Impossible Prudence

Melissa Ostrom

Prone to rashes, the woman uses unscented detergent. But there is misery in this small disavowal, and the act of folding towels makes her long for her mother in the long-ago basement, the trembling march of the spinning washer, the eggs in the webbed window, the redolence of the just-cleaned mixing with must. The woman breathes through her sorrow.

When she finishes closeting the whites, she departs for the party. Upon arrival, she prolongs a greeting hug to find her mother in her host’s fragrant collar. Then she passes her friend a covered plate: her potluck contribution. Due to white sugar’s refinement, she has vanquished it from her pantry, and so carrot juice sweetens her dessert. Her friend selects a small cookie, takes a bite, and chews and chews. The woman, herself, cannot finish one, and drops it in the trash where it lands with a thud. The friends talk. Since heels are so bad for her feet, the woman has worn sensible, extra-arch-support flats. But she admires her friend’s exquisite stilettos and the painfully but beautifully wrought elongation of bare legs.

The friend turns to greet a new guest, and the woman, conscious of her aloneness, sidesteps awkwardly along the table. She cannot be certain organic ingredients comprise the entrees, so she carries her hunger and a wine glass of water to her friend’s window where the summer sun lingers. This is the hour she normally showers, brushes and flosses before meditating and practicing her silent, diaphragmatic breathing. The slipping light maneuvers through her friend’s orchard of peaches and strikes her in the face. She digs her sunglasses out of her purse and puts them on. Later, when she turns to peer through the muting lens and search the noisy throng, she sees her friend in the act of disappearing, following another person down the hallway, swinging by the neck an opened bottle of red and answering the leader’s comment with a short shout of laughter.

The friend will kick shut the bedroom door with the sharp toe of one shoe, she will let the person who led her here unbutton her sweetly laundered shirt, she will drink from the bottle and set aside the wine before slithering her shirt down her arms, she will allow the shirt to float in the direction of her overdue library books and its whiteness will cover them and create a small mountain, a cache of spilled sugar. She will remove the rest of her clothing except for the shoes. These she will tap across the room like a primitive music. She will gaze down at the naked guest who will smile questioningly. She will nudge apart the legs to stand between them. Together they will create a right-angled expression, a perpendicularity they will pretend is playful. And when they further intersect, they will do so messily, drunkenly but poignantly, with no plan beyond what is hidden: the yearning interests of their unprotected, autonomous, susceptible hearts.


Melissa Ostrom lives in rural Western New York with her husband and children. She teaches English at a community college, serves as a curriculum consultant, and writes whenever and however much her four-year-old and six-year-old let her. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Oblong, Cleaver, and Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine.