There was a couple sitting in the cafe when I walked in. As the light was low, I didn’t know who they were until the woman turned around, and I saw it was my wife.
There she was… still as beautiful as that angel on the top of the Christmas tree, the first ray of sunlight which touches the sea, that dew drop on the leaf after the first rain, and after all these years too. She was laughing, and did not notice as I stood under the shadow in the corner of the café, my heart in my mouth, just like the first time I had seen her. My thoughts ran back to that first time I had laid my eyes on her…. and just like that I was transported back to a time 20 years ago.
I remembered the first day I saw her. There she was, new in college, another city, another state, amongst strangers, so one would think she would be intimidated, but not her. She stood there laughing at a joke made by her classmate, and I just couldn’t take my eyes off her. A simple yellow salwar- suit, hair tied in a pony, and absolutely no trace of make-up…. But she was still the most beautiful girl in the lot. Almost instantly I asked caught hold of a junior and asked him her name. And I decided, it was time to get to know my juniors better.
Rushing back to the boys’ hostel, I casually threw the question around the room whether we knew the incoming class well enough – there seemed to be some interesting newcomers. Of course, that much was enough to have their interest piqued and a late night ragging session was scheduled where all the juniors were lined up for introductions. And of course, I was waiting for only one. And there she was, now looking a little bit scared, eyes downcast, biting her lower lip. When her turn came, she said her name and college out loud and her voice sounded so sweet that I nudged a friend to ask her to sing her favourite song. Sing she did, and there was a collective sigh in a room full of young men… and that was the very moment I decided she had to be mine, forever.
The next few days followed in the pursuit of the lady, knowing her entire bio-data and also warning every joker to stay away from her. But I still did not know how to tell her this, and, to my utter delight, an opportunity presented itself at the college party. There she was at the dance floor, unaware of what her dance moves were doing to the hearts around, and I couldn’t help but dedicate a song to her. Cheesy I know, and I risked a rebuke in public, and she seemed taken aback, only pleasantly so. I asked her for a dance and she obliged. Of course, the entire college was hooting by now, and she was blushing with embarrassment, which was such a pretty sight! After that the night was a blur… we danced till the wee hours of the morning. As I was more than slightly tipsy by now, my friends took her in the car with them, giving me a ‘we-know-what-you-have-in-mind’ glare when I protested.
Anyways, after a more than fun evening, and feeling light-headed with the drinks and dancing, I headed out with the boys for some midnight snacking. All the dancing had made me hungry! An hour or more later, when we zipped back on our bikes to the hostel, there I saw her, sitting outside my hostel room, cold, tired and anxious. I got off the bike immediately and asked her, ‘What are you doing here? I thought you would be back in girl’s hostel and fast asleep by now!’ ‘Well, I just wanted to make sure you were ok. You did have a little too much to drink so….’ she tailed off. That was it, I couldn’t help enveloping her in that hug I wanted to give for the entire night long… There was so much more I wanted to say and do… but she looked like a porcelain doll who I did not want to touch, afraid she might break. I dropped her off at the hostel stairs and she gave the most beatific smile ever. A smile I would never forget for years to come…
That was it… my heart was lost forever, and I knew this was the girl I would spend the rest of my life with. The next day the entire college had been told ‘Ye tumhari bhabhi hai!’ Something she giggled at shyly, I was suddenly transported back to the present when I heard that very same giggle. Now my eyes stung with tears at the sound. Why did I let her go? What had I been thinking? And I just couldn’t stop the tears running down my cheeks. I know men are not supposed to cry. But just seeing her today, I could not help it. It was as if somebody had pulled my heart from my chest, and trampled upon it…
The memories of years of loneliness flooded me. What had happened to our life – my perfect life, my wife, my children, my home? How did I end up screwing it all so bad?
