This is an excerpt from the novel published in Japanese as Shishosetsu from left to right (私小説 from left to right). The unusual title, a mixture of Japanese and English, neatly represents the novel’s content and form. The novel is narrated by a Japanese young woman who, like the author, grew up in the United States in a bilingual environment. ‘Shishosetsu’ refers to a genre of autobiographical novel that characterises much modern Japanese literature. Since English words and phrases are woven into the text, the novel was written horizontally, from left to right, unlike other Japanese novels, which are written vertically on the page and read from right to left.
—J. W. C.
The telephone rang at 9:45 this morning.
As white morning sunlight poked through the cracks in the blind, I inserted the cord into the telephone jack, digesting the usual sick realisation that another day had begun. No sooner was the telephone plugged in than the ringing gave me a start.
Sudden fear shot through me. It might be the French Department Office.
Is this Minae Mizumura?
Yes it is.
What on earth are you doing?
What on earth was I doing? If they asked me, what could I say? I could not explain it even to myself. I was afraid that somehow the way I was living—holed up in this apartment that remained dim even in the daytime, fearful of the dawning of each new day, for all the world like a snail coiled tightly in its shell—might become shamefully and unmistakably exposed to the light of day.
As hopes of an international call from Tono gradually faded, I fell into the habit of unplugging my telephone every night; apart from the practical desire to avoid being awakened by my sister, the main reason was this very fear.
It is of course a neurotic fear. Every department has one or two delinquent graduate students on its rolls, and there is no reason why the department should care if I put off my orals indefinitely on the pretext that my advisor is in and out of the hospital. It’s not only the department—in the whole huge United States, apart from Nanae hardly anyone is aware that I even exist. And why should they be? Still, I am afraid. From the time I wake up in the morning till five in the evening, when the office closes, I live in fear that at any moment the telephone will ring and I will be given final notice—Your time is up!—and stripped of my identity as a graduate student.
The telephone went on ringing.
Wait. It might be a wrong number, I thought hopefully, someone trying to reach the Social Security Office first thing in the morning. This often happened, as my number was similar to theirs. I reached for the phone, faintly anticipating an old lady’s gravelly voice.
‘Hello. Hi there.’
That voice had already given me an earful. Indeed the voice and my ear had become virtually inseparable. It was Nanae. Along with relief, I felt irritated at her for calling so early in the morning and putting my nerves on edge.
Nanae’s phone calls are never over in a minute or two.
I had been lying on my stomach, propped up on my elbows with the receiver pressed to my ear, but now I flipped over on the mattress so that I was lying flat on my back.
Nanae is a telephone addict. If you added up all the time the two of us spend on the phone together, you would probably reach the logical conclusion that I am no less of an addict, but that is only because she calls so often. After an interval of two days with no communication she will call and ask, ‘Still alive?’
Mostly she calls late at night, since after eleven the rates go down by more than half. Just last night, she called past midnight about some trivial matter, going on and on till my right ear started to hurt, and I transferred the receiver to my left ear and back again. I certainly had not expected to hear from her first thing in the morning.
That the telephone rang the moment I plugged it in suggested that she had been on the edge of her seat, waiting impatiently to get through. This happens frequently, generally when she has some distressing tale to relate such as how her old clunker of a car was stolen from where she left it parked in the street for the night (only to mysteriously reappear in the same place a few days later), or how the plumbing she just had installed broke down, or how one of her two cats was taken sick. The problem is never anything that calling me will fix.
Nanae’s voice is low, with distinct variations: it can be brimming with resentment and malediction, distraught with loneliness, quavering with illness, straightforwardly cheerful, or, rarely, filled with exaltation. Fortunately, today’s ‘Hello. Hi there’ sounded fairly upbeat.
I felt my irritation give way to a rising tide of relaxation. ‘What’s going on? You’re calling early.’
‘You unplugged the phone again, didn’t you?’
‘Well, last night after we talked I was up late.’
‘Jesus, how can you study all the time like that?’
‘I don’t study. That’s the whole trouble.’
