It was still dawn when I stepped out of the cab and walked towards the entry gate of the Delhi airport. The early morning February air was pleasantly cold.
I was travelling to Bengaluru to attend a college friend’s wedding. It had been four years since we graduated from the same college. This wedding was also going to be a reunion of our batch mates. But what I didn’t know was that the reunion would begin much ahead of time; right in the queue in front of the airline counter.
I was almost sure it was she. Same height! Same long hair! Same complexion! Curiosity had my eyes glued to her. And then about 60-odd seconds later, when she turned, she proved me right. My ex-girlfriend stood two places ahead of me in that queue. We had never met after the college farewell.
Martha followed and stood behind me in the queue, holding my hand gently.
“Are you okay?” She asked as colour drained off my face looking at the person standing just two feet away.
From my gesture, she understood.
“Is that…” she stopped midway and hugged me.
I stood there in the queue, clueless about what should I do next? Should I call out her name? Should I give a tap on her shoulders? Or should I just pretend nothing ever happened between us four years ago… pretend nothing ever happened the night before farewell, in her room?
Or should I just pretend nothing has happened to me apart from a general curiosity in the last three minutes since I saw her?
Pretence it is. After all I have mastered the art of pretending. Pretending everything is normal, pretending there was never anything between us.
I see her adjust her long wavy hair and put a black clip on the back to hold the locks falling over her beautiful face. As her slender hands moved back, the loose sleeves slid down showing a bracelet on her left wrist.
A dainty black and white stone carved silver bracelet, with two miniature silver hearts dangling from the middle, rubbing onto each other, as if holding hands together.
“You and me, together, forever…”
I looked at my watch. Quarter to six. Another forty-five minutes before the flight takes off. The queue was not too long from where I stood, she had two other elderly passengers ahead of her. I knew inevitably our eyes would meet once we collect our boarding passes and head towards the security check-in area.
Staring at her from her back I was trying to sum up the four long years that I apparently ran away from her and everybody that could ever remind me of her.Yet I stood as clueless, as she moved to the left speaking on the mobile phone discreetly. She wore a black chiffon long Kurta with intricate floral embroidery in pale pink on its hemline over a cream coloured fitting bottoms. Neatly folded on her stroller bag by her right was her overcoat. Elegant, beautiful, loving.
Round face, big expressive eyes and long curly hair
Roll number: MBA/21/2009, Indian Management Institute, Kochi
Birth mark: Mole on the left side of her waist
Height: 5 feet 7 inches
Passion: creative writing and poetry
Dislikes: Liars and dishonest people, Ice cream and English music in that order
The Seema I once had loved. The Seema that once meant the world to me. The Seema, who Ritesh Aggarwal had once proposed.
I was smiling thinking about her, yet something inside me held me back from making a move. I just stood there looking down, hiding my face from her, feeling defeated.
It was the day of our induction and I was running late. In the meeting hall the only vacant place I could find was in the front row, next to a tall girl at the end of the semi-circular desks.
“Hi!” I tried to grin as wide as possible at her.
“Hello!” She had a faint smile.
“Would you mind if I borrow your pen?” I was filling up the registration form. Her form was all done and kept neatly under her pen.
“Oh sure, here you are.”
“Thank you, I am Alex by the way. Pleased to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too, Seema here. Are you from…?”
“You must have guessed. Nigeria. I am here on Student exchange program.”
“Welcome to India, hope you like your stay here.”
“Thank you so much! I already feel at home.” I quipped and started to fill in the form as she smiled at me.
Needless to mention, she had struck me as a really attractive girl. I wanted to know more about her. Her smile had a warmth that touched my heart. I knew, I have made my first friend in India.
Ours was a co-habitated hostel, nestled in the greenery and serenity of our campus. For the next two years, the walls of this hallowed portal would stand testimony to many life-long friendships, broken hearts and love stories. However, what made my hostel life remarkable was my next door neighbour. By stroke of sheer luck, none other than Seema Nair was allotted the room adjacent to mine, in the second floor of the Hostel. My joy knew no bounds!
