He had been waiting by the roadside for some time now. Perhaps fifteen minutes. Maybe more. The tin shed overhead did manage to shelter him from the scorching sun but he had no shield against the heat, smoke and dust that was swirling about in the air, filling his lungs.
Across the road, the heavy wooden bar at the gate of the building rose and fell probably for the hundredth time to let yet another car pass. But there was no sign of her.
He squinted up at the building again to confirm its number. Was he even at the right gate?
Intending to call her again, he unlocked his phone, and flicked a quick glance at the gate. And he stiffened. Was that her? Twisting aside, he peered through the crowd, again.
Swaying past the guards now, in her business suit, there she was, with a purse slung over a shoulder. His heart started pounding as he quickly hand-combed his hair, and smoothed down his T-shirt.
She came out of a small side gate, and looked across the road, shading her eyes against the sun. He took a moment gathering some courage, and then stepped forward raising a hand.
She waved him a silent ‘hi’ as he came into view, and saw him hurriedly crossing the road, dodging a speeding bike on the way.
“Hey!” She extended a hand, smiling. He had been expecting something more dramatic and emotional like a hug, but he took the hand anyway.
“You… look stunning,” he said, shaking her hand a little too eagerly.
“Can’t say the same for you, I’m afraid.” She grinned.
“I know.” He wrinkled his nose, and scratched a cheek.
“When did you last shower, Sam?”
“Hey, come on now… beard is in. And long hair never went out of fashion,” he protested. “I look no uglier than I used to.”
“Agree. There was no scope left for that,” she said, and both of them laughed.
“Let’s go someplace else. A restaurant or something. Should we?”
“Sure,” she said, and led him towards a building, a few yards away.
Inside the café, they picked their seats around a corner table, and settled in the chairs. “I’ll go order,” she said, picking up her purse.
“No. Let me.” He stood up. “You need anything to eat?”
“No, no, I’m full. Just the coffee. Thanks.” And he headed off to the counter.
Sweet old memories flooded his mind as the smell of coffee filled his nostrils. The days when he would sneak away to a café during breaks to write. And she would always cover up for him. Always. So many times, she had to finish my work… to save my ass, he recalled.
At the counter, he ordered two cappuccinos, like old times.
“Sir.” The man behind the counter squinted past him to where she was sitting, and suggested, “Would you like to reconfirm? Shariva ma’am never takes a cappuccino.”
Before he could say anything though, she was right behind him. “Right you are! Make it one cappuccino and an espresso. Thanks!”
Back at the table, he was still glaring at the counter, fiddling with a sugar pouch while she was stirring her coffee. “When did you change the job?” he asked abruptly.
“A few months after you left, I guess.”
Wrong direction, he realised, and swerved. “Well… it’s been around three years now. You must be on a senior position here.”
“Yes. A Team Lead,” she said, sipping her coffee.
“A Team Lead!” he exclaimed. “Well, you’ve always been fast.”
She shrugged. “You know me well.”
“Yes. I do.” He nodded, and a moment of awkward silence followed before he met her eyes again. “How’ve you been, Shariva?”
“I’m doing okay, Sam.” She held his gaze. “What about you? Found wisdom in the mountains, yet?”
“Wisdom!” He laughed. “I was wise all along, wasn’t I?”
“Wise! You?” She joined in the laughter. “But yes. Actually you were. At least in breaking up I’d say. I was no easy maintenance after all.”
“Hey!” He went pale. “I’m so sorry. I… I didn’t mean…”
“Oh come on! Chill,” she said, waving a hand, “I’m not gonna cry over a breakup I had in my previous birth.”
“And I know it was all for the good,” she added.
“Sure,” he said, but he wasn’t so sure about that.
“Okay. So we were talking about you. What brings this lonely writer back to the materialistic world?”
He smiled broadly. “I just wanted to see if you’re doing fine.”
“Really!” She raised an eyebrow. “Well, I appreciate the gesture. Now, come on, the real reason.”
“I am shifting back,” he let the words out finally.
“Shifting back…” She leaned on the table. “What do you mean? You said you’d not until… does that mean your book is complete?”
“Book…” He winced. “No… not that. It’s for the doctorate program I’ve enrolled for.”
“Doctorate?” She seemed surprised. “Where did that come from? You went away to write a novel,” she reminded him. “What happened?”
He didn’t need reminding of that. He wanted to tell her how difficult these last three years had been. He got the solitude he sought, all right. But along came the frustrations of writing. His depleting bank account didn’t help much either.
Writing was a pleasure, as long as he did it alongside a job. But alone, the expectations weighed heavy on him. The burden of getting a novel published was too much for him to bear. It affected his writing.
It was indeed foolish of him, he felt, to have left everything for a life of such uncertainty. Just as she had told him back then.
But, instead he said, “I think I’ll benefit from literary research. It’ll only help better my writing.”
“Well…” she began, looking unconvinced, but her phone vibrated and cut her off. She picked it up. He stole the moment to scan her face while she stared at the screen, frowning. He couldn’t believe he really once held that beautiful face in his hands, and kissed those lips.
It all seemed a dream now.
He was about to dive into it, when she pushed back from the table suddenly, startling him. “Sam, I gotta go, now.”
“Hey! What happened?”
“Something at work,” she said, stuffing her phone in the purse.
“No, please stay some more?”
“I can’t Sam. This is urgent.”
“Okay then. Five minutes? Just five more minutes. I need to talk,” he pleaded.
She quickly drew back to the table. “Okay. What’s it?”
“Thanks,” he sighed. Then, hesitating a bit, he started, “Shariva…”
“Yes Sam,” she urged him on, impatience written all over her face.
“I wanted to ask…” His voice was barely more than a whisper. “If you… are you… seeing someone?”
The sudden change in her expressions told him that the question was not welcome, or she hadn’t expected it at all. “No Sam… no…” She shook her head, her tone no more friendly. “You can’t really be asking me that. You simply can’t.”
“Why not? If you have a boyfriend, tell me, I’ll understand, but if not, then…”
“…then what? I should come running into your arms, right?” she said sharply, “Yes, of course, now that you’re back in town, it’s so convenient for you.”
“It’s not that Shariva.” His voice rose slightly, but he lowered it immediately. “I’m saying that I’m here now, and not going anywhere this time. I promise.”
“You promise!” She stared at him, incredulous. “Oh, you promise! Right, and you think that’s what I live for – your fucking PROMISES!” She lurched to her feet, pushing the chair so hard that it fell back, and snatching her purse, she turned around and walked off. It all happened so quickly. Paralysed, he watched her pausing a moment at the counter, and then storming out through the door.
It all came out wrong, so wrong. He slammed a fist on the table, as his senses returned. That wasn’t how he intended to say it. That wasn’t how it was supposed to go. I need her. I can’t simply let her walk away. No.
He jumped to his feet, and hurriedly dialled her number. It didn’t go through. He tried again. But the call didn’t connect. Only when he dialled it the third time, did he realise, with horror, that he was blocked.
Shocked, he stood there motionless for a moment, not able to think.
Then sighing deeply, he began shuffling towards the exit, disoriented. I deserve it, he thought. After what I did to her, I totally deserve it.
“Excuse me, sir.” His hand had just closed around the doorknob, when he heard the voice behind. He wheeled around. “Sir, that’s for you. From Shariva ma’am.” He was holding a packet.
Puzzled, Sam took it, and without wasting a second tore away the wrapper. “Her book!” the man beamed, and with a puffed up chest said, “She wrote it all here sir. Just came out last week only. Why don’t you take a seat and read it? I’ll go steam your coffee again. It’s untouched. Should I?”
He nodded, lost in thoughts. Her book!
He stared at the book in his hands, amazed, as the man walked away. With fumbling hands, he flipped through the pages, and read about the author on the last page, then came back to the cover to see her name again. It was her book.
He ran a hand through his hair, his heart hammering inside. How was that possible?
He took a deep breath, and sat down on a nearby chair, the book in his hands. He ran his fingers slowly over the smooth cover, his fingertips tracing the slightly protruding letters that made her name: SHARIVA SEN. It still feels mine, the name.
“I need the first signed copy of your novel Sam,” she used to tease, “write it quick. If you don’t I will. You know I’m a blogger, right? Who knows you might have a signed copy of my novel first…”
He quickly turned over to the page where her autograph was scrawled. She did it. Even with a job, she did it. He felt a surge of pride running through him.
He adjusted into his chair, as the coffee arrived, and looked up. “Sorry. Could you bring me an espresso instead? I’ll pay extra if needed,” he requested apologetically.
Then flipping over to the first page, he began reading, with a smile on his face.
© Sundaram Chauhan