Rana Pratap Saikia
Abhishek looked expectantly as a tall lady lazily sauntered into the cafe, hoping it was her. Unfortunately, it wasn't. He looked around nervously at the small early-morning gathering in the cafe. A boy and girl, in school uniform, sipping coke while staring at each other's eyes, the boy nudging the girl's feet under the table. Early lovebirds. His eyes drifted to a middle-aged couple wearing matching tracksuits and talking animatedly while fondling a large glass of a fruit juice in each of their hands. His eyes finally darted to a portly man wearing a smartly-tailored business suit who was speaking frantically into his phone, his coffee and cookies left untouched. The waiter who had lodged next to him as soon as he had sat down, made his presence felt yet again. "Ahem," he cleared his throat, "Anything for you, sir?" Despite his finite resources, Abhishek ordered a cup of cappuccino. He took a small sip from the cup, and it immediately burned his throat. He was blowing into his cup of coffee in order to cool it down when he saw her arrive from the corner of his eye.
She breezed in elegantly with the kind of poise reserved for English nobility of the highest ranking. She was wearing a wine-colored formal shirt and smart-fitting pants paired with expensive brown crocodile leather shoes. Her long hair was neatly tied into a bun and she carried a large 'Hidesign' handbag slung over her shoulder. His heart almost skipped a beat. "So", she addressed him while taking a seat across from where he sat "Be quick about it." Her perfectly mascara'd dark grey eyes drilled into him for a moment, further weakening his defences. He knew he could not afford to be intimidated. At least not today. "You said you'd be here by 9. It's close to 10 am," he countered. He knew he had to put her on the back foot to elicit any kind of response from her. Her eyes rested on the dial of her expensive 'Guess' watch for a moment, before she replied: "Traffic. Trust me, I don't want to create a scene. People know me here." As if to prove her point, she waved her hand at the waiter who had been shadowing Abhishek and he immediately arrived at the table, as if dragged by an invisible lasso. "The usual, ma'am?" he asked. "Yes, do make haste, I have to leave in minutes," she responded. "You are aware, of course, that I have come all the way from Guwahati just to see you?" Abhishek asked her from across the table, a trace of hurt palpable in his voice. The cracks were starting to appear. She fixed a stern gaze upon him and her nostrils flared up. He realized that she would blow up if he failed to diffuse the situation, so he enquired: "How's everyone? Mom? Dad?" and he immediately regretted asking the question. "Dad expired last month froma stroke" was her curt reply. "Oh,"he responded, and try as he might, he could not find words to comfort her. An "oh" was all he could muster.
Abhishek realized how distant they had become in a span of months, almost like strangers. Life had pulled them apart so abruptly that she had even neglected to inform him about the passing of her dad. They sat in silence for a few moments and the ice that had settled between the two bit hard like the cold winds of Tawang. Meanwhile, the waiter appeared with a single cup of black coffee and a corn-and-mayonnaise sandwich. Abhishek was most relieved when the waiter broke the silence with a carefully practiced, "Here you go, ma'am." She looked up from her smartphone, as if awakened from a reverie. "Would you care to share? I am so sorry I forgot to order for two," she said. Thus, they sliced the sandwich in half and each proceeded to poke and prod at their half with thoughts swirling in their minds, which were in such a state that food could hardly be a distraction. "I am sorry about what happened to your dad," he finally managed, as the looming silence was starting to become unbearable. To him, anyway. He looked up at her and their eyes met for a moment. He thought she was going to cry, and she almost did, but she collected herself. "I have to leave in fifteen minutes," she stated matter-of-factly.
