They stood against the wall, puffs of smoke from each of their slightly-darkened lips curling in rhythm and joining into a cloud in unison. Jayesh laughed at how misleading the image was. There was nothing united about the two of them. Not any more.
Neera narrowed her eyes to thin slits as her cigarette threatened to turn into ashes way too soon. Even Cinderella got until midnight. Eleven minutes was not fair. Especially for a slow smoker like her. She was losing against thin air, which was sucking at her nicotine roll faster than her. Memories of Jayesh taking playful puffs from her smoke to ‘avoid wastage’ came unsummoned. As did the truant tear. The droplet started out as a glacier in the chest, thawing in the throat and then breaking fiercely into a rivulet through the eyes. She squeezed her eyelids with a sad smile, knowing there was no ocean to welcome her glistening goblet with open arms. Today, there was just a pink linen collar following the cliff of Neera’s long neck for the tear to fall upon and be doused to an inglorious death.
Jayesh leaned on the wall behind him, taking a long, slow inhale. He knew the saga of Neera’s tears all too well. His lips had whisked them away on several occasions. His hands, his cheeks, the white shirt he was wearing and even his hair — all knew the taste of Neera’s tears of joy, tears of sadness, tears of pain, tears of disappointment. But tears of heartbreak — that he couldn't do anything about.
When had their slow-burning office romance simmered into a breathtaking relationship? Neera had asked herself several times, but there was no clear answer. Just like there was no answer to the question of when Neeyesh had ceased to exist. Or why. She remembered Jayesh and her stealing glances at the office, flirting in the smoking zone, brushing fingers in the hallways, texting purposeless words dripping with meaning. But after that, the sequence of things was a blur. Beach romance, late-evening office washroom romance, park romance, morning jogs romance. And of course, cigarette-time romance.
He drew two quick drags. The withdrawal pangs of missing her had now passed, leaving behind a dull ache. Like ashes after a smoke. Lifeless reminders of the spark that had once been. There was a time when she had been the light to his darkness, the colour in his sepia life, the warmth to his coldness. Apart from smoking, he had found no flaws in her. And smoking didn’t count. He smiled, tapping the stoag two times next to his foot.
In answer, Neera mirrored the tapping a few inches away from him. Synchronicity had never been an effort. Although they never danced, they had spent four years like a pair of dancers gliding as one. Both of their cigarette fingers were at identical angles as they gazed distantly at the concrete sidewalk leading from the office parking lot onto the oil-stained asphalt road, its tar-black colour blotched with betel and dirt and grease. Was this what had happened to their relationship? Staining? Blotching? Wearing and tearing?
Jayesh did not think so. It was just time to grow. Flirtations were over. Lifelong future was at stake. Family disapproval was a given. She was from a higher caste than his. He laughed again, crossing his arms against the breeze that was beginning to get chilly. Stupid caste system. What a fine way for the older generations to dangle the fraying chord of authority over their children. What good did it do? And anyhow, castes should not matter if they were in love. Were they in love?
Neera had suggested some time back that they could run away and settle somewhere far away. But Jayesh asked questions. Questions she had no answers to. Where would they run? For how long? Would just the two of them be enough? Forever? Forever was only seven letters, but it meant forever. Would they never need any family ties? Would they be happy?
Jayesh knew that this moment was the happiest he would ever be. Slanting his foot against the wall, taking a deep drag, he closed his eyes. He felt tethered to her through the one and a half foot of space between them. And yet, he was strangely calm about letting go. Of the tethering. Of her. Of himself.
Neera would do anything to cross the one and a half foot of space and be in his arms, in his mouth, in every inch of his body again. She sighed.
She could sigh all she wanted, but Jayesh knew what he had to do. She was moving on with her career. Her new boss had eyes for her. She would be fine. She would end up in a dreamy little home with two kids, a corporate job and monthly vacations. She would be living the perfect Facebook life within a couple of years. It was the right time to let her go. But the lump in his throat did not care for the right timing. Or for his resolve to release her from his heart.
