As someone whose parents moved houses a lot, all these years I have managed not to get too emotionally attached to anything around me. I was perfectly fine living a life where I was always the ‘new girl in the neighborhood’ or the ‘new kid in the class.’ I tried to enjoy the novelty initially; even thinking that it brought a mysterious aura to my character. I know it gets boring after a while, but before getting a proper taste of boredom we are packing our suitcases again- off to a new place.
Well, there do have some rare moments when a spark of nostalgia will hit me and my mind will automatically wander over the memories of this place called ‘Grape Valley’. We lived there for four years which is a record considering my parents’ lifestyle. I spent my high school years there, met a few interesting people, and fell in love for the first time which coincidentally was also my first heartbreak. The guy I fell in love with was the most popular boy in our school who had a huge fan base, mainly girls (surprise!). In front of those pretty girls who were too confident for their age, a geeky awkward girl like me never stood a chance. In fact I highly doubt he even knew I had feelings for him. The day I saw Alex, the person who was supposedly in love with me- entering the classroom holding hands with the Principal’s daughter, was the day that really refined me as a person. Of course, my initial reaction was bad. I skipped school the next day as my face still looked blotchy after all the crying and not sleeping at night. Staying home alone one full day helped me think. And I reached the conclusion that my parents were right. Control your emotions, never let them control you. Over the years, I held on to that belief except that one time when I almost fell in love with a colleague of mine. Our ove story was nipped in the budding stage itself when I heard him gossiping about me behind my back.
I thought I had forgotten all about Grape Valley until my editor asked me about the destination I have in mind for my next travel series and I blurted out “Grape Valley”. He had a weird look on his face when he heard the name.
He asked me:"Can you give me something that Wikipedia cannot?”
I wouldn’t blame him, as Grape Valley should be best known as a sleepy town with hardly any tourist spots except the vineyards maybe. Vineyards, yes! That gave me an idea. I tried to convince him that I would use my ‘ contacts’ and write an article about the history of vineyards in Grape Valley; at the same time hoping for those vineyards to have ‘some’ sort of history or my reputation will be ruined. Keeping his concerns and doubts aside, he booked the train tickets and made arrangements for my stay. While he was dropping me off at the railway station, he said to me in a half-joking manner: “You better bring me a good article!”
I didn’t laugh, just nodded my head because I understood the hidden meaning in his words. He trusted my abilities and I shouldn’t betray his trust.
Coming back to Grape Valley just felt …right. The place looked the same- homey and quiet, as if it was completely clueless about what was happening to the rest of the world. I was surprised and delighted to see Aunt Gina’s coffee shop, in its full glory. I used to come here a lot with my parents to have her signature black forest cake. My mouth watered at the memory. Does she still make them?
The lodge where I am staying now is above the town library, which is right across Aunt Gina’s coffee shop. So obviously I became a frequent customer in the coffee shop. Aunt Gina looked the same if you rule out the grey temple, though that greyness made her look kinder. She recognized me even though she couldn’t recollect my name. I heard her telling her daughter about my mom and the short friendship they both had.
She still makes the best cakes I have ever tasted, but what really makes me come here everyday is the ambience- cozy and welcoming. I find a quiet corner every time to sit with a cup of coffee and my laptop. Once in a while Aunt Gina drops by, carrying a plate of whatever today’s special was. I haven’t started writing the article yet. I am still in the research and planning stage. In the meantime, I talk to the other customers too. Mostly, those who come over for a chat are old people. I knew some of them from the time we stayed here. They looked very old even then, probably in their late seventies or early eighties! What makes these people live for so long? Maybe the untouched nature and the pure air they breathe here…
I am starting to realize that my conversations with the old crowd are leading me in the right direction. Each and everyone had something to talk about Grape Valley and I am amazed at how many secrets a small place like that held. One of them, Mr. Johnson told me about a storm, which almost destroyed the town and how they survived. Mrs. Murphy, the lady who knits all the time told me about her husband who went to the Second World War and never returned. Clara was another interesting lady who went to jail for stabbing her husband when she found out that he was stealing from her. After she was released, she started a shelter for those women who left their husbands but have no place to go to.
