“Gosh it’s you”, Salil said as he recognized Tanvi intently reading names of books in the large shelf titled “Literary Fiction”. She was dressed in plain, somewhat faded, jeans and a black T-Shirt with some company logo. She looked surprised as she turned to look at him. Obviously, she had recognized his voice, just as he had expected. Her face had a look of surprise, and a little annoyance – the last was so characteristic of hers that he would have been surprised if he hadn’t spotted it.
“Salil!”, she said finally, awkwardly.
“For a moment I was worried you’ll not recognize me”
“Shut up”. A hint of her casual self resurfaced, reassuring him.
“Or just refuse to recognized me…”
“Crap. You know me better than that”
“You haven’t changed, have you?”
“I never intended to change, Salil”, a hint of bitterness in her voice was hard to miss. Then her face turned blank. She didn’t want him to see her bitterness. Typical Tanvi, he thought.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that way”
“My goodness. Looks like you have changed!”
“I hope you mean that positively”, he said, trying to lighten the tension in the air.
“And how does that make a difference to you, Salil”, she said, her voice calm and without a hint of anger or excitement. Even strangers extend more familiarity, he thought. She said it without making it look like she wanted to fight with him, just a matter of fact question.
“Ten years have changed me to the extent that, believe it or not, I do care”, he said. Somehow, with her, it was always easy to say whatever came to his mind. Even after ten years. Even after that day, when he walked out of her life, telling her that it was not going to work.
“It could have…”, she had said. That’s all she had said, then, trying to hold back tears, and succeeding. A moment of weakness, which she allowed herself, as a debt to be paid, to the relationship that was not to be after that moment.
“Tanvi, please don’t make it harder for me”, he had said, trying to avoid guilt — yes guilt — he recalled. Guilt that his rational mind never could have anticipated. After all he knew what he was doing was the right thing to do, for both of them, even. You cannot live a lie, he had told himself, again and again, not forever.
“What do you want me to say, Salil?”, she had asked, looking straight into his eyes. “That I don’t believe it could have worked? If I believed that, Salil would I be here, today? So let me at least say what I believe. If you noticed, I used the past tense…”
He chuckled, remembering that. He was amazed at her composure, back then. All she asked him was not to meet her for a few month. Months passed, he moved out of the city and today, it was after ten years that they crossed paths again.
“Let’s celebrate that, then”, she said, breaking his reverie. Her voice had no trace of mockery or sarcasm. “I’m almost done. Ah, now I don’t even need to choose — please suggest something, na”
He looked at her blankly. Ten years is a long time, he wanted to tell her. Even when people live together, they grow in different ways.
“Oh come on! Don’t let me ruffle you. I’ll be a nice girl, I promise. Just help me with this”
Something is seriously wrong, he thought. Yes she was already like that, but this doesn’t make sense.
“What do you read these days, if I may ask?”
“Anything that feeds on my melancholy, and feeds it back”, she said smiling. That was his line. When he had used it, she had beaten, him with a Camus book that he had bought the very same day… for her. Thank god I didn’t gift her a hardbound edition, he had thought. He smiled remembering that.
“No kidding”, he said, suddenly groping for words.
“OK, how about Marquez, here?”
“Oh, it can feed your melancholy for a long long time. Don’t tell me you never heard about him?”
“No, not much besides name. You were my last book club kinda boyfriend”, she said casually. She was on home turf now.
“So done? Let’s get a coffee somewhere”. When you cannot trust your own words, it’s safer to borrow known sentences.
“OK. I’m mostly lukkha for the day.”
“So tell me, what brings you to this god forsaken city?”, he asked her, as they sat with their coffee in a secluded corner of the recently opened coffee-shop that he had made his new home — mainly because it was relatively unknown and was so old styled that he was sure it won’t attract the teenage crowd that had destroyed virtually every possible hangout for him.
“I’m here to research on a project… you know… the kind of stuff I keep on doing”, she spotted the look in his eyes, “Yeah, the same useless stuff”
“But… I didn’t even say a thing”
“You eyes said it all”
“You know, we’re sounding like a couple”, he regretted it just as he blurted it out.
She looked stunned. A look of hurt flashed on her face just for a split second.
“It’s a pretty damn good coffee”, she said, “You still know your stuff!”
“Thanks”, he said, sounding casual. “And I’m sorry I said that. I shouldn’t have”
“Forget it. Saying the wrong things at the wrong time was always your special talent”
She sipped her coffee silently. A trace of smile lingered on her face. Even after all these years she still smiles like that, unconscious of herself, he observed. For a moment he wondered why he parted ways with her. Surprisingly, he couldn’t think of a single convincing reason, now. The guilt, that he had lived with for years, came back to him. The guilt that had managed to spoil every relationship, before it could even take off.
How do you convince someone that she can trust you, when you don’t trust yourself?
“What are you thinking about?”, she asked. Her voice was filled with kindness.
“So tell me, what’s happening in your life?”
“I think at this age the only thing that happens in life is that you age. And it’s painfully slow — the aging. And the wisdom … it comes unsolicited … and basically tells you that you haven’t even acquired any real wisdom for all the years that you’ve wasted”
“Whoa! What’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing! That’s the point. If you can put your finger on one thing in your life and say: this is wrong… you know, you can change that, or at least try, and that’s a purpose enough. But what if you can’t? You never feel that way?”
She avoided looking at him.
“Salil, I resigned to living with whatever life throws at me long back”
Ten years back? He wanted to ask. But he knew the answer.
“And now I’ve filled my life with so many things that there aren’t any empty spaces left. I have denied myself the luxury of questioning my life”
“I am sorry”, he said, without even realizing it.
“What the hell are you being sorry about?”, she snapped.
“I don’t know. I guess I owed you a sincere apology. I was so busy keeping out the guilt that I never managed to apologize”
“I don’t know if I want to talk about it. It was long back. Perhaps it wasn’t even love, just an infatuation. I was hurt, yes, but that doesn’t make it anything more than it was… whatever it was. We were kids, practically, weren’t we?”
She looked away, again. He looked at her face: sad and distant.
Tanvi, at least today, drop that armor, he wanted to shout, I swear I don’t want to hurt you… more.
“You live alone?”, he asked, and again cursed himself.
“Yeah. No, I didn’t get married. You wish I had, na?”
Her face had a mischievous smile when she asked that. He sighed.
“Actually yes. That would have taken care of some of the guilt”
“Oh come on, don’t blame yourself for my single-hood now. I’ve had my share of relationships after you. I broke a few hearts… Some relationships just never took off… but please don’t make it sound like you defined my life, by presence or absence”
He observed that she didn’t say anything about her heart.
“What about you?”
“Look at me! What do you think?”, he said.
She laughed. Then she fell silent for a long time.
“What would it take for you to stop punishing yourself?” she asked suddenly, “Will you believe it if I said that I’ve forgiven you?”
“I’m not punishing myself”
“You know I am being very selfish here, when I say I forgive you. I’ve lost a part of me — a part that lets you gamble, against all your rational judgement. And something tells me I cannot find it again, unless I forgive you… unless I grant… that you had a right to walk away… for whatever reasons”
He wanted to point to her that there was a contradiction there: her life was defined in a way by him. But you cannot take away people’s life-support-systems in the name of reason.
“Thanks, Tanvi. But I’m not looking for forgiveness. I guess what I’m looking for, is closure”
Aren’t we all, Salil? She wanted to ask. What else do you think I am looking for? And how will the closure come, after all these years?
“After you left, Salil, I stopped looking for reasons. That was the toughest thing to do. Then one day it struck me that reasons don’t matter. Since then I stopped crying. You know, I haven’t cried in years”
Guilt does terrible things, he thought. For you it took strength not to cry. For me it took strength to cry — strength that I did not have. I couldn’t allow myself to cry. It sounded like an easy way out.
He looked into her eyes. She was trying to hold back tears. Tears that she had held back that day. And then, to his complete surprise a tear rolled down his cheeks. It was too late to hide it from her.
For a moment she didn’t say anything.
“If this isn’t closure, what is?”, she asked him, trying to smile. For the first time in years, the smile eluded her, and the tears won.
For a while both sat there without saying a word. There was no need for words.
Tanvi was the first one to break the silence. “To new beginnings!”, she said, finishing her coffee in a single gulp, as if it were a taquila shot. He looked at her, and smiled an all knowing weak smile.