This happened years ago when I lived in Los Angeles. It wasn’t a happy time in my life. It wasn’t really a sad time either, especially compared to some of the times that would follow, but it was definitely, all in all, closer to sad than happy.
If I had to pick a better word than happy or sad or any other picturebook term to describe my emotional state back then, it would probably be listless, or maybe melancholic—a good, solid SAT word like that. In those days I felt like I was forever perched on the cusp of a sinking feeling; I couldn’t tell whether I’d begun to sink, or whether I just saw the road sagging ahead of me and knew that I’d be sinking soon enough. That was another thing about my life back then: I was absolutely certain that I could see that sagging road. I was absolutely certain that I knew how everything was going to turn out.
By the evening that I’m trying to describe, I’d been in Los Angeles for a few months. At no point during that time had I felt the excitement that I assumed people were meant to feel when they moved to a new city, much less when they moved to Los Angeles, the global capital of Entertainment, Glamour, Style and various other concepts that sounded like the names of checkout-aisle magazines. I tried to pull myself out of that listless, melancholic feeling. I went to rooftop bars filled with people more attractive than myself and stared with grim resolve at the Hollywood Sign; I walked down the pier and all along the beach; I ate at places that various blogs told me to eat, ingesting tacos in parking lots, Thai food in strip malls. The weather was just as beautiful as every movie ever made had promised it would be, but whenever I stared out through my new apartment’s many windows at the soundstage blue sky and the merciless sunshine I didn’t feel anything besides dizzy and a little lost.
I’d moved to Los Angeles because my girlfriend was starting med school there. It was an easy move, logistically speaking; I worked remotely, and I didn’t have many material possessions. My life, in addition to being listless and melancholic, could also have been described as settled, placid, and smooth. I can’t remember facing any challenges that weren’t self-imposed, or any complications that weren’t the result of my own actions. Everything was neatly laid out for me along that grand, sagging road to the future. Each day while my girlfriend learned how to save lives I sat in our apartment in front of my laptop, sending emails and scheduling meetings and editing documents and filling out spreadsheets so that somebody somewhere would be marginally more efficient at selling something to somebody else.
Like all med students, my girlfriend was miserable and tried only some of the time to hide it. Her misery was another major component of my life back then. I felt that because all the substance had been scooped out of me, I was now better equipped to absorb her sorrows. I felt that I was meant to furnish the void inside myself with her various burdens.
Every third or fourth Friday, when she didn’t have a seminar or a test to study for, and was willing to be conscious for a while longer, my girlfriend and I would gather at the back of our apartment, in a den-like space lined with wide windows through which we could see the sprawl of our adopted city, and sit there drinking and talking to each other like people do.
On the evening that I’m getting around to describing, my girlfriend and I happened to be talking about literature, which was one of our favorite subjects. Part of what I loved about my girlfriend—and I did, after all, love her enough to move to that city of sunshine and magazine names—was the fact that she maintained a passion for literature despite her more technical inclinations. There was something appealing, undeniably sexy, about the notion of a woman who could both discuss the finer points of Chekhov and reinflate a collapsed lung.
In fact, literature had been the subject of one of our earliest conversations. During our first date, my girlfriend and I had bonded over the fact that we’d each written a shitty novel back in high school. Mine was a derivative science fiction tract about a God-like alien stuck in a spaceship picking off the stock-character crew one by one, while hers was a standard YA plot about a precocious young woman choosing between romantic options while balancing the pressures of college applications and a fraught relationship with her mother. When she told me, during that first date, that the protagonist of her shitty high school novel ends up with a male character who shares my real-life name, I joked about how it must have been fate. Only later did I find out that I had the same name as her high school boyfriend.
On the evening that by this point I’m doing a pretty awful job of describing, my girlfriend and I was a notch past the level of drunk that I prefer to be while discussing literature. We were drunk in a way that had gone from taking the edge off to putting a different edge on. Drinking to that degree when we had intended to do otherwise was another thing we did from time to time.
