with my brain.
Better not get near anyone.
For the time being, at least.
Toward the latter half of April I was sick and tired of the cold, so I bid Hokkaido farewell and crossed back over to the mainland. I drove from Aomori to Iwate, from Iwate to Miyagi, along the Pacific coast. The weather got more springlike the farther south I drove. And all the while I thought about my wife. About her, and the anonymous hands caressing her this very moment in bed somewhere. I didn't want to think about it, but I couldn't think of anything else.
The first time I met my wife was just before I turned thirty. She was three years younger than me. She worked in a small architecture firm in Yotsuya, held a second-level architect certificate, and was a former high school classmate of the girl I was dating at the time. She had straight hair, wore little makeup, and had rather calm-looking features (her personality was not all that calm, but I only understood that later on). My girlfriend and I were on a date and happened to run into her at a restaurant. We were introduced, and I basically fell for her right then and there.
She wasn't exactly a standout in terms of looks. There wasn't anything at all wrong with her appearance, but neither was there anything about her that would turn any heads. She had long eyelashes, a thin nose, was on the small side, and her hair, which fell to her shoulder blades, was beautifully styled. (She was very particular about her hair.) On the right side of her full lips was a small mole, which moved in marvelous ways whenever her expression changed. It lent her a slightly sensual air, but again this was only if you paid close attention. Most people would see the girl I was going out with at the time as far more beautiful. But even so, one look was all it took for me to fall for her, like I'd been struck by lightning. Why? I wondered. It took a few weeks for me to figure out the reason. But then it suddenly hit me. She reminded me of my younger sister, who had died. Reminded me very clearly of her.
Not that they looked alike on the outside. If you were to compare photos of the two of them, most people would be hard-pressed to find any resemblance. Which is why at first I didn't see the connection either. It wasn't anything specific about her looks that made me remember my younger sister, but the way her expression changed, especially the way her eyes moved and sparkled, was amazingly like my sister's. It was like magic or something had brought back the past, right before my very eyes.
My sister had also been three years younger than me, and had a congenital heart valve problem. She'd had numerous operations when she was little, and though they were successful, there were lingering aftereffects. Her doctors had no idea if those aftereffects would get better on their own, or cause some life-threatening issues. In the end, she died when I was fifteen. She'd just entered junior high. All her short life she'd battled those genetic defects, but never failed to be anything other than positive and upbeat. Until the very end she never grumbled or complained, and always made detailed plans for the future. That she would die so young was not something she factored into her plans. She was naturally bright, always with outstanding grades (a lot better a child than I was). She had a strong will, and always stuck to whatever she decided to do, no matter what. If she and I ever quarreledâa pretty rare occurrenceâI always gave in. At the end she was terribly thin and drawn, yet her eyes remained animated, and she was still full of life.
It was my wife's eyes, too, that drew me to her.
I could see deep in them. When I first saw those eyes, they jolted me. Not that I was thinking that by making her mine I could restore my dead sister or anything. Even if I'd wanted to, I could imagine the only thing that would lead to was despair. What I wanted, or needed, was the spark of that positive will. That definite source of warmth needed to live. It was something I knew very well, but that was, most likely, missing in me.
I managed to get her contact info, and asked her on a date. She was surprised, of course, and hesitated. I was, after all, her friend's boyfriend. But I kept at it. I just want to see you, and talk, I told her. Just meet and talk, that's all. I'm not looking for anything else. We had dinner in a quiet restaurant, and talked about all kinds of things. Our conversation was a little nervous and awkward at first, but then became more animated. There was so much I wanted to know about her, and I had plenty to talk about. I found out that her birthday and my sister's were only three days apart.
“Do you mind if I sketch you?” I asked.
“Right here?” she asked, glancing around. We were seated at the restaurant, and had just ordered dessert.
“I'll finish before they're back with dessert,” I said.
“Then I guess I don't mind,” she replied doubtfully.
I took out the small sketchbook I always carried with me, and quickly sketched her face with a 2B pencil. As promised, I finished before our desserts arrived. The important part was, of course, her eyes. That's what I wanted to draw most. Back within those eyes there was a deep world, a world beyond time.
I showed her the sketch, and she seemed to like it.
“It's very full of life.”
are,” I said.
She gazed for a long time at the sketch, apparently taken with it. As if she were seeing a self she hadn't known before.
“If you like it, I'll give it to you.”
“I can have it?” she said.
“Of course. It's just a quick sketch.”
After this we went on more dates, and eventually became lovers. It all happened so naturally. My girlfriend, though, was shocked that her friend stole me away. She was probably thinking that we might get married. So of course she was upset (though I doubt I ever would have married her). My wife, too, was going out with someone else at the time, and their breakup wasn't easy either. There were other obstacles to overcome, but the upshot was that half a year later we were married. We had a small party with a handful of close friends to celebrate, and settled into a condo in Hiroo. Her uncle owned the condo and gave us a good deal on rent. I used one small room as my studio and focused on my portrait work. This was no longer just a temporary job. Now that I was married I needed a steady income, and other than portrait painting I had no means of earning a decent living. My wife commuted from our place by subway to the architecture firm in Yotsuya. And it sort of naturally came about that I was the one who took care of everyday housework, which I didn't mind at all. I never minded doing housework, and found it a nice break from painting. At any rate it was far more pleasant to do housework than commute every day to a job and be forced to do work behind a desk.
I think for both of us our first few years of marriage were calm and fulfilling. Before long we settled into a pleasant daily rhythm. On weekends and holidays I'd take a break from painting and we'd go out. Sometimes to an art exhibition, sometimes hiking outside the city. At other times we'd just wander around town. We had intimate talks, and for both of us it was important to regularly update each other. We spoke honestly, and openly, about what was going on in our lives, exchanging opinions, sharing feelings.
For me, though, there was one thing I never opened up about to her: the fact that her eyes reminded me so much of my sister who'd died at twelve, and that that was the main reason I'd been attracted to her. Without those eyes I probably never would have tried to win her over as eagerly as I did. But I felt it was better not to tell her that, and until the very end I didn't. That was the sole secret I kept from her. What secrets she may have kept from meâand I imagine there were someâI have no idea.