"Hot Enough For You?"
I had been minding my own business as I waited at the crosswalk, but this made me look over. The person—sort of—who asked the question was easily six foot two. His bald head was an ominous medley of red and black, with small horns scattered about. His eyes were blazing yellow. He had to weigh in at three hundred plus pounds, and his robes were thick, some rough weave, in a solid black. He was sweating profusely.
"Sure is," I finally said, before getting jostled by a group of hobbits, with pointy ears and curly hair, who were apparently complaining about their hotel room. The big guy was still staring at me expectantly, and I found myself adding, "But back home in New York, it's hot and humid. Like they say, at least this is a dry heat."
"Oh? You're from New York?" His yellow eyes lit up, and I immediately regretted giving him the opening. He had successfully initiated a conversation. I should've known better. "The city? I love the city! I was there for a different convention, a few years ago . . ."
"No. Groverton." I watched him stare at me blankly, then I laughed. "It's a tiny town, upstate."
"So you're just in San Diego for the Comic-Con?"
"Um, yup," I said.
"I'm Chad Pennington," he said. "I'm local. Oh, and I'm also Darth Maul."
"I'm Lisa Falloya," I answered politely, before gesturing to my non-costume clothes. "And . . . I'm not anything else."
Just then the crosswalk sign lit up and I started moving, carried by the wave of the convention-goers. I darted ahead, because the friendly guy who'd started the conversation was a Star Wars guy, and I knew from experience that most Star Wars guys could talk for hours. I just wanted to get to the convention and find my friends Stacy and Perry and maybe convince them to go home a day early.
It wasn't that the convention was too weird, even though I was surrounded by people dressed as everything from comic-book and video-game characters to monsters and, in one funny incident, a human Three Musketeers bar. Actually, I liked the atmosphere. I even liked the people. Darth Maul, my crosswalk buddy, was probably a very nice guy, if possibly overtalkative.
It wasn't the city. As far as cities went, San Diego was really as lovely as everyone said. It was eighty-nine degrees, and locals were acting like it was the apocalypse. If this were Groverton, people would be commenting on how unseasonably balmy the day was. The sky was an impossible blue, and the air was bone dry. It was as close to heaven as you could come, after Groverton's sweltering heat.
And it wasn't that I missed my boyfriend, Ethan . . . although I did, terribly, because I always did when I was traveling. Of course, it wasn't like I traveled extensively, either. In fact, my annual trek (no pun intended, for those Star Trek fans I felt sure were crawling around) to the Comic Book Convention every August was the only traveling I did. Which was why I was now feeling the aftereffects.
"There you are!"
I finally saw Stacy and Perry, my two best friends, walking toward me. Stacy was a short, somewhat stocky redhead with a matronly disposition. Thirty-four years old, she looked like a cross between a fairy godmother and a linebacker. Perry, on the other hand, was very tall, almost six-five, with corn silk blond hair. He was whipcord thin and lanky. Even at twenty-eight, he looked like he was maybe nineteen. Fortunately, neither of them were wearing costumes, although Perry was wearing a Green Lantern icon T-shirt.
"You missed so much," Stacy said, sounding out of breath.
"It's only ten thirty," I pointed out.
"Yeah, but they were showing movies this morning. I got to see Steamboy," Stacy gushed.
"You've seen that like thirty times," Perry pointed out. "I met a few cool artists and got my Camelot 3000 copy signed. Finally."
"Cool." We were all friends in geek, as Stacy used to say. It was nice to have best friends like this, the same since junior high. Apparently, it was really rare. "I was tired, though."
"Staying out too late, huh?" Perry said.
"Yeah. You guys both know I don't get out much at home," I said, with a sheepish grin. "Ethan usually stays in and studies, and since I started seeing him, I only go out for our anime club." I decided to lay the groundwork for my next request. "Besides, you know I don't really get along with traveling . . ."
"It's a nice change for me," Stacy said, her voice positively perky despite only getting a few hours of sleep. "Between Roger needing to get up early to go to work and Thomas only being two and a half . . . that whole first year, I was getting no sleep. I wasn't even getting a shower every other day, much less going out!"
