“Oh c’mon. Your lover. Boyfriend. One night stander. Whatever you two are calling it”, she whispered.
A lot of reality sunk in. My chest felt heavy, filled with smoke, dry and sorrowful. I shut my eyes and smashed my face on the pillow, attempting to sleep for another half an hour or so.
After that, probably around 10, I walked out of my room toothbrush in hand, eyes still closed. Mouth still foul. I heard him the kitchen. He was fumbling around a little bit. Probably looking for material to make tea. Those soft sounds made that heaviness in my chest return. I walked up to the kitchen threshold. He turned to look at me.
After three weeks, we had met again. After our previous one day dalliance. After what four or five years of an on and off unpleasant and yet wildly tumultuous almost one-sided affair. From my one-side. Three weeks ago, he had met me to tell me, he was serious about it all. That was when he was taking off for an assignment and now he was on the way back. He had routed both his to and fro journeys through my city. Suddenly, I was the only woman. That incident, of the telling me so, had made me irreversibly nervous with joy immediately. But sometime after all that joy had reversed.
“I don’t think we have got milk. It was my turn to get the milk, I am sure I forgot”
We didn’t have a fridge, a few months ago the old one went so bad we had to sell it and never got around to buying a new one.
“We don’t have a fridge, we buy everything once in two days, and everything goes bad”
“Let’s go buy a fridge then”
I put the brush in my mouth and half smiled at him.
I pointed to the sugar and tea packets and pulled out the sauce pan from the pile of clean utensils and went back to brushing my teeth.
I turned away from him to shut my eyes and remember what he looked like a moment ago. He was in khakis and a button down shirt. He didn’t wear a sweater or a jacket anything. His sleeves were rolled up to the elbows, I could see his fair hands. The sun shone orange on his chin. Bits of beard stood on his cheeks. There was no goatee. His pants were rather loose. Or maybe they were alright. I needed to assess them again. His feet were flatter than regular people’s feet. His toes almost made him look perched, like a bird. His toe nails were translucent, thick and clear. Unlike mine which always had tiny bits of nail paint stuck on them, weeks sometimes months old. I was wrapped in a shawl. It covered my loose onesie sleeping dress with animal prints, elephants and giraffes and rhinoceroses. I wondered what he must think about that.
I reentered the kitchen after wiping my face dry, with the face towel strung over my shoulders. The tea was boiling by then. I saw him again. He was smiling more now.
“Good morning to you”, he said smirking, as if to ensure that I was totally up.
“To you too”
“I leave at 4:30”
“My flight back is at 4:30, so I would clear your house by 2:30, is what I meant”
“Julie likes you, you can stay longer if you want”
“I like Julie too, decent girl”
“I am sure you two would make each other very happy”
“Yeah and so would her Dubai based fiancé, I should hope”
“Oh, she told you”
“Yes of course, had a nice chat with her in the morning. We talked every day and how come you never told me she’s getting married in three months”
“No, we didn’t talk every day. And I didn’t think you would like to know, too much information.”
“But I would like to know if I am getting married in three... seven months”
My mind felt hollow, the foul smell in my mouth had returned. He focused his eyes on me, while I pretended to strain the tea into the cups. I handed him over his cup, making sure our fingers didn’t touch. I cupped mine, trying to absorb all that warmth into my ice cold fingers.
When he had told me three weeks ago that he wanted us to get married, I had told him I didn’t believe in proposals. They sounded very archaic, very Jane Austen. He had never read Jane Austen, and I was very sure a man like him liked his answers in yeses and nos. Not similes and metaphors. Definitely not quotations of great fiction. Pushed further by my continuing silence back then, he had asked me to think about it. Like seriously consider.
I had tried very hard to cover my shock and awe. My temples were hot, my hands were cold, and my heart was going wild. We were at the coffee shop just outside the airport. I had gone to see him off. Just like he had come to see me off when I had been to his place. It had been a cloudy and dull day. I had taken the day off. My phone was getting inundated with calls from work which I had to take because I was their slave. But now when I wanted the phone to ring, the bloody call never came. He was holding my hands under the table, subtly so that people wouldn’t stare at us. And he asked me again.
I, rattled with my passive aggressive shit, told him he didn’t have a ring. How was that even considered a proposal? Doesn’t he watch romantic comedies? The smile from his face vanished. He was angry now. I had hurt him. He had the upper hand now. The color of his eyes changed, the length of his breaths stretched. His tone changed when he spoke next. This love was a constant power struggle, a tireless battle of egos.
“What kind of ring would you like?” he had asked in a bossy commanding kind of way.
“That’s beside the point.”
