The airport was my gateway, away from the people, away from the present, away from the impotency that gnawed at my existence. A funny thought occurred then. How would it feel to be trapped here? A Thrishanku Swargam repeating in modern times. Oh, wait a minute, didn't it happen recently...wasn't that what "The Terminal" was all about. So much for original thought, I mused.
"Valmiki, Spielberg and me...and why not?" I said to myself, the mock seriousness of it all, managing to please me.
And then, I saw her. She had a small child in her arms, another tugged at her shirt. She hadn't seen me. But she would. She was headed to the same gate. I didn't know what would be appropriate - to beckon her, hide from her or ignore her. But I continued to stare. And size her up. She hadn't changed a bit. It looked like her husband kept her happy and the kids kept her busy. I had thought of her often. But why had a bloated, unhappy figure of her's filled my imagination. Was it closure I wanted or vengeance? Or were those thoughts, ever about her? Wasn't it I, who needed to see her that way, to justify why life couldn't have taken any other route, save the one I am travelling on now.
She chose the row of seats, right across mine. With difficulty, she got the children to sit. The older of the two, unsaddled his miniature backpack and began to unload his toys.
"No monu! Just take one out. Amma won't clean up after you. And you won't get new toys if you leave any here!"
The boy seemed to comply, for the time being.
She turned her attention to the infant. It sat placidly ready to go off to sleep. She slipped a milk bottle in through the child's lips.
Her handbag still clung to her shoulders. She took it off and rifled through its contents to ensure their passports and tickets were safe. A quick glance at a mirror to ensure her rudimentary makeup was intact followed. She looked at me, staring unabashedly at her. A wave of self-consciousness hit her, men did this to her always, she would have reacted differently earlier. She brushed her hair backwards, pulled her shirt at its hem, and pinched her jeans down at the knees, cloaking her bared ankles. I took note of her inconvenience and looked away. It was her turn now to stare at me.
"Is this real? Is this youuuu!"
"Yes, me." I replied uncomfortably. I slowly moved over to take a seat besides her.
"My god, you have become so fat." There was no indication of our unsavoury past in her initial disposition to me. It was just like two friends meeting in a long time.
"You are still the same." I offered back.
"Which flight are you taking?"
"British," I answered, "but mine is only due in 4 hours."
"Mine is this one which boards next, BA4517" she said. Was I relieved to hear that? But she looked genuinely happy to see me.
"What are you doing now?" She was eager to know of my life after college.
"I am traveling, as you see."
"On work, I believe."
"No - for pleasure."
"For how long?"
"It's been going on for some time."
"You never worked?"
"I work a few months. Then travel till the money is gone."
"So what happens when no one will take you?"
"As you scorned me in the old days, then there is father's money - to mine."
"What of all those ambitions?"
"None - whatsoever. All gone."
Her face was expressionless. Behind that facade was she envious, was she disappointed, or was she sorry for me, I thought. Or, did she care anymore?
"Are you working?"
"No. My husband earns enough for both of us."
"And you are happy?"
"Yes, as happy as I could be."
"Are you happy?" she threw the question back at me.
"I don't know." I had uttered it with a finality, that ended the conversation. My life was my business. She would get no answer for it. But I have to answer for it to so many people. How different was she from all of them?
She went back to tending her children. I debated returning to my seat. I couldn't move. My mind rushed back to the time, when she was a dubious part of my existence, and never found an abiding place in it.
I couldn't remember when she first caught my roving eye. They blinked before resting on her. She wasn't the most attractive, or the friendly kind, yet something about her caught my fancy. I never spoke to her alone, I was part of a gang of boys who kept me busy with myriad schemes to wile away time, but my eyes talked to her, and hers to mine, furtively yet loaded with meanings and nuances. We were enemies in a sense, trying to guess each other's motives, trying to win over each other, but not yielding a bit of the safe ground we were on. That year went by, and the next, she grew prettier, her figure trimmed and curved in lines that now drove other eyes besides mine, some in silent, others in loud admiration. Our gazes seldom caught each others now, mine still darted with a playful abandon about her, that seared me and infuriated her. It was obvious that she couldn't wait any longer for me to make up my mind, there were others who waited to jump at the chance, the electric youthfulness that pulsed and glowed throughout her body had made her a new woman, one with desires and cravings that she no longer felt the need to bottle. And yet I twiddled. I had much to answer for in life, I had built up a reputation for wisdom, goodness and ambition...I was loved and venerated by one and all- I wouldn't ruin all that or my family's hopes for me on a girl in whom all I saw, was the answer to a wild craving for love and sex. Yet the heart cringed each time an advance was made at her, and at the blush or smile that fleeted across her face in unabashed pleasure of recognition. And yet she gave in to no man in college, which pleased me, but for how long, I wondered.
