Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

Harper Lee

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Tác giả: Haruki Murakami
Thể loại: Tiểu Thuyết
Biên tập: Truong Ngoc Tuan
Upload bìa: Minh Khoa
Language: English
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Chapter 16: She Drinks Her Salty Dog, Talking About The Sound Of The Waves
have a letter for you,” I said.
“For me?” she said.
The connection was bad, so we practically had to shout, which was not very conducive to communicating delicate shades of feeling. It was like talking on a windswept hill through upturned collars.
“Actually, the letter’s addressed to me, but somehow it seems to be meant more for you.”
“It does, does it?”
“Yes, it does,” I said. As soon as I’d said it, I knew this whole idiotic conversation was going nowhere fast.
She said nothing for a moment. Meanwhile, the connection cleared up.
“I have no idea what went on between you and the Rat. But he did ask me to see you, and that’s why I’m calling. Besides, I think it’d be better if you read his letters.”
“And that’s why you came out all the way from Tokyo?”
“That’s right.”
She coughed, excused herself, then said, “Because he’s your friend?”
“I suppose.”
“Why do you suppose he didn’t write to me directly?”
She did have a point.
“I don’t know,” I said, honestly.
“I don’t know either. I mean, I thought everything was over. Or isn’t it?”
I had no idea and I told her so. I lay back on the hotel bed, phone receiver in hand, and looked at the ceiling. I could be lying on the ocean floor counting fish, I thought. How many would I have to count before I could say I was done?
“It was five years ago when he disappeared. I was twenty-seven at the time,” she said, distant voice sounding like an echo from the bottom of a well. “A lot of things can change in five years.”
“True,” I said.
“And really, even if nothing had changed, I wouldn’t see it that way. I wouldn’t want to admit it. Once I did, I wouldn’t be able to go anywhere. So as far as I’m concerned, everything’s completely changed.”
“I think I understand,” I said.
A brief pause hovered between us.
It was she who broke the silence. “When was the last time you saw him?” she asked.
“Spring, five years ago, right before he up and left.”
“And did he tell you anything? I mean about why he was leaving town …?”
“So he left you with no warning either?”
“That’s right.”
“And what did you think? At the time, I mean.”
“About him up and leaving like that?”
I got up from the bed and leaned against the wall. “Well, for sure I thought he’d give up and come back after six months. He never struck me as the stick-with-it type.”
“But he didn’t come back.”
“No, he didn’t.”
There was a slight hesitation on her end of the line.
“Where is it you’re staying now?” she asked.
I told her the name of the hotel.
“I’ll meet you there tomorrow at five. The coffee lounge on the eighth floor all right?”
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll be wearing a white sports shirt and green cotton slacks. I’ve got short hair and …”
“I’ve got the picture,” she said, cheerfully cutting me off. Then she hung up.
I replaced the receiver. What did she mean, she got the picture? I didn’t get the picture, but then again, there are lots of things I don’t know anything about. Age certainly hasn’t conferred any smarts on me. Character maybe, but mediocrity is a constant, as one Russian writer put it. Russians have a way with aphorisms. They probably spend all winter thinking them up.
I took a shower, washed my rain-soaked hair, and with the towel wrapped around my waist, I watched an old American submarine movie on television. The creaking plot had the captain and first officer constantly at each other’s throat. The submarine was a fossil, and one guy had claustrophobia. But all that didn’t stop everything from working out well in the end. It was an everything-works-out-in-the-end-so-maybe-war’s-not-so-bad-after-all sort of film. One of these days they’ll be making a film where the whole human race gets wiped out in a nuclear war, but everything works out in the end.
I switched off the television, climbed into bed, and was asleep in ten seconds.
The drizzle still hadn’t let up by five o’clock the next evening. The rain had been preceded by four or five days of crisp, clear early summer skies, fooling people into thinking the rainy season was over. From the eighth-floor window, every square inch of ground looked dark and damp, and a traffic jam stretched for several miles on the eastbound lanes of the elevated expressway.
As I stared out long and hard, things began to melt in the rain. In fact, everything in town was melting. The breakwater, the cranes, the rows of buildings, the figures beneath their black umbrellas, everything. Even the greenery was flowing down from the hills. Yet when I shut my eyes for a few seconds and opened them again, the town was back the way it had been. Six cranes loomed in the dark haze, trains headed east as if their engines had-just restarted, flocks of umbrellas dodged back and forth across the streets of shops, the green hills soaked up their fill of June rain.
