He was standing in his usual spot – the corner of the terrace that faced the sea. He loved that spot. Every time he was at Sharon’s place, which happened almost every Friday night thanks to her talent of finding reasons to party (today was because a friend of hers, an Australian photographer cum guitarist named Fred, who was holidaying in Goa had struck a deal with a local band to perform part-time), he would invariably end up at that particular spot, with his glass resting on the boundary of the terrace, his cigarette in his left hand with its smoke gradually rising up in the dark night, first in a straight line, then just getting lost in oblivion. He always felt that the path that the smoke trailed resembled his life. The fact that he could never make clear rings of smoke reinforced his belief.
“Nice view! I wonder why there’s no one else here.” He heard a voice and looked around. He saw her standing there – wearing a satin blue evening dress and a glass of champagne in her right hand – facing the sea with the winds caressing her long, curly hair and her chandelier earrings dancing to their own tune in the wind. He smiled at her and said, “Just that the party is inside”.
“Yeah... whatever. But it’s nice here. I like the sea. Makes me feel alive.”
“I just like the noise the waves make. It’s so quiet.”
She looked at him for a while, her eyes fixed at his face. He stood there, first looking at her, then focusing his gaze at the sea again, his frame silhouetted against the full moon. “I’m Vishakha.” She said. “Anubhav. Nice meeting you. Are you Sharon’s friend? Haven’t seen you here before.”
“Actually I’m on a holiday here. A friend of mine – Vini – is Sharon’s friend. I just came with her since we had nothing planned for the evening.”
“Yeah. She and Sharon are old friends.”
“Ya I know Vini. She’s fun.”
The sea was getting calmer as the night progressed. Their conversation had moved on too. They were sitting on the terrace wall with her stilettos playfully dangling from her toes. Her glass was empty and rolling beside her. His glass was largely untouched.
She said, “Have you noticed the way these little boats venture out in the sea during night? The fishermen need to leave early to be able to catch fish early in the morning in order to sell them at a good price. For them, life is a never-ending battle for survival. Each day brings an opportunity to do things differently, to try something new – even though the goal of each day is the same.” He said, “If you look at it, we’re all fishermen here in the sea of life. Except for those who choose to stay at the shore and wait for the waves to stop.”
“But waves never stop, do they?”
“Nope, they’re the heartbeats of the sea.”
The wind kept blowing. The sea breeze carried her fragrance to him – the all too familiar Chanel Allure. He tried not to pay too much attention to it, but it was something that he was still grappling with. He emptied his glass in a long swig. “I think I need another drink. What about you?” He asked.
She replied, “I think I’ll just go down. Vini must be looking for me.”
Looking at his watch, he said, “Yeah, we’ve been here for quite some time. Actually more than two hours!”
“Seriously? It hardly seemed so! Anyways, nice talking to you. Let’s catch up sometime.”
“Sure! You carry on; I’ll go down in a while.”
“Bye, but don’t stay here for too long. It’s getting colder.” And she left. He knew he was never going to see her again. At least he hoped so.
He was staring at the wall of toothpastes on the shelf. There were at least twenty different brands with each offering 5 different types of toothpastes. There were flavoured ones with superheroes printed on them as well as herbal pastes claiming to be eco-friendly, though nicely packed in plastic bottles. “I just want something to brush my teeth with twice a day!” he muttered under his breath. “Hey there!” someone called him. He turned around and saw her standing with a full shopping cart.
“Hi! Vishakha, right? What are you doing here?”
“Well, much as I’d like to say I own this store chain, the truth is that I’m shopping for my return journey.”
“I had a feeling that you’re from a different planet when I met you at the party. Looking at the stuff you need for the journey, I’m kinda sure now!” He said smiling. She burst out laughing. “Actually most of this stuff is for Vini’s apartment. She was busy so I thought I’ll pick them up for her. I just needed some toothpaste for the journey. I have an early morning flight and I hate talking to people without brushing my teeth.”
“Aah, the toothpaste! Join the club. I don’t understand why we need one hundred different types of them!”
“I know! It’s as if life isn’t complicated enough already!”
“Actually it’s pretty simple. We seem to be hell-bent on making it complicated.”
“So you’re leaving tomorrow?”
“Yup. Taking the 5:35 am Kingfisher flight.”
“That reminds me… I never asked where you’re from.”
“I’m basically from Jaipur, but I’ve been living and working in Bangalore for past couple of years. What about you?”
