I've gotten into a staring contest with myself in the mirror. Should I do something with my hair? Put product in it or something? That would probably look unnatural.
It feels stupid to be nervous about a date, especially with someone as easygoing as Naomi, but what can I say? She's hard to read. I don't know what she is expecting from me, or, for that matter, what I'm expecting from her.
I splash water on my face. It doesn't help me wake up or get ahold of myself like it does in the movies, but it does get my collar wet, which is uncomfortable.
I hear the bathroom door open, and I actively avoid turning around, as though if I stay still Kenji won't know I'm here.
His face appears in the mirror next to mine, and he straightens his glasses, looking directly at my reflection. "What are you doing in my bathroom?"
"Kenji, this is my bathroom, too," I reply with a sigh.
He freezes for a moment. "Of course. That was a test."
"You look nice. Or, at least, I think you look nice." Kenji glances over his shoulder self-consciously. "I don't know. Do you look nice?"
"Uh." I look down and straighten my polo shirt, which I've decided is the right middle ground between casual and sharp dress. "I hope so."
"You're not wearing your uniform. Why not?" Kenji demands.
"Because it's Sunday. I'm going on a d- uh, a trip. Into the city."
"Hm. Suit yourself." Kenji makes a dramatic shrug, turning away from the mirror to pace around the floor of the bathroom. "I don't usually go into the city, myself. I don't want to get too far away from my room for too long. That leaves an opening for spies and thieves."
"It does, it does. I can keep watch for you while you're gone, if you want. From my own dorm, of course."
He seems so sincere about it… it's almost noble, in a weird Kenji kind of way.
I turn to face him, leaning back against the sink. "…Thanks."
"No problem, dude."
Making a finger gun with one hand, he turns and walks coolly toward the exit of the bathroom, like his mission is complete.
"Uh, Kenji, did you just come in here to say hi, or did you want to use the bathroom?" I ask quietly.
He whips his head around. "Well, not while you're in here. Duh."
I shoot him a look, but it's lost on him, so I just shake my head instead. Before he gets too far, I shoot ahead of him to cut him off at the door. "It's fine. I'm finished."
He pats me on the shoulder before I shut the door behind me, a little disoriented.
I set aside a couple of minutes to swallow my pills before returning to my mirror to overanalyze myself a little more. Maybe a polo is too stuffy? No matter what I show up in, Naomi will probably read way too much into it.
My cell phone rattles against one of the pill cases on my bedside table, pulling me abruptly out of my vain little fashion show. I already know who it is before looking at my phone, but I still wince when I hear Naomi's voice.
"What the hell's taking you so long?"
I pull the phone away from my ear instinctively, and give myself a moment before returning it. "Yeah, hello to you, too."
"Oh, yeah, hi." She takes a brief pause, I assume just to be polite, before speaking again. "Uhh, so what the hell's taking you so long?"
"I'm just getting ready. Give me a minute."
"Where's your room? I'm coming up."
Tucking my phone under my ear, I dab a towel against my collar to help it dry. I probably wouldn't have time to change even if I wanted to, at this point.
"Don't come up. Just give me a minute. I'm finishing up."
"What, are you ironing your clothes? You know I have to put on makeup, right? How am I ready before you?"
I swing open the door to my room and take off down the hall, taking my phone in my hand again. "I wish I knew, Naomi. I really do."
"Well, hurry up. If we miss the bus, it's your head."
Quiet giggling, obscured by phone static, reverberates from her end, but I'm not sure if she intended for me to hear it or not.
I raise a hand in greeting to one of the guys standing around in the hallway, and it occurs to me that I don't know his name. I wonder if he knows mine.
Naomi huffs loudly. "It's not polite to keep a lady waiting. You're going to make a bad first impression."
"I am pretty sure we are way past the point of first impressions by now."
I step through the entrance to the male dorms, and I am immediately greeted by a beautiful sunny day. Part of me thinks it will be too hot to go walking around in the city all afternoon in the blazing sun, but that's probably too pessimistic of me.
"Yeah, you know, with anyone else I would be inclined to agree with you," says Naomi- and it occurs to me after half a second that her voice came from behind me that time, much more loudly than it echoed through my phone's speaker. I flip around to find her leaning against the wall next to the door, and she greets me with the tiniest wave of her fingers.
It's the first time I've actually seen Naomi in everyday clothes, and it makes me resent our school uniforms for a moment. She's got on a t-shirt the same shade of pink as Misha's hair with a white logo plastered over the front, and- a bit more distractingly- very tight blue jeans. It looks like she dressed to look cute rather than stay cool in the sun, which I guess in hindsight is kind of what I did, too. Even still, if I were her, I probably would have worn a skirt.
Taking a step off of the wall to approach me, she snaps her phone shut with one hand, looking me over with a self-amused grin. "Wow, polo shirt, huh? I didn't know we were pulling out all the stops on the first date. I didn't even wear my good lingerie."
Aw, man; I knew I should have changed clothes.
…Hang on, what?
"…That was a joke," she follows up after an awkward pause, apparently reading my reaction from my face. "You can relax, Hisao."
"Hey, if I'm coming on too strong, or making you uncomfortable, or whatever, please tell me. I'm not a very good judge of that kind of thing. And if you haven't figured it out by now, I don't have much of a filter." She smirks with self-amusement, throwing her head back.
"You don't need to watch what you say around me."
