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Now or Never
by Lakshana Palat (Prose - Episode) | Published On: 03-May-2016

I scrolled through photos rather drearily on my Instagram and Facebook feed. It had only been two minutes since I had checked last. I doubted there would be anything new.

I refreshed again. Might as well, I thought. I was sitting in a hospital, waiting for Aisha to return.

A new photo had turned up on my Instagram feed.

I paused. I tried scrolling past it, even though I knew I would inevitably come back to it.

It was Rehaan’s. An old friend.

There he was, at some beach, sitting next to her, holding her hand lightly. The beach seemed deserted, as if it was just made for the two of them. His hair was brushed and pushed back for once, with just a few strands flopped across his forehead. He still had that strained smile, as he could never smile properly for photographs.

Smiling for photographs isn’t exactly my thing, Swara.’

I could hear his exasperated voice so clearly in my head.

He looked more suntanned than ever. Both of them did. She was lovely as always, and was holding a melting ice cream in one hand.

In that perfect world, there were only two of them.

What a good-looking couple, my mother had said. I couldn’t have agreed more. She had a beautiful complexion, and bright, round vivacious brown eyes. Her hair was twisted into an untidy knot, and hung loosely around her.

I thought of his eyes. His eyes always had a passionate fire in them, and were full of different emotions. He seemed to now have found his match.

Rehaan had always been tall, handsome and broad-shouldered. I recalled how he used to walk with fast strides, and I would struggle to keep up with him. “You walk agonizingly slow.” He would taunt and run ahead.

I smiled faintly as I remembered how the girls in college used to fawn over him, and how he used to pretend that he didn’t notice.

Idiot. He would be secretly so pleased with himself.

‘Okay, that’s good for them right?’ He would grin when I would tell him. He maintained his friendly relationships with everyone, but somehow never dated anyone.

I wondered what the story behind him and Aditi was. He had promised to tell me. Of course, a lot of promises had been made, and he hadn’t been able to keep up with most.

I couldn’t help smiling at his rather sarcastic caption.

But that was Rehaan. That was the only way he expressed himself. Sarcasm was his first language, he used to say proudly.

I looked at the picture again. He was looking visibly happy…and younger. Something I hadn’t seen for a while.  

I looked at the way he had held her hand, and a strange unnamed emotion washed over me.

My eyes smarted and I put the phone away. There were too many things running through my head and I couldn’t understand them.

I missed my friend, that’s all I knew. 

I leaned back and closed my eyes. I had just celebrated my twenty-third birthday three days ago. He had always looked forward to my birthday, sometimes more than I had. By the beginning of the month he would start sending messages reminding me how it was my birthday.

‘But it’s your birthday Swara! Please for once, I beg you don’t sit at home and watch one of your depressing soap operas.’

Without fail, he would tell me this every year. He would call half an hour before ‘to avoid the rush at midnight when everyone starts calling you’ so we could talk for a while. We wouldn’t speak about anything heavy. We would just talk.

And every year I would sit at home, eat cake, and watch one TV soap opera, and tell him animatedly about it. He would sigh and say,

‘Whatever makes you happy.’

This year he didn’t call. He didn’t even mention my birthday month. This is probably why we’re always told we shouldn’t take things for granted. There is a strange blankness and emptiness when the things we just assume will always happen...don’t.

I missed the call that never came, I missed the friendly warnings of telling me to leave the house and enjoy myself…I missed the annoyed and exasperated sigh on the phone when I would tell him I didn’t.

He sent a message, saying that he had just returned from his holiday and was exhausted. He promised he would call the next day.

That call didn’t come either.

I wrestled with my thoughts and told them to be sensible. It was of course very childish to keep calling at midnight. Maybe we had grown out of that, and I just didn’t know that.

How many things had we now grown out of?

I hadn’t spoken to him properly for months now. I had tried, but he had become very busy with his work. He made promises to call back, but he never could. I would tell him not to worry and that it was not a problem. I understood.

And I did understand, I told myself. It’s natural that he would spend the only free time he had with his girlfriend.

Or was it?

Again I would fight with myself.

Wasn’t it natural that he would spend time with his girlfriend first?

‘But he could call once in a month, at least. Maybe not regularly like he used to, but at least one call,’ my inner voice would tell me.

