Hello. Fats here.
It’s still June 5th on my side of the globe so, technically, it’s still my birthday! While I spent most of the day sleeping (thank you, graveyard shift, this is all your fault), I’ve been thinking about what to share with you today. I originally thought about posting a review, but stress never helps me focus. This morning, after responding to so many Facebook greetings, I was searching for any birthday-related stuff on the Internet and I stumbled upon a short story by a favorite Japanese writer: Birthday Girl by Haruki Murakami. I started reading it and found out that the girl in the narrative was celebrating her twentieth birthday—at work. Coincidence?
Before I share with you Murakami’s brilliant work, here’s my Photo Story of the Day:
Meet Gemma the giraffe, a cute little plush toy from Luvvies™ that my patient handed me this morning as a birthday present. She said, “I loved you the most since I got admitted here because I love your name, like the blessed Lady of Fatima.” She hugged me so tight that it felt like she would never let go. She did. With watery eyes. She was so sweet I just about died. =)
Now, this is where the fun begins…
As we continue to celebrate stories From Asia with Love, I’ve decided to share a short story for my birthday. Birthday Girl is a short story written by Haruki Murakami specifically for a collection of short stories written by various writers (him, included, of course) on the theme of “birthdays.” Though not a die hard Murakami fan like Iphigene, I enjoy reading Murakami’s works. I’ve gotten so used to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s fantastical stories that it wasn’t hard at all to embrace the surrealist nature of Murakami’s writing. I remember reading Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, thanks to Iphigene’s recommendation, and have loved his writing since. I am especially fond of Murakami’s short stories (as I am with Neil Gaiman’s), and my favorite book to this day is his collection entitled “After the Quake.” During my recent trip to the Philippines, I purchased Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase with a beautiful cover published by Vintage.
Expect the unexpected whenever you read a story written by Haruki Murakami. Better yet, don’t expect anything at all. I will tell you now that Birthday Girl is one of those stories that are open for interpretation, where the plot is not entirely revealed to the readers. When I read this, I thought about a short story I’ve read in high school called The Lady or the Tiger by Frank Stockton. There is the thrill of wanting to know more and, perhaps, the slight frustration of not knowing everything.
And so, I invite you all to take some time to relax and enjoy this day with me.
Here’s a little something out of the ordinary…
Birthday girl. (Story).
Harper’s Magazine, July, 2003, by Haruki Murakami
She waited on tables as usual that day, her twentieth birthday. She always worked on Fridays, but if things had gone according to plan that particular Friday, she would have had the night off. The other part-time girl had agreed to switch shifts with her as a matter of course: being screamed at by an angry chef while lugging pumpkin gnocchi and seafood fritto to customers’ tables was not a normal way to spend one’s twentieth birthday. But the other girl had aggravated a cold and gone to bed with unstoppable diarrhea and a fever of 104, so she ended up working after all on short notice.
She found herself trying to comfort the sick girl, who had called to apologize. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “I wasn’t going to do anything special anyway, even if it is my twentieth birthday.”
And in fact she was not all that disappointed. One reason was the terrible argument she had had a few days earlier with the boyfriend who was supposed to be with her that night. They had been going together since high school, and the argument had started from nothing much. But it had taken an unexpected turn for the worse until it became a long and bitter shouting match–one bad enough, she was pretty sure, to have snapped their long-standing ties once and for all. Something inside her had turned rock-hard and died. He had not called her since the blowup, and she was not about to call him.
Her workplace was one of the better-known Italian restaurants in the tony Roppongi district of Tokyo. It had been in business since the late sixties, and, although its cuisine was hardly leading edge, its high reputation was fully justified. It had many repeat customers, and they were never disappointed. The dining room had a calm, relaxed atmosphere without a hint of pushiness. Rather than a young crowd, the restaurant drew an older clientele that included some famous stage people and writers.
