SemisoftCheese

"Pretty Girls" (Ritsu Act 2-3)

Aug 2nd, 2013
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  1. Ugh. Today I had to wake up early again. My brain is so foggy at these early hours, and the sky is still dark.
  2.  
  3. A week ago, Ritsu said she had a surprise for me.
  4.  
  5. The “surprise” turned out to be two VIP passes to the Rakuten Open--some big tennis tournament. She said they were gifts from her old friends. The passes look pretty official--they’re laminated and even have our photo ID. Someone must have pulled some strings--we’re both classified as player attaches.
  6.  
  7. As interesting as the passes are, I was a little less enthusiastic when I found out the tournament was in Tokyo, in Ariake Park. That’s two hours by train from here. Ugh. We’re leaving Yamaku at around 6AM to get there by 9.
  8.  
  9. Ritsu looks just as bleary eyed as me when I greet her at the bus stop, but she also seems excited. I’m wearing my school uniform but Ritsu has changed into a pair of skinny black jeans, a blue polo shirt, and a flashy red team jacket--dri-fit, kevlar, and emblazoned with sponsor logos--I guess a throwback from her old tennis days.
  10.  
  11. It’s too early for buses at this hour, so we called for a taxi to the JR station in Sendai. It’s freezing on the platform, but at least we’re taking a bullet train, so the journey won’t be too long.
  12.  
  13. Ritsu and I planned out the journey a few days ago. JR Touhoku Shinkasen from Sendai to Tokyo station, then transfer to the JR Keihin Tohoku line towards Isogo, then at Oimaichi station take the Rinkai line towards Shinkiba.
  14.  
  15. It all sounds very neat, but as I stand on the platform with my breath crystallizing in the air, and a two hour journey in front of me, I resolve that my first invention as a scientist will be teleportation. It’s fucking cold outside,
  16.  
  17. =======================
  18.  
  19. On the train, the time passes pretty quickly. Ritsu used her Amex to upgrade us from second-class to first, which I feel kind of bad about, but she shot me a flat look and said it was as much for her as it was for me. As I sink into the cushy seat and accept a cup of coffee from the stewardess, I can’t help but agree.
  20.  
  21. Ritsu puts on a pair of headphones and quickly falls asleep, her mouth half open as she snores quietly.
  22.  
  23. I supress a smile. I guess some things never change. I hate sleeping on trains, so I guess I’ll settle for watching the scenery.
  24.  
  25. The countryside flashes by in smears of green scenery intersparsed with small towns. I try to remember how fast the bullet train goes? 300 kph? It sounds almost like a dreamy figure.
  26.  
  27. One cup of coffee turns into three, and I have to refuse the next cup offered by the stewardess. No sense in having caffeine burnout in the middle of the day.
  28.  
  29. It doesn’t help that the coffee’s so damn good, though.
  30.  
  31. I feel kind of bad that Ritsu’s taking all the momentum in our relationship. First the dog, then setting up our first kind of formal date--and paying for it too. Maybe I’ll make up for it by paying for lunch.
  32.  
  33. I kind of wish I brought my mp3 player for the train ride, but it’s not so bad just sitting and watching the scenery go by. And I won’t have to carry it for the rest of the day either.
  34.  
  35. The train starts to slow, and I shake Ritsu gently awake.
  36.  
  37. “Hey Ritsu, it’s time to transfer trains.”
  38.  
  39. She looks around slowly, her eyes settle on me, she gives a lazy smile, and drifts back off to sleep.
  40.  
  41. “Hey! Wake up!”
  42.  
  43. After some vigorous shaking and her giving me a pouty face, we manage to make it off the train in one piece.
  44.  
  45. I stand looking at the timetable.
  46.  
  47. There’s twenty minutes until our next train, so maybe we can find a shop and get some breakfast.
  48.  
  49. I feel a heavy weight on my shoulder. It appears that Ritsu has seized the moment to nap on my shoulder.
  50.  
  51. Looks like breakfast will have to wait.
  52.  
  53. =========
  54.  
  55. We eventually arrive at Ariake Park at around 9. The lines for entrance are swarming with spectators, and it doesn’t help that it’s now sweltering. I’m sweating already looking at the hour-long lines packed with tennis fans.
  56.  
  57. “Are the lines normally this long?” I ask Ritsu.
  58.  
  59. She gives a noncommittal shrug.
  60.  
  61. “The Rakuten Open is the biggest tennis tournament in Japan, and really the only one which draws high-level competitors. If you’re a Japanese tennis fan, this is the one time of the year you can see the stars you see in TV, in person. It’s not like Europe where they have a tournament every other weekend. The Asia tour is pretty minor at best.”
  62.  
  63. She pulls a sly grin.
  64.  
  65. “But don’t worry about the lines, Hisao, I’ve got that all taken care of.”
  66.  
  67. My heart sinks. Knowing Ritsu’s mischievous nature, this could involve anything from shouting fire to hopping over a back fence.
  68.  
  69. I’m surprised when she simply hands me my pass and walks over to an obscure looking tent. We flash our passes, and after a quick metal detector test, we’re straight into the main thoroughfare.
  70.  
  71. I grab her by the shoulder. I want to make sure Ritsu didn’t just slip the guards a fifty or something. I don’t like waiting in lines, but I don’t want to circumvent the system either. It’s not right.
  72.  
  73. “Hey, Ritsu, how’d we get through the lines so quickly?”
  74.  
  75. She looks back at me in surprise.
  76.  
  77. “Huh? We’re player attaches. That means we get to use the player entrance and we have access to all the player facilities.”
  78.  
  79. She rolls her eyes in mock evil at me.
  80.  
  81. “You didn’t think WE’d have to wait in LINE, Hisao? That’s only for the COMMONERS!” She follows this with an evil cackle.
  82.  
  83. I try and shush her. Bystanders are giving us strange looks.
  84.  
  85. “Okay, okay, I get it, was just curious.”
  86.  
  87. Ritsu stretches her outwards in the gesture of a conquering general.
  88.  
  89. “SOON our plan to take over the--MMmph”
  90.  
