Next,’’ was what Unnati heard when she pushed her loaded luggage trolley, and a few luggage pieces toppled.
I stepped around the elderly couple between us and bent to retrieve the fallen luggage. I was seeing her after four years, and she was still the same, beautiful as ever.
‘’Rana! You, here?’’ I shook my head and smiled as I winked at her. "Following you, as always,’’ is all I said. “Liar, the same as before,” Unnati said before looking away.
‘’Sorry Madam, your luggage weight is beyond the permissible limit,’’ said the airline counter staff.
“We’re together,” I said, before Unnati could respond. She smiled a short smile…I saw the dimples in her cheeks. That smile and her surprising dimples, sometimes they were deep, sometime you missed them, they were what I loved most about her.
What I loved…What I love...What was I feeling?
We silently proceeded for the Security Check together, and kept glancing at each other, slyly.
I was the Man she loved. I am the Man…she doesn’t love.
She changed…I didn’t…I’m still the same…She left me…I let her go…I didn’t hold her back…She didn’t wait…She went. My head felt twice in size. I wanted her.
We walked together when she suddenly halted at The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf counter. She took a seat near the window, while I ordered, “One Espresso and one Darjeeling Long Leaf.’’ She still liked the same type of ‘graceful’ tea. My taste had changed from hot chocolate to espresso, Chivas and rum. All sweetness had disappeared from my life—a spoonful of Rabri gave me toothache. I had forgotten about Ice Creams in a cone because of my Diabetes and also, since I had no one to share them with. Unnati used to love all flavours in a Waffle cone. “Does she enjoy them even now?” I wondered.
I went and sat beside her, I wanted to be close to her.
‘’Where have you been, for so long? Why didn’t you get in touch with me? Nobody shared your whereabouts with me. All numbers, IDs changed. I couldn’t trace you. Why did you leave me?’’ I asked.
“Tell me Una,” I pleaded. “If I ask you the same question, what will be your reply?”
I merely let out a long sigh and cracked my knuckles.
“Aarzoo, Vikram, Tamanna, Olga and Amit will be looking for me. They are meeting me here,’’ Unnati said. “All of them? Why?’’ I asked. “What do you mean by asking why? Tell me Sir,’’ retorted Unnati.
‘’Not Sir, Saheb, that is how you used to address me,’’ I raised my brows and murmured. “Past. It’s 2020 now, and you’re no more than a stranger,’’ said Unnati. “Thank you for all the help with my luggage and the wonderful tea.’’
She picked her tote, touched her head in the style of a crisp salute and walked away to meet her group of friends. Unnati’s friends were my acquaintances, too. We all used to be friends and studied together at Delhi College of Engineering.
I wanted to call her back, I wanted to hold and embrace her tight, but I just sat there with my fist supporting my tight jaw and soft silent tears flowing from the corner of my shut eyes…I had lost her again.
"Hey Big Man, What’s up Bro?" spoke Amit, as he pressed my right shoulder from behind. ‘’You couldn’t wait for me before meeting her. Spoilt it. Mann (Tamanna) and I had forced Unnati to attend Arti and Nitin’s wedding. She was not ready to leave her children alone,’’ said Amit.
‘’What crap are you talking about? What b*******!’’ I hollered at Amit. ‘’She can’t be a mother, she’s not married—she does not look like anything that you are talking about. She’s my Una,’’ I spoke loudly as I banged my fist on the table. People glared at me.
Amit left money on the table, picked my laptop bag and guided me....I was a broken man fumbling with Armani shades to hide my eyes. “I’m going back, I can’t come. I can’t face her,” is all I said before I stopped and turned towards Amit. “What do you want? You have to chase what you want Man. You have seen the world, but you have not looked within. You’re the boss to many but who is your Boss? Who’s in your head, your heart. Not your mother or sister for sure,’’ Amit spoke loudly.
I sat on the first seat I could access, in the departure waiting area.