I don’t remember how, but my girlfriend and I began talking about The Elephant Vanishes, the short story collection by Haruki Murakami. She liked Murakami more than I did and encouraged me to read it. She considered The Elephant Vanishes one of Murakami’s best works, and theorized that I might find him more tolerable in small doses, when his milky prose didn’t drip on for long enough to bore me, and his outlandish plots were afforded less room to spiral out of his control. As it turned out, she was right: I did like it better than the other works I’d read by Murakami. I was annoyed by how much I liked it, as I always am whenever I end up liking something I’ve already made up my mind to dismiss.
That evening, the evening in question, my girlfriend asked me which story was my favorite. In my inebriated mind, the stories all ran together into a single account of various odd occurrences in the life of a bland young everyman named Noboru Watanabe. Murakami had bestowed this name, the Japanese equivalent of John Smith, upon several otherwise unique protagonists in several otherwise unrelated stories. Because I couldn’t remember the titles of any of those stories, I went with the only safe answer.
“The title story,” I said. “The Elephant Vanishes.”
My girlfriend looked aghast. She had been looking that way more and more as of late, to the point that I had begun to wonder whether the expression I thought of as being aghast was just the way her face was now.
That story came tumbling back to me: a first-person account of a woman who, finding herself mysteriously unable to sleep, stays up night after night reading Anna Karenina and thinking about how she no longer loves her husband. The story ends with her getting trapped in her car by a shadowy shape lurking on the other side of the windows. I found this ending effective for its abrupt shift in tone, and its lack of resolution. I’d like the story a lot, probably more than The Elephant Vanishes, but evidently not enough to remember that it existed.
“That one was good,” I acknowledged. “I liked the protagonist. She was way better than how Murakami usually writes women. She felt like a real person. Not some spunky sixteen-year-old with psychic powers and big tits.”
“Or a mysterious older woman with a dark secret and big tits.”
I smiled in a perfunctory way. My girlfriend and I had discussed Murakami’s one-dimensional female characters before, and how they all tended to fit into the same narrow box. Our jokey little exchange didn’t express anything that we hadn’t already said to each other a dozen times. That was another thing that she and I were doing in those days: saying the same things over and over again, then acting like we were saying something new.
For a moment neither of us could think of anything new or old to say. I watched the lights of the apartment building next to my apartment building twinkling in the night. I felt the faint thrum of a headache load itself up somewhere inside my skull.
“So why did The Elephant Vanish?” she asked.
This story was easier to remember and more straightforward. It was basically just a guy talking about how an elephant had vanished without explanation from his local zoo, and how this peculiar event made him feel.
“I liked the metaphor,” I said. “What the elephant represents.”
“The narrator lives in this dull, corporate world, right? There’s no magic, no whimsy. And then the elephant vanishes. People care about the mystery for a bit, they wonder how it happened, but then they move on. Soon enough, nobody but him remembers that the elephant was ever even there.”
I stared at my girlfriend, who stared back at me with an expression that was beyond my ability to read.
“I think it’s about growing up,” I continued. “About realizing that all these possibilities, all the things that the protagonist thought he could become, have disappeared, and now he’s stuck with the same boring life.”
My girlfriend stared at her glass, which sat on the table in front of the couch, sweating out a pool onto its coaster.
“I forgot there was a narrator,” she said.
“I said I forgot there was a narrator.”
“No, I know, but like, how could you forget that there was a narrator? Did you think the story just beamed itself into your mind?”
“I mean that I thought it was third-person—an omniscient account of how the elephant vanished. I didn’t remember that there was a character talking about the elephant.”
I found all this not only surprising but also, for reasons I couldn’t explain, a little upsetting.
“Noboru Watanabe,” I mumbled.
I tilted my glass back and forth. I could feel its pleasant weight, the cool condensation slipping down my fingers. The glass was full of light. I raised it, trying to see if it would reflect any of the lights from the neighboring apartment building, but it didn’t. I realized that the room we were in was mostly dark and that I had no idea where the light in my glass was coming from.
