Read Sputnik Sweetheart Online

Authors: Haruki Murakami

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

Sputnik Sweetheart (4 page)

CHAPTER 3

T
he day after the wedding, a Monday, was rainy. The rain began to fall just after midnight and continued without a stop till dawn. A soft, gentle rain that darkly dampened the spring earth and quietly stirred up the nameless creatures living in it.

T
he thought of meeting Miu again thrilled Sumire, and she found it hard to concentrate. She felt as if she were standing alone on the summit of a hill, the wind swirling around her. She settled down at her desk as usual, lit a cigarette, and switched on her word processor, but stare as she might at the screen, not a single sentence came to her. For Sumire that was next to impossible. She gave up, turned off the word processor, lay down in her tiny room, and, an unlit cigarette dangling from her lips, gave herself up to aimless musings.

If just the thought of seeing Miu has me this worked up, she thought, imagine how painful it would be if we’d said goodbye at the party and never saw each other again. Am I just yearning to be like her—a beautiful, refined older woman? No, she decided, that can’t be it. When I’m beside her, I want to touch her. That’s a bit different from a yearning.

Sumire sighed, gazed up at the ceiling for a while, and lit her cigarette. It’s pretty strange if you think about it, she thought. Here I am, in love for the first time in my life, at age twenty-two. And the other person just
happens
to be a woman.

T
he restaurant Miu had made a reservation at was a ten-minute walk from the Omote Sando subway station. The kind of restaurant that’s hard for first-timers to find, certainly not a place where you just casually drop in for a meal. Even the restaurant’s name was hard to remember unless you heard it a couple of times. At the entrance Sumire told them Miu’s name and was escorted to a small, private dining room on the second floor. Miu was already there, sipping an iced Perrier, deep in conversation with the waiter concerning the menu.

Over a navy-blue polo shirt Miu had on a cotton sweater of the same color, and she wore a thin, plain silver hairpin. Her pants were white slim-fit jeans. On a corner of the table rested a pair of bright blue sunglasses, and on the chair next to her was a squash racquet and a Missoni designer sports bag. It looked like she was on her way home after a couple of noontime games of squash. Miu’s cheeks were still flushed a faint pink. Sumire imagined her in the shower at the gym, scrubbing her body with an exotic-smelling bar of soap.

As Sumire entered the room, dressed in her usual herringbone jacket and khaki pants, her hair all messed up like some orphan’s, Miu looked up from the menu and gave her a dazzling smile. “You told me the other day that you can eat anything, right? I hope you don’t mind if I go ahead and order for us.”

Of course not, Sumire replied.

M
iu ordered the same thing for both of them. The entrée was a light grilled fish with a touch of green sauce with mushrooms. The slices of fish were done to perfection—browned in an almost artistic way that you knew was just right
.
Pumpkin gnocchi and a delicate endive salad rounded out the meal. For dessert they had the crème brûlée, which only Sumire ate. Miu didn’t touch it. Finally, they had espresso. Sumire observed that Miu took great care about what she ate. Miu’s neck was as slender as the stalk of a plant, her body without an ounce of detectable fat. She didn’t seem to have to diet. Even so, it would appear she was superstrict about food. Like some Spartan holed up in a mountain fortress.

As they ate they chatted about nothing in particular. Miu wanted to know more about Sumire’s background, and she obliged, answering the questions as honestly as she could. She told Miu about her father, her mother, the schools she attended (all of which she’d loathed), the prizes she won in a composition contest—a bicycle and a set of encyclopedias—how she came to quit college, the way she spent her days now. Not a particularly thrilling life. Even so, Miu listened, enthralled, as if listening to the enchanting customs of a far-off land.

Sumire wanted to know so much more about Miu. But Miu hesitated to talk about herself. “That’s not important,” she deferred with a bright smile. “I’d rather hear more about
you.

By the time they finished eating, Sumire still hadn’t learned much. About the only thing she found out was this: that Miu’s father had donated a lot of money to the small town in the north part of Korea where he had been born, and had built several public buildings for the townspeople—to which they’d responded by erecting a bronze statue of him in the town square.

“It’s a small town deep in the mountains,” Miu explained. “The winter’s awful, and just looking at the place makes you shiver. The mountains are craggy and reddish, full of bent trees. Once when I was little my father took me there. When they unveiled the statue. All these relatives came up, crying and hugging me. I couldn’t understand a word they said; I remember being frightened. For me it was a town in a foreign country I’d never set eyes on before.”

