Although it had cost me quite some trouble, I felt thankful – a usually short Friday evening routine got extended a bit more.
It still would've been fine without an umbrella but today, I chose to be more feminine and resigned my Furinkan High School men's uniform to the closet. Wiping mud off of my skirt with a clean wipe is never something to look forward to but it's just wrong for a High School Girl with a dirty school uniform to be walking around in public, even if it were just an empty convenience store with an inattentive cashier. Normally, staff would routinely greet a customer as soon as the chimes of the sliding doors rang, but he nonchalantly dismissed the idea and went back to reading his magazine after turning his eyes towards me for a second.
As a shop owner, something like that just won't cut it… but then again, greeting customers all day everyday will eventually take its toll, and you start to slip. Sighing at the thought of opening 'Ucchan' and doing that all day, I offered my silent gratitude for this 'extension of routine' as the distant rumbling outside grew stronger and closer, the drizzle quickly turning into rain. Across the store, passed the small aisles, I set down my school bag, my bag of groceries, and my giant spatula on the long counter and reached for a fresh box of clean wipes I bought earlier this evening, "Haaa… and this was even a fresh new uniform," I thought out loud, tossing the used clean wipes into the trash bin; it didn't take much time and effort to get the mud off thankfully.
'Now what…?' my uniform was clean again, now there was nothing for me to do but wait until the rain subsided. The drizzle had finally turned into rain as the soft pitter-patter outside now sounded like an unending applause at a concert; thunder rumbled softly though with every flash briefly lighting up the soaked street outside in a bluish-white tinge. Cool air lingered around the store, even without the air conditioner as the frozen section of the store somehow kept it from becoming inconveniently hot. Although because of it, the distinct faint smell of thawing ice on the racks slowly invaded my space here near the corner of the store.
'Hmm, I wonder how my expenses are today…' that's right, this was a good chance to check my budget so I wouldn't have to do it late at night after preparing the items and utensils for the next day. Reaching in my groceries, I pulled out the receipt along with my small notebook and pen from my school bag, "18,750 Yen… that's a heck of a lot more than usual," I said, writing it down on my notebook for this week's budget… even though all of my weekly expenses never go over the budget, including this one tonight. Just like last week, the items were the usual – ingredients for okonomiyaki, a few toiletries, and two weekly magazine subscriptions – except for five extra items I just couldn't resist buying. Just then I realized… it was because of those five extra items that the rain caught up with me.
They were sold at school once to widen the menu, but for some reason, the canteen staff removed it from the list; by then, those were already my favorites to go along with my lunch. The convenience stores didn't have them for some reason (including this one) but the grocery store I routinely go to had them, neatly stacked in a refrigerated row, waiting to be opened and consumed. It was quite a distance from 'Ucchan' but they had all the best ingredients that I needed, conveniently located one aisle after the other, unlike before where I had to run to one place to find a certain item then look for the other at another place.
A lot of mothers and other shop owners go there too. I've talked to some of them; they were regulars just like I was, and they all said how convenient the place was… and interestingly, how lively the place became every Friday evening because of a certain regular. In fact, tonight I playfully checked with my watch and wondered if that certain regular was going to make it on time while I waited for items to be checked out; the cashier nodded in response as if she knew who I was talking about… then again, he was already quite well-known. The last items in my grocery list were being checked out as I subtly looked over my shoulders between the aisles, and just as she concluded reading to me how much everything cost, a seemingly clumsy figure quickly marched up to the counter next to mine, panting as he closely (REALLY closely) checked if indeed he was at a counter, 'I guess he did make it…'
'HAAAA! I MADE IT!!' He exclaimed, in his usual eccentric manner. 'Him' mistaking places for other places was a common sight now every Friday evening around half past 6:00pm, but I never did get used to that 'declaration' he makes every time. He would scare customers and staff alike but now, everyone seemed to have grown accustomed to him – everyone would just sigh and offer a sincere smile whenever he gets 'lost.' And what's even more remarkable is the fact that he somehow always manages to find the same counter out of the seven counters every time, '… here,' he started, pushing the items closer to the slightly embarrassed cashier,
'Are these the usual, Sir Customer?' She asked him casually; being rather familiar with him and his groceries, she practically knows how much he was going to pay,
'Yes… it's the usual – flour, spring onions, lettuces, gingers, and all that,' he said, finally regaining his composure,
Yes… that was pretty much the scene every Friday evening – we would both come to the same grocery store to buy things and then leave almost at the same time without talking. That was the routine, no more, no less.
