Flash Fiction by Suman Mallick
In her good days, she brims with the optimism that no situation lasts forever, that there is virtue in her misery; during the bad days, that same misery feels banal, it boils her with hubris and despair. There’s her father in a nursing home, with a fractured vertebrae and failing mind; he can’t seem to wrap his head around the fact that his granddaughter looks so different from his daughter, or anyone else in his family for that matter, and he keeps wanting to meet the father. Even I haven’t met the father, Dad, nor the birth mother, she whispers to him, while her daughter sits dutifully on the chair, head buried in a book; Maya is adopted, remember? I told you all this before! But her father remains unconvinced. I guess it’s okay these days to have a child before you’re married, he says aloud, and it’s also okay to date outside your race. There are good people in every race, and I am not the kind of father to make a big deal about it if that’s what you are doing. You are precisely that kind of father, she says to herself.
Maya’s English is steadily improving, the teacher notes. Her assignments are returned with smiley-faces, handwritten notes: good job, keep it up, excellent effort. But that excellent effort has not stopped the teasing. It’s just that she’s so shy, the teacher tells her. And you know how mean kids can be sometimes, especially at this age! But the situation is improving already, and it will keep getting better as she assimilates and communicates more and more, and the kids grow up a bit. And Maya is so sweet, she never complains! That’s because Maya has already seen more than some of these spoiled brats will see in their entire lifetimes, she thinks, but she knows that’s not the appropriate thing to say in these meetings with teachers.
Then there’s her own mother, who, unlike her father, seems to grow younger and healthier by the boyfriend. That woman has been following up twenty years of lost time (the two decades of marriage that it took for her–the daughter of that union–to evolve from nothing but a notion to a fully-functional adult ready to be on her own), with twenty-plus years of living and loving freely. Good careers, good morals: we thought those things would be enough, her mother says to her now; who knew that morals could be so nebulous, that what we thought were right in those days could be so wrong, that what we thought were good, stable careers would turn men into such boring stiffs? Her mother’s current boyfriend–well, each of the men who have inhabited her life since her parents’ divorce, really–is someone that, according to her mother, can tear at a woman like a bear at a honeycomb. It’s true, her mother points out, that you can reach the Lord sooner through rejection than with devotion, and I intend to do just that.
Meanwhile, her ex is trying to barge back into her life. Here’s a man who is yet to find his calling, has never had a supportive boss who has understood his potential, and always spends more than he makes. Naturally he could also use a little help, but doesn’t she understand that if they were together there would have never been the need to adopt, that she could have had children, a husband, stability?
And all that her friends seem to make of all this is that she just needs to keep looking. That there’s someone there for everyone. That it’s just a matter of time. While it seems to her that the most profound answers are revealed only after the questions themselves have become utterly irrelevant.
Parting with Benjamins, politely
I did get your calls, voicemails, and texts,
More than a dozen in all, in less than two days!
After a year of silence,
Hey, what’s up? We should catch up, you said.
But I’ve been expecting all this, you see,
Knowing, that when the other call options expired,
You’d dial me.
Waiting, wetting my lips, to tell you
To fuck off, or go chop a tree.
Note to Self
But that’s just a scalded tongue, hissing,
Forgetting that almost everything, everyone,
Is burning, if not burnt already.
Even you. Even me.
While we still play with matches,
Fight over the few, yet unburnt patches.
What then, really, is to be said of trifles like ours,
That hasn’t already been said?
Take this, but know,
That this is neither a gift of love nor of sympathy,
Just a drop of leaded alloy to bind human fragility,
Soldered to this parting wish:
That someday you’ll mend the breaks in your bone,
Find some semblance of peace,
And a spirit to call your own.
The girl bakes a box of brownies. She buys her an apron and a chef hat, a stash of cookbooks. The girl makes a rubber bracelet. She buys her boxes of beads, jewelry cord and thread, glue and adhesives. The girl paints a picture. She buys her an easel, art paper and boards, oil paint, watercolor paint, palettes and brushes. The girl writes a poem. She buys her Moleskin. The girl writes a story. She buys her more Moleskin. All these things that she buys for her daughter eventually end up in drawers, closets, the pantry.
The girl comes home excited from a birthday party. Her friend has a pool. Mom, can we get a pool, the girl asks.
No, she replies. But I can enroll you in swimming lessons if you want.
She falls in lust with her daughter’s swimming instructor. The young man is on the local university’s swim team. He is nineteen, twenty at most: half her age. Practically a boy, but with the body of a god.
But she’s only ever wanted to be the counterpoint to her mother’s point. The humiliations–private, public, imagined, real–of her mother’s colorful love life have permanently stained her own life like the slimy, silvery slick of a crude oil leak. Debauchery she is determined to keep at a far remove. She’ll never be like her mother.
That’s what she tells herself.
But the older she gets, the raunchier become her longings. She’s only ever wanted the part of lust that is tenderness; now she discovers the other part that is a devilish will. The deep intimacy and connection, the nights of undying stars spread out like peacocks’ tails: the stuff of dreams that always seemed to elude her in real life but clouded her visions while she fell asleep clutching the pillow, are replaced by fantasies of mindless fucking with men that she runs into while just living her single-mom life; at the store, during walks to pick up lunch, at swim meets.
She never acts on those impulses, never even flirts with those men. Instead, she absconds from those situations, turning and rushing away as if to avoid drowning in a sudden depth of cold water. A decision is valid only because it is possible to make it invalid by losing control, not because it’s easy. Only the form we forge for ourselves with our will is truly ours without question. But each passing night shakes and rattles that will some more, makes it a little more demonic. And each morning she wakes up, wanting a little more than she did the morning before, to stand exposed in the naked quick of life.
Suman Mallick’s debut novel “The Black-Marketer’s Daughter” was a finalist for the Disquiet Open Borders Book Prize, and published in October, 2020. Suman’s other work may be found on The Bombay Review, The Gravity Of The Thing, Cleaver Magazine, and Propeller Magazine. Previously, Suman served as the Assistant Managing Editor of Under the Gum Tree, a quarterly literary magazine. He received his Master of Fine Arts from Portland State University, where he also taught English and Creative Writing. Suman makes his home in Texas with his beloved daughter and dog.
Flash Boulevard is edited by Francine Witte. Banner photograph Wes Candela