It was still dawn when I stepped out of the cab and walked towards the entry gate of the Delhi airport. The early morning February air was pleasantly cold.
I was travelling to Bengaluru to attend a college friend’s wedding. It had been four years since we graduated from the same college. This wedding was also going to be a reunion of our batch mates. But what I didn’t know was that the reunion would begin much ahead of time; right in the queue in front of the airline counter.
I was almost sure it was she. Same height! Same long hair! Same complexion! Curiosity had my eyes glued to her. And then about 60-odd seconds later, when she turned, she proved me right. My ex-girlfriend stood two places ahead of me in that queue. We had never met after the college farewell.
She was wearing the same perfume, it is odd how the brain forms the memories and then compartmentalizes them for later recollection. It had been so many years already and yet, some part of my brain betrayed my resolution, a resolution we had jointly made in Chennai in the summer of 2011. There was a certain kind of emptiness in the pit of my stomach and a yearning for seeing that smile in person just one more time. My heart was thumping in my rib cage and I could barely breathe. There she was standing barely 5 feet ahead of me, the only girl I had ever loved and hoped to marry.
She was talking on the phone animatedly and her eyes were darting to check what was holding up the queue. She was wearing a jeans and a floral designed kurti, her normal casual attire. She had a purse dangling from one shoulder and a book clutched in her hand. She seemed to be engrossed in her conversation and I was a bit disappointed that she did not notice me yet. As I gazed at her forlornly, I realized that she was looking even more beautiful than I could remember. She was tall for a girl, almost matching my 5’8” height. She seemed to have slimmed down which suited her frame perfectly!
The boarding assistant’s voice brought me back from my reverie, I was already entering the plane. I displayed the boarding pass and smiled customarily at her welcoming me into the flight. I looked up ahead and could not see Jennie. I chided myself for behaving like a love-struck puppy and walked into the plane. I felt angry at David not telling me about Jennie attending his marriage as well. Well David and I were best friends in college and we shared more history than being just batch mates. But of course, David knew that I would have summarily refused to attend his marriage and hence his discretion. Well even though I was mad at him for this, a part of my brain was betraying me and I felt strangely light, as if I was being re-born, experiencing a wave of eager anticipation similar to a blind man being able to see for the first time!
I stowed my laptop and checked the seat numbers. Our eyes met and I simply froze on the spot. It seemed she had the aisle seat in the same row! I could not speak, I just wanted to look at her face even if that was the last thing I did in this life. Those kohl lined eyes and full lips were the same as I had always known. The usual twinkle in her eyes was replaced by a melancholic look, I wondered if it was simply the years which had added up.She seemed to be shaken up too and took a few seconds to regain her poise. Silently she stood up, “Must be the window seat as always”. I could barely nod in affirmation.
I finally managed “Hi Jen…errr. Jennie”. Even before I realized, I had bent forward to hug her, she looked surprised and managed an awkward embrace. I could feel her heartbeats going berserk, her smell and warmth were driving me crazy. She tore away abruptly, it must have been a few seconds too long for somebody who is just a friend or was it merely an acquaintance now? I wondered as I ambled slowly into the window seat.
Jennie had walked over to the washroom. The pilot was announcing over the PA system, I silently wore the seat belt. The seat beside me was still empty and before the plane took off, I prayed to the GOD almighty to keep it that way.
Jennie had returned and had the flight magazine covering her face. While I kept stealing surreptitious glances at her, I noticed that she was not wearing any ring. Why I needed to check that I did not know, we had both stuck to our solemn promises for the last few years and I was sure a chance meeting was not going to change anything. For the rest of the journey Jennie kept to herself and dozed off into a slumber.
Having collected the checked-in baggage, I looked around. Jennie was already trotting of towards the exit. I ran to catch up with her.
“I guess you too are going to David’s marriage.”
Jennie turned her head, “Yes”.
“He has booked me into the hotel close to his place, are you staying in the same? If yes, we could share the same cab.”
After a momentary pause, she replied “Ok, we could do that”.
Once we were seated in the cab, Jennie kept gazing out of the window. She did not encourage my failed attempts at small talk and adopted the demeanor of a tourist visiting the garden city for the first time.
We checked into our respective rooms in the hotel. I poured whiskey from the complimentary bottle and called up David. He heard me out in silence. “Dude, please don’t spoil my wedding. You are my best man and I want my best man to remain sober. So, please enjoy the drinks today but promise me you will be sober tomorrow.”
Having extracted a reluctant promise from me, David said “I am so happy you came.”
The few pegs had done their job and I drifted into a peaceful sleep. David, Jennie and myself had attended the same MBA college in Chennai. Jennie and I liked to spend time with each other. David was a common friend. Jennie was a studious and no nonsense girl back then and a regular church goer. We had a mutual admiration and an easy going friendship. We used to frequent the restaurants in the town together, go for movies and long drives. One of my best memories of a Christmas to date were the ones spent in her company in Chennai from our college days. She used to pull me along and I used to love the experience. I used to love her spontaneous throaty laughter and the affectionin her deep eyes. She used to tease me for constant banter when I was around her, something she used to miss when we used to go home for the vacations.
