‘I reached the subway station. Where are you?’
‘I have set out. Will reach in 5 minutes.’
‘Woah, I can’t believe we are finally meeting.’
‘Me neither. I hope I don’t get too tongue-tied to talk.’
‘I’d make sure you won’t. Now tell me which way to go so that we can run into each other on the road?’
‘Take the right turn after you exit from the gate; you’ll see an alley with lots of posters stuck on the walls.’
‘Okay I see one such alley. See you soon.’
Neha had just finished applying her kohl when she sent the last text. Not wanting to make Kunal wait longer than he had to, she put on her new wedges, grabbed her bag, took one last look at the mirror and dashed out of her room. After much deliberation, she had chosen a simple white tee and blue jeans for the occasion - not wanting to appear overdressed, yet hoping that he would find her as pretty in real life as he had done in all the photographs she had sent him. It was a conscious effort not to apply any lip colour, as appearing ostensibly made up for the first date wasn’t wise, or so she thought.
‘Damn, why am I already referring to it as a date? It’s just a meeting,’ she corrected herself.
She glanced at the time on her phone. Two minutes had passed since she’d said she’d reach in five. She hurried on, unsure of what to expect from meeting someone she had known through eight months of daily texts and late night phone calls.
Neha was already huffing when she reached the metro station. His text had arrived seven minutes back. She had somehow managed to get herself all winded, while making him wait longer than she had intended to. With a twinge of guilt, she took out her phone. ‘The number you have dialed is busy,’ an automated voice informed her.
She looked around, trying to make his form out in the crowd. The evening heat was making her feel light-headed, and she could not see anyone that looked remotely like what she had expected Kunal would be. She kept trying his phone, but all that greeted her was the automated voice message she had come to loathe over the course of the past few seconds.
Starting to get impatient, Neha turned around. A familiar face suddenly walked into her field of vision. There he was — smiling nervously, as if unsure whether or not to approach her. Neha’s face broke into a wide grin; he resembled every single one of his photos — unruly black hair, a square jaw highlighted by his stubble, heavy-lidded eyes that twinkled with intelligence, lips that curved into a smile easily, and a barely discernible birthmark on his chin. She sprinted up to him in excitement.
“Hey, hi. Why did you go off that way? I told you to take the right. See, that is the alley I was referring to,” she said, pointing in the opposite direction.
“You look exactly like that famous writer I follow online,” he said with a grin.
In their eagerness not to let their nervousness show, both of them had blurted out their lines at the same time. She laughed, and marveled at how easily it came to her. He joined in, and they started walking in the direction she had pointed, not really knowing where their feet took them.
“Hey, by the way, why are we going there? Do you want to have a look at my home now?” she laughed.
“Haha no. You are leading me on. So tell me, where do you want to go?”
“Oh I don’t know. This is your city. I have been here just five days now. You would know better!”
He stopped and his face took on a somewhat serious expression as he said, “We could go to Gandhi Place, you know? The ambiance is good, and so is the food. I think you will like it.”
“Yeah sure, I love vegetarian food,” she mocked. “But okay, let us go there, since I have no idea of any other option anyway.”
He led her to the station, and they took the first metro that stopped. Only when they had stopped talking did she realize she had been smiling all the time through the entire exchange. His voice was deeper than the one she was used to listening to on the phone, and his jokes made her laugh out loud in spite of her shyness. Even inside the train, they kept talking. When they finally got down at their destination, she was shocked that an hour had already passed.
“By the way, your voice almost sounds normal in real life,” he said.
“Normal? What do you mean normal?” she asked, making an angry face.
“You know, like an adult. Not like the kid you are, and sound on the phone.”
“I am so not a kid, irrespective how I sound like on the phone!” she said, in mock indignation.
He laughed louder and took her inside a well decorated building, with large silver letters proclaiming its name as a famous eatery of the city. She was in awe of how elegant the interiors were, and how so many well-dressed people seemed to flock to the same location. They took a table, and he ordered food.
She sat just opposite to him, but found it difficult to look into his eyes while conversing. His smile widened when he said, “You know my friends were pulling my leg today about how my hostel room would always be empty from now on, as you have come to town.”
“Oh, don’t they always assume too much?” She tried to sound casual, but her heart fluttered at how he had implied they would meet on several future occasions. “So tell me, weren’t you shy about finally meeting me after so long?”
“I was,” he smiled. “To be honest, I still am.”
“Really? You certainly don’t appear to be!”
“The only way to find out whether or not I am still shy is to observe if I am making awkward jokes.”
“Awkward jokes as in?”
“I can’t give an example now, can I? I already told you I’m still shy.”
“Aww you’re cute,” she laughed.
The evening passed by in a blur. Before she even knew it, they had already reached the subway station near her home and it was time to say goodbye. She waved at him, not knowing what else to do. He waved back and gave her his biggest smile. “The next time, I’ll take you to my college. The campus is beautiful, you’ll like it there.”
“Sure I would love to go. Thank you so much for a wonderful evening today.”
“The pleasure was all mine, lady.”
They bade farewell under the starlit sky, and she walked back to her room.
Neha got out of her clothes and plonked herself on the bed, naked. The oppressive heat in this new city was a lot more than she was used to in her hometown. As she reflected on the events of the day, she couldn’t help thinking that it was a long time she had been so comfortable with someone. Even though they had spent more than five hours together, saying goodbye had been difficult. She could only hope he had enjoyed himself as much as she did as she turned on her phone to check for new messages.
Sure enough, there was a text from Kunal.
‘I had the best time in months. I am so happy, like grinning my widest right now.’
‘Me too. It was a great evening.’
‘I took you out on a dinner date on the first day itself. Achievement unlocked. Yay!’
‘Oh shut up. It wasn’t a date. Just two people catching up and exchanging pleasantries.’
‘Yeah sure. So tell me when can we meet up and exchange pleasantries again?’
‘I don’t know. I am mostly free these days. Whenever you feel like it?’
‘Yay, I couldn’t have asked for a nearer date.’
‘We can meet as often as we like, it’s not necessary that we waste five hours of your time each day, right?’
‘Of course we can. I had so much fun with you; I didn’t even realize how the hours flew by.’
‘Same here, Neha, same here. Looking forward to even more fun tomorrow. Bye.’
‘Bye Kunal, Good night.’
She stared unseeingly at the ceiling, her mind conjuring up the image of Kunal’s face. It was absurd how she was already counting down the hours to when they would meet next. Tomorrow promised to be another day of hilarity and laughter at yet more nonsensical hypothetical scenarios Kunal was bound come up with.
His easy charm and friendliness had melted her heart. She’d had a lot of fun, in spite of restraining herself. For a brief moment in her reverie, she could almost taste the laughter lingering on his lips.
She wondered how it would be like to touch those lips, to kiss them.
As the fan overhead whirred away, slowly cooling off her sweat, Neha found her hand languidly wandering down on its own accord; to quench a different kind of heat altogether.
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