Sputnik Sweetheart

Sputnik Sweetheart

   It was about two weeks after the wedding reception when Sumire called me, a Sunday night, just before dawn. Naturally, I was asleep. As dead to the world as an old anvil. The week before I'd been in charge of arranging a meeting and could only snatch a few hours' sleep as I gathered together all the necessary (read pointless) documents we needed. Come the weekend, I wanted to sleep to my heart's content. So of course that's when the phone rang.

"Were you asleep?" Sumire asked, probingly.

"Um," I groaned and instinctively glanced at the alarm clock beside my bed. The clock had huge fluorescent hands, but I couldn't read the time. The image projected on my retina and the part of my brain that processed it were out of sync, like an old lady struggling, unsuccessfully, to thread a needle. What I could understand was that it was dark all around and close to Fitzgerald's "Dark Night of the Soul."

"It'll be dawn pretty soon."

"Um," I murmured listlessly.

"Right near where I live there's a man who raises roosters. Must have had them for years and years. In a half hour or so they'll be crowing up a storm. This is my favorite time of the day. The pitch-black night sky starting to glow in the east, the roosters crowing for all they're worth like it's their revenge on somebody. Any roosters near you?"

On this end of the telephone line I shook my head slightly.

"I'm calling from the phone booth near the park."

"Um," I said. There was a phone booth about two hundred yards from her apartment. Since Sumire didn't own a phone, she always had to walk over there to call. Just your average phone booth.

"I know I shouldn't be calling you this late. I'm really sorry. The time of night when the roosters haven't even started crowing. When this pitiful moon is hanging there in a corner of the eastern sky like a used-up kidney. But think of me--I had to trudge out in the pitch dark all the way over here. With this telephone card I got as a present at my cousin's wedding clutched in my hand. With a photo on it of the happy couple holding hands. Can you imagine how depressing that is? My socks don't even match, for gosh sake. One has a picture of Mickey Mouse; the other's plain wool. My room's a complete disaster area; I can't find anything. I don't want to say this too loudly, but you wouldn't believe how awful my underpants are. I doubt that even one of those pantie thieves would touch them. If some pervert killed me, I'd never live it down. I'm not asking for sympathy, but it would be nice if you could give me a bit more in the way of a response. Other than those cold interjections of yours--ohs and ums. How about a conjunction? A conjunction would be nice. A yet or a but."

"However," I said. I was exhausted and felt like I was still in the middle of a dream.

"'However,'" she repeated. "OK, I can live with that. One small step for man. One very small step, however."

"So, was there something you wanted?"

"Right, I wanted you to tell me something. That's why I called," Sumire said. She lightly cleared her throat. "What I want to know is what's the difference between a sign and symbol?"

I felt a weird sensation, like something was silently parading through my head. "Could you repeat the question?"

She did. What's the difference between a sign and a symbol?

I sat up in bed, switched the receiver from my left hand to my right. "Let me get this right--you're calling me because you want to find out the difference between a sign and a symbol. On Sunday morning, just before dawn. Um..."

"At four-fifteen, to be precise, she said. "It was bothering me. What could be the difference between a sign and a symbol? Somebody asked me that a couple of weeks ago, and I can't get it out of my mind. I was getting undressed for bed, and I suddenly remembered. I can't sleep until I find out. Can you explain it? The difference between a sign and a symbol?"

"Let me think," I said and gazed up at the ceiling. Even when I was fully conscious, explaining things logically to Sumire was never easy. "The emperor is a symbol of Japan. Do you follow that?"

"Sort of," she replied.

"'Sort of' won't cut it. That's what it says in the Japanese constitution," I said, as calmly as possible. "No room for discussion or doubts. You've got to accept that, or we won't get anywhere."

"Gotcha. I'll accept that."

"Thank you. So--the emperor is a symbol of Japan. But this doesn't mean that the emperor and Japan are equivalent. Do you follow?"

"I don't get it."

"OK, how about this--the arrow points in one direction. The emperor is a symbol of Japan, but Japan is not the symbol of the emperor. You understand that, right?"

"I guess."

"Say, for instance, you write 'The emperor is a sign of Japan.' That makes the two equivalent. So when we say 'Japan,' it would also mean 'the emperor,' and when we speak of the emperor, it would also mean 'Japan.' In other words, the two are interchangeable. Same as saying, 'A equals b, so b equals a.' That's what a sign is."

"So you're saying you can switch the emperor and Japan? Can you do that?"

"That's not what I mean," I said, shaking my head vigorously on my end of the line. "I'm just trying to explain the best I can. I'm not planning to switch the emperor and Japan. It's just a way of explaining it."

"Hmm," Sumire said. "I think I get it. As an image. It's the difference between a one-way street and a two-way street."

"For our purposes, that's close enough."

"I'm always amazed how good you are at explaining things."