I put my hand on my girlfriend’s thigh, and she shrunk a little under the iciness of my fingers.
“Anyway,” she said, “I thought that the elephant represented something else.”
“And what would that be?”
“What I remember most clearly from the story is the zookeeper. The town just wanted the elephant to bring in revenue for the zoo, but the zookeeper really cared about the elephant, and the elephant really cared about him. When the elephant vanished, the zookeeper vanished too. I thought that it symbolized how all these quiet people living unnoticed lives are being pushed aside by the modern world. How nobody cares when people like that disappear.”
She turned to me. I could see a sliver of the city winking at me from behind her head.
“So we sort of agree,” she said.
We did sort of agree. I can see that now, and I could have seen it back then if I’d wanted to see it. I should have admitted that we agreed; I should have called her comment insightful, which it was. But instead, as is often my problem, I said what was really on my mind.
“I forgot about the zookeeper.”
My hand was still on my girlfriend’s thigh. I sensed a change on the surface of her skin—a clamminess, a tightening tendon. Even as she sat perfectly still, I felt her turning away.
“This is just like the story,” I said. “The part at the end, when he’s on a date with that woman. When he’s trying to explain what happened to the elephant, why it matters so much to him, and he can’t find the right words. Remember?”
“No. I forgot that part, too.”
We laughed, because laughing was easier than most of the other things we could have done at that moment and because the situation was, in a way, actually pretty funny.
I stood up. Blood rushed to my head; my feet felt soft and far away. With the practiced nonchalance of a drunk person I walked to my bookshelf and retrieved the volume that was causing us such grief, then walked back to the couch and placed the book on the cushion between us. My girlfriend and I flipped through the pages together, each of us searching for the words that would justify our interpretations of these fictional events. That’s what I was doing, anyway. Maybe she was just enjoying reading the story again.
Finding something that I thought would help my case, I pointed to the page and read aloud. “‘I would begin to think I wanted to do something, but then I would become incapable of distinguishing between the probable results of doing it and of not doing it.’”
My voice was pedantic, grating. I couldn’t believe that was what I sounded like. I pointed elsewhere on the same page.
“‘I continue to sell refrigerators and toaster ovens and coffeemakers in the pragmatic world, based on afterimages of memories I retain from that world. The more pragmatic I try to become, the more successfully I sell.’”
I thumped the page with the back of my hand. “That’s it,” I said. “The Pragmatic World. He knows it’s bullshit, but he can’t see his way out. The elephant was the only way out, and now it’s gone.”
I wasn’t sure what I was trying to say.
“I’m not sure what you’re trying to say,” she said.
She took the book from me, flipped back several pages, and read aloud. “‘But there was no way to mistake the special warmth, the sense of trust, between them. While the keeper swept the floor, the elephant would wave its trunk and pat the keeper’s back. I liked to watch the elephant doing that.’”
We looked at each other. Who knows what we saw.
“That’s the part of the story I remembered,” she said. “That’s what the elephant meant. That’s what was lost in the end.”
I took the book back from her and flipped through the pages, trying to find something I recognized, something that would mean I’d been right all along, but the words jumbled up before my eyes. I knew that at any moment I could have removed one of my hands from the book and placed it back on my girlfriend’s thigh. In my head, I saw myself doing just that. But then, outside of my head, I didn’t do it.
“You really didn’t remember the narrator? The woman at the end?”
“No, I really didn’t remember.”
“But that was the whole point.”
“Can’t there be more than one point? Any story that can only be interpreted one way sounds like a pretty terrible story.”
I knew she was right—obviously, she was right—but I wanted there to be more to it than that. I wanted her to be wrong.
“I don’t see how anyone could read it and come away with your interpretation,” I said.
My girlfriend’s face became blank, and I sensed her retreating further behind the wall that had sprouted up between us. This annoyed me. I knew that this shouldn’t have been my first reaction, which made me even more annoyed. Here, I thought, was another thing I now had to deal with, another burden to stow away amid the great emptiness inside.
