It was still dawn when I stepped out of the cab and walked towards the entry gate of the Delhi airport. The early morning February air was pleasantly cold.
I was travelling to Bengaluru to attend a college friend’s wedding. It had been four years since we graduated from the same college. This wedding was also going to be a reunion of our batchmates. But what I didn’t know was that the reunion would begin much ahead of time; right in the queue in front of the airline counter.
I was almost sure it was her. She was of the same height, same complexion, and even had the same long hair. Curiosity had my eyes glued to her. And then about 60-odd seconds later, when she turned, she proved me right. My ex-girlfriend stood two places ahead of me in that queue. We had never met after the college farewell.
She was up next in the queue, and I began debating if I should go catch her. There was another plane leaving to Bengaluru in a few minutes, and I couldn’t know for sure she would be on mine. But as I stood there debating, she left. I moved forward.
Up in the plane, I placed my baggage in its place. I sat down, took a peek out of the window, and turned back. She passed the aisle, not noticing me. So she was taking the same plane.
The seat beside mine was occupied by a bloke, probably around 40. I changed my window for his aisle, and went to the restroom more often than I needed to. Four seats behind mine, every time I went, She had her headphones on and was oblivious to everything on the deck.
At the Bengaluru airport, I picked up my luggage. I tore off the airport label that, for some reason, many held on to.
I turned around. She wore a blue mini coat over a white t shirt, and had a rainbow scarf around her neck. I stared at her.
“This is the point where you acknowledge remembering me,” she said.
“Hey, Maya!” I smiled. “How are you?”
“Never been better. You?”
“Not bad,” I said.
The wedding boy had taken care of the plane tickets and accommodation, and we took the same taxi as it turned out both of us would be staying at the same hotel.
We checked in at the hotel. “Call me if you need anything,” I said, as a hotel guy opened Maya’s room for her.
“Sure,” she said. “You too.” She disappeared into the room, dragging her bag behind her. I heard switches turn on inside. I disappeared into mine, a few feet away.
An hour later, the marriage couple stood at my door.
“Seriously?” I asked.
The standard greeting protocol was over. We hugged first, then we college boys insulted each other, and then I teased his fiancée a bit. “Oh shut up, Karan,” she said. And then he broke the news.
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s okay, the wedding is only for the aunties and uncles anyway. Tomorrow’s reception is still on, which means not much is changing for us.”
There were some ‘technical issues’, he had said, and the wedding had been postponed to a later day. “Catch you later, I’ve got some running around to do,” he said. “Take a walk around, you don’t have to wait till tomorrow for the reunion.”
After he left, I went to look out of the balcony, debating whether to change my dress or not.
A man stood in the neighbouring balcony, to my left, looking over the railing. He slowly turned when he sensed me come.
“Hey,” he said, “Karan!” He had curly hair cut short, and wore a blue suit. “How are you? Still in Pogo?”
“Nala,” I grinned. “Great. Yes, but I’m thinking of becoming an independent cartoonist, and providing services instead. You?”
“The only thing I miss in my life is a girl, but my company gives booze benefits, so I’d say awesome.”
I laughed. “Orion?” he asked.
“Delhi has all the malls we could possibly want,” I said. “We could go someplace more Bengaluru.”
“I don’t know.”
“Then just shut up and come,” he said. “We might be able to catch a morning show if we leave now. I’ll be ready in ten.”
I changed dress in two minutes and went out of my room, glancing at Nala’s door to my right. Maya was two doors away, to my left, standing in front of someone else’s door.
I walked over. “Hey!” I said.
“Hi,” she said. The door opened.
“Oh hey Karan!” the woman inside said.
“Shuki!” I said. “It’s been so long! What’re you guys planning for today?”
“We haven’t decided yet,” Maya said.
“You got any plans?” Shuki asked.
“I’m going to The Orion mall with Nala, catch a movie maybe. How about you two tag along?”
“That would be great!” said Shuki, looking at Maya, who said, “I guess.”
