She wore a beige sweater and a navy blue skirt, and her hair was neatly tied into a bun. She sipped at her coffee, occasionally flicking through the magazine and tapping away noisily on her crimson phone. For the seventeenth time, the waiter smiled at her – she glared at him, while pretending to read the menu. She had been trying to reach a verdict for the past fifty-four minutes, distractedly skimming through the tattered pages – inescapably caught between the smoked ribs and the medium rare steak. The waiter, a discerning middle aged bloke, waited detachedly at her elbow as he watched her heartbreakingly vacillate between the vivid descriptions and their exorbitant prices. Unfortunately, in a battle of emotions and unkind purse strings, the latter would invariably win. She marked out the kinder item and slunk back to her seat. The waiter, visibly relieved, nodded and vanished into the kitchen behind the counter.
The shadows of the trees had breached the sidewalk and were now beginning to kiss her feet. The wintry afternoon sun was beginning to disappear behind the clouds. “Rain in winter,” she thought, “It’s going to get colder.” She felt around in her purse for a while, before retrieving a pack of thin cigarettes. They were the kind of cigarettes you would generally find in the purses of women who wore expensive perfumes and sat in circles in posh clubs playing cards and chugging vodka quicker than the Russians, into the wee hours of the morning. She lit her cigarette and wrapped her sweater tightly around herself. The naked, brown trees stood mutely against the rising black smoke in the sky – the leaves, the fragments of their memories – languishing away in the dirt, out of existence and time.
The city had changed a lot since she’d began working here. One by one, all her friends had left – leaving her alone to face a world that she barely recognised now. Her pesky neighbours had had a child, who had started pre-school, and had begun calling her “Aunt”, in the miserable eternity that she had spent enduring them. The lavish bottles of sunscreen and whiskey had begun emptying faster than ever, as she struggled to keep abreast of the changing times both physically and emotionally. The bickering couple across the restaurant shot her a disdainful look, as she smoked her cigarette, but that didn’t bother her anymore. She shrugged and blew rings of smoke towards the tarpaulin sheets and leaned back against the chair. She flicked the ashes into the empty coffee cup just in time to catch him smiling at her, in his casual black denims and tee, with his dirty grey jacket slung over his shoulder.
He had come back to the city after four long years in lands, far away. His wife worked in a city more than a thousand miles away. The initial few days had been rough – heartbroken conversations that went late into the night and moist pillows that dried with the rising sun, leaving streaks on their faces and black circles around their eyes. Over time, they had learnt to hide it well – conversations that happened over the phone at lunch and texts that were exchanged during meetings, replaced the unkindness of distance. Still, the odd couple huddling together against the stained wall in the rain, reminded him of what could have been – he still had hope, like the lambent glow from underneath the ashen embers of their love.
He smiled at her, out of the corner of his eyes, as he approached her table. “Hey! How have you been?” he asked, pulling out a chair from underneath the older man at the next table. This set in motion a chain of events that began with the old man floundering for balance – as he brought down the entire ensemble of starters and the waiter who was entrusted with the singular task of conveying the same. It culminated with both of them on the floor and a very princely offering of duck on his wife’s bewildered face. He frowned at the dazed trio for a moment, before shrugging an apologetic “Oh dear, I am so sorry.” Inappropriate as it was, she stifled a laugh and shook his hand. “They are going to be alright,” she reassured him. She had never been one for political correctness, laughing hysterically when the situation demanded so – except at the time her boss had come to work one morning with a broken tooth and a black eye (“I fell down the stairs, and broke my tooth”.) She had had to swallow a sheet of paper to keep herself from laughing and possible unemployment. Her squeal reminded him of the older days, when he’d burst in through her door and flop down on her chair and begin, “You wouldn’t believe what happened at work today…” and she’d look up from behind her glasses, put down her book and begin laughing with him, as if on cue.
“You look very old, you know. Have you been drinking?” she asked, without a shred of compassion for his receding hairline and his sunken cheeks. He grinned ruefully, “A bottle a day, keeps the nosy neighbour away. How are things?” he pressed. Her face grew dark as she leaned back on her chair and inhaled sharply. “Things changed after you left. I moved out of my apartment and took a place near the train station. I quit my job and left for my town for a while. My parents have been a little under the weather, you know. I returned last February. Have been looking around for work since. I teach on the weekends, you know. Proper mathematics and all.” “You are terrible with your finances! How did you get them to recruit you? Did you, you know…” his eyes twinkled, as his voice trailed off mischievously. She smacked him on the head with the menu. “Enough,” she cut in, before breaking into a laugh with him. Despite the flippancy, he was watching the shadows loom near the edges of her heart.
“Why don’t you let me help? You know, I could help you out with work, if you need a place to crash for a while and all,” he offered. She stared at him for a bit. “Look, I am trying to figure this all out. It’s not like…”she began. “I don’t mean to be intrusive. Just off the top…” he paused, as the waiter arrived with the steak and began neatly arranging the cutlery. Inside, both of them heaved sighs of relief – a moment of awkwardness had been averted. “So you ordered the steak? You know there’s a sickness going around,” he said, trying to deflect. The waiter paused in mid-air, and glared at him coldly – clearly he had touched a raw nerve. (The age of the self-respecting waiters had arrived. They would soon be able to, it had been mutually agreed upon, to not serve their guests at their own discretion – and under pressing circumstances, would even be allowed to fling plates at the unsuspecting guests when they were not looking.) “It’s not like it has reached everywhere, though,” he managed. The waiter’s frosty eyes rested on him for a few more seconds, before he walked off disdainfully.
She watched him closely. There was a distinct sadness around him, the sort of regret that comes in the wake of unfulfilled dreams and fancies. She could see he was still in love, the kind of love that transforms from a warmth of the heart, to a weathered, battered sunshine that fills your house during the dying of the day. It was no more a response, but a laboured, mechanical breathing that kept him alive. She wanted to help him, but she knew he would laugh it off.
The rain had begun to bear down heavily on the tarpaulin sheet. Any semblance of sunshine now felt like a distant memory, buried away in the darkness, washed out of consciousness by the spate of time. She lit another cigarette and shivered. “You never smoked when I was there,” he observed, putting his jacket around her. The restaurant was nearing closing time. The roads had emptied, except for the occasional drenched motorcyclist who plied through the rain. She got up to leave. “Here. In case you want to talk, give me a ring – I’ll see what I can do,” he said – handing her a card. “A card? That’s fancy,” she laughed, this time mirthlessly. He opened his mouth to reply, but stopped. He looked at her closely. She smiled back, “Sure,” before walking off into the wet darkness. “I will come around for my jacket!” he called after her. She walked on, without pausing.
One week after, there was a knock on the door. He laboured to open his eyes, and pushed away the bottles from under his feet. He staggered through the hall, and swung the door open. There lay a coarse brown package at his feet and a tiny red handwritten note. It read, in a writing that was all too familiar to him, “Some other time, hot-shot.” He stared at it for a long time. It smelt of the perfume he had gifted her for Christmas. He sighed, crumpled it and tossed it into the waste basket. He had a couple of presentations to make, a couple of meetings to attend.