Post the placements, I asked David for his advice and he encouraged me to go ahead. It was early Feb and we would complete our final semester in 3 months. We were sitting on the sands of the Besant Nagar beach. When the sky was colored a golden hue by the setting sun, I proposed to Jennie. She was aghast and asked me to be realistic. Her parents would never allow her to marry into a non-Christian family and I belonging to a Brahmin family, conversion was out of the question. We argued back and forth, but in the end she did not relent and stormed off.
Alcohol found me, in the last 3 months of my college life. Jennie stopped taking my calls, she did not respond to my alcohol induced ramblings, she stopped messaging me and started avoiding me. David tried his best to perk me up and encouraged to work towards the bright future and a new life. Nothing helped. On the last day of our college, Jennie messaged me. We met on Besant Nagar beach in the evening. She covered her nose from my whiskey laced breaths.
“You need to stop this Jai. It hurts me to see you destroy your life, you are a great guy and have a bright future ahead. I need you to promise me something”.
I clung on to her every word like a man receiving last few drops of water before his death in a parched desert.
“We will never see each other again, we will not keep in touch nor attempt to break this promise.”
I was just taking in her presence, knowing that these were most likely the last moments we shared.
Jennie’s voice brought me back to reality. I said “I promise”.
Hiding her tears, she looked at me with searching eyes and then apparently satisfied she walked off. I watched the sky turn a darkish blue and the lights being switched on in the beach.
It has been 4 years since then. I had kicked off my drinking habit and learnt to live without Jennie. I have had a few girlfriends since then but was never able to find the one to settle down with. Maybe I did not want to. Our common friends avoided mentioning Jennie and I had never heard about her till the meeting today.
The next day I bathed, shaved and tried to look sober. I ordered black coffee to beat the nasty hangover. I wore my best suit and drove to David’s wedding ceremony. Jennie was there too. She looked resplendent in her green gown. I could barely take my eyes off her. She avoided me pretty much throughout the entire festivities.
At the end of the day, David mentioned that they were travelling to Chennai to meet his grandparents and would fly off to their honeymoon from there. He asked me if I wanted to come to Chennai, a change of scene would help me recover from the shock he reckoned. I agreed reluctantly, wondering if Jennie was going to join us too.
It turned out that David’s wife had convinced Jennie to extend her vacation as well. We drove to Chennai the next day and were put up in David’s grandparent’s house.
The next day David planned a road trip to Mahabalipuram since he was due to fly the day after. It was a scenic drive and we reached around noon. After a filling lunch, the group started discussing how they wanted to spend the rest of the day. Most went off to view the sculptures and the giant spherical rock. I decided to take a walk along the beach.
It was a Déjà vu moment, memories of earlier trips with Jennie came rushing back. I tried to block those images and tried to enjoy the soothing breeze and the sense of calm. In the distance I could notice a solitary figure strolling on the beach, the black Stoll fluttering in the breeze. It had to be Jennie. I decided to continue towards the rocks on the beach. As I was removing my shoes, I felt somebody beside me. Jennie had picked up her sandals and was looking to climb up on the rocks. Our eyes met briefly and she smiled. It was a sad despondent smile. She extended her left hand, I grabbed her and climbed up on the rocks.
“Just like the old times, eh?” said Jennie.
I smiled and carefully navigatedthe rocks. She held onto my hand and we walked towards the drop of the rocks into the water and sat down. As we stared towards the vast expanse of the blue water specked with little dots, the fishermen’s boats, Jennie put her head on my shoulder. I was confused and wondered if Jennie too was reliving the old days, the days when both of us were happy. I wrapped my right arm around her and held her close to me. As if on cue Jennie snuggled closer and kept staring ahead. I lost track of time and wanted this moment to last till eternity. I could smell her while her hair strands caressed my cheeks.
“I wonder since when did you lose your banter!” she said smiling wistfully.
I held her closer to me and said “I was never a good speaker, I guess. GOD have I missed you!”
The sun was progressively gliding down onto the water, the last golden rays coloring the waves. Jennie looked like an angel. She leaned in closer to me, her eyes were wet and yet she was smiling, a beatific expression set on her face.
“I have missed you too” and her moist lips were onto mine. She embraced me tightly. After what seemed like an entire lifetime, she broke away from me, that is when I noticed she was sobbing. I placed my hand on her shoulder.
“Can’t we try again? You know I am now a partner in the firm and I quit drinking a long time ago.”
She wiped her face with my handkerchief and tied her hair into a loose bun. She was not sobbing now, but her eyes were still wet.
“I am engaged Joy, my wedding is next month. Even though my parents arranged the match, I do love John.”
I was at a loss for words, she still held my hand.
“You have every right to be mad at me. I am sorry I never had the courage to go against my father’s wishes. I came on this trip since I was sure you would be attending the wedding too. I wanted to apologize Jai. Please try and forgive me.” Saying so, she freed her hands from mine and with a quick peck on my cheeks, she stood up and walked away down the rocks.