“You’re a strange girl!” muttered my mother, shaking her head.
“Yes, I know, mother. Well, I can’t help it.”
I’ve given up arguing with her. She’s too old, and frankly, so am I. Once, not long ago, I asked her if she knew “The Lady Who Loved Insects.” She didn’t, of course. It’s a 12th-century tale, little read except by antiquarians like me. The lady in question is also “strange” — in refusing to blacken her teeth, for instance, or to pluck her eyebrows bald, as women did then as a matter of course. I showed my mother an illustration I happened to have of a typical woman of the day — blackened teeth, plucked eyebrows and all; a rather grotesque little figure — and demanded, “So? Who’s strange?”
No fool, my mother was not at a loss for a reply; far from it. “Not falling in with the current fashion is one thing,” she said. “But not being interested in . . . well . . . boys . . . men . . .”
“It is true. I am not interested in boys or men.”
“Are you a lesbian?”
“I wouldn’t mind if you were, you know.”
“Your minding or not minding has nothing to do with it.”
“My dear girl, you are 34 years old! You can’t . . . you can’t be a child forever!”
“I am not a child! I have a job, I’m self-supporting . . . In fact I more or less support you, I believe! How dare you call me a child?”
“My dear, my dear, don’t shout at me, I am not . . .” Her voice quivered; she was near tears, and I was immediately sorry. “How can you shout at me, knowing . . . knowing . . .”
“Mother, I’m sorry.”
“Who have I lived for, if not for you?”
“I’m not shouting . . . Mother, listen to me please . . .” But she would not, and flounced out of the room, leaving me alone with my thoughts — my guilty thoughts — my strange thoughts. The water was boiling, and I poured my tea. Sipping scalding tea with eyes closed — sometimes I think . . . no, often . . . that this is the greatest happiness we humans can know on Earth.
For all this talk of strangeness, outwardly at least I lead the most ordinary of lives. I live with my mother, work in a bank . . . need I say more? And yet, hard though I try to blend inconspicuously into my environment, I am aware that I do not quite succeed. My effort shows, that’s the trouble. My coworkers, though friendly, look at me a little askance, as much as to say, “You are so ordinary! And yet . . .”
I was 9 when my father died. On his deathbed he said to me, “I am an alien from outer space; say nothing to your mother.” Was he delirious? Or joking? These are questions I can ask myself now, but at the time, I took him quite literally, even matter-of-factly. Maybe as a result I developed differently. What he said seemed no more fantastic than the reality that surrounded me; no more fantastic than that he was dying, or that I was living, or that ocean waves washed the shore, or that rain fell and flowers grew.
“Why,” Reiko blurted out to me at lunch one day, “are you always alone?”
Reiko’s desk is opposite mine. We work in the foreign-exchange section, since we both know English.
“Alone! What do you mean? Who’s alone? I’m sitting in a restaurant with seven people!”
There was scattered laughter, my own louder than anyone’s. Reiko frowned.
“Do you know, Reiko-chan,” I said, cutting her off before she could pursue her thought, “I had a dream about you last night.”
“Yes, a very vivid dream. You were blind, but didn’t know it, and you were crossing a street, a very busy street, and I’m standing on the curb screaming ‘Reiko! Come back! You’ll be killed!’ But you just laughed and went on your way.”
“I was blind and didn’t know it?”
“Yes. Strange, isn’t it?”
“I don’t want to be in dreams like that!”
“No, of course not, who does?”
“Have you ever had a dream about me?” asked Little Hajime, quite seriously, though smiling. A nice boy, Hajime; a junior analyst said by everyone to have a brilliant future ahead of him. We call him Little Hajime as a joke; he’s nearly 200 cm tall and very self-conscious about towering over everyone the way he does. He’s asked me out several times, always accepting my refusal without resentment, even with a kind of grace, as much as to say — but sincerely, without irony — “Of course I know I’m unworthy of you.”
“Ask me now,” I found myself thinking; “Ask me right this minute and I’ll say yes.” But the moment passed; he was still too young to possess the kind of intuition the occasion demanded.
