(Characters in this story are purely fictional. Any resemblance to living or dead is merely a coincidence.)
The quickening pace of his footsteps fell to an abrupt stop. His glasses misted slowly as he took off the earphone buds. A familiar face smiled, “How are you?”
His mind raced through a haze of memories. Arranging words in his mind as he slowly wiped his glasses, he lied, “Fine”.
Her smile faded into oblivion. Gently bowing her head, she lowered her curled eyelashes, as she spoke, “Its been a long time”.
The world around ceased to exist. There they were, two souls, standing midst of a busy road, enveloped in each other’s silence. The traffic racing by did not matter, nor did the jostling walker-byes. Time stopped in a fashion in which it had not stopped for a long time now. Her head was still lowered, and he was staring at how beautiful she was, after all this time.
“Let’s catch up,” he said, breaking the silence between them. Nearby, a traffic officer came whistling, motioning them to move; obstructing the flow of people walking on the sidewalk was not too good an idea. “Okay”, she smiled. The very smile he had not seen now in a long while. The very smile that left him mesmerized not before too long ago.
The coffeehouse door chimed, as they entered. A not-too-busy place, the coffeehouse had for long been his retreat, on days of despair, and happiness both. The owner smiled and waved at him from across the counter. He nodded politely in return.
“Have a seat”, he said, pulling out a chair on the wooden table. She smiled, sitting on the chair. The cold metal stung her thighs, but none of that mattered now. He sat opposite, motioning the waiter to come over for orders.
“One milk tea for me please,” he said, with a pause, “what will you have?”
“Nothing”, she replied.
“Try the milk cappuccino, it’s great here!”, he suggested.
“I don’t drink milk”, she said.
That brought back memories.
Everything is bound to connect, isn’t it? After you know a person for too long, you start connecting everything you know, you have experienced; to them. It might be so simple as milk, nonetheless. Or cherry blossoms, or pencils, a color, or that hairstyle. Even the aroma of perfume that adorned her. He vividly recalled her shouting over the phone, pleading him not to drink milk, specially tea, as that caused gastric problems. He recalled her convincing him not to drink milk tea, which had always been his favorite, and him feeling like he cheated on her, every time he sipped the pure bliss, that is the tea.
“Oh yes! I remember”, he said, breaking the uneasy tension. She fidgeted on the chair, looking uncomfortable and rubbing her arms.
A moment passed before another word was spoken. A lot of tiny fleeting moments, moving at too great a pace to even keep track of. Each fleeting moment brought with it unspoken words, tiny flickering movements of eyes, painful gazes and even more painful memories. Whether the feeling was mutual, was completely unknown, as both of them sat on their chairs, uncomfortably numbed by their feelings. None could utter another word.
“So, one milk tea?”, the waiter spoke.
“Okay, I will have a chilled latte”, she dismissed the waiter.
“How are you?”, he asked.
“Fine, as always”, she replied with a smile. “How have you been?”
“Fine, as I said before”, he said.
“Oh! I already asked that”, she spoke breaking into a gentle giggle.
Another moment passed.
“Met anyone yet?”, she spoke with curious eyes.
“Not everyone is as lucky as you”, he replied with a somewhat dwindled smile. Her smile disappeared, as if it had been wiped off.
“Oh”, she paused, “Don’t worry, you will meet someone soon. Someone great, who understands how to code”, she said with a gentle smile.
He smiled in return. Though, deep inside he knew that the feeling of need to find someone else never came, the idea just never occurred. He could go on and on, walking on the road, swiping people on tinder and whatnot. But no one made his stomach flutter the way she did back then. The feeling just died, curled up somewhere inside him and sheathed itself in cold, scalding armor, impenetrable.
It’s amasing, isn’t it? It’s amazing how long you can spend with a person, knowing their likes and dislikes, knowing every bit of them there is to know, to drift into a comfort that speaks that they are yours and you are theirs, forever to come. It’s amazing how you can plan so much about the future, about how you are going to do what you are going to do, about arguing about the color of your house, when you two are not even together, getting into serious discussions, and arguments about things that do not even exist, that are not even there. And then one day, it all stops. All of it. You become strangers. Again.
“So… What’s new?”, he inquired.
“Well… nothing, except for the fact that I still have two more years to complete my education, and its pretty boring”, she giggled.
“Don’t worry. You will grow into the apron”, he replied with a smile. “You are going to be the greatest doctor in the world”.
They say you can speak lies, but your eyes speak the truth, always. So did his weary eyes.
Her bag buzzed. She picked the phone up.
“Hello! Yes. Yes, I am there… No, the coffeehouse… Sherpa’s coffee… Yeah, three minutes in the same direction… Okay, see you!”
Three minutes. That’s all that remained. That was all there was to it. He could choose, either to uncover his curled up feelings, or to let it go; either to scream his feelings out, or to choose silence. His heart began beating quicker than a sparrow’s. She looked into his direction with a smile.
“I will need to go for now”, she apologized, “Maybe we can meet later?”
“Sure”, said he.
As they walked out the coffeehouse, a gust of chilling air blew the pamphlets strewn on the street. Election campaigns. She rubbed her arms again.
“Cold ?”, he asked.
“No, it’s okay,” she said.
A bike stopped before them, and a guy came towards the two, stretching his hand out in a friendly manner. He shook it.
She waved bye before she sat on the bike after the guy. Clad in his heavy leather jacket, she looked comfortable now. And off they went, with a jerk on the engine. His heart froze.
The three minutes were over. He was sitting all alone now inside the coffeehouse, sipping his already-cold tea. The owner offered to warm it, but he declined politely. As he got up to leave, the frenzy of thoughts turned dead; no longer troubling him.
Maybe feelings are strong things, attachments, emotions. Maybe she was the one for him, maybe she was not. He chose to remain silent, for he had lost all feelings. The cold outside had numbed his fingers, but it mattered not to a man with numbed feelings. Maybe he did not feel all that he used to feel anymore. Maybe he did not love her now the way he used to love her back then. Maybe he was happy just by seeing her happy. Maybe none of it mattered now. People always shouted at him for pining over her. Even after four years. But maybe they never understood. Maybe it was what first love was.
As he walked out the door, the gust of air blew once again. This time, void of her aroma. Blowing the pamphlets again. How he wished gusts could blow away memories. Ah! But memories cannot be blown away. He had tried, but all in vain. He put on his glasses, and tucked the ear buds inside his ear. Rubbing his palms against each other, he walked down the road, not a soul in sight.
And he said to himself, “One of these days, I am going to get myself a bike. Its too long a distance to walk”, as Narayan Gopal gently whispered into his ears.