Short Fiction: A Fish Out of Water

I wrote this story in 2005.

 “Do you ever feel like you can’t breathe?”
“Not really,” I reply, but the talking continues as though I’m not in the room. “Asthma can make you feel like a fish out of water. But now there’s hope. The first all-day asthma medication….”

I raise an eyebrow at the TV as it promises me an asthma-free life full of Technicolor meadows, a pair of clumsy kittens racing across a hardwood floor, dizziness, nausea, paralysis, and death. The incessant box takes up an entire wall of the living room, the couch and only chair forming supplicatory angles toward it, like pews. Above it kneel a handful of doe-eyed china children, hands folded in prayer.

“Ask your doctor about it today!” the fishbowl-eyed god proclaims.

I stick out my tongue. “I don’t think I will, thanks.”

“Do you always talk to the commercials?” Michelle asks, coming out of the kitchen with her scarf tucked just-so into her white parka and a trace of scorn in her voice.

“Not all of them,” I say, following her outside, where a high white sky dusts the old neighborhood with snow. I could be thirteen again, standing here on my best friend’s porch with my hand-knitted shoulder bag, though of course that’s my phone bill tucked into its scruffy wool folds, my driver’s license and credit card folded into the creased red wallet. “Just pharmaceuticals and the Leapfrog commercials. ‘Leapfrog: it talks to your children so you don’t have to!'”

Chelle shakes her head. “You’ll be thankful for those things when you have kids,” she says, throwing open the garage door. “At least they’ll be learning.”

“Not bloody likely,” I reply, more to her first comment than the last, though the statement as I hear it leave my lips seems apropos to both.

“Seriously, when are you and that boy-”

“-Jude-”

“-getting married? Becky got married last month.”

“I saw the pictures,” I said. I’d only been able to tell them from Chelle’s wedding pictures by the woman in the dress, the girl who had once planned with me to become an astronaut and found the first-ever moon colony. Fifteen years ago. It seemed like fifty.

“I always thought you’d have settled down by now,” Chelle says as we climb into the truck. “The Olsons are putting their house up for sale. You could buy it and then we’d be neighbors again.”

“Are you kidding?” I ask. “I can’t afford a house. Right now I can barely afford coffee.”

Chelle rolls her eyes. “I told you not to bother with graduate school.”

“I like making eleven thousand dollars a year to use phrases like ‘the parabolic deconstruction of Freudian metonymic thoughtforms,’” I say, only half joking.

Chelle either has no idea what I just said or doesn’t want to have this argument again, because she replies, “I need to find a winter coat today. A wool one.” She glances at me. “Where’d you get yours?”

“My great-aunt. It’s my grandfather’s, from the Navy.”

“I didn’t know your grandfather was in the Navy,” Chelle says, stopping a little too quickly so that we slide rather than roll the last ten feet to the stoplight. “Where can I find a pea coat?”

“Army surplus store.”

She gives me a look. “I mean a nice one. One I can wear to work.”

I remember the two of us learning to wear high heels, in fifth grade. We swiped too-large blazers from her mother’s closet and tottered around the dining room. We were giving speeches to the IBM Board of Directors; we took turns standing at the head of the dining table and applauding one another for spouting phrases like “grow the business” and “Internet futures.” Then we climbed into our imaginary convertible and headed for the French Riviera, which was a place we could drive to when we were ten years old. Half of Chelle’s ninth graders shopped the Army surplus store themselves; I doubted any would notice her coat, or care. “Marshall Field’s?” I suggest.

“Do you even shop at Field’s?” Chelle asks with another glance at my family-heirloom pea coat and unraveling hat and purse.

“Sure I do. When I’m feeling more like Audrey Hepburn than Punky Brewster.”

“Did you ever get new blankets, or do you still have those tie-dyed ones?”

“Just the one. On my couch.”

Chelle snorts. “Did you tie-dye everything else in your apartment to match?” She laughs; this is her idea of a joke. I’m her idea of a joke. La vie boehme.

“Seriously, Bee, you’re twenty-eight years old,” she continues. “When are you going to stop dressing like you’re twelve?”

I raise an eyebrow. “When I get tired of it,” I say. “I don’t dress like this all the time, Chelle. I like my schizophrenic wardrobe.”

“Your footwear is schizophrenic,” Chelle says.

I glance down at my socks, a riot of rainbow stripes, and past them to my schizophrenic sequined sneakers. “I love these shoes. They make me glad to be alive.” I tap my toes together. “Don’t your shoes make you glad to be alive?”

Chelle looks at me like I’ve lost my mind.

I gaze out the car window. The snow has stopped. The white ground looks tired, half snow and half slush fading into an endless horizon punctuated by the skeletons of blackened trees. The sky is lead.

“Chelle,” I say, “do you ever feel like you can’t breathe?”

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