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Aoko Matsuda: Love Isn’t Easy When You’re the National Anthem

You were the only person in the whole building who wasn’t singing me.

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Image from Flickr via freeparking

By Aoko Matsuda
Brought to you by the Guernica/PEN Flash Series

The first time I noticed you was during the ceremony that marks the beginning of the school year. School begins in spring here, and they say it’s the season of new encounters. It’d been a long time since I’d felt any interest in the floods of new students, all wearing the same navy-blue uniform. After all, none of them were ever the least bit interested in me. I suppose I’m the type of guy who must offend people somehow. Still, no one can get away with avoiding me completely.

The ceremony went forward without a hitch. Then, it was my turn. When the teacher started playing the piano, all the students and teachers opened their mouths, and the sound of me filled the room. Such a boring, commonplace tune. But something was wrong. As I hung in the air over the heads of all the students, I tried to figure out what it was. Then I found the problem. It was you.

You were the only person in the whole building who wasn’t singing me. You see, I’m sensitive to such things—I can tell when someone is giving me the cold shoulder. It only takes one person to hurt my feelings. You were just facing forward, lips shut tight as all the others sang me. There you were, a smallish freshman in Class B, standing in the third row from the front. Your delicate Adam’s apple didn’t even budge. You stood there on the shiny, newly waxed floor looking like you didn’t belong. As I reverberated throughout the gymnasium, I grew more and more fascinated. I couldn’t help but admire how neatly your hair was trimmed along the nape of your neck. That was the beginning of my love for you.

You refused to sing me each of the handful of times we met over the next few years. The more you avoided me, the hotter I burned. I began to dream about the moment when things would click for the two of us. Just imagining your thin lips moving in my shape was enough to fill me with passion and make my sheet music turn bright red. What kind of song did I have to be for you to want to sing me? What’s wrong with me? Are my lyrics too hard to understand? Am I out of touch with the times? Am I uncool? Would you have sung me if I were one of those hip-hop songs everyone likes? My love for you was completely unrequited.

At the same time, I couldn’t help but admire the strong willpower in that tiny body of yours. I felt a strange sense of pride in you, and the irony of those feelings struck me as funny. You always dazzled me.

The inevitable day of our parting was approaching. On the day before you were set to graduate, we were in the middle of the graduation rehearsal when the student next to you noticed you were silent. His voice rang out through the auditorium. “Hey, this guy isn’t singing!” All the students turned. The teacher who was playing the piano accompaniment stood up and came over. “Why aren’t you singing? You know you’ve got to, right?” You kept your eyes lowered as he spoke. Ripples of laughter spread around you. The teacher put his hand on your shoulder, then returned to the piano bench.

The piano started again. I’m not sure if you were afraid of all the other students looking at you, but your mouth started moving along with my lyrics. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get aroused. You were singing me. This was the moment I’d been waiting for.

But my joy quickly turned into disappointment. I was wrong. You weren’t singing me after all. You were just faking it—just mouthing the words! The tiny movements of your lips as they opened and shut reminded me of a goldfish in an aquarium. I felt a feeling of pity come over me as I watched the uncertain movements of your mouth. You’d been pressed into a corner—you didn’t have any choice but to be dishonest, and it was all because of me. Realizing that made me incredibly sad. What on earth was the matter with me? I thought of all of my buddies out there in the world. Everyone is supposed to love us anthems, aren’t they? Things would have been so much easier if I were like my pal in Spain who doesn’t have any lyrics. That way you could’ve just stood there with your mouth closed and never been embarrassed. You were getting hurt, and I was responsible. The thought tormented me.

I spent all night worrying about you, but there was no way you would’ve known that. The next day, you didn’t sing me. Your eyes shone with fresh determination, and you kept your lips tightly sealed. I watched you stand up straight, so much taller than when I’d first seen you three years before. You stood tall and proud, refusing to sing, and moments later it was all over. You had graduated. You dazzled me right up to the end.

Why are the only people I ever fall in love with the ones who won’t sing me? The fading strains of my melody continued to linger in the empty gymnasium long after everyone had left, and from those dizzying heights, I found myself remembering all my unrequited loves… You, the soldiers who set off for the battlefield, mouths clamped tight as everyone else waved the flag. You, the teachers who refused to sing me come hell or high water. You, the fellows on the soccer field who looked up and just stared. What were you all thinking? No clue. None of my loves have ever amounted to anything. It’s not easy to love someone who doesn’t love you back. Sometimes I just hate myself.

—Translated and abridged by Jeffrey Angles

Aoko Matsuda is one of Japan’s most promising young novelists. She has published two collections of short stories, and has also translated Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Among English translations of her work are “Photographs Are Images,” translated by Jeffrey Angles and included in the current issue of Monkey Business, as well as “Smartening Up,” translated by Polly Barton in the online edition of Granta.

Jeffrey Angles is an associate professor of Japanese and translation at Western Michigan University. He is the author of Writing the Love of Boys and the award-winning translator of several of Japan’s most important modern Japanese authors and poets. He believes strongly in the role of translators as social activists, and much of his career has focused on the translation into English of socially engaged, feminist, or queer writers. He is also a poet, and his first book of poetry written in Japanese, entitled Hizuke henk? sen (International Date Line), is forthcoming in 2015.

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