Hello, Elaine

    Again, you hear a rip as the strawberry splatters spangle your scratchy sweater.
Again, you have fallen. Your knobbly knees tremble as you scoop up with both arms
the mangled paper shopping bag full of fruity wreckage.
    You must look like such a fool, you admonish yourself, as you use the Nissan
beside you to help yourself up. You should have asked Elaine for help.
    It feels like a trek across continents towards the distant sculpture of metal and
mineral you call your car. No, no, you shouldn’t have asked Elaine. Elaine would just
tell you that you were such a poor thing, so frail, not even able to walk across the
supermarket parking lot. Elaine hasn’t seen you before you grew into a senile stick
figure, when you were strong and providing and gracious. Elaine only sees this
shriveled husk of a man, her husband’s father who still acts like a child, who doesn’t
go outside except to buy his precious strawberries. This weak old hermit, so
distracted by reminiscence that he floats adrift from the world around him, so
isolated in his memories that his reality has slipped away into a fallacious fantasy of
‘the way things used to be’.

    There must be a better way. Some shortcut, maybe? One where you cut straight
through this inane, twisting parking lot of age? It had seemed so easy to get in,
burdenless and unaware of the choices that awaited you later. All of a sudden, so
many possibilities arose, paralyzing you with fear. Potatoes? Corn? If you had
chosen two cans of broth instead of three, bananas to replace apples, maybe the
baggage you now carry with you would not weaken you so, maybe your steps would
be spry and lively and youthful.
    Elaine will be worried, you know. Elaine is always worried about something,
cooing to you, taking off your sweaters, ruining your cooking with her ‘healthy’
cinches and hacks, confiscating everything that makes you feel strong and providing
and gracious so she can feel like the hero. But she is no hero. Why did Samuel
even let this smarmy wife into his life? You can take care of yourself without that
Saran-Wrap of a daughter-in-law, all sticky and cling-like, wrapping herself around
you, choking you, until you have no choice but to cry for help…
    The ground. It’s getting closer, and your wrinkly, loose hand is shooting out to
guard against it, but all it’s doing is pushing away the inevitable, for your cheek is
brushing against the pavement and memories from years and years ago are leaking
into your sight and warping the image of the fading blue sky. Your vision buzzes and
blurs and finally draws closed as you writhe on the asphalt.

    You gulp in a hasty breath of air as the world falls in before you.
    You see yourself, a young ragamuffin grinning gleefully as you cling onto your
father’s burly frame, his smile weathered from years of hardship and terror in the
military, fighting bravely and nobly, but with an insurmountable cost of trauma. You
look at his face, begging him to come back from the twisted, endlessly hopeless
place he had retreated towards during the war, to stay with you a little longer. You
try to reach out to him, but as your hand drifts toward him you feel an aching,
sorrowful pain and his face melts into yours, your face scowling in disgust as a lanky
young man, Samuel, smiles, just a bit of bittersweet in his eyes, at a faceless woman
in white from whom you recoil in disgust. Elaine. You know when this is-- Samuel’s
wedding day. The thought vibrates in your skull like a gong as you register. His
wedding day. The day when he had almost everything he wanted. The day that
should have been so happy, that was so happy. So happy, apart from the fact that
you didn’t show up.

    Your eyes flutter open, and hover at the hospital ceiling as you breathe in the
scene surrounding you. A tranquil light is streaming through a twisted windowshade,
its glares illuminating a slice of your rumpled bedding, and you thrust yourself
backwards, squeezing your eyes into tight slits. The sheets smell tart and like
chlorine, but you sigh in relief, for the scent is better than the lavender Febreze in
whose musk Elaine blankets your room, as she insists the aroma is ‘rejuvenating’.
You clear your throat of the mucus and uncertainty your befuddling visions brought
you, and suddenly, in the silence that follows, you hear a faint, hushed voice in the
hall, accompanied by the click of shoe soles.

    “...at least he’s not concussed…”
    The voice, shaky yet reassuring, sounds muffled by your chilled pillowcase, yet it
seems to get louder. You perceive the soft tones as your son.
    “He shouldn't have been out there in the first place! He said he'd call so I knew
where he was …  I should have been more careful.”
    “You shouldn't worry so much, Elaine. He's… ”
    “Why did he fall, then? We need to support him, to keep him safe! He needs
help, Sam!”
    “Yeah, and he doesn’t want yours!”
    “Is that my fault? I care about him, I-I’m being so kind to him! I was in the lot when
he fell, I called the ambulance for him! You grew up with him, Sam! Why can’t you
give him what I’m giving him?”
    Samuel’s voice has a frustration driving it that you never heard in him when he
was growing up as he growls, “Why can’t you just back off? That’s the problem with
you, you don’t take no for an answer! He’s okay the way he is! He loved his life
before you came along! Can’t you see that he doesn’t want your help--”
    Elaine’s voice is slowly unraveling from anger into a mess of confused
desperation.
    Well--well--”
    “What?”
    There’s a resounding silence between the two, and you can hear your heart
beating with trepidation. You have heard their worried musings before, but never in
this way. The two are getting very close to your room.
    “My father didn’t get to grow old like he has.”
    Elaine takes a shaky breath, almost in rhythm with yours. Your head buzzes with
emotion as all of Elaine’s story comes together.
    “He…” her voice catches, as if grabbing onto a memory. “My father passed away
when I was seven. He was thirty-three. Too young to die… I barely even knew him.
He barely even knew himself. He didn’t get to make all the decisions your dad got. It’
s like… like he didn’t even make it into the supermarket while Richard is all the way
out.”
    “Elaine, I… I didn’t… I’m… ”
    “Look, when I help him… it’s like helping my dad all over again. It’s like seeing a
little glimpse of what my dad might have been if he hadn’t… he hadn’t… I just don’t
want to lose him.”
    Maybe Elaine means her father, or maybe she means you. Maybe it doesn’t
matter. You realize tears are running down your cheeks.
    “I can’t let him refuse my help. I had to let go of my dad once. I let my dad go. I
didn’t even know him and I let him go. I’m not making that mistake again. I’m not
letting Richard go.”
    The two are in your room now, bathed in light, and Elaine’s sobbing breaths are
swaddled by Samuel’s knowing embrace. You hear his soft whispers, though you
can’t understand them.
    Slowly, you let your eyes drift open, and you see your son. Your son, whom you
abandoned on his happiest day, to whom you didn't give enough even when he
needed it most. And you look at Elaine. For the first time you really look at her. She's
not just a Saran Wrap lady, or your son's corruptor. You look at her and you see a
bit of yourself, a child who let go of their parent unknowingly, still reaching out for
their hand though their father has long passed on. You don't see your bitterness or
misery, not yet. You don't ever want to see that in Elaine. She is trying, really trying,
and maybe she needs you just as you need her. Yes, you need her. Who would
have panicked and called the ambulance when you fell? Who makes sure to know
where you are at all times? Who drives you to and from the supermarket for your
groceries? Who cares about you so deeply she sees you as a father? Who will
never let go?
    Elaine looks at you, a glimmer of sadness pushing behind her eyes like a
wounded animal. You look at her and you see a daughter. And for the first time in a
long time, you smile at Elaine.
    “Hello, Elaine,” you say.

/end
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