At its heart, manga is about wish fulfillment. I mean I guess it's kind of obvious; that's pretty much most popular entertainment. And like a lot of commercialized art forms, a lot of pages are spent rehashing what works (or what the publishers believe will work, and given they have access to the sales data, I suppose they're the most likely to know).
So shoujo slice-of-life romance manga inevitably involves the heroine or love interest falling sick and their prospective partner dropping by to nurse them. Shounen battle manga always have a same sex rival who communicates just how much they actually care about the protagonist with their fists. And seinen rom-coms always involve some amount of lucky lechery.
What constitutes lucky lechery varies a lot across authors, but it usually involves a titillating or risqué situation that occurs thanks to happenstance (because hey, otherwise the main character would be a super creepy pervert, and that stuff is saved for doujinshi—self-published manga that is often too extreme or niche for traditional publishers).
In any case, it's now official that I'm stuck in some sort of seinen romance, because I am a bona fide lucky lecher.
Although she had evidently finished showering, Rachel was not in fact done in the bathroom. However, she hadn't locked the door. When I walked in, she was in the middle of changing into her clothes.
I stopped mid-step, and as embarrassing it is to admit it, I drank the sight in.
Rachel was standing at an angle with her back to the door, bent over with one leg flat footed and the other tiptoe on a little stool that we'd had in the bathroom forever as she pulled her sock on. She wasn't completely naked: she was wearing panties (pink, with a little white lace tastefully arrayed around the waist) and a bra (white, but this time with a little pink lace around the top of the cup). I'll be honest: she had a damn near perfect butt, and the slight glimpse I had of the curve of her breast was equally fascinating.
Now here's the thing: I've seen people bend over like this when stretching for track and field, and it's not sexy at all. Rachel, on the other hand, was gorgeous. It was like she was posing for the perfect shot in a manga. Which I guess she kind of was, not that she knew that.
At the sound of the door she glanced back over her shoulder and our eyes met. One awkward pause as Rachel's face quickly heated later, and I all but jumped back out the door, shutting it behind me. "I'm so sorry!" I called as I did so. "I thought you'd already gone back downstairs! I should have knocked!"
"Wait, Xavier," said Rachel through the door, and then she cracked it and stuck just her head around the side. She was still flushed with embarrassment, and I still thought it was far cuter than her normal implacable attitude. "I'm sorry, I forgot to lock the door. Please don't get all weird with me about this."
That…was a surprisingly mature response for a seinen rom-com love interest. I'd been about the flee down the hall in fear of being sent physically flying (slapstick violence being a classic response to a moment of lucky lechery). Which I guess made sense, given that Rachel was a normal person and not a cartoon character.
Shit, now I was the one whose face was heating up. "No, that was—I'm sorry, I really will be better about knocking. I'm not used to sharing the bathroom with anyone other than Vickie."
"Well, no harm no foul," said Rachel with a playful smile. "At least I'd put my underthings on."
Now that was an image I definitely didn't need. And actually, hold the phone: who puts their socks on immediately after their underwear? Was that normal? I mean she must have had a change of clothes with her; it's not like she was going to go all the way down the hall, down the stairs, and then through a second hall in nothing but her bra, panties, and socks. Also, socks? Indoors? It's not like Rachel wore thigh-high tights (another manga standard that I'd never seen in reality); they were legit, ankle-length socks.
Nothing made sense any more, and I'd been just standing and staring at her face like an idiot for a little longer than was socially acceptable.
"Anyway," she said finally. "Do you have any plans today?"
"Nothing in particular," I said. I mean, I guess I'd vaguely assumed I'd be reading more manga, but instead I was back to living one.
"Would you mind showing me the neighborhood, then? I don't know where anything is."
"Well, there's not much to show, to be honest. You kind of have to drive to get anywhere worthwhile."
"Even so, I'd appreciate it," she said with a smile.
I didn't have any reason to refuse. Given that she was living with me, making up an excuse and then lounging around reading manga would get me discovered real quick. "Sure, I can do that."
"Great!" she said, and beamed at me. "Let me just get dressed, and—oh, will you need the shower, too?"
"Okay, then maybe before lunch? Will we have time?"
"Seriously, there's not much nearby."
"Okay, then I'll see you in a bit!" she said and shut the door once more. I waited for a second, and there was the quiet shnk of the lock engaging.
