Read an Excerpt
Chapter OneNinna Hori
I’m penciling in my eyebrows when the smog alert siren starts blaring. It’s happened every day since summer vacation started, so it’s no surprise. “May I have your attention,” this woman’s voice drawls over a loudspeaker. “An air pollution advisory has just been issued,” and the siren continues to drone on, like some kindly old dinosaur groaning away.
Most of these advisories happen in the morning, usually just as I’m about to leave for cram school. Nobody does anything because of them. Everyone kind of goes, Oh, that again. What I’d like to know is where they hide those speakers. To me, that’s creepier and weirder than anything about smog.
I live in a crowded residential area on the outskirts of Suginami-ku in Tokyo. It used to be a nice, laid-back neighborhood, but all the old, larger houses got torn down, replaced by smaller single-family homes and apartments. When I was little, several neat but tiny buildings went up where there used to be plum orchards and farm fields. They slapped fancy names on these—Estates or whatever—to help sell units. Nice-looking families moved in, and on weekends you’d see them out walking their dogs or driving around in expensive foreign cars. But the paved roads that run through the neighborhood, which must have been just dirt farm paths at one time, are so narrow that I heard the family two houses down from us had so much trouble parking their Mercedes-Benz in their garage that they ended up getting rid of it.
The siren keeps on droning. Right in between one of its groans, I hear a loud sound, something breaking next door. Our houses are so close that if you open the window, you can hear the parents yelling at each other, or the phone ringing. I’m thinking maybe a window broke. Seven years ago the boy who lives in the house diagonally across from us kicked a soccer ball that shattered a window in our house in the room where we keep our Buddhist altar. The kid completely ignored what happened, and later on he was transferred to a school in Kansai. I remember the abandoned soccer ball sitting there under the eaves of my house forever.
Anyway, the sound I’d heard was just like that time. There aren’t any little kids living next door, so it’s weird to hear something shatter so loudly, and the whole thing was kind of alarming. Maybe a burglar broke in. My heart beating like mad, I listened carefully but didn’t hear anything else. Total silence.
The neighbors moved in two years ago. We’ve had hardly anything to do with them. Sometimes, when I take the neighborhood association bulletin to them, I’ll press the intercom bell and the mother will come out, this phony smile pasted on her face. All I know for sure is that there’s a mom and a dad, and a boy the same age as me who lives there. Sometimes the mother is out front, sweeping with a bamboo broom. She has on silver-framed glasses and this bright red lipstick you know is going to leave marks on any teacup she uses. Get rid of the glasses and the lipstick, though, and I don’t think I’d recognize her.
Once when the woman next door saw me in my school uniform she asked, “Are you a high school student?” When I said yes, she said, “So is our son,” and named the prestigious high school he attended, smiling happily. When I told my mom this, she clicked her tongue and looked disgusted. The woman was obviously bragging about her son and Mom must have thought she was insulting us, since I was going to a less-than-stellar private girls’ school. But I just thought the woman next door was simple and naive, and I felt sorry for the boy for having such an embarrassing mother.
This son of hers was a lanky, stoop-shouldered boy with small, gloomy eyes. Reminded me of a worm. He had a sluggish way of walking with his head tilted to one side, and zero in the way of spirit. Even when our paths happened to cross at the station he’d avoid looking at me and edge off into the shadows of the building. Like if he stepped into the shadows he could hide from the world. In that sense he was just like his father, who looked like a typical office worker. The father ignored me as if I didn’t even exist. Once I went out to get the evening paper when he was just coming home. I nodded to him but he gazed off into the distance like I was invisible.
“I wonder what that guy does for a living, anyway,” my mother once said. “Kind of stuck-up with that ascot of his.” Who cares about ascot ties? was my reaction. To me people are divided into two groups: the nice and the un-nice. And the family next door was definitely in the second category. If my grandmother were still alive she would have sniffed out all kinds of gossip about them, but my mother couldn’t be bothered, so the only details we knew about them were that their son looked like a worm, the mother wore red lipstick, and the father, an ascot.
Still, I couldn’t figure out what that sound was. A burglar could break into their house for all I cared, but I didn’t want him coming into ours. I started to panic. My parents were both at work, I had slept in late and was about to have some cup ramen before heading out to summer cram school—I was a senior in high school—and the last thing I wanted was for some burglar to flee into our place. Dad always said that the scariest thing was a thief who gets cornered and turns violent.
I heard another crash, this one louder than the first. It rang in my ears, and I flinched and messed up my left eyebrow. Maybe I should redo it, I was thinking, staring into the mirror, when my cell phone on the table buzzed.
“Yo!” It could only be Terauchi. “Dude, it’s me.”
“I just heard this weird sound from next door—maybe a robber or something. What should I do?”
But Terauchi wasn’t paying any attention.
“That essay on Mori Ogai we’re supposed to write? I’ve done over a hundred pages, right? Just kidding . . . But I think it’s going to turn out okay, know what I mean?” She rambled on like this for a minute or so.
“Terauchi. Listen to me. A burglar might have broken into the house next door.”
“Du—de!” Terauchi was finally surprised and her usual greeting now turned into an interjection. Terauchi was a cute-looking girl, but her voice was really low and cool. Among my friends, she was the smartest and the most interesting.
“I just heard glass shattering,” I said. “Someone breaking in, maybe.”
“Probably just the husband and wife having a fight.”
“At this time of the morning?” I said. “The guy next door should be at work.”
“Well, maybe the wife lost it and smashed a teacup or something. It’s gotta be that,” she declared. “You know, one time when my mom got into a fight with my dad’s mother she went nuts and tossed both of their teacups and plates out the second-story window.”
“Your mom’s kind of extreme.”
“You got that right,” Terauchi said. “She just casually tossed the plates and cups out, aiming at the stepping-stones in the garden. See, Dad was using the plates Yukinari used as a baby. Anyway, Toshi-chan, I wanted to see how you’re doing with your essay.”
Toshi-chan. My name’s Toshiko Yamanaka, the characters for Toshi meaning “ten and four,” because I was born on the fourth day of the tenth month, October. Obviously not a lot of thought went into naming me, but since I’ve hardly ever met anyone with the same characters, I don’t mind the name that much. Terauchi’s first name is Kazuko, which she can’t stand. Her grandfather in Akita gave her the name, apparently. My friends all call one another by their first names or by nicknames, except for Terauchi, who insists that we call her by her last name.
“The thing is, I haven’t done it yet,” I admitted.
When we got to be seniors our Japanese teacher assigned us to write an essay on Ogai’s story “The Dancing Girl.” Terauchi was always good at exams and assignments. Whenever we had to write a book report, she copied parts of some published essay on the book without the teachers ever catching on. I was a little too honest—honest to a fault, you could say—to try to get away with something like that. So unfortunately it took me a lot of time to finish up assignments and my grades were never as good as hers. I never thought of what she did as dishonest; I was kind of vaguely worried that someday her cleverness might really her get in trouble. I worried about her because I liked her so much.
She went on, rumbling in her low voice: “I was thinking of, like, doing a psychological analysis of the main character.”
“Nah—not her. Her name’s in katakana. What’s his name—Oda?”
I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about.
“That’s not it,” a different voice replied. Now it was Yuzan on the phone. “She’s gonna do a psychological profile based on the Chinese characters used to write the name. Can you imagine getting away with that?”
“Yuzan, I didn’t know you were there,” I said.
I must have sounded a little disappointed. I wasn’t exactly happy to find out that she and Terauchi were hanging out without me. It made me feel left out. I really liked Terauchi, but Yuzan was harder to deal with. She had such extreme likes and dislikes. She hated smokers violently, for instance. Human garbage, she said. Which was kind of unfair from the smoker’s viewpoint. On the other hand, if she liked somebody she’d stand up for them, no matter what. Extreme and hard to read—that was Yuzan.
“Terauchi wanted to do homework together. I told her we’re not in grade school anymore. Duh!”
“I bet that it was your idea,” I countered.
Yuzan just laughed this off. Her voice was even lower than Terauchi’s, and when she wore her school uniform she looked like some guy doing a lousy job of dressing in drag. Her personality and the way she spoke were totally like a guy; but her name, Kiyomi Kaibara, was very feminine. The nickname Yuzan, of course, came from Yuzan Kaibara, the father character in the manga Oishinbo. When she was in junior high, her mom died after a long stay in the hospital. Since then Yuzan’s lived with her father and grandparents. Yuzan and I were only children, the only ones in our group. After her mother died, Yuzan started acting even more eccentric, even more like a guy. Terauchi said Yuzan must be a lesbian, but I couldn’t really see it. Even if she were, I wouldn’t know, I guess, because I wouldn’t be her type. I switched the phone to my other hand and heard this sort of grabby sound as Terauchi came back on.
“That’s the story, dude.”
“Fine, whatever—but should I just ignore what’s going on next door?” I asked.
