I walked on, and something followed.
Enough distance still lay between us that I couldn't tell if it was male or female. It made no difference, I ignored it, kept walking.
I had set out before noon from the guest house on the inlet, headed for the tip of the cape. I stayed there last night, in that small building set amid an isolated cluster of private houses, run by a man and woman who, judging from their ages, were mother and son.
It was nearly nine when I arrived, two hours on a train from Tokyo, and by then the main entrance was shut. The "main entrance" was nothing special: a low swinging iron gate like any other, two or three wiry, gnarled pines, nothing to indicate the lodge's name but a weathered nameplate, ink on wood, bearing the name Suna. Suna meaning "sand."
"Unusual name, isn't it?" I asked. "Suna?"
"There are a few in the area," the mother replied.
Her son's hair was graying though he looked my age, forty-five or so.
When he asked what time I wanted breakfast, I knew his voice. And yet it was obvious we had never met. Perhaps his voice reminded me of some acquaintance, only I couldn't think who. It wasn't the voice itself, it was a sort of tremor in its depths that I recognized.
I don't need breakfast, I answered, and he emerged from behind the counter to lead the way. My room was at the end of the hall. I'll come back to spread the futon, he announced drily. The bath is downstairs. When he was gone, I drew the thin curtain aside and saw the sea before me. I could hear the waves. There was no moon. I strained my eyes, peering out into the darkness, trying to make out the waves, but there were too few lights. The room felt warm, stuffy, as if it had been readied long in advance. I slid the window open and let the cool air flow in.
The bath was dim. Condensation dripped now and then from the ceiling.
I let my thoughts turn to Seiji. I'll have to stay at the office tonight, he'd said. Back in Tokyo. He had described the nap rooms there for me more than once, but I could never picture them in detail. It's just a cramped little room with a bed, that's all. We have three of them. If the door is locked, you know someone is sleeping inside, he tells me. Never having worked at a company, I picture a hospital room—that's the best I can do. A pipe-frame bed with a beige blanket, enclosed by a curtain; a pair of slippers set out on a floor made of a material that amplifies the sound of footsteps; at the head of the bed, a help button and a temperature chart.
No, it's not like that—just an ordinary, low-ceilinged room. Maybe a magazine lying on the floor that someone left when they were done. Ordinary. Seiji purses his lips. He never laughs aloud. When he smiles, it shows in his cheeks. This used to puzzle me; now I am used to it.
Whenever I stay in those rooms, he says, by the time I fall asleep, the night will be paling. Toward dawn, it grows quiet. Most of the lights are out on every floor, and once it's dark the sounds that echo through the building subside, too. I stretch my exhausted body out on the stiff bed, but I'm so on edge, it's hard to fall asleep—I don't have any rituals for sleeping, not since I was a kid, but when I started spending nights at the office I took up my childhood practice again. I imagine myself floating in water, not half-submerged as I would be in real life, but lying right on the surface, stretched out perfectly still, first the back of my head and then my back, my butt, my heels, resting on the taut surface of the water, motionless, waiting, and as the parts of my body that come in contact with the water begin, little by little, to grow warm, I fall asleep, Seiji says, and once again purses his lips. *** I was back from my bath. Unlike Seiji, I had no need to sleep, so I didn't go to bed. Only when the sliver of outside color between the curtains began changing from black to blue did I feel tired. Seiji is probably nodding off right now, I told myself as I switched off the light and closed my eyes. *** It was past nine when I woke, and the room brimmed with light. The roar of the waves was louder than the night before. At the front desk, I asked the way to the cape. The son took a pencil and paper and showed me. He traced the outline of the promontory; then, in the center of that space, he drew in the roads. It looks like something, doesn't it, this shape? I said. Maybe, I don't know. The son's voice reminded me of someone, but still I couldn't think who. I recognized the shape immediately. It was the spitting image of a dragon: the head, from the neck up. Even the whiskers were there, under the nose.
I'd say it's a bit under an hour to the tip on foot, said the son. It'll take longer if you walk slowly, his mother called out from the back room. Oh, and—I haven't made up my mind yet, but I might want to stay tonight, too, if you have a vacancy? I had seen no sign of other guests, I was the only person there last night, I was sure, so I thought I would only have to ask and they would say, Of course, you're welcome to stay. But the son cocked his head, uncertain.
