I should’ve known it.
I should’ve known that there was something different about today.
Even though logically, there’s no way I would’ve known beforehand how I’d feel after leaving my friend’s place, I still should’ve known! I have been caught completely off guard by an unexpected ordeal, and to say that I am still dazed would be an understatement, judging by the way my whole body is still tingling.
By the time I reach the place where I had parked my black Activa, I have reiterated the words I should’ve known so many times in my head that I want to smack myself just to take my mind off it. All I seem to be doing is recalling the last three hours of my life, analysing them from different angles and hoping that I did not make a fool of myself in front of him.
At the thought of him, I smile for a split second, trying to visualise his face; a blurred outline of a rectangle-shaped head comes to mind, along with a sexy, bearded jaw, and witty brown eyes. But just as the smile on my face threatens to widen, I snap out of it, look around to check whether anyone saw that loony smile, then shake my head.
Control your thoughts, Sara, I tell myself. He might be a good looking guy, but that’s no reason for you to keep smiling to yourself. And get off your high cloud, goddammit; just because he spoke to you, it doesn’t mean anything. Stop reading into everything. He was forced into your company, and he probably had no choice but to be polite. The situation demanded it.
Did the situation demand it, though? The slowly awakening positive side of me says in a low, sleepy voice, peeping from under the thick blankets covering her, making me contemplate all the strange happenings since the morning:
To scan things from the very beginning, I had to snooze just the first of my five alarms: that almost never happens. Also, my 15-year old brat of a sister seemed to be in a good mood throughout the morning, and when I borrowed one of her hair ties, she completely forgot to make a face or to refuse at least once. If that hadn’t been a sure fire sign of a potentially strange day, it should’ve crossed my mind when she happily obliged to give me a glass of water when I asked her to do so.
Owing it to my sister for putting me in a good mood too, like a contagion, I had taken my own time to get ready.
There was something about today that made me ditch the western wear in my cupboard and pick out a cobalt blue coloured neatly folded kurti instead.
Something about traditional clothes always elevates my already heightened mood. Maybe it’s because of the tinkling of the long earrings I take an effort to wear, or because it makes me look elegant. I like how the leggings snake around my legs and take the shape of my calves, and how the Indianness of it all makes my hair look more alluring and flowy than it usually looks when I don’t tie it.
After I was dressed and had slapped on some nude lipstick, I took a sweeping look in the mirror, admired myself, threw my hair behind my shoulder, and left the house.
I’d started riding a two-wheeler, my neat white Wego, when I was sixteen, almost six years ago; after all these years I’ve come to observe that when I get at least one ride where I don’t have to stop at any red signals, it turns out to be a great day. Everything seems to be happening in my favour; everyone seems to be smiling at me whenever I pass them; my mother makes some fancy dinner; and occasionally, I happen to encounter a good looking man - be it in the canteen of my college, a senior, or a fellow gym goer.
And that’s why when I started from my house today morning and didn’t encounter any red signals, warmth spread in my chest in anticipation, followed by a pleasant flipping in my stomach. I was on the edge of my seat for the entire 15-minute ride I had to take. All I kept thinking was that something good was bound to happen today, even if it were something as nerdy but productive as finishing the work I had gone out to do.
I was heading to Tanuja’s house to work on a minor project our professor had assigned to us. Ideally, an entire month in college as a postgraduate student should’ve landed me with at least a couple of ‘friends’ with whom I could have my lunch, but until the day I met Tanuja, that had not been the case.
When college had begun, I had been gifted a Kindle for my birthday, and reading books on it was how I spent any free time I got. I was so engrossed in it that I honestly wouldn’t realise it if anyone started talking to me. I had probably made a hostile impression on my colleagues because even after two months of coming back to normal, everyone went about as though talking to me was like dancing on stepping stones.
The ‘coming back to normal’ had been Tanuja Desai’s doing.
One day, the book I was reading reached such an interesting point that I decided to skip a lecture, go someplace quiet and continue reading it there. And I did just that. No one came to disturb me for half an hour as I sat on a bench, reading.
And then out of nowhere, I felt someone poke my left shoulder. Reluctantly, I tore my gaze away from the Kindle screen and looked at the source of the disturbance.
It came in the form of a smiling, skinny girl. Her black hair whipped lightly against her face because of a breeze as she promptly sat beside me.
She didn’t move a muscle for a few moments and then raised her hands in the air hesitantly. Positioning her hands as if she were holding a clutch, she started shaking that hand and mumbled a low what under her breath.
