Authors: Haruki Murakami,Philip Gabriel,Ted Goossen
My wife's name was Yuzu, the name of the citrus fruit used in cooking. Sometimes when we were in bed I'd call her Sudachi, a similar type of fruit, as a joke. I'd whisper this in her ear. She'd always laugh, but it upset her all the same.
“I'm not Sudachi, but Yuzu. They're similar but not the same,” she'd insist.
When did things start to go south for us? As I drove on, from one roadside restaurant to another, one business hotel to another, randomly moving from point A to point B, I thought about this. But I couldn't pinpoint where things had begun to go wrong. For a long time I was sure we were doing fine. Of course, like many couples, we had some issues and disagreements. Our main issue was whether or not to have children. But we still had time before we had to make a final decision. Other than that one problem (one we could postpone for the time being), we had a basically healthy marriage, on both an emotional and physical level. I was sure of that.
Why had I been so optimistic? Or so stupid? It's like I'd been born with a blind spot, and was always missing something. And what I missed was always the most important thing of all.
In the mornings, after I saw my wife off to work, I'd focus on my painting, then after lunch would take a walk around the neighborhood, do some shopping while I was at it, and then get things ready for dinner. Two or three times a week I'd go swimming in a nearby sports club. When my wife got back we'd have a beer or some wine together. If she called me saying she had to work overtime and would grab something near the office, I'd sit by myself and have a simple dinner alone. Our six years together were mostly a repeat of those kinds of days. And I was basically okay with that.
Things were busy at the architecture firm, and she often had to work overtime. I gradually had to eat dinner alone more often. Sometimes she wouldn't get back until nearly midnight. “Things have gotten so hectic at work,” she'd explain. One of her colleagues suddenly changed jobs, she said, and she had to pick up the slack. The firm was reluctant to hire new staff. Whenever she came home late, she was exhausted and would just take a shower and go to sleep. So the number of times we had sex went way down. Sometimes she even had to go in on days off, too, to finish her work. Of course I believed her. There wasn't any reason not to.
But maybe she wasn't working overtime at all. While I was eating dinner alone at home, she may have been enjoying some intimate time in a hotel bed with a new lover.
My wife was outgoing. She seemed quiet and gentle but was sharp and quick-witted, and needed situations where she could be more social and gregarious. And I wasn't able to provide those. So Yuzu went out to eat a lot with women friends (she had lots of friends) and would go out drinking with work colleagues (she could hold her liquor better than me). And I never complained about her going out on her own and enjoying herself. In fact I might have encouraged it.
When I think about it, my younger sister and I had the same kind of relationship. I've always been more of a stay-at-home type, and when I got back from school I'd hole up in my room to read or draw. My sister was much more sociable and outgoing. So our everyday interests and activities didn't overlap much. But we understood each other well, and valued each other's special qualities. It might have been pretty unusual for an older brother and younger sister the ages we were, but we talked over lots of things together. Summer or winter, we'd climb up to the balcony upstairs where we hung our laundry, and talk forever. We loved to share funny stories, and often had each other in stitches.
I'm not saying that's the reason why, but I felt secure about the relationship my wife and I had. I accepted my role in our marriageâas the silent, auxiliary partnerâas natural, self-evident even. But maybe Yuzu didn't. There must have been aspects of our marriage that dissatisfied her. She and my sister were, after all, different people with different personalities. And of course, I wasn't a teenage boy anymore.
By May I was getting tired of driving day after day. And sick of the same thoughts looping endlessly around in my head. The same questions spun around in my brain, with no answers in sight. Sitting all day in the driver's seat had given me a backache, as well. A Peugeot 205 is an economy car, and the seats weren't exactly high quality, the suspension noticeably worn out. All the road glare I'd stared at for hours was giving me chronic eyestrain. I realized I'd been driving pretty much nonstop for over a month and half, restlessly moving from one spot to another as if something were chasing me.
I ran across a small, rustic therapeutic hot springs in the mountains near the border between Miyagi and Iwate, and decided to take a break. An obscure hot springs tucked away deep in a valley, with a small inn that locals would stay in for days to rest and recuperate. The room rate was cheap, and there was a communal kitchen where you could cook simple meals. I enjoyed soaking in the baths and sleeping as much as I wanted. I sprawled on the tatami, read, and recovered from the exhaustion of all that driving. When I got tired of reading I'd take out my sketchbook and draw. It had been a long time since I'd felt like drawing. I started off sketching flowers and trees in the garden, then drew the rabbits they kept there. Just rough pencil sketches, but people were impressed. Some asked me to draw their portraits. Fellow lodgers, and people who worked at the inn. People just passing through my life, people I'd never see again. And if they asked, I'd give them the sketches.