It’s okay, he didn’t have to.

Shouldn’t he see how I am doing?

People change sometimes. Feelings don’t, I told myself sternly.

We had been friends from college days. I don’t know how this friendship started- but from a conversation about mutual hatred for rain; it led to a walk around the college campus. And from then on I couldn’t imagine that there was a life before him. And like he said, neither could he. College gossip, dubious as it was, credited us with being in love with each other. We laughed at the thought.

We couldn’t have been more different. He entertained a large circle of friends, and participated in every co-curricular activity, which came his way. I felt awkward around them and could only mumble half-sentences. He would be exasperated, “You don’t even try.”

“They don’t even like me.”

“You’re not even giving them a chance.”

And he would fight with me. I was never good at arguing, so I would stop the conversation halfway.

“I wish you would just fight back sometimes, Swara,” he would say disappointed.

I admired him for his passionate debating talent, secretly wishing I could argue like that. I turned up for all his debates, even though he would half-heartedly insist that I shouldn’t. I used to come with a packet of macaroons, and save one for him. It became a tradition. Even though he mocked me heartlessly for it, he was considerably upset when I didn’t come for one of his debates.

“Where were you?”

“I had to study for the assignment-otherwise you know I would’ve been there.”

“You’re there for all of them, despite assignments. It felt weird today, Swara. No macaroon, no over-enthusiastic encouragement... Nothing,” he said, finishing his coffee in one shot.

“I’m sorry.”

I was surprised he had mentioned my “over-enthusiastic encouragement”, as he had always reprimanded me sharply for it.

“You work too hard at trying to make me feel good,” he had once said.

Though a year later he walked towards me and said rather shakily,

“Swara. Tell me everything’s going to be okay.”

Often when I saw him at the podium hammering his opponents with his well-researched facts, I realized I was a little scared of getting into an argument with him.

“You shouldn’t be scared of me,” he said half-bemused, half-laughing, when I mentioned this to him.

“Not of you-just fighting with you.”

“That’s the same thing, Swara. It doesn’t speak well about a friendship if you’re scared of someone.”

At the beginning of our third year, there was a time when he turned into someone I didn’t know. His parents were going through a divorce, and he unleashed his anger on everyone else…including me. It was hard to talk to him during that time because he would either reply in brusque phrases or snap.

“Where do you want to have lunch?” I would ask.

“Don’t feel like eating.”

He would walk ahead, kicking the pebbles hard.

I almost felt like giving up sometimes. It was draining. He perhaps noticed this, and would call later in the evening rather reluctantly and we would have a forced conversation. He looked tired most of the time, and his academics suffered. I tried talking to him about it, and he snapped of course.

“If trying to talk to me right now is too much for you too, you better not.”

I actually got worried about him. He refused to talk to me for a while, and got into fights with people he barely knew.

And then one day he got into a really aggressive fight with some of the seniors. I tried pulling him away, but he pushed me away roughly. He had never ever behaved like that. Even he looked rather stunned at his violence.

I finally said, “I’m so tired of you.”

He turned towards me, and the fire in him went out. There was a silence, except for some awkward murmuring in the background.

“Well, I’m sorry about that,” he said slowly and walked away.

He didn’t come for classes that day.

For around three weeks we didn’t talk. He would come to college, conduct his conversation with people, work hard, and leave. The only good thing was that he seemed calm. He didn’t even try to make eye contact with me, except to say, ‘excuse me’ courteously. I had had enough, and didn’t try to reason with him. The only thing I was happy that I could be happy about was that he had stopped being fierce and disagreeable. Once when he answered a question in class, I caught him looking at me as if expecting me to add to his answer, like I usually would.

I turned resolutely to my notebook.

I was walking home one awful rainy day with an upside down umbrella. This is why I probably detested rain. I was soaked and miserable, and then I saw Rehaan walking towards me, looking even more so. I stared at him rather curiously.

He put his hand on my hand, and said,

“Swara- I…”

I knew what he was about to say and realized that I didn’t need to hear it.

“It’s fine,” I said.

“I shouldn’t have pushed you.”

We stood next to each other for a few strange seconds, staring in different directions. Despite being wet, my cheeks had turned warm.

His hand was still on mine.