I say that almost automatically, just as a courtesy, but it makes me feel strange anyway. I mean, it seems like a nice thing to say, but is it really true? It feels like I've been talking to Naomi practically all the time lately, and yet I have to admit that even still, I sometimes have no idea to respond to her. Do I expect her to filter herself around me? I don't want to be that kind of person.
I can't help but think of Rin for a moment. I wonder if, in some alternate universe, she and I could have gotten along better.
…Yeah, no, probably not.
"Thanks for saying that," Naomi chirps, "but I'm still gonna try to avoid making any more jokes about my lingerie. At least for today."
She laughs out loud at my obvious relief, though I'm still conflicted about it. Part of me wants to tell her I would be happy to talk about her lingerie, but I think that might send the wrong message.
She tugs on my arm before I make up my mind, and we take off at a brisk pace toward the school's gate. "C'mon; I told you it would be your head if we miss the bus," she says playfully.
"You know exactly where we're going?"
"Course. Natsume and I do this all the time."
"And how often do you miss the bus?"
"About as often as Natsume keeps me waiting."
With that, she releases my arm, forcing me to scurry along behind her.
Thankfully, the bus stop is only a short distance from the front gate, and so it doesn't take us long to get in full view of the bus already parked there, about to depart.
Naomi nearly leaps into the air upon noticing this, and immediately takes off running, waving her hands around in the air like she's on fire. "Oh, shit! Wait! Wait!"
I take off after her as best I can, and just manage to squeeze in behind her before the door shuts behind me. The bus driver seems to visibly recoil upon seeing Naomi, though she seems pretty excited to see him in return.
"Mr. Hatanaka! Thank God it's you!" Naomi proclaims cheerfully, clasping her hands to her chest. "I should have known you would come through for me."
"And I should have known it would be you that I had to wait for." With a gruff frown, he takes the bus fare that Naomi offers him. He looks past her, straight at me, and says, "You brought a boy today. I sure hope he knows what he's getting into."
"He sure doesn't. So don't mess this up for me."
He laughs out loud and waves us toward the back of the bus. "Alright, alright. I don't have time to talk. Siddown."
"Thanks so much!"
Naomi gives a small bow and shuffles off toward the seats in the back, which are barren even compared to the rest of the sparsely-populated bus. None of the other passengers seem even slightly amused by her, but that doesn't seem to bother her in the slightest. I admire that sort of shamelessness, even while I am a little embarrassed myself.
I slump down in the seat next to Naomi in the back of the bus, shooting her a glance. "Why am I not surprised that you know the bus driver?"
She nods and points toward the front. "Mr. Hatanaka? He drives this bus route a lot, so plenty of students know him at least in passing. I wrote an article about him in the paper last year. He's actually a really nice guy. His wife works at the hospital near Yamaku."
My first thought is that it seems odd that a doctor would be married to a bus driver, but I feel guilty for thinking it. After all, maybe Mr. Hatanaka really is just a nice guy, and they're married purely out of love. That's kind of sweet, even though I know that I just made that story up and don't have any idea whether it's true or not.
I'm quiet for a while as I let my mind wander, eventually resting my head against the back of the seat as the road rolls past. I spent a lot of time wandering around the city as a kid, but the thought of doing it today just makes me forlorn.
Eventually Naomi says something to me, but I tune it out entirely. It isn't until she says something else a minute later that I realize that would probably be rude and turn my head to pay attention to her again.
"Hey. Spaceman. I'm talking to you," she says loudly.
"Sorry, I got distracted."
She puffs her cheeks out at me, and I can tell she is holding back the urge to ask me what I'm thinking about. Then, after a second, she changes the subject. "You slept late today, didn't you?"
I was kind of hoping she wouldn't call me out on that, but I know she doesn't like to be kept waiting so I probably shouldn't have expected to get off the hook.
"Yeah. A little," I admit.
She nods a few times before continuing, though to my surprise she seems totally unbothered. "So does that mean you haven't had any lunch?"
"No. Not yet."
"Cool. Neither have I." She hums quietly, tucking her hands behind her head. "There's a really great ice cream place, right next to the bus stop."
"Ice cream?" I laugh. "I thought you were talking about getting something to eat for lunch."
She raises an eyebrow at me, intrigued to see my response. Of course, she already knows what I'm going to say, so I suppose she's more just wondering if I'm actually going to bother scolding her.
"…You can't have ice cream for lunch."
Predictably, she laughs out loud at that, shooting her nose toward the ceiling. "Like hell I can't! It's my money; I'll spend it however I want! I'm not gonna be pretty and thin forever, you know."
"Not if you eat ice cream for lunch, you're not."
"Whatever, Grandpa." She looks at her fingernails, clearly not impressed. "I'm pretty sure you can get a sandwich there instead, if that's more your speed."
"Hey, don't let me tell you what to do. You can act like a kid all you want; just don't let me be seen with you while you're doing it."
She snorts loudly, and then lowers her head out of embarrassment and covers her mouth. She sure does make it rewarding to get a laugh out of her.
Noticing me smiling at her, she tilts her head up, biting her lip like she's been restraining herself from saying something. I shrug with open palms to get her to continue, which she does without much resistance.
Folding her hands on her lap to look serious, she asks, "So, this is a real date, right?"
I'm a little stricken for a second. "Uh, as opposed to what?"
"As opposed to, you didn't want to embarrass me yesterday and now you're regretting not saying so, because you're in over your head."
Oh, man. I'd be impressed with myself if I managed to ruin the afternoon before I even got off the bus.
