Today she just wanted to hang out for some more time. She remembered those days, when she had taken such good times for granted. Her colleagues urged her to have one more drink and maybe she had enough for today. Life was so calculative now, moving on with just limited resource. She no more could afford to splurge. She never had been brought up to be reckless or carefree. Guilt always haunted her, whether she was right or wrong.
She laughed with others at work but her eyes did not sparkle anymore. At home she was a doting mother to her son and loving niece to her aunt. But other than that her life was barren and unenthusiastic.
She called for a cab and stepped out of the smoky bar. She felt a little light headed with the cool breeze touching her gently. While she waited on her feet she swayed slightly to the dim music floating from the bar. Today after a very long time she had a drink. She felt nice but conscious of what her aunt would think of her if she saw her now. Her parents still did not know that she drank, it’s a secret best hidden. In their culture it’s a taboo for a girl to drink. They would be ashamed of her. But that they already were weren’t they?
Her aunt had taken Ved to one of her friends place in another town. She was all alone for a week and could not believe her luck. She had been standing at the outside the bar for a long time waiting for the cab. The bar door opened and she thought her friends would step out and take her inside. She turned to see and saw someone else instead.
She quickly wished she could disappear and hoped he had not recognized her. He would not have she was wearing her hair short and clothes were different as well. It was almost four years since they spoke or even met.
“Lakshmi! Is that you?” he asked coming closer to see her.
She quickly turned around trying to look busy with her phone and ignored his question. She could not face him, what could she say? Why had she disappeared from everyone’s life? Moreover no one knew she was here, not even her parents. She started walking away in search of cab, completely ignoring his plea to stop. She was almost running now hoping she could quickly hop into any cab. Miraculously the yellow cab just stopped next to her and she quickly got in.
“Where do you want to go?” the cab driver asked her.
“Rua da Palha, just drive” she ordered. She looked out of the window and saw him sprint after the cab and then stop.
That was extremely close and she escaped it. But she wondered for how long? What if he lived in this city? That couldn’t be, he was supposed to be working in Philippines. But that was some three to four years ago. He could be on a business trip to Macau. She had not thought about it that way. Anyway he would have by now realized that she was not Lakshmi. Lakshmi would not have fled that way if she was meeting him after many years.
He stood there looking at the retreating taxi. He could have sworn she was Lakshmi. Last he had met her when she had delivered Ved. He had soon left the country for a better opportunity and their communication had not only diminished but had come to a sudden stop. He tried calling all her numbers but they were all disconnected. He even tried calling her husband Vivek but even he had not answered his calls. He did have the premonition that something had gone wrong. He dared not to call her parents at first but when he could not reach her anywhere. He called them.
It was a strange conversation. Her parents seemed not to know her whereabouts. They were not only vague but somehow he felt they did not want to talk about her. That was unlikely as they were a strong knit family, always stood and supported each other. Earlier a day would not go by where Lakshmi would have at least one conversation with her mother or sister. So what had gone wrong? He did not like this, not knowing if she was fine. But he had exhausted every possible connection to her. It seemed she had simply vanished from face of earth.
When he took a trip home during Christmas, he had gone to her place in Vizag, India. The door had a lock and upon enquiry with her neighbors he had learnt that her husband had sold this flat and left. They did not leave any forwarding address with them. He had then lost any hope of finding her.
He had recently been promoted and transferred to Macau for a project. Now after years of living abroad he had no trouble settling down in any new place. He worked hard during the day and then partied all night on most weekends. He had been with many girls but no one ever fancied him for more than few weeks. He loved travelling by his own discovering new places in strange lands. He always attracted attention with his unusually sweet smile. He wore his hair neither short nor very long but looked like it always needed a cut. He was not very tall but yet just right for any girl. The soft voice and pleasant drawl mostly charmed anyone. He had abundant friends everywhere but every morning he woke up feeling a void slowly growing with each passing day.
Tonight he had plenty to eat and drink. Today the din of the bar and chatter of friends left him feeling the need for some fresh air. He had stepped out and immediately their eyes had locked for few seconds. He had seen the gleam of recognition in her eyes. He called out to her but she quickly walked away almost running. He had followed her but she got in to cab and left. He did not understand why?
