If we think of our memories as having a shape, then one possibility is that they come in the shape of a box. I know that this is not entirely an original idea, but that doesn’t make it untrue. After all, we are born with more or less ordinary faces and bodies, deal with ordinary problems, share them with other ordinary people who come and go in our lives and eventually die. We all go through that, every one of us. As long as we’re alive, we can’t escape the utter ordinariness of our existence.
So I should feel no shame in imagining an ordinary box in which our memories are enclosed. The only problem is that the box exists outside ourselves. It’s not as if you have these countless boxes inside of you that you can dust off and open up as you please, to admire or just to make sure they’re still there. No, that’s not how it works. The box always exists somewhere else, and one day, out of nowhere, it is handed to you from a stranger. Here you go, isn’t this yours? You’ve left it behind. Or, you meet an angry-looking person while you’re out and about, and the box is thrust into your arms. Or, you find the box left by your feet, and when you look up there is no one to be seen.
And so it happened that one day a box was delivered to me. I can’t say how big it was or what it looked like, but there was no mistaking that I had received it.
I don’t know why I decided to attend the reunion in my rural home town, where there was not a single person I wanted to see or remember, no one I had anything to say to. My family moved away the spring I graduated from middle school, and since then I hadn’t set foot in that town. I had no family ties there, not a single friend, not one heart-warming memory. There was nothing tying me to that place – so why did I suddenly feel like going there after all these years?
It could have been that I was curious, or that I happened to have time on my hands. Or that I found it amusing to imagine myself showing up out of the blue, among people who would never have expected me to come to such a gathering. In any case, it was a trivial reason. When I discovered the reunion invitation – printed on cheap paper made by some nameless agency – in my office mail in early March, I decided not to send in an RSVP. I thought that it might be more . . . effective, shall we say, to show up on the day unannounced.
For the occasion, I had purchased a black Balenciaga jacket that I’d been eyeing, and paired it with jeans, Manolo Blahnik heels and an Yves Saint Laurent handbag from a few seasons ago. No watch or earrings – just a delicate gold necklace with a dainty diamond. A little over ¥500,000 all together. I knew the outfit would be much too casual for a party in Tokyo, but for the countryside it was more than enough. This thought pleased me. I was sure my acquaintances from long ago had never laid eyes on a Balenciaga or a Manolo. Even if they could buy them online, where would they wear them to? When they saw me, they would whisper among themselves: Wow, look at her, she really is a celebrity. Not that I needed to impress them, but it would make something crystal clear – some kind of dividing line, marking . . . our fundamental difference, maybe . . . attesting that our paths would have never crossed if not for the reunion. And because of that, our being together in that moment would create some sort of profound meaning.
These were the thoughts I toyed with as I set off one Saturday in late April just before the holidays, taking the bullet train to the town whose name I had long forgotten.
I arrived at an old-fashioned, depressing-looking hotel. It was utterly pathetic. But what had I been expecting? The carpet stretched across the lobby was no doubt once deep crimson, but had faded into a cheap pink color with fluorescent spots here and there. Next to the reception counter was a gigantic glass case whose corners had been discolored, containing what looked like an oversized taxidermy bear. And next to that was a ridiculously huge vase stuffed with a mountain of gaudy fake flowers. The leaves and petals were caked in dust, making me wonder how many years it had been there.
There was no other guest in sight. Behind the reception counter was a man with a vague expression on his face, wearing what resembled a suit. Even though our eyes had met, he averted his gaze and leisurely disappeared into the waiting room behind the counter. I let out a sigh and shook my head in dismay, then got on what seemed like the only elevator there was, pressing the button of the floor where the party was supposed to take place. When I exited the elevator, there was no one in sight. I pulled out the invitation card and realized I had gotten off at the wrong floor.
At the entrance of the banquet hall two floors below, there was a long reception table, behind which sat two girls with that token hairstyle you always see at weddings – curled and tousled into a loose bun with pins encrusted with pearls. To be precise, they weren’t exactly girls, since they were obviously well into their thirties, but they both wore the sort of garish make-up only girls much younger than they were could pull off. (I could go on about this, but will only point out the fatal mistake of those fake eyelashes.) They were indistinguishable from each other, both wearing sleeveless A-line dresses with sheer organza-like shawls thrown over their shoulders – another look that you see on countless women at weddings. That look puzzles me every time I see it. Because I never interact with these kinds of people, it’s still a profound mystery to me why they feel the need to wear that thing over their shoulders.
