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An Unforgettable Evening
On average, a person lives for twenty-six to twenty-eight thousand days in their entire life. Out of them, how many do you think one remembers for their entire life? Their twelfth birthday, the day of their first kiss, the day of their marriage, the day when someone close leaves them or the day their kids are born. Not more than twelve or fifteen, I’m guessing. If you really had some memorable days then I’ll give you twenty. My point is that they’re so rare and few that you cherish them for the rest of your life but at that moment you don’t know that they will stick with you forever.
I remember the evening I fell in love.
I hate the term “fell in love” because almost always it is never as dramatic as it sounds. The movies make it even worse. Schools, colleges, and even offices are plain and simply boring. Nothing ever romantic happens in those places. The library is just a morgue for books. I had never expected to meet someone here or even ask her out for a date.
Wait a minute now, was this a date? I tried to replay the conversation in my head. After getting distracted by her smile, my head finally reached the part where I mentioned beers and I realized I never explicitly said its a date. “Damn you!” I cursed myself. For someone who writes so much, I’m terrible at communication. “Anyway, we’ll see how it goes.” My head told my heart and I went back to my table and continued to try and read. I just couldn’t get her smile out of my thoughts.
Mrs. Fernandez came to my desk at 4 PM and stood there.
“It’s four! You didn’t hear me when I walked past you fifteen minutes back?”
I looked at my watch.
“Oh, I’m so sorry! I was deep into my thoughts… I mean… My books!”, I fumbled.
Mrs. Fernandez smiled.
“Is she coming back?”
“That Mark Twain girl!”
“Umm, yes!” I smiled sheepishly.
“I knew it. Don’t worry. I’ve informed Gomes that you’ll be waiting here for some time. But no fooling around in the library with that girl, ok? Drop the keys with Gomes when you leave.”, she said sternly before turning around to leave.
“Yes… Yes, mam! And thank you!”, I replied to her back.
Mrs. Fernandez used to give me the keys to the library a few times when I wished to stay back late to finish on assignments or when I had to submit a report the next day in college. I used to hand them to Gomes, the night watchman, before leaving. Gomes worked at a garage in the morning and then did the first shift of the night till 12 midnight. The watchman’s job didn’t pay much but since his family was in the village and both his children in high school, he didn’t mind a low-risk job for a few extra hundred bucks. Whenever I stayed back, I used to have one last cigarette with Gomes puffing on his beedi before I left for the night.
By the time Mrs. Fernandez left and I had my catch-up cigarette with Gomes, it was 4:30 PM. I didn’t know how much longer would Shreya take. I went back inside and stared at the number she gave me. I was about to call when I heard the doors rattle. I looked up and saw her walking towards me in that white top and blue jeans. She was wearing a helmet and carrying one in her hands. She adjusted her glasses to sit back firmly on her nose and said,
“Sorry, I’m late. I went to get this for you.”, giving me the helmet.
“Why? Weren’t we going for beers? I’ve got my scooter.”
“Oh ok! That makes sense.”
I stood and started packing up things.
“Are you gonna lug this around?”
“Umm, what other option do I have?”
“Can’t you leave it here?”, she questioned.
“On second thoughts, I can. But you’ll have to drop me back here.”
“I don’t mind. What is a scooter for? Now hurry up!”
I just packed my things in my bag and followed her out. I gave the keys to Gomes and told him that I’ll be coming back to collect my belongings. As I was leaving, he gave me a thumbs up and a wink. I didn’t know how to respond to that. I just kept following Shreya. She was already pacing ahead of me and hopped on her bike before I could even reach there.
“Where are we going?”, she asked as I awkwardly settled on the pillion seat.
“Fort. Cafe Universal. Best beer and fries in the city!”
“I don’t know where that is.”, she said turning back.
“I’ll guide you. Just go!”
I was quite stiff on the pillion seat and maybe she sensed that because, after a few speed bumps and potholes, she stopped at a red light, looked back, and said,
“If you bump into me while I’m driving, I won’t call you a pervert.”
