“Hey. You and I should go on a date.”
There was no way I could be prepared. Then again, could I ever be prepared when it came to Ai Hasegawa? I was looking over a few of the lesson notes I had all but floated through this afternoon, trying to remember the faintest idea of what I’d said, done, or even if I had been breathing in front of that class of students. I couldn’t fight this feeling that I was letting them down by not giving my usual 5000% in the classroom, but ever since that conference and the start of the new year my mind has been on many other things, too many for me to keep the same focus I had when I was a lonely, sad man in a cramped and messy apartment. One of those things, at least for the time being, was Ai Hasegawa leaning over my desk in the teacher’s room, trying her best to, um, draw my eye. I sometimes wondered if the first two buttons on her blouses ever got lonely, being so far away from their mates on the other side of the shirt.
What’s that word called? A placket? What a weird word.
Anyway, Ai was there in her usual too-tight and yet somehow too-loose attire. Yet, as she ran her buffed and polished fingernails across my desk, touching every last little item on it, I got this amazing feeling of confidence radiating out from her. It was like that with Ai: she dressed like that, she acted like that, but it always seemed like she was completely in control of it. However, I had experienced a few times before just how far all of that confidence goes… but it was too genuine, too complete to be nothing but an act… could it?
“You can keep trying to ignore me, darling… but I can see you haven’t moved on to correct that next question.”
Damn, she caught me. In all honesty, I was focusing more on keeping my eyes on the paper while at the same time being ready just in case she tried any of that Ai-jitsu on me. With the way her mind works, you have to be careful you don’t walk into one of those innuendo traps.
“Well, maybe I’d get more done if you weren’t bothering all the stuff on my desk, Ai.”
“Oh, how rude of me. I hope I didn’t put anything out of place!”
There was something in her voice that made me get ready for the attack.
“I promise not to touch anything more on your desk.”
Wait for it…
I heard her heels click on the floor, going around the desk and getting closer. I had to be ready, I had to be!
“I won’t promise anything about touching you.”
I felt her smooth, slender arms drape down over my shoulders like snakes made of ivory, and my nose was suddenly filled with the fragrance of basil as her warm breath began dancing around my left ear. I had planned for it, I had tried to be ready for it, but even though I knew it was coming I could not stop the shivers down my spine and the bumps to form all over my skin as I heard her… yes, she was so close that I HEARD HER smile…
“Ken, darling… it’s a Tuesday night and all my plants are watered. I just don’t feel like going home tonight, and everyone else is busy…”
“I’m sure you searched exhaustively,” I shot back, trying to keep my voice from breaking.
“Oh, you caught me,” she giggled softly, her lips millimeters from my ear, “I just want to spend some time with you.”
“I know I’ve asked this before, but… why, Ai?”
“Because you’re fun.”
“Oh, come on,” I put down my pencil and looked straight ahead, my face crumpled in frustration, “You always say that. There’s got to be something else.”
“Maybe I like you, Ken.”
Her voice lost its lilt and its playful accent, and her arms slipped back up over my shoulders, disappearing along with the scent of basil as Ai stood up. I turned around to see her looking down on me rather severely over the square glasses she always perched low on her nose.
“Maybe I just do. Did you ever think of that?”
“To be honest… I find that really confusing,” I replied, my mouth surprisingly dry.
“Do you really not know?”
“Perhaps,” she said quietly, slyly, “but a good scientist always wants things to be as empirical as possible.”
Great, she pulled out Science on me.
“Okay, fine, Miss Science Lady… If you must know, I…”
My mouth went dry again, but I carried on as best I could.
“I don’t see why a woman like… like you could be interested in a guy… well…”
I looked down at my expanded waistline and wrinkled suit.
She rolled her eyes a little and smiled.
“Ken, darling… I’m a scientist.”
Again with the Science.
“When you learn how to experiment, how to look at things from every possible angle… when you have that sort of mind, the rational mind, the thinker’s mind, the logical mind… I can find beauty in some of the most horrid looking plants this planet has to offer, and I can find reason to some of the worst creatures that have ever walked the Earth. I don’t just look at that, or this, or even this…”
She punctuated those last three by pointing at my, um, belly, my wrinkled suit, and lastly mussing my awful hair.
That last odd noise grew Ai’s smile just a little bit bigger.
“That’s what I like about you, Ken. You are… it’s almost like you’re the last of a species.”
Okay, so far I’ve been compared to ugly plants, awful animals, and now, what… a Dodo bird?
“I find you absolutely fascinating in ways I can’t explain… so I want to experiment on you, naturally.”
“Because that doesn’t sound horrible, Hasegawa…”
“Oh, hush. I’m trying to be sweet.”
She leaned down again and tilted her head slightly, touching her perfect, straight hair to my birds’ nest. Although it was a sweet moment, I felt I had to get her back for earlier.
“Well, your sweet could use a little work. I feel like… I don’t know, a Passenger Pigeon or something.”
“You’re terrible! Now you’ll have to take me out tonight. I’ll accept nothing less as a remittance.”
I looked at her, and she didn’t have that usual foxy, mischievous look in her eyes. She looked just plain excited, like a student about to go on a field trip instead of, well… Ai being Ai. I looked down at the last paper on my desk (where I still had made zero progress) and sighed.
“Ah, what the hell.”
I allowed Ai to drive, if only so I could learn a few more of her car’s weird habits. A little gas here, go easy on the brake there… it was almost like they were speaking their own language. I checked quickly to make sure the cab wasn’t flooded with any weird orange liquid, and a short examination of the door panels showed that this wasn’t some sort of symbiotic giant fighting robot in disguise. It was just an old car and someone who had driven it for a long, long time.
“There, there, Sakura,” she purred as we pulled into a parking space near a local shopping district, “Sweetie’s just got a little shopping to do, she’ll be back.”
“You’re a real weirdo, you know that?” I asked as we stepped out of the car, er… Sakura.
“Oh, like you never talk to inanimate objects?”
At least I don’t do it in public…
“Where are we going, anyway?”
“Just a little shopping…”
“It better not be anything weird, like… lingerie, or something.”
“Oh, of course not!”
It was totally lingerie.
Ai apparently has some little boutique she likes to frequent in this district for her, um, needs.
“Are you kidding me, Hasegawa?!”
“I have a few things I need to pick up,” she replied innocently.
“You couldn’t just go to a normal store, could you?” I spat out the words, feeling the collar on my shirt grow tighter and tighter.
“Darling, if I may be so candid,” she said softly to me as we stepped inside, “I usually need custom orders to fit my… needs.”
Well, that did make some sense. Ai wasn’t as, um, prominent in some areas as the other Rogues, but as a total, um, ensemble… she wasn’t anywhere near the Japanese average… or so I’ve heard…
“And you just had to bring me in here, right?” I said with a frown. The entire place was a deep shade of pink, like those awful rock-hard sugar flowers you see decorating a wedding cake. My dark suit stood out like a bruise on a healthy cheek, and my pale skin looked even paler surrounded by all this vital color. Not only were the walls and some of the, um, merchandise pink, but there was seemingly every other color I’d ever seen (and some I hadn’t) standing on racks, hanging on walls… and, of course, on a few mannequins that looked sort of annoyed to be there. Tell me, why do those things always look so angry? Most of them don’t even have faces!
It was about this time I wish I didn’t have a face, because I knew it was giving me away. It wasn’t just that I was nervous to be in this store… it was like I felt I was doing something wrong by being in this store. Something… illegal. There were a few other women browsing in the shop, and right away I could tell I was upsetting them just by being here. They fixed me with uncertain looks, as if I was about to come after them or something or start asking for tips… I don’t know, they just looked like they wanted me gone!
“I just remembered on the way that I had an order come in,” Ai said, “Ken, darling… don’t just stand in the doorway, come on in!”
“Uh… I don’t want to.”
“Oh, don’t be that way…” she walked over to the doorway and began dragging me in by the arm, “It’s no big deal!”
“Look, it’s simple: we have these…”
She drew attention to two of her, assets, and I nearly hit the floor.
“And we need to keep them under control!”
My head was spinning.
“And not only that… but we like to look nice. We like a bit of color, and sometimes, yes… we like to feel a little special.”
I need to find my way into a red section of merchandise, so the nosebleed I was about to have wouldn’t be noticed as much.
“Look, I’ll show you. Hey, Chie!”
