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In the six years I went to elementary school, I met just one other only child. So I rememberher (yes, it was a girl) very well. I got to know her well, and we talked about all sorts of things.We understood each other. You could even say I loved her.
Her last name was Shimamoto. Soon after she was born, she came down with polio, whichmade her drag her left leg. On top of that, she’d transferred to our school at the end of fifthgrade. Compared to me, then, she had a terrible load of psychological baggage to strugglewith. This baggage, though, only made her a tougher, more self-possessed only child than Icould ever have been. She never whined or complained, never gave any indication of theannoyance she must have felt at times. No matter what happened, she’d manage a smile. Theworse things got, in fact, the broader her smile became. I loved her smile. It soothed me,encouraged me. It’ll be all right her smile told me. Just hang in there, and everything will turnout okay. Years later, whenever I thought of her, it was her smile that came to mind first.
Shimamoto always got good grades and was kind to everyone. People respected her. We wereboth only children, but in this sense she and I were different. This doesn’t mean, though, thatall our classmates liked her. No one teased her or made fun of her, but except for me, she hadno real friends.
She was probably too cool, too self-possessed. Some of our classmates must have thought hercold and haughty. But I detected something else- something warm and fragile just below thesurface. Something very much like a child playing hide-and-seek, hidden deep within her, yethoping to be found.
Because her father was transferred a lot, Shimamoto had attended quite a few schools. I can’trecall what her father did. Once, she explained to me in detail what he did, but as with mostkids, it went in one ear and out the other. I seem to recall some professional job connectedwith a bank or tax office or something. She lived in company housing, but the house was largerthan normal, a Western-style house with a low solid stone wall surrounding it. Above the wallwas an evergreen hedge, and through gaps in the hedge you could catch a glimpse of agarden with a lawn.
Shimamoto was a large girl, about as tall as I was, with striking features. I was certain that ina few years she would be gorgeous. But when I first met her, she hadn’t developed an outerlook to match her inner qualities. Something about her was unbalanced, and not many peoplefelt she was much to look at. There was an adult part of her and a part that was still a child-andthey were out of sync. And this out-of-sync quality made people uneasy.
Probably because our houses were so close, literally a stone’s throw from each other, the firstmonth after she came to our school she was assigned to the seat next to mine. I brought herup to speed on what texts she’d need, what the weekly tests were like, how much we’d coveredin each book, how the cleaning and the dishing-out-lunch assignments were handled. Ourschool’s policy was for the child who lived nearest any transfer student to help him or her out;my teacher took me aside to let me know that he expected me to take special care ofShimamoto, with her lame leg.
As with all kids of eleven or twelve talking with a member of the opposite sex for the first time,for a couple of days our conversations were strained. When we found out we were both onlychildren, though, we relaxed. It was the first time either of us had met a fellow only child. Wehad so much we’d held inside about being only children. Often we’d walk home together. Slowly,because of her leg, we’d walk the three quarters of a mile home, talking about all kinds ofthings. The more we talked, the more we realized we had in common: our love of books andmusic; not to mention cats. We both had a hard time explaining our feelings to others. Weboth had a long list of foods we didn’t want to eat. When it came to subjects at school, theones we liked we had no trouble concentrating on; the ones we disliked we hated to death. Butthere was one major difference between us – more than I did, Shimamoto consciouslywrapped herself inside a protective shell. Unlike me, she made an effort to study the subjectsshe hated, and she got good grades. When the school lunch contained food she hated, shestill ate it. In other words, she constructed a much taller defensive wall around herself than Iever built. What remained behind that wall, though, was pretty much what lay behind mine.
Unlike times when I was with other girls, I could relax with Shimamoto. I loved walking homewith her. Her left leg limped slightly as she walked. We sometimes took a breather on a parkbench halfway home, but I didn’t mind. Rather the opposite-I was glad to have the extra time.
Soon we began to spend a lot of time together, but I don’t recall anyone kidding us about itThis didn’t strike me at the time, though now it seems strange. After all, kids that age naturallytease and make fun of any couple who seem close. It might have been because of the kind ofperson Shimamoto was. Something about her made other people a bit tense. She had an airabout her that made people think: Whoa-better not say anything too stupid in front of this girl.Even our teachers were somewhat on edge when dealing with her. Her lameness might havehad something to do with it. At any rate, most people thought Shimamoto was not the kind ofperson you teased, which was just fine by me.
