In the dimly lit bar, Hikaru could see the reddening of Takashi’s cheeks. So the stench of beer wafting through the air was a little too obvious a hint. Hikaru tried not to gag. “Hokuto brought me,” he replied.
Hokuto, one of the other professors in the department laughed. “Are you kidding, I had to kidnap his briefcase to get him to follow me here.”
Hikaru glared. “My keys are in that case.”
“Stop grumbling,” Takashi interrupted. “Come over for a drink and meet Ruby.”
‘Ruby?’ Hikaru looked around the room. Running down the centre of the tatami mats were a line of tables littered in beer bottles. Members of staff from the university sat around the table on the floor.
Behind him there was a soft shh as the paper door slid open and a waitress entered with food. Hikaru stepped out of her way.
‘Why this themed place?’ the bar was popular with international students thinking the Japanese still sat on the floor at every chance. But that was only occasionally.
“Over here,” Takashi nudged Hikaru to get him to turn to the far end of the table. “She’s here on holidays from Australia.”
It was the woman from under the cherry blossoms. Her head was tilted back so her hair shook down her spine as she laughed. The line of her throat was exposed.
Hikaru felt hot all of a sudden.
He stumbled after his senior college. ‘I don’t want to do this. Why is he introducing me to her? This is too awkward.’
“Ruby,” Takashi brought her attention round.
Her face had slight crinkles around her eyes. Realising something, she climbed to her feet with quick ease.
“This is Mamiya Hikaru,” Takashi pointed to Hikaru. “He’s one of the younger professors in the literature department.”
We bowed to each other in respect.
“Ruby lodged with my wife and I her first year at university here.” Takashi clarified.
‘Oh, that makes more sense,’ Hikaru felt a little ashamed he had thought Takashi was too friendly in a bad way with the woman. Now, he saw it differently. The way they joked and bumped shoulders looked more like father and daughter.
“You were an international student?” Hokuto asked. He slipped in on her right and dropped to his knees.
Ruby sank back to her spot, reclining so her knees were together and feet tucked under her skirt. “Yes. I was first an exchange student in high school, fell in love with Japan, and so came back to do my degree.” She replied in perfect Japanese.
Hikaru blinked at the woman. ‘That’s a surprise.’ He moved around the table to sit opposite of the woman.
“What was your degree?” Hokuto continued.
A beer magically appeared in Hikaru’s hand. ‘She must be smart… and pretty when she smiles like that.’ He tipped the bottle, his lips tingling as the cool glass rubbed a little and Ruby darted a look his way. ‘Bad association. Don’t think of lips and Ruby. Don’t.’
But it had happened. He turned his head to look down the table instead of meeting her eyes. His cheeks burned.
“I have a bachelor of fine arts.”
Everyone was talking but his hearing was picking up her voice only. It wasn’t different in any way, her accent was fluent, and it was smooth. But something made him listen closer. He listened to her breath, laugh, reply, ask questions, pause.
‘This is insane.’ His palms were sweating and he couldn’t look at her directly, but he wanted to turn his head and watch her as she did all of these things. ‘Why? Why am I feeling like this? What is it about this woman that’s making me so nervous?’
“Hikaru,” Hokuto waved his hand in his friend’s face. “Are you going to talk to anyone tonight?”
“Do I have to?” The response slipped out so easily.
“Yes,” Ruby replied. “I would like to have at least one conversation with you.”
His eyes were forced to meet hers and hold. She didn’t flinch. ‘Is she smiling more?’ “This right here is a conversation. Your dream has just come true.” He tartly replied. ‘Hmm, maybe that wasn’t the best response. Should’ve said something flirty instead.’
“I guess I should’ve had a bigger dream,” she countered quickly.
“It’s your life. Dream whatever you like.”
“Then I want to know what do you teach?”
“Anything in particular? Poetry? Contemporary?”
“Contemporary is my forte,” Hokuto jumped in.
Ruby blinked and looked to her right.
Hikaru tried to breathe again. ‘Where had that come from? That electricity in the air?’ It had been there, this weird compulsion to keep talking to her, to watch her as she sat there listening to Hokuto waffle on.
Ruby darted a look his way.
Hikaru swallowed hard.
A blush spread over her cheeks, she looked a little surprised.
At the same time, the pair looked away.
Hikaru sneaked a look after waiting a few seconds.
She did the same.
This time, they held each other’s stare.
‘Why?’ It raced in his head. ‘Why is she doing this? Hokuto’s paying her more attention, I’m just sitting here drinking the same beer, I’m not being interesting at all.’
“Hurry up and eat,” Takashi placed a bowl in front of Ruby and headed back to the other end of the table.
She slurped the noodles, steam twirling around her face. “Hmm, these are good.”
Hikaru’s stomach grumbled. The smell finally registered in his mind, food was on the table and it smelled delicious. He ladled it out and slurped. Salty fish hit the back of his tongue. ‘Not bad.’
“Can I continue that conversation?” Ruby lifted her chin, almost daring him to say yes.
“Because I like learning.”