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Flash Fiction: Everything Familiar

By Reshmi Hebbar Email By Reshmi Hebbar
May 2023
Flash Fiction: Everything Familiar

Wade’s mother has served garbanzo beans from a can, which is easy to detect, though Sheela’s cooking expertise can hardly be called extensive. She’s been living with her boyfriend for almost two years, who’s been her fiancé for almost half that time. Garbanzo beans are shyly making their appearance in the recipes they’ve tried. Plant based meals. Superfoods. Sheela favors them all. And it isn’t only because she was raised vegetarian.

It’s healthier to eat this way. Even the thick-necked heroes of Wade’s Sunday evenings know it, the oblique muscles in their arms powered through nutrients as they chuck a football as lightly as a piece of rice tossed in a ritual. Not the kind of rituals Wade would know about, but he is at least open. The spread on Wade’s mother’s dining table, though, seems like a closed door. Dishes featuring lamb, which Sheela’s never tasted. And pork chops, which is the whitest meal on the planet. This protein excess is probably the McCutcheons’ way of impressing upon Sheela something like a welcome. She wonders about the garbanzo beans then, sitting to one side in a weak jus from the stewed tomatoes. No seasoning except salt.

“What do you call this?” Sheela asks as she serves herself. The rest of her plate contains spinach salad with bacon bits that can be brushed off, a roll that she would not under normal circumstances have picked up—those circumstances being conditions under which she can observe her usual low-carb regimen and keep her culturally inherited curves in check. Travel sometimes voids those conditions. Also visiting her future in-laws. Though this trip, the last one before her wedding to Wade, feels different. Like a warning in disguise.

“That’s just a side of beans, doll,” Mrs. McCutcheons replies.

“We actually make something like this at home,” Sheela says, the enthusiasm building. She likes that her future mother-in-law has called her “doll.” But she is cut off.

“I heard!” Mrs. McCutcheons coos. “Wade mentioned something about that. I’m sure mine’s not like anything y’all can whip up.”

Sheela wishes it is the accent that makes her bristle and not Mrs. McCutcheons’ assumption that “home” is with Wade instead of her own parents. In the home that she lived in for eighteen years, and then a portion of the next five summers, before she moved into the city some blocks away from Kartik’s studio. But here is dark ice.

“Well, I meant with my family,” Sheela tries again, intent now on inserting herself into the tableaux of boiled meat. It’s unfair to Wade, who adores her, respects her family, and despises the blandness of his roots—his word, not Sheela’s.

“Oh!” Mrs. McCutcheons’ tone offers a correction. “I’m sure you have wonderful traditions,” she adds with nothing else. The door still closed.

“It’s called cholé,” Sheela says into the opening she imagines is there. Wade has finally come into the dining room and noticed the tautness in the air. He places the carving fork down.

“We love cholé, Mom,” he offers. Sheela looks from him to the Blue Moon his fingers are reaching for on the table.

“How exotic!” his mother pronounces. Everyone, Sheela realizes, is saying their lines from a script penned by too many writers.

“You will make several different cholés in your lifetime, beti,” Kartik’s mother told Sheela the first time they met. Four years ago almost to this day. Remembering this is like having a heart attack. Sheela doesn’t know what that feels like exactly. But having a heart hurt is now standard.

Wade’s mother doesn’t mean any harm. In fact, you could say she is trying. But Kartik’s mother . . .

“I want to learn everything,” Wade has often repeated to Sheela. When she’s explaining that you need onions, garlic, and chilis mixed into the gravy to prevent the canned tomatoes from just sitting there. When she’s told him that the meaning of “beti” is “dear one.” When she’s predicted that someday her parents will call Wade this, ingratiating as he is. He will win them over. To the point beyond eye color, skin color, line of the nose, smell of the fingertips not flecked with turmeric but with deli meat.FlashFiction_2_05_23.jpg

Ideas of ethnicity are always evolving, Sheela learned in college, where she and Wade had been friends. When she had been in love with Kartik. And Wade waited for years. Which means something.

“Oh, honey!” Mrs. McCutheons cries out.

Sheela starts, waiting for her error to be named, but it’s Wade’s beer falling across the cream-colored tablecloth, splashing onto the platter of lamb, which Sheela’s instincts are not fast enough to save. Instead, she bends down to stop the liquid from running across the floor, down into the darkness under the table legs, which is where she’d like to be, just for a moment, savoring the flashback to her first dinner with the Gatkars—Kartik and his little sister, his bright-eyed parents, no tablecloth on the table, but everything familiar as his mother lobbed question after question at Sheela. Her family. Her interests. Her relatives in India. Then touching her on the back and saying, “Leave it, beti,” when Sheela wanted to help wash the big pots after dinner.

Sheela, twenty-seven, engaged, with a two-karat rock on brown fingers that are expert at making one ancestral dish, trained at accepting grains of rice on her supplicant head during ritual blessings, clutches a wet, beery napkin that won’t stop the flooding of her heart. Thinking, oh, Kartik. How your mother loved me so completely.

Reshmi Hebbar’s fiction has been published in The South Carolina Review, The Account, Funicular Magazine, and other print and online journals. She has a PhD in English from Emory University and teaches multicultural literature and critical race theory in Atlanta. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.


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