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Vol. 8, No. 4

It's Been Just a Year and a Half Now Since I Went with My Boss to That Bar
by Ryu Murakami

It’s been just a year since

Translated by Ralph McCarthy

It’s been just a year and a half now since I went with my boss to that bar. I was a trucker, hauling mostly shipments of clothing. Our office was in Komazawa, but we were drinking in Shibuya that night when the boss said he wanted to show me a place that was a little out of the ordinary and took me to a gay bar in Roppongi. The hosts in this place were all named after vegetables: Tomato-chan, Cabbage-chan, Eggplant-chan, Cucumber-chan, Pumpy-chan (for pumpkin), Lettuce-chan, Celery-chan, like that. We’d come in with a group of cabaret hostesses, and Tomato-chan sat at our table and entertained us with his sparkling wit. He was in the chair next to mine.
           “Good evening. I’m Tomato.”
          I patted him on the shoulder, then I felt his arm.
           “You know, Tomato-chan, you’ve got a great set of muscles there,” I said.
           “Muscles? Ee-yew. Don’t say that.”
          Tomato-chan acted embarrassed, but he really did have a fine physique. I know because I boxed in high school, and I’ve seen all sorts of muscular structures on guys. Tomato-chan’s muscles were lean and supple, perfect for a boxer.
           “How old are you?”
           “Ee-yew. You should never ask a gay person his age. Don’t you know that?”
           “Come on. How old?”
           “Eighteen.”
           “Ever thought of trying boxing? I know a guy who runs a gym in Itabashi. I could introduce you.”
          Tomato-chan got serious for a minute and asked me for the address and phone number of the gym. He wrote it down on the back of a coaster. Then he looked at me and said:
           “You’d make a great gay.”
          I’d never even been around gay guys before, and at the time I didn’t really think much one way or the other about what he said.

A year ago my wife moved out of our apartment. If she’d found a lover or something, believe me, I would’ve killed them both, but that didn’t seem to be the case. Her exact words were “You’ve got things all wrong. What a fool you are.” I didn’t understand what she meant, so one time I went to her new apartment and sort of forced my way in and tried to get a good explanation.
           “Look at you,” she said. “You drive that big truck around for ten hours a day, then you come home moaning and groaning, you don’t even try to talk to me, just plop down in your lounge chair, drink a quart of beer, eat a bowl and a half of rice, chomp on your pickled vegetables, and fart and burp, and when we make love it’s just flup flup flup about five times and then it’s over, and you call yourself a man? Don’t you see how ridiculous you are? You’ve got things all wrong.”
          I asked her what if I tried to do something about the farts and the burps and the flup flup, but it was no go. And I still didn’t understand what it was I had all wrong.

Our daughter was in the third year of middle school. She stayed with me. I don’t know which of us she takes after, me or my wife, but she’s a steady little thing.
           “I can understand how Mom feels, though.”
          Cheeky, too. She was in the kitchen dicing carrots or cleaning up or something when she said this to me.
           “What do you mean, you understand?”
           “Well, Daddy, you’re not exactly humble, you know.”
           “What am I supposed to be humble about?”
           “There you go. That’s exactly what I mean.”
           “What?”
           “Did it ever occur to you that there might be other ways to live your life? You’re completely satisfied with being a truck driver.”
           “What’s wrong with that?”
           “Well, it’s not very fashionable.”
           “Listen, let me tell you something, a man can’t go around worrying about whether or not his job is—”
           “Guys who have no humility aren’t even popular in middle school.”
           “Look, I work, don’t I? I hand over the money to your mother, I feed you, I drink my beer. What’s so wrong about that?”
           “It’s all right with me, I’m your daughter. But you and Mom started out as strangers, right? Right? You have to be more considerate with people you’re not related to by blood.”
          I still didn’t really understand. Even my daughter was beyond my comprehension. One day I screwed up my courage and asked her why she’d stayed with me. This is what she said:
           “Just about that time—about the time Mom left with her Boston bag?—I saw Kramer vs. Kramer, and it made a big impression on me. I know I’m a lot older than the kid in the movie, but it made me think how much fun it’d be to eat ice cream with my daddy and stuff.”
          Then she laughed.
          Incomprehensible. Incomprehensible, but she really takes good care of me. If it weren’t for my daughter—boy. Just to think about it gives me the willies.

