Old and new

 Long back, a senior colleague of mine told me how airports are where one can come across many stories. You keep your eyes and ears open to witness the many lives of the human beings around you, and one gets to imagine the lives they have lived and the stories that they are going to live. You don't know them but their faces tell you so many stories. During these many airport terminal visits, I have come across many faces and the many stories they say. Some of them you can hear loudly; overheard conversations, silent whispers. Then, there are the faces that tell you the untold stories — the ones you are left imagining.
It was just another terminal stop. Just another trip back home. I saw him from afar. He looked familiar. The last time I had seen his face, it was almost twelve years ago. His face was that of a young man, and he had no worries of the world. Now, after years, I saw a man who had faced the many struggles of life.
At first, I pretended to not have recognised him in the pool of crowd. But the layover was long, and there was no way I would be able to avoid him. I didn't want to avoid him. I was curious about him. I saw him seated alone, near the big glass facades, looking out, his gaze somewhere lost in a distant thought. I wanted to know his story more than anything. I had followed his life for a bit, but I lost interest like everything else. He wasn't the most critical part of my life back then. He is still not, but somehow, I am drawn towards him even after years. He reminds me of all the men I met after him and how I compared each of them with him.
I went and sat next to him. For a long time, he didn't notice me. When he turned to face me, he smiled. I saw a face withered by time. There was a subtle comfort in his eyes when he recognised me, but in seconds I witnessed a melancholy. I didn't know the reasons for it, but I knew he was thinking about the time we were together and everything that followed. We had drifted, but we were still connected by some unknown force.
He greeted me with the same amusement that he used to when we started dating. I remember his smile; it said more than the words he spoke. We were madly in love, or at least I thought. Our ambitions were different. He wanted a wife, a kid and a family. I wanted a successful career with lots of travelling and the joy and entertainment that came with it. The entertainment that gets curtailed by being in a domestic relationship. I believed that my successful career and a domestic life couldn't co-exist happily.
Thus, despite being madly in love, we slowly fell apart. Even when in the metro he struggled to accept my betrayal while I aggressively told him that it was over between us, he tried to convince me. He begged. He told me over and over again that we were meant to be together.
But at that moment, at the airport terminal, I wondered if I had indeed left him alone. If it was the separation that had driven him to this madness of having a domestic life. The urge to prove himself right. Was he too immature to understand what marriage meant?
He told me that he had heard I got married. He told me that he was surprised. I told him even I was. The last time we spoke, some three years after breaking up with him, he said to me on the call, "You finally got what you wanted. You are living the life of your dreams." It was true. I was. I travelled from cities to cities, wrote about people's many lives, met more people, and heard their stories. While his life started falling apart, one piece at a time.
I told him how I met my husband. We met at a friend's party. He was an accomplished war photographer. He wasn't from the subcontinent. His pictures had made it to respected international magazines. I kept meeting him to hear his stories, and he kept meeting me to tell more. Somewhere we lost the sense of time and the world around us, and we succumbed to our families' pressures. He is an honest man, my husband, I tell him. I tell him that my husband had asked once if I have ever been in love.
Love. The word comes to my lips, unchartered and nonchalantly. The moment I utter it, I notice the fondness in his eyes. He listens to me earnestly, but deep inside me, I can feel his grief. I shouldn't talk about my happiness while he is suffering. He tells me that it has been a long time. But should I? I still keep on telling him all that I can.
There's another couple of hours before both our flights are to depart. We decide to head towards the bar. Seated close to us are a young couple. We look at them and laugh. Young love. We remember the day he had taken me to watch a Bollywood movie. I had agreed to watch it only because he wanted to. However, at the end of the day, it was me who had enjoyed his company more. I had told him now how I could relate to the onscreen couple with us.
Us. I say the words, and I am taken aback. It takes me a while to adjust to the memories; that, once upon a time I was with this man. He has just turned 35, but the face looks years older. He has a stubble around his cheek. He says it makes him look professional. I want to tell it makes him look more mature than the young boy I knew. I don't tell him that. But he knows. He knew me more than I did, and even now, he understood me.
He tells me that he read about my marriage in the newspaper. A small write-up with a picture was printed. 'Award-winning writer marries war photographer'. I remember the picture in our local newspaper. It was a photo shared by my sister on her Instagram page. I didn't understand why people were so keen to know about our lives. He told me, "Because there's no one like you."
'There's no one like me'. The words hang around my mind for a moment. Was there really no one like me for him? His words left me in a state of delusion. I want to ask, but I am scared. Will it stir up hurt emotions? Can he be broken further?
The young couple near us had broken into an argument. Both of us silently hear them argue. The guy wants to buy a motorbike. The girl wants him to buy a luxury car. I ask him why we never fought about anything as such. He tells me that our city had trams and buses. It had history wrapped around us, transporting us to a world that we could never live, and yet through those moments, we created our own stories.
