Someday, sometime in the distant future, I wonder how my wife and I will look back on the month of March 2011. Obviously we’ll remember it as the month of the massive earthquake, but I suspect we’ll also think of it as a period during which we fought day in and day out. Perhaps it will even turn out to have been the beginning of the end of our marriage. Of course, things might have started moving toward the end much earlier, and we—or at least I—had simply failed to take notice. Three weeks from now, we may no longer be husband and wife, and I’ll possibly have turned into a dodgy middle-aged man whimpering behind a park slide, digging a hole in the ground with a pickax in an attempt to bury more than a decade of memories with his wife. I’d rather not turn into that man, but I can’t say with any certainty that I won’t. Frankly, I don’t know yet how things will turn out.
That evening, too, we’d begun arguing early. We were in the midst of a rolling blackout, one of a series. The argument started over something petty, like where the utility lighter had gone and who had last used it. I don’t remember how the disagreement evolved, and I probably wouldn’t feel like explaining it even if I did, but as was the case with all our fights that March, we eventually landed on the topic of money. Once we reached that point, the scrawny sense of humor that had somehow kept our fights from growing too fierce would go off to watch from the sidelines. Money—or the fatal lack thereof—was the magma that fueled our clashes.
Eventually, our back-and-forths would be reduced to something like this:
“It’s because you don’t make enough money.”
“I’m trying the best I can.”
“I don’t care if you’re trying your best.”
“Wait, so what are you saying? It all comes down to money?”
“Doesn’t it? How can we live without money?”
“How did you become so shallow?”
“You made me this way!”
“Worthless piece of shit!”
That’s right, we were like mutts shackled to a monument of financial issues. Sure, all rich people are chained, too, but their chains are long. Some people’s chains are so long that even if they went to Jupiter and got their chain tangled around a camphor tree, they’d still be able to make it back to Earth. Ours, by contrast, is short. We can barely take a walk in the neighborhood without getting yanked back, making it virtually impossible to mark our territory.
But still, we’d somehow managed to make ends meet, fervently trying to believe that our financial situation would work itself out. We owed much of our success in this to the good fortune and countless blessings of youth, but the power of love had also played a large part. In no way do I think that love is everything, but still, it’s pretty powerful stuff. Like us, though, love is a living creature. Sometimes you need to take it out on a picnic and let it get some sun. If you keep feeding it sugar-laden store-bought baked goods, it suffers from malnutrition. Our love was completely spent. These days it got out of bed with the late-afternoon sun and just stared at the TV without even bothering to wash its face. It no longer even responded when you called its name.
Early in March, we had decided to sell the house we’d bought some years earlier, whose monthly mortgage we had been struggling to pay. We had our place appraised by a real estate company, only to find out that it would be extremely difficult to sell it at a price that would allow us to get rid of our remaining debt. In addition to the fact that we’d made no down payment and that we’d taken out a mortgage that included various miscellaneous expenses, a certain religious organization had built a facility in the vacant lot right in front of our house a year earlier. Even if a member of the religious group were to buy our place at a higher price than the quote in the appraisal, we’d have to hand over three percent of that to the real estate agency. Plus, we’d still need a place to live. We’d have to pay a security deposit, key money, and moving expenses. We had already spent all our savings. In other words, we had found ourselves in a dead end. It was as if there was a magnificent view of the vast blue ocean beyond the railing, but to get to the water, we’d have to dive off a cliff. Unless there’s some sort of miracle, we’ll lose our small house to foreclosure in the not-so-distant future, and end up with a court-issued eviction notice or something. What are the chances that a miracle will happen? I’m guessing they’re called miracles because the chances are so low.
I left the house that night, unable to tolerate our futile candlelit shouting match. The streetlights and security lights, and of course the lights in people’s homes were all off, leaving our residential neighborhood as dark as the bottom of the sea. I walked silently, sometimes passing other underwater people, who were walking their dogs. The headlights of submarines pierced my eyes as they came and went. Up above, the ocean’s surface was covered in gray algae.
I had someone I could count on in mind, at least for the time being. A friend from college lived two train stations away, and though he wasn’t home, having left for a long-term business trip to the U.S. a few days ago (his wife and kids had "evacuated" to her parents' home in Kyushu), he’d given me the keys to his car, saying I could use it whenever I wanted to. I spent over half an hour weaving in and out of blackout zones before arriving at my friend's building—or rather, its parking lot. There sat my friend’s Audi station wagon, with over half a tank of gas. With that much fuel, I figured I could make it pretty far, or at least drive for a pretty long time. I drove toward the city center as if to flee the power outages. It was a tricky car with the driver’s seat on the left side, which had me turning on the windshield wipers when I actually wanted to switch on the blinkers, but it wasn't a bad ride. I played a SMAP CD—my friend’s wife’s, maybe—that was in the car stereo as I drove. That's right, we are / A flower unlike any other in the world.
Before I fully realized what I was doing, I was headed toward Ogikubo. A woman I’d been involved with briefly a long time ago (well, maybe not that long ago) lived there. Evidently I was stupid enough that I hadn’t yet completely gotten over her. Otherwise, why would I have wanted to see her then, of all times?
She lived in a building with an automatic lock on the main entrance.
From just that one syllable, I could tell that she was scared. She probably saw my face on the video intercom. And to think there had once been a time when she was happy to see me. I announced myself.
