portion of the artwork for Michelle Ross's stories

Common Denominator
Michelle Ross

I haven’t seen my mother in 12 years. That’s what I tell Frank’s sister when she says, “Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to date men who don’t know how to cook?” and after Frank says, “But I know how to wash dishes.”

Tanya’s eyes widen. “Twelve years?”

The three of us are in Frank’s kitchen, drinking wine and chopping. Rather, Tanya and I are chopping. Frank hates cooking, it’s true. He hovers outside the action, useless, like me at my kid’s Boy Scout outings. The other parents teach the kids about finding shelter in the woods, tracking through the woods, and stabbing sticks into marshmallows, while I hide out in my tent, inspecting every surface for ticks.

I’ve been dating Frank about 14 months, and Tanya acts like that’s an unnaturally long time for her brother to date someone she hasn’t yet met. She says, “But Frank ditched us all when he went off to college halfway across the country, and he never came back.”

Frank says nothing. He refills his wine.

I say, “Well, good thing he did or I wouldn’t have met him.”

Tanya picks at some bit of food stuck to the face of the utensils drawer. “What is this? Jelly?” Then she asks me if I have any siblings and where do they live?

That one of them lives barely 50 miles away and another just across the state line and Frank hasn’t met either also riles up Tanya. “Seriously, is there nobody in your family that you’re close to?”

I tell Tanya that I’m close to plenty of people, just not people I share DNA with. When she squints at me, I tell her about my ex-husband, Marco. Married 12 years, divorced three, and we’re still friends.

Tanya looks to Frank then. He nods. Actually, Marco is how Frank and I met. They both volunteer as judges in the city-wide science fair, elementary division. Every year it’s the same projects over and over again, they both say. Which beverage is more harmful to your teeth? How much sunlight do plants really need? Questions that have been answered a million times already. Originality was a tenet in our house when Marco and I were helping Jacob formulate hypotheses for his science fair projects. Internet searches quickly showed us that the human brain can no longer conceive of anything original, but we tried.

Knife in one hand, red beet like the heart of a small mammal in the other, Tanya shakes her head for what feels like five minutes. “Doesn’t it make you wonder?” she says finally.

“Wonder what?” I say.

“Well, does everyone else in your family get along well enough?” she says.

Frank’s looking out the back window, probably looking for the gray tomcat he’s been putting food and water out for. That cat seems to always have some new injury. One time one of its eyes was so swollen, I wanted Frank to take the animal to the vet, but Frank said, “He’s feral. How do you expect us to trap him?” Frank calls the cat’s injuries “battle scars,” says the cat is tough and can take care of himself just fine, which begs the question of why he feeds the animal, but I don’t say that because I like that he feeds that cat.

“How would I know?” I say.

“What I’m saying is, if they get along, but you don’t, then you’re the common denominator, right? Do you ever wonder if maybe it’s all on you?”

I know things about Tanya I’m polite enough not to bring up. Mainly that she’s been married three times, and that all three husbands were alcoholics who beat her. Common denominators can take many forms, I want to tell her, and I would tell her this, if we were related. And if we were related, she would then tell me that I’m an insensitive asshole. And then I’d say, Excuse me, but who wielded the first criticism here? And then she’d act like she had no idea what I was talking about and she’d go on about how all my life I’ve been insensitive. And then I’d say, Really? When I was a baby I was insensitive to you? And then she’d say, This is why no one can talk to you. You’re always twisting things, always looking for a fight. I’d say, I don’t want to fight, but how can we have a relationship if you’re allowed to point out my many flaws, but I’m not allowed to say anything about you? Then she’d cry and she’d call up my siblings and tell them what I said to her and then they’d call me one by one to tell me I’m a horrible person.

I look to Frank, who is still looking out the window. A few seconds pass before he notices me watching him, but when he does, he says, “What are you two talking about?” He comes over and rubs the back of my neck with his thumb and forefinger the way that I like. I set down the knife and let my shoulders relax.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 54 | Fall/Winter 2019