Tag Archives: rogues’ gallery

RG – Mutiny of the Bounty, Part Three

Of course I couldn’t give her a good answer. Who am I to talk about this sort of situation, anyway? I’m not a doctor. I’m not one of those guys on American TV who helps people with their feelings. I’m just a chubby History teacher with too many gray hairs and terrible eating habits. And here, this woman… she looks up to me, and I have no idea why… she’s asking my opinion on something involving her body, her choices… and who am I to even have an opinion?
“I really don’t know, Tomo. Honestly, it’s your decision.”
She looked at me with those pleading eyes, and part of me wanted to just flip a coin or something and give her an answer, to make it easy and simple for her. But I knew it wasn’t my place. I knew this was something she had to decide for herself.
“I’m not just saying that to get out of it. I mean it.”
“I know,” she said with a little sniffle, “but I don’t know what to do. It’s… it’s part of myself, you know? I feel like I wouldn’t be the same without it, like I’d be different… like I’d be worse.”
“Worse?” the word struck me oddly.
“Not as good as I was before…”
“Wait… what?”
She was blushing now, so she turned away. I think she knew full well what she had just said, and she knew even more that even my thick head had finally picked up on it.
“Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
“No. It’s fine. It’s all right…”
“No,” I stood up, shaking my head, “No, I don’t think it is.”
I wanted to see her face, but she was doing her best to bury it in the ridiculously fluffy blankets that covered her couch. Without thinking, I reached out and put a hand on her should, and she immediately froze. Everything in my head told me to leave well enough alone, but something else said I had to keep going. I tightened my grip a little and made to turn her over. She gave way easily, too easily, and exposed her red and crying face. It wasn’t pain, at least not a physical pain, but an expression of absolute embarrassment.
There’s a word, mortify, that actually comes from Latin and means to literally make dead. to destroy. I looked down in complete confusion, wondering how this situation unraveled so fast, but then it suddenly hit me: this was always there. Her nervousness, her worry, even her happiness seemed to be tied to making other people happy and not necessarily herself. She was always a few steps away from falling apart because she had spent her entire life trying only to please everyone else. And now… now she was faced with a choice that stood to ruin everything she had worked so hard to maintain. In her mind, getting this surgery could be a sort of death for her.
I closed my eyes slowly and took a big sigh. I sat back down and she immediately buried her face into my shoulder. I couldn’t even enjoy it… not that I should have.
“Tomo… listen to me. Those… things on your chest… they don’t say one damn thing about how good of a person you are. Neither does the way you cook, or clean, or do someone else’s wishes. You are your own person, all right? It doesn’t matter what happened yesterday, or ten years ago, or who did what, you are still you. Please don’t think that the only reason I… why everyone likes being around you is because you have things or can do things for them. We like you because we like you, Tomo… and nothing else.”
She gave another colossal sniff that ended with a snort, and I found myself laughing despite the, um, situation.
“You’re a nice person, Tomo. You’re a good person… and that’s enough, all right? Please, for crying out loud don’t think that you have to torture yourself for someone else’s happiness. If you think that those… things are the only thing that make people around you happy, and that if you got them, um, changed it would somehow make me like you less… then you really don’t think much of me, do you?”
Her head snapped up this time, her eyes pale and watery.
“No! I think a lot of you!”
“Tomo,” I sighed, “you’re doing it again. Don’t feel like you always have to please me, all right? You can piss me off if you want, and I’ll still like you because I like you!”
“Why?”
“I don’t know why! Because I do, okay?”
“That makes me…” she thought for a moment before choosing the word, “uncomfortable.”
“Look: there’s no recipe for this, all right? You can’t just have enough of this or that and it’ll always turn out perfect. People… we’re weird, okay? What are those things that fall in the oven… those French things?”
“A soufflé?”
“Yeah, that. Sometimes, you can work really hard and think you have everything just right with a person… and the soufflé will fall down anyway. That’s just how it is.”
“So…” she fidgeted with her fingers, unsure of what to say next, “Would you still like me even if my… soufflés fell a little?”
It took me a second to understand what she meant, and then I could feel my face burning.
“Uh… of course! I’d like you if, um, they fell all the way, or whatever you say about those things… can they do that?”
“Yes,” she smiled, then her eyes snapped open with realization, “In fact, some recipes actually call for them to fall!”
“Well, there you go, then!”
“Now I want to make a soufflé!” she said with a little laugh.
“It’s kinda late,” I said, glancing at the clock, “Are you sure you want to?”
“Yes, I am,” she stood up, a little shaky, and made her way into the kitchen. I decided to try out the night’s, um, conversation with a question.
“Tomo?”
“Yes?”
“You’re not just making this soufflé for me… are you?”
“Hell no!”
I think it was the first time I’d ever heard her say that!
“I’m making it for myself, and if you’re lucky I might give you a bite!”
I immediately pushed away any thoughts of biting Ms. Arakawa’s, um, soufflé. It turns out you can make a fallen chocolate soufflé as a dessert and, if you’re curious, it is incredibly good.

***

Over our near-midnight snack, Tomo told me she was now resolved to go see a doctor and find out whether or not she needed the surgery. A few days later, she returned to the Home Ec room in terrific spirits, really happier and more outgoing than I had ever really seen her. Even her Dad, still filling in as teacher, was surprising to see her so happy.
“Well, lookit that! I ain’t seen you smilin’ like this since you were a little girl!”
“Was she ever a little girl?” Mei mumbled under her breath to Cathy, who nearly shot milk tea out of her nose. Ms. Arakawa gave her father a peck on the cheek and thanked him for all he’d done.
“So,” Ami asked, finishing an angry, red plate of curry udon, “Are you coming back, then? Because,  I think we all miss your cooking… no offense, Mr. Arakawa.”
“None taken, Ami,” the big man beamed, “I taught her everything she knows, but the student has sure become the master since then!”
“So I suppose that took about a week, then?”
Mei was really on a roll, but Eri was probably the last person to joke with… wait, did she give a nod?!
“I’ll be back tomorrow, everyone,” Ms. Arakawa turned and announced to the group at lunch, “but first I wanted to thank you all for dealing with me and this difficult situation.”
She gave a little bow, and we all nodded in reply. Then Haru, who has never been known for her tact, shouted out from the back of the table.
“So! How’d it go?!”
Ms. Arakawa immediately turned red and dropped her eyes on to floor. I guess she was still the same, after all. I heard a slapping sound from behind me and Haru yelp in surprise and pain.
“Owwww! That hurt, Mei-mei!
“Haru, sweetie! You can’t ask her something like that in front of her Dad… and our Ken!”
Thanks for including me, Ai… and what do you mean “OUR” Ken?!
“No. No, it’s all right…” Ms. Arakawa spoke up enough that even Haru stopped her whining to pay attention, “I’m just a little embarrassed about it, is all.”
She took a deep breath and looked out at us once again.
“I’m not going to have the surgery. Actually… I don’t need it.”
“What?!” we all asked, nearly in unison.
“But, Tomo, honey… your back…”
“It’s all right, father. It turns out I was just… well…”
She got red again and finally blurted it out. Except, of course, when someone like Tomoko Arakawa tries to blurt, it just ends up sounding like a malfunctioning cat toy.
“I wasn’t… dressing properly!”
“What?!” we all asked again. It was about that time I noticed that Tomo had had a medium sized shopping bag set down next to her the entire time. Haru struck again, bounding from her chair and skipping over in a flash.
“Ohhh! Is that what’s in the bag, then, Tomo? Let me see!”
She reached in and, with a look like she’d just discovered El Dorado, she held up a, um, rather lacy, um, brassiere where the, um… things were nearly the size of her head.
“Ohhhhhh…” Haru held it up high, awestruck. Tomo gave a squeak and immediately ripped it out of Haru’s hands, stuffing it back in the bag. Remember what I said about mortified before? Yeah, that’s about right.
“…huge!” I heard Ami mutter under her breath.
“Ha ha!” Mei let out a tremendous laugh, “Guess you weren’t wearing the right size, eh?”
“Mei, I don’t expect you to understand, but the styles on the larger sizes are just dreadful!”
“And what do you mean ‘I wouldn’t understand,’ Hasegawa?!”
“Gawly,” Cathy chuckled, “Looks lahk thayt theyre deevice was mayd in Teyksas!”
“Indeed,” Eri nodded.
“Is Mei-mei right, Tomo?” Haru asked in hushed tones, still amazed, “Is there no cute underwear for ladies… like you?”
This caused Mei to break into a new round of laughter.
“Lookit the boys! They can’t even move! Shell shocked!”
Somewhere, I just knew Akira was enjoying lunch alone and suddenly felt very sad. Mei was right, though; between the both of us, I don’t know if me or Mr. Arakawa were running on anything other than basic brain functions. Our minds were blown away, it seemed. I don’t remember much else happening after that, except for a lot of shouting and laughing and discussions of parts of ladies’ fashion I didn’t even know existed. I thought to myself “at least they seem happy,” but then I started wondering if I was catching myself in the same trap as Ms. Arakawa: always thinking of other people, basing my life completely on their happiness instead of making sure I was all right. I was just about to get really deep into my own head when Mr. Arakawa decided to bring out dessert for our lunches and, of course, he brought out two massive, unfallen, soufflés. It was obvious he was quite proud of them, but Tomo and I still fell apart at the seams trying to hold in our laughter.

RG- Mutiny of the Bounty, part two

“What on earth are you doing here?!”
I find that I say that a lot.
“Fillin’ in for my daughter,” Arakawa replied plainly, as if it was an ordinary occurrence, “Diet’s not meeting today, so I figured I’d come down to help. You like your dashi heavier?”
“Uhhh, yeah, I guess.”
“That’s what I want to hear!” Arakawa’s voice boomed where Tomo’s had been so quiet before, “Good strong fella to give me some good, strong grandchildren!”
Oh, God… please don’t say that when the others are around!
“Don’t worry, I won’t say that when them other ladies are around… but if it comes down to it, I think we could take ’em all in a fight!”
I wanted to tell him to watch our for the redhead, as she’s meaner than she looks, but instead another feeling suddenly crashed over me like a runaway wave.
“Wait… is Ms. Arakawa okay?”
“Son, any woman that crawls into my bed in the middle of the night ain’t called a ‘Miss’ to me anymore… unless that’s how she likes it.”
Oh, dear God, stop!
“Anyway, Tomo’s not feeling so well, and she gets like this from time to time. I always try to help out when I can.”
“Do you happen to know what’s wrong with her, then? Is it some kind of illness?”
Arakawa laughed again, and I thought the windows might break.
“More like a blessing gone wrong, son. ”
“What?”
“Oh, come on, kid! Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed.”
I think I know what he’s talking about… but if I say what I’m thinking… it might be a trap, and then I’ll wind up on the bad end of an STF or something. The STF, by the way, stands for “step-over toehold facelock” and was originated by a man named Lou Thesz, and if you know who Lou Thesz is… well, you probably know what an STF is, then.
“I’m not sure I want to keep talking,” I murmured, which only allowed Arakawa another reason to give out a bone-melting laugh.
“Good boy. Don’t want ol’ Dad cleanin’ your clock, am I right?”
“More or less…” I tried to make sure my voice didn’t waver.
“Well, if I can be serious for a second, you know how Tomo’s got those… y’know… big…”
I swear, if he says “Tracts of Land,” I’m going to die.
“Tracts of Land.”
It’s awful when you know that her father likes the same movies you do. It really is.
“And she’s been struggling with it for a while. It’s her back, see… and she can’t always hold those things up like she should…”
For the first time ever, I saw Mighty Arakawa blush. The only time I ever saw his face turn red before was when one of the bad guys on TV would bust him open with some barbed wire or a cheese grater or something. I could feel my own face on fire, but that was pretty normal for me, so we both stood there for a moment looking like two of the ugliest tomatoes the world has ever seen. Eventually something started to boil over on the stove and, with a roar that was very un-teacher-like, Arakawa threw himself back into his cooking. Knowing I wouldn’t get anything else out of him, I headed upstairs to get ready for the day.
It was difficult to concentrate on the ins and outs of political struggles during France’s Reign of Terror when all I could think about was Ms. Arakawa suffering… and for such a bizarre reason, too. For the second night in a row, I resolved to head on over and talk this out (without getting distracted by food this time, which I have learned is one of her most devastating maneuvers) before things got too, um, dangerous? You see, that’s the problem. This is like someone telling Ben Franklin to fix their TV: yes, he is familiar with electricity, and he finds it fascinating, and he has a bit of experience with it… but this is almost completely outside of anything he would be capable to tackle and… what on Earth did I just write down there?
I still had absolutely no plan when I knocked on her door. There was no backpack tonight, and no Baka with me either: I had left him with Cathy for the night and she couldn’t have been happier… and neither could he. I wanted absolutely nothing to distract myself from the task at hand, which was having a frank and mature discussion about a mature topic with a mature woman and coming to a satisfying conclusion and solution.
“Hey.”
“…hi…”
“You weren’t in school today, again. I wanted to see if everything was all right.”
“Oh… all right. Come on in.”
It was a different set of pajamas this time: yellow, with frogs on them. I felt like Patton storming the deserts of North Africa as I easily made my way into the apartment. I had effectively exploited Ms. Arakawa’s weaknesses of politeness and nervousness and now I would be able to continue on with the campaign as planned.
“Would you like anything to eat?”
“Sure. I skipped dinner, so…”
Wait…
Damn it, Arakawa, you magnificent bastard… I read your book! And it’s a cookbook!
She brought us both out some simple little tea sandwiches, which were so easily made and yet so incredibly delicious that it almost gave me a headache, but thankfully a pot of tea helped keep a headache out of the picture for tonight. At every moment, there seemed to be something waiting to steal away my attention, to rob me of my focus: a funny commercial on TV, another cup of tea, the way the soft folds of her pajamas fall around her as she pours that cup of tea…
No! Focus, Watanabe! Focus!
“Ms. Arakawa, I’d really like to talk about your health over the past two days.”
“Oh.”
She put the teapot down and started to blush. No, I can’t let that get in the way this time!
“It seems like you have some serious medical questions that need answering. Have you, um, seen a doctor about it?”
“Yes…”
“And have they suggested anything?”
“Yes…”
“Like what? Pills? Exercise?”
I swallowed hard and tried my best to say what came next and not cause a problem.
“…..Diet?”
“It’s nothing like that.”
She turned to me and gave a little smile through the red cheeks, as if to congratulate me on navigating this minefield.
“Whenever I talk to someone about it, the main conclusion we come to is always… surgery.”
The word fell to the ground with a thud, like a bonshō cut loose.
“Do you mean…” I started, trying not to go, um, there, “like, back surgery?”
“No.”
“So… surgery on… them?”
“Yes.”
She went there. She was already looking down, but she seemed to shift her focus to her two, um, closest friends like one might do to console a frightened puppy or something.
“Ah. Well. So…”
I could almost hear the bonshō again as we sat there, hands in our laps, not quite sure how to go on. I don’t care how old you are, or how much life experience you have, or even if you work with this kind of stuff for a living… it’s never easy.
“So… what are you going to do?”
“I don’t know…”
“It seems like this is becoming a big… um, I mean… a problem of large scale, er… you know what I’m saying!”
“Yes, I do,” she gave a nervous little laugh, “I’m just not sure what I should do. I like… I like them, I suppose… it makes me happy to be a woman.”
“Tomo, that has nothing to do with being a woman.”
“But still… I don’t want to get rid of them.”
And then… she turned to me and delivered the real coup de grace.
“Mr. Watanabe… what do you think?”

RG – Mutiny of the Bounty, part one

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.
“Ken, darling…”
“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…
“No cabbage.”
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.
“Ms. Arakawa!”
She didn’t stop.
“Tomo!”
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.”
“Ohhh… okay.”
“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?”
“All right…”
“Whatever it takes, okay?”
“Okay…”
“Even if you have to go to the hospital.”
“Really?”
“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!”
“Tomo…”
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.
“Excuse… me?”
“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.

RG – Three years on the rock

The stillness of the pond is not the same as the stillness of a swamp.

Sounds cool, huh? I’m a regular Aristotle!

Out of all of the, um, women I’ve gotten to know so well in the past year, I figured the one who would be the least outspoken about everything staying the same and, well, quiet… would be Eri Ozawa. Despite all of the crazy things that had happened in the past year or so, it always seemed like Eri was just going along with things. She rarely ever spoke out… or spoke at all, really… and most of the time she only seemed to act if something else was going on already. True, when she did decide to act it was usually with a precision you might describe as, um, deadly… a certain decapitated doll comes to mind… but surely she wouldn’t find reason to draw her blade after all these recent accusations of stagnation… would she?

She would.

I wandered out of the teacher’s room one spring afternoon, perfectly content to have nothing to do and nowhere to go, wanting nothing more than to dust off my old Famicom that had been neglected for far too long and obliterate some brain cells in an evening of… oh, what’s the right English word… how about “sloth?” I know it’s a deadly sin, but I can always apologize for it later, right?
Apparently, Eri was not the type to take apologies today. I walked out of the room and nearly had a shinai shoved up my nose. I looked down the long wooden weapon into her endless black eyes looking straight into the soul of my soul, her little mouth set into a firm and hard scowl. There was even a few furrows on her pale forehead where so often a hachimaki had been tied. Eri rarely showed this emotion, and even more rarely seemed this, um, angry.
“We must talk.”
That itself was a surprise. First of all, because Eri put three words together. Or, at least three words as you’re reading it, there. Also surprising was that she said we must talk. Eri doesn’t usually must anything, except if it happens to involve musting that stick into someone else’s kendo helmet, or men, at lightning speed. Even then, once the red mist of battle goes down, she apologizes.
Really. I’ve seen it. It’s kind of adorable.
So hearing Eri say we must talk must mean something very serious… with or without the, um, stick in my face. I forced myself to blink a few times, as if the tiny movement of my eyelids would have caused my own destruction if done at the wrong time. Finding my mouth suddenly dry, I managed to gasp out something like “Sure” and this seemed to pass the test. Eri lowered the shinai a bit but used it like a traffic officer’s baton, waving it briskly in one direction indicating where I was to go.  She followed me closely as I walked down the hall, the stick always perched over my right shoulder, hovering like an angry hornet waiting for the chance to sting.

Oh, and I really should explain for an American audience: a hornet in Japan is actually called ōsuzumebachi, which literally means “giant sparrow bee.” In Japan, hornets are about 4.5 centimeters long. They are the most deadly animal in Japan, killing about 40 people every year and, let me tell you, I was indeed fearing for my life as Eri escorted me down the hall into one of the empty classrooms. As I entered, I took a quick glance around and immediately understood what Eri really meant when she said “we must talk.” The chalkboard was covered nearly top to bottom, side to side, right to left with her short, efficient handwriting.

“I don’t know what I expected,” I sighed as I walked into the room. I turned to Eri, who had lowered the shinai and shut the door to the classroom firmly behind me. I threw my hands up in dismay.

“Well, where do I start?”

She walked to the front of the classroom in silence, her indoor shoes padding softly with brisk, measured steps. She turned back to her, um, classroom of one and swung the kendo stick with alarming speed, cracking it against the chalkboard so loudly I thought Chuck Yeager had just passed by.

“Read,” she ordered, “Out loud.”
I prefer to keep my head on its shoulders whenever I had the option, so I started off reading.
“Three years on the rock… wait, isn’t that a proverb?”
Eri nodded.
“Uh, let’s see… it means you should always persevere and see your enterprise through to its conclusion.”
She nodded again. I glanced at the wall full of text and groaned.
“Do I really have to read all of this out loud?”
A nod.
“This isn’t good teaching strategy, y’know.”
“Not a class.”
Her response was immediate, almost frighteningly so. Had she expected me to say that? What’s worse… am I that predictable?
“This is gonna take forever, Eri… does it really matter if I read it all?”
Her measured footsteps brought her all the way back to where I was standing in the back of the class and, putting the shinai aside for a moment, she grabbed both of my hands in hers. I looked down in surprise and fell into the trap: those eyes, those infinite eyes looking back up at me, and looking not lonely and sad, but deep with feeling and, um, affectionate.

“It matters.”

She didn’t add “to me,” but we both knew she didn’t have to. That was the beauty of knowing how to speak Ozawan; after a while, you know exactly which words aren’t being said. She let go of my hand and grabbed the shinai again, wringing her hands around the handle nervously and blushing a little as she looked down at the floor. If that stick had been a chicken, its head would have popped clean off. I tried to loosen the tension by walking in a few rows and sitting down in one of the desks, noting with a little frustration that I didn’t fit in them very well anymore.
I started reading what amounted to a thesis statement and argument against what Eri called “Stagnation.” I was about halfway through when the corner of my eye noticed that the sun had almost disappeared over the horizon. The sudden knowledge of that must have woken up my stomach, who decided that all of this feeding at the trough of knowledge was fine and dandy, but he’d like to have something to eat, too. A loud, gurgling noise poured out of my middle, like someone pouring stones out of a bucket into a shallow pond. I tried to concentrate around the noise, but it kept growing louder and my brain started to lose the battle.

“When in the course of…”
gurgle.
“When in the course of the life cycle…”
another gurgle.
“When in…”
yet another gurgle. I finally put my head down on the desk and, possibly out of muscle memory from sitting that way, raised my hand like a good student. I was too late to stop it before I felt like a complete idiot, so I decided to play the entire thing off as a joke.

“Miss Ozawa? When’s lunch?”

I heard her pad over on leopard feet until I felt her, um, presence directly behind me. I didn’t turn around, because at that height, Eri’s hips would have been at a very, um, uncomfortable level for me given her feeling about said bone structure in her lower half. See? I’m learning? A year ago, I would have turned around like a fool and gotten a face of, well…

“Taken care of.”

I heard her soft, even voice behind me and that was enough. She padded back to the rear of the classroom without another word, but the guarantee of food seemed to fend off my hunger for the time being. I continued reading, finally finishing about the time I heard a buzz from the back of the room.
“Uh oh…” I chided, “Teacher’s got her cell phone out in class…”
Eri either didn’t hear me or just decided not to pay attention, because she launched immediately into a brief Ozawan conversation (“Hai… Hai… Iie. Hai. Hai.”) and then hung up.
“Continue reading,” she instructed, pulling the door to the classroom shut behind her. I did as I was told without even realizing that this could have been my chance to escape. I had a brief thought of how foolhardy and short my escape attempt would be, along with a few phantom pains of exactly where she might aim with that shinai if she caught me. Then I thought about whether I was just telling myself I’d get a beating, and whether or not I was crammed in this desk because I wanted to be, and what that said about me. Did I want to be told what to do? Did I, um, like the idea of being threatened with violence by a cute girl? I know in America, Japan has a reputation of being very, um, weird with certain um, likes and dislikes, if you will… and I’ve tried not to think about those things almost as an apology to the rest of the world… but here I was, thinking about them… and not reading the rest of the chalkboard!
The door slid open almost silently, in that sort of way where you thought you heard something, but you immediately disregard it as the wind or a bird or something. I was completely off daydreaming when Eri suddenly appeared beside me, holding two bags of takeout food. All she got out was “Food–” and I threw my hands up into the air, making a sound like a startled, um, I don’t know… yak? What does a startled yak sound like? I made the yak sound and turned around quickly, instinctively, to make sure it actually was Eri and not some roaming ghost of a student who perished at Kotogakko long ago, roaming the halls crying out for the food it never got while staying all night studying until it wasted away… and damn it, I made myself hungry again!

Oh, and did I mention that I turned around only to directly bury my face into the hollow between Eri’s waist and hips? It was an odd sensation that I wish I couldn’t describe as comfortable, but the blend of the smell of cheap takeout and cherry blossom perfume was a little off putting. I didn’t have much time to enjoy it before Eri tried her best to leap out of the way, clipping my jaw neatly with her hip bone and staggering back into the next row of desks in a rather odd looking heap of black pants, white shirt, and white plastic bags. Maybe it was the smell of the sakura still lingering in my nose, but I could have sworn I saw a little bit of pale pink peeking out between the hem of her shirt and the, um, waist of her pants as well… but I’d rather not think about that.
“Gah! Sorry!”
And, being the gallant idiot I am, I tried to stand up to help but the desk decided it wasn’t ready to let go yet and I stumbled into a pile of metal, wood, and body parts on the floor at her feet. It was like a perfect little moment of screwing everything up completely… but wait! The food was saved. A little bumped around, but the beef bowls and gyoza were still completely edible. I could have eaten the food right there on the floor, bags and all, but Eri quickly regained her balance, set the food down, and helped… extricate me from the desk.

“Thanks, Eri,” I sighed, rubbing a sore jaw, “that food smells terrific.”
“Did you finish?”

Not even so much as asking if I was all right. How cold! And yes, I am trying to distract from the fact that I had not finished!

“Um, well….”
“Yes or no?”
“Yes… maybe?”
“No maybe.”
“I’m really hungry…”
“Answer first.”
“That’s not very nice, Eri.”
“Not nice time.”
“Why did you say that in English?”
“Answer time!”
Again with the English?”
“Yes or no, Ken!”

I do believe that may be the first time she’s ever called me by my first name. I didn’t have much time to enjoy the sensation, however, because I saw her hand reading for the shinai and I knew the fun was over. I couldn’t help it, and I let the words come tumbling out of my mouth.

“No! I didn’t, okay? I didn’t finish it, because I started thinking about why I was here and why I was reading it and why I didn’t run away when you went to get the food and if I even wanted to run away and maybe I liked being stuck in this desk and maybe I wanted you to tell what to do and then I started thinking about weird things you could do with that shinai and then I started thinking about whether or not I’d like it and… I’M REALLY HUNGRY, ERI, CAN’T I JUST EAT?”

We stood there for a moment, just staring at each other. Tiny eyes to infinite ones. Brown on black. Hers open wide, most likely a little disturbed at everything I just said, and mine open wide at the thought of a face full of beef bowl.

What do you want from me? I was really hungry!

After what seemed like two forevers, Eri finally allowed herself to come forward after being taken aback. Her shoulders rolled forward into that familiar stoop she did to try to hide her, um, attributes, and she let out a long sigh. It wasn’t one of those survival sighs, or an annoyed sigh, or even an angry one. It was just a lot of air moving, and I was close enough to wonder from that air whether or not she had sneaked a gyoza on the way to the classroom. Not that I’d ever tell her that.

“Your answer is acceptable,” she said, her eyes turning from quicksand to sparkling dewdrops.
“We can eat?”
Hai.”
Best. Beef Bowl. Ever. We ate mostly in silence because, well, you know, and it started to annoy me after a while so, despite all sorts of evidence to the contrary, I tried to strike up a conversation with Eri Ozawa.
“Thanks for not thinking I’m a total freak.”
“You are.”
I stopped with a pile of beef an onion halfway to my mouth, which was hanging open. Eri saw my shocked expression and smiled.
She SMILED. It was small, and cute, and unmistakably, um, her.
“But I like you anyway… Ken.”
She seemed to really enjoy saying my name, like a dam had finally burst, a dam of smiles and familiarity… that’s a terrible metaphor!
“So…” I decided I’d already broken down some walls, might as well launch another mortar, “What would you have done if I threatened to kiss you back there instead of answering?”
Her answer was surprisingly immediate, although I noticed she didn’t pick her face up from hovering over the beef bowl.
“Hit you.”
She reached over and patted the shinai, as if reassuring an attack dog.
“Ah!” I countered, “But you heard what I said there… maybe I’d have liked that!”
“No,” she shook her head and razor bangs swayed back and forth across her forehead like the wheat of my father’s farm. She looked up from the bowl with her eyes and, for just a moment, I saw a little mischief flicker deep in those pools.
“You wouldn’t have liked it.”
I was ready to take her word for it, but at that moment her phone buzzed in her pocket again.
“What’s that?” I joked, “dessert?”
She glanced at the phone’s caller ID, and it was as if The Berlin Wall had sprung up overnight… again. Suddenly, her eyes went as blank as concrete, her face fell from happiness to despair, and ridges of frustration popped out all over her brow like barbed wire.
“No,” she grunted, her voice having lost all of the playfulness it had only so recently found. She scowled at the phone as if wishing the call would just go away, but knowing it wouldn’t.
“My father.”
She flipped the phone open with enough force to snap it in two, and what followed was a conversation that made the one with the delivery man sound like a love letter. It was over mercifully quickly, and she went back to her dinner in silence. She had looked so happy, and now so miserable… I had to do something?
“Was dessert cancelled?”
She gestured angrily with her chopsticks to the one remaining bag next to her, her voice once again cold and unfeeling.
“In bag.”
“Ah…” I replied, feeling like I’d just been scolded. I let my legs dangle off the desk where I was sitting, just like I had when I was a kid.
“Did you ever do this when you were a kid, Eri?” I asked, “Sit on the desks when the teacher wasn’t around?”
“No,” she shot back, know angrily gnawing on her chopsticks, “Private tutor.”
I’d forgotten she grew up so rich. Hell, I’d forgotten she WAS rich. I guess wearing the same thing every day could be considered an eccentricity?
“Okay…” I was scrambling to find something to talk about that wouldn’t make her think about her father, “What’s for dessert, anyway?”
“Flan.”
“Oh,” she had made it sound so flat, “Flan. I like… flan… do you?”
She nodded, still trying to eat her chopsticks. Finally, I’d had enough.
“Eri, do you want to talk about it?”
I know how strange that sounded, but tonight was all about being strange, I think.
“My father… ass.
“Understood. May I ask why… why ass?”
“Only child. Girl.”
I suppose that was all she needed to say. As the only child of the head of a conglomerate like the Ozawa firm, she’d be expected to take over the business. But as a girl…
“Does your Dad want you to run the business?”
“Not allowed.”
“I see. Yes… that’s very ass. What about your mother?”
She said words that translate to things much worse than “ass,” but I don’t want to write them right here.
“Those are… strong words, Eri.”
“I am shunned,” Eri replied, taking the chopsticks out of her mouth and gripping them tightly with both hands.
“What?” I asked, blinking heavily, “Why?”
“Not married.”
She snapped the chopsticks cleanly in half, and her anger was as palatable as the beef fat still left on my tongue.
“I suppose they want someone to take over the company?”
Hai.”
It was a very nasty sounding hai.
“Sounds annoying.”
“Many suitors.”
“Oh?”
“All idiots.”
“Oh. Am I… included as an idiot?”
She looked up suddenly, blushing beneath her watery eyes.
“No…” she said, seemingly on the verge of tears.
“I’m just a freak, right?”
She laughed then, an absolute, outright laugh, which she almost immediately tried to restrain, her face now completely red. One nice side effect was that her hot face seemed to be boiling the tears out of her eyes.
“Eri, have your parents ever asked you, um… what you want to do?”
“No.”
She got up from her seat, took two silent steps, and then wrapped me in a hug that seemed to say “I could break you in half if I wanted to… and I don’t want to.”
“Thank you,” she whispered into the center of my chest, something that made me tingle all over in a very worrying way.
“Uh… thanks for dinner.”
I always say stupid things in my moments of panic. Case in point, I followed up that gem with:
“You wanna have dessert?”
Forget Aristotle. I’m not even Liberace. She, um, disengaged from me and we sat down to enjoy our flan. The poor thing was still so emotional from our conversation that her hands were shaking, which caused the bites of flan to dance merrily on the end of her spoon. After one nervous bite, she wound up with a large spot of caramel sauce on her cheek. I reached out to quickly swipe it off with my finger, but she caught my hand on the way back in both of her hands, holding my outstretched, caramel-coated finger like it was a sacred idol. She leaned forward and put her lips around my finger, removing every last bit of caramel sauce in a way that gave me upsetting dreams for a week straight. There was more intimacy, more connection and raw emotion in that one small gesture than in every single one of Kanagawa’s, um, overtures combined, and after that night I came to look at Eri Ozawa in a very different way… and I came to loathe her parents just as much as she did, perhaps more.