Despite my protests, Nanae never takes such claims seriously. Full of self-pity for being out on her own in Manhattan, she is unable to conceive how I, firmly embedded as I am in the university system with a proper identity as a graduate student, a scholarship to pay my living expenses, and university health insurance to boot, could have any problems whatsoever. If she so much as catches a cold, she will call me up and cough into the receiver: Do you know how lucky you are? I can’t even afford to go see a doctor. You have no idea what kind of money they charge for your first visit! —as if this is my fault. And naturally, she believes that she endures far greater loneliness than I do, when in fact she has several people whom she talks to on the telephone or eats lunch with and a place of work that she goes to, however irregularly, so her social life is considerably more normal than mine. She also has a pair of cats that she lavishes affection on. For a good year now I have rarely left the apartment, and I have hardly had a real conversation with anyone but her. Even so, she is convinced that she is more to be pitied than me. Strangest of all, I feel the same way.
Our mother always used to emphasise what a demanding child Nanae had been from the beginning: ‘If I left her alone even for a minute, she used to howl and carry on so, I couldn’t even go to the bathroom!’ This was her stock response whenever I lost patience and complained about some inequity or other in how we were brought up. She would add: ‘You, on the other hand, always played happily by yourself, so without really meaning to I gave you less attention. Children are born different, that’s all.’
Somewhere along the way my sister and I switched roles. Though she was the elder, Nanae began to unload her problems on me. She has a kind of helplessness that keeps her from managing on her own.
She went on talking. ‘I woke up early this morning—well, actually it was almost nine, but ever since then I’ve been pushing redial every five minutes. I knew you’d unplugged it, so I was just waiting for you to plug in again.’
‘Sorry about that.’ I wasn’t particularly sorry. After all, her impulsive midnight calls were what made me unplug the telephone before bed in the first place.
I asked her if something had happened. From her tone of voice I doubted it was anything serious.
‘The package came. Finally.’
‘Glad to hear it.’
For some time she had been after me to send her some duplicate Japanese paperbacks I happened to have on hand, and five or so days ago I had finally mailed off a package to her. Some of the books had belonged to Tono, others to Japanese students; for the most part they were doubles of books I had taken when our mother disposed of the house. Nanae took the records and cassette tapes, and I took the books. Ever since, she had been declaring how starved she was for Japanese reading material.
‘It came this early in the morning?’ I was mildly surprised.
‘Yes, lucky thing I happened to be up and dressed. Thanks.’
Nanae is irritatingly slow in the morning.
‘Did you open it?’
‘Yes. I can’t believe how many there are. How am I going to read all these? ’
‘I know. It was heavy. I haven’t got a car, you know.’
‘Thanks a million. So where should I start? Gotta tell me what to read, sis. I’ve already read some of them.’
Mostly they were literary works. Asked point-blank, I didn’t know what to say. I reeled off the names of several Meiji literary giants.
‘I’ve read most of the big names.’
‘You’ve never read Higuchi Ichiyō properly, have you?’
‘Ichiyō? Gee, thanks. I’ve read her, I even liked her. I liked her so much I even read her diary. Didn’t I tell you? ’
A bit surprised, I said no, I didn’t know that. After listening to Nanae chatter on day in, day out, I could only marvel that there were still things I didn’t know about her.
‘Well, now you know. I’m not as ignorant as you think I am.’
‘When was this?’
‘Ages ago when?’
‘Ages and ages ago. Maybe in high school.’
I wondered aloud why I had never known this.
‘Probably you were too much of a child at the time,’ she said. Given that I was two years her junior, there definitely would have been a time in her life when she found me ‘too much of a child.’
‘But why didn’t you tell me later?’
‘You know, I don’t tell you everything.’
‘Anyway, if it’s been that long, you should reread her.’
Nanae did not share my habit of returning to books again and again.
‘Yes, reading her at this age is an entirely different experience.’
‘Well, let me think about it, hon.’
‘That’s why you called?’
