Two people, two cafes, one failed relationship. Angad and Riya navigate love, memory and heartbreak through second encounters.
SHE THOUGHT BACK TO THE FIRST TIME she had met him; replayed their encounter in her head, savouring every action, every dialogue, like a scene from a movie. She had narrated this meet-cute countless times, to herself and others. And with every narration the night became rosier, the moon larger, the breeze stronger. The awkward pauses were chopped off, and the gaps in her memory compensated with the hours she had spent reading romance novels. With every narration, the story moved closer to perfection.
Don’t get me wrong, their story was nothing less than your average romantic comedy. But the mind has a tendency to exaggerate, especially when it comes to lost love. And Riya, being a romantic at heart, was resigned to seeing her life as a black comedy. The tragedy of her love story amused her, a bitter-sweet absurdity that she had willingly embraced, and was not ready to let go of just yet.
So she thought back to the first time she had met Angad. She did this more often than she would like to admit. His memories lived in the grey nothingness of her subconscious, polished and perfected. And when she was busy living, they would slide into her conscious mind, catching her off guard like a poorly planned surprise. She did not mind their nuisance. Sometimes she would bring the memories up herself, squeezing them dry of any residue emotion, using them to create beautiful stories. It was only for the sake of art that she let him squat in her mind. Or so she claimed.
But let’s not delve deeper into the matters of the mind. The mind is a complex thing, and often deceives itself. We’ll stick to matters of the heart, which are universal and true, and often tragic.
Riya took a deep breath and paused before the glass door of her favourite café, observing the people inside carry on with their petty caffeine drinking habits, and their lives. She felt stagnant, as if she had been rooted in a spot for too long, and had been left behind by a forgetful world. The moment passed, and she pushed the door open with a finality. She was ready for her story to move forward.
The funny thing was that the first time he saw her, he knew he had met her before. This sentiment made no sense to his otherwise logical mind, but it was a feeling he could not shake. It was one of those clever jokes of life, giving you the answer without ever telling you what the question was. He kept glancing at her, trying to excavate from his mind a memory that never existed. Had he accidently bumped into her at a crowded station? Caught a glimpse of her at the mall? Maybe she had one of those vaguely familiar faces. Maybe she was mildly famous.
When she caught him studying her, Angad signalled for another coffee, knowing perfectly well that he was supposed to be home by now. He was a planner, and sitting in a café for three hours was not part of today’s schedule. But there was something about the atmosphere that made him feel more relaxed than he had in years.
The waitress placed a mug in front of him with a smile and walked away. He wanted to stop her, to strike up a conversation. But all he could manage was an awkward grunt. He had noticed her the moment he walked into this new café near his office, looking for a decent cup of coffee. She had greeted him with a smile and asked for his order. Even then he could barely open his mouth, heavily gesturing at the menu instead.
That was three coffees ago. And here he was, still sitting in this café, trying to muster up the courage to make small talk. He leaned back in the cosy little chair and closed his eyes, creating a checklist of the work he was postponing. He took a sip of the hot liquid, and felt the slow warmth reaching his fingers, toes and face. The list disappeared from his mind’s eye, to be replaced by her face.
Angad’s eyes snapped open and he regarded the waitress with a renewed interest. So that’s why she looked familiar. She looked like Riya.
Now his eyes lingered on the waitress as she moved across the room. It wasn’t her face that matched Riya’s, he realized, but something that emerged from deep within. He could see it in the way she walked, graceful yet childlike, and the way she tilted her head slightly when she smiled at the customer sitting two tables away from him. She even talked like Riya, he noticed in amusement, as her loud voice bounced off the walls of the tiny café.
The thought of Riya filled him with emotions that he could not comprehend, emotions that he did not want to comprehend. He pushed them back inside with a huge gulp of the steaming liquid in front of them, and sank further into the chair. This was going to be a long evening.
Riya scanned the café to see if her date had reached before her. He hadn’t. Grateful for this lack of punctuality, she headed towards the tables at the back. She chose a booth not too close to the air conditioner blasting cold air into the room at intervals, but not far enough to feel hot after a while. More importantly, it was perfect for intimate conversations. Riya settled down on the seat with a perfect view of the door, and sighed.
The prospect of this date had been unwelcomed at first, when a concerned friend had offered to set her up. Riya had felt a sudden surge of guilt, as if by going on this date she was being unfaithful to Angad. But Angad was long gone, his face blurred in her memory, his voice vague and distant. All that remained was what she felt towards him, with him, around him. Love, pleasure, pain, warmth, sadness and anger entwined into one giant ball that Riya kept locked inside her heart. If Riya was being unfaithful to anything, it was this disappearing memory.
“You can’t cheat on someone who isn’t there,” her friend had said in a matter-of-fact tone. “Besides, you might get some new material for your writing.” No matter how much Riya disliked her in that moment, she knew her friend was right. Re-writing old stories was no longer enough. It was time to create some new ones. And so, the writer consoled her broken heart, and agreed to go on a date.
It was now twenty-minutes past seven. Riya had arrived the café a good ten minutes before seven, as was her habit. After waiting for fifteen minutes, she had decided to order an iced tea, a drink to calm her nervous hands. She wanted to look intelligent, so she pulled out her current read from her bag and placed it on the table, staring blankly at the black squiggly lines on white paper. But as the hands of the nearby clock continued their lazy movement, Riya felt her mind slipping into familiar territory. And since her date was nowhere to be seen, she let it.
