“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small”, Norma Desmond said with that starry gait. Her shoulders square, her eyebrows raised, her eyes oozing arrogance, her neck erect like a tower giving her that sense of being above the rest of the world. Her tone and delivery oozed with disdain for the small and lowly. She was a star and she was meant for the big screen. She was an enigma who had grown out of the screen so much so that the world had become small enough to contain her eccentricities.
’That’s the 112th time now’ she said to herself as she got up and flung away the empty cartons of cheap Chinese takeaway into the trash. ‘How many times more am I going to watch this movie’, she questioned her own sanity.
It was true. This was the 112th time she had watched Sunset Boulevard. It was a ritual she and Benjamin followed.
‘Did you watch it’, her mobile phone beeped with a message.
‘Yes I did’, she replied.
Every time they signed a new contract, they watched the movie and she was not going to break the tradition today when she had signed one more contract.
She was a huge fan of the movie and the character of Norma Desmond. But more than that, the tragedy of the leading actress tugged at her heart. It was so heart wrenching to see the one time silent movie star fade away into oblivion. Norma’s desire to make a triumphant return to the screen once again was so realistic that it moved her every single time. She could relate to that internal tug of war one has as an artist. You want people around you to love you for your work. You want them to adore you. But the adulation comes at a price. And that price is privacy. You like it when they recognize you, it amuses you when they throw themselves at your feet, and makes you smile at their declarations of admiration. But they often push the wrong buttons when they don’t let you be when you want to be left alone. They follow you, invade your personal space, and cook up stories for their own means. It was disgusting.
‘Now what’, she asked herself. She didn’t know what to do next. She had wrapped up work at studio early, brought home Chinese takeout which she had devoured with her favorite movie. Now what?
‘I better pack for tomorrow. I won’t be left with a lot of time to do that in the morning’, she thought and started putting together her stuff together.
At the crack of the dawn she was flying off to Hawaii for a shooting project. Benjamin was going to meet her there. In fact, Benjamin had befriended a millionaire redhead who had given him this contract of getting her villa photographed for putting it up on real estate websites. Bethany had first refused to do work like this. It was not something that she enjoyed. But then she agreed for Benjamin.
She wanted to meet him and this was a good opportunity. This project meant they would start working again together like the good old days. She would get a chance to apologize to him and then the work routine will put them back in that comfortable space with each other. Plus she needed to get away for a few days. Staying alone in the house and being alone at the studio was not doing her any good. And with Catherine showing up, her stress levels had overshot. A good escape with sun and sand would help her de-stress herself and get things back on track with Benji. The thought was tempting and she decided to go ahead with it. After all, the sun and the sand combination had previously worked for her. Why not try it again? There was no harm in it, was it?
Once packed, she lifted her bag and placed it with a thud in a corner of the room.
‘Thud’, the sound echoed in the empty space.
“Is this ok”, Saahil asked her.
“Yeah, it’s nice”, she looked around the room. The place was nicely furnished and had a cozy feel. The windows opened on the beach letting the fresh salty air come in. The bed was comfortable and the side table had a reading lamp set up for the book worms. The wardrobe was big enough for luggage of two. The small fridge in the room was stocked well. On the patio, a hammock was tied up and a table for two set.
“You are sure this is ok”, Adah asked.
“Relax guys, this is perfect. I love this”, she said moving around the room.
“Alright, let’s get settled in first. We will then meet in the lobby for some food and fun”, Saahil said excitedly.
“Why don’t you freshen up first. We will see you soon”, Adah said and left the room.
Bethany plopped down on the bed and inhaled deeply. She was happy to be here. These people were nice, friendly, and caring. Benjamin had literally flown off the handle when she had told him that she was taking a road trip with Saahil and Adah.
“Are you crazy”, he howled into the received. “Don’t you dare try to go anywhere with anybody. Just stay put where you are. I am coming”, he said as he pulled out his bag and started stuffing it with random clothes.
“Benji, you don’t need to come here and stop threatening me”, she replied calmly.
“How can you just go away with complete strangers”, he couldn’t understand Bethany’s decision.
“They are not strangers. They are Saahil and Adah, people I met during my show at Snaps. Remember I told you about them”, she explained.
“You still don’t know them enough”, he shrieked.
“So what? This will give me a chance to get to know them”, she argued.
“They can be dangerous”, he reasoned.
“No, they are not. I have vetted them out. So please calm down and relax for a bit”, she said.
“B, listen to me please. Don’t get into all this. You don’t even know them. They might hurt you”, he tried.
