13 September, 2009

...the second first kiss

I was sipping on my tea and biting into my croissant. I had finally settled, or that's what I thought. It had been 23 months since I left my country and arrived at Oakland. I had arrived with no clue and now here I was in my own house, in a colony filled with people who would not remind me of the past and a job that was enough for a monthly saving and grocery.

I was on a time table, a time table to forget the past, a time table that would keep me busy, a time table that would exhaust me so I would not stare at my ceiling thinking of the past in that eerie silence of the night not knowing how to sleep. My life was now in a place I hadn't seen coming. I was in a different country, far from family and cut off from friends.

It was the 100th week. 100 weeks of waking up to say hello to my family on a webcam. 100 weeks of not answering emails from friends. 100 weeks of pretending that the picture I had hidden in my piggy bank never existed. 100 weeks of beginning to believe that my will power was getting strong. 100 weeks of not voluntarily sending any emails, or calling friends. My life was just the new people, my family and running away from the past.

I was almost 1.5 years into into my job and finally the day came. My boss came to my cabin and offered me a higher position and a raise that was more than double. I was overwhelmed after a long time. Something made sense. I began to believe that running away from everything has done something new to me. It was the first time that a promotion did not follow a series of phonecalls, hugs and a dinner. But I decided to remove that from my thoughts and get back to the time table.

Bhagvat came over and congratulated me. He was the only Indian in the office and was way senior to me. He lived in the same colony as mine with his wife and children. His wife would drop her kids over with me every time they wanted to have one of their romantic dinners. Bhagvat was as usual praising my work and this time he got together a gang of colleagues to celebrate my promotion. They were the bunch of people who often nudged me to join them so this time I didn't want to say no. We were to party at Sin City near our colony and Bhagvat had permission from his wife to drink for my promotion.

I hadn't dressed up in a long time. I wore my red dress that was as formal as it was chic. I didn't go through with the trouble of wearing any make up. I left the house making sure all lights were off. I got into a cab and arrived at the place. I could hear the jarring music from outside and all of a sudden I was in no mood for noise. I met up with Laila and Kiance outside and we went inside together. It was 2 hours of vodka shots and bottoms up contests for the rest while I laughed at them all with my fruit drink. Each one started getting tipsy soon and I decided to leave. I got Bhagvat into a cab and got in in the front seat.

We arrived at his house and after careful help from his wife Bhagvat was in bed. I kissed the kids goodnight and turned to leave. Anita stopped me and offered me Kaju Katli. They were wrapped with silver like in India and were in a Sri Mithai box. I was moved. I hadn't seen an Indian sweet in a long time. She wished me and applied sinthoor on my forehead. It was almost a reflex - I feel on her feet and she hugged me. For the first time I cried. I cried after we said our byes and I arrived home. I locked myself inside and cried from behind the door. I slipped on my PJs and got into bed with some yoghurt. Anita's message was on my phone. It was her usual goodnight message and this time with an added exclamation mark with Congratulations.

I had moved on to a new role and the new bosses were pleased. I was given a new camera with a set of expensive lenses. With a new team I was busy with photoshoots, interviews and my laptop. My life now revolved around new techniques in lighting and color. I was reading about photography and talking it too. Any beautiful place had my opinion of what I could do there. I was visiting 'locations' for photo shoots and creating story lines.

The new job was getting to me when one day my boss came over and gave me the news. They were creating a travel catalog for one of the travel agencies and I was to shoot in Las Vegas for 3 weeks. My team and I were overjoyed. Well, who wouldn't be if your trip to Las Vegas was paid for and you were put up in Ballys! I had heard a lot about the place from my parents and they were equally happy for me.

The exciting day came and all of us were at the airport. Photographers, lighting directors, models and the financiers. This time the photographers were posing. The whole team huddled for a prayer and boarded. It was a beautiful flight and an even more beautiful landing.

I had to open my mind a lot more for Las Vegas. Every scene there had more light, more color and more themes. My mind was running wild. I had 5 ideas on hand already for the shoot and I was still on my way to the hotel. We all reached, checked in. Since I was the only woman, I got my own room without having to share it with anyone. It was like I wanted it. No one but me and yet the outside virtual world I'm in around me.

