The sound of cicadas, the dense, heavy air of a summer day, and the busy traffic, gave way to the welcome feeling of familiarity as Ayane stepped over the threshold of Ryo's family's ramen shop.
Except for some newly framed pictures of (really) cute kids, and the addition of a few larger tables, it remained relatively unchanged from a few years ago. Ayane inhaled, the humid air awash with the scents of an unexpected after lunch rush.
It had been awhile.
Two years in fact.
Two years too long since she last set foot in her hometown. And she had missed it.
Behind the counter was Ryu's dad, a hometown staple, working non-stop over steaming vats of broth and baskets of noodles. It appeared he was apprenticing a young man in the fine art of ramen making. Chizu stood nearby, attempting to look over his shoulder, though her burgeoning belly kept her from being fully successful.
"Hey! We're ready to order! And we need two waters!" A hurried business man hollered from a corner table.
"I'm coming! Geez!"
Ayane watched as Chizu, impossibly graceful in her movements, grabbed two glasses, some pre-wrapped chopsticks, a very full pitcher of ice water, and wound her way around the crowded restaurant, to the waiting table.
A laugh escaped her lips as she watched Chizu unsuccessfully avoid hitting people in their heads with her stomach. They all ducked out of the way as much as possible, but most were still hit, though they just smiled softly and continued to eat their favorite ramen instead of getting angry about it.
Two stools opened up at the lunch counter and Ayane made a mad dash to snag one. She didn't mind that the litter from the previous customer covered the counter in front of her, she was happy enough finding a place to sit among the throng. Despite her extremely casual clothing and her lack of makeup (she was in the process of moving into her apartment after all) Ryu's dad recognized her immediately.
"Yano! Welcome! It's been too long" He moved quickly to clear the spot in front of her, wiping the sticky counter clean with a fresh cloth. "I'll make you something light, what do you want for toppings?"
"Shoyu, with tamago and wakame please." He was right, something light for this hot, humid day, and she didn't need her stomach weighed down while trying to move and arrange all her furniture today. She'd been sleeping on a futon, and using boxes to store her essentials, but everything she'd ordered had arrived this morning and she had a long couple of days ahead of her putting the furniture together and arranging it how she wanted. It was her bed she was especially looking forward to, a large, plush, American style bed that she had gotten used to while living with a host family in the U.S. She couldn't wait to slip between those cool, crisp, Egyptian cotton sheets and dream her night away.
Ryu's dad hollered, snapping Ayane out of her reverie. "Chizu! We need some water over here!"
"I'm coming, I'm coming!"
Ayane pictured Chizu winding her way back through the crowd, and chuckled to herself again. A glass appeared in front of her and she watched as Chizu filled it with cool water. It was evident, the moment Chizu realized it was her, the cessation of all movement, the intake of breath, then the pitcher was dropped with a heavy thunk, two strong arms were wrapped around her, and a very large belly was smooshed into her side.
"AYA AYA AYA! You're back! When did you get here!.." The questions kept coming while Ayane extracted Chizu's arms from around her and she leaned away from her belly to look up into Chizu's face.
"I've been here for a week, but already left back to Tokyo once for business. I'm fully moving into my apartment today."
"A Week! And you didn't come say hi!? I'm telling Sawako on you." Chizu managed to look happy, flustered, and angry all at the same time.
Ayane blushed a bit, but her personality was still very much the same, coming out in her rebuttal. "I TOLD you I went back to Tokyo on business! And.." Here she became a little quieter, "..I know your hands are full and wanted to wait until I was more available before announcing my return home." Ayane smiled at her friend, causing Chizu to instantly forgive her.
She straightened up, grabbing her water pitcher with one hand while throwing the other one on her hip. "I am busy, but never too busy for you. " Chizu's eyes darted back and forth as she moved her hand to her mouth, looking like she was about to impart a deep secret to Ayane. "And, I'm pregnant you know..."
Ayane laughed, "I know, you told me the moment you knew."
"What! Did I call you!? I'm on the phone too much with Ryo traveling and I can't be with him." Chizu looked forlorn.
More laughter at her friend, "Also, you're almost 38 weeks pregnant with twins...Everyone knows your pregnant Chizu."
Chizu straightened up, "So! I promised Ryo we'd have a baseball team and I'm going to keep my promise!"
"What!?" Water flew over the counter when Ayane set her glass down too hard. "That's a bit much don't you think?"
Chizu didn't seem to care, "We can handle it. He's a good husband, and.." This time she leaned over to actually whisper at Ayane, "..we're pretty rich because of his sponsorships. "
Ayane laughed more, she loved this about Chizu, her open and honest way, that she knew how much Ryo's sponsorships were paying because Chizu had called her because she "is pretty sure this is a dream", how boisterous and lively her dear friend is. Ayane took another deep breath, trying to capture all the wonderful things about being back home. She had truly missed all of this.
"I missed you Chizu. I'm glad to be back."
Chizu cried out and hugged the air out of Ayane again.
"Alright, alright, get back to work. I'll text you tonight." Ayane wiggled her phone in front of Chizu's face.
"I'M GLAD YOU'RE BACK!" Chizu yelled as she wound her way through the ramen shop, attending to the customers' needs.
A bowl of ramen was quietly sat in front of her by the apprentice. With a nod and a blush he asked if everything was good. Ayane nodded, the steam from the bowl slightly obscuring the apprentice's face.