“That’s their business, not yours. Don’t you think so?”
Terauchi’s cool reply made me feel better. “I guess you’re right,” I said. “Well. I gotta go to cram school. Talk to you later.”
“See ya,” she said, and hung up. I switched off the AC and checked my left eyebrow in the mirror again. I didn’t like what I saw, but didn’t have time to redo it, so I set off. I was wearing jeans and a black sleeveless shirt. A nothing sort of look, but something I felt comfortable in.
It was blindingly hot outside. I slipped on the new sandals I’d bought at the bargain shoe store that was a two-minute walk from our house, and unlocked my bike, which I’d left next to the front door. The handlebars and seat had baked in the sun and my hand sizzled when I touched them. Just then the front door of our neighbors’ house slammed shut and their front gate creaked open. Someone was coming out. Anxious, but curious, I turned around. It was Worm, dressed in jeans and a navy blue T-shirt. There was a tiny white Nike swoosh on the chest of his shirt. He was carrying a black backpack I remembered seeing before. Thank God. It wasn’t a burglar after all. He’d been at home. Relieved, I looked at him and our eyes locked. He looked happy and excited somehow, like he was going off on a date. That kind of look didn’t suit him, and I quickly turned away. It was a strange feeling, like I’d seen something I shouldn’t have.
“Sure is hot.”
This was the first time he’d even spoken to me. I nodded vaguely. So that’s the kind of guy Worm is. The kind who talks about the weather—and to somebody like me who’s the same age. Humming a song, he squinted up at the sun. He looked so healthy that the nickname Worm no longer seemed right.
“I heard some loud sound from your house a few minutes ago and it startled me.” I had to say something.
Still squinting up at the sky, he tilted his head. “Yeah? You must be mistaken.”
“Sorry,” I said.
Worm bounded off like he was heading off on a school outing. Embarrassed, I straddled my bike, shoved my bag into the front basket, and, without a glance backward, started pedaling toward the station. Soon I passed Worm, but I didn’t say hi.
My cram school is near the south exit of a large station that connects up to the Chuo Line, four stops down the line from the station near my house. I was still thinking of Worm, actually about the sound I’d heard next door, and I got snagged by one of those people with clipboards asking you to fill out questionnaires. I’m usually careful enough to keep at least thirty yards between me and them, but this time I blew it. The questionnaire guy was dressed in a serious-looking outfit, white dress shirt and black pants, with the kind of black-framed glasses that are popular now.
“Are you a student?” he asked me.
“I’m in a hurry.”
“It won’t take long. You’re in college?”
“A four-year college or community college?”
“Four-year. The education department at Tokyo University.”
I stood there with this can’t-be-bothered look on my face. The guy looked surprised for a second, then scribbled down “Tokyo University” in crappy handwriting. A sneer came to his face, like maybe he thought I was bragging. Or like he’d seen through my lie.
“May I ask your name?”
“How do you write it?”
“Hori is the character for ‘moat,’ and Ninna is written the same as the ninna in the Ninna Temple in Kyoto.”
“The Ninna Temple?” the man muttered, and I used his moment of hesitation to make my escape. This was the first time I’d said I was a Tokyo University student. Usually I tell people I’m a secretary in an office, but with the crummy outfit I had on and my aggressive attitude, it seemed to fit. Whenever you have to write down your name and address for a questionnaire or member- ship form or at a store, it’s best to use a phony name and address. Terauchi taught me that. The first time I did it I felt kind of nervous about lying, but after I’d used the name for a while, Ninna Hori started to feel like a real second name. In our four-girl group all of us have a second fake name that we use when we rent a karaoke box. You have to be careful, Terauchi always warned us, or you’ll wind up in some database. Then adults will control you.
The next person who tried to grab me was a creepy-looking woman. As I sped up to get away, the woman, eager for the chance to interview someone, rushed forward and almost tripped up. She had a mound of black hair, chopped off in a bowl cut, and no makeup. Her upper lip was dripping sweat. White sweat stains showed in the armpits of her faded black blouse. It was steam- ing out, so I could hardly blame her for that, but it was so hot and uncomfortable all I could think of was shoving her out of the way.
“Excuse me,” she said. “I’m studying fortune-telling and wondered if I could have a moment of your time?”
Fortune-tellers. They’re all over the place. No way it’s going to be free. I put on the impassive face I practiced in the mirror. “I’m in a hurry,” I said.
