Sunday, March 02, 2014

Puzzler - A Short Story.

Her eye balls trace the scene that flashes past her through the moving train. She slips into deep thought, her characteristic deep thought and almost looks through everything that passes in front of her eyes. Her brain works incessantly, spinning one thought after the other. The train comes to a gradual halt and the doors open to let passengers in and out. She doesn't seem to notice it. She's still looking out of the window. The lush cushion on her seat lets out a ruffle as some weight compresses it. Her thoughts come back to reality. She hears a rustle of the news paper from beside her. Reluctantly, she looks askance to catch a glimpse of the person parked next to her. She almost turns back to gaze out of the window - but her brain starts registering the features of the person next to her. Deep, hypnotic gaze and a smile that flashes perfectly aligned teeth. Lush blonde hair, gelled and combed back to reveal a broad forehead that frames perfect features. She realizes she's staring at him and in embarrassment, flashes an unsure smile - not the one that she usually gives. She somehow suspects that he wouldn't smile back.

But he does - his full lips part to reveal the perfect set of teeth again - his skin, a rugged red and some tan on the sides of his cheeks manifests tiny little light brown freckles with the clarity of a HD television. Visions of her colleague photo-shopping models flash in her mind - but doesn't imperfection have it's own charm? May be it does - her own teeth for instance - one of her front teeth ever so slightly overlaps the other giving her smile a character. Her thoughts drift back to reality and she realizes he's till smiling, looking at her and she keeps guessing if he'd had veneers to make his teeth look so perfect.

"Metro sexual?" - "Nada - may be not! - look at the faded jeans, wrinkled plaid shirt - probably bought off the clearance rack of Old Navy" - her mind starts spinning the usual tales about the people she comes across.

"Lovely day outside" - the usual conversation starter is thrown her way.

'Oh, yeah!" - after  yesterday's 40 degree Fahrenheit, who'd have thunk?" she replies.

He lets out a chuckle and repeats "who'd have thunk really?"

"That's one thing I'd learned about bay area weather" - as unpredictable as the alignment on a slot machine"

As the comparison she just made registers in her mind, she lets out an unexpected sigh. Her words again - her thoughts and her words, a hopeless tangle of confusion except for her.

"Slot machines?" - interesting comparison. My dealer days hunt me where ever I go - no escaping Nevada and the casinos I guess" He prolongs the conversation.

" You are a dealer?"  she questions, with a slightly raised left eyebrow trying to recollect where she'd heard the word first.

"I was"

"Ohh!"

"In Vegas - Excalibur!"

"Ever been to Vegas?" he questions her.

She nods her head in a negation.

'I disdain gambling! - all sorts of gambling"

"Ouch" he mocks - "then you must be disdaining dealers as well?"

All she could let out was a nod of the head in negation - "nope - all professions are created equal" she quips.

She makes mental notes again - look at him and tries to guess his age.

Thirty two, Thirty one, twenty nine???  figures keep shuffling in her mind like those scrolling numbers on the display of a gas pump and finally settle at thirty three.

He must be thirty three.

He 'used' to be a dealer - which means that he is in a different profession now. He seems to know the meaning of "disdain" - the word that committed to her memory since her high school days, and he reads the "Wall Street Journal" - the newspaper that clashes with the faded jeans, wrinkled plaid slacks and the braided tan leather belt he is wearing.

The train comes to a sudden halt this time, almost with a jerk. Her right wrist slightly rubs on his hand as she tilts forward and then back - reacting to the sudden stop, and looks at the contrast of their skin tone - like a beautiful painting in the palest of flesh tones and a light brown tan.  She pulls her hand away and apologizes.

"phew - that was a nasty halt" - and then he adds - "I hope you are okay" - "my back seems to ache ever so slightly from the jerk"

"I am fine" she manages - and then, for the first time, notices the color of his eyes!

Her mind goes back to her thoughts again - "the perfect color!" "Eureka - it yells - like it had made the next ground breaking discovery in physics" - and then she lets out a mental sigh - Only if she could swatch the color and hunt it down for her bed room.

Her mind lets out a mental laugh! - "I am mental" she professes to herself the millionth Time.

Could they get any greener? She is suddenly reminded of the lush fields in the Alps - a scene that haunts her ever so often, Alps! Her favorite place on earth.  The lights go off in the cabin and come back on in a couple of seconds bringing her back to this world.
"Oh My God" I hope it is not a break down - and looks like we are stuck in the tunnel" She hopes aloud.
  
As if to answer her question, the public announcement system kicks off with static, and the whole lot of what is being announced flies right over her head. "What about the appointment?" "What about the flight I need to catch in the evening?" Her mind keeps shooting worrisome questions to herself.

"Hey there" - his gentle tap on her shoulder gets her back to the situation.

While slapping  her forehead with her palm, she rests her elbow in her lap and lets out a deep breath.

"So what as the driver announcing?" She asks him in a mutter, with her palm still on her forehead.

"Is your head okay?, do you have a headache?" his questions seem ignorant and irritating.

"I am holding my forehead for my bad karma - the bad karma that got me stuck here in the middle of an underwater tunnel. You know, we as a culture believe in karma for every single thing in life and then, we believe our fortune is written on the foreheads"

"Well, relax hon" He adds, it is a technical glitch with the engine and they are working on it and hoping it would not take too long"
"So it is going to take long?" she questions, her eyes dilated to the size of goldfish he has in his aquarium back home. Her deep brown pupils have a much lighter ring inside them that makes her eyes look like they are lit from within.  He takes his time to study her face as she was not completely facing him so far. He could only glimpse at her profile. Her lush black hair frames a broad forehead - her painter's nose anchors high cheek bones and ends right above a pair of plump lips. Her skin has no imperfections - just stray fine lines under her eyes. Her skin tone has a  warmth and a coolness with shades of yellow and pink contrasting on her lighter tan complexion.

"Mediterranean?" "Spanish?" "Armenian?" He lets out the series of question words without meaning to.

"But is it going to take really long?" she cuts him off.

"My guess is as good as yours" he grins - trying to lighten the situation.

She goes back to cupping her forehead with both her palms now - resting the elbows on her messenger bag that she pulls onto her lap from the side of the seat. 

