Read an Excerpt
In the spring of her twenty-second year, Sumire fell in love for the first time in her life. An intense love, a veritable tornado sweeping across the plains-flattening everything in its path, tossing things up in the air, ripping them to shreds, crushing them to bits. The tornado's intensity doesn't abate for a second as it blasts across the ocean, laying waste to Angkor Wat, incinerating an Indian jungle, tigers and all, transforming itself into a Persian desert sandstorm, burying an exotic fortress city under a sea of sand. In short, a love of truly monumental proportions. The person she fell in love with happened to be seventeen years older than Sumire. And was married. And, I should add, was a woman. This is where it all began, and where it all wound up. Almost.
At the time, Sumire-Violet in Japanese-was struggling to become a writer. No matter how many choices life might bring her way, it was novelist or nothing. Her resolve was a regular Rock of Gibraltar. Nothing could come between her and her faith in literature.
After she graduated from a public high school in Kanagawa Prefecture, she entered the liberal arts department of a cozy little private college in Tokyo. She found the college totally out of touch, a lukewarm, dispirited place, and she loathed it-and found her fellow students (which would include me, I'm afraid) hopelessly dull, second-rate specimens. Unsurprisingly, then, just before her junior year, she just up and quit. Staying there any longer, she concluded, was a waste of time. I think it was the right move, but if I can be allowed a mediocre generalization, don't pointless things have a place, too, in this far-from-perfect world? Remove everything pointless from an imperfect life, and it'd lose even its imperfection.
Sumire was a hopeless romantic, set in her ways-a bit innocent, to put a nice spin on it. Start her talking, and she'd go on nonstop, but if she was with someone she didn't get along with-most people in the world, in other words-she barely opened her mouth. She smoked too much, and you could count on her to lose her ticket every time she rode the train. She'd get so engrossed in her thoughts at times that she'd forget to eat, and she was as thin as one of those war orphans in an old Italian movie-like a stick with eyes. I'd love to show you a photo of her, but I don't have any. She detested having her photograph taken-no desire to leave behind for posterity a Portrait of the Artist as a Young (Wo)Man. If there were a photograph of Sumire taken at that time, I know it would be a valuable record of how special certain people are.
I'm getting the order of events mixed up. The woman Sumire fell in love with was named Miu. At least that's what everyone called her. I don't know her real name, a fact that caused problems later on, but again I'm getting ahead of myself. Miu was Korean by nationality, but until she decided to study Korean when she was in her midtwenties, she didn't speak a word of the language. She was born and raised in Japan and studied at a music academy in France, so she was fluent in both French and English in addition to Japanese. She always dressed well, in a refined way, with expensive yet modest accessories, and she drove a twelve-cylinder navy-blue Jaguar.
The first time Sumire met Miu, she talked to her about Jack Kerouac's novels. Sumire was absolutely nuts about Kerouac. She always had her literary Idol of the Month, and at that point it happened to be the out-of-fashion Kerouac. She carried a dog-eared copy of On the Road or Lonesome Traveler stuck in her coat pocket, thumbing through it every chance she got. Whenever she ran across lines she liked, she'd mark them in pencil and commit them to memory like they were Holy Writ. Her favorite lines were from the fire lookout section of Lonesome Traveler. Kerouac spent three lonely months in a cabin on top of a high mountain, working as a fire lookout. Sumire especially liked this part:
No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength.
"Don't you just love it?" she said. "Every day you stand on top of a mountain, make a three-hundred-sixty-degree sweep, checking to see if there're any fires. And that's it. You're done for the day. The rest of the time you can read, write, whatever you want. At night scruffy bears hang around your cabin. That's the life! Compared with that, studying literature in college is like chomping down on the bitter end of a cucumber."
"OK," I said, "but someday you'll have to come down off the mountain." As usual, my practical, humdrum opinions didn't faze her.