"Do you need anything else?" he asked, continuing to blush.
Not wanting to lead him on she put on her most disinterested face before replying, "I'm good, thank you." and directed her attention to her ramen. The apprentice stood a moment longer, until Ryu's dad called him out to "quit staring at the pretty girl and get his butt back here to learn to actually cook!"
This was not an uncommon occurrence in Ayane's life. Guys seemed to be drawn to her, more so in the last couple of years, but maybe that was more a result of traveling abroad and being exposed to more men than just the Japanese. Either way, she had become an expert at deflecting men's attention.
Her ramen looked cool enough now, and she already had Chizu yell at her from across the restaurant that she was letting it sit too long. As she was taking her first bite someone asked, "Is this seat available?..." their hand coming into her peripheral vision on her right pointing to the only empty stool at the counter. While she was trying to swallow the ramen to affirm that it was indeed available, the customer asked "…Are you?" while he sat down on the stool. Yano choked a bit on her food, and rolling her eyes she turned to shoot the man down. She was never easy on the bold ones, they were desperate and didn't care about who she was anyway.
"Listen buddy.." She swiveled her stool to the right, her words dying on her tongue.
"PIN!?" her heart sank. She should have known it was him. At 24, one would think she would have outgrown her silly school-girl responses, and she thought she had, until face to face with Pin again.
"Y-y-aaanO!" He startled back, almost falling off the stool. He hadn't changed much since she last saw him at Shota and Sawako's wedding a couple of years ago. It had been a rushed moment for her, spying him across the room before needing to leave, her new job keeping her running. 2 years since seeing him, 5 years since last talking to him, but her heart fluttered at his nearness. At least she could assume he was still single since he tried to pick her up.
He looked good...very good. He wasn't wearing his usual sweats, but instead, sported a more put together look, patterned shorts and a polo shirt, slip on oxfords oh his feet. His hair was shorter than it used to be, the spikes gone, replaced by a more mature style. His brown eyes and smile were still very much the same though. 32 looked good on him.
"Your hair!..." Pin looked up as if to see the top of his head and patted his hair. "What's wrong with it? Did it get flat!?." He began to flail again, maybe panic.
Ayane laughed, "no, nothing like that, it's just shorter, and…"
Pin stopped his inspection. "It's weird?"
"…no, it looks nice. Good. It's good." Ayane could not believe how hot her face felt.
Pin smiled, wide. "I recall you telling me it looked handsome some time ago…5 years ago." He winked and crossed his arms, looking smug at the memory.
"You remember a small portion of a conversation from 5 years ago!?"
"Of course, it's not every day someone tells me I'm handsome…" Pin smiled more, then his eyes narrowed and he blushed, "…I mean, of course everyone thinks I'm handsome, they just..I need to order. Pops! The usual please!"
Ayane smiled behind her hand as she watched Pin's face rapidly change through his thought process, now it seemed he was stuck, just staring straight ahead, waiting for his ramen.
"I need to eat this." She cringed at the sudden lack of something to say.
The awkward silence stretched while they were each finishing their ramen. Ayane would glance to the side periodically just to see what Pin was doing, but her eyes would snap back whenever she caught him glancing as well. She reached the end of her bowl quicker than expected.
Standing, she looked over at Pin, still not knowing how to breach his 5 year absence from her life. "I should be going now, I have a whole apartment to organize…see ya around?"
Pin looked at her, his warm, brown eyes seeming to come back into focus. He stood up suddenly, dropping his chopsticks into his unfished bowl. "I'm heading out too, gotta ton of important stuff to do." He yelled toward the counter "See Ya Pops!"
Ryu's dad looked from his instructing, "See ya!" His eyes looked at Ayane and back to Pin, crinkling at the corners, "don't do anything I wouldn't do…"
Pin turned toward the door waving a hand in the air and calling back "Yeah yeah…".
As quick as she could, Ayane wound her way through the remaining patrons to the door as well. She couldn't bring herself to holler at Pin to wait up for her, but something deep within her did not want this chance moment to end. She made it to the door before Pin did and held it open for him.
Pin grabbed it. Leaning forward a bit, he softly said "After you".
She ducked under his arm and slowly, very slowly, turned toward her new place. With a sigh at her lack of courage she made her way home. It wasn't but a few hundred feet when she realized Pin was walking right beside her. She stretched her neck to look up at him.
"I thought you lived the other direction? Why are you walking the same way as I am? You're going to give people the wrong idea." Falling back into her old high school behavior was apparently easier than being an adult at the moment.
"What do you mean 'wrong idea'!? We're both adults, all ideas are on the table. Besides, I live this direction now." A smirk stretched across Pin's face, clearly pleased with his news.
"You do!? Being a coach for Ryu really paid off, huh? No more haunted apartment?"
"You know it. Hey! You guys promised me it wasn't haunted!"
They walked together a little further, their conversation light, until they came to a cross-street, Pin saying, "I'm heading this way, See Ya!" and headed left.
Ayane regretted not reaching out to him, or exchanging numbers, or any number of things she could have said or done to keep his attention a little longer. She sighed and continued walking toward her apartment. She didn't have time for what ifs and what might be's anyway. She had an apartment to decorate, furniture to build, and a future to claim.