  91. I shush Ritsu forcibly by putting my hand over her mouth and pulling her into a bear hug.
  92.  
  93. “Okay, Ritsu, when I let go, are you going to shout anything crazy about the public?” I whisper into her ear.
  94.  
  95. She shakes her head emphatically, and I release her from the hug.
  96.  
  97. She bends and sucks in a huge gasp of air, and shoots me an amused look.
  98.  
  99. “You’ve got big hands, Hisao. You know what they say about big hands--”
  100.  
  101. Her face turns into a sly grin as she begins to deliver the punchline, but I cut her off.
  102.  
  103. “Hey, what’s with all the energy all of a sudden? And you can’t say stuff like that in public!”
  104.  
  105. She shrugs and grins happily.
  106.  
  107. “It feels so good to be home, Hisao. I never knew how much I missed this place.”
  108.  
  109. She sweeps her arms around at the entire tennis complex.
  110.  
  111. “This-this is my home. This is where I’ve had my greatest victories, my worst defeats, and everything in between. I’ve felt elation, I’ve malice, fear, anguish, spite, nervousness, depression, mania, anxiety, and most of all, apathy. I’ve lived my life here. This is it. This is all I know. This is home.”
  112.  
  113. That was oddly... poetic. I look to Ritsu to see if there’s more coming, but she’s already turned her attention to the draw posted on a wall, eyeing the day’s matches to see what we’re going to watch.
  114.  
  115. Well, I guess the poetry analysis can come some other time.
  116.  
  117. I move next to Ritsu to check out the draw sheet. It’s a 64-person knockout draw; one for the men, and another for the women. Most of the names aren’t familiar, but one catches my eye.
  118.  
  119. Roger Federer. From Switzerland? I think he’s number one? I know he’s good. Time to show Ritsu she’s not the only one with tennis knowledge.
  120.  
  121. Play it cool, Hisao. I tap Ritsu on the shoulder.
  122.  
  123. “Why don’t we go see Federer in the main stadium? He’s number one, right?”
  124.  
  125. Ritsu rolls her eyes at me. Ruh oh. I wasn’t expecting that.
  126.  
  127. “You want to go see Federer? Of all people? I like swiss chocolate.”
  128.  
  129. Having rudely dismissed my seemingly ridiculous notion, she turns her attention back to the draw panel.
  130.  
  131. I grab her by the shoulder.
  132.  
  133. “Hey, what was that for? He’s number one, right? Why so hostile?”
  134.  
  135. Ritsu considers my question before pulling her eyes from the sheet.
  136.  
  137. “Sorry, Hisao, I keep on forgetting you don’t play tennis alot.....”
  138.  
  139. She checks the sheet one more time before setting off towards the outer courts.
  140.  
  141. “Come on, I found a match, I’ll explain while we walk.”
  142.  
  143. Heading in the opposite direction everyone else, Ritsu and I weave ourselves through the quickly thinning groups of people. As the walkways grow, she starts to explain.
  144.  
  145. “The truth about the top 100 in tennis is that in terms of skill, they’re all virtually the same. The difference between Roger Federer and John Journeyman, ranked 89, in terms of skill, is close to nothing. They’ve both put in the same time, and obviously they have the talent, otherwise they wouldn’t be the top 100 in the world.”
  146.  
  147. We turn a corner and in front of us stands a empty court with a set of metal bleachers. It looks like two the two players are just unpacking their bags, unwrapping rackets in plastic bags and getting drinks from variously dyed bottles of water. There’s no umpire in the chair or linespeople. In fact, there’s no one else watching, either.
  148.  
  149. Ritsu motions me onto the bleachers, and we take a seat. Despite there being a brick grandstand on the other side of the bleachers, the venue is all but deserted.
  150.  
  151. I start to ask Ritsu what’s going on.
  152.  
  153. “Hey, Ritsu--”
  154.  
  155. She cuts me off by placing a finger on my lips.
  156.  
  157. “Whisper, Hisao. Tennis is a gentleman’s sport.”
  158.  
  159. I pull her finger from my lips and continue in a low voice.
  160.  
  161. “--where’s the line judges and everything? Is this a match?”
  162.  
  163. Ritsu waves her hand in dismissal at me, her eyes focused on the court.
  164.  
  165. “It’s a practice session, I’ll explain soon.”
  166.  
  167. I want to know more, but I don’t want to disturb her either, so I turn my attention to the court.
  168.  
  169. The two players have moved to their respective sides of the court and begin warming up, bouncing on their feet and hitting the ball back and forth with easy, rythmic motions. One is tall and built, wearing a light green shirt and white shorts, and the other slightly shorter but far more muscular, wearing a dark blue shirt and white shorts. Both of them hit the tennis ball as if it weighed nothing more than a feather. The one in the dark blue shirt seems slightly slower, but they both hit and move effortlessly.
  170.  
  171. The way they move too is interesting. When they’re not hitting the ball, they bounce on the tips of their toes as if they’re dancing in place. Moving is a matter of a few steps--nothing more than necessary--and as soon as they step in one direction, they quickly move back to the center. It looks more like boxing footwork than what you would expect from a racket sport.
  172.  
  173. They hit at an incredible pace--speed, then slow, short, then deep-mixing every possible combination. As soon as a ball goes out or into the net, a new one is put into play, and the entire rally starts over again. It seems kind of... monotonous.
  174.  
  175. I look at Ritsu. She’s completely rapt--focused entirely on the yellow tennis ball being hit between the two. I guess she can see all the secrets going on-the intricacies only a top player would know.
  176.  
  177. Catching my eye, she nods and begins to explain in a lowered voice.
  178.  
  179. “Okay, Hisao. This is a practice session. Tennis is like any other sport--if you don’t practice, you won’t perform well at match time. More often than not, the best way to get close to the pros is to find an outside court at a pro venue--no-one likes having to deal with crowds and attention while they’re practicing.”
  180.  
  181. Okay, that makes sense.
  182.  
  183. “Who’s playing?”
  184.  
  185. “I’ll do them one-by-one.”
  186.  
  187. She points at the shorter of the two players, in the dark blue.
  188.  
