I entered a flash fiction contest.
The rule was that one of the characters must tell a joke and one of the characters must cry.
The winner wrote about a black sheep.
I wrote this:
You are standing at the farmhouse sink, your black hair frizzing in the steam rising from the dishwater. Your right hand is roughly grasping one hemisphere of a red glazed dinner plate, and your left is smoothly buffing away streaks of congealed Alfredo sauce with a buttery yellow dishcloth. The squeak of the cloth against the dish very nearly obscures the sound of your quiet sniffles, but the shine on the plate reflecting the beam from the recessed ceiling lights only highlights the salty rivulets on your jaw.
Your weight is balanced on your left foot, your right turned in just so, knees touching, your hip barely interrupting the line from your ribs to your ankle. You rinse the plate and place it in the dish rack, reaching for another immediately, automatically, robotically, despite the tremor in your hand and the bounce in your shoulders.
From the living room comes a shriek, followed by an assortment of loud guffaws and outright laughter. Your husband is holding court over the dinner party, and all the guests, save one, are enthralled by his presence. He is telling more jokes, but you do not hear them, because you quietly left the room after his opening jab:
“What’s the difference between Debbie and a cold fish?”
“A cold fish will at least move around a bit—Deb just lies there like a dead fish!”
They all seemed to think it was extremely funny. They leaned into one another, exploding with laughter, pointing and gulping for air, nodding and slapping the table. No one, save one, noticed when you excused yourself from the table, carrying trays and silverware into the kitchen. You balanced the dishes precariously, nudging the door open with your foot, letting it swing shut behind you with a silent hiss.
Now at the sink, seen from behind, one could almost think that you are dancing, bouncing to a melody in your heart. If another guest were to bang into the room to grab a fifth, sixth or seventh bottle of wine, you could keep your back to them without arousing any suspicions. Or perhaps you would be able to greet them with a brave, lying smile and a convincingly set face. But in here alone, save one, you have allowed your emotions to overflow much as the excess water drains off the dishes and spills back into the sink.
You turn and look, your face drenched and marked by surprise. Your eyes shift from wide to defensive, finally settling on soft. The cobalt coffee mug you had been wiping slips into the hot soapy water, gurgling as it sinks, gently bumping the bottom of the basin. Your hand floats to your face, and you wipe away tears with the pad of your thumb. Your fingers tangle in your hair, and you brush it behind your ear. The tissue-thin skin of your cheeks undulates as you draw in a shuddering breath, and your lower lip wobbles like a skiff adrift on the open sea. Crystalline drops cling to your lashes, and your make-up has become a surreal smear centered on the tender pockets under your eyes. Your nose is tipped with a dewed rosy bulb. Your pulse is beating visibly at the cleft of your wispy clavicle. Your eyebrows arch, rising higher by the moment, your forehead diminishing, your distorted pupils seeking affirmation, clarification, justification, explanation, certification, absolution, empathy, sympathy, understanding. Your weight teeters forward, and you are falling, drifting, sailing, floating, landing in safe and impregnable arms.
Your vulnerability would repel all the guests present. That is, all save one.