Excerpt

Mild Vertigo

Mieko Kanai (trans. Polly Barton)

May 1, 2023 
The following is from Mieko Kanai's Mild Vertigo. Born in 1947, Kanai is a novelist, poet, essayist, and critic. She has published around thirty novels and short-story collections, and her critical essays have been featured in Japanese newspapers and magazines for almost fifty years. In the English-speaking world, she is perhaps best known for her story “Rabbits,” a gory retelling of Alice in Wonderland where a young girl puts on a suit made of freshly skinned rabbit fur.

In what was something of a rare occurrence, her husband came home drunk past two in the morning, and, apparently incapable of unlocking the front door, rang the doorbell repeatedly, waking Natsumi up and forcing her out of bed, and as soon as she’d opened the door he sat down in the cramped entranceway to the apartment and slurred in a gravelly voice, you’re not going to go breaking up with me out of the blue, are you, fixing her with his gaze, the very kind of look for which, afterward, she would think that that expression “fixing someone with your gaze” had been devised. She didn’t have the faintest idea of what might have gone on, but he couldn’t handle his booze well to begin with, and was the type to fall asleep immediately when he passed a certain point of drunkenness, and because her father hadn’t been much of a drinker either, she wasn’t at all used to being around drunk men, although she’d known a few women who’d get pretty sloshed, but she was annoyed at having been woken up and wasn’t in the mood for any of this nonsense, and as she was standing there, silent and sour-faced in her surprise and displeasure, her husband stretched himself out on the floor of the hall, legs and arms akimbo, and began to snore, and initially, because this was a first for Natsumi, she was overcome with astonishment and outrage, but when those feelings had passed she began to get mad, and thought about leaving him to sleep splayed out there in the hall by the door, but it struck her that this wouldn’t be a very adult thing to do, and above anything, her surprise had left her a little nervous, so she shook him awake roughly, saying, come on, pull yourself together, forcing him to get up, somehow managing to get his coat off, but removing his shirt and his trousers from his heavy, half-asleep drunken body proved impossible, so she took off his tie, took out his wallet from the back pocket of his pants (she was always telling him not to put it in his back pocket in case it got stolen, but he didn’t listen), and somehow managed to get him into bed, but on top of the annoyance that came from being awoken after two (when she’d looked at the clock in the living room it’d read two thirty-five) by the noise of the doorbell being rung in that agitated way, at such an insistent speed, ding-dong ding-dong ding-dong, and then having to tend to a drunk person, there was the matter of the outrageous snoring and the breath that stank of alcohol emanating from the bed next to hers, the noise and the stench bothered her so much that she couldn’t sleep, then there was what he’d been saying in that slurred, sloppy way, you’re not going to go breaking up with me out of the blue are you, the question of what that actually meant, was he really thinking that I’d get so angry with him for coming home plastered that I’d file for divorce, because that’s a totally ridiculous train of thought, even for a drunk person, and as she was thinking irritably about how she should act toward him tomorrow when he woke up, she began to feel quite awake, and as a result, didn’t get back to sleep for ages, and just as she finally managed to fall asleep and started dreaming she was woken by her alarm.