  189. “That guy? That’s Stan Wawrinka. This guy is killer.”
  190.  
  191. She punches me in the shoulder for reference, and then looks back just in time to see him wind up and hit a winner.
  192.  
  193. “The bottom line with this guy is, if you don’t do something with your shot, he’s going to hurt you. Not like physically hit you, but he’s going to make you run and work for it. Big time. This guy hits hard and heavy, and every ball is relentless. Lots of other players make safe shots when they’re out of position, or just keep the ball in play. Not this guy. Every shot is quality--he also happens to possess some of the most technically perfect groundstrokes in the game. This guy is the guy who listened to the coaches’ advice when he was little--he has a technically perfect, classic, attacking game.”
  194.  
  195. Considering all this information, I take a look at the dark-blue guy again. He does hit hard, but he still seems a little bit slow compared to the other guy. I tug on Ritsu’s sleeve.
  196.  
  197. “So if this guy is so perfect, why isn’t he number one?”
  198.  
  199. Her reply is instant--she doesn’t even take her eyes off the court.
  200.  
  201. “His groundstrokes require a traditional, low-to-high windup--which takes a lot of time. So when he’s entirely out of position, his shots tend to suck a lot more than others--because he can’t just flick his wrist to hit the ball. Also his need to be stable when he hits the ball--a tenant of classic form--and it costs him time because he needs to properly set up. This guy is living proof that by-the-book isn’t always perfect-- being able to hit the same shot without needing all the form crap is worth a lot more at the top level. Stan is by no means untalented, but the technical perfection of his game hurts him more than you think. His forte is what kills him.”
  202.  
  203. She pauses and considers for a moment.
  204.  
  205. “I mean, this is in terms of relativity. Right now he’s around 13 in the world, which is pretty darn good.”
  206.  
  207. I stop and watch again. The dark blue guy--Wawrinka--does hit hard, now that I notice it, his shots are kind of elegant. Every one has the same preparation--methodical--as if he’s a martial artist practicing a kick. Every shot speaks of discipline and hours of practice, not to mention some sort of natural talent. His play style is organized--neat--with every point carefully constructed and executed.
  208.  
  209. Or I’m making it up because Ritsu explained it to me. I turn my attention to the other guy.
  210.  
  211. Unlike Wawrinka, this guy seems almost lazy. His footwork is much quicker, but besides that, his shots seem effortless. For every carefully placed shot that Wawrinka hits, this other guy simply draws his racket back and knocks it across in a crisp, fluid, motion that seems to vary shot by shot. One shot he’ll finish with his racket under his waist, the other high over his head. Yet it doesn’t seem ugly or un-natural--just less precise and less disciplined. It’s a easy, natural, liquid grace. The result, however, seems to be the same or even better--more often than not he seems to be able to outplay Wawrinka though a fluid, natural, attack. For every careful shot that Wawrinka hits, this guy seems to do it without even thinking. He could as easily be having breakfast in bed instead of slugging it out with the number 13 in the world.
  212.  
  213. I tug on Ritsu’s sleeve again. She turns to me.
  214.  
  215. “Who’s the other guy?”
  216.  
  217. She looks back at me and gives a quick, thin-lipped smile for a moment, before she returns her gaze to the court. Then she begins.
  218.  
  219. “That’s Tommy Haas. Now that’s a story and a half.”
  220.  
  221. She watches Haas flick a winner beyond the reach of Wawrinka before she continues.
  222.  
  223. “Tommy Haas moved from Germany to Florida at the age of 14 to pursue professional tennis. He won a scholarship to the prestigious Bolletierri Academy and Nick Bolletierri liked him so much that Haas eventually moved into his house. We’re talking about a guy who trained some of the greats here--Andre Agassi, Jim Courier--every single legend around--and he liked Haas so much that he treated him like a son. His first four years on tour--Haas was a force--picking up five titles including a Paris Masters, and a silver medal at the 2000 Olympics. This guy was the next cover of Sports Illustrated. Even Federer couldn’t match him.”
  224.  
  225. She pauses.
  226.  
  227. “In 2002, Haas’ parents got into a car crash and he spent most of the year taking care of them, instead of playing tennis. After not playing for so long, he injured his shoulder and didn’t return to professional tennis until 2004. In 2006, 07, and 08, Haas again settled into near top form--reaching the US Open semifinals, picking up four titles and a string of impressive victories.”
  228.  
  229. Ritsu’s just rattling it off--her eyes are completely focused on the court as she repeats the complete biography of man she’s probably never even spoken a word to.
  230.  
  231. “In 2009, Haas finally hit high gear--he won his first grass title--making him one of the very few players to win on grass, clay, and hardcourt.”
  232.  
  233. She looks at me for emphasis.
  234.  
  235. “That’s like a pitcher who can throw with both arms. It’s rare. This guy had talent.”
  236.  
  237. She tilts her head towards Haas, who is now warming up what I would assume to be his serve. Or at least that’s what my meagre tennis knowledge tells me.
  238.  
  239. “In 2010, Haas injured himself again--this time his hip as well. He didn’t play in 2011, and he only started competing in 2012. As of July 2013, today, Haas is ranked 11 in the world--this would be his third comeback to date. He’s thirty-five years old--in a sport where many people quit in their late twenties. To be 11 in the world at thirty-five years old... it’s something special. It makes you wonder what he could have done if all that stuff didn’t happen.”
  240.  
  241. She sighs.
  242.  
  243. “You can see his talent, can’t you? Every person who knows tennis knows the story of Tommy Haas. It’s a kid who grew up, put the time in, even had the talent to boot--but here he is--at age 35--still chasing the dream.”
  244.  
  245. She throws her hands up in a mock gesture of defeat.
  246.  
  247. “It’s not to say he failed. He’s gotten farther than almost everyone else. But to be so good and fall just short every time--there’s something basic, fundamentally, painful about that. He doesn’t play for the money anymore--he already made enough of it to live on for the rest of his life by 2005. I think now, it’s just a matter of pride.”
  248.  
  249. In the entire time, Ritsu’s eyes haven’t left the court. She’s rapt--completely fixed--on the battle between the two.
  250.  
