What does a rock feel like? Just as she felt right now? When the breeze failed to cool you? When the blood froze? When you forgot to breathe and stood stock still like this? When the gaze was fixed on a pinpoint between his two eyes and just along the nose?
“I am sorry,” a voice whispered. Was it he or she? His eyes held hers captive and she felt the solid thawing. “Then why?”
He shrugged and looked away. She felt cold and shivered, though the night was warm. “I told my father you deserved better, but he thinks I am the best around, naturally. So I tried talking to your father and he wanted to know if you were not good enough for me.”
Something pricked her heart, but she didn’t know what. Maybe it was the ‘great catch’ bit.
“I will tell my father I don’t want to marry you,” she said with determination.
He looked at her sharply. “You don’t?”
She bit her lower lip in agony. “I don’t want you to be unhappy,” she said finally, unable to bear the pain. She was mortified to feel tears running down her cheek and hoped that he wouldn’t notice in the darkness.
“Why would I be unhappy marrying you! It is you I fear hurting,” he said energetically.
“Why then…? Hurt me… how?” Her voice trembled. Nothing he said could hurt her. “Neelam?”
“Neelam?” he asked then shook his head. Sighing deeply, he said, “No, of course not.” She waited silently, not wanting to disturb his thoughts. “I don’t know how to say it… Only last year I discovered I have a four-year-old son.”
“What!” she couldn’t help exclaiming.
He didn’t look at her. “Deepa and I had been going steady in college but we broke up sometime soon after finishing because she went abroad to study. We met a couple of times but long distance didn’t work for me. We lost touch after we broke up. Last year, I happened to meet a girl when returning from London. She was very young, maybe in college, and had a small boy with her. I helped her with her luggage and completing the travel formalities. We ended up in seats next to each other and easily slipped into conversation, telling us little insignificant details about each other. When I mentioned my college, she got curious and asked me if I knew Deepa – that was her sister’s name. I am ashamed to think that I didn’t have to courage to say I knew her well – but that we were batchmates. She wanted to know if I knew who Deepa went around with, because this child was that man’s, born soon after our break up. I was stunned, speechless and a coward. I didn’t have the courage to admit I was the man, that that child was mine. I evaded answering, shut my eyes and pretended to be asleep. When we got off, I just rushed as if I had another plane to catch. She thrust a paper in my hand, her address… But I dropped it somewhere without a thought.”
A heavy silence lay between them. She stood uncertainly, a part of her wanting to reach out and touch him and the other part, turn around and run away. Where was this headed?
“I became distracted, that boy’s face bothering me. I had carried him, talked to him and try as hard as I could, it wouldn’t go away. Neelam and I started having problems, and finally we broke up. But even that did not bother me as much as losing that boy did.”
Kirti stepped closer and whispered. “You are trying to locate that boy now?”
He stood still. “Yes… I remembered where she lived in London and also the college she had studied in. I made several false starts…” He turned to her. “The last time we met… I had just returned from one such futile trip. I was frustrated and tired. I am sorry, I know it didn’t go off well.”
She looked down, avoiding his eyes. A dull ache hurt her chest. He touched her chin and gently lifted her face. “My parents don’t know about this. I wish I had had the time to talk to you properly. But I returned only last night, after finally meeting Deepa’s sister and…my son.”
A drop rolled down her cheek and fell on his index finger.
“What do you plan to do now,” she managed to ask, before he could pity her.
“Bring the child, be his father.”
“Oh!” she said flatly.
“Tell me now,” he asked when she did not say anything more, “do you still wish to marry me?”
The dull ache turned to anger. “No,” she said, turned and walked away, trembling. She felt his eyes on her back. But he had left her with little choice.