It was Saturday, so when the children came back at just after noon her husband was still asleep, and when he did get up about an hour later, the kids said, urrghh, dad, you smell funny, and her husband lifted up the arm of his shirt as if to smell himself, wrinkling his nose, saying weakly, even my sweat smells like booze, my head and my stomach both hurt, and he took some pills for his stomach, chugged two or three glasses of water in a row, had a long bath and then changed into his pajamas, and it still seemed like he wasn’t doing great, so Natsumi mixed some of the honey that she’d bought at the Agricultural University Fair—harvested by the beekeeping enthusiasts in the boxing club—into cold milk and egg yolk to make eggnog, which she knew from experience was good for curing hangovers, and her husband drank that and then got back into bed, emerging again blearily toward the evening, his hair all rumpled after falling into bed with it still wet, and drawled through a yawn, ahhhh I slept so well, and the kids who were watching anime on TV said, wow, dad, you’ve slept so much, and her husband agreed sheepishly, patting their heads, I have, but I’m feeling much better, and then added slyly, and as proof of that, I’m finally feeling hungry, and when Natsumi said, I haven’t started making dinner yet, he said, in that case, how about we go out to eat, and the children clapped their hands and said exuberantly, yesss, hooray, can we have tempura, can we have yakiniku, and Natsumi remembered how her stomach had been on those occasions—although there hadn’t been so many of them—when she herself had been out drinking with her friends until late at night (usually when one of them had broken up with a boyfriend and was feeling either depressed or jubilant) and had been hungover, when they’d started the night in a small bar without a karaoke machine, drinking all kinds of drinks, like bourbon with water and gin and tonics and Bloody Marys, and Natsumi, who didn’t think of herself as being able to drink much, was ordering tequila-based margaritas with a large lemon wedge adorning the rim of the glass, and by the time she waved her hand toward the waiter to order her third, she was already pretty far gone, and everyone said, oh here she goes again, because around that time it was a habit of Natsumi’s to explain that the margarita was a cocktail made by mixing tequila with lime juice and pouring the mix into a glass with salt on the rim, which had been devised for young women in Mexico nightclubs who wanted to enjoy drinking like everybody else but weren’t good with strong liquor, and was given its name because the white ring of salt around the rim looked like a daisy—“margarita” in Spanish—and at that point someone suggested that it would be cheaper to just buy a bottle of liquor between them, so she’d ended up drinking whisky with water, and she didn’t remember exactly how many she’d had, but she was pretty drunk, and ended up staying the night, along with everyone else, at Setchan’s place, who by that point had already left home and was working part time in an architecture firm in Yashio while studying architecture in graduate school, and renting her own apartment near Ichigaya with a six-mat and a three-mat room as well as a kitchen, bath, and toilet for the very cheap price of 35,000 a month, and when she’d woken up in the morning and said her head hurt and she felt sick, Setchan had taken a bottle of Pocari Sweat out of the fridge, saying that it was good for hangovers, but the flavor of it, sour and salty and faintly sweet, had reminded Natsumi of the taste of the margaritas the night before and made her dry heave, and she didn’t feel like drinking it, all of the girls had slept in T-shirts and pajamas loaned from Setchan without taking off their makeup, so they all looked grey faced, and lounged around saying listlessly that maybe they should get up and wash but none of them feeling like moving, and they didn’t have any appetite, and in the afternoon they talked about going out to the soba restaurant nearby for something to eat but it was closed on Sundays, and by that point Momoko and Setchan were both very hungry, and started saying how much they’d been looking forward to eating soba in curry sauce, how they’d had a real craving for tempura soba, while Natsumi and Yukari were doing their best to hold back their nausea, and Yukari, who’d just split up with a critic whom she’d been seeing, he was married with children (and who as far as we could work out was a very unpleasant, morally lax kind of a man), had given back the T-shirt and pajamas and towel that she’d used, saying, sorry this’ll mean more washing for you, to which Setchan had replied, oh no I won’t wash them again, you’ve only worn them for one night! are you that dirty? assuming a look of surprise as she spoke, and Yukari, who had specialized in Modern Literature and was then working as an assistant in the Japanese Literature department of the university she had graduated from hadn’t replied, and, as she and Natsumi were walking along side by side, she blurted out, apropos of nothing, I’m thinking about having an arranged marriage, which she hadn’t said the previous night, and remembering that, Natsumi also thought about the arranged marriage itself, and how things with the critic had dragged on even after the wedding, how Yukari had ended up getting divorced, and to this day hadn’t been able to break things off with the critic, but that was a whole other problem, back when Matsumoto had been working as an editor, Momoko and Natsumi had said they wouldn’t commission someone like him to write for them, at which Matsumoto had looked at them with an expression that said, how very childish, and said, if someone writes well then as an editor I’m going to commission them to write for me, that’s what the job’s about, she said, exhaling a puff of smoke from her menthol cigarette, and Yukari, being Yukari, had played the academic, saying how highly she thought of his writing, and so Momoko and Natsumi had felt disenchanted, and now she remembered very clearly how on that day, when she’d heard Momoko and Setchan talking about wanting to eat curry noodles and soba with tempura, it had given her a rush of nausea, and so she’d said, yakiniku and tempura are probably out of the question for your dad when he’s like this, when you drink too much your stomach feels bad and greasy foods can be tricky, she said to the kids, but her husband said, it’s okay, that eggnog seems to have done the trick, as long as I have that cold pine nut soup to start I think I’ll be alright, and so the kids said, hooray, go dad, that’s the spirit, and got very excited.

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 Excerpt from MILD VERTIGO, copyright ©2002 by Mieko Kanai. Translation copyright © 2023 by Polly Barton. Used by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.




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