Junior's Day II
Junior liked art class, but he found it harder than his others. For one thing, he wasn't always sure what was good and what was bad.
"I am very pleased by the effort you have all put into your latest works," Ms. Nakano said to the class. "I want to say a few things about each piece. Let's begin with yours, Miss King."
"Anita," Anita said.
"Yes, Anita." Ms. Nakano held up a large painting and showed it to the class. "First of all, Anita, I like the fact that this is not a picture of Mr. Froggy. I liked your Froggy series, but I felt you were getting into an artistic rut with that subject."
A titter ran around the room. Anita looked surly, but said nothing.
"Secondly, I like your use of color, which is always a strong suit with you. The colors here are almost…Van Gogh-like in their intensity. This woman has the brightest, blondest blonde hair I've ever seen, to say nothing of the very green greenness of the eyes. The figure itself is quite striking in its own way—though not entirely realistic."
"I don't get it," Anita said. "What do you mean?"
"The eyes are quite disproportionate to the rest of the face. Indeed, I may go so far as to say that they are enormous, in fact, and extremely round as well. This, combined with their rather stunning color, produces a remarkable effect. If you look down here, also, you can see that a certain portion of the figure's upper torso also seems exaggerated—very exaggerated indeed, though not unpleasantly so."
The boys in the class grinned.
"Now, Anita, were you attempting a deliberate distortion for an expressionistic effect?"
"I dunno," Anita said. "I was trying my best. Michelle really does look like that, kind of."
"Ah," Ms. Nakano said. "You were having some trouble with your proportions, then. We can work on that. But there's nothing wrong with deliberate distortion for artistic purposes. I'm sure you all remember the Picassos I showed you. An accidental distortion—as in this painting, Anita—can be quite as pleasing, especially when combined with such vivid colors."
"You don't mean it looks like that folk art junk, do you?" Anita asked suspiciously.
Ms. Nakano laughed, a twittery artist's laugh. "I don't think you need worry, Anita. No one will say your pictures look quite like any others. Now, let's take a look at your drawing, Junior."
Junior had put in a lot of effort on it. Maggie made a good subject because she simply sat for hours while scarcely moving at all.
"As always, Junior, I'm quite impressed by your skill. The details are wonderfully done: the wristwatch, the binding of that book she's reading, the strands of her hair. The lines are both fine and strong. It reminds me in some respects of Albrecht Durer, as well as some of our own classic prints. However…"
Ms. Nakano tapped her chin with her fingernail. "There are some significant flaws, though I say so reluctantly. The woman is highly detailed, but the background is much less so, and this almost makes it look as if she is floating in space. Also, the figure is not placed centrally, but in a corner. Thus, while one part of the picture is crowded with small detail, other parts seem virtually empty. The figure is well done technically, but it has no context, no world to exist in. Finally, the figure has a somewhat…lifeless quality, if I may say so. She looks almost statue-like, not quite real."
Ms. Nakano smiled at him. "Don't be discouraged, Junior. This picture has a lot of potential. I like your lines a great deal, but I think your figures need more depth. I suggest you try modeling them much more strongly. That will give both your figures and your objects a solid, three-dimensional quality. After all, it is contrast, the complex play of light and dark, which makes an object or a person real to us."
Junior nodded slowly. "Yes. That will be hard, but I think I do understand."
"I'm sure you do."
"Man, she ripped my painting to pieces," Anita said. "After all that work I did on it, too."
Junior walked half a pace behind Anita. He was still thinking about his drawing.
"She didn't say it was bad," Junior said. "She seemed to like the colors a lot. She never gives you really low grades anyhow. I was worried about my drawing, too, but apparently all I have to do is change some things."
"Whatever. I still hate art class. You have next period free today, right?"
"Yes. Then maths."
"Ugh. I'm bad at math; it's a good thing Hisa helps me out." They paused by a classroom door. Anita shrugged. "Oh, well, here I go. See you later." She went inside.
Junior stood by the closed door for a moment. He had wanted to ask Anita something, but he still wasn't quite sure if it was a good idea or not. There would be time enough to do so later. He headed towards the stairs.
