It was already past 9 in the morning. The market was about to open, and here I was- paying the price of being a good neighbor. I jabbed the doorbell impatiently. She opened the door right away as if she had been waiting there the whole time.
I handed her the milk packets. It was not the first time too! She kept forgetting to pick up her mail, her newspapers, milk packets, and it was casually left upon me to dutifully ring the bell and hand the things over to her. I got the feeling that she was ‘forgetting’ these things on purpose to try and flirt with me.
She had moved here a few months back, and I had made the mistake of asking if I had met her somewhere earlier. I thought she was a TV actor or something- she looked so familiar and yet I’d never met her before. I couldn’t place where I’d seen her. She must have taken that as a sign of flirtation from me- and now she just wouldn’t quit giggling and smiling every time we spoke.
As I handed the milk packets over, I looked up at her only to be polite and regretted it immediately. She wore a thin, pink maxi, had green goo all over her hair, and was smiling at me. I looked at her vaguely familiar face again and found myself staring, trying to think where had I seen that face.
Gosh! So obvious! So embarrassing!
“Thank you, Rosesh”, she said. It looked like she was about to say something more. Before she could get another word out, I muttered something and dashed over to the safety of my own house across the hall.
Old hag! Who was she kidding by putting all that poo on her hair? She was a hundred years old, and everyone knew that. Why couldn’t she find someone her own age!
The rest of the day was uneventful. My mom was driving me up the wall as usual.
“It’s high time, Rosesh. Get a real job!”
“Ma, trading IS a real job! Besides, if I take a real job, who will take care of you while you lie in bed screaming inane instructions into the air?”
“There are people for that. If you had a real job, you would be able to hire someone.”
“I don’t want to hire anyone. You will annoy the nurse into murdering you in your sleep.”
“If you don’t get a real job, you will never be able to marry”
“Ma! What is wrong with you? You’re obsessed. I don’t want to get married!”
“If you had children, you would know what I’m going through. But you will probably never have any since you refuse to get married.”
“All the more reason, isn’t it?”.
My mom suffered a fall a few years back, and since then, she was insufferable. So much so that my elder brother living in Borivali shipped her to me right after that.
“Can you please take care of Ma until Meera’s board exams are over?”
“I don’t know…. What would I have to do?”
“You will figure it out! Don’t worry, it is only for a month”
“Um. Okay. Only until the exams, right?”
“Learn to take some responsibility. She’s not only my mother! Yes. It is only for a month. It’s not like you have a full-fledged family there with you. SoBo air will do her good. I wouldn’t have said if you were married..”
“Okay! okay!!” Everyone knew the power of the M-word. Well. That was 2 years back. Meera is in university now and Ma is still here with me.
A few days later I saw her again. Not Ma. Her her!
I was entering the lift and she was just outside the elevator, wearing inappropriately tiny (for her age) yellow shorts and a summer top. She was trying to drag some giant ugly dusty chair into the lift. I silently debated taking the stairs against socializing/helping her. Stairs lost. I decided I did not want to climb 7 flights of stairs, even if it meant facing her and being super super awkward again.
“Where did you get this thing from?”, I asked looking at the chair with disdain.
“Old Jogeshwari market. Quite a bargain too! It has a beautiful history. I think things are like people too. A little love is what every one needs! Just needs a little work here and there, and it’s ready to be back in business.”
The innuendos! Is it her or am I the sicko in this scenario? I silently looked at the LED floor numbers instead of acknowledging her statement.
When we reached our floor, she went to her door and took her time opening her apartment, and I was left to get the beastly chair out of the lift. There was no going back on this unintended good Samaritan mission now. I took a deep breath and slowly moved the heavy antique into her home. I had never been inside her house, but I imagined it would resemble Ms.Havisham’s house from The Great Expectations- Old, damp, dusty, and run down.
I was utterly unprepared for what I saw. The door opened to a spacious, sunny, and airy room with polished wooden flooring. I saw lovely, well cared for green plants all over the house and a spatter of eclectic furniture, beautiful rugs, and lamps. It looked like something out of a magazine. She deposited the keys on the console next to the door and turned around with a sheepish smile as if she’s been caught red-handed with some secret. It was as if she KNEW what I was thinking. I muttered something that resembled ‘nice apartment’ and turned around when she reached out and held my hand in an impulsive gesture.
I jumped back (I may have squealed. Not sure whose voice was that!) as if I got some big shock. Deeply embarrassed, I gave a maniacal little laugh to which she said, “I’m so sorry! I just wanted to ask if you want to stay for some coffee? You helped me get the chair upstairs, this is the least I can do!”.
In any other circumstance, I would have flat refused with some excuse. But the spectacle that I had made just moments back forced me to reconsider. What kind of man would she think I am! So I nodded a yes and followed her to the sofa.
I looked around as she went about the business of making coffee in her open kitchen. There were framed-pictures of her children and grandchildren everywhere. But I did not see any pictures of her husband.
I asked her, “So you live here alone?”
“Yes. There is no husband in the picture”. I almost fell off the sofa at her choice of words.
She caught me getting all awkward on how to take the conversation ahead, and smiled genially.
“He left us when the kids were small. We eventually divorced. I brought up the kids on my own. So yeah, there is no husband in the picture.. and no husband in the pictures”. And then she laughed at her own words.
If I were not so unnerved, I would have enjoyed the pun. It was exactly my type of humor, but more than anything I was surprised at how well she read my thoughts. It made me feel … exposed and uncomfortable.
In my attempt to feel less awkward and to know more about her, I walked over to her overloaded bookshelf. It had everything from cheesy girly romance to heavy economics books, but one that caught my eye was a well-thumbed copy of “Mid Summer Night’s Dream” by Shakespeare.
Before I could stop myself, I ended up blurting, “I loved Mid Summer
Night’s Dream! We did a play at my college”.
“I know. We were in that together. I played Hermia and you were ..” She said.
“..Nick Bottom” we finished together.
“Anita?? Is that you?” I remarked incredulously!
“Yes, dummy! All this time I was living next to you, and you didn’t even recognize me!”
“How… did this even happen? Did you know? Why didn’t you say something sooner? When did you come back from the US”
“Of course. I recognized you the instant we met, but I was having too much fun watching you behave like a grumpy old man!”
“I am not old!! You are!!” .. we both broke into laughter and could not stop laughing until my insides ached.
I had a huge crush on Anita when we were in college together and would obsess about her. When we were cast in the play together, I played Nick Bottom only so I could see her laugh at my antics. When right after college she got married and moved to the US, I put her into a mental trunk at the back of my mind and got on with my life.
My life- as if I had a lot of it. I never found enough patience and courage to get married. I had a few romantic interests along the way, but none felt like home to me, and soon I crossed the tricky ‘marriageable age’.
Even after Facebook etc, I never felt the inclination to look her up. Somehow I did not want to know anything more. I was content with the memories I had. In many ways, I felt as if my life had frozen in time after college. I never grew up.
And now, meeting her after all this time I cannot describe the feeling! I felt really old and really young at the same time. A warm fuzzy feeling filled my heart to the brim. I cannot describe what took over me when I crossed the room in a few steps, walked over to her, and enveloped her into a warm bear hug.
It felt like someone had hit the play button on my life again.
I looked at her deep brown eyes, and somehow I think she knew what I was thinking.