Isn’t it ironic?

Ajay hung up the phone with his wife and sank into the Sofa in his hotel room staring at the non-descript piece of art on the wall. He was jolted out of his thoughts when the clock radio in his hotel room suddenly started playing, most likely from an alarm set by the previous occupant of the room. It was tuned to a preset station with Alanis Morissette crooning “Isn’t it ironic?….” “Who the hell would need to set an alarm for 9:30 PM?” Ajay mumbled to himself. The radio was at a low enough volume that it did not merit him getting up from the couch and turn it off or tune it to another station. He had heard that song many a time before, but it never really registered with him. Now, it seemed to mirror what he was going through. It was indeed ironic that the most meaningful conversation he had with his wife in the past six months without it devolving into trivial accusations and ending with his wife sobbing uncontrollably was with him in a hotel room two time zones away. Ajay got up from the sofa and stood by the window watching the flights land and take off from the airport a few miles away and thought to himself “Ironic indeed Ms Morisette.. Ironic indeed!”.

A colleague of his got into an unfortunate Ski accident and Ajay had been pressed to make the trip to Denver to cover for his injured colleague in the middle of winter to meet with an important client. “It is just three days…. You go in Wednesday and be back on Friday….or if everything goes well, Thursday!” his boss assured him. He made the trip reluctantly… hopeful that it would last just two days instead of three. Now, it seemed like a welcome relief being away from home for the couple of days. Somehow being away from each other seemed to have calmed both Ajay and his wife down and going by their last conversation, it seemed like their relationship was salvageable after all. After the all day meetings with the clients, he was hopeful that his meetings would be wrapped the next day on Thursday and he hoped to make it back home earlier than scheduled. He made reservations at his wife’s favorite restaurant for Dinner for the next day and he was hopeful that they were going to turn a new leaf after the rough patch they had been going through lately.

Ajay nervously stole a look at his watch and then popped his head back straight up and pretended to be interested in hearing the speaker in the conference room. He was already fifteen minutes past his scheduled end time for the meeting. The details of the presentation did not interest Ajay much. Ajay managed to get his ticket preponed to a flight leaving Thursday evening after spending a couple of hours on the phone with the airlines dozing in out of hearing on-hold music the previous evening. All he wanted to do was to pack up and head back straight to the airport so that he could make it in time for the flight back to San Francisco and take his wife out to Dinner that night. He glanced out the window every few minutes to see if it had started snowing yet as there was prediction for a snowstorm later that evening. The last thing he wanted was to get stuck in the airport during a snowstorm and miss the chance to carry last night’s conversation forward with his wife. The speaker wrapped up and Ajay quickly completed his formal handshakes and promises of follow-ups with the client’s team and was out in a jiffy. In the interest of time, he decided to forgo the checkout at the hotel counter and walked out with a sense of urgency. A cold breeze hit him as soon as he stepped out of the hotel and he found himself sniffling a bit even as he welcomed the fresh air after being in the conference room since the morning. He hailed a cab to the airport and found himself in the security check line soon enough. By the time he got to his gate, it had started to snow pretty heavily and he saw the information screen flash a “delayed” sign next to his flight number. A dull ache filled his chest as his dejected demeanor seemed to match the weather outside. “Did he miss his best chance to make meaningful progress to mend the relationship with his wife?” he wondered.

The line at the gate grew longer with each passing minute with impatient passengers demanding to know the exact departure time. Ajay thought it was pointless to even get in line given the number of people already there. He managed to find a seat in the waiting area and disinterestedly gazed through a magazine that he had bought on the flight into Denver. He switched to browsing random stuff on his cellphone, but nothing seemed to hold his attention. The flight status still showed “Delayed”. After waiting for a few more minutes, he decided there was no chance in hell that the flight was leaving any time soon given that there was no flight at the gate yet. He texted his wife indicating that he is going to be delayed because of the weather. She replied “OK!” He did not know what to make of it. Was she disappointed? Was she angry? Did she even realize the situation he was in? He commiserated with himself. Realizing that there was little he could do waiting at the gate, he dragged his luggage through the crowd to the end of the terminal to food court area to get a coffee or maybe even something to eat. Not able to make up his mind about what to get, he got in line at Starbucks. Even though the menu held no surprises Ajay was still intently gazing through the menu when his turn came up to order. He was about to order when a lady hurriedly made her way to the counter and seemed to half ask his permission to make a request to the lady at the counter. Ajay nodded his approval looking at her from the periphery of his eye.

“You are out of sugar over there… could you…?” She said.

Dressed in jeans and bright blue stop with a matching scarf, she held a winter coat on one forearm along with the cup of coffee and she was dragging her luggage with the other. She seemed to have too many things on her hands but she managed to make it look effortless. Judging by her skin tone, she seemed to be Indian or at least South Asian. Her long free flowing black hair covered half her face but something about her struck Ajay. He knew her from somewhere. He was still staring at her when the lady at the counter handed her a couple of packets of sugar to her. She took them and with a quick twirl managed to clear the hair off her face and land it behind her shoulder and said “Thanks” to Ajay. Ajay nodded his head in amazement at her good looks as he was still racking his brain to figure out where he knew her from. Ajay’s confused stare evoked a smile in her as she turned back and disappeared into the crowd.