The fishermen come on Fridays. We're usually full up, as long as the waves aren't too choppy. Try giving us a call later. I listened, nodded ambiguously, and left. According to the schedule at the bus stop, the next bus wasn't for half an hour. I wanted to leave my bag at the train station. I could make it to the station in half an hour, even on foot. I peered up the steep incline, wavering, then decided to wait. I went down to the shore.
The ocean was dull. Nothing but waves tumbling in. I sat down on a mid-sized rock and stared out over the sea. The wind blew hard. Every so often a damp burst of spray reached me. The first day of spring had long since come and gone, but the day was chilly. Sand fleas scuttled out from under the rocks, then retreated.
I never planned to come and spend the night here. I had to meet someone at Tokyo Station, we grabbed dinner, it was seven when we finished. I was headed for the platform of the Chuo line when, unbidden, my feet turned and led me instead to the Tokaido line, a train came, I got on. I'll go as far as Atami and then turn back, the Chuo Line runs pretty late, it'll be fine, I told myself, and all of a sudden I felt so alone, I endured the loneliness as best I could and then, unable to bear it, I got off the train. Manazuru was where I disembarked.
I descended from the platform, walked along a narrow corridor, and exited the ticket gate. The station faced a plaza. The information kiosk had been closed for hours. I asked the taxi driver to take me to a guesthouse. It's small, he told me, but it's a decent place. He let me out in front of the house with the nameplate Suna.
I called Mother from the train. What should I put in Momo's lunch tomorrow? she asked. You can use anything but the chicken in the fridge, I started to say, then changed my mind. Use anything, anything at all. I'm sorry, going off all of a sudden, I said. Mother replied, That's all right. Her voice sounded very distant. I had the sense something was following me then, too, and turned to look, but I was alone, standing in the space between two cars, where I had gone to use my cell phone. No sign of anyone, not even a shadow.
I thought I glimpsed the ocean from the train window. In the darkness, I couldn't be sure it was the water, or sure it wasn't. Every so often my work takes me away from home, I leave Mother and Momo alone, together, but I never simply go, without warning, the way I did this time. I don't stay out with Seiji. He has kids of his own. Three kids, and a wife. His middle child is Momo's age. Ninth grade.
I rode the bus back to the station, then started out again, on foot, toward the cape.
Surprising, I thought, that they let me stay, without even asking what I was doing there: I had only one small bag with me, and by the time I arrived it was no longer even early evening. I pondered the name on the nameplate, as well. Suna. Odd that it didn't strike me last night. It wasn't the sound of the name. It was that I couldn't think of a given name that went with it.
The road was straight with a gentle incline. Near the port, it began to echo the line of the shore. Each passing car swerved out, giving me a wide berth. Closer to the station people had gone by, headed in the other direction, but here the street was empty. I approached a cluster of inns and restaurants serving fresh seafood; beyond them there was only the steadily ascending road. In the inns and restaurants, no sign of life.
I knew who the son's voice reminded me of. My missing husband, who disappeared without warning twelve years ago—my husband, as he went to sleep. When drowsiness eddied around him like a haze, straddling that threshold, his voice like a child's. Kei. When he said my name, there was sweetness deep in his voice, a hint of moisture, so that for some reason I heard him, beneath the familiar adult male skin, as someone on the cusp of manhood, a boy, or perhaps a young man, it was hard to say which.
My husband vanished, leaving nothing behind. To this day, I have had no news.
I thought it might be something from the sea that was following me. My husband loved the sea.
I ignored it, forged on toward the tip of the cape. My breathing deepened. Because I am walking fast, I supposed. The small cloth bag, all I was carrying, swung at my side. I bought a bottle of green tea at a vending machine. I deliberated briefly between hot and cold, and chose hot. I carried it for a time. Then, just like that, the thing that had been following me was gone.
The sky is narrow here, I thought. Perhaps it was the sheerness of the mountain slope jutting up at my right. A kite was flying. Flying low. A squat finger of rocks thrust out into the ocean; only there did the kite soar up.
I'm settled now, I think. I don't recall how I lived the first two years after he disappeared. I asked Mother to let us stay with her, accepted any work that came, and gradually I had a life to live. That was when I met Seiji. We became involved almost immediately. What does that mean, anyway? We became involved.
When Momo was born, as she fed at my breast, I thought: She is so close. How close this child and I are. She is closer now, I thought, than when she was inside me. She was not adorable or lovable, that wasn't it. She was close.
To become involved is not to be close. It isn't exactly to be distant, either. When two people become involved, and also when they do not, there is, always, a little separation.
A bus passed by. I was getting tired. The bus stop was only a hundred meters ahead, but I didn't run. The bus drove on without stopping. Another line of seafood restaurants appeared. Seagulls perched on their roofs. Only one restaurant had an OPEN sign hung out, its lights on. Artificial light looks so helpless in the daytime. I entered. *** I ordered a set lunch. Horse mackerel sashimi.
The fish wasn't minced, as it generally is, but sliced into pieces as large as the tip of my thumb and served with finely chopped ginger and perilla leaves. The mixture was sensuously moist and slightly chewy—the cook must have let the fish marinate in soy sauce for a time. I finished everything: the soup, a fish-bone stock flavored with miso, and a large bowl heaped with rice.
I was the only customer. The cook came out and brusquely took my order, then went back behind the counter and dished out the soup and the rice. He brought the food out himself. When he leaned over to set the tray down, I noticed a tear in the sleeve of his white cook's uniform that had been carefully mended.
A broad window looked out on the sea. The kite kept flying in the same patterns as before. I saw seagulls, too. Earlier I had heard the shrill whistle of their cries and the flapping of their wings; inside, the sounds didn't reach me. The sounds I expected to accompany those motions never came, and their absence left me reeling. It was like watching a silent film.
We went to see two silent films at the National Film Center, my husband and I. There was a narrator who read the intertitles that flashed on the screen between each image in a dramatic, sing-song tone. He only did the first movie; there was no narrator for the second.
"I prefer it this way," I said. My husband nodded. Yeah, me too.
Sometimes, of late, I forget him. It's strange, when his presence used to be so thick. When his sudden departure only made his presence thicker.
I thought it was rain, but it was spray.
I was on the shore, and the water was a good ten meters away. A strong wind blew. A chill came over me. When we eat, the heat is drawn away from our hands and feet.
"The blood collects in your stomach," Mother likes to say. Momo must be setting out for school about now. She only has an hour of class on Fridays. She looks just like my husband. Every few years the pendulum swings: first she resembles me, then him. Since she started junior high, she has looked like my husband. The line of her jaw is sharp, her eyes are large. Her complexion is dark.
The tip of the cape wasn't far. Suddenly the incline grew steeper. The cliff was gone, and in its place a wood had appeared. A footpath led deep into it.
Again something was following.
This one is a woman. I've never told anyone about these things that come and follow me. This includes my husband, of course. Today my memory of him is thick. It hasn't been this way for a while. An image of his hometown comes to me. The town was near the Inland Sea. On a mountainside. Each road comes to a dead end near the top, leaving the wind nowhere to go, and in those places, especially, the scent of the tide hangs and roils.
My husband's mother passed away two years before he disappeared, when Momo was one. His father still lives there, in the same town. There is no reason for us to meet.
*** Did my husband want to die?
Or did he disappear because he wanted to live?
Living, dying. Perhaps he had no such thoughts, either way. The trees grew sparse and the pavement widened. The road ended in a roundabout. That must be the bus that passed earlier, waiting at the final stop. The driver was gone. The door was open.
Suddenly the sky expanded. The waves pounded far below. I saw thousands of whitecaps shattering. Peering down, I saw people, one here, there two, descending narrow, twisting paths toward the base of the cliff, where the waves petered out. Figures as small as fingers.
Jump from here, and a second later I'm dead. The thought came, but I cut it off midway. At the words a second later. Overcome, not by the impiety of the idea, but by a dull lethargy like the start of a fever. Death is not so distant that I can play with it. Neither, of course, is it so close.
I was still gazing down the cliff when two hikers reached the base. They raised their hands straight overhead, stretching, perhaps, and though I could not guess how such tiny, finger-sized people might be feeling, invigorated or sore, the scene itself was exhilarating. The wind sent the clouds scudding, leaving only clear blue above. Manazuru. I mouthed the name to feel it in me, then stared for a time at the base of the cliff, and lusted.
I seldom lust for things with a form. Seldom, that is, anymore.
Sometimes it leads to joy, sometimes to a gut-wrenching loneliness, and sometimes it goes nowhere, only hovers, disconnected, lost. Wherever it leads, I call it lust. This is nothing more, however, than a name I call it.
The door of the stationbound bus stayed open long after the recorded message announced that the bus was leaving. A man with a child climbed the steps. The child dashed to a seat all the way at the back. The man followed more slowly.
The bus took a road different from the one it had come by. It never filled up. Riders disembarked as new ones boarded, then those who had boarded disembarked. Aside from me, only the man and the child in the last seat rode to the final stop. The plaza in front of the station was full of cars. It seemed odd. Last night, it was so empty.