She watches me, more with curiosity than anticipation, and after a moment of thought I shake my head furiously to write the notion off.
"No. That's not it at all," I say frankly.
She doesn't even slow down. "Because I would totally get it, if that were the case. I know I didn't really give you an easy out yesterday, so-"
"Naomi, I thought you said you were nearly positive I felt the same way you did. What's with the tone shift?"
She narrows her eyes at me with suspicion, then turns away and rests her head on her fist, like The Thinker. I wonder if she is doing that on purpose.
"Okay. Prove it." Naomi sits up again so that she can cross her arms at me.
"What? What does that mean?"
"It means that it was my idea to do this, and I'm putting in all the legwork here. And I'm not used to that. So, if you really want to be here with me, I want you to prove it." Naomi brushes her hair to the side with a smirk. "Pay me a compliment. Say something people say on a date."
The bus rumbles a little, going over a bump or something. Naomi doesn't take her eyes off me for a second, keeping her head tilted a little to the side. I just know that she is already planning how to twist whatever I tell her into something bad, just to play with me. Now definitely does not feel like the time for mixed messages…
…Well, you only live once.
Feigning more confidence than I actually have, I slide a little out of my chair, place my hand against the side of her head, and kiss her. She is clearly stunned.
It takes her a second to react, but the moment our lips meet, she grabs me by the collar with a muffled hum and pulls me roughly toward her, so that I am forced to grab onto the back of my seat with my free hand just to avoid falling out of it.
When she decides we are done, she flattens her hand against my chest and pushes me half an inch away from her. She keeps her hand resting against my chest though, and when I return to my own seat it simply slumps down onto her lap like she forgot it was there.
That whole gesture, which was quite a bit more intense than I was anticipating, obviously drew stares, and I can see Mr. Hatanaka chuckling to himself, having seen us through the rear view mirror. Thankfully, my heart is already pounding, and I can barely summon up the energy to be embarrassed.
I turn back to Naomi, whose face is now frozen into a look of bewilderment. She creaks her head to the side to look me in the eye, and I laugh breathily.
Obviously roused, she pushes a bit of hair out of her face, smacking her lips as she attempts to find the right words. "…Well, shit, Hisao, you got me. I did not see that coming."
"I, uh." I slump back into my seat, but she doesn't take her eyes off me for a second. "I just kinda went for it," I say after a moment.
"Yeah. Yeah, you sure did. Damn." She touches the tips of her fingers to her lips, eyes still wide. "That. That was really hot."
"That's kinda what I was going for."
"You." She shakes her head and laughs again, looking at the floor. "You are a piece of work, Hisao."
With nothing left to say, she places her hands behind her head and nestles herself into her seat, eyes closed. She stays like this for some time. Not to overstate it, but she seems genuinely blown away, and I'd be lying if I said that didn't make me a little prideful.
The bus bumbles along at a slow pace, making periodic stops and filling in the seats next to us with disgruntled-looking townsfolk. Naomi drums up a bit of chit-chat but never comes up with anything serious or consequential to say, though I'm not sure if that's because of what I did or just because we've lost the privacy of the seats in the back.
When the bus finally hits our stop, Naomi is the last one to get up, following the procession up to the front of the bus so she can thank Mr. Hatanaka again. I raise my hand awkwardly to acknowledge him before scurrying after her out into the city. She immediately takes off walking, but I pause in the middle of one of the walkways raised above the street. It's a neat, modern thing that I never had back home.
The city feels huge from the inside, in a way that really does make me feel a bit nostalgic. I'd like to take some time to look around, but Naomi beats me to it, jabbing me in the arm before I have any time to get lost in thought.
"Cool, huh?" she asks, apparently reading my expression. "I'm a city kind of person, myself. Way more interesting than the sleepy little town around Yamaku. A little loud for you?"
"No. Not at all." I walk up to the railing to stand just over it, watching the cars below. "I grew up in the city. Well, not this city, but… you know. It's familiar."
"No shit? Hisao's a city slicker? You are just full of surprises today."
Naomi hovers next to me for a little while, drumming her hands against the railing. After a second she realizes it is too hot to keep her hands against, and crosses her arms instead, raising one hand to cover her eyes from the sun.
It's no surprise that she likes it in the city. Lots of people to talk to, and nothing ever slows down enough to get boring. She even looks like she fits right in.
"So where'd you grow up?" I ask, having already turned to look at her.
She sighs quietly to herself. "Absolute middle of nowhere. Mind-numbing suburb. Don't get me started." After taking a moment, she shakes her head at me and then turns, taking off down the walkway. "Come on. I'm hungry. Creamery's right around the corner."
She marches off down the street, like an explorer traversing uncharted territory. At least that means we probably aren't going to get lost.
"What's on the itinerary today?" I ask, following closely behind her.
"Whatever the hell we want. That's my itinerary." Throwing up her hands, Naomi shoots me a glance over her shoulder and smiles broadly. "I'd be happy to show you around, if you want. But I guarantee you we will be spending some time in the shopping district before the end of the day. I was thinking I might get a new hat."
"What happened to the old one?"
"Nothing! Is there a reason I shouldn't have two hats?"
"Uh, I guess not."
"My friend, that is why I brought you instead of Natsume."
"I thought you said you do this with Natsume all the time."
"I do!" She skids to a stop at the corner and flips around, clasping her hands together. "And when she's around, she always makes me restrain myself."
"I'm surprised you'd let her boss you around like that," I reply with a raised eyebrow.