There was a silence between us, except for rain splattering on the road, and cars revelling in the puddles. People rushed by, but for some reason time had stopped for us.

I wished he would say something more. I didn’t know what, but I wished it.

“Let’s go home,” I said.

He nodded and then said rather quietly,

“I wish you would say something more, Swara.”

Life which had been kept on hold for a while, resumed again. Third year was more tedious and exhausting. There was already a sense of finality in the air.

Yet that didn’t deter us. We still sat next to each other, helped with each other’s assignments and drank copious amounts of coffee to get through tedious exams. I usually hated coffee, but was doing anything to keep awake. He would sigh at the amount of sugar I would mix in the coffee.

“That’s too much!”

“It’s so bitter otherwise!”

There were times when we stayed in the library till late in evening. I remembered vividly, how we sat on the sofa, trying to learn up notes. I also remember how I used to sleep along the way-sometimes putting my head on his shoulder.

He never stopped me, or said anything about it either.

During the chaos of the final examinations, he suddenly told me, “Why don’t you try talking to Karthik?”

Trust him to bring up something like that so randomly.

Karthik was one of my classmates who had tried speaking to me several times, but I had been shy and hadn’t spoken much. Rehaan usually found it amusing, and would give one of his mischievous grins every time Karthik passed by looking rather disappointed.

“He’s nice,” I said rather vaguely.

“Not what I asked, Swara. I think he really likes you. Why don’t you...”

“No,” I said quickly, feeling the heat rushing to my face.

“Why not?” Rehaan continued steadily.

Exactly, why not? I didn’t like anyone else, I wasn’t committed. So what was the problem?

“I…I don’t know. Why are we bothering about this now Rehaan? We have an exam tomorrow!”

“Is there a reason?” He said in a low voice.

I frantically searched my brain looking for a valid reason-or rather a reason I could give him.

“No.”

He shuffled his notes, and hours went by in silence.

I was still lost in thoughts about the light pressure of his hand on mine when Aisha returned triumphantly, with her bandaged hand.

“What did the doctor say?” I asked, trying to keep my voice normal.

“Oh he told me to remove the bandages in two days. I should look where I walk, instead of falling on concrete.”

“A wise idea.”

She looked at me and said, “You look rather blue. What happened?”

“Nothing.”

That didn’t convince her, obviously.

“Come let’s go,” I said hastily.

In the car, I brought it up with a rather forced casual tone.

“Oh, Rehaan apparently had gone to some pretty beach with Aditi.”

“And?” Aisha said questioningly.

“Nothing, he had gone with her. Was just telling you.”

‘What’s bothering you, Swara?” she asked looking at me in concern.

“I don’t know,” I said looking out of the window.

“Did you ever love him?” she asked after a while.

“I loved him as a friend, Aisha.”

I thought back to the many walks we had taken in pretty Delhi gardens. I thought of those laughs and inside jokes we had laughed over. Conversations surged in my head.

I remembered the things we had told only each other.

I wondered whether he had confessed them to her as well now. Somehow the idea made me irritated.

Does she know that you cried while watching a LOST episode?

Does she know that you have a small lucky charm-in the form of a tiny china pig, which you carried around for all your exams? Do you give that pig to her too, when she feels nervous…just the way you used to give me?

Does she know that you secretly enjoy all bad Bollywood films, even though you claim you don’t?

Have you told her the gory story of how you got that scar on your hand? You told me that I was the only one who knew. Not even your parents did.

Does she know you, like I do?  

You’re first for me, Swara. There’s no one else who listens to me like you do.’

He had said this when we were sitting by the lake and throwing stones. There was a hushed quiet, and we were far away from the noise of the city.

It was just us.

Just as I had always liked it.

Our laughs, our silences.

I looked at him and smiled. The wind rustled through the leaves almost interrupting the quiet.

“What if you find someone?” he suddenly said.

“What if I do?” I asked puzzled.

“It’s very strange to imagine that. I’ll miss you.”

He said it matter-of-factly.

I said rather wisely, “Even if I do, that wouldn’t change us. And if you find someone, we would still be…us. As long as the feelings don’t change, who cares if the circumstances do?”

“Oh I’m not finding someone anytime soon,” he said with a derisive laugh.

“Rubbish.”