Tamanna came smiling towards us and said “Rana, long time, still the same—6.2, Dark and Handsome. Nothing’s changed except your serious look…Come, both of you eat this. Our flight is delayed and coffee, idli and stale sandwiches are available at this hour. I brought aloo parantha from home. For everyone!’’ Tamanna said happily. She took out two wrapped in foil and handed us. Amit was quick to give her a shoulder rub and a kiss on the forehead. “Love you Jaan,’’ is what Amit said to Mann. I just looked towards the sunlight streaming in through the big glass windows.
I realised that others were coming towards Amit and me.
All except Aarzoo & Una. They were huddled together Aarzoo was curling Una’s hair between her fingers. Oh! How I loved her hair. Una was pretty and delicate—the true meaning of the love name I gave her. I was passionately in love with her...I wanted to huddle with Una.
What was I feeling? I got up. Others came and encircled me. Pleasantries were exchanged. Vikram, my old room-mate, had married Olga, an Irish girl. They were expecting their first child in few months. They were happy and warm in each others’ company. Looking at them, I suddenly felt cold.
“We have good four hours before we reach Leela. Why are we scattered around this terminal?
Let’s go and sit together around a table, eat, laugh and share our experiences. Remember the good, old days?”said Amit.
“Decided. I’m going to find the mithai shop or counter in this terminal. I am feeling good about all of us meeting, so we should all eat mithai…and chocolate…and ice cream, or whatever. You can follow me,’’ announced Tamanna and walked away. Olga waived and took big strides to join Tamanna. “Raging hormones,” said Amit and followed, rolling his eyes.
Vikram called out to Aarzoo and pointed in the direction. He was walking behind everybody.
Aarzoo ran and joined him. Everybody was connected, Una and I were alone.
I walked towards Una. She saw me coming in her direction and turned her face on the side. I understood that she wanted to be alone.
I picked a newspaper from the stand and wrote down ‘SORRY. Please talk with me’ on the paper. I left the paper on the chair next to hers. I went and hid behind a column to avoid her gaze. I could see her.
She picked and unfolded the newspaper. She touched the writing with her fingertips and again with her palm. She touched it to her mouth and covered her face with it. She started to cry. The paper became wet. There was no sound but she was crying.
I stood frozen.
A passenger asked me to shift and make way for her wheelchair. “Wipe your tears and go to her. I have been noticing both of you,’’ said the lady. People saw us, people sensed the tightened love vibes. People suggest the right actions needed. Do I follow them? If I could write sorry, why didn’t I approach her and say Sorry. My thoughts were in a whirlwind. I wanted to wash my face with cold water. I walked down to the nearest counter and bought a chilled bottle of water along with two cups of hot chocolate. I walked toward Una and stood before her.
She didn’t move an inch. Her knuckles were white as she clenched something tightly. I let a cold droplet fall on her hand. No reaction. I placed the cold bottle on her hand, she shivered and her fist opened. Torn and neatly folded part of newspaper with my writing, fell on the floor. She bent and reached for it.
“Can I sit next to you?” I asked. She nodded. I handed her a cup of hot chocolate. She embraced it with both palms but did not raise it to her lips. “Drink it Una, it will warm you inside…let’s see who finishes first, just like old times,” I said.
“Old times?” she gave a short, bitter laugh. “And don’t call me Una. You’re still living the life you had four years ago, I’m not. You want your hot chocolate, you want things to be ‘your’ way, always. I have moved on. I had to.”
“Yes you have moved on. Married? Kids? Amit said something about that,” I smirked. “That’s how you moved on?”
“Who are you to question me?” she remained silent for few minutes and then continued, “I married Nayan. Nayan, who was gay but not open about it. He hadn’t shared this with anyone.
The only reason he married me was to calm his mother on the death bed, that yes, he has brought home a girl. And I married him knowingly. He never touched me. It was our contract.
