THE FORBIDDEN DIARY
from monkey business: new writing from japan #1
transl. by Ted Goossen
The Cancel-Out Apartments
I have a little brother sprouting from a spot behind my right hip. He’s about four inches long without any arms and legs, and when he gets hungry (which is like all the time) his face turns red and he starts bawling in this ear-splitting voice; and then he whips his body back and forth so that it goes whap, whap against my butt. I hate the kid, and there’ve been so many times I’ve thought about taking a razor and slicing him off, but I just can’t bring myself to do it.
Cicadas shrilling outside my window.
Heard a rumor about something called the “Cancel-Out Apartments” today. Seems it’s a two-story building with five small apartments on each floor. If, say, a cop is living on the second floor, and then another cop moves in on the first, the two cancel each other out. I mean, they both vanish, poof, just like that. If there are two babies in the building, poof, they’re gone too. If a Mr. Yamada moves in, and another Mr. Yamada’s already there, you guessed it, both gone. In one case, two tenants who seemed totally different—a thirty-five-year-old guy working part time and a sixteen-year-old high school girl—disappeared together. Nobody could figure it out. Then it was discovered that both had the same fetish for, get this, the smell of dirty socks. People living in the Cancel-Out Apartments are totally stressed because they can’t tell when someone who’s somehow like them might move in. According to the rumor, the building is right here in Tokyo.
Talked with O. on the phone for the first time in a long while. Our topic was the names of the bullet trains. If the Flash is faster than the Echo, and the Hope is faster than the Flash, then, we decided, if they made a train even faster than the Hope it would have to be called the Death, but no one would board the Death 101 for Kyūshū.
Translated a bit.
Met a dozen or so people at K. Station on the Odakyū Line and we all headed off to a bar/boxing gym called Knuckles. Everyone ordered their “sandbag set,” which gives you a drink and forty minutes punching the heavy bag for fifteen hundred yen, so we drank and pounded away to our hearts’ content.
After that we went out to a Korean barbecue place, and after that drinking in Shimokitazawa. The party broke up at 4:00 a.m.
I can’t stand for people to see me with my little brother, so when I go to the beach I dig a hole in the sand and lie on my back with him in it. I talk, eat, and drink in that position. He spends the whole time bawling except when I reach down and give him a bit of whatever I’m eating, when he shuts up to chew. Then he’s so surprised and excited at being treated nicely he whips himself, whap, whap, against my butt even harder. He’s so ugly then I wish he would hurry up and die, but he gets his sustenance from my body, so even if I stopped feeding him he wouldn’t starve. I gave up and lay on the beach all day while my loathing for him grew.
Found an inchworm pretending to be a twig on the potted oleaster in my room, so I named him Little Desperado and made up my mind to love him.
Minuscule progress on the translation.
In the evening, yakitori in Shibuya with T. from K. firm. Intended it to be a business meeting, but somewhere along the line we got into this lengthy discussion about cats and dogs and that plan died. T. hadn’t heard about the “Cancel-Out Apartments.”
Walking home in the dark, I heard a voice call “Boo!” but when I turned around no one was there.
My kid brother is buried in the sand almost all the time, and when he isn’t he just cries with his face all crumpled up. Still, there is the rare occasion when he falls quiet, and then I start worrying maybe he’ll say something, which terrifies me because I know that if I hear what he has to say, I’ll go insane.
I was taking a shower when it suddenly hit me that when the Galactic Battleship Yamato enters warp speed, the commander shouts, “Go to warp!” the instant the curves on the screen converge, but although the other guy shouts back “Warp!” right away, he takes his time pulling the lever, which means it will be way too late. Not much use worrying about it now, though.
No sign of Little Desperado. Whenever I give something a name and start loving it, it always disappears on me.
Night—drank shōchū. Opened a packet of dried durian that someone had given me. Shut it two seconds later.
Received an e-mail from F. There were a number of full-screen photos of her little boy attached, and a message that simply read, “He turned five!” F. and I worked for the same company ages ago, but we were in different departments on different floors, so we only talked once or twice; then all of a sudden, a few years ago, she starts sending me these pictures of her son. Photos of him dressed up for the Shichi-Go-San children’s festival; on his first day at nursery school; on a school trip; at Disneyland—and in each and every one he’s just standing there facing the camera. I delete them as soon as I get them, so they won’t eat up the memory on my computer.
Translated a bit.
A teen group like AKB48 shouldn’t surprise anybody. After all, there’s another slightly older and sexier idol group, The Girls of Earthly Desire, which has 108 members, not just 48. When I try to convince people that their singing and dancing really does eradicate the 108 earthly desires of Buddhism, though, they just laugh.
