A very sweet exchange student, Inge from Holland, came to live with us the year we both turned fifty. I thought it would be good for us. At first my Bob grumbled. But soon enough, he was offering to help, giving Inge practical advice for getting to know our fair city, stuff like, how you can tell which way you’re walking by looking at the bridge. Me, rolling my eyes.
Her hair was rope: thick, white blond. Bob’s face a different shade whenever she walked in. The child, who calls her some other name, follows her around our house like a merry little dog.
I began to dream about Bob and her eating tulips together. Thinking about all of the things she did to help us around the house, how nice she was to us, made me nervous. Even the dog seemed besotted. I found myself wishing that we could exchange her.
When I tell them my name, the husband says come again? Three times I say it, three times he tips his head as though gravity might pull the sound into the ear canal and trickle it into his brain.
Eventually, I say Inge. It is not a Dutch name, but I figure.
Very sweet, he says to the wife, who glares spikes. With her glance, I could skewer a pig and roast it over the fire, turning the crank slowly, slowly.
They give me a room with a narrow bed. I shuffle in, sideways. When I sit on the edge of the mattress, my chin almost brushes the wall.
I am too intelligent to suffer homesickness.
Inge, says the wife. Do this.
Inge, says the wife, with spittle in the word. Do that.
I push the child to the park and watch it climb the frame. It hangs onto the brightly coloured bars and does not fall, not once. It neither smiles, nor screams, nor whines to be helped. When it has hauled its way to the top, it gazes down at the other children, snot-faced and shrieking. It sits awhile, before descending by the same route and getting back into its buggy.
Thank you, Marieke it says, with perfect pronunciation.
I cook delicious meals and set them upon the table. The wife shoves away her plate. Glowers at the husband until he lowers the loaded fork, halfway to his mouth. I clear the dishes, scrape uneaten feasts into plastic storage tubs.
After they have retired for the evening, I am permitted to eat. I load the microwave with home cooking. The scent of Nijmegen embroiders the kitchen, weaves through the house, imprints the wallpaper and soft furnishings. I exchange their air with mine.
The situation is plainly ridiculous. I’m old enough to be her father. It’s not as if she’s especially pretty. On weekends, when other young people her age are out partying, she walks around our house dusting and straightening. Or she’s holding some old sweaty copy of Anna Karenina, peering at me impishly.
I’ve been encouraging. I tell her she should get out more, meet some boys. Remind her she’s got nice things to wear. Like the yellow top with the blue ribbons gathering it tight across the front. I think of her in that shirt while reminding her that Vitamin D is important for our moods.
I don’t know if your parents ever told you that growing bones crave sunlight, I say, feeling a bubble of warmth bounding between us in the dining room. Wolves speak a language too rich for human appreciation, she says, setting a dish of red and purple vegetables upon the table.
I laugh, though I don’t understand. It’ll be a Dutch joke or proverb, lost in translation. My wife’s expression is stormy. I waggle my eyebrows, say, isn’t that funny, darling? to show her it’s time to laugh.
ROSIE GARLAND — Writer and singer with post-punk band The March Violets, Rosie Garland’s award-winning work has been published internationally. Her new poetry collection What Girls do the Dark (Nine Arches Press) is out now. In 2019, Val McDermid named her one of the UK’s most compelling LGBT+ writers. Her story “The Hanging of Game Birds” was selected for inclusion in Best Microfiction 2021.
MEG POKRASS — Meg is the author of six flash fiction collections, an award-winning collection of prose poetry, two novellas-in-flash and a forthcoming collection of microfiction, Spinning to Mars recipient of the Blue Light Book Award in 2020. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, Washington Square Review, Wigleaf, Waxwing and McSweeney’s. She is the Series Founder and Co-Editor of Best Microfiction.
Art by DAEGAN LUNSFORD — Daegan is a multidisciplinary artist living in Canada. He works in photography, gouache painting, and printmaking with lino in a traditional woodcut style. His art focuses on delight, nostalgia, Americana and the Southern Gothic. Instagram: @daeganlunsfordofficial.