The café was a relatively small, dimly lit, circular place with exquisite-looking lanterns hanging down the dome-shaped roof that mildly illuminated the place. There were murals – food and abstract and stone collages engraved on the walls, further adding an impetus to the already apparent antiquity. It looked sparsely populated even though it served everything that a café ideally should. Ashi mutely thought the odd hour they’d chosen to be one of the possibilities for the same. Ashi swiveled her neck around the place as Rihaan stood near the counter.
The counter stretched along the right-hand side of the entrance and had the menus displayed on the same wall. All the café activities and the uniformed crowd stood on that side. She saw Rihaan as he placed their order looking at the menu in front of him. He looked every bit perfect. Ashi swore under her breath as the uniformed girl taking the order flushed at Rihaan every now and then. Rihaan seemed unaffected though. He looked too formal.
Ashi had viewed a formal Rihaan for the first time in all these days and thought how he managed to put on so many expressions for every given occasion. Ashi kept staring into a blank as she wondered how the place would be, when it’s crammed with a chattering crowd. Limited space would make it chaotic, she thought. The thought immediately dismissed when she comprehended that the place hardly had any sitting arrangement that would accommodate four people at a time. Except a table in the farthest, top-left corner, no other table had more than two chairs.
“Where are you lost now?” Rihaan clicked his fingers jolting Ashi’s attention back to him.
“Just, looking around the place. Why? Do you’ve a problem with that as well?” Ashi asked directly facing him.
Rihaan sighed heavily. “Let’s sit and talk, Smart Mouth. I’m starving.”
Rihaan mechanically headed to the table exactly opposite to the sole, large table and Ashi followed him, just two steps away. It’s occupied by three heads, laughing and giggling, passing sideway glances at Ashi and Rihaan. They looked more like friends and less like colleagues.
The chairs and the tables were made up of what looked like ebony wood. They looked well furnished and retained their original texture and colour even in the presence of the exotic polish – looked like French polish that coated them. Hanged above the table was one of those exquisite-cylindrical lanterns Ashi had laid her eyes on, when she’d entered the café.
Ashi was truly enthralled and amazed by the choice of place Rihaan chose, every time he took her out. She also pondered about the place he chose to sit. The places he chose always had the remotest access for the others, but had the maximum access for them to view the entire place.
Though the place looked ordinarily mediocre in the beginning, it’s every bit sumptuous when given a profound look.
“Either I’m over thinking or I’m over analyzing Rihaan. Maybe it’s just a coincidence. Maybe it’s nothing to do with Rihaan or me or his choices. Maybe I’ve started liking him to the extent that, even if he stands up and slaps the living shit out of me, I’ll measure the intensity of his slap, his dedication in hitting me, his posture, his body language, his expressions and the reason he slapped me will start making sense all of a sudden. Finally, I’ll analyze it so much that I’ll probably end up liking it and will put forth my other side for him to slap.”
“Ashi? Ashi?” Rihaan tapped the table on her side.
“Yes. Yes.” Ashi eyed the food arrived in front of her. This time she seemed to sum up the power of her eyes and brains in accordance.
“Have you seen a psychiatrist for this?” Rihaan asked, with what sounded like a serious tone though it’d mock splattered all over it.
Ashi peered at him over the glass she’s drinking water from before replying, “I don’t need to. I don’t think it’s that serious”, and continued gaping at the food kept in front of her, with sheer revulsion and aghast.
The small circular table was crammed with a tray that held a big grilled sandwich and two cappuccinos waiting ardently to be gulped.
“I can’t finish this everything!” Ashi said, exposing her palms and shrugging her shoulders, “I’m neither starving, nor am I suppressing my hunger since days!” She exclaimed looking wide-eyed at the food kept in front of her.
“I know. And you don’t have to. Nor you’re expected to. Eat only till your stomach can manage. By the way, right now your eyes look like they own the calibre of holding the entire population of China in them”, Rihaan chuckled.
Ashi immediately narrowed her eyes at Rihaan and shook her head in disgust.
“Let’s eat now, before you come up with something new and we continue with our bantering.”
Ashi smirked at him before maintaining a straight face and started digging in her food, reluctantly.
Rihaan intently viewed Ashi with determined adoration, sipping his cappuccino. She’s engrossed in her eating and he got lost in the moment, still, until Ashi looked at him with a mouth full of sandwich she’s eating and raised her eyebrows at him. Rihaan immediately looked away and before she could finish her bite that abstained her from talking, said, “So, ask what you want to?”
“Zilch. It’s of no use asking anything now. I’ll get an altered, unreal reply fully loaded with sarcasm and mind games that won’t serve my genuine questions. So leave it and concentrate on eating.”