Since the phone rang the moment I plugged it in, I had anticipated some rather more urgent business. Nanae said that she had been planning to give me a call sometime after the package arrived anyway, but that she had a different reason for calling first thing this morning.
‘Can you guess what it is?’ She went on before I could answer. ‘When you woke up this morning, didn’t you feel like there was something kind of, you know, special about today?’
She giggled. ‘You really don’t know. Poor thing.’
‘Take a wild guess.’
Nanae uses ten times as much English in her speech as I do, and her English is more colloquial than mine. In Japanese she sounds like a well-brought-up Japanese girl, whereas in English she tries to sound tough.
I responded half-heartedly to her challenge.
‘Um, you won the lottery?’ I recalled her being all excited about how much the jackpot was worth this time around.
‘I wish.’ She sounded crestfallen. ‘Thanks for rubbing it in.’
She lit a cigarette; there was the sound of a long exhale.
Not so long ago Nanae had begun purchasing tickets for the New York Lottery, whose come-on is All you need is a dollar and a dream. ‘I thought, Sure, I have a dollar and lots of dreams, so why not? I decided to go for it.’ That’s how she had told me about her first-ever purchase of a lottery ticket last spring.
When I heard what she had done, I didn’t know how to react.
So she’s finally come to this—a feeling of pity and wretchedness washed over me, a feeling I could not convey to her undiluted, though the words were on the tip of my tongue. In this country, someone of my sister’s upbringing does not normally buy lottery tickets. Now that she had reached that point, perhaps she would become capable of standing on her own two feet: I suppose I should have looked at it that way and felt some relief, but above all else, I felt despondent as I reflected back on the path I had travelled with her. Despite having grown up with multiple layers of protection, Nanae had never been the least bit appreciative, as was apparent even to me. Now I had a bleak vision of her standing at the mercy of the wind that howls in the valleys between Manhattan skyscrapers. What makes winters in the city unimaginably severe is the north wind whipping between buildings on the avenues and streets and on Broadway; the cold is so intense that the old story of the Eskimo who came to the city only to throw in the towel and head back to Alaska is passed along like God’s truth.
Of course there was no need to make a fuss over my sister’s purchase of a lottery ticket, but I could remember back when we were little in Tokyo and she was too shy to go first into the neighbourhood stationer’s shop and say hello; she used to slide the door open and nudge me over the threshold from behind so I would have to go first instead. To think that someone once that timid was now lining up with hot dog vendors, cabbies, welfare mothers, and whoever else at the corner grocery store just to participate in the lottery, telling herself ‘Sure, I have lots of dreams, so why not?’ put me in mind of the tagline for Virginia Slims, her brand of cigarette. I couldn’t help thinking You’ve come a long way, baby … way too long.
The topic of the lottery ticket purchase came up when, after a record number of weeks with no prizewinner, a series of rollovers created a jackpot of unprecedented size and everyone in the state, according to Nanae, was gripped with lottery fever, wondering excitedly ‘What if I hit the jackpot? ’
That day she had telephoned again late at night. Her voice was foggy, suggesting she had spent the intervening hours wandering between fantasy and reality, yet with a touch of lucidity and some embarrassment she said that if she won she would naturally buy a spacious apartment in Minato Ward, Tokyo. But if it was a question of Manhattan, then she thought that she should give up on the idea of moving in someplace like Jackie Onassis’ apartment across from the Metropolitan Museum and stay instead in SoHo if she had any intention of continuing as an artist. What did I think? I was briefly silent before venturing that perhaps the very rich were more at ease mingling with their own kind, an opinion that from her perspective passed beyond realism into the realm of cynicism. Nanae is an incurable dream-chaser with so little sense of reality that from an early age I developed the rather childish habit of responding to her what-ifs with some thumpingly down-to-earth observation. She hadn’t protested that day, but said in a strangely thoughtful tone: ‘That’s true, and now that you mention it I remember hearing that if you win the lottery it’s better not to stay in the same neighbourhood.’
Now she lamented: ‘I wasted one whole day going crazy over that stupid lotto.’
