That Morning, When It

Tokyo Metropolitan Highway No. 14 is less congested at 4 a.m. than it is during the day.

And with fewer lights to get stuck behind at this hour, people tend to drive fast too. As I inhaled the smog-infected air, I debated which way to go after walking out of the building, then decided to go left, in the direction of Chōfu. It had been less than a year since I moved into his apartment, and I didn’t really know the area too well, but I figured if I followed this metro highway at least I wouldn’t get lost. I was beginning to regret that I’d stepped out in these beach sandals, which we normally use to take out the trash; they were killing me, wearing away the skin between my toes. But I’d already made up my mind. I wasn’t going back.

The road was bathed in orange, and in the glare of so many headlights—each pair a different color and height from the ground—it seemed unusually bright, hardly what you would expect of a highway at this time of morning. I watch the vehicles as they cruise by me, and before long, with nothing better to do I hit on the idea of trying to discover the principle animating the buildings along Metro Highway 14. A building-maintenance office. A Domino’s Pizza. A lumber shop. A masonry shop. A Mercedes-Benz dealer. The businesses and their façades are all pretty random. If there is a common thread, it’s that none of the buildings are stand-alone houses, though some of them are apartment houses. I guess with all the noise and bustle, no one would think to settle down and build a home here.

I see a signboard for a finance company I’ve never heard of and give it a good whack, rattling the fence on which it hangs, then continue on my way. I arrive at a cluster of whitely lit vending machines. In one of them I notice a juice called “milk-covered strawberries,” and without thinking I come to a halt, astonished. Milk-covered strawberries? How is this any different from strawberry milk?

Should I buy a drink, I wonder, but after a short while I start walking again. I’m thirsty, but so what. The feeling won’t last. Feelings never do.

I don’t remember when, but at some point I made a conscious effort to stop having absurd expectations of myself. I mean, once when I was traveling, I happened to see a horse give birth, and the experience moved me, filled me with hope, but three days later, for no reason I can recall, I fell into depression. The same sort of thing has happened any number of times. Right now I’m a little tipsy from the beer I was drinking, so the moon looks pretty and all with its faint-white halo, but a single change in my mental state could spoil it completely. “The moon looks pretty” is nothing more than my own unsophisticated imagination. It’s a useless thought with no basis in reality. In the opposite lane an ambulance flies by, sirens blaring.

I cut through a cloud of steam escaping from a ramen shop, and after passing three pedestrian bridges I come to a rather sad excuse for a supermarket; a Help Wanted notice is taped to the entrance. A supermarket, I mutter to myself to see how it sounds. This might not be too bad. I’ve never worked in a grocery store before, but this one is nearby, and the pay is good . . .

I start moving again. I can’t. I still can’t handle a job. Would I feel a desire to work if, say, I felt more embarrassed about being twenty-three and owing my parents money? Couldn’t say. But even when I’m thirty, I still want to be getting a New Year’s allowance. I want it even more than my relatives’ kids do. But there I go again. Thinking just gets me depressed, so I might as well think about nothing for a while. Forget everything. Including the fact that Mom, in one of her bizarre moods, sent me a profound e-mail the other day—“It’s probably best your DNA isn’t passed on to anyone”—and that Dad told me over the phone, in all seriousness, “If something ever happens to me, you come home and look after your mother, you hear?”

When I had crossed my fifth crosswalk and passed by a veterinary clinic recruiting foster parents for a pair of kittens (I knew because of the amateurishly illustrated sign in the window), the cell phone in my pocket rang.

“. . . Hello.”

“Hello?”

“What is it?”

“Where are you?”

A loud motorcycle approaches from behind, and instinctively I turn up the volume. The voice of the guy I didn’t want to hear becomes just a bit clearer.

“Sorry. I don’t want to talk to you now.”

“Are you in a restaurant?”

“I said I don’t want to talk.”

He shuts up.

“Let me ask you something,” I say as another motorcycle roars past me. I plug my ear—the one I’m not holding my phone against—with my middle finger. “Why did you fast-forward?”

“. . . I didn’t think you were watching.”

“I was!”

“OK.”

“I like Matsuoka Shūzō. I’m a fan of his. You know that.”

“I knew, but I forgot.”

“Because you hate him?”

“I’ve never really thought about him before.”

“Think about him, then!”

“OK . . . in that case, I don’t hate him.”

“‘In that case’? What’s that supposed to mean? What do you know about Matsuoka Shūzō, anyway?”

