Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Flash Fiction
492 words
SHJ Issue 2
Fall 2010


Leslie What

We walked hand-in-hand into the midday sun, past muted crocuses the colors of impressionist landscapes. On the sidewalk traversed an asymmetrical pair of black and orange milkweed bugs, Oncopeltus fasciatus, coupled end-to-end, a display exhibiting a duality of resistance and surrender. As the larger bug marched forward she dragged her smaller mate behind. They stopped when they reached the sidewalk’s edge, when they changed direction, and the follower became leader.

I broke away from Jack to forage through my purse for cigarettes, shook one free of the box.

Jack opened his mouth to scold me about smoking, but caught himself from saying something dumb, his newfound reticence a gesture of maturity. In appreciation, I offered him a cigarette. He took it, patted down his pockets, produced matches. He lit his smoke from mine.

It was Friday. It felt like a Monday. I tasted the souring pause between the strike and the first hiss of smoke.

The Oncopeltus fasciatus drink milkweed sap, a concoction that confers its vile flavor onto the bug. Brightly marked wings warn predators away, except for an occasional but hungry bird, who’ll quickly regret his mistake. There’s much to admire about these insects. They do not harm the environment (unless you are a milkweed plant). They protect the prized Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) through the process of mimicry and coloration.

The June sun was a brisk slap on my shoulders. We smoked, watched the bugs copulate—a ritual that could take up to ten hours. When finished, the pair finally broken apart, the female would lay thirty eggs a day throughout summer.

“Push-me pull-you bugs,” I told Jack—what I called them before learning to call them something more complicated.

“That’s us,” he said. He didn’t sound angry.

We stood, smoking, sharing the same guilt and grief and indecision about what to do next. We had one week before it stopped being an early abortion. We’d gone back and forth, changing our positions several times each day. This morning, Jack had seized the lead to pull me toward having the baby. I was changing directions again after seeing this doctor.

“I want a baby,” I said. “Just not this one.”

“Renate,” Jack said. “Please.”

We finished our cigarettes.

Well-meaning friends had encouraged us to try again. Perhaps Jack could try again but I was past forty. This baby’s Down Syndrome resulted from my eggs. Cause and effect. Repeating an experiment seldom changed the results. Our silence was an ineffectual carapace, too easily crushed. I walked away and told myself it didn’t matter if Jack followed.

Jack stood statue-still, waiting to see if I would lead him to a coffee shop to talk, or turn toward the car. “I’m going to make the appointment. You don’t need to come,” I said, and found my keys. I wondered if love could be objectively studied, perhaps by measuring exactly how much one person was willing to give up for the other?

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury