I get up from my seat and sling my bag over my shoulder. The day promises to be blisteringly hot from the looks of it. I deftly navigate through the crowd and make my way to the front doors. The bus is almost at my stop. I get a notification on my phone, reminding me of the meeting I have in another 15 minutes. I should be able to make it, I think. I scroll through my calendar and shake my head sadly, looking at all the other meetings lined up.
As I near the door, I notice this woman, sitting hunched over her phone, lost to the world. She looks very familiar. My mind struggles to place her, and then it hits me. Is it really her, I think. Almost as if to answer that, she suddenly looks up and our eyes meet. She looks at me blankly for a second, like one would at a stranger, and then her eyes light up. I take a step closer, pulling out my earphones, and ask, almost incredulously, “Neha?”
Neha and I had been classmates in high school. Calling us close would have been an understatement. We sat next to each other, shared similar interests in books, movies and the like, were responsible for exhausting each other’s SMS booster packs and hung out occasionally. Inseparable; that would be a more fitting word. And then, life took us along different paths. I took up engineering, like every other clueless adolescent, while she boldly chose to pursue her passions. We had tried to keep in touch. She avoided social media like the plague, despite me begging her time and again to create a Facebook account, just so we had a means of contacting each other. Changed numbers, misplaced devices and forgotten passwords had worn away at the faint thread holding us together, and pretty soon, we had fallen out of touch.
And, as luck would have it, I run into her on my way to work this Monday morning. Just as we commence conversation, the bus slows to a halt. Time for me to get off. I make way for the other commuters to disembark and ask her where she’s headed. She says she’s getting back to her hostel, returning from her weekend trip home. Without wasting much time on thought, paying heed to that little voice inside my head, I ask her if she’d want to grab a coffee. Like, now.
She ponders for a few moments and says no. Before my chagrin could make itself evident on my face, she says she wants to have breakfast, as she’s starving. The dinner they had served on the train was bad, and she’d barely eaten, she explains. Grinning like an idiot, I tell her I could happily do second breakfast with her, and go get another ticket from the conductor, wondering about how random life is. The universe sure does work in mysterious ways.
We find a little restaurant and tuck in. The hours pass, as we talk and talk and talk, trying to make up for all the conversations we haven’t had. The years seem to peel off, and we’re two seventeen-year olds again, trying to make sense of the lives ahead of us. My phone vibrates every now and then, most likely courtesy of my boss or colleagues, wondering why I hadn’t shown up at work. I ignored them, telling myself I’d deal with it all later. I could almost see my boss chewing me out, berating me for skipping work, and worse, for not notifying them of my absence in advance. It didn’t matter. I could take it. Today, I could take on the world. That’s how I felt.
After a while, she says she has to leave. I signal the waiter for the bill, and we split it at her insistence. As we wait for him to get the receipt, the little voice speaks up again. Little though it might be, there have been instances where it has turned me deaf to the voices of reason, sanity and self-perseverance. This is the voice that tells you to blindly leap off a cliff, not knowing if there was water you could safely dive into, or go splat on the cold, hard earth. And now, it was nagging me to tell her. To tell her something I had kept a secret, not revealing to anyone, maybe not even to myself, over all these years.
“Neha, there’s something I want to tell you. I’ve really, really liked you. Since high school. I don’t know what to call it. Crush, love, I don’t know. I never told you, because I was afraid. Afraid that you wouldn’t feel the same way, and that you might not want to be friends anymore. That’s something I don’t think I could have taken. But yeah, we just kinda fell apart anyways. I just wish we had kept in touch all this time.” I pause, sigh and continue. “I don’t even know why I am telling all this to you now. I’m sorry if this hurts you in any way, but I just had to let it out. I guess,” I conclude lamely.
She just stares at me, with her mouth slightly open. Not a word. The silence is complete, except for the click of the waiter’s shoes on the hardwood floor, and the runaway thumping of my heart. If this keeps up, I think, I’m definitely getting a heart attack. Although, at this point I am almost wishing for one.
After what seems to be an eternity, her lips twitch. She starts laughing, softly at first, but it steadily works up into a full-throated laugh. The waiter has returned. He places the receipt on the table and retreats, looking at us quizzically. Here I am, having confessed my feelings to this woman who once meant so much to me (and still probably does), and all she can do is laugh? This was something I had not expected. No, not at all. Feeling slightly annoyed, I ask her, “Wait, what’s so funny?”
She slowly gets a hold of herself. Still smiling, her eyes sparkling, she tells me, “You know, all that you just said; I could have told you the exact same thing. How funny is that?”
It is now my turn to stare.
Only I don’t know if I am going to laugh or cry.