He hadn’t even told me that he loved me. All that had felt very weird. I, who with all her conviction knew that I loved him deeply, which was probably a serious infatuation to begin with but had rapidly turned into a serious attraction and then into love in a matter of days. I had been in love with him through days and weeks and months, even when he had vanished from my life, even when he had forgotten me for other things, I had waited for him desperately through all that. That moment I was happy too, despite being terrified and in between I felt so full with that joy, so overwhelmed that I felt I would rupture. But I didn’t know how to behave. I must have emanated very contrasting signals.
“Let’s go and buy a ring now, we can do that”, he said sounding normal, less angry.
“You will miss your flight”
He could have said he didn’t care. I would have loved to go shopping anyway. I have never been with anyone to the airport who had missed a flight. I was very punctual and careful. Never missed a flight bus or train. This could be exciting. In that instant, had he bought me a ring I would have said yes. Back calculating from the posterity we always project ourselves into, I would like to think so. But he had said that the next time he would get me a ring definitely. For sure, without fail.
We had parted that day rather confused, me particularly in sort of a daze. Had he been planning on revealing what he did and asking what he wanted of me, he would have been relieved but I was too perturbed to even answer. My past came rolling back at me.
I had taken the bus back from the airport even though he had insisted on putting me in a cab. It was just afternoon, there was no need to take a cab, it costed thrice as much. It was a long ride in the bus, I had cried amongst strangers who appeared as if they couldn’t see me cry and wipe my tears away and then cry again and repeat.
I imagined him in his flight, quietly reading his thin travel books, not books on travel, but thin books that he bought just because they could be finished within the span of two flights, one book for every journey, half on the onward, and half on the return. I imagined him on his stop over. In strange airports, in new cities, amongst people who looked very alien. Alien air, alien water, longing for the familiarity of home. I imagined him listening to songs. Imitating singers in his soft husky whispering voice, sometimes. And I held myself back from crying. I obviously couldn’t marry him. We had been through a lot of shit. This was just not feasible.
More so because I had found out a lot more than I would like on that visit. He had swiftly converted into a man of clay from a man of dreams. His fissures were only too visible. His flaws real and within reach. His gaunt face within reach to be plundered with my kisses warned me of all the past he had been through. I warned myself to tread lightly, to tread with tremendous caution because he seemed fractious and anything I might attempt may crumble him, just. I was so frozen with restraint, I just sat that and observed him, go on and on.
He held me in his arms, and we had sex a few times but I was so much in stupor that I couldn’t break out of it. He asked me to snap out of whatever it was keeping me but I was clearly rendered unable to. He re-narrated stories from his childhood but somehow the humor from those had vanished. Unlike the first times over phone when he had narrated them and I had laughed and laughed and fallen for him, this time his telling me in person felt charmless, serious. For instance, how once he had mistakenly seen his father conducting an operation on one of his patients had battered him as a child and he couldn’t stop puking. Or how he had driven their new car with his mother to test drive the thing and they had gotten lost, finding their way out after half a day and running out of petrol. I didn’t know why I had been amused earlier but then I couldn’t just see it anymore. It was the shock of reality that went on.
Earlier that day in my room we had opened the bottle of wine he had brought for me, his first gift of any kind and perhaps the last too and we swigged it from paper cups and then when we were very drunk, directly from the bottle. Julie had excused herself for the entire weekend like a conscientious flat mate and we had cooked a meal together or two, before deciding to order food, Chinese, Thai, whatever I had in my whims and fancies. He entertained me, he tried. But somehow he seemed to have a shortfall. Sometimes he failed by thin margins, sometimes by large irrecoverable ones.
Probably I was too much into myself. But then I asked him about Cora, his college girlfriend. We had never brought her into our conversations. She was beyond reach, just like the few boys from my past. But now Cora had risen from the past. And he would have to spill the beans about her. It turned out Cora was not just limited to college and they had continued seeing her for a couple of years after graduating. She was vivacious and pretty, he showed me an old photo of theirs on his phone. They both looked sheepish and sleepy in their sweatshirts, almost like twins because they were both lanky, almost equally. They looked as if they were drunk with love.
“So why did you two put an end to it?”
“It was mostly the working in separate cities that did it, primarily. Also she was really into a new colleague when she had just started working”
“Oh my gosh, were you jealous?” I stressed on my surprise. Because he played as the cool chap all the time. His emotions under his control, firmly. He never broke down, barely even fumbled. But the color of his face changed on the mention of this.
“Not exactly. But she was far too ahead with him to even look back at us and regret”
“Oh you poor baby” I mocked him very sarcastically, because I was quite high.
He forced his mouth on mine and bit my lips hard and wouldn’t stop until I apologized. I was afraid it would leave a mark and I would be embarrassed to step out. But it left no such mark. I had made him sad reminding him of all that. Just to balance the scales I told him about a certain someone in my past as well. Someone I had briefly seen, over half a dozen encounters a few years ago. For a few months wherein I had been temporarily abandoned by my permanent paramour. He laughed and continued working on some more bites I would be embarrassed about in the coming week.