RG – Visual Keys

“Hey. You and I should go on a date.”
So direct!
“Uhhhh….!”
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…
“But…”
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.
“Why?”
“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.
“like me.”
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.
“Mrrrr…”
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!”
“I disagree.”
“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.
“Ai, please…”
“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?”
“No.”
“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?”
“Uhhhh…”
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?”
“Um…”
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?”
“I…!”
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 curry?”
“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…”
“Ew.”
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!”
“Oh…”
“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.
“Ai…”
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.

RG – Sakuraknroll

I had been kidnapped by Haru Yamamoto and Cathy McIntyre.
Well, kidnapped was a… strong term. They  both approached me one night after classes as I was still struggling to get things working for my new crop of students. This year had started off so awkwardly, with my personal life threatening to completely destroy my professional one, that I felt like I had been on auto-pilot for nearly a month now. Still, as I looked down at the assignments I was getting back, the scores were pretty good… for early in the year work, I suppose…
I was tapping my marking pen absent-mindedly on one of the worksheets when I suddenly felt a very warm presence behind me. It was the kind of warm that really radiated off a person, a kind of warmth you might only get from burning specific chemicals. I guess it just so happened to be a good thing that those chemicals are all found in sugar, because I turned around to see Haru enjoying one of the few times she was taller than me.
“Hey, Pipsqueak!” she tried to put on a tough voice, “Gimme your lunch money!”
“You sound like a fifth grade boy,” I shot back, turning my chair back around to my grading.
“Kennnyyyyyyy!”
The near hypersonic quality of her whining was legendary.
“Gah, my ears…”
“I’m borrrrrred, Kennnyyyyy…”
“Go be bored somewhere else and let me tend to my bleeding eardrums.”
“I wanna go flower gaziiiiing…”
“Oh, that’s right,” I looked up, chewing on the end of my pen, “I heard that on the news this morning.”
“You watch the news?!” she replied almost as if the word was a dead frog.
“Doesn’t everybody?”
“There’s perfectly good cartoons on, y’know!” I could feel Haru beaming behind me. She then decided to pass some of that energy onto me by prodding me repeatedly between the shoulderblades.
Hanami, Hanami,” She made up a song on the spot, “Ikimashou Hanami.”
She kept time by poking me in the back. I knew that when the music took her, Haru often didn’t realize what she was doing. She once played Mei’s, um, backside like a pair of bongo drums when Mei bent over to pick up a pen. That didn’t end well. So, I tried to relax and let her finish her little song about Hanami, the little unofficial Japanese holiday of flower gazing. Sometime between March and May, all the cherry blossoms come into bloom, and it is a custom to go hang out, party, and enjoy the beauty of the cherry blossoms. It doesn’t last long, so it’s treated as a very special occasion, one that celebrates the fleeting nature of beauty… and probably also the fleeting nature of sobriety, if I was being completely honest. I’d been to a couple yozakura, or night cherry blossom parties, in college, but it was usually loud with a lot of drinking and, well… if you know me, you know that’s not really my thing. I’d rather have cheap noodles and a good book as opposed to fancy sake or bento boxes. And don’t even get me started on the dango.
Dango, dango, dango, dango, dango daikazoku.”
Oh great, I thought as the finger poking took on a different rhythm, she’s switched to a different song.
“Haru?”
“Kenny, Kenny, Kenny, Kenny…” she sang in reply, not even missing a beat from the dango song.
“Can you leave me alone, please?”
Kesshite, kesshite, kesshite, kesshite.”
“Never, huh? You’re never going to leave me alone?”
Kesshiiiiiiteeeeeee…” she held out a long note gracefully in her small but glorious voice.
“And why are you never going to leave me alone, Haru?”
Daisuki, daisuki, daisuki, daisuki…” She sang, now completely lost in melody. It was times like this that, even with all of her, um, weirdness, it was really admirable, and actually quite fun to see Haru in her element of music… if she’d just STOP POKING A RAW HOLE IN THE MIDDLE OF MY BACK!
“Haru!!” I shouted, gripping my pen so hard it almost burst.
“Eep!”
The song ended abruptly as Haru skittered backwards on her uwabaki. She looked a little scared, but I couldn’t tell if it was part of a joke or not.
“Kenny, you can be super scary sometimes when you yell!”
“Pfft,” I exhaled, standing up from my desk. Looks like I wasn’t going to get any work done, anyway. I turned around and held out my hand as a peace offering. Haru decided to take full advantage of this and leapt at me, wrapping her arms around my neck and her little legs as far around my waist as she could, scaring the hell out of me and causing me to stagger backwards until I fell back onto my desk… yes, with Haru on top of me.
“KENNNNYYYYYY! Let’s go flower gazing!”
“Why does something feel wet?” I groaned, “What did I land on?”
“Kenny…”
This was a different “Kenny.” This wasn’t a Haru “Kenny.” This Kenny sounded like it should be served with, um, grits or something. I looked up from my, um, predicament to see an upside down Cathy McIntyre standing over the both of us. Haru, apparently quite happy I wanted to apologize and help her, was now humming gently to herself and trying her level best to bury her head in my chest. Cathy looked down at us and a brilliant smile erupted out of her tanned face.
“Whatchew tew up ta?”
“It’s not what it looks like!” I sputtered, trying not to think of how lame of a statement that was.
“Awwww, darn,” she replied, leaning back with her hands on her hips, “Heere Ah was hopin yew’d gawn fer it with wun of ’em. Wouldna ‘spected Hawru, though…”
“Would you stop speculating on my romantic prospects and get this humming barnacle off me?”
“Ah dunno…” Cathy leaned forward to inspect the situation, “she’s in theyre purdy taht.”
Cathy probably didn’t know it, but her leaning forward had made certain, um, gaps appear in the buttoned up shirt she was wearing. From my, er, position on the desk, it was a little to easy to see a little too much.
“Um, Cathy…?” I stammered, my mouth going dry.
“Hold yer howrses,” she replied, working Haru’s pigtails like antennae as if that might fix the problem. She tried prodding Haru herself, but to not avail.
“Kennyyyyyy….” Haru almost purred, as if she was in a dream. I… I don’t want to think about what she might have been thinking about when Cathy poked her.
“Y’know whut started it actin’ lahk this?” Cathy asked like a mechanic looking at one of Dad’s tractors.
“I raised my voice at her, and she was a little scared, so I offered to help her back up…”
“Whah’d she be scayred of yew?”
“I told her I didn’t want to go flower gazing with her tonight.”
“FLAWER GAYZIN?!”
By her tone, I got the feeling I had just stepped deeper into it.
“Aw, thayt’d be AWSUM! Ah’ve awlways wawnted ta go flawer gayzin in Japayn! Ah went ta wun in Maycun bayk home, but Ah herd it ain’t th’ same! It’s a reel Jaypunese thang ta do, but Ah kin neyver go… Awmi’s awlways busy. She sez it’sa wayst-a tahme n munny…”
Dammit. She wants to go, too.
“Kenny, Kenny, hanami…” Haru began singing again, her voice vibrating deep into my chest, “Kenny, Kenny, daisuki…”
“Well, theyrs yer prawblum,” Cathy said finally, strongly, “Looks lahk we’ve awl gawta go owt fer sum flawer gayzin, thayt awta cleen yer prawblum raht up.”
I looked up (but not too far up, because, um, you know) and down and realized I was trapped. It was almost like I was being forced to do this against my will, like I was being kidnapped or something.
“If I do this, will you two leave me alone?”
“Yep.”
“Kennnyyyyyyy….”
I’ll take that as a yes.”
And all it took was that “yes,” and a little pulling on Cathy’s part and the three of us were on our way for a Hanami party. We stopped at a local store to get the cheapest sake I could find: I was buying, and I was sure if it wasn’t hot pink and covered in sugar Haru probably wouldn’t drink it. As expected, the two of them pretty much bought the store out for candy and treats, and when we finally found a dark little spot at the far end of a park away from most of the trees, they unloaded their purchases onto a bright green blanket. Here I was, chubby, starting to go gray, and in a wrinkled suit sitting on a blanket in a park with a tanned gaijin and a young woman who looks like she’s about fifteen. To everyone else, I must look like a complete monster.
“Lookit awl th’ peeple!” Cathy gasped as she opened some candy, “Ah mean, Ah know it’s Japayn ‘n’ peeple’re ever’where, but… waow, theyre’s a lawt heere tonaht!”
“It’s a big deal, Cathy,” I answered, sipping some of the cheap sake that wasn’t all that bad, “Although I never really got the point.”
“Weyl, let’s think abowt it, then,” Cathy took the cup out of my hand and emptied it, grinning all the while, “Y’wanna hang owt with yer freynds atta playce thayt looks nahce an where a lawta peeple are havin’ a good tahme. It’s fun ta be part of-a great big craowd sumtahms.”
“Not for me,” I replied, grabbing another of the paper cups to fill with sake, “Big crowds usually mean someone doesn’t like me.”
“Weyl, thayt’s lahf,” Cathy shrugged, “Nawt everwun’s gawna luv ya.”
“I love you, Kenny-kenny!”
“Yeah, Haru, I know,” I waved her off, rolling my eyes. To my surprise, the little music teacher got to her feet on the blanket and stamped her little feet angrily. I didn’t think she’d been drinking, but she was acting rather, um, spirited.
“I mean it, Kenny! I said daisuki before and I meant it! You mean a lot to me, and I like you a lot! Don’t go thinking you I can’t be serious. I’m not a little kid, you know, I can be just as serious as… as… as Ami. Watch!”
She ruffled up her hair a little in the front to mimic Ami’s bangs, and crossed her arms in front of her, glaring down at me with what she tried to make look like disdain.
“Idiot,” she cursed at me in her fifth grader voice again, “Jackass!”
Cathy and I both sat there a moment, shocked, but then the sake got the best of us and we fell over, laughing like crazy.
“Hey, you guys!” Haru threw a very childlike pout on her face, “I was being serious!”
“We know!” I said between laughs, “but you’re just so cute when you do it!”
“Aw, mayn!” Cathy hollered, standing up and still chuckling, “Naow Ah gawta fand a wawter clawset.”
“A what?” Haru asked, confused. Cathy leaned down and whispered in her ear, causing her eyes to go wide.
“Oh.”
Haru directed Cathy to the nearest bathroom, and then it was just the two of us. I decided to lay off the sake for a bit and decided to try to enjoy the blossoms while I could. Maybe I could find out what Cathy was talking about with all of this. I mean, they are pretty…
Suddenly, I felt warm again. Haru Yamamoto had shifted over until she was leaning on me; both of us sitting, looking up at the trees.
“I was serious, Kenny…”
“I know, Haru.”
“Do you?”
I looked down to see her big eyes looking way too close to tears.
“Do you?” she repeated, “I know I look like a little kid, but I am and adult, and I have a lot of adult feelings for you. I even… I even have adult underwear…”
Oh, shit… where did the sake bottle go? Usually Haru held her liquor really well, and she didn’t seem to smell like the stuff… what was going on?
“You always treated me like I was the same, Kenny,” she said softly, burrowing into my arm, “that’s why I liked you.”
“But you’re not the same, Haru,” I replied, my mind still a little fuzzy from the sake, “And I didn’t treat you the same way I treated Ami or Mei or Tomo. I treated you like you… but I also expected a lot from you. I treated you like an adult.”
“So that’s what I liked…”
“But you can still be funny. And watch cartoons. And eat a metric ton of candy a day because, well… that’s you, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“Okey dokey…”
I could tell her voice was getting softer, and she was starting to trail off. Pretty soon, she’d be snoring.
“Kenny?”
“Yeah, Haru?”
“You remember our fake wedding?”
Oh, yeah. We DID have one of those, didn’t we?
“I remember it, Haru.”
“I’d like to have one of those someday. A real one. With a cake. And a dress.”
“A big pink one, right?”
“Noooo….” she pouted sleepily, “A white one. Like a real lady.”
“Haru, you are a lady.”
“Really?!’ she looked up at me, half open eyes shining in the moon and streetlight.
“Really,” I replied, standing up and bringing her with me.
“Awwwww, Kenny!”
“I can’t just let you fall asleep, there,” I tried to prop her up as best I could, “c’mon, the crowds have gone down, let’s go get closer to the trees.”
“No.”
“No?” I asked, surprised, “But you wanted to go flower gazing so bad.”
“I like it better here,” she replied, stretching one of her arms across the park as we saw it, “When you’re this far away, everything looks… small.”
And as we stood there watching the trees and the lights that were far away and small, I heard her start to hum again, this time a slow song, almost like a lullaby. It got me thinking: all the humming, the music, the getting lost in a song and wandering the halls like a confused robot vacuum cleaner… were those just ways she kept herself far away? Were those ways she made sure everyone was small?

RG – Baby Wrath

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.”
“Why?”
“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!”
“Shut up…”
“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.”
“Mei…”
“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.
“Hey!”
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.
“Well?”
“Well, what?”
“Why did you yell at me?”
“I didn’t yell at you!”
“You yelled something!”
Oh, yeah.
“Um, I…”
“You telling me you don’t know?”
“Give me a minute!”
“Cripes…”
“Shut up!” I racked my brain like a detective interrogating a suspect. What did you know, and when, you filthy animal?
“I remember now–”
“Oh goodie.”
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?”
“Kinda…”
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!”
“Gahhhkkkkk…”
That was all I could manage with her sneaker in my solar plexus.
“I’m trying to help you, idiot!”
“Ehhhhhhhhhhggg…”
“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.
“Aaaaaaaauuuuuuuhhhh…”
“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!”
“Well, stop!”
“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?!”
“This.”
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.”
“Shut up…”
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.
“What?”
“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.
“Thanks.”
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?

RG – Greg Oden

Stagnation.
I had that thought bothering me for the rest of the day. I went through my last few classes in a daze but, as anyone can tell you, the first classes of the new year are hardly the toughest ones to teach… or sit through. After having been in classrooms for a while, I wish I could somehow go back and time and tell all these “teacher’s secrets” to my younger self. Things like “teachers talk about drinking in the teacher’s lounge… only when they’re not talking about the students they hate,” or maybe “teachers hate the same days of the school year you do,  and pretty much every morning when we have to get up way too early.”
Or maybe that one’s just me.
The weirdest thing is, I know I was floating through my classes, but I wasn’t sure if my new students were aware. Last year, my students were like the cattle on Dad’s farm: blank-eyed, slowly blinking, seemingly constantly blown away by every moment spent in my class. Now, when I’m half-asleep, distracted, breezing through the class and doing the bare minimum, they actually seem interested, eager, smiling even! Just what the heck is going on here, where I seem to be doing a better job with the students when I’m purposefully not caring?
Whatever. I have bigger things to worry about. I stayed behind late at the school, trying to force my brain to focus on a lesson for tomorrow. The teacher’s room door slid open as I sat staring at a blank page, my eyes nearly popping out of my head.
“Yew gawna stay heere a’wahl, Kenny?”
“Sorry, Cathy,” I replied, rubbing the side of my head, “Looks like it.”
“Weyl, doan’t hert yerself.”
“Too late,” I muttered as she left.
By the time I had gotten something down on paper, it was already well past dark. My walk home was unseasonably cold, but it seemed to match the feeling I was having. I allowed myself to become sad, feeling my face fall further and further until I made it back to the apartment building.
“Yeesh,” a voice said on my left as I turned to walk inside, “You look like hell.”
Ami looked like she was just coming back from a jog or a run, with pants so tight I could tell… even in the lack of light.
“Have you eaten?”
“Not yet.”
“And the dog?”
“I’ll need to walk him as soon as I get in.”
“God, you’re pathetic,” I saw her roll her eyes under the streetlight, “Go get the dog. We’ll take a walk.”
“All of us?”
“Yes, dumbass,” her voice had an edge to it now, so I hurried upstairs to pick up Baka and bring him outside. I don’t think he’d ever seen me in that much of a hurry, and he was quite confused when I set him down onto the sidewalk.
“C’mon, Idiot Dog,” Ami said firmly, “let’s go.”
Baka seemed to listen, and we began to walk up the street away from both the apartment and the school.
“Um,” I asked after a little while, “Where are we going?”
“Getting both of you morons some food,” she shot back, “You really got to take better care of yourself… and the dog, too.”
“I don’t have enough cash for dinner.”
“It’s on me,” Ami said with a sigh, “And if you tell anyone, I’ll kill you.”
“Believe me,” I groaned, “The less of that kind of trouble I can get, the better.”
She sighed again.
“Y’know… you are going to have to do something about that one of these days.”
“Makes me sad I wrecked that stupid wheel last year,” I muttered, “I’d just spin it and pick one.”
Ami stopped, and so did I. Baka kept going for as far as the leash would let him. It wasn’t long, and he came stumbling back.
“You don’t mean that, do you?”
Her eyes had a surprising deepness to them, and they even sparkled a little in the moonlight. Usually they only do that if she’s about to eviscerate someone.
“No,” I said with no shortage of frustration, “Of course not! I’m just… I hate this idea.”
“Having to choose?”
“Well, yeah.”
“Y’know… it makes you sound really selfish.”
That hit me pretty hard. My head spun a little as I tried to put it all together.
“But I… I thought I could… I thought it would keep people from being… upset if I didn’t…”
“It’s a life half lived,” Ami replied, surprisingly poetic, “You of all people should know what it’s like to give affection and not get a reply.”
“What have you heard?” I asked flatly, suddenly very embarrassed.
“Shut up,” she said it more friendly this time, “And let’s go. I want to get there before they have to close.”
“Yeah, I always hated that when I was in the noodle shop, back in college,” I managed to force a small smile, “You just want to clean up and go home, but that last customer…”
“Exactly,” Ami nodded.
We rounded the corner to a little oden bar that really was what you would call a “hole in the wall.”
“How did you know about this?”
“I do have a life,” Ami replied with a smirk, “Stay out here, I’ll check and see if the coast is clear.”
“The coast is… what?”
She disappeared inside and poked her head out of the door a few seconds later, her high ponytail bobbing back and forth.
“We’re good. Come on in.”
“But, Baka…”
“Like I said,” she nodded in the dog’s direction, “Come on in.”
This went against everything I knew, but I stepped inside with Baka anyway. At least he’d already done his, um, business somewhere else.
“Welcome!” a cheerful voice called out from behind the bar. A tall, skinny man waved from the back of the tiny establishment, wearing a gigantic smile. It’s like what Akira would look like in twenty years if he ever, um, stopped caring so much.
“Have a seat. Where’s the pooch?”
He set down a bowl of various oden ingredients, and Baka needed no more invitation. He nearly dragged me across the floor to get at the food. As he began to feast, I finally realized just how hungry I was.
“Thanks for feeding my dog,” I offered, lamely.
“No problem, son! It’s the least I could do. I hear you’re a friend of Ami’s, so your little fella can eat all he wants.”
“Maybe not ALL he wants,” I cracked a smile, “After all, I have to clean up after him.”
We all sat down to eat, Ami and I on one side of the bar, and the owner on the other. We tucked into delicious plates of some of the best oden I’ve ever tasted.
“Wow…”
“Yeah, you bet it’s good,” Ami grinned, “Now don’t go telling anyone this is here, I don’t want to lose my favorite spot.”
“Hey, now!” the owner chimed in, “Tell all your friends! Tell everybody! I need the customers!”
I found out later that Ami first met the guy when he was dating her Mom, not long after the divorce.
“Yeah, it didn’t end that well. She wasn’t ready yet,” the owner said, wiping down the counter. He had a faraway look in his eye, and almost seemed ready to cry.
“Come on, now, Hiro,” Ami interjected, “Don’t go getting like that, now.”
“Can’t help it, kid,” Hiro replied with a sad smile, “She’s a helluva lady.”
“Ew, that’s my Mom.”
“Well, your Mom’s hot. Deal with it.”
Ami flicked a piece of fish cake at him, which he easily knocked away onto the floor… and Baka ate.
“If I may, sir…” I began slowly, reminding myself not to raise my hand.
“Please! I’m Hiro…”
“Okay… Mr. Hiro,” I couldn’t do it, “You seem a little upset about the choice you made.”
“Hell yeah I’m upset, son!” Hiro shot back in a voice that was a lot louder than his skinny frame would allow, “But you know, I’d be more upset if I hadn’t tried.”
“That sounds so corny,” Ami rolled her eyes as she chewed on kinchaku.
“Corny or not, little lady, it’s the truth. You gotta make that choice when the time it right. Strike while the iron is hot!”
Ami shot me a sideways look that said “can you believe this guy?” but I could tell she really enjoyed being here, and it wasn’t just because of the oden. We finished up the meal and had a few toasts of beer to end the evening, with Hiro toasting to Ami’s mom just enough times to annoy her. We made our way back out into the street, and headed back home, full and feeling much better. Even Baka had the energy in his three little legs to make it all the way home.
“Thanks for dinner,” I said as we approached the front door, “and for Hiro. He seems like a great guy.”
“He is,” Ami pursed her lips a little, “But sometimes he can be a bit much. I tend to like my guys a little more… boring.”
“Well, you don’t find them more boring than me!”
I said it before I had a chance to realize what I actually meant. Maybe it was the beer.
“This wasn’t a date, Watanabe.”
Suddenly, the old Ishii was back.
“I know that, I was just saying.”
“You’re always ‘just saying,’ but it’s because you’re ‘just saying’ that we don’t know what you’re actually saying.”
“Sorry…”
“Don’t be sorry,” Ami’s eyes became lidded, heavy, like a cobra before the kill, “say something!”
“Ami, I…”
“Don’t say anything to me. I don’t want to hear it.”
Damn it, Ami. What am I supposed to do here?
“Just… just think about it,” Ami said before heading inside, “You know where Hiro is now, so you can talk to him if you want.”
“But why…”
“I don’t want you to say something right now, because it would only be because I forced you,” Ami turned toward her apartment door and worked the key, “But I hope that you’ll be thinking about it for later.”
She opened the door and went inside without even giving me a chance to say “good night.” I caught a glimpse of Cathy half in and half out of her clothes on the couch, snoring loudly, so at least she wouldn’t have to deal with THAT tonight. A sleepy Baka leaned against my right ankle, looking up at me with rapidly closing eyes, so I knew I wouldn’t have too much to worry about once I got inside my apartment, either.
It’s a pity, I wish I HAD something to distract me. As it was, I didn’t get to sleep for hours after that.

RG – Stagnation

We now return to our regularly scheduled… whatever this is.
We’re back on the “main story” line now, regardless of which one was chosen for the conference.

It was the Monday after the conference, and we were all sitting in the Home Ec room enjoying another one of Ms. Arakawa’s lunches. Ami had excused herself from the meal, as she had a meeting with her junior teacher in the English department. I figured this gave me a chance to talk about a situation that had arisen lately.
“So…” I said, dabbing idly at an omlette, “When were any of you going to tell me Ami’s parents got divorced?”
I heard a fork clatter to a plate, followed by a high-pitched gasp. I glanced up to see a red-faced Ms. Arakawa… well, at least I could see a little bit of her face that was red between the hands that tried to cover it.
“How did you find out?!” I heard her squeak through her fingers.
“That doesn’t matter!” I replied, a little frustrated, “What matters is that you all didn’t tell me!”
“We weren’t allowed to,” Mei shot back, almost bored, gazing at a bite of omelette she had stuck on her fork, “Ami told us not to.”
“And you went along with that, Mei?”
“Hey,” she shrugged, taking the bite and talking around a mouthful, “I could probably take her in a fight… but I don’t wanna find out.”
“You cowards.”
“Still kick yer ass, Kenny-boy,” Mei said with a smirk.
“I like to think of it as self-preservation, darling,” Ai sighed, “I’m not about to expose my roots to a fire like that.”
Funny. I never thought she’d use the word “expose” and not…
“Of course, I wouldn’t mind exposing my roots to you…”
Damn it. Spoke too soon.
“Ami-ami is SCARY!” Haru showed her fear by shaking the ketchup bottle she was holding, throwing a bit of ketchup onto an angry Mei.
“Agh, what the hell?”
Ms. Arakawa seemed to be hyperventilating… or she couldn’t speak because her hands were cutting off her oxygen. Eri calmly pulled one of the hands away to Tomo could gasp, still red as a tomato, and the Math teacher then fixed me with those endless eyes.
“Complicated situation.”
“Complicated?” I asked, feeling me get hot under the collar, “That’s the word you choose? Complicated?!”
“She mayd us awl sweyr, Kenny,” Cathy chewed her lip a little, “When yew didn’ tawk ta her after yew left, all them yeers ago… she told us awl we couldn’t tawkabowt it with yew. She wanted yew to figger it owt yerself.”
I ran my hand down my face, hard, hearing my teeth grind together.
“So… now what do I do?”
“That’s your headache, Kenny-boy,” Mei had taken the bottle of ketchup and was currently threatening Haru with it, “You only took one of us to that shin-dig, and now you’ve got this to deal with. Remember, we all really became friends because of you.”
“If you hadn’t disappeared, we probably would have had this fight years ago,” Ai commented, “Without an outside force acting, our local velocity approached zero.”
“And what does THAT mean?” I asked the scientist.
“The word, technicaly, is Stagnation.”
“Saunds lahk a derty magazeen,” Cathy snorted. Tomo nearly fainted.
“What do you mean?” Haru asked.
“Neyver mahnd.”
“Regardless,” Ai rolled her eyes above her glasses, “the pressure in this situation, if it reaches the stagnation point, will lead to entropy.”
“What?” I asked. She say something about some kind of trophy?
“It means things will eventually move to equilibrium,” Ai twiddled a finger in the air, “It’s not perfect science, but you could compare it to an eventual Heat Death of the Universe.”
“Oh, is that all?” I groaned, “No big deal, just the end of the universe.”
“Our universe,” Ai replied, “at least as we know it. Now, while it is true that blood is not a compressible fluid, the metaphor still holds as this is a matter of our hearts, Ken darling.”
“So, if I’m reading you correctly,” Mei spoke up with Haru in a squealing headlock, “If he doesn’t use it, pretty soon he might lose it.”
“In a way, yes,” Ai responded, almost bemused.
“See? I can sum things up so you eggheads don’t have to blah-blah all the time.”
“Thanks, Mei,” I brought a hand to my temple to deal with a sudden and completely explainable headache. Haru’s wailing didn’t help it any, either.
“Mei-meiiiiiii! Let me gooooo! It’s just ketchuuuuup!!”
“Oh yeah? Let’s see how YOU like it in YOUR hair!”
“Wahhhhhh!”
I sank into my seat and held my head in my hands. This would normally be the time when Ms. Arakawa would come over to comfort me… but she was still busy remembering how to breathe. I caught her eye for a second and she turned bright red again. I looked around the table and tried to get eye contact from any of them, but they all turned away. It only seemed to make it even more obvious that I was on my own here, that I’d have to do something, start some sort of spark, or face an, um, “eventual heat death” of some of the best friendships I’ve ever had in my life.
And the new school year was about to start.
If I woke up tomorrow with a head full of snow white hair, I wouldn’t be surprised.

RG Conference – Ami

“Oooooh,” Cathy giggled as I loaded up Ami’s car, “yew tew are gawna be shayrin’ a hoteyl room!”
“And?”
“Tageyyyther.”
“So?”
“Y’know…” she nudged one of her tan shoulders into mine as I closed the trunk. I sighed heavily and turned to her with an accusing look.
“You know what?” I asked, “What exactly do you think will happen between myself and Ami in a hotel room at one of these boring as hell educator conferences?”
“Zactly!” Cathy kept on grinning, “Yer gawna be awl bowred…”
“And you think that, on a list of everything we could possibly ever do, ever… you think we’re going to jump right to… that?”
“Ya neyver know,” she said with a silly shrug.
“I think I do know,” I raised my eyebrows, as if begging for a little mercy. It was bad enough that Ami had come out of nowhere to ask to go along, and even worse that no one else raised a voice to say anything else. Even Mei was quiet, which surprised me, because usually she doesn’t shy away from a fight. I couldn’t get any of them to tell me why they didn’t have a problem with it, which lead me to think something was up. Call me paranoid if you like… but I have reason to fear as this school year comes to a close. Need I bring up the giant wheel again? Or how about the webcam.

