Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

  “You haven’t changed at all.”

  Ao’s large mouth twisted to one side. “No way. I’ve put on weight. Got a potbelly now. And I can’t run fast anymore. Golf once a month with clients is about all I can manage.”

  They were silent for a moment.

  “You didn’t come here to buy a car, am I right?” Ao asked, as if confirming it.

  “You’re right, I didn’t come to buy a car. If you’re free, I’d like to talk, just the two of us. Even for a short time.”

  Ao gave a slight, unsure frown. His face always had given away his feelings, ever since Tsukuru had first known him.

  “I have a pretty tight schedule today. I have to go visit some customers, and then I have a meeting in the afternoon.”

  “Name a time that’s convenient for you. I’m fine with whatever works for you. It’s why I came back to Nagoya.”

  Ao mentally reviewed his schedule, and glanced at the wall clock. It was eleven thirty. He rubbed the tip of his nose vigorously and then spoke, as if he’d made up his mind. “Okay. I’ll take a lunch break at twelve. I could meet you for a half hour. If you go out here, and turn left, you’ll see a Starbucks down the street. I’ll meet you there.”

  Ao showed up at the Starbucks at five to twelve.

  “It’s too noisy here, so let’s grab some drinks and go somewhere else,” Ao said. He ordered a cappuccino and a scone for himself. Tsukuru bought a bottle of mineral water. They walked to a nearby park and sat down on an unoccupied bench.

  The sky was covered with a thin layer of clouds, not a patch of blue visible anywhere, though it did not look like rain. There was no wind, either. The branches of a nearby willow tree were laden with lush foliage and drooping heavily, almost to the ground, though they were still, as if lost in deep thought. Occasionally a small bird landed unsteadily on a branch, but soon gave up and fluttered away. Like a distraught mind, the branch quivered slightly, then returned to stillness.

  “I might get a call on my cell while we’re talking,” Ao said. “I hope you’ll forgive me. I have a couple of business-related things I’m working on.”

  “No problem. I can imagine how busy you must be.”

  “Cell phones are so convenient that they’re an inconvenience,” Ao said. “So tell me, are you married?”

  “No, still single.”

  “I got married six years ago and have a child. A three-year-old boy. Another one’s on the way, and my wife’s getting bigger by the day. The due date’s in September. A girl this time.”

  Tsukuru nodded. “Life’s moving along smoothly, then.”

  “I don’t know about smoothly, but it’s moving along, at least. ‘There’s no going back now’ might be another way of putting it. How about you?”

  “Not so bad,” Tsukuru said, taking a business card out of his wallet and passing it to Ao, who took it and read aloud.

  “[——] Railroad Company. Facilities Department, Construction Division.”

  “Mostly we build and maintain railroad stations,” Tsukuru said.

  “You always liked stations, didn’t you,” Ao said, sounding impressed. He took a sip of cappuccino. “So you got a job doing what you like.”

  “But I work for a company, so I can’t just do what I like. There are all kinds of boring things I have to do.”

  “It’s the same everywhere,” Ao said. “As long as you work for somebody you have to put up with a lot of crap.” He shook his head a couple of times, as if remembering examples.

  “So, are Lexuses selling well?” Tsukuru asked.

  “Not bad. This is Nagoya, after all. Toyota’s hometown. Toyotas practically sell themselves. But our competitors now aren’t Nissan and Honda. We’re targeting consumers who buy high-end imported cars, your Mercedes and your BMWs, trying to turn them into Lexus buyers. That’s why Toyota’s created a flagship brand. It might take time, but I’m sure it’ll work out.”

  “Losing is not an option.”

  An odd look passed over Ao’s face for a second and then he grinned broadly. “Ah—my little rugby pep talk. You picked a strange thing to remember.”

  “You were really good at boosting morale.”

  “Yeah, but we lost most of the time. Business is actually going smoothly. The economy’s still in bad shape, of course, but the rich manage to hold on to their money. Amazingly well.”

  Tsukuru nodded, and Ao continued.

