Shuichi Yoshida was born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1968. The author of over 25 books, he has won numerous literary awards in Japan and has also had several of his short stories adapted for Japanese television. He lives in Tokyo.
ryosuke sugimoto (21)
It was such a weird sight. I was on the fourth-floor balcony looking directly down on Kyukoshu Kaido Boulevard, and though thousands of cars passed by here every day, I’d never seen an accident. There’s an intersection directly below the balcony, and when the traffic light turned red a car stopped right at the line. The car behind it came to a halt, leaving just the right amount of distance so they didn’t collide, and the car behind that one also stopped, leaving the same exact gap. When the light turned green the lead car slowly pulled away, with the second and third cars following at a safe distance, just like they were being pulled along.
I mean, I do the same thing when I’m driving. I step on the brake when the car in front comes to a stop, and don’t step on the gas until he starts moving again, no matter how long the light might be green. You can dismiss it as common sense, and accidents don’t occur that easily, but still, looking down on the street from above like that, the ordinary movement of cars looked totally weird.
Why, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, was I staring down at traffic?
That’s easy. I was bored.
When I’m bored like this it feels like time isn’t going in a straight line but is connected at both ends like a circle, and the time I experienced a while back I’m going through all over again. Maybe this is what people mean when they say that something doesn’t have a sense of reality. Like, say I leap from this balcony right now. This is the fourth floor, so if I’m lucky I’d get away with a broken bone. If not, I’d be killed instantly. But if time is circular, then even if I’m killed instantly the first time, there’s always a second time. Having experienced instant death the first time, maybe the second time I can leap down in a way so I wind up with just a minor sprain. By the third time, though, I’d be tired of it all, and wouldn’t even go to the trouble of straddling the railing. But if I don’t leap off the balcony, nothing will change. The same old boring time awaits.
It’s isn’t like there’s nothing I want to do on a beautiful Sunday. But if somebody asked what exactly it is I’d like to do, I’d be stuck. Maybe going somewhere I’ve never been, meeting someone I’ve never seen before, and talking with them, being so open and honest it’s almost embarrassing. It doesn’t have to be some cute girl—it could be like Sensei and K in Soseki’s novel Kokoro, where they struggle and suffer over life and love. Of course I wouldn’t want the other person to commit suicide, like Sensei. Give me a carefree optimist any day.
I felt like a slug pasted to the railing, but I managed to peel myself away and head back to my room. I trampled across the unmade futon on the tatami and made my way out to the living room.
Koto, or her back at least, was there, staring intently at a repeat of A Nurse’s Work on TV. She had on her typical sweat suit that doubled as pajamas, and she was trimming her split ends. She must have sensed I was there when I came out of my room because she laughed, like she was making fun of me. “When school’s out,” she said, “college students have nothing to do.” I had a sudden urge to pull the full-length mirror over to her. Let her break out in a clammy sweat when she saw what she looked like.
“I’m going to the store,” I said. “Anything you want me to pick up?”
I checked my wallet first. With a fistful of split ends in her hand, Koto turned around. “Store? Why?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “Just going to flip through some magazines.”
You’ve got too much time on your hands, I was sure she was going to say, but instead she said, “Magazines? I think I’ll join you.”
“You don’t need to.”
“If you tag along, I won’t be able to check out the magazines I really want to look at.”
“What exactly are you planning to read?”
Just then the TV screen got all fuzzy. The actress Arisa Mizuki, adorable in a tiny miniskirted nurse’s uniform, was racing down a hallway holding an IV, but it looked like she was about to be engulfed in a sandstorm. Our TV isn’t working too well these days. It’s like the TV is trying to send us a message: Time to buy a new one, guys.
“It’s zapping again,” Koto said, as we watched the screen.
“That isn’t what zapping means. Zapping means changing the channels all the time with the remote control. I used that word the other day at college and nobody knew what I was talking about.”
“Then what should we call it?”
“Don’t know. It’s just that we’re the only ones who seem to use it that way.”
Koto leaped to her feet, went over to the TV and gave it a solid smack. The screen wavered, like it was actually in pain, and with her third punch, a smart right hook, it went back to normal.
“You’re really good,” I said.
“You really know how to fix it.”
“The TV? There’s a trick to it.”
Koto sat back down on the floor and resumed trimming her split ends.
“Ryosuke, what are your three favorite TV shows? Dramas, I mean,” she said.
“You already asked me that the other day,” I replied, staring at Arisa Mizuki, who on the screen was still racing down the hallway.
“The last time I asked for your top Monday nine o’clock dramas. Okay, now I’m asking about only the ten o’clock Friday dramas on TBS. For me, it would be As Long as I Love You and Tell Me You Love Me. But for the third one, I can’t decide between High School Teachers and No Longer Human . . .”
Arisa Mizuki had changed out of her nurse’s uniform, so I headed out of the door. Behind me Koto called out, “You gotta tell me!” She seemed like she was still going to press me for an answer when I got back from the shop, so I asked, “Was Mismatched Apples on Fridays at ten?”
“Yeah, it was,” she said.
“Well, then my choice would be Mismatched Apples, parts one, two, and three,” I said, and left. As soon as I did, I thought I should have asked her what the trick was to fixing the TV. For a second I was about to turn around, but then I changed my mind. It was probably better the TV didn’t work, I thought.
Koto was mistaken: college wasn’t on spring break, but in the middle of exams. To keep her skin beautiful and to make sure she got enough sleep, Koto always went to bed around the time the eleven o’clock news starts, so she had no idea that, for the last couple of weeks, I’d been staying up late, at the table in the living room, turning a Line Graph Illustrating Fluctuations in Exchange Rates after the Plaza Accord into drawings of dragons, and making my Japanese–French dictionary into an animated flip book.
