Every Saturday Mrs Fine walked to the corner store to pick up a bottle of milk. The milk came in a tiny glass bottle, never enough for a full week’s worth, not with the kids and the amount of cereal they consumed, but Mrs Fine liked the ritual of picking up milk all the same.
On these walks Mrs Fine admired the sky. It opened up, expanded. She liked the walking track too, the tiny blue flowers growing out of the cracks in the pavement, the snaking path in front of her. She liked the sound her shoes made as she pressed her feet down, the tip-tapping, the gentle tread. But what she really liked, more than anything, was the time.
She remembered Mrs Mary Nice once saying to her, at one of those stupid garden luncheons, that time was a construct, an invention. But even if it was a construct, what exactly, Mrs Fine wondered, did that change?
Mrs Mary Nice was a fool. She dyed her hair a garish red instead of letting it turn naturally. She wore bright floral-print dresses. She didn’t believe in ageing, let alone ageing gracefully.
Then there was Mr Fine. Oh, it wasn’t that Mrs Fine disliked her husband. No, she liked him just, well, just fine. But he was loutish and, even when he wasn’t, there was always the lingering chance he might be. He was always on the cusp of doing something embarrassing. He meant well – didn’t everyone – but that wasn’t always enough.
The man behind the deli counter was always pleased to see her. He wore dark-rimmed glasses and lifted them off his nose when she came through. Mrs Fine was sure the two of them were united, connected by an invisible thread. She understood him and he understood her, even if neither of them knew why.
Mrs Fine always went to the ATM the night before, taking out a crisp blue $10 note, flattening it on her pants and slipping it into her purse, ready for the morning. She’d even considered taking out a steam iron and going over the note. It was absurd, but sometimes at night when the kids were tucked up and Mr Fine was snoring next to her, bulging belly heaving, the thought kept her up. Why shouldn’t she make things perfect for the man at the deli?
On this particular Saturday the rain was coming down in loops and lines. It wasn’t actually coming down in loops and lines, but Mrs Fine liked to think of rain as a line – one long continuous line that spun. She supposed this was another one of her thoughts that didn’t make sense. Mr Fine was always telling her to stop being so ridiculous. He said rationality was important.
Mrs Fine walked slowly. She liked the feeling of rain on her skin, the sensation of it undoing something inside of her, if only momentarily. But wasn’t everything only momentarily? Wasn’t life momentary? A transient existence. Maybe that’s what Mrs Mary Nice had been trying to say.
When Mrs Fine had been young, back when she had no name but the name her parents had given her, she’d dreamt of doing something wild, unshackled, big, bright. It wasn’t ambition that fuelled the thought, it was something greater, an innate desire, a feeling deep in her loins. But maybe everybody thought they were meant for greater things; maybe everybody thought the world was waiting for them to pounce, to do something, anything.
Truth was, Mrs Fine had done exactly what was expected of her. She’d married the first man who’d asked and found herself pregnant, suddenly a mother of three in a house in the dull suburbs. She’d found herself baking cakes, cutting sandwiches, washing dishes, pegging out laundry and nodding at the neighbours over the fence.
What a bore life was, an insistent snore-fest. Mr Fine wouldn’t have agreed but he was – dare she say it? – he was a man. She wasn’t one of those third- (or was it fourth-, fifth-?) wave feminists. She was simply bone-tired of being a woman. The gender of things. Or something.
But the milk. That walk to the deli, it placated her, smoothed things out, helped her see the mess in her head as something else. The rain and the sun and the flowers. The black cat running across the street.
Mrs Fine nodded at the man behind the deli counter. He nodded back, slid his newspaper to one side and adjusted the glasses on the ridge of his nose. She mouthed hello and walked to the canned vegetables aisle. She liked running her fingers across cans: peas and corn, baked beans, soup, chickpeas, kidney beans. In a flash, she saw herself packing a backpack, driving off to wilderness, setting up camp, warming beans by the fire.
Mrs Fine opened the fridge door, took out the bottle of milk slowly. She stared at it, turning it round in her hands. She took it to the counter, smiled at the man. He smiled back. A good moment, important, warm, necessary.
The moment ended. Mrs Fine walked home quickly. She always took the fastest route back. The rain had stopped completely but the pavement was still wet.
Mr Fine and the children were waiting at the breakfast table. Teacups, cereal bowls, spoons, knifes dipped in jam and butter. She could hear them speaking before they spoke.
Not today, she thought without even really thinking it.
Not today, as she stared at her husband who had crumbs dancing in his black beard.
Not today, she whispered as her eldest drummed his long fingers on the table.
Not today, as the youngest stood and ran towards her.
Not today, as the middle child sulked into his polka dot socks.
Not today, as she stood there, holding onto the teeny tiny glass bottle of milk.
Hands reached for the milk. A shuffling of movement. Noise, so ceaseless.
Mrs Fine took the car keys off the mantle and turned to the front door. She opened the door swiftly, swept back outside. She strode towards the car, unlocked it slowly and sat in the driver’s seat.
She pulled the cap off the milk and skulled it in one go. A milk moustache above her lip, Mrs Fine put the empty bottle down and gazed out the window. Yes, the milk was delicious, so cold and creamy running down her throat.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 8, 2022 as "Fine".
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