I made a note over the next few weeks to make it back to that oden bar… or at least tell everyone with two working ears to go and try it out.
“Yeah, yeah, I got it!” Akira groaned after the third time I suggested it, “We’ll have to go sometime later, my sister’s been having a tough time with her kid.”
“Uncle Akira’s babysitting?” I asked in a sickly sweet voice, secretly terrified at the idea.
“My sister feels bad for living with me, so she’s been taking odd jobs in the area. I’ve been stuck with the kid at night.”
“She has you taking care of a child?!”
“Yeah, but the kid usually just sleeps. I tried to talk to it once… didn’t seem all that pleased.”
I wonder what he meant by talk… and don’t call it “it!”
“What did you talk to… the child about?”
“What do you mean?” Akira asked, tilting back in his office chair, “I mean, it wasn’t perverted or anything.”
“Well, thank goodness for that…”
“I was just talking to it, Ken,” he said with a sigh, “Like you would anyone else.”
“Yeah, but you don’t exactly talk to people like everyone else.”
“What do you mean? Do you talk to it like you would to me?”
Dammit, now I’M saying “It.”
“More or less.”
“Well, that might be the problem.”
“Well, you’re not what I’d call ‘normal,’ Akira.”
“Coming from you, that’s a compliment.”
“Ha ha,” I rolled my eyes, “But think of it from the baby’s perspective. If a tall, spider looking guy dressed all in black was standing over you and saying a bunch of words you could never hope to understand… what would you do?”
“Personally? I’d be honored.”
“Oh, eat it.”
He said goodbye soon after, no doubt on his way to watch over the child. I was left alone in the teacher’s room, which had become an unpleasantly common occurrence since the school year had started. It was my own fault: I’d been so, um, distracted since school began, I’d fallen behind in assignments, grading, lesson plans, you name it. Most of the time, I found myself alone and just sort of… staring. It was as if everything had crushed down on me there after the end of last year, and I broke a little. Now, I’ll be the last one to describe myself as particularly, um, tough, and I know my problems are probably nothing compared to problems of others… but it didn’t seem to stop the staring.
“Man, you look creepy.”
I snapped to Mei Tanaka standing in front of my desk, a towel draped over her shoulder. She was dressed in her teaching clothes, but appeared to be soaking wet.
“Hi, Mei. Sorry, I…”
“You’re just being creepy,” she said with a grin, sitting down in the desk across from me. She crossed her long legs and stared me down.
“So, you enjoying sitting here alone, creep?”
“I’m not a creep,” I muttered, “And I was working, unlike some people.”
“Working real hard,” Mei stretched both arms up over her head and yawned, “getting drool on the papers you’re supposed to grade.”
In truth, I could have fallen asleep. I didn’t know. And if I had, um, drooled on an assignment, it would have to be taken care of…
“Hah! He looked!”
“Too funny!” Mei pounded on the other desk, cackling, “too funny!”
“Did you just come here to make fun of me?”
“Mostly,” Mei wiped away tears from her eyes, “I figured I’d check and see if anyone was still in the building. You hungry?”
“Hadn’t really thought about it.”
“Well, you’re thinking about it now. Let’s eat!”
She nearly pulled my arm out of my socket, yanking me up from my desk.
“Hey! I’m not done with those yet!”
“You can finish ’em tomorrow. If I let you stew in here you’ll never get out.”
“No gettin’ out of this one, Kenny-boy. How much money you got on you?”
“Not enough for dinner…”
“Then it’s on me.”
Normally I’d feel bad about things like this, but after all the drinks I’d bought her in the past, I felt like getting some of mine back. We were nearly out the door, with Mei still dragging me by the arm, when a word exploded out of my mouth without necessarily taking the proper course through my brain.
Mei stopped, but I didn’t, driving my nose between her shoulderblades. I caught a brief scent of Jasmine before being thrown backwards. Mei isn’t exactly what I would call, um, cushioned.
“Ow! Jackass, YOU told me to stop!”
“Sorry…” I rubbed my sore nose as she towered over me, arms crossed in front of her.
“Why did you yell at me?”
“I didn’t yell at you!”
“You yelled something!”
“You telling me you don’t know?”
“Give me a minute!”
“Shut up!” I racked my brain like a detective interrogating a suspect. What did you know, and when, you filthy animal?
“I remember now–”
I tried to scowl at Mei, but she just smiled in a triumphant sort of way. Seemed like she was looking for a fight.
“Can we get takeout?” I asked as we started down the hall.
“All that worry over something like that? Of course. Did you have something in mind?”
A little while later, Mei and I were walking up the stairs to Akira’s house, our arms heavy with cheap Chinese stir fry.
“Did we have to get so much?” Mei complained, “It’s, like, half my damn paycheck.”
“Akira can eat a lot,” I replied, but managed to keep myself from adding “and so do you.”
“Well, so do I,” she said proudly, “so I hope you’re not planning on getting any of this.”
“How would that be different than any other time we’ve eaten together.”
I went to knock on the door, but a powerful arm slammed into the wall right next to my face and stopped me in my tracks.
“Y’know…” I heard a voice purr into my ears like it came from a hungry tiger. I turned with no small amount of fear to see Mei looking down at me, um, hungrily in the dim light from a distant street.
“You could always fight me for it.”
“Hm,” I grumbled, “Apparently, you’ve never come between a chubby guy and his dinner.”
“Maybe I’d like to.”
“Mei, please, my arms are heavy from all this…”
It was at that point I felt a strong presence running up the back of my calf. It took me a second to realize it was Mei’s foot, because her amount of coordination and, um, skill made it feel as effortless as if she had a third arm. And yes, that is supposed to sound creepy. She kept moving up my leg, getting dangerously close to the place where, um, my legs meet… and then the door opened.
“Gonna stand on my doorstep and talk, why not knock… probably those damn punk kids down the street…”
Akira opened the door and caught both Mei and I in a rather, um, interesting position. Mei, taken by surprise, tried to quickly correct herself, but in doing so neatly clipped the back of my leg, sending me tipping over backwards to what would have certainly been an awful lot of pain down several concrete steps. My arms went up automatically, and two bulging plastic bags of food went up in the air with them. I saw Akira’s face only for a split second as he watched the food float upwards, seemingly in slow motion. With a face that screamed absolute terror, my best and oldest friend reached out quickly to aid… the food. He caught both of the bags easily, giving me just one split second to give him an angry glare. Sure, save the food, not me. I was just past that tipping point where you know you will never regain your balance, and I was bracing the back of my head to make contact with a particularly pointy edge of a stair (might as well prepare for the worst) when I was instead violently slammed in the abdomen and pinned up against the side wall of the home like one of those bugs on a scientist’s wall. Mei, deciding this would be a better choice than brain damage, instead decided to use her free foot to anchor me to the wall and save me from falling. I would have thanked her… but unfortunately she had taken away all ability for me to breathe.
“Goddammit, Kenny-boy, get your feet under you so I can let go!”
That was all I could manage with her sneaker in my solar plexus.
“I’m trying to help you, idiot!”
“Beanpole, can you help him up?”
“I gotta put the food down first…”
I had enough of my faculties left to shoot another deadly look at Akira, and tried to curse him.
“Same to you, pal,” Akira said with a smirk and (after setting down the food of course) helped me to my feet. I spent the next five minutes trying to remind my lungs what breathing was.
“Oh, don’t be such a baby,” Mei hissed as she handed her food to Akira and roughly carried me inside, “I barely touched you.”
And this was the woman who had wanted to “fight” not five minutes earlier. I sure hope she never puts her mind to it, or I’ll wind up with broken bones all over my, um, body.
“So what are you guys doing here?” Akira asked as we all sat down at the small table in his kitchen. I noticed that his apartment was much cleaner than the last time I’d seen it; spotless, almost. I guess his sister must really have been desperate to do something.
“Well, I did think I could do my friend a favor,” my voice was still hoarse and my stomach ached every time I took a breath, “But then I realized that our friendship only goes as far as a pan of sweet and sour chicken.”
“Damn right, buddy,” Akira grinned as he laded said chicken onto his plate, “I mean, have you tried this stuff? And why did you bring the Amazon along?”
That got him a smack on the back of his head that nearly put a chopstick up his nose.
“She’s buying tonight,” I replied, secretly pleased, “So you’d best mind your manners.”
“To be honest, I’m not the one you should be worried about tonight.”
“What do you mean?” I asked Akira, and then almost as if on cue an ear splitting shriek erupted from the living room. On top of my stomach ache, I was now working on a headache as Akira sighed heavily and actually politely excused himself from the table. That wasn’t normal… but then again, neither was Akira trying to talk “baby talk” to his little nephew Jun in the living room.
“Come on, widdle guy… whassa matter, huh? You need somefin, fella? C’mon, champ, I’ve been helpin’ you all nighty-night, checkin on ya, makin sure everything is okey-dokey… what’s up, li’l goober?”
If you know Akira (and I think you might a little right now) you’d know that this is just plain strange. Mei and I sneaked into the living room to see him leaning over the living room crib making all sorts of faces I didn’t even realize he had the ability to make.
“Akira, what are you doing?” was the only thing I could have asked, even if I hadn’t wanted to.
“I couldn’t ever get a word out of him!” he replied, whining a little, “You told me it might have been the way I was talking to him, so I’m trying to do… y’know, baby stuff!”
“But I don’t want him to be scared of me all the time!”
“Is this really better?”
“I’m working on it!”
And all the while little Jun was screaming his head off.
“God, make it stop!” I wailed. On top of my already bruised midsection, my head felt like it was about to explode. I glanced over to Mei, who didn’t seem to be as affected by it. In fact, she seemed almost… bored.