The child, led by the hand, descended. The pair crossed the road at the crosswalk, and the child rapped on the window of a car parked across the way. The back door popped open; the man picked up the child and climbed in. They live here, maybe. Not just passing through.
I slid a bill into the machine and bought a ticket. I never intended to spend a second night. I asked only to hear the answer. Tonight, no doubt, the woman and man named Suna would welcome crowds of fishermen. The wind was dying down. No sooner had I climbed the steps to the platform than a local train arrived.
"I'm home," I said.
Momo sighed ambiguously. That was all.
Lately, she comes across as sullen. She isn't really in a bad mood; at her age, it takes energy to be cheerful. You think she is being sullen when she is simply being.
Souvenir, I said, holding out a package of squid shiokara. She nodded. I had bought it at a stand in the station at Odawara, descending to the gallery below the tracks when I got off the local train to transfer to the rapid. Momo liked shiokara even as a child, despite its intensity. Squid fermented in its own salted viscera. My husband liked it, too. I can't say whether or not she takes after him, though, because so do I.
Mother was out shopping. When I opened the door, the house had a subtly different smell. Mother's cooking has a slightly more pungent aroma than mine. What did you have for lunch? I asked. Momo thought for a second, then said, Chicken. It was kind of sweet.
I went to my room to change. The gray skirt I had considered, then decided against wearing the day before was splayed on the bed where I had thrown it, frozen in the same disarray. I put it on a hanger, hung it in the closet. The air around me loosened. I had only been gone a day, but it takes less than that for the air in an empty room to harden.
When I returned to the living room, Momo had opened a magazine. Maybe I should get a haircut, she murmured. You'd look nice with short hair, I said. And again she became sullen. We're having hotpot for dinner, she said after a while. When did this happen? When did she stop being so close? She is too close to be distant, now, and too distant to be close.
When she was a newborn, I bathed Momo in a washbasin.
For the first month of her life, I never put her in the bathtub, I would clear the table and set a metal basin filled with warm water there, and wash her in the basin.
Opening my left hand, supporting the back of her head with my thumb and middle finger, each turned in to face the other, I uncurled her body face-up in the water. She was so buoyant she floated, almost weightless, to the surface.
When she was first born her body was scrawny and shriveled, but in the course of her first two weeks she filled out, grew plumper. Deep wrinkles appeared around her ankles, her wrists, her other joints. Matter gathered there. New skin formed, and the older layers collected in the wrinkles. One day was all it took: there was more. It was like eraser fuzz. Except for its perfect whiteness. And it had no smell. It kept coming, more and more.
I carefully scrubbed all that off as I bathed her. Momo kept her eyes half shut as I cleaned her body. Sometimes she fell asleep. Only when the time came to wash her head did she begin to wail, so that wrinkles covered her entire face.
The moment I lifted her from the water, she grew heavy. Recovering the weight of a thing. I lay her on the towel I had spread and rubbed her dry. Then, right away, I opened my shirt and gave her my breast. She seemed thirsty, and gulped as she sucked.
No, lovable was not the word. For a second the heat of her lips repulsed me. I learned then that disgust and tenderness do not stand in opposition. I had never felt such a disgust for the male body. I had thought the male body, my husband's body, was unquestionably necessary. The feeling that welled when I held Momo's body was not need, but tenderness. *** I could not fathom Momo's mind. She was just a crying thing. A bud.
I learned a new word: mushiwarai, a bug smile. From time to time in its first two weeks an infant smiles. But it is not the infant smiling, it is the twitching of the smile bug.
Momo often smiled. Even so, I did not know her mind. I had only just given birth to her, I did not regard her as her own person, she was still my person. Not part of me, not exactly—what I felt was a simple sense of proprietorship. I cannot allow this to be damaged, I thought. It would be an awful waste. I felt tenderness for her. Lovable was not the word.
I felt no desire for the man, my husband. Momo was warmth enough. As long as I suckled her, my body had no desire for my husband. I allowed no tenderness for him. And yet, in the absence of any tenderness, in my mind I craved him. At night when my husband came to me, I received him willingly with the surface of my body. I had the idea that mind and body were distinct, but the truth is that it is all body. The mind is of the body. *** But over time, Momo cooled. She lost her heat, settled into a form. She stopped breastfeeding, she learned to walk, she acquired words.
"Parents' Day is next Wednesday," Momo told me. She was on her way to her room when I walked into the living room, pulling my hair into a ponytail. There was an aroma. The smell of the shampoo she had used last night. Momo's body no longer discards its old skin the way it once did. She has grown cold, marvelously solid. She carried the scent of her shampoo.
