When I saw her for the first time sitting in her terrace, right adjacent to mine with a cup in hand, she looked like a mannequin – only a lot older. Two mahogany chairs adorned her spotless terrace on one of which she was sitting in a trance. A light paisley maxi dress, newspaper neatly folded in her lap and a slight smile playing on her lips. Her shiny salt pepper hair were effortlessly falling on her shoulders and her eyes were transfixed at a spot down there, somewhere, which was hard to locate given the 12th floor balcony I was standing in. I just moved in to this new apartment and was still getting used to the idea of high rise. I had always lived in houses – the ones with the lawns and space right inside the house to park. The ones that had a gate and a little walk before you could open the main door. And people, could not peak into your house even if they wanted to.
But that’s not how it was here. I was looking at someone who was having a quite cup of tea and I… I could probably read the headlines of the newspaper in her lap with little effort. I was intruding.
Before I could refocus on the work at hand, which was btw arranging the sea of boxes so that I could call this little space a home, she moved a bit readjusting herself in her chair and in the process looked at me. I immediately turned my back and pretended to fix the mess. I was cursing myself for doing whatever I did in the last two minutes -staring at her and then for lack of words, turning my back.
Suddenly I heard a voice, a little loud but sweet voice saying, “Hi Dear. Good Morning.” And it was coming from behind.
I turned around to find her looking at me with a smile. I reciprocated with the most pathetic grin giving away how awkward I was feeling.
“Good morning”, I said nodding my head feeling completely busted.
“You new here?” she asked putting her cup down while bending all the way to the floor. I could see she was having difficulty but her eyes, the warmth in the words and that smile were that of a 20 year old – fresh, full of enthusiasm and intrigue.
From someone like me whose sense of real conversation was very different from yelling of a 12th floor balcony, she still managed to pull out a few words.
“Yes, just shifted.” I responded in a hesitant but composed voice.
“So what’s your good name!” she asked.
“Avantika”, I said completely sure of the fact that our conversation was being heard by all the houses down below.
“How about calling you Avi?” she was smiling.
I looked at this woman I just met, okay saw, five minutes before and she wanted to cut short my name! I was used to this from my age group people but never someone who was old enough to be my granny. They were never interested.
“Avi is good. My friends call me so.” It was more out of respect than anything else.
“Avi it is then! And I hope to become your friend”, the smile was constantly there.
“I am Nausheen but for you N. That’s what my friends call me”, she was still smiling and letting me in her territory. Only that I was hesitant and confused.
In a new city where I was about to start my corporate climb, could I be friends with someone so easily whom I didn’t know except sharing a word or two or an awkward glance and that too who was approximately thrice my age? Or could I?
Next day I felt compelled at the same morning hour to be there, to see her, mostly to see her there. And there she was – in the same pose with the same cup and the same vibrant smile.
Getting up in the mornings was easy thereafter. We would have our cups of tea together in our own terraces sharing tidbits and then I would rush in to get ready for my day ahead. May be her presence was the reason I would get up an hour early and stand out there breathing in the city and the warmth I so missed in an empty apartment that I came back to every night.
The mornings were different.
I would tell her about the boss, the grueling ‘man kill man’ tendency, the work, the handsome guys, the bitchy girls and the fewer of few friends I had started to make. I did most of the talking and she, she did what many couldn’t. She listened and once in while threw in the pearls of wisdom that made me wonder how her life was when she was as young as me.
One Saturday when there was no hurry to get back into the race of time and we were as usual having our mandatory cups of tea pulling the chairs as close as possible to each other at the remote corners of our terraces, she said “You know I had a daughter just like you!”
“Really?” I was shocked and embarrassed that I never asked her about who all were integral to her life.
“But she is long gone now. Living in States with her husband and kids. She also used to yammer like you and fill me in with her college and office gossip.” She grinned.
“The strange thing is I don’t miss her that much.”
I felt clueless at the confession. Today I was listening and I didn’t know what to say to someone who was now pouring her heart out.
“But I miss my best friend…. It was not her, it was my husband. ” she continued with a distant gaze.
“Where is he?” I blurted out almost suddenly. I realized only after hearing my own voice that this was not how I should have asked.
There was embarrassed silence between us.
But it was only me who was embarrassed.
She pointed her finger to the sky and looked deep into the clouds that were building up and fogging her vision. Little drops of drizzle wetted her cheeks. It was hard to tell whether it was the God churning the clouds or her own eyes.
“An year back”, she said, “He was here and we used to have our morning tea together sitting right here” she patted the seat of the other chair that always lay there empty. She looked at me and now I noticed the dark circles around her eyes and the emptiness that probably she always felt but didn’t let it surface. There was always a curtain of love, almost always.
“Could I hold life by its throat and give it a good shake asking her to get back into my husband? I couldn’t Avi… I couldn’t.” she said helplessly. “He slumped into darkness right in front of my eyes and I just kept shaking his body….. wake up, wake up…. But he didn’t.”
She continued after a long pause.
“Exactly an year back, I had my first morning cup of tea all alone with an empty chair for company. He was not there – neither were his guffaws nor the ever ringing laughter that filled my house all day long. He laughed even when he didn’t know where his next breath would come from. And then it was suddenly so quiet that I could hear my heartbeat that was heavy, painful and…. waiting.”
I was still sinking my teeth into the words that were flowing out of her like an untamed river. The worst thing is silence hanging on a conversation that is too delicate. I wanted to say something but I was choking on the words. Clearly she wasn’t.
“The emptiness is unbearable”, she got up from her chair and went closer to the railing.
“I wish I hadn’t met you though”, she looked at me and there were sadness and a smile appearing through clouds on her face. In a moment, it all vanished and there was just blankness and a weird determination that made me dizzy.
I immediately got up from my chair and asked “Why N?”
Her sudden closeness to the railing and that determination was sparking chill signals in me.
“It is not as easy as it was 15 days ago.” She peeped down and stepped on to the parapet. My heart almost skipped a beat.
“Okay okay listen N. I know it sucks”, I almost jumped in my pants saying this. I knew if I wasted time getting to her apartment, I would lose her.
“I miss him Avi. I have nothing now. Nothing to lose because I have already lost the most important thing in my life.”
“N. I can’t say I know or I understand. But I know what I would feel if you won’t be here tomorrow. It will suck. But you just don’t stop living. Are you listening to me N? ”
She was looking down as if she was possessed and something was pulling her down there.
“Look at me N, look at me….” I yelled but still couldn’t get her to see me.
“You… you just don’t stop living” I said with a definite pause to make her notice.
“He wouldn’t have wanted you to give up. He didn’t N. He didn’t. He was laughing till his last breath … for you, not for himself.”
I paused to see her reaction. Her face contorted and I said calming myself, “Come on now, step back. We are too close.”
She stepped back. She heaved out a difficult breath and broke down while kneeling on the floor.
It felt as if a heavy stone just got lifted off my heart. I blinked back my tears and ran towards her apartment.