“Pardon me.” At seeing my determined face, the fortune-teller turned away and started wandering around for her next victim. It’s not easy for a young girl to get past the crowds outside of a station without something happening. When I mentioned this to my mother, she sighed and said, “It wasn’t like that in my day. So many dangers out there now.” She’s got that right. In Tokyo today young girls are seen as either easy marks for sales or as “marketing leaders” to help companies get a grasp on what new products are going to sell. They want to get our opinions for free. Which makes us another kind of easy mark, I guess.
Not to mention all the stalkers and perverts, all the horny men, both young and old, who call out, “Hey, babe, how much?” I’ve never actually run into perverts myself, but there’s a rumor that Terauchi’s had problems with them since she was in elementary school—she’s run into them on the train commuting to school. Terauchi’s so unique, almost scary smart, but since she’s also pretty, everyone from adults to college guys underestimates her and makes a move on her. I figure these perverts are the reason she shows no interest in men, and why she sometimes has this gloomy look on her face, talks the way she does, and gets all depressed. Let’s face it: the world is twisted. And rotten.
I rushed into the classroom in my cram school, the one for English for Top-Tier Private Colleges. I was a little late and in a hurry. The school had a rule that if you’re late they won’t let you in.
Four people who looked like college students, two guys and two girls, were standing in front of the blackboard, smiling at the students seated in front of them. I could tell at a glance they weren’t teachers and weren’t cram school students, either. Teachers are older and frumpier, students younger and less confident. Both the teachers and the students at this cram school lacked the same exact thing: affection for others. No room for that in a cram school. But these four guys and girls in front of us had these permanent smiles, as if they were the hot lifeblood that flowed through this cruel battleground. One of the girls, the collar of her white shirt pulled out over her gray power suit, spoke up:
“It’s summer vacation already. Now’s the time you’ve got to do your best and don’t let yourself give up. There’s still time. It’s only the beginning of August. So no more complaining, just do the very best you can. If you don’t, believe me—come next spring you won’t be smiling. The spring when I became a senior in high school I was told to forget about getting into the university I was hoping for. It’ll never happen, they told me. But, no exaggeration, that summer I spit up blood. I never worked so hard in my life. And I got into the Japan Academy of Arts. It gives you tremendous confidence, confidence that you can build on for the rest of your life. So I want you to give it everything you’ve got.”
The girl paused, and gazed around the room.
“We’re going to come around to each of you, so feel free to ask us anything.”
The cram school had a system called My Tutor, which involved having college students hang around the classroom. They were supposed to be graduates of the cram school, but I wasn’t buying it. During our short breaks they’d go around the classrooms, giving us little pep talks. The point being that having real-life college students among us was supposed to get us focused on taking entrance exams. Cheer us up. To me, though, they looked like Disney dolls, with toothy pasted-on smiles. I’d just barely slipped into my seat when the power-suit girl sidled over.
“You would be—Miss Yamanaka, correct?” the girl said, glancing at the list in her hand. “English isn’t your subject, I take it. You have a fifty-two average. You’ve got to work harder if you expect to pass. Are you studying hard?”
It annoyed me to have everyone hear my average.
“My name is Ninna Hori.”
The girl looked suspicious.
“Are you registered for this class, Miss Hori?”
“Yes, I’m signed up.”
Keeping a perfectly straight face, I put my electronic dictionary on top of the desk.
“Really? Hmm. That’s strange.” The girl was taken aback. “I’ll have to get the right list. Which colleges are you hoping to get into?”
“Sophia, or Keio.”
“Then you’ll have to do better in English. What’s your average?”
“About fifty-eight,” I lied.
“You’ll need to be at least five points higher than that,” the girl said, gazing at me closely. I could see the contact lenses pasted to her slightly popped eyes. “Anyhow, don’t give up. If you study like you’re going to die, it’ll work out. Vocabulary, vocabulary. Memorizing vocabulary’s the only way.”
What did she mean, study like you’re going to die? She said she spit up blood, but is that for real? Is studying really worth dying for? I couldn’t accept it, and I guess that was one of my weak points. One of the other tutors, a guy in a white shirt and tie, was standing next to the prematurely bald guy in the seat in front of me, patting him on the shoulder.
“You got to get your average up a bit,” he said. “I know you can do it.”
The balding guy, embarrassed, gave some vaguely positive reply.
“I studied twelve hours a day and raised my average by ten points,” the tutor said.
You study twelve hours a day and your average goes up only ten points? Overhearing their conversation despite myself, I got depressed. While this was happening, the girl who’d counseled me went over to the quiet girl who sits behind me. The whole charade was disgusting. This was no better than getting caught by somebody at the station shoving a questionnaire in your face or trying to read your fortune.