One of the girls behind the reception desk seemed to recognize me and let out a slight gasp, then asked me in a feeble voice to write my name on a sheet of paper.
I flashed a smile and responded in an ever approachable voice, ‘I hope it’s okay that I didn’t send in a response – I wasn’t sure if I would be able to make it.’ I studied the faces of my former classmates but couldn’t recall who they were. Reading their name tags, I vaguely recognized the combination of characters.
The girl on the right picked up a pen to write out a name tag for me, then glanced up hesitantly. ‘Um . . . I wonder which you prefer, your real name or the name that you go by now . . .’
She looked embarrassed as she muttered those words, so I answered in a cheerful tone, ‘Of course my real name, silly!’
The girl beamed and said, ‘Right, of course!’ as if to acknowledge the small mistake she had made. The girl on the left also looked flustered and was nodding vigorously.
The banquet hall was illuminated by a harsh fluorescent light. In the middle of the room were round tables clumsily placed, and in one corner stood several stands and long tables with trays of food. A row of chairs lined the opposite wall. I glided toward the wall demurely and sat down in a chair at the very end. Everyone wore their name tags on their chest or near their stomach, so I followed suit. I could see some people looking over at me, and so I put on a smile: a perfectly magnanimous smile that was appropriate for the occasion, not meant for anyone in particular but gracing the whole scene. I was the only person not standing.
I began to recognize some of the faces that fell into my vision. It was as if small islands had surged from the bottom of the ocean and revealed themselves. It felt different from remembering – I was merely counting one by one the imaginary islands in my head. I sensed that people were conscious of my presence even as they tried not to look at me directly. I pretended not to notice and sat still with a placid expression on my face that signaled neither acceptance nor rejection. Or perhaps it signaled both. I sat up straight, my handbag perched on my daintily pressed knees.
After a round of speeches by former teachers, there was a boisterous cry of ‘Cheers!’ and the party began. There were seventy people in attendance. I couldn’t tell if that was more or less than expected. After a while, the men and women began to mix and the banquet hall came to life with the sounds of people’s voices and the clashing of plates. After waiting for the appropriate time, I walked over to the corner where the drinks were placed and picked up a glass of oolong tea.
As I returned to my seat and sipped in silence, a girl came running over – her neck weighed down by a bulky necklace studded with green gemstones – and plopped down next to me, exclaiming, ‘It’s been so long!’
I glanced at her name tag but couldn’t place the name. I smiled and nodded slightly.
‘I didn’t think you’d come. What a surprise!’ the girl cried in a high-pitched voice, covering her mouth in an exaggerated manner to express her disbelief.
‘Of course I wanted to come and see my old classmates. I just wasn’t sure what my schedule would look like until the last minute.’ I laughed and took a sip of my oolong tea.
‘I’m so happy to see you. I never imagined you’d come!’ The girl seemed a little agitated, and pressed the beer glass to her chest with both hands.
‘My friends from my school days are important to me. We shared something together . . . the time, the space, the very air we breathed . . . you know?’
‘I know exactly what you mean! At our age especially, right? When we’re all together like this, so many things come back. It’s like hitting the reverse button!’
I smiled to signal agreement.
‘Anyway, you’re really something. I tell people all the time that we were classmates. Oh, when was it – I saw you in that TV series – I can’t remember the title but there was a furniture maker, and you played the younger sister of the protagonist.’
‘You saw that show? That means so much to me.’
‘Of course I saw it! I watched the whole thing!’
‘I never know how people are responding when I’m in the middle of things, so it always makes me happy to hear from viewers.’
‘At first I didn’t recognize you. Your name was different, and you just seemed so different. But then I was talking to someone afterwards, who was it – and I realized it was you. That was already . . . what, fifteen years ago? Wow, look at you, you’re a celebrity now.’ The girl sipped her beer and heaved a sigh. ‘I mean, you’re totally different from everyone. The way you came into the room. You have an aura. I saw it when you came in. You’re so different.’
