Archive for the 'short stories' Category

On seeing the 100% perfect girl one beautiful April morning

May 8, 2007

One beautiful April morning, on a narrow side street in Tokyo’s fashionable Harujuku neighborhood, I walked past the 100% perfect girl.

Tell you the truth, she’s not that good-looking. She doesn’t stand out in any way. Her clothes are nothing special. The back of her hair is still bent out of shape from sleep. She isn’t young, either – must be near thirty, not even close to a “girl,” properly speaking. But still, I know from fifty yards away: She’s the 100% perfect girl for me. The moment I see her, there’s a rumbling in my chest, and my mouth is as dry as a desert.

Maybe you have your own particular favorite type of girl – one with slim ankles, say, or big eyes, or graceful fingers, or you’re drawn for no good reason to girls who take their time with every meal. I have my own preferences, of course. Sometimes in a restaurant I’ll catch myself staring at the girl at the next table to mine because I like the shape of her nose.

But no one can insist that his 100% perfect girl correspond to some preconceived type. Much as I like noses, I can’t recall the shape of hers – or even if she had one. All I can remember for sure is that she was no great beauty. It’s weird.

“Yesterday on the street I passed the 100% girl,” I tell someone.

“Yeah?” he says. “Good-looking?”

“Not really.”

“Your favorite type, then?”

“I don’t know. I can’t seem to remember anything about her – the shape of her eyes or the size of her breasts.”

“Strange.”

“Yeah. Strange.”

“So anyhow,” he says, already bored, “what did you do? Talk to her? Follow her?”

“Nah. Just passed her on the street.”

She’s walking east to west, and I west to east. It’s a really nice April morning.

Wish I could talk to her. Half an hour would be plenty: just ask her about herself, tell her about myself, and – what I’d really like to do – explain to her the complexities of fate that have led to our passing each other on a side street in Harajuku on a beautiful April morning in 1981. This was something sure to be crammed full of warm secrets, like an antique clock build when peace filled the world.

After talking, we’d have lunch somewhere, maybe see a Woody Allen movie, stop by a hotel bar for cocktails. With any kind of luck, we might end up in bed.

Potentiality knocks on the door of my heart.

Now the distance between us has narrowed to fifteen yards.

How can I approach her? What should I say?

“Good morning, miss. Do you think you could spare half an hour for a little conversation?”

Ridiculous. I’d sound like an insurance salesman.

“Pardon me, but would you happen to know if there is an all-night cleaners in the neighborhood?”

No, this is just as ridiculous. I’m not carrying any laundry, for one thing. Who’s going to buy a line like that?

Maybe the simple truth would do. “Good morning. You are the 100% perfect girl for me.”

No, she wouldn’t believe it. Or even if she did, she might not want to talk to me. Sorry, she could say, I might be the 100% perfect girl for you, but you’re not the 100% boy for me. It could happen. And if I found myself in that situation, I’d probably go to pieces. I’d never recover from the shock. I’m thirty-two, and that’s what growing older is all about.

We pass in front of a flower shop. A small, warm air mass touches my skin. The asphalt is damp, and I catch the scent of roses. I can’t bring myself to speak to her. She wears a white sweater, and in her right hand she holds a crisp white envelope lacking only a stamp. So: She’s written somebody a letter, maybe spent the whole night writing, to judge from the sleepy look in her eyes. The envelope could contain every secret she’s ever had.

I take a few more strides and turn: She’s lost in the crowd.

Now, of course, I know exactly what I should have said to her. It would have been a long speech, though, far too long for me to have delivered it properly. The ideas I come up with are never very practical.

Oh, well. It would have started “Once upon a time” and ended “A sad story, don’t you think?”

Once upon a time, there lived a boy and a girl. The boy was eighteen and the girl sixteen. He was not unusually handsome, and she was not especially beautiful. They were just an ordinary lonely boy and an ordinary lonely girl, like all the others. But they believed with their whole hearts that somewhere in the world there lived the 100% perfect boy and the 100% perfect girl for them. Yes, they believed in a miracle. And that miracle actually happened.

One day the two came upon each other on the corner of a street.

“This is amazing,” he said. “I’ve been looking for you all my life. You may not believe this, but you’re the 100% perfect girl for me.”

“And you,” she said to him, “are the 100% perfect boy for me, exactly as I’d pictured you in every detail. It’s like a dream.”