Nala came out a few minutes later. He exchanged smiles with the both of them, and greeted Maya. It seemed like he had already met Shuki.
Nala pulled out his phone. “Anyone else around here?” I asked.
“Not that I know of,” he said, checking for tickets.
Forty five minutes later, we got fourth row tickets to Point Break. Having missed only five minutes of the show, we got in. Maya and Nala sat in the centre, while I sat to Nala’s right and Shuki to Maya’s left.
The movie held my attention for a bare fifteen minutes. It felt like we were seated the wrong way. I desired to sit with the woman two seats away, even if our past slightly repelled us.
After the interval, Nala went in first, and sat in the same place. Maya went next, but left a seat between her and Nala. Shuki sat to Nala’s right, and I in between Nala and Maya. It was as though everyone had felt like me. Like we had been magnets held against our mutual attractions and repulsions, but when released, had jumped right to where we belonged.
The movie went on. I looked down at Maya’s feet when she uncrossed and crossed her legs for the third time, this time towards me. She raised her dangling foot and dropped it, and every time she raised it, it was like she was pointing at me.
I stole a glance at her.
She was looking at me.
I didn’t take my eyes off the screen after that.
That evening, we were gathered in Shuki’s room. Nala and me were seated on the bed, while Maya sat on a chair with one leg folded under the other. Shuki was looking into the mirror and doing something. “Lot of memories coming back,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “And today it’s just the four of us. It’s only going to get more nostalgic tomorrow.”
“Don’t cry, okay?” Maya told me. “Won’t make for good photos.
Shuki smiled, and Nala grinned.
“And you should try smiling,” I said. “That will make for good photos. In fact its so rare that it’ll make the photos priceless.”
The other two continued laughing. Maya’s lips slowly curved into a smile. And for some reason, my eyes became wetter.
The next morning, the reception was full of hugs and slaps and friendly insults. The place was full of smiles and excitement, and here and there, there was tears too.
As I looked at the people on stage with me, I realized how many people I had lost touch with. There were so many I had totally forgotten about, and many I still couldn’t recall. But of course, there were some whom I had not forgotten for once.
Maya stood beside me, along with a girlfriend of hers. Shuki joined us.
One by one, we congratulated the couple, and turned to the camera for a photo. The usual, basically.
A day back, when I had left for the Delhi Airport, the reception had been the reason, and I had assumed it would be the most eventful thing to happen. But the reception turned out to be barely significant, and I’m the skipping the details of all the “Hey, do you remember me?”
That day, late in the evening, Maya and I were in my room. I grabbed a water bottle from the bedside table. I had been talking for quite some time.
“I kind of feel bad actually,” I said, opening the bottle cap and pouring water down my throat.
“Why?” she asked, pulling a pillow to her lap. She was seated cross-legged on the bed across me.
I closed the bottle.
“I’ve been talking so much, and not just today. You listen to me, but you aren’t saying much.”
“What do you want me to say?” she asked.
“Something. Something about your life, maybe? I’ve been forcing you to listen to so much about mine.”
“Maybe nothing’s happening in my life,” she replied.
“That’s not possible,” I said.
“Maybe the last thing of any significance that happened in my life was breaking up with you.”
I looked at her. Her large, doe shaped eyes, outlined by kajal, stared into the distance. My gaze ran across her smooth, dusky skin. She was close, and I could see the tiny irregularities, the spots and patches. And her faint smell stirred memories. It wasn’t a smell I could give a specific description of. It was hers, and I wanted to drown in it, that was all. I gazed at her skin that spread across her cheeks. Her face. Her body. Her.
When I opened my eyes, I was looking at a lot of skin. Everything came back at once, and it was all so hard to believe and process.
I tried to move away slowly without disturbing her, but she woke up. I stared at her, awaiting her response. And when I saw that her eyes had no regret, I laughed. I didn’t care how stupid it was. I just laughed and laughed.
“Are you drunk?” she asked groggily.
