[Today I’m thrilled to introduce our newest DS contributor, writer Ashley C. Ford. Ashley will be curating an essay column here twice a month, showcasing some incredible writers. This month’s theme is “Neighbors” and we’re starting with writer Anisse Gross. Thank you so much to Anisse for sharing this with us and thank you to Ashley for sharing these talented writers with our community —Grace]
One morning, while reading a New York Times travel piece about Oahu, where I was living at the time, a detail caught my eye. Accompanying the article was a selection of real estate listings for the area, one of which included the phrase “Neighbor Novelist Haruki Murakami.” The listing didn’t include an address or picture of the house, but did say it was in Manoa, my neighborhood.
Curious, I called the realtor the next day, pretending to be a buyer, but the person on the phone said they didn’t have anything matching that description.
At the time, I was coming out of a five-year-long period of agoraphobia, during which a friend of mine, a lonely lawyer in London, sent me a copy of Murakami’s novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I couldn’t do much but read during those isolated years, and so I spent the afternoons staring out my window at a tangerine tree while falling deeper into the well. On days when I couldn’t eat or move or speak, the combination of the book, and the color of those tangerines, small thin-skinned burning suns against the open blue sky, somehow reaffirmed life might be worth living.
Murakami discovered he could be a novelist at a baseball game in 1978, the year I was born. “The satisfying crack when the bat met the ball resounded throughout Jingu Stadium,” he wrote. “In that instant, for no reason and on no grounds whatsoever, the thought suddenly struck me: I think I can write a novel.”
In the same way, it occurred to me, while reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, that I could be a writer. In the novel a missing cat initiates a surreal and solitary journey for the protagonist, Toru, who spends a lot of time at the bottom of a literal well, much like the emotional one I dwelled in. Yet for him, the well was a fertile place, a portal to other worlds and a springboard for self-exploration. Reading those passages I felt known. I, too, was discovering that isolation could be transformative. If the narrator could lift himself out of the well; so could I. Toru and I were developing in tandem.
The book made me want to be a writer simply because I wanted to carry that feeling of recognition over, to help others feel known, especially isolated girls like myself, sitting in homes where no one knew them. I hadn’t always wanted to be a writer, but suddenly it seemed possible. My dreams of tying bricks to my feet and slipping into a pool were replaced by applications to graduate school for creative writing. I slowly reentered the outside world.
I knew the streets of Manoa well; with the slimmest of clues, I figured I could find him. I became a stranger in my own neighborhood, looking at it with fresh eyes. Walking through the misty neighborhood, everything felt charged. I surveyed the houses for signs, eliminating houses with minivans, houses with white kids playing in the yard, houses with dogs. The list went on and on. So many homes Murakami did not live in.
Stapled to every telephone pole throughout the neighborhood, was a missing duck poster that read, “HE’S ALL WHITE.” I, however, was looking for cats.
Someone told me they’d seen him running, but when pressed said, “I don’t know. He was just some nondescript Japanese guy in his 40’s running very fast.”
On one of my walks down the plumeria-punctuated streets, I spotted a one-story gray house on the corner of Kamehameha Avenue. In the driveway a neutral-toned Toyota. In the yard a stone pagoda lantern sculpture. A perfectly-trimmed hedge. All of the curtains closed. I was certain, by its anonymity and tranquility, that this was the author’s home. I parked myself in a bush across the street, smoking unfiltered Camels, taking notes, waiting. Hours passed with no sign of anything.
For weeks I returned, but nothing. I found myself walking by the house, peering over the hedge looking for Toru’s cat, scanning the yard hoping to see May Kasahara tanning on a lawn chair. One time, I almost got up the nerve to knock on the front door. Instead I stalked, waited and eventually gave up.
I imagine there’s a set of young women much like myself, prowling the streets of Naples right now, feigning casual strolls, searching for Elena Ferrante. What are we really hoping to find? What could I have possibly said to him if he did open the door? Did I expect some mystical transference by meeting his gaze? Maybe I just wanted to say thank you.
Later, the case cracked when a friend of mine stopped to join a circle of women gossiping at the dog park. One woman was complaining about her new neighbor, “a guy named Murakami,” who asked her to trim her old monkey pod tree because it was dropping leaves into his yard. My friend informed the woman her neighbor was a famous novelist, to which she replied that she didn’t care. The tree feud was eventually resolved, when an apology came in the form of Mrs. Murakami, knocking on the front door, head bowed, extending an offering of wagashi, Japanese sweets on a tray.
Now I knew for a fact where he lived. It wasn’t the house I’d cased, but one on the other side of the valley, next to this woman from the dog park, who in no way appreciated the gift of being his neighbor. The other detail? “I hate to tell you this, Anisse,” my friend said, “but he drives a yellow Mini Cooper.”
I got what I thought I wanted. But now the knowledge filled me with sadness. I felt like I had violated his privacy just by looking for him. Of course I hadn’t invaded it; he had no clue of my existence, much less my search.
Instead of closing in on him, I avoided his street entirely. Now, all I wanted to grant him was space, privacy, a wide berth of mystery. The magic of his world is born in the ordinary — who was I to puncture that? I wanted to give him his small world back, as he had given me a larger one. He could stay in and write, listening to jazz records, and I could finally get on a plane and leave home for good.
About Anisse: Anisse Gross is a writer and editor living in San Francisco where she is a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. Her work has been featured in TheNewYorker.com, Quartz, Lucky Peach, The Believer, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Weekly, The Brooklyn Quarterly, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She openly welcomes correspondence, friendship, surprises and paid work.
About Ashley: Ashley C. Ford lives in Brooklyn by way of Indianapolis, Indiana. She is a writer, editor, and speaker. She is currently writing a memoir (among other things), and co-editing the anthology Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture with Roxane Gay. Ford’s work has appeared in The Guardian, ELLE, BuzzFeed, Slate, and various other web and print publications. She’s spoken at SXSW, Earlham College, Girls Write Now, and was a featured opening writer on Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl book tour. You can find Ford’s blog here, published writing here, and sign up for her newsletter here. Feel free to email. She really loves your emails.