“We’re so inconsistent about what we let kill ya. “Smoking? Must be eradicated. Marijuana? Zero tolerance.” But there’s lots of ways to kill yourself. You know what I think kills you? Stress, and being a workaholic, and never getting laid, and, uh, McDonalds, and staying mad at people, and lying for a living, and three-martini lunches, and the all-American breakfast, and whatever the fuck Elvis was doing. That’s what kills you.”—Bill Maher
Junpei was sixteen years old when his father made a surprising pronouncement. True, they were father and son; the same blood flowed through their veins. But they were not so close that they often opened their hearts to each other and it was extremely rare for Junpei’s father to offer him views of life that might (perhaps) be called philosophical. So that day’s exchange would remain vivid in his memory long after he had forgotten what prompted it.
“Among the women a man meets in his life, there are only three who have real meaning for him. No more, no less,” his father said—or, rather, declared. He spoke coolly but with utter certainty, as he might have in noting that the earth takes a year to revolve around the sun. Junpei listened in silence, partly because his father’s speech was so unexpected; he could think of nothing to say on the spur of the moment.
“You will probably become involved with many women in the future,” his father continued, “but you will be wasting your time if a woman is the wrong one for you. I want you to remember that.”
Later, several questions formed in Junpei’s young mind: Has my father already met his three women? Is my mother one of them? And, if so, what happened with the other two? But he was not able to ask his father these questions. As noted earlier, the two were not on such close terms that they could speak heart to heart.
When Junpei was eighteen, he left home and went to college in Tokyo, where over time he became involved with several women, one of whom had “real meaning” for him. Before he could express his feelings, however (by nature, it took him longer than most people to express his feelings), she married his best friend, and soon after that became a mother. For the time being therefore, she had to be eliminated from the list of possibilities that life had to offer Junpei. He had to harden his heart and sweep her from his mind, as a result of which the number of women remaining who would have real meaning in his life—if he accepted his father’s theory—was reduced to two.
Whenever Junpei met a new woman, he would ask himself, Is this a woman who has real meaning for me? And the question would create a dilemma. For even as he continued to hope (as who does not?) that he would meet someone who had real meaning for him, he was afraid of playing his few remaining cards too early. Having failed to connect with the very first important Other he encountered, Junpei had lost confidence in his ability—the crucial ability—to give outward expression to love at the appropriate time and in the appropriate manner. I may be the type who manages to grab all the pointless things in life but lets the really important things slip away: whenever this thought crossed his mind—which was often—his heart would descend to a place devoid of light and warmth.
Whenever, after he had been with a new woman for some months, he began to notice something about her character or behavior, however trivial, that displeased him or touched a nerve, somewhere in a recess of his heart he would feel a twinge of relief. As a result, it became a pattern for him to carry on tepid, indecisive relationships with one woman after another. Each of these relationships dissolved on its own. The breakups never involved any discord or shouting matches, because he never became involved with women who seemed as if they might be difficult to get rid of. Before he knew it, he had developed a kind of nose for convenient partners.
Junpei was unsure whether this ability stemmed from his own innate character or whether it had been formed by his environment. If the latter, it might well have been the fruit of his father’s curse. Around the time that he graduated from college, he had a violent argument with his father and cut off all contact with him, but still the “three-women theory,” its basis never fully explained, clung tenaciously to him. At one point, he even half-jokingly considered becoming gay: maybe then he’d be able to free himself from this ridiculous countdown. For better or for worse, however, women were the only objects of Junpei’s sexual interest.
The next woman Junpei met was older than he was. She was thirty-six. Junpei was thirty-one. An acquaintance of his was opening a little French restaurant on a street leading out of central Tokyo, and Junpei was invited to the party. He wore a Perry Ellis shirt of deep-blue silk, with a matching summer sports jacket. He had planned to meet a close friend at the party but the friend cancelled at the last minute, which left Junpei with no one to talk to. He nursed a large glass of Bordeaux alone at the bar. Just as he was ready to leave and beginning to scan the crowd for the owner in order to say goodbye, a tall woman approached him holding a purple cocktail. Junpei’s first thought on seeing he was: Here is a woman with excellent posture.