Our courtship was never a smooth one. The same confident, sassy, fire-brand girl that I fell in love with got on my nerves now. She was always demanding- she was used to being showered with attention, but I found it stifling to be with her all the time. I needed my space, I felt I was being tied down. I probably did not realise then that all I had ever craved for probably was to be tied down.
Our fights continued- we were like fire and air – literally… We would fight and make-up, then fight and make-up some more. We were as different as chalk and cheese – but then, ever heard of the phrase – opposites attract? Well, if anything, that applied to us perfectly. Few close friends tried to tell us how different we were, but then, isn’t love blind? Apparently, it’s also deaf and dumb.
We dated a while, finished our college, got the coveted campus jobs, and then told our parents… and all hell broke loose. We belonged to different communities and the parents were strictly against our marriage, but then again, we refused to listen. Our fire and ice relationship continued, and along came baby number one. I wasn’t ready, but she couldn’t wait to be a mother. She was right. The little one filled our hearts and home with happiness. There was nothing better than coming home to a cooing bundle. This was my family and I wanted just the best for them. I started working long hours, and the ones which were left, were spent with the little one. I did not realise that she felt like she had disappeared from my life. It was my job, my baby, my parents, my friends who came before her, which wasn’t true, but she had started feeling that way. Unfortunately, I was so busy, I never noticed….
She was a trooper, my wife. She ran everything perfectly – she took care of home, kids, my family, social circle, all the while looking like a pro. Which of course which meant she lost her cool sometimes. She was a military sergeant most of the times – but then anyone who said running a house was easy, really needed to try running it perfectly once in a while. It’s a job which is 24*7*365. A job which sucked the happiness out of her, but I did not realise it. I thought she was happy doing this. She was a wife, a mother, a bahu after all! Don’t all women love taking care of their homes and families? Taking someone you love for granted is so easy, you don’t even realise it most of the times…
She sometimes complained of an ache in her lower abdomen but I never took it very seriously… you know how it is with women – periods, pains, mood swings… keeps going on. I was too busy at work anyways. And of course, she carried on and I never really realised that she might’ve needed a doctor.
One day when I returned home from work, I found her lying on the sofa. The kids were in bed, she would usually get up to serve me dinner, but today, she didn’t. I felt really angry. Here I was, after a long day’s work at the office, and didn’t I deserve some attention from my wife? A warm meal, asking how my day was? I muttered under my breath, heated up the food and ate, and never noticed tears brimming her eyes….
It never occurred to me that she might’ve had a tough day too. Did I remember to ask her why she was in bed? Nope… not once did that thought occur to me.
The next morning she said she would be going to a gynaecologist as her abdomen pain had increased, and I casually asked if she wanted me around. I heaved a sigh of relief when she said she will manage- I was already drowning under pressure of my work. I couldn’t afford to waste half a day. I returned home late that evening, asked her how the visit went and she said she had been asked to take more tests. She would be ok to go alone, she added. I had to fly out of the country for my conference the next day.
My travel days used to be busy. Meetings from breakfast to lunch with clients to dining out. In our initial days of marriage, she used to complain that I didn’t even have 5 minutes to check on her. Now we both had gotten used to the routine. There were days when I missed the kids and would call, on the other days, I was out and it was nice not to call for a change. It was break from my usual life of wife, home, kids. Felt like the good old times.
When I returned from this trip, she was looking paler than usual. She had gotten her test reports back. It suggested ovarian cancer. Guess what my reaction was? I was furious! Furious that she had ignored this. Furious that she had let go of her health. Furious that now on top of everything, we had to manage the hospital expenses too! Most of all, I was furious at myself for not taking better care of her. But that was difficult to admit. I stormed out of the house, never once realising that I had left her completely broken. Fact was that I was afraid. I had never really managed the house and kids and work on my own and the thought left me devastated. And the thought of losing her? That was excruciating. But still, it was a cowardly act. I was just thinking about myself – even now.