  251. Looking at the court, I never would have known the history behind the each player. Or even guessed at a shred of the truth. Ritsu really knows her stuff.
  252.  
  253. It’s kind of perverse, in a way, that Haas and Wawrinka are practicing with each other. The ex-star and the perfect kid lacking that extra bit of talent. I wince and check myself. These guys are 11 and 13 in the world. They’re not doing so bad. But the way Ritsu puts it,
  254.  
  255. The two players move to the side of the court and take out sports drinks. I guess it’s time for a break.
  256.  
  257. Ritsu gets up, dusting her skirt off.
  258.  
  259. “Come on, Hisao, let’s go see another match.”
  260.  
  261. “Okay.”
  262.  
  263. We make our way back towards the main stadium, the crowds getting thicker again. Ritsu and I are again forced to edge and shoulder our way through the throngs of people.
  264.  
  265. Bleagh. I’m all sweaty. Hopefully this match is in the shade or something.
  266.  
  267. And I’m pretty hungry. Maybe we can get something to eat, and I can treat Ritsu to lunch.
  268.  
  269. Just as I’m about to tap Ritsu on the shoulder to ask her about our plans, a high voice calls above the crowd.
  270.  
  271. “Ritsu!”
  272.  
  273. Both of us stop, trying to track the source of the voice.
  274.  
  275. “Ritsu! Over here!”
  276.  
  277. The voice belongs to a tall, dark-haired girl waving by the food court. As we come closer, I can see she’s wearing the same player attaché passes we are. Ritsu locates her and her face lights up in an expression of joy.
  278.  
  279. “Ah! Mio!”
  280.  
  281. Edging our way through the crowd, we make our way to Ritsu’s friend—Mio, I guess. Ritsu wraps Mio in a long, enthusiastic hug, and then turns to introduce me.
  282.  
  283. “Hisao, this is my friend Mio Akiyama. I’ve known her since I was five, when I played in her a junior tennis tournament.”
  284.  
  285. Mio gives me a polite nod, her eyes a strikingly calm grey.
  286.  
  287. “A pleasure to meet you, Akiyama-san.”
  288.  
  289. She waves her hand in a manner much like Ritsu.
  290.  
  291. “Please, Mio.”
  292.  
  293. I sense the topic of polite introductions is dying, so I decide to introduce a controversial topic.
  294.  
  295. “So, when you first played, who won?”
  296.  
  297. A loud proclamation from my right, issued by a yellow-banded girl, is no surprise.
  298.  
  299. “Me!”
  300.  
  301. This earns her a swat from Mio. Giving me a pleasant smile, she opens her mouth to speak.
  302.  
  303. “Ritsu back then… let’s say that her line calls weren’t exactly fair.”
  304.  
  305. Ah. Right. You call our own lines in tennis. At least I know this much. This earns a another protestation from Ritsu.
  306.  
  307. “I got rid of that habit!”
  308.  
  309. Mio rolls her eyes.
  310.  
  311. “It only took you what, four years on the junior international tour to figure that out?”
  312.  
  313. Ritsu pouts. I chuckle. Seems like Mio knows exactly how to handle Ritsu. Mio surveys the crowd again, and turns to face us.
  314.  
  315. “So, is it just you two guys here?”
  316.  
  317. Ritsu’s still pouting, so I guess it’s my turn to answer.
  318.  
  319. “Yeah, it’s just us. We took the train all the way from school actually. How about you?”
  320.  
  321. Mio looks over the crowd once more. Is she looking for someone?
  322.  
  323. “I came with a bunch of friends—but they all just left to get frozen yogurt. Ritsu knows them all very well, actually.”
  324.  
  325. Stopping to shake Ritsu out of her pout and get her attention, she continues.
  326.  
  327. “I came with Mugi, Yui, and Azusa—but they’ve been gone for some time. It shouldn’t take them this long to get yogurt.”
  328.  
  329. Ritsu creeps up on Mio’s back, grabbing her behind the shoulder. Mio doesn’t look very comfortable all of a sudden.
  330.  
  331. “Maybe they were… KIDNAPPED!”
  332.  
  333. Mio shudders and gives a loud cry, drawing stares, then drops back down and knocks Ritsu on the head. Ritsu rubs her chin in thought.
  334.  
  335. “Mugi, Yui, and Azusa… huh… I haven’t seen them in ages.”
  336.  
  337. A loud squeal interrupts her thoughts.
  338.  
  339. “RICCHAN!”
  340.  
  341. I turn to face the source of the voice. It seems like everyone’s doing a lot of shouting today.
  342.  
  343. A girl with her hair parted in the middle runs up and gives Ritsu an enthusiastic hug, inadvertently sticking her cone of yogurt straight into Ritsu’s hair.
  344.  
  345. Strangely enough, she remains in the hug for a good number of seconds, completely unaware to Ritsu’s squirming at having frozen yogurt stuck into her head.
  346.  
  347. While Ritsu attempts to extract herself from her captor’s grasp, I take the time to survey her other two companions.
  348.  
  349. There’s a girl who kind of reminds me of Mio—serious, polite, expression, and long black hair—but done up in twintails instead of worn straight.
  350.  
  351. The other girl is strikingly foreign—with thick blonde hair and blue eyes—and carries a look of complete distraction and wonderment as she examines her frozen yogurt. It’s like she’s never seen it before or something.
  352.  
  353. Hmmm. Well, I never really gave thought to what Ritsu’s friends were like. I thought she said she didn’t have any. Maybe that was hyperbole or something.
  354.  
  355. With a loud gasp, Ritsu extracts herself, and immediately begins to verbally abuse her assailant.
  356.  
  357. “YUI! YOU GOT YOUR YOGURT ALL OVER MY HAIR!”
  358.  
  359. This is followed by a frenzied combing movement with her hands over the damaged area, spraying melted yogurt everywhere. It kind of reminds me of a raccoon I saw in a zoo that was grooming itself.
  360.  
  361. The antagonist—Yui, I guess—is completely ignoring Ritsu and looking at her now empty waffle cone with a mixture of confusion and despair. Meanwhile, the blonde girl steps forward.
