His wife and daughter were shopping somewhere while he filled his time walking in and out of the different tourist shops.
Ouray, Colorado. Switzerland of America.
After 15 years.
He never gave in to nostalgia.
Time had been playing havoc with his mind and heart for the last couple of months. Despite himself, snippets from the past kept flashing in front of his eyes.
I’ll plan everything…
He shut his eyes and emptied his head willfully.
His phone beeped. His wife.
He slid the phone back into his pocket. 30 minutes. He needed to distract himself.
Spotting a chic café, he walked in.
“Hi! One latte, flavoring hazelnut please…” He smiled at the young server,
“We have a new flavor this month, would you like to try it?”
“Which one is that?”
“Tiramisu…and it’s the bomb!”
Try tiramisu please… know what heaven tastes like…
“I’ll stick to hazelnut, thank you…” He responded with a tight smile.
Shaking his head in frustration, he dug an imaginary hole in the floor. Sentiment had never been his thing.
Distracted, he picked up his coffee, walked out, and right into the gift shop next to it.
Local artistry, wooden Christmas décor, vintage books and games, handmade soaps, and lotions.
This was different, he thought.
There was also a newer section with conventional book items, stacked neatly in a reading section with an armchair. Browsing through the books, he picked up a couple of interesting ones. He made a mental note to pick it off Kindle. As he stacked them back, his eyes spotted a familiar name, and he froze.
Hardbound, with the name looming out loud and clear.
Had his thoughts conjured her up?
He let out a breath and reached out for it slowly. It felt like his hands trembled, but they were steady when he looked at them. Picking the book off the shelf, he read the title and the author’s name again… and then opened the bio.
His breath caught in his throat despite the superbly edited professional picture.
He didn’t read any further. Closing the book, he stared at it for the longest time. Somewhere he could feel a storm gathering. He caressed the cover slowly, thinking, debating with himself.
They returned home the next day and he got busy with work soon after. It wasn’t until 10 days later that he remembered…
He went back to his car and opened the trunk. There it was, neatly packed in brown paper. He took a deep breath and picked it up. Taking the book back into his study, he pulled the chair back and sat down. Meditatively, he placed both hands on it for a few seconds.
He didn’t know why he had picked it up.
He anticipated how the content would be. He had spent years reading similar content.
Fiction. Slow Burn. Intense. Hard-hitting.
Not his cup of tea.
But the memory of the hand that penned these stories …
Taking a deep breath, he slit open the brown paper.
Neatly as was his wont.
Be it her DIY projects, her cooking, or just a regular day, she was a glorious mess to his OCD personality. He often considered therapy when he looked at the room she left behind. But the results of her creativity were so otherworldly that he had eventually concluded that clutter and creativity went together.
For the first time since he had set eyes on the book, he read the title of the book.
He turned a page.
The depth she had could only be glanced at when someone read her work. And it was then he would feel lucky to just be in her life…another question mark for him.
They had started as friends and then just ended up together.
That is what they told each other. A fling. That is all.
Time laughed. He lost track of time and eventually, they were living together.
As chaotic as she was, she still took care of everything. Sometimes she took care of things before he thought of it.
Every milestone, birthday, festival, and event were celebrated like no other. Then there were random surprises and gifts. She stood with him through several first milestones- his first apartment, his first car, his first house- and his other milestones- career promotions, and family milestones that she was an invisible part of- always cheering the loudest.
He felt special.
Once he spoke about missing decorations back home for festivals. His formative years were in a hostel. The next thing he knew was she was furiously working on creating handmade décor. He protested,
“It was just wishful thinking.”
She worked tirelessly.
It wasn’t the only time. He expressed a wish and lo and behold it was done. He felt like a child in Wonderland a lot of times.
And when she finished this time, his mouth felt open wordlessly. He had never seen anything so beautiful. For the first time, he invited friends over and showed it off. For the first time, he held her close and cuddled while sleeping. It felt like home.
His wife knocked twice.
“Busy… Please have your dinner, I will have it in a while.”
They had been together for seven and a half years before he had to tell her that his family had found a bride for him- and he had to leave.
She had met the news with thunderous silence. Then she packed and left. Quietly.
He wanted to reach out, but he hadn’t. He had to choose his family.
It was when he returned that he saw the storm he had unleashed…
The sparkle in her eyes was gone. Her smile was gone. Unkempt and uncaring, her house was a mess. Her kitchen barely had food and every time he visited, it was like the house was untouched with nothing moving from its place.
The free-spirited girl he had known was long gone.