"Boss me around? No, no… more like… she makes me feel guilty for spending money all frivolously. She likes to be the voice of reason." She gestures to me in demonstration. "So, y'know, naturally I couldn't wait to ditch her."
"So you're just using me to indulge your bad habits."
"I would never. Now, c'mon; I want some ice cream."
As soon as we turn the corner, we're greeted by the entrance to a small, old-school ice cream parlor, just as Naomi had mentioned. She leads me in without a second thought.
The whole place is painted white and is air conditioned to the point of being nearly freezing, like they want the whole building to feel like the inside of a tub of ice cream. The menu is small, since all the ice cream flavors are listed behind the glass of the front counter. Clearly, the emphasis here is on desserts, though the chalkboard with the menu on it does list a few different sandwiches. I don't see a grill anywhere, though, so presumably all of the real food is just pre-packaged.
Despite there being two dozen flavors to choose from, Naomi does not even look at any of the ice cream behind the glass, instead marching up to the front counter and calling out to get the attention of the man working there.
She grins like a little kid, leaning both elbows on the top of the counter while she orders. "Two strawberry cones, please. Two scoops each."
I cut in almost automatically. "Naomi, please, you don't need to order anything for me."
"Huh?" She looks over her shoulder at me with a hilarious, broad smile, then turns back to the counter. "I'm not. Get your own." The guy behind the counter laughs out loud and Naomi giggles at him, slapping her hand down on the counter and walking to the end to pay for her ice cream.
A cone in each hand, Naomi walks up to me, raising an eyebrow with anticipation. "Alright, go ahead and order your lunch. Warm milk and a laxative for Grandpa, right?"
I watch her carefully for a moment, then lean into the counter and look the attendant straight in the eye. "Vanilla."
"Ugh! I wish we'd found this place earlier!" With both hands holding her sun hat steady, Naomi spins slowly to position it properly, almost knocking over the few shopping bags at her feet.
I look past her, out the window of the shop we're standing in. The sun is still out, but starting to wane. I ran out of the stamina to go store-to-store some time ago, but there's something entertaining about watching Naomi pick things out for herself. She just gets so… excited. Like it's Christmas morning every time she finds something she can spend money on.
Aside from that, it's been forever since I had the chance to take a whole day just to unwind and enjoy myself. Catching up on schoolwork has been kind of rough, considering the time I've had to put in to help with the newspaper. Hell, even the day of the festival had me running errands for Natsume.
"What do you think, Hisao?" Naomi asks expectantly, placing a hand on her hip and tipping her sun hat.
I look her over. "Looks good. And practical."
"Seriously? You think so? 'Cause I feel like I'm wearing a sombrero."
"Yeah, seriously. It's… cute. It's a good look for you."
We exchange a brief glance, which is apparently enough to satisfy her that I'm telling the truth. Reaching into the back pocket of her jeans, she walks to the counter at the front of the store to pay for the hat. She only takes it off briefly to let the cashier scan the tag on it before putting it right back on again, emboldened by my compliment.
I pick up her shopping bags and walk toward the entrance of the store to meet Naomi there, but she takes them from me as soon as I get close. "I've got them, thanks."
I tuck my hands into my pockets. I haven't bought anything during the trip so far, aside from a couple of drinks for the two of us. It's not that I didn't have the opportunity- more just that I didn't feel the need. I guess an impromptu shopping trip just feels a little too impulsive.
We step through the door, and Naomi leans back against the wall to the side of it, looking me over suspiciously.
"Do you like shopping?" She asks, lowering her head to shade her face with the brim of her hat, which suddenly makes it feel like an important question.
I almost say 'sure', but something stops me, and I shrug instead. "…No, not really. Kinda boring."
Naomi thinks on that for a few moments before grinning and walking away from the wall, bags swinging at her hips. "My dad says that if I ever find a guy who says he likes shopping, I'll know he's a keeper, because that means he's willing to tell little white lies to make me feel better."
I can't see her face, so I have no idea how to gauge what she meant by that. Not that it matters, because my reply is automatic. "Oh. Sorry."
"Don't be. I hate white lies." She stops in place and glances at me over her shoulder. "Tell me this afternoon hasn't been a complete bore. I mean… good company?"
"Good company. I promise I'm not bored," I respond truthfully.
Naomi nods contentedly and slacks her arms, letting her shoulders slump from the weight of her shopping bags. I can't believe she hasn't gotten tired of carrying those by herself yet. Without giving her the opportunity to protest, I walk up next to her and take one of her bags.
Evidently it is full of cinder blocks. I already know I'm going to regret this. Damn, does Naomi work out or something?
"Wow, what a gentleman," Naomi snickers, throwing up her hand when I snatch the bag out of it.
"I'm doing my best."
I take a step forward, but she doesn't follow along, evidently because she is lost in thought.
After a couple moments of this, she purses her lips and makes a strange face. "Okay, new idea: we could hit the bookstore. It's really nice; only a block away, too."
I glance around briefly at the storefronts around us. "No, that's alright. I usually just borrow from the library if I want to read something-"
"Borrow?" she scoffs. "Boring! If you buy it, then you have it, y'know?"
"I guess I can't argue with that. It's just that-"
"Oh, it's just that nothing, Hisao! C'mon, I've been dragging you around all afternoon. I want you to go get something for yourself so I don't have to feel bad."
"No, no, don't feel bad." I glance at my watch again and shrug. "I just mean- isn't it getting a little… late?"
