Joe, She And Meringue
Joe, She And Meringue
“One meringue please,” she ordered. She was in a hurry and tapped her fingers on the baker’s counter. She wore a ring on every finger, each an expensive gem worth millions and a Rolex wristwatch only added to the sheen. Her clothes reflected an air of aristocracy. Why she would order a meringue from such a regular bakery?
The baker quickly got her parcel. She gave him a royal tip, which was double the price of the meringue. As the baker thanked his lords for such a customer early in the morning, she got into a Mercedes and drove away.
The streets were all familiar, even though she was visiting this little town in Tamil Nadu after six long years. She tried to locate the major landmarks and was glad when she was able to do so successfully.
“How much time more, Mum?” asked an impatient voice from the backseat.
“Patience, honey,” she replied. “You go to sleep. The hotel is not far now.”
“I just want to see Dad,” the little kid whined.
“He is out with the property dealer, right?” she pacified her daughter. “I will drop you at the hotel with nanny and Dad will come see you as soon as he is free.”
Once she had dropped them at the hotel, she texted a quick message to her husband. “I will be back soon. Mia and Nanny are at the hotel. Go see them as soon as you are free, Mr. Archaeologist. Love you.”
She and Fred had been planning this trip for months. The whole setup was ready back home, in Washington. Fred had set off to complete the last of the formalities early this morning. She thought she would go see her friend quickly. The last time she had come here to meet Joe, things had been different and she had promised to make things okay. She would fulfill her promise today. There was a feeling of closure as she drove down to Joe’s store. It wouldn’t be the same but at least she was ready now.
“You should go to Wharton, absolutely,” Joe had said over a decade back.
“Don’t be stupid, Joe,” she had retorted. “I wouldn’t be able to afford it anyway. I just need to work right now.”
“You can work part time there,” Joe had counter attacked. “Besides, you have me. I will send you money every month. That would be enough, right?”
She was taken aback. “Why would you send me money, eh? Earning lots from that stationery store of yours?”
“I earn enough to fund your pocket money for a year. You get internships after the first year, right?” he asked. “Big money in a year, see.”
“Joe, I…” she mumbled.
“Get the scholarship. At least give it a shot, now that you have a backup. You can go tell Uncle Joseph about it,” Joe said. “I will talk to him too.”
Two years later, when she bagged a job as an investment banker in a top notch bank, the first person she called had been Joe.
“I am in, I am in, I am in!” she had squealed.
“I knew you would be!” Joe had sounded as happy as her; or even happier. In these two years, she had understood how much Joe meant to her. She wanted to tell him that.
“I am coming home in April,” she said. “You will be there right? Or will you be off backpacking to some mountain or forest?”
“Well, I will have to be here, waiting for your highness,” Joe had giggled. “Do I have a choice?”
She had felt exhilarated after the phone call. For years, when she had been rotting in that abusive home of hers with her alcoholic father and an old preachy grandmother, it was Joe who had kept her sane. Back to back scholarships in school and college had helped her secure her future. And now Wharton! She would never have to ask her father for money and nor listen to her grandmother. She was free, forever. Now she could live her life uninhibitedly. It was all Joe’s doing. A tentative friendship formed over meringues at school had helped her cope with the worst and come out stronger. She did not want to let Joe go anywhere.
“Why do you keep saying no to all these gorgeously handsome guys?” her roommates had asked with chagrin.
“I already have someone in my life,” she had smiled.
Had it always been so? Was it since school that she had been in love with Joe? From the day Joe had shared his meringue with her at lunch when her grandmother hadn’t packed food for her seven year old granddaughter, the afternoon when Joe’s parents had welcomed her as their own, the surprise parties Joe had thrown on every birthday of hers which became regular rather than surprises and those long afternoons when they would sit at Joe’s family store and study, talk, laugh together to those growing up years when they would watch movies holding hands, go for dates and even peck each other on their cheeks; it all seemed connected. Meringue was an intimate witness to their relationship. Both of them never got over their love for this bakery product.
It didn’t matter how different their worlds were now. She didn’t care that Joe still stayed Coonoor, running that same stationary store. That stationary store had been her solace in those long, dreary afternoons when her dad made it unbearable at home. She would help Joe expand his business and marry him and have babies and life would be wonderful. She couldn’t wait to tell Joe how much she loved him.
It was a long, impatient drive but she finally reached Joe’s place. It was still as warm and cozy, as had been years back. She felt a sense of belonging and had tears in her eyes, as she saw that old billboard. She parked the car and entered the store.
“Aunt Sharon,” screamed a five year old kid.
“John, my sweetheart, my pumpkin,” she cooed and picked up the little boy in her arms. “I got you lots of presents!”
As the little boy squealed in delight and planted a kiss on her cheek, she saw Anita. The same face which evoked hatred years back was now a dear friend’s.
“We thought you’d never arrive!” Anita smiled and hugged her.
“How are you, Anita? I am sorry I haven’t been here for some time,” she said.
“It has not been easy for you too, these years, I know. But you have done so much across a continent, Sharon. Even my own family couldn’t have done so much,” Anita’s voice choked up.
She didn’t want to recall all of that. “Can I see him?” she asked.
“Yes, why don’t you go sit inside? I will join you in a jiffy. You need your alone time too,’ smiled Anita and wiping her tears, took baby John away.
As she entered the room, she felt nervous. As nervous as she had been when she had come to tell Joe she loved him.
“There you are, Miss Wharton,” Joe exclaimed. “I am so, so, so proud of you! You made it from Coonoor to Washington, eh?” He scooped her up in his arms and hugged her bone crushingly. Their faces were so close that her heart fluttered like a bird. His warm hands around her waist, his cheek touching hers and his amazing smell were enough to break her restraint. Her lips circled over his, her hands grasped his shoulders and she just couldn’t stop.