Time to get back to Tokyo, I told myself. Going on like this would get me nowhere. And I wanted to paint again. Not commissioned portraits, or rough sketches, but paintings I could really concentrate on, and undertake for myself. Whether this would work out or not I had no clue, but it was time to take the first step.
I'd planned to drive my Peugeot across the Tohoku region and return to Tokyo, but just before Iwaki, along Highway 6, my car breathed its last. There was a crack in the fuel line and the car wouldn't start. I'd done hardly any maintenance on the car up till then, so I couldn't complain when it gave out. The one lucky thing was that the car gave up the ghost right near a garage where a friendly mechanic worked. It was hard to get parts for an old Peugeot in a place like that, and would take time. Even if we repair it, the mechanic told me, it's likely something else will soon go wrong. The fan belts looked sketchy, the brake pads were ready to go, and the suspension was nearly shot. “My advice? Put it out of its misery,” he said. The car had been with me for a month and a half on the road, and now had nearly seventy-five thousand miles on the odometer. It was sad to say goodbye to the Peugeot, but I had to leave it behind. It felt like the car had died in my stead.
To thank him for disposing of the car for me, I gave the mechanic my tent, sleeping bag, and camping equipment. I made one last sketch of the Peugeot, and then, shouldering my gym bag, boarded the Joban Line and went back to Tokyo. From the station I called Masahiko Amada and explained my situation. My marriage fell apart and I went on a trip for a while, I told him, but now I'm back in Tokyo. Do you know of any place I could stay? I asked.
I do know of a good place, he said. It's the house my father lived in for a long time by himself. He's in a nursing home in Izu Kogen, and the house has been unoccupied for a time. It's furnished and has everything you'd need, so you don't have to get anything. It's not exactly a convenient location, but the phone works. If that sounds good, you should try it out.
That's perfect, I told him. I couldn't have asked for more.
And so my new life, in a new place, began.
A few days after I'd settled into my new mountaintop house outside Odawara, I got in touch with my wife. I had to call five times before I finally got through. Her job always kept her busy, and apparently she was still getting home late. Or maybe she was with someone. Not that that was my business anymore.
“Where are you now?” Yuzu asked me.
“I've moved into the Amadas' house in Odawara,” I said. Briefly I explained how I came to live there.
“I called your cell phone many times,” Yuzu said.
“I don't have the cell phone anymore,” I said. That phone might have washed into the Japan Sea by then. “I'm calling because I'd like to go pick up the rest of my things. Does that work for you?”
“You still have the key?”
“I do,” I said. I'd considered tossing the key into the river, too, but thought better of it since she might want it back. “But you don't mind if I go into the apartment when you're not there?”
“It's your house too. So of course it's okay,” she said. “But where have you been all this time?”
Traveling, I told her. I told her how I'd been driving alone, going from one cold place to the next. How the car had finally given out.
“But you're okay, right?”
“I'm alive,” I said. “The car was the one that died.”
Yuzu was silent for a while. And then she spoke. “I had a dream the other day with you in it.”
I didn't ask what kind of dream. I didn't really care to know about me appearing in her dream. She didn't say any more about it.
“I'll leave the key when I go,” I said.
“Either way's fine with me. Just do what you like.”
“I'll put it in your mailbox when I leave,” I said.
There was a short pause before she spoke.
“Do you remember how you sketched my face on our first date?”
“I take it out sometimes and look at it. It's really well done. I feel like I'm looking at my real self.”
“Your real self?”
“But don't you see your face every morning in the mirror?”
“That's different,” Yuzu said. “My self in the mirror is just a physical reflection.”
After I hung up I went to the bathroom and looked at my face in the mirror. I hadn't looked at myself straight on like that for ages. My self in the mirror is just a physical reflection, she'd said. But to me my face in the mirror looked like a virtual fragment of my self that had been split in two. The self there was the one I
. It wasn't even a physical reflection.
In the afternoon two days later I drove my Corolla station wagon to the apartment in Hiroo, and gathered my possessions. It had been raining since morning that day, too. The underground parking lot beneath the building had its usual rainy-day odor.
