The Gerbil

By Alex Shishin

This is a story about Ivan Klein, 56, an American language teacher tenured at a small women’s university in Kobe, Japan and two women, Meadow Goldsmith and Masami Yamamoto.

Meadow Goldsmith was Ivan’s girlfriend for nearly thirty years.  She too was a language teacher, tenured at a technical university situated between Kobe and Osaka.  She hailed from a village in the United Kingdom.  She was one year younger than Ivan.

Their friends remarked over the years how Ivan and Meadow seemed to be a perfect couple. Ivan and Meadow considered themselves well matched as lovers, traveling companions, textbook coauthors and team teachers at the intensive English summer seminar in Nagano.  Why weren’t they married? 

Ivan once proposed to Meadow and she replied, “You wouldn’t want me for a wife.  I destroyed my marriages to two good men before I was twenty-three.  You and I met while still in our passionate youth and the passion has endured.  Enjoy the seasons of our life together.  Do not ask for more.”

Ivan and Meadow experienced only one disagreement that came close to a row.  It concerned Masami Yamamoto.

Masami Yamamoto was Ivan’s best-ever student.  Just after entering the university she happened to meet Ivan in Kobe’s Sannomiya arcade.  Her first question to him, expressed in English, was, “What should I read?”  He asked her what she liked reading.  She said she liked adventure books.  Ivan recommended The Chronicles of Narnia.  She finished the seven volumes before her sophomore year. As a senior she wrote her graduation thesis on Gulliver’s Travels under Ivan’s direction.  Ivan suggested she enter graduate school. Since his university did not have a graduate school, he recommended her for an excellent university in Kyoto, where she was accepted.

Their farewell at the graduation party was restrained since they knew they were being watched. Dressed in kimono and with her long hair up, she formally thanked him.  He wished her well.  They bowed to each other.  Years later, when she had her Master’s and was teaching part time at several universities, they happened to meet in the Sannomiya arcade.  She hugged and hugged Ivan and said, “Thank you!  Thank you!”

“I was a bit down on teaching today. Ms. Yamamoto brought me up,” Ivan told Meadow.

“I’m quite sure she did,” Meadow said.  “If you want to trade me in for a newer model, be my guest.”

“Really, Meadow!” Ivan replied. “I hardly think she would be interested a man in his fifties. I was at best, perhaps, only a surrogate father figure. She was a baby when her father died.”

“That’s how it starts,” Meadow said.

“Her falling in love with me would be like falling in love with a gerbil.”

Meadow said, “I should hope our remaining lifespans will exceed those of gerbils.”

Their would-be row ended abruptly and Meadow did not bring up Masami Yamamoto again until the day she told Ivan she was returning permanently to the U.K. because she felt obligated to help her older sister care for their invalid mother.  “You might try catching your Masami Yamamoto if she’s available.”

Ivan could not contain his grief.

“Steady, Ivan, steady.  No tears please,” Meadow said.  “I hate tears.  If it will make you feel any better, I am as sad as you are.  I have no choice.  My sister cannot care for Mum alone anymore.  It is taxing all her endurance.”

“I’ll come with you,” Ivan said.  “I’ll find a job.”

“Even if you get work and a visa at your age you’d be miserable. Sis and I do not get on. Mum’s senses are going but she may live another ten years.”

Left without Meadow, Ivan was not at a loss in managing his life.  Their long relationship was never domestic.  He knew how to get what he needed with his rudimentary Japanese.

He went about his job in a detached and melancholy way, but this did not affect his usual exactness.  As always, he took his meals out.  Only now he began to spend long hours in Kobe’s coffee shops. There he prepared lessons and corrected papers.

As Ivan watched couples around him, it occurred to him that he and Meadow were never romantically in love, however much they enjoyed each other’s company.  Meadow was a tiger in bed, but she never showed him the spontaneous affection Masami Yamamoto displayed in the Sannomiya arcade.

The three decades with Meadow compacted in his memory; he sensed how a gerbil might feel with only two to four years of life to look forward to.

One day Ivan received an email from Masami Yamamoto.  “Dear Klein-sensei,” she wrote, “I heard Goldsmith-sensei has gone to England forever. I am sorry to hear it.”

There are no secrets in Japan, Ivan thought and read on.

“My boyfriend left me for a younger woman. He did not want a girlfriend who is over thirty, though he is over thirty.  I cried for days and almost cut my hair. My mother persuaded me not to.  Then I thought I needed your wisdom, Klein-sensei. Can we meet and talk in Kobe or Kyoto?”

“I could come to Kyoto any weekend,” he responded. “Kyoto would be a pleasant change.”

She wrote back immediately, “Let’s pick a weekend when we’re not tied up. It will be an honor to see you again, Klein-sensei.”

Before their arranged meeting, a letter arrived from Meadow.  She wrote, “My sister and I are getting on and Mum is more lucid than I expected. I married last week.  I think this one will be serviceable at least. I thought it best to do this before I became a gerbil. Forgive me for tossing this on you.  You have a right to know.”

That evening Ivan bought a bottle of shochu and got drunk for the second time in his life.  In that state he wrote a long email to Masami Yamamoto.

The following day Ivan called in sick and spent the morning under the covers of his futon, too miserable to much care about his email to Masami Yamamoto.  By afternoon he became worried as snatches of his email appeared in his aching brain.  He got out of his futon and read her email reply.

“I love you too,” she wrote.  “I love you very much. I understand your pain. It is natural. I am cancelling my classes and coming to you. I know where you live. I am bringing medicines for your hangover.”

“Just God!” Ivan thought.  “I cannot ruin her pure, bright life!”

His brain cleared as he wrote Masami Yamamoto an email, hoping she would catch it on her smart phone.  He apologized for anything inappropriate he might have written.  She must not think of love or marriage with him. He was almost twice her age. He would go long before she would and this would break her heart.  “Loving me would be like loving a gerbil.” 

Before he could write more, the doorbell rang.  He put on his housecoat and slippers and admitted Masami Yamamoto and an older woman, who was holding a gift box. Both wore similar grey suits and had their long hair in ponytails.

“This is my mom,” Masami Yamamoto said.

“We owe you so much,” Klein-sensei,” her mother said in English and bowed deeply.

“Welcome. Please be at home,” Ivan said in Japanese.