What happens when two ex-lovers meet years after a breakup — Fiction Friday
Rhea saw the back of his head a few paces away in the milling crowd.
Her heartbeat quickened.
His hair stood up in a way she knew only one person’s did. She had broken up with him two years ago.
The chances of running into him thousands of miles away in a foreign land were non-existent, she thought to herself, brushing off the feeling in an instant.
“Oh no!” she exclaimed, bending to pick up her hat and the pamphlet she had dropped. In her absent-mindedness, she had collided with an ornate black lamppost that, for some reason, had been placed right at the middle of the sidewalk.
The commotion made a few people ahead of her turn. Kaushal was one of them.
She paused midway between having picked up her hat and reaching out for the pamphlet. In that awkward half-squat, she caught his eye.
She flashed him a smile.
Kaushal looked taken aback, perhaps wondering for a moment why this clumsy woman on the streets of Singapore was smiling at him. But then, recognition flickered in his eyes, and he raised a hand in an awkward wave. A family of four wearing matching yellow t-shirts walked past him. The father inadvertently shoved Kaushal in the shoulder, making him swivel and turn away. As if in the same momentum, he turned a full circle and looked at Rhea again. She had straightened now, the pamphlet lying forgotten next to her white sneakers.
He walked up to her, his gait steady, yet unsure. Just the way she remembered it.
“Um, hello Rhea!” he said, extending a hand. He was wearing a blue t-shirt, khaki shorts and summer slippers. The beard on his face was crisply styled. There was a glowing tan on his arms.
She took his hand and gave it an enthusiastic shake. “Hi, Kaushal. I definitely wouldn’t have expected running into you here. You look good, by the way,” she said all of this quickly as if determined not to let any awkwardness creep in between them.
His face broke into the cheeky grin she so well remembered. “So do you. You look amazing.”
She blushed. Rhea had chosen a white dress with black polka dots that fell to her thighs, teamed with white sneakers and a pink backpack.
“Are you travelling alone?” Kaushal asked, extending his arms to both sides in an exaggerated gesture of questioning.
“Yes,” she nodded. “What about you?”
“I’m alone here too.”
She smiled at him, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.
He smiled back, rubbing the back of his head.
The two of them stood on the pavement, unsure of what to say next, while everyone else walked by them. Breaking the stillness of the moment, Rhea bent and picked up the pamphlet in an instant. It was the instructions to visitors for Universal Studios, Singapore. She opened up the map, pointed to a theme park on it and asked, “So have you visited ‘Egypt’?”
She kicked herself mentally. It had been a silly question. Of course, he was near the entrance, and the park had just opened for the day. There was no way he could have been anywhere.
But, he humoured her. “No no, it looks interesting, though. Do you want to –” he hesitated, “go look at it together?”
Her face lit up. “Yes, of course,” she said, folding the map up and tucking it in the crook of her arm. “Let’s go!”
The day went by beautifully. Rhea and Kaushal explored the different sections of Universal Studios.
Together, they went inside a haunted house where zombies and headless floating bodies came at them from nowhere. Kaushal screamed and grabbed Rhea’s bag, terrified of the apparitions. She laughed and led him on, pulling him with her when he stood rooted to the spot, too terrified to move.
They jumped in on a roller coaster which Rhea was excited about but wanted nothing more than to get off it as soon as it started. Later, Kaushal spent a long time trying to stop laughing. He said he couldn’t get that image of Rhea out of his mind — with her bare legs dangling in the air; her mouth stuck in a silent scream.
They went inside rides which took them past dinosaurs and fire-breathing zombies. They got drenched on water rides and dried themselves off on long queues for the dragon-fruit-flavoured ice cream.
They laughed till their insides ached.
They watched street plays and sang along in karaokes. They made faces at the camera and clicked pictures in photo booths. They ate popcorn out of huge bucket-sized tubs. Rhea bought a headband that said “One in a minion”, but Kaushal called dibs on it and spent the rest of the day walking with it tied around his forehead.
They danced to street music and ate chicken noodles with chopsticks. They posed for photographs on the road modelled after the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Kaushal threw a pretend-tantrum when she couldn’t click a good picture of him.
They walked and explored the theme parks until it was dusk. They laughed until they had tears in their eyes.
And all too soon, it was time to call it a day.
