Girl Friends

[translated text]

When I take the call from Taki—which I didn’t want to take, but anyway—I’m naked. It’s a fine Saturday afternoon.

“Momoko?” Taki says. “So, tonight, would it be all right if I brought a friend?”

“A friend?” I cautiously check behind me. Masahiko is lying rigid, face down on the bed.

“Yeah, her name’s Asumi, she’s a friend from college. She’s living in Oita now, but happens to be back in town, so we wanted to catch up, but tonight’s the only night she can do.”

I take the cordless phone into the kitchen, get a plastic bottle of iced tea out of the fridge, and take it back to the bed to try to sweeten Masahiko up. I know it’s already too late, but it’s better than nothing. I offer him the bottle, silently mouthing “want some?” but a glare is all I get in response.

“She’s a nice girl. Okay, so we can’t really say ‘girl’ anymore at our age, can we?” Taki laughs in self-mockery.

I open the bottle, take a reluctant sip myself. The cold tea slides down my throat. When I close my eyes, I see a pale yellow trembling behind my eyelids. I murmur sotto voce “mmm, good,” and perch on the edge of the bed.

“I think you’d get along well, she’s been through a lot…” Taki is going on to say something more but I cut her off, saying, “Of course, it’s fine. I don’t mind at all if your friend joins us.”  I force artificial brightness into my voice. “At seven, right? Looking forward to it!”

The second I push the button to end the call, I am kicked off the bed. The force of the blow sends the phone flying out of my hand, and it smashes into the wall, knocking the battery cover off. For such a violent impact, it doesn’t hurt that much. That’s the first thing I think, down on my hands and knees. My carpet-burned knees, stinging furiously, are about the extent of it.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, what are you kicking me for?” I demand, getting up quickly. If I linger, cowering on the floor, I’ll get kicked again—or rather, stomped on. “Weren’t you the one who told me to answer the phone?”

I take a strong stance so I don’t get sucked under by the fear. Act angry and complain.

“I said if it was anything important, they’d call back, and you said to shut up and answer it! Did you forget all about that?”

Almost the whole bottle I was clutching has been spilled on the floor, but somehow the short beige fibres of the carpet have only changed color in one place.

“You’re unbelievable,” I mutter, going to the kitchen to get a cloth. I stomp my feet extra loud—because I’m not terrified; I’m angry.

*     *     *

Tofu rice: put chilled, firm tofu on top of rice, sprinkle a lot of chives on it, add soy sauce, and break the tofu into chunks as you eat. It’s one of Masahiko’s favourite foods, and it’s a way of eating tofu I’d never heard of until I met him.

“It’s ready!” I call, and Masahiko switches off the TV program he’s watching. The TV is turned off at meal times. I asked him to do that soon after we started living together and even now he doesn’t forget.

“Looks good,” he says.

On the table there are two servings of tofu rice, freshly-made roasted green tea, chopsticks, and chopstick rests. Today’s chopstick rests are shaped like morning glories: Masahiko’s is aqua blue, mine is pink.

We sit facing each other and say “itadakimasu” together, giving thanks for the food, and it’s so peaceful, without a trace of violence (if you ignore my knees, grazed red with mild carpet-burn). Even so, I am taking care not to turn my back on him, and I think he’s aware of it too. He never kicks me if I’m facing him. Always from behind, and lately almost always in the behind or lower. (Once, I was kicked in the back so hard I got whiplash. I couldn’t breathe and it hurt like hell, and then the cast had to stay on for such a long time, and I complained and cried so much that afterwards he was more careful.) So even in this heat, I can’t go out with my legs bare. The marks left by his heels are all over the place, black and blue, yellow; bruises on bruises, black and blue again.

“Remind me again, what time are you going out tonight?” Masahiko asks.

“About six.” As I reply, I realize I don’t even feel like going out. But on the other hand, I know that if I decide not to, it’s guaranteed to put him in a bad mood.

“And what time will you be back?”

It’s beyond my understanding, but Masahiko is like that. If I say I’m going out on my days off, he’ll be highly offended, bellow at me or pull the silent treatment, even kick me if he finds the slightest excuse, but for all that, if I do go out, he seems to look forward to the time I’ll be away for.

“I’m not sure. It’s hard to say,” I reply vaguely.

If I give a definite time, and then end up coming home earlier or later than that, obviously he’ll get upset, and even if I return exactly on time, he’ll be annoyed (probably because his reason for getting upset has been stolen from him).

“But can you give me a rough idea?” he persists.

If anything, he’s in a good mood now. Enough so that when he asks me again what time I’ll be home, and I don’t answer, he looks amused, saying, “Lately, you’ve wised up.”

*     *     *

It’s been six years since we first met, and four years since we started living together. It was not long after we moved in together that Masahiko showed his violent side. Usually, it’s the kicks, but every now and again, he grabs me by the hair and yanks me down to the floor, and stomps on my face and head. He never hits with his closed fist. He does slap sometimes. I’m being physically abused, but I haven’t left him, and even I don’t understand why.

