Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Voices in My Head - 10

I Learn More about Vikram

The workweek was unexciting. I was on a new project, part of a large team with a narrow role to play. Vikram had moved back to his department, and I didn’t speak to him all week, except for waving at him once in the cafeteria.
However, I got some good news from Raghav.
“I’m coming over next week,” he said as soon as I answered the phone.
“What? But why?”
“That’s welcoming!”
“Sorry. I’m just surprised because you were just here – what, ten days ago? Hope nothing’s wrong?”
“Nope. I’m coming for work – got a couple of meetings to attend in Delhi.  I have to be there Thursday and Friday, so I’m coming over Wednesday night and going back on Monday. In fact, I’m trying to make them give me a couple of days off so that I can stay longer, but let’s see how that works out.”
“That’s awesome! I didn’t think I would see you again so soon.”
“I got that the first time,” he drawled.

“He’s coming! My Raghav is coming. I will see him again!”
“Stop being so hyper,” chided Mandakini. 
“When did you find out?” I said aloud.
“Oh, a couple of days ago.”
“And you’re telling me… now?”
“What does this mean?” wondered Miki. “He always used to call me as soon as anything happened. Why did he take two days to tell me?”
“Maybe he’s mad I srefused him,” suggested Mandakini.
Raghav only said, “Well, yeah. I’ve been busy, you know.”
“All right.”
“Come on, what’s up?”
“Nothing. Just feels a little weird that you didn’t call me up right away.”
“I’ve been busy, all right? I’ve been working till midnight and reporting to work at eight in the morning all this week. I even worked through last weekend.”
He laughed and changed the subject. Raghav wasn’t good at apologies – either making them or accepting them. He started making enthusiastic plans for our next meeting, and my lingering doubts vanished. 

