They were playing my favourite number: “Sweet Caroline.” The mellifluous song however did little to pep me up.
‘So where do we go from here?’ Shekhar asked, trying to meet me in the eye.
The same smiling brown eyes, I had come to love so much were listless today. The Song was his favourite too but he was oblivious to it.
‘We…good question. I really have no clue. I guess we will find out..,’ I left it at that, not meeting him in the eye. Instead focused my eyes on the buttons of his stiffened – with – starch, formal shirt and tried to concentrate on the song which was about to end.
For once his blackberry was out of sight and so was his iPad. How nice it felt to see him without his irritating gadgets. He must have left them in the car. I thought distractedly.
‘You are late again!’ I complained mildly as he kept looking at me.
Even after so long when he looked at me with those intense eyes, I felt butterflies in my stomach. The lines he had scribbled long ago, on a paper napkin for a jingle I was working on, in this very place and had made me read aloud suddenly flashed in front of my eyes:
I see you even in - between my sleep states when I am not dreaming about you..., said the misty eyed lover boy.
He took my cold hands into his large warm ones, breaking my reverie and said, ‘well, not that I wanted to. The parking lot was full. I had to park the car outside the market and walk back,’ he ended giving me one of his dimpled smiles. One of those melancholic ones that tugs at your heart. Or maybe I was being over -sensitive.
Despite myself I smiled at him. He was the best thing to have ever happened to me.
‘Cuppucino and some Cheese – on - toast, Shruti?’ He asked breaking the magical moment.
My eyes followed his tall and handsome frame as he went and stood in the queue to place our orders.
Our favourite place was cheerfully noisy as usual. It was a Friday evening after all. The most sought hour of the day to catch up with one’s friends or colleagues over a mug of hot steaming coffee and an array of delectable snacks. The uppity market place was a little far off from our respective offices. But both of us preferred to meet here. The reason was purely a sentimental one.
This was the place where we had met first. Three years ago. This was the place where we always met after that first meeting.
How vividly I remember that foggy winter evening. Just like today the temperature outside was freezing cold. But despite the chilly weather, the entire city was either out shopping or taking a coffee break. I belonged to the later group. I had stopped by after work to have my regular – cappuccino, brewed extra strong.
It was while I was waiting for my order; I had caught sight of him sitting on a sofa opposite me. Frankly, I had not been too excited to see him for the second time that day. After all, he was a stranger. A client whom I had met only that morning at my office for work. A demanding client who was bringing in good business. We needed him as much he needed us. So we went out of our way to woo him. At least my boss had. I had kept my formal stance. Polite and distant.
On recognizing me at the Cafe, he had waved. Actually, he had been trying to catch my attention for a while. I had been lost: busy scribbling some jingles for the new advertising campaign while my coffee lay untouched. Finally unable to catch my eye he had decided to walk up to my table.
‘You look even nicer without your glasses,’ the opening lines of his conversation had left me bemused.
But I had been too flustered to respond immediately. Why is he carrying out a conversation with me? I had asked myself as he continued making small talk about the traffic and the weather.
He was so drop - dead good looking. I was sure he had better things to do. Why is he bothering himself with a non glamorous woman like me? I felt stupefied and had reacted in the same manner. The evening had been a disaster for me. Of course, he gave me his undivided attention while I rambled on about work and this and that. How I had wanted him to leave but I could hardly snub him. After all, he was our client and an important one at that. I had sworn to myself, next time client or no client, I would not let him entertain himself at my expense.
But some things are meant to be repeated. The same week we met again. At the office. He was there with my boss, Meeta. Both were discussing his project. As soon as he saw me he smiled, and asked if I could also join them in the discussion. I had no option but to join the meeting. Again, I had behaved like a blockhead. Thankfully, Meeta, the angel she is, had read the distress signals and had come to my rescue.
‘Would you both like to discuss the next step over coffee…,’ Shekhar had asked towards the end of the meeting looking at us with a funny expression. I had a strong feeling that he was thoroughly enjoying himself. I also suspected it was all at my expense, again. Meeta readily agreed and I had to tag along. It had turned out to be another one of those I- really - don’t – like - it days for me.
‘Hey…lost one! Here’s your cappuccino, just the way you like it!’ The man of my thoughts offered me the steaming mug and brought me back to the cold present.
