CHANCE TRAVELER - By Haruki Murakami

by nyi thit (From Myanmar)

 
Here is my fav Murakami's Harper's short story "Chance Traveller"

CHANCE TRAVELER - By Haruki Murakami

Copyright Harper's Magazine Foundation Jul 2005
The "I" here, you should know, means me, Haruki Murakami, the author of the story. Mostly this is a third-person narrative, but here at the beginning the narrator does make an appearance. just like in an old-fashioned play in which the narrator stands before the curtain, delivers a prologue, then bows out. I appreciate your patience and promise I won't keep you long.

The reason I've turned up here is I thought it best to relate directly several so-called strange events that have happened to me. Actually, events of this kind happen quite often. Some of them are significant and have affected my life in one way or another. Others are insignificant incidents that have no impact at all. At least I think so.

Whenever I bring up these incidents, say, in a group discussion, I never get much of a reaction. Most people just make some noncommittal comment, and it never goes anywhere. It never jump-starts the conversation, never spurs someone else to bring up something similar that's happened to him. The topic is like so much water flowing down the wrong channel and being sucked up in a nameless stretch of sand. No one says anything for a while, then invariably someone changes the subject.

At first I thought I was telling the story wrong, so one time I tried writing it down as an essay. I figured if I did that maybe people would take it more seriously. But no one seemed to believe what I'd written. "You've made it all up, right?" I don't know how many times I've heard that. Because I'm a novelist, people assume that anything I say or write must have a touch of make-believe. Granted, my fiction contains more than its share of invention, but when I'm not writing fiction I don't go out of my way to make up meaningless stories.

As a kind of preface to a tale, then, I'd like briefly to relate some strange experiences I've had. I'll stick to the trifling, insignificant ones. If I started in on the lifechanging experiences, I'd use up most of my allotted space.

From 1993 to 1995,1 lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was a sort of writer-in-residence at a college and was working on a novel entitled The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. In the Charles Hotel there was a jazz club called the Regattabar Jazz Club, where they had lots of live performances. It was a comfortable, relaxed, cozy place. Famous jazz musicians played there, and the cover charge was reasonable.

One evening the pianist Tommy Flanagan appeared with his trio. My wife had something else to do so I went by myself. Tommy Flanagan is one of my favorite jazz musicians. Usually appearing as an accompanist, his performances are invariably warm and deep and marvelously steady. His solos are fantastic. Full of anticipation, then, I sat down at a table near the stage and enjoyed a glass of California merlot. To tell the truth, his performance was a bit of a letdown. Maybe he wasn't feeling well. Or else it was still too early for him to get in the swing of things. The performance wasn't bad, it was just missing that extra element that sends us flying to another world. It lacked that special magical glow, I guess you could say. Tommy Flanagan is better than this, I thought as I listened-just wait till he gets up to speed.

But time didn't improve things. As the set was drawing to a close I started to get almost panicky, hoping it wouldn't end like this. I wanted something to remember his performance by. If things ended like this, all I'd take home would be lukewarm memories. Or maybe no memories at all. And I may never have a chance to see Tommy Flanagan play live again. (In fact I never did.) Suddenly a thought struck me: What if I were given a chance to request two songs by him right now? Which ones would I choose? I mulled it over for a while before picking "Barbados" and "Star-Crossed Lovers."

The first piece is by Charlie Parker, the second a Duke Ellington tune. I add this for people who aren't into jazz, but neither one is very popular or performed much. You might occasionally hear "Barbados," though it's one of the less flashy numbers Charlie Parker wrote, and I bet most people have never heard "Star-Crossed Lovers" even once. My point being, these weren't typical choices.

