At the Turning of a Road

She woke up around 10 am, took a long shower, smiled at the pleasant Sun outside her window and put on a Sunshine coloured cotton dress, slipped on her white shoes and headed out to pursue her favourite Sunday morning activity. Going to the Shakespeare and Company book store, spending hours contemplating, reading, talking to new people and making new friends, every Sunday morning, had become a ritual for her ever since she had moved to Paris a year ago.

There, she met people who wrote books, who read the same books as her, who read much different books, who for once didn’t condemn her views on Jane Austen and didn’t always start a Murakami bashing. She loved those non-judgemental, life is much deeper, let’s ‘read between the lines, for figurative, literal and literature purposes’ conversations. After which she generally walked to the grocery store in the adjacent lane and spent another hour picking some healthy food and followed it by a coffee with her usual book store friends.

But this particular Sunday morning, her spirits seemed a little more joyous than usual.

The elation could be sensed in the air of her walk, for she moved like an angel with hidden wings. There was an aura of determination and confidence that took over her.

As she reached the book store and turned in to take a step, she lost it all. Her confidence left her like a baby out of the womb. A dry, burning and painful sensation in the pit of her stomach, replaced her elation. It had become so dominant that it was now physically painful.

‘This is a familiar feeling, I’ve felt it before,’ she thought to herself but she couldn’t quite place it. When she invested another five minutes to jog the origin of the feeling and emerged a failure, she decided to blame her capricious mind for it.

Not wanting to project her mood on to her friends, she quietly walked toward the languages section of the store, picked up a book she had been eyeing for a while and later seated herself in the mythology section and started reading various versions of Helena’s story and her perspective. After an hour of reading about Helena and buckling herself up for her forthcoming assignment in Greece, she walked ahead to pick up some books on the country.

She had reached a narrow but long room stacked of books. It was the ‘Travel’ section. There were two ancient looking wooden doors that opened into the room on either sides.

She went up to the Greece section to chose a book to read when a man who saw her entering walked up to her and said, “Excuse me, could you help me with this map.”

She turned around, looked at the map first. The man took two steps backwards and said, “Whoa! Hi?”

“Oh. Hi,” she said in a really low tone, trying to sound disinterested. But on the inside, she was blank. She didn’t know what was happening around here.

He then walked ahead and tried to engulf her into one of his big warm hugs which she quickly cut short after a small arm hug. Feeling a little awkward, he said, “It’s been four years. You..you look so different.”

“I know,” she said with a self-ascertained smile on her face.

“Well, that’s new. What are you doing here?” He asked.

“I’ve been here for a year, working.”

“That’s nice. I just moved here,” he said.

“Okay, that’s great. You’ll love this city.”

She looked into the map he was holding in his hands and helped him with the direction to the museum he wanted to visit.

“Hey, I have to go. It was nice bumping into you, see you,” she said and walked out of the wooden door on the opposite end.

He kept looking at her walking away. The farther she walked, the already narrow book store narrowed down further for him. He could see all the stacked books storm off their counters and blind his view once she reached the billing area. “Shit,” he muttered under his breath. A sudden stroke of regret overwhelmed him. He found himself wishing that he had never gotten things to a point where the only way they could see each other was by bumping in.

She, on the other side, got the book she picked up at the languages section billed and walked out of the book store emitting the biggest sigh of relief that had ever existed. She turned to the left and walked away from his sight forever.

He just stood there, motionless. He couldn’t gauge what was happening to him. Amid all the chaos that he had witnessed, he tried to calm himself down and think usefully. He had his answer. He wanted to talk to her this time. He ran out of the store to look if she was still around. But as luck would have it, she wasn’t. His hand immediately reached for his phone and waited for her message, like old times. A good five minutes later, nothing came.

“She wouldn’t make the effort to find out my phone number to message me. Why would she anyway,” he thought to himself while resolving to find her number.

He immediately called one of their mutual friends for her latest phone number and got it within a minute.

Not wasting a single second, he called her asking her where she was and if they could get a coffee.

