I wasn’t sure if he hated me or just didn’t care. All that I could gather was symptomatic of his opinion of me. One, he never looked at me when we spoke on rare occasions. He would look in another direction while we made a monosyllabic conversation. Two, he would invariably find a reason to get away, just in case a situation threw us together. Like at Nikita’s place last month, we ended up being in the same team, while playing a game. As luck would have it, just the two of us remained in the end. In the very next round, he got out purposefully. That I was shocked at this is a no brainer; that everyone else was shocked too, made it evident that for a change my brain wasn’t spinning crazy stories. Three, we knew each other for two years now, but he didn’t have my number. I got to know this last week. I ended up being late for this ?do’, because he was the one in charge of letting everyone know of the change in plans. He gave an excuse that because he didn’t have my number, he couldn’t call. Yes, a very lame one. Lastly, he never smiled at me. He smiled often and readily but I was very sure that no special occasion in the last two years had warranted a smile meant for me.
He was confined to a wheelchair ? a case of polio since birth.
She made me feel inadequate. In the last 30 years of my life, inspite of what people expect, I have always managed to overcome the challenges that life has thrown along the way. I have had my share of difficulties, but nothing that has made me think about my ?condition’ for so long and at such constant intervals. While completing my MBA from Stanford, there were many opportunities that could have been mine, had I played the ?limp limbs’ card. I never did. I had gotten through the course on my own and was made an offer by Google - the only one that year. Though I wasn’t the life of the party, I had my fair share of friends and lovers. I had moved from California to New York for the job, after my graduation. It had been seven years since I had been away from home in Mumbai. I stayed on in the U.S for two very simple reasons. One of them was the sheer convenience of mobility that all the places provided. The other, while most people noticed my wheel chair, they were either too polite to make it evident or it didn’t matter to them anyways. Back home, the sounds of pity and offers to help used to irritate me. I decided to come to India after a call from Nikita announced that Dad had a stroke. He passed away within a week of my arrival. I stayed on because I was all that Nikita had for a family.
The first time I met her, I found her staring at my wheel chair.
I could have ignored him. I tried doing that in various ways. By completely avoiding him, by not talking about him and at times even hearing about him. The problem was that he refused to fade in the oblivion. I noticed him, all of him. His absence was as powerful as his presence. His looking at someone else was as disturbing as his looking away from me. His ease with others was as much a source of discomfort as his stiffness with me. He repulsed me as much as he attracted me. He unsettled me.
The first time I met him, he was lost in a leather bound Rebecca. The book was on his lap, one hand ready to turn a page and the other brushing away a stubborn lock of hair on his forehead. I remember looking at him and the book for several seconds, before I said a ?hi’. I was still trying to confirm the title of the book, when he looked at me. I saw him wince and then stare. I am not the stuff for beauty pageants but I am no plain Jane either. Most people would describe me as attractive. It was the start of many things that made me realize that he wasn’t most people.
The first time I spoke to her, I wasn’t friendly. I seldom am, to people who give my confinement more attention than me. But I did try. I had asked her, if she would like to have some tea while she waited for Nikita to reach home. I didn’t introduce myself, because she looked uncomfortable around me. She had asked who I was. I had told her I was Nikita’s brother. “From the U.S?” She had enquired. I nodded as I watched the play of shadows on her face. She was fascinating to look at.
“If you will be alright on your own, I need to go out for a stroll”, I said following a long silence
“Sure! Do you need any help with your??” She did not complete the sentence.
I turned away. I didn’t feel like responding to the question and the underlying assumption it carried with it.
It had been pouring furiously all weekend and continued on Monday morning as well. There had been a text from the authorities urging people to stay indoors unless absolutely urgent. I received the text after I stepped into the office. The floor was almost vacant except a couple of people, who seemed oblivious to the world around them. I liked the silence. No one from my team had come in to work that day. I poured myself a cup of coffee, and was just settling in for the day when Nikita called
“Richa! Don’t tell me you are at work!”
“Well! You must be psychic, that’s exactly where I am”
“Are you crazy, woman? The trains have stopped. All the roads are flooded. How are you going to get back?”
“Oh! The trains were delayed but still working when I came in. Didn’t think they would stop. Now what?”
“Why don’t you go to my place? At least it’s closer than your home and not flooded yet”
“Go to your place meaning? Aren’t you at home? ”
“Nope! I stayed over at a friend’s. I am still here. But Jai is working from home today. He will open the door for you”
I felt strangely excited and petrified at the idea of seeing Jai. Though I told Nikita that I would leave for her place right away, it took me all of one complete hour to actually make a move.
She was the last person I expected to find at the door and definitely not looking like that. Loose curls from her hair were plastered over her shoulders, dripping water. A few drops glistened on her eyelashes. Her lips trembled, perhaps with cold. She was saying something.
