A lot can happen over coffee…

She left office and was waiting impatiently for the lift to arrive, her faux leather bag clutched in one hand, and a working laptop in the other. The plush lift arrived and she threw a quick glance at the people she was going to share the lift with. And then saw him. Composed and unruffled, he looked as charming as he had done on the day they had first met. Just at that moment, his eyes looked up from his Blackberry to the woman who had just boarded the lift. He looked clearly intrigued, even a little amused, and attempted a half-smile. She fumbled and just about managed to look confused.
In the twenty second journey together that followed, their minds unconsciously did a wild run through all significant moments they had spent, and the heart-breaking separation that had then seemed inevitable. She was in a heap of emotions, desperately trying to put up a show bordering between irritation and nonchalance when those clearly were not the emotions on top of her mind. On top of her mind, rather annoyingly, was pure worry about how she looked right now, and whether her recklessly loud heartbeats were audible to everyone around. He hopelessly continued staring into his BB, but couldn’t help the flutters in his heart that she had just caused.
It was a year since they had separated. After a year of marriage. A struggling marriage following a sensuous courtship. The inter-cultural marriage for which they had fought everyone who mattered. The marriage that had eventually succumbed to their own ‘lack of compatibility’, as the lawyer had so effortlessly put it.
The lift reached the lobby and they stepped out, more slowly than the others. “Coffee? For old times’ sake?”, he asked, with what appeared to be genuine warmth. “Why not?”, she felt the words tumble from her mouth. And they stepped into the coffee shop, both their heads spinning with excitement and anticipation for what lay ahead. All for old times’ sake.
She was surprised when he remembered exactly what she preferred in coffee, and confirmed with her before ordering the same. “I see your tastes haven’t changed very much”, he laughed. She didn’t know what to answer then, for anything she felt she answered may turn out to be a cheeky response. She gulped her intense desire to retort immediately (one of her worst traits that), and smiled, tilting her head to one side. He still remembered the devastating effect her smile could have. Her face and demeanour took a completely new persona when she smiled. Her eyes smiled along with her lips, and made her appear like a mischievous reprimanded child, suddenly buoyant on being asked to leave the classroom.
There was an inevitable silence while both of them scanned for safe topics in their heads. Family. Dangerous territory. Personal life. Too personal. Work. Seemingly the only potentially safe topic in the current situation.
“So tell me”, she said, “What are you doing in my building?”
“Well, I needed to tune in with a client whom my team had long written off. I thought we should definitely give a second shot to the business case.” The first word that had come to his head was ‘relationship’, but he had feared the innuendo in it and had hastily replaced it with ‘case’.
Coffee acted as an effective ice-breaker. They chugged along effortlessly about work, her new wins, his expanding team, and she realized they were actually having quite a pleasant conversation, any initial discomfort having evaporated. She still remembered, with a flash of regret, that this was a meeting which had to end, and that she couldn’t just hop on with him to a home they both belonged to. And then she felt ashamed at her regret.
“So shall we leave?” she asked, careful not to appear over-excited by the meeting.
Gentleman that he is…or rather appears to be, she thought, bitter memories resurfacing. Her train of thought was broken by something that caught her eye. He was still wearing his wedding ring. What a show for nothing – her bitter subconscious rebuked, while her upper mind was very surprisingly, still calm. She had already removed hers. She was clinical and procedure oriented that way, and had ticked off box after box in the separation checklist.
“Do you need a lift”?
“No, I have my car”, she lied. Her car was off for service today. The thought of tottering home in a rickety old auto, or worse, booking a cab now and waiting back in her office cubicle till it arrived, was sickening. She still managed to put up a brave goodbye smile and waved nonchalantly in his direction. She was expecting him to walk towards the parking lot, and then realized that she too was supposed to be headed there. She walked alongside him, thinking about an appropriate excuse for her car having suddenly disappeared from the parking lot.
“Uhmmm… I have to pick up a friend”, she offered.
Oh…sure. Shall I proceed then?”
Of course. Happy weekend.”
“Thank you. And thanks for the nice evening, and for agreeing to stop by.”
He smiled, and proceeded towards his silver Passat, and she pretended to dabble with her phone to trace her non-existent friend she was supposed to pick up. He half-waved as he drove away, and she felt her heart grow very heavy suddenly. She walked past the rickshaw stand, deciding that a quick walk would do good to clear her head.
She thought it was so ironical to have had a nice sweet date with her ex-husband. He, of all people, with whom she couldn’t even stay in the same house, and had hence fought for a formal separation. She thought of what her parents would say if they knew she was gallivanting in a coffee shop with that guy. She chuckled when she thought of her over-protective, mother-hen best friend, gaping with her eyeballs wide, on getting to know who her smug evening coffee companion was. And most importantly, what he thought of their meeting today.