Abhishek checked his watch, which had been a gift from her on his twenty-third birthday, more than a year ago. It was 10:45. He had precisely fifteen minutes left to speak his mind. As he readied himself to express his feelings, it started to rain. What had initially begun as a mild shower, soonmetamorphosed into a torrential downpour. He looked across the table at her, and in her doe-like grey eyes, frightened as well as kind, he thought he could almost sense a flicker of emotion. He recognized that look. It was exactly the one she used to give him during the early days. As if the meanness of the world frightened her, and she wanted him to shield her from every conceivable harm. He found it odd that she should give him that look now, after all these months had erased much of what had existed between the two of them. There was much that he wanted to tell her. His mind drifted back three years..
They had first met in 2016 while pursuing a diploma in Mass Communication from Cotton University. On the first day of class, he had felt out of place, because he had arrived a little late and the other students already seemed to have formed themselves into cliques. From the corner of his eye, he espied a particularly tall girl make her way into the class and she eventually ventured over to his desk, because all the others were already occupied. The monsoon rain had been pounding hard against the roof that particular morning, so he didn't hear her properly when she spoke to him the first time. The second time, she spoke louder: "Is this seat occupied?". "No, make yourself comfortable," he replied back. In a fraction of a second, he had looked her over. She was unusually tall for a girl. At least 5'8, he deduced. She had a healthy tan complexion and a distinct mole on her chin, with a single transparent hair sticking out of it. Her eyes were deep with an inter-mingling of innocence and experience and it was hard to tell which trait dominated. She had the hard, muscled frame of someone who played sports. She was momentarily taken aback by his fluent English, and sat down next to him. And that is how it began.
Rohini Sen belonged to an affluent Bengali family in Shillong and her father was the editor of an English daily with wide circulation. She had played volleyball, which she gave up during her tenth standard to focus on her studies. Her favourite band was Queen. Pink wasfavourite color. She was a big fan of the 'Harry Potter' series of books. She loved dogs and despised cats. She had particular fondness for roses, especially red ones. She used to love watching 'Golden-Era' Hollywood classics. All these small details about her life he had found unusually endearing, and he never tired of hearing her speak about her family. For one, he had already started harboring mysterious tingly sensations for her in his heart and secondly, talking to her and thinking about her served as a distraction from his own domicile. His father, a retired postman and raging alcohol, struggled to put his kids through college, and his mother was a housewife and victim of his father's abuse. His older brother had recently flunked out of engineering college after three consecutive years of back papers. Abhishek began devoting all his time and energy to his studies, but no matter how hard he tried, she always used to perform better, to his utter chagrin.
But despite their differences, they grew ever-closer. In the third month of their twelve-month diploma, he had finally proposed to her. It was the month of October, just after the end of the Durga Puja holidays and before classes began. He had asked her out to a local Guwahati barista. He remembered putting on his newly-purchased smart Puja clothes and checking and re-checking his impression in the mirror. Then, he had proceeded to douse his hair in 'Brylcream' and nearly empty his brother's 'Axe Signature' deodorant spray on his shirt. He reached half an hour early, and by the time she arrived, he had already memorized all the lines that he would speak to her. But his preparations all became undone the moment she breezed into the barista with the steady gait of a lioness. She was wearing a peach-colored salwar-kameez and he could discern a faint dab of mascara beneath her eyes. She had accessorized with large, loopy glittery earrings and a pearlescentnosering adorned her nose. The aura that emanated from her struck him dumb and he immediately forgot his rehearsed lines. "May I be excused for a moment? Nature's call," he said as soon as she had sat down, and ran to the bathroom, while she looked at him quizzically. He dabbed his face with water, and started perusing 'romance quotes' in his smartphone until one finally caught his fancy.
His confidence reinstated, he emerged from the bathroom, sat down opposite her and in a shaky stammering voice, confessed: "There's sideview, rearview, and what else? I love-view?" She looked straight at him, dissecting his strange-seeming confession, trying to weigh the gravity of his words, and finally, to his utter mortification, burst out laughing like she had never laughed before. After her laughter had subsided, she carried on like he had said nothing unusual, and he was too embarrassed to bring up the topic again. They talked about mundane matters relating to college and she disclosed how she had spent her holidays with her family. They had gone to Paris. They talked for a long time and when it was time to leave, she told him that she had had a "great time".
