Flash Fiction: Just Numbers by Eleonora Balsano


  1. Stalls, third row. You’ve never been so close to the stage and in such company. Your aunt and her artist friends clad in moth-eaten sheepskins and smart opinions. You borrowed your mother’s apple-green coat (shoulder pads, gold buttons) because your navy anorak felt inappropriate but now you feel inappropriate, clumsy, unfinished. If someone asks, you’ll say you’re eighteen.
  1. The Scandinavians invite you for a cider fest. They say there are apples involved, and everyone knows apples are good. You go to the tourist center, shamelessly lie about your age, ask for a student ID, present it to the liquor shop. That night at the meadows you learn what tolerance to alcohol is. You have none.
  1. You watch Casablanca and crave powerful, everlasting, cursed love. Someone to sweep you off your feet, whatever that means. A man instead of the boys you’ve been hanging out with at college. When you meet one, hair greying on his temples, you say you’re twenty-four. It feels like a more respectable age.
  1. Two frown lines have appeared on your forehead. Random men met at parties whisper in your ear that thirty is when women peak but you don’t take it as a compliment, because what happens then at thirty-one? Are you supposed to turn into a pumpkin? You will be twenty-nine a bit longer.
  1. You drive a family car constantly littered with toys and half-eaten biscuits and dog hair. There’s nothing attractive about you or your life. Tennis coaches and boy scout leaders straighten their back when you address them and call you Ma’am. Yes Ma’am. Of course, Ma’am. All this deference freaks you out. If they ask, you’ll say you’re thirty. Maybe they know about the peak too.
  1. You’ve discovered face yoga. Those frown lines are still there but at least they haven’t gotten worse. You join the gym, sign up to the Goop newsletter. Gwyneth sells ridiculously expensive vitamins to stay young. You sign up to that too, and for a few months your pee glows in the dark. If a good-looking guy asks, you’ll say you’re thirty-eight.
  1. Botox has relieved you of your frown lines, but new ones have appeared almost everywhere. Some days you can’t remember simple words and little things make you go ballistic. A jar left out of the fridge, a faulty appliance, your children leaving mud marks on the floor. The doctor says medication could save your marriage. You worry about putting on weight on Prozac. Losing your husband because of your anger fits vs. keeping your husband and developing a donut around your waist. It’s a catch-22. At the pharmacy, you say you’re forty-six. Ten years ago it was the age that you deemed old.
  1. Your children give you a week at a Spa in South Tirol for Christmas. It’s fresh air, long walks and delicious, buttery desserts. Everyone there is old. We’re old too, says your husband. But no, you aren’t old like other people. You’re still fifty, fifty-one maybe.
  1. Your husband drops dead while brushing his teeth. When the paramedics arrive—massive stroke—all you can see is the rivulet of toothpaste on his chin. Two hours later, the undertaker pats it clean with a sponge, dresses him in a grey suit and a blue tie, crosses his arms on his chest. You look at him, fixating on his ears enlarged by time, his huge forehead (when did it become this large?), his thin fingers. Damn, Fred! You think, hating him for going like that, without notice.
  1. There’s a man you see every day when you pick up your granddaughter from kindergarten. He has a grandson. One afternoon, he invites you for coffee and for a while you feel twenty-five. When he asks you to move in together, you realize that no, you’ve already done that and you’re past the age of sacrificing your freedom on the altar of love. He doesn’t understand, you tell your daughter you need some time off from your grandmother duties.
  1. Everything’s falling apart. The knee you broke when you were forty and felt old, the ankle you sprained ten years ago. Nothing works, inside or out. You changed your car anyway, despite your daughter hinting at an unnecessary expense for someone who might be dead soon. She didn’t mention death, of course, you raised her nice and polite. Still, that’s what she was thinking. You said to the car dealer you were seventy-five and he didn’t react like it was any different from eighty-one. Insurance was just as expensive.
  1. Two years ago your family threw a huge party, with candles and balloons. Now they visit you less often and you wonder if they aren’t a bit disappointed that you’re still around, with your wobbly knees and your frail hands. They’d like to get the beach hut, you know that. They are now all in their fifties and you wonder what they say when people ask about their age.
  1. Last month the children have put you in an assisted living facility. They insisted on your safety, pretended they had studied the market for months in order to pick the best option. You have a bedroom for yourself, with an en-suite bathroom. A nurse checks on you twice a day, brings in your meds, pats you on the back like you’re a Panda in a sanctuary. You pin on the wall above your laminated desk a faded picture of you as a teenager, in an old lady’s apple green coat, almost drowning in a large velvet theatre chair. I was fourteen, you said to the nurse, and she gasps. You were beautiful! She blurts and you feel for her, because she thinks there is no beauty left in age. Just like you used to.

Eleonora Balsano (she/her) is an Italian-born, polyglot writer based in Brussels, E. U.  Her short fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Fictive Dream, Reflex Fiction, Janus Literary, Micro Podcast  and elsewhere. In 2021 she was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. Eleonora is working on a dystopian novel. Tweets @norami. Website: eleonorabalsano.net 

One response to “Flash Fiction: Just Numbers by Eleonora Balsano

  1. Pingback: Just Numbers by Eleonora Balsano – Maryam Shadmehr·

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