"Are you not up to any time sensitive stuff in the city?, I mean, are you heading to the city or elsewhere"

He smiles again - reminding her that she's not really gotten over how perfect his teeth are.

"How does it matter?" "What is!" he purses his lips now with a sly smile dancing on them.

"What do you mean by what is?" She wonders.

"It is what it is - why worry about things that are out of my control?" I'll see what I can do about stuff when I know for sure that I can do something about them"

"Aha" she says in a sing song way. "How do people end up with such cool nerves?"

A wailing baby's cries fill the whole compartment - that is when she looks around it - there aren't many people in here. It is not the rush morning hour when the suburbia travels to work in the city. Except for the mom with the crying baby on the other end of the compartment, an old couple opposite to her and two young men sitting two rows in front of her in seats facing hers - there isn't anyone else.

And then she hears a low snore right behind her - she looks back to see a heavy, middle aged man with a pot belly and shiny bald head bent to one side of the seat in deep and noisy slumber.

"Everyone around me has calm nerves - how can someone sleep when the train is halted and a baby is crying and the air is filled with a vacuum cleaner like buzz coming from one end of the train?, Lord, you gave me the step mom treatment with these thoughts and tangles" She drifts away into another viscous circle of worry. Worry - her second nature.

He looks at her fingers that are poking through her hair showing off tips of perfect nails painted nude, her palms still cupping her forehead. There is no sight of jewelry on  her anywhere - except the huge pearl studs on her ear lobes and a juvenile looking watch on her right wrist with some weird hand signs painted in primary colors and florescent accents. She catches him staring at her watch, rather amused.

"I know what you are thinking - this is not a toy watch. Do you know Swatch? - the Swiss brand? This one is designed by Manish Arora for Swatch. The graphics of hands are actually "mudras" - hand work done in a classical Indian dance"

"Indian" He says with great confidence in his guess.

"If what all people thought I am is to be believed, I have a very common and universal face" She adds. But, I am from the sub continent - yes!"

"You resemble the actress in Slumdog Millionaire -what's her name again?" He asks!

Her full throated laughter resonates in the whole compartment. The baby starts wailing yet again. She bites her tongue and shrugs her shoulders, turning back to the mom across the compartment and mouthing a "I am sorry"

"That is the lamest comparison I'd heard in my life" She turns to him and says. 'How many Indian actresses do you know anyway?" Or Indian people for that matter?"

" I met a lot of Indians as a dealer in Excalibur - once a lady about fifty - looked like a socialite, decked in diamonds the size of pebbles on pebble beach even offered to take me back home" He pauses and clears his throat - "as an employee in her husband's hotel venture in Kolkata, I suppose. My colleagues even joked around saying that she looked like she had a thing for me" he mentions.

"Hmm..." she pauses - not knowing where the conversation is treading. " I could shift to the other seat if you want room for yourself" She adds - the compartment is practically empty.

He smiles again - flashing his impossibly perfect teeth. "Do you have a book to read?, game to play or a cell phone to speak to someone while you wait?"

"No such luck" she sighs. The book I have in my bag, I'd read only two hundred times, I don't really look up to playing games on my seldom charged cell and we are stuck in the tunnel - which means we are strangled on a desert island with no contact to the outer world"

"Aha" he mocks - " no looking up to two things already in twenty minutes of knowing you"

"I don't look up to a lot of hyped things in life"

"Like?"

"Relationships, wealth, ambition"

He looks at her, a long, lost look - not knowing what to decipher from her statement.

"So how long have you been dumped?" he fishes.

"Excuse me?" her face becomes stern and her lips purse in concealed irritation.

"My bad - sorry! - as you are, so you see! A dumped soul but cannot help rejoicing in the assumption that the whole world is dumped alongside!"

His statement, ever so slightly tickles her curiosity but she refrains from asking questions and appearing interested. Instead she ignores him and pulls out a pad from her messenger  along with a ball point pen with the little click mechanism in the bottom that makes the point appear for writing. She holds the pen in her right  hand and clicks on it's end with her thumb in lost thought.

Then she scribbles something in beautiful, small cursive.

He peeks in to see what she has written.

"A dumped soul but cannot help rejoicing in the assumption that the whole world is dumped alongside!"

" I hope you acknowledge the source where ever you reproduce it! - the statement is my intellectual property"

She looks at him and flashes a delicate, heart warming smile.

"If and where ever I use it, I'll acknowledge it. I also look down upon people who steal - and that includes stealing of intellectual property"

"There goes number three in the hit list" he teases - "so apart from disdaining things - what else do you do in life?"

"I think, I dream and I worry!"

"and you look down upon stuff!" he adds seriously.

"Don't we all look down upon one thing or another in life? - Don't you look down upon anything?"

"Hmm...let's see! Do I look down upon things? Of course, I do!, If you want to know what things I look down upon, you need to know me better. I am one of those men of few words you see - I like being discovered instead of flashing red lights for attention."

"Very funny" she says - frowning. "I need to do something and can use an empty seat for myself"

She gets up swiftly with the messenger and moves to the empty seat on the other side of the isle, the one aligned with the seat she just left. He looks surprised seeing her in her full length. Somehow he assumes she is petite. His gaze quickly shifts to her feet - small dainty ones on her tall and toned frame with feminine curves, tucked into flat strap sandals. Her toes painted the same nude color on her fingernails peep through the straps. A dainty toe ring on her her second toe adds the unexpected twist in the plain Jane sandals.

"Thanks for the window seat" he smiles playfully and scoots towards the window only realizing that it is pitch dark outside and there is no use for a window really.

The snoring of the man behind his seat amplifies in his ears. The conversation with the 'slumdog' lady didn't really make him hear the sound effect from behind. Now it interrupts his trail of thought.

Unknowingly he looks at her side and finds her scribbling something on the note pad. She is lost in her world and doesn't notice him looking at her.

He remembers her laughter when he compares her to the slumdog star. Now he sees why. She's is lighter, much taller, slightly plumper and probably older then the actress. She probably looks like a tan, ethnic Meryl streep - the same cheekbones and broad forehead, with expressive, smiling eyes.

Five feet seven? Twenty nine?, Thirty two? - his guesswork goes in circles.

