Middle Distance by D.B. Miller

My neighbor had a baby once. That much, I got. Just like I got the cup of coffee more or less how I wanted it. Last week, at a different café, I ordered iced coffee but was served black coffee with a sinking scoop of ice cream on top. The waitress smirked at my accent, too, which made me want to flip over her tray.

My neighbor describes the circumstances leading up to the moment she could no longer say she had a baby. It happened a while ago. I’m not sure about the rest because my class just finished Unit 8 and, judging from the syllable count, her words are sophisticated and come from Unit 20, possibly even Unit 35.  

I fiddle with the single-serving coffee creamer, trying to formulate how I might ask her to repeat the critical bits of the story, and get the waiter to bring over a small pitcher of milk. The creamer is at room temperature, probably old. Its peel-off lid features an oversaturated image of a landmark I have yet to visit. In fairness, the picture could do more to sell it.

Her stare moves from middle distance to my untouched coffee. Now would be a good time to seek a little clarification. Even a dumbed-down version would do. At least then I would know how and when it happened, if she ever got to meet it. If she ever got to hold it, and how she let go. How she got out of bed on the first day, and on the fiftieth, and how she can stand being here with me, how she can stand here, being.  

I tear open the creamer. She gets wet. I grab a napkin, and my apology is flawless. I say it again, this time for her loss, even if that part stays in my head. But when the waiter tucks the check into a shot glass on the table, I lunge.

Before she can open her wallet, I round up the total, just like the locals, and bark the right number at the waiter. She thanks me for treating her. “It’s the least I can do,” I think I say, tight in the throat, curd in my cup. 

D.B. Miller’s short fiction, creative nonfiction and offbeat profiles have appeared in Ellipsis Zine, Bending Genres, Litro, Split Lip Magazine, The Weeklings, Offshoots and NBHAP. Her microfiction was longlisted for the 2021 Retreat West Prize, and her flash fiction will be included in the Reflex Fiction Volume Five anthology. Please visit dbmillerwriter.com or follow her on Twitter (@DBMillerWriter).