For dinner out with girl friends, I choose a black tank top and jeans. A red pashmina in case it’s cold.

“Looks like rain.”

I flinch at the sudden voice from behind me. “Rain? Even though it was so fine?”

Masahiko doesn’t reply to that. “You look nice,” he says instead, with an unusually sincere look on his face.

“Of course I do,” I tease.

He’s so sincere—and even inexplicably sweet—it’s creepy.

“What?” I ask. I’m in front of the wash basin, and he’s standing there in the doorway as if blocking the entrance. Our conversation has ground to a halt, but he’s still there.

“Nothing,” he says.

Suddenly, I understand. He’s making sure of me. If I’ve calmed down or not; if I intend to come back here—as a matter of course—at the end of the night; if I’m all emotional and about to go out and confide in my girl friends.

I don’t know, I feel like telling him. I mean, people’s feelings are such fluid things, aren’t they? You never can tell which way they’ll go.

“What are you thinking?” he asks.

Instead of telling him any of that, I give him a blank look. “You’re acting strange,” I say, like I’m not thinking of anything at all.

*     *     *

Outside, it really looks like it’s going to rain. A tepid breeze is scattering the fallen leaves.

“Typhoon?” I wonder, opening the door. I grab a black umbrella that comes to hand.  “Lend me your umbrella, it goes with my outfit.”

What if this umbrella turns out to be—I turn to wave goodbye, and the vivid thought leaps into my mind—a souvenir, or a memento? If I decided not to come back here tonight, or tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, or any other day.

I’m going to get the bus to the train station, and from there I’ll take two different trains to get to the restaurant we’re meeting at. As soon as I get on the bus, the rain starts to fall, beating down heavily in no time. Generally speaking, this is terrible weather for going out in, but I’m exhilarated. I want it to keep raining and raining—raining so hard that no one can make it home.

The Chinese restaurant called “N” is on the second floor, up a narrow stairway. I put the drenched umbrella in the umbrella stand, open the door, and I’m immediately engulfed by the steamy smells of fried food and chili oil. Looking around the semi-crowded interior, I spot Taki, solitary in a seat by the window. Her long straight black hair draws the eye: so luxuriant it’s weighty.

As I approach, I call out, “Long time no see!” and take the seat facing hers. “Isn’t the rain terrible?”

Taki already has a mug of beer in her hand. She grins when she sees me. “Yeah, crazy rain. This year we’ve had so much rain.”

“Where’s your friend?”

“She’ll be a little late. Sorry for the short notice,” and she raises her voice to call for service, ordering me a beer.

We met in first grade. It was a private school with a unified school program all the way up to university, so we thought we’d be at school together for sixteen years, except that Taki, who had consistently bad grades from primary school onward, couldn’t pass the internal examination, and ended up going to a different junior college. Still, we’ve kept in touch, we’re now both thirty-seven, and Taki has her own beauty therapy business, while my claim to fame is that I’m supporting my unemployed de facto.

“How’s everything going?”

The beer arrives, we clink our mugs together, and start to quiz each other. “Just the usual,” “Same as always,”—the answers to the questions don’t really matter at all. “But you look great—” “Yeah, I’m good, really good.” Chatting away in this vein, we laugh.

The strange thing is that when we meet up after not seeing each other for a while, it always takes us right back into primary school mode, even though we went to school together all the way up until high school. The atmosphere of the classroom, the teacher, the playground, the morning assembly platform, the younger self who struggled to fit in with everyone else.

Snacking on the restaurant’s specialty, gyoza dumplings—both fried and steamed—we launch into chat about this and that. From Taki’s trip to Okinawa last month with her boyfriend (“Wow, Okinawa, I’m jealous!”), to my sister getting married next year (“No way, little Nana? So fast!”), to the manicurist at Taki’s salon quitting out of the blue (“She just up and left? Girls these days, no common sense,”), up to the addition of mammograms to my company’s regular health check-ups (“Regular health checks, huh? I own my own business, so I don’t have anything like that”). Outside the window, the rain is getting stronger, and I hear thunder.

We’re well on the way to finishing off our second beers, when a high-pitched voice squeals, “Takiii!” and a curvaceous woman appears right beside us. Taki stands up too, and they throw their arms around each other, shrieking happily, “ohhh!” and “I missed you!” Something Asumi has on—a perfume, or some kind of cosmetic—tickles my nose with the sweet scent of baby powder.

“Have a seat!” Taki gives up her seat to Asumi, and takes the aisle seat for herself. “This is Momoko, my oldest friend.”

As I’m introduced by Taki, my eyes are not fixed on Asumi’s face, but nailed to her cleavage. Her snow-white, unbelievably ample cleavage.

“This is Asumi Itakura, who I told you about on the phone. She met a man from Oita back in junior college; they had a long distance relationship and ended up getting married, and now she lives in Oita.”

Asumi is vibrantly beautiful, with fine, regular features: womanly, that seems like the right way to describe her. Her greeting and body language are free and easy, and she comes across as naturally friendly. The way she takes a long, deep first mouthful of beer, the gifts of souvenirs she produces from a paper bag (yuzu pepper sauce, kabosu citron fruit, dried flounder, and peat soap), not just for Taki but for me, the stranger, as well—you could call it generosity, or a bit over the top.