During phys. ed. she sat on the sidelines, and when our class went hiking or mountain climbing,she stayed home. Same with summer swim camp. On our annual sports day, she did seem alittle out of sorts. But other than this, her school life was typical. Hardly ever did she mentionher leg. If memory serves, not even once. Whenever we walked home from school together, shenever once apologized for holding me back or let this thought graze her expression. I knew,though, that it was precisely because her leg bothered her that she refrained from mentioningit. She didn’t like to go to other kids’ homes much, since she’d have to remove her shoes,Japanese style, at the entrance. The heels of her shoes were different heights, and the shoesthemselves were shaped differently – something she wanted at all costs to conceal. Must havebeen custom-made shoes. When she arrived at her own home, the first thing she did was tossher shoes in the closet as fast as she could.
Shimamoto’s house had a brand-new stereo in the living room, and I used to go over to herplace to listen to music. It was a pretty nice stereo. Her father’s LP collection, though, didn’tdo it justice. At most he had fifteen records, chiefly collections of light classics. We listened tothose fifteen records a thousand times, and even today I can recall the music-every single note.
Shimamoto was in charge of the records. She’d take one from its jacket place it carefully on theturntable without touching the grooves with her fingers, and, after making sure to brush thecartridge free of any dust with a tiny brush, lower the needle ever so gently onto the record.When the record was finished, she’d spray it and wipe it with a felt cloth. Finally she’d returnthe record to its jacket and its proper place on the shelf. Her father had taught her thisprocedure, and she followed his instructions with a terribly serious look on her face, her eyesnarrowed, her breath held in check. Meanwhile, I was on the sofa, watching her every move.Only when the record was safely back on the shelf did she turn to me and give a little smile.And every time, this thought hit me: It wasn’t a record she was handling. It was a fragile soulinside a glass bottle.
In my house we didn’t have records or a record player. My parents didn’t care much for music.So I was always listening to music on a small plastic AM radio. Rock and roll was my favorite,but before long I grew to enjoy Shimamoto’s brand of classical music. This was music fromanother world, which had its appeal, but more than that I loved it because she was a part ofthat world. Once or twice a week, she and I would sit on the sofa, drinking the tea her mothermade for us, and spend the afternoon listening to Rossini overtures, Beethoven’s Pastorale,and the Peer Gynt Suite. Her mother was happy to have me over. She was pleased herdaughter had a friend so soon after transferring to a new school, and I guess it helped that Iwas a neat dresser. Honestly, I couldn’t bring myself to like her mother very much. Noparticular reason. I felt that way. She was always nice to me. But I could detect a hint ofirritation in her voice, and it put me on edge.
Of all her father’s records, the one I liked best was a recording of the Liszt piano concertos:one concerto on each side. There were two reasons I liked this record. First of all, the recordjacket was beautiful. Second, no one around me – with the exception of Shimamoto, ofcourse-ever listened to Liszt’s piano concertos. The very idea excited me. I’d found a world thatno one around me knew – a secret garden only I was allowed to enter. I felt elevated, lifted toanother plane of existence.
And the music itself was wonderful. At first it struck me as exaggerated, artificial, evenincomprehensible. Little by little, though, with repeated listenings, a vague image formed in mymind – an image that had meaning. When I closed my eyes and concentrated, the music cameto me as a series of whirlpools. One whirlpool would form, and out of it another would takeshape. And the second whirlpool would connect up with a third. Those whirlpools, I realizenow, had a conceptual, abstract quality to them. More than anything, I wanted to tellShimamoto about them. But they were beyond ordinary language. An entirely different set ofwords was needed, but I had no idea what these were. What’s more, I didn’t know if what I wasfeeling was worth putting into words. Unfortunately, I no longer remember the name of thepianist. All I recall are the colorful, vivid record jacket and the weight of the record itself. Therecord was hefty and thick in a mysterious way.
The collection in her house included one record each by Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby. Welistened to those two a lot. The Crosby disc featured Christmas songs, which we enjoyedregardless of the season. It’s funny how we could enjoy something like that over and over.