Everything was going smoothly from my side and I also managed to send a draft article to my editor to kick-start the series. Then one day I had a surprise visitor…
I was having my daily dose of coffee to warm up my brain when I sensed a movement behind me. I turned around to see who it was and came face to face with a very handsome man. I stared at his eyes in awe- a rare shade of green, which now sparkled knowing he is being watched. I averted my glance, embarrassed at the way I kept gawking at a stranger.
Then he spoke: “ May I sit?”
His voice sounds familiar. As I watched him closely, the picture gained more clarity.
My eyes widened in recognition.
“Alex”! His name came out as a gasp and this time he was the one who looked shocked.
“ How do you know my name?” He asked, while sitting in the chair across from me.
“I...I...was in the same high school as you.” I said, my voice shaking nervously. Perfect! You see your high school crush in front of you and here your heart goes- melted into a cute little puddle!
“Really?” He looked surprised at my reply, unable to believe that we went to the same school.
I could have given him a catty response for that clueless, blank look he is spotting. Instead I gave him a cheeky grin. Going the catty way means I am unintentionally letting my old insecurities resurface. And I had promised myself long ago that I wouldn’t take that route again.
I heard a throat clearing and I glanced up to see his gaze on me.
“So you know my name now. May I know your name too? That might help me remember you.”
Laughter bubbled inside me seeing the way he is laying it on thick.
“My name doesn’t matter because I doubt that will help you remember me. We ran in different circles, we didn’t have anything in common and we never talked to each other.”
He looked stunned after I passionately delivered my little speech. I am proud of myself too of the way I held his gaze and spoke like the matured, confident woman I am now.
“The answer to your question is… my name is Susan. I lived here with my parents for four years before moving out. Now I am a writer working for a travel magazine. And my purpose of visit is official.”
“You are talking to me like how you talk to an immigration officer.” He said, with a chuckle.
“What?” I couldn’t help but laugh at that observation. People use a lot of names to describe me- frosty, uptight, reserved etc. But this is new. Immigration interviewee. Interesting...
“ I am sorry. I hope I didn’t offend you.” He said, his voice full of concern.
“No. Don’t worry about it. I am not a person who gets easily offended. Your observation was...unique.”
The relief on his eyes at my explanation made me wonder if I had judged him wrongly. I always thought he was like one of the lead characters in the teen movies- charming, arrogant and attention seeking. The man sitting in front of me is a charmer for sure, but so far he seems to be very gentle and sensitive. Then again, I haven’t seen him for more than two decades. And my own life is a good example of how people can change over the years- sometimes for good, sometimes for worse.
“You are in the zone again.”
His question brought me back to the present.
“What zone is that?”
“The place where writers go to before deciding when to expose the villains.”
“You seem to be a fan of mystery novels.”
“Yes I am. A big fan of Agatha Christie’s works actually.”
“ I am not a fiction writer. As I mentioned before, I write for a travel magazine. “
“Really? Why?” He looked intrigued.
“My parents moved a lot. They get restless and fidgety staying in one place for long. Both were freelancers and they used the freedom their work let them have. So automatically I was pulled into it too and I became a pro at living out of a suitcase. When I reached an age where I had to make a career choice I didn’t have to think much. Travelling fascinated me and I had good writing skills. I put both together and here we go. “
He listened to me with interest when I described some of the places I have been to and then went on to explain about himself. He is a teacher in one of the schools in Grape Valley, which surprised me. I didn’t think he was the type to stay back in a small town. But again, I was wrong about a lot of things today.
Once we moved past the initial awkwardness, the rest of the conversation went smoothly. He talked about his marriage and divorce, and I saw regret in his eyes when he told me about his daughter whom he doesn’t see very often. It was so easy to talk to him as if we knew each other all our lives. Mrs. Murphy stopped by for a chat, but didn’t stay for long seeing I had company. When she turned to leave, I saw the knowing smile on her face. She is not a gossiper, so hopefully there wouldn’t be a grapevine under my name when I leave the coffee shop later.