"Ah…!" Turning my attention towards the door, my breath literally held itself inside my lungs as I saw who came in wearing a rain coat, a soaked muffler, a large cap with an umbrella and a bag of groceries, "Uwasa o sureba kage… da yo nee…" I never really paid much attention in class to such proverbs yet this one proved pleasantly surprising – it was a nice coincidence that he managed to find this convenience store that I was at. Placing his umbrella at the rack beside the door, he then walked over to the counter where I was while taking off his cap, muffler, and raincoat as if he knew the place, masterfully avoiding bumping into the aisles. Sitting down two seats from where I sat, I watched him pat himself dry as he placed his groceries on the counter,
"Hmmm?" He then turned to me, who was still staring at him, "Hey you're…" he added,
"Um… Kuonji. Kuonji Ukyou," I said, giving him a slight bow as he finally remembered who I was,
"Ah! Right, you're a regular from the store," He said. It was quite refreshing being remembered not as one of Ran-chan's fiancées or as a martial artist, given we see each other during one of those 'constant' battles occurring around the neighborhood. But… come to think of it, we see each other more often at the grocery store every week, "Hahaha… I'm Mu Tzu from the Nekohanten," he added, completing the introduction we never had with each other before for some reason, "It's nice to meet you…"
"You too Mu Tzu…" it was just as I thought – our first actual conversation felt awkward because here was someone I regularly see around Ran-chan and someone I interacted for the first time through a heated argument but never bothered to talk to, "You really made sure not to get wet huh?" I said, pointing to the garments soaking beside his grocery bag, "You hate the rain?" He scoffed, rearranging his glasses as he sat down on the stool,
"It's too troublesome flying back as duck with a bag of groceries,"
"Ah I see, that's troublesome… so, do you come here often? You look like you know the place,"
"I do… I found this convenience store a long time ago. The rain has a nasty habit of catching up with me every week. But I never see you here before,"
"Oh, it's the first time I've been here. I found this convenience store by accident when the rain started tonight. As you can see, getting mud all over this school uniform is difficult to wash," He nodded in agreement as he noticed my uniform, slightly curling his eyebrows a few moments later,
"School uniform… what happened to your other uniform?" He asked,
"I decided to try this female school uniform for a while. But, just my luck, it rained. Hahaha…" I said, trying hard to hide my embarrassment appearing on my face as he smiled back at me and then turned to his groceries, checking the items inside. Seeing how he was around Ran-chan, Xian Pu, and at the store, 'him' sitting there calmly and quietly felt strange at the same time comforting – the other half of his self spared me from being reminded of the perpetual chaos looming over Nerima with the eccentric bunch around Ran-chan. This calm and quiet side of him blended with the ambience of the convenience store on a rainy night like this so much, it was almost hard to notice him; it was far different from the eccentric person I came to know as the man with a poor sense of sight and with an almost silly sense of dedication to Xian Pu.
Minutes went by as the rain continued to fall harder and faster outside, while time seemed to have stopped inside. None of us uttered a word as we patiently waited for the rain to subside. Mu Tzu have sat opposite the counter and rested his back against it, sliding his hands inside his sleeves as he seemed to nod off. The inattentive cashier put on his earphones and seemed to have put the volume in maximum, and was now moving his head into the beat of his music. It was almost 7:00pm now, and, sighing at the thought of how long forever was going to take, I thought of nodding off for a while like Mu Tzu to pass the time… I just noted in my mind that if it ever felt so comfortable sleeping on the counter, it would mean the rain had stopped and that it was—
"Do you get tired of it?"
"What?" Mu Tzu suddenly asked, raising his glasses to the top of his head as he turned to me, "What do you mean Mu Tzu?"
"Going through it everyday – the fighting, the other martial artists, these 'Saotome Fiancée' issues… do you get tired of it?"
"Come on… that's simple, of course I do," but… even though I said so, it wasn't as simple as I thought it was to be honest. Giving up Ran-chan after deciding to take him back again puts my family's honor at stake, and because the other girls are martial artists, there's no other choice but to fight. Although… I am getting very tired of it; I'm just hoping not to the point of giving up Ran-chan and consequently my family's honor, "Why do you ask?"
"Oh, no particular reason," he replied, his face expressionless as he stared blankly ahead of him. I wasn't quiet sure but knowing him to be incredibly persistent despite an outright and oftentimes painful rejection from Xian Pu, his determination seemed limitless… so what was this? Could he be… thinking of giving up?
"So many peculiar things happen around here, and as far as I could remember, fighting's the only way to get ahead. Ran-chan's indecision is just…" 'Eating away at my patience' … I couldn't say it out loud; I couldn't even believe I could think it,
"Saotome… this would all end soon if he would just choose… as long as it wasn't Xian Pu. But even without Saotome around in the first place… I'm still getting very tired of it,"
"What do you mean?"
"Xian Pu… all my life I went after her to make her look my way, even just once. I've met rejection after rejection but I never gave up. All my life… all my life… I couldn't believe that I have moments thinking of just… dropping all of it and walking away," He said, his eyes gazing at his hands hidden behind his sleeves. 'All my life… that I could understand,'
"Ah, I know what you mean. I've known Ran-chan ever since we were children; I was his first friend. I liked him since then, but it all changed when they left me behind after an agreement with my father for a promised engagement. All my life… since then, I vowed vengeance, until I fell in love with him again," I said, turning my eyes towards the ceiling, imagining Ran-chan's face laughing and full of energy, "He always saw me as his best friend… even now, even when I'm supposed to be his fiancée. It's… frustrating,"
"Ah…" he said, turning around and leaning with his arms crossed on the counter, "I see…"
"Why are you telling me this Mu Tzu?"
