Radhika had been waiting at the Starbucks near her place for the last half an hour. She looked at the time on her watch for the 10th time in the last 15 minutes. It said 4.55pm. Her heart began to beat faster as the clock approached 5pm. Radhika knew that he was never late. She lightly pat her chest to calm herself. It isn’t the first time you’re meeting him! She chided herself.
To take her mind of things, she began thinking of something else. The next thing she could think of was her mother. Even though she was only 5 minutes away from her home, she knew her mother would not be one to care. Nor would she call her to ask when she would be home. Its ironic how if this situation had played out a few years ago, her mother would be all over her, calling her multiple times to check when she would be home.
Now, however, things had changed and for the better Radhika thought.
‘You are early’ a male voice said coming close to the table.
She looked up, to the face that she had thought she would be waking up to every morning in the future. For a moment, as if spellbound, she felt stuck in place, her face looking up, unable to come up with a response. Since she was already looking up, she took in the features of the person in front of her.
His face had matured over time and the boyish features were replaced with a manly expression with the smirk still in place. Was it that wicked smirk that had made her heart race the first time she had looked at him in high school? Even so, it still had the power to make her heart race, she thought. She only hoped that the thump of her heart wasn’t audible to him.
‘Abhinav. Yes, I came a bit early to catch up on some time with myself’ she replied getting some grip on herself.
Abhinav proceeded to sit on the seat opposite to her while she was trying to memorize his every action to memory. He was wearing a navy-blue suit and looked crisp, not just by his attire but by his overall appearance. Donning a pair of glasses and hair that was neatly put in place, he looked picture-perfect.
She suddenly felt conscious in her white chikan kurta that she had paired on a pair of denims thinking this to be just a casual meeting. Sitting up straight, she gathered herself preparing for the conversation. Hadn’t she seen enough in her life already to face a simple conversation with her ex?
Ex, who would’ve thought? Back in high school, when they had pledged to be with each other forever, she knew that it wasn’t just an empty promise. Unlike all the other couples around her, who were getting in and out of relationships, theirs was based on a solid foundation. Where the whole school feared his terror and bullying, Radhika had seen the scared, lonely guy behind the angry-young-man mask.
Abhinav, on the other hand, had held her hand firmly throughout, even when her best friend stabbed her in the back for a guy leaving Radhika hurt and in tears. Abhinav had ensured that both her friend and the boyfriend were taught a lesson when he relayed the truth of the boyfriend to her friend. Yet, Radhika being a good person, had taken her best friend back with open arms. Was that the first crack that brought about a domino effect in finally ending their relationship?
‘Should I order for the both of us?’ Abhinav’s question brought her back to the present. Radika nodded in response.
‘One cappuccino for the lady and an americano for me, please. Thank you’ Abhinav said placing his order with the waiter. For someone who was arrogant with almost everyone he met of his age, he was surprisingly warm and nice to those elder to him or below his social status, both then and now.
Now as he looked at her, Radhika tried hard to not show her real emotions on her face. She instead kept a stoic face and looked straight at him.
’15 years. Should I say long time no see or that it is great to meet you?’ he said.
’15 years? I didn’t even realize how the years went by’ she lied. Truthfully, she had always been counting days since they last spoke. She had never thought this day would ever come. But last week receiving a call from him, she was shocked? Surprised? 10 seconds in the call she realized she hadn’t responded to his ‘hello’ and replied back trying to keep the tremble out of her voice. At the end of the call, they decided to meet.
‘I know right? So, what are you upto these days? Working at an MNC like you always wanted to?’ he asked.
‘MNC? No. I left that dream a long time back. Now I am a kindergarten teacher.’ She said smiling contently.
‘Shocking for someone who absolutely detested kids. Why a kindergarten teacher? You could’ve made so much of money at an MNC with your sharp intellect and strong personality’
Before he could respond, they were interrupted with the waiter who came with their order. After he left, Abhinav said, ‘Yes, like me. Money isn’t bad, is it?’
‘Nothing is bad unless you give it the power to run your life.’ Radhika replied with a faraway look in her eyes.
In their minds, they had a ton of questions to ask each other. But they both refrained from doing so, realizing that they would be crossing boundaries of whatever this was that they were doing at the moment.