“I’m from Lucknow. Came to Goa to study management and then started working here as well. I work for a chain of bookstores, looking at their management and promotion related stuff.”
“Nice. Sounds good. I’m into teaching. I teach Biology at the Christ College.”
“It’s a nice place, Bangalore. I’ve been there a few times for work. I love the greenery there.”
“It used to be greener. And much more pleasant. Past couple of years the city has just bloated like a hot air balloon. Thanks to the IT revolution.”
“It’s the same everywhere. Goa used to be very different when I came here too.”
As they were talking, Anubhav, for the first time, took a good look at her. She had a round face, curly hair and round, dark eyes. Her frame was petite and skin was wheatish fair. At five-foot three, she had the appearance that could look average or striking depending on how she wanted to look. But the one thing that Anubhav could clearly tell was that there was a very poised, graceful feminine air about her that commanded respect without making the other person uncomfortable. Anubhav knew what it was. She had class.
He said, “Would you like to have some coffee? I know a place in this mall where we can sit and talk. And of course the coffee is pretty decent.”
“I’m not sure. Vini must be getting back home”
“Well knowing Vini if she comes to know that I didn’t treat her guest with some coffee, I’m sure I’ll be in a lot of trouble! Besides, it’ll be an absolute honour and pleasure. But if you’re getting late, I totally understand.”
“Umm… well let’s go. All this toothpaste selection has made me dizzy anyways!”
They walked into a bookstore on the ground floor. On the right, there was a section where one could sit across low-set couches with tables in the middle and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. There were paintings on the walls and soothing lights. She said, “Nice place. Hang on; you said you work for a bookstore chain. Is this one of their stores?”
He smiled. She asked, “And do these people know that you’re their boss?” He replied, “No they don’t. And I’m just another customer right now.”
They sat facing each other in a corner. As they talked, with the conversation ranging from books to music to business to arts to philosophy, Anubhav couldn’t help noticing her wide knowledge on each topic as well as her amazing conversational skills. He felt the promise he had made to himself three years ago, gradually fading away. And he knew that he was being stupid. Again.
They finished two cups of coffee each, talked for close to three hours and by the time they looked at the clock, it sun was setting outside. She exclaimed, “Oh God! It’s almost evening! I had promised Vini that we’ll go out for dinner and I’m gonna be late! Man! I gotta get myself a wrist watch!”
That was when Anubhav noticed that she wasn’t wearing a wrist watch. That was also when he noticed a beautiful diamond ring on her right hand ring finger. In that fraction of a second, he went through hope, happiness, disappointment and delusion, all mixed together. He also realized that he was smiling, somewhat idiotically. He said, “Oh! I’m so sorry! I totally forgot! How’re you planning to get back?”
“I’ll just get a cab. Could we please leave? I’m really sorry but I hope you understand.”
“I could drop you home. I haven’t met Vini since the party so I’ll say hi to her as well.”
“No its ok. I have to finish some work on my way too.”
He said, somewhat restraining himself, “Fine. Let’s go.”
She rushed out of the mall, hurriedly called for a cab and got in. As the cab left, she said, “Thanks for the coffee! Bye!”
He said, “Thank you.” And smiled.
Benny was just being his usual self – funny and loud – starting with some old Hindi song and making a total parody of it without realizing it thanks to his pathetic memory. Raj, the Old Monk, was quietly sipping his rum with his iPod plugged in one ear and the other one open for abuse raining from Benny’s version of Kya Se Kya Ho Gaya. The three of them, they had been like this since their MBA days. And without ever saying in words, they knew that they were friends for life. No grudges, no secrets and except for Anubhav, no sense of seriousness towards life.
Anubhav said, “I met her again today, the girl I met at Sharon’s place last week.”
Benny replied, “Who? The one who works at the radio station?”
Old Monk said, with the iPod still plugged in his left ear, “No. this one’s Vini’s friend. And there’s no one he’s met who works at the radio station.”
Benny – “Ya, so?”
Anubhav – “Nothing. I kinda liked her. But turns out she’s engaged.”
Benny – “Kya Se Kya Ho Gaya…”
Raj – “Did she tell you?”
Anubhav – “I saw the ring on her finger”
Raj – “Which hand? Right or left?”
Anubhav – “Right. But how does it matter?”
Raj – “Actually it does. The engagement ring is worn on the left hand”
Anubhav – “What? Bull!”
