Read More: A brief interview with Jessica Tumio
My husband Johnny and I work for an acting agency. Not one that places us in movies, sitcoms, or local pizza place advertisements; one that injects us into the personal lives and homes of people who rent us. Thanks to my average face (symmetrical), average height (5’5”), and average build (soft here, tight there), I’m versatile. In my twenties, I was often hired to go on practice dates with guys who wanted to practice dating. In college, parents paid me to study with their daughters and dissuade them from partying on nights before exams. This earned me a free semester at UConn and a network of women in every social circle I genuinely called friends, though they had no idea of the original arrangements. Sometimes when we catch up, I have the vague sense I’m lying. There has always been a fine line between being myself, Kate, and my characters.
Having just turned 33, I’m ready to play the role of a mom. Mother? Mama? I’m still figuring out my preference. Most women get an entire pregnancy to decide this—I only have a few days. My agent found me two mothering jobs and both client interviews are today. Johnny insisted we jump into parenting but the maternal urge doesn’t come naturally to me. I always assumed one random morning I’d wake up as impatient as Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, stomp my foot and shout at Joe Pesci about my ticking biological clock, but except Joe Pesci, it’d be Johnny. I’m taking these jobs so that when that moment comes, I’ll be ready.
Dan (Father #1) is my first interview. I pull up to the Starbucks one town over from me. I check the time. Using my phone, I punch in at 11:58AM. He’s sitting by the windows. “I’m Kate,” I say, “I’m Dan,” he says. He wears an oversized denim jacket and a faded red ballcap that looks unintentionally trendy. I set my notebook on the table. Our contract is printed on crisp white paper underneath. He folds and unfolds his hands as I take notes, like I always do at interviews. Some clients want me to be a specific woman because they haven’t found her yet. Obviously, most women in the real world don’t want to follow a script. Except me. When I’m getting paid, I’ll be whoever you want. I’m like a prostitute in that way, minus the sex. Sex is prohibited per Article 2 Section 3—same with touching (even holding hands), hugging, kissing, and anything that could be construed as sexual.
Dan says he and his five-year-old son Danny want to hear a female voice around the house. His only stipulation is that I don’t discipline his son. That’s fine. It’s awkward yelling at someone else’s kid. I suggest Tuesdays and Thursdays for two-months. We shake hands.
On my way home, I call Frederick (Father #2) for a phone interview. He speaks through a Bluetooth earpiece. He wears a blue suit and has a belly. One of those round bellies that, when he turns, knocks young women of smaller frames out of place on crowded trains. Trust me. I get this all from his voice. He’s hiring me to attend his daughter Abilene’s elementary school show and tell next month. Frederick will be in Beijing for business, and her private school fines families who don’t show up to these events. He thinks Abilene and I should get to know each other beforehand so the whole thing looks natural in front of other parents. I’m nervous as soon as he says “other parents.” But he’s right. We should become familiar so I don’t blow my cover in her classroom. We make plans for me to meet Abilene. We hang up. I pull into my driveway. I check the time. I punch out at 2:34PM.
On a sticky August afternoon, Abilene and I drive to Staples with the windows down. She’s six. I’ve never had a kid in my car before, so I’m driving a little slower, checking my mirrors more frequently, and signaling for longer than usual. I make small talk, but when we aren’t speaking, Abilene smiles with the sun on her face and wind in her hair.
When we get there, she runs down the aisles and tosses purple pens and purple post-it notes into my basket. She forgets I’m carrying a list, so when she’s sidetracked with sparkly gel pens, I pick out the boring stuff: a three-ring binder, a stack of white index cards. This reminds me of my elementary school days. Shopping for supplies signaled a new beginning, implied new discoveries, and new friends.
We immediately click, thanks to her willingness to talk and mine to listen. In the checkout line, she tells me about her first week of second grade. Schools are doing all kinds of tricks to keep kids chill—much different from when I grew up in the early nineties. Her school has a “healing space,” a small classroom with dim lighting, grey walls and essential oil diffusers. For kids with ADHD, classrooms have moving chairs that wiggle, which helps them concentrate.
“I want to try the moving chair,” Abilene says. “But Elliott is always hogging it.”
“He needs it,” I say.
“No, he doesn’t. At recess yesterday? He laughed and told me he lied to his doctor. He likes lying to people. He even bragged about lying to his mom. And then he said he hates his mom. Well I hate him.”
Elliott sounds like an asshole, I don’t say, because I’m responsible now, and have to load her supplies onto the counter.