Even with the scales assumed to have been balanced, something didn’t feel right. Upon probing further, it dawned upon me that he met Cora several times when I was even so desperately flirting with him. He justified that he was always looking for some sort of closure with her because she was his first and he always wanted to make sure there was nothing left, not even the slightest, before walking away.
I could have spilled some more truths to balance the scales on that as well. I had engaged in a friendly romance with a friend for a couple of weeks, but not to explore any untaken chances. Only merely to fill the vacuum that newly begotten youth had got me. But I believed this wouldn’t go down well, if I told him about that friend. You never know how territorial men could get. And if he was territorial, or anything of that sort, some secrets were better kept sealed.
“So where is Cora now? Are you guys keeping in touch?” I pinched him again.
“Should I? Do you want me to?” he retorted, sounding authoritative.
“I don’t want to get into your business. But you never know, if you left their some chances unexplored. What if there might be something, I wouldn’t want you to blame me years later saying that ‘Why didn’t you tell me to check with Cora one last time’ and what would I do...”
He cut me off suddenly by asking “So you intend to be with me years later”
“Haven’t I been always there? Except when you have brushed me aside me for women from the past, or other newer hotter women, or work commitments, or family affairs, or your friends, or women from the past, or newer hotter…”
I suddenly realized I was wailing. Very loudly, my throat hurt, how loudly I was crying. He held me on his lap and comforted me by pushing me into a ball but my crying wouldn’t stop. I thought I would free myself from his clasp and run, but there was nowhere to go. I gave in and couldn’t stop crying either.
“I have loved you, always. Always, through my entire fucking life. Since the day I met you. I have loved you”, I heard myself loudly confessing. All the drinking had done the trick. I couldn’t see his face because I was looking away, we were both looking in the same direction, at the walls. “But what have you done to me…”
“It’s okay, it’s gonna be okay, baby”, he whispered and smothered my neck with kisses from behind.
Shortly after I must have fallen asleep. I must have passed out for two hours or more. I could feel the cramps in several parts of my body, I woke up with a jolt and sat cross legged on the bed. I must have scared the fuck out of him. He must be petrified, oh my god.
He was behaving too normally. He looked happy in fact. I had not the slightest idea what had transpired in his head. He looked up from his phone.
“It’s time, I have to call a cab to the airport”
“Is it that late?”
“No, it’s just after 3. You wanna come see me off?”
“Will you pay my return cab fare?”
He smiled and pressed his palm on my forehead. It felt cool, a shiver almost went down my limbs.
“What are we doing!? I will go wash my face and change” I left in a hurry.
I splashed a lot of water on my face, still the heaviness won’t go.
When I came out he must have guessed my situation. “We will get you some coffee at the airport café or something. I am sure the airport must have something nice”, he said sounding irreversibly posh.
“I’m not so sure” I said trying to bail myself out of it.
From inside the cab, the highway to the airport shone in the filtered sunlight from a cloudy sky. The monsoon had not retreated properly. The clouds wore a dirty white color and appeared ominous. It felt as if the rain was waiting.
“I think I left my umbrella at home” I said rummaging through my handbag. He appeared pensive. Almost borderline lost. “What is it?” I asked him.
“What is what?”
“What is wrong with you?” I quickly repeated “What on earth is wrong with you?” I sounded more concerned the second time.
“Nothing is wrong. Although it looks like it’s going to rain. Too bad about that umbrella”
I laughed nervously. Attempting to keep him going in the conversation. But he continued to stare out the window. Had I succeeded in completely alienating him by my nonsensical intoxicated blabber earlier.
“This is not our usual Sunday afternoon traffic. Usually there is more. Much more”
“Oh, is there?”
“Yes I mean the cab barely moves. Also, we are hardly inside the city anymore. This is practically outskirts.”
For a minute there, he retreated and looked at me. In a manner that almost felt condescending. In a way to warn me to keep away with my fake attempts at conversation. To give up trying to trivialize what had happened earlier.
I felt depressed in there. Couldn’t wait for us to reach the airport. I almost nudged the driver on the shoulder to drive faster. I looked up the cafes at the airport on my phone, to be sure that there were no good ones.
“Like I said, no good café at the airport. I think I should just come back ASAP and have my coffee at home. Julie will be back by then. I am sure I can exploit her love for me to make me a good cup that will help me with the hangover. I after all am the broken hearted one, amongst the two of us...” I giggled hopelessly.
This time he looked at me. His eyes were between anger and sympathy. A terrible intermingling of emotions that.
