"Strawberry Balsamic Donut" by Kim Magowan

Kim Magowan

Kim Magowan

Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the English Department of Mills College at Northeastern University. She is author of the short story collection Don't Take This the Wrong Way, co-authored with Michelle Ross, forthcoming from EastOver Press; the story collection How Far I've Come (2022), published by Gold Wake Press; the novel The Light Source (2019), published by 7.13 Books; and the story collection Undoing (2018), which won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her stories have been selected for Best Small Fictions and Wigleaf's Top 50. She is Editor-in-Chief and Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel.

Strawberry Balsamic Donut

In college, Nell had slept with the boyfriends of her best friends. At the time, she couldn’t account for this behavior, though in therapy years later, she decided it had to do with her older sister Rosemary, whom her parents had always favored, and who was possessive and spoiled. Nell and Rosemary shared a bedroom, but in this room, the only thing that truly belonged to Nell was her own bed. The desk, the top drawers of the bureau, and the rocking chair by the window were all understood to be Rosemary’s. Rosemary would snarl at Nell when she left, say, a cardigan draped on the back of the rocking chair. The theory Nell and her therapist developed was that sleeping with her friends’ boyfriends was a two-fold reaction to these sibling inequities: Nell grasped at things that were off-limits, but in a self-sabotaging way that affirmed Nell was herself unworthy of love, loyalty, or a boyfriend of her own. She was only entitled to scavenge for scraps.

Of these men she slept with in college, there was only one Nell really liked: Curt, her friend Lucy’s boyfriend. Curt was too strange-looking to be handsome (gaunt, large-nosed, he looked like an El Greco martyr), but he had slim, elegant feet.

Thirteen years later, Nell is in Portland, Oregon, a city she’s never been to before, waiting in line at a famous donut place while her boyfriend shops at Powell’s (Graham could spend all day in a bookstore). Right ahead of her is a dog with a ropy, ombré coat that makes him look upholstered. When the dog raises its face, Nell sees that its eyes are two different colors: one light blue, one brown. Like Lucy Markham’s eyes. She takes a startled step back, looks up, and recognizes the man with the dog.

“Curt!” she says.

He does not immediately recognize her, and then he frowns. “Nell.”

For a few minutes they exchange small talk. He’s lived in Portland for five years. Yes, the donuts are really that good and worth the line. “Esme, settle down,” he scolds the dog.

“She has eyes like Lucy,” Nell says.

Curt tilts his head, neither agreeing nor disagreeing.

“You heard about Lucy?”

He nods, reluctantly, as if he is allowed only a limited range of motion.

“I had the strangest dream about her a month before she died,” Nell says. “She was standing over me, holding a bowl of bright green, sludgy-looking broth. ‘Take a spoonful,’ she said. But I refused. I clamped my lips together, and Lucy looked pissed off, and I woke up. Then a month later I heard she died. Do you think it was a premonition?”

Curt shrugs, minutely.

Nell pets the dog’s dreadlocked head. “Bladder cancer is extremely rare in women under 35,” she says. “But you know what else is extremely rare? Having one blue eye and one brown eye.”

“That’s neither here nor there,” says Curt. He gives her a cold, openly disdainful look, then says, “I have to go,” and abruptly walks away. The dog trots after him.

Nell continues to wait on line, but now she feels miserable. A day before, she and Graham strolled through Portland, looking up to admire the tree canopies, then down at the frothy, abundant gardens that seemed like over-boiling pots, bubbling with flowers. “We should move here,” Graham said. It seemed perfect, a city made for underachievers. “Sweetie, you deserve to be happy,” Graham said to her later that night, kissing the backs of her fingers. She could marry him, Nell thought. She imagined having an elfin daughter named Marigold.

But seeing Curt, seeing the chill that radiates from him like spokes from a child’s drawing of a sun, deflates Nell. She walks back to Powell’s disconsolately, chewing her strange, disappointing donut. Why put balsamic vinegar in a donut? It doesn’t make sense. The gardens that yesterday looked so verdant, with their inviting, weathered trellises, now menace her. The plants are the same bright green of the soup dream-Lucy tried to make her eat.