She had but looked at him for a second or two, when he raised his head, his absent minded gaze meeting hers for a fraction of a moment. There was no recognition in his eyes, expectedly so, Khushi noted in passing as she allowed her gaze to casually move on beyond him where a weary young mom stared in space, paying no attention whatsoever to the persistent whining of her young son.
There was time before boarding for their eight hour flight to Amsterdam commenced and taking out a book, ‘Diseases Endemic To India’, from her handbag, she opened a carefully bookmarked page. She found herself struggling to focus on the dull colorless page expounding on ‘chloroquine resistant malaria’, something she expected to see a lot of while in India.
It didn’t take rocket science to successfully zero in on the reason. The man sitting opposite her and her inexplicable awareness of him. It wasn’t as if she had never been attracted to good looking men before but this was ridiculous. It made her feel like a silly star-struck teenager.
With her eyes glued to her book, she found herself aware of every single little movement he made. The impatience with which he flicked the pages of his book. The almost imperceptible, rhythmic movements of his knee. The times he shifted his weight on the chair. The way he raked his fingers through his hair.
He emanated restlessness and disquietude in jagged waves and Khushi could feel them as clearly as her own breathing.
Finally, after a glance at his wrist watch, he shut the book with an air of finality and placed it on the seat next to him. While he whipped his iPhone out and busied himself with it, Khushi found some of his restlessness rubbing on her. She was unable to relax, her body tensed, her coffee getting cold in her hand.
She was reprimanding herself for being so ridiculous and when the sound of first boarding announcement pierced through her thoughts, she heaved an inward sigh of relief.
“Good afternoon passengers. This is the pre-boarding announcement for flight 84C to Amsterdam. We are now inviting first and business class passengers, passengers with small children, and any passengers requiring special assistance, to begin boarding at this time. Please have your boarding pass and identification ready. Regular boarding will begin in approximately ten minutes time. Thank you”.
He got up at once and pulling out the expandable handle of his carry-on bag, he was soon on his way to join the line, his stride brisk and purposeful. After a few minutes, just as Khushi was putting her book back in the handbag that the announcement for regular boarding was made.
She rose and took a second to adjust the strap of her handbag over her shoulder. About to proceed toward the gate too, she paused, her glance falling on the book left behind on the seat.
She hesitated for a fraction of a second. With her eyes indecisive, she leaned and picked up the book. Holding it, she stared at it, unable to decide whether she should try to return it to it’s owner or just let it be.
She opted for the former and shoving the paperback inside her overfilled handbag, she walked over to the tail end of the already long line.
It was only after the plane was air borne and she was settled in her window seat that she remembered about the book again. Taking it out, she admired a beautiful painting of the Kashmir valley on it’s cover, a part of her brain noting it’s age – dog eared corners and yellowing paper.
Without thinking, she opened the first page. A short message in fading ink greeted her.
On your fourteenth birthday,
November 20, 1996
An uncomfortable sensation of having invaded somebody’s privacy washed over her and she slammed the book shut. Leaning her head against the seat, she gazed out at the carpet of clouds outside. She’d had a long day and her lids felt leaden. Disjointed thoughts swirled inside her half asleep mind.
“Arnav. Indian name. Wonder what it means?. He’s a scorpion. Hmm…should have known”
There was no trace of sleep in Arnav’s eyes as he gazed desultorily at those same clouds, struggling to keep his mind vacant of all thoughts and memories. These days, every single thought, however innocous seeming in the beginning, lead to the ones he wanted to steer clear of. It was not a choice. It was a necessity.
To stay sane. To be able to function. To be able to breathe. To stay afloat when letting go seemed easier at times.
A flight attendant’s voice enquiring what he wished to drink snapped him from his reverie. He stared at her for a second before her question registered.
Later, with Jim Beam Black in hand and a warm buzz in veins, he closed his eyes and welcomed the impending oblivion. Oblivion was good. Oblivion was bliss.
Stifling a yawn, Khushi fastened her seat-belt for landing while flight attendants hurried down the aisles preparing for descent. Pale sunshine slanted on puffy eyes as Amsterdam lights twinkling through a blanket of fog came into view. The flight had been uneventful and she was thankful to have had a nice middle aged aunty as her neighbor, notwithstanding her tendency to chatter nonstop.