The webcam. I still have nightmares.
“Where the heck is Ami, anyway?”
“Probbly still lawkin up’er room,” Cathy replied.
“But you’ll be staying,” I noted, “Why does she have to lock anything up?”
Cathy had me come inside where, sure enough, Ami was finishing up outside the door to her bedroom.
“Ami, what’s up? We’re waiting on you.”
“Yeah, Awmi! Whatcha dooooooin?”
Ami, for once, didn’t turn to glare at me, but instead at Cathy. However, I think Cathy had some sort of shield equipped, because it felt like I bounced off and grazed me.
“You know damn well what I’m doing, McIntyre,” her low voice seemed even lower, “stay the hell out of my room.”
“Ah doant know whatcher talkin’ bowt.”
For that, she got a pillow thrown at her head. Which she dodged. And it hit me. Of course.
“Thayt weren’t real nahce, Awmi.”
“Neither is messing with my room while I’m gone!”
“Ah do it cuz Ah luv yew!”
“Aw, cram it.”
“Uh, Ami?” I asked finally, “we’re going to be late.”
“Yeah,” she blew out a breath in frustration, “Yeah, I know. Let’s get moving.
We both headed to the door. As I held it open, Ami took one last, hard look back at Cathy, extending a finger silently toward her, then toward the room, then made a large “X” with both her arms. Cathy just laughed and walked over to the door, where she began reading the massive note taped to the door out loud:

“If yew valyew yer laife, yew will nawt ingayge in th’ fallawin: usin’ mah underwayr as a substitoot fer…”

Ami slammed the door and headed down the hall.
“C’mon, Watanabe. We gotta go.”
Everything in my body wanted to stay there and hear the rest of the note. But, Ami was right, we would be late if we listened to it. I stretched halfway down the door, after all. We were well on the way in a stony silence before I finally tried to break the ice.
“So, what was that all about?”
I saw her hands tighten on the steering wheel.
“I mean, if you don’t mind me asking.”
“Ugh,” Ami sighed, “I’ve spent enough time with her to know what goes on in her head.”
“I take it this has been a problem?”
“Yes.”
I thought about asking more, but I remember what Cathy had been reading, and… yeah, I’ll leave it at that.
“Well, you know,” I offered, “If you were worried about leaving Cathy alone you could have not come…”
“Unlike some of the teachers at this school,” Ami grumbled, “I actually care about education. I want to see what people are coming up with for next year. That’s why I’m coming.”
“I figured, but…”
“You sound like you’re not too happy to have me along,” she continued, with a little bit of, um… what do you call it when you see a cat playing with a mouse?
“No! No, that’s not it,” I stumbled right into her trap.
“Save it,” Ami rolled her eyes as she took a turn, “If I break you this early, you’ll be worthless tonight.”
“W-what?”
“You have to give a speech or something, right?” she turned to me with a little smile, “If you start babbling like a moron now, it’ll be my fault if you crash and burn.”
“Thanks, I think.”
That was weird. It almost seemed like Ami was having fun with me, but not in the “I’m about to disembowel you” way I mentioned earlier. She seemed pretty relaxed: maybe when she didn’t have to keep everyone else in line with all of their, um, weirdness she’s able to relax. Then again, why did she feel like she had to keep everyone in line? Then again… again, if she didn’t… yikes.
It was a warm spring afternoon, one of those where you knew summer was coming soon, but it wasn’t too uncomfortable yet. I kept glancing over at Ami as she drove, with her high ponytail and auburn hair soaking up the sun. Along with her calmer, more relaxed face, she might as well have been glowing. Of course, when she’d catch me looking at her, the glow would fade and I’d be told to stop acting like a moron, but there were still, um, moments. We got to the hotel without much of a problem, and checked into our room. Thankfully, Cathy hadn’t called ahead to reserve us a “lovebird suite” or something ridiculous, but it was a nice hotel so it was still a better hotel room than I’ve ever seen. Um… not that I see a lot of them…
Ami tossed her duffel on one bed, so I tossed mine on the other. She excused herself to use the bathroom, which I took as a perfect opportunity to look through all the stuff that came included with the room. Free stuff is free stuff, so it’s always fun to see just what you can steal away for later. Some of my best tea at home came from hotels… and the soap… and the shampoo… and I have so many shower caps…
I was lounging on the bed, flipping idly through television channels when Ami came out. I hadn’t even noticed that she’d taken clothes in with her, but now she was comfortably dressed in those workout clothes that I find are really only comfortable for, well, sitting and watching TV.
“I might hit the gym,” she said, stretching in a way that made me think the seams on her pantlegs were going to burst, “We should have enough time before everything starts.”
“Did you want to see any of the displays or presentations?”
“I figure I’ll check ’em out during the thing tonight,” She tossed a towel over her shoulder, “I’m not much for the fancy food and talk.”
I had a sudden image pop into my head of Ami telling the head of MEXT that he was an idiot.
“Well, I’ll be here,” I replied, “I didn’t bring any workout clothes.”
“I figured.”
“You’ll need the shower when you get back, right?” I asked, “I’ll go in first, takes forever for my hair to look right.”
“Yeah, I remember.”
Ah, the barber shop. Feels like years ago… has it only been one?
“Okay, then,” Ami headed for the door, “I’m off.”
“Have fun!”
She didn’t reply, but after I heard the door shut I noticed she didn’t really seem to eager to leave. I wondered what that was all about as I continued watching TV for a while. Finally, I decided I had wasted enough time and headed for the shower which, like everything else in the hotel was very, very nice. The crowning moment, however, was when I came out of the shower afterwards and noticed all the soaps, tea, coffee and whatever were gone. Ami was sitting in one of the chairs, reading a book.
“Hey,” I asked, doing up the last button on my shirt, “Where’d all the stuff go?”
“What stuff?” she answered too quickly.
“The free stuff,” I gestured to the empty box on the table, “Coffee, tea… where’d it go?”
“I don’t remember anything there.”
“Really?”
“Nope.”
Now I started to feel a little weird.
“I could have sworn there was something there.”
“Nope. Not that I saw.”
I KNOW there was something there. She must have… no… did SHE already take them? Hm, I never would have guessed that about her.
“If there was supposed to be something there,” she said casually, turning a page, “Maybe we should ring down to the front desk for one.”
Oh, you crafty woman. And guess what? They did. Two baskets, twice the stuff.
“There,” she gestured at the basket as a confused taff member laid it on the table, “Happy?”
“I am now,” I smiled in reply.
“What kind of freak gets this excited over free soap?”
I wanted to counter with a few observations of my own, but Ami stood up and excused herself again to shower and get ready. She was in and out almost immediately, or at least it felt that way. I couldn’t get my tie to end up right: first too high, then too low, then the knot was a mess… you get the idea. I have no idea how long I sat there in front of a mirror going “mrrr” every time I tied the stupid thing, but apparently it was long enough for Ami to get ready. And, if she didn’t take that long to turn out like she did, I have to say… I’m impressed.
Her ever-present ponytail was gone: her hair was worn long and tumbled down far past her shoulders, glowing like it did before. I can remember ever seeing Ami wear any kind of makeup, especially the sort she was wearing now. It was just enough to tell everyone she had put it on, but not enough to look like, well, Haru when she tried to “dress up.” She was wearing a slim black dress without any ornamentation, although to be fair she didn’t really need any. What was  most surprising was the way the skirt flared out at the waist, which made it look like Ami’s figure was very, um, curvy, and also hid most of her legs from view, aside from a glance of half her well-muscled calves under the hem, which ended quickly in a pair of sparkling white heels. I hadn’t seen her in heels before, either, and it made her my height, if not a little higher, which was a little… weird. It was at this point I realized I’d been staring at her for a bit too long.
“Ugh,” she groaned, creasing her pretty face into a crumpled mess, “What?”
“Um, I…”
“Is it my hair?” She said immediately, nearly shoulder blocking me across the room in an attempt to check the mirror herself, “I can’t do a damn thing with it, I should just put it up like normal–”
“NO!”
She turned to me, looking a little worried.
“You okay?”
“Yes! I mean, no, I mean…” I never thought I’d be stuck in one of those. I thought it only happened to people on TV.
“What I meant was… leave your hair down. It looks nice. You… look nice.”
And there it was again, that phantom of a smile from the car ride.
“Well, you look like crap,” she shook her head and walked briskly over to me, quite a feat on those heels, “This tie is a freakin’ mess.”
“I know!” I wailed, looking up at the ceiling. Ami responded by yanking on my tie hard enough to bring my face back down to hers.
“Well, here’s your problem,” she muttered, “You need to do up this top button.”
“I hate doing up the top button.”
“You need to do up the top button.”
“I don’t want to do up the top button.”
“Do it!”
“No!”
“Fine!” she grabbed me  around the neck and, for a split second, I wondered if this was how I died, at the hands of Ami Ishii. For some reason, it seemed to fit. To my surprise, she quickly fastened the button and tied the tie… perfectly. It was at this moment I noticed she had painted her fingernails the same brilliant white as her shoes. It was… an interesting choice.
“Wow,” I said honestly, glancing at the mirror, “I’ve never got this tie to look that good.”
“Do up your button next time, dumbass.”
“Oh, yeah… and hey!”
I stuck my finger between my neck and the collar of the shirt, wiggling it around freely.
“I’ve got more room here!”
“Yeah,” Ami said with a little sigh, “You’ve lost weight.”
She said that so oddly. Normally, with someone my, um, size, the idea of losing weight is a good thing to be met with jubilation. But she said it sadly, like she hadn’t wanted it to happen. But wait… she was the one always saying I ate terrible food and NEEDED to lose weight. What gives?
“Where’d you learn to tie a tie like that, anyway?”
Unbeknownst to me, my mouth was still going. I should see to that.
“My Dad taught me.”
She said it plainly, like it was no big deal. After the smile I’d gotten, it seemed a little off, but given any other day, it would have sounded just like Ami. I let it slide. We finished up getting ready and headed down to the conference in time to see a few of the bigger names. It would be lying to say some of the bigwigs in Japanese education were treated like rock stars here, but to be honest, they were pretty popular. Then, of course, I got up to speak my piece, and it was met with polite applause and, like the other “stars” I was mobbed for handshakes and recommendations or pleas to read this paper or that project and so on and so forth. I guess a reputation like mine sticks around, even after a, um, wilderness sabbatical, but here I was standing next to the woman who had come within inches of breaking almost every single one of my records… and it seemed like no one wanted to talk to her. It really wasn’t fair… and besides, if they were bothering her, maybe less of them would bother me!
“You know,” I said over the noise, “I’m here with one of my best students, Ms. Ami Ishii. She came within a few points of outscoring me on all those tests.”
A few eyes turned to her, but Ami made like Ami does, and her unpleasant stare had people wilting quickly and turning back to me.
“Really, folks,” I tried to shove them away again, “I was challenged every day by this young lady. I felt like I always had to be three, no, five steps ahead of every other teacher in Japan because if I wasn’t, I’d heard about it. I remember when her parents came in for conferences…”
I was desperate to push some of them off, so I was trying anything to get Ami involved.
“You tell them, Ami. Tell them about how your parents were back then!”
This time, it was me that got the nasty look. And it was a thousand times nastier than even the one Cathy had gotten earlier that day.
“If you don’t mind, ladies and gentlemen,” Ami’s voice was heavy and deadly, like a particularly blunt guillotine, “I’m going to go peruse the presentations.”
No one seemed to mind that she had left, except for me. I finally managed to clear away all of the well-wishers and headed over to the exhibits to try to find her. On my third pass through the gallery, one of the guys at Yokohama’s booth called me over.
“You Ken Watanabe?” he asked.
“The other one, yeah.”
“Heh,” he chuckled, “she said you’d look clueless.”
“Ami?” I asked automatically. Who else, really? “Auburn hair, black dress?”
“And legs like a Clydesdale,” he chuckled again, “She wanted me to tell you not to wait up, and that she’d be back to the room eventually. Sounds like you got ditched on your date, pal.”
What had I done? What did I say? From all I could remember, Ami had had a great relationship with her parents. In fact, I was hoping she would have shared some of the stories from conferences, as they were some of the best conferences I’d ever had. “We hope you know what to do with her,” I’d hear from her Dad, “she left us behind about three years ago.” I’d reply with something lame like “I’ll try my best,” and they always seemed okay with it. Maybe they knew I was actually telling the truth. But still, I don’t remember anything bad happening, and I think I would have remembered something about her parents… so what the heck happened?
I was sitting straight up in my bed, on top of the covers, still in my formerly wrinkle-less suit when Ami finally came back to the room. I glanced at the clock to see that it was about two AM, and I started to wonder just how long I’d sat like that, and when the last time was I actually moved. Ami came in without a word and, still in her dress, crawled under the covers of her bed without so much as an “Oyasumi.” I took a few seconds before I coughed and tried to speak for the first time in hours.
“Ami?”
No response. But, I’m not murdered yet, so I might as well continue on.
“Ami, can you tell me what’s wrong?”
Still nothing.
“Are you awake?”
The covers didn’t look to be rising and falling like someone who was asleep.
Ami… I’ve been sitting here for who knows how long, just thinking and rethinking and going over everything I could possibly remember about you and your family. My brain felt like an egg that’s been left in the pan for about two hours too long; I’m totally burnt. So… please… can you tell me what’s wrong?”
“If you don’t know,” came the guillotine voice, “You can go to Hell.”
“I know it’s got to be something about your parents,” my mouth was dry as I tried to speak, “But the last time I met them I can’t remember anything being wrong.”
“Huh!” I heard her scoff, “And when was that? Graduation? Five, six years ago?”
“So what happened between then and now?”
“You don’t remember?”
“I seriously don’t.”
There was a rustling, and the blankets parted as Ami rolled over, staring me right through the soul.
“You really don’t?”
“No. Clue.”
“You don’t remember anything that happened after graduation?”
“I finished up, packed my things, and headed to Hokkaido.”
“And then?”
“And then what? I worked with my parents for five years.”
“That’s all?”
“That’s all.”
“Son of a bitch…” she swore quietly to herself, “You mean you don’t remember getting letters from any of us?”
“Of course I do.”
“And?!” her voice jumped a level, “Did you ever read them, you dumbass?!”
“Well… no!” I blurted out, “I couldn’t! It was still too recent, too uncomfortable! I wasn’t ready! I had to put it all behind me and get my brain back on the right track!”
“Well, I’m so glad that worked out for you!” she shot back, angrily this time. Really angrily.
“It’s always about you, isn’t it? You’re like a child, never thinking of anyone else. You were so pulled in to yourself, because of your childhood, or because of the way people always treated you, or because it was safer… and you never thought anyone from the outside would give a shit, did you?”
“They hadn’t before…”
And this wasn’t before!” Ami shouted at me, her voice cracking, “God, Ken… we needed you! We wanted you to help us grow, decide who we wanted to be, help us on the path. We  looked up to you, we respected you… we knew you could help us and really know what’s best for us… not like other people… and when we needed you the most, you just ran the hell away!
I was stunned. I could barely keep my sitting position on the bed without falling over. Part of me wondered if I fell hard enough, if I could break a window and plummet to the sidewalk below. I felt worse than I ever had in my life. What had happened to Ami, to all of them? They’d all sent me letters, but… My God, I was too worried about myself, for all I know…
“Ami… what happened?”
“I wrote you right before I went to college,” she was crying now, hugging the nearest pillow and looking very, um, un-Ami-like, “my parents were getting divorced.”

Oh, shit.

“Dad had met some stupid American bimbo on a business trip, and they both told me that they’d stayed together for me, but they couldn’t do it anymore. Made me feel like I was somehow the reason everything went wrong. All I wanted was someone to write me back and say that it wasn’t my fault, that there was nothing wrong with me, that even weird kids like me can grow up and be somebody who could do something good and make a difference like you did for us in that class… and I never heard a damn thing. Not one God Damned thing from you.”
“Ami, I’m so sorry–”
“So instead… Instead I decided if you didn’t want me anymore, then I would make damn sure you’d have no choice but to remember me. I was going to be better than you, I was going to rub it in your face, and I was going to become so good with English that I’d rub it in that bitch’s face and be able to tell her how useless she was and how my Father should never have…!”
Then she broke down. She fell onto the covers, sobbing so hard I thought she might smother herself. I moved to be nearer her, but she lashed out with fists. I’m no going to pretend to be tough, she bruised me up pretty good before I was able to get a hold of her, and then… she just went limp. And she held me, and I held her, and she just… she just cried so much. Let’s just pretend some of her tears got on my face, okay?
“Ami… oh, God, Ami… I’m so sorry.”
“I know you are,” she replied, choking, “But it doesn’t help.”
“What would help?” I asked, desperate, “Isn’t there anything I can do?”
And she kissed me. Hard. Wet. Messy. There were tears everywhere. I’d like to say I made it back to my own bed that night, but I’d be lying, and as for anything else that might have happened, well… maybe we’ll talk about that some other time.

RG – Conference – Haru

Don’t say it.
Don’t.
Just… just don’t say anything, Watanabe. That ought to help. Don’t say anything about her height, or her size, or her love for bright pink sugary sweets… in fact, try just not to say any words that might turn things in the wrong direction. Try to avoid words like “small” or “little” or “kids,” and always remember: you made the decision to bring her along, and it’s your decision whether or not you want to take this into, um, uncomfortable territory. After all, if you’re out with a woman that looks… like Haru does, and you are the one who turns the conversation, well… that says a lot about you, doesn’t it? And you won’t let that happen, will you, Ken Watanabe?
“Kenny-kenny!!!” I heard that familiar voice call out to me as I pulled my suitcase out into the parking lot, “You’re LATE!!!”
“A little.”
Well, dammit. That lasted all of four seconds. Thankfully, it looks like she’s not taking offense, so I continued on carrying my stuff over to her tiny car. Once I found enough room in that tiny hatch for her giant, pink, fluffy bag and my own, I held my breath and folded myself into the passenger seat.
“You look so silly,” Haru remarked upon stepping into the driver’s seat, “Here.”
She pushed a button on the dashboard and the seat moved a tiny bit back, allowing me enough room to breathe.
“Hee hee,” she giggled, “Well, it’s a little better, right?”
“Uh-huh,” I groaned. Thankfully it wasn’t a terribly long trip, but it didn’t stop me from losing feeling in some of my lower, um, parts by the time we made it to the hotel. Haru offered to park the car herself while I reserved the room, but I turned her down. Something about this pig-tailed little elf skipping through a parking lot by herself had me feeling, um, uneasy. So we parked the little car and made our way inside, with me carrying both pieces of luggage and probably looking ridiculous doing so. The big, pink fluffy felt like I was carrying a dead kids’ show mascot over my shoulder, but I wasn’t about to make Haru carry her own.
“You’re walking kinda funny, Kenny!”
“That’s because I was so cramped in your car I can’t feel my ass.”
“Oh, really?”
I suddenly felt a dull sensation from my backside. I tried to turn around and see what Haru was up to back there, but the pink duffel bag was obscuring my view.
“Hee hee! Can’t catch me!”
And so I spent a fair amount of time spinning around like a top in the parking lot as Haru danced around just out of my vision and continued striking me on the ass. The worst part is it probably wouldn’t be the most embarrassing part of the weekend, but I was doing my level best to keep things under control. Sure, she may be lacking a certain, um, maturity, but if you take it a little at a time, baby steps, I’m sure things will turn out… won’t they?
“Haru! Haru, would you stop?”
“Why, Kenny-kenny? Your butt gettin’ sore?”
“No, but I can actually feel it now.”
“Well then!” she suddenly appeared in front of me like an enemy at a shooting gallery, “I guess it did the trick!”
I wanted to protest, but she reached out and poked the end of my nose before I could say anything.
“Beep!”
And then she was off on a tear through the doors and into the lobby, humming a random song and weaving this way and that as the music took her. I couldn’t help but smile and shake my head as I watched her, she just looked so… cute.
No.
No, stop it.
None of that.
Remember, we’re trying to make it NOT look like we’re taking a thirteen year old up to our hotel room. We need to stress maturity, right? Right.
So I followed Haru inside, and almost immediately she bounded her way back to me, holding up the keys triumphantly and grinning.
“I got ’em, Kenny! Let’s go, I’ll race you to the elevator!”
“That’s hardly fair,” I replied in a sober tone, “I’m carrying all of this.”
“Well, then…” she pondered for a moment before snapping her fingers with the realization, “I’ll hop on one leg! That’ll make it even, right?”
I didn’t get a chance to voice my opinion before she was already off, wobbling down the hallway on one of her skinny legs, half revealed through her ever-present cropped pants. It was like she had to breathe through her shins; even in the winter she’d wear leg warmers over them and take them off when she got in the building. As I watched her fall down a few times (and a few more times she blundered into the wall to keep her balance) I found myself smiling again, and all I wanted to do in the most primitive and impulsive part of my brain was fly down that hallway as fast as I could with my burden, beating her soundly in our quest for the elevator, laughing and enjoying a little slice of life. Unfortunately, a graying, overweight man in a suit running down a hallway and laughing while carrying a giant furry bag over his shoulder might raise a few questions. Of course, if they saw me playing with Haru, I could imagine just what they’d say:
“Oh, how nice! Look at that, how well that father plays with his daughter.”
Ugh. I shuddered at the thought of it. To be here with Haru, alone, and to have someone think THAT…
While it’s true no one ever has, I knew I had to keep on my toes and avoid the, um, urges to act childish when she was around, no matter how infectious her attitude can be. I chose her to come partly because she can make any situation, no matter how boring, a fun one but as I watched her wobble and fall over again right before the elevator, I started to have some very serious second thoughts.
We climbed into the elevator and I pressed the button more out of habit than anything. I looked behind me to see Haru almost pouting.
“What?”
“I wanted to push the button,” she whined in return.
“Oh, honestly,” I rolled my eyes hard enough to break them like two fresh eggs, “I’ll let you push the button on the way down to the conference, okay?”
“Okey dokey,” her smile returned, “But, you know, Kenny… I could always push this button…”
She crept forward, her deft little fingers reaching out for the emergency stop button.
“And then we’d be stuck in here, all alone…”
“And you’d be without any candy until we were rescued,” I shot back, “You’d go crazy.”
“Maybe I’d just get my sugar from you, Kenny-kenny…”
She sauntered up next to me, her little frame coming in contact with my, um, larger one. I immediately felt my face get hot as her smile grew even bigger. There was something extra, um, uncomfortable about watching her get like this. With someone like Ai, you almost expect it, but someone like Haru… what do I even do?
“Ha ha!” she laughed right in my face, reaching up to pinch my cheeks, “Kenny’s blushing! You naughty boy!”
“Well, what do you expect?” I tried to talk back, but it was like my lips were suddenly full of paste.
“Hee hee…” she reached up over my head and quickly unzipped one of the zippers on her bag, pulling out a little bag of apple flavored gummi candies, chewing on them happily.
“I should have known you had reserves,” I narrowed my eyes and tried to look as accusing as possible.
“Whatcha gonna do about it?” Haru wrinkled her nose at me, because her tongue was too busy eating to be stuck out in my direction. For some reason, that wrinkled little nose broke my resolve, and I found myself against my better judgment reaching over to pinch what little of her there was on her side. She gave a startled squeak and, when the elevator door finally opened on our floor, we were in the midst of a pinch and tickle fight to rival the strategic genius of Patton and Rommel combined. Of course, when the door opened we were greeted with an elderly couple trying to get on, and we both immediately stopped and quickly exited the elevator with red faces. The female of the couple was shaking her head and muttering as elderly people seem to learn how to do, but the male gave me a quick wink and a smile right before the door closed on them. I can only wonder what he was thinking of.
We made it to our room without further embarrassment and, yes, Haru immediately leapt onto her bed and began jumping up and down.
“WHEEEEEEEEE!!!”
I set down the pile of luggage between us and flopped over on the bed she wasn’t currently destroying.
“C’mon, Kenny! Join in on the fun!!”
“If I did that,” I smirked, “Not only would I break my bed, but the people downstairs would see what the bottom of my shoes looked like.”
She stopped actively bouncing then, but the momentum kept her  bobbing up and down sadly a bit as she thought about what I said.
“What?”
“Nothing,” I sighed, “Just don’t expect me to jump around like you do.”
“Okay!” she called out gleefully, taking a flying leap from one bed to another and landing squarely on top of me, a leg on either side of my belly, effectively pinning me down. Her million-watt smile grew to a billion as I tried to catch my breath.
“Then let’s DO IT, Kenny-ken!”
If I hadn’t already had the air knocked out of me, that would have done it. As it was, I just gasped more and coughed more. Did she really say that? Her, Haru Yamamoto? Right now? Just like that?
“W… what did you say?”
“Hee hee hee!”
“Don’t ‘hee hee’ me, Yamamoto! What on earth… WHY would you say that?”
“Hee hee… uh…” I could see she was starting to flounder, and I furrowed my brows and went for it.
“Did someone put you up to that?”
“Maybe…” she was still giggling.
“Was it Mei?”
“No…”
“Cathy?”
“No…”
“…It was Ai, wasn’t it?”
“…Maybe…”
I should have known. Remind me to check the potted plants in the room later. I don’t know why, I just feel like I should.
“Haru… why would you go along with that?”
“I’unno,” Haru shrugged her narrow shoulders, “Ai-ai said it’d be funny…”
“And is it?”
“A little,” the grin returned. She began to bounce up and down on my stomach like I was a toy horse, which didn’t feel as good as I suppose it probably should have, because it nearly brought up the noodles I had for lunch.
“Gah… Haru…”
“What, Kenny?”
“Please… get off me.”
“Awwww!” Haru pouted and did as she was told. Thankfully, it wasn’t Ai, or she probably would have made a terrible joke out of my request. I finally managed to catch my breath as Haru stood a few feet away, nervously chewing on some gummis and looking like she was anticipating a scolding.
“Haru…” I said after a long pause, “What’s going on here?”
“I don’t know!” she stuck out her lower lip, defiant, “I don’t know what I’m doing. Ai said it’d be funny, and it sounded like fun…”
“Fun? Are you even aware of what you said to me?”
“Of course I am! I’m not a kid, Kenny! I know stuff!”
Even that line made her sound childish: I know stuff. I wonder if she could even say the word.
“I know you’re not a kid, Haru!” I bellowed back, “That’s…!”
My voice suddenly failed me, and I found myself falling to pieces in front of a woman who was probably less than half my size. I hung my head as I sat on the edge of the bed, letting the words finally spill out.
“That’s why I wanted to have you here with me.”
“Kenny?”
I looked up to see Haru standing near me, only slightly taller than I was sitting down. She was smiling, but it wasn’t her usual narcotic grin, it was a small, slightly sad little smile, the smile that could only come with a little bit of maturity… the smile of a woman.
“Thank you.”
It was the plainest thing I’d ever heard her say to me. No extra exclamation points, no giddy giggles, just two simple words. I had no idea how to counter that.
“Er… we’d better get ready for the conference.”
Smooth, Watanabe. Really nice. We both got ready mostly in silence, but it was a fairly comfortable silence. I couldn’t think of anything to say until Haru came out of the bathroom dressed in a very nice red dress that billowed at the knee after a tight-fitting top…part…thing… what do you call those? Anyway, her dress was fine but, unfortunately, as was the case any time Haru tried to dress up.
“Haru?”
“Yes, Kenny?”
“You’ve, uh…” I couldn’t think of anything better to say, “You’ve got way too much makeup on.”
“Oh… okay,” She replied quietly. It really was a whole new world seeing her act like this, but I didn’t want to feel like a complete rat, so I added.
“I can’t see you when you where all that stuff… I want to see you.”
She gave me that little smile again, and again said:
“Thank you.”
She went back into the bathroom and came out soon afterward, looking more like herself than the, um, painting she usually was. Her usual twintails were combed down into a waterfall of wavy hair that reached halfway down  her back, and looked to add at least five years to her face… but even I’m not stupid enough to say something like that, no matter how good it looked.
“You look great, Haru.”
“Really?”
“Really,” I fiddled with my tie, unable to get it straight, “your hair looks nice.”
“I usually tie it up ‘cuz it’s a big pain in the butt,” she said, blushing, “Don’t expect me to do this for you everyday, Kenny.”
Finally: it was like the old Haru and the Haru of the past half hour were starting to form into one person. Maybe, if I was lucky, I could keep this going… but just to be sure I should try to hide all of her fruit gummies. I tried to take my eyes away from the suddenly mature and attractive little woman standing in front of me by fiddling with my tie again, grimacing.
“Speaking of every day… this would have to be the day I can’t get this damn thing to sit right.”
“Here, let me help.”
She walked over, surprisingly well in her heels, and reached up to help with my tie.
“Hey, Haru?”
“Yeah?
I could tell she was struggling to reach up all the time, so I sank down to me knees, making myself slightly shorter again.
“Would this help?”
She looked down at me and beamed, and there was something about that grin coming out from that hair that made me very uncomfortable in a very nice way.
“Thanks, Kenny.”
She started fixing my tie, and I was so close to her that I could smell the spicy perfume she was wearing. Haru usually smelled like candy, or some close relative thereof, so it was obvious this was a choice she made for the evening. She was looking down at my neck, so she couldn’t see me breaking out in a close sweat, all because she was this close and I could feel her nimble little fingers brush the skin of my neck every once in a while… who would have thought Haru Yamamoto could pull this off?
“There,” she said, looking up at my no-doubt ridiculous expression. There was something in her eyes, peeking out from all that wavy brown hair… something about the way her movements were suddenly very sharp and scared, nothing like the way she usually drifted dreamily through the halls at Kotogakko… part of me was screaming for it, wanting her to lean in, to make just the slightest of motions with her chin in my direction, so I wouldn’t feel completely responsible… but I couldn’t. Not yet, not this fast. I just… I couldn’t.
“Beep.”
Instead, I did the stupidest thing I could think of: I reached out and beeped her nose. She giggled and blushed, and I giggled and blushed, and we both felt very stupid before we made our final preparations and headed down to the conference. Everything went fine, and my speech was well received: the only major problem was that many of my fellow educators from the country over found it hilarious and amazing that this tiny woman could drink to much alcohol and still not feel the effects. I half wanted to tell them that if they really wanted to be impressed, they should find her a piano, but I settled for playing bodyguard for a little while in case one of the other teachers tried to make off with her. She probably could have fit in one of their pockets.
As I watched, I wondered to myself if Haru really was aware of what was going on. After her proclamation that she “knows stuff,” I started wondered how much she really, um, knew. Like if she knew to fear this sort of situation where drinking too much around a ground of guys could cause all sorts of, um, trouble. Maybe, I thought, she had never even seen something like this before: maybe men never paid her much attention until now, with the dress and the hair and the this and that and altogether… so maybe she just didn’t know. And it was then I realized that, for whatever reason, I had to be there, or someone else with a soul did, to make sure she wasn’t suddenly attacked by a world it seemed like she knew nothing about. Haru’s always sort of had her head in the clouds, with her music and her high ideas, so I wonder if she’s ever really had to confront how ugly the world can be. More importantly, did I really want to be the one to finally open up those curtains and explain it to her? Well, yes, if I really did care for her the way I said I did, I would have to. If not, I’d be leading her to slaughter every day until she finally broke. It would have to be my affection for her that would show her the ugliness, rather than having her get the ugly from an ugly person.
In short, I mused to myself as I sipped a little Johnny Walker, I was going to have to be the one to make her grow up, because no one else ever did.
When they finally closed the bar down, I saw the group of lecherous teachers start to close in, no doubt their addled minds thinking of all sorts of perverted uses for the little woman. With only one drink to my name, I was easily able to carve through the assembled like Moses at the Red Sea and lead a giggling, beaming, tipsy-but-still-on-her-feet-somehow Haru back to our room, where I neatly deposited her onto her bed, dress and all.
“Whoooo!” she hollered, “I drank SO MUCH! I shoulda, like, have to check myself into the Bettie Page Clinic!”
I didn’t have the heart to tell her she got the wrong Betty. I doubt she would have listened, anyway. I made sure she wasn’t in danger of passing out before changing in the bathroom and crawling into my bed, lulled to sleep by the cacophonous snores coming from the now unconscious Haru.
I slept straight through til about 4:40AM, which was when I heard her voice calling out to me in that low, soft voice she had used when we talked about her makeup.
“Mr. Watanabe?”
I should have known that was the first problem. She NEVER called me that. Not even when I WAS her teacher.
I slapped blindly until I found the clock on the nightstand, bringing it to my face to glare at it like it had killed my parents.
“Haru,” my voice cracked and croaked, “It’s almost five AM, what are you doing waking me…”
Satisfied I had glared the clock into oblivion, I shifted my gaze to find Haru in the room, and when I did I dropped the clock to the floor with a rattling thud. Haru was standing at the foot of my bed, and had apparently decided she didn’t like her dress anymore. That left her, of course, with nothing but a black, boned corset with lacy, um, accessories, even down to the stockings she’d had under her dress, held on by those strappy things. It’s called a garter belt, right? Anyway, it didn’t really matter what it was called, because I could feel the blood ready to shoot out of my nose like fireworks at any minute. I never thought I’d say this, and maybe it’s because I was half asleep and it was REALLY good scotch… but Haru Yamamoto looked, um… hot.
“Mr. Watanabe…”
“Uhhhh…..” My tongue suddenly felt as large as a cow’s, “Yeah?”
“Mr. Watanabe…”
Good grief, she was saying it more than Ms. Arakawa would. She started walking toward my end of the bed, and I thought for just a moment that, if I tried hard enough, I could probably tunnel through the wall behind me with my bare hands… but would I want to?
Oh, Lord Almighty, there’s no time for that anymore… she’s climbing onto the bed… and onto me!
“Ken…”
I think I preferred it when it was more formal. Was she sleepwalking or something?
“Are you sleepwalking or something?”
“No…” she replied, a little confused, “Why?”
“Just wanted to check,” I answered lamely, “So… you’re doing this, huh?”
“Yes.”
“You really want to do this?”
“Yes.”
“And… what do you want from me?”
“An answer.”
“Uh…..” Cow tongue again, “What kind of answer?”
“The answer to the question I asked you earlier.”
Could I try to draw this out by asking “which one?” Of course not, you damn fool, she’s on top of you in bed in a full burlesque outfit, there’s NO POSSIBLE WAY YOU COULD MISS THIS.
“Ummm… I really don’t know.”
“Well, I do,” Haru said, her eyes lidded with what I hoped was drunkenness and not passion, “I do. I do want to do… you. I want to be an adult for you, and do adult things… and I want to do them with you…”
“Haru, you don’t need to prove yourself like that to me, okay? That’s not what it’s about. Being an adult is more than that… probably, that thing you’re talking about is actually a very non-adult thing to do, in this situation, so we should probably be smart and not do anything, not yet, at least… which isn’t to say I wouldn’t definitely consider it, and it’s not to say I’m not considering it right now, a lot, and………Haru?”
She hadn’t moved since her last words said. If I didn’t know any better, I swear I’d suddenly awakened a secret power in which I could stop time… but I noticed the clock on the floor was still moving, even if Haru wasn’t. Then, suddenly, almost inaudibly at first, I heard it: gentle, rolling snores, coming right from her little upturned nose. In a trice, she collapsed on top of me, and the snoring increased several times over, nearly rattling the lighting fixtures off the walls. Oh, and I’ll simply say that even having her little body fall on top of me was very painful… but I won’t say why.
The next morning, as I was getting ready to leave, Haru came out of the bathroom, makeup-less, her hair back in tails, but with her sad face still intact.
“Kenny-ken… did I… do anything last night?”
“No… why?”
“Well… because I woke up in your bed, and I was in my underwear.”
“Oh, that,” I drew out that last word way too long to think up a lie, and quick, “You passed out on my bed after drinking too much, so I took the other one.”
“Awww,” she pouted again, just like Haru would. It was somewhat comforting to see that this Haru still existed, even if it was alongside the, um, other one, “I’m sorry, Kenny.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, shouldering our luggage again, “In fact, you were a perfect lady last night.”
Yeah, but she doesn’t need to know HOW perfect she was…or WHY. Haru shot me back a million-watt grin, her eyes curling up like they always do when she’s happy, but her voice still had some of that, um, weight from last night.
“Thanks.”
I thought to myself as we headed down the hall to the elevator (without any hopping or butt-slapping) that maybe Haru had put on weight, just a little in her soul, and it came through in her voice. Or maybe she just finally opened up a box she’d had sealed up inside her mind for so long, trying so hard to be little and cute because that’s what everyone always expected… and this new burden might feel good, like a big, fluffy sweater… but it was going to add some weight.
Of course, even I’m not that stupid to try and tell her that, though. For now, she can keep on being little, because soon enough I bet the weight will have to happen, and I just hope I’m there to help when it does.

