Toshiki Okada| translated by Samuel Malissa | An excerpt from the novella “My Place in Plural,” which appears in the collection The End of the Moment We Had | Pushkin Press | September 2018 | 13 minutes (3,377 words)
The phone is nestled between my belly and my thighs as I lie on my side on the futon. It must look like I’m warming an egg. In my mind I keep hearing a line from a song I listen to a lot, although I’m not listening to it at the moment. I have no reason to try to block it out, so it’s been playing over and over. Today is a Friday like any other. But I decided to stay home from my part-time job. I don’t feel like doing anything at all.
At this point I’ve only made up my mind to stay home, and I haven’t called in to tell them yet. The rumpled white sheet forms a ridge around my body, an almost perfect square enclosure which I’m finding it surprisingly hard to move from.
The song in my head was recommended by Nakakido, one of my husband’s friends, and my husband listened to it but it wasn’t really his thing, so he didn’t burn a copy or play it a second time, but I liked it, and ended up listening to it all the time.
My left hand keeps running through my hair, like I’m testing its thickness.
It’s morning. The futon mattress is nearly flat and has these soy sauce stains and other discolorations. Even if I tried, I wouldn’t be able to get them out.
At around two in the morning (I could pinpoint the exact time if I checked my phone but I can’t be bothered), I got a text from somebody named Wakabayashi. I don’t know anybody by that name, so it’s probably somebody my husband knows. The text said something about the first anniversary of Nakakido’s death coming up and everyone should get together. Somehow instead of the text going to my husband, or just to my husband, I was included in the text, or maybe it only came to me. I was still awake when it came in, so I read it then. It didn’t make me sad, if anything it made me feel kind of uncomfortable, since I don’t remember my husband telling me something had happened to Nakakido. I thought he was still alive.
How come the sun is shining outside and everyone’s running around but I don’t feel the least urge to do anything? How come I don’t care?
My husband was at work when the text came in, cooking at a diner until I think 6:00 a.m. At the moment he’s somewhere killing time until his next job starts at ten or eleven. He’s probably getting some food or napping. I think about sending him a text.
But my fingers don’t make a move.
The song is still on repeat in my head. My left arm is under me, pressed against the sheet. I’m not looking at the glass pane of the sliding door, but I know that the light pouring in is milky, maybe because I was looking at the door before, or maybe I can just tell without looking.
I hear the tinny melody played by the garbage truck in the distance. I have the feeling that if I get up right now and move really quickly, I could probably get the trash out in time. I’ve been able to before. I think about it but I know that today I won’t be taking out the trash. I doubt I’ll be getting out of bed.
The couple times that I managed not to miss the garbage collection, the sanitation guys were finishing loading up and about to leap onto the back of the truck when they noticed me running towards them, sandals flapping, and they were nice enough to wait for me.
My phone buzzes. I’m thinking it must be my husband.
My phone is red, and seeing it lying upside down like it is now makes me think it looks like a tiny little flipped-over sports car. This isn’t the first time I’ve thought that.
It turns out the phone buzz was a phantom buzz. I stroke the body of the phone. How come the sun is shining outside and everyone’s running around but I don’t feel the least urge to do anything? How come I don’t care? The light in the room feels heavy, like a chunk of ice that’s starting to melt and the edges are beginning to get soft and round.
Any time my phone vibrates I get the distinct feeling that I knew it was about to happen a few seconds before it does.
I notice now that I have two unread messages which came in after the text from Wakabayashi. One is from my mother. The time stamp says exactly 4:00 a.m. I read the message and shake my head several times, trying to get my hair out of my eyes. But that doesn’t do the job, so I brush them off with my hand.
A while back I accidentally left a sweater at my mother’s house. Her text was asking if I was planning to come and get it. It’s the third time my mother has asked. Maybe the fourth.
It’s a sweater with a half-circle fringe, beige, I think, but it could be lavender. Not once has my mother offered to send it to me. At one point I told her it wasn’t the season for sweaters, it was summer, but she wrote back that in summer you need a sweater because of air conditioning. It’s now September of 2005, so the sweater’s been there over a year.
The hum of the refrigerator feels like it’s coming from a living thing, and the noise fills the room. It sits against the wall, across from the sliding glass door that’s next to the futon where I’m lying. It sounds louder than usual, like the volume is turned up, forcing me to pay attention to it.
In front of the cabinet under the kitchen sink, which I can’t see from where I’m lying, are two empty 500ml cans of cheap beer that my husband drank a few days ago. I placed the cans there when I was straightening up.
That song is on repeat in my mind again, having crept up on me without my noticing, and I move suddenly from thinking about the message from Wakabayashi to thinking about Nakakido, but then that floats away too, and I’m free to just listen to the song. Then I realize that the song is no longer playing, which surprises me slightly.
Now that I think about it, I’ve only been to my mother’s once since last September. She always brews a huge pot of coffee. Any time I go to see her I end up having way more coffee than I should. For some reason, my sweater never came up. We had both forgotten about it, and I went home without it. The next day I got a text from my mother saying that I should have taken the sweater home with me.