They walked side by side, eyes drenched in the moonlight and faces radiant with happiness.
“It was a wonderful day. I didn’t know Universal Studios could be so much fun,” Kaushal said, looking straight ahead. Rhea didn’t turn to look at him, but she knew he was smiling.
“I knew, K,” she said, using the name she used to call him all those years back. “That’s why I booked a ticket.”
“Well, you were always wiser than me, anyway,” he said, finally meeting her eyes. There was a seriousness on his face she couldn’t decipher.
“No, I wasn’t,” she said, slowly weighing her words. “I am confused as always, just that I’ve learned to pretend that everything is sorted.”
“But Rhea, you always took your life into your hands. That is something I couldn’t help wishing I learned.”
“Trust me, K, I haven’t set any rules. I am only going with the flow.”
“I think going with the flow is the best way to justify your life: not setting rules, keeping the horizon open, not letting judgement cloud your periscope, basically allowing miracles to happen to you.”
She had to bite her lips to stop herself from saying, “Yeah, like today.” Instead, she said, “But, if you don’t take any action and only let life decide for you, aren’t you effectively being a vegetable?”
“Well,” Kaushal paused, rubbing his chin with his thumb, “you’ve got to take actions. You just have to take care not to let your perspective bind them.”
She nodded, although she wasn’t sure if he could see her in the darkness. They had walked up to the nearest MRT station, and from here, they would board different trains which would take them to their hotels. Rhea lingered a while, not sure if she was ready for goodbye as yet. Kaushal fell in step with her and stopped so they could face each other. “Tell me something,” he said.
“You’ve known me for quite a while. You’ve known other people quite well as well. Tell me honestly, do you think I have substance or am I a bit hollow?”
“Um,” Rhea said, biting her lip again. “What do you mean by substance?”
“It can mean anything you want it to depth, some philosophy in life, a perspective of my own.”
“Of course, you have depth, Kaushal. I wouldn’t have dated you if you didn’t. I had loved to explore your intricacies.” She paused, sighing.
He looked at her with a solemnness in his eyes. She felt drawn to their depths, and in a moment, she was 22 all over again: young and naïve and blindly in love with Kaushal. They had been together for four years — four wild, love-filled years soaked with so much laughter that the mere memories made her go weak at the knees.
Now that she thought about it, she couldn’t remember why she had given up on him.
Pale moonlight reflected off his face, making his skin glimmer like freshly beaten silver. She looked at her feet for a while, shuffling her sneakers, then, looked up again and stared straight into his eyes. He was waiting for her to finish.
“Kaushal, I feel — I have always felt — that there is a part of you that you’re afraid to explore, or rather, you suppress it knowingly.”
He opened his mouth as if to say something, then closed it again, shaking his head, unsure. Then, he reached out to take her hand in his. She didn’t object, so he stroked her palm with his thumb and asked, “So, I do have intricacies?”
“Yeah,” she replied, nodding vigorously. “Truckloads of them. Very interesting ones, at that. You are like a golden eagle in a room full of pedestrian pigeons. Not that I have anything against pigeons,” she laughed. “Being different is the new sexy. And you are as different from the crowd as can be. They don’t make guys like you anymore.”
The 22-year-old Rhea inside her was squealing with excitement. Kiss him, she urged. She shook her head to shut that voice up.
Kaushal had flushed a deep crimson, although he probably didn’t know it. She remembered how his ears got all hot whenever someone complimented him, and it was all she could do to not reach out, touch them, and tease him about it.
“What’s gotten you travelling again?” he asked after a long pause.
“Eh — why do you think I would stop travelling after we broke up? I mean, yeah, I agree that you were the one thanks to whom this bug had bitten me, but it has been ingrained far deeper into my soul than you would believe.”
“But why travel alone? Why not travel with your — ” he pulled the collar of his t-shirt around his neck as if the heat suddenly made him uncomfortable, “ — boyfriend?”
“I am alone, that’s why!”
“Whoa,” he said, looking genuinely surprised. “The Rhea I know wouldn’t have gone on a solo trip to a foreign land.”
“Well,” she replied, twirling a strand of hair that had fallen on her face. She realised he didn’t know her; he only knew a version of her that didn’t exist anymore. “The Rhea you know wouldn’t have done a lot of other things.”