RG – Conference – Ai

“No tricks, all right?”
“Oh, I don’t know what you mean.”
We were headed out of the back entrance to the school on Friday afternoon, I with my battered suitcase and Ai, well… she looked to be carrying a messenger bag.
“No tricks, Ai. I brought you along because you said you were really curious about what the Biology teachers from Sendai were bringing down.”
“I am,” she replied plainly, straightforward, like a scientist.”
“And I already checked the website for the conference and made sure that, yes, Sendai is bringing a presentation on Biology.”
“Of course they are.”
“And you want to check it out?”
“Yes.”
“And you’re sure that’s why you want to go?”
“Ken, darling!” she faked being insulted, “What’s with this fifth degree all of a sudden?”
“It’s third degree,” I muttered.
“Oh, well,” she started to sound a little huffy, “Maybe you could just bring Eri along, she’s much more good at Math!”
“Knock it off,” I rolled my eyes, “You’re a scientist, you need to know just as much Math as she does.”
“Oh, Ken, sweetie… let’s not fight.”
I sighed in frustration.
“Let me guess… you’re a lover, not a fighter?”
“Well, since you mentioned it…”
“See?” I set down my suitcase in the middle of the parking lot, “This is why I didn’t want to bring you along. Everything’s a joke and a game and always trying to get my goat. I can never tell if you’re serious when you do… that thing you do.”
She didn’t reply, but avoided eye contact.
“I bet you’re thinking of a joke because I used the word ‘goat,’ aren’t you?”
She parted her bright red lips in a smile and gazed out over the top of her half-glasses.
“Oh, Ken dear… you know me so well.”
“And I also know you’re a terrifying driver, so if it’s all right with you, I’d like to drive us to the conference.”
“But what if something should happen to my dear Sakura?”
Now it was my turn to gaze with lidded eyes.
“You named your car?”
“Of course. I’ve been driving her for ages.”
“And you’re worried about me causing damage to your car?”
I took a quick glance around to confirm that, yes, this was the car we were talking about, more dents than anything.
“I don’t even know what kind of car this is, you’ve beat it up so much!”
“Oh, it’s an old model, I think it was called Bolero or Mondale or something.”
“I doubt it was the last one, thought it’s amazing she still runs.”
“Well, she can be rather finicky,” Ai offered lamely.
“So can you,” I shot back.
“Ooh, you’re so playful today, darling.”
I beckoned for the keys and she handed them over with her ruby red fingernails.
“Taking control,” she mused, seemingly half-serious, “I’m impressed.”
“I only take control because you don’t when you’re dr–!”
I had unlocked the door and made to open it, and the handle moved upward like it should have, but the door didn’t open. I tried the handle a few more times, but no luck. After tossing her bag and mine into the backseat, Ai sauntered over, heels and skirt, to see what was the matter.
“Is something the matter?”
“I c-an’t open the do-or!” I grunted twice, trying the handle over and over.
“Here, let me try.”
She raised up on the handle slightly, then did what I would charitably describe as a “shimmy” with her hips, moving quickly upward. The door popped open with ease, and Ai did a hippy little dance to mock me.
“See? These things come in handy.”
She really was quite, um, proportional.
“We don’t want to be late with the traffic,” I said foolishly, “so  any exploring of your curves will have to wait.”
She gave an excited little squeal and I knew I’d done it. We both got into the car and I very nearly fell back out because the seat gave way as soon as I sat on it.
“You have to be careful with her,” Ai said as she lovingly patted the dashboard, “She’s an old girl, but she’s got it where it counts.”
“Was that a movie reference?”
“Maybe.”
And here I thought she didn’t stray out of the kaiju genre. Who knew she liked sci-fi, too? I was able to start the car without any problem, but once we got going she proved to have even more little joys in store.
“You have to pump the gas pedal, Ken darling, or she might choke a bit in traffic.”
“Oh, you get used to the sound of that exhaust.”
“Make sure to hit that green button if we’re going up a hill,” she suggested, and immediately the engine roared to life like a thousand angry hornets, bucking ahead with such force I had to force the brakes so as not to become friends with the backseat of the car in front of us. The more I drove this little cherry blossom, the more I started to think that Ai’s driving might not be entirely her fault.
We screeched to a halt outside the hotel, and the man standing at the front door regarded the beat up little sedan about how he might regard something a cat had dragged onto the doorstep.
“You’ll have to park around back.”
“Okay, Ai: you get out and get our rooms and stuff, and I’ll bring the bags after I park.”
“Are you sure I can’t carry some of it?”
“Ai, your bag is tiny. I’ll be fine.”
“I don’t plan on wearing much, you know.”
I furrowed my brows and pointed her out of the passenger side, but this only seemed to make her happier. It took a little bit of time finding a parking space, but the walk wasn’t too bad and Ai already had everything waiting in the lobby when I showed up.
“We’re all set, dear! Room 245.”
“When I called ahead earlier, they said four-something.”
“There must have been a change.”
I look at her with one eyebrow up. She beamed back at me innocently. Well, as innocent as you can look in a revealing blouse, a miniskirt, high heels, and bright red lips. I decided to check with the front desk.
“Hi there.”
“Hello, sir.”
“I called to confirm my room earlier this week, and I was told it was on the 400 floor.”
“Ah. Well, the hotel had a… thing happen, so we moved you down to 245.”
“A thing, huh?”
“Yeah.”
“What kind of thing?”
Ai was still standing a far distance away, smiling and holding her bag, so the front desk man leaned in close and whispered to me.
“The kind of thing you probably want to be up to, sharing a room with a lady like that: King bed, full bar, roomy bathtub for two.”
“I can’t afford that.”
She paid the difference.”
“Oh, for crying out…”
I spun around to see Ai shaking from trying to hold in the laughter, nearly falling off her heels. I spun back to the front desk, only to see that the guy had left.
“This is ridiculous.”
“Oh, come on Ken, sweetie,” Ai walked up behind me and hung on my arm, “If it really bothers you, I’ll sleep in the bathtub.”
“I’d rather just switch the rooms.”
“Oh, I paid him well enough that it won’t happen.”
“Why, did he put cameras in the room?”
“Oh, my!” Ai’s eyes grew wide, then full of thought.
“Why didn’t I think of that?”
“Just… let’s go,” I grumbled, dragging my suitcase in one arm and Ai in the other over to the elevator. We both rode the lift up to the second floor, with Ai in full-on pout mode.
“Oh, don’t give me that.”
“What?” Ai’s lower lip stuck out like a Mauser’s bayonet, “I just wanted to spend a little for us, on our little vacation, maybe have a little fun…”
“Ugh,” I grunted as we walked out into the hallway. Ai followed closely behind, her shoes now muffled on some rather nice carpet.
“And what about the guys from Sendai?” I asked, opening the door.
“Oh, there’ll be plenty of time for that,” Ai waved me off, and took the moment to glance at her wristwatch, “We’ve got a few hours until we even need to think about getting ready for everything tonight, so why not get comfortable?”
We stepped into the room and, yes, I will admit, it was amazingly well fitted. The bed was indeed enormous and plush, nearly swallowing my poor suitcase when I laid it on the pillowy surface. To one side of the bed, a massive window offered a gorgeous view of Tokyo, with several historical and important buildings in easy view. To the other end of the bed were a few shoji screens that divided the bedding from the bath. I can only assume that, in the middle of all this opulence, the hotel figures they should throw in a little traditional Japanese design so we don’t feel too, um, corrupted. Ai quickly excused herself to take a look at the bathroom, so I was free to do what I usually did when I first check in to a hotel: sit on the bed and check out the TV. Unfortunately, it was the middle of the afternoon and there wasn’t much good on, so I left the noise on and continued to check out the room.
You never feel quite as much like a commoner than you might in a hotel room. I found myself marveling at the quality of tea and coffee laid out next to the hotpot, along with free internet that made me wish I had a laptop I could have plugged in. All of the furniture was high class, of course, and it was a very new feeling to sit in a chair that hadn’t been pulverized to a comfortable, squishy texture from years and years of use. It wasn’t uncomfortable, I suppose… but it felt a little stiff. Is this what happens when the poor farmer suddenly comes in to some money? I was reminded of that story where he spent so much time on this and that, that he forgot about what was most important: his land. So, as I sat in the chair I wondered to myself what was most important to me, and then almost on cue the door to the bath opened and Ai stepped out wearing only one of the complimentary nightshirts and slippers. It was obvious that the nightshirt wasn’t meant for someone like Ai (although it may have looked more ridiculous on some of the other Rogues) and from the looks of it her buttons were under more pressure than Nixon’s cabinet.
“I wanted something a little more comfortable.”
She gave a long stretch and theatrical yawn that made it just possible to see a flash of cobalt blue around the edges of the white shirt.
“Well then, you might want to wrap the robe around your bottom half,” I replied, admiring the side table intently so as not to, um, stare at anything else again, “that must be a little drafty.”
“Don’t you like the way I look?”
What a stupid question. A blind man would like the way she looks. A dead man would like the way she looks. Oscar Wilde would like the way she looks.
“Ai,” I began with a heavy sigh, “You know I think you’re beautiful.”
I walked over and, with hands that were only slightly shaking, I sat her down on the bed.
“And you should know that by now.”
“I know… but I never get tired of hearing it.”
She had let her act down there for a second, turning her eyes away and frowning… and for a little bit I saw that girl she had told me she was in elementary school. The skinny girl with big glasses who was always playing with bugs and dirt and trees. I wondered for a bit just how bad it was for her growing up for her to be this, um, open about things as an adult. And speaking of open… keep those eyes up here, Watanabe!
“I’m going to go check out the bathroom now that you’re done and, if I figure out how to work the toilet, we can go out and about a little before the conference starts.”
“The guys from Sendai are probably really boring, you know,” she said again plainly, almost woefully.
“Well then it’s a good thing you’re with me to liven things up. Nobody does that better than you.”
She looked back up at me and again those red, red lips broke into an ivory smile.
“So glad you noticed, darling!”
It only took me three tries to get the weird fancy toilet to work, and it only took me one try to get Ai to put some reasonable clothes on. As promised, we went downstairs to visit some of the various seminars and presentations from educators representing all parts of Japan. There was even a cool little corner for some teachers from Hokkaido talking about teaching agriculture. It was like a little slice of home, except my Dad probably would have assumed they knew next to nothing… and he would probably be right. We checked out the guys from Sendai who were researching a strange disorder harming some of the crops up to the north which had me worried, but it was mostly in the rice crops, and not yet in the wheat. I would have asked them some more questions, but they were far too busy staring at Ai to be bothered. She’d put her lab coat back on, I guess so she’d fit in with the other scientists, but underneath that she was wearing a tight, black, one piece thing that was accented with a broad band around the neckline of some sort of animal print (leopard? cheetah? giraffe?) and a matching belt.
By the time the actual dinner and my presentation rolled around, she had folded the jacket neatly, put it away and was now completely, um, on display. I guess she really wasn’t kidding: there wasn’t a need for a bigger bag, because that thing could probably roll up and fit in a matchbox. Naturally, she was swamped by men for the entire evening, but luckily it meant I had a rather small crowd of drunken complimenters following it. Interestingly enough, the crowd was mostly men of the old, balding and self-pitying type, those who had probably talked themselves out of a chance to chat up Ai the minute she walked into the room. Most of the women gave me a wide berth, probably for some reason regarding Ai as well. I was starting to feel like I’d made a huge mistake bringing her here, but she had had so much fun talking to the men from Sendai, and looking at the various research projects… it seemed that a few icy glares and clammy handshakes were worth her having so much fun.
“Gentlemen, please!” I heard her voice from over the din, “I do have somewhere to be!”
I could tell she was loving this. But part of me couldn’t help but wonder if it was still that skinny little girl who was loving it, and what the adult Ai Hasegawa might say if that little girl got a little too much control. Remember, she is a very respected scientist, and her fun only ever seems to go so far. Particularly when it comes to the lab and her business, she knows exactly what she’s doing and she won’t go in to injure anyone, anything, or any experiment just for her own fun. But still, I let her have some fun: given the other teachers she’s usually around at our school, men with the personality of porridge, and then there’s me and Akira… she could use a little fun. I was halfway through talking with an older member of the local historical preservation society when I felt a warm presence behind me, and the distinctive smell of green tomatoes, one of Ai’s favorite fragrances.
“Had enough fun, have we?” I said as I said my other goodbyes to the older man, who gave me one of those kindly jealous looks that older men give younger ones before he walked away. I turned around to see her, a little red faced, still red-lipped, holding her jacket neatly folded over one arm.
“Goodness, they were relentless!” she cried with mock dismay, “I nearly had to club them to get free.”
“Half of them probably would have loved it, Ai.”
“Oh, but would you, Ken dear?”
I gave her a quick look that I hope showed her that now wasn’t exactly the time, and I was only a little annoyed that she had disappeared for so long.
“Are you jealous, darling?”
“Maybe a little,” I said, truthfully, “but if I know you, you’ll promise to make it up to me later.”
“Perhaps… but first, let’s head to the bar. I’d love to get some of these free drinks while I can.”
“Wait!” I asked as she began to walk away, “You’ve been surrounded by those men all that time and not ONE of them offered you a drink?”
“Of course they did, sweetie,” she said, grasping my arm in hers, “but I told them I wasn’t interested. If I wanted to have a drink, I’d want to have one with you.”
So it looks like the scientist was still in charge, at least for now. By the time we got back to our room, I was feeling a little, um, unchained. Whether or not that was due to the drinks or due to the fact that my speech went over well, or both put together I’ll never know. Still, I threw myself down on the bed and stared up at the ceiling, relieved and happy and full of free food and free drinks. Ai once again went toward the bathroom, and when I asked her about it she mentioned something about not wanting to be in her dress for a minute longer than she had to. This lead me to want to ask “then why on Earth did you wear it?” but by then the door was closed. And besides, I already knew why. It’s the same reason I wear a suit every day when I teach, or why Akira wears black. It makes us feel good about who we are, starting with what we look, but then I always have to ask… how does someone like Ai Hasegawa look in the mirror and NOT like what she sees?
“Ah, that’s better.”
Back in the nightshirt, although this time all of the buttons were done up.
“How come you didn’t bring your sweatsuit?” I asked, thinking back to her gray, comfortable outfit.
“Oh, Ken, sweetheart,” she smiled, “This is a special occasion, isn’t it? I think it deserves something far more suitable than those old rags.”
“I don’t know,” I said with a stupid grin, “There’s something a little special about fancy underwear under a pair of sweats.”
“Really?”
“Yeah,” I could feel my mouth running on without my brain’s approval, “It’s like a… surprise!”
“I’ll have to remember that,” Ai mused to herself, settling on the edge of the bed and admiring her bright red toenails.
“So, now what?”
I glanced over from where I was lying down to see Ai turn and look at me from her seating position.
“What do you mean, Ken darling?”
“Well, we’ve had the date, the dinner, the drinks… I suppose we could go dancing if you wanted.”
“I’ve already gotten out of my ‘social clothing,’ I’m afraid.”
“Well, what do we do now? I’m not much in the mood for sleeping, yet.”
“Oh?”
“Yup,” I could feel my stomach rise when I even thought of what I was going to say next, but I was a little tipsy and my judgment wasn’t the best. Besides, somewhere deep down I was just using that as an excuse: now was the time to find out what was really going on with Ai Hasegawa, once and for all.
“So…” I put on my best ‘cool-guy’ voice, “Anything you have in mind?”
“Mmm,” Ai purred, leaning over just enough so one of the cobalt blue straps could be seen over her shoulder, “I can think of a few things.”
“Well then… GO AHEAD!”
I threw myself backward into the center of the bed, stretching my arms and legs out as far as they would go, flailing about like a recently caught fish. Ai flew forward until she was lying across my legs, squeaking with surprise and fright.
“Here I am, Ai, go ahead!” I bellowed, thrashing around and tearing off my tie, “Do whatever it is you always wanted to do to me! Go crazy, go nuts! Take me, use me, make me your little toy for the evening! I’m all yours, you sexy thing, and you know you’ve always wanted this! You’re always joking about doing this or seeing that or wanting something, well… HERE IT IS AND HERE I AM! RAWR!”
Yes, it was safe to say I was a little drunk. But for a guy my size and, um, personality to do anything of what I just did… I needed to be. To her credit, Ai handled the situation very well, slowly getting back up until she was balanced on her hands and knees.
“Come on, sexy mama,” I was running out of things I thought sounded cool, “Do it to it! Make me your dirty little candy bar, foxy lady, and I’ll be your big strong bear-meister!”
I was working on undoing the first few buttons of my shirt, but I was stopped by Ai’s soft hand on my own. She crawled over until she was face to face with me, right above me.
“Well?” I asked, feeling the lump now in my throat, “this is what it’s all about, isn’t it? The big bed, the nightshirt, taking me out for drinks… I’m yours, right?”
“Ken… why are you–”
“No time for talk, sex muffin! Let’s make with the party!”
“Ken, stop.”
Her voice was so plain and simple there that I had no choice. In all reality my heart was pounding like crazy and I could feel my head registering about five hundred degrees. Still, I had to know. After all these years of torment, it was finally my chance to turn the tables.
“Why stop? Let’s get busy, honey!”
“Oh, Ken,” she smiled a bit and shook her head, “your pillow talk could use some work.”
“So, what? After all this you’re not going to deliver?” I asked, trying to sound indignant.
“Did you really think I was going to?” she replied, one eyebrow up above her glasses. My ruse fell apart in an instant, because I suck.
“No, I didn’t,” I said with a sigh, “But I was trying to see what would happen if I gave it a try.”
“Ken, darling!” Ai laughed out loud, a ridiculous laugh that even snorted a little, “If that’s your idea of ‘giving it a try’…”
“I know, I know,” I muttered, “It’s not surprising I’m still single, right?”
“I think you have a lot to learn, dear,” Ai said happily, trailing one of her fingers down from my forehead, over my nose, and ending at my lips. I tingled all over, it was sad: in one motion she’d managed to do more than I could with all manner of ridiculousness.
“Well maybe I’ll enroll in your class, Ms. Hasegawa,” I tried to make a joke back.
“I think you’ll like all the lab days,” she replied with a look that made me feel even more, um, tingly, “It’s always fun to…experiment.”
And with that, she let me go and stood back up to the side of the bed, I sat back up and shook my head, feeling like a prize idiot.
“So, all of that stuff… all those years…”
“They weren’t lies, Ken dear,” Ai smiled as she picked up the tie I’d thrown away, “I care for you a great deal, and someday I would very much look forward to, um, rocking your world.”
“But not today?”
“Not today,” she smiled back.
“Was it something I did?”
“Here?!” she pointed to the bed and snorted again, “No, that was just adorable.”
If I actually WAS in the mood, that would have killed it.
“Ken, my parents are Catholics, remember?”
“Uh, yeah… I guess.”
“So…” she leaned over and placed one scarlet kiss on my forehead that immediately replaced and shame or depression I was currently feeling, “let’s just say I’m saving myself.”
“Really?” I blurted out as she tried to walk away, having a soft, gentle moment, “You’re… really?!”
“Just because I have an appetite doesn’t mean I stuff myself,” Ai gave me a wink, “Besides… I’ve been told it’s better if you wait for it.”
“I’ll tell you when I find out,” I said, rolling my eyes.
“Ken, darling…” she turned and looked at me from across the room, and her face was suddenly different. That foxy, deceptive look that was always making jokes and causing trouble was gone completely, and suddenly this beautiful, perfectly put together woman had that face of a skinny, lonely little girl with big glasses and a bug collection… but she was smiling this time.
“You were going to do that… for me,” she said, smiling not as a temptress or tormentor, but as a lover, “And you let me have so much fun here today… thank you.”
“Uh,” I had no idea what to do with this new Ai who was standing before me, “thanks.”
“I hope, someday, when it happens for me… I really hope it’s with you.”
And really, after that, what more can you say?

RG – Conference – Ms. Arakawa

“A-are you sure?”
I couldn’t help but sigh.
“Ms. Arakawa, do you know what could possibly happen by me asking you to come along this weekend?”
“I… I think so.”
“Think about what Mei might do… or Ami.”
“Oh… oh, my.”
“Yeah.”
“So… why me?”
“Well, lots of reasons,” I replied, my hand automatically reaching around to the back of my head. I sometimes wonder if I’m looking for some kind of anti-nervousness button back there.
“First and foremost, I consider you fairly, um, safe.”
The look she gave me was one part confusion, one part part frustration and, as always, one part nervous fear.
“I’m not safe!” she complained in her light and wispy voice, “I can be very dangerous.”
It took everything I had to keep myself from saying “Tomo, the only thing you can do that would possibly be considered dangerous would be burning the rice.”
“My father taught me plenty of ways to be dangerous, Mr. Watanabe!”
“Oh, I remember,” I said, rolling my eyes, “Too much of that special chocolate and suddenly, I was upside down.”
When your Dad is a professional wrestler, even someone like Ms. Arakawa learns a thing or two. Still…
“Still, I wouldn’t call you ‘dangerous.’ At least, not as much as Mei, or Ami.”
“That’s a mean thing to say…”
“Well, it’s the truth.”
“I would disagree,” she said suddenly, looking up into my eyes with those sad-looking little lanterns, “It’s your opinion.”
“Well, yeah,” I shrugged, “But it’s the truth about my opinion.”
“Oh, now you’re just splitting hairs.” It was odd: I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Tomoko be this frustrated about something I said. I have to say it wasn’t all that unpleasant, it was nice to see that she wasn’t just the same person every day. I wonder what else she might be hiding in there… and no, that wasn’t mean to sound as bad as it did. The conversation died soon after that, and I didn’t hear from her again until we both met on Saturday afternoon to take the trip up to the hotel. I had been a little worried that with my lack of a car and Tomo’s only real transportation being her motorcycle… we might have an, um, interesting trip getting out there. Ms. Arakawa told me not to worry about it, but as we stood in the parking lot with our luggage (and nothing else) I decided I would start to worry.
“Um, Ms. Arakawa?”
“He’ll be here,” she said it as if she was calming down a frightened child.
Within the next minute, a black sedan pulled up outside the school.
“Oh, you didn’t…”
I wasn’t able to say anything else, because a man stepped out from the driver’s seat to grab our luggage, and asked us politely to get in the back.
“Are you serious?” I asked Ms. Arakawa as soon as we sat down.
“We needed a car,” she replied, blushing heavily as our bags thudded into the trunk behind us, “I called my Dad and this is what he did.”
Said wrestling father also happens to be a ranking member of the Japanese Diet. He’s quite the character.
“Well, next time, just have him float you some money for a rental,” I moaned slightly.
“Sorry.”
We spent a few minutes in uncomfortable silence as the car got on its way. I decided I really didn’t want this whole experience to wind up like this, so I made a decision that I was going to try to make things better and enjoy this, no matter what. After all, I made the decision to bring Ms. Arakawa along, so it’s up to me.
“Look,” I crossed my fingers over each other as they sat in my lap, “Today has completely fallen apart.”
She didn’t say anything, so I figured I might as well continue. If I keep digging, I’ll end up in America, right?
“But I don’t think it’s completely lost. Do you?”
“………No.”
“Good,” I said with no shortage of relief, “So, how do we start this over again?”
“Why did you choose me, Mr. Watanabe?”
It’s like she was ready to pounce on it before I even suggested starting over. What else is going on under that big pile of chestnut brown hair? What secrets are behind that massive braid that ran down her back? And how would I be able to answer this question without making her upset again?
“Well…” I fumbled for something that didn’t involve that s-word that had caused me trouble before, “You know what? Yeah. You’re just a really nice and pleasant person to be around, Tomoko. That’s why I chose you.”
“Oh… oh, my.”
Great, even when I go straight for compliments, she locks up anyway. What do I do here? I try one thing, she gets upset. I try what I think she’s supposed to want, and she locks up. I wish someone would just tell me exactly what I’m supposed to do, and when, and maybe even why… but that’s probably asking too much. The rest of the ride was quiet again, which did nothing except start a sour feeling in my stomach. I didn’t see hardly any of her mother when I visited her house, and I barely heard a peep from her during  their trip down to see that awful sports fest. I’m starting to wonder if Tomo has ideas about how she’s supposed to act when she’s in a certain situation with a certain fellow. After all, I’d been all but betrothed to Ms. Arakawa a few months back, and here she is acting much like… well… a housewife.
Not any housewife I knew, mind you. Nor any one that probably ever existed outside a television screen. But it seemed to me like this Ms. Arakawa was a different Ms. Arakawa, from the moment I had told her we were going together to this… thing.  She was usually so warm, so kind and friendly, but now, she seemed stiff, cold, uncomfortable. The atmosphere in the car was suddenly like we were all going to take a test, and no one had studied for it, and then it hit me. Ms. Arakawa is uncomfortable because she thinks she’s supposed to act one way, but that way makes her feel very uncomfortable. She’s going along with me being frustrated about the car, but I can tell she’d rather I just thank her for the help in getting to the conference. She’s trying to start things over the “right” way, but I can tell all she really wants to do is just let it go and go back to talking about something unimportant. Still, she’s got it in her mind that this is the way it’s supposed to be, I guess… even if it’s not what she wants.
And that seems silly.
We checked in, and I noticed with some stress that we were going to be in the same room.
“Um…” I whispered to the man at the front desk when Ms. Arakawa had her back turned, “How many beds are in this room?”
“Two,” he grinned back, “How many would you like?”
I could feel my eyes narrowing into slits as I took the keys and headed up the few floors to the room. I handed the keys to Ms. Arakawa in the elevator, and offered to take the bags. That was probably a mistake, as Ms. Arakawa blushed a little and mumbled something about a gentleman. Once again, do I not take the bags and risk making her cry, or take the bags and risk her doing, well… what she just did? Upon entering the room, I found the front desk wasn’t lying to me… but the beds weren’t exactly on the other end of a wall, either.
“Is this going to be okay?” I asked Ms. Arakawa as she took her luggage from me and set it out on the far bed.
“Oh, Mr. Watanabe,” she replied in a very easygoing manner, “I know you’ll be a perfect gentleman tonight.”
There’s that word again… and wasn’t she the one who tried to, um, jump on me when I was at her house? I’m not the one to worry about!
“So,” Tomo said while sitting very properly, straight-backed on the edge of her bed, “We have a few hours… what shall we do?”
“Uh, I really hadn’t thought of that,” I tossed my own bag on the bed, “There’s all the education stuff going on downstairs in the banquet hall, we could always check that out.”
She didn’t say anything, and she didn’t really make a face, but there was something in the overall, um, air of the room that suddenly changed, as if the very ether was hissing the word “borrrrring” into my ear like a sarcastic ghost.
“I really don’t know what there is to do around here,” I shrugged finally, “do you know of anything we could look at?”
The pall in the room felt like it was lifted, and a small smile came across Ms. Arakawa’s face.
“We can just wander around,” she said plainly, without any sort of fanfare, “I don’t really mind what we do as long as it’s together.”
I was really starting to worry about this. It was like she was a completely different person in every situation: quiet and filial around her father, nervous and shy around the rest of the Rogues, and when it was just the two of us alone she suddenly would ramp up her, um, attractions to eleven. She was suddenly saying things she wouldn’t dare say with Mei around, or Eri; she’d just squeak and hide in the corner until someone needed tea or cake. I was starting to worry a little bit that some sort of alien had taken over, but Ms. Arakawa stood up from the bed and walked over to me, taking one of my well-fed hands in both of her dainty, soft little ones. She looked straight up into my eyes with her sad eyes, eyes that always seemed to be tilted or fallen, like she was constantly on the verge of crying… but they sparkled so much, and they seemed so happy at this very moment that I knew tears were the furthest thing from her mind.
“Let’s go, Mr. Watanabe… okay?”
“Okay,” I replied, almost automatically. Something about it felt right, like I’d finally figured out which Ms. Arakawa was the real one.
And then we got to the store.
There were all sorts of stores in the area, mostly traps for the hotel visitors here on this convention or for that conference, but they were all within easy walking distance so we found ourselves looking in one window after another. Tomo was almost unhinged, giggling happily as she peeked in each store, gleefully deciding whether she liked or disliked what they were offering. I stood nearby awkwardly, not sure what I was supposed to do. I got a few laughs from some other people walking by, and I’m sure it looked very much like what it seemed. I was never really a shopper: when you grow up on a farm in the middle of nowhere, you don’t go to the store as a means of recreation because most of the stores are many miles away, and mom and dad are too busy to go so you’ll just have to wait and why don’t you read some of those books and… yes, I think I just summed up most of my childhood there.
Tomo, on the other hand, was the daughter of a man who had probably had plenty of money and fame since before she was even born. To her, shopping was almost a sport: she hit each store like it was a section of the decathlon, and with practiced ease she breezed through each one’s wares with a keen eye and an open wallet.
“Hm,” she said at one, observing a frying pan, “It’s the right composition, but I’m not liking the feeling of that handle.”
“This is a good one,” she said later, scrutinizing a book, “but I know there’s a store back home that has a newer edition.”
“Who would pay this much for one of these things?!”
“Oh, good! They’ll ship right to my apartment!”
“I didn’t know they started making these again? How did they get around the government mandate, I wonder?”
She was in her element, and I was one of those inert elements just laying there, no purpose, just a lump. I followed her dumbly from store to store at breakneck pace, agreeing with whatever she said. It was all just so much, so fast: all these colors and signs and people, people everywhere talking and moving and buying and selling. I felt like I was suddenly at the Little Bighorn, surrounded and with no chance to escape. I nearly jumped out of my skin when Ms. Arakawa suddenly had a wool sweater and was holding it up in front of me.
“Gyah!”
“What?” Ms. Arakawa shrunk back in fear, “Don’t you like it?”
“Like what?”
“The sweater?”
“The what?”
“This?” she held up the dark blue thing, which had white stripes on the side and actually looked pretty nice.
“Yeah, it’s… it’s nice.”
“Oh,” I could see her growing unhappy, “You don’t want it?”
“Uh, well,” I found myself scratching my head again, “I mean, uh, I don’t know… It’s not winter yet…”
“That’s why you buy now. Everything’s on sale!”
“Oh, okay…” I shook my head, trying to dispel the weirdness from a few minutes ago, “I don’t have the money for it, though…”
“I’ll buy it for you,” she said back almost immediately, eagerly.
“I dunno…”
I’m just not used to buying something right away. Even a new pair of pants is usually a week of studying, shopping around and finding the best price.
“Please, just let me do this for you.”
She was looking up at me again, but I didn’t see that sparkle from before. Now her eyes looked more… worried. What was she worried about?
“It’s just a sweater,” I offered. But instead of dispelling any problem there might be… I guess I made it worse.
“Okay…”
She put the sweater down and made her way out of the shop. I followed, but I was the one moving with purpose, now. It was like I had cut a boat loose from an anchor, or like the first time you let a new calf out into the pasture. She wandered slowly, on wobbly legs, a complete difference from before. I had to say something. I had to.
“Ms. Arakawa? Are you okay?”
“Yes, I’m fine.”
“But you don’t seem fine.”
She turned to me, on the verge of tears.
“It was just a sweater,” she said softly, hurt, “I just wanted to do something nice for you.”
“You don’t have to buy me things to do something nice.”
“Please,” her face was a mask of pain, “Let’s not do this here.”
“Okay,” I replied, incredibly confused, “We, uh, we have to head back to the hotel anyway, we need to, uh… get ready.”
“Okay.”
Again with the “okay.” This was quickly becoming one of the weirdest days of my life. We cleaned up and headed to the conference, with me in my nicest suit (which means the one I don’t wear to class)  and Ms. Arakawa in a more formal version of her usual look. The ankle length skirt became a simple reddish-brownish dress, and her usual sweater had shrunk to a smaller wrap around her shoulders in an effort to hide some of her more, um, surprising assets. Everything looked right, everything looked good… but through the entire conference and my speech, I couldn’t shake this uncomfortable feeling. By the time I was finished and everyone was doing the handshaking and drinking, Ms. Arakawa approached me, still wobbly legged and quiet like before. We were around other teachers, I suppose, so I guess THIS Ms. Arakawa made sense… sort of.
“Gentlemen, you’ll have to excuse me,” I said to a group of well wishers who were doing their level best to, um, stay level after four or five drinks, “My guest isn’t feeling well, and I have to take care of her.”
“Yeah, sure!” one of the older and drunker men said, “I see why you’d want to.”
That lit a fire under me that was so strong it was confusing. I knew if I stayed much longer I might punch a drunk old man, and that wouldn’t be a good idea, so I had Ms. Arakawa take my arm and we left the conference for the short walk to the elevator.
“You said you have to take care of me?” She asked as we headed down the hall.
“Yep,” I said, particularly trying to make it sound like it wasn’t a big deal.
“You didn’t have to do that,” she spoke again, softly, “You were busy.”
“You’re my guest,” I was being very plain about it, “So yes, I do have to.”
“Okay,” she seemed to cheer up a little at that as we headed into the elevator. As soon as the doors closed, she closed her arm around mine and laid her head on my shoulder. To be honest, it would have felt good if I hadn’t been so completely confused.
“Thank you for doing that, Mr. Watanabe. It was very sweet.”
And suddenly we were back to THIS again. She kept herself on my shoulder until we got back to the room, where she heaved a heavy sigh and hung up her sweater near the door.
“Are you feeling any better, Ms. Arakawa?” I asked, hanging up my own jacket.
“Yes, thank you,” she replied, “you’re so good to care for me.”
“Okay, that’s enough.”
I turned to look her directly in the eye, both of us standing in front of the closet. I put a hand on either one of her shoulders, which surprised her probably slightly less than it did myself.
“Ms. Arakawa, what’s going on?”
“W-what do you mean?”
“I mean, there’s like… three different ‘you’s’ I’ve seen today! There’s the quiet and sad one if I do something you don’t like, and then there’s the super lovey-dovey one when we’re alone, and then there was the happy you when were were out shopping, and then when we’re around other teachers you’re all quiet again… I just don’t know what’s going on, can you please tell me?”
“A-are you upset with me?” I could see the tears starting again in the corners of her eyes, but this time I was ready for it.
“No. No! Stop crying.”
“What?!” she asked, aghast.
“Stop crying! You just go straight to the crying all the time, stop it! I’m just asking you a question! I’m just confused! Don’t start crying right away because you think I’ll leave you alone!”
“But… but…”
“But nothing, Tomoko!” I said now, my hands tightening around her shoulders in a way that made me feel like a rat, “I took you out here with me, I chose to be with you because I like you, damn it… but I need to know which one of you is the real one!”
She was really crying now, but at least she hadn’t fainted or anything.
“Damn it, I just don’t know. If I’m going to do something here, if I’m going to make a choice here, and choose you… I have to know, Tomo. I have to.”
There was a long time there when all I could hear was Tomo sobbing, but I knew if I let her go on this, I’d never figure it out, and our friendship would fall apart, because I’d never be able to know who I was talking to. I couldn’t let go of her shoulders, because I couldn’t do it to myself, but also because I was afraid Tomo might collapse to the ground if I actually did let go. Finally, she spoke.
“Why are we doing this?”
“Because–”
“I don’t want to do this!” she said, surprisingly loudly, “I don’t want to!”
“But if you don’t, this will all fall apart!”
“Just tell me what you want!”
“I want you!”
I could go on telling myself that I didn’t mean that, or that it was just the heat of the moment or whatever, but at that minute… there was no way I didn’t mean it. There were moments, so many moments when she was nice and genuine and I felt like I really saw how she really was, and I wanted that all the time.
“Do you… do you mean that?”
“Yes,” I said with no shortage of worried shaking in my voice, “But I only mean it if I see the real you.”
“Mr. Watanabe…”
She looked up at me again, and those sad eyes really were sad eyes now… but I knew it was real this time.
“I don’t really know yet. Is that… is that okay?”
I finally let go of her shoulders, and she didn’t fall to the floor, but she fell into me. I hugged her and let her cry for a little while longer.
“Yeah… I guess that’s okay.”
Soon after, she went into the bathroom to clean up and change. When she emerged, I was surprised to see she was wearing big, pink fuzzy pajama pants and a floppy t shirt that looked like it would even have been too big for me. She walked over to me on sugar pink furry kitten slippers and smiled. It was obvious she didn’t feel all that comfortable with me seeing the clothes, but she seemed to be comfortable wearing them.
“Is this okay?”
I smiled back.
“It’s a start.”
She went to her suitcase and opened it, revealing a surprising amount of dried and instant foods, apparently so she could cook up a meal for the entire Diet if they happened to stop by the room for a late night snack. She selected some popcorn, put it in the microwave, and asked if I could find a movie on the hotel tv.
“Sure,” I replied, “But I can’t guarantee it’ll be a good one.”
“That doesn’t matter,” she shook her head, “When I was young, my family would always do popcorn and movies. That was before my Dad got elected: he was on the road a lot when he was wrestling, so whenever he was home we’d have popcorn and watch movies. Dad said he got hooked on the stuff when he was over in America. It was really the first time when food was really important, because we had to have popcorn in the house, and I guess… I guess it all started from there.”
I thought back to her father’s house, all full of this and that, little bits and pieces all over the world. Somehow it started to make sense: Dad wasn’t home, but he brought a present. And make sure there’s popcorn in the house, because you never know when he’ll be home, so you stack it up and wait. I wondered, as I flipped through the channels, if maybe Ms. Arakawa’s fractured behavior was partly because she wanted so much to have that Mom and Dad home with the kids sort of life, a sort of life she didn’t have. Me, my parents were always around, it was us and the help on the farm, so I remember having to beg for time away from my parents… and I don’t know if I ever thought about how my childhood would have been different if they hadn’t been around. Maybe the whole rich and famous thing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

RG – Conference – Eri

“Understood.”
That was all she said. After I quite possibly took my life in my hands by inviting her, and only her, to spend a weekend with me at a teacher’s conference.
“I’m choosing you, Eri,” I said, finally, after she stared a hole in me for a little while, “I think it would be best for you to come along to this. Best… for both of us.”
“Understood.”
That part was true. Eri could certainly use some time around some new people, people her age and in her profession that weren’t as, um, peculiar as the Rogues. Additionally, she was so much of a non-entity that hardly anyone noticed how good of a teacher she had become. Kendo champ or not, her real calling was in the classroom. I’d never seen anyone get across brain-busting Math concepts to a class full of students using so few words. Her skills and talents really needed to be shared with the academic community at large, even if I had to do the talking. In fact, come to think of it… there are a lot of things I’ve seen her, um, convey without using a lot of words. I felt a bit like Buffalo Bill, bringing some strange new discovery before the public.
“Step right up, ladies and gentlemen! The brave and noble Ozawa! She hardly speaks a word, yet has mastered a form of communication far beyond those of modern civilized men! Don’t crowd now, and see how one simply look can curdle milk from a distance of sixty feet, or strike fear into the heart of a hardened criminal! Thrill as you see the famous Ozawan eyes, known to paralyze a man, or explode a cantaloupe at ten paces, speaking a veritable dictionary of pupils, iris, and cornea! Hurry, hurry, hurry!”
Okay, I’ll stop. I really didn’t feel like I was forcing her to do anything. In reality, I don’t know if I’ve ever forced Eri to do anything. There are times when it’s obvious she’s uncomfortable, or unhappy, or even, on the odd occasion, the opposite of unhappy… but I got the feeling she’d easily be able to tie me in a knot or split my skull like a pomegranate if I took one step in the wrong direction… which was another part of the reason why I’d decided to take her. I figured if I was bought one or two too many drinks from a discounted bar from a friendly fellow teacher… she’d break my arm before the fingers could, um, close around any part of her body. Of course, there’s always the off chance that she might, um, welcome something like that… but Eri was one of the few where that seemed like a remote possibility.
“We’ll meet here after school Friday,” I said, gesturing to the teacher’s room, bathed in golden late afternoon sunlight, “Bring something nice for the presentation dinner, and then whatever. We’ll be back by Saturday night.”
“Understood.”
I snorted a little in my frustration. Isn’t there anything else you could say, Eri? Maybe a “thank you?” Any further frustration was cut short, however, as Ami walked into the room and headed straight for her desk.
“Don’t say a word about this weekend!” I whispered quickly to Eri, not realizing who I was talking to.
“Understood.”
“What are you two still doing here?” Ami said in her usual disinterested voice.
“Nothing,” I stammered, doing a terrible job at a cover-up. Nixon would have laughed.
“Feh,” she grumbled, reaching into her desk and grabbing a book, “I’d rather not know if you were up to anything… perverted.”
“What makes you think I’d do something like that?!” I asked in frustration. Ami didn’t even bother answering me, and instead walked straight to Eri, who was still standing perfectly still, like a boulder in a thunderstorm.
“Ozawa,” Ami said just loud enough for me to her, “Bust him up if he tries anything, all right?”
“Understood.”
“Oh, come on, Eri!” I blurted out like an idiot, “Now that’s all you’re going to say to her, too?”
Ami looked down quickly, catching a quick glance underneath the math teacher’s razor bangs. She straightened up and gave me a look that seemed to say “I’d have to teach you to breathe if you were any stupider.”
Is stupider a word?
“She’s just in lockdown mode,” Ami said dismissively, heading for the door.
“In what mode?”
“When something happens she can’t really handle, she’ll stick to one response like this, and get really still.”
I didn’t think it was all that different from Regular Eri.
“Something must have happened that gave her quite a shock,” Ami said, opening the door, “I coulda swore I saw her smiling.”
My head whipped around so fast I almost broke my damn neck, but by then Ami was gone. I blundered over to Eri like Crassus at Carrhae, walking directly into what could have been my own destruction. I ducked down quick, a bit further than Ami had to, to get a look under that obscuring curtain of hair. It was almost like another world down there, like I’d ducked into a sea anemone or something, but instead of seeing clownfish inside (yes, I saw that Disney movie) I saw a little round face with big dark eyes… and the tiniest little smile on little lips. Those eyes immediately swiveled and swung down to catch me in the act, like some sort of robot sentry, and almost immediately that smile vanished and was replaced by a heavy blush around the cheeks. She made to give a quick bow of goodbye and head out, but she forgot about the relative positions of our two heads and chopped the back of my head hard with her forehead. I can only assume her bangs cushioned the blow, because she ran out of the room quickly, muttering “Understood!” as I sunk to my knees, tears springing to my eyes to fight the smarting pain. I spoke out loud then, partly to distract myself from the pain and partly to make sure I hadn’t suffered any brain damage.
“I always knew she was like a little rabbit… but she didn’t have to rabbit punch me!”
A few days later, we were back in the room, but this day was a little grayer and a little less golden. I had my luggage, and she had hers: at least three bags for one night. What does she do with it all?
“All right, Eri,” I stretched a bit after a day of desk-sitting, “Ready to go?”
“Understood.”
My face almost exploded in confusion and frustration, but before I could say a word, one of her deft little fingers raised itself up to my lips. I’d heard that the majority of the power in a Kendo strike is dictated by those tiny little fingers, so I quickly calmed down.
“Joke,” she said. I swore I almost saw that little smile again. We hopped into her sporty little coupe and, as usual, drove calmly and slowly, right under the speed limit, all the way to the hotel. We actually got there a little later than I had planned, so I was a little rushed when we checked in. So rushed I didn’t realize I’d only been given on room for me and my “plus one.”
ONE room.
Thankfully, there were two beds. I breathed an audible sigh of relief as I entered the room: first, because I saw more than one bed, and second because I put down all of the luggage I’d been carrying, both Eri’s and my own.
“Okay?” she asked as I flopped down on the nearest bed, my chest rising and falling rather embarrassingly. It had only been a couple of floors… I was really getting out of shape.
“Heavy,” I managed to gasp back. Great, now I’m talking like her.
I didn’t even have a chance to fully catch my breath before Eri had walked over and knelt on the bed in front of my, immediately undoing my shoes and shoes and setting to work giving me a foot rub which, despite everything, felt incredibly good.
“Eri! What are you doing?”
“Thanks,” she replied quickly, jerking her head toward the pile of luggage by the door.
“No need for all this,” I laughed uncomfortably, “My mother raised me to be a gentleman, after all.”
“Your mother seems nice.”
Whoa, four words. Even the world’s best foot massage couldn’t distract from that. In Ozawan terms, things were getting crazy!
“I like her,” I said with a shrug, “but I suppose I have to, huh?”
“Am I like her?”
Four words again. I’m scared.
“Well…” I said after a pause, “Not really. My Mom’s from the farm: she’s kinda loud and emotional.”
“Oh.”
I felt like a doctor on some hospital drama. Get me the paddles, I’m losing her!
“But you’re both very caring people,” I tried to salvage the situation, “Just in different ways, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
“I see.”
“Actually…” I was desperate to keep the conversation going and, as you should know by now, I’m an idiot, “You’re a lot more like my father.”
“Hm.”
Blast! Will I never hear four words in succession again?
“Quiet, but still caring. It’s not a bad thing, believe me. I’m probably more like my Mom, we both go nuts over silly things.”
“Boys marry their mothers.”
I was partially thrilled that I was back up to four words, but there was something about that statement. Something that told me it wasn’t a product of Eri’s mouth, or mind, but possibly something that had been told to her from an early age, maybe even forced on her. Knowing how her family was one of the richest in Japan, and after seeing and reading enough about how those aristocrats were always told to act (yes, I saw that anime) I started to wonder if Eri’s silence was a result or something as opposed to her regular, um, being.
“Well, it’s a good thing I’m like my Mom, then,” I shot back, angrier the more I thought about it, “And you’re like my Dad. I bet it’d work.”
Her head jerked up suddenly, then, as suddenly as it had shot down a few days ago and given me the lump I still had. Her eyes, her massive, dark eyes, were like recently disturbed pools: the surface seemed to shimmer with moisture and ebb and flow with each breath that went in and out of her narrow chest. God, I thought to myself, please let be that my feet stink that bad!
“It’d work?!” she replied with a surprising amount of excitement. In her gladness, she squeezed hard on the foot she was currently working on, causing it to pop loud enough for both of us to recoil in horror. Still, we were both suddenly quite happy: her from my revelation of our compatibility, and me from the fact that I don’t think that foot had popped since Mori was in office. I fell back onto the bed with a smile so big it nearly hurt my ears, making noises that probably sounded downright inappropriate.
“Uuuunnnnnghooooooaaaaaahhhhh!”
Eri silently padded her way over to the side of my bed, looking like a Japanese Florence Nightingale.
“Okay?”
“Ungh,” I let out another horrible noise, “More than okay.”
“More?” She asked, putting her surprisingly strong little hands to work again on my thigh. I don’t know if she was, um, aware of what she was doing… but I didn’t want to take that chance and I sat up quickly, my face uncomfortably warm.
“No! Uh… no more, Eri… not for now, at least… the conference will be starting soon, and we have to get ready. Well, at least I do, I feel gross.”
Hai,” she said with a short nod. She made her way over to her pile of luggage, picking out the largest one and the smallest one and laying them out on her bed.
“What do you need all of that luggage for, anyway, Eri?”
I couldn’t take it anymore. I’d seen it during our summer trip, to her own family’s island, no less, and now I’m seeing it again. Just why does she bring so much?
Eri turned to me slowly, almost robotically, and gestured to all of the clothing she had laid out nicely inside the largest suitcase.
“Clothes.”
“You don’t need all that for one night’s worth of clothes!”
“Yes, I do.”
But why? I wanted to shout. I only ever see you wear white shirts, black pants, and possibly something nicer once or twice. What’s the deal?
“Eri…” my voice came out, but it was strangled instead of shouting, “Why?”
She held up a pair of black slacks at her eye level, dangling them in front of me. In her soft little voice, I heard her say quietly, sadly.
“I’m big.”
Again, it didn’t sound like a conclusion she had come to on her own. Remember, I was the one she had confessed feelings to in high school, I know what it sounds like when something is one hundred per cent her idea. But she said it like her earlier comment, and that made me wonder how many other of her comments I might have missed in the past, how many other ones were under a certain, um, influence and, like this last one, were simply not true. While it was true that Eri had, um, filled out a little in college, she certainly isn’t what I would have called “big.”
“Eri Ozawa,” I stood up and sighed, “If anyone knows what big is, it’s me. So if you are ‘big,’ I guess I must look like Gamera or something.”
“No! No!” She shook her head repeatedly, destroying what had always been a very, um, meticulous hairstyle. And yes, it looked amazing.
“Then don’t say that about yourself,” I said, walking over to her, “No, you don’t look like every other woman, but that’s what makes you special.”
“Kendo is all hips,” she said suddenly, her voice a little regretful, as if she blamed herself for the, um, muscle tone.
“And kendo is who you are,” I replied, “And you’re also one hell of a math teacher. So you know what you are going to do?”
She looked up at me from her sadness, her eyes wide and endless.
“You’re going to put on something fancy you’ve got in there, because I know you have half of Matsuya Ginza in there, and you’re going to go down there and look great.”
“OK.”
She said it almost in a trance, surprised by all of this.
“And not only are you going to be one of the prettiest women there, but you’re also going to be one of the smartest, so act like it!”
“Act?”
I was reminded of her passion for acting, and her ability to “let go” while “in character.”
“Yes,” I nodded, “You’re going to go down there and act like you’re freakin’ Izanami, because the people need to know that you’re pretty darn special. OK?”
“…”
“OKAY, Eri?”
“…”
I looked into her frightened eyes as she looked into my frustrated. If I ever find out who did this to her, rich or not, I might just punch them. Finally, her eyes seemed to harden, and suddenly it was like she was a different person. Her jaw became set, her brows lowered until her eyes were lidded, and her speech was deeper, a little huskier. She wasn’t Eri anymore, she was Izanami.”
“Okay,” she said the word like it was made of silk, when she usually talked with the cold steel of a sword, “You go get ready, Mr. Watanabe, while I do the same.”
Sure, she was speaking, but she was speaking lines. But I would suppose it would have to do. I got myself ready the best I could: shave, shower, ironed suit, and tried to comb my hair, but I almost lost the poor, brave soldier in the process. What can I say? My hair is a No Man’s Land, just without all the barbed wire. I stepped out of the bathroom fully clothed (because I wasn’t even going to try changing where Eri could possibly have the beginning of an idea of what was going on) and turned to meet my plus one for the evening, Kotogakko’s silent Kendo-Math Master.
But Eri wasn’t there.
It was someone that looked like Eri, sure, but only if Eri had watched the opening to Breakfast at Tiffany’s too many times… and had bought that exact same dress. She looked absolutely wonderful, and she managed to hit it off with almost every man, woman, and otherwise at the conference. As I was shuffled from one person to another to get a pat on the back or a handshake, I kept a watch on her out of the corner of my eye.
“YOU wrote that paper? Miss Ozawa, I’m impressed!”
“Ah, that’s such an interesting way to cover augmented matrices!”
“I just can’t seem to get the concept of absolute value across to my students. I’ll try your methods, Miss Ozawa!”
And so on. She was a bona fide celebrity that night, and as I sat there, watching people slowly file out into the very early morning of their hotel rooms, I saw Eri was still commanding a crowd around her. I approached slowly, so as not to draw suspicion, but something was said as I walked closer that suddenly brought my blood to a boil.
“Miss Ozawa, I simply can’t believe you aren’t married yet!”
The fool. He wasn’t even talking to the real Miss Ozawa, what the hell did he know? He was probably half in the bag anyway, I should kick his ass for such a comment, the lech… and then it hit me. Why was I so upset about that? Why did some other loser hitting on Eri suddenly make me want to be violent, something I don’t normally do? I had barely had one drink the entire evening, so I knew it wasn’t that… but something really burned me up that this guy, out of nowhere, thought he could just make these assumptions like that.
“Oh, you flatterer, Mr. Suzuki. But sadly, it appears that most men are expected to marry their mothers, and I just have such a hard time fitting that mold.”
There were chuckles all around the group, and it made me even madder. I knew what they were laughing at, and just what sort of “mold” they were picturing. I felt like I’d created a monster, and no amount of good connections were worth Eri having to put up with these guys.
“Excuse me,” I nearly had to hockey-check my way into the tight-knit circle around Eri, “pardon me.”
“Ah! Mr. Watnabe!”
I saw twelve different sweaty, balding heads turn my way and twelve angry pairs of eyes focus on me. They knew full well I was the lucky moron who had scored this piece of arm candy, and I was coming to clear all the other hyenas away from my gazelle.
“Hello, Mr. Watanabe!” Mr. Suzuki slurred, his breath reeeking of Suntory, “Great keynote tonight… but why didn’t you mention this lovely woman as your plus one? She’s the future of math instruction in Japan, I’m sure of it!”
I couldn’t think of anything to respond that wouldn’t have ended in a shot to the mouth, but thankfully Eri glided over gracefully to prevent it.
“Gentlemen, I do thank you for your hospitality, but the truth is Mr. Watanabe and I have some pressing business to attend to regarding lesson plans, and I find I think so much better after I’ve had a rollicking night out so… adieu, gentlemen!”
She allowed me to lead her away from the group of jilted teachers, and I could nearly hear their dreams crash into shards as we left the room. Eri was still going lightly, waving and smiling to everyone she saw, saying things like “we must do lunch sometime!” or “make sure to send me your latest findings!” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, but as we got closer and closer to our room, her elbow-long-gloved hand gripped tighter and tighter to my arm. It was the only clue I had that Eri was still in there, somewhere under all this flash and sizzle… and she had hated every minute of it.
When we finally got to the room, I worked the key in the door while Eri smiled and waved at one last conference-goer who walked by. The minute I close the door to the room, I saw it all fall away… literally. Her shoulders sunk back to their normal level of meekness, her head bent slightly forward, her toes returned to their slightly turned-inward style, something I hadn’t even noticed until tonight. Of course, when I said it fell away, I did mean everything… including the dress she was wearing. It hit the floor with a thud from the pearls which was almost indistinguishable from the thud as my heart started beating overtime.
“Eri! What did you…”
“Please…” she said slowly, her voice quaking with emotion, “just let me go.”
“Okay,” I said, my own voice quaking with fear, “Is there anything you need?”
“Robe…”
I grabbed the soft, white robe off the bathroom door and wrapped it around her naked shoulders, which were clammy to the touch away from the straps of her, um… you know. I saw her take in a few big breaths as I stood behind her, and even though I couldn’t see her face, I was certain her eyes were closed.
“Are you okay?” I asked finally when I could speak.
“I will be.”
I knew she needed it, even if I didn’t feel like I was the proper one to give it to her. Still, better me than any of those other guys. I held her close to me, holding onto her thin little shoulders. She tensed at first, but softened as I felt her breathing sink down to a normal level.
“Did I do good?” She asked.
“Yes you did,” I replied, “But I won’t… I can’t ever ask you to do that again.”
“Why?”
“Because it wasn’t you. And as much as you frustrate me… I wouldn’t have you any other way. That you downstairs…”
“You didn’t like it?”
“That’s not even the point,” I shook my head, “It wasn’t you, so no matter how much I liked it, or I should have liked it, or those other guys liked it…”
“It wasn’t me.”
Look at her, suddenly finishing my sentences.
“Exactly,” I let her go and she turned around to face me, her eyes once again watery and deep and dark from out under that dark fringe.
“And you like… me?”
“Yeah, I guess I do.”
She took one of her small, measured steps forward, laying her head against my chest. My arms automatically circled around to hold her, and I felt her sigh contentedly. It was something I really hadn’t heard her do since the night I spent in her apartment, and she had that big, stuffed doll that looked like me…
“That’s nice,” Eri said finally, then gently lifted her head up and pushed away from me ever so slightly. I let her go, and she padded over to the pile of luggage by the door again, happily, like a cat with a brand new catch. She picked up the medium sized suitcase, the one she hadn’t opened yet, and laid it out on the bed. She unzipped it and, much to my surprise, it was stuffed completely full of stuffed animals… including “Li’l Ken.”
“Ah,” I said with a satisfied feeling, “That explains a lot.”
She took the Ken doll out and set it on the desk, it’s simple, button eyes looking back at me stupidly. I don’t really look like that, do I? Eri reached back into the suitcase, nudging aside a moose and what looked like an armadillo.
“What’s next?” I asked with a small laugh, “An Eri doll?”
“No,” she replied flatly, “that would be weird.”
Of course, I thought. THAT would be weird. Of course, what she did pull out wasn’t weird at all: a tantō.
Wait, WHAT?!
“Eri!” I shrieked a little too loudly for 1AM, “What are you doing with that thing?!”
“Relax.”
“I can’t relax!” I squeaked again, barely containing my fear. I’ve heard about this: old-fashioned women, quiet women, suddenly busting out a knife and slaying their beloved in an act of passion, a love-suicide pact that ensured no one could have me but her. I saw her draw the blade, which flashed in the moonlight, and all of my internal organs seemed to leap up into my throat. I never thought it would end this way, at the end of a knife drawn by Eri Ozawa. That’s what I get for taking a chance on someone, I suppose. Story of my life, right? I’ll be sure to appreciate the irony when I’m bleeding out onto the carpet. Well, on the bright side, I got to see Eri in her underwear…

WHAT AM I TALKING ABOUT? I’M DOING TO DIE!!!!
“Time to end this.”
DON’T SAY THINGS LIKE THAT, ERI, PLEASE! I’LL DO ANYTHING, ANYTHING YOU WANT! I’LL EVEN LEARN THE QUADRATIC FORMULA, I PROMISE, JUST DON’T KILL ME!
The blade flashed once with lethal efficiency, and it was all over. Like a gentle spring breeze, Li’l Ken’s head toppled off his stuffed shoulders and bounced sadly to the floor.
“There,” Eri said finally, sheathing the lethal blade, “It is finished.”
“Eri…” I mopped a cold sweat from my brow, holding onto the wall as my legs had turned to absolute mush, “Why… why, why…”
Eri walked over to me, helping me back into my bed and once again relieving me of my shoes and socks.
“You like me,” she said plainly, which did little to calm my racing heart and feverish brow.
“So that calls for decapitation?” my voice was hoarse, cracked and dry as I tried to lay on the bed, shaking with chills.
“No need,” she pointed to the now headless doll, “Nevermore.”
“Eri…” I rasped out the word as I finally stopped shaking, “If I can’t ask you to do what you did tonight ever again, promise me one thing: you’ll never go full samurai like that… ever… again…”
Eri crawled into bed next to me, her body strangely warm against my chilled self. She curled up next to me, her new doll, her new toy, her favorite, and sighed contentedly again. I couldn’t be sure, due to the poor lighting in the room, but I could have sworn I saw that happy little smile play across her lips again.
“Understood.”