“I can go back if it’s inconvenient. I will find a cab”
The edge in her voice brought me back to reality.
“No. Please come in”
I opened the door wide and pulled myself aside to let her in. She hesitated, guiltily looking at the puddle she had made on the floor. Her lost puppy expression had me grinning. Or I may have even chuckled. I saw her startle a bit, and then look at me as if for the first time in two years. She smiled and then laughed nervously. At that moment, I wanted to be the funniest man alive, just to hear her laugh again and again. The thought vanished as soon as it had appeared and I turned to get to my room. After all, she saw me as nothing but a wheel chair.
I felt warm all over, in spite of my rain drenched clothes. His smile felt like home, comfortable and inviting. It felt like we had always laughed this easily. And then he stopped. As if I had dreamt it all up. I felt bereft. I wanted to snatch that moment and make it last. I did the next best thing. I stopped him in his tracks.
“Nikita tells me that you make amazing ginger tea. Would you please make some for me?” My voice sounded nervous to my own ears. Any moment I expected him to block me out as he always did.
“Ok” he said gruffly.
I was elated. At least it was a start.
I went into Nikita’s room to change into dry clothes. I heard him humming, as I came near the kitchen. The aroma of cardamom and ginger mixed with tea made me happy.
“That’s my most favorite smell in the world”
He turned towards me and said, “It does smell nice but it isn’t my favorite”
“I can’t describe it. Here hold the cup and let me take you to it”
We held our mugs of tea and I followed him to the window in the living room.
Nikita’s clothes were a couple of sizes too large for her. She kept pulling at the t-shirt to prevent it from slipping. I had never been more intrigued. I noticed the way she cupped the mug with both her hands. The way she inhaled deeply before sipping the tea. The way she looked at me and made me feel like there was no else she would rather be with.
“The smell of earth when it rains is my favorite”
She closed her eyes, smiled and took a deep breath. She nodded and opened her eyes.
“Yes. I am fond of it too. But this tea is heaven. For this you must excel in the art of tea appreciation though” she said, looking at me.
“And where and how does one learn this art?” I asked
She smiled and bent down while pushing my chair back. She sat down on her knees, keeping the tea mug on the side table.
“Right here and I shall teach you how”, she said.
She brought herself closer to my chair, and then held my hand. Her slender fingers entwined with mine and in that moment all that I could feel was the warmth of her palm in mine. She picked up the tea cup with her other hand and held it in both my palms, wrapping her own fingers around mine. She then raised the cup to my nose.
“Now, close your eyes and breathe in. Like you wanted to inhale it all in rather than drink the tea”
Her voice was soft as a breath, musical. I did as she said. I felt her nearness. I hardly breathed. When I opened my eyes, I found her gaze fixed on mine.
I held my breath as he continued looking at me. And then, just like that, he leaned over and closed the distance between us. His hands grazing my face, he tipped my chin up. Then he brushed his lips gently across mine in a kiss. I never wanted to awaken; I never wanted this dream to end. It was so real. I could actually feel the warmth of his breath as he sighed against my mouth before deepening the kiss.
We were jolted back to the world with the ring of the phone. We both were a little embarrassed at what just happened but neither regretted that it did.
While Jai attended to the call, I wandered through the house. I came by his study. As always, there were heaps of classics spread all over the table in the corner of the room. Rebecca with its red cover and the golden emboss beckoned me once again. I found something popping out from between the pages. It looked like an airline ticket. Something warned me to not take it out. But I did.
It had Jai’s name on it. It was a one way ticket to New York. A previous conversation with Nikita made its way to my consciousness
“He is planning to settle in New York”
“I thought he had decided to be in India”
“Yes. I thought so too. But one of these days he will just pack his bags and leave. I know the way he is”
The ticket was dated for Friday that week
As I finished the call, I saw her walk back into the living room. Something had changed. I felt my heart fill with fear
“Are you alright?” I asked
“Yes. Never been better” She smiled. It was a fake
The kiss. She must regret it now. It hadn’t registered then but it struck me now - the look of embarrassment on her face. She was ashamed of me.
I felt a knife sear its way through my being. I couldn’t bear to look at her
“The rain has subsided. Perhaps you should leave now”
I heard the door bang shut behind my back
I had never felt worse. I fought tears rolling down my cheeks. I cursed my fate at having fallen. Fallen so deep that I never thought it was possible. As I walked on the road, the smell of earth around me made me choke. It hit me then that I had been in love for two years. In love with a man who chose convenience of being in another country without as much as giving me a thought. The kiss was an indulgence, a whim. I wanted to disappear. I wanted to pour away like the rain. I wanted to stop breathing.
The truck driver wanted to get home before the rains started again. The roads were slippery. The girl turned on to the street. She did not hear the horn. The driver couldn’t apply the brakes soon enough
She stopped breathing.