“Have you taken the morning dose?” she tapped his shoulder, shifting her body weight on the walker.
“Huh?” he mumbled absentmindedly, flicking the article to scroll up on the screen.
“Uff! Mahesh. This is too much. You know this has to be taken first thing in the morning before”. He didn’t let her finish.
He looked at her, smiled and said, “There’s only one thing a man needs first thing in the morning!” He winked at her.
“Incorrigible you!” She replied in mock horror, her cheeks turning a slight pink. He always had had that effect on her. His smile and his words. As she sat to his left, a grimace broke out on her calm face, she tightened her jaw, breathed in hard and closed her eyes, waiting for the pain to pass.
He stroked her hand. “Take slow breaths, Ke. Breathe in and out and it will pass.” As it did, Ke faced him and said, “For the foibles of our youth…we pay dearly.” Many many moons ago, an impulsive decision to join a pole dance class led to a bad fall, a hairline cracked knee and a lifelong ache that got worse.
He continued stroking her hand till her breathing returned to normal. The others didn’t bother them by staring; it wasn’t an unusual sight. To see them hold hands. Ruffle each other’s hair or just look at each other and smile. They did that a lot.
After Ke took in one spoonful of her morning cereal, Mahesh decided he wasn’t done fooling around. “So tell me more about the other foibles of your youth? He asked, slicing the egg white into four quarters and sprinkled salt and pepper on them.
“Really, now. You are one to ask? She returned his naughty gaze with a bemused look. And then looked away. She could never hold her gaze with him. He could just keep looking without blinking for a very long time.
“The muesli is different. They’ve changed the brand. It’s good. And the milk is chilled…just the way I like it.” She gently stirred her spoon in the bowl aware of his eyes on her. She knew he wouldn’t let it go. He never did.
“I’m waiting,” he said quietly, the egg whites lying belly up on the plate waiting to be pierced.
“This is ridiculous, Mahesh. What’s gotten into you?” She hoped false anger would deter him.
“No. I want to know what other silly things you did in your youth. Humour me, will you?”
“Pole dancing. Inking my body too many times. Getting drunk and dancing on the table. That’s all that comes to mind. Happy?”
“I thought you would say I was the silliest thing you indulged in”. Having said it, he turned his attention to the now cold egg whites, which tasted awful.
Neither of them spoke for a while. They ate in silence, sitting at the table in the far end of the room facing the huge glass window with the view of the green valley below. Casual chatter from other tables didn’t reach either of them. Both lost in deep thought.
Please don’t leave.
No. I have to.
Just give me…some…time. Please. Don’t just go away like that…
Time doesn’t pale anything. Neither does it heal any wound. Both remembered every word, every wound and how much they hurt.
“You weren’t the silliest thing I indulged in.” She stood next to his chair in the garden where he sat with his feet propped up on the stool. A heavy brown shawl covered his legs. She tried to mask the grief she felt, her hand clutching the walker tight.
“I know, Ke. I was just messing with you. You know me, don’t you. I’ve always done that.”
She sat next to him and leaned back. “You’ve never cared for me, the way I did for you. That’s why you’ve always teased me. You can joke about it. I can’t.” She stared at the clear blue sky, resting her head. The past weighing heavy in her thoughts, the clear sky mocking her cloudy thoughts.
“Then why didn’t you leave him?” His voice low, almost a whisper like the last smoke rising from a dying ember. It hurt to say it. “I was waiting for you to. But you didn’t.”
Simple few words threaded together into a seemingly simple question. But the simplest questions often have a difficult answer. The puzzling labyrinth of the simple question. Why didn’t she leave? She allowed herself to be trapped for years.
“Maybe I would have, if you’d told me how you felt? You never did. So … ” she left her sentence incomplete.
“You are really something, Ke. Clearly nothing changes with age. At 60 you’re still as weird as you were at 40.” He sounded angry and hurt.
“How can someone decide the course of one’s life based on what the other feels? Tell me.” He turned towards her and looked straight at her.
This time she was ready to meet his glare.
“I see no reason why not? If you had told me what you felt, I could have taken a step. But no…”
He interrupted her. “Your marriage was dead, Ke. You should have left that man a long time ago. You just didn’t have the guts for it. Coward!” He almost spat the word out.
