In Another Life: A Short Story
By Miki ArndtDecember 19, 2020
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MY NAME is Rimiyo and I’m a grandmother. I’ll be 65 in November.
In one life, I have a daughter. Kanae is 35 and a dental hygienist. Her husband Shota is 42 and he works with computers. He’s explained to me what he does, something about data, but I can never remember. My granddaughter Rika is seven. She calls me Obaachan. We watch music shows and she teaches me the dances. My joints don’t move the way they used to but we’re happy together when we dance. Kanae says the way Rika smiles with all of her teeth, reminds her of me.
In another life, I have two sons. Their names are Kosuke and Kohei. They’re in their late 30s, one a lawyer and the other in real estate. It’s hard to tell them apart. They have a father, Koichi. We’re about the same age. He is my husband. He has no sense of humor and murmurs his words, as if speaking with a mouth full of mouthwash. I get tired of asking him to repeat himself. I never would’ve picked such a man but I have no choice in this matter. My son Kohei has a wife, Chikako, who works as a receptionist at his agency. They have a son, Haruto. He is three, hyperactive and obsessed with trains. He calls me Baaba. I sit with him and we create elaborate scenes of accident and rescue together, using his toy figures and speaking in funny voices that make him giggle. Koichi murmurs in the background toward us. I pretend not to hear him.
In another life I have a far better husband, Hiroaki. I see him twice a week. He texts me what he wants for dinner and I pick up the ingredients at the supermarket. “Sukiyaki is not as enjoyable alone,” he would say, while he thanked me. He missed home-cooked meals after his wife died. He asked me about my other families and remembered my stories better than I did. He was curious to hear how Rika was doing, what Haruto was learning in school. He laughed heartily at my impressions, particularly of me mimicking soft-spoken Koichi. We don’t have any children, Hiroaki said he never wanted them but now he wondered whether he made the right choice.
In another life, I have a daughter. Her name is Maya and she’s 43. I heard that she lives in London with her husband and their daughter. I don’t even know her daughter’s name. Maya doesn’t know about my other families, just like I don’t know about hers. Maya’s father left us when she was five, and Maya left me when she was 18. I don’t see myself in Maya, although she alone shares my blood.
I’m a far better grandmother than I ever was a mother. Maya hadn’t liked to be touched or held, and it still surprises me when Rika hugs me, or Haruto reaches for my hand when we go for our walks. Would they do that if they knew who I really was?
I talk to Hiroaki about my families. I apologize about using his time to talk about myself, but he reassures me that’s what couples do, it’s more natural this way. He asks if I have feelings for my families, and I say yes. I’ve always been honest, though you might think it funny from my line of work.
Aside from the families, I have the occasional wedding or funeral to attend as a relative. I’ll do one-off meetings with younger women who want advice on relationships and how to deal with a troublesome mother-in-law. One of my clients is a hikokomori. His name is Kei and he’s 22. He’s confined himself to his studio apartment that barely fits his futon and a coffee table. His clothes are in a box and his floor is littered with soda bottles, empty ramen containers, and cigarettes. He sleeps off his days and plays video games until the morning. His family said Kei had been close to his grandmother and was never the same after she died.
When my agency told me Kei’s family had loved my profile, I tried to turn down the job. I had heard of hikikomori, and found it creepy that these men hid from society. My supervisor, Takeda-san, reminded me that I had been reluctant to meet Hiroaki as well. I had only wanted grandmother roles and wasn’t interested in pretending to be a wife. Takeda-san had assured me that Hiroaki just wanted to talk. “He lost his wife two years ago, his high school sweetheart. You can meet him in our office. If you don’t like him, I’ll send him someone else.”
Now Takeda-san insisted. “I know this is unusual, but this boy needs guidance. The family read through your reviews, your profile, and said you reminded them of the grandmother he lost. His mother said she’ll go to his house with you, so you’ll be more comfortable. He’s agreed to a few sessions. Tell me yes?”
I owed Takeda-san for discovering me. A few Septembers ago, I was sitting on a park bench eating my onigiri when I spotted two boys fighting in the sandbox. One boy held the other boy’s toy plane high above his head, taunting him. A group of mothers gossiped nearby, engrossed in conversation and unaware of the escalating conflict. I walked over to the children.
I can’t recall what I said to them but I made the bigger boy return the plane to his smaller friend and told them stories until they were both laughing and playing together again. I walked back to my bench satisfied. Then a man in a gray suit walked over and handed me his business card.