Sumire wanted to be like a character in a Kerouac novel-wild, cool, dissolute. She'd stand around, hands shoved deep in her coat pockets, her hair an uncombed mess, staring vacantly at the sky through her black plastic-frame Dizzy Gillespie glasses, which she wore despite her twenty-twenty vision. She was invariably decked out in an oversize herringbone coat from a secondhand store and a pair of rough work boots. If she'd been able to grow a beard, I'm sure she would have.
Sumire wasn't exactly a beauty. Her cheeks were sunken, her mouth a little too wide. Her nose was on the small side and upturned. She had an expressive face and a great sense of humor, though she hardly ever laughed out loud. She was short, and even in a good mood she talked like she was half a step away from picking a fight. I never knew her to use lipstick or eyebrow pencil, and I have my doubts that she even knew bras came in different sizes. Still, Sumire had something special about her, something that drew people to her. Defining that special something isn't easy, but when you gazed into her eyes, you could always find it, reflected deep down inside.
I might as well just come right out and say it. I was in love with Sumire. I was attracted to her from the first time we talked, and soon there was no turning back. For a long time she was the only thing I could think about. I tried to tell her how I felt, but somehow the feelings and the right words couldn't connect. Maybe it was for the best. If I had been able to tell her my feelings, she would have just laughed at me.
While Sumire and I were friends, I went out with two or three other girls. It's not that I don't remember the exact number. Two, three-it depends on how you count. Add to this the girls I slept with once or twice, and the list would be a little longer. Anyhow, while I made love to these other girls, I thought about Sumire. Or at least, thoughts of her grazed a corner of my mind. I imagined I was holding her. Kind of a caddish thing to do, but I couldn't help myself.
Let me get back to how Sumire and Miu met.
Miu had heard of Jack Kerouac and had a vague sense that he was a novelist of some kind. What kind of novelist, though, she couldn't recall.
"Kerouac . . . Hmm . . . Wasn't he a Sputnik?"
Sumire couldn't figure out what she meant. Knife and fork poised in midair, she gave it some thought. "Sputnik? You mean the first satellite the Soviets sent up, in the fifties? Jack Kerouac was an American novelist. I guess they do overlap in terms of generation. . . ."
"Isn't that what they called the writers back then?" Miu asked. She traced a circle on the table with her fingertip, as if rummaging through some special jar full of memories.
"Sputnik . . .?"
"The name of a literary movement. You know-how they classify writers in various schools of writing. Like Shiga Naoya was in the White Birch School."
Finally it dawned on Sumire. "Beatnik!"
Miu lightly dabbed at the corner of her mouth with a napkin. "Beatnik-Sputnik. I never can remember those kinds of terms. It's like the Kenmun Restoration or the Treaty of Rapallo. Ancient history."
A gentle silence descended on them, suggestive of the flow of time.
"The Treaty of Rapallo?" Sumire asked.
Miu smiled. A nostalgic, intimate smile, like a treasured old possession pulled out of the back of a drawer. Her eyes narrowed in an utterly charming way. She reached out and, with her long, slim fingers, gently mussed Sumire's already tousled hair. It was such a sudden yet natural gesture that Sumire could only return the smile.
Ever since that day, Sumire's private name for Miu was Sputnik Sweetheart. Sumire loved the sound of it. It made her think of Laika, the dog. The man-made satellite streaking soundlessly across the blackness of outer space. The dark, lustrous eyes of the dog gazing out the tiny window. In the infinite loneliness of space, what could the dog possibly be looking at?
This Sputnik conversation took place at a wedding reception for Sumire's cousin at a posh hotel in Akasaka. Sumire wasn't particularly close to her cousin; in fact, they didn't get along at all. She'd just as soon be tortured as attend one of these receptions, but she couldn't back out of this one. She and Miu were seated next to each other at one of the tables. Miu didn't go into all the details, but it seemed she'd tutored Sumire's cousin on piano-or something along those lines-when she was taking the entrance exams for the university music department. It wasn't a long or very close relationship, clearly, but Miu felt obliged to attend.