‘Who won?’ I asked out of idle curiosity, and she said it was a group of assembly line workers who bought tickets together. ‘People like that buy tickets all the time, so in the end they’re the ones who hit the jackpot.’
I couldn’t help wryly noticing that now, having awakened from her dream, she spoke dismissively of ‘people like that.’
‘Regardless of who drew the winning number, if one of them won, they all shared the winnings.’
‘So, nobody got very rich. Too bad, babies. You missed your chance to be filthy rich. Luck isn’t on our side.’
Her voice suddenly became a purr, signifying that she was talking to her cats. Her ‘babies,’ as she called them, consisted of a brother and sister. There was another puffing sound on the other end of the line as she blew out more cigarette smoke. I visualised the long, slim fingers, a source of pride with her, holding an equally long, slim cigarette from which the smoke rose in swirls. She had learned to smoke in college and was unable to quit even in this age of anti-smoking zealotry.
‘Quitting smoking is a breeze. I’ve done it many times.’ Her well-worn joke came to mind, more than anything a painful reminder of just how much time had gone by since she had acquired the habit. In college she had also downed alcohol and smoked marijuana, mimicking those around her, but smoking was the vice she could never shake.
Nanae conceived the idea of buying a lottery ticket under the influence of the Polish refugee she had been living with until last New Year’s. Nanae had completely relied on our mother for years even while rebelling against her, but our mother had recently washed her hands of Nanae. With our father in no condition to step in, she spent days on end crying and cuddling a pair of newly-adopted kittens in her lap. One day she noticed that Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, which the family had seen together when she was little, was playing in her neighbourhood. She dried her tears, combed her hair, put on some eye makeup and lipstick, and resolutely set off for the theater, where she met him. His name was Henryk and he was from Gdansk. He said he had been a member of the labour union Solidarity, later the base of operations for the Polish revolution.
Nanae had by no means taken Henryk for a gentleman of breeding. ‘Can you believe we actually met at the movie, Lady and the Tramp? Me, such a lady and him, well—you know what he’s like…’ She was well aware that Henryk, who though young was already missing teeth, could be mistaken for a tramp. And yet according to her, this same scruffy-looking individual was a saint, someone so selfless that he might be ‘the second coming of Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin.’ I wondered if she knew she was saying in effect that he was the second coming of Christ. In fact, based on what I heard from Nanae as well as my own impression on meeting him in person, I would have to admit that Henryk had a certain unworldly quality. Of all her boyfriends to date, he may well have had the noblest heart. The problem was that his selflessness signified not just unworldliness but a total inability to comprehend middle-class proprieties. Life with my sister, the daughter of a Japanese corporate executive, was clearly beyond him. Scornful of work and indifferent to penury, he made alcohol his life’s best friend. He would fall into a deep, angelic sleep fully dressed, wherever and with whomever he happened to be, and he would eat anything, of any shape or colour or flavour. When he was paid on the weekend he carefully took out the rent money and set it aside in an envelope—and then drank the rest. As a result, he felt no need of a bank account. He would ignore his bills—electricity, water, gas, telephone—until he forgot about them, only to have his electricity cut off one evening and suddenly find himself groping, surprised, in the dark. That was how he lived.
Nearly two years ago Henryk had disposed of his Brooklyn apartment and moved into Nanae’s loft. Since I opposed this from the first, Nanae, who normally would bombard me with complaints as soon as the initial glow of romance started to fade, only muttered her dissatisfaction. The content of her mutterings, however, appalled me. In Poland Henryk had majored in philosophy and theology under a professor who later became pope, but in the United States, where many an immigrant qualified to teach in a university has had to start from scratch as a cab driver, he was at a disadvantage—more so because his English was limited and he had no skills to begin with. He was unable to find any rewarding or lucrative occupation. Nanae first let drop the fact that she couldn’t keep liquor around the house, then grumbled that on weekends he slept literally all day; that when jobless, instead of job hunting he would drink in the daytime; and that even though they had no spare bed, they would put up refugee friends of his for weeks at a stretch. Finally she let on that he would lose his temper and break china that she cherished, and that once, worst of all, he had punched her in the face—‘in the face, Minae, my beautiful face! ’—causing swelling. This was no Dostoyevsky novel, but a taste of a world that she and I happened to know nothing about, a world that was everywhere once you lost your footing and slipped down the social ladder: a world of liquor and violence and idleness and disappointment and feminine tears. While the two of us had long since ceased to be amazed at things that would have astonished proper young ladies in Japan, seeing Nanae show no surprise at the life she was leading, putting up with it even while grumbling to me, left me dismayed and concerned about her sanity. But after a while her patience was apparently exhausted, and this past New Year’s she threw him out.