I took the elevator upstairs and unlocked the door, and when I went inside for the first time in nearly two months I felt like an intruder. I'd lived there almost six years and knew every inch of the place. But I no longer was part of this scene. Dishes were stacked up in the kitchen, all dishes she had used. Laundry was drying in the bathroom, all her clothes. Inside the fridge it was all food I'd never seen before. Most were ready-made food. The milk and orange juice were different brands from what I bought. The freezer was packed with frozen food. I never bought frozen food. A lot of changes in the two months I'd been away.
I was struck by a strong urge to wash the dishes stacked up in the sink, bring in the laundry drying and fold it (and iron it if I could), and neatly rearrange the food in the fridge. But I did none of this. This was someone else's house now. I shouldn't poke my nose in where I didn't belong.
My painting materials were the bulkiest possessions I had. I tossed my easel, canvas, brushes, and paints into a large cardboard box. Then turned to my clothes. I've never been one to need a lot of clothes. I don't mind wearing the same clothes all the time. I don't own a suit or necktie. Other than a thick winter coat, it all fit into one suitcase.
A few books I hadn't read yet, and about a dozen CDs. My favorite coffee cup. Swimsuit, and goggles, and swim cap. That was about all I felt I needed. Even those I could get along without if need be.
In the bathroom my toothbrush and shaving kit were still there, as well as my lotion, sunscreen, and hair tonic. An unopened box of condoms, too. But I didn't feel like taking all that miscellaneous stuff to my new place. She could just get rid of it.
I packed my belongings in the trunk of the car, went back to the kitchen, and boiled water in the kettle. I made tea with a tea bag, and sat at the table and drank it. I figured she wouldn't mind. The room was perfectly still. The silence lent a faint weight to the air. As though I were sitting alone, at the bottom of the sea.
All told, I was there by myself in the apartment for about a half hour. No one came to visit, and the phone didn't ring. The thermostat on the fridge turned off once, then turned back on once. In the midst of the silence I perked up my ears, probing what I sensed in the apartment, as if measuring the depths of the ocean with a sinker. No matter how you looked at it, it was an apartment occupied by a woman living alone. Someone busy at work who had next to no time to do any housework. Someone who took care of any errands on the weekends when she had free time. A quick visual sweep of the place showed that everything there was hers. No evidence of anyone else (hardly any evidence of me anymore, either). No man was stopping by here. That's the impression I got. They must have seen each other elsewhere.
I can't explain it well, but while I was in the apartment I felt like I was being watched. Like someone was observing me through a hidden camera. But that couldn't be. My wife is a major klutz when it comes to equipment. She can't even change the batteries in a remote control. No way could she do something as clever as setting up and operating a surveillance camera. It was just me, on edge.
Even so, while I was in the apartment I acted as if every single action of mine was being recorded. I did nothing extra, nothing untoward. I didn't open Yuzu's desk drawer to see what was inside. I knew that in the back of one of the drawers of her wardrobe, where she had her stockings, she kept a small diary and some important letters, but I didn't touch them. I knew the password for her laptop (assuming she hadn't changed it), but didn't even open it. None of this had anything to do with me anymore. I washed the cup I'd drunk tea in, dried it with a cloth, put it back on the shelf, and turned off the lights. I went over to the window and gazed at the falling rain for a while. The orangish Tokyo Tower loomed up faintly in the distance. Then I dropped the key in the mailbox and drove back to Odawara. The trip was only an hour and a half, but it felt like I'd taken a day trip to a far-off foreign land.
The next day I called my agent. I'm back in Tokyo, I told him, and I'm really sorry, but I don't plan to do any more portrait painting.
“You're never going to do any more portraits? Is that what you're telling me?”
“Most likely,” I said.
He didn't say much. No complaints, nothing in the way of advice. He knew that once I said something, I didn't back down.
“If you ever find yourself wanting to do this work again, call me anytime,” he said at the end. “I'd welcome it.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“Maybe it isn't my place to say this, but how are you planning to make a living?”
“I haven't decided,” I admitted. “I'm by myself, so I don't need much to live on, and I've got a bit of savings.”
“Will you still paint?”
“Probably. There isn't much else I know how to do.”
“I hope it works out.”
“Thanks,” I said once more. And tagged on a question that had just occurred to me. “Is there anything I should make sure to keep in mind?”
“Something you should make sure to keep in mind?”
“In other wordsâhow should I put itâany advice from a pro?”
He thought it over. “You're the type of guy who takes longer than other people to be convinced of anything. But long term, I think time is on your side.”
Like the title of an old Rolling Stones song.
“One other thing: I think you really have a special talent for portraiture. An intuitive ability to get straight to the heart of the subject. Other people can't do that. Not using that talent would be a real shame.”