In the instant Miu touched her hair, Sumire fell in love, like she was crossing a field and bang! a bolt of lightning zapped her right in thehead. Something akin to an artistic revelation. Which is why, at that point, it didn't matter to Sumire that the person she fell in love with happened to be a woman.
I don't think Sumire ever had what you'd call a lover. In high school she had a few boyfriends, guys she'd go to movies with, go swimming with. I couldn't picture any of those relations ever getting very deep. Sumire was too focused on becoming a novelist to really fall for anybody. If she did experience sexor something close to itin high school, I'm sure it would have been less out of sexual desire or love than literary curiosity.
"To be perfectly frank, sexual desire has me baffled," Sumire told me once, making a sober face. This was just before she quit college, I believe; she'd downed five banana daiquiris and was pretty drunk. "You know-how it all comes about. What's your take on it?"
"Sexual desire's not something you understand," I said, giving my usual middle-of-the-road opinion. "It's just there."
She scrutinized me for a while, like I was some machine run by a heretofore unheard-of power source. Losing interest, she stared up at the ceiling, and the conversation petered out. No use talking to him about that, she must have decided.
Sumire was born in Chigasaki. Her home was near the seashore, and she grew up with the dry sound of sand-filled wind blowing against her windows. Her father ran a dental clinic in Yokohama. He was remarkably handsome, his well-formed nose reminding you of Gregory Peck in Spellbound. Sumire didn't inherit that handsome nose, nor, according to her, did her brother. Sumire found it amazing that the genes that produced that nose had disappeared. If they really were buried forever at the bottom of the gene pool, the world was a sadder place. That's how wonderful this nose was.
Sumire's father was an almost mythic figure to the women in the Yokohama area who needed dental care. In the examination room he always wore a surgical cap and large mask, so the only thing the patient could see was a pair of eyes and ears. Even so, it was obvious how attractive he was. His beautiful, manly nose swelled suggestively under the mask, making his female patients blush. In an instant-whether their dental plan covered the costs was beside the point-they fell in love.
Sumire's mother passed away of a congenital heart defect when she was just thirty-one. Sumire hadn't quite turned three. The only memory she had of her mother was a vague one, of the scent of her skin. Just a couple of photographs of her remained-a posed photo taken at her wedding and a snapshot taken right after Sumire was born. Sumire used to pull out the photo album and gaze at the pictures. Sumire's mother was-to put it mildly-a completely forgettable person. A short, humdrum hairstyle, clothes that made you wonder what she could have been thinking, an ill-at-ease smile. If she'd taken one step back, she would have melted right into the wall. Sumire was determined to brand her mother's face on her memory. Then she might someday meet her in her dreams. They'd shake hands, have a nice chat. But things weren't that easy. Try as she might to remember her mother's face, it soon faded. Forget about dreams-if Sumire had passed her mother on the street, in broad daylight, she wouldn't have known her.
Sumire's father hardly ever spoke of his late wife. He wasn't a talkative man to begin with, and in all aspects of life-like they were some kind of mouth infection he wanted to avoid catching-he never talked about his feelings. Sumire had no memory of ever asking her father about her dead mother. Except for once, when she was still very small; for some reason she asked him, "What was my mother like?" She remembered this conversation very clearly.
Her father looked away and thought for a moment before replying. "She was good at remembering things," he said. "And she had nice handwriting."
A strange way of describing a person. Sumire was waiting expectantly, snow-white first page of her notebook open, for nourishing words that could have been a source of warmth and comfort-a pillar, an axis, to help prop up her uncertain life here on this third planet from the sun. Her father should have said something that his young daughter could have held on to. But Sumire's handsome father wasn't going to speak those words, the very words she needed most.
Sumire's father remarried when she was six, and two years later her younger brother was born. Her new mother wasn't pretty either. On top of which she wasn't so good at remembering things, and her handwriting wasn't any great shakes. She was a kind and fair person, though. That was a lucky thing for little Sumire, the brand-new stepdaughter. No, lucky isn't the right word. After all, her father had chosen the woman. He might not have been the ideal father, but when it came to choosing a mate, he knew what he was doing.