Read Sputnik Sweetheart Online

Authors: Haruki Murakami

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

Sputnik Sweetheart (5 page)

“How could you give up the piano so easily?” Sumire asked hesitantly. “If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s OK. I just find it—I don’t know—a little unusual. I mean, you had to sacrifice a lot of things to become a pianist, didn’t you?”

“I didn’t sacrifice
a lot of things
for the piano,” Miu said softly. “I sacrificed
everything.
The piano demanded every ounce of flesh, every drop of blood, and I couldn’t refuse. Not even once.”

“Weren’t you sorry to give it up? You’d almost made it.”

Miu gazed into Sumire’s eyes searchingly. A deep, steady gaze. Deep within Miu’s eyes, as if in a quiet pool in a swift stream, wordless currents vied with one another. Only gradually did these clashing currents settle.

“I’m sorry. I’ll mind my own business,” Sumire apologized.

“It’s all right. I just can’t explain it well.”

They didn’t talk about it again.

M
iu didn’t allow smoking in her office and hated people to smoke in front of her, so after she began the job Sumire decided it was a good chance to quit. Being a two-packs-of-Marlboros-a-day smoker, though, things didn’t go so smoothly. After a month, like some animal that’s had its furry tail sliced off, she lost her emotional grip on things—not that this was so firm to begin with. And as you might guess, she started calling me all the time in the middle of the night.

A
ll I can think about is having a smoke. I can barely sleep, and when I do sleep I have nightmares. I’m constipated. I can’t read, can’t write a line.”

“Everybody goes through that when they try to quit. In the beginning at least,” I said.

“You find it easy to give opinions as long as it’s about other people, don’t you?” Sumire snapped. “You who’ve never had a smoke in your life.”

“Hey, if you couldn’t give your opinion about other people, the world would turn into a pretty scary place, wouldn’t it? If you don’t think so, just look up what Joseph Stalin did.”

On the other end of the line Sumire was silent for a long time. A heavy silence like dead souls on the Eastern Front.

“Hello?” I asked.

Sumire finally spoke. “Truthfully, though, I don’t think it’s because I quit smoking that I can’t write. It might be one reason, but that’s not all. What I mean is, quitting smoking is just an excuse. You know: ‘I’m quitting smoking; that’s why I can’t write. Nothing I can do about it.’ ”

“Which explains why you’re so upset?”

“I guess,” she said, suddenly meek. “It’s not just that I can’t write. What really upsets me is I don’t have confidence anymore in the act of writing itself. I read the stuff I wrote not long ago, and it’s boring. What could I have been thinking? It’s like looking across the room at some filthy socks tossed on the floor. I feel awful, realizing all the time and energy I wasted.”

“When that happens you should call somebody at three in the morning and wake him up
—symbolically,
of course—from his peaceful semiotic sleep.”

“Tell me,” Sumire said, “have you ever felt confused about what you’re doing, like it’s not right?”

“I spend more time being confused than not,” I answered.

“Are you serious?”

“Yep.”

Sumire tapped her nails against her front teeth, one of her many habits when she was thinking. “I’ve hardly ever felt confused like this before. Not that I’m always confident, sure of my talent. I’m not that nervy. I know I’m a haphazard, selfish type of person. But I’ve never been confused. I might have made some mistakes along the way, but I always felt I was on the right path.”

“You’ve been lucky,” I replied. “Like a long spell of rain right after you plant rice.”

“Maybe you’re right.”

“But at this point, things aren’t working out.”

“Right. They aren’t. Sometimes I get so frightened, like everything I’ve done up till now is wrong. I have these realistic dreams and snap wide awake in the middle of the night. And for a while I can’t figure out what’s real and what isn’t. . . . That kind of feeling. Do you have any idea what I’m saying?”

“I think so,” I replied.

“The thought hits me a lot these days that maybe my novel-writing days are over. The world’s crawling with stupid, innocent girls, and I’m just one of them, self-consciously chasing after dreams that’ll never come true. I should shut the piano lid and come down off the stage. Before it’s too late.”

