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Sunday, May 25, 2008
'How can she tell the dreaming from the waking?'
"You're a strange girl!" muttered my mother, shaking her head.
"Yes, I know, mother. Well, I can't help it."
I've given up arguing with her. She's too old, and frankly, so am I. Once, not long ago, I asked her if she knew "The Lady Who Loved Insects." She didn't, of course. It's a 12th-century tale, little read except by antiquarians like me. The lady in question is also "strange" — in refusing to blacken her teeth, for instance, or to pluck her eyebrows bald, as women did then as a matter of course. I showed my mother an illustration I happened to have of a typical woman of the day — blackened teeth, plucked eyebrows and all; a rather grotesque little figure — and demanded, "So? Who's strange?"
No fool, my mother was not at a loss for a reply; far from it. "Not falling in with the current fashion is one thing," she said. "But not being interested in . . . well . . . boys . . . men . . ."
"It is true. I am not interested in boys or men."
"Are you a lesbian?"
"I wouldn't mind if you were, you know."
"Your minding or not minding has nothing to do with it."
"My dear girl, you are 34 years old! You can't . . . you can't be a child forever!"
"I am not a child! I have a job, I'm self-supporting . . . In fact I more or less support you, I believe! How dare you call me a child?"
"My dear, my dear, don't shout at me, I am not . . ." Her voice quivered; she was near tears, and I was immediately sorry. "How can you shout at me, knowing . . . knowing . . ."
"Mother, I'm sorry."
"Who have I lived for, if not for you?"
"I'm not shouting . . . Mother, listen to me please . . ." But she would not, and flounced out of the room, leaving me alone with my thoughts — my guilty thoughts — my strange thoughts. The water was boiling, and I poured my tea. Sipping scalding tea with eyes closed — sometimes I think . . . no, often . . . that this is the greatest happiness we humans can know on Earth.
For all this talk of strangeness, outwardly at least I lead the most ordinary of lives. I live with my mother, work in a bank . . . need I say more? And yet, hard though I try to blend inconspicuously into my environment, I am aware that I do not quite succeed. My effort shows, that's the trouble. My coworkers, though friendly, look at me a little askance, as much as to say, "You are so ordinary! And yet . . ."
I was 9 when my father died. On his deathbed he said to me, "I am an alien from outer space; say nothing to your mother." Was he delirious? Or joking? These are questions I can ask myself now, but at the time, I took him quite literally, even matter-of-factly. Maybe as a result I developed differently. What he said seemed no more fantastic than the reality that surrounded me; no more fantastic than that he was dying, or that I was living, or that ocean waves washed the shore, or that rain fell and flowers grew.
"Why," Reiko blurted out to me at lunch one day, "are you always alone?"
Reiko's desk is opposite mine. We work in the foreign-exchange section, since we both know English.
"Alone! What do you mean? Who's alone? I'm sitting in a restaurant with seven people!"
There was scattered laughter, my own louder than anyone's. Reiko frowned.
"Do you know, Reiko-chan," I said, cutting her off before she could pursue her thought, "I had a dream about you last night."
"Yes, a very vivid dream. You were blind, but didn't know it, and you were crossing a street, a very busy street, and I'm standing on the curb screaming 'Reiko! Come back! You'll be killed!' But you just laughed and went on your way."
"I was blind and didn't know it?"
"Yes. Strange, isn't it?"
"I don't want to be in dreams like that!"
"No, of course not, who does?"
"Have you ever had a dream about me?" asked Little Hajime, quite seriously, though smiling. A nice boy, Hajime; a junior analyst said by everyone to have a brilliant future ahead of him. We call him Little Hajime as a joke; he's nearly 200 cm tall and very self-conscious about towering over everyone the way he does. He's asked me out several times, always accepting my refusal without resentment, even with a kind of grace, as much as to say — but sincerely, without irony — "Of course I know I'm unworthy of you."
"Ask me now," I found myself thinking; "Ask me right this minute and I'll say yes." But the moment passed; he was still too young to possess the kind of intuition the occasion demanded.
"No," I said. "But I can tell your fortune if you like."
"You will quit the bank at 30 and go to work for an NGO, building schools in refugee camps in Africa."
Reiko laughed and was about to say something, but, seeing the look of confusion on Hajime's blushing face, broke off and, blushing a little herself, turned to Old Man Harada sitting next to her and somewhat abruptly demanded a cigarette.