Definitely five feet seven. May be thirtyish - give or take a couple of years. Or may be she has a deceptive way of dressing - her conservative navy pull over and dark indigo jeans cover every inch of her skin, leaving only her wrists exposed. The lack of makeup adds an unusual freshness to her face. Almost like a compliment to her completely covered body, her bare skin gives out clues about her. Easy going, confident and simple.

He scoots to this end of the seat now and leaning over to her he says softly "That was a ridiculous comparison"

She looks at him questioningly and then smiles ever so slightly. "Thank God" she says in her softest voice, conscious of the other passengers- you seem to agree with me alright!" and digs her face right into the note pad, scribbling away!

The compartment resonates with a sudden bang. She shudders at the sound looking scared. She looks at him in helplessness, and he senses the mistiness in her eyes. "What could that be?" she questions in a whisper, looking like a petrified toddler that heard a monster story. He suppresses the urge to tease her by saying something funny. "I think we are okay - may be we are being delayed, but we are okay" he pauses and adds "I suppose." He bends over to her and says it would be better if he were next to her to answer all her questions and if she'd mind joining him on his seat. "I am not going to harm you - I promise!" he says pinching on his neck with thumb and pointer. She looks lost for a second and then shifts to his seat. The young men sitting in the opposite seats facing them give her curious looks. She gets a little conscious in their gaze but ignores them.

"I can go to the front car and check to see what is happening" he offers. may be there is a delay. The train is halted past forty minutes and according to the announcement it was estimated to be fixed in half hour.
"Thank you" she replies - "But don't bother going all the way to the front of the train now, may be they'll announce something soon. Let's wait and watch!"

"As you please" he agrees like a obedient child.

"If you don't mind me asking and if you don't plan on answering in abstract sentences, I'd like to ask you something - may I?" he inquires playfully.

She forces a smile on her face. "Only if I want to but please ask" she adds.

"So are you getting late for something?"
"Yeah - an appointment with a friend in Union square - I need to pick my bags from her apartment a few blocks away and catch a flight to Canada at night - I need to attend for something very important  there"

"Work?" his curiosity increases.
"It's actually personal" she cuts him off. Sensing her discomfort in sharing her information and slightly worried that she might shift back to the other seat, leaving him in solitude with the snoring sound from behind him, he purses his lips into a smile.

He lifts his right hand up, crosses his fingers and says - "You believe in prayers?" "Yes I do, completely"
"So here's a prayer for the Indian maiden" He says, deepening his voice like a radio commercial, closes his eyes and murmurs something peacefully. She looks at his serene face and closed eyes - lush lashes framing the eyelids like a fringe on a curtain and smiles gently. "This man is something else" she says to herself.

Her face brightens to see the static in the announcement system. The technician's voice apologizing for the inconvenience, briefing about the drinking water available in the first car. He announces the predicted delay in perfect ambiguity - "We are doing all we can to quickly and safely transport you all to your destinations" the voice rattles - "But in the current situation, it might take at least a couple of hours to be on track - or hopefully less" and then with more profuse apologies the announcement shuts off.

"Holy $&!T!"  one of the young men swear from in front of them and punches the seat before him - "This effing $&1t gotta roll on". She avoids looking in that direction but notices that they sound a little intoxicated. She observes from the side of her eyes and sees sinewy arms with   a colorful Medusa tattoo and multiple piercings on the face of one of the men and thanks God for making her shift back to this seat next to him.

"Couple more hours, or less - who knows how it is going to unfold?" She says to him.
"When is your flight?"
"right before Midnight tonight - but I need to be there by 9 pm to check in" she says.
He peeps into her bright Swatch to catch the time - 11:30 am.

He looks a long, hard look at her and chuckles like a child. "Missy, you have a whole half day of time ahead of you - even if we reach the city in close to three hours, calculating the delay and the journey time, you'd still be there by 2:30 pm. Thankfully, we have the washrooms here - so what are you so worried about?" he questions.
"About the unforeseen - who knows how long it takes - it is of paramount importance that I reach Canada by tomorrow" she mutters sadly, her eyes tearing up again.

"Now - it would not be very gentlemanly of me to coax you to tell me all your agenda - so, let's make the best of the wait - aren't you glad you have me beside, just to keep company? - Imagine being alone in the seat with the tipsy hot dudes with seeming anger management issues sitting across you, the man snoring behind and the baby wailing at the end of the compartment - and oh yeah - the pretty looking old couple holding hands while the lady sleeps on her man's shoulder - How would being alone here amid all this action would have made you feel?"

"Lonely" she answers, looking through him. Suddenly realizing that he is probably the proverbial window that opens  in a dark room.

"So how do you want to kill these three hours?" - "May I suggest a visit to the wash room to water down the frown on your face? and then some refreshments" - he pulls out a carton of saltine crackers, a couple of apples and a Caprisun pouch from what looks like a slightly over sized back pack perched next to him. "May be he has a flight to catch as well?" she wonders but refrains form asking questions.

Her body seems to get down with the fatigue of all the mental thought and gives into the pursuit of washing down the frown. " Shall be back in a jiffy!" she announces and leaves for the wash room.

She finds him with a book as she returns back. He sees her approaching, closes his book and stuffs it into his backpack. "Now that the frown is gone - wait a minute" He pauses and examines her face in mock seriousness. "Oh Yeah - it is!, and hope it stays gone" Her face lits up with a genuine smile. "Thank you so much for suggesting the fresh upping". "My pleasure" He interrupts and hands over the pouch of Caprisun to her.  She unglues the straw off of the pouch, pokes it through and starts sipping on the straw. She looks at the pouch and smiles"

"Tell me you love it" He says. "Actually you look your happiest best sipping on that drink - or is it looking at that drink" - She lets out a smile and says it just reminded me of the tote bag I saw the other day - made out of these pouches, talk about taking recycling to the other level"
"So you are an environmentalist?" he questions playfully.
She smiles in response. "How I wish?" I am a little bit of everything - a feminist, a environmentalist and a animal activist - just a little bit of everything and nothing beyond scratching the surface."

"I was just looking to see what else you disdain" he says, stretching the last word for emphasis.
"You want to know?" she asks and throws a look towards the wasted young men.
"Gettoutta here" He whispers with wide eyes - "You look down upon men? - so really, are you a feminist or just play your own team?"
"Excuse me?" she questions. "If that is a joke, it the foulest one I'd heard till date!"
"Oh sorry, sorry", he places his hands on her closed wrists and asks her if she'd decided to shift places again. She doesn't know why she smiles - but she does.