“Somebody over there told me that you’re a writer. Is that true?” she asked, resting an elbow on the bar.
“I suppose so, in a way,” Junpei answered.
“A writer ‘in a way’?”
“How many books have you published?”
“Two volumes of short stories and one book I translated. None of them sold much.”
She gave him a quick head-to-toe inspection and smiled with apparent satisfaction.
“Well, anyhow, you’re the first real writer I’ve met.”
“I might be a little disappointing,” Junpei said. “A pianist could play you a tune. A painter could draw something for you. A magician could perform a trick. There’s not much a writer can do on the spot.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I can just enjoy your artistic aura or something.”
“Artistic aura?” Junpei said.
“That special radiance—something you don’t find in ordinary people.”
“I look at my face in the mirror every morning when I’m shaving, but I’ve never noticed anything like that.”
She smiled and asked, “What kind of stories do you write?”
“People ask me that a lot, but my stories don’t really fit into any particular genre.”
She ran a finger around the lip of her cocktail glass. “I suppose that means you write literary fiction?”
“I suppose it does. You say that the way you might say ‘chain letters.’ “
She smiled again. “Could I have heard your name?”
“Do you read literary magazines?”
She gave her head a small, sharp shake.
“Then you probably haven’t. I’m not that well known.”
Without asking his permission, she sat on the barstool next to his, sipped what was left of her cocktail, and told him her name: Kirie.
Junpei guessed that she was an inch or more taller than he was. She had a deep tan, her hair was short, and her head was a beautiful shape. She wore a pale-green linen jacket, with the sleeves rolled up to her elbows, and a knee-length flared skirt. Under the jacket, she had on a simple cotton blouse with a small turquoise brooch at the collar. The swell of her breasts was neither large nor small. She dressed with style, and while there was nothing affected about it, her entire outfit seemed to express a strong and independent personality. Her lips were full, and they marked the ends of her sentences by spreading or pursing. This gave her a strangely lively quality. Three parallel creases formed across her broad forehead whenever she stopped to think about something; when she finished thinking, they disappeared.
Junpei was aware that he was attracted to her. Something indefinable but persistent was exciting him, pumping adrenaline to his heart. Suddenly aware that his throat was dry, he ordered a Perrier from a passing waiter, and as always he began to ask himself, Is she someone with real meaning for me? Is she one of the remaining two? Will she be my second strike? Should I let her go, or take a swing?
“Did you always want to be a writer?” Kirie asked.
“Hmm. Let’s just say I could never think of anything else I wanted to be.”
“So your dream came true.”
“I wonder. I wanted to be a great writer.” Junpei spread his hands about a foot apart. “There’s a pretty big distance between the two, I think.”
“Everybody has to start somewhere. You have your future ahead of you. You can’t attain perfection right away.” Then she asked, “How old are you?”
Being older than he was didn’t seem to bother her in the least. It didn’t bother Junpei, either. He preferred mature women to young girls. In most cases, it was easier to break up with an older woman.
“What kind of work do you do?” he asked.
Her lips formed a perfectly straight line, and her expression became earnest for the first time.
“What kind of work do you think I do?”
Junpei jogged his glass, swirling the red wine inside it exactly once. “Can I have a hint?”
“No hints. Is it so hard to tell? Observation and judgment are your business.”
“Not really,” he said. “What a writer is supposed to do is observe and observe and observe again, and put off making judgments till the last possible moment.”
“Of course,” she said. “All right, then, observe and observe and observe again, and then use your imagination. That wouldn’t clash with your professional ethics, would it?”
Junpei raised his eyes and studied Kirie’s face with new concentration, hoping to find a secret sign there. She looked straight into his eyes, and he looked straight into hers.
After a short pause, he said, “All right, this is what I imagine, based on nothing much: You’re a professional of some sort. Not just anyone can do your job. It requires some kind of special expertise.”
“Bull’s-eye! But try to narrow it down a little.”
“Something to do with music?”
No,” she said.
Junpei shook his head. “Well, you’ve got a tan, you’re solidly built, your arms have a good bit of muscle. Maybe you do a lot of outdoor sports. I don’t think you’re an outdoor laborer. You don’t have that vibe.”
