|It was a lovely December morning in the hottest city in the world. All right, so that was a little unfair. Chennai is not the hottest city in the world. But it certainly is the city with the most uncomfortable weather among the cities that I have lived in. And I’ve been around. But I digress.
I was in the company bus on my way to work, as usual trying to catch up with my sleep. On this particular day, a girl got on the bus, came to my seat and sat down. “Good Morning,” she said. I looked back at her through half closed eyes, replied “Good Night,” and then proceeded to return to my half hour nap before the bus reached the office. Unfortunately, I was woken up by a punch in the arm.
“Wake up, bozo!” She was looking at me with a big smile on her face. “I’m not sitting next to you to listen to you snore.”
Half-heartedly, I opened my eyes and turned to her. “What’s up?” I asked.
Preeti Mehra was tall, good-looking and slightly tomboyish. She was also my best buddy. “Come on,” she said. “Don’t look so disappointed. You’d rather sleep than talk to me?”
“I talk to you everyday, Preeti.”
“You also sleep everyday.”
“It’s not enough.”
“So you’ve had enough of talking to me, eh?”
You can’t argue with a statement like that, so I had to give up. I grinned and said, “OK, sweetheart. What’s on your mind?”
“I wanted to tell you what happened yesterday. Can you guess?”
“Anurag called you last night.”
“How did you know?” She was stunned.
“Oh, he asked me for your number yesterday.”
“And you gave it to him?”
“What else could I do? And stop complaining. You’ve been drooling over him for weeks now. He must have thought he had a chance.”
Preeti was the kind of girl who would openly ogle at every other guy she saw. And yet, she would not respond to any advances of a romantic nature. She’d happily join a group of boys to go to a cricket match, but if asked out to a movie, dinner, or even coffee, she’d never say yes. She defined ‘Hard-To-Get’.
“You like putting me in these situations, don’t you?” she said.
“No. That’s not true. I love putting you in these situations!”
That invited another punch in the arm.
I had known Preeti for a year. We’d tell each other about our joys and our sorrows, our victories and our defeats. I’d tell her about all my crushes and she’d scold me for being silly. She’d drag me to classical music concerts and I’d add them to the list of things she ‘owed me’ for.
And though I never let it show, I must say that she punched pretty hard.
~*~It was 12:00 am and my phone was ringing. “Hello,” I said, as I picked it up.
“Happy Birthday!” It was she.
“You’re supposed to throw me a surprise party, sweetheart. Not just call to say
“Well then open your door, dumbo!”
So I did and found her, cell-phone in hand, at my doorstep — with what seemed like half the population of my company. My roommates were supposed to be working late that night. Now I knew why.
I blew a lot of candles (seemed like much more than 25), cut my cake, got kicked in the behind, and got painted with the cake’s icing. If Preeti had had her way, she’d probably have preferred to use a paintbrush and a can of paint. But I bribed her with a copy of the book ”Lord of the Rings”. She’d borrowed it from me three times already. I thought it was about time I gave her a copy for herself.
We chatted for an hour after everyone had gone. “I think it’s time I left,” she said finally, trying to stifle a yawn. I nodded. I dropped her home in my roommate’s car. As she was getting out of the car, I stopped her.
“Hey, don’t get senti on me now!” she smiled. “Are you trying to worm out of that gift you promised me?”
“You know, it’s interesting how I’m getting you a gift on my birthday.”
“That’s just because you’re stupid,” she grinned. “And you better get me that book, or I won’t return your copy.”
“Hey, that copy was a gift to me from my dear friend Preeti Mehra. I can’t let you keep that.”
She wasn’t falling for that. “Your dear friend? And what about me? Am I not dear to you?”
“Very smart. That won’t work with me. I’m not one of your Love Crazy suitors. Why do you need the book anyway? You’ve read it umpteen times already.”
“That is besides the point. You are getting me the book. We both know that.” She smiled that wide confident smile of hers. “Good night.” And she got out of the car.
I sat there for some time, just thinking. Our conversations were always like this – a little joking, a little teasing and a lot of demanding. But somehow, I felt that something had changed since the moment she had turned up at my door that night. I was still in my reverie when a paper ball landed on the windshield. I craned my neck out of the window and looked up. She was standing in her balcony.
“What are you still doing there?” she whispered loudly.
“Waiting for you to start a paper-ball fight,” I whispered back.
“We can do that tomorrow. Go home now. It’s way past your bedtime!”
“Ok, mommy,” I grinned back. “I’m going home now!”
~*~I’m an extravagant gift-giver, and it is definitely going to be my downfall some day. I made her wait for it, but finally bought her the book. That, and half-a-dozen other omnibus collections of various authors, including a copy each of `The Complete Works of Shakespeare’ and `The Complete Short Stories of Charles Dickens’. All I got for it was an “I told you so.”
I started spending a lot of time at her place after that. Mostly because I wanted to read all those books, and she wouldn’t lend them to me.
“I’m not as stupid as you, ape-man. I’m not falling into the same trap I laid for you. Plus, you dog-ear your books. You’re not doing that to these masterpieces. So if you want to read them, you read them here. And if you want to mark your place, use a bookmark.”
So that’s what I did. She’d even make me wash my hands before I touched the books. It was as if they were sacred.
“Need I remind you that it was me that bought you the books in the first place? For my birthday!”
“So? They’re mine now.”
“Well, then. I’ve been meaning to ask you this for a long time. Where exactly is my birthday gift?”
“It was in your tummy at one point of time. It’s probably been washed into the sea by now.”
“Remember the cake I baked you on your birthday?”
“You what? You can’t bake cakes!” That was a mistake. She looked hurt. “You baked me a cake?” She didn’t say a word. She just shrugged.
I was stunned. “But you never told me.”
“You didn’t ask.” That was typical of her.
“It was fantastic! And you wasted most of the icing on me!”
“The cake was for you, dumbo.”
“How long did it take you to make the whole thing?” It had been a two-layered vanilla-chocolate cake with three flavors of very creamy icing. She had done all that!
“Well, the chocolate cake took an hour and fifteen minutes, and so did the vanilla. Then cutting them up and putting them together took another 15 minutes. Each flavor of icing took 20 minutes for preparation, and then putting it on the cake took another half hour. Cleaning up the mess took an hour.”
She seldom claimed the credit for anything, but once she started bragging, there was no stopping her. However, I wasn’t thinking about that right then.
“You spent over five hours on that cake?”
“A little over four hours preparing it, and an hour cleaning up. Yes.”
I was speechless. I didn’t know how to react. She hated cooking.
“I forgot to mention,” she continued, “the hours I spent the week before that, practicing. Even the birds wouldn’t touch the first three cakes!”
I couldn’t help but ask. “Why?”
“Because the first one got burnt, the second one was only half cooked, and in the third one, I forgot to add sugar.”
It was just like her, to try to divert the conversation. “I mean why did you spend so much time on baking me a cake?”
She looked at me like I’d asked her why the sun rises in the east. “For your birthday, stupid. Of course, I also wanted to beat every gift you’ve ever got me. Try beating this one.” She was grinning like she’d won the world championship.
As far as I was concerned, she had. I’d never spent a week making her anything. I’d never even spent an hour making her anything. Getting her a gift normally involved me taking her to the store, letting her choose and use my credit card. Suddenly, I felt cheap. “Thanks,” was the only thing I could say.
”Thanks a lot.”
“Hey. Are you getting senti on me again?”
~*~I was still mulling over my feelings for Preeti the next day at work when my boss asked to speak to me.
I went over to his cabin and he started with the usual greetings, asking how work was going and whether I was comfortable. He then told me that the company wanted to send me to New York for a couple of years. Normally, this wouldn’t have made much of a difference to me. I could work anywhere and didn’t have too much love for visiting places foreign. But right then, the first thought that came to me was that I’d be away from Preeti for two whole years.
Twenty-four hours before, I’d have been disappointed to lose her company. But right then, I was devastated. That was when I knew I was in love with her. I’d had crushes before. Lots of them. But this was different.
“Do you have any problem in going?” my boss asked, since I hadn’t responded.
“Not really,” I replied. What else could I say? That I was in love, and couldn’t bear the separation?
“When do I have to leave?”
I had a month.
~*~“Wow! New York! Great! I’ve heard it’s a fantastic city! Did you know it snows there in winter?” Preeti was obviously very excited about my going. She didn’t seem to share my disappointment on what I now saw as ‘separation’.
I had not decided then if I was going to tell her how I felt. We’d known each other for a little over a year, and we were very close, but beyond some mild flirting, the relationship had never got even close to romantic. That was, of course, until I found out she had spent a week baking me a cake. It’s funny how small things seem to make such a big difference.
“What happened?” she asked. “You don’t seem very happy.”
“Oh,” I replied, “it’s just that it’s so sudden, that’s all. And you know I was never all that interested in going to America.”
“What an idiot. Go see the place. I’ve heard the women there are amazingly beautiful.” She had a sly smile on her face. I wanted to tell her I didn’t care if I laid my eyes on another woman again, if she wasn’t with me. But I didn’t.
I realized that I only had another month with her. She’d rejected every guy who’d asked her out ever since I’d known her. I didn’t want the same to happen to me, and I didn’t want to make it awkward between us. I didn’t want to risk that month. I wanted it to be the best time I had ever spent with her. After I came back from the US, I might not even get to meet her again. Two years was a long time.
We ate out almost every night. We visited some of the best restaurants in the city. She also helped me shop for warm clothes, formalwear, shoes, toothpaste and a million things I’d never have thought of on my own.
“You need to buy a nail-cutter.” My roommates and I shared one.
“I’ve prepared a list of must-have medicines that you should carry.”
“Your iron won’t work in the US. No point buying one here as you need one that works at a hundred and ten volts and has flat pins. You can buy one at a K-Mart or Wal-Mart as soon as you get there.”
“You need at least two pairs of formal shoes and at least ten pairs of dark socks. The East Coast has a formal dress code. And you won’t do your laundry more than once a week or two.”
“How many ties do you have? And which trousers do your blazers go with?”
“Better get a haircut before you leave from here. Knowing you, you’ll postpone the first haircut for too long.”