"Well, at least you're back at the Con," I said. "You've had a great visit, and I'm sure you miss Roger and Thomas anyway . . ."
Stacy sighed as the three of us joined the crowd crushing into the convention center. "Yeah, but I don't know how long I'll be able to keep coming here. Roger's been talking about having another kid. Maybe trying for a girl, this time. So this could be my last Comic Convention for a while." She sounded strained, as if perkiness was warring with the grimness of that announcement.
"Yeah, but Thomas was totally worth it," I reminded her. He was my godson, after all, and he was an amazing kid. I was starting to feel a bit bad at what I was about to ask. "The thing is . . ."
Perry rolled his eyes. "No, Lisa, you can't go home early."
I blinked at him. "How'd you know?"
Even Stacy shook her head. "Because you do this every year. You're fine the first day or two, but by day three you're dragging, and by the fourth day you're begging to catch an earlier flight."
"And you'd realize that every year we tell you no," Perry added. "Besides, if you leave now, you'll miss the announcement!"
I quavered internally. That was a big part of why I was so gung-ho on leaving early, I had to admit.
This year I'd actually entered one of my hand-drawn comics in a competition. The company was a big Japanese publisher, one that I'd been reading for years, and when I saw that they were asking for entries from the United States, I'd allowed myself a glimmer of hope.
Of course, I'd probably have left it a glimmer if it hadn't been for my meddling friends. Once Stacy and Perry found out, I'd had to flight them as they browbeat me for another month to enter one of my amateur comics in the thing. So I'd closed my eyes, held the proverbial gun to my head, and pulled the trigger by mailing that sucker in.
Today, I'd find out if I made it.
"I have almost no chance," I said, both to argue my case for leaving early and to try and quell my own hopes. Why get worked up? I probably had a better chance of winning the lottery. "You guys both know that. I mean, how many people here probably entered?"
"It's a great story, and your drawings were cute," Stacy argued. "Come on! It'll be another half-hour. We need to get to that pavilion."
"I should get something to eat," I said, trying to postpone the inevitable.
The thing was, I'd had the dream for the past few months. This probably sounds totally pathetic, but once I heard the winner announced, and if it wasn't me, well, I would lose that delicious feeling of possibility.
Of course, the counterargument would be, but what if I won. It was a traitorous internal voice, the same one that had prompted me to start drawing the comic in the first place. As usual, I tried to ignore it. Nothing broke your heart like that little voice, I swear to God.
"I'll meet you guys at the Sansoro Publisher booth," I said, and they nodded, although Perry made a menacing gesture—you'd better be there, he seemed to say.
I headed for the hideously overpriced concession stand, intent on grabbing a hamburger, fries, and a Coke. The breakfast of conventioneers, I thought with a grin. But before I could get on line, my cell phone vibrated in my pocket. I glanced at it, then smiled.
"Hi, Ethan," I answered, ducking into a corridor and covering my other ear with my hand. "It's so good to hear from you. I miss you!"
"How are things at Nerd Central?" he asked, then laughed. "Been picked up by any more Star Trek guys?"
"Star Wars," I corrected. "And Darth Maul tried to get me into a conversation at the crosswalk, but I escaped."
He chuckled again. "How's it going? Homesick yet?"
We'd been going together for three years now, and he knew me probably better than anybody. "Terribly homesick," I admitted without shame. If you couldn't be puny and miserable with your boyfriend, then he wasn't much of a boyfriend, right? "But it's just another day and a half."
"That's my girl," Ethan said. "It's good for you to get out."
He was always saying stuff like that. The only non-Con travel I'd done was with him: a vacation to Florida, a trip to Toronto, even a trip to meet his parents near San Francisco. Being with him did ease the traveling malaise, just like being with Stacy and Perry helped. Usually because they wouldn't let me wallow in it, I thought. "So how are things going for you? Working hard?"
"I'm just getting stuff closed out and ready for when the semester starts up again in September," Ethan said.
"I thought you could coast this year, relatively speaking," I said, .finally getting on line behind a couple dressed as Superman and what I had to assume was Lois Lane, circa 1940. "I mean, it's your last year."
"Yeah, but I'm going to try to get a different job, maybe in the city, remember?"