"Hey. How are you?" I said in a desperately bright tone. It was as if I’d suffered amnesia about everything that had gone down between us. She didn't say anything. I took in her silence.
"What's going on?" she finally asked.
"Uh, well, um . . . I was wondering if you wanted to go out for some coffee," I said, remembering that there’d been a similar scene in one of Richard Brautigan's novels. Needless to say, I didn't care about the coffee.
She flat-out rejected me.
"Please leave," she said, and the intercom abruptly shut off. I couldn't accept what had just happened. Wanting to believe the intercom had malfunctioned due to an electrical glitch, I rang the doorbell again.
"What? What is it?" she answered. The anger in her voice was obvious now.
"Can we talk a little bit? There's so much to catch up on," I babbled.
"What the hell do you want?" she said. "You promised you'd never come here again, didn't you?"
"Well, yeah." I began to realize how disgracefully I was behaving. How much lower can you go than stomping out after a fight with your wife, then seeking comfort from another woman? And not just any other woman, but a woman you clearly hurt in the past?
"If you ever come back here again . . . "
"I get it," I quickly cut her off. I didn't want to hear the word "police" come out of her mouth. "I won't come anymore. I'm sorry."
After a miserable silence, save for what sounded like radio signals getting crossed, the intercom went dead again. My relationship with her was over for real this time. No, it'd been over for a long time. I’d been clinging to something that was already dead, and had merely been given a swift and final kick in the pants. What I did was the worst thing ever in the history of the world. It didn't even warrant self-mockery.
I was dying for a drink. I didn’t have the money for it, though. So I made some calls to people who would not only go out drinking with me but would also lend me the money to do it. But alas, I only have two friends who fit the bill, and I couldn't even get through to the answering service of one of them. The other one answered, but was unusually aloof. I probably wasn’t an ideal companion for either of them that night.
Out of nowhere I remembered a classmate from junior high whose path seemed to cross mine from time to time, for better or worse. He was now a dentist with his own clinic.
"Yeah, sure, let's have a drink," he said, as if he’d been waiting for just such an invitation with his cell phone in hand. And when I told him I didn't have any money, he said, "Don't worry, you can just pay me back next time." To be honest, I really don’t like this guy and don’t want to call him a friend, but I have to admit that my relationship with him is invaluable.
We met up in Roppongi and headed to a hostess bar that my former classmate apparently went to from time to time. I didn’t particularly want to go to a hostess bar, but it appeared that for my former classmate, going out for drinks with a guy automatically meant going to a hostess bar. In the two hours we were there, four girls took turns sitting with me. Each girl was a duplicate of the next, like ice cubes produced from the same mold. Or maybe I only felt that way because there’s something wrong with me. For a while now, there’s been a frosted shower curtain between me and the rest of the world.
I thought the first girl and I had started out talking about the earthquake and the nuclear power plant, but before I knew it we were talking about spiritual hotspots and other spirituality-related topics, and I found myself lost in the middle of our conversation. The second girl had a lot of inside dirt on celebrities, but because I’m really not up on who’s who these days, I made her lose sight of the conversation. The third girl spoke about her past and her future, but everything she said screamed of mediocrity, like those identical ice cubes. And as if to make up for that conversation, I prattled on about my own life to the fourth girl, but what I shared with her may have been just as trite.
The dentist’s cell phone rang when we got out of the bar, and without so much as an explanation, he said he was sorry, got in a cab, and was gone. Newly abandoned, I wandered about the entertainment district where neon signs had been dimmed here and there to conserve energy, forming gaps in the light. I felt like a flat stone on a riverbed waiting for elementary-school kids in shorts to pick me up to use as a skipping stone. People like me who don’t contribute to economic activity just weren’t welcome.
The lights were back on in my neighborhood, and it no longer felt like the bottom of the sea. I stopped by a convenience store, intending to buy some instant noodles as a late-night snack. For some reason, though, I couldn’t find any clerks. There was a hastily-made donation box next to the cash register. I could see a few bills inside. The idea of grabbing the box and making a run for it flashed through my mind, like an evil falling star on a midsummer night.
When I returned home, my wife was sitting on the couch with her arms hugging her folded legs, staring in rapt attention at the late-evening news. She was watching the most recent footage of the hard-hit disaster areas with the sound on mute.
What I know is that if my wife had been asleep in our bed in the bedroom when I got home, I would’ve curled up on the couch for a sleepless and agonizing night, and if she’d been watching something else on television, like a comedy show or a suspense thriller, my spiteful tongue would probably have made some ill-advised comment, setting off a fresh round of mutual diatribes. But instead, we sat next to each other on the couch without a word, staring at soundless news footage of the many people who had been hit by misfortune. People shivering in the cold. People waiting in long lines for food. People digging through rubble for their belongings. People scrambling to find missing family members. People who had lost their homes, jobs, and the people they love.
The sight of people struck by disaster bored a hole in my heart, and it hurt. As I experienced this pain, though, I was feeling my own pain diminish. It was shameless, really; one of those things that probably shouldn’t be put into words. I don’t think it’s acceptable to verbalize things just because they’re true. But that’s what I’ve chosen to do here. Sometimes, we find solace in seeing real-life examples of other people’s sorrow.
I found myself crying. My wife was crying. The overwhelming grief and compassion were probably the only things we as a couple could share at that moment.
My hope is that our small unhappiness, too, will help ease the pain that someone else, somewhere, is feeling.
© Suzumo Sakurai. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Chikako Kobayashi. All rights reserved.
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