She’d call me up at one in the morning to tell me to add ‘one more item’ to my list.
And with every passing day, I was falling more deeply in love with her.
The month swept by quickly. The day I was supposed to leave, I asked her to come with me to the airport. “Of course, dumbo. You think I’d let you go just like that, or what?”
After packing my bags for me and checking the lists for the hundredth time, she finally pronounced me “Good to go.”
We reached the airport four hours early to beat the rush, because it was an international flight. She got a visitor’s pass to sit in the waiting area while I went ahead and checked-in my bags. Preeti had got a spring balance from somewhere and so we knew my bags were well within the weight limit. I finished the formalities and came to sit with her. We had only a few hours before I had to go for my security-check. We decided to get something to eat at the food court. And all the time, the one thing that was going through my head was that, after this, I wouldn’t see her for at least another two years.
“Hey, Champ. Why so glum?” She saved ‘Champ’ for special days. Normally, it was just ‘dumbo’, ‘bozo’, ‘ape-man’, ‘matchstick man’, ‘weirdo’, or if she was very irritated with me, ‘nutcase’.
“I don’t want to go,” I said.
“I don’t want you to go either.”
“No, you don’t understand.” I couldn’t hold it in any longer. “I can’t stand the thought of living without you by my side.”
She stared at me. There was a strange look in her eyes. I couldn’t read it.
“I am madly in love with you, Preeti.”
At this, a sound escaped her lips that sounded like a cross between a sob and a laugh. “Well, dumbo, you’ve picked an absolutely fabulous time to tell me about it!”
A tear escaped her eyes. It was all I could do to stop myself from wiping it off her cheeks.
“How long have you felt this way?” She seemed amused, though she was definitely crying. I didn’t know what to make of it.
“From the day I found out you had baked me a cake.”
She laughed. “That’s all it took? Well, bozo, I guess a way to a man’s heart is
certainly through his stomach! Hold it. A month? You waited a month? You were the one who kept saying that if you really liked a girl you wouldn’t waste a day in telling her!” She was smiling widely now. It looked funny, with her eyes all wet.
“Well, I was confused. How did I know how you’d react? In fact, I still don’t understand your reaction. I thought it would change things between us. You’ve rejected every guy who ever proposed to you!”
“That’s because I’m in love with you, you overgrown idiot!”
“What?” Somehow, I’d never expected her to say that. She was in love with me? “How long have you been in love with me?”
“Ever since the day you offered to carry my suitcase for me.”
“But that was the first day I met you!”
“I guess I was always a sucker for chivalry.”
“All this time you’ve been in love with me and you never said anything! Then you go and complain that I waited a month!”
“You guys are so bad at reading a girl’s mind.”
“You women are so good at keeping your thoughts a secret! Even Einstein couldn’t figure you out.”
“Einstein was a nerd. Casanova, on the other hand, understood us very well.”
“I love you.”
That moment, my dear friends, was magic. I looked into her eyes and took her hands in mine. Physical contact for us had been limited, until then, to a punch in the arm, a slap on the back of the head, or giving each other a ‘high five’.
“You realize, don’t you,” she said, “that this is our first date?” Leave it to her to notice the little things.
“I really don’t want to go.” I’d always maintained that love is a bucketful of emotions. I wasn’t exactly delighted to be proved right.
“Don’t worry. I’m coming there in a couple of months.”
“How? On a dependent visa?”
She laughed. “For that, I’ll have to wait, won’t I? I’ve got a project in New Jersey.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. “What? When did that happen? You never even told me!”
“Well, I wasn’t sure you’d propose before you left. And I couldn’t exactly sacrifice you to those New York women, could I? I had to watch out for myself. So I went on a project-hunting spree. There is an opportunity coming up for a project in about two months. Someone is coming back to India, so I’ll be taking his place. They want me there for a little less than two years.” She was beaming. “I realized I had struck gold!”
“And if I’d not told you how I felt? When were you planning on telling me about it?”
“Around a month before I reached there. I had to make it look natural. Or you’d think I was desperate.”
“Well, you are desperate!” This was incredible. All I’d done in the past month had been to mope around, listen to sad songs and write her letters that I never intended her to read. “You’ve been scheming all this while! How come you didn’t lay a trap for me a year ago?”
“I tried giving you hints, dumbo, but you just wouldn’t pay attention!” She was laughing. “You’re the only guy I ever spent any time with. Wasn’t that a big enough hint?”
That was true. She would happily join a group of boys to go to a cricket match, but I now realized, only if I was one of them.
“What if I had rejected you?” I was extremely flattered that she’d been crazy about me for a year. My ego was swelling.
“You must be kidding!” she was clearly amused. “I get proposed to every few days. You are the one who’s been rejected more times in the last year than I can count on two pairs of hands!”
She really knew how to burst my bubble.
“Hey,” she said softly, “don’t look so dejected. I said ‘Yes’, didn’t I?”
I grinned. “Yes, you did. And you’ve made me a very happy man. But you know what would make me even happier?”
“If you learn to cook as good as you bake cakes.”
So she punched me in the arm again.
The End Beginning