  “I’ve driven a Lexus myself for quite a while. They’re wonderful cars. Quiet, never need repairs. I took one out on a test course and got it up to 125 miles an hour. The steering wheel was stable, no vibration whatsoever. The brakes are solid, too. It’s an amazing car. It’s nice to be able to sell people something you believe in yourself. No matter how smooth-talking I might be, I could never sell something that I didn’t actually like.”

  Tsukuru agreed.

  Ao looked him right in the eye. “I bet I sound like a car salesman?”

  “No, I don’t think so,” Tsukuru said. He knew Ao was being honest about how he felt. Still, the fact remained that he had never talked like this back in high school.

  “Do you drive?” Ao asked.

  “I do, but I don’t have a car. In Tokyo you can get by with trains, buses, and taxis. I get around by bike a lot. When I absolutely need a car, I rent one. It’s different from Nagoya.”

  “Yeah, that would be easier, and cost less,” Ao said. He let out a small sigh. “People can get by without a car. So, how do you like living in Tokyo?”

  “Well, my job’s there, and I’ve lived there long enough to get used to it. I don’t really have anywhere else to go. That’s all. It’s not like I’m that crazy about the place.”

  They were silent for a while. A middle-aged woman with two border collies walked past, then a few joggers, heading toward the castle.

  “You said there was something you wanted to talk about,” Ao said, as if addressing someone in the distance.

  “During summer vacation in my sophomore year in college I came back to Nagoya and called you,” Tsukuru began. “You told me then that you didn’t want to see me anymore, not to ever call again, and that all four of you felt the same way. Do you remember that?”

  “Of course I do.”

  “I want to know why,” Tsukuru said.

  “Just like that, after all this time?” Ao said, sounding a little surprised.

  “Yes, after all this time. I wasn’t able to ask you back then. It was too unexpected, too much of a shock. And I was afraid to hear the reason you guys so flat-out rejected me. I felt like if you told me, I’d never recover. So I tried to forget about all of it, without finding out what was going on. I thought time would heal the pain.”

  Ao tore off a small piece of scone and popped it in his mouth. He chewed it slowly, washing it down with the cappuccino. Tsukuru went on.

  “Sixteen years have gone by, but it feels like the wound is still there inside me. Like it’s still bleeding. Something happened recently, something very significant to me, that made me realize this. That’s why I came to Nagoya to see you. I apologize for showing up out of the blue like this.”

  Ao stared for a time at the heavy, sagging branches of the willow. “You have no idea why we did that?” he said, finally.

  “I’ve thought about it for sixteen years, but I have no clue.”

  Ao narrowed his eyes, seemingly perplexed, and rubbed the tip of his nose—his habit, apparently, when he was thinking hard. “When I told you that back then you said, I see, and hung up. You didn’t object or anything. Or try to dig deeper. So naturally I thought you knew why.”

  “Words don’t come out when you’re hurt that deeply,” Tsukuru said.

  Ao didn’t respond. He tore off another piece of scone and tossed it toward some pigeons. The pigeons swiftly flocked around the food. He seemed to be used to doing this. Maybe he often came here on his break and shared his lunch with the birds.

  “Okay, so tell me. What was the reason?” Tsukuru asked.

  “You really don’t have any idea?”

  “I really don’t.”

  Just then a cheery melody rang out on Ao’s cell phone. He slipped the phone from his suit pocket, checked the name on the screen, impassively pressed a key, and returned it to his pocket. Tsukuru had heard that melody somewhere before. An old pop song of some kind, probably popular before he was born, but he couldn’t recall the title.

  “If you have something you need to do,” Tsukuru said, “please feel free to take care of it.”

  Ao shook his head. “No, it’s okay. It’s not that important. I can handle it later.”

  Tsukuru took a drink of mineral water from the plastic bottle. “Why did I have to be banished from the group?”

  Ao considered this for some time before he spoke. “If you’re saying that you have no idea why, it means—what?—that you—didn’t have any sexual relationship with Shiro?”

  Tsukuru’s lips curled up in surprise. “A sexual relationship? No way.”

