Time Off | Not-So-Short [Fiction]

It was our first date in weeks. For more than a month now, neither of us had been able to take out time to grab dinner together. Stuti had just started out her paid internship at HDFC, and I had recently finished struggling through my 6th semester exams. Though none of us had said it out loud, but our relationship was on the rocks.

I was seated in the restaurant already, a quaint little place situated on Majnu ka Tila. I stared at the menu card in my hands, but I wasn’t really retaining what I was reading. I was worried about us. This date could end up anywhere. Maybe this would be our last date together. The mere thought of it sent an uncomfortable flutter through me. I didn’t want things to end like this.

I looked up when the wooden wind chimes tinkled at the entrance. Stuti was surprisingly on time. She waved at me from afar, and then made her way through the crowded restaurant. I stood up to offer the customary hug.

‘Hi babe,’ she said against my throat. I kissed the top of her head wordlessly, and then stepped back to look at her as she sat down in her seat. She was dressed in her office clothes, a formal shirt and skirt, but she had certainly made efforts to be dressy for the date. Her hair was flowing down her shoulders in waves, and her lips were coated in a light shade of red.

‘Aren’t you going to sit down?’ she said. I nodded and flopped down into the shaky chair. Unsteady. How symbolic.

‘Can we please order the food first? I’m dying of hunger!’ The waiter appeared like magic. Stuti shot off her usual- Devil momos, pork tingmo, and chili garlic noodles. I ordered beef shaptak with noodles, and two lemon sodas. The waiter scuttled away.

‘You haven’t said a word yet.’ Stuti suddenly said. I gazed at her large eyes. She was beautiful.

‘How are you?’ I asked, lamely. She rolled her eyes. She was always so expressive with her emotions. Unlike me, the pro at deadpan stares. Basically, I was as expressive as Abhishek Bachchan in Refugee.

‘The same. Being an intern is not all that fun. Do you know what Gaurav Sinha did today?’ I shook my head, almost about to say ‘no, but I don’t really care’. I didn’t want to hear about work right now. I wanted to talk about us, where things were going, what the future held for us. Not what stupid Gaurav Sinha did in her stupid office.

‘What did he do?’ I asked, as the lemon sodas arrived. Stuti took a hearty sip.

‘He fiddled with the photocopy machine. Put it on some kind of loop. So every time anybody tried to photocopy or print something, it kept printing a picture of Sunny Leone. A very naked Sunny Leone.’ I forced a laugh.

‘Tell me you have a copy or two, so I can put them up in my room.’ I said. She narrowed her eyes at me.

‘You wish. Well anyway. Eventually, the boss heard about it, and then put an end to it all. But nobody except the interns know that Gaurav Sinha did it.’ I nodded again, thankful for the lemon soda which allowed me to stay a part of the conversation without actually saying a word. Stuti shifted her gaze towards her soda bottle, swirling its contents lightly.

‘He asked me out for coffee last week.’ she casually said. My soda bottle stopped halfway to my mouth.

‘Who?’

‘Gaurav Sinha, of course.’ She looked up at me. I employed my deadpan stare, but inside, my stomach was churning. And I hadn’t even had the spicy sauce yet.

‘What did you say?’ Something changed in her face when I said that. I couldn’t place what it was exactly, but I think it was somewhere along the lines of anger and irritation. What’s that they call it? Exasperation.

‘I told him I had a boyfriend who I loved very much. And while a coffee as a friend would be fine, he shouldn’t expect anything else.’ Silence settled in between us. Her eyes looked cold and accusing now. I sighed and began to apologize, but our food arrived right then.

‘How was your mechanical design paper?’ she asked through a mouthful of noodles. I made an action of wiping my tears.

‘Terrible. It’ll be a miracle if I pass. Himanshu loved the paper though.’ Himanshu was my best friend, a certified engineering geek plus stoner. He lived on a diet of joints and Machine Design guides, cruising through things despite his extra-curricular activities in the field of smoking.

‘How is he? It’s been so long since I’ve met him.’

‘He’s okay. He wanted to tag along today, said it would be nice if the three of us hung out.’

‘Then why didn’t you get him?’

‘I thought it was a date. And that’s usually for two people, so…’ I bit into a particular juicy chunk of beef, and some of the sauce dribbled down my chin. Stuti immediately wiped it clean with her tissue.

‘It is a date.’ she smiled. ‘You’re paying for the food in any case.’ I let out a laugh, genuine this time. Her eyes twinkled.

We talked a bit more about my exam paper then. She reminded me how my father would cut off my money if I failed a paper this sem, and I reminded her that she now had a paid job, and I could live off her money. She told me about her new office colleagues, some of who were complete bitches, and others such darlings. We even spoke about our parents, the upcoming Ashes game, and other nonsensical stuff like her pet terrier Dumpling, and whether we should catch a show of Antman any time soon. But we didn’t speak about us or the relationship at all.

