Heartache 101 ~Sour into Sweet~

       The girls leave on the train, but I don’t feel like going home yet so I stay in town. I feel good. And who wouldn’t want to show off a bit after a good makeover? I pick a random direction and begin walking, enjoying the warm evening. My exploration eventually takes me to a moderately busy square.

       Well here I am, all dressed up and nowhere to go.

       Couples. Salary-men. Families. I see people of all sorts heading to dinner in one of the many restaurants around. I feel a little hungry myself. Hey! Maybe I should ask a girl to dinner now? I mean Miki’s rules never specified I had to find a girl from our school. It could be anyone off the street. I spot a cute girl in a little black dress standing at the street corner. She looks alone. Feeling confident, I stride over to ask her out. The girl looks up as I approach.
       The gods must have a weird sense of humor. I’m sure everyone’s had THAT fantasy before. The one of bumping into a secret crush in the streets? And there just happens to be some convenient excuse for the two of you to hang out for a while? Yeah, well, that never happens. But people I hate. People I can't stand. People I don't want to see in a million years. Oh, they turn up everywhere.

       It's Watanabe Junko.

       She seems a little glum, but when she spots me her eyes light up. Immediately, she marches toward me like a soldier on a mission and is in my face before I can start a wave.
       “Yo. Fancy meeti-”
       “You are my boyfriend.”
       “Whoa. That was sudden. I mean, I know how good I look but-”
       “Shut up. I'll explain later.”
       “That’s no way to speak to your boyfri- Ow! Ow! Ow! Leggo my ear!”

       Before I know it, she’s dragged me all the way to this yakiniku restaurant. So here we are, sitting side by side, waiting for who knows what.
       I look around. It’s a traditional and rather expensive yakiniku restaurant. A middle-aged couple sits at a neighboring table. A slightly balding husband eating happily with his slightly portly wife. Their table contains a menagerie of side dishes: pickled cucumbers, red pepper bean-sprouts, chilled tofu, among others. Plates with neat rows of raw meat wait beside their tabletop grill. The husband puts some more meat and vegetables onto their grill with his chopsticks while being fed greasy, succulent meat by his wife. They look so happy chatting away and radiating joy and warmth, almost melting the frost on our side.
       "I take it you like yakiniku?" I say, trying to be civil.
       "I hate yakiniku." She’s viewing the other people as well.
       “Why? It tastes really good.”
       “There’s no why. I just do, okay?”
       “You drag a guy you don’t like to a restaurant you hate. Going to tell me what this is about now?”
       She finally looks at me. “I’m meeting my grandmother tonight. I told her I'd got a boyfriend, and she insisted that I bring him.”
       “Uh huh. I’m guessing this hypothetical boyfriend does not exist?”
       “I was going to make up some excuse about how my boyfriend got sick, and then you showed up.”
       “I see where this is going,” I say. “I get to be your boyfriend-in-a-can.”
       “What if I don’t want to be your boyfriend tonight?”
       “Then I’ll tell the whole school how much you liked the girls’ locker room.” She smiles sweetly.
       I have some choice words for her right then, but seeing as how we’re in an expensive restaurant among well-mannered people, I swallow them.

       Did I promise myself never to mix with the Watanabe sisters ever again? Yes, I did. I definitely remember I swore that. I guess I forgot one of them can hold a knife to my throat.