“. . . Sorry. Nothing.”

“That’s it. I’m hanging up.”

“. . . If you say so.”

I had kept walking as I talked, and before I knew it I had arrived at Nakanobashi Junction. The road running overhead is the Shuto Expressway, and this short stretch of it is called the Kami-Takaido Overpass. It says so on a sign. Orange characters dance across an LED traffic information board. As I waited at the crosswalk, I absently read them. 11/16, 1:00–6:00 a.m., Shinjuku Exit (inbound) closed due to construction. Not being a driver, I had no idea what “inbound” meant.

The traffic light turns from yellow to red. But the cars turning from Beltline 8 keep sliding on through, and the pedestrians are forced to wait. With traffic this frenzied, it’s a miracle more accidents don’t occur. At last the signal changes, and I decide to cross and continue in the same direction. The middle-aged jogger who had been doing high knees next to me flies by like a kid fired up at the start of a race.

Should I get into a taxi and go as far as I can? When I reached into the front pocket of my parka, I felt the prick of a small plastic package with notched edges, and I remembered that all I had on me was my cell phone and this one bag of Kameda Crisps. Though I had impulsively stormed out of the apartment, I should have at least had enough sense to grab my wallet, not to mention a coat—a stupid thing to forget this time of year. This winter, even the Kantō region is supposed to get a lot of snow, and if it does, I’ll be getting out of the house even less than I am now. I’ve never had much tolerance for cold weather. But I couldn’t go back now, it would be humiliating. As I rub my faintly sticky hands against my clothes, I reflect on the exchange he and I had just before I ran away.

I had said something that was probably uncalled for. I was furious that he had fast-forwarded the video we were watching, so I said, “Hey, would you quit chomping those crisps? You’re making a lot of noise!” In response he said sorry, and instead of breaking up the crisps he’d just put into his mouth, he made a quiet effort to dissolve them in his saliva. But he looked pathetic with his hands covering his mouth as he tried not to let out any noise, so without thinking I said, “How dare you play victim!” and, aiming for his glasses, threw a barrage of Kameda Crisps at him. Over and over again. He kept watching TV as the mix of rice crackers and roasted peanuts bounced off his face, until finally, unable to take any more of it, he stood up from the sofa. “Stop it,” he said, and grabbed my wrist. “This isn’t Setsubun, when we throw beans around to ward off evil, and I’m no demon.” I pulled my hand free and, summoning all my strength, hurled at him the handful of crisps I’d been holding, then dashed out of the apartment without another word. I don’t know what caused me to fly into such a rage. For a second I’d considered getting him to stop me, to drag me back into the room, then forgetting the entire incident took place; but it riled me to imagine that he might think my anger wasn’t something he needed to take seriously, so that’s how I ended up somehow deciding to go for a walk along Highway 14, the road that passes right in front of our building.

When I climb to the top of a turquoise pedestrian bridge—the paint has peeled away in so many places, they might as well have left it white—the expressway overhead is so close I can almost touch it. Every time a car drives by, the whole thing shudders under its weight, and I worry that it will collapse at any second, and a truck come crashing through. I catch a faint whiff of paint thinner, and wonder if this is related to the obscene graffiti spray-painted everywhere. I look down on Highway 14 below. For a short while I watch as a pack of trucks zooms by, then I tear open the bag of crisps and throw a handful of them down onto the road. The sticky brown and white fragments fly in all directions and go dropping onto the hoods of cars.

I wonder—if something like this came down on your windshield while you were driving, would it startle you into an accident? Then I realize that the flow of traffic on this highway isn’t going to be upset by a handful of Kameda Crips. The ones I’ve dropped are mercilessly run over, and even if I squint I can’t see them, not even their crushed remains; they’ve disappeared, vanished into the ether. Arrrgh, how totally pointless! I hate the name Highway 14, I like Beltline 8 better. Especially the “Beltline” part. Has a nice sound. But then it occurs to me that even though people call it the Beltline, the road doesn’t run in a circle. The only truly loop-like road in Tokyo is the Shuto Expressway, officially called the Metropolitan Beltline.

Rings. Loops. The elevated Shuto runs in a circle around the city, passing through Chiyoda, Chūō, and Minato Wards. Or so it’s supposed to. I remember him explaining this to me once when we were walking back home from one of our favorite Chinese restaurants in Takaido, a place we had gone to for the fried rice.