I had predicted it would turn out this way. Still I felt sheepish being told that I had an aura of a celebrity from someone whose name or face I couldn’t recall. As we chatted, one girl after another gathered around me, creating a circle. The girls wanted to take selfies with me on their smartphones and hear stories about other celebrities. They wanted to talk about Tokyo and ask me about the latest fads. The girls chirping around me were either fat and sloppy-looking, or so skinny and gaunt that they looked old. Either way, they gave the distinct impression of middle age. They were probably all married with children, but there was a laziness about them, like they were wasting away their days eating and sleeping as they pleased without making any effort to better themselves. They may be keeping up with the latest make-up trends, but the color and texture were just all wrong. The dresses and blouses that they had chosen for this special occasion were obviously made of cheap polyester. They clearly read the wrong magazines and idolized the wrong celebrities. There was even a girl wearing a schoolgirl miniskirt and knee-high socks. I sighed inwardly and kept on sipping the oolong tea with a smile on my face.
Aside from getting up to refill my glass and plate, I remained in my seat and talked only to the girls who came over to me. I didn’t interact with the boys clustered on the other end of the banquet hall – boys who no longer looked like boys, with their balding heads and plump bellies tucked inside double-breasted suits. I could hear voices getting louder and occasional bursts of cheering as more and more people got drunk – some of the boys even started wrestling one another. Had their minds really not developed since middle school, or was it an effort to camouflage their awkwardness? In any case, I could tell they were having fun.
I was watching them in amusement when a girl came stumbling over to me. She had a dark complexion and, layered with the flush from alcohol, she looked like she might be sick. The girl mumbled what seemed to be a joke and burst out laughing. She wore a big black ribbon on the top of her head. The area around her eyes and the angular shape of her body looked vaguely familiar. I recalled that she was on the tennis team back then and, with her dark skin and arrogant attitude, had stood out among the sea of unremarkable girls. She squeezed herself next to me and peered at me with droopy, drunken eyes. ‘So, what are you up to now?’ she asked.
‘Now? Well, I guess I’m talking to you now, aren’t I?’ I answered with a smile.
‘No, I mean, job-wise?’ she insisted, slurring her words. How could she be this drunk when the party was just getting going? ‘Are you back here now?’
‘What do you mean, back here?’
‘I mean, did you move back to this town?’
‘Oh no, I just arrived a little while ago, and I’m going back after this is over.’
‘I see. It’s just that I haven’t seen you in anything recently, you know what I mean, it’s been years now, so I thought maybe you gave up and . . . came back here for good. Hehe, that was my guess, anyway.’
I smiled and shook my head.
‘I’ve always been curious . . . what do you do normally, if you’re, like . . . an actress?’
‘Normally? Well, you work.’
‘Work – like actress jobs?’
‘But . . . you’re not on TV anymore. Can you still get by?’
‘Work doesn’t just mean TV. There’s the stage, for example, and you would only be able to see that in Tokyo.’
‘Oh, the stage. Uh-huh. But . . . is that enough to get by? Or . . . oh my gosh, do you work part-time jobs too, like everyone else? Tokyo must have all kinds of jobs, I’m so jealous. But it must be hard for you, right? We’re not getting any younger.’
I kept listening with a smile on my face. The other girls were also smiling, but since the girl from the tennis team wouldn’t drop the subject, they grew uncomfortable and started leaving one by one. She was completely drunk, and giggled loudly every time she said something. The way she sat with her knees dangling open was deplorable. Her large feet, stuffed inside cheap ballerina flats, were covered with spots from countless scrapes and scratches. Her calves swelled with large muscles, making her legs look like stumps, and her bloated thighs reminded me of massive sweet potatoes too deformed to be sold. I stared at her legs for a while, wondering why there were beautiful legs and not so beautiful legs in this world. After I had studied her legs for some time, ignoring her chatter, I glanced down at my watch and saw that an hour and a half had passed since the party started.
What did I come here for? I thought to myself. Then I chuckled, realizing that I was feeling exactly how I had imagined I would feel coming here – coming to this place, to this gathering of strangers that was so alien to me that I couldn’t believe it was my own past. I was impressed by the utter predictability of it all – of how things had turned out exactly the way they should have in a logical, orderly fashion.
I stood up at exactly an hour and a half before my bullet train was scheduled to depart, and left the noisy banquet hall for the ladies room. I was going to leave straight from there. On the way, I checked my cell phone and noticed I had two missed calls, both from my manager. I wish he would die, I thought. His filthy face, the sagging skin on his stomach, his crude laughter – everything about him was repulsive and so utterly vulgar. I wish he would die. But if he died, what would I do with my life? I exhaled quickly, burying my cell phone in the bottom of my bag.
