An Engineer in the Army

Every word was linked with a long and heavy pause. His chest was a mountain collapsing into deep sighs, his eyes tumbling down to his hands. The hands, though, were calm like tree trunks that listened to the conversation silently. I’ve remembered these hands calloused and wrinkled since I was small. Every night before bed, he would hold mine in his and squeeze them tight. He would pull off his golden ring, make it disappear, and find it again behind my ear. My grandfather sat with me in the living room of my mother’s childhood home. It was a safe place. It was a place where memories slept in each cupboard. My grandparent’s guest room was where old photo albums, birth certificates, and wedding photos took refuge, all of them collecting dust in the drawers of a large dresser that sat near the window. Photographs of my mother in high school were my favorite thing to find because I liked to think that her younger self and I would be friends. 

That day, the air was thick and uncomfortable to sit in. It flooded into the dusty floorboards and empty spots in the bookcase of Urdu poems. It nestled between the framed portraits of my grandparents and cricket trophies. It swam between the two of us sitting on the couch. 

Evenings in India are like a cup of tea, hot, mundane, and reliable. Everyone comes home at two to escape the hottest time of the day. My grandfather came home from work that night in his brown leather shoes, grey trousers, and blue shirt tucked into his pants. With sweat collected on his forehead, he entered the house and went straight to the kitchen to greet his wife. Then, he walked over to the couch seeing me patiently sitting. I received the routine laughing bearhug, cheek pinch, and repeated bearhug. 

My grandfather, who I call Nana, is the only man I know who carries around an orange just so he can enjoy the smell of it. Nana can do a headstand against his bookcase for 45 seconds. Every evening, he insists on his daily walk around the park even when the pollution outside is so bad, people are advised to stay indoors and wear face masks for protection. 

Nana shifted his hands in his lap. He swiped them across the tattered couch as if petting a small animal. The clinking of plates in the kitchen and street dogs barking outside were the only sounds around. The afternoon sun poured into the room, and the light hit his delicate metal frames. I’ve only ever seen him with these loose metal glasses, which were too large for his face. Every morning I was in India, he would hand them to me to clean with my shirt. He would put them back on and thank me for allowing him to see my beautiful face. My Grandfather interlocked his hands, shifted his jaw a few times, and spoke. 

What he said made me feel panic. The feeling started in my throat and raced to my cheeks to paint them red. It continued upward and crushed the sides of my eyes like aluminum. My palms birthed a numbing sensation that grew to the rest of my arms and shoulders. At that moment, his words ricocheted in my head, unable to sit still or make any sense. I felt heavy and hopeless, and soon everything he said became muffled by my own anxiety. I did not intend on crying in front of him. I swallowed my fear and listened silently. 

He spoke slowly. Manic-Bipolar Depression was common among those who served, he explained. Nana was an engineer in the army– a good one too. He always said, the collateral damage was his calloused hands, but I thought they gave him character.  

His eyes were glued to my fingers, which at this point were crushing each other in a pulsing rhythm. He shifted his glance towards the kitchen where his wife was as if he was hoping this would somehow signal that he needed her help. She did not see this signal.

My head hung low after my grandfather finished speaking. I could feel his eyes on me. He sighed and got up to go to the kitchen. My grandfather came back into the room moments later and sat down cross-legged on the floor in front of me. He lifted my chin up, gave me a cup of tea, and started to peel an orange. 

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