She was the typical shy and introvert Indian girl my friends back in Nigeria had preconceived notions about. She hardly spoke to boys, even girls. I, on the other hand was more of a hell-raiser. I was unusual in many ways. First, I was from a different country. Second, I used to smoke and drink like there was no tomorrow. Not many girls preferred me for my nature. It hardly mattered to me, I had one really good friend in Seema and I was content with that.
Without we even realising, we started spending quite a lot of time together, sharing and learning from each other about our respective lives, countries and culture. Assignments, project work, late night parties, sleeping in each other’s rooms – we had such a memorable hostel life. Much different from what I had experienced in my life so far. The more time I spent with her, I felt an inevitable attraction towards her, yet I had no idea what she felt about me. All I knew was that she was very special to me. That I was equally dear and special to her, I realised pretty soon.
Among other things about her, one thing that always intrigued me was about the fact that she used to scribble on this black diary every night. I don’t know why but I had an inexplicable urge to read what she wrote.
“Would I ever have the privilege of reading your mind?” I asked her one such night, when she was alone in her room, writing away.
She had a hearty laugh.
“You certainly would, very soon.” She said and waved me good night.
It didn’t take that long. Around a week later, one day while we were still in class, she slipped something under my hands.
“Read it and I don’t need your feedback.” She said and I kept staring at the little black diary with a golden flowery lace tied across it. I couldn’t wait that day to pass. Once back in my bed, I carefully took out Seema’s diary and untied the lace.
Said the first page in bold black letters.
As I turned page after page, I was drowned in a sea of emotions, of love, longing, heartbreak and yet a resounding sense of hope in each of her poems, in each of her words. Surprisingly, each poem had the same title, as if dedicated to the man of her dreams. “You”.
I read and read and marvelled at the clarity of her thoughts, her choice of words. Yet to most, she would appear as a very girl-next-door and an introvert soul. Such a contradiction she was in life vs paper.
I was madly falling in love with her all over again, wishing and praying her “You” would be me one day. Then by the end of our first year, something happened that changed my feelings for her, forever.
It was like any other late night assignment work. I, Seema and Ritesh were in Seema’s room, busy in discussions. Ritesh Aggarwal was our batch mate, tall, lanky and Seema’s close friend. In the same breath I must admit I never saw much in him. Seema knew Ritesh from before and they had a comfort level she hardly shared with any other guy in our class. That of course meant I never liked his close proximity with Seema. The fact was that I was almost sure I could see a love in his eyes for her, which she seemed blissfully unaware of. Ritesh would find ways to spend time with her, be it help with accountancy which Seema excelled at or group discussions as Ritesh was part of the group I and Seema belonged to. That evening my frustration reached a new high. We three were sitting at Seema’s desk in her room when I felt a sudden pain my abdomen. I excused myself and went to get some water and as soon as I had left the table, Ritesh started.
“Cmon babe, just one pic.” His hands were stretched and he was summoning Seema to give her a hug.
“Rits please! Can we get back to work!”
“Oh cmon, its “one selfie per day” month!”
“What on earth is that?”
“Each day of the month you take a selfie with one of your friends and post in this Facebook group, tagging the friend you took the selfie with.”
“By the end of the month, you get some sort of a statistics.”
“Most tags – who you think is your best friend
Most likes – who your friends think your best friend/girlfriend is
Most comments – who your friends think would suit as your life partner. “
“Whatever.” Seema rolled her eyes and her eyes met mine. She looked at me whimpering near the toilet door and asked in a worried tone-
“Al, are you okay?”
“Not really, it hurts bad.” I could barely speak.
“How bad? “Asked Ritesh.
Seema gave Ritesh a reprimanding look.
“No I meant, mate, is it just a stomach ache or..er.. labour pain?”
That was it.
