The years that had been.
There is extravagance in the way each year begins, and the way I know it now is with a menacing amalgam of experiences… scents of fragrant perfume and reeking alcohol, sights of glimmering lights and a hazy smoke, feels of endearing hugs and arousing gropes, sounds of booming bass and shrieking squeals, and a sense of trying to figure out if you can still count up to ten without stuttering. This is the only way I knew to celebrate now. This was the norm for declaring to those around that your year indeed had begun as a happy one.
I had not stepped into one of those parties as yet. It was still sunny and hot as my phone beeped, showing an 11:00 AM event I had blocked my calendar for that day, the last day of the year that had been. What I loved about marriages that came my way these days was that opportunity to wrap my arms around those old folks of mine, those that had been an inevitable part of my existence in the past, those that had once defined not just the beginning and end of my days, but also everything in between. This was no different, I knew of many of those from the days when I had been younger who would turn up, and I smiled in reminiscence of things we always pulled out from our little boxes of nostalgia every time we gathered under a roof. The weddings that befell me these days were celebrated more for bringing back some of the best of my memories from the days that had been, and not in anticipation of the joys that would bless the couple in the years yet to come. I drove on the highway to that church atop a hill down south of the province where we all lived, to attend another of these wedding reunions, carrying a heavy heart and an earnest smile in my trunk.
Most journeys take us to our destination without many surprises along the way, and the past year had been a journey like that for me that far. Till this, very last day. I knew how each day would begin and end, and I knew what would fall in between. I remember vaguely the taste of each day’s lunch, albeit from different places.
“Where have you reached?” A familiar deep voice asked from the other end of the phone, but I saw a cop standing in the distance and struggled behind the steering wheel of my car, rattling to balance the car and my phone together. Finding the spot on the phones screen I needed to touch to put it on loudspeaker, I switched it to the speaker and put the phone down. I told him the name of the place I could read from a roadside shop’s display board I had just passed by.
“You’ll take some time then. We are entering in and we’ll be beside a large tree right next to the church. Just give us a call when you get here.” He said and disconnected the line. The voice had been one that had graced my ears a thousand times, through many of those night outs we had to practise, and through multiple of those stages where we sang as a band. It had been more than a year and a half since I had played for any band, and more than three years since we had played as our band. I had to pull the vehicle over at the next junction, I checked maps to reaffirm the route I was driving on. I’d take another forty minutes, it said.
On reaching the church atop the hill, I parked my car in a corner and walked up a flight of stairs to a space underneath a large tree. That was where my old set of people had assembled, and true to the real reason which had pushed me to drive this far to attend this wedding, I headed there first, before even wanting to walk inside the church to greet or meet the couple who were being blessed there. Under that tree, I saw faces that once were oft seen, all over the engineering college where I studied, now bloated up like balloons filled with fat, courtesy the beer and beef that were being taken in on a daily basis. I heard voices that were oft heard across the corridors of our college, now silenced in parts like the controlled mute button of a speaker, courtesy all the maturity that cobwebs of daily work routine had placed upon their schedules. I felt vibes of going back to a time that was oft filled with laughter all around the hill where our college campus was housed, now distant from me by many miles, like the longing for a house which I’ll never have.
“That girl of yours from college is here.” My friend with the familiar voice told me, a few minutes into our conversation about the old things we had cherished. I didn’t have many girls back in college to cross question him as to which one it was. I knew who he had referred to, but I knew not that she was here as well. It took another few minutes for the service in the church to wind up, and for those inside to start slowly marching in to the hall right beside the church where lunch for the crowd that had gathered on the bride’s and groom’s invitation would be served. The suave groom and his beautiful bride caught no attention of mine, for there were only resounds of my friends’ voice that was being played on a loop inside my head. I was busy looking for ‘that old girl of mine from college’. She stepped out of the church’s grand central door and joined in the procession towards the hall behind the bride and groom, her hair gently let free to dance to the rhythm of the wind, her dark red blouse adding flavour to the sight of her smile, and her ankle length skirt swaying across and beyond with each step she took. The familiar warmth of a hug from someone dear filled all across my heart. She never turned towards the direction of our tree, she kept marching ahead with the procession, over and into the hall. I had always been reminded by many that I should not cry because it was over, but smile because it had happened, and seeing her this day, I could only smile, notwithstanding whether there had ever been anything to cry over.