The two full-time waiters worked six days a week. She and the other part-time waitress were students who took turns working three clays each. In addition there was one floor manager and, at the register, a skinny middle-aged woman who supposedly had been there since the restaurant opened–literally sitting in the one place, it seemed, like some gloomy old character from Little Dorrit. She had exactly two functions: to accept payment from the guests and to answer the phone. She spoke only when necessary and always wore the same black dress. There was something cold and hard about her: if you set her afloat on the nighttime sea, she could probably sink any boat that happened to ram her.
The floor manager was perhaps in his late forties. Tall and broad-shouldered, his build suggested that he had been a sportsman in his youth, but excess flesh was now beginning to accumulate on his belly and chin. His short, stiff hair was thinning at the crown, and a special aging-bachelor smell clung to him–like newsprint that had been stored for a while in a drawer with cough drops. She had a bachelor uncle who smelled like that.
The manager always wore a black suit, white shirt, and bow tie–not a snap-on bow tie but the real thing, tied by hand. It was a point of pride for him that he could tie it perfectly without looking in the mirror. His job consisted in checking the arrival and departure of guests, keeping the reservation situation in mind, knowing the names of regular customers, greeting them with a smile, lending a respectful ear to any customers’ complaints, giving expert advice on wines, and overseeing the work of the waiters and waitresses. He performed his duties adroitly day after day. It was also his special task to deliver dinner to the room of the restaurant’s owner.
“The owner had his own room on the sixth floor of the same building where the restaurant was,” she said. “An apartment or office or something.”
Somehow she and I had gotten onto the subject of our twentieth birthdays–what sort of day it had been for each of us. Most people remember the day they turned twenty. Hers had happened more than ten years earlier.
“He never, ever showed his face in the restaurant, though. The only one who saw him was the manager. It was strictly his job to deliver the owner’s dinner to him. None of the other employees knew what he looked like.”
“So, basically, the owner was getting home delivery from his own restaurant.”
“Right,” she said. “Every night at eight the manager had to bring dinner to the owner’s room. It was the restaurant’s busiest time, so having the manager disappear just then was always a problem for us, but there was no way around it because that was the way it had always been done. They’d load the dinner onto one of those carts that hotels use for room service, the manager would push it onto the elevator wearing a respectful look on his face, and fifteen minutes later he’d come back empty-handed. Then, an hour later, he’d go up again and bring down the cart with empty plates and glasses. Like clockwork, every day. I thought it was really weird the first time I saw it happen. It was like some kind of religious ritual, you know? After a while I got used to it, though, and never gave it another thought.”
The owner always had chicken. The recipe and the vegetable sides were a little different every day, but the main dish was always chicken. A young chef once told her that he had tried sending up the same exact roast chicken every day for a week just to see what would happen, but there was never any complaint. Of course, a chef wants to try different ways of preparing things, and each new chef would challenge himself with every technique for chicken that he could think of. They’d make elegant sauces, they’d try chickens from different suppliers, but none of their efforts had any effect: they might just as well have been throwing pebbles into an empty cave. Every one of them gave up and sent the owner some really standard chicken dish every day. That’s all that was ever asked of them.
Work started out as usual on her twentieth birthday, November 17. It had been raining on and off since the afternoon, and pouring since early evening. At five o’clock the manager gathered the employees together to explain the day’s specials. Servers were required to memorize them word for word and not use crib sheets: veal Milanese, pasta topped with sardines and cabbage, chestnut mousse. Sometimes the manager would take the part of a customer and test them with questions. Then came the employees’ meal: waiters in this restaurant were not going to have growling stomachs as they stood there taking customers’ orders!
The restaurant opened its doors at six o’clock, but guests were slow to arrive because of the downpour, and several reservations were simply canceled. Women didn’t want their dresses ruined by the rain. The manager walked around tight-lipped, and the waiters killed time polishing the salt and pepper shakers or chatting with the chef about cooking. She surveyed the dining room with its single couple at a table and listened to the harpsichord music flowing discreetly from ceiling speakers. A deep smell of late-autumn rain worked its way into the restaurant. It was after seven-thirty when the manager started feeling sick. He stumbled over to a chair and sat there for a while pressing his stomach, as if he had suddenly been shot. A greasy sweat clung to his forehead. “I think I’d better go to the hospital,” he muttered. For him to have medical problems was a most unusual occurrence: he had never missed a day since he started working in this restaurant more than ten years earlier. It was another point of pride for him that he had never been out with illness or injury, but his painful grimace made it clear that he was in very bad shape.