H. phoned demanding the translation. Haven’t been able to make any progress since the point where the narrator starts burying her brother in the sand and her hatred for him grows. Now translating makes my head ache, and the cicadas outside my window send up a terrible racket every time I sit down to work.
It hit me that the strange voice I heard walking home the other night might be the same one an old classmate of mine, a girl by the name of O., heard outside the window of the school lavatory when we were students. According to her story, she couldn’t tell if it belonged to a girl or a boy, or even a human or an animal, and although it sounded idiotic, it still sent a shiver up her spine. The voice stopped when she threw open the window, and she couldn’t see anyone out there, either.
What happened to O. after that? Guess she switched schools.
Another e-mail from F., identical to the one from a few days ago. Seems she just pressed Resend. Delete.
Found some gross-looking sweets in the supermarket that tasted even worse than they looked, so I tried to compose a haiku for the occasion, but even a monkey could have written something better than what I came up with: Dried persimmon chocolates / Wish I hadn’t eaten you / Santa Maria! Fell into despair at my lack of talent.
Went to Bamboro, a Chinese restaurant in Akasaka, with some people from S. firm. Vinegared jellyfish vermicelli chili sauce broth dumplings dim sum squid celery stir-fry preserved duck egg Shanghai crab beer beer beer lao chu lao chu lao chu lao chu. After that we headed for Caravaggio, a bar that, like the lakes at Lop Nur, fades in and out of existence depending on the temperature date time yin yang five elements moon phase, but although the bar was there that night, the owner was semitransparent, so we had to make the highballs cocktails whiskey simple snacks ourselves and then deposit withdraw whatever we felt like from the cash register.
Started raining around midnight so we broke up early.
I’ve got this secret thing for old apartment buildings with outside staircases, and I discovered a perfect one today while strolling around the neighborhood: it had a rusty washing machine sitting beside each door, umbrellas hanging from window grates, a tricycle lying on its side (the kid’s name inscribed in Magic Marker)—the kinds of objects I love, in other words—and I was just standing there happily sucking it all in when it suddenly dawned on me that this might be the Cancel-Out Apartments, but when I moved a few steps closer to get a better look, I realized one of the first-floor doors was ajar, and that maybe I was being watched, so I split.
Oda Kazumasa’s songs were stuck in my head all morning.
I’m so happy
To have met you
I could kill you and kill you
And never get tired
Kinda like a fake Oda song.
No progress on the translation. Cicadas.
Ever since the voice called out to me that night, memories of the girls’ school I attended in junior and senior high have been surfacing one after another.
When K.’s parents were living abroad and she had to stay temporarily with her grandmother, all she got for breakfast were sweet bean jelly rolls. One day the short-tempered N. got so upset at the noise we were making she stood and shouted “Shut up!” except that it came out as “Shup!” which promptly became her nickname. Y. sent out New Year’s cards that read, “My nipples hurt when something rubs against them!”
My calendar for today read “Meeting—2nd Floor—3 pm,” but although the handwriting was mine, I had no memory of having written it, no idea where this second floor was, and no clue who I was supposed to be meeting, which meant I had no way to check and could only wait trembling at home, expecting the phone to ring any minute and someone to start bellowing at me, but in the end, the phone never rang.
A beautiful day, so I hung my bedding out to air. Mount Fuji was white in the distance.
Memories of school (continued):
Our Western-style school building was over seventy years old and filled with architectural oddities. For example, there was a short staircase that began in the strangest spot and led nowhere, while tucked away in another location was this little forgotten room that still appears in my dreams. The coolest place, though, my secret spot, was the bathroom built directly above the stage in the auditorium; it was small, but had one wall that was all glass, which let in loads of sunlight and left the room looking bright and clean. It was always empty, too, no matter when you went.
Which reminds me, on the far wall of the innermost stall there was a switch box of some sort with a small metal door, and on the door someone had written: “Break on through to the other side!” I tried pulling on the door but it wouldn’t open.
The phrase “My kryptonite.”
The phrase “With children, first a girl, then a boy, then an eggplant.”
I’m raising a horse at home. Someone gave it to me to look after. It’s awfully small, no bigger than a dog, with short, short legs. Its hide is the color of liver and very baggy, and covered with grains of rice so that even though it’s my pet I can’t pet it. It used to spend all day tearing in and out of the house whinnying in this thin, agitated voice, and it ate like there was no tomorrow. Anyway, one day I took a vise and tried clamping the loose skin around the horse’s ribs. The horse didn’t resist as much as I expected, but after that it pretty much stopped eating, and when I looked down on it from my window I could see that it was getting skinnier and skinnier and its legs were shaking like a leaf; yet even so, it didn’t try to run away, but just kept staring at my face.
