“The Science of Flight” by Yiyun Li

For week 17 of the 2015 Deal Me In challenge, I drew the 10 of Clubs. Clubs are my suit for stories published in The New Yorker magazine. This one is available to read online at http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/08/30/the-science-of-flight

(Deal Me In is a weekly short story reading challenge explained here. If you’d like to see my roster of stories I’m reading, see this post.)

I got to play the “Guess The Origin of the Story Title Game” with this eminently sad story. Is it a scientific story? No. Is the main character, a Chinese immigrant named Zichen, fleeing (flying) from somewhere? Sort of. She’s not fleeing a geographic place, but rather she’s fleeing being forced to submit to social interactions. As we meet her in the story, she is working a drudgery-laden job in an animal research lab. She has two co-workers, Henry and Ted, who have become the closest thing to friends she has.

She invents cover stories of where she will spend her vacations. Stories that hopefully don’t arouse curiosity of Ted and Henry. One year, she claimed she was going to the East Coast to visit her (now ex-) husband, which wasn’t true. In reality, “Before the holiday weekend, she had purchased more food than she could consume, and for four days she had hidden herself in her apartment and worked slowly through a Latin reader of Cicero’s speeches.” We also learn that “Over the years she had become accustomed to who she was in other people’s eyes,” and customizes her cover stories to fit that profile.

At the end of the story, Zichen is planning a real (I think!) vacation to a bed and breakfast in England that one hopes may lead her toward a happier existence. As usual, she’s cagey with her coworkers about her trip and its purposes, telling a variation of a cover story that, according to the author “…was as close to the truth as she could get.”

Below: author Yiyun Li (from Wikipedia)

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