You Only Live Once (Short Story)

Posted: January 5, 2016

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Relationships change over time. What we think is important for us now, might not remain so. Do we have the courage to take hold of our lives and live it, then?

Only when we’re pushed into the midst of a storm, do we feel the dust in our mouth, the watering of our eyes, and the lack of stability. No one sitting inside the cosy haven of their shelters can ever fathom what a person goes through when they have to deal with an actual calamity. Sure, we can read about it or watch people suffer through it on our televisions but these can never prepare us adequately for the actual event.

I had witnessed my friends’ break-ups, had given them advice, gone drinking with them, tried setting them up with my other single friends but nothing prepared me even remotely for the crumbling of my 5-year long relationship. Everyone idolized Rohan and me as the ‘perfect couple’ but one fine day I just found myself surrounded by the rubbles of my collapsed heart, like a war torn city crushed at the hands of its enemies.

We’d known each other since our post-graduation days at Presidency College in Kolkata. Soon after graduation and getting jobs in the same city, we decided to live together. Our love for the same books, music, and causes were the main reason why we were best friend and lovers.

After four years of sharing dreams and pillows, food and chores–he said our chemistry had died. He’d suddenly found warmth in the sizzling daughter of his mentor. My ripped jeans and tees faded in the bright dazzle of her dresses and stilettoes.

It took me almost a year to get over Rohan. All my trite, clichéd advices to friends like, “he didn’t deserve you” or “there’s someone better out there” seemed insufferable when I was at the receiving end. The only effective balm was the passage of time. I carried on with my job as a financial analyst, with my outings and travels with friends, with my services as a volunteer for an NGO. Over the course of a year, I grew stronger. I realized that I was indeed better off without Rohan–no more compromises about where to travel, which movie to watch or when I should be back home because no one waited anymore to have dinner with me.

I started feeling lighter but at the same time I felt it’d be nice meeting someone new. I was ready to date once more. And I don’t know why but the day I visited the sports bar with Tani, I had a premonition. Right before we stepped out of my house, hugging her, I whispered in her ears, “I think I’ll meet him today.”

“Meet whom?” Tani’s frown was justified.

I winked and grabbing her by the arms, hailed a taxi to our destination.

It was one of those English Premier League matches playing on the screen. Tani, being the football aficionado, had persuaded me to come. I obliged because this place served good beer and finger food along with the fact that I was almost sure I’d meet ‘him’ here.

The moment my eyes fell upon Hemant entering the bar with a friend, looking gorgeous in his black t-shirt and light blue jeans, I knew this was the man I was destined to be with. In fact, the thought anchored so firmly in my mind that I didn’t even hesitate to walk up and talk to him, as if he was a long lost friend. Even Tani was taken aback when I managed to grab her attention away from the match for a few seconds and conveyed my intention. She knew me as shy and reserved and this was contrary to my nature. But I couldn’t explain to her the certainty in the depths of my soul.

One of my favourite authors had written that one half of ourselves is out there somewhere and unless we meet that half, we remain incomplete and the shadows we cast on the ground remain faded. I know this was just the author’s imagination, but I loved the idea so much, that I’d been nurturing it ever since I can remember, and over the years it has blossomed in my mind like a lovely cherry tree.

Tucking a few unruly curls behind my ears and brushing off the food crumbs from my jeans, I went up straight to him and introduced myself. His friend had left him briefly to meet another group and I took advantage of the opportunity. He seemed to be more attentive towards the pasta in front of him than the match. Awesome.

“Hello, I’m Rini.”

It did feel a bit awkward hovering over a man while he was trying to put a forkful of food into his mouth. He looked up and gestured me to give him a minute. He quickly swallowed the food and after gulping down some water, he rose and extended his hand.

“Oh hi! I was just wondering what’s taking you so long!”

“Sorry?” I replied in confusion.

“Aren’t you Rini, the girl I was supposed to meet for a blind date?” He adjusted his glasses and the twinkle in his eyes took my breath away.

“Umm…no.”

“Okay! Hi then! I’m Hemant.”

“I… uh…I just came to chat seeing you weren’t enjoying the game.”

“Hmm. Well, I too noticed that unlike your friend, you aren’t an enthusiastic football fan.”

Wow. He noticed me. Ok he noticed both of us, but still.

I laughed nervously. “True. But if you’re waiting for someone, maybe I should get going.”

“Relax. There’s no Rini, no blind date. I was taken aback for a moment and so I just made that up!” His naughty smile seemed to be like a honey-dipped wafer which I could’ve devoured then and there.

………….

Ours was one of those movie-like romances. Everything was perfect. His quirky sense of humour, deep understanding nature, his wit, his compassion–not once did I stop feeling grateful during our two years of courtship. I had found my other half.

Our marriage was a low key affair and after a dreamlike honeymoon in Thailand, we settled down to daily life. He worked in a consulting firm and was a bit of a workaholic but that didn’t stop him from devoting all his free time to me. A couple of years down the line, our house became noisier, messier, but more loving with the arrival of our twins, Myra and Kabir.

Hemant did mention that things might get a bit difficult with our added responsibilities, but I assured him that together we would tide through the struggles.

Sometimes, change is so imperceptible that we don’t perceive it till it’s too late. It’s almost like having a malignant disease that wasn’t diagnosed till the last stage. There were small changes. I had taken a job where I could work from home. But, with the children and my work, and with Hemant returning exhausted from work, we’d just eat dinner and go to sleep. He would talk to the kids a bit about their school and friends. He would ask me about my day, but I could see the faraway look in his eyes, like he was absorbed in some tantalizing parallel universe, where the monotony of my narration could hardly reach. I gradually forgot that this was the same man who used to send me long texts in between his busy schedule, who tried avoiding office outings to spend the weekends with me, who never forgot to call me at least once during the day to ask if I’d eaten or if the kids were alright. The same man who understanding how tiresome it might be for me to be confined in the house with two kids and office work, would suggest we catch up on a late night movie every Friday, after ordering pizza, just like the days without the kids.

Lately, during dinner, I gradually made the descriptions of my day shorter, until, like him, my day’s account was also encapsulated in a single word, okay.

Have you ever wondered how terrible the word ‘okay’ is? I think over the course of history, okay has caused more rifts in relationships, hidden more dangerous maladies, and kept more dirty secrets up its sleeves than few other words.  Okay–one of the most dangerous words in the English dictionary.

I cannot really pin point the exact moment when things started deteriorating in our fifteen years of marriage. Maybe it was when the frequency of the texts lessened, or when our weekends together reduced, or maybe, it was during the times when I’d read a book or he’d scroll through his phone till both of us dozed off to sleep. Lately, our intimacies seemed like those periodic payments we needed to make to get cable or to keep a magazine subscription running. Reduced to once in a month, it was more of an assurance that we were still married and still belonged to each other. But even then, I kept repeating the word in my mind to convince myself, everything was Okay.

When I realized it was too late, I thought I’d make a last ditch attempt. I planned for a trip for both of us. It was a long weekend and the kids wanted to be with their cousins at my brother’s place. We went to a nice, secluded beach in South Goa. Our resort came with a private beach. The place was serene with only a few European tourists dotting the landscape.

We went for a swim in the morning and then had breakfast by the beach.

“Isn’t this beautiful?” I asked him while staring at the deep blue ocean whose waves seemed to be fighting each other to grab the attention of the sunny sky overhead. The rocks by the sea seemed to be acting like the bouncers in a nightclub, restraining the exuberance of the waves with their calm and strong presence.

“Hmm.” He replied before dipping his head once again into the spy novel he’d brought with him.

“Hemant?” The desperate plea in my voice seemed to have worked.

“Yes?” He put down the novel with a finger in between the pages he was reading and finally faced me. “What is it, Rini?”

“Hemant, I… uh…I feel we hardly talk these days.”

He laughed softly.

“Things don’t always remain the same, love. We’re older now with more responsibilities.”

“But still…remember how you used to keep texting me throughout day?”

“You really expect a 50-year-old man to act like he’s newly in love?”

Ouch.

“Not really. But one in a while…” I nervously trailed off.

“Come on, you too can text me, you know?”

“Whenever I do that, I just get a one or two-word reply. Plus, it’s not only about the texts, Hemant. You hardly talk to me, we have sex once in a blue moon, I can’t remember the last time we watched a movie together.” I tried my best to not let my voice betray the tears within.

“You know I’m busy. After the kids came, you opted for a less demanding job while it’s just the opposite for me. You’re being unfair now.” With a frown he hastily went back to the book as a sign that the conversation was over.

“Okay sorry.” I just stopped myself from bursting out. Managing the efficient running of a household, looking after the well-being and education of two children, supervising the cook, daily help, gardener, planning of groceries and meals. And all this along with my office work. How was my job less demanding?

I could’ve told him all this but I didn’t want to spoil the trip. It was true that after being promoted to an associate director, his responsibilities at work had increased manifold. But what about his responsibilities towards the family, towards me, towards our lives together?

I could’ve asked him all that but if he didn’t see it himself, what was the point? Also, the spiritual books I’d read suggest that I’m responsible for my state of mind. Then, where was I going wrong?

Being unable to disentangle my thoughts, which like a bag of coloured woollen balls had mixed up with one another, I decided to soak into the pleasure of the cool breeze, the chirping birds, the flirting between the sun and the sea, and the flow of life around me.

But still at the back of my mind, his words echoed. Isn’t it strange how a single word from a certain person can cause more damage than maybe repeated stabbings from a stranger?

I was being unfair??

The more I struggled to be in the moment and forget the pain that restricted my breathing, the more the word churned in my mind like a slowly cooking broth–unfair!

The rest of the trip held nothing remarkable. We went for swims, read, sometimes walked by the beach. The resort manager’s 6-year-old daughter took a strange liking towards me. She would sometimes persuade me to gather shells with her. The coral pink, white, yellow, and brown shells reminded me of the tiny, happy moments or memories of my life. The more I collected those, the happier I felt. On the day of our departure, the little girl presented me with her favourite shell from her collection. I was left in tears. Something seemed to have shifted inside me though I couldn’t point out what it was.

I realized its significance a few days later when suddenly at the age of 45, a new thought struck me.

What if, we ourselves were the ones who could strengthen or weaken our shadows? What if, to look within, also meant taking an inventory check about the kind of experiences we were gathering, the life we were leading, and the true purpose of our lives?

That night I told Hemant things beyond a single okay. I told him our relationship was going nowhere and I was sick of pretending.

He nodded silently. Maybe, he felt it, as well.

…………………………..

Six months later, Hemant took a transfer to a different city and yes, all the responsibilities of the kids and the house was still upon me. But I had started a new life beyond my family and my work. I was finally living. I started following my passion for writing, I resumed taking painting lessons, and very soon my first illustrated children’s book was slated to be released. I went for movies on my own and ate out alone. I reconnected with a lot of my old friends. I’d also been planning for trips abroad while the children would be busy in summer camps. Life has never been better.

We didn’t opt for a divorce. Maybe we will, once the kids grow a bit older. But honestly, it didn’t matter anymore. I had created my own space and though it took me almost 50 years of my life to find her, the perfect person for me had always been waiting patiently. Like those rocks on that Goa beach. That person was hidden within me and once I discovered that, there was no looking back.

Image source: young woman with balloons by Shutterstock.

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