What kind of statue was it? Sumire asked. She’d never known anyone who’d had a statue erected. “Just a normal statue. The kind you’d find anywhere. But it’s weird to have your own father become a statue. Imagine if they erected a statue of your father in the square in front of Chigasaki station. You’d feel pretty weird about it, right? My father was actually fairly short, but the statue made him look like some towering figure. I was only five at the time, but I was struck by the way things you see aren’t always true to life.”

If they made a statue of my father, Sumire mused, it’d be the statue that would come out on the short end of the stick. Since in real life her father was a little
too
good-looking.

I
’d like to pick up where we left off yesterday,” Miu said, after they began their second cup of espresso. “So, do you think you might want to work for me?”

Sumire was dying for a smoke, but there weren’t any ashtrays. She made do with a sip of chilled Perrier.

Sumire answered honestly. “Well, what kind of work would it be, exactly? Like I said yesterday, except for some simple physical-labor-type jobs, I’ve never once had what you’d call a proper job. Plus I don’t have a thing to wear that would be appropriate. The clothes I had on at the reception I borrowed.”

Miu nodded, her expression unchanged. She must have anticipated this sort of response.

“I think I understand pretty much what sort of person you are,” Miu said, “and the work I have in mind shouldn’t give you any trouble. I’m sure you can handle whatever comes up. What really matters is whether or not you’d like to work with me. Just approach it that way, as a simple yes or no.”

Sumire chose her words carefully. “I’m really happy to hear you say that, but right now what’s most important for me is writing novels. I mean, that’s why I quit college.”

Miu looked across the table straight at Sumire. Sumire sensed that quiet look on her skin and felt her face grow warm.

“Do you mind if I say exactly what’s on my mind?” Miu asked.

“Of course not. Go right ahead.”

“It might make you feel bad.”

To show she could handle it, Sumire pursed her lips and looked into Miu’s eyes.

“At this stage in your life I don’t think you’re going to write anything worthwhile, no matter how much time you put into your novels,” Miu said, calmly, unhesitantly. “You’ve got the talent. I’m sure someday you’ll be an extraordinary writer. I’m not just saying this, I truly believe it. You have that natural ability within you. But now’s not the time. The strength you need to open that door isn’t quite there. Haven’t you ever felt that way?”

“Time and experience,” Sumire said, summing it up.

Miu smiled. “At any rate, come work for me. That’s the best choice for you. And when you feel the time is right, don’t hesitate to chuck it all and write novels to your heart’s content. You just need more time than the average person in order to reach that stage. So even if you get to twenty-eight without any breaks coming your way, and your parents cut off your funds and you’re left without a penny, well—so what? Maybe you’ll go a little hungry, but that might be a good experience for a writer.”

Sumire opened her mouth, about to reply, but nothing emerged. She merely nodded.

Miu stretched her right hand toward the middle of the table. “Let me see your hand,” she said.

Sumire put out her right hand and Miu grasped it, as if enveloping it. Her palm was warm and smooth. “It’s not something you should worry about so much. Don’t look so glum. We’ll get along fine.”

Sumire gulped and somehow managed to relax. With Miu gazing right at her like that, she felt as if she were steadily shrinking. Like a chunk of ice left out in the sun, she might very well disappear.

“Starting next week I’d like you to come to my office three times a week. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. You can start at ten a.m., and you can leave at four. That way you’ll miss the rush hour. I can’t pay you much, but the work is easy, and you can read when there’s nothing to do. One condition is that you take private lessons in Italian twice a week. You already know Spanish, so it shouldn’t be so hard. And I’d like you to practice English conversation and driving whenever you have the time. Do you think you can do that?”

“I think so,” Sumire replied. Her voice sounded like it was somebody else’s coming from another room. No matter what I’m asked to do, no matter what I’m ordered to do, all I can do is say yes, she realized. Miu gazed steadily at Sumire, still holding her hand. Sumire could make out clearly her own figure reflected deep inside Miu’s dark eyes. It looked to her like her own soul being sucked into the other side of a mirror. Sumire loved that vision, and at the same time it frightened her.

Miu smiled, charming lines appearing at the corners of her eyes. “Let’s go to my place. There’s something I want to show you.”