“Oh! So now we are name calling…are we? Yes, I am gutless. A coward. I was terrified of taking a step. But I’m not the only coward here.”
It was her turn to be vicious and she had no intention of sparing him.
“You ran away because you were terrified of what you felt for me. You were scared to commit. Your wayward life of sleeping around was easy. You didn’t want to complicate. So you ran away. Not just from me but from what you felt.”
She paused to catch her breath. And then continued.
“But life has a way of making you deal with unsolved issues. That’s why of all the assisted living complexes in the country, you had to walk into mine.”
It was a horrible twist to the famous line but she couldn’t resist saying it. She did that a lot. Use famous lines from books and movies to convey what she felt.
“Is this where I say…frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn? And walk away in a huff.” And he began to laugh aloud and she joined in. She loved that about him. The way he could diffuse a tense moment. Making her laugh and the fact that he too used movie dialogues to spar with her. That’s how it had started. Almost 20 years ago.
“Of course now you wouldn’t be able to walk off in a huff. Your ankle wouldn’t let you.”
They laughed some more. Loud and carefree. He reached out and held her hand, squeezing it gently.
“But seriously Mahesh, it would have felt good if you told me. Just once.” She patted his wrinkled palm with an equally wrinkled one of her own and smiled thinking of the times when both were firm and smooth. She bundled his palm in her hand, rubbing his skin with her thumb, feeling the space between the fingers, slipping her fingers into his, massaging the underside of his palm and then just held on to it. Like she’d never let go of it.
They sat together, quiet…his hand tucked in her. His eyes closed with a smile on his lips, as though content to be where he was. And she playing with his fingers.
“Madam. Sir?” The nurse stood near them. She looked worried. “It’s time to go. It’s the last bus.” She was twisting a key chain on her finger.
“You go ahead. We are staying back,” Mahesh replied. “Please don’t worry. You must leave while you can.”
The nurse looked at Ke, horrified. She reached out and patted the young woman’s hand. “Go. Don’t delay”.
“Mahesh, don’t you think it’s time to go inside. It’s getting chilly”. She stood up slowly and held on to her walker waiting for him. Once in their room, Mahesh pulled her close. He had been awfully quiet during the walk from the garden to the room.
“Lie down next to me. There’s something I need to say. It’s time, Ketaki.” He seldom used her full name and when he did, it was to say something heavy.
Last time he called her Ketaki was in a terse message.
I’m leaving. Tke care. God bless you, Ketaki.
She snuggled closer in his comforting and familiar embrace and looked at him with the hint of a question.
“I’ve never stopped loving you. Never. I was stupid that I went away. I loved you so much that it hurt. But something told me you would never leave him. So it was easier to pretend you meant nothing. But you meant everything to me. I thought of you, only you every single day.”
The words were just tumbling out. Ke tried to put her hand over his lips to stop the deluge.
“I know. I know…please don’t…” it hurt to see him so grieved.
“No. Let me say it. I loved you like mad. And I was foolish to run away from it. I should have stayed. But…all that’s so far in the past.” He paused and closed his eyes. She hid her face in his chest, sobbing quietly. The futility of wishing the past had been different.
He continued, “But it isn’t happenstance that I landed up here. I knew where you were.”
She closed her eyes, not stopping the tears that flowed. Holding him closer. Tighter.
“I never stopped loving you either. You, your memory…and the memory of the time we spent together kept me going. And about you arriving here, well, darling, I believe I played a role in that too. Why do you think I announced it on Facebook and told your friends where I am.” She smiled back at him, love shinning in her eyes, as she pulled him closer.
He lifted her face gently and kissed her.
“The dogs are barking! STOP. STOP THE MACHINE.” The voice yelled out. “Get the men. I’m sure someone is trapped underneath the rubble. HURRY. AND STOP THE BLOODY MACHINE. THEY COULD BE ALIVE!”
It was five hours before the workers had carefully and painstakingly lifted one boulder after another. The earthquake had been devastating.
“Sir?” The workman called the supervisor. And pointed to what had been unearthed.
An aged couple, holding each other in a tight embrace locked in a kiss. Silence hung over the site. Even the dogs stopped barking. The wind fell. As though no one wanted to disturb the lovers. Later that evening, the duo were cremated. Together, locked in an embrace.
It didn’t seem right to separate them.