Kirie rested her arms on the counter and turned them over, inspecting them. “You seem to be getting there.”
“But I still can’t give you the right answer.”
“It’s important to keep a few little secrets,” Kirie said. “I don’t want to deprive you of your professional pleasure—observing and imagining… I will give you one hint, though. It’s the same for me as for you.”
“The same how?”
“I mean, my profession is exactly what I always wanted to do, ever since I was a little girl. Like you. Getting to where I am, though, was not an easy journey.”
“Good,” Junpei said. “That’s important. Your work should be an act of love, not a marriage of convenience.”
“An act of love,” Kirie said. The words seemed to make an impression on her. “That’s a wonderful metaphor.”
“Meanwhile, do you think I might have heard your name somewhere?” Junpei asked.
“Probably not,” she answered, shaking her head. “I’m not that well known.”
“Oh, well, everybody has to start somewhere.”
“Exactly,” Kirie said with a smile. Then she turned serious. “My situation is different from yours in one way. I’m expected to attain perfection right from the start. No mistakes allowed. Perfection or nothing. No in-between. No second chances.”
“I suppose that’s another hint.”
A waiter circulating with a tray of champagne approached them. She took two glasses from him and handed one to Junpei.
“Cheers,” she said.
“To our respective areas of expertise,” Junpei said.
They clinked glasses.
“By the way,” she said, “are you married?”
Junpei shook his head.
“Neither am I,” Kirie said.
She spent that night in Junpei’s room. They drank wine—a gift from the restaurant—had sex and went to sleep. When Junpei woke at ten o’clock the next morning, she was gone, leaving only an indentation, like a memory, in the pillow next to his and a note: “I have to go to work. Get in touch with me if you like.” She included her cell-phone number.
He called her, and they had dinner at a restaurant the following Saturday. They drank a little wine, had sex in Junpei’s room, and went to sleep. Again the next morning she was gone. It was Sunday, but her note said again, “Got to go to work.”
Junpei still had no idea what kind of work Kirie did, but it certainly started early in the morning. And—on occasion, at least—she worked on Sundays.
The two were never at a loss for things to talk about. She had a sharp mind and was knowledgeable on a broad range of topics. She enjoyed reading, but generally favored books other than fiction—biography, history, psychology, and popular science—and she retained an amazing amount of information. One time, Junpei was astounded at her detailed knowledge of the history of prefabricated housing.
“Prefabricated housing? Your work must have something to do with construction or architecture.”
“No,” she said. “I just tend to be attracted to highly practical topics. That’s all.”
She did, however, read the two story collections that Junpei had published, and found them “wonderful.” “They were far more enjoyable than I expected,” she told him. “To tell you the truth, I was worried. What would I do if I read your work and didn’t like it? What could I say? But there was nothing to worry about. I enjoyed them thoroughly.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” Junpei said, relieved. He had had the same worry when, at her request, he gave her the books.
“I’m not just saying this to make you feel good,” Kirie said, “but you’ve got something special—that special element it takes to become an outstanding writer. Your stories are lively, and the style is beautiful, but mainly it’s that your writing is so balanced. For me, that is always the most important thing—in music, in fiction, in painting. Whenever I encounter a work or a performance that lacks balance, it makes me sick. It’s like motion sickness. That’s probably why I don’t go to concerts and hardly read any fiction.”
“Because you don’t want to encounter unbalanced things?”
“Sounds a little far out to me.”
“I’m a Libra. I just can’t stand it when things are out of balance. No, it’s not so much that I can’t stand it as…”
She closed her mouth in search of the right words, but she wasn’t able to find them, releasing instead a few tentative sighs. “Oh, well, never mind,” she went on. “I just wanted to say that I believe someday you are going to write novels. And, when you do that, you will become a more important writer. It may take a while, but that’s what I feel.”
“No, I’m a born short-story writer,” Junpei said dryly. “I’m not suited to writing novels.”
He offered nothing more on the subject, just lay quietly and listened to the hum of the air-conditioner. In fact, he had tried several times to write a novel, but had always bogged down partway through. He simply could not maintain the concentration it took to write a story over a long period of time. He would start out convinced that he was going to write something incredible. The story would flow out almost by itself. But, the farther he went with it, the more its energy and brilliance would fade—gradually at first, but undeniably, until, like an engine coming to a halt, it petered out entirely.