I couldn’t take it anymore. But I hardly had any strength to stand straight, let alone shout at that bastard. I fell down there, howling in pain, a pain that, as Ritesh had joked could as well be as painful as labour.
“Ritesh, will you stop the nonsense!” Seema was quick.
And off she went calling the ambulance as her worried face blurred right in front of my eyes as she and Ritesh carried me to the bed.
I had fainted.
Two days later when I opened my eyes, I saw myself in blue overalls, on drips and moderately drowsy, lying on a foul smelling hospital bed. Seema caressed my left hand and I looked at her bewildered.
“You had an appendicitis Al, it was pretty bad though.”
I had a sigh of relief.
“And no alcohol for the next couple of months.” I was not sure whether Seema made that up or the Doctor had really prescribed that.
“Don’t worry, you would be fine.” I could see her eyes swell up that instant as she brought my hand closer to her face and gave a gentle kiss.
I lay there, weak, exhausted yet feeling the top of the world.
I got discharged a day after. Seema stayed by my side, making sure I ate and drank healthy, taking utmost care of me, like only my late mother would.
One such night, half sleepy and half-awake as she sat by my bed, I stared at the ceiling fan rotating whimsically and contemplated. The sound of the rain on the window sill created a sweet melody to the confession I was about to make.
“I love you Seema. I really do. I don’t know what you feel, I don’t know whether you think it’s right or wrong, but this is the truth of my life. Not because of what you did for me last week, but much before that, I have loved you from the day we first met.”
I didn’t know whether she heard me or not, her eyes were closed and holding my hand she had slept on the chair next to my bed. The rain continued.
Seema, day by day, without her knowledge of course, continued to haunt my thoughts. It all seemed very natural to me, best of friends only can be the best of lovers.
Something was growing inside me. Each moment, each day, it was spreading in my blood, my tissues, my heart and my mind. It was a love that was soon consuming my waking hours and my dreams. All I knew, as long as I am with Seema, I would be safe.
I recovered from the surgery rather quickly thanks to Seema’s utmost care. She used to help me with the lectures and assignments regularly, making sure I never lag behind. She continued to care for me, more than she ever did. Yet I always was unsure of her thoughts, apprehensive of her reaction and scared of my own feelings for her. Would she understand what I feel for her? It was but very natural for me, but given the kind of person I knew she was, I didn’t want to create a mayhem in her sweet little world with the roaring tide of love and passion that had submerged my heart already.
I had chosen to keep my feelings covert and pretend nothing had changed. Hoping she had heard my confession on that rainy night. Hoping she would have read it my eyes. Hoping I was the “You” she was writing about.
And come to think the irony of it all, I was always the extrovert between both of us.
My string of thoughts was broken as she came back to the queue, phone still glued to her ears as the person ahead of her went to the counter. She would be the next.
I heard her voice, crystal clear as she spoke, yet there was a certain vacuum I felt as she spoke the last few words.
“…okay, see you soon, Rits. Bye.”
The castles in my mind came crashing down. Just like it did four years ago, the night before our farewell. Before I could even react, something else hit me. Seema was in tears; I was sure I could hear her sobs as she whimpered away to the counter.
Are they not happy together? I had no clue. But then why was Seema sobbing? I knew for sure Seema hadn’t married him yet, but my heart ached looking at her scrambling for a tissue in her handbag.
I kept looking down. I had my face half covered in the chequered scarf that hung around my neck. Most of my head was covered in the beanie, only my tired and sleepy eyes peeked out from my face watching her vanish into the waiting lounge. I put my hands in my jeans pocket and tried hide a drop of tear that had found its way out. Martha’s warm hands embraced me from the back, she knew I was in pain. The pain of my past.
I have been a complete coward. Then and now.