For six months, he tried to break her out of it. But the tears and anger at his betrayal wouldn’t stop.
Finally, she refused to let him in. Frustrated, he let out some steam of his own. Harsh words, harsher retorts.
“You knew I was not going to oppose the match my family set!”
For the first time she spoke, her eyes full of tears,
“Even after so many years of being with me? You … didn’t feel like putting up a fight for me?”
“What do you want?” He had lashed out, knowing something had gone terribly wrong from his end,” That I end my marriage? Or are you trying to fuel me with guilt, so I do it myself?”
The last thing he remembered was her hollowed-out expression when she closed the door.
She was broken.
A few days later when he visited her again, she was gone.
He didn’t pursue it. He had a marriage to settle into.
But conscience has a way of appearing from time to time.
And along with his conscience, was the realization that there was genuine love. A love that he had let go of recklessly.
He wouldn’t think of her because he couldn’t do anything about it anymore.
He looked at the time. Three hours.
He shut the book. Ran his hands over it and opened it again.
The author looked back at him, beaming. He swallowed.
He never read more than a page. This book …
It wasn’t the author’s regular style of writing nor was it fiction.
But only he knew that…
She could sit endlessly and write. Sometimes through the entire day and night.
But the real test was when she had him read it and give her his opinion on what she had written.
He grumbled. She persisted.
And despite himself and his limited vocabulary, he would be awestruck at what she put out.
This book though…
Episode after episode narrated tales that he had already heard firsthand. Episodes that he had sometimes volunteered opinions on or sometimes was asked to give an opinion on.
Chapters from the author’s own life.
Disguised as fiction.
He recognized the characters, the episodes, and the narratives.
But that is not what had bothered him.
What bothered him was….
He wasn’t featured in the book. At all…
It had been a few weeks since he had read the book. He had tried putting it behind him. But it niggled at him.
He didn’t know if it was the coincidences leading up to it or finding the book itself. Or that he hadn’t even found a mention- even if it was expressing disdain.
But it stayed and it bothered him enough to look up the author.
He couldn’t find anything.
How could this girl disappear?
She had hovered around him 24/7, annoying him to no end. She cooked like a goddess, sang like an angel, and danced like a firecracker had set her off.
Her constant non-stop chatter drove him crazy. Her pranks and uninhibited laughter almost left him unhinged.
He was her favorite victim. And her favorite child.
However, he came from a family where women didn’t even speak unless they were spoken to. Conditioned like that, he often looked at all her actions with a grim eye. It barely threw her off. She just cranked the lever further up and eventually, piece by piece, she broke him enough for him to smile, laugh or simply shrug her antics off.
The cacophony around her was unbearable and he would constantly question God’s wisdom in having her in his life.
She took days off to make sure everything was in place, was always there before he asked her twice holding his hand and smiling like she had won the world. Her own career stood neglected as she watched him rise.
It was hard to miss the care and affection in every little thought and action. He never commented on it except admonish her sometimes for doing too much.
He didn’t even match her halfway through. He saw the disappointment in her eyes from time to time, but he knew he had to leave someday and kept himself together. He rarely gave her gifts or took her out but the day he did, her eyes lit up. She would smother him with kisses and make him feel like the greatest there ever had been. He knew he only did the bare minimum, and the guilt was hard to keep aside.
He stopped himself.
What was he doing?
He should be glad he wasn’t in the book.
He kept the book aside and returned to work, the workaholic in him consuming him in minutes, his restlessness from a few minutes ago long forgotten.
“Yes…yes, I had put in a request for the author’s information. Yes, I am an old friend so if the author is okay with it, yes, I would like to communicate with her.”
He had given up and reached out to the publishers.
Had she moved?
It had been a long time indeed.
Perhaps, there was no harm in reconnecting.
There shouldn’t be any bitterness anymore. These episodes could happen to anyone.
It was three months after this communication that he found himself ringing a doorbell in Delhi.
Even now he couldn’t believe that he had gone through all these motions just to see her again.
After he had communicated with the publishers his desire of meeting her, everything had escalated.
He began waiting each day for their response. Meanwhile, he also continued looking her up, trying to find more details. But it was like she had disappeared into thin air. This time the silence around her was unnerving.
But there had been times like these when silence had prevailed between them. Deathly. To the point, it scared him. That is when she would be writing.
He had lied to his wife and family about his visit. A work trip for two weeks. He saw the doubt in his wife’s eyes and the covert disappointment but when had he been a man to explain?
Why do you hide everything so much? Is it so hard to just be truthful?
Truth was he never knew how to explain. He couldn’t explain to her then and to his wife now. Everything was so complex.