“Shut the piano lid?”

“A metaphor.”

I switched the receiver from my left hand to my right. “I
am
sure of one thing. Maybe you aren’t, but I am. Someday you’ll be a fantastic writer. I’ve read what you’ve written, and I know.”

“You really think so?”

“From the bottom of my heart,” I said. “I’m not going to lie to you about things like that. There’re some pretty remarkable scenes in the things you’ve written so far. Say you were writing about the seashore in May. You can hear the sound of the wind in your ears and smell the salt air. You can feel the soft warmth of the sun on your arms. If you wrote about a small room filled with tobacco smoke, you can bet the reader would start to feel like he can’t breathe. And his eyes would smart. Prose like that is beyond most writers. Your writing has the living, breathing force of something natural flowing through it. Right now that hasn’t all come together, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to—shut the lid on the piano.”

Sumire was silent for a good ten, fifteen seconds. “You’re not just saying that to make me feel better, to cheer me up, are you?”

“No, I’m not. It’s an undeniable fact, plain and simple.”

“Like the Moldau River?”

“You got it. Just like the Moldau River.”

“Thank you,” Sumire said.

“You’re welcome,” I replied.

“Sometimes you’re just the sweetest thing. Like Christmas, summer vacation, and a brand-new puppy all rolled into one.”

Like I always do when somebody praises me, I mumbled some vague reply.

“But one thing bothers me,” Sumire said. “One day you’ll get married to a nice girl and forget all about me. And I won’t be able to call you in the middle of the night whenever I want to. Right?”

“You can always call during the day.”

“Daytime’s no good. You don’t understand anything, do you.”

“Neither do
you,
” I protested. “Most people work when the sun’s up and turn out the light at night and go to sleep.” But I might as well have been reciting some pastoral poems to myself in the middle of a pumpkin patch.

“There was this article in the paper the other day,” Sumire said, completely oblivious. “It said lesbians are born that way; there’s a tiny bone in the inner ear that’s completely different from other women’s that makes all the difference. Some small bone with a complicated name. So being a lesbian isn’t acquired; it’s genetic. An American doctor discovered this. I have no idea why he was doing that kind of research, but ever since I read about it I can’t get the idea out of my mind of this little good-for-nothing bone inside my ear. Wondering what shape my own little bone is.”

I had no idea what to say. A silence descended on us as sudden as the instant fresh oil is poured into a large frying pan.

“So you’re sure what you feel for Miu is sexual desire?” I asked.

“A hundred percent sure,” Sumire said. “When I’m with her that bone in my ear starts ringing. Like delicate seashell wind chimes. And I want her to hold me, let everything take its course. If that isn’t sexual desire, what’s flowing in my veins must be tomato juice.”

“Hmm,” I said. What could I possibly say to that?

“It explains
everything.
Why I don’t want to have sex with any guys. Why I don’t feel anything. Why I’ve always thought I’m different from other people.”

“Mind if I give you my two cents’ worth here?” I asked.

“OK.”

“Any explanation or logic that explains everything so easily has a hidden trap in it. I’m speaking from experience. Somebody once said if it’s something a single book can explain, it’s not worth having explained. What I mean is don’t leap to any conclusions.”

“I’ll remember that,” Sumire said. And the call ended, somewhat abruptly.

I
pictured her hanging up the receiver, walking out of the telephone booth. By my clock it was three-thirty. I went to the kitchen, drank a glass of water, snuggled back in bed, and closed my eyes. But sleep wouldn’t come. I drew the curtain aside, and there was the moon, floating in the sky like some pale clever orphan. I knew I wouldn’t get back to sleep. I brewed a fresh pot of coffee, pulled a chair over next to the window, and sat there, munching on cheese and crackers. I sat, reading, waiting for the dawn.