Then, about six months ago, my company went bankrupt. My boss was a simple, serious type who thought it was important for us to keep up with the new developments in office automation, and that’s what turned out to be our downfall.
          I collected unemployment insurance and applied for jobs at several other trucking companies, but after a couple of weeks I realized my heart wasn’t really in it. What did trucking ever get me? My wife ran away, and my daughter . . . well, she didn’t respect me. Driving a semi was the only skill I had, though.
          I didn’t tell my daughter what was going on, but she’s quick to figure things out.
           “Did you quit your job?”
          She asked me this one night as she was sprinkling curry powder into a pot. I was watching a baseball game on TV.
           “No, I didn’t quit.”
           “Oh. The company went bankrupt?”
           “Bingo.”
          Rob a man of his job and you rob him of his vitality. It’s really true.
           “So why don’t you just take it easy for a while?”
          She didn’t sound concerned at all.
           “Can’t afford to. You have to go to high school next year, for one thing.”
           “Public schools are cheap. I want to go to public high anyway. And you’ve got a little money saved up, haven’t you?”
          I did have a little, but I didn’t want to touch it. I was going to send her to junior college with that money.
           “And you’ve got unemployment and everything, right?”
          It was strange. Here my daughter was coming out with all this cheeky crap and I didn’t even get mad. Before, I would have jumped to my feet and turned the table over and yelled at her to shut up, but now I didn’t have it in me. I just let her dish me out some curry and went, “Thanks, honey.” She gave me a big grin. I bet what she wanted to say was, “If only you’d told Mom that once in a while.”
          The game on TV was the Giants versus the Carp. Nishimoto was pitching for the Giants, and he had a three-run lead. I was born in Oji, so I’m a Giants fan down to the hair on my balls. My wife liked the Carp. She was a fan of the pitcher Yamane because he’s from Okayama, where she grew up. My daughter’s a Carp fan, too, for the simple reason that a lot of the players are handsome. Anyway, as I was sitting there eating my curry and watching the game, with my daughter beside me cheering for the Carp—going “Get a hit, Yoshihiko!” or “Kobayakawa, time for a home run!” and so on—I realized I was starting to hope the Carp would come from behind and win. And it scared the hell out of me.
          At first I thought I was feeling that way because of the Giants’ pretty boys, Egawa and Hara, young guys like that building those big mansions. My friends and I always used to talk about how we couldn’t stand to see these sissies playing baseball in order to pay off housing loans. But it wasn’t really that; it wasn’t because of Egawa or Hara, but something inside myself. If it made my wife and daughter happy to see the Carp win, then it would make me happy too—that’s what seemed to be in the back of my mind, and it scared me. It made me wonder what was going to become of me at this rate. I ate three servings of curry, and that made my daughter glad, and as I was smiling back at her I started to feel like I didn’t know who I was again, and tears welled up in my eyes. But then I remembered some old saying about how it was sinful to cry on a full stomach and held the tears back for all I was worth.

It wasn’t that I was following my daughter’s advice about taking it easy, but I stopped looking for work. That doesn’t mean I started gambling or going to nightclubs or anything, mind you. All I did was, every day I went to West Shinjuku, where all the skyscrapers are, and walked around. I’d look at the fountains or hang out in bookstores or stroll through the park, and sometimes I’d go into coffee shops and drink coffee. I didn’t want anybody to mistake me for a bum, so every morning I shaved and combed my hair and put on a clean shirt my daughter had washed for me and nice shoes, which I hadn’t necessarily done every day even when I was working. By nice shoes I just mean your regular leather shoes, but I had three pairs that were practically brand new because when I was trucking I always wore sandals. I went to the bookstore in the NS Building almost every day and stood around reading books about things like physiognomy, where people try to advise you about your life according to your facial features. Most of the advice was along the lines of “If you persevere in your efforts you will succeed,” which is a lot of bullshit, if you ask me—people who consult a physiognomist are doing so because they’ve already made a lot of effort and it hasn’t gotten them anywhere. I saw a woman about my age in the bookstore a lot, and I surprised myself one day by going up and talking to her. It made me wonder again what was happening to me.
           “We bump into each other a lot here, don’t we? Could I interest you in a cup of coffee somewhere?”
          I casually come out with this line that I couldn’t have said in a million years a few months earlier. The woman wore kind of thick makeup. She said she was rather busy that day, could we make it next time? And two days later we were actually sitting together in the coffee shop at the Washington Hotel, drinking coffee.
           “You really like books, don’t you?” she said.
          I’m thinking, if someone had asked me that a few months ago I would have burst out laughing, but instead of laughing I just said yes, I do.
           “I do, too, more than anything, almost . . . Would you mind my asking what business you’re in?”
          I told her I was unemployed, but that I used to drive trucks.
           “No! You certainly don’t look the part.”
          I drove semis for sixteen years. If I don’t look the part, what part do I look?
           “I thought you might be a writer or something.”
          Well, I’ll tell you, that threw me for a loop.
           “I hope this won’t sound rude, but I imagined you might be a poet. A poet who just lives life as it comes, or a journalist, or something like that.”
          It threw me for a loop, but I can’t say it hurt my feelings any. In fact, I couldn’t help but smile. I felt like I couldn’t wait to tell my daughter about it.

“A poet?” my daughter said. “How cool can you get? Why don’t you try really writing some poems?”
           “Get out of here,” I told her, but in fact I’d already bought a copy of How to Write Poetry at the bookstore on the way home. It turned out I couldn’t write poems after all. But I did have another sort of talent I didn’t know about yet.