Ajay started to walk slowly back to the gate, his mind still occupied by the woman he met at the coffee shop. In his mind, he went through all the places he worked and lived and tried to figure out where he knew her from but still failed to connect the dots. Maybe it was just his mind indulging in some wishful thinking trying to associate him with a beautiful woman that he had just met, he thought to himself. As he reached the gate he glanced toward the flight information board and noticed that it sill showed the same status and there was no sign of any flight at the gate either. Ajay was sipping his latte as he waited for the eventuality of his flight getting cancelled as he barely heard the voice over the speakers call out

“United airlines paging Shy-luja varma….United airlines paging Shy-luja varma. You are requested to come to Gate 3”.

He would have ignored it as usual had it not been the name of a girl from his neighborhood way back when he was in high school. Ajay realized that Gate 3 was right behind where he was standing and he turned around to see if anyone would show up. His heart skipped a beat when he saw the same woman that he met at the coffee shop hurriedly make her way to the information counter. It was her…It was really her! His mind was not playing any tricks on him.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It was a week into the summer vacation after finishing up his ninth grade that Shailaja’s family moved into the neighborhood. Ajay’s summer vacation plans went for a toss as soon as he saw her and all he wanted to do was to talk to her and spend as much time with her as possible. He invented excuses to get out of his usual summer trip to his maternal grandmother’s place. He ditched the early morning cricket sessions with his friends and took up jogging once he found out that Shailaja and her Army major dad were regular morning joggers. His neighbor’s daughter struck up a strong friendship with Shailaja. He would go to his neighbors’ house under flimsy pretexts if he found out that Shailaja was visiting them. During the evening cricketing sessions, Ajay made every effort to impress if he saw Shailaja with the other neighborhood girls watching the proceedings. Ajay could not help but stare at Shailaja’s beautiful eyes. In fact everything about her mesmerized him — The way she laughed, the nonchalant caressing of her straight long black hair, her impeccable selection of earrings, the way she stretched out her “nooooooo” to voice disapproval. If he ever found himself in the same gathering along with Shailaja, he would don his pseudo intellectual hat and rant about the evils of unbridled Capitalism and the mindless aping of the west by Indian Youth. He would recite English poetry that he learned by rote specifically for this purpose, Jump in to translate telugu phrases to both hindi and English for Shailaja’s benefit. It was pretty evident to all the kids in his group as to who the target of his entire attention seeking exercise was. But, what was a totally besotted teenager with all the time in the world supposed to do? And Shailaja understood it as well. As someone who moved very often because of her Father’s job, she had developed a keen sense of judging people quickly. She found Ajay’s antics mostly harmless, sometimes funny and even occasionally endearing. In the ensuing weeks, Ajay managed to get into Shailaja’s good graces and Shailaja seemed to have taken a liking to Ajay as well. They would manage to squeeze out their own suborbital conversation within the din of surrounding kids. Ajay could not think about anything else but her and in his mind he was making plans to be with her for the rest of his life. Then, just as suddenly as Shailaja came into his life, she left even more abruptly. Just a few days before the end of the summer vacation, her dad got called up for duty elsewhere and Shailaja left with barely a day’s notice. The evening before she left, she came to say bye to her friends of a couple of months. Though she had been used to moving very frequently due to her dad’s job, this one was very tough on her. Everyone in their group was quite sad to see their new friend leave so quickly. Ajay was devastated, barely able to eek out a “bye…. keep in touch” with his eyes filled to the brim but somehow managed to not overflow yet. That was to come later as Ajay flung himself on his bed and buried his face in the pillow. Ajay never knew what a heart ache was until then. Ajay hopes of receiving some correspondence from Shailaja died a slow painful death in the coming months as he half-heartedly bowed to academic pressures exerted by his parents and peers.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ajay nervously stood up as his eyes followed Shailaja walk away from the counter towards a secluded corner and start talking on the phone. “Was it really her? Should he go talk to her? What if it wasn’t her? There could be a million Shailaja Varma’s out there.. well not really….. but..” Ajay’s mind was filled with thoughts that were swaying back and forth as he made his way over to talk to the lady that he met back at the Coffee shop. Ajay pretended to look at the departures board filled with “delayed” and “Cancelled” until he made sure that she was not on the phone.

“I think I know you!” Ajay walked up to her and used the clichéd pickup line without really realizing it. But it was a little too late for that now.

She was mildly surprised to see the person that she met a little while ago.

“Oh yes, the chivalrous man at the coffee shop. Thank you again. You saved my life, I am hypoglycemic!” She said mockingly.

“No, I think I really know you from a previous life” Ajay tried to ratchet up the sarcasm as she looked quizzically at Ajay trying to gauge his seriousness.

“Hyderabad, summer holidays, about 20 years ago….” Ajay continued as her eyes widened as he now was at ease having received his confirmation that it was indeed the Shailaja that he knew from way back.