“So you haven’t, umm, you know, since then?”
“To be honest, I have had affairs. But I never found anyone worth getting into a long-term relationship with.”
The cheeky grin was back on his face. “Well, that’s to be expected, isn’t it?”
She squinted, “What do you mean?”
“Rhea, after being with me for so long, your standards are bound to have risen. It isn’t easy to replace me, you know, darling?”
She punched his shoulder, removing her hand from his grip. “Idiot,” she laughed. Kiss him already! the butterflies in her stomach whispered. She ignored them and asked, “What about you?”
He shook his head. “It’s more or less the same with me. I haven’t even had affairs. You can call them flings, or casual one-night stands. Maybe ‘A man’s desperate attempt to not feel too sorry for himself’ would be a more proper name.”
The streets had cleared, and her watch said it was close to 10.30 PM. The trains would stop running by 11. She had to get home before then. Unsure of what to do, she gave him a wistful smile and said, “Kaushal, I’ve got to go.”
He stared as if pulled out from a trance, blinked a few times, then looked at his watch. “Yeah,” he mumbled, “Yeah, I’ve got to go too. Well, it was wonderful meeting you after so long, Rhea. I wish we could do this more often.”
I wish the same too! I wish I could see you every day. I wish I had never let you go. I wish I could go back to your hotel and curl up beneath your sheets, naked like I used to.
She leaned in for a hug. He was staying here for another four days, but, her flight was leaving the next day.
As their bodies met, Rhea felt a warmth rush through her senses that she only vaguely remembered. His neck still smelled the same — the scent of salt mixed with fresh coffee, chocolate mixed with ocean spray. She wrapped her arms around him tight, pulling him closer, and whispered in his ear, “I wish the same.”
She pulled away, still holding his hand, and walked, slowly letting it go. “Bye, Kaushal. Have a pleasant trip.”
She broke into a jog, afraid he would follow, fearful that he would see the tears she was too stricken to wipe away.
Afraid that he would find out she still loved him.
‘I’m not 22 any longer,’ Rhea thought to herself as she climbed on the train and slumped in a seat. ‘No matter how much fun his company is, Kaushal and I can never work. He wants something else in life, and I could never adjust with that.’
With that, her mind flashed back to all the times he used to come late from work, and she had fallen asleep waiting for him; of all their dinner dates she had hoped they would enjoy together, but a call from work always ruined it. She remembered how she had been so excited for him to meet her parents, but how his boss had scheduled a meeting on that day, and they had to cancel their trip for a three-hour meeting over Skype.
She remembered lying next to him on sweaty July nights, stroking his hair and whispering in his ear, “K, I wish we could spend more time together. I wish I didn’t have to compete with your job for your attention.”
She recalled how he had lifted his gaze from his mobile screen for a second, given her a sad smile and said, “I know, Rhea. I promise I will make up for all the lost time during the next vacation we take together.”
And that was it.
He believed in working himself raw to the bone on normal days and letting everything loose on holidays. He was a workaholic who lived life in short bursts and dedicated the rest of it to his company, for making money. Rhea knew she would never be happy in an arrangement like that. For her, there was more to life than just four days of vacations in as many months.
It had been a tough choice, but she had made it, for better or for worse. And she wasn’t letting a day of magic ruin that for her.
But you love him, you idiot. Can’t you give him just one more chance? It’s so easy. All you’ve got to do is reschedule your flight to four days later, a voice inside her head said.
‘I’ve already given him not one, but several second chances. There’s no way we can work things out. Spending more time with him would mess my head up further, and all the moving on I’ve done in the past two years will be pushed back to square one.’
Well, if you say so.
Rhea imagined her younger self crossing her arms and walking away in a huff, the way she did when she lost an argument. But she wasn’t 22 any longer. Rhea knew that love and compatibility weren’t the same. That no matter how much she glorified it, the four years she and Kaushal had spent together were filled with steeper highs, and more unpredictable lows than any of the roller coaster rides they had hopped on today.
‘Yes, I love him. But I will be fine without him,’ she told herself with a sad smile.
The train rocked on to her destination, its motion lulling her into a sleep filled with dreams of headless zombies, street dances, buckets of flavoured popcorn, and the smile of a boy that couldn’t be the man she wanted him to be.