“No,” I said. “But I can tell your fortune if you like.”
“You will quit the bank at 30 and go to work for an NGO, building schools in refugee camps in Africa.”
Reiko laughed and was about to say something, but, seeing the look of confusion on Hajime’s blushing face, broke off and, blushing a little herself, turned to Old Man Harada sitting next to her and somewhat abruptly demanded a cigarette.
Friday night. It’s been a long day and a long week, but now, finally, I am on vacation, and the crowded train I am boarding seems not so much what it is as a marvelous conveyance about to whisk me to a whole new corner of the universe. There’s no hope of getting a seat, of course; well, it doesn’t matter; in very little more than an hour I’ll be home, in a hot bath . . . ah! And then, first thing tomorrow morning, I will be off — not to France, where everyone, including my mother, thinks I am going — what do I want to go to France for? — but to a quiet little hot-spring hotel barely two hours from home, there to hole myself up for an entire week with my various editions of “The Tale of Genji,” my dictionaries, my commentaries, and, in perfect solitude, enclose myself in the world of my choice, that of 11th-century Japan.
This is my invariable vacation routine: I tell everyone I’m going to the sort of place they would naturally expect a modern, single, financially independent woman to go — Europe, Bali, Hawaii — and then, having, in a manner of speaking, shaken free of them and their expectations, I abandon myself to the whims and fantasies that constitute my inner life, which has so little to do with my outer life that really, it is only in the purely conventional sense that we are one and the same person at all!
I smile to myself to think that nobody, nobody on Earth, has even the remotest idea of this inner life of mine. Is there a freedom more complete than that of being beyond the reach of other people’s thoughts? I don’t believe there is.
An odd stir punctures my reverie. There is general consternation, in the midst of which a shrill voice rings out: “This car is for women only!”
“Sorry, sorry . . . “
So that’s it. A man has blundered into the women-only car. It happens from time to time. I open my eyes and fairly gasp. It is impossible to be mistaken; his head seems to float disembodied above the scene, and his flaming face reflects an agony of embarrassment. “Hajime-san!”
His mortification redoubles on hearing his name called, but as soon as he recognizes me he breaks into a smile. “Sonoko-san!” Then, in a comic parody of consternation, he pleads, “Save me!”
As best as I can make out in the confusion, three women in particular, office workers like myself by the look of them, are determined to take a serious view of the matter, barring his escape and preparing to hustle him off the train and report him to the station authorities as a molester.
“He’s all right, he’s harmless, he’s a friend of mine,” I shout as I force my way through the throng that separates us. One of the three who has hold of him is an especially grim specimen — the sort of woman who has clawed her way to the top in a man’s world by taking no nonsense from anyone. She looks at me now with positive hatred; but I can be pretty tough myself when the situation calls for it; I stare her down and somehow get Hajime out of their clutches. The next thing we know, the train is gone and we’re standing on the platform together, gaping at each other in mute astonishment. It’s Hajime who breaks the silence. “Did that really happen?” he asks, blinking in his bewilderment.
“I’m not sure,” I smile. We have not seen each other in some time. Six months ago he quit the bank and went to work not for an NGO but as an economist for the Bank of Japan. He was head-hunted, and from Mr. Harada — “Old Man Harada” — I’d heard that he was doing very well indeed. “Oh yes,” said Mr. Harada, the loose flesh on his face quivering at the slightest shake of his head, “with a mind like his, with a mind like his, he’ll leave us all behind. You wait and see.”
“Do you know,” Hajime says to me as we nurse our drinks in a little bar near the station, “I just noticed something about you — noticed it for the first time. I’m asking myself how I could possibly have missed it before.”
“What?” I ask.
“You don’t dye your hair.”
I laugh. “Well?”
“It’s remarkable. Look around you. Show me one woman with undyed hair.”
“It’s too dark to see.”
“Nonsense. I can see quite well. Why do women do it? Dye their hair, I mean. Of course, I can understand this woman or that woman doing it as a matter of personal preference, but when everyone, everyone dyes her hair, to me that says something about the society we live in, and what it says is, that society is sick.”