She didn’t let me pay the complete bill of course. Like always, we split it in half, despite my protests. She never let me spoil her, and after three years of dating, I was okay with that, because it was logical. Initially, it would drive me mad to see her pull out her wallet while she was with me. But as our relationship proceeded, and my pocket money dwindled, things balanced themselves out in my head.

We set off towards an ice-cream cart at the end of the road. Stuti slipped her arm around mine, her heels clacking against the cemented road.

‘You smell really nice. Is that a new perfume?’ she said, sniffing appreciatively.

‘It’s Himanshu’s. He got a fresh bottle of Cerruti, so I borrowed some.’ Himashu and I shared a common flat, and more than often, our things would be lying in each other’s rooms. We really didn’t have any boundaries.

‘It’s pretty good. Maybe I’ll buy you a bottle after I get my pay.’ I looked down at her, an earnest smile on her face. She was only half a foot shorter than me, but managed to look like an imp in front of my 6-foot lean frame. Despite all she did to her hair (“a haircut can totally change the way your face looks!”), and her liberal make-up skills, she had a very child-like appeal. A roundish face, large eyes, and a mouth that never shut up.

I had a sudden thought of existing in a world without her. All I could see was darkness.

‘What is it?’ she asked, when I looked away from her, staring straight ahead at the row of streetlights. I was scared of the dark.

‘Nothing.’

‘Vivaan?’

‘Yes?’ She stopped walking and pulled me back.

‘Are you okay?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Don’t pretend like you don’t know.’

‘I don’t know what you’re implying.’

‘You’re just…behaving different.’

‘I’m just tired after the exams. Let’s get the ice-cream, okay?’

‘No.’ She was still holding me in place, her grip firm.

‘No? Okay, butter tea then?’

‘Vivaan.’ she hissed. I was pushing her off the edge. All that was required now was a little nudge to set her off. Is that what I wanted? To let things just explode?

‘I take that as a no to the tea then?’ She let out a loud groan.

‘I don’t care about the bloody tea!’ She let go of my arm. ‘You’ve been acting weird all evening! You’re talking but your heart’s not in it. You’re listening, but you’re not really listening. I don’t know what is going on! And you don’t even want to talk about it! You didn’t even kiss me after I walked into the restaurant!’ She let out a frustrated yelp and turned away from me.

‘Would you like a kiss now?’ I mumbled. She turned to look at me, tears filling up her big eyes. Great job, Vivaan. Would you like a shoe in your face now?

‘I’d just like my boyfriend back, thank you very much.’

‘I’m right here, baby…’ I sighed, trying to pull her into a hug. She pushed me away. People walking past accorded us with mild stares.

‘You’re not. This isn’t just about today. It’s been happening for ages now, and I thought it would just pass away, but no. It’s not a phase. There’s some serious problem here, and you don’t even want to talk it out. I’m so sick and tired of this.’ She was crying now, thick tears running down her round cheeks. Are you just going to stand here and watch, you stupid oaf? Do something!

Before I could say a word, she began walking away from me, down the road, towards the auto-rickshaws. I chased after her.

‘Stuti, wait!’ She was extraordinarily fast on her heels. People were open ogling at us now, the woman speed-walking in her heels and the clumsy tall man striding after her.

‘Let me explain! Stuti!’ I called out. She whipped around.

‘Explain. Explain why you’ve been behaving like an asshole lately. Explain why I don’t know you anymore.’

‘Don’t go.’

‘That’s not really an explanation.’

‘Stuti, please don’t go.’

‘Give me one reason why.’

‘Because I love you. And I cannot stand the thought of losing you.’ She appraised me with a cold glare.

‘You’re not doing a good job of keeping me.’ Silence wafted through the gap between us again. A soft breeze blew around, lifting the curls of her hair around her face. I moved in slowly.

‘I know. I’m sorry.’ Her upper lip had settled firmly over the lower one, tear trails glistening on her cheeks. I took her hands in mine.

‘I don’t want to fight, Vivaan.’

‘I don’t want to either.’ She looked at me pensively.

‘What do we do now?’ I asked. Please don’t say we need a break.

‘Maybe we need some time off.’ My heart sank down into my knees.

‘How long?’

‘Until we can collect ourselves together. Just make sense out of things.’

‘Okay.’ I had nothing else to say. I knew what this meant. A time off would inevitably lead to the break up. This was just a slow build up towards the painful climax.

‘Okay.’ She squeezed my hands and then took a step back. My throat had gone dry.

‘How are you going home?’

‘I’ll call Himanshu. Or take a rickshaw. Come on, let’s get you a ride.’ We walked in silence towards the closest rickshaw-wallah, who surprisingly agreed to go to Karol Bagh without much hassle. Delhi rickshaw-wallahs are notorious for their disinterest in dropping people anywhere.

‘Let me know once you get home.’ I said. She nodded. There was a pounding in my head. I was in desperate need of a smoke.

‘Goodnight.’ she said. I smiled weakly and stepped away from the auto. The driver pulled the lever and the auto came to life with a roar. I turned away. In the background, I could hear the auto speeding away. I shut my eyes and let the tears seep through.

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