Editor’s Note, hikokimori:

  1. (in Japan) the abnormal avoidance of social contact, typically by adolescent males.
    • a person who avoids social contact. (Oxford Languages)


Lorna’s spent plenty of time here in St. Andrew’s basement. Meetings. A circle of folding chairs. Confessionals. Tears. Time marked one day at time. All that years ago. Now Casa Friendship has taken over the space, but the polyglot din bounces off the cinder block walls, not exactly ideal conditions for learning a language. People are lined up waiting to be matched with their English tutors: Africans with headwraps, two women in hijab, a gaggle of Yutaka wives in Chanel knock-offs and one outlier in overalls and orange striped socks and silver high tops.

Lorna locks eyes with her and bows, but she purses her lips and turns away. Well. Lorna prays that she’s not paired with her. She has one chance with one student, one on one.

The coordinator calls out pairs. “Lorna. Nori.”

Of course, overalls raises her hand.

They find a corner table. Nori clings to English for Foreign Visitors, the official text Casa Friendship insists on, but that Lorna has no patience for. Nori’s hair is a shiny lacquer bowl, her skin poreless, her teeth perfect.  Her clothing, industrial and chic, is fashioned from a textile deeper and richer than her Wranglers and Lorna pictures a master artisan dipping this fabric in large open vats of indigo, wringing them out in a mountain stream, and drying them on tree branches.

Even this close up, it’s hard to tell Nori’s age. She could be 30, 40, 50, or 60 like Lorna. Lately she has trouble figuring out how old anyone is, but everyone looks younger than her. Lorna has a permanent crease from her lower lip to her chin that makes her look pissed off even when she isn’t, and her shapeless body sags without the benefit of solid but pricey foundations. Frumpy, dumpy, lumpy. She feels like a loser, hopelessly out of date in every single way, a heterosexual failure, poorly dressed. She should have at least worn clean sweats, lipstick, some concealer for God sakes.

Nori reaches into a child-sized backpack adorned with unicorns and rainbows and takes out a glittery pink notebook and troll-topped pen. She sets them squarely on the desk and folds her hands and waits.

“Well, look I’ll start.” Lorna says.  “I am or was or am a teacher.”


It’s immediately apparent that even though she’s Proficient Level 3, Nori’s skittish about speaking. Still her husband, like a lot of Yutaka higher ups, works 80-plus hour weeks so English is necessary for her survival.

“And let’s see, I’m divorced…”


Lorna rambles a bit while Nori takes notes in the pink notebook: Irreconcilable. Custody. Settlement. Enough of that. “I have one son.” Funny. It sounds perfectly ordinary but it isn’t. It isn’t at all. She hasn’t laid eyes on Scotty for years.


“Actually, he’s flying home today.” She could never imagine saying this sentence.  “And how about you, Nori? Do you have children?”


Mmmmmmm is the sound the gears in Nori’s brain make when they churn linguistically. Mmmmmmm might mean yes. It might mean no.


Common ground. Lorna pictures a child in short pants and a beanie and nods encouragingly. “One? I see. Good. I see. And who’s watching him or her today?”

Nori looks down, her hair a black curtain closes over her face. “Mmmmmmm.”

Lorna’s not sure about this particular Mmmmmmm.

Nori pulls out her cell and scrolls through photos to one of a pale unsmiling young man with a face as chubby as a rice cooker. “Yoshi.”

“Ah. Yoshi? I see. He’s still in Japan?”

“Mmmmmmm.” Descending in minor key. A keening Mmmmmmm. He has stayed behind.

“I understand. I do.”


On the way to O’Hare there’s holiday traffic and she’s late. Bad to start with apologies.

Lorna hardly recognizes her son at Baggage claim. “Scotty?”

Scott now, stands next to another man. The two are well-dressed twins with sandy hair and neatly sculpted beards.

“Senor Snapdragon?”

Scotty scowls at the pet name, deflating her like the day-old mylar smiley face Welcome balloon she she’s clutching.

He turns to his bemused twin. “Lorna, Paul. Paul, Lorna. My mother.”

“Paul?” He wasn’t mentioned anyone on the phone. What’s more Scott’s been out since he was in high school but he’s never introduced anyone to Lorna before.

“My fiancé.” Scotty tugs the handle of his suitcase. Jittery.

“Wait. Fiance?”

Paul leans into Lorna for a hug. If someone were observing them, they might guess Paul was her son, Scotty his reluctant traveling companion. “Love it.” Paul’s voice booms, cheery bordering on cheesy. A radio announcer voice — a job Lorna realizes is obsolete. “We wanted to surprise you, Laura.”

“Lorna. Engaged?” Her eyes flit between the two young men in almost identical fitted button-down shirts over trim torsos.

“Yes, it’s been, what, Scott? Two months?”

“Uh huh.”

“Two months?” She has so many questions, but what is her problem? This is positive news. “Congratulations.”

Paul is some sort of consultant but Lorna can’t follow the mumbo jumbo. He moves from subject to subject and chatters about “piggy backing along on this trip.” In between yaps, Scotty pipes up with “Paul says”. As in “Paul says it would be easier to take an uber.” “ Paul says never to check luggage.”

She bristles. Why is Scotty so damned deferential? She was that exact same way with Scotty’s father and look where that got her. But this isn’t quite right. Scotty isn’t like her at all. Her son has blossomed into the beautiful man standing before her, while she, a drunken grape, has withered on the vine, a puckered old raisin.

Outside Terminal A, the Chicago weather is indecisive: the winter sun blazes, but there’s a wet chill in the air.  When the shuttle finally pulls up, Scotty and Paul scurry on board, and Lorna’s balloon gets stuck in the door so that by the time she gets it untangled, they’ve already slid into the last free seats, while she’s clinging to the germ-filled pole in back. The bus careens and lurches. Pop. Everyone looks up, startled. But Scotty and Paul don’t turn around, these two with their perfect straight-backed posture, their alert sleek heads facing forward.


“Home sweet home.”

She smiles at Scotty. She has waited for this homecoming. Worked for it. She has changed. She hasn’t had a drink in years. And so what if it isn’t as she expected – she lost her job, there’s Paul — but her boy is here. He has returned.

Scotty and Paul appraise the careworn living room, their unblinking eyes sweeping over the carpet stains, the crumbling plaster, and overdue bills piled on top of the dining room table.

“Love it.” Paul announces.

“Before we get settled in, I’d like to go over something with you, Lorna.”

Lorna? She hates when her son calls her by her name instead of Mom. He hands her a printout. A special diet. Neither eggs, nor cheese, nor meat, nor wheat, nor whey, nor honey like some sort of nursery rhyme.

“No eggs? Like, you mean not even pancakes?”

“Eggs are verboten. Pancakes have eggs. Ergo no pancakes.”


In her bedroom, Lorna lies down and rubs her temples. This is when she misses the old stuff. The thick high ball glass poured high with icy vodka. She can hear them through the cardboard walls. Paul teasing Scotty about his disco ball, his Cubs pennants.

“A genu wine mausoleum of American middle class. Ha. Ha. Love it!”

The little shit. Lorna muffles her head with her pillow.

At dinner she hides the meat loaf in back of the frig and tosses bags of frozen veggies into the micro. Paul and Scotty look like they’re being deposed.

No time like the present. “You should know something.”

Scotty rubs his head. “Oh shit. You aren’t drinking again, are you?

“I lost my job.”


She blurts the whole story. How little by little she was diminished, relegated to the mobile unit at the far end of the baseball field. Dropped from committees. How by the end she cowered in the janitor’s closet for a whole school year before “close the door, Lorna.” Poof. After three years! How on the last day she mistook the faculty gathering around the breakroom table as her going away party when it was actually a bridal shower for one of the student teachers. How in fact she had slunk away unseen, got in her car, slammed on the gas, blasted the radio and screamed to the news on the hour.

“Okay, pretty shitty.” Scotty blinks. “But you have savings, right? The house?”

“Of course, I do.” She has drained her bank account. She in deep with a home equity loan.

She waits for more from Scotty, but there’s silence. She and her son used to confide in each other. Too much. Maybe that was the problem.

“So sorry, Lorna.” Paul finally says so quietly she can barely make it out.


At the Starbucks Nori blows her French Roast. The hood of her parka is a tawny fur mane and she looks like a cute stuffed lion. Whoever gets here first buys the coffee and cake pops, a childish overpriced treat that Lorna devours in one bite. She’s sick of the burnt coffee, the uncomfortable stools and wobbly high-top tables, but she doesn’t dare change their meeting location. Nori’s language skills, while improving, have particular weaknesses in gender pronouns and tense, the future, past, and present getting jumbled, and Lorna doesn’t want to confuse her. She can’t afford to lose this job.

Lorna settles in and greets her student. She wonders about her assignment. It is required and without it she won’t be paid. Lorna has asked for it all week.

Do you have your essay today?”


” You know as long as it’s in English, the subject doesn’t really matter.”


Lorna nibbles Santa’s fondant beard off her cake pop and writes deadline in Nori’s notebook. A trespass, she can see by the way Nori pulls away, and tears spring to her eyes.

“What, I’m so sorry. Wait, are you okay?”

He has moved to a remote island near the Okhotsk Sea. Nori scrolls through stock photos of wintry Hokkaido with its snow, fir trees, and adorable white monkeys lazing in a steamy hot spring, Yoshi has dropped out of school. He’s deleted Facebook, all his apps. He doesn’t have any friends.  He refuses to contact his aunts, his grandparents. He refuses to visit the U.S. Lately during their calls there are more and more silences on the other end of the phone.

Lorna flails for something to say. “Things will get better. Just look at me and Scotty. An important word, Nori. Hope.” Does she even believe that?


Nori finds the last photo she has of Yoshi in a cubbyhole filled with piles of stuff: papers and books and chaos. Proof of Life.

Christmas falls on a Friday, and it’s a day like any other, snowy and cold.  Lorna craves a turkey or a roast, but the boys concoct a disappointing meal of mostly potatoes. Haphazard gifts are exchanged. See’s chocolate from Scotty and Paul. Mittens knitted by Lorna. “Perfect for California.” Scotty says drily. “I guess each take one.” Lorna quips.

All weekend the boys come and go, but on Sunday night they slam the bedroom door. Lorna can barely make out contours of back and forth: Paul’s bluster, his irritation, his objections. Scotty’s unintelligible mumbles and grumbles.

She camps out in the living room where she’s discovered the NK cable channel full of Japanese news, documentaries, and game shows  She imagines being one of throngs crisscrossing busy streets, or being squeezed into subway cars by a white gloved attendant. Sitting elbow to elbow at an Izakaya — slurping noodles. Writing wishes on tiny paper strips and hanging them on the Temple gate? What would she wish for? Scotty’s forgiveness? A permanent job at Casa Friendship?

Paul and Scotty are shouting. She turns up the volume on a program about social recluses. Hiku means to withdraw. Komoru means to seclude oneself. Modern day hermits. Apparently, there are millions of Hikokimori, either sex, any age, but mostly young men, who do not leave their rooms, do not work or go to school. The somber English narration says that this self-imposed social isolation is especially aberrant in a collective society like Japan’s.

One of them scampers into the kitchen, the knife scrapes at the jar of peanut butter. Paul pokes his head in the living room.

“Um. Lorna? Scott and I need a favor. “

Scotty can’t ask her himself? This saddens her. Paul is the leader. Dominant, she cringes. It is Paul who will decide whether she and Scotty have any kind of relationship. It is Paul who will decide if her son ever sees her again.

He blocks the television. “I’s like to meet everyone. A small party, an Open House…”

She sits up. A party is exactly what she can’t handle. What is a party without partying?  “Well, I’m not sure…”

“Invite everyone you want too, of course.”

Everyone? Who was that? “Um, I don’t…”

But Paul ‘s attention has drifted to the television. “God, what is this?” His mouth hangs open.

A twenty-seven-year-old who was bullied by his professor has quit university. He’s interviewed on his futon, clutching a pillow. He has not emerged from his tiny Tokyo bedroom in over a decade, sleeping all day and playing games online all night. There are stacks and stacks of anime, drawn shades, a fan circulating stale air. His mother prepares meals for him and delivers them through a dog door. The plate shoved in and out daily. Full and empty

“Hikokimori. My student has a son. He’s probably one of these.”

Paul gazes over at her. For once, she has his full attention.

“Hikokimori. He would do better here.” Lorna says firmly. “He could go to college, or get help here in the states. He’s all by himself there. She should bring him here. “

Paul nods sympathetically. “Hikokimori.”


The day of the party arrives. Where are Scotty and Paul anyway? They were out of the house before she even woke up and haven’t returned to set up as they promised. Paul returns stone-faced, hauling in cases of booze, beer, wine, a cooler.

“Where’s Scotty?”

Paul frowns. “No clue.”

Lorna sets out the party food. warming up the quiches, arranging trays of pinwheel sandwiches and pyramiding the cheese and crackers. Paul uncorks Riesling, Pinot, Merlot, Chardonnay, lining them up next to the sink.

Starting at 3:00, young men stream into the house. Lorna’s never seen any of them before. Bodies pack into every nook and cranny and congregate around the food and bev. Lorna doesn’t know what to do with herself — she feels conspicuous in her own house crammed tight with strangers. She pretends to check the sandwiches and dips. Beads of sweat run down her chest. She’s feverish and chilled at the same time. Waves of men keep coming, jamming together. So many the windows fog up. She should eat something. She wades back into the crowd and hovers over the deviled eggs and growlers of craft beer.

In a corner of the kitchen, Scotty and a younger man are engrossed in conversation. The man is dressed in a black leather jacket and dark aviator shades, hair is pomaded in a lavish duck wing, a black waterfall over his brow. Surely some sort of curious costume — like an Elvis impersonator? Their faces are inches apart, and Elvis listens intensely and nods and nods. They are nothing alike, but she wonders if some sort of algorithm matched them in the past. The same sort of algorithm that paired him with Paul? Scotty flaps his hands, a familiar gesture he made as a young boy when he is happy and excited. She loves her son. She does not want to lose him again. Sometimes she feels like she’s losing herself, that she is floating in no man’s land.


She turns around. Nori wears pretty party clothes — a tiny rose-colored sweater that looks like it was spun from a feathery dandelion. “There are not parties like this in Japan! I can hear from the sidewalk! Ha Ha Ha. My essay.”

Lorna smiles and takes the origami square. She had wanted to introduce Nori and Scott. She looks around but he and faux Elvis are gone.

Instead it’s Paul who appears next to them. It’s Paul who chatters away and dips his ear to hear Nori’s soft answers. Paul who fills three wineglasses. Hai Hai, Yes, yes. Nori covers her mouth, with her hand, stifling giggles. Her eyes gleam and she looks happy for once.

He passes a glass to Lorna, one to Nori. It’s been years since she’s touched a drink.  Nori clinks her glass to Lorna’s. “I honor you with toast!”

Paul raises his glass. “To an amazing teacher!” He says brightly. Clink.

“To my prized student, and even more valued friend.!” Clink.

A sip of Prosecco is harmless. Lorna gulps the liquid, acrid and cheap.

She leans against the bookcase with its display of photos of Scotty as a baby, as a toddler, the finger paints in blues and purples that Scotty made in art class that her ex-husband never wanted framed. It is ephemera. But haven’t there been moments of beauty. Surely. Her Scotty as a baby. Scotty as a little boy. The gap after that. No teen years or beyond. No recent photos.

Paul makes another sweep with the bottle.  “So Nori, Lorna here has told me about your son.


“Hikokimori?” Paul pronounces the word perfectly.


“Your son? Hikokimori?” Lorna takes in his slight smirk. He knows exactly what he’s doing. The word dashed off, hangs loud, suspended above them, spinning garish strobes of light, blinding Nori, blinding Lorna. Nori looks to her for translation. For explanation.

An amazing teacher. A valued friend.

Didn’t Nori need to learn the truth about Yoshi?  Hikokimori.  Maybe it was something she herself didn’t have the courage to say. Lorna’s head thrums. Hikokimori. It is too hard to connect to people and everything does go round and round. Hikokimori. Shame and silence. The way you can hide in a house, until you can quietly escape. Hikokimori.


 After the party, the house is empty, still. She has no idea where anyone went. When or if they were ever coming back. Scotty. Paul. Nori. Yoshi.  People, Schmeople. Lorna takes the Pinot out onto the porch and pours herself a glass. Across the street someone is dragging a Christmas tree to the curb. Ornaments drop from the boughs and nestle in gray snowdrifts.

Lorna unfolds Nori’s origami. Cherry Blossoms. Wasn’t this a stereotype? A cliché? Her neat handwriting fills the page. Each sentence is concise. The language elegant and simple.

The cherry blossoms bloom once a year after a long hard winter. For one week in April the trees are fluffy pink clouds. Families and friends have parties and picnics and watch the pink blossoms. They gather in the riverbank. There is drinking and celebration. Cherry Blossoms are a special time in the calendar of Japan. It is my favorite time of year.

What was the big deal about cherry blossoms? Why care about them? Because of their fragility? Because of their beauty?  Because in nature, everything ends and beauty and life are transitory? Because even a gentle breeze showers you with the softest petals, leaving the branches brittle and bare?


Vicki Derderian lives and writes in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Her stories have been published in The London Reader, The Michigan Quarterly Review, and are forthcoming in The Louisville Review, Fourth River, and LEON: Literary Review.