What was I doing during those three years of middle school? I pondered as I made my way through the hallway with the discolored carpet. I came all the way here and talked to so many people, and still there was not a single person I could remember clearly. It was impressive how much I didn’t remember.
Did I have any friends? Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. There was no one to remind me of that among the swarm of girls tonight. In fact, I couldn’t remember a single thing clearly from those three years. It first struck me when I received the invitation. As I thought back to the past, everything – any scene, any conversation – would disappear as if a thick sheet were thrust over my head. Whenever I tried to picture something concrete, it all turned white and fuzzy.
I pushed open the door to the ladies room. In the mirror, my eyes met those of a girl standing by the sink. She had a name tag pinned to her shirt, but I couldn’t make out the characters.
When I came out of the stall, the girl was still standing there in front of the sink, fussing with her cell phone. Our eyes met again in the mirror as I stood next to her to wash my hands.
‘It’s been a while,’ the girl whispered. She held up her name tag, then read her name out loud.
‘Yes, it has,’ I responded with a smile.
She was short and very pale, with little trace of make-up on her face. She wore a delicate pair of oval-shaped glasses with silver rims. She must have bad eyesight, since you could see her skin warped inwards at the edge of the thick lens. Her simple white blouse contrasted with her black hair that was obviously air-dried. I vaguely recalled that we were in the same class back in seventh grade. She placed her cell phone back into her brown purse, turned the faucet and carefully foamed the soap in her palm. I watched as I wiped my hands with a handkerchief. Her hands were devoid of manicure or accessories, and they looked oddly large compared to the rest of her body.
‘Good turnout, isn’t it?’ she said to me, smiling.
I returned the smile and nodded.
‘I wondered whether I should come tonight since I wasn’t close to anyone back then, but they say people become nicer as they grow older. Everyone has been so courteous all night.’
‘Courteous? I wasn’t close to anyone either, but they all seemed pretty relaxed and friendly,’ I said.
‘Oh, well, they were probably friendly to you because of who you are.’
We proceeded to make small talk the way people do with old classmates, but there was none of that usual gossip about who is doing what now, or why so-and-so did such a thing then. Instead she reminisced about the bread they used to sell at the school co-op, the mysterious pillar that stood in the middle of the infirmary, and the shrine we sketched during art class in the first semester of seventh grade. She also recalled how, during gym class, we girls had to wear those skin-tight bloomer mini-shorts, which were no more than glorified underwear. Listening to her go on and on, I suddenly remembered that I’d had a habit of wearing bloomers all day long. Not just during gym class, but at home and at school, I would be wearing my bloomers under my clothes, every day without fail. I don’t know where I’d gotten the idea, but back then it had seemed unbearably humiliating to leave my underwear exposed even under my clothes. I wore those navy blue bloomers religiously, and couldn’t forgive myself if even the tiniest bit of underwear would show from underneath the fabric. How could I stand wearing those tight things day in and day out? It was as if I believed it was a sin to be defenseless.
‘I really don’t know why we had to wear those things,’ I said.
‘I don’t either,’ she replied with a serious look on her face.
We continued to talk about this and that. She seemed to have no interest in me or what I was doing now. Then, she told me that our seventh grade homeroom teacher had died in a car accident. She was a music teacher, young and energetic – I remembered how she always wore her thick black hair pinned up in a bun with an ornamental barrette. I could see her trotting across the courtyard carrying textbooks in her arms. I’d gazed down at that scene so many times from the classroom window.
‘I heard she was killed in the accident soon after we graduated. Some of our classmates probably went to the funeral.’
‘I had no idea. I moved away soon after graduation. This is the first time I’m hearing of it.’
‘They say people don’t die so easily, but maybe they do after all.’
‘Maybe so,’ I said. ‘I heard that seventy people came to the reunion today, but there were apparently so many more they didn’t hear back from, or couldn’t track down.’
‘I wonder if . . . well, it’s a strange thing to say, but I wonder if there are some among us who have already died. Aside from the teacher, I mean. Or maybe we’re still too young for that.’ I don’t know what made me say such a thing. It probably had something to do with the news of the homeroom teacher’s death.
My question was greeted by silence. I didn’t think I was being inappropriate given the way our conversation was heading, so I felt at a loss. She seemed to be studying my eyes.
‘There was a girl who died,’ she uttered softly. Before I could ask who it was, she had said the girl’s name. ‘Kozue Kurosawa.’