The last kids had gone into their classes and the hallways were still. Junior came to the stairs and was about to descend when he noticed a girl sitting on the landing. It was Nesume.
He hadn't noticed her much lately, and it was unusual to see her alone. She seemed to be surrounded by her satellites nearly all the time. She had made a great fuss over him when he first came to school, but when he showed no interest in joining her clique she had given him up as a bad job. They had not spoken to each other in weeks.
Now she was staring out the window. Her shoulders were shaking slightly and she made a wheezing sound, like someone with a bad cold.
Junior had never seen her like this, and it worried him. "Are you all right?"
Nesume looked up at him. Her eyes were wet and her cheeks red. "Oh, go away," she said angrily. "What do you care anyway?"
"I'm sorry you're upset," Junior said.
"Why? You don't like me either."
"I thought a lot of people liked you."
"They were just pretending," Nesume said. "Now that my sister's books aren't selling so well, they're not even pretending any more."
"That's not very nice of them. It's a pity about your sister, too."
"I don't care so much for myself," Nesume said. "But if they just knew how hard my sister works they wouldn't be so nasty. She knows she needs to get better; she's really trying. But the publishers aren't as interested in her now, not since that Sumiregawa made her comeback." There was a bitter edge to her words about Nenene.
"She's been so hurt by it all," Nesume went on. "She's not eating well, she's losing sleep. My sister's been so good to me; I hate to see her suffering like this. Some of the kids here have been horrible to me about her. Nobody's even asked me to the dance yet, and last year six boys invited me." She began to cry once more.
Junior felt very uncomfortable, as he always did when people cried. He wanted to say something, but couldn't think of anything useful. He pulled out his handkerchief and offered it to her.
Nesume looked up again, her face even redder and wetter than before. She saw the handkerchief and took it. "Thanks…I guess," she said. "You're kind of a weird kid, but you're pretty nice."
"Thank you. You're lucky to have a sister."
"Yeah," Nesume said. "I'm glad you said that. We're really best friends. That's why I was so proud of her when she became a writer. She says I'm her pride, too."
"I know a woman who says that about her sister. I wish I had one. Or a brother."
"You're an only child? Doesn't that get lonely sometimes?"
"A little. My mother keeps me company as much as she can. Are you feeling any better now?"
" I think so."
An idea stirred in Junior's head. He wasn't sure it was a good one, but he decided to find out.
"Nesume, are you sure no one's asked you to the dance?"
"None of the boys have yet, the jerks. I've given up."
"Would you like to go with me, then?"
Nesume stared at him in surprise. Then a rather queer, wondering expression began to work its way across her face. Junior began to frame an apology or an excuse. He was afraid she was about to laugh or slap his cheek.
Instead she smiled at him. "You know what? I think I will," she said. "Yes, why not? You're the only boy who's been decent to me in weeks. Besides, you're definitely cute, even if you are weird. Sure, I'll go with you."
Junior felt his heart rate increase. Other parts of his body began to react as well, but he managed to suppress them. "You think I'm cute?"
Nesume put her hands on her hips in her normal decisive manner. "Well, yeah! Especially since you got rid of that dumb girly haircut. Why the heck do you think I was trying to make friends with you when you first started this year?"
"Oh…But you will go with me, then?"
"Didn't I say so?"
"Brilliant. But first I'll have to ask my mother if I can go. I've never been to a dance, you know."
"And I can't really dance, you see," Junior said. He sensed he was babbling, but he didn't know how to stop. "But I can learn pretty quickly, honestly. My mother's a dancer, and I'm sure she'll teach me if I ask."
"You silly boy," Nesume said. "You sure you're not trying to think up reasons for not going with me now?"
"No!" Junior said. He shook his head emphatically. "I mean yes, I want to go with you. Very much."
"Oh, good. And if your mom doesn't allow it, I'll beat her up."
"I don't think you could. But I'm sure she'll say yes."
"That's all settled, then. This will be so much fun; I can't wait to go with my sister to pick out my new outfit. She loves shopping with me, I'm sure that'll raise her spirits."
"Nesume, could you do me one favor? I'd appreciate it if you didn't mention this to too many people, at least until I talk to my mother. That it's me you're going with, I mean."
"Oh, I get it, a secret mystery date! How romantic, that's just like one of my sister's stories. I won't tell at all, it'll be such fun keeping it a secret."
Nesume gathered up her books and sling her bag across her shoulder. "I have to hurry off to the library now, Junior. But before I go, I just wanted to say one more thing."
"You're not just cute. You're also pretty sweet."
And then, to his utter astonishment, she kissed him on the cheek.
She ran away laughing down the stairs and was gone before Junior could do or say anything.
Junior was pretty satisfied with his day. He had tried two experiments and they had both succeeded. He was walking across the schoolyard to the library when he saw something that suggested he try another.
So far, he had found that he was welcome—or at least accepted—in most of the major groups at school. He did well in all his classes and read a lot, so the studious kids liked him. He was good at science and with computers, so the otakus liked him despite his aversion to all games and most anime. He did well at soccer, so the athletes respected him. All of Anita's friends accepted him, of course. Only one other group seemed to be left.
As he looked across the schoolyard, Junior saw about seven or eight boys clustered by the back gate. Their school jackets were cut a little too short in the skirt and a little too tightly in the waist. Several of them had taken their jackets off, loosened their ties, and undone their cuff buttons. Their voices were either unnaturally loud or conspiratorially quiet. They stood in a close huddle, glancing about the schoolyard in case a teacher or the headmaster should appear. Several had their hands cupped over their faces, concealing the cigarettes Junior knew they were smoking.
Junior had seen these boys—and a few girls like them—in his classes. Some seldom appeared in class at all. They invariably sat at the back, never raised their hands, and spent their time in class passing notes back and forth. He knew very few of them by name. Several had reputations as bullies. Some of the group had harassed him during his first weeks in school, but he had not understood half their insults and had not minded the others. When they failed to get any reaction from him they had moved on to softer targets. He understood that Anita had threatened them on his behalf, though she denied it.
They were known variously as The Gang, Them, That Crowd. Anita called them The Circle Jerks, but their own name for themselves was The Ronin. Junior knew that they cut school, smoked, swore, sniffed airplane glue and nitrous oxide, practiced petty theft, and read adult manga. Rumor credited them with still more glamorous sins.
From what Junior had read and heard, it was normal for kids to go a little bit wrong in one way or another. This, he understood, was expected in a teenager. He was not very interested in going wrong for itself. Drugs and smoking did not seem like much fun to Junior. He knew they could harm his athletic performance, and he did not want that. Alcohol interested him slightly (especially British beer), but going a little wrong with girls interested him much more. Still, the important thing was to be normal. He decided to try it.
The Ronin were so absorbed in their own conversation that they hardly noticed Junior until he was a few yards away. He saw some of them hastily snuff out their cigarettes.
"Hello," he said. "Do you mind if I join you for a bit?"
The tallest one in the bunch—his name was Obata—didn't bother to answer Junior's question.
"Well, if it isn't the kid who fainted twice in biology lab," he said.
"Yeah, it's the bishounen," a boy named Tanizaki said. "Hiya, limp-wrist."
Junior knew from reliable sources that Tanizaki had been caught reading yaoi manga in class, so he paid no attention to this particular insult. He'd thought starting a conversation with this group might be difficult, but he wasn't ready to give up yet.
He tried again. "Well, I just thought that—"
"Hey, blueboy, was that your mom at the gate this morning? The babe with the big Yamatos?"
This came from one of the youngest of the Ronin, a short, slightly plump boy named Kimura.
"Yes, it was, actually," Junior admitted.
"Oh, yeah, she works in a sex hotel, right? Bet she's busy when the Seventh Fleet's in."
The others laughed, Obata loudest of all.
Junior didn't mind when his acquaintances and teammates talked slightly dirty about women. He had found their comments about Nancy that morning rather amusing and flattering. But there was something about Kimura's tone and delivery, as well as his words, which Junior didn't like at all. And he hated the laughter.
He could feel something strange starting to happen inside himself, but he knew you had to be careful with Japanese people. As Anita often said, they didn't always mean what they appeared to mean. He hoped that was true in this case.
He started to say something, but Kimura spoke first.
"Yeah, you know what, I bet she's pretty good at…" he said, and then went on to describe what he thought Nancy was good at.
Junior knew he was turning red, but there was nothing he could do about it. The boys laughed at that, too.
"I know," Kimura said, "She's a carpet-muncher, too, right? A muff-diver? Hell, it's written all over her. Look at that purple-blue hair, you can tell she dykes it up."
"Excuse me," Junior interrupted. "Could you repeat that?" His voice seemed to come from very far away.
"I just want to make sure I understood you correctly. I didn't want to make a mistake."
This drew a third laugh from the other boys. They were really enjoying themselves now.
Kimura grinned. "Why, sure, I don't want a dumb Gaijin to get me wrong. Your mom..." and he repeated everything he had already said, with additional graphic detail.
"Thanks," Junior said when Kimura was done. "I just wanted to be sure."
His fist shot out so fast that it caught Kimura by complete surprise. The crack of bone against bone echoed around the schoolyard.
When Junior came to himself, he saw Kimura sprawled on the ground at his feet. Blood was pouring out of Kimura's mouth, and one side of his face was purple.
The Ronin stared at Junior. Their mouths were open and their faces taught.
Junior turned towards them. They ran, Obata leading the pack on his long legs. In less than a minute they had all fled through the back gate and off the school grounds.
Windows flew up and doors slammed open. Teachers and students began running towards the scene.
Junior looked down at Kimura again. The boy's cheek was the size of a balloon, and he was crying loudly. His tears made him look even younger. He was just a seventh-grader, no more than twelve or so.
Junior's fingers were still clenched in a fist. They didn't hurt at all.
He felt miserable. He turned to Kimura. "I'm sorry," he said, knowing that it was pointless even as he said it. "Really I am. I'm sorry…"
Kimura bawled like a baby. The only comfort for Junior was the knowledge that this, too, was pretty normal.
Mr. Adachi hung up the phone and frowned across his desk at Junior.
"Well, the nurse said it was pretty bad. Kimura's jaw and cheekbone are severely bruised. If you'd hit him just a bit harder you'd have broken his jaw. He also has a big bruise on his head from falling on the pavement. He needed stitches, and there's a lot of swelling. She gave him some shots to prevent infection, but he may need some extra work at the hospital."
Junior sat in his chair and said nothing.
"I spoke to your mother on her cell phone before you came up here, and she specifically asked me to send the infirmary bill to her. She also told me she'd ask the Kimuras to do the same for any additional work that needs to be done."
"I see," Junior said.
"I hope you do," Mr. Adachi said. "She is not happy at all about this, Master Makuhari. In fact, she's pretty angry with you."
Junior did not look forward to his mother's anger. She was the only person in the world of whom he was physically afraid.
"She's right to be. I was wrong."
"I'm glad you know that. The nurse said she practically had to throw you out of the infirmary or you would never have stopped apologizing to Kimura."
Junior sighed. "I wish it had never happened. If only he hadn't said something nasty about my mother."
"Of course he did, Makuhari, that's how little weasels like that operate. They find out what your weak point is and then they zero in on it. He just happened to find yours. You should have known better than to talk to those idiots in the first place, that wasn't at all like you. What were you thinking of?"
"It was sort of an experiment, sir. It was a bad idea."
"I'll say. You're not going to pull an experiment like that again, I hope."
"No, sir. I don't want to talk to them ever again."
"I believe you." Mr. Adachi chuckled. "After they saw that knock you gave Kimura, I shouldn't think they'd give you any trouble either. But you'll have to pay for breaking the rules."
"I understand, sir. You should punish me if I broke the rules."
"Well, your reaction is unusual. You're not going to play in the soccer match today. I could also suspend you from school, but I don't think I will."
"I don't want any special favors, sir," Junior said. "I just want to be treated like anybody else."
"I'm not doing you any," Mr. Adachi replied. "I always have some discretion in these things. Your record so far has been absolutely outstanding, this is the first demerit you've ever gotten, the incident is totally out of character, and it's obvious that you're sincerely sorry and won't do it again. That's why I'm not suspending you."
"Thank you, sir."
"I still have to punish you, though. I've been concerned about something else. You've done excellently in all your classes except biology. Last week, you fainted in biology lab for the second time. Usually that only happens to the girls, and never more than once. As a result, you've fallen seriously behind. Why?"
"I can't do the dissection, sir. I've tried, but I just feel sorry for the frogs. They're so helpless," Junior said in a low voice. "They didn't ask to be part of an experiment."
He shifted in his chair and looked at the floor.
"Junior, I know how you feel. But even your friends Miss King and Miss Hishichi managed to dissect their frogs. I'm afraid you're going to have to do the same. And the pig as well, when the time comes."
"You're going to be on study hall for biology and make up your labs with Mister Ichiki," Mr. Adachi said. "You'll also be on study hall for the math class you missed today because of this incident. That means you're going to lose some free periods. And you'll be on the grounds cleanup detail for a while."
"Yes, sir. You're more than generous, sir."
"You can be a great asset to this school, Junior," Mr. Adachi said, "But there are days when I wish you had let us put you into an advanced placement program instead."
"I just want to be an ordinary boy, sir. That's all."
"Yes, I know. That's not a bad thing to want. You can go now."
Junior got up and was halfway out the door when Adachi called to him.
"Soccer's playing Yokohama North today, isn't that right?"
"Yes, sir. They're a good side. It will be a pretty tough match."
Adachi was looking out the window. His fingertips made a pyramid under his chin.
"Whip them good today, Makuhari," he said.
"Oh, yes, sir. We will, sir, you can be sure of that."
Junior was right; it was a hard match. Yokohama North were tough city kids, on average a head taller than Nishihama. Only Junior and Big Suzuki could challenge them in the air. It was one-nil, Yokohama North, at the half, but if Junior hadn't covered the other backs perfectly it would have been a lot worse.
The second half was different, though. Skill gradually began to tell over size and strength. Junior broke up an attack and sent a pass upfield to Buruma. Buruma missed often, but this time he didn't. It was one-all.
Now Yokohama North threw everything forward. The danger of defeat gave them a second wind. Nishihama fended off attack after attack, and the play was end-to-end.
Junior cleared off the line when Big Suzuki was caught in the wrong corner of his goal. He heard a roar of approval from the stands. The ball went over the touchline, and as Junior went to take the throw he heard some girls in the crowd chanting his name.
He liked it, almost in spite of himself. He liked it even more when Nesume winked at him.
Another enemy attack came in, but Junior stopped it easily with a well-timed tackle. For a moment he was almost alone in the center of the field. Junior saw a couple of teammates open upfield, but he chose to break from the back by himself instead. He got past several enemy defenders with swerves that left them gasping.
He was about to shoot from about twenty-five yards out when something hard struck his leg. He fell and the ball came loose. A moan came from the crowd. Junior struggled to his feet, but before he could get back in position he heard a roar of triumph and relief. He looked up to see Big Suzuki sail across his goal and crash to earth, the ball securely in his hands.
Big Suzuki was covered in mud and his nose was bleeding, but he shot back to his feet as soon as he came down. He tossed the ball to Junior. Junior wasted no time. He looked up, saw Buruma open again, and laid a forty-yard pass at his feet. Buruma was having one of his better days; he shot past a furiously charging goalkeeper, and it was two-one. It ended that way.
One by one, the boys showered and filed out of the locker room. Junior was about to leave too when Coach Kawabe crooked his finger at him. "I need to talk to you," he said.
"You had some fine touches, Makuhari. Those tackles and those two passes helped win it for us. But that break from the back laid us open and nearly lost it. You know that was a mistake, don't you?"
"Yes, sir. I know that now."
"Then why did you do it?"
"Well, sir, I thought an overlap would work in that situation. They tripped me, though. That wasn't fair."
"The referee can't see everything. Besides, you're the best player on the field and everybody knows it. The only way the opposition can stop you if you go forward is to foul you, and that's exactly what they're going to do. You've got to expect that."
"If this were the English Premier League, an overlap would have been a great idea. But it isn't and it wasn't. You can't get fancy and try out tactical theories with a bunch of kids. Here I'm just trying to keep things simple and get everyone to play good, fundamentally sound soccer. That means a defender's primary responsibility is always defense, and that overlapping is out. Do you know why I play you as a sweeper?"
