Slow and Steady
He looked more relaxed. We ordered along predictable lines and discussed the safest of topics – work. Maybe that’s why it was better than yesterday - conversation flowed more smoothly. My head ached less and I even felt very relaxed.
We finished our drinks quickly – he set the pace by downing his cappuccino fast, and I thought it was time to say bye and end this game – and he said, “Would you mind coming out with me? I go to a park regularly, and I thought it would be a nice place to go to. It is a place where people come for walks and mothers bring their children, and, of course, couples go to…” I giggled at his embarrassment. He hastily said, “I thought it will be just right for us to get to know each other.”
I agreed. Baby, one more try... George Michael sang in my mind.
I followed his bike on my scooter and we were there shortly. “Next time, maybe you could ride with me,” he suggested hesitantly.
Okay, so he is an eternal optimist. I merely smiled; the realist.
“I come to jog here regularly. Quite the fitness freak, I am…how about you?” he asked as we took a turn around the path.
I shrugged. “Sporadic, at best…”
He smiled and we walked some more, and I could feel the familiar silence enveloping us. I thought - one round, and as we reached the gate, I would wave and take leave. He spoke up thoughtfully, “I have three sisters. But that doesn’t mean I am comfortable with girls. In fact, my brother and I are opposites in that. He even ended up marrying my sister’s friend. And here I am,” he looked at me smiling, “completely tongue tied though I want to tell you so many things.”
I was embarrassed and instinct bade me remain quiet. But I forced myself to ask, “Why?”
He frowned, “Why what? Tongue tied?”
I shook my head. “Why do you want to tell me things? I thought by now you would have had enough of me!”
His brows creased, “Why?”
“I am also a poor conversationalist, and except work, we have no common topics,” I said frankly. “In fact, I was going to tell you just now that maybe we shouldn’t struggle any more with this.”
He stopped short, making a walker right behind him almost bump into him. He quickly apologised to that person and then turned to me. “You want to call this off?” he asked.
When he put it so bluntly, I felt uncertain. “What do you think? Don’t you feel the same way?” Having come this far, there was no point in couching words in diplomacy. But I felt his disappointment.
“I don’t want to force my company on you…” he said, still looking at me. I was in a fix. It sounded like he wanted to explore this further while I was trying to back out. I didn’t have the spine to admit to it then. I looked down. He waited for me to respond. Finally, I said, “Whatever you suggest.”
He looked away for a second and resumed walking. I followed a step behind, unsure of the turn he was going to take. “Okay, let me not push this too much. But I thought, maybe here, today, we would be more comfortable with each other… I don’t mind telling you, I like you.” The words came slowly, thoughtfully. My heart started beating very fast. It had been a long time since anyone had confessed to liking me, and his words sent my pulse racing. He continued, “I take a long time to open up with people… In our case, I suppose I already liked you. I mean,” he said quickly, “it is not as if you are a total stranger. …Anyway, why labour the point? I wish it had worked out better. Bye then,” he smiled and stretched his hand.
I looked at his hand without take it. His acquiescing so soon threw me off balance. Did I want him to labour the point, really? I stood with my hands to my sides, playing the ‘should I-shouldn’t I’ question in my mind repeatedly.
He laughed outright, in evident relief. “Come, I can see one seat empty over there. Let us sit there and see if this works. If it doesn’t, then you are rid of me, okay?”
I looked up and smiled wanly. I had decided to give it a shot, so I should go through it in all fairness. I followed him to the seat.
“Why did I want to tell you about myself, you had asked,” he said; meticulous – my mind responded; “I thought we had found a ‘comfort zone’ as you said.” He put air quotes around comfort zone.
I squinted at him. “So what did you want to tell me? Some sordid past?” I asked with a forced grin, trying to participate.
“Oh nothing exciting. Quite the boring stuff… You may know, I live with my parents and a younger sister. We are five of us – an older sister, then a brother, then me, and then two younger sisters. I have always been surrounded by people. And, of course, sometimes the house will be filled with girls and I have always seen them jabbering. The noise they created was enough to drive me out of the house. You seem so quiet and different,” he looked at me.
My heart beat loudly. I said, “I would love to be like them. But considering it is just dad and me, I have kind of gone quiet, I think.” I thought for a second as he patiently waited for me to continue. I shook my head. “No, I think I was always like this, a bookworm.”
He asked me about my mother. I have always been reticent and down to earth when talking about that. I was the same with him, simply telling him, “Throat cancer claimed her suddenly when I was in the 10th-11th. Now dad and I are family.” I didn’t even mention Aunt Vibha. I expected him to express the usual sympathies. But he was silent. I waited, expecting him to say something inane and shy away from the topic. But no, no words; just a silent stare. I returned the gaze with a smile to put him at ease. He inclined his head. ‘And?’ his expression seemed to suggest.
I was not prepared for this, and just shrugged and shook my head. “And, life goes on.” But there was a catch in my throat, and a silly cough. He waited for it to subside and I started talking about the cough…but he was still waiting. Refusing to be led away. “It is an old story,” I told him finally. “Really,” I said as he simply nodded. I added more details in bits and pieces – how I felt then, how I feel now, sometimes when I have to be my own mother, and sometimes for my father too. I could hear my voice going heavy. Karthik squeezed my hand, gently assuring.
I smiled, trying hard to blink my tears away and joke lightly. “Why, I missed her even today, when I didn’t know how to deal with a prospective groom, or how to put him off!”
He laughed. “I hope you have stopped thinking of putting me off!” he said softly, the laugh vanishing in a second. I looked down, wondering why he wanted to marry me so badly. I was not complaining. It felt nice and warm to have someone so keen on you.
“You have no artifice. Maybe that is what I like about you the most.”
The tears did well up. I didn’t look at him, for fear he would read this craving in me.
He simply said, “God willing, I will never let you miss your mother again!”
I could have cried then. I want to cry now. What has come between us, Karthik? Why am I thinking of my mother so much though you are around?