(Part I here)
A knock at the door, and that could only mean one of two things, a delivery or Daisuke. This time it was a mix of both, Daisuke was standing there bag in hand presenting his host with only the finest of convenience store sushi and sake. The events of the previous day had made him forget Daisuke was coming over. Kenji wasn’t friendless because he had Daisuke, and Daisuke wasn’t friendless because he had Kenji.
As Daisuke came in, he said a respectful hello to Miku, to which she gave him a small curtsy. He had been the best man at their wedding, not like there were many others to fill the role. They queued up an anime, microwaved the sake, and then proceeded to stare at the screen wordlessly. The best kind of company Kenji reflected was company that didn’t make you adjust what you would otherwise be doing. The sake was too be honest, kinda shit, but who can really tell once the stuff is piping hot? It did its job as he felt the warmth spread across his face. They began to bicker like only two people bound by the same labyrinthine pop culture could.
Daisuke pressed the button on the hologram “Settle it for us Miku, Re: Zero is the best Izakai right?”
“I am good at dancing!” She cheerfully exclaimed, breaking into a dance number.
“You know she can’t understand that kind of question.”
The annoyance that suddenly flashed over his friend’s face led Daisuke to take a quick change of topic.
“Diablo?” He said, grabbing a controller “It’s a new season.”
“Sure” Kenji said, pouring a bag of wasabi peas into an opened treasure chest in the unmistakable style of One Piece. One would have trouble finding anything in Kenji’s apartment that was not a reference of one kind or another, what animation companies might lose out in his often illegal streaming, they more than made up with merch.
Grinding through hoards of demons that were dutifully transformed into fogs of red mist with just a few taps at the controller, Kenji suddenly felt a funny urge.
“Probably going to get a promotion.”
“Actually the company really doesn’t have that much room for promotion usually” Kenji lied “But the head boss himself came in and is having me train this new girl.”
“Cool” a thing said in passing feigned supportive interest.
“She is from the countryside, and she is really annoying following me around all the time” He said feigning annoyance.
“hmm, cool” Daisuke just picked up a glowing legendary and was currently devoting his mental resources towards comparing the stats to see if it was marginally better than the one he had equipped, or marginally worse. After much deliberation, it turned out to be marginally worse.
How cruel is the human mind? Enjoyable things flash by while drudgery seems to last forever. On Monday it always felt like climbing a mountain to have a thirty-minute picnic. He remembered the apple faced girl as he got ready in the morning, what a pain that would be he told himself while spending thirty percent more time selecting his clothes and adjusting his hair in the mirror than he normally did. His wife sweetly reminded him that he needed to be heading off to work, catching him a little off guard. With a hurried goodbye, he was off to the subway.
Normally Kenji was the first in the office, making the coffee, filling up the printers and fax machines with paper, he missed his usual train so he was a little late but that just meant he had to hurry. He stopped, there in front of the office door was the apple faced girl. Of course, she didn’t have keys yet.
“How long have you been waiting?”
“Only a half hour or so, I can’t afford a place near here, and as my father always said, “if you are always early, you are never late!”
“Faultless logic, I’ll give you that”
He opened the door and proceeded with his morning tasks. She shadowed him, trying to be as helpful as possible. He gave in and had her refill the printers while he made the coffee. He finished before the others would arrive, maybe she wasn’t so bad.
Then he went to print a morning report and… paper jam, looking at the printer in question he found that the paper had not been properly loaded in its tray, none of the printers had been.
Mortified he called her over, explained the very complex task of lining up the paper where the paper was supposed to be lined up, highlighted with convenient little arrows and everything. Then went about running from printer to printer to right the wrong. When it comes to helpfulness, there were two components, willingness and ability, she clearly had an abundance of the former, but fell woefully short in the latter. Would she be a screw-up? Would her mistakes be seen as a reflection on him the trainer? He vowed to redouble his efforts. With work on the line, that Monday his anxiety around girls did not once enter his mind.
For her part, the apple faced girl was very thankful for Kenji’s extra detailed instructions and supervision. She hadn’t much experience with technology but was certain that she was a fast learner!
She is not a fast learner Kenji thought, but with her work ethic, and his training she should still manage to be above average. Why of all the perfectly normal trainees did he get the hopeless country girl?
The next day it did not take him the extra thirty percent to get ready, he caught his train as intended and arrived, just to see her standing there again.
“Today I was only ten minutes before you!” She smiled, today she was holding a big bag.
“Swell” Kenji said while unlocking the door. Today he would put her on coffee duty while he dealt with the apparently complex process of putting paper precisely where the arrows pointed.
Finally relaxing he poured a cup of coffee. To his amazement it somehow both managed to be too weak, and full of coffee grounds, Kenji’s mind reeled at the comedy of errors that must have occurred in order to produce the cup in front of him.
“How is the coffee?”
“Unique? Never had a cup like it..”
“Really? We never make coffee at home, only tea”
You don’t say thought Kenji, “Umm let me show you how we make a standard pot of coffee, okay?”
“Thank you Saito-San!”
As always she was enthusiastic to learn, taking copious notes, what must the inside of that notebook look like? Kenji assumed she updated it every time she managed to cross the street without getting hit by a car.