  “Shiro said you raped her,” Ao said, as if reluctant to even say it. “She said you forced her to have sex.”

  Tsukuru started to respond, but the words wouldn’t come. Despite the water, the back of his throat felt so dry that it ached.

  “I couldn’t believe you’d do something like that,” Ao continued. “I think the other two felt the same way, both Kuro and Aka. You weren’t the type to force someone to do something they didn’t want to do. You weren’t violent, we knew that. But Shiro was totally serious about it, obsessed even. You had a public face and a hidden, private face, she said. You had a dark, hidden side, something unhinged and detached from the side of you that everyone knew. When she said that, there was nothing we could say.”

  Tsukuru bit his lip for a time. “Did Shiro explain how I supposedly raped her?”

  “She did. Very realistically, and in great detail. I didn’t want to hear any of it. Frankly, it was painful to hear. Painful, and sad. It hurt me, I guess I should say. Anyway, she got very emotional. Her body started trembling, and she was so enraged that she looked like a different person. According to Shiro, she traveled to Tokyo to see a concert by a famous foreign pianist and you let her stay in your apartment in Jiyugaoka. She told her parents she was staying in a hotel, but by staying with you, she saved money. Normally she might have hesitated to stay alone in a man’s place, but it was you, so she felt safe. But she said that in the middle of the night you forced yourself on her. She tried to resist, but her body was numb and wouldn’t move. You both had a drink before bedtime, and you might have slipped something into her glass. That’s what she told us.”

  Tsukuru shook his head. “Shiro never visited my place in Tokyo once, let alone stay over.”

  Ao shrugged his shoulders a touch. He made a face like he’d bitten into something bitter, and glanced off to one side. “The only thing I could do was believe what she said. She told us she’d been a virgin. That you’d deflowered her by force, and it was painful and she’d bled. Shiro was always so shy and bashful, and I couldn’t imagine a reason why she’d make up such a graphic story.”

  Tsukuru turned to look at Ao’s profile. “Granted, but why didn’t you ask me? Shouldn’t you have given me a chance to explain? Instead of trying me in absentia like that?”

  Ao sighed. “You’re absolutely right. In retrospect, yes, that’s what we should have done. We should have listened to your side of the story. But at the time, we couldn’t. It was impossible. Shiro was agitated and confused like you wouldn’t believe. We had no idea what might happen. So our first priority was to calm her down. It wasn’t like we believed every single thing she said. Some parts didn’t add up. But we didn’t think it was all fiction, either. It was so detailed, what she told us, that we figured there had to be some truth to it.”

  “So you went ahead and cut me off.”

  “You’ve got to understand, Tsukuru, that we were in shock ourselves, totally disoriented. We were hurt, too. We had no idea who to believe. In the midst of all this, Kuro stood by Shiro. She wanted us to cut you off, just like Shiro had asked. I’m not trying to excuse our actions, but Aka and I were sort of swept along, and we did what Kuro wanted.”

  Tsukuru sighed. “Whether or not you believe me, I never raped Shiro, and never had a sexual relationship with her. I don’t remember doing anything even close to that.”

  Ao nodded but didn’t say anything. Whatever he believed or didn’t believe, too much time had passed since then. That’s what Tsukuru figured. For the other three as well. And for Tsukuru himself.

  Ao’s cell phone rang again. He checked the name and turned to Tsukuru.

  “Sorry, but do you mind if I take this?”

  “Go right ahead,” Tsukuru said.

  Ao stood up from the bench, walked a little ways away, and began talking into his cell phone. His body language and expression made clear that it was a customer. Tsukuru suddenly remembered the ringtone melody. Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas!” No matter what sort of spin you put on it, it was not exactly the right ringtone for a shrewd Lexus salesman. Ever so slowly, Tsukuru felt reality drain from things around him.

  Ao returned and sat back down on the bench.

  “Sorry about that,” he said. “I’m done.”

  Tsukuru looked at his watch. It was close to the end of the thirty minutes Ao said he could spare.

  “But why would Shiro claim such a ridiculous thing?” Tsukuru asked. “And why did it have to be me she accused?”