Went to get a haircut. I’ve known T., my stylist, for a long time, and today when I walked into his salon, he guessed right off the bat that I wanted him to “take it all off,” which made me feel good. I hadn’t had it cut in three years so it had grown past my shoulder blades, but one swipe of the scissors took care of that. What a relief!
On my way home, people on the street seemed to be freaking out for some strange reason. When I looked up I could see a passenger airplane circling unusually low over the city. Everyone was pointing at the sky and shouting something I couldn’t catch. The plane was rolling and shaking and bouncing up and down. Then, as the crowd oohed and aahed, it started making looping somersaults, progressively losing altitude until it crashed just beyond the Laforet building. “The shock wave is coming!” someone screamed, and everyone started running en masse toward Harajuku Station, which meant I was forced to run with them, and it was at that point that I woke up. I was home.
But how much of it was a dream? I reached back to touch the hair that had hung down my back, but it was no longer there.
Walking alongside the school grounds on my way back from mailing a letter, I passed a place in the wall that was growing hair. A big clump of messy, bleached-out hair that didn’t look human at all.
Gave it a wide berth.
Another e-mail from F. “Why did you delete the photos I took the trouble to send you?” she complained. “You should look at them carefully and save them!” Once more, a whole bunch of photos were attached. The amount of memory they take up is no joke, though, so I deleted them without looking.
Cicadas more annoying than ever today.
Don’t know what he finds so damned amusing, but my little brother is in great spirits, flinging himself against my butt like crazy. Whap, whap.
Woke up in the middle of the night, grabbed the flashlight, made my way to the closet at the end of the hallway, opened the closet door, and trained my light on the door of the switch box inside. Nothing was written on it.
Heading back to bed I heard someone calling to me from somewhere. When I turned around to look, the battery on my flashlight gave out, leaving me frozen like a statue there in the dark.
THE HAIR SALON
Went a bit overboard cooking stew, so now it’s stew morning, noon, and night. I live to consume stew. Stew is what gives my life meaning. Oh, glorious stew!
Translated a small amount. Cicadas in full voice. Headache.
Went to the kitchen, turned the faucet on full force, stuck my hands underneath, and cried out, “Wara! Wara!”
Playing Helen Keller is what I do these days when I get blocked.
Rain in the afternoon.
Met T. from the P. firm, with whom I share the same birthday, at a coffee shop in front of the station. Listened to one sad story after another— how his girlfriend left him on Valentine’s Day, how he sprained his ankle the first day he went skiing and spent the rest of the trip in the hotel, how he lost his wallet, his glasses, and his memory in a downtown bar. Then he stepped outside, opened his umbrella, and kabam!, the thing fell apart. All because Pisces is under the curse of Saturn.
Had a long phone conversation with Y. in the evening. She confessed to a mild but budding crush on Obama.
The long-dead poet Chūya Nakahara creeps into a corner of my mind at off-guard moments these days to read his poems. That alone wouldn’t bother me, but for some reason he stutters terribly:
A s-s-sprinkling of s-s-snow”
Enough already, I say, whereupon he casts me a sad and mournful look and departs.
Infinitesimal progress on the translation. Cicadas.
I want to make you happy, happy, ever so happy, the world outside our door is sand and more sand as far as the eye can see, it cries as it whips against our walls, I want so to make you happy I dance and spin around you, and each night while the sand cries I somersault over your body, grab you by both wrists and whirl you around and around, but when I set you down you lie there curled on your side, your round back a small, hard shell.
In the afternoon, a blossom-viewing party hosted by N., a writer. The magnificent cherry tree in the park across the street from his house is in full bloom now, so we all brought our favorite food and drink and frolicked beneath the flowers. Since I was a bit late, the party was in full swing when I arrived. When the sun was going down somebody wondered if there really might be a dead body buried beneath the tree, as in the Motojirō Kajii short story, so we got a shovel and began digging. We produced a hole about three feet deep, but no corpse. Well then, what would happen with a living body? someone asked. So we picked up my friend T. from the P. firm, who was passed out drunk nearby, and planted him in the hole to find out. As far as we could tell, though, there was no particular change in the blossoms. After that we took the party inside, where we fell into a heated debate over whether two TV personalities—one a middle-aged male musician, the other a mannish female fashion model—resembled each other or not. Broke up regretfully with barely enough time to catch the last train.