Of course I remembered. I'd known about The Plan, as he called it, since the day I met him. I think he'd somehow worked it into his pickup line. We'd introduced ourselves, said what we did. He'd said, "I'm Ethan Lonnel, and I'm getting my MBA before getting a job in the city. Probably a director of operations."
I'd been impressed, since I just said I worked at the Philson semiconductor plant in Groverton. Everybody I knew, practically, worked at The Plant, as they called it—it being so huge and overpowering that it needed no further clarification. I had a job, and that was as far as it went. He, on the other hand, had A Plan. Or rather, The Plan.
"That's awfully together of you," I'd said, impressed. "You sound like you like what you do."
"I love what I do," he'd answered, and his grin had been amazing.
"I like a man who loves what he does," I'd found myself saying, even though I suddenly realized I had rarely met anyone, man or woman, who .t that description. We'd been together ever since.
"So I need to ace this year, especially the outside projects," he said. "I'm going to be busier this year than ever."
I sighed silently. I barely saw Ethan these days as it was. I knew better than to complain, though. Not that he'd reprimand me or anything. It would just make him feel guilty, which would make me feel bad since I knew how important The Plan was to him. It was better to just avoid discussing anything but details.
"Don't worry. After June, it'll all get better," he promised, and I knew that, too. "But, yeah, until June it's going to be rough. I won't get to see you that much."
I made a little noise of acceptance, a sort of yuh-huh, even as I felt loneliness curl around the edges of my consciousness. "Well, it's just a year," I said, with forced perkiness.
"Then, everything we promised," he said, and I warmed at the tone of his voice. "Hell, you probably won't be a single girl for very much longer. You should take advantage of it. Go out and raise hell with your friends. See the world. Stuff like that."
"Oh, you know me," I said, motioning to what food I wanted and paying the cashier for it. "World-traveling hell-raiser."
"I just feel bad, having to leave you alone all the time," Ethan said.
"No problem." I grabbed my tray of food and juggled the phone. "You're worth it."
"That's definitely my girl," he said. "Listen, I gotta go . . . need to buy books and stuff. I'll call you tonight."
"Love you," I said, reluctant to lose contact.
"Love you, too." He hung up.
As I made my way to the Sansoro booth, I tucked the phone into my pocket, and then found Stacy and Perry. There was a good-sized crowd, all of whom were undoubtedly anime and manga buffs—that is, all fans of the Japanese cartoons and comics that we, meaning me and all my friends, were wild about. They were talking in low, excited murmurs. There was a delegation of people from the publisher up on the stand, and the podium was empty but spotlighted—obviously waiting for the grand announcement.
"Did I miss anything?" I asked, before taking a bite of burger. I grimaced at Perry when he stole a fry.
"Not a thing. But any minute now," Stacy said, unable to keep still in her seat.
I plowed through my food, as if eating would somehow force my jittery stomach to focus on something other than the impending announcement. I finished, and they still hadn't said anything, so I got up to throw out my trash, making my way over people's feet, since Stacy and Perry had grabbed seats in the middle of the room. I was at the trash can when a man stepped up to the podium.
"We at Sansoro were very pleased at the number of entries that came in for our very first American manga contest," he said. He was Japanese, but his accent was very slight. "The entries themselves were very impressive, and we had a very difficult time picking out only one final winner. The judging process went as follows . . ."
The pleasantries went on for a while, and I was seriously considering just hovering along the edges of the crowd, and then bailing before Stacy and Perry could see me. Just for a little while, just to get my bearings. Don't get your hopes up, don't get your hopes up, I muttered to myself, pressing my hands against my stomach.
The burger was probably a bad choice.
I would find out in a second. Then, after the letdown (which I'd felt so many other times, in other contests), I'd just hang out and watch a movie or check out the other booths; then I'd get to pack and go home, back to the routine. Not that thrilling, admittedly, but . . .
"And the winner is . . . sertgh burglethetir! "
I stared. The microphone had burbled, or something. That had made no sense.
The crowd was applauding, and I had the vague impression that Stacy and Perry were screaming. Yes, screaming.
The Japanese man at the podium scanned the crowd. "Is she here today? We were told she'd registered."
