Poppy looked around and saw that Shantanu had still not come. She saw few families sitting beside each other and enjoying an ice cream. Poppy smirked, “Can’t believe it. Families and kids coming here.”
She took a cigarette out, lighted it and stood near the railing and looked at the circular lake in front of her. For a brief moment, she saw a glimpse of her teenage self when someone called her name. She did not turn.
She finally turned. Shantanu smiled and walked towards her.
“Late as usual?” she asked.
“Well, I wanted you to remember me just as I was.”
Poppy laughed. Shantanu looked around half amused and half curious.
“What the hell?” he finally said.
“What? You have not come here?” asked Poppy.
“But you still live here?”
“I live in Bandra. I rarely come this part of the town. I had no idea this place had turned out so…so…” he stuttered.
“So well developed? Clean and civic?”
“Sterile,” said Shantanu. “Do you remember this place. This used to be our place.”
Poppy nodded. They lived in the Mumbai Subarians. Mumbai Subarians had the maddening crowd of the city but devoid of the vanity and grandiosity of Megalopolis. They lived in a housing society near the lake. This was where Shantanu and Poppy hung out countless nights and evenings in their teenage and college years and finally when they got their first job.
“Do you remember that place? You got stoned there,” said Poppy pointing at one corner of the lake.
“Where is that bloody rock where we used to sit?” asked Shantanu.
“Shantanu, you idiot, look around. Can you see any soil, stones or even any bushes around you? The lake now has a concrete wall, benches, restaurant around it,” said Poppy.
“Can’t believe it changed so much!” sighed Shantanu.
“Well, haven’t we all? Heard you got divorced?” asked Poppy abruptly.
Shantanu looked down and didn’t answer.
“We will not talk if you don’t want to talk? After all we have not spoken for almost ten years,” said Poppy.
“Yes, we haven’t Poppy. But I have not spoken about my divorce with anyone either.”
“I know. Mom told me. No one knows why. There is a speculation that you are impotent”, smiled Poppy.
“Wow. That is good to know. Well, I screwed up Poppy,” said Shantanu shrugged.
“Something worse. I never loved her. One day she could just see it. I did my duty, we had sex, we went to our friend’s place, we went for movies. But one day she saw it. She knew I did not love her. It is difficult for me to explain. It was bad. She cried for weeks. She tried staying for few months, thinking love is after all a habit after a point of time, but she could not stand me after some time.”
“You spent four years with her. You guys had dated, even been in love. What happened?” asked Poppy.
“I don’t know Poppy. I don’t even know if I fell out of it or I never ever loved her. I tried though,” sighed Shantanu.
“Did she love you?” asked Poppy.
“She liked me. Is it same as love? I don’t know,” said Shantanu.
“Like is closest thing to love Shantanu. It is the starting point.”
“So, what about you Poppy. I hear you are blissfully married?” asked Shantanu.
Poppy smiled. “Yeah, you can say that.”
“I have seen the photo. The quintessential family,” said Shantanu. There was a tone of spite in his voice.
Poppy looked at him. He looked so much older and there were fine lines of maturity on his face. But beneath all that she could see the loneliness of a lost boy trapped inside a daunted man.
“Let’s walk around the lake,” said Poppy
As they walked Poppy remembered the time when she went through a painful break-up and was crying beside Shantanu for hours. She remembered the time when Shantanu rehearsed the lines of his play with her. She remembered playing cricket with him and his friends.
“You used to like yourself so much? What happened?”
“You know Poppy, you don’t deserve an answer. You fazed me out. I have sent messages and called you. But you forgot your mate. You have no right to be high and mighty and ask me about my life choices. Ten years Poppy! Ten Years is a bloody long time,” said Shantanu, almost shouting. A couple who was sitting on one of the benches jumped up.
Poppy looked shocked and was taken aback. Then her face changed. She looked as livid and Shantanu. “I screwed up. I was caught up with my job and the new city. You don’t understand Shantanu. You talk about quintessential family. How do you think that happens? I make sure it stays like that along with my job. I must make sure that I work twice as hard as my male counterparts, I make sure that I give my husband and my family enough time, I look good in photos, be cool with my colleagues, homely and wholesome with all the other women around me. God Dammit Shantanu! You are not alone fighting life.”
Both Shantanu and Poppy stopped walking and peered thought the railings. Poppy was still breathing heavily.
“You know they actually found crocodile in the lake,” said Shantanu
“What! “said Poppy surprised.
“Yeah. It came in local news.”
“We all thought it’s a myth, kind of an urban legend!
So much changed in their lives and though the tenderness and naivety almost faded between them there was a glimmer of youthful jubilance. They had walked around the lake many times before but still this path seemed new and yet known.
“You can tell me. You know you can. Just once say it aloud, that you wished your life were different. You wished for the life that we both dreamt of as kids. You always wanted to be chef and travel the world. Say it even if you don’t mean it.”
Poppy looked at Shantanu and he could see her welling up. He moved forward closer to her.
“I wish my life were different. I wish I…” and she broke down and Shantanu hugged her tight. The last time they hugged this tight was when Shantanu had broken up with his first love.
“Don’t worry. It’s our secret,” whispered Shantanu.
Poppy finally smiled and wiped her tears.
“What made you call me after all these years?” asked Shantanu.
“I don’t know when this pandemic hit, I thought about you a lot. I knew everything about you from my mother. But, just as the world slipped away so fast, I wanted to catch you before we catapulted even further.”
“And if the pandemic never hit us?” asked Shantanu.
“Well, you have no self-respect when it comes to me. You would have stilled messaged me or emailed me at some point of time,” laughed Poppy. But Poppy then looked seriously at Shantanu and said, “But, we would have found a way back, one way for another.”
The walked further quietly in silence, remembering the lives they shared together and the lives they did not, and even in the lives they did not spend together, they were there somewhere in aura, in essence or maybe a part of them merged into each other. They would always be familiar to each other.
Shantanu turned and saw the old banyan tree where they sat as teenagers and would swing grabbing the roots which gracefully flowed from above, smoked together behind the tree in their college years so that they didn’t get caught. They walked towards the tree and touched the trunk.
“How long are you in the city?” asked Shantanu.
“For few more weeks. You must meet the kids. You have met Akaksh only once in my wedding and I wouldn’t even call that a meeting!”
“What?” asked Poppy.
“Nothing. Always wanted to meet the mother Poppy with her family. My Poppy”
“Let’s share a smoke,” smiled Poppy.
The lake turned crimson with sunset. The leaned on the Banyan tree and watched the world go by as they smoked with a blink of an eye.