He had ordered gomoku ramen, since two dishes of fried rice for the both of us was, well, unoriginal. He had been griping about how ramen at Chinese restaurants is never any good. Then on our way back he looked up at the road—heavy with traffic day and night—and said, “It’s like a cell.” In other words, he said, if the road were a capillary, the taxis would be red blood cells, and the trucks white ones. The inner lane would be an artery, the outer one a vein. . . . Or at least I remember him saying something like that. What he actually said might have been a bit different. In any case, after listening to him, I chided him for his queer musings. “You say some pretty strange things for a man your age.” But the image he’d suggested was a lot more clever than the one I was obsessing on right now—running and running only to return to the same spot, and going nowhere.

Wanting to think about something more meaningless, I desperately tried to draw to mind the image of Matsuoka Shūzō—before he’d been fast-forwarded. In the video, the retired tennis player–turned–sportscaster/TV celebrity had been called upon to coach a high school girl’s volleyball team; after having the girls form pairs, he’d race around between them as they tossed balls back and forth, and shout, “Hey, hey! Watch me now! I’m all over the place.” For his part, he seemed to think he was giving them special training, but they probably would have performed exactly the same whether he was there coaching them or not. Talk about meaningless!

In the end, his actions, too, led to the same “I know you’re trying, man, but you’re not helping” type of pointless result.

I open my cell and pull up the address book. I craved a stupid conversation with someone—anyone. I select the name of the first man that pops up and press Call. A guy I dated a while ago but quickly broke up with and haven’t contacted since. I’d completely forgotten about him, and doubted the number would even work, but after a few beeps I heard a ring, then a fatigued voice followed by a yawn.

“. . . Who—”

“Hey, remember me?”

“Uhh, yeah. How’s it going? What—what are you doing calling at this hour? Something wrong?”

“No, nothing. I was just, you know, wondering how you were doing. Sorry. You were sleeping, weren’t you?”

“I guess you could say that. It’s early morning, isn’t it?”

“It is. I’ll call another time. Sorry to wake you.”

“No problem. But you aren’t gonna call again, and you know it.”

“Maybe so.”

“What? I mean, what have you been up to lately?”

“Hmmm . . . good question. Living off some guy’s allowance?”

“Seriously? So after you dumped me, you went and found yourself a rich guy, is that it?”

“You know, you talk way too much for someone who’s just woken up. What’s with that? Why are you so . . . high-strung?”

“Dunno. Maybe because I was just having a dream that Richard Gere moved in next door, and he had some strange hair growing out of his ear, so he asked me to pull it out, and when I did he suddenly started shrinking. That could be it.”

“Wow, you’re still having creepy dreams like that? Takes me back.”

“Takes me back, too. Hey, want to go out drinking sometime—you know, for old times’ sake?”

“OK . . . but aren’t you busy?”

“Not so much this month. Oh, but I’m supposed to go back home. My sister’s getting married, apparently, and I’ve been summoned.”

“Really? She’s still young, though, isn’t she? You’re several years older than her, right?”

“She’s twenty-three . . . twenty-four maybe. But the guy she’s marrying, apparently he’s my age and works for a major general contractor.”

“What’s that supposed to mean, ‘major general contractor’?”

“Dunno exactly. But ‘general contractor’ itself sounds impressive enough. A ‘major general contractor’ must be like, super. The other day, apparently, his family took mine to an expensive restaurant—a ryōtei that politicians go to—and boy were Mom and Dad nervous. And they have me for an eldest son. I felt damn ashamed.”

“Are they after you to get married too?”

“Of course. But time flows differently here. Unlike out there in the sticks, here in Tokyo it’s natural to be in your thirties and still single. Makes you wonder why people back home get married so young.”

“Think of it as your duty to them, and get married.”

“Pfft! There’s no one I could marry.”

“No? What about that girl you were dating, the tall one who looks like she’d play middle blocker in volleyball?”

“Don’t make weird comparisons, OK? We broke up ages ago.”

“I had no idea.”

“Listen . . .”

“What?”

“What do you say we get back together?”

“What do you mean what do you say?”

“I figured you called because you weren’t getting along with your current man friend.”

“Not exactly.”

“Where are you now?”

“Near Beltline 8 and the Shuto.”

“There’s a steakhouse at the intersection, right?”

“I think so.”

“Well then, how about we meet there?”

“What do you mean well then? Don’t you have a job to go to?”

