Life Times Nine
by Sudha Balagopal
The age you yank the hair ties off my pigtails. I slap you, and you stand there, fists curled, screaming that your mom said never to hit a girl. At lunch, I relent, offer you a bite of my chocolate cake, and ask why you have nine fingers. Also, the age I understand the pinky finger of your left hand is fused to your ring finger.
The age you ask me to prom and I go buoyant, like the hot air balloons we watch from your backyard. The pin hidden in my satin-ribboned corsage of baby pink roses pierces your fused finger, and I stanch the blood with a napkin. When I ask if doctors recommend surgery to separate the fingers―it would be impossible to wear a ring when you get married―you burrow the hand inside your pocket. Also, the age we split up. You tell me our colleges are separated by 999 miles and we should date other people. I hate you.
The age I marry my spouse, return to our hometown to care for ailing parents and move into a house a street away from you―by accident, not design. When I see you while walking the dog, I shush my heart for cheat-fluttering yet raise an arm in a tentative gesture. You grin, relay an arcing wave back. Also, the age I run into you at a city council meeting to advocate for a dog park, and I must scoot over to accommodate the crowd until I feel your body's oh-so-familiar warmth.
The age I get a divorce, because my ex-husband's mother didn't teach him he should never hit a woman, and I fumble-flounder to glue the pieces he broke. I discover you're my nine-year-old's homeroom teacher, tell you he struggles with multiplication. Also, the age I observe your ten fingers and the broad gold band. I want to ask if the surgeon sliced through bone, whether the pinky finger has autonomy, whether it can exist independently, whether separation hurts.
The age my teen invites yours to prom and I pull out my memory box. The withered flowers on the corsage you once placed on my wrist are gossamer delicate, the satin ribbon spotted with your rust-colored DNA. You give my son a stern lecture and instructions: no drinking, no drugs, no hanky-panky, drop off by 1:00 A.M. Also, the age I want to ask if you cannot recall the chemistry of our incandescent emotions, the intramolecular forces in our hungry kisses. Maybe you do.
The age you take early retirement to open a neighborhood coffee shop. As I place the order on that first day, you say school administration is best left to someone younger. I begin my love affair with the espresso I must have every day at your cafe, where you're never without a towel draped on one shoulder, the apron around your middle, or five minutes to sit with me. Also, the age I notice the missing gold band from your ring finger.
The age a kitchen fire engulfs your cafe, and you battle both insurance and contractors while three other cafes have sprouted within a mile. They offer fancy lattes, drinks with clever names, and free Wi-Fi. Also, the age you decide to sell your place, leaving me wracked with caffeine withdrawal and a craving for you that no upstart cafe can soothe.
The age I see you shuffle, a cane in your right hand, in the same park where we walked our dogs. I ask how you're doing. When you take umbrage―rising tall to negate the stoop in your spine―and vehemently declare everything's just fine, I tell you that warms my otherwise discontented heart. Although I'm physically okay, I yearn for my children to remember my birthday, to have my grandchildren call so I can hear their voices. Also, the age you reach out your hand and I take it, four of your fingers hugging mine. The pinky finger hangs listless.
The age I read in the obits that you've passed, and I feel like a portion of my life is getting sectioned off. When I learn you'd asked to be cremated, an aloneness sweeps into my aging cells―what remains of you will be ash. At the viewing, I memorize and embed details: perfect waxy face, hair combed and stuck to your skull, lips arranged in an uptilt. Also, the age I lean over to caress your crossed arms, notice the left hand on top. I lift the arm, tuck the hand inside your pocket.
We all have that particular someone who enters our lives, then leaves, only to return and depart yet again―a relationship that hovers between the significant and not-significant-enough, between old acquaintance and what might have been.
Sudha Balagopal's short fiction appears in Smokelong Quarterly, Split Lip Magazine, Pidgeonholes, and Milk Candy Review, among other journals. She is the author of a novel, A New Dawn. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best Small Fictions, and Best Microfiction and is listed in the Wigleaf Top 50.