Circle WILL ATTEND and hand it in. OK. Even as she spoke, Momo was leaving the room. I heard sounds from the front hall. Mother had returned. The air was shifting. Mother never liked my husband. She didn't say so, but I knew.
As soon as Momo took shape, I began to desire my husband. Just as she stopped suckling. How clever it is, I thought. The body's machinations. I yearned unabashedly for my husband, then felt ashamed. Desire quickly swallowed the shame.
How was Manazuru? Mother trilled, coming into the living room.
It was a strong place.
Mother gazed fixedly at me. Strong? She repeated, trilling again, then looked me in the eye, set down her basket of food. A finely woven shopping basket, a flipped trapezoid, short-handled, it bulged from her side when she packed it with vegetables and fish. I used to walk behind Mother as she cradled the basket beside her, wanting her to lead me by the hand, but she wouldn't, and so I wrapped my arm around her waist from behind, stayed close, hidden. My head didn't even reach her shoulder.
"How many have you gone through?" I asked.
Mother gestured toward the basket, her eyes questioning.
"I have no idea," she said. She crooked her fingers, one at a time. The first was before you were born. The next was after you started school. Since then, let's see, I must have worn out two, maybe three.
Who cares if it's ripped, it serves me perfectly well, I don't need another. I won't replace it, she would say, day after day, walking with her torn, misshapen basket. Only when the tears had outgrown mere tears would she give in and grudgingly buy a new one.
Another of the same, please, she would say, proffering the battered basket. The store, run by an aged couple, sold sundry household items. Straw hats, tin hot-water bottles, screws and nails, and shopping baskets. A large S-shaped metal hook hung from a rod that cut across the store, just below the ceiling, and from its tail-like bottom curve two or three baskets dangled.
The same kind, sure thing, hold on a second, the old woman replied. Without a word her husband stood on tiptoe and took a basket from the hook. The sunlight has faded it, I'll give you a little discount on it. A hundred yen off. I remember her saying that once. The baskets were unadorned, roughly woven, and in the summer the jutting bits of straw would prick your bare arm. You get this same basket every time, don't you? Don't you ever want to try another kind? the old woman asked. I never tire of this one. It's easy to carry, Mother said, and brusquely handed her the money.
I go there once every few years, I'd say, and every time that woman says the same thing, Mother grumbled when we left the store. There was ice in her voice. I glanced up, surprised, and there was a smile on her face. There was ice in her smile.
Mother took four quarters of a napa cabbage from the basket. Chrysanthemum leaves and shiitake. For a second the air smelled green. *** After dinner the television came on.
When we had dredged the final strands of udon from the bottom of the earthenware pot, I lifted it, putting a dishrag between the handles and my palms, just in case, though it was no longer too hot to carry with bare hands, and made for the kitchen. The television clicked on.
"It came on by itself!" Momo cried, laughing.
"No one even touched it!" Mother laughed, too.
Seconds later, a noise like the cascading chirp of an alarm clock. It's one of those, Momo said, gesturing toward a row of knobs. A red light glimmered there. It says ALARM, Momo said. She pressed the red spot with her fingertip. The chirping stopped. The television stayed on.
It was eight o'clock on the dot. Somehow, without our knowing it, the alarm had been set. Who did it? Momo laughed again. Her laughter is childlike. I set the pot in the sink, turned the faucet on, let the water brim. Let it soak, I thought as I turned it off. There are times when we do a thing, when we think it in words, and there are times when we think not in words but in pictures, and there are times when we think nothing. Let it soak, I said to myself once again, to see how it felt.
Grandma, Momo asked, did you do it? It wasn't me, Mother answered. Who knew it had an alarm, I had no idea. She takes the television manual from its drawer, puts on her reading glasses, commences reading. I guess it must have been set for eight o'clock when we bought it. It never went off before, though. It's funny, I wonder why, all of a sudden.
The television was still on. A man appeared on the screen, running. The picture cuts to a blue sky. Waves surging on the shore. Manazuru. I said the name to myself, watching the man on the screen. The slight hollow of his cheeks only made him more handsome. The name Manazuru and the image of the man drift apart without ever having fused. Manazuru. I hadn't repeated the word, but the feeling lingered.
The screen went dark with a click. Momo had the remote control.
My husband's name was Rei. I only called him by his family name, Yanagimoto, once. The first time we met, repeating after the person who introduced us, to make sure I had heard correctly. Only that once.