“So you’re still going to work for us, right? You’ve not rescinded the gentleman’s agreement, have you?” Rihaan enquired being cautiously curious.
“No. I thought about it while you’re making up those cock and bull stories in your mind to answer my questions. I don’t think we should let our personal differences come anywhere in between our professional relationship. So yes. I’m still going to work for Malhotra and Sons”, Ashi replied matter-of-factly wiping her long slender fingers on a paper napkin that had ‘By the Bay’ inscribed at the corner, in cursive.
“What?” Rihaan gave her a baffled look.
“What? What? Nothing. I’m full. I can’t thrust in anything more than this unless you want me to puke.” Ashi said, still twiddling the paper napkin, without looking at him.
“I guess I should’ve ordered some vodka and cocktails instead. That would’ve served you better than this”, Rihaan said sarcastically.
Ashi ceased, holding the tissue in her hands and gave him a tight lipped smile narrowing her eyes, “Thanks. That’s so thoughtful of you. But I don’t consume toxics before sunset, you see. So, it would’ve been futile. Good you didn’t order.”
Rihaan’s iPhone started vibrating and flashing ‘Dad’ that diverted their attention.
Rihaan answered the call promptly, “Yes Dad. What’s it? I’m with Ashi. Dad, I can’t make it. You go and handle. You know I don’t like being there. You can take Parth Uncle with you in case you don’t want to go alone. Besides, I’ve some other plans in the evening. Yes. Bye.”
“Let’s go then, if you’re done?” Rihaan asked still scrolling down the screen of his iPhone.
“Yes sure. But I think you’re starving when we entered and coffee doesn’t pacify hunger as far as I know”, quoth Ashi sipping the last sip of her cappuccino.
“I know, but I’ve to leave. Need to rush before Dad drags me to a social event I don’t want to attend.” Rihaan answered, reloading the pockets of his jeans with the iPhone and the BMW’s key, looking a little fretful.
“Where to?” Ashi blurted before she could clamp her mouth shut. The question didn’t seem to bother Rihaan and he answered almost promptly, “Mom’s place. I don’t like going there after Mom’s demise. So avoiding it, till I can.”
Ashi posed her handbag on her elbow pit and continued hesitantly, “I– I – I’d asked Dad about your mom and…. he told me about the mishap – the… accident –
“You better don’t try to invade there. You’ve no right nor am I letting you any right to know anything related to that. Stay off. Do you understand that?” Rihaan castigated Ashi, maintaining the pitch of his voice.
“Don’t try to be something you’re not already. Don’t live there in your cloud cuckoo fantasies. You’re neither my girlfriend nor can you ever be!” Rihaan added without letting Ashi interrupt him.
Ashi took a deep steadying breath closing her eyes before replying, “I’m sorry. I know I can’t be your girlfriend. No need of reiterating and reminding me every now and then. I’m not an amnesiac. I’ve been blessed with a very good memory, unfortunately. Regarding your mom, I was just being concerned, not that I was trying to grill out some information from you. I’m no gossiper Rihaan. I hate gossips. I asked you because I’m concerned”, she paused for a second or two before continuing, “– about you or anything related to you.”
Ashi closed her eyes and shook her head slightly in dismay.
“I’m sorry once again. I won’t ask you this again. Ever. Goodbye. See y…”
“Wait. I’ll drop you home. I need to use the restroom. I’ll be back in five.”
Rihaan looked like he’s struck by a freight train, loaded with regret and remorse. He hardly made any eye-contact while he said the same. He knew he’d over killed it, yet this time. He felt sorry but didn’t say it as his ego was bigger than anything ever known to him.
Rihaan leaned, resting his palms on the platform in front of him, staring at his reflection in the mirror. Eyes of a naïve boy who was helplessly screaming at the sight of his unresponsive bleeding mother stared him back. He’d shut and locked that part of his life in the remotest corner of his soul all these growing years. Yet every time, some ignorant, oblivion and feeble-minded being touched upon it like it’s nothing and made the incident raw – a fresh oozing wound, rerunning in his conscious like it all had happened yesterday, eventually making it crystal clear.
Turning on the tap, he splashed the gushing cold water on his face with an unavailing attempt to dismiss the levitating memories that dreaded him.
As he padded his way back into the café, his restless eyes couldn’t locate Ashi anywhere around the place. Fishing out the iPhone from his pocket with an intention of dialing Ashi’s number, Rihaan’s eyes rested on a note – scribbled untidily on one of the paper napkins that had ‘By the Bay’ imprinted in the corner in blue that matched the ink of the words scribbled, lying under the coaster on the table; they’re sitting a while ago.
