Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Salt of this Planet

This is my latest swing at writing short stories. Am still learning the nuances. Feel free to rate/trash it.

He glanced at the time on his cellphone. The digitized haze of the screen announced it to be 12:55am. He had just drifted into sleep. “Walden and Civil Disobedience” was lying, face down on his nightstand. He remembered putting it down and checking the time. He had turned off the reading light at around 12:40am.

He was woken up by the ringing of his cellphone a few minutes later.

The caller id flashed the name “Susan” in luminescent blue letters. He didn’t have her picture in his cellphone. Otherwise it would have shown that too.

He almost didn’t pick it up. But he knew he had to. She wasn’t doing well lately. As with most women her age, the reason for her agony - relationships.

He picked up the phone and trying to sound as energetic as possible, he said “Hey! What’s up girl?”

And sure enough there were some words said at the other end. But he couldn’t figure it out because most of it was muffled up by the sobbing. And finally he heard an audible sentence.

“I still can’t believe it” She said. It trailed into a stretch of exaggerated sobbing.

This was the 5th day since her boyfriend broke up with her and the 5th day he was getting a call from her past midnight.

She had been with this boyfriend for nearly 2 years. Actually the boyfriend in question broke up with her a few days before completing their second year. Apparently he announced the breakup when she started talking about doing something special for their second year together.

Even though this was the 5th day the conversations followed a similar pattern.

Stage 1 – The memories of the good times she had during the relationship dominated this stage of the conversation. It spanned everything from their getaway in Hawaii to the walk in the park. This stage varied in length depending on her choice of “memories for the day”.

Stage 2 – This was usually a mixture of disbelief at him breaking up with her and a rant about how she was too good for him.

He hardly spoke during these two stages. He just added a light sprinkling of “Yeah”, “True” and “Very much so”. Most of the time he was lost in his musings on the topic “Why the friggin’ hell don’t some men breakup in a decent manner?”

Stage 3 – This was where she went off on an endless tirade about how men are assholes. Right from her high school sweetheart to the last guy she dated got dumped into the bin labeled “ASSHOLE” in bright red.

This stage prompted the most out of him. Partly because, as a man he felt the duty to defend his kind (at least some of them anyway). And partly because he didn’t want her to go off on a mindless rant. Moreover his sleep starts to kick in at this point.

But his efforts have hardly any effect on her, except making her intersperse her rants with “You are different”, “I am not talking about you” etc.

Stage 4 – This is the stage where he did most of the talking and she listened trying to hold back her sobs. Most of this was about assuring her that she will not end up alone for the rest of her life and trying to convince her that there is nothing wrong with her. This stage usually concluded the conversation.

Today’s conversation was no different either. By the time he put the phone down it was 2:40am. “Great! I have to head to work at 7:00 am. Damn it!” He cursed.

* * *

It had been a very long day. These meetings seem to be so taxing. Classic case of “Too many cooks spoil the broth”. Hours of useless discussion and at the end people bring up the very same point discussed in the beginning. The frustration is what made one weary more than anything else.

Fortunately he did get time to sit down and have a nice lunch. Curried chicken at the nearby “hole in the wall” Vietnamese joint. Now he was starting to feel really sleepy. The fact that he had very little sleep last night didn’t help either.

He was starting to doze off in front of his laptop. That’s when his cellphone rang. It was Richard. He was glad that he had a room and not a cubicle. So he could afford to answer calls in peace. He answered the phone and the first thing he heard was a loud scream.

“I got it!”

Richard had been trying to make a huge career move and there was this job (in his words ‘his dream job’) in a global corporation he was gunning for. He had been helping Richard prepare for this interview for a few days now.

They spent quite a bit of time working on his resume, preparing interview answers. He even picked out the suit for Richard to wear.

“Thanks a lot, buddy! I owe you big time!”

“Nah, you are the one who attended the interview. Not me.”

“Don’t kid yourself. You know how much you helped me out.”

“If you say so” He chuckled. “So let’s go out and celebrate your new job and make some headway into spending your fat paycheck.”