I had trouble calling him by his name at first. I wanted to, I had no choice, but I mumbled. I tried to avoid speaking his name, and my speech grew strained. As if something terrible were sitting right beside me, on one side, and since it wouldn't do to let him see too clearly how I was avoiding it, I struggled to maintain my poise while simultaneously, unconsciously, I shrank, my body pulled away, my motions forced, unnatural—that was the feeling, as my speech unraveled.
"So . . . how was it?"
"What, how was what?"
"Yesterday's thing, you said you were going to."
I only wanted to ask who had been at a gathering he'd gone to, what they had talked about, but when I couldn't say his name even this simple question died on my lips. Then one day his name exploded from me like a cork from a bottle, and it was no longer a problem. Sometimes, however, even so, it unraveled. Because when I said his name, my mouth grew moist.
He called me Kei right away, very easily. He liked to build things. I hear the sound of him calling me, Kei, his voice, as he saws the wood, wields his hammer, assembles the pieces. The nails sank easily into the rattling board. The hard wood drank up the nails like sand. Sometimes a nail would bend under the powerful blows of the hammer, but the heads always looked new, unblemished, as though they had been pressed in with a soft rubber ball.
"I love to see the nails so neat," I said. Rei smiled.
"Say my name," he said suddenly.
R-e-i. I felt jittery saying it. Still clasping two nails between his fingers, he leaned forward and pressed his lips to mine. Don't. I drew back, ever so slightly, and Rei's shoulders stiffened. Oh, I thought, then hurriedly spoke his name again. R-e-i. The nails dropped from his fingers. He picked them up immediately. The tips are pointy. Wouldn't want you to get hurt. He had his excuse. He gathered the nails, held them to the board, lost himself in their immersion in the wood. He didn't turn to face me again.
He was building a shelf for Momo's picture books. The shelf remains, in her room.
I debated whether or not to take down the nameplate: YANAGIMOTO.
Five years had passed since Rei disappeared, and I had admitted to myself that he wouldn't be back. The nameplate became a question.
It was too soon for him to be declared legally dead, but enough time had passed for a divorce. Suddenly I disliked having to live my life in the shadow of my husband's nameplate. Now that we were living with Mother, it hung beside a second nameplate, TOKUNAGA, my maiden name, and I also disliked seeing them there, side by side.
"Are you mad at him?" I asked myself. I was alone. Momo would be in her morning class at elementary school, sitting there in the middle of the classroom, staring blankly at the blackboard, and Mother hadn't yet emerged from her room—she takes sleep in little snatches, that is how she is made, sometimes at odd early morning times I would be startled to find her sitting quietly in the kitchen. I sat alone now and asked myself, straight as could be, Are you mad at him?
"Yes, I'm mad." The answer came. I myself, answering myself.
Maybe mad is too strong a word. No, it isn't too strong, if anything it's too weak. I'm mad at Rei. I need, in my anger, to know why he left.
I didn't take down the nameplate. I still go by his name. I am mad, but my anger assumes no form, it is in the cloaked depths, deep in my body's core, that I rage at my husband.
The core of me rages, but it also yearns for Rei. I have Seiji, but there is something that I can't keep down, being with him. Rei was the only one. Not just because he was my husband, but because he was the man he was, he was Rei, with him I could keep it down.
Maybe that was why Mother disliked him. Something close made distant, he knew how to carry things, leaving behind no fragments or clippings, his box was the right size, nothing had to be pushed in and no empty spaces remained, he held me ever so easily, he carried me away. I had been so close, and that man, Rei, distanced me, her daughter.
Now that we were living together again, were we close? Three women, our three bodies. Like spheres joined in motion, that is how we are. Not concentric spheres, each sphere cradles its own center, not flat but full, that is how we are.
The nameplate reading TOKUNAGA is hung first. Yanagimoto Momo. It's too hard to say, I'd rather be Tokunaga Momo. I remember Momo saying this. She was laughing. She laughs often. Even now that she is sullen, laughter gushes easily from her.
It was hard with Rei, but I could call Seiji by his name right away.
Seiji is five years older than Rei, who was two years older than me. Seven years my senior, and we got to know each other through work—I could call him by his name. And softly stroke his shoulder or waist from behind, all of a sudden. Seiji's voice is gentle.
"Ms. Yanagimoto," he calls me. He maintains the same formality. Occasionally he drops from a Yes, remote as the day we met, to a Yeah. But he keeps switching back. I am different. I am almost too easy with him.
