short story    


from McSweeney's


I told them not to but they both came to the airport Sunday night when I left.

Call me when you get the news, all right? I said.

All right, she said.

I wanted to ask her about the fish in the toilet, whether it had really been there. Whether she had followed the same route it had. But I couldn't work myself up to it. And the topic never came up by itself.

We said good-bye at the terminal. My hugs were awkward. I patted their backs as if I were burping babies.

I told them to go home but I knew they would wait in the airport until the plane took off safely. They always did. I think my mother liked to be there in case the plane crashed during take-off so she could dash onto the runway through the flames and explosions to drag her children from the rubble.

Or maybe they just liked airports. That airport smell.

I had a window seat; I pushed my suitcase under the seat in front of me. A man in a business suit with a fat red face sat down next to me.

I wondered if my mother even knew what I had done for her. I had helped her escape. Although at the time I hadn't thought of it that way, I hadn't really thought at all; I had gone in when I heard my name, automatic school-girl obedience, gone in to the bright lights and paper gowns and people who kneaded your breasts like clay. I began to feel beautiful and noble. I felt like I had gone to the guillotine in her place, like Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities.

I called Piotr when I got home. I'm back, I said.

Let me come over, he said, I'll make you breakfast.

It's seven thirty at night.

I just got up, he said.

My apartment felt too small and smelled musty. I'd been gone three days but it seemed longer. Piotr came and brought eggs and milk and his own spatula--he knew my kitchen was ill-equipped for anything but sandwiches.

He seemed to have grown since I last saw him, and gotten more hairy; I looked at the hair on the backs of his hands, the chest hair tufting out of the collar of his T-shirt.

He took up too much space. As he talked his nose and hands popped out at me huge and distorted, as if I were seeing him through a fish-eye lens. He came close to kiss me and I watched his eyes loom larger and larger and blur out of focus and merge into one big eye over the bridge of his nose.

I was embarrassed. My mouth tasted terrible from the plane.

What kind of pancakes do you want? he asked.

The pancake kind, I said.

He broke two eggs with one hand and the yolks slid out between his fingers.

I can do them shaped like snowmen, he said, or rabbits or flowers.

He was mixing stuff up in a bowl; flour slopped over the edges and sprinkled on the counter and the floor. I'll have to clean that up, I thought.

Round ones please, I said.

There was butter bubbling and crackling in the frying pan. Was that pan mine? No, he must have brought it with him--it was a big heavy skillet, the kind you could kill someone with.

He poured in the batter, it was thick and pale yellow; and the hissing butter shut up for a while. I looked in the pan. There were two large lumpy mounds there, side by side, bubbling inside as if they were alive, turning brown on the edges.

He turned them over and I saw the crispy undersides with patterns on them like the moon; and then he pressed them down with the spatula, pressed them flat and the butter sputtered and hissed.

There was a burning smell.

I'm not feeling very hungry right now, I said.

But I brought maple syrup, he said. It's from Vermont, I think.

The pan was starting to smoke. Pushing him aside, I took it off the flame and put it in the sink. It was heavy; the two round shapes were now charred and crusted to the bottom.

Well, we don't have to eat them, he said. He held out the bottle of syrup. Aunt Jemima smiled at me. She looked different, though. They must have updated her image; new hairstyle, outfit. But that same smile.

There's lots of stuff we can do with syrup, he said, it's a very romantic condiment.

He stepped closer and reached out and turned the knob on the halogen lamp. His face looked even more distorted in the dimness.

What? I said. Where did you get such a stupid idea?

Read it somewhere.

I'm sorry, I'm just not feeling very social tonight, I said. Peter, I said.

Oh come on.

I missed my parents very much suddenly. You're so insensitive, I said. Get out.

Hey, I am sensitive. I'm Mr. Sensitive. I give change to bums. Pachelbel's Canon makes me cry like a baby.

Like a what? I said.

Why are you screaming at me? he said.

Don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out, I said. I thought I was being smart and cutting. But he took it literally; he went out and closed the door behind him with great care.

My sister called later that night.

So how were they? she asked.

Fine, I said. Same as always.

Your voice sounds funny; what happened? she said.


Something's wrong. Why don't you ever tell me when something's wrong?

There's nothing, Mich.

You never tell me what's going on; when you think I'll worry about something you keep it to yourself.

I tell you everything.

Well then, tell me what was wrong with you earlier this fall.

Nothing... I don't know... there's nothing to tell.

That was the truth. All that happened was I got tired of people for a while. I didn't like to go out, didn't shower, and didn't pick up the phone except to call my office with elaborate excuses. The smell of my body became comforting, a ripe presence, nasty but familiar. I lay in bed telling myself that it was just a phase, it would pass. Eventually the bulb on my halogen lamp burned out and after two days of darkness I ventured out to buy a new one. The sunlight out on the street did something to my brain, or maybe it was the kind bald man who sold me the bulb. I went back to work.