“Oh! I can’t. Lisa wants to go away to Vermont for a week before I start my new job. I am flying out tonight. Sorry about that buddy. We will celebrate when I get back.”

“Don’t worry about it. Have fun in Vermont. Say ‘Hi’ to Lisa for me. Let me know if you guys need a ride to the airport.”

“Will do that. I’ll talk to you later then. Bye”. And the phone went dead.

He let out a sigh and put down his phone. He had a quick glance at his email to see if there were any important ones which he needed his immediate attention. There was none.

He just leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.

* * *

He glanced at his watch as he stepped into the diner. It was 6:55 pm. Most of the tables were vacant. This was a diner frequented by the late night crowd – the clubbers, the students, the late shift folks, rather than by the dinner crowd.

The waitress, who seemed to double up as the hostess, came up and said “Good evening! How many people?”

“Two, please”

“Oh, go ahead and sit at any table you want and someone will be right over to take your order.”

He picked the table in the corner. That seemed to be the quietest spot. Far away from a group of folks who seem to be having an after-work dinner.

He was just looking out of the window at the passing cars when the waitress came up to him. She must have been at the most eighteen. Could still be in high school even. She had a striking resemblance to Meryl Streep.

“What would you like?”

“Just a cup of coffee. I am waiting for my friend. I will place my main order once she is here.”

“Would you like cream and sugar too?”

“Yes, please. By the way have you ever been told that you look like Meryl Streep?”

She giggled and said “No”

“Well, now you have. You have a striking resemblance to a young Meryl Streep”

“Thank you! I will be right back with your coffee”

He saw her walk up to the girl working with her and whisper something. It was probably about his comment as he saw them smiling and throwing glances his way.

He always liked his coffee really sweet. He was emptying the third packet of sugar into his coffee when Anna walked into the diner. She looked beautiful as usual.

Her beautiful free flowing dark hair framed her classic high cheek-boned face. She wore a dark skirt with a baby blue turtleneck. A dark brown leather jacket completed her outfit. Stylish, minimal, elegant - that was her signature style. She epitomized the Coco Chanel rule - ‘Look in the mirror and take one thing off just before you leave’.

He had started dating her three months back. He met her at a friend’s party. He saw her sitting on the steps when he stepped out for a breath of fresh air. That was what she was – a breath of fresh air.

Prior to that he had been through a long series of bad first dates. He was starting to be very picky and increasingly skeptical about dating. Women who were well balanced seem to be obsolete.

Anna was different. She seemed like the girl he had been waiting for all this time. All the other women he had ever been with were mere distractions.

They shared the same passionate approach towards life. They discussed the sad state of education in the country with the same passion with which they made love. From the first day they met there were no games or false pretences. It seemed that they had just shattered each other’s defenses. He loved the way she made him feel. And she appreciated how much he adored her.

She seemed to have seen him. She waved. He waved back. Somehow things felt different. She had a forced smile on her face and seemed to be weary from sleeplessness.

She sat down and took off her jacket and laid it on the seat beside her.

“Have you been here long?” She asked.

“No, just a few minutes. You look flustered. What’s wrong?”

Her face went a bit pale. She looked at him for a while. Then she covered her face with her hands. He reached across and gently removed her hands from her face. She was crying. The little makeup that she wore was starting to run down her cheeks.

He pulled out a few napkins from the box on the table and handed it to her and said “Here, wipe your tears and tell me what is wrong”

She took the napkins and wiped her tears and cleaned up the make up which had run down her cheeks.

She was silent for a few minutes. He didn’t want to push her. So he waited. Then finally she spoke.

“I still love him”

“Him? Who?”

“Matt. I have never told you about him. We were together when we were in college. Then we were always on and off again. Couple of weeks before I met you, we had a big fight and broke-up. At that time I thought it was over forever. Otherwise I would have never gone out with you”

“So now what changed? Did I do something wrong?”

“No, you did nothing wrong. You never did anything wrong. These last three months have been the most romantic time I have ever had in my life. Very rarely have I felt so desired and cherished”

“It is not me, then? So what is it?”