“Benji I knew people back home and I still got hurt. I know what I am doing here sounds crazy”, she said.
“Sounds? It is crazy B”, he threw his hands up in frustration.
“I know it is crazy but something is egging me on to do this. I want to just do this where I go away with complete strangers. No questions asked, no strings attached, no attachments to worry about, no baggage of mistakes. I just want to be free. Can you understand that”, she knew Benjamin would understand that.
“B….”, he tried but couldn’t argue any more.
“Please”, she pleaded and that was it.
Benjamin was sold to the idea but on a condition of keeping him updated.
Smiling at his friend’s memories, she picked up her phone and called him. The call went straight to voicemail. So she left him a message and started unpacking. Benjamin would definitely call her back as soon as he hears the voicemail.
Although Saahil’s idea was a nationwide tour, Adah had managed to convince him to stay restricted to the southern part of the country. They had started their journey from Bangalore and the first place they had touched was Mysore. After indulging themselves in the royal heritage of the city, they had chosen Goa as their next stop. The place was the country’s party capital and they were ready to shake things up.
Once settled in, Bethany decided to do a quick tour of the place.
Armed with her camera in hand, she started moving around the place clicking random pictures. She was enjoying this.
The change of place was doing her good. She was feeling relaxed and less stressed out. The negativity of her past was forgotten and she was feeling rejuvenated. She was feeling happy and satisfied.
She was lost in thought, so much so that she didn’t notice Saahil and Adah approach her.
“Hey there”, Adah called her out.
“Hey you two. You look fresh and relaxed”, she said to the beaming couple.
“A nice hot water bath and we are as good as new”, Saahil winked.
“So what’s the plan”, she asked them.
“Well you look busy already”, Adah said pointing to the camera.
“Oh this, yeah this is my constant companion”, she said putting on the cap back in place.
“How about we do some water sports”, Saahil asked.
“Yeah let’s go”, Adah agreed.
“Guys, you know what? I want to just go for a nice long walk. Why don’t you two go ahead and I will join you later”, Bethany suggested.
“You sure”, Saahil asked looking unsure.
“Yeah, very sure. Go ahead. I will join you two soon”, she said.
“Fine”, Saahil replied and started walking towards the beach.
Bethany took the opposite direction. She really wanted to explore this place alone. She didn’t want anybody else’s perspectives to dilute her first feel of the place.
She wanted to roam around mindlessly. She wanted to be a complete stranger unraveling the mysteries of a new place slowly and carefully. She saw faces. Some looked happy, some looked deep in thought, some looked tired, and some looked worried. But they didn’t look lost. Why? She didn’t know. But how she longed for that feeling! She just didn’t know how to achieve it.
Having spent more than 2 hours loitering around, she went back to the beach where the two lovebirds were settled down. They had ordered some martinis. Saahil was playing a game on his mobile phone while Adah was occupied with a book.
“Busy”, Bethany asked them.
“Hey stranger. Where did you disappear”, Adah asked her putting aside the book.
“Ah just here and there”, Bethany shrugged her shoulders.
“So what did you see”, Saahil asked not looking away from his phone.
“Just this and that”, she replied.
“Wow, that makes so much sense”, he teased.
“Shut up Saahil”, Adah admonished him.
“No it’s fine. I just like to explore a new place alone”, Bethany replied.
“Why”, Saahil asked.
“Hmm it’s a habit”, Bethany said.
“What about your boyfriend. Doesn’t he join you in these exploratory walks”, Adah asked.
“Hmm I don’t have a boyfriend”, the photographer shyly replied.
“WHAT”, the two reacted.
“I am sorry”, Adah recovered first. “It’s just that we thought that you had a boyfriend back at home”, she explained.
“Ah no I don’t”, Bethany replied with an amused smile.
“Then who is this guy who calls you every day”, Saahil asked.
“Benji, he is my friend and my assistant. He calls me because he likes to make sure that I am ok”, Bethany explained.
“Oh ok, we thought that you two were in a relationship”, Adah sounded confused.
“I still can’t believe this”, Saahil added.
“Can’t believe what”, the photographer asked.
“That a person like you doesn’t have a boyfriend”, he explained.
“Care to explain the term person like you”, Bethany settled down with the two on the sand.
“Look at you. You are just so……”, he thought for second and then toned down his choice of words, “beautiful. How can you not have a boyfriend?”
“Well it is what it is”, she shrugged her shoulders and laughed. “I don’t have a boyfriend and I am not in any sort of relationship.”
“Have you ever been in love”, Adah asked.
“Nope, never”, Bethany replied.
