Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Miss Shen

Miss Shen
RJ Astruc

“Hello ma’am,” the official says, “I’m here to inform you that your invincibility has expired.”

Miss Shen opens the door another fraction of an inch and peers fearfully up at him. “I beg your pardon?”

“Your invincibility, ma’am,” says the official. “Surely you remember? You were injected as a child as part of the AIU government trial. A very successful trial, too – a shame that the product will never reach the commercial markets. But I suppose you couldn’t really have everyone in the country being invincible, it wouldn’t be practical…”

Miss Shen can’t remember the invincibility. But she vaguely remembers the tests: the pinch of the needle, the smiling faces of the nurses, the starched white beds and the shiny silver machines that monitored her vital signs. The questions her parents refused to answer. Invincibility? She smiles nervously.

The official rustles paperwork. “Boy, I envy you,” he says, offering her a clipboard and a pen. “You must have been a real hellion in your youth! No worries, no cares, no fears. Can you initial here and here? And sign on the dotted line.”

Miss Shen takes the clipboard in trembling hands. She remembers only a youth of nervous inadequacy: of poor school marks, of sporting failures, of friendless nights sitting in front of the television listening to her parents fight. She remembers turning down offers of parties (there might be a fight) and travel (I’m scared of flying). She remembers a school boy with a knife behind the bleachers who told her to take off all her clothes and lie still, Nina, lie still so you don’t get hurt.

“Thanks, ma’am,” says the official cheerfully. “Hey, you must have some stories, right? I had a chance to speak to a few other AIU-trial subjects – and wow! One guy said he swum with sharks in Australia, and two of the girls climbed Mount Everest together. Stood above the clouds and saw the sun set at their feet, they said. What a life, I said – what a wonderful life!”

Miss Shen signs her name on the dotted line. She remembers faking a leg-cramp to avoid the embarrassment of school sport. She remembers telling her first – her only – boyfriend that she couldn’t do that, because she was scared of disease. She remembers refusing to wear high heels in case she fell. She remembers avoiding sugars and processed foods, she remembers reading the backs of labels. She remembers a man who followed her home and she had to keep walking, walking, walking, running, sobbing, tight-chested, clutching her purse…

She hands back the clipboard saying, “I don’t have any stories.”
He thinks she’s bluffing. “Surely you must. I mean you were invincible for thirty years… you must have done something!”

“No one told me,” she says.

The official stares. “You’re serious,” he says. “Wow, I’m sorry.” His face is red and flushed. “Invincible for thirty years and you never noticed. Well, I guess it’s not that bad. You never really missed anything.”

Invincibility, she thinks. A life lived. She smiles to alleviate his discomfort. “Thank you for coming,” she says, and closes the door.

Miss Shen stands by the window and watches the official walk down the pavement, shaking his head. On the coffee table behind her there are bills to be paid and a light bulb to be replaced; there is her mother to call and the tea to brew; she has laundry to wash and the newspaper crossword to complete...

Weeping, Miss Shen returns to her life.

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