Sounding wary, she replied saying she was in the grocery shop in the adjacent lane.

So he went there, met her and spent a few minutes while watching her pick up various things for her kitchen.

When she was done, they walked up to the coffee shop, in silence.

“So what’s your work here like,” he asked her after they took their table in the coffee shop and ordered for coffee.

“Well, I work for the UNESCO. For the culture part of it. I basically go around the world, seeing the condition of monuments, assessing them, reading up more about countries and histories, figuring out if we have left anything out and stuff like that.”

“Wow, that is immensely interesting. You’re definitely loving your job here.”

“Of course I am.”

“So I’m writing books, I don’t know if you know,” he said.

“I know. I read them all,” she replied even before he could finish, adding, “They are quite the best sellers, you know.”

“Haha yeah, so I also work for this agency which asked me to move to Paris for a while. I said why not, it’s a great place to write better as well.”

“If you could write any better. Sure. But yes, new ideas and plots, definitely. But like they say, I don’t know how far some imaginative “love” in the air of Paris can help you write better though.”

“Wow, you’ve become really cynical,” he remarked.

To which she flashed another one of her self-ascertained smiles, which was still new for him to see on her face. He was being taken aback by them.

Suddenly, sensing that they were going to run into an awkward silence, he said, “Let me see which book you bought from the store.”

She dished it out for him, the title read ‘El amor en los tiempos del cólera’.

“The Spanish version of ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’, nice. I didn’t know you could understand Spanish.” he said.

“We’ll yeah, started learning new languages a while ago. Did a Spanish course. I was with a Spanish guy last night, started talking to him Spanish only to realize that I was decently good with it. So when I attained enough confidence about the language, this was the first thing I was determined to do. So did you read this book?”

“Yeah, a long time ago. English translation, though. But why did you pick this book out of everything?”

“Well some books stay with you, you know. And this has in a major way. I took an extremely long time reading it when I read it in English around four years ago. The incidents in the book had started resonating with my mind so much that I stopped reading it mid way.”

“What do you mean incidents resonated with your mind?”

“Well, you know, Florentino Ariza was hopelessly in unrequited love. He was pathetic. But Fermina Daza was having a decent time in her marriage. I mean why is he the one suffering with unrequited love. Where is the damn balance. She does not go through any major suffering at all, anywhere in the story. So I stopped when I figured what was happening. When I figured he was going to wait for her for fifty years. I didn’t want to do that with my life. It was really uncomfortable. I couldn’t accept it. So I stopped reading. There is no literary justice, poetic justice. When she comes back to him after fifty years, he should have really walked away, let her die in misery. Now that would be literally justice.”

“So when did you start reading again?” he asked.

“Well, just a few days after, when I figured he had a point. He made sense. He loved her, after all. It’s very hard to stay away, say no, hurt the other person.”

There was silence when she finished. Their coffee had arrived meanwhile.

He took in everything she said and he knew what she was talking about, for he still couldn’t get it out of his head, the way she refused to hug him properly. She still liked him. And he regretted that he didn’t have the capacity to reciprocate it, back then. As a reflex action, he bent forward to her lips and gave her a small but lingering kiss. She cooperated but didn’t kiss him back. He didn’t show any regret.

She lounged back in her chair, looked away, a tear now rolled down her cheek.

A moment later, he said, “hey, I want to go around the city today. Will you come show me around?”

“Well, I am not kissing you under the Eiffel Tower,” she said, got up and walked out of the coffee shop.

He followed her. “When can I see you next?” he asked, his tone almost that of suffering.

“Well, you need to figure out what you just did. And if you don’t regret it, you still need to figure out what is going to happen. If you’ve already figured it all out, like you usually do, you still need to wait, for fifty days at least.”

“Fifty days?” he said, sounding terrified.

“Well then, that’s too much, isn’t it. But it’s better than the five years that I’ve gone through.”

His face fell.

She turned away, grinning brightly and thought to herself, “literary fucking justice. I’ll make him suffer for fifty hours, at least.”

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