Dybek’s ‘Pet Milk’ is another meandering story that proceeds by association and only reveals itself to have any kind of narrative through-line towards its end. It begins with the narrator “drinking instant coffee and Pet milk, and watching it snow.” The way the artificial milk swirls in the coffee reminds him of his grandmother, who served it to her friends, and of the radio in her kitchen tuned to the Polish station “at the staticky right end of the dial” along with stations in Greek, Spanish, and Ukrainian, a multicultural medley that reminds him of a little Czech restaurant, the Pilsen, which he and his first serious girlfriend, Kate, used to frequent, where their favourite waiter would prepare a drink called a King Alphonse, in which crème de cacao is blended with heavy cream. And that memory reminds him of their date at the Pilsen for his twenty-second birthday. The couple, fresh out of college and launched into the world, but anticipating futures that won’t involve each other, get drunk and horny on champagne and oysters. In a frenzy of lust, they look for somewhere private—but all efforts are foiled, leaving them no option but to take the express train to Kate’s place in Evanston. On the train, they make their way into an empty conductor’s compartment, where the acceleration of the train mimics their passion.
Yet as befits this meandering and mediated story, the narrator can’t lose himself in the moment—he finds himself caught up in the expressions of the people waiting at the stations the express speeds by, captivated most of all by a high school kid who grins and waves at them. Even now, years later, the narrator remembers how he couldn’t help but imagine himself as that onlooker: “It was as if I were standing on that platform, with my schoolbooks and a smoke, on one of those endlessly accumulated afternoons after school when I stood almost outside of time simply waiting for a train, and I thought how much I’d have loved seeing someone like us streaming by.”
‘Pet Milk’ is a melancholy, generous story that has something to say—I’ve yet to quite figure out what—about our subjective sense of time passing and the difficulty of inhabiting a moment. I first came to this story when I was looking for something to pair with Guy de Maupassant’s ‘An Idyll,’ another remarkable story about an intimate encounter on a train (seriously, check it out [the story was chosen by Kate Clanchy for her Personal Anthology; read her take here – Ed.]), but I’ve come to love ‘Pet Milk’ for its own merits. It doesn’t hurt that students love it too. Those on the cusp of graduation, in particular, find this story almost unbearably resonant.
First published in The New Yorker August 5, 1984. Collected in The Coast of Chicago, Knopf, 1990). Read the story here