“I’m Takeda. I saw how you handled those kids, and they’re not even your own. I know this might sound strange, but are you looking for work? We’re looking for grandmothers. A good one is hard to find.”
I didn’t realize that being a grandmother was something I had wanted until Takeda-san offered it to me. Maybe it was an experience I hadn’t earned, but I wanted to give it a try. I had never imagined anyone would want to rent me but I trusted the density of his business card, printed on expensive paper. I followed him back to his office. Takeda-san regaled me with stories of the families he had worked for, other people’s children he had raised, widowed women he had comforted. By the time I left, I had taken my profile picture and signed a contract, officially a grandmother-for-hire.
I became an expert in scheduling, so I could babysit my grandchildren, meet Hiroaki for dinner and attend events for the agency. These commitments were already a lot, with the names and histories, birthdays and occupations and favorite foods. I took notes on my phone to remember conversations. I taught Rika how to write and Haruto how to use chopsticks. We’re not supposed to develop attachments to our families but it was hard not to.
I’ve asked my least favorite husband Koichi about his other roles (he’s from a rival agency) but he doesn’t like to break character. He was tight-lipped about his commitments, saying he had to protect the family’s privacy. Kanae, my daughter, worked with a couple families and was a stand-in wife for corporate events. I met her years ago at her wedding. I was her aunt for the night and we bonded immediately. She was the bride of a gay man who wanted to appease his parents with a traditional wedding. In our family, she was the wife of Shota, who lost his wife in a car accident when Rika was only two. When applying for her kindergarten, Shota rented Kanae for the interviews. Rika took to Kanae, and Shota started booking her more often. When they needed a babysitter, Kanae referred me to join their family as a grandmother. We’ve been a family since.
Kei though, was another matter. He played video games silently while his mother attempted conversation. All he granted us was a nod, no eye contact. His mother apologized on our way out. “We would like you to come again,” she said, checking my face for my reaction. “I’m sure this is different from your usual work, and it might be annoying. We think having a grandmother again is good for him, and we would like you to consider seeing him again.”
I agreed to go back, not because of any obligation toward him but because Takeda-san had been so sure that I was what this family needed, and I didn’t like disappointing him. On the next visit, I brought my own zabuton to sit on. I rang his doorbell but he didn’t answer. His mother hadn’t been able to come with me today. I tried the door and it was unlocked. He must have left it open so he wouldn’t have to talk to me.
“Today we’re going to spend a good time together,” I announced, while Kei continued playing his game. “Did you hear anything I said during my last visit?” Kei ignored me.
“Okay,” I said. “Show me what’s so good about this game,” I picked up a controller. “Teach me how to play and I’ll beat you. If I do, talk to me, even if it’s for a minute.”
Kei looked at me with surprise. I had made contact.
“I’ve never used this before but I learn quickly,” I added.
Kei’s voice was faint and raspy, like the creaking of an unoiled machine. He spoke in quick staccatos, and I pretended to hear everything he said. Then we spent the next three hours playing video games. We didn’t say another word. This was probably not what I was hired for but I had enjoyed the game and at least he opened his mouth.
The following week, he asked about my zabuton. I brought my own cushion because his room looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in years. But I couldn’t say that.
“It grounds me.”
“I have a lot of lives, a lot of families. This zabuton is a constant. This is a reminder that I’m still the same person, no matter who I’m with or where I am.”
“Or maybe you just don’t want to sit on my floor,” he said.
“That too,” I admitted.
I cleared away the soda cans, making room for my cushion. I actually looked forward to playing video games with him. I was competitive and I might be able to beat him with more practice. Maybe I needed to visit him twice a week instead.
“Maybe you can visit me twice a week,” he mumbled as I was leaving.
“Are you starting to feel fond of me?” I asked laughing, “My friends say I’m an acquired taste.”
“I’ll tell my mom,” he said, his eyes still on the TV screen.
Hiroaki was amazed. “And you just play video games with him?” he laughed. “Why can’t I get a job like that? You just go to his house, eat his snacks, play video games, and get paid? You really figured out a good career for yourself.”
“I’m trying to connect with him,” I reasoned, omitting that I really enjoyed the game. “He hasn’t left his house in two years. But I’ve heard of worse cases, of men not leaving their rooms for a decade, or having to write them letters and slip it under their door to communicate. At least Kei manages a few words to me each time.”