Back in my room, I collapsed on my bed. Ugh, that was exhausting. Aside from the whole embarrassment issue, I was back to feeling angry about having my life yanked around. I'm pretty sure people don't normally put socks prior to the rest of their clothes, much less stand with such a contrived posture to do so. Why would her back be to the door? The shower is directly opposite, so she'd more likely have gotten out and started getting dressed facing the door. And beyond that, damn it, I was still missing Emily! But Rachel undeniably had my heart pounding because whatever my first impressions of her might have been, now that I'd seen her mostly unclothed she was gorgeous. Which was absolutely infuriating! I refused to be led around by circumstance and plain old adolescent lust thanks to a story that took Emily away from me! But at the same time, taking this frustration out on Rachel would be stupid, and who knew how long I'd have to live with her. Just a couple weeks, I supposed, but a couple weeks is a really long time during summer vacation when you're all stuck in the house without a driver's license.
Argh, there were just no good options for me! I guess I would have to play nice with Rachel but try to keep her at a distance. She seemed to be pretty clued into social nuances, judging by her behavior when I'd first met her. Maybe she'd take the hint and leave me alone.
It was all just so frustrating! Plus, I never did get a chance to go to the bathroom, and my bladder was killing me. Mom, Dad, I'm using your bathroom. Tough luck.
And if I walk in on one of them naked, I'm dropping out of school and moving to Alaska or something, because screw this.
So, there we were. Rachel wasn't wearing anything particularly form fitting today, but I was still having a bit of trouble concentrating with her walking beside me. Which was ridiculous! It's not like I wouldn't have seen just as much of her body at the beach or pool! There was no reason to get all hot and bothered over this, and damn me if that wasn't exactly what the author wanted, anyway.
Although granted, people generally don't stand in such provocative poses at the pool. Anyway, moving on!
Rachel and I headed out for a little walk around the neighborhood since she apparently liked the big outdoors. Or wandering around suburbs or something. I didn't really get it, so I guessed I might as well ask.
"What exactly is it that you wanted to see, anyway?"
"Mmm," said Rachel, staring up the street rather than meeting my eye. Huh, maybe she was feeling a bit self conscious, too, for all that she'd been acting her normal aloof self since I found her downstairs after showering. "Are there any good places to walk to from your house?"
"Uh, not really," I said. "Pretty much all the fun places to go require driving."
"Oh, it doesn't have to be fun," Rachel assured me. "I'm just wondering about good walking spots."
"I'm not really much into wandering around," I said doubtfully. "I guess there's Dykstra Park, though that's a few blocks away, and the river is over near there. Otherwise it's mostly just houses around here."
Rachel's eyes lit up and she looked me full in the face for the first time since we'd left the house. "That sounds perfect. How do we get there?"
So that was how we ended up at Dykstra Park. The playground was empty at the moment, but Rachel didn't pay it any attention in any case. Instead she made a beeline through the park for the bridge over the river.
"Where does this lead?" she asked.
"There's another park across the river; I think it's mostly just grass and a walking trail, though."
"That's all I need," she said, and led the way across the bridge. I trailed after, wondering why she needed me for this in the first place. We walked for a couple minutes, and finally Rachel settled onto a bench overlooking the river. I sat down on the far side of the bench and watched the green water roil by for a bit.
"So, uh, why are you so big into parks, anyway?" I finally asked.
Rachel didn't answer for several seconds, leaving me once again to wonder why she insisted I show her the place if she just wanted to be alone.
"I've stayed with the Doyles before," she said at last. Ooookay, and that had what to do with lazy strolls through a city park exactly? "This was maybe 10, 11 years ago? Anyway, they put me up for maybe half a year, but then things got a little tight when Jordan was going to be born…"—that would be Seamus' younger brother—"…so I had to move. We actually met one another then; do you remember?"
"Ten years ago?" I said, thinking back. I would have been what, five then? I honestly had no recollection of any girls named Rachel from back then, though that wasn't terribly surprising. I'd certainly been seeing a lot of Seamus at that point, but my memory has always been pretty fuzzy when it comes to anything much beyond a few years back. I tended to remember big events, but everyday life just sort of flowed through me for the most part. "Sorry, I don't remember that at all."
Rachel shrugged and smiled. "It's not a big deal. That's completely normal for me. My dad's always moving around for work, so whenever he's out of the country I end up living with relatives. I've got a good memory for names and faces, but for most folks I'm just a girl passing through."
Well, that was a downer. I had no idea what to say, and fortunately for me Rachel wasn't done.
"Anyway, I'm a guest in other people's homes all the time, and it can get tiring, you know? So when I'm not really feeling like smiling I like to take a walk and just spend some time with nature, if I can. This park is perfect for that, Xavier. Thank you." She gave me a shy smile, then turned back to the river.
"Yeah, um, not a problem," I said. Were we close, 10 years ago? I certainly wasn't expecting her to open up like that, and having now walked in on her practically naked and had a minor heart-to-heart within the span of a single morning I was feeling pretty damn awkward.
We sat in silence for a few more minutes, Rachel just watching the river flow by and me trying my best not to watch Rachel.
It was more difficult than I like to admit.