“But right now painting portraits isn't what I want to do.”
“I get that. But someday that ability will help you again. I hope it works out.”
Hope it works out, I thought. Good if time is on your side.
On the first day I visited the house in Odawara, Masahiko Amadaâthe son of the ownerâdrove me there in his Volvo. “If you like it, you can move in today,” he said.
We took the Odawara-Atsugi Road almost to the end and, when we exited, headed toward the mountains along a narrow, paved farm road. On either side, there were fields, rows of hothouses for growing vegetables, and the occasional grove of plum trees. We saw hardly any houses, and not a single traffic signal. Finally we drove up a steep, winding slope in low gear for a long time, until we came to the end and arrived at the entrance to the house. There were two stately pillars at the entrance, but no gate. And no wall, either. It seemed the owner had planned to add a gate and wall but thought better of it. Maybe halfway through he'd realized there was no need. On one of the pillars was a magnificent nameplate with
on it, almost like some business sign. The house beyond was a small Western-style cottage with a faded brick chimney sticking out of the flat roof. It was a one-story house, but the roof was unexpectedly high. In my imagination I'd been taking it for granted that a famous painter of Japanese-style paintings would live in an old Japanese-style dwelling.
We parked in a spacious covered driveway by the front door, and when we opened the car doors some screeching black birdsâjays, I imagineâflew off from a nearby tree branch into the sky. They seemed none too happy about us intruding on their space. The house was pretty, surrounded by woods with a variety of trees, with only the west side of the house open to a broad view of the valley.
“What do you think? Not much here, is there?”
I stood there, gazing around me. He was right, there wasn't much there. I was impressed that his father had built a house in such isolated surroundings. He really must have wanted nothing to do with other people.
“Did you grow up here?” I asked.
“No, I've never lived here very long. Just came to stay over occasionally. Or visited on summer holidays when we were escaping the heat. I had school, and grew up in our house in Mejiro with my mother. When my father wasn't working he'd come to Tokyo and live with us. Then come back here and work by himself. I went out on my own, then ten years ago my mother died, and ever since he's been living here by himself. Like someone who's forsaken the world.”
A middle-aged woman who lived nearby had been watching the house, and she came over to explain some things I needed to know. How the kitchen operated, how to order more propane and kerosene, where various items were kept, which days the trash was picked up and where to put it. The artist seemed to have led a very simple solitary existence, with very little equipment or appliances, so there wasn't much for a lecture. If there's anything else you need to know, just give me a call, the woman said (though I actually never called her, not even once).
“I'm very happy someone will be living here now,” she said. “Empty houses get dilapidated, and they're unsafe. And when they know no one's at home, the wild boar and monkeys get into the yard.”
“You do get the occasional wild boar or monkey around here,” Masahiko said.
“Be very careful about the wild boars,” the woman explained. “You see a lot of them in the spring around here when they root for bamboo shoots. Female boars with young are always jumpy, and dangerous. And you need to watch out for hornets, too. There've been people who've been stung and died. The hornets build nests in the plum groves.”
The central feature of the house was a fairly large living room with an open-hearth fireplace. On the southwest side of the living room was a spacious roofed-in terrace, and on the north side was a square studio. The studio was where the master had done his painting. On the east side of the living room was a compact kitchen with dining area, and a bathroom. Then a comfortable master bedroom and a slightly smaller guest bedroom. There was a writing desk in the guest bedroom. Amada seemed to enjoy reading, as the bookshelves were stuffed with old books. He seemed to have used this room as his study. For an older house, it was fairly neat and clean, and comfortable looking, though strangely enough (or perhaps not so strangely) there was not a single painting hanging on the walls. Every wall was completely bare.
As Masahiko had said, the place had most everything I'd needâfurniture, electric appliances, plates and dishes, and bedding. “You don't need to bring anything,” he'd told me, and he was right. There was plenty of firewood for the fireplace stacked up under the eaves of the shed. There was no TV in the house (Masahiko's father, I was told, hated TV), though there was a wonderful stereo set in the living room. The speakers were huge Tannoy Autographs, the separate amplifier an original vacuum tube Marantz. And he had an extensive collection of vinyl records. At first glance there seemed to be a lot of boxed sets of opera.
“There's no CD player here,” Masahiko told me. “He's the sort of person who hates new devices. He only trusts things from the past. And naturally there's not a trace of anything to do with the Internet. If you need to use it, the only choice is to use the Internet cafÃ© in town.”