Henryk occasionally bought lottery tickets with his Polish immigrant cronies, and that’s how Nanae picked up the habit.
‘If he wins he says he’ll give everything to me, down to the last cent. And he means it, too. He’s definitely capable of doing something like that, I really believe he is.’ She had burbled this to me on the phone back then. Henryk knew very well that unlike him, Nanae had the kind of temperament and background that made her worry about not having money. I did not doubt that there were people that generous in the world, nor could I deny the possibility that he might be one of them, yet it struck me that given the statistical probability of his ever hitting the jackpot, in the long run she might have been happier living with a man who, even if he was only half as generous as Henryk, paid his share of the bills faithfully and on time.
I thought that in the interest of financial stability Nanae ought to increase her hours of part-time work rather than stocking up on lottery tickets.
‘You know those tickets never win,’ I told her.
‘Why don’t you quit buying them then?’
‘Yeah, but I still have a dollar and a few dreams. A person can’t live without dreams, after all.’
‘I suppose not.’
She sighed. ‘Anyway, nothing good ever happens in life.’
This was her constant refrain. I gave my stock reply: ‘No, it doesn’t. Good things don’t just happen.’
‘I’d have been satisfied with something small. I don’t need a million dollars. I’d have been very happy with a hundred thousand.’
Nanae lives with her two cats in Manhattan, a two-hour drive from the college town where I live. She is something of a sculptor. While she has never sold a piece to a museum or art gallery, she has participated in several group exhibitions in the past and has sold to private collectors several times.
Of course, sculpting does not put food on the table. Basically she makes her living—or tries to—by working part-time at an architectural design office where she makes architectural models on a scale of one hundred or two hundred to one. Her work is highly valued for being ‘very Japanese,’ detailed and meticulous, and the hourly rate is good; but in the end it is just a part-time job, and she never knows how much work will be coming her way. When she is involved in a major project she’ll go in every day for weeks at a stretch, but in between no one calls, as if everyone has forgotten all about her. She should really combine that with some other job, but she makes the plausible points that not many jobs pay as well as that one, that since she isn’t physically strong it is ridiculous to think of taking a cheap, low-paying job, and that if she economises she can manage fine on her earnings.
The upshot is that apart from an occasional interpreting job she makes no effort to find other employment. Using money from the sale of the house that our mother divided between us with the warning that this was ‘really and truly the last time,’ she made a down payment on a loft in SoHo where lately she lives quietly with her cats, no man in her life, working on her sculptures. Sometimes, bemoaning how ‘fat’ her fingers are getting, she plays her Steinway, a reminder of her piano-playing past. She purchased the loft for a good price, but making it livable cost a surprising amount of money, and then at the first of the year she broke up with Henryk, who had been helping one way or another with expenses. By the end of summer she could no longer make ends meet and was reduced to coming to me, her little sister, to beg a loan from my untouched share of the money from our mother. The monthly maintenance on her SoHo loft is a considerable sum, and she talks sometimes about moving to a cheaper place in the East Village. She drives a huge, ugly, beat-up car, one that our parents bought for her long ago, and when that breaks down she will have to give up driving. I don’t have a firm grasp of her total income and expenditures, but knowing the details would only make me worry so I don’t ask.
In short, she is just another struggling artist in a city full of them.
