The past can catch up when you least expect it to.
Kajal sat staring at the letter in her hand feeling as though the ground had tilted beneath her feet. Around her everything went by like another normal day. Her husband Ashwin was upstairs getting ready for work, her two sons Ashish and Dhruv were fighting over breakfast. The kitchen was full of homely sounds as coffee was brewed and toast made by her housekeeper. But for her the world had shifted on its axis. Suddenly she was not Kajal-the wife, the mother, the teacher. In a moment she went back to Kajal as she had been 8 years back. Someone’s lover.
The letter fluttered to the floor as she dimly became aware of her surroundings. Shaking herself out of her trance she quickly scooped the letter and tucked it into the pocket of her trousers just as Ashwin came down.
“Hey honey, have you had breakfast?” he absently dropped her a kiss on her forehead as she looked at him with wide eyes, like a doe caught in the headlights of a car. “Kajal! You okay?” Ashwin frowned at his wife noting her sickly pallor. “Are you feeling sick? Should we go to the doctor?” He touched her forehead, she was clammy.
“No! No, I’m okay.” Kajal made an effort to get herself under control and prayed that Ashwin wouldn’t see the guilt in her eyes. She smiled as she tucked a hand in his and walked towards the kitchen. Somehow she managed to eat a slice of toast even though she felt as though the crumbs would choke her. Her family was thankfully too busy with the daily morning routine to notice that anything was amiss. She couldn’t wait to be alone, to get her feet back on firm ground.
An hour later she sat on her bed and looked at the piece of paper that had rocked her steady world
I am not sure writing to you is the politically correct thing to do but I had to get this out of my system once and for all. I don’t even know if you’ll read this or notice it’s from me and just throw it away. I wouldn’t blame you if you did. The way things ended 8 years back was not how they were meant to be. Not how both of us had wanted them to be. I owe you an apology and an explanation. If you are interested in either, I’ll be there at the coffee shop where we used to meet at 3pm on the 24th. I don’t expect you to come but that doesn’t stop me from hoping that you will.
That was it. A few sentences and every memory that she had fought so hard to bury re-surfaced. Kajal swallowed back the tears that rose in her throat. She couldn’t allow herself to be weak, not again. That chapter with Neel was closed forever. There was no point in meeting him and dredging up all those memories again. And Ashwin, oh god if Ashwin found out he would be so hurt and angry. But wouldn’t she like to know what had happened all those years back, a traitorous voice whispered in her head. All those months of wondering, wouldn’t she like an answer to all her questions. She better than anyone knew that she had failed Ashwin as a wife. The spectre of her past had always stood between them; she hadn’t been able to let go of it. Wasn’t this a chance to finally put Neel’s ghost to rest? She got up and paced around restlessly. She knew why she was hesitating. What if seeing him again, after all these years, rekindled the feelings she had had for him???
Time stood still as they faced each other across the room. Suddenly the moment seemed to take on a surreal quality. The bustle of people around them faded as their eyes met and took them down memory lane of their own volition.
Kajal felt as though she couldn’t breathe. She stared at Neel and fought for composure. He had aged but that spark that had first drawn her to him was still there. She could feel its tangible presence. Panic assailed her. She should never have come to meet him. It was a mistake. But it was too late to turn back and disappear. Even as she stood staring at him stupidly he was walking towards her, that familiar gait causing her heart to beat faster and her breath to hitch.
“Kajal.” One word and she felt as though she was drowning in a flood of memories. She had had that voice take her name in so many different tones- in love, in passion and finally in anger. Taking a deep breath she pasted a smile on her face as she ignored his outstretched hand, “Hi Neel.”
He dropped his hand with a wry smile, mocking her. He knew very well she hadn’t shaken his hand for fear of touching him. He could always see through her. Once the fact would have thrilled her; now it only angered her at the advantage it gave him.
“You’re looking good.” He made a leisurely appraisal of her and Kajal, furious at her body’s automatic response snapped, “Thanks. I wish I could say the same for you.”