For what it’s worth, I commute to college by car. It sounds cool, but no girl would ever be happy to see me sidle up in my car to pick her up for a date. It’s a tiny, used Nissan March that I picked up for ¥70,000 when I started college. As soon as I got it, I bought a book on lucky names and dubbed her Momoko. Momoko Sugimoto. It takes twenty-five strokes in four characters to write the name, a lucky number. A very straightforward person, self-reliant, the handbook said. Someone who’s likeable, filial, and polite to elders. Though there are some health problems related to bronchitis . . . And sure enough, these symptoms showed up the third day after I bought her. After I drive about ten kilometers, Momoko’s engine invariably sputters to a stop.
When I’m driving from Chitose Karasuyama to my college in Ichigaya, the ten-kilometer mark is exactly in front of Shinjuku Station. Once my engine died right at the crossing in front of the Alta building in broad daylight. No matter how much I turned the key, good old Momoko wouldn’t budge. The light soon turned green and the guy behind me blared his horn hysterically. I had no choice but to get out and, steering with one hand, huff and puff as I pushed the car. Just because it cost only ¥70,000 doesn’t mean it’s a light car. People waiting to cross had a good laugh watching me desperately pushing it toward a tour bus stop. But the world’s not all bad. As I continued on, my face getting red, the car suddenly seemed lighter and when I turned around there were two older guys, the type I normally wouldn’t want to get involved with, pushing Momoko’s rear end.
“Get in and use the brake,” one of the guys yelled. “You’re gonna hit something!” I leaped into the driver’s seat. We barely avoided slamming into some railings and doing a number on Momoko’s face. I leaned out to thank the two men, but they’d already crossed the street and were clambering over the railings in front of Alta. “Thank you!” I yelled to them, but my shout was drowned out by the noise in front of Shinjuku Station. They didn’t turn around and hurried off in the direction of Kabukicho, the red-light district. They looked like two guys from Saitama City, or maybe Nagareyama City in Chiba. Whenever someone’s having car trouble it always seems like it’s these kind of tough-guy wannabes who show up out of nowhere and lend a hand.
Which is all a roundabout way of explaining that now, when I drive Momoko, I stop and turn off the engine every nine kilometers. Naturally I haven’t taken her on long drives. Now that I own a car, the scope of my activities has actually shrunk.
There aren’t any parking spaces at the university, so I have to park along the Imperial Palace moat. It’s illegal, of course, and worst-case scenario, you get towed. But not my Momoko. There’s a coffee shop next to the moat called Le Fran, and whenever the traffic cops come, the owner of Le Fran reparks Momoko over at the coffee shop parking lot until they’re gone. The reason he’s so nice to Momoko, my lovely vehicle who lets delinquents grope her ass, is because he’s the one who pawned her off on me, like she was his precious little princess.
Three days ago, when I had a test on trade theory, Le Fran’s owner came to Momoko’s rescue again. And it was right after the exam that a classmate of mine, Sakuma, who I hadn’t seen in a long time, said something again about wanting to see Koto.
Sakuma and I first met during the college entrance ceremony at Budokan, when we happened to sit next to each other, and he’s basically my only real friend in college. Sakuma’s the one who taught me everything I know about how to live in Tokyo. Like how to ride the trains (there aren’t any trains in the town I come from), what to wear (I’ve already mastered T-shirts and sweatshirts), where the fashionable bars are, how to find lucrative part-time jobs. All those things I learned from him. Not that he led me by the hand, carefully teaching me each point. Take trains, for instance. One when I’d just started college, Sakuma and I took the Yamanote Line after classes. There was something that’d been bothering me ever since I came to Tokyo.
“Where’s everybody going?” I asked Sakuma. We were clutching on to the straps in the train as it rolled along. I was referring to all the passengers who were making their way to another car. Now I know that they were all moving to the car that’s closest to the exit in the station they were getting out at, but back then I couldn’t imagine such a rational way of thinking.
“Who’re you talking about?”
Sakuma didn’t get why I was confused. I’d been thinking there must be toilets in some other car on the train, and asked him if that was it. It finally dawned on him what I meant.
“Ah, those people,” he said nodding. “They’re not going to the restroom. They’re heading to the snack bar.”
Back then, if Sakuma had told me there was a dining car, even I would have had my doubts, but I could still buy the notion of the Yamanote Line having a snack bar on the train, where they sold canned drinks and newspapers and so on. Chagrined by my naiveté, I still haven’t told Sakuma how I walked through the Yamanote Line cars day after day in search of this mystery snack bar.
After the exam on trade theory three days ago, Sakuma and I left campus, heading for a pool hall, and stopped by the Lotteria fast-food store at Iidabashi.
“Everybody at your place doing okay?” he asked me, his mouth stuffed with a cheeseburger. I don’t know how many times I told him not to, but he insisted on sitting cross-legged in restaurants.
“Who do you mean, everybody?” I said, deliberately dense.
“Everybody means everybody.” Sakuma pouted.
“Anybody in particular you’re asking about?”
I realized I was acting kind of like an ass. “Not really,” Sakuma replied, and washed down the rest of his cheeseburger with a vanilla shake.
By everybody at your place he meant the people I live with in the two-bedroom apartment in Chitose Karasuyama. And snide old me was trying to force him to tell me the name of the person he was interested in, namely Kotomi Okochi—Koto—who’d been watching the rerun of A Nurse’s Work and trimming her split ends.
“I’m not trying to screw with you, but I’d give up on Koto if I were you.” I reached out for some of Sakuma’s leftover fries as I said this, a warning I’d given him any number of times.
“That isn’t bothering anybody, is it? Me waiting for her to break up with her boyfriend?”
Sakuma tried to slurp up some more of his vanilla shake, but the straw scraped around on the bottom and he came up empty.