“Surely that’s going too far.”
“Do you remember you once predicted that I’d end up working for an NGO in Africa?”
“Yes. Obviously I’m not much of a fortuneteller.”
“I don’t know about that. It may happen yet. I’ve been thinking about it. Thinking seriously. This society of ours is so . . . so narrow, so constricted . . . “
“Even at the Bank of Japan?”
He laughs. “Yes, even there.”
I finish my drink and say, “I’m afraid I have to go now. I’m on vacation, you see. I’m leaving first thing tomorrow morning.”
“Oh really! Where are you going?”
“Ah, merveilleux, superbe. Bon voyage. Sonoko-san . . . will you marry me? I’m serious. Wait. Don’t answer now. Think it over while you’re in France, and call me as soon as you get back. Here’s my card. I’ve always loved you, you know, but it’s only now that I’ve found the courage to tell you. Where did that courage come from, I wonder? Never mind, don’t speak. Adieu — for now. Call me as soon as you get back. Yes or no, as you please, but call me!”
He’s gone before I quite know it, and now it’s my turn to feel bewildered, not altogether sure where I am. Did that whole scene so vivid in my memory really take place?
My mother is waiting up for me. This is unusual. But she is in an unusual state. She is distraught. “Mother, what is it?” She can’t find the words to tell me, and instead thrusts a newspaper at me. The headline refers to a junior-high-school boy who stabbed his mother to death and then beheaded her. There’s been a wave of grotesque crimes of that sort lately. It’s appalling, of course, and no doubt reflects something deeply wrong in our society — maybe even the “sickness” Hajime spoke of — but here is my mother, sobbing, sobbing . . . “I . . . I know her!” she manages to gasp at last.
“Know who, mother? The victim?”
She nods vigorously, hysterically.
I hang up my coat in the hall closet and scan the story. The victim’s name means nothing to me. Her age is given as 49. That’s rather old for the mother of a junior-high-school boy — or maybe not, given how late people are marrying and having children nowadays. In any case, she is 10 years younger than my mother. What can their connection be?
“Who is she, mother? What is she to you?”
“She . . . she . . . ” There is no getting anything out of her.
“All right, mother, calm down, take a pill, get some sleep, we’ll talk about it in the morning.”
Mother understands, of course, that you can’t just cancel a trip to France on the spur of the moment. “Go, go,” she says to me over breakfast, after I wondered aloud whether she was fit to be left alone. “I’ll be fine.”
“But who is this woman, mother?”
“Nobody. I was mistaken. I used to know somebody with the same name, but she was my age, we played together as children, she moved to Osaka in fifth grade. You’d better hurry. You don’t want to miss your plane.”
“Are you sure you’re all right?”
“Of course I’m all right.”
The hotel is nearly empty; I have it practically to myself — which of course is why I take my vacation in November. Japan is a crowded country. Privacy comes neither easily nor naturally. If you want privacy, you must seize the off-seasons. I remembered Reiko saying, with that faint grimace so characteristic of her, “Only Sonoko would think of going to France in November.” But never mind Reiko. It’s 3 a.m. but I am wide awake. I lie on my futon in the pitch-dark silence, in an unfamiliar room whose contours I do not know, staring up at a ceiling I can’t see, thinking to myself: This is bliss. This is happiness. If only time would freeze now, this instant, and I could just lie here for all eternity with no other thought in my head than this: Everyone on Earth who knows me, everyone, without exception, thinks I’m in France, a country I’ve never been to, know nothing about, have no particular interest in, never seriously thought of going to . . . If that isn’t as close as you can get, this side of the grave, to disappearing into another dimension, what is?
“Well, Sono-chan! Let’s talk. Let’s get to know each other. How are you getting on?”