“More like drugged,” I grinned.
Later, after she had left, the wedding boy came to my room.
“I have to confess something,” he said.
“What is it?” I asked, offering him a seat.
“The wedding wasn’t postponed.”
“What?” I said, stopping myself from sitting down. “You’re saying it happened yesterday?!”
“No. But it was never meant to. The wedding card you got with yesterday’s date was not the real one. It was printed specially for our college couples. You and Maya. Shuki and Nala. A few others. It was to get you together for a day and see what happens. The same plane, close by rooms, nothing is an accident.”
I stared at him. “Tell me that’s not true,” I said, crossing my arms.
He stayed silent.
“How could you do something like this?!” I said.
“I know you don’t like it, but I guess you will forgive me. It’s once in a lifetime, after all. Even if you do remain pissed, I think it’s something I can take if it brought back a couple together, even one of you.”
“And what if it doesn’t?” I asked.
“It will show that some things are just not meant to be,” he said. “You will find it easier to let go in future. The experience may or may not be sweet, but I don’t think you’ll regret it.”
In spite of what he had done, I found it difficult to garner anger against him. And he was newly wed, so I couldn’t voice even the little anger there was.
“The marriage is tomorrow,” he said. “I have tickets booked for a plane that leaves tomorrow afternoon too. Please stay for the marriage, at least for the sake of old times.”
I didn’t say anything.
“I wouldn’t blame you if you left tonight. But I beg you to stay.”
I opened the door. It was Maya.
“I can’t see where this is going, Rann,” she said.
“What are you saying?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “But I know that if you told me you loved me, I wouldn’t know what to say. I don’t want to get into this all over again. Let us go back to our lives the way it was.”
I didn’t say anything.
“I’m leaving tonight,” she said. “Goodbye.”
I tried to pull the sheet over my ears and sleep against the noise. Someone banged my door. I got up with a start, and opened the door to hell broken loose.
Was it a dream?
There was screaming and chaos. A burning smell and an acrid air.
Was it real, or was it just a dream?
I ran. I grabbed my phone. My laptop. My backpack. And I ran.
There was pushing. Shouting. And a horrible heat. Sweat ran on my burning skin as I ran through the smothering air.
Several minutes later, I was outside the hotel. I did not feel very healthy, but the paramedics were working on the worse affected, and I had to wait.
Was it true? Had she left?
The whole upper left part of the hotel building was burnt, and the fire was still untamed and spreading. I watched as it was being tried to put out. The thing about about flames is, they get rekindled.
I saw a badly injured Shuki being carried. Nala was there too. Many other friends had come, but I couldn’t find Maya. I scanned the whole place, and went around till I could no more, but I couldn’t find her.
“I’m leaving tonight. Goodbye.”
The memory seemed very hazy. I could not say at all if it was real, or just a dream.
I went to the groom, who had pretended to postpone his marriage, and would now need to to do it for real.
“Did Maya leave last night?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I don’t know, Karan. She didn’t tell me.” He sighed. “But that woman there,” he pointed to one talking furiously to a paramedic, “found a young lady holding this out. She couldn’t save her, but she saved this.” He held out a piece of paper.
The paper read:
I’m always running.
Sometimes from you, sometimes to you.
But know that wherever I am,
or however I’m running,
I love you, and I’m thinking of you.
“We have no idea who she was,” he said.
I folded the paper.
“You can keep it,” he said.
The number you are trying to reach is currently switched off. Please. . .
“Please switch off your phone, sir,” the air-hostess smiled. “The plane is going to take off.”
I cut the call. I didn’t know what to think. Had she decided to leave me and was she still there, going on with her life? Or had she chosen to love me and perished?
Or, had she simply perished, those words being someone else’s?
I stared at Maya’s contact on my phone. A tear dropped on the trash icon. I wiped it.
‘Are you sure you want to delete this contact?’ It asked.
As the flight took off, I stared through the window. My phone had more memory than before, and I had one that would haunt me for the rest of my life.