I had my reasons, of course, for choosing these unlikely pieces for my fantasy requests-namely, that Tommy Flanagan had made memorable recordings of both. "Barbados" appeared on the 1957 album Dial J .J .5 when he was pianist with the J. J. Johnson Quintet, and he recorded "StarCrossed Lovers" on the 1968 album Encounter! with Pepper Adams and Zoot Sims. Over his long career Tommy Flanagan played and recorded countless pieces as a sideman in various groups, but it was his crisp, smart solos, short though they were, in these two particular pieces that I've always loved. That's why I was thinking if only he would play those two numbers right now it'd be perfect. I was watching him closely, picturing him coming over to my table and saying, "Hey, I've had my eye on you. Do you have any requests? Why don't you give me the titles of two numbers you'd like me to play?" Knowing all the time, of course, that the chances of that happening were nil.

And then, without a word, without as much as a glance in my direction, Tommy Flanagan launched into the last two numbers of his set-the very ones I'd been thinking of. He started off with the ballad "Star-Crossed Lovers," then went into an up-tempo version of "Barbados." I sat there, wineglass in hand, speechless. Jazz fans will understand that the chance of his picking these two pieces from out of the millions of jazz numbers out there was astronomical. And also-and this is the main point here-his performances of both numbers were amazing,

The second incident took place around the same time and also had to do with jazz. I was in a used-record store near the Berkeley School of Music one afternoon, checking out the records. Rummaging around in old shelves of LPs is one of few things that makes life worth living, as far as I'm concerned. On that particular day I'd located a used copy of Pepper Adams's recording for Riverside called 10 to 4 at the 5 Spot. It was a live recording of the Pepper Adams Quintet, with Donald Byrd on trumpet, recorded in New York at The Five Spot jazz club. "10 to 4," of course, meant ten minutes till four o'clock, meaning that they played such a hot set they went on till dawn. This copy of the album was a first pressing, in mint condition, and was going for only seven or eight dollars. I owned the Japanese version of the record and had listened to it so much it was all scratched. Finding an original recording in this good shape and at this price, to exaggerate a little, was like a minor miracle. I was overjoyed as I bought the record, and just as I was exiting the shop a young man passed me and asked, "Hey, do you have the time?" I glanced at my watch and automatically answered, "Yeah, it's ten to four."

After I said this I noticed the coincidence and gulped. What in the world is going on? I wondered. Was the god of jazz hovering in the sky above Boston, giving me a wink and a smile and saying, "Yo, you dig it?"

Neither one of these incidents was anything special. It wasn't like my life turned in a new direction. I was simply struck by strange coincidences-that things like this actually do happen.

Don't misunderstand me-I'm not the sort of person who's into occult phenomena. Fortune-telling doesn't do a thing for me. Instead of going to the trouble of having a fortune-teller read my palm, I think I'm better off trying to rack my brain for a solution to whatever problem I have. Not that I have a brilliant mind or anything, just that this seems a quicker way to find a solution. I'm not into paranormal powers either. Transmigration, the soul, premonitions, telepathy, the end times-I'll pass. I'm not saying I don't believe in any of these. No problem with me if they really do exist. I'm just personally not interested. Still, a significant number of strange, out-of-left-field kinds of things have colored my otherwise humdrum life.

The story I'm about to tell is one a friend of mine told me. I happened to tell him once about my own two episodes, and afterward he sat there for a time with a serious look on his face and finally said, "You know, something like that happened to me too. Something that coincidence led me to. It wasn't something totally weird, but I can't really explain it. At any rate, a series of coincidences took me somewhere I never expected to be."

I've changed some of the facts to protect people's identities, but other than that the story is just as he related it.

My friend works as a piano tuner. He lives in the western part of Tokyo, near the Tama River. He's forty-one, and gay. He doesn't especially hide the fact that he's gay. He has a boyfriend three years younger than he is. The boyfriend works in real estate and because of his job isn't able to come out, so they live apart. My friend might be a lowly piano tuner, but he graduated from the piano department of a music college and is an impressive pianist himself. His forte is modern French composers-Debussy, Ravel, and Eric Satie-and he plays them with a deep expressiveness. But Francis Poulenc is his favorite.

