Rent-A-Body By Sean Nishi

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Franny always said our pastries had the consistency of dried paper mache. At night we’d wrap the leftovers and leave them outside for the homeless. Not even raccoons would go near those things. One by one we had to let our staff go. We consulted a financial advisor, who said our best course of action was to burn the bakery down and collect the insurance money. Standing outside the now-empty storefront, I’m reminded that Franny is remarried and I’m the schmuck who still passes by here everyday on his way to work. Then my alarm goes off, which means I need to drop the nostalgia and get in gear.

My client of the day is Tobias Wood. He and his wife run a line of athletic apparel for dogs. It’s their anniversary tonight, so I show up at seven and wait in the basement until nine. The theme tonight is Studdly Jailbird. I’m wearing a sleeveless striped prison outfit with fake tear-drops Shapried beneath my eyes. After a romantic dinner Mr. Wood pops in and I go over the rules, which is: Rule #1) Always wear protection. Rule #2) Don’t do anything that you wouldn’t do in your own body. And Rule #3) Definitely don’t go over your allotted time, or else our neuro-pathways could coagulate and we would be stuck in each other’s bodies for life. Which would be unfortunate.

So once Mr. Wood signs the paper work I go grab the hardware. We put on these helmets that look like salon blow dryers that are connected via a long rubber cable. There’s a brief flash followed by nausea and sometimes vomiting. Then we’ve switched bodies. Mr. Wood is giddy like a kid on Hanukkah morning. He runs up the stairs to his wife who’s wearing a sexy guard costume and hitting the jailbreak alarm. So I sit here and wait. And wait. And while I try not to think about all the ways Mrs. Wood is defiling my body right now, I go over and inspect Mr. Wood’s body in a dusty mirror. All I see is a sad paunch and gravity doing it’s worst. In spite of everything else in my life, I’ve kept myself in good shape. It’s the only reason I’m not working at Panera. It’s on my list of Self-Affirmations when I’m feeling down about Franny. Suddenly Mr. Wood pops in again and says “what’s the game, Jack? Your cock isn’t working.” And before I can make some sort of half-assed excuse he demands we switch back and a full refund.

Great. You’ve fucked up what should’ve been a perfectly easy job thinking about Franny. So we switch and I give him back his three hundred dollars while he promises me a zero-star review on Rent-A-Body.com. In shame I stop at El Burrito on the way home. I spill refried bean product all over my couch cushions. I curl up again in the shower. Before bed I remind myself to separate work from loss, and some day Franny will be a distant memory, as if we never even met. But that’s not true. And come morning I’m passing by the old bakery again, this time making one more stop I’ll regret.

***

Gated Gardens doesn’t have any gates or gardens. It’s a high-rise apartment building with indoor tennis courts and built-in ellipticals in every unit. What it does have is a doorman and security, so I sit at the bar across the street that serves alcoholic oat milk and wait while pretending to thumb through my copy of White Nights by Dostoevsky. And around noon I finally see Franny in her running sweats leaving the front door, so I grab my oat milk to-go. I follow her to the park where I bump into her around a sharp bend by the lake and spill my oat milk all over her sneakers. I try to wipe it off with napkins but she shoves me away.

“Christ Jack,” she says. “You can’t keep doing this. It’s deranged.”

“I was just on my way to feed the ducks,” I say.

“There are no ducks here,” she says. “If Rex was here – forget it. He’s busy enough as it is preparing for his art show Friday.”

She reminds me to stay away or she’ll file a restraining order, right in front of the guy running the churro cart. After she leaves I buy one and sit on the park bench moping: What did I do wrong? One day we’re running a happy business together. The next she’s left me for some mural designer who can’t even keep it in his pants long enough for us to actually divorce. A guy who I once called in to spruce up the bakery, and then he’s running off with my wife? What kind of world are we living in? I make a mental note to bring this up with my therapist later. I have to keep myself sharp today because it’s a twofer.

***

Twofers mean a couple has hired two of us, i.e. one for each of them. It’s Swingers Night at the Hernandez’ house, which means big tips if all goes well. I show up at their lovely seaside house where Mr. Hernandez offers me horchata while I wait in the cabana for my partner to arrive. I never know who I’m assigned until the last minute, so imagine my surprise when this tall brunette wearing a black velvet bodysuit shows up. Her name is Abigail. The theme of the night is Secret Agents Gone Rogue. I’m wearing a James Bond suit with velcro hemming for easy removal. We don’t even get a chance to be acquainted before Mr. and Mrs. Hernandez pop in already toasty on margaritas and telling us to get the act going. After going through the proper safety procedures and donning the headgear, they take off to the bedroom in our bodies while we, now two people in their sixties with back spasms, sit around and chat. I learn Abigail used to help political refugees find housing. Then her landlord passed away and the new owner tripled the rent on her, which is why she took this as a side gig. I tell her about my childhood in Marin. I tell her about the Camaro that won’t start. I tell her about my efforts at a small business and the salmonella outbreak that blacklisted me from ever trying again. I’m about to tell her about Franny when the alarm goes off and we have to go knocking on the Hernandez’ door to remind the sweaty couple that it’s time to go back.

“Rats,” says Mr. Hernandez. “We were just about to switch sides.”

After we’re paid Abigail offers to drop me off at home. I take her on the longer scenic route up the hills full of restored Victorians with romantic window frames. On the ride we talk about her epileptic dog Skipper. We bond, we really do. Then we get to my apartment and she says: “hasta la vista.” After she leaves I stand but the door clutching my pierced heart. Later that night I’m in bed watching Sports Wives when I get to thinking: Mr. Hernandez didn’t complain once about my cock not working. I put two and two together and realize for one I wasn’t thinking about Franny. So the next morning I resolve to buy some new dog toys for Skipper and make dinner plans with Abigail. Abby, I might call her.

***

My therapist is a twenty-four year old woman named Vivian who talks to me on video chat from the Philippines. I know her brother Rico from Rent-A-Body. I get a friends and family discount. I tell her about Abigail, the magic moment when we both tried to do cartwheels by the pool, the car ride home, and my plan to ask her out and gradually convince her to move in with me. Vivian says: “Pump the brakes there, Jack.”

I confess I’m smitten and I’ve never felt this way before. Vivian reminds me that’s what I used to say about Franny. I don’t see the correlation. Rubbing her temples on camera, she tells me to recall the memory of our last fight: Finding Rex’s letter in her drawer, confronting her forcefully at the Cinema Star parking lot after a showing of The Graduate, throwing up a little, then falling to pieces in our empty bakery. That’s when I start to panic. Vivian reminds me to breathe and count five red things in the room. I count seven. She encourages me to pursue Abigail in a slow, healthy way. I nod my head and remind Vivian that she knows me better than I do myself. The minute we end our session, I draft an e-mail to Abigail, asking if she’d like to attend a showing by a mediocre local artist.

***

Next morning my client is Dwayne Reed over in Little Kaliningrad. Years ago there was an uproar of police violence on this block, followed by an uproar of postal carrier violence, then produce market violence when the price of micro-greens skyrocketed. Tenants moved out and the buildings were torn down to make way for the mayor’s plan of urban renewal, which means boutiques for infants and a climbing gym that advertises Fit Like A Refugee in Five Weeks!

Mr. Reed’s a regular. He’s a well-off fashion designer with fourteen dogs and no partners. He likes to switch bodies with me because he needs a break from his own skin. “One of the great tragedies in life,” says Mr. Reed. “Is that at the end of the night we hang up our coats, but not our noses.” Typically we hang out in his massive eight bedroom house, eating his food, putting on French pop music, listening to him describe the intricacies of Rey Kawakubo and Issey Miyake’s unconventional shapes. It’s easy money because I don’t have to worry about my body getting rug-burn around the groin. It’s jarring having a whole conversation with myself, especially when we’re sipping Aperol Spritzes and Mr. Reed is giving me his whole spiel about how Rent-A-Body began.

“I know Mr. Reed,” I say. “They originally invented it for disabled people to walk again. The company bio is in the hiring paperwork.”

“No Jackie,” he says. “They developed it first for the military. So they could sneak themselves into banana republics and de-stable communist insurrections.”

I tell him I don’t know what he’s talking about and I’ve certainly never shopped at a Banana Republic. Then as I get up to refill my glass it’s apparent that I am very drunk, and I slip on an orange peel and smash into Mr. Reed’s Keith Haring-inspired coffee table. When I come to we’re back in our own bodies and paramedics are wrapping Mr. Reed’s bald head in bandages. “Look what you’ve done!” he says. “You’ve hurt me. In my own home. Right as I was admiring the mole on my left cheek!” I leave his home sans tip and good review. On the bus ride back I consider calling it quits and dousing myself in gasoline outside the old bakery. But my pocket rings. It’s Abigail, saying she’d be delighted to see me tomorrow, and asks what kind of sweater to wear. I put my plans of self-immolation on hold. Tomorrow I have a date. Finally my luck is turning around.

***

Corporate only calls you in when you’ve done something wrong. Their building is a high-rise in downtown with video screens on the sides that allow it to resemble Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Ms. Olivera is my supervisor and the person I’m loaning my hardware from. We sit tucked away in her cubicle that’s also everyone else’s cubicle because here they share everything, just like our bodies.

“Your ratings,” she says. “They’re shit. Everyone’s saying you’re a lemon. What happened?”

I confess I’ve been distracted, but everything is okay now. Ms. Olivera is unconvinced. Right as she pulls out an Employee Disciplinary Form, I tell her everything about Franny, about my disastrous attempts at reconciliation, about the friends I can’t call now after saying that horrible thing about her mother, all hoping she’ll understand. Ms. Olivera puts away the form and pats me understandably. “I get it kiddo,” she says. “I lived with a guy once. Treated me horribly. Said I looked like a plucked chicken and would only have sex with me once I was torn down emotionally. He died of a botched tracheostomy. What I’m saying is, people usually get what’s coming for them.”

I say: “So were the same?”

She says: “No idiot. You’re the guy in this situation.”
I’m given a one-week suspension from work. I think: Who cares? I have a shot at finally getting Franny off my mind tonight, and I’m not going to spoil it. So I stop at Bozo’s Liquors on the way home. I buy a bottle of expensive Prosecco and tell Mr. Shnoravorian about my hot date. He snorts and tells me about his son Dikron who’s just been hired as a podiatrist at Kaiser. This is a guy I went to high school with and couldn’t even tie his own shoes. And now he’s raking in six figures a year working on people’s feet. Through it all I’ve somehow missed out on this thing called Upward Mobility. But life’s more than about money. It’s about forging real human connections and seeing how people live on the other side.

At home I’m somehow able to get the green Camaro to start so I pick up Abigail at around eightish. We get a bite to eat Carmella’s. I tell her about getting fired. She tells me about a promotion. It seems like the Department of Social Services upped her role to Head Homeless Housing Coordinator and now she gets her own desk and health benefits for the first time. I congratulate her and order another bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Then I’m in the bathroom looking at Franny’s Twitter account again, where I see her in a sexy slip a slip at Rex’s art show. Immediately my desire for my date goes down the toilet. So I get the check and drag Abigail across town. We arrive at an old DMV office. Traffic cones with candles in them artfully decorate the parking lot. Outside Rex is showing a short film he made on a large piece of hung canvas, starring Franny. It’s her sitting on a bed with kabuki makeup plastered on her face and reciting Baudelaire backwards. I want to throw up. Someone made Jello-shots out of White Claw and I’m putting them down like pain pills. Abigail asks if everything’s OK, which is when Franny sees me and walks over angrily.

“Holy hell,” she says. “What are you doing here? You need to leave. Pronto.”

I’m about to introduce Abigail when I turn around and notice she’s disappeared. Then while looking for her I drunkenly knock over some of Rex’s melted beer cans installations. Some of Rex’s drawing class buddies escort me out as gently as they can. I sputter around the street trying to find my car. When I’m finally in my Camaro I look at myself in the rearview mirror and feel hate, only hate. Then I spot Rex on the corner smoking a cigarette and I’m thinking: You filth.You have no respect for your soft flabby body, and now Franny has to look at that everyday. Before I know it I’m releasing the clutch and gunning the engine and hitting the lights right as Rex makes eye contact with me and realizes I’m about to run him over. Which I do. And then my mind goes on auto-pilot for a while as a flee the scene and head home. I’m thinking: Did I just murder my ex-wife’s new husband? Then: What will become of me now?

So first thing I do is: Check into the Poverty Inn down by the soup kitchens. I grab some free stationary from my room and write down my suicide note for whoever who cares. I write: Franny. My therapist. God: What did I do in this life that was wrong except love too much? And also: Why couldn’t I be a better baker? And then: P.S. – Thanks for the body. But what’s a tank without fuel?

I’ve got the PVC wiring tied up like a noose and hanging from the ceiling fan. I turn the news on so I know what was going on on the world the day I offed myself. The first story is at a hospital where a certain local artist named Rex is on life support and rapidly degrading. They’ve got tubes coming in and out of him like a human hamster maze with a respirator pounding dear life into his crushed lungs. Next to him is Franny crying by the bedside, more than I’ve ever seen her. Police are trying to identify the culprit of this insidious crime. They flash an image of my blurry license plate, as well as a picture of Rex when he was a gap-toothed nine year old with freckles. A sweet, smiling kid.

Oh shit. I’ve really fucked the pooch.

So I tear the noose down and get in the Camaro. I haul ass to the hospital where I lie my way into seeing him by telling the nurse I’m his brother. “What a shame,” she says. “That such a young talent will almost definitely be gone tonight.” I carry my secret duffel bag of hardware into his room. Before anyone can stop me I put the helmets on our heads and switch one last time. At first Rex comes to and freaks out, believing he is ascending to the afterlife, until I remind him that he’s just hopping up and down like an idiot. Then there’s me in Rex’s broken husk. With my dying moments I hand him my real suicide note. It says: I was a selfish, petty man, and you are a snake, a snake that brings joy to Franny’s life, more than I ever could, so this if my gift to you: My body. Use it well. Treat it kindly. You’ll find it has a lot of stamina. And if you’re lucky, you’ll have fifty more good years left in that thing. This one’s on me.

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Sean Nishi

Sean Nishi is a Japanese-American writer from Los Angeles, CA. His work has appeared in STORGY, TIMBER, Poydras Review, Streetlight, Tatterhood Review, and Ember Chasms. He lives with his partner and two cats, Toby and Waffles.

Social Media Links

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/leather_allan_poe/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/seanishi1

Other Media:

“Squish Me”: https://timberjournal.org/archive/squish-me

“Big City Dreams”: https://emberchasmreview.com/big-city-dreams-by-sean-taro-nishi/

“Regarding Your Time-Off Request”: https://streetlightmag.com/2021/01/15/regarding-your-time-off-request-by-sean-taro-nishi/

Image by Angel-Kun on Pixabay

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