It took her a while to realize that Joe was just trying to push her away. When she did understand, she pulled herself back. Rejection stung her heart and she stood motionless.
“What were you doing?” Joe gasped.
She just stood there, unable to answer.
“You have lost it! Sharon, I love you, but not as you seem to want. Sweetheart, what is wrong? I had no clue!” said Joe helplessly.
“I am sorry,” she mumbled. “I thought we were…” she couldn’t complete her sentence.
Joe held her hands and kissed them softly. “Sweetheart, we have always been friends, right? We are family. Besides, I wanted to tell you about someone special. I am so sorry, honey.”
” So, you are seeing someone?” she whispered. ” You are with somebody.”
” I love her, Sharon,” said Joe.
He went on and on about his girlfriend Anita, whom he had met last summer. He was planning to get married soon and was extremely happy in his relationship. Those words made little sense to her then and even now, years later, she wondered if she had heard everything he had been blabbering.
” More than you love me?” she asked. ” From here on, it is someone else then.”
” Of course not. Come on, you and me have a different equation. Then?” shouted Joe.
She just wanted to leave. Betrayal stung her. Finally, she realized Joe did not love her the way she wanted him to.
”Of course.Very different equation. In any case, you are happy. That is all that matters,” she answered and left the room.
Then, she met him on the wedding day. She looked at Joe and Anita and felt a shot of pain run across her heart . When she came to bid farewell, Joe took her aside and said, “You are and will be my best friend, forever. I am sorry I let you down.”
She just nodded. Joe, unable to see her so shattered, begged to be forgiven.
“There is nothing to forgive. It was I who misunderstood. You love Anita, you married her today, I want nothing more,” she had mumbled. “I just wish we would not part but now, things will be different. I need to go away and start afresh. Hopefully, I will be back soon Joe. I will back with a meringue for you. The meringues we shared all through our lives; the meringues I used to eat at Wharton to feel your presence close by. I just need to be ready for it, to share a meringue with you again,” she said.
“You are family, Sharon,” whispered Joe. “How can family go away?”
Something in her face made him stop arguing. He took a meringue from the buffet table and wrapped it in a tissue. “Come back soon,” he said, and turned away. She still didn’t know if he was just trying to hide the same tears she had on her cheeks then.
Two years passed. Joe and Anita had a baby boy and she still didn’t go to meet them. On the other hand, she met Fred, a famous archaeologist and married him. She didn’t invite Joe. Just before the wedding day, she emailed him that she is getting married in a quiet, private ceremony and she would throw a party in Coonoor later. Joe congratulated her and sent her a gift, but she knew he must have been hurt.
Things started fading away, but deep down, she felt a longing for Joe always. She didn’t know what was it that stopped her from going back to Joe. Was it her fragile ego, that Joe had chosen someone over her or was it a genuine ache over her first heartbreak from the person she considered everything?
Fred was amazing. She gradually came to realize that she could perhaps only been happy with him. Joe was her friend, whom she had wanted to be with. But a failed attempt at a relationship shouldn’t have drifted them apart. With another two years passing by, she understood that she was being plain selfish. She was happy with Fred; Joe had a family of his own. It was up to her to keep her convoluted reasons behind and embrace that person back into her life, who had done everything to rescue her from her grief and given her a new life altogether.
She called Joe that night, to tell him she would visit him soon with Fred. She was excited. Fred even bought her meringues, to celebrate the fact that she was ready to be Joe’s best friend again. She looked at Fred as he smiled and excused himself so that his wife could talk to her best friend. She wanted to tell Joe that she finally knew what love was and how much she loved Fred. Once they would visit Coonoor, all of them would be together. The last time they had spoken over the phone had been seven months back. She couldn’t wait to hear Joe’s voice again. It was a female voice that answered her call.
“Ummm….Joe?” she asked.
And that was when she knew. Joe had left her forever. He had left behind his wife, his son and their helplessness. He had also left her behind, but wasn’t it she who had distanced him? Wasn’t it her stubbornness that had kept her away from her favorite person for years? She had promised to be back but she had taken a lot of time. As she fell on the ground sobbing, she felt a crushing sense of grief; worse than the one she had felt when Joe had not kissed her back on that afternoon, a long time back. She had lost her guardian angel, her best friend, her family. “How can family go away?” She kept repeating Joe’ question in her mind and lay trembling on the floor. She wondered if she would ever get over this heartbreak and the paramount sense of loss.
However, today, when it was just Joe’s picture on the wall, she didn’t feel that chocking anguish that she had felt when Joe had died in a car crash exactly twenty six months back. Her sheer helplessness when she had sobbed uncontrollably for days was gone. She didn’t need Fred’s soothing murmurs and his protective arms to fall asleep every night. She didn’t feel guilty and scared to face Anita anymore, whom she sent money every month to run the shop and to pay John’s school fee. The Skype conversations with Anita gave her a new friend but she was unable to let go of her best friend and her undying love for him.
Yes, she loved him still. But now her love for him to take care of Anita and John, to love them as much as Joe had, to be their family. She was ready to be Joe’s best friend again and forever. She had grown up. Family never goes away, she had learnt. She had come back to take Anita and John to the United States with her. Anita would join a job at Washington and John would go to school with Mia. Fred had taken care of the sale of the store here and they would go home in two days. Yes, their home. They would be together, just as family should be.
She stood in front of Joe’s picture and placed the meringue on the table.
“Joe, I came back,” she smiled.