“As I said, I still love him. Couple of days back, I met one of our mutual friends. She told me that Matt has been wreck ever since I left him. And finally I met him yesterday, after nearly four months. She was right. He was indeed a wreck. We talked for nearly 4 hours. By the end of it, both of us were in tears. That’s when I realized that I still have strong feelings for him”

“So what now? Us? Over?” His voice was starting to break. His throat seemed to be straining to get those words out.

“This is not easy for me. Somehow you have shown me how wonderful it is to be so cared for. The selfless way you love me, almost makes me feel guilty now that I know that I have feelings for someone else. This is so difficult. I am having a tough time making that decision”

He wanted to pull her close and ask her never to leave. He knew she was special and letting her go would be a stupid thing to do. But often the right thing also appears to the stupid one.

He took her hands in his and said

“Look at me. All of us have only a finite amount of time on this beautiful planet. This time is too precious to be wasted thinking about the ‘what-ifs’. I would rather do something and live with the consequences rather than suffering the pangs of regret. My rule of thumb when it comes to this kind of decision is always this – The right decisions are always the tough ones. That is why very few people make them.”

“How can you stay so true always? I know you love me even though you haven’t said it. How can you let me go?”

He smiled and said “I love you so much that I can let you go. My love wouldn’t be true if I held you back. You have to follow your heart. The only sin is to deny what your heart truly feels”

She wiped back the tears starting to well up in her eyes and said “Somehow, I expected you to react like this. You make it so difficult for me to sit here and not feel guilty. It would have been easier if you had yelled at me. Do you mind if I leave now?”

“Actually, I prefer that you did. Not that I want to be alone. If you are here, I can’t flirt with the cute waitresses, right?” He chuckled.

“Okay. I will take off now. I want to meet up again when I have better control of my tear ducts”

“Sure thing”

As she walked away from him, he so badly wanted to call her name and ask her to comeback. But he refrained from it.

That’s when the Meryl Streep look-alike waitress came up to take his order.

“Your friend left so soon”

“She had to leave. Some emergency”

“Oh. That’s a bummer. Do you want to order something else now? Or are you planning to leave too?”

“No, I am hungry as hell. I would like a grilled chicken sandwich with everything. But no mayonnaise or cheese”

“Do you want fries with it?”

“Yes, please”

“Anything else?”

“No, that’s about it”

“Alritey. I will be back with your order in a few minutes”

All this had happened in such a hurry. He was still trying to come to grips with what just happened.

“What have I done? I finally meet the girl perfect for me. And I let her go without a fight? What kind of sick person am I? I shouldn’t have let her go like that. I should have convinced her to stay. After all she did say that these last three months were the most romantic time she ever had. And I let her go. I am so stupid”

These thoughts were raging inside his head when the waitress brought his meal.

“Enjoy your dinner”

He managed to interrupt his thoughts and blurt out a “Thank you”.

A few of those revolting thoughts were still bothering him. But in the heart of hearts he knew he had done the right thing.

“You can never force anyone to love you” He thought.

His mind wandered on to his rotten luck as far as relationships are concerned. He had never been in love. He was almost certain that he was in love with Anna. But she got away before he could say so. So his track record of not having said those beautiful three words stayed intact.

“There are people who don’t succeed in their careers or friendships. Maybe I am one of those people who don’t succeed in love”

“Shakespeare did say that ‘All the world’s a stage’. All of us cannot be principal actors, right? There can be no story without a supporting cast, right?”

He thought about it for a bit. “That doesn’t seem quite right. For my friends and family am much more than a supporting actor”

“Well, maybe there are people who succeed in career, love etc. And then there are people who are essential for them to succeed.”

“Just like salt is to cooking. On its own it has no real value. But it is so essential. Without it, even the fanciest dish would be bland. It helps the rest of the ingredients exude their best qualities.”

“There must be people who fill that spot in the gourmet kitchen of life”

“They are the salt of this planet. And I am one of them”

His train of thought was interrupted by an "Excuse me" from the next table. He looked across.

A gorgeous blonde, mid 20s, sporting a beautiful smile said "Can you please pass me the salt?”

He almost wanted to burst out laughing. But he just smiled and said

"Of course"

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