Takeshi called his plan to get a girlfriend, “Operation Fateful Encounter.”
He said it was an investment. It took time. It required effort and patience. Planning. Hard work. Timing.
And a certain amount of unavoidable luck.
“But matters of the heart,” Takeshi said, “they’re always something of a wild card.”
When I asked him how it was going recently, he said he was retired.
“Too many failures?”
He shook his head. Smiled like a wily veteran remembering a hunt gone awry.
“No,” he said. “It was the perfect success.”
Takeshi spent his mornings jumping train to train.
He started at Eifukucho, and took the Inokashira Line to Meidaimae. From Meidaimae he rode the Keio Line to Shinjuku, and from there squeezed into the Chuo Line to Tokyo.
And then, he walked to work.
At each station, Takeshi was engulfed in a sea of commuters. Some wore suits, and some dresses. Some were young, and others old. Some were company employees, some students, and others tourists.
It was a unique kind of ocean, with it’s own ebb and flow. Its own ecosystem.
Takeshi searched these seas for beautiful women. Seahorses, he called them. He found the sight of one calming. Lost in books, phones, or the passing scenery, they rarely noticed him stealing glances. Staring.
With time, he found he was drawn to certain carriages and platforms. He began to notice that the girl with the beautiful long hair always rode the second carriage from the front. That the girl with the striking eyes and the awkward teeth bought a fruit smoothie before jumping on the train.
He noticed that the older woman with the wonderful legs always took the same escalator to the Marunouchi North Exit.
He found patterns in the waves of beauty, and he tracked them.
In this sense, he saw himself like a marine biologist.
One day, running late, Takeshi found that if he caught the same train at a slightly different time, he ended up in another sea entirely. Completely different fish. Completely different plant life. These were the same trains, on the same lines, running mere minutes apart, and yet they transported hundreds — perhaps thousands — of completely different people.
It was here that the seeds of Operation Fateful Encounter began to sprout.
Sometimes, standing on the platform or squashed in the train, Takeshi dreamed of meeting these women. The seahorses.
He saw himself saving them from a fall on the tracks. Defending them from a hentai-salaryman with wandering hands, or a bullying group of rugby players.
He hoped for once in a lifetime opportunities. He prayed for disaster and calamity, so long as it might spark a chance encounter.
And he wondered why hentai-salarymen never rode the same trains he did.
Takeshi thought of fate, and chance, and habit and train lines. He thought of striking eyes and wonderful legs, and smoothies, books, and escalators.
He began to wonder if fate was something he could create, and control, and wield like a weapon.
Takeshi bought a notebook especially for the project — Moleskine, Peanuts, Charlie Brown.
And over the following weeks, he filled it.
Taking notes helped distinguish a seahorse’s patterns and habits. Preferences. At home, Takeshi studied. Researched. Pored over wikipedia pages and fashion blogs. Became a regular at the local book shop.
And when he finally felt he was ready — or at least, as ready as he could get — he bought a copy of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
For Suzuko, it was just another morning on the Meidaimae platform, waiting for the Keio Line and reading.
She didn’t notice the young man stumbling towards her, book under his arm, train card in his mouth, rummaging through his briefcase.
She didn’t see him, didn’t hear him, and didn’t care.
But when he tripped and fell — spilling the contents of his briefcase and his book at her feet — she simply couldn’t ignore him.
Suzuko crouched to pick up the book. She listened to the muttered apologies. Watched Takeshi scramble to pick things up.
And then she noticed the book in her hand, and paused.
It was the same as hers. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
And the same Frank Lloyd Wright bookmark in it, too.
“I’m sorry,” he said, brushing himself off. “I’m really, I’m… I’m sorry.”
“You… you dropped this,” she said.
The two stood there a moment, staring at the books in her hands. Perplexed. Puzzled. Lost. It was a moment that would forever feel longer than it was.
“Uh… which one?” he asked.
It was the start of a romance that would last three months.
One day, Takeshi realized he didn’t like Murakami very much. Didn’t like the pace. Couldn’t grasp the subtleties. Hated elephants. Wasn’t really interested in weird sex and eccentric young women.
Things with Suzuko fell apart. Little by little at first, and finally all at once.
It was not an easy break-up.
Eventually though — and inevitably perhaps — Takeshi was once again, alone.
So he dusted off his moleskine, and he went to work.
Takeshi’s notebook was filled with character studies. Observations. Sketches. Dreams. Plans.
The vast majority of which, were failures.
Fate was a little different for everyone. It was fickle and fanciful. Difficult to grasp, and impossible to understand completely. It had a subtle tipping point, one that lay somewhere at the intersection of completely unbelievable, and utterly real.
It meant something because it had to — it couldn’t be explained otherwise.
For Ai, it was the aloof young man with the guitar case, standing in front of her at the Eifukucho platform. The one who hummed the songs she loved, whenever she thought to listen to them. His melodies were a source of warmth. A connection. And then one day, the realization that the tune he hummed was a song she sung. A song she wrote.
For Takako, it was when she collided with the busy young man at the eiken examination site. She had a bad habit of reading while she walked, and apparently, so did he. When he leaned down to help her up, and said he was lost and asked for help finding the library, it was a scene straight out of her favorite shojo-manga. Quite literally.
For every girl, the experience of fate was different. Distinct. Individual.
It had to be.
Takeshi knew that each dream was a tailor-made house. It was built with hand-crafted bricks, and painted with unique experiences.
He just didn’t know how to put anything inside of it.
For all the planning and hard work, these fateful encounters never lasted. They exploded, or imploded, or puttered to a stop, or simply faded over time.