The big toe on my right foot has found itself atop the middle toe. There’s a thin film of sweat making my toes sticky, which may be why they’re in that position. I move the big toe on my left foot so it’s doing the same thing.
The other text is from a friend. It’s a photo of a stuffed animal that she had washed and was hanging out to dry.
There’s still more than an hour before I’m supposed to be at work. It’s too early to call, no one’s there yet. Although someone could have gone in early. My phone is already in my hand.
The hum of the refrigerator is insistent.
The weather’s changing and there’s a virus going around, so I decide to use that as my excuse. I cough, and then I flip open my phone. The sound it makes, ka-chik, even though I’ve heard it a million times, I still think it’s a great sound. Sometimes I get in the mood to hear the sound and I pop the phone open then shut it several times. But now I just open it once.
In the few seconds while the page loaded, I felt like I was holding out hope for something, though I’m not sure what. But as soon as the content came on screen my hope vanished.
My body makes a curve, bent at the hip like a bow. I wriggle against the futon, lift both arms over my head and stretch them back as far as they can go, like I’m trying to turn my armpits inside out.
I’m thinking that when I get a real buzz on my phone, I should pay close attention to exactly what it feels like so that I’ll know to react only when there’s a vibration that meets or surpasses that level of sensation, and any time the vibration doesn’t meet that level of sensation I’ll know that it’s just a phantom buzz, and that I can ignore it. But I know that at the moment I’m not up to worrying about it.
It’s when I stretch lying down like I just did that I can feel how my spine isn’t straight. I spend a moment wondering whether people who keep their ringtone on for when they get a call or a text do it because they’re trying to avoid being bothered by phantom buzzes like I am.
My laptop is where I left it on the nightstand, still on, still open, but the screen is dark, sleeping. I twist around to look at it, kind of rotating, ending up on my stomach. The sheet under me gets pulled along and ends up a little bunched.
The white body of my laptop is not exactly in mint condition. I’ve had the same computer for nearly three years. But I still haven’t named it yet.
I catch sight of my nails, which are painted white. I’ve never once got any illustrations or decorations done on my nails. They’re just all white.
Before my laptop went to sleep, it got pretty hot but now it’s cooled off. I strike a key and the screen wakes up. I was up late reading blogs, dozing off and waking up to read some more, and now the last one I was reading gradually returns to the wakening screen. When that happens, the flecks of dust that were visible on the dark surface of the screen vanish.
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The page I have open is the blog cache of someone with the username “armyofme,” who according to the profile is a twenty-eight-year-old woman (that makes her two years younger than me) who “works as a call center operator at a company that provides outsourced help-desk services, currently dealing with inquiries for an internet service provider in the process of transitioning to fiber-optic cables,” and she blogs about all the callers with their claims that annoy her day after day, and about all her co-workers who are just as bad as the callers, stringing her words together like a stream of curses. armyofme writes a new blog post almost every day.
I just stumbled upon her blog today, I mean last night. How I found it is because there was this guy in my class at art school who used to do comedy stuff, and somebody told me he and another guy have an act that’s been getting them on TV, but since I don’t watch much TV I never knew about it, so I started searching a bunch of things related to my friends from back in school, trying different combinations of words, and after maybe three hours I found myself on armyofme’s blog.
I can hear the garbage truck coming around again. I now realize that when the song on repeat in my head switched off earlier it was because of the garbage truck music.
armyofme had an entry from a few months ago where she wrote about how watching the guy from my art class perform on TV was encouraging for her, but then she got used to seeing him all the time and she stopped feeling encouraged and thought about how he must be having fun, but also that maybe it looks like fun but it’s probably hard work, and in any case he has to be making good money so she doesn’t feel bad about being a little jealous.
It’s pretty normal for me to go looking for websites or blogs or whatever that are about people I know and to end up spending hours surfing. I always feel sleepy, it’s been so long since I’ve felt fully clear-headed and awake that I’ve basically forgotten what that’s like, so for years my whole waking life has been powering down, and now that’s just my body’s default mode. But when I look for blogs and I find a good one and my eyes are glued to the screen, some substance starts flowing from the LCD and pumping into me, and my sleep threshold shoots up, like blood sugar when you’re munching on sweets, so no matter how tired I feel I can still stay awake.
I stretch my body so that I can feel the crook in my spine. I think about people I know who are armyofme’s age and who might write something like this, and I picture the faces of a few girls who could be armyofme. But I can’t say which of them it could be. I mean, I can’t even remember their names.
Whenever I get a feeling like I just had, like I want to express my appreciation for someone, as soon as I start trying to write them a text I start to focus instead on how exhausted my body feels and how that’s all I can pay attention to.
