Hema Nataraju: Make Your Own Sandwiches

All I wanted was a sandwich.

I asked Ma to make one and now, by some twisted mom-magic, she has me standing in front of the okra bin at the Indian grocery store. I don’t remember eating a sandwich. I also don’t remember driving her here.

‘Leela!’ She pokes my arm. ‘Pick the long, slim ones, not the lumpy ones! Quick!’

Two more women are at the okra bin now. One on either side of me. We shoot stabbing death stares at each other, like race-car drivers sizing up the competition.

Right makes the first move. She sifts through the okra pile using her palm as a shovel. She picks an okra, pulls down on its tip with her thumb. If it snaps, it goes into her bag. She throws the rejects aside. Left does the same. Right slowly encroaches on my part of the okra bin, pushing me to the side. Left pushes me back to my original position. I hold on for dear life in the tiny space between them.

This is war.

A balding man is behind us, desperate for an opening. His wife goads him to get into the trenches and fight for the good okras. ‘Be a Man!’ she growls with her eyes.

He tries to enter from the far right, stretching his hand over the spinach bin. Right glares at him with an irritated ‘tsk’–shoo, pesky fly. Balding-Man clutches his cloth bag and retreats. From the masala aisle, his wife frowns.

I feel a kinship with this man. I must fight now for him, for all those oppressed who end up here, only for wanting a sandwich. Planting my feet firmly on the floor, I let out a chilling war cry (in my head), reach deep into the okra bin with both hands, and shovel. My palms are covered in slime. Behind us, a tourist couple takes pictures of ‘exotic’ vegetables and people. They have no idea.

Right and Left close in. They hurl missiles of lumpy okras in my direction rat-a-tat-a-tat, but I keep shoveling and picking. Deflect! Deflect!

The tourists try to get a closer look at the vegetable bins, but Balding-Man throws himself between us and them. His bravery moves me to tears. I start decapitating okras at superhuman speed. Snap! Snap! Snap! I reach the finish line seconds before Right and Left.

Breathing heavily, I admire my okra bag. ‘It’s been an honor,’ I say to Right and Left. They shoot me weird looks and walk away. Balding-Man finally takes his spot at the bin. His wife elbows him.

‘Let me do it. You’re useless,’ she barks.

I pretend I’m dizzy and grab the wife’s arm for support with my slimy palm.

‘Are you okay?’ she asks, but she really means ‘Eww!’

‘Yes, I’m just…’ I mutter and hold onto her other arm, so the slime gets on there too.

Winner-winner-chicken-dinner! But I’m making it this time.

Hema Nataraju is a flash-fiction writer based in Singapore. Her work has appeared, or will be coming soon, in Atlas & Alice, Mac(ro)Mic, Ellipsis Zine, Moria Online, Spelk Fiction, Sunlight Press, and in print anthologies including Bath Flash Fiction 2020, Best MicroFiction 2020, and National Flash Fiction Day. She tweets about her writing and parenting adventures as m_ixedbag.