I stared at Stacy and Perry, who were gesturing to me wildly. What the hell had just happened? Did I have an aneurysm and miss it, or something?
The man cleared his throat. "I repeat . . . the winner of the grand prize of a one-year internship at Sansoro Publishing is . . . Lisa Falloya!"
A MONTH later, the shock still hadn't worn off.
"Well, of course you're going," Stacy said, taking a long drink from her milk shake. "Tell me you're going!"
"I have another week to make up my mind," I said defensively.
I had all but passed out, hearing I'd won the contest. Now we were back in Groverton, sitting at MegaBurger after an anime club meeting, having our usual shakes and burgers. And from the moment that I had discovered I'd won, I'd had a barrage of commentary from Stacy and Perry.
"Why the hell wouldn't you go?" Perry asked, before taking a huge bite of burger and devouring it in nanoseconds. For a skinny guy, he could really pack it away. "It's Japan, for chrissake! Only the coolest place on earth! Do you know what I'd give to live over there for a year? To get somebody else to pay for me to live there for a year?"
"So you go," I said, only half joking.
"Oh, don't start with that," Stacy snapped. "You've got an opportunity to see how a manga publisher works. We've only been reading the stuff for forever, and you get to actually spend a year doing something other than order semiconductor parts! You've got to be insane to not see how phenomenal that is!" She dipped a fry into the pool of ketchup she had smeared on her plate. "I'm with Perry. I would kill to do what you're going to do!"
"And you could come back, and tell everybody you were a mangaka!" Perry said, as if that settled the argument completely.
"I wouldn't make it to manga-ka," I said, using the term that meant manga artist. "I keep reminding you, I'm American. They don't make Americans manga-ka."
"A Westerner is the head of Sony now," Perry countered. "They're changing."
"Not according to my mother," I argued back, uncomfortable with the pressure. "And seeing as she is Japanese, she ought to know."
Perry rolled his eyes, and Stacy tsked the comment away with a wave of her hand, almost knocking her metal cup with extra milkshake over. "Your mom hasn't lived in Japan for what, forty years? Japan's changing. I've read about it. Besides, you won the contest, didn't you? You got the internship! Why would they do that if they didn't want you to be a manga-ka for a year?"
I kept quiet. I loved my friends, but they'd lived in Groverton all their lives—same as I had, come to think of it. But the difference was, they weren't Japanese, or half-Japanese, or even Asian.
I knew there was a difference. But there was no way I could explain it to them without sounding racist. And even if I could manage to sound rational, they still wouldn't believe me. It was an American thing, I knew—people changed, it didn't matter where you came from, as long as you worked hard and had the talent, you could go where you wanted to go.
"Besides, it's not just that," Perry said. "You're just, you know, being a punk." He grinned at that.
"I do hate traveling," I said, refusing to rise to the bait.
"But it's Japan." Stacy's tone sounded almost rapturous. "You can see that fish market, and all the kids in Harajuku, and the commuters . . . and those massive screens and . . ." She gestured, as if words failed to capture just how unbelievable the whole thing would be. "And you'd be getting paid!"
"Not all that much," I said, trying to put a damper on the whole thing. I was jazzed that I'd won the internship, but in my mind, I had done what I had set out to do. Sure, I wasn't crazy, a part of me would love to go, but it just seemed like a huge hassle. "It's a small stipend. I mean, it's an internship. And it's expensive to live in Tokyo. Way more expensive than here, anyway." Just number fifteen on my list of why it's a bad idea to go to Tokyo.
"You've got savings," Stacy said stubbornly.
"Besides, it doesn't have to be expensive," Perry said. "Remember Yukari?"
"Uh, no," I said. "Should I?"
He rolled his eyes at me. "She's my pen pal from Tokyo."
Stacy and I shared a grin. Perry had Asian pen pals all across the world, it seemed. He made his preference for Asian women no secret. I'd occasionally wondered if that was why he initially befriended me, even though we'd never been anything close to romantic. "Don't tell me you're getting one of your hoochie mamas to hook me up with an apartment," I said.