"So - tell me! What do you look down upon?"
"Intoxication ofcourse" she says - since it renders your senses useless"
"One more bites the dust!" He flashes his pearlies. "Actually, most of them bite the dust. I am as boring as I can get. Actually, I am the poster child for boring!"
"I have more than one reason to believe that you are not boring" She looks questioningly at him - "He points to her flashy wrist watch and to her feet.
"Those Birkenstocks are ancient - they make me Not boring?" She wonders aloud.
"The toe rings missy - not the sandals. These two things give the pop for an otherwise boring self"
"Ha ha" she lets out a laughter. "So you do agree that I am partially boring, If you discount my Swatch and toe rings that is!"

Their conversation is punctuated with another loud bang. "We need to go check out what's happening" He gets alert. And she nods. Without much ado, they grab their bags and walk past the vestibule. She realizes that theirs is the last car in the six car train. They walk past moderately filled cars. A toddler running in the isles, a pair of teenagers holding hands and talking away and the middle aged, leisurely women knitting and reading. They walk past an overweight young woman that sits in one end of one car,busy dolling up her face. Her thoughts keep racing again - no one seemed to be in any rush, except the toddler that was in a frenzy to run out of the car to escape the clutches of his chasing grandmother. She takes long steps and gets hold of the little guy. The grandmother thanks her while panting and they keep walking past. They meet the driver in the engine car. One look at the scene and she has jitters in her mind. "OH my GOD - what a mess, what a mess!" It is pitch dark outside, the bright tubes of fluorescent lights give the extra visibility to a stocky old man in jumpers meddling with some part of the engine.

"How long is it gonna take?" He questions the driver.
Positively not more than an hour, hour and a half. If all else fails, we have plans for emergency evacuation underway - but it looks very hopeful right now!"
As much as she'd want to not believe what he'd said - those words brought her some solace. "I'll not perish here atleast" she concludes. In a little over a couple of hours she can set her feet out onto Union square and then on her way.

"Want to settle down somewhere here?" He asks her looking at the barely full first car.
" I have noise sensitivity" I think I need to stay away from that buzzing sound if I don't want to invite a chronic migraine"

"Hmm...let's see" he says. May be go all the way back to the last car? - would that work?"
"Looks like it would" she says, plugging her ears with her fingers.

They walk to the last car again. The snoring man is now awake, his fat cheek sporting the upholstery brocade stamped onto his cheek in pressure marks, his eyes swollen and lethargic.

"Any news about when it'll move?" the old man a few seats away from them asks.
"Less than couple of hours Sire" he replies.

They settle down in the middle of the car - spacing themselves as away as possible from the rest of the passengers. He bends down to pull out something from his backpack. A book.

He holds the protruding bookmark and opens the page - as the book opens up, something falls out of it - right onto the messenger bag on her lap.

She picks it with her hand and while stretching to give it to him looks at what it is.
A photograph. Of a woman. pin straight platinum blonde hair, freckles that tell numerous stories, a sharp nose and thin, pale lips the color of a rose bud. "Beautiful" she exclaims unexpectedly and bites her tongue, suppressing her curiosity about the woman in the picture.

He lets out a sad, sarcastic smile. "Beautiful alright! But Lethal!"
She looks at him questioningly, getting a little uncomfortable wondering it she is intruding into his privacy.
"That is the dumper" he says - she probably imagines it, but senses his throat going sore for a second. Then he clears his throat as to make it evident to her that he is indeed choking on some emotional turmoil.

"Scarlett" he says the name out loud in the same soreness - "I did all I could to hold it together, she was not ready to commit to marriage - or even a partnership. I tried all I could to make her stay, Make her feel loved" - "I did all I could to not end up being like my father, and All I could ever do to hold on to the lesson my mom taught me - to respect the woman in my life" He whispers in pain while still looking at the picture. And then he tucks it back into the book and closes it.

She looks at him in a new light. His present state of being almost feels like a satire at the playful and happy disposition he had so far.
"I am sorry" she manages.

He opens his mouth to say something. The train moves forward with a jerk. There is a mass sigh of relief heard in the compartment. He stops and looks ahead - the train starts lumbering forward lazily. The public announcement system goes on with a loud screech and static and the driver apologizes for the commotion in the back and announces that the train is bound toward the city.

She gazes at her watch - "Five minutes past twelve" she says aloud. They did it before time. She looks at him and smiles. He smiles back just stretching his lips. His eyes remain emotionless.
The rocking from the high speed movement of the train gently shakes the seat. She takes a deep breath and goes into her deep thought. She looks back at him after what seems to be a long time. He is still not in the world - the power of his love perhaps that stirs itself with just a glance at the picture.

"Hello" she calls out. No response.
She gently pokes him with her elbow and says Hello again.
"Oh, yeah?" he springs back into a smile. "What can I do for you?"
She raises her eyebrows ever so slightly - smiles and says "Keep that smile intact - morose expressions don't suit you that much really!" He smiles but there is no magic as before. "Can I get a little curious?" she enquirers. "Not because I want to intrude but just because it would help me get a better understanding of love and life" she adds. "I just love to peep into people's hearts and souls, you know what I mean?"
"Well" he adds - "I'd be glad to satiate your curiosity - he says with a twinkle in his eyes - "If you promise to get off with me at Embarcedaro and have a cup of coffee. I'll walk you to Union Square and can even accompany you to the air port if you'd not mind- and then of course, You'd need to answer a few of my questions as well - about yourself" "By the way - I have a flight to Vegas at 9 pm" He adds. I was supposed to drive there, but decided against it since it is boring to go six seven hours all alone with just the FM keeping me company"

She thinks for a few seconds making a mental mapping of  his proposition. She badly wants to know his story - the depth of his love and heart ache. It just intrigues her to see how a man reacts to the matters of the heart. Her curiosity in the opposite sex is more about the psychology than anything else. "There is a pain in your eyes that I'd just want to take away if I can" She cannot believe that she just said that aloud. But it had been her brooding nature all along - to react to the other person's sorrow like it is her own. "Empathy a little too much" - her best friend's judgement about her rings in her ears.
"I think you can - I can use a listener to unload all the burden on my heart - an interesting and pretty listener would just be the icing on the cake" he adds. 'So, strike a deal - Get off at Embarcedaro, cup of coffee and you'll get the copyrights to my love story". She resists the urge to jump to a loud verbal conclusion that he is hitting on her. This man is in love. Evidently, hopeless love. What does she have to fear? He seemed to have a flirty air all along so she refrains from making any wrong impressions - besides, she is overconfident about no one wanting to show interest in her. "Look at me" she thinks. "What mad man would want to woo me anyway?"

She nods her head in an affirmation and adds "Deal". He stares at her for a second and lets out his toothpaste ad grin. "I promise you, you won't regret giving in to my demands" He assures.
"I won't" she seems to know it already. "I love doing the unexpected - I am way too spontaneous for my own good" She wants to start off about Scarlett - but is hesitant to make that smile of his go away. His eyes cringe into little slits when he smiles and his irritatingly perfect teeth shine through. She steers the topic away from Scarlett instead. "So, you have family in Vegas?" "Yeah - mom lives there, been living there ever since I was a child. She was separated from my dad when they were into a ten year marriage. I was nine at that time. I had to move away with her to Vegas from New England - Connecticut. I grew up seeing my mom suffer through the pain of abusive true love. She loved my dad and no one else but his alcoholism posed a serious threat to their relationship. He had issues - depression, anger and a brief history of substance abuse. The sorry thing is that he loved her dearly as well but the man had way too many demons residing in his head. One day, I remember - he came home drunk and hit my mom pulling out his belt from his trousers - just like that. Dad had bouts of ups and downs and mom endured through them without as much as a sigh."

She looks at him mesmerized as he rattles away his past without any inhibitions. Her full lips bloom into a faint smile. She has this unique and heart warming trait of taking trust very seriously. This man, a perfect stranger that she met an hour and a half ago has pretty much invested his trust in her in the first few hours of meeting her. He pauses, swallows air and purses his lips. She senses that this flashback is tensing him up. "Emotional scars - they never heal" she thinks.

There comes a long silence between both of them. She tries not to look at him but takes a glance to see his expressions. She lets out a gasp looking at him. His green eyes all misty and painful. She instinctively places her hand on his - gives  it a squeeze in an attempt to offer support and stays quiet for a minute. He gets slightly startled at the warm and tender grasp of her dainty fingers. She is lost in her own thought. "Why do we suffer for someone else's faults?" her mind questions her. She absentmindedly looks at her hand upping his - "United Colors Of Benetton"  an image from the AD flashes in her mind and brightens her face ever so slightly.The warmth of her tan complexion contrasts with his cool pink skin. She quickly withdraws her hand realizing that she's held it for more than a few minutes and his hand beneath hers wasn't really grasping her hand. She thinks of possible diversions from the topic and pulls out her notepad from the messenger. "It is weird how life functions and how we hold on to one incident of our past and let it mold our every day" Her scribbling makes no sense to her at that moment but it is her reflex to jot down deep thoughts. The silence between them is accentuated with the swift buzz of the moving train. He clears his throat and starts speaking.

"I hope you are not offended!"
"What for?" her face brightens with a questioning smile.
"For not holding back your hand when you offered your silent support - I knew you held it with lots of concern and empathy - I didn't want to grasp your hand and make you think I am hitting on you or taking advantage of the physical contact you initiated"
She smiles not knowing what to say. "Actually - I liked that you didn't hold my hand back. Not because holding it would have made you a maverick trying to woo a strange woman a few hours into meeting her but because it just gives me a peek into the way you think. You see - most people I'd crossed paths with don't think deep. They are consumed in a shallow process of jealousy, comparisons with their peers, self centered thoughts and most importantly drawing conclusions from innocent gestures and reading in between lines. I am glad you did not think the other way around - that I am hitting on you"
He smiles playfully. "Look at you - you look like a nun in meditation - which man in his right mind would think that you would hit on him - like hit at first sight?"
"Aha!" she exclaims - I'd been told that I look like a lot of things but your comparison kind of makes my day! Oh, I'm loving it - a nun in meditation" on that note - you know what? I'd be a nun in my next birth - renounce the world, never marry or bare offspring but just  spend my time in self realization"
"Lofty thoughts" he chuckles. On the flip side, I am relieved that you are willing to give marriage and children a chance this time around - and by relieved, I have to acknowledge that I do not plan on taking advantage of that conclusion. I am taken - he mocks"

"Me too - I am taken!"
"Why am I not surprised?" he questions playfully. "You have a pleasant and a positive vibe,  you seem to make interesting conversations, you are not that awful on the eye either - so, why would the man kind spare you from its advances? Women like you are a rare species these days so I am sure you are taken!"

"Okay - so that clears the air for both of us - we don't have any agendas, our hearts are taken, our lives had just crossed paths for a few moments, we'll make the best of them and move on"- She lets out a faint whistle. "I'd never really gotten to whistle the way it is supposed to be". He whistles. The young men from across look at them for a second too long. She avoids looking at the men.

"By the way, do you consider yourself taken even after being dumped?" She realizes the gravity of the question she just asked and bites her tongue. "I am sorry" she manages. I should not have phrased it that way - well, I should not have asked it in the first place"
"Don't worry" he says - "You did nothing wrong. Yeah, it is ironical that I am dumped but my heart is taken - for good I guess. I cannot come to love anyone like I loved Scarlett. She chose to dump me, I cannot choose to do the same to her memory if I wanted to"
"This Scarlett is one pretty lucky woman - I wonder if she realizes it"
"Well - I am lucky, lucky to have crossed paths with her, lucky to have been a part of her world"
His face turns pale.

"Embarcedaro station approaching" the PAS announces. "Looks like we get to alight the train finally and walk on earth" He lifts his backpack and stands up. She follows him and stands near the door, right next to him.
"Heading to Motel 6?" It is one of those young men.
"On an expedition to pop out some mongrels?" The other one adds.
Just then the train stops and the door opens. He clenches his fist and grinds his teeth to go speak to them. She swiftly holds his hand and pulls him out of the compartment. The door closes in a few seconds - He still looks at the men through the window. They mock back at him making faces and obscene gestures.

