I left school early that day and promptly became a truancy case. Conked out as soon as I got home and slept like the dead. I woke up in the evening after a bad dream, but struggled against a mild sleep paralysis for a long time first, so by the time I fully awoke my head was heavy and aching, as if I had a hangover. I sat up and peered out through my sweaty hair to find it was the precise moment when the sun was setting, glimmering and boiling hellishly. As it wavered and sank, it tinted everything around me a poisonous shade of honey. My illuminated room was a horror of filth. Damp, sweaty clothes and mountains of textbooks, green net tights next to two-day-old okonomiyaki, and a British flag I’d bought for some reason—weird objects all scattered about like in some opium den. I sat in the middle, surrounded by garbage, dumbfounded. The spectacle of this room paralyzed me, draining my life bar of all the precious hit points I’d just managed to restore by sleeping. Then I heard the miserable tone of a tofu-seller’s whistle slowly approaching outside—puuu ahhh—and I faltered, feeling an increasingly dire fear that if things went on like this, I might actually become bedridden. But I was rescued from this wretched fate by the sudden idea that I should start a massive cleaning project. The usual tidying up wouldn’t be enough—no, better throw everything away—and just to humor my body, which was now itching for some simple hard work, I began by moving my giant bookcase out of the room. An unprecedented action. I knew if I threw this out, I’d be causing myself problems, but the scene I’d woken up to, that room drenched in the light of the setting sun, had taken hold of me, and every time it flashed into my mind, I was filled with horror and the urge renewed itself—got to throw it all away.
I continued cleaning single-mindedly throughout the night and into the morning without sleeping a wink.
Time for a little break. I was standing in the kitchen, drinking carrot juice while paying my respects to the morning sun, when my eyes met my mother’s. She was going into work on a holiday, her hair pulled back tight.
“What were you doing in your room all night?” she asked me.
“Cleaning . . . was I too loud?”
“You ran the vacuum cleaner in the middle of the night. Have you forgotten that we live in an apartment building?”
I listened to that softly scornful voice of hers and said nothing, like always.
For a moment, she glanced toward my room with its tightly closed door. But then she went to the entrance without saying anything and put on her shoes. Relief. Surely, the two of us both misunderstand the meaning of privacy. I waited to hear the front door shut with a firm batam before returning to my room and resuming the cleanse.
It took me until evening to finally get all the furniture and smaller items out to the apartment building’s garbage collection area. The only things left were my school desk and my electric piano, which I planned to call someone to take away, and—the very last thing—this computer that I didn’t have the courage to throw out. This machine was something my grandpa had bought me six years ago when my parents finally decided to get divorced. The two of us lived across the country from each other, Grandpa in Osaka and me in Saitama, so we made a pact to exchange e-mails. As a sixth-grader, though, I was hard-pressed to even figure out how to hook the phone line up to the computer, and Grandpa, who had the same machine, lingered over trying to read the jargon-filled instruction manual. We made quite a pair. The two of us never once managed to send an e-mail to each other before Grandpa went on to heaven.
I kept at it even after his death, trying my hardest to figure out how to set up the pre-installed Internet and e-mail programs, but no dice. I’d recklessly monkeyed around with things so much that it did nothing but display error messages, one after the other. The machine had become a piece of junk. But broken or no, this was still the thing that my grandpa had spent a huge chunk of his pension money to purchase for me. I used to write him letters regularly, but by the time I reached sixth grade it was beginning to seem like too much of a bother, so he’d bought me the computer in a last-ditch attempt to revive my interest in him. I just couldn’t bear to throw that away. But now my newfound feelings of perfectionism prodded me. I imagined how perfectly rectangular a spotless room would be.
I wavered for a long time without coming to a decision, then decided just to power it on for now. There was an internal sound like scraping rust, a weak white light faded up on the monitor, and the machine awoke. The case vibrated as the worn-out thing started up, and the light on the screen trembled in sync. Its trembling brought up an old memory from when my whole family went out to karaoke, and I heard my grandpa sing with overdone vibrato in his quavering old-man voice. Bit by bit, the machine gradually came alive, but at such a dawdling pace I thought I might nod off. For a moment, I thought I saw the desktop icons, but suddenly an illustration of a smiling man in a white robe appeared in the center of the screen. As if this was the signal, there was a sound like falling stars, and the screen went out. The computer lapsed into total silence. I frantically pressed the power button over and over, but nothing happened. The screen remained hollow and dark. It seemed that my grandpa’s computer had finally completed its ascension. Ashes to ashes. I faced the machine and pressed my hands together in supplication. Mea culpa. I had treated both my grandpa and my computer carelessly, without ever recognizing how fragile they were.
