The rain strikes the window pane, making water droplets that slip down ceaselessly. The sky is gray here and there, but mostly white, the clouds so thick I can almost imagine the blue beyond them has disappeared entirely. For the planes above them, though, the sun and bluest blue of the sky must be so bright the passengers can barely open their eyes, and when I imagine that, I feel as though they must exist in a world completely separate from here.
A different world. Right now, where I am is three stories above the ground. Class 2-4. Lazily I stretch my arm across my window-side desk, and place my right cheek on top of it just so, gazing out at the falling rain and white sky on the other side of the glass. The raindrops clinging to the window reflect the classroom and the sky, and the melting worlds in each drop scatter. The edge of my glasses is sandwiched between my arm and cheek, and it hurts just a little.
“Gon, come on!”
Someone grabs my right wrist, and I sit up. When I do, the rowdy voices of the classroom fly into my right ear. Tanaka is standing there, in front of my desk.
“It’s not even lunch time, and you’re already napping? Mao and her friends have been calling you. Over there.”
I look where Tanaka is shyly pointing; in front of the rear door, Harada Mao stands flanked by the same two girls who are always with her, all of them staring at me.
We’re in the same class, so why did she make somebody come and get me? But I don’t say that as I give Tanaka a little smile before walking through the jumble of desks.
Harada Mao is playing with the ends of her waist-length hair. “Hey, Gon, are you sick or something?”
“No, not really.”
“You weren’t here this morning. At practice. You were the only alto missing. We were kind of worried.”
Harada Mao never breaks her gentle smile. Maybe she really was worried; I try to imagine that. I know there are a lot of kind people in the world who worry not only about themselves, but also about those around them.
The girls clinging to either side of Harada speak in turn like a pop duo:
“You weren’t there on Tuesday, either.”
“Mao was there at seven this morning.”
Harada Mao says, “I do that because I want to. Gon doesn’t have to.”
Maybe they have some kind of script. I give a vaguely polite smile and look at all their faces.
Every year around mid-June there’s a class choir competition at my school. Everyone, first through third years, has to compete, and the competition isn’t even at our school; it’s judged at the city’s Culture Center in the concert hall with the pipe organ—the organ was such a huge waste of taxpayers’ money that TV variety shows even made fun of it—all this just so our parents can come see us, because aside from the sports festival, it’s the biggest event of the year. But as you can imagine, depending on how the different classes are grouped together, sometimes people get weirdly into it, like Harada Mao and her friends, and sometimes there’s this strange attitude like in our first year: “Man, this sucks. Even if we do well, it’s still embarrassing, right? But I guess we’ll give it a shot” and this feeling goes on until the day of the competition, and the class is ranked third from last, and everyone leaves without even saying goodbye. But it’s not that I’ve decided that I don’t want to try hard or practice or that I think the competition is stupid—that’s not what I’m thinking at all.
Harada Mao continues. “Everyone in class is trying really hard. Forget the competition. This is the only time we can all really work together toward a common goal. After all, the entrance exams are next year.”
Why does she say all this stuff like she’s some sort of teacher? She’s still a kid.
On a nearby desk, a boy is sprawled out chest-down like he’s asleep, but I realize that he’s noticed us talking and is straining to listen. Boys seem to have unexpected interest when it comes to girls fighting with each other. I’m sick of all of them.
“I just couldn’t make it this morning. Something came up. I know you’re practicing really hard. Everyone’s practicing really hard.”
“Thanks, Gon! I’m glad you understand,” Harada says, gripping both my arms, and the two girls on either side of her repeat that tomorrow’s practice is at seven.
I turn toward my desk, but then I look over my shoulder and say, “Hey.”
The three of them had been heading to the hallway, but they turn back.
“I don’t really like being called ‘Gon.’”
Harada Mao looks puzzled, and after a moment she says, “Isn’t that what everyone calls you?”
I don’t wait for them to reply before walking back to my seat. In our narrow classroom, forty desks and chairs going crooked little by little. Only about a third of the students are in the classroom. Almost all of them are sleeping or pretending to.