"Late? You kidding me?" Naomi closes the distance between us in a flash, grabbing my wrist with her free hand to look at my watch. "5:00 is late now? Geez, you really are a grandpa."
"Well, I don't mean late so much… it's just that, we've got that long bus ride, and then we have classes tomorrow…"
"Yeah, yeah. You're right." She releases my wrist with a sigh and wanders a few steps away from me. "Dinner, then. What are you in the mood for?"
I'm a bit too proud to admit it, but I seriously regret not getting any actual food for lunch. I'm hungry enough that I would honestly eat anywhere, as long as they seated us quickly.
"Hungry? Yeah, me too," Naomi sighs. "I know a fancy place would probably be more romantic, or whatever, but I'd really rather go somewhere that wouldn't make me feel out-of-place in jeans and a tee."
She looks down and checks her outfit, turning her leg inwards to look at her jeans from the side. There are absolutely no complaints about what she's wearing from my end, and I'm pretty sure she knows that, as I know she's caught me staring at least once today. She never said anything about it, though… which is pretty suspicious, knowing her.
I straighten out my shirt self-consciously, clearing my throat. "I, uh- I'm not exactly dressed for a formal place, either."
"Well, there's this little French bistro-type place just nearby. It's really more aimed at the lunch crowd, so it's not too fancy, but the food is awesome. And it should be a little more quiet… and, y'know, private."
"Private? Yeah, that, uh… that's important."
She raises an eyebrow at me and smirks, taking off again. I do my best to catch up with her, but the fifty-pound weights in the shopping bag take me by surprise and weigh me down, forcing me to trail behind.
The restaurant she leads us to is small and tucked away, hidden at the end of a remote strip of shops. The building itself is pretty tiny, so the majority of the seating is outdoors, on the patio in front. As such, we're seated at the table nearest to the door, giving us both a full view of all the other diners out on the patio. Just as Naomi said, the place is pretty sparse, and everyone seems to be exclusively dining in pairs.
Come to think of it, I doubt any of these tables are big enough to comfortably seat more than two people. I'd bet anything Naomi knew about it, and figured this would be a good location for a date. If it were just a little darker out- and a little further from the nearby city traffic- I bet this place would actually make for a pretty romantic evening.
Naomi takes off her sun hat as soon as we sit down, stuffing it into one of the shopping bags we leaned against the table leg. Her hair is a little tousled from being stuffed into the hat, so she shakes it out like a dog and runs a hand through it to get it out of her face. She knows it's cute, too; it's written all over her face. What a show-off.
"I've been thinking about putting it up in twin-tails," she hums, leaning into the table. "What do you think?"
…I can't help the comparison.
"You can't do that. That's Emi's thing."
"Bullshit! Ibarazaki does not have a monopoly on twin-tails. And besides, I've been doing it longer than she has. I had 'em ages ago. And they were cuter on me than they are on her, too."
She scoffs when I laugh at that. "Is that a fact?"
"You think I'm cute now? You should have seen me at 16. I really knew how to play up the bubbly schoolgirl thing back then. Met a lot of interesting guys that way, too." She glances around shiftily, smirking. "Oh, the stories I could tell…"
"You've dated a lot at Yamaku?"
"Yeah. Oh, yeah," she laughs.
She says that in a very knowing way, like I'm supposed to be picking up on some kind of subtext here, but it's lost on me. I don't know what that look is, and it seems ill-advised to ask.
Before I get the chance to come up with a response, the waiter arrives to take our drink orders, and Naomi gets an orange soda. I just have water, which she immediately decries for being boring.
"Something you should know about me, Hisao," Naomi continues once the waiter leaves. "If you ask me out- as long as I don't think you're creepy- I can pretty much guarantee that I'll say yes."
"Even if you're not interested?"
"Why not? It's fun! At the very least, it's a good way to meet people."
I shrug. "That would probably stress me out. Agreeing to a date with someone I wasn't interested in, I mean."
"Nah, it's not stressful if you have the right attitude. I'm always thinking, once I get to know them better, maybe they'll change my mind. You know?"
The more she talks, the more puzzled I become about what happened yesterday. It seemed like a big deal to me- and I have been kind of gratified by that- but now she's starting to make me think that maybe I'm just too uptight about it. I wonder if this is her way of telling me to manage my expectations.
…Well, I'll be damned if I'm coming on too strong.
The waiter arrives with our drinks, and Naomi chirps an overly-enthusiastic 'thank you' at him.
"So this is no big deal, then, right? Just any normal Sunday afternoon. I'm just filling in for Natsume."
"Oh, more or less, but Natsume and I usually at least wait until we get off the bus before we start exchanging bodily fluids." She lets that sink in for a moment, completely stone-faced, before breaking into a broad grin and laughing at me. "Look, Hisao, this was my idea, and that is definitely saying something. You've got nothing to worry about."
I laugh lightly, a little disarmed, and break eye contact. "Thanks."
I don't know what it is about her smile, but it makes it hard to feel insecure around her. She just gives off this air of unfettered confidence, like she knows for a fact that my anxiety is misplaced.
She takes a moment more to be amused with me before giving up waiting for me to continue. "All I'm saying is, I really like getting to know people. Everyone has a different history, and story, and personality… I think that's fascinating. It's what I like about the city- so many different kinds of people," She raps her fingers along her glass as she explains it, gaze fixed somewhere on the road past the patio.
I can't help but think back to my own hometown again. The city used to seem really big and unapproachable back then, especially as a kid. Like everyone there is just a small part of a giant, faceless mob. That's one of the reasons I tried to stick with a gang of my friends.
