“Ah. These bulbs are replaced. But you need to change the compressors in the bedrooms soon, Miss Thomas. Otherwise you won’t be able to bear the heat this summer,” the maintenance man said, as he packed his things and shut his suitcase. “I’ll send over a guy tomorrow at ten in the morning, if that’s okay with you?”
“No problem, Mr. Evans. Here’s your check for this quarter,” she handed over a check to him.
Mr. Evans said his good-byes and Hanna Thomas was left alone by the kitchen counter. She looked up at the bright, shiny kitchen lights and sighed. It had been the third time since they were being changed and it added to the ever increasing costs that Hanna incurred. She knew it would be another twenty days before she could cash her next month’s pension. But the house costs were skyrocketing.
Dinner was another burden. To her, it was just another thing she would tick off the daily routine check-list. However, Hanna’s doctor had made it clear—four to five nutritious meals a day were compulsory if she needed to live for at least five more years. And so Hanna made it a point to do as her doctor said, because she had one last thing to do before she said her last goodbye to the world.
Find Benjamin Everitt.
She remembered the last time she met Benjamin Everitt from economics class, around five years after they had graduated from college. Benjamin was at the café near her office; she had gone in for an early morning coffee. She was typing her analytical financial report on one of the food and beverages companies that her boss wanted, and had been waiting for her cup of latte (an Americano on an empty stomach brewed a disaster), when he saw her from the other side. It took him a while to recognize the face behind the laptop, for whom he had an unexplained feeling in the second year of college. He had felt grateful to have taken economics as a subject that sunny morning, when that girl with the black hair stepped into the classroom. Nobody noticed her in college, and she didn’t look like she cared either. In a room where everyone seemed to know each other, she had looked around for an empty seat. Her eyes had landed on the seat two rows ahead of Ben’s.
Hanna, her name was, he learned from his friends. As the days passed by, Hanna found that one particular seat always empty, and it made her think if it was made empty for her. She was not even close to being popular, in fact, she was the complete opposite of popular. It wasn’t her nature to be friends with everybody. She had a few close friends, but they were not in the same college as her. But Hanna didn’t care for the company of friends at her college, and she carried the same ‘I-don’t-care’ attitude throughout her college life. She wasn’t rude to people; she just didn’t feel the need to take the initiative to make new friends. You see, it was her rude mouth, everybody said. She didn’t think twice before speaking her mind, and that always landed her in trouble.
She always felt someone looking at her from behind, although it took a while for her to find out who. Still, it was a long time before she managed to look him in the eye and maintain eye contact for two short minutes. Neither spoke a word.
Back at the café, Ben was left staring at her for a long time, thinking about all those times that he could have talked to her but couldn’t gather the courage to do so. She might be happy with someone else, he thought, just like he was in a relationship with someone else. Nevertheless, he decided to go and sit at her table.
Seventy-year old Hanna felt thankful to whatever had made him come and sit at her table that fine, crisp morning.
“Hey, Hanna, right?” he asked, not sure if she’d remember him.
Hanna looked up from her laptop and sat stunned in silence. It was as if Ben had managed to look even better than how he did in college.
“Uh, Ben? Benjamin, I mean, hi,” she had said, not sure how he remembered her.
“Well, how are you? I mean, it’s been such a long time since we last talked—”
“Did we ever talk though?” Hanna had laughed a little, thinking about the time that they spent in class staring at each other.
“Not a word,” he laughed too.
“Anyway, what are you doing here?” she asked.
“Oh, I was passing by the area and saw this café, so I thought I’d try it out. Maybe this could be my daily coffee place,” he shrugged.
This piqued Hanna’s interest. She shut the laptop down as her coffee arrived, and propped her hands on the table.
“Right, well, my office is on that building,” she said and pointed at a building which could be seen outside the window, and Ben followed her line of sight. “I was just finishing a report on something.”
“Let me guess, you work for the Hansen Group?” he said, and in reply to her shocked expression, shrugged, “it’s not rocket science, you know. You were top of the class in economics. There’s no doubt Hansen hired you the moment you graduated.”