They smile like mad but inside they couldn’t care less about me. They’re in it for the money. Or out to pick up somebody. Unlike Terauchi, I’ve never been openly propositioned, but I can understand the feeling that you’re being targeted. If you fall for their lines you’ll lose money and wind up suffering. It’s a little like how, unless you watch yourself and try to stay under the radar, you get bullied. The world laughs at losers. But does that mean the ones who target other people and bully them are okay? No way. But everybody seems to forget that.
The sense of danger we all feel is something my mother can’t comprehend. My mom’s generation still believes in beautiful things like justice and considering other people’s feelings. My mom’s forty-four and runs a home nursing service with a friend of hers. She goes out herself to people’s homes, so she’s interested in things like social welfare and problems related to the elderly. Coming from me it might sound weird, but she’s a pretty nice person. She’s smart and knows how to stand up for what’s important. She’s genuine, and what she says is usually right on target.
Dad works for a software company, and though he’s usually out drinking, he’s serious and a good guy. But even a nice mom and dad like this can’t really sense how their child’s been assaulted by commercialism ever since she was little, how she’s lived in fear of being eaten alive by the morons around her. They just don’t get it.
Mom always lectures me about not being afraid of getting hurt, but all she can imagine is the kind of hurt she’s experienced herself. She has no idea of the threats that surround kids these days, how much we’re bullied, how much hurt this causes.
For instance, since we were little kids we’ve been exposed to calls from people trying to get us to hire tutors, or cram schools trying to get us to enroll after phony free counseling sessions. You think that’s going to raise your GPA? No way. That’s something you have to do on your own. Walk around Tokyo and all you see are people trying to sell you something. Tell them okay and before you know it you’ve bought something. Make the mistake of telling them your name and address and now you’re on a mailing list. Some old guy pats you on the shoulder and before you know what hits you you’re in a hotel room. Stalkers’ victims, the ones they kill, are always women. When the media was going nuts over schoolgirls getting old guys to be their sugar daddies for sex, that was the time when high school girls like us had the highest price as commodities.
It sucks. It totally and absolutely sucks. That’s why I became Ninna Hori. Otherwise I couldn’t keep myself together, couldn’t survive. It isn’t much, but it’s the least I can do to arm myself. All these thoughts went through my mind as I fanned myself with the thin little textbook.
I somehow managed to stay awake till the end of class. I looked for my cell phone, thinking I’d call up Terauchi for a random chat, but my phone wasn’t in my bag. I was talking with Terauchi as I was leaving the house, so maybe I left it on the table. I was disappointed, but I didn’t worry about it. I joined the horde of students streaming down the hallway hurrying home, when somebody called out from behind me.
It was Haru, who’s in my class at school. She’s in one of the few Barbie Girl groups at our school. Now that summer vacation was here she was even tanner than before, her hair dyed almost totally blond, her nails manicured an eye-catching white. She had on heavy blue eye shadow and oversize false eyelashes, plus a gaudy red spaghetti-strap dress with pink polka dots. We used to be pretty good friends back in junior high, before she became a Barbie. Our freshman year of high school she even invited me to go karaoke singing with some college students.
“You came all the way from Hachioji?” I asked.
“I did,” she said, fingering the strap of her cell phone with those nails that weren’t what you’d expect to find on a student studying for college entrance exams. “The Kakomon Master Course here’s supposed to be pretty good.”
A fat boy from our cram school walked by, sweat dripping from his forehead, and openly sneered at Haru. You idiot, I thought. You have no idea how gutsy Haru really is.
“I’m taking the composition and English classes in the Top-Tier section,” I told her.
“Good luck,” Haru said. “Catch you later!”
Haru teetered down the stairs of the cram school on her platform sandals. The guys in the cram school made way for her. Like a timid queen, she stealthily walked down the middle of the stairs, and when she got to the landing, she waved to me. Like the fake names my friends and I use, Haru’s disguise is her weapon. By becoming a Kogyaru or Yamamba or whatever they’re called, I think Haru found a place where she could be totally accepted. Barbie Girls, Haru included, go to tanning places to get ultraviolet rays so their skin turns light brown, use oil pens for eyeliners, and glue on their eyelashes so they’re permanently curled up. They’re the ones who, more than anyone else, play around with their bodies.
My second weak point is that I feel put off by those kinds of outrageous outfits and makeup. Me, I just want to wear ordinary clothes and not stand out.