His face is flushed a beet red. She looks at him and realizes she is still holding his hand and lets go of it. "Your skin is almost bleeding - don't get so worked about random things random people say - not good for your being. Unfortunately, this is the kind of world we live in. A man and a woman talk and people cannot think anything else than the thought of them jumping into the sack. Speaks more about their mindsets than anything else" Her mind wanders to the Poetry lesson she'd learned in high school. Her English teacher explaining the process of "Blushing" to the youngsters. Being one among the brown skinned students - she never really saw or heard of the event of "Blushing" - bits and pieces of her English sir's words come back to her mind. "Blushing - something only fair skins can show"
His lovely features still arranged in a stern rage evident on his flushed skin, he walks briskly - she almost runs after him to keep the pace.

"You remind me of someone" she says in a desperate attempt to ease his expression.
His frown slowly transforms into a soft smile - "I hope it is someone nice and good looking"
"Not sure - since I am not sure whom you remind me of"
"Daffy duck?" "Goofy?"
"Very funy! - Not cartoon characters okay? A person. But let me not strain my grey matter too much'
He suddenly stops walking. She stops beside him and looks questioningly.
He walks away from her to the seats on the platform and settles down in the center. He taps on the seat next to him gesturing her to come and join him.
"We need to talk" 
"Oh, yeah - we need to - where do we head for coffee?" She settles down right next to him. A passerby gives them a curious glance.
"Yeah - where do we head to? and now please stop glancing at your watch every couple of seconds - I have a flight before you do and I am not worried. Rest assured, we'll get to the airport in time. It is still Noon missy!"
The platform looks pretty deserted except a person here and there waiting for the trains to arrive.
"I suppose we need to go grab some lunch - it is not coffee time after all - but then again, this is not a ploy. It just didn't occur to me when proposing the coffee that we'd get off at lunch time"
"I am a vegan" she announces with unmistakable pride on her face. "I was raised a vegetarian and now I renounced all animal products"
"I am a carnivore" he growls. I need my meat every single day" He announces chopping the last three words for emphasis. "But I shall renounce my meat for one day"
He pulls out his smart phone, punches a few buttons and comes up with a Vegan, Korean restaurant.
"HanGawi" He pronounces with a humor laden tone.
She claps her hand in glee. "You found a vegan restaurant? - it is my lucky day or what? - Let's roll on then!"
They both stand up in unison and walk towards the escalator.
Suddenly the brightness of the busy street dims her vision. "It is eerie to be in a city"she thinks, the small town girl that she'd been all her life.
They walk briskly amid tidily dressed bunch of people., mostly dressed in black and beige, mostly talking into their Bluetooth.The city scared and intrigued her. It was like the proverbial "life stage" depicting many facets of life from weirdos to homeless folks to beggars and peddlers and sharp looking professionals dressed in best jackets with cleanly shaven faces and an air of confidence.
He leads the way and they take some twists and turns around the blocks and finally arrive at their destination.
The outside of the restaurant looks deceptively inconspicuous. She steps in lets out a gasp.
The insides were reminiscent of the meditation retreat she visited as a child. Short bamboo dining tables, stoneware bowls, softly lit, smelling of patchouli and cedar wood. She gets lost in the zen like tranquility of the place.
She notices that they are the only customers in there. A waitress dressed in ethnic grab comes and welcomes them to be seated. They find a cozy corner and settle down on the cushions laid on the stone tiled floor, crisscross applesauce. She quickly skims through the menu letting out Oohs and Aahs every now and then and settles to try a seaweed garnished noodles and steamed vegetable dumplings. He puts in an order for some wine and a Ginseng salad and organic brown rice porridge.
They hand over the menus to the waitress and look at each other.
Suddenly, he offers his hand over the table to shake hands and introduce himself.
"Hi, my name is Michael Kirby - Michael Leonard Kirby,  - Nice to meet you Miss?"
"Ananda - Ananda Mayi Rao"
"Ananda - what does it mean? I mean Michael doesn't mean anything if my knowledge serves me right - but your name sounds so exotic, almost like a statement. "Ananda Mayi Rao" he repeats.
"It means full of bliss"
He smiles - "May you always justify the name you were christened with" He raises the goblet of water and proposes a toast - 'To the ever blissful maiden of happiness - may your smile stay intact always and forever"
She smiles shyly. "Thanks and wishing you all the joys and happiness life can offer as well"
"My stomach is growling - do you hear it? Are you hungry as well?" He asks.
"I am actually not that hungry but I am notorious for getting hungry all of a sudden and then getting cranky from that hunger"
He lets out a laugh. "Cranky! cranky?"
"Well, getting cranky is a luxury when  you have people around that pacify you back to peace - not when you just get more miserable realizing that there is no one around to acknowledge the pain you are in" She seems to say it off topic.
He listens silently, his forlorn look coming back on his face. Flashes of scarlett, his mom, his dad come to his mind. "Tell me about being alone - I had been alone almost all my life till I found Scarlett. Before that, the dad was in his intoxicated world and mom was in her sad and lonely world for the best part of my childhood. Sometimes, I hold it against her for being so selfishly sad and in her own self pity whole time, but then as I grew older I'd realized that it becomes difficult for most people to give love when they don't  get it themselves - Mom was never happy - she always walked around with a burden on her heart that weighed her down and consumed her - I used to feel helpless, almost guilty for her state. There were a million times when I thought that if she'd not had me, she'd have had an escape from that marriage. Eventually she did - but how?"

She listens to him in utter silence and concentration - her eyes welling up with tears.
"Excuse me" She lifts the napkin and blots her eyes. "Tears come very easily to me - it is just that it stirred some unknown pain in the abyss of my heart - the things that you said"

"How?" her curiosity peaks. "I mean, I didn't mean to ask how - I mean, Well..." She stumbles with her words - the usually articulate, very expressive Ananda stumbles on her words.

"Ananda" He addresses her with tenderness - "Will you really listen to it? Do  you have it in you to listen to it - may be I would blame myself for making you all teary again and again"
"Go on" She prompts him. "I am all ears if you want to tell me about it - actually tears are an integral part of my being. I think I love being sad - how else can you justify the brooding, worrying, thinking in circles disposition I have?"

