Useful Skills by Michelle Ross

Bernie and I are in her pool, sipping canned pinot grigio and swatting mosquitoes from the little bit of skin we haven’t submerged. Bernie keeps a close watch on the sky because I have a headache, the kind that forecasts storms. I’m a human barometer. It’s like the air pressure tips a lever that pulls a string that clamps my skull.

Lately, we’ve been watching this reality show Alone, in which survivalists compete for half a million dollars by trying to outlast each other in the wilderness, no one to depend upon but themselves. These people have mad skills Bernie and I don’t possess. They fell trees and build cabins. They distinguish edible plants from inedible ones. They skin and gut anything that moves. But I maintain that being able to detect an approaching storm is a useful skill, too.

Bernie says, “Headaches aren’t a skill.”

“Not an acquired skill, but a skill nonetheless,” I say.

Bernie shakes her head. Her shoulders bob above the water’s surface like turtle shells.

Another thing Bernie and I disagree about is which of us would last longer on that show. We don’t kid ourselves that either of us would last particularly long, that we’d be serious contenders. This is just a contest between me and Bernie.

Because neither of us has experience hunting and gathering our own food or building our own shelter, the contest between us lies in other details. For example, the people on that show talk nonstop about the mathematics of body composition, calorie intake, and calorie expenditure. In this light, I contend that Bernie’s muscles are a deficit because they require more calories to maintain than my softer physique. Plus, pudge equals energy reserves.

Bernie counters that muscles can be burned for energy, too. Plus, her muscles make her more efficient and so she could do everything faster and more easily.

“Do what faster and more easily?” I say. “Shiver?”

“Projects,” she says. “Make shit. Also, I do at least know how to start a fire, thank you very much. What about you?”

“Meh,” I say.

Truth is, this show, as much as I can’t get enough of it, terrifies me. It’s revealed just how ill-equipped I am to survive on my own. How vastly I have miscalculated what truly matters.

Bernie says that another advantage she has over me is she’s more risk avoidant.

This throws me. “But risks are necessary sometimes. Risks can pay off,” I say.

“Sometimes,” she says. “But risks also mean dying of poisoning or hypothermia or being eaten by a bear.”

The way she looks at me, I know she’s thinking again about the extra Pixies ticket my ex, Sam, gave me that I gave to my other ex, Pete. She’s mad I didn’t give her that ticket. I had to refrain from explaining that Pete would contend that the “the” she keeps inserting before the band’s name is evidence she’s not that big a fan.

Bernie is also not that big a fan of Pete.

She says now, “Have you considered that you might confuse Pete?”

Pete wants nothing to do with me anymore, I tell her. He barely accepted my offer of the ticket, despite that Pixies is his favorite band. He said in a suspicious tone, “Um, how much do I owe you?”

This is in stark contrast to my other ex, Sam, whom I still go out to dinner with once a month or so. At the sushi restaurant last week where he gave me those tickets, I rubbed my temples and told him he should have brought an umbrella, and he said, “I stope it hops hurting soon.” Once when we were still dating, his words came out jumbled like that, and I laughed so hard I snorted. We were high at the time. At the restaurant, I just smiled politely, awkwardly. It was his way of reminding me that we used to be more than friends. Sam would like to be more than friends still, but he’s a good sport.

Actually, I miss those days, too, only a future with Sam is a bad gamble because he spends money like there’s no tomorrow. If Sam were on Alone, he’d be that dude who catches the tiniest, saddest looking fish you ever saw and then dances around and yells with such abandon that he burns more calories in those few minutes than the fish can replenish.

But I’ve been thinking lately: if Pete were on Alone, he might just win.

Pete is smart and has mad skills. He’d build a kickass log cabin, and he wouldn’t put all his focus into any one food strategy. He’d set snares and fishing nets. He’d hunt. He’d gather. He’d preserve. He’d build a nice fireplace to keep us warm on cold nights.

I say all this to Bernie, even the fireplace part, even the us part, and she says, “Oh, I see now. You’re confusing yourself.”

“This is me being practical,” I say.

Bernie raises her eyebrows.

“What I’m saying is this show has changed my perspective. On what’s important in a partner. Choosing the right partner is a useful skill, too. Doesn’t it scare you to know you couldn’t distinguish an edible mushroom from a deadly one?”

“No,” Bernie says, “because grocery stores don’t sell deadly mushrooms.”

Then she says, “For the record, this is why I would do better than you on that show. Even with amenities, you can’t handle being alone.”

Lightning lights up the sky like tie-dye, and Bernie immediately gets out of the pool. She wraps herself in an excessively large fluffy towel and holds the other towel out toward me.

I consider the odds of lightning striking the pool. I consider what useful skill my staying in a little while longer might demonstrate.

MICHELLE ROSS — Michelle is the author of three story collections: There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, winner of the 2016 Moon City Short Fiction Award; Shapeshifting, winner of the 2020 Stillhouse Press Short Fiction Award (2021); and They Kept Running, winner of the 2021 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction (2022). Her work is included in Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, the Wigleaf Top 50, and the Norton anthology, Flash Fiction America. It received special mention in the Pushcart Prize anthology. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review.

Art by MELISSA SAGGERER — Melissa is an artist and writer living in New Hampshire. She has work in JMWW, Cutbow Quarterly, Rejection Letters, HAD, Milk Candy Review, and elsewhere. Her prose has been nominated for Best Microfiction and a Pushcart. Her pieces are collected at and you can follow her on twitter @MelissaSaggerer.