Mother’s stone quiet as she smooths and straightens and tugs at the lace tablecloth. Her lips tighten as she sets, then resets, the cutlery. First she does x, then pauses. Then she undoes x. Then she tries y and undoes y. She’ll glower if I try to assist. I count, to myself, the seconds between her adjustments, calculate the median.
“It’s just me and you, mother,” I blurt out, hoping she’ll relax. Her silence has always meant danger here, be alert, so I take two steps back, shield myself against a reply which doesn’t come. I catch myself starting to hum, stop, then count again.
Finally, z must please her. She pats the table once and returns to the kitchen, where I’m not allowed while she’s cooking, so I wait in the dining room and think about what we can discuss at dinner. Mother has wearied of my humming and has forbidden me to do it, but I’m bursting to share my new discovery, that it’s impossible to hum while holding your nose. It surprised me immensely to hear that, and I immediately gave it a test. My face furied and steamed like it does when I feel bamboozled. And not being able to hum increased my enjoyment of humming. “Pinch your nose and try it yourself,” I want to suggest. Humming means no danger here. Humming means we don’t need to count. I pray that she will join me. Perhaps I’ll tell her over dessert.
Mother’s been silent for a while. My fingers mark the seconds till she swings open the kitchen door, pinches my upper arm, her signal for me to help. I churr my way to the stove, hoist the casserole from the oven, carry it to the table, count till she sits down.
In the Pink
I’m rolling another dolma and there’s a pecking at the door. Who pecks? Not any humans I know. Do I or don’t I. No, I decide, go back to stuffing minted rice back into grape leaves, try to wrap them so they don’t tear. I’m trying for three dozen. Each time, I have to remind myself: Like an envelope. Bottom, up. Sides, in. Roll.
Now the pecking’s insistent. And a voice to go with it, familiar but raspy. “Madge! Madge! Open the goddamn door!” Harvey, my neighbor, is drunk. Again. Madge split last Christmas, and our houses don’t even look alike. Harvey’s not a bad sort, if you remove the booze, so I crack open the door. He’s leaning a bit too much and hugging his lawn flamingo. He won’t be able to make it back across the snow. I drag him and his bird in, pat the couch, toss him a blanket, return to the kitchen.
Ten minutes later, someone’s pounding on the door. “I know you’re in there, Harv!” It’s Madge. Has she come back to reconcile? I can’t stand in the way of that, so I open the door again. “Left my ugly Christmas sweater at Harv’s,” she explains, pushing her way through. “I need it for the office party.” She grabs my hand, leads the way to the kitchen with only a quick glance at her ex snoring on the sofa. A bit of drool snakes down his chin, his arms are wrapped tight around the flamingo. They’re both looking a bit pinker.
I finish wrapping and rolling, shove the dolmades in the microwave. Madge takes a Michelob from the fridge, raises the bottle to me. “Cheers.”
In a few minutes, the timer dings. I set the bowl aside to cool. Madge grabs my hand again, leads me towards the living room. We tiptoe in, consider Harv and his bird on the couch. He’s not going to move for a while, and Madge needs the key. She jerks her head in the flamingo’s direction. “She’s why I left.” We go back to the kitchen. Madge scoops up a handful of stuffed grape leaves, throws her head back, tosses them into her mouth like popcorn.
~ after The Sea Maidens, by Evelyn de Morgan, 1886
I shuffle off all modesty and my mortal sweat pants, leave them rumpled on the cubicle floor as the technician rushes me towards the machine. She’s hovering over my absent attention, interrupts a blue movie starting to loop, something about a prince with a six-pack. My brain is an unruly ferret. Work with this! she nags, with a not-too-kind tap on my noggin. I’m not in the mood for a life coach. I’ve driven an hour in traffic to get here, and I’m feeling cranky. I point to a pin on my daypack, a bunch of waves and a whale, grumble about all the plastic water bottles I’ve drained for this test.
The techie leaves me and my bloat to slosh and squirm in a sea cave of metal. She dashes to a protective booth to snap images and tell me what to do. Breathe! Two-syllabled insistence. I need to pee badly, but gulp air instead. Then a crescendo: Hold IT! My bottom half scales and glistens, flips and swishes, then stills. Breathe! I float and weave among kelp and urchins, drift into a grotto. A consort, awaiting rescue, crooks a finger that beckons promise. I swim over, hear his sad tale, splash and undulate with longing. Hold IT! I spin and twist till my tail points up. Breathe! My lungs swell to her decrescendo-ed command as the machine spits me out. Buoyant again. I race to relieve myself, put on my sweats and drive home rewinding the loops. Back in my La-Z-Boy, I switch on the TV, surf the Hallmark channels, find a prince.
Mikki Aronoff’s work appears or is forthcoming in The Ekphrastic Review, MacQueen’s Quinterly, Intima, Thimble Literary Magazine, London Reader, SurVision, Rogue Agent, Popshot Quarterly, The South Shore Review, The Fortnightly Review, Feral, Sledgehammer Lit, Flash Boulevard, The Phare, and elsewhere. She is a three-time Pushcart nominee and a nominee for Best Microfiction 2022.