  “I couldn’t say,” Ao said. He shook his head weakly a couple of times. “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you. Back then, and even now, I’m totally in the dark about the whole thing.”

  Doubts about what was true, and what he should believe, had taken hold of Ao, and he was not the type of person who could handle being confused. He always worked best on a set field, with set rules and a set team.

  “Kuro must know more,” Ao said. “I got that impression. Like there were details we weren’t told about. You know what I mean? Women open up more to each other.”

  “Kuro’s living in Finland now,” Tsukuru said.

  “I know. She sends me a postcard every once in a while,” Ao said.

  They fell silent again. A group of three high school girls in school uniforms were cutting across the park. The hems of their short skirts swished perkily, and they laughed loudly as they passed in front of the bench. The girls still looked like children. White socks and black loafers, and innocent expressions. It gave Tsukuru a strange feeling to think that not so long ago he and Ao and his friends were that age.

  “You really look different now, you know that?” Ao said.

  “Well, of course I’ve changed. You haven’t seen me for sixteen years.”

  “No, not just because it’s been so long. At first I didn’t recognize you. When I took a good look, of course I knew who you were. You look sort of—I don’t know—gaunt and fearless-looking. You have these sunken cheeks, piercing eyes. Back then you had a rounder, softer kind of face.”

  Tsukuru couldn’t tell him how a half year spent obsessing over death, over destroying himself, had changed him, how those days had permanently transformed the person he was. He had the feeling he couldn’t get across even half the despair he’d felt at the time. It was probably better not to bring it up at all. Tsukuru was silent, waiting for Ao to continue.

  “In our group you were always the handsome one, the boy who made a good impression. Clean, neat, well dressed, and polite. You always made sure to greet people nicely, and never said anything stupid. You didn’t smoke, hardly touched alcohol, were always on time. Did you know that all our mothers were big fans of yours?”

  “Your mothers?” Tsukuru said in surprise. He hardly remembered a thing about their mothers. “And I’ve never been handsome. Not then or now. I’ve got this kind of blah look.”

  Ao shrugged his wide shoulders a touch. “Well, at least in our group you were the best-looking. My face has personality, I suppose—the personality
of a gorilla—and Aka is the stereotypical nerd with glasses. What I’m trying to say is, we all took on our different roles pretty well. While the group lasted, I mean.”

  “We consciously played those roles?”

  “No, I don’t think we were that aware of it,” Ao replied. “But we did sense which position each of us played. I was the happy-go-lucky jock, Aka the brilliant intellectual, Shiro the sweet young girl, Kuro the quick-witted comedian. And you were the well-mannered, handsome boy.”

  Tsukuru considered this. “I’ve always seen myself as an empty person, lacking color and identity. Maybe that was my role in the group. To be empty.”

  Ao shot him a baffled look. “I don’t get it. What role would being empty play?”

  “An empty vessel. A colorless background. With no special defects, nothing outstanding. Maybe that sort of person was necessary to the group.”

  Ao shook his head. “You weren’t empty. Nobody ever thought that. You—how should I put it?—helped the rest of us relax.”

  “Helped you relax?” Tsukuru repeated, surprised. “Like elevator music, you mean?”

  “No, not like that. It’s hard to explain, but having you there, we could be ourselves. You didn’t say much, but you had your feet solidly planted on the ground, and that gave the group a sense of security. Like an anchor. We saw that more clearly when you weren’t with us anymore. How much we really needed you. I don’t know if that’s the reason, but after you left, we all sort of went our separate ways.”

  Tsukuru remained silent, unable to find the right reply.

  “You know, in a sense we were a perfect combination, the five of us. Like five fingers.” Ao raised his right hand and spread his thick fingers. “I still think that. The five of us all naturally made up for what was lacking in the others, and totally shared our better qualities. I doubt that sort of thing will ever happen again in our lives. It was a one-time occurrence. I have my own family now, and of course I love them. But truthfully, I don’t have the same spontaneous, pure feeling for them that I had for all of you back then.”

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