The two of them were in bed. It was autumn. They were naked after a long, warm session of lovemaking. Kirie’s shoulder pressed against Junpei, whose arms were around her. Two glasses of white wine stood on the night table.
“You’re in love with another woman, aren’t you? Somebody you can’t forget?”
“It’s true,” Junpei admitted. “You can tell?”
“Of course,” she said. “Women are very sensitive to such things. You can’t see her?”
“There are problems.”
“And no possibility those ‘problems’ could be solved?”
“None,” Junpei said with a quick shake of the head.
Kirie drank a little wine. “I don’t have anybody like that,” she said almost under her breath. “I like you a lot, Junpei. You really move me. When we’re together like this, I feel tremendously happy and calm. But that doesn’t mean that I want to have a serious relationship with you. How does that make you feel? Relieved?”
Junpei ran his fingers through her hair. Instead of answering her question, he asked one of his own. “Why is that?”
“Why don’t I want to be with you?”
“Does it bother you?”
“I can’t have a serious everyday relationship with anybody. Not just you, anybody,” she said. “I want to concentrate completely on what I’m doing now. If I were living with somebody—if I had a deep emotional involvement with somebody—I might not be able to do that.”
Junpei thought for a minute. “You mean you don’t want to be distracted?”
“If you were distracted, you could lose your balance, and that might prove to be an obstacle to your career.”
“Exactly.” She nodded.
“But you still won’t tell me what that is.”
“You’re a burglar.”
“No,” Kirie answered with amusement. “What a sexy guess! But a burglar doesn’t go to work early in the morning.”
“You’re a hit man.”
“Hit person,” she corrected him. “But no. Why are you coming up with these awful ideas?”
“So what you do is perfectly legal?”
“No. O.K., let’s stop for today. I’d rather talk about your work. Tell me about what you’re writing. You are writing something now?”
“Yes, a short story.”
“What kind of story?”
“I haven’t finished it yet.”
“So tell me what has happened so far.”
Junpei fell silent. He had a policy of not talking to anyone about his works in progress. If he put his story into words and those words left his mouth, he feared, something important would evaporate like morning dew. Delicate shades of meaning would be flattened into a shallow surface. Secrets would no longer be secrets. But here in bed, running his fingers through Kirie’s short hair, Junpei felt that it might be all right to tell her. After all, he was taking a break from the story because he didn’t know how to finish it. He hadn’t been able to move forward for some days now.
“It’s in the third person, and the protagonist is a woman,” he began. “She’s in her early thirties, a skilled internist who practices at a big hospital. She’s single, but she’s having an affair with a surgeon at the same hospital. He’s in his late forties and has a wife and kids.”
Kirie took a moment to imagine the heroine. “Is she attractive?”
“I think so. Quite attractive,” Junpei said. “But not as attractive as you.”
Kirie kissed Junpei on the neck. “That’s the right answer,” she said.
“So, anyway, she takes a vacation and goes off on a trip by herself. It’s autumn. She’s staying at a little hot-spring resort in the mountains and she goes for a walk along a stream. She’s a bird-watcher, and she especially enjoys seeing kingfishers. She steps down into the dry streambed and notices an odd stone. It’s black with a tinge of red, it’s smooth, and it has a familiar shape. She realizes right away that it’s shaped like a kidney. I mean, she’s a doctor, after all. Everything about it is just like a real kidney—the size, the thickness.”
“So she picks it up and takes it home.”
“Right,” Junpei said. “She takes it to her office at the hospital and uses it as a paperweight. It’s just the right size and weight.”
“And it’s the perfect shape for a hospital.”
“Exactly,” Junpei said. “But a few days later she notices something strange.”
Kirie waited silently for him to continue with his story. Junpei paused as if deliberately teasing his listener, but in fact this was not deliberate at all. He had not yet written the rest of the story. This was the point at which he had stopped. Standing at this unmarked intersection, he surveyed his surroundings and worked his brain. Then he thought of how the story should go.