"She's not a hoochie mama." Perry finished his burger in one enormous, fierce bite. He always took umbrage about this sort of thing. "She's a nice girl. Twenty-one, out of university but still living at home with her parents and her kid brother. I'm sure they would be up for taking in a boarder. You could stay with them, and it'd be a lot cheaper than renting an apartment or even a gaijin house."
I have to admit, I did look into housing. Gaijin housing was housing specifically meant for Westerners or foreigners. They were usually tiny, with a shared bathroom, and they were still not necessarily cheap. Or, if they were cheap, they were probably in ghettos. Not what I really was looking forward to.
"How do you know they'd be interested?"
Perry smirked. "Already asked her."
"Jesus, Perry." It was one thing to be helpful; this was bordering on blackmail.
"Listen, if we left it up to you, you'd come up with excuse after excuse until the deadline had passed," Stacy said, defending Perry. "I looked up airfares. I looked up what it would take for you to get your passport. I looked up what it would take to get a work visa."
"They'd take care of that," I said automatically, then blushed as I realized that they were looking at me with some smugness.
"So you do want to go!" Stacy almost crowed it.
"So I've read the paperwork, big deal." I felt embarrassed, so I nibbled a couple of fries. "I didn't just ignore this. I've done some research. And it's not like I said I don't want to go."
"Could've fooled me," Perry muttered.
"It's just . . . okay. Yes. I'm scared, okay?" I crossed my arms, leaving half of my burger uneaten. "It's a big, huge change, and I'm scared silly."
Now Perry and Stacy eased off. "At least you're being honest about it," Stacy said, and she reached over to pat me on the hand. "But honey, it's time. This is such a huge opportunity. What are you scared of?"
"I won't know anybody. My Japanese is so totally rusty . . . I can get by with speaking it, for the most part, but the written is terrible." I sighed. I could recite the list from memory. I'd only been going over it every day for the past month. "I get lost at the drop of a hat. I get horrible jet lag. I don't know what they'd expect of me. I get homesick when I leave for just five days."
They listened, quietly, supportive.
"I don't know. Maybe some people are just cut out for small-town living," I expanded. "I love Groverton. I still have my best friends from high school. It's just . . . nice here. Comfortable." I sighed heavily and took a sip of my shake—chocolate peanut butter. What were the odds I'd find a chocolate peanut butter shake in Tokyo? "It'd be great, from a certain standpoint, but after a year it'd be all over. So why go in the first place? I'm happy here."
Stacy and Perry looked at each other. "Want to take this one," Perry asked Stacy, "or should I?"
"Go for it," Stacy replied.
Perry turned to me, his eyes filled with compassion and understanding.
"Lisa, honey," he said, "that is the biggest bunch of bullshit I have ever heard in my life."
I sat up straight, as if I'd been goosed. "I beg your pardon."
"You're scared, you admitted it," he said. "And fear's the only thing that's kept you in Groverton all these years. Yeah, we're cool and all, but we're not the reason you stayed. And it's not because it's so nice. I mean, it's not like you love your job."
"I . . ." I fell quiet. He was right. I was a desk jockey at The Plant—the same place where Stacy worked. Half the time I was stressed out, and the other half I was trying desperately to kill time while looking busy. "Well, that was blunt."
"And you don't like your apartment."
"It's not so bad," I said, thinking of my little studio apartment. Sure, it still had that college graduate still-in-boxes, Ikea chic thing going, but hell . . .
"Face it. Your life isn't a Frank Capra movie," Perry said, in his best Jack Nicholson tough-love voice. "It's just less work than going out and doing what you want to do."
"So why are you two still in Groverton if I'm such a bum?" I didn't mean it to come out that harshly, but damn it, I felt under attack here.
Perry's smile was sad. "I didn't say that we were better than you," he said. "I know that part of me just desperately wants to live vicariously through you. You're the one who won, after all."
"And I've got Roger and my son," Stacy said. "I'm not going anywhere."
They looked at me, like I was the Great White Hope or something. I felt like a slug.
"There is one other thing," I said, although it was a feeble hope. "Ethan. I don't want to leave Ethan."
Stacy shook her head. "Does Ethan want you here?"
I felt my eyes widen. "Of course he wants me here!"
"Did he tell you not to go?"