The rest of the crew was already making plans to hit the casino and bars. I was in no mood for any of that. I made myself and appointment at the spa for the next day and decided to take a walk around the place for some ideas. I packed my camera and my wallet in my hand bag and locked the room. I decided to learn the hotel in and out before it was dinner time. I walked through giant lobbys and verandas with exquisite architecture and design. The hotel was stylish in its own English-American way. I walked by the pool side and decided to stop for some drink. I bought myself a pineapple-papaya-carrot health drink and that was when I made up my mind I would never buy a non-alcoholic drink from a bar ever. I wasted almost all of it and walked to do what I do best.

My little flashy friend was out and I was clicking pictures by the pool. Women in their swim suits and bikinis were having their kinda vacation. A group of girls were more than happy to pose for me, so I had my own little shoot by the pool already. It was totally Las Vegas. There were models, bikinis, and of course a lot of glamor. I thanked them for their time and we had a group picture taken and I bid goodbye and left.

I arrived at the lobby to check my email and also send my parents a few pictures. I was amused at the number of unread messages in my Shaadi.com label. I had filtered these emails when I had arrived in Oakland and when my mom decided the internet is the place to find myself someone. I sent emails to my family and returned to my room. I was a little exhausted so I ordered dinner in.

I watched a little TV and ate my lasagna silently. About half an hour into my dinner, there was a knock on my door. I opened the door to find a houseboy give me a note. I read the note and smiled. The rest of the crew had wanted to make use of the 2 days we had before the shoot so they had gone on a road trip without me and that was their apology note. It was their guy thing and I had no right to feel bad anyway.

I thanked the houseboy and turned to go in when I heard someone speak Tamil. I quickly looked on both sides of the corridor and saw a woman in a salwar kameez on the phone. She was tall, beautiful and explaining to her mother why her phone was not reachable for all this time. It was over 10 seconds when I realized I was both staring and overhearing her so I turned to go back inside. Just when I was about to lock, she knocked. I opened and almost apologized and she asked me for a pen. I gladly accepted to give her one to save the embarrassment and also cause it wasn't my pen to give. She was noting down some numbers and then she needed a place to keep her notepad to write comfortably on. I invited her in and when she was done with her call, we introduced ourselves.

Her name was Rithanya and was on holiday here with her husband. She was a housewife and her husband was into agriculture. His farm was India's leading orchid supplier and the flower business was apparently great. She was alone right now as her husband was away with some other friends at the casino. I told her about myself - a photographer from Oakland, single and here on work.

She invited me for dinner but since I had already had mine, I told her to order in food so we could talk. She wanted to get out of her room, so I decided to treat myself with dessert with her. I was asked to call her Rithu. Rithu was talkative. Non-stop. She was also all about herself and her husband. I was dying inside but it had been long since I had heard someone speak so much Tamil before, so I allowed myself to devour it.

She complained about the food abroad and how she wasn't the kind to eat cold food. I helped her order and we waited for her pasta. She added a lot of chilli flakes and salt to make it Indian and started eating. Rithu hadn't stopped talking even then. She didn't mind the people around her when she folded her legs on the sofa. She didn't bother how loud she was. And she made me sweat a little whenever she pointed at someone to make fun of them.

After a lot of talking, both of us were eating our ice creams. We decided to carry it to the pool side. We were chatting about how Indians come abroad for money and not stay in the country. She was explaining to me how her father never gave her an option about her career and how she had to get an arranged marriage. As we were talking she got a call. She told me it was her husband and excused herself. She came back in 2 minutes and told me her husband would be joining us shortly. I made up my mind to say hello and leave. Also, I was concerned about the company the husband had not given her the whole evening.

In exactly 5 minutes, Rithu smiled and stood up to stretch her hand and hold her husband's hand. I looked up to say hello and shuddered. I managed a hello and after that I could not hear a thing. There were memories painting images of the same face. I was sweating. I was dehydrated in 5 seconds. I regained conscious when Rithu shook my hand and said 'Are you alright?' I said I was and excused myself for some water. I walked to the bar and breathed out. I was looking at the face I was dreading never to see again. It felt like a week before I brought up my courage to get back to Rithu. I walked back seeing her hold the hands I've always imagines holding. I walked back preparing dialogues of what to say and get away. I walked back imagining how my life would have been if things were just the same as 3 years ago. I walked back looking at my past who I once thought would be my entire future.