The note read –
Exasperation cleaved him. He moved his fingers through his hair with a flawed attempt of disheveling it; his hair didn’t look a tad messy. His eyes lingered over the writing as he touched the signature with his fingertips.
“What the f-“, he shook his head in deep irritation as his fingers found his hair once again.
“What’s happening to my humanity? Why is it surfacing all of a sudden in her presence? Morals and principles seem to have evoked for her abruptly. I’ve to mend this. Fix myself permanently. It’s not like I’ve upset someone for the first time in my life. Yet, looking at her dropped face feels so unbearable. So intolerable to my own self, like someone is twisting a dagger deep inside my guts.”
His thoughts wandered around her endlessly.
Still staring wide and blank into the napkin that engraved her writing, his conscious and sub conscious fought a vigorous battle within him. A part of him readily accepted the fact that she’s doing some alien, non-experienced and queer things to him, whereas the other suppressed those things and cajoled him that it’s mere a turmoil of emotions and feelings and will soon end or fade away. But deep down the pull he felt towards her was too magnetic and scared him to the gills. However determined he kept himself and his intentions – not to come closer to her, he couldn’t stop his mind from drifting in her direction, to care for her, to be concerned for her. The list seemed endless and eternal.
Her proximity made him to lose control over what’s right and what’s wrong, rather what he felt was right and what he felt was wrong. The more he asked himself why he did it, the more he found himself reaching for an answer, he didn’t want to hear nor did he want to accept. He could hardly keep a pronounced control over his self – words, actions and reactions. He’s experiencing the moment when the most wrong felt things start feeling right (somewhere deep inside), when you go overboard to achieve that thing, constantly failing to resonate yourself of any possible reasons. His feelings and emotions were like a wild, untamed bull, she being his picador.
Her actions directly affected his; his veiled self was gingerly sliding off him. His innumerable masks became patchy and started falling off under her shine of innocence. It’d hardly been a while since she’d left but he’s already thinking of ways to meet her or contact her.
“Shit! Why the hell am I craving for her presence?” Maybe I didn’t do the right thing by being rude to her? She’s just being polite. Shit!”
He strode out of the café tied up in his own thoughts.
“Excuse me?” A familiar deep voice caught Ashi’s attention as she scrammed out of the café.
“Yes?” Ashi replied with a questioned look plastered on her face.
“Anvesha, the interior designer, right?” The voice continued with a smile.
“Yes. But….” Ashi’s frown grew deeper as she tried to recollect his face from her nebulous memories. “I know you, but I can’t recollect where I’ve seen you.” Ashi finally answered in a single breath.
“I guessed that, looking at that frown on your face. This is Kabir. We shared a drink last night at the Pacific. I hope you remember now”, Kabir smiled flashing his white like it’s their – his and Rihaan’s magic wand to make girls go weak in knees. Ashi sighed mentally; partly surprised that he didn’t have the same effect on her, like last night.
“I know, I remember now. Hello”, Ashi smiled without allowing it to touch her eyes.
He asked, his eyes searching for Rihaan, scanning the background as if Rihaan was hiding from him.
“And why will Rihaan be with me?” Ashi enquired with a scowl.
Kabir shot his eyebrows in surprise. “You both are dating each other, right? At least that’s what came to my mind last night.”
“No, we aren’t.” Ashi replied precisely with an apparent sharpness.
“Oh, okay. If you’re not dating each other, it’s well and good”, he said winking at her and smiling roguishly.
Ashi strongly repressed her desire to roll her eyes, “He’s such an annoying charm that it completely coats a white wash on his looks. He’s – ‘∞ X negative-s (-)’.”
“Well, in that case, would you like to join me and my friends in the evening? There’s a party happening at ‘Sync’. The club is just round the corner of this street. We…”
“Friends, as in?” Ashi willfully interrupted his talks that sounded more like brag.
“Well, friends as in my friends. You only know Rihaan though. So, can I expect you to be there at nine tonight?”
“Yes. You can.”
Ashi smiled one of her best made up smiles and waved at him.
“See you.” He waved back at her with flirty enthusiasm.
Rihaan turned the key and the engine roared to action. Viewing from his rearview mirror he received a faint glance of a “familiar frame” accompanied by a “more familiar frame”.
He adjusted the mirror for a well-defined view. Rihaan scowled as the “more familiar frame” waved at the “familiar frame” with a smile and the latter waved back with a smile before the former got into a cab. Rihaan stamped his foot hard on the accelerator and drove off, fuming and burning with a visible rage.