They sat on a park bench, held hands, and told each other their stories hour after hour. They were not lonely anymore. They had found and been found by their 100% perfect other. What a wonderful thing it is to find and be found by your 100% perfect other. It’s a miracle, a cosmic miracle.

As they sat and talked, however, a tiny, tiny sliver of doubt took root in their hearts: Was it really all right for one’s dreams to come true so easily?

And so, when there came a momentary lull in their conversation, the boy said to the girl, “Let’s test ourselves – just once. If we really are each other’s 100% perfect lovers, then sometime, somewhere, we will meet again without fail. And when that happens, and we know that we are the 100% perfect ones, we’ll marry then and there. What do you think?”

“Yes,” she said, “that is exactly what we should do.”

And so they parted, she to the east, and he to the west.

The test they had agreed upon, however, was utterly unnecessary. They should never have undertaken it, because they really and truly were each other’s 100% perfect lovers, and it was a miracle that they had ever met. But it was impossible for them to know this, young as they were. The cold, indifferent waves of fate proceeded to toss them unmercifully.

One winter, both the boy and the girl came down with the season’s terrible inluenza, and after drifting for weeks between life and death they lost all memory of their earlier years. When they awoke, their heads were as empty as the young D. H. Lawrence’s piggy bank.

They were two bright, determined young people, however, and through their unremitting efforts they were able to acquire once again the knowledge and feeling that qualified them to return as full-fledged members of society. Heaven be praised, they became truly upstanding citizens who knew how to transfer from one subway line to another, who were fully capable of sending a special-delivery letter at the post office. Indeed, they even experienced love again, sometimes as much as 75% or even 85% love.

Time passed with shocking swiftness, and soon the boy was thirty-two, the girl thirty.

One beautiful April morning, in search of a cup of coffee to start the day, the boy was walking from west to east, while the girl, intending to send a special-delivery letter, was walking from east to west, but along the same narrow street in the Harajuku neighborhood of Tokyo. They passed each other in the very center of the street. The faintest gleam of their lost memories glimmered for the briefest moment in their hearts. Each felt a rumbling in their chest. And they knew:

She is the 100% perfect girl for me.

He is the 100% perfect boy for me.

But the glow of their memories was far too weak, and their thoughts no longer had the clarity of fourteen years earlier. Without a word, they passed each other, disappearing into the crowd. Forever.

A sad story, don’t you think?

Yes, that’s it, that is what I should have said to her.

*From Haruki Murakami’s The Elephant Vanishes, a collection of short stories

A Paean to Kurt Vonnegut (R.I.P. 1922-2007)

May 3, 2007

This story is on the shortlist of my favorite short stories of all time. I first read it several years ago, and I would keep re-reading it every once in a while. I was inspired to read it again after finding out that Vonnegut passed away last month. He was 84.

Who would’ve thought that the author of Breakfast of Champions and Slaughterhouse 5 could churn out something like A Long Walk to Forever? I remember having a conversation with Noel about this story (I was absolutely thrilled to find out that we both loved it…kindred spirits!) and how it seemed deceptively simplistic, though many commentators argue that it is more multi-layered than it appears.

Thank you, Kurt Vonnegut, for showing us that a no-frills love story can still manage to resuscitate dead hearts. Catharine and Newt will always be alive.

*********************************************************************************

A LONG WALK TO FOREVER

They had grown up next door to each other, on the fringe of a city, near fields and woods and orchards,within sight of a lovely bell tower that belonged to a school for the blind.

Now they were twenty, had not seen each other for nearly a year. There had always been playful, comfortable warmth between them, but never any talk of love.

His name was Newt. Her name was Catharine. In the early afternoon, Newt knocked on Catharine’s front door.

Catharine came to the door. She was carrying a fat, glossy magazine she had been reading. The magazine was devoted entirely to brides.”Newt!” she said. She was surprised to see him.

“Could you come for a walk?” he said. He was a shy person,even with Catharine. He covered his shyness by speaking absently,as though he were a secret agent pausing briefly on a mission between beautiful,distant,and sinister points. This manner of speaking had always been Newt’s style, even in matters that concerned him desperately.

“A walk?” said Catharine.

“One foot in front of the other,”said Newt,”Through leaves, over bridges–”

“I had no idea you were in town,”she said.

“Just this minute got in,”he said.

“Still in the Army,I see,”she said.

“Seven more months to go,” he said. He was a private first class in the Artillery. His uniform was rumpled. His shoes were dusty. He needed a shave. He held out his hand for the magazine.” Let’s see the pretty book,” he said.

She gave it to him.”I’m getting married, Newt,” she said.

“I know,” he said.”Let’s go for a walk.”

“I’m awfully busy, Newt, “she said.” The wedding is only a week away.”

“If we go for a walk,” he said, “it will make you rosy. It will make you a rosy bride.”He turned the pages of the magazine.”A rosy bride like her–like her–like her,” he said,showing her rosy brides.

Catharine turned rosy, thinking about rosy brides.

“That will be my present to Henry Stewart Chasens,” said Newt. “By taking you for a walk, I’ll be giving him a rosy bride.”

“You know his name?” said Catharine.

“Mother wrote,”he said.”From Pittsburgh?”

“Yes,” she said. “You’d like him.”

“Maybe,” he said.

“Can–can you come to the wedding, Newt?” she said.

“That I doubt,” he said.

“Your furlough isn’t for long enough?” she said.

“Furlough?” said Newt. He was studying a two page ad for flat silver. “I’m not on furlough,” he said.

“Oh?” she said.

“I’m what they call A.W.O.L.,” said Newt.

“Oh, Newt! You’re not!” she siad.

“Sure I am,” he said, still looking at the magazine.

“Why, Newt?” she said.

“I had to find out what your silver pattern is,” he said. He read names of silver patterns from the magazine.”Albermarle? Heather?” he said.”Legend? Rambler Rose?” He looked up, smiled.” I plan to give you and your husband a spoon,” he said.

“Newt, Newt–tell me really,” she said.

“I want to go for a walk,” he said.

She wrung her hands in sisterly anguish.”Oh, Newt–you’re fooling me about being A.W.O.L.,” she said.

Newt imitated police siren softly, raised his eyebrows.

“Where–where from?” she said.

“Fort Bragg,” he said.

“North Carolina?” she said.

“That all right,” he said.”Near Fayetteville–where Scarlett O’Hara went to school.”

“How did you get here, Newt?” she said.

He raised his thumb, jerked it in a hitchhike gesture.”Two days,” he said.

“Does your mother know?” she said.

“I didn’t come to see my mother,” he told her.

“Who did you come to see?” she said.

“You,” he said.

“Why me?” she said.

“Because I love you,” he said.” Now can we take a walk?” he said. “One foot in front of the other–through leaves, over bridges–”

They were talking the walk now, were in a woods with a brown-leaf floor.

Catharine was angry and rattled, close to tears.” Newt,” she said, “this is absolutely crazy.”

“How so?” said Newt.

“What a crazy time to tell me you love me,” she said. “You never talked that way before.” She stopped walking.

“Let’s keep walking,” he said.

“No,”she said.” So far, no farther. I shouldn’t have come out with you at all,” she said.

“You did,” he said.

“To get you out of the house,”she said.”If somebody walked in and heard you talking to me that way,a week before the wedding–”

“What would they think?” he said.

“They’d think you were crazy,” she said.

“Why?” he said.

Catharine took a deep breath, made a speech.”Let me say that I’m deeply honored by this crazy thing you’ve done,” she said.” I can’t believe you’re really A.W.O.L., but maybe you are. I can’t believe you really love me, but maybe you do. But–“

“I do,” said Newt.

“Well, I’m deeply honored,” said Catharine,” and I’m very fond of you as a friend, Newt, extremely fond–but it’s just too late.” She took a step away from him. “You’ve never even kissed me,” she said,and she protected herself with her hands.”I don’t mean you should do it now. I just mean this is all so unexpected. I haven’t got the remotest idea of how to respond.”

“Just walk some more,” he said. “Have a nice time.”

They started walking again.

“How did you expect me to react?” she said.

“How would I know what to expect?” he said. “I’ve never done anything like this before.”

“Did you think I would throw myself into you arms?” she said.

“Maybe,” he said.

“I’m sorry to disappoint you,” she said.

“I’m not disappointed,” he said. “I wasn’t counting on it. This is very nice, just walking.”

Catharine stopped again. “You know what happens next?” she said.

“Nope,” he said.

“We shake hands,” she said.”We shake hands and part friends,” she said. “That’s what happens next.”

Newt nodded. “All right,” he said. “Remember me from time to time. Remember how much I love you.”

Involuntarily, Catharine burst into tears. She turned her back to Newt, looked into the infinite colonnade of the woods.

“What does that mean?” said Newt.

“Rage!” said Catharine. She clenched her hands. “You have no right–”

“I had to find out,” he said.