“You’ll still be first for me though,” he said, seriously.

“That shouldn’t be the case, Rehaan,” I said quietly.

“Well she’ll be very insecure about you.”

He laughed, sighed and laughed again. He held my hand for a few seconds.

Aisha’s question, ‘did you ever love him’ echoed in my head again when I reached home. I looked through old letters, hoping to find one from him.

But obviously, he never had any need to give me letters or postcards. It was I, who had given them to him.

I wondered if he had kept them all.

I only found a small bill from a restaurant, which had a devilish looking smiley face on it. He had spent a good half an hour drawing that.

I came across a photo of us during the Graduation ceremony. Somebody else had taken it, which would explain why we weren’t looking at the camera. We were sitting in the auditorium, engrossed in a conversation.

Graduation Day. Another day which came to my life in my head now. I remember how much I had fussed about the saris. I had no idea what colour to wear, and I inflicted this misery on him as well.

“Swara, ask one of the girls, I have no idea,” he said annoyed after I asked him for the tenth time.

So I chose a purple sari at last.

He smiled when he saw me, and complimented me. He then said rather reflectively,

“Blue would have suited you better, though.”

“Why didn’t you say so?” I said, upset. I had no idea why I was upset.

“Would you have listened to me, if I did?”

“Of course I would’ve.”

“Maybe that’s why,” he said and shrugged his shoulders.

I hated when he spoke in riddles.

“I wish you would just tell me things sometimes,” I said angrily.

He said rather indifferently, “I wish you would, too.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

What were we fighting about? Was it a fight? Why was it so difficult sometimes to understand him?

I didn’t understand, and I always felt a twinge of bitterness when I looked back at that day.

‘Swara. I’ve got something to tell you.’

I remembered the slight hesitation and nervousness on the phone. We were now in different states. We weren’t talking as often as I wished, but the phone calls once a month still made me considerably happy.

‘Tell me.’

‘I’ve….I’ve met someone.’

‘What? When?’ I exclaimed, unable to say something more clearly. A rather unfamiliar feeling washed over me, even though I smiled outwardly.

‘Aditi,’ he whispered her name.

My voice broke and I said, ‘I’m so happy for you.’

‘I knew you would be.’ His voice broke too.

‘I want to speak to her sometime.’

‘You’re the first person I want her to talk to.’

‘You deserve this happiness,’ I said quietly, wiping my eyes. I had never heard his voice so elated, and yet shy too. I could see his expression so clearly in my head.

How I wished I could see him.

I spoke to Aditi in the next few days. She sounded soft and gentle, and I told her how lucky they both were.

I looked around angrily around the mess of letters and postcards. Six years of friendship and he hadn’t even given me a card.

Then I laughed at myself. How childish, Swara!

A conversation came to mind, as I picked up the rest of the postcards.

It was one of our midnight conversations, two years ago, before he had to move to a different city.

It was around two am in the morning. He had just finished his essay and was finally free.

I was half-asleep by this time, but I remembered the conversation as if it had just happened a few minutes ago.

We were speaking in whispers about some terrible film, and laughing about it. I remember his change of tone when he said,

“Thank god you didn’t like it. Everybody else did.”

“It was awful, I don’t understand how they did.”

“We share the same views on practically everything, Swara.”

I nodded. “Yes.”

He said even more quietly, “We’re such crazy people.”

I laughed.

“We would be a crazy couple,” he said with a change of tone.

My heart almost stopped.

“I would drive you crazy, Rehaan.”

“You won’t.”

The conversation was heading to a place, which I had only read about in books, and films. A mad happiness seemed to be breaking over me like a wave…and then I was terrified. The words had gotten stuck in my throat.

“You’re so unsure of yourself,” he continued.

“You’re no less. That lies beneath all your bravado and overconfidence,” I said irritated.

“I wished you talked like this to me more often,” he said with a laugh.

There was a long silence. He then said coolly reverting suddenly to the previous topic,

 “But then we won’t have this friendship anymore. I don’t think I can lose that.”

 “We’ll always have that.”

“I’ll lose you, if we were together, Swara.”

There was a deafening silence after that statement. Sometimes, I wanted to desperately go back to that moment and have the conversation again. But I wouldn’t know what to say, once again.

