Your Every Breath
– Fiction by Erika Seshadri –
Second Place Winner of the 2022 Dreamers Flash Fiction Contest
It’s my greatest hope that you are happy and well. I trust your father has followed my instructions, and you are reading this on your sixteenth birthday. I know I say this every year, but the day you were born was the happiest time of my life.
Undoubtedly, you’ve grown into a beautiful young woman and men are starting to take notice. I hope with this writing, I can convey how important it is to find someone as worthy of your heart as your father was of mine.
In the summer of 1976—at the age of twelve—I started helping my parents run their bidi stall. At that time, it was situated in central Bangalore, flanked on the north by a sari shop and to the south by a chai wala. My job was to separate the bundles of tobacco and prepare the leaves for rolling.
One morning, I was crouching on a cardboard mat in the alleyway behind the stall. I’d been picking apart leaves when a voice whined, “That stinks.”
I looked to see a scrawny boy about my age, brow furrowed in distaste.
“Smells worse when it’s on fire,” I replied. “I’m Sumitra. What’s your name?”
“Sanjay,” he said.
I stood up to brush myself off for a proper greeting. He took one look at my nicotine-stained fingers and returned to learn the business of making chai.
We avoided each other after that. He didn’t like the smell of tobacco that lingered on me. I disapproved of his lack of manners. However, since our parents had become close ove the years, keeping shop next to each other, they encouraged us to become friends. I refused—until one day, my mother brought a checkerboard and chess pieces from home.
“Sumitra,” she said. “Why don’t you challenge Sanjay to a game? Show him how smart you are.” She winked. It was a temptation I couldn’t resist.
As it turned out, Sanjay didn’t know how to play chess. So, every day during lunch, we sat in front of the tobacco stall at a tiny table, and I taught him. As to be expected in the beginning, he never won. However, by the end of summer, he was almost good. When it came time to return to school, I gifted the game to him and told him to keep practicing.
Sanjay went off to boarding school in Mysore. I longed for summer so I could see my friend again. Sadly, the opportunity never came. In springtime, my parents decided to send me to care for my ailing grandmother in Madras.
“Why can’t she come to Bangalore?” I asked my father.
“Because, Neeta, she is stubborn and won’t acknowledge she needs help. We’ve told her you’re simply having an extended visit.”
I was miserable in Madras, and in the cloud of my depression,
I had an accident in the kitchen. With burns to my left hand and cheek, my parents feared the scars meant I’d never find a husband. But I didn’t care about that. I just wanted to go home. My mother visited often, but didn’t take me back until three years later when my grandmother passed away.
That first blistering summer day back in Bangalore, I walked with my father to the bidi stall. Standing out front on the sidewalk, he confessed something. “Sanjay never stopped asking about you during his summers here. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, but I thought it would only make things harder for you in Madras.”
I expected to feel something with his words, yet there was nothing. Over the past three years I’d been numbed by time. Numbed by scars. Numbed by watching someone I loved slowly die.
My father opened shop in silence, and I eyed the tiny table, marveling how everything looked the same. Like I’d only been gone a day.
I was hanging tobacco packets when a young man approached me. His familiar lopsided smile struck me directly in the heart, all but dropping me to my knees. The worn checkerboard was tucked safely under his arm.
“How did you know I’d be here?” I stuttered, subconsciously fingering the burn on my cheek. He glanced at my scar, yet his joy in seeing me didn’t waver.
“Your dad told me.” He set the game board on the table and pulled the bag of pieces out of his rucksack. “But I’ve been bringing these with me every day since you left… Just in case,” his voice cracked.
I never forgot the look he gave me at that moment. Like he would have gladly carried that game around with him for the rest of his life, waiting for my return. In those days, it was taboo to show public displays of affection, but I threw my arms around him and held tight until my father pulled me away.
Sanjay and I continued our daily chess games under the watchful eye of our parents, taking long pauses between moves to smile at each other and imagine a future together. He’d bump my hand gently while moving a rook, or whisper something sweet to me before calling checkmate.
Yet there were no secrets. Everyone around us could see we were quietly learning about love among the earthy, spiced aromas of chai and tobacco.
We were destined to marry young. In doing so, your father and I had five wonderful years together—and a beautiful baby—
before I fell sick. He was by my side for every bit of darkness, all the while helping me care for you. So you see, Neeta, he is the man against which all suitors should be measured. I take great comfort in knowing you have each other.
Sweet daughter, my love for you is still alive in your every breath. There is no need to miss me. I am always with you.
Erika Seshadri lives on an animal rescue ranch in Florida with her family. When not caring for tame critters or feral children, she can be found writing. Follow her on Twitter: @ErikaSeshadri.
Did you like this story by Erika Seshadri? Then you might also like:
Someone to Watch My Back
Pieces of You
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