Hiroaki laughed a lot, perhaps because he had worked all his life in the service industry. He had the natural inclination to please people, to make them feel comfortable in his presence. The sides of his eyes crinkled when he laughed. This day was a rare occasion when we had gone out for dinner, to a casual yakitori place that he and his wife used to go to. It was new, us having dinner outside, especially at a place that he and his wife had frequented. He never touched me, not even a brush on the shoulders. He admitted he felt guilty going to places he used to go to with his wife, especially with another woman. I told him that revisiting these places didn’t lessen his memories. Coming here was important to him, and I was proud that he had invited me.
I told Kei about my other families, whether he cared or not. I wanted to share my life with him, because work was all I had. I was upset because Koichi, my dull husband, had texted me to tell me that my family will replace me with another grandmother. He hadn’t even bothered to call. “Since Haruto is three, our sons thought if they swap you out now, it wouldn’t take him long to forget you. Your rate was too high, so they found a Filipina woman with a better rate.”
“How does that make sense?” I grumbled to Kei. “It’s like watching a movie and the actor suddenly changes for the same character. Why me and not Koichi? They probably get him for cheaper, but still.”
“These children connect with you thinking that you’re their family. Do you feel bad about lying?” he asked. “I hate being lied to.”
“Not if it helps you live a fuller life. Sometimes lies are closer to the truth than real life ever is.”
“I haven’t cared about anything since my grandmother died. She was the only person who meant anything to me. I know I have an apartment, food, my health, and others have less. But it feels impossible to do anything. It’s easier to continue like this. I’m not hurting anyone. No one except my mom cares whether I leave my house or not.”
I had never imagined that his mouth was capable of forming so many words at one time.
“I guess it’s different between us,” he said. “I know you’re not actually my grandmother. So, you’re not lying to me.”
“You’re right,” I said, “It doesn’t always have to be a lie.”
Two weeks later, I found Kei collapsed on his kitchen floor. He was unconscious and didn’t respond to my cries. I put my forefinger under his nose but I couldn’t feel any breath, so I called an ambulance and then his mother. She had grown tired of watching us play video games and had long stopped coming with me to visit Kei. His mother repeatedly thanked me for staying with him and said she would meet us at the hospital.
“Are you a family member?” asked the ambulance worker when they finally arrived, as I was getting onto the ambulance with Kei.
“I’m his grandmother,” I answered. “Please, he’s the only grandson I’ve got left.” This was technically true.
It was a quick ride to the hospital, but I sat close to his pale body and gripped tightly onto his bony hand. He would’ve hated it, I know, but I was trying to give him whatever warmth I could emit. I wanted to let him know that I was here, that maybe even a rental grandmother was better than nothing at all.
Once his mother got to the hospital, I left to give them privacy. I didn’t know what had happened to Kei. Had he tried to harm himself? I couldn’t stop thinking that I was responsible. I thought I had been making progress with him. I stopped by the bookstore on the way home, pacing the aisles and rifling through pages mindlessly, not wanting to go back home.
My cell phone rang. Kanae. Before I could tell her about what had happened with Kei, she blurted out, “I’m sorry. Shota can’t afford you anymore.”
“But I thought we’re a set,” I said. “We’re mother and daughter.”
“Yes, and we still are,” she said. “But Shota is transferring to the Nagoya office. I’m not moving, I have my life here. Shota still wants me to be in his life, with videocalls and the occasional visit to Nagoya, or they can visit me here. But he said it’ll be too expensive to continue with you. He’s taking a pay cut. He wanted to hire you in the first place as a babysitter, and his parents are in Nagoya and can watch Rika.”
“Then what happens to me?” I asked. I knew it wasn’t Kanae’s fault, she was just the messenger. Shota would never be man enough to tell me in person.
“I tried to talk him out of it. But he wants you to die, in the story line of our family of course, not in real life,” she said, with a hollow laugh. “You know these things are never permanent. Clients change their minds. I enjoyed working with you. The next time we can be a family again, I’ll recommend you.”
Like any job, they can terminate you when they want. But we get attached. They become more to us than just a paycheck. While you’re acting, a new part of you is born, a part who’s actually the person they paid you to be. And killing this person you’ve developed over years, it can be hard.
“Can I see Rika again?”
I sensed the stiffening of Kanae’s upper lip, the creasing in her temple when she has to say something she doesn’t want to. “They’re moving next week. He agreed to one last family dinner, and you can say bye to Rika. He hasn’t decided how to tell Rika about your death, but he’s made it clear that this is the last payment, so don’t concern yourself with them further. I’m sorry, Rimiyo. You know Shota, he’s an awkward man. He’s just cutting costs, it’s nothing personal.”
Rika and Shota moved away, and I would never see them again. I was dead to them, literally, and as unfair as it was that Shota killed me off so quickly, it was to be expected from this job. I was a professional. I would have other families. And I could complain to my husband Hiroaki.
Usually he laughed at my impressions, but tonight he was distracted. Finally, he said, “I’m getting tired, I’ll go to sleep soon,” which was usually my cue to leave, except that it was only nine in the evening and I was still eating. Usually we drank until midnight and he would pay for my taxi home. “I’ll be working late Friday so I have to cancel. I’m sorry, but see you next week.”
Our days were Tuesdays and Fridays but he canceled the following Friday, and then the next Tuesday. Since he canceled last minute, he was still charged the full rate for my time. He didn’t seem to care.
It was a Friday when I walked by the yakitori restaurant that I went to once with Hiroaki and I felt like having dinner there. I missed him, even though he had canceled our meetings for the last three weeks. The hostess brought me to the counter seats and sat me next to a couple. They were a few drinks in and seated close to each other, the woman’s hand lightly resting on his shoulder while she laughed at something he said. Of course, he was here with another woman. I should’ve known.
I shielded my face with the menu but the server came to take my order, and recognized me. Her chipper voice got Hiroaki’s attention. “Rimiyo,” he said, and I looked over at my husband. The woman with him was in her early 40s, dark eye makeup and more cleavage than was necessary at a yakitori eatery. Maybe she was paid too, and Hiroaki wanted variety, someone he could have a physical encounter with. Maybe he had grown tired of my complaints but was too kind to let me know.
“This is my cousin, Rimiyo,” he said to the woman next to him, giving me a new character to play. “She’s like my sister, I was hoping to introduce you to her. Rimiyo, this is Mayuko.”
Mayuko laughed. “He’s so mysterious, I hadn’t heard a thing about you. So nice to meet you. We’re heading out for a jazz performance now but enjoy your dinner. Hope to see you again.”
She looped her arm into his and they walked out of the restaurant and out of my life. I turned my phone off and continued my dinner. I read his messages the next morning. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about her,” he wrote. “Thank you for helping me feel comfortable around women again. Because of you, I had the confidence to make a profile online and meet a wonderful woman like Mayuko. I enjoyed being your husband and I wish you the greatest luck with your work. You’re like a sister to me, and I hope we can stay in touch.”
He didn’t message me again.
I visited Kei at the hospital. They told me that as soon as he regained consciousness, he had asked for me.
“Why did you visit?” he asked.
“You’re my only family member left,” I admitted. “And I was the one who found you. I felt guilty that I couldn’t help you. All I did was play video games. I was afraid you might have died under my care.” Seeing his face sent tears of relief down my face.
“What about your husband?” he asked, “The one you like, the guy who always wanted to eat at home.”
“He left me for another woman,” I laughed. “One he doesn’t have to pay by the hour, who he actually likes.”
“You have your grandchildren. Like Rika, the one you dance with.”
So he had been listening to me while we played our videogames. I was never sure.
“Her father took a job in Nagoya and they moved. They decided to kill me off so they don’t have to pay for video calls and visits. And my other family swapped in another grandmother who was cheaper. So now you’re all I have.”
Kei started gasping for air. I was looking for the button to call for help when I realized he was laughing, holding his stomach and crying too.
“So all you’ve got is me,” he said, “People are like that. They use you and when you’re no longer necessary, it’s time to say goodbye.”
“When one door closes, another door opens,” I said, “Someone famous said that. Or maybe it’s one of those Chinese proverbs. I never know the source of quotes. But I thought I was a good grandmother. I thought they were happy with me.”
“You should know that I didn’t try to kill myself,” Kei said. “I know that’s what you thought when you found me. I had a severe allergic reaction to hazelnuts. My mom brought over some cakes from the new bakery and said to share them with you, and I tried a bite. You actually saved my life.”
When I saw him collapsed on the ground, my immediate thought was that my negligence had killed him. If I had given him my undivided attention, I could’ve made a real connection and he wouldn’t have died. I had imagined the worst, like I always do.
“I felt that my life had no meaning but I was still too disinterested to end it. So I did what’s easy. Playing video games, eating food from the convenience store. I don’t have plans for the future. I don’t go outside because I get everything I need online.”
“But,” he said, “I forgot that when my throat closed up and I couldn’t breathe. I never knew I had allergies. My life was being extinguished by nature, and by hazelnuts of all things. I didn’t want to die amid my food wrappers and the dust on my floor. For the first time, I felt shame.”
“There’s time to change that,” I said, “There’s always time. We can work on it together.”
“Guess since I’m still alive, you’re going to continue as my grandma,” Kei said.
Kei was the only family member I saw regularly. We were making surprisingly quick progress. We had started with a reluctant walk around the block to move our legs, but now he came grocery shopping with me, and I was teaching him how to cook some easy dishes. The other day we even went to the beach, although we both remained fully clothed and in the shade, complaining about how hot it was and deciding the only way to cool down was to have a midday beer. He borrowed books from the library and exchanged a few words with the librarians. I focused on him and didn’t take on other commitments.
One spring day, Takeda-san called me about a young woman from London who wanted to spend a few hours with a grandmother. “She can speak Japanese,” he assured me, because he knew my English was limited to a few basic phrases. “She’s here for a week, it’s her first time in Japan.”
I met Naomi at the south exit of the train station and she waved at me enthusiastically. A petite girl who smiled with her entire face, her hands gestured while she spoke. “I’m excited to be here,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to visit. My mom is from Japan, but she left to pursue her career in London, she actually met my father the first week in a city bus. She hasn’t been back, but she did teach me Japanese.”
Naomi wanted to see the cherry blossoms and had timed her trip to see them. Maybe she felt it was safer to hire me for her first day in a new country, not knowing anyone here. We grabbed a quick lunch at the convenience store to take with us, and I brought her to my favorite park bench, overlooking the river and the rows of dusty pink trees.
“Why did you rent a grandmother?” I asked her once we sat down.
“My mother doesn’t keep in touch with her family. When I asked for my grandmother’s contact information though, she gave it to me. But the number was disconnected. I couldn’t find her online. I was disappointed but also relieved. My mom didn’t have a good relationship with her, and she might not want to meet me either. Maybe it’s a burden to suddenly show up at her door. I thought it might be better to try to see her once I’m more familiar with the culture.”
I thought about my own daughter Maya. I moved after a decade of waiting in a house with our memories. It had been clear me then that she was never coming back.
“If I don’t reach out to her, she can’t reject me,” she continued. “Meeting with you is practice.”
“You’re doing well so far,” I said.
A breeze made the branches above us rustle, and a shower of pink blossoms covered our heads and shoulders. When Maya’s father left us, I had taken her to see the cherry blossoms too. It was late in the season then and the ground was littered with pink tired snow that people had walked on. Maya stuck out her tongue to catch a delicate blossom. I didn’t know how to tell a five-year-old that her father was gone. The sky grew darker as she ran around picking up blossoms and throwing them in my direction like confetti. I would have to raise this child alone, I thought.
Naomi continued talking about her life in London, her classes. “I write fiction and I care so much about my characters and get to know them deeply. Sometimes I feel closer to them than with my own friends and family. When I think about them, I don’t feel so alone.”
It was getting dark but she had one more request before we parted ways. She wanted to visit the depachika, the bustling market in the department store basement. I took her to the cacophonous underground of Takashimaya, shuffling past a myriad of delicious looking samples. We passed by the freshly fried korokke and the meticulously arranged salad and the gleaming fish and arrived in front of the glass cases of cakes and macarons. It was crowded in the aisles but I navigated while pointing out things she might be interested in trying. Busy ladies jostled around her, and when I saw her taking pictures of a chocolate cake, I remembered Maya, who had hated crowds and was always angry when I dragged her here. One time I thought she was right behind me, but she had clung to the skirt of another woman who looked similar from the back. It took me 20 minutes to find her, crying inconsolably, the salespeople repeatedly asking her for her name.
We walked back to the train station. I wanted to ask her what she was doing tomorrow but she probably didn’t want a rental grandma for her entire trip. She was different from the other young girls who kept checking the time on their phones to make sure I answered all their questions within the hour that they had paid for me. She even hugged me when we said goodbye. She passed through the ticket gate and turned around to wave. I waved back until my arm hurt, until I could no longer see her on the crowded platform.
Miki Arndt is from Kobe, Japan. She lives in New York and has an MFA in fiction from Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in the Colorado Review and Redivider and she was the recipient of a fellowship from the Center for Fiction in New York.
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