In spite of knowing I was early, I rushed into the coffee shop. I needed that time, more than ever. I needed to be calm, composed, and not to come across as needy, which I usually did. I walked up to the table at the corner and sat facing the door in anticipation.
I was a regular customer at the café and as usual, I was greeted by Rahul, the waiter, who came to me with a smile and familiarity which was built over the last four years.
“Hello ma’am, you are early today. Should I bring you your usual order?” he asked dutifully.
“Hi Rahul, not yet, please. Just get me a glass of water. I am waiting for a friend and we will order together” I replied trying not to show my excitement and nervousness.
“Sure Ma’am” he turned around and left, giving a second glance to my special dress and not so normal makeup I was wearing.
Friend! Why did I have to say that? Pradeep was not just another friend. I am sure even Rahul guessed it from the way I was dressed. But what could I say otherwise? Over the years, everyone in this shop had become familiar with me wearing a business suit for client meetings. Any change in my attire was would obviously attract a reaction. I had no reason to tell Rahul that the one I was waiting for was my ex-boyfriend and ex- live-in partner.
The last three days were tough for me. All my friends advised me not to meet Pradeep. Even Roopali, my “soul-mate” ended up giving me disappointed looks as I struggled to choose a dress and for the occasion. I could sense her disapproval and knew she wanted to say something. But every time she opened her mouth and I looked at her, she chose to shut it and keep quiet.
I would never mind Roopali saying something as she has always been my pillar of strength. She had stood by my side when Pradeep had decided to walk away from my life. She would visit me every morning, push me out of the bed, and make sure I went to work. She saw my studies suffer and made sure I completed my Masters. I would spend my days on the bed listening to sad romantic songs and do nothing. Weekend evenings with friends changed too. Instead of chatting and dancing, which I loved, I started to drink and smoke a little too much. After realizing that nothing could make me happy, one fine day, Roopali stormed into my flat and started living with me. Over the last two years, she helped me get my life back on track. She helped me start my NGO and even got her fiancee’s company to choose my NGO, for their CSR program, to ensure my funding. So, if anyone had earned the right to disapprove and question my decision to meet Pradeep, it was Roopali.
My thoughts were interrupted by the bell at the entrance of the café. I held my breath as Pradeep walked in and his eyes searched for me. I was nervous and that made me instinctively wave at him as though he wouldn’t have recognized me on his own.
He waved back and started walking towards me with a smile. It would have taken him just a few seconds to bridge the gap, but enough for me to relive all my memories. Back then when we started dating, how we first began with exchanging smiles. Then came handshakes followed by hugs. Eventually, we graduated to kisses, even in public. And then the whole process in reverse as the distance between us grew during our last few days together.
“Hey Vaishali, you look amazing! It’s been a long time. How are you doing?” He started like he was just meeting another friend.
“I am good Pradeep. How are you doing? What brings you back to Mumbai?” I sounded feeble to even myself and thanked God I was sitting instead of being on my weak knees right now.
“I am good too. Visiting Mumbai just for a week. Hence decided to call you as soon as my plan was fixed and I landed in Mumbai” His eyes looked into mine as added “At first I thought you wouldn’t be keen on meeting me”
“Why wouldn’t I meet you? Besides the fact that I spent two years of my life earning to support us during our relationship and then you walked out of my life as soon as you got an opportunity in Bangalore” his downcast eyes helped me put braver front instead of showing what I felt from inside.
“That’s unfair. We agreed not to fight” He sighed. “And I also remember I did my MBA because you insisted and it was you who volunteered to work and complete your studies through correspondence. Since we hadn’t told our families that we were living-in we had no other way to manage our bills without one of us taking a job. We also promised each other not to make the choices we made together into sacrifices to be used for fights, remember?”
“And we never did, till we were together. I insisted you do your MBA as I thought at least one of us should have a higher degree in order to attract contributions towards the NGO we had dreamed of. Was that a facade from your end or was that also the foolishness that I fell for the dreams you showed for all the social work we would do together? Was it just a tool to get this foolish girl to fall in love with the only guy in college who cared for animals like I do? You just didn’t walk out on me; you left all our plans for starting the NGO in shambles too. It took me a full year to get everything back in order to start the NGO when we were just weeks away from starting it together”
His downcast eyes helped me continue.
“You just didn’t lie to me; you lied to your mom too. I will never forget how happy she was when we told her that instead of becoming a cut-throat corporate honcho, like your father, you will be following her footsteps. All our plans and her dreams meant nothing to you?”
“Well Vaishali, maybe that was the problem! It was only about your NGO” he replied weakly.
“Yeah right! I heard this version too. You claimed that in all our time together in college and our sharing the flat while you completed your MBA, everything for me was for the NGO only. Do you know how those made me feel? Like I was the one forcing you to work for the NGO. All the time I spent washing your clothes, cooking meals for us, maintaining a flat where you would just come and sleep, all that I did for you was to get your help with my NGO! I am sure you would have told everyone that I was fucking you also just to make sure you and your mother help me out with my NGO plans!”
I poured every ounce of anger I had in my heart and it showed when he winced. We never used words like “sex” and “fucking” between us. It was always “Making Love”. The thought brought it all back in a flash. Yes, it was always love between us… even between the sheets. And all my anger fizzled out with a sigh. Do I still love him? I shuddered at the thought.
“I deserve your anger. You can shout and do anything which makes you feel better, Vaishali. I will not utter a word or walk away this time” He sounded sincere like he always did when using this soft tone.
“Why are you here Pradeep and why did you want to meet me after all these years, when you didn’t even bother calling me once?” I was tired after the outburst.
“I will answer every question you want but didn’t we decide this meeting was to catch up on the years we were apart instead of complaining and fighting over why we parted ways?” That soft tone again.
Before either of us could say further, Rahul came to our rescue to take the order. I took the opportunity also to go to the restroom and compose myself. Coffee was served as I came back and I sat down with a smile finally.
“So tell me, what really brought you to Mumbai again? How is your startup doing? I heard you were getting your second round of investment. Let me hear all about your success story” I switched to a neutral topic.
“Yes, we are. That’s what brought me to Mumbai too. Starting tomorrow, I have meetings and conferences scheduled for the whole of the week. The dream has really shaped well. Do you remember Rohit and Vishal from my MBA days? The three of us have come together as an awesome team. Would you believe we would be raising 1 million dollars this round! Our valuation will be shooting like a rocket and we will be brushing shoulders with the big startups soon. Bangalore is truly a dream destination for Start-Ups. Even for NGOs, raising funds in Bangalore is much easier than getting it from the business houses here in Mumbai. You should visit it sometime”
“I know I know. Even companies, which have contributed till now in our NGO, have their Head Offices in Bangalore and are headed by young upcoming guns like you” Was that an invitation, and did I just agree to it? I had replied without realizing it.
“So, besides the NGO, how is life? Are you seeing anybody? Just asking”
“The NGO has been my only life. Most of the time, I stay back for work till late and even my weekends are all about work and only work. I usually don’t find a reason to come back during the evenings or staying at home during weekends. This ensures I don’t have time or need for a boyfriend. Even my friends have stopped hooking me up with anyone because even when I did go out on a date, I could never take out time for a second one. It never felt the same with anyone” The last sentence slipping out before I could stop it.
“What about you? I am sure Bangalore has a lot to offer to a young hotshot bachelor like you” I put it back on him before he could realize how lonely I was.
“It’s kind of same as you. The first couple of years was primarily about the Start-Up only. Dated a few times but nothing serious. There were enough successful single entrepreneurs out there so no one wanted to invest too much time in a guy who may or may not turn out to be a success” He paused before adding “Finally did meet someone and kind of turned into something serious last year”
“Oh wow. So happy for you! What’s her name? Tell me about her” I asked hiding my sudden wave of jealousy.
“Her name is Deepti. She is also working in a tech Start-Up like me. We met over drinks a few times and then kind of started seeing each other more often”
“So who proposed this time? Did you chicken out like you did with me?”
