My cousin and I held on to the straps and poles. The bus was brand-new, straight from the factory, the metal surfaces so shiny you could see your face reflected in them. The nap of the seats was all fluffy, and even the tiniest of screws had that proud, expectant feeling that only brand-new machinery possesses.
The new bus, and the way it was unexpectedly crowded, threw me off. Maybe the bus route had changed since I last rode it. I looked carefully around the bus and glanced outside. But it was the same old view of a quiet residential district I remembered well.
"This is the right bus, isn't it?" my cousin asked worriedly. Ever since we got aboard I must have had a perplexed look on my face.
"Not to worry," I said, trying to reassure myself as much as him. "There's only one bus route that goes by here, so this has got to be it."
"Did you used to take this bus when you went to high school?" my cousin asked.
"Yeah, that's right."
"Did you like school?"
"Not particularly," I said. "But I could see my friends there, and it wasn't such a long ride."
My cousin thought about what I'd said.
"Do you still see them?"
"No, not for a long time," I said, choosing my words carefully.
"Why not? Why don't you see them?"
" 'Cause we live so far away from each other." That wasn't the reason, but I couldn't think of any other way to explain it.
Right beside me sat a group of old people. Must have been close to fifteen of them. They were the reason the bus was crowded, I suddenly realized. They were all suntanned, even the backs of their necks dark. And every single one of them was skinny. Most of the men had on thick mountain-climbing types of shirts; the women, simple, unadorned blouses. All of them had small rucksacks in their laps, the kind you'd use for short hikes into the hills. It was amazing how much they looked alike. Like a drawer full of samples of something, all neatly lined up. The strange thing, though, was that there wasn't any mountain-climbing route along this bus line. So where in the world could they have been going? I thought about this as I stood there, clinging to the strap, but no plausible explanation came to mind.
"I wonder if it's going to hurt this time-the treatments?" my cousin asked me.
"I don't know," I said. "I didn't hear any of the details."
"Have you ever been to an ear doctor?"
I shook my head. I hadn't been to an ear doctor once in my life.
"Has it hurt before?" I asked.
"Not really," my cousin said glumly. "It wasn't totally painless, of course; sometimes it hurt a little. But nothing terrible."
"Maybe this time it'll be the same. Your mom said they're not going to do anything much different from usual."
"But if they do the same as always, how's that going to help?"
"Well, you never know. Sometimes the unexpected happens."
"You mean like pulling out a cork?" my cousin said. I glanced at him, but didn't detect any sarcasm.
"It'll feel different having a new doctor treat you, and sometimes just a slight change in procedure might make all the difference. I wouldn't give up so easily."
"I'm not giving up," my cousin said.
"But you are kind of fed up with it?"
"I guess," he said, and sighed. "The fear is the worst thing. The pain I imagine is worse than the actual pain. Know what I mean?"
"Yeah, I know."
A lot of things had happened that spring. A situation developed at work and I ended up quitting my job at a little advertising firm in Tokyo where I'd been working for two years. Around the same time I broke up with my girlfriend; we'd been going out since college. A month after that my grandmother died of intestinal cancer, and for the first time in five years I came back to this town, small suitcase in hand. My old room was just as I'd left it. The books I'd read were still on the shelf, my bed was still there, my desk, and all the old records I used to listen to. But everything in the room had dried up, had long ago lost its color and smell. Time alone had stood still.
Translated by Philip Gabriel. Copyright (c) 2006 by Haruki Murakami
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