Abhishek spent the next couple of hours entangled in a state of uncertainty. He knew that he had been unable to express his feelings properly, but at the same time, she had not seemed fazed by the abrupt confession. In fact, she had appeared to enjoy their time together. Eventually, he decided to walk the trepidation off in their tiny but well-kept garden tended to by his father as a post-retirement hobby. As he was walking to-and-fro, his eyes suddenly alighted on a small, delicate red rose. He reached out to grab it, but his hand got caught on a thorn and blood trickled down in a neat, thin straight line down the middle of his finger. With the rose in his grasp, he plucked a petal, ("she loves me..."), then another one ("she loves me not..."). He had been thus engrossed for a while, when his cellphone suddenly rang. It was her.
Him: "Hello...hey, what's up?"
Her: "Nothing. I was just thinking."
Him: "Oh yeah? About what?"
Her: "About stuff. About what you said. I think I do, too."
Him: "Do what?
And thus, his heart had stopped palpitating for a few moments. Her's had, too, which is why she had disconnected the phone. And that is how the wheels had been set into motion. For the next seven months, everything had gone according to plan. He had courted her, been her knight in shining armour. They had loved and laughed and grown intimate, inseparable. The months rolled by swimmingly and before long, it was time to bid adieu. Exams were over and so was their diploma course. The day she was to leave, he met her at a popular fastfood joint at Dighalipukhri, near her hostel. "Are you dismayed?" she asked in a mocking tone, looking deeply into his eyes. He was all choked up and being unable to utter a single word, he extended a single wilted rose to her that he had plucked from the garden that morning. A red one. She appeared to be touched, but one could never decipher what she was thinking. She had the perfect face for a poker player. "Look," she began "I promise this won't be the end. We shall always keep in touch, okay?" Tears were beginning to well up in her eyes too. He finally found the strength to say "I promise, too."
That had been more than a year ago. The train of life had continued to chug along and the only thing that had stalled was their love. As expected, she had received the highest marks and he hadn't fared too poorly either. Initially they had kept in touch, but after she had joined 'The Shillong Times' and in quick time ascended to a status of star reporter, it became harder and harder for them to stay in touch like earlier. Somehow, inexplicably, they had grown distant. He had been working with a private media firm for a few months as a content developer but had eventually been let go during a cost-cutting drive. His loneliness and desperation had driven him to a state of depression and he had started alcohol abuse. His brother had once discovered him drunk and secretly weeping, while Frank Sinatra's 'Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)' was playing in the background. His brother placed his hand firmly upon Abhishek's shoulder, and had said: "Give it one last try. Go to Shillong. Never lose hope." Abhishek had collected whatever money he had saved up from his working days, caught a taxi to Shillong in the wee hours of the morning, and on the way, had implored her to meet him. And now was his chance.
His recollection was interrupted by a female voice: "Hello, snap out of it!" He realized that he had wasted a large chunk of time reminiscing about the past. He could sense that she was getting irate because her face had curled up into a menacing frown and she was glaring at him with her eyes narrowed. "Look, Abhishek," she accosted him, "If you are going to say something, say it already. I don't want to be late for work." He looked down at his hands. They were shaking. All themonths of suffering had led to this moment. He knew he had to choose his words wisely if he was to have a chance of winning her back. All the tiny details of her life that he had enjoyed hearing about crossed his mind. The moments of laughter they had shared. The emotions that had been opened up like a box of chocolates. A vision of a life that yet could be. The sacrifices his parents had made for his sake. His entire life flashed before his eyes. And in that moment, realization dawned on him and he understood what he had to do. He looked at his watch that had been a gift from her: 11 am, it read. It was time for her to leave. He looked straight across at her. He could sense her fidgeting. He took a deep, calming breath and uttered the words which he knew would change his life as he knew it and understood it to be: "No words. There are no words left to say."