It was the last episode of the season. There was something about science fiction TV series that he always ended up messing up with his disciplined life. He had lost track of time, and it was 4:45 in the morning. He removed his headphones, stood up, and searched for a cigarette in the cigarette packet lying on his unkempt bed. It was empty. He had smoked all of the ten cigarettes that night alone.

“At 9:30 AM is my office,” he said to himself. “And at 7:30 AM I should be waking up. What am I doing at 4:45 in the morning?” He scoffed. “Is there any point of sleeping now, at all?” he murmured again.

The next moment he started looking for his bike keys. The urge was driving him mad. He desperately needed that doze of nicotine. He needed it to stay focused and not to fall asleep.

“Anyways, there is nothing much to do in the office today.” He sighed and rummaged through things on his bed.

After much struggle, he found his bike keys at last.

There is nothing better than having a vehicle of your own. It doesn’t matter whether it is a car or a cheap commuter bike like mine, he thought. At least I am free. To go wherever, and whenever I want.

No. He wouldn’t have picked up his bike keys had there been a need. But since he had to smoke, he could think of going out even at this odd hour, and to anywhere. Such is the sad state of affairs when it comes to a heavy smoker.

He slowly opened the door of his flat and then closed it. The automatic lock made an audible clicking sound, but it wasn’t loud enough to wake up his other flat-mates. He then scurried towards the lift lobby and pressed the button for the lift, which slowly started moving upwards, towards the 15th Floor, where he stood. The lift was quite old and made a strange squeaking sound, every time it crossed a level. As if it wanted to say — “I am old, and I can’t take it anymore”.

But so did Ajay. He couldn’t take the wait any longer. He remembered the incident during his internship in Delhi, when he had walked almost four kilometers in the dark and lonely streets, at 2 AM, just in search of a cigarette shop.

“There is nothing that can stop us, the smokers,” he said to himself. “We are fools. You are ruined, Ajay, you fool,” he sniggered at his self-deprecating remark. “You are ruined,” he repeated. “Why did you try smoking, at all? Why did you take the first puff five years ago? Now look at you. You have become a slave of tobacco… to these little pieces of paper tubes. You will die a miserable death. And you will die early.”

While he was drowning himself in the gruesome thoughts of his grim future, the doors of the lift finally opened. He entered inside, pressed the down button and switched on the fan. Though it was not so hot, he was moist with sweat, for he always perspired in closed places. As soon as the doors closed, he turned towards the life-size mirror in the lift and started arranging his hair. Ajay was generally very conscious of looking himself in the mirror, especially if anyone else was inside that lift too, but at 4:50 AM the mirror was all his.

He started rubbing his eyes, the sides of which were wet and sticky with dirt. Suddenly his eyes focused on his lips.

“Oh my god! What I have done to them,” he said to himself.

In just one year of excessive smoking, he had turned his lips from baby pink to black. While he was busy analyzing his face, for the signs of the self-abuse by tobacco, the lift stopped at level 10. The door opened and realizing that Ajay turned towards the door. There stood an attractive girl, probably of the same height as his own, in shorts and jogging shoes.

Ajay, now extremely conscious, moved to one corner of the elevator, to give her the space to step in.

But the girl looked at him disapprovingly, and said to him, “It is okay, you go.”

The doors closed again.

“What just happened now?” he asked himself. He then turned and faced the mirror again. What is wrong with my face? He thought.

Girls always told him that he was cute and looked kind. So what was it? What scared the girl so much, that she abandoned the idea of sharing the lift with him?

The slow lift stopped again at level eight, and the doors opened yet again. But there was no one there.

“Probably a kid pressed the lift button for fun,” Ajay mused. “But at this hour?” he asked himself. “It doesn’t make any sense!”

After waiting for a second or two, Ajay pressed the door-close switch. But just when the doors were getting closed, he saw the same girl running down the staircase. The girl too glanced at him, but with the same disgusted look that Ajay had noticed earlier on her face, back when he first saw her on the 10th floor.

He turned back and faced the mirror yet again.

“What is so disgusting about me?” he questioned himself. “I do have a decent and calm face. Don’t I? Or did she sense that I was ogling her bare legs? Wait! Was I really leering at her legs? No! I spent more time looking at her face than at her legs.”

He suddenly remembered an incident about which there were a huge hue and cry in the media, just two days back. A girl in Delhi was reportedly raped in broad daylight, that too close to her home.

Does she consider me a potential rapist too? He shuddered at that thought. Do I have the eyes of such pathetic criminals and sexual predators, who have no respect for womankind?

“No. I never ogled random women,” he said aloud. “Never. It is cheap! Damn Cheap! I can never stoop down so low. I am not an imbecile or a pervert. Sex isn’t the only thing that occupies my mind. I am much more than my genitals.”

Engrossed in such thoughts, he looked at himself from top to bottom and noticed that one side of his shirt was untucked. He tucked the shirt properly back again and looked deep into his own eyes.

“I am not a desperate man,” he said to himself. “I am not what she thinks I am.”

The doors opened again at level four and Ajay stepped out of the lift this time. He could still, hear the noise of her footsteps. She was at the fifth floor. He held the doors of the lift open, till the woman arrived. She looked at him, this time with suspicion.

Ajay said, “Hey! You can take the lift. My floor has arrived.”

He stepped out of the lift. And seeing that, the lady entered inside. The doors closed again, and this time it was Ajay who had taken the stairs.

“This episode says nothing about me. Nothing at all,” he murmured as he descended the staircase. “It tells about men in general.” He scoffed. “Is this is what has become of a man?” he asked himself. “Why should I blame her, at all? She did the right thing,” he said emphatically. “Of course it was prudent of her. Not to be alone with a complete stranger. That too at this wee hours. But are men, being perceived so lowly by women, in general?”

Engrossed in the storm of his thoughts, Ajay hadn’t noticed that he had reached close to the parking lot. He stopped for a moment and took one deep breath.

“Why am I overanalyzing just a small incident?” he said to himself. “I have the keys, and I need to smoke. Yes. That’s it! ”

He knew of one such cigarette shop, which opened at five in the morning. Hurriedly he unlocked his bike and pressed the ignition button. Soon he was riding his bike towards the exit gates. But before he could leave his society, all of a sudden, a lady appeared on the path in front of his motorcycle. The same girl who had refused to share the lift with him. Both of them looked into each other’s eyes intently. As if they were sizing each other up. Ajay felt awkward. Nevertheless, he maintained an expression of nonchalance on his face. Suddenly, the woman in front of him smiled. She didn’t look disapproving this time. Instead, she appeared kind, for she had realized that Ajay had lied and taken the staircase instead of her. He smiled back at her and waited for the path to get clear. Two seconds later, Ajay was all alone once again. He released the brakes and the clutch and turned on the accelerator once again.

The exchange of smiles had affected him. He didn’t feel the need to smoke anymore. All he wanted was some fresh cool air and a nice cup of hot ginger tea. He exited the gates and raced his bike on the empty streets. Away from where the cigarette shop was located.

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