Namita dressed eagerly.
"Where are you off to?" asked her husband Hrithik.
"I told you, Rustom is down on work and I am meeting him for dinner!" she replied adding a dash of lipstick to her lips.
She saw him frown and felt irritated. But she didn't want to spoil her mood just now. She was bursting to the seams and only Rustom could understand.
"Is it necessary?" he asked in the tone reserved to show his displeasure.
"Is what necessary?" Namita retorted in a tone she wanted to avoid just now.
"This meeting with your friend, whatever his name is..."
"It is Rustom and you know it because you have met him. And yes, it is necessary. He wants to discuss something with me," she replied, adding that little lie.
"You could have called him home."
"Of course, and watched you making him uncomfortable."
"I make him uncomfortable! He makes me uncomfortable, dropping names, showing off..."
"You have a complex," she replied coldly as she draped the dupatta over her shoulder. "He made it in life, you didn't."
"And you like winners," he said coldly.
She shrugged. "Is that not normal?" She picked up her handbag, checked herself in the mirror one last time and started heading for the door when he said, "Aren't you over dressed?"
She rolled her eyes and walked away.
She was early. She found a seat from where she could watch the entrance. Finally he entered 20 minutes later and waved to her as their eyes met.
He was much the same, smarter than she remembered, dressed as men did these days in tight fitting clothes, his hair jet black (dyed?), perfume surrounding them as he took his seat, his after shave adding a lemony tang to the air.
She smiled, hoping she looked just as smart as he did. Now that he was here, her earlier irritation at having to wait vanished. She was eager to tell him her news but didn't want to drop it on him when his attention was still away from her. He was caught up in telling her about his day and she wanted him to get it out of his system.
As he calmed, his eyes met hers searchingly. "You were always so easy to talk to..."
She smiled modestly. "That's what friends are for... Even I have something to tell you."
"Tell me? Yes...?"
He beckoned the waiter as Namita told him of the milestone she achieved unexpectedly. "I am so excited, Rustom! I was nominated for a journalist award at the state level, and I am one of the finalists! I am so excited."
He smiled and then turned to the waiter saying, "We are celebrating. Give us the best food and drinks."
What a thrill shot through her! What a contrast to Hrithik's lukewarm response! There had been no celebrations, just congratulations, some sweets and then life went on as usual.
"I always knew you had it within you," Rustom said, sending a thrill through her. He reached out and clasped her hands. The warmth was comforting.
"Thanks, Russi... It is because of friends like you that I still am able to do what I wanted to... Otherwise, sometimes it all becomes very... you know, overwhelming."
He frowned. "What crap. I am just a gtalk away! How can you get lonely!"
She laughed. "You are a great friend to have around... I wish we lived in the same city," she said.
His eyes softened. His voice softened as he said, "I wish so too..." He continued after a pause, "Sometimes I long to hear your voice..."
She moved back slightly, unconsciously. "You can, anytime you feel like," she said, as a friend should to another.
He leaned forward. "You can't imagine, Namu, how sometimes things become difficult and you look for that someone who will understand you..."
"Yes..." she said. Yes, that's what she had sought when coming to meet Rustom. They had gone to college together, and of the gang of five, only these two were in India. Though they mostly chatted on the net, this was one of the very few times they were meeting. Over a period of time, their confidences to each other had grown. She found Hrithik very unwilling to talk shop at home and Rustom was a good vent. Especially since he understood better where she came from. From the time her name had made it to the shortlist, she had been eager to share it with Rustom, but the moment she heard he was traveling, she thought it would be best to tell it personally, to see him reflect her joy.
"You know how we dreamed, of how we had plans, ambitions... Of other things, life...love..." His voice dipped.
"Yes," she replied, transported back to those days. She felt his grip tighten around her hands. It brought her back uncomfortably to the present. She slowly withdrew her hand, relieved that the food was being served.
But the conversation kept swinging uncomfortably to what could have been. This was not what she was looking for.
When they got up, she was surprised at how relieved she felt. But there was more to come and completely unexpected. At the gate, he turned to her. "A nightcap?"
She looked at her watch and exclaimed. "I really must go now."
He slid an arm around her waist. "For old times' sake?" he asked huskily.
Her heart beat fast. This was not how she thought of Rustom. A good friend, a great friend, a handsome friend. Nothing more.
She smiled. "Yes, let me leave now, for old times' sake." And made good her escape leaving him to figure that one out.
She reached home to find the house plunged in darkness. She silently let herself in, feeling very disturbed. She stepped into her bedroom and could make out the outline of Hrithik lying on the bed. She changed groping in the darkness, her instinct telling her that there was volcano seething under the bed covers.
She silently slipped in, caught in the conflicting emotions of wanting to be left alone to deal with the evening's developments, and to pour out tears of disappointment on Hrithik's shoulders.
It was an aberration, it will be fine, Rustom will not persist, she told herself. But suddenly there was a message. 'Wish you were here for the nightcap...'
And it continued though she did not respond.
"Switch the bloody thing off," Hrithik exploded.
She quickly did.
"Is it not enough that you had dinner out? Do you have to bring that fellow into our bedroom too?"
She squeaked weakly, "Stop it, Hrithik! I am not responding. If he wants to message, how can I help it?" And she wondered how he knew it was Hrithik! What did he know or suspect? She added lamely, "And why should you think this was Rustom?"
He snorted and turned away. She placed a tentative hand on him. She couldn't bear to have the wrong man paying her attentions, and the Mr. Right mistaking her.
He shook it off and said, "Somethings don't need telling."
She sat up. "You are being unfair!"
"Was it him or not?"
She was silent for a second. "Yes. But I didn't even respond."
"He wouldn't have messaged without you encouraging him," he said bluntly. "Otherwise who messages so late in the night without getting a response."
She felt tears wetting her cheeks as she knew he had reasons to suppose so though she had done nothing to encourage this man.
As if hearing the silent complaint in her voice, he sat up. "Tell him not to message you."
She looked up sharply. "That's not fair! It is embarrassing."
"Why? Do you like it?"
"Yes, or no?"
"This is not court to answer in yes or no," she said sharply.
"I don't like his messaging you like this."
"But you know him! You know he does not matter to us..."
Hrithik raised a hand. "Does he matter to you?"
"As a friend, yes..."
Hrithik shook his head. "No, you may think he is just a friend. But no... he does not think so, does he?"
She lowered her head. "He has never done anything like this before."
"But he has now." As she remained silent, he lay back and turned away. "I know how guys' minds work."
She turned to him. "Do you also...?" she asked surprised.
"Tch! No! But I move with them."
"How do you know you are right?"
"Your silence was enough." His voice was gentler.
She leaned against him. "But I thought a friend."
Hrithik's arm slipped under her and held her to him. He was silent, but she felt more at peace now.
She didn't know when the equations changed, how the balance tipped. But suddenly she felt that she needed to explore the possibility of making a friend of the man next to her.