"Because I said I preferred to play defense?"
"No, that isn't the main reason. The main reason is that the team needed help there more than anywhere else. The stars and the leaders have to play as part of the team if we're going to win."
"I don't want to be a star, sir," Junior said. "Or a leader."
"You're our best player, that means you're a star and a leader whether you like it or not."
"Yes, sir. I'll remember that."
"Good. Technically, you're the finest player I've ever seen for your age. You can go as far as you want in this game. I've put in a call to the National Youth Team, and someone will be there to look at you when we play Sumida next Saturday."
"That's brilliant, sir. But I'm really British, you know, not Japanese."
"We'll worry about that later. Right now, I think you need to sit and watch a little. I'm not going to start you in the first half this Saturday. This next bunch is a little easier, and Ozu deserves to play more anyway. I think you should watch and pay attention while he does."
"Yes, sir. But do you really think I could be a professional?"
"It's all up to you, Makuhari. Yet sometimes I worry that you're in your own little world out there."
"I won't disappoint you, sir," Junior said. "I don't want to let the team down again."
"Good, that's the main thing. I had a question, though."
"Those girls on the touchline didn't distract you, did they?"
"Perhaps they did a little, sir."
"I thought so." Coach Kawabe grinned, a very man-to-man grin. "Cheers are nice, Makuhari, especially from girls. But cheers from any crowd can turn to jeers pretty quickly."
"Yes, sir. My mother says the same thing."
Junior stood by the front gate, his book bag slung over his shoulder. He was very tired, and glad the school day was over.
The day would be ending soon, too. The autumn was rushing on, and each day there was less and less daylight left after the closing bell. It was chilly now in the evenings. Junior wasn't looking forward to the winter.
He was glad he'd be riding home with Michelle and the sisters. He didn't feel up to facing his mother yet.
"Hiya," a voice said. Junior looked round. It was Anita.
"Oh…Hello. I didn't notice you."
"I'm just tired. Soccer was hard. It's been a long day."
"Softball was great," Anita said. "I hit a home run! And NOBODY could touch my fastball! Hah!"
"You depressed again? You're not upset about that dumb Kimura, are you?"
"You gave him just what he deserved. Everybody's glad you hit him."
"I'm not glad. It's been so long since I hurt someone. I used to like it, but I don't anymore. My mother will be very cross with me when I get home."
"Well, that's what mothers are for," Anita said. "You pick a spring sport?"
"I'm gonna do volleyball again, and field hockey this winter. Boy, I can't wait for that! You get to poke people with a stick."
"I thought you were supposed to hit a ball with it."
"Yeah, that too."
Anita sat on the ground and stared at Junior. She seemed to be waiting for something, but Junior couldn't guess what. Finally she spoke, in a rather impatient tone. "You make any other decisions today?"
Anita sighed. "About the dance, silly. Who are you going to ask?"
"Oh, that. I've asked Nesume."
Anita's face turned a color Junior had never seen before. "Nesume! That birdbrain? Why the heck did you do a stupid thing like that?"
"I don't think it's stupid," Junior said. "Nobody else asked her. She's pretty, too."
"Oh, you…you…this is the second time today I've wanted to kill you! She's only the worst person in school."
"That's not true," Junior. "I know she's silly and a little vain, but she's not really bad. All her friends have left her, and she's been very unhappy. That's not right. People treated my mother like that once, you know."
"I can't believe you feel sorry for her," Anita said. "You shouldn't pretend to like people because you feel sorry for them."
"I'm not pretending," Junior said. "She was really nice to me when I asked. And why shouldn't you like people if you feel sorry for them too?"
Anita turned away and stared at the wall. "Oh, go and be stupid if you want to be."
"Anita, why are you angry with me? What's so wrong about my asking Nesume?"
"Thought you'd ask me," Anita muttered.
"Oh, I see," Junior said. "I didn't realize."
"Just forget it."
"I thought of asking you, actually. I almost did. But then I thought you would ask Hisami, so I decided not to."
Anita turned to face him again. "What? Me, ask Hisami to the dance? Oh, how dumb can you get? Girls don't ask girls to school dances!"
"NO! Everybody knows that!"