In a sunken area in the middle of the coffee lounge, a woman wearing a bright pink dress sat at a cerulean blue grand piano playing quintessential hotel-coffee-lounge numbers filled with arpeggios and syncopation. Not bad actually, though not an echo lingered in the air beyond the last note of each number.
It was past five o’clock and she hadn’t arrived. Since I had nothing better to do, I had a second cup of coffee and watched the piano player. She was about twenty, her shoulder-length hair immaculately coiffed like whipped cream atop a cake. The coif swayed merrily, left and right, to the rhythm, bouncing back to center when the song ended. Then the next number would begin.
She reminded me of a girl I used to know in the third grade, when I was taking piano lessons. The same age, the same class. We sometimes had to play duets together. But her name and face, entirely forgotten. All I remember about her are her tiny pale hands and pretty hair and fluffy dress.
It’s disturbing to realize this. Have I stripped her of her hands and hair and dress? Is the rest of her still living unattached somewhere else? Of course, this can’t be. The world goes on without me. People cross streets through no intervention on my part, sharpen pencils, move fifty yards a minute west to east, fill coffee lounges with music that’s refined into nothingness.
The “world”—the word always makes me think of a tortoise and elephants tirelessly supporting a gigantic disc. The elephants have no knowledge of the tortoise’s role, the tortoise unable to see what the elephants are doing. And neither is the least aware of the world on their backs.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” a woman’s voice from behind me said. “Work ran late, and I just couldn’t get free.”
“No problem. I didn’t have anything to do today anyway.”
She dropped her keys down on the table and ordered an orange juice without bothering to look at the menu. Her age was not easy to tell. If she hadn’t mentioned it to me over the phone, I probably would not have known. If she had said she was thirty-three, she would have looked thirty-three to me. If she’d said twenty-seven, then she’d have looked twenty-seven. At face value.
Her taste in clothes was nicely succinct. Ample white cotton slacks, an orange-and-yellow checkered blouse, sleeves rolled up to the elbows, and a leather shoulder bag. None of them new, but all well cared for. She wore no rings or necklace or bracelet or earrings. Her bangs were short and brushed casually to the side.
The tiny wrinkles at the corners of her eyes might have been there from birth rather than acquired with age. Only her slender, fair neckline, visible from the button open at her collar, and the backs of her hands hinted at her age. People start aging from early, very early, on. Gradually it spreads over their entire body like a stain that cannot be wiped away.
“What sort of work?” I ventured to ask.
“Drafting work at an architectural office. I’ve been there for a long time now.”
The conversation trailed off. I slowly took out a cigarette and lit up. The piano player stopped playing, brought the lid down, and retired somewhere for her break. I envied her.
“How long have you been friends with him?” she asked.
“Eleven years, I guess. And you?”
“Two months, ten days,” she answered right off. “From the time I first met him to the time he disappeared. Two months and ten days. I remember because I keep a diary.”
The orange juice came and my empty coffee cup was spirited away.
“I waited three months after he disappeared. December, January, February. The coldest time of the year. Maybe it was a cold winter that year?”
“I don’t recall,” I said, though the cold of winter five years ago now seemed like yesterday’s weather.
“Have you ever waited for a woman like that?”
“No,” I said.
“You concentrate on waiting for someone and after a certain time it hardly matters what happens anymore. It could be five years or ten years or one month. It’s all the same.”
I nodded.
She drank half her orange juice.
“It was that way when I was first married,” she said. “I was always the one who waited, until I got tired of waiting, and in the end I didn’t care. Married at twenty-one, divorced at twenty-two. Then I came here.”
“It was the same with my wife.”
“What was?”
“Married at twenty-one, divorced at twenty-two.”
She studied my face awhile. Then stirred her orange juice with her swizzle stick. I’d spoken unnecessarily, it seemed.
“When you’re young, it’s hard getting married then getting divorced right away,” she said. “The thing is you’re looking for something two-dimensional and not quite real. It never lasts. But you can’t expect something unreal to last anyway, can you?”
“I suppose not.”