CHAPTER 4

T
he summer vacation of my freshman year in college, I took a random trip by myself around the Hokuriku region, ran across a woman eight years older than me who was also traveling alone, and we spent one night together. It struck me, at the time, as something straight out of the opening of Soseki’s novel
Sanshiro.

The woman worked in the foreign-exchange section of a bank in Tokyo. Whenever she had some time off, she’d grab a few books and set out on her own. “Much less tiring to travel alone,” she explained. She had a certain charm, which made it hard to figure out why she’d have any interest in someone like me—a quiet, skinny, eighteen-year-old college kid. Still, sitting across from me in the train, she seemed to enjoy our harmless banter. She laughed out loud a lot. And—atypically—I chattered away. We happened to get off at the same station, at Kanazawa. “Do you have a place to stay?” she asked me. No, I replied; I’d never made a hotel reservation in my life. I have a hotel room, she told me. You can stay if you’d like. “Don’t worry about it,” she went on, “it costs the same whether there’s one or two people.”

I was nervous the first time we made love, which made things awkward. I apologized to her.

“Aren’t we polite!” she said. “No need to apologize for every little thing.”

After her shower she threw on a bathrobe, grabbed two cold beers from the fridge, and handed one to me.

“Are you a good driver?” she asked.

“I just got my license, so I wouldn’t say so. Just average.”

She smiled. “Same with me. I think I’m pretty good, but my friends don’t agree. Which makes me average, too, I suppose. You must know a few people who think they’re great drivers, right?”

“Yeah, I guess I do.”

“And there must be some who aren’t very good.”

I nodded. She took a quiet sip of beer and gave it some thought.

“To a certain extent those kinds of things are inborn. Talent, you could call it. Some people are nimble; others are all thumbs. . . . Some people are quite attentive, and others aren’t. Right?”

Again I nodded.

“OK, consider this. Say you’re going to go on a long trip with someone by car. And the two of you will take turns driving. Which type of person would you choose? One who’s a good driver but inattentive, or an attentive person who’s not such a good driver?”

“Probably the second one,” I said.

“Me too,” she replied. “What we have here is very similar. Good or bad, nimble or clumsy—those aren’t important. What’s important is being attentive. Staying calm, being alert to things around you.”

“Alert?” I asked.

She just smiled and didn’t say anything.

A while later we made love a second time, and this time it was a smooth, congenial ride.
Being alert—
I think I was starting to get it. For the first time I saw how a woman reacts in the throes of passion.

The next morning after we ate breakfast together, we went our separate ways. She continued her trip, and I continued mine. As she left she told me she was getting married in two months to a man from work. “He’s a very nice guy,” she said cheerily. “We’ve been going out for five years, and we’re finally going to make it official. Which means I probably won’t be making any trips by myself anymore. This is it.”

I was still young, certain that this kind of thrilling event happened all the time. Later in life I realized how wrong I was.

I
told Sumire this story a long time ago. I can’t remember why it came up. It might have been when we were talking about sexual desire.

“So what’s the point of your story?” Sumire asked me.

“The part about being alert,” I replied. “Not prejudging things, listening to what’s going on, keeping your ears, heart, and mind open.”

“Hmm,” Sumire replied. She seemed to be mulling over my paltry sexual affair, perhaps wondering whether she could incorporate it into one of her novels.

“Anyhow, you certainly have a lot of experiences, don’t you?”

“I wouldn’t say a
lot,
” I gently protested. “Things just
happen.

She chewed lightly at her nail, lost in thought. “But how are you supposed to become attentive? The critical moment arrives, and you say ‘OK, I’m going to be alert and listen carefully,’ but you can’t just be good at those things in the snap of a finger, right? Can you be more specific? Give me a for instance?”

“Well, first you have to relax. By . . . say, counting.”

“What else?”

“Think about a cucumber in a fridge on a summer afternoon. Just an example.”

“Wait a second,” she said, then paused significantly. “Do you mean to tell me that when you’re having sex with a girl you imagine cucumbers in a fridge on a summer afternoon?”

“Not all the time,” I said.

“But sometimes.”

“I guess.”

Sumire frowned and shook her head a couple of times. “You’re a lot weirder than you look.”

“Everybody’s got something weird about them,” I said.

