I was still thinking about the idea of stagnation as I walked into the Home Ec room on Monday for the customary lunch. What I saw on the table, however, was the same as tossing a large rock into a stagnant pond. All around the table, each with frustrated expressions too ashamed to look at eat other, sat six of the Rogues. In front of each of their tables, in all colors of the rainbow, were six blocks of instant ramen.
Tomoko Arakawa was nowhere to be found.
“What’s going on, here?” I asked, heading over to where a package of shrimp ramen sat facing the only empty seat.
“Tomo’s not here,” Mei grumbled, narrowing her eyes at the package of miso ramen in front of her.
“Sick…” Eri added, wishing for her apple and tea instead of the beef flavored brick she was given.
“And why are you all pouting at ramen?” I asked, trying not to pout myself as shrimp is not my favorite flavor.
“It’s not that we couldn’t cook…” Ami grumbled over a spicy noodle bowl.
“But we don’t know how to make it good, darling,” Ai heaved a sigh that stressed every button on her blouse… um, except those that went unbuttoned, of course.
“If it tastes icky, we’d rather eat nothing at all!” Haru gave an annoyed huff at her brick, which to her delight moved slightly across the table. She kept blowing on the plastic package until it skittered all the way across the table into Mei’s lap, whereupon the tall gym teacher decided to keep it out of reach for the diminutive music teacher.
“Ah’ve eet’n thiys stuff plenny a taimes,” Cathy said with a shrug, “but eyver’wun jest seems so dern frusstrated.”
“Well, I don’t know about all of you,” I said with a bit of sadness, picking up my brick, “but I’m hungry enough to give it a shot.”
It was amazing, really. I’d spent years of my life fairly living off of this stuff, but after over a year of Ms. Arakawa’s lunches, the thought of going back was like, well… it would have been like Alexander Graham Bell junking his whole invention and deciding pigeons were good enough. Still… I had skipped breakfast this morning…
“Hey,” I suddenly had a flash of inspiration, “we’re in a kitchen classroom, aren’t we? Why don’t we use whatever’s in the refrigerator to make our ramen taste like, um… food?”
“But how do we know what Tomo had planned to cook today?” Ami grumbled, “we can’t take stuff from the school.”
“I’ll replace it, I promise,” I offered lamely, but the other ladies seemed to like the idea, so I kept going.
“Besides, I don’t think they’ll miss a little cabbage or an egg or two for one day.”
Even Ami had to agree with that, although we all drew the line at including any meat. In a few minutes we had a nice stack of nori, cabbage, a few eggs, a leek, and some bean sprouts.
“All right!” I said happily, appraising the assembled food, “Now, who wants to help me put this all together?”
Surprisingly, not a single hand went up.
“It’s not that we don’t want to…”
“but awl of us desahded…”
“it’d be super duper awesome if you cooked for us!”
“and we wanna see just how good you are with those noodles, Kenny-boy.”
Eri added a silent nod to the proceedings, destroying my last possible bridge out of this ridiculous situation. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get all of their lunches done in time, but I had one last shot to make it work. After all, they were all counting on me… and part of me did like to show off, just a little.
“Is that why you called me down here?” Akira said moodily, sipping a up of bad teacher’s lounge coffee, “to show off for your little harem?”
“Don’t call them that…” I sighed, “and besides, you’ll get to show off for them, too. You know, I heard that blonde gaijin might be thinking you’re pretty swell…”
“Really? Hot damn, I’ve never been with an American girl. Let’s do it up like we used to do in college, eh?”
And, before I could possibly remind him that, as far as I knew, he hadn’t really been with ANY women, we were into the thick of it. It’s funny, really, how you can snap back into things after you haven’t done them for a while. In America they say it’s like riding a bike, so I guess over here you could say it was like serving up cheap noodles. Our adrenaline kicked in and, suddenly, it was like we were kids again at that dark little hole we worked in during college. Chopping, boiling, seasoning, sprinkling, mixing, and all of it in perfect harmony, like some sort of dance. Naturally, the Rogues started to take notice.
“Waow! Yer lahk, psycho-linked!”
I don’t think that’s the right word, Cathy…
“They’re like those skating pairs at the Olympics!”
“They don’t have two dudes doing skating, Haru.”
“Hey! Watch the salt on mine. And plenty spicy!”
I figured, Ami…
“Extra green on mine, darling!”
Same with you, Ai…
Who knew Eri was a picky eater? Finally, with one last theatrical toss of spatulas (we’d practiced it so many times on slow nights it was like shaking hands) Akira and I finished up and served our “customers.” Most of the ladies were very, um, appreciative…
“Still tastes like instant noodles, though.”
Like I said, most of the ladies. Ami, well… you can never really tell with Ami. After work, I decided it was just a little too strange for Ms. Arakawa to be sick from work, so my evening walk with Baka was a little bit longer than usual. With the tired little pup in my backpack, I headed the last few blocks to Ms. Arakwa’s apartment building and rang her number.
“Oh, my… Mr. Watanabe! I… I didn’t mean to make anyone worry!”
“I know you didn’t, but I just wanted to see how you were getting along. I can’t remember you ever missing school before.”