Alex and I have fallen into a pattern since that day. We meet each other in the coffee shop in the mornings. His school is closed for the summer and he said that he is going to spend the holidays catching up with his reading . We always find the same quiet corner, me with my laptop and Alex with a book. Most of our time was spent not talking to each other, but there was a sense of camaraderie underneath the silence, which we discreetly enjoyed.
While I could sip a cup of espresso for hours, Alex never bought anything for himself. He told me that he is on a caffeine break and Aunt Gina’s is not one of those fancy places where you get all those caffeine free, lactose free drinks. I never understood the hype behind those ‘-free drinks’. It’s either coffee or no coffee. Why torturing yourself with the watered down version of a sure thing!
Our friendship grew stronger, along with my writing progress. Alex knew some people who owned vineyards and he promised me that he would take me there soon and I was thrilled.
Then one day, out of the blue he declared that he would like to go on a date with me. And I surprised myself saying that I would love to. Strangely, he suggested that we have a coffee and a slice of carrot cake in Aunt Gina’s itself for our date. He said he is willing to take a break from the ‘caffeine break’ to have a good time with me and also asked me to dress up like a real date.
So here I am, standing in front of Aunt Gina, wearing the only off shoulder wrap dress I own and wiping my sweaty palms on the same.
“Oh girl. You look so pretty!” She commented, looking up from the cash register.
“I...have a date.” I said, with a shy smile.
“Really? With whom?” She sounded enthusiastic at the prospect of meeting my date.
“It’s actually someone who shares my table everyday.”
“But you don’t share your table with anyone dear! You always sit alone and you never talk to anyone.” She said, her eyes assessing me.
I shook my head in disbelief. How can she be so blind! I talk to people all the time and I remember Peter even mentioning the other day that the Susan he knew before wasn’t this chatty.
“I am talking about Alex! The guy with green eyes who sits with me everyday reading his book while I work. Aunt Gina, now don’t tell me your eyes missed him.” I said mockingly.
A shadow fell over her eyes and her expression changed from confusion to bewilderment.
“Oh girl!” She walked over to me with her arms extended and I moved away from the hug.
Instead I faced her, like a furious lioness ready to pounce because I hate people making me look like a fool.
The fury in my face didn’t intimidate her at all. She looked straight at my eyes and said:
“You weren’t meeting any Alex in my coffee shop. You were all alone, every single day. And the Alex you are talking about, is a man who died five years ago!”
Aunt Gina is never the one to mince her words. But I am not falling for it this time. She can’t make me think that Alex was just a fragment of my imagination. I bit my lips hard, trying to control the tears threatening to fall from my eyes. Susan never cries, especially in front of someone who thinks she is a liar.
“I can’t believe you”. I said venomously. “ You mean to say that the others I talked to were also a part of my crazy imagination? Mrs. Murphy, Peter, Clara…”
“But my dear, they were also…”
I raised my hand to stop her from finishing that sentence, threw another spiteful glance at her and marched outside. This is it. I was wrong to assume that people in small towns are nicer. They are as vindictive and hateful like the rest of them. To hell with the vineyard story!
As I walked towards my lodge I could hear a lady speaking to Aunt Gina. I had seen her approaching while I was busy throwing a fit.
“Why did you let her speak to you like that?” the lady asked Aunt Gina.
I stopped in my tracks to catch the rest of the conversation.
“Leave the poor girl alone.” Aunt Gina said.
“What do you mean? The lady asked.
“ She lost her parents last year in an airplane crash. It was all over the news. And my sources said she hasn’t been acting like herself since then.”
Even from a distance, I could sense the sympathy coating her words.
My heart reeled, my head spun…
It’s one thing to know that you have a problem, but when someone else spells it out for you?
It hurts...so bad.