RG – Conference – Mei’s Route

I decided to take Mei to the conference. I had my reasons, aside from the obvious, um, fear for my physical harm. It’s not like she threatened me or anything… it’s not like she wanted to get in on the reduced drinks and free food, so she may have offered to give me a free chiropractic adjustment… whether I wanted it or not.
“I can’t believe you’re so interested in this,” I said to her as we climbed in to her beat up sedan Friday afternoon.
“Hey, it’s free food and cheap booze,” she said back quickly, putting the car into gear.
“You could go to Haru’s house to get that,” I replied, confused, “or Eri’s. Or Ms. Arakawa’s…”
“Okay, then!” she was getting a little flustered, which was odd because the traffic was actually okay, “To tell the truth, things have been a little tight for the family, so I’ve been giving them a little extra outta my paycheck.”
Ah, yes. Mei’s family. Three generations crammed into one tiny home. However, if her parents and grandparents are anything like mine, I’m sure they pull a John Paul Jones when she tried to give them any money. I’ve currently been in a fight sending the same amount of money back and forth between my Dad and I for the last month. But wait…
“You could still probably just go hang out at someone else’s house and I’m sure they’d–”
“Well, maybe I just have another reason to go, Watanabe!”
She wasn’t paying attention by that point and had to hammer on the brakes hard, sending my forehead into the dashboard despite being properly belted in.
“Owwww…”
“Oh, don’t be a baby.”
I was still rubbing at the spot on my forehead when we reached the hotel. I had tried to check it in the rear view mirror, but I got another scolding by Mei. It didn’t feel that bad, but I had a feeling a headache would be coming soon. We headed up to the front desk at the hotel and made to check in.
“Ah, Mr. Watanabe, welcome! We have your room all set up for you and your…”
The well-dressed, but older gentleman behind the counter took just a few seconds too long looking Mei’s tall form up and down.
“Plus one… oh, my.”
Mei growled. She actually growled at him. He quickly gave us everything we needed and sent us on our way, but not before breaking out in what I could only assume was a cold sweat. I was in such a hurry to get out of that situation that it wasn’t until we were a few floors up that I realized we only had keys for one room.
One.
One room.
For both of us.
“It’s no big deal,” Mei said dismissively, entering the room first, “I’ve changed in plenty of locker rooms and gym corners.”
“Okay, if you say so.”
“Plus, there’s two beds.”
“Yes,” I shook my head a little to knock the idea of Mei and I sharing a bed out of my head, “there sure is.”
It occurred to me that, if she decided to put one of those wrestling holds on me like she used to, I don’t know if I’d be able to fight her off. Is this a usual thing guys have to worry about?
“What time is the thing tonight, anyway?” she asked, flopping face-first onto the far bed.
“We’ve got a few hours,” I set my suitcase on the bed and started sorting things out, “You want to take a nap or something?”
“Nah. This bed sucks.”
“You want this one?”
“Probably sucks, too,” She rolled over, looking at the ceiling. She stayed like that for a while as I got everything ready to go for the evening: clothes, toothbrush, shaving kit, and so on. I came out of the bathroom and she was still staring at the ceiling, seemingly unmoving.
“Mei? You all right?”
“Yeah…”
She wasn’t her usual loud, brash self. She laid there on the bed with half her legs dangling off the end and onto the floor, her hands crossed behind her head, massive ponytail stretched out behind her like an antenna. Her mouth was closed up tight, and her eyes seemed to be fixed at something in the ceiling I couldn’t see. I didn’t often see her get this… what’s the word, introspective? She’s usually all smiles and laughter and yelling and breaking things or threatening to beat people up, so when she’s not making some kind of noise, she’s usually either eating or unconscious.Although now that I think of it, she often makes noises during eating and sleeping, too, so this is really weird.
“You look a little… different,” I offered, sitting down on my bed.
“Ahhh, it’s just…” she blew out a long, long breath, “Ken, have you ever been in a situation where you really want to do something, and you know it feels like the right thing to do… but you’re not sure if you should?”
Wow, I don’t think she’s ever called me just “Ken” before.
“Hey! You even listening?”
“Gwah!” I sat up with a bit of a start on the hotel bed, “Yes, yes I am.”
“So… what would you do in this situation?”
I wonder if she’s talking about her family? Maybe they need a loan, or maybe she’s thinking of moving in with them?
“Well, if it’s the right thing to do…”
“I didn’t say it was the right thing to do, Kenny-boy,” a little smile danced around her lips, “I said it felt like the right thing to do. There’s still a fair chance that doing it might make some people really mad… people I care about.”
I bet it’s her family. I bet her Dad doesn’t want to take the money.
“So if it feels right in your mind, why should you worry what other people say?”
“Well, this may come as a surprise to you,” she said with no shortage of sarcasm, “but I ain’t always had a lot of friends.”
“Well, you can be a little…”
“Scary? Yeah, I know… but my parents always told me to not apologize for who I was. I know sometimes I’m rude or mean to people… but I never know what to say afterwards, and they always look like I’m about to crush their head like a damn grape.”
“Well… could you?”
I got a duffel bag tossed at me for that remark, but her heart wasn’t in it and I dodged it easily.
“See? This is the problem. No one ever wants to be serious with me. No one ever thinks I can have, like, feelings and stuff.”
“Sorry, Mei. It’s just… well, sometimes when I ask questions that get, um, deeper, you throw things at me.”
“I do not!”
I held up the duffel bag as proof.
“Shut up…” she said, rolling over so she wasn’t facing me anymore, a little childish.
“Mei, I know you’re worried about upsetting people, but you have to do what’s best for yourself. You can’t let all of this just sit and mess you up inside… I would know.”
“Huh, really?” she really was being surprisingly childish. But, then again, if she’s not used to having friends, she might not have grown up yet, in that regard.
“You don’t think I had trouble when I was your teacher? When all of you… girls were doing those, um, things you did…”
I think I almost quoted a movie there.
“Every day I had to do things, say things, and act in ways that I didn’t want to… and that’s what drove me to quit so quickly. I couldn’t handle how you can’t just go in there and say what you want or do what you want. As a teacher, there are rules you have to follow, and I wasn’t ready for that. I can only assume that there are rules about friendship and relationships that you don’t quite know about yet, and it bothers you.”
There was a long silence, and then Mei picked on one weird thing out of everything I said.
“Why did you say ‘relationships?'”
“It’s just a word,” I replied automatically, like a teacher should, giving a strict definition, “How you get along with people.”
“I see.”
“So,” I asked, drumming my fingers on my knees, “Are you gonna do it?”
“Do what?”
“That thing,” I replied, “You know… that thing you said you were thinking about doing.”
You want to know?”
“Sure.”
I really had no idea. Knowing what I know now, I feel like a complete idiot… but that was then.
“Cripes,” I saw Mei shake her head and stand up, “You’re really dense sometimes. Gimme my duffel.”
“Okay,” I handed it over, and she used it for a pillow.
“I’m still thinking about it, Kenny-boy,” she sighed, “But right now, I think I’ll take a little nap. You really know how to tire a girl out… and not in the good way.”
I laughed a little to try to break the tension, but it wasn’t working. After a while, I heard the usual murmurs and snores that told me Mei was asleep. Hey, she’s fallen asleep in my apartment enough times, it’s not surprising I know that… right? Besides, it gave me some time to work on the speech I was supposed to give that night… which I hadn’t even started on. I couldn’t help it, I couldn’t really think of anything to say that wouldn’t sound, what’s the word… trite, so I’d been putting it off.  Besides, I do some of my best work right before a deadline; ask my professors. I was just finishing scribbling up a few things at the hotel room desk when I heard her voice behind me.
“If that’s some kind of love letter, can it. I was never in for that mushy stuff.”
“Well, actually,” I said with a smile, “there is a part about you.”
Her face looked red, but she had been sleeping on top of a duffel bag, so I didn’t think too much about it.
“What?” she sputtered, slapping at the paper like a cat at some string, “gimme that!”
I handed it to her and she scanned it over quickly.
“I see,” she said finally, her brow furrowed, “Hey, no offense, but… could you leave me out of it?”
“What? Why?” I immediately panicked, “Did I say something I shouldn’t? Was it to, um, ‘friendly?’ Did I–”
She placed her long fingers over my mouth, silencing me. I looked over her short-clipped nails and saw her face, still a little red but smiling just a little… just a little.
“Ken, I’m a nearly six foot tall Japanese woman. Why do you think I wouldn’t want to be noticed?”
“But you’re always loud and–”
“Just tonight, Ken,” she rolled her eyes and sighed, “please.
“All right, Mei,” I nodded, “But we’d better get ready for the conference.”
“What, are you actually going to iron a shirt for once?”
“Yes–I mean, no, I mean… shut up.”
My speech went off without a hitch, and during the time when I was going to take some extra time to thank all of the other teachers who have helped me, one Mei Tanaka in particular who was in attendance and showed me how to play a mean game of softball… I simply nodded in her direction and said “Thank You.” I saw her nod back and smile, and then there was the usual polite applause by bored teachers who were happy the keynote was over so they could drink some more. After that was the usual glad-handing and forced smiles from all of these things, talking with teachers I had studied with and learned from (and some who had their heads firmly planted somewhere impolite) that was the bread and butter of these sort of things. I only managed to catch sight of Mei because, um, you know… and she gave me another quick smile.
“You do what you gotta do,” she said when I asked her to stay and help me, um, navigate, “I’m not much for these things, you know that. I’m just gonna go crash in the room for a while, let me know when you get back, then maybe we can drink ourselves stupid.”
“A usual Saturday night, eh Tanaka?”
“Cram it, Kenny-boy.”
But she gave me another smile and left. There was something so weird about her smiles today. They seemed sadder, maybe even a little sick. Something was obviously bothering her… why wouldn’t she tell me about it? It’s not like I was going to enjoy all of this false praise and slightly tipsy storytelling of “how the teaching used to be,” but I could barely even focus enough to smile and nod most of the time. What was going on, Mei?
Of course, I figured out exactly what was going on when I went back to the room. It was… what’s the word? Shocking.
I opened the door to find the lights all on in the room. Mei was waiting for me… at least I think it was Mei. It was certainly someone who was as tall as Mei, and she had long hair like Mei… but the hair wasn’t in its usual ponytail with many, many ties in it. It was tied off only twice, in two of the longest pigtails I have ever seen that both went halfway down her back. She wasn’t dressed like Mei usually was, either. Her usual athletic shorts (or, in the case of tonight, a simple pair of slacks) were replaced by a skirt that even a miniskirt would call a miniskirt, bright pink and ruffled. Her usual t shirt was replaced by a short little button-down number that showed her, um, middle and looked to only have about three buttons that worked. She was wearing makeup, too, but it wasn’t, um, good. There was an awful lot of it on her eyes and lips, but either she was really heavy on the blush or she was just blushing really heavily. Judging from how uncomfortable she looked and how she kept trying to pull that ridiculous skirt down over her legs (those long, long, long legs…)  I got the feeling she was quite uncomfortable.
“Uhhhh…” she brushed one of the pigtails out of her face, “Hey.”
There was no way I could have responded. Not at all.
“Shut the door, Ken.”
I did as I was told and turned back around to face… Mei? I think it was Mei…
“Well?” she asked after I turned around, “What do you think?”
“Uhh,” my mouth was suddenly very dry, despite all the drinks from downstairs, “Is that, uh… is that you?”
“Yes, Kenny-boy,” she rolled her eyes, and immediately her posture changed from a demure starlet to her usual self, hands on hips.
“You really know how to ruin a moment, don’t you?”
“But… why?” My brain felt like it was on fire.
“Why all this?” Mei asked, yanking down on the skirt again, “Why do you think, asshat?”
She took a couple of steps toward me, effectively pinning me against the door.
“It’s for you, Kenny-boy. I’m for you.”
“Oh.”
That’s all I could say, because my breathing suddenly stopped working.
“You wanted to know if I was going to do that thing,” she said in a breathy whisper, only inches from my face now, “and I decided I was going to do it. And by ‘it,’ I mean…”
“Mei, stop.”
All I could smell was orchids, and all I could see were her eyes, eyes that usually looked so dangerous and strong, but right now looked soft and vulnerable, and then I remembered about Mei and her eyes, and why she wore that color contact in her one eye, and it all started to make sense… maybe… a little.
“What if I don’t want to stop, Kenny-boy?”
“I think you do,” I said, my voice obviously shaking, “I don’t think you want to do something like this… not like this, anyway.”
“At this point, I’ve gone through this much trouble, I just want to get some mileage out of this outfit.”
“It is quite an outfit,” I swallowed hard and my eyes, seemingly on their own, swept up and down again, “But it’s not you, is it?”
“Does that matter?” She leaned in a little closer, and now I could feel her body against mine.
“Well,” I gave up trying to find a good way to say it, so it all just came tumbling out, “Yes! Yes it does. If I would want this… with you, Mei… I’d want it to be, um, you. Not what you think I’m looking for, or what you think men might want to see, but you. Now, don’t get me wrong, you look… stunning in that outfit… but it’s for all the wrong reasons, and it’s not you. I can even feel you against me, right now, and your body…”
“What about my body?”
“Well… it doesn’t fit what you’re wearing. You never wore stuff like this, not even in school. I remember the other girls would tease you about wearing shorts under your school skirt… and all those muscles you have just look silly with the pigtails… and you’re wearing knee-high floppy socks. You never wore knee high floppy socks, even in high school, so why would you do that now? I know this doesn’t sound very nice, but I’ve had a few to drink and I’ve lost the ability to be nice.”
There was a long silence then, where I could still feel her breath on my neck and her, um, assets pressed against my chest. Then, finally, I felt her step away, and I heaved a large sigh of relief.
“Damn you, Watanabe,” Mei said, heading back to her bed, “You just don’t make any sense. That’s probably why I like you so much…”
“Because you like someone who will accept you for who you are?” I asked, trying to brace myself against the door enough to stand on wobbly legs.
“No!” she scoffed, “because I’m an idiot.”
She grabbed a familiar pair of shorts and a t shirt out of her duffel bag and slung them over her shoulder.
“I even bought special underwear for this,” she grumbled to herself before turning around and pointing an accusing finger at me, “And no matter what you said, I know there was part of you that wanted a piece of this.”
“Maybe,” I admitted, “But you look like Haru’s older sister and it’s really, really weird.”
“No maybes about it, Kenny-boy,” she said proudly, sauntering past me to get to the bathroom to change, “One glance at your pants tells me all I need to know.”
Then, it was my turn to have the red face. As you can imagine, I quickly tore off my suit, jumped into my pajamas, and was under the covers of my own bed, the only relatively safe haven in the room, in seconds. I heard all sorts of noises coming from the bathroom, mostly the sound of running water and Mei cursing a lot trying to remove all of that makeup. I never actually heard her come out of the bathroom, because the, um, ordeal had wiped me out to where I was asleep within minutes of getting into bed. I was awoken, however, a bit later when I felt a familiarly muscular body brush against my back this time.
“Move over, Kenny-boy.”
Oh, no. There’s no way I would be able to fend her off now!
“What are you doing?!”
“Like I said,” Mei shot back, settling into the bed, “My bed sucks. Now shut up and get some sleep.”
“You aren’t going to…?”
“Kenny-boy,” Mei knocked me lightly on the back of the head, “You’re so damn confusing and that damn makeup was so annoying I’ve barely got the juice left to breathe. You know how hard it was to get that push-up bra to work?”
thought something looked different!
“Anyway, I’m not gonna do anything tonight, so you can relax,” she said with a yawn, burrowing her head between my shoulderblades in a move that felt very not bad. I felt her wrap her powerful arms around me, arms that could have crushed me but instead held me as gently as a baby bird, and everything smelled like orchids.
“But…” she said in a drowsy tone, “I reserve the right to get me a piece at a later date.”
“Okay, Mei,” I said, no knowing what else to do in the middle of a gentle bear hug, “Okay.”
“Hey, Ken?”
“Yeah?”
“Thanks.”
“For what?” my sleepy mind was swimming with possible answers.
“For a lot, okay? You gotta ask a question for everything? Jeez, I’m fricken tired, shut up and sleep.”
That was Mei Tanaka for you: a Velvet Fist in an Iron Glove.

RG – Staff Infection

I should have noticed.
I should have noticed when none of the girls seemed to have any free time that weekend. Normally, I get one or two offers a week for a movie or a coffee or, if it’s Ai, something more, um, worrisome, but for the first time since I’d been working here, I didn’t get a single offer. My mind didn’t think too much of it, but I should. I mean, what were the odds of all of them being busy on the weekend I would actually have an excuse to say I was busy?
Akira and I checked into the semi-fancy hotel that I was being given as a featured speaker for the teacher’s convention next door. I should have noticed that when we checked in, the gentleman at the front desk was complaining to one of the housekeepers that they had seven people trying to fit into two rooms on the fifth floor, and how big of a hassle it was all being. Why would seven people suddenly try to fit into two rooms? Maybe it was a group of teachers who overbooked? Maybe there was a traveling show and they couldn’t find any other rooms? I didn’t think too much about it.
When I heard all the bashing and noise coming from the fifth floor, directly above us, I rolled my eyes and Akira rolled his. Unfortunately, being teachers, we know how this can be. Maybe it’s the stress of the job, or the fact that you have to be a role model for your students all the time, but almost nobody parties harder than teachers, especially when there’s only other teachers around. If it was a traveling band upstairs, I thought, they’d probably make a lot of noise, too. I imagined, for a moment, a group of teachers happily drinking the hard rockers under the table in the hotel bar, but other than that I didn’t think too much about it. Besides, the noises died down eventually, so I guess everything was all right… right?
“You ready to go?”
Akira was in the process of tying his tie (and making a mess out of it) when he asked me. I emerged from the bathroom in a suit that I had actually taken the time to unwrinkle, and a shirt I had actually bothered to iron. I figured a lot of people were counting on me this time; no doubt a few of my professors were eager to hear how their, um, investment paid off. It can be a little weird, having all of these people expecting so much out of you… but it’s a little comforting, too. I mean, at least someone cares; and when you were a kid like me, who grew up relating more to his teachers than his classmates… it’s a nice comfort to have, even if it is a weird one, or a stressful one. Either way… I tried not to think too much about it.
But I should have.
Oh, I should have.
The speech went fine: I gave my data, showed how test scores have changed or how different approached to teaching, even after only five years, has yielded different results. I talked a lot about the internet and technology (because teachers all get really excited when you do that), but I could tell there were a few groans from the older people in attendance when I suggested everyone do a certain amount of technology in their class every day. Some people have their old ways, after all, but with these new students, it really isn’t getting through. Maybe it’s a problem with the kids being in their heads too much, or maybe it’s a problem with the teachers refusing to move with the times, but we’ll never know until we try. It was the last section of my report, however, where everything started to fall apart:

“In closing, I’d just like to say a personal thank you to all of you for welcoming me back into the teaching world. I know I upset a lot of you and surprised even more when I chose to leave after a year, but there were several, um, circumstances I needed to come to terms with. The time in Hokkaido, I believe, has made a lot of this now clear to me and, even in my short time back as a teacher, I have found myself confronted with a variety of challenges I never thought possible. In fact, some of my former students are now teachers alongside me, and it’s been the most educational and, frankly, heartwarming experience of my life. It is conceited for me to think that my short time as a teacher has helped those who are now teachers become as successful as they are, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel proud watching them work. And so, perhaps it is the methods I have discussed with you today that can not only reach the students of today in the classroom, but could possibly inspire the teachers of tomorrow to greater heights than we can even imagine. Thank You.”

There was polite applause from the teachers who were only there because they had to be, and one or two genuine bits of applause from those who were actually listening. I saw a few slightly sloppy claps from those who had hit the bar early, but it was one table in the back that seemed to be making a lot of noise.
Too much noise.
I hadn’t thought too much about it.
I should have noticed.
But I didn’t.
“Oh, my…”
I was able to realize the microphone was still on before I said anymore. From the back of the room, raucous clapping and cheering could be heard and, over it all, a high-pitched voice.
“YAAAAAAAYYYY, KENNYYYYY!!! WOOOO HOOOOO!!!! KENNY NUMBER ONE!!!!!!”
The polite applause started to die down, and then it became more and more obvious that someone… or several someones in the back, were still carrying on.
“Way to go, Kenny-Boy!”
“Yer th’ beyst, Kenny!”
“Ken, Darling, you look simply radiant up there in the light!”
“Would all of you shut the hell up?!”
Ami was finally able to calm them all down, but the damage had already been done.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” I said with a sigh, “Meet your new generation of teachers, representing Kotogakko High. These are the people I work with, they are… the future.”
Some more polite applause followed, but I got to hear what people really thought about the whole thing in the Gilgamesh-level flood of handshakes and polite bows I had to endure after the evening had concluded. There were a few of the oldest teachers who thought that their behavior was disgraceful, but for the most part the younger teachers seemed happy that someone was excited about education. I didn’t want to tell them that it was really, um, me that had gotten them so excited, but a few of the balding, sweaty male teachers were able to touch on the idea with comments like:
“They didn’t come like that when I was a young teacher!”
“I’d take a cut in pay to work with those beauties every day!”
“I can see why you’re looking toward the future, Watanabe!”
And other nonsense. Finally, with all heads bowed and hands shaken, I was able to make it back to the back table, whereupon my face immediately went from the politeness of business venture to the mood I usually adopted around the Rogues: two or three steps to Armageddon.
“What on earth are you all doing here?!”
“Don’t look at me,” Ami rolled her eyes, “I had tickets to this thing for months.”
“It’s not our fault, Mr. Watanabe,” Ms. Arakawa stepped forward, clutching a small piece of paper like it was her only child, “The Vice Principal gave us all these tickets out of the blue and requested we represent the school. None of the senior teachers wanted to go, I suppose, and the school had to be represented. We couldn’t say no!”
Somehow I doubted all the other teachers would have passed up a free hotel weekend.
“Um…” Ms, Arakawa fussed with the piece of paper in her hand, worrying it until it frayed at the edges. Don’t tell me this was some kind of… love note or something? Here? NOW? With all these people?!
“Oh, quit stallin, Arakawa!” Mei hollered, slapping poor Tomoko hard on her, um, well-appointed bottom, sending her skittering in my direction, holding out the paper.
“Ms. Honde wanted me to give you this!” her words all came out in a tumble, “She told me not to read it, and not to let anyone else read it, and I didn’t! It’s all for you, Mr. Watanabe…. and I hope it’s not anything… unpleasant.”
“Poor Tomo’s been losing her mind over this all day,” Ami said with a snort, “Just open it already and put her fears at ease.”
“But what if it is something, um, bad?” I replied, “This is Kanagawa we’re talking about.”
“Well, if old Leatherface wanted Tomo to deliver you a sexy note or some porno thing,” Mei cackled, watching Ms. Arakawa turn whiter by the second, “I guess she’ll just have to take it on the chest!”
That last comment allowed her to go from lily white to rose red.
“That’s not how the phrase goes, Tanaka,” I shot back, trying to make Ms. Arakawa feel better.
“Well, don’t leave us in suspense, dear,” Ai piped up rolling one deft finger round and round over the rim of a martini glass, “Tell us what that beastly Vice Principal just had to tell you.”
“Yeah!” Haru giggled loudly, “Let’s see if it’s porny!”
“Thayt ain’t a wurd, Hawru!”
“I know,” the music teacher giggled again, “but it sounds funny. Like pony, but not!”
“Hush.”
Eri silenced the two of them with a glare. Truth be told, she had been gazing into her teacup almost the entire time, but it seemed like even now the suspense had gotten to her. She fixed those black, lantern eyes on me and spoke.
“Read.”
She then blinked twice and added, softly.
“Please.”
I unfolded the paper quickly and read the little hand-scrawled note. Her writing was so harsh and blunt, but it still looked like she tried to add little feminine bits here and there, probably trying to be cute:

Ken,

I hope you enjoy the company of all these little girls this weekend. I figured you would rather spend time with all of your girls than some of the other teachers. I would have come, but I have lots of work to do. As you know, I’ve recently been put in charge of transitioning to the new term. I’m almost all done, but there’s still so much to do. Instead, enjoy your time here, I’m sure it will make your weekend relaxing and less stressful to have all these little girls around. Hopefully we can have some time during the new term to discuss plans for your teaching and the school, but for now… have fun!