The nickname “Gon” originally came from a boy who was in the same first-year class as me—he said my eyebrows looked like Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn’s eyebrows. It was just after the first day of school, and I figured he was probably nervous and trying to make everyone like him, and after a while I grew relatively close to the kids around me; I liked them, so Ghosn became Gon and I started to kind of like that nickname, and I figured, Whatever, it’s fine.
I’m not like Harada Mao and girls like her, who feel like they have to check their makeup every time they pass a mirror, but after seventeen years of marking “female” on all my paperwork, I wasn’t exactly happy to be told that I have eyebrows like Carlos Ghosn, and a bunch of girls who aren’t even my friends have no business calling me a nickname that reminds me of that fact every time I hear it. But I don’t think I want to be around Harada Mao and her friends long enough to explain all this.
So I go back to my seat.
At our high school, the homeroom teacher doesn’t make announcements in the morning; instead they’re during a thirty-minute break set aside between second and third period. That’s why the boys in the athletic clubs are eating bento or pastries—because it’s break. Yamashita, in the seat next to mine, has already finished eating and fallen asleep.
Second period was Japanese Lit. II with our homeroom teacher, so when it ended, she was able to keep us quiet and begin homeroom right away. All the announcements were the same as yesterday: During morning choir competition practice, be sure to close the windows so as not to bother the surrounding neighborhood, and please be sure to leave the school grounds by five o’clock.
Of course Harada Mao and her friends responded with an enthusiastic, “Yes, Teacher!”
The class chose songs for the choir competition at the end of April and then practice started; Tanaka from the wind ensemble and Inagaki, who’s in the science club but who’s also good at ukulele, were unfazed by the lack of enthusiasm from our class and arranged all the chorus parts, wrote easy-to-understand explanations on the sheet music, and passed out copies to everyone, but even so, only about a third of the class ever showed up to the measly twenty-minute practices after school. At the beginning of June, though, all the girls in the lacrosse club, which revolves around Harada Mao, got really into it, and when Mao, in tears, said, “I was so glad you all came to morning practice last Monday,” the girls around her got caught up in the moment and started crying too, but me and the other girls who’d been going to every practice since the beginning—in other words, the girls who’re considered plain—completely lost interest. However, the boys who’d been telling us to shut up and calling us fatties and acting the way boys usually act toward underdog girls, changed their attitudes and started sucking up once the lacrosse club girls joined in, saying “If Harada’s into this, we’ll do it, too”; in the end I got fed up, and Tuesday and again today I purposely took the train that barely leaves me enough time to get to school.
I get back to my desk, but then change my mind and walk out past the smudged blackboard where chalk dust dances.
In the hallway, three or four students are taking turns pulling out their phones and showing each other things, sneaking looks at screens and laughing or complaining. The floor is filthy from the rain, the long narrow space thick with humidity, and the crowd of voices echoes annoyingly. The blackboard in Class 2-3 next door still has stuff on it. The formula for calculating gravitational pull is written in white and yellow on the deep green, and next to it is a diagram of all the planets in the solar system.
Space is a place found in textbooks or TV or the internet or a planetarium, and I can’t help but think it has nothing to do with where I am—here where no one believes that we’re actually sitting on top of a little stretch of land inside that circular mark on the white line that indicates our solar system. The idea that beyond the school grounds, if you were to pierce those fat, endlessly raining clouds, there would be blue sky, and that if you were to zoom through the sky and pierce the other side, there’d be the pure darkness of space—it’s probably a lie. I mean, it’s not like I’ll ever climb into a rocket and go to space.
There’s a bunch of girls blocking the bathroom, so I pass them and wander down the far stairway. I bump into Matsui Kenta on his way up.
“Oh, Numata. Library again?” he asks. He’s so tall that even though I’m three steps up from him, our eyes are level.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“It seems like your class is pretty excited about the choir competition.”
“Seems like it.”