“Every morning, she finds the stone in a different place. She’s a very methodical person, so she always leaves it in exactly the same spot on her desk when she goes home at night, but in the morning she finds it on the seat of her swivel chair, or next to the vase, or on the floor. Her first thought is that her memory is playing tricks on her. The door to her office is locked, and no one else can get in. Of course, the night watchman has a key, but he has been working at the hospital for years and he would never take it upon himself to enter anyone’s office. Besides, what would be the point of his barging into her office every night just to change the position of a stone she’s using as a paperweight? Nothing else in the office has changed, nothing is missing, and nothing has been tampered with. The position of the rock is the only thing that changes. She’s totally stumped. What do you think is going on? Why do you think the stone moves during the night?”
“The kidney-shaped stone has its own reasons for doing what it does,” Kirie said with simple assurance.
“What kind of reasons can a kidney-shaped stone have?”
“It wants to shake her up. Little by little. Over a long period of time.”
“All right, then, why does it want to shake her up?”
“I don’t know,” she said. Then, with a giggle, she added, “Maybe it just wants to rock her world.”
“That’s the worst pun I’ve ever heard,” Junpei groaned.
“Well, you’re the writer. Aren’t you the one who decides?”
Junpei scowled. He felt a slight throbbing behind his temples from having concentrated so hard. Maybe he had drunk too much wine. “The ideas aren’t coming together,” he said. “My plots don’t move unless I’m actually sitting at my desk and moving my hands, making sentences. Talking about it like this, though, I’m beginning to feel as if the rest of the story is going to work itself out.”
“I’ll wait,” Kirie said. She reached over for her glass and took a sip of wine. “But the story is really getting interesting. I want to know what happens with the kidney-shaped stone.”
She turned toward him and pressed her shapely breasts against his side. Then, quietly, as if sharing a secret, she said, “You know, Junpei, everything in the world has its reasons for doing what it does.” Junpei was falling asleep and could not answer. In the night air, her sentences lost their shape as grammatical constructions and blended with the faint aroma of the wine before reaching the hidden recesses of his consciousness. “For example, the wind has its reasons. You just don’t notice it as you go about your life. Then, at some point, you are made to notice. The wind envelops you with a certain purpose in mind and shakes you up. It knows everything that’s inside you. And it’s not just the wind. Everything, even a stone, knows you. And all you can do is go with those things. As you take them in, you survive and deepen.”
For the next five days, Junpei hardly left the house; he stayed at his desk, writing the rest of the story of the kidney-shaped stone. As Kiri had predicted, the stone continues quietly to shake the doctor—little by little, but decisively. She is engaged in a hurried coupling with her lover in an anonymous hotel room one evening when she stealthily reaches around to his back and feels for the shape of a kidney. Something tells her that her kidney-shaped stone is lurking in there. The kidney is a secret informer that she herself has buried in her lover’s body. Beneath her fingers it squirms like an insect, sending her messages. She converses with the kidney exchanging intelligence. She can feel its sliminess against the palm of her hand
The doctor grows gradually used to the existence of the kidney-shaped stone that shifts position every night. She comes to accept it as natural. She is no longer surprised when she finds that it has moved. When she arrives at the hospital each morning, she looks for the stone, picks it up, and returns it to her desk. This has simply become part of her routine. As long as she remains in the room, the stone does not move. It stays quietly in one place, like a cat napping in the sun. It awakes and begins to move only after she has left the room and locked the door.
Whenever she has a spare moment at her desk, she reaches out and caresses the stone’s smooth dark surface. After a while, it becomes increasingly difficult for her to take her eyes off the stone; it is as if she has been hypnotized. She gradually loses interest in anything else. She can no longer read books. She stops going to the gym. Talking to her colleagues bores her. She becomes indifferent to her own grooming. She loses her appetite. Even the embrace of her lover becomes a source of annoyance. When there is no one else around, she speaks to the stone in a lowered voice—the way lonely people converse with a dog or a cat—and she listens to the wordless words the stone speaks to her. The dark kidney-shaped stone now controls the greater part of her life.
Surely the stone is not an object that has come to her from without: Junpei becomes aware of this as his story progresses. The main point is something inside herself. Something inside herself is activating the kidney-shaped stone and urging her to take some kind of action. It keeps sending her signals for that purpose—signals in the form of the stone’s nightly movements.