She called out to the back of the store, and a very well dressed lady stepped out from behind a curtain. She couldn’t have been much older than me, but she wore an air and a manner of dress that made her seem timeless and classic. Her hair was black, pin-straight, and cut hard at an angle when it hit her jawline, with only drew more attention to her seemingly perfectly organized features and makeup. All in all, she almost didn’t look…real.
“Good afternoon, Ms. Hasegawa! So glad to see you again. Your order is in the back, I’ll just go pick it up…”
“Not yet, Chie. I’ve got some very serious questions to ask you.”
“Oh?” her dark eyes blinked twice and she adopted an expression of surprise which helped make her look a little more, um, human, “Does it have anything to do with this… perspiring gentleman here with you?”
“Oh, but of course,” Ai giggled, “This is Mr. Watanabe.”
“Oh… I see.”
Oh my… Ai, what have you been telling this well-dressed woman?
“Yes, that’s him.”
“He’s exactly as you described,” she said with a tight-lipped smile, looking me up and down.
“Uh… whuh… wha?”
“Never you mind, Ken darling,” Ai patted my reassuringly, but I found no part of it to be reassuring.
“What did you want to ask me?” Chie asked, arms akimbo, looking very, um, business.
“Chie, please explain to my dear Ken that there’s no shame in him being here right now.”
“I don’t think so,” she said plainly, “and it’s my shop, so that’s that. If you’d wandered in off the street and began doing inappropriate things, I’d have a different opinion, but you seem like a good one. Besides, Ai’s told me plenty about you, I can’t see why you would be upset.”
“Other people…” I began with my stomach churning, “other people might not be happy with me being in here.”
“And is that important?”
“I don’t want to cause a problem,” I replied, “I know I don’t exactly look like the sort of guy they want to see…”
” ‘They?’ Who is this ‘they?’ ” Chie shot back, her eyes now hooded and serious.”
“Lots of people… other people… they don’t want to see a guy like me in here with, um, intimate things.”
“That sounds like a problem for those ‘lots of other people’ then, Mr. Watanabe,” Chie said with a sense of finality, “and not for you.”
She turned back to Ai and the two shared a look and a smile.
“I’ll go get your order.”
“Thanks so much, Chie.”
We were left alone at the counter, but I had no idea that Chie’s exit would leave us open to attack. Almost immediately, the two sour faced women from the far end of the store approached us like we were the last two Bulgarians at Dobro Pole. Their unsure looks from earlier had seemed to melt into full scowls at this point, as if Chie’s words had only ruined their day further. They marched up to us, as if their splendid (and probably expensive) clothes were being ruined just by us being near them. I know it sounds like I’m being a little harsh, but you should have seen their faces!
“Um, excuse me?” the younger of the two asked.
“You’re excused,” Ai shot back without expression, without even looking at them.
“We have some questions for you, if you don’t mind,” the older woman started in, “about… him.”
Ai turned around and fixed both of them with a stare over her glasses, a stare I usually only see when a student tried to light something on fire in the Chemistry lab.
“You could always try asking him, you know.”
The older one seemed to not hear her.
“Is he your brother?”
“Is he your boss?”
“No,” she said with a shake of her head.
“Is he some sort of local politician?”
“No…” a little smile this time.
“Well, tell me he’s rich, at least.”
“I don’t know, Ken darling… are you rich?”
I was still terrified by her face. There was, I don’t know, a vein or something… in her neck…
“I’d say that’s a definitive ‘no,’ ladies,” Ai patted me comfortingly on the shoulder, “Not rich, not famous, not powerful, and certainly not related to me… thankfully.”
Her pat on the shoulder fell a little lower until it was a pat, um, somewhere else. I was too frozen to shriek… and I think the vein was getting bigger!
“Is he your… boyfriend?!” the younger one asked it like we were plague carriers.
“Oh, unfortunately not…” Ai responded, almost wisftully, “at least, not right now…”
I was able to move my eyes enough to shoot her a sideways look. Too bad my feet still seemed cemented to the floor.
“It’s really not a good idea, you know,” the older one took over, “to be here with him.”
“Would you rather I was somewhere else with him?” Ai’s voice began to gain the edge her eyes had had from the start.
“It gives a bad image to other people,” the older one continued, “you’re in terrific shape, being seen with a guy like this makes you look a lot worse.”
“Hey…” I had finally found my voice, “What?”