  362.  
  363. “Here, I have a handkerchief.”
  364.  
  365. Ritsu gives up the combing effort and sighs. Accepting the handkerchief, she mops the rest of the yogurt.
  366.  
  367. “Thanks, Mugi,” moans Ritsu in a tone of despair.
  368.  
  369. Ah. So the blond one’s Mugi. That means the pigtailed ones… Asuka? Ayusa? Something like that. Azusa, I think.
  370.  
  371. The scene before me is like a comedy scene from a bad B-movie. Azusa’s frantically comforting Yui, who seems to be on the verge of tears after realizing that her yogurt’s placed the majority of itself in Ritsu’s hair and not in her mouth. Mugi and Mio have moved to help clean the yogurt out of Ritsu’s hair, while she maintains the look of a near-drowned cat.
  372.  
  373. I chuckle to myself. It’s kind of funny, in a extremely perverse way.
  374.  
  375. Mugi notices me standing there and gives Ritsu a tug on the shoulder. A loud whisper of “Ricchan, who’s that?” is followed by a curious pointing gesture at me.
  376.  
  377. Ritsu exhales a loud sigh of what can only be desperation.
  378.  
  379. “That’s my boyfriend, Hisao Nakai. Before I met you guys, he didn’t know that my hair could absorb such a large quantity of vanilla frozen yogurt.”
  380.  
  381. Mugi gazes at me in wonderment, while Asuza and Yui pause to look at me if I’m kind of zoo animal.
  382.  
  383. They immediately converge around Ritsu into a huddle, and I hear loud whispers of “Ricchan, you have a boyfriend!???!” and “Why didn’t you tell us!!?!!?!” and “Does he have more frozen yogurt!?!!?!!”
  384.  
  385. The huddle breaks up, and Mugi is the first to reach me. Sticking out her hand, she starts to issue a greeting.
  386.  
  387. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Nakai-san.”
  388.  
  389. “Hisao. Nice to meet you as well.”
  390.  
  391. I grasp her hand and shake it, and find that she has an unsually—no—make that extremely unsually strong grip. Like the kind of grip that draws to mind the words ‘Iron vice” and ‘superman.”
  392.  
  393. The second to detach from the huddle is Azuza, who bows and also introduces herself.
  394.  
  395. “I’m Azuza Nakano. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
  396.  
  397. I shake her hand, and she seems normal. I think. A little earnest, but pretty normal.
  398.  
  399. The last one to detach is… Yui? I think. She looks like she’s still mourning the loss of her yogurt.
  400.  
  401. She grabs my hand in both of hers and starts to shake it enthusiastically. Wait a minute.
  402.  
  403. Wasn’t she supposed to introduce herself first?
  404.  
  405. As she realizes this as well, she stops shaking, leaving us in an awkward position as she attempts to reconcile this breach in social protocol.
  406.  
  407. Her face brightens and I’m met with one of the happiest, genuine smiles I’ve seen in a long time.
  408.  
  409. She lets go of my hands and introduces herself.
  410.  
  411. “Hi! I’m Yui Hirasawa.”
  412.  
  413. I can’t help but smile back.
  414.  
  415. “Hisao Nakai. Good to meet you.”
  416.  
  417. Now that introductions are through, I survey the situation. Mugi and Mio are still combing the yogurt out of Ritsu’s hair, which unfortunately looks like it’s starting to dry. Ritsu still has the look of a wet cat.
  418.  
  419. Yui is pouting at her empty ice cream cone, but it looks like Azusa is spooning out half of hers into Yui’s cone, which is causing her to give that star-bright smile again.
  420.  
  421. Seems like the situation’s under control. Well, at least marginally. I should probably go try and help Ritsu.
  422.  
  423. I head over to the situation, where Mio and Mugi are dabbing away at the now-clumping strands of Ritsu’s hair. I don’t think this is the right solution.
  424.  
  425. “Hey guys, why don’t you take Ritsu to a bathroom or something so she can wash this stuff out of her hair?”
  426.  
  427. Mio considers my answer while Mugi continues to dab dutifully at Ritsu’s hair.
  428.  
  429. “Well, we could take her to the player’s lounge. They even have showers there. What kind of tickets do you guys have?”
  430.  
  431. I fish my player attaché pass out of my pocket.
  432.  
  433. “We have these—not sure exactly what that means.”
  434.  
  435. Mio’s eyebrows raise in surprise, but she nods in acknowledgment.
  436.  
  437. “Sounds good, then. You guys have access to the lounge, so let’s go there.”
  438.  
  439. She follows this up by speaking directly to Ritsu.
  440.  
  441. “Hey, Ritsu, we’re going to go to the player’s lounge, where you can wash the yogurt out of your hair.”
  442.  
  443. This earns a groan from Ritsu, but she stands up and stretches her arms. I would make a jab about her current condition, but I doubt she’s in the mood to hear it.
  444.  
  445. We make the long trudge over to the main stadium, where apparently the player’s lounge is.
  446.  
  447. Ritsu doesn’t really seem to be in the mood to talk, but Mio and the others chatter idly away about the day’s matches. They seem just as fluent about tennis as Ritsu... which is kind of disturbing. They rattle off facts and dates like it’s the alphabet. Are all tennis fans like this?
  448.  
  449. We reach the stadium and step into a side entrance, where we flash our passes and pass through a set of double doors.
  450.  
  451. Another set of doors, and we enter a roughly painted, grey, concrete hallway. Panel lights hang from the ceiling and pipes line the high corridor walls. It’s about three people wide--and although clean and well lit, has an industrial feel.
  452.  
  453. You know, I wasn’t expecting the Ritz-Carlton or anything, but I thought the entrance to the player’s lounge would be nicer. Maybe I was picturing the wrong thing when I was thinking of the player’s lounge. Maybe it’s just a locker room or something.
  454.  
  455. We climb two flights of stairs, stop in front of a another set of doors, and our credentials are checked again. We pass through the doors, and I stop as my jaw drops through to the floor.
  456.  
  457. The player’s lounge is around the size of a football pitch. On the left, seperated by a low glass divider there’s a completely empty buffet line, with a bunch of chefs in white hats waiting patiently behind rows of steaming food. On the far wall, there’s a glass window over looking the grounds--floor to ceiling mirror glass--you can even see the Tokyo skyline in the distance. On the right wall, there’s a row of flat-screen TV’s, probably around ten of them, tuned to various sports channels and news stations, and even more are placed in various nooks and crannies. Scattered around the room are leather couches and furniture, beanbags, a few ping pong tables, a pool table, a foosball table... this isn’t a player’s lounge. This is a lounge for billionaires or something. This is the fucking coolest room I’ve ever been in.
  458.  
  459. There are a few people in the lounge, but it’s mainly empty. I guess no one likes hanging around or something. I could hang out in here for a pretty long time. Maybe for the rest of my life if no one minds.
  460.  
  461. Ritsu immediately heads off to the side--to the showers, I guess. Meanwhile, the girls head to the buffet--spearheaded by Yui, who seems eager to replace the half frozen yogurt she lost.
  462.  
  463. I collapse onto a soft leather couch. The cool air of the lounge is such a relief after the muggy outside. The leather is soft and has just enough spring to it. I feel so happy I could die. I close my eyes. Bliss. My mind is an empty, blank orb. I am attaining zen. I am the zen. I am zen. Zen.
  464.  
  465. My bliss is interrupted roughly five minutes later by comically loud whispers.
  466.  
  467. “Should we wake him?”
  468.  
  469. “No, he’s sleeping.”
  470.  
  471. “He looks so cute when he’s sleeping.”
  472.  
  473. “Yui, that’s Ritsu’s boyfriend!”
  474.  
  475. “I was just noting... everyone looks cute when they sleep.” I smile. I pretty much can picture Yui’s pout in my head.
  476.  
  477. “Hey, he’s smiling!”
  478.  
  479. Someone gives me a inquisitive poke, and I open my eyes to see Mugi’s face... an inch away from mine.
  480.  
  481. “Hey!” I recoil backwards onto the couch in not one of the smoothest displays possible. Groan. Way to look cool in front of four girls, Hisao.
  482.  
  483. Mugi looks worried. I quickly move to allay her fears.
  484.  
  485. “No, no, it’s okay, I was just shocked from being woken.”
  486.  
  487. Azusa slides a plate of food towards me. It looks delicious--fresh pasta, salad, and some kind of seafood rice. Not the greasy sports-event fare I was looking forward to, but this can do.
  488.  
  489. “We brought you some food in case you were hungry.”
  490.  
  491. “Ah, thanks. It looks great.”
  492.  
  493. We begin to eat, and the only sound is the quiet chewing of food. I guess everyone’s hungry.
  494.  
  495. As I start to eat, I realize I’m ravenously hungry as well. The only thing I’ve had to eat today is three cups of coffee. The food is even more tasty than it looks--rich in flavor, yet light. The kind of food a top athlete would want, I guess. I clean my plate and am suddenly onset by an assault of thirst.
  496.  
  497. “I’m getting a drink, does anyone want anything?”
  498.  
  499. I’m immediately onset by a flurry of drink requests.
  500.  
  501. “Orange Soda!”
  502.  
  503. “Dr. Pepper, please.”
  504.  
  505. “Root Beer--no--Cream Soda--no--Shirley Temple!”
  506.  
  507. “Diet Coke would be great, Hisao.”
  508.  
  509. All of this is shouted at me within the space of a few seconds, but no-one seems fazed in the slightest. My head still ringing slightly, I head over to the bar and get the drinks, and a coke for myself.
  510.  
  511. Placing their drinks on the table, I flop back down on the couch. I wonder where Ritsu is? She’s been gone pretty long.
  512.  
  513. Everyone’s finished their food and is pretty much in the same state as me-- post food coma, sprawled out on the furniture.
  514.  
  515. A question comes to my mind. It’s been lodging there for a while, but it finally came up to the surface.
  516.  
  517. “Hey, how do you guys know Ritsu?”
  518.  
  519. Everyone starts to respond at once.
  520.  
  521. “WeRicchanIwell--”
  522.  
  523. Then they all stop, not wanting to interrupt each other.
  524.  
  525. There’s a slightly awkward silence as each of them waits for one of them to speak, but Mio takes the lead.
  526.  
  527. “Like Ritsu said, I first met her when I played in a Tokyo juniors tournament. But all of us play tennis at the competitive level, so we know Ritsu pretty well. All of us are her age, excluding Azusa, so we’ve competed with her and trained with her over the years.”
  528.  
  529. At this moment Ritsu comes walking over, her hair still wet from the shower.
  530.  
  531. “Hey guys, what’s going o--”
  532.  
  533. Her faces turns flat.
  534.  
  535. “You bastards ate without me.”
  536.  
  537. She sighs in mock depression.
  538.  
  539. “Okay, okay, I see I’ve been replaced by Hisao. I know he talks about tennis and girly things like shoes better than I do, so I’m going to get some food and lament my fate.”
  540.  
  541. She turns off and trudges off to the buffet line. I chuckle. Ritsu’s a handful, but she has her moments. I turn back to the group.
  542.  
  543. “So, do you guys come to tennis tournaments often?”
  544.  
  545. This time, Mugi answers.
  546.  
  547. “We consider them to be a part of our training. It is possible to learn a lot just from watching the top players hit for a point or two.”
  548.  
  549. Azusa interjects.
  550.  
  551. “It’s nice to get out and break the rhythm of training. Like Mugi said, it helps, and more often then not, we get to take a lot of breaks anyway.”
  552.  
  553. Yui interjects.
  554.  
  555. “And we get to eat food like french fries and hot dogs!”
  556.  
  557. At this moment Ritsu comes back. She seizes the opportunity to make a wry remark.
  558.  
  559. “Hey, that’s not all she eats. Last time we went to a tournament she ate four funnel cakes.”
  560.  
  561. This draws a pout from Yui.
  562.  
  563. “They were good. And so small.” she protests in a low voice.
  564.  
  565. Everyone smiles at Yui’s frown as Ritsu settles in and starts to eat.
  566.  
  567. “So, you guys have all met Hisao?”
  568.  
  569. Everyone nods. A sly grin makes its way onto her face.
  570.  
  571. “And what’d you think?”
  572.  
  573. I sigh. Leave it to Ritsu to ask those kinds of questions. I’ll step in and answer her question.
  574.  
  575. “They thought that I was way too smart and handsome for you. Before you came, they were just asking my availability on weekends.”
  576.  
  577. Hopefully they’ll catch on and play along with my joke. Thankfully, everyone nods with dutiful poker faces.
  578.  
  579. Ritsu sighs loudly, not missing a beat.
  580.  
  581. “Well, I guess I’ll just have to give you up then. Watch out girls, Hisao goes dutch on dates.”
  582.  
  583. “I do not!”
  584.  
  585. Everyone laughs. I get a sense that when it comes to humor, Ritsu likes it rough.
  586.  
  587. She tugs on my shoulder.
  588.  
  589. “Hisao, I’m thirsty. Would you mind getting me a Coke Zero?”
  590.  
  591. “Sure.”
  592.  
  593. I drag myself off the couch. It’s probably for the best, I was almost falling asleep.
  594.  
  595. “While you’re up could you also get another--”
  596.  
  597. “Orange Soda.”
  598.  
  599. “Root Beer.”
  600.  
  601. “Shirley Temple--no--now Roy Rodgers!”
  602.  
  603. “Diet Coke”
  604.  
  605. I tilt my head down in defeat.
  606.  
  607. “Sure, no problem.”
  608.  
  609. A chorus of “Thanks, Hisao,” rings out, and as I look back, the girls are clustering around Ritsu, no doubt filling her in on the latest gossip or something like that.
  610.  
  611. Bleagh. Carrying this many drinks is probably going to result in a large spill. I should probably get a tray or something.
  612.  
  613. The bartender raises his eyebrows at my order, and I tilt back my head back at the girls to explain. He nods gracefully, and sets about fulfilling my rather large order.
  614.  
  615. Bringing the drinks back took a bit of skill, given my piss-poor sense of balance and hand-eye, but I manage to set the tray down without causing a major calamity.
  616.  
  617. Another chorus of “Thanks, Hisao,” ensues, and I realize I forgot to get myself a drink. Oh well.
  618.  
  619. Ritsu, now having her food, speaks up.
  620.  
  621. “Hisao, we were thinking about going to see another match. Are you ready?”
  622.  
  623. I stretch my arms out.
  624.  
  625. “Sure, where to?”
  626.  
  627. “We’ll decide on the way. Come on.” She tilts her head at the door, and we all gather our stuff and exit the lounge.
  628.  
  629. ============
  630.  
  631. It’s almost dusk now, and the girls had some appointment to keep, so Ritsu and I have retired to a cafe on the tournament grounds. We have night match passes, but I don’t think we’re going to stay.
  632.  
  633. I’ve ordered a cappuchino, and at 500 yen, I hope it’s somewhat decent. Ritsu’s ordered some kind blue sports drink.
  634.  
  635. Believe it or not, sitting and watching other people physically exert themselves is kind of tiring. I’m exhausted.
  636.  
  637. While we wait for our drinks to arrive, I’ve got a big question for Ritsu. I look at her to see if she’s in a talkative mood.
  638.  
  639. She looks kind of tired, and her red jacket is dusty by now, but her eyes are active, darting over the crowd and flashing in the fading light.
  640.  
  641. “Hey, Ritsu, I’ve got a question.”
  642.  
  643. She looks over at me, snapped out of her daze.
  644.  
  645. “Shoot.”
  646.  
  647. “I thought you said you had no friends in the tennis world. How do you know Mio and all the other girls?”
  648.  
  649. A look of understanding passes over her face.
  650.  
  651. “Oh, I should have explained that.”
  652.  
  653. She pauses to accept her blue neon sports drink from the waiter, takes a sip, and then starts to explain.
  654.  
  655. “In every country where tennis is big, or it’s a 1st world country, there tends to be a government agency or federation that provides support and regulation for tennis events in the country. In the United States, it’s the USTA, in Britain the LTA, or Lawn Tennis Association, in Australia it’s Tennis Australia, and in Japan, it’s the Japanese Tennis Association. More often than not, these organizations are more than just figureheads--the USTA runs the US Open, the LTA runs Wimbledon, you get the idea--these are multibillion dollar entites solely devoted to tennis. For the most part, they spend the majority of their time promoting tennis in their country, which includes sponsoring promising youth players.”
  656.  
  657. She takes another sip.
  658.  
  659. “There are a lot of benefits to this. For the most part, it means that you don’t need to be extraordinarily rich to attempt a career in pro tennis--you just need to show the requisite talent. The Federation will pay for your coaching, travel, fees, everything. Even more, they don’t expect any of it back when you turn pro. It’s as free and as good as it gets”
  660.  
  661. Interesting. She continues as I accept a steaming cappuccino from the waiter.
  662.  
  663. “The only catch in training with the Federation is that you’re stuck with whatever they give you. Which, for the most part--is nothing short of excellent--they often spare no expense in training and hiring coaches and whatever. But you’re often forced to train in your native country, and train with other prospects from your same country--which in a small country like Japan, can be a death sentence--you simply won’t get the intense, international competition that you need.”
  664.  
  665. Hold on. That doesn’t sound right.
  666.  
  667. “Wait wait wait. So you’re saying that training with the top Japanese players isn’t the same as say, training with the top American players?”
  668.  
  669. She shrugs.
  670.  
  671. “For the most part, no. Japan is such a small country that their tennis prospects are few and far in between. In a large country like America, there’s a much larger talent pool--and as a result, competition there is much more intense. It sounds silly but it really is a huge world of difference.”
  672.  
  673. “Anyway, so for the aforementioned reasons, many top players in small-ish countries, providing they have the money, choose to train in America or Spain--where all the top juniors train. Training with the Federation doesn’t mean you’re not going to make it on the pro tour--but it’s really a matter of common sense. If you train with the best, logically, you’ll probably play like the best when crunch time comes. That’s why I chose to train outside the Federation.”