"Why don't they?"
"Because…it's…Oh, they just don't, that's all! Some things don't have explanations, they just are!"
"I don't understand."
"Of course you wouldn't."
"I just thought that since you and Hisami are in love, you…"
"Ahhhh! We're not in love!"
"But I've heard both of you say that you love each other."
"But it's not like that! Oooohh, you boys are all alike! How can I explain it to you?"
"So it's not like Nancy and—"
"SHUT UP!" She raised her hand and swung wildly.
Junior stepped aside and caught Anita's arm. He had never seen her so angry. She struggled in his grip and kicked his shins, right where they had been kicked during the match. Junior felt the blood seeping through his socks.
She calmed down after a moment.
"Leggo," she ordered. He released his grip. Anita sat on the ground again. She was breathing heavily and wouldn't look at him.
"I didn't mean to upset you," Junior said. "I just didn't know."
"I don't know either," Anita said in a low voice. "It's all kind of confusing. But people saying dumb things doesn't help."
"Sorry I tried to hit you."
"That's OK. Are we still friends, Anita?"
"Even if I go to the dance with Nesume?"
"Yeah. Even if."
"I'm glad. Please don't tell anyone, though."
"Yeah, yeah. Here's Michelle with our ride."
Junior enjoyed the ride home with Michelle and the sisters, even more than he usually did. It was a relief to be with people he liked and trusted completely. His body and mind relaxed. He still felt tired, but pleasantly so now that he was among friends. The car's gentle rocking motion was very comforting.
He looked out the car window to the west. The lights of downtown Tokyo were starting to come on as the twilight deepened towards night.
"It sounds like you had a hard day, Junior dear," Michelle said.
"Yes, it was hard," Junior said. "I made a lot of people cross with me."
"I'm sorry to hear you got into a fight, dear. But don't be too hard on yourself, these things will happen in middle school."
"That's what I've been telling him, but he doesn't believe me," Anita said.
"Thanks," Junior said. "My mother will still be angry with me, though."
"She won't stay angry long, Junior," Michelle said. "Mothers never do with their children, you know."
"I suppose. By the way, she hopes you can come to her dance performance."
"Oh, well, we'll try dear, but we have to see about a sitter for Anita first."
"Don't need no sitter," Anita said. "Not with that cranky genius around the house. Besides, why can't I come?"
"The, uh, material is quite…artistic, Anita, like ballet. I doubt that you'd be able to appreciate it fully. Isn't that right, Maggie dear?"
"Uh-huh," Maggie said. "You'd just get bored."
"Well, OK, then. I hate ballet."
"Maggie," Junior said, "Could you pose for another drawing, please?"
"All I have to do is just sit there, right?"
"Thanks very much. Oh, I just remembered something else my mother mentioned."
"Yeah? What was it?"
"She said to tell you that Ernest Hemingway was lying when he said he had an affair with her. When she was Mata Hari, I mean."
"Yeah, I sort of wanted to ask her, but…well, thanks, I was wondering about it. He told a lot of stories like that."
"She said he wouldn't have been her type anyway. I have a question about him for you, though."
"Sure. Ask away."
"I heard he said there were two things in life you couldn't write about unless you had actually experienced them. Do you know what things he meant?"
"Yeah," Maggie said. "One of them was war."
"War," Junior repeated. "Yes, that makes sense. What was the other?"
The last light had nearly gone when they stopped in front of Junior's house. The street was dark, and the front of the house lay in deep shadow.
It was an ordinary apartment house, not too expensive. His mother liked it because there was a big garden and yard in back. It was conveniently close to Chiyoda, too.
Junior got out of the car and paused for a moment. He looked up and saw the light on in his home.
Anita stood next to him. "Want me to come up?"
Junior shook his head. "No, I don't think so. She'll be angry, and I don't think it would be too easy to have you there."
"I think you're worrying a little too much."
Anita frowned. "What's up, then?"
"I don't know," Junior said. "It's just…"
They stood for a moment in the shadow, while Junior tried to find words. He couldn't.
"Well, goodbye," he said to his friend.
"'Bye, Junior. See you tomorrow."
He turned away, and disappeared into one of the darkened carports that lined the ground floor.