I thought Ethan was my ace in the hole, the one factor that was inarguable. "No," I admitted. "But then, I didn't really ask him, either."
"So there you go," Perry said. "Let Ethan be the final factor. If he doesn't mind you going, then you don't have any more excuses except your own fear."
I sat and stared at my so-called helpful friends, who stared back. I was very aware of the clatter of the other diners, the smell of the burgers and fries from the kitchen, the sticky-smooth feel of the booth's red vinyl seat on my back.
"I'm staying at Ethan's tonight," I finally said. "I'll talk to him."
"That's all we're asking," Perry said.
"You guys are insanely pushy," I added, a grumbling footnote.
"Yeah, but that's part of why you're friends with us," Stacy said.
"You didn't want to go to the Con with us, either, remember? And now you go every year."
"It's all about that first leap," Perry agreed.
"Well, thank God I have you two to push me off the cliff," I said, and they toasted each other with milkshake. Unable to stay pissy in the face of such joviality, I joined in.
Still, I felt foreboding at what I'd agreed to. What would Ethan say? He loved me, he wanted to be with me, I knew that. But he also wanted me to live a bigger life than I was living. He was the one with The Plan, after all.
And honestly, what did I want him to say?
"HONEY," ETHAN said, "I think you should go."
I let out a slow, frustrated breath and plopped down on Ethan's stylish leather couch with a thud.
For once, why couldn't you be a possessive, overbearing boyfriend?
But I knew I didn't mean it. I'd actually had one of those, thanks very much, right before Ethan. I'd gotten enough from that relationship to realize I didn't need another. But still, the fact that he was so agreeable, so practically ready to pack my bag for me, rankled.
"You realize, of course, this means I'm going away for a whole year, starting in January." My voice was a dull monotone, just this side of sulking.
"I know. I'll miss you," he said, and that was a balm of sorts. "But it's such a great opportunity."
"If one more person says it's a great opportunity," I said, "I may scream."
Ethan ran a hand through his hair, causing the sandy brown curls to stick almost straight up. He looked terribly sexy that way, I thought. And I'd be thousands of miles away from him for a whole year, making do with a photo.
I was spending the night at his place, and I could see his dining room table was strewn with papers and binders and folders—all school stuff. He'd been studying when I'd gotten there, and now it was eleven. At least it was Friday. Still, he looked frazzled.
"I thought this was what you loved. The comic book stuff," Ethan clarified, and instead of sounding warm, he sounded annoyed, and rightfully so, I thought with some guilt. Here he was, trying to be Mr. Supportive, and I was just being a pouty little whiner. "If you don't want to go, don't go. But if you ask me if I mind, then the answer is no."
I nodded, biting my lip.
"And if you're trying to use me as an excuse for you not to go . . ." He sat down on the couch next to me, frowning. "Then knock it off. Because that's not going to work."
"You're right," I said. "I'm sorry. I'm just freaked out by the whole thing. It's a big move."
He smiled, more gently this time, and I managed to feel like even more of a crumb. What the hell was my problem? "I moved from Walnut Creek, California, to Groverton, New York," he pointed out. "Three thousand miles. I know the feeling. And, yeah, it was a big change, but I got through it just fine. I met you, didn't I?"
I smiled when he winked at me. "But it's different. You're . . ." I moved my hands in an amorphous gesture, trying to put into words what I felt was impossible to define. "Different," I finally said, somewhat lamely.
"Not as different as you'd think—" he started, but I interrupted him.
"You've always got a plan, and you stick to it. You know where you want to go, and absolutely nothing's going to stop you." It was sort of comforting, actually. "I'm not like that. I'm more of a go-with-the-flow girl."
"I know. That's part of why we work so well together," he said, and he kissed my cheek. Now I knew I'd miss him, dreadfully, painfully. "But, sweetie, you can't just .oat through life."
"Sure you can," I said, only half-joking. "I've been doing it for twenty-eight years."
"What I mean is, you can't just be my sidekick. You need to have a life of your own. Don't you want to have some adventures before we get married?"