While he writes, Junpei thinks about Kirie. He senses that she (or something inside her) is propelling the story; it was never his intention to write something so divorced from reality. What Junpei had imagined vaguely beforehand was a more tranquil, psychological story line. In that story line, rocks did not take it upon themselves to move around.
Junpei imagined that the doctor would cut her ties to the married surgeon. She might even come to hate him. This was probably what she had been seeking all along, unconsciously.
Once the rest of the story had become visible to him, writing it out was relatively easy. Listening to the songs of Mahler at low volume, Junpei sat at his computer and wrote the conclusion at what was, for him, top speed.
The doctor makes her decision to part with her lover. “I can’t see you anymore,” she tells him. “Can’t we at least talk this over?” he asks. “No,” she tells him firmly, “that is impossible.” On her next free day, she boards a Tokyo Harbor ferry, and from the deck she throws the kidney-shaped stone into the sea. The stone sinks down to the bottom of the ocean, plunging toward the core of the earth. She resolves to start her life over. Having cast away the stone, she feels a new sense of lightness. The next day, however, when she arrives at the hospital, the stone is on her desk, waiting for her. It sits exactly where it is supposed to be, as dark and kidney-shaped as ever.
As soon as he finished writing the story Junpei called Kirie. She would probably want to read the finished work, which she, in a sense had inspired him to write. His call, however, did not go through. “Your call cannot be completed as dialed,” a recorded voice said. “Please check the number and try again.” Junpei tried it again—and again. But the result was always the same She was probably having some kind of technical problem with her phone, he thought.
Junpei stuck close to home, waiting for word from Kirie, but nothing came. A month went by. One month became two, and two became three. The season changed to winter, and a new year began. His story came out in the February issue of a literary magazine. A newspaper ad for the magazine listed Junpei’s name and the title, “The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day.” Kirie might see the ad, buy the magazine, read the story, and call him to share her impressions—or so he hoped. But all that reached him were new layers of silence.
The pain that Junpei felt when Kirie vanished from his life was far more intense than he could have imagined. In the course of a day he would think any number of times, If only she were here! He missed her smile, he missed the words shaped by her lips, he missed the touch of her skin as they held each other. He gained no comfort from his favorite music or from the arrival of new books by authors that he liked. Everything felt distant, divorced from him. Kirie may have been woman No. 2, Junpei thought.
Junpei’s next encounter with Kirie occurred on day in early spring—though you couldn’t really call it an encounter.
He was in a taxi stuck in traffic. The driver was listening to an FM broadcast. Kirie’s voice emerged from the radio. At first, Junpei didn’t realize that he was hearing Kirie. He simply thought the voice was similar to hers. But the more he listened the more it sounded like her, her manner of speaking—the same smooth intonation, the same relaxed style, the special way she had of pausing between thoughts.
Junpei asked the driver to turn up the volume.
“Sure thing,” the driver said.
Kirie was being interviewed by a female announcer. “So you’ve liked high places since you were a little girl?” the announcer asked.
“Yes,” Kirie—or a woman with exactly the same voice—said. “As long as I can remember, I’ve liked being up high. The higher I am, the more peaceful I feel. I was always nagging my parents to take me to tall buildings. I was a strange little creature,” she said with a laugh.
“Which is how you got started in your present line of work, I suppose.”
“First I worked as an analyst at a securities firm. But I knew right away that it wasn’t right for me. I left the company after three years, and the first thing I did was get a job washing windows in tall buildings. What I really wanted to be was a steeplejack, but that’s such a macho world—they don’t let women in very easily.”
“From securities analyst to window-washer—that’s quite a change!”
“To tell the truth, washing windows was much less stressful for me. If something’s going to fall, it’s just me, not stock prices.” Again the laugh.
“Now, by ‘window-washer’ you mean one of those people who get lowered down the side of a building on a platform?”
“Right. Of course, they give you a lifeline, but some spots you can’t reach without taking the lifeline off. That didn’t bother me at all. No matter how high we went, I was never scared—which made me a very valuable worker.”
“I suppose you like to go mountain-climbing?”
“I have almost no interest in mountains. I’ve tried climbing a few times, but it does nothing for me. The only things that interest me are man-made structures that rise straight up from the ground. Don’t ask me why.”
“So now you run a window-washing company that specializes in high-rise buildings in the Tokyo metropolitan area.”
“Correct,” she said. “I saved up and started my own little company about six years ago. Of course, I go out with my crews, but basically I’m an owner now. I don’t have to take orders from anybody, and I can make up my own rules.”
“Meaning you can take the lifeline off whenever you like?”
“In a word.” Another laugh.
“You really do like high places, don’t you?”
“I do. I feel it’s my calling to be up high. I can’t imagine doing any other kind of work. Your work should be an act of love, not a marriage of convenience.”
“It’s time for a song now,” the announcer said. “James Taylor, with ‘Up on the Roof.’ We’ll talk more about tightrope-walking after this.”
While the song played, Junpei leaned over the front seat and asked the driver, “What does this woman do?”
“She puts up ropes between high-rise buildings and walks across them,” the driver explained. “With a long pole in her hands for balance. She’s some kind of performer. I guess she gets her kicks that way. I get scared just riding in a glass elevator.”
“That’s her profession?” Junpei asked. He noticed that his voice was dry and the weight had gone out of it. It sounded like someone else’s voice.
“Yeah. I guess she gets a bunch of sponsors together and puts on a performance. She just did one at some famous cathedral in Germany. She says she wants to do it on higher buildings but can’t get permission. ‘Cause if you go that high a safety net won’t help. Of course, she can’t make a living that way, so—well, you heard her say she’s got this window-cleaning company. Weird chick.”
“The most wonderful thing about it is that when you’re up there you change as a human being,” Kirie told the interviewer. “You have to change or you can’t survive. When I come out to a high place, it’s just me and the wind. Nothing else. The wind envelops me, shakes me up. It understands who I am. At the same time, I understand the wind. We accept each other and we decide to go on living together. That’s the moment I love more than anything. No, I’m not afraid. Once I set foot in that high place and enter completely into that state of concentration, all fear vanishes.”
She spoke with cool assurance. Junpei could not tell whether the interviewer understood what she was saying. When the interview ended, Junpei stopped the cab and got out, walking the rest of the way to his destination. Now and then he would look up at a tall building and at the clouds flowing past. No one could come between her and the wind, he realized, and he felt a violent rush of jealousy. But jealousy of what? The wind? Who could possibly be jealous of the wind?
Junpei waited several more months for Kirie to contact him. He wanted to see her and talk to her about lots of things, including the kidney-shaped stone. But the call never came, and his calls to her could never be completed as dialed. When summer came, he gave up. She obviously had no intention of seeing him again. And so the relationship ended calmly, without discord or shouting matches—exactly the way he had ended relationships with so many other women. At some point, the calls would stop coming, and everything would come to an end quietly, naturally.
Should I add her to the countdown? Was she one of my three women with real meaning? Junpei agonized over the question for some time without reaching a conclusion. I’ll wait another six months, he thought. Then I’ll decide.
During those six months, he wrote with great concentration and produced a large number of short stories. As he sat at his desk polishing a story, he would think, Kirie is probably in some high place with the wind right now. Here I am, all alone at my desk writing stories, while she’s all alone up there, without a lifeline. Once she enters that state of concentration, all fear vanishes: it’s just her and the wind. Junpei would often recall her words and realize that he had come to feel something special for Kirie, something that he had never felt for another woman. It was a deep emotion, with clear outlines and real weight. He was still unsure what to call this emotion. It was, at least, a feeling that could not be exchanged for anything else. Even if he never saw Kirie again, this feeling would stay with him forever. Somewhere in his body—perhaps in the marrow of his bones—he would continue to feel her absence.
As the year came to an end, Junpei made up his mind. He would count her as No. 2. She was one of the women who had real meaning for him. Strike two. Only one left.
But he was no longer afraid. Numbers aren’t the important thing, he told himself. The countdown has no meaning. Now he knew: what matters is deciding in your heart to accept another person completely. When you do that, it is always the first time and the last.
One morning, the doctor notices that the dark kidney-shaped stone has disappeared from her desk. And she knows: it won’t be coming back.