"Poulenc was gay," he explained to me one day. "And he made no attempt to hide it. Which was a pretty hard thing to do in those days. He said this once: 'If you took away my being homosexual my music never would have come about.' I know exactly what he means. He had to be as true to his homosexuality as he was to his music. That's music, and that's life."

I've always liked Poulenc's music, too. When my friend comes over to tune my old piano I sometimes have him run through a few short Poulenc pieces when he's finished. "The French Suite," "The Pastoral," and so on.

He "discovered" he was gay after entering music college. Before then he never once considered the possibility. He was handsome, well brought up, had a calm demeanor, and was popular with the girls in his high school. He never had a steady girlfriend, but he did go out on dates. He loved walking with a girl, gazing at her hairdo close up, the fragrance of her neck, holding her delicate hand in his. But he never experienced sex. After several dates with a girl he'd start to sense that she was hoping he'd take the initiative and do something, but he never was able to take the next step. He never felt anything inside driving him to do so. Without exception the other guys around him wrestled with their own sexual demons, some of them plunging ahead and giving in, but he never felt the same kind of urges. Maybe I'm just a late bloomer, he figured. Or maybe I just haven't met the right girl yet.

In college he went out with a girl in the percussion department. They enjoyed talking, and whenever they were together they felt close. Not long after they met they had sex in her room. She was the one who started it. They'd had a few drinks. The sex went off smoothly, though it wasn't as thrilling and satisfying as everybody said. In fact he found the act rough, grotesque even. And the faint odor the girl gave off when she got sexually aroused turned him off. He much preferred just talking with her, playing music together, sharing a meal. As time passed, having sex with her became a burden.

Still, he just thought he was indifferent to sex. But one day . . . no, I think I'll skip this part. It'll take too long, and it really isn't connected to the story I want to tell. At any rate, something took place and he discovered that he was, unmistakably, gay. He didn't want to make up some excuse, so he came right out and told her. Within a week the news had spread to all his friends. He lost a few of them, and things grew difficult between him and his parents, but in the final analysis it was good it all came out. He wasn't the type who could have hid who he really was.

What hurt the most, though, was how this affected his relationship with the person he was closest to in his family, his sister, who was two years older. When her fiance's family heard about her brother's coming out it looked like the marriage might be canceled, and though they were able to persuade the man's parents and finally get married, the whole thing nearly gave his sister a nervous breakdown, and she got incensed at him. Why did you have to pick this time in my life to make waves? she yelled at him. Her brother naturally defended himself, but after this they grew apart, and he even passed on attending her wedding.

He mostly enjoyed his life as a gay man living alone. Other than those who had a physical revulsion to gays, most people liked him-he was, after all, always well dressed, kind and courteous, with a nice sense of humor and a winning smile. He was good at his job, so he had a large list of clients and a steady income. Several famous pianists insisted on having him tune their instruments. He purchased a twobedroom apartment near a university and had nearly paid off the mortgage. He owned an expensive stereo system, was a skilled organic chef, and kept himself in shape by working out five days a week at a gym. After going out with a number of men, he had met his present partner and had been enjoying a settled sexual relationship with him for nearly a decade.

On Tuesdays he'd cross over the Tama River in his green, stick-shift Honda convertible sports car and go to an outlet mall in Kanagawa Prefecture. The mall had all the typical big box stores-The Gap, Toys-R-Us, The Body Shop. On weekends the place was packed and you could barely find a parking spot, but on weekday mornings the mall was nearly deserted. He'd head to a large bookstore at the mall, buy a book that caught his eye, then spend a pleasant few hours sipping coffee and reading in a café. That was the way he spent his Tuesdays.