Upon reaching home she felt breathless and completely alone. She wished Ved was here running around her and her aunt fussing over her ill eating habits. But the windows were closed and the house had a musty smell. She quickly opened her bedroom windows and let the night breeze flow inside. In the dim moonlight she saw herself in the mirror. How much she had changed? Her rough hair cut short up to her neck in some recent style. This style made her look chic. Her mother would have never approved of such short hair. This was the way she liked it now since her hair was now more manageable. Her small stature and big eyes always made her look innocent. She had grown considerably thin after moving here from what she was after Ved’s birth. She remembered how Vivek had always ridiculed her about her weight after pregnancy. She could not afford to think about those painful memories. She had overcome them she reminded herself.
Next day she woke up with a slight headache and a cup of coffee could definitely help her. She called out to Ved and then remembered he was not there. She called her aunt and checked on their whereabouts. She chatted with her son; he had grown big so quickly. They were due to come home next Sunday. She looked around and found her fridge stocked well. Quickly she cooked up something simple for her and made a strong cup of coffee.
Outside was beautifully sunny, just the way she liked it. She wore her jeans and a cute top. She wore her most comfortable shoe and her favorite sunglasses. Today she would shop and meet her only friend she had made here at a café on the beach.
She took her small car out and cruised along the hem of the beach. She could not believe life could get this better. She parked and went about her shopping. She was light on her feet and humming a song she looked around the stores with a smile. Her smile vanished as soon as she spotted Charles. She remembered last night’s episode. Quickly she got into a shop right next to her hoping he did not see her. It was in a jewelry shop and store keeper was asking her what she would like. But her gaze kept searching for Charles outside.
“What would you like to see, something in diamonds?” the store keeper asked.
She was never too keen about jewelry. She quickly said no and left from there. She headed for her car with quick steps. Someone stopped her by the shoulder and she turned around. She was partly scared and partly angry for being followed. It was her friend Neeta, whom she was going to meet at the café.
“Why do you look so angry?” she asked.
“I just thought you were someone else.” Lakshmi felt relief that he had not seen her.
“Who? Is someone following you?” Neeta looked around angrily. Looking at her friend, Lakshmi smiled. She had become so close and protective about her. Lakshmi often went on a guilt trip about this or that, but Neeta always encouraged her to be herself and not feel guilty all the time.
“No, come let’s go to the café, now that I have met you already.” Lakshmi took out her car keys and they both headed to the beach.
At the café Neeta asked her what happened at the square and why was she so angry. Lakshmi as usual became vague and did not answer the question. They both ordered their favourite on the menu and chatted their heart away about work and then some about movies.
“Lakshmi, what are you doing here?” asked Charles finally confirming his doubts and confronting her.
Neeta looked curiously first at Charles and then at Lakshmi. Her face was completely closed and devoid of expression. Her lips thinned with determination. Lakshmi just managed to icily say, “Hi Charles.”
Neeta had never seen her friend so rigid and withdrawn before. Somehow she got her answer to the question about Lakshmi’s strange behavior at the square this morning. But in spite of all things she could not help liking Charles instantly.
“Where have you been?” he asked incredulously. He reached out to hug her just like old times. He could not believe his relief of finally knowing she is fine. But Lakshmi remained seated refusing to hug or budge from her seat. Looking at him after so long not only brought an overwhelming feeling inside her but a strong reminder of her previous life. She was looking at her closest friend, someone she blocked away along with everything else. A friend who had been with her, besides her always and right now she wished he had not met her here at all.
“Hi I am Neeta, I am Lakshmi’s friend.” Neeta introduced herself looking at the awkward situation. She gestured for Charles to sit.
“Hi, nice to meet you. Are you from India?” he asked politely but keenly watching Lakshmi at the same time.
“Yes I am. But have been living here for more than ten years now. Do you live here as well?”
“Yes I am temporarily posted here for a project.” He asked Lakshmi again, “Where have you been?”
Lakshmi abruptly got up, “Please excuse me Neeta, and I have to go. I remembered something.” She looked at Charles and said, “It’s nice meeting you after such a long time.”
Both of them continued looking at her dumbfounded. She collected her things and left. This was the third time in two days that she had escaped Charles. He got up but Neeta caught his hand.
He was confused and angry. “Why is she behaving like this?”
“Even I don’t know, but maybe you yourself can explain it to me much better.”
Charles had not realized he had spoken loudly. It felt better telling Neeta, a complete stranger his story and frustration.