Ok. This was an emergency (again). My best friend, JQ, broke up with her bf, Neal for the nth time. Actually, I counted till 20 in the past eight months and then lost it. It is always the same thing. He needs space. She prefers breathing on his neck. Finally, when he can’t take it anymore- he asks for some room. And she inevitably breaks down into tears saying that he doesn’t love her anymore. She has given the best years of her life to an unfeeling man yada yada. So when it happened for the 25th (or was it the 26th time?) time on a Friday, she declared that she was not going to waste her weekend crying. Instead, she would attain freedom from emotional bondage by exercising her right to sexual liberty by sleeping with a random guy picked from a random pub.
Till here, it was fine. Until she asked me to aid her to find a suitable prospect, at a suitable pick–up point. We zeroed down to ‘The Caprice Lounge and Bar’, which promised ‘people watching’ as one of its specialties. ‘You have more probability of getting watched where you can watch others’- she argued.
We called up Bob and Pam – two of our other friends from Grad school, and set out for a wild night to party-to slosh out and puke until we felt we were at Hell’s door. I am usually not prejudiced about people, except when I am prejudiced. For some reason, I think Bob is gay. He shows little interest in girls and keeps talking about a fictitious ex, who incidentally, in his opinion, smells like Pam. I have the greatest urge at times to point out that it’s probably Chanel No.5, but something holds me back.
I was late at arriving for the evening, caught up with some last minute wrap-up of a project that was expected to be over eons ago. For some reason, my boss kept extending the deadline while I had this strange voice speaking inside my head: It’s better to finish things before they are expected. When no other team member felt like coordinating and the holiday mood of Christmas was still continuing in February, I decided to put my foot down and define the client requirements myself. I could have been kicked on my smart-ass for this, but Jeff (my boss) said very complacently: ‘We have done well.’ I hate it when he uses first person-plural without contributing a rat’s tail worth of efforts. But that’s why he’s the boss. And someday, I’m going to be ‘The Boss’ too. *sigh*
Bad week at office was reason enough to want to get stoned. But recently, my very Indian mother had been injecting other worries into my head. She suddenly had a vision that I was growing old and past the marriageable age of a well-bred Indian female. I wanted to say that she had different views when I wanted to date that hunk of a guy in high school. Then I was too young. Now, I am too old. And in between, I had been too busy preparing for a life that never happened.
I had lost my father at a very early age. Earlier than he could have had any influence on me. My family consisted of my mother, my well-settled elder sister, married to a Financial consultant in New York. A marriage arranged by the two families- consummated by horoscope matches and all. I had different ideas about love and marriage. It was the order I preferred them to occur.
Growing up fatherless gave me a very blurry vision about the many perfections and imperfections of the male sub-species. And I often found that I imposed virtues on men I dated and was soon disappointed. The Mills and Boons men don’t exist in real life. And I could settle for nothing less. So, I contented myself with watching and weeping at the romantic classics from the 60’s with a bucket full of my favorite chocolate chip cookie ice-cream and Fluffy ( my cocker spaniel) licking my face off. Whether it was ‘cause he wanted to lick my tears or chocolate chip cookie was his favorite too, was difficult to say. I settled for the former and I believed that at least one male living thing loves me.
JQ says I have ‘Fuck Off’ written all over my face. Somehow dating men at my office was never even an option. I like to maintain a professional distance from my colleagues. I can’t think of sleeping with a man, waking up next to him to grab a coffee and drive down to the same place to work. It took the charm away from romance. I wanted time to miss my guy.
I shrugged to see the long queue outside Caprice. There was no way I could wait that long to get inside. I called up JQ and asked her if she could sneak me in. The bouncer at the door was extra nice and let me in saying, ‘Have fun ladies!’
I thought, ‘You bet’ and got ushered by JQ inside the semi-dark lounge with shadowy figures hovering around. The music downstairs was too loud so I asked her if we could go upstairs to find a quieter spot. Bob and Pam were conspicuous by their absence. 'I dunno, they had come with me but I guess they have gone to fetch a drink or two.’ JQ winked.
I wondered if she was wearing the new lingerie she had bought at VS with me the other day- her bosom looked so puffed up. I asked : That padded stuff? She hushed me: 'Ssh.' I often wondered how most people fussed about their secondary sexual characteristics; more than the opposite gender really cared about.
When we waded past the ocean of human bodies tangled with one another and got some oxygen left in the room to breathe in, I felt it was time to get drunk. There was no way I was going to enjoy the horrible noise and the crowd while sober. JQ opined that I was a lot more fun when high. I opined: Then you should keep me high all the time. She snapped back: Oh you are high all the time anyways. On your work. I have never seen such a good piece of ass wasting her life at her desk the way you do. Get some banging done babe!’ I figured she was drunk already. She is usually very conservative with her speech. I smirked and took three tequila shots with the customary lemon and the salt. ‘Aah! Now, I am ready.’ I declared to no one in particular.
We hit the dance floor and JQ tried to squeeze to the center where a couple of gorgeous guys were trying to move their limbs. I almost laughed at them but then I thought it might spoil JQ’s chances and swallowed my guffaw half way through. They looked younger than her- but who bothered. I closed my eyes and wondered if I should have couple of more shots.