"Ironical Ananda" He opines. "The being supposed to be full of bliss is a thorn bird in reality?"
"Well - a peculiar thorn bird I'd say- that is a parody of her own name" she grins.
There comes a momentary and awkward silence. The food arrives.

The atmosphere lightens. She marvels over the stone ware and bamboo chop sticks. She attempts to eat with them.
"Wait - here!" he demonstrates the use of chop sticks to her. "Wow - you use them like a pro"
She attempts to eat with them aping him but slips her food on her pullover.
"The klutz - what can I say? - now I get to go out with noodle sauce stains on my dress? - God,  you are great" She looks up at the ceiling as if talking to God making a silly sarcastic face.
'Use the napkin, clean it and once you are done we'll have a lesson on chopsticks One O One"
She sprinkles little water on her napkin and cleans her hoodie with precision.
'Now for the honors"
He reaches out and holds her hand wrapping her fingers on the chopsticks and moves it the way it is supposed to be moved. Her skintone's warmth seems to radiate in her body"
"Think I got it' - she gently shakes her hand out of his clasp avoiding looking in his eye.
Another blob of noodles lands on her clothes.
She lets out a gasp, cleans it up again and promptly puts down the chopsticks and lifts the fork placed next to the noodle bowl. "No teaching old dog new tricks"
They both laugh out loud.
Suddenly, he starts off his story the place he left. "I want to tell you the whole thing - I know my time with you is limited and I want to share some things with you"
She smiles back in reply. "But let's work on our lunch - someone's stomach was growling a few minutes ago"

He shrugs his shoulders in agreement and rises his hand - "Mine"
They giggle like school kids and get back to munching on the lunch.
"I think we should keep at it - OMG, this is so yummy!" she advises munching on a choke full of noodles.
He smiles in reply.

The waitress clears the tables and hands them out a dessert menu.
"I think I am full" she politely refuses dessert.
A few more smiles, loud chuckles and moments later they pay the bill and walk out with their bag and baggage.

From a distance, they look like someone who'd known each other for ever.

                                         ********************

He door opens with an awkward creek while the harsh florescent light from the corridor seeps into the dark room. He walks in to fumble on the side of the wall to find the light - he takes time to locate it. The room bathes in the softly lit desk lamps on either side of the bed. He walks in and places his bags on one side of the room.

"Ananda, come in." He calls out softly. Her head still reeling from the rush of events, her eyes hiding the welling up tears of helplessness. She walks into the room in a trance and settles on one side of the bed. He could not say anything to keep her from sobbing. He lets her wash out her emotions for a good five minutes, walks to her, places his hand on her back and rubs it gently.
"It is all going to be fine" He assures her though he doesn't know how it is going to be fine when she looks like she'd lost everything she had on the way to the hotel.

He opens up his bottle of water and offers her a drink. She gulps it down wiping her tears. She takes a few minutes settling her emotions down while he looks at her nonchalantly, not knowing what to do, not knowing how to take her pain away.

"Is there anything you want to share with me?" he asks her softly. "I can talk, I can listen, I can - I can" he searches for words to comfort her.
She lifts her head, looks him in the eye and smiles. He doesn't ask any more questions.
She suddenly realizes that she is stuck in this room with a perfect stranger, for the whole night. What choice did she have anyway? Her mind travels from one bizarre thought to anoter.
'I hope you are comfortable sharing the room with me" He asks her.
She nods her head in agreement. "I hope you are comfortable sharing the room with me" She says in return, flashing a mischievous smile. "I am a little scared, but I think I shall manage" He plays along.

She gets up to freshen up and he lets out a sigh of relief to see her joke around.


The night lights from city, flickering their luminosity, engulf the room, filtering through the frothy light when Michael draws back the curtains of the oversized window offering them a view of the concrete mass outside.
Their eyes meet and both of them exchange precarious smiles, each one having fleeting thoughts about the bizarreness of the situation - the one which found them under the roof of a hotel room nonetheless. 
 He exhales thinking of the meltdown she has when she learns about the airport shutdown in Alberta and the cancellation of all flights taking off that way.  Massive snow storm, freeways shutter, schools close. She hopes to find a definite answer as to when the flights would resume - but the weather forecast looks bleak and unpredictable. Not any more unpredictable than her own day of course - this train ride, this man next to her that she had known for not more than half a day - a man who insisted he'd accompany her till she gets on to her flight, for his own peace of mind! Flashes of scary thoughts cross her mind - How did she even consider trusting him - she that doesn't place her trust on anyone easily… Life has such magnificent surprises sometimes.

"Let me go to the lobby and grab a cup of coffee while you change and get comfortable" He offers her some space and starts walking towards the door.
"Shall I join you once I change?" she asks him. Wanting to grab some herbal tea from the Keurig she spots on her way inside, at check in. 
"Ofcourse" he smiles and gently clicks the door close as he walks out of the room. 

As she walks into the oversized lobby, Ananda catches Michael sipping on his Styrofoam cup, messaging on his phone. The elaborate crystal chandeliers emit multifaceted light creating a grandeur akin to a movie set. Mahogany furniture set off with bohemian decorative pillows placed on ornate persian rugs punctuate the knotted pinewood floor. She walks to the Keurig, brews herself a herbal tea with lemon and walks back to settle next to Michael on the other side of the wooden couch, finished with lush cushions. She puts her right foot up and under her left thigh and clears her throat in a gentle announcement.
"Texting mom to let her know about my change of plans" Michael speaks up gently, without looking in her direction.  
"Please carry on" she almost whispers while tracing her eyes across the perimeter of the hotel lobby - The whole place looks deserted except for a receptionist on the far right corner of the lobby, talking over the phone with the cordless tucked under his neck while punching some keys on his keyboard. It was too far or perhaps too low for them to catch his voice but it looks like he was gently shaking his head in a 'no', the same answer he gave them sometime ago when they begged him for two single rooms. Ananda's jaw almost drops when she spots a huge aquarium on the opposite side of the lobby, without saying a word, she gets up and walks to another couch, placed a few feet away from the aquarium and settles there leaning her elbows to her knees while cupping her tea in both the hands and nursing tiny sips. She spots small flecks of dust scattered on the glass that is showing off deep hued corals and tiny fish in vibrant colors flickering around, slithering their thin flat bodies, almost rhythmically. 

