Story 71

All he had to do was sign the papers and get it over with. Put an end to the suffering, everyday torture, the accusations, the insults and humiliation. But, he could not do it. He put the papers back in the envelope and looked out of the window of the café he was sitting in. People moved about, going on with their lives, doing things they did to be who they were. He loved his wife but not enough to give her what she wanted, not this time.



Most of the relationships of his life existed because he wanted them to exist. He took extra efforts to keep people in his life but despite that some people walked away and his wife was about to do the same to him. His wife, who had supported him when he was going through a bad phase.



The waitress brought him his burger; he stared at it and remembered something from the past. Something he always remembered whenever he was about to eat. The constant nagging of his father, the humiliation, it was a part of the meal-time conversation.



The first assault always came when he was about to take the first bite. Despite the humiliation he managed to eat a few morsels of food, for his mother’s sake. But, when he could not take it anymore he left the dining table and went back to his room where he could still hear his father talking about him. About how he had wasted his education, the education his father had paid for. About how he was throwing away his life doing things that made no sense; things that did not earn him money. The conversation always ended with his father’s statement – “God knows when he is going to learn to earn his own bread and start his own living.” His father would have continued if he had audience; but the one-sided conversation ended there because at that point his sister stuffed some food in her backpack, stood and walked out of the house to go to school and his mother walked to the kitchen with the plates.



He smiled as he thought about his sister; who always brought him breakfast, climbing the slope to his room and entering the room through the window. She would give him the food she had stuffed in her backpack and kiss him on the cheek.
“You know he does not mean it, don’t you?” she used to say and he replied he knew.
For her sake he was ready to let it go; was ready to believe that his father did not mean it, but the fact was – he knew his father meant every word of what he said.




According to his father anything that did not earn money was not worth spending time on. He had pursued his ambition against his father’s will. He was an artist and he loved what he did. The paintings he made did not earn him money then; they did not earn him enough money even now, but he was happy with what he was doing. That’s what mattered to him – to his wife. She had been a huge support during this phase of his life. And now, even she was leaving him.

“To go?” he heard the voice of the waitress. He looked up and nodded



The waitress hesitated for a moment, it seemed she was about to say something but then changed her mind. She picked up the plate and walked back to the counter. She packed the burger in the paper-bag and got busy readying his latte. She handed him the to go cup and the paper bag. It had been the routine of few days – think, order food, think, ask it to be packed and take a to go latte on his way out.
A couple of days later the waitress had started to ready his latte without him giving an order. He had become predictable. She was the waitress always assigned to the table he sat at. It was unplanned the first two or three times but then he started to walk in when the table at the window that she was allotted to was empty.
Their fingers touched as he made the payment. She returned the change and said ‘have a good day’ and he smiled, like he always did. For those few moments the troubles in his life ceased to exist.

He walked out of the café and handed over the paper bag to the homeless kid waiting for him outside. This had become a routine as well.



***



She watched him as he sat at his usual table by the window. Like always he placed an envelope on the table, took out some papers, read them or pretended to read them, placed them back in the envelope and stared outside the window, at the crowd walking past the café. She placed an order for his burger when he took out the papers and she placed the plate on the table whilst he stared out of the window.


Then, he would stare at the burger and get lost in thoughts. The first time she had seen him staring at the burger she had walked to the table and asked him whether something was wrong with the burger and he had said nothing. A minute later he had asked her to pack the burger in a bag. She’d done that and then he placed an order for to go latte.


This had become a routine now. He always sat at the table near the window, the table that was allotted to her. She had seen him outside the café a couple of times, waiting for the occupants of the table to leave. He always had the same burger and the same latte, both to go.
She started readying his burger even before he asked for it and also the latte. She watched him walk out and hand over the paper bag to a homeless kid. He did that every day.


“Don’t make him your project” her friend had told her once when she had been staring at him and her friend had walked past.
“You cannot save that man; whatever it is – let him deal with it.” Her friend had warned. Her friend was right, she thought. Whatever he was dealing with, she had to let him be. But, despite trying to keep away from the man she found herself being attracted towards him.


Once, when he had been reading the papers she had walked past his table pretending to take an order from the adjacent table. She had been right. They were divorce papers. He had been staring at the papers for days. It meant two things –
1.    The divorce papers were served by his wife
2.    He was unwilling to let her go.

She felt a weird heaviness in her chest as she walked back to the counter. She drank a glass of cold water and tried to relax. She should not be affected like this; she had told herself.

This was yesterday. She finally knew what was bothering him. She wanted to take the advice of her friend and let him be but she could not. Despite suffering once for being kind-hearted she could not help it.
Had it not been for her friend she would have never managed to get out of an abusive relationship. It had been her fault. Her ex was one of her ‘projects’ as her friend called it. She had offered to help him, offered him roof and food. He relaxed a bit too much in her house, drank too much, wasted too much of her money on drugs, beat her and raped her.
She had started skipping work and her friend had put two and two together and had gotten her some help. Now, her ex was in prison and she was finally breathing free.