I realized I didn’t have my wallet about me. I must have left it at the counter when I tipped that kid. The thought of having to drag myself through that crowd again nauseated me. I looked around to find JQ. But she seemed busy. Suddenly, I heard a whisper, or it might have been pretty loud at another place–in this clamber it was difficult to know what I was saying to myself.
I turned and saw a tall, brown guy with a shy smile- holding out my wallet: Is this yours? I fancied he had pinched it just to be able to talk to me. But I let go of that notion and thanked him appropriately. I offered to buy him a drink as an acknowledgment. He said that he was a teetotaler and was in the pub on a friend’s insistence. Then he waved to a couple of guys sitting at the edge of the dance floor. They smiled at him. I am sure I looked stupid.
I put my finger inside my stiff collar and unbuttoned the first two buttons of my shirt. I coughed: It is smoky and suffocating in here. Would you fancy a walk? He seemed uncertain. The voice in my mind said: Come On **** I am not a homicidal maniac !
He smiled shyly again and acquiesced. We went out on the streets and a gush of fresh air blew my hair away. Nothing pisses me off more than unkempt hair. I rummaged through my bag for a comb and hastily tried to fix it. But the wind grew stronger and wilder and I thought aloud: There must be a storm brewing somewhere. But there wasn’t any weather alert. Was there?
He said very philosophically. Not all things can be predicted. I proposed: We should go inside. He asked if I’d like to wait till it rains. I thought: Wait a second. Guys don’t like to wait for rain. Or he’s straight out of a novel or trying to act too nice. I was on my guard again. That little voice kept nagging me: Don’t trust a stranger. I shooed it away saying: Go back where you were when I asked him out for a walk! He said: I beg your pardon? ‘Oh nothing’ and I smiled at him.
‘You look beautiful when you smile. You should do that more often.’ Now, I blushed. I knew he was flirting but I was enjoying it. The tequila had burnt down my defenses. I thanked the blue agave and the Mexicans.
Soon I found myself talking to him- about books, movies, and my favorite genre of music. It was pleasantly surprising to find that we had so much in common. I almost squealed with delight when I discovered that ‘An Affair to Remember ‘, ‘Casablanca’, ‘The Pianist’, and 'La vita è bella' (Life is beautiful) were his favorites too. He opined that if I wanted to experience neorealism I should watch 'Ladri di biciclette' (The Bicycle Thief) by Vittorio De Sica. He told me it was a landmark film, like Rashomon for Akira Kurosawa or Pather Panchali for Satyajit Ray. I listened spellbound and I thought: Where had you been all my life?
The cloud gurgled and said something to the thunder and it started pouring. I felt like standing there as long as I could. I spread my hands wide, looked up to face the sky and let raindrops on my face. I felt so liberated at that moment and so unlike my usual self. He watched me and smiled again and suggested we race back to the pub. I nodded with a wink: ‘Only, I’ll race you to that tree the other way. Go!’ And I rushed. Suddenly I stopped, opened my high-heel sandals and started splashing on puddles that were collecting momentarily in the heavy rain. They’d soon dry out- and like this moment, would vanish too. I had a sudden urge to hold onto this second forever. Whoever my companion was, I stopped trying to judge him and was being myself. And I felt I had never been so happy in a long time.
The storm stopped and we decided to walk back. Then I said, I’d rather be going home. I called up JQ to say the same. She sniggered when she picked the call: You got lucky first, huh? I hushed her up and said it was nothing remotely like that. He was still beside me, and I didn’t want him to know what we were talking about. It was an awkward moment. I didn’t want to leave- yet I had to. The longer I stayed, the harder it would be to let go. I smiled awkwardly. ‘I had a long week- I guess I will go home and get some sleep.’ ‘Oh ok.’ He said. The voice in my head was back again: ‘Told you- he is an idiot!’ I snapped at it: ‘Shut up!’
Btw, if you plan to fall ill- why not give those germs a better diet?
I was thinking of an ice cream.
There was an ice cream parlor near by. He ordered two chocolate chip cookie ice-cream cones. I hoped the ice cream lasted for eternity. But those kiddie cones had grown smaller since the last time I had them. I asked: What next?
How about breaking some rules?
I looked at him. And he said : Let’s jaywalk on the road.
I reminded him: They can penalize you for that.
He laughed: I know. "What is life but a series of inspired follies? The difficulty is to find them to do. Never lose a chance: it doesn't come every day."
George Bernard Shaw ! Pygmalion ! He was too good to be true.
We walked criss-cross for a while and then marched: Left-right, Left-right. But there wasn’t any car around so we soon got bored. We sat by the pavement and looked up. The sky was clear and a little star or two peeped from behind the dark blanket of sky.
He said: I wish this night would never end.
I whispered: So do I.
He continued: I am afraid that I might not live to see tomorrow.
I looked at him with a blank face and he said: I was getting treated for an advanced terminal disease. When the doctors gave up, I decided I don’t want to die in a hospital. I want to live as much as I can.
My shock was evident on my face: But you look perfectly healthy!
