Ruth remembered the first time someone called her a cold fish. It was the day of the junior prom. She hadn't felt like going, but Richard was eager to take her and she agreed.
Richard was chubby and fair and beginning to cultivate down on his upper lip. He'd liked her for years. When they were younger, he'd barrel into her like a clumsy puppy, knock her down and bend over her body. Ruth wasn't afraid, she just lay there, and, after a few minutes, he'd let her up. When they got older, Richard stopped tackling her on the lawn and invited her to movies and McDonald's. He was always arriving early in the morning and asking if he could carry her books to school. Ruth was oddly repelled by his devotion.
Years later, Richard grew into an amazingly handsome man. Ruth saw him at the theater with his wife. Richard's wife clung to his arm and chuckled at his jokes.
The afternoon of the prom, Ruth's friend, Lucy, a black-haired siren, wise beyond her years, came over to gossip about their dates. She was going to the prom with Barry Morgan.
“Have you ever…you know…with Richard?" Lucy said.
“What’s going on?"
“Nothing," said Ruth, “nothing’s going on."
Lucy grinned and called her a cold fish.
That night, after the dance, when Richard tried to kiss her, she let him do it. His mouth felt spongy and moist. It smelled of salty snacks, and something else that made her stomach heave. She felt more like a cold fish than before.
Ruth lived in a red brick house on a tidy street. A maple shaded the lawn. Her father was hardworking, her mother warm. Yet Ruth had always been a somber child. She hated movies about trials, sure that justice wouldn’t be done, that the innocent would suffer and evil would triumph. As if she’d grown up in a crueler place. As if her feelings had been forged by a harsher life.
And perhaps they had. Two months after she left home to go to college, Ruth’s parents phoned to tell her they were divorcing.
Ruth was astonished. She hadn’t seen it coming. Or perhaps she had. At least it explained so many baffling things. Explained the fears prowling at the edges of her mind. Explained the hard coolness in her chest, a chunk of the snow queen’s mirror that never melted. Explained why she didn’t cry when she heard the news. She stared at the phone, then put it very carefully in its cradle and lay down on the couch. She was still for a long time. Thoughts came and went and left no trace at all.
They love each other, thought Ruth. But now she wasn’t sure just how love looked. Maybe they had tricked her, or each other. Maybe she’d tricked herself. She rubbed her eyes. How did love really look?