Kenta laughs a little. He and I were in the same sixth-grade class, junior high second- and third-year class, and high school first-year class. I’ve heard a lot of girls like him, because he’s tall and not bad looking, or maybe just because he’s easy to talk to. Sometimes girls ask me if we’re close. I wouldn’t go that far. We can make small talk, I’d say.
“We’ve got practice every morning.”
He laughs. “You shouldn’t be so obvious about how much you hate it.”
Just then, Sana appears on the landing behind Kenta.
I keep talking, trying to act like I haven’t noticed her, but I think Oh, Sana…
“I was actually trying really hard at first. But people are complicated.”
“Or are you the one making it complicated?”
While we’re talking, I’m still looking at Sana out of the corner of my eye, mesmerized. Her short, brown hair looks great as always. Her long-lashed, almond-shaped eyes watch Kenta’s back. She continues up the staircase without pause. I sense that she has no intention of stopping, and as I speak with Kenta my voice rings a little false. “Not really. I’ve just got a lot on my plate.”
“So you go to morning practice every day?”
“I didn’t go today.”
“I knew it,” and just as he laughs again, Sana passes Kenta on his left.
At exactly the wrong moment, I say, “Morning.”
“Oh, good morning.” She replies like she’s being forced to, as though she’s only just noticed me; she gently waves her hand, and then turns to face Kenta. He glances at Sana, expression unchanging, says, “Well, good luck,” and then dashes up the steps, continuing in the opposite direction Sana is going.
I’m left behind on the stairs, no longer sure which way to go—or actually, I never had a destination in the first place and I have to think, What was I doing again? but Kenta mentioned the library, so I go down to the first floor.
As though the chill from the rain has seeped into the linoleum-covered concrete steps, it’s colder here than in the classroom. Most of the students are heading back up the stairs, and I’m the only one going against the flow.
Sana and Kenta were both in my class as first years, and dated from July to December. I think Sana probably still likes Kenta. Even just now, seeing Kenta flustered her. I think she didn’t want me to notice, so that’s why she was so curt.
Someone dashes up the staircase where Sana and Kenta no longer stand.
I don’t know what Kenta thinks of Sana.
The library is supposed to be open, but for some reason it’s locked. Today might be a bad-luck day. On the hallway announcement board, I check the “new books” list. Two months ago Yamamoto Shūgorō wrote a request card for Sabu, but it hasn’t come in yet. The Illustrated Guide to Human Anatomy looks kind of interesting. I head back to the classroom, walking to the end of the first-floor hall to climb a different stairway than the one I came down.
No one is out on the sports field, and the rain leaves pockmarks in the sand. A few days ago they laid white chalk lines and some of them are still clinging to the field like ruins. I pull out my phone to take a picture. But the lines are far away and small, and I can’t get a good shot.
Maybe I’ll never like Harada Mao, but I hear Kenta is dating her, and that’s another thing to think about. Certainly I’ve seen them together heading home from school a few times, but every time I see them, Kenta’s friend Nagasawa is with them. But Nagasawa lives in the same neighborhood as Harada Mao, so I figured that’s why they were together. Or maybe that’s what I chose to think.
As for Sana, she’s absolutely gorgeous and her personality is bubbly and her clothes are always chic and it’s too bad, that’s what I think. Harada Mao has the kind of face that says she’s a flake. She has no features that stand out other than her eyes, which are kind of droopy, and she always talks with a syrupy voice, so she seems really nice. I guess boys like that sort of thing. Kind of cute, easy to get to know, feminine, that sort of thing.
Sixth period is my favorite: world history. But once it’s done there’ll be the whole twenty minutes of choir practice, and thinking about that depresses me, so I don’t pay attention, instead flipping through the textbook illustrations and drawing maps and tables of years in my notes.
As I read my world history book, I start feeling like I might cry. If I start crying over my textbook in the middle of class, people will think I’m an idiot, so I try not to cry, but I think about the kind of pillow words they always use for TV dramas— “Heart-wrenching”—how fitting they are for a world history textbook. There are wars and revolutions and a lot of people die and other people take action to try to make the world even a little better. All that written in only a few lines. All “based on a true story,” just the way people all around the world like it.