My father. He often comes to me in dreams. “You can’t conceive what it is like here. The body, you see, is a prison. Once free of it, the soul expands to its natural dimensions, which are limitless, limitless. Words fail me. We don’t use words here. We’ve no need of them. My one regret is that I was unable to take you with me. Even now I miss you. Do you know, sweetheart, that you are the only one I ever loved during my brief time on Earth? It’s true. I used to think I loved your mother, but after you came along . . . after you came along . . . I knew what real love was.”
“Shall I die, then?”
“Don’t say it like that. Say rather, ‘Shall I liberate my shriveled, withered, half- starved soul?’ And the answer, of course, is yes, if you have the courage.”
“I have the courage.”
“Are you sure? It is no easy passage we’re talking about.”
“You must help me, then.”
“I will, child. I will.”
“What must I do?”
“Reiko will murder you. You know, of course, how she loathes you, how jealous she is of you on Hajime’s account.”
“How will she murder me?”
“How does one woman murder another? She stabs her. She has already purchased the knife.”
“Oh, father, really! Reiko? She’s a fool, a weakling . . . “
“A weakling provoked is surprisingly strong, my dear — the more so if she is a fool.”
“Do I provoke her? I don’t mean to.”
“Really? I’m not so sure about that. Sometimes I watch you, and . . . I’m not so sure.”
I walk in the door to find my mother waiting for me — with a newspaper in her hand. “Raped,” she says through clenched teeth and trembling lips. “On a train. On a train. And nobody so much as lifts a finger to help her.”
“Mother, what kind of greeting . . . “
“And you,” she shrills. “You go off, all by yourself, heaven only knows where, no way to get in touch with you . . . Don’t you know what kind of world this is?”
“Mother, please, I’ve had a long flight.”
“Don’t you know . . . “
“I know, I know! Well, if you want to die just say the word, I’ll strangle you and then kill myself. Failing that, this is the only world we have, so let’s make the best of it and not work ourselves into hysterics over other people’s misfortunes.”
“But . . . but that poor girl . . . she could have been you! That could have been you it happened to!”
“It’s not likely, mother. You needn’t worry about me. I can take care of myself.”
On my third day back at work, in the morning, I receive a phone call from Hajime. “You didn’t phone me,” he says. “I guess that’s your answer. Still, I thought I’d . . . Won’t you at least meet me for lunch?”
Reiko, sitting opposite me, looks up from her computer screen. It’s obvious from the look on her face that she knows, or thinks she knows, who I’m talking to. Our eyes meet; she lowers hers. My heart sinks. Not that I’m afraid of her, but at the sight of her I feel such disgust, such a longing for solitude, such an aching, desperate longing . . .
For a week, for a whole, voluptuous week, it was mine, that solitude, and now, thrust back into the daily routine, I have yet to erect my defenses against its banal assaults. The Genji chapter I immersed myself in at the hot spring was “Akashi,” my favorite in the whole tale. Genji, in exile at Suma, is visited by an aged, eccentric monk come in a mysterious boat. Signs and portents suggest that the monk’s daughter, whose life until then had encompassed sorrow upon sorrow, is destined for Genji and Genji alone. Genji accompanies the monk to the monk’s home. He finds the girl uncommonly reticent, but at last coaxes this whispered verse from her: You speak to one for whom the night has no end. How can she tell the dreaming from the waking?
Yes, her destiny was unfolding. In the course of time she would be the mother of an empress . . .
“Sonoko-san? Are you there?”
“Hajime-san.” I speak the name loudly enough for Reiko to hear, and watch her flinch. “I’m sorry. I was daydreaming.”
“How was France?”
“Very . . . very French.”
He laughs. “Meet me for lunch, Sonoko-san. I must speak to you.”
“Lunch?” Again I raise my voice for Reiko’s benefit. Her eyes glitter; her face is pale. “With pleasure. Where?”
He names a restaurant I don’t know, and tells me how to get there.
“One o’clock,” I say. “Good. I’ll see you then.”
I hang up and, flashing Reiko a friendly smile, rise from my desk to take some papers to Old Man Harada.
Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Birnbaum: A Novel of Inner Space” (Printed Matter Press; 2008; ¥2,100). His Web site is at www.michaelhoffman.squarespace.com