Before I could reply to that, the light turned green and she kept driving. I eased up a little after that. A short ten-minute ride later filled with me yelling directions into her ear, we were parked outside Cafe Universal.
“I’m sorry you had to keep screaming, my helmet is too thick, I couldn’t hear you giving directions.”
“That’s not a problem. The problem is Cafe Universal doesn't let you smoke inside. So let’s have one outside before we go in for the beers?”
We stepped into the alley next to the cafe and we both lit up our cigarettes.
“Do you come here often?”, she asked.
“Not really, only on special occasions.”
“What is so special today?”
“I met you again!”, I almost blushed.
She laughed and continued smoking.
“You’re looking good today.”, I didn’t know where I got the courage to say that.
“You took all this time to tell me that?”
“Umm, no, I mean, I wanted to tell you this before but didn’t get the chance.”
“Haha! Relax. Why are you so nervous?”
“Umm, I’m not used to going out on dates with beautiful women!”, I blurted out.
“So! Is this a date?”, she gave me a quizzical look.
“Umm, if you would like it to.”, I shrugged.
She took a long puff of the cigarette and looked up to think for a few seconds and then looked back at me.
“Sure. Let’s call it a date. If that makes you less nervous.”
I just smiled, that didn’t help my nervousness. I hoped the beers would. I threw stubbed my cigarette in the dustbin next to us and so did she. We found a table by the window and ordered draught beers, curly fries, and onion rings.
“So?”, she asked.
“You really think I’m beautiful?”
“Why is that?”
“Your eyes. And your smile. They’re just perfect. I mean, I don’t know, you must be getting to hear that a lot. But I just couldn’t stop thinking about you.”
“Wow! Umm, no I don’t get to hear that a lot, and I’m sure the beers are working on you.”
“I’m sorry, I did not mean that in a perverted way. I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”
“I know! I know! I know it’s a compliment. Thank you!”, she smiled.
We kept sipping on our beers and the conversation which started with this awkward compliment became more interesting. We started with our thesis again. Dostoevsky, Murakami, Twain were our source of origin. From there, we went on to more writers, from Dickens to Kerouac, from Tennyson to Poindexter, from Robert Frost to Rupi Kaur. We complimented them, we critiqued them, and sometimes downright made fun of the stuff that was written by them. From writers and poets, we moved on to world politics. Trump, Biden, Brexit, Europe, Modi, China, and the rest of the world. From the world, we went to Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and outer space. The conversation at Cafe Universal was sticking true to its name. The fries ended but the beers kept coming. We flowed our conversations in and out of quick cigarette breaks. After the cigarette break, I excused myself to the washroom. Post nature’s call, I sat back on my seat.
“Can I ask you something?”, she was weighing her words.
“Yes anything except how the stock market works!”, I laughed.
“Hahaha, no, no! Do you believe in love?”, she asked looking dead straight into my eyes.
“Oh! Umm! I don’t know if I’ve been in love. But what is love? Love is a very misused word. I love the fact that I’m spending this evening with you, here at this place, and sipping draught beers, talking about good writers, and smoking cheap cigarettes. I love listening to soft rock music. I loved the drive here, sitting behind you. How is that the things I love and the person I love has just one word for it?”
“No, no! I get that! Unfortunately, the masters of English didn’t give too many meaningful synonyms for "love" but my question was more specific for the kind of love meant for people. How do you know it’s love? How do you know he or she is the one?”
“Oh! That? Again, I might not be the right person to be answering this for you. But from what I believe, love is nothing but respect and understanding for the other person with a side portion of caring and sprinkled with intimacy.”
“That sounds delicious!”, her hand slipped and she almost dropped her beer glass.
“Oh! Be careful! And yeah, if you respect someone, understand what they’re going through, care for their well-being and at the end of the day still feel weak in the knees when they step out of the shower. They’re the one! And I think you’re too drunk to drive back. Why don’t we get some coffee? Sober you down, so that you can drop me back to the library!”