“Mei, doesn’t this bother you?” I asked, hands clapped over my ears.
“Not much,” she shrugged, “I came from a big family.”
“What the hell does that mean?!”
She calmly walked over to where Akira was still hunched over the crib, making stupid faces. She gave him another crack to the back of the head, and Akira straightened up to shout at her. Mei quickly clapped her strong hand over his mouth, effectively stopping all noise from him. She placed a finger to her lips and looked down at the baby, who was still shrieking. I saw from a distance as Mei leaned down over the crib and said something quietly to the baby in the crib in her low, level voice. Almost immediately, the noise stopped, and the noises of terror were replaced with noises of curiosity and, um, almost happiness.
“Yeah, that’s right,” Mei kept on talking to little Jun, and the amount of happy noises increased.
“What are you doing?” I asked, walked over to the crib where Akira now stood, amazed.
“I’m talking to it like a human being,” Mei shot back quickly, “apparently this little guy doesn’t like being treated like a dog.”
“Hey! What’s that supposed to mean?” Akira wrinkled his nose at Mei’s comment. The gym teacher straightened back up and looked down on Akira, arms akimbo.
“It means you were screwing up, stringbean.”
“But… but…” Akira looked almost on the verge of tears as emotion welled up inside him like a volcano.
“What the hell am I supposed to do?” he whined, “I try to be normal around the kid, and he doesn’t make a sound. I try to do what I’m ‘supposed’ to do around a kid, and he screams his head off! What’s the deal? Why does this kid hate me so much? Why–”
Mei smacked him once more to snap him out of it.
“And STOP HITTING ME!” he howled in protest. Jun, in the crib, thought that was funny and gave a gurgling little laugh.
“You don’t know thing one about kids, do you?” Mei asked, rolling her eyes.
“How the hell should I?”
“He wasn’t scared of you, numbnuts,” Mei thrust her index finger between Akira’s eyes, as if to check if the brain was actually there, “He just likes to hear you talk. He probably sees you as the man in his life, because I’m guessing his Daddy…”
“He’s a deadbeat, yeah,” Akira muttered.
“So he likes you… but he likes to see you be you. He probably thinks of you as a role model, poor kid…”
“So when he’s being quiet…?”
“He’s just listening, dumbass,” Mei shook her head, “You really gotta give this guy some more credit. Hell, he’s probably smarter than you.”
Jun laughed again, which caused a smile to break Akira’s sulking frown like a hammer to glass.
“Oh, you think that’s funny, Jun?”
Jun signaled his approval.
“Well, I can still take you in a fight… probably. So you better watch your ass.”
Jun shrieked again, but this time in laughter. I don’t think I’ve ever heard as happy a sound… well, maybe when Haru discovered mail-order candy.
“Don’t swear at the kid, stupid,” Mei shot him a look, “and come on, let’s finish dinner.”
We went back to the kitchen, but Akira quickly picked up his plate and left again. I peeked into the living room and saw him sitting next to the crib, enjoying himself immensely, looking prouder than I’d seen him in years.
“Family bond is a strong one,” Mei said poetically as she stole a piece of broccoli off my plate, “You’ll go through hell for you and yours.”
“Yeah…” I turned back around and stole the broccoli back, “I guess you’re right. If my Mom or Dad needed me, I’d probably have to go.”
“What if one of us needed you?”
That stopped the broccoli halfway to my mouth.
“One of us might need you, you know. Maybe we’d want to start our own family.”
That was something I’d never, ever thought about. I mean, I can barely handle myself… how would I do with a kid and a family? Still, if Akira could manage…
“Family means a lot to you, doesn’t it?” I asked Mei, trying to change the subject. She gave me a look that told me she knew what I was up to, but she continued on.
“There are a lot of us. For a long time, family was all we had. Every time I’d win a race or score a point, I felt like I was making my family look good… and I knew I’d never be a genius like Ami, so I decided to make my family proud any way I could.”
“If I were them, I’d be proud of you.”
That caused Mei to pause with a bite of chicken inches from her mouth. She turned to me and smiled, a warm, feminine smile.
We ate a while in silence until I got uncomfortable and talked again. Why am I always the one getting uncomfortable?
“I never figured you for the motherly type.”
“I came from a big family,” she repeated, “Sometimes Mom was busy, Dad was busy, even Grandma had a job to keep us going… so I watched the younger ones… you just do what you have to do, and often it works out okay on its own.”
I was reminded of Hiro at the oden shop and he proclamations of laying it all on the line and trusting all to go well. I tried to nod and look intelligent as we finished our dinner. It wasn’t until Mei dropped me off at my apartment building and drove away into the night that I realized it would have been a good moment to, um, try something with her. But then I thought to myself as I looked up into a still chilly spring night… did I want to?
I made a note over the next few weeks to make it back to that oden bar… or at least tell everyone with two working ears to go and try it out.