Early morning dream: I slit the back of a frog about a foot and a half across with a knife to find a huge tadpole inside. Aha, so that’s how it works! I thought.
Had a mild hangover all day.
I was walking down Setagaya Boulevard when a waiter from the Indian restaurant where I eat occasionally tore past me in hot pursuit of someone, his face livid with anger. Must have been a customer who took off without paying, I thought, but when I looked down the road in the direction he was running, no one was there.
Happy, happy, I want to make you so happy in every way, I tumble about on top of you laughing, yet you lie there motionless, your eyes tight shut, so I pry your eyelids open and look inside and, what is this? Are you still not happy? Have my efforts been lacking? Forgive me, please! For a second time, I take hold of your wrists, drag you outside, and swing you around and around over the sand, but when I look back our home is spewing sand from its doors, from its windows, from everywhere.
Woke to a cloudless day. Mount Fuji white in the distance. I hang the futon out to air.
My sister, who is visiting Morocco on a business trip, phones with all sorts of questions: “Does ‘blackmail’ mean the same thing as ‘intimidation’?” “How do you say to ‘bluff’ someone in English?” “How about ‘fudging the figures’?” What sort of business is she doing in Morocco anyway?
A microscopic sliver of translation. Cicadas. Headache.
H. phones to press me for the translation. I offer an abject, groveling apology. Then I explain to him that the stories in the collection—of the little brother growing from the heroine’s hip, or her pet horse with the granular, sagging skin, or of the lover being swung around in circles to make him happy—are literally driving me crazy, and to make matters worse, every time I resume work the cicadas outside my window start screeching though it’s still only spring; but he shrugs off my litany of complaints, reassuring me in soothing tones that from what he’s heard it’s an orthodox love story, that if I just stick with it I will find my rhythm, that I’ve got to pull myself together. Then he hangs up.
The little brother growing from my hip opens his perpetually red and crumpled face to let out another earsplitting cry. Yet no one hears him but me. Sure, I could reach down and caress him with my hand anytime I wanted. I could even bend over and kiss him. But I never have.
I go get my hair cut. The assistant who shampoos me tells me that the lever that sends contestants down to hell on the Arcane Impersonations No One Can Understand game show is controlled by none other than the comedian Tetsuhei Arita himself—a most significant fact.
Having my shoulder-length hair lopped off—a most refreshing feeling.
Passed the school grounds on my way back from posting a letter. That clump of bleached-out hair is still sprouting from the wall in front of the school. In fact, it seems to have somehow grown.
Gave it an even wider berth.
Ever since it dawned on me that it might be the Cancel-Out Apartments, I’ve kept a surreptitious eye on that nearby two-story apartment building with the outside staircase. Since my first attempt to check it out failed when the residents grew suspicious, I tried a different time of day and went in the late afternoon.
The building is squeezed between two tiny dirt parking lots facing a narrow lane, so that you can pretty much survey the whole property by turning your head while you are “just passing by.” With five apartments on the second floor and five more on the first, it perfectly conforms to the supposed layout of the Cancel-Out Apartments. It looks inhabited, with plastic umbrellas hooked on the window grates facing the exposed corridor and washing machines standing beside each door, but the extreme quiet of the place gives it the atmosphere of an abandoned building.
Making sure no one was nearby, I approached the cluster of mailboxes at the side of the building. As with the apartments, they were arranged in two rows, five on top and five underneath. Assuming this was the Cancel-Out Apartments, no two boxes should have had the same last name. The names were on yellowing, sometimes tattered paper attached to rusty metal boxes whose gray paint was flaking, which made them hard to read. The name Nagai was written in characters on the middle box of the top row, while the box on the far left of the bottom row could be read either Nakai or Nagai—part of the name had been penned in Magic Marker directly on the painted metal, which had flaked badly, making it impossible to ascertain. Predictably, I didn’t dare to look inside the box and find out, so I decided to just call it a day.
A millibar of translation. Cicadas.
Spent the day with an editor and salesperson from X. publishers visiting bookstores to promote my recently launched translation. In most places, I would be escorted to a storeroomlike office in the back of the store, where I would sit at the corner of a worktable and sign copies and write short messages on cards to be displayed with the books. They’d usually apologize for squeezing me in, but I love cramped spaces, so I felt right at home. I was fine for the first ten bookstores, but after twenty my hand was understandably tired, and after fifty my mind was completely fogged over. Sometimes it felt like I’d signed the wrong book; at other times that I’d signed the wrong name. So I called it a draw.
