Navin was fifteen minutes late and Padma was aware of every minute of it. At one point, she had thought of slipping out of the restaurant and leaving; but he arrived just as she had made up her mind.
“Why did you call me?” he asked almost as soon as he sat down, his expression inscrutable.
“Because, “ she breathed, clasping her fingers nervously together, “because what is between us is not over. Because I want closure.”
“Closure.” he repeated, “What do you want, Padma?”
“I want to talk.”
“Then talk.” He said simply, leaning back in his chair.
She fell silent for a minute, trying to gather her thoughts. What had she expected would happen? Polite smiles? Awkward silences? Anything, but this. His manner was brusque, almost annoyed at having been summoned. She chose her words carefully,
“I want you to forgive me.”
Still, he said nothing. She went on,
“I know I behaved badly 3 years ago… and I have laid the blame on you. But believe me when I say that I have not been able to let the matter rest… ever so often, I think of you, and us… and I… it’s taken me a long time to accept that I was grossly unfair to you. But I have recognized and accepted that now…”
“And you called me here to tell me that?” he sounded almost puzzled.
“Yes, and to ask you to forgive me.”
When he did not respond even after a minute, she said with some impatience,
“Surely that must mean something to you! Haven’t you suffered all these years, like I have? I know you have! I have been reading your stories…”
“What I write about has nothing to do with my life. So, don’t be misled by that.” He said blandly.
“Perhaps not. But I know you… like no one else does.” She said with a touch of sadness.
“No, you don’t.” His voice was like a whiplash. She flinched.
“Not anymore.” He said.
Tears pricked her eyelids. She sniffed and discreetly touched her hanky to her eyes. “I suppose I deserve that…”
His smile was perfunctory, caustic.
Silence ensued for some more minutes. He pushed the food around his plate, making a pretence of eating, then suddenly burst out,
“What did I do wrong? What heinous crime did I commit that made you just disappear out of my life one day?”
She said gently, “We were having problems before that…”
“Yes, yes… I could have understood –even accepted –a slow drifting apart. But that scene in the pastry shop! And that message afterwards asking me to never contact you again! What was the deal there? I mean, what suddenly happened?”
“Nothing, “ she said earnestly, “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. You did nothing wrong. It was all me.”
“But why? Why, in God’s name Padma?” he asked, frustrated, “We were best friends!”
“Yes, for years and years.” She smiled wryly. “You’d been with me through everything –you’d kept me sane in my worst years. And I kept hoping that some day, I could repay you –give you the same kind of love and support that you had given me; add some value to your life…”
His expression was as inscrutable as ever, but something moved in his eyes.
“But you were the same –like, like a goddamn ice statue. You didn’t
seem to care whether I was there or not. You didn’t seem to want me. I tried to understand –and accept that you were incapable of expressing your feelings… and I did that successfully for a long time. But somewhere, I reached breaking point…”
“Ice melts.” He said matter-of-factly.
“Don’t be melodramatic!” she said, a trifle embarrassed.
“This situation is so melodramatic, it warrants it, don’t you think?”
She shrugged. Her patience was wearing thin –they had gotten nowhere.
“You said it yourself, Padma… I was always like that. I didn’t change.”
“No, you didn’t. But perhaps I wanted change. Perhaps I naively assumed that my being there would help you change.” She said wearily.
He said nothing.
It was past nine thirty. She signaled the waiter for the bill.
“I want you to put your thoughts to rest, as far as we are concerned –now don’t tell me you don’t care; clearly, you care enough to have come out here when I called you after all these years.”
“Yes, I care,” he said quietly. “I have thought about you often, mostly wondering what went wrong.”
“Well, now you know,” she said, wondering if he would shake hands with her as she left. Wondering what his hand would feel like. Strange, wasn’t it, that in all their years of growing up together, they had never touched each other? She wondered if this had occurred to him –the fact that they had never touched each other in any way.
Except that one day.
They had met at the canteen and he had sat down opposite her, resting his arms on the table. They had spoken of many things and nothing, she didn’t remember what. But as they talked, she drew a small spiral pattern on the bend of his left arm, near his elbow. All the while they talked, she kept embellishing the pattern with dots and shading. He had not questioned or stopped her even once, in itself an extraordinary event.
Later, the same day, they had met at the bus stop outside the campus by accident –they never planned these things. They had boarded the same bus, and she had noticed with a heady rush of joy that he had not wiped off her drawing on his elbow. The bus was nearly empty. He joined her in her seat –the second extraordinary event of the day –but sat with his legs turned towards the aisle, so that nothing –not even the edge of her dupatta –touched the sleeve of his shirt.
She could still remember the wind that had blown into her face that day, how she had pushed strands of flying hair behind her ear; the way he had stood up, looking down at her while she stood there drenched in happiness and all the while, her heart sang that he had not wiped off the mark that she had put on him.
Sitting across him in the restaurant, she wondered if he remembered all this –did he remember it all in such vivid detail? Dare she ask?
But the moment had passed. He broke the awkward silence.
“So…erm… you’re saying we’re good then.”
She nodded, gathering up her clutch-purse.
“I need some time to digest all this… I need to process this. You come back after all these years, saying that it was all a misunderstanding… how am I supposed to react? You think that your coming here has helped me, but in reality…. I don’t know. I feel like I haven’t got any answers. What does this mean? You coming back after all this time…”
Alarm bells went off in her head. What did he mean by her ‘coming back’?
“Rajesh does not know I’m here tonight.” She said abruptly.
“He’s out for a business dinner –I’ve told him that I am meeting a friend. If he knew it was you…” she let her voice trail off, letting the meaning hit him.
“He doesn’t approve?” All the old scorn came back into his voice, underlined by a tinge of bitterness.
“No, “she said flatly, “What he knows about us is what I’ve told him; and so far, you’ve been the bad guy. He doesn’t know I’ve changed my mind –and it would be difficult for him to understand or accept why I’ve done that.”
“So, let me remain tainted black in the eyes of the hero.” he said mockingly.
The car pulled up in front of the lobby. She turned to him with a smooth smile,
“So… we’re good then.”
“Yep.” He said, not trusting himself to say any more.
“Okay, then… take care.”
And she was gone.
Just like she had gone all those years ago –abruptly; deceiving him with her promises of understanding and closure. Leaving him with more questions than answers.
Padma sat in the car, a great sense of peace descending upon her. That had been most satisfactory.
She wondered what Shreyaa would say to this. In her irritatingly soul-piercing voice, she would say,
“Bullshit, Paddy…You were in love with him all those years; the poor sod had no clue and you just paid him back! You paid back his ignorance of your love by walking away, and letting him think it was something he’d done. And every time he gets close to forgetting, you pretend to go back and settle things!”
She was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
What Navin and she had had once was something that went beyond a cheap love story. They had been soul mates. Not like brother and sister, no. But not love! Never that. She had not allowed herself to think that then –nor would she allow anyone else to besmirch that relationship that way now.
“You are wrong, Shravs.” She said aloud. And wondered why she felt tearful.
“Sorry, madam?” said the driver, confused.
“So am I, Raju… so am I.” She said.