I knew the name, and immediately recalled her face. But the image that fluttered before my eyes was Kozue Kurosawa with a childlike expression, her hair tied back in a ponytail and carrying an elementary school backpack. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t remember her face from middle school.
We had been classmates in fifth grade and, since our families were neighbors, we had become inseparable. I’d go over to her house often and we would play together, drawing manga, making dolls out of felt cloths and exchanging diaries. We’d even gone on an all-day expedition to a forest park on our bikes with bento box lunches in our baskets. But all of that had ended as soon as we entered sixth grade. Nothing had happened. We simply began to hang out in different groups. We eventually graduated from elementary school, got placed in different classes in middle school and grew apart, as people do naturally. It’s hard to put a finger on why exactly these things happen – but it’s a kind of change, a reordering of sorts, that many girls around that age go through. And until today, until I heard her name again, I had never once recalled her existence.
‘When did she pass away?’
‘Three years ago.’
‘Kozue . . . I seem to remember that she stopped coming to school by the second semester of seventh grade. Could that be right?’
I tried to remember what it was like back then. We barely saw each other once we were in middle school, let alone talked. Then I had heard that rumor about her not coming to school any more, though I never knew why.
‘Three years ago – that’s quite recent.’
The girl nodded.
‘Was she sick? No one mentioned anything about her at the party. Do people not know about it?’
‘I don’t know. But she wasn’t sick.’
‘Was it an accident, then?’
‘She starved to death.’ The girl spoke those words as if she were pronouncing some foreign phrase for the first time.
‘Starved to death?’ I echoed. Surprise was evident in my voice. Starved to death?
‘Yes. Kozue Kurosawa starved to death. They found her in a room. It was summer. They found her dead in her own room.’
‘Did she live alone?’
‘She was living alone in her parents’ house. Everyone in her family had moved out. It made the news, you know. It was in the papers. It’ll probably come up if you search online.’
She sighed quietly and adjusted her glasses. She hung her purse back on her shoulders and said, ‘I should get going.’ It was as if she had come to the reunion solely for the purpose of delivering the news to me, and now that she had fulfilled her task, there was no reason for her to stay.
I was at a loss for words. As she glided past me, I managed to smile and say, ‘See you around.’
She didn’t answer. When she reached the door of the ladies room, she turned around and looked intently into my eyes. ‘I knew you’d come today. I had a feeling,’ she said softly, and pushed through the door.
I looked for the girl when I returned to the banquet hall, but she was nowhere to be found. The party was still in full swing, and I could even hear people singing karaoke. I collapsed into a chair with beer in hand. I drank and drank, but my thirst would not go away, and before I knew it I had finished off a large bottle. I had a low tolerance and hadn’t consumed much alcohol these past few years, but for some reason I didn’t feel drunk.
I tried to imagine what it would be like for a thirty-something woman to starve to death. My imagination failed. All I could remember of Kozue Kurosawa was from elementary school, wearing a ponytail that exposed her shapely forehead. Her voice? I couldn’t remember her voice. A dog? I recalled the presence of a dog at her house. It was a brown mutt. He was always hiding under the porch, and we’d drag it out to hold it in our arms. I hated how the wet dirt on its legs and stomach would get all over my clothes. What was its name? I couldn’t remember. We took a photograph of a ghost once, by chance. There was a mysterious hand on Kozue’s shoulder and some white veil-like substance hovering around my right leg. Without knowing what we were doing, we threw some salt on the photo and burned it, and then buried the ashes at the edge of the rice fields. Did Kozue have siblings? I couldn’t remember that either. No . . . I’m pretty sure she was an only child. Her house was always empty. The rooms were small, as was the house, but her parents were always out working and didn’t come home until after dark. One time, she invited me over for dinner. It was just the three of us – me, Kozue and her mother. I remember being nervous. It was then that I tasted sausage that didn’t come in a package for the first time. I was so grossed out that I spat it out in secret. Did Kozue notice? Every room was incredibly messy. The kitchen was chaotic, and the room where we played – about six tatami mats in size – was buried in a pile of toys, magazines, picture books, laundry, blankets, bath towels and who knows what else. We would deconstruct the pile to make space for us to sit and play. The room faced west, and as dusk approached, the curtains would gleam in a dark orange, filling me with a sense of dread. I felt as if tepid hands would extend from out of nowhere and drag me by the legs to some unknown place . . . it was a kind of darkness that made me nauseous. And we would always . . . yes, that’s right, we would . . .