I
n the restaurant, as Miu held my hand and gazed deep into my eyes, I thought about cucumbers,” Sumire said to me. “Gotta stay calm, gotta listen carefully, I told myself.”

“Cucumbers?”

“Don’t you remember what you told me—about cucumbers in a fridge on a summer afternoon?”

“Oh, yeah, I guess I did,” I recalled. “So did it help?”

“A little,” Sumire said.

“Glad to hear it,” I replied.

Sumire steered the conversation back on track. “Miu’s apartment is just a short walk from the restaurant. Not a very big place but really lovely. A sunny veranda, houseplants, an Italian leather sofa, Bose speakers, a set of prints, a Jaguar in the parking lot. She lives there alone. The place she and her husband have is somewhere in Setagaya. She goes back there on the weekends. Most of the time she stays in her apartment in Aoyama. What do you think she showed me there?”

“Mark Bolan’s favorite snakeskin sandals in a glass case,” I ventured. “One of the invaluable legacies without which the history of rock and roll cannot be told. Not a single scale missing, his autograph on the arch. The fans go nuts.”

Sumire frowned and sighed. “If they invent a car that runs on stupid jokes, you could go far.”

“Put it down to an impoverished intellect,” I said humbly.

“OK, all joking aside, I want you to give it some serious thought. What do you think she showed me there? If you get it right, I’ll pick up the tab.”

I cleared my throat. “She showed you the gorgeous clothes you have on. And told you to wear them to work.”

“You win,” she said. “She has this rich friend with clothes to spare who’s just about the same size as me. Isn’t life strange? There’re people who have so many leftover clothes they can’t stuff them all in their closets. And then there’re people like me, whose socks never match. Anyway, I don’t mind. She went over to her friend’s house and came back with an armful of these
leftovers.
They’re just a bit out of fashion if you look carefully, but most people wouldn’t notice.”

I wouldn’t know no matter how closely I looked, I told her.

Sumire smiled contentedly. “The clothes fit me like a glove. The dresses, blouses, skirts—everything. I’ll have to take in the waist a bit, but put a belt on and you’d never know the difference. My shoe size, fortunately, is almost the same as Miu’s, so she let me have some pairs she doesn’t need. High heels, low heels, summer sandals. All with Italian names on them. Handbags, too. And a little makeup.”

“A regular Jane Eyre,” I said.

All of which explains how Sumire started working three days a week at Miu’s office. Wearing a suit jacket and dress, high heels, and a touch of makeup, riding the morning commuter train from Kichijoji to Harajuku. Somehow I just couldn’t picture it.

A
part from her office at her company in Akasaka, Miu had her own small office at Jingumae. There she had her desk as well as her assistant’s (Sumire’s, in other words), a filing cabinet, a fax, a phone, and a PowerBook. That’s all. It was just one room in an apartment building and came with an afterthought type of tiny kitchen and bathroom. There was a CD player, minispeakers, and a dozen classical CDs. The room was on the third floor, and out the east-facing window, you could see a small park. The first floor of the building was taken up by a showroom selling northern European furniture. The whole building was set back from the main thoroughfare, which kept traffic noise to a minimum.

As soon as she arrived at the office, Sumire would water the plants and get the coffeemaker going. She’d check phone messages and e-mails on the PowerBook. She’d print out any messages and place them on Miu’s desk. Most of them were from foreign agents, in either English or French. Any regular mail that came she’d open, and pitch whatever was clearly junk mail. A few calls would come in every day, some from abroad. Sumire would take down the person’s name, number, and message and pass these along to Miu on her cell phone.

Miu usually showed up around one or two in the afternoon. She’d stay an hour or so, give Sumire various instructions, drink coffee, make a few calls. Letters that required a reply she’d dictate to Sumire, who’d type them up on the word processor and either mail or fax them. These were usually quite brief business letters. Sumire also made reservations for Miu at the hairdresser, restaurants, and the squash court. Business out of the way, Miu and Sumire would chat for a bit, and then Miu would leave.

So Sumire was often alone in the office, talking to no one for hours, but she never felt bored or lonely. She’d review her twice-a-week Italian lessons, memorizing the irregular verbs, checking her pronunciation with a tape recorder. She took some computer classes and got to where she could handle most simple glitches. She opened up the information in the hard drive and learned the general outlines of the projects Miu had going.