Michael comes and settles next to her, mocking her posture, looking longingly in the direction of the aquarium. "You like fish huh?" He wonders. "It is meditating to watch them swim" she says. 
"Speaking of fish, let us get back to where we left" He adds in mock seriousness. "Speak up, mystery woman - do you go on a sob fest every now and then for random reasons like missing the flight and having to eat spaghetti instead of pasta?" He goofs around, trying to gauge the gravity of the situation, looking into her facial expressions. He exhales when he sees a smug smile dancing on her lips. "You didn't quiet tell me about Scarlett yourself" she drifts away the topic to his part of the story. "Yeah right" he feigns irritation "Your crazy busy friend summons to come collect the bags before we even finish lunch and you blame it on me for not divulging my story. 
"She was driving out of town on work Michael., how could I expect her to get sacked waiting to deliver me my gunny sac of random, useless belongings?" She questions.
"Woah, woah…truce, Ms. Enigma, truce!" He interjects. I shall give out the bits, every single one of them and you shall keep flashing that riddle of a smile every time I ask you a question. I figured it out - so I'll go on the autobiographical account of my love story"
"You better go on" She raises her brow and answers back with a stiff lip.
They both let out a giggle.

"Scarlett dumped me" 
"I think we know that bit of information already" 
"She dumped me because she cheated on me"
"Wait a minute" - Ananda gasps, in utter disbelief. "You meant to say, you cheated on her didn't you?"
"No Ma'am, I did not. She cheated on me and dumped me"
"So, you forgave her for cheating on you, and you still love her?" 
"As foolish as it might sound, yes and yes!" 
"You forgave her for cheating on you!" "Wow" she gasps. "Isn't that the most disgusting thing a partner can do?" She asks him, a film of moisture forming in her wide eyes.
He places his empty cup on the side table, turns toward her and settles leaning against the shoulder rest of the couch. 
"We all are cheaters Ananda - we all are. In our mind's creepy corners, we all cheat. We get enticed at the prospect of something attractive, pretty, scandalous and  prohibited and cheat our partners on a daily basis. To me, Scarlett took it just a little step further - she enacted upon her thoughts. Some draw a line at mental cheating and she didn't. I know it was a strong lure for her. It is human nature to take things we have for granted. Millions of partnerships collapse on that one ground every single second"
Ananda sits with her feet up and folded, facing him on the other side of the couch - clutching to a decorative pillow firmly against her chest. The thin film of moisture dripping down in heavy droplets like wax from lighted candles. 
"Relationships are work Ananda, they are filled with imperfections. At the end of the day, we need to clutch to the positives. We need to give them a chance, to try and experience them, reconcile them"

"You have nothing against her then, your heart didn't break? You don't love yourself at all?" She asks, the tears staining her high cheekbones and glistening under the light of the chandeliers above them. 
"I love myself, but I love her like I love myself. I know she would never come back to me, she accused me of pushing her to that point"
"Do you think she is right?"
"Aren't all of us right in our own mind Ananda? - Does anyone do anything without thinking that they are right? Don't we all justify all our thoughts and actions?"

There is a long moment of silence between the new friends. "Now tell me about yourself.  Who is the keeper of your heart?"
She seems to be lost in a trance, looking through him.
"Myself" she says. "I always thought marriage, love and relationships are husk that eclipse our lives and break our beings"
"You got to be kidding me" He chuckles. "You never let anyone into your heart so far?" 
"Not so far" she whispered softly, tear after tear dripping through her dilated eyes.
"And why?"

"I am going to visit my ailing mother in Canada" She adds softly. "She lives alone ever since my dad passed away"
"I am very sorry" he reaches to her hand, grabs it with both his hands and holds it.

"He died of heart break and and what seemed like an overdose of prescription sleep aid. I was eighteen then, and moved to San Diego state to complete my undergrad. Dad left all his wealth for me. He was a successful banker. I loathed my mother ever since. Mom came to visit me often - I never forgave her"
Michael continues to hold Ananda's hand. "They say she is on dialysis, distroyed herself in drinking and guilt perhaps and is counting her moments as we speak and craving to see me again"

He stays silent. Offering an attentive ear and making an intense eye contact.

"She had an affair with Dad's best friend"


"To me, sex is utterly overrated. It is like the manifestation of all things self centered. It aims at a gratification that fizzes out as fast as it hits you. It is the language of the body, not soul - a language that engages in a monologue of self love, hopelessly entangling oneself in the halo effect of being loved. That, my dear is the real husk, that settles down when, with or without it in the picture, you reach out and embrace the soul of your loved one.  I would have been devastated if Scarlett rested her love and faith in her fling" He tells all in utter serenity - almost like a bystander watching his own sorrow, gauging it from a safe distance. "I see it, this lust, wandering around in my daily life in the heart of the 'sin city' - I see it making its way in and out of the many alleys, souls lost in pursuit of something! Ironically, it is the antidote of love and people  spend whole lifetimes blissfully unaware of that fact"

He pauses to look at her - "So she didn't get the happiness she craved for did she?" He questions her - "And what do you have to hold against her? - she is one of those confused souls that got tangled!" He keeps his steady gaze on her painfully drowned eyes.

Ananda gets up suddenly, and walks away trying to shield the overwhelming emotions that were drowning her down. She proceeds toward the aquarium and looks into it, resting her forehead on the glass looking through the life that comes springing onto her when the corals dance in waves, with a life of their own.

"Baby star fish" She hears Michael's soft voice as he comes close to her and places a protective hand on her shoulder.

The tiny flecks of dust she spotted from a distance seem to move sluggishly. She wipes her eyes to her sleeve and squints to take a closer look.  Each fleck has pointy sides and suddenly the whole picture comes into focus.

She lets out a teary smile, pulls her phone out of her track pant pocket and tries to bring the screen into focus to take a picture.
The screen blacks out with a perforated virtual wheel moving clock wise.
She exhales "The battery dies at the opportune moment"
He pulls his phone out, clicks a picture for her and flashes it at her with a bright smile.

Ananda walks back to the room with her new friend, feeling light as a feather, smiling her brightest in many long years.

                                        THE END.