And then it happened. I saw someone standing there. I strained my eyes to make out who it was. It was Kozue Kurosawa. It was Kozue Kurosawa from elementary school, and she was naked. She had taken off her clothes and stood naked before the curtain that was melting into orange-tinted darkness. She was looking straight into my eyes.
I came to and looked around. I had been staring into the bottom of a beer glass. I suddenly noticed how noisy it was, as if the lukewarm water that had been corked inside my ears had gushed forth. I could see people laughing and enjoying themselves. The banquet hall was well lit, and the reunion was continuing its course. I drew in a deep breath. Then I put my hand to my mouth and exhaled quietly so I didn’t draw attention to myself.
After a while, the image of the naked Kozue Kurosawa once again resurfaced. I could see her face quite clearly now that she was no longer shrouded in shadows. But there was no expression to speak of. Her face betrayed nothing of her emotions as she went on gazing at me intently.
That’s right. In that room, Kozue Kurosawa was stripped naked.
I got up to get a fresh bottle of beer, poured it into a glass and drank. Yes, Kozue Kurosawa was stripped naked. I had made her do it. Kozue Kurosawa stripped naked, in that room, over and over, because I had told her to do so. When I formed those words clearly in my mind, I could suddenly hear my heart beating vigorously. I saw her naked body again. Standing there with a glass of beer in my hand, I concentrated all my strength on capturing what was emerging from my memory.
Kozue Kurosawa was a close friend. We were always together at school and after school. How long did our friendship last? A year? It seemed longer than that. At some point there developed between us that unspoken power dynamic that comes into existence between two people, no matter what age. It rarely comes to the surface but, sparked by some triggering incident, it can reveal itself. And for us, the trigger went off when . . . that’s right, when Kozue Kurosawa first invited me over to her house. After that, it became a routine. I knew that we would be alone until well after dark, and so I would tell her to take off her clothes. I would touch her.
How could that have happened? How could I have done such a thing? In the beginning, we were probably just playing around. But once it was set in motion, the act had shed itself of the levity of play and became tinged with an air of secrecy that we couldn’t even speak of between ourselves, let alone to others. I was all seriousness. Myself fully clothed, I would make Kozue Kurosawa strip naked and stand before me as if it were some sacred ritual. Then I would touch her half-formed breasts, and lick and suck her nipples that were still absent of shape or color. After that was done, I would make her lie down on her back and would gaze at her sex, faintly covered with hair, opening its folds with my fingertips and looking at it for minutes on end, inserting my tongue and fingers into its depth. With full knowledge that this must be kept secret, I would climb on top of the naked Kozue Kurosawa, open her lips with my fingers and spit into her mouth, telling her to swallow. Then, I would lick her nipples again. I would lick her slightly swelling clitoris – I didn’t even know what it was called then – and tell her to play with herself. Kozue let me do to her whatever I wanted. She didn’t seem scared or resistant in the least. She simply obeyed me and did as she was told, in silence. In fact, I think it was I who felt scared. Was I scared of being found out? Or did I feel guilty for doing something we weren’t supposed to be doing?
What had compelled me to do those things? I don’t know. What could I have been thinking at the time? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps I had a vague curiosity about sex, and I simply tested it out on my best friend. Maybe that was all there was to it. And maybe, though no one talks about it, maybe many girls around that age go through a similar experience. Because we don’t know how to accept or reject the things that can’t quite be put into words – intimacy, sexual curiosity, secrecy and so on – perhaps things like that happen quite naturally in the most ordinary circumstances. We could go on and on trying to spin an explanation about the complexities of girls’ sexuality, but I still wouldn’t be able to explain what had really happened. One thing I know for sure is that I had completely erased from my memory what I had done to her in that empty house, or that a girl named Kozue Kurosawa had even existed in this world. And shortly after we graduated from elementary school, Kozue stopped coming to school. And at the age of thirty, she starved to death. Looking exactly the way she did back then when I knew her.
I had missed the last bullet train. The party came to an end once we took a group picture in the middle of the banquet hall and listened to another round of speeches by former teachers and the party organizers. Someone suggested an after-party, so we all crowded toward the elevator and descended to the ground floor. I walked over to the reception desk to arrange to stay the night at the hotel. As I was filling out a card with my name and phone number, I heard someone call my name. I turned around to see a group of girls from the reunion.