After the farewell, I had to rush back home. My dad was not keeping well and neither was I. I helped dad in our furniture business in Lagos and kept myself busy, shutting all connection with India. There were emails, messages, Facebook posts from all except Seema, I kept ignoring them. I knew one day it would all stop. I just didn’t want to get back to those memories and a relationship that was so close to me yet whose finale came just a day before our last day at the University.
Just as it had started a day before our first day.
All these years I never received a single message from Seema. I wished her well in my heart. I was just plain unreasonable to fall in love with her. I should have known. Not all love stories have to end on a happy note. The least I could do was to feel happy that she finally found the “You” from her diary – someone who was always with her yet she never realised.
Yes, she had never realised it until the night before our farewell.
It was end of a beautiful journey. I wanted to spend every moment of the last two days of our University with Seema, for I knew not long before I would have to travel back to Lagos to be with Dad and she would relocate to Delhi for her job.
She was unusually quiet that day, as if lost in some deep thought. In the evening when I went to her room, she was still in the bathroom.
“Is that you Al?” she called out from the bath.
I replied back and lied down on her bed, not knowing how would I confess my love, not sure of her reaction. My hands went inside my pocket, I felt the velvety pouch and the contents within. My gift of love for the girl I loved most.
Her phone beeped indicating a message.
I got up to get her phone from the desk and could see a message from Ritesh.
There was nothing private between us, so naturally I unlocked her phone. Something sank in my heart looking at the conversation on her phone screen.
17:38 Thursday,21st July,2011
Rits: Babe, waiting for your reply. Love you to the moon and back.
17:53 Thursday,21st July,2011
Me: Love you too Rits, just give me some time. We need to talk.
17:55 Thursday,21st July,2011
Rits: I will wait my lifetime for you.
18:04 Thursday,21st July,2011
Rits: I am the luckiest guy in the world. Thanks Seema. Love.
Before I could turn around, my eyes went to a half opened tissue wrapped packet on her desk. Inside it I could see a silver bracelet, intricately designed, with black and white beads. I took the packet in my hands, opened the tissue paper wrapping to reveal the beautiful contents inside.
The bracelet had two silver hearts dangling in the middle, with the letters “S” and “R” engraved in golden letters.
“Seema and Ritesh”.
A note lay inside the package, written in beautiful italics –
“You and me, together, forever…”
I should have known; I should have stopped myself from dreaming. They knew each other long before I came in her life. What a fool I had been all along.
“Al, just wait, I am coming in a min.” Came her voice from the bathroom, as I hurriedly replaced the packet and changed the message status to unread on her phone and placed it back on the desk.
“Sorry Seema.” I said at my loudest voice. “Got a call from Dad, got to go.”
As I heard the bathroom door creak open, I rushed out of her room, hoping to leave a past behind that was once so dear to me. I could still hear Seema calling out, but I knew she didn’t owe me any explanation. She deserved Ritesh as much as he deserved her.
The last day was uneventful. I ignored every attempt of Seema to talk to me in the farewell party and kept drinking with the guys. I didn’t respond to her messages nor her repeated attempts to understand what went wrong. It was a relationship which for me had reached its sad yet destined end. Two days later on an urgent call from Lagos I learnt about Dad’s kidney failure. I had to rush back to Lagos, a week before my planned return. As much worried I was for Dad, somewhere in my heart I was happy that I didn’t have to face Seema any longer – she would miss me for a few days and then like everyone else will get busy in her own life and career.
What explanation I could have given her of my sudden withdrawal? That I loved her and couldn’t see Ritesh and her getting together? That she was never just a close friend but much more than that? I knew I would be laughed at, but by then I knew it would be even harder for Seema accepting me given the apparent societal and cultural difference between us. No matter how much I tried to find reasons to justify my actions, the truth was just that I had been nothing but just a coward.
Not anymore. My hands went to touch the velvet pouch in my jeans pocket. A present that I should have gifted her before I left India four years ago. There she was at the counter collecting boarding card completely oblivious of my feelings, unaware of the nightmare that my life had become every waking hour since the past one year. Would things have been different if she was with me? I had stopped living in dreams until a year ago when my life took a U turn. I should have known where I was heading.