That day Kenji was ready to have his tried and true lunch only to have his trainee insist she had a surprise. There sitting on the table, out of its plastic bag, was a, was a, a bento box. Not a convenience store bento either, but a homemade one, the kind girls prepare for guys in anime, the kind the back of his mind tingled through a fog, his mom would prepare for him.
“You have just been so helpful Saito-San! I just hope you like it!”
Kenji had nothing in his repertoire to prepare him for that; he sat awkwardly until he finally managed to utter
“Thank you, but no need to go through so much trouble.”
He opened it, the food was arranged colorfully forming a pattern between the rice, omelets, pickled vegetables, and fish. He took his first bite, Midori watched with anticipation. The rice was a little undercooked, the components needed more seasoning, he could critique it for a long time if he had wanted, but he didn’t. He smiled, an innocent nervous smile, he felt the warmth from the cold food fill him. He couldn’t even begin to remember the last time food made him feel this way, you can get a pretty perfect bento from a store, with enough salt and everything, he occasionally splurged on one, but this Bento in front of him, flawed as it might be, it was made for him. This is just like an anime he thought.
“So?” She asked, filled with anticipation clutching her notebook.
“Perfect” He said with a smile.
Sitting at his desk he was alone at last, his mind races, it was just a bento box, it wasn’t even that good. He was spinning his ring as he talked himself down.
No, she was just thanking me, that is how those country girls probably do it. 3d girls are so imperfect and you know, you just know how badly they hurt. I shouldn’t have eaten it, what am I doing?
“Oh umm yes?” He jumped up with a start.
“Saito-San! Tomorrow morning I am going to get some training with management!” She said with her characteristic bow
“I’m not your boss, but uh thanks for letting me know.”
She turned to leave
“Oh and umm”
She turned around so fast that her bangs slapped against her head in a way that was almost audible.
“Thanks for lunch, today, but umm, I’ll get my own, okay?”
With a pouting face, she silently nodded turned and left.
Kenji felt very uneasy twirling his wedding ring once more.
The next morning he argued with himself over which red tie to wear to work, a casual observer might not be able to tell the difference between the two, but Kenji just really wanted to wear a red tie that day, and had suddenly noticed that while one was red, the other was a slightly darker red, he did not know why, but the decision between the two seemed somehow of great importance. Someone else came early Wednesdays so that he could take his time. He thought about asking Miku, but already knew exactly how she would respond.
The morning was quiet without Midori, her bobbing head, those inane questions, the scratching sound she made when she wrote in the notebook, that dumb determined look on her face. Peace, at last, he told himself. His hand rested on a container he had brought in. He had cooked, actually cooked the previous night. He just didn’t want to owe anyone anything is all. It was a simple recipe, he watched the YouTube tutorial on how to do it, the first attempt had been the misshapen object he had for dinner. But he had learned from the first time, if you squinted and turned your head just right, this one more or less resembled what it was supposed to, he was pretty proud of himself, he considered that maybe he should try cooking more in the future, he might have a talent in it.
He would hand it over to her, explaining he was just paying her back, he had rehearsed the whole thing in his mind someone hundred times or more times.
He did his work dutifully, counting down the time for lunch, looking around to see if Midori was out yet. But really, he just didn’t want to owe her, is all, really.
Finally, the arms on his clock face pointed to the right directions. He grabbed the bag and coolly strolled to the cafeteria, Midori would be waiting to have lunch with him, or maybe she would be a little late? He worked through the various scenarios on his way to the cafeteria. Sitting down at his normal table he made sure to face the door. After a few minutes of torturous waiting, she came in, with a group, a group led by Akira.
Midori gave him a polite wave, Akira gave him her patented smile and they sat down a few tables away.
He looked at the bag, should he still try to give it to her? But then he would have to do it in front of them. Why was she eating lunch with them, what will they hear about me. His stomach began to lurch as he stole furtive glances at the table.
There was so much laughter, what were they talking about? Was it him? Akira gestured in his direction, it was him, it must be. She was laughing too, Midori was joining in laughing at him, she didn’t even have her notebook out. She must be telling them stories about me, oh god. I knew it, I knew it, they are making fun of me and there she is laughing along just like everyone else she is just like everyone else. Everyone is, they just try to trick you, just stupid, cruel, shallow, self-serving. Everything else is an illusion they put up.
He glanced over again, Akira looked at him looked with her look, with that smile, she patted Midori on the back.
No, no, never, never, never, what was I thinking.
Kenji broke into a cold sweat his heart beating out of his chest, rushing out of the room he sent an email to his boss, he had come down with a stomach condition and had to return home immediately. He threw the bag in the trash; the container had a little bow holding it together, it took Kenji more than twenty times to get that bow right.
In the middle of the day, the train wasn’t nearly as crowded. Good, he thought he wouldn’t make a scene, his breathing was haggard his sweating prominent, if anyone saw him they would have to assume he was ill.
He had to get home, to his wife, to his comfortable world, to where he was in control.
“I love you” Kenji Saito said to his bride, tears in his eyes.
“I love you”