But Raghav wouldn’t be here for another week, and I again had a weekend to pass alone…
“Alone? But Vikram suggested a movie?” Mandakini pointed out.
“But he didn’t talk to me in office the entire week. I can’t sit around waiting for him to call.”
“You think he won’t call?”
“Let’s try not to think about it.”
I decided to buy some books to tide me over at least one lonely weekend. Also, it was getting cold – I needed a warm jacket, formal enough to wear to work. I checked my bank balance at work. I had a little over four thousand rupees left and one more week to go. I could afford to buy the jacket and maybe a couple of books and barely make it till I got paid again. The prospect didn’t terrify me: I was used to it. I could count on my mother to bail me out if I ran short, but I hadn’t reached that stage yet and didn’t expect to.
I spent most of the Saturday washing clothes, tidying up, and cooking lunch. In the afternoon I visited my favourite bookstore at the mall. I spent a couple of pleasant hours browsing through novels and reading a graphic novel on the helpfully provided sofa. I filled my basket with a dozen books, and sat on the sofa and sorted through them carefully. I selected two to take home: my book ration for the month. One was a romance, the other an Agatha Christie.
I ruefully put aside the rest of the books, including a novel just out by an Indian author and a management book that was not available in paperback, and stood in line to pay for my two prizes.
I visited a couple of clothes stores and managed to get a nice black jacket – more expensive than I had expected, so that I had only a little left in my bank account – but then I expected to get paid on Tuesday.
I bought myself an orange juice and sipped it on the rickshaw on my way back. I got off outside the gates so that I could pick up groceries from the neighbourhood store. The afternoon sun rested gently on my face and bare arms and warmed me as I walked home with my bags.
Vikram called up in the evening and complained he was bored. He invited himself over. There was no mention of a movie or a drive. After the call was over, I stared at the phone and wondered where this was going.
“Is he interested romantically, or just in being friends?” said Miki.
“Maybe he isn’t sure either… just as I am not.”
“Wouldn’t it be better to know each other a little first? He barely seems to want to talk to me in the office: he’s never even asked to meet for coffee in the cafeteria…”
“He did hint that he was afraid of gossip… And I don’t entirely blame him. The whole office was buzzing about Antara and Simon lately. People seem to thrive on gossip there.”
“But still… I’m not shy of being seen with him, why should he be?”
“Maybe I’ll find out more today.”
“I think I need to move slowly and figure out my own feelings first. He’s very attractive, but do I like the guy?”
“Well, I’m definitely not in love with him. Which is probably a good thing, given his hot-and-cold behaviour…”
The doorbell rang in fifteen minutes. I opened the door and invited Vikram in. I had changed into a white sweater and my almost-new track pants, so that I wasn’t dishevelled but wouldn’t look like I had dressed up for him.
He had a yellow jacket on, which he took off to reveal a red sweater. Funny how the man managed to look attractive in such clothes.
We sat next to each other on the mattress on the floor and chatted of office matters – our new projects, the new caterers, Simon and Antara… I told him about my hunt for a new roommate.
“Why? Where’s Divya going?”
“She’s getting married in two months.”
“Divya getting married? Oh, some people will be disappointed.”
We gossiped about the guys in office who were attracted to my pretty roommate.
Then he offered himself as a candidate.
“You want to be my roommate?” I laughed.
“Why not?”
“For one, you can’t cook. I want someone who can.”
You can.”
“Exactly. I don’t want to end up being the default cook.”
He grimaced, and then asked how the search was proceeding.
“Pretty badly, as of now. I talked to one girl – Akansha in HR, do you know her? – well, now I’m trying to think of a tactful way of letting her know it’s off.”
“Why? What’s wrong with her?”
“For one, she finds the rent too expensive. She suggested three of us should share the flat so that it’s cheaper.”
“You mean she wants to share a room with someone?”
“No, she wants one girl to stay in the living room. I pointed out that it might be difficult to get someone to agree to that. Also, she seems a bit scared about staying in a flat with only me for protection.”
“Where does she stay now?”
“Oh, in a hostel. Hey, I’ve got an idea. Why don’t you invite her to be your roommate? You can give her your bedroom and move to the living room, and she’ll be well protected with a strong young male around.”
“What a naughty thing to say!” He laughed loudly.
I looked at him with interest, masking my study with a wide grin. I hadn’t suggested anything risqué. Was he a prude, or was he imagining innuendo where none was intended?
But he was so cute. With his large brown eyes and floppy hair, he looked like a friendly dog. His lips were red and looked immensely kissable. I looked back quickly into his eyes, but realised he had noticed me staring at his mouth. I looked away.
“Did you have any plans for dinner?” I asked.
“Well, I plan to have it.”
“Very funny. Would you like to order in pizza?”
“Isn’t it early?”
I shrugged. “I’m hungry.”
We ordered pizza and coke. Until the food arrived, we stood out in the balcony and talked, savouring the last rays of the evening sun.
He told me about the only girlfriend he had ever had, the girl he had loved since high school. They had been together for five years. She went off to study engineering, and after a year she told him that she was in love with someone else.
“I was devastated,” he said. “I had always thought we would get married eventually. I had never imagined we would break up…”
“Well, you were both very young, weren’t you?” I said in my oldest, wisest voice. “It’s not unlikely to make a mistake at that age.”
“I didn’t think I had made a mistake,” he said. “I was heartbroken when she left me. I took to drinking and smoking.”
“Oh, you used to smoke?” I knew he didn’t smoke now. It’s not a secret you can easily keep from people you work with.
“Yeah, for a couple of years. After that I figured there was no point ruining my life over it. I didn’t do very well in my graduation, you know, because I was so shaken up over my breakup. But then I pulled myself together, studied hard for the CAT and made sure I got into a good b-school.”
“Good for you.” I smiled. “And you quit smoking altogether?”
“Yes. I still have a drink once in a while, but I haven’t smoked in three years.”
“Hah. You’re the only person I know who’s managed to quit smoking. I like that.”
The balcony was small, and we were standing quite close. I placed my hand on his elbow as I said the last three words. He looked at me and smiled. He leaned a little closer.
My heart lurched. “He’s going to kiss me!” said Miki.
“Not in the balcony! Neighbours might see you!” I ignored Mandakini.
But the doorbell rang, and Vikram moved away. We had been so engrossed in each other that we hadn’t noticed the pizza delivery person zip up on his scooter and park right below.
I insisted on paying for the pizza. “You paid last time,” I pointed out to Vikram and hastily held out the notes to the pizza delivery guy.
I poured out the Coke and we clinked glasses. The pizza tasted better than it ever had. Maybe it had something to do with the thumping of my heart and the slight flutter below.
He said something funny and I rolled over with laughter, knocking my head against his leg where it lay on the mattress. He caught my arm in one hand, and tickled me with the other. I laughed and squirmed, trying to get away. He bent over to get a firmer grip.
I looked up at him, his face close to mine. Neither of us were laughing any more.
He began to let go of my hand, but I held his. He dipped his head to kiss me.
It was a long time since I had kissed someone. His lips were gentle yet demanding. Our hands were still clasped, but I moved my free hand to his shoulder and he moved his to my waist. I could feel it through my sweater, and I willed for it to push my sweater up and touch the bare skin.
Mandakini shouted out a warning. “Don’t move too fast!”
I opened my eyes. His eyes were wide open, watching me. I moved my foot and knocked over Vikram’s glass of Coke.
We straightened up hastily. I got up and walked to the kitchen on my still-trembling legs to get a mop and a broom to clean up the mess and sweep away the broken glass into a corner.
Finally, I threw the broom and he the mop into the corner, and we sat down on the miraculously dry mattress again. We sat side by side, not looking at each other. I couldn’t erase the smile on my face. After a few moments, I looked at him. The smile on my face effaced the doubt on his, and he smiled back.
It had grown dark and I couldn’t see him very well. I reached out and switched on the dim orange light above our heads.
“You look lovely in this light,” he said. He reached out and touched my hand.
What do you do after the first kiss? You could go on, of course. You could go on until you can go no further, and your bodies lie spent, next to each other. And there again, the question arises: what do you do next? Hopefully, you can sleep, and by the time you are up the other person will have left and you don’t have to deal with anti-climactic politeness.
But we hadn’t gone on.
I got up again to put the pizza box in the trash and the sole empty glass in the sink. When I got back to the living room, Vikram wasn’t there. I saw him through the open balcony door and joined him outside.
It was a clear, starry night. The wind was cold and I folded my arms around my chest. We stood next to each other and looked out at the world, looked up at the few translucent clouds as the wind drove them around, and we talked. 


Cantaloupes.Amma (CA) said...

Nicely done ...

To Vikram is still a mysterious guy ... we have learnt about him in bits and pieces ...

Unmana said...

CA: Thank you. Isn't that the way you learn about everyone though, in real life? In bits and pieces they show of themselves, sometimes deliberately and often unintentionally?

dipali said...

Left me cliff hanging, as always!!!!
What next?

Unmana said...

Wait and see, dipali, wait and see!

kay-without-a-tee said...

this chapter is not listed on the page that you attributed to the whole novel. I had to open up your own blog and read it there.

Unmana said...

Duh! Sorry, doing that right away.

Subhashree said...

Nice. Can't you make two instalments in a week?!

Unmana said...

Subhashree: Well, if you read this Friday night, it's less than two days to the next one!