Since I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving something in my room that didn’t even work anymore, I decided in desperation to throw it out after all. When I tried to lift the thing, I choked and a jolt shot through my back. But I scolded myself the way I thought Kōichi might—Come on! You owe it to that computer to carry it with your own bare hands!—and I wrapped my arms around it and began to take slow steps. It was a size or two bigger than the most recent computers, and it nearly slipped from my grasp several times. Each time I would panic and haul myself back upright, and my face would smash against the case, sending up a cloud of dust that danced and glittered before my eyes in the evening light.
Somehow I managed to make it out the door while still clutching the machine. I took the elevator to the first floor and cut through the apartment parking garage, dropping the keyboard several times along the way, and finally made it to my destination. The garbage collection area lay in the shadow of the giant two-story parking garage. Once they got dumped here in plastic garbage bags, even those items that once lived and breathed vigorously while they were in the apartment lost all light and all music and died a lonely death. The cold, thick concrete walls completely barricaded the space against the fresh natural air that flooded the rest of the apartment complex. The parking garage intercepted the spring breeze just like the sunlight; it would blow in from the path connected to the park on one side, then immediately get sucked up the long dark slope leading into the garage on the other side, without even skimming over the dump site. My arms began to quiver as I stood there holding the machine, gazing on this ash-colored graveyard.
My room had been transferred exactly as-is into these ruins. As I had continued to haul my furniture out here piece by piece overnight, I had formed a small three-sided barricade around the dump site, as if I’d been preparing the set for an impromptu play. I now stepped into that castle of familiar furniture and plunked the computer on a chair. Somehow at a loss in that instant, I sat down right there on the bare asphalt. The ground was cold. Cars had leaked oil onto the pavement and it was now soaking into the skirt of my school uniform, which I had put on in order to fool my mother into thinking I was going to school as usual. But so what. More importantly, what was I going to do now? A car came out of the parking garage and drove behind me. The vibration passed from the ground into my spine. One of the grimy garbage bags in the mountain by the nearby row of dumpsters must have come untied, because a sudden strong wind blew and scattered its yellowed papers. They danced about in midair, then tumbled away toward the parking garage and accumulated in a dark crevice. But seriously, what am I going to do now? My eyes followed the movements of the paper, and one piece flew over and stuck to me. I shuddered and flicked the gross thing away, but it left sand on my sock. Both the leg that was trapped in the tight elastic of that sock and the hand that I used to brush it clean were the lusterless, ruddy color of a plastic doll. Somewhere in the midst of all that lively cleaning, I had turned into garbage too. Seeing this made me think, I just want to die. But I was happy about it, because this vague thought of ruination made me feel cool. Excited, I tried lying down all the way. Pose. It’s in my nature to act like a weirdo like this. I tentatively committed more such shameful acts of weirdness. Lying on the ground like this was the most earnest expression of individuality I could muster. I pressed my cheek into the asphalt that stank of oil and my loose black hair spilled over the ground. A light breeze blew, fluttering my skirt over and over. You could see my underwear each time, but so what? I lay there like I was rotting.
Take this youth. This fresh body is one treasure, soon to fade, that you can’t buy with money. When I become an adult, no, even sooner than that, I wonder if I’ll regret what I’m doing now as having been a complete waste of time. I wonder if I’ll think back to this May, how the moment I was supposed to start preparing for entrance exams, I stopped going to school instead, didn’t even study at home, and if you ask what I was doing, I was lying in the garbage like this pretending to be a nonconformist, and I’ll think, Shit! I get the feeling I might. No, I definitely will. I mean, look, right in front of my nose a mouse, a great big fat mouse, is running around in the garbage, and this kind of thing, this is definitely not going to turn into a happy memory.
What was this withered enlightenment making a nest in the heart of this seventeen-year-old girl who couldn’t drink yet, and couldn’t drive, and, while we’re at it, had never had sex? It’s not like I’d wanted to be a singer, and it’s not like I’d wanted to be a writer, but I knew without a doubt that when I was in middle school, I’d held the seedlings of all my own possibilities in my hands. They’d dwindled to almost nothing now, and I felt a wave of anguish as I realized I might end up living out this life that had been balled up into such a tiny thing. Panic that I’m already seventeen! intersected with relief that I’m only seventeen. How could a person get over this pain?
I’ve got it—running away and hiding in this garbage isn’t what I need, it’s progress! “Oh,” I cry, “but if I live like normal, life will be so dull! I might lose all ability to feel!” Yeah, right. That’s the convenient superstition of a bad student. Go back to school and be in your seat by the time the bell rings, and start from there! I tried scolding myself in Kōichi’s tone again, but I still couldn’t move. Disgusted with myself, I turned over and stared up at the darkening sky which was peeking through the rough-edged square of concrete.