Last night, or this morning, reading armyofme’s blog kept me energized until I hit my sleep threshold. Even when I did pass that point, I would only nod off for the shortest while and then wake up and get right back to it. I was reading another blog too, before armyofme’s, not anybody who I’m connected to in any way, it’s a guy who writes letters to his college friend who died in an accident the year before. I came across it when I was searching for things about Nakakido.
Not that that blog had anything to do with Nakakido. It must have been one of the other search terms beside his name that landed on it. I ended up reading some of it, but only a little. The writing was a mess, like it was written by someone in a confused mental state. In fact I started to think that there was no such person as the dead friend, and I gave up on it.
In armyofme’s newest post, or anyway the one with the most views, she wrote how people on the phone say talking to an operator like you (meaning her) isn’t getting me (them) anywhere, let me talk to your manager. It happened today, but people who say stuff like that have no idea the way the system works, they probably think that if they keep screaming to talk to somebody more important they’ll eventually get to whoever’s in charge and can finally give whoever it is a piece of their mind and get some satisfaction, but that’s more or less impossible, like no matter how hard they try they’ll never reach anyone with any authority at the fiber-optic cable company because the system is specifically designed to keep that from ever happening, so maybe if their issue is really serious and could turn into a high-profile lawsuit and get picked up by the media and turn into a big story they might get somewhere, but short of that their call will just come into our outsourced call center, and the highest up it could go would be to the project leader in charge of the fiber-optic cable company account, but even that’s extremely unlikely, because we lowly operators know very well that if we gave in every time someone demanded to talk to our manager things would get messy for us, and we’ve been told to absolutely refuse those kinds of demands, so unless there’s a pushover girl who gets nervous and does what the caller wants, it’ll never happen. And anyway our call center is just doing work that the fiber-optic cable company has outsourced, the fiber-optic cable company is my company’s client, and I’m sure they’ve told us to deal with whatever claims that come in (I don’t actually know that, since I’m not on the business side of things, I’m just guessing, but I’d bet I’m right), since we’re not located anywhere near them, we’re in Ikebukuro, way past the park to the west of the station in a nine-story building in an area that’s gone out of style, on the sixth through ninth floors, and I sit on the eighth floor (actually I don’t even know where the client is, though they must be somewhere in Tokyo). Anyway, that’s how it is, so when people call about their claim I tell them the person you’re complaining to isn’t the person you want to be complaining to, and they say they know that which is why they’re shouting that they want to talk to my manager, and the people who are shouting are the ones I want to tell that no matter how much they kick and scream they’ll never get to the person they’re looking for. Of course I can’t actually say that… That’s the kind of stuff in armyofme’s blog. In other entries she actually laid out the details of the clients’ claims, going on and on. I fell asleep after a little while, but before I did, when I was awake, I read all of it. Every so often I would accidentally click on one of the ads flashing in the sidebar, for a new DVD release or a soft drink, or an online credit card application or a job site, and every time I did that a new browser window would open up, and in the few seconds while the page loaded, I felt like I was holding out hope for something, though I’m not sure what. But as soon as the content came on screen my hope vanished. I would go back to the blog and keep reading.
My toes are facing downwards, pressed against the sheet. They’re painted white, same as my fingernails. I work the rumpled bunches in the sheet between my toes so that they’re touching the sensitive skin in there that’s not used to being touched. But I can’t tell from the feel of that skin between the toes whether the sheet is dry or damp, damp from my sweat or maybe from the humidity in the room.
I think about my husband, between his job at the all-night diner and the next one, and I get the urge to send him a text and tell him to hang in there. But the best I can manage is the most basic message, something like hope you’re doing okay and a couple other trite words that mean basically nothing.
I let out a huge yawn.
There’s a spiderweb on the ceiling, but it’s only in the early stages, just a few threads stretched out, not yet intersecting.
Whenever I get a feeling like I just had, like I want to express my appreciation for someone, as soon as I start trying to write them a text I start to focus instead on how exhausted my body feels and how that’s all I can pay attention to, and by that point I couldn’t care less about any nice feelings I had.
My body lies there, and I can’t seem to get any energy into it. I almost feel like I might never find any energy ever again. I send the text to my husband, though it’s just a very short one. The digital signal flies off through a cloudy sky. But the sun is burning hot behind the clouds, so it doesn’t even really feel like a cloudy day, more like a blue sky that’s turned white. My husband will be working at the drugstore today, a job he just started, and I actually do hope it goes all right for him. The display on my phone says 9 September, which means it’s been nine days since he started there. I’m still staring at the ceiling. I don’t see the spider anywhere.
More than once I’ve wondered if my husband has a blog or something like that, and I’ve tried all kinds of search terms, but I haven’t found anything.
* * *
Toshiki Okada is a playwright, director and novelist. Born in Yokohama in 1973, he formed the theatre company “chelfitsch” in 1997. Since then he has written and directed all of the company’s productions, practising a distinctive methodology for creating plays, and has come to be known for his use of hyper-colloquial Japanese and unique choreography. His works have been translated into many languages around the world.
Editor: Dana Snitzky