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Ruth remembered the first time someone called her a cold fish. It was the day of the junior prom. She hadn’t felt like going, but Richard was persistent and she agreed.

Richard was chubby and fair and starting to cultivate down on his upper lip. He’d liked her for years. When they were younger, he’d barrel into her like a clumsy puppy, knock her down and loom over her body. Ruth wasn’t afraid, she just lay there, and, after a few minutes, he let her up. When they got older, Richard stopped tackling her on the lawn and invited her to movies and McDonald’s.

The afternoon of the prom, Ruth’s friend, Lucy Blady, a black-haired siren shrewd beyond her years, came over to try on makeup and gossip about their dates. She was going to the prom with Barry Morgan.

“Have you ever…you know…with Richard?” Lucy said. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” said Ruth, “nothing’s going on.”

Lucy grinned and called her a cold fish.

That night, after the dance, when Richard tried to kiss her, she let him do it. His tongue felt spongy, slick. His breath smelled of pretzels and something else that made her stomach heave. She felt more like a cold fish than before.

Ruth lived in a red brick house on a tidy street. A maple shaded the lawn. Both parents were affectionate and attentive, yet Ruth was a somber child. As if she’d grown up in a harsher place. As if her feelings had been forged by a harder life.

And perhaps they had. Two months after she left home to go to college, Ruth’s parents phoned to tell her they were divorcing.

Ruth was astonished. She hadn’t seen it coming. Or perhaps she had. Perhaps it explained the fears that prowled the edges of her thoughts, explained the unyielding coldness in her chest, a chunk of the snow queen’s mirror that never melted. Explained why she didn’t cry when she heard the news. She stared at the phone, then put it very carefully into its cradle and lay down on the couch. Images drifted through her mind and left no trace.

They love each other, thought Ruth. But now she wasn’t sure just how love looked. Maybe they had tricked her, or each other. Maybe she’d tricked herself. She rubbed her eyes. How did love really look?

“Cold Fish” was published in The Linnet’s Wing.


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