Too bad I didn’t find a better voice.
“You’re out of shape,” the older one turned on me, “your clothes are a mess, and it doesn’t look like you take care of yourself at all. How do you expect to gain anything, or be anything, in the world if you don’t take care of yourself?”
I had to admit, she had a point.
“Excuse me,” Ai countered, “but I really don’t think you have any right to critique my darling on his appearance. At the very least, someone who wears so much makeup has no place to say someone looks bad.”
The vein nearly shot right out of her neck as the two of them stormed off. Chie emerged from the back of the shop with a small pink bag.
“I hope you don’t mind,” she said with a smile, “but I was hiding in the back waiting to see what you’d do.”
“And?” Ai asked as she handed over a credit card.
“I would have done the same thing. And besides… I think your round friend is cute.”
“I’m a what now?” I asked, stepping forward a little.
“Oh, nothing, Ken darling,” Ai interjected, grinning broadly, “Now, we really must be off. I believe you promised me dinner.”
“I didn’t promise you anything!” I protested as Ai pushed me out of the store.
“You’re such a kidder. Thanks, Chie!”
“No problem, Ai. Have a good night!”
There was something about that last sentence that worried me. Something that told me there was some sort of secret code working between them, or maybe they’d been planning this for weeks. Just what was in that little bag, anyway?
“Here, hold this,” Ai tossed the very bag into my lap as we got back into her car. I glanced down long enough to see something black and lacy and decided it was certainly not some sort of doomsday weapon. My face was too hot to try to examine any further, but Ai’s erratic driving caused the bag to leap and bump around enough in my lap that I got, um, enough of a view of the contents to last a while. The car pulled to a stop next to the Nakano Sakaue station, which gave me a perfect view of a yoga studio.
“Oh, please…” I held the bag a little tighter, like a friend, as we had both shared a hectic Hasegawa car trip together, “don’t tell me we’re doing yoga.”
“Not in these heels,” Ai said with a laugh, “although it could do wonders for your flexibility…”
We got out of the car and walked inside the studio, which had a small cafe located inside.
“We’re eating here?”
“I said you promised me dinner.”
“I didn’t promise you anything! It was your idea to go out!”
“And are you upset to be here with me?”
She had me there. Especially after sticking up for me in Chie’s shop, I was feeling indebted to her and, well, maybe something else as well. And hey, those ladies had a disturbing point: being seen out with Ai made me look like a million yen.
“No, Ai. I like being out with you, although I have to admit I feel like I benefit more from being around you than in reverse.”
“You’ve got to stop thinking like that. Ken darling. You have a lot to offer!”
“Yeah, I’ve got a lot, all right…” I said, slapping my stomach.
“Well… maybe I can help you with that tonight.”
“By eating in a yoga studio?” I asked as we sat down on immaculate white stools.
“Exactly. Hey, Yoshiko!”
Another well-kept woman stepped out from behind another immaculate setting. Ai knows all of these ladies… is there some secret network or something?
“Ai! Oh, this must be your Mr. Watanabe!”
I turned to Ai with my eyebrows up.
“I take it you talk about me outside the school?”
Ai answered only with a sweet smile as Yoshiko came to take our order.
“Oh, he’s just like a teddy bear, just like you said!”
I was starting to run out of energy to act upset at all of this. I hadn’t eaten since lunch, and even that had been a salad, courtesy of Ms. Arakawa.
“Yes, Yoshiko, and he’s a hungry bear. Is there any curry left from lunch?”
“I think I’ve got a little left over. The usual, then?”
“You know it,” Ai nodded, “how about you, Ken? Curry and tea?”
“Sounds good, I guess,” I answered with a shrug.
“What kind?” Yoshiko asked.
“Of tea, Ken dear…” Ai rolled her eyes.
“Oh…. uh… tea-flavored tea?”
“Yoshiko,” Ai heaved a sigh and shook her head, “Give this bear some of the relaxation tea. He’s had a stressful night.”
Huh. Stressful year is more like it. Yoshiko nodded and left to prepare the food. I drummed my fingers on the counter and looked about. Almost everything was white: counter, chairs, tables, floor, walls… there was some wood on the chair legs and a green potted plant in the corner, but other than that, it was like something out of a sci-fi movie. Knowing how Ai tends to watch those films from time to time, I wondered a little if that factored into her decision to eat here.