My mind drifted back to a day six years into my past, one where we were all decked up to perform an unplugged concert for an important event at college. There were two nights of sleepless practice that preceded the show day, and with just over a couple of hours left for us to enter on stage, I crashed on a makeshift bed made by putting two drawing board desks together to make a large flat space, wanting to get some rest to recharge myself for the show that was imminent that night. I lay down on the desks arranged beside an open window at a corner of the large hall above the Central Library of our engineering college campus. The hall was our Engineering Drawing Hall, located right at the centre of the main campus on the top of the hill, with windows all around which showed me everything that happened around us. In the background there were two of our bands musicians, one strumming gently on his guitar and another pushing light strokes on his keyboard with a piano tone, and there, just as I was about to close my eyes to fall into a trance, I saw something that struck me like a lighting in my underbelly, waking me up from my slumber, and pushing me into a whole new daze.
She was dressed in a blue salwar, and had her hair as free as raindrops drizzling in mild wind. There was an ethereal feel of a halo around her as she climbed up hill from the ladies hostel down below. I sat up on the desks where I had been lying on my back, with my eyes following the trajectory of her walk as she approached the building on the top of which I were. Light strokes of a piano and murmurs of guitar strings filled the air in the hall.
“Is she coming here?” The voice of one of our singers asked aloud from behind me.
“Yes.” I said. I had barely known her for a week then, but I’d seen her many times before on this campus. It had been more than a year since she had graced this college hill, and two since I had wandered here as lost as I had ever been. I’d seen her at a prayer meet where I played keyboard hidden in a nondescript corner, watching her as she gracefully spoke of the sanctity of faith. I had conversed with her during the fresher’s day event that I hosted, where she confidently shot back answers to my every wayward question. She were to host our concert that night, and I had written her the verses she would narrate. I thought I knew her, but I realized that this was perhaps the moment when I would start knowing her for real.
“We’ll finish off wishing the bride and groom before their family members start rushing onto the stage.” One of the wise ones from among my old college folks pointed out, as all the others who were there took their seats for the sumptuous lunch that awaited them. We made way for ourselves through the middle of that hall with everyone else seated, right to the stage at the other end of where we stood, in our endeavour to wish the couple the very best on their marriage day. I hopped on stage alongside the whole gang from college, but turned back to face the crowd in search of that one face which I always looked for in crowds whenever I was on stage. As I spotted her sitting between her parents at a corner table to the left of the stage and caught her eyes for a split second, I could realize not if she had recognized me with all the changes that had invaded my appearance. Yet, there was a sense of shock and surprise in her eyes that reminded me of a vivid memory. Without any effort from my end, my mind drifted back five years into the past, to a cold night in February 2012, when I’d been on stage setting tones for the next song on my keyboard, and the lead singer for the song had walked up to me to get his pitch right on scale.
“Don’t forget.” I’d remind him.
“Of course not.” He’d assure me.
And there, the most significant moment of my life at college would unfold, as our lead singer took centre stage and announced to the thousands of students across batches and faculty across departments who had gathered at the open-air theatre to listen to our band, that the next song would be a dedication from me, to her. From the man behind the keyboard to this ‘girl of his from college’. I’d frantically run my eyes all around the crowd to catch hers, and I’d find it, in a middle row on the left side of the crowd, she’d be sitting dumbstruck at the announcement that had just come her way, the most hallucinogenic statement she had ever heard at a concert, to be followed by her favourite song as she’d always remind me. And I’d smile from up above that stage at the mischievous confidence that the big-headed jerk in me carried, not wary of all the explanations and justifications I’d have to give to those professors who oversaw this event for the dramatically outrageous on-stage proposal that I had just made. Even at the end of the song, she sat with the same dumbstruck expression, not yet realizing if it were a dream or if it had happened for real.