I did not call her all day. I pretended to be busy. I couldn’t get myself to face her. I couldn’t deal with the pain. When I returned home that evening, she had already checked into the hospital. There was a note which said that her mother was with her and the kids needed me, and I needn’t show up at the hospital. I called her and she said the surgery was a minor one and it was done, and she would be home next morning. Kids were scared so they needed me more than she did. I listened to her- I wonder why. I never saw the façade of strength she was keeping up.
She came in next morning – pale, drained, but when she walked in the room – she had her trademark smile for the children. She never let us see her pain. Ever.
But she did call me in the afternoon. Said this wasn’t working, and she needed some time off. I got angry – again. What was she talking about? Everything was great! She had a great family, her children were perfect, she had a beautiful house, a closet full of designer clothes, a husband with a coveted MNC job – what more did she want? These whimsical ideas of love and romance go out of the window in the first year! She has got to be more practical than this! We were not children anymore!
But before I could say too much, she had left for her mother’s place. I was really furious this time. She was an ungrateful bitch! I had worked 14 hours a day to make sure that she and the kids were comfortable. The clothes, the foreign holidays, the toys, the expensive school doesn’t come free! If she thought she could do without all this, she was most welcome to go! She would return to her senses soon, I was certain of it as always!
That was the last day I had seen her. Post this, I just got a notice from her lawyer for divorce. I did not call her at first. I thought she was just being childish, and would realise her mistake and call me soon. But she never did. That is when I called her… but she never picked. I was missing her now. I was missing the nagging. I was missing the fights. But above all, I was missing that warrior smile. The smile with which my day started, and the one with which the day ended too. I just had never realised it.
I was concerned about the cancer – when I tried calling, her close friends just told me that her chemotherapy was going fine and she was recovering. It was painful enough that she wasn’t talking to me, I had no courage to face her as I realised I had hurt her irreparably this time. There was no turning back. Finally, after trying for a few months, I too stopped calling. Life was tough without her, and she clearly did not want to talk to me.
Years passed on… Sometimes I heard about her from common friends, but most would avoid the topic. I moved to States with the new promotion, a move I was more than happy to make. I had more time than ever to devote to my job, now with her and kids moving out. Things were going great!
The next few years passed in a blur. It was one promotion after another. There was no stopping me and I was convinced that her walking out on me was probably the best thing that happened in my life. That nagging feeling when I walked into an empty hotel room? I pushed that to the farthest corner of my mind and would work longest hours to avoid it. This worked wonders for my career of course. Bosses loved me and colleagues knew they could count on me for that last minute presentation.
I saw kids in months… But her? She never came….not even to drop them.
And today, out of nowhere. Walking into a quaint café in Turkey on a Tuesday afternoon, I never expected to hear that laugh. That laugh which still stirred the heartstrings somewhere. It was as if my feet gravitated towards that laugh…..
And then, as if seeing the first ray of sunlight on a dark, gloomy day, I saw her. There she was, laughing on a joke cracked by her friend – that loud, throaty, unhindered laughter. The one which did not care who was looking. The one which came from deep within. The one with which her eyes crinkled. The one which paled a field full of blooming sunflowers.
She looked older, her hair was shorter (probably never got back to the same glory after the chemo), but that girlish charm… that was intact and more.
I was glued to the spot… did not even realise those tears welling up in my eyes. Why had I never made an effort to reach out to her all these years? Why did I let my ego get in the way? Why did I never realise what I had lost? Why was my heart feeling so empty now and as if someone was crushing it? Had she forgotten me? Had she found peace? Worse still….. Had she found love again?
Somehow, as all of this went through my mind, I could not muster the courage to walk up to her and say hello. Tell her how much I missed her, and how my life meant nothing without her. How if she would give me another chance, I would spend the rest of my life making up for it. How there was really never a day which went when I did not miss her.
But today was not that day. My heart shattered into a million pieces as I turned around and walked out of that café, and her life. Probably forever.