"Where is my breakfast?" Mukul said, eyes focussed on his laptop. Aisha shoved a plate of eggs in front of him and rushed back into the kitchen.
“And why isn’t this TV remote working? The batteries seem drained. Give me the new ones.” he said.
“They are right there, in the drawer.”
“Yeah, so give them to me. I am busy here.”
Aisha raced past him to the cabinet, pulled out the batteries from the drawer, dropped it besides the laptop and then raced back, wiping her sweaty brow with the back of her hand. The house was filled with monotonous ramblings about the upheaval of share market. The doorbell rang.
"Must be the mailman" Mukul said.
"Well, open the door."
"I told you I'm working! Can't you open the door?" Mukul said.
"Not before burning your rotis!" Aisha yelled from the kitchen.
She heard him open the door. Moments later, Mukul called from the dining table.
"There's a letter for you."
Aisha was startled. 'A letter for me?’ she thought. She packed Mukul's lunchbox, gave it to him and then sat on the chair opposite him. She opened the only closed envelope. It had a letter, an airline ticket and a photograph. She took out the photograph and stared at it. Her 12 year old self, wearing a pink sweater, was staring at the valley, her back to the camera and arms spreading all the way, as if embracing the sheer grandeur of nature. Another young boy stood beside her, imitating her position. The photograph was signed, 'Louis'.
"Hey, look what it is!" she said, jumping in her seat.
"What?" he asked.
"It's a letter from Louis. He's calling me there. Oh, my God! This is so… how did I forget? Oh, this is so exciting!"
"What is it? Who's Louis?" Mukul asked turning his eyes from the TV to Aisha.
"This guy", she said as she handed him the photograph, "His granny and my grandpa were very special friends. We had gone to the Grand Canyon, just the four of us. It was Valentine's Day. Our family moved to India the next day. "
"So, what is it now?” Mukul said indifferently.
"Well, Louis and I had decided to meet after fifteen years on the same day, if we were single. And, it's been fifteen years. I've to go." Aisha's hand was shaking.
Mukul switched off the TV and sat still, staring. "But you're not single anymore, are you?" he said darkly, making eye contact for the first time since morning.
"No, but-" Aisha stared at the photo once again."-but I've to go. It doesn't matter. He was my best friend and well, eventually, my first date. It's like an anniversary. I haven't seen him for so long. I have to go, we had made a promise."
"Don't be silly." Mukul got up and started packing his laptop. "We can't afford a trip at this time."
"But he has also sent a ticket, tonight's flight to Los Angeles."
"I can't take a vacation on such short notice. I'll get fired."
"Actually," Aisha said in a soft voice, scratching her ear, "it's only a ticket for me."
Mukul looked up, his cheeks flushing red.
"I'll be back soon, I promise. Can I please go?" she said.
His voice went deep, "My boss is coming for dinner tomorrow night. You can't go."
Aisha stood up. "Who calls his boss for dinner on Valentine's Day?" She yelled.
"You can't go and that's final." Mukul announced and stormed off out of the house.
Aisha stood flabbergasted. She went to her chores, feeling gloomy. She worked for some time until she felt weak in her knees. She sat down staring at the letter. It started with 'Dear Dumb Missy,’. She chuckled. That's what Louis had called her that day.
"Why are we having ice-cream on a winter morning?" She had asked, to which Louis had replied, "Are you really that dumb, missy? We’re on a date!"
They had watched their grandparents celebrate Valentine's Day and amongst farewell tears, had promised each other to meet at the very same spot, fifteen years later. Little fingers were crossed in a pact.
Aisha couldn't waste this opportunity. She could feel the air of the Grand Canyon calling her. She rolled her sleeves and rushed to her room. The flight would take off within five hours. With hurried steps, she packed her bags, kept some food in the refrigerator, left a note on the dining table and fled away into the open world.
She reached the airport just in time for the plane. Her mind kept wondering about the next day. 'What will happen tomorrow? Would I reach on time? Will Louis come to pick me up as he had written? Would he be tall? Would he recognize me? What will happen when he'll know that I'm married? Will he be angry? Or would he know that already?' But her exertion soon forced her to fall asleep anticipating the adventure.
"We have landed at the Los Angeles Airport...The time is 10:30 pm and the date is Feb 13...” Aisha woke up to the drowsy announcement. She took her bags and began to run as fast as possible. Other exhausted passengers stared at her with disbelief. Completing the procedure, she soon reached the arrival gate. Amongst a large crowd, she saw her name on a placard held high. She ran towards it as the man came out of the crowd.
"Hey, hi. Are-"
"Welcome to America!"
"Yeah, are you Louis?" she asked.
The man seemed taken aback. "No, No. I'm his driver. I'm here to pick you up." He said with a smile. Aisha nodded, embarrassed. He took her bags and began walking briskly towards the car. "We'll be at the Grand Canyon by 7am tomorrow. Mr. Louis will be waiting for you there. Have you had dinner or you wanna pick some up now?"
"I've had enough to eat in this 24 hour journey. Let's get going."
They sat in the car and the engine roared.
For some time they indulged in mindless exchanges about weather, world politics and Valentine's Day plans.
"I'm gonna meet a friend. A long lost friend. After a long, long time." He said.
"Well, me too." She smiled.
"Really? That's weird. Isn’t that a wedding ring you’re wearing?"
"Well, yeah, but, uh - long story. Let's say, we postponed the plans."
He chuckled. "Alright, get some sleep. We’ve a long way to go."
But, Aisha kept looking out the window, remembering her childhood days spent in this country. It now seemed to her like a bitter-sweet dream.
In the middle of the night, the driver said, "We'll be entering Nevada soon. Are you sure you don't wanna eat something? You don't wanna miss out on California burritos!"
"No I'm fine, help yourself. I guess I'll just get out." They both got out. She stood on the pathway, shivering. The cold air was freezing her inside three layers of wool. She took her phone out to check the time. She had forgotten to charge it. Suddenly, she spotted a phone booth. She trotted towards it, slipped a quarter in and dialled the number. It took her to the answering machine.
"Hey, honey. I'm here, on my way right now. Louis will be waiting for me there. It's-it's pretty cold out here." She chuckled, and then paused, struggling to speak. She dropped another coin. "Well, umm, I hope the dinner went well with your boss. And - and I'm sorry I left without calling. That was so foolish of me. Well uh, I- I just wanted to say I miss you and umm, Happy Valentine's Day. Love you, bye." She slammed down the phone and went back into the car. The driver returned and started driving, still chewing on the burritos. Aisha fell asleep hugging herself tightly.
The next morning, Aisha woke up to a gorgeous, pink tinted sky. She opened the window. The aromatic air uplifted her senses. Her face was beaming. A long sought gust of wind; a long, forgotten pact and a long lost friend, all came back to her on this day. A day scripted years ago. She was smiling and her eyes glistening, overwhelmed with memories, friendship and freedom.
The car came to a halt near a valley, the same location as her photograph. She stepped out, her hair dishevelled and her clothes crumpled. She walked near the edge and spread out her arms, her eyes closed, breathing the sight in. Then she slowly turned around. The driver was leaning against the car.
"How long is Louis going to take? Where is he?"
The driver smiled and took off his hat. "Are you really that dumb, missy?"
Both faces wore the biggest smile they had in years.