"Seiji, do me," I say, things like that.
Sometimes he responds, and when he can't he says, "I'm sorry."
That same remoteness.
I determined to fall for him. When I felt I could love him, I made up my mind to love him. He did not refuse. The current of my feelings flowed his way. This is my loving. The stronger emotions, and the weaker ones, turned and surged, not straight at him, only toward him. I was grateful that he hadn't refused. After Rei's disappearance, I had no place. I didn't know where to channel what I felt. When the path ahead is still unformed, we lose all sense of our location. The fear in me resembled the inability to tell upstream from downstream, to perceive which direction the water was going.
When we do it, he is vocal. Yet he never laughs aloud.
There was a sign, written vertically, that read INSTRUMENTS & RECORDS.
Head south from the station, walk straight for a time until you come to the sign, then turn left beneath it. The road narrows somewhat, not enough to call it an alley, and then you turn into another street with a soba shop on the corner. There, a few doors down, was the building where Rei lived before we were married.
"Does someone own this building? Or are they individual flats?" I asked.
Rei cocked his head. "Do you really want to know?" he asked in return.
No. I was just asking.
INSTRUMENTS & RECORDS. There was a picture of a guitar on the sign. And a round disk, presumably an LP. That store looks kind of old, huh? Have you ever bought a record there? Once again Rei cocked his head. Don't remember. Maybe I did. Or maybe not. Rei was such an easygoing sort. Not a man you expected to disappear. I never imagined it.
I went into INSTRUMENTS & RECORDS once. By myself, on the way to Rei's apartment. Whenever I could find the time, I visited his apartment. Not only when he was there; I went when he wasn't there, too.
"You're a nesting animal, I guess?" Rei asked.
I've never been like this before, I said, never.
Rei laughed. He laughed often, just like Momo.
It was brighter inside INSTRUMENTS & RECORDS than I had thought it would be from outside. A popular song was playing—the voice was male. The clerk was a young man. He was about twenty with a long, thin face and long hair, and he was rocking back and forth, ever so subtly, in a rhythm different from that of the music playing. There were no other customers.
Flipping through a box of LPs in the "Western Music" section, looking at each one, I was overcome by an urge to go to Rei's apartment. Even though it was practically next door. Even though I would be there in almost no time. Suddenly, I couldn't wait.
There was no reason not to leave empty-handed, but instead I selected an LP at random and hurriedly bought it. The jacket had a photograph of a woman on the front, in monochrome. I assumed it would be vocal music and that the woman would sing, but it was all instrumental pieces with a lucid, driving rhythm. No sooner had I burst into Rei's apartment than I tore off the wrapper and put the record on.
Wow, this is great, Rei said. I like it. So I gave it to him. When we married, I discovered that monochrome jacket among the few dozen records Rei brought with him, and it made me happy. Reunion. I thought the word. Reunion. Now that Rei has disappeared, it is hard for me to think it. Inside INSTRUMENTS & RECORDS, everything was faded and warm.
Year after year, I can't get used to Parents' Day.
Nothing registers. The classroom's dustiness; the samples of calligraphy tacked to the wall, curling at the edges; the warmth of the mothers' bodies and all their perfumes; and mixed in, every so often, a father or two, always wearing, for some reason, black or navy blue. The fact that I, too, once sat day in and day out in a classroom just like this. When I was in junior high, that classroom felt right. In elementary school, that classroom felt right. Maybe because I had nowhere else to go. Or maybe back then I didn't feel this restless burgeoning, the outward blur.
Feeling right was not a matter, then, of thought. Being with Rei felt right almost immediately. So good that I decided to marry him, to let my life become our life. Feeling right is not a help. It is like a mirage. A distant vision, trembling on the sea.
Ill at ease at Parents' Day, I sit in a line with the others, head down. When your turn comes, I'd like each of you to tell me how your children have been lately, any concerns you may have. I'm undecided as to whether or not I should let him have a cell phone. Ever since she entered ninth grade, she's gotten so argumentative, I don't know how to deal with her. He tells me he's always exhausted, he ought to know by now that it's no good to be too busy but somehow he can't learn to manage his time. She's been sickly since she was little and she still has to go regularly to the hospital, so for the time being I just want her to build up her strength.
No one says the things they most want to say. This is not a place to say them. Listening to this litany of "how our children have been lately," I lose all sense of how, ordinarily, I engage other people in conversation. I become bewildered.