"But that doesn't mean it's easier to get to know people," I counter. "The thing about the city is, even though there are a ton of people, everyone's a stranger to everyone else."
"Yeah, well, strangers are interesting, too. Do you remember what I told you when we met? People aren't so hard to figure out if you pay attention." She bites her lip and glances around, looking for an example, before settling on one of the couples on the other end of the patio. She points to them as subtly as possible- which is not very subtly, incidentally. "There."
At the table Naomi points to sits an absolutely gorgeous young woman and a much stockier middle-aged man. It's actually kind of a funny sight, as rude as that observation would probably be to make out loud.
"What do you think is the deal with them? They can't be married, can they? I'll bet you anything he's her sugar daddy." Naomi waves me on, inviting me to contribute. "What do you think they're thinking right now?"
"What? I don't know!" I glance self-consciously at the couple at the other table, even though they obviously can't hear us and probably haven't even noticed us sitting here.
"I'll tell you what they're thinking. He's thinking, 'This is what eight years of medical school has bought me. May as well make the most of it.' She's thinking, 'I'd like to see Mom say she's disappointed in me when we show up for Christmas in a sports car.' And they're both wondering why they are going to the trouble of wining and dining."
I take another look. "…Maybe she's his daughter?"
She laughs out loud right away, waving her hand around dismissively. "No. No way."
"Well, how do you know? They don't look that different. They could be related."
"Look at her! That blouse! Nobody shows that much cleavage to go get dinner with their dad." She taps on her collarbone. "One button undone? That's style. Two buttons? Okay, maybe I'd buy that; it's a hot day. But three buttons? No, that is definitely advertising."
…Well, she is showing a lot of cleavage. Though I hadn't taken the time to count her buttons.
Absolutely confident, Naomi smirks at the couple before returning to her soda and relaxing comfortably into her chair.
"Do you do this with everybody?"
"Everybody I find interesting."
"And you think you're right, most of the time?"
"That's what I tell myself, anyway. People-watching is a hobby of mine. Do it a lot, and you tend to get an eye for it. Practice makes perfect." She glances off to the side at our waiter, who has just started to approach our table. "You gonna look at your menu, or what?"
I'm startled for a moment- I hadn't even thought about it. Naomi hasn't looked at her menu, either, which is why it hadn't crossed my mind, but she seems completely unconcerned, so I assume she must have already known what she would be ordering.
The menu is a little overwhelming, mostly due to the fact that it's almost all French cuisine and is peppered with options I don't know if I could actually pronounce. All things considered, I'm thankful it's even in my price range.
"What can I get the two of you?" asks the waiter, much sooner than I'd like.
Naomi glances at me for a split-second before turning to him. "Would you recommend the steak tartare?"
"I recommend everything," he replies with a soft smile.
"Okay, but what about the steak tartare specifically?"
"I. Um, well, I try to avoid raw meat, to be honest…" He seems a little embarrassed, but recovers quickly and gives an apologetic smile. "But I hear it's excellent. If that's the sort of thing that suits your palate, I'm sure you'll like it."
"Cool. That, then."
"Of course." The waiter turns immediately to me, though still scribbling down Naomi's order. "And for you, sir?"
I still have no idea what to get, so I just glance down at my menu and blurt out the first thing I spot. "Uh… I'll just have the tuna…"
Naomi rolls her eyes at me as the waiter collects our menus. "Wow. Adventurous."
He fails to suppress a chuckle at that just before turning away, and then shoots me a look like he's expecting it to bother me. I wave him off.
"Not your kind of place?" she asks once he's out of earshot.
"No, no, I just… didn't have much time to look at the menu. I guess you already knew what you wanted, so that threw me off."
"Yeah, it was something I wanted to try."
I squint suspiciously at that. "Does that mean you had this place in mind when you suggested we get dinner yesterday?"
"It was one of the places I thought we could try. I've been meaning to come back." She debates whether to continue for a moment, stirring her straw around in her drink. "Natsume's hard to eat out with. We tried this place a while ago, not long after it opened, and she didn't like it, so we haven't been since. But I really liked the food the first time."
"So why didn't you just take a boy instead?"
…It's almost accusatory, the way I say it. I don't even know where that question came from.
I think it's something about the way she's looking at me. It feels practiced. She said she's done a lot of dating at Yamaku; all of a sudden I can't help being suspicious that she's playing me somehow.
She seems amused- and a little surprised, at least enough to hesitate for a moment- by my question. "What do you think I'm doing now?"
"It's just that you said you do a lot of dating. So I'm surprised you haven't taken the opportunity to come here earlier than this."
"Well, not everyone takes all of my suggestions without question."
She sips loudly out of her cup, triumphant. I'm not letting her off that easy.
"You said there are a lot of stories you could tell."
"Yeah. About guys you dated at Yamaku."
"Tsch. Well, it wasn't a lie. I mean, not happy stories, but stories…"
Just in case it wasn't already clear that I was asking her to elaborate, I open my hands to invite her to talk.
"You really want to talk about my ex-boyfriends?" Naomi asks with a snicker, giving me curious look. "Doesn't really strike me as good first-date chitchat material, but…"
"Hell, I'm not jealous. You made me curious."
She watches me do it for a long time before responding, but the pause is deliberate.
"There was a guy with an eyepatch. Tanjiro. He had a scar that trailed halfway down his face, like the evil lion from The Lion King."
She had to take the time to choose the right story.