“Yes… I know…”
There was a long, awkward silence wherein I assumed she just didn’t want to talk about whatever was bothering her.
“So…” I tried, “Can I come up?”
“Oh! Oh, yes, of course! I’m sorry, please come in!”
Her apartment hadn’t changed much since I had visited last, but it was a bit of a surprise to find her in her pajamas in the early evening.
“Are you sure you’re all right?”
“Yes, yes… just a thing… it happens to me once in a while… nothing to worry about.”
In my, um, limited experience with women, I’ve found that when a lady says something is “nothing to worry about” it means that you should worry. And when a woman like Ms. Arakawa says it’s “nothing to worry about,” well… ever heard of Napalm?
“Would you like something to eat?” she offered, shuffling rather slowly over to the kitchen. In all honesty, the noodles from lunch were very quickly disappearing from my stomach, but then I saw her wince as she bent over to get a pan from a cupboard.
She didn’t stop.
That did it. She froze like a deer, pot still in hand.
“Just put that down, okay? Come and sit down, it looks like something is killing you, there.”
“Oh, it’s all right. It just hurts a little… here and there.”
“Well then,” I thought I was clever, “How about you sit here… and I’ll be over there.”
I had to stare her down like a cobra to get her onto the couch, and as I headed into her kitchen I was already looking for things I could use if I needed to, um, keep her on the couch. Forcibly, if necessary.
“Now… I got to make lunch for everyone else today, so now I get to make you dinner.”
“You made everyone else..!” She clapped both hands to her mouth, aghast.
“Hush,” I waved a hand in her direction, “just let me do this for you, for once, okay?”
“… … …okay…”
As expected, Ms. Arakawa’s pantries were fully stocked… and I only know just realize what I said up there. Anyway, I managed to find something I couldn’t mess up too badly, and I carried it over to her on the sofa. I have to say, the opportunity to be the one taking care of the person who is usually so preoccupied in taking care of things is quite nice. Even though I could tell she wanted to protest (and even though I knew my dinner wasn’t anything special) she said it was great and offered to do the dishes. She seemed to have some trouble getting out of a sitting position, so I was able to beat her back into the kitchen to take care of the dishes as well.
“You make me feel like a lump,” she said sadly from the couch.
“C’mon. Allow someone else to take care of you for once, okay?”
She didn’t say anything more, and I was a little worried I had managed to make her mad… or, at least, as close as Tomoko Arakawa can get to being mad. But as we were watching something stupid on prime time television, I felt her soft, auburn hair nestling into my shoulder and heard her give a little sigh.
“Dinner was wonderful.”
“Oh, come on…” I rolled my eyes, “I just made you soup.”
“But you made it for me. And that’s important.”
I felt her head move slightly, so I looked down to see if everything was all right. That was a big mistake, as she had turned her gentle, somewhat sad looking eyes up to full power, looking like Baka after he had gotten caught outside in the rain. Not knowing what else to do, I rubbed her head like I would have rubbed Baka’s, and that seemed to do the trick. She closed her eyes, smiled, and returned her head to my shoulder.
I had almost forgotten about the other puppy in the room until I noticed my backpack start to rustle. Within a few seconds, Baka’s happy face emerged, taking in the surrounding apartment with that expression of ever-present wonder and joy.
“Well, I suppose that’s my cue to leave,” I stood up from the couch, making sure to gently deposit Tomo’s head onto a pillow, “Now that he’s woken up, Baka will probably want to, um, go outside.”
“I actually stayed here a lot longer than I had planned. I got some papers to grade still tonight.”
“…did you have a good night?”
She was still in her pajamas, resting on a pillow, covered in a fluffy pink blanket, looking like a little rabbit or something. In a word, she looked adorable, and I couldn’t help but speak my mind.
“Yeah… yeah, I did have a good night. Now, you just make sure to get better, all right?”
“Whatever it takes, okay?”
“Even if you have to go to the hospital.”
“I’ll steal a car and drive you there myself,” I said proudly, knowing full well where Akira kept his keys.
“Oh, goodness… don’t do that!”
Whenever I used her first name, she blushed a little and looked sort of, um, drunk.
“I was joking.”
“I know…” she muttered weakly, which made me think she didn’t really know.
“You just take care of yourself, all right?” I said, heading to the door, but she managed to stop me in my tracks by using MY first name.
“Ken… can you give me a good night kiss?”
I turned around to see her blushing a lot harder than before, now looking like a tomato in a pile of cotton candy.
“I mean, not like a big kiss, or anything, not like a KISS kiss… just a little one, on the cheek or on the forehead? It’s just… that always makes me feel better…”
I walked back over and leaned down to her forehead, which had just a few freckles spotted on it. My lips suddenly went dry, but I did what I could and put a quick kiss between her eyes. Her forehead was surprisingly soft and incredibly smooth, and there was a faint cinnamon smell, possibly from her shampoo… but now I’m saying a bit too much, aren’t I? I straightened back up, coughed, mumbled a “good night” or something like that and was on my way, convinced I had done enough to help out a friend.
That good mood vanished the next day when I came downstairs into the Home Ec room to see the massive form of Mighty Arakawa, clad in a frilly apron, preparing stock for the day’s classes.