"The mall's hideous," he told me, "but that café is the exception-a very comfortable little place. I just happened to run across it. They don't play any music, it's all non-smoking, and the chairs are perfect for reading. Not too hard, not too soft. And there's never anybody there. I don't imagine on a Tuesday morning you'd find many people heading for a café. Even if they were, they'd probably go to the nearby Starbuck's."

So Tuesday mornings find him in that café, lost in a book, from just past ten until one. At one he heads to a nearby restaurant, has a lunch of tuna salad and Perrier, then goes to the gym to work out. That's a typical Tuesday,

On that particular Tuesday morning he was reading, as usual, in the nearly empty café. Charles Dickens's Bleak House. He'd read it many years ago, and when he spied it on a bookshelf decided to try it again. He had a clear memory of it as an interesting read, though he couldn't for the life of him remember the plot. Dickens had always been one of his favorite writers. Reading Dickens made the world fade away. From the first page he found himself completely absorbed by the story.

After an hour's concentrated reading, though, he felt tired. He closed his book, put it on his table, signaled the waitress for a refill, and went to the rest room outside the café. When he returned to his seat, a woman at the next table, who was also reading, spoke to him.

"I'm sorry, but do you mind if I ask you a question?" she said.

A somewhat ambiguous smile came to him as he returned her gaze. She was about the same age as he was. "Of course," he replied.

"I know it's forward of me to speak like this, but there's something I've been wondering about," she said, blushing slightly.

"It's fine. I'm in no hurry, go right ahead."

"By any chance is that book you're reading by Dickens?"

"It is," he said, picking up the book and showing it to her. "Bleak House."

"I thought so," she said, clearly relieved. "I glanced at the cover and thought it might be that book."

"Are you a fan of Bleak House, too?"

"I am. What I mean is, I've been reading the same book. Right next to you, just by coincidence." She took the plain paper wrapping off the book, the kind bookstores put on if you liked, and showed him the cover.

It was definitely a surprising coincidence. Imagine-on a weekday morning, in a deserted café in a deserted shopping mall, two people happen to be sitting right next to each other reading the same exact book. And this wasn't some current bestseller but Charles Dickens. And not even one of his better-known works. This strange and startling chance meeting took both of them by surprise, but it also let them overcome the awkwardness of a first encounter.

The woman lived in a new housing development not far from the mall. She'd purchased Bleak House five days ago at this very bookstore, and when she first sat down in the café to order a cup of tea and opened the book she found she couldn't stop reading. Before she knew it two hours had passed. She hadn't been so absorbed in reading since she was in college.

She was kind of petite and, although not overweight, was starting to put on a bit of extra flesh in all the typical places. She had a large bust and an attractive face. Her clothes were tasteful and looked to be a little on the expensive side. The two of them chatted for a while. The woman was in a book club, and their book of the month happened to be Bleak House. One of the women in the club was a great fan of Dickens and had suggested the novel. The woman in the café had two children (two girls, a third grader and a first grader) and normally found very little time to read, though sometimes she was able to get out of the house like this and carve out some time. Most of the people she dealt with every day were the mothers of her children's classmates, and their topics of conversation were limited to TV dramas and gossip about their children's teachers, so she joined a local book club. Her husband used to be quite a reader himself, though now work kept him so busy he was lucky to have time to glance through a few business books now and then.

He told her a little about himself. That he worked as a piano tuner, lived across the Tama River, and was single. He liked this little café so much he drove all the way here once a week just to sit and read. He didn't mention being gay. He didn't intentionally hide it, but it wasn't the sort of thing you tell just anybody.

They had lunch together in a restaurant in the mall. The woman was a very open, honest sort of person. Once she relaxed she laughed a lot-a natural, quiet laugh. Without her putting it into words, he could well imagine the kind of life she'd led till then. She was a pampered daughter of a well-to-do family in Setagaya, attended a decent college, where she got good grades and was popular (more with other girls than with boys, perhaps), married a man three years older who was pulling in a good salary, and had two daughters. The girls were attending private school. Her twelve years of marriage weren't exactly all roses, but she had no particular complaints. The two of them had a light lunch and talked about books they'd read recently, music they liked. They talked for about an hour.

"I really enjoyed this," the woman said after they'd finished, and she blushed. "I don't have anybody I can really talk to."

"I enjoyed it, too," he said. And that was the truth.

The next Tuesday, as he sat in the café reading, she showed up again. They greeted each other with a smile and sat at separate tables, both silently delving into their copies of Bleak Rouse. Just before noon she came over to his table and spoke to him, and like the week before they went off to have lunch. I know a cozy little French place nearby, she said, and I was wondering if you'd like to go. There aren't any decent restaurants in the mall. Sounds good, he agreed, let's go. They drove to the restaurant in her blue, automatic Peugeot 306, and had watercress salad and grilled sea bass, a glass of white wine. And discussed Dickens's novel as they ate.

After lunch, as they were driving back to the mall, she stopped the car in a park and took his hand in hers. She wanted to go someplace nice and quiet with him, she said. He was a little surprised at how fast things had developed.

"I never did this kind of thing after I got married. Not even once," she explained. "It's true. But you're all I've thought about this past week. I promise I won't make any demands or cause you any trouble. Of course, if you don't find me attractive ..."

He gently squeezed her hand and explained things. If I were an ordinary guy, he said, I'm sure I'd be happy to go with you to someplace nice and quiet. You're an attractive woman, and I know spending time like that with you would be wonderful. But the thing is, I'm gay. So I can't manage sex with women. Some gay men are able to, but not me. I hope you'll understand. I can be your friend but not your lover, I'm afraid.

It took quite a while for her to comprehend what he was trying to convey (he was the first homosexual she'd ever met), and after she finally grasped it, she began to cry. Pressing her face against the piano tuner's shoulder, she cried for a long time. It must have been a shock for her. The poor woman, he thought, then he put his arms around her and caressed her hair.

"Forgive me," she finally said. "I made you talk about something you didn't want to talk about."

"That's all right. I'm not trying to hide who I am. I guess I should have picked up on where we were headed so there wouldn't be any misunderstanding. I'm afraid I'm the one who made you feel bad."

His long, slim fingers touched her hair for a long time, and that gradually had a calming effect. There was a single mole, he noticed, on her right earlobe. The mole called up a childhood memory. His older sister had a mole about the same size in the same spot. When he was little, he used to playfully rub his sister's mole when she was asleep, trying to rub it off. His sister would wake up, angry.

"I've been excited every day since I met you," she said. "I haven't felt this way in a long time. It was great-I felt like a teenager again. So I don't mind. I went to the beauty salon, went on a quick diet, bought some Italian lingerie ..."

"Sounds like I made you waste your money." He laughed.

"But I think I needed that right now."

"Needed what?"

"I had to do something to express what I'm feeling."

"By buying sexy Italian lingerie?"

She blushed to her ears. "It wasn't sexy. Not at all. Just very beautiful."

He beamed and looked in her eyes. He indicated he'd just been joking, and that broke the tension. She smiled back, and for a time they gazed deep into each other's eyes.

He took out his handkerchief and wiped away her tears. She sat up and redid her makeup, checking herself in the sun visor's mirror.

"The day after tomorrow I have to go to a hospital in town to get a second examination for breast cancer." She'd just pulled into the parking lot at the mall and had set the parking brake. "They found a suspicious shadow on my annual X ray and told me to come in so they can run some more tests. If it really turns out to be cancer I might have to have an operation right away. Maybe that's why I acted the way I did today. What I mean is..."

She didn't say anything for a while, then shook her head vigorously.

"I don't understand it myself."

The piano tuner measured her silence for a time, listening carefully, as if to pick up a faint sound within.

"Almost every Tuesday morning I'll be here," he said. "Right here, reading. There's not much I can do to help, but I'm here if you need somebody to talk to. If you don't mind talking to somebody like me, that is."