Raj just gave him his iPod. Anubhav saw there was a Wikipedia page open on it with the title, ‘Engagement Ring’.
Benny – “Dude! Haven’t you seen DDLJ? Rani Mukherjee tells Shah Rukh about this fact in the movie.”
Both Raj and Anubhav gave him a cold stare and then burst out laughing. After a while, when Benny was more drunk and less noisy, Raj said to Anubhav, “Are you sure you liked her?” Anubhav nodded. “Then what’s the problem?”
“You know what the problem is.”
“Don’t you think you’re stretching this a little too far?”
“Yes you are.” Benny shouted from across the hall. He always had sharp ears and was always able to minutely follow things without ever really seeming to be paying any attention.
He continued, “What happened to Sarah was sad. And we’re all sad about it. No offences but I miss her almost as much as you do. And I’m sure the Monk does so too. But that’s life bro! You can’t deny yourself your legitimate share of happiness just because medical science does not have a cure for some freak disease! Have you ever thought how Sarah must be feeling looking at you from up there? And who do you think would she be blaming for this? Every moment of happiness that you deny yourself is also a moment of happiness that you take away from her, and from us. But how the hell does any of this matter to you? At least I never feel it does.”
Both Anubhav and Raj were shocked. After a minute of silence, Raj said, “I think Benny is right”. Anubhav went to the balcony. He always had trouble crying in front of people.
Both Raj and Benny had passed out. Anubhav was sitting in the balcony. The day was still fresh in his mind. Sarah was lying in her hospital bed, her beautiful face shrunk to its skull, her hair lifeless, and her eyes – those big, beautiful eyes – looking exhausted fighting against the pain for so long. He was looking at her. She asked, “What are you looking at?”
He said, “The most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.”
She closed her eyes and gave a faint smile. He said, “Benny wanted to come, but had to go for some urgent work at the last moment.”
“I knew he wouldn’t come. When was the last time you slept properly?”
“Who? Me? I sleep like a log!” He lied. She gave him that look. He turned his face away.
She said, “Baby there’s nothing we can do about this. You have done much more than what was needed. We’re just too small for this. The best we can do is to accept it and move on. See, I’ve already moved on. I think the doctor who comes to see me is cute!”
He said, his face flushed, “if you ever use that phrase, move on, again, I’ll kill you.”
She said, smiling, “Anubhav, Move on.” And closed her eyes. That was the last breath she took.
It was four in the morning. Suddenly he felt that a load had been lifted off his chest. He felt that things were getting cleared up finally. He knew what he was going to do. He rushed inside the hall of his apartment where Benny and Raj were sleeping. “Guys, wake up!” Benny didn’t move. Raj groggily said, “Huh? What happened?” Anubhav said, “We’re going to the airport.”
Raj, surprised – “What? Seriously?”
Anubhav – “Yup. Seriously.” And smiled.
Benny said, without moving, “Dude I was just blabbering! You took that seriously? Go sleep it off!”
Raj – “Let’s go Benny. Otherwise he’ll miss the flight.”
Benny – “Flight? What flight?”
Anubhav screamed, “Just shut up and let’s go!!” and they ran out of the apartment.
They reached the airport in about forty minutes. On the way, Anubhav realized that he didn’t have Vishakha’s phone number or any personal contact information. And somehow he didn’t want to get Vini involved into this. All he knew was that she was taking the 5:35 am Kingfisher flight to Bangalore. After reaching the airport, he realized that the security check-ins had already started. His heart started beating faster. What if she’d already gone inside?
She hadn’t gone inside. She was still waiting outside, though a little far from where he was, not quite sure what she was waiting for. At one level it felt strange and childish, at the other level, it felt absolutely real and definite. But with every minute that passed, her hopes diminished and she felt more and more silly.
He finally saw her standing in the distance, looking in the other direction without really looking at anything. He walked up to her, his heart pounding. Just when he reached near her, as if on cue, she turned around. They stood there for a second, looking at each other, then finally he said, “Hope you didn’t forget to brush your teeth. I’d love to talk!” and she again burst out laughing. Finally she said, “I wasn’t sure if you’d come.”
“Neither was I” he said, “But not anymore.” She smiled at him.
He said, “Sorry I couldn’t get any flowers for you, but I got this instead. Hope you like it.” And extended a small box to her.
It was Chanel Allure.