CHAPTER 5

I
t’s time to say a few words about myself.

Of course this story is about Sumire, not me. Still, I’m the one whose eyes the story is told through—the tale of who Sumire is and what she did—and I should explain a little about the narrator. Me, in other words.

I
find it hard to talk about myself. I’m always tripped up by the eternal
who am I?
paradox. Sure, no one knows as much pure data about me as
me.
But when I talk about myself, all sorts of other factors—values, standards, my own limitations as an observer—make me, the
narrator,
select and eliminate things about me, the
narratee.
I’ve always been disturbed by the thought that I’m not painting a very objective picture of myself.

This kind of thing doesn’t seem to bother most people. Given the chance, people are surprisingly frank when they talk about themselves. “I’m honest and open to a ridiculous degree,” they’ll say, or “I’m thin-skinned and not the type who gets along easily in the world.” Or “I am very good at sensing others’ true feelings.” But any number of times I’ve seen people who say they’re easily hurt hurt other people for no apparent reason. Self-styled honest and open people, without realizing what they’re doing, blithely use some self-serving excuse to get what they want. And those “good at sensing others’ true feelings” are duped by the most transparent flattery. It’s enough to make me ask the question: How well do we really know ourselves?

The more I think about it, the more I’d like to take a rain check on the topic of
me.
What I’d like to know more about is the objective reality of things
outside
myself. How important the world outside is to me, how I maintain a sense of equilibrium by coming to terms with it.
That’s
how I’d grasp a clearer sense of who I am.

These are the kinds of ideas I had running through my head when I was a teenager. Like a master builder stretches taut his string and lays one brick after another, I constructed this viewpoint—or philosophy of life, to put a bigger spin on it. Logic and speculation played a part in formulating this viewpoint, but for the most part it was based on my own experiences. And speaking of experience, a number of painful episodes taught me that getting this viewpoint of mine across to other people wasn’t the easiest thing in the world.

The upshot of all this was that when I was young I began to draw an invisible boundary between myself and other people. No matter who I was dealing with, I maintained a set distance, carefully monitoring the person’s attitude so that they wouldn’t get any closer. I didn’t easily swallow what other people told me. My only passions were books and music. As you might guess, I led a lonely life.

M
y family isn’t anything special. So blandly normal, in fact, I don’t know where to begin. My father graduated from a local university with a degree in science and worked in the research lab of a large food manufacturer. He loved golf, and every Sunday he was out on the course. My mother was crazy about tanka poetry and often attended poetry recitals. Whenever her name was in the poetry section of the newspaper, she’d be happy as a lark for days. She liked cleaning but hated cooking. My sister, five years older than me, detested both cleaning and cooking. Those are things other people did, she figured, not her. Which meant that ever since I was old enough to be in the kitchen, I made all my own meals. I bought some cookbooks and learned how to make most everything. I was the only child I knew who lived like that.

I was born in Suginami, but we moved to Tsudanuma in Chiba Prefecture when I was small, and I grew up there. The neighborhood was full of white-collar families just like ours. My sister was always at the top of her class; she couldn’t stand not being the best and didn’t step one inch outside her sphere of interest. She never—not even once—took our dog for a walk. She graduated from Tokyo University law school and passed the bar exam the following year, no mean feat. Her husband is a go-getter management consultant. They live in a four-room condo they purchased in an elegant building near Yoyogi Park. Inside, though, the place is a pigsty.

I was the opposite of my sister, not caring much about studying or my class rank. I didn’t want any grief from my parents, so I went through the motions of going to class, doing the minimum amount of study and review to get by. The rest of the time I played soccer, and sprawled on my bed when I got home, reading one novel after another. None of your typical after-hours cram school, no tutor. Even so, my grades weren’t half bad. At this rate, I figured, I could get into a decent college without killing myself studying for the entrance exams. And that’s exactly what happened.

