Aashisha is a sentimentalist who makes a job out of collecting feelings of all kinds, and has an enormous appetite for books (mostly fiction) with a special place in her heart for the written word, be it prose or poetry.
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Across the Line
The regional bahn started from platform 25 in Strasbourg with its first stop at Krimmeri-Meinau. I settled on a window seat looking out at a red-cheeked toddler running towards the train in the cold.
I looked at my phone. It would be thirty minutes till I get there.
It started moving just as the child rushed in with his mother.
The second stop came sooner than I expected – “Kehl.”
Almost two years ago.
Take the tram to Rue de Jaures and bus number 21 from there. Now make yourselves comfortable. When you see the crowd alighting in droves and the bus emptying itself like a mug of beer down a young man’s throat, it will be your cue to get down. You will then have reached the famous supermarket chain in Kehl.
The thing about Strasbourg is that it lies on the border between France and Germany as a part of the Alsace region, one of the first regions to be occupied by Nazi Germany. My university is in the beautiful city of Strasbourg. But like all the price-conscious people like me, I cross over to Germany on a weekly basis to make my purchases, be it groceries, cosmetics, appliances, und so weiter.
We had met in Kehl. No, not while grocery shopping, thank you very much. There is a famous bar in Kehl by the name of Golden. Now I am not a party person, not because my parents are very conservative Indians and my life is a rip-off of theirs; but because I genuinely can’t figure out what to do at a party. I am used to doing things totally and completely. Sitting down to a huge satiating meal and finishing it in one go. Dancing like crazy. Talking like I will never get to open my mouth again. Stuff like that. But that night, my college mates cajoled me to a party.
It was 14 February and my girls were taking me to ‘the hottest little place there is’. The Golden Café was situated right in the middle of the bustling market, its gold lights glittering in the night. It was warm and cozy inside, with people milling about with drinks, dancing to tunes I had so often heard on the radio and laughing, joking, in short doing everything I was not much used to.
“Really, Karen. You shouldn’t have brought me here.” I told her, regretting having come.
She handed me a drink and motioned me to dance. I rolled my eyes. Duh. Stuck there till morning.
Just then, someone banged into me and I felt a cold wetness down one side of my arm.
I looked around to see an Indian guy holding a glass of wine, looking as if he had committed a crime.
“Aah, it’s okay.” I didn’t know what else to say.
“No, seriously, it was my fault. I…Ariana, you shouldn’t have!” he looked accusingly at a blonde girl in a lovely green dress who seemed to be giggling.
“It’s really okay,” I repeated.
“He gets so worked up, this guy!” Ariana looked at me and said. “We brought him here to loosen up a bit.”
“They are my flatmates.” He said, almost apologetically. “Hi, I am Mohit.”
“Hi. Neha this side.”
“So, you work here?”
“Actually, we have come over from Strasbourg…”
“Really? Where the Notre Dame cathedral is?”
“Yeah, yeah. I live nearby actually…”
I had imagined that I would get bored to death till morning. Surprisingly, I never realized that we were up chatting till 6 am, as fresh as the pigeons that had accumulated outside.
“What are your plans for today?” Mohit asked me as we prepared to file out of the bar first thing in the dawn.
“I think I should head back now.”
“Kork.” The disembodied voice on the train sounded.
A year ago.
I remembered the day we decided to “cross over” from France to Germany. It was when Mohit came to visit me in Strasbourg on my birthday. He baked me my favorite chocolate caramel cake. After hungrily devouring the whole one kilogram of chocolate, butter, caramel, nuts and oodles of calories along with dunking enormous swigs of beer, we decided in a fit of drunkenness to walk over to Kehl, just to get some champagne.
What a walk it was! We were swaying in the breeze, girls and boys on bicycles passing us, without sparing our mad forms a look. We walked the entire night and turned up at the stores early in the morning at 7 am, thoroughly soused, barely able to walk and yet, so wild. The kind lady at Lidl merely shook her head and smiled. I have a very vague idea of how we made our way back. But I remember seeing the bus no. 21 and hauling Mohit along with myself into it. Once we were at Jean Jaures, we staggered to my flat and much to the annoyance of my fellow flatmates, we blundered in, looking utterly disgraceful. When I think of that day, all I feel is a sudden wistfulness, as if that was a different day and age.