And, her boobs. For the life of me, I can’t help my eyes from being drawn to them. Her bosom, swelling up big and round as if about to overflow the daringly low-cut white T-shirt, is accentuated by a long necklace dangling down in the shape of a Y.

Two years have passed since Asumi and Taki last met, and they have an endless supply of talk and laughter. Every so often, Taki makes an effort to include me, saying something like, “Momoko has a toyboy,” or “Momoko’s really good at skiing,” and taking my cue, I confirm it, deny it, or laugh, but before I know it I’m staring at the breasts in front of me again. What a rack. If Masahiko was here, he’d definitely say something like that. I’m seized with the impulse to touch them. When the bra is off and they return to their natural state, I imagine how they’d be, gently swaying—right down to the soft weight and coolness when tenderly lifting them from below with both hands.

“So, how did you meet this guy, Momoko?”

I hear Asumi’s voice, and quickly pull myself back into the conversation. “At my previous job, we were co-workers. The usual way.”

“Co-workers? So, back then, he had a job, huh?”

Through the glass, I see a far-off streak of lightning, followed by a huge crack of thunder. Taki ducks her head. “The trains might be stopped,” she says.

“Yeah,” I reply to Asumi, “I resigned from that company before he did, and switched to my current job. It’s a totally different industry though.”

Taki cuts in, explaining, “Momoko works at a movie distribution company. Her previous company made educational materials, isn’t that right?”

“Right,” I take up the narrative. “When we worked at the same company, we weren’t particularly close, but shortly after I changed jobs, I got this phone call out of the blue.”

“Was it him?”

“Yeah, it was him.”

Asumi squeals like a school girl. “It happens that way sometimes, doesn’t it? When people miss each other, they recognize their true feelings for the first time.”

Anyway, I can’t remember so well. So, I skip most of it, and to sum up, I tell them, “When we were dating, he quit his job, and to save on living costs, we decided to move in together.” Which brings things up to the present day.

“You’re so cool, supporting your man. It’s a labor of love, isn’t it?” Asumi says admiringly. “You know, for me, it’s just…” and she goes on to cheerfully describe her uphill struggle in an unfamiliar place, the bickering with her husband, the problems with the children’s schooling, and her daily feeling of powerlessness, mixed in with jokes.

“Must be tough,” we sympathize.

But my eyes and thoughts keep gravitating to her lush breasts, incongruous in the difficult circumstances she describes. Does her husband—“fairly seriously estranged,” as she calls him—bury his face in those breasts?

We chatter on. Changing to Shaoxing rice wine, we devour more gyoza, stir-fried pea sprouts, then sweet-and-sour pork and fried rice. Asumi talks the most and laughs the hardest of the three of us. Her very existence warms and lights up the air of the restaurant. I feel like I am watching something beautiful, something fine, which at the same time I know myself to be completely incompatible with. It’s like we belong to different species.

“About Masahiko,” I say abruptly. “He kicks me.” It’s a declaration. “Actually, he kicks me goddamn hard.”

Silence falls. As I can’t take my eyes off Asumi’s breasts, it must look like I’m addressing the breasts, not talking to Taki or Asumi.

“Does he?” Taki’s tone is troubled.

“Yeah, he does,” I reply, and smile, still looking at the breasts. The white, rounded, beautiful breasts.

“You mean, he’s abusing you?” This time it’s Asumi’s voice.

“Yeah, it’s abuse.” I think, why did my voice just sound so cheerful? Ah, I can’t wait to tell Masahiko about everything I’ve seen today. Taki’s long black hair, the bracelet bought for me in Okinawa, Asumi’s paper bag of souvenirs, and this amazing rack. Masahiko will be so interested in these details which are so far removed from us.

With a light heart—pleasantly high—I drain my Shaoxing rice wine. It seems very quiet, and then I notice that at some point, the rain had cleared up.

[original text]


(KAORI EKUNI: 江國 香織)



Onna Tomodachi © 2008 by Kaori Ekuni
First published in Japanese magazine Yasei Jidai by Kadokawa, Tokyo

Translator’s Statement 

I first fell in love with Kaori Ekuni’s work when I read this story many years ago. I was struck by her masterly representation of dysfunctional relationships that possess their own unique internal logic. She excels at conveying emotional complexity, which I believe is perhaps one of the most difficult things to capture in translation. I would love to translate more of her prolific body of work, which I feel deserves to be more widely known in the English-speaking world.

Kaori Ekuni is an award-winning, prolific Japanese author known as “the female Murakami,” who has not been much translated into English. She is a writer who works somewhat outside the traditional Japanese literary canon, often portraying complex, dysfunctional relationships.

Sharni Wilson is an award-winning New Zealand writer of fiction and a Japanese-to-English literary translator based in London. Her work has appeared in Landfall, Pidgeonholes, and Asymptote’s “Translation Tuesdays,” among others. She can be found at