“I just want to retract whatever I said earlier. I do not love you. You wouldn’t have taken me seriously I am sure. These things happen when a girl drinks so much wine”. I was meted out cold silence again.
I rolled down the windows to get in some air, casually warning the driver to turn off the AC. The cool air got into my lungs and breathed back some strength into me. “I am sure, you haven’t taken me seriously.”
I touched him behind his neck, squeezing a bit of his flesh between my fingers and in a way forcing him to look at me. I could feel the dryness in my face, my eyes singed from any lack of focus, my movements still not sober.
He appeared to be deep in thought. As if taking one serious decision after another or weighing something against something else. He looked worried, for the years I had known him to be, the man he is, he appeared worried. His eyebrows squeezed up dividing his forehead into lines. His eyes looked somewhat exhausted. He put his arm around me in the seat of the cab and brought me closer.
“What is alright?”
“No I haven’t taken you seriously at all.”
“Good to know. Now we can get back to indulging in what we are good at”
“And what might that be?”
“You exploring chances with Cora perhaps and I writhing in self-concocted pain of heartbreak” I sank into his arms saying this. I couldn’t believe how loosely I was behaving. It was the alcohol perhaps. I chugged in some water and relapsed into his arms. I smelled his shirt, played with his collar, his buttons. I waltzed into a half sleep.
He woke me up when we drove into the airport. I went inside. He still had a lot of time, he had web checked in and everything. He found a decent coffee shop and none of my naysaying would work on him.
We sat down and shortly before getting up to leave, he asked me the question. Then he left.
But this made me awkward and uncomfortable. Julie told me that it was going to be alright. Obviously she was enormously happy for me, for us both, as she pointed out. But there was something ashen about her expression that made me think deeper and deeper until I lost all track of what I was thinking.
He had called me to let me know that he would return through my city in a few weeks, and on the way back would like to know what I felt. The timeline made me dread. He was calm about the entire goings on. He had come out of his shell for a sometime only, probably in the cab to the airport when he had been stuck in indecision and had expressed worry on his face. But soon after he had said whatever it was he had been weighing for or against, quietly passed the ball to my court and retreated into his shell. Inert, as he always had been to the turmoil of short-lived romance.
But my angst of unrequited love had suddenly and uncontrollably transformed into anger. We might have never made it to this point. Given my chronic shyness, had he been even marginally more ignorant of me, we would have never made it to this point. And at that point I was too stoic to let any other force get the better of me. I loathed how my fates had turned thanks to a sliver of chance. And I regretted it. It was very ironical, but I was going to refuse to him.
Obviously, he might think I was just trying to play hard to get. And if he did try hard, he might eventually get to it. But till then, I was refusing to jump to any conclusions. So I didn’t answer him in the three week interval. He even went out to buy a ring apparently and asked me if there was anything specific I wanted. I didn’t budge in my indifference.
And he’s finally here. In my apartment making tea. Giving me a timeline again by when he would leave.
“Do you want to see the ring? I got it on Tuesday. I would have sent you a photo. But wanted to show in person.”
At that point he held my hands and kissed me. I looked at him in the eyes and told him we could keep the ring for later.
“How was your trip?” I asked.
“Same old, same old. Except that this time I experienced every minute of it what you had been feeling for years”
He sounded honest. Distraught even. Like he had shrunk my years of suffering into a span of three weeks and undergone it all.
“If only such fast forwards were possible!” I said, trying to sound indignant.
“Do you want me to beg?”
“Won’t be such a bad idea. But I wouldn’t recommend it”
We were getting nowhere this way. I took a shower and decided we should get some brunch. Considering it was too early for lunch.
“And you can get moving to the airport from the restaurant”
He looked perplexed and confused because he was trying to hide it. I told myself there is no going back on this. If I was letting him go, this was it. This was what I was supposed to do. Push him away for good.
I kept on going about my banter about films and books and my artsy friends. About places in the city that were a must go to. Probably, he should try them out the next time he is here. He gave me blank expressions that didn’t suit him and made him appear like a completely different person, someone I couldn’t recognize. He spoke in bits about his family. His mother, his brother, their small-town house. We had ordered a lot of food. There was some that I would pack and take for Julie I told him, the rest had to be left at the table. I offered but he paid. We stood out in the shade of the parapet, he had his small trolley with him. We were stranded in mid-September heat.
He appeared weak, vulnerable. A gust of warm wind came and blew my hair astray. He sized my face up in his hands and cupped my cheeks and smiled faintly.
I didn’t stop him. He had accepted my refusal. Together with whatever repercussions it might beget.
“Since I see no point in my staying further, I think, it’s time to hail that cab”
We hugged. I squeezed the flesh behind his neck for a bit and condensed that moment to be a source of warmth for emptier years to come. Then he left and never explored our chance again.