To celebrate the end of our hard day, we set off for the Bar Caravaggio in Akasaka, but look as we might we couldn’t locate it. It should have been between an old coffee shop and a nose, ear, and throat clinic, but today the coffee shop and the clinic were pressed tight together with not even an inch separating them. Oh well, we shrugged, the Caravaggio is like that sometimes, so we headed off somewhere else without prolonging the search.
Chūya Nakahara showed up again. Perhaps he’d felt outmanned before, for this time he brought another long-dead poet, Sakutarō Hagiwara, along with him. They both started reciting their poems, Chūya’s habitual stutter now augmented by Sakutarō’s nervous habit of overstressing the ends of his words. I found the whole thing both depressing and irritating.
Oh no-no-nostalgic pa-pa-parachute
Good evening, good evening to
When I snapped, “Pipe down!” they both left together, Sakutarō’s arm slung over the shoulder of the downcast Chūya. As they made their exit, though, Hagiwara looked back over his shoulder and gave me the evil eye.
No progress on the translation.
Another e-mail from my former colleague F., the first in quite a while. From its size I could tell that this one had even more photos attached than the ones before. I didn’t want to look, but she can apparently tell—don’t ask me how—when I delete them unseen, so I opened them while chanting the spell, “Face it, face it.” True to form, the first photo contained a single line, “My son at seven, at the Shichi-Go-San children’s festival,” while the scores of others, all of which showed her son standing blankly in front of one place after another, went unidentified. I still can’t understand why she does this. I mean, it wasn’t that long ago she sent out photos announcing her son had turned five. So how can he be seven already? He doesn’t seem to have gotten any bigger, though he does look a bit unwell. Whatever. I delete them all.
I wake up in the middle of the night feeling that my room has somehow changed. It appears I fell asleep sprawled on my back on the bare tatami without having laid out the futon. Yet I’m sure that I’d gone to bed. There’s what seems to be the beam from a flashlight playing on the wall, and when I hold my breath I think I can hear voices calling. At some point I fall back asleep, and when I wake up in the morning everything is back to normal.
In the evening I call T. from the P. firm at work. Someone else answers and tells me he hasn’t been in for a while. When I ask if he’s been sick, whoever it is just hems and haws. Come to think of it, am I sure someone dug him up the day of the cherry-viewing party? I’d assumed they had, but maybe I was wrong. Did he join us when we moved the party into the house? My memory is a blur.
I go get my hair cut. It doesn’t seem that long since the last time, but what can I do—it grows like crazy when I’m busy or stressed. The same assistant comes and stands beside me while I’m waiting my turn, regaling me with a steady stream of tidbits about what’s hot in the world of TV entertainers. I worry a bit, since everyone else is busily sweeping up hair or carrying towels around, but then maybe that’s his job.
I pass by the school grounds again on my way home. Not only has the clump of hair grown even more, now it’s combed out into a wave.
Hey there, are we seeing the same stylist?
I stand before my mirror holding a white handkerchief in front of my face. Then I pull it down, slowly open my eyes, stare at myself in the mirror, and whisper, “Can this really . . . be me . . .?”
These days, whenever I get blocked I pretend to be a character from girls’ comics of the 1970s.
Clear weather. Mount Fuji faint in the distance.
In the evening, I get swept up in a party celebrating the launch of a new magazine. It’s held in a downtown art gallery rented out for the occasion, and is a real zoo, about three hundred people in all. I recognize quite a few faces. One of them looks like T. from P. firm, so I go running over and, yes, that’s who it is. I was so worried, I say, I thought maybe we’d all left you buried there under the tree. That’s crazy, he says, they dug me out right away. Don’t you remember? When he laughs I see a cherry petal stuck to his front teeth.
The phrase “The walls have ears, Claude Ciari.”
The phrase “The peak of youthful ardor, shins all hairy.”
Again, I wake up in the middle of the night. I sense right away that this is the same place as before. Straining my eyes to see, I lie there on my back in the dark, holding my breath. The room seems about ten feet square, and smells of old tatami mats and dusty curtains. As my eyes adjust to the darkness I can make out the vague outline of something looming nearby. Someone is crouching there. I stay still, and the shadow hesitantly reaches out to touch my hand. I feel the small, soft, trembling palm of a child.
I gently squeeze back.
purchase monkey business: new writing from japan #1
*Note: The italicized passages are inspired by Stacey Levine’s collection My Horse and Other Stories.