Two months ago.
Ariana sometimes left her cat with Mohit. The cat – Shanky was pretty comfortable with him. He often kept some milk in a saucer for her to lap up. I had got an unexpected off that day and decided to surprise him. I let myself into the apartment as usual and was a little disappointed at not finding him in the room. When I saw Shanky roaming outside, I bent down to pet her. She rolled her eyes at me and darted up the stairs. Some cat she was! I decided to go up to Ariana’s room to have a chat. The door was partly ajar and before I could knock, Shanky ran into the room, opening the door as she went.
I guess I should have felt more angry than embarrassed, but the scene was so shocking that I was compelled to run away as soon as Shanky opened the door to it. I ran back to the room, collected my stuff and before Mohit could come down and explain anything, I had left the apartment.
“She is a bit weird, isn’t she? I mean too prickly…” she had commented to Mohit later, something that I came to know when he told me a full two weeks after the incident. Had he gotten his way, he would have told me right then and there. But I had gone back to Strasbourg, unable to bear the circumstances.
Probably, I had overreacted. Perhaps, it was not a big deal. Ariana had just broken up with Jeremy (another of his flatmates) and had been in a kind of state ever since. Since Mohit had always had a soft corner for Ariana, she had come running to him. Perhaps the kiss was just a consolation thing? Not that I understand such things as consolation lovemaking. And no, they had not made love. I believed Mohit when he told me everything. He was essentially a simple guy and he wouldn’t do that to me. What we had was much much more. I knew that. And yet, that scene of them snogging had somehow stuck in my head. Perhaps, because I had assumed something was on between them when I first met Mohit at Golden Café. Or maybe it was this stupid cross country thing. Sure, we were not very far from each other. And I had heard of my fellow friends carrying on long distance relationships from India with their partners in the US. And yet, these seventeen miles between Strasbourg and Offenburg had never seemed greater.
A month ago.
We had had these conversations before. And he always said the same things.
“It was a spur-of-the-moment thing!” “You have no idea how sorry I am…” “I know it’s lame to even say it like this. But…she was insistent…I don’t know what she wanted. We have always been good friends. She ruined it…” “It was that ONE time for heaven’s sake! You can’t be that mad!”
And I kept on with my arguments.
“You do remember when I first met you. I really thought you guys were an item.” “It was not that one time I’m talking about. It’s also about the distance between us.”
Lately, what with my classes and this job, things hadn’t been as smooth as I might have wanted them to be. We met far less often. He had got busy with his hackathons and his hiking trips and what not. He had his job too.
“What does it mean, then?” he asked me, his voice holding a trace of that old tremor that indicated he was serious.
“You know what it means,” I replied a little guiltily. “You know very well.”
“So, it’s over?” he asked bluntly.
“I meant we could take some time thinking about things. Let’s not rush through…” But lame as it sounded, I knew exactly what I meant. I didn’t think we would last. To be fair to him, he had been a great guy. But it was not in my nature to accept such things so easily. I was not willing to take that ‘thoughtless liplock’ as just that. I know what proximity does. It makes people fall for each other. I had seen that happen to me before. Besides, Ariana was a wonderful girl, if only a trifle temperamental.
“We were not rushing through anything., he said quietly.
But we were, I thought to myself. We were planning to meet each others’ families this time when we got back to India.
“I just mean that we might be…you know,” I began. “…needing a…compulsory respite-”
“Oh stop it!” he snapped. “Look…I am sorry. I know it was my fault, passive acceptance is as good as being hand-in-glove. I…I only wanted to ask for one thing. Just one thing.”
“Our anniversary is barely a month away. We would be two years old already. Can’t we celebrate that? Just give me one chance. One chance to make it all right again. One month is all I ask of you.”
And so it was decided. We had a trial month ahead of us, a post which the future of our relationship would be decided.
13 Feb, evening.
As I walked from the S-Bahn station to the apartment, the keys jangled in my pocket. The keys to his apartment. I felt a little sad about thinking that I won’t be in possession of those keys any longer. For quite some time, I had started assuming Germany as my second home. Well, third home to be precise. France being my second and of course, India, my birth land being the first.
