“Can I get you anything else?” My favorite waiter at Matsuda puts down a bowl of edamame and a steaming cup of green tea in front of me.
I slide my shades off and let my guard down. I can be myself again because the cameras aren’t allowed to follow me in here—or at school.
“You could join me.” I give him a flirty smile.
“Duh, it’s Wednesday. My future girlfriend is on TV. Like I’m going to miss that.”
As I set up my tablet, Leo grabs a tray filled with all the decorative shoyu bottles from the restaurant’s tables and a giant jug of soy sauce to refill them. I scooch over in my favorite booth so that Leo and his tray can join me. The opening strains of Kitsune Mask’s wailing guitar echo around the otherwise empty restaurant. Leo and I do our usual dance, which includes flailing arm movements—at least until my hand hits the tray and knocks over one of the decorative bottles, spilling shoyu everywhere.
“Dakota!” Leo lightly chastises me before jumping up to get a rag. “Pause it. I’ll be right back.”
My eyes follow after him. Leo Matsuda. My best friend for over a decade. The person whose lips send arcs of electricity through my body. Well, at least in my dreams, they do. In reality? I don’t know. I’d be happy to take one for the team and find out though.
I shake last night’s version—which included some intense action on the Matsudas’ living room couch—from my brain and return to the Friend Zone as Leo comes back with a rag and a plate of karaage.
“Ojiichan said to give these to you.” Leo puts the plate filled with five Japanese-style chicken nuggets in front of me and mops up the spilled shoyu.
“Domo arigato gozaimashita, Ojiichan!” I yell a thanks toward the kitchen door. “Put it on my tab!”
“Hai, hai,” Yes, yes, Leo’s grandfather yells back, though we both know he isn’t keeping a running total of all the times the Matsudas have fed me for free.
“If we suddenly get busy in the next hour, can you run the cash register? Mom and Dad are at the bank, and Aurora has marching band until seven.” Leo sits back down beside me and wipes his hands on his waist apron.
“So the karaage is a bribe, then?”
I take a bite of the lightly spiced, deep-fried chicken. “Totally working.”
“Now then. My future girlfriend. Jay Yoshikawa.”
“Leo, Jay Yoshikawa isn’t a real person, and Ava Takahashi who plays her is married. Not to mention that she’s twenty-five and you’re sixteen. So, ew.”
“Shut up and let me dream.”
“Wait, I forgot to put the subtitles on.”
Leo doesn’t need subtitles for the Japanese parts, but I do. His lack of Japanese writing skills got him stuck back in Japanese II with me learning the basics, but Leo’s Japanese speaking skills are advanced, especially when he talks about food. Though I guess that’s a given when you work in your Japanese grandfather’s restaurant. Meanwhile, Ojiichan talks to Mrs. Matsuda in English—though he doesn’t need to—to work on his language skills. Her years teaching English in Japan with the JET program after college have given her some mad skills. I aspire to get to that level. Maybe I could go to Japan on the JET program one day too?
I’m not going anywhere until my contract with HGTV is up though. They own me for the rest of this season. Then I will be free. Free to be me. Free to do whatever I want without having it possibly documented on film. I can leave my sunglasses off and my barriers down all the time. I can tell Leo how I feel about him.
“You okay, Koty?” Leo tips his head to the side and gives me a quizzical look.
“Yeah, sorry.” I push play and let Leo slip away into his favorite show. One of the few things that is just for him in his overcrowded life.
As we watch the show, I cut my eyes to the side occasionally to watch Leo. Yeah, he has it bad for Jay Yoshikawa. Maybe one day he’ll look at me that way too.
“Can I have some edamame?” Leo says when the show breaks for a commercial. He opens his mouth. I shoot a couple of soybeans into his mouth. One pings off his upper lip and onto the table. “Hey, in my mouth and not up my nose, please.”
“Learned your lesson from the last time?”
“I was four. Give me a break.”
Our favorite show comes back on, and Leo’s attention goes back to it. Jay is just about to crush this week’s creeptastic yokai as her secret identity Kitsune Mask when Mr. and Mrs. Matsuda burst through the front door of the restaurant.