As he was driving back, his mind went blank for a while, and then the memories of the evening he had spent slowly crept up like the muted scents of a potpourri lapping up a room. The first crystallized thought that came to his head was that it was the best evening he had had in a long time.
She dug her mind for bits of bitterness and anger, but she found those were rather miniscule compared to the excitement of having bumped into him again. She just wasn’t angry or avengeful, however hard she tried to focus on being so. She felt uncannily composed, almost like a precocious child suddenly struck by a flash of wisdom.
He thought about the churlish and immature fights that had eaten up their precious limited time together. When both had careers that almost threatened to consume their lives, it was no surprise that their relationship had required an extra dose of special care and effort at both ends to keep it alive. And they had impatiently given up. Just like that. Unable to take on the pressures of sorting it out. Feeling a mad urge to escape, to run away from it all.
Of course, having a coffee date and living under the same roof are not the same. Clear your head. You can’t afford to once again be swept off your feet by that overly romantic guy who has no clue how to deal with marriage.
If I could objectively name a single trait of hers as the cause of our rift. Well, everyone has theirs. And I was no hero either.
Well, its not as if he had an affair or something. I mean, people make mistakes. Why didn’t I just stick around? Or maybe he couldn’t have an affair, just because he didn’t have the time for it. He didn’t have time for himself, for me, or for the marriage.
He realized that his parents never attempted to settle their arguments. He appreciated their ability not to interefere, but the way they had coldly distanced himself from his life was at times more disconcerting to him than their interference would have probably been. He felt it would have been much more natural and spontaneous, had they just picked up the phone, or arrived bags in hand, as soon as they heard about the serious discord between their son and his wife. Much as he didn’t want to blame them for his separation, he couldn’t now deny there was a part they could have played, but simply didn’t, maybe because she was not initially their choice or from their culture. He felt a sudden and unexpected tinge of warmth towards her parents, who had stood by her like a rock, and taken over charge completely from their beloved daughter, without even once belting out the ‘we told you so’.
She believed her parents had played an overwhelmingly dominating role in this episode. As soon as their differences started creeping up, they had always blamed him for not being able to cope with the technicalities of a married life. She, their darling daughter could do nothing wrong and hence was never on the radar. She had known this upsetting fact all along, and was surprised how conveniently she had managed to ignore it and effortlessly concur with them on the blame game.
He felt he could have given some more time to the marriage and realized, with a shudder, that he seemed to have so much more time on his hands after the separation, and even returned home from work earlier than before.
She felt they could have simply planned better outsourced more work rather than perpetually blaming each other for not being able to contribute.
He had been introduced to a few women by his friends, but none of them could even appear intelligent enough to hold his interest for more than a few minutes. All they could talk about was latest fashion trends, best deals, best brands and he felt suffocated by the retail shopaholism. He wondered if she had already found someone.
She remembered the lonely nights she had spent in the last one year, often missing his comforting silhouette. But she had also been largely at peace, and even relieved, as if a pesky ingrown toenail had been snapped off. Back on her usual well-oiled routine, with nothing threatening to upset it.
The weekend went by slowly, and was uninteresting. He couldn’t wait for Monday. He knew she liked to spend her weekends at home, fully for the family, with the family, and that he had no chance of bumping into her.
She took her parents out for shopping, and had lunch at her best friend’s place. All along, she felt she was hiding a part of her soul from all of them – who had stood by her in her moment of crisis. She resolved not to behave like a vapid schoolgirl, but woke up on Monday morning with butterflies in her stomach – the first waking up thought one gets on stumbling upon a new crush, with endorphins coursing madly through the head. Aaah, to be in love again – she stretched languidly, and then hastily reprimanded herself she wasn’t that vulnerable to go for an affair on the rebound. And that too with the same guy. She proceeded to get ready for work, and selected an especially nice ensemble, the ones she only reserved for high profile meetings. It irritated her that he still held her strings somewhere deep inside her, and resolved to change into something else, but then decided to go on as changing would mean she had worn it in the first place only for him. Her mind was thoroughly distracted. The coffee shop seemed to mock at her as she walked past. The day went on like any other, barring the fact that she was all dressed up and utterly restless. She kept her phone at direct view, almost as if she was scared she may not hear him call. It was ironical that until only a few days back, she had been so motivated and charged up about her work. The day passed without any milestone or drive. She reluctantly shot out the only important email for the day to a client, pushing herself to do it so that it solaced her that she had not been entirely unproductive and tranced. When she finally could take the inertia no more, and picked up her bag to leave, she heard her phone buzz. Her heart leapt when she saw the number. She had removed it from her contact list, yet she knew very well it was his.
