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Flash Fiction: Limbo

By E. B. Poornima Email By E. B. Poornima
January 2023
Flash Fiction: Limbo

Do you really see me anymore?

I walk slowly to the dining table to join you two for dinner—it would be more proper to say that I shuffle forward—each step a deep dragging pull on the torso, at the mercy of graceless joints that are, in turn, entirely at the mercy of anxious arms gripping the walker. When I navigate the turn in the corridor, my focus is entirely on shifting the angle of my body and of my face to my right gradually, no sudden moves, one fused entity above the hips with little independent will. If you say anything to me during this time, the words will slide right past my hearing aids and into the dim light of the corridor behind me, blithely skipping my comprehension.

I cannot walk and talk. I walk. I talk. Two separate actions that involve no intersections if they are to succeed. You know this because you stand by my chair quietly. You are waiting for me to make it to the end point, so that after I navigate the walker to the chair and lower myself into the chair, you can push the chair forward into the table. I count time by the ways I have made it to this table. In the first days, when the children were still here, they would call for me from across the house.

“Nana!” Sonu would yell affectionately from across the house. “Dinner time, Nana! Nanaaaaaaaaaaaa!”

I would stride in from my room, a fake grimace planted on my face, holding my palms over my ears in exaggerated dismay to delight him. You would smile distractedly at me, your mind on the chores still ahead of you. I listened carefully to the excited prattle of the children about who did what at school and would try to remember a name from the chatter to use in the days following.

When Mina complained about her friend (“Angela was so mean today!”), I would remember to ask in a few days’ time, “Mina, how is Angela these days? Still mean?” Beaming at me, Mina would expound on
Angela. Anything for that smile from my granddaughter.

Then as they grew older, Mina would come into the room to get me. “Nana, come for dinner,” she would say, holding out her hand even though I could get myself up with no help from the tall armchair where I spend the hours watching the talking heads on television yell at each other about something that I did not really care about but that helped pass the time.

Then she left for college, and Sonu would come in to get me. He stood at the door, smiling gently, his head cocked to the left. “Come for dinner, Nana,” he said, watching me carefully to see if I needed help.

I struggled a bit but pressed hard on the arms to heave myself up, defiant and determined to seize one more point over my knees even as the swiftly vanishing cartilage in both joints screeched in rage and shook their fists at my score. Sonu would reach behind the door, pull out the walking stick stashed there, and hold it out for me.

He loved that stick with a carved giraffe’s head that he had found for me as a birthday present a year before. Imagine getting birthday gifts and cards at this stage of my life! I felt so silly and so happy at the same time. When I went for walks, Sonu would look at me from the corner of his eyes as I pulled on my socks and shoes—I knew he was checking to see if I would take that stick with me. So I did, even though it felt old and strange to use a walking stick. Isn’t that what my Dada did? I did not feel old. I do not feel old. Tired yes, but not old. Sometimes, in the early days, when I was out of sight of my grandson, I waved that stick about as if I were Zubin Mehta in front of an orchestra. Then as the years slipped by, I did begin to lean a bit more on that giraffe’s head as I moved forward. Some years after, the walking stick gave way to the walker and the kids biking on the street knew to swerve around me as I pushed that walker in the neighborhood.

Sonu has left for college as well, and now, it is just the three of us.

You come to my room and open the door gently. “Dinner time, Papa,” you say as you walk in to help me up from the tall armchair. You move the walker to within easy reach of me and wait until I have a firm grip on it. Then you give me a gentle pat-hug on my shoulders, just as I did all those years back when you were a child scrambling over me while I tried to read the newspaper.

“Okay, Papa?” you add. “I will set the table. Come carefully, okay?”

Then you leave to get dinner ready. It takes the same time for you to set the table and warm the food you’d prepped over the weekend as it does for me to push and shuffle my way from my room to the table. It feels uncomfortable that I should be here at this table. I feel like an intruder now because I cannot wrap myself inside the bossy laughter and arguments of Sonu and Mina at the table.

I want to tell you that maybe I should eat alone now—maybe have my meal before the two of you so that you two can chat freely and maybe laugh over the day’s events. So that you, my daughter, you do not feel compelled to try to talk to me, include me in the conversation—articulating sounds carefully, but that still emerge from your mouth and, passing through my hearing aids, whip at my ear drums as if I were trying to have a conversation on a railway platform just as the train screeched in. I watch your mouth carefully and reply, and I know that sometimes my guesses are completely wrong. Because you nod expressionless at what I just said.

But I don’t want to eat alone. Forgive me, I am selfish. I want to see you now as desperately as we once wanted to see you all when you came to India in summer, came to our home—your children’s grandparents’ home, more than eight thousand miles away. Where your mother danced about in the house for two months prior in happy anticipation of the visit. Where she would give me lists of things to purchase so that everything would be perfect for the children. Where I went up and down the stairs a hundred times each day as she said, “Oh no, I forgot these when I was at the store yesterday. You go get it for me.” And she would hand me another list.

How do I make you see me? How do I make you hear me?

Not as this shriveled creature, but as your papa. Your papa, full of love for you, full of opinions, and so tired too. How do I tell you that the talking heads on news channels just shift about in front of me, fuzzy images that are unable to keep my attention anymore? How do I tell you that some mornings I wake up disappointed to have woken up?

Now I want to just drop off, as easily as that ripe cucumber drops off the stem. If I know some answers, how do I tell you? Because one day, you too will ask these questions.

E. B. Poornima is a writer from the Central Valley of California. In her previous life, she was a scientist and an IP specialist.

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