Time…. somehow, time had brought Anuja back into his head so that even with his kind of personality, he hadn’t been able to switch her off. It seemed to force him to pay attention.
And once he decided to, he couldn’t wait to see her again.
He looked over the colonial bungalow intrigued while he waited for the door to open.
A Kurta-clad man opened the door. He was sturdily built, with a smattering of grey at his temples and wore a warm smile,
He nodded and was beckoned in. He followed, his eyes taking the architecture and interiors in. The house appeared to have seen years but was tasteful and spoke of character. He smiled to himself. This was someplace he could easily imagine her settling in.
As soon as he sat down, someone came in with water and a drink. He smiled,
“Thank you. “
The man sitting across on a dewan smiled as well,
“You have come a long way, it will help.”
“You are right.”
A long way it was. He wanted to talk to her.
Hear her voice again. Hear her laugh again.
You never even felt my loss. You just disappeared as soon as your family called. Didn’t I mean anything to you?
The last words she left him with. But I am here after all this time, and I don’t know why…
“How was your journey?” He heard himself being asked.
Nodding, he replied,
“Good. Thank you for agreeing to meet me.”
The man nodded.
“Vikram. Anuja’s husband.”
He had anticipated it, and yet it hit him.
Anuja Rathore. Now his muse.
“I am glad to hear that. Didn’t know she got married. We lost touch.”
The man smiled,
“Not so much. You found her or rather found your way back to her, didn’t you?”
He kept silent and looked at the man. How much did he know?
Snacks were wheeled in,
“Oh… I …, “He started shaking his head at them,
The man laughed,
“Oh, you cannot refuse at all.”
They both laughed.
“Is she out?” He asked finally after they were done with one round of snacks and small talk.
The man smiled,
“Yes, you could say that. “
He caught on to that,
“What… would you say… to that?”
Another mysterious smile,
“Anuja… will be out for a while. So… you found her book?”
“She used to write but didn’t know she published a full-fledged book. Since she moved back to India- I didn’t know that either- so I am even more surprised to find it in a far-flung mountain town in Colorado. “
The man smiled,
“That wasn’t a fluke. She left the book there. “
He paused, halfway through his drink and looked up,
The man nodded.
“She just published one copy of that book…and left it there…”
He kept silent for a while. A memory niggled,
It was on the last day of their trip to Ouray. He was busy with the other members of the group till he noticed she was missing. He tried calling her, but she wouldn’t pick up. When he finally spotted her in a gift shop, he walked in wanting to rage at her, but she looked up at him and smiled…
“Look, this is a wooden chess set from the 1800’s and this … a doll house from the 50’s.”
“Why aren’t you picking up your calls?”
“Chill! Check this vintage gift shop out! “
“Not interested… c’mon…”
He took a picture of the shop,
“Next time… I promise, c’mon…”
The vintage shop. Was it the same shop…? He would never know…
He looked at Vikram now,
Vikram answered plainly,
“She wanted to leave Colorado in Colorado.”
“This was after she moved back here?”
“This was last year.”
He kept silent.
“Where is she?”
“Anuja passed away last September.”
His heart stopped.
“She had uterine cancer. The trip was before her chemo started. “
Suddenly the storm he hadn’t known he suppressed for years seemed to find expression. A dagger sliced through his heart even as he felt the sting of tears like a whiplash,
“Sorry…” He finally muttered, looking down.
He didn’t know who he was apologizing to.
He felt a hand on his shoulder,
“Me too. “
After a brief silence, Vikram continued,
“She never mentioned you…but I think she waited…”
He looked up,
“So, you… knew…?”
Vikram smiled, then shook his head,
“No… she never mentioned you. At all. “Vikram sighed, “A few days before she …she also gave me something else to give you when you came here…so your visit was…anticipated.”
It wasn’t an if… it was a when…
He noticed another brown paper bag on the table which was then carefully handed over to him. He took his time looking into it.
Some of the gifts he had given her. All the gifts he had given her.
He looked for something else.
Please let there be a letter. Talk to me one more time.
“She said wanted to let go of what she held closest to her heart. Whatever she gave back was what she let go of. Shadows, she called it…But shadows are essential, aren’t they? “
Trying to gather shreds of himself while fighting back tears, he paused before he replied,
“But when have they been able to withstand strong light?”
A deep sense of loss finally settled into him, his heart feeling hollow and life meaningless.
His father’s voice. The past should never be touched.
A trickle into the past had led him here. And now he would never be the same again.
She had let go of him.
He, however, hadn’t.