"I haven't told anybody about this. Not even my husband."

He rested his hand on top of hers, on top of the parking brake.

"I'm scared," she said. "Sometimes so scared I can't think."

A blue minivan pulled into the space beside them, an unhappy middle-aged couple emerging. They were arguing about something pointless. Once they had gone, silence returned. Her eyes were closed.

"I'm in no position to hand down any advice," he said, "but there's a rule I always follow when I don't know what to do."

"A rule?"

"If you have to choose between something that has form and something that doesn't, go for the one without form. That's my rule. Whenever I run into a wall I follow that rule, and it always works. Even if it's hard going at the time."

"You made up that rule yourself?"

"I did," he replied, looking at the Peugeot's odometer. "From my own experience."

"If you have to choose between something that has form and something that doesn't, choose the one without form," she repeated.

"That's right."

She considered this. "But if I had to do that right now I don't know if I could tell the difference. Between what has form and what doesn't."

"Maybe not, but somewhere down the line I'm sure you'll have to make that kind of choice."

"How do you know that?"

He nodded quietly. "An experienced gay guy like me has all kinds of special powers."

She laughed. "Thank you."

A long silence followed. But it wasn't as thick and stifling as before.

"Goodbye," the woman said. "I really want to thank you. I'm happy I could meet you and talk. I feel a little more able to face up to things now."

He smiled and shook her hand. "Take care of yourself."

He stood there watching as her blue Peugeot drove away. He gave a final wave toward her rearview mirror, and then slowly walked back to where his Honda was parked,

The next Tuesday it was raining and the woman didn't show up at the café. He silently read until one and then left.

On this day the piano tuner decided not to go to the gym. He just didn't feel like exercising. Instead he went straight home without stopping for lunch and lay there on his couch, listening to Arthur Rubenstein playing Chopin ballads. Eyes closed, he could picture the woman's face, the touch of her hair. The shape of the mole on her earlobe came back clearly to him. After a while her face and the Peugeot faded from his mind, but that mole remained. Whether he kept his eyes open or closed, that small black dot remained, like a forgotten period,

Around two-thirty in the afternoon he decided to phone his sister. It had been a long time since they'd spoken. How long? he wondered. Ten years? They were that estranged from each other. One reason was that back when her engagement got messed up, the two of them had gotten worked up and said some things they shouldn't have. Another reason was that he didn't like her husband. He was arrogant and crude and treated the piano tuner's sexual orientation like it was a contagious disease. Unless he absolutely had to, the piano tuner didn't want to come within a hundred yards of the guy.

He hesitated several times before picking up the phone but finally punched in the number. The phone rang more than ten times, and he was about to give up-with a certain sense of relief, actually-when his sister picked up. Her familiar voice. When she realized it was him, there was a deep silence for a moment on the other end of the line.

"Why are you calling me?" she said, in a flat tone.

"I don't know," he admitted. "I just thought I'd better call you. I was worried about you."

Silence once more. A long silence. Maybe she's still mad at me, he thought.

"There's no particular reason I called. I just wanted to check that everything's okay."

"Hold on a second," his sister said. He could tell that she had been weeping. "I'm sorry, but could you give me a moment?"

Silence continued for a time. He kept the receiver to his ear the whole time. He couldn't hear anything or sense anything. "Are you busy now?" she finally asked.

"No, I'm free," he replied.

"Can I come over to see you?"

"Of course. I'll pick you up at the station."

An hour later he picked up his sister at the train station and took her back to his apartment. They had to admit that they'd each aged somewhat. They were each like a mirror for the other, reflecting the changes in themselves. His sister was still slim and stylish and looked five years younger than her real age. Still, her hollow cheeks had a severity to them he'd never seen before, and her impressive dark eyes had lost their usual luster. He himself looked younger than his years, too, though it was hard to hide the fact that his hair was thinning out. In the car they hesitantly talked about typical things: work, her children, news about mutual friends, the state of their parents' health.