New York, like Vienna or Berlin or Paris of old, still attracts swarms of aspiring artists from all over, even though the United States ceased long ago to dominate the world the way it once did. Leaving aside those lucky few who can rely on wealthy parents, artists survive for the most part by taking on small jobs, holding their hours to the bare minimum. It can be hard to distinguish those who are serious about their art from those who simply wish to avoid taking on a regular job. Objectively speaking, Nanae is now one of this ambiguous crowd, neither particularly well off nor in particularly dire straits. Given that many artists live across the river in Brooklyn or Queens, unable to afford the high Manhattan rents, I tell myself she is doing well just to have her own loft in SoHo, which has undergone thorough gentrification.
But my mind refuses to take comfort in this view. I cannot help thinking that her living alone with her cats in Manhattan this way must be part of my own interminable dream, and the real Nanae must be off in a Tokyo suburb raising not a pair of cats but a pair of children attending kindergarten or grade school; that instead of rising just before noon and reaching for a hand mirror, then sticking out her chin, closing one eye, and applying shiny black eyeliner, she is up early in the morning amid the clamor of Tokyo rush hour, hair a mess, getting breakfast on the table and shouting to her children to hurry up and get a move on. I wish—no, I pray that this is the real situation, because otherwise how she is going to live out her life in this foreign land I have not the slightest idea. If she could manage to make a living sculpting that would be a different story, but few people in the world can manage such a feat. The bar is especially high for someone who is a woman—and Japanese.
Time brings most artists to some sort of turning point. Many of Nanae’s friends have switched course to earn a living, moving on in all sorts of ways. Some refused to the end to sell out, but even they were forced at some point to make the transition from promising new artist to artist manqué. I wouldn’t mind in the least if Nanae sold out. She tends to look down on people who go into solid professions, but if she would just make up her mind to get a job at the Bank of Tokyo or somewhere, I would privately thank whatever gods moved her to do so.
Nanae went on: ‘Come on, be serious. Why do you think I called?’
‘MoMA bought one of your sculptures.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous.’
‘You had a nice dream.’
‘An old boyfriend called you in the middle of the night.’
‘Claudia called and woke you up.’
Claudia, an Italian woman Nanae had known since her piano-playing days, was now married to an American and had children with him. She would sometimes call Nanae on a sudden impulse and wake her up; Nanae would then call me to complain, waking me up.
‘Nope. She hasn’t called lately. So fortunately I haven’t had to listen to her go on and on with her tatahta tatahta.’
Tatahta tatahta was her imitation of Claudia’s Italian-accented English.
‘She really likes to talk. Sometimes I feel like telling her, punto e basta! ’
‘I give up.’
‘You still can’t guess?’
Nanae addressed the cats: ‘Auntie Minae says she doesn’t get it. Your aunt isn’t as smart as she thinks. You know that, babies? Oh, oh, are we hungwy? I’m a bad Mommy. Mommy will get you some num-nums just as soon as she hangs up, okay? Good babies.’
One day out of the blue, she had brought the two cats home from the house of a Mr Murakami, the overseas representative of a Japanese company. Having grown up around dogs, I looked on cats as a species of animal that did not belong in our family and reacted nervously to their presence, as if alien beings had taken over Nanae’s life. Her maternal instincts had kicked in hard from that time.
This was shortly after the loss of our parents’ Long Island house. Located in a leafy suburb that was originally a resort with large estates, the Colonial-style house looked typically American from the outside. Inside, however, was a world where we could chatter away in Japanese from morning till night and where our names were written not ‘Nanae’ and ‘Minae’ but the familiar 奈苗 and 美苗. The family used to gather in the little breakfast nook next to the kitchen, and it was crowded with such familiar, homely items as a National rice cooker with a light pink floral design; a Zojirushi thermal pot; a pair of tea canisters, large and small, covered in gaily coloured rice paper with traditional designs; jars of Yamamotoyama roasted seaweed and Ebios, brewer’s yeast tablets for intestinal disorders; a Japan Airlines calendar; a teapot of unglazed porcelain; and a condiment set with containers for soy sauce and toothpicks. As Nanae and I grew more accustomed to the look of American homes, the clutter embarrassed us and we used to gripe about it, but looking back I am certain that the very clutter made the breakfast nook a cosy place to relax. How many hundreds or thousands of evenings did the three of us, our mother and Nanae and I, spend sitting around the table there, sipping green tea or brown rice tea while deep in conversation? But in the end the Colonial-style house was put up for sale. Though our house was hardly big by American standards, the amount of stuff we had collected down the years was amazing—a fantastic jumble of odds and ends. Three large vans were needed to haul away what we threw out and two more to cart the rest to storage. The sheer bulk of our accumulated possessions brought home how long we had lived there. And so we lost the family house; and at the same time, before anyone quite knew what was happening, the family itself fell apart.