I went to Parents' Day today, I told Momo when I returned. She gave a sullen nod. You didn't forget this time. Twice in the past it had slipped my mind. You weren't there today, were you? she asked me the first time, and the second. Before the parents go to talk with the teacher, they sit in on the class. So she could tell right away. She didn't blame me for having skipped it, but it occurred to me that perhaps unconsciously I had been avoiding a place I couldn't grow accustomed to, and I felt ashamed.
"What did you say?"
"That you seem to be enjoying school, you know."
"I wish you wouldn't."
A sigh escapes me. Momo pretends she doesn't hear. She's that age. I say the words in my mind. She seems so much more confident than I. Confident in her ability to survive her life. Confident because she has no knowledge of what lies beyond the edge.
Or maybe she knows. Maybe her young world contains within it all of life, the way a drop of water holds the universe. What was it like? I can't remember. Your mother really is a dunce. I speak the words aloud. You're a dunce? Momo asks, astonishment written on her face. She comes over, grinning. I love you, Momo. You're such a cutie, such a good girl. My thoughts are in a whirl. I want to hug her. And yet I hold back. When she was close, I never hesitated. To fold her into my chest, to gather her in.
I forget my fear, give her a tentative hug.
Laughing, she slides deftly from my arms, away.
Come with me to the department store? Mother asked.
She wanted to send a thank-you gift. I needed to send gifts to two or three people myself, so I agreed without hesitation. At the store, several things came and followed me. One in the thronging basement grocery, near the end of an aisle, near the corner. On the side of the escalator where no one was standing, I noticed another.
They are always faint in the department store. Any number of them, faintly fading and then coming back, following and drifting off. Too dim to know if they are female or male.
"How would dried shiitake be?" Mother is saying. Dried shiitake? Maybe, I say to keep the conversation going. It is better not to speak too clearly, better to seem unsure, I wonder rather than That's a good idea—because this is how we keep it going. To acknowledge straight out that anything is good is a weight on both of us.
We filled out the shipping labels to send the same package of dried shiitake to four people, her one, my three. I was writing an address with a ballpoint pen when another came. This one was a woman, clearly. Not faint at all, even though we were in a store.
"I'll be back, I'm just going to the restroom." Quickly completing the labels and handing them to Mother, I hurried to the restroom in its out-of-the-way location—invisible, dead space. The blurry reflection of a woman in the mirror was all it was. Watching it out of the corner of my eye, I stepped into a stall. I was sick to my stomach. I vomited, just a little.
Soon I felt better, and I rinsed my mouth at the sink. I tipped my head back and gargled. The woman stayed. Perhaps she wanted to tell me something. This had never happened before. I had never thrown up before, either. Though I didn't know if she was to blame.
Mother was standing, waiting, when I returned.
"What should we do about lunch, Kei?"
"One of the restaurants?"
"I feel like chirashi-zushi."
The woman wavered. The air around her bent into darkness for a second, then brightened again, like the flickering of a candle flame. I didn't feel sick again after that. The unpleasantness had already left me, through my mouth. We ascended to the restaurant floor, the woman still trailing. Mother ordered eel; I had the chirashi-zushi. The restaurants in department stores have such high ceilings. Voices resound. We ate everything, leaving nothing. When we left the store, just like that, the woman was gone. ***
Sometime later, the same woman came and followed me two days straight, so I decided to go again to Manazuru. I had a feeling this woman had been involved, somehow, with Rei.
"I want to go to the beach," Momo said.
So I asked her, "Do you want to go with me?"
And she nodded.
Dress warmly, it's still cool. OK. The train may rock, you know. Sure.
Momo suffers from motion sickness. It's OK, I've gotten over it now. I have to take the train to school, after all. When Momo announced that she wanted to attend a private school with an affiliated junior high and high school, I worried less about the entrance exam and the tuition than about the daily commute. You're so out of date, Mom, Momo teased.
"Work?" Momo asked.
"No particular reason."
It's the wrong season for a holiday. I wonder if Grandma will come, too? Momo says happily.
"Grandma says she won't come."
I don't want to go anywhere too strong. That's what Mother had said. Strong places wear me out. You two go on, by yourselves. She was saying no, and yet she spoke the words as though she were singing. Mother is close, I thought. This is how it is, three female bodies, singing, laughing, something unknown that comes and follows, here in this house.
Manazuru, I've never been there before. Momo smiles. It was my first time, too, the other day. We smile together. For a second, I recall how, when the sky suddenly opened out at the tip of the cape and I gazed down at the ocean below, the wind had teased my cheeks, my ears.
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