She looked forward to having her feet planted on land again, glad that the connecting flight to New Delhi was after a four hour wait. She wasn’t looking forward to being cramped in another plane for another eight hours.
An hour later, after a visit to the restroom, Khushi strolled through the crowded Schiphol Airport, pushing trolley holding her purse and cabin bag in front of her. She was window shopping aimlessly when by chance she saw him again in an open lounge toward her right.
Coffee cup in hand, he was seated in front of a TV screen playing football although it looked as if he might have dozed off. Without another thought, she crossed the lane and unzipped her handbag to take the book out.
Firmly squashing a frisson of nervousness, she approached him with his book held in her one hand..
He was asleep, his head resting against the headrest of the leather recliner, but as she approached him, he lifted his head with slight start and looked up at her with blood shot eyes.
The haze of a hangover slowly transitioned into query as she halted in front of him with a Hi and a friendly half smile.
“You left this book at Cleveland Airport”, she said briskly, “I was sitting right in front of you so thought I’ll try returning it to you”
With an undecipherable expression in his eyes as he stared worldlessly for what seemed like long uncomfortable minutes to Khushi. Almost as if he was having trouble registering or believing what she was saying.
He took the book without a smile, his eyes like iced mocha, his thanks frigid like wind from the Arctic Ocean.
Khushi flushed with embarrassment, convinced that he thought she was using that book as an excuse to talk to him. “With those looks, I’m sure he’s used to women making passes at him”, she thought, “but still he needn’t be such a conceited jackass. I mean, this is Schipol Airport”.
“No problem”, she said before turning and walking away with her face flushed, vowing to always let sleeping dogs and ‘forgotten’ lie from now on.
“Jerk”, she muttered under her breath as she glanced at her watch and noted it was almost time for her connecting flight.
The waiting lounge was filled to the capacity, and Khushi, lucky enough to find a seat, sank into it gratefully. Her feet ached after hours of aimless strolling. Longing for a shower and warm bed, she rested her back, studying the sea of humanity around her. It was going to be an almost all-Indian flight, she noted. Mostly parents returning after visiting children or families going to visit parents.
This was a familiar scene that brought memories of her own journeys in the past. The realization she was really going to India after half a decade began to sink in, a wave of excitement gently rippling through her veins.
The line for security check began to burgeon again and Khushi got up to join it’s tail again with a weary sigh. Wish somebody would invent teleporting soon, she thought. Airport security protocol, widely considered a necessary pain in the neck, was especially painful for her because she wore an insulin pump for Type 1 Diabetes, something she’d had since she was eight.
The line moved at a snail’s pace and it seemed like forever before she reached the conveyor belt to place her belongings on for X Ray.
She gave her bin an encouraging nudge and stepped away before noticing he was a few places behind her. She averted her eyes and resolved to keep them that way. When it was her turn to pass through the metal detector, she approached a uniformed man to explain in words she knew by heart that she wore an Insulin Pump that could get harmed by radiation.
Delay was something she’d come to expect so she waited patiently when that first man, whose clueless expression exposed his inexperience, walked off to confer with another officer. It was only when several people in the line had passed in front of her and she bit her lip with impatience.
The first uniformed man, who was back in his position, offered no explaination as she continued to wait, watching people after people pass in front of her. When she approached him again, she was brusquely told to wait some more.
Just as her nerves were beginning to fray, it was finally decided, as she knew it would be, for her to bypass the X-ray in favor of Total Body Scan.
When she emerged from it, the first person she saw was him again, hauling his cabin bag off the belt, and just long enough to notice his rather nice arms.
She happened to be behind him as she hurried along an almost empty vestibule, wheels rattling behind her, to board the plain.
Eyeing his now familiar physique and stride, dark blue jeans and Prussian blue polo, she shook her head in amusement, her lips curving humorously.
“If he turns around and sees me, he’ll be convinced I’m stalking him”.
Flight KL568 landed in New Delhi in the wee hours and a bleary eyed Khushi waited in yet another line, this time for customs and immigration.
He was no where in sight and her sleepy mind admitted readily that her sense of loss was completely illogical. They were just two ships that had passed in the night….