Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami
If you want to know how poor somebody was growing up, ask them how many windows they had. Don’t ask what was in their fridge or in their closet. The number of windows says it all. It says everything. If they had none, or maybe one or two, that’s all you need to know.
I remember telling this to someone once. I can’t remember who it was, but she really went off on me. “Come on, though. What if you have one window, but it’s huge, with a garden view or something? You know, like one of those really nice big windows. How could that mean you’re poor?”
But as far as I’m concerned, no one who’s ever been poor could think like that. A garden view? A nice big window? Who has a garden, though? And what the hell could make a window “nice”?
For poor people, window size isn’t even a concept. Nobody has a view. A window is just a blurry pane of glass hidden behind cramped plywood shelves. Who knows if the thing even opens. It’s a greasy rectangle by the broken extractor fan that your family’s never used and never will.
You only know what it means to be poor, or have the right to talk about it, if you’ve been there yourself. Maybe you’re poor now. Maybe you were poor in the past. I’m both. I was born poor, and I’m still poor.
What got me thinking about all of this again was the girl sitting across from me. The Yamanote Line was weirdly empty for a summer day. Everyone kept to themselves, staring at their phones or reading paperbacks.
The girl must have been eight, maybe ten. On her left was a young guy with a bag of sports gear at his feet, and to her right was a pair of older girls wearing headbands with big black ribbons. She looked alone.
This kid was way too skinny. Her dark skin made the patches of psoriasis even harder to overlook. Gray shorts, legs as skinny as the arms poking from her turquoise tank top. Her lips were tight and her shoulders were stiff—she reminded me of myself as a kid. That got me thinking about what it means to be poor.
I looked at the stretched neck of her tank top and her faded trainers, which must have started off as white. How awful would it be if she opened her mouth and all of her teeth were rotten. I realized that she had no bag. No backpack, no handbag, no purse. Does she have her money and her ticket in her pocket? I had no idea how girls her age dressed when they had to take the train, but the fact that she had nothing with her left me worried.
I had the urge to get up from my seat and go say something to her, something no one else would understand, like the little notes you write down in a corner of your notebook knowing that no one else could read them. But what could I say? Maybe something about that coarse-looking hair of hers, stuck in place, or maybe her skin. Your psoriasis will clear up when you’re older. Don’t let it get to you. What if I asked her about her windows? I never had the kind of windows you could see out of. Do you?
I checked my watch. Noon on the dot. The train rolled through the languid summer heat. From the overhead speaker, a muffled voice announced that the next stop would be Kanda. At the station, the doors opened with a sound like something being punctured, and a drunk old man staggered onto the train. The passengers around him backed away instinctively. He let out a low moan. His gray beard, fraying like steel wool, hung in a tangled mass over the buttons of his punished uniform. He clutched a badly beaten clear umbrella in one hand and reached up for a strap with the other but stumbled when he missed. The door closed, and the train pushed off. When I looked back, the girl was gone.
Setting foot in Tokyo Station, I stopped short at the sight of all the people. Where were they coming from? Where were they going? It looked more like some strange competition than a crowd. I had the lonely feeling that I was the only one around who didn’t know the rules. Gripping the strap of my tote bag for dear life, I tried to breathe.
My first visit to Tokyo Station was ten years earlier, the summer I turned twenty. It was a day like today, when you can never wipe off all the sweat.
I showed up lugging maybe ten books by my favorite authors, which I could easily have shipped ahead with the rest of my belongings, like any normal person, but insisted on keeping with me at all times, as if they kept me safe, carrying them inside this stupidly heavy-duty giant backpack that I stared at forever and finally bought at a used clothing store when I was in high school (and still use on occasion). That was 1998. Ten years now. I seriously doubt at twenty that I saw myself, in my vague dreams for the future, still being in Tokyo at thirty. No one reads my work (my blog, collecting dust in a corner of the internet, gets one or two visitors on a good day), and none of it has made it into print. Forget about readers, I barely have friends. I’m still in the same apartment with the slanted, peeling walls and the same overbearing afternoon sun, surviving off the same minimum wage job, working full time for not a whole lot more than 100,000 yen a month, and still writing and writing, with no idea of whether it’s ever going to get me anywhere. My life was like a dusty shelf in an old bookstore, where every volume was exactly where it had been for ages, the only discernible change being that my body has aged another ten years…
Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd, is published by Picador (£14.99, paperback original. Available to purchase here).
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