Martha patted my hands again. I held on to her hand, unable to contain my feelings.
I and Martha collected our boarding passes and headed towards the security check-in. My eyes searched for Seema as we entered the waiting lounge.
“Is that you Al?”
My heart beat faster as I heard that voice coming from behind. Turning around, I saw Seema Nair, my love, my ex-girlfriend as I had given her the title, standing with her bright big eyes filled with questions and concern. And tears.
I was not sure whether I had the power to face her and her whys and hows. I stood dumbstruck as Martha excused herself.
“What do you think you are doing?”
“Seema, I am sorry.”
“Who on earth do you think you are?”
“Seema I don’t know what you are asking about…”
“How could you do this to me Al? How?”
“Seema I am sorry, you don’t even know…”
“Do you know? Do you know what I feel?”
“Seema, please don’t make it any more difficult for me…”
“Difficult? Do you even realise what you have turned my life into?”
“Please, all I wanted is just to…”
“Just wave me a final good bye? And you thought I would let you?”
“Seema, I am really sorry for my behaviour, I… I have been a jerk”
“And so you have. How could you not see what I always saw in your eyes? How??”
My jaws dropped.
“How could you not see what you meant to me Al? How? Was it so difficult for you to understand that you were the one? That you were my “You”?”
I stood there, tears rolling down my cheek.
“Did it ever bother you to talk to me once before you did what you did? Just once for God’s sake! And now you come back from your self-imposed exile to say good bye to the girl who lost her love without even realising what her fault was. You owe me an apology Alex.”
“I am sorry Seema, I never realised…I…I…”
“What do you think of yourself? Now that you are sick, I will let you go as a fling from my past? I thought you were the one who claimed to be the one with the balls. How wrong I was.”
“You chose to suffer all by yourself? Couldn’t you just drop me one message when you were diagnosed? Did you think I was such a heartless person? Adenocarcinoma of the pancreas. Pancreatic cancer, stage 3. Is that what you have? Then let me tell you what I have. I have a heart which never stopped loving you and it never will.”
“I can’t believe it Seema, is it for real…” I couldn’t stop sobbing as she came forward and hugged me. From the corner of my eye I could see curious onlookers around us watching us with equal amount of surprise and loathing.
“I… I never thought…”I was stammering.
“Just stop now…” Seema chided me. We stood there silently sobbing, holding onto each other oblivious of the swarm of eyes which were looking at us with disgust.
And then she did the unthinkable. She went down her knees, unfastened the bracelet from her left wrist and held it up for me to see.
“Miss Alexandra Rice, I ask you for the first and last time, would you marry me?”
Her eyes were filled with a rage I had never seen yet a love I had never imagined would be mine one day.
I took her hand in mine, took out the scarf from my neck and held her. Surprised and equally shocked, I took the bracelet from her hands and looked at it bewildered.
A dainty black and white stone carved silver bracelet, with two miniature silver hearts dangling from the middle, rubbing onto each other, as if holding hands together.
Together, forever, just like you and me.
“S” and “N” were engraved in golden letters on either side of one heart and on the other were the letters “A” and “R”.
Seema Nair and Alexandra Rice.
Before I could realise what a fool I had been, I was sitting on my knees next to her, kissing her on her lips.
A gentle rumbling rose in the moderately busy airport lounge and I could clearly hear the couple seated closest to us grunt in frustration at the sight of a beautiful Indian girl going on her knees to a bald black girl, followed by a full throttle kiss.
It hardly mattered what was being said of our moment of truth and union. All that mattered to me now was how to make up for the lost time.
Martha my nurse was talking over the phone.
“Thanks Ritesh, you don’t know what a great part you played in this love story. Thanks for everything.”
© “And Life Unfolds” and Subhendu Mohanty, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Subhendu Mohanty and “And Life Unfolds” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.