I reached the table and didn't look into the eyes I always wanted to look into. I sat opposite the couple. I looked up to say that I wanted to leave when the most familiar voice said 'How have you been?' My heart sank. I wanted to cry. I wanted to get up and run but instead I looked up and stared into the eyes and said 'I've been good. How have you been?' Rithu was confused. She looked at his and asked him if we knew each other. He, with a mention of my name said it. Rithu's face changed color. I was in the situation I had always run away from. She stood up and walked away from the table.

I had to do something. I walked up to her and apologized and said bye. She instead replied asking me where I was so long. I didn't quite get the question. Her phone rang and she walked back to the table to get it. She was talking for a long time which I could only imagine was her mother. She walked away from the table and me and spoke for a long time. I almost wanted to commit the sin of basic courtesy and leave without saying bye. She came closer to me and I hear her say 'Honey, you have to come here immediately. We just met Priya. Yes, your friend K's Priya'

I looked at her and searched for the answer. Who was she 'honey'ing when her husband, my ex was sitting at the table. I was clueless. She looked at me and said 'We have to talk.' She went back to the table and sat near him. I knew I was supposed to follow when I saw the two of them look towards the door. It was Nishanth. The face I had vividly remembered. Nishanth hurriedly walked towards the table and when Rithu pointed to me he came towards me. The familiar hug was missing. Nishanth stared at me and after a minute I had to give in. I hugged him and I cried. Cried on the shoulder of one of my best friends. Cried for the 3 years of unanswered emails. Cried for the 3 years of my parents shutting the doors on his face.

Rithu came towards us and helped Nishanth with a hanky. I walked back to the table and now Rithu was near Nishanth. I had to sit near K this time. Nishanth introduced me to his wife Rithu. One part of me was screaming inside and one part of me wanted to immediately cry on the shoulder to my right. There was no reaction from K.

I had turned to stone. For more than 5 minutes no one had spoken. After what felt like eternity, Nishanth and Rithu excused themselves and left. He left his room number, mobile number and left saying he wanted to talk to me. As he left, I walked up to him. I had not decided what I wanted to do, but I wanted to tell him I was sorry. And when I did, he replied saying he was only glad he found me after 2 years. He told me to get some sleep and think things over.

I sat with K and watched as Nishanth and Rithu left. Rithu came back half-way to invite me for breakfast. After she was gone, it was just me and K. It was after 3 years I was sitting near him. It was so eerily silent that I could hear his breath and my heartbeat. It was just seconds when he suddenly got up. He was not walking away or moving. He was standing still, with his hands crossed looking at the silent pool which was now closed for use. We were the only two people there.

I had kept away from this moment and had not prepared at all. I wasn't expecting to bump into anybody in a long time. Least did I expect K to come up suddenly. He looked just the way I remembered him. He turned and looked at me. I froze. I had no idea what to say. He asked simply 'Are we ok?' Of all the things I had expected him to say, this was not one. I searched for an answer and finally blurted 'I don't know'. He replied with a smile 'Let's make it OK. I want to forget the one day that ruined our 7 years and the rest that were to follow. I know why you left. I know I shouldn't have let anything take the only thing we wanted away from us and I'm sorry. Now I want to know if you will come back with me and be my future.'

I had nothing to say. I didn't feel like questioning him. I had heard just what I wanted to hear. There was a part of me that was thankful for K's apology. There was a part of me that wanted to apologize. I was crying. K lifted me and hugged me tight. I was on his shoulder. I was crying. He sat me on the bar counter and hugged me close and hushed me. I drew back and looked at him and smiled in my tears. He tried to smile back but he was fighting back tears too. I hadn't seen him cry in a long time. He leaned into me and hugged me closer. He was home and so was I. After almost an hour we talked. I told him I was here on work. He told me he was here on work too. We were sitting together on the poolside bench and he was holding me close. I was leaning on him and we talked for hours.

It was close to dawn when we walked back to our rooms. He dropped me at my door and hugged me again. I looked up at K and said 'I never stopped loving you.' He replied with our second first kiss. He hugged me again and left.

I packed my bags from Las Vegas the next day and left to Oakland with K. The next day I quit and went back to India. K and I are married for 3 years now and we live with his parents in his farmhouse.

Back to the grind

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