The world around them moved at a lightening speed, but they had remained still for nearly a year now. Now the stillness felt loud and suffocating.
What Aditi wanted, no, needed, was a break from her life. Oh no, not the grim sort of break. But the kind of break that would give her a chance to escape the rut her life had become. All week long she thought about it more and more. And today, she was going to tell Raj what she wanted to do. She was sure he would be elated. She felt happy, like a bubble floating in the air, for the first time in years.
She unlocked the door when she returned from her run that evening, to find Raj in his usual spot at the kitchen counter, cooking dinner for them. He was a great cook and she loved to eat. That was just one of the things that had attracted them to each other, five years back.
“Im home!”, she called out, as she headed off to the common wash basin to wash her hands. She took out her mask and went into the bedroom to change into clean clothes for the night.
“Hey Chef”, she hugged him from behind and lingered a little longer than usual, breathing in the musky scent of him.
He put the knife down and turned around to ask, “I hope you’re hungry. I’m trying out a new recipe tonight. I know you’ve been missing our yearly travels, so I thought, what if we couldn’t travel to Vietnam this year? I’ll bring Vietnam home! So today on the menu will be Vietnamese chicken spring roll and chicken Pho!”
“We can open that bottle of Gin and make it a special dinner night tonight”, he added with a hint of a smile.
Aditi smiled back. Maybe this was a good sign. Raj had already broached the subject of travel and he seemed to be missing it too. Why else would be go to such lengths to cook her a Vietnamese meal? She decided to wait a little longer, until they were settled in their cosy corner - their balcony. They had renovated it with fake grass and real plants, with fairy lights and a small wooden table and two chairs in an effort to feel they were outdoors.
“Sounds lovely! I have something to tell you too..a surprise actually! So let me set up the table, while you finish cooking.”
She was sitting outside, listening to her favorite Oasis song, Wonderwall, when Raj stepped out with their drinks and some peanuts to munch on.
“So, what is this surprise you wanted to talk to me about?”, he asked.
“It can wait. How was your day? Did the neighbour flirt with you again today?”, she winked.
“Argh, don’t be childish Aditi. You know she just comes around because she’s bored.”
“Yeah yeah..”, she laughed, as she sipped her drink. She loved teasing him because he couldn't flirt if his life depended on it, but he was a good listener, which made him an easy target for all the women who met him. They all wanted someone who would listen to them.
“Did you hear, they’ve lifted the ban on international travel and flights now! I was so excited to hear about it”, Aditi continued..
“Yes, I read about it. But its still a hassle. The virus is still out there and the vaccine isnt available to all yet. You have to take a covid test prior to the travel. I guess they’ve done this for people who have emergencies and have no other choice but to travel internationally or back from abroad to their home countries”.
Aditi felt a little annoyed with Raj’s comment. Why did he have to be so goddamn practical about everything? She knew his practicality was one of the things that made them compatible, since she was such a dreamer and a rebel. But couldn’t he for once, not douse her excitement with cold water? She wasn’t sure about her plan anymore, but she had to go along with it. She knew she would kill herself if she had to spend another day locked in the house, working inside, and watching series on her iPad.
“I have booked tickets Raj.”
“To Maldives. For a vacation. Just the two of us. And wait, before you protest, I’ve done all the research. Yes we will have to get the Covid test done, but I’m sure we will be negative. I mean, we have been cooped up indoors for nearly eight months now. And we have the entire island to ourselves. It couldn’t be safer. Please, you know how desperately I need to travel. I will go mad if I don’t. Please Raj..”
She wasn’t sure what was going on in Raj’s mind at that instant. The only thing she could gauge was that he was angry. And probably hurt. They had always been a team and made decisions together. This was the first time she had made travel plans without consulting him.
But looking at his reaction, she felt angry too. Why does it always have to be his way all the time? Why does he have to ruin all her surprises like this? Why cant he be spontaneous for once?
“You know my answer Aditi. Its not safe yet. You can go if you want to”.
She felt like she had been punched in the stomach. She looked as hurt as he did, but she knew him. He would not deter or go back on what he said. But she needed this too. And she had decided as well. She needed this change. She knew she would hurt Raj if she went ahead with her plan, but she felt she needed to get away from him, in order to come back to him. She felt she needed to travel, with or without him, in order to feel the need to be home with him.
She got up, and forgot all about the Vietnamese food, as she went to bed and locked herself in.
A month later..
Aditi felt radiant. But she also felt nervous. She had spent some splendid days in Maldives the last few weeks. Her soul and body felt refreshed. And she realised how much she missed Raj and how much she loved him. They hadn’t spoke for a week after she left. But since then, they had texted each other first and then made a few perfunctory calls. He gave her space, and she was thankful for it.
But as she stepped out of the taxi and walked towards her building, she wasn’t sure if Raj was in love with her anymore. And she realised, she couldn’t live if Raj walked out of her life.
She stepped out of the elevator and found the door to their apartment open. There was an arrow drawn on the floor at the entrance to their house and a note.
Follow the arrows
What was going on? Was there an intruder in the house, or was Raj having an affair with the neighbour? Raj would never do something like this for her. He never had. This was very out of character. He wasn't the romantic sorts..that was all her. She took out her pepper spray and stepped in, saying, “Raj? Are you there? I’m home..”
There was no sound. She found another arrow when she entered the foyer, and there was another note beside it.
Wash your hands and change into this.
She noticed her favorite Kung Fu Panda night shirt folded neatly on the counter table beside the wash basin. It was only then, that she allowed herself a sliver of a smile. She felt a little less nervous and a little more hopeful.
She washed her hands, took her mask out, and changed into her night shirt. And then she saw him. Her heart filled at the sight of him. He was her home and she loved him so much!
“How was your trip?”, he asked. Still standing at door of their balcony, still looking grim as ever.
Was this going to be a heartbreaking breakup then? Aditi wasn’t sure. She wanted to go and hug him and kiss him and tell him that she had a wonderful trip, but also that she thought of him all the time.
“Raj, I’m sorry..”, but before she could finish, he walked over to her in three strides and engulfed her in his trademark hug.
“I know you Aditi. I know you don’t think I love you enough, or that I’m not romantic enough, or spontaneous enough. But you are all that Aditi. I’m just me. And the one thing I know is that, to love you, is to let you be. To love you, is to set you free. I wouldnt want to cage you for the world. That night, when you left, I knew it wasn’t because you didn’t love me. It was because you loved me, that you needed some space. It was because you loved me, that you didn’t force me to accompany you. That’s what you have taught me about love Aditi. It is to live and let live. To give and love unconditionally. “
“I’m not finished”, he said with a smile.
“I wanted a change too. And I got my change right here, being at home, waiting for you, thinking about you. I know you need to travel around the world to rekindle the love inside you, Aditi. Just like I need you to be happy, because being around you, is like being around the world for me, Aditi. Welcome home”, and then he kissed her. The gentlest, sweetest kiss. And she kissed him back, not with passion, but with care and sweetness and so much love.
“So what’s for dinner?”, she asked, as they held hands and walked into the balcony.
Wonderwall was playing, their glasses of Gin and Tonic were sitting on the table, beside the Vietnamese Chicken spring rolls.
She looked at Raj and he said, “After all, the Chef cant let a good recipe go to waste now, can he?”
And they burst out laughing, as they sat down, sipped their drinks and Aditi talked all about her vacation.