“Wow”, Saahil reacted. “Man if only I had met you before”, he mumbled.
“What”, Adah got up and placed her hands on her hips. “What do you mean”, she asked annoyed.
“Nothing my love”, Saahil tried to save his skin.
“Ok enough about me and let’s go get some food. I am famished. I want to crack some crab legs”, Bethany said and pulled the two of them together to get up and start walking back.
Back from the beach, the trio had cleaned up and settled down in the restaurant waiting to place their orders.
“I will have crab curry with Indian bread”, Bethany said having decided her meal.
Saahil placed the order with the waiter and asked him to bring some water.
Once their glasses were filled and a bottle of water was placed on their table he turned his attention to Bethany.
“So what’s the story between you and Benjamin”, he asked.
“What do you mean”, Bethany chose to play dumb.
“Come on, I know he is into you”, Saahil winked.
“How do you know”, she asked.
“Ah come on”, Saahil leaned back in his chair. “I mean the guy practically calls you every day to check on you. He knows your complete itinerary as if he is the one responsible for you. He is looking out for you. This shows that he cares deeply”, he explained.
“Saahil, let it go”, Adah said sensing some hesitation from the photographer.
“No it’s ok Adah”, Bethany said.
“So let me see, how do I introduce Benji to you guys”, she started. “He is just……Benji”, she said unable to find the right word to describe the man in her life. She shrugged her shoulders and nodded her head as if that would make sense to the couple sitting in front of her.
“What do you mean”, Saahil asked.
“I met Benjamin during my art school days. We bumped into each other in a movie rental store. Incidentally we both picked the same movie to watch”, she said.
“Which movie”, Adah asked.
“Sunset Boulevard. We both love that movie. The store had only one copy. So we rented it together and watched it together. We bonded over the movie. Now we have this thing wherein we watch that movie as a ritual every time we get a new project. It’s our lucky charm”, she explained.
“That’s sweet”, Adah smiled and sipped water.
“Since that day Benji has been a constant in my life. He joined me as an assistant when I started pursuing photography as a profession. Today he helps me set up a show, manages the legal aspects, takes care of clients and finances. There is so much that he does today. It’s just because of him I am able to focus only on photography and not worry about anything else. I know he will take care of rest of the stuff”, Bethany explained.
“Wow that’s some friendship”, Saahil replied.
“Yeah it is. He is very dear to me”, she added.
“Benji”, she rushed up to him and hugged him.
“Beth”, he held on to her for a minute.
“It’s so good to see you Benji”, she whispered in his shoulder.
“How are you B”, he asked.
“I am sorry Benji. I am sorry for what I did to you”, she teared up instantly. The apology was a long time coming. She had felt this burden on her chest for a long time and she wanted to be relieved. She wanted her friend back.
“It’s ok B. Just forget it”, Benjamin waved off the whole incident.
“It’s not ok Benji. I had no right to treat you the way I did”, she argued.
“You know what B, why don’t you settle down first. We will talk later”, he explained.
“You don’t believe me, isn’t it”, her head fell.
“Hey, I do believe you. I just want you to go put down your bags, freshen up and then come back to talk to me”, he explained.
“No, I want to talk right now. I have waited for a long time. I don’t want to put this off anymore”, she insisted.
“Ok, come here”, he pulled a chair for and asked her to sit down.
“Benji, you were right. I took you for granted. You were always there for me and I abused your presence. I am sorry. I never meant to hit you or even hurt you. It just happened. I lost my control. I don’t know how to explain this. But since the day you have been gone, I have been cursing myself”, she sobbed.
“B, I never wanted you to curse yourself. I just wanted you to realize the value of people around you”, he wiped her tears.
“I value you Benji, I do. I just don’t….”, she couldn’t finish the sentence.
“Don’t love me, I know”, he smiled. “In fact, you do love me. It’s just that you are not in love with me”, he said. “You have never been in love with anybody B. You have only been in love with one thing – an idea. You have always loved a thought or a vision that you have had. You have been true to that love and that’s what makes you such a good photographer. But this time B, it’s not love. It’s obsession”, he reminded her.
“I know Benji, I know”, she whispered.
“I want you to open your eyes B and see where you are headed”, he held her hand.
“Benji, I need help”, she whispered. “Please help me”, she mumbled.
“I will B, trust me I promise”, he held her close.
He had promised her. But how was he going to help her when he himself had not been able to help himself? With all the distance and the silence between them, he still held that torch in his heart for her. So how could he – the one who had failed in his own pursuit of redemption – help Bethany Hill?
It was a question that was going to give him a lot of restless nights.