I remembered Kōichi’s words, what my mother also said to me sometimes.
Your life’s got no direction.
“Are you OK?”
I leaped up at the sound of a voice behind me. I turned in the direction it had come from. There was a boy watching me from a little ways away. He looked to be about elementary school age, holding a bicycle at his side and looking in my direction with a concerned expression. He had seen me lying there and gotten worried.
“Oh me, yeah, I’m fine, just a little anemic. Thanks for your concern. But hey, never mind that, I’m holding a flea market here. Care to have a look?”
What a random thing to fall out of my mouth. But maybe he believed me, because he pushed his bike over toward me. It gives you a weirdly happy feeling when a cat or a child comes over to you, even if they do it with obvious wariness. I began enthusiastically showing him around the garbage.
“How ‘bout this electric fan, you need that? It’s a little early in the season for it, but it’s great for making sushi rice. Give it to your mom as a Mother’s Day present.”
I rearranged myself into a merchant’s cross-legged pose and plunked the fan down in front of him. The kid pulled back, his face stiff.
“Hey, hey, don’t run away. All right, how about comics? Look, here’s the first nine volumes of Vagabond. See, it’s the nice big edition.”
The kid smiled in refusal and said he already had those. Either I’d piqued his interest, though, or he was beginning to feel more at ease, because he started gazing over my mountain of garbage. I got all excited and ran around trying to find something good for him. After a while, the kid pointed to the piece of junk machine on top of the chair and said,
“Can I buy this computer?”
Surprised, I answered, “That? Nope, that thing’s dead. Instead of that, how ‘bout this minidisc Walkman? Pretty fancy, huh, bet you’re surprised, huh, BUT WAIT, I’ll give it to you for free! ‘Cause I was actually planning to throw away all of this stuff.”
The kid laid his hand on the computer.
“Probably. I just tried turning in on for the first time in ages, and the screen immediately went dark.”
“Hmm. But you know, I think I want it.”
“Honestly, that thing’s busted,” I insisted. “And even if it could be fixed, it’s a fossil. It was made six years ago. It’s really hard to use.”
The kid gave the machine a long, serious stare, then said, “I think it’ll be OK.”
I opened my mouth wide to object again, but then the image of my grandpa’s computer cheerfully booting up like it used to floated before my eyes, and ah, what a happy thought—
“If you really can fix it, I’ll give it to you,” I said decisively.
The kid thanked me and wrapped his arms around the machine. It must have been too heavy for him, though, because he didn’t budge. He was frozen there, bent over, clinging to the computer, as stiff as stone. I observed him with concern and asked if he was sure he could get it home.
“I’m fine, I live in this apartment building, so if I can just get it on top of my bike basket, I can push the bike inside and get right into the elevator with it.”
Hearing that, I pried him off the machine, lifted it up myself, and placed it on the basket for him. He thanked me again, and started to push the bike forward, supporting the unsteady machine as he went. But after a few steps, he turned back as if he’d remembered something.
“What are you going to do with the rest of the big stuff?”
I thought I knew what he was implying, so I lightly said, “Oh yeah, if there’s anything else you want, feel free to take it.”
But he responded, “Oh, no, that’s not what I meant. I’ve heard that if you leave oversize garbage here, the superintendent will come to your apartment and yell at you, so I wondered what you were going to do. This is the garbage drop, but it’s for regular garbage, not oversize stuff.”
I stepped back and surveyed the huge dump site. There was a guitar tucked in one corner, but everything else was round blue garbage bags. The only noticeable oversize garbage was in the spot where I’d dumped everything. To tell the truth, I’d realized halfway through my cleaning spree that the oversize stuff belonged somewhere else. But my castle of garbage had been the only thing blooming with life in the midst of the giant concrete jungle formed by the parking lot and the dump site, so I couldn’t bring myself to demolish it.
Having the superintendent show up at my home because of this garbage problem, however, was a situation I wanted to avoid at all costs. If the superintendent happened to squeal to my mother that her daughter was throwing away all this stuff, I’d be in for it. I thought about how I was going to have to move this massive amount of garbage all over again, and I unconsciously let out a sigh. “I’ll help you,” the kid said, while precariously balancing the computer with his hand and chin, but I refused the proposal, figuring such a string bean wouldn’t be much use, and turned to look up at the sky. It had grown dim from one end to the other. Beneath the shifting clouds, yellow fluorescent lamps were already lighting up the hallways on all eleven floors of the apartment building, shining brightly in preparation for the darkness that night would soon bring.
From Insutôru [インストール]. © Wataya Risa. Published 2001 by Kawade Shobô Shinsha. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright © 2012 by Katherine Lundy. All rights reserved.