“Yes.. wait .. wait.. Let me guess.. Ajay!!” Shailaja squealed in delight and gave Ajay a hug. Ajay was a bit taken aback by the welcome affection showered by his first love of his life.

“So, you do remember me…” Ajay said, his face beaming.

“Oh yeah, how could I forget the best summer of my life and the firebrand revolutionary and aspiring poet that I met that summer?” Shailaja laughed out loud.

“Wow.. she really remembers me!” Ajay thought to himself as he lost himself in her eyes just as he used to.

“So.. how you been? When did you land up stateside? Where are you now?” Shailaja peppered Ajay with a rapid fire round of questions.

“Good.. about 10 years ago. SF.. bay area” Ajay replied.

“How about you? Where are you now?” Ajay repeated the same set of questions.

“I am doing OK…NYC.. “ Shailaja replied.

“Married? Kids?” Ajay probed further.

“Briefly.. No… How about you?” Shailaja replied candidly.

“Barely..No” Ajay countered with equal sincerity.

Conversation flowed for the next hour or so as both of them, completely oblivious to the restless crowd around and the awful weather outside, caught up on everything that transpired in their lives and others that they used to know for the past two decades. He could not help but notice the irony in the fact that multiple efforts of his over the years to trace her yielded no results, but he would run into her on a trip that he should never have taken in the first place. Ajay found himself occasionally nodding even as he lost track of the conversation as he stared at Shailaja just as he used to back in the day completely mesmerized by her.

Their conversation was interrupted by a collective and loud ‘Ohhhhh!!!” from the crowd and as they soon found, the reason for that was the airport was shutdown for the day due to inclement weather. The Departures board updated to flash “Cancelled” from top to bottom. The staff at the counters was receiving the brunt of the frustration of the gathered passengers.

“Looks like we are stuck at the airport.. I tried calling a few hotels earlier anticipating this situation and looks like they are booked solid” Shailaja said.

“Yeah.. looks like it” Ajay nodded. He did not mind it at all.

Just then he realized he did not checkout from the hotel that afternoon.

“I might have a way out…” Ajay said not wanting to sound presumptuous. “I was supposed to leave tomorrow and thankfully did not check out this afternoon as I was in a hurry. So, if you want the hotel room, its yours!” Ajay flashed the hotel room card from his wallet.

“And you?” Shailaja quizzed.

“I had enough of hotel rooms for the past couple of days… Besides, I have my iPad loaded with ‘Game of thrones’”. I could easily pass the night here” Ajay said.

“Really! You have displayed enough chivalry for one day. Besides, its not like you are a stranger and I am more than capable of defending myself, should you resort to any mischief” Shailaja playfully put up a fighter pose.

Ajay texted his wife about the airport shutdown after his call went unanswered on the cab ride to the hotel.

The neatly done hotel room seemed like heaven after the chaotic situation at the airport. Ajay and Shailaja freshened up and continued the banter over dinner that they ordered to the room. Shailaja spoke candidly about her marriage that did not work out. She seemed to hold no regrets and she spoke of how her job constant travel requirements barely gave her any time to contemplate other things. Ajay spoke about his marital troubles and how he hoped to put in extra efforts to make it work. Shailaja offered words of encouragement and hope that things would work out for him. Their conversation veered towards things of a less serious nature after that and they talked about movies, politics, cricket and anything and everything under the sun. For Ajay, it seemed like he was transported back in time two decades ago to the neighborhood play ground that they used to meet at. But that also meant, the memories of his heartbreak that he experienced came back to the fore. He had to know….

“How come you did not write to me after you left? You promised me!” Ajay asked.

Shailaja looked at Ajay silently surprised at the sudden question. What surprised her even more was the realization that he still carried that disappointment in his heart after two decades.

“I did try to….. My parents saw the letter that I wrote to you and I got a pretty severe warning. You know how things were…” Shailaja tried to explain as she instinctively placed her hand on Ajay’s.

Ajay looked into Shailaja’s eyes as if he was seeking a better explanation for the upheaval that went through. Shailaja stood up from the table that were sitting at on opposite sides, came over to Ajay and kissed him. Ajay reciprocated as his years of unexplained angst melted away.

~~~~~

Ajay was awakened by his phone ringing. He carefully lifted Shailaja’s hand off of him and placed it to the side taking care not to wake her up. She looked radiant even while asleep with her disheveled hair a far cry from her fastidious appearance the previous evening when he met her. He groped for the phone on the side table and was surprised to see half a dozen calls from his wife and a voicemail. Ajay got up from the bed and listened to the voicemail from his wife.

“Ajju, I am so sorry that things have not been well between us. I know most of it is my fault. I promise that I will do whatever it takes. I thought about it last night and I know how much you want kids. I feel that I am ready for it now. I wanted to tell you this in person last night, but I might as well tell this you to now. Call me as soon as you get this message. Love you and see you soon!”

Ajay let out a deep sigh as he came back to the bed. Shailaja was still sleeping peacefully.

“One of life’s cruel ironies is meeting the right person at the wrong time” Ajay thought to himself as he stepped out of the room to call his wife.