Neera knew Jayesh’s tears. She knew the sign of his sighs and shallow breaths just before he cried. It was occasional, but he was man enough to let it out when he needed it. Only with her though. She knew he had cried publicly only once in his life, when his younger brother had died. She knew the salty taste of his sadness, of his dilemmas, of his stresses. If she could, she would kiss away the sorrows from his eyes, from his life. If he would let her.
He could not let her ruin her future. Smoking had already led him to the pulmonologist’s mahogany office more than once. The oncologist was next. Jayesh’s life was darker than he had imagined. Than she had imagined. She could not be the light to his darkness any more. His dark winds would lash her light out forever. And forever was too fucking long.
Neera respected Jayesh’s decisions. All but one. After a dessert and coffee one evening, when she had leaned in to kiss him, he had held her steady and given her a straight look with a smile. A smile that terrified her. A look that would be etched in her mind forever. When he spoke, the voice was his, but the words were from a different world. From a planet where life was a bitch. Maybe Neera had been living on that planet all her life without knowing it.
Neera was too sweet, too perfect. She deserved to be cared for like a delicate plant. Jayesh was the only one who could provide that care. But lab reports had ordered a reversal of roles. Imagine the watering can saying to the delicate plant, “You’re so lovely. I want to be like you,” and the plant welcoming the can saying, “Come, be like me.” And then there were two delicate plants and no watering can to take care of them. Both leading a short-lived life of ignorant bliss. Both dying a wilted, miserable death. Jayesh could not put Neera in that situation.
The wall that Neera now leaned against was where she had pinned Jayesh, walking home after their first date. Immediately, he had swiveled around, pressing Neera into the wall as they melted into each other, first gently, then ferociously. It was the same wall within which they had both worked for almost four years. Jayesh had quit two months ago, a day before the look, the smile, the words.
It had been the perfect time for him to quit. The department he had diligently worked for and was now the manager of, was being dissolved, his lungs were sending SOS messages, and Neera’s boss showed promise of being Jayesh’s succession plan in Neera’s life. No need for Jayesh to loiter around. Ended the job, then severed the relationship.
Neera needed nothing but Jayesh. But it was clear he wanted something else. He had told her he had interviews lined up in glossy companies in faraway cities. He deserved it. He had a brilliant brain and body. Both in the office as well as in bed. The bed that was not to be shared between them any more. She was ready to give things up and go with him and start a new life. But she had backed away against his adamance. And fear. He hid it well, but she sensed he was afraid. Of what? She wanted to tell him they would soak up each other’s fears together. But could she promise him that? Could anyone promise anyone anything? And yet, wasn’t it enough that people were willing to make a promise? Wasn’t that a promise in itself? The best kind of promise?
Jayesh had once promised his younger brother — an avid lover of National Geographic — a trip to the jungles of Africa. When he died, Jayesh vowed never to make any promises to anyone. Now he was a planner, not a promiser. Plans could fail too, he understood, which is why he only planned in his own head. Promises were made to others. Others like his little brother. Others like Neera. Others who mattered so much more than his smoke-filled life that he didn’t hesitate to lie if needed. Interviews in prestigious places — which he had used as a reason for breaking up — were a lie. Unless you counted a last-resort meeting with a world-renowned cancer specialist as an interview.
Neera knew Jayesh would do well wherever he would be. But would he find love? Would she find love? She hadn’t told him she had left her job soon after him. Her boss was sweetening his affections on her very candidly. He was a nice man. Almost delicate, despite being the boss. She didn’t want to have a delicate plant to water, she wanted to have a partner. Jayesh. Which was not possible. To come to terms with this fact and to regain her grounding, she had booked an African jungle tour to get to the core of nature. Perhaps she would find a muse, an inspiration, maybe even a purpose. What she would do after that, time would tell.
Dragging in the last puff of calming bliss, she stole a glance. Jayesh looked back. Both of their cigarettes were breathing their last. Both threw down their stubs. A pink block heel and a black laced shoe danced simultaneously for a short moment on the final sparks. Both considered giving a final nod, a wave, a courtesy. Both stood amidst the ashes around their feet. For one tiny moment. Heavily impregnated with nothing. Against the wall of a place which held nothing. Each turned and walked in opposite directions. This time, both knew it was forever. An excruciatingly long word.