Inside his apartment he went into the kitchen to boil some water.

"Are you still playing the piano?" she asked as she eyed the upright in his living room.

"Just for my own amusement. And only simple pieces. I can't get my hands around the harder ones anymore."

His sister opened the lid of the piano and rested her fingers on the yellowed, well-used keys. "I was sure you were going to be a famous concert pianist one day."

"The music world is where child prodigies go to die," he said as he ground some coffee beans. "Having to give up the idea of being a professional pianist was a major disappointment. It was like everything I'd done up till then was a complete waste. I just wanted to disappear. But it turned out my ears are superior to my hands. There are a lot of people more talented than I am, but nobody has as good an ear. I realized that not long after I started college. And that being a first-class piano tuner was a lot better than being a second-rate pianist."

He took out a container of cream from the refrigerator and poured it into a ceramic pitcher.

"It's funny, but after I switched to a major in piano tuning I began to enjoy playing the piano much more. Ever since I was little I'd practiced like crazy. It was fun to see myself improve, but I never once enjoyed playing. Playing piano was just a way of solving certain problems. Trying to avoid fingering mistakes or letting my fingers get all tangled up-all just to impress people. It wasn't until I gave up the idea of becoming a pianist that I finally understood how enjoyable playing the piano can be. And how wonderful music really is. It was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders, a weight I never realized I was lugging around until I got rid of it."

"You never told me about this."

"I didn't?"

His sister shook her head.

"It was the same when I realized I'm gay," he went on. "Issues I could never understand were suddenly resolved. Life was much easier after that, like the clouds had parted and things were now visible. When I gave up being a pianist, and came out as a homosexual, I'm sure it upset a lot of people. But I want you to understand that that's the only way I could get back to who I really am. The real me."

He placed a coffee cup down in front of his sister, then took his own mug and sat down next to her on the sofa.

"I probably should have made more of an effort to understand you," his sister said. "But before you took those steps you should have explained things to us. Told us what was on your mind, let us in on what you were thinking and-"

"I didn't want to explain things," he said, cutting her off. "I wanted people to understand me, without having to put it into words. YOM especially."

She didn't say anything.

"Back then I just couldn't consider others' feelings. I couldn't afford to think about that."

His voice shook a little as he recalled that time of his life. He felt like bursting out crying but somehow held himself in check and went on.

"My life completely changed back then, in a short space of time. It was all I could do to hang on and not get thrown off. I was so scared, so very frightened. At the time, I couldn't explain things to anybody. I felt like I was about to slip off the face of the earth. I just wanted you to understand me. And hold me. Without any logic or explanations. But nobody ever-"

His sister covered her face with her hands. Her shoulders shook as she wept. He gently laid his hand on her shoulder.

"I'm sorry," she said.

"It's all right," he replied. He poured some cream into his coffee, stirred it, and took a slow sip, trying to calm himself. "No need to cry about it. It was my fault, too."

"Tell me," she said, raising her face to look straight at him, "why today of all days did you call me?"

"Today?"

"You haven't called for ten years, and I just wanted to know why you picked-today?"

"Something happened," he said, "and it made me think of you. I just wondered how you're doing. I wanted to hear your voice. That's all."

"No one told you anything?"

There was something different about her voice, and he tensed up. "No, I haven't heard anything from anybody. Did something happen?"

His sister was silent for a while, gathering her feelings. He waited patiently for her to explain.

"I'm going into the hospital tomorrow," she said.

"The hospital?"

"I'm having an operation for breast cancer tomorrow. They're going to remove my right breast. The whole thing. Nobody knows, though, if that will stop the cancer from spreading. They won't know till they've taken it off."

He couldn't say a thing for a while. His hand still on her shoulder, he gazed around meaninglessly from one object to another in the room. The clock, an ornament, the calendar, the remote control for the stereo. Familiar objects in a familiar room, but he somehow couldn't grasp the distance that separated one object from another.