“Oh, don’t chalk me up, Benjamin. You were most popular guy in college. Not to mention the swarm of girls that always buzzed around you.”
Benjamin had hung his head down, but out of which feeling, that Hanna couldn’t comprehend. She thought if she had gone a bit too far.
“Well I didn’t mean it like that—”
“No offense taken, Hanna. I didn’t like that buzz anyway.”
Hanna stirred a spoon of sugar into her latte slowly with a smile on her face. It wasn’t awkward for them, the silence that ensued, but they didn’t know what to talk about. So Hanna decided to ask the question that had been on her mind since graduation day, when she had looked at him silently.
“Can I ask you something, Ben?”
“Why did you never talk to me once? You know, back in college?” she had asked.
Seventy-year old Hanna, who was getting flooded with memories of that morning, had by now settled on the couch placed beside the window, her old and wrinkled face in direct contact with the sun. She had been thankful to herself too for asking that question.
“Um… I think I never really had the courage to talk to you,” he said. “Remember those times in the cafeteria? You used to sit alone physically, but everyday I’d see a new book in your hand and I knew that you were in a whole new world mentally.”
Hanna was surprised at this observation. Sensing the reason for her surprise, Ben continued, “you didn’t think I was the book worm type of guy, right?” he said and laughed. “Neither did my friends when they looked at my grades in final year. Remember that last day?”
“How can I forget that day?”
“To be frank, you could have started a conversation too, don’t you think? You were never afraid to speak up.”
“True, I am bold and all that, but I couldn’t bring myself to talk to you. Besides, I was not interested in relationships back then,” she said shyly.
They talked about everything they could in those two hours, as both were getting late for their offices. When Hanna heard that he was in a relationship with someone, something pricked her stomach, and she was pretty sure it was not the coffee.
“I would like to meet your girlfriend someday,” she said.
“Oh come on, Hanna. Don’t say that. I do not want to put you through that feeling,” he said truthfully.
“Do you ever think about an alternate life? One where you may have talked to me and, and things might have… turned out to be different?” she said, and immediately felt guilty asking that question. He was with someone, for God’s sake. What was she thinking?
They were outside the café now, on the pavement. Ben was thinking hard about what to say.
“I think it’s futile thinking about what could have happened, Hanna. And a part of me truly regrets not making the initiative,” this elicited a nod from Hanna, as if she wanted to say she did too, “but life is so unpredictable. I’ve learned this lesson the hard way. Just like I met you here today, maybe in the future we may meet again. Maybe things might turn out to be different then.”
“Maybe,” she said. Various thoughts were flooding her mind. She wanted to think of a possibility where they had a chance together. But he was not single.
He didn’t give his number too. She didn’t think it was intentional; it was just how time flew when they were together. She was furious at what people called fate, as he sat inside his car and smiled at her sweetly. Maybe it wasn’t in her fate to be with Benjamin Everitt.
Her grip on the coffee cup became as strong as she could manage at seventy years, and she closed her eyes, going back through her life in a jiffy. After that two and a half hour conversation, she had never once met him again in her life. For the first time, she regretted not being in contact with anybody from college. Soon, she seemed to forget that day and her focus on her career became so strong, that she had found it difficult to make time for any kind of romantic relationship. She had worked with the Hansen Group for fifteen sparkling years, going up the ladder and breaking all stereotypes. She left the group to pursue a PhD in her favorite subject. Time had once again flown like a gushing river, and she spent her time researching for her ground-breaking thesis. By then her retirement age had come.
Now, ten years after her retirement, she had a lot of time for herself. To think, to reflect. All the years that had gone by, the glares that people threw at her for not marrying when the time was right and what not. She didn’t feel the need to explain herself. It was not because she hadn’t met the right man, she just knew that marriage was not her cup of tea. Until one day, when she came across his name in her old journal. That was when she decided she would ask him out after all.
It would be a long search, she was aware of that. She also expected a possibility where she might die before she met him again, or he might have been dead until she reached him; but hey, at least she wouldn’t regret not trying, right?