~Reiko

And then there was a little drawing, presumably by Reiko herself, a little chibi drawing giving a rather rude gesture. Something tells me she doesn’t have my best interests in mind… and she sure used the words “little girls” especially, and a lot. Something tells me she isn’t exactly happy with all of this. Maybe I will have to have that talk with her once the new term starts…
“So? SO?” Haru was literally bouncing up and down now.
“It’s nothing special,” I replied, crumpling up the paper and putting it in my pocket, “just the usual Kanagwa.”
“So she’s being a bitch,” Ami said quickly before draining drink.
“Ami!” Ms. Arakawa squeaked out the word like it was an accident.
“Hey, don’t fret, Tomo. Ami’s just gotta get something off her chest, y’know, and–”
“Please, don’t go with those tired jokes again, Tanaka…”
“Why, Hasegawa? You jealous?”
“Hardly. Ken, darling, do I have reason to be jealous?”
Stop pointing those things at me, Ai!
“Come on, sweetie… I see you got all dressed up for the occasion… why don’t we put some new wrinkles into that suit?”
Thankfully I was saved by a firm, but gentle tugging on the sleeve of said suit. I looked down to see Eri looking up at me. Those eyes!
“Worried?”
I looked down at her and smiled.
“No worries, Eri.”
I saw just the tiniest smile on her face then, and my frustration at Kanagawa started to melt away.
“Hey, where did Akira go, anyway?” I asked, scouring the room for his presence.
“Aw, he hit th’ bar’s soon as yew gawt dun tawkin,” Cathy said with a laugh, “Ah ran inta him errlier t’naht ‘n’ he said sumthin’ bowt havin’ ta git whal th’ gittin’s good.”
“Ah,” I nodded. Akira’s no fool, he’ll be getting the most expensive drinks he can find and, if possible, trying to impress whatever women he can find with them. It’s my greatest hope that he doesn’t come stumbling into the room sounding like an Air Raid Siren at three in the morning. I’m not in college anymore, I don’t know if I can handle that.
“Well, as long as you’re all here,” I stuck my hands in my pockets and shrugged, “what do you want to do?”
“Huh!” Ami scoffed, setting down another glass, “What makes you think we want to do anything with you, Watanabe? Maybe we’ve all got plans, huh? Maybe some of us are here for networking or to talk with other teachers from Japan and do all that stuff you said about the future and teaching and… y’know…”
“Ami, I think you’ve had a bit too much,” Ms. Arakawa cautioned, but Ami waved her off.
“Pah! I need some booze in me to do all this networking crap! Let’s go, ladies!”
“But what about Kenny-ken?” Haru said with a pout.
“For once, we’re going to think about our careers tonight in a way that doesn’t involve this schmuck,” she said proudly, standing up from the table and shooing the rest of them out into the rest of the room.
“Hey, does that mean that you think about having Ken in your career too, Ami?” Mei asked with a cunning smile.
“Huh! Yeah right!”
“But you sounded like…”
Their voices soon disappeared as they spread out across the room. It turns out they are pretty popular in their own fields, as I saw them all chatting with different subject teachers. Even Eri seemed to be holding her own, nodding a lot, saying a few words and working out Mathematical equations on cocktail napkins with the best of them. Mei was almost literally butting heads with a bunch of beefy-looking PE teachers, Ai was mocking some of the hotel potted plants with the rest of the scientists, Haru was arguing the benefits of this chord or that rhythm with some weird-looking music teachers, and Ms. Arakawa seemed to be swapping recipes with other Home Ec domestics. I found it interesting that, while looking at the English language teachers, they all seemed to be a rather grumpy lot, just like Ami… until the rainbow bomb called Cathy McIntyre started injecting herself into the group, and then everyone was interested to talk with the gaijin. I made my way around the room, hearing this or seeing that, but no one really talked to me. I suppose I’d said everything they wanted to hear already. I couldn’t find Akira around the bar, but I was sure I’d see him later. To be honest, the speaking and, um, aftermath had me feeling pretty tired, so I just dragged myself up to the fourth floor to get enough sleep before Akira would doubtlessly ruin the night. I crawled into bed, making sure to keep my one good suit was nicely folded and up on a hanger. I pulled the covers up and found myself smiling, thinking of my friends. I really know some amazing people, and watching them all with their own “kind” so to speak, it was really amazing to see how respected and talented and well-known they seemed to be. I laid back onto the pillow and closed my eyes, ready to rest, but I couldn’t stop that one last little thought, that nasty thought, from being fired across the bow before I lost consciousness.

“If they’re so amazing and talented with their own stuff, and they obviously know what they’re doing, and it’s pretty clear they can make it on their own… what are they doing with me?”

RG – Conclave, Con vex

I had survived White Day.
Ever notice how I say I survive a lot of things? To be honest, I’m really just giving you the important things that happen. To be honest, a lot of my days are fairly uneventful, or at least I have a few days that are very, um, eventful so it just seems like the rest are normal. I suppose it’s not normal to have lunch every day with six or seven women who have all confessed some sort of, um, affection for you… but for me, it was Tuesday.
I would usually bring Akira along for lunch, particularly since Valentine’s Day. Turns out the chocolate he got was just from his sister as a thank you for watching over her and her kid, and the poor guy spent the whole day waiting for a call or whatever to explain it. It took a while after White Day for him to start feeling better, which is why I first brought the idea to him.
“You want me to go to what with you?”
“A conference,” I said, handing him a cup of tea as we sat in the teacher’s room, “One of my old professors wants me to go and talk about how different things may have been in the five years between my teaching: how technology has changed, how students have changed, instructional methods, and so on.”
Akira took a sip and stared me down.
“So… they’re paying you, right?”
“Oh, yeah,” I took a sip myself, “Room and board, too.”
“And you want me to come along? Why?”
“I’ve only got a plus one on the invitation, and I’m sure not going to let those ladies fight it out again.”
I set down my teacup, shuddering as my mind played tricks with what exactly the Rogues might to do secure a lonely night in a hotel room with, um, me. There would be carnage. Like, Thermopylae.
“Akira, with all of the crazy that’s happened this year, I haven’t had much time to spend with you.”
“Oh, honey! I didn’t know you cared!”
“Shut up,” I said, flicking a bit of paper at him.
“To be honest, I appreciate it,” he said after a little pause, “I’ve met a lot of people in my life, but for some reason the two of us always work, you know?”
“Like how you called me up out of the blue and said you could get me a job?”
“And I knew you’d take it,” Akira replied, fidgeting with the teacup, “I had heard of other jobs, before, and you know they were trying to keep you when they first quit… but somehow I knew you’d be ready to come back for this one.”
“It was time,” I looked into my teacup, trying to see an overfed, graying reflection.
“And no matter what, I know I can call you or tell you a joke and you’ll listen.”
“And sometimes I even laugh,” I shot back sarcastically, making it his turn to flick a little paper at me, “But yeah, I know what you mean. For some reason, we’re always on the same page.”
“Well,” Akira sighed, raising his cup to meet mine, “Here’s to one really messed up book, then.”
“Indeed,” I touched my cup to his, “And here’s to a little bit of time away from this crazy place, and everything that makes it so… crazy.”
“Damn right,” Akira laughed a little before draining the tea, “Who knows, maybe this chapter will be the one where the sidekick has a romantic interest.”
“Nah.”
“Why not?” Akira actually seemed frustrated by my response.
“Because you’re not my sidekick, dumbass.”
We sat there for a bit, taking a moment, before Akira said.
“You know, I think you’re one of two people I would appreciate being called a ‘dumbass’ from.”
“That’s what friends are for,” I said calmly, shuffling some papers on my desk, “Who’s the other one?”
“Probably the other Ken Watanabe. Have you seen that guy? Damn.”
“Maybe I should reconsider inviting you along, Akira,” I made a face at him, “I mean, if you’re talking about your movie star crush…”
“Jeez, for THAT guy… I dunno, maybe.”
“Okay, that’s more than I needed to know.”
“Did you see him in that Tom Cruise movie?”
“Eh,” I waved him off, stuffing those papers into my messenger bag, “I prefer the one he did about noodles.”
“You would,” Akira laughed, pouring himself another cup of tea. He brought it up to his lips and sighed.
“Tea and noodles. You’d be happy with just that, wouldn’t you? Well, that and a classroom.”
“I suppose,” I replied, shrugging. For some reason, that question made me incredibly uncomfortable at the time. Akira solved that problem almost immediately.
“I think you’re wrong.”
“What?”
“C’mon, man… the only people who know you better than me are your parents.”
“No…” I muttered, feeling even more uncomfortable, “It’s probably you. I don’t tell my parents everything I tell you.”
“Like about Kanagawa?”
“….yeah….”
“See?” he set down his teacup, “That’s what I’m talking about, Ken. You act like you’re above it all, Mr. Tea and Noodles… but really, I know you. And I know how crazy you were over her in college, and it was just because she actually talked to you and treated you like a human being.”
“So what did the rest–” I tried to lighten things, be sarcastic again, but Akira cut me off, surprisingly.
“They thought you were a freak, dude. You know it, I know it. They didn’t think too much of me, either, but I kept my eyes on enough skirts that they didn’t worry.”
“Oh, come on!” I interjected, “They didn’t think I was… gay?”
“Ken, for most of the people we went to school with… they thought you were a goddamn robot.”
I almost dropped the tea on the floor. If it hadn’t been my best friend saying it, I… I don’t know what I would have done.
“What?”
“You didn’t get in trouble, you didn’t get things wrong, you didn’t ever mess up. Ever! Even when you started hanging out with Kanagawa, people either thought it was a pity case from her, or she was trying to up her grades, or you had run the numbers on it. ‘Beep boop, attractive intelligent girl will make suitable mate, beep boop.’ C’mon, pal… you didn’t notice it?”
“I was supposed to? I was just trying to get out of there with the right grades, find a good job, and maybe make a friend or two.”
“That’s the problem!” Akira shot back, standing up now, “You put the friends at the end! People just don’t get that!”
“I HAD TO!” I suddenly found myself yelling and on my feet, both of us squaring off, teacup to teacup. After a short pause, the ridiculousness of the situation hit us, and we both sank back into our chairs. Akira was laughing… but I wasn’t.
“Oh, damn…”
“What’s wrong, buddy?” Akira’s chuckles died away as he saw what was no doubt the beginning of tears in my eyes.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to do this,” I said, rubbing at my eyes, “It’s just… I had to. From the time I was a little kid, people would stay away from me, so I just learned to get along without them. I hung out with you because we were roommates–”
“And I basically forced you to.”
“Yeah, you did!” I laughed a little, which helped stop my eyes from watering, “And I hung out with Kanagawa because she’d actually talk to me. We could talk about things, we could be intellectual or we could talk about movies or even play video games sometimes.”
“She used to kick our ass at that party game, I remember.”
“And it was nice. And I was so messed up by that point I probably… no, I KNEW I was reading too much into it. I just liked the idea of having a friend, and she was a girl… so why not? It could happen.”
“You’re a bit too logical about these things, buddy,” Akira reached over with one of his long arms and patted me on the shoulder, “You can’t just put two and two together like that. It’s got to happen like fireworks, you know? Just… boom! And it’ll be right.”
“Taking love advice from you, that’s a new low,” I stuck out my tongue at him and we both laughed, “How many times have the ‘fireworks’ gone off for you?”
“Oh, I’ve lost count.”
Looking back, it did seem like he had a new “love of his life” every week or so in college. Maybe that’s just the kind of person he was… maybe I could learn a little from it.
“Agh!” Akira said finally after finishing his tea, “This tea isn’t cutting it. We need booze, and we need it now. Consider it my thank you for inviting me along next month.”
“Sounds more like a bribe.”
“But it’s a boozy bribe, so it’s OK.”
“I think that’s how they passed the Thirteenth Amendment.”
“Now now,” Akira stood up from the desk (and this time, he put his tea down) and dragged me along with him toward the door, “I’ll have less of that smart talk out of you, Buster Brown.”
“You don’t even know who Buster Brown is.”
“What did I say about the smart talk?”
I rolled my eyes and humored my friend. After all, that’s what friends do, right?
“They need to be destroyed with liquor?”
“That’s right!” Akira said proudly, pushing me out the door and shutting it behind him with a triumphant bang, “I swear, Watanabe… I’ll make a normal guy out of you yet!”
“I’m perfectly normal.”
“No you’re not. You’re one of the weirdest guys I’ve ever seen!”
“And you’re my best friend,” I replied quickly, “So what does that say about you?”
“Nothing I didn’t already know already. Now, TO DRINKS!”

RG – White Day Presents

Because of February’s weird 28 days (stupid Romans) White Day fell on a Saturday just like Valentine’s had. This time, I invited the Rogues up to my cramped little apartment for gift giving. I spent the few days leading up to it cleaning the place like a madman: moving stacks of books, films, papers, magazines, and other junk to all corners of the living room so it was less of a No Man’s Land and more of a Flanders’ Field… just without all the poppies and crosses. Okay, bad example. Anyway, I cleared off anything that could possibly be mistaken for a chair, and my closets were bulging with all the stuff I cleared off the table in the middle. With any luck, no one will try to touch or move anything, or it all might come tumbling down like the South Ford Dam. Finally, everything was set, and it was time to put my plan into action. I set all the gifts on the table, along with cards with each of their names. I left one last note on the door, because I had “accidentally” forgotten something and had to run to the store to get it. I saddled up Baka in my backpack and we took a little walk around the neighborhood just as things were about to get underway.
In my mind, I can imagine it all panning out: Ami would use the spare key I gave her (I trust her the most) and they’d all walk into a perfectly clean apartment and swoon. Swoon, they would! After recovering, they would find fresh tea for them to enjoy (the snacks would be provided later, as I “forgot” them) and they would all sit down to enjoy their gifts. I had instructed them to go ahead and open them while I was gone and, yes, I know it’s cowardly… but I’m making progress, I promise. My thought is that Haru would be the first to eagerly leap at her present, snatching up the card and reading excitedly.

Haru:

You always talk about how music makes you feel, and how the only good music out there is the kind that gets an emotion out of you. Well, this was the first CD I ever got that really gave me an emotional experience. I bought it back in college from an importer: it’s all in English but I don’t think you need to understand all the words to get the power behind it. I have a couple of their other CDs, too, but this was the first and I can still remember how electrifying it was the listen to it for the first time. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy it, too.

I can imagine Haru examining the CD case, asking something like “What’s a Helpless Roman?”

Mei:

I was never really into sports, but I like collecting American stuff, so my Mom got me these cards at a local flea market. I was just a kid, but my Mom was trying to connect with my interests, and because of that I’ve kept these darn things with me everywhere. They usually seem to bring me good luck, and I figured you might be able to find some good use for them. Maybe we could talk more about baseball later?

“Baseball cards? Seriously?”
“Don’t complain, Mei-mei! You won the kissing contest!”
“Shut up, Yamamoto.”

Tomoko:

You know I can’t cook.

“That’s not true!”
“Tomo, just read the note.”

But when I first went off to live in my own during high school, my Mom wrote some recipes down that I could make in a dorm. She wanted to make sure I was still eating all right, I guess because I usually go for the instant noodles. A lot of what she sent me got me through both high school and college without dying of malnutrition, and before I came down here she wrote a whole bunch of new recipes in here that I have absolutely no idea what to do with. This book is for you: I don’t know if you get a chance to cook food like this very often, and I thought it might be a nice addition to all the cookbooks you have. I haven’t seen a lot of the stuff my Mom cooks down here in this part of Japan, or really anywhere else, so maybe we could work together and make some of this one day?

Ai:

My Dad is a farmer. I can’t imagine him doing anything else. On top of running a dairy farm and everything that goes along with that, he also has what he calls his “little farm.” I guess he just doesn’t like to be called a gardener, but we’ve saved a lot of money and Dad’s won more than a few contests with the food, plants and flowers he’s grown over the years. When I headed down here to work at Kotogakko, he gave me a bunch of seeds he’s been saving, and he told me to get a “little farm” of my own going once I found a place. Well, I haven’t really been able to find a place to plant at my apartment, but I figured we could work together and maybe put something together at your greenhouse?

“Don’t say it, Hasegawa.”
“Whatever do you mean, Ami?
“Don’t make that joke.”
“What joke?”
“The joke I know you want to make. About Ken. And his seeds. You know.”
“What? Oh! Oh, I didn’t even think of that one! Good one, Ami… and a little naughty!”
“Oh, can it.”

Eri:

I bought these figurines on a school trip to Kyoto. They’re supposed to portray two actors from Kiyomizu: a warrior and a princess. I didn’t really have any friends when I was in school, so the two of these went with me everywhere on that trip. They were basically my friends: I made up all different kinds of adventures for them during the trip, gave them names, and even now I’ll find myself talking to them from time to time. But now I’ve got friends, real friends like all of you, so maybe it’s time for the warrior and the princess to go on a new adventure with you.

“What did he give you, Eri?”
“These.”
“Oh… those are… nice…”
“…”
“Eri? Are you okay?”
“They are nice.”

Cathy:

I haven’t know you for as long as the others, but you’ve still become a very good friend of mine. Don’t tell the others, but yours is the gift I spent some money on. It’s a brand new English-Japanese dictionary and phrasebook. I noticed yours is looking a little beat up, and I know how that goes (you should see mine) so I’ve got you a new and updated one. Oh, and it also has a digital copy so you can put it on your computer or one of those electronic book things or a cell phone or whatever you do with those things. I’ve never really gotten out of paper books, so I hope the digital thing works. Anyway, now we’ll be able to communicate better when I say something stupid in English.”

“Awwww, Kenny! He’s such a sweethart!”
“What? It’s just a freakin’ book.”
“Mei, don’t be so rude!”
“Hey, I’M not the one who didn’t get a present, Ishii. Don’t take your grumpiness out on me!”

Don’t worry, Mei. She had plenty of grumpiness to spend on me when I got back with the snacks and drinks.
“WHERE THE HELL IS MY PRESENT, JACKASS?”
I rubbed at the knot that was beginning to form on the back of my head, wincing.
“I’ve got you a present, Ami!” I tried not to whine, but it was no use, “I just didn’t think it’d be something you’d want to have shown in front of everyone!”
Ami went quiet. The whole room, for a second, went quiet, before Cathy fell over onto the floor, laughing so hard I thought she might burst.
“I didn’t mean it like that, Cathy!” I stomped over to where she was still laughing, tears running down her face.
“Ah didn’ thank yew’d do it, Kenny!”
“I didn’t! It’s not that!”
“Not what?” Ai asked from the chair behind me.
Oh, NO. Not Ai, of all people!
“It’s nothing!”
“Weyl… it’s a li’l bit’a sumthin,” Cathy said, still giggling, “Li’l lace heere, li’l eelaystic there…”
“Cathy!” I shouted.
“Ken, darling!” Ai looked shocked as she sipped her sparkling wine, “Do you mean to say you bought Ami some white–”
“NO!” I hollered, “No… no, I didn’t. I did not buy ANYONE lingerie.”
“More’s the pity,” Ai said with a smile, running her finger along the rim of her glass.
“Ohhhh!” Haru slapped a hand to her head, “that’s what they were talking about?”
“Yes…” Eri said quietly, blushing a little.
“I’m more curious why Cathy and Kenny-boy were discussing ladies’ underwear,” Mei said, taking a sip of her beer.
“I’m more curious why they were discussing MINE!” Ami shouted from all the way in the kitchen, where I’d tried to escape her wrath before.
“What’s all the noise about?” Ms. Arakawa asked, stepping out of the bathroom. Before I could blurt out an excuse, Mei beat me to the punch.
“We’re talking about the lingerie Ken’s going to buy us for White Day!”
“………oh.”
She turned a bright scarlet and seemed to glide silently back into the bathroom, where she locked the door. It took about half an hour to get her out of there, and I had to promise we could work together and make one of my mom’s recipes for White Day dinner.
“Holy crap!” Mei remarked after her first forkful, “This is freakin’ delicious!”
“Indeed,” Ai nodded, “We should lock you in the bathroom more often, Tomo dear.”
Even Haru and Eri ate some of the home-grown stew, ignoring both their disdain for food that isn’t bright pink and covered with sugar or adhering to a strict diet, respectively. Maybe it was politeness, or maybe it was the holiday, or maybe there was just something about the food. Who knows. As it was a Saturday, and we were celebrating, that of course meant that the night ended with Ai, Mei, and Cathy passing out after one too many drinks, Haru snuggling up with one of my pillows, and Eri with the other, and with Ms. Arakawa working hard on the dishes in the sink. Ami and I were enjoying it being quiet for the first time in a while, but Ami wasn’t content to let the silence settle.
“So, where my present?”
“Oh, right!” I jumped up from my chair and almost tripped over Mei’s sleeping form, “Sorry about that. Hold on. Sorry. I’ll get it for you. Sorry.”
“Stop apologizing and do it, dumbass.”
I scrambled over the bodies everywhere in my apartment until I reached one of the many, many piles of files and papers and books. I grabbed a beat-up blue folder off the top and, walking gently, I handed it over to where she was sitting. She looked up at me standing over her, holding this ragged folder, and one of her eyebrows shot up in that way they do when she wants to tell me I’ve done something incredibly stupid… but it’s quite sure if she wants to yet.
“This is it?”
“Yes.”
“What is it?”
“Just open it.”
“It’s just a bunch of paper,” she said, looking at the folder from the side.
“I don’t think you would call it just a bunch of paper.”
“Why?” her eyes narrowed accusingly, “Is it something… weird?”
“No.”
“Is it something gross.”
“No.”
“Is it bigger than a breadbox?”
“What?”
“Nothing, you dope,” she gave a little smile then and took the folder from me. Her little smile (because I’ve never seen a big one) was actually kind of cute, in a sort of Mona Lisa way, because you never know exactly what she’s thinking. Of course, I never really know what she’s thinking, especially not that night after the Valentine’s Day party… but let’s not get into that again. She opened up the folder and began paging through it. Her eyes were curious at first, and then they narrowed and looked deepyl, and then they got really wide and did something I wasn’t expecting. They got sort of soft, and maybe I saw the beginnings of a tear or two at the corners, but these weren’t tears like she had at New Years. These tears seemed a lot more… happier.
“Is this all mine?”
“Almost every one.”
“All mine?” she shook her head in disbelief, “All my assignments from when I was your student? But why on earth would you keep all of them? That’s borderline creepy.”
“Nothing creepy, I promise,” I said with palms up, “I noticed very quickly how good of a student you were, so I started keeping your stuff for two reasons. The first is because I still use them today to show my students the perfect way to do assignments. I don’t use your name, and I’ve made photocopies of all of them so you can keep all the originals. I just figured you might like them for your own collection.”
There was a little moment where she kept on smiling, paging through one assignment after another, like looking through an old family photo album.
“So what was the other,” she said finally.
“The other what?”
“Don’t play dumb with me, Watanabe,” she looked up, the harshness suddenly returning to her features, “What was the other reason you kept my assignments?”
“You really want to know?”
“Yes!” she said a little too loud. Haru made an odd noise in her sleep and Eri mumbled something about a pony, but thankfully no one woke up.
“Well,” I knelt down in front of her, realizing far too late that it looked like I was about to propose marriage, “I kept all of them because I knew one day you would be someone very, very important, and I would have those assignments to prove I knew you. That I had been your teacher. Because, honestly… Ami, I consider it an honor to have been your teacher, only for a little while. You were the best student I’ve ever had, and I think you’re the best one I ever will have. I hope, every time I go to class, that I can see a student act and react like you did when I taught you. It wasn’t because you thought I was so wonderful or that I was always right or that you bought into all that ‘Golden Boy’ stuff… it’s because you had a passion for learning that really made me happy. It was nice to see someone who was a student like, um… like I was. And one day, when you’re running this country or ruling the world or whatever, I’ll be able to say I taught you.”
There was another long pause, except for the odd noises of dishes being washed in the kitchen. I was pretty sure I’d spoken quietly enough to not be heard, but the noise of dishes probably made sure Ms. Arakawa didn’t hear. That didn’t stop Ami from standing up abruptly from the chair, almost knocking me over, and immediately making her way to the bathroom. A while later, Ms. Arakawa came over to where I was sitting now.
“Is Ms. Ishii okay?” she asked, settling down into a chair.
“I think so…” I said, playing with a dust pattern on the table, “I hope so.”
I tried to stay awake, I really did… but Mei kept wanting me to drink this or that… and I couldn’t stay awake long enough to see Ami come out. By the time I woke up, she’d already gone, but I did find a note in the pocket of my jacket Monday morning as I got ready to go back to school:

 

Thank you.

~Ami.

RG – White Day

After my failure to produce presents at Christmas and the further… events of Valentine’s Day, I figured things were stacked pretty heavily against me for White Day. I knew I’d really have to deliver on this, so I got to work.
For those of you who might be asking what “White Day” is, it’s a Japanese custom that works sort of like Valentine’s Day in reverse. After the girls give their choko to the boys, the boys are expected to pay it back in kind exactly one month later. And so, February came to an end and March began: more rain, and less snow (if there was any to begin with) and a general rise in temperatures to where you don’t need to wear your heavy stuff anymore.
Of course, that didn’t stop Cathy from wearing her heavy winter clothes all the way up to White Day.
“Ah cain’t help it!” she protested one day as we walked to school, “Ah ain’t used ta th’ cawld!”
“It’s like 50-degrees, your style,” Ami shot back in her usual flat way. I was impressed that she knew the conversion just like that, but her time in America probably helped.
“Thayt’s freezin! Ah doan’t know haow yew two ‘re wawkin’ round in li’l jaykits lahk thayt!”
“I should take you up to my family’s farm in Hokkaido, sometime,” I said, feeling warm even under the “jaykit” I was wearing, “Then you’d see what cold is.”
“Ooooh, Kenny!” Cathy replied with a giggle, “Yew gawna tayk me ta meetcher payrints? Thayt’s offal sudden, Ah doan’t know if Ah’m reddy fer thayt!”
“I didn’t mean it like that!”
“An’ yew say it gits reel cawld up theyre,” she continued, beaming, “Yew lookin’ ta keep me warrm at naight?”
I tried to make a few noises to the contrary, but Ami shut us both up. Standing between us, it was easy for her to give us both a sharp chop to the back of each head.
“Owwww, Awmi! Yer meen!”
“And you’re an idiot,” she shot back, but it wasn’t her usual bluntness. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think she was close to smiling. Of course, she had to hit someone to bring a smile to her face… but little by little. Any time Ami’s in a good mood, it gives me just a little bit more courage and bravery to try to ask her about what REALLY happened on Valentine’s Day.
So far… I haven’t said anything. But I’m thinking about it!
The nice thing about this time of year is that school is winding down, which means I don’t have to focus on putting lessons together as much. And trust me, when I plan a lesson… I plan it like it’s an entire stage show. It’s like those sentai shows you see at the mall sometimes: I have to be at a place at a time and make sure to say a thing, or it won’t make sense later. Now, there aren’t usually people in crazy suits playing my enemy (sometimes I have a student volunteer to be a rival shogun or represent Communist Russia) but I like to think my real enemy is ignorance. If I have to jump up and down to get my students to believe me, I’ll do it… and I probably have to, because these students seem like ghosts. They don’t talk, they don’t ask questions, half of them are trying to be on their phones when they think I’m not looking…
And, while I’m at it, I’ll just say this. Kids, if you you’re hiding it from a teacher, you’re not. We see it. We see everything. And we know.
Now, back to my worries. Bored students are fairly low on the scale, mainly because they haven’t been crashing and burning in their tests, so my main worry of the day is, big surprise, the Rogues. After……… everything that happened on Valentine’s Day, the Sword of Damocles is very certainly hanging above my head. Although, in this case, it’s six or seven different swords, and the swords are women, and they aren’t going to kill me (probably), but it might as well be a fate worse than death. I mean, I haven’t even been back teaching a year, what would happen if I started, um, dating one of my former students? The whole thing will look like some… ploy, and make me look like a puppet master or something. And my parents… I only wonder how my parents might react… but I do have a duty to return their kindness from Valentine’s Day and get them all gifts for White Day.

No, not THAT kindness. The chocolate!
“Whatcha dooin, Kenny?”
I had borrowed a laptop from the Computer Club and was using it at my little desk in the teacher’s room. The gaijin, carrying her large, puffy coat, was as curious as ever.
“Looking up gift ideas for White Day,” I replied as she walked over and helped herself to some of my tea, “any suggestions?”
“Yeh,” she said, putting down the little cup, “Thayt tea needs sum shugah.”
“I meant about the gifts.”
“Aw, Kenny,” she tossed her jacket on the chair next to mine and sat on what little space was left on my desk, “Ah know, but… yer th’ Jaypuhnese one, yew should know what ta do on Waht Daye.”
I stopped looking at the screen long enough to fix her with a look that I hope was accusing.
“Seriously?”
“Whut?” she asked with a smile.
“You think I have any idea what to do on White Day? You think ever, until now, I’ve had a girl give me chocolate on Valentine’s?”
“Neyver?!”
“Never, Cathy.”
“Whut abowt when yew were teechin’ heere?” She took another sip of green tea and scowled, “didn’t they give ya choko when they were yer studints?”
“Well, of course they did,” I rolled my eyes, “I can’t even begin to tell you some of the, um, presents they gave me.”
“Were they nawtee?”
“Only the stuff from Ai,” I said with a sigh, “All sorts of little gifts: candy from Haru, homemade goodies from Tomoko, expensive little historical bits and pieces from all over Japan from Eri, which I tried to say no about, but you know how her eyes get.”
“Uh-huh.”
“Mei would bring me food a lot. Sometimes homemade, sometimes I could tell she blew her allowance to buy me something healthy. She’d always say her last History teacher was awful, and she wanted to keep me healthy.”
“What about Awmi?”
I knew she was going to ask that.
“She did, actually. Outside of the giri choko she felt like she HAD to do, she’d drop a book on my desk every once in a while on her way out of class, and I’d read it, and we’d discuss it after class some day or during lunch or whatever.”
“Wow, reely?” Cathy said, her mouth hanging open with surprise, “Ah meen, Ah awlways knew she had yew as a teecher, but Ah neyver thawt yew two’d hang owt lahk thayt. Mosta th’ tahme she mayks lahk she wawnts ta punch ya.”
“Yeah,” I said lazily, letting my memories get the best of me, “It all changed after the tests. She seemed really mad that she didn’t beat me.”
“Sounds lahk Awmi,” Cathy said with a little laugh. We sat for a bit, her continuing to sip tea she hated as if forcing it would make it suddenly sweet, and me camping out on the laptop, looking through this website and that recommendation and being absolutely, completely, helplessly lost. The grey skies of March cut open a little bit, bathing the teacher’s room in golden afternoon sunlight and making everything very warm and soft. Maybe it was just the weather, but thinking about these gifts, and thinking about all those memories had me feeling downright wistful.
“I’ve got to do something,” I said finally, leaning back in the chair, “I owe it to them.”
“Ayfter Vayluntahn’s, Kenny, I’d say yew do.”
I gave her a pleading look, and she smiled a little, but didn’t laugh.
“C’mawn, doan’tcha go powtin’ ayt me lahk thayt. Let’s thank abowt whatcha wawna give ’em.”
“That’s just it!” I wailed, throwing up my hands, “I don’t even know where to start!”
“Weyl, when Ah don’t know nuthin’ bowt sumethin’, Ah go ta Gewgle.”
“But that’s so much. Any way to narrow it down?”
“Haow bowt Wiki?”
“It just suggests what kinds of gifts to give,” I muttered, pulling up the page for her to see, “like cookies, or jewelry, or white things.”
“Whut kahnda whayte things?”
I turned the laptop back to myself a little too quickly. I saw her bright blue eyes light up from the other side of the desk, and suddenly she was right behind me, trying to peek at the screen.
“Ah thawt Ah saw somethin…”
“You saw nothing, Cathy!”
“Yew sure? Didn’t it say-”
“No, it didn’t!”
“Hee hee hee!” Cathy was full-on giggling now, “It diyd! It says yew should give ’em whayte lawnjeray!”
“I’m not going to do that!”
“Hee hee!”
“STOP GIGGLING!”
“Ah cain’t help it!” she nearly fell over behind me, laughing, “Woo, Ah bet thayt’d be a nahce surprahze fer Aye!”
“Actually…”
Her laughter stopped immediately with her backed up against the wall, her eyes suddenly open wide with shock.
“Seeryusly?”
“Well, she didn’t send me any of those,” I replied, feeling my face turn red, “Most of the time it was little jokes, or she’d offer me a picture of her in the bathtub, and it’s be of when she was a toddler… but it’d get my face red, and she’d laugh, and then she’d, um, shimmy out the door, but every once in a while……. just every once in a while she’d decide to push it.”
“Do Ah eevun wawna know?”
“She had a history of, um, altering her uniform,” I started fiddling with my hair, “and it’d be my duty as a teacher to reprimand her for it. Of course, that just gave her the opportunity to ask question after question about this or that… and, once I was reduced to a stammering wreck, she’d come back the next day in a proper uniform as if nothing had happened.”
“She eyver git in trubble?”
“She knew how to play the games and avoid it,” I said with a sigh, “And anyway, it seems like I was the only one she did it to, although I have no idea why.”
“Maybe she just lahks yew.”
It sounded so simple, but then again so is the idea behind a lot of the most destructive weapons in all of History. After another bit of pause, the sun still shining golden through the window, Cathy set down the teacup, still half full, and headed for the door.
“Weyl, Ah gawta meet Awmi daownstayrs. She owta be done with her wurk naow. Kenny?”
“Yeah?” I walked over to the door to see her out. I’m no ogre.
“Ah’m frum Joe-Ja, y’know,” she ran her hand through that tangled mess of curly blonde hair and smiled a little smile, a gentle smile, “An’ daown Saowth, we know haow ta do one thang raht.”
She suddenly leaned forward and gave me a short, brief kiss on the cheek. It was very innocent, very, um, girlish, but I still saw her blush under that substantial tan of hers. Just what was she talking about, knowing how to do right?
“We know haow ta reelax,” she said with a nervous little giggle, “An’ thayt’s whut Ah’m gawna say ta yew: reelax, Kenny. Get ’em sumthin’ nahce, sumthin’ speyshul, sumthin’ thayt meens sumthin’ ta yew… awright?”
I was still a little shocked from the kiss.
“A… awright.”
Great, now I’m starting to talk like her. She gave me one last, white smile and left the room. I made my way back to the desk slowly, and looked down at the “suggested White Day gifts” page I had loaded. Suddenly, none of it mattered. None of it made sense. None of it was really special, none of it meant something to me, and for these ladies… whatever they might be someday, they’ll first be some of the first real friends I’ve ever made. And they deserve something better than whatever I bought because a website told me to.
“Enough,” I said to no one in particular. I closed the laptop and dropped it off with the computer club, walking home alone in the golden afternoon. They say March comes in like a lion or out like a lamb, or vice versa, or something over in America… but here in Japan, it just sorta… happens. There’s more rain, it gets warmer, and every once in a while the sun pokes through those gray skies and everything gets golden.
“I know what to get them for White Day,” I thought to myself as I passed the corner convenience store. And, as luck would have it, I still had a few days to spare.

RG – Valentine’s, Part Two

The natural, um, peculiar nature of Ami and Cathy’s relationship was on display as I walked into the apartment. It was obvious in some points that Cathy had tried to decorate (probably with Haru’s help) but it was haphazard and spaced all over the room, as if someone else had gone about tearing down the odd cupid or paper heart decoration… I wonder who. My nose was assaulted almost immediately with a heady smell of cinnamon, but it wasn’t real cinnamon, it smelled a lot more like that cheap cinnamon candy. I really should have been able to put two and two together, but maybe I was too worried with, um, all the other things going on that it didn’t make sense until
“HAPPY VALENTIIIINE’S!”
Cathy and Haru appeared seemingly out of nowhere, both dressed almost completely in fuzzy red and pink… things, and where they weren’t fuzzy they were, um, edible. Both of them were wearing about six pounds each of edible jewelry, from necklaces and bracelets to rings and, in Haru’s case, a giant pair of neon colored glasses that seemed to be made of some kind of licorice. As they shouted, I caught a strong blast of the cinnamon candy, probably in the shape of those gummy heart things that are everywhere this time of year. The two bounced all around me as I took a step into the apartment, which wasn’t so much a problem for Haru as it was for Cathy, as she had significantly more to, um, bounce. They were ushered away by Ami with a scowl. As if in protest, she was dressed in simple jeans and a black shirt, although there was a mark on her back in a vague heart shape, suggesting someone may have tried to slap a sticker in her back at one point… and possibly succeeded.
“Why is it always my place,” she groaned, tossing the two in the direction of Mei, who was sitting happily on the couch. Mei, surprised, quickly juggled her bright red martini over to Eri. The quiet Math teacher, enjoying a drink of her own on the rocks, easily caught the drink and set it on a side table. Mei then rose to her feet and scooped up the two excitables in her powerful arms.
“Knock it off, you two. Damn sugar junkies.”
They kept bouncing and wiggling, even in Mei’s arms, overjoyed beyond almost anything I’d ever seen. Well, maybe not Haru… but I’d never seen Cathy this crazy happy, ever. I’m starting to wonder if there’s something else going on.
“Is there something going on?” I decided to ask.
I couldn’t get an answer. Mei pretended not to hear over the two sugar maniacs. Ai, who was admiring a houseplant on a stand by the window, said she hadn’t heard anything, just like that, and went back to the bush. Ami was too busy fussing in the tiny kitchen and getting everyone drinks (except me, I went to get my own ginger ale) so she wouldn’t tell me anything, and I couldn’t find Ms. Arakawa anywhere in the small living room or the apartment. My guess is that she was either in the bathroom or the bedroom and, um, that’s all I’ll say about that. Eri, of course, didn’t say anything… but this is Eri we’re talking about. With everyone refusing my request, I decided to take a seat on a chair that was opposite the couch, in what I hoped was out of any sort of, um, Danger Zone.
“Settle down, dammit!”
“Mei-mei, can I have some of the candeee water?”
“Hell, no, Yamamoto! We don’t need you any crazier!”
“One drink won’t hurt me, Mei-mei… you’re the light-weight!”
“WHAT DID YOU CALL ME?”
Mei reached out to throttle the tiny music teacher, leaving the foreign exchange teacher to play around some more.
“Ooooh, awl mah candy mayks a rattley noise if Ah do this!”
“Knock it off, dumbass,” Ami said, setting down a plate of snacks, “You look like an idiot.”
“Ami,” I asked, watching the chaos unfold in front of me, “Shouldn’t you be doing something about this?”
“I’m going to stay out of everything that’s happening today.”
A-ha! So something IS going on!
“So what’s going on?”
“What, with them?” Ami totally misunderstood my question, “they’ve been hitting the drinks and candy pretty hard as we all waited here for you. One by one they came barreling into my house, and here I am playing waitress.”
“Shouldn’t Ms. Arakawa be taking care of that?”
“She’s barricaded herself in the bedroom.”
“Why on earth would she do that?” I was reminded of Ami’s bedroom, stacked to the ceiling with book after book, from the time Cathy locked both of us in there last summer.
Nothing happened.
“Well, given what the plans are for today,” she picked up a plate and a cup, “I wouldn’t blame her.”
“Wait, so… what? Ami!”
But it was too late, she’d already zipped back into the kitchen. It wasn’t like her to avoid things like this. In fact, except for Mei’s usual brashness and the Sugar Twins, everyone else seemed a little… off. Ai was very busy admiring a plant she’d seen at least a dozen times before, and Eri was even shyer than normal, plus she seemed to be helping herself to more drinks than usual, whereas Ai seemed to be drinking LESS… it was like I’d gone through into some kind of mirror world where nothing made sense and everything smelled like cinnamon!
I sat in my chair, sipping my Ginger Ale  and feeling very nervous. I had entered into the warzone, but I was still waiting for the firing to start. From what I’ve read, this is the worst part. It’s like when you spend all day looking at black and heavy clouds, until you just want to yell “RAIN ALREADY!” But if I started yelling in this company, there’s no telling what would happen.
“So…”
One little word and five pairs of eyes turned to me. Ami was still in the kitchen, and Tomo was still absent. I immediately regretted saying anything after such a long pause.
“Valentine’s Day, right?”
Still no response from Ai, and Mei still had her hands full. Eri was ignoring my gaze more than usual. I decided to go for the kill.
“Chocolate?”
“Don’t worry, Kenny-boy,” Mei grunted, still trying to hold on to Haru, “There’s plenty of chocolate for you.”
“Well, I didn’t mean it that way…”
“I know you didn’t. I just got my hands full here.”
“HA HA!” Haru’s tiny throat erupted with laughter, “Didja hear that Cathy? She’s got… her HANDS FULL!”
“Yeah she shore does!” Cathy replied, giggling, “That’s reel funny, Miss Tanawka… but you ain’t laughin!”
“I know!” Haru’s eyes suddenly took on a manic look, “We can TEACH her how to laugh!”
She suddenly jammed her tiny fingers into Mei’s side, wiggling them furiously. I saw Mei’s face contort into a weird shape, which suddenly exploded into laughter that was half happy and half agony.
“AHAHAHAHAHA-knock it off, Yamamoto! AHHHHAHAHA-I swear to God I’ll kill you!”
“Yay!” Cathy hollered, putting her own fingers into Mei’s left side, “TIKKEL TAHME!”
With both of them, um, attacking her, Mei couldn’t take it anymore. She stood up from the couch, tossing both of them onto seat cushions behind her, and stormed off for the bathroom.
“Little bastards,” she grumbled as she went down the hall, “now I have to go pee!”
Cathy and Haru were still rolling about on the couch, laughing, and making sure not to come into contact with Eri sitting on the end. I did notice that her shinai was neatly positioned next to the arm of the couch, opposite of the hand that held her drink. Is that technically dual-wielding?
“Oh, Kenny-kenny…” Haru said as the laughter died down, “we’re gonna get YOU next!”
“I’m not ticklish,” I tried my best to lie with a straight face.
“Oh no…” Cathy said, lounging on the couch, “Wee’re nawt gawna tikkel ya…”
“Well, maybe some of us are.”
Ai had decided the plant was in no dire peril at this very moment (apparently) and had instead sat on the arm of the couch next to Cathy. Her skirt was, of course, too short, and her legs were certainly on display in the tiny red dress she was vacuum-packed into.  She leaned over suddenly (and I swore I could hear the seams screaming in panic) and whispered something into Cathy’s ear. The gaijin’s already-red face grew to resemble a tomato as she chuckled at whatever it was Ai had said.
“Heh heh heh… yeah.”
Great, now there’s some kind of plot afoot. Why do they say “afoot” anyway? Does it mean something is moving? Like, walking? Because it sounds really weird to talk about your feet right now. And no, before you ask I’m not one of those guys who has a “foot thing” or maybe even a “foot moe” even if Ai does go through great lengths to wear shoes that look sort of like Medieval torture devices.
Any further thought on feet was disrupted by the bathroom door banging open, announcing Mei Tanaka’s return to the madness. She made it halfway down the hall before banging on the bedroom door with enough force to turn it into toothpicks.
“That’s enough, Tomo. You gotta get out here with the rest of us.”
The entire room fell silent, except for the odd clinking from the kitchen as Ami toiled away. We could hear just faintly a few squeaky replies from Ms. Arakawa before Mei shouted back.
“No excuses! We all voted on it! No backing out now!”
“What the hell is going on…” I said, slowly and with no lack of worry. I got avoided again, this time even by the Sugar Girls.
“Oh, Ken darling,” Ai focused on the ceiling, “You’ll find out soon enough.”
Mei began banging on the door again and, with a groan of frustration, Ami stomped over to the door, key in hand.
“Damn it, Tanaka, if you break my door…”
She unlocked the door quickly and, just like that, went back to work. Mei entered the room quickly and emerged a few moments later with Ms. Arakawa slung over her shoulder. The poor little domestic was wailing in a sort of terror I couldn’t understand, trying desperately to thump Mei on the back with her little fists. Sadly, it did no good: her hands bounced off Mei’s muscled back harmlessly, and even when Mei dropped Tomo onto the couch, between Haru and Cathy, she still tried to thump her fists into her. Mei didn’t even notice as she then picked up Ai, who squealed in a very-unladylike fashion before being squeezed in between the couch arm and Cathy. Mei finally forced herself between Haru and Tomo, and suddenly they were all lined up like sardines. It was Eri, Haru, Tomo, Mei, Cathy, and Ai, all with barely enough room to breathe, all looking very uncomfortable, but seemingly for different reasons.
“Honestly, Mei… this is very uncomfortable.”
“Deal with it, Hasegawa.”
“I can’t breathe, Mei-mei!”
“Shut up and sit there!”
“But it’s hotttt!”
Haru made to stretch out her tiny form to get a little breathing room, accidentally knocking into Eri’s face as she was about to sip her drink. The Math teacher’s hand strayed to her shinai as she shot Haru a glare that would have frozen over Guam. Haru, with a terrified squeak, sat back down and pouted. I let them all sit there and stew before, comfortable in my own chair, I decided to speak again.
“This is getting ridiculous, guys. Obviously, there’s something going on, so why don’t you all just tell me about it.”
More silence. This was getting annoying.
“Someone just tell him!” Ami shouted from the kitchen, “tell him about your stupid idea!”
“I’m starting to think this isn’t going to be about chocolate,” I sighed.
“Oh, don’t worry, Kenny. There’s still gonna be chocolate for you!”
“Shut up, Yamamoto,” Ami shouted again from the kitchen, “Hasegawa, you started it. GO.”
All eyes turned to Ai (no joke intended) who looked a little flustered, not like her usual, um, collected self. Trust me, the rest of her was still very collected in that dress, but she was having trouble hiding behind her glasses and bangs this time.
“Well, you see… we were all talking, about today, and what today is all about, and… we decided that Valentine’s Day is as good a day as any to really… make things happen.”
“Make what things happen, Ai?” I asked, leaning forward in the chair.
“Well, we figured on such a romantic day, we could try our best to be romantic… with you.”
I almost fell forward out of the chair, managing to catch myself on the table in front of me just before I hit it. That was not what I was expecting.
“You want to WHAT with me?”
“Oh, no no no, Ken darling… not like that… it’s just, well…”
I glanced down the couch, which was nothing but red faced and tightly closed mouths.
“Well, what?” I asked, frustrated, “because getting these two sugar-drunk doesn’t seem very romantic to me.”
Haru hiccuped, half out of fear and half because, well, she’d been drinking for a while.
“Well, that happened after we made the decision,” Ai said, uncrossing and crossing her legs again in a nervous manner that also made ME nervous,
We voted on it, you see.”
“You… voted?”
“Mr. Watanabe!”
Ms. Arakawa suddenly exploded forward in a flood of words, almost unintelligible due to her panic.
“I didn’t vote for it, Mr. Watanabe! I didn’t! I didn’t! I never wanted to do this, but they told me I had to!”
“Okay,” I said, helping calm Ms. Arakawa down, “Now I’m getting a little scared, ladies.”
“Oh, they’re all just overreacting!” Ami shouted from the kitchen yet again, “It’s just a little kissing contest!”
“See? There’s nothing to worry about, like Ami said. It’s just a little–WHAAAT?!”
I leaped up from the chair, only to see her leaning proudly against the wall that divided the kitchen from the living room.
“They all voted and decided the best way to celebrate Valentine’s Day was if they all got a chance to kiss you.”
I felt the blood drain from my face, down to my feet and, I swear, right out my toes and into the center of the Earth.
“A-are you serious?”
“They definitely are,” Ami said, smiling smugly.
“And why are you so pleased with this, Ami?”
“Because I didn’t vote for this stupidity,” she replied, toweling dishwater off her hands, “I abstained.”
“So that means you’re not going to…” I swallowed down a lump in my throat, but Ami cut me off before I could say the, um, “K” word.
“Ha! You wish,” she sneered, “Wouldn’t that be great for you: it’s not enough that you’re the Golden Boy, but then you get to kiss your #2? NEVER!”
I don’t see how our tests scores even factor into this, Ami…
“You’re lucky I even got you some damn chocolate!” she said, throwing an angry arm over to a small side table, where a pitiful little box of store-bought chocolate sat. Giri choko. “Obligation Chocolate.” What you get for other people you work with. I should have known.
“So,” Ami brought back her smug smile, throwing the drying towel at my face, “I guess you better get those lips ready!”
She was taking far too much joy in seeing me lose my mind like this. I mean, this isn’t normal… is it? Do guys do this? Do girls do this… to guys? I didn’t really get out much in college, I don’t know what happens at parties. I never even had one of those silly playground kisses in elementary school, and now… now this? With my former students, no less? Somewhere, I swear, there’s a group of policemen sitting around, doing nothing, and they’re not quite sure why!
“There has got to be something illegal about this,” I stammered, trying to inch my way to the door. In a flash, Eri’s shinai whipped out from behind the couch and caught me at the back of my knee, sending me collapsing awkwardly back into my chair.
“Not illegal,” Eri said, rising from the couch slowly. She took a few steps until she was standing right in front of my chair, her rather short self towering over me in this, um position, still clutching the shinai. I was a sitting duck, there was nowhere I could go!
“Time to make decisions.”
Wow. If Eri uses that many words, you KNOW it’s important.
“But…” I fumbled to sit back upright in the chair, “but this is all so sudden. I…I don’t think I’m ready for this.”
Wait… is the guy the one who’s supposed to be saying these things?
“Oh, please!” Mei said with a snort, “It’s been almost ten months since you came back… you’re telling me we haven’t spent enough time together? All of us?”
“Okay, okay, I give you that, but…”
I sat there in the chair, every muscle in my body tensed up like I would explode at any minute. I had to tell them, I had no choice. It would be the only way to stop this madness. It might ruin me, but I’ll have to say it.
“I’ve….. never really kissed a girl before.”
There was a tiny bit of silence, then, before Ami called out.
“Bullshit! What about you and miss bleach-blonde, up against the filing cabinet?”
Oh, crap. I’d tried to wipe that from my memory completely. Thank you so much for bringing that up.
“Well then… I guess that’d be my first.”
“THAT was your first kiss?” Ai asked, her eyes wide over her glasses.
“Yeah,” I said, ashamed, “not exactly the best to start with. So, you see, it’s really not fair to do this–”
“Oh, my goodness!” Ai cut me off, exclaiming, “That’s a TERRIBLE way to have your first kiss, all smashed up against office furniture.”
“I suppose you would know?” Mei asked with a smirk. Ai shot her a glare and continued, seeming very… philanthropic?
“That’s the only kiss you’ve shared in your adult life….”
“Well, technically ever…”
She stopped again, her eyes growing wide again.
“Dear me,” she pushed her glasses back up the bridge of her nose is a businesslike manner, “then this is something we definitely must rectify!”
What, rectify? NO! That’s not what I meant to do at all! You were supposed to feel sorry for me, or pity me, and then be so disgusted that you wouldn’t want to do this. You weren’t supposed to get all noble on me, Ai… ESPECIALLY not you!
“I will volunteer to give you your REAL first kiss, Ken darling. It’s the least I could do.”
Suddenly, where there was once so much hesitation, everyone was shouting at once.
“Wait, he didn’t really start the kiss, and he didn’t like it …”
“So this would be like his real first kiss, Mei-mei! I wanna do it!”
“Not on your life, Tiny. He’s mine!”
“Wait!” I shouted, “How is this any better than what Kanagawa did to me, if you’re all going to, um, jump on me like this?!”
“He’s right!” Ai said with a snap of her fingers, suddenly very deep in thought, “Hm, well, Ken darling, you really weren’t expecting THAT kiss, right?”
“Uh-huh…” I said cautiously, not knowing where she was going with that sentence.
“And you didn’t like it, right?”
“No, I did not…”
“Then tell me, Ken darling…” that cunning look came rushing back into her eyes as she stared me down, “if any of us were to kiss you, right here, right now… would you like that?”
I tried to say “no.” I really did, but my mouth was suddenly dry and I couldn’t make a word. I felt my face go red-hot, like I’d just eaten all of the cinnamon I could smell in the air, and I’m afraid that said more of my answer than any word could.
“Oh ho ho,” Ai grinned like a fox, “I think we have our answer. Come now, Ken darling…”
She took another step forward, and she was locked dead-center on me, like an incoming missile, and there was nothing I could do about it. Then, suddenly, like a total eclipse of the sun, Eri’s dark bob of hair and bottomless dark eyes floated directly into my line of sight from the left. It was silent, and smooth, and slightly terrifying, which is oddly how I would describe what happened next.
“Okay?” she asked.
I could just make out a tiny bit of blush around her cheeks before she leaned into me, and I felt her kiss. If I had to be honest with myself, I’d respond by saying yes, Eri, that certainly was okay… but only for a moment. After that moment, she reopened her eyes and backed away, now blushing more heavily, and gave me a short bow, I assume of thanks.
“Eriiiiiii!” Ai cried shrilly, pouting her ruby red lips out, “Why did you do that?!”
“First,” she replied, then quickly snatched the dishtowel Ami had thrown at me and roughly rubbed my lips until all trace of her was gone from them.
“Germs.”
“Oh!” Ai took a step back, clutching at her neck, “Are you saying you think I would contaminate you if you kissed him after me?!”
Eri shook her head.
“Not you. All.”
I never knew she was such a worrier when it came to germs.
“Well!” Ai shot back, in a bit of a huff, “I bet Ken won’t mind my germs, will you?”
“Uhhhhh…”
I was still in quite a bit of shock. It was so smooth…
“Nuh-uh, Ai-ai!” I heard Haru shout, “I’m next!”
And she bounded in front of the Science teacher and leapt at me. Apparently all the worry was gone now that Eri had opened the, um, floodgates. Her kiss was clumsy, like a headbutt. She pulled back and I checked quickly to make sure my teeth were still there.
“Naughty Kenny!” she squealed, “Opening your mouth! I’m not French!”
“It wasn’t on purpose,” I replied, “I feel something gritty…”
I poked about with my tongue and, sure enough, she’d left some sugar all over.
“Sweetest kisses ever!” she giggled, finding her way back to the couch. I was still reeling when Mei pushed Tomo forward, looking for all the world like she was about to curl up like a hedgehog.
“I voted against this, I really did…”
“Oh, come on Tomo!” Haru hollered, “It’s not so bad! Just a little kissy-kissy!”
She turned back to me, fixing her soft jaw in a resolute scowl. She toweled off my face again, this time to get rid of the sugar, and leaned down quickly to give me a millisecond peck on the lips, withdrawing faster than a French army.
“Oh, come on!” Mei bellowed, standing up for her turn next, “give him a REAL one, Tomo!”
She gave a slap right between Tomo’s shoulderblades, which sent her toppling forward onto me. I didn’t get another kiss, but instead got a faceful of, um, red sweater.
“Well, that’s better than a kiss, all right!”
Ms. Arakawa righted herself as quickly as possible (not easy when she’s so, um, heavy) and went back to beating feebly on Mei. The PE teacher easily put her aside and stood in front of me. I managed to say something that sounded like “eep” before she tried to kiss me…
“Wait, wait!” I shouted when she was halfway there, “take it easy, okay?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean you’re usually, um, strong and stuff, and you go after everything like it’s life and death. Just… take it easy.”
“Oh, just for that,” Mei growled, cracking her knuckles, “I’m REALLY gonna let you have it!”
And then… she did.
I was absolutely blown away. I had expected something like Haru’s headbutt, only more like a baseball bat to the face, but this was soft, and surprisingly gentle. She let me go and looked down on me, proudly, like I was some sort of prize kill on the Savannah.
“Now, Kenny-boy,” she flipped her long ponytail back behind her, “Tell me that ain’t the best kiss you’ve ever got!”
And speaking of Savannahs, Cathy was next.
“Awwww, Kenny. Ah’ll be nahce to ya.”
She gave me a little touch on the forehead, and sat back down.
“What the hell was that, McIntyre?!”
“Weyl, Ah’m a good li’l Suthern gurl. Ah wuzn’t trained ta go ’round smoochin fer no reasin! Ah’m a deb-yoo-tawnt!”
“A what?” Mei asked flatly.
“A laydee!”
“Whatever. Hasegawa, you’re next.”
“Oh, fuu!” she was still pouting in the corner, over by the houseplant again, “You’ve gone and worn the poor dear out, I hope I don’t hurt him!”
“Oh, don’t worry about him,” Mei waved her off, still grinning, “He’s got all of tomorrow to recover!”
“Well then,” Ai grinned, coming closer to me, “When you put it that way…”
She bent over and kissed me, and it was obvious she, um, she knew what she was doing… but it was a little harsh. Almost as harsh as Haru. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think she was trying to impress me, or someone else, rather than just letting things, um, happen. She took her time, and when she finally let me go, I had to catch my breath.
“Ai Hasegawa always leaves ’em breathless!” she proclaimed, to a small amount of applause from Cathy and Haru. Mercifully, it seemed to be over, until:
“So, Kenny-boy… who won?”
“Who what?”
“Who’s the best kisser?”
“I… what?” I was still shaking cobwebs out of my head… or maybe giant, cinnamon hearts.
“Well, it is a contest, isn’t it?” said Ai, comfortably back on the sofa arm, “We need to know who the winner is.”
“I think I did good!” Haru shouted suddenly, “It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, anyway!”
“A ringing endorsement,” Mei shot back.
“I don’t think I can say who really ‘won,’ or anything,” I started to say, but found myself getting booed… BOOED, by Haru, Cathy, Mei and even Ai. Just how much had they all had to drink?
“Come on!” I shouted over the boos. I turned to the nearest person for support. Good, traditional Eri.
“Come on, Eri, do you really think I have to say who won or lost?”
All eyes were on her then, and she slowly turned to me and said, in her trademark style:
“Boo.”
The room exploded into cheers, laughter and applause from the others. Et tu, Ozawa?
“Fine, fine!” I said after the noise died down, “I’ll give you a winner, but you all have to promise not to be mad, okay?”
“It’s okay…” Ms. Arakawa said softly, “I know I didn’t win, so… so at least it’s okay, with me.”
“I just had fun giving Kenny-kenny a biiiiig smooch!”
“I don’t know what you two are babbling about. I want to win!”
“Do you really think you can top my glamorous offering, Lady Muscle?”
“Yeah, four-eyes, I think I can!”
Before Ai and Mei got into a fistfight over it, I stood up from my chair and held my arms up for silence. They all waited for me like it was storytime at the preschool… and yes, given what just happened that’s as awful as it sounds.
“Okay, everyone, okay… if you really want to know what was the best… and by best, I mean the one that got the most, um, reaction out of me.”
“Oh, darling!”
“Quiet, Ai,” I gave her a look before continuing, “It really was… honestly… it was Mei.”
Haru looked sad, Cathy laughed, Ai sent up a ridiculous wail, and Eri looked down at the floor in defeat.
“Ahahahahaha!” Mei stood up, raising her hands high in victory, “Champion!”
She raised her hands a little too high and knocked them on the low ceiling to the apartment. Thankfully, the guy upstairs won’t mind the noise. She came over to me and, just when I was afraid she might kiss me again, she snagged me in a headlock and carried me over to the kitchen.
“Now we drink!” she proclaimed… and drink we did. By about ten o’clock, I could barely stand, Mei was even worse off, and Ai was well on her way to being out as well. Cathy and Haru, still fairly fresh, were playing videogames on the television while Eri, even a little tipsy herself, sat in the chair I had been in, acting a little surly. I decided to try and cheer her up.
“What’s up, Eri?”
“I lost,” she replied, flatter than usual.
“Hey, don’t feel bad! You were really good, really! Mei just… surprised me more, y’know?”
“Surprise?” she asked, looking up at me and losing some of the displeasure in her eyes.
“Yeah, it was a surprise.”
“Surprise!”
She shot up from the chair and nailed me with another kiss. To be fair, the extra surprise did help… but the competition was over. Mei and Ai started laughing uproariously from the couch and, when I finally flopped back into my seat next to them, they laughed all over again.
“Didn’t see that one comin’, now, didja, Kenny-boy?”
“No, I did not.”
“If you knew a little more about Ms. Tanaka, you probably wouldn’t have been so surprised, Ken darling…”
Ai said that suddenly, out of nowhere, and almost immediately the air in the room changed.
“Hasegawa,” Mei’s voice suddenly got very hard, “That’s enough.”
“I know, I know,” Ai put both hands to her head and shook it, “I shouldn’t have said that, I’m sorry. Too much to drink.”
“What’s the talking about?” I asked, still loopy from the drinks and not realizing something very serious had just happened. Mei got her face very close to mine (in a bad way) and let me know how serious things just got.
“She didn’t say anything, Kenny. So you’d best forget about it.”
“O….okay…”
And that was what eventually killed the party about half an hour later. It’s amazing how one little sentence can bring everything down. I bet something like that happened in the USSR back in 1991.
“That’s about it, I think. You should get back to your apartment.
Ami, who had stayed out of everything from the beginning, had done little more than pick up cups and plates for the entire evening, helped me up the stairs and over to my apartment, as all the straight lines in the world suddenly seemed a little wavy. I figured, after what I’d just gone through, a little extra drink to help me forget the whole evening would be a good idea… sadly, it didn’t work.
“Here,” she said, taking my key from me and opening the door, “go sit down, I’ll get you some water.”
I did as I was told, and a happy Baka jumped into my lap. The extra warmth of the dog made me incredibly sleepy, and I had to be woken up when Ami came back and told me to drink a glass of water. I did, and almost immediately fell back asleep. Now, I can’t be sure, and I may have been just dreaming… but I remember, almost plain as anything, waking up just a bit one more time… and Ami was kissing me. Maybe she’d been drinking, too, or maybe it was all just a dream… but if it was a dream, would she really have said something like this?
“And there’s one from me. I get the last laugh.”
I don’t remember anything else, just fading back to a warm, fuzzy sleep with a dog on my lap. I asked her about it Monday on the walk to school (we all spent most of Sunday recovering), making sure Cathy wasn’t able to overhear, and I got an immediate answer.
“I wouldn’t ever do anything like that. You were drunk. I gave you water and then I left, because if you kicked it in the night I didn’t want to be blamed for it.”
Now, call me crazy, but when I woke up Sunday, I found that little box of chocolate on the counter next to my refrigerator. And I swear, I SWEAR she didn’t have the chocolates with me when we went up to my apartment the first time. Did she come back, and if she came back… was THAT when it happened?
Oh, and as it turns out, that box was just a leftover from something else. There was homemade chocolate in there, and it was pretty good, too.