“I work the evening shift. Listen, I can get there on my motorcycle in about twenty minutes.”

“So we meet—and then what?”

“We have a few drinks, some conversation.”

“Umm . . . I’ll give that some thought. I’ll text you in five minutes. Your address hasn’t changed, has it?”

“No, it’s still the same.”

“Sorry for waking you.”

“If you’re apologizing, you probably aren’t planning on seeing me.”

“I don’t know. Let me think about. I’ll text you in a few.”

I remove the phone from my ear where I had it tightly pressed and think about whether I should go see this guy. No harm in it if all we’re going to do is have a few drinks. But I can’t say I wouldn’t have sex with him if, after a few drinks, the mood felt right. Then would I get back together with him, just like that? Would I greet his sister and her major-general-contractor husband as potential in-laws? Would I break up with the guy I’m living with now over a fast-forwarded video?

Once more I throw a handful of crisps down onto the highway. I’d grabbed as many as I could before letting them fly, but as expected, the traffic is completely unaffected. I take my cell from my parka pocket, punch out a text message—I’d better not see you. Sorry—and within three seconds it is sent. When I come down from the bridge, I select the number at the top of my call log, and wait.

“Hello?”

“Do you regret what you did?”

“Of course.”

“Then come pick me up.”

“Where?”

“Past Beltline 8, on the other side of the road. There’s a strange-looking nursing home—kinda looks like the Sea God’s Palace. I’m waiting in the parking lot. It’s pretty far. I’ve been walking for long time.”

“Got it.”

“Get here as fast as you can.”

He’ll soon come peddling into view on his mamachari—his granny’s bike—to pick me up. It’d be much less of a hassle for me to take a cab back to his place, but I want to make him atone for the Matsuoka Shūzō affair by having him cycle all the way out here to get me. So that’s what I’ll do.

I try imagining myself in bed with him, after flip-flopping back to his room in these oversized beach sandals; after changing into my pajamas and brushing my teeth and removing my contacts. I think about the morning we might have had had if we hadn’t gotten into a fight over the video, if I hadn’t stormed out of the apartment, and then I think about now, the way I’ve run away only to make him come and fetch me, and I wonder if, ultimately, there is any difference between the two outcomes. They’re probably isn’t. Come tomorrow, after I’ve slept, it will be just as if I never walked until my feet bled—just as if the whole thing never happened.

Before long, as the sky begins to lose just a little of its nighttime color and the crows start cawing, he comes tearing into the grounds of the nursing home on his mamachari, sails across the sprawling parking lot to the front-entrance steps where I’m sitting, and moves one foot from the pedal to the pavement as the bike comes to a stop. He’s out of breath, his hair sticking up. “You walked all this way?” he says.

“So what if I did?” I say back as I get to my feet. “What have you been doing?”

“I’ve been up worrying about you. Until a little while ago, that is. I fell asleep.”

“Go to hell!”

The bike now turned around, I take a seat on the carrier with both legs to one side. “Let’s roll,” I hear him say, and after wobbling for a few seconds the bike lurches out of the parking lot. We head straight down the highway, but the waves of cars have begun to increase, and we’re forced to contend for road space. Every time we go over a bumpy crosswalk, my butt bounces on the metal frame, and it hurts. But the wind against my body feels nice, though chillier than it did earlier.

In no time, the white vending machines come back into view. As I listened to the alternating sounds of gears turning and breaks squeaking, I suddenly remembered the moon, and looked up. I could make out a round outline in the deep-blue sky, but to my now-sober eyes it appeared to be nothing more than a flat white object, and sure enough, I couldn’t understand why I had ever thought it looked pretty. Even if I took into account the fact that dawn was about to break.

“By the way,” he said over his shoulder. But because of the wind, it was hard to hear him, so I shouted back, “What?”

“Should we drop by a convenience store?”

“You mean you have nothing at home?”

“There’s chicken ramen . . .”

“That’ll do.”

“No eggs though.”

Hidden in his catlike hair, I discovered a single Kameda Crisp, and gently picked it out, being careful not to drop it. Through his sweatshirt he stank of BO.

“Fine. But your ramen never has enough broth, so this time you better be sure to use lots of water when you make it.”

“Ano akegata no,” from Ikiteru dake de, ai, published by Shinchōsha Publishing Co., Ltd., Tokyo. © 2006 Motoya Yukiko. Translation © 2012 Michael Staley. All rights reserved.