The rest of the evening was fairly normal; or at least as normal as one of our improv meetings ever goes. Ms. Cariño was able to coax and/or bully Paula, Samantha, and Jill into trying a little improvisation out themselves, though Rachel steadfastly refused. Jill was terrible at it; far too self-conscious and completely failed to provide her partner with anything to work with while simultaneously missing all of the opportunities her partner provided. She did a single skit and begged off.
Samantha seemed to be having fun—and went for multiple rounds—but always ended up playing a tsundere character. Even the skit when she decided to act like a dog, it was somehow a tsundere dog. I'm becoming more and more convinced that Samantha is not actually human, but an exchange student from Planet Japanimation or something.
Meanwhile Paula was scarily good. If this had been my first meeting, I would have sworn she had been doing improv her entire life and was a long-time member of the club. Stacked, flirtatious, and quick on the uptake. Paula was as dangerous as Rachel, albeit in an entirely different way.
And that left me feeling incredibly depressed.
When I think about it, that seems kind of weird. Normally, an improv meeting leaves me refreshed and excited. The laughter, getting to do silly things with people who don't judge me—all of it just bleeds the stress out of my life.
Tonight that refuge had been taken from me, and the longer the meeting went on the darker my mood grew. This was no longer about letting off some stress. It had been perverted into yet another way to get me to interact with this group of girls. Even worse, when Ms. Cariño suggested everyone come back again next week, Paula and Samantha both expressed interest.
Everything in my life was being twisted into a harem event; maybe if I had anticipated this, it wouldn't have hit me as hard, but I'd really been looking forward to letting off some steam off camera, as it were. Nope. I'd been so full of resolve just a week or two ago, thinking that maybe I could actually make a difference in my situation by varying my interactions with the girls, but those plans so far had been bulldozed over by the unstoppable force of manga coincidences.
My funk continued through the weekend and into the next week. Every day felt like it was composed of homework, sleeping, and then non-stop forced interaction with my harem. I grew reticent; withdrawing and responding as simply as I could get away with. I know Rachel noticed, because she started giving me more space at home, but that just made me more depressed since I was fairly certain she was the main girl. Ironically, I didn't want consideration from her, because it was just another way for the author to try and manipulate my emotions. I think Jill probably noticed, too, but her response was to ignore it and try to pull me out of my funk by being even more…well, Jill. Let's just say I lost a lot of pointless competitions in P.E. for a few days there.
Paula's behavior never changed, although it felt like she might have spent more time pushing the other girls' buttons instead of mine. Samantha was her usual annoying self. About the only thing that changed on her front was she started pestering me via text at night until I finally bombarded her with Vickie's email, the house phone number, and detailed instructions on how to buy stamps online along with our home address. Surprisingly enough, that actually stopped the onslaught. Evidently Vickie was more than just an excuse to get close to me. Maybe they hit it off in V-Mobile while I was trying to regain my stamina stat in the mall; that would be just my luck.
At last Tuesday rolled around, along with another improv meeting; at the end of the prior meeting, Ms. Cariño had polled everyone and decided to meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays this year. And sure enough, both Paula and Samantha showed up.
It was too much. Despite it raining buckets immediately after dinner, the next evening I decided to take a page out of Rachel's book and get out of the house for a while, so after completing my homework I snagged an umbrella, told my dad I was going out for a walk, and booked it out into the wet.
I wasn't feeling in the mood for nature, so instead of pulling a Rachel and heading to Dykstra Park, I meandered my way south and west. It's a bit of a slog, especially in the rain, but about a mile south-west of us is a little strip of non-residential buildings; mostly small-time eateries, random shops of no interest to a teenager, a hole-in-the-wall ethnic grocery store; things like that. I'm honestly not sure why it's there. Maybe it's an offshoot of the municipal airport that's a few blocks further west. I think there might be a hotel or two in the area, too.
It was too late at night even if I were interested in window shopping, but I figured the eateries would still be open and there might be some strangers hanging around. I was in the mood to be anonymous in hopes of feeling like less of a protagonist. The area was also a lot better lit than anywhere else in walking distance, and given how dark it was getting with the oncoming fall and unceasing rain that was a definite plus.
My feet were getting kind of damp through my tennis shoes, but something about walking in the rain was legitimately calming me down. I don't know; I guess Rachel was right about how nice it is to get out of the house every so often. I've always kind of liked rain, too, as long as I've got some layer of protection between me and the wet. Plus, this particular storm had very little wind, making it perfect umbrella weather.
After wandering around the shopping district enjoying the staccato drumbeat of raindrops on a nice big umbrella, I turned down a side street with the intention of starting for home. One door down from the corner was what looked like a little dive of a bar; the doors were open, and faint music and the sounds of a partially drunken group of people were washing out over the sidewalk. I didn't spare it much of a glance; just enough to notice its existence and that there was someone—probably a small woman, based on her silhouette—standing just inside the doorway peering out into the rain. Nothing to do with me.
Except, I'd made a massive tactical error. I was a romance manga protagonist. With an umbrella. In heavy rain.
So the thing is: Japan really loves their umbrellas. In the U.S. you might find a heart, maybe with an arrow through it, and a couple's initials or names scratched onto something as some sort of love-sick act of petty vandalism. In Japan they do something similar, except with a stylized umbrella and the couple's names on either side of the handle or shaft.
I don't know what the cultural reasons for this are, but umbrellas are heavily featured in romance-oriented manga. Someone is always forgetting their umbrella (or "forgetting" their umbrella, for the craftier love interests) and sharing an umbrella with their nascent sweet-heart on the walk home. I think it's the enforced physical intimacy that makes this such a popular trope. Hand holding and other public displays of affection are kind of stigmatized in Japanese culture, so walking under the same umbrella gives a great excuse to get chummy that can be taken advantage of by even the most retiring and/or self-deluded love interests.
For me, leaving the house with an umbrella was tantamount to sending a gold-embossed invitation to my manga's author.
Sure enough, as I passed the dive bar with barely a glance, the woman standing there darted out of the doorway and ducked under my umbrella so quickly I recoiled a step. "Xavier! You came along just in time to save me yet again."
Shit. So much for my relaxing walk in the rain. It was the sex bomb.