He asked her if she was free and ready to leave office. Not wanting to appear so readily available, she said she would need another half hour to wrap up her work. He asked her if she could join him for a drink. She wanted to be prude and decline, but excitement got too much of her, and she decided it didn’t mean much if she went for a drink. After all, she wasn’t a child and there was no harm if she had a perfectly mature conversation with a perfectly known guy.
The following weekend, he couldn’t believe he had met her every day of the week. That he had had the balls to ask her out. And that she had agreed. They had enjoyed themselves, bringing back the fierce and tremulous attraction of their courtship days. No strings. Just a coffee or a drink and go back to your closeted lives. An esoteric hour in their clock worked lives. It was a heady experience to already have decoded the little details of the person you dated. Like how he always had to have a glass of water before having his tea. And how he hated ties. Like how she hated cooked tomatoes and would always pick them out from her meal. Like he wanted his curries to be slathered with gravy, while she liked them dried and roasted. Like how, when she nodded her head without meeting his eye, it meant she didn’t agree with him. Like how he always carried the faintest trace of a smile when he was not speaking the truth.
The lines they had initially drawn around sensitive topics had started to blur.
She came back home with a not-so-good-feeling, the kind you get when you have gobbled up an entire bar of chocolate while on a diet plan and its not a cheat day. It wasn’t that she had been forced into these dates. She enjoyed herself, enjoyed the conversation, the attention, his suave. But what she couldn’t digest or figure out was if she was once again moving towards a dead end. Scenes from their last few months together flashed before her closed eyes like the bitter insides of a sugar-coated pill.
Their marriage had started on a high note, fueled by explosive attraction and common wavelength. As everyday mundane took over, it became a challenge given that both of them loved to return to a running home set in motion – food on the table, essentials stocked, banal tasks managed. Their jobs were high profile and demanding, where work-life balance held no meaning. Work was life. There were always client deadlines to be met. Groceries to be bought. Office get-togethers to be attended. Kitchen cabinets to be sorted. Social circles to be entertained. Maids to be instructed. Books to be read. Conferences to be attended. Movies to catch up on. Cooks to be replaced. Bills to be tracked and paid. Cricket to be up-to-date with. Her targets. His KPIs. Car to be serviced. Bank matters to be sorted. Laundry to be managed. Professional certifications to be maintained. There was always, always, something to be done. Her to-do lists were painstakingly made and crossed out, but they never seemed to end. More than the magnitude of the tasks, it was often the sheer attitudes in friction. He often felt she was more clued in to her job rather than to their personal life or household matters. She felt it had just taken a few months of marriage to shake off the two inch layer of genteel, beneath which his chauvinism was now perfectly visible.
Her parents were certainly not happy with her choice and she could sense it right through. It was very disconcerting that the people who were the closest to her did not approve of someone as close to her as he was. Torn between two ends and eternally being asked to act out the peacemaker role took a heavy toll on her. With his parents she had a politely cold equation. Decrepit relationships seemed to lay trapped deep inside their apparently affluent and successful life. Their arguments steadily took over their intense attraction and intimacy. Things that had actually drawn them closer now seemed soporific.
The last two months had been the worst. He was hardly home before the wee morning hours, and that pissed her to no end. Weary of the constant nagging, to a point, which he felt ashamed to recall even now, when insipid conversations with his secretary had seemed to provide more peace and distraction. She just didn’t get how he always had late night meetings. He had client calls over the weekends taken from office. He started distancing himself. She tried to juggle the home responsibilities alone for a while, and then gave up, deciding she deserved better. And that’s when it hit her. She just moved back with her parents. And walked out of his life. It was she who had called up to let him know she needed a break. He hadn’t even called. That was what had hurt her the most, and pushed her to separation.
They couldn’t decide if they were overreacting, and they were too puffed up to go to a marriage counsellor. Some of their friends advised them that these issues were minor stumbling blocks that wiggled their way into every marriage. They retorted saying it was ultimately the little things and not newsworthy stuff that made up everyday life.
And so had they slipped effortlessly out of each other’s lives in the garb of mutual incompatibility. Escaping from something that created tremors, demanded multiple adjustments out of them.
This time around, they couldn’t place a finger on what had changed – whether it was his attitude, her maturity, or the freak coincidence played by destiny.
She resolved to decline any further invitations of coffee with him.
He resolved not to ask her out again.
No calls were exchanged on Monday. It was almost as if the week in between had never existed. She tried not to look at the coffee shop as she walked out of her office.
It didn’t take them long to figure out that their formal separation had been more of a relief, but the separation now was probably even more heart-breaking. The last week had thrown up possibilities that they had not known still existed. Moments that could possibly be recreated, over and over again, in their lifetimes. A relationship that could perhaps be held together by the power of emotions. Where, for a moment perhaps, the heart could rule over the mind.
That night, although they slept in different corners of the city, the same silvery moonlight slanted through their window panes. And spun their heavy eyelids into a deep, dreamless sleep.