“It’s fine, honey,” Mrs. Matsuda says. “Everything is going to work out fine. We’ll swap things around a bit. That will help boost traffic.”
“Hey, kids.” Mr. Matsuda looks over his shoulder and gives his wife a pointed look. She drops the conversation.
“Hey, Mr. Matsuda. Mrs. Matsuda,” I say as Leo refills the last of the shoyu bottles.
“Anything else you guys want done before what I hope will be the dinner rush?” Leo slides to his feet and balances the tray on his arm with his usual grace.
“No, honey. I’ll call you if I need you.” Mrs. Matsuda kisses the top of Leo’s closely cropped head. “Do some homework so you won’t have to stay up so late again tonight.” Leo groans. “Okay, you can finish your show first.”
Leo flits around the restaurant putting all the shoyu bottles back on their tables while humming our latest jam. I nod along, as YouTube sensation Rayne Lee’s song “One Last Kiss” has been on my mental radio all day long too. After depositing the tray on the counter, Leo oversings the chorus while doing a dance-y walk across the restaurant. He pauses in the middle of the floor to do the video’s signature four finger snaps before finishing his strut to our table. I laugh. Nobody at school gets to see this side of Leo. These one-man shows are only for me.
“You are such a dork,” I say as Leo slides back in the booth with me.
“Can’t help it. Rayne’s song has been stuck in my head all day long.”
As soon as I push play again, a couple comes into the restaurant. Followed by a family of six. Leo’s free time is over for today, and now he has to do his part in the family machine. My heart hurts for him. And for me.
“Tell you what. After I’m done, I’ll leave my tablet in the back with Ojiichan. You can watch the last ten minutes tonight when you get home or if you have a slow spot during dinner.”
“Thanks.” Leo’s dimpled smile makes my heart melt.
I clear my throat. Get back in the Friend Zone, Dakota. “Anytime.”
* * *
“This is awesome, Patrick,” Mom says to her college friend—and frequent guest expert on the show—via Zoom. “I knew you would know. You were always Dr. Henderson’s favorite for a reason.” Mom waves at me over the top of her computer monitor. “Let’s do this all again on…” Mom looks at Stephanie, our show’s talent coordinator, who gives her the answer. “Tuesday at one thirty p.m. Same convo without the personal stuff. And be sure to move to your left about six inches more so we can get your business logo in the background. Great. See you soon.”
Mom takes off her headset and swivels her chair around. “How was school today, Koty?”
“Eh.” I shrug.
Stephanie moves a pile of research books off the only other chair in Mom’s cramped home office and pats it until I sit down. Ugh. There will be work-work coming any second now.
“Tea break?” Stephanie says, confirming my suspicions.
“Yes, please, Steph.” Mom slides off her reading glasses and rubs her eyes. “Let’s break open that goodie box from Cadbury’s.”
While Stephanie heads to the kitchen, Mom rolls her chair over to the circular table and peers at Stephanie’s open laptop.
“So next Monday, break out the flannels. We’re going up to McGuthrie Farms to pick out our Christmas tree for the holiday special.”
Sweat pools in the back of my tank top after my short skateboard ride home from Matsuda. “Do I have to wear a winter coat? All that faux fur around my sweaty face is going to be itchy.”
“C’mon, Mom. It’s still eighty degrees up north, I bet.”
“Seventy-five,” Mom corrects me. “But we’re going to wear the coats and enjoy McGuthrie’s famous hot chocolate and think cool thoughts. After all, we are professionals. Unless, of course, you’ve changed your mind about buying a car.”
“Hot chocolate and winter coats in August it is.”
“That’s my girl.”
Leo refers to the way my family lives four or more months in the future because of our shooting schedule as the “McDonalds’ Alternate Universe.” For example, we filmed our traditional McDonald Family Thanksgiving with turkey, matching sweaters, and the air conditioner turned down to arctic levels before heading over to the Matsudas’ house for a belated Independence Day barbecue.
“Can’t we go on Saturday or Sunday instead?” I say. “I don’t want to miss school.”
Mom raises an eyebrow. “Because of school or because Leo’s only day off is Monday?”
Copyright © 2021 by Sara Fujimura