“Smile!” The wedding photographer announced, loud enough to wake me up from the trance of my memory. I shook hands with my friend, the groom, and stepped down from that stage, shooting a glance at that table where she sat for one last time before I left the hall, and there she was, sitting with that familiar dumbstruck expression, wondering if it was real or imaginary, after all these years, all over again.
“We do silly things when we are young, don’t we?” I asked my singer friend as we treated ourselves to rice and chicken gravy served at the buffet counter outside the hall.
“We are still young.” He said. It could be license to keep being stupid, or a warning to be wary of things we did. Either be the case, I knew that I’d never regret some of those stupid things of mine. I finished my meal and waited for the others to complete their servings of dessert. I had always been averse to desserts, I had no love for the taste of ice creams. She stepped out of the main hall, right behind her parents, who had not seen enough of me to recognize me from amongst a throng. As she turned around involuntarily, our eyes met for a brief moment of rendezvous. I cloud see her red lips move in a muted utterance of my name, and her left hand gripping firmly on her mother’s shoulder. It had been long since my eyes had seen this pair of hers which was once my favourite. She seemed to be wary of something, but I remained content being hypnotized by her eyebrows again. Still, after all these years, like it were for the very first time. I gathered myself to take a step forward to go speak to her, but her mother seemed to pull her away into the middle of a group of old men to whom her father had been engaged in an animated conversation. She had been detached from the whole of that conversation even as her mother joined in, and she occasionally shot me a glance or two, realizing that I had been waiting, though at safe distance, for her to get done with the responsibility thrust on her by her parents, and let go of their grasp to come talk to me. But, there was no space for that talk. Her father finished the conversation and walked right out of the hall, and her mother followed suit. She turned back to shoot me a glance for one last time. There was a tinge of incompleteness, an ounce of regret and a spoonful of helplessness in her eyes, but still, all I could notice was how perfect her eyebrows were.
A million miles away you are,
Beyond my air, without my care.
A single smile beside would be,
Beyond all joy, my heart would see.
We hadn’t even said a word, but it had been a while since we’d spoken in such intimacy. I walked out of the hall towards the corner where I had parked my car, and mechanically carried out the tasks that were needed to get the engine running. Even as I pull down the handbrake and pushed the gear from neutral to first, my mind wandered in a strange mixture of regret and rejoice. I had regret for every pair of lips I had kissed in the year that had been, but rejoiced in only a smile I could see on hers. I had regret for every surrender I made to desire in the year that had been, but rejoiced in the happiness I could remember in our conversations from the past. I had regret for every bit of responsibility that I had ceased to take in the year that had been, but rejoiced in the freedom that I had gained by letting go of things that plagued me. I had regret in the sorrow I carried through the year that had been, but rejoiced in hope that I gained for the year about to come. I had regret in the chances I had missed in the year that had been, but rejoiced in the fact that there are many waiting for me to seize. I had regret in the things I had left unsaid to you in the year that had been, but I rejoice in the moment when I decided to let it be.
Down from the church hill, I pulled my car on the roadside to connect my phone to the cars speakers. It was going to be a long, solitary drive back home. I started ‘On the Nature of Daylight’, and let the reverbing tone of a lone violin fill the air of my car. As I looked out of my window, I saw her car driving down the church hill and exiting out of its main gate. She had been seated in the backseat, leaning forward in a lively conversation with both her parents in the front seat, happy and happening as you’d want every little family you know to be. She’d been just as content as I was within the cocoon of our families. Her father turned the car in the direction right opposite to where my car was headed, and for another split second, our eyes met, but this time, I put on my black aviator sunglasses and stepped on the accelerator, and both our vehicles spend on opposite directions on the same road. Our homes were on different ends of this long road, and our paths had merely coincided during a phase of our journey along this road. Sometimes I wonder, where we began and where we are, but then I remember, we’re still on fuel and our homes are far.
I had no more regrets in the directions which we both had chosen, and I’m glad for having run in to her somewhere on this road. I had no more regrets in letting go of her hand, and I rejoice in the memories we made in our years that had been.