As I'd reflexively taken a step away when she rushed toward me, Ms. Short, Lithe, and Sexy took another half step forward so she was under the umbrella proper. Good thing I'd taken one of the family's larger umbrellas, because even so this was pretty damn cramped and awkward.
As I tried to think of something to say I was distracted by the feeling that I did in fact know this lady. I mean, I knew she had to be someone that worked at our school, but before I'd had no idea who that could be. This time around, though, she was weirdly familiar.
The height, the Mexican heritage, the timbre of her voice…could I have seen her just yesterday evening? I imagined her in a muumuu and big face obscuring glasses. Holy shit. "Ms. Cariño?!"
Her face split in the kind of mischievous smile I would never have imagined on Ms. Cariño's face. Come to that, I never would have expected Ms. Cariño to wear such a form-fitting dress, or perilous heels, or be frequenting obscure bars on a weeknight.
"Guilty as charged," she said gleefully.
There was really only one thing to say. "What the hell?! I don't even know where to start. Why are you dressed like that? Why are you so different at school? What are you doing outside a bar on a week night?"
Ms. Cariño stared at me thoughtfully. "How about you accompany me to the corner," she said, gesturing down the street in the direction I had been walking. "There's a nice little coffee shop that stays open late down there. I'll treat you to something if you'll chat with me a bit."
Ugh, what should I do? This was bad, bad, bad. On the one hand, I absolutely wanted to know the story behind Ms. Cariño, the dumpiest teacher at Alburn High, transforming into a miniature sex goddess. The curiosity was killing me.
On the other, the older, sexually aggressive teacher coming onto her student is a tried and true manga trope, and this particular protagonist was not at all interested in getting frisky with his sensei. Even if she was absurdly attractive. Maybe especially then, actually. The power dynamics inherent in student-teacher romances in manga make me feel just as icky as the romantic-little-sister relationships.
I stood trapped in indecision long enough for Ms. Cariño to notice. She gently laid a hand on my arm. "I promise I won't tease you like I did at the mall, Xavier. I just…really could use a friendly ear to bend right now."
Well, crap. Alright, men, strap on your helmets and let's enter the mine field! "—Alright. I can't stay long, though." I really hoped this wasn't a mistake.
A quiet walk in the rain under a shared umbrella later, we were ensconced in a small coffee shop, Ms. Cariño nursing a coffee and me with some peppermint tea. Thankfully, the shop was all but deserted, and the back corner we'd claimed nicely shadowed. As long as Rachel or someone didn't coincidentally wander in, I doubted we was in any danger of having our little tête-à-tête discovered.
I sipped my tea, and Ms. Cariño looked surprisingly uncomfortable. She'd seemed sure of herself earlier, but maybe she was starting to doubt her spur-of-the-moment rush out of the bar. Rather than say anything and possibly kickstart a manga development I didn't want to live through, I sat quietly. I needed to be extra careful here.
Finally, she drew a deep breath and looked up. "I'm not really sure how to explain myself, honestly, Xavier. Please bear with me for a bit?" She gave me a small smile.
Dammit, woman, put your muumuu back on. This is not remotely fair. I gestured to her to go on, and she took a deep breath.
"To answer one of your earlier questions, this is what I normally look like. The Ms. Cariño you know at school is a—persona, I guess, for lack of a better word. I don't know how old you think I am—" she paused, as if I were stupid enough to guess an older woman's age "—but I'm only 34." She laughed a bit, some of the playfully sexy attitude she'd been sporting at the mall coming out as she punched me lightly in the arm. "Though to a high school kid like you, I guess that's fairly ancient, huh? Anyway, I've always—attracted a lot of attention, I guess. I worked at several schools before I was hired at Alburn High, and all the weird drama with my coworkers, administration, and even the students—it was just wearing me down so much that I figured this time around I'd nip it in the bud and come up with a role to play that wouldn't cause me so much trouble."
She sipped her coffee and stared out at the darkness and the rain. "I've been working at Alburn High for five years now, and—I guess my disguise worked a little too well. You asked why I was at a bar on a weeknight, and you're right: this is really irresponsible of me. I just needed to unwind as myself a little bit, if that makes any sense. You have no idea how exhausting it is to be constantly walking a tightrope, constantly afraid all your struggle will come to naught, constantly just—stuck."
I inadvertently let out a breath in a sort of proto-laugh. I was intimately aware of how that felt. Hell, it was why I was on this doomed walk in the first place.
Ms. Cariño shot me a look, and flashed a wry grin when she saw my expression. "Well, that was presumptuous of me. I guess you're a teenager, huh? Of course you know all about tightropes and identity crises."
"Uh," I managed. I was seriously unsure how to react to this version of Ms. Cariño.
She grimaced. "And here I promised not to tease you. I just—have been having some issues in my personal life recently, and it's all gotten to be—well—a bit much to handle. Which is not something I should be sharing with a student. I'm sorry, Xavier, just forget this. I'll—see you after school tomorrow, I guess."
She made to get up, and without really thinking about it, I grabbed her hand. Shit, please don't let this increase the number of girls in my harem. "I don't know what you're going through, or what you've been through, or whatever, Ms. Cariño, but you're a great drama teacher. I mean, I guess I've never taken a drama class, but Hayden always has wonderful things to say and you're really funny and helpful with the improv meetings. I think it's pretty amazing you're able to act a role out so thoroughly for such a long time. I don't think you need to beat yourself up about that." I paused, realized I was still holding her hand, and jerked away. "Sorry! Uh, and no offense, but I really don't think you should be having this conversation with a student. Maybe a friend or family member would be better next time?"
Ms. Cariño stood perfectly still watching me, and then an absolutely beatific smile spread across her face. "You are absolutely right, Xavier." She leaned over me. "Thank you. Now you need to hurry home before it gets too much later, young man." With a wink, she patted me lightly on the cheek. Dammit, she was almost as touchy-feely as Paula. "And if you wouldn't mind keeping my real appearance a secret between the two of us…?" Ah, the tried and true "secret between us" angle. I'd been wondering when that would come up.
"Uh, right, sure" I said, and scrambled out of my seat. "Um, are you going to be alright in the rain? Are you parked nearby?"
"Oh, I just need to catch a bus; I'll be fine." She gestured vaguely to the south, but if I recalled correctly all the bus stops I'd walked by earlier this evening had been little more than a sign on a lamppost, with no decent cover from the elements to speak of. I suppose I could walk her to the stop…but no, dammit, I needed a clean break here. I'd already potentially screwed myself with my impromptu little pep talk—and oh god, she must think I'm a complete idiot.
Well, I wasn't that far from home, and I sure as hell was dressed a lot warmer than she was. I shoved my umbrella at her, and she reflexively took it. "Here, you can give it back to me tomorrow. I only live a couple blocks away."
"Wait, Xavier—" she started, but I rushed out the door. I needed to forestall any further interactions before I dug myself into a deeper hole.
"See you tomorrow!" I called back over my shoulder, and jogged into the rain.
September rain was a lot less enjoyable with just a medium-weight jacket, that was for sure.