Turning to me, without his glasses, his eyes trying to find my contour, "You felt like someone who could understand,"
"Training was my life in the Chinese Amazon, and being a handicapped man meant I won't have the luxury of having many friends. Trust was very scarce back at home…"
"So… you trusted me? We've never actually 'talked' before,"
"I don't really know…" Pulling down his glasses to his eyes, he pulled his hands back into his sleeves, "I didn't know, until you said Saotome saw you as his best friend. I just felt that… Saotome being a martial artist would know who to trust and who couldn't be trusted… and you're one of them,"
"Ahh…" I still didn't really understood what he meant to be honest; something inside of him must've been so heavy to carry he would tell even to a stranger, "… okay,"
"I'm sorry…! That must've sounded weird," he said, apologetically bowing his head,
"No, no, it's fine," waving my hands frantically, he finally lifted his head, "It's really nothing,"
"Well… what I meant to say was that… you're someone I feel comfortable around,"
"All week, like a routine, I try to make Xian Pu look my way, Saotome comes along, and I get beaten up – that simple. I get beat up bad enough that everywhere reminded me of how painful it was… except when I see you every Friday evening in the grocery store,"
"Ah—ah…" I'm… speechless; I could feel my face slowly becoming warmer,
"Everyone else reminded me of that 'routine' but you were different. You didn't have with you that malicious intent Xian Pu or that woman with the black rose carried around and you're not as violent as Tendou can be towards Saotome. You're… normal in this crazy town,"
"Ahhh… so that's why you felt like I was a sounding board deary?" I said, playfully raising my eyebrow and crossing my arms, "Well?"
"Ahahaha—well, no, not really. Ahaha!" He replied, breaking out into laughter in his usual eccentric self…
'… That was very nice Mu Tzu… Thank you…'
"Nee Mu Tzu?"
Reaching inside my grocery bag, I pulled out two of those extra items that I bought, "Here! Have some,"
"Sure! Take it!" Pushing it closer to him, he then reluctantly took it into his hands,
"No problem… I found them today at the grocery store. They're my favorite – Melon Milk,"
Time seemed to have passed by a bit faster as the rain grew weaker than it was a few minutes before. No one came in to the convenience store and the cashier was still inattentive as ever so we felt it was fine talking more casually; we talked about ramen and okonomiyaki, secret recipes passed down from generation to generation like one chef to another. Melon Milk tasted sweeter as we talked about trivial things… then I thought about what he said earlier – 'I'm normal in this crazy town.' It was hard to imagine someone wearing a male school uniform with a giant spatula on my back 'normal.' Then again, I never could've imagined this eccentric martial artist from China 'confessing about how he felt' just as easy to a stranger as he did to Xian Pu.
Normal in this crazy town… I found myself wishing Ran-chan was just as candid even in his own way. The routine all week was to get Ranma to make me feel special above every other girl who was after him, but tonight, outside of that routine, Mu Tzu somehow made me feel in a split second what I want Ran-chan to make me feel for the rest of our lives. Mu Tzu… "Ah, the rain finally stopped!"
"What? Really?" I said, looking over to the doors of the convenience store. Rainwater no longer splashed the glass doors and the pitter-patter on the roof was gone, "Oh! It really has!"
"Yeah… this is some weekly routine huh?"
"Hmmm? ……… yes, it was nice to take a detour in the routine," I said, replacing spatula on my back and picking up my things, "It was nice talking to you Mu Tzu!"
"You too Kuonji. Come by the restaurant sometime – I'll show you the special ramen I came up with at half the price!"
"Oh? That would be nice. You should also come by my shop again,"
"Yeah… remember? Just leave your mask behind and eat more slowly ok?" I said, winking at him as I picked up my things and headed for the door,
"Mask… oh! Right! Hahaha! Take care…" He replied, gathering up his things at the counter as I exited the convenience store. Yep, he was right; this was some weekly routine… 'I think I'll pass through here again next week. Who knows? He might or might not come…' I thought finishing up the rest of my Melon Milk and tossing it in a trash bin outside the store. 'I do wish he'd come by next week again… I have to remind him to call me Ukyou instead of my family name.'
Looking up into the clearing evening sky, although it cost me quite a bit of trouble earlier, I now truly was thankful – a usually short, uneventful, Friday evening routine got extended… and likely, completely changed… and it was all because of one trivial item,
"Melon Milk… I think I'll go back and buy some more," Who knows? This might be the start of a whole new routine.
Disclaimer: Ranma 1/2 and its characters are the property of Takahashi Rumiko.
"Uwasa o sureba kage" - A Japanese proverb which is similar to the English proverb 'Speak of the devil and he shall appear.'