I parked by the bar. It was dark already. With the winter almost upon, the sunset was encroaching more of daylight into the cold darkness of what was going to be wintery nights. I put the handbrakes, locked, and made my way to the entrance. The waft of alcohol carrying within its pungent bitterness the bitter-sweet happening in the lives of people drinking within greeted my arrival. I rubbed my nose to ease the stinging the pungency always brought upon. I made my way to a corner table and put my back to rest.
The bar was well lit. It was actually a posh establishment where open-minded women who got a few drinks down their throat weren’t frowned upon by equally open-minded men. Nor stared upon given the decent crowd. It was precisely because of this that Nandita frequented this place. Nandita well would be my good friend back from the days at college. We did medicine together and while I turned towards basic research, she went on to become a psychiatrist. I remember her as this patient, timid girl who was a great listener. People used to ease their woes to her even back then. She would give them an attentive ear and sage counsel. She once told me it wasn’t as much about the counsel as it was giving them a chance to hear themselves vocalize their problems and worries. The solution more often than not lied within. We have been keeping in touch since and we met whenever I was in town.
I was in town today. Well even yesterday, when we had met. We spent the night at my place. And the morning, I saw her dress up into her venerable doctorish garb. We had an open relationship, given the open-minded people we were. And she being the shrink came in handy to keep things in control. She planted a kiss and said she had toasted some bread and made coffee. I smiled and asked when we would meet again. With a nonchalant wink and a ‘let’s see’, she left. I had slept through most of the morning. Research back at my lab had been in quite a frenzy over the past couple weeks. We had made significant head-roads into a receptor that was over-expressed on treatment-recalcitrant metastatic breast cancer. Currently we were screening dozens of molecules to target the receptor in a hope to control the cancer and buy the patient few more months. I was heading the team preparing the monoclonal antibody to the receptor. We had succeeded in cloning the receptor and were generating potential epitopes against which we will screen our antibody library. Things were in track and I needed a break from that hectic mayhem. Home, sleep and a few days of retiring repose was all that was on my mind.
Having ordered lunch, I called up my parents to check if I could meet them tonight. They lived in the other side of the city. I had my own apartment. I liked it so. Freedom and control on my own life. It was then that Nandita had called. She said we had to meet, tonight. There was an unnerving urgency in her tone. She seemed distraught. I said sure, come by my home. She suggested we instead meet at the bar the evening. While I didn’t drink, I had no qualms with bars. I agreed and here I was waiting for her to show up. What could it be I wondered. We had met only the morning and she was well as she left. Maybe trouble home, or at work. Be it either, I thought better to not over-think it. She would be here in a while. She could speak of it then. I suppose.
The music system in the background was playing a Mozart in a subdued volume. As against the usual image of a bar as a place of lugubrious despondency, this bar was very alive. It had a cheerful bright sparkle in the goblets hanging by the bartender, as in the attire of the waiters moving between tables. One such guy approached me and I asked him to get me some coke. As when he raised his brow in a quizzical glance, I said I was waiting for my friend to show up. He smiled and made his way to the beverage stand. Just then, through the waft of bitterness that I have introduced you readers before came this surreal fragrance that reminded me of something familiar and intimate. With a smile I turned towards the source of it and said hai to Nandita.
Yes, she had come to evoke this intimate familiarity I felt disarming my reserve. I now was willing to surrender the entirety of my will with earnest alacrity. Some people fall in love at first sight. But I guess I didn’t fit that bill. She rather grew over me. With an imperceptible gradualness, I had slowly and softly fallen for her as a feather falls in still vacuum. The lull adding to the poignancy of this process. And akin to that moment of dull thud when the feather hits the floor, I now felt decidedly in love. I got up and pulled her chair.
She sat and looked at me. It was a look that I still remember with a slight shudder. It was a look that bore into me, right to my very soul, and pleaded for help. Her entire feminine fragility was wrought large in her vulnerable poise. She didn’t make an attempt to hide this dainty frangibility that seemed to exude through her person and wash over me near. I felt my knees. It had this funny feeling of weightlessness. It felt weak, as if I might not be able to stand up. Or rather if I did, it would pave and give way to my weight. She blinked and looked away. I made most of the moment to exhale the air that somehow felt to have frozen in my windpipe and breath-in a good volume to last another arduous gaze-lock.