Two or three times a month my daughter went to stay at her mother’s place. That’s where she was on this particular day when I ran into the woman at the bookstore again, and over coffee we decided to have dinner together. She took me to this candles-and-wine-and-escargot type of place in Roppongi. They seemed to know her there. I ate all these dishes I’d never seen before, pretending it was the sort of stuff I had every day, and I got drunk. Then the woman made me an offer.
          Later it turned out she wasn’t a woman. Somehow that didn’t bother me, which even now strikes me as kind of strange. I don’t think it was just because I was drunk. Maybe it’s got something to do with not having had that many women in my time. At any rate, the fact that this elegant, refined lady didn’t have any soft swells on her chest, that instead there was a rig between her legs just like mine, seemed perfectly natural to me, and we rolled around and got all tangled up together in bed.
           “Would you like to come to my club sometime?” The transvestite asked me this as we were leaving the hotel. “I think they’d love you there.”
          It seemed to me that somebody else had said something like that before.
          This was about four months ago.

I got more and more confused about myself. At first, when the company went under, I used to get a twinge if I saw a big semi rolling down the street, but that didn’t happen any more. I kept on hanging out around West Shinjuku. I ran into the transvestite a few times, but we never went to bed again. I wondered if that was like a rule they had or something.
          One day I bought a volume of poems by Verlaine and was sitting on a bench in Chuo Park reading it. With me in the park were young couples and bums and old people taking walks and mothers and babies and dogs and pigeons. There were some joggers, too, on the jogging course around the perimeter of the park. One young guy in sauna pants stared at me as he jogged by. He stared at me again the second time around, and the third time too. Then finally he came over to me, still dripping with sweat, and said, “Do you remember me?” It was the host I’d met at the gay bar, Tomato-chan.
           “I’ll be damned. Don’t tell me you really took up boxing?”
           “Yes.”
           “With the gym I told you about?”
           “I started with them, but now I train at a different place.”
           “What, it wasn’t very good?”
           “Itabashi’s just a bit too far away for me. I live here in Shinjuku.”
           “Oh.”
           “You look different somehow. Well, the lights in the club are dim. It’s been over a year, too, hasn’t it?”
           “I quit my job.”
           “Oh. I’m sorry.”
           “No, no reason to be. Listen, this may sound strange for a guy my age to be asking a guy your age, Tomato-chan, but—sorry. Would you rather I not call you that?”
           “Oh, no. I’m still working at the club.”
           “What I was going to say is, do you really think so, what you just said? That I look different?”
           “Well, I mean, I don’t really know you that well.”
           “Listen, a few weeks ago I, uh, I went to bed with this woman with a lot of makeup, see, and—”
           “It was a man?”
           “Right.”
          Tomato-chan laughed gaily. “And? It’s still bothering you?”
           “No, it’s not like that, it’s, how should I put this . . .”
           “Oh. It didn’t bother you at all, right? Did he bugger you?”
           “I don’t think there was any of that, but—”
           “Dry humping?”
          I nodded yes; and Tomato-chan said, “God, what a conversation to be having in the middle of the day,” and sat down on the bench. “And?”
           “Well, that’s all, but then this transvestite said . . . er . . .”
           “What?”
           “He said I’d make a good gay guy.”
           “That doesn’t surprise me. I said the same thing, didn’t I?”
           “Yeah but, look, I was always a macho type of guy. I mean, I told you, right, I was a boxer in high school and everything? How’s it going, by the way? You turned pro yet?”
           “Yes. I’ve had six fights so far. Once I dropped down to featherweight I won three in a row. I couldn’t win to save my life before that, though.”
           “Fighting the scales, eh? It must be hell having to keep your weight down in this day and age, with all the good food around. I mean, Tokyo’s not exactly Ethiopia, right?”
           “It’s awful at the club. I just drink water and pretend I’m getting high.”
           “It’s all right to do that?”
           “I’ve known a lot of the customers for years; they don’t mind.”
           “Anyway . . . What was I saying?”
           “You said you were always macho.”
           “Right. I mean, I wasn’t violent or anything, but I got into fights once in a while and even spent a little time in jail, and, well, I was a trucker, right?”
           “That’s got nothing to do with it.”
           “Nothing to do with it?”
           “Nope.”
          It sort of hit me like, yeah, that’s true. Why should that have anything to do with it? “But, so, well, what is it about me that would make a good gay guy?”
           “Your face.”
          I have to admit, it made me feel good when he said that. Without even thinking I sort of glanced around to see if there was a mirror anywhere. Tomato-chan started talking about how my face is oval-shaped and how big my eyes are and how my eyelids aren’t puffy-looking like a lot of people’s and how I’ve got a nice nose, all sorts of things like that, and I wondered how come nobody ever told me about this before.
          We went to Tomato-chan’s apartment, and I put on makeup for the first time in my life.
           “You’d look even better if we plucked your eyebrows.”
           “I can’t pluck my eyebrows, I’ve got a daughter.”
          It was like that. When we were finished I looked in the mirror and got quite a surprise. I was really pretty.

To read the rest of this story and others from the Winter 2004 issue, click here to purchase it from our online store.

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