“Oh yes, I didn’t realize when the beers hit me. I think coffee would be good before I do something which I’ll regret.”, she winked at me and started laughing.
“Oh! Yes! Let’s get the check here and get you some coffee!”
When the waiter arrived with the bill, she snatched it from him, gave him her card, and walked away to the washroom. I slipped my debit card to the waiter and told him to split the amount. She came back, still tipsy but sober enough to remember her debit card pin. As we walked out of Cafe Universal, she slipped on the last step and fell on me. I held her tight, our eyes locked for a brief moment and she then stood up straight, almost embarrassed.
“Are you ok?”, I asked.
“Yes! I definitely need that coffee!”, she laughed
I smiled, “I know the best cafe in town, five minutes from here.”
She held my hand to maintain her balance all through the walk. We didn’t talk for those five minutes. And for the first time, I felt comfortable, even in that silence. We just looked at the British era buildings, the bricks, the arches, the sidewalks with trees. This part of Mumbai was still stuck in the late 1800s just like Mark Twain.
We ordered two black coffees and sat at the table outside. I lit up my cigarette and we drank our coffee looking up at the clear night sky. Too bad there weren’t any stars.
“What is love for you? Or how would you know he’s the one?”, it was my turn to ask her.
“If he could talk with me about anything under the sun and yet be able to comfortably share the silence. I think he would be the one.”, she smiled.
“How are you feeling now?”, I smiled back at her.
“Much better, thanks!”
“You’ll be able to drive?”
“Yes, don’t worry, I’ll get you back to the library.”
“I can get to the library! I’m more concerned about you.”
“Don’t worry about me, this is one of the best dates I’ve ever been on.”
“Now let’s get you back, it’s getting late for me as well”, she said looking at her watch.
It was almost eleven. I didn’t believe it. Only minutes ago, we reached Cafe Universal. She wore her helmet and gave me a sign to hop on. I didn’t want the evening to end but it was already night. Reality hit me hard, Gomes would leave in an hour, and then I would not be able to pick up my things. I sat behind her and she took off.
We reached the library and all through the ride, I just kept thinking of what I could do to stop time from flowing. It was useless. We reached the library in a few minutes. I got off her scooter and stood there.
“So?”, I asked, fidgeting with the pockets in my pants and looking at the library. It was dark and empty.
“Are you scared of going inside?”
“Umm! What?”, I thought, maybe I could use this. “Umm! No!”
“Oh my god! You are!”, she laughed. “Let me come with you little boy and help you get your things!”, she said in a mocking voice.
“You don’t have to make fun of me! Just come if you want to…”
I took the keys from Gomes as she got off her scooter. She took off her helmet and gave it to Gomes. We both walked in. To be honest, it was scary. A morgue of books. no lights, and just the two of us walking across the marble-floored halls. I reached my table and she kept laughing all the time till we reached. I picked up my bag and turned to her,
“You’re welcome little boy!”, she said in the same mocking voice.
“No, no! Seriously! Thank you for the best evening of my life!”, I said looking directly into her eyes and taking a step. Her face was lit by the moonlight coming through the window. She looked even more beautiful.
She stopped laughing and came closer. “Umm! Then I ought to thank you as well. I had a wonderful time too!”
“Can I kiss you now?”
And we kissed. Slowly at first and then as if this was our salvation. My heart was pounding or maybe it was hers but I couldn’t hear or feel anything else for those few seconds or minutes. I didn’t know.
When we stopped, I looked at her.
“I’m sorry!”, she said.
“No, I’m sorry!”
“Why are you sorry?”, she asked.
“I don’t know. I thought you didn’t like it!”
“No! It was nice! It was good. Woah!”, she stepped back. “I need to go. It’s getting late.”
“Umm yes, sure!”
She paced back to the entrance, took her helmet from Gomes, and sped off on her scooter.
I looked at Gomes and said, “I’ll see you next week!”
He gave me a thumbs up and winked.
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- Darshan Pania