“In the five years between my divorce and when I met him, I was all alone in this town. Living a life that was, well, rather unreal. I hardly knew anyone, rarely went out, had no romance. I’d get up in the morning, go to the office, draft plans, stop by the supermarket on the way home to shop, and eat dinner at home alone. I’d listen to FM radio, read, write in my diary, wash my stockings in the bath. My apartment’s near the ocean, so there’s always the sound of the surf. It was cold and lonely.”
She finished the rest of her orange juice.
“It seems I’m boring you.”
I shook my head.
Past six. The lights in the lounge dimmed for cocktail hour. The lights of town began to blink on. Red lights lit up on the cranes. Fine needles of rain became visible through the gathering dusk.
“Care for a drink?” I asked.
“What do you call vodka with grapefruit juice?”
“A salty dog.”
I called the waiter and ordered a salty dog and a Cutty Sark on the rocks.
“Where were we?”
“Your cold and lonely life.”
“Well, if you really want to know, it hasn’t been all that cold and lonely,” she said. “Just the sound of the waves is. That alone puts a chill on things. When I moved in, the superintendent said I’d get used to it soon enough, but I still haven’t.”
“The ocean’s no longer there.”
She smiled softly. A hint of movement came to the wrinkles at the corners of her eyes. “True. As you say, the ocean’s no longer there. But even so, I swear I can sometimes still hear the waves. It’s probably imprinted into my ears over the years.”
“Then the Rat appeared.”
“Yes. Although I never called him that.”
“What did you call him?”
“By his name. Like everybody else.”
Come to think it, “The Rat” did sound a bit childish, even for a nickname. “Hmm,” I said.
They brought our drinks. She took a sip of her salty dog, then wiped the salt from her lips with the napkin. The napkin came away with the slightest trace of lipstick. Then she folded the lipstick-blushed napkin deftly and laid it down.
“He was, what can I say … unreal enough. Do you know what I mean?”
“I think so.”
“I guess it took someone as unreal as him to break through my own unreality. It struck me the very first time I met him. That’s why I liked him. Or maybe I only thought so after I got to like him. It amounts to the same thing either way.”
The piano player returned from her break and began to play themes from old film scores. Perfect: the wrong background music for the wrong scene.
“I sometimes think maybe, in the end, I was only using him. And maybe he sensed it all along. What do you think?”
“I wouldn’t know,” I said. “That’s between you and him.”
She said nothing.
After a full twenty seconds of silence, I realized she’d run out of things to say. I downed the last of my whiskey and retrieved the Rat’s letters from my pocket, placing them in the center of the table. Where they sat for a while.
“Do I have to read them here?”
“Please take them home and read them. If you don’t want to read them, then do whatever you want with them.”
She nodded. She put the letters in her bag, which she fastened with a snap of the clasp. I lit up a second cigarette and ordered another whiskey. The second whiskey is always my favorite. From the third on, it no longer has any taste. It’s just something to pour into your stomach.
“You came all the way from Tokyo for this reason?” she asked.
“Pretty much so.”
“You’re very kind.”
“I’ve never thought about it that way. A matter of habit. If the tables were turned, I’m sure he’d do the same for me.”
“Have you ever asked something like this of him?”
I shook my head. “No, but we go back a long time imposing our unrealities on each other. Whether we’ve managed to take care of things realistically or not is another question.”
“Maybe nobody really can.”
“Maybe not.”
She smiled and got up, whisking away the bill. “Let me take care of this. I was forty minutes late, after all.”
“If you’re sure, then by all means,” I said. “But one more thing, I was wondering if I could ask you a question.”
“Over the phone you said you could picture how I looked.”
“I meant there was something I could sense about you.”
“And that was enough for you to spot me right away?”
“I could tell in no time at all.”
The rain kept falling at the same rate. From my hotel window, through the neon signs of the building next door, a hundred thousand strands of rain sped earthward through a green glow. If I looked down, the rain seemed to pour straight into one fixed point on the ground.
I plopped down on the bed and smoked a couple cigarettes, then called the front desk to make a reservation for a train the following morning. There was nothing left for me to do in town.
The rain kept falling until midnight.
A Wild Sheep Chase: A Novel A Wild Sheep Chase: A Novel - Haruki Murakami A Wild Sheep Chase: A Novel