"That's my job,' I said. My words seemed somehow flat and stale. "You should try being an elementary-school teacher sometime. You'd never hnagine the kind of questions I get. 'Why isn't the world square?' 'Why do squids have ten legs and not eight?' I've learned to come up with an answer to just about everything.

"You must be a great teacher."

"I wonder," I said. I really did wonder.

"By the way, why do squids have ten legs and not eight?"

"Can I go back to sleep now? I'm beat. Just holding this phone I feel like I'm holding up a crumbling stone wall."

"You know...," Sumire said. And let a delicate pause intervene--like an old gatekeeper closing the railroad crossing gate with a clatter just before the train bound for St. Petersburg passes by. "It's really silly to say this, but I'm in love."

"Um," I said, switching the receiver back to my left hand. I could hear her breathing through the phone. I had no idea how I should respond. And as often happens when I don't know what to say, I let slip some out-of-left-field comment. "Not with me, I assume."

"Not with you," Sumire answered. I heard the sound of a cheap lighter lighting a cigarette. "Are you free today? I'd like to talk more."

"You mean, about your falling in love with someone other than me?"

"Right," she said. "About my falling passionately in love with somebody other than you."

I clamped the phone between my head and shoulder and stretched. "I'm free in the evening."

"I'll be over at five," Sumire said. And then added, as if an afterthought: "Thank you."

"For what?"

"For being nice enough to answer my question in the middle of the night."

I gave a vague response, hung up, and turned out the light. It was still pitch black out. Just before I fell asleep, I thought about her final thank you and whether I'd ever heard those words from her before. Maybe I had, once, but I couldn't recall.

Sumire arrived at my apartment a little before five. I didn't recognize her. She'd taken on a complete change of style. Her hair was short in a stylish cut, her bangs still showing traces of the scissors's snips. She wore a light cardigan over a short-sleeve, navy-blue dress, and a pair of black enamel, medium-high heels. She even had on stockings. Stockings? Women's clothes weren't exactly my field of expertise, but it was clear that everything she had on was pretty expensive. Dressed like this, Sumire looked polished and lovely. It was quite becoming, to tell the truth. Though I preferred the old, outrageous Sumire. To each his own.

"Not bad," I said, giving her a complete once-over. "But I wonder what good old Jack Kerouac would say."

Sumire smiled, an ever-so-slightly more sophisticated smile than usual. "Why don't we go for a walk?"

We walked side by side down University Boulevard toward the station and stopped by our favorite coffee shop. Sumire ordered her usual slice of cake along with her coffee. It was a clear Sunday evening near the end of April. The flower shops were full of crocuses and tulips. A gentle breeze blew, softly rustling the hems of young girls' skirts and wafting over the leisurely fragrance of young trees.

I folded my hands behind my head and watched Sumire as she slowly yet eagerly devoured her cake. From the small speakers on the ceiling of the coffee shop, Astrud Gilberto sang an old bossa nova song. "Take me to Aruanda," she sang. I closed my eyes, and the clatter of the cups and saucers sounded like the roar of a far-off sea. Aruanda‹what's it like there? I wondered.

"Still sleepy?"

"Not anymore," I answered, opening my eyes.

"You feel OK?"

"I'm fine. As fine as the Moldau River in spring."

Sumire gazed for a while at the empty plate that had held her slice of cake. She looked at me.

"Don't you think it's strange that I'm wearing these clothes?"

"I guess."

"I didn't buy them. I don't have that kind of money. There's a story behind them."

"Mind if I try to guess the story?"

"Go ahead," she said.

"There you were in your usual crummy Jack Kerouac outfit, cigarette dangling from your lips, washing your hands in some public restroom, when this five-foot-one-inch woman rushed in, all out of breath, dressed to the nines, and said, 'Please, you've got to help me! No time to explain, but I'm being chased by some awful people. Can I exchange clothes with you? If we swap clothes I can give them the slip. Thank God we're the same size.' Just like some Hong Kong action flick.'

Sumire laughed. "And the other woman happened to wear a size-six-and-a-half shoe and a size-seven dress. Just by coincidence."

"And right then and there you changed clothes, down to your Mickey Mouse underpants."

"It's my socks that are Mickey Mouse, not my panties."

"Whatever," I said.

"Hmm," Sumire mused. "Actually, you're not too far off."

"How far?"

She leaned forward across the table. "It's a long story. Would you like to hear it?"

"Since you've come all the way over here to tell me, I have a distinct feeling it doesn't matter if I do or not. Anyway, go right ahead. Add a prelude, if you'd like. And a 'Dance of the Blessed Spirits.' I don't mind."

She began to talk. About her cousin's wedding reception, and about the lunch she had with Miu in Aoyama. And it was a long tale.

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Excerpted from Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami. Copyright © 2001 by Haruki Murakami. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.