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Two in the Afternoon


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Illustration by Na Kim.

Saki’s Moment

Saki once had sex with Jin the Actor, and she couldn’t be any prouder. She hasn’t told anybody yet, so maybe pride isn’t the right word for it. Still, wherever she is, whenever she starts thinking about that intimate moment and everything it means, she slips into ecstasy. She’s in ecstasy when she thinks about how it’s going to feel to share her moment, when she thinks about the day the rest of the world will finally know what happened—when her moment will become a full-fledged point of pride. She imagines standing in front of all the women burning for Jin, the women who fantasize about him. She clears her throat and comes out with it as if delivering the best news they’ve ever heard: I had sex with Jin, Jin the Actor. In bed, in the middle of the afternoon, fair and square.

On Saki’s side table is a magazine with Jin’s face on the cover. Last weekend, at the drugstore, there were some young women—younger than Saki—who picked up that magazine and sighed audibly at Jin’s image. “Hey, maybe you don’t know this,” she imagines saying, “but I’ve slept with him.” Saki pictures herself smiling, resting a hand on one of their shoulders as she sets the record straight. But why bother? If you really think about it (or even if you don’t) these random girls don’t have what it takes to process what I’m saying. They don’t deserve my moment. Drugstore girls caught up in fantasy could never in a million years comprehend why the only man who could make all their boredom and talentlessness and emptiness go away would sleep with some other woman and not them. There’s no way they could accept that a woman who’s actually been with Jin were standing right in front of them in some drugstore, of all the places in the world, because it had always been distance that made them jealous, that made things unbearable. The confusion swirling in their throats would soon turn to hate, and they’d direct those feelings at me, even though they’ve got nothing to do with me or my moment—so why should I go out of my way to let them in?

Saki’s in ecstasy. Who really deserves her moment? Lying in a bed warmed in places by the afternoon heat of her own body, she shuts her eyes and sinks deeper into her moment. That moment. The firm bulge of his bicep against her cheek. That moment. The smell of his armpit. That moment. The soft curls of dark brown hair on the back of his neck. That moment. The heft of his penis as he slept. But for some reason, Jin’s face—that wonderful face, the thing that makes Jin Jin—escapes her. Saki grabs the magazine from her side table and studies the cover. Right, that’s right. She lets out a sigh of relief. The moment continues to warm her as it radiates outward toward its intended targets. It enters them and starts to move, bringing them even more pleasure. Yes, it reaches those women, the women who have had sex with Jin. Saki imagines them coming together in a beautiful ring, with Jin’s penis taking the middle. The women stroke each other’s hair and kiss, they put their arms around each other’s hips and use their fingers. They moan as they look after Jin’s penis in the right way. Again and again, they bring their triumphant moments and watch them grow; they make each other wet with their tireless enthusiasm and the circle expands little by little. Saki’s ecstasy gains speed as she thinks about the women drowning in a swamp of their own hatred, the women who could never enter the circle. Yes, this is what she’ll do with her moment. And when she’s done, it’ll be out in the open for all to see. She’ll make sure that the rest of the world properly documents her moment. Then she’ll do it again. She’ll stand in front of the others, the women who think that burning for Jin can keep their hard, shriveled, useless desires alive. She’ll hold one hand high and clear her throat, then smile as she expresses her thanks. In bed, in the middle of the afternoon, all alone.

 

Who’s Eating Emma’s Grapes?

Emma had never gone grape picking. Even in her dreams, she thought it was odd to dream about picking grapes. Picking grapes? This wasn’t the first time, either. For whatever reason, she had this dream all the time. At some point, Emma always found herself in the dream. Was there some sort of pattern to it? Maybe, Emma thought, maybe not. She couldn’t be sure.

You can’t pick grapes without grapevines. So, whenever Emma had the dream, she was in the fields, where the trees were planted neatly in rows. Their leaves formed a thick canopy under which the grapes were hanging down in bunches. Sometimes, when Emma looked up from a certain angle, she could see patches of sky through the web of leaves. The clumps of grapes changed color, from light green to blue or purple. Lovingly, the overlapping leaves looked after their charges. Emma had a hard time finding the words to express what the leaves had given her and how. It was much more than shelter. More like home. On summer afternoons when the merciless sun burned brightest, the leaves shaded her; on winter nights when the wind and rain hit hardest, the leaves shielded her.

After a couple of years, the flower parts dropped from Emma’s head. Then, one year, when the smell of autumn filled the fields, Emma’s body began to change, just like the others. In time she became a cluster, full of color. Emma didn’t know how many grapes she was or how big. She didn’t know what color she was or how sweet. But she saw other grapes dangling nearby and figured she probably looked something like them. Then, one day, the men showed up. In the distance, Emma could see their wives and children and babies. She saw old women, too. The men approached with tiny clippers in their hands, baskets on their shoulders and at their hips. The men pushed back the leaves and went right for the berries. Thick fingers held the grapes as they were snipped free and tossed into the baskets until there was no room left. The men hadn’t noticed Emma behind the leaves, but the other grapes were all taken away. Years of intertwining vines were ruthlessly undone in a matter of moments. The land was utterly spoiled and autumn’s abundance was gone. Emma was alone. Then a boy came. He looked up at her. Emma’s grapes were just out of his reach, but he stood on his toes and grabbed the lowest of her fruits. He tore the grape loose and popped it into his mouth. He peeled off the skin with his tongue, then spit it out onto the ground. He did it again, over and over, picking berries from Emma’s bunch until she was reduced to a single grape. Even on his tiptoes, the boy couldn’t reach the last one. In frustration, he leapt up with everything he had and managed to land holding Emma’s final grape. She was crushed in the boy’s hand. Juice dripped between his fingers, down his wrist. Men and women in the distance called to the boy. There was nothing left of Emma now but a flimsy stem, which the boy flicked into the dirt at his feet. He wiped Emma’s indigo stain on the back of his pants and ran off. The days went by and Emma dried up. She could feel herself becoming indistinguishable from the earth—when she woke up on the couch. It was two in the afternoon. She rubbed her eyes and turned over. She had no memory of having been a grape, but the vineyards still echoed quietly within her. I’ve never even gone grape picking, she told herself, back at the edge of sleep. The gentle shadow of a single leaf fell over her trembling eyelids. Emma was back at the beginning of the dream.

 

Translated by David Boyd.

Mieko Kawakami is the author of Breasts and Eggs. Her novel Heaven is on the short list for the 2022 International Booker Prize, and her most recently translated novel is All the Lovers in the Night. She lives in Tokyo. This week, she headlines two events in the 2022 PEN World Voices Festival in New York: “Writing in the Country of Women,” with Leïla Slimani, and “World Voices: An Evening of International Poetry.” For more information about the festival, please visit worldvoices.pen.org.
David Boyd is an assistant professor of Japanese at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. With Sam Bett, he is cotranslating the novels of Mieko Kawakami. 

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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