So how are you? How's Neil?

Oh we broke up, she said. We had a big fight, and he couldn't see that I was right and he was wrong. It was high drama, in a restaurant with people watching, us screaming and stuff, and this fat waitress pushing between us using her tray as a shield and telling us to leave. So we finished it outside on the street, I made my points, one two three, and did my closing arguments. If we were in court I would have won.

I'm sorry, I said. Why didn't you tell me right away?

Oh, I didn't want you feeling bad for me. I'm glad, really. Smallminded jerk. Did I ever tell you he had all this hair on his back? Gray hair, like a silverback gorilla.

Yes, well. I don't know that I'll be seeing Piotr any more either.

That's too bad.

No, it's not.

That night as I lay in bed I thought of my mother and I felt my body for lumps the way she said she felt hers, and I put two fingers to the side of my throat. And I began to think of her and think of an undetected cancer, spreading through her body unnoticed. It began to dawn on me that I had done a very stupid thing.

I thought of her Iying in bed beside my father at that moment, oblivious to the black thing that might be growing and thickening inside her, maybe in tough strands, maybe in little grainy bits, like oatmeal. She would avoid thinking about it for another six months or a year or two years; she'd deny it until her skin turned gray and she had tentacles growing out of her mouth and her breasts slid from her body and plopped on the floor like lumps of wet clay. Only when all that happened would she give in and say, Hmmm, maybe something is wrong, maybe I should see a doctor after all.

I lay awake for most of the night.

At one point I got up to use the bathroom, and as I sat on the toilet in the dark I suddenly became convinced that there was something horrible floating in the water below me. I was sure of it. A live rat. Or a length of my own intestines Iying coiled bloody in the bowl. I sat there afraid to turn on the light and look, yet couldn't leave the bathroom without looking.

I sat there for half an hour, wracked with indecision. I think I fell asleep for a bit.

And when I finally forced myself to turn on the light, turn around and look--I was so convinced there would be something floating there that I was horribly shocked, my stomach lurched to see only the empty toilet.

I went back to work on Tuesday.

Did I miss anything? I asked one of the men.

You were gone? he said.

I didn't know his name; all the men who worked there looked alike. They were all too loud, and had too much spit in their mouths.

I had a cubicle all my own, but I dreamed of an office with a door I could close.

A few days later my father called. Your mother heard the results from the clinic, he said, the mammogram was fine.

That's great, I said.

She doesn't seem happy about it, he said, she's acting very strange.

Oh, I said.

What's going on, Lisa? he said. There's something fishy going on here.

Nothing, I said. Ask your wife, I said. Can I talk to her?

She just dashed out for an appointment, told me to call you. She said you'd be relieved.


I'm going to call your sister now, she was waiting to hear. Or do you want to call her?

I'll do it, I said.

It seemed strange to me then that I would need to call Mich; a phone call implied distance, but our family seemed so close and entwined and entangled that we could hardly tell each other apart. Why should you need a phone to talk to someone who seems like she's living inside your skin?

We both went home for Christmas.

Later Mich visited them.

Then I visited.

Then it was Mich's turn again.

When I called home during Mich's visit my father said: Your mother was due for another mammogram, so I sent Lisa with her to make sure she goes.

You mean you sent Mich, I said. I'm Lisa.

Yes, right, you know who I mean.

A few days later my father called, his voice sounding strained. Your mother talked to the mammography clinic today, he said, but she won't tell me anything. She's been in her room, crying. She's been talking on the phone to your sister for an hour. I guess the doctors found something, but I'll let you know when we know for sure.


I hung up and called Mich.

Hello, she said. She sounded like she was choking on one of her pens. Mich, I said, it's yours, isn't it?

She sighed and said: It's ridiculous, but I thought I was doing her a favor, I thought I was sparing her some worry.

You went in for her, didn't you?

You know, Mich said, she's more worried about this than if she was the one with a lump in her breast. She feels like it's her lump, like it was meant for her, like she gave it to me somehow.

That's ridiculous, I said. I felt like I was talking to myself.

Although, you know, if it were possible, I would, Mich said. I mean, if there was somehow a way to magically take a lump out of her breast and put it in mine, I'd do it in a second.

I wish I could do that for you, I said.

Yeah, we could all share it.

One dessert and three forks, I said.

And later as I sat alone on the floor in the apartment I started to lose track of where I stopped and other people began, and I remembered standing in a white room with my breast clamped in the jaws of a humming machine, and I felt for the lump that I thought was mine, and sometimes I thought it was my mother's, and I imagined the mammogram pictures like lunar landscapes. Then I could not remember who had the lump anymore, it seemed we all did, it was my mother's my sister's and mine, and then the phone rang again and I picked it up and heard my father call out as he sometimes did: Leah-Lise-Mich.

o henry awards
Bold Type
    Copyright © 2000 by Judy Budnitz.

Photo Credit: Kate Milford