The woman is assessed on everything: her collegiality, her efficiency, the texture of the vegetables she cooks, her imagination, her warmth, the density of her breasts. At work, her boss reassures her that the expectation isn’t perfection. “No one is perfect,” he says. There will only be a problem if her ratings fall below 70%.

So she tries hard to please. At dinner parties, she listens carefully to the timbre of her laugh to evaluate whether it is resonant, dulcet, or braying.

The trouble is that some categories for which she is being assessed conflict. How can she contribute to the conference room discussion in a manner that is “animated” and “energetic” but avoids being “challenging”? To be “sharp” is sometimes laudable (when describing her insight) and sometimes critical (when describing a comment she made to sexist Marc Potronsky on the team-building retreat). Or with her husband, how can she both soothe and allure? And with colleagues, manifest both “groundedness” and “sparkliness”? (This last category is particularly perplexing, because when the woman imagines objects that sparkle, she thinks of tricks of light—the gleam of a gold band, the prismatic flash of a diamond’s facet).

Even simple tasks, like cooking bacon, confound her, since her daughter Eleanor prefers her bacon to be chewy, whereas her son Joey prefers it to be crispy.

And it is one morning, over a pan of bacon, that the woman’s attempts to satisfy counter-imperatives finally implode. She is standing over the pan, watching the bacon sizzle, waiting for the moment to remove Eleanor’s three strips. Then, instead of removing them, she keeps watching. The bacon transforms. It morphs from one kind of thing, a thick satin ribbon, to another thing, a strip of leather, to another thing altogether: something black and almost glassy. Obsidian perhaps. Her kitchen fills with the smell of scorched pork. The sensitive smoke alarm beeps. Her son opens the sliding glass door to the deck, shouts “Mom! What are you doing, Mom?” But though he addresses the woman, she is elsewhere, far beyond his grasp.

***

Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing (2018) won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source (2019) was published by 7.13 Books. Her fiction has been published in Booth, Craft Literary, The Gettysburg Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and many other journals. Her stories have been selected for Best Small Fictions and Wigleaf’s Top 50. She is the Editor-in-Chief and Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel. www.kimmagowan.com