by Sudha Balagopal
IGNORE YOUR THUDDING pulse when you spy your ex by the airport counter. Flick your gaze away, tighten the hold on your handbag’s strap. Turn when he taps your shoulder, say, ‘Oh, hi!’ and keep your tone casual. Notice the deep lines on either side of his mouth―you used to call them his parentheses. When he extends his arms, give him a no-torso-contact hug.
Ask if he’s been well, don’t wait for his reply. Remark on the crowded airport; chatter about the limited number of open counters. Express shock at the amount of luggage people carry. Don’t ask what he’s doing at the airport; don’t ask where he’s going.
Don’t look him in the eye. Remove your cardigan and pack the clothing into your check-in suitcase. Fetch the airline’s address-tag from the counter. Fish for a pen in your handbag, scrawl your name and phone number with a shaky hand, affix the label.
Pretend not to notice when he pulls his sweater off, slings the garment over his shoulder. Pretend you didn’t catch a glimpse of his sculpted abs. Don’t wonder if he’s been working out. Clench your teeth when he walks up to the counter with you. Bite your lip because your check-in is too heavy―it’s the darned samples for the trade fair―and you must now rearrange your bags.
Say, ‘No, thank you,’ when he offers to carry your hand luggage through Security, although the carry-on is now heavy. Lift the unwieldy baggage on to the conveyor belt. Remember all the times he would drop you off curbside, sit in the car, watch you heave your bags out of the trunk, then drive off with a perfunctory wave.
Inform him there should be no flight delays, the weather’s great, then pivot towards your gate to indicate an end to the conversation. Huff when they announce an hour’s delay due to a technical malfunction. Bite off a hangnail when you realize his gate is adjacent to yours.
Scurry around for an empty seat, brush the back of your hand against your forehead when you don’t see one. Purse your lips when he suggests the eatery nearby. Hasty-release your fingers to avoid an accidental brush as he reaches for your carry-on. Berate yourself for noticing he doesn’t wear a wedding ring, for wanting to ask, ‘What happened to her?’ Narrow your eyes when he stirs two sugars into your coffee (this, he remembers?). Sip your scalding coffee when he asks about your husband, sip twice more to buy time. Say, ‘He’s great,’ and stop.
Notice the four little gray hairs on his thick brows; still refuse to look him in the eye. Remember you found the first straggly gray; remember you offered to tweeze it out. Ignore the knock of your knees against his under the table, ignore his elbows resting on the narrow table, an inch away from yours. Remember the dates he canceled, the birthdays he missed, the trips he didn’t have time for because they needed him at the hospital. Remember the nurse, the green-eyed, curvy nurse. Don’t tell him about the crumb of blueberry muffin on his chin.
Finish the coffee, say you must use the restroom. Leave your suitcase when he offers to watch the bag for you. Drink deep from the water fountain, wipe your mouth on the arm of your shirt, drink again because your throat feels arid, crackly. Go back to the table, retrieve your boarding pass from the handbag. Say, ‘Is it freezing, or is it my imagination?’ Lift your shoulders when he says, ‘You made a mistake checking in your cardigan.’ Remember he shifted the blame for everything on you. Remember you asked, more than once, ‘Can you empathize at all, or say you understand? Can you support instead of rubbing in my slip-ups?’
Straighten your spine when he walks over and drapes his sweater over your shoulders. Say, ‘I don’t need this.’ Lift your eyebrows when he insists, ‘I won’t miss it. It’s old.’
Listen to the boarding announcement. Shake your head when he asks if you need something from the newsstand. ‘Maybe granola bars, some chewing gum, or a magazine?’ Remember you packed snacks into his carry-on bag when he traveled for conferences, food that returned unopened.
Shift your handbag from shoulder to shoulder. Freeze when he steps forward to give you a hug. Feel his arms draw you closer, tighter. Don’t say anything. Ease yourself off. Enter the jetway, raise your hand, wave goodbye. Don’t look back. Settle into your seat with his sweater. Observe he hasn’t changed his cologne. Remember you disliked the musky fragrance.
Sudha Balagopal is honored to have her writing in many fine journals including CRAFT, Split Lip and Smokelong Quarterly. Her novella-in-flash, Things I Can’t Tell Amma, was published by Ad Hoc Fiction in 2021. She has stories included in both Best Microfiction and Best Small Fictions, 2022. Find her on Twitter @authorsudha.