We exchange a glance, and she raises an eyebrow at me, which makes me realize she was waiting for permission to continue. It's a funny courtesy to give me, like I would have deemed her story too boring and forbid her from telling it.
I chuckle quietly and shrug. "Sounds interesting."
She smiles for a moment and then leans back in her chair, taking her time to figure out how to start. "It was way, way back, when I was just starting my first year at Yamaku. And I was naïve and a little stupid back then, mind you. Like kids are."
"So there was this guy Tanjiro from the vision-impaired class, a year above me- and to this day I still don't know the details- who lost an eye in an accident. And he walked around-" She stops herself to give her the chance to crack up, holding up a finger to stop me. "-like I said, he walked around with this… giant black eyepatch, on an elastic band around the back of his head."
She presses her hand against her right eye to demonstrate, giggling from the memory of it. My first thought is that it seems pretty mean-spirited to make fun of the guy for an injury, and all I can really do is pretend to laugh.
I look her in her uncovered eye and shrug. "What, like a… pirate?"
Naomi seems too caught up in her own story to notice my hesitation, and snorts with laughter as she lowers her hand to the table. "I know, I know, I know. But at the time I thought it was kinda sexy. Like, dangerous, mysterious, that kind of thing. He had that kind of look, with the spiky hair, and the- you know."
I'm not sure I know. Maybe I should have gelled my hair this morning after all. I don't know if I could really get it 'spiky'.
"Point is," Naomi continues, "he could tell I was into it when I met him. And, like, right off the bat, he started talking about his eyepatch, and what it was like dealing with, like, depth perception and shit. He just offered it up out of nowhere, 'cause he could tell that's what had caught my eye. He even showed me the injury; lifted up the eyepatch and all. It was really bad, kind of hard to look at. And I was still basically a total stranger at that point. But he was trying really hard to seem tough."
"How did you meet him? Didn't you say he was a year above you?"
"Oh, yeah, he was, uh, in the chess club. That was where this we met the first time, actually."
"You met… in the chess club?"
"Yeah. So what? I happen to like chess." She shoots me a playful look and laughs out loud. "But no, I didn't actually join the club. I just sat in during one of their… meetings, or whatever it was. Don't forget, this was the very beginning of the year, so I didn't have any friends, and I was kinda desperate. So I was just doing a lot of different stuff to try and meet people."
"Sounds like it worked."
"For better or worse, I guess. I didn't actually play any chess, 'cause I was talking to Tanjiro the whole time. We started hanging out a lot over the next few days or so, and he told me all about himself. Like, his family, and his history at Yamaku and everything. And it was the most depressing goddamn thing I've ever heard."
"His family practically disowned him. They didn't know what to do with him, so they dumped him at Yamaku and never looked back. His friends were basically too freaked out to talk to him afterward, and he had to move away from them, anyway. He- geez- the girl he last dated, Miu. He told me they dated for months, but she was so disgusted by the way he looked afterward that she couldn't stand to be around him anymore." Naomi purses her lips, frowning slightly now. "That's what he told me. I felt so sorry for him. I mean, I'd heard some bad stuff about other people. Rough family lives, or whatever. But Tanjiro, what he told me, it was so ugly…"
She's looking at the table now, lost in thought and looking uncomfortably serious. I feel like I should say something, but I don't know how to interject. I hadn't realized this story was going to be this emotionally charged.
It's just the way she talked about it. Everything she talks about, even serious stuff, she has this way of sounding… relaxed about it. But I can't tell if it's her or me. Maybe I'm still just bad at reading her.
She laughs quietly after a little while and slaps her hand down on the table, apparently brushing it off. "So, anyway, things got a little bit more serious over the next, like, week and half or so. And, y'know. I rushed into things with him. He showed me his room, and his stupid collection of eyepatches- like, really stupid. Like, one of them had a skull on it. Ordered some of them off the internet. He thought he was in a biker gang or something. Even back then I thought it was kind of stupid." Smiling now, she glances up at me, just to make sure I'm still paying attention. "Anyway, he was the only guy I had been hanging out with at that time, so I asked him to introduce me to his friends, and immediately everything went to shit. Immediately. My very first time hanging out with them, they called bullshit on every single thing he told me. He hadn't even mentioned to them that he was lying to me, and they just immediately stabbed him in the back the first chance they got and told me he was still in contact with his old friends, and his family hadn't disowned him or anything. 100% bullshit. It turns out his old girlfriend Miu actually used to be part of their friend group. Which means she was a Yamaku student, which means she didn't even meet him until he was already injured. And the real reason she left him- I mean, I'm assuming aside from the fact that he's the worst- is that she had ALS, and she had to take an extended leave from school to do intensive physical therapy. And he was blaming her! Can you believe that?"
She pauses for a response, and I'm caught a little off-guard by the direct question. If a story like that doesn't warrant a contemplative pause, I don't know what does. But I'm still working through everything she told me when I hear myself reply. "I- wait, is that a serious question?"
"Pft. No. Good catch," she chuckles. "What really gets me is, he didn't even really need to be at Yamaku for his injury, you know? At least, not like I do. It's not like he needed to get treatment from the nurse for his eye or anything. He could have still gone to public school. He just went there because he wanted to, and his parents were generous enough to send him."
"That's some lie to come up with on the spot…"
"That's what I was thinking. I was wondering if he had, like, been using that story with other girls, but apparently he had a long-term girlfriend before we met, so I don't think so." She shakes her head harshly, and her bangs fly out in front of her face, almost covering her eyes. "He made up all that shit to make me pity him, just to get in my pants. I mean, am I crazy, or is that the scummiest thing on Earth?"
