The Eighth Tile
The Eighth Tile18 mins 549 18 mins 549
They met in interesting ways, and soon became totally invested in each other. Their intensity was difficult to believe. The truth of their organic congruity frailed their attempts at propriety. How could they deny the respect that they communicated silently? And what is love if not respect and truth? How could they deny their palpable emotions and impulses? They failed miserably. Till their eyes betrayed their tears. Till Manoj broke the silence of his screaming arms. Till Jumi had to break her own walls. Till their bodies wouldn't listen to them.
They met at an NGO and were teamed on a project. They became excellent partners, cooperating with natural ease, bringing out the best in each other. Their synergy was terrific. Their connect, like that of old friends! This amazed them both, yet neither mentioned the spontaneous bonhomie. The fulfilling project ended soon. Most exchanged phone numbers and promised to stay in touch. Not these two. It was as if they'd drawn an invisible wall around them, barring informality.
Days later, bored of his loneliness, Manoj joins the local Scrabble Club. He was immediately added to their WhatsApp group. He was told that they met for friendly matches and competitions. Suited him. Six days later, there was a message---that they're meeting for friendly matches.
He reached the given address on time. There were 9 people in all. He and one other newcomer were introduced. Just then one more member arrived. All were greeting her. Manoj's back was turned. Soon, the admin brought her to introduce the newcomers.
"Mr. Manoj! You!"
"Hello, Mrs. Jumi! What a pleasant surprise!"
"Indeed! I go by Miss now, by the way.
"Not at all!"
"And this is…?"
"The other newcomer, Krupa.
"Hello, Ms. Jumi! Pleasure!"
"Ok guys…. let's start! The newcomers will initially play some old players. Fine?" the admin asks
"Jumi and Manoj may pair since they're already acquainted...Krupa can play me, Mrs. Joshi or Vimalbhai."
"Are you calling me old, Mr. Admin?"
I dare not Jumi...how did that slip out?! Let me give you fifty points in advance!"
Everybody laughs and settles down.
Jumi and Manoj automatically gravitate to a corner.
"So! Any more volunteering?"
"No, Ms. Jumi. You?"
"Well...proofreading some brochure ---from home."
"Wow! A teacher?"
"No no...I...well .. actually I .."
"You have excellent English, right? I see that, if I may say so."
"Guilty as charged, Mr. Manoj...but yours is no less, if I may! Please call me Jumi."
"Ok...deal! Shall we start?"
"Of course not! We Scrabble-toss."
"Of course. I was only pretending to be a gentleman!"
"Ha ha...you're funny, Manoj!"
"Thanks! You win...you start."
They return the single tile and pick seven, first Manoj.
"So, Jumi, how long have you been playing?!"
"Since I was in standard IV….you?"
"Same! This game was my birthday present!"
"This is...wow! Ok, here...DESTINY."
"Whoa! All seven! I'm in trouble already!"
"Ha ha…Make it TINY? Would hate to trouble you Jumi."
"Thanks... noble of you! But no backsies...I'll survive!"
"Ha ha...I'm sure you will! Hey...you have one boy no? I think he'd come once, to drop you.
"That's right...name, Deep…you?
"One girl…J for Jyoti!
"Lovely girl too."
"Don't look at me. She takes after her late mother!"
"Oh ..sorry...she must've been beautiful!"
"Ya...that she was...that she was…"
“Sorry again...did I touch a raw nerve?"
"No no, it's ok…"
"All tiles! We're both in trouble! Do all play this well?!"
"Not really... you're the only competition I got, it seems!"
"So you're the best, right?"
"May I ask a question?"
"Why do you go by Ms now?"
"Sort of...but it's ok...I started it."
"Don't say that, please! UNITE."
"You play fast, don't you? SCARED."
"So do you!"
"We're both getting good tiles...lucky."
"Are you always this honest, Jumi? Even then I'd felt so."
She stares at him, then says…"I don't know how to be dishonest."
"Really?! My professional life wasn't totally honest. MONEY."
"What were you? I know you're retired now."
"Shall we go for a coffee, Jumi? Can we quit the game?"
"We can, of course...but I don't want to...some other time perhaps?"
"No, not at all...you're ok Manoj...you too are honest...as a person..."
"I want you in my arms."
"Shit! I don't know how that came out! I'm really stupid."
"You angry?" Jumi asked.
"That I shouted?"
"That I said such a crazy thing."
"I was divorced last year. All this is too fast...but I like you….I've never met anyone like you."
"Same here… really...I've always craved candour."