I inserted the key in the door lock, shoving away the snow with my boots and let myself in. The apartment smelt of bakery stuff- bagels, breads, doughnuts…an odor I loved. The scent of baguettes and pretzels assailed me. We often breakfasted on this combination- baguettes (a typically French thing) and pretzels (a very German choice) along with yogurt and milk. Mohit was a fan of milk and cereal but I preferred yogurt. Since he came to know of my preferences, he had begun to stock up on Epigamias and Danones, so that whenever I came to stay, I would always have a cup of yogurt with my meal.
I found him in his room, working away at his assignments.
“Hey,” he got up as soon as he saw me, his face breaking into a wide grin. “I thought you were coming tomorrow. You should have told me. I would have picked you up, you know.”
I know,” I said, my face buried in his neck, taking in the familiar scent of his aftershave, trying to tell myself that nothing had changed, that we were the same as we had been two years ago.
“I went to the Bollywood store today. Got some rotis. We could have some aloo-paranthas today.”
“That would be nice.”
That night, we spent mashing the potatoes and stuffing them in the rotis he had bought from the Bollywood store. A frisson of tenderness coursed through me when I realized that he had remembered the fact that I loved paranthas and missed Ma’s rotis back in Delhi.
“Hmmm…something smelling great here!” Ariana’s voice broke through the comfortable quiet between the two of us.
I gave her a polite smile, not able to bring myself to reply to her.
“So, what’s cooking?” she asked cheerfully, laying a hand on Mohit’s shoulder, apparently unaware of the tension she had caused me.
“We are just making some paranthas.” Mohit replied. I don’t know if it was just me but I could detect a faint steel in his tone.
“I love paranthas!” she gushed.
“We would love to make you some.” I don’t know where that came from but there it was. Me being friendly to this woman who was the cause of the wreck in our relationship.
“Awww that is so sweet of you guys! I will get some beer.” Saying so, she stomped off.
The thing about Ariana is she just doesn’t get it. With her, everything is hunky-dory. She lives in her own little world. Even so, I found it a trifle hard to be nice to her.
13 Feb, night.
We had dinner with Ariana and Jeremy (who had got back together within a fortnight). They provided the drinks while we made the food. If you looked at it like a scene from a soap opera, we would probably appear to be a ragtag bunch of friends from different races and different countries, enjoying a beautiful meal together. Probably the other couple was genuinely having fun. Maybe Mohit too was. But I could feel the tension beneath. It was one day to the decision. My decision. Maybe that’s why he didn’t look that bothered. He had handed over the decision to me.
When we got back to our rooms and he put on my favorite movie (which he found terribly soppy), I wondered if he was trying very hard out of guilt or because he really wanted us to be together. Gerard Butler was as dapper as ever, his smile making my breath catch as it had the first time I had watched ‘P.S. I Love You’.
“So, you will be staying tomorrow, right?” he asked, his voice betraying a faint trace of alarm.
“Well, I am glad Valentine’s fell on a Saturday this time. I can stay till Sunday because of it.”
“That’s really great, you know. I am really looking forward to it.”
“Mohit, you really don’t have to-”
“Don’t have to what? I don’t have to save my relationship, you mean? Or that it’s already so far gone that there is nothing to save?”
14 Feb morning.
We had never carried umbrellas even when we had come to expect unexpected drizzles and snow, even when our boots would get wet and our hands would turn blue with cold. I had in fact gifted Mohit an umbrella once, saying “Shoes take a lot of time to dry, you know. You should carry one with you.”
But he had gifted me a ‘waterproof polish’ that was supposed to keep my boots waterproof, which it surprisingly did.
That morning, when we set out to get some groceries, we could see love striding through the streets of Offenburg. Love-shaped balloons, red hearts, mushy gushy references, love was everywhere except where I wished it were.
The lady at the grocery store was draped in red. I wondered how she was feeling wearing funny heart-shaped earrings and a red dress that made her look like a Christmas bauble in a tutu.
“So, what do you want to do today?” he asked me. I hadn’t realized that his face had come so close to mine.
“Umm…” Wasn’t he supposed to create that perfect evening that would change my mind, today of all days?