There it was again—that little thrill, and that little tension, at the thought of it. Married to Ethan. It was something I'd dreamed about, but it was also probably the most permanent thing that would ever happen to me in my whole life. "What, you're saying I should sow some wild oats and pick up some pretty Japanese guys?" I laughed, to show I was kidding. The thought of cheating on Ethan, on anybody, was pretty unthinkable.
He was laughing before I was, I noticed. He knew it, too—the thought was pretty ludicrous. I was as monogamous as they came. "No, you know that. But you could tell our kids about your trip to Japan. How their mommy went all the way across the world to draw cartoons."
He made it sound like a big vacation or some kind of summer camp. I frowned, although I wasn't sure why.
"It'd be over before you know it," he coaxed. "You'd be so busy, and seeing so much new stuff. The year would just .y by, I'm sure. It's been like that for me, with business school and work and all. I can't believe I've been here for three years already, it's all seemed to be a blink."
I nodded, but in my mind it felt like we'd been together for even more years than that—for practically forever. Maybe because my life was less busy, it seemed to move slower. "Well, I'm sure it wouldn't be that bad," I admitted. "And it'd be new. And different."
"That's the spirit," he encouraged.
"And I've always wanted to see Tokyo," I said, desperately trying to warm up to the idea.
"And maybe . . ." I felt weird, voicing the dream aloud, even to the man I was going to marry, "maybe, if they like me, I could get a job. Work on more projects. Maybe they'd actually publish some of my manga in books."
"That could always happen," he said, in exactly the same tone. "Only one way to find out, right?"
I sighed. It was decided. "You really are trying to get rid of me," I teased, my voice uneven.
He sighed in response, surprising me. "Well . . ."
My eyes widened. "Wait a sec. You mean you really want me out of here?"
"Not that way," he amended, irritation back. "But, well, like tonight."
"What about tonight?"
"I've got reading for three classes that I need to catch up on," he said, pointing to the littered table. "I have a meeting on Monday that I need to get numbers ready for. I've got a ton of things to do. Sometimes, it feels like my head'll explode. You know I love having you over, Lisa. I love being with you. But . . ."
"But I'm a distraction," I said, immediately feeling contrite. "Oh, God. I'm sorry."
"It's not a problem," he said, then laughed weakly. "I mean, yeah, it is a problem. But I hate it when I know that you're just at home waiting, and that you'd love to spend time with me. I guess that makes me a selfish asshole."
"Of course it doesn't," I said quickly. "Are you kidding? If anyone's the asshole here, it's me. I mean, I know you're under all this pressure. I'm not making things any easier."
"It's just . . ." He paused, and she could tell he was choosing his words carefully. "You know how you said I was driven? That I always had a plan?"
"I do have a plan," he said, and his tone was a little fierce. "I'm not ashamed of that. It's how I function. But sometimes I see you, not really caring where you're going. And . . . I wonder."
"You wonder," I said, waiting for clarification.
"This is a terrible time for me to bring it up," he said, and he ran his hand through his hair again, looking less sexy, and more and more like Kramer from Seinfeld. He was really getting agitated. "I mean, I don't want to get into all of this. But I'll have midterms coming up pretty soon, and finals . . . and then I'll set up interviews for better jobs, and still have next semester, and you know work's not taking it easy on me . . ."
I let him continue in that vein, trying to ignore that he was deliberately rushing away from the point that he'd brought up.
I see you not really caring where you're going. And I wonder.
"You're under a lot of stress," I said, summarizing what he was going on about.
"Exactly," he said, and he let out a relieved breath.
"And . . . it might even be easier, say, if I were busy somewhere else."
"I'd feel less guilty," he said. "That makes me a complete shit, but—"
"Knock that off," I said, and saw the look of surprise. I supposed my tone of voice was a little snippy. "You don't have to keep beating yourself up for needing to take time to focus on your career. You worked hard to get here. I really do understand, Ethan."
"Well, good." He paused, stroking my shoulder absently. "So, does that mean you're going?"
I nodded. "Yeah, I guess so." That was too passive. I forced my voice to sound more determined.
"Yes," I repeated. "I am definitely going to Tokyo."
Excerpted from TURNING JAPANESE by CATHY YARDLEY
Copyright © 2009 by Cathy Yardley
Published in April 2009 by St. Martin's Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.