Some ailments are not so evident on the outside.
You are kidding!
He said very seriously: Of course I am.
I felt angry and hit him on his back.
Now, now- see I told you I am afraid that I might not live to see tomorrow. He gaggled.
It’s not funny.
Really? I thought it was. At least, for me.
My furor was renewed and I wanted to hit him again but I did not. I clammed up like an oyster.
He laughed and teased me- imitating my expressions when I frowned. I laughed till my stomach hurt and when he headed towards the direction of the pub, I wished he would look back once. He did not.
I drove back home thinking if I still had ‘Fuck Off” written on my face. I stood in front of the mirror for a while but I couldn’t figure it. So, I finally broke down and cried.
The door bell rang and I thought it must be JQ with her catch of the evening. It was her all right, but he stood right behind her. JQ said: Ok guys, Neal had called up and I have to hurry.
He scratched his head when she was gone: I thought I could watch “An Affair to Remember” with you again. You said you had the DVD.
I giggled: Crash on the sofa.
With all these wet clothes on? He smiled.
I woke in the morning and saw him sitting on the bed, watching me. I said: Good morning. He smiled ‘Good Morning’. I realized my hair must be looking unkempt and I tried to scramble out of the bed to go the bathroom. But he held me by my waist and kept clinging on to me. I said: Let me go .
No I won’t.
I tried to tickle him but he kept a straight face saying he doesn’t feel tickled.
Uh-huh- not anywhere.
Let me find out.
He said: Ok ! That’s enough! He laughed.
The doorbell rang again. I was alarmed: That must be mom ! I was supposed to pick her from the airport today. Quick ! Hide into the closet.
Into the closet !
I picked his clothes from the floor and shoved them with his shoes beneath the bed. And then I broke a record sprinting from my bedroom to the door.
Mom looked at me: What’s wrong with you?
You look horrible. What’s wrong with your hair?
I breathed heavily. Oh, I must have slept too long. What time is it?
Past noon. I thought Neena had asked you to pick me.
‘She did. She did.’ I repeated myself unnecessarily. ‘But I completely forgot.’
I don’t have enough change on me. Can you pay the cab downstairs?
I tipped the cab heavily for no reason. Probably hoping that this act would redeem me from the sound explosion I was going to experience in a while. I got upstairs reluctantly and opened the door. But she was in the bathroom. He was sitting in the living room sofa with a smile.
I gulped: How did you manage to dress up so fast?
He smiled again.
Mom came out in a while and said: Hemant was telling how much he adores your paintings.
You know him?' Now, it was my turn to feel surprised.
Of course I do. He’s Neena’s brother-in-law. Nishant’s cousin. He wasn’t here for the wedding. But I had met him last time I had gone to New York to visit your sister- didn’t I tell you?
You did. But I didn’t realize..
Now, the voice was back again. ‘They are all in it.’ It said spitefully.
I looked at him unbelievingly, my words came out in installments: Did.. you... know... this?
Yes, well –I had seen you in Nishant’s wedding album and I had recognized you at the very first instant but..
I sat down on the sofa and tried to put my thoughts together. The whole night was a sham then? He had known all about my likes and dislikes from my sister and pretended to be Mr. Right and had swept me off my feet away like no one had. It was all an act! I felt cheated.
He asked permission from my mother to leave. She insisted that he should stay for lunch. But he reminded; I’m going to come over with my parents in the evening anyways.
When he was gone, I asked her what he was talking about.
Mom said very nonchalantly: You have a strange idée fixe about falling in love first and marrying later. When I got married to your father…
I know. I know. The third day you met was your wedding. The second day was your engagement. And the first day you had met only for an hour with a houseful of people.
And yet, we were happy together. She sighed.
Then she reasoned: Marriage is a gamble. You bet on a person to keep you happy, forever, or as long as it lasts. You have to take a few risks. You have to believe. And this guy isn’t a stranger- he belongs to a good family, has a good job, and has been in love with you ever since I have known him.
I looked at her: You sound like you just watched "What Happens in Vegas".
'This isn't a movie. This is real life. You have to script your happy ending yourself. At least, give it a try.' She pleaded.
I decided to give it a try. It hasn’t been perfect always. But I have realized that the perfect relation is not ready-made. You have to make efforts to keep it working. At times, I feel what should I do with him? But most of the times, I feel- what would I do without him!
My mistake has been that I have sought perfection all my life, and subconsciously imposed virtues or vices on people. But these biased opinions took me away from reality. And the closest thing to reality is : We are all humans with our flaws and idiosyncrasies.
Spending a few hours or a few days together doesn't acquaint us with the real person. I believe that when you have seen someone hot and sweaty and cooking a meal for you, throwing stuff at you because he has a sudden urge to clean the house; he is flexing muscles in front of a mirror and you are thinking, "He's more self-obsessed than I am ! ", ; when you feel that "He's a complete pain in the ass"- the next moment he calls up and you feel "OMG I missed him so much ! ",- it's then you begin to truly love someone. Or are on your way to it. If I can’t find happiness with him, there is no way I can find happiness with anyone else.
Btw, JQ told me that Bob isn’t gay and Pam can vouch for it.