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20 Dec 2011

The Park Bench

It was a dark night, darkest one in December yet. The icy wind made her teeth chatter as she stuffed her cold fingers into her sweater and picked up the pace.

A delicious steak dinner with home-made apple sauce had made Sandeep a happy man, he was already buried knee-deep in his papers, with the patch-work quilt she’d given him for last Christmas keeping him toasty warm. His midnight cocoa was already in the microwave.
She did her duties well and happily too; least she could do for the man she loved with her whole heart, for the man who was her husband.
For the man who was there for her when she needed him, who had centered his world around her and made her feel like his Queen.

He sometimes came with her on her nightly walks, but more often let her go alone for he understood long back how much she craved the solitude of the walk down an empty street. 

She loved the dim street lamps strewing erratic lights in her path, they cast dancing shadows as she moved… how she loved the half an hour on the park bench where she sat, arms crossed, eyes closed and breathing in the crisp scent of the night. The sounds fascinated her too, the chirp of the busy cricket, the croak of the frog that lost his way, the silent hoot of the owl just before it snapped up the mouse between its razor-sharp beak.

That half hour was Her Time. And nothing ever got in the way, not work, not exhaustion, not parties, not nothing. It was then that she made peace with the day gone by, however good or bad the Universe had been to her.

But today peace was not what she strove for.
A phone call had stirred up her life.

Silence. She struggled to collect her thoughts.
“Hi, Sabal. Long time, no hear?”
“Yeah, life happened... or something...” She heard the smile in his voice.
“Ah well, how is it going? What have you been upto?” 
She’d always tried to keep it cordial after they’d broken up. She had never wanted to be like one of those couples which had a happy, memorable run, broke up and then never stopped bitching about each other.
“Good, good… Nothing much. The usual. I have come back to India for good. True blue Indian, I am now.”
“Oh good, I was tired of you complaining about Muscat last time you called, actually. You’re in Bangalore?”
“Yes. Whitefields. Bought a house, mum is here with me.”
“Oh my, look at you all grown up!” she teased.
“Ah well… Listen, I called you because…”
“Yeah…?” she asked, almost tentatively. She hoped fervently that he wouldn’t start with the ‘come back to me’ routine. It had been so long, yet he never seemed to give up.

“I’m getting married.”
Her breath left her body in a surprising whoosh of relief. Relief, not at not having to refuse yet again, but relief that he was getting hitched. Finally.
“Wow. Who? What? When? How? Why?” she didn’t mask her delight. “And sorry, congratulations!” She added with a smile.
He seemed a little chagrined when he replied, maybe he had been hoping for a different reaction?
“Her name is Maithili. She’s from work. Mum liked her. It’ll be small. On the 29th. At the cathedral. No reception.”
“…. Wait a second… from work? Aunty liked her? As in this wasn’t arranged?”
“Erm… not really… ”
“Wow. I’m so happy for you, I really am,” she just could not keep the smile out of her voice.
“I know you are, which is why I wanted to tell you before you heard from the grapevine.”
“Thank you for that,” she said quietly.
“Chalo, I got to go see to some furniturewale who insist that I ordered a mammoth study that I have never seen in my life. You take care, alright? See you around.”
She giggled like a twelve-year old. 
“It’s funny to hear you’re being all grown-up. Anyway, congratulations once again. Buh-bye”

And the conversation played on loop in her head all day.

Now, as she sat alone on the cold, hard bench, one that had become her companion during her rendezvous with her own inner self, her mind filled with memories.

They had been so young, so innocent. That first bitter-sweet sting of Cupid’s unmerciful arrow, sneaking all over the place to spend a few minutes alone, lying at home about extra classes after school, hiding scraps of paper from the teacher, 14-rupee cards on Valentines' and the key chains they got made with the other’s initials. Being leg-pulled by friends who secretly envied them for the dreamy smiles they exchanged during class, first butterflies, first nerves, first dates and first and (till then) only true love.

They had taken it very seriously, planned their whole life together right down to the color they’d paint their house. She didn’t want anything more than to be married to him and he’d kill himself before he’d even look at another girl.

But, like always, things had started falling apart by their second year together. He wanted a ‘homely’ girl, like his mother, who’d not question him, not be ‘modern’ in ways she didn’t even understand and questioned her even on things she considered as basic freedom.

And she, on the other hand, was a wild spirit, untamed and free, who chose to believe in what she experienced and live the way her beliefs dictated rather that what the society did. But she tried to change for him, tried hard considering he was the love of her life. She gave up everything she believed in and tried her best to fit in the ‘homely’ mold. She tried to get him to meet her halfway but he was too set in his ways. She struggled occasionally only making him hold on tighter.

Finally, the day came when love was just not enough. The sun rise saw her failing miserably at pretending to be what she was not. Pretending to be Miss Goody-Two-Shoes when all she wanted to do was do three shots of tequila and ride the fake bull at the bar. Pretending every day that her swollen eyes had nothing to do with tear-soaked pillows.

She broke free. And she broke them too. 
The most successful couple from school bit the dust.
He fought long and hard to get her back for once she was gone he realized what she’d meant to him. He swore to change for her, every time she chanced to pick up his calls, but she knew that people were born a certain way and if they tried to change, they’d only be miserable.

She told him it was over. That she’d moved on.
He said he’ll wait.

And he’d waited ten long years, saw her become successful at a profession he’d hated, saw her fall in love with another man who accepted the wild mare and never tried to hold her tight. He saw her walk with him down the aisle and have his child, never…. not once letting go of hope than she’d come back to him.

The guilt had eaten her alive every day, just a little bit. She felt that she’d been the cause for all the ill-luck in his life. She wished that he hadn’t fallen for her. She prayed every day that he’d meet somebody.

Because she was happy and he was not.

Now, she sighed as a small tear escaped the crinkle of her eye and dripped down to her now dormant dimple. A tear shed not for grief or pain. Not for a relationship lost nor for her failed first love. 

The tear was for peace. For closure.
For he’d finally gotten his happy ending.