I
started college and lived by myself in a small apartment. Even when I was living at home in Tsudanuma I hardly ever had a heart-to-heart conversation with my family. We lived together under one roof, but my parents and sister were like strangers to me, and I had no idea what they wanted from life. And the same held true for them—they didn’t have any idea what kind of person I was or what I aspired to. Not that I knew what I was seeking in life—I didn’t. I loved reading novels to distraction but didn’t write well enough to be a novelist; being an editor or a critic was out, too, since my tastes ran to extremes. Novels should be for pure personal enjoyment, I figured, not part of your work or study. That’s why I majored in history, not literature. I didn’t have any special interest in history, but once I began studying it I found it an engrossing subject. I didn’t plan to go to grad school and devote my life to history or anything, though my adviser did suggest that. I enjoyed reading and thinking, but I was hardly the academic type. As Pushkin put it:

He had no itch to dig for glories

Deep in the dirt that time has laid.

All of which didn’t mean I was about to find a job in a normal company, claw my way through the cutthroat competition, and advance step-by-step up the slippery slope of the capitalist pyramid.

So, process of elimination, I ended up a teacher. The school is only a few stations away by train. My uncle happened to be on the board of education in that town and asked me whether I might want to be a teacher. I hadn’t taken all the required pedagogy classes, so I was hired as an assistant; but after a short period of screening I qualified as a regular teacher. I hadn’t planned on being a teacher, but after I actually became one I discovered a deeper respect and affection for the profession than I ever imagined I’d have. More accurately, really, I should say that I happened to discover
myself.

I’d stand at the front of the classroom, teaching my primary-school charges basic facts about language, life, the world, and I’d find that at the same time I was teaching myself these basic facts all over again—filtered through the eyes and minds of these children. Done the right way, this was a refreshing experience. Profound, even. I got along well with my pupils, their mothers, and my fellow teachers.

Still the basic questions tugged at me: Who am I? What am I searching for? Where am I headed?

T
he closest I came to answering these questions was when I talked with Sumire. More than talking about myself, though, I listened attentively to her, to what she said. She threw all sorts of questions my way, and if I couldn’t come up with an answer, or if my response didn’t make sense, you’d better believe she let me know. Unlike other people she
honestly, sincerely,
wanted to hear what I had to say. I did my best to answer her, and our conversations helped me open up more about myself to her—and, at the same time, to myself.

We used to spend hours talking. We never got tired of talking, never ran out of topics—novels, the world, scenery, language. Our conversations were more open and intimate than any lovers’.

I imagined how wonderful it would be if indeed we could be lovers. I longed for the warmth of her skin on mine. I pictured us married, living together. But I had to face the fact that Sumire had no such romantic feelings for me, let alone sexual interest. Occasionally she’d stay over at my apartment after we’d talked until the wee hours, but there was never even the slightest hint of romance. Come 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. and she’d yawn, crawl into bed, sink her face into my pillow, and fall fast asleep. I’d spread out some bedding on the floor and lie down, but I wouldn’t be able to sleep, my mind full of fantasies, confused thoughts, self-loathing. Sometimes the inevitable physical reactions would cause me grief, and I’d lie awake in misery until dawn.

It was hard to accept that she had almost no feelings, maybe none at all, for me as a man. This hurt so bad at times that it felt like someone was gouging out my guts with a knife. Still, the time I spent with her was more precious than anything. She helped me forget the undertone of loneliness in my life. She expanded the outer edges of my world, helped me draw a deep, soothing breath. Only Sumire could do that for me.

In order to ease the pain and, I hoped, eliminate any sexual tension between me and Sumire, I started sleeping with other women. I’m not saying I was a big hit with women; I wasn’t. I wasn’t what you’d call a ladies’ man and laid no claim to any special charms. For whatever reason, though, some women were attracted to me, and I discovered that if I let things take their course it wasn’t so hard to get them to sleep with me. These little flings never aroused much passion in me, at most a kind of comfort.