“So…” I wondered out loud, “What’s a place like this doing serving curry, anyway? Isn’t this all, you know, healthy food and stuff?”
“It’s macrobiotic,” she repied, “and vegan. That means there’s nothing from animals in it.”
“So it’s all vegetables?” I asked, just to make sure.
“And curry, don’t get too upset. You should eat more fresh vegetables, you know.”
“Now you sound like my Mom.”
“If that’s what it takes, Ken darling…”
Yoshiko came by and set down two small bowls of curry and rice, along with two steaming mugs of tea. I could just tell she was thinking “teddy bear” the whole time.
“She sounds like an interesting woman, your mother,” Ai said as her bright red lips blew on her tea.
“You have no idea,” I replied, poking at the rice with a spoon, “Is there something wrong with this rice?”
“It’s brown rice, sweetie,” Ai laughed a little, “just a little less… refined than the white stuff.”
“It’s chewy,” I said with a mouth half full, “but the curry’s good… even if I can’t tell what half the stuff is I’m chewing.”
“I could give you a list, but it might scare you.”
“I’ll just pretend they’re all carrots.”
The tea was also surprisingly good, even though again I had no idea what was in it. We hopped back into the car and almost immediately Ai grabbed my hand and set it on her thigh. I won’t lie: it was very soft, and smooth and, um, other things, but…
“Ha ha,” I laughed dryly, taking my hand back, “was there something in that tea, Ai?”
To my surprise, Ai stepped on the gas and we flew out into a (thankfully) empty city street.
“Hey! What’s going on?”
“Did you ever consider that I was being serious, Ken?”
Uh-oh. She didn’t call me “darling” or “dear.” I must be in trouble.
“But… that was so forceful. Usually you play around a lot…”
“Maybe I’m just annoyed and sick of playing around!”
“Look, Ken,” she sighed, taking a corner at about 65 kilometers an hour, “you can’t use that old ‘I used to be your teacher’ excuse anymore. We’ve officially known you as a co-worker longer than a teacher, now.”
“Oh my… you’re right.”
“Exactly!” she hammered on the brakes at a red light, “so maybe now some of us ladies want to be shown that we’re thought of as, y’know, ladies! If we’re going to go through the hassle of asking you out, then busting down some bitches in our favorite store, then taking you to our favorite spot to grab a bite… we’re expecting you to appreciate it, buddy!”
She drove (more like raced) the rest of the way in silence. We pulled up outside my apartment building and Ai still seemed frustrated, her hands gripping poor Sakura’s steering wheel like the horns of an angry bull. I half expected her face to be mashed up in a face of frustration, but when I finally worked up the courage to look at her, she just looked more… sad.
She didn’t even turn to acknowledge. I heaved a sigh and shuffled over to get a little closer.
“Don’t do anything just because you feel like you have to,” she said quietly, slowly. I leaned back a little, wondering just what I should do. Here she was, practically begging me to, um, do something, but then if I try to do something, she tells me not to, and… aaagh!
“Y’know what? Screw this,” I said finally, in a huff, “You want me to do what I want to do? Fine.”
I leaned over and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek.
“There. And now, this.”
I leaned over again and gave her as real of a hug I could in a sedan. I felt her stiffed a little, but then return to her, um, softness.
“You’re a good friend, Ai. Maybe someday in the future, I’ll be good enough for you… and I’m not talking about this.”
I patted my stomach again. She laughed a little and finally turned to me, relaxing her grip on the wheel.
“Ken… you’re such a dear.”
“No… I’m a bear, remember? A soft, fluffy teddy bear.”
Ai snorted a little as she laughed then, shaking her head. That’ll be a story for Yoshiko, no doubt.
“Well,” I said, popping open the door on the car, “This bear needs to hibernate for a while.”
I got out and circled around the car, leaning into her driver side window.
“Thanks for a fun night, Ai.”
“You’re welcome, Ken darling. I don’t suppose I get to cuddle up with the teddy bear tonight?”
“I dunno… do you want to?”
She actually blushed then, and shook her head again as she rolled up the window.
“Good night, Kenny dear.”
And just like that, she was gone into the night.
And for the first time, I have to admit… I, um, wanted her.