Despite my annoyance, I managed to save myself from saying all of the things that it then occurred to me to say. I didn’t, for example, accuse my girlfriend of being an emissary of the Pragmatic World, or tell her that it didn’t get more pragmatic than being a doctor. I didn’t say that she hadn’t sacrificed for me the way I’d sacrificed for her, that she got to be miserable while I had to try and hold everything together. I didn’t tell her about the listless feeling, the sagging road.
There were fewer lights outside the window now. I noticed a glossy patch on the last page of the story. It seemed that moisture from my hand had marred the ending.
“I didn’t think it would mean so much to me,” I said.
I felt my girlfriend shifting beside me, adopting a posture that my mind wanted to interpret as more receptive. In my mind, I saw her hand stretching back across the wall.
“You know I don’t like Murakami. I don’t like his loser male protagonists, how they’re always listening to jazz, eating spaghetti, searching for a lost cat, and the same shit over and over again. I don’t like how he’s every non-reader’s favorite writer just because he’s easy to read. I don’t even like those slick fucking abstract covers. But I liked this story. It stayed with me.”
My girlfriend was staring at me. She’d been up since five that morning and looked like a version of herself that I hadn’t expected to meet for many years. Earlier that week, her cohort had begun on cadavers. She’d told me about how for all that each incision thrilled her, for all that she loved discovering each key to life still lurking within each lifeless husk, she couldn’t help but imagine a name and a family and a favorite food for each ex-being on each metal slab. She couldn’t help but wonder about the thoughts that had once animated each puddle of goo behind each pair of cold and clouded eyes.
“It could all be different,” I said. “That’s what the elephant meant. It was a feeling, and then it was gone, and he knew things wouldn’t be the same.”
I leaned my head back against the couch and closed my eyes. I wanted to hide, from my girlfriend and myself, the fact that an author I didn’t even like had brought me to the brink of tears. Somewhere in that self-imposed darkness, I felt a hand settle on my knee.
I don’t remember what happened next. Probably nothing too dramatic. We talked some more, had sex or didn’t, and went to bed. We woke up the next morning, and the morning after that.
I’m not sure why that conversation, out of all our conversations during all our time together, has remained so fresh, so vital, in my memory. It’s like whatever the elephant represents—I can almost explain it, I can pull together what I think are the right words, but then, right at the end, it all falls apart. This story, whatever else it is or isn’t, is probably as close as I’m ever going to get to an explanation. But that’s not why I wrote it.
I wrote it to ask you a question.
If you read this story and walked around with it rattling inside your still-functioning brain for years and years, and then one day, a long way into the future, someone asked you which parts you remembered, what would you say?
Would you remember the first part, about some loser male protagonist and his listless life in Los Angeles? Would you remember the second part, about a man and a woman disagreeing over the meaning of a piece of literature? Would you even remember that these two parts belonged to the same story?
Maybe you would remember a general atmosphere of despair—a two-bit Carver imitation, like so many of Murakami’s stories, all man and woman and alcohol and angst—but not anything that the man and the woman had talked about. Maybe you would only remember certain fragments: the line about Los Angeles being a city of magazine names, the paragraph about the cadavers. I’m proud of those parts. Those are some of the parts that I hope you would remember.
In the end, regardless of whichever details are stuck in your mind, I think you’d only be able to offer that hypothetical future individual a distorted version of the words on these pages, warped by your memory like the message in a game of telephone. I think you’d read this story, tell yourself that it had a certain meaning, then cling to that interpretation until it began to exist beyond this story until it left this story far behind. Your mind would let go of this story, as happens with all minds and all stories eventually, and as might already have happened, at least for you, with the details that this story concerns: the room, the lights outside the window, the open book between us, my hand on your leg, your hand on my leg, gone.
I think that’s what would happen. You would read this story, you would go on with your life, and then one day, as I hope and fear will also one day happen to me, even whatever this story once meant to you would vanish, and you would no longer remember it at all.