The diagrams are in landscape format, the world map on the right-hand page color-coded with the global powers of each era. To the left of the map, the Roman Empire spreads expansively, and when I turn the page, I find Turkey in the middle, growing larger and larger, and as they go about their business, on the next page the Mongol Empire is extending its military might over an unimaginable swath.
To think it got this big! To think it stretched so far!
If I used a car it would still take me days to cover that distance, and they were galloping around on horses. Just thinking about it, I can barely even sit still.
But every day I go to a never-expanding classroom, and on my little desk I pile up my textbooks and diagrams and notebooks and pencil cases and stare out a never-changing window at never-changing scenery. The raindrops run down the window as they did before. On the other side of the road, on the fire escape of a building, a young man is smoking a cigarette. His blue-white smoke disappears into the rain.
Unfortunately, the fun of world history must end, and after pushing the desks and chairs to the back of the classroom, we line up in three rows. The members of the lacrosse club connect an iPod to the round speaker on the teacher’s lectern and play the accompaniment. We all sing. The judges are making us sing “Zigeunerleben.”
Harada Mao and her cohort suddenly step out in front and start waving their hands, but I don’t even feel like lashing out with “Since when are you the conductors?” anymore.
“Zigeunerleben.” “Gypsy Life.”* As if anyone here could even possibly understand what it is to wander, nomadic. Of course, that includes me. Harada Mao and all her lacrosse friends and all the girls are singing their hearts out, and the boys who’ve sided with them really think that they’re putting everything they’ve got into this, and it makes me think What the hell? To people who believe they’re doing the right thing, to people who never doubt themselves, I know that someone like me, someone who doesn’t even do what she’s supposed to do, must come across as truly heartless.
But it’s not that I think I’m in the right. There are kids who live farther from school than I do, and they still come to morning practice, and if I wanted to do the right thing, I could just explain to Harada Mao and her friends why I don’t feel like practicing anymore.
The other song, the one our class chose, is the Carpenters. “Top of the World.” Their magnificent words flood the classroom.
After practice, I head to the first-floor lockers to get my things and go home, but it’s still raining, so I change my mind. A light wind blows the rain into the short, covered walkway I use to reach the school annex and head to the third floor. The annex was built last year, and a scent almost medicinal, almost like water, drifts from its walls and floors. One of the hallway windows is half open, and a small puddle of rain has appeared on the cream-colored floor. When I close the aluminum window frame, the wind moans through the hall.
There’s no one else in the third-floor hall where the Home Ec and AV rooms are, and for a moment I feel like I’ve entered a different school, one that’s closed down, that no one comes to anymore.
I pass the quiet Home Ec kitchen, and when I reach the food prep room at the end of the hall, I hear girls’ voices. I check the observation window, poke my head in through the crack in the door, and call, “Hey Inagaki! Let me pet the snake!”
Some girls looking at a laptop on the table in front of me—they look like they’re first-years—all twist around, and Inagaki, at the sink under the windows on the far side of the room, turns toward me, too.
“Oh, hi Gon! Squiggles isn’t very lively today, but she likes you, so maybe you’ll cheer her up.”
When I enter the room, Inagaki takes the snake’s tank down from the shelf. On a bed of sawdust, the snake lies curled in a ball, lines of brown and black down her back.
“She’s not feeling well?”
“She’s not eating her food, so she might be getting ready to shed her skin.”
“Shed? When? I want to see.”
“You’ll have to ask Squiggles, because only she knows.”
Inagaki opens the lid, thrusts a hand into the fish tank, waits a moment for Squiggles to wrap herself around the hand and start climbing. Inagaki moves the snake close to my arm, and the she slithers toward my wrist, as though investigating, before clinging to me and slowly moving up toward my shoulder. The snake’s skin is cool and sleek. The regular pattern of black and brown scales reflects the white fluorescent lighting. With my right hand I stroke her from head to tail and she’s so smooth, but if I pet her in the opposite direction, the scales catch on my skin; their foreign, hard texture makes me uneasy.