She called the waiter and ordered herself a beer. She turned to me and the very moment to avoid those perilous eyes I looked down and quipped that I had already asked for coke. I could hear a slight chuckle, which would imply she had given a slight smile. Still a teetotaler aren’t you she said. I looked up, at her, into her, and couldn’t help smiling in turn. Her pain, which was so awash on her being a moment ago seemed now to have thinned into a veneer. She smiled a bit more. And I could feel my eyes welling. It felt strange that I should cry, for no explicit reason, for the sole sake of having seen her. But I could see that she was suffering. There was something she had gone through that had brought her enormous pain. And this sight with her in its plight brought me pain. I had cared for her. Since always. Though it was now that I realized how much I was willing to do for her. Was it this love that had sprouted off recent and had slowly grown into a little sapling raising its open palm to the luxuriance of the radiant sun, or was it genuine concern for a person who meant a great deal, I couldn’t surmise. But I was sure of the certainty that she was important to me. And I wanted to not lose her place in my life.
Her beer came, as did my coke. She started sipping from her drink. I kept quiet. I knew she was unsettled by this something which was weighing on her mind. And she would speak of it if-when she chooses. Small talk for the sole intention of filing the silence did no good to either. I had learnt this much from her. A wise friend teaches so much to us. We patiently drank from our glasses. With each gulp, I could see her throat move an inch up, and then inch down with that ferment of grape beer. But slowly and gradually, the intention to ease her unrest banked up within. I moved my chair close to her and put my arm around her, as if supporting her shoulder. She eased herself. The tense tautness of her person melted a little. She drew herself near and rested her head on my shoulder. I held her other hand in my palm. Hers was moist. And it felt warm. I gave hers a gentle squeeze. She intermingled her fingers with mine and closed her palm into a clench with my palm held inside hers.
How I felt that moment is ineffable. To put it lightly, I felt useful. Useful in the most significant and important way imaginable. True my research could prolong the lives of many by a couple months. It had made me feel substantial. But this moment, this now, I felt momentous. I felt my very existence had become reasonable. That moment I knew what I wanted most for all the moments that were to follow. Her hair was brushing against my stubble of two days. Her weight felt so light to bear. I could feel her breath with each exhalation against the skin of my neck, as could I hear it. I gently squeezed her shoulder. A moment later, I felt her sob. A wetness was streaming down the skin of my cheeks and it wasn’t my eyes that were tearing. I wiped the tear that was forming a puddle against the bridge of her nose. I had this profound feeling coursing through every vein of my body. I had to tell her how much I loved her. It had grown from a realization, through to a certainty into a compulsion. I inhaled, and waited, as if warming the breath with my ardent affection for this dear person in my arms, before I would say it. I parted my lips and began I… when she began as well, overlaying my recital with hers, saying, I killed a man. I killed him. I could have saved him. He had come to me yesterday. He had said existence pained him. He wanted help. We spoke. But it seems I could reach him. Couldn’t ease his pain. Couldn’t help. He killed himself. I failed him. What use is there to what I learnt.
And with these, she looked up, into my eyes, pleading for an answer to assuage her pain. I only held her closer. I said lets go home. I paid our tab and we drove home. All the while she had her head supported on my shoulder. At home, I made her some dinner. She ate sparingly, amidst sobs. We didn’t speak about anything. That night, in bed, she lay disturbed, troubled, holding me close by. The morning, I saw her with her eyes closed, her brows eased, breathing softly and rhythmically. I sat there, looking at her sleep. When she woke up, I brought for her the bread I had toasted. It was slightly burnt on the corners. She applied jam on it, while still in bed. I poured her the coffee I brewed the morning. She looked at me, and we both smiled the same moment. She only said the coffee needed more sugar. And as an afterthought added, thank you, and well I know you love me. I cut you off yesterday. As I opened my eyes wide at her perspicacity, she gave a meaning chuckle, while still strained by her tragedy, yet with that lightness of being loved, as if meaning in a mock tone, ‘I am a shrink you see. And a good one’. Though as the irony of the implicit rib the chuckle intended to convey struck in view of yesterday’s mishap, she cast her eyes down. I got beside, and we kissed.