After my divorce I got the money I needed,” Unnati spoke in one breath.
“So you married Nayan, the topper and..? For his money? That’s not you Una!” I said, exasperated.
“Do not call me Una!” she said sternly.
“You had a top job at L&T, why did you marry him? Why did you need more money?” I continued as if I hadn’t heard her.
“You used me in college, Rana, you used me, in every possible way! You were not ready to take me home. You didn’t need me as a constant in your life, as your better half. I was merely a delight for your gloomy days. You never had the guts to face your mum and let her know about me!”said Unnati.
“No Una,” I said.
“Zip your lips. I was your Una when I felt loved by you, when you touched my soul by respecting me, when you were the wind beneath my wings, the sunshine on my back. I loved you deeply, so I called you my Saheb, out of respect, for your manners and your sexual prowess,” she said with a straight face.
I was stunned and sat there listening. “When you did not introduce me to your mother on the Graduation Day, everybody said ‘sorry’ to me. I felt like your mistress, a mistress who never gets the family’s approval, forget about respect,” Unnati continued.
‘’Sorry Unnati,” I said and reached out to hold her hand. She started sobbing the moment I held her hands on her lap. I let her cry. With her both hands in my one, I rubbed the nape of her neck. Slowly, my fingers eased her twisted bun, and her long hair fell loose. I could smell her favourite shampoo, Indian Rose from Forest Essentials…I remembered…I remembered her completely. Only if she still believed me. Only if I had told her then....
“Aww, so sweet. Continue,” said Olga, with a wink and a thumbs up sign. She walked towards the group waiting in boarding queue. I understood that it was time to board. Una just wanted to keep sitting like that…I wanted to freeze the time…maybe she wanted to, too.
I helped her up and guided her towards the boarding counter. Before boarding, Tamanna pushed a Rasgulla each, in Unnati’s and my mouth. ”Always stay cool and no matter how much this life squeezes you, may you continue to remain sweet. Especially you Rana,”said Tamanna pulling my ear lobe lightly. “This girl, your Una, can survive anything. But you can’t Rana, not without her. You just can’t,” Tamanna stated firmly.
Everyone around clapped and cheered for us. I had not felt this happy after being alone, without my Una.
Una was blushing and I could see her dimples. My lips wanted to kiss her, but it could only be a peck on Una’s cheek. I’d better not live my life my way from now.
The flight to Bengaluru was for two hours and forty minutes. Una was tired. She and I sat in one row. The seat next to ours was empty. Una soon dozed off with her neck tilted and strained. I stood up and removed my blazer. Then I sat and slid Una’s head on my lap. She automatically pulled up her legs and folded them comfortably. With my blazer over her, I folded my hands in prayer and looked above to thank the Lord for bringing Una back in my life. I tried to remember my last visit to the Gurudwara.
Due to slight turbulence, Una woke up. She opened her eyes, saw me looking at her, shut them and continued laying on my lap and the two seats. “The Issey Miyake man,” Una smiled and said. Una was like a porcelain doll. I had forgotten how delicate she was.
I sat gathering my thoughts about events past and today. I remembered Amit talking about Una’s children. Una yawned but kept still.
“Unnati, how many children do you have?’’ I asked with my face close to hers. “Two kittens,’’ is the answer I got. I smiled with relief. “My part for your kids is in the bank, the Egg Bank. Nayan, my friend, is paying for them. Aarzoo is my 24*7 support. My parents are happy in their small town.” I closed my eyes. “I didn’t know when and if, you will come back to me. Couldn’t let anyone else touch me. I have a medical condition and can’t give birth. But I can enjoy sex, Saheb,” she said. The flight landed. I opened my eyes and my tear drops fell on her face. She pulled my hand beneath my coat and guided it to her heart. “It was yours forever, I love you, only you,” she said. I found my life again, my forever Una.💕
----Charu Rishi Mehra ----
---- 23/05/22 ----