  674.  
  675. Another shrug.
  676.  
  677. “Mio, Mugi, Yui, and Azusa are all Federation players. They’re top talents in their own right, but they don’t really train at the same level or have the same “accomplishments.”
  678.  
  679. Well, okay. So how do they know each other then?
  680.  
  681. “So how do you guys know each other then? If you train in America, how do you know them so well?”
  682.  
  683. She looks surprised at my question before understanding snaps on her face.
  684.  
  685. “Oh. Uh, not training with the Federation doesn’t mean I avoid them entirely. I still play junior events that are based by country, so when I do, I have to use the Federation to register me and get me on the team. One of the reasons why I get along so well with those four is that I rarely compete with them--for the most part, we’re often working as a team to win a tournament.”
  686.  
  687. Team?
  688.  
  689. “Isn’t tennis a one-on-one sport?”
  690.  
  691. She raises her eyebrows, then smiles understandingly as she address my question.
  692.  
  693. “I keep on forgetting that you haven’t lived this sport. It is, but there’s doubles, which is two-on-two, and things like junior Fed cup. A team would be three singles players and two doubles teams--and depending on how many wins your team has, you either “win” the overall competition, or you “lose.” These are actually pretty prestigious, and you have to play for your native country, so I play for Japan.”
  694.  
  695. She gazes out onto the tournament grounds.
  696.  
  697. “Actually, when I think about it, those are some of my happiest times in my life. When we’re not playing, we’re basically hanging out, so it’s always a week of just having fun 24 hours a day. We stay up and gossip and play video games and eat ice-cream. You can’t really do that in the American training camps because it’s so intense. The moment you slip up a tiny bit someone’s jumping to take your place.”
  698.  
  699. She looks out at the grounds and doesn’t speak for a while. I guess I should try to cheer her up.
  700.  
  701. “So you enjoy time with them more than time with me?” I do my best to look like an injured puppy.
  702.  
  703. She smiles wistfully and ruffles my hair.
  704.  
  705. “You’re a keeper, Hisao.”
  706.  
  707. Then she leans over the table and motions me to come closer, as if she want to tell me a secret.
  708.  
  709. “Yes, Ritsu?”
  710.  
  711. The next sensation is Ritsu’s lips, soft and full, pressing hard against mine. We’re in a public place! This can’t be normal.
  712.  
  713. Still, I give way to the kiss. It’s just too good to stop. After a good five seconds, we pull away.
  714.  
  715. “Ritsu, this is a public place!”
  716.  
  717. She waves a hand at me.
  718.  
  719. “Hisao, you worry too much. Look around.”
  720.  
  721. I look around. Everyone is going around their business like before.
  722.  
  723. “See? No one cares.”
  724.  
  725. I breathe a sigh of relief.
  726.  
  727. “Still...”
  728.  
  729. She looks at me critically all of a sudden.
  730.  
  731. “Hisao, your tie isn’t straight.”
  732.  
  733. “Huh?”
  734.  
  735. I look down. It’s pretty straight, but it is a little loose.
  736.  
  737. I move to fix it, and Ritsu’s soft lips press against mine again, her breath warm and hot, and I give way a second time to a lingering, impossibly amazing, kiss. This one lasts for a good ten seconds before she pulls away.
  738.  
  739. My face is all flushed by this point.
  740.  
  741. Down, boy.
  742.  
  743. “You were saying, Hisao?”
  744.  
  745. I hold my hands up in surrender.
  746.  
  747. “Okay, you got me.”
  748.  
  749. I take the last sip of my cappuccino before settling back.
  750.  
  751. “So, what should we do now?”
  752.  
  753. Her face screws up in thought.
  754.  
  755. “Well, we could go souvenir shopping. I always try and buy something at every tournament I go to. It’s like a tradition.”
  756.  
  757. “Sounds good. What were you looking to buy?”
  758.  
  759. “Probably a shirt or something. How about you?”
  760.  
  761. If I’m honest, there’s been something I’ve been wanting to buy all day. I’ve been holding back because I thought it was childish... but now that we’re going shopping... I guess it’s fate.
  762.  
  763. “I want one of those large tennis balls. You know, the ones the size of your head.”
  764.  
  765. She guffaws, breaking into laughter while unsuccessfully trying to conceal it with her hand.
  766.  
  767. “Okay, Hisao, whatever you like. Didn’t know you were a five year old.”
  768.  
  769. “Hey!”
  770.  
  771. We get up from the table and start heading towards the shopping arcade.
  772.  
  773. ===========
  774. By the time we get off the bus at Yamaku, it’s well and truly dark. After shopping, Ritsu persuaded me to stay the night matches, and we ended up seeing a five-set thriller between some guy from France and other guy from Serbia. According to Ritsu, Serbia is a tennis powerhouse or something like that. Anyway, it was pretty fun, but I’m really dog tired.
  775.  
  776. Shopping was also productive. In my right arm I have a large, roughly basketball-sized tennis ball. It cost 5000 yen, but I’ll be damned if I let something this cool pass me by.
  777.  
  778. As we reach Ritsu’s dorm, she turns to face me. She gives me a warm, pleasant, smile, as her golden eyes glitter in the moonlight
  779.  
  780. “Hisao, thanks so much for coming with me today. I haven’t had that much fun... in a long time. Being with you... made me feel like I was an actual teenager today. Thanks.”
  781.  
  782. “Hey, Ritsu, you always know what they say about being a teenager.”
  783.  
  784. Her face shows complete curiosity.
  785.  
  786. “What?”
  787.  
  788. I grab her by the hips and pull her into a long, lingering kiss, and she wraps her arms around me and pulls me in even closer.
  789.  
  790. She pulls away for a brief second. Her face is flushed with the thrill of a challenge.
  791.  
  792. “So what do they say, Hisao?” her voice low and husky.
  793.  
  794. As she pulls me in for another kiss, I whisper the answer in her ear.
  795.  
  796. “Third time’s the charm.”
  797.  
  798.  
  799. ==========
  800.  
  801.  
  802.  
  803. "Pretty Girls" (Benny Benassi Remix) is a song by Wale
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