It did not make any sense inviting more trouble in her life, she tried to convince herself as she finished her shift and walked back home.
She could not sleep at night, she thought of him. Of the way he stared at the papers, the blank look in his eyes as he stared outside the window; the way he looked at her when she handed the paper bag to him. She thought of his touch as she handed the to go cup of latte to him. After that it was impossible to fall asleep. She climbed out of bed, switched the lights back on and watched TV. She had made up her mind.


***


The next day at the café –
Instead of placing an order for his burger she decided to walk to his table. He looked up and was surprised to see her.
“Hi” she said and hesitated for a moment.
“I will take the usual” he said.
“Would you like to try chef’s recommendation instead?” she dared to ask him and watched for his reaction.
“Okay” he said politely.
“But, it is not available as to go and is supposed to be eaten here.” She told him and then added “I will pack a burger later for the kid outside.”
“On the house” she finished.
He watched her, unable to make the decision.


“You will like it.” She said and walked back to the counter before he could stop her. There was no chef’s recommendation. There was no ‘on the house burger’ either. She would have to pay for it from her pocket. It was worth it, she thought.
She ordered her favourite and walked back to his table and placed the plate on the table. He had finished reading the papers and was staring out of the window. He looked at her and then at the plate. She had brought him a pizza.
He smiled. He knew there was no chef’s recommendation. It also meant there was no ‘on the house’ burger as well.
He was surprised when she pulled out a chair and sat opposite to him. She could see her friend shaking her head.
He looked at the plate once again. ‘Just for this once, let the them stay away’ he whispered a prayer trying to keep the memories away.


She heard him mutter something and for a moment wondered whether she had made a mistake. The next moment she saw it – tears began to gather in his eyes.
She reached out to hold his hand “eat” she told him and he picked up a slice. He ate. He took another slice and finished it as well. He finished the whole pizza and the whole time she held his hand. It felt good. Her hand in his’.


“I will pack the burger” she told him and got up to go. On her way to the counter she pressed the bridge of her nose to stop the tears from coming.
She handed him the paper bag and his latte as he approached the counter. He insisted on paying for all three. She let him.
She watched him walk out of the café and hand over the burger to the homeless kid.
The rest of the day was blur. Literally. She could not stop herself from thinking about him and the way tears gathered in his eyes and each time she thought of that moment her own eyes filled with tears.


***


He had not expected her to come and sit at his table but he liked it. The distraction was good.
He had been spending days looking at the divorce papers; trying to figure out a way to stop his wife from leaving him. He had been asking himself why he wanted her to stay? Was it because he loved her? He loved her once but then things had changed – she had changed.


Then why? Why did he not want to let go of her? Maybe because he was used to being her husband. Without warning, his thoughts turned to the girl at the café.  His sudden obsession of being at the café; his desire to spend time in the girl’s presence – even though not really looking at her or talking to her had taken him by surprise.
He often found himself thinking about the way their hands touched as she handed over the cup of latte to him. That touch meant more than the intimate moments with his wife. Was it wrong to think that way? This was the question he had started to ask himself as he stared at her reflection in the window. He had found a way to look at her – a blurred image of her amidst the crowd rushing past the café.


She had been with him when he was going through a bad phase. His thoughts turned back to his wife. He had finally walked out of his father’s house, continued doing what he loved to do only because she had offered to help him. She was a friend of a friend. She loved his paintings and told him he should make a career out of it.
They spent hours discussing his art, he liked talking to her. She told him she would help him with the start-up. She was the one who had invested money and faith in him. It had clicked. His luck had changed.


She let him live with her in her house. I will buy a new house soon, he promised her. He started to save money. When he had enough he told her he would start looking for a house.
That’s when she had insisted that he continued staying at her place. Instead of investing in a new house it was a better option to renovate the house they were living in. He agreed. Mistake number one.


He continued painting. He let her assist him, let her deal with the galleries and manage the account. Mistake number two.
He married her. He spent his money travelling places she wanted to visit. He realized it late but it was his mistake number three.


One day, he caught her cheating on him. Next day she served him the divorce papers. She had been planning this for a long time, he realized. He asked her to leave and then realized that it was her house they were staying in. He asked back for his bank documents and realized that he did not have much money to afford a lawyer.
Sign the papers and get it over with, he said to himself. With the little money he had, he rented a room. Doors to the galleries were slapped closed on his face. He painted and sold his paintings on roadside for less than quarter of what they deserved to be paid for.


The thoughts of his troubled past had taken form of a tear and she had reached out to hold his hand. She had surprised him by doing that and he had surprised himself by letting her.
More than that, he was surprised that he had finished the pizza without the thoughts about his father crossing his mind.


Back in the room he placed the envelope on the desk and slid into bed. He stared at the ceiling, thinking about the girl. The way her hand felt – soft and warm against his skin. He thought about the way her mere presence pushed away the negative thoughts. He wanted to spend more time with her.
He climbed out of bed and walked out of the room. He reached the café and watched as she worked. He waited outside till she finished her shift. He saw her watching him. He tried to read her face but he could not.
When she stepped out he walked towards her.


“Hi” she said and extended her hand for him to hold. He took her hand in his and then they started to walk.
“Let’s talk” she said and he nodded. “Let’s” he said.

This was the beginning of a new time. Neither of them knew where these footsteps would take them. But, they had started to walk and it meant only one thing –
Getting away from the past.

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