‘So…what have you decided?’ He asked tentatively.
‘There isn’t much to decide,’ I said quietly.
The freshness of our relationship had never faded instead there was always something more to look forward to. Moreover, we felt so comfortable with each other. In fact, I still felt the same way about him as I had the day when he had revealed and I had accepted the fact that what we shared was indeed love. That was one of the best moments of my life. Never before I had been so happy. Never before I had believed that love existed. But now I do. With all my heart. He taught me to live and not merely exist. He taught me to love myself for what I am. And the more I loved myself the more I fell in love with him. I never knew that I had so much love inside me. It was he who made me aware of it.
I looked at him now. We were both trying to appear normal. Like nothing had changed. But I knew each one of us was struggling. The stream in my eyes was filling up fast threatening to overflow any moment.
The silence between us grew. For once, I wanted to let our silences speak for us. I hoped they would come to our rescue. But of course, they didn’t. They never do.
I was the chatty one. Always. Shekhar liked to listen. Or so he made me believe. During our initial days it was so awkward. He would just keep quiet while I went on with my ramblings. Just to save us from facing some awkward moments I talked about everything from my favourite plants to why don’t people mind their steps while walking. He patiently listened.
This went on till we opened up and became comfortable with each other. Shekhar decided to take the initiative. Hesitantly, he invited me over to his house for coffee instead of our usual haunt. That was the first time I saw his sensitive side. The side he hid so well from the world. It was as if I was his alter ego ad he was determined to make friends with me. What a wonderful night that was. He made me feel like a queen. We made love and then we talked. Or rather he talked and I listened.
The silence between us lengthened now as each of us looked for excuses to avoid facing our destiny. We, the two of us, who had fallen so deeply in love with each other, despite knowing that one day we would have to part ways, never once voiced it to the other, secretly keeping our hopes and dreams alive. But reality knocked. It knocked sooner than I thought. And to my dismay it knocked at my door. After all, I was the one who was married.
Actually, an unhappily married woman. Not that there was much to complain about. Life was good to me. Only, I wanted more than the quota allotted to me. My husband and I were like good acquaintances who lived under the same roof. He was perpetually busy. Of course, he loved me in his own way. Like a child loves his favourite toy. I, on my part, felt no particular sentiments towards him. Over the years I had come to accept his unusual love for me and reciprocated in equal measures. But Shekhar showed me another kind of love; that which gives and gives blindly.
‘Can we meet once in a while?’ Shekhar asked tentatively. You know just to...,’ he left his words hanging.
There was a time when I used to believe that things work themselves out. But that was a wrong belief. Things don’t move by themselves. And one can’t live a suspended life. One has to decide and then more importantly, act.
‘I don’t think that would be a good idea. We…oh…it would not be right,’ I said gently.
‘But why?’ he exploded suddenly, ‘why can’t we meet?’
‘Because it would not lead us anywhere. And you know that,’ I kept the gentleness in my voice. There was no other balm I could offer except a few sane words….of advise.
‘I…won’t be able to live again,’ he whispered, a lone tear streaming down his left eye. The right one was still holding its ground, I observed.
‘You are my life,’ he whispered, not really wanting me to hear those words. But I caught them anyway. The painful lump in my throat refused to ease.
‘Sir, may I get you something else?’ Interposed the polite waiter breaking into our muted conversation.
‘Oh no, thank you. We are enjoying ourselves,’ I jumped in as always, giving the kind waiter a wry smile.
Shekhar was grateful. I read it in his eyes. In the past he had always teased me, calling me ‘the man’ in our relationship. Even today though my heart was shattered into pieces, I was behaving like the man alright.
I could see it clearly now. I would die a proud and wise woman. But also a sad one. A woman, who would never be able to bring out her honest emotions, her true feelings about her deeper wishes. One who would remain in her own self-imposed chains of righteousness. But was it of any use? Would I gain anything out of it? All I needed to do was break these invisible shackles and move on in life. I could….maybe one day I would do just that. I promised myself.
It was time to leave.
I smiled at him. He did not.
I held out my hands and said, ‘come let’s take a walk, then you can leave,’ he kept quiet and stared blankly at me.
‘…if you feel like… give me a call tomorrow,’ I added. It was then his eyes lit up again.
I smiled back as they re - played Sweet Caroline.