“If I’d loved you,” she said, “I would have let you know before now.”

“You would?” he said.

“Yes,” she said. She faced him, looked up at him, her face quite red. “You would have known,” she said.

“How?” he said.

“You would have seen it,” she said. “Women aren’t very clever at hiding it.”

Newt looked closely at Catharine’s face now. To her distress, she realized that what she had said was true, that a woman couldn’t hide love.

Newt was seeing love now.

And he did what he had to do. He kissed her.

“You’re hell to get along with!”she said when Newt let her go.

“I am?” said Newt.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” she said.

“You didn’t like it?” he said.

“What did you expect,” she said–“wild, abandoned passion?”

“I keep telling you,” he said, “I never know what’s going to happen next.”

“We say goodbye,”she said.

He frowned slightly. “All right,” he said.

She made another speech. “I’m not sorry we kissed,” she said. “That was sweet. We should have kissed, we’ve been so close. I’ll always remember you, Newt, and good luck.”

“You too,” he said.

“Thank you, Newt, “she said.

“Thirty days,” he said.

“What?” she said.

“Thirty days in the stockade, “he said–“that’s what one kiss will cost me.”

“I–I’m sorry,”she said,”but I didn’t ask you to go A.W.O.L.”

“I know,” he said.

“You certainly don’t deserve any hero’s reward for doing something as foolish as that,” she said.

“Must be nice to be a hero,” said Newt. “Is Henry Stewart Chasens a hero?”

“He might be, if he got the chance,” said Catharine. She noted uneasily that they had begun to walk again. That farewell had been forgotten.

“You really love him?” he said.

“Certainly I love him!” she said hotly.”I would not marry him if I didn’t love him!”

“What’s good about him?” said Newt.

“Honestly!”she cried, stopping again.”Do you have any idea how offensive you’re being?Many, many, many things are good about Henry! Yes, “she said,” and many, many, many things are probably bad too. But that isn’t any of your business. I love Henry, and I don’t have to argue his merits with you!”

“Sorry,” said Newt.

“Honestly!” said Catharine.

Newt kissed her again. He kissed her again because she wanted him to.

They were now in a large orchard.

“How did we get so far from home, Newt?” said Catharine.

“One foot in front of the other–through leaves, over bridges,” said Newt.

“They add up–the steps,” she said.

Bells rang in the tower of the school for the blind nearby.

“School for the blind,” said Newt.

“School for the blind,” said Catharine. She shook her head in drowsy wonder. “I’ve got to go back now,” she said.

“Say goodbye,” said Newt.

“Every time I do,”said Carharine,”I seem to get kissed.”

Newt sat down on the close-cropped grass under an apple tree. “Sit down,” he said.

“No,” she said.

“I won’t touch you,” he said.

“I don’t believe you,”she said.

She sat down under another tree, twenty feet away from him. She closed her eyes.

“Dream of Henry Stewart Chasens,” he said.

“What?” she said.

“Dream of your wonderful husband-to-be,” he said.

“All right,I will,” she said.She closed her eyes tighter, caught glimpses of her husband-to-be.

Newt yawned.

The bees were humming in the trees, and Catharine almost fell asleep.When she opened her eyes she saw that Newt really was asleep.

He began to snore softly.

Catharine let Newt sleep for an hour, and while he slept she adored him with all her heart.

The shadows of the apple trees grew to the east. The bells in the tower of the school for the blind rang again.

“Chick-a-dee-dee-dee,” went a chickadee.

Somewhere far away an automobile starter nagged and failed, nagged and failed, fell still.

Catharine came out from under her tree, knelt by Newt.

“Newt?” she said.

“H’m?” he said. He opened his eyes.

“Late,” she said.

“Hello, Catharine,” he said.

“Hello, Newt,” she said.

“I love you,” he said.

“I know,” she said.

“Too late,” she said.

He stood, stretched groaningly.”A very nice walk,” he said.

“I thought so,” she said.

“Part company here?” he said.

“Where will you go?” she said.

“Hitch into town, turn myself in,” he said.

“Good luck,” she said.

“You too,” he said.”Marry me, Catharine?”

“No,” she said.

He smiled, stared at her hard for a moment, then walked away quickly.

Catharine watched him grow smaller in the long perspective of shadows and trees, knew that if he stopped and turned now, if he called to her, she would run to him. She would have no choice.

Newt did stop. He did turn. He did call.”Catharine,” he called.

She ran to him, put her arms around him, could not speak.