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THE AFTERNOON APPEARS CALM, and yet time is waiting to pounce. Mr. Watanabe rummages in his pockets as though missing items might respond to insistence. Due to what is becoming a habitual carelessness, he has left his transit pass and glasses at home: he can clearly visualize them next to each other on the table, mocking him. He walks irritably toward the machines. While he is carrying out the transaction, he observes a group of young tourists reacting with bewilderment at the tangle of stations. They are making calculations. The numbers emerge from their mouths, rise, and disperse. Clearing his throat, he glances back at the screen. Vaguely hostile, the youngsters look at him. Mr. Watanabe listens to them deliberating in their own language, a melodic, emphatic one that he knows well. He considers the possibility of helping them, as he has so many visitors overwhelmed by the Tokyo subway. But it’s almost a quarter to three, he has a sore back and wants to go home. And, to be honest, he doesn’t sympathize with these young people. He wonders if he’s simply become unaccustomed to the shouting and the gesticulations he once found so liberating. Half listening to their foreign syntax, he pays for his ticket then walks away. He notices the Friday smell, a cocktail of weariness and anticipation. As the escalator descends, he contemplates those platforms that will gradually be filling up. He’s glad he didn’t take a taxi. At this time of day there is still room in the trains. He’s aware that soon the last passengers to arrive will be pushing against the backs of those who arrived ahead of them, and that the attentive subway officials will step forward to cram them in. Until the doors interrupt the flow, like someone clipping the sea. To push one another, Watanabe reflects, is an unusually sincere way of communicating. At that very instant, the escalator steps start to vibrate. The vibration intensifies to a tremor, and the tremor gives way to unmistakable juddering. Mr. Watanabe is engulfed by a feeling that none of what is going on is actually happening to him. His vision blurs. Then he feels the floor cease to be a floor.
The young tourists study the subway map, its multicolored pipework. They are confused by the overlapping trains, the crossword of public and private lines. They try to calculate how many yen each of them will need. At the next machine, an old man clears his throat. The youngest boy among the tourists suggests that the old man could help them instead of staring so much at the girls. Another adds that if he goes on staring like that he could at least pay for their tickets. One of the girls retorts that this boy seems even dumber than usual today. Which, she points out, raising a finger, is saying something. The tourists insert a cascade of coins, while the old Japanese man disappears. Another girl reveals her preference for the coins with a hole in the middle. The youngest boy compares it to the piercing he himself carries on a certain part of his anatomy. Her friend’s hand slaps the back of his head: his hair becomes an asterisk. Their shouts and laughter startle people around them. The tourists become aware of a collective murmur, a strange precision prevailing among the crowd. They try, without much success, to control themselves as they run toward the escalators. They’re astonished that no one bumps into one another, at the way everybody respects the regulations. The more experienced of the group opines that in his country this could be achieved only by threats. What threatens the Japanese? When they feel the first vibrations, the youngsters blame the flexibility of the architecture. Not at all like the stations in their own country. The tremors grow more pronounced. With a mixture of panic and surprise, the tourists can’t decide whether the other passengers are silent because they’re so calm, or because they’re counting how long the tremors last. One of the young women remembers what happened a year ago in her own city, when she counted up to a hundred. And as she feels the ground shake, she begins to experience an increasing sense of déjà vu, as if each jolt were taking place a little deeper inside her head, infusing memories.
Shoes alternate at different levels, improvising musical scores. Feet are Friday’s metronome. As the escalators transport them, the passengers contemplate the platforms that will soon be filling up. Some vaguely notice Mr. Watanabe. One of them studies his clothes, which seem bizarre or somehow out of place. The inertia of the descent takes over, the hum is a mantra. All of a sudden, the hum changes frequency. The looks pull away from their vanishing points. The escalators respond like leaden streamers. Farther below, the temporal dimension splits into two: the trains don’t move, and the passengers start to run. Even the staff appear anxious. They know that anything up to twenty seconds is a tremor, and more than twenty is something serious. Trying to calm himself, one of the guards calls for calm. A language teacher thinks she is witnessing a terrifying tautology: an earthquake is like a train passing close to your feet, yet her train had already arrived. Behind her, the same man who was struck by Watanabe’s clothes is overcome by a sense of incredulous fragility. There’s nothing to hold on to. He reneges on all his certainties. Directly above his head, on the other side of the vaulted roof, a young cyclist tilts over and falls to the asphalt, still pedaling.
The nerves of the pipes run along the roof. The leaks rehearse their future appearance, form layers of time on the architecture. Weight is distributed evenly on the escalator: some passengers go up, others come down. The forces are aligned. Energies cooperate. When the escalator starts to vibrate, and the vibration intensifies to a tremor, and the tremor gives way to unmistakable juddering, each shape fragments into a jumble of lines. Every object is in hiatus. Doubt prowls the platforms. The underground expresses itself in the underground. Like dice changing their numbers, the walls calculate the throw. A black spot amid innumerable spots, Mr. Watanabe raises one of his shoes.
The objects on the ground play their own game. They move one square and wait their turn. The air currents create eddies, microscopic disturbances. A scrap of paper, an unsuccessful origami, is dragged along. That ice cream melting on the platform used to be round. A lighter offers itself to passing bits of fluff. Next to the machines, two earbuds hanker after their ears. They fell out of Mr. Watanabe’s pockets as he went over irritably to purchase his ticket. When the floor ceases to be a floor, the earbuds snake among the footsteps: a stampede in stereo. The lighter bounces, summons its flame. The blob of ice cream lengthens its trail. The scrap of paper relaxes, unfurling a text that no one reads.
The subway’s even light pours over things. Each neon bulb emits its dose of anesthesia. The entire space floats in an electric liquid. Shadows drift amid whistles that guide them like buoys. All at once, Watanabe’s vision blurs. Reality becomes an intermittence, the vibrating blink of an eye splintered into myriad eyes. Then the noise remains. Only the noise. A broken music, captured possibly by the earbuds. Every spoon tapping in unison against its cup. A nutcracker the size of the country. The subterranean protest. And, in the background, the ancestral sound of strings twanging, like a boat caught in a storm.
An earthquake fractures the present, shatters perspective, shifts memory plates.
Copyright © 2018 by Andrés Neuman
Translation copyright © 2020 by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia