**Trigger warning. If you are disturbed by humor based on body shaming, please do not read.**
Air India has spaced out seats. Air India has great leg space. Air India has free snacks. Air India is awesome. But sadly, Air India is also sometimes super expensive.
And so, here I was, seated in an inhumanly sparse ass-space allocated Indigo window seat 29C, free, of course, allotted to me by a heartless machine, in the last row, butting the toilet, with no scope of pushing the back-rest, dreading the ass size of the two people who were going to appear soon. Little was I to know that it’s not the ass size that was going to be interesting.
Yes, it was holiday season and yes, the flight was brimming with people. Revenge travel, is what they were calling it. Post covid revenge travel.
I wasn’t avenging or revenging anything. I was duty bound. Tulsi-vivah was done. The wedding season was opened by the Gods and the governments. And I was going to show my face at yet another dreaded wedding. A very dreaded wedding. I don’t even want to get started on weddings. I’m 34, single, female, tall and fat (hence the ass-space fears). Weddings to me are less appealing than funerals. Weddings are daytime, walking, talking, shining, singing, blood sucking, pocket draining, nightmares.
I stared out of the oval window, signs of a quickly greying sky and tapping rain drops indicated a not so smooth flying. Ugh! The day had barely begun and it had all the signs of being one of those days you wish had a “Skip Day” button. You know, like Youtube’s “Skip Ad”?
Just then, a petite, tiny looking creature, in tight jeans and an indo-western top with long black newly straightened hair, and a shade of makeup, desperately hiding a sleepless night with a bunch of shiny gold and red bangles, that didn’t go with the Gucci tote and the Mochi heels, filtered through the crowd and reached my row, hauling a matching tiny pink cabin bag into the overhead rack. Clearly a newly wed. She looked at me, let her eyes linger a moment too long over my bulging ass from the seat handle, and sprang into the aisle seat. It seemed that the universe was balancing the seat space between me and her.
I forgave the stare, my ass deserved it and let out a sigh of relief. Pretty, tiny and a seat afar. That suited me. The next couple of hours started to not seem that horrid now. We exchanged glances, half smiles and got back to our mobile screens. The girl looked familiar. Like not Rani Mukherjee familiar, but like facebook 2nd order link familiar. Like I hadn’t seen her seen her, you know. But I had seen her in 2D somewhere.
Age had caught on to the weak memory neuron connections and so I didn’t coax them to haul out an identity. I was saving that particular energy for the wedding. Entire family trees had to be memorized to answer the myriad random, “Beta mujhe pehchana?” being thrown by white haired, silk sareed, bejewelled aunties that ruled and ruined weddings.
And so I continued dropping brick blocks in Tetris, as the newly wed texted away and the middle seat remained blissfully empty.
Till a tall, handsome, well muscled, French bearded, wavy haired, old spice smelling guy walked up and made the texting petite blush, smile wide, eyes sparkle and look up. This one had clearly just been bitten by the love bug. Poor child, my mind tututted.
Till I discovered, I was blushing too. It was the smell, the fragrance, the whatever, that had caused the involuntary blushing. Like a reflex. It had been two years since I had smelt that. You know how smells can be space machines, time machines. How they can haul you back and forth in memories.
And while my mind was whooshing back to a few frozen screen shots in time (you know that thing that happens to Harry Potter when he stares into the penseive), and my heart had begun drumming away like a drunken rockstar, my eyes darted up to see that forbidden face again.
“Nahiiii” – the quintessential ekta kapoor’s bahu dropped a pooja thali in my head.
It was him. It was Abhishek.
I blinked fast, a couple of times. I had had visions you know. It happens. When you grow up watching a lot of Bollywood, your reactions in joy and sadness start taking bollywoody forms. So yes, I had had visions of encountering him in all kind of places, elevators, malls, traffic jams, banks, hospital corridors. But the visions would go away after a blink.
Not this time though. This time, the vision persisted. He was there. She was getting up, he was coming in. Why was he coming in? Why wasn’t she sitting in the middle? Aren’t women supposed to guard their men from other women? Maybe I didn’t qualify as a threat. Maybe I didn’t look like a flight husband snatcher. Maybe husbands didn’t need saving from me. Maybe she was just scared of my ass. I don’t know. But he was coming in.
The rock star drummer had gone crazy now. I am sure the heart pounding was responsible for the tremors in the flight. Just a tiny bit. It should. It was that loud.
The screenshots were faster now. The kisses, the embraces, the long walks, the hand holding, the bike rides, the dinners, the laughter, the movies. Flashed by. On loop. In my head.
He sat down. Nonchalantly. Never once indicating the tiniest bit of discomfort or recognition. Poker face. Blank. He sat down and immediately her hand slipped into his. Maybe she was getting worried now. Maybe I did indeed qualify as a flight husband snatcher.
Husband. He is married now. Oh my gosh! Yes, he is married now. And I had stalked her. That’s why she seemed familiar. It was not a passing innocent picture on someone’s profile that I had seen. I had stalked her till I was identified and blocked.
She looked hotter in person. Indian hot. Not like boobs and ass hot. But the demure shy fully covered, yet hot kinds, you know?
You might be thinking I was staring at the cute couple all this time while my mind was having a drumrolling earthquake. But no, I was raised better. I was not staring at the couple. I was staring at the floor. A very focused tiny black mark between my feet was taking the full brunt of my blazing red hot stare. The cute couple was safe.
The whirring of the plane’s engine, the airhostess welcoming the passengers and the hoarse sound system were right in time to squash my involuntary sob. An adamant tear found it’s way out of the burning eye and started it’s path down the cheek.
“Not here. Not now. Didn’t I teach you any self-control?” – the blown up image of my strict mom in her starch sari and creased forehead appeared next to the pooja thali flailing bahu.
And the tear stopped midway. Miracles. Moms can indeed invoke miracles. Moms can defy physics.
“Are you ok?” – A soft musical voice spoke.
I looked up. Embarrassed. She clearly hadn’t recognized me.
“Uh huh!” – my throat made an unrecognizable sound as I looked back at the source of the voice.
It wasn’t Abhishek. Obviously. That spineless handsome proud man was staring ahead, into the bald head of the gentleman sitting in the seat ahead of him.
“Water?” – She continued in the soft voice, offering me a small bottle of water from her Gucci.
The flight had just taken off and the clouds weren’t making the journey any smoother.
“No thanks. It’s the turbulence. I get scared sometimes”- my tongue was forming words that my head had nothing to do with. “Scared?” of “Turbulence?” Huh! My mind started recounting all the flying hours we had to our credit and the range of aircrafts we had experienced and my mind gave a good long lecture to the tongue.
“Don’t worry. We’ve flown in Indigo quite a bit. It is a very reliable carrier. Isn’t it Abhi”, she went on, squeezing his hand.
Oh! So he is Abhi now? I hadn’t been once allowed a pet name in the five years we were dating.
“Abhi” kept dedicatedly staring at the bald head ahead. As if that shiny, tight piece of skin held the answers to the mysteries of this universe.
Getting no acknowledgement from Abhi, got him a sharp kick on the left foot. I know. I saw it. The pretty little creature was not one to be ignored.
The kick brought him back into the flight and between his past and present.
“Yes yes. You are right.” His instant reflex phrase hadn’t changed.
“See…things will be fine” She leaned across Abhishek and used her other hand to pat my wrist.
“Hot and kind”, how do men like these end up with women like those? I wanted to ask her aloud. But I didn’t. As I said, I was raised a certain way that prevented less than 20% of my real thoughts to percolate through the tongue and throat and into the world.
I smiled at her. A smile that very adamantly stood it’s ground and did not reach the eyes.
Through all this, Abhishek did not once show an intent to introduce me or acknowledge my presence. He was never one to face difficult situations. His strategy to navigate the complexities of life consisted of three steps. Avoid as long as possible. Lie, if it is the path of least resistance and duck till people around get tired waiting for your response. And he was trying out step 1.
It worked. She started stroking his hand. He kept staring ahead, back to deciphering the mysteries of the universe in the bald head and I resumed dropping bricks in Tetris.
Once the seatbelt sign was turned off, I got up to check if some poor chap had missed the flight and if I could change my seat. I kept staring at 25B. The seat appeared empty and just as I was about to request the cute couple to let me out, like all things bright and beautiful, a tiny head popped up from 25B, turned and stared right back at me, almost as if the kid knew what I was about to do.
“I hate kids”, murmuring I sat down again. Planning my next strategy of exit. The mind-heart duo were doing their thing of digging out the most emotionally draining memories and throwing screenshot after screenshot of happy “Abhishek and me” moments.
“Did you say something?” came the musical tone again.
“Uh..no. Just that kids are adorable” – I smiled. Another fake one.
“Natasha” – She extended her hand. “Are you going to Bangalore?”
“Duh!” I rolled my eyes, like not really, but in my head, you know. Who asks the destination in a fricking flight? I mean, really, who?
“Yes. Yes I do hope I am. I mean that’s what I bought the ticket for” I replied politely. Ignoring the hand. Consciously not revealing my identity. Hoping she’d go back to petting her new found husband.
“We are also going to Bangalore. Returning from our honeymoon”- She retracted an unshaken hand and blushed at the last word.
“Ah, congratulations” I responded, focusing my full attention on the mobile screen now. Hoping she’d get the hint.
“So, what’s your name?” She persisted, not one to take hints, I see.
My mind raced again as my tongue was about to blabber the truth. I could sense Abhishek stiffen a bit. He was listening after all. He did know I was there.
I have a ton of pseudonyms ready for all the fake profiles I create on social media for several non-criminal reasons. So conjuring up a name wasn’t rocket science. But in times of pressure, basic logic goes out for a toss and honesty tries to emerge like a disliked savior.
“Ne….ha. Neha.” Nice save. I thought. Abhishek let out a breath he had forgotten to release. Rather loudly.
Natasha’s head turned from me to him for a moment. “Everything ok baby?” she asked, her hand moving to his hair. Oh that gorgeous hair. How I missed running my fingers through it.
“Yes yes. Everything is good.” he muttered, looking straight at her. As he had done the many times he had lied to me. I knew now. His left hand went to his spectacle rim, pushing it up. A clear tell.
Thankfully, the airhostess came to our seat by then. “Anything to drink for you maám. Sir?” She asked. I jumped, startled, at a fourth character in this brain freezing situation.
“Yes. Please yes. Do you have scotch?” I asked with all the genuineness of a doctor giving a bad prognosis.
Taken aback, the airhostess snapped, “No alcohol on this flight maám. Can I get you anything else?”
“Sure, a cup of hot black coffee, no cream no sugar, please.” I replied, dying for a drop of scotch at 7am in the morning.
“One steaming hot cup of coffee for you”, she replied as she poured a muddy translucent liquid into a styrofoam cup and handed it to Abhishek to pass on to me.
Just then turbulence hit again, the hot steaming coffee in the styrofoam cup circled twice and spilled onto Abhishek’s hand. The coffee must have been extremely hot or his hand must be shaking, whatever the reason, the cup left his hand and nature’s forces of gravity and turbulence, read my mind and the steaming hot liquid escaped the cup, splattering all over Abhishek’s chest and you can guess what.
“Ouch!” came a painful sound as the cup hit the ground.
“Oh. I am so sorry Sir.” – The airhostess said, clearly flustered as three pair of eyes, one angry, the other in pain and the third in admiration stared at her.
“Here. Take these tissues.” – She muttered as she summarized the damage done by the spill. It clearly wasn’t pretty. There were two huge stains. One on the shirt and the other, you know where, on the trousers.
“Oh baby. What will we tell dad. He got this shirt for you after so much thinking. Your favorite color, your favorite brand, your kind of style….and so expensive…” The soft voice now had formed an edge, as she snatched the tissues and started wiping the stains.
Abhishek’s face had gone crimson.
The airhostess saw an escape as the doting wife fussed over the sandwiched husband and scuffled away before more words could be exchanged.
I did want to see how the whole stain situation would be handled, but my mom’s creased forehead and judging stare appeared in the reel of screen shots and I went back to brick crushing in Tetris.
The babying and fussing and whispering led to Abhishek getting up and going to the washroom. The soft voice continued cursing the clumsy airhostess.
“That was your coffee. You should have taken it.” She said, out of the blue. Looking directly at me now. “It should have been your top that was stained you know.” She rambled on as I sat there, the mind to throat filter working overtime trying to conjure a decipherable sentence that wasn’t offensive or indicative of the rich history between her new found husband and me. The filter was clogged.
Just then, a guy walked right next to our row looking inquisitively at me. I recognized him. He had been Abhishek’s lab-mate a few years back. He had an interesting array of hair oils and ayurvedic cosmetics lined up next to his fabricated test PCBs and computer in the lab. The hair oils seemed to have worked. He had hair. Lots of it. Black, that too. Mannivel. Yes. That was the name. The memory neurons had finally fired.
Mannivel! No!. He knew me. He knew us. Hm…
“Hey Nikita. Been a very long time. How are you doing? How’s Abhishek? You two got married I heard.” He stood there. In the aisle, next to Natasha, talking directly to me.
Natasha’s head went from him to me then back to him and back to me. A perplexed look.
“Sir. You’re mistaken. This is Neha. Not Nikita.” Her soft voice politely rebuking the stranger.
Mannivel ignored the stranger and kept looking at me. Waiting for a response.
I also kept looking at his hair. Was that a wig? Could hair really grow brand new in your 30s. Where it had eluded the head space for three decades. It was fascinating.
Just then Abhishek appeared in the scene. He had changed into his favorite black t-shirt and torn jeans, bringing back more memories. He was about to shove the coffee-stained gifts into the overhead rack when his fuddled mind recognized Mannivel. Mannivel 2.0. Same face, same paunch, same shorts, same t-shirt, new hair.
“Hey Abhishek…you recognize me I hope.” He said.
Abhishek’s incredulousness at the unfolding sequence of awkward co-incidences mirrored mine. But unlike me, he was poised. And his brain worked.
“Hey…of course. I love the new hairstyle. How have you been?” He asked, smiling.
“Thank God! For a minute there, when Nikita just stared at me I thought you guys erased me from your story.” – gesturing clearly at me.
“It’s Neha” – she chirped in, louder this time.
Mannivel continued to ignore her. He clearly seemed to have some trauma from tiny opinionated women. Abhishek stared at the floor, hoping for the turbulence to save him this time. And it did. It always did. The captains voice came over the sound system. “The seatbelt sign has been turned on. Please return to your seats. The use of washrooms is prohibited till the seat belt sign goes off again. It’s stormy outside. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
Mannivel stood his ground. Eyes going from Abhishek to me to Abhishek to the petite lady in between. As he tried to figure out this strange behavior from his long-lost best friend from lab.
The clumsy airhostess returned this time and nudged a very persistent Mannivel back to his seat. He kept asking “But..you and Nikita…”, head turned towards us as he was pushed on.
Abhishek took his seat again. Smiled at Natasha and let her take possession of his hand as the plane started swerving again.
Natasha leaned over him and asked me “Hey Neha…why didn’t you correct that asshole? Don’t you hate it when people get your name wrong?”
I glanced at Abhsihek, waiting to see if he was going to take this opportunity to set the record straight. He wasn’t.
“Uh-huh. What’s in a name and all that….” I replied, turning my eyes back to the mobile screen.
“How do you know that guy?” this time the question was aimed at Abhishek.
“Oh…he…we…were in lab together during PhD.” Came his measured reply.
“You were? Oh! You should have introduced me. Why wasn’t he at our wedding?” she asked. Big wide innocent eyes now staring at him.
I can’t say I wasn’t enjoying this. He had left me at a very late and very inconvenient time in life and seeing him squirm was giving me a little bit of satisfaction. Just a teeny bit. Yes, yes. I know it is mean. But, well, you know. He had gotten the sweeter deal in all this. So a tad bit of in-flight discomfort wasn’t going to kill anyone.
“Um… he wasn’t that good a friend, you see.” Abhishek looked back at her and bent down to peck her on the forehead. That would shut her up for a bit. Public display of affection wasn’t his thing so she was quite taken aback. Blushing she sat back.
And if you’re wondering, no, the reel of past hadn’t stopped turning in my mind. It was pretty consistently in a loop. And the single tear that mom’s image had managed to stop halfway was very forcefully coming out again. Seeing him, seeing them, was causing emotions to well up that had not surfaced for a while now. Jealousy, loss, shock, betrayal, anger, inquisitiveness.
And just then, in the middle of this emotional whirlwind, my bladder, which usually doesn’t bother me on flights, started knocking on the door and began making it’s presence felt. That’s why I don’t do window seats. I hate that people can gauge the poor capacity of my bladder.
I focused harder on the Tetris. Hoping the bladder would get the message. But it was persistent.
And so I spoke. Voluntarily for the first time.
“Excuse me, I’d like to go out.” I said.
“Of course”, she got up, then he got up, then their held hands got up. Intertwined. Ugh!
And they moved out. I walked away to the washroom. 60 minutes to landing. Would the airhostesses notice a locked washroom for 60 minutes? Would anyone notice I was missing for 60 minutes? There were 4 washrooms. Two in the front, two at the back. I could split 15 minutes each to evade detection. Would that be noticed? A weird female switching bathrooms every 15 minutes? I looked at a flight full of bent and bobbing heads. Half were asleep and the other half were deep into their mobile phones. Maybe this strategy would work. I was about to try it.
Just then, Natasha called out again.
“Hey Neha, or should I say Nikita?”, the softness was totally gone, scathing scorn taking it’s place. “You dropped this.” She stretched her hand towards a blissfully retreating me. I walked back and took the keychain from her.
It was a keychain embossed with my (and as you may already have guessed, Abhishek’s) college’s name and emblem on one side and Abhishek’s picture, heart, my picture on the other. A slightly younger Abhishek. A lot thinner me.
I looked at her. Saw the signs of the oncoming deluge. Said a quiet prayer for Abhishek, thanked her and scurried away. As fast as I could. Feeling her stare all the way till I reached the washroom. I was so glad I had a plan ready for the next one hour. Thank God flights had washrooms.
I could hear the sobbing and the rebukes and the “Why didn’t you tell me it was her”s and “How could you let me make a fool of myself”s and “Do you still love her”s and “She definitely has a thing for you”s and “You both planned this” and “This can’t be a coincidence. I wanted to fly Air India, you picked this”. I think the whole flight heard her. Or maybe not. Bless sleep and mobile phones.
I could picture Abhishek’s maroon red shade and his failed recordings of “I’m sorry.”, “This is hard for me also.”, “I did not plan this.”, “You know I’m not like that.”.
And I sat there. Observing every tiny nook and corner of the washroom. The fear of a scorned wife showing meek claustrophobia it’s right place in the spectrum of fears.
Seconds ticked by, knocks came and went. Turbulence pockets came and went. I wished I could sneak in a coffee somehow. But the risk was too huge.
And so I sat there, till the captain announced landing.
I knew I had to get out now. Else I would be hauled out by some very annoyed air-staff. And so mustering up the courage of a mouse going inside a lion’s den, I walked back to the seat.
The crying had stopped. The cursing had stopped. The explanations had stopped. She was asleep. On his shoulder. Our eyes met. He saw my grief. I saw his apology. We smiled. And he nudged her. She woke up and they got up to let me in.
No words were exchanged. No glances. The landing was quiet. Uneventful.
Till the flight doors opened and the crowd started filing out.
Her, then him, then me.
Till she bumped into another tall, equally handsome guy and as he turned, they exchanged glances that evoked a tension so thin that a knife could cut through.
He raised his hand to bring down his luggage, the sleeve dropped back enough to reveal a tatoo “Natasha” covering his forearm.
Small worlds and smaller flights.
Or just destiny laughing it’s ass off?
** This was written in part as an exercise at WriteClub Bangalore.**