Completely stunned by her bizarre actions, I said nothing, praying for that moment when her actions would start making sense. Apparently, that moment was not fated immediately: she then started gesturing something else - a finger pointed at me, accompanied by a low voiced are you. Her eyes turned distant for a second and then lit with enlightenment. Opening her palms horizontally with the fingers pointed in my direction, she moved her eyes all over her palms, mouthing the word reading.
What are you reading? She was saying.
Why couldn’t she have said it like an average person?
“The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand”, I replied, feeling my patience slip away.
And just when I was about to turn my attention back to the book without caring if it’d seem rude, she squealed with delight.
A couple of screws in her head were probably loose. Poor girl.
I smiled politely at her, hoping that she’d take the hint that I was in no mood to talk to insane strangers.
And she was in no mood for taking subtle hints.
“Oh my God, I just spoke in sign language, and she understood it!”
“What?” I almost laughed in disbelief, and before I knew it, I was saying, “You did no such thing. I just heard you speak them out loud!”
The girl blinked, looking so confused that I wanted to hug her.
“Aren’t you deaf?” she asked, frowning, eyeing the Kindle through narrow eyes and then looking at me. “Or did you purposely ignore me when I said ‘excuse me’ for three times in a row?” Her cheeks turned red, and she moved away from me. “Oh God, I’m so stupid. I thought you were deaf. I didn’t realise that you didn’t want to be disturbed!”
It was my turn to blush.
I didn’t have any explanation for failing to realise when someone was trying to talk to me, but only a scoffing voice in my head saying, I wish the rest of my classmates would’ve gotten that message faster.
And that was how I met Tanuja Desai.
It turned out that she had taken the same course as me, and she had missed every class of the first month because of being admitted late. I happened to have up-to-date colour coordinated notes of every class she had missed, and also the knowledge of a nearby place where she could get them copied.
I finally had a reason not to keep my head buried in my Kindle all the time and had an interesting story as to how Tanuja and I ended up as friends - a concoction of miming and rendezvouses at Xerox machine shops.
It would seem that I went along with this friendship because it was not like I had other choices, but it was not just that. When you meet some people, you just know that your connection feels right; the sound of your laughter with theirs forms a pleasant harmony; and sometimes, you get a feeling that your friendship should continue forever.
That’s what happened gradually.
When Tanuja and I exchanged names and numbers, I heard the tick of approval in my head. And I’m glad of that tick because it is the reason I have such an amazing friend, and probably something more...
I parked my Activa in a shady spot, wanting to prevent the creation of an unpleasant butt-warmer. I did not wish to be a lab rat some sunny hours later. Just as I was about to open Whatsapp to view the address Tanuja had sent me, I realised that the security guard was beckoning me, asking me whom I had come to visit. He nodded curtly and opened a dirty, old visitors’ record book to which a cheap pen was tied. I was told to write my details.
If I was going to have to write it anyway, why’d he waste so much energy in asking me?
Instead of taking the elevator, I decided to take the stairs. Three flights of stairs were not much of a climb. A minute later, after making sure that I was presentable, I rang the doorbell, took a step back respectfully and waited to hear some rustling on the other side of the door.
There was no response to my call.
I rang the bell the second time, but all I received as an answer was silence.
That’s weird, I thought. Isn’t Tanuja home?
There was another girl from my class who was supposed to do this project with us. I decided to call her and check whether she had arrived.
Her number was unreachable.
Furrowing my eyebrows, I called Tanuja, hoping that there would be some logical explanation for this. I didn’t get the date of the meeting wrong, did I?
After three rings, she picked up. She sounded irritated and was breathing a little heavily. Before I could say anything, she gushed out an apology. “I’m coming, I’m coming. Mom sent me out to do some urgent work which couldn’t be put off. Manali is running late for God knows what reason - probably something stupid. There’s no one at my house to let you in.”
“Yes, I know, I- ”
“Don’t worry; I won’t have you sitting on the dusty staircase. I’ll make a call, and in a few minutes, you will find yourself seated comfortably on the couch.”
“There’s no need- ”
“Hush now, you’re my guest. Let me handle it my way.” Her way was probably blackmailing someone to get stuff done for her.
Before I could say anything, she ended the phone call.
And as I stood in front of the door of her house, shaking my head at her bossiness and smiling fondly, I didn’t realise that he was climbing up the flight of stairs behind me, arguing with someone on the phone and telling them to stop biting his ear off because he was already home.