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It couldn’t be. Not here, not now, not any more.
Yet, there it was. Scrawled in yellow chalk across the entrance to the bistro. Just the one word. The one word that had once meant the world to him, the one word that had nearly emptied the world when he tried not to recall it.
All that he remembered of her was that he did not remember her. And that was just how he wanted it. That was how he had wanted it when he succumbed to the convenient distraction of a long overdue vacation. And that was how he wanted it now.
Or so he told himself. He had gone to great pains to pick the sun-drenched slopes of Asturias for this getaway from her and their world. It was the ideal vacation spot, without any mode of connectivity with the world-no telephones, no computers, no television. And it was the complete anti-thesis of the destination they had always wanted for their own first vacation. Spain was as warm and mellow as Scotland would have been cold and severe. They wanted Scotland for its serene solitude, Spain was bustling with people everywhere; they had yearned for the cozy warmth of a bedstead to escape the inevitable rain, Asturias was the perfect place to get drenched in the sun.
Yet, Asturias was anything but an escape from her. He had barely checked into the hotel and come out for an evening stroll when he chanced upon this bistro screaming out the last word he would have expected to come across. His curiosity piqued, he could not resist getting to the bottom of this newest quirk of fate that had characterised their every tryst.
A little tentatively, he entered the bistro. It was crammed with people chatting animatedly in the vernacular. After being jostled about for a bit, he spied the relative seclusion of the bar. The full length mirror running behind the counter added to the feeling of a little more space and without wasting a further moment, he squeezed himself onto a barstool. The visage he saw in the mirror was of a timid and tentative foreigner-he had never travelled outside his own country and as he struggled to ponder over what he should do next, his eye fell upon a board behind the counter. His relief at realising that it was written in english evaporated all too soon when he read what was written on it.
“How to drink Sidra (cider)”
Drink Sidra ! He chuckled at the thought, wondering what she would have said to this. Atleast he had now unravelled the mystery behind the sign at the front door. Exhilarated at the thought of having some fun at her expense, he read on, his eyes devouring each word in the list of instructions on how to savour the local beverage to the fullest.
“The ideal temperature for a bottle of Sidra is cool, but not cold”
Now that was just perfect, so like her. She was proud but not arrogant, simple but not plain, calm yet tempestuous.
She was beautiful, in a fresh-faced, outdoors-girl kind of way. Her big black eyes conveyed an expression of complete vulnerability, with an appeal directed not to any individual but to the world at large. Please don’t hurt me, they seemed to say. Yet, she was also extremely talented as a woman, her genius lying in a mad innocence that was at once magic, tragic and ineluctably feminine. And it was this combination of vulnerability and power that was her greatest asset.
“You must drink the whole bottle at one sitting”
That would have been impossible with her. She was an enigma wrapped in a puzzle. An acquired taste, revolting and annoying at first. He recalled their tentative first steps at getting to know each other, bubbling with irrepressible curiosity yet guarded lest the other construe it as an invasion of their privacy.
She was the absolute converse of any woman he had ever known. Most women opened up their entire lives yet did not ever offer even a peek into their real selves. With her, he had been able to peer into her soul right from the beginning and yet, had to struggle interminably to learn even the most trivial facets about her life. He detested her needless secrecy and affected insouciance. And on more occasion than one, tried to let his pride get the better of him.
But the more you pushed her away, the more you realised that you couldn’t do without her. It was like a drug, with a yearning and a promise all at once of just one more surrender to its pleasures. And yet, it was exquisite, always leaving you unsatisfied and yearning for just one more.
“The waiter will simply uncork the bottle. From then on, you are on your own”
In their case, he had been thrown into the deep end of the pool for as long as he could recall. He had always suffered himself to be haughty, severe and indifferent. But it all came to a head when he met her.
It was as if she was the antidote to all his ills. Her manner, a little untouchable, was fit for a prince. And born into Rajput royalty, he was, quite literally, just that. Yet, with her, he felt like the proverbial babe in the woods.
What others admired about him, she frowned upon; what he detested about his own self, she adored! She read Ghalib and Neruda but quoted the most cheesy Bollywood tracks. And though he was no stranger to either, he was never quite sure which of the two to proffer for all too often, his choice would be the exact one she was looking to steer clear of!
She could praise and blame, offer tears and smiles. She could warn, comfort and command. And yet, he often felt that she did not mind sitting coyly in his shadow either.
“The Sidra experience will set you back a couple of Euros”
What an understatement, if ever there was one. She hadn’t taken long to warn him that she was high-maintenance. Her animated chatter was peppered with mentions of Prada shoes and Ferragamo bags and god alone knew what else. He hadn’t a clue about women and their proclivities beyond a few clichéd names. And she had always been at her uncommunicative, unhelpful best when the time came to pamper her with gifts.
It was almost as if she enjoyed his clumsy attempts at reading her mind, stumbling from one bad choice to the next. And it had taken him quite a while before he understood that she had never been even half as happy at the most elegant of gifts as she had been at the bunch of flowers he had plucked from her own garden in a desperate attempt to woo her back after yet another quarrel.
He had come here to seek the comfort of solitude. But had forgotten that it is in solitude that we are least alone.
And as he resigned himself to the supremacy of the elements, the very elements that had extended her influence to even this nondescript hamlet, he conceded to himself that there would never be any escape from her. Perhaps they were right when they said that all great love affairs end in tragedy: either disillusionment sets in and people separate or one member dies, leaving the other alone. He did not understand what their undoing had been but perhaps that was not for him to know.
Forcing a smile on, he beckoned to the bartender for a drink of the cider. But his voice was drowned in the chatter. He tried again and though he caught the bartender’s attention, the man did not understand the order.
Damn that devil-woman, he cursed under his breath. Clearing his throat and cringing at the mortification of saying the word out aloud, he repeated the order.
Thankfully, the import of that one word was not lost on the bartender. And as his eyes followed the man to the chestnut kupela, he discerned a flicker of a movement in the mirror.
It couldn’t be. Not here, not now.
This was no fairytale trance, this was real life. Yet, here she was.
Sidra. The same toss of the head, the same nimble gait, the same adorable verve.
And as he turned the barstool around, too bewildered to comprehend how the countenance in the mirror had morphed into reality, it became all too evident to him.
That there was just the one person with whom he would never need an occasion to celebrate. For there would always be far more to celebrate than mere anniversaries and birthdays.
With her, he would always be able to share their similarities and celebrate their differences.