       So I flash her a smile. A BIG smile. “So. HON-EY. What are our plans tonight?”
       She returns an equally BIG smile, showing all her even white teeth. “Well, DAR-LING. First, we meet my grandmother. Then, we have a nice dinner with nice conversation. You follow my lead and everything will be fine.”
       “I think that would be nice, HON-EY. Anything else I should know?”
       “You touch me anywhere funny, and you lose your hand. Got me?”
       “I'll be so chaste you'll think I'm gay, happy?”
       “Good. Then I’m sure we’ll have an enchanting evening.”
       Suddenly Junko’s expression brightens.
       “Grandma!” Junko calls out to someone by the door, in a tone that contains genuine warmth. Huh, that’s a first.
       A spry old woman in gypsy-like clothes hobbles over and envelopes Junko in a big bear hug, cackling all the while. Not at all what I expected. Since we’re meeting in a traditional restaurant, I guess I imagined her grandmother to be some sort of cold, well-mannered headmistress in a kimono. Not this.
       The old woman glances at me with a grin. “Who might this be?”
       Junko grabs my arm in a fierce hug. “This is my boyfriend Hiroto! Isn’t he adorable?”
       Okay! Who’s crossing lines here! I distinctly remember somebody saying no touching funny places just a minute ago. That's kinda hard to do in this position!
       Meanwhile, I smile a hopefully convincing smile at Grandma. “Nice to meet you, Grandmother.”
       “Hmmm…” She squints at us. I think she bought it. “Come, come. Let’s sit and eat. You must be famished.”
       We sit down, and Junko orders some things from the menu. As we wait, the waiter brings us cups of hot green tea.
       “Where did you two lovebirds meet?” asks Grandma as we settle down.
       “You can say we kinda ran into each other,” I say.
       “At school,” adds Junko. “We met at school.”
       “That’s nice. Junko was telling me about your lovely trip,” says Grandma.
       “Yeah.” I look at Junko out of the corner of my eye. “That trip to the, uh, mount-” 
       Junko stamps my foot. I freeze mid-sentence because of, well, the pain.
       “Beach,” Junko says. “Our trip to the beach, darling! Wasn’t that something?”
       “Uh, yeah,” I say. “I mean, we saw some pretty mountains by the beach. Yeah.”
       After the initial exchange, conversation goes more smoothly. I make stuff up following Junko’s lead and improvise when she doesn’t. We gel surprisingly well, considering we don’t really know each other. Like longtime football partners, we pass the ball smoothly back and forth, dodging thorny questions and clearing conversation hurdles, weaving a very convincing story of two high school kids in love. If we didn’t want to strangle each other we could probably form a pretty good improv team.
       Grandma’s more familiar with today’s pop culture than I expected and easily joins in conversations about music, anime, and other subjects that I thought would befuddle old people. She says learning about ‘young people things’ helps keep her young, but she does remind us not to abandon traditional culture either. For there’s power in old things, she tells us mysteriously.
       Even though I’ve been pressed into working as boyfriend stunt double, I find myself enjoying the dinner immensely. Grandma’s good company. The food’s great. And I have a good-looking (and only half murderous) girl as my date. Good times.
       Speaking of good-looking, now that I’ve had the chance to look at Junko without my ear clamped in her hand, I must say she looks…nice. No, that’s not quite it. I think what I’m looking for is…stunningly beautiful. I realize why. Maybe it’s because the ridiculous contrast tonight threw my girl-o-meter completely out of whack. I’ve never seen her before except in school or track uniform. Plus she’s usually sweaty, dusty, and scowling at me. Her finest moments, I’m sure.
       Now her hair’s up in some kind of fancy do that only girls know how to do. Her eyes are accented by sparkly eye-shadow, her smooth skin made more fair by a faint rouge. Sitting so close to her, I notice her scent. It’s not perfume, I don’t think. Rather a fresh, clean scent like summer rain. Most important, she’s laughing. Genuinely laughing. I don’t think she’s faking that part. And the transformation is spectacular.
       Okay. I’ve had too much tea. I’m drunk on tea. That must be it. It’s clouding my mind, giving me weird thoughts. That and maybe the lighting in this restaurant is playing tricks on my eyes. I can’t believe I’m actually thinking about Junko like this. What am I doing? I’m supposed to be mad at her. I need to be thinking about Shihoko instead. I must be going crazy. Must be my hormones acting up. Arggh!

       My logic shoots my wild emotions, gets everything under control, and I’m sensible again.

       While the waiter serves dessert, Junko goes to the ladies' room to freshen up. It’s just me and Grandma as the server brings the matcha ice cream on classy-looking ceramic plates. I am glad Junko’s gone for a little bit. I need some air. I take a sip of green tea.
       Grandma leans in and whispers, “You're not really her boyfriend, are you?”
       I almost spew my tea all over the old lady. Good thing I turn my head at the last second and get it all over the passing waiter instead (who insists it’s quite alright and that I continue to enjoy my meal. I must remember to 5 star this place for excellent service later.)
       Grandma cackles with mirth.
       “How did you know, Grandma?” I choke out.
       “Simple. You two were trying too hard.” She looks at me, not unkindly. “Junko's a sweet child. She's trying to show me how she's fine and happy after her parents' divorce so I won’t worry about her. Thinking to pull one over her on Granny. But I play along anyway to make her feel better.”
       “Still,” she continues. “Junko is much more genki with you around. She was a mess the last time I saw her. For that I must thank you, Machida-kun.”
       “Uh, I'm not sure I did anything.”
       “If you will, be there for her,” says Grandma warmly. “She's a foolish, proud child. She wouldn’t admit it easily, but these few months have been a tough time for her.”
       “Uh. Yeah. I'll do my best,” I stutter. Then in a fit of emotion I say, “I think you are a fantastic grandma. Junko's lucky to have you.”
       She laughs at that. “You are a nice boy. You sure you don’t want Junko as your real girlfriend? I think you two make a good match. Besides, she makes amazing bentos. I taught her that myself.”
       I flush beet red at that. Curses! I’m furious at my rebellious face.
       “We're just...friends,” I mutter.
       Junko comes back then, and both of us fall silent.
       “What?” Junko looks at us, puzzled. “What were you two talking about?”
       Grandma and I crack up.

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