Miu’s main work was as she had described at the wedding reception. She contracted with small wine producers, mostly in France, and wholesaled their wine to restaurants and specialty shops in Tokyo. On occasion she arranged concert trips by musicians to Japan. Agents from large firms handled the complex business angles, with Miu taking care of the overall plan and some of the groundwork. Miu’s specialty was searching out unknown, promising young performers and bringing them to Japan.

How much profit Miu made from her private business, Sumire had no way of knowing. Accounting records were kept on separate disks and couldn’t be accessed without a password. At any rate, Sumire was ecstatic, her heart aflutter, just to be able to meet Miu and talk with her. That’s the desk where Miu sits, she thought. That’s the ballpoint pen she uses, the mug she drinks coffee from. No matter how trivial the task, Sumire did her best.

E
very so often, Miu would invite Sumire out for dinner. Since her business involved wine, Miu found it necessary to regularly make the rounds of the better-known restaurants to stay in touch with the latest news. Miu always ordered a light fish dish, or, on occasion, chicken, though she’d leave half, and would pass on dessert. She’d pore over every detail of the wine list before deciding on a bottle, but would never drink more than a glass. “Go ahead and have as much as you’d like,” Miu told Sumire, but there was no way Sumire could finish that much. So they always ended up with half a very expensive bottle of wine left, but Miu didn’t mind.

“It’s such a waste to order a whole bottle of wine for just the two of us,” Sumire said to Miu one time. “We can barely finish half.”

“Don’t worry.” Miu laughed. “The more we leave behind, the more people in the restaurant will be able to try it. The sommelier, the headwaiter, all the way down to the waiter who fills the water glasses. That way a lot of people will start to acquire a taste for good wine. Which is why leaving expensive wine is never a waste.”

Miu examined the color of the 1986 Médoc and then, as if savoring some nicely turned out prose, carefully tasted it.

“It is the same with anything—you have to learn through your own experience, paying your own way. You can’t learn it from a book.”

Taking a cue from Miu, Sumire picked up her glass and very attentively took a sip, held it in her mouth, and then swallowed it down. For a moment an agreeable aftertaste remained, but after a few seconds this disappeared, like morning dew on a summer leaf. All of which prepared the palate for the next bite of food. Every time she ate and talked with Miu, Sumire learned something new. Sumire was amazed by the overwhelming number of things she had yet to learn.

“You know, I’ve never thought I wanted to be somebody else,” Sumire blurted out once, perhaps urged on by the more-than-usual amount of wine she’d imbibed. “But sometimes I think how nice it would be to be like you.”

Miu held her breath for a moment. Then she picked up her wineglass and took a sip. For a second, the light dyed her eyes the crimson of the wine. Her face was drained of its usual subtle expression.

“I’m sure you don’t know this,” she said calmly, returning her glass to the table. “The person here now isn’t the real me. Fourteen years ago I became half the person I used to be. I wish I could have met you when I was whole—that would have been wonderful. But it’s pointless to think about that now.”

Sumire was so taken aback she was speechless. And missed the chance to ask the obvious questions. What had happened to Miu fourteen years ago? Why had she become half her real self? And what did she mean by
half,
anyway? In the end, this enigmatic announcement only made Sumire more and more smitten with Miu. What an awesome person, Sumire thought.

T
hrough fragments of conversation Sumire was able to piece together a few facts about Miu. Miu’s husband was Japanese, five years older than she was, and fluent in Korean, the result of two years as an exchange student in the economics department of Seoul University. He was a warm person, good at what he did, in point of fact the guiding force behind Miu’s company. Even though it was originally a family-run business, no one ever said a bad word about him.

Ever since she was a little girl, Miu had had a talent for playing the piano. Still in her teens, she won the top prize at several competitions for young people. She went on to a music conservatory, studied under a famous pianist, and through her teacher’s recommendations was able to study at a music academy in France. Her repertoire ran mainly from the late Romantics, Schumann and Mendelssohn, to Poulenc, Ravel, Bartók, and Prokofiev. Her playing combined a keenly sensuous tone with a vibrant, impeccable technique. In her student days she held a number of concerts, all well received. A bright future as a concert pianist looked assured. During her time abroad, though, her father fell ill, and Miu shut the lid of her piano and returned to Japan. Never to touch a keyboard again.

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