Takeshi began to realize it was one thing to create a relationship — indeed, it was an art worthy of mastery and respect — but very much another to make that relationship work.
The older woman with the wonderful legs had a powerful stride. She walked with intensity and purpose. Takeshi struggled to keep pace, and failed to notice the girl coming down the stairs.
The girl coming straight for him.
There was a squeal of surprise. A collision. The sound of bags and books hitting the floor. The ever constant shuffle of feet through the station.
The two groped for their things, creating a little bubble of space around which the commuter fish swum.
He heard the girl say, “I’m sorry. I’m really, I’m… I’m sorry.”
But the voice felt distant. Illusory.
Takeshi stared at the two notebooks in his hands. One his, one hers. Both were Moleskine, both were Peanuts, and both were Charlie Brown — together with the same Onibus Coffee pen.
“You… you dropped this,” he said.
The two stood there a moment, staring at the books in his hands. Perplexed. Puzzled. Lost. It was a moment that would forever feel longer than it was.
“Uh… which one?” she asked.
Mariko was perfect.
The hand of fate had brought them together. They were meteors hurtling through the vast depths of space, that one day found themselves sharing the same orbit.
They walked local parks with cups of specialty coffee. Visited art galleries and people-watched. They giggled at the blend of expensive extravagance and creative eccentricities that passed through Omotesando. Mariko taught Takeshi to understand and appreciate Murakami, and in turn he reminded her how good it felt to simply laugh and be silly, and enjoy the moments that hover between memories.
If their romance was a flower, this was its bloom.
When they bought each other tickets to the same Kobukuro concert, they laughed it off as coincidence. But when they met on the train in matching tour t-shirts from three years ago, it felt like something more. It was a moment for them, and them alone.
And it was all the more valuable because of it.
They swayed to the music, two lovers among a crowd of thousands. They walked home talking music and books, and a life they might one day share.
Takeshi knew then — this was what he’d been waiting for.
This was what he wanted.
But for years, he’d planned fate. Studied it. Constructed and created it. Endeavored to control it, and bend it to his will.
And he suddenly realized that now he couldn’t trust it.
Doubt was like a single cloud in an otherwise clear blue sky. The tiniest of wine stains on a plain white table cloth. The echo of a tap that never stops dripping.
The more Takeshi and Mariko’s romance bloomed, the less Takeshi could bring himself to give it water. The less he could let it take root in his heart.
So instead, he watched as it wilted.
Could he trust the warmth of her hand? The look in her eyes? The kiss of her lips? Could he trust her when she said, I love you?
Had she set this up, all that time ago in Tokyo station when they collided, and their fates intertwined?
These were the questions that left a chasm between them.
Mariko tried to bridge the gap. She did the very best she could. She reached across. She called out. She tried and failed, and tried and failed, and tried and failed.
And finally she asked, “Why?”
Takeshi shook his head.
He loved her too much to lie, the way he loved her too much to trust her.
So he told her. He told her of the train stations and the seahorses. Of the plans and the notebooks. Of the fabricated encounters and impossible meetings, and the creation of fate and its inevitable crumbling.
He told her everything, and at the end of it said, “I need to know if you lied to me the way I lied to others.”
She told him she hadn’t. But it wasn’t enough.
“I need to see the notebook.”
Moleskine, Peanuts, Charlie Brown.
If the answers he wanted were anywhere, he was sure they would be there.
“I don’t have it anymore,” she said, “it’s gone.”
But he looked her in the eyes, and he knew.
She hadn’t thrown it away. She just didn’t want him to see it.
So he shook his head, and he left.
A week later, Takeshi received a package. Inside of it, a notebook.
Moleskine, Peanuts, Charlie Brown.
But it was not the notebook he expected.
It was a diary.
In the diary was the story of a girl who wanted happiness. A girl who searched for love, and hoped she might find it, and one day, did.
It was the story of a girl who remembered the little things and wrote them down. A girl who made plans, and observations, and organized surprises to spark joy, but not because she aimed to bend fate to her will.
Because she wanted to make the most of what she felt fate had given her.
The diary was the story of a girl who was in love.
In those pages was the kind of honesty that no-one shares easily.
The kind of honesty you might even hide.
It was the honesty of a fragile heart, beautiful because it is so easily broken.
The diary was a story that could have ended any number of ways, but on this occasion ended in three simple words.
I loved you.
Takeshi stared at those words for a long time, and developed a unique hatred for the letter ‘d’.
He never saw Mariko again.
Over the following days, Takeshi felt something like a void take shape. A dark, silent space in his chest, that spread to the tips of his fingers, and chilled him to the soul.
He began taking later trains to work, and sometimes completely different train lines. He endured the anger of his manager for being late.
It felt like a small price to pay for a different ocean to swim in.
And as the space in his chest began to fill — first with something cold and lonely, and eventually with a normality laced with regret — Takeshi realized he’d learned something important.
He learned that when you gamble with Fate, you always play at her casino, and she always decides the rules.
So you always play at your own risk.
“I still read it every now and again,” he said. “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.”
“I don’t know why. I still don’t get it.”
“And the diary?”
He shook his head.
“I’ve read that enough.”
For a time, we said nothing. I stared into space and watched my thoughts swim on their own. I thought about love and trust. I thought about how we hold onto heartbreak instead of risking further damage, and how we treasure our failures because we hide in them our hopes.
I thought about Operation Fateful Encounter, and the way we want to believe in something bigger than ourselves.
And I thought that perhaps the saddest life to lead might be the one in which you realize exactly what you want, the moment you let it go.