Radhika broke the silence by asking Abhinav about his work even though she knew exactly what he did. Who wouldn’t know one of the youngest entrepreneurs to enter their company into the Fortune 500 list? She was silently proud of him but she stopped herself from telling him about it. Even back in high school, she knew he possessed both the skill and the zeal to lead and so she had always persuaded him to use it for the right purposes.
‘Work is good.’ He replied. Then he continued, thinking he would have to be the one to let his defense down first, ‘After my parents had a fight one day that went a little too far, I just took my mother and ran away from home. I decided that no woman in my life would ever suffer the way she did. Then on, I have worked my ass off to first find us a place to stay, then run it and then build my company from scratch’
The sandwich Radhika was holding in her hand was still in mid-air. She was left speechless. In none of his interviews or appearances, had he ever spoken of his hardships or the way he had started his company. Certainly, not this crude version of all that he had gone through. She knew of troubles that brew between his parents even back in high school, but never thought it would go to this extent.
As she looked at him closely, he looked tired and worn out, but he masked it well. All this before he had even reached the age of 30. She knew it was hard for him to bare himself like that but it gave her confidence to be herself with him. Like they weren’t their age but 15 again.
‘I… I’m sorry. I had no idea’ she said hesitatingly.
‘It’s okay. How would you even?’ he said taking a sip of his Americano to wet his dried-up throat. She continued to steal glances at him as he attended a work call.
‘Sorry for that’ Abhinav said keeping the call.
‘It’s okay’ she said.
‘So what’s up with you? What have you been up to all these years?’ he asked.
‘Oh nothing worth telling’ Radhika said taking a sip of her cappuccino to hide her nervousness.
Abhinav looked at her understanding very well that she was hiding herself behind the cup. She was the same girl even now who never spoke of her troubles. Instead, pushed them under the carpet like it was nothing. Even though he was the one to break their relationship, he never could be done with Radhika and so in a silent way he had kept tabs on her life without ever letting her know.
Throughout the last year of school and then college, Abhinav watched her every moment he got away from work or had a minute to breathe. He couldn’t see her date other guys but he knew he couldn’t step in for he was the one to walk away. Surprisingly, those relationships never lasted beyond a month or two. The biggest punch in the gut for Abhinav was when she got married young at just 22 years old.
That’s when he felt as if he had lost her completely. Yet, Abhinav couldn’t stop himself from knowing what she was up to in her life and so he continued watching her from afar. The first time he was made known of her husband raising his hand on her, Abhi felt like he had time traveled to when he was at home with his parents. That vow he made to himself, he couldn’t keep it to the one woman he loved.
Even so, Abhinav took steps towards Radhika multiple times but stopped himself from butting in their married life. He knew it was wrong and that it may do her more harm than good. Every time he seen her husband walk around arrogantly, he wanted to punch him till he could see the guy lose his last breath.
Once his company became successful, Abhinav had little time on hand and eventually became far away from Radhika due to work. He had only been just become successful at moving on from her when he spotted Radhika at the traffic signal last week. It took him a while to recognize her since she looked much frailer than he had last seen her. Once he did, the first thing he did was learn of all the things that had transpired in her life in the last few years. Knowing that she was divorced, he could see a ray of hope. Not to build a relationship, but to take a step towards connecting with her. Sparing no time, he called her and set this meeting.
Why didn’t Abhinav just date instead of silently following her around? He had tried his best to date another girl but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He had learnt the value of what a relationship means with Radhika. Having bared himself once he couldn’t let someone else see his scars that Radhika had privy to. Abhinav couldn’t do that again, not when he knew that the one he loved was still breathing in the same world as him.
Now, as she sat wearing just a white kurta- probably to hide her scars- on a pair of blue jeans, she looked ethereal to him. Simple and comfortable, just like he knew Radhika was. Unable to take the rage any longer, he spewed it on her.
‘Why are you trying to hide things about you?’ he asked anger clearly visible on her face.
‘Hide what? There is nothing to hide’ she said tapping her fingers on the table.
He was drawn to the tapping and his suspicion of her lie was confirmed. ‘You always tap your fingers like that when you lie’ he said pointing to her fingers.
‘So what if I did? Who are you to ask me anything? What do you mean by ‘trying to hide things’? Did you do a background check on me?’ she asked her eyes bulging.