"For the longest time I wondered whether I should get in touch with you," his sister said. "I ended up thinking I shouldn't, so I never said anything. But I wanted to see you so much. I thought we should have at least one good talk. There were things I had to apologize for. But... I didn't want to see you like this. Do you know what I'm saying?"

"I do," her brother said.

"If we were going to meet, I wanted it to be under happier circumstances, where I could be more optimistic about things. So I decided not to get in touch with you. Right when I'd made up my mind, though, you called me-"

Wordlessly, he put both arms around her and drew her close. He could feel her breasts pressing against his chest. His sister rested her face on his shoulder and cried. Brother and sister stayed that way for a long while.

Finally she spoke up. "You said something happened and you thought of me. What was it? If you don't mind telling me."

"I don't know how to put it. It's hard to explain. It was just something that took place. A series of coincidences. One coincidence after another, and then I-"

He shook his head. The sense of distance was still off. Several lightyears separated the ornament from the remote control.

"I just can't explain it," he said.

"That's okay," she said. "But I'm glad it happened. Very glad."

He touched her right earlobe and lightly rubbed the mole. And then, like sending a wordless whisper into some very special place, he leaned forward and kissed it.

"My sister's right breast was removed in the operation, but fortunately the cancer hadn't spread and she was able to get by with some mild chemotherapy. Her hair didn't even fall out. She's completely fine now. I went almost every day to see her in the hospital. It must be awful for a woman to lose a breast that way. After she went home, I started to visit them pretty often. I've grown close to my nephew and niece. I've even been teaching my niece piano. Not to brag or anything, but there's a lot of promise there. And my brother-in-law's not as bad as I thought, now that I've gotten to know him. Sure, he's still arrogant and a bit crude, but he works hard and he's good to my sister. And he's finally gotten it through his head that being gay isn't a contagious disease I'm going to give his children. A small but significant step."

He laughed. "Getting back together with my sister, I feel like I've moved on in life. Like I can live the way I'm supposed to now, more than ever before. It was something I had to face up to. I think deep down I was always hoping my sister and I would make up and be able to hug each other one more time."

"But something had to happen before you could?" I asked.

"That's right," he said, and nodded several times. "That's the key. And you know, this thought crossed my mind at the time: maybe chance is a pretty common thing after all. Those kinds of coincidences are happening all around us, all the time, but most of them don't catch our attention and we just let them go by. It's like fireworks in the daytime. You might hear a faint sound, but even if you look up at the sky you can't see a thing. But if we're really hoping something may come true, it may become visible, like a message rising to the surface. Then we're able to make it out clearly, decipher what it means. And seeing it before us, we're surprised and wonder at how strange things like this can happen. Even though there's nothing strange about it. I just can't help thinking that. What do you think? Is this forcing things?"

I thought about what he'd said. "You know, you may be right," I managed to reply. But I wasn't at all sure that things could be neatly wrapped up like that.

"I'd rather believe in something simpler, like in a god of jazz," I said.

He laughed. "I like that. It'd be nice if there was a god of gays too."

I have no idea what ever happened to that petite woman he met in the bookstore café. I haven't had my piano tuned for over half a year, and haven't had a chance to talk with him. But I imagine on Tuesdays he's still driving across the Tama River and going to that café. Who knows-maybe he ran into her again. But I haven't heard anything, which means that this is where the story ends.

I don't care if it's the god of jazz, the god of gays, or some other type of god, but I hope that, somewhere, unobtrusively, as if it were all some coincidence, someone up there is watching over that woman. I hope this from the bottom of my heart. A very simple hope.

[Author Affiliation]
Haruld Murakami's most recent novels are Kafka on the Shore and After Dark. A new collection of stories will appear next year.




Posted on Apr 23, 2006, 11:33 PM

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