I didn’t keep my affairs from Sumire. She didn’t know every little detail, just the basic outlines. It didn’t seem to bother her. If there was anything in my affairs that was troubling, it was the fact that the women were all older and either were married or had fiancés or steady boyfriends. My most recent partner was the mother of one of my pupils. We’d sleep together about twice a month.

That may be the death of you, Sumire warned me once. And I agreed. But there wasn’t much I could do about it.

O
ne Saturday at the beginning of July my class had an outing. I took all thirty-five of my pupils climbing up a mountain in Okutama. The day began with an air of happy excitement, only to wind up in total chaos. When we reached the summit, two children discovered they’d forgotten to pack their lunches in their backpacks. There weren’t any stores around, so I had to split my own nori-maki lunch the school had provided. Which left me with nothing to eat. Someone gave me some chocolate, but that was all I had the whole day. On top of which, one girl said she couldn’t walk anymore and I had to carry her piggyback all the way down the mountain. Two boys started to scuffle, half in fun, and one of them fell and banged his head on a rock. He got a slight concussion and a heavy nosebleed. Nothing critical, but his shirt was covered in blood, as if he’d been in a massacre. Like I said, total chaos.

When I got home I was as exhausted as an old railroad tie. I took a bath, downed a cold drink, snuggled into bed too tired to think, turned off the light, and settled into a peaceful sleep. And then the phone rang, a call from Sumire. I looked at the clock by my bedside; I’d only slept for about an hour. But I didn’t grumble. I was too tired even to complain. Some days are like that.

“Can I see you tomorrow afternoon?” she asked.

My woman friend was coming to my place at 6:00 p.m. She was supposed to park her red Toyota Celica a little way down the road. “I’m free till four,” I said simply.

S
umire had on a sleeveless white blouse, a navy-blue miniskirt, and a tiny pair of sunglasses. Her only accessory was a small plastic hair clip. An altogether simple outfit. She wore almost no makeup, exposed to the world as is. Somehow, though, I didn’t recognize her at first. It’d been only three weeks since we last met, but the girl sitting across from me at the table looked like someone who belonged in an entirely different world from the Sumire I knew. To put it mildly, she was thoroughly beautiful. Something inside her was blossoming.

I ordered a small glass of draft beer, and she asked for grape juice.

“I hardly recognize you these days,” I said.

“It’s that season,” she said disinterestedly, sipping at her drink with a straw.

“What season?” I asked.

“A delayed adolescence, I guess. When I get up in the morning and see my face in the mirror, it looks like someone else’s. If I’m not careful, I might end up left behind.”

“So wouldn’t it be better to just let it go, then?” I said.

“But if I lost myself, where could I go?”

“If it’s for a couple of days, you can stay at my place. You’d always be welcome—the you who lost
you.

Sumire laughed.

“All kidding aside,” she said. “Where in the world could I be heading?”

“I don’t know. Think of the bright side. You’ve quit smoking, you’re wearing nice clean clothes—even your socks match now—and you can speak Italian. You’ve learned how to judge wines, use a computer, and at least for now go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning. You must be heading somewhere.”

“But I still can’t write a line.”

“Everything has its ups and downs.”

Sumire screwed up her lips. “Would you call what I’m going through a defection?”

“Defection?” For a moment I couldn’t figure out what she meant.

“Defection. Betraying your beliefs and convictions.”

“You mean getting a job, dressing nicely, and giving up writing novels?”

“Right.”

I shook my head. “You’ve always written because you wanted to. If you don’t want to anymore, why should you? Do you think your quitting writing is going to cause a village to burn to the ground? A ship to sink? The tides to get messed up? Or set the revolution back by five years? Hardly. I don’t think anybody’s going to label that
defection.

“So what should I call it?”

I shook my head again. “The word
defection
’s too old-fashioned. Nobody uses it anymore. Go to some leftover commune, maybe, and people might still use the word. I don’t know the details, but if you don’t want to write anymore, that’s up to you.”

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