‘Yes I did. Unlike about me, I cannot find things about you written in magazines and newspapers!’ Abhinav said keeping his coffee cup a little too loudly.
Radhika looked around to see people begin to look at them. ‘Let’s not do this now or ever.’ She said trying to gather her belongings and beginning to get up when he pulled her down and close.
Abhinav was holding her arm as he let his anger cool down. Once he felt a bit normal, he looked her in the eye as he said ‘Look at me. I understand your hesitation of talking to me given our history. But did you also forget that I was the one holding your hand when all had left you alone?’
‘Yes the same hand you left when you decided to trust someone else over me on a baseless rumor.’ Radhika said pulling her hand out of his clutch.
‘That wasn’t it!’ Abhinav said. ‘I didn’t think to break up with you because I believed the rumor. Do you think our relation was that weak? Rumors or not, I knew you for who you were and not just because we were together. I left you for the issues I was ensuring at home were too heavy a burden that I didn’t want the two of us to carry them.
At the time it felt it was wise to use the rumor and let you go but the consequence of it has been paid by me every single day of my life.’ Abhinav said looking down.
Radhika didn’t know what to say. All this while she thought that he had left because of a stupid rumor. Even though she had believed that their relation was stronger than that, she was proven wrong by his one action. Suddenly out of words, she looked at the guy in front of her a bit differently.
Abhinav lifted his head and looked at Radhika look at him. Hesitatingly, he kept his palm covering hers and apologized.
‘I’m sorry, for the agony I caused you back then. I knew that if I told you all that I was going through you would’ve jumped to help me and I didn’t want you to get involved. I just couldn’t let you do that Rads’ he said calling her what he always did in high school. This made her look up at him. She felt happy inside, hearing a name that was as familiar to her as her real name.
Abhinav continued, ‘I couldn’t put you in worry with me or put you out of my mind.’ He followed it by confessing everything he had done in the last 15 years of silently watching over her. He told her how he knew of her married life and how much it hurt to see her go through the same thing his mother did when they were young.
‘I’m sorry I couldn’t do anything to help. At times, I wanted to step in and do business with your husband every time I seen his business fail. But it worried me that you might somehow hear of my name from him, so I stayed away.’
‘It’s good you didn’t get involved with him. To be honest, I don’t think anything would’ve made Vishal happy. He never could quench his thirst for money, not professionally or personally. Everything was an opportunity for him to make money- be it business or wife. Mother forcibly got me married to him when she learnt of ex of mine. I agreed for she left me no choice. Through all the years of domestic abuse, she stood next to him instead of me. I wasn’t surprised considering she had practically sold me to him with a bag full of cash as dowry. It took me a whole lot of suffering and determination to reach a point where I could leave him. Even then I did it all alone. Mother hated me for my decision of divorce and even now gives me an earful for I have returned home to live with her. Anyway, now I am happy to be just a kindergarten teacher. The kids make me happy and forget all that had happened’ she looked at Abhinav to see tears brimming in his eyes.
‘I’m sorry Radhika for all that you had to go through. I knew of some things but not in so much detail. I wish I could go back and change my one decision of leaving you.’ Abhinav said trying to clear his tears with a handkerchief.
‘It’s okay Abhi, it’s really not your fault. If we were meant to be then, none of this would have happened.’
‘What if we are meant to be together, now?’ Abhi asked her looking point blank in her eyes. Seeing as she was shocked at what he said, he held her palms in between his hands and continued, ‘I understand and agree that maybe then, we weren’t meant to be together. But nothing can stop us to be together now. I know that you have only just gotten out of a hard time relation and probably may want to steer clear of any relationship whatsoever. I want the same for you too. Just allow me to be a part of your life as your friend again. I would never ask you for anything more. And someday if you think you can do it again, I will be waiting next to you to start a life together.’ He finished his statement with a smile.
Radhika suddenly felt light in her being as if the storms had finally cleared making way to a bright sunny day. Had Abhi forced her for a relation, she wouldn’t have been comfortable. It is only now that she was learning things about herself, a relation was a thing of some distant future. What she needed was a friend, one who knew her well and was ready to walk by her. She was glad that she had agreed to meet Abhi after all.
She held her palm out to him asking with a smile, ‘Would you be my friend?’