“When will you forgive me for that” he replied with a laugh. “I did the proposal this time. I went the whole mile by taking her to a candlelight dinner, flowers, and champagne, everything romantic that can be conjured up. She said yes in spite of her reservations initially”
“Reservations?” I enquired hopefully.
“Yeah, she didn’t want to commit to a full-fledged relationship or engagement. She preferred an open relationship and wanted her own freedom. It’s the same even till date. So we agreed mid-way. She didn’t have to move in with me and could go out on occasional dates whenever she felt the need with no questions from me” He replied sheepishly.
“Oh, I can’t believe a possessive guy like you is doing that. You never let me go out alone with even our common friends for work and now you are allowing your girlfriend to go out on dates! Bangalore has changed you for good, it seems” I laughed at his discomfort.
“What do I say? Loneliness got to me. To be honest, her quest for freedom reminded me of you. She reminded me of you in many ways. When my mom met her for the first time, she said, no matter how much I try she will not be able to replace you in spirit even if I get a carbon copy of you. You know, my mom never forgave me for breaking up with you. She always felt she lost out on a daughter in you because of my foolishness. She wanted to call and talk to you but never did as she was not sure if you would be interested or not”
“Oh, you should have asked her to call me. You know how much I am fond of her. She was also the mother I never had. I would have loved her guidance and support in my work too. It was foolish of me too for not calling her” I replied sincerely. I was always grateful for the love Pradeep’s mother showered on me ever since she came to know I had lost my mother as a young child.
“Vaishali, to be honest, it’s only my mother who asked me to meet you. She understood how lonely and lost I am without you. I may have moved into a 3 bedroom flat now, but that’s all what it is – a flat! I need you to make it into a home. I need your nurturing love, your care, and your support in all my goals. Come to Bangalore with me. I will break up with Deepti and we can get married. You can join an NGO in Bangalore and maybe even start a new one again once we settle down. I need to repay for the support you provided me during my MBA too. I will get my company to invest in your new initiative and even help you whenever I can. I missed you more than I understood myself” Seeing me at a loss of words and unsure he continued.
“All my doubts were cleared as soon as I saw you today. As I walked in, I knew you were the one I always wanted. You look more beautiful than you ever did in those silly pajamas and t-shirts you used to wear at home when we lived together. We just need to forget all the aspects of the last few weeks together three years back and all will be normal like old days” I was speechless.
“Come to Bangalore with me and complete my life” He begged in all earnest.
I looked down on my now cold coffee before looking up.
“Pradeep, tell your mom I will always be thankful for the love she gave me and I will contact her soon. With regards to what you just asked, do you know how long I waited to hear those words? Before you moved out, whenever I saw you packing, I wished you would ask me to pack and join you. And every day since then I waited for your call. When you kicked off your company when you got the investment you needed when you bought the apartment and even when I came to know you are dating someone. I waited for these words. For the last three years, every day, every second of my life. And now that you have said it, I know my dreams can come true” He moved his hand to hold my hand and encouraged by me agreeing.
“But…” I pulled back my hand leaving him a little surprised.
“But, I am sorry, Pradeep, I can’t come back to you. I won’t be joining you in Bangalore” Finally after all these years I could see the stunned look on his face which I had seen in the mirror when he told me he is leaving.
“Why Vaishali, what happened?”
“I don’t think I should be giving you any explanation. Maybe someday you will figure out on your own. If you don’t, then my sympathies will always be with the girl who finally marries you” I sounded more confident than I ever did in our relationship.
“And with regard to repaying me, you already did it by calling me, meeting me, and saying the things I needed to hear. Just pay for this coffee and our accounts will be settled forever”
I got up and walked out. Standing at the door, I turned back to see him for one last time. He was still sitting there with slumped shoulders and two full cups of coffee.
I wiped the single tear from the edge of my eyes, smiled at Rahul, who was looking at me inquisitively and waved him a bye before stepping out of the Coffee Shop.