This was in the spring, two years ago, around when the cats made their sudden entrance into my sister’s life. I remember she used to say, ‘Having two of them makes us seem more like a family, doesn’t it?’
Six months later, Tono went back to Japan.
‘Hey Wagahai, will you stop bothering me? ’ Nanae was clucking at her cat, named after the feline narrator of Natsume Soseki’s famous novel. ‘Shoo! Leave Mommy alone!’ To me she explained, ‘I was going to fix their food after I called you and things settled down. They haven’t eaten yet.’
‘So what? They’re a pair of butterballs anyway.’
‘It’s true. Lately even the little one here can’t stop eating. Oh, why are you two such pigs? And your mommy has such a good figure. You know what? I can fit into my old Jordache jeans.’
Then she said again: ‘Come on, why do you suppose I called?’
‘I have no idea.’
‘Well, what day do you think today is?’
‘You can’t remember?’
Was something supposed to happen today? Had I forgotten a promise of some kind? But she sounded too upbeat for that. She went on in a teasing tone.
‘Ha, you did forget! Now, think hard.’
‘Has it got something to do with me?’
‘That it does.’
‘And with you too?’
‘Yes, just as it does you. I woke up this morning and it hit me.’
We were into December, but what was today’s date? I must have noted this down in my diary before going to bed, yet I couldn’t think what day it was. I didn’t even know the day of the week. Hardly surprising, as I spent my days lounging around in complete inertia. Groggily, I searched my memory. Then I had a glimmer of suspicion.
‘Wait a second. You don’t mean—’
A strange sensation prickled my skin, as if the world were suddenly receding.
‘Don’t tell me it’s twenty years today?’
‘Not that. I’d rather be dead.’
‘I knew you forgot.’ She sounded pleased.
I had indeed forgotten. The thought had crossed my mind once in the summer, but, I had pushed the whole topic out of my mind since I didn’t want to think about it.
In my mind’s eye there arose a black-and-white photograph of the three of us, Mama and Nanae and me. We are too old to hold her hands, but we are standing leaning against our tall mother, pressed up to her on either side. Under her coat she is wearing a formal kimono, one that I remember, and Nanae and I have on dressy woollen two-piece suits that I also remember. My skirt comes to my knees, just like Nanae’s, but below the hem are the legs of a child, two sticks—a reminder of the grade-schooler I was just six months before. To top it all off, in one hand I am holding a little brown stuffed dog that my father bought me once as a souvenir from Hawaii. Nanae and I both have on pearl necklaces, something unusual for little girls, because our mother took seriously what someone told her—that if U.S. Customs suspects you of bringing in Mikimoto pearls for sale, you have to pay duty on them. At the time I felt only a strangely incoherent mix of excitement and nervousness, but looking back now, the anxiety in our expressions is unmistakable.
The photograph was taken by our Yokohama uncle, who came to Haneda to see us off.
Twenty years ago today, my sister and I left Haneda Airport with our mother, heading for New York to join our father, whose company had sent him on ahead. Two years ago we had marked the eighteenth anniversary of that day, and a year ago the nineteenth, so naturally this year was the twentieth anniversary. So bizarre was the thought that twenty years had passed that I couldn’t believe such a thing had happened to me.