The remembrance of that misty dawn, now hangs on my clouded brain, like a shroud that parted our eyes, from even stealing glances at each other. It was a Saturday morning that I rose up early for cricket practice. I looked forward to the pleasure of a drive with the fresh morning breeze on my face, and the sweat running down the same face, as i swatted and drove the cricket ball. My bike, surged through the empty morning road, the temptation of a hot tea and a cigarette to ring in the day, was too hard to resist. I parked and ordered at the roadside tea-stall, the auspicious first customer of the day. But it was not to be. A familiar figure gingerly walking down the steps of the shop, and away towards the bus stand, caught my eyes. The Shop. That shop. An unspoken word in our city. A place where the decadent old and pulsating new money came together in a perfect harmony, a polluted channel for all the vulgar vices that the self-righteous society of my class strove to curtail. My heart skipped several beats on that lifeless road. And then it roared back to life. I ran. I only know, that I ran. I had no desire for the cafeine or the nicotine, for all the pent-up oxytocin of the years came gushing out in a violent river that desperately knew it would find no ocean to sink into.
Her hair was disheveled. And panic was writ large on her face. I had my answer. My heart sunk and with it my lungs which throbbed for breath.
"What were you doing there?"
"None of your business."
"You better answer me."
"I don't have to."
"I will ruin you." The manic rage in me, threatened to get physical.
"As you wish." Her cheekiness broke my manly muster. Tears flooded my cheek.
"You are a slut. That is what you are. A slut."
"Are you done? Now may I speak." Her calm voice was a repudiation of the menace that still raged menacingly within me.
"Yes," I choked up a feeble reply.
"I have seen what money can do in this city. Look at your exclusive groups of rich boys and rich girls with their shiny cars, laptops, expensive clothes and paid holidays. I also want all that and more. Do you know what it is to not get what you want?"
"But-but, why sell yourself?"
"well, that's the choice, I had to make."
"But you could have got a job soon. And you would have all the money you need."
"What job? Tell me one person in college who has a job in hand. And what do you know of my family?"
"You, you could have waited for me."
"Tell me honestly. What is it that you want? Your wants - are they any different from those men?"
I didn't have an answer to any of her questions. She had answers to mine. It was all over. The first love. The one lasting itch down there. The longest infatuation. Would I know that feeling again?
My thoughts came back to the present. Once, there was a high probability that this woman, sitting by me would have been my wife. And the children mine. I laughed at the adolescent thought. She looked up from the note she was scribbling on.
"You went back to the old days, ha?"
An embarrassed smile escaped me. She went back to her note.
Some months had passed. It was a New Year midnight. We guys were at the beach and had checked into a hotel for the night. A mad melee of tourists, locals and plainclothesmen had escaped to this place, that would put to shame the craziest lunatic asylum. I don't remember when I passed out or what happened afterwards. By next morning, everyone in class knew, save me. She was late. The teacher let her in, without questions. The girl at her bench, quickly moved to avoid letting her in, and so did the others who had a vacant space to fill.
"Here, take mine."I offered and slid to the other end.
"Wanna escort me, next new year?" a voice called out aloud, ignoring the presence of the teacher.
Manufactured sneers, all around.
Thud! The slap landed on my face, before I even saw it coming. The class was silenced.
"How could you do this to me? Did I deserve so cruel a vengeance?" her voice momentarily broke the silence.
My eyes blinked at her. Not a word could come out.
She rose, and walked out, head held high, showing no shame, knowing none else to blame.
The last sensation she left me with, was also like the first. But when my eyes stopped blinking, she was gone. And I didn't pursue her.
She never came back. I heard she took the final exams next year, with the junior batch.
She was an episode, I never forgot. She taught me, what it is to want, and not get. She also left me with a question to answer. A question I get often, but an answer, I hopelessly still search for.
My lips moved to silently mimic that question, "But why?"
She was tearing up the paper, away from my eyes, which caught that action almost on the tangent. I had trained my eyes to dog her and after years it still obeyed that old command.
"Listen. I am sorry about what happened." Her words spread through me, like a cool morning breeze of many years back.
"No, don't be. If ever I wanted to see you, I wanted it to be this way." For long, I had carried the spite, of a loss and insult, I had itched to see her as a bitch, snob and destitute. Instead I only saw a wife, mother and woman.
"I have to go now." She rose in unnatural hurry.
"I guess, we will not see each other again, ever." What a fine actor, I am, I thought. Just letting her off, that easily.
"I guess not."
When she walked out on me once more, I pieced together the torn pieces of paper, she left on the floor.
"To the only one, I truely loved before my kids came: I don't owe the world any explanations. But I owe you one. In slapping you, I slapped the world which dared question my actions."
Every act of hers, was the answer I should have given. Maybe that was her purpose in my life - to show me that answer. I was finally at peace.
P.S - It has been a long while. And it has been frustrating. And several false starts. To top it off, I was obsessed with writing a love story. I suspect I may have diverted from that goal. Maybe because I am a person who had, has and might never known/find true love for a woman (this sentence would need explanation to the future wifey:). I began the story in the third person. And to be frank, I was scared of personal identification and because the first person is the toughest act in fiction to carry through. But then, I thought who was I trying to fool here. For those, especially friends and family, who seek autobiographical elements in this, I say they are wasting time. The characters and incidents here if at all true, have been twisted and fictionalized - and yet, if someone sees a part of mine or their life played out here, I say it is just incidental (Okay, I need to learn from my protagonists and not be answerable to anyone:). I however will admit to one minor source of inspiration - some recent sex scandals in Kerala. As always when I take on fiction, criticism and feedback most welcome.