“What do you think?” he said. I don’t know if I imagined it-but there was a hint of absurd hope in his voice. 

“You’re right,” I said, not even sure what he was right about.

There was an abrupt disconnection, and he later messaged saying that his phone had run out charge.

I’ll lose you, if we were together, Swara.

We never referred to the conversation again. Yet it burned through my memory now.

I had felt safest near him. No one could get away saying anything profane to me while he was around. And sometimes this became the cause for a lot of strain.

Many of my classmates would tease me for my introversion, and my “lack of a social life”. Some, were perhaps more straightforward about it than others.

“You don’t have a life, Swara.” One of them once snapped, while I had narrated how I spent one of my birthdays.

This stung me and I couldn’t think of a response. As always, I was never good with comebacks.

“That’s a bit judgmental,” I managed to say.

“It’s the truth. You have the most boring life. You’ve never even had a relationship. I mean go out with people, get to know people, get into a relationship-and then maybe you’ll learn a thing or two.”

My eyes watered. Rehaan noticed and stepped in, even though he might have reminded me of this deficiency in several different ways. He sharply told Jay to mind his own business, using a minimum amount of profanity. It almost became a verbally abusive fight, as Jay obviously didn’t take that lying down.

“Stop, enough. Let’s just go,” I said and dragged Rehaan by the arm.

Rehaan withdrew his hand and stormed out of the classroom. I ran after him. He stood near the balcony and then turned on me,

“Is ‘Let’s go’, ‘forget it’, ‘you’re right’, your solution to everything?”

“Rehaan please! Let people say what they want-”

“Oh for god sake, shut up! I’m so tired of your eternally passive behaviour, and letting people get away with saying idiotic things like this to you! Do you or do you not have a mind or a backbone?” He shouted so loudly, that a couple of juniors stopped by looking alarmed.

I was shaken by now.

“You’ve always pretty much agreed-”

“And you accepted it when I told you. How about for once saying, no Rehaan I am comfortable with my life, I’m happy?”

“Rehaan…”

“Because you’re not,” he said breathing deeply.

He tried walking off, and I for once roughly turned him around. Was it my imagination-or was there a slight hint of pride in his eyes when I did that?

The sun blazed over our heads, as I struggled with words. He watched me with quiet amusement.

And then I had nothing to say.

“I thought so,” he said quietly, as if he read my thoughts. He gently took my hand away from his shirt. He walked away, and didn’t look back.

I had disappointed him. Perhaps I always had.

It was a mutual feeling, anyway. Maybe that was left in this friendship now.

It was afternoon now. I lay in bed for my normal afternoon sleep, when my mother came and lay next to me.

“You’re early to sleep today. It’s only two.”

“I’m a bit tired.”

I then said rather reluctantly,

“Oh just saw some photos. Rehaan’s gone with Aditi for some holiday.”

“Oh god, all these lovesick youngsters going for holidays. What nonsense.”

I couldn’t help laughing in spite of myself.

“What are you so disturbed about? Did something ever happen between the two of you?”

Trust mom to be that blunt.

“No.” I answered, after a pause.

Did something ever happen between the two of you?

When people used this phrase, what did they mean?

I don’t know. The “something” could’ve been the way we would sit and watch TV shows for hours, the times we played football in the rain-both of us admitting that it was the only time we could properly enjoy rain…or the hours we spent talking on the phone till early morning, the way he would put his hand in front of me gently when crossing the road “Look before you cross, for crying out loud”. Maybe the times we went grocery shopping and argued whether I should buy orange juice or not.

“Get mango juice, it’s much better.”

He would try taking the orange juice bottle out of my basket when I wasn’t looking, and I had to put it back with a sigh. Could that laugh and glance we exchanged be the “something”? Or maybe just the secret precious memories I pretended did not have significance?

There were a series of “some things” then.

A memory suddenly surged.

We were on the terrace. It had just rained heavily, and we had come to splash in the puddles. Or rather, I had. He pretended to be distasteful but joined me anyway.

“You’re such a child, Swara.”

“You’re not quite the adult either.” I said throwing some of the muddy water on him.

“Oh Swara, it’s on my shirt now. Urrrgh!”

“Okay, sorry about that.” I said stepping out of the puddles.