‘If you’re staying the night here, would you mind looking after her?’ They looked sheepish as they pointed to the girl curled up on the sofa like some abandoned piece of luggage. It was the girl from the tennis team. She apparently had continued to drink excessively throughout the night and, after being the life of the party for a while, suddenly started snoring in the corner of the banquet hall. Now she wouldn’t wake up. Her phone was locked so it was impossible to contact anyone, and no one knew where she lived. You couldn’t very well leave her there, either. I changed my room to a double, got some girls to buy beverages at a nearby convenience store, and we somehow dragged the girl up to the room and onto the bed. She was so heavy that it took all our strengths.
‘I hope she doesn’t get alcohol poisoning,’ one of the girls muttered anxiously.
But the girl didn’t seem like she was suffering too much (on the contrary, she looked very comfortable), so I said to them, ‘You can leave her with me and I’ll keep an eye on her.’
When the girls finally left, I sat on the edge of the bed and gazed at the girl snoring peacefully. My mind was blank. Whether it was fatigue or a dazed state, I didn’t know. Normally I would never have gotten into a situation like this, but for some reason it didn’t make me angry. Rather I felt a sense of relief that someone was there to obscure my sense of loneliness, even if that person was drunk and unconscious. It was a new feeling I hadn’t experienced before. One shoe dangled from her toe and the other foot was bare, so I looked for the missing shoe – it took me a while to find it under the bed – and placed them neatly on the floor. I wondered whether I should take off her crooked headband with the black ribbon, but left it untouched. It was an unusually warm night for this time of the year, so I didn’t even put a blanket over her. I walked into the bathroom to take a shower. I took off my clothes and turned on the faucet. The water pressure was amazing. I let the water gush over me as I washed my hair with the hotel shampoo.
No matter how much I tried to erase the image from my mind, I couldn’t help thinking about Kozue Kurosawa. And that girl I talked to in the ladies room – was she waiting for me specifically to tell me the news? Was she a friend of Kozue Kurosawa’s? We didn’t go to the same elementary school, so if they were friends, they would have met in middle school. But they were in different classes, and Kozue had stopped attending halfway through the school year. Why did the girl feel compelled to tell me about her? Come to think of it, though, it was I who had brought up the subject . . . so was it a pure coincidence? Or . . . maybe she had heard about me and Kozue while Kozue was still alive. Perhaps she knew about what had passed between us during elementary school. And perhaps . . . perhaps that had something to do with her death. I shivered as the last thought occurred to me. I pressed my palms hard against my arms as if to wipe away the goosebumps.
On the other hand, I continued thinking, was it really so significant? Wasn’t it just another ordinary story that could have happened to anyone, anywhere? I didn’t know the answer. In fact, could I even say for sure that it had really happened? It could very well have been a story that I had heard or read that I internalized as my own memory. Maybe it was all a made-up fantasy of mine. Who could say that it wasn’t? Kozue Kurosawa died along with the memories, and the time that we shared together existed only in my mind now. If I were to forget, then it would be the same as it never having existed at all. The memories would be gone forever from the world. But . . . is that really true? Perhaps memories do persist somewhere, outside of your own existence and . . . at this point, I sensed something behind me and turned around to come face to face with the girl’s greasy face smeared with make-up. I screamed and fell over, slamming my hips on the bottom of the bathtub.
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m really sorry,’ the girl from the tennis team apologized with a remorseful look as I lay on the bed in silence wearing a thin bathrobe.
‘It’s okay,’ I sighed.
‘You were really scared, though. I mean, it’s totally my fault and everything.’ She was trying to hide a smile.
‘Of course I was. Anyone would be scared. What do you expect?’ I glared at her, told her to hand over a can of beer and took a big gulp. ‘What’s wrong with you, anyway? You were snoring until just a moment ago, completely out like a big bag of rice. How can you drink like that till you pass out? Think about the trouble you caused. What’s so fun about binge drinking at a lame reunion like this? Come on. Get a grip.’
‘I get drunk, but I always feel better after I sleep a bit.’ She laughed. ‘See, I’m totally fine now. I never remember stuff, though. I only vaguely remember what happened tonight. And after a while, I’ll forget it completely. Nada. It’s always like that. Did I say anything to you tonight? How was I acting?’
‘You talked to me all right. You were picking a fight with me. Other than being dead drunk, I have no idea what you were up to.’