Neel laughed at the insult as he gestured to one of the tables, “Shall we sit or do you want to continue insulting me standing up?”
Kajal sat down, her insides churning. This was not what she had expected. Neel didn’t look the slightest bit repentant. In fact he was the same arrogant self that she had fallen for. Why had he called her here? Why now?
“What will you have?” He leaned back and smiled at her, causing her heart to lurch once more.
“Nothing. I am not here for a social meeting.” Kajal glared at him and fidgeted in her seat.
“Why are you here Kajal?” The softly spoken question had her going still. Why was she there? To finally put his ghost to rest or to show him that the years had been kind to her and that she still looked good? Wasn’t her ego wishing that he would grovel and apologise? Isn’t that why she had come?
“I came here coz I was curious. I mean things ended between us years back. I have moved on, I have a happy family and I am sure you have moved on too. So why contact me after so long?” Kajal felt a spark of satisfaction as she saw that her comment about happy family had hit home.
“Oh yes, your happy family. A husband, 2 kids, a dog- what you always wanted.”
“And what you didn’t; that’s why you left. So why don’t you tell me why exactly you sent me that letter. Somehow looking at you I really don’t think you are the least bit sorry about what happened.” Kajal felt a calmness descend over her. The conversation had turned in her favour and she meant to keep it that way.
“Come on Kajal, are you trying to say you haven’t thought about me all this time? Haven’t missed me? You couldn’t stay without hearing my voice for a day. Don’t you remember how good it used to be between us?” Neel casually placed a hand over hers his eyes caressing her as he lowered his voice seductively.
Kajal schooled her face into a mask and fought against flinching at his touch. Very deliberately she slid her hand from under his and propped it under her chin.
Then she smiled.
“You know Neel, I should actually thank you for calling me here. All those years back when you left, I was so heartbroken that I built you up to be something in my mind that you are not. Today I can finally see what you are and believe me I am so glad that you did me the favour of leaving me. If you hadn’t I would never have met Ashwin and I would have been missing out on having a decent person in my life. Someone who loves and respects me and expects nothing more than that from me.” Disdain filled her eyes as she looked at the man she thought she had loved so many years back and to whom she had given a piece of her heart for the past 8 years.
Neel leaned forward, his face contorted with rage, “Ashwin is it? And does this decent Ashwin know just how close we were my darling Kajal? Or maybe I should tell him. After all a decent, loving guy like him should be understanding enough about his wife’s past lover, don’t you think?”
“You are so predictable Neel. Somehow I had a feeling you would try something like this. You know why? Because even all those years back, I knew you better than most people did and I had already started seeing you for what you were. It’s unfortunate that you left me before full realisation struck coz I have no doubt that if you hadn’t, I would have left you.” Feeling stronger with each word Kajal got up to leave.
“One last thing Neel. Don’t try contacting me again. As far as I am concerned you are just a grown up version of the spoilt brat that you were 8 years back and I could really do without people like you in my life.”
She turned to leave and gasped as he caught hold of her wrist. “Leave my hand Neel.” Kajal could feel the rage pulsing through her as she remembered countless incidents like these, of scenes in public places.
“Hey Neel, you heard her. Now why don’t you let go of my wife’s hand?” Strolling up casually to the table, Ashwin caught hold of Neel’s wrist and freed Kajal’s hand from his grasp. He turned to his wife and smiled. “Sorry I’m late sweetheart, I got caught up in traffic.”
Kajal beamed at him as she slipped her hand through his arm. Turning to her past she said “Neel, meet my husband Ashwin. I would have asked you to have coffee with us, but you know what? You’re just not worth the effort. So goodbye.” She picked up her purse and started walking away with Ashwin. Turning suddenly she looked at the man sitting alone at the table and said “And Neel? In case you haven’t got the message till now, don’t even think of contacting me or my family again. As for Ashwin knowing about you, he knows every single thing and unlike you, he’s man enough to accept me the way I am.” Holding her head high she turned her back on the past and walked out of the café on the arm of the man who was her present…and her future.