He tried pushing past me and ended up flat in the water. Helpless with laughter, I tried helping him up and fell too.

We lay there, still laughing.

Whenever I missed him, or longed for his companionship-I would think of that moment. I thought of both of us lying unabashed and unashamedly in the muddy puddles on his terrace laughing uncontrollably. It was brought a smile to my face, along with searing eyes.

I remembered the concern in his eyes when he saw me sniffing, and about to sneeze. His eyes always spoke volumes. I just wished…that he would.

“Okay, you look terrible and you’re going to catch a cold. Come now,” he said and pulled my hand.

His eyes caught mine for a few seconds.

As always, I never looked away. For a mad moment I believed he would say something...something, which I hadn’t phrased clearly in my head, but as always I expected him to put it as lucidly and clearly as he always did. I wanted him to say it for me, and explain…what was to be explained.

The spell suddenly broke, and he took his hand away.

 “Swara, please get up.”

And then, there were the birthdays. His birthdays.

The last six birthdays. Five of them, we had spent with each other. I found myself thinking of the way he would insist on spending the day with me and then going out later with friends. We would always take a walk in one of Delhi’s famous historic sites.

I suppose he had her to spend his birthday with now.

Perhaps why he had forgotten to take my call on the last one and said rather hurriedly he would call back.

He had stopped teasing me about my postcards as well. I had to specifically ask him if he had received it.

“I did, so sorry! There’s just so much work. I loved the postcard, thank you!”

Those birthdays flashed in my head like glowing embers of a dying fire. I wondered if he remembered them now.

There’s nobody else I would rather spend my birthday with.”

He said that in his usual flippant way. Yet I would look into his eyes and see him staring back at me with an inexplicable expression.

Sometimes, those seconds felt like eternity.

On the last birthday we spent together, he said exasperated, “Oh don’t look at me like that. You have such a torturous thoughtful look. It scares me.”

“It’s very hard to look away!” I said before thinking.

He was about to throw a stone in a lake, and he stopped. He looked rather startled. He was about to say something, but thought better of it. For a few seconds, both of us fumbled with words.

“I meant-” I said hotly.

“It’s okay.”

After meeting him, Aisha once asked, “How come the two of you didn’t fall in love?”

“We were too comfortable,” I answered.

“You were too scared,” she said quietly.

They say that some moments pass by quietly. Only later do we realize their enormous significance. That seemed to be the summary of my relationship with Rehaan.

The time for a final goodbye had come.

I saw him off at the railway station, with an emptiness growing steadily inside me.

“Don’t stay too long. It’s already getting dark,” he said anxiously.

“I don’t mind. The train’s anyway is leaving in ten minutes.”

We stood opposite each other, with his huge suitcase standing between us.

We weren’t sure of when we would meet next.

How many years would have passed by then?

I opened my mouth to say something and so did he.

As always, the words got lost in the air. There was chaos all around us, people and porters were all knocking us over, the train horn was sounding…and yet…nothing stopped the unbreakable glance between us. He cleared his throat, and held my hand tightly.

I held it even tighter, suddenly afraid to let go.

 “Best friend” was a pale term for us now.

I wondered if his hair would be this untidy the next time I saw him…or whether he would still tie those shoelaces as shoddily as he always did.

When would I see those deep searching eyes again? Would they still be the same? Or would that strange emotion flickering in his eyes be for someone else?

We hugged rarely. But today, he came close. He came extremely close to my face and I saw his brilliant black eyes staring into mine once again.

There were a few moments when I couldn’t hear anything at all. His eyes didn’t leave mine. And then I saw…tears in them.

Then I realized I had them too.

He sighed, smiled and then gave a short kiss on my cheek.

“It’s getting late, Swara. Let me know when you get home,” he said withdrawing.

I’ll miss you. I’ll come with you. Delhi won’t be the same without you. Life won’t be the same without you. I won’t be the same without you.

“Yes. Have a safe trip, and message me when you reach.”

He stepped on the train and waved.

I waved back.

He went inside the train and didn’t look back.

I turned away, with his kiss still burning on my cheek.

The train left the station.

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Author
Lakshana Palat

Lakshana Palat

Written: 11 Stories

Member Since: 19-Sep-2015

Country: India

Category

Novella