They met on the beach. That’s how she would always start her story. And really, is any place more ideal for a romantic first encounter than a beach? “Magic” she would say, her eyes sparkling with the memory of that night. They just happened to be sitting at adjoining tables in the same seaside restaurant. They just happened to be stood up by the people they had come to meet. They just happened to glance at each other, sharing nervous smiles. They just happened to start talking, a conversation that continued till the dark sea began glittering in the sun. People often asked if this conversation was a euphemism for a sexual dalliance. It was much worse. It was a connection.
Riya opened her eyes as the clock struck half past seven. Her date was finally here.
Maybe it was a sign, her date being this late. But Riya wasn’t one to believe in signs, Angad was. And in his mind, this chance encounter with the waitress was nothing short of a huge blinking billboard. Angad knew he had to talk to her, he just didn’t know how. But his dilemma seemed to solve itself when the waitress approached him.
“Are you alright?” she asked, a slight crease on her forehead.
“Yes, why?” Angad asked, surprised.
“You’ve had four coffees since you got here. And you had this intense look on your face just now. You’re not gonna get sick, are you?” Angad smirked at her slight self-absorption. “No, just a long day at work.”
“What is this drink? It’s amazing.”
“It’s my own concoction. A mixture of different beans. I want to open my own coffee shop one day.”
“Well let me know when you do. I could drink this all day every day.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. So I have at least one customer in my imaginary café. It’s not a total waste.”
‘‘It’s hard to imagine anything you’d do would be a total waste.”
“I’d probably need your number. To inform you about the café, or any other new concoctions I create. I’m always looking for guinea pigs to try them on.”
“That’s perfect. I’m a great guinea pig.”
And so, four coffees and a conversation later, Angad walked out of the café a happy man. For the first time since Riya, he felt like he had a chance at love.
His meeting with Riya had been somewhat similar. He had seen her on the beach, hair and clothes dishevelled in the wind. Her laughter had reached his ears at a distance, loud and irreverent, as she danced drunkenly with her friends. The next time he saw her, she was sitting alone in a restaurant, waiting for those very friends to show up. They struck up a conversation that continued through the night. She was everything he had imagined her to be; funny, intelligent and beautiful. She held an attraction he could not explain, a magnetic pull that made him want to be near her at all times. But no matter how many months or years he spent close to her, he never saw her become the wild goddess he had first seen, throwing her head back and laughing in abandon. Maybe she was too tame for him, maybe he had tamed her. Maybe he had seen in her something that had never been there, a shadow of someone similar and familiar, but not her. The mystery that had pulled him towards her was no longer hers. And so, Angad left as gently as he had arrived, sad but unapologetic. He was sure of what he wanted, and what he wanted was not her.
He had seen it again today, the familiar shadow, a mere glint in the waitresses’ eyes. And he was intrigued. This time, he would stay.
Ravi arrived in a hurry, and headed straight for Riya’s table. He knew what she looked like, he had demanded to see a picture before he agreed to this date. It was absurd, the idea of a blind date in the age of Tinder. Two people meeting for the first time without knowing a single thing about each other. But Ravi was in an indulgent mood. “It’s just a social experiment,” he told himself as he sat down across Riya and grinned.
Riya studied him carefully, a polite smile masking her critical gaze. He was thirty minutes late, shabbily dressed, and seemed unaware of both these things. “Hi, got stuck in traffic,” he said casually, before turning his eyes to the menu. That greeting, excuse and apology squeezed into one statement irked Riya. Angad had been like that, refusing to apologize for his words or actions, no matter how much they hurt you. He had a righteous confidence, and a heart-breaking predictability that had consumed Riya for months after he left. She had accepted it as Angad being Angad, a defining feature that couldn’t be separated from the man she had once loved, no matter how hard she tried. But seeing it once again in a man she barely knew aroused a new-found annoyance.
There is not much you expect from a date with a rocky start. Riya and Ravi had their moments, but most of their time was spent eating in contemplative silence. It doesn’t have the magic of that night, Riya thought, although one couldn’t expect such connections to be found so easily. But Ravi was a lot like Angad, and Aisha couldn’t help but compare the two men; their mannerisms, their laughter, their carefully chosen words. And with every second that she spent with Ravi, she saw Angad in a new light. Like she had just dropped all the baggage she had held on to for so long, taken a step back, and was now observing the scene as a passive spectator. For the first time, she could see more than she could feel.
Like a ghost hovering over her own body, Riya watched as the date progressed. Sometimes she started conversations that she had had with Angad, and was amused to see them follow the same paths. When Ravi’s answers did not match Angad’s, she felt herself heave a sigh of relief.
“Let’s do this again?” Ravi asked, as they paid the bill. He had graciously offered to pay, but Riya insisted on splitting the bill. Oh well. He didn’t mind the conversation, and he didn’t mind the person sitting across the table. He hadn’t been much of a conversationalist that night, and appreciated Riya for letting the silences be. He could see himself being comfortable in her company, maybe even enjoying it someday. Ravi didn’t believe in the false narratives of true love. He was just looking for a little companionship.
“I would rather not,” Riya replied, trying her best to be polite. She saw Ravi’s forehead crease, observed his body begin to lean forward, ready to convince her to change her mind. Then he stopped. “Give me a call if you feel otherwise,” he said, extending a friendly hand for her to shake.
Riya clasped his hand gratefully, and with a quick goodbye made her way to the door. She felt bad about being so curt. But for the first time, she was sure of what she wanted. And what she wanted was not Angad, or his imitation.
Aishwarya Javalgekar (she/her) is a writer and poet from India. She is currently pursuing a Masters in English in Canada, where she explores her interests in gender and mythology. Her pieces have been published in Ink and Nebula, armarolla and Constellate literary magazine, and touch upon themes of love, mental health, and her experiences as a young woman from India. She is in the process of publishing a poetry chapbook.
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