She stepped outside with an umbrella and hailed a cab. One of the waiters held the manager steady and climbed into the car with him to take him to a nearby hospital. Before ducking into the cab, the manager said to her hoarsely, “I want you to take a dinner up to room 604 at eight o’clock. All you have to do is ring the bell, say, ‘Your dinner is here,’ and leave it.”
“That’s room 604, right?” she said.
“At eight o’clock,” he repeated. “On the dot.” He grimaced again, climbed in, and the taxi took him away.
The rain showed no signs of letting up after the manager was gone, and customers arrived at long intervals. No more than one or two tables were occupied at a time, so if the manager and one waiter had to be absent, this was a good time for it to happen. Things could get so busy that it was not unusual for even the full staff to have trouble coping.
When the owner’s meal was ready at eight o’clock, she pushed the room-service cart onto the elevator and rode up to the sixth floor. It was the standard meal for him: a half bottle of red wine with the cork loosened, a thermal pot of coffee, a chicken entree with steamed vegetables, dinner rolls, and butter. The heavy aroma of cooked chicken quickly filled the little elevator. It mingled with the smell of rain. Water droplets dotted the floor of the elevator, suggesting that someone with a wet umbrella had recently been aboard.
She pushed the cart down the corridor, bringing it to a stop in front of the door marked “604.” She double-checked her memory: 604. That was it. She cleared her throat and pressed the button by the door.
There was no answer. She stood in place for a good twenty seconds. Just as she was thinking of pressing the bell again, the door opened inward and a skinny old man appeared. He was shorter than she was, by some four or five inches. He had on a dark suit and a necktie. Against his white shirt, the tie stood out distinctly with its brownish-yellow coloring like withered leaves. He made a very clean impression, his clothes perfectly pressed, his white hair smoothed down: he looked as though he were about to go out for the night to some sort of gathering. The deep wrinkles that creased his brow made her think of deep ravines in an aerial photograph.
“Your dinner, sir,” she said in a husky voice, then quietly cleared her throat again. Her voice grew husky whenever she was tense.
“Yes, sir. The manager suddenly took sick. I had to take his place today. Your meal, sir.”
“Oh, I see,” the old man said, almost as if talking to himself, his hand still perched on the doorknob. “Took sick, eh? You don’t say.”
“His stomach started to hurt him all of a sudden. He went to the hospital. He thinks he might have appendicitis.” “Oh, that’s not good,” the old man said, running his fingers along the wrinkles of his forehead. “Not good at all.”
She cleared her throat again. “Shall I bring your meal in, sir?” she asked.
“Ah yes, of course,” the old man said. “Yes, of course, if you wish. That’s fine with me.”
If I wish? she thought. What a strange way to put it. What am I supposed to wish?
You may read the rest of the short story here.
I purposely stopped on the last passage because online discussions about the story focused on what the girl could have possibly wished for. If you’ve read the entire story, what do YOU think the girl wished for? I’ve only read this story once, earlier today. Maybe if I read it several more times, I’d be able to figure something out. For now, I admit defeat. I am at a loss as to what the girl could have possibly wished for. I do have something to say about it, though. I think that the girl’s wish is quite insignificant. It matters not what she wished for. What matters is who she became and what she had done in her life years later.
I had a low-key birthday celebration this year, even more low-key than the last few years. Birthdays are best celebrated in the company of good friends. I’ll be sure to have some good time with some friends after this week. As for my birthday wish, I ask the same things every year: good health and more love. Also, I need to find myself a birthday cake, so I can blow my candles madly like this little girl: