short story    

BIOGRAPHY Since graduating summa cum laude from the University of Maryland with a B.A. in English, Michelle S. Lee's short fiction, essays, and poems have appeared in a variety of publications. Her first novel, Jonah's Way, was electronically published by Canadian publisher, Orpheus Books. Currently, Michelle is a graduate student in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Texas at Austin working on a collection of short stories.


Must be Friday night. Elaine Beckman shakes frozen fish sticks onto a pan lined with aluminum foil. Freezer-burned crumbs scatter across the tile counter, fall to their deaths onto the discolored linoleum. Well, all but one, which catches in the hole of Elaine's white sock and settles like grit between her toes. She keeps meaning to buy another one of those three-pair valu-packs, but there's always something else to buy, something else on the list certain to whine through the house like her old Eureka sucking all the air out if neglected too long. Mo-o-m, I gotta. Mo-o-m, I hafta. Mo-o-m, puh-lease.

Elaine opens the oven door and shoves the sticks inside, then holds her face in the dry heat until it burns outside-in. It makes her think of summer days when she was a kid, sitting in the driveway and feeling the sun-baked concrete sear the back of her bare thighs, listening to the Eagles sing about Lyin' Eyes on the transistor radio, gazing up at the forever-blue sky, and wondering how life could get any better.

As water rattles to a boil in the saucepan on the back burner, she lets the oven door close with a rubber thud and reaches for the blue box on the counter. Macaroni and cheese, the yellow gluey kind her husband and kids insist tastes better than the kind she makes from scratch. Press tab here to open. Yeah, right. Press there and the entire box top will cave in. Elaine does it anyway. Don't I ever learn?

Funny how I see myself as 'Elaine Beckman.' Like I'm looking down on myself from high above, perched on the dusty roof of the refrigerator among wayward parts of plastic Happy Meal toys and school papers that should've been signed as far back as the Declaration of Independence. I watch her shake the blue box over the water, doughy hip sighing against the knife drawer, face as blanched almond as the appliances penning her in. She watches those hard kernels of pasta relax in the heat. Loosen, dance. They sigh too, molecular structure ripening from hard to soft, bony to boneless. They push to the surface, claiming their right to breathe, sharing every available ounce of space like they craved intimacy all their short lives. They are unrecognizable outside their blue box. In eight minutes, it's over.

Eight minutes.

Elaine dumps the spent macaroni into the colander waiting inside the sink, then drowns them with cold water. Strange how she thinks of sex when the pale plump bodies quiver against each other then go completely still, as if surrendering. It's like they know what comes next. Back into the pan. Covered with goo squeezed from a foil packet. Stirred vigorously and slopped onto plates. Inhaled without so much as sliding across a single taste bud, the only imprint of their life left in sticky smears. Every Friday night.

She thinks about Friday night on Monday morning after she drags her family through 11 essential vitamins and out the front door. The A&P is pretty empty at eight-thirty. Under the bright lights, she identifies with the flounder graying in the fish case, peering with one eye through foggy glass as the world rolls by in a shopping cart. But something shiny caught the sunlight on the water when he swam up to take a breath. Before that flounder knew what happened, he was hooked and flash-frozen. One rheumy eye open, the other forever turned away. Fish-fish, got my wish.

Elaine wished upon handfuls of cards and stars when she was a girl in the sea. Cards and stars and eyelashes and dandelion fluff, wishes made hopscotching from one saddle shoe to the other, wondering if she'd grow up to be like Rhoda or the Bionic Woman or Julie from the Love Boat. Wondering how far she'd go, how far the current would take her away from Rosenville, Home of the Cherry Tomato Festival. Wondering if she could hold her breath that long. After all, she flunked her swimming lessons at the Y. Sank to the bottom of the pool the very first day. Like a ship with a hole in her hull, someone said. Even when they fished her out, she was still taking in water.

The bagger boy packs up her fish sticks and blue boxes and offers to wheel her cart out. No thanks, she says, always says. Her sneakers crunch across the parking lot toward her minivan, the to-do list in the pocket of her sweat pants crinkling in rhythm. She's got lots to do before the kids get home from school. Pick up dry cleaning, stop at the video store, take the van in for an oil change, buy a part for the lawn mower, return library books. Thaw chicken for dinner, wash kitchen floor, mow backyard, make dentist appointments for kids and husband.

Bags in the back, she starts the engine and pulls onto Fifth, thumbing the button for the electric windows and buzzing them all down. She drives down the tree-lined street, past the pond where she takes the kids skating every winter, past the Little League field where her butt freezes to the bleachers the first few games of the season, past the grist mill where she and her husband were once too young, where they kissed long and hard until she was boneless. Her hair blows against her face, across her mouth, the scraps and bits of her life plumping and pushing to the surface. My life.

She doesn't turn around at the roadside vegetable stand ripening in the sun just outside town. Instead she merges into the blurred school of morning traffic heading south on the freeway. It's a heady rush, being swept along on a four-lane wave of lives, speeding toward places only other people have visited. All I can do is picture that macaroni rising above the boil and that gray flounder leaping out of its glass case —both eyes open.

Breathe, I say. Breathe.

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    Copyright © 2003 by Michelle Lee