"You're not crazy," I reply, exhaling loudly. "Geez, what a plot."
"Yeah, well. The stupid thing is, it worked. I lost my virginity to him." She shrugs at me with stunning nonchalance, then leans into the table to take a sip of soda. "Wanted to make it work with him 'cause of that, but, y'know, he was an asshole. I dumped him not long after. All told, from beginning to end, the whole thing happened in about the same amount of time that's passed since I met you."
I shake my head, unsure of how to respond. This seems seriously personal, the kind of thing I wouldn't tell anyone short of a close friend about. She doesn't even seem that bothered about it, but there's no way I can presume something like that, right? How am I supposed to know whether this is weighing on her? Even still, she barely knows me, and yet she's willing to tell me so much. That has to count for something.
Man, she barely knows me.
"You look like you've seen a ghost," Naomi says lightheartedly.
We exchange a glance, and I hesitate. I can't help but suspect she's just trying to put me at ease, but she really does look relaxed.
"I… just… that isn't exactly what I was expecting when you said you had stories to tell," I say uncertainly, after a beat.
Naomi shrugs. "Yep. Told ya they weren't happy."
She snickers wryly.
I don't want to pity her, and I'm sure she doesn't want to be pitied, but I can't think of anything fitting to add that would be appropriate.
"I'm sorry, Naomi," I say clumsily.
"Nah. Don't be sorry." Naomi sighs and looks me right in the eye. It feels earnest, that way she gets when she really wants to let me know she's serious. "I'm not beat up about it. It's just a mistake that I'm not gonna repeat."
I relax a little bit, even if just for her sake. "I can't imagine that everyone you've dated was like that."
"No, of course not!" she blurts out, making a face. "Not even close. I'm still friends with-"
"Then why is he the one you decided to tell me about?"
My interruption doesn't seem to bother her at all. In fact, she almost seems impressed by it.
It's nice to be on the same page.
"I think I like that story," Naomi says slowly, cupping her glass in both hands while she thinks about her answer. "You know, in a certain sense. It felt appropriate."
"Appropriate." Another pause, even more brief this time. "The moral of that story is, some people are so self-absorbed that it's like… a sickness. Like they are genuinely incapable of putting thinking about the needs of others, or putting themselves in someone else's shoes. I think that's my least favorite trait a person can have."
"And that's appropriate because…?"
"Hisao, what's your heart condition called again?"
The change in subject is so abrupt that I barely have time to register it.
"Your heart condition. You mentioned it after I had my seizure in class."
"Right." She snaps her fingers, like she just solved a riddle. "Hisao, I can't help but notice that all day long, we have talked about me the entire time. And don't get me wrong, I love talking about me, but that's the kind of thing I pick up on."
"Still trying to figure me out, huh?"
"Now more than ever." She studies my face for a little while, then turns away to look over her shoulder. "…Man, the food is taking forever. How long does it take to not cook a steak?"
"I got tuna," I reply flatly.
She turns back to me immediately, grinning. "Yeah, you did. Interesting choice for a date, by the way. Good thing they give breath mints."
I blush instantly, and Naomi giggles at my reaction. She's not wrong, though; I'm gonna be worrying about my breath for the rest of the night now.
"Hey, tell me something," Naomi commands, resting her elbows down and leaning on her hands. "Am I crazy? Did I dream this? I could have sworn we were on the bus today, and you leaned over my seat, and put my hand behind my head, and-"
"I really don't know where that came from," I say hurriedly.
"Yeah, you're telling me."
"Should I have done it again by now?"
"…Well, I'm not gonna say it's ever been off the table."
She's breathing more loudly now, or at least I'm more aware of it.
She looks away, very slightly and only for a moment- then she sits straight up and makes direct eye contact with me, fast enough to make me flinch.
"So… this is happening?" she asks slowly, waving a hand between us to highlight the distance. "We're gonna do this? For real?"
I meet her eyes firmly. "I'd like to."
The table is too long for me lean over it to kiss her, but I almost try to do it anyway. At the last second, I change my mind and shuffle back in my chair, stunningly awkward. If Naomi picks up on it, she does me the courtesy of not laughing.
"So I guess that means I definitely have to pay for your food now," I say gruffly.
"No. Hell no. You're not paying." She shakes her head dismissively.
"Yes, I am."
"No, you are not."
"Yesterday you seemed pretty insistent that I should."
"That was a j-" She freezes, stopping short. "…Oh. Oh, man."
"Look, Hisao, I'm not saying you don't have a shot… but I have a ton of work to do tonight. For the newspaper. Truth be told, I probably should have been doing it this afternoon… I'll be in the computer lab at 6 AM working on it. So I kind of have to go straight to my room once we get back to school."
Her concern is so misplaced that I can't help but laugh. "Oh, Naomi, I wasn't trying to invite myself-"
"Oh, I know!" she interjects. "I know that. I just thought you should know what I would be busy doing tonight. Y'know, so we're exactly on the same page." She nods her head slowly. "…'Cause I had a good time today."
"Good. So did I." I smile gently. "And we'll do this again, right? I'm not going anywhere."
"I should hope not," laughs Naomi. "I'm not done with you yet."
"There's still plenty I want to ask you."
She bites on her nail absentmindedly, gazing curiously across the table.
I lay down my hands. "…I'll clear my schedule."