Ever since finishing my graduate school coursework two years ago, I had been telling myself I would wait until I passed my orals to decide about going back to Japan for good, but while I lived in anticipation of that day, time drifted aimlessly by until I had lived in total twenty years in the United States. Lately I had been gripped by the persistent fear that instead of drawing nearer to my goal I was seeing it recede farther with each passing day, that I was travelling away from the light, sinking deeper into the darkness; and now it felt as if the very thing I feared had become a hard truth. There would be no escape from this limbo. I would be stuck forever in this dingy American university town, dangling in midair, a mummy slowly desiccating in a spacious apartment where the radiator worked overtime.
I was horrified, more so than Nanae could ever have suspected. To mask how I felt, I repeated the same words: ‘I mean it, I would rather be dead.’
‘I know. And to think it’s Friday the thirteenth again.’
On the first airplane ride of our lives there had been barely a handful of passengers. Only much later, after I had lived in the States for quite a while, did it occur to me that this was because our departure fell on, of all days, a day commemorating Christ’s betrayal and death. Our anxiety accentuated by the nearly-empty plane, Mama, Nanae, and I sat scrupulously in the seats indicated on our boarding passes and put our three black heads together, staring out the tiny window as the night view of Tokyo vanished into the distance.
What have I been doing all this time?
No doubt Nanae had telephoned first thing in the morning expecting to hear me say those words. Every year when this day rolled around I would bewail my fate in exaggerated fashion, as she well knew.
I had stayed closer to Japan than she had.
I loved Japan, Japanese food, Japanese people, the Japanese language, and Japanese literature written in hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Someday I was to return to Japan, to the country that held all things dear to me, and when I did, then at last I would awaken my slumbering yearnings for pleasure, joy, and bliss and embark on a new life—my real life. Yet somehow I had ended up spending an unconscionable portion of my one-and-only life on foreign soil, far from where I was meant to be.
What have I been doing all this time? … This year I felt the usual lament abruptly take on another dimension. I was scared, as if seeing my entire life from death’s pale abyss.
‘Well, never mind. Think about me, honey. Compared with me, you’re sitting pretty. With a Ph.D. and all, your future is assured.’
‘When did it hit you?’
‘I woke up and was lying in bed wondering if I should forget about getting a Christmas tree this year since there’d be no one here to share it with, or if that was all the more reason to get one, and out of nowhere it just came to me. Then I thought Oh, I’ve got to tell this to my little sister and picked up the phone.’
Tonight she was going over to the Murakamis’, she said, and before that she would stop off to visit Papa in the nursing home. Deflated, I listened vacantly as she talked.
‘I just wanted to tell ya.’
The higher rates always kept Nanae’s daytime calls relatively short. She hung up after promising to call again in the evening if anything came up.
I remained still for a while with my eyes closed.
After a while I got up from the mattress on the floor, automatically put on the socks by my bed and the bathrobe hanging on the inside of the door, and left the bedroom. The empty living room was dark. All the windows managed to darken the room on bad weather days like this. In the corner was the big red vinyl armchair that Tono had always favored, and I threw myself into it. The heavy, pale gray sky was visible through both the south and north windows. Sleeping with the heat on all night always made me wake up thirsty, but this morning I could not bestir myself to go to the kitchen for a glass of water.
This piece was selected for inclusion in the January 2015 Translation Issue by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and is an editor of The Cahiers Series and Music & Literature.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Minae Mizumurawas born in Tokyo, moved to New York at the age of 12, and studied French literature at Yale University. Acclaimed for her audacious experimentation and skilful storytelling, Mizumura has won major literary awards for all four of her novels, one of which, A True Novel, was published in English in 2013. The English translation of her bestselling book of criticism, The Fall of Language in the Age of English, was published in January 2015. She lives in Tokyo.
Juliet Winters Carpenter studied Japanese literature at the University of Michigan and the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies in Tokyo. She is a two-time recipient of the Japan–United States Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature, first in 1980 for her translation of Kobo Abe's novel Secret Rendezvous and again in 2014-15 for her translation of Minae Mizumura's A True Novel.