We stop at a diner for lunch. I order chicken soup. She, grilled cheese with a side of baby carrots. I feel more like a glorified babysitter than a mom-for-hire. I have no set script to follow other than keep the girl company. We chit chat. I learn she has four step-siblings, each from a different mother. Liz, the mother of Fred’s youngest child and his current wife, lives with them. Abilene doesn’t like Liz, which is why I’m going to show and tell, and not Liz. She doesn’t tell me why and I don’t ask. I was trained in the business of illusion, not reality, and Liz isn’t part of our illusion.
Inspired by Japanese rental family agencies, my employer was first in the U.S. to pioneer this sort of enterprise. The American version started as a service that sent high schoolers to nursing homes to read to the elderly. When I turned eighteen, the business began loaning its actors to the general public. We can be hired for anything now—from filling wedding seats to attending protests. It makes me think twice when I step out for the day and into crowds at supermarkets or on trains. I always wonder: who is acting, who isn’t? Of course, ultimately, it doesn’t matter. We act one way at work. We act one way with your friends. We act one way in the bedroom. In some way, we’re all actors.
“Does anyone call you Abby?” I ask in the car.
“Some people call me Chatty Kathy, but that sounds ju-be-nile.” She sounds out each syllable, as if trying on a new language. “And I know you’re not my real mommy but I like saying the word mommy, so that’s what I’ll call you.”
When I stop at red lights, the wind ceases its assault on my ears. I hear the word echo. Mommy. Perhaps it was spoken too soon, like the first “I love you” between teenage lovers. Perhaps not. In the very least, it’s a comforting word, one that implies something sweet, innocent, and safe. When I get home, I check the time. It’s 3:15PM. I punch out.
“You can tell me if you don’t really want kids,” Johnny says over a rack of satin cocktail dresses, relics from my work as a wedding date. We’re purging old clothes. I plan to donate these dresses. Their cheap sheen and sexy, ill-placed cutouts embarrass me.
We rent a floor in a Victorian house on the Connecticut coastline. It has two bedrooms; ours, and a spare filled with racks of clothes from various jobs. Shoes line its perimeter: kitten heels, stilettos, Mary Janes, oxfords, boots, boat shoes. Johnny and I met ten years ago in our Manhattan headquarters. We preferred working outside the city. We believed the more distance between where we lived and where we worked, the better, as if physical space would make it easier to separate who we were from who we were paid to be.
“I do,” I say. I step on a stool so I could see him over the clothes. “Women try on expensive wedding gowns before buying them. It’s 2020. Why can’t I try on motherhood?”
“Why can’t we do it together?”
“If we start playing pretend between our own walls, when will it stop? After work, we punch out. But if we’re pretending at home?” I pause. “I’m just trying to prevent us from losing sight of our own reality.”
Johnny collapses into the seat at the vanity. He’s wearing running shorts and a grey tank top, patchy with sweat. On weekdays he works as a “jogging buddy” for Claire, a woman who just moved to a neighboring town. I use quotes because he’s really a security guard. His presence is supposed to deter attackers. Claire has seen too many news stories about women going for a jog or playing a solo round of golf and ending up raped and stabbed to death. Until she makes friends here, hiring an actor is ensured security. I’ve seen the news. I don’t blame her.
I lay outfits on the floor. My method involves assigning a color to a role. It helps me compartmentalize each job. For Danny Boy’s mom, I’ll wear red Converse, inspired by Dan’s ballcap. Some people associate red with blood, hunger or violence. To me, it’s the color of love. For the role of Abilene’s mother, the color white comes to mind. I’ll wear a white jacquard top, cigarette pants in khaki.
“Do you want a boy or girl?” I ask.
“I’d be happy with whatever God gave us.”
“Since when is He involved?”
“I want my kids to be baptized and make their communion. By the time they’re the age to get confirmed, they can decide for themselves.”
He shrugs. “I had to do all that.”
Standing in front of the full-length mirror, I press khaki pants against me. “I’m uncomfortable doing something just for looks in our personal lives. Aren’t you?”
“I guess,” Johnny says. “But still.”
Dan and I digest at his kitchen table. I’m wearing loose-fit boyfriend jeans, red Converse, and a white cotton button down top. I punched in around 5:50PM and have been here almost an hour. So far, my first night is going smoothly enough.
“Danny Boy, take another bite,” Dan calls.
Danny sits in the living room with the lights off, rocking back and forth a foot in front of the TV. Whatever he’s watching seems inappropriate for a five-year-old. Explosions. Shouting. (Of course, I prefer he turn off that show and sit with us. But I’m contractually obligated to refrain from telling him what to do.)
I feel bad judging, but there’s something off with this house. Kitchen walls are beige, bare, and streaked with white in random spots, as if wallpaper was stripped and never replaced.No pictures sit on the fireplace mantle. No decorative paintings are on the walls. A fly bounces from bulb to bulb on the rickety ceiling fan. When it hovers over the crumbs in our open pizza box, Dan doesn’t swat it away.
Danny Boy runs over and takes a bite of pizza. He hardly looks at me but I smile for the split second he does. Tonight, we’re getting used to each other. Next time I won’t look at him as someone else’s kid; next time he won’t look at me as a stranger in his home. Unlike Abilene, he won’t call me mommy. Dan thinks it would be too much. Knowing nothing of the situation, I agree. I never want to cause more harm than good, and situations with kids, I’m realizing now, can be tricky.
“I finished Westworld,” Dan says. “Everyone’s afraid of robots becoming so humanlike we can’t distinguish them from ourselves. Yet here you are. From the outside we look like a family. But from the inside—”
“When’s next season’s coming out?” I say.
“You can drop the act when he’s not around,” Dan says. “Tell me about the crazy requests you’ve gotten.”
“What act?” I ask. Obviously, I know what he’s trying to do, but I can’t let him do it. While I’m on the clock, I become a liability as soon as I start behaving as Kate would.
“I’m just trying to get to know you.”
“You already know me,” I say.
“I’ve hired from you guys before,” Dan says. “I get it. You can talk to me. I’m not gonna get you fired.”
“Danny,” I call, looking straight at Dan. “I’m going to throw your pizza out, okay?”
Danny runs to the table, grabs his crust, and wiggles in place as he chews. Dan and I look at each other. It’s obvious we want to say something we shouldn’t say. I wonder who he’s hired, and for what, and what had happened. Usually, if a client is satisfied, they’ll hire the same actor over and over again. After a moment, he stands up and bends the pizza box in half, and again, and crams it in the garbage bin. Crumbs scatter across the floor.
After his show ends, Danny warms up to me. He shows me his superhero action figures. One by one, he sets them on the table and tells me their origin. I look in the box at my feet and pick up Wonder Woman.
“What’s her story?” I ask. I place her beside Captain America, the Hulk, and Iron Man.
Danny stops talking. His jaw clenches; tiny muscles bulge through his cheeks. He wraps his tiny hand around her figure and throws her back in the box.
I look at Dan, expecting him to say something to the boy. Instead, he shrugs. “Today was his first day of kindergarten,” he says. “He’s tired.”
Danny continues to show me superheroes as if I’d never spoken. When his voice rises, Dan tells him to use bedtime volume. Watching the two interact, I blame his mother, this mystery woman, wherever she is, for whatever just happened. Before the door shuts behind me, I check the time. It’s 9:19PM. I punch out.
Johnny’s mixing a salad at the counter when I walk in. He asks how my night went.
“There’s something going on in that house,” I say.
“Like what?” he asks. Back against the fridge, he eats straight from the mixing bowl.
I tell him about the missing wallpaper, the lack of pictures, how Dan hired other actors, the boy’s reaction. “I wouldn’t worry,” Johnny says. “If there was a problem, Dan’s account would be flagged. He wouldn’t be allowed to hire from us again.”
This doesn’t satisfy me, but I’m too tired to argue. “How was work?”
“I ran my first five miles without stopping.”
“Congrats,” I say.
“You know, if someone wanted to attack me and Claire, we’d be screwed. I can’t fight.”
“No one wants to attack her,” I say. “And if they do, they’ll see you and bail. It’s all about the image you project. What’s actually going on doesn’t matter.”
“I get that.” He pauses. “But I’m always behind her trying to catch up. It’s like she’s running away from me. From the outside, I look like the stalker. I don’t know—”
He trails off. We fall silent except for occasional stabs from his fork hitting the bottom of the bowl. […]
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Jessica Tumio received her MFA from Fairfield University in January 2018. Her first story was published in the Spring 2018 issue of Carnegie Mellon University’s Oakland Review. Another story of hers is listed as a semi-finalist in Nimrod’s The Katharine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction contest. She currently works as a copywriter for a shoe company.
Read More: A brief interview with Jessica Tumio