The snake lifts her little head, and her round eyes glitter so black I can’t tell which way they’re looking, and from time to time her slim tongue flutters out as she slowly moves up to my elbow and over my rolled-up shirt sleeve.
The door leading to the kitchen opens, and our teacher Mr. Ōno enters. I say teacher, but he’s actually a student-teacher; he only just started last week and he’s been to our class twice. His body is long and gangly and there’s something that seems delicate and weak about him—only his eyes are piercing. When I first saw him, I thought his face looked like a chicken’s. Apparently, he’s in his first-year of graduate school.
“Excuse me,” he says.
I give a little bow. Mr. Ōno’s expression remains unchanged as he looks at Squiggles wrapped around my arm.
“Do you like snakes?”
“No, not really. But I’m emotionally attached to this one. I think she’s cute.”
“Do you want to try feeding her?” he asks. “She eats frozen mice.”
“I’m good, thanks.”
Inagaki already told me what snakes eat, but I still want to wait until I’m a little more used to Squiggles.
“Take your time.” That’s all Mr. Ōno says before checking something on the teacher’s computer and exiting through the hallway door. The first-years at the center table are having fun cutting out photos of different kinds of diatoms they’ve printed out from the laptop.
Leaning against the sink, Inagaki says, “Last year, do you remember that student-teacher named Ms. Akasaka? She taught math? She was kind of chubby.”
“Yeah.” I nod, but actually I don’t remember. Student-teachers are never here more than a month, and it was over a year ago.
“I heard that Mr. Ōno has had a crush on that same Ms. Akasaka since they were in high school together.”
“Is that what you hear.”
“The first-years seemed interested; I heard them talking about it.”
I think the first-years can probably hear us talking about them, but they don’t seem to be paying attention.
“So anyway, this one guy in the biology department at their school, a guy in the same year as Ms. Akasaka, had been dating her, and they were so in love and everyone was jealous of them, and Mr. Ōno has always liked Ms. Akasaka, but he was also friends with this other guy, so he decided as long as they were both happy, he’d always look out for them, but just after they graduated, the other guy drowned in the ocean, so Mr. Ōno says now he’s always helping her whenever she has any kind of problem.”
“Come on! That sounds like something out of a TV show.”
When I frown, Inagaki laughs. “I know, right? Maybe he thought he’d pull one over on a bunch of high schoolers or something.”
I think the idea that all high school girls love romance is a stereotype, but maybe I’m wrong. Every day everyone is getting worked up over who likes who, who’s dating, who broke up. I just wonder why they all get so invested in it. It’s not that I never look at someone on TV or in real life and think they’re cool or get flustered when I see them, but to go all out, to follow that person’s every move, to write all that stuff on social media and be happy one second and depressed the next, to come up with elaborate schemes to send them gifts, I don’t have the energy for that. What’s it like, to live thinking about that stuff all day every day?
Suddenly, Sana’s face comes to mind—that moment I met her eyes on the stairs. Even though she and Kenta broke up over a year ago, I’ve seen Sana following Kenta with her eyes so many times. When Kenta notices her, she makes sure she’s never looking at him, but when she’s a little farther away, she’s watching him. I think she still likes him.
When I look out the window, the sky is still concealed by clouds, but it’s gotten a little brighter.
“It must be tough, being a student-teacher. To have to cram all that information. Maybe I won’t get my teaching license after all.”
“Do you want to be a teacher, Inagaki?”
“No, but I thought it would be a good idea to get certified. Since the economy’s bad. But maybe a teaching license wouldn’t be very useful.”
Inagaki pets Squiggles’ head. Squiggles hasn’t climbed all the way to the top of my shoulder; she just keeps still, her head slightly raised.