"So have I...the reason I divorced.."
"We're forty plus...not like we have years of courting."
"Let's have that coffee now," Jumi says
"Are you sure? We can put this behind us."
"I don't want to put this behind us, Manoj."
"Let's have that coffee now," Manoj says.
"Shall we play another round first? Wouldn't look odd if we leave after ten minutes."
"Round over," Jumi says.
"Didn't want that coffee to get cold."
"Of course," Manoj says.
"We'll leave in five. Let's be silent till then."
"Ok. May I stare into your eyes? Silently of course. You know I used to stare at you there?"
"You don't plan to observe silence, do you?!"
"Naah...ok ok, I will...hate to trouble you."
"You didn't answer me."
"Not chivalry... concern."
"Thank you. We're friends no?
"No...I want us to be more."
She didn't say anything.
"You didn't answer me Jumi."
"It wasn't a question no…"
"Would you like us to be more? We felt close last time, didn't we? There... interrogative tone...one bonus question too."
"Ha ha...very generous, Manoj."
"Avoiding the questions, are we?"
"You divorced last year, but have been emotionally divorced for about five no?"
"Twelve...let's get out."
"Won't they wonder?"
"Hello guys...interrupting... we'll abandon you a bit early, ok?!"
"Just say 'leave' Jumi. No seven-letter words. Don't frighten novices."
"Bye Manoj. Great knowing you…having you join us. Keep coming. And do drop Jumi home if you can! She's very dear to all of us!"
"Bye guys," all shout.
They were walking in the street now.
"That 'Dear-to-us' thing...g I'll
great concern and affection they have for you!"
"Yes, they really do. Mrs. Admin’s been like a mother. I come to meet them more than to play Scrabble!"
"Wow! Beautiful! Could feel the vibes!"
"Admin was right."
"Don't use seven-letter words Jumi."
Both burst out laughing and enter a nice cozy restaurant.
"I'm a tea girl...you?"
"Coffee more, but tea's fine."
"Calling the waiter, ok?"
"Oops ... behind me...can you gesture please, Manoj?"
"Calling...Gesture...both seven...I think I'll safely beckon him."
Both laugh. The waiter comes.
"Two coffees please."
The waiter glides away.
"Why coffee, Jumi? Not tea?
"I like coffee now. But tea doesn't leave..."
"It's ok...have tea. We'll both have tea."
"Thank you Manoj. Means a lot to me."
"You wanted to say something no?"
"Yes ...for years I didn't divorce because of my son. My husband didn't mind either way. He easily lies about everything. Corrupt and promiscuous. I didn't know initially. When I learned, Deep was ten. He understood things at nineteen; also understood why I stayed with his father for years. He was in tears. In guilt. Now he's ok. But his father loves him. He loves his father too. Two years ago, our marital fights led to talks of divorce. Deep broke. That night he told me, Don't worry about me, mumma. Or about yourself. I'll stay with you. Will you marry again? I'd said I don't plan to, ever. He was happy. He didn't want me to. I'd promised him."
"I'm sorry Jumi. About everything."
"Does the promise mean a lot even now?"
"I don't know. It did then. But nothing has changed since. Except that Deep has a girlfriend now."
"Deep is very protective of me...he'll never want to see me hurt again."
"I won't hurt you Jumi. Even Admin's threatened me. Don't worry."
"I know Manoj. From the way you carried those boys. You don't have the strength to hurt a fly."
"You know me well."
"We didn't talk personal, but we were together half a day for a week. I didn't find anything negative in you."
"Neither did I."
"I can't marry you."
"Don't want an affair either, Manoj."
"Damn it! Don't be so good! Kidnap me or something. I'll keep Admin uncle at bay."
"I can kidnap you, but I won't."
"I know. I want to drink tea."
Manoj orders two cups.
"This a lockjam?" Jumi asks.
"Must be. Has seven."
"O Manoj...my dear Manoj...you became dear to me then only. Such an antithesis of my ex-husband you are. So I made sure I never took your number."
"Ya...guess so. But why didn't you? I'd have given it."
"Then why didn't you?!"
He stares at her.
"Oh...ok...I get it. Thank you again."
"I want to break this wall between us."
"I know. Even I hate walls. But I'm sorry."
"Don't be. Let's share silence in tea."
"They have tea silently, looking at each other's moist eyes."
Some hovering waiters quietly disappear.
"My arms are screaming, Jumi."
"Don't you respect me?"
"I'll mute them."
