Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Last Hurrah

Twenty seven, twenty eight, twenty nine, thirty. He counted as sugar streamed into his tall Starbucks coffee cup. My latte frothed and fumed as it waited for this brown faced guy to fill up his cup with more sugar and milk in one coffee cup than I consume in a week. While he stirred his coffee, I mimicked him, counting till five, as my dose of sugar fell into my cup. He just smiled at me, and somehow I responded with a smile at his repartee. He said, "Kalpit, PhD student, ISYE." "ISYE is Industrial Engineering, isn't it?" I asked. He said it was so. I nodded and said, "Elaine, freshman, Biology."

I allowed him to sit first. He occupied a chair, and pulled out a textbook from his bag. I considered for a moment if it would be alright to walk and sit with him, or just walk out of the door as I had initially planned to. I guess I was a little unsatisfied with the conversation I had so far. After assuming the identity of eighteen, I had the itch for adventure, and his Eastern self, with a heavy Indian accent, oiled hair, and checked shirt seemed interesting enough that afternoon. So I walked up to him, and asked him, if the seat was occupied. His thick black eyebrows reflected his surprise, though his trained lip just smiled and with a slow dip of head, his eyelids motioned me to sit.

I had fallen into the trap of my momentary curiosity and had nothing to open the conversation with. He looked at me, almost absent mindedly, and yet I felt he was measuring my intent by judging the shade of my embarrassed cheeks. He broke the silence by clearing his throat, shifted his leg, placing the left one over the right one, scratched his chin, and with a forced, but gentle grin, asked me, “How do you find the college so far?” My breath released in a long sigh of relief, and my sigh must have sounded to him as my disappointment at what was being offered to me. So he immediately stated, “First semester is the hardest and trust me, later you will remember the undergraduate years as your best years.” “You think so. I feel stifled in this techie school. I so wanted to be a dancer, but my parents and lack of dance scholarship forced me here,” I told him. My blue eyes did not show him how I was lying through the teeth. I couldn’t even lift a leg, and here I was giving him the impression of being depressed that my dream of dancing was foiled by circumstances.

His face puckered into an expression that showed he sympathized with me and yet wanted me to feel good about what had happened. His baritone was probably sweetened by the amount of sugar his coffee suffered. His words fell in a derived accent, in a melody of strange land, a tune that was more like a hum, like a chant, and I was lost in the tenor of the sound, the timbre of his tones that rose and fell through the waves on his dense eyebrows. I noticed his arms had more hair than I had seen on any man, and he was more respectful in his words than I was used to. He was reassuring me through his words, I was being reassured by what I was sensing without hearing. My breath was like the crumpling coffeecake I was trying to consume.

Suddenly his phone rang and he sang a beautiful hello, and asked the caller to hold for a minute. “It was nice meeting you Elaine. Trust me, you will have a great time here.” He said and while his right hand picked his papers, his left hand held an instrument that transported his words in a language I couldn’t decipher. Maybe he was talking to a female friend, maybe his girlfriend. I had known him only for a few minutes and my heart pined for being the person he was talking to.

A few days later I was traveling in Marta, the local Atlanta train to the airport. This time I was traveling as my normal self, the Consultant in Mckinsey and Co., dressed in the formal wear, black skirt, with a neatly ironed white shirt and carrying my laptop in a handbag as my only luggage. My Atlanta project had lasted only a week, and I was returning to Chicago, my base station. Just before entering the railway station, I had encountered Greek society representatives collecting clothes for aid to kids who had lost everything in Tsunami in some Eastern country. I gifted my baggage to them and felt an exhilaration thinking how a part of my wardrobe would suddenly change. As I sat in the train, I focused on a paperback of Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar, The Clown. I raised my head and suddenly I noticed Kalpit was peering at me from a distance. As my eyes stopped on his face, the recognition beamed on his face and he made his way towards me. I was as overdressed as I was under-prepared for the assault, or what felt like an assault. My construction of being a freshman was dissolving under the oppressive formal wear I was trapped in at that instant.

“Hello Martha,” he said. “Martha?” I tried to sound incredulous. “Yes, Martha. I had seen your profile when we short listed you for Manhattan Associates. You had interviewed with us an year back, and I was supposed to lead the team you were offered a position in. When I saw you in Starbucks that evening, I had recognized you.” His words baffled me, so I spurted out, “But you looked so awkward when you talked to me that day. I was sure I convinced you that I was a freshman, and you were carrying those research articles.”

“Oh yes, I was. I am supposed to defend my PhD dissertation. I got hired a couple of years back and left school without defending my thesis. Having an advisor go through a painful divorce, forces you into situations.” So he hadn’t lied about his being a PhD student, and he had led me through my drama even though he knew who I was. I realized that my perfectly executed foreplay was a fiction and with the disappearance of my Elaine personality, I lost the intense craving I had felt on the other day. There was no time for brooding though, he stared at me through his gold-rimmed glasses, and his smile was celebrating his inflated ego.

“Are you flying somewhere?” I asked him as Marta arrived at the airport. He said, “I am here to pick my fiancée.” We walked together to the lobby, and he told me about his dissertation. My mind was cursing my whims, and at twenty four, I felt myself to be fairly incompetent, for in no airport waited a man for me, in no airport, I would arrive into loving arms and at no home would I arrive to a warm bed and shaved face. He ran forward to embrace his fiancée. I guess the Eastern custom prevented a kiss, but the hug was lasting a lifetime. At last he released her. I went up to them. The fiancée saw me approach. Kalpit turned around to face me. Before he could say anything, I kissed his cheek, spurted “You were wonderful last night,” winked at the fiancée and left a storm behind.

I flew happily and high that day. The last hurrah was mine.