I wonder, what will happen to all of us after this? I won’t say I never feel worried about entrance exams or the future; that’s not what bothers me—it’s that in a few years the person I am now will become a different person, and the person Inagaki is now will become a different Inagaki, and sometimes I think, How should I feel about this? In five or six years, it’s not like I’ll be a high school student anymore, and I probably won’t be in touch with most of the people who are around me here, now, and I might be meeting people every day who I have absolutely nothing to do with right now, and when I think about that sort of thing, I wonder if the snake wrapped around my own arm, talking to Inagaki, won’t it be like none of it even existed in the first place?
“Inagaki, were you at practice this morning?”
“Yeah. The boys are finally starting to get most of the music. Oh, did you notice this morning, three of the basses and tenors switched? Harada and her friends are really working hard.”
Inagaki quietly sings the first part of “Zigeunerleben.”
“You’re very sweet, Inagaki.”
The snake looks like she’s getting tired, so I put her back in her fish tank. When I stick my hand into the tank, the snake slides along the edge and slickly slithers down.
The girls in the lacrosse club are forever groping at their tiny cell phones in their liquid crystal worlds, calling Inagaki and Tanaka and me weirdos and telling us we think we’re too good for them; I think Inagaki probably knows they do that.
After studying my expression, Inagaki says, “They baked me a pound cake.”
“Ah, they hooked you with food.”
I’m hooked by her languid smile, and I try smiling a little too.
The things Inagaki enjoys, the things everyone’s working so hard for, I have no right to ruin them or badmouth them. That’s what I think.
When I go to leave the prep room, Inagaki calls out to me and I turn back. “Come by again, ok? Because pretty soon I’m going to catch a newt from the back garden.”
I imagine the black and red speckled stomach of a newt as I leave the school.
Even though I killed time with the biology club, somehow I wind up on the same train as Harada Mao. Kenta and Nagasawa are with her. We’re all in the same train car, but they’re far away from me, and there are quite a few people standing between us, so they probably haven’t noticed me yet.
I managed to grab a seat, so I take out a paperback from my bag and open it. It’s Mishima Yukio’s Way of the Samurai. I really want to read Way. A while ago I saw an American film about a lone black assassin who loved this book, and that’s how I got interested. I’m interested in bushidō, and there’s this idea in the film that comes back again and again, “The code of the samurai is to find death,” and I think that’s cool.
I open to the page with my bookmark, but I can’t concentrate. I looked around in bookstores, but all they had were copies of the book that used the old style of writing and those seemed difficult to read, so I tried an annotated version. But somehow it seems different. A “how men should live” kind of a story. The only thing that’s stayed with me are the first words of the prologue.
“When I was young, the companions of my heart were friends and books. However, friends have flesh-and-blood bodies, which are constantly changing. The passions of a single moment will cool with time, and another friend, another passion will be born.”
I go back to the beginning, and try reading that part again.
“What? Are you serious? I had no idea!”
A voice I know from somewhere rings out, and I look up. I can see the shape of Harada Mao through the gaps in the standing passengers. Kenta and Nagasawa close by, backs to me, shirts white. Harada’s hand is gripping Kenta’s shirt by the sleeve.
“Come on, just tell me! You’re awful.”
After that, it looks like Kenta and Nagasawa start talking, but the sounds of the train are too loud, and I can’t hear them. Harada is silent, looking up at Kenta. Harada’s face in profile. Her eyes on him.
I’ve seen those eyes before. Sana, looking at Kenta, just the same as then.
Harada probably likes Kenta. Beyond that, I don’t really know anything, and it’s got nothing to do with me.
Will I ever understand that kind of feeling? The feeling of thinking I’ll love someone, no matter what.
I look out the windows across from me. It looks like the rain has finally stopped. The sky and the town, still blankly bright and white; I can no longer tell what time it is.
* The Japanese title most literally translates to “The Wandering Folk,” though Shibasaki does use the German title here. It’s a fairly famous song in Japan, in part because it’s often performed by school choirs. ↩