Why was this man an engineer and not a poet?
I remember reading about his life. I remember friends calling up to tell me how his wife had committed suicide. The shock and horror had left our friends in terror. They weren't sure if he was to be left alone to grieve or be surrounded by loved ones. I was more interested in knowing his wife's story. I wanted to know what drove her to this madness. Would I have done the same if I was his wife? I remember telling my husband about my thoughts. My husband had closed his eyes and pictured me jumping from the roof of our apartment building. My husband thinks through images and pictures. He had simply replied, "You are too proud and selfish to do something like that. If you are unhappy, you will simply leave." I had fought with him. I told him I wasn't selfish. He tried to defend his own words. But my husband's words had left me angry. We had argued for a while. He didn't disturb me for days. He left me alone with my thoughts and words. At the end of the week, I had stepped out of my study with two short stories about feminism. They were printed in the magazine over the next few weeks. My husband was the one who had selected the one which should be published first. At a party, he had proudly said that he had inspired me to write these stories. Grudgingly I had accepted. But more than that, I had made peace with him because he understood me. The man before me at the airport understood me even more, even before I met my husband, but I never made peace with him.
I ask him if he ever felt cheated by my behaviour towards the end of our relationship. He told me that for months and years, he lived in grief and sadness. He went on vacations and trips with his friends. He tried to hate me but couldn't. Later, he sought peace in the words of God.
Religion. It was a great divide between us. We worshipped different gods. He had a God. I had myself. We never argued about religion. We never discussed religion. We thought by avoiding the subject, we would save ourselves from years of misery. I guess we were wrong. My husband and I often talk about the many religions he knew. My husband speaks about the many gods he has met and the ones that have saved him from near-death experiences. He wears a locket of Saint Christopher. Very early during our courting days, he had gifted me a locket of Mother Mary. I accepted it, but I didn't know what to do with it. He knew I was an atheist, and the only gods I knew were the writers and the poets and the artists I followed. But still, he gifted me. Months later, he told me that he had gifted me the locket to observe my reaction. I had asked him what he thought about me. He had said, "You would never hurt somebody else's belief, even if you didn't agree with them."
I wondered if my ex and I had discussed religion, had we been together then? Would his gods be happy and have mercy upon our relationship back then? If I truly would never hurt somebody's else belief like my husband says, would my ex's God bless us back then? If a God was watching over us now, what he would think? I try not to think much, but my thoughts had caught up with him. He watched me as my mind travelled in between my thoughts. He didn't ask what I was thinking but I knew that he was trying to understand me. He always did, and even then, he was doing it. Yet, I didn't feel uncomfortable. I felt at peace.
We had gone on a trip once. I had returned home and told my mother about the things we did. In the end, my mother had asked me what I had planned for my future. When I had told her where I saw myself in five years, she had asked, "Does he know?" I never bothered to know whether he knew me and wanted to know. I had taken for granted his presence and his acceptance. I thought he would accept whatever I threw at him. I almost saw him like a dog waiting for a bone to be thrown towards him. Nearly thirteen years later, these thoughts embarrassed me. It reminded me of my husband's words. I was selfish then. Am I still selfish now?
It was almost time for his flight. He stood up, and I extended my right hand to greet his. I stood waiting but he never extended his hand. Instead, I saw his body approach mine and embrace me in a hug. I couldn't reciprocate. I didn't know how to. But slowly, I succumbed to him and I didn't want to leave him. This time it was me who was begging him not to go. I didn't tell him anything. We stood there, wrapped in our arms, lost in the moment. I wondered whether this was the way he felt all those years ago in the metro.
I stayed back as he collected his belongings and left. We promised to act like adults and stay in touch. He never shared his number or email address. And I had stopped using Facebook many years back. We were not going to be in touch, but we pretended to be.
Eight hours later when I landed in London, the cold, gloomy summer welcomed me with open arms. I was glad to leave behind the heat and dry weather of my past. I saw my husband wave from afar. He had a stubble around his cheek. I frowned. I knew it reminded him of his travel days. He had stopped travelling for the sake of our lives. 'We were a couple of domestic cows now', that is what he had said after our marriage. It didn't bother me. I was happy as long as he never stepped near my work station and I gave him his space. This space included me allowing him to grow this stubble, which would turn into a thick beard in weeks.
He asked me how my trip was, about my family and what all I witnessed at the airport. He is always interested in my stories. I told him that I met my ex. He laughed. He had heard about his stories from me. Now, seated in the passenger seat of my husband's car, I spoke about my past. He curiously asked me questions about our brief encounter. When we reached the front of our building, I asked him if he still believed I would jump off our apartment building roof and leave everything behind. If he ever saw me becoming an unhappy and sad wife. I saw him close his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them, he said, "I don't think so. We don't have access to the roof. It is impossible for you to reach."

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