He was keeping the cup down. She takes his hand in hers and caresses it with such tenderness that he breaks down totally.
"Is this how we'll end up?" she asks.
"Up to us."
"Give me time...let me talk with Deep."
"Ok. You know, I could've got your number any time. I didn't. I respected your unspoken wishes. But when Scrabble reunited us, I got my sign. My restraint broke. I didn't care for propriety or for the walls around you. I care for you. Let me be yours, Jumi.."
"We enjoyed each other's company so much no, Manoj...in spite of cancer all around us...I felt like a college girl around you. Even now I do."
Manoj put his head down on the table.
"Didn't know you were divorced."
Jumi lowered her head, her loose unkempt hair brushing his.
"Hope flickered when you said your wife's no more. Selfish no?"
A waiter passed by, coughing. They sat back, hands still held over the table.
"Not selfish...seven, though…not playing Scrabble with you!"
He bursts out laughing.
"Let's part now... we'll talk later. Deep's friends are coming over."
They exchange numbers the digital way.
"Drop you? I know your area. Mine’s beyond," Manoj offers.
"A hug first?"
"Always, Manoj... whatever happens."
They hug her softness pressing on his chest muscles. His eyes question.
"Sorry...was spontaneous...but I didn't feel any shame or shyness."
"I didn't feel awkward either, Jumi"
"It's love no?" Manoj asks.
Both laughingly enter a cab, hand in hand. She says she'll alight ahead of her building. He understands.
After some time, Jumi calls. They exchange greetings.
"Deep's gang's here... might get late and tired...will talk tomorrow...ok no?"
"Of course! I'll play Scrabble alone."
Both burst out laughing.
Next day she calls him in a pained tone.
"We have to meet."
"That promise to Deep doesn't matter now."
"Wow!! And that makes you sad?!"
"Let's meet, Manoj. We are over."
"What?! Ok...where? When?"
"Where you'd dropped me. Now good?"
"Sure. Give me fifteen. Will call from the cab."
Manoj picks her up soon. He touches her hand in the cab. She removes it. He lets her. They go to the same restaurant. There's no other customer.
"So, what's it? Talk to me."
"Deep's girlfriend's name is Jyoti."
"Wow! Small world! Common name, though."
"They are very serious."
"My baby's in love?! And I don't know? How could she?! Are you sure? It's the same one?"
"Don't go ballistic! Many girls are that way. Nothing wrong. She's wonderful. Deep's made a great choice. I'd love to see them married. And ya, it's the same one."
"All girls are not that way. You're not."
"Ya ...they get divorced."
Both become silent. Tea arrives. They sip tears silently. The waiter quietly switches off the hanging lamp. Both put their hands on the table. After an eternity, Jumi breaks the silence.
"We shall always have Scrabble. I'll let you take eight til..." she breaks down even before finishing.
Manoj clasps her hand, kissing it softly, repeatedly. She shifts a bit forward.
"I'll take only four tiles. Give you two turns. Half my points too. I am a CA, remember?"
They turn silent again and keep staring at each other.
The waiter quietly brings two coffees.
"On the house, sir. Madam."
They're alone again. Talking without words. Lot of noise their eyes make. Coffee helps their loud silences quiet down."
"This is crazy, Jumi."
"I'm ready for an affair..." Jumi says.
"I don't want a bloody affair with you!"
"I don't want anyone else in my life now. I want to die in your arms. And live in them before that happens," Jumi continues.
He frees his hand from her hand, leans forward and pulls her head gently towards his leaning head. They embrace passionately over the table, their ears and temples rubbing and burning. They melt in orgasm-like ecstasy, his lips daintily finding hers, but not kissing. She opens her lips and delicately invites his tongue into a rupturing union with hers.
They stay in that divine rapture of frozen time. Nobody coughs this time.
Soon, both sit back. They order tea.
"Let them marry. Let's marry too. I'll convince them. I'll buy a flat in your building. Your son will have his mother. If they behave, we'll even invite them on our honeymoon…I won't scold your daughter-in-law if you agree. And you get to take eight tiles."
"Do you even know what you're saying?! They'll be siblings if we marry!"
"Ok then... we'll let them marry first."
"Don't joke Manoj. This is not done in our society."
"I'm not joking. Besides, how the hell do they become siblings if we marry? Give me one good reason except ‘that's-the-way-it-is’ and I'll do whatever you say. Disappear, affair, Scrabble.."
"I want to die in your arms right now."
"I want you to live in my arms forever. We'll find a way. There is always a way. That's the eighth tile..."