She grinned, rubbing her eyes smeared black with make-up.
‘What’s so funny?’
‘Oh, it’s just that . . . I feel like I’m finally getting to know who you are.’
‘What do you mean, know who I am?’
‘Well, you were always cool and aloof – but theatrical, like you were trying too hard. I could see right through it, to tell you the truth. You’re much better like this, straightforward. I saw you on TV a few times, but the way you smiled was so fake. Totally fake. Who knows, if you showed your personality a bit more, didn’t mince words, maybe you could make it in the business again.’
‘Do you realize what you’re saying to me now?’
‘But it’s true, isn’t it?’ She laughed.
We sat in silence for a while, checking email on our cell phones and such. I heard her let out a big yawn so I asked if she was going to take a shower. She said she had no clothes to change into. I asked if she would at least wash her face, but she didn’t have her make-up bag either. ‘I’ll take a shower when I get home tomorrow,’ she said, yawning again, and got under the covers.
It was just after midnight. I, too, lay down on my bed. ‘Do you like the lights on or off?’ she asked, to which I answered, ‘Either way.’
‘I’ll turn it off, then,’ she said, and reached over to flick the switch on the lamp. The room fell swiftly into darkness.
Sleep did not come easily. I wasn’t wide awake, but the heat trapped somewhere inside my body was keeping me from falling asleep. I tossed and turned a few times. I couldn’t find a comfortable position, and eventually I gave up.
‘Hey.’ I tried waking up the girl. ‘Are you awake?’
After some time, I heard her murmur, ‘Huh . . . did you say something . . . ?’
My eyes were wide open in the dark.
‘Hey, remember that girl Kozue Kurosawa?’
‘Kozue Kurosawa? Who’s that?’
‘You know, the one who stopped coming to school – ’ Uttering those words, my heart skipped a beat, thinking that the girl would respond, Who is she? That girl didn’t exist.
‘I heard at the party that she passed away a few years back.’ I swallowed hard and waited for her answer.
After a while, I heard her say, ‘Oh yeah . . . uh-huh,’ as if she suddenly remembered. ‘The girl who starved to death, right? Yeah, yeah. Was her name Kurosawa? You know, I didn’t know her at all.’
‘She stopped coming to school, apparently.’
‘Hm. I didn’t even know that.’
‘So . . . was it a huge deal when it happened? I heard it was in the news, on TV and in the papers and everything. I was really shocked to hear about it at the party.’
‘Yeah, I think it was pretty big news at the time. At least locally, you know. I mean, she freakin’ starved to death. People were talking about it, for sure.’
‘But how could she have starved to death? You can get food anywhere these days. You don’t just starve. And she lived on her own, right? I don’t understand how she could have just starved to death all alone.’
‘Well, she wasn’t alone,’ the girl said.
‘Wasn’t alone?’ My voice didn’t sound like my own, and my lips felt dry as I tried to moisten them with my tongue.
‘I thought there were two people involved. I’m pretty sure there were two. They found her dead with another girl.’
‘Uh-huh. They found her with a girl around the same age, thirty or so. They found her – Kozue Kurosawa, right? – and the other girl in her house, both starved to death. I don’t know what their relationship was, but they definitely died together.’
‘Yeah, really. I’m pretty certain.’
We didn’t say anything more for some time. When I turned my head to change the subject, I could already hear the distinct sound of deep breathing. I wanted the girl to wake up. I wanted her to keep talking to me – I didn’t care what it was about. I imagined myself shaking her and waking her up, turning on the lights and talking until morning came.
Inside the room, the only sounds audible were the girl’s breathing and my own heart beating. I lay wrapped in a sheet and blanket with my feet tucked in, my eyes open wide. I saw no one in that ever-expanding darkness. There were an infinite number of things I needed to think about and to remember. Everything that had a shape was robbed of its silhouette, and all that was meaningful was swallowed in deep silence. There was simply darkness, ever expanding. The breathing echoed more loudly than before, and the sound of my heartbeat also seemed to grow louder. Who is this person sleeping next to me? Whose breathing do I hear? And . . . where in the world am I? I gripped with both hands the box that had been delivered to me. I needed to know what was lost and what remained, but no matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t find any answers. Still, I didn’t close my eyes lest something would be lost forever. I held my breath and stared into the darkness with my eyes wide open.
Photograph courtesy of Michele Borioli