“I mean, in order to celebrate the day.”
“Whatever, really. It’s up to you.”
He looked at me, his eyes steady and penetrating.
“You have already given up, haven’t you?” he said softly. Without waiting for a reply, he went on ahead to the pizza section.
We came home, laden with the week’s groceries, our heavy silences and heavier feelings.
14 Feb, evening.
Despite everything, when we sat down to watch our favorite seasons of Seinfeld, I couldn’t help but feel a curious warmth coursing through me. He had offered me a number of ways to spend the day – spend the night at Golden (where we had first met), go to that little eatery where they made the best doner-kebabs, go shopping (I can only imagine how hard it must have been for him to say this) or have takeout pizzas while watching Netflix.
“We will do what you choose.” I said.
“That’s unfair. You could use that against me!”
Nevertheless, we did what he wanted (not that I didn’t want the same). We stayed home and watched Netflix. As was his won’t, he baked me his special and my favorite caramel cake. I offered to heat the pizzas. He was kinda perfect at cakes, I thought, as I waited in the kitchen, the oven doing its thing. My eyes wandered over to the room on the right. Ariana’s room was empty tonight. She probably has a date and it wasn’t Jeremy. Really, what was that kiss worth that day? I asked myself. Or maybe it is my insecurity because we live farther than most couples I know. Or because…
What was that smell?
I checked the induction and then my eyes fell on the oven…
The pizzas had been burnt to a crisp!
My mind started working furiously. I could run to the supermarket and get some new pizzas. But it was 9 pm. None of them would be open now. For a second, I had started missing our kinaare ki dukaan in Delhi where the fat uncles and bhaiyyas would be at their shops till 10:30 to 11 and would hand you bottles of Pepsi or a packet of crisps even as they were shutting down.
What if I told Mohit that eating out wouldn’t be such a bad idea? Barring the fact that the restros would be overbooked and there would be long and tortuous lines-in-waiting…
I opened the refrigerator door to sound out if there was anything at all there that could serve as a meal. But the sight of broccoli and pasta in comparison to a double cheese pizza was pitiful at best. I was so screwed!
“Aaaah!!” I started on seeing Mohit enter the kitchen. “Oh, I am sorry, I just didn’t see…I’m so sorry…”
“What happened?” he asked, his voice full of worry and concern.
“Nothing really,” I giggled but inside I was feeling like a jerk for having ruined the dinner.
Without saying another word, I showed him the blackened remains of what once were ridiculously expensive takeaway pizzas. I looked up at his face, which was going through the motions of regret, hunger and back to calm and composed.
“You don’t have to act all calm.” I snapped as my control nerve gave.
“Don’t what me. I know you are really pissed that I burnt the pizzas and we have nothing to eat as our anniversary dinner.” There. I had said it. It feels infinitely better when you admit your faults in a fit of rage.
“I didn’t say a word!” he protested.
“Your face said a thousand.”
“Now, you are over-reacting.”
“Who is over-reacting-”
I closed my eyes in consternation as Ariana came into the kitchen.
“When did you arrive?” Mohit asked in a clipped tone. He was evidently frustrated and was dreading Ariana’s presence at the moment we shared our moments, however belligerent.
“Oh just now. Hey, guys, meet Tom. Tom, this is Mohit and this is Neha.”
After some small talk, they retired to Ariana’s room taking us back to…
“So, where were we?” Mohit asked, rummaging in the fridge.
“You only have broccoli and pasta.” I rolled my eyes.
“I also have yogurt.” He brandished a set of four Epigamias we had bought in the morning. “And some Valentine’s special chocolates.” Well, I had to admit, he had quite a number of chocolates. Kgs to be precise.
“Were you planning on taking these to India?”
“Yeah, but I guess I have been keeping them for you all along.” He said, with that goofy grin on his face that made me laugh.
“Well, okay, you had me at chocolates.”
We laughed all the way to his room.
Two